Is the Earth Running a Fever?

by Tom Ellis

Listen to the audio of the presentation here.

Albany, NY: Recently retired National Weather Service (NWS) meteorological forecaster Hugh Johnson was the speaker at the April 19 SPB dinner. His talk was titled Is the Earth Running a Fever? and he spoke about climate change and the NWS. He said, “Anything’s possible in weather.”

This particular dinner, which followed the first-ever cancellation of a SPB dinner in March (due to a snow storm), drew more than fifty participants, the most at a SPB dinner in at least three years.

Using a PowerPoint he began with “The NWS is changing so fast it will give you vertigo.” He said NWS has 122 offices including one in Guam and there is much current speculation of consolidating NWS. The regional Albany office at the corner of Fuller Road and Washington Avenue Extension serves nineteen counties.

Hugh, who is my brother-in-law, showed a photo of the local NWS office with the Nanotechnology College Zen Building behind it and said the Zen Building is only one-half occupied three years after it opened. Hugh worked for more than twenty years at the Albany NWS office that has leased space from the Nano college. The twenty-year lease will expire this year but the office will likely remain at this location for at least several more years.

He said NWS exists to (1) protect life and property via accurate and timely forecasts and warnings; (2) to enhance the economy; and (3) have people react in a proper manner (call to action). He said NWS’s Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) has replaced much of the human observation of temperature, precipitation, and wind. The NY Mesonet, operated by NYS can help fill in the void between NWS stations in New York by providing more local conditions than ASOS can.

NWS also utilizes the Geo Orbital Earth Stationary satellite GOES-R located 22,000 miles above the Earth; it rotates with the Earth, thus remaining stationary in the sky where it provides superb photos. Hugh said the local office and 91 others launch balloons two-to-four times daily for upper atmospheric observations of temperature, humidity, air pressure, and wind. These balloons provide date from zero to 100,000 feet elevations. He said most upper air balloons launched from the Albany office land in the Atlantic due to prevailing winds.

“You need good data in the model,” he said, “to get a good weather forecast.” Doppler Radar, he said, has been around for decades and it is good for detecting tornadoes, assessing rainfall and snowfall quantities and the type of precipitation. He said a Phased Array Radar will, by 2030, provide much better data than is available today.

Shifting to the structure of the NWS, it is part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is part of the federal Department of Commerce. Hugh said President Trump’s 2017-2018 proposed national budget calls for an 18% cut to the commerce department, 17% for NOAA, and 5% for NWS. Hugh said Barry Myers, who may be appointed to fill the vacant NOAA director position, is the brother of ACCU weather director Joel Myers, and he (Barry) might contract out much NWS work. Other uncertainties facing NWS today are the limited hiring policy and that some current NWS offices may be consolidated or eliminated.

A Weather Research and Innovation Act (HR353) had been signed into law by President Trump earlier that day, said Hugh, who had not had much time to study it, but from what he could detect, it calls for at least a possible partial privatization of NWS.

Hugh said many variables impact climate including ocean currents, solar output, the angle of the Earth relative to the sun (which oscillates slightly form century to century, volcanic eruptions, and the impact of asteroids. He said volcanoes that can impact the Earth’s climate are in the tropics; others in the more northern or southern latitudes have less impact. An enormous 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia led to crop failures around the world the following year.

The year 1875 was by far the coldest in Albany since 1820 with an average temperature of a little over 43 degrees Fahrenheit (F), about five degrees below normal. This happened shortly after a volcanic eruption. However when the same volcano erupted in 1930, Albany had its warmest year on record in 1931, a record not broken until 2012.

Urbanization, said Hugh, has added to elevated temperatures especially at night. However even places without urbanization (the New Paltz NWS), have experienced a distinct warming trend in recent decades. Winter temperatures in the northeast US are up about three degrees F in the last fifty years; summer temperatures have risen about one degree F.

Hugh said that as polar ice caps melt, methane is released in larger quantities, to which Mark Schaeffer added that methane is much more potent per molecule at global warming than carbon dioxide. He said Antarctic ice is thickening over land but shrinking over the ocean, sun spot cycles (an area of magnetic storms) tend to run for about eleven years, and the Earth’s slightly elliptical orbit around the sun is becoming less eccentric, which should have led to global cooling, but has not.

By the year 2100, he said, the Earth’s temperatures could rise 2-3 degrees Celsius (one degree C = 1.8 degree F), sea levels could rise up to two feet, the Gulf Stream (that pushes warm temperatures into Europe) might shut down, more precipitation will likely occur in the northeastern US, and there will be more intense heat waves but with occasional brief but intense cold snaps. He said North America has now experienced a record twenty-eight consecutive months with more record high than record low temperatures. He said a “Cold Blob” in the north Atlantic Ocean south of Greenland caused by melting polar ice could signify the onset of a shut down of the Gulf Stream.

In conclusion, Mr. Johnson indicated that, while we can not put a number on the actual percentage, he strongly believes the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to increasingly disruptive climate change and warming that has occurred over the past 100 years. He thinks less fossil fuel use should be used even if global warming slows. In addition to climate fluctuations, he said, fossil fuel use causes dirty air and water, and acid rain.



Published in May/June 2017 Newsletter
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