Category Archives: Weather

The People’s Climate Change

I’ve been trying to explain to my science-oriented friends who complain about climate change denial that a lot of people who have doubts about global warming are not so much anti-science as they are suspicious of scientific claims coming from people with an ideological agenda.

Imagine for a moment that your least favorite right-wing pundits — Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, John Derbyshire, Michelle Malkin, whoever — all started talking about new neurological research that found racially-linked differences in brain structures which implied that people of African descent have weaker impulse control than people of European descent. And suppose they used this research to justify polices protecting white people from out-of-control black people, such as removal of black people from the military and police forces, separate schools for black and white children, and allowing businesses to refuse to serve black customers because “science has proven that black people can’t control themselves.”

Wouldn’t that sort of racist agenda make you really, really skeptical about the validity of the neuroscience they were touting? Science should, of course, be judged by scientific standards — good data, rigorous methods, peer review, repeatability — and if you have the background to understand the science, you might insist on seeing the detailed studies for yourself.

But if you, like most people, don’t have the knowledge or skills or time to evaluate the science directly, you have to rely on what more knowledgeable people are saying about it, and with a controversial subject like global warming, you have to figure out who to trust, and in trying to figure out who to trust, you’re going to end up looking at what else people stand for. And if they have an agenda you find repellant, wouldn’t you be damned suspicious of their science?

Ever since global warming started attracting attention at the end of the 1980’s, left-leaning folks have been seizing on it as a justification for their preexisting agenda. Here’s a very recent sample of what I’m talking about from this weekend’s People’s Climate March in New York:

The people interviewed here are not discussing climate change much at all. Instead we hear them saying that “corporations have to be reined in” and that they want to create a “new socialist society,” and that they want “revolution, nothing less.”

Many of the featured protesters are anti-capitalist, anti-corporation, and anti-free market. Some of them are literally communists. Some of them oppose not just capitalism, but all the benefits of modern civilization:

“We live in a grotesque era where we have everything we want, all the time, right now.”

“I think having less is actually very freeing.”

“Turn everything off.”

When you see people like this as the face of the climate change movement, you could be forgiven for wondering if maybe anthropogenic global warming is not so much an “inconvenient truth” as a suspiciously convenient theory for the radical left.

(Personally, I’ve been following some libertarian pundits and free market economists on the climate issue, because I share their values and because I know they’ll be skeptical of dire warnings of disaster that come prepackaged with claimed solutions that would further empower the government, and the argument there has long since moved on from the question of whether global warming is happening to what we should do about it.)

The Opposite of Boiling Water

Here’s something to think about if you’re in Chicago like me, and you’re thinking of going outside:

Go to your kitchen and fill a pot with water. Put it on the stove and turn the burner up to high. Bring it to a boil. That water is now at about 212°F. Given that your internal body temperature is just under 99°F, the boiling water is about 113°F hotter than your body.

As I post this, the weather station at O’Hare airport is reporting a (non-windchill) air temperature of -14°F, which is about 113°F colder than your body. In other words, the difference in temperature between the outside air and your body is the same as the difference in temperature between your body and a pot of boiling water.

(For those of you of the metric persuasion, water boils at 100°C, normal body temperature is 37°C, and the outside air is at -26°C, for a difference of 63°C.)

So if you wouldn’t stick your hand into that pot of boiling water, you might want to think carefully before going outside today.

(Technically, of course, they’re not equivalent situations, because air has only about 1/4 the heat capacity of water and is about 800 times less dense, meaning that it won’t sap heat from your skin anywhere near as fast as boiling water will scald you. On the other hand, you’re probably going to be exposed to the cold air for a lot longer than you would be likely to touch boiling water, and with a 15 mph (24 km/h) wind, you could easily find yourself in the frostbite zone that will damage your skin in about 10 minutes. Also, every unheated object outside is also at -14°F, and touching some of them could freeze your skin as fast as boiling water would scald it — a metal post being the canonical example. Finally, don’t forget that cooling your skin will make it numb to pain, so you might not notice the damage until it’s too late.)

And if you do go out — like my crazy wife, who had the option to work from home today — be careful out there.

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17 Degrees Below Zero

I have to drive to a client’s office today.

They say it’s -17° F outside today. (For my non-U.S. readers, that’s -27° C.) That means the air is 115° below my body temperature. If it suddenly got 45° warmer, it would still be 4° below the freezing point of water.

I am really, really glad I bought the remote starter for the car.

Update: Made it in without incident.

It’s funny how snow gets when it’s this cold. It kind of stops being wet, and is just another powdery solid.

I’m breaking one of my safety rules today. Having driven a lot of junker cars over the years, I normally like to wear clothing that’s heavy enough to keep me warm if the car breaks down and I have to spend a few hours waiting around in the cold. Today, however, I’m just wearing my usual hoodie and leather jacket. I guess I just feel daring today.

Hurricanes and Bad Luck

Hurricane Ike turned out not to be as bad as predicted. Aside from a lucky shift to the east just before landfall, it also appears that the computer models made an inaccurate prediction about the height of the surge around Galveston.

Now some people are complaining that Ike was over-hyped by the major news media, the National Hurricane Center, perhaps in furtherance of some sort of “nanny-state” agenda.

I can’t say what the major news media did, because I didn’t pay any attention to them, but there’s no evidence the NHC over-reacted. Amateur hurricane blogger Brendan Loy, who also predicted dire consequences when Ike made landfall, explains why:

I believe the information I disseminated, and the warnings I relayed, were accurate and reasonable at the time I posted them. And that, as I know Sullivan would agree, is the only standard by which statements about hurricanes can be fairly evaluated: the standard of contemporaneous reasonableness, not 20/20 hindsight.

That’s exactly right. Weather prediction is filled with uncertainties, and no matter how good the prediction, there’s always plenty of randomness in the actual behavior of a hurricane.

To be clear, what actually happens certainly does matter if the model that lead to the prediction needs to be adjusted. But it’s not some form of moral failing—hyping or downplaying the danger, depending which way things actually go—if you rely on the best available model to make decisions and that model turns out to be wrong.

It’s not just hurricanes, either. I believe that all of life is like this. A doctor can do his best to treat a disease and still lose his patient through no fault of his own. A cop can rightfully shoot an armed bad guy, only to discover that the bad guy’s gun was fake. The driver of a car can do everything right and still hit a pedestrian.

Bad luck is not a mistake. It’s just what happens.

Those That Remain

I’m reading stories that up to 24,000 people may have decided to stay on Galveston Island. There are rumors that fires have broken out. Ike’s storm surge is huge. The last time a surge this big struck Galveston, 8,000 people died. That’s about 20% of the population.

Building construction is a lot better now—lots of stilt houses—but that won’t help you survive if your entire house is underwater.

Hopefully, the death toll will stay under four figures.

Update: 2:45 CDT. It looks like Ike is coming ashore far enough east that peak of the surge is hitting over around Chambers and Jefferson counties. The tidal gauges at Galveston didn’t get up over 11 feet, which I think is not enough to overtop the sea wall, and they’re starting to come down. These people will probably live through the night.

Lucky Galveston.

Update: 3:15 CDT. Took another look at the tidal gauges. I think a couple of them have failed. Galveston Bay entrance, definitely, and the data from Pier 21 looks weird. Maybe they’re not out of the woods yet. The trailing eyewall it hitting Galveston.

Update: 8am CDT. Looking good. The storm did not live up to predictions, for reasons not immediately clear. No good damage reports yet.

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The Texas Tornado Meets a Texas Hurricane

They call Chicago the Windy City, but that was always a reference to members of our political class, not our weather. This weekend, the real windy city is going to be Houston, Texas, which is going to be hit hard by hurricane Ike.

When I was a kid, I used to wonder if we could prevent hurricanes from killing people by using an atom bomb to disrupt the circular winds and make the hurricane collapse. It turns out that hurricanes are much bigger than atom bombs. The mushroom cloud would just blow away in the wind, like everything else.

I looked up the math at the NOAA and Wikipedia, and here’s how it works out: The bomb that hit Hiroshima had a total energy yield of 6.7×1013 Joules. A large hurricane generates that much energy in about 1/9th of a second. Call it 32,000 Hiroshimas per hour.

That’s what’s headed for Houston tonight.

Fortunately, most of that energy is expended raising millions of millions of tons of air from sea level to the stratosphere. Only a tiny fraction of it is converted to wind, and only a tiny fraction of that brushes against anything on the ground. But it’s still going to make a big mess.

Ike isn’t going to be another Katrina, though. Most of the killing done by hurricanes is due to the storm surge—water pushed ahead of the leading edge of the hurricane. Unlike New Orleans, Most of Houston is safely above sea level.

I wouldn’t want to be on Galveston Island, however. It was completely submerged by the surge from the hurricane that hit it in 1900. They have a seawall now, but parts of it are already flooding.

And for residents who don’t evacuate from certain areas around Galveston Bay, the National Weather Service forecast is “certain death.” Seriously.

All this is bad news for the only person I know in Houston, Mark Bennett, pictured here:



He’s 50 miles from Galveston Island, 25 miles from the bay, and high enough above sea level that he doesn’t have to worry about the surge. On the other hand, the projected storm track goes right over him, so he’ll get some really high winds.

(The NOAA puts those red lines on the side for a reason, so Ike could pass to either side of him, or weaken before making landfall, but the best current guess puts the center of the storm within 3 miles of his house.)

I think Mark will be fine, but I predict some home repair in his future.

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