Sunday, December 10, 2017

Exploring the Map vs Territory Problem - via the Brown Ocean Effect and Dr. Trenberth

On November 9th Dr. Trenberth visited our local Fort Lewis College and was the featured speaker at an afternoon climate change symposium.  
A Distinguished Senior Scientist (in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research), he is a cartographer if you will.  His entire being is about getting the science, the models, the map, as close to representing reality as resources and ability allow.  This dedication has made him among the best in his field of climate studies.  

As a self-taught Earth and climate science enthusiast I’ve been familiar with his work for decades and have learned a great deal from his articles and in past years talks on YouTube and I was glad to finally have the chance to see and hear him in person.

He gave an interesting talk reviewing many aspects of our warming climate system including hurricanes, where he touched on the recent Hurricane Harvey (52:30 video 1/3 embedded below) with its extraordinary longevity and rainfall.  Dr. Trenberth went through its vitals, a million people displaced, homes damaged, massive power outage, biblical rainfall.  

He pointed out that normally hurricanes ‘peter out’ within on average 27 hours, whereas Harvey went for 70 hours on land making a loop and returning to the Gulf with it’s record warm waters, which fed the cyclone before it made another incursion onto land.  Then he discussed the many human factors around Houston that ensure floods will reek maximum havoc, pointing out that, “with climate change you either adapt to it or you suffer the consequences.”

What struck me was that he didn’t mention the “Brown Ocean Effect” which is a fairly new, but fascinating and important observation based realization.  Also another sure indicator of a warming world in 2007 with tropical storm Erin, papers appearing in 2013 and then another tropical storm Bill in 2015. (references provided at the end)  Seems to me it was one of those aha moments in science, ‘Of course!, Why didn’t we think of that.’

The reason for that degree of confidence in a fresh idea is that basic physics demands it.  In a warming world, more torrential rainstorms saturate the land, higher temperatures, evaporation, convection, energy transfer, of course a passing hurricane will feed off of this new resource, it’s what they do.  Observations have supported that.

The exact details are still being defined and will be different for every hurricane and not all inland hurricane intensification can be blamed on the Brown Ocean Effect ( Officially TCMI, “Tropical Cyclone Maintenance or Intensification” ) since currently most inland intensifications can be categorized as Extratropical Transitions, such as 2012’s H. Sandy which are driven by different physical dynamics.

But the reality of this newly recognized geophysical dynamic is already well established:
 “(1) an atmosphere with minimal temperature variations, (2) sufficient antecedent soil moisture from rainfall (even swamps or wetlands), and (3) evaporation rates that can provide enough energy to the atmosphere to mimic the ocean.”  (source)
It’s significant because geophysics dictates that in a warming world the hydrological cycle will continue intensifying, meaning we must expect more torrential down pour events, followed by hotter drier conditions, sucking moisture right back out of the ground faster than in recorded human history.  This in turn has cascading consequences.  Such as feeding a well timed hurricane, perhaps disrupting the feeding of hungry people.  

It was already mentioned by some scientists as a contributing factor to Harvey’s extreme longevity and rainfall, thus the omission stuck me as curious.

During the Q&A I had a chance to ask Dr.Trenberth, (58:00 video 3/3) 
“I’d like to bring it back to Hurricane Harvey, can you explain what the Brown Ocean Effect is and how it impacts landfall hurricanes such as Harvey?”
Dr. Trenberth responded,  “What, what is this?” and stopped.  He caught me by surprise, after a couple beats I collected my thoughts and responded, 
“The ‘Brown Ocean Effect is about land surface areas getting so saturated with hot water that when a hurricane comes over the land it starts sucking up the heat and moisture.” 
I was startled at Dr. Trenberth’s halting response.  Rather than reviewing what’s been written in the literature, he went back to the a,b,c’s of hurricanes.  Thing is, none of that was being questioned.  It was this ominous new environmental factor that I wanted to learn more about, but that Dr. Trenberth seemed to not want to talk about.  

His 450 word two part response thankfully ended with: 
“So that's presumably the brown ocean effect that if you've dumped a whole lot of water on the land there is a capability for some moisture to reevaporate back into the atmosphere to help refuel the storm if you like.”
I believe his reluctance can be understood by considering his ending sentence to part one: 
“You know having a big dumping of water over land didn't hurt but I don't know just how much it helped either.  That's the sort of thing that we can sort out a bit more with experiments with models at some later point.”   
The true cartographer, until he can map it with his models and empirically define its details, nothing is more than a suggestion.  Is this something to complain about?  NO!  

That’s his job, he is the scientist, the rigid conservative for whom every detail is of critical importance and assumptions are treated as poison.  He could never have accomplished the extraordinary science that is his legacy without that fastidious rigidity.

It’s important that you dear reader understand this, none of what I’m writing here is a put down of Dr. Trenberth the scientist, this is about recognizing the Map v. Territory Problem and the need for more effective communication than laying out a series of facts, as though they were a stamp collection.  

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We live in the Territory and simply because scientists dedicated to the data and nothing but, have a hard time acknowledging connections doesn’t mean those connections aren’t there! 

Our living breathing physical Earth is not a mental construct.  Our changing biosphere doesn’t care about how much of the details we understand or not.  

It is our obligation to understand her and part of that is filling in the missing pieces with honest rational conclusions based on our excellent grasp of this planet’s fundamental geophysics along with honest good-faith logic.  Instead, what we find is people in the audience using every flimsy childish excuse to downplay the reality of the situation we’ve created for ourselves.  Or folks who are plain confused at all the words and shut it out.

These days articles are being written about the importance of story telling in conveying big ideas to people.  The narrative needs to have a visceral connection with its audience.

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What about our global heat and moisture distribution engine with its atmosphere providing an insulation layer between living Earth and the frigid black of space?

Greenhouse gases act as the atmosphere's insulation regulator.  Humanity with it’s massive fossil fuels burning has increased that insulation regulator from under 270 ppm CO2 to over 400 ppm CO2 within two centuries.  

Consider, recent Earth had been used to 100 ppm fluctuations taking roughly 50,000 years and causing the transition to or from Temperate (370s) to Ice Ages (270s), and now, 130++ in two centuries.  It doesn’t take a climate model to appreciate that 400++ ppm spells huge changes for our planet’s biosphere which is regulated by the climate regime it exists under.  The biosphere we depend on for everything.

Our Earth is a virtually closed system, with the sun providing the energy.  Try to imagine how a closed system who’s insulation gets increased and who’s heat source remains constant, won’t warm up?  Put on extra layers of clothing on a comfortable day if you don't believe me.

Then try to image how in the world warming up a closed system won’t make it become more dynamic.  Then think about our regular seasons and how much revolves around those seasons.  Winter rest, spring sowing seeds, summer growing crops, autumn harvesting produce.  The ageless cycles that people (along with our surrounding biosphere and all it’s inhabitants) have adapted all our rhythms to.  

How can scrambling that sequence with chaotic unpredictable disruptions not profoundly damage those systems and all who depend on them?  Don’t need no presumptuous details, the rough overview is plenty clear, the details are chump change.

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It’s said projects are never finished, we just meet deadlines.  
So it is with this one.  I’d hoped to spend much more time on it today than I was able to, and since I have another crowded week coming at me tomorrow, I’m out of time and it is what it is.  I hope it's thought provoking warts and all.

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Climate Change Symposium - Part 1
Published by Fort Lewis College on Nov 27, 2017



The Fort Lewis College Climate Change Symposium features a number of scientists and experts speaking on the various aspects of climate change. The topics to be covered include the science of climate change, impacts and possible adaptations, and possible solutions.

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Climate Change Symposium - Part 3
Published by Fort Lewis College on Nov 27, 2017



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OBSERVATIONS OF THE OVERLAND REINTENSIFICATION OF TROPICAL STORM ERIN (2007)
 Three days after making landfall as a minimal tropical storm, the remnants of Erin intensified over a domain rich with observational capacity.

By Derek S. Arndt, Jeffrey B. Basara, Renee A. McPherson, Bradley G. Illston, Gary D. McManus, and DavId B. Demko

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Quantifying Surface Energy Fluxes in the Vicinity of Inland-Tracking Tropical Cyclones
University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
December 11. 2013

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A global spatiotemporal analysis of inland tropical cyclone maintenance or intensification
Theresa K. Andersen, J. Marshall Shepherd - 21 March 2013

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Summary of June 2015 Events
Tropical Storm Bill

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The Brown Ocean Effect
August 31, 2015

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Tropical Storms Can Strengthen Over Land But Be Careful With Brown Ocean Claims
Marshall Shepherd  |  SEP 24, 2016 

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Seven 'Big Picture' Questions About Tropical Storm Harvey Answered
Marshall Shepherd  |  AUG 30, 2017

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