Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
Over at the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, Andy Revkin highlighted a cute YouTube made by James Barthelman, an elementary school teacher in Quinhagak, Alaska. It is very cute with cubby faced little kids dressed up for snow – but they haven’t any. Of course, it is only the 5th of December when they shot the video, and the start of our winter was still two weeks away. The sound track is wonderful – The Drifters, singing “White Christmas”. I always dreamed of a White Christmas too, but growing up in Los Angeles kind of ruled it out as a possibility.
Here’s the video (and I hope they make some advertising money from it):
The kids really want a White Christmas, like I did, but didn’t get one as far as I can find out – as of yesterday, this river delta area of Alaska is still snowless, though there is snow cover to the North and South and East.
Here’s the Weather Underground snow depth map for Alaska as of 1 January. The almost invisible brown dot, circled in lime green, is Quinhagak, Alaska.
To be absolutely fair, there is no evidence that the schoolteacher or the kids were attempting to make any other statement than “We’re dreaming of a White Christmas…” and hoping for Fall snow in time for Christmas. The propaganda starts later, according to Professor Revkin, “after Mike MacCracken, chief scientist for the Climate Institute, brought it to the attention of the American Meteorological Society’s Committee on Effective Communication of Weather and Climate Information (I’m one of several journalist members).” “He [MacCraken] described the student video as a ‘powerful way of communicating how the climate is changing.’ I [Revkin] expressed some doubts, noting how much variability there is in Alaskan conditions, so I asked him for a bit more.”
Revkin was entirely right to demand more from MacCraken, who has attempted to turn this fun video into some kind of statement on Alaskan climate. According to Revkin, MacCraken’s reply is “talking about the value of the video in conveying how long-term trends will play out in Alaska” followed by a fairly normal “if things keep up like this” alarmist lecture.
To his credit, Andy Revkin does not entirely buy this. Although he fails to simply refute it logically or with fact-checked data for us, he does provide a link to Dr. Uma Bhatt’s powerful and informative “Climate of Alaska: Past, Present and Future,” a recent presentation by Uma S. Bhatt, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Dr. Bhatt’s conclusions:
– Alaska has warmed but not in a simple manner.
– Alaska represents a complex location climatologically, impacted by various circulations.
– Climate research results are not always easy to explain in a simple way. We usually add many caveats!!
– Conclusions based on the preponderance of evidence suggest humans have impacted the climate. Controversy arises as people translate the science into policy change?
I will present here just a few of the elements of Dr. Bhatt’s presentation which I would have used as a counter to MacCraken if I had been writing the Dot Earth blog post and which will also suffice to disarm the alarmist comments added as an update by Revkin from Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University, along the lines of “These are the kinds of unusual events where people really feel the climate system.” (Note: There has been no event and there is nothing unusual about it.)
First lets’s start with Revkin’s opening line: “While most of the lower 48 states are shivering their way into 2015, in much of Alaska the concern is persistent warmth.” The persistent warmth link leads to an Alaska Dispatch News story, dated on 24 Dec 2014, which leads with “The National Weather Service has confirmed it: This has been an unusually warm winter so far, at least in Anchorage and Fairbanks.” [Pardon my digression here, but the first day of Winter is 21 December. Three days before the publishing date….maybe no one told them when Winter starts – well, really, in Alaska they speak of winter starting on the first of November.] How warm has it been? “The average Anchorage temperature from Nov. 1 through Dec. 23 was 29.3 degrees.” “The story is similar in Fairbanks. As of midday Wednesday, Fairbanks had not yet had a day this winter with a temperature of minus 20°F or lower, the National Weather Service said. In only two other years on record has Fairbanks gone so long into winter without temperatures dipping to minus 20…”. The reported (and apparently alarming) persistent warmth is: Anchorage having an average temperature below freezing for all of November and the first three weeks of December and Fairbanks having failed to achieve a day with temperatures below -20°F. (yes, that’s below minus 20°F or below minus 27.6°C).
Only in 21st century climate science could persistent below-freezing temperatures in a major US city or the failure to have dangerously low sub-zero temperatures in another, be called “persistently warm”.
For those of you who don’t know, Anchorage is a coastal city located where the Knick River enters an arm of the Gulf of Alaska on the southern shore of Alaska. Thus its climate is modified by the relatively warmer waters around it. Fairbanks, on the other hand, lays far inland, north and east of Mount McKinley, [native name Mt. Denali] in the central Tanana Valley, where the Chena River meets the Tanana River, but at a rather low elevation of only 446 feet.
For that matter, where is Quinhagak, Alaska?…. and what kind of place is it?
It is a little fishing village, at the mouth of a tremendously (historically) large alluvial gravel floodplain of the Kanektak River, where the river has formed the geological formation described in this Wiki quote: “When a river reaches a low-lying plain, often in its final course to the sea or a lake, it meanders widely. In the vicinity of a river bend, deposition occurs on the convex bank (the bank with the smaller radius). In contrast, both lateral erosion and undercutting occur on the cut bank or concave bank (the bank with the greater radius.) Continuous deposition on the convex bank and erosion of the concave bank of a meandering river cause the formation of a very pronounced meander with two concave banks getting closer. The narrow neck of land between the two neighboring concave banks is finally cut through, either by lateral erosion of the two concave banks or by the strong currents of a flood. When this happens, a new straighter river channel is created and an abandoned meander loop, called a cutoff, is formed. When deposition finally seals off the cutoff from the river channel, an oxbow lake is formed. This process can occur over a time scale from a few years to several decades and may sometimes become essentially static.” It is clear from the geography that this process has been going on for thousands of years around Quinhagak – which sits at two “cut banks”, one on the major stream bend to the Northwest and one from the bend at the other end of town, on the Northeast. It is no wonder that they suffer erosion of the banks – that is the very nature of this whole area. Like many parts of the Alaskan coast, it can be bare of accumulated snow, even in winter. [Note that this type of erosion cuts away virtually any kind of bank – sand, soil, gravel, sandstone, permafrost and even solid rock, given enough time.]
So, what about this claimed persistent warmth? Is it factual, actually, really true? Sorta true? Not so true?
Let’s reference Dr. Bhatt’s presentation (which, by the way, contains lots of other illustrations, many of which can be interpreted quite differently than those I use here):
Here’s a 2,000 year temperature reconstruction from Kaufman 2009:
I think we see similar temperatures to today’s in the 300-400 AD range, a little higher, along with an evident Little Ice Age roughly 1600-1900, then warming to date.
Let’s try another offering from Bhatt :
This seems to run right up to the end of 2012 – and shows something quite curious. I’m sure it’s obvious. Low temps 1949-1973, trending down. Then 1973-1980, huge step-up to a 20-year plateau 1981 through 2001. This is followed quickly by a four-year spike, 2002-2005, then a precipitous decline through the end of 2012. Another fake graph from skeptics? No, from the Artic Climate Research Center at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute.
If you are beginning to feel that there is some disconnect between the press reports of warmest year on record, persistent warmth, etc. — you may have something.
Let’s try for some clarity on this now:
What they have done here is divide Alaska up into its natural climatic zones (their opinion, of course) and graphed each separately, on a single graph. We see mirrored here the warm 1930s-40s. The global cooling period 1945-1975 (rough dates here, folks, we are just talking about this). Then the 1975-1978 spike/step-up, then? After 1978, roughly even-steven right to present time.
But, but, but…where’s the Great Baked Alaska? Here:
This is why Dr. Bhatt says “Alaska has warmed but not in a simple manner.” This image is very informative, and very much why the lines offered by MacCraken and Diffenbaugh have to be labeled propaganda.
What is the real situation in Alaska that we see so clearly illustrated above?
If we look at the entire time period 1920-2012, block “a”, we see almost all regions have warmed. This accords with our general understanding of the Earth (or, maybe easier to agree upon, the Northern Hemisphere) warming up, in my opinion, from the depths of the Little Ice Age – starting at that low point, we are almost certain to be trending up as it is definitely warmer today.
Block “b”, 1921-1950, shows eight of the thirteen regions are trending down in this time period, which includes the usually very warm 1930s of the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of the cooling period following WW II. Most of the warming in this period is the North Slope, Northeast Interior and the West Coast, primarily the first two.
Block “c”, which includes the huge step-up in 1975-1978, shows warming almost everywhere.
But it is the final block “d” which informs us of the current climatic trends in Alaska: Only the North Slope shows extraordinary warming with quite significant warming also in the Northeast Interior. The Central Interior warmed a bit. The rest of the state has cooled, all throughout the 1980-2000 rise seen in global average temperatures. Even with the almost-two-degree warming on the North Slope, the state average as a whole only experienced 0.1 degrees of warming through this most recent 30-year period – the usual standard time-period for a climatic signal.
What of Diffenbaugh’s “long term-trends”? North Slope and interiors warming. Rest of Alaska? It has had 30-years of cooling.
Where is poor suffering Quinhagak? There on the West Coast, just to the left of the blue rectangle marked “-0.8”. Suffering Anchorage? In the Cook Inlet Region, marked “-0.2”. Suffering Fairbanks? In the Southeast Interior, marked “-0.1”. Each of them has an overall cooling trend from 1981.
Note that to be totally accurate and fair, I should show temperature graphs of each of these localities – but this essay is about the misuse data separated from its scale. Little Quinhagak did miss its White Christmas – a little brown dot on the coast a vast white snow covered plain. Anchorage, a sea port, has had a mild (for them) November and December. Fairbanks has been spared dangerously low temperatures in the first two months of its local winter.
This essay so far is meant to illustrate the un-scientific use of data to promote ideas that are true but not significant in any real sense. Alaska as a whole has a warming trend, both short-term and long-term. But most of Alaska, and all of its significantly populated portions, have been regionally cooling over the last 30 years. The itty-bitty brown spot around Quinhagak without snow cover in December this year means less than nothing (it gains a negative value from its use as a point of misinformation about Alaskan climate as a whole.) But showing this graphically doesn’t advance climate science, I’ll admit – we’ve just exposed a bit of propagandistic bunkum.
But let’s do take a look at the North Slope this winter – how’s it going for them up in Baked Alaska this year?
So where does this leave us?
Let’s check in one last time with Dr. Bhatt, our local Alaskan Climate Expert.
Well, there you have it. Draw your own conclusions, form your own opinions. Dr. Bhatt suggests in this last graphic that temperatures of twelve of the thirteen Alaskan climate regions are coupled intimately to the PDO, with only the North Slope, an outlier, on a steady rise since the mid-1980s.
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Author’s Replies Notice: Professor Revkin teaches courses at Pace University on blogging, environmental-science communication and documentary video with a focus on sustainable development, as well as writing the Dot Earth blog at the NY Times. With Andy, what you see is what you get. I would prefer that readers forgo the usual counter-productive personal attacks on him, I give him a hard enough time by myself. Given his personal beliefs about world climate, he plays fair, as he sees it. He does like “cute”, “cool” and “neat” visual science communications efforts and, in my opinion, should pay more attention to the fact-checking requirements of the journalist code of ethics and the mores of science accuracy when judging them – as he often promotes clearly misleading propagandistic offerings – in this case it seems to me that, overall, he allows a “fun” effort by kids to be high-jacked by others for Climate Wars purposes.
That said, I have supplied links to the papers used here–look for links in the images. My real interest was in the misuse of the video by climate activists. I found the situation in Alaska, as illustrated by Dr. Bhatt, very enlightening. I don’t have any informed opinion on any of the climate issues at all.
I do not like propaganda – from either side of the climate divide.