Saturday, December 16, 2006

Climate change: the straight dope

From an email exchange with a colleague who has spent significant time studying climate change:

> What is your confidence level in the following statements?

> 1) we know the sign of anthropogenic effects on global temperature

--> high

> 2) current models get the size of the temperature change in the next
> 50 years to within a factor of 2

--> medium

> 3) there are nearby nonlinear tipping points in the climate system
> (i.e., that anthropogenic effects can push us to within 50 years)

--> low (except for the methane channel which I am seriously concerned with)

> 4) climate modelers are clear-headed scientists with a mature grasp of
> the uncertainties in data analysis and modeling complex nonlinear
> systems, and NOT ideologically motivated people whose main skill is
> writing simple computer programs and press releases

--> highly variable - the real problem is "how do you know you have produced the best model "- there recently has been a lot of Markov chain analysis associated with trying to determine this.

And, an account of the "200 year" storm that hit Seattle December 14-15, at one point dropping 1 inch of rain in 45 minutes, and knocking out the entire power grid!

The Storm that Killed Starbucks:

Part I: The Deluge

For me, in Eugene, Oregon, the morning of December 14, 2006 started off perfectly normal. I woke up to my usual idiot snoring dog alarm clock and realized that,

oh yeah, today I drive up to Seattle for my annual celebration of consumer fetishism

by contributing capital to the Bellevue Square shopping center. Every since it got upgraded, I enjoy my one, over-the-top capitalistic moment of the year in that environment - plus the Parlor has nice pool tables and good beer. Moreover, by driving up alone, I could maximize my carbon footprint on the planet and also send foreign governments more money – seems consistent with the Christmas spirit to me.

I knew the weather would, well, suck, since this has been a fairly wet winter so far (even though its not even winter - this global climate change stuff sure is confusing). I was prepared. I have a decent vehicle (it has windshield wipers) and my cell phone is able to receive Doppler radar imaging maps. Going through Portland in moderate rain during the morning commute, I thought it might be a good idea to avert my eyes away from the crowded road and to my tiny, tiny cell phone maps. I noticed a big red area off the Olympic peninsula. Hmm, I said to myself, “that must be Santa because you never see red on the TV radar”. I would later discover, the red area was not Santa.

...I was headed toward the UW to, ironically enough, visit some colleagues in the Atmospheric Sciences department. I parked down near University Village (later to become Lake University Village) and, at about 3 pm, walked towards campus. The rain steadily was increasing. When I got to my colleagues office, there was a big sign on the door that read “Sorry, the end of the world is near, I have to find a Starbucks before it is too late”. I figured this was just a Christmas joke and trudged back to my vehicle (the one with the windshield wipers), which was now rapidly becoming a lone metallic island in a newly formed pool. I snorkeled my way into the drivers seat and extricated the metal from the pool and, in my infinite wisdom, headed towards Capital hill to change out of my wet clothes (well isn’t that what you do on Capital hill ?). Perfect timing – the deluge was upon me – one inch of rain in 45 minutes (that’s equivalent to 32 inches in a 24 hour period for you math geeks). In my true Seattle native spirit I remarked “Hey, what’s a little rain, it ain’t gonna kill me…”. But then (and where the hell is a Hummer when you really need one), I found myself going uphill (do you know how fast water runs downhill? – real fast) on 23rd ave through cascading muddy torrents. However, as I was not observing any cars in front of me actually disappearing, I figured it was okay – plus my windshield wipers were still working. And then came the Red Light at 23rd and Interlaken. At that moment, the red radar spot announced its arrival and it wasn’t saying “Ho Ho Ho”.

I have always wondered why that street was named Interlaken. And for those of you that don’t know – Interlaken is this really cool windy street through lots of dense trees and you don’t even realize your in the middle of the city – it’s a particularly good road for convertibles, but not on this particular day. As I was stopped, brakes tenaciously clinging to more water than road – I suddenly notice the reason for the name of the street as I was now between two lakes! In addition, there was no longer any traffic ahead of me on 23rd to interrupt the ever building cascade rushing downhill at relativistic speeds towards me. Quickly doing a physics calculation in my head (without even consulting my cell phone) I realize that I am better off taking the impending impact broadside, so I quickly took a right on Interlaken, applied some horsepower, made a really big rooster tail, and managed to get through this debris flow (I would later pay for this with a damaged electrical system and 2 new tires but my windshield wipers were still working).

The next few minutes were a blur of water water everywhere. It was surreal, roads were rivers, intersections were lakes, yards were temporary reservoirs, all routes looked equally bad. Fortunately, the rush hour deluge ended (do you suppose Nature did that timing on purpose?) and eventually I did manage to change my clothes on Capital hill,


But after donning dry clothes, I heard the ominous words “those #$%## Seahawks lost again” only to be followed by the more ominous words (although I am not sure that it is technically possible for something to be more ominous) “ha, ha, ha, the real Storm isn’t even here yet”.

Part II: The Aftermath

Ah yes – December 15th, the planned Bellevue Square expedition day – and the day all of Seattle will remember. I woke up, even without the aid of the snoring idiot dog, and tried to use something electrical. Then I tried to use something else, electrical. Then I went to turn on the TV to find out why my electricity didn’t work (I am real slow in the morning). Well then, if there is no power at home, the inconvenienced will just go shopping. I knew that the 520 bridge was closed and then everyone would be on I-90 enjoying a prolonged view of Lake Washington. I also surmised that driving North around the lake through Lake Forest Park and Bothell would not be wise as that area is prone to blow down. So I headed north on I-5 to go south on I-405 (yeah, I know it only makes sense in my head). As it turned out, it would have been faster to just drive around the hemisphere to get to Bellevue Square (well that destination was my mission!).

After I hit my fifth stop-and-go traffic incident on northbound I-5 I decided to turn on KIRO news. It took me some time to figure out how to get AM in my microprocessor controlled vehicle, but eventually I got some news and traffic. Basically the news said:

“No one has any power –Starbucks is down, I repeat Starbucks is down:” Basically the traffic said: “traffic is a mess” (presumably from all the confused individuals looking for a working Starbucks). But, what of Bellevue I wondered, did it survive? I had to find out – it was my mission. As I inched along, I continually wondered what the hell everyone was doing out here? Did we all have a collective brain fart and think we could just cruise around when all the infrastructure was down? Of course, being in your vehicle did provide a means of staying warm and getting the news. After all, who has a battery powered AM radio in their house anymore?

Eventually I did get to Bellevue Square, one dark intersection at a time, only to find out that the square had no power. One would have hoped that KIRO would have informed me that Bellevue had no power but no, instead I just heard stories of the guy that turned his hybrid Toyota into a coffee pot and all his neighbors lined up for hot coffee. In the true holiday spirit, I hope that guy made a hefty profit. In the past, when it was possible for people to do arithmetic by hand, one still might have been able to sell goods to customers with flashlights (I never go anywhere without my flashlight). But no, although the Square was open, none of the shops were. There were just hordes of ghostly figures wandering aimlessly in the semi-dark for no apparent reason as if they were all suddenly waiting for the moment The Power Came Back, and they could get on with their regular lives. “Damn”, I said, “my capitalistic Christmas spirit moment has been crushed by a failure of technology. Now where am I going to buy frivolous material goods for friends and family so they can resell them on e-bay a month later?” My spirit was crushed with my personal lamentations being interrupted by frantic souls screaming “do you know where there is an open Starbucks?”.

With my mission failed, I decided to head back to Eugene, via Capital hill, of course. As I got back in my vehicle I noticed that I was running low on gas. Noticing also that there was a high correlation between darkened traffic lights and vehicles parked in gas stations I realized that if the traffic lights ain’t working, the gas ain’t pumping. Fortunately, during this dire time I instinctively remembered my late 50’s early 60’s cold war childhood in Seattle where I was taught that “In the event of a Nuclear Strike, Aurora avenue will still be open for business”. Even though it was, at the moment, on the other side of the World from me, this seemed like the best strategy. Head to Aurora – that living testimony to the 1950s suburban culture - must be functional. Not even Mother Nature could bring Aurora down. Re-tracing my sensible route (at ½ the speed of the original journey), I eventually got to 175th and Aurora. Wow. Heaven. An oasis of technological life -working traffic lights, working gas pumps, and even a working donut store (but alas no Starbucks in that area – which is odd as I though it was a rule that each traffic light in Seattle had to be located next to a Starbucks). With a full tank of gas, my body rejuvenated with donuts, and nothing but time ahead of me, I figured I would now be able to escape.

As I began to breathe easier I lapsed into deep reflection and regarded this as yet another incident of Nature’s rapid fury that can fully paralyze a large scale urban area. It also became clear to me that, as we become increasingly reliant on technology, we are becoming increasingly unprepared to deal with its loss. Our numbers are big, our consumption rates are great and the whole scale of the system has become unmanageable. Events like this should educate and inform us – they should make us more prepared – not less. But, as the major of Seattle said, this storm was a once in 200 years event. And so, I suppose that one could tolerate Starbucks being down once every 200 years, but, strangely, it seems to me that these once every 200 year events are now coming to Seattle at the rate of one per month.- must be that confusing global climate change thing.


Anonymous said...

I hear a lot of back and forth between climate scientists. One piece of data I don't know who to trust for a reasonable interpretation is the medieval warming period. Some say that the average temperature of the world was higher than today, while others say the measurement were not validly taken or statistically correct. From what I understand Greenland used to once be green and the Vikings inhabited it for awhile didn't they?
One a somewhat related note, this whole climate change thing brings me more in question of "what to believe". I find I can generally get a sense of the 'more correct' theory in most things by looking at the various sides of an argument and coming to a conclusion based on the evidence they both highlight. Perhaps that is my own, incorrect, grand vision of myself as being more intelligent than I really am. But regardless I find myself constantly questioning my own opinion when it comes to global warming arguments. Both sides seem to have valid points, but the global warmers really bring themselves into question with the 'hockey stick graph' scandal. Both sides seem to fail the Sagan Bad Science Detector.

Anonymous said...


I don't know much about the science of global warming, but I find the following persuasive:

1. The planet is finite.

2. Therefore, the ability to absorb changes due to any source, such as due to humans, is limited.

3. If the Asian consumption per capita becomes the same(in type and amount) as the North Americans the planet(ok, at least the human species) is doomed(because of 1 and 2).

I find the change in the weather/climate and environment in the cities in India over the past two decades has been *enormous*, unfortunately all very negative. The impact in N America is still limited due to geography, but elsewhere in the world, few doubt the serious impact on the environment due to humans, whether or not it is global warming.

Sustainable development is definitely the most important problem facing us all. I fear that due to greed, it will be ignored till it is too late.


Anonymous said...

Both sides of the argument have a range of proponents, from respectable careful scientists to outright hacks and crackpots. But it's clear that the distribution of deniers is heavily skewed towards the hack/crackpot end of the spectrum.

Anyhow, we need a long range climate futures market so people can put their money where their mouths are. Does such a thing already exist?

Steve Hsu said...

Regarding a futures market, I agree we need one. And practitioners in the field should be required to bet an amount that really makes a difference relative to the short term career benefit from acting more confident than one should be in a prediction (e.g., a year's salary).

Same goes for particle theory. All model builders should be required to bet at least a few months salary on their "best" or best class of models. Too bad this does not work for string theorists, who may all be dead before we have any test relevant to them...

rz said...

Have you looked at tradesports?

It seems that it would allow just that: people to put their money where their mouths are no matter what the subject. No 'science' category yet, but it could probably be added. I haven't managed to look at it in detail just yet: grad student finances do not allow such endeavors for now :-).

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