February 13, 2014

Why does the Seattle Times and other media misinform the public about climate change?

The Seattle Times is REALLY getting to be a frustration when it comes to its coverage of climate change.   Here are the headlines from their CloseUp section on Tuesday.

They start silly:  "Freezing out the bigger picture" and then degrade into a statement that is without any factual basis:  "Arctic blasts tied to climate change"

This story was written by Justin Willis of the New York Times and the second problematic headline was added by the Seattle Times-- it was not in the original NY Times story.

The only sentences in the NY Times story that suggest a connection with global warming are:

"Though the case is as yet unproven, a handful of scientists think the 50-degree temperatures in London and the frigid weather in Minneapolis might be a consequence of climate change. They contend the massive decline of sea ice in the Arctic has destabilized a weather pattern that normally keeps frigid air bottled up near the pole. That pattern is known as the polar vortex, and its boundary is a fast-moving river of air called the jet stream. When the vortex weakens, the jet stream can develop big kinks, creating zones of extreme heat and cold."

Who are these "handful" of scientists?    As I explained in a previous blog, the evidence that global warming causes an increase in cold waves is non-existent, and the one or two studies that suggest it have serious methodological problems.  If you want to read more about this, some of the leading climatologists in the U.S. published a letter in Science Magazine noting there are little support for the global warming causes cold waves hypothesis.

As climate scientists, we share the prevailing view in our community that human-induced global warming is happening and that, without mitigating measures, the Earth will continue to warm over the next century with serious consequences. But we consider it unlikely that those consequences will include more frigid winters.

Even in a warming climate, we could experience an extraordinary run of cold winters, but harsher winters in future decades are not among the most likely nor the most serious consequences of global warming.

At the recent American Meteorological Society meeting in Atlanta I talked to some of the leading theoretical meteorologists in the country:  they told me that the supposed global warming/cold wave hypothesis does not have any physical basis.

And as noted in the Seattle Times/NY Times article, cold waves are becoming LESS frequent and of shorter duration as the earth warms.

The global warming causing cold wave hypothesis is contradicted by both observations and theory.  Why does the media like the Seattle Times state something that is without scientific basis?  

And yes, the Seattle Times has a lot of company in the meteorological exaggeration department.  The same day CBS Evening News was talking about a "catastrophic, historic storm."   Folks, our friends on the East  

Coast have had some snow, ice, and wind associated with a low pressure system moving up the coast.  A serious event.   But this was not an extreme event and the snow totals were really unexceptional.   Want proof? Here are the NY area totals around 5 PM PST today:

Yes...they had around a foot in some places, with lesser amounts near the coast.   Catastrophic?  Hardly--the schools even stayed open.  Record breaking and historic?  December 26, 2010 they got 20 inches. February 12, 2006 they had 27 inches on the ground.  There are a lot more like that.

CBS Morning News continued with the misinformation campaign, inviting a non-meteorologist, but theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku, to opine about the origin of the cold weather.  Charlie Rose,  Norah O'Donnell, and Gayle King did the interview.

KAKU: Well, the wacky weather could get even wackier. What we're seeing is that the jet stream and the polar vortex are becoming unstable. Instability of historic proportions. Now think of the polar vortex as a bucket, a swirling bucket of cold air. However, the walls are weakening. Cold air is spilling out, spilling out over the walls of the bucket. And the question is, why? Why is this polar vortex weakening? We think it's because of the gradual heating up of the North Pole. The North Pole is melting.
ROSE: Global warming.
KAKU: That excess heat -- that excess heat generated by all this warm water is destabilizing this gigantic bucket of cold air, weakening this low pressure region, causing cold air to spill out over the United States. So that's the irony, that heating could cause gigantic storms of historic proportions.

Nothing that Dr. Kaku said made sense.  He proposed the bucket theory of climate change. There is no basis for his cliams in in theory or observations.  His bucket analog seems silly. But a major network seems to be taking the global warming/cold wave hypothesis hook, line, and sinker. Kind of sad, really.

The Bucket Theory of Global Warming's Effects

In summary, there is an extraordinary amount of hype, misinformation, and exaggeration occurring in the media these days about cold waves and climate change.  Global warming will reduce the frequency of cold waves and increase the frequency of heat waves.  The existence of cold waves, even the large numbers of cold waves this year, says nothing about whether global warming will occur in the future.  

One thing is clear, media misinformation about this topic is undermining the credibility of the scientific community, promulgating false information to the public, and serves as a great aid to those who deny global warming will be a serious threat later in this century.

Slowly, leading climatologists are starting to realize the potential harm caused by all the hype, false information, and exaggeration and are starting to speak out about it.  But huge damage has already been done and perhaps a majority of the population believe that weather has generally become more extreme due to increases in greenhouse gases produced by mankind--something that is at odds with the scientific literature.
Announcement:  The Northwest Weather Workshop will be on Feb 28th/March 1st in Seattle.

The NW Weather Workshop is the big annual gathering of those interested in the weather of the Pacific Northwest and everyone is welcome.  For more information, including the agenda and registration information, please check out: https://www.atmos.washington.edu/pnww/


  1. Not being a climatologist, I can't argue with anything you say. My layman's perception is that global warming/climate change is going to or has created instability in a complex system that we don't fully understand. Climate isn't weather. When you have elected representatives trying to claim that wind turbines will exacerbate warming by blocking the flow of heat, according to divine will, there's a a lot of ignorance out there.

  2. Cliff - The global warming, err.. climate change bus left science-town a long time ago. This is about a much larger political agenda and those inconvenient things like facts and data are not going to stand in the way. Our schools continue to churn out more students who lack basic critical thinking skills and if something doesn't change we are sunk.

  3. Michio Kaku often butchers earthquake information, too. He is painful to watch. I'm not sure his commentary is not intended to be a comedy routine.

  4. Cliff-
    I lived in the Baltimore area in the 70's early 80s. I can remember skating 5 miles from our house out into the frozen Chesapeake in 1973 or 74. In 1980 We had 2 days of school in the month of February because of snow and ice. Until this year, i don't think they had had those extremes since. Climatology has always seemed cyclical to me. I think the real problem is that there are too many outlets on TV and online spouting "expert" opinion. I blame Ted Turner for this. He started (innocently) the CNN-ification of society. Nobody wants to KNOW anymore. They just want to be TOLD.

  5. Dr. Kaku is frequently asked to comment on topics he has little to no direct knowledge about. I blame not only news organizations that fail to differentiate between experts and poseurs, but these so-called experts themselves whom, seeing their own science diminish in the public eye (e.g, String Theory in Michio’s case), continue to come across as credible voices on anything scientific. The general public doesn’t know any difference between physicists so as long as news organizations have someone on that can sound like an expert, that's all well get. Shameful.

  6. I'm pretty sure the title of this post is a rhetorical question because it's obvious that the truth no longer matters; what does is sensationalism and "scripting" of events (weather, sports, politics, etc) to entice the masses to purchase advertised products.

  7. I note that with the taste of the 1970's style ice age cometh, no one uses "global warming" any more, it is "climate change". Note how the older term is no longer used by the people proclaiming how we have to destroy modern civilization and devastate the human population and have government micromanage everything.

    (Exactly what had to be done to prevent the coming ice age in the 1970's - amazing the prescription doesn't change with the disease - oh and the doctors had to be paid more to cure the impending doom before we all died).

    I wonder when someone will say "climate change" cause Mt. St. Helens to erupt? I think if Mt. Ranier follows it will change the climate. There are many volcanoes (Kamchatka?) which have been doing things over the last few years. And definitely changing the climate. But what is cause and effect - and who cares when so much is at stake?

    But get with the (Seattle) Times, and always use the term "Climate Change".

    That way if we all drown, dehydrate, freeze, or have heat stroke, it can be pinned on "Climate Change", just as any misfortune centuries ago meant there had to be witches. Say, didn't the Medieval warm period end about the time we started burning witches? Causality is a witch.

  8. a more rational assessment can be found at http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/02/13/3286821/winter-storm-pax/ that said, there is also the verbiage: “Of course, the atmosphere is now charged with more energy via extra heat and moisture than it used to have, so any storm that forms now has more fuel to work with.” Jennifer Francis, Rutgers. That seems indisputable to me and is what bothers me about the tendency of the yea sayers to say warming has nothing to do with current weather. that statement is almost as silly as the other side. of course it makes a difference if a system (climate and weather) which is just a heat engine starts events with more heat.

  9. Unfortunately, whether it's weather or sandwich bread, news isn't about selling accurate information, it's about selling controversy, fear and "validation of my point of view". This in itself is nothing new, even the town crier had to lead off with something juicy to get people's attention. And above all, they want to say "you heard it hear first."

  10. I have wondered about all this winter weather hype on the national news shows. I don't ever remember Walter Cronkite talking about the weather. It was just a given that winter in the east included periodic snow. I think that's why the native Floridians call New Yorkers Snowbirds.

  11. Good Olde Dave,
    That quote about "extra" energy is another handwaving statement without any basis in theory or fact. Weather system development is dependent on temperature GRADIENTS that weaken at low levels under global warming. I suspect you are not a meteorologist...cliff

  12. I suspect partly it's an attempt to counter the "see? It's cold! So much for global warming!" crowd. Misguided, but ultimately irrelevant, since the CO2 ship has already sailed. Hopefully the people who say a bit of warming will be a good thing are right, because otherwise we're pretty screwed.

  13. What I love to see is something like, "Forth largest storm in history caused by climate change." Wait, it's not the largest storm in history and that one happened 100 years ago. What caused that one?

  14. " people proclaiming how we have to destroy modern civilization and devastate the human population and have government micromanage everything."
    Nobody is proclaiming we have to destroy modern civilization. That's the whole point. We are technologically advanced enough that we can have civilization with an advanced standard of living, without polluting and destroying the environment.

  15. Certainly the case professor. …. virtually (certainly oftentimes) absent of much of anything provided / pointed to to examine more substantive. And so, as you've suggested certainly, a disservice ultimately.

    It's fairly plane to see what's contributed more generally, to "this winter's extreme weather" / the different stronger deliveries of colder air more directly south - of more Arctic origin, where looking at the Eastern two-thirds of the country this year. …. The persistence, along with general configuration of and where looking at the broader patterning of the Jet. — More than an yet more interesting sounding general assessment put forward as to the extent or variability of or where pondering, the buckling of the Jet, greater or lesser, with the persistence of the broader patterning west to east looked at more primarily, the more basic balancing out of the, if larger ridging west, set with adjacent if broader—and at times deeper—troughing east, should be the main focus being looked at as being more unique to this years colder season.

    My own view: .. Explain / account for .. the persistence of the ridging that we here in the West had been experiencing, and you'll have the truer answer and perspective where looking at and working to assess the reasons behind the greater troughing East.

    .. And so, all that it's brought.

  16. Cliff - What about the flooding in the United Kingdom that is unprecedented. Is it not related to climate change? Is there now greater variation in the global jet stream?

    Do you insist that there is not increasing climate variability over the past 50 years? What does the data say? I don't know - I'm just asking ---

  17. Robin
    There is no reason to expect that the storminess in England is the result of global warming. There is no increase in variability in the jet stream...I can give you some publications that show that if you wish. ...cliff mass

  18. The main problem is that there are two very distinct sides to this argument and it has become "us against them" and true science has been thrown out the window. Sad!

  19. An article of questionable merit in a newspaper? What IS the world coming to? Hmmmm.... Now kids, just you remember, anything written by humans is subjective - and if you don't believe me, I refer you to "Journalism in Tennessee" by Mark Twain.

  20. So is this Guardian story unsupportable sensationalistic gushing, or is there a more sound basis for this story? http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/feb/13/storms-floods-climate-change-upon-us-lord-stern

    I can sympathize with the frustration one feels when those not trained in scientific method make pronouncements which they claim to be scientific while implicitly demonstrating their ignorance. Particularly when they have achieved a position of influence.

  21. Dear ducttape, what make you think our schools have *ever* churn out masses of people with critical thinking skills? Don't forget that Bismark invented mass education in order to obtain soldiers more able to follow orders, not scientists. It will take another revolution in inter-generational culture propagation to inject critical thinking skills into the general populace.

    -- cynic

  22. More heat in the atmosphere and greater energy transfer could indeed lead to more meridional flow. This COULD lead to some unusual movement of arctic air during winter months.

    Not a lot of evidence yet, but its an idea definitely worth considering.

    As far as the deniers posting here, why dont you debate Cliff on why he thinks that Global warming (Climate Change) will be a major problem in the near future???

  23. And what about commenting on this one from the BBC?


  24. Michael Snyder,
    What is your basis for that statement? You just can't throw hypotheses out like that without some reasoning and back up with theory or the literature.

  25. For those quoting the BBC piece, it is referring to the SAME paper they all do--Francis and Varvus--which is based on a problematic methodology.


  26. Im more curious as to your thoughts on this, I dont have your access or your experience.

    Its just that at this point, a Hypothesis. A broad educated guess, not a scientific theory.
    As the overall temp of the planet increases, wouldn't it be a logical next step to see more energy transfer from the equator to the poles. Longwave ridging and troughing? More Meridional flow?

    Seems like a warming planet would end up with more extremes as temp gradients increased?

    If the poles are heating faster, there would be less heat transfer to the poles occurring? In which turn we would get more zonal flow?

    I think we need more discussion on what IS taking place, other then paying the media hype machine and the ridiculous claims that AGW ISNT going to be an issue all this attention.

    People want solid science, and if we discuss it enough, or have access to it enough it will seep into mainstream thinking easier that way.

    Do you have any articles you are working on now that we could see?

    Thanks for the discussion.

  27. I thought global warming, would and is, causing extreme shifts of weather...Isn't that what we are experiencing?...Melting ice caps...change in ocean currents?...geez, if we don't get our information from the media where do we get it...

  28. Michael Snyder,
    There is a deep literature on the issues you talk about. As the poles warm there will be a weaker temperature gradient at low levels...and such gradients drive weather systems. At high altitudes, the temp gradients increase as the equatorial regions perferentially warm. There is just so much that is not be communicated by the media...and you can't depend on simple hand waving hypotheses..most will not be valid..cliff mass

  29. Michael Snyder,
    There is a deep literature on the issues you talk about. As the poles warm there will be a weaker temperature gradient at low levels...and such gradients drive weather systems. At high altitudes, the temp gradients increase as the equatorial regions perferentially warm. There is just so much that is not be communicated by the media...and you can't depend on simple hand waving hypotheses..most will not be valid..cliff mass

  30. Cliff,

    Are there any observables at this time that can be used to address climate change?

    If so, what are they?

    If there are no observable effects, is there any argument that you would share that can be used to argue for the reduction of carbon emissions?


  31. What do you think of this?
    Wavier jet stream 'may drive weather shift'

    By Pallab Ghosh Science correspondent, BBC News, Chicago
    New research suggests that the main system that helps determine the weather over Northern Europe and North America may be changing.The study shows that the so-called jet stream has increasingly taken a longer, meandering path.This has resulted in weather remaining the same for more prolonged periods.The work was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago.The observation could be as a result of the recent warming of the Arctic. Temperatures there have been rising two to three times faster than the rest of the globe.According to Prof Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University in New Jersey: "This does seem to suggest that weather patterns are changing and people are noticing that the weather in their area is not what it used to be." The meandering jet stream has accounted for the recent stormy weather over the UK and the bitter winter weather in the US Mid-West remaining longer than it otherwise would have. "We can expect more of the same and we can expect it to happen more frequently," says Prof Francis
    The jet stream, as its name suggests, is a high-speed air current in the atmosphere that brings with it the weather.
    It is fuelled partly by the temperature differential between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes.
    If the differential is large then the jet stream speeds up, and like a river flowing down a steep hill, it ploughs through any obstacles - such as areas of high pressure that might be in its way.
    If the temperature differential reduces because of a warming Arctic then the jet stream weakens and, again, like a river on a flat bed, it will meander every time it comes across an obstacle.
    This results in weather patterns tending to becoming stuck over areas for weeks on end. It also drives cold weather further south and warm weather further north. Examples of the latter are Alaska and parts of Scandinavia, which have had exceptionally warm conditions this winter.

  32. I haave been a reader of your blog for some time now.

    I read these complaints from you about news coverage. But what I don't see or read is any effort on your part to educate either the journalists or the public.

    Where are the letters to the editors of the Seattle Times or the New York Times? Where are the feature articles written for the lay public to read to gain an understanding of the issue of bad reporting?

    Where are the televsion commentaries calling out these public errors?

    I doubt seriously that Carl Sagan would let such opportunities go by to educate the public.

    You have the credentials. Reach out and offer your expertise. Show how the other various commentators are wrong.

    Or else don't compain.

  33. The news media are not entirely to blame for the hyperbole.

    "Paralyzing" and "historic" were pushed for several cycles by the WPC at NCEP in reference to the icing events over the SE.

    432 AM EST WED FEB 12 2014

    VALID 12Z WED FEB 12 2014 - 12Z SAT FEB 15 2014


    413 AM EST MON FEB 10 2014

    VALID 12Z MON FEB 10 2014 - 12Z THU FEB 13 2014


    439 AM EST TUE FEB 11 2014

    VALID 12Z TUE FEB 11 2014 - 12Z FRI FEB 14 2014


  34. The Langly Hill radar right now shows (I think) the river from the Pacific.

  35. Don Carter,
    You say Cliff isn't educating the public and the media. What do you think this blog is about?
    Also, Cliff is on KPLU every Friday at 9 a.m. and talks with Bellamy Pailthorp who asks really good questions about the weather. Cliff often explains the science behind the weather, both here in the PNW and elsewhere.
    Cliff is definitely educating the public and in turn, the public can demand more from the media. That route is more likely to produce change.

  36. NY Times' Andrew Revkin has some useful followup on this, including a response by Jennifer Francis and more recent research indications by Charles Green:


    Scientific progress goes "boink!" :-)

  37. The key questions are are not being answered by the hype:

    * What is the rate of change, not just in a single number but with confidence intervals

    * Of that change, what amount can be attributed to human activity. Once again, confidence intervals please.

    * Given the above, what actions can be taken? What are their expected impacts? (again with confidence intervals) And how much will they cost?

    With this information it would be possible to at least have an intelligent debate about the merit of taking specific actions.

    It also goes that all of the above should be conducted with full transparency in method and data. If that bar is too high, then this debate has little to do with science and is nothing but an ideological pursuit.

  38. punchnrun -

    Well I'm pretty sure public education existed before Bismark. However, in one respect I will agree that it will take time to chip away at the current system which has evolved over the past 30-40years.

    Returning to a state/local model with no federal interference would be a good start. Couple that with focus on proven material and methods. From what I see common-core is rotten to the core. The focus is on 'what' not 'how'. But it goes beyond common core. The experimental programs in general, especially for the primary education are disasters. I consider myself a refugee from the Chicago math having worked hard since exiting that curriculum to actually learn something about math. I'm doing fine, but I often wonder how much better I'd have been in a traditional program during those formative years.

  39. The fact is that the debate has already happened on this blog and in this comment section with Jennifer Francis vigorously, and eloquently, defending the crux of the hypothesis that the current extreme events and blocking jet stream patterns are caused in part by Arctic warming.

    Dr. Masters disagrees.

    Thus this post and more like them in the future until the evidence becomes as irrefutable as anthropogenic global warming itself.

  40. The Daily Kos website now defines anyone who's not convinced that anthropogenic global warming has been proved as a "Republicsn troll."

    I was recently blocked from there for calling AGW a hypothesis; noting that the IPCC has had to recognize a 15-year "pause" in global warming; and posting a link to a statistical critique of the methodology that underlies the IPCC's climate modeling.

    I think it's a very major mistake for environmentalists (of which I am one) and Democrats (of which I am one) to put so many eggs in the AGW basket.

  41. chrisale -

    This is a quote from Fracis from this article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26023166

    "Our data to look at this effect is very short and so it is hard to get a very clear signal.

    "But as we have more data I do think we will start to see the influence of climate change."

    To paraphrase, there is no clear signal but she is 'hoping' at some point to make the conclusion that this was motivated by climate change. How very scientific!

    No references to methods, models or data. Not even a clear explanation of what is being measured.

  42. Cliff, I have a couple of questions:
    Is the hypothesis that Arctic ice reduction reduces the temperature gradient between the tropics and high latitudes which destabilizes the jet stream completely without merit or not supported by the current data?
    I recall reading an earlier paper in Scientific American by Charles Greene from Cornell that postulates that reduction in Arctic Ice reduction is causing the AO and NAO to flip from positive to negative which tends to drive the jet stream into a cold weather pattern. Didn't see much data to back it up but that may be in the more sophisticated journals. In addition there is a paper by James Screen that talks about increased precipitation in the UK caused by jet stream variations induced by Arctic Ice. He shows an interesting graph showing a time scale of precip in the UK that looks like the start of a hockey stick with an unprecedented streak of rainfall for the last six years which coincides with acceleration of the ice melt, too short to be conclusive but interesting. He also shows climate simulations with the UK Met Office Unified Model where they modify a single variable, arctic ice, and show a marked increase in jet stream oscillation. I have not seen any rebuttal to this paper and was wondering if this one has shortcomings as well? And as a follow up how reliable are these simulations?

  43. TQ-

    I'm not a fan of the NWS going to said lengths of using extensive adjectives to describe POTENTIAL conditions.

    But thats the direction the public seems to jive with recently. For years they have posted just the facts, and few listened.

    The new focus is on safety. If everyone is scared, stays off the roads, has supplies, and the event doesn't occur, the impact is minimal. If the opposite happens, its highly damaging.

    Never mind that despite warnings some places (NYC) ignore the reports and then blame the weather for lack of preparedness.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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