Lets start with a poem:
Whether the weather be hot
Or whether the weather be cold
We’ll weather the weather together
Whatever the weather may hold.
Ok that’s not the original poem its my version the original goes:
Whether the weather be fine
Or whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold
Or whether the weather be hot,
We’ll weather the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not.
Either way what’s up with this weather? Is it global warming? Is it El Niño? Is it an ice age? Is the Sun getting ready to blast us with cosmic gamma rays that melt our planet? (Its probably not the last couple)
It is getting a bit warmer out there than it should be and that’s, in short, global warming. Add to that the awesomely strong El Niño thats going on right now and you can expect some interesting weather. Any time I try to talk about weather and climate stuff people shut down; they don’t view it as a valid science that has any proven track record and I can understand the perception. Weather and climate studies are using measurements of a large scale dynamic fluid system in order to attempt to explain and predict future phenomena in small scale location and time frame. That’s not easy! and while it is totally sound science it has a lot of probability involved. When we learn about weather in school it gets presented like a Rube Goldberg chain of events that starts (for our weather) on the West Coast of the US and progresses across the country on a conveyor belt to bring us an expected result a few days later. The problem is that weather is more like a bunch of Rube Goldberg devices all criss crossing each other and with multiple possible outcomes to each one. If you don’t want to try to visualize the enormous mess of marble mazes and mouse traps with candles and string and breaking eggs that I’m imagining now, you could try this little demo at home to illustrate my point. Take a large cooking pot and fill it with water. Also grab a regular “I’m gonna eat some soup with this” tablespoon. Take both outside and find a spot that is ok to get wet. Start by setting the spoon on the ground in this nice safe splash zone. Take your large pot of water hold it really close to the spoon and try to fill up the spoon with water without spilling any or missing the spoon. You might be semi successful if you are really careful and started close enough.
Spoiler Alert! DO NOT READ until after you do the demo!
This would be like a hour by hour local forecast. The further away from the spoon you move the pot the harder it is to fill the spoon without spilling or missing altogether. Why? What’s up with that? Shouldn’t we be able to figure out how to pour a little water from a pot into a spoon? I mean that seems pretty simple when you think about it but the reality is that fluids just aren’t that easy to predict especially when they are interacting with other fluids like the air you were pouring the water through. That’s a fluid too and it acts on the water that you were pouring to mess with it even more so it doesn’t just pour where you aim it. If you ran back inside and got another large pot and tried pouring from the one pot into the other I bet you could do it pretty well, and without many misses or overflows.
Climate is the average of lots of weather; its the big pot of weather that we get over the long term, and it turns out that even though understanding, measuring, and making predictions of how fluids move and interact is pretty tricky to do on the small scale, it gets much easier to understand when you look at large scale averages. Its a great reminder of how messy science is and how it will not always give you the answer or result you were hoping for but if you persist and gather enough data eventually you should get a reasonable understanding of how things work.
And that brings us to the whole climate change and El Niño issue. I know that my weather forecaster rarely gets it completely right but that doesn’t mean that climate scientists do not have an understanding of how these events occur and what causes them. Those are issues for another day and another discussion though. Today was just about the messiness of science, the idea that we can deal in probabilities and still know things and that maybe if everyone went outside and played with more science we could help the common perception of science change from one of absolute knowledge to one of fluid splishy-splashy messiness.