“The Weather Social” is a collaboration of weather and communication experts focused on narrowing the gap between scientific messages and society.

Communicating Climate Change: You Can Do It!

  • Apr 18, 2016

By Mike Nelson

I address this topic at some peril! In many ways, the job description for the TV weathercaster is to simply be the nice friendly person that tells you what the high was, how much rain will fall and what to expect next weekend.

I have found that especially in recent years, broaching the topic of global warming can stir up deep emotions within viewers and can bring some rather rough responses via email and Facebook.

Extreme drought, destructive wildfires, devastating floods, new records for the number of days over 90°F and 100°F — are these random events or are they related to global warming? Many of us as forecasters and broadcasters are asked to offer our thoughts and insight. Here are some of mine.

Climate change is complicated and sadly, controversial, but I am going to give you some background from my perspective after nearly 50 years of being a weather nut. Yes, I have been fascinated by weather and climate since grade school!

Over the course of time, I have been called many different things while talking and writing about this subject. From courageous to foolish, to “the Pied Piper of Anti-Science.” I appreciate the fact that viewers have many differing views and opinions on many issues and climate change is one topic that seems to bring a strong reaction.

Nonetheless, the TV meteorologist is often asked to provide their viewers with insight and explanations on earthquakes, meteors, comets, tsunamis and volcanoes. For many Americans, we are as close to a scientist as they will get, and they invite us into their living rooms. With that said, here we go!

Weather is NOT Climate

It is very important to realize that a heat-wave, tornado outbreak, record flood or major blizzard is not climate — it is weather! The weather goes through tremendous fluctuations from day to day and even hour to hour, let alone over the course of weeks, months or even years.

These weather changes have been happening for millions of years and will continue for millions more. Nonetheless, we are now seeing trends that are consistent with a warming of the Earth.

Experts at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) have shown that 90-95 percent of what we see in the wide variety of weather is due to natural variability. The remaining 5-10 percent is due to the warming of the planet due to an increase in various greenhouse gases.

A good analogy for this is to consider the impact of steroid use by a professional athlete. The talent and work ethic of the athlete is responsible of 90-95 percent of what we witness on the playing field. The added “juice” of steroids accounts for that extra power that can result in faster times or more home runs.

Of course, 5-10 percent of the change may not seem like much, but consider what that can mean in terms of tangible measurements. A 5-10 percent drop in crop yields over the long haul would have a huge impact on agribusiness in Colorado and across the nation. A 5-10 percent drop in snowpack in future decades would be a major concern for Colorado and the West. A 5-10 percent increase in insurance losses from weather would amount to billions of dollars over the long term.

Even though an individual severe weather event cannot be blamed on global warming, a warmer climate “juices” the atmosphere and may bring more frequent severe weather events in the future.

Warmer average temperatures in the western U.S. will likely be manifest in more drought and fire concerns in the decades to come. If we are located far away from large bodies of water, higher temperatures here are not usually associated with increased humidity — in fact, just the opposite.

With a gradual warming of the planet, our regional climate is likely to become drier on average over the next 100 years. The result will be more wildfires, lower reservoirs and more frequent droughts.

A Cold Winter Does Not Mean There Is No Global Warming

Global temperature analysis, 2014.


There are often comments and questions about global warming when unusual regional weather events occur, such as snow in Las Vegas or extreme cold weather this past winter in the eastern U.S. It is important to understand that short term weather is to climate as one play in a football game is to the entire NFL season — or perhaps even the history of the NFL.

For example, the extreme episodes of cold and snow in southern locales is due to a southern bulge in the circumpolar vortex, bringing the chilly air down from Alaska and Canada into the lower 48 states.

Often, while portions of the lower 48 states are shivering, Fairbanks has mild weather for their area. When that vortex drifts back to the north, Fairbanks returns to very cold and the lower 48 warm back up. The warming is impacting the far northern latitudes much faster than in the mid lower latitudes. But on a global average, we are seeing a warming of the planet by over 1.5°F since 1900.

The World Has Not Warmed Since 1998

There is an often quoted issue of 1998 being the warmest year and that global temperatures have not warmed since that time. This information is misleading. In 1998, the world climate was influenced by one of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded. The oceans have an enormous capacity to absorb heat and much of the global warming we are seeing is going into the oceans. This is causing sea levels to rise and the increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) is changing the chemistry of the water – making it more acidic.

After that strong El Niño, sea surface temperatures had not been as warm. The increase in overall heat for the global system was still happening, but more of the energy was being stored in the ocean, not in the atmosphere.

In the past year, global temperatures soared to new record highs as we have been back in strong El Niño conditions. These cycles will continue to cause the overall warming to occur in stair steps, not a steady ramp up of temperatures from year to year.

But in the 1970s, They Said the Earth Was Cooling

I did my meteorology training at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the 1970s. At that time, Dr. Reid Bryson, one of the founders of the UW Meteorology Department was lecturing about the prospect of a “New Ice Age.” The cause, Bryson theorized, was due to the increase in tiny particles of smoke and dust during the Industrial Revolution.

The increase in atmospheric aerosols would block incoming sunlight like a dirty window. It was from that theory that several magazines ran feature articles about “global cooling.” It stands to reason that folks would be concerned about such an about face in 40 years.

In fact, even at the time, most researchers, including Bryson, felt that the increase in CO2 would eventually offset this “dirty window” effect and the climate would begin to warm. This is an important point, as many anthropogenic global warming skeptics still bring up the “1970s Global Cooling Theory” as an argument that the current consensus among climate scientists has been an “about face” from the 1970s.

Here is an article about this from the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

The Fate of the Arctic Ice…

Another major complication for our future climate will be the fate of the sea ice in the Arctic. Satellite measurements since the late 1970s have shown that the sea ice has dramatically diminished and has reached a record low as of late summer 2012. In 2013, the ice was slightly greater in coverage, but still well below the long term average.

Although sea ice does grow and shrink due to natural cycles, it appears that the current state of the ice is near historic lows. Anecdotal records from indigenous peoples and 19th century sailors show that the melting of the ice, as well as the surrounding permafrost, indicate a dramatic warming of the northern latitudes.

The sea ice is highly reflective; dark open ocean is just the opposite. As more of the Arctic remains open, the waters will warm and this may play a significant role in altering the phases and intensity of many ocean circulations.

My Personal Thoughts

I am not a climate scientist; my expertise lies in a much, much shorter time-frame. However, I spend a great deal of time online and at seminars with many of the best climate scientists from NCAR and other research institutes from around the world.

My opinion is that we are indeed having a major impact on the warming of our climate, and this will make weather events more extreme. With a greater amount of energy in the climate system, there will be drier droughts, heavier rains (although more spotty), bigger winter storms and more powerful severe weather events.

Remember, 90-95 percent of what we see is within the normal variability of weather. It is that extra 5-10 percent, the “steroid” effect that is making a drought just a little drier, a heat wave just that much hotter, a winter just slightly less cold.

Waxing Philosophical 

My mother was a heavy smoker in the 1960s. As a child, I remember seeing white-coated scientists claim that there was not a definite link between smoking and lung cancer. I lost her to that disease 10 years ago.

My sister spent a lot of time in tanning booths in the 1980s. Again, there were plenty of “experts” that stated the rays from the tanning beds were different and actually “good” for you. She died three years ago from metastatic melanoma.

It is okay to have differing opinions — it is even a good thing, if the motives are purely science based.

It is very important that we develop the will to take action for the future. We will need to develop and use new technology to bring ever increasing efficiency to our society, here in the U.S. and around the world.

Through a more efficient use of our fuels and the development of better renewable sources of energy, we will be able to limit the amount of greenhouse gases released, while still enabling our complex technological society to function and thrive.

Our choice as Americans and citizens of Earth is to decide what priority we assign to this 510 percent change in our climate. Where does this fit into the decisions we must make for our future energy and environmental policies?

Our Very Special Planet

When the Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space, reached the top of our atmosphere and gazed out of his small porthole, he was terrified. He was not worried about his spacecraft, he was shocked by how thin and fragile our atmosphere appeared against the cold blackness of space.

Gagarin later explained that he had always been taught that we lived at the bottom of a “great ocean” of air. From his tiny spacecraft, the ocean looked more like a shallow puddle.

As far as we know, out of the vastness of the universe, the planet Earth is the only place that harbors life. Someday we may find other worlds that provide an environment gentle enough to enable life to form, but for now, this is it, our lonely outpost in the corner of a galaxy.

It seems prudent, patriotic and reverent that we do what we can to conserve and protect the fragile envelope of air that allows us to live on planet Earth. The legacy we leave future generations depends upon the actions we take in the coming years. Our heirs will be the judges of our success.

We will need to urge our leaders to take action to inspire the development of both new and cleaner ways to produce energy. In the event it turns out that humans are just too feeble to affect the climate, we will still be better off, as will our grandchildren that we helped advance the technology to produce cleaner, renewable and more varied energy sources.

Reducing pollution and the dependence on foreign energy sources should be something upon which all Americans should find common ground.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson in 1789, “I say the Earth belongs to each generation during its course, fully and in its own right, and no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this!

This originally appeared on The Weather Social.