“What gets us into trouble is not…”

Whatever opinion anyone may have about science, what is indisputable is that modern humans simply could not exist without it. Even groups who chose to reject science as a way of life cannot be 100% free of it, but I’m not going down that long and winding road which ends up pointing out the many benefits of science enjoyed by people who are hostile to it. Those in who hold anti-vaccine or climate-skeptic ideals are not necessarily anti-science, so that debate would be unhelpful.

It is fascinating to me why people do reject certain aspects of science or even the scientific process outright. After-all, science conducted honestly and methodically is the pursuit of the absolute truth. But this is where I think science is its own worst enemy – and that’s due to people tending to pick out their own truths that back up their beliefs.

I’ve engaged in plenty of debates, and also read books, articles and watched documentaries on both sides of the argument, especially on the issue of climate change.  I admit that when I read/hear/watch something presented on behalf of climate skepticism, I can’t help but face-palm on frequent occasion. When I chose to study Environmental Sciences for my bachelors degree, I never took it with any particular agenda or objective – I just loved learning about the planet and how it worked. I then specialised in meteorology as I simply loved looking up into the sky and wondered how it all worked. And then, in my final year, I took modules in climatology and climate change because it was a modern day issue which fascinated me. Indeed, I remember one lecturer with a very strong scouse accent called Prof Keith Briffa* scolding our class because none of us were being critical enough with the climate data he was presenting us. He was a scientist who wanted to ensure his charges were learning proper scientific process: logical, critical and objective. There should be no room for subjectivity or cherry-picking.

And then onto my career as a teacher. One of the main mantras that guides my professional conduct is the famous quote from Mark Twain: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” I consider teaching untruths or misconceptions as facts not only poor practice, but down-right irresponsible and neglectful. So if there is something I am not sure about, I will say so to a class, and I will go though a ‘scientific process’ of my own by investigating the truth, logically, critically and objectively. And if I find that something is still in-question or uncertain, I will communicate those uncertainties also. My placement here at NOAA Boulder has me seeing the determination and passion in the scientific process by the people who work here. I admire them immensely. When it seems we are living in a period of hostility towards the process, fake news and post-truths, they solider on in pursuit of absolute truths.

And so, it makes the mind-set of certain science rejection baffling. It’s ironic but far from surprising that science is trying to understand why people reject science!

I also don’t buy that religion and science aren’t compatible, and I say that as an atheist. History shows that the two have often been entwined as often as they have been in oppostion. Someone who I admire, one of my ex-professors and climate scientist Mike Hulme, is a stout evangelical Christian. Attending his outreach talks about the issue has been very enlightening as he is very articulate especially when it comes to questions from the floor about how he ‘balances’ being religious and a scientist. But he doesn’t balance them at all, for him they coexist.

NOAA GMD’s scientific contribution

Now to bridge topics. Thanks to Russ Schnell for making us here aware of this article of a group of politicians visiting our (NOAA’s) Barrow Observatory in Alaska. I think the article sums up sentiments about climate change science quiet nicely, at least from through a US political frame. It also is another example of scientists here reaching out to publicise the work they are doing and why it needs to continue. Last Thursday was the 2nd set of talks from NOAA GMD staff regarding this work (I blogged about the first set), and the messages continue to be clear. Again it was obvious to me that all this research is exceptional value for tax-payers money, and the investment brought in by NOAA’s collaborators. But don’t take my word for it, if you read the article I signposted at the top of this paragraph, you’ll note that some Republican politicians agree too.

Firstly, John Augustine was very articulate about the benefits and applications of SURFRAD (a network of instruments which measure incoming and outgoing solar radiation) one of which, I didn’t realise but makes total sense, is to ensure that readings from the new GOES-R satellite are validated. I have learnt since being at NOAA that satellites although exceptionally powerful and useful can be pretty inaccurate unless their readings are constantly verified and their biases accounted for. So to those who may think that we can cut down on ground measurements because satellites can do them better and more accurately, they are pretty much missing the point. If you want accurate readings, you need to be able to cross-check and verify through a variety of methods. Satellites need ground-based observations to be more effective. (Cloud cover, anyone?) One of the other useful products of SURFRAD to provide information of solar insolation over North America, so the potential for solar energy can be better exploited. And according to my research, solar energy is something both sides of the US political spectrum would quite like to explore.

A map of solar energy potential produced thanks to the data provided by SURFRAD and SOLRAD. This clearly has very useful applications when it comes to potential solar power infrastructure. Credit: Jonathan Augustine.

Johnathan ended with a good quote from Dr Bruce Wielicki (NASA): “Without SURFRAD, we would rely on satellites alone for radiation data over the US; this would mean more supposition and speculation, and less sound analysis and prediction.”

Next up, Arlyn Andrews gave an overview on behalf of the part of GMD that I’m attached to, the Carbon Cycle group. There was a focus on the development of the Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases monitoring network, which is now seen as both the ‘backbone’ of the North American Carbon Program and a major contributor to the World Data Centre for Greenhouse Gases, lead by the Japanese Meteorological Agency. I also liked the message of collaboration, and that is certainly something I have observed myself (a good example being the vertical profile flight I took after only my 3rd day on placement).

A slide from Arlyn’s presentation showing the some of the many collaborators that supplement the network sampling greenhouse gases. Credit: Arlyn Andrews.

True to my earlier mention regarding the pursuit of truth, Arlyn was also clear about the limitations that need addressing in the Carbon Cycle network, for projects like CarbonTracker among others. Something on the ‘wish list’ is to have more frequent air samples taken from aircraft rather than rely on modelling. A big coup would to have commercial airlines sign up to collect air samples by having sampling packages on board. There are schemes in Japan and one potentially starting up in Europe, so why not North America by way of domestic flights? Products like CarbonTracker, which have the potential to be exceptionally powerful, can then be more reliable as a decision making tool for stakeholders in tracking carbon emissions, movements and sinks.

On another related note – I quickly came to see Arlyn as the embodiment of how passionate everyone here is. While others may come across dry or mellow (which is misleading) at meetings or talks, Arlyn is overtly passionate and proud of the work that is done, and clearly motivated to progress onto next steps. Although there are plenty out there, I personally think the more passionate communicators about climate science are out there, the better.

Always take the weather with you

If you could have just one perfect example of the benefits of science to the general public, then it’s weather forecasting. Weather is a component of climate, but the two often get confused (I like this rather humourous attempt trying to address this misconception!). With that in mind, what I find borderline hilarious is that plenty of people put faith in the weather forecast, but can be dismissive of climate projections, despite the fact that the weather is actually more tricky to forecast than the climate.

A couple of weeks ago I sat in with the Denver branch of the National Weather Service, housed here at NOAA Boulder. Weather forecasters do more than just help you decide whether you take a coat with you to work or slap some sun-cream on, their work is absolutely integral to the logistically-driven way of life that we all lead.

I sat mostly with Chad Gimmestead, who was not shy at all at showing a ‘geek’ level of enjoyment of what he does (for that I was grateful!). The NWS has monitors all over the place and each person commands at least three maybe more monitors on their desk. Chad was looking at wind patterns based on radar reflections. On the day I was visiting, he and some members of the team were keeping an eye on gusty conditions which could prove challenging for the operations at Denver International Airport (DIA). This NWS office works very closely with DIA. Chad gestered to a large screen mounted on the wall which showed a flight tracker centered on DIA, and lo-and-behold all the aircraft were approaching or departing the runaways in a direction that suited the gusty westerly wind conditions. Monitoring the winds is also important for other groups. Which way might that forest fire spread? The fire department best know. Or even planned controlled burns… wouldn’t want that controlled burn to make its way to a house or two thanks to the wind (whoops!). Or maybe the gas company needs a bit of help tracking a local gas leak? These are all just a small number of examples based on wind conditions.

Chad showed me a range of displays, and although for me having a degree with a meteorology focus and being a weather nut myself, I had to study them hard to get the gist of what they were showing. It’s an impressive amount of coded information that meteorologists have to read, analyse, digest and act upon – and often those displays are in animation!

Chad also showed me how he can tell the system to generate a weather warning which will be automatically generated and published on the NWS website. He chose a small storm system and pretended that it was judged to be something that could turn nasty – heavy downpours and the like. So on the radar he traced out a cone of the likely path it could take and then on a hazard menu selected a few radio buttons and conditions from drop-down menus and voila! One automatically generated weather warning (storm conditions, downpours, for the areas of … moving north-east etc). Chad was ultra careful to not execute the command to publish it! That automated text would also be ‘read out’ by an automated NWS weather radio forecast for the area. And I admit, I’m a bit of a geek with these automated radio forecasts and like a listen every now and then – check it out for yourself. 🙂

Mike Baker is a very charismatic man and loves to speak to tour groups. But he like all in the office take their job seriously. Here Mike is testing out the automated weather radio broadcast. The NOAA NWS weather radio broadcasts around the 160Mhz VHF band giving local weather forecasts. But it also used to broadcast weather warnings.

Thanks for sticking with this update – it had been on the back burner for a few days and I wanted to get it right, or at least readable!

A belated thanks to Nezette Rydell and the team in the NWS Denver office for the visit and allowing me to look over shoulders!

*It wasn’t until I was proof-reading this entry and checking my citations that I found out that Professor Briffa died a few weeks ago. So I would like to pay tribute and say that he was one of the most inspirational and influential people I had the pleasure of being taught by at the University of East Anglia. My friends and I would affectionately mimic his scouse accent (I can never say “dendrochronology” without going Liverpudian!). By extension, if it wasn’t for Keith and his colleagues at the Climatic Research Unit, I probably wouldn’t be here at NOAA. Keith – thank you on behalf of planet Earth for everything you’ve done. Your efforts will certainly leave a legacy for us to work on. RIP. 


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