TCS Daily


Holy Flying Cow!

By Nick Schulz - February 17, 2006 12:00 AM

Nick Schulz: Dr. Randy Cerveny is editor of the popular national weather magazine, 'Weatherwise'. He teaches weather and climate at Arizona State University and he is the author of a new book, 'Freaks of the Storm: From Flying Cows to Stealing Thunder, the World's Strangest True Weather Events.' And he also recently authored a chapter on severe weather and disasters in a new book called 'Shattered Consensus: The True State of Global Warming.' Randy, thanks for joining us today.

Randy Cerveny: My pleasure.

Schulz: Your book is about what you call "weather oddities". How do you define weather oddities?

Cerveny: Weather oddities are things that are unusual that get noticed. The phrase 'freaks of the storm' actually is a phrase that dates back to the early part of the last century where the newspapers of the time, if there was a tornado or storm of some kind that went through an area, they would pounce on all the strange events like flying cows or destroyed buildings and that type of thing and they would label it 'freaks of the storm.' And I was fascinated by that and found out that actually a lot of people are fascinated by that, so I proceeded to try get a collection of them.

Schulz: You collected a fairly sizable database of these odd weather events. How did you assemble it and how big is it?

Cerveny: Well, right now, it's an ongoing project. I'm over 8,000 entries in my database right now.

But actually, the origins of the database are due to the fact that I get called to do a lot of legal cases, such as - and sometimes pretty odd legal cases such as where a dust storm might come through an area and destroy a building. Well, as part of that legal case, they need to know how often did dust storm do damage, do they destroy buildings and that type of thing. So, I started putting together a collection of all of these things in order, primarily to help me determine how frequently do some of these oddities occur?

Schulz: What's your sense of how good the data are so far that you have?

Cerveny: Well, of course that's the big problem with working with historical data is that it is worse as you go earlier back into time. You have to rely more on observer reports and less on actual numbers from thermometers and weather balloons and that type of thing. So, unfortunately, that's just a hazard of the job is that the quality is going to get worse the earlier in time you get.

Schulz: Is there a point at which either scientists or scholars or historians or folks like yourself started recording these in some systematic way?

Cerveny: For the globe, most of the weather records that exist in the world, go back to around the 1870s, not too much earlier than that - actual weather records, because that marks the point at which we started to have governments forming National Weather Services and became depositories of that kind of information. And that's an important thing is that when you hear of various records being set -- he hottest temperature, the coldest temperature, a blizzard, that type of thing -- generally it's a record of the last 150 years. That we don't have good records of individual events that go back beyond that.

Schulz: In the beginning of you book, you mention that you're from a small town in Nebraska called Fairbury, is that right?

Cerveny: Yes.

Schulz: And that you used to have sporadic blizzards and thunderstorms, tornadoes, heat waves -- and this is partly what got you interested in weather and the importance of weather in people's lives. Are there some areas that are particularly prone to, for lack of a better word, freaky weather?

Cerveny: Well, every place has it's own particular type of things that can happen. So, one of the things that I tried to make a point in the book, the very last chapter, I pick a freaky weather story that has occurred for each one of the 50 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as well. To demonstrate that this kind of situation, these freaky events, can happen anywhere.

But you're right, some things, like tornadoes and such are going to be more prevalent in the Great Plains and blizzards are going to be more in the Northern Plains and if you get down into the Gulf states, you're going to have more stories that are associated with hurricanes. So there are specific types of weather that are found in different areas, but frankly, every place has its own freakiness.

Schulz: Do you have a favorite freak weather event story?

Cerveny: Well, probably the one that I find the most intriguing is there was this woman in Missouri who, back in the 1800s was interviewed after a tornado went through her town. She had actually been picked up by the tornado and carried into the funnel and she told the reporter at the time, that as she was up in the tunnel - or in the funnel, she actually distinctly remembers grabbing hold of something and yanking on it. And as she fell out of the funnel cloud, and was uninjured actually when she hit and was recovering and the rescuers came up to her, she opened her hand and she found that her hand was full of horse hair. That basically what she had done is in the funnel, she had actually grabbed a horse's tail and pulled on it and part of the hair had come off. Believe it or not, not only did she survive the tornado, but they later found that the horse itself, that had been up in the tornado had actually survived as well.

Schulz: And he was missing a clump of his tail hair.

Cerveny: Apparently so.

Schulz: It's become the case that weather - or, more specifically, climate -- has become a politically charged area -- mostly having have to do with whether or not mankind influences climate. You write in your book that the idea that man influences his climate is not new. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Cerveny: Weather is such an integral part of their lives that people tend to have this idea that consequently they immediately have an impact. Well, we do have an impact. That's been shown scientifically that we do have an impact.

But even as far back as the discovery of the Americas and the colonization of the West Indies and the Caribbean area, people were thinking that they were having an impact on the weather. For example, there were historical reports by the Spanish that suggested that because we were colonizing that particular area, there were more hurricanes that were happening. Well, the likelihood is that this early 1500s were a period of greater hurricane activity, but like we're kind of experiencing today, there's likely also natural cycles that occur in that, so it's difficult to say whether people - just the presence of people themselves, would influence something like that.

Schulz: Now, you have a quote from in the book from John Von Neumann, that I had not heard before, but it really jumped out at me as something that helps, I think, frame for people how complex and complicated climate is...

Cerveny: Yes, page 307. Von Neumann said that, "Without a doubt, meteorology is the most complicated theories of interrelated problems, not only that we know of, but that we can imagine." And that -

Schulz: And that's particularly striking coming from him. Maybe not all of our readers or listeners know who John Von Neumann is, so maybe you can -

Cerveny: He actually is considered to be the father of the modern computer and in fact, it's interesting, whenever they get a new series of higher speed, better computers, one of the very first things that they will do with computers is to test out new weather model in it.

Because weather models are so intensive in terms of the amount of power that they need in order to take into account all the variables that make up our weather. It is really, one of the most complex problems that we can possibly try to solve.

Schulz: What in your view, is the link, that we know of, between man's activities and climate?

Cerveny: Well, I've actually demonstrated in some of my technical articles that people have an impact at the local level. That cities, for example, are warmer than the surrounding countryside.

Schulz: That's the so-called 'heat island' effect?

Cerveny: Right, the urban heat island effect. Here in Phoenix, Arizona for example, the temperature that we have in the airport which is in the center of town, is generally about five to seven degrees warmer at night than it is out at the surrounding areas. And that's due to the fact that the concrete and the asphalt absorb all of this heat and then release it during the night, so that that central part of the city becomes much warmer. Now, that's solely due to us, I mean, that's not a natural type phenomenon.

Schulz: But that's at a local level.

Cerveny: That's at the local level. I also, as I started to say, had done some research with a colleague of mine where we demonstrated that people are apparently having an impact at a regional level. That off the coast of the United States, the Eastern seaboard of the United States, we demonstrated pretty conclusively, that it rains more on the weekends than it does on the week days. And this is due to human activity.

And the reason is because in nature there is no such thing as a seven day cycle. The seven day cycle is manmade. It's something that we created as part of our civilization.

So, if you find seven day cycles in nature, the likelihood is that it's something that we've done. Well, we've found seven day cycles in rainfall off the Eastern seaboard. We were able to link it back to pollution. That as pollution during the week builds up and reaches a maximum towards Friday and Saturday and then gets pushed off into the Atlantic Ocean, that pollution acts to produce more rainfall, so it's kind of odd, but at a regional scale, all along the Eastern seaboard we tend to find that just off shore, weekends are going to be rainier.

Schulz: Now what on the global level would we be able to say is influenced or caused by mankind's activities?

Cerveny: Well, that's the difficult question. Monitoring stations at Hawaii and the South Pole and other locations have shown that we are increasing the amount of the greenhouse gases. Gases like carbon dioxide and CFCs and so on, that are actually used to kind of absorb heat in our atmosphere. Without a doubt that is increasing. The trouble that we have is pinpointing that rise in those gases to distinctly different parts of the globe. Because as we were saying, the climate problem is so complex the interrelationships - what we call feedbacks are so difficult to make sure that you're charting them all, that is - becomes very difficult to say, doing X causes Y because there's a lot of intermediate steps, so. A lot of scientists do believe that the increase in global levels of carbon dioxide and other gases is causing distinct changes in our climate and are causing the warming of the Arctic. Others disagree with that.

Schulz: Computers are getting better and our precision is getting better but how much more do we need to know that to know something's conclusively or is it just so complex we'll only have a certain degree of certainty?

Cerveny: Yes, we'll never be absolutely certain. I mean, that is one critical fact. The more data that we collect, the stronger our estimates of what's going to happen can be. That's again what we were talking about earlier, the idea that these records only go back towards 150 years for basic things like temperature and even much less for things like hurricanes. We only have really, a good database of hurricane activity that goes back to about 1970, 1960. So, that becomes problematic as to looking at short periods of time and then extrapolating into the future, you may be missing, as we were talking about earlier, some of these natural cycles that are present in the data.

Schulz: Right, and we know from - not from mankind's record keeping, but from other indices that we find a mention that there've been enormous shifts in climate over time that wouldn't have anything to do, necessarily with mankind's activities or industrialization. How much better are we getting at teasing out things like natural variability from mankind's effect or is the difference small enough that as yet it's difficult to tease that out?

Cerveny: It depends on what you're looking at. The different variables are going to have different contributing factors. And the other thing again is the timeframe that we're looking at. As you mentioned we have had climate shifts that have taken place in historical times that are quite definitely not the result of human activity. The one that comes to mind most vividly is something that's called the little ice age. It was a period of much colder temperatures around the world that basically went from about 1550 to 1850. And there are a lot of scientists that suggest that that was caused due to some changes in solar output resulting from the sun spot cycle as such.

But, the critical question that some scientists have is that after 1850, of course, we started to warm up, we were coming out of that cold period. We had apparently an increase in solar flux due to an increased set of sun spot cycles. Again, the sun spot cycles were basically shut down for that 300 year period. Now, they're actually increasing again.

And how much of the current situation that we are in, is the result of the industrial revolution, obviously some of it is, but also how much of it is due just simply to a recovering from this extremely cold period that was associated with the little ice age.

Schulz: You mentioned just a moment ago hurricanes. I'd just like to talk for a minute about extreme weather events and man's activities or questions of climate - anthropogenic climate change. Is there, as far as you know, a connection that we know of between say recent extreme events like the hurricanes in the Gulf this time. Hurricane Katrina, for example. And mankind's activities - how much do we know about that?

Cerveny: I think we can say pretty clearly that any one event isn't likely to be the result of human activity. The occurrence of an event, like a hurricane. Now, if you look at it as a natural disaster, it quite definitely is human related. The fact that we've got more people living on coastal areas means that any storm, whether it's a big storm or a little storm, is more likely to cause damage. And so, one of the fundamental things that is true are we are having more natural disaster today than we have been having in the past. The key is how do you define a natural disaster?

A natural disaster is something happens to people. Well, the fact is, we've got more people in places that are struck by these kinds of environmental events. Now, is the 2005 hurricane season the - which is the biggest hurricane season we've had in the Atlantic ocean the result of global warming? There are some scientists that say, yes, it was impacted by global warming. There are other scientists that equally vehemently say that it was the result of natural cycles.

That we're getting back into a stage that was more like the '60s and '70s. The hurricane activity tends to go in roughly a large 20 year cycle of activity followed by 20 years of less activity. And since the '80s and '90s were relatively speaking, low activity in the Atlantic, the first two centuries - first two decades of this century are likely to be higher activity. That's one thing - but on top of that, some modeling studies suggest that there is some impact by these increasing levels of carbon dioxide.

Schulz: What about other, not hurricanes, but other freak events like tornados or tsunamis? How confident are we that these have anything to do with anthropogenic climate change?

Cerveny: Well, tsunamis aren't. Tsunamis are the result of undersea earthquakes. And so, that's something that involves this whole thing called plate tectonics and is not related to frankly, anything that we can do to either predict them or even stop them or anything along those lines.

When it goes to other phenomenon, it's always interesting with the 24/7 news coverage that we have, obviously the stuff that gets covered tends to be the exciting stuff of natural disasters and the lack of a natural disaster doesn't get played up. And I've found it somewhat intriguing that a lot of news media sources were saying that the 2005 hurricane season in the Atlantic, you know, is this evidence of global climate change and yet, they don't then, if they're making that conclusion, say that the 2005 tornado season, which was actually one of the weakest that we've had on record particularly during May, June and July of this past year when there were no deaths according to the severe storms prediction center of people dying from tornadoes. So, if you're, you know, going to say the one thing is, you know, you've got to be fair, well then, then that would suggest that - I tend to be hopefully, a little bit broader based and say the likelihood is that any one season or any one event isn't the result of, you know, anything that we can basically do to modify that. With that said, by the way, though, that we have attempted actually legitimately tried experiments to change climate. Back in the '60s, we were trying to make hurricanes weaker than they are. There was a military project called Project Storm Fury, whose mission was to cloud seed hurricanes and try to force them to rain themselves out so that they would be weaker before they hit land. So, we have actually tried to do that kind of thing.

Schulz: And with any success? Or what was the result?

Cerveny: Well, that's just it. It was very, very hard to determine whether they were having an impact or not. And so, particularly after some criteria that they set up were hard to come up with - exactly how far away does the hurricane have to be before we try to do that? What if the hurricane starts to intensify as it's getting close to shore right when we were cloud seeding it, could that be - could we be held liable and this type of a - The ramifications of what they were doing were so great that the government decided that it wasn't in their best interest to continue the project, so it was shut down in the '70s.

Schulz: But is it your sense, in principle, that efforts at climate engineering would be something that's doable, going forward?

Cerveny: Doable? Maybe. Should we do that? That's another question because as we're talking about, the climate system is one of the most complex things that we can imagine and if we're messing with things that we really don't understand all of the ramifications of messing with it. It could lead to unintended consequences. For example, hurricanes are generally thought to be bad things and yet, the water needed in Florida, a lot of the water for the Everglades, for example, is the result of tropical storm activity. Well, if you shut down tropical storm activity, you're going to have a ecological disaster in the Everglades on your hands in Florida, so. We have to be aware that, if things like hurricanes, tornados and such, aren't good or bad, except how we perceive them; and we have to look at all the ramifications that are associated with changing those kind of phenomenon.

Schulz: You divide up your book in the chapters on different weather phenomenon, such as hail or tornados and lightning and at the end of each chapter you offer safety tips for those.

I'm wondering if you can broaden that a bit. As a society, is there a sort of, a way to prepare against freak weather incidents and extreme climate and the like, not just tailored to say one specific thing or the other, but in a sort of general sense?

Cerveny: Well, I think the key, and hopefully this is what the book is trying to do, is that people need to be aware of all the different kinds of weather that can occur and not be surprised by it. It means that even right now, before this next season's hurricane season or this next season's tornado season, people should take stock of where they are at, what kind of things can happen in that particular area and prepare for worst case possible scenarios. If you prepare for the worst case, you're not going to be surprised by anything and the likelihood is, you can survive that particular situation and hopefully in such a manner that I won't have a chance to write you up as a weird weather story in the future.

Schulz: I hope not. I think my goal going forward is to stay out of your book, but I highly recommend that our readers and listeners get it. It's a fascinating book and Randy, thanks so much for taking some time to talk to us today.

Cerveny: My pleasure, thank you.

Click here to listen to an excerpt from this interview.

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2 Comments

Urban Heat Island
According to Dr. Cerveny, the UHI in Phoenix, a middle sized city, is 5 to 7 degrees. I'm going to assume that he's talking Farhenheit.

According to the IPCC, the UHI is at best 0.3 degrees Celsius.

Bos Volans
Small world, Nick-
I know the guy whose famiily 'farm' on the Caribbean island of Montserratwas the scene of the non-apocraphal Flying Cow event. It was about 1975- google the particulars, and a huurcane clocking 160 knots at sea level tore though. The Spencer place was in the Soufrere Hills at about 700 meters on the windward flank of the eponymous volcano.

After the barn blew away, bossie became airborne long enough to land on the foreman huddled in the downwind end of the foundation, breaking the leg of same. don't recall what became of the cow, but the foreman lived to tell the tale . The farm was obliterated in the mid 90's by the eruptions that caused the islands evacuation for a year.

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