Richard Alley in USAToday: Why the Extremes?

April 20, 2012

Above, Richard Alley demonstrates how to patiently answer questions from someone who has no interest in learning the answers.

Below, Dr. Alley comments on this spring’s extreme weather events.


Did humans contribute to the record heat of March and the strength of April’s tornadoes across much of the U.S.? Science still says, “Maybe, maybe not.” But we’re rolling the dice in a serious game where the “jackpot” means we lose.

There’s very high scientific confidence that our fossil-fuel burning and other activities, which add carbon dioxide to the air, are turning up the planet’s thermostat. In a warmer world, we expect more record highs and heat waves but fewer record lows, just as we’re observing. Warmer air can carry more water vapor, so a warmer rainstorm can deliver more inches per hour. Hair dryers have a “hot” setting for good reasons, and warmer air between rainstorms can dry out the ground faster.

Thus, we expect rising CO2 to bring more floods in some places and more droughts in others, with some places getting more of both. That might seem contradictory, but it’s not. And with more energy to drive hurricanes, the peak winds may increase, even if the number of storms drops.


Unfortunately, if three rotten cherries come up on the climate slot machine before we master sustainable energy, we could lose the jackpot. Science hasn’t found a plausible way for rapidly rising CO2 to turn Earth into Eden, but there is at least a slight chance of a rapidly collapsing ice sheet flooding the coasts, or widespread droughts and heat stress risking famine, or other very large problems.

Much of my research, and that of many colleagues, has been devoted to replacing these worrisome “what if’s” with hard numbers. And in some cases, the worries have grown smaller as we learned more. But in other cases, the worries are still there and might even be bigger.


13 Responses to “Richard Alley in USAToday: Why the Extremes?”

  1. He messed up a bit. The answer was not maybe but probably…. More than likely etc. a little to waffle for the public.

  2. Ed Sharron Says:

    Great video. I don’t think my patience would have lasted as long.

  3. All I can say is, “oh gawd… the comments over at usatoday… my gawd!!!”

    And if the usatoday comments aren’t enough to send hot coffee through your nasal passages, check out the latest helping of idiocy over at WUWT (linky where in the comments, the WUWT brainiacs vigorously argue about whether 30 is greater than 15 (I kid you not!).

    And folks, remember the most important rule of “safe Internet surfing”: Secure all hot beverages before clicking on any WUWT link.

    • otter17 Says:

      Ay carumba.

      At least there are a couple folks on the USA Today article linking to Skeptical Science, rather than going round-and-round the various misconceptions.

  4. Jean Mcmahon Says:

    Alley does a great job,but why doesn’t he say if we continue on the present course we are heading for catastrophe?…Does it cost anything to sign up to make comments on USA Today?

  5. Ohhhhhhssssssss, noooooooosssss spaghettiosssssss……..

    Ouch, oooooh.

    That musta hurt???

    need some, errr…….. ice for that?????????

    • greenman3610 Says:

      obviously some high altitude glaciers are growing, due to more moisture in the warmer atmosphere.

      come back after you’ve repeated 6th grade science.

  6. Peter Mizla Says:

    Alley does a good job- not a great job. He seems to speak in terms that are not easily understood for the average person. His explanation of the Milankovitch cycles are OK- but was not forceful enough. He fails to bring up the obvious- that C02 can be thrown into the atmosphere through natural tectonic events, and he fails to explain the glacial and interglacial cycles of the 800,000 years, and how C02 played a major role in these distant climate change events. He never mentions the PETM or the End Permian events.

    Alley was not all that persuasive- he allowed himself to be bullied by the troglodyte Rohrabacher

  7. John Puma Says:

    “The other planets of the hemisphere”?

    Quoth Rep. Rohrabacher (R Troglodyteville) – (4:13)

  8. Martin Lack Says:

    I am not sure what the Chairman’s prior question was (and/or whether Alley answered it) but…

    He should have pointed out that radiative energy imbalances arising from temperature changes induced by Milankovitch wobbles were eventually eliminated by changes in the CO2 content of the atmosphere. This would then have strengthened his point about the current anthropogenic change being several orders of magnitude faster than natural changes because…

    Palaeoclimatology and thermodynamics combine to make it a dead certainty that, having increased the CO2 content of the atmosphere, the Earth must warm up in order to restore energy balance.

    Therefore “maybe”, or “probably” just do not come into it… It’s a fact, and it is happening.

  9. otter17 Says:

    I just saw the PBS show “Earth: the Operator’s Manual”, which I guess came out last year. Dr. Alley has a pretty good narrating voice if he puts his mind to it, haha.

  10. […] 2012/04/20: PSinclair: Richard Alley in USAToday: Why the Extremes? […]

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