Saturday, December 14, 2013

Snow in Middle East: Innuendos on Climate and Why Meteorologists Have to take Calculus and Not Just Algebra

Did you know that?

1.     Earth is actually closer to Sun during winter in the U.S. than during summer.
2.     Humid air (i.e., air with water vapor in it) is less dense than dry air.
3.     Deserts can get really, really cold at night.
4.     The Sun is still there even when it's night.

These are all facts that many may find counterintuitive. This week an extraordinarily rare storm brought snow to parts of the Middle East, including Egypt. I tweeted (@DrShepherd2013) an amazing picture of snow on the Sphinx that was shared from a credible colleague's page. However, it is now believed to be a fake picture though the snow event is real ( Internet hoaxes take all of us at times. Winter weather did happen in the region though.  Matt Daniel (EarthSky) does a nice job explaining the "meteorology" of what happened at

Inevitably, you started hearing statements challenging climate change based on this singular event. Like the 4 facts above, many find it challenging to think of a warming climate and cold, snow events.

However, the following points are worth noting:

1 “Weather is your mood, climate is your personality”-On a given day, week or season, cold or wintry weather signifies nothing about the background climate changing. If a Major League Baseball pitcher (typically not known to have high batting averages) hits 4 homeruns in a game, do I draw a conclusion that he is going to break the MLB Home Run record. Probably Not! Congressman Jared Huffman said it best in a recent House Floor Speech (google for his 1-2 minute remarks on You Tube)-“ The fact that it is snowing simply means that it’s snowing”. He also correctly notes that winter happens every year, and it still will in 2080.

  Many see things in a very “straight line” in terms of a sequence of events (i.e., linearity). Legendary meteorologist and mathematician, Ed Lorenz, reminded us decades ago that the atmosphere (i.e., weather and climate) is not linear.  As such, when someone makes a statement about climate change based on a cold day/week or snowstorm in Egypt, it sends a calling card on their background in atmospheric sciences and understanding of the non-linearity of the atmosphere. Any properly trained meteorologist knows that (a.) cold/warm events are influenced by wave patterns in the atmosphere, jet streams, and other processes (e.g., think of pushing down one part of a kid’s inflateable- one area goes down, another area rises), (b.) El Ninos and Arctic Oscillations play a role in weather, and (c.) a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor.  These things play out within a larger climate system that is likely changing too.  I am certain the story at this link ( is very counterintuitive to many because it makes the case that a warming climate can actually bring stronger blizzards.  I am not suggesting this research is conclusive (far from it in fact), and I am certainly not making any links between the Egypt snow and climate change. My point here is that  oversimplification of “cold” weather and “warm” climate is an error and the reason meteorologists have to take calculus and differential equations and not just algebra. 

If all else fails, consider what Ret. Admiral Dr. David Titley, Professor of Meteorology and Director, Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk said when asked about the snow in the Middle East, “Climate is the 'deck' from which the weather is dealt -- weather is the hand you play today. Still possible to get a hand full of low cards even if there are more Aces in the deck...”

And just for the sake of reminder that I try to be objective on these topics, I wrote a cautionary blog after Typhoon Haiyan noting care in making assertions about singular events and causation too.(

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