By Amy Rudolph
Elm Staff Writer
Chaos is a daily occurrence for research scientist Emily Becker. She works for the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center (NWSCPC), a relatively small government contractor that develops products that help us understand the world and its changing climate.
At the NWSCPC, Becker and other scientists compile data to create a representative model of climate and weather predictions that meteorologists can package to show to the public. By making slight changes to parameters within these climate models, thousands of different results present themselves. Becker’s job is to make sense of the “chaos at work,” as she calls it.
Becker began her lecture on April 4 at Washington College by defining the terms “weather” and “climate,” as they are typically used in contexts that muddle their meanings.
“Weather changes very quickly. Weather can vary wildly and still be normal. You can tell you’re talking about weather when you say, ‘It is very cold today,’ or ‘it’s going to rain tomorrow,’” Becker said.
She said, “Climate on the other hand describes the long-term average of weather. Climate is weather, but smoothed out over years and decades; we can go out to millennia. Climate change is slow. You can tell you are talking about climate with the language that you use, ‘it is always too hot here,’ or ‘we get a lot of rain in the summer.’”
Another way that people can separate weather and climate is by the forecasts.
Becker said, “Weather is always specific, a specific temperature or a specific amount of rain. If you see weather forecasts more than 10 days in the future, don’t believe that thing.”
“All climate forecasts are done in a probabilistic sense. We just split up 100 percent into the chances of a certain outcome. This type of forecasting has people saying, ‘Oh you can never be wrong,’ and yeah, but we can also never be right,” Becker said.
Probabilistic forecasts don’t do much for the average person, as it does not show day-to-day specifics, but it is essential in professions such as farming, because farmers have to coordinate their irrigation plans with projected future weather outcomes.
“We get this question a lot, ‘So if you can’t predict the weather for the day after tomorrow, how can you predict climate?’ It is the same way that we can predict the tide but not the individual waves. You can watch the waves come in and after a while you might be able to notice some patterns and predict what the third or fourth wave is going to look like, but you can’t predict what the 27th wave will look like. The only way you can is to guess. The tide on the other hand is a much slower changing pattern, so that is how we can predict those,” she said.
Becker delved into the mysterious and powerful El Niño, a pattern of naturally occurring climatic changes that take place in the Pacific Ocean. After combining with jet streams, weather patterns can change and eventually affect the global climate.
“El Niño is fundamentally interesting as a scientist. To a climate forecaster, it really matters in terms of the changes that it causes to global weather. El Niño is strictly in the central Pacific. It is just there in this one location but affects the whole world. It is predictable because since the temperature in the central Pacific changes slowly over months, we can get a picture out to six or eight months, maybe even a year ahead of time. It is a first guess as to what the global climate could look like.”
Meteorologists and atmospheric scientists have no explanation as to why El Niño happens or how it changes its manifestations each year. El Niño carries warmer than average air into the jet streams, but it creates a butterfly effect of sorts that can produce distinctly harsher winters, while La Niña is a pattern of a similar type that produces the opposite: colder than average air into jet streams. El Niño can be blamed for many weather changes in the not too distant past including the drought and then sudden downpours in California.
El Niño is not fully understood in the scientific community. This can be frustrating for some scientists, but not for Becker.
“I like to think of it as exciting. There is so much we don’t know…climate science…is a relatively young science so I try to think of it as a lot of things to learn and figure out,” she said.
To help people better understand what exactly El Niño is and how it can affect the globe, Becker and other scientists work on a blog called the ENSO Blog on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s website, where they publish posts that explain not only what El Niño is, but what it can do.
While Becker typically communicates her findings to a technical audience who understand the material, for the lecture she had to find a way to best convey the information to the laymen in the audience.
“I’ve been writing for the ENSO blog for a while and that has been really helpful to try and focus things and not get too much into detail. Scientists love detail. We could talk to you forever about all kinds of detail. I try to pick what is actually the most important thing…if someone walked out of the room knowing one thing about El Niño, what would that be?”
To keep up with the changing winds of El Niño, Becker and her associates’ ENSO blog can be found at https://www.climate.gov/news-features/department/enso-blog
By Amy Rudolph