Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Man Behind The Ringing Alarm Bell

I grew up watching Paul Douglas almost every night on TV back in my native Minnesota.  Paul was the lead weatherguy on the top ranked newscast in the Twin Cities for the better part of 10 years and ended up spending a bit more than 20 years forecasting weather on air in the Twin Cities and 32 years total (a stint in Chicago was throw in the middle for good measure and Douglas started off working in Scranton at WNEP before heading west).  Douglas is no longer sticking merely to over-the-air television but he is making news these days with a series of articles that sound various alarms -- whether it be on climate change or tornadoes....or both.

Douglas is one who has made a name for himself in the weather business -- if it weren't for him, EarthWatch would never have been a part of NBC 10's arsenal in the 1990's and early 2000's.  Douglas has his own weather forecasting broadcast entity -- WeatherNation -- that provides weather forecasts to a number of markets in the country.  He may not be "known" on the level of a Tom Skilling or Jim Cantore but arguably has made a great impact in the weather business and has meteorological street cred.

So, why would Douglas throw himself into the climate change fire?  Is his speaking out on the subject something new? 

Reality is...his speaking out isn't something new.  Douglas had opined about changing climate since the late 1990's, since the mid 2000's on TV and in the blogosphere.  It's not like Douglas has been a Johnny-come-lately to the climate change and global warming wagon.

Douglas' views were based on the wilder and wackier-than-usual weather that was permeating Minnesota in the 1990's.

"I noticed that we were seeing more flash flooding events in the 90s, more days with hail, both increased frequency and intensity," Douglas told me via email. "And winter weather was becoming increasingly uneven. It used to snow in October, and snow would consistently stay on the ground through late March, few exceptions. But by the 90's snowfall patterns were highly irregular and unpredictable. Minnesotans were playing golf in November consistently, and spring ice-out seemed to consistently come 1-2 weeks earlier than the 70's and early 80's. There was no single event – it was a gradual drip-drip of evidence that led me to believe that the weather was evolving, and not just during El Nino winters."

Douglas' views, known more widely in Minnesota until his HuffPo articles, were the source for criticism from those who are skeptical of climate change or global warming, despite him sharing (surprisingly, for some I would imagine) relatively similar political views.  His HuffPo article states he's a fiscal conservative, small government type of Republican who has been frustrated with his party for a while.

"I don’t read the comments. I honestly don’t care what Internet trolls hiding behind laptops think or say. They can write until their fingers become arthritic for all I care aseveryone entitled to an opinion, right?"

Douglas is pretty much giving a "kiss off" attitude to reactionary skeptics.  Feel free to type away...he'll just ignore you...or allow Joe Bastardi to be your spokesmouth.

"That doesn’t mean I have to give the same weight to a professional skeptic as I do a PhD climate scientist. I’m on a team with about 100 of the world’s leading climatologists and a handful of token meteorologists – these men and women are genuinely scared about where the data is pointing. I’m happy to respond to thoughtful commentary and constructive criticism. But some of these trolls just enjoy a good mud-fight, and no amount of evidence will ever convince some percentage of professional skeptics and deniers."

"Follow the money. Energy companies are still funneling huge amounts of money into "Think Tanks” designed to keep confusion and controversy alive. We have to put our blinders on as meteorologists, ignore the trolls, and do what’s right – which is reflect the true state of the climate science. As I said in the article, weather and climate are flip-sides of the same coin. You can’t talk about one without trying to understand the other."

Douglas isn't exactly all in on the Al Gore train...thinking his handling of the subject made something that shouldn't be partisan in his eyes far too much so.

"Al Gore kind of messed things up a bit. He had good intentions, but because he popularized this subject, a lot of people believe it’s only a liberal or Democrat issue, which is nuts. As meteorologists we have an obligation to connect the dots and explain what’s going on. 27 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year released into the atmosphere – to pretend this isn’t having any impact is just crazy. Believing that actions have consequences doesn’t make you a liberal. It makes you literate."

Douglas also wasn't shy in sharing his opinions on tornado warnings, suggesting the idea of an "alert and emergency tier" that separate "potential" from "actually on ground and this thing is gonna mow down your subdivision" (my words just now, not his).  I pressed him about how he would handle tropical storms and hurricanes given the extravaganza of warnings we had during Irene's trip up the coast last summer.

"I still believe the “Tornado Alert” concept can work as spiral bands pass overhead – if Dual Pol (radar) or spotter reports capture an actual tornado on the ground with debris the Alert is upgraded to an Emergency. The concept needs refining, no question.  My article was a humble suggestion to start a conversation, nothing more. But the current system – warning for every rotating storm, isn’t working – people are apathetic, their eyes are glazing over."

Either that, or a bit shaken in places where tornado warnings aren't common such as Philadelphia.  I remember how my twitter feed was blowing up with lots of concern during the warning-a-thon last August.

Douglas states he respects the NWS, but "I think they’re issuing too many warnings, because they’re evaluated on POD (which is probability of detection), not false alarm ratio.  We have it backwards, to some extent. The system needs to evolve. Even though we can’t today predict tornado intensity in advance, I think we can do a better job communicating threat levels and setting public expectations."

That I agree with completely -- as our technology has evolved, we're still using 1950's warning "code" to communicate threat of weather.  Straight tornado warnings aren't going to cut it.  I tend to think, however, in using headlines like this sensationalism will begin to apply...but even then, worst case scenarios in Dallas from ten years ago suggest the possibility that such headlines could ring true.  Is it worth chasing the headline to make the point?  I'm not sure it is but then again, I'm one who thinks hype in a hype-driven world means little more than eye rolls and the equivalent of "white noise" from a number of people.  To me, it would have been better to talk about "dodging a huge bullet" such as how the Texas event was than talk about worst case scenario as your headline...and the point could still be driven home in the process that it could...and probably will someday be...much worse.

Douglas isn't one to steer away from making suggestions to improve the business of weather, how we forecast weather, nor is he going to hold back from saying something that isn't going to be controversial for some.  At the end of the day, he's going to stick to his guns on it and continue to trudge ahead, whether those who disagree with it like it or not.