To a layperson, the world of climatology can be an intimidatingly foreign land. Denizens of this world — scientists — speak a daunting, often-impenetrable blend of acronyms (AGW, IPCC, WPAC, ENSO), Latinisms (anomalies, coterminous, precipitation deficits), and math (confidence limits, regression-based, boundary knots).

Besides the sheer complexity of global climate systems, the dreariness of this jargon may be one of the big reasons the general public has been slow to awaken to the seriousness of the threat of global warming. In fact, a conference on climate change organized by Yale last year called for "training scientists to speak in language that is understandable to different audiences."

Bill PatzertOne scientist who needs no such training is Bill Patzert, an oceanographer and meteorologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., an institution closely linked to NASA. In the world of science, Patzert is known for his work matching TOPEX satellite weather data to the actual behavior of the Pacific Ocean and its weather systems, especially El Nino and its less-well-known counterpart La Nina. In the media world, he is a go-to guy for comments on weather patterns for the L.A. Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and CBS News, in part because he has a sense of humor.

Patzert, who has briskly guided my reporting on climate questions for years, generously agreed to an extended email interview for Grist. Since he has become known for his work with the media, and even won medals for his outreach efforts, I thought I’d begin with a question about why the rhetoric of climatology is so turgid and difficult. His answer was more than I bargained for:

KS: We all know that science is about fact, about cause and effect, about replication of results, but does that mean that it must also be turgid and difficult-to-impossible to read?

WP: And the answer is:

  1. Science journalists are supposed to interpret turgid science papers to the public; otherwise, if everyone can read science papers, there’s no need for science journalists. It’s about making more jobs.
  2. Scientists weave a web of turgid definitions, pieced by logic. Thus, reading a scientific paper is simply reading definitions. The result is that we enjoy reading descriptions of the beauty of clouds by a journalist, but it is not easy to enjoy the definitions of different types of clouds by a scientist.
  3. Many papers are written for survival, not for science. Publish or perish. But this is true for journalists too.
  4. Scientists can’t write well! Or scientists write in a style that discourages others from finding out how mundane their research really is? This relates to No. 3 above.
  5. Asperger’s Syndrome people don’t communicate well. This might be the real answer.
  6. All of the above.

KS: Has surfing fed your understanding of our climate and its processes and if so, can you tell us how?

WP: Surfing and my dad … the two reasons I became an oceanographer/meteorologist. My dad was a captain of ships, small and large. He had a deep interest in the connection between nature and weather. I remember him giving me Rachel Carson’s great books, The Sea Around Us in the 6th Grade and Silent Spring when I was an undergrad at Purdue University. Also, I’ve carried around a copy of Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator (the mariners Bible and a good tutorial in practical oceanography) for as long as I can remember. All that was steering me towards the sea.

But the lure of surfing was pulling me towards Hawaii … white sandy beaches, giant waves and young ladies in bikinis. Yes, I’ve always loved swimming and surfing. In the mid-60s we did primitive surf forecasting using the recently launched NASA weather satellites. Here in SoCal, big El Nino years are always big surf winters. A genuine passion and respect for the marine environment, the thrill and pleasures of surfing, and a curiosity about how the oceans and atmosphere work together to give us our climate … it’s all connected in the pleasure and logic parts of my brain. The surfer/scientists that I have known and still know are mostly lovely people and serious citizens of the planet … both men and women. Oh yeah, that reminds me, I’ve gotten to get my rotary cuff fixed so I can get back on the lineup with my old buddies!

KS: You’ve been known to call El Nino another name: El Nincompoop. Why?

WP: Ah, a misunderstanding on the part of journalists. Many of the supposed consequences of El Nino — houses sliding down hillsides, flooded mansions in Malibu, drownings in flood control channels, etc. — are not El Nino’s fault, but rather stupid behavior, ignoring the expected (inevitable) consequences of heavy rainfall. These oft-reported events are not El Nino’s fault, but poor zoning and reckless behavior. This is what I call El Nincompoop! Actually, El Nino is a net economic and environmental plus for the Southwest. It’s a blessing, not the Godzilla portrayed on the evening news. Although the El Nincompoop behavior is certainly very photogenic!

KS: Last week James Hansen, who has been called "America’s top climatologist" by ABC News, and who in a major speech last December warned that "action must be prompt" on reducing greenhouse gas emissions if we hope to avoid a precipitous rise in global temperatures, released with four coauthors a study warning of the possibility that climate change could lead to "Super El Ninos" comparable to the epochal year of l997-l998, still the warmest year on record globally. I asked Patzert about the study, but first he replied:

WP: Hansen is the MAN! I really admire his scholarship and productivity.

KS: In the opening paragraph of the study, Hansen wrote: "Warming is larger in the Western Equatorial Pacific than in the Eastern Equatorial Pacific over the past century, and we suggest that the increased West-East temperature gradient may have increased the likelihood of strong El Ninos, such as those of 1983 and 1998."

WP: It does seem to follow … the intuitive answer is probably … yes. But, I’m not convinced that the climate system acts in a linear, intuitive way. An increase in the gradient could lead to steadier, stronger Trade Winds and fewer and weaker El Ninos. I still think the phase of Pacific Decadal Oscillation modulates the frequency and strength of Ninos.

In the ’50’s and ’60’s they were fewer and weaker (negative PDO), in the ’80’s and ’90’s Ninos were more often and strong (positive PDO). Since ’97-’98 Super Nino, they have been weak and not frequent (negative to neutral PDO).

Now, let’s go back to Hansen’s research. The new element in the climate equation is (human-induced) global warming. How this powerful "disturbance in the force" impacts what we "thought we knew" puts a large uncertainty into the forecasting business. This year’s hurricane forecast is a good example. After last year’s early, busy and long-lasting hurricane season, this year’s forecasts flopped. This has also happened with El Nino forecasts. The past few years have seen many wannabe Ninos, but no significant events.

This is, perhaps, a measure of the incompleteness of our understanding? Or, the rules have changed with a changing "human-influenced" global climate? I would vote for both of these statements.

On the other hand, our understanding and skill in forecasting has taken giant steps in the past four decades. Understanding the Earth’s climate variability is truly one of the most complex, difficult problems in modern science. I’m amazed at the research being conducted and the leaps in understanding. The next decade will bring tremendous insight into all these compelling issues. Stay tuned.

KS: You’ve predicted a mild El Nino this year, but this chart (from a great PowerPoint presentation on a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration site) suggests to me that over this year’s El Nino still has a chance to a become medium-sized. Am I reading this correctly?

2006-2007 El Nino

WP: OK, this compares the present SST [sea surface temperature] anomalies in the Central Pacific with Nino episodes since 1950 … weak to super-duper.

You asked: "This suggests to me that as you say this El Nino looks on the mild side, but could possibly (not likely, but possibly) could develop into a medium-sized phenomenon. Am I reading this correctly?"

Correct! You get an A-. It also shows it started late and has slow growth (slope of the line). It looks like ’51-’52 and ’68-’69, which had 26.21" and 27.47" of LA rain, respectively. Hmmm, so weak Ninos can give us pretty good rain. Only 10 Ninos since 1878 with greater than 25" of LA rain. Both ’51-’52 and ’68-’69 were followed by more than 3 years of La Nina. Interesting! ’82-’83 started late too and was big.

But I still think we are in an El Nino repellent negative PDO pattern that damps Ninos.

Rob Krier at the San Diego Onion is going to call me in a week or so for my winter forecast. Maybe I’ll have to jack up my winter rain forecast? This is a tough business!

KS: It’s easy to find information about the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. But it’s hard to remember and, I gather, the PDO is far from fully understood. Do you have an image or a chart or a metaphor that you use to help laypeople understand this huge phenomenon?

WP: The newest, largest of the natural variability patterns to be gleaned from data is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or, since most people can’t pronounce all that, the PDO. In contrast to El Nino and La Nina, which are patterns confined to the tropical Pacific Ocean, the PDO is basin-wide, from the America’s to Asia, from the Arctic to Antarctica … it’s a biggie!

The fishery folks at the University of Washington brilliantly recognized this large-scale and slowly changing shift in Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures. The PDO discovery is really a "fish story." Steve Hare and his colleagues were looking for the link to 20 to 30 years shifts in sardine, anchovy, and salmon migrations. Their analyses revealed a simple horseshoe pattern of either warmer (cooler) water in the western Pacific Ocean counter-balanced by a wedge of cooler (warmer) water spreading from the coasts of the Americas into the tropical Pacific Ocean. Slowly, over 2 to 3 decades, this great pattern switches temperatures … cool to warm and back again.

Here in the West, not only are fisheries impacted, but our precious rainfall patterns follow these Pacific Ocean patterns. Decadal droughts and their impacts on terrestrial and ocean ecosystems are profoundly effected. I also see a powerful PDO impact on the frequency and strength of El Nino and La Nina. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the PDO was negative, El Ninos were few and muted; in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the PDO was positive, Ninos were strong and frequent. Thus, the PDO is the great stage on which El Ninos and La Ninas play!

KS: I just came across a paper in Science, Long-Term Aridity Changes in the Western US, that suggests that global warming will lead to more La Ninas. This appears to be the exact opposite of the tentative forecast of global warming producing more El Ninos from Hansen and his associates. To quote: “If the Z-C modeling results hold up, it is plausible that continued warming over the tropical Pacific, whether natural or anthropogenically forced, will promote the development of persistent drought-inducing La Nina-like conditions.”

How do we balance the prospects of these possibilities?

WP: Up front, I’m not a modeler. So take my remarks with the proverbial "grain of salt."

Computer models are mathematical simulations of, in these cases, the global climate system. Their results depend strongly on the formulation of the problem posed and the assumptions that are used in these calculations. Sometimes results for competent scientists appear to conflict or differ. So how should we react to these different results?

In science, problems are approached from different directions, using different assumptions. For scientists, this isn’t confusing, because they know that eventually all these different approaches will converge on the truth. For non-scientists, this often seems confusing — makes many skeptical of the scientific journey. The scientists you have queried me about are all world-class … smart, careful and beyond my capabilities … and their papers are to be read and considered seriously.

What is clear from the climate research of the past few decades, analyzing data and modeling, is that humans are tinkering with a delicately balanced climate. If we don’t stop and consider the consequences that the "climate geeks" are posing as logical outcomes, our civilization will be in serious danger. Stop the denial; climate research is serious business … listen up.

Now back to the original question: Yes, the scenario formulated by Mann et al. seems very plausible … mega-droughts in the American West. That also suggests excessive rainfall in other Pacific regions. Remember, either scenario is serious. We are wedded to our present civilization and infrastructure … and will not adapt easily to Super El Ninos or Ultra La Ninas.

Reporter’s note: Patzert often closes his emails with interesting quotes. This one, from Albert Einstein, seems especially fitting: "We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive."