A Climate Scientist Explains Why Drudge's Hurricane Matthew Conspiracy Is So Dangerous

Penn State's Michael Mann: “People Could Die Because Of The Misinformation That Folks Like Rush Limbaugh And Matt Drudge Are Putting Out There”

From the October 7 edition of Sirius XM's The Michael Smerconish Program:

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MICHAEL SMERCONISH (Host): So we're politicizing everything else in the 2016 cycle, we may as well politicize the storm, is that it?

MICHAEL MANN (Climate scientist, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University): Well, I’m afraid that's the way it appears now. We’ve gotten to the point where critics of the president, the critics of taking action on climate change have decided they’re going to deny that hurricanes exist, or at least are as strong as we’re measuring them to be, to support this narrative of anti-science and climate change denial. And it’s just, it’s absurd, it’s insulting, and as your callers mentioned, it dismisses the great loss of human life that we've already seen happen with latest storm Matthew.

SMERCONISH: Rush said yesterday it's in the interest of the left to have destructive hurricanes because then they can blame it on climate change which they can desperately continue, which they can desperately continue trying to sell. Your response to that quote is what?

MANN: It's breathtaking. The idea that the National Hurricane Center which has no other agenda, other than to predict the trajectory and intensity of these storms and help the public deal with the information that they provide in forming emergency evacuations, the idea that they would somehow, first of all, be able to manipulate the data that comes out of their dropsonde -- they send these instruments down into the center of the hurricane and they measure the various variables, atmospheric variables, including windspeed and pressure and humidity and everything else -- and that raw data is actually available to the public. They distribute it almost immediately. So to believe that NOAA, the National Hurricane Center is somehow manipulating the information about the intensity of these storms would require a conspiracy of epic proportions where somehow they would literally in real-time be editing the dropsonde data in such a way as to change the picture that the data is presenting. It's just absurd, and it represents a new low, in my view, of denialism. I get it, I understand that they find devastating hurricanes and the trend towards more devastating hurricanes inconvenient because as the public understands it, climate change is actually impacting them in a direct way, in a way that they feel, of course, the issue is likely to gain greater resonance with the public. And many of these folks -- Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge -- have long been advocates for a conservative agenda of inaction and denial on climate change. And it’s just, it’s really sad that it's gotten to this point, it’s dangerous. I mean, people could die because of the misinformation that folks like Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge are putting out there. It’s critical that people understand the threat that these storms represent, particularly the storm surge. We may luck out, it looks like, the storm is likely to veer out into the ocean and not make direct landfall, but that doesn't matter at all from the standpoint of the single attribute of these storms that costs the most human life which is the storm surge, and we’re going to see deadly storm surge. And to be telling the public that they don't have anything to worry about, that the data's being manipulated, that’s literally a threat to human life. And it's not just disgusting, it's unsupportable.

SMERCONISH: You referenced Matt Drudge. He tweeted yesterday, “Hurricane Center has monopoly on data. No way of verifying claims.” And then he points out that the ground observations on NASA did not match statements. “165 mph gusts? WHERE?” Is it true that the hurricane center has a monopoly on data and that there’s no way of verifying the claims?

MANN: Not at all. I actually, I'm a bit of a what we call a weather weenie, which is I sort of nerd out on weather and particularly tropical systems, hurricanes. Many of my students do as well. And if you go into the newsgroups, if you’re really into this stuff, then you're aware of the fact that National Hurricane Center dumps all the data that they measure immediately into the public domain so that others can take a look themselves. So it's absolutely absurd, the idea that they have a monopoly on the data. Yeah, it is true that the hurricane hunters are the only ones who are actually flying through the hurricane, that’s their job, nobody else can do it safely. But the data that they’re measuring as they do that goes out to the entire world. And again, the idea that they could somehow in real-time figure out how to manipulate all of these data so that they remain internally consistent, right? Because you can’t just tweak the wind numbers, which seems to be the accusation that’s being made here, you would have to tweak the pressure and everything else because there’s an internal consistency in the physics of the atmosphere -- so they would somehow have to be doing all that in realtime because they’re literally dumping the data that they measure as they drop these measurement devices into the storm. It requires a level of conspiratorial thinking that is unprecedented even for the Rush Limbaughs and the Matt Drudges of the world.

SMERCONISH: So let me ask a naive and fundamental question. What, if anything, does Hurricane Matthew have to do with climate change?

MANN: Thanks for asking that question, because it’s very important to understand the context. Climate change sets the context for understanding the trends we’re seeing in these storms. We can't say that climate change caused Matthew, that's not the right question, and there’s not a meaningful answer to it. What we can say is that the rapid intensification that Matthew underwent as it ballooned from not even a tropical storm into a hurricane, a major hurricane, a Cat 5 hurricane, in record time. We call that rapid intensification and we understand very well that rapid intensification of storms like Matthew underwent is a direct consequence of ocean heat content. What you need is not just very warm ocean waters at the surface -- which we had in the Caribbean, near-record ocean surface temperatures -- but you need a very deep layer, that’s why we talk about the heat content of the upper ocean. You need a deep layer of warm water because one of the things that a hurricane does, it tends to churn up the upper waters of the ocean and brings some of the cold water to the surface which actually is a dampening effect. So hurricanes tend to dampen themselves through that process. What we know in this case is there was such a deep layer of warm water in the main development region of the Caribbean that there was no cold water to bring to the surface, and so we didn’t have that dampening effect, and we saw very rapid intensification. And, look, it’s not a coincidence that we’ve seen the strongest hurricane on record in both hemispheres within the past year. We know that the increased heat content of the oceans -- and by the way, this was the warmest year on record for the oceans -- is leading to more intense hurricanes and typhoons like Matthew, like Super Typhoon Tip in the Pacific a few years ago, and Superstorm Sandy which was in many respects an unprecedented storm so late in the season so far north. 


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