Interview: Climatologist weighs in on groundhog science

Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe is a respected climatologist and professor in geosciences at Texas Tech University. Katharine’s work has resulted in over 40 peer-reviewed publications and many key reports. From 2008 to 2009, she served as a lead author on the federal report, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,” a report commissioned by the Bush administration and released under the Obama administration.

Most recently, she worked with her husband, Andrew Farley (author, professor and pastor), to write A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, a book that untangles the complex science and tackles many long-held misconceptions about global warming.

I asked Katharine to comment on the main atmospheric science question unfolding today, a topic she fails to address in the book.

Rusty Pritchard: Today is Groundhog Day, and all over the country expert rodents are being looked to for predictions about spring. This year, a prominent expert in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania has predicted six more weeks of winter. Your reaction?

Katharine Hayhoe: It’s been mathematically proven that it’s impossible to predict the evolution of a chaotic system like weather for more than two weeks. As everyone knows, though, the laws of physics don’t apply to groundhogs.

R: Would your reaction be different if there were a consensus among groundhogs about the forecast? What would constitute a consensus?

K: Technically speaking, all a consensus means is that more than half of the groundhogs would need to agree. For it to be truly scientific, though, their findings would need to be published in scientific journals such as the Journal of Groundhog Predictions where they would be reviewed for accuracy by other groundhogs before they were allowed to be published.

R: Are Punxsutawney Phil and his colleagues engaged in meteorology or climatology? What’s the difference? Has the IPCC ever incorporated groundhog datasets into their science work? Should they?

K: Groundhogs are clearly meteorologists, as they are trying to predict what will happen over the next few weeks. Climate, on the other hand, describes long-term changes in average conditions over decades to centuries. So their work is not very relevant to the IPCC — maybe they should be considered for admission to the World Meteorological Organization instead?

R: According to the National Climatic Data Center, despite the years of experience groundhogs have, they have an overall accuracy rate of only 39%, yet they’re only trying to predict the next six weeks. As a climatologist, you’re trying to predict conditions much further out. How can you possibly have any confidence in your forecast?

K: There is no way to predict weather conditions past two weeks–and even that is stretching it. So I’m not surprised groundhogs don’t have a great track record. Climate scientists, on the other hand, aren’t trying to make predictions about a chaotic system like weather. Rather, we’re trying to figure out how the long-term average conditions might change — conditions that aren’t controlled by chaos, but rather by known “drivers” such as the sun, volcanoes, and (more recently) the production of heat-trapping gases from human activities. This is a growing field of research and certainly one that has room for groundhogs if they would like to participate. Butterflies, kudzu, and even lilac bushes have already made significant contributions of their own to tracking recent climate changes.

R: This year, the animal rights organization PETA has tried to interfere with the expert prediction of weather conditions, on the grounds that the stresses of living in captivity are unfair to the forecaster. They suggest replacing groundhogs with robots. Do you experience stressful conditions in your own work, and have PETA activists ever tried to replace you with a robot?

K: Groundhogs should only be replaced by robots if an independent scientific peer-reviewed study can demonstrate that robots have a better predictive ability than groundhogs. PETA would need to fund that study before they can legitimately argue for replacement.

Climate scientists are often subject to stressful conditions as well, as everything from their sanity to their integrity is attacked on a regular basis. Robot replacements might be a good idea — at least robots could never be accused of evilly manufacturing crises that don’t exist, simply to get a few dollars to help support their graduate students’ work.

R: How would you fill your days if PETA did manage to get you replaced with a climatologist robot?

K: Probably repairing the robot!

A Climate for ChangeYou can download sample chapters from Katharine’s book, A Climate For Change, at the book’s website.

From the book website: “For all the talk about climate change, there’s still a great deal of debate about what it all means, especially among Christians. A CLIMATE FOR CHANGE offers straightforward answers to these questions, without the spin. This book untangles the complex science and tackles many long-held misconceptions about global warming. Authored by a climate scientist and a pastor, A CLIMATE FOR CHANGE boldly explores the role our Christian faith can play in guiding our opinions on this important global issue.”

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