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Overwhelmed By All The Science Behind Climate Change? These Miami Students Are Here To Help

 Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana Sunday as a powerful Category 4 hurricane. This season is forecast to be the sixth above average season in a row.
Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana Sunday as a powerful Category 4 hurricane. This season is forecast to be the sixth above average season in a row.

A group of University of Miami graduate students created the blog "Seasoned Chaos" last year to help make sense of the complicated physics behind climate change.

Amid another summer of COVID-19, the planet’s disaster quotient jumped as the climate and weather continued to deliver dire blows.

In August, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change reported the planet is heating up faster than expected. Hurricane Ida exploded into a powerful Category 4 hurricane over the weekend during a season expected to be the sixth above average in a row. Wildfires raged across the west, while a heat dome produced waves of blistering temperatures.

Making sense of the planet’s complicated physics can be daunting. So a group of atmospheric scientists at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science launched a blog called "Seasoned Chaos."

One of the creators, Marybeth Arcodia, is about to finish her PhD and spoke to WLRN's Jenny Staletovich.

The following is an excerpt from their interview, edited for clarity.

WLRN: Your posts have some really interesting titles: “The More We Learn, the Less We Know,” “An Introduction To Chaos,” “The Yellow Brick Road To Predicting Severe Storms.” The posts read more like "Schoolhouse Rock" than science magazine. Who's your audience and what do you want them to take away from the blog?

ARCODIA: We really aim to use language that is understandable without a scientific education. We also wanted to have some sort of allure for our readers. That's why we like to have a theme for each of our blogs. So, for example, “Flooding the Market” is a post written by Victoria [Schoenwald] that is talking about coastal sea level rise and the impacts. But she puts it under the stock market lens. It's this concept that can be very complicated and scientific, but using it under this idea that a lot of people are familiar with can help make the post more relatable.

We are all studying elements of the climate system that fall into that sub-seasonal to seasonal range. The human impact factor of that time scale is very high, but it's not something that many people are familiar with or understand.

Explain to me what sub-seasonal to seasonal is.

We have four seasons per year broken up into three months. So seasonal can mean anything from one month to three months. Sub-seasonal is now moving into the shorter range of two weeks to two months.

I feel like it's sort of a missing layer.

Definitely. We call the sub-seasonal time frame, that two-week to two-month time frame, the desert of predictability. It’s thought to be this bridge between weather and climate. One, because of the time scale, and two, because of the weather phenomena that take place within that sub-seasonal time scale. Another reason that it's so important is going back to that impact factor.

There is an experiment here, spearheaded by [University of Miami professor] Ben Kirtman called the Sub X Experiment, producing sub-seasonal forecasts. And it has done well in certain aspects, such as predicting the breakdown of the polar vortex earlier this year. To predict that a few weeks in advance is critical for preparation by the government and by individuals.

Can you imagine hurricane season? We get a forecast [track] now that's five days out. If we had two weeks out, three weeks out, four weeks out, that would be a game changer.

Absolutely. A good example is flooding. If you're able to lower the water levels before the flood is coming and evacuate the regions that are likely going to have a high flood, the amount of lives that you could save is, one, you're not able to count that. But just the infrastructure that you're able to save, we're able to bounce back faster.

This year, we've seen another round of pretty dramatic events. We've had the sixth above average hurricane season forecast in a row. Now the record wildfires out west and the heat dome. Are these things related? And what is a heat dome?

Essentially, it causes a traffic jam in the jet stream. So it causes the air to be very stagnant and the air underneath to be really hot. A lot of the Pacific Northwest was seeing three digit temperatures for three to four days.

We understand how it happens and why it happens. But there's a few things that were really record-breaking about this heat dome. This event is really rare. But there’s been research since it occurred that says that with continued emissions, an event like this one in one thousand-year event could happen as frequently as five to 10 years in the future.

And so this is a red flag. That climate change will be causing more extreme weather events is something that's fairly well known. But what exactly does it mean? Well, this is a good example.

The New York Times published a story [recently] that asked if this summer was the end of summer as we know it. That climate change, which had been abstract, is here now. What do you think of that since you look at these more distant horizons?

So, I grew up in Baltimore, and then moved here for graduate school in 2016. And to me, the climate issue was so much more prevalent here. You have all of these climate change effects happening here almost every day. Climate change, by definition, is the change of the average over time.

What we're seeing now is the human-induced climate change, this rapid rate of change, that's throwing the equilibrium of the climate system out of whack, so much so that it's not able to go back and reach equilibrium. That is absolutely here.

You said if we were to take care of the human emissions, the natural fluctuations would restore the equilibrium. I know we're talking about a long time into the future, but can we be that hopeful? If we were to get control of ourselves, could we restore the natural equilibrium and have less of these dramatic events?

Absolutely. And that's the goal. That's why we're fighting for mitigation, adaptation, drastic changes, because we don't want to keep throwing things so out of balance. What we want to do is become just another player in the climate system, not the dominating factor.

That gets me back to your blog, and why I like it so much. You explain the science so clearly and in terms that I understand. It's not scary. It makes sense. And I'm like, "Oh, OK, I get this."

I don't like thinking of the climate problem as a doom and gloom problem. I like to think of it as a giant puzzle. I don't think it needs to be scary. I find it to be really entertaining, to take these topics that can be full of scientific jargon and a lot of math and physics that sometimes scare people away and use them in terms that people understand, because honestly, that's how I try to understand them.

Atmospheric science is a field many people may not have even heard of. How did you get into it?

In my undergrad, I studied theoretical math because I've always been fascinated by math. I've always thought that it can open a lot of doors. It's the basis for a lot of different subjects. After college, I volunteered in Micronesia on a tiny Pacific island and a typhoon hit. We had no warning that it was coming. Two things really struck me about that.

One, seeing a natural disaster level the island, seeing firsthand the impact that it has on the ground really started getting me thinking about extreme weather and looking at our earth system. And also the fact that the people on the ground did not have warning. I've learned since that the weather centers over there were all tracking this storm and likely people on the island knew this storm was coming. But because the infrastructure and the communication on an island like that, that does not mean that everybody knows that it's happening.

You're a young scientist. Your career started when a lot of doubt was cast at scientists. How do you react to that?

It can be frustrating, certainly, to feel like there's constantly a push back on what you're doing, but I don't feel pessimistic about it. I don't feel like why am I doing this? There's no hope. No one's ever listening to me. Just small little changes. Small little improvements really can make it seem worth it.

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Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.