Every Thursday, MPR News Chief Meteorologist Paul Huttner joins The Daily Circuit to talk about the latest research on our changing climate and the consequences we're seeing here in Minnesota and worldwide. Here is an edited transcript of Climate Cast for Thursday, Jan. 31:
Kerri Miller: I'd like a sense of how you're keeping up with all the research that's coming out. Now, I'm getting it since you're sending me some of this stuff -- I'm getting a sense of how much information is coming out every week on it. How do you decide what's important and where you're getting a lot of it>?
Paul Huttner: There's a lot out there. You're right about that. Absolutely. And it's fascinating to me to be able to sift through this every week. I love what I do on a daily basis with forecasting the weather, but many, many years ago we started noticing that these weather maps we're looking at don't look the same as they did, 15, 20, 30 years ago -- and how much of a role is climate playing in that? To start sifting through and start digging in to all of this various research that's coming out and how we're trying to connect the dots on this is fascinating. So I'm looking for things that have a news angle. I'm looking for things that can bring climate change to the kitchen table and the things that we're seeing in our backyards every day.
Miller: Are you going to specific highly-authoritative places to get this information? Are you reading journals on it? Where do you go?
Huttner: A little bit of all of the above. There are a number of sites. Climate Central is a great site for folks that want to dig into the latest climate news. What people are doing is they're starting to take some of this peer-reviewed research from these accredited climate scientists and try to make it a little more digestible for the general public. It's a complicated science but there are many facets of it that are easy to understand and a lot of folks are doing that now. There's some good work being down out there. We're trying to help bring that to our listeners.
Miller: And I know you put links to some of this stuff on the Updraft blog.
Huttner: You will find all of the links that we talk about on this show on the Updraft blog every week and a lot more resources as well.
Miller: The Yale Forum on Climate Change put out its key things to watch for 2013 and they are noting that there's increasing discussion in the media on tipping points. What do we mean when we talk about tipping points and climate change?
Huttner: The climate scientists have looked for years at what if certain things happen. For example, if the Arctic starts to melt. That's somewhat the analaogy of the earth's freezer, if you will, or thermostat. If that cooling mechanism goes, that's a tipping point. Will that accelerate the warming? The additional methane gas that's being released into the atmosphere as the permafrost thaws out -- that's a tipping point as well that can add additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and help accelerate the warming. As we start to pass some of these things, the question is how will that affect our changing climate? How quickly will these changes occur?
Miller: I saw environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben on -- I think it was a YouTube video a month or so ago -- and when he talks about tipping points he talks about activism especially. That's the upside of tipping points right there when it comes to climate change. People really getting involved and active, especially college students.
Huttner: I think so. I think the younger demographic, if you will, is paying more attention and has a better understanding of climate change. It's a trend that we're seeing. We try to stick to the science here, at least that's what I try to do, and let the policymakers deal with the best science. But there's a lot of good science out there and it's all pointing in the same direction.
Miller: One of the things that Yale points to is the drought. That may be a great concern in 2013. What are you seeing and who's talking about it?
Huttner: Everybody's talking about it as we talk about really the top 10 list of things we want to look for in 2013 as climate indicators. One year is weather, it's not climate. But 2013 may present as we look forward some indicators that will tell us if we're still on track with this string of top 10 warmest years that we've had over the last 10-15 years or so. Drought is one of those things, especially in the U.S., that we're really watching and keeping an eye on. 65 percent of the continental U.S. was in drought as of Sept. 25. It's at 58 percent now. That's still a huge amount. Locally, 98 percent of Minnesota is in drought.
As we sit here in mid-winter looking ahead to springtime, we are in a very precarious spot with regard to soil moisture in the grain belt in the Midwest. How much additional snow we get between now and spring will affect those rivers and lakes. How much spring rain we get after the ground thaws, that's absolutely critical. We need widespread above average rainfall next spring when the ground thaws to get those crops going. That'll affect corn prices, grain prices, the water table, aquifers and even Mississippi River shipping. I heard you play a clip earlier this morning from Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground and the Weather Channel. One of the things we're looking at with climate change is drought in general, and specifically when it comes to 2013. Here's what he had to say about that:
Jeff Masters (audio clip): Last year in 2012 we had the largest drought in the U.S. since the dust bowl of the 1930s. And going forward into 2013 that drought has carried over. And it's still one of the top five largest droughts in U.S. history. With this sort of drought coverage entering spring as we expect, it's going to be a big issue this summer. If this drought is a multi-year drought it could really cause a huge drag on the U.S. economy. We're already looking at a price tag upwards of $50 billion from last year's drought. That number could easily double this year to over $100 billion if the drought continues.
Miller: Paul, that tells us that the stakes are really high for what happens this late-winter, early spring when it comes to rainfall, right?
Huttner: Yes. The markets will react to that obviously as we head into spring. It is a very critical situation. Something we'll have to watch very, very closely.
Miller: Jeff is someone who coined - is he the one who coined the phrase "weather on steroids?" Or he repeats it?
Huttner: I'm not sure. He repeats it, I know. That's interesting because UCAR did a very interesting analogy of that about baseball players and weather on steroids with regard to climate change.
Miller: When we refer to that we just mean intensifying episodes of weather. When we get a storm it's a more intense storm, we think, because of climate change.
Huttner: One way to look at it is as a baseball player and the number of home runs they hit. We know they hit more during a season on steroids -- and that's through that increased base state. When you increase the base state -- climate change really increases the base state of our daily weather. It's a higher chance of warmth, record heat, extreme rainfall events, all of those things. The Twins would be a good analogy. In 2010, they won 94 games. The chances were they were going to win a game that year, but they didn't win every game. So, you look at that -- like today. Some days we're going to have cold days, but overall with that increased base state we're going to see more warm days.
Miller: What are the precipitation forecasts looking like today for late-winter and then spring and into summer, if you can look ahead?
Huttner: There's some good news in that, I think. The Climate Prediction Center is saying there's a chance for increased rainfall in the Upper Midwest as we head into spring. Minensota, Wisconsin, Iowa -- that northern end of the corn belt favoring perhaps a wetter than average spring. We'll see how it works out, but that's the way the trends look right now.