Meteorologist & storm expert Dr. Jeff Masters on super storms predicted by James Hansen-led paper. Dr. Kevin Trenberth from UCAR has doubts about the science. Australian author & activist David Spratt on dying Great Barrier Reef. Radio Ecoshock 160518

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A huge scientific paper published by James Hansen and a group of international scientists contains dire warnings about how climate change will hit us. Perhaps none is more astounding than a prediction of super storms, this century, greater than anything seen in human times.

I don’t have the scientific training to say this Hansen-led paper is right about super storms, and when they will come. In fact, it’s hard to imagine storms we have never experienced, things not even described in ancient legends. But if, IF, Hansen is right, what would they look like?

We can get help on that, from one of the world’s premier experts on violent weather. That would be Dr. Jeff Masters, the meteorologist who has flown into the eye of hurricanes, chased storms, provides forecasts, and writes regularly for The Weather Underground.


It’s so fascinating to talk with Jeff! He’s got the big picture on big storms right at his fingertips. We hear that the strongest hurricane on record hit Mexico last year, and the strongest tropical typhoon hit Fiji also last year.

Is this a sure sign that a time of terrible storms has begun? The honsest science seems to be that it’s too early to tell. Our good records, especially satellite records, only begin in the 1980’s. That’s a short period to judge a climate pattern. Some scientists, like Kerry Immanuel, find evidence that we are getting stronger storms.

However, there was a giant hurricane in 1780 in the Caribbean. It’s the only one known to have winds powerful enough to strip bark right off the trees. “The Great Hurricane” as it was known, flattened absolutely everything, buildings and plant life, on the island of Barbados. Jeff tells us colonial cannon, weighing tons, were thrown around like paper.

Maybe that is an example of what the Hansen team is talking about.

Jeff Masters explains how the oceans may cool at the surface from meltwater from Greenland. The cooler air above that will clash with warm air drawn up with the Gulf Stream. Those temperature differences, and pressure differences, can generate very big storms. It’s a great explanation (better than I’ve written here) so please listen.

We also discuss how changes in the ocean currents may create more storms for Britain and Northern Europe. There’s a lot for your brain to chew on in this interview.

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As Jeff Masters says, this paper by James Hansen is looking at extremes. The extreme case may not happen. Or will we get faster and higher sea level rise, accompanied by super storms, as Hansen says?

A number of influential scientists do not yet agree with the claims launched in this paper by Hansen et al. It isn’t settled, but it is unsettling. If you search the Net, or look at the publicly available chain of reviewer comments, it appears Hansen is at the bleeding edge, and not yet the core, of the current climate research community.

I invited some scientists critical of this paper to speak on Radio Ecoshock. Dr. Michael Mann, who has appeared on the program before, bowed out due to the load of academic work he has just at this time.


I contacted Dr. Kevin Trenberth, the Distinguished Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Trenberth has been a lead author in at least two reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and he’s an acknowledged world expert on some of the issues raised in the paper by Hansen et al.


While Dr. Trenberth decided not to do a live interview on this paper, he did send me his considered comments, and agree I could read them out to you on Radio Ecoshock. Here is what Trenberth says about the paper “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms…”


The new Hansen et al study is provocative and intriguing but rife with speculation and “what if” scenarios. It has many conjectures and huge extrapolations based on quite flimsy evidence, but evidence nonetheless. In that regard it raises good questions and topics worthy of further exploration, but it is not a document that can be used for setting policy for anthropogenic climate change, although it pretends to be so.

The paper is long. It hinges upon interpretation of paleo and other data that is apt to be somewhat controversial. It uses a model that is coarse resolution and which does not have a very good climate simulation. The evaluation of the model leaves much to be desired: no differences are shown compared with observations, and some errors are large. No mention is made of ENSO or Pacific decadal variations that dominate interannual and decadal variability in the real world, and which are a key to understanding the recent hiatus, and recent trends that are not representative of longer-term trends, although frequently interpreted as such. In section 3.8.5, the authors point out the need to simulate a number of features realistically and the model does not really do them very well, especially basic things like sea surface salinity. So the relevance of the model is not established. They use the model for a number of highly artificial experiments that are supposed to depict melting of ice at high latitudes: ”freshwater injection”. These experiments introduce a lot of very cold fresh water in various places, and then they see what happens. The question is how relevant these are to the real world and what is happening as global warming progresses? They do not seem at all realistic to me.

A key to a lot of this is how clouds change, and one needs to get clouds right in the first place to have confidence in the results. Unfortunately, this is an area where major problems exist. Huge problems occur over the southern oceans for instance and all models have far too much sunshine penetrating to the surface compared with observations. No doubt the southern ocean, featured strongly by Hansen et al, plays an important role, but data there are poor, and change is not well known; in particular the recent hiatus in global warming greatly influences any observations, which can therefore be quite misleading wrt trends. I certainly do not believe the result claimed with regard to less snow over Antarctica with a warming climate. Although Hansen argues that the real world is responding even faster than in the model scenarios, this is not at all clear owing to the natural variability.

The paper is quite well written and a tour de force in many respects, but there are way too many assumptions and extrapolations for anything here to be taken seriously other than to promote further studies. The authors often say that “these model limitations must be kept in mind” – and there are many other model limitations not discussed – but then they do not keep them in mind when drawing conclusions. Some of the conclusions with regard to the need for immediate actions I strongly agree with, but it seems that this study has gone out of its way to make the case, stretching credibility.

Kevin Trenberth



So what do I think? I’m not sure it matters, as I’m not a climate scientist, a politician, or an expert. Still, from the hundreds of scientists I’ve interviewed over the past ten years, and my research into climate events over the past 25 years, I will offer a few tentative comments.

1. As a science journalist, it seems to me we are playing catch-up with reality. The science, particularly projections by the IPCC, always seems at least a decade behind what actually happens. Jim Hansen says the models are not sufficient. He presents one way he thinks they are broken. This group appears to say we need new assumptions to get where the climate is really going.

2. I have followed Hansen’s career since the early 1990’s. He tends to ask extreme questions, – to test them. For example, he publish a paper investigating whether Earth could lose it’s atmosphere due to runaway climate change. Or are there natural brakes? Hansen found we won’t lose the atmosphere. But he asked the question, likely due to his early work on the atmosphere of Venus and Mars. Mars is a planet which may have lost it’s atmosphere. So he’s looking at the extreme edges.

3. I’m least certain about the work on super storms, a subject which seems to worry and fascinate James Hansen, whose first book was “Storms of My Grandchildren”. He may be right in the long run, but I haven’t seen a train of evidence to suggest off-the-charts monster storms will be seen this century, much less before 2050.

4. Likewise, the projection that North Atlantic ocean currents could be overturned this century runs against the scientific work I’ve seen so far on that subject, which I thought was laid to rest, at least for the short-term.

I applaud the Hansen team promoting a more open platform for publishing, where other scientists, and the interested public, can see the questions and answers that shape the development of science. These topics are too important to wait a year or two, in the previous publication process. On the other hand, I think review by one’s peers, in this case top world scientists, remains essential to keep close to fact and truth.

In my view, James Hansen and his group became frustrated with science unable to keep up with rapid climate change. They challenged the world to do better, and they challenge the political system to realize the unacceptable risks posed by climate disruption. We probably won’t know how right or wrong this paper is until 2030, if not 2050. By then of course, we will be utterly committed to Earth with a very different climate. We just don’t know how different, or how fast we will get there.

I invited Dr. Hansen to speak on this program. He agreed to a day and time last week, but then at the last minute excused himself to attend another appointment. He has not responded to my requests to reschedule. I find this unprofessional, but I don’t know the stress and work load he bears. I’m sorry to miss his input.

I’ll get more reaction to this paper on ice melt, super storms and sea level rise as it comes in. Other scientists and activists have agreed to talk about this. Next week I’ll talk with the well-known climate scientist Dr. David Archer, who was a reviewer of this Hansen paper. And we’ll hear from an anti-nuclear activist who says James Hansen has gone way too far in his support for old and dangerous nuclear reactors – as a part solution for climate change.

Here are some links I found helpful in my research on this ground-breaking paper by Hansen et al.:

“Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2o C global warming could be dangerous” (Abstract) (full text)

A transcript of Hansen’s “Video Abstract” can be found here at Columbia University

Here are more articles on this paper and what it means.

Scientific discussion of this paper (one site among many)

More links to criticism here:

In particular, New York Times journalist Andy Revkin found two papers that conflict with the Hansen interpretation of physical signs in the Caribbean. Maybe the big boulders were not tossed by super storms?

As I say, when you make predictions as large as the Hansen team did, we can expect a lot of discussion before it becomes settled science.


MIT says pretty well every big storm could have been predicted by a meteorologist like Jeff Masters, if given good weather data. But is it possible new storms could pop up, more or less unannounced, in places where people are not expecting them, and not socially prepared? Jeff says recent science by Kerry Emmanuel calls these “grEy swans” – the storms not expected or predicted. One place we may find them is in the Middle East. Three stronger than normal storms were already seen of Yemen last year. Could Abu Dhabi make the next storm news headlines?

Giant storms are going to be disruptive to the economy, and I think to people’s sense of security. Maybe that’s one of the biggest un-named impacts of climate change: it’s a security threat in a very personal way. Can we compare it to the impact of terrorism?

Now we’ll move to one of the biggest current impacts of climate change on this planet.


As I struggle to cover world problems, comes a call from Vivien Langford. She’s the host of “Beyond Zero” on 3CR community radio in Melbourne, Australia. “You must cover the mass bleaching of coral in the Great Barrier Reef”, she said. Vivien sent a link to a powerful story by David Spratt. He’s the author of the book “Climate Code Red” and one of my favorite blogs, also called “Climate Code Red“.


David asks: “After record, mind-numbing coral bleaching, what would it take to ‘Save the Reef’?” Good question.

David Spratt, welcome back to Radio Ecoshock.

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As David writes in his blog, back in 2009 Charlie Veron, one of the world’s greatest coral experts, told the Royal Society the Great Barrier Reef was on a “death watch” – even then. But let’s back up a bit, We’ve all seen video of gorgeous coral, but it’s really hard to grasp the size of Australia’s giant reef. David describes this giant geological feature, stretching along thousands of miles of coast line, and built by living creatures.

The coral, he tells us, are small living animals. Like all animals, they depend upon plants to photosynthesize their food. In the case of coral, they have teamed up with a type of algae. It’s the algae that gives coral it’s brilliant colors.

When the sea temperature becomes too hot, the relationship breaks down in terms of chemistry and gases. In order to survive, the coral expells the algae. Then the coral becomes simply white, which is called “bleaching”. A recent survey of hundreds of reefs in the prime parts of the Great Barrier reef, David tells us, found up to 95% of the coral was bleached.

Coral can come back, but it takes about 15 years. If another bleaching event comes before that 15 years, as seems likely with climate change, then the coral may die off completely. About one quarter of known marine species spend at least part of their lives among coral. It’s the nursery of sea life. Hundreds of millions of humans also depend on coral-related fisheries for their source of protein. The coral reef helps protect the coastline. The importance of coral goes on and on.

Coral has been on Earth for 500 million years. It has survived several great extinction events, barely. We don’t know if we are seeing the end of the major coral reefs. I’ll ask Dr. Charlie Veron that question next week.

David Spratt has contributed to our climate awareness in many ways. His 2008 book “Climate Code Red, the Case for Emergency Action” laid out most of the critical problems we face today. The book stood the test of time very well. David has been an activist as well as an author. He has continued to monitor key climate change developments in his blog “Climate Code Red“.

I check David’s blog regularly. When I asked David if he planned another book, or an update on Climate Code Red, he told us climate events are developing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up with any book. So his blog is really the continuing story of climate change. Check it out. Follow David Spratt at and on Twitter. His handle is @djspratt.

I’d like to thank Vivien Langford of Beyond Zero Radio, 3CR Community Radio in Melbourne, for reminding me of this coral catastrophe, and suggesting David as a guest.

Of course it’s not just coral dying in Australia. It’s happening in many places in the world. Here’s just one story about one place: India.

That’s it for this week. I’m sorry it always seems we meet at funerals, as various species, ecosystems, and ice worlds fall victim to our fossil-powered civilization. Perhaps one day, we’ll meet as survivors who changed away in time, before a final climate catastrophe. We can try.

I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening.