2010 Monsoon: Opportunities and Obstacles for Talking Climate Change
Aside from one heavy downpour in mid-August that airmailed my neighbor’s corrugated fence into my yard, the 2010 monsoon season seemed lackluster. Clouds arrived late, storms burst in fits and starts only briefly, and then the rains disappeared. By the middle of September, the precipitation totals in many parts of the Southwest, including Tucson, were a drab near-average.
Describing this monsoon season as average, however, would be a slight. The rapid transition from El Niño to La Niña helped set the stage for the delayed arrival, as thunderstorms did not begin in earnest until the middle of July. But humidity was high, even in periods without rain. In Phoenix, for example, dew points—the temperature at which water vapor condenses to form rain—crested on a few occasions to a whopping 70 degrees F, which is more characteristic of the Southeast than the Southwest. Nighttime temperatures were also abnormal caused in part by the higher humidity and soared about 3 degrees F warmer than average for the June–August period in both Arizona and New Mexico. Storms appeared to be glued to the mountains, and rainfall seemed to have a higher variability from place to place than is typical. Dave Gutzler, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of New Mexico and a man who has focused his attention on understanding the monsoon in the Southwest, recalled from memory that in wet summers, thunderstorms seemed to waft over larger areas, while this year it appeared that the rains did not persist long enough, and thus created more parched gaps.
All these oddities have made me wonder what light this season can shed on future monsoons in a warming world. The answer is frustrating.
“One event can’t be linked to climate change” is a common refrain that applies to a heat wave, winter cold snap, hurricane, or monsoon season. This makes statistical sense. A single point does not define a trend, and trends are what matter in the field of climatology. However, from the perspective of communicating about climate change in order to improve climate literacy—which is needed, given national surveys that suggest many misunderstandings about climate science—this concept negates a golden opportunity. Dramatic events create “policy windows” or “teachable moments” that can be used to garner support, pass key legislation, and elevate general understanding. Hurricane Katrina and the recent housing crisis, for example, focused capricious public attention long enough to enact change in attitude and invoke action.
In the Southwest, gale-force winds and intense rains make the monsoon front-page news for about three months. If the connection between aspects of the current monsoon and climate change were incontrovertible, it could provide a cyclical boon for researchers and writers by bringing climate-change science from the laboratories into the living rooms. However, the reality is that there are few robust trends in past monsoons and still many unanswered scientific questions. Until both are resolved, the communication challenge will be to harness the monsoon’s drama to discuss climate change in a broader context.
I suspect that many people are like me and don’t remember climate averages from one year to the next. I’ll likely remember the 2010 monsoon as the season that ripped the wall down between my neighbor and me. And since research suggests that extreme events will increase in a warming world, perhaps next year I’ll help my neighbor rebuild his fence again.