PHILADELPHIA REFLECTIONS
Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

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Weather Man

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Paul Walsh

PAUL Walsh, our local weather man, recently addressed the GIC (Global Interdependence Center) at the Federal Reserve, and presumably because everyone talks about the weather, the meeting was well attended. While he is too experienced to get drawn into a global warming controversy, we get the general outline of his views. What we call the weather is largely a result of various clouds and wind currents blowing around the planet in response to the rotation of the planetary mixture of oceans and land masses. The familiar landscape visible to astronauts makes it easy to accept this view of things.

The global warming issue, however you explain it and where ever it may be going, is a weather cycle to be measured in centuries. Shorter cycles of about eight years in duration tend to result in American weather patterns sometimes blowing Canadian cold air toward the East Coast, and sometimes blowing California winter weather Eastward. In 2011-12 we seem to be experiencing a California winter, while the preceding two winters were unusually cold, reflecting Canadian conditions. What may or may not be happening with the hundred-year global warming cycle is not easily slipped into our daily conversations. It is probably quite irrelevant to global trends whether or not last year was a cold one, or whether our sidewalks are unusually slippery this morning.

Inquiries about the weather are the number one topic to be clicked on the Internet, reaching 17% of queries. That's nearly double the second largest category, and four times the number of inquiries about the stock market. Ordinary variations of the weather have been calculated to have an economic value of $384 billion, or 3.4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Insurance claims for more severe weather abnormalities run between ten and fifty billion dollars a year. The number of hurricanes and similar disasters is highly variable, sometimes running as high as fifty in a bad year.

Predictions are improving, but ridicule of weatherman errors is still highly embarrassing to the professionals in the business. A generation ago, it was almost impossible to get a one-minute warning of an approaching tornado, but nowadays we average fourteen minutes warning for them. That's almost long enough to be useful. Hurricanes seem to be increasing in frequency, but decreasing in average intensity. But insurance claims are getting steadily higher, largely because more people are building more structures in harm's way.

Small wonder that weathermen are a cautious lot about predictions. The present party line, in case you wanted to ask, is that predictions more than ten years in advance -- are just about impossible.

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