Climate Communication Tips:  
The wet get wetter, the dry get drier – in Technicolor

As the earth warms,  “the wet get wetter and the dry get drier.”

In 2011, over half the country suffered either drought (orange) or deluge (blue/fuschia) in 2011.    Dr. Jeff Masters’  WunderBlog (12/12) summed it up:

“The combined fraction of the country experiencing either severe drought or extremely wet conditions was 56% averaged over the January – November period–the highest in a century of record keeping.

Map courtesy of NOAA, via Jeff Masters and Heidi Cullen.    (Climate communicators:   Note how the artful use of color draws the viewer in and makes the key information — areas of drought or deluge — jump out.)

And the climate take-away?

“Climate change science predicts that if the Earth continues to warm as expected, wet areas will tend to get wetter, and dry areas will tend to get drier–so this year’s side-by-side extremes of very wet and very dry conditions should grow increasingly common in the coming decades.”

In a warming world, earth’s water cycle speeds up (See “Drought & deluge:  It’s the Water, Stupid!“)    Drought devastates agriculture;  just ask Texas cattle ranchers.

After fast evaporation parches the South, prevailing winds blow the moisture-laden air northeastward.   The result for Northeastern states:     “When it rains, it pours.

Masters cites 2011 as   “the wettest year in nearly 200 years of record keeping in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”     Philadelphia wasn’t alone. adds that “at least 20 locations from the Ohio Valley to New England have set a new record wet year.”     Their report includes interactive maps of towns that set new records for wet or dry conditions.

Masters summed it up this way:     “If you weren’t washing away in a flood, you were baking in a drought in 2011.”

Was 2011 a “sneak preview” of our climate future?


Update 1/11/11:   Vive la difference!   For contrast, consider this more traditional map, also from NOAA (NESDIS).     It also uses color. But which one catches your eye and makes you want to dive in and swim around?


9 thoughts on “Climate Communication Tips:  
The wet get wetter, the dry get drier – in Technicolor

  1. Don McCubbin

    Hi Tom,

    It is ironic that media coverage on climate went down last year, according to something on Climate Wire (below).


    U.S. climate coverage fell last year while strange weather set records
    Julia Pyper, E&E reporter

    Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2012

    Amid a historic drought in Texas, a presidential election and a year of record-breaking extreme weather events, multiple studies show news coverage of climate change took a steep plunge in 2011.

    “This is really a very low point,” said Robert Brulle, a professor of environmental policy at Drexel University.

    Brulle has been following television news coverage of climate change on the three major network stations — NBC, ABC and CBS — for decades. Last year, he found that the number of stories on climate change in the three nightly news broadcasts fell by more than half, from 32 stories in 2010 to 14 stories in 2011, and was way down from the peak of 147 stories in 2007.

    Politics, not reader or viewer interest, appears to dominate roller-coaster media coverage of climate change in the United States. Graph courtesy of professor Robert Brulle, Department of Culture and Communications, Drexel University.
    “It’s an order of magnitude of difference,” he said.

    The amount of air time also dropped by nearly two-thirds, said Brulle, from 90 minutes and 28 seconds in 2010 to 32 minutes and 20 seconds in 2011.

    Print media experienced a similar trend, although its overall coverage was greater. At least 7,140 journalists and opinion writers published around 19,000 stories on climate change last year, whereas 11,100 writers filed 32,400 stories in 2009, according to research by

    In a study of the five leading U.S. newspapers, Maxwell Boykoff, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, also found that the number of stories on global warming decreased from 2010 to 2011. His research showed The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times boosted their climate reporting, but that it wasn’t enough to outweigh the slump in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

    U.S. coverage lags behind world
    Worldwide, Boykoff found print coverage of climate change in North America continued to lag behind Europe and well behind Oceania, where coverage was way up last year as news groups followed the debate over Australia’s carbon tax.

    In his recently published book “Who Speaks for the Climate?” Boykoff argued that scientific breakthroughs, cultural events, ecological and meteorological events and politics can all affect climate change coverage.

    Brulle agrees that politics was likely a main reason climate change stayed off the air and out of the press in 2011.

    “Last year, none of the politicians were talking about it,” he said. “Obama was not making any statements about climate change, he wasn’t campaigning on it, and it wasn’t a topic of contention.”

    There was an uptick in coverage when GOP candidates like Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry announced their views for and against climate change research. But, generally, said Brulle, “it’s an issue that’s being avoided by both Republicans and Democrats, because I don’t think they see it as a winning issue to talk about.” The same appears true for the nightly news.

    Climate change was also bumped by other pressing news stories. “A lot of other issues are crowding it out,” said Brulle. “Economics and unemployment are still big problems.”

    Yet public interest rises
    Oddly, while there was less climate coverage, public opinion saw more agreement on the issue. Last November, 63 percent of Americans surveyed said they think global warming is happening, up from 57 percent in January of 2010 but still below the 71 percent high in 2008, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

    Yale research also shows that while the economic downturn may still be a popular news story, it doesn’t necessarily take away from public opinion on climate change. A greater number of Americans — now a 57 percent majority — were more likely to disagree with the following statement: “With the economy in such bad shape, the U.S. can’t afford to reduce global warming.”

    “While no one would argue we’re out of the woods, perhaps more Americans are starting to feel a little more stable about the economy and that perhaps we can now think about climate change, which most Americans think about as a distant problem,” said Leiserowitz.

    This could also be connected to the fact that more Americans are linking extreme weather events to climate change. In Leiserowitz’s most recent study, 65 percent said global warming is already affecting weather in the United States and a majority of people thought the extreme events of 2011 were linked to climate change. For instance, 67 percent said global warming was responsible for record high summer temperatures across the country.

    “Americans are beginning to connect climate change to extreme weather events that are being experienced here and now in the U.S., and that is potentially a major and important shift in public consciousness,” said Leiserowitz.

    The record-breaking number of billion-dollar disasters were major news stories of 2011, but, said Drexel’s Brulle, they were rarely linked to climate change. Leiserowitz’s data show people are making that connection themselves.

    “On all sorts of issues, people make up their minds and form their opinions based on a whole set of sources of information of which the media is only one,” he said.

  2. Tom Smerling Post author

    Seems to me that, in addition to it dropping off the political radar, as described above, climate change faces several obstacles, as a news story:

    1) it’s no longer new — the problem is an “old story, ” only solutions would be new.
    2) it’s a hot button that subjects journalists and editors to criticism
    3) it’s complex story; hard to “get it right”

    The irony, of course, is that, looking back, it will undoubtedly be seen as he “biggest story of the century”.

    1. Tom Smerling Post author

      Nice catch! Great article — it warrants a blog post of its own! (Wanna take a shot at at a “guest post? on this?) Or at least add the link to your bite on “Ask the Insurance Industry!”

    2. John

      I’m toying with an idea at the moment that I think would make a good ‘guest post’, Tom. I’ll get back to you on this. I need to do a bit more research.


    1. Don McCubbin

      As noted in Climate Wire, record temps are hitting Canada. This is consistent with predictions that the poles, in particular, are going to see temp rises.


      Record-breaking weather brings Fla. temperatures to Saskatchewan
      Julia Pyper, E&E reporter
      Published: Friday, January 6, 2012

      People who live in the Canadian Prairies are used to shoveling snow off their driveways and wearing scarves wrapped up to their eyeballs at this time of year. But, lately, many prairie residents find themselves sitting on outdoor patios and enjoying remarkably balmy, record-breaking, weather.

      On Jan. 4, temperatures at 30 weather stations across the prairies “devastated” all-time records, said Environment Canada meteorologist David Phillips, who recently chronicled the decreasing likelihood of snow on Christmas Day (ClimateWire, Dec. 14, 2011). This New Year, cities in Canada’s central provinces that are used to seeing the mercury nestled deep below freezing are instead experiencing temperatures well above it.

      “The whole region is much warmer than normal by a long shot,” said Phillips. “We’re seeing temperatures 20 degrees [Celsius] warmer than they should be.” Measured on the Fahrenheit scale, that would be a stunning 36 degrees higher than seasonal norms.

      For instance, Winnipeg, Manitoba, hit a high of 44.6 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday, when it would normally be around 8 degrees. The previous record for the same day was 39.7 degrees, said Phillips. Similarly, Regina, Saskatchewan, got up to 41 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday, when it would normally be around 12 degrees.

      “There were moments [this winter] when it was warmer in Saskatchewan than it was in Florida,” said Phillips.

      Santa’s problems were just the beginning
      But it’s not the record-breaking brush of warm weather that has Phillips shocked; it’s the persistence of the warmth. Temperatures can spike for a day or two, he said, but it’s surprising that they’ve remained so far above average for several weeks.

      Canada’s abnormal winter is thanks to warm winds from California blowing over the British Columbia mountain range, said Phillips. The result is a “supercharged chinook” — a warm, dry wind that naturally forms on the east side of the Canadian Rockies, causing a brief rise in temperatures.

      Since the strong breeze happened to pass by so early in the season, there’s also been no snow to cool the warm air off, which has allowed the nice weather to stick around. According to Phillips, the forecast shows about another 10 days of mild temperatures across the prairie provinces.

      While the delayed cold is good news for Canadians who are saving money on heating bills this winter, it’s been devastating for the aboriginal communities that live further north. The First Nations rely on ice roads to transport staple goods during winter, but this year, they’ve had to fly in provisions at very high costs.

      Uncharacteristically warm temperatures create environmental issues, too. The warm winds cause soil to drift and can spark wildfires in dry snowless fields. Winter also kills a lot of pests, like pine beetles, notorious for killing off large numbers of trees. This winter’s lack of snow could even force a drought come spring.

      “The weather you may be blessing now may be the weather you’re cursing later on,” said Phillips. He added that this year’s conditions could very well be the norm as climate change intensifies in the coming decades.

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