Climate change or El Niño?

I’ve been in Tanzania for 8 years, long enough to get a feel for the seasons here juse south of the equator. In most years I expect a few weeks of rain in October or November, wit’s a more substantial rainy season from February through late May or early June.

2016 has been a little different. The short rains of October/November 2015 didn’t seem to fully materialize in Dar es Salaam, with only a few showers scattered here and there. The “long rains” didn’t hit Dar until April, a month later than normal, and when they did arrive, they were intense but short-lived.

Why do I bring this up? This year’s rains exemplify a few important points to understand about science.

First, the intersection of a wildly complex system such as the global climate, with literally thousands of inputs (variables), and a separate-but-related phenomenon such as El Niño produces patterns which we don’t yet fully understand. These patterns require further study, which brings me to my second point.

The tendency of some people to attribute an odd rainy season, intense storm, or other singular event to one overlying cause is a profound misunderstanding of how science works. Repetition is critically important to understanding the underlying interactions between variables, whether in a controlled lab experiment or an open ecosystem. That’s why climate-change-deniers are wrong to seize upon a big snowfall as evidence of no glocal warming. It’s also why those who point to one particular heat wave or drought as proof of climate change are equally wrong.

Let me be clear: there is an overwhelming consensus based on reliable evidence from thousands of repeated observations that our planet is warming as a result of human activities. I’m not denying that scientific consensus. I’m simply describing the danger of basking conclusions on non-scientific thinking.

Enjoy your summer holiday!

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