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NOAA scientist to serve as expert in Wikipedia edit-a-thon
Katie Valentine
/ Categories: Research Headlines, Climate

NOAA scientist to serve as expert in Wikipedia edit-a-thon

The edit-a-thon will focus on the link between extreme weather and climate change

By Katie Valentine

Say you’re just starting to research the link between extreme weather and climate change. Where do you start your search?

As much as we’d love for the answer to be (we have some great reference guides on this very topic!) chances are it’s Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that’s among the most highly-visited websites in the world. It’s a go-to resource for many scientific topics, but Wikipedia’s structure — in which page content is added and edited by the public — can mean some pages lack the detail, nuance and accuracy that scientists who study these topics would like to see. 

That’s where NOAA scientist Tom Knutson comes in. In order to ensure that the pages on Wikipedia are scientifically accurate and reflect the latest science, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are hosting a climate change-focused Wikipedia edit-a-thon on February 21 and 22, and enlisting the help of Knutson to serve as a subject matter expert during the event. 

Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters

Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters

Extreme weather and climate events can be costly. In 2019, there were 14 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. These events included 3 flooding events, 8 severe storm events, 2 tropical cyclone events, and 1 wildfire event. Credit: NOAA NCEI

Knutson, head of the Weather and Climate Dynamics Division at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, has focused much of his research on determining the link between anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change and extreme weather events, including hurricanes. He’ll be addressing these topics at the edit-a-thon, where he’ll give a short talk about the ins and outs of attributing extreme weather events to climate change. After the talk, he’ll serve as an expert in the room as volunteers edit Wikipedia pages. Edit-a-thons provide an opportunity for experts like Knutson to advise editors on how to phrase complicated ideas, what to include and what to leave out, and what potential pitfalls to avoid when trying to explain a complex scientific topic. 

The topic of linking extreme weather events to anthropogenic climate change can be particularly complicated, Knutson notes. Science strongly suggests that anthropogenic climate change can increase the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events, but attributing a specific individual extreme event to anthropogenic climate change can be much trickier, if possible at all. 

“This topic can be a source of confusion,” Knutson said. “If you look at statements that come out in the press or online discussions about extreme events that have just occurred, the views can vary from one extreme: people who are not convinced there’s any human influence on climate at all, to another extreme: people who want to blame any extreme weather or climate event that happens on anthropogenic climate change. I’ll be there trying to represent more of a consensus scientific view on this topic.”

Scientists can sometimes confidently attribute stretches of abnormal temperatures or higher-than-normal rainfall (because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture) at least partly to anthropogenic climate change. Events such as wintertime cold air outbreaks or landfalling hurricanes over the U.S., however, are harder to link to anthropogenic climate change, as these are believed to be strongly influenced by different forms of natural variability like El Niño and La Niña, making it difficult to clearly identify anthropogenic influences in the data.

For those types of events, “We tend to make much more nuanced and caveated statements” when discussing possible links to human-caused climate change, Knutson said. “When you’re talking about extreme events, it really depends on the particular type of event as to whether you’re going to be able to draw any type of confident link to anthropogenic climate change.”

Knutson points to recent reports like the National Academies 2016 Report on “Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change” and the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society’s annual “Explaining Extreme Events from a Climate Perspective” as good sources of peer-reviewed information about this branch of climate science, and says he’ll encourage the editors at the edit-a-thon to use these reports as resources. Though it can be complex, understanding this aspect of climate science is important, he said. 

Take adaptation planning, for example. “Say you have a hurricane that does a huge amount of damage to a coastal city,” Knutson said. “What does the city take away from that experience in terms of adaptation? Do they have to rethink their level of storm protection, or in an extreme case, do they have to decide between rebuilding or relocating?” Scientific information on how likely it is, statistically, for a storm of similar magnitude to hit the city again can help with those decisions.

“I think what our science can do is to inform that decision-making process, by saying this is what science is saying about the link between different emissions scenarios and climate change —  including changes in extreme events” Knutson said. 

The reports Knutson points to are clear to note that some events can be confidently attributed to anthropogenic climate change and some can’t (or can’t yet). “I think it would be good if Wikipedia entries also included some of that context,” Knutson said. “That’s my vision.”

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