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Bill Patzert: SoCal's weatherman

I'm always telling the skeptics that Los Angeles does too have four seasons: They're called fire, flood, drought and quake.


FOR THE RECORD:
Patzert: In the Patt Asks Q&A with climatologist Bill Patzert on Feb. 13, the amount of greenhouse gases was said to be higher now than in the last 600 million years. The correct time frame is 600,000 years. —


We must have interesting weather -- otherwise, why would an accomplished climatologist and oceanographer such as Bill Patzert want to work here? His title is research scientist at JPL, but during our many episodes of extreme weather, he's practically the color commentator about California meteorology.

In his time he's worked with Vice President Al Gore and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but he's likely to pop up at a Kiwanis luncheon to talk about global warming, or at an elementary school classroom. Hence his favorite weather joke: Why do you have to be careful when it rains cats and dogs? Because you don't want to step on the poodles!

Why do people obsess about the weather?

Politics are complex, but weather -- everybody thinks they're an expert.

People look at the weather at every level. It's the most popular thing on the 6 o'clock news. You'd be amazed at the number of weather enthusiasts in Los Angeles. We have a local chapter of the [American] Meteorological Society, everyone from the guys in Oxnard who work for the National Weather Service to the local forecasters, people at universities, and just a bunch of amateurs keeping records -- just weather nuts. They love it. [During] the storms, people were sending in the rain rates hour by hour.

Did you grow up in a place with real weather?

Gary, Ind. We lived just off Lake Michigan. Those winds would come screaming down the length of Canada, picking up moisture off Lake Michigan. So we used to have 6-, 7-foot snowdrifts. We had tornadoes. Hot and steamy in the summer. As a kid, I used to take weather observations in the backyard; get our latitude and longitude. My dad had been a sea captain in the Merchant Marine, a convoy commander in World War II. He loved the weather and he loved weather books. I love books [too], the great novels of Joseph Conrad -- there are great weather books, seafaring books as well. I started young and never gave it up.

How young?

I'd blown out my knee playing basketball and dropped out of [college] my freshman year and ran away to sea. I hitchhiked to New York and worked for a seaman's union in Brooklyn. Friends of my dad's put me on a tramp freighter. I went around the world. I spent a week in Bali surfing and diving, then back across the Pacific through two great big typhoons.

Then I went [back] to school and double-majored in physics and math at Purdue, a double minor in American literature and geology. One winter, I saw this book on surfing in Hawaii. It was a great time [in graduate school in Hawaii]. You got up at 5 in the morning, went surfing, then to class [for his doctorate in oceanography and meteorology], study in the evening.

What's with all the reports of tornadoes and waterspouts in these recent storms?

We get about five a year. They're small; they're not like the monster tornadoes that swept away Dorothy and Toto. When cold storms come ashore off the Pacific, they violently mix with warm, moist air near the coast, mostly in late afternoons, and we get weak waterspouts and tornadoes. They can be violent and quite damaging. Welcome to California, tornado capital of the West.

How did a climatologist wind up at JPL, which people regard as a space facility?

In 1983, NASA embarked on a new program to measure global ocean sea heights from space. The result [was] a joint satellite mission that revolutionized oceanography and climate science. We cracked many "climate nuts." Our images are used daily to visualize climate changes like El Niño, La Niña and sea-level rise. It was a big gamble, like dropping into a giant wave, but the scientific and personal payoffs have been "awesome, dude."

America's so urbanized, city people often seem to feel apart from the weather, except when it gets outrageous, as it has been.

The history of any region is written in its climate. Farmers thrive or go belly-up depending on three or four years of dry weather or good weather. California is an amazing weather story and water story -- you can't separate the water from the weather. There's nothing natural in California anymore. We changed the Sacramento River during the Gold Rush. We changed the [San Francisco] Bay Delta and Imperial County [with] aqueducts. There's enough water in Southern California for 3 [million] or 4 million people, and now it's pushing 20 million.

L.A. is almost 5 degrees warmer than it was a century ago, essentially because we've done an extreme makeover. Urban heat islands. [Irrigation] makes it warmer. A lawn or a golf course captures heat. We used to have a couple of days a year above 95 degrees. Now we have two-week heat waves. So anybody who thinks that Californians haven't had a profound impact on the climate . . .

Make your best and briefest case for taking global warming seriously.

Simply, the amount of greenhouse gases has measurably and dramatically increased. They're higher now than they've been in the last 600 million years. The atmosphere is warmer; the oceans are warmer. The great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, the Arctic ice cover at the end of summer, is less every year -- about 40% of what it was 30 years ago. The evidence is pretty overwhelming: We're living in a melting world and a warming world. And it's just a preview. The sea level has risen 8 inches in the last century.

Most of that sea-level rise is melting ice. It's new water coming off the land mass. So the projections are for global sea levels to rise: more people, more greenhouse gas. Sea levels will rise almost a meter in the next century -- a meter. About 3 feet. L.A. Harbor and the [Long Beach] Aquarium will be underwater. Broad Beach is toast.

So it's clear, if you read back in history. Look back at the period we call the Medieval warming, from about 800 AD to 1200, when the world was almost a degree and a half warmer. All kinds of things happened, including hundred-year droughts along the Colorado. And that was followed by the Little Ice Age, from about 1300 to the mid-1800s. And on top of this evolved these monster El Niños.

The problems we have now -- the deficit and war and poverty -- will be dwarfed by climate change, sea-level rise, a warming world, change in agricultural and rainfall patterns. What happens when you have nearly 60 million people in California and no water? In the old days, the Anasazi just dispersed throughout the Southwest. Now we're 95% urban. So we're definitely not going to put L.A. in a backpack and move to British Columbia.

The question is, how to deal with it? With a sensible energy policy and something about constraining global population. Perhaps we'll still get hit in the head with a whiffle ball, but if we don't [act], we're going to get hit in the head with a hardball.

The study of global warming is no longer an ivory-tower pursuit. It's a political battlefield.

My parents always had a great social conscience. In my whole life I've been a pain in the tuchis -- for water conservation or climate issues. [You can't do] science without being involved with the community or the globe. To me it all goes together.

On the Internet I found the dire sentence, "Bill Patzert in the e-mail loop of Climategate scandal," although it did acknowledge that you were only listed as copied on some e-mails. What do you make of the tempest?

The much-maligned Climategate scientists are solid and their results unequivocally correct. These are the most important issues the planet will face in the new century.

People are afraid of change. I do a lot of public speaking to explain that global warming is real, what the consequences will be. Some people cannot be talked to. The skeptics will try to back you down, so you waste all your time and effort. This Climategate thing -- these poor [scientists] have stopped their productivity just so they can defend themselves. That's the way they bog you down. So you'd better be able to shout as loud as they can. Rush wants to debate me; I'm here, because I'm definitely no shrinking violet.

Do you carry an umbrella?

I have three of them in my car. If I had a buck for every umbrella I've lost, I wouldn't be talking to you. I'd be in Tahiti.

patt.morrison@latimes.com. This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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