Seattle, Washington, where I live, cracked 112°F at the peak of a heatwave that moved through the region this week. For this time of year, the average high temperature is about 65°F, with a standard deviation of 11°F. This means that the heatwave was a 4.2 sigma event ((112 – 65)/11). An event like this should occur about one day in about 128 years, and while this shattered the record books, Seattle has seen more 100+ days in the last decade than it has since weather records began in the 1880s.
While such heat is certainly no stranger to Texas, this week saw another record – the largest hailstone to hit the state. At 20in x 6in x 6in, had it hit a person, it would have killed them. In Miami, an apartment complex collapsed, after having sunk in ground that was becoming increasingly swamplike from ocean water undermining it.
The world has seen more category 5 storms in the last five years than it had in the last fifty prior, and in the Arctic 90+°F temperatures were recorded at several stations, even as the Arctic Ocean has become completely circumnavigable for much of the year.
The meteorology and climatology fields employ as many data scientists as healthcare, and the models that they create are some of the largest and most complex in the world. Not surprisingly, insurance companies (also big data science employers) work very closely with meteorologists, as weather trends impact health (including pandemics), agriculture, real estate, and sectors of the economy. Those insurance companies are becoming increasingly vocal about climate change because they are having to bear the costs of the growing risks from heat, severe storms, drought, and so forth, costs that are making their way into the goods and services that consumers pay for.
What makes this an area that all data scientists should be watching closely (and gaining more domain expertise in) is that as we refine our models about what is happening right now, what emerges is that not only is anthropogenic-induced global warming real, but the impacts that the models are predicting are becoming more dire, not less. If it can hit 112°F in Seattle, temperatures can hit 140°F in Florida and Arizona (and Mumbai and Dubai), the temperature at which the human body starts shutting down because the brain is becoming cooked. The weather is now entering into our modeling in ways that we never expected.
The last few years have seen a significant portion of the population sticking their heads in the (increasingly hot) sand, trying to deny the potential dangers of climate change, but that’s a narrative that is becoming harder and harder to justify when Seattle streets are melting, Florida apartments are collapsing and the insurance costs are making business as usual too expensive to continue. It is time for data scientists to speak out as well, even when the analysis they bring is one that business and social leaders are finding an inconvenient truth.
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