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Dr Wim Klaassen: ‘Predictions of a horror winter are totally unfounded’

30 November 2011

The predictions of a potential ‘horror winter’ that keep cropping up in the media are totally unfounded. It is not possible to predict weather more than ten days in advance. However, great importance is attached to such predictions – while at the same time global warming scepticism seems to be on the increase. Wim Klaassen, a meteorologist at the University of Groningen, believes that meteorologists should be very concerned about this. ‘There is no doubt that the climate is changing, viewed in the long term. Meteorologists need to learn to explain this better.’

‘They sound exciting, the stories in the media about the imminent horror winter,’ says Wim Klaassen, ‘but we shouldn’t attach much importance to them. You can predict the weather for ten days tops. Anything beyond that is really unclear.’ The predictions of a horror winter are based on a number of factors such as measurements of the number of sunspots and temperature patterns in ocean currents, otherwise known as El Niño. Klaassen says, ‘These values can be measured objectively and do have some predictive value. On the basis of these values it is possible to say that there is a somewhat increased likelihood of a relatively cold winter. But that’s very different from a horror winter.'

Uncertain and confident

Why is weather so difficult to predict? Klaassen explains that it is because it is such an incredibly turbulent system. ‘Compare it with a flowing brook. When will the water surface be smooth, when will the water start to churn and when will waves form? This depends on so many different factors that it is almost impossible to capture it in models.’ So how can climate researchers then claim with such confidence that the climate is warming up, viewed in the long term. ‘Compare it with that brook again. It might be difficult to predict how the surface of the water will look, but it is possible to predict how high the water level will be. This is a different question altogether and it depends on very different factors,’ says Klaassen.

Botched job informing the public

Klaassen thinks that meteorologists should be very concerned that the wild predictions about an approaching horror winter are being taken seriously whereas almost a third of the Dutch population is sceptical about global warming. ‘We meteorologists must be alert and react when sceptics inflate uncertainties in our research. We’re so used to conducting academic debate with each other that we didn’t realize in time how great the social impact of our research would be. We botched the job of informing the general public about climate change because we weren’t prepared for it.’

Help required from communication experts

Klaassen thinks that meteorologists now have a better understanding of how they should inform the general public, but they still need the help of communication experts. ‘It’s bad enough that the PVV is sceptical about global warming. That a party such as the VVD is also making similar noises makes it clear how important it is that research findings are brought out into the open in a convincing way. No, our research doesn’t offer a hundred percent certainty, but there is no doubt that the climate is warming up and that we in the Netherlands must prepare for heavy rain and flooding. There must be no misunderstanding about this.’

‘Continue to invest in the KNMI’

It gives Klaassen particular cause for concern that the PVV and VVD have called into question the funding of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) because they claim the Institute trots along unquestioningly behind the climate lobbyists. Nonsense, says Klaassen. ‘The KNMI’s research is very thorough; and that’s from someone who doesn’t work for them. It might be possible to leave weather forecasting to market forces – commercial bureaus such as MeteoConsult earn good money doing this – but, despite the importance of climate research, it can certainly not be called a money-spinner. It’s therefore crucial and in our common interest that the state continues to invest in independent climate research.’

Curriculum Vitae

Wim Klaassen (1951) is a senior researcher at the Centre for Isotope Research at the University of Groningen. He specializes in the interaction between ocean and atmosphere. After he graduated in physics from Utrecht University, Klaassen worked as a researcher at Alterra in Wageningen and the IMAU in Utrecht. He received his PhD from TU Delft for a study of the reliability of radar installations in predicting rainfall. Klaassen heads research at the University of Groningen’s weather station at Lutjewad by the Wadden Sea.

Last modified:28 November 2017 5.02 p.m.
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