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Sam Champion Talks Extreme Weather and Climate Change

Sam Champion Talks Extreme Weather and Climate Change

Sam Champion
ABC News

Weather isn't going to suddenly become less extreme, says the out meteorologist.

So what else weather-wise can happen this year? Fires destroying Maui and Canada. Heat scorching the South and Midwest. 100-degree water temperatures off the Florida coast. A hurricane in California with flooding rains in the desert. Now a giant storm racing toward the Gulf Coast.

If you still don't believe in climate change, don't worry, extreme weather is bound to catch up with you and change your mind. And make sure you adhere the advice of your local TV weather forecaster if they warn you that danger is approaching.

Sam Champion is a New York weather institution, starting his career at WABC TV in 1988. In 2006, he became the weather anchor for Good Morning America. In his capacity as weather editor, he also built the ABC News's Weather, Climate and Environment Unit, and oversaw all weather, climate, and environmental coverage and content on all ABC platforms.

In 2012, he became the mManaging editor of the Weather Channel, where Champion created and hosted AMHQ, a four-hour morning show, and 23.5, a climate and science interview program in prime time.

Since I live in New York City, I catch Champion’s weather reports during the early a.m. weekdays on WABC while flipping back and forth with Morning Joe at the gym. His exuberance is unmatched, and it’s easy to feel his positive energy, even on those days when his forecasts leave a lot to be desired.

When we hopped on our Zoom, I began by letting Champion know that I had climate change experience working with the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and that I had recently done a column with UNIPCC Chairman Hoesung Lee. I wanted him to know that he could feel free to "talk shop" since I have some knowledge about the subject. Immediately, Champion’s face lit up, and our conversation began in earnest.

Champion is passionate about many things, including his terrace garden high above Manhattan, but few topics produce as much zeal as climate change. Moreover, his knowledge about the subject runs deep after nearly 40 years of studying weather systems for his forecasts.

This summer, besides indictments, weather has been driving the news, with heat, wind, floods, smoke and fires — most recently the horrible devastation in Hawaii.

Scientists have been predicting an uptick of extreme weather for decades, and the devastation they thought would come decades from now is happening. That’s why we should all be alarmed and paying attention.

I think if time allowed, I might still be talking to Champion about climate change, since there’s not only so much to discuss, but because we are both so invested in the subject.

What follows is an edited version of my discussion with Champion about climate change.

Sam Champion Receives the HRC Visibility

Nice to see you, Sam. It’s been quite a summer of extreme weather, hasn’t it?
Great to see you, John. Well, I think, to be honest, you've got to expect extremes now in 2023. Because we're in a time of kind of uncharted waters, really. Looking at all the long-range forecasting that has been put out since the beginning of this year, I found a lot of it to be not necessarily reliable because of where we are and how patterns are changing.

If you're trying to figure out a hurricane season, for instance, but you've never really had water this warm and you've never really had an early season of African dust and how strong El Nino is, then, you know, it's very difficult to go about the work of accurate long-range forecasting.

There is no doubt that, as you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, you and I have been part of this conversation, and I’ve been following it for the last 30 and 40 years. And so, as scientists were saying, if you look at the list of things that they were saying would happen or likely to happen when we reach certain criteria for climate change, it’s been accurate.

Yes, so what I think you’re saying is what we talked about earlier, what scientists have been predicting for years is starting to come to fruition now.
Yes, we see these extremes every day now. I think that we have to expect more extreme weather extremes from this point forward. I think it's very difficult to begin to understand how the rest of the summer will go, and this intense burst of early heat.

For many parts of the country and even in Europe, you know, we’re getting these intense bursts of heat and bursts of intense storms, and we're going to see them for the rest of the summer. The other thing I would kind of like to warn people is that we're getting complacent with this. There's a younger generation that feels like that's what summer is supposed to be like in Texas or New Mexico, for example. They’ll expect triple-digit temperatures as normal and that fire doesn't really have a season in California, like it used to. And the problem with not understanding history, climate history, and American history and world history is that you have no perspective for where you are right now. And my concern is that people will see these extremes as normal. And I worry about a young generation that thinks that this is the way things have been when it is not.

When I met with the scientists while working at the UNIPCC, they were talking about extreme heat waves coming in the year 2030 or something like that, same with category 4 hurricanes. This was back in 2015. But what they said would happen in 15 years is happening now. And so do you see the predictions that were made, that were maybe decades in the making, are now happening?
Yes, it is real, and there's no doubt about it. And you know, again, given the opportunity for someone to pull up storms and take those quotes from 10, 20 years ago and match them side by side, they would match.

We're seeing hurricanes go from a category 1 to a cat 5 in a day, when in my lifetime, we had time to warn people when we saw a storm entering warm waters. We could say, “All right, it's a cat 2 now. But look here, this is what's going to happen. It's a cat 1 on Monday, and by Wednesday, it will be a cat 2. And then will make landfall on Thursday or Friday."

Well, it’s not like that anymore. We've got fast-moving storms that are rapidly exploding into different categories much quicker. And that's just something that anyone who's my age in the forecast business and has long-term experience can tell you — we just didn't see that.

That's just one example. Young forecasters see it now. But without the perspective of looking back and saying, how did we forecast storms in the '70s? And the '80s? And the '90s? How did those storms behave? You know, it's very different now.

I want to touch on hurricanes, particularly with the warm waters we are seeing, like the record 101 degrees off the Florida Keys. And I know from my experience that the Earth's water acts as a coolant for the Earth's temperature. It helps moderate it. So when we see these waters getting so hot, and particularly at this time of year when warm water accelerates the hurricanes, do you see this being an alarming prognosis?
Here's the thing — the potential is there and the potential energy that comes from all that available heat in the water is potentially alarming. You know, does a storm get into that water? Is that storm a healthy circulation? Does that storm have a weather pattern to propel it to land? All those things are taken on a case-by-case basis.

And when I say something like the health of a storm, I mean for it to grow — what a storm is built to do is just grow and grow and grow until it can't grow anymore. And now you're just looking to see if the right situation develops in that right place for that storm to become that trouble storm that we all know can happen. We now understand that there are a lot of complicated variables in building these storms. Remember, it was only in the '60s that we got satellites, so there's been an exponential leap in forecasting hurricanes.

We'll watch and see how the storms develop as we get further into the season and we look in different places for those storms to develop. And as we look at the Gulf coming into play, having the water temperatures that you mentioned there as fuel for a potential storm. It will make anyone who studies climate, anyone who's knowledgeable about weather, take pause about what is possible.

Most people have the perception that being near water causes these terrific storms with hurricanes and so forth. But what's coming across the United States in places in the South and Midwest, and now even the East Coast, it’s extreme storms, tornadoes, damaging wind and hail, buckets and buckets of rain. Is all this extreme weather away from the coasts from El Nino?
Let’s just talk about some of the basics. If you think about warm air, it holds more liquid, so if you're warming air, then that makes it more open to holding more water. If you're coming with a clash of cold air behind it, and that's what we've been seeing since early in the season, these big pushes of cold air that kind of come in behind, and this pattern has stayed a little further north. It wasn't down in a tornado alley early in the season. It just kind of held in northern areas.

You're going to get the differential between cold air and hot air that helps you build those storms. The hotter the air, the more available moisture you have, so you get these downpours and flooding rains.

So we’ll just focus on this area [New York metropolitan] since you and I are both from here. We used to see these big flooding events in this area, and if you look at them in history, they were from tropical systems or remnants of tropical systems from the coast. Now recently we've had flooding events just from basic garden-variety thunderstorms developing from the west. And again, this isn’t normal, and back to what I said before, people will say, "Oh, well, you know, it's normal, or that’s just what happens from a thunderstorm."

But having the historical perspective, knowing how things develop in this area and what kinds of trouble we have in this area, I guarantee you that what we've been through this spring and early summer was very different for anyone who's forecasted for this area for a long period of time. It was never this way, so the severity of the storms, the intense rain from these storms, this is a new phenomenon.

That's the thing, isn’t it? I mean the intensity of the storms now will be constant. They aren’t suddenly going to drop off and become less intense, right?
What we're finding now is the heat dome, and this is what makes this such a difficult conversation for areas. Because folks in Texas are baking under this heat that was above 100 degrees, and the heat index was as high as 110, 111 degrees and more, and above that for days and days and days.

You had other people, like us here in New York, who weren't in that heat. When you're talking about a pattern, it's not one global pattern. And people will say, well, it's always hot in the summertime in Texas. Yes, it is, but it's not always that hot for that long in Texas. And it's one of those things where you must have the historical perspective, I keep saying that, because it's going to be very easy for someone who doesn't have knowledge to just think that 30 straight days over 100 degrees is normal. It is not.

This is an economic problem too. Do you know how much it costs people to pay for all that power to keep people comfortable and cool? And, what's happening to the water supply when you go into drought? Water becomes less plentiful and more costly. So, you know, it's trying to get people to understand the seriousness even if it's not affecting them directly and trying to get them to appreciate that there is pain, suffering, death and destruction and to get them to believe that scientists have been predicting this for years and predicting more extreme weather. This is everyone’s problem.

Our globe is at a 23.5-degree angle tilt, which allows us to have seasons and different temperatures. The sun doesn't hit the planet evenly. So it allows us to have different weather in different places around the world. And it's difficult for people who are not aware of extreme weather, because it’s not affecting them, to get them to be part of this conversation. It's so easy for them to put it down and dismiss it. But what I like to say to people about that conversation is I know lots of climate scientists. They spend their life studying this; they spend their lives telling these stories, collecting this data. And when they tell you that this is a problem, they're not getting paid extra or getting any bonus points. They're telling us what their research shows, and it would behoove us to listen to them.

One question I do want to ask you is about the ocean currents. And I'm sure you've seen the studies that some scientists are saying they’ll disrupt as early as 2025, while others are saying it's decades away. What are your thoughts on how critical ocean currents are to our survival?
Air currents and patterns of air move weather systems around our globe. Ocean currents do very similar things to the water. Remember, our planet is mostly composed of water, right? So we're always moving both air and water currents.

It's the temperature differences that tends to move them, and faster-moving highways of currents clear weather systems out of the way, and air patterns move ocean currents that move warm water out of the way so that it's not pooled and collecting in one area to keep the air currents flowing with those ocean currents as well.

We're used to seeing a planet where it's all moving at a regular pace. So, what happens if you've warmed the water so much that those currents get lazy? That they don't move things and the air currents aren't as strong? That they're not moving systems? Do we get more prolonged weather events? Are they slower to move out of the way? These are things that I don't really think we want to experiment and find out what the answers are, but because all of it is happening, we're soon going to see what it means to have 101-degree temperature in the Florida Keys on the water temperature. We're soon going to learn what that means.

Like what happens to the valuable ecosystems like coral reefs under water, right?
The difficult thing is right now, we're to the point of supposition. It's like, well, it hasn't happened. So we don't really know what affects the currents changing will have, but yes to coral reefs. They are the most important part of ocean life. When a coral reef is under stress because of hot water, all these organisms that live in the coral reef are pushed out, and then die. With water this warm, that's happening all over, and climate scientists in South Florida were rushing into these areas to try to save bits of coral to try to save the organisms that live there. They might be able to repopulate and regrow coral reefs when these organisms die.

I’m just going to stop here for a minute. It's hard for me, and I know, I tend to be long-winded on these answers, but it's so hard to distill them into sound bites. And as you know, that's part of the problem that scientists have always had in trying to have these conversations. Because people don't want long answers. They want a short answer. And there's not a short answer. It's a big problem. There's a lot of questions, and a lot of concerns about warm waters and ocean currents, so it’s not easy to just go to a message point for an answer.

Like what’s happening with the smoke out of Canada, right? It seems simple saying that it just blows south, but again, there’s so much going on behind that smoke and why it’s all happening in the first place.
Right, off the top of my head, so my numbers may be skewed, but about 7 percent or a good percentage of the world's forests are in Canada. And we don't think about them because, you know, they're in a normal pattern. They're in a summer pattern. They're just doing what forests do. They're growing, and they're scrubbing the air and they're taking in bad elements and putting out good elements for the world to have. It's basically air cleaning. Those areas are not widely populated. They're sparsely populated and there have been hundreds of wildfires burning since spring, unchecked. Acreage of fires that are burning unchecked in Canada right now.

These fires are eliminating those forests that help clean the air that help moderate the climate, and that smoke goes into the air. The reason we're a part of it is that weather patterns move that smoke around. Think about it if you're sitting in a room at a party in someone's house and people have gathered on one side of the room to smoke. And you look around and you see a cloud of smoke over those people. Well, it won't be long before you smell that smoke. It won't be long before that smoke has moved into your part of the room, and you're not smoking. Smoke travels on air currents. And that's exactly why we're having a problem with Canada's fires. Now, this could just as easily be our fires burning in the West.

We're going to have an intense season in the West as we go through August into September as this heat continues to build and spread. And we had early growth in California because it was wet and gray for May and June. As it gets warmer and drier, we may have a strong fire season there. And that smoke will move around. They can go on forever.

That's our problem with Canada. Yes, the fires will continue because we don't have the manpower to put them out. Yes, they're likely to burn until the season changes. Yes, that smoke is sitting there. And when a weather pattern moves that smoke down through the Great Lakes or moves it through western New York State and puts it right on top of us, that smoke becomes our problem.

Any closing comments that you’d like to share?
What I want people to understand is that what is going on right now is very real. And it should be of great concern to everyone. You live on this planet, you’re raising families on this planet, and the intensity of what’s happening on this planet should be a concern for you. Don't let anyone make your quality of environment around your life and your family a political conversation. It's not, it's a personal conversation. Don't you want clean water for yourself, your spouse, and your children? Don't you want clean air to breathe and enjoy every day? That's not a political conversation. It is a real quality-of-life conversation. Stand up for all these things. Tell people that you want a beautiful, healthy place to live and that you deserve it. Speaking up and making sure those who represent you share your values about a healthy planet won’t just make a difference. It will make your life better.

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate.

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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.