Spring Training, and Spring, Starting Way Earlier Than Usual

Photographer: Sean Hemmerle/Gallery Stock

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Photographer: Sean Hemmerle/Gallery Stock

When the Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals take the field in Cincinnati Monday afternoon, they help kick off a Major League Baseball season that starts about five weeks earlier than the first Opening Day. At the inaugural opener of the American Association in May 1882, the Red Stockings lost to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, 10-9.

Spring itself is starting earlier, too, though it can't keep pace with spring training. Leaves unfurl in the United States on average just three days earlier than they used to, a week earlier in parts of the Southwest and Southeast, according to Climate Matters. CM is a project of the nonprofit science and journalism group Climate Central that dozens of broadcast meteorologists turn to for up-to-date, TV-friendly information about global warming.

But here's the thing. Sixty-three percent of those affable weatherfolk doubt that climate change is primarily driven by human industry, according to a study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) in January. And Americans generally trust their TV weatherperson.

So it's a pretty big deal when broadcast meteorologists -- ironically, men and women who work in front of a green screen -- voice their skepticism of climate change science, especially since there’s little reason to doubt it.

Source: Climate Central; Schwartz

This map shows how many days earlier "first leaf" is occurring in each U.S. state when comparing 1991-2010 with 1961-1980. Close

This map shows how many days earlier "first leaf" is occurring in each U.S. state when... Read More

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Source: Climate Central; Schwartz

This map shows how many days earlier "first leaf" is occurring in each U.S. state when comparing 1991-2010 with 1961-1980.

Maybe climate change would be easier to grasp, and less contentious, if it were pitched as a baseball metaphor.

Cue Baseball Metaphor

Meteorology is about as close to climate science as getting a hit is to calculating a lifetime batting average.

Or, consider fielding. When a ball is hit to the outfield, the sophisticated computer under every center fielder's cap calculates where it's coming from and where it'll land. What's important in catching a ball, and in predicting the weather, are so-called initial conditions. For baseball, maybe bat speed and wind strength. For weather, it’s temperature, pressure, moisture, wind speed and direction; models crunch local historical data into forecasts, according to Bill Chameides, dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.

But what if you don't just want to know where the ball's going? What if you want to know how many home runs might be hit in a three-game series?

What matters then are the dimensions of the stadium, Major League Baseball’s rules about bat material and weight, the ball, the team rosters, pitching rotations, the week’s projected weather (as opposed to the prevailing conditions once the ball’s already in the air). In short, a very different set of variables -- what scientists call boundary conditions.

A New Ballgame

Outfielders are usually interested in long-term trends, like their own batting averages, or whether they’ll see postseason play. So why wouldn’t TV meteorologists get into climate trends?

"I don't get it. Unless it’s for some ideological reasons,” says Jim Gandy, chief meteorologist at WLTX news in Columbia, South Carolina. The basics at least are straightforward. "The physics of infrared radiation has been established for well over a century."

Related: This Could Be the Priciest Baseball Park in the Whole Atlantic Ocean

Politics is one reason for the weather-climate split. Another suspect is the human mind.

Helping matters is something more mundane. With blogs, Facebook, Twitter and digital video, TV meteorologists just need more topics and material to write about, and are branching out, says Bud Ward, who runs the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media and conducts climate change seminars for broadcasters. They are also increasingly asked questions about climate change at public appearances, and over social media, and coming up with hard answers.

Mike Nelson in Denver, John Morales in Miami, Paul Gross in Detroit and Paul Douglas in Minneapolis have basically expanded their job descriptions from meteorology to include climate science communication, too -- something now encouraged by the American Meteorological Society.

Climate Matters was run as a pilot the first year, with 12 participants, before jumping to 120 in 65 markets the second year, and growing, said Bernadette Woods Placky, an Emmy Award-winning meteorologist who oversees Climate Central’s CM program (and whose wedding ceremony took place at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles).

That’s promising, because the volume of climate science that comes out is relentless. On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its latest assessment of the impacts of warming. An economics volume follows in April.

“The broadcast meteorologists are the people who have the ear of the public more than anyone else on weather and climate,” said Christopher Field, the founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Global Ecology program and the lead author of next week's new IPCC report. “It should be capitalized on.”

Play Ball!

Baseball fans and climatologists have more in common than one might think. They both share a passion for large data sets that reach back to the late 19th century (here and here). They both have trouble attributing particular events to long-term trends. That home run/hurricane was definitely made likelier by steroids/climate change. Neither can remember the wording of the infield fly rule.

Skies should be clear in Cincinnati Monday afternoon, when the Reds host the Cardinals. Temperatures could reach as high as 70, with winds out of the south-southwest at 9 miles per hour, and a 15 percent chance of precipitation. If ever there were a time to stop thinking and just enjoy the game, Opening Day is it.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):

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