Climate Fundamentals: NOVA’s ‘Decoding the Weather Machine’

David Morrison

NOVA, PBS, “Decoding the Weather Machine,” broadcast April 18, 2018, two hours. http://www.pbs.org/video/decoding-the-weather-machine-vgqhot/. DVD available from https://shop.pbs.org/nova-decoding-the-weather-machine-dvd/product/NV61803.

Despite nearly unanimous consensus among climate scientists and increasing evidence for disruption of “normal” weather, a substantial minority of Americans do not accept the reality of human-caused climate change. There have been many discussions of how to bridge this gap in public understanding of climate science. Suggestions include emphasizing fact over theory or models, citing current examples of climate impact, and using spokespersons who are perceived as credible by many audiences.

The new two-hour NOVA television documentary “Decoding the Weather Machine” embodies these approaches, starting with a title that focuses on weather, not climate. The opening statement is “Most people sense a change in the weather.” The film defines its subject as “Global investigation of our climate machine and how it determines our weather.” John Holdren (identified only as affiliated with Harvard University, not former Presidential Science Advisor) ties it all together, with lots of scientist interviews and spectacular images of fieldwork, from the Greenland ice-sheet to coral reefs. Most of the scientists are young and at least half are women, rather than the usual cast of graying male climatologists. Katharine Hayhoe, an excellent climate communicator, plays a prominent role.

The presentation is logical and factual. Climate models, and predictions of future consequences, are introduced only near the end. It begins with the Keeling curve and ice cores to demonstrate increasing carbon dioxide over the past several millennia, followed by similar treatment for temperature history of the past 800,000 years. The film also clearly explains how isotopic evidence identifies the origin of added CO2 in burning fossil fuels, not (for example) volcanoes or changing plant cover.

Much of the film discusses the impact of climate change, stressing that half the added energy is going into the oceans, and explains how this heat interacts with ocean circulation. The impacts of sea level rise are shown, including the catastrophic effect on low-lying islands such as U.S. naval ports, including discussion of national defense implications by two U.S. Navy officers. However, the emphasis is on the data, and on evidence that climate change is happening now, with demonstrable impact on ecosystems and people.

NOVA has done an excellent job presenting sober, relevant science. This is a departure from some of their recent over-hyped films, which build to an artificial climax in the last five minutes when some amazing discovery is made on camera. I hope this film reaches that part of the public that has been uncertain or in denial about climate change and its consequences.

David Morrison

David Morrison is a NASA space scientist and Skeptical Inquirer contributing editor.


NOVA, PBS, “Decoding the Weather Machine,” broadcast April 18, 2018, two hours. http://www.pbs.org/video/decoding-the-weather-machine-vgqhot/. DVD available from https://shop.pbs.org/nova-decoding-the-weather-machine-dvd/product/NV61803. Despite nearly unanimous consensus among climate scientists and increasing evidence for disruption of “normal” weather, a substantial minority of Americans do not accept the reality of human-caused climate change. There have been many discussions of how to bridge …

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