Guest commentary on BBC documentary on “Global Dimming” aired on January 13th 2005 by Beate Liepert, LDEO, Columbia University
I haven’t yet seen the documentary. I have only read the transcript and hence was spared the pictures of the potential apocalypse and the invocation of biblical-scale famines. However, as one of the lead scientists on the topic [and who was interviewed by the BBC for the Horizon documentary (transcript, previous post)], I feel I should explain a few things about it without using religious analogies and stoking unnecessary fear.
First though, this is a nice example of the power of words: Gerry Stanhill coined the observed reduction in solar energy reaching the ground “global dimming”. He called it “global” dimming because the technical term for the radiative energy is called “global solar radiation” and it contrasts nicely with the more common “global warming”.
It just so happens that most of the posts on this site have tried to counteract arguments from those who would sow fake “uncertainty” in the climate debate. But lest our readers feel that we are unjustifiably certain about our knowledge, let us look at a recent example of the opposite tendency: too much certainty.
A recent BBC Horizon documentary (transcript) raised the issue of ‘global dimming’ and argued that this ‘killer’ phenomena’s newly-recognised existence would lead to huge re-assessments of future global warming. As part of the hyperbole, the process of global dimming was linked very clearly to the famines in Ethiopia in the 1980s and the implication was left that worse was to come. Media reports with headlines like “Fossil Fuel Curbs May Speed Global Warming” swiftly followed. So what’s the real story?
Preliminary calculations* show that surface temperatures** averaged over the globe in 2004 were the fourth highest (and the past decade was the warmest) since measurements began in 1861. (Actually, there are measurements at some sites before 1861, but this date is generally chosen as the first time when there is a dense enough network of data available to make a global average meaningful). 2004 was slightly cooler than 2003, 2002 and 1998, with the average world temperature exceeding the 30 year average (1961-1990) by 0.44° C. 1998 remains the warmest year, when surface temperatures averaged +0.54°C above the same 30-year mean. October 2004 was the warmest October on record. Sea-ice extent in the Arctic remains well below the long-term average. In September 2004, it was about 13% less than the 1973-2003 average. Satellite information suggests a general decline in Arctic sea-ice extent of about 8% over the last two and half decades.
For further details see the WMO Web site , go to “News” and look for Press Release 718.
Every now and again, the myth that “we shouldn’t believe global warming predictions now, because in the 1970’s they were predicting an ice age and/or cooling” surfaces. Recently, George Will mentioned it in his column (see Will-full ignorance) and the egregious Crichton manages to say “in the 1970’s all the climate scientists believed an ice age was coming” (see Michael Crichton’s State of Confusion ). You can find it in various other places too [here, mildly here, etc]. But its not an argument used by respectable and knowledgeable skeptics, because it crumbles under analysis. That doesn’t stop it repeatedly cropping up in newsgroups though.
At first glance this seems like a strange question. Isn’t science precisely the quantification of observations into a theory or model and then using that to make predictions? Yes. And are those predictions in different cases then tested against observations again and again to either validate those models or generate ideas for potential improvements? Yes, again. So the fact that climate modelling was recently singled out as being somehow non-scientific seems absurd.