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Followup to the ‘Hockeystick’ Hearings

Filed under: — group @ 31 August 2006

The House Energy and Commerce committee held two hearings on the “Hockey Stick” and associated “Wegman Report” in July. We commented on the first of the two hearings previously. The hearings, while ostensibly concerning the studies of Mann and coworkers, were actually most remarkable for the (near) unanimity of the participating scientists on critical key points, such as the importance of confronting the issue of climate change, and the apparent acceptance of those points by the majority of congresspersons present.

The committee subsequently provided followup opportunities to participants to clarify issues that were discussed at the hearings. Mike Mann (Penn State Professor and RealClimate blogger) participated in the second (July 27 2006) of the two hearings, “Questions Surrounding the ‘Hockey Stick’ Temperature Studies: Implications for Climate Change Assessments”. He has posted his responses to five follow-up questions, along with supporting documents. Among the more interesting of these documents are a letter and a series of email requests from emeritus Stanford Physics Professor David Ritson who has identified significant apparent problems with the calculations contained in the Wegman report, but curiously has been unable to obtain any clarification from Dr. Wegman or his co-authors in response to his inquiries. We hope that Dr. Wegman and his co-authors will soon display a willingness to practice the principle of ‘openness’ that they so recommend in their report….

Update: There is an interesting discussion of the Wegman and North reports by Gerald North (talking at TAMU) available through Andrew Dessler’s site….

Is Antarctic climate changing?

Filed under: — eric @ 25 August 2006

Is the Antarctic ice sheet getting bigger or smaller? Is it warming or cooling?

As we’ve reported in earlier posts (here and here), getting accurate answers to these questions is non-trivial, because the available instrumental data remain sparse and generally date back only a few decades, at best. While modern satellite-based techniques such as laser altimetery and gravity anomaly measurements provide important information on very recent changes, to get at the longer term we must rely on less direct methods. In the last 5 years or so, an effort has been under way, much of it under the banner “International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition” (ITASE), to do this by collecting many dozens of ice cores from across the Antarctic continent. Two papers out this month represent the first major compilations of results from these efforts. The first, in Science on August 11th, provides a new estimates of Antarctic snowfall changes over the last 50 years. The second, in Geophysical Research Letters (August 30th) provides the first statistical reconstruction of Antarctic temperature change, extending about 200 years into the past.
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New public opinion poll on global warming

Filed under: — gavin @ 23 August 2006

There is a new Zogby poll on public attitudes in the US towards global warming and the potential connection between severe weather events and climate change.

Unsurprisingly to us (but maybe not to others), most of the US public feel that global warming is happening (around 70%), and roughly the same amount of people report being more or much more convinced of this over the last two years.

More interestingly, the pollsters asked whether people believed that global warming was having an effect on intense hurricanes, droughts, heat waves and the like. Again, roughly 70% of people thought that global warming was having either some effect or a major effect on these weather extremes (note that the question was not phrased to ask whether any specific event was thought likely to have been caused by global warming (which was probably a good choice)).

This begs the question whether people’s experience of severe weather has convinced them that climate change is occuring. Televangelist Pat Robertson, for instance, said very recently that it was the latest heat wave that finally convinced him. I think this is likely to be true for most of the public who are not following the issue very carefully (which is most of them of course!). The most significant single event in this context was probably Katrina, regardless of how much climate change can or can’t be associated with Katrina the Hurricane (let alone Katrina the Disaster!).

I would guess that this is likely to be a very common way for public opinion to be formed across a whole number of issues. That is, when a dominant theme is very prevalent across a wide spectra of media, everyday occurrences or new information are often processed with that in mind, and given our extraordinary ability to see patterns in noisy data, we often end up associating the theme with our own experiences. Other examples surely abound in medical or political contexts.

Given that pattern, it is probably overly optimistic to expect scientists, who continually stress that single weather events can’t in general be attributed to climate change but that changes in statistics might be, to have much success in conveying these finer points to the public directly. Instead, their skills are probably best used in clarifying these points to those (e.g. journalists, policy-makers) that set the dominant themes in the first place.

Fact, Fiction, and Friction in the Hurricane Debate

Filed under: — group @ 18 August 2006

Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt

Judith Curry and colleagues have an interesting (and possibly provocative) article, “Mixing Politics and Science in Testing the Hypothesis That Greenhouse Warming Is Causing a Global Increase in Hurricane Intensity” in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS). The article provides a solid review of the recent developments in the science focusing on potential climate change impacts on tropical cyclones. However, the article is more novel in its approach than the typical scientific review article. For instance, it attempts to deal with the issue of how one should test hypotheses that reflect a complex causal chain of individual hypotheses. This is of course relevant to investigations of climate change influences on tropical cyclone activity, where one is attempting to connect a phenomenon (climate change) that is global in spatial scale and multidecadal in timescale, to a phenomena that is intrinsically “mesoscale” (that is, spans at most hundreds of kilometers) in space and lasts only a few days.

More unusually, the article also takes an introspective look at the role of scientists in communicating societally-relevant science to the public, and provides a critical review of how the science dealing with climate change impacts on tropical cyclones and hurricanes has been reported in the media, and how that reporting has occasionally deepened the polarisation on the issue. In doing so, the article revisits some of the “false objectivity” problems we have talked about before (see here and here). They also assess fairly the quality of the arguments that have been made in response to the Emanuel (2005) and Webster et al (2005) papers in the hope of focussing discussion on the more valid points, rather than some of the more fallacious arguments. The article is unapologetic in advancing their particular point of view, and while we generally share it, we imagine that some readers may disagree. We hope, as we suspect the authors do as well, that it will in any case generate a productive discussion.

Ocean heat content: latest numbers

Filed under: — gavin @ 16 August 2006

Net ocean heat content changes are very closely tied to the net radiative imbalance of the planet since the ocean component of the climate system has by far the biggest heat capacity. Thus we have often made the point that diagnosing this imbalance through measurements of temperature in the ocean is a key metric in evaluating the response of the system to changes in CO2 and the other radiative forcings (see here).
In a paper I co-authored last year (Hansen et al, 2005), we compared model results with the trends over the 1993 to 2003 period and showed that they matched quite well (here). Given their importance in evaluating climate models, new reports on the ocean heat content numbers are anticipated quite closely.

Recently, a new preprint with the latest observations (2003 to 2005) has appeared (Lyman et al, hat tip to Climate Science) which shows a decrease in the ocean heat content over those two years, decreasing the magnitude of the long-term trend that had been shown from 1993 to 2003 in previous work (Willis et al, 2004) – from 0.6 W/m2 to about 0.33 W/m2. This has generated a lot of commentary in some circles, but in many cases the full context has not been appreciated.
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Short and simple arguments for why climate can be predicted

Filed under: — rasmus @ 12 August 2006

Sometimes, I encounter arguments suggesting that since we cannot predict the weather beyond a couple of weeks, then it must be impossible to predict the climate in 100 years. Such statements tend to present themselves as a kind of revelation, often in social settings and parties after I have revealed for some of the guests that I’m a climatologist (if I say I work for the Meteorological Institute, I almost always get the question “so, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?”). Such occasions also tend to be times when I’m not too inclined to indulge in deep scientific or technical explanations. Or when talking to a journalist who wants an easy answer. In those cases I try to provide a short and simple, but convincing, explanation that is easy for most people to understand why climate can be predicted despite the chaotic nature of the weather (a more theoretical discussion is provided in the earlier post Chaos and Climate). One approach is to try to relate the topic to something with which they are familiar, such as to point to empirical observations which most accept (I suppose with hindsight it could be similar to the researchers in the early 20th century trying to convince that nuclear reactions were possible – just look at the Sun, and there is the proof! Or before that, the debate about whether atoms were real or not – just look at the blue sky, and you look at the proof…). I like to emphasised the words ‘weather‘ and ‘climate‘ above, because they mean different things.

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The missing repertoire

Filed under: — gavin @ 10 August 2006

There was a small flurry of activity last week when the report “Warm words: How are we telling the climate story and how can we tell it better?” was released by the IPPR (a UK based left-leaning think tank). Most of the attention was focussed on their attention-seeking description of the more breathless media depictions of climate change as ‘climate porn’. However, the report was actually more interesting than just that, but possibly in ways that the authors didn’t intend.

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Amazonian drought

Filed under: — gavin @ 4 August 2006 - (Slovenčina)

There has been a flurry of recent commentary concerning Amazon drought – some of it good, some of it not so good. The good stuff has revolved around a recently-completed interesting field experiment that was run out of the Woods Hole Research Center (not to be confused with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), where they have been examining rainforest responses to drought – basically by using a very large rainproof tent to divert precipitation at ground level (the trees don’t get covered up). As one might expect, a rainforest without rain does not do well! But exactly what happens when and how the biosphere responds are poorly understood. This 6 year long field experiment may provide a lot of good new data on plant strategies for dealing with drought which will be used to improve the models and our understanding of the system.

The not-so-good part comes when this experiment is linked too directly to the ongoing drought in the southern Amazon. In the experiment, older tree mortality increased markedly after the third year of no rain at all (with around 1 in 10 trees dying). Since parts of the Amazon are now entering a second year of drought (possibly related to a persistent northward excursion of the ITCZ), the assumption in the Independent story (with the headline ‘One year to save the Amazon’) was that trees will start dying forest-wide next year should the drought continue. More »

Climate Feedbacks

Filed under: — group @ 3 August 2006

Guest Commentary by Brian Soden (RSMAS, Miami)

Current model estimates of the climate sensitivity, defined as the equilibrated change in global-mean surface temperature resulting from a doubling of CO2, range from 2.6 to 4.1 K, consistent with observational constraints (see previous article). This range in climate sensitivity is attributable to differences in the strength of ‘radiative feedbacks’ between models and is one of the reasons why projections of future climate change are less certain than policy makers would like. More »