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.
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.
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 »
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 »