Tropical tropospheric trends

If the pictures are very similar despite the different forcings that implies that the pattern really has nothing to do with greenhouse gas changes, but is a more fundamental response to warming (however caused). Indeed, there is a clear physical reason why this is the case – the increase in water vapour as surface air temperature rises causes a change in the moist-adiabatic lapse rate (the decrease of temperature with height) such that the surface to mid-tropospheric gradient decreases with increasing temperature (i.e. it warms faster aloft). This is something seen in many observations and over many timescales, and is not something unique to climate models.

If this is what should be expected over a long time period, what should be expected on the short time-scale available for comparison to the satellite or radiosonde records? This period, 1979 to present, has seen a fair bit of warming, but also a number of big El Niño events and volcanic eruptions which clearly add noise to any potential signal. In comparing the real world with models, these sources of additional variability must be taken into account. It’s straightforward for the volcanic signal, since many simulations of the 20th century done in support of the IPCC report included volcanic forcing. However, the occurrence of El Niño events in any model simulation is uncorrelated with their occurrence in the real world and so special care is needed to estimate their impact.

Additionally, it’s important to make a good estimate of the uncertainty in the observations. This is not simply the uncertainty in estimating the linear trend, but the more systematic uncertainty due to processing problems, drifts and other biases. One estimate of that error for the MSU 2 product (a weighted average of tropospheric+lower stratospheric trends) is that two different groups (UAH and RSS) come up with a range of tropical trends of 0.048 to 0.133 °C/decade – a much larger difference than the simple uncertainty in the trend. In the radiosonde records, there is additional uncertainty due to adjustments to correct for various biases. This is an ongoing project (see RAOBCORE for instance).

So what do Douglass et al come up with?

Superficially it seems clear that there is a separation between the models and the observations, but let’s look more closely….

First, note that the observations aren’t shown with any uncertainty at all, not even the uncertainty in defining a linear trend – (roughly 0.1°C/dec). Secondly, the offsets between UAH, RSS and UMD should define the minimum systematic uncertainty in the satellite observations, which therefore would overlap with the model ‘uncertainty’. The sharp eyed among you will notice that the satellite estimates (even UAH Correction: the UAH trends are consistent (see comments)) – which are basically weighted means of the vertical temperature profiles – are also apparently inconsistent with the selected radiosonde estimates (you can’t get a weighted mean trend larger than any of the individual level trends!).

It turns out that the radiosonde data used in this paper (version 1.2 of the RAOBCORE data) does not have the full set of adjustments. Subsequent to that dataset being put together (Haimberger, 2007), two newer versions have been developed (v1.3 and v1.4) which do a better, but still not perfect, job, and additionally have much larger amplification with height. For instance, look at version 1.4:

The authors of Douglass et al were given this last version along with the one they used, yet they only decided to show the first (the one with the smallest tropical trend) without any additional comment even though they knew their results would be less clear.

But more egregious by far is the calculation of the model uncertainty itself. Their description of that calculation is as follows:

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