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Back to the future

Filed under: — gavin @ 30 April 2008 - (Español)

A few weeks ago I was at a meeting in Cambridge that discussed how (or whether) paleo-climate information can reduce the known uncertainties in future climate simulations.

The uncertainties in the impacts of rising greenhouse gases on multiple systems are significant: the potential impact on ENSO or the overturning circulation in the North Atlantic, probable feedbacks on atmospheric composition (CO2, CH4, N2O, aerosols), the predictability of decadal climate change, global climate sensitivity itself, and perhaps most importantly, what will happen to ice sheets and regional rainfall in a warming climate.

The reason why paleo-climate information may be key in these cases is because all of these climate components have changed in the past. If we can understand why and how those changes occurred then, that might inform our projections of changes in the future. Unfortunately, the simplest use of the record – just going back to a point that had similar conditions to what we expect for the future – doesn’t work very well because there are no good analogs for the perturbations we are making. The world has never before seen such a rapid rise in greenhouse gases with the present-day configuration of the continents and with large amounts of polar ice. So more sophisticated approaches must be developed and this meeting was devoted to examining them.

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Butterflies, tornadoes and climate modelling

Filed under: — group @ 23 April 2008

Ed Lorenz hiking Many of you will have seen the obituaries (MIT, NYT) for Ed Lorenz, who died a short time ago. Lorenz is most famous scientifically for discovering the exquisite sensitivity to initial conditions (i.e. chaos) in a simple model of fluid convection, which serves as an archetype for the weather prediction problem. He is most famous outside science for the ‘The Butterfly Effect’ described in his 1972 paper “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”. Lorenz’s contributions to both atmospheric science and the mathematics of dynamical systems were wide ranging and seminal. He also directly touched the lives of many of us here at RealClimate, and both his wisdom, and quiet personal charm will be sorely missed.

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Impressions from the European Geophysical Union conference 2008

Filed under: — rasmus @ 22 April 2008

Vienna Last week, the European Geophysical Union held its annual general assembly, with thousands of geophysicists converging on the city of Vienna, Austria. It was time to take the pulse of the geophysical community.

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Moulins, Calving Fronts and Greenland Outlet Glacier Acceleration

Filed under: — group @ 18 April 2008 - (Español)

Guest Commentary by Mauri Pelto

The net loss in volume and hence sea level contribution of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) has doubled in recent years from 90 to 220 cubic kilometers/year has been noted recently (Rignot and Kanagaratnam, 2007). The main cause of this increase is the acceleration of several large outlet glaciers. There has also been an alarming increase in the number of photographs of meltwater draining into a moulin somewhere on the GIS, often near Swiss Camp (35 km inland from the calving front). The story goes—warmer temperatures, more surface melting, more meltwater draining through moulins to glacier base, lubricating glacier bed, reducing friction, increasing velocity, and finally raising sea level. Examining this issue two years RealClimate suggested this was likely the correct story. A number of recent results suggest that we need to take another look at this story.

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Model-data-comparison, Lesson 2

Filed under: — stefan @ 10 April 2008

In January, we presented Lesson 1 in model-data comparison: if you are comparing noisy data to a model trend, make sure you have enough data for them to show a statistically significant trend. This was in response to a graph by Roger Pielke Jr. presented in the New York Times Tierney Lab Blog that compared observations to IPCC projections over an 8-year period. We showed that this period is too short for a meaningful trend comparison.

This week, the story has taken a curious new twist. In a letter published in Nature Geoscience, Pielke presents such a comparison for a longer period, 1990-2007 (see Figure). Lesson 1 learned – 17 years is sufficient. In fact, the very first figure of last year’s IPCC report presents almost the same comparison (see second Figure).
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Target CO2

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 April 2008 - (Español)

What is the long term sensitivity to increasing CO2? What, indeed, does long term sensitivity even mean? Jim Hansen and some colleagues (not including me) have a preprint available that claims that it is around 6ºC based on paleo-climate evidence. Since that is significantly larger than the ‘standard’ climate sensitivity we’ve often talked about, it’s worth looking at in more detail.

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Blogs and peer-review

Filed under: — gavin @ 3 April 2008 - (Español)

Nature Geoscience has two commentaries this month on science blogging – one from me and another from Myles Allen (see also these blog posts on the subject). My piece tries to make the point that most of what scientists know is “tacit” (i.e. not explicitly or often written down in the technical literature) and it is that knowledge that allows them to quickly distinguish (with reasonable accuracy) what new papers are worth looking at in detail and which are not. This context is what provides RC (and other science sites) with the confidence to comment both on new scientific papers and on the media coverage they receive.

Myles’ piece stresses that criticism of papers in the peer-reviewed literature needs to be in the peer-reviewed literature and suggests that informal criticism (such as on a blog) might undermine that.

We actually agree that there is a real tension between a quick and dirty pointing out of obvious problems in a published paper (such as the Douglass et al paper last December) and doing the much more substantial work and extra analysis that would merit a peer-reviewed response. The approaches are not however necessarily opposed (for instance, our response to the Schwartz paper last year, which has also lead to a submitted comment). But given everyone’s limited time (and the journals’ limited space), there are fewer official rebuttals submitted and published than there are actual complaints. Furthermore, it is exceedingly rare to write a formal comment on an particularly exceptional paper, with the results that complaints are more common in the peer reviewed literature than applause. In fact, there is much to applaud in modern science, and we like to think that RC plays a positive role in highlighting some of the more important and exciting results that appear.

Myles’ piece, while ending up on a worthwhile point of discussion, illustrates it (in my opinion) with a rather misplaced example that involves RC – a post and follow-up on the Stainforth et al (2005) paper and the media coverage it got. The original post dealt in part with how the new model runs affected our existing expectation for what climate sensitivity is and whether they justified a revision of any projections into the future. The second post came in the aftermath of a rather poor piece of journalism on BBC Radio 4 that implied (completely unjustifiably) that the CPDN team were deliberately misleading the public about the importance of their work. We discussed then (as we have in many other cases) whether some of the responsibility for overheated or inaccurate press actually belongs to the press release itself and whether we (as a community) could do better at providing more context in such cases. The reason why this isn’t really germane to Myles’ point is that we didn’t criticise the paper itself at all. We thought then (and think now) that the CPDN effort is extremely worthwhile and that lessons from it will be informing model simulations some time into the future. Our criticisms (such as they were) were mainly associated instead with the perception of the paper in parts of the media and wider community – something that is not at all appropriate for a peer-reviewed comment.

This isn’t the place to rehash the climate sensitivity issue (I promise a new post on that shortly), so that will be deemed off-topic. However, we’d be very interested in any comments on the fundamental issue raised – how do (or should) science blogs and traditional peer-review intersect and whether Myles’ perception that they are in conflict is widely shared.