Updates to model-data comparisons

It’s worth going back every so often to see how projections made back in the day are shaping up. As we get to the end of another year, we can update all of the graphs of annual means with another single datapoint. Statistically this isn’t hugely important, but people seem interested, so why not?

For example, here is an update of the graph showing the annual mean anomalies from the IPCC AR4 models plotted against the surface temperature records from the HadCRUT3v and GISTEMP products (it really doesn’t matter which). Everything has been baselined to 1980-1999 (as in the 2007 IPCC report) and the envelope in grey encloses 95% of the model runs. The 2009 number is the Jan-Nov average.

As you can see, now that we have come out of the recent La Niña-induced slump, temperatures are back in the middle of the model estimates. If the current El Niño event continues into the spring, we can expect 2010 to be warmer still. But note, as always, that short term (15 years or less) trends are not usefully predictable as a function of the forcings. It’s worth pointing out as well, that the AR4 model simulations are an ‘ensemble of opportunity’ and vary substantially among themselves with the forcings imposed, the magnitude of the internal variability and of course, the sensitivity. Thus while they do span a large range of possible situations, the average of these simulations is not ‘truth’.

There is a claim doing the rounds that ‘no model’ can explain the recent variations in global mean temperature (George Will made the claim last month for instance). Of course, taken absolutely literally this must be true. No climate model simulation can match the exact timing of the internal variability in the climate years later. But something more is being implied, specifically, that no model produced any realisation of the internal variability that gave short term trends similar to what we’ve seen. And that is simply not true.

We can break it down a little more clearly. The trend in the annual mean HadCRUT3v data from 1998-2009 (assuming the year-to-date is a good estimate of the eventual value) is 0.06+/-0.14 ºC/dec (note this is positive!). If you want a negative (albeit non-significant) trend, then you could pick 2002-2009 in the GISTEMP record which is -0.04+/-0.23 ºC/dec. The range of trends in the model simulations for these two time periods are [-0.08,0.51] and [-0.14, 0.55], and in each case there are multiple model runs that have a lower trend than observed (5 simulations in both cases). Thus ‘a model’ did show a trend consistent with the current ‘pause’. However, that these models showed it, is just coincidence and one shouldn’t assume that these models are better than the others. Had the real world ‘pause’ happened at another time, different models would have had the closest match.

Another figure worth updating is the comparison of the ocean heat content (OHC) changes in the models compared to the latest data from NODC. Unfortunately, I don’t have the post-2003 model output handy, but the comparison between the 3-monthly data (to the end of Sep) and annual data versus the model output is still useful.

Update (May 2012): The graph has been corrected for a scaling error in the model output. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the observational data exactly as it was at the time the original figure was made, and so the corrected version uses only the annual data from a slightly earlier point. The original figure is still available here.

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