The first published response to Lindzen and Choi (2009) (LC09) has just appeared “in press” (subscription) at GRL. LC09 purported to determine climate sensitivity by examining the response of radiative fluxes at the Top-of-the-Atmosphere (TOA) to ocean temperature changes in the tropics. Their conclusion was that sensitivity was very small, in obvious contradiction to the models.
In their commentary, Trenberth, Fasullo, O’Dell and Wong examine some of the assumptions that were used in LC09’s analysis. In their guest commentary, they go over some of the technical details, and conclude, somewhat forcefully, that the LC09 results were not robust and do not provide any insight into the magnitudes of climate feedbacks.
Coincidentally, there is a related paper (Chung, Yeomans and Soden) also in press (sub. req.) at GRL which also compares the feedbacks in the models to the satellite radiative flux measurements and also comes to the conclusion that the models aren’t doing that badly. They conclude that
In spite of well-known biases of tropospheric temperature and humidity in climate models, comparisons indicate that the intermodel range in the rate of clear-sky radiative damping are small despite large intermodel variability in the mean clear-sky OLR. Moreover, the model-simulated rates of radiative damping are consistent with those obtained from satellite observations and are indicative of a strong positive correlation between temperature and water vapor variations over a broad range of spatiotemporal scales.
It will take a little time to assess the issues that have been raised (and these papers are unlikely to be the last word), but it is worth making a couple of points about the process. First off, LC09 was not a nonsense paper – that is, it didn’t have completely obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer review (unlike say, McLean et al, 2009 or Douglass et al, 2008). Even if it now turns out that the analysis was not robust, it was not that the analysis was not worth trying, and the work being done to re-examine these questions is a useful contributions to the literature – even if the conclusion is that this approach to the analysis is flawed.
More generally, this episode underlines the danger in reading too much into single papers. For papers that appear to go against the mainstream (in either direction), the likelihood is that the conclusions will not stand up for long, but sometimes it takes a while for this to be clear. Research at the cutting edge – where you are pushing the limits of the data or the theory – is like that. If the answers were obvious, we wouldn’t need to do research.
Update: More commentary at DotEarth including a response from Lindzen.