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On attribution

Filed under: — gavin @ 26 May 2010

How do we know what caused climate to change – or even if anything did?

This is a central question with respect to recent temperature trends, but of course it is much more general and applies to a whole range of climate changes over all time scales. Judging from comments we receive here and discussions elsewhere on the web, there is a fair amount of confusion about how this process works and what can (and cannot) be said with confidence. For instance, many people appear to (incorrectly) think that attribution is just based on a naive correlation of the global mean temperature, or that it is impossible to do unless a change is ‘unprecedented’ or that the answers are based on our lack of imagination about other causes.

In fact the process is more sophisticated than these misconceptions imply and I’ll go over the main issues below. But the executive summary is this:

  • You can’t do attribution based only on statistics
  • Attribution has nothing to do with something being “unprecedented”
  • You always need a model of some sort
  • The more distinct the fingerprint of a particular cause is, the easier it is to detect

Note that it helps enormously to think about attribution in contexts that don’t have anything to do with anthropogenic causes. For some reason that allows people to think a little bit more clearly about the problem.
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Ocean heat content increases update

Filed under: — gavin @ 21 May 2010 - (Español) (Italian)

There is a new paper in Nature this week on recent trends in ocean heat content from a large group of oceanographers led by John Lyman at PMEL. Their target is the uncertainty surrounding the various efforts to create a homogenised ocean heat content data set that deals appropriately with the various instrument changes and coverage biases that have plagued previous attempts.

We have discussed this issue a number of times because of its importance in diagnosing the long term radiative imbalance of the atmosphere. Basically, if there has been more energy coming in at the top than is leaving, then it has to have been going somewhere – and that somewhere is mainly the ocean. (Other reservoirs for this energy, like the land surface or melting ice, are much smaller, and can be neglected for the most part).

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What we can learn from studying the last millennium (or so)

Filed under: — mike @ 15 May 2010 - (Español)

With all of the emphasis that is often placed on hemispheric or global mean temperature trends during the past millennium, and the context they provide for interpreting modern warming trends, one thing is often lost in the discussion: space matters as much as time. Indeed, it is likely that the regional patterns of past climate changes, rather than simple hemispheric or global mean temperature trends, will best inform our understanding of the dynamical mechanisms involved. Since much of the uncertainty in future projections relates to regional climate change impacts, it makes particular sense to focus on those changes in the past that involve regional changes and the underlying mechanisms behind them.

For instance, melting of the cryosphere (and consequent rises in sea level), subtle shifts in drought and rainfall patterns, and extreme events, are all regional effects that could be important threats to ecosystems and our environment. Such changes are often associated with phenomena like ENSO or the North Atlantic Oscillation. Yet there remain large uncertainties about how such mechanisms will respond to anthropogenic climate change.

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Solar

Filed under: — stefan @ 4 May 2010

The new novel Solar by Ian McEwan, Britain’s “national author” (as many call him) tackles the issue of climate change. I should perhaps start my review with a disclosure: I’m a long-standing fan of McEwan and have read all of his novels, and I am also mentioned in the acknowledgements of Solar. I met McEwan in Potsdam and we had some correspondence while he wrote his novel. Our recent book The Climate Crisis quotes a page of McEwan as its Epilogue. And of course I’m not a literature critic but a scientist. So don’t expect a detached professional review. More »


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