Recent global warming trends: significant or paused or what?

As the World Meteorological Organisation WMO has just announced that “The year 2014 is on track to be the warmest, or one of the warmest years on record”, it is timely to have a look at recent global temperature changes.

I’m going to use Kevin Cowtan’s nice interactive temperature plotting and trend calculation tool to provide some illustrations. I will be using the HadCRUT4 hybrid data, which have the most sophisticated method to fill data gaps in the Arctic with the help of satellites, but the same basic points can be illustrated with other data just as well.

Let’s start by looking at the full record, which starts in 1979 since the satellites come online there (and it’s not long after global warming really took off).

trend1Fig. 1. Global temperature 1979 to present – monthly values (crosses), 12-months running mean (red line) and linear trend line with uncertainty (blue)

You clearly see a linear warming trend of 0.175 °C per decade, with confidence intervals of ±0.047 °C per decade. That’s global warming – a measured fact.

But you might have heard claims like “there’s been no warming since 1998”, so let us have a look at temperatures starting in 1998 (the year sticking out most above the trend line in the previous graph).

trend2Fig. 2. Global temperature 1998 to present.

You see a warming trend (blue line) of 0.116 °C per decade, so the claim that there has been no warming is wrong. But is the warming significant? The confidence intervals on the trend (± 0.137) suggest not – they seem to suggest that the temperature trend might have been as much as +0.25 °C, or zero, or even slightly negative. So are we not sure whether there even was a warming trend?

That conclusion would be wrong – it would simply be a misunderstanding of the meaning of the confidence intervals. They are not confidence intervals on whether a warming has taken place – it certainly has. These confidence intervals have nothing to do with measurement uncertainties, which are far smaller.

Rather, these confidence intervals refer to the confidence with which you can reject the null hypothesis that the observed warming trend is just due to random variability (where all the variance beyond the linear trend is treated as random variability). So the confidence intervals (and claims of statistical significance) do not tell us whether a real warming has taken place, rather they tell us whether the warming that has taken place is outside of what might have happened by chance.

Even if there was no slowdown whatsoever, a recent warming trend may not be statistically significant. Look at this example:

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