Predictable and unpredictable behaviour

Terms such as “gas skeptics” and “climate skeptics” aren’t really very descriptive, but they refer to sentiments that have something in common: unpredictable behaviour.

Statistics is remarkably predictable

The individual gas molecules are highly unpredictable, but the bulk properties of the gases are nevertheless very predictable thanks to physics. More specifically the laws of thermodynamics and the ideal gas law.

The bulk aspects of the gases are a result of the statistical properties of a vast number of particles. Statistics is surprisingly predictable even if the individual cases are not.

Just look at Las Vegas and the insurance industry which make a living on the fact that probabilities (statistics) are predictable. Even economists pin their hope on statistics, and the medical sciences would never be where they are now without the predictive power of statistics.

A “gas skeptic” would say that you cannot predict the state of the gas because the molecules are unpredictable. This is analogous to saying that climatic states cannot be predicted because the weather is unpredictable (a “climate skeptic”).

Climate is weather statistics

Climate can be viewed as weather statistics. Early climatological work was dedicated to survey of how the weather statistics varied from place to place and over the seasons.

There are clear effects of physical factors (latitude, mountains, distance to the coast) on the statistical character of the weather and the weather statistics (climate).

In other words, the statistical properties are a result of the physical processes and conditions present and are readily predicted from e.g. geographical factors, seasonal variations in the solar inclination, the atmospheric composition and the planet’s distance to the Sun.

The weather statistics (eg probabilities) are predictable in spite of the chaotic and nonlinear character of weather itself.

Common misconceptions

There are some examples where the question about predicting the exact state is mixed up with the question of predicting the statistical properties of the system, even by people with some experience in climate research.

Some of them are useful for further learning, and there is a number of them in a ‘report’ (“Climate models for the layman”) that Judith Curry has written for a British interest group that calls itself “GWPF”.

Curry’s report has also been used to back Norwegian contrarians who support the effort of a populist politician to get a seat in the parliament.

The analogy to a “gas skeptic” above illustrates why Curry’s claim is misconceived because it is false that the climate models are unfit to make predictions about the future climate just because the atmosphere behaves in a nonlinear fashion due to the Navier-Stokes equations.

The Navier-Stokes equations describe the atmospheric flow (winds), but the key equations for climate change involve the laws of thermodynamics and the way the different gases absorb different frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum.

The most important nonlinear component in this respect include scattering processes, phase transitions, and cloud formation.

A potential feedback paradox

Curry also introduces a potential paradox in her report when she emphasises natural variations. The magnitude of natural temperature variation are regulated by feedback processes and have physical causes. The climate sensitivity also involve such feedback processes.

Any feedback process based on temperature will act on both natural and forced changes in the temperature. If such feedbacks result in pronounced natural temperature variations, they also imply that the climate sensitivity is high.

Examples of such feedbacks include increased atmospheric humidity and reduced snow/ice cover. Processes involving clouds are more uncertain, but they too are likely to be affected by temperature (convection) and act to modify the climatic response.

Natural variations may arise from both variations in the climatic state (eg ENSO, NAO, and PDO) or from external causes, such as changes in the sun and volcanic eruptions.

There are also feedbacks relevant to forced variation as well as internal variability which don’t always mean that higher amplitude natural variability necessarily indicates greater climate sensitivity.

For example, the fact that there is enhanced variability in the 3-7 year ENSO band is a result of climate dynamics (Bjerkenes feedbacks) resonating with wave propagation timescales.

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