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Stronger regional differences due to large-scale atmospheric flow.

A new paper by Deser et al. (2012) (free access) is likely to have repercussions on discussions of local climate change adaptation. I think it caught some people by surprise, even if the results perhaps should not be so surprising. The range of possible local and regional climate outcomes may turn out to be larger than expected for regions such as North America and Europe.

Deser et al. imply that information about the future regional climate is more blurred than previously anticipated because of large-scale atmospheric flow responsible for variations in regional climates. They found that regional temperatures and precipitation for the next 50 years may be less predictable due to the chaotic nature of the large-scale atmospheric flow. This has implications for climate change downscaling and climate change adaptation, and suggests a need to anticipate a wider range of situations in climate risk analyses.

Although it has long been recognised that large-scale circulation regimes affect seasonal, inter-annual climate, and decadal variations, the expectations have been that anthropogenic climate changes will dominate on time scales longer than 50 years. For instance, an influential analysis by Hawking & Sutton (2009) (link to figures) has suggested that internal climate variability account for only about 20% of the variance over the British isles on a 50-year time scale.
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  1. C. Deser, R. Knutti, S. Solomon, and A.S. Phillips, "Communication of the role of natural variability in future North American climate", Nature Climate change, vol. 2, pp. 775-779, 2012.
  2. E. Hawkins, and R. Sutton, "The Potential to Narrow Uncertainty in Regional Climate Predictions", Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol. 90, pp. 1095-1107, 2009.

Why bother trying to attribute extreme events?

Filed under: — gavin @ 20 September 2012

Nature has an interesting editorial this week on the state of the science for attributing extreme events. This was prompted by a workshop in Oxford last week where, presumably, strategies, observations and results were discussed by a collection of scientists interested in the topic (including Myles Allen, Peter Stott and other familiar names). Rather less usual was a discussion, referred to in the Nature piece, on whether the whole endeavour was scientifically worthwhile, and even if it was, whether it was of any use to anyone. The proponents of the ‘unscientific and pointless’ school of thought were not named and so one can’t immediately engage with them directly, but nonetheless the question is worthy of a discussion.

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Arctic sea ice minimum 2012…

By popular demand, a thread devoted to the continuing decline of Arctic sea ice, and a potential new record minimum this year. As before, the figures are hot-linked and will update day-by-day.

JAXA Sea ice extent:

Cryosphere Today sea ice concentration (interactive chart):

Estimated sea ice volume from UW PIOMAS (updated every month):

Other links: Tamino, the very informative and detailed Neven’s sea ice blog , and some interesting predictions from Gareth Renowden.

My oh Miocene!

Guest commentary by Sarah Feakins

Our recent study in Nature Geoscience reconstructed conditions at the Antarctic coast during a warm period of Earth’s history. Today the Ross Sea has an ice shelf and the continent is ice covered; but we found the Antarctic coast was covered with tundra vegetation for some periods between 20 million and 15.5 million years ago. These findings are based on the isotopic composition of plant leaf waxes in marine sediments.

That temperatures were warm at that time was not a huge surprise; surprising, was how much warmer things were – up to 11ºC (20ºF) warmer at the Antarctic coast! We expected to see polar amplification, i.e. greater changes towards the poles as the planet warms. This study found those coastal temperatures to be as warm as 7ºC or 45ºF during the summer months. This is a surprise because conventional wisdom has tended to think of Antarctica being getting progressively colder since ice sheets first appeared on Antarctica 34 million years ago (but see Ruddiman (2010) for a good discussion of some of the puzzles).
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  1. S.J. Feakins, S. Warny, and J. Lee, "Hydrologic cycling over Antarctica during the middle Miocene warming", Nature Geosci, vol. 5, pp. 557-560, 2012.
  2. W.F. Ruddiman, "A Paleoclimatic Enigma?", Science, vol. 328, pp. 838-839, 2010.

OHC Model/Obs Comparison Errata

Filed under: — gavin @ 22 May 2012

This is just a brief note to point out that a few graphs that I have put together showing Ocean Heat Content changes in recent decades had an incorrect scaling for the GISS model data. My error was in assuming that the model output (which were in units W yr/m2) were scaled for the ocean area only, when in fact they were scaled for the entire global surface area (see fig. 2 in Hansen et al, 2005). Therefore, in converting to units of 1022 Joules for the absolute ocean heat content change, I had used a factor of 1.1 (0.7 x 5.1 x 365 x 3600 x 24 x 10-8), instead of the correct value of 1.61 (5.1 x 365 x 3600 x 24 x 10-8). This problem came to light while we were redoing this analysis for the CMIP5 models and from conversations with dana1981 at

These graphs appeared in Dec 2009, May 2010, Jan 2011 and Feb 2012. In each case, I have replaced the graph with a corrected version while leaving a link to the incorrect version. Links to the figures will return the corrected image (and this is noted on the image itself). Where possible I used the data that were current at the time of the original post. Fortunately this only affects the figures used in these blog postings and not in any publications. Apologies for any confusion.

This figure shows the comparison using the most up-to-date observational products (NODC, PMEL):

The basic picture is unchanged – model simulations were able to capture the historical variance in OHC (as best we know it now – there remains significant structural uncertainty in those estimates). There are clear dips related volcanic eruptions (Agung, El Chichon, Pinatubo), and an sharp increase in the 1990s. Note that in GISS-EH (same AGCM but with a different ocean model) OHC increases at a slightly slower rate than seen with GISS-ER above. Looking at the last decade, it is clear that the observed rate of change of upper ocean heat content is a little slower than previously (and below linear extrapolations of the pre-2003 model output), and it remains unclear to what extent that is related to a reduction in net radiative forcing growth (due to the solar cycle, or perhaps larger than expected aerosol forcing growth), or internal variability, model errors, or data processing – arguments have been made for all four, singly and together.

Analyses of the CMIP5 models will provide some insight here since the historical simulations have been extended to 2012 (including the last solar minimum), and have updated aerosol emissions. Watch this space.


  1. J. Hansen, "Earth's Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications", Science, vol. 308, pp. 1431-1435, 2005.

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