One might assume that people would be happy that the latest version of the Hadley Centre and CRU combined temperature index is now being updated on a monthly basis. The improvements over the previous version in terms of coverage and error estimates is substantial. One might think that these advances – albeit incremental – would at least get mentioned in a story that used the new data set. Of course, one would not be taking into account the monumental capacity for some journalists and the outlets they work for to make up stories whenever it suits them. But all of the kerfuffle over the Mail story and the endless discussions over short and long term temperature trends hides what people are actually arguing about – what is likely to happen in the future, rather than what has happened in the past.
The fundamental point I will try and make here is that, given a noisy temperature record, many different statements can be true at the same time, but very few of them are informative about future trends. Thus vehemence of arguments about the past trends is in large part an unacknowledged proxy argument about the future.
And so it goes – another year, another annual data point. As has become a habit (2009, 2010), here is a brief overview and update of some of the most relevant model/data comparisons. We include the standard comparisons of surface temperatures, sea ice and ocean heat content to the AR4 and 1988 Hansen et al simulations.
Update January 27: There is also another recent dog-based animations from Victoria (southeast Australia) explaining some of the key drivers of our climate and how some are changing.
A TV series that ran on Norwegian TV (NRK) last year included a simple and fun cartoon that demonstrates some important concepts relative to weather and climate:
In the animation, the man’s path can be considered as analogous to a directional climatic change, while the path traced by his dog’s whimsical movements represent weather fluctuations, as constrained by the man’s path, the leash, and the dog’s moment-by-moment decisions of what seems important to investigate in his small world. What might the leash length represent? The man’s momentary pause? The dog’s exact route relative to concepts of random variation? The messages in this animation are similar to the recent results of Grant Foster and Stefan Rahmstorf in ERL (see post here).
We’d also like to praise the TV-series ‘Siffer‘, hosted by an enthusiastic statistician explaining how most things in our world relate to mathematics. The series covers a range of subjects, for instance gambling theory, the Tragedy of the Commons, anecdotes about mathematical riddles, medical statistics, and construction design; it even answers why champagne from a large bottle tastes better than that from a smaller one. There is also an episode devoted to weather forecasting and climate.
Success in understanding our universe often depends on how the ‘story’ about it is told, and a big part of that often involves how mental images are presented. Mathematics and statistics can describe nature in great detail and “elegance”, but they are often difficult and inaccessible to the average person. Conversely, the man-and-dog animation is intuitive and easy to comprehend. Similarly, Hans Rosling’s Fun with Stats provides some very nice demonstrations of how to convey meaning via the creative display of numbers.
Two items of interest this week. First, there is an atrocious paper that has just been published in JGR by McLean, de Freitas and Carter that is doing the rounds of the denialosphere. These authors make the completely unsurprising point that that there is a correlation between ENSO indices and global mean temperature – something that has been well known for decades – and then go on to claim that that all trends are explained by this correlation as well. This is somewhat surprising since their method of analysis (which involves taking the first derivative of any changes) eliminates the influence of any trends in the correlation. Tamino has an excellent demonstration of the fatuity of the statements in their hyped press-release and Michael Tobis deconstructs the details. For reference, we showed last year that the long term trends are still basically the same after you account for ENSO. Nevermore let it be said that you can’t get any old rubbish published in a peer-reviewed journal!
Second (and much more interestingly) there is an open call for anyone interested to contribute to setting the agenda for Earth System Science for the next couple of decades at the Visioning Earth Science website of the International Council for Science (ICS). This is one of the umbrella organisations that runs a network of committees and programs that prioritise research directions and international programs and they are looking for ideas. Let them know what your priorities are.
It’s long been known that El Niño variability affects the global mean temperature anomalies. 1998 was so warm in part because of the big El Niño event over the winter of 1997-1998 which directly warmed a large part of the Pacific, and indirectly warmed (via the large increase in water vapour) an even larger region. The opposite effect was seen with the La Niña event this last winter. Since the variability associated with these events is large compared to expected global warming trends over a short number of years, the underlying trends might be more clearly seen if the El Niño events (more generally, the El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO)) were taken out of the way. There is no perfect way to do this – but there are a couple of reasonable approaches.
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