Most people know that the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming places on earth. But like everywhere else in Antarctica, the length of available temperature data is short — most records begin in 1957 (when stations were put in place during the International Geophysical Year); a few start in the late 1940s. This makes the recent rapid warming difficult to evaluate; in general, what’s interesting is how the trend compares with the underlying variability. As anyone who’s been there can tell you, the weather on the Antarctic Peninsula is pretty wild, and this applies to the climate as well: year to year variability is very large. Put another way, the noise level is high, and discerning the signal requires more data than is available from the instrumental temperature record. This is where ice cores come in handy — they provide a much longer record, and allow us to evaluate the recent changes in a more complete context.
I picked a good weekend to be out of cell phone range and unconnected to the internet – and judging from how the rest of the week has gone, I’d have been minded to stay there…
As most readers are probably aware, there was an op-ed in the Saturday New York Times from Richard Muller announcing the Berkeley Earth team’s latest results. It was odd enough that a scientific paper was announced via an op-ed, rather than a press release, odder still that the paper was only being submitted and had not actually been accepted, and most odd of all was the framing – a ‘converted skeptic’ being convinced by his studies that the planet has indeed warmed and that human activity is the cause – which as Mike and Ken Caldiera pointed out has been known for almost 2 decades.
Not wanting to be upstaged, plenty of ‘unconverted skeptics’ – including Anthony Watts and Ross McKitrick decided to stage dramatic press events and release barbs of their own. This was followed by a general piling on of commenters and bloggers trying to spin the events in their preferred direction combined with plenty of cluelessness in the general media about exactly who these people are (no-one special), what earth-shattering discovery had been made (none) and what it all means (not a lot).
The ‘best’ response to this circus is to sit back and see how pretzel-like the logical justifications can become. I particularly like the recent twist to the “No true scotsman” post-hoc rationalisation. Since the ‘converted skeptic’/prodigal scientist meme is a very powerful framing for the media, the obvious riposte for the ‘skeptics’ is to declare that Muller was not a true skeptic. But since these terms have become meaningless in terms of any specific position, this ends up as a semantic argument that convinces no-one but the faithful.
The actual trigger for all this hoopla is the deadline for papers that can be cited in the Second Order Draft of the new IPCC report. They needed to have been submitted to a journal by Tuesday (31 July) to qualify. Of course, they also need to be interesting, relevant and known to the IPCC lead authors. But there seems to be far too much emphasis being put on this deadline. The AR5 report is pretty much 90% written, and the broad outlines have been known for ages. Very few of the papers that have been submitted this week are anything other than minor steps forward and only a small number will be accorded anything other than a brief mention in AR5, and most not even that.
Furthermore, once the SOD is finalised (Aug 10), Tuesday’s deadline becomes moot, and the only thing that matters for the final report is whether papers are accepted by March 2013. (In a spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I was working on a couple of papers with an eye to making this deadline, but in the end decided it was preferable to take the time to do a good job on the papers than to submit something shoddy).
The only worthwhile substance to any of this is the work that has mostly been done by Robert Rohde on the Berkeley Earth code and database as we’ve noted previously – and once this week’s drama has faded into the distance overshadowed by some new blog-storm, this work will still be a useful advance.
But still the games go on. Senate hearings are one of the longest running games of political theatre going – where the Senators pretend to listen to the panelists and the panelists pretend that this is an efficient way to inform policymakers. This week’s was little different from the ones in the past – some earnest submissions from the mainstream, and a cherry-pickers delight of misinformation from the Republican invitee, John Christy, who even quoted the woefully inept first draft of the Watts paper as if it meant something.
The TOB effect could result in a confirmation of the Watts et al conclusion, or a confirmation (from a skeptical source) that siting quality does not matter. In either case, this is still a game changing study.
If only people would change the games they play…
My inclination is just to sit back and watch the spectacle, admire the logic-defying leaps, marvel at the super-human feats of hubris and, in two weeks time, remark on how little actually changed.
Some of us have been waiting quite a while now, especially since the ‘road tour’ meant to present the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation starting in Oslo on January 24th this year. The summary for policymakers (SPM) was released already in 18 November 2011 (Kampala) and now the report is finally available (link).
A number of us are at the big AGU meeting in San Francisco this week (among 20,000 other geophysicists). We will try to provide a daily summary of interesting talks and posters we come across, but obviously this won’t be complete or comprehensive.
Two good general talks this morning – Harry Elderfield gave the Emiliani lecture and started off with a fascinating discussion of the early discussions of Harold Urey and Cesare Emiliani on isotope thermometry – and showed that even Nobel Prize winners (Urey – for the discovery of deuterium) are sometimes quite wrong – in this case for insisting that the overall isotope ratio in the ocean could not ever change. (This talk should become available online here).
The second general talk was by author Simon Winchester who excellently demonstrated how to communicate about geology by using human stories. He gave a number of vignettes from his latest book about the Atlantic ocean – including stories of the shipwreck of the Dunedin Star on the ‘Skeleton coast’ of Southern Africa, time on St Helena, and the fate of his book on the Pacific that apparently only sold 12 copies… He finished with a mea culpa and gracious apology to the assorted geophysicists for his rather hurried comments on the Tohoku earthquake disaster that caused some consternation earlier this year. In his defense, he only had 90 minutes to write what he was unaware would be the Newsweek cover story that week.
In the science sessions in the afternoon, there was some good talks related to attributing extreme events including Marty Hoerling discussing the Moscow heat wave and a very different perspective from the cpdn group in Oxford. It would have been good to have had some actual discussion between the different people, but AGU is not conducive to much back and forth because of the very tight scheduling. The oxford group estimated (based on volunteer computing) that the likelihood of the Russian heat wave was something like 3 times more likely with 2000’s background climate vs the 1980’s. Some good points were made about the non-Gaussian nature of observed distributions the semantic challenges in explain attribution when there are both proximate and ultimate causes. Kerry Emanuel gave an update of his views on hurricane climate connections.
In the next door session, there was interesting discussion on the philosophy of climate modelling (from actual philosophers!) and the strategies that need to be adopted in dealing with the multi-model ensembles of CMIP3 and CMIP5.
The blogosphere is abuzz with the appearance of a second tranche of the emails stolen from CRU just before thanksgiving in 2009. Our original commentary is still available of course (CRU Hack, CRU Hack: Context, etc.), and very little appears to be new in this batch. Indeed, even the out-of-context quotes aren’t that exciting, and are even less so in-context.
A couple of differences in this go around are worth noting: the hacker was much more careful to cover their tracks in the zip file they produced – all the file dates are artificially set to Jan 1 2011 for instance, and they didn’t bother to hack into the RealClimate server this time either. Hopefully they have left some trails that the police can trace a little more successfully than they’ve been able to thus far from the previous release.
But the timing of this release is strange. Presumably it is related to the upcoming Durban talks, but it really doesn’t look like there is anything worth derailing there at all. Indeed, this might even increase interest! A second release would have been far more effective a few weeks after the first – before the inquiries and while people still had genuine questions. Now, it just seems a little forced, and perhaps a symptom of the hacker’s frustration that nothing much has come of it all and that the media and conversation has moved on.
If anyone has any questions about anything they see that seems interesting, let us know in the comments and we’ll see if we can provide some context. We anticipate normal service will be resumed shortly.