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A Bit More Sensitive…

Filed under: — mike @ 2 January 2014

by Michael E. Mann and Gavin Schmidt

This time last year we gave an overview of what different methods of assessing climate sensitivity were giving in the most recent analyses. We discussed the three general methods that can be used:

The first is to focus on a time in the past when the climate was different and in quasi-equilibrium, and estimate the relationship between the relevant forcings and temperature response (paleo-constraints). The second is to find a metric in the present day climate that we think is coupled to the sensitivity and for which we have some empirical data (climatological constraints). Finally, there are constraints based on changes in forcing and response over the recent past (transient constraints).

All three constraints need to be reconciled to get a robust idea what the sensitivity really is.

A new paper using the second ‘climatological’ approach by Steve Sherwood and colleagues was just published in Nature and like Fasullo and Trenberth (2012) (discussed here) suggests that models with an equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) of less than 3ºC do much worse at fitting the observations than other models.

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  1. S.C. Sherwood, S. Bony, and J. Dufresne, "Spread in model climate sensitivity traced to atmospheric convective mixing", Nature, vol. 505, pp. 37-42, 2014.
  2. J.T. Fasullo, and K.E. Trenberth, "A Less Cloudy Future: The Role of Subtropical Subsidence in Climate Sensitivity", Science, vol. 338, pp. 792-794, 2012.

Language Intelligence – Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga: A Review

Filed under: — mike @ 20 August 2012

Any book that manages to link together the lessons of the Bible, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Lady Gaga (not to mention Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Seinfeld), can’t be all bad. With Joe Romm’s new book Language Intelligence, it is, in fact, ALL good. There are lessons galore for the scientists among us who value public outreach and communication. The book is a de facto field guide for recognizing and assimilating many of the key tools of persuasive language and speech, something that is ever more important to science communicators who face the daunting challenge of having to communicate technical and nuanced material to an audience largely unfamiliar with the lexicon of science, sometimes agnostic or even unreceptive to its message, and—in the case of contentious areas like climate change and evolution—already subject to a concerted campaign to misinform and confuse them.
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Tree Rings and Climate: Some Recent Developments

Filed under: — mike @ 8 July 2012

by Michael E. Mann, Gavin Schmidt, and Eric Steig

Update 7/12/12: Media Matters comments on the latest misrepresentations of the Esper et al study discussed in our article: ‘Surprise: Fox News Fails Paleoclimatology’
Update 7/13/12: Further comment from Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute in Huffington Post UK “The World’s Most Visited Newspaper Website Continues to Regurgitate Nonsense from Climate Change ‘Sceptics'”
Update 7/14/12: Some additional context provided by this LiveScience article

It’s been a tough few months for tree-rings, perhaps unfairly. Back in April, we commented on a study [that one of us (Mike) was involved in] that focused on the possibility that there is a threshold on the cooling recorded by tree-ring composites that could limit their ability to capture the short-term cooling signal associated with larger volcanic eruptions. Mostly lost in the discussion, however, was the fact–emphasized in the paper—that the trees appeared to be doing a remarkably good job in capturing the long-term temperature signal—the aspect of greatest relevance in discussions of climate change.

This week there have been two additional studies published raising questions about the interpretation of tree-ring based climate reconstructions.
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Global Temperatures, Volcanic Eruptions, and Trees that Didn’t Bark

Filed under: — mike @ 6 February 2012

My co-authors and I have just published an article in Nature Geoscience (advance online publication here; associated press release here) which seeks to explain certain enigmatic features of tree-ring reconstructions of Northern Hemisphere (NH) temperatures of the past millennium. Most notable is the virtual absence of cooling in the tree-ring reconstructions during what ice core and other evidence suggest is the most explosive volcanic eruption of the past millennium–the AD 1258 eruption. Other evidence suggests wide-spread global climate impacts of this eruption [see e.g. the review by Emile-Geay et al (2008)]. We argue that this–and other missing episodes of volcanic cooling, are likely an artifact of biological growth effects, which lead to a substantial underestimation of the largest volcanic cooling events in trees growing near treeline. We speculate that this underestimation may also have led to overly low estimates of climate sensitivity in some past studies attempting to constrain climate model sensitivity parameters with proxy-reconstructed temperature changes.

Tree rings are used as proxies for climate because trees create unique rings each year that often reflect the weather conditions that influenced the growing season that year. For reconstructing past temperatures, dendroclimatologists typically seek trees growing at the boreal or alpine treeline, since temperature is most likely to be the limiting climate variable in that environment. But this choice may also prove problematic under certain conditions. Because the trees at these locations are so close to the threshold for growth, if the temperature drops just a couple of degrees during the growing season, there will be little or no growth and therefore a loss of sensitivity to any further cooling. In extreme cases, there may be no growth ring at all. And if no ring was formed in a given year, that creates a further complication, introducing an error in the chronology established by counting rings back in time.
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“Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedback”

Filed under: — mike @ 29 July 2011

Guest commentary by Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo

The hype surrounding a new paper by Roy Spencer and Danny Braswell is impressive (see for instance Fox News); unfortunately the paper itself is not. News releases and blogs on climate denier web sites have publicized the claim from the paper’s news release that “Climate models get energy balance wrong, make too hot forecasts of global warming”. The paper has been published in a journal called Remote sensing which is a fine journal for geographers, but it does not deal with atmospheric and climate science, and it is evident that this paper did not get an adequate peer review. It should not have been published.

The paper’s title “On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance” is provocative and should have raised red flags with the editors. The basic material in the paper has very basic shortcomings because no statistical significance of results, error bars or uncertainties are given either in the figures or discussed in the text. Moreover the description of methods of what was done is not sufficient to be able to replicate results. As a first step, some quick checks have been made to see whether results can be replicated and we find some points of contention.

The basic observational result seems to be similar to what we can produce but use of slightly different datasets, such as the EBAF CERES dataset, changes the results to be somewhat less in magnitude. And some parts of the results do appear to be significant. So are they replicated in climate models? Spencer and Braswell say no, but this is where attempts to replicate their results require clarification. In contrast, some model results do appear to fall well within the range of uncertainties of the observations. How can that be? For one, the observations cover a 10 year period. The models cover a hundred year period for the 20th century. The latter were detrended by Spencer but for the 20th century that should not be necessary. One could and perhaps should treat the 100 years as 10 sets of 10 years and see whether the observations match any of the ten year periods, but instead what appears to have been done is to use only the one hundred year set by itself. We have done exactly this and the result is in the Figure..
[ed. note: italics below replace the deleted sentence above, to make it clearer what is meant here.]

SB11 appears to have used the full 100 year record to evaluate the models, but this provides no indication of the robustness of their derived relationships. Here instead, we have considered each decade of the 20th century individually and quantified the inter-decadal variability to derive the Figure below. What this figure shows is the results for the observations, as in Spencer and Braswell, using the EBAF dataset (in black). Then we show results from 2 different models, one which does not replicate ENSO well (top) and one which does (second panel). Here we give the average result (red curve) for all 10 decades, plus the range of results that reflects the variations from one decade to the next. The MPI-Echam5 model replicates the observations very well. When all model results from CMIP3 are included, the bottom panel results, showing the red curve not too dis-similar from Spencer and Braswell, but with a huge range, due both to the spread among models, and also the spread due to decadal variability.

Figure: Lagged regression analysis for the Top-of-the-atmosphere Net Radiation against surface temperature. The CERES data is in black (as in SB11), and the individual models in each panel are in red. The dashed lines are the span of the regressions for specific 10 year periods in the model (so that the variance is comparable to the 10 years of the CERES data). The three panels show results for a) a model with poor ENSO variability, b) a model with reasonable ENSO variability, and c) all models.

Consequently, our results suggest that there are good models and some not so good, but rather than stratifying them by climate sensitivity, one should, in this case, stratify them by ability to simulate ENSO. In the Figure, the model that replicates the observations better has high sensitivity while the other has low sensitivity. The net result is that the models agree within reasonable bounds with the observations.

To help interpret the results, Spencer uses a simple model. But the simple model used by Spencer is too simple (Einstein says that things should be made as simple as possible but not simpler): well this has gone way beyond being too simple (see for instance this post by Barry Bickmore). The model has no realistic ocean, no El Niño, and no hydrological cycle, and it was tuned to give the result it gave. Most of what goes on in the real world of significance that causes the relationship in the paper is ENSO. We have already rebutted Lindzen’s work on exactly this point. The clouds respond to ENSO, not the other way round [see: Trenberth, K. E., J. T. Fasullo, C. O’Dell, and T. Wong, 2010: Relationships between tropical sea surface temperatures and top-of-atmosphere radiation. Geophys. Res. Lett., 37, L03702, doi:10.1029/2009GL042314.] During ENSO there is a major uptake of heat by the ocean during the La Niña phase and the heat is moved around and stored in the ocean in the tropical western Pacific, setting the stage for the next El Niño, as which point it is redistributed across the tropical Pacific. The ocean cools as the atmosphere responds with characteristic El Niño weather patterns forced from the region that influence weather patterns world wide. Ocean dynamics play a major role in moving heat around, and atmosphere-ocean interaction is a key to the ENSO cycle. None of those processes are included in the Spencer model.

Even so, the Spencer interpretation has no merit. The interannual global temperature variations were not radiatively forced, as claimed for the 2000s, and therefore cannot be used to say anything about climate sensitivity. Clouds are not a forcing of the climate system (except for the small portion related to human related aerosol effects, which have a small effect on clouds). Clouds mainly occur because of weather systems (e.g., warm air rises and produces convection, and so on); they do not cause the weather systems. Clouds may provide feedbacks on the weather systems. Spencer has made this error of confounding forcing and feedback before and it leads to a misinterpretation of his results.

The bottom line is that there is NO merit whatsoever in this paper. It turns out that Spencer and Braswell have an almost perfect title for their paper: “the misdiagnosis of surface temperature feedbacks from variations in the Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance” (leaving out the “On”).

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