I always find it interesting as to why some stories get traction in the mainstream media and why some don’t. In online science discussions, the fate of this years summer sea ice has been the focus of a significant betting pool, a test of expert prediction skills, and a week-by-week (almost) running commentary. However, none of these efforts made it on to the Today program. Instead, a rather casual article in the Independent showed the latest thickness data and that quoted Mark Serreze as saying that the area around the North Pole had 50/50 odds of being completely ice free this summer, has taken off across the media.
Archives for June 2008
It’s a familiar story: An interesting paper gets published, there is a careless throwaway line in the press release, and a whole series of misleading headlines ensues.
This week, it’s a paper on bromine- and iodine-mediated ozone loss in marine boundary layer environments (see a good commentary here). This is important for the light that it shines on tropospheric ozone chemistry (“bad ozone”) which is a contributing factor to global warming (albeit one which is about only about 20% as important as CO2). So far so good. The paper contains some calculations indicating that chemical transport models without these halogen effects overestimate ozone near the Cape Verde region by about 15% – a difference that certainly could be of some importance if it can be extrapolated across the oceans.
However, the press release contains the line
Large amounts of ozone – around 50% more than predicted by the world’s state-of-the-art climate models – are being destroyed in the lower atmosphere over the tropical Atlantic Ocean.
(my highlights). Which led directly to the headlines like Study highlights need to adjust climate models.
Why is this confusing? Because the term ‘climate models’ is interpreted very differently in the public sphere than it is in the field. For most of the public, it is ‘climate models’ that are used to project global warming into the future, or to estimate the planet’s sensitivity to CO2. Thus a statement like the one above, and the headline that came from it are interpreted to mean that the estimates of sensitivity or of future warming are now in question. Yet this is completely misleading since neither climate sensitivity nor CO2 driven future warming will be at all affected by any revisions in ozone chemistry – mainly for the reason that most climate models don’t consider ozone chemistry at all. Precisely zero of the IPCC AR4 model simulations (discussed here for instance) used an interactive ozone module in doing the projections into the future.
What the paper is discussing, and what was glossed over in the release, is that it is the next generation of models, often called “Earth System Models” (ESMs), that are starting to include atmospheric chemistry, aerosols, ozone and the like. These models may well be significantly affected by increases in marine boundary layer ozone loss, but since they have only just started to be used to simulate 20th and early 21st Century changes, it is very unclear what difference it will make at the large scale. These models are significantly more complicated than standard climate models (having dozens of extra tracers to move around, and a lot of extra coding to work through), are slower to run, and have been used much less extensively.
Climate models today are extremely flexible and configurable tools that can include all these Earth System modules (including those mentioned above, but also full carbon cycles and dynamic vegetation), but depending on the application, often don’t need to. Thus while in theory, a revision in ozone chemistry, or soil respiration or aerosol properties might impact the full ESM, it won’t affect the more basic stuff (like the sensitivity to CO2). But it seems that the “climate models will have to be adjusted” meme is just too good not to use – regardless of the context.
Hot on the heels of last months reporting of a discrepancy in the ocean surface temperatures, a new paper in Nature (by Domingues et al, 2008) reports on the revisions of the ocean heat content (OHC) data – a correction required because of other discrepancies in measuring systems found last year.
Many of our tech-savvy friends — the kind of folks who nurse along the beowulf clusters our climate models run on — are scratching their heads over some cheeky shrieking that recently appeared in a WIRED magazine article on Rethinking What it Means to be Green . Crank up the A/C! Kill the Spotted Owl! Keep the SUV! What’s all that supposed to be about?
Guest contribution from Mauri S. Pelto
Ice shelves are floating platforms of ice fed by mountain glaciers and ice sheets flowing from the land onto the ocean. The ice flows from the grounding line where it becomes floating to the seaward front, where icebergs calve. For a typical glacier when the climate warms the glacier merely retreats, reducing its low elevation, high melting area by increasing its mean elevation. An ice shelf is nearly flat and cannot retreat in this fashion. Ice shelves cannot persist unless the entire ice shelf is an accumulation zone, where snowpack does not completely melt even in the summer.
This last week has been an interesting one for observers of how climate change is covered in the media and online. On Wednesday an interesting paper (Thompson et al) was published in Nature, pointing to a clear artifact in the sea surface temperatures in 1945 and associating it with the changing mix of fleets and measurement techniques at the end of World War II. The mainstream media by and large got the story right – puzzling anomaly tracked down, corrections in progress after a little scientific detective work, consequences minor – even though a few headline writers got a little carried away in equating a specific dip in 1945 ocean temperatures with the more gentle 1940s-1970s cooling that is seen in the land measurements. However, some blog commentaries have gone completely overboard on the implications of this study in ways that are very revealing of their underlying biases.
The best commentary came from John Nielsen-Gammon’s new blog where he described very clearly how the uncertainties in data – both the known unknowns and unknown unknowns – get handled in practice (read that and then come back). Stoat, quite sensibly, suggested that it’s a bit early to be expressing an opinion on what it all means. But patience is not one of the blogosphere’s virtues and so there was no shortage of people extrapolating wildly to support their pet hobbyhorses. This in itself is not so unusual; despite much advice to the contrary, people (the media and bloggers) tend to weight new individual papers that make the news far more highly than the balance of evidence that really underlies assessments like the IPCC. But in this case, the addition of a little knowledge made the usual extravagances a little more scientific-looking and has given it some extra steam.
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