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Journalistic whiplash

Filed under: — gavin @ 29 July 2008 - (Español)

Andy Revkin has a good article in the Science Times today on the problem of journalistic whiplash in climate change (also discussed here). This phenomena occurs with the more uncertain parts of a science that are being actively researched and where the full story is only slowly coming together. In such cases, new papers often appear in high profile journals (because they meet the ‘of general interest’ test), and are often parsed rather simplistically to see what side of the fence they fall – are they pro or anti? This leads to wide press interest, but rather shallow coverage, and leaves casual readers with ‘whiplash’ from the ‘yes it is’, ‘no it isn’t’ messages every other week.

This is a familiar pattern in health reporting (is coffee good for you/bad for you etc.), but in more recent times has started happening in climate science too. Examples picked out in the article include the hurricanes/global warming connection and the state of Greenland’s ice sheet. In both cases, many new pieces of evidence, new theories and new models are being thrown into the pot, but full syntheses of the problems remain elusive. Scientists are of course interested in knowing how it all fits together (and it usually does), but the public – unaware of what is agreed on and what is uncertain – see only the ping-pong across the media. Unlike more mature parts of the science (such as the radiative effect of greenhouse gases), there is much less context available to relate to these new pieces of science.

This spectacle of duelling and apparently contradictory science fuels the notion that scientists can’t agree on anything. Ironically, just as climate change has made it on to the front page because the weight of evidence supporting a human role in recent warming, increased coverage may actually be leading people to think that scientists are more divided on the basic questions.

Is this inevitable? Or can scientists, press officers and journal editors and journalists actually do anything about it? Your thoughts are most welcome!

Once more unto the bray

Filed under: — gavin @ 23 July 2008

We are a little late to the party, but it is worth adding a few words now that our favourite amateur contrarian is at it again. As many already know, the Forum on Physics and Society (an un-peer-reviewed newsletter published by the otherwise quite sensible American Physical Society), rather surprisingly published a new paper by Monckton that tries again to show using rigorous arithmetic that IPCC is all wrong and that climate sensitivity is negligible. His latest sally, like his previous attempt, is full of the usual obfuscating sleight of hand, but to save people the time in working it out themselves, here are a few highlights.

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Aerosols, Chemistry and Climate

Filed under: — gavin @ 12 July 2008

Everyone can probably agree that the climate system is complex. Not only do the vagaries of weather patterns and ocean currents make it hard to see climate changes, but the variability in what are often termed the Earth System components complicates the picture enormously. These components – specifically aerosols (particulates in the air – dust, soot, sulphates, nitrates, pollen etc.) and atmospheric chemistry (ozone, methane) – are both affected by climate and affect climate, since aerosols and ozone can interact, absorb, reflect or scatter solar and thermal radiation. This makes for a rich research environment, but can befuddle the unwary.
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Weekend round-up

Filed under: — group @ 12 July 2008

A few interesting pieces from around the web relevant to some previous postings:

  • The latest satellite imagery from the Wilkins Ice Sheet (discussed recently) is not looking good. And most curiously the collapse is happening in winter.
  • The Weather Channel “Forecast Earth” team make a valiant attempt to explain the problems and promise for regional climate change projections by 2050. See our post on the general subject from last year).
  • And for those of you following the various sagas of political interference in the communication of climate science, a nice interactive graphic summary, courtesy of UCS.

Next week will be a little quiet – it is mid-summer after all – so apologies in advance if the moderation is a somewhat slow. You may also note that we have instituted a “captcha” step to the commenting process. This uses reCAPTCHA which as well as providing protection against spam, helps with the digitization of old books.

All-paper salutes to the environment

Filed under: — group @ 11 July 2008

The Onion last week had a great (recycled) spoof on the various ‘green’ special issues being published but, not to be outdone, the contributors to RealClimate have also been busy producing paper products about the environment.

Surprisingly perhaps, as well as having day jobs and writing for this blog, collectively we have written a number of popular science books about climate change. Some of these have already been published, but there are a few more “in the pipeline”. We try not to overdo self-promotion on this website (for instance, we don’t blog about most of our own technical publications) but since these projects are synergistic with our aims here, it makes sense to let people know what we’ve been up to. We have therefore set up a page listing “Our Books” that we will keep up-to-date as more titles become available. It’s also linked from the new animated gif image on the side bar.

CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas, and greenhouse effects are not the only CO2 problem

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 July 2008 - (Español)

The title here should strike a familiar theme for most readers. Climate forcings do not just include CO2 (other greenhouse gases, aerosols, land use, the sun, the orbit and volcanoes all contribute), and the impact of human emissions often has non-climatic effects on biology and ecosystems.

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Global trends and ENSO

Filed under: — gavin @ 4 July 2008 - (Español)

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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