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First CRU inquiry report released

Filed under: — group @ 30 March 2010

The first (of three) inquiries on the CRU email affair has reported, and this thread is for discussions of the UK Parliamentary Select Committee report. The conclusions are not un-expected, but there is bound to something for everyone to chew on. Get gnawing!

p.s. there is a useful summary at DeSmogBlog.

The Guardian responds

Filed under: — group @ 24 March 2010

We recently ran two articles that were quite critical of aspects of the Guardian’s coverage of the stolen emails. This is a response from Dr. James Randerson, the editor of the Guardian’s environmental website.

I edit the Guardian’s environment website and was part of the editorial team that produced the 12-part investigation by veteran science journalist Fred Pearce into the hacked East Anglia climate emails. I’m very grateful to RealClimate for giving us the opportunity to respond to the recent posts on the investigation: “The Guardian Disappoints” and “Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind”.
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Saleska Responds (green is green)

Filed under: — eric @ 20 March 2010

In a recent post here at RealClimate, Simon Lewis wrote regarding a 2010 paper by Samanta et al. on the effect of single-year drought conditions on the Amazon. Samanta et al. claimed to have contradicted a 2007 paper by Scott Saleska et al., and to have thereby overturned some IPCC conclusions.

Lewis showed why Samanta’s paper did not contradict the IPCC, even if it may have correctly identified an error in Saleska et al. Now Saleska has written to say that, actually, Samanta et al.’s results do not identify any error in their work: the results agree completely. With our apologies for the journalistic whiplash, Simon Lewis and I are convinced he’s right. The more general point though, is that the the balance of evidence shows that the Amazon is sensitive to drought, and the IPCC’s statements about it remain valid.

Here is Saleska’s commentary in full
Guest Commentary by Scott Saleska, University of Arizona

The title of the Lewis post (“Up is Down, Brown is Green”) is perhaps even more true than the insightful commentary by my colleague Simon Lewis indicates! The Samanta et al paper says brown, but in fact their own data (when you dig it out of the supplement) shows green, consistent with (and indeed virtually indistinguishable from) our original findings published in Science (Saleska et al., 2007).

Samanta et al. misrepresents our work on many levels (one of which is to assert, falsely, that we did not filter out atmosphere-corrupted observations when in fact we did), and we intend, of course, to present an appropriate response in the peer reviewed literature, where the technical details of our differences may be evaluated by anyone who wishes. But for the moment we will, for the sake of argument, accept their analysis at face value and ask: even if Samanta et al. are 100% correct in their critique of our methods (which we of course dispute), what are the implications? Does the alternative to our method which Samanta et al. advocate, or the recent update in the MODIS satellite data (to version 5 from version 4), make any difference for the main conclusion of our paper? With due respect to our friends and colleagues at Boston University, the answer is no, it does not.

First: the actual relevant Samanta et al data (which comes from their Supplement, Table S3) is this:

Table S3 (Samanta et al. 2010, supplement)
Year Rain defecit (%) Area Green (%) Area Brown (%) Area unchanged(%) Area with valid pixels (%)
2000 0.99 5.19 6.13 23.75 35.09
2001 6.09 5.15 5.68 24.24 35.09
2002 10.5 5.08 6.05 23.95 35.09
2003 5.34 8.05 4.12 22.90 35.09
2004 4.68 7.56 6.72 20.80 35.09
2005 87.04 10.80 3.89 18.98 33.68
2006 26.46

4.95 3.86 35.09
2007 41.59 4.76 6.43 23.88 35.09
2008 18.95 3.10 6.57 25.40 35.09

Note that the green area in the drought region increases to its maximum (10.8% of the total area = 10.8/33.68 = 32% of the valid area) in 2005. In other words, the Samanta et al data contradict the Samanta et al text and title (which states that Amazon forests did not green up): not only do forests in the drought region green up, they green up alot, more than any other year since the MODIS satellite sensor was launched.

Second, how does this compare to Saleska et al. (2007), which Samanta et al claim to rebut? Here are the numbers (again, taken directly from Samanta et al, Table S3 and Saleska et al., 2007):

Fraction of valid pixels in the 2005 drought region that are “green” (> + 1 Standard deviation)
Saleska et al. (2007): 34% (p<0.000001) Samanta et al. (2010): 32% (p<0.004) The bottom line is that their observed 2005 result (32% greenness) is indistinguishable from ours (34%). I.e. Samanta et al effectively reproduce the results of Saleska et al. This summary response, of course, begs some very interesting questions about tropical forest function under climatic variability and change (indeed the most interesting questions of all!): what caused the anomalously disproportionate green-up in the drought region? And, even if satellite “green up” does in fact represent an increase in photosynthesis (as we think), could this in fact be a symptom of the trees compensating for the increased stress of the drought? The bottom line “carbon balance” of a tree depends on both photosynthetic uptake and respiratory losses, and it is almost certainly the case that those losses (which were not seen by the satellite) increased under the hotter and drier conditions of the drought as well. Thus, the most intriguing idea to me is that the short-term satellite-detected green-up, and the longer term increase in net carbon loss reported in the Phillips et al paper (discussed by Simon Lewis) are not in conflict at all. It might well be that they represent different parts of a coherent forest response to drought, in which the longer term losses are larger than the satellite-detected attempt to compensate for them by increasing photosynthesis, and in the end, increased tree mortality is the result. In conclusion I would like to reinforce Simon’s point about Samanta et al and the IPCC. More important than whatever they say about our one short paper, Samanta et al. truly and egregiously misrepresent the implications, of both their work and ours, when they claim that a single paper on short term vegetation response somehow rebuts the IPCC’s review of the large scientific literature on how Amazonia might respond to long-term shifts in the mean climate state. It is an illogical and misguided claim on many levels, one that is already and deservedly attracting the opprobrium of many of my colleagues, talented scientists who study Amazon forests and climate (see Scientists speak: Amazon “myths” are not debunked).

In sum:

— Samanta et al data show a drought region green up that is on average indistinguishable from Saleska et al (but they call it NO green up).
— Samanta et al data almost exactly reproduce Saleska et al’s most salient bottom-line result (but they say what we did was not reproducible).
— the Samanta et al paper, based on a three-month drought response, says not one word about long-term climate change scenarios reviewed in IPCC (but they advertise their analysis as “reject[ing] claims” put forward by the IPCC).

Unforced variations 3

Filed under: — group @ 19 March 2010

Another open thread. OT comments from the Amazon drying thread have been moved over. As usual, substantive comments only please and no abuse.

Up is Down, Brown is Green (with apologies to Orwell)

Filed under: — eric @ 15 March 2010

In the alternate universe of Fox News, Anthony Watts, and many others, up is down. Now, it appears, brown is green. Following the total confusion over the retraction of a paper on sea level, claims of another “mistake” by the IPCC are making the rounds of the blogosphere. This time, the issue is the impact of rainfall changes on the Amazon rainforest.

A study in 2007 showed that the forest gets greener when it rains less. A new study, by Samanta et al. in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the earlier work was flawed. Aided by an apparently rather careless press release, this is being used as evidence that the Amazon is less sensitive to rainfall changes than the IPCC claimed. But the Samanta et al. paper actually does not address the central questions at all. It only addresses whether a single anomalous rainfall year had an impact that is measureable and interpretable from a satellite sensor. The conclusion is that they could not detect a change. As noted in a commentary from Simon Lewis, University of Leeds, “the critical question is how these forests respond to repeated droughts, not merely single-year droughts.”

Lewis – a broadly published expert on tropical forests – makes a number of additional important points in his commentary below. Bottom line: IPCC gets it right as usual.

Guest Commentary by Simon Lewis, University of Leeds, UK

The new Samanta et al. study uses sensors on satellites to assess the colour of the rainforest canopy in the dry season of the year 2005, compared to the dry seasons of the years 2003 and 2004. More detected green colour in 2005 may suggest that the forest is being more productive (more green leaves photosynthesising), or more brown colours may suggest leaves dying and less productivity, than the previous years. The results show that 2005 was little different to the previous years, despite the strong drought.

This is important new information, as in 2007, a paper using broadly the same satellite-based method showed a strong ‘greening-up’ of the Amazon in 2005, suggesting tolerance to drought (Saleska et al. 2007, Science). The new study shows that those results were not reproducible, but also highlight the extreme caution that should be attached to satellite studies generally in this field, with instruments in space collecting data which is then used to infer subtle changes in the ecology of tropical forests.

In contrast to the 2007 paper, Oliver Phillips, myself, and others, published a paper in Science last year, using ground observations from across the Amazon, showing that while the 2005 drought did not dramatically change the growth of the trees compared to a normal year, as Samanta et al. also show, the deaths of trees did increase considerably. The new study of Samanta et al. does not contradict the Phillips et al. study, which itself shows the Amazon is vulnerable to drought via impacts on tree mortality. The Phillips et al. paper showed that remaining Amazon forest trees changed from absorbing nearly 2 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere annually over recent decades, as tree growth has been exceeding mortality, to being a large, but temporary, source of over 3 billion tonnes, from the elevated tree mortality associated with the 2005 drought event.

The evidence for the possibility of a major die-back of the Amazon rainforest is due to two factors,

1. That climate change induced decreases in rainfall in the dry season occur, and

2. The trees cannot tolerate these reductions in rainfall.

The Samanta paper does not directly address the first point; this is addressed using global circulation models (of which some, but not all, show a strong drying trend for the east of the Amazon over the 21st century). The second point is only addressed in a limited way. The critical question is how these forests respond to repeated droughts, not merely single-year droughts. The forests are of course able to withstand these single droughts (otherwise there would be no rainforest!) — it is their ability to survive an increased frequency of the most severe droughts that is critical to answer. Drought experiments, where a roof is built under the forest canopy to reduce rainfall, show that most forest trees survive a single year’s intense drought, in agreement with the ground observations in the 2005 drought, but can’t persist with repeated years of drought. The Samanta study does not address this point at all.

In conclusion, the new Samanta et al. study lends further weight to the emerging picture of the impact of the 2005 drought: that tree growth was relatively unaffected, but tree mortality increased, contributing temporarily to accelerating the rate of climate change, rather than as usual reducing it, via additions of carbon to the atmosphere from the dead trees. The mortality was far from catastrophic, but the impact on the carbon cycle was globally significant. This is hardly the ‘no impact’ of the 2005-drought on the forest suggested in various news reports.

I should add that there is considerable uncertainty associated with the models suggesting decreases in rainfall, and uncertainty as to how Amazon forests may react (especially when one considers the impacts of deforestation, logging, and fire combined with climate change impacts). But this uncertainty is being chipped away at by scientists, a task in which the Samanta et al. paper assists.

Oddly, the Boston University press release to accompany the paper was titled, “New study debunks myths about Amazon rain forests”. The opening line runs: “A new NASA-funded study has concluded that Amazon rain forests were remarkably unaffected in the face of once-in-a-century drought in 2005, neither dying nor thriving, contrary to a previously published report and claims by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” So, have scientists, myself included, been peddling myths? Have respected journals being publishing them? Have the IPCC? The answer is no, no and no.

The reality is that the IPCC have largely ignored the papers on the model results of decreasing rainfall in the east of the Amazon, and the diverse evidence used to assess the sensitivity of these forests to such rainfall reductions. There are a couple of lines in IPCC Working Group I (“New coupled climate-carbon models (Betts et al., 2004; Huntingford et al., 2004) demonstrate the possibility of large feedbacks between future climate change and vegetation change, discussed further in Section 7.3.5 (i.e., a die back of Amazon vegetation and reductions in Amazon precipitation).”). And in Working Group II there is a now infamous single sentence:

“Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation (Rowell and Moore, 2000).”

The statement is not as carefully worded as it should be, and incorrectly referenced, but basically scientifically correct and defensible with recourse to the peer-reviewed literature available at the time. Rainforest persists above a threshold of rainfall, below which one finds savanna. If this threshold is crossed a landscape dominated by rainforest can ‘flip’ to savanna. Therefore a ‘slight’ reduction can lead to a ‘dramatic’ reaction. Of course, evidence of a shift to a new lower rainfall climate regime is needed, and evidence of large areas of forest close to that rainfall threshold would be required for the IPCC statement to be reasonable; there is ample published evidence for both.

Overall the conclusions in the IPCC 2007 Fourth Assessment Report are strengthened (because the anomalous result of the Saleska et al. 2007 paper appear to be at fault), not weakened, by the new Samanta et al. study as their press release implies.

Update: Saleska responds, pointing out that a) their 2007 paper is not contradicted by Samanta et al. (2010); b) nor is the IPCC report weakened by either paper. Confused? Then read what he has to say: here.

Why we bother

Filed under: — group @ 12 March 2010

A letter from a reader (reproduced with permission):

Dear RealClimate team:

I have a background in biology and studied at post-grad level in the area of philosophy of science. For the last few years, I have been working on a book about the logic of argument used in debates between creationists and evolutionists.

About a year ago I decided it was time to properly educate myself about climate science. Being perhaps a little too influenced by Harry M Collins’ “The Golem” (and probably too much modern French philosophy!), I was definitely predisposed to see group-think, political and cultural bias in the work of climatologists.

On the whole, though, I tried hard to follow the principles of genuine skepticism, as I understood them.

Obviously, there are plenty of ill-considered opinions to be found either side of any issue, but only the most ignorant person could fail to see the terrible intellectual gulf between the quality of so-called skeptic sites and those defending the science behind the AGW thesis.

What convinced me, though, is that the arguments made by a few sites like yours are explicit and testable. In particular, it is useful that RealClimate sticks to the science as much as possible. It has been a lot of hard work to get here, but I am now at a point where I understand the fundamentals of climate science well enough to articulate them to others.

For my part, I am grateful to you guys. I hope it gives you some small amount of satisfaction to know that your work can convert readers who really were skeptics in the beginning. I use the word ‘skeptic’ carefully – the one thing most commonly absent from the so-called ‘skeptics’ is authentic skepticism.

By the way, my book is an attempt to categorise the various logical errors people fall into when they search for arguments to support a conclusion to which they have arrived at a priori. It will now have a few chapters on global warming.

All the best,


Filed under: — stefan @ 11 March 2010 - (Italian)

Imagine this. In its latest report, the IPCC has predicted up to 3 meters of sea level rise by the end of this century. But “climate sceptics” websites were quick to reveal a few problems (or “tricks”, as they called it).

First, although the temperature scenarios of IPCC project a maximum warming of 6.4 ºC (Table SPM3), the upper limit of sea level rise has been computed assuming a warming of 7.6 ºC. Second, the IPCC chose to compute sea level rise up to the year 2105 rather than 2100 – just to add that extra bit of alarmism. Worse, the IPCC report shows that over the past 40 years, sea level has in fact risen 50% less than predicted by its models – yet these same models are used uncorrected to predict the future! And finally, the future projections assume a massive ice sheet decay which is rather at odds with past ice sheet behaviour.

Some scientists within IPCC warned early that all this could lead to a credibility problem, but the IPCC decided to go ahead anyway.

Now, the blogosphere and their great media amplifiers are up in arms. Heads must roll!

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More on sun-climate relations

Filed under: — rasmus @ 9 March 2010

Four new papers discuss the relatiosnhip between solar activity and climate: one by Judith Lean (2010) in WIREs Climate Change, a GRL paper by Calogovic et al. (2010), Kulmala et al. (2010), and an on-line preprint by Feulner and Rahmstorf (2010). They all look at different aspects of how changes in solar activity may influence our climate.

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A mistaken message from IoP?

Filed under: — rasmus @ 6 March 2010

The Institute of Physics (IoP) recently made a splash in the media through a statement about the implications of the e-mails stolen in the CRU hack. A couple of articles in the Guardian report how this statement was submitted to an inquiry into the CRU hack and provide some background.

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Arctic Methane on the Move?

Filed under: — david @ 6 March 2010 - (Italian)

Methane is like the radical wing of the carbon cycle, in today’s atmosphere a stronger greenhouse gas per molecule than CO2, and an atmospheric concentration that can change more quickly than CO2 can. There has been a lot of press coverage of a new paper in Science this week called “Extensive methane venting to the atmosphere from sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf”, which comes on the heels of a handful of interrelated methane papers in the last year or so. Is now the time to get frightened?

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