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Unforced variations: Jan 2012

Filed under: — group @ 2 January 2012

First open thread of 2012, so perhaps some discussion of the highlights and lowlights of 2011 are in order? Top 5 lists welcome…

361 Responses to “Unforced variations: Jan 2012”

  1. 1
    Hank Roberts says:

    Useful calibration for cynicism — the Retraction Watch blog:

    “… 2011 would have been a very good year for business.
    It was a year that will probably see close to 400 retractions, including a number of high-profile ones, once the dust settles. Those high numbers caught the attention of a lot of major media outlets, from Nature to NPR to the Wall Street Journal. Science publications, including LiveScience and The Scientist, have done their own end-of-year retraction lists.

    It was also a good year for us at Retraction Watch. Many news outlets featured us in their coverage, either picking up stories we’d broken or asking us for comment on big-picture issues. Three national NPR programs — Science Friday, On the Media, and All Things Considered — had us on air. We launched a column in LabTimes, and Nature asked us to write a year-end commentary. We even earned a Wikipedia entry. Read the rest of this entry »

  2. 2
    Pete best says:

    La nina on the wane so could 2012 be a record breaking year?

  3. 3

    Can anyone find an online version of Graham Adams’ article on environmentalism in the November 2011 issue of the New Zealand magazine North and South? I happened to read it while vacationing in New Zealand and was horrified to find it gormlessly repeating every climate skeptic talking point and crank ranging from the Oregon Petition to Christopher Monckton. I had to check the cover of the magazine again to make sure I was reading a serious publication.

  4. 4
  5. 5
    caerbannog says:

    Two small milestones for 2011.

    July 27, 2011: The CRU releases the “climategate” raw temperature data that skeptics had been demanding.

    December 31, 2011: Still no sign that any of the skeptics who had been demanding access to the CRU raw data have done anything meaningful with it.

  6. 6
    Bill says:

    With the launch of the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 and the first detailed maps from it (Jan. and Feb.2011), the much needed data on sea ice thickness in the Arctic is now becoming available. When, where, and how much the ice thickness is changing has been an important missing piece in the Arctic climate puzzle.

  7. 7
    Hank Roberts says:

    Thanks wili; and searching on his name, he’s published quite a bit.

    One should be able to read his papers and find out how much variation occurs naturally (how noisy the data available is), how much data has been collected (how many years, how many satellites, how freqently), and with the observed noise level, he’s probably calculated how much data is needed for a reasonable chance to detect a trend statistically. That depends on the details, there’s no simple rule.

  8. 8
    Hank Roberts says:

    Here’s one:
    Reference : A new method to detect long term trends of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) total columns measured within the NDACC ground-based high resolution solar FTIR network

    “… a multiple regression model with anomalies of air pressure, total columns of hydrogen fluoride (HF) and carbon monoxide (CO) and tropopause height are used to reduce the variability in the methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) total columns to estimate reliable linear trends ….

    And more papers, looking up “solar FITR network” — new tool being described:

  9. 9
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Highlights, lowlights, … oddlights?
    The Muller BEST affair had an odd start:
    “I’m a right wing physicist and I’m going to show those planet huggers how to do it. Grrrr!”
    This was a sort of a highlight of the Nixon going to China type. Of course Muller had to give in to arithmetic’s well known liberal bias.

    “But then how the lame herd hated him
    hated him
    As they shouted out with rage:
    Muller with your math so red,
    You’ll never be at our teams head.”

  10. 10
    David Miller says:

    Follow-on question from last months Unforced Variation discussion of methane.

    As I understand it, airborne methane is broken down in the troposphere through a variety of reactions, starting with an OH- radical.

    If the methane concentration goes up sufficiently, the supply of OH- radicals goes down; won’t this lead to a longer residence time for methane?

    Wikipedia suggests here that methane which rises through the troposphere will be broken down by reacting with existing ozone.

    Can anyone bound the effect on ozone for me? If X (hundred) megatons of CH4 are released in the next 50 years what effect is it likely to have on stratospheric ozone? What is the likely residence time given that OH- radicals could become much scarcer?

  11. 11
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    There some of the year’s extreme weather is reviewed at

    But my peeve of the year was the focus on extreme events instead of the global problem. I am very glad to see that Hansen et al. have a better approach:
    They look at the percent cover of earth with extreme heat. Now if climate scientists could learn to do this for floods and projected flooding by 2020, 2030, … to go along with the spread of drought we could begin to see how soon to expect a food crisis.

  12. 12
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    The WunderBlog has more on extreme weather:

    A remarkable blitz of extreme weather events during 2011 caused a total of 32 weather disasters costing at least $1 billion worldwide. Five nations experienced their most expensive weather-related natural disasters on record during 2011–Thailand, Australia, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. According to insurance broker AON Benfield’s November Catastrophe Report, the U.S. was hit by no less than seventeen punishing multi-billion dollar extreme weather disasters in 2011; NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center official total is lower–twelve–but is likely to grow in number as additional damage statistics are tallied. Brazil experienced its deadliest weather-related natural disaster–a flash flood that killed 902 people in January, and the Philippines had its second deadliest flood ever, when Tropical Storm Washi killed over 1200 people in December.

    When all else fails, try singing in the rain.

  13. 13
    Hank Roberts says:

    for David Miller:

    Eli discussed “… a new paper by Su and a list of co authors not long ago. Eli gave a clear illustrated explanation of the chemistry and photochemistry, and summed up:
    “… agriculture is increasingly acidifying and fertilizing soils …. It may also have maintained the oxidative capacity of the atmosphere ….”

  14. 14
    vendicar decarian says:

    Newt Gingrich says he has killed a chapter on climate change in a post-election book of essays about the environment. But the intended author of the chapter, who supports the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change, says that’s news to her.

  15. 15
    Craig Nazor says:

    Yes, I guess a low point for 2011 is how quickly a politician’s quest for a powerful position changes his/her public opinion on science. Here is an interesting “debate” featuring Newt Gingrich:

    Here in Texas, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) got themselves into a bit of globally warmed water over the censorship of science in a report about Galveston Bay:

    We will see about the “compromise.”

    (Un)fortunately, the extreme heat and drought here in Texas also caused the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to finally, and quitely, kill plans for a new coal-fired power plant because of the large amount of water it would use. They had insisted that the “drought of record” in the 1950s is as dry as it is ever going to get in Central Texas. I’m not making this stuff up!

    Keep your eyes on Texas. Even though it has cooled down and rained a little bit, the drought situation will not be pretty if we even come close to having as hot and dry a summer in 2012 as we had in 2011, based on the huge water deficit we are currently facing.

    What’s it going to take to get politicians base their actions on science?

    Gee, maybe Governor Perry will schedule another prayer meeting!

  16. 16
    Dominik Lenné says:

    @#6 – Bill – arctic sea ice

    Right, the first arctic sea ice thickness data appeared in june 2011. Now there is the very considerable effort of University of Washington’s Polar Science Center to deliver best guesses of the thickness field and the total ice mass via a measurement backed numerical model (PIOMAS). Those data in turn allow to make assumptions on when we have to expect the first practically sea ice free September in the arctic. This is both scientifically an psychologically important.

    AFAIk there is up to now no check of PIOMAS – against CryoSat results. Is this just because of a lack of manpower to do the considerable work (so the work is beeing done, only not yet accomplished)? Or are there big unsolved discrepancies or CryoSat data interpretation problems?

  17. 17
    Hans Kiesewetter says:

    About “extreme” weather: Where I live it is now winter, but the average temperature on the first day of this year was above the average temperature of full 2011. (KNMI. DeBilt, The Netherlands). No, 2011 was not cold (ranking as nr3 in 110 years as a very warm year), but the first day of this year was warm. (The new years dive in the North Sea was not that terrible cold.)
    And no, this is not climate change but just cherry picking on the other side. ;-)

  18. 18
    JK says:

    A bit longer than a timescale of one year, but I’ll ask anyway. I’m not a climate scientist, so would appreciate any feedback on my attempt at a summary of my understanding of the big picture of advances in climate science for the last decade or so. I’m not trying to state what’s important in climate science, but where the progress has been in the last decade. In a statement as short as the one below, what have I missed out, wrongly included or got wrong?

    – The most notable new measurements are of the ocean (e.g. the Argo network, autonomous vehicles) and ice (e.g. through GRACE and recent comprehensive glacier inventory). Closing the water budget can now be done more realistically.

    – Lots of work has been done on the interrelated tangle of aerosols, chemistry and biology, but this remains the largest source of uncertainty, still lost in a maze of detail. A notable result is more warming from black carbon than previously thought.

    – Key improvements to models include the incorporation of the stratosphere and more ocean layers.

    – Plenty of indications that further improvements to models are possible simply by throwing in more computing resources e.g. higher resolution and more accurate radiative transfer code.

    – But new understanding is also required as parameterisation of subgrid processes is always necessary (turbulence, biology, clouds).

    – In paleoclimate the EPICA core (2004) remains a land mark. Speleothem measurements are a notable new proxy. Milankovitch theory has been strengthened. On the scale of the last few millennia incremental advances are allowing an attempt to move from global to local reconstructions and interpretation.

    Future challenges:

    – Critical measurement to refine climate sensitivity estimations from observed warming are aerosol forcing and ocean mixing. (More negative aerosol forcing and faster mixing both implying higher ultimate warming from existing greenhouse emissions.)

    – To refine climate sensitivity from modeling needs understanding of water vapor feedback and cloud feedback. Water vapor feedback is thought to be positive and cloud feedback to be mixed-to-positive, consistent with a sensitivity of 3 degrees, but both need pinning down.

    – Integration of climate models with numerical weather forecasting, which may provide a route to testing parameterisations.

    – More paleoclimate measurements are needed, especially in the tropics where traditional proxies such as tree rings and lake bed sediments are harder to come by.

    The overall picture of climate science over the last decade is incremental progress rather than revolution. The central estimate of climate sensitivity at 3 degrees C remains similar, with slightly smaller error bars in both directions.

  19. 19
    Ray Ladbury says:

    JK, not sure I can see how water vapor feedback can be negative without violiating known physics.

  20. 20
  21. 21
    toto says:

    In a remarkable case of reality out-satirizing satire, Judith Curry has apparently grown tired of being conflated with creationists and alt-med believers by others, and has therefore decided to do the conflating herself!

    [Response: Funny. The quoted Russell piece is from his 1928 book of course, but the exact quoting (including the ellipsis) is taken from my 2005 how to be a real sceptic post (no h/t of course ;-) ). But essentially Curry is claiming that the very existence of an agreement statement in science implies that the opposite is more likely to be true – this is the anti-thesis of what Russell was arguing (and indeed, to common sense). – gavin]

  22. 22
    Hank Roberts says:

    Ray, that may be
    > without … known physics.
    Five Reasons Why Water Vapor Feedback Might Not Be Positive …

  23. 23
    Dan H. says:


    I think you hit the nail on the head with ARGO and GRACE measurements. Aerosols (coal burning emissions, volcanic activity, and cosmic rays) have received significant attention, but hard and fast numbers are still a long ways off. Even with all the research, clouds are still the largest uncertainty. While water vapor is generally thought to be positive, more research is showing a negative cloud effect.

    [Response:No, water vapor is known to be a positive feedback, and what is your source for the last statement?–Jim]

    Recent paleoclimatology measurements have generated lower climate sensitivities

    [Response:Such as?]

    and reduction of the high-end tail.
    Other than that, I am not sure that we can say that the error bars are slightly lower. One of the recent thoughts is that the climate sensitivity is more variable than originally believed, depending on the climate factors in place at the time.

    Another variable is the effect of plantlife, both changes that humans have impacted upon on the landscape,

    [Response:Care to explain that?]

    and those that will result from changing temperatures and atmospheric levels.

    Most of the advances have followed the computing technology, where data can be analyzed and compared at much faster rates. Smaller influences can be handled with today’s computing power, which cloud not with the computers of a decade ago.

  24. 24
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Dan H., You seem to attach a lot of weight to single studies when they support your prejudices.

  25. 25
    SecularAnimist says:

    Pete Dunkelberg wrote: “my peeve of the year was the focus on extreme events instead of the global problem”

    Ordinary people don’t experience “the global problem”. They experience the extreme events. And they are going to be experiencing more frequent, and more extreme, such events as global warming continues.

    This is why it is crucial for scientists and journalists to inform the public about the connection between “weather of mass destruction” and the “global problem”.

    And this is, of course, exactly why the fossil-fueled deniers are so aggressively attacking any suggestion of such connections.

  26. 26
    David Harrington says:

    Ray @ 18

    I think that JK said that cloud feedback could be negative not water vapour. It is definitely possible for cloud feedback to be negative.

  27. 27
    Louise says:

    Time to nominate for the Bloggies 2012

  28. 28
    Dan H. says:

    As scientists, we try to be open-minded, and not stick to pre-conceived ideas.

    [Response:That’s a good idea, you ought to try that out instead of constantly looking for the angle or the subtle wording that casts doubt on the various findings of climate science.–Jim]

    If you feel that this study is prejudiced then I am open to your opinion as to why. To you have a better example to answer JK’s requests concerning more paleo data and climate sensitivity updates?

  29. 29
    CM says:

    Denial Duds — the top 5 anticlimaxes for climate skeptics in 2011:

    1. BEST preliminary results pretty much what we already knew, disconfirm devoutly wished-for UHI bias
    2. Watts’ surfacestations project’s published results disconfirm devoutly wished-for “warm” siting bias
    3. CERN CLOUD project’s first paper firms up ionization/nucleation link, otherwise leaves devoutly wished-for vindication of GCR hypothesis still in limbo, instead turns up interesting science of no obvious political value
    4. Climategate 2: Son of Return of the Sequel Rides Again emails turn out to be filled with bombshells wet firecrackers
    5. [This space intentionally left blank for you to fill in — Suggestions?]

  30. 30
    Don Brookman says:

    While Curry et al. continue to impugn the integrity of climate scientists, Wegman swoops in and nabs a place in The Scientist list of Top Science Scandals of 2011 (see )

  31. 31
    wili says:

    Hansen still sees a 5 m rise in sea level as possible by the end of the century with doubling of rise amounts every ~10 years.

  32. 32
    Bill says:

    @#16 — Dominik

    I am not familiar with PIOMAS but will look into it. Thanks.

    As far as checking PIOMAS against CryoSat-2, my guess is it is just a matter of time (and funding) before someone gets around to doing it.

    I am not an expert on CryoSat-2 but to my knowledge its validation studies were without problems and the data being returned exceeds all published expectations.

  33. 33
    David Harrington says:

    wili @ 31

    Sea level better get a move on then mate if it is going to hit those targets when you consider the IPCC worst case predictions are a fraction of that.

    [Response: There was no upper limit to the IPCC ‘worst case predictions’ for sea level – this was one of their major problems last time as we discussed at length. I personally don’t think that back-of-the-envelope estimates are particularly informative, but without more credible ice sheet modelling it’s hard to credibly dismiss these out-of-hand. (By the way, simple linear extrapolations for 100 years are not credible). – gavin]

  34. 34
    David B. Benson says:

    Coldest time of year, traditionally. Last night clear enough to see not only Luna and Jupiter but also lotsa stars.

    Above freezing in the middle of the night.

  35. 35
    Hank Roberts says:

    > IPCC ‘worst case’


    “… quoting the 18-59 cm range of sea level rise, as many media articles have done, is not telling the full story. 59 cm is unfortunately not the “worst case”. It does not include the full ice sheet uncertainty, which could add 20 cm or even more. It does not cover the full “likely” temperature range given in the AR4 (up to 6.4 ºC) …”

  36. 36
    Hank Roberts says:

    David Harrington says:
    “… I think that JK said that cloud feedback could be negative not water vapour.”

    You could check what you think,
    you could check what David H. says.
    In both situations, you’ll often find it’s wrong.

    It’s easy to do.

    JK, earlier, said:

    “Water vapor feedback is thought to be positive and cloud feedback to be mixed-to-positive …”

    Ray replied, dryly:

    “not sure I can see how water vapor feedback can be negative …”

    Get it?
    JK states a weak “is thought to be” claim, without citation, about a physically observed result — as though it’s a theory not an observation.

    Ray replied snarkily, or perhaps socratically*

    Dan H. misinterpreted what Ray asked, then misstated what JK said and suggested Ray had misread it.

    “… An enemy has planted things in your head. You need to know what those things are so you can trust yourselves and each other.” — Tagon, 2012/01/03
    * (are those the same thing? I’ve always wondered).

  37. 37
    David B. Benson says:

    Fully developed Kelvin-Helmhotz waves in clouds just at sunset. Better than
    with the glow behind the waves. Also some just in the process of breaking, rather like water waves approaching a beach; first time I’ve ever seen that.

    Don’t attribute any of the above to AGW, tho’.

  38. 38
    Geoff Beacon says:

    After reading Wili #4, I thought of Spike Milligan’s epitaph “I toldyou I was ill”.

    Should we begin to think of an epitaph for the human race?

    Any ideas?

    “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish”?

    “We didn’t know the models were wrong”?

  39. 39
    WhiteBeard says:

    #6, Bill, 2 Jan 2012,
    #15, Dominik Lenné, 3 Jan 2012,

    Has something slipped by me? Extraordinarily easy for that to happen.

    The preliminary results released for CryoSat-2 during the Paris Air Show seemed off, showing a significantly grater then expected ice volume. PIOMAS results are from a model, but one that incorporates direct observations including the international Arctic Buoy Program run by the same U of W’s Polar Science Center that produces PIOMAS data.

    During this last spring, as there has been for a number of years, considerable effort was expended, in part, to produce validation data for the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2. Until that instrument program is producing, it’s difficult to see how the press release is particularly noteworthy given 2011 events are the suggested bounds.

    More noteworthy for the sea ice subject are the loss of the AMSR-E instrument in October; the publication of in Geophysical Research Letters paper by Tietsche et al and the subject of a most lucid post here at RealClimate

    by Dirk Notz, a contributor to the paper; or that the minimum for area is back to the 2007 value, without the radical set of conditions of that year occurring in the intervening 4 years.

  40. 40
    Ed Beroset says:

    Highlights include:
    1. Gavin’s award of the AGU Climate Communication Prize
    2. the BEST team acknowledging actual science rather than data-less denialism
    3. the successful launches of a number of new satellites (Aquarius, NPP) and getting data from Cryosat-2
    4. the small but hopeful deal reached in Durban (it’s not much but probably better than nothing)
    5. hearing Dr. Rajendra Pachauri deliver the commencement address at the NCSU fall graduation ceremony

  41. 41
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Hank Roberts: “Ray replied snarkily, or perhaps socratically…”

    Ooh! I now have a new screen handle: Snarkrates?

  42. 42
    Dan H. says:


    In reply to your earlier questions:

    1. Cloud feedback source: There were several papers published last, here is one: (This paper agreed with some of the papers, but disagreed with others. There is still considerable uncertainty in this area.)
    2. The paleo data comes from the Schmittner study:

    3. Regarding plant life, I was referring partly to the recent RC thread about land-use changes.
    Secondly, trees have been shown to be capable of sequestering more carbon in elevated CO2 environments.

    [Response:This is your idea of a defense of your previous sweeping statements? Laughable.–Jim]

  43. 43
    Hank Roberts says:

    In other words, if you want cherries, you can get them picked and prepared from some people, who will tell you some favored notion, and pick a cite to suit if he has one.

    In college these days, I’m told, this method is called “reverse citation” — it comes with the availability of Google, since in the old paper era it would have been no extra effort to find good information.

    Nowadays, pick anything you’d like, and Google — someone will have said it somewhere, and you can call that your authority — that’s reverse citation.

    The tactic in a forum like this is to wear down the folks who mistrust and try to verify the claims; once they give up, the cherries are freely distributed in reply to new people’s questions, making the forum less than useless.

  44. 44

    Humanity’s epitaph:
    We should have listened to the science.

    Top 5 articles I’d like to see in 2012 (in the Onion anyways)

    1. SCIENTISTS OVERESTIMATE URBAN HEAT ISLAND EFFECT: After the results of the BEST climate study, scientists realize that the UHI effect wasn’t as large as they thought.

    2. IPCC COVERS UP FUTURE SEA LEVEL RISE: Only in the margin is it noted that their prediction for sea level rise didn’t include ice-sheet uncertainty.

    3. SCIENTISTS USING MODELS ONLY GIVE “AVERAGE” RESULTS: Our reporters discovered that scientists use multiple model runs but only show the average, not the worst-case results.

    4. CLIMATE SCIENTISTS START MOVING OUT OF CERTAIN STATES: Scientists have started moving out of states they feel will be hit worst by climate change.


    Anyways, I can dream.

  45. 45
    Hank Roberts says:

    Oh, and just for the record (dammit, why do I keep falling for the temptation to check claims I can be sure in advance are spinning dizzily?)

    > Dan H
    > trees have been shown to be capable of
    > sequestering more carbon in elevated CO2
    > environments.

    That’s cherries again.

    Actual quote from the source Dan H. misleads you to:

    ” … the N deficiency increased, forest response to eCO2 also declined (Norby et al. 2010). The experiment no longer supported the premise that the CO2 fertilization effect would be sustained.”

    We don’t know if Dan is misreading after finding his own sources or if he’s copypasting from some place like CO2Science that supplies cherries pre-spun.

  46. 46
    Chris Colose says:

    There is absolutely no debate at this point concerning the robustness of a positive water vapor feedback, based on several decades done at the interface of modeling, observations, and theory. Some of the work of Brian Soden, Dessler, and others have cleared this up. There have been mechanisms proposed that could help de-moisten the upper troposphere (Lindzen has one in the early 90s, but has since abandoned that in favor of cloud feedbacks, namely his IRIS theory); I don’t really agree with Ray that it must necessarily be some violation of ‘known physics’ to have a weaker water vapor effect (in particular, there’s no grand unified theory linking changes in relative humidity in the upper atmosphere to temperature), but nothing supports a negative feedback, and it would be impossible to explain the paleo-record with a negative water vapor effect since that is the chief effect that amplifies sensitivity and reduces how well the Planck radiative restoring response brings back equilibrium.

    Clouds are a different story, and it’s useful to speak of water vapor and clouds separately. Most ideas discussing cloud feedbacks focus only on one of the two opposing aspects at a time (longwave vs. shortwave), such as Lindzen’s IRIS or Hartmann’s FAT hypothesis (Zelinka and Hartmann have some recent papers on this, Del Genio at GISS has done some work here as well), and the general idea is that longwave cloud feedbacks are positive, but shortwave effects are more uncertain. No one has succeeded in explaining a cloud feedback that is negative enough to reduce sensitivity well below the IPCC AR4 range.

  47. 47
    Steve Fish says:

    Hank, I really like the reverse citation bit. Can someone come up with a new word for this kind of trolling. We already have “tone” and “concern” and “drive by,” so what would a troll using reverse citation be called. Steve

  48. 48
    Hank Roberts says:

    > reverse citation

    It’s cherrypicking, aka “advocacy science”

    The Rise of the Dedicated Natural Science Think Tank (PDF)

  49. 49
    Craig Nazor says:

    Dan H.:

    Interesting – your “debate” tactics (posting research that doesn’t say what you claim it says, cherry-picking data, claiming posters have said things that they did not say, etc.) are about as popular here as they were on the now-defunct blog.

    Would you care to comment about this?

  50. 50
    john mann says:

    Hello folks

    A new topic perhaps.

    Here in England we had our upteenth poor to indifferent summer following a fine spring. The usual interpretation was given out by the Met office as being the result of the jet stream shifting further south. I was curious and contacted them and apparently this is not due to a expansion in the area of the polar air mass but was compensated by a northward shift in the Bering Sea area.

    It occurs to me that the Arctic melt pattern is gradually reducing to a core centred on Greenland (less the ‘obvious’ recovery of ice described by nutters like Nigel Lawson – the cheek of the man, dissing David Attenborough!).

    So does this mean that increasing ice melt is leading to a shift towards the Atlantic region of the thermal pole in summer, and that our naff summers will become a regular feature?

    Any thoughts?