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Thoughts on 2014 and ongoing temperature trends

Filed under: — gavin @ 22 January 2015

Last Friday, NASA GISS and NOAA NCDC had a press conference and jointly announced the end-of-year analysis for the 2014 global surface temperature anomaly which, in both analyses, came out top. As you may have noticed, this got much more press attention than their joint announcement in 2013 (which wasn’t a record year).

In press briefings and interviews I contributed to, I mostly focused on two issues – that 2014 was indeed the warmest year in those records (though by a small amount), and the continuing long-term trends in temperature which, since they are predominantly driven by increases in greenhouse gases, are going to continue and hence produce (on a fairly regular basis) continuing record years. Response to these points has been mainly straightforward, which is good (if sometimes a little surprising), but there have been some interesting issues raised as well…
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It never rains but it pause

There has been a veritable deluge of new papers this month related to recent trends in surface temperature. There are analyses of the CMIP5 ensemble, new model runs, analyses of complementary observational data, attempts at reconciliation all the way to commentaries on how the topic has been covered in the media and on twitter. We will attempt to bring the highlights together here. As background, it is worth reading our previous discussions, along with pieces by Simon Donner and Tamino to help put in context what is being discussed here.

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Going with the wind

Filed under: — group @ 17 February 2014

A new paper in Nature Climate Change out this week by England and others joins a number of other recent papers seeking to understand the climate dynamics that have led to the so-called “slowdown” in global warming. As we and others have pointed out previously (e.g. here), the fact that global average temperatures can deviate for a decade or longer from the long term trend comes as no surprise. Moreover, it’s not even clear that the deviation has been as large as is commonly assumed (as discussed e.g. in the Cowtan and Way study earlier this year), and has little statistical significance in any case. Nevertheless, it’s still interesting, and there is much to be learned about the climate system from studying the details.

Several studies have shown that much of the excess heating of the planet due to the radiative imbalance from ever-increasing greenhouses gases has gone into the ocean, rather than the atmosphere (see e.g. Foster and Rahmstorf and Balmaseda et al.). In their new paper, England et al. show that this increased ocean heat uptake — which has occurred mostly in the tropical Pacific — is associated with an anomalous strengthening of the trade winds. Stronger trade winds push warm surface water towards the west, and bring cold deeper waters to the surface to replace them. This raises the thermocline (boundary between warm surface water and cold deep water), and increases the amount of heat stored in the upper few hundred meters of the ocean. Indeed, this is what happens every time there is a major La Niña event, which is why it is globally cooler during La Niña years. One could think of the last ~15 years or so as a long term “La-Niña-like” anomaly (punctuated, of course, by actual El Niño (like the exceptionally warm years 1998, 2005) and La Niña events (like the relatively cool 2011).

A very consistent understanding is thus emerging of the coupled ocean and atmosphere dynamics that have caused the recent decadal-scale departure from the longer-term global warming trend. That understanding suggests that the “slowdown” in warming is unlikely to continue, as England explains in his guest post, below. –Eric Steig

Guest commentary by Matthew England (UNSW)

For a long time now climatologists have been tracking the global average air temperature as a measure of planetary climate variability and trends, even though this metric reflects just a tiny fraction of Earth’s net energy or heat content. But it’s used widely because it’s the metric that enjoys the densest array of in situ observations. The problem of course is that this quantity has so many bumps and kinks, pauses and accelerations that predicting its year-to-year path is a big challenge. Over the last century, no single forcing agent is clearer than anthropogenic greenhouse gases, yet zooming into years or decades, modes of variability become the signal, not the noise. Yet despite these basics of climate physics, any slowdown in the overall temperature trend sees lobby groups falsely claim that global warming is over. Never mind that the globe – our planet – spans the oceans, atmosphere, land and ice systems in their entirety.

This was one of the motivations for our study out this week in Nature Climate Change (England et al., 2014)  With the global-average surface air temperature (SAT) more-or-less steady since 2001, scientists have been seeking to explain the climate mechanics of the slowdown in warming seen in the observations during 2001-2013. One simple way to address this is to examine what is different about the recent decade compared to the preceding decade when the global-mean SAT metric accelerated. This can be quantified via decade-mean differences, or via multi-decadal trends, which are roughly equivalent if the trends are more-or-less linear, or if the focus is on the low frequency changes.

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  1. G. Foster, and S. Rahmstorf, "Global temperature evolution 1979–2010", Environmental Research Letters, vol. 6, pp. 044022, 2011.
  2. M.A. Balmaseda, K.E. Trenberth, and E. Källén, "Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat content", Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 40, pp. 1754-1759, 2013.
  3. M.H. England, S. McGregor, P. Spence, G.A. Meehl, A. Timmermann, W. Cai, A.S. Gupta, M.J. McPhaden, A. Purich, and A. Santoso, "Recent intensification of wind-driven circulation in the Pacific and the ongoing warming hiatus", Nature Climate Change, vol. 4, pp. 222-227, 2014.

The global temperature jigsaw

Since 1998 the global temperature has risen more slowly than before. Given the many explanations for colder temperatures discussed in the media and scientific literature (La Niña, heat uptake of the oceans, arctic data gap, etc.) one could jokingly ask why no new ice age is here yet. This fails to recognize, however, that the various ingredients are small and not simply additive. Here is a small overview and attempt to explain how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together.


Figure 1 The global near-surface temperatures (annual values at the top, decadal means at the bottom) in the three standard data sets HadCRUT4 (black), NOAA (orange) and NASA GISS (light blue). Graph: IPCC 2013. More »

What ocean heating reveals about global warming

Filed under: — stefan @ 25 September 2013

The heat content of the oceans is growing and growing.  That means that the greenhouse effect has not taken a pause and the cold sun is not noticeably slowing global warming.

NOAA posts regularly updated measurements of the amount of heat stored in the bulk of the oceans.  For the upper 2000 m (deeper than that not much happens) it looks like this:


Change in the heat content in the upper 2000 m of the world’s oceans. Source: NOAA

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The answer is blowing in the wind: The warming went into the deep end

There has been an unusual surge of interest in the climate sensitivity based on the last decade’s worth of temperature measurements, and a lengthy story in the Economist tries to argue that the climate sensitivity may be lower than previously estimated. I think its conclusion is somewhat misguided because it missed some important pieces of information (also see skepticalscience’s take on this story here).

The ocean heat content and the global mean sea level height have marched on.

While the Economist referred to some unpublished work, it missed a new paper by Balmaseda et al. (2013) which provides a more in-depth insight. Balmaseda et al suggest that the recent years may not have much effect on the climate sensitivity after all, and according to their analysis, it is the winds blowing over the oceans that may be responsible for the ‘slow-down’ presented in the Economist.

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  1. M.A. Balmaseda, K.E. Trenberth, and E. Källén, "Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat content", Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 40, pp. 1754-1759, 2013.

Ice hockey

Eric Steig

It is well known that ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula have collapsed on several occasions in the last couple of decades, that ice shelves in West Antarctica are thinning rapidly, and that the large outlet glaciers that drain the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) are accelerating. The rapid drainage of the WAIS into the ocean is a major contributor to sea level rise (around 10% of the total, at the moment).

All of these observations match the response, predicted in the late 1970s by glaciologist John Mercer, of the Antarctic to anthropogenic global warming. As such, they are frequently taken as harbingers of greater future sea level rise to come. Are they?

Two papers published this week in Nature Geoscience provide new information that helps to address this question. One of the studies (led by me) says “probably”, while another (Abram et al.) gives a more definitive “yes”. More »

2012 Updates to model-observation comparisons

Time for the 2012 updates!

As has become a habit (2009, 2010, 2011), here is a brief overview and update of some of the most discussed model/observation comparisons, updated to include 2012. I include comparisons of surface temperatures, sea ice and ocean heat content to the CMIP3 and Hansen et al (1988) simulations.
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Short term trends: Another proxy fight

Filed under: — gavin @ 1 November 2012

One might assume that people would be happy that the latest version of the Hadley Centre and CRU combined temperature index is now being updated on a monthly basis. The improvements over the previous version in terms of coverage and error estimates is substantial. One might think that these advances – albeit incremental – would at least get mentioned in a story that used the new data set. Of course, one would not be taking into account the monumental capacity for some journalists and the outlets they work for to make up stories whenever it suits them. But all of the kerfuffle over the Mail story and the endless discussions over short and long term temperature trends hides what people are actually arguing about – what is likely to happen in the future, rather than what has happened in the past.

The fundamental point I will try and make here is that, given a noisy temperature record, many different statements can be true at the same time, but very few of them are informative about future trends. Thus vehemence of arguments about the past trends is in large part an unacknowledged proxy argument about the future.

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2011 Updates to model-data comparisons

And so it goes – another year, another annual data point. As has become a habit (2009, 2010), here is a brief overview and update of some of the most relevant model/data comparisons. We include the standard comparisons of surface temperatures, sea ice and ocean heat content to the AR4 and 1988 Hansen et al simulations.
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