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Archive for February, 2009

Climate Expertise Inflation By The BBC

2009/02/23 10 comments

Richard Black’s desire to defend the BBC is natural and even commendable. Still, his or any defence of the (unsigned) Feb 15 “Global warming ‘underestimated’” article is untenable.

That article is clearly misleading.

Black tries to make a point about Field’s political weight and the breadth of the IPCC “Impacts” Working Group remit:

As the new co-chair of the IPCC working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, he now has a leadership role in the periodic assessments of global climate change that are the most politically significant documents in the field; so his views on the subject will presumably carry some political weight, and are therefore worth reporting.

As to how well qualified someone who started life as a biologist is to pronounce on climate change; well, if you look at the scope of that IPCC working group, it’s extremely broad, and I suggest it would be impossible to find anyone who has formally studied all of the relevant disciplines.

That situation, though, is hardly unknown in science. Even within universities, a dean of science could hardly be expert in every subject in his or her faculty; yet many intelligent and able people seem to make a decent fist of it, and it’s highly unlikely, I would suggest, that Chris Field would have got the job if his peers didn’t think him qualified.

But that’s not the issue with the Feb 15 article. The problem is that the BBC chose to describe Field as a “leading climate scientist“. And whilst Black is right in stating that Field is a leader, and a scientist, and a biologist with experience in the potential impacts of climate change, by all means Field is no “climate scientist“.

Why couldn’t the BBC write of Field as a “leading biologist in the field of climate change“? As things stand instead, casual readers of that article will have no clue of the fact that Chris Field’s take on future temperatures is not a climatologist’s.

A quick search in past BBC news reports reveals how Brian Austin for example, Dean of Science at Heriot Watt University, was characterised first and foremost as the exact kind of expert he was (microbiologist) (“Sponge puzzles superbug experts“, 26/12/2005).

The BBC faux-pas about Field is perhaps telling of a mindset that conflates all kinds of experts under the all-encompassing umbrella of “climate”, whenever anybody mentions climate change/global warming within the IPCC orthodoxy.

And that mindset can only succeed in cheapening up the very concept of “climatologist”.

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World Temperature Records

2009/02/23 1 comment

Original figures by Maximiliano Herrera

This is a “polished up” list of temperature records around the world, “only what is comparable with the current design standards“.

Just out of curiosity:

  • Temperature records for the 2000s: 3 (MINs: 1; MAXs: 2)
  • 1990s: 4 (2; 2)
  • 1980s: 2 (1; 1)
  • 1970s: 1 (1; 0)
  • 1960s: 3 (0; 3)
  • 1950s: zero
  • 1940s: zero
  • 1930s: 3 (2; 1)
  • 1920s: zero
  • 1910s: 1 (1; 0)

And so for future reference:

# World Records
MIN -89.2C: Vostok, Antarctica, 21 July 1983
MAX +53,9C: Death Valley, USA, 18 July 1960, 17 July 1998, 19 July 2005, and 6 July 2007

# Africa
MIN -23.9C: Ifrane, Morocco, 11 February 1935
MAX +50,7C: Smara, Western Sahara (Morocco), 13 July 1961

# Asia
MIN -67.7C: Oymyakon, Russia, 6 February 1933
MAX +52,8C: Jacobâbâd, Pakistan, 12 June 1919

# Europe
MIN -58.1C: Ust’Schugor, Russia, 31 December 1978
MAX +48,5C: Catenanuova, Italy, 10 August 1999

# North America
MIN -69.6C: Klinck, Greenland, 22 December 1991
MAX +53,9C: Death Valley, USA, 18 July 1960, 17 July 1998, 19 July 2005, and 6 July 2007

# South America
MIN -40.0C: Puesto Viejo, Chile, 21 June 2002
MAX +47.3C: Campo Gallo, Argentina, 16 October 1936

# Australasia
MIN -23.0C: Charlotte Pass, Australia, 29 June 1994
MAX +50,7C: Oodnadatta, Australia, 2 January 1960

# Antarctica
MIN -89.2C: Vostok on 21 July 1983
MAX +19,8C: Signy Island, South Orkney Islands, 30 January 1982

Behind Climate, Weather Is Still King

2009/02/22 5 comments

Twenty-third century historians debating who would be so anti-scientific as to associate an episode of extreme weather to climate, and especially to global warming, will have to look no further than two recent blogs on the recent Australian disaster:

A few things need to be firmly kept in mind:

With that in the background, let’s have a look at Brook’s work first. And it is not a pleasant one:

So, in Adelaide we have two freakishly rare extreme events happening with a 10 month period. How likely is that? Well, if the events are totally independent, we’d expect the joint likelihood of two such heatwaves (of 0.25% probability per year [the 2009 event] and 0.033% per year [2008 event], respectively), occurring within the same 12 month period, to happen about once every 1,200,000 years. Is that unlikely enough for you? But if there is ‘autocorrelation’ (dependencies between the two events due to a linked cause — such as climate change), this calculated probability is not valid.

If that isn’t a true example of why statistics have such a bad reputation (“lies, damned lies, and…”), then I do not know what is. And if that doesn’t show that Brook cannot properly talk about climate, as he doesn’t look like having even the faintest clue of what makes some days warmer than others, then I do not know what does.

And what does make some days warmer than others? Weather. By definition.

The 2009 Australian summer around Adelaide and Melbourne has seen some particularly hot days because of a peculiar weather pattern, with winds bringing hot, dry desert air towards the inhabited coast (there might have been also an intervening Foehn (warming) effect, but let’s keep that aside for the moment).

The underlying weather pattern has been described by the National Climate Centre at the Australian Government’s Bureau of Metereology:

The presence of a slow-moving high pressure system in the Tasman Sea, combined with an intense tropical low off the northwest coast of Western Australia and an active monsoon trough, provided the ideal conditions for hot tropical air to be directed over the southern parts of the continent

NASA’s Land Surface Temperature Anomaly picture reinforces this point: one can clearly see how warm air has been pushed towards Victoria, just as cool air towards Queensland. And an intervening band in the middle has then experienced whatever temperatures it usually experiences.

It’s just the same air movement. If you push “oceanic air” over Queensland, the existing “Queensland air” will move towards Victoria, and so on and so forth closing the high-pressure system circle somewhere to the East of Australia. You can get a similar result with a low-pressure system somewhere to the West too. If the two combine, so much more evident the Queensland cooling and Victoria warming. Does one need to be a veteran metereologist to understand such an easy point?

Even the briefest introduction to metereology and climatology should  make very clear to everybody how incredibly naïve and totally anti-scientific is the belief that “global warming” means hotter days in this or that part of the planet. In fact, the question Brook should have asked is: do that “slow-moving high-pressure system” and “intense tropical low” in those particular places, and that “monsoon trough”, have anything to do with (anthropogenic) climate change?

But of course Brook just about cannot get anywhere in that direction

the heatwave that struck Europe is 2003 provides a good way to illustrate my final point, thanks to a neat analysis published in Nature in 2004

Who knows, one day he may wake up to a 2007 paper, three years later that is, by Chase et al. published in the Geophysical Research Letters, asking “Was the 2003 European summer heat wave unusual in a global context?” and responding

Regression analyses do not provide strong support for the idea that regional heat or cold waves are significantly increasing or decreasing with time during the period considered here (1979–2003)

I am all for free speech, and Brook and the likes can keep on blaming perversity for the worst kind of climate change denial but there must be a point where they have to recognize how silly it is to appeal to science without understanding a iota of it.

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Karoly’s contribution is of a different quality, with no absolute-weather-beginner mistaken mention of reality-divorced probabilities (Karoly even talks, briefly, about weather patterns…).

His point appears to be a rather old one though. Why would heatwaves be attributable to anthropogenic global warming? Because Karoly himself, with Braganza, managed some time ago to simulate observations using climate models that include “increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases and aerosols” (see his 2004 paper referred to in the blog).

Actually, to be more precise, what happened is that Karoly and Braganza were unable to simulate observations using “natural climate variations alone“. Perish the thought that the problem might have been an inappropriate definition of those “natural climate variations”…

In any case, given the apparent strength of Karoly’s convictions dating from 2004, one might start wondering why the Chair for the “Detection and Attribution: State of Play in 2009” (Parallel Session 9) in Copenhagen would be Ann Henderson-Sellers of all people. Who she? The one claiming in the session’s very description that

the detection and attribution story was incomplete [at the time of the IPCC AR4 in 2007] due to ‘Key Uncertainties’ listed by IPCC

and listing in a September 2008 article, among the seven “Serious inadequacies in climate change prediction that are of real concern

  • The rush to emphasize regional climate does not have a scientifically sound basis […]
  • Until and unless major oscillations in the Earth System (El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) etc.) can be predicted to the extent that they are predictable, regional climate is not a well defined problem. […]

Notice how Henderson-Sellers goes on to say that “WGII is easily the weakest of the three reports. The reasons seem to be two-fold: (i) poor downscaling and (ii) the lack of a coherent methodology for impact study“.

I am sorry for Prof. Karoly but either Prof. Henderson-Sellers is very wrong on more than one point (and then what would she be doing as Chair of one session in Copenhagen?); or Karoly’s own 2004 work, and his present stance are just an example of what Henderson-Sellers describes as the rushed, scientifically unsound regional climate emphasis around a non-well-defined problem, plagued by poor downscaling and dealing with a climatic impact without a well-recognized methodology.

Does Karoly understand this problem? I think he does. Cue his large caveat about his large claim

Although formal attribution studies quantifying the influence of climate change on the increased likelihood of extreme fire danger in south-east Australia have not yet been undertaken, it is very likely that there has been such an influence

Karoly’s own language gymnastics is remarkable, with just about the right mix of “clear” and “likely” to pass most logic tests, in case things don’t turn up as expected. He’s not the first athlete to enter such a competition though.

Finally, it certainly doesn’t look too good when Karoly provides three papers linking “observed and expected increases in forest fire activity […] to climate change” but no mention of the lack of any comprehensive analysis (think of the absence of trends in fires around the Mediterranean region for example).

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It is rather sad to see what started as the science of climate turning pretty much into a parody, with reports and explanations forever running after the latest disaster. Very simply, this cannot be right.

The Soft Science Of Climatology

2009/02/22 7 comments

Virtual kisses and hugs to Richard Black of BBC Science News fame for his recent “A questioning climate” blog, the work of somebody whose eyes may have just seen some climate sensibility:

[…] In earlier years of reporting climate change, news media were regularly accused of attributing any unusual or extreme weather events to climate change – and often the accusations were justified. […]

some scientists have on occasion gone beyond the data in arguing that climate change will bring global catastrophe […]

clearly, highly intelligent, highly educated people can look at the same set of scientific evidence and come to radically different conclusions – not, perhaps, on the basic issue of whether climate change is or isn’t happening, but certainly on what the pace is likely to be and what threat it poses. […]

These are all disparate elements of a complex picture. How do you rate them? Which do you regard as more or less important?

We are back to what you believe; and if Chris Field sees catastrophe in the picture before him, he is entitled to say so, just as Vicky Pope or Mike Hulme are entitled to urge restraint. […]

On this issue of climate understanding as a (personal) belief, I would especially like to quote the last part of Black’s blog:

Individual pieces of research rarely prove anything by themselves […] In the meantime, scientists, politicians and Joe and Joanna Bloggs down the pub are all entitled to give their own assessments, and often there is a fair amount of belief involved, even for the scientists.

To me, there’s little wrong with that. It’s what we do with politics and football and music and film, and I don’t see why climate discourse should be different.

There are facts out there, and we should recognise them as such, just as we should with medicine and social issues and economics; but there is freedom to believe too, and that, the last time I looked, was supposed to be a universal human right.

In other words, Black is saying that climatology is a “soft science”, just as the Social sciences, Economics (and may I dare suggest for personal experience, much of Medicine). He may have even claimed that the “climate discourse” is akin to pub-based football analysis, but personally I really do not want to go in that direction!!

Now, before the usual voices are heard, let me state that I do not consider “soft” to be a demeaning word for a “science”. Of course we would all want to have all sciences as precise and cast-in-stone as Mathematics, and Physics is perhaps the clearest example of what comes closest to the “ideal” concept of a “hard science”.

But there is no point in wasting time in the realm of the impossible: there are areas of knowledge that can only be dealt with in a “soft” manner. As argued by Massimo Pigliucci for “Rationally Speaking“, under the headline “Strong Inference And The Distinction Between Soft And Hard Science” (Jan 27, 2009), perhaps it’s just that the more complex the phenomenon, the more “soft” its science.

Still, if one recognizes Climatology as a “soft science”, then there is absolutely no meaning in oft-repeated claims such as “the science is settled” and “all skeptics are crank, corrupt and/or perverts“. A soft science, by definition, cannot be settled. Its conclusions are ultimately a matter of belief.

Kyoto and Sons of Kyoto: A Few Months Then The Truth

2009/02/16 2 comments

The text below has been published today on Benny Peiser’s CCNet. The original author is Col. Guido Guidi, well-known Italian TV metereologist, and main author of the Climate Monitor blog (in Italian).

Col. Guidi is a vocal advocate for a return of Climate Science to a proper scientific rather than mostly political debate and has kindly asked me to translate one of his blogs in English.

Kyoto and Sons of Kyoto: A Few Months, Then The Truth
By Guido Guidi, 13 Feb 2009

With minuscule if any expected practical effects, and a prohibitively expensive price tag, no wonder the Kyoto Protocol has elicited little enthusiasm left, right and centre of the climate debate. And at times, it has even looked simply too easy to hijack for many interests that have little to do with climate and/or the environment. For example, the whole European emission trading market scheme has been rather more successful as yet another chance for financial speculation, than as a beaconing example for sustainable development policies.

And yet, future “Sons of Kyoto” will likely be even more glorified, ever more ineffective version of the original Protocol. There is still a little ray of hope though, because in between one and the other International Conferences the Global Warming debate could be finally and definitively settled, with a return to the good old days when Earth’s climate could be analysed in a more objective manner. Here’s why.

In recent years, atmospheric carbon dioxide has been under round-the-clock watch, and global temperature too. Both have increased for a relatively long time, although with very different trends, with temperatures even showing a rather timid cooling during the last decade. Could this be enough to tip the balance of evidence against anthropogenic global warming? Maybe not, as the two factors might still be linked some other way within the vast, mostly unknown complexities of climate dynamics.

In any case, before even trying to understand how carbon dioxide may affect temperatures, we should perhaps investigate the anthropogenic and natural variabilities of this very common gas. The problem is not trivial: palaeoclimatic studies clearly show that high- and low-frequency past climatic changes have led to important changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration. And in all circumstances, temperatures have increased before carbon dioxide concentrations. Understand exactly how much our emissions actually contribute to measured CO2 increases could therefore be much harder than previously thought …unless that is, if something truly extraordinary were to provide us with a key to the solution.

Ironically, such an opportunity might be presenting itself due to the currently disastrous and apparently ever-worsening economic situation. For several months we have been hearing of drastic declines in industrial production. Percentages are nightmarish, with some sectors (especially among those that produce the most CO2 emissions) crashing by a minus 50%. With consumption going down as well, this crisis might drastically reduce emissions, more than any international agreement ever will.

The question is then: what will happen to the rate of growth of CO2 concentration into the atmosphere? Interesting scenarios may be unfurling before our eyes. Let’s make some hypotheses.

Imagine at first if CO2 will stop growing, or decrease significantly but without significant changes in temperature trends. That would mean Kyoto and its Sons deserve to be to trashed, as our activities would be shown as capable of changing carbon dioxide concentrations but not temperatures, and therefore not the climate.

Think instead if CO2 measurements keep growing, and temperatures continue to fluctuate following natural climate forcings. That too would mean Kyoto and its Sons deserve to be to trashed, as CO2 variations would demonstrably be primarily a response to natural temperature variations, starting from the current interglacial stage and the exit path from the temporary cooling known as the “Little Ice Age”.

Third and last option, if CO2 concentrations stop growing and temperatures keep falling or remain stable, even when the Sun and the oceans – largely responsible for the recent, slightly cooling phase – will have had time to run through one of their cycles, then and only then the real impact of anthropogenic global warming might finally become clear. It would mean that the post-Kyoto agreements have to be implemented rather seriously, that is with little or no political and financial speculation.

We could truly be on the verge of very interesting times for CO2 and the climate, and some hard facts could begin to show in the very next few months. I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.

Climate Predictions? Climate Predictions????

2009/02/11 6 comments

My comment posted to Nature News’ “Australian bushfires rage“:

People that could know better should also really refrain from using words such as “prediction”. I cannot believe we still have to discuss this, but here we are…there is no such a thing as a “climate prediction”. The IPCC is not in the “prediction” business, and it has never been.

What climate models do is run “scenarios”, “what-ifs”, computations in which some parameters get changed, and everything else remains equal. That is a normal way of conducting risk analysis, but only if everybody keeps in mind that OF COURSE in the real world everything changes, and nothing remains equal.

Climate models are therefore tools to probe risks and sensitivities, not crystal balls. As a matter of fact, they can’t, won’t and never will tell us anything precise about future weather, weeks, months, years or centuries in the future: just as no donkey will ever win the Kentucky Derby.

That doesn’t mean climate models (or donkeys) are useless: rather, they should be used for what they are worth using.

So much has to be agreed by all, otherwise what are we discussing about, I do not know. And I invite Quirin Schiermeier to correct the article accordingly. Then and only then we can talk in a sensible fashion.

The Pope Should Learn A Thing Or Two From Certain Climate Scientists

2009/02/09 8 comments
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