Global warming does not slow down

9 04 2013

Julien Emile-Geay

Thanks to the miracles of credit card reward programs, I have been gainfully receiving, for some time now, a weekly copy of the distinguished magazine The Economist. It is usually a fine read, especially since its editors distanced themselves from the laughable flat-Earthing of the Wall Street Journal a long time ago. It was therefore  a bit of a shock to read last week (on the cover, no less): “global warming slows down” (holding the quotation marks with gloves).  Had they been bought by Rupert Murdoch, or were they privy to new data, of which the  isolated climate scientist that I am had remained woefully ignorant? Well, neither, it seems.

Opening its pages with a mix of curiosity and skepticism (yes, we climate scientists are skeptics too – skepticism is not the privilege of deniers but the hallmark of healthy minds), I read the piece “Global Warming: apocalypse perhaps a little later”. It argued that since some recent estimates of climate sensitivity have been revised downward, the world might not scorch as early as we once thought. Still, they wisely argued that this was no excuse for inaction, and that the extra time should be used to devise plans to mitigate, and adapt to, man-made climate change.

Though I  agree with the consequent, I wholeheartedly disagree with the premise.

Digging a little deeper, it appears that they devoted a whole piece on climate sensitivity (“Climate Science: a sensitive matter“).  James Annan was right in pointing out its quality – it is a nuanced piece of science writing for a lay audience,  something all of my colleagues and I know the difficulty of achieving. It wasn’t the science journalist’s job to pick winners, but as a climate scientist I can tell you that not all the evidence presented therein carried equal weight. My issue has to do with the emphasis (here and elsewhere) that just because surface temperature  has been practically flat for the past decade (i.e.  the transient climate response (TCR) may not be as high as one would have concluded from the 1970-2000 warming), this means that equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) must also be lower.

Now, the “sensitive matter” piece does take care to distinguish the two concepts (transient vs equilibrium warming), but the message did not reach the editors, who conflate them with flying colors on the front page (“global warming slows down”). So while said editors can apparently hire good science writers, it would be even better if they  read their writings carefully.

My personal take is that TCR  is an ill-suited measure of climate response, because it only considers surface temperature. When energy is added to the climate system (e.g. by increasing the concentration of heat-trapping substances like carbon dioxide), it can go do any of 3 things:

  1. raise surface temperature
  2. help water change phase (from liquid to vapor, or from ice to liquid)
  3. raise temperature somewhere else (e.g. the deep ocean).

Tracking surface warming is certainly of paramount importance, but it’s clearly not the whole story. Focusing exclusively on it misses the other two outcomes. Do we have evidence that this might be a problem? Well, most glaciers in the world are losing mass, and a recent article by Balmaseda et al [2013], shows very clearly that the heat is reaching the deep ocean (see figure below). In fact, the rise in ocean heat content is more intense as depth than it is at the surface, for reasons that are not fully understood. To be fair, nothing involving the tri-dimensional ocean circulation is particularly straighforward when viewed through the lens of a few decades of observations, but the ocean heat content is quite a  robust variable to track, so even if the causes of this unequal warming are nebulous, the unequal warming isn’t.

Image

The Balmaseda et al study concludes that, when considering the total rise in ocean heat content, global warming has not slowed down at all: it has in fact accelerated. I’m not quite sure I see it this way: warming is still decidedly happening, but it does look like this rate of increase has slowed down somewhat (as may be expected of internal climate variability). Therefore, to meet the Economist halfway, I am willing to embrace conservatism on this issue: the climate system is still warming, and let’s agree that the warming has neither slowed down nor accelerated.

In fairness, the Economist’s “sensitive matter” piece did quote the Balmaseda et al. study as part of its rather comprehensive review ; in my opinion, however, this is not just one data point on a complex issue (as their piece implies), but is a real game-changer. It confirms the findings of Meehl et al, [2011], who predicted exactly that: greenhouse energy surpluses need not materialize  instantly as surface warming ; in many instances, their model produced decades of relative “pause” in surface temperature amidst a century-long warming. It did so because the ocean circulation is quite variable, and sometimes kidnaps some of the heat to great depths, so it takes time before the whole of the climate system feels it. This is one reason for the essential distinction between ECS and TCR: the inherent variability of the climate system means that it may take a long time to reach equilibrium. That’s what’s really bothersome about ECS: it’s not observable on any time scale we care about, so it is of limited relevance in discussing reality (it is important to understanding climate models, however).  Perhaps TCR should be based on some measure of ocean heat content? This might already have been done, but I am not aware of it. Actually, sea level might be our best proxy for integrated ocean heat content plus melted ice, and non-surprisingly it is still going up.

So despite the jargon, the basic idea is quite simple: more CO2 means a warmer climate system as a whole, and sooner rather than later.  So it is becoming increasingly urgent to do something about it, as they point out.  Now, what would it take to convince the Wall Street Journal of that?

UPDATE (April 16, 3:30 PST): further accounts of The Economist’s unduly optimistic perspective are given here and here.  Another paper published this week in Nature Climate Change (nicely summarized here)  also emphasizes the important role of the ocean in mediating surface warming.

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11 responses

11 04 2013
klem

“more CO2 means a warmer climate system as a whole, and sooner rather than later. ”

That’s not what the Economist said, as you wrote above “I read the piece Global Warming: apocalypse perhaps a little later. It argued that since some recent estimates of climate sensitivity have been revised downward, the world might not scorch as early as we once thought.”

So it appears the Economist does not agree with you. I believe the Economist. Thanks.

cheers

11 04 2013
El Niño

If you want to take The Economist as your authority on climate science, should I take Journal of Climate as my authority on economics?

17 04 2013
Markus

Reuters has published a very similar article, could you have a look at that?

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/16/us-climate-slowdown-idUSBRE93F0AJ20130416

It smells extremely fishy, especially as they give no sources at all. My guess is that they took the story from the Economist.

21 04 2013
El Niño

Thanks Markus. I did see a very similar story on some no-name site, which probably just relayed the Reuters feed. It’s written far less neutrally than a news wire is supposed to report on issues, especially for a science topic. Fishy indeed…

22 04 2013
TheTracker (@IdiotTracker)

The Economist is a good rag, but this wasn’t their finest hour.

I absolutely agree with you (see here: http://theidiottracker.blogspot.com/2013/04/attack-of-pause.html) but I do wonder; does this movement of heat into the deep ocean challenge the existing models of ocean heat transport? Might we be fortunate enough to see more heat whisked down into the blackest waters, not of course gone but less of an immediate problem than the joules stuck on the surface?

I don’t know, I wonder about it. Thoughts?

22 04 2013
El Niño

Hello Tacker,
thank you for your educated comment.

does this movement of heat into the deep ocean challenge the existing models of ocean heat transport?

THe Meehl et al 2011 paper quoted above shows that, in their model at least, periods of increased ocean uptake are ultimately followed by periods of reduced uptake. So the joules getting into the Earth System maybe increasing year by year, but their ultimate fate into the climate subsystems (ocean, atmosphere, ice, etc) is more variable. In the end, however, the whole climate system warms, to conserve energy. The current hiatus is perfectly compatible with the behavior of such a model (and possibly other IPCC-class climate models).

Might we be fortunate enough to see more heat whisked down into the blackest waters, not of course gone but less of an immediate problem than the joules stuck on the surface?

I think that’s what’s going on. It might continue for a little while, until something gives and surface warming catches up with the top-of-atmosphere energy imbalance. The heart of the problem here is that we’re trying to judge long-term climate sensitivity from very transient variations. It could be that the warming rate was extremely high in the nineties, extremely low in the oughts, and that has fueled extreme perspectives on either side (the alarmists vs the denialists). But until CO2 concentrations stop rising exponentially, I’ll see little reason to doubt that higher rates of warming will eventually return.

20 05 2013
Paul S

Julien,

This is OT but I wanted to ask if either Kevin or yourself have seen/have any thoughts on Jim Bouldin’s work described in a series of posts on his blog, titled ‘Severe analytical problems in dendroclimatology’. This is part one, there are eleven further parts.

It would be good to get the perspective of some dendrochronologists.

21 05 2013
El Niño

Hi Paul,
thanks for bringing this to our attention. I was not aware of this 12-part epic saga against dendroclimatology. What did you think of it?
Best,
Julien

4 06 2013
Paul S

Hi Julien,

Sorry for the delayed response. One reason I wanted to ask you was that I’m not really sure what to think about it (also because he’s looking for some real feedback from dendrochronologists).

Essentially the series is about Jim showing what he believes are fatal flaws in the RCS tree-ring width reconstruction method. He shows these flaws through application of RCS methods to pseudoproxy data and finds that the resultant reconstruction is not at all accurate. He therefore concludes that the same RCS method would not be able to accurately capture environmental change in real tree-ring width data. From what he’s shown this seems like it could be a reasonable conclusion.

The reason I’d like to run it by dendrochronologists is that I have very little appreciation for the context within which his work is situated, particularly how it fits with previous analyses of the RCS method. I don’t feel like my perspective is good enough to form a strong view either way, because I don’t have a good appreciation for how what he’s shown actually fits in the wider picture.

As I understand things, there is no feeling in the dendrochronology community that RCS is anywhere near a perfect solution, so in some ways a finding that it isn’t very accurate wouldn’t be hugely surprising. However, I suspect that his results show innaccuracy greater than is generally understood?

I’m also wondering about your thoughts concerning his experimental setup. How the pseudeoproxies were constructed, how the RCS method has been applied etc.

6 07 2013
El Niño

I’m going to let @thirstygecko handle this one if he wishes… I have never been a dendro and won’t try today.

18 07 2014
Statystyk

These are alarming statistics :-(

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