Of Particular Significance

Polar Vortex, Climate Change, Red Herring?

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 01/13/2014

Wow, it was unusually cold last week. In a small fraction of the globe. For a couple of days. And what does that cold snap, that big wiggle in the Polar Vortex that carries high-atmospheric winds around the North Pole, imply about “climate change”, also known as “global warming”, also known as “global weirding”?

The answer is very simple. Nothing.

If you heard anyone suggest otherwise — whether they said that the extreme cold implies that there is no global warming going on, or they said that the extreme cold implies that global warming is happening — you should seriously question anything that person says when it comes to climate change. Because that person does not respect (or perhaps even understand) the difference between anecdote and evidence; between weather and climate; between a large fluctuation and a small but long-term trend. Or between media hoopla and science.

In the interest of an imperfect analogy: Let me ask you this. Are you generally happier, or less happy, than you were five years ago? Answer this as best you can.

Now let me ask you another question. Did you, within the last month, have a really, really bad day, or a really, really good one?

Does the answer to the second question have much to do with the answer to the first one?

Barring an exceptional recent disaster in your personal or professional life, the fact that, say, last Thursday your car broke down, you locked yourself out of your house, your dog vomited on the carpet and you got caught in the rain without your umbrella does not have anything to do with whether you are a happier person than you were five years ago. Being a happier person has more to do with whether you have a better job, a happier family, a better sense of self-esteem, and things like that. And even if you love your job, you know there are going to be really bad days in the office sometimes. That’s just the way it goes. We all know that.

It’s the same with daily and monthly and yearly fluctuations in the stock market compared to the slow but fairly steady century-long growth of the U.S. economy (both curves corrected for inflation.)

So why, when there’s a big fluctuation in the daily, monthly or even seasonal weather, do people jump up and down about what the implications are for the long-term trends in climate?

Any one fluctuation, whether hot or cold, dry or wet, windy or calm, is by itself irrelevant. Weather fluctuates; that’s just how it is. It’s by no means unusual, now or in the distant past, for temperatures in the central United States to swing by 50ºF (28ºC) in just a few hours. Here’s a fun story by the Weather Channel listing a few extreme temperature swings, all of which were more dramatic than the recent cold spell.  Weather in the U.S. has seen extremes since before Europeans arrived here and started recording their experiences, and it will continue to do so whether global warming persists or not.

Moreover, the recent cold wasn’t as exceptional as portrayed in the press, or as it seemed to people under the age of 40. One of the reasons that so many records were set this past week was that January 7th, over the past century, hasn’t previously seen an exceptionally cold day in the southeast. Specifically, let’s look at Greensboro, North Carolina, which was described in the press as follows:

  • “Greensboro, N.C., also witnessed a major drop in its record low temperature, going from a previous record of 14 degrees to 5 degrees. “

Well, what were (before this year) the record temps in that town during the first 10 days of January? (see http://www.erh.noaa.gov/rah/climate/data/gso.daily.records.temp.precip.html)

Jan 1: 8
Jan 2: 5
Jan 3: 7
Jan 4: 3
Jan 5: 3
Jan 6: 5
Jan 7: 14 ==> 5 in 2014
Jan 8: 6
Jan 9: 2
Jan 10: 1
Jan 11: -5

In other words, the previous century or so of January 7ths were unusual — every other day in early January had already seen a very cold day! All this recent cold snap did was bring it into line with other cold early January days! A similar story held true in Atlanta. In short, despite the “record cold” media hype, quite a few of the new “records” weren’t especially exceptional for January… they were “normal” records, not worthy of the amazement expressed by reporters and citizens alike.

The issue this highlights is that if you want to tell whether the climate is getting warmer, the record high and low temperatures on a given day aren’t going to tell you much! The record temperatures fluctuate and are subject to random, extraordinary events. We don’t know how rare those exceptional events are, and the more wild and spectacular they are, the less we know about them.  If something happens once every one, three or ten centuries, but we only have one century of records, we’ve only seen it happen once or perhaps twice, if ever.  So when it happens, we can’t say “aha, that’s something that would not have happened if it weren’t for climate change”. We can’t draw such a conclusion, anymore than we can conclude that your stunningly bad day at work last week implies that your job, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t going to be as fulfilling in future as it used to be.

Take a look at this plot, from the website Weather Underground, which tells us something about the weather and climate in San Antonio, Texas.

Data and Plot From Weather Underground: Average (blue) and record (violet) high and low temperatures for each day in the year, averaged over many years.
Data and Plot From Weather Underground: Average (blue) and record (violet) high and low temperatures for each day in the year in San Antonio, with data taken over many years.

It shows, for each day of the year, over many years, the average high and average low temperatures in blue, and the record daily highs and lows in red. [Unfortunately I do not know exactly how many years are included in this data; I would estimate 60 years, but Weather Underground does not provide this important information — and they should.]  Of course the average and record highs and lows all trend higher in the summer and lower in the winter, as expected. But notice:

  • the average highs and lows are smooth curves
  • the record highs and lows are jagged curves

Why is that?

Because for each day, every year contributes to the average. Year-to-year fluctuations for each day get smoothed out, as do day-to-day fluctuations in each year. So the curve showing the average is smooth as you move from one day to the next.

By contrast, only special, unique, remarkable, extraordinary days contribute to the record high and record low on a particular day. These are subject to large day-to-day fluctuations, because something extraordinary may have happened on January 9th of some 20th century year, but not on January 10th or 8th.

So a specific event with record heat or record cold isn’t useful for telling us about climate change.  Though impressive, it just represents the vagaries of life that get in the way of us understanding the real long-term trend, just as a truly bad day can make someone forget, for a short while anyway, that his or her life is going pretty well on the whole.

It’s the same with extreme hurricanes and tornadoes, droughts and floods. These are too rare, and require too many elements to come together in a unique mix, for us to easily conclude anything about them. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy were a big deal in and around New York City; but are they signs of global warming?! What about the devastating 1938 hurricane that hit eastern New England? What about the two strong hurricanes that struck New England, a month apart, in 1869? It’s impossible to conclude that Irene and Sandy are related to global warming/weirding. Only if you see something steady over decades — the average storm becoming stronger, or the average number of storms rising — or a dramatic trend — Irene and Sandy-like storms ceasing to be rare and becoming once-every-other-year events over decades — will you be able to draw any conclusions from hurricanes that the climate has really changed.

No… if you want to determine whether global warming is occurring, you must set aside the record high or low temperatures, the extreme storms, the exceptional events… the ones that the media reports, and the ones that you yourself easily remember. Instead, you need to look at the averages — which is where the data is sufficient, and sufficiently stable, for some conclusion that the Earth has slightly warmed (by just 1 – 2 ºF = 0.5 – 1.1ºC –which is still enough to melt a lot of glaciers)  to be drawn. And even our current 100 years of data from around the globe is just barely enough to make that possible.  I’ll cover that issue another time.

So let’s not waste our time fishing for red herrings.  Yes, it is possible that an overall small increase in the temperature of the globe will make wild weather more common. But it will be decades before we have enough data to tell whether, in fact, the rare events of which we have so few examples really are more or less common than they used to be.  And no one event, in isolation, should ever be mentioned in the same sentence as “climate change”.

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57 Responses

  1. As to what this rise is caused by, is still even less clear. I say it is caused by the Sun. As have been most of the temp fluctuations of the past. And Scotland had Glaciers 400 years ago not 11, 000+ as had been previously erroneously reported. And they call it Science.

  2. As a Meteorologist of some 30 years I chafe at anecdotal cold snaps as being indicative of anything. The first thing to keep in mind is the diverse nature of atmospheric physics.

    And the computer models can be an enigma. First of all forecasters need to be competent. In assessing any atmospheric state a little common sense is in order. It baffles me that such elementary issues are overlooked. In my experience go for what seems logical and contest it. Eliminating far-flung ideas from the pragmatic. KISS is a pretty good tact when looking at weather patterns and weather forecasts.

    A good Meteorologists hate goof balls who are not real forecasters but people who report the weather. Any DJ can do a reasonable job at that.

    Both sides right and left go political with weather and climate and most deductions are empirical but hardly useful in relation to the overall physical dynamics of weather. Highs, Lows, are pretty basic but gravity waves, vorticity and climate types are nuanced and challenge every forecaster, if they do not suck..

    But to the point at hand. Naming the Polar Vortex is like selling a fancy name for a brake system on a car. Power-assisted, anti-lock is reassuring but it is really just a sales gimmick. Likewise this debate over vortices.

    In actuality we are talking about a Jet Stream with high amplitude that smashes into the southern states while Miller B Climate types spawn cyclogenesis and resulting major events like cold snaps, snow storms and convective activity.

    In short most novices are ill-informed. The empirical observations are merely incidents with no real intrinsic value except in the long term sense.

    Meteorologist Larry Olson

  3. Vincent: This was a big concern, because the delay was considerable (so deniers jumped on that, and claimed that CO2 was not causative of a temperature rise). If the delay is not considerable, the CO2 contributed to the rise. The rises themselves were initiated by the orbital configuration.

    1. Did I understand your post correctly? Didn’t they report that the CO^2 now follows rising temperatures by about 200 years rather than some longer period? If that is correct than there is STILL an issue for those like Al Gore (An Inconvienent Truth) who like to show us a graph (data derived from ice core studies as I recall) that shows cool periods and warn periods in cycles of about 120,000 years +\- ~ 20K along with CO^2 levels that almost match the temperature trends. The implication they want you to take from it is that rising CO^2 cause rising temperatures. But when you take time to think about it–and even if you don’t know about how a warmer world outgases more greenhouse gases–one needs to ask, what could cause a reoccurring increasing CO^2 rising to a peak, and then a decline, and this repeating? Orbital cycles for our planet is the correct answer leading to more solar gain then followed by a CO^2 increase.

      While on this point if one reviews NASA’s paleoclimatology website, take notice that we are at, or nearly at, one of the natural warm peaks in a cycle that has been going on for several hundred thousand years.

  4. To answer Vincent’s query. I saw the original research in Science. Here is a depiction from Scientific American:
    Frédéric Parrenin of the Laboratory of Glaciology and Geophysical Environment in France and a team of researchers may have found an answer to the question. His team compiled an extensive record of Antarctic temperatures and CO2 data from existing data and five ice cores drilled in the Antarctic interior over the last 30 years. Their results, published February 28 in Science, show CO2 lagged temperature by less than 200 years, drastically decreasing the amount of uncertainty in previous estimates.

    The wide margin of error in the EPICA core data is due to the way air gets trapped in layers of ice. Snowpack becomes progressively denser from the surface down to around 100 meters, where it forms solid ice. Scientists use air trapped in the ice to determine the CO2 levels of past climates, whereas they use the ice itself to determine temperature. But because air diffuses rapidly through the ice pack, those air bubbles are younger than the ice surrounding them. This means that in places with little snowfall—like the Dome C ice core—the age difference between gas and ice can be thousands of years.

    Parrenin’s team addresses these concerns with a new method that establishes the different ages of the gas and ice. They measured the concentration of an isotope, nitrogen 15, which is greater the deeper the snowpack is. Once they were able to determine snowpack depth from the nitrogen 15 data, a simple model can determine the offset in depth between gas and ice and the amount of time the difference represents. The researchers then compared results from multiple locations to reduce the margin of error.

    “Our method takes into account more data and shows that the age difference in Antarctic temperature and CO2 levels is less than we previously thought,” Parrenin says. “I think this could help to change the tone of discussions about climate change.”

    1. Patrice: Your comments and latest post doesn’t contradict what I had learned about CO^2 rise coming after temperature rise in the past. So I don’t know why you wrote that this WAS a big concern. It still should be a big concern for establishing that our CO^2 additions to the atmosphere will cause a temperature increase in our complicated planetary environment.

  5. The transition from ice age climate (the last 3 million years) to a massive greenhouse (as 100 million years ago or worse) will be accompanied with dynamic effects.

    The greenhouse itself will be characterized by a sedate climate, except for the occasional hyper hurricane (this is not just theory, but deep paleoclimatic studies show this: the interior of supercontinent was nevertheless irrigated, by said rare hyper hurricanes)

  6. Bob,
    perhaps it is you who are mistaken.
    The point of the link was to show that the ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has changed considerably all by it’s lonesome long before humans were around, and will continue to do so regardless of what you do or don’t like about it. If the climate of the earth is going to be changing on it’s own, with or without humans, spending tons of money on economically impoverishing policies that do nothing but raise taxes on everything (especially energy) and make life more difficult is not going to help anyone but the con artist running the scam (think carbon trading). Thankfully, some are catching on to this now, so you go read up on a little on your own about Climategate, and keep your ‘trick’ hockey stick models and fraudulant proxy splicing to yourself.
    It is quite obvious that ‘climate change’ (global warming is out of vogue now) as you now probably call it is just a primarily left-leaning political tool in the hands of not so clever people who thinks they know better (like yourself for instance) and enjoy controlling other people’s lives to an absurd degree using ‘climate change’ for justification of social engineering projects that would never get traction otherwise (Agenda 21 ilk). As for your other condescending twitter, you got one thing right, the sun is involved, which is kind of funny considering that very few of the present climactic models even acknowledge where the heat is coming from, and can’t take cloud cover (that damn dihydrogen monoxide you were poo-pooing again) into account, much less determine if it is the effect or the driver of climactic change. Some have even speculated cosmic ray bombardment plays a role in cloud formation which is connected to activity in the sun’s heliosphere, and not very connected ‘carbon footprints’. Despite what some alarmists might claim, the science of why and how the climate changes is hardly well understood or settled.

    1. Your point was that the CO2 of earth has changed in half a billion years? Thats not a very meaningful point to make. Especially when you are using a paper that stresses the sensitivity of Earths climate to CO2 in the same post as you are claiming CO2 isnt an issue. There isnt a climatologist on Earth who would deny our planet is capable of great extremes with or without us, its just not relevant to our impact and time period.

      I already have read up on ‘Climategate’. It http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/CRUstatements/SAP was http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm79/7934/7934.pdf nonsense. (I can post more reports, the tabloids had a field day with it so it was investigated in great depth by a lot of people.)

      Vogue now? I posted a paper from over twenty years ago and anthropogenic climate change has been on the table for decades longer than even that. All of this long before the heavy politics got involved. (and let me pre-emptively nip Ice age claims in the bud. It was a speculatory hypothesis by very few climatologists. Im only aware of a single paper covering it. The vast majority of experts have never had reason to change there view that warming would be occurring.)

      Climate models of course acknowledge the sun,as just http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/faq-6-1.html one topical section of many from the IPCC covers. Sun activity being the only energy source of consequence in climatology it would be literally impossible to create climate models without it.

      I didnt pooh-pooh water vapour, I expected you to do research in to a particularly easily explained piece of the puzzle because so far you just seem to be ignoring everything sourced and said before moving on to the next myth or conspiracy. I was hoping to see some evidence that you were interested in looking at the research.

      Im sure I do sound condescending to you, Its virtually impossible not to because I have to point you to the information proving you are wrong about the very basics of a subject you seem to think you are already an expert in.

      Were both amateurs here, Im just an amateur who has looked through many of the papers and listened to people who have dedicated their lives to the science of the subject. I was and remain a skeptic but the evidence is, for the time being, undeniably pointing to anthropogenic global warming, and a worrying amount is suggesting it is going to go very badly for us.

      If you want to contest that then instead of assuming my political motivations (Wrong by the way, Im not on the left and couldnt give a damn about most of the party bickering involved.) you should find and produce some significant research that does so.

    2. Anyone who thinks Climate Change is a scam has no grasp on reality, and should be ignored. Maybe an individual scientist can run a scam, but a scientific community cannot; it’s made of thousands of people, and there’s no “secret meeting” at which all these people get together and try to figure out how to get rich. If you want to get rich, becoming a scientist is a dumb way to do it.

        1. because the writers involved in the journal are all noted and largely uneducated climate change deniers who had to agree with the publishers not to cover global warming to start the journal in the first place. (Tattersall a climate skeptic blogger with no expertise, Willie Soon skeptic with a doctorate in unrelated discipline, Nils-Axel Mörner made numerous claims about sea levels all of which failed to stand up to scrutiny, etc, etc.)

          Pretty much the first thing they did was cover global warming with a massively biassed editorial system… Contrary to that hyperbole flooded blog you need only browse through the papers to see that, while the sentence quoted and blamed for all of this was particularly explicit, the other papers on the journal were mostly an attempt at implying the same thing.

          What did they really expect the publishers to do?

          [Note, thats not to say the current system is anywhere near flawless. A lot of scientists are quite frustrated by the nature of the review systems. These are larger systemic issues though and there is little indication Copernicus treated this journal any differently to any other. There was demonstrable bias and poor methodology and it wouldnt be accepted by any respected publisher.]

          On another note, the latent heat issue. I didnt mean to say that the error wasnt relevant, I was saying that that particular variable wasnt as important because of its context.

          The effective change in the latent heat of vaporisation is already very small, its only one part in the equations used to calculate the flux, and many of the equations seem to take the temperature in to account in other regards.
          The result is a much smaller assumption error than a full 2 or 3% impact to the model.

          You are right though, this isnt a typical floating point error and I dont know enough to recognise if it could balloon up. Im not even sure if taking it at the value they selected is the optimal one.

          Error correction algorithms are remarkably effective things, the harder a model tries to get away from you the more they drag things back on track, and the more data thats entered the more accurate it will get, it certainly isnt indomitable though.

          This is why we really need an expert to iron out just how big this problem really is and how successful the models are at dealing with it. Perhaps Professor Strassler knows some, but that may be like asking someone if they know your friend just because they live in the same country.

          1. Bob – that was my question exactly: how big is the issue of a constant latent heat? They don’t know, and it looks like they don’t want to know.

            Back again to Pattern Recognition in Physics: I agree that most of authors there may be crackpots. But that was not given as a reason. The disagreement with the IPCC was given as a reason, and also a second pearl: “In addition, the editors selected the referees on a nepotistic basis, which we regard as malpractice in scientific publishing”. As I take it for granted that the Hockey Team succeeded in redefining the “peer review”, Martin Rasmussen who signed the termination edict made my day.

  7. Matt,
    It isn’t that I think ‘nothing’ should be done, It is that I question that something is ‘wrong’ to begin with. I have seen no credible evidence that carbon dioxide as a trace gas that makes up less than .04% of the present atmosphere is the driving force of the climate. Carbon dioxide is measured in parts per million, and I find it strange that people think going from 350 to 400 ppm is catastrophic when in past ice ages the carbon dioxide had been at 2000 to 8000 ppm. Historic perspective can sometimes be a comfort when you are besiged by the current hype.

    Water vapor is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and it can make up to 4% of the atmosphere (depending on where you are mearsuring) and yet there is no run away greenhouse effect. About 75% of the planet is covered in water, so it isn’t like there has been no chance for the evils of dihydrogen monoxide to kill us all if the ‘run away greenhouse model’ had any validity as it is presently theorized. Would it not be wise to understand how the climate acutally works before trying to mickey about with it, and spending vast amounts of money on politicians who will do nothing but make promises about things they can’t even control even as they live lifestyles that contradict the polices they themselves are advocating?

    1. You linked to a summary of a paper. ( http://www.pnas.org/content/107/34/14983.full ) That hugely contradicts your own post in its assessment of CO2 effects on Earths climate. Its also a paper about the Earth half a billion years ago when the Suns output was entirely different in comparison to the last few hundred thousand years.
      Due to that extreme age and difference of environment, the papers authors appear to use modern climate science to learn and correct their thinking about the past. Not the other way around.

      You likely learnt the basics of why water vapour (Which does indeed magnify warming.) is not considered in the same light as CO2 when you were around 8. Im sure you can do your own research in to this.

      When even the evidence you present is against you perhaps you should consider that you may just be mistaken.

    2. The problem with your argument is that the absence of evidence of danger is not evidence of the absence of danger. Most climate-change skeptics make this obvious logical error, much to my astonishment.

      1. There are dangers everywhere. A nearby supernova, or a collision with an asteroid. An evidence of an absence of danger .. isn’t it asking for a proof of a negative?

  8. Matt, I wasn’t saying that current business practices will take care of the issue. I only mean that under business-as-usual practices, and the fact that hydrocarbon sources are a finite quantity, and that we are rapidly using up all the economically viable high energy content sources, that C0^2 creation will eventually go down with or without any government interventions. I assume you know about EROEI (energy return on energy invested). Long before it takes nearly as much energy to extract the energy it is game over for our kind of society. The paper I referenced above doesn’t make such dire statements but it does point out that we are using up the coal with the highest energy content first just as we get the oil that is easiest to get first.

    Another point of the paper is that there is a pretty reliable method for assessing world-wide peak energy (particularly from coal) and that we are at or very nearly at that peak now. Inevitably, as energy gets more expensive, as a diminishing source must, people will be moving to use energy less wastefully. My point of possible contention is that C0^2 levels may start trending down within this or the next decade with normal business-as-usual practices.

    I suspect that what is behind some of the hype of global warming danger, is concern that RELYING on market signals to motivate people’s behavior–to get them to be more concerned about reducing their carbon footprint–is a dangerous proposition. I can agree with that because market signals alone are very disruptive to the economy.

    Where we seem to also have a differing opinion is in the confidence that rising CO^2 levels are causative of the minor planetary temperature increase. As you know, correlation is, not by itself, evidence of causation. Paleoclimateological studies that I have seen do not show that rising temperatures result from previous increases in CO^2 levels. And ice core studies show the reverse–that CO^2 rises after the temperature goes up. Also, before humans were burning hydrocarbons, planetary temperatures swung down and up naturally. This minor planetary increase does not strike me as unusual, or unusually abrupt, compared to other periods that are pre-human carbon burning. Please see:

    So I just don’t know where this confidence is coming from that anthropogenic increases to the CO^2 background are causative of our slight planetary warming.

    1. Vincent — you’re not hearing me.

      I’m not saying I have this confidence; far from it. I’m saying my lack of confidence is immensely worrying. You seems to assume that if the climate models are wrong, there’s nothing to worry about. This does not follow, logically, does it? What if the models are underestimating the effect?

      Let me quote myself.

      “Whether [the models] are accurate or not is beside the point; I’ve said that several times in the comments. Let’s assume they are completely inaccurate. Then you still don’t know whether their predictions are underestimating or overestimating the risks of higher CO2. All you know is that we are doing an uncontrolled experiment on the planet’s atmosphere, with results that no one can predict. You seem to be happy to let the experiment go on. I think you’re crazy.”

      1. Matt, we humans are always doing uncontrolled experiments; far more than optimal in all kinds of areas. We are a dangerous species on a dangerous planet with a molten mantle with a crust that periodically cracks causing great damage in a dangerous solar system with dangerous bodies flying around in a dangerous universe. None of these can we control. We can only try to adapt.

        Almost all of us that are alive today on this planet will be dead in 100 years. Near the bottom of things that I worry about is the tiny percentage (10 or 12 parts per 100,000) of CO^2 that we are adding to the existing levels.

        1. It’s not at the top of things I worry about either, but it’s not at the bottom. I do feel that even though I’ll be dead soon enough, I have a responsibility to try to leave the planet in good shape for our grandchildren. Pollution of various forms is one big concern, and it’s not just CO_2.

    2. Vincent: The apparent rise of CO2 after the temperatures had gone up, WAS, indeed, a major problem. It was caused by a systematic error in the interpretation of the ice core data. It has now been corrected, all over, last year, or so.

      1. Patrice: That is a very interesting assertion. I admit that I’m not keeping up on all the latest research and interpretation. Could you back it up with a good reference? Thanks.

  9. Matt,
    Please produce the model (any model actually) that correctly predicts the climate using a carbon dioxide forcing model. Fine tuned climate models are next to useless if you have to kludge the model constantly in order to get agreement with temperature record or resort to ignoring entire historic climactic events just to prevent the trends going to ridiculous extremes.
    Here are just a few models Vs. reality, If you spot your model amongst them, once again, please let me know.


    I would be glad to post any accurate models you can provide over at ‘Watts up With That?’ for discussion and analysis.

    1. Rounding errors have been known for decades, this is not a new or ignored issue. Its why models are given time to be adjusted and corrected. (Which youve conveniently interpreted as an ignorant ‘kludge’…) If youve ever played a sufficiently advanced computer game you will actually see these processes in effect, its required knowledge to build any physics simulation from first principles, I was taught some of the same basic mathematical principles to make our models predictable.

      The shock at this paper is just a result of people confusing clarifying a problem with the idea that scientists involved have ignored and done little to correct the problem. The latter isnt even remotely true.

      Youd probably have had this explained to you except the site is insisting on removing all comments pointing it out. Even if you would have still disagreed its an indication that you should never use WUWT as a source again.

      (This is ignoring the fact that the site is well known for massive bias from a man with a financial incentive from the Heartland Institute. I dont even disagree with everything Watts says but he has sadly proven himself more than likely to twist, edit and ignore the truth to support his views and he is far from a trustworthy source.)

        1. Well my post was more about dealing with error build up which employs things like Runge-Kutta. (Maybe Euler methods Im not sure, they are typically not as accurate.) These are widely used in these models and very effective.

          As for this latent heat issue though,
          As far as I am aware the climate model requires the Latent Heat Flux (How much heat is coming off the surface in to the atmosphere.) The latent heat of vaporization is used in calculating it but typically only its constant which is the value and symbol listed. (I think there may be other methods of calculation with varying degrees of accuracy as well.)

          Ive never seen the variation of latent heat vaporization by water temperature be hugely relevant. (At least to atmospheric climate change.)

          but then that does makes the email conversation a little confusing as this is never explained. Perhaps they misunderstood the question or, a little more troubling, were just being dismissive.

          Either way, Professor Strasslers slightly more flippant but perfectly logical argument is probably a better way to handle the debate unless a professional climatologist frequents the comments and can explain these kinds of details.

          1. Bob – thanks for following up. As the “climate change” deals with a possible catastrophic global temperature rise of 2 degrees K (4F) from a base temperature 300K – a 1.5% change – I would not dismiss a 2.5% error as “not hugely relevant”. It may not be; but we simply don’t know.

    2. Whether they are accurate or not is beside the point; I’ve said that several times in the comments. Let’s assume they are completely inaccurate. Then you still don’t know whether their predictions are underestimating or overestimating the risks of higher CO2. All you know is that we are doing an uncontrolled experiment on the planet’s atmosphere, with results that no one can predict. You seem to be happy to let the experiment go on. I think you’re crazy.

  10. We are changing the climate by burning fossil fuels. The immediate effects are hard to discern, but the future of.an Earth with a CO2 ppm of 450 or 500 is easy to predict.

    We need to stop mining, burning and exporting coal. We need to fix leaks associated with NG fracking and immed switch all coal electric plants to NG. We need a large increase in research on the comercialization of non-corn ethanol, and better, algae and GMO bacteria biodiesel, and small nonrunaway nukes.

    The first political hurdle is a carbon tax. Charged at the well head or import location, and rebated back through the fica tax system.

    one count of extreme weather events is useful. Compare the number of daily record highs to thenmber of lows. In a balanced system, they should be roughly 50/50. Next take only the nighttime temps.

    and you can claim models.don’t take into account solar changes, or the natural variation of weather, or that they did not make accurate predictions for.the last 15 years. but you would be wrong. wrong and short sighted.

    1. You make a number of remarks. First, what I did not say in this post (but have said in other posts and will say again) is that it is not *current* warming but *future* warming, due to current and future increased carbon dioxide, which is the real worry here. Current warming is barely detectable. However the increased CO2 is already enormous. On this point I think we agree completely.

      Your point about “record highs vs record lows” is wrong, I think. This is not a good way to do things. For all you know, an increased temperature increases the volatility in the system and the number of record highs and lows may remain the same even while the average temperature increases. It’s even possible that hotter temperatures lead to more record lows than record highs, at least in some parts of the world. If you tell me that climate models can predict wild swings in temperature, I’m not going to believe you; no model can predict the events on the tails of distributions.

      For science, it’s great that climate models made “accurate predictions for the last 15 years”. But it’s almost useless for policy. Of course, the models’ success gives weight to the argument that the models will continue to make accurate predictions. But you know as well as I that 15 years isn’t nearly a long enough time sequence to be sure that the models, which are highly non-linear, won’t fail to capture something important that hasn’t happened in the last 15 years. It’s far too short a time, given natural variability, to conclude that accurate predictions during that period imply that the models are correct for all situations, including the one we’re heading into with more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

      The real problem we have is that we have to make policy decisions *without* complete scientific confidence that we know what’s going on. I agree with you that reducing CO_2 is essential, not because I trust the climate models, but because I don’t. The models might just as well be underestimating the bad consequences as overestimating them. (For instance: people did not expect such rapid melting in the Arctic Ocean, and that exposed water will have knock-on effects.) So I think you’re arguing for the right policy but that you’re far too confident in the models, based on far too little evidence.

      1. thank you for your kind reply. I don’t know/understand all the details of the models. this guy http://scienceofdoom.com is working on them and is a great resource. I see the essential problem is the absorbtion of uv radition by CO2, leading to a 50% it will be sent back down instead of leaking into space. this effect does not seem to be offset by increased water vapor, althogh modeling clouds is one.of.the big issues.

        We just can not get away from the fact that at current Earth temps.we cannot radiate away all the energy we get from the sun to stay at an equilibrium. Thus they will increase and exactly how high the models are having another hard time saying (the sensitivity problem)

        my point about the last 15 years was a little garbled. being that they did a poor job of predicting the temps, but I mean so what, then we hunt for the missing energy and find it in deep ocean or melting ice. it is wrong to fixate on it as if.the model flaw as meaning gcc is not happening.

        I will hunt up the graphs of.average records and you can see if you find them useful or interesting.

  11. I believe the easiest way to address the ‘Global Warming, Climate Change’ question is to ask the question: “What would be an indication that there was no Anthropogenic Global Warming or AGW?” This is a great question to ask because it would present what would be required to make the theory of AGW falsifiable. It would also become apparent that presently, there is no climate condition that could fit this requirement in historic record, since the earth’s temperature does not have a ‘normal’ temperature that would be considered ideal. Basically, we have ice ages (severe global cooling) followed by gradual warming trends (the present) until the next ice age. Even in between the ice ages has never been an ‘average’ or ‘normal’ temperature, we have considerable evidence within human history of marked climactic changes (i.e. The Romans growing vineyards in England, The Vikings settling in Greenland, The Thames freezing over during the ‘Little Ice Age’. )
    I am not contesting that the earth’s climate changes, I am merely stating the obvious that it has changed all along, quite dramatically at times, and that discerning the exact cause of that change and to what degree it is influenced by ‘carbon footprints’ or any other man made effects is highly dubious at best. I would also add that the computer models used to simulate climate change have all been shown to be wrong, for the obvious reason they rely on similar assumptions of carbon forcing, lack of ocean temperatures, do not include solar activity, do not include the biggest greenhouse gas of them all (water vapor) or water’s secondary effect as cloud cover.

    1. Other than your statement “all have been shown to be wrong”, I largely agree that we face a very serious problem in establishing both effect and cause.

      Personally, I think the key facts are that (a) we’re dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates [there’s no question about that!] and (b) we really don’t know what’s going to happen as a result [which is what you argued.] This should be enough to make us want to slow down the rate of carbon dioxide emission.

      1. Co2 production will slow anyway with current business practices and this paper argues that it will be sooner rather than later:


        I used to take hikes in the San Francisco East Bay hills with Greg Croft which is one of the authors of the paper and read their paper right before it’s publication.

        Your point about establishing cause and effect is also one of the most important points that I have had in conversations.

        1. Well, I would be extremely wary of promises that business practices will take care of the issue. If you’re going to be skeptical of climate models, you’d better be doubly skeptical of our ability to predict how business practices will work out two to four decades from now. For instance, no one could have predicting the fracking boom and how it would change the world’s energy usage, distribution, pricing, etc.

          So for logical consistency, you can’t say that you don’t trust the climate scientists’ predictions regarding warming due to CO_2, but you do trust the predictions made by the chair of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at The University of Texas at Austin regarding coal usage in future. The latter is clearly less reliable than the former.

          So unfortunately I think you have to tackle the problem head on, with policies specifically directed at trying to reduce CO2 emissions. The fact that policy decisions are difficult and always have unintended consequences is just something you have to accept; the alternative of doing little or nothing is very risky.

          1. I would expect the UT Engineering Department to be more reliable. Maybe nobody would have predicted fracking (but I’ll bet if you where an insider you would have) but it would have been a safe bet that known hydrocarbon reserves would grow while the cost of accessing that energy would trend down. Since the steam engine we have moved to fuels that are cheaper and have higher energy density.

            It’s the nature of engineering vs science. Engineers deal with well understood predictable things. Climate scientists deal with a not well understood chaotic system.

            It is a safe bet that with the possible exception of nuclear, we will not be using a lot of renewable absent large government subsidies for at least the next couple of decades. Wind and solar are simply too expensive and finiky.

            1. I disagree, strongly, on three counts.

              1) It’s not engineering that’s the issue here. It’s business. Economics. The economy. Like climate, the economy is a highly non-linear, potentially chaotic, and poorly understood system. Worse than climate, it involves PEOPLE — and is subject to legal constraints, regulation, politics, international conflict, and the like. It’s vastly more complicated than the climate and much harder to predict, not easier. At least the climate science is based on fundamental principles of physics, chemistry and biology… not psychology, politics, human conflict and human law. I would take climate predictions over economy predictions any day of the week.

              2) Your contention that engineering is a predictable subject is not defensible. Good luck predicting the transitor back in 1920; the science that makes the transitor possible hadn’t even been discovered yet. Scientific breakthroughs as yet unknown may dramatically change the economy thirty years from now; history is full of examples.

              3) For the specific case of fracking, you’re just wrong. I know people in the industry; fracking was made possible by unpredictable breakthroughs in technology. Good luck finding any expert who was confident, ten years ago, that the U.S. would be an energy exporter in the late 2010s.

          2. 1) It IS engineering that is at issue here. Yes the economy is chaotic but free markets respond in predictable ways over the long term. That happens because engineering provides the know how and markets provide motivation. Coal use will go down because alternatives are more available and cheaper. Add to that, the fact that the amount of energy needed for each unit of GDP continues to go down. These trends have been going on since the steam engine. They CAN be counted on to continue.

            2) The sorts of trends I’m talking about are predictable. Agreed in the 20’s nobody could have predicted the transistor. However, we did have computing machines. We knew how to build electronic CPU’s using digital logic. Turings work was not that far in the future. You couldn’t predict the transistor but you could predict that computation would be faster and cheaper in the future.

            3) I’m not sure who you know, but they are wrong. What we call fracking is the result of three technologies: hydraulic fracturing, precision drilling and horizontal drilling. I knew about hydraulic fracturing in the 60’s (my grandfather was an engineering professor who did work on it). I spent the 80’s working for Texas Instruments which had an oil subsidiary and listened to talks about precision and horizontal drilling back then. We have it today because people spent a decade playing with them until they got it right.

            4) The prediction that the US would be an exporter, you are correct; but that is not what I said. The prediction is not that the US would be an exporter but rather that proven reserves will be higher in the future and the cost of accessing them will be lower.

            Going forward, hydrocarbons or possibly hydrogen will continue to be the dominant source of energy. Now it may be that in 20 years the oil comes from engineered algae and ditto the hydrogen.

            1. Your points are still in large part spurious. Yes, fracking is an old technology; but sufficiently cheap fracking to make it worthwhile is new. I don’t think we disagree on that point. I agree coal use will eventually go down, in the long run. But “in the long run we are all dead”. The difference between coal use decreasing in 20 years, 40 years and 60 years is a huge amount of carbon dioxide; and it also matters whether coal is replaced with natural gas or with wind, solar or nuclear — which is a political decision. You cannot predict when these things will happen, or what the impact will be.

              And you haven’t even mentioned the most important and surprising thing that will save the planet from the worst possible effects. Population growth has slowed markedly — which almost no one predicted. And *that* will do as much to keep fossil fuel use from skyrocketing as anything else.

  12. Matt, I’ve read quite a bit on climate change and your post is standout one of the finest on the subject I have ever read. It is so very correct. I just wish all climate scientists and climate commentators had your understanding of statistics; unfortunately many do not and I have to ignore their alarmism nonsense and work to educate family and friends of all the dumb manipulations so-called climate experts scare people with. Now I have one more reference to use. Thanks.

  13. As I understand, the cold weather in the northern US depends on that the cold air around the North-Pole has moved towards US, and we in the northern Europé has experienced an extreme warm winter during late December and early January.

  14. Do professional climate scientists share your view that extreme weather events convey no information about climate trends?

    1. I have not spoken to any reliable professional climate scientists who disagree with this basic point: that no one extreme event conveys any information. And it’s obvious why! My point is purely statistical; it has nothing to do with the specifics of climate. When you are studying ANYTHING, a few outlying exceptions do not tell you about the trends… unless you have an absolutely rock-solid thoroughly tested and validated theory (i.e. predictive equations) about what causes the exceptions, which, in the case of weather extremes, we do not.

    2. JW Mason,
      I’m not sure how to interpret your question. If you mean “individual extreme weather events”, then see Matt Strassler’s response. If you mean “extreme weather events collectively”, then Prof. Strassler is not claiming that they convey no information about climate change. He is just claiming that one would have to collect statistics on extreme weather events over many years to extract that information. The claim is that single events on their own do not convey any information. Climate scientists would not argue with that.

  15. Interesting but not as interesting as we are burning 12 million barrels of oil a day. Hot or cold this is disastrous for our descendants

    Cannot you find a way of accessing that lovely free vacuum energy? If space is moving then devise a portal and let it flow for free.

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