Feb 102009

Here are a couple of stories that have been very popular with the media recently.First, there is a sad tale of vanishing ice and an endangered species:

Emperor penguins face extinction

Emperor penguins, whose long treks across Antarctic ice to mate have been immortalised by Hollywood, are heading towards extinction, scientists say.

Based on predictions of sea ice extent from climate change models, the penguins are likely to see their numbers plummet by 95% by 2100.

That level of decline could wreak havoc on the delicate Antarctic food chain.

The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


So we have a heart-wrenching story, based entirely on the predictions of computer models, which was published in one of the most prestigious America science journals, PNAS. (The National Academy of Sciences is the American equivalent of the Royal Society.)

Then there is this thoroughly scary offering:

Global warming is ‘irreversible’

A team of environmental researchers in the US has warned many effects of climate change are irreversible.

The scientists concluded global temperatures could remain high for 1,000 years, even if carbon emissions can somehow be halted.

The report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Colorado comes as President Obama announces a review of vehicle emission standards.

It appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


The authors relied on measurements as well as many different models to support the understanding of their results.


Now we have two eye-catching papers published recently in PNAS that rely on what computer models tell us about the future, in this case not just a century ahead, but over a whole millennium.

At a time when global warming seems to have been on hold for nearly a decade, it is hardly surprising that climate scientists are having to rely on predictive models that tell them about the future, rather than on empiric evidence of climate change at the present time, to keep their research in the news. Vanishing glaciers, melting sea ice, rising sea levels and violent hurricanes are becoming harder to find. Worse still, most of North America and Europe are experiencing an unusually cold and snowy winter. The general public can hardly be expected to take climate change scare stories too seriously at the moment, as they only have to step outside the door to realise that it is pretty cold. To them, that is clear evidence that global warming is not happening, for the moment at least, even if this carries little weight scientifically.

For climate scientists, long range predictions have great advantages: it is impossible to cite conclusive evidence that contradicts them and, whether the emperor penguin survives the twenty-first century or not, it is certain that the researchers who have foretold its demise will not be around when the truth is known. As a bonus, climate models are a source of the kind of apocalyptic stories that few news editors can resist, whatever the merits of the research which produces them.

Now for something completely different, a paper that deals with the history of another Antarctic species, the Elephant Seal, rather than speculation about it’s future:

Holocene elephant seal distribution implies warmer-than-present climate in the Ross Sea

We show that southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) colonies existed proximate to the Ross Ice Shelf during the Holocene, well south of their core sub-Antarctic breeding and molting grounds. We propose that this was due to warming (including a previously unrecognized period from _1,100 to 2,300 B.P.) that decreased coastal sea ice and allowed penetration of warmer-than present climate conditions into the Ross Embayment. If, as proposed in the literature, the ice shelf survived this period, it would have been exposed to environments substantially warmer than present.


This paper was also published in PNAS, but in May 2006. It seems to have attracted no attention in the media whatsoever, nor did it make it into the IPCC’s most recent assessment report. Perhaps that is because it provides convincing evidence from excavations on raised beaches in Antarctica that a species whose range is determined by climate has used breeding grounds much further south than at present, indicating substantially warmer conditions in the past. No predictive computer models were required by the authors to reach their conclusions; this is a plain old-fashioned piece of research where a hypothesis is confirmed by observations, and it’s not in the least bit scary.

One can only speculate about the reception that this paper would have had in the media, and from the IPCC, if it had reached the opposite conclusions; that temperatures in the Antarctic are substantially warmer today than they have been in the past. But it seems that empiric evidence that recent warming is not unprecedented must take a back seat when it challenges orthodox opinions, in climate science at least.

For as long as global average temperatures fail to rise, it is likely that climate scientists will increasingly rely on what their models tell them about future climate in order to engage the attention of politicians, the media and the public. It is interesting that this should happen at a time when similar models, used by finance houses to predict investment risks, have precipitated a global banking crisis. Quite simply, in this case models failed to foretell the future.

I wonder if President Obama had received a briefing on the role that models played in the banking crisis when his $850bn stimulus plan for the US economy was drafted? This stipulates that ‘$140,000,000 shall be available for climate data modeling‘. Perhaps, and I hope this is not the case, he doesn’t care whether this branch of climate research is reliable or not, because the motive for his bonanza for modellers is not quite what it seems.

There is little doubt now that the new American administration will spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a ‘low carbon recovery from recession’. This can partly be justified in terms of job creation, and partly in terms of energy security, but saving the planet must also play a very important part in convincing the American public that this is a wise course of action and also in sending a message to the world at large that the new president is very different from his predecessor.

What happens if empiric evidence of a warming planet remains scarce for the next few years? Well, that $140m should ensure that there are more than enough headline hogging scare stories about global warming to last a generation.

I wonder what the American people would say if their president paid consultants and lobbyists a similar amount, from public funds, to undertake research that will justify his policies?

4 Responses to “Of eternal warming, penguins and seals”

  1. Do any of these models predict anything that we can prove or disprove by waiting a few years ?

    Do they forecast that the climate will be like X in 5 years time and Y in 10 years time ?

    We could then wait and see if the climate really is like X in 5 years.

    If the models cannot predict this then they are useless. How can you say what will happen in 50 years without some idea of the next 10 ?

  2. Or can we look at models from 5 years ago and see what they were saying about today ?

  3. Jack Hughes asked, “Or can we look at models from 5 years ago and see what they were saying about today?”

    Yeah. We can do that.

    First IPCC report
    In 1990 IPCC predicted temperature rise of 0.3C per decade.
    The 1990 actual anomaly was 0.25C.
    The 1990 IPCC forecast for 2000 was 0.25 + 0.3 = 0.55C versus an actual of 0.24C.
    The 1990 IPCC forecast for 2008 was 0.25 + 1.8 * 0.3 = 0.79C versus an actual of 0.31C

    Second IPCC report
    In 1995 IPCC toned down their warming prediction to between 0.2 and 0.25C per decade.
    The 1995 actual anomaly was 0.28C
    The 1995 IPCC forecast for 2005 was 0.28 + 0.225 = 0.505C versus an actual of 0.43C.
    The 1995 IPCC forecast for 2008 was 0.28 + 1.3 * 0.225 = 0.57C versus 0.31C actual

    Third IPCC report
    In 2000 IPCC modified their warming prediction to between 0.2 and 0.3C per decade.
    The 2000 actual anomaly was 0.24C
    The 2000 IPCC forecast for 2008 was 0.24 + 0.8 * 0.25 = 0.44C versus 0.31C actual.

    Fourth IPCC report
    In 2007 IPCC modified their warming prediction to 0.2C per decade
    The 2006 actual anomaly was 0.42C
    The 2007 IPCC forecast for 2008 was 0.42 + 0.2 * 0.25 = 0.47C versus 0.31C actual.

    So IPCC has overestimated the rate of warming in all of its four reports.

    And these are the guys that are predicting temperatures 100 years in advance? Ouch!


  4. What do the models actually do “under the bonnet” ?

    Do they just extrapolate from a data series ?

    Or do they try to model what is going on in each cubic kilometre of the atmosphere ? Temperature, pressure, concentration of different gases, solar input, reflection, radiation, clouds, smoke, smog, etc ? And over time as well – the atmosphere does not stay in one place.

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