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Is climate more than weather? Is weather just noise?

Understanding the relationship between climate and weather is important in climate science.

Here’s NASA:

The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time.

And again:

Climate is the average of weather over time and space.

Who could argue with that succinct statement? Easy for all of us to understand.

Now Tamino, in his long running blog, says:

Time and time again, peoplewhodontagreewithus-ists try to suggest that the last 10 years, or 9 years, or 8 years, or 7 years, or 6 years, or three and a half days of temperature data establish that the earth is cooling, in contradiction to mainstream climate science…

Of course that raises an interesting question: how long a time span do we need to establish a trend in global temperature data? It’s sometimes stated that the required time is 30 years, because that’s the time span used most often to distinguish climate from weather. Although that’s a useful guide, it’s not strictly correct. The time required to establish a trend in data depends on many things, including how big the trend is (the size of the signal) and how big, and what type, the noise is…

Well, I agree with the statistical principles involved here. But his comment does raise a very interesting point.

Is the global temperature value measured for a year just noise on top of the climate signal?

If the global temperature value measured in 2009 is less than that measured in 2008 did the world actually cool that year (relative to 2008), or is it just noise ?

Digression on Noise and Signal

For those not so familiar with the technical terms it’s worth explaining signal and noise a little. Let’s choose a non-controversial topic and suppose we want to set up a radio communications link. We have a receiver which amplifies the tiny incoming radio signal so that we can hear it – or retransmit it – whatever we want to do with this signal.

The noise is the random element that get mixed in with the signal. In amplifiers they are frequently the random movement of electrons (that increase with temperature). In reception of the signal they are the other radio waves at similar frequencies that have been reflected, diffracted and otherwise distorted their way to your receiver.

In this case, noise is stuff that is NOT the signal. It threatens to stop you measuring your signal – or at least make it less accurate. Noise can have a systematic bias or it can be random. And in the real world of engineering problems, dealing with noise is often a significant problem to be solved.

Signal and Noise in Climate

We are thinking here specifically of the average global temperature. Often known by its acronym, GMST (global mean surface temperature).

What Tamino appears to be saying is that the temperature from year to year is just the “noise” on top of the climate (temperature) signal. Well we don’t want noise to upset our measurement so in that case we do need to call on statistical processes to give us the real signal.

But is it true? Is this the right way to look at it?

Other commentators and scientists have made a similar point.  Easterling’s paper Is the climate warming or cooling? submitted to GRL (2009) says:

Numerous websites, blogs and articles in the media have claimed that the climate is no longer warming, and is now cooling. Here we show that periods of no trend or even cooling of the globally averaged surface air temperature are found in the last 34 years of the observed record, and in climate model simulations of the 20th and 21st century forced with increasing greenhouse gases. We show that the climate over the 21st century can and likely will produce periods of a decade or two where the globally averaged surface air temperature shows no trend or even slight cooling in the presence of longer-term warming.

But there’s a very interesting paper in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (2009) from Kevin Trenberth on the global energy budget. It’s worth paying close attention to what he has to say, and for anyone interested in the subject of the global temperature, read the whole paper. From the introduction:

The global mean temperature in 2008 was the lowest since about 2000 (Figure 1). Given that there is continual heating of the planet, referred to as radiative forcing, by accelerating increases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses due to human activities, why is the temperature not continuing to go up? The stock answer is that natural variability plays a key role and there was a major La Nina event early in 2008 that led to the month of January having the lowest anomaly in global temperature since 2000. While this is true, it is an incomplete explanation.

In particular, what are the physical processes? From an energy standpoint, there should be an explanation that accounts for where the radiative forcing has gone. Was it compensated for temporarily by changes in clouds or aerosols, or other changes in atmospheric circulation that allowed more radiation to escape to space?

Was it because a lot of heat went into melting Arctic sea ice or parts of Greenland and Antarctica, and other glaciers? Was it because the heat was buried in the ocean and sequestered, perhaps well below the surface? Was it because the La Nina led to a change in tropical ocean currents and rearranged the configuration of ocean heat?

Perhaps all of these things are going on?

Interesting.

Trenberth is saying that we need to understand what happens to the global energy “account” in shorter time periods than decades. In fact, it’s essential. Because if we don’t know whether the earth warms or cools in one year, there might be important aspects of the climate that we haven’t understood in sufficient detail – or we aren’t measuring in sufficient detail. And if the earth has warmed but we don’t know where the energy actually is that is a problem to be solved as well.

All of which leads to the inescapable conclusion that the average global temperature value for one year is not “noise”. It is the “signal”. (See the technical note on temperature measurement at the end of this post)

After all, if there is a radiative imbalance in the earth’s climate system such that we take more energy in than we radiate out it must be warming. But if this energy is not being stored somewhere then the earth hasn’t warmed in that year. In fact, if there is less heat in the climate system, we radiated out more than we received in. There isn’t some secret place that is storing it all up.

Roger Pielke Sr has made that point (probably many times).

What I’m not saying is that earth is on a long term cooling trend. And I’m definitely not saying that the cold weather yesterday means the earth is cooling.

But if the global temperature in one year is cooler than the global temperature in the previous year then the earth has cooled. It’s not noise.

It’s only noise if we can’t measure temperature accurately enough to be sure whether the temperature has gone up or down.

Possibly I have misunderstood Tamino. I did post a comment on this topic to his recent blog post (twice) but possibly due to a moderating snafu, or possibly because there were much more important questions to be answered, it didn’t get published.

Conclusion

As NASA says, the climate is the average of the weather.

Monthly and annual averages of specific values like temperature and total heat stored in the climate system can change in apparently random ways. But that doesn’t mean that these changes don’t reflect real changes in the system.

I can draw a trend line through a longer time series and show lots of deviations from the trend line. But that doesn’t give some kind of superior validity to the trend line. I could take 10000 years of climate data and show that 100 year periods are just noise.

What is the climate doing? It’s apparently random, but actually always changing. Over the last 40 years it has warmed. For the more recent shorter period that Trenberth covered, it cooled. Over the last 20,000 years it has warmed. Over the last 10 million years it has cooled.

If there’s less heat in the earth’s climate at the end of 2010 compared with 2009, the planet will have cooled. And if there’s more heat at the end of 2010 compared with 2009, the planet will have warmed. Not noise, it really will have changed.

Why the total heat stored goes up and down, and how that heat is distributed is at the heart of the complex subject known as climate science.

Technical Note

More on this on a later post, but as many physicists will point out, taking the average temperature around the world is a little odd. That might seem strange – how else can you see whether the world is warming???

As a thought experiment, if you have 5 places to measure temperature, nicely distributed, the average temperature,

Tav = T1 + T2 + T3 + T4 + T5.

But it’s not really meaningful. T1 might be measured in a big lake – and water stores a lot of energy per unit volume. T2 might be measured on a big piece of plastic and be storing almost no energy.

Adding up these different numbers and dividing by the number of measurements is not really a useful number. Sure if you keep calculating this same average it kind of gives you a clue where things are headed. But it could be misleading. The piece of plastic might go up 10°C and the lake might go down 5°C so the average has gone up. But the total heat in the system will have gone down.

Two more useful methods would be:

1. Sum up the energy actually stored -as Trenberth does in his paper – but it’s tougher
2. Average the fourth power of the temperatures – T4

Energy is radiated out as the fourth power of temperature, so averaging this value gives you more idea how much energy the system is radiating – as a proxy for the energy changes in the system. It’s easy to show that global average temperature can go up while total radiated energy is going down. Just have the colder places heat up more than the warmer places cool down and Tav increases while T4av decreases. More on this in another post.

Understanding the Flaw

The debate about climate change is a very polarized one.

Understanding the points of view of people who disagree with you is essential to making progress. Even more importantly, you should understand the arguments that summarize the best of the opposite point of view.

Much that is written in the general media is the “polarized view”. So here is a wonderful open letter from a climate scientist that sums up a “skeptical” point of view in a humble way. Emphasis added.

I would add that the view presented is also the point of view of this blog. Standing on the shoulders of giants..

=====================

Date: Mon, 07 Dec 2009 08:28:38 -0700
From: Petr Chylek
To: Climate@lanl.gov, energy@lanl.gov, isr-all@lanl.gov, ees-all@lanl.gov

Dear Climate People:

FYI below is a letter that I sent on Saturday to about 100 top climate research experts including Jim Hansen, Steve Schneider, Phil Jones (UK) and other superstars. Till now I got 14 replies which are about 50/50 between supporting of what I said and defense of the IPCC process.

Greetings,
Petr

=====================

Open Letter to the Climate Research Community

I am sure that most of you are aware of the incident that took place recently at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU). The identity of the whistle-blower or hacker is still not known.

The selected release of emails contains correspondence between CRU scientists and scientists at other climate research institutions. My own purely technical exchange of emails with CRU director Professor Phil Jones is, as far as I know, not included.

I published my first climate-related paper in 1974 (Chylek and Coakley, Aerosol and Climate, Science 183, 75-77). I was privileged to supervise Ph. D. theses of some exceptional scientists – people like J. Kiehl, V. Ramaswamy and J. Li among others. I have published well over 100 peer-reviewed papers, and I am a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the Optical Society of America, and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Within the last few years I was also honored to be included in Wikipedia’s blacklist of “climate skeptics”.

For me, science is the search for truth, the never-ending path towards finding out how things are arranged in this world so that they can work as they do. That search is never finished.

It seems that the climate research community has betrayed that mighty goal in science. They have substituted the search for truth with an attempt at proving one point of view. It seems that some of the most prominent leaders of the climate research community, like prophets of Old Israel, believed that they could see the future of humankind and that the only remaining task was to convince or force all others to accept and follow. They have almost succeeded in that effort.

Yes, there have been cases of misbehavior and direct fraud committed by scientists in other fields: physics, medicine, and biology to name a few. However, it was misbehavior of individuals, not of a considerable part of the scientific community.

Climate research made significant advancements during the last few decades, thanks to your diligent work. This includes the construction of the HadCRUT and NASA GISS datasets documenting the rise of globally averaged temperature during the last century. I do not believe that this work can be affected in any way by the recent email revelations. Thus, the first of the three pillars supporting the hypothesis of manmade global warming seems to be solid.

However, the two other pillars are much more controversial. To blame the current warming on humans, there was a perceived need to “prove” that the current global average temperature is higher than it was at any other time in recent history (the last few thousand years). This task is one of the main topics of the released CRU emails. Some people were so eager to prove this point that it became more important than scientific integrity.

The next step was to show that this “unprecedented high current temperature” has to be a result of the increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. The fact that the Atmosphere Ocean General Circulation Models are not able to explain the post-1970 temperature increase by natural forcing was interpreted as proof that it was caused by humans. It is more logical to admit that the models are not yet good enough to capture natural climate variability (how much or how little do we understand aerosol and clouds, and ocean circulation?), even though we can all agree that part of the observed post-1970 warming is due to the increase of atmospheric CO2 concentration. Thus, two of the three pillars of the global warming and carbon dioxide paradigm are open to reinvestigation.

The damage has been done. The public trust in climate science has been eroded. At least a part of the IPCC 2007 report has been put in question. We cannot blame it on a few irresponsible individuals. The entire esteemed climate research community has to take responsibility. Yes, there always will be a few deniers and obstructionists.

So what comes next? Let us stop making unjustified claims and exaggerated projections about the future even if the editors of some eminent journals are just waiting to publish them. Let us admit that our understanding of the climate is less perfect than we have tried to make the public believe. Let us drastically modify or temporarily discontinue the IPCC. Let us get back to work.

Let us encourage students to think their own thoughts instead of forcing them to parrot the IPCC conclusions. Let us open the doors of universities, of NCAR, NASA and other research institutions (and funding agencies) to faculty members and researchers who might disagree with the current paradigm of carbon dioxide. Only open discussion and intense searching of all possibilities will let us regain the public’s trust and move forward.

Regards,
Petr Chylek

Those Hazy Skeptics at the IPCC

Back in the day, the IPCC published its 3rd assessment report and declared a high confidence in the science of doom – humans have caused the unprecedented modern warming and the future is very bleak.

In their view the science was well enough understood that climate models could be relied upon – especially as they predicted the past so nicely.

As well as their Summary for Policymakers they also published a Complete Report. It’s a very informative document and runs to just under 800 pages in 14 chapters, not including appendices. Worth a read for the serious student.

Chapter 5 examines the role of aerosols, which they introduced in Chapter 1 (p.93):

The effect of the increasing amount of aerosols on the radiative forcing is complex and not yet well known. The direct effect is the scattering of part of the incoming solar radiation back into space. This causes a negative radiative forcing which may partly, and locally even completely, offset the enhanced greenhouse effect. However, due to their short atmospheric lifetime, the radiative forcing is very inhomogeneous in space and in time.

This complicates their effect on the highly non-linear climate system. Some aerosols, such as soot, absorb solar radiation directly, leading to local heating of the atmosphere, or absorb and emit infrared radiation, adding to the enhanced greenhouse effect.

Aerosols may also affect the number, density and size of cloud droplets. This may change the amount and optical properties of clouds, and hence their reflection and absorption. It may also have an impact on the formation of precipitation. As discussed in Chapter 5, these are potentially important indirect effects of aerosols, resulting probably in a negative radiative forcing of as yet very uncertain magnitude.

(My emphasis added). A few snippets of interest from chapter 5, which runs to 60 pages:

p. 304, Under Summary of Main Uncertainties Associated with Aerosol Sources and Properties

Perhaps the most important uncertainty in aerosol properties is the production of cloud condensation nuclei (Section 5.3.3).

Earlier they lead up to cloud condensation nuclei being the tricky part – with the other bits being easier? p291-2:

..  An analysis of the contributions of the uncertainties in the different factors needed to estimate direct forcing to the overall uncertainty in the direct forcing estimates can be made. This analysis leads to an overall uncertainty estimate for fossil fuel aerosols of 89% (or a range from –0.1 to –1.0 Wm–2) while that for biomass aerosols is 85% (or a range from –0.1 to –0.5 Wm–2 ).

..  An analysis of the contributions of the uncertainties in the different factors needed to estimate indirect forcing of the first kind can be made. This analysis leads to an overall uncertainty estimate for indirect forcing over Northern Hemisphere marine regions by fossil fuel aerosols of 100% (or a range from 0 to −2.8 Wm–2).

..  The indirect radiative effect of aerosols also includes effects on ice and mixed phase clouds, but the magnitude of any indirect effect associated with the ice phase is not known. It is not possible to estimate the number of anthropogenic ice nuclei at the present time. Except at very low temperatures (<−40°C), the mechanism of ice formation in clouds is not understood. Anthropogenic ice nuclei may have a large (probably positive) impact on forcing.

So clearly the science was settled back in 2001.

(By the way, I think the scientists who put chapter 5 together did a great job and have clearly been hard at work trying to understand an extremely complex subject).

Of course, science moves forward so let’s take a great Six Year Leap to 2007 and the 4th Assessment Report.

What do we find? First let’s note that the radiative equivalence of the anthropogenic increase in CO2 is around 1.7 Wm–2 (the radiative equivalence can view the CO2 increase as if it was an equivalent amount of radiation from the sun).

p29:

Direct aerosol radiative forcing is now considerably better quantified than previously and represents a major advance in understanding since the time of the TAR, when several components had a very low level of scientific understanding. A total direct aerosol radiative forcing combined across all aerosol types can now be given for the first time as –0.5 ± 0.4 Wm–2, with a medium-low level of scientific understanding.

(My italics). Note that one aspect of aerosols is somewhere between no effect and cancelling out half the anthropogenic CO2 warming.

p30:

Anthropogenic aerosols effects on water clouds cause an indirect cloud albedo effect (referred to as the first indirect effect in the TAR), which has a best estimate for the first time of –0.7 [–0.3 to –1.8] Wm–2

And the other key climate impact of aerosols is somewhere between not much and cancelling out all of the anthropogenic CO2 warming.

Thank goodness we now have a much better understanding of aerosols from 2001 when we knew for sure that humans had caused – and would continue to cause – significant warming.

Now we can quantify the aerosol effect, we know that they either do nothing or completely cancel out anthropogenic global warming. Back in 2001, we didn’t have to let that dent our confidence!

Just as a little footnote, those IPCC skeptics had to try and calculate error bars, but at such a low level of scientific understanding the error bars themselves might be in question.

And another footnote, I used the “Report accepted by Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but not approved in detail” because I downloaded this when it was first released in 2007.