Tag Archives: Climatology

Climate Forecasts: Intrinsically All For Nought?

It is commonly accepted that all it will take for us to be able to predict future climate, is faster computers with gigantic computing power, in a progression analogous to meteorology’s.

I find that unlikely. And that’s why climate forecasting is likely to go nowhere, just like…alchemy. Not due to anybody’s fault: rather, because it is intrinsically impossible for it to do otherwise.

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Climatology is the study of the long term behavior of something that is stable, and predictable, but only until it goes through a state change, perhaps all of a sudden.

Imagine what if anything would nuclear physicists be able to study if there were not even sure if today’s proton-proton accelerators would or would not transform themselves into proton-neutron accelerators, in ten, thirty or a hundred years, thereby completely changing all results and all predictions?

Add to that the climatological possibility, or shall I say the absolute certainty, that in any meaningful (i.e. multi-decadal) period of study, there will be external, uncontrollable, unpredictable inputs such as volcano eruptions and changes in the Sun…as if the energy available to power the LHC would vary at random.

Check for example this statement from German climate scientists, just published on the Süddeutsche Zeitung:

“If we had had 10% more cloudiness over Germany, that would have compensated for the warming of the past 30 years”

In other words, a minor change in a climate detail is enough to modify the end result altogether.

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How do you study in a scientifically appropriate manner a system whose simplest scientifically appropriate representation is…itself?

You don’t. You cannot even follow the usual statistical route, because in the long term every possible solution is equally probable. And if you don’t work on the long term, on the decadal or secular scale, then you are not doing climatology.

The problem of climate forecasting is therefore unassailable, just as it is not possible to predict the stock market, another system that is heavily influenced by external factors.

Think of the money thrown for nothing in the financial forecasting route. Then, think of the results.

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Of course, the above does not mean that we can not do any climatological study, for example to determine which crops appear to be more suitable for a certain territory…just as one can play the stock market using reasonably objective parameters and computer models without falling necessarily into financial ruin.

But climate forecasting might be the one and only science where “blacks swans”, the events that throw all predictions up in the air, are ironically the one thing that can be predicted.

ADDENDUM 00:27GMT June 5: Isn’t it beautiful to write something on your own in the middle of the night, and then to discover that even Roger Pielke Sr. has just been dealing with a very similar topic?

ADDENDUM #2: There is one point that needs to be clarified in the above.

The climate forecasts I am talking about are multi-decadal. The stuff just criticised by Pielke Sr.  Those, I am educately guessing, are impossible, even if we knew all the physics and we had vast amounts of computing power.

The simplest way to compute the climate of 20-30 or more years in the future, is to build a system at least as complex as the climate own’s . In other words, the Earth’s climate is its own simplest multidecadal computer.

Since “climate” is usually taken as a multi-decadal concept, then perhaps we can move the forecast of what next season will bring, into meteorology.  Of course, before anybody says anything, no, I do not think meteorology is “inferior” to climatology.

ADDENDUM #3: many thanks to Douglas Hoyt for pointing out that Roger Pielke Jr. has just published a blog and article along the same lines of thought

Rather than basing decision-making on a predict (probabilistically of course) then act model, we may have to face up to the fact that skillful prediction of variables of interest to decision makers may simply not be possible. And even if it were possible, we would not be able to identify skill on the same time scales as decisions need to be made. The consequence of this line of argument is that if stationarity is indeed dead, then it has likely taken along with it fanciful notions of foreseeing the future as the basis for optimal actions. Instead, it may be time to rethink how we make decisions in the face of not simply uncertainty, but fundamental and irreducible ignorance

The Soft Science Of Climatology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gulf Stream Myths (2)

Another March, another collection of scientific half-truths about the Gulf Stream. I do not believe it is a coincidence that I wrote about gulf stream myths a year ago, quoting also Richard Seager, Senior Research Scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory:

“That the Gulf Stream is responsible for Europe’s mild winters is […] nothing more than the earth-science equivalent of an urban legend. […]

All Battisti and I did was put these pieces of evidence together and add in a few more illustrative numerical experiments. Why hadn’t anyone done that before? […]

The blame lies with modern-day climate scientists who either continue to promulgate the Gulf Stream-climate myth or who decline to clarify the relative roles of atmosphere and ocean in determining European climate. This abdication of responsibility leaves decades of folk wisdom unchallenged, still dominating the front pages, airwaves and Internet, ensuring that a well-worn piece of climatological nonsense will be passed down to yet another generation.”

Nothing has changed since. And so yesterday we have learned that the “Atlantic’s Gulf Stream has huge influence on atmosphere“. But is it really so?

(1) Not to mention Prof. Carl Wunsch, let’s have a look at what NASA has to say about oceanic currents:

“The major surface currents are wind generated (as most other oceanic currents are)”

Therefore, rather than discovering that “a band of rain […] tracks the warm surface water” it may very well be the other way around.

(2) In terms of European warming by the Gulf Stream, let’s also compare like-for-like following Seager’s line of thought: and so the cities to choose around latitude 50N are Vancouver (V) and London (L), not Quebec City or the island of Newfoundland.

Vancouver and London, in fact, have an Ocean to their West: while Quebec City, Newfoundland, or the Avachinsky volcano in Kamchatka, all places much cooler on average than London, are just east of a continent.

And so: weather conditions as from the BBC weather site show very little difference between the two cities. Values in the following list are VancouverLondon: for example “Avg Min: -1.3C” means Vancouver is 1.3C cooler in average minimum temperature, than London.

Average Sunlight (hours): 1.2
Temperature (C):
Avg Min: -1.3
Avg Max: 0.2
Rec Min: -3.2
Rec Max: -0.4
Relative humidity am: 11.4
Relative humidity pm: 6.4
Average Precipitation (mm): 72.1
Wet Days (+0.25 mm): 1.6

As it happens, there are warm Oceanic currents that reach Vancouver. But how likely is it that they are as powerful there as the Gulf Stream is in London? What a remarkable coincidence that would be.

Rather, the best explanation in the Occam’s Razor sense is that the warming of Vancouver and London compared to other places around latitude 50N, is due to a metereological (atmospheric) effect, not an Oceanic one.

Gulf Stream Myths

(originally published on 18 March 2007 as “Gulf Stream Myths“. Click here for the March 2008 update “Gulf Stream Myths (2)“.)

Myth #1: The Gulf Stream will fail if a massive outpour of freshwater will come out of Greenland glaciers due to increasing temperatures.

Answer: No, it most definitely will not. As explained by Carl Wunsch, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography at the MIT in Cambridge, Mass. (USA), in a letter published on The Economist:

The Gulf Stream is a wind-driven phenomenon (as explained in a famous 1948 paper by Henry Stommel). […] Shut-off would imply repeal of the law of conservation of angular momentum […] focusing on near-impossible Gulf Stream failure is an unproductive distraction

Myth #2: The Gulf Stream is responsible for the milder weather in the United Kingdom and part of Northern Europe than North American regions at similar latitudes.

Answer: No, it most definitely does not. As explained by Richard Seager, Senior Research Scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in an article published on American Scientist:

That the Gulf Stream is responsible for Europe’s mild winters is […] nothing more than the earth-science equivalent of an urban legend.

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Seager’s comments are particularly telling on how current Climatology is self-destroying by way of catastrophism:

Pretty much everything we had found could have been concluded on the basis of results that were already available […]

All Battisti and I did was put these pieces of evidence together and add in a few more illustrative numerical experiments. Why hadn’t anyone done that before? […] The blame lies with modern-day climate scientists who either continue to promulgate the Gulf Stream-climate myth or who decline to clarify the relative roles of atmosphere and ocean in determining European climate. This abdication of responsibility leaves decades of folk wisdom unchallenged, still dominating the front pages, airwaves and Internet, ensuring that a well-worn piece of climatological nonsense will be passed down to yet another generation.

Ocean Circulation May or May Not Weaken with Global Warming

Ocean circulation in a warming climate – J. R. Toggweiler & Joellen Russell
Nature 451, 286-288 (17 January 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature06590; Published online 16 January 2008
Abstract: Climate models predict that the ocean’s circulation will weaken in response to global warming, but the warming at the end of the last ice age suggests a different outcome.

And so AGW studies start resembling dieting advice. Whatever you like to eat, just wait long enough and some paper will say it’s good for you.

ps a more serious note: how much more exciting would climatology be, were it not poisoned by all the save-the-planet agitation!!