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Puncturing the false picture of a scientific consensus about the causes and effects of global warming

20 September 2010

Summary:  Here’s another in a series of articles showing that there is a debate among scientists about an climate issue the news media show as settled science.  Eventually more data and better models will resolve these issues, producing a strong foundation for public policy action.

Much of our news lately consists of propaganda barrages by left and right.  Such as those about anthropogenic global warming and US tax policy, respectively.  That’s because our leaders realize that reason and knowledge are inferior tools for shaping our minds.  Exaggerated assertions, one-sided arguments, and the occasional big lie (aka propaganda) work quite well.  When we change, the tools used to govern us must change as well.  Too bad that in a Republic we have nobody to blame but ourselves (Of course we’ll still whine).

Today we look at the workings of climate change propaganda.  The big lie is that the science is settled, which requires keeping the public ignorant of work challenging the faux consensus.  Note this operates distinct — and only dimly related to — the actual debate among scientists.   The faux consensus is easily punctured by citing articles about the debate.

Step one:   a scientist gives his view of the debate:

2010 hurricane season has already set multiple records“, Joe Romm, Climate Progress, 16 September 2010 — “It appears that this year’s record [sea surface temperatures] have significantly expanded the area over which major hurricanes can exist over the Atlantic.”

Step two:  a respected layman exaggerates an exaggerated, alarming headline (which gets propagated by the news media and bloggers):

Something No Human Has Ever Seen Before“, Brad DeLong (Prof Economics, Berkeley), 18 September 2010

Rinse, wash, repeat = brainwashing (of a sort) for the American public.

Neither Romm or DeLong sully their posts with mention of contrary research about the effect of warming on global storm rates and strength.  Instead they imply a strong consensus among scientists in this field — one that does not exist.  For that matter, both imply a statistically significant record of data — which certainly does not yet exist (see “Would Anyone Have Noticed Julia 80 Years Ago?” by Steve Goddard).

Research about trends in storm frequency and intensity

(1)  The latest volley:  “Decreased frequency of North Atlantic polar lows associated with future climate warming“, Matthias Zahn and Hans von Storch, Nature, 16 September 2010 — Abstract:

Every winter, the high-latitude oceans are struck by severe storms that are considerably smaller than the weather-dominating synoptic depressions. Accompanied by strong winds and heavy precipitation, these often explosively developing mesoscale cyclones — termed polar lows — constitute a threat to offshore activities such as shipping or oil and gas exploitation. Yet owing to their small scale, polar lows are poorly represented in the observational and global reanalysis data often used for climatological investigations of atmospheric features and cannot be assessed in coarse-resolution global simulations of possible future climates.

Here we show that in a future anthropogenically warmed climate, the frequency of polar lows is projected to decline. We used a series of regional climate model simulations to downscale a set of global climate change scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. In this process, we first simulated the formation of polar low systems in the North Atlantic and then counted the individual cases.

A previous study using NCEP/NCAR re-analysis data revealed that polar low frequency from 1948 to 2005 did not systematically change. Now, in projections for the end of the twenty-first century, we found a significantly lower number of polar lows and a northward shift of their mean genesis region in response to elevated atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration. This change can be related to changes in the North Atlantic sea surface temperature and mid-troposphere temperature; the latter is found to rise faster than the former so that the resulting stability is increased, hindering the formation or intensification of polar lows.

Our results provide a rare example of a climate change effect in which a type of extreme weather is likely to decrease, rather than increase.

(2)  “Modeled Impact of Anthropogenic Warming on the Frequency of Intense Atlantic Hurricanes“, Morris A. Bender et al, Science, 22 January 2010 — Abstract:

Several recent models suggest that the frequency of Atlantic tropical cyclones could decrease as the climate warms. However, these models are unable to reproduce storms of category 3 or higher intensity.

We explored the influence of future global warming on Atlantic hurricanes with a downscaling strategy by using an operational hurricane-prediction model that produces a realistic distribution of intense hurricane activity for present-day conditions. The model projects nearly a doubling of the frequency of category 4 and 5 storms by the end of the 21st century, despite a decrease in the overall frequency of tropical cyclones, when the downscaling is based on the ensemble mean of 18 global climate-change projections. The largest increase is projected to occur in the Western Atlantic, north of 20°N.

(3)  “Whither Hurricane Activity?“, Gabriel A. Vecchi et al, Science, 31 October 2008 — “Alternative interpretations of the relationship between sea surface temperature and hurricane activity imply vastly different future Atlantic hurricane activity.”  Excerpt:

From the perspective of correlation and inferred causality, this analysis suggests that we are presently at an impasse. Additional empirical studies are unlikely to resolve this conflict in the near future: Many years of data will be required to reject one hypothesis in favor of the other, and the climate model projections of hurricane activity using the two statistical models do not diverge completely until the mid-2020s.Thus, it is both necessary and desirable to appeal to nonempirical evidence to evaluate which future is more likely.

… Whether the physical connections between hurricane activity and SST are more accurately captured by absolute or relative SST also has fundamental implications for our interpretation of the past. If the correlation of activity with absolute SST represents a causal relation, then at least part of the recent increase in activity in the Atlantic can be connected to tropical Atlantic warming driven by human-induced increases in greenhouse gases and, possibly, recent reductions in Atlantic aerosol loading. In contrast, if relative SST contains the causal link, an attribution of the recent increase in hurricane activity to human activities is not appropriate, because the recent changes in relative SST in the Atlantic are not yet distinct from natural climate variability.

We stand on the cusp of potentially large changes to Atlantic hurricane activity. The issue is not whether SST is a predictor of this activity but how it is a predictor. Given the evidence suggesting that relative SST controls hurricane activity, efforts to link changes in hurricane activity to absolute SST must not be based solely on statistical relationships but must also offer alternative theories and models that can be used to test the physical arguments underlying this premise. In either case, continuing to move beyond empirical statistical relationships into a fuller, dynamically based understanding of the tropical atmosphere must be of the highest priority, including assessing and improving the quality of regional SST projections in global climate models.

(4)  “Hurricanes Won’t Go Wild, According to Climate Models“, Richard A. Kerr, Science, 23 May 2008 — “Two new model studies project a modest increase or even a decrease in the frequency and intensity of Atlantic tropical cyclones.”  Discusses new papers in Nature Geoscience and Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

(5)  “Heightened tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic: natural variability or climate trend?“, Greg J Holland and Peter J Webster, Philosophic Transactions of The Royal Society, 15 November 2007 — Abstract:

We find that long-period variations in tropical cyclone and hurricane frequency over the past century in the North Atlantic Ocean have occurred as three relatively stable regimes separated by sharp transitions. Each regime has seen 50% more cyclones and hurricanes than the previous regime and is associated with a distinct range of sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Overall, there appears to have been a substantial 100-year trend leading to related increases of over 0.7°C in SST and over 100% in tropical cyclone and hurricane numbers.

It is concluded that the overall trend in SSTs, and tropical cyclone and hurricane numbers is substantially influenced by greenhouse warming. Superimposed on the evolving tropical cyclone and hurricane climatology is a completely independent oscillation manifested in the proportions of tropical cyclones that become major and minor hurricanes. This characteristic has no distinguishable net trend and appears to be associated with concomitant variations in the proportion of equatorial and higher latitude hurricane developments, perhaps arising from internal oscillations of the climate system. The period of enhanced major hurricane activity during 1945–1964 is consistent with a peak period in major hurricane proportions.

(6)  “Global Warming May Be Homing In on Atlantic Hurricanes“, Richard A. Kerr, Science, 10 November 2006 — “New analyses show that most storm records have been skewed, producing the impression that tropical cyclones have been getting stronger globally. But reanalyzed records from the Atlantic Ocean going back to 1983 still show a sharp increase in hurricane intensity as tropical Atlantic waters warmed.”

(7)  “Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment“, P. J. Webster, Science, 16 September 2005 — Here is a summary in New Scientist.  Summary:

We examined the number of tropical cyclones and cyclone days as well as tropical cyclone intensity over the past 35 years, in an environment of increasing sea surface temperature. A large increase was seen in the number and proportion of hurricanes reaching categories 4 and 5. The largest increase occurred in the North Pacific, Indian, and Southwest Pacific Oceans, and the smallest percentage increase occurred in the North Atlantic Ocean. These increases have taken place while the number of cyclones and cyclone days has decreased in all basins except the North Atlantic during the past decade.

(8)  “Uncertainty in Hurricanes and Global Warming“, Kevin Trenberth, Science, 17 June 2005 — Summary:

The marked increase in land-falling hurricanes in Florida and Japan in 2004 has raised questions about whether global warming is playing a role. In his Perspective, Trenberth explains that the observational hurricane record reveals large natural variability from El Niño and on multidecadal time scales, and that trends are therefore relatively small. However, sea surface temperatures are rising and atmospheric water vapor is increasing.

These factors are potentially enhancing tropical convection, including thunderstorms, and the development of tropical storms. These changes are expected to increase hurricane intensity and rainfall, but the effect on hurricane numbers and tracks remains unclear.

(9)  “The Recent Increase in Atlantic Hurricane Activity: Causes and Implications“, Stanley B. Goldenberg et al, Science, 20 July 2001 — Abstract:

The years 1995 to 2000 experienced the highest level of North Atlantic hurricane activity in the reliable record. Compared with the generally low activity of the previous 24 years (1971 to 1994), the past 6 years have seen a doubling of overall activity for the whole basin, a 2.5-fold increase in major hurricanes (50 meters per second), and a fivefold increase in hurricanes affecting the Caribbean. The greater activity results from simultaneous increases in North Atlantic sea-surface temperatures and decreases in vertical wind shear.

Because these changes exhibit a multidecadal time scale, the present high level of hurricane activity is likely to persist for an additional ~10 to 40 years. The shift in climate calls for a reevaluation of preparedness and mitigation strategies.

Posts about the sociology and politics of climate science

  1. “Aliens cause global warming”: wise words from the late Michael Crichton, 15 November 2008
  2. My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009
  3. Peer review of scientific work – another example of a flawed basis for public policy, 22 January 2009
  4. Science in action, a confused and often nasty debate among scientists, 5 February 2009
  5. Richard Feynmann, one of the 20th centuries greatest scientists, talks to us about climate science, 12 February 2009
  6. An opportunity to judge for yourself the adequacy of today’s climate science, 2 March 2009
  7. A note on the green religion, one of the growth industries in America, 17 March 2009
  8. An example of important climate change research hidden, lest it spoil the media’s narrative, 22 May 2009
  9. An army of Davids storm the walls of the scientific establishment, 19 June 2009
  10. More attempts to control the climate science debate using smears and swarming, 19 October 2009
  11. A look at global warming written in a cooler and more skeptical time, giving us a better understanding of climate science, 23 November 2009
  12. The floodgates slowly open and the foreign news media debunk climate change propaganda, 24 January 2010
  13. Hot news about climate change. The picture rapidly changes as the curtains open on things long hidden., 25 January 2010
  14. An important step to take before we spend a trillion dollars to save the planet from global warming, 31 January 2010
  15. Quote of the day – hidden history for people who rely on the mainstream media for information, 12 February 2010
  16. The hidden history of the global warming crusade, 19 February 2010
  17. A real-time example of the birth and spread of climate propaganda, 9 March 2010
  18. Quote of the day: ‘you must spend a trillon dollars to fight global warming (sorry I lost the supporting data)’, 4 April 2010
  19. Apologies are due George Will, vindicated from charges that he is a climate criminal, 27 April 2010
  20. Fear or Fail: about the melting Greenland ice sheet, 24 May 2010
  21. Slowly more evidence emerges, and more scientists speak out about drivers of climate change, 26 May 2010
  22. “Most scientific papers are probably wrong” – New Scientist, 20 June 2010
  23. “Climate Change: what do we know about the IPCC?”, 27 June 2010
  24. Lies told under the influence of the Green religion to save the world, 30 July 2010
  25. Damn the research! We need to act now to stop global warming., 17 August 2010
  26. Climate science: the debate, the eventual solution, and the best cheap seats from which to watch the action., 19 August 2010
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