"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The "Travesty" Travesty

Trenberth has a nice little article about his "travesty" comment and how it is being abused.
from one of my e-mails that was illegally stolen: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't."... The quote refers to our observation system which is inadequate to observe Earth's energy flows at the accuracy needed to understand small fluctuations in climate; it does not mean there is no global warming, as is often interpreted by the likes of Danaher. What is does mean is that our observing system is not adequate to fully track the energy in ways that allow us to understand and make best statements about the effects of natural climate variability
The reader comments are woefully awful though. I think this is an occasion where it might be worth pitching in. Please don't let this garbage go unanswered! Do us all a favor. Just answer one comment, calmly and completely, with reference to evidence.

Every reasonably polite, reasonably well-informed comment in a situation like this is worth a hundred low-energy lightbulbs!


Unknown said...

Registering to wade in the fever swamps of ignorant Coloradans who don't like attributing climate change to man because that means more gummint? Come now.


D (ignernt Coloradan)

(word verif states: 'carreing,' which may refute my assertion above, or support it...)

Anonymous said...

"we can't account for the lack of warming"

"it does not mean there is no global warming"

I am confused - again - but so, it appears, is Mr. Trenberth.

David Duff

Michael Tobis said...

I'd point David's attentions to the words "at the moment" for clarification.

One expresses things differently to people who actually know what they are talking about rather than to the general public. It was obvious to me even before readin the context that Trenberth was talking about where the excess energy was temporarily going, not about whether there was any such energy.

The use of the expression "global warming" to describe the problem rather than a symptom of the problem is itself part of the problem. The trouble with that is that any other phrase at this point is considered either impenetrable or euphemistic.

We know there is anthropogenic forcing that is enormous on the time scale of interest, and growing.

If the planet doesn't actually warm as a consequence that only means that the climate change we are experiencing is responding the the large and growing radiative imblanace in a different way than by warming. It doesn't mean things are normal, which they simply, or at least relatively simply, cannot be.

The present circumstance does not appear to be the system responding in a non-warming way on a multidecadal time scale, but it does seem to be doing so on shorter time scales.

That is not unexpected but at the same time we don't have enough evidence to categorize exactly what is happening. Is the extra energy warming the coean? Which part? Melting ice? Which ice? This uncertainty in turn is not due to lack of skill in the physical science but due to recent lack of investment in instrumentation. And therein lies the travesty.

Nobody expects "global warming" to go away on the century time scale. It could mean more warmth, it could mean more sea level rise. That's sort of a tradeoff, though we can't control which trade gets made.

This should be high school level knowledge worldwide. Maybe it is outside the US - my niece in Canada is getting at least some level of explanation in a Canadian public high school though something about the way they approach science in general seems pretty badly wrongheaded. (Did you know that a "tock" is 1/60 of a "tick"? Or was it the other way around?)

I have to wonder if the teachers have no more grasp of the situation than does David Duff.

jg said...

Following your suggestion, I've tried twice to post a comment, but my comment doesn't show up. My comment links to that excellent illustration of Earth's energy budget, but I suspect I'm doing something wrong. Other posts there have links to Fox news and Jesse V's "documentary". I'll keep trying.


Anonymous said...

Michael, please don't think I'm ungrateful for your efforts at clarification and education but could you explain to me in the context of the physics of climate what "normal" is? As in, for example:

"It doesn't mean things are normal, which they simply, or at least relatively simply, cannot be."


"If the planet doesn't actually warm as a consequence that only means that the climate change we are experiencing is responding the the large and growing radiative imblanace in a different way than by warming."

Er, yes, even I can grasp that but if the climate isn't warming but "change" is occurring then it must be in the form of cooling, so is it wise to take all these steps to stop "warming" which isn't happening with the inherent risk of increasing cooling? After all, global cooling would ne a much greater threat to Mankind than warming.

Or are you saying, in effect, that all those nasty things we humans are doing is causing warming which manifests itself, mysteriously, as cooling.

I'm now going to take my asprin and go and lie down in a dark room!

David Duff

Michael Tobis said...

The climate is not a single-valued scalar. Somebody explain this to David, please, just as an exercise.

Anonymous said...

I do try and learn, Michael, but you are confusing me with "single-valued scalar". According to my OED, a 'scalar' is an entity "having only magnitude but not direction", in other words (well, my words), something which has size, presumably variable but no-one is sure of its direction. If I apply that to global climate I would say that was a pretty accurate description with which I agree entirely. After all, we experience 'climate' in various ways, heat, cold, pressure, rain, wind and so on, and as the earth's atmosphere, which contains our 'climate', changes as it is buffeted by solar winds, inter-galactic rays and all sorts of nasties (or goodies?) so it, too, changes size and shape and no-one can be sure in which direction.

In fact, now I look at it, it seems to me that no-one actually knows very much about any of it which, perhaps, explains why none of them can agree about very much.

So I think, Michael, that given this massive example of a new 'uncertainty principle' it would be wise to pause before undertaking huge root and branch changes to our way of life. What do you think?
David Duff

Michael Tobis said...

By "not a scalar" I meant "not entirely expressed by a single number". A scalar is often contrasted with a vector, which is the next most complicated thing, but in fact the simplest identification of the atmosphere that is of much use is a three dimensional field of seven dimensional vectors; the ocean is another. Even so these quantities are somewhat oversimplified, but that's the formulation that led from Bjerknes formulation to Charney's initial numerical and analytical solutions in the 1940s and 1950s, and similar work by Stommel and Veronis and such on oceanography at about the same time.

The fact that you haven't tried to read classical works like Charney's doesn't mean that nothing is known. It only means that you don't know it. Let me know when you are caught up to 1955 or so and we can talk.

There are other fields about which you know nothing, but you make no claims that nothing is known about them.

The whole point here is that there IS agreement among the people who actually DO understand the material. Not on everything, but certainly on a lot of things that are constantly brought into contention at the fringes of science and in the policy debate.

This is the "consensus" that you folk are so busy trying to muddle.

Like many of our opposition, you are a nice fellow. Indeed, we are getting quite grumpy while some of you are having a great time. So you may on the whole be nicer than we are by now.

But you are still wrong, and it is still a duck.

E pur si, fatte quaqua come un'anatra.

As for not rocking the boat with huge systems we understand imperfectly, well, yeah. That's the point, you know.

Padraig Tomas said...


I'll have a go at explaining to the best of my understanding what I take away from Michael's phrase, "single-valued scalar."

The short answer is that this means that there is not a linear response to increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in terms of increased surface temperature. What is more the increase in heat in the Earth system is not linear.

What is of more interest is the question of where the increase in heat goes. Or to look at the subject from another dirrection we could ask the question, where does the heat in the Earth system go even if we had not modified the atmosphere. Even if the make up of the atmosphere remained static and the energy from the sun were completely and consistently constant we would still have changes on all time scales.

The energy of the sun does not simply warm the water, land, and atmosphere. That is taking the mass of the oceans, the land, and the mass of the atmosphere and dividing the incomming heat amongst these three things while accounting for the rate of heat flow by means of conduction does not tell the whole story. There are convective flows of heat in the oceans and the atmosphere.

Wind and weather, ocean currents, and large scale cyclic weather patterns such as the El Nino and La Nina all play their part in determining regional and hemisperic climate. The transport of heat in the oceans can and does make the job of accounting for the flow of heat more complicated.

An additional complication comes under the category of latent heat. With evaporation, sublimation, condensation, freezing and melting, heat is either released or absorbed. All of this makes answering the question of how surface temperatures change in the short term a great deal of fun.

It was a concern that we should take the time and money to enable a more complete measure of exactly where the heat goes to on short time scales that prompted the original comments in the stolen emails which have been so widely misunderstood.

A nice model to begin thinking about the subject is what I call the frozen treat in the microwave oven test. It is entirely possible to cook something up in a microwave oven and be left with something which can at the same time burn you and depending on where you bite into can also be partly frozen. None of this contradicts the fact that if you stuck the whole mess in a calorimeter you would be able to measure an increase in heat.

I hope all these ramblings shine some light for you.

I am sure someone else could do a better job and no doubt will.

King of the Road said...

David, at the risk of going from being silent and thought a fool to writing and leaving no doubt I'll take a stab at this from the point of view of a reasonably well-educated person who is conversant with mathematics and college level physics, but most assuredly not a scientist.

I've not read the literature Michael cites. But it's clear that he's pointing out the false dichotomy in your contention that "if change is happening and it's not warming then it must be cooling." His reference to a scalar is meant to say that the state of the climate cannot be sufficiently characterized by the single number "temperature."

He is talking about an imbalance such that more of the radiative energy provided by insolation remains in the earth/ocean/atmosphere system. This additional energy can manifest in multiple ways, not merely "if the atmosphere ain't warming it must be cooling, since we agree something is changing."

As I stated, I'm no scientist but like the kid with the barometer I can think of lots of alternatives. Just for starters: melting ice; increase in ocean temperatures; increase in ocean movement; increased atmospheric movement (wind); some sort of chemical storage (e.g., increased plant growth).

All of these are "energy repositories," I have no idea which, if any, may be the one or ones "absorbing" the energy re-radiated and I would imagine that all of them interact in extremely complex ways. It's Trenberth's frustration that the instrumentation in place doesn't allow him to know either. But it's clearly insufficient to say "temperature hasn't been rising (though in any reasonably selected time period it has, but still...) so the imbalance doesn't exist.

Michael, please don't grade the exercise, thanks.

Michael Tobis said...

King of the Road was much closer to what I was thinking than Patrick.

Calling the problem "global warming" has always been a mistake. The problem is anthropogenic climate change. If we push the system hard enough it will start acting differently. The way we expect it to happen is warming. The thing we are most sure of is it will stop acting anything like what we are used to.

Warming is a very likely outcome. Nothing much happening is simply impossible.

Anonymous said...

Patrick and KotR,
at last people who speak my language - but don't tell the Headmaster I said so, he'll only get in a fearful strop and give me extra homework!

If the sceptics have achieved anything over the last decade or so it is in forcing the very gradual, and in some cases grudging, admission from the 'warmers' that the whole climate system is immensely, head-achingly complex, bordering on, if not already into, the mathematics of chaos.

I must ask, honestly, did people like Mann 'et al' ever attempt to explain these complexities to their political lobby and through them to the people? No, it was always and only warming, warming, warming. And it was that simplistic obduracy that turned me, an almost total scientific ignoramus, into a sceptic, because whilst I don't know anything about Bjerknes or Charney I do know just enough to recognise a dynamic system when I trip over it, and more important, I do know the inherent 'unknowability' of the outcomes!

I am very happy, nay, delighted and fascinated to try and follow a humble investigation into the great mysteries of our climate just so long as the hysterics don't insist on bossing me around before any definite conclusions have been reached. I do try and read widely on this subject despite being unable to follow the details, certainly I read well enough to understand an abstract - and I have lost count of the numbers I have read which contradict each other.

Humility, Michael, humility!

David Duff