Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


My experience with Rahmstorf’s non-linear trend line

July 20, 2009

One of the original impetuses for me to start blogging was my experience with Stefan Rahmstorf concerning his 2007 paper “A Semi-Empirical Approach to Projecting Future Sea-Level Rise” (Science, 315, 2007).  I posted a several part critique on my old blogspot site, which I later ported over to this wordpress site. 

But this was only part of the story.  I  have decided to tell the rest of the story after reading “The Secret of the Rahmstorf ‘Non-Linear Trend Line’” at Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit

Rahmstorf’s sea-level rise paper was based on plotting 120 years worth of sea -level rise rates vs each year’s corresponding global temperature.  Since both of these sets of data are quite noisy, Rahmstorf said ” Both temperature and sea-level curves were smoothed by computing nonlinear trend lines with an embedding period of 15 years.”

Rahmstorf referenced “New Tools for Analyzing Time Series Relationships and Trends” by Moore, et. al. (Eos, 86, 2005) for his nonlinear trend line smoothing technique.  This short paper refers to a variety of techniques for handling time series, including varieties of wavelet analysis and spectrum analysis.  The Moore paper invested several paragraphs on the use of Monte Carlo Single Spectrum Analysis for finding nonlinear trends in sea level and sea temperature, with the reader referred to a variety of  other papers to get the details. 

I waded hip deep into these papers  to get a handle on this new “nonlinear trend line” technique that led Rahmstorf to his startling projection of a huge sea level rise over this century.  I shouldn’t have wasted my time.  I found that I could essentially reproduce his results in an Excel spreadsheet by simply smoothing the original sea-level and temperature data with a 15 year FWHM Gaussian filter. 

Here is Rahmstorf’s sea-level rise rate vs. temperature after his nonlinear trend line smoothing and 5 year binning, followed by my sea-level rise rate vs. temperature after my 15 year FWHM Gaussian smoothing and 5 year binning, and finally, my version of the data without binning.

Rahmstorf's sea level rise vs T

Moriarty's sea level rise vs T binned

Moriarty's sea level rise vs T not binned

Rahmstorf binned his 120 data points into 24 bins containing 5 points each.   The binning was not needed to  remove noise that obfuscated his salient point – the data had already been smoothed through his non-linear trend line technique.     The binning could not be justified by claiming that it somehow made the plot of sea level rise rate vs temperature easier to read.  It actually reduced the amount of information to the reader by removing obvious real structure in the data.

I believe that Rahmstorf deliberately presented his data in a way calculated to deceive.  These are harsh words, and I say them with regret.

The only plausible reason that I can come up with for binning the 120 data points into 24 bins is because the resulting 24 points looked like they could conceivably be fit to a line without failing the laugh test.  Seeing the original 120 smoothed data points made it perfectly clear that there was not a linear relationship between the sea-level rise rate  and the temperature.  The full set of 120 data points also make it clear that when the temperature remains constant the sea level rise rate drops, in direct contradiction of one of Rahmstorf’s own working assumptions.

It turned out that Rahmstorf’s startling conclusion about extreme sea-level rise had nothing to do with any new sophisticated data analysis techniques for deriving nonlinear trend lines.  I got the same results as him using a simple spreadsheet.  Rather, his startling results came from his bogus interpretation.  Specifically, here are the three problems I identified:

1) The assumption that the time required to arrive at the new equilibrium is “on the order or millennia” is not borne out by the data. More…

2) Sea level rise rate vs. temperature is displayed in a way that erroneously implies that it is well fit to a line.  More…

3) Rahmstorf extrapolates out more than five times the measured temperature domain. More…

Rahmstorf’s code and peer review

In the midst of my wandering through a mathematical labyrinth to reproduce Rahmstorf’s results, before my simple excel spreadsheet approach, I asked Rahmstorf several questions via email.  Amazingly, he offered to send me his code, to which I happily accepted.  Here is what he said when he sent it (emphasis added by me):

From: Stefan Rahmstorf [mailto:rahmstorf@xxxxxxxxxxxx.xx]
Sent: Monday, August 20, 2007 13:20
To: Moriarty, Tom
Subject: Science paper

Dear Tom, see attached. Please report any issues you encounter, you are the first outside person to test this code.

Cheers, Stefan

Stefan Rahmstorf

So, the punchline is that although his data and results had been published a half a year before in the journal Science,  the highly regarded, unassailable, peer reviewed pinnacle of scientific research , I was “the first outside person to test his code.”

Again, I offer this harsh criticsm with regret, because Rahmstorf was, after all, kind enough to send me his code.


More on Thermohaline Circulation

June 16, 2009

In a previous post “The Thermohaline Circulation Only Stops for Extreme, Unrealistic Models,” I compared the amount of fresh water used in “hosing experiment” models to drastically reduce the thermohaline circulation (THC, or Meridional Overturning Circulation, MOC) to the amount of water flowing over Niagara Falls, or flowing from all rivers into the Arctic,  or coming off of Greenland due to melting ice.

The key number was one Sverdrup, or 1 million cubic meters of fresh water per second.  One Sverdrup of fresh water artificially dumped into the Labrador sea, for 100 years would have the feared effect.  But it turns out that one Sverdrup of fresh water is 350 times the amount of water flowing over Niagara falls, and about 300 times the amount of water from melting ice that flows off of Greenland.  It was seen that there is not plausible source for this amount of extra fresh water to be dumped into the arctic.

An interesting letter that appeared in Science a year ago gives a little more perspective,  So I have reproduced it in full here:

Freshwater Forcing: Will History Repeat Itself?

IN THEIR RESEARCH ARTICLE “REDUCED North Atlantic deep water coeval with the glacial Lake Agassiz freshwater outburst” (4 January, p. 60), H. F. Kleiven et al. present compelling evidence for an abrupt deep-ocean response to the release of freshwater from glacial Lake Agassiz into the northwest Atlantic about 8400 years ago. Such data are particularly important in evaluating the response in ocean models of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (MOC) to freshwater forcing. For this event, the freshwater forcing was likely large but short; Clarke et al. (1) estimate that the flood had a freshwater flux of 4 to 9 Sv [Sverdrups] released in 0.5 years.

In this context, we are aware of no possible mechanism that might reproduce such a forcing in response to global warming, and all available model simulations, including those with estimates of maximum Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) melting rates, indicate that it is very unlikely that the MOC will undergo an abrupt transition during the course of the 21st century (2). Multimodel ensemble averages under Special Report on Emissions Scenario (SRES) A1B suggest a best estimate of 25 to 30% reduction in the overall MOC strength (2). In one example, 14 coupled models simulated a 100-year 0.1-Sv freshwater perturbation to the northern North Atlantic Ocean—17 times the recently estimated melt rates from the GIS [Greenland Ice Sheet]—and the MOC weakened by a multimodel mean of 30% after 100 years; none of the models simulated a shutdown (3). Another model simulated greenhouse gas levels that increased to four times preindustrial values and then remained fixed; the resulting GIS displayed a peak melting rate of about 0.1 Sv, with little effect on the MOC (4). One model simulation uses the SRES  freshwater forcing as an upper-bound estimate of potential GIS melting. In this case, the MOC weakened but subsequently recovered its strength, indicating that GIS melting would not cause abrupt climate change in the 21st century (5). Accordingly, we urge caution in drawing comparisons of the abrupt change 8400 years ago to future scenarios involving, for example, the melting of the GIS and its relevance to human societies.

1Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA.
2Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory/NOAA, Princeton, NJ 08542, USA.
3School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC V8W 3P6, Canada.

1. G. K. C. Clarke, D. W. Leverington, J. T. Teller, A. S. Dyke, Quat. Sci. Rev. 23, 389 (2004).
2. G. A Meehl et al., in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, S. Solomon et al., Eds. (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 2007), pp. 747–845.
3. R. J. Stouffer et al., J. Clim. 19, 1365 (2006).
4. J. K. Ridley, P. Huybrechts, J. M. Gregory, J. A. Lowe, J. Clim. 17, 3409 (2005).
5. J. H. Jungclaus, H. Haak, M. Esch, E. Roeckner, J. Marotzke, Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, 10.1029/2006GL026815 (2006).

So, the event that occurred 8400 years ago involved 4 to 9 Sverdrups of fresh water.  This is THOUSANDS of times greater than the flow of the Niagara Falls today.  It is THOUSANDS of times greater than the amount of fresh water flowing from melting Greenland ice today. It is multiples bigger than the entire fresh water budget into the Arctic.

Note that in my previous post I referred to hosing experiments that pumped up to one Sverdrup of fresh water into the oceans.   The authors of the above letter refer to hosing experiments that used only 0.1 Sverdrups – yet they still point out how gigantic this is compared to actual sources of fresh water in the Arctic today.

So, when Al Gore ominously implies that that the Greenland Ice Sheet [GIS] is going to melt down and dump enough fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean to shut down the Thermohaline Circulation, remember the works of Clarke,, in the above letter: “we urge caution in drawing comparisons of the abrupt change 8400 years ago to future scenarios involving, for example, the melting of the GIS [Greenland Ice Sheet] and its relevance to human societies.”


Reply to John Mashey

May 27, 2009

I recently had an exchange of comments with some folks at Millard Filmore’s Bathtub concerning one of my previous posts about sea level rise near Boston.  The discussion seemed to really strike a nerve with alarmist nag John Mashey.  He scolded me with the following comment- you can almost see him wagging his finger:

Mashey’s comment

Mr Moriarity’s views on SLR at this time are simply not worth reading, for reasons I will explain.

NOAA collects the data, but the past is not the future. For very good scientific reasons, NOBODY serious about climate science does a simple linear projection of last century’s trendline into the next one, unlike Mr. Moriarty’s suggestion.

That would be about as silly as claiming solar PV [invented where I used to work] scientists should already be getting 100% efficiency.

Within ~30 minutes’ of Tom’s NRELare places thick with expert climate scientists, which makes him one of the lucky people who can easily go talk to experts:

UC Boulder

I’m a AAASmember: I did a quick search of Science (An adequately prestigious journal) for “sea level rise”, and from the first hit page picked out a few recent SLR articles by Colorado authors, all of which I’d already read, along with the relevant IPCC TAR and AR4 chapters, etc, etc. (*I’m* no SLR expert, but I often talk to people who are. )

Mr. Moriarty has strong views on SLR, and surely is a AAAS member and has read these papers, all of whom think SLR will be a serious (acclerating) problem. He *could* write an article for Science showing them wrong, which would make him (properly) famous, given the mass of physics that would haveto be overturned to preserve a simple linear trend.

See How Much More Global Warming and Sea Level Rise?, 2005, 8 authors from NCAR.

See Paleoclimatic Evidence for Future Ice-Sheet Instability and Rapid Sea-Level Rise”, 2006, of whose 6 authors, 2 are at NCAR,1 at UC-Boulder, and 1 at USGS-Denver.

See Glaciers Dominate Eustatic Sea-Level Rise in the 21st Century”>,2007, of whose 8 authors, 5 are at UC Boulder.Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-Century Sea-Level Rise, 2008, of whose 3 authors one is at UC-Boulder.

See “On the basis of calculations presented here, we suggest that an improved estimate of the range of SLR to 2100 including increased ice dynamics lies between 0.8 and 2.0 m.”

(That’s probably as good a single estimate as you get right now. People are trying to model melt dynamics for places that have been frozen through recorded human history, complexified by various nonlinear effects, tipping points, etc. Ice-sheet issues are *hard*.)

NCAR says Community Ice Sheet Model Will Aid Understanding of Sea Level Rise.

“Scientists think that this mechanism might trigger the rapid retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – which could raise sea level by a meter or more within a century or less.”

See Dan Cayan (SCRIPPS)talk @ SFBCDCconference a year ago. This was not news,but right in line with mainstream science.

Specifically, see p 18-19, noting that some of the models are from NCAR. I used to sell supercomputers to NCAR and talk to their scientists. They are quite competent.

NCAR and USGS (and some of UCBoulder) are Federally-funded to do good science for us all. If Mr. Moriarty denigrates *their* work, he might want to think about the fact that most of *his* career has been supported by *Federal* tax money.

That’s money from me and the companies I’ve worked for. My home state (CA) since 1983 is far and away the biggest *net* contributor to the Federal budget, and none of NCAR, NREL, Fermilab, or Argonne are here, but we helped pay for them. [And this is OK with me, since I like to think America is a *country*, not just a collection of independent states; all those labs have made good contributions.]

NCAR has regular lectures. So does UC-BOulder’s NSIDC.

If Mr. Moriarty actually wants to learn about the science, he has *real* experts nearby to visit, often.

I’m done.

My reply

John thanks for the thoughtful comment.  I hope you have had a chance to wind down get off your high horse during the holiday weekend.

Congratulations on being a AAAS member.  So am I.  And so are 120,000 other people.  For those of you who are impressed by John’s membership in the AAAS, let me fill you in on the strict requirements for membership.  Send a check – then you are a member. 

Oh, by the way, thanks for inventing solar PV, I guess without you I wouldn’t have a job.

Let’s talk about the papers you cited: 

#1  How Much More Global Warming and Sea Level Rise?  Science 18 March 2005: Vol. 307. no. 5716, pp. 1769 – 1772. 

John, did you actually read this paper?  Meehl, et. al., consider three possible scenarios from the Special Report for Emissions Scenarios (SRES).  Specifically, scenarios B1, A1B, and A2.  They ran two models on each of these scenarios. Here is what they found for 21st century steric sea level rise:

Low range scenario B1, model PCM: 13 cm

Low range scenario B1, model CCSM3: 18 cm

Low range scenario A1B, model PCM: 18 cm

Low range scenario A1B, model CCSM3: 25 cm

Low range scenario A2, model PCM: 19 cm

Low range scenario A2, model CCSM3: 30 cm

Let me translate that:  Under their worst case scenario and their most sensitive model you get 30 cm (12 inches) by 2100  Wow – pretty scary.  Note that the map at  “Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the California Coast,” which I mentioned in my earlier comment to alleviate your fear of the west coast going under water, and in which you need to zoom way, way in to even find the affected areas, were based on a much greater 140 cm (56 inch) sea level rise by 2100.

So John, why did you cite this paper.  Let me guess: You read the abstract and saw the words “additional 320% sea level rise.”  But you didn’t actually read the article, did you? These numbers don’t exactly fit the alarmists’ (Gore and Hansen for example) picture of cities under water by the end of the century.

#2  Paleoclimatic Evidence for Future Ice-Sheet Instability and Rapid Sea-Level Rise , 24 March 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5768, pp. 1747 – 1750

This paper has a preposterous flaw.  It assumes a 1% yearly increase in atmospheric CO2 levels for the 21st century.  That sounds pretty innocuous – “What’s the problem with the assumption of a 1% increase?”, you might ask.  The problem is that the actual increase is about 0.5% per year.  Check this yourself here.  (By the way, John, that’s a NOAA website.  NOAAis one of those entities with labs in Boulder that you imply I have never heard of.)  This 0.5% trend has been fairly consistent for decades.  You can get the raw data from Mauna Loa, take the derivative, even take the second derivative, and see that 1% is preposterous. 

You might say “Big deal, 0.5% or 1%, what’s the difference.”  This is like a compound interest problem.  Take 1.005 to the 100th power (0.5% increase for 100 years) on one of your super computers, then take 1.01 to the 100th power (1% increase for 100 years).  The rest of you readers can simply try this on your desktop scientific calculator.  See the difference?  Pretty big, isn’t it?

Here is a paper that you seem to have overlooked in your comprehensive literature search: An overview of results from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, Covey, et. al., Global and Planetary Change, Vol 37, 2003. 

Covey et. al. write about the same 1% per year CO2 increase, but warned “The rate of radiative forcing increase implied by 1% per year increasing CO2 is nearly a factor of two greater than the actual anthropogenic forcing in recent decades, even if non-CO2 greenhouse gases are added in as part of an “equivalent CO2 forcing” and anthropogenic aerosols are ignored.”  They conclude that this 1% “ increasing-CO2 scenario cannot be considered as realistic for purposes of comparing predicted and observed climate changes during the past century.”

#3  Glaciers Dominate Eustatic Sea-Level Rise in the 21st Century, Meier, et. al., Science, 24 August, 2007, Vol 317, 1064-1067

Meier, et. al, calculated a 560 mm rise in sea level due to melting ice by 2100 based on an accelerating rate of global ice melting.   They managed to concluded that the amount of ice melting each year had been, on the average, 32 Gigatonnes (Gt) greater than the previous year from 1995 to 2005.  They simply extrapolated this yearly 32 Gt increase out to 2100.   A 32 Gt yearly increase in the amount of global ice that melts each year, over the 10 year period from 1995 to 2005, would mean 320 Gt more ice was melting in 2005 that in 1995.  That translates into a sea level rise rate in 2005 that must have been 0.9 mm greater than the sea level rise rate in 1995 (320 Gt/year x  2.7 microns/Gt  = 0.9 mm/year).

But we have very good sea level rise data that covers the period from 1995 to 2005.  And John, you will be delighted to know that this data is maintained by the University of Colorado, in Boulder.

sea level rise

Take a good look.  Note that the sea level rises a rate of 3.2 mm per year from 1995 to 2005 as indicated by the line fit and the notation in the bottom right corner.  It does not start out at 3.2 mm per year in 1995 and go to 4.1 mm per year (3.2 mm/year + 0.9 mm/year) by 2005.  The rise rate clearly does not increase by 0.9 mm per year over that period of time. 

What should have happened by 2009?  Well, according to Meier the global rate at which water was added to the oceans should have continued increasing by an additional 32 Gt/year and therefore there should be 448 Gt { (2009 – 1995) x 32 Gt/year = 448 Gt/year) } more water added to the oceans per year in 2009 than in 1995.  That translates into a rise rate that is 1.2 mm/year greater in 2005 than in 1995.  If the slope of the line fit in the above graph were actually 3.2 mm/year in 1995, then by Meier’s logic it should have been 4.4 mm/year by 2009.  However, the graph clearly shows that, if anything, the rise rate is less in 2009 than in 1995.

Please feel free to actually read the paper by Meier, et. al.  Please examine their source of data and their data reduction.  Here is a nice sample of how they determined that the amount of ice melting from glaciers and ice caps (as opposed to ice melting form the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets) is increasing:

 Figure 1 from Meier

They took a scattered set of Meier’s own data, showing the melting rate of glaciers and ice caps, and fit it to a line.  It is traditional to give some numerical indication of the quality of a line fit.  In this case Meier chose not to provide such an indication.  So I digitized his data and did it for him: the r-squared value of this data is less than a dismal 0.1.  They found the slope of the line to be 11.9 Gt/year/year and thus concluded that for each year between 1995 and 2005 the glaciers and ice caps were losing 11.9 Gt more ice than the previous year.  Then they extrapolated that rate out another 95 years.  To extrapolate a function out 10 times the actual data’s domain is risky under any circumstances.  When the data is this scattered as this, it is just plain silly. 

They then undertook equally rigorous analysis of ice changes from the Greenland ice sheet, the West Antarctic ice sheet and the East Antarctic ice sheet, added the results together and came up with their 32 Gt/year/year acceleration rate.

#4.  Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-Century Sea-Level Rise, Pfeffer, et. al., Science, 5 September 2008, Vol. 321. no. 5894, pp. 1340 – 1343

To their credit, Pfeffer et. al., work in this paper to put an upper limit on the sea level rise by 2100.  This immediately separates them from the wildest alarmists like Al Gore and James Hansen.  Their conclusion is the maximum sea level rise by 2100 is 2 meters.  But they say in the abstract “More plausible but still accelerated conditions lead to total sea-level rise by 2100 of about 0.8 meter.”  This is still quite high and apparently caught your eye, right John?

But what must happen for this 0.8 meter sea level rise?  Pfeffer et. al., use the following logic:

“Rapid, dynamically unstable discharge of ice through calving is restricted to glaciers with beds based below sea level. We identified and calculated the aggregate cross-sectionalarea of Greenland’s marine- terminating outletglaciers by using surface and bed topography (16) and measured ice velocities (5) to identify all potential pathways for rapid discharge, including channels presently flowing rapidly as well as potentially unstable channels (Fig. 1 and table S1). Cross-sectionalareas (gates) for each outlet were calculated at the point of greatest lateral constriction by bedrock in the glacier’s marine-based reach. Ice stream widths in Antarctica can vary in time, but for Greenland outlet glaciers cross-sectional areas are constrained almost entirely by bedrock topography. Of the 290 km2 total aggregate gate cross-sectional area, we identified 170 km2 as the aggregate marine based gate area where drainage to the ocean is not blocked by near coastalsills standing above present day sea level. All dynamic discharge (Table 2) must pass through these gates by 2100 to meet2- to 5-m SLR targets. We considered four scenarios: velocities were calculated for both the “marine based” gate (170 km2) and the “total aggregate” gate (290 km2) given both projected SMB and 10× inflated SMB losses. We then considered whether those velocities are realistic.”

They note that “The present-day average velocity of all Greenland outlet glaciers is 0.56 km/year when weighted by drainage basin area or 1.23 km/year when weighted by gate cross-sectional area.”  For the large sea level rises that they consider, these velocities must increase.  If we just look at the case that requires the smallest velocity increase to reach 2 meters of sea level rise by 2100 (i.e. the case that most favors your argument), then Pfeffer reports that the velocity for the discharge gates must go up to at least 26.8 km/year.

And they don’t say that this velocity must be achieved after 100 years of a slow acceleration.  Rather, they say “These velocities must be achieved immediately on all outlets considered and held at that level until 2100. Delays in the onset of rapid motion increase the required velocity further”

As you can see, the 2 meter rise requires the glacier velocity at the discharge gates to increase by at least a factor of 22. Right Now. Today. And then remain at that extraordinary velocity until 2100, winter, spring, summer and fall.

Here are some statements from the paper concerning their own velocity calculations: “The scenario velocities far exceed the fastest motion exhibited by any Greenland outlet glacier.”  “A comparison of calculated (Table 2) and observed (1.23 km/year) average velocities shows that calculated values for a 2-m SLR [sea level rise] exceed observations by a factor of 22 when considering all gates and inflated SMB and by a factor of 40 for the marine gates without inflated SMB [surface mass balance], which we consider to be the more likely scenario.”  “Although no physicalproof is offered that the velocities given in Table 2 cannot be reached or maintained over century time scales, such behavior lies far beyond the range of observations and at the least should not be adopted as a central working hypothesis.”

By extension, the glaciers would have to increase velocity by a factor of 9, today, right now,  and continue at that rate until 2100 to achieve the 0.8 meters. 

What would cause the glaciers to increase their velocity to such an extent?  The going theory at the time the Pfeffer paper was written was that melting water would make its way to the bottom of the glaciers and lubricate their motion to the sea.  Even Al Gore talks about this in his famous “An Inconvenient Truth.”  But data subsequent to the Pfeffer paper have shown that not to be the case. “Large and Rapid Melt-Induced Velocity Changes in the Ablation Zone of the Greenland Ice Sheet,”  R. S. W. van de Wal, et al., Science 321, 111 (2008).

Van de Wal, et. al., note:

Here, we present ice velocity measurements from the major ablation area along the western of the ice sheet. The data set contains simultaneous measurements of ice velocity and ablation rates, which makes it possible to study the relation between ice velocity and meltwater input on longer (>5 years) and shorter (~1 day) time scales…

Annually averaged velocities are completely decorrelated to the annual mass balance, whereas a correlation might be expected if there is a strong feedback between velocities and melt rate, leading to enhanced flow, surface lowering, and increased melt rates…

In earlier work (4, 7), it has been suggested that the interaction between meltwater production and ice velocity provides a positive feedback, leading to a more rapid and stronger response of the ice sheet to climate warming than hitherto assumed. Our results are not quite in line with this view. We did not observe a correlation between annual ablation rate and annual ice velocities. Ice velocities respond fast to changes in ablation rate on a weekly time scale. However, on a longer time scale, the internal drainage system seems to adjust to the increased meltwater input in such a way that annual velocities remain fairly constant. In our view, the annual velocities in this part of the ice sheet respond slowly to changes in ice thickness and surface slope.

So, it looks like you will have to live with the disappointing news that the planet is not doomed by rapid sea level rise after all.  And your approval for grand plans to save places like Boston and San Francisco may not be needed.  Don’t lose hope though, with any luck the planet will be threatened by a giant meteor and the services of your brilliant mind will be needed after all.


“Warmer Oceans, Stronger Hurricanes,” Trenberth, Scientific American, July 2007

October 1, 2007

Hyperbole comes in many forms. This article in Scientific American came with a full page artist’s rendering of a “future hurricane.” I have shown a very small (to avoid copyright lawyers) copy of the picture below, with a blow up of one section. The caption for the picture in the magazine says “Future hurricanes could be more severe thanks to global warming.” The blow up shows a giant hurricane bearing down on the Caribbean and the East coast of the United States

Figure 1. The small picture at the left is a miniature version of the 8 inch by 11 inch full page artist’s rendering of a “future hurricane” form page 44 of the July 2007 Scientific American. The right side shows a blow up of part of the picture.

The very first paragraph of the article reminds the reader of the 2005 hurricane season and, of course, Katrina. So, I use a pair of pictures below to compare Katrina to the imagined “future hurricane.” The first is a satellite image of Katrina shortly before it made landfall near New Orleans. The second is a detail of the Scientific American picture. Note that the sizes of the images have been adjusted to give the same scale.

Figure 2. Detail of Scientific American picture of “future hurricane” with same scale as image of Hurricane Katrina in figure 3,below.

Figures 3. Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina just hours before making landfall at New Orleans. This image is on the same scale at the artist rendering of a “future hurricane” in figure 2, above.

Figure 4. Juxtaposition of the Scientific American “future hurricane” and the very real Katrina from the satellite image. I have removed land masses from both pictures. Both pictures are on the same scale, as in figures 2 & 3.

Scientific American’s “future hurricane” is bigger than the continent of North America. It is so big that it stretches from northern Brazil to southern Canada. It is as large as the North Atlantic Ocean. This is clearly extreme visual hyperbole, but it is also a metaphor for much of the global warming debate, where preposterous exaggerations and extrapolations abound.

Those who are convinced that we are headed for a future of giant hurricanes due to increased CO2 might consider the following journal articles to mitigate the effects of the seemingly endless fear mongering so common in the global warming debate:

1. In Low Atlantic hurricane activity in the 1970s and1980s compared to the past 270 years, Nyberg, et. al., point out that “reliable observations of hurricane activity in the North Atlantic only cover the past few decades.” It is not possible to say, based on this short set of data, if the variation that has been seen during these few decades is greater than should be expected over longer time scales. However, they developed a proxy for both sea surface temperature and vertical wind shear covering 270 years. (Vertical wind shear is inversely related to hurricane formation). The result shows that “the average frequency of major hurricanes decreased gradually from the 1760s until the early 1990s, reaching anomalously low values during the 1970s and 1980s.” It seems clear that the upswing in hurricane activity seen from the beginning of the satellite era to the present is largely a consequence of the beginning of the satellite era being at the low point of hurricane activity for the last 270 years.

2. The article in Nature, Intense hurricane activity over the past 5,000 years controlled by El Nin˜o and the West African monsoon,” by Donnelly and Woodruff of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts echos the concern that “the instrumental record is too short and unreliable to reveal trends in intense tropical cyclone activity.” To overcome these limitations they used sediment deposits in coastal lagoons of the Caribbean to gauge hurricane activity on the century and millennial time scales over a 5000 year period. They found the frequency of intense hurricanes varied widely on these time scales during the past 5,000 years and that the frequency appears to be governed by the El Nin˜o/Southern Oscillation and the strength of the West African monsoon.” Additionally, ” sea surface temperatures as high as at present are not necessary to support intervals of frequent intense hurricanes.”

3. The short instrumental record of hurricane activity was a motivation for Miller, et. al. in their 2006 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper, “Tree-ring isotope records of tropical cyclone activity.” As trees grow, the oxygen isotope ratios of the water at that place and time are locked into their rings. It is also known that the precipitation of tropical cyclones and hurricanes have oxygen isotope ratios that are greatly different that more common causes of precipitation. Miller, et. al., examined long leaf pines (pinus pulustris) in Georgia because they have shallow roots and a distinct early season growth and late season growth in their rings. these combine to give a precise temporal fix on isotope ratio variation. Their study covered 1770 to 1990. Their analysis of the tree ring oxygen isotope data shows very close agreement with the instrumental data for the southeastern United States after 1940, verifying the efficacy of their method for earlier times. The overall results indicate “systematic, decadal- to multidecadal-scale variations” in the isotope ratios, and consequently variations in the number of hurricanes. Hurricane activity appears to have peaked in the 1770s, 1800s to 1820s, 1840s and 1850s, 1865 to 1880, and the 1940s to 1950s. The quietest decades are the 1780s through 1790s, and the 1970s. The 1970s saw the beginning of satellite tracking of hurricanes. The fact that there has been an upswing in hurricanes in the satellite record is much less alarming when you consider that the 1970s was one of the least active decades (at least for the southeastern United States) in over 200 years.

Kevin E. Trenberth, “Warmer Oceans, Stronger Hurricanes,” Scientific American, July 2007, p44-51. (Get copy here.)

Johan Nyberg, et. al., “Low Atlantic hurricane activity in the 1970s and 1980s compared to the past 270 years,” Science, Vol 447, 2007. (Get copy here.)

Jeffrey P. Donnelly & Jonathan D. Woodruff, “Intense hurricane activity over the past 5,000 years controlled by El Nin˜o and the West African monsoon,” Nature, Vol 447, 24 May 2007 (Get copy here.)

Dana L. Miller, et. al., “Tree-ring isotope records of tropical cyclone activity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS, Vol. 103, no. 39, September 26, 2006 (Get copy here.)


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