Climate Science for People Really in a Hurry

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2016 Update to our ’empirical unforced noise’ analysis

This is an update to our 2015 Scientific Reports paper: Comparing the model-simulated global warming signal to observations using empirical estimates of unforced noise. The paper used a novel statistical estimate of unforced variability that was derived from reconstructed and instrumental surface temperature records. We used our statistical estimate of unforced variability to aid in our interpretation of recently observed temperature variability (more info here).

Our paper used global temperature data through 2013 since that was the most recent year in the major global temperature datasets at the time that the paper was submitted. Below I update Figures 2 and 3 from the paper, incorporating the data from 2014-2016.


Figure 2 updated through 2016.


Figure 3 updated through 2016.

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Do ‘propagation of error’ calculations invalidate climate model projections of global warming?

My thoughts on claims made by Dr. Patrick Frank (SLAC) on the validity of climate model projections of global warming:


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2016 Global Temperature Update to Hansen’s 1981 Projection

It is always useful to check past predictions against eventual observations. Below is the NASA GISTEMP observed global temperature (updated through 2016) overlain on top of various projections of CO2-induced warming from calculations published in 1981 (Hansen et al. 1981). 2015 and 2016 are literally off of the chart. This does not imply higher equilibrium climate sensitivity than that represented by the dashed line (5.6C) because these calculations did not include the effects of anthropogenic increases in non-CO2 greenhouse gasses. There are a number of other important caveats to this juxtaposition like Hansen’s model not allowing for unforced/internal variability as well as differences between the assumed and actual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 ect. Nevertheless, it is an interesting comparison.


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2016 update of modeled vs. observed global temperature

NASA released their 2016 global mean surface temperature data today. With this datapoint in, observations are now above the average climate model value for this point in time (using 1986-2005 as the baseline):


This graphic uses the RCP 4.5 emissions scenario for the models but the divergence between RCP 4.5 and steeper emissions scenarios is not appreciable until the mid-21st century (see e.g. Figure 1 here).

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Why do climate models disagree on the size of global temperature variability?

We have published a new paper titled “Spread in the magnitude of climate model interdecadal global temperature variability traced to disagreements over high-latitude oceans“. Here is a brief summary:

Natural unforced variability in global mean surface air temperature (GMST) is of the same order of magnitude as current externally forced changes in GMST on decadal timescales. Thus, understanding the precise magnitude of unforced GMST variability is relevant for both the attribution of past climate changes to human causes as well to the prediction of climate change on policy-relevant timescales.

Climate models could be useful for estimating the true magnitude of unforced GMST variability provided that they more-or-less converge on the same answer. Unfortunately, current models show substantial disagreement on the magnitude of natural GMST variability, highlighting a key uncertainty in contemporary climate science. This large model spread must be narrowed in the future if we are to have confidence that models can be trusted to give useful insights on natural variability.

Since it is known that unforced GMST variability is heavily influenced by tropical Pacific surface temperatures, it might be tempting to suppose that the large inter-model spread in the simulated magnitude of GMST variability is due to model disagreement in the amount of simulated tropical Pacific variability. Perhaps surprisingly, our study shows that this is not the case and that the spread in the magnitude of model-simulated GMST variability is linked much more strongly to model disagreements over high-latitude oceans. Our findings suggesting that improving the simulation of air-sea interaction in these high-latitude ocean regions could narrow the range of simulated GMST variability, advance our fundamental understanding of natural variability, and appreciably improve our ability to forecast global warming on policy-relevant timescales.

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Video Summary of my PhD Dissertation


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What do historical temperature records tell us about natural variability in global temperature?

I have published an article, written for a general audience, summarizing the results of our 2015 Scientific Reports study.

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Cloud feedback necessary for a basin-scale AMO

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 7.49.04 PM

We have recently published a study in Geophysical Research Letters titled “The necessity of cloud feedback for a basin-scale Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation“.

The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) – a basin-scale coherent oscillation of sea surface temperatures over the North Atlantic – is thought be one of the climate system’s most important modes of natural variability, affecting everything from drought to hurricane activity to natural fluctuations in global temperature. Traditionally, the basin-scale AMO has been explained as a direct consequence of variability in the Atlantic Ocean’s meridional overturning circulation (AMOC). In contrast, our study identifies atmospheric processes; specifically cloud feedback, as a necessary component for the existence of a basin-scale AMO, thus amending the canonical view of the AMO as a signature directly and solely attributable to oceanic processes.

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The stability of unforced global temperature – In plain english

We have new published research that shows in detail why the earth’s temperature remains stable when it is not pushed by outside forcings. Below is a summary in plain english. For a more technical discussion see here.

  • The study is all about what climate does when it is not pushed by what we call external drivers
    • External drivers (or forcings) are things like changes in the amount of energy coming in from the sun or changes in the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
  • You might expect (and many people simply assume) that the climate should be stable when it is not pushed by these external drivers
    • What our study did was investigate this assumption in a lot of detail and it turns out its not quite so simple
  • Why is it not so simple? Many locations on earth experience positive feedbacks between temperature and absorbed energy. For example, if you have some natural warming where there is sea ice, you will melt some of the sea ice, melting the sea ice will cause more solar energy to be absorbed which will cause more warming and more melting. It turns out these types of positive feedbacks are working all over the surface of the planet.
  • So the question then becomes: If the Earth gets warmer naturally due to something like an El-Nino event, what’s stopping it from just continuing to warm? Can it cool itself back down? If so, how?
  • The study looks at this in detail and finds that some very interesting things are going on that allow that Earth to cool itself down after one of these unforced natural warming events:
    • It turns out that the earth naturally transports energy away from locations where there are positive feedbacks to locations where there are negative feedbacks.
    • Also the atmosphere rearranges clouds and water vapor in a way that allow much more energy to escape than we would expect otherwise.
  • These things are scientifically interesting but the bottom line that the general public should understand is that the earth is able to cool itself down after an unforced natural warming event like an el-Niño and thus in order for the earth to have sustained warming over multiple decades to a century, you need these external drivers (or forcings) like the increase in greenhouse gasses. This undermines the popular skeptic idea that the climate just drifts randomly from warm to cold and back again over many decades to centuries in an unpredictable manner.
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