Trends in the central tropical Pacific

Well, since we've been thinking about the tropical Pacific, here's a bit more to ponder. There is an ongoing discussion in the literature about whether global warming, particularly across the tropical Pacific, will look more like El Nino or La Nina. One way this has tended to shake out is that the atmospheric scientists seem to favor El Nino conditions as the world warms, but oceanographers tend to lean toward La Nina [Eos]. The truth of the matter is that in the past couple of years, this has been shown to be a false analogy; it seems like there is evidence that the atmospheric circulation is changing to look somewhat more like El Nino, but changes in the ocean act against some of these atmospheric effects, looking more like La Nina. In fact, as these arguments mature, it seems like the dynamics involved are not really related to the dynamics that control El Nino and La Nina cycles [Vecchi].

The apparent controversy, though, is too good not to glom onto, and many authors have used it as a construct to present results. This is fine except that it clouds the emerging picture of climate change in the tropical Pacific.

A new paper by Nurhati et al (2009) includes this El Nino/La Nina kind of argument to highlight new isotopic measurements of coral reefs in the central Pacific. The geochemical techniques are applied to coral at three central Pacific islands, and show monthly-resolved temperature and salinity records over the 20th Century. The bottom line seems to be that there are statistically significant linear trends toward fresher, warmer water around these islands. The authors say that these trends are more consistent with more El Nino-like conditions in the central Pacific, are similar to other estimates of temperature changes, and is in line with modeling studies showing decreased upwelling of deep water in a warming world. Only in the final paragraph do the authors finally reveal that this El Nino stuff shouldn't be taken too seriously,
... this analogy likely over-simplifies the complexity of tropical Pacific anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, any of a number of large-scale climate changes that are likely to occur in a greenhouse world might overwhelm or at the very least fundamentally reshape the expected impacts of an “El Niño-like” trend. ... In this regard, the prominent warming and freshening trends uncovered in the coral reconstructions undoubtedly represent a combination of dynamics that are fundamentally different than those associated with the ENSO phenomenon.


The delay tactics worked: no Copenhagen agreement in December

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise, but it is now official: Copenhagen will not be the venue for a binding international agreement to address climate change [NYTimes.com]. As we've seen over the past months, the negotiations that should have set up the terms of such an agreement have systematically unravelled. To make matters worse, the USA has squandered its opportunity to be a leader in this arena by failing to pass climate and energy legislation. This despite the Democratic Party being in control of both houses of Congress and the presidency.

As expected, a few people -- notably the administration -- are trying to put a more positive spin on this story [LATimes.com]. Some say the Copenhagen meeting could still lay the groundwork for a real agreement next year, others suggest that getting some "commitment" from India and China might help the Senate pass climate legislation in the next few months.

My commentary is unnecessary, but just to be blunt: this is an inexcusable state of affairs. While the other parties have similarly failed to step up and and become meaningful leaders, my own feeling is that the USA has lost its chance to make a significant move to curtail global warming in the coming decade. These delays are damning humanity and uncountable species to suffer through the effects of dangerous anthropogenic climate change.


The tropical ocean: more than just hurricanes

The Climate Prediction Center recently released a new El Nino Advisor [link]. The advisory says essentially that all indicators suggest that the current El Nino is still strengthening, and is expected to last through the winter and maybe into spring. It's likely, based on past El Nino events, that the largest anomalies of the tropical sea-surface temperature will happen some time in the next couple of months.

Recall that we knew this El Nino was forming last spring and summer, and that's why the Atlantic hurricane season was forecast to be relatively inactive. As we've seen, that forecast was pretty successful; we've only gotten up to "Ida" in the tropical storm names. The presence of El Nino conditions in the tropical Pacific ocean has effects that reach beyond hurricanes though, as this paragraph from the advisory lists:
Expected El Niño impacts during November 2009-January 2010 include enhanced precipitation over the central tropical Pacific Ocean and a continuation of drier-than-average conditions over Indonesia. For the contiguous United States, potential impacts include above-average precipitation for Florida, central and eastern Texas, and California, with below-average precipitation for parts of the Pacific Northwest. Above-average temperatures and below-average snowfall is most likely for the Northern Rockies, Northern Plains, and Upper Midwest, while below-average temperatures are expected for the southeastern states.

So those of you up north and in Seattle can probably expect relatively mild winters, which might not be bad news! Meanwhile, California is expected to have a wetter than normal year, which so far looks to be true. Some of these correlations aren't very robust, so you can't really count on them, but so far they seem to be holding.

It is also worth noting that the effects of the tropical oceans are not limited to this kind of El Nino action. There's a flip-side to the story, too, which has come to be called La Nina. This is the cold phase of the oscillation, when the eastern tropical pacific is a bit cooler than normal. An interesting side effect of La Nina conditions in the tropical Pacific ocean is that precipitation tends to decrease over the central part of the USA, especially Texas, but extending north into the upper midwest and also west through the southwest and California. The Pacific Northwest and much of the southeast experience extra precipitation. The crazy thing is that it isn't just a seasonal effect, but can be clearly seen at longer time scales. A new paper by McCrary and Randall (2009, link) examines this relationship in observations and climate models, confirming what I've just said on timescales of 6 years and longer. Much of the paper deals with comparing three leading climate models with the observed 20th Century droughts in the USA. While they find that the models do capture some aspects/statistics of long-term drought in the central USA, none of the models seems to convincingly capture the relationships between tropical ocean variability and precipitation seen in the observations.

Of course, the fact that the models struggle to establish these connections between the tropics and the extratropics does not come as a great surprise. A key challenge for these comprehensive climate models is to produce realistic patterns and cycles of El Nino and La Nina. One of the models in McCrary & Randall (2009) is the Community Climate System Model (v3.0), which is known to have an overly regular cycle of El Ninos, with a period of about 2 years. Along with this regular cycle, the observed connections with remote regions is underrepresented. (link) So when looking for longer-term variations, it's unlikely for CCSM to have realistic patterns. In this case, the CCSM's long-term droughts don't seem to be very connected to the tropical oceans at all. The other models have different problems, but do notably better at establishing at least some relationship between cool tropical Pacific surface temperatures and increased likelihood of drought conditions in the central USA.

A key point to emerge from this analysis is that the climate models only marginally represent long-term droughts, and without very convincing physical processes compared to the observations. This means that these models are not necessarily proper tools for studying the frequency of droughts in the future. This hasn't stopped people from doing just that, as the authors note. So if you come across stories about changes in drought, pay close attention to the methods used, and keep a skeptical view of the findings. In the meantime, climate models are now being developed that have much improved representations of El Nino and La Nina (see link above, e.g.), so the next generation of climate models may have more credible (and interesting) droughts. And if you're an optimist, they might even teach us something about how the future of the USA's grain belt will look, and if you are very optimistic, maybe they won't point toward perpetual Dust Bowl conditions in the future.


NCAR YouTube Channel

Well, I just learned that NCAR has a whole bunch of videos posted on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/ncarucar. These are videos about the research done at NCAR (and UCAR), basically aimed at the general public. Non-experts will probably gain some insight into climate science, while those of us in the field can look for people we know. Enjoy.


A terrible video you have to watch

Everything that this woman says is completely wrong. I'm amazed that someone can be so wrong in such a short span of time.

Did you watch it?

In case you were thinking, well, maybe some of that makes some sense, let me point out a potential "flaw" in her "argument."

She is making a claim that homeopathy is all about energy. As a refresher, remember that homeopathic treatments use some kind of natural agent to cure symptoms, but the application is a very dilute solution. So if onion is the agent, and I think it sometimes is in homeopathy, the homeopath will take an onion, grind it up and add it to water. But then they take that water, divide it into two, and add it to more water, and so on and so on. Eventually the solution is so dilute that there is no meaningful amount of onion in the water, so the homeopathic treatment is just water. I'm not exaggerating, either, go look it up. Anyway, the woman in the video tries to make sense of this because mass is energy, so in some sense she is saying that they are putting the energy of the onion into the water, so it doesn't matter if there is mass in there. She justifies this because the mass term in E = m*c^2 is very small. In fact, she says you can ignore the m because it is infinitesimal. Wah? Yes, she says this several times, including in her introduction, saying that all the matter in the universe could fit into a bowling ball. I'm not sure what that is supposed to mean, but I do know how to multiply.

Let's take the speed of light, c. Roughly, c is 300-million meters per second, c = 3*10^8 m/s. That's a big number. Now square it, c*c = 9*10^16 m^s/s2, and that is a really big number. No wonder that homeopath thinks we can just neglect the tiny little amount of matter in an onion, since this number is so big. Let's say we have a really large onion of 1 kg. Now how much energy does that mass turn into, well, 1kg*9*10^16 m^2/s^2 = 9*10^16 kgm^2/s^2, which is just 9*10^16 Joules, the SI unit of energy. Now, that sounds like a lot of energy, so it is fine to divide it into a lot of water, right, and spread that energetic wealth. So the homepath puts the pulverized onion into the water, then splits the water into two and adds water, and so on and so on. Eventually you find that the mass of onion in each drop of water is negligible, or infinitesimal, just like the homeopath said. So let's take a very tiny number for the mass, say 1 millionth of the original mass of the onion, so that much energy is actually E = 1kg/10000009*10^16 m^2/s^2 = 90 billion Joules. Still looks like a big number, but remember 1kg divided into a million pieces is still far more than infinitesimal, what about 1 billionth of a kilogram, well that'd be 90 million Joules, and 1 thousandth of a billionth of a kilogram would be 90,000 Joules, and a kilogram divided by the number of atoms in a mole (= 6.02*10^23) produces about 1.5*10^-7 Joules. Ah, there seems to be a trend. If you keep reducing the mass, the energy drops. Even way before you have a single atom per drop of water, you have a negligible amount of energy, despite the constancy of the speed of light.

Just to belabor the point, the homeopath is missing a fact of basic arithmetic. Multiplying a large number by a small number doesn't mean you get the large number. Spreading the onion's energy over a very large amount of water doesn't imbue the water with magical curative properties. You end up with water, plain and simple.

And I haven't even mentioned an essential physical error in her interpretation, namely that squishing an onion does not release the energy of the onion. You apply energy to the onion to break the bonds that hold it together. This does not convert mass to energy; for all practical purposes mass is conserved. Only when we deal with relativity does the Einstein's mass-energy equivalence come into play.

Homeopathy is bunk. At best it is a placebo, and at worst it convinces people to forego actual treatment, fork over their money to some snake-oil salesperson and not get better.


Updates on Kerry-Boxer in committee

Well, as expected, the republicans left the committee meeting yesterday, so no quorum could be established. There have been a lot of analogies thrown around, but I actually like Arlen Specter's statement the best: "We have a practice in the world's greatest deliberative body of disagreeing without being disagreeable. But you can't disagree with an empty chair." [link] Democrats appealed to the republicans to come to the meeting, but eventually the room emptied, and a stark scene emerged. Senator Barbara Boxer, alone in the room, waiting for republicans. From that WaPo story:
"I guess at this point I'm going to just sit here and wait till they show up," she said, consulting her watch. The hearing had begun three hours earlier.
"I will just sit here for a bit," she said later. "Talk among yourselves." Boxer checked her BlackBerry and rearranged her papers. C-SPAN filmed the empty seats. "Chairman Boxer (D-CA) is waiting for Republican members to come to this meeting," the network flashed on screen. After 15 minutes of silence, the lone senator in the room tapped the gavel. "We're going to stand in recess," she said.

On the plus side, the executive branch is strongly supporting legislation [link], which could buoy the process in some important ways. Mostly, I think that if Obama et al. can keep pushing on the Congress to get a bill passed, it will prevent the bill from dying in committee; something will get pushed through. We can only hope it happens soon, before Copenhagen if possible, since that would give the USA some bargaining power and a least a modicum of credibility.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, the Europeans are going through negotiations in the lead up to next month's meeting in Copenhagen [link]. It sounds like the Environment ministers are ready to take serious action,
Last week Europe toughened much of its stance further. Environment minsters agreed to slash the EU’s long-term emission reduction targets from 80 percent to 95 percent by 2050, if a deal is reached at Copenhagen, while retaining its relatively ambitious mid-term goal of a 20 percent cut by 2020, rising to 30 percent if other countries promise similar measures (both cuts use 1990 emissions levels as a baseline).

And they also resolved that aviation should cut its emissions by 10 percent, and shipping by 20 percent, by 2020, using 2005 levels as the baseline (both sectors have been exempted from the Kyoto Protocol). And the European ministers said they had decided on vigorous measures to tackle deforestation.

Unfortunately, they Environment ministers don't have power to negotiate the financial side of the deal, and that is where things are stalling out. If the EU can't get their own agreements settled, it is likely that the EU won't come into the Copenhagen meeting with any real power, which is likely to derail the whole proceeding.


Delay tactics

Well, while I've been neglecting the blog, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has been arguing over the Kerry-Boxer Climate legislation. From what I can tell [example link], the Republican committee members are trying to derail the legislative process. Essentially, they are threatening to just not go to their meeting, which would nominally mean that no rewriting or votes on the bill would be allowed since there wouldn't be a quorum present. Senator Boxer is saying that she hopes the R's will show up, but if they don't she might go ahead with a "different interpretation" of the rules. It is worth noting that the ranking R in this committee is James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a notorious climate denier of the worst ilk.