Uncharted Territory

January 23, 2016

Greater Interannual Seasonal Temperature Variability in a Warming World?

Filed under: Agriculture, Global climate trends, Global warming, Science, UK climate trends — Tim Joslin @ 5:42 pm

You attempt to use the correct scientific jargon and then realise that sometimes the English language is insufficiently precise.  What I mean by the title is to ask the important question as to whether, as global warming proceeds, we will see a greater variation between summers, winters, springs and autumns from year to year.  Or not.

My previous two posts used Central England Temperature (CET) record data to show how exceptional the temperatures were in December in 2010 (cold) and 2015 (warm) and highlighted two other recent exceptional months: March 2013 (cold) and April 2011 (warm).  I speculated that perhaps, relative to current mean temperatures for a given period, in these examples a calendar month, both hot and cold extreme weather conditions are becoming more extreme.

What prompted today’s follow-up post was an update from the venerable James Hansen, Global Temperature in 2015, to which a link appeared in my Inbox a few days ago.  This short paper documents how 2015 was by a fair margin globally the warmest year on record.  But it also includes a very interesting figure which seems to show increasingly greater variability in Northern Hemisphere summers and winters:

160120 More variable summer and winter temps

I’ve added a bit of annotation to emphasise that the bell curves for both summer and winter have widened and flattened. That is, not only have the mean summer and winter temperatures increased, so has the variance or standard deviation, to use the technical terms.

If true, this would be very concerning. If you’re trying to grow food and stuff, for example, it means you have to worry about a greater range of possible conditions from year to year than before, not just that it’s getting warmer.

I was about to suggest it might be time to panic. But then it occurred to me that there must surely have been some debate about this issue. And sure enough Google reveals that Hansen has written about variability before, and more explicitly, such as in a paper in 2012, titled Perception of climate change, which is free to download.  Hansen et al note “greater temperature variability in 1981-2010” compared to 1951-80.

Trouble is Hansen et al, 2012 was vigorously rebutted by a couple of Harvard boffs.  Andrew Rhines and Peter Huybers wrote to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where Hansen et al had published their paper, claiming that Frequent summer temperature extremes reflect changes in the mean, not the variance [my stress].  They attributed Hansen’s flattening bell curves were due to various statistical effects and asserted that mean summer and winter temperatures had increased, but not the standard deviation, and therefore the probability of relative extremes.

That left me pretty flummoxed, especially when I found that in Nature that another bunch of eminent climate scientists also claimed, No increase in global temperature variability despite changing regional patterns (Huntingford et al, Nature 500, p327–330, 15 August 2013).

Just so we’re clear, what the guys are saying is that as global warming proceeds – not even when we reach some kind of steady state – temperatures will just on average be shifted up by a certain amount.

I have to say I find this very difficult to believe, and indeed incompatible with the fact that some parts of the world (continental interiors, say) warm faster than others (deep oceans) and the observation that the wind blows in different directions at different times!

Furthermore we’ve just seen, between Decembers 2010 and 2015 in the  CET record, a much greater spread of temperatures than in any comparable period (actually in any period, period, but we’re concerned here with variability over a few years – less than a decade or two, say – when the climate has had little time to change) in the previous 350 years.  I take the liberty of reproducing the graph from my previous post:

160114 Dec 2015 related CET analysis slide 2a

December 2015 was 10C warmer than December 2010, 2C more than the range between December temperatures in any other era.

And I also recollect figures like this one, showing the freakishness of summer 2003 in Switzerland, where, like the UK, there is a long history of weather records:

160120 More variable summer and winter temps slide 2

This appears on the Climate Communication site, which shies away from any mention of increased variability.  But the original Nature paper in which it appeared, Schär et al, 2004 is very clear, and is even titled The role of increasing temperature variability in European summer heatwaves. The synopsis (which is all I can access – pay-wall) notes that:

Instrumental observations and reconstructions of global and hemispheric temperature evolution reveal a pronounced warming during the past approx 150 years. One expression of this warming is the observed increase in the occurrence of heatwaves. Conceptually this increase is understood as a shift of the statistical distribution towards warmer temperatures, while changes in the width of the distribution are often considered small. Here we show that this framework fails to explain the record-breaking central European summer temperatures in 2003, although it is consistent with observations from previous years. We find that an event like that of summer 2003 is statistically extremely unlikely, even when the observed warming is taken into account. We propose that a regime with an increased variability of temperatures (in addition to increases in mean temperature) may be able to account for summer 2003. To test this proposal, we simulate possible future European climate with a regional climate model in a scenario with increased atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations, and find that temperature variability increases by up to 100%, with maximum changes in central and eastern Europe. [My stress].

Hmm. Contradictory findings, scientific debate.

My money’s on an increase in variability. I’ll keep an eye on that CET data.

January 19, 2016

Two More Extreme UK Months: March 2013 and April 2011

Filed under: Effects, Global warming, Science, Sea ice, Snow cover, UK climate trends — Tim Joslin @ 7:17 pm

My previous post showed how December 2015 was not only the mildest on record in the Central England Temperature (CET) record, but also the mildest compared to recent and succeeding years, that is, compared to the 21 year running mean December temperature (though I had to extrapolate the 21-year running mean forward).

December 2010, though not quite the coldest UK December in the CET data, was the coldest compared to the running 21 year mean.

I speculated that global warming might lead to a greater range of temperatures, at least until the planet reaches thermal equilibrium, which could be some time – thousands of years, maybe.  The atmosphere over land responds rapidly to greenhouse gases. But there is a lag before the oceans warm because of the thermal inertia of all that water. One might even speculate that the seas will never warm as much as the land, but we’ll discuss that another time. So in UK summers we might expect the hottest months – when a continental influence dominates – to be much hotter than before, whereas the more usual changeable months – when maritime influences come into play – to be not much hotter than before.

The story in winter is somewhat different.  Even in a warmer world, frozen water (and land) will radiate away heat in winter until it reaches nearly as cold a temperature as before, because what eventually stops it radiating heat away is the insulation provided by ice, not the atmosphere.  So the coldest winter months – when UK weather is influenced by the Arctic and the Continent – will be nearly as cold as before global warming.   This will also slow the increase in monthly mean temperatures.  Months dominated by tropical influences on the UK will therefore be warmer, compared to the mean, than before global warming.

If this hypothesis is correct, then it would obviously affect other months as well as December.  So I looked for other recent extreme months in the CET record.  It turns out that the other recent extreme months have been in late winter or early spring.

Regular readers will recall that I wrote about March 2013, the coldest in more than a century, at the time, and noted that the month was colder than any previous March compared to the running mean.  I don’t know why I didn’t produce a graph to back then, but here it is:

160118 Extreme months in CET slide 1b

Just as December 2010 was not quite the coldest December on record, March 2013 was not the coldest March, just the coldest since 1892, as I reported at the time.  It was, though, the coldest in the CET record compared to the 21-year running mean, 3.89C below, compared to 3.85C in 1785.  And because I’ve had to extrapolate, the difference will increase if the average for Marches 2016-2023 (the ones I’ve had to assume) is greater than the current 21-year mean (for 1995-2015), which is more than half likely, since the planet is warming, on average.

We’re talking about freak years, so it’s surprising to find yet another one in the 2010s.  April 2011 was, by some margin, the warmest April on record, and the warmest compared to the 21-year running mean:

160119 Extreme months in CET slide 2

The mean temperature in April 2010 was 11.8C.  The next highest was only 4 years earlier, 11.2 in 2007.  The record for the previous 348 years of CET data was 142 years earlier, in 1865, at 10.6C.

On our measure of freakishness – deviation from the 21-year running mean – April 2011, at 2.82C, was comfortably more freakish than 1893 (2.58C), which was in a period of cooler Aprils than the warmest April before the global warming era, 1865.  The difference between 2.82C and 2.58C is unlikely to be eroded entirely when the data for 2016-2021 is included in place of my extrapolation.  It’s possible, but for that to happen April temperatures for the next 6 years would need to average around 10C to sufficiently affect the running mean – the warmth in the Aprils in the period including 2007 and 2011 would need to be repeated.

So, of the 12 months of the year, the most freakishly cold for two of them, December and March, have occurred in the last 6 years, and so have the most freakishly warm for two of them, December and April. The CET record is over 350 years long, so we’d expect a most freakishly warm or cold month to have occurred approximately once every 15 years (360 divided by 24 records).  In 6 years we’d have expected a less than 50% chance of a single freakishly extreme monthly temperature.

According to the CET record, we’ve had more than 8 times the number of freakishly extreme cold or warm months in the last 6 years than would have been expected had they occurred randomly since 1659.

And I bet we get more freakishly extreme cold or warm months over the next 6 years, too.

 

January 14, 2016

Just How Exceptionally Mild Was December 2015 in the UK?

Filed under: Global warming, Science, Sea ice, UK climate trends — Tim Joslin @ 5:24 pm

“Very” is the answer, based on the 350+ year long Central England Temperature (CET) record.  Here’s a graph of all the CET December temperatures since 1659:

160114 Dec 2015 related CET analysis slide 1
As is readily apparent from the graph, the mean temperature of 9.7C in December 2015 was much higher than in any previous year.  In fact, only twice before had the average exceeded 8C.  Decembers 1934 and 1974 were previously tied as the mildest on 8.1C.

But how much was the recent mild weather due to global warming and how much to normal variability? Apart from anything else the mild spell has to coincide with a calendar month to show up in this particular dataset.  And it so happened that the weather turned cooler even as the champagne corks were in the air to celebrate the end of 2015.

To help untangle trends from freak events, I’ve included some running means on the graph above.  The green line shows the mean December temperature over 5 year periods.  For example, thanks in large part to December 2015, the 5 Decembers from 2011 to 2015 are the mildest in succession, though other periods have come close.

The red and black lines show 11 and 21 year running means, respectively.  The black line therefore represents the long-term trend of December temperatures.  These are close to the highest they’ve ever been, though in some periods, such as around the start of the 19th century, the average December has been as much as 2C colder than it is now.  Perhaps some exceptionally mild Decembers back then – such as 1806 – were as unusual for the period as December 2015 was compared to today’s Decembers.

I therefore had the idea to plot the deviation of each December from the 21 year mean centred on that year, represented by the black line on the graph above.  If you like, I’ve simply subtracted the black line from the blue line.

A health warning is necessary.  I’ve had to extrapolate the 21 year mean, since we don’t yet know what weather the next 10 Decembers (2016 to 2025) will bring.  We’ll have to wait until 2025 to see precisely how unusual December 2015 will prove to have been.  In the meantime, I’ve set the mean temperature for 2016 through 2025 to the last 21 year mean (i.e. the one for the years 1995 through 2015).

With that proviso, here’s what we get:

160114 Dec 2015 related CET analysis slide 2a
The green line now shows the difference between the mean December temperature for a given year and the mean December temperature for the 21 years including the 10 before and the 10 after the given year.

We can see that December 2015 was, at 4.91C much more mild than contemporary Decembers than was any other December, with the proviso that I’ve not been able to take Decembers after 2015 into account.

The next most freakish December was the aforementioned 1806 which was 3.86C warmer than the mean of Decembers 1796 through 1816.

What’s going on? Is it just weather – something to do with the ongoing El Nino, perhaps – or is something else afoot?

One hypothesis might be that, with the climate out of equilibrium due to global warming, greater variability is possible than before. Our weather in 2015 may have been driven by a heat buildup somewhere (presumably in the ocean) due to global warming. On average this perhaps doesn’t happen – we may suppose our weather to be often determined by regions of the planet where the temperature hasn’t changed much, at least at the relevant time of year. Specifically, the Greenland ice-sheet hasn’t had time to melt yet.

It won’t have escaped the notice of my eagle-eyed readers that the graph above also shows 2010 to be the most freakishly cold December in the entire CET record.

Perhaps, until the ice-sheets melt, the deep oceans warm and the planet reaches thermal equilibrium, we’ll find that when it’s cold it’s just as cold as it used to be, but when it’s warm it’s a lot warmer than it used to be.   Just a thought.

It might be worth mentioning a couple of other, not necessarily exclusive, possibilities:

  • Maybe the situation will continue even when the planet is in thermal equilibrium.  Maybe, for example, assuming there is some limit to global warming and the Arctic seas still freeze in winter, we’ll still get cold weather in winter just or nearly as cold as it ever was, but we’ll get much warmer weather when there’s a tropical influence.
  • It could be that weather patterns are affected by global warming, especially through the later freezing of Arctic ice.

Or December 2015 could just have been a freak weather event.

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