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.

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