Friday, March 21, 2008

Warming models baffled by a cooling ocean.

National Public Radio has an interesting report on global warming and the oceans which, if my link works correctly, you can hear it here. Here are the basics.

A few years ago scientists put 3,000 “robots” into the oceans of the world, which are all part of the Argos System to monitor world climate patterns. NPR says that “Josh Willis at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the oceans are what really matter when it comes to global warming.” They go on:

In fact, 80 percent to 90 percent of global warming involves heating up ocean waters. They hold much more heat than the atmosphere can. So Willis has been studying the ocean with a fleet of robotic instruments called the Argo system. The buoys can dive 3,000 feet down and measure ocean temperature. Since the system was fully deployed in 2003, it has recorded no warming of the global oceans.

Got that? Since 2003 there has been no discernible warming of the oceans which defies the theories. In fact, Willis says: “There has been a very slight cooling, but not anything really significant.” Of course when all your models tell you that there ought to be warming and you get “very slight cooling” that in itself is significant. Certainly, it is troubling.

Oddly, while Willis tells NPR the cooling was "not anything really significant" the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said otherwise. "The average temperature of the water near the top of the Earth's oceans has cooled significantly since 2003." Two years ago Willis was dismissing the cooling as just "natural variability" implying that this would end very soon. But another two years have gone by and the data still shows a cooling trend. Even more oddly, a pdf of a paper prepared by Willis and others for Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 33 says: "A new estimate of sampling error in the heat content record suggests that both the recent and previous global cooling events are significant and unlikely to be artifacts of inadequate ocean sampling." They wrote: "The decrease [in ocean temperature] represents a signficant loss of heat over a 2-year period amounting to one-fifth of the long-term upper-ocean heat gain between 1955 and 2003..." They emphasized "the cooling event is real". They also argued this heat probably is not being stored anywhere on earth but "could be the result of a net loss of heat from the Earth to space."

The problem is that the experts simply aren’t sure what is happening or why. They think it might be something to do with El Nino. It gets more confusing because warming is supposed to increase sea levels while cooling would reduce them. While they can’t find any warming they do find sea levels have risen and they can’t explain why. “One possibility is that... scientists are somehow misinterpreting the data...”

But if the data is correct they have to figure out where the heat has gone. And right now they don’t know. One theory is that is going back into space. NPR reports:
The Earth has a number of natural thermostats, including clouds, which can either trap heat and turn up the temperature, or reflect sunlight and help cool the planet. That can't be directly measured at the moment, however.

Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research confesses: “Unfortunately, we don’t have adequate tracking of clouds to determine exactly what role they’ve been playing during this period.” Clouds have always played a major role in climate change but there is are lots of holes in human knowledge regarding clouds and their impact. If humans don’t have the information it doesn’t get factored into their warming models. NASA said: “clouds are not well represented by the models... Yet clouds clearly play a crucial role in climate change due to their influence on humidity, precipitation and albedo (the percentage of solar energy reflected back into space as light.)”

And the report in Geophysical Research Letters noted that interannual variability in ocean heat content "are not yet well understood" and that this "variability is not adequately simulated in the current generation of coupled climate models used to study the impact of anthropogenic influences on climate."

At this time the slight cooling of the oceans over the last few years raises many questions and provides little answers. It is a phenomenon which shouldn’t exist given current warming models yet it does exist. Of course, a re-examination of the data must take place to see if this discrepancy holds up. If it does then once more the models failed to account for reality and that implies there are problems in the models. Perhaps they can be fixed, perhaps the entire climate is far more complex than the models we are capable of building.

Economies, it has been noted, are like miniature ecosystems with all the feedback loops and intricacies of nature. Since the rise of “scientific Marxism” it was believed that man could create models which would allow him to scientifically plan the economy. These models were to lead to greater prosperity for all. But, even in the relatively small economies of many of the nations where this experiment was tried, the models failed. In the great economic calculation debate a bevy of socialists held out the hope that with the rise of computers centralized planning would become more and more accurate.

With great amusement it was discovered, after the collapse of central economic planning, that the Soviets were convinced that U.S. prosperity resulted from a secret, central planning agency that had to be directing everything. Their mindset was such that they couldn’t conceive of things working any other way.

It may be that all the factors which play roles in the complex system we call “the climate” are, in fact, much simpler than the economy of some place like Albania. Or, perhaps there really are modelers out there who are far more capable than any turned out under socialism, who will be able to turn that complex system into a series of equations that will accurately portray what is happening and explain why it is happening. On the other hand the data may determine that no matter how often the models are tweaked, changed, or modified the climate is still far more complex than the model is able to understand.

Science magazine published a study by Gerard Roe and Marcia Baker of the University of Washington. Nature magazine described that report: “Over the past 30 years, climate models have not appreciably narrowed down the precise relationship between greenhouse gases and the planet's temperature — despite huge advances in computing power, climate observations and the number of scientists studying the problem, say Gerard Roe and Marcia Baker. The researchers now argue that this is because the uncertainty simply cannot be reduced.”

So there are serious scientific arguments to made for the inherent unreliability of climate models. I happen to have a lot of confidence in the growth of knowledge but I’m not convinced these models will every be accurate.

For me that means cautionary actions not brash ones. For many warming alarmists it means the opposite. They argue that the uncertainties of the models means that policy has to be set as if the models are correct because they just might be. As Nature reported these individuals “are now calling on policy-makers to make decisive policies on avoiding dangerous climate change, even if we don’t have perfect models.”

I’ve run into this argument before. There is a perceived danger to the world. Experts believe the danger is real and that it must be addressed. Policy-makers argue that even if their information is wrong the risk of not acting is too great to contemplate waiting for more information. It was incumbent upon us to rush in and take action to solve the problem, even if the problem didn’t actually exist, merely because we thought it could exist. The net result of that thinking was the war in Iraq.