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Climate Hustle

Hurricanes And Climate Change: Boy Is This Science Not Settled!

Posted on 3 September 2010 by gpwayne

The current research into the effects of climate change on tropical storms demonstrates not only the virtues and transparency of the scientific method at work, but rebuts the frequent suggestion that scientists fit their findings to a pre-determined agenda in support of climate change. In the case of storm frequency, there is no consensus and reputable scientists have two diametrically opposed theories about increasing frequencies of such events.

The background to these enquiries stems from a simple observation: extra heat in the air or the oceans is a form of energy, and storms are driven by such energy. What we do not know is whether we might see more storms as a result of extra energy or, as other researchers believe, the storms may grow more intense, but the number might actually diminish.

What do the records show? According to the Pew Centre, “Globally, there is an average of about 90 tropical storms a year”. The IPCC AR4 report (2007) says regarding global tropical storms: "There is no clear trend in the annual numbers [i.e. frequency] of tropical cyclones."

But this graph, also from the Pew Centre, shows a 40% increase in North Atlantic tropical storms over the historic maximum of the mid-1950, which at the time was considered extreme:

But while the numbers are not contested, their significance most certainly is. Another study considered how this information was being collected, and research suggested that the increase in reported storms was due to improved monitoring rather than more storms actually taking place.

And to cap it off, two recent peer-reviewed studies completely contradict each other. One paper predicts considerably more storms due to global warming. Another paper suggests the exact opposite – that there will be fewer storms in the future.

What can we conclude from these studies? About hurricane frequency – not much; the jury is out, as they say. About climate change, we can say that these differing approaches are the very stuff of good science, and the science clearly isn’t settled! It is also obvious that researchers are not shying away from refuting associations with climate change, so we can assume they don’t think their funding or salaries are jeopardised by research they believe fails to support the case for AGW. The scientific method is alive and well.

Never mind the frequency, feel the width

So far, all we’ve managed is to document here is what we don’t know for sure yet. But we do know there is extra energy in the system now, so could it have any other effects on tropical storms? Here, the science is far less equivocal, and there is a broad consensus that storms are increasing in strength, or severity. This attribute, called the Power Dissipation Index, measures the duration and intensity (wind speed) of storms, and research has found that since the mid-1970s, there has been an increase in the energy of storms.

Recent research has shown that we are experiencing more storms with higher wind speeds, and these storms will be more destructive, last longer and make landfall more frequently than in the past. Because this phenomenon is strongly associated with sea surface temperatures, it is reasonable to suggest a strong probability that the increase in storm intensity and climate change are linked.

This post is the Basic version (written by Graham Wayne) of the skeptic argument "Hurricanes aren't linked to global warming".

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 52:

  1. The Basic versions that have appeared thus far are pretty good, I think, given the limitations of the format.

    Maybe someone can now post a Basic version of what cities can do to deal with sea level rise.
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  2. Easy, build dykes. The Dutch have been doing it for over 100 years.
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  3. Tell that to the Nigerians.
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  4. During the Pliocene, about 2.5 to 5 million years ago, CO2 levels were comparable to today's levels (near 400 ppm) and the climate was about 3 oC to 5 oC warmer than pre-IR. Geographically, the Earth was also very similar to today so the Pliocene offers a glimpse of what the world may look like by the year 2100. Federov, Brierley, & Emanuel (2010) modeled the expected TC activity in the early Pliocene world. This figure is a comparison of modern TC activity (a) and that of the Pliocene (b). This image is a sobering look at what may lie ahead in our world by 2100.
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  5. Hi ProfMandia ,

    If scientists cant agree on the effects of raised CO2 and Temps on TC in our own time how can we be sure that the Federov, Brierley, & Emanuel models truly represent an era 2.5 to 5 million years ago ? .

    Even if their half right its still scary but the big wave surfers will be happy .
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  6. Would someone like to write Basic post on storm surges? I think they are likely to cause a good deal of damage to lowlying places in the years ahead.
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  7. Miekol, #2,

    More like "more than 500 years" for dyke building in Holland, rather than 100.

    Jared Diamond has a good section on Holland in his book Collapse, which I am re-reading. The dykes go hand-in-hand with a co-operative ethic. Each "polder" (dyked area) pumps water into the neighbouring polder until it reaches the sea. Each polder depends on the one nearer the sea.

    Ironically, the Dutch had the world's first capitalist economy and stock-exchange. Also, the world's first speculative bubble (in tulip bulbs). We may have a lot to learn from the Sutch experience!
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  8. Daved,

    The paper can be viewed here. Their models do not consider CO2 but instead consider SSTs and atmospheric and ocean circulation patterns. Those models do a good job of representing modern TC actvitity so there is reasonable confidence in their Pliocence "forecast".
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  9. Huntjanin @ 6 - indeed, storm surges have been the principal cause of salt intrusion into soils of the Pacific Islands for some years now. 2005 was a particularly bad year for powerful cyclones in the region. The Cook Islands were hammered by 5 cyclones in just over a month!.

    Check out some of the photographs here: Five Weeks of Fury

    I don't know if you're familiar with Niue, but my wife and I holidayed there back in the late 1990's. It's basically a giant rock thrust up out of the ocean. The Niue Hotel, where we stayed sits atop a cliff face perhaps 30 meters high. I fished off it a few times, it's quite a drop, the few fish I did catch fell back into the ocean. Anyway, cyclone Heta hit the island in 2004 & the accompanying storm surge completely obliterated the hotel room we stayed in. I couldn't believe it when I first saw the press coverage, 40 + meter waves!.

    If you have a look at these photos here, near the bottom of the page you can see the hotel manager standing outside, and the sea in the background gives some idea of how high above sea level it actually is. In fact most of the dwellings pictured are well above sea level - along the same cliff face. Must have very frightening when the highest point on the island is only about 60 meters above sea level.
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  10. tobyjoyce, a bit offtopic, but your polder-to-polder pumping strategy you described is not correct.

    Polders are usually surrounded by two ring levees with a canal in between the levees which is called the 'boezem'. Excess water from the polder is pumped into the boezem canal.

    The boezem canals are interconnected by even more canals, eventually leading to the sea or the IJsselmeer lake where the surplus water is pumped (or under free-fall via a 'spui' which is a type of sluice that can provide an open passage) into the Northsea.

    The water level in the boezems is approximately equal to the old lands and thus higher then levels in the polders (which used to be lakes), up to several meters.

    In times of drought or stale-water conditions in the polder fresh water can also be let in from the boezem into the polder, effectively reversing the flow of water.

    On the subject of AGW and sea level rise: Pumping is a lot more costly (in terms of construction, maintenance and energy use) then free-fall dumping of excess water into the sea. So as sea levels rise and the lands in the western Netherlands are slowly sinking due to isostatic rebound from the last ice age as well as compaction of peat soils due to deep level water extraction, the time excess water can be cheaply dumped in free-fall during low tides will shorten. Unfortunately rainfall is also expected to intensify, causing greater peak demands for water removal.

    These factors combined will require more pumping installations and more energy usage for keeping the lands (and polders) dry. Which, ofcourse, will cost society some serious money.
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  11. Cynicus (no. 10). Good post. I'm going to use Rotterdam as one of my "poster children of sea level rise." You seem to know a lot about the Netherlands: I'm guessing that you are Dutch. In any case, if you do know a lot about Rotterdam and sea level rise, I'd like to hear from you off-list. Email me, if you want, at huntjanin@aol.com
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  12. Thanks Graham

    "two recent peer-reviewed studies completely contradict each other"

    Is this Landsea and Holland? If not any chance of the references?
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  13. There is another possible spin to this rather than this is the scientific method at work.

    It strikes me the real contention around this subject is the heat generated on the subject around 2005/2006. Maybe much less should have been made around the short number of years of rise, whether the data was flawed or not isn't really the issue. You also neglect to show that the past few years have been fairly ordinary storm seasons which I guess also makes it difficult to keep on screaming about the subject in the same way.

    It's really not good enough to say things are OK because we now have balance, the question should be what was the driving force of the frenzy in the first place.
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  14. Maybe an analogy to this might be a person found guilty of murder, sentanced to death, killed by the state only later to be found innocent. You're going to struggle to convinced everbody this is an example of justice working.
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  15. I would suggest that the scale for the y-axis for the storm frequency plot seems like it was chosen to deliver a certain impression. How about a 0 to 16 scale to improve the appearance of objectivity?

    However in any case, this is a great summary. Some clearly unsettled science makes for a different tone to the discussion, which I enjoy.
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  16. "this graph, also from the Pew Centre, shows a 40% increase in North Atlantic tropical storms over the historic maximum of the mid-1950"

    "North Atlantic tropical storm" is a very bad concept if it comes to history. Before the satellite era many such storms must have gone unnoticed. Hurricanes making landfall in the US on the other hand are pretty well documented, if not for any other reason, because of insurance issues. There is no increase in severity whatsoever, a slight decrease, if anything. You can check it here.

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  17. #16 Your graph runs up to 1995. Pretty much all of the increase over normal values seen in the Pew Center graph comes after that year.
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  18. #17 werecow at 01:18 AM on 4 September, 2010

    No, it runs up to 2009. The 25 year running average makes it look shorter. But anything less than three decades is just weather, not climate, is it?
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  19. Thanks for the reference to the Power Dissipation Index, which would seem to be a fairly critical piece of science. I would suggest that an article be written about the history of increasingly powerful storms, their impact, and projections. The insurance companies have already incorporated this into their operating models, as evidenced by the difficulty in getting homeowners insurance for coastal residences.
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  20. Ah, yeah, sorry, I Guess I missed the part about assigning it to the middle year. You compiled these data yourself? Could you post the ten year running mean for comparison purposes?
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  21. #16: "There is no increase in severity whatsoever, a slight decrease, if anything. "

    I still maintain, as I did the last time this came up, that this isn't a valid measure. Ask anyone who lives on the Gulf Coast: a season with 3 cat 2 storms is NOT more severe than a single cat 5. And tropical storms, which are missing from your severity index are counted in number making landfall -- as they should be.

    The supposition that older storms are uncounted is just that -- supposition.
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  22. This is very confusing, indeed.

    The data (NOAA) analyzed below seems to suggest that in the NA the frequency is increasing. Not only is it increasing, but follows the temp variations pretty close.

    The analysis also tries to take in to account the reporting problem and appears to be pretty thorough.

    http://residualanalysis.blogspot.com/2010/04/intensity-or-frequency.html
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  23. Cynicus,

    I concede your superior knowledge of the Netherlands. Diamond uses polders as a metaphor for the nations of the world as a whole. He quotes a Netherlands acquaintance: "You have to be nice to your enemies because he may be the one operating the neighbouring pump in your polder". I am sure polders could not have been maintained without co-operation within and between the people who live in them. If one fails, they all fail.
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  24. BP: it's all very well taking a 25 year average and justifying it by saying we're talking about climate not weather... but what does that do to the trend, as it dilutes the recent rise? What's the trend just using basic yearly data?
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  25. Werecow We're talking apples and oranges here one is about frequency the other about intensity. Over the past couple years the worlds total cyclonic energy has dropped to at or near all time recorded lows.This is just another attempt to scare up more support for the warmista agenda!
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  26. Dammit, I must not have been fully awake when I read that graph. Though in fairness, I wasn't the one making the comparison.

    Anyway,in that case, BP's findings directly contradict what I've heard in talks on this issue and read in sources like the 2008 CCSP report, at least on Atlantic hurricanes (although I'll admit that my investigation into this issue has been somewhat limited).
    I'd still like to see what it looks like with a lower amount of smoothing, though.

    As for your statement about the "last couple of years", this is too vague to tell me anything useful. If you're talking about ten years, then maybe it's relevant. If you're talking about two, then it's meaningless in this context. And I'd want to know your source for those claims.

    Also, I don't know if you were being facetious about "warmist agendas", but I'll just hope you were.
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  27. #24 Turboblocke at 03:38 AM on 4 September, 2010
    what does that do to the trend, as it dilutes the recent rise?

    Ten year running average looks like this:



    There is a recent rise indeed, but it's a far cry from being unprecedented. More like a recovery, even if it is a bit fainter than the scary surge around 1880.

    See The Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense United States Tropical Cyclones From 1851 to 2006 from NOAA National Hurricane Center.

    BTW, there are only three category 5 hurricanes on record that made landfall in the US.

    1935 "Labor Day"
    1969 Camille
    1992 Andrew

    Years with category 4 storms: 1856, 1886, 1893, 1898, 1900, 1915(2), 1919, 1926, 1928, 1932, 1947, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1989 and 2004. Again, no increasing frequency is seen.
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  28. Since I tend to be harshly critical of many of BP's do-it-yourself analyses, let me say that I think his graph is pretty robust this time.

    It doesn't matter whether you use a 25-year smoothing, 10-year smoothing, or no smoothing. It also doesn't matter whether you just count the number of hurricanes, add up their category #s, or only look at major storms. There isn't really any long-term trend in hurricanes making landfall on the US.

    Now, maybe "hurricanes making landfall on the US" is not a good proxy for global tropical cyclone numbers, I don't know. But this isn't an issue of smoothing or of how you count the storms.
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  29. This is a good topic for discussion, by the way, if sensible people can avoid getting riled up over silly remarks like "just another attempt to scare up more support for the warmista agenda!" It's an area where the science is genuinely still being worked out, and where there really is more fertile ground for genuine skepticism.
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  30. #29 Ned

    I wasn't getting riled up, I was just rolling my eyes a bit, and hoping I was being Poed. }| 0 0
  • Heh. I wasn't referring to you, or to anyone else in particular. I was just using that as an example of the kind of remark that tends to hinder rather than promote useful discussions.
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  • Tobyjoyce, I haven't heard that statement before :-)

    I browsed around a bit and it appears that the Dutch have been making polders from marshes and lakes for over a 1000 years already (but possibly even 2000 years) where the first polders used gravity to drain the area into (tidal) rivers when their water levels were sufficiently low enough. It was only after 1400 that the first windmills arrived. The windmills were eventually needed because of the compaction of the peat soils (possibly some 2 meters!) due to water drainage and higher boezem water levels due to ever more polders draining their excess water into those canals.

    Among other things, the need for new polders was created by a fast growing population which needed fuel (from peat in those days) which eventually, due to several factors, resulted in the accidental creation of new lakes and reduced dry land area via erosion of the soft lake banks. This was one of man's earlier environmental 'disasters'. By pumping the lakes dry further erosion was prevented and created new fertile land as a bonus. Early geoengineering to counter environmental challenges at work and the Dutch master it! ;-)

    Creating and maintaining a sizeable polder is, ofcourse, not a task for a single person, so all who had a stake in the polder would usually cooperate (this period might be the source of your quote!). But not everyone is able to do so ofcourse, hence unions were established. Everyone with a stake was forced to pay to the union, an ancestor to the modern municipality, which in turn would ensure good maintenance. The unions would slowly start to merge into ever bigger unions called 'waterschap' covering multiple municipalities, creating a separate specialist government layer rather unique in the world. The first waterschap was created in 1255.

    Developing new polders became a profitable speculative business due to high land prices in the years 1550-1650 and more audacious new plans attracted ever more speculators. Eventually this bubble blew like many other bubbles to come when land prices dropped during the construction of polders causing often massive loss of private capital.

    It looks like the story of the Dutch polders holds some valuable lessons to the current generations which seem largely to have learnt nothing from history.

    I'm sorry about the length of this post, it got a bit out of hand. :-)
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  • ProfMandia ,

    Thanks for the link to the paper I can see their reasoning now and it seems sound .

    It surprises me that results of papers like these are not discussed more in the general media as they are quite dire examples of what could be in store for the world .
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  • Whilst hurricane intensity in the US may be of interest to Americans, the US is only some 2% of the Earth's surface, and most of us aren't Americans.

    What happens if we look at the tropics?, an area making up roughly 25% of the Earth's surface and inhabited by some 40% of the world's population?. It is the region where hurricanes/cyclones form after all.



    Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years
    Emanuel 2005


    "Whatever the cause, the near doubling of power dissipation over the period of record should be a matter of some concern, as it is a measure of the destructive potential of tropical cyclones.Moreover, if upper ocean mixing by tropical cyclones is an important contributor to the thermohaline circulation, as hypothesized by the author, then global warming should result in an increase in the circulation and therefore an increase in oceanic enthalpy transport from the tropics to higher latitudes."
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  • Nice work Graham. As with so much else in climate change the burden of proof argument has come to fall the wrong way. If deniers are really going to argue that frequency and/or strength of hurricanes is NOT going to increase with rising temperatures, it should be up to them to explain why this would be the case. I can see no good reason why both intensity and frequency would not increase. Given that hurricanes always occurred with lower temperatures, it is nonsense to suggest that, once given the conditions to start, greater warmth wouldn't, on average, leader to a greater intensity. It also seems to me intuitively obvious that warmer moister air columns are going to be more frequently available to trigger initial hurricane formation.

    The graphs that Graham and Dappled Water show exactly coincides with others showing the rise in CO2 levels and the resultant effects, beginning around the mid 1970s. Either we are faced with the most astonishing and inexplicable series of coincidences or all of these graphs show the consequences of climate change.

    And l we also have in this thread, yet agin, the use of figures from the US to try to disprove some obvious outcome of global warming. And even then, whatever else BPs graph shows, it concurs in the recent increase in activity.

    In thread after thread we are it seems to keep forever being asked to prove that one plus one equals two.
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  • BP, you have successfully demonstrated that really bad hurricanes/cyclones have a tendency not to travel to the United States, but given that they're not actually born there, not really enlightening.

    There's actually peer reviewed studies (see @34) that there are more intense hurricanes/cyclones being generated in the last few decades in the tropical regions. So it appears they have a hunkering for more international travel. The PDI kinda looks like a hockey stick too.
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  • My understanding is that much of the uncertainty about whether AGW will lead to more frequent tropical storms is due to the competing effects of SST and wind shear, both of which will presumably be increased in a warmer world. Higher SSTs tend to promote TS development but higher wind shear tends to hinder it. Thus, different models that emphasize one parameter or the other will give very different results in terms of future TS frequency.

    See, for example:

    Knutson et al., 2008. Simulated reduction in Atlantic hurricane frequency under twenty-first-century warming conditions. Nature Geoscience 1: 359-364.

    Zhao et al., 2008. Simulations of Global Hurricane Climatology, Interannual Variability, and Response to Global Warming Using a 50-km Resolution GCM. J. Climate, 22, 6653–6678.

    Knutson et al., 2010. Tropical cyclones and climate change. Nature Geoscience, 3, 157 - 163.

    The latter is somewhat interesting -- it's a review article, with a list of authors covering the gamut from Chris Landsea to Kerry Emanuel. It also nicely illustrates that some parts of this picture seem clear, while others are still very uncertain:

    Whether the characteristics of tropical cyclones have changed or will change in a warming climate — and if so, how — has been the subject of considerable investigation, often with conflicting results. Large amplitude fluctuations in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones greatly complicate both the detection of long-term trends and their attribution to rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Trend detection is further impeded by substantial limitations in the availability and quality of global historical records of tropical cyclones. Therefore, it remains uncertain whether past changes in tropical cyclone activity have exceeded the variability expected from natural causes. However, future projections based on theory and high-resolution dynamical models consistently indicate that greenhouse warming will cause the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones to shift towards stronger storms, with intensity increases of 2–11% by 2100. Existing modelling studies also consistently project decreases in the globally averaged frequency of tropical cyclones, by 6–34%. Balanced against this, higher resolution modelling studies typically project substantial increases in the frequency of the most intense cyclones, and increases of the order of 20% in the precipitation rate within 100 km of the storm centre. For all cyclone parameters, projected changes for individual basins show large variations between different modelling studies.
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  • Ned, that's an interesting quote. If true would it mean that the whole discussion (about evidence on stronger or more frequent cyclones already being visible in the records) is a straw man because noticeable changes would only appear in the second half of this century?
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  • I don't know if it has been raised before or not in other threads, but it should be considered as part of the discussion how such events rather than being considered indicators instead form part of a negative feedback system.
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  • @Berényi Péter: Why are you drawing a linear trend line on your graphs? They clearly do not represent linear processes. One could argue for a multi-decadal signal in your 25-year averaging, and probably in your 10-year averaging. On what basis did you choose your averaging periods?

    If you want to do something interesting, integrate your data over each solar cycle and express the results in terms of energy released.

    BTW, what does "Annual Sum of Saffir-Simpson Category" mean? For 2004 there were 9 hurricanes in the Atlantic giving an annual sum of Saffir-Simpson categories of 27, well above the range of your scale.
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  • I think it is....NOAA
    intensity-or-frequency

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  • Thanks for all the comments. A few responses:

    HumanityRules: you were right - Holland and Landsea.
    Berényi Péter: As mentioned in the post, models predict a reduction in frequence but increase in energy. This will lead to greater landfall if correct.
    Dappledwater: nice one.
    David Horton: Thank you. I quite agree - it is strange how the burden has been shifted. More energy into a system must have an effect, and if the effect isn't the obvious one (or the slightly less obvious but logical PDI increase) it is encumbent on those promoting the disssent to validate it with data.
    Ned: so, to sum up then - nobody's got a bloody clue! :)
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  • An interesting graphic of 150 years of tropical storm tracks, clear to see which region gets hammered the most.


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  • gpwayne @ 42 - "As mentioned in the post, models predict a reduction in frequence but increase in energy. This will lead to greater landfall if correct."

    Is that true?. The graphic above, indicates the more intense hurricanes seem to have less likelihood of making landfall (well major land masses anyway). Granted, it's only "eyeballing" & I've only skimmed through a handful of papers so far.
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    Moderator Response: [Graham] - check out the intermediate, the paper is referenced there. (As I understand it, the argument is that greater intensity will lead to increased duration, so more will make landfall before blowing themselves out).
  • Living in Florida as I do it is clear that the Pew Center's plot of hurricanes is a case of torturing the data to suit an agenda.

    Thank you Berenyi Peter (#16 & #27) for injecting some facts into the discussion.
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  • I noticed that the Pew graph used ALL the available data from the north atlantic. BP's US landfall graph probably uses 5% of the data, (or less). This relates to John Cook's mantra that we need to look at all the data and not just one litle piece. You can look at 5% and say that you see no pattern, only noise. Or you can look at the whole picture.
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  • I thought Ryan Maue's website might be useful for the discussion.

    The final section in Graham's article "Never mind the frequency, feel the width" worries me.

    What seemed to be the most recent concensus was summed up in a Nature paper earlier this year. It was authored by most of the personalities involved in the debate and seems to have come to the conclusion that we can not yet distinguish any anthropogenic signal in the hurricane data. They remain certain of future predictions. So Graham's comments should really be in the future tense rather than the present tense. Any suggestion that the recent increase in any hurricane metric is anything but part of the natural variability is wrong.
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  • michael sweet (#46)

    Amen to the idea of using all the data. I totally support John Cook on that one.

    When it comes to selecting surface weather stations for inclusion in HADCRUT3, GHCN and NOAA/GISS databases the same idea should apply. Yet this excellent website seems to meekly accept that over 80% of the available stations have been discarded since 1975. See:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Station-drop-off-How-many-thermometers-do-you-need-to-take-a-temperature.html
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  • GC - the article you cite shows that dropping the stations doesnt produce a warming bias. However, your post implies that you think that wicked scientists are willfully holding back data that they should be using. However the data isnt in their hands to withhold. To quote NCDC.
    "The reasons why the number of stations in GHCN drop off in recent years are because some of GHCN’s source datasets are retroactive data compilations (e.g., World Weather Records) and other data sources were created or exchanged years ago. Only three data sources
    are available in near-real time. The rise in maximum and minimum temperature stations and grid boxes in 1995 and 1996 is due to the World Meteorological Organization’s initiation of international exchange of monthly CLIMAT maximum and minimum temperature
    data over the Global Telecommunications System in November 1994." (Source here

    Of course nothing that a willingness to pay more tax on your part to support these data collations wouldn't fix...
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  • GC, my comment on that more relevant thread complements scaddenp's comment that he has correctly put on that other thread.

    Gee, it seems you've made that same contention on that other thread earlier, and were given the same information in return. But you never responded and now are repeating the same contention.
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    Moderator Response: Everybody please follow scaddenp's example by continuing this discussion on that other thread.
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