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Scientists lambast The Australian for misleading article on deep ocean cooling

Posted on 6 August 2014 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Roz Pidcock at Carbon Brief

An article in Friday's The Australian suggested brand new research by two eminent oceanographers casts doubt on scientific understanding of global warming. But the authors of the research have taken the newspaper to task for its coverage of their work.

The research by Carl Wunsch from Harvard University and Patrick Heimbach from MIT found temperatures seem to be falling in parts of the very deep ocean, known as 'the abyss'.

In a piece headline headlined "Puzzle of deep ocean cooling", journalist Graham Lloyd of the Australian interpreted the new research for readers:

"The deep oceans have been cooling for the past two decades and [so] it is not possible to say whether changes in ocean heat adequately explain the "pause" in global warming".

But the authors think Lloyd's article is misleading. In an letter to the editor in today's edition of the Australian, they say:

"The article by Graham Lloyd will likely leave a mis-impression with many of your readers concerning the substance of our paper."

Wunsch tells us Lloyd's article "cherrypicks" statements from their paper and "misses some key points".

                  Graham Lloyd

The Australian 25th July 2014

Overall, the oceans are warming

The new research, just published in the Journal of Physical Oceanography, explains how measurements in recent decades suggest some parts of the very deep ocean - the 'abyss' - are cooling slightly. The paper says:

"[Our findings show] warming in the abyss at high southern latitudes, in the western basin of the Atlantic and with cooling elsewhere."

At depths of thousands of meters, taking the temperature of the deep ocean is very challenging. Quite a lot of the discussion in the paper is about the limits of current measurements.

Though the research suggests some parts of the very deep ocean are cooling, not all of it is. Scientists can detect a weak cooling signal overall, but other parts are showing strong warming.

This wasn't explained by The Australian, say the authors. Wunsch tell us:

"If the opening sentence in the Australian had said 'Parts of the deep ocean have been cooling for the past two decades' there would have been no quarrel with that statement."

Wunsch and Heimbach's research is very clear on an important point - that overall, the planet's oceans are warming. The letter to the editor says:

"We never assert that global warming and warming of the oceans are not occurring - we do find an ocean warming, particularly in the upper regions."

The point the new paper makes is the oceans aren't a solid lump. Knowing how different parts of the oceans behave is important. Though new technology is making it easier, the deepest and most remote parts of the ocean are still poorly understood. Wunsch tells us:

"[The oceans are] a very noisy system, with parts warming and parts cooling, it looks like a net warming is taking place, but exactly by how much is at the very edge of the science."

Not a reason to doubt scientists explanations of the "pause"

Lloyd argues that parts of the deep ocean cooling contradicts other scientists' explanations of the so-called "pause" in surface warming.

The "pause" describes the fact that temperatures at earth's surface have risen more slowly in the last 15 years than in previous decades, despite greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise.

Scientists say periods of slower and faster warming aren't unusual and the most likely explanation is that heat is making its way to the deep ocean rather than staying at the surface. 

The Australian gives the impression Wunsch and Heimbach disagree with this explanation. It says their study suggests "much less heat is being added to the oceans than has been claimed in previous studies".

But that's not the case, say the authors. Wunsch tells us the overall warming of the ocean they report is consistent with other scientific literature - a point they also make in the paper.

An article by Christopher Booker in Saturday's Telegraph also argues the new research contradicts other scientists. 

US climate professor Kevin Trenberth first described the slower-than-expected surface warming as the "missing heat" problem, and has been prominent in research pointing to faster warming in the deep ocean as a likely explanation.

Describing Trenberth as "one of the UN's top climate alarmists",  Booker claims Wunsch's new paper suggests "the warmists have no real evidence to support their claim other than computer modelling". He says:

"Now magisterial cold water has been poured on this theory by none other than Prof Carl Wunsch, probably the world's most respected oceanographer."

But Wunsch's letter to the editor makes clear his findings are of little consequence for global warming or the so-called "pause". The letter says:

"Contrary to the implications of Lloyd's article, parts of the deep ocean are warming, parts are cooling, and although the global abyssal average is negative, the value is tiny in a global warming context."

A quote from Dr Andy Hogg of Australia's National University at the end of the Australian article explains parts of the very deep ocean can take a very long time (centuries to millennia) to respond to what's happening at the surface.

Hogg adds:

"So if cooling has occurred over large parts of the abyssal ocean, it is unrelated to global warming of the atmosphere over the last century."

Hogg adds that while there is still some uncertainty about temperatures in the deep ocean, shallower regions are well understood and Wunsch's findings are "consistent" with warming oceans.

Wunsch told us he thought Hogg's comments were "on the mark," and that it was a shame that they are "hidden at the end" of the article.

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Comments 1 to 12:

  1. "The article by Graham Lloyd will likely leave a mis-impression"

    What's with the kid-gloves?  How hard is it to say Lloyd lied?  His first sentence makes two claims neither of which is true.  How likely is this unintentional?  His paper should be sued and he should be fired.  Until this happens, this 'Pied Pipering' of society will lead to its ruination.  At this point, what he's doing is criminal.

    (-snip-) People like Lloyd are actually encouraged by the meekness with which society responds to their outright fabrications on behalf of their power structure.  Make an example of him and his publisher that truth matters, or they will happily whistle our children to the cliff and bid them jump, and see in that their own obvious superiority.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Offensive personal opinion deleted. 

  2. It does seem that many newspapers today are willing to lie and fabricate 'truths' to further a political agenda when it comes to climate change.

    Lets not forget that national newspapers are not interested in pure news, they all have an agenda, every inch of page space has a 'meaning' and a message even when an opposing view to the papers ideology is expressed. The problem is at the top and the agenda of the editor and owners.

    In the context of democracy and politics this probably works to the advantage of our communities. But when it comes to facts and science, it clearly fails us all.

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  3. Unfortunately it appears that is no legislation that holds newspapers to account to publish factually correct information beyond the various libel laws.  The worst culprits appear to be the Murdoch press (Scum, Austalian, Faux News, etc) closely followed by papers like the Daily Fail, the Telegraph does seem to have seen the light a bit recently in getting rid of the likes of Chistopher Booker.

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  4. The Australian, in pasrticular their env columnist Graham Lloyd, have developped quite a history of climate science misrepresentations. Some of them, e.g. recent incorrect critique of 97% concensus in Cook 2013 by Richard Tol - misrepresented by Lloyd - have been discussed here.

    More comprehensive list of Lloyd's biased coverage is available here. Clearly, based on that history, we need not to be surprised at this latest development; furthe3r may expect more distortions of climate science from Mt Lloys in the future.

    But it is hartening that scientists do not ignore those incidents but fight back the misinformation straight at its source, as Carl has done here. Another example of a scientist who "fights back" is Michael Mann who not only writes comments/op-eds to the affected newspapers but also enters legal battles if required to stand his ground. Others should also be encouraged: their time doing it is well spent. I'm personally thankful for that: great job guys!

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  5. I got snipped for a too forceful reference to what I think Lloyd and his publisher are doing, but I'm going to persist once more in the charge in a more politic way. There is now a 10% chance AGW will cause humanity to go extinct (MIT model results), so the chance is very high AGW will, at a minimum, significantly 'thin the ranks' of humanity in the near future. The 'misinterpretation' of Climate conclusions over the last 40 years can no longer reasonably be ascribed to tribal pride or fossil influences. We must now entertain the notion that Lloyd and his publisher are knowledgeable of AGW's lethal outcomes and are hastening us there intentionally. They are comfortable doing so because they read in themselves a superior survival probability in such an attritious environment. So Lloyd did not misunderstand the deep ocean findings. He did not make a mistake. Instead, he did his part to help set a multi-generational and multi-ethnic trap whose targets are your children.

    Lets at least entertain the notion that this is happening.  History suggests that at times like these, by the time the targets say something, the trap has long been set.

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  6. ubrew12 @5:

    1)  The accusation that people know of potential genocidal consequences of a policy and intentially promoting it for that reason is offensive and should never be entertained except in the case where you have overwhelming evidence in support of it.  In this case you do not.  It is mere speculation that should not be intertained by any rational or decent person.

    2)  Specifically with relation to the Australian, I am (or was) a long term reader and know how some of their columnists think quite well.  Some of them are eminently rational even if I frequently (in one case nearly always) disagree with them.  Among these are Paul Kelly, Dennis Shanahan and Greg Sheridan.  They are not the type of people who would find potential genocide in anyway attractive and they would certainly move heaven and earth to stop it if they thought it was in prospect.  Some others of their commentators I also know well and more or less despise them, but I cannot think of the slightest reason to think that poorly of them as to accept your suggestion.

    3)  The MIT model results are in any event an over estimate of the risk of extinction from global warming.  That's OK.  Scientific results will never be precise, particularly in an area as complex as climate science.  As a result you will get models that overshoot, and models that undershoot.  The thing to do is not to fixate on the results of a single model, particularly (as with the MIT result) it is a clear outlier.

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  7. After having a brief look at the paper, it seems to contain a lot of information regarding my question on the blog post of July 28th.

    The write:

    A total change in heat content, top to bottom, is found (discussed below) of approximately 4 × 10e22 J in 19 yr for a net heating of 0.2 ± 0.1 W m−2, smaller than some published values (e.g., Hansen et al. 2005, 0.6 ± 0.1 W m−2; Lyman et al. 2010, 0.63 ± 0.28 W m−2; or von Schuckmann and Le Traon 2011, 0.55 ± 0.1 W m−2.

    Even though they find a smaller total heat content increase than the other studies I find the summary at the beginning (first 2 pages or so) very helpful. For the rest of the publication I would greatly appreciate a blog post summing up its contents as my background knowledge on this is quite limited.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Added link to earlier question.

  8. The deep oceans aren't cooler per se, they simply hold less Heat Energy than they once did but the Law of Conservation of Energy tells us that can only mean the Heat Energy went somewhere else .... like towards the surface.

    Heat is a definitive term, cool, cold hot are relative terms denoting more or less Heat Energy. Cold has no Magic Powers to destroy Heat Energy although it seems to be a very common misconception from the Scientific Mental Midgets that deny the Reality of Global Warming because they simply aren't intelligent enough to grasp basic physics .....

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  9. Could someone provide a link to these "MIT model results" mentioned by ubrew and by Tom Curtis?

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  10. wili @9, I am not specifically aware of the study.  I have seen reports of the MIT Integrated Assessment Model which is pessimistic both in terms of radiative forcing for a BAU scenario by 2100, climate sensitivity, and impacts relative to other models.  Further, I believe there is a remote risk of human extinction from global warming, primarilly due to the increased risk of nuclear war in a world massively, and adversely effected by global warming.  Therefore I was willing to entertain ubrew's assertion as a basis of discussion, but probably should have made it clear I was supposing the existence of the study rather than confirming it.

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  11. wili@9, SkS linked a few days ago to this NY times article, which in turn linked to this MIT article.  To quote the NY times: "In 2009, the respected M.I.T. global climate simulation model estimated that if we do nothing to curb greenhouse emissions, there’s a 10 percent chance that temperatures will rise by more than 12 degrees Fahrenheit by century’s end, causing wholesale destruction of life as we know it."

    For Lloyd to garble the deep ocean lesson to conveniently cast doubt on AGW was forgiveable 20-30 years ago.  But 120 years after 19th century Physics first predicted this trend, and 50 years after it first made the desk of the American President?  Its 2014, not 1984: Nobody speculates the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could slide into the sea; today we measure it sliding into the sea.  Lloyd and his publisher Murdoch are going to end up 'unintentionally' killing a bunch of people. So consider this: how often do the words 'Murdoch' and 'unintentionally' appear in the same sentence? I'm simply submitting that maybe he knows what he's doing, in Climate Change, as in every other facet of his life.

    Lloyd did not 'make a mistake'.  And if his behavior is not ignorance, what is it?  Its knowledge.  They are doing this with intention.  So, next question is: Why?  That's the question we should be asking and we should not flinch from the answer, 'overwhelming evidence' or not.  At this point, many lives are hinging on that answer.  Why are they intentionally doing this?

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  12. Thanks.

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