NZCCC 2013: David Frame on climate sensitivity

The NZ Climate Change Conference began with a keynote by Professor David Frame, the director of VUW’s Climate Change Research Institute, and I grabbed a few minutes with Dave later on the first day to find out what he’d said while I was on the plane up to Palmerston North. We talked about climate sensitivity, rapid climate change, IPCC processes, and how nice Oxford and Wellington are.

46 thoughts on “NZCCC 2013: David Frame on climate sensitivity”

  1. reduced level of warming over the 2000’s

    Poor choice of words ( and this is aimed at Professor Frame) only fuels public confusion over climate sensitivity. We have not seen reduced warming over the 2000’s decade, quite the opposite. It’s just that much of this heat has gone into the ocean – the deep ocean (below 700 metres) in particular. Surface warming has been reduced because of less heat being retained in the surface ocean.

    What Professor Frame is alluding to is that, according to estimates & calculations put together by various groups such as Otto et al, the rate of heat accumulation in the entire climate system (ocean, land, atmosphere and ice) is smaller than that expected by the increase in forcing. Of course, the reconstructed climate forcing is the most uncertain of all – Otto et al show that the multi-model mean from CMIP5 climate model simulations shifts their equilibrium climate sensitivity from 2.0°C to 2.4°C. However, Shindell (2013) show that the CMIP5 multi-model mean actually overestimates the true climate forcing because it underestimates the actual negative forcing by aerosols – as revealed by recent satellite observations. The sea level trend over the 2000’s gives some clues too.

    This focus on sensitivity overlooks the variability in the climate system. The current negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) has spun up the downward transport of heat into the deep ocean via Ekman Pumping in the subtropical ocean gyres. This will not last indefinitely. The positive phase of the IPO is associated with a reduction in the winds which drive the ocean circulation, when they shut down we’re going to find a great deal more heat being retained in the surface ocean. The consequences will be difficult to ignore.

    1. Rob said “reduced level of warming over the 2000′s” was a poor choice of words. I should have said “rate” instead of level. I thought I’d consistently said rate over the week’s talks, but if I didn’t, I should have.

      But it’s important to note that there has been a reduced rate of warming over the 2000s. Part of it is forced (small volcanoes and solar influence, as I said) and part of it is internal variability. I made those points in the interview, so I think you’re somewhat decontextualising what I said.

      1. Actually Dave, Otto et al confuses the issue in the first few sentences of their paper, so you’re not alone. I do understand that it’s difficult flipping back and forth between fellow experts, who are familiar with the details, and the public, who are not. This not meant as a slight on you. I addressed my original comment to you in the hope you might read it and adjust how to talk about this in the future. Many people do not understand the context as it stands, so clearer communication of the salient points helps with learning.

        And yes, Otto et al do find that the rate of warming – factoring in the climate forcing – was smaller in the last decade. Hence their lower-than-generally-accepted central estimate for climate sensitivity. My point was that this largely hinges on the choice of negative aerosol forcing history. There are equally valid arguments and more importantly, observations, which favour a central estimate more in line with paleoclimate reconstructions and climate models. This will play out in the scientific literature in time.

        I agree that the extremes have been trimmed down by the available observations and modelling, but claims that the central estimate has been narrowed, are somewhat premature. They effectively rest on focusing on those studies which estimate a lower sensitivity, whilst ignoring those that don’t. That qualifies as cherry-picking.

        Hopefully they’re right. that would at least give us a little more time to avoid some of the worst effects, but it will do nothing to stave off ocean acidification. Based upon the evidence from the past and modern-day observations, the consequences of ocean acidification alone could be extraordinarily severe.

        1. Thanks for the follow-up, Rob. I did say something like “this one has a long way to go” because of the issue of the GCMs and other data yielding higher estimates, and I also mentioned that some of the authors of Otto et al have themselves cautioned against making strong inferences on the basis of short data records (especially regarding climate sensitivity)… so I kind of felt I did discuss a lot of this. As you say, it will play out in the literature over time. In my talk I think I gave about as much coverage to the hiatus as to that particular energy balance study (I showed several estimates of sensitivity, so I don’t think I was cherry-picking).

          But in the interests of full disclosure… by the time I talked to Gareth I had already had three beers, so it’s perfectly possible that there was enhanced natural variability in my response.

          [Alex Otto also led a new paper on the social cost of carbon in ERL, which argues that under most circumstances, TCR is a better proxy for SCC than ECS.]

          1. three beers, 🙂 Once on a TV interview while exhausted I was appalled to realise that I had made enough inadequately qualified remarks to enable a hostile editor to kill me. He did not but I got a big fright.

            As an non-academic pensioned off looker-oner I reason the issue like this – err …keeping it simple for my own sake:
            1. TOA energy imbalance must increase as we keep on adding greenhouse gases, and we know that we are and increasing the volume.
            2. Therefore, keeping insolation much the same, the total global warming must be increasing regardless of natural variability in indicative measurements like surface air temperatures. Even if we were not adding more GHGs, while an imbalance remains heat trapped must be increasing.
            3. As Kevin Trenberth famously desired to know – the heat is going somewhere. We ought to be measuring it!
            4. Natural variability does not alter the amount of energy going into the system, it only moves it around which certainly changes indicative measures but makes no difference to the fundamental argument.
            5. If, after measuring everything we can, including aerosol effects, there is still a variability or an ocean lag we have not tracked all that heat.

            As a 9 year old Russian girl who had been learning english for about a month snapped at me “If we were perfect we wouldn’t be here!”

            1. I think I almost corrected point one above by the time I got to the end of point 2.
              Err… substitute rate for volume as well.

  2. I think this talk is a perfect example of smart hand-waving. “Oh isn’t it nice, science, (Otto, presents us with a picture of slightly slower warming, good news for all. Lets carry on talking this to bits for the next decades as we mince ‘policy’…”

    A great example of the art of being seen as doing a lot and smooching with politicians while in fact not doing anything in particular that could be attacked by somebody – the triumphant pose of all well trained theatrical politicians in the face of adversity these days. Its a system of artful deception with an entire cast of professional spin doctors, actors and willful $$ participants.

    Anybody with a brain on their shoulders knows that the momentum of our fossil fuel based civilization towards burning the reminder of our fossil fuel endowment is going to be incredibly difficult to change. And most ‘fuel saving technologies’ in fact do nothing else but to enable growth elsewhere consuming the saved fuel there and more…. No lives on the Titanic were saved by the fiddlers who carried on playing happy tunes on the listing decks.

    As Dave muses about changes of climate being perhaps less rapid and the influence of the melting Arctic sea ice ‘just a small continent’ others pay with their livelihood as we speak. Parts of Central Europe and Eastern Germany are experiencing a 400 year flood record this year while the regions were still recovering from their 200 year floods a few years back…..
    Just as ‘Peak Oil’ does not arrive for all of us at the same time (we here still mostly cope with $100 oil) while others now go without entirely, so will the challenges of climate change affect us regionally quite differently at in different time scales. But for people who loose everything in the matter of a day, ‘graduality of change’ is a concept they would speak about quite differently than David.

    We have as a society the obligation to look further than to the 12 mile horizon at sea…. We will run out of economically producible fossil fuels in due course but on the road there we will have put our climate on a course of great upheaval. Unless we stop waving hands and stop contributing to the games of “theater politics” (as spectators or worse, enablers of the same… – and I am not talking about real ‘deniers’ here, whose role in all this is as irrelevant as their rants) both these developments will pull the rug from under us much faster than we probably imagine.

    1. Taking about desperately ranting deniers…. I saw this truly contemptuous post by Mr. Treadgold over at his blog just now, latest post:

      Its featuring a video hacked together by the zealots of CFACT. And not be outdone in the yuck factor, rubbed in by RT with calling delegates to the UN climate change conference in Bonn “chumps and cretins” that are now permitted to wander the corridors of power…

      What risible little oafs indeed these chumps over at the CC are and what a bunch of hooligans the CFACT people are.

      1. BTW if there ever was an organization that would win the George Orwell 1984 memorial prize it would be CFACT.

        Their slogan: “Prospering Lives. Promoting Progress. Protecting the Earth.” is true “new speak” coming from their mouth. They have no intention whatsoever to protect the Earth, see the continuation of the ‘same old same old of a fossil fuel dependent society’ as the Promotion of Progress and their idea of Prosperity focuses to the defense of the privileges of the already rich…. while they applaud themselves as having been lauded for their “effort to bring sound science to the environmental debate” by a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, without naming the same… who was, I have little doubt, Frederick Seitz, no other than the man who corrupted science by accepting money from the Tobacco industry for trying to hide the connection of smoking to lung cancer…. Yuck!
        Their latest climate video abusing young delegates to the UN conference and parading them – very likely without their consent – on their disgusting (and racist most likely) video is indefensible.

        Now I am well of topic most likely, however this needed a place to be vented.

    2. An update on the Europe flooding: In parts of Germany they are now calling the flood a 1000 year flood (meaningless really in the face of flooding world wide seemingly getting worse, perhaps this will become the new decadal normal flood event) and in excess of the horrendous 2002 floods with an 11 Billion Euro price tag then, which until now carried the title of ‘worst floods’ ever in the region.
      Besides Germany, several other central European countries are also affected.
      The weather patterns causing this are linked to a significant change in the JetStream behavior in the northern hemisphere which is linked to the warming of the arctic and the steep decline in summer sea ice over the past years.

      1. The floods in Germany are breaching all time records in many places, sometimes adding up to a meter to all time records now with more and more evacuations as the flood wave moves down the river systems. The loaded dice of climate change weather has come down hard in the region with thousands of households potentially loosing everything.

        Timely a new study published in Nature is quantifying the risk of future flooding. What have been 100 year events will become 10 year events.

        The last decade in Eastern Germany and adjoining countries seems to confirm this. While deniers might confabulate about how nice it might be to have a bit more warmth here or there, the reality of abrupt impacts from a warming world through the increased intensity and frequency of adverse events are hitting home for many. The tab of the climate change induced damages will be carried by all of us through rising insurance premiums. The free market will tax AGW perhaps more than our indecisive governments will do!

        Welcome to the harsh regional effects of our changing climate.

        1. Thomas – it’s likely to get much, much worse and sooner than many people think. I’m simply amazed that so many climate scientists are blind to this, but they are vastly underestimating the natural variability in the climate system, even in the presence of a strong long-term global warming trend.

          Since the mid 1990’s the Earth has been doing us a short-term favour by burying much of the heat being accumulated into the deep ocean. That’s the negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) – a La Nina-dominant state, when the spin-up of the subtropical ocean gyres deposit anomalous heat into the deep ocean. But this cannot last – it’s a natural ocean cycle.

          With the opposing positive phase (as seen in the 1970’s ‘climate shift’), the wind-driven ocean circulation slows down and less heat is transported down into the deep ocean. We have increased our fossil fuel emissions dramatically and this is trapping much more heat in the surface layers of the ocean. The strong downwelling of water at the centre of the gyres is removing this heat from the surface layers so it can’t interact with the atmosphere. When the ocean gyres spin down there’s going to be an awful lot of heat building up in the surface layers of the ocean – and that is going to warm the global surface up very quickly.

          With the accompanying intensification of the hydrological cycle, we are likely to see extraordinary drought in places which are dry during El Nino-dominant phases (such Australia and New Zealand), and massive downpours in areas which are wet during El Nino (such as the US mid-west). Furthermore, expect to massive coral bleaching on a scale never-before-witnessed. Coral reefs are on their way to functional extinction.

          It’s going to be a wild ride!

          1. I agree, especially and very sadly so, on the corral reefs. I have had the opportunity to sail the pacific between 95 and 96 extensively and dived in many places. When I returned after 98 the change was significant. 1998 was a terrible year in that regard. I went back to several of my favorite spots after 2000 and the change from 95/96 was incredible. In places where I had seen great variety and abundant fish life I saw green slime covering what once had been healthy corrals.
            I dread the next strong El Nino phase. Things will get awful quickly.

  3. Rob, you appear to be guilty of continuing the myth of a “slowdown of global warming”, whereas both the IPCC and the UK Met office have both stated that any warming stopped 17 years ago.

    1. Copie, the idea that warming stopped 17 years ago is nonsense.

      a) look at the big picture. and you will see that the last 17 years are a typical ‘wiggle’ of noise on an otherwise stark and unbroken trend.

      b) The claim of a slow down (some call it hiatus) in temperature increases is only made with reference to surface temperatures. The bulk of the AGW induced energy goes into the oceans by far. And there has been no hiatus whatsoever in the global 0 to 2000m ocean heat content, if anything, the trend seems to get worse:

      To see the relative weight of ocean versus surface energy build up:

      The idea that GW has stopped is a myopic cherry picked propaganda message pushed by those who want to prevent society from working towards climate change policy development and legislation.

    2. Cowpie-
      Present the reference where the IPCC and UK Met office say thet warming stopped 17 years ago. You’re a liar until you can show otherwise.

    3. Good grief, you can’t even count. 1998 is 16 years ago, not 17, and your cherry-pick needs to start in 1998 to make your “warming stopped” even remotely plausible.

      Here is the last 17 years – whoops, that’s an upward slope.

  4. Thomas, you are clutching at straws peddling the “heat is hiding deep in the ocean” story. Is this some new ability of heat to sink rather than rise?

    1. Copie – the pattern of deep ocean vs surface ocean warming connected to changes in the intensification/relaxation of the wind-driven ocean circulation is exactly what is expected – based on physical considerations.

      One thing is for sure, you won’t gain an understanding of this by reading contrarian blogs. It just so happens I’m working on a series of posts for Skeptical Science explaining why heat is reaching the deep ocean. Part of it is only temporary though.

    2. Copie, I am sure Robs new article on SKS will be great. Looking forward to it.
      In the meanwhile you would do best to actually learn and understand the science. If something seems counter-intuitive then try to see where your intuitions are wrong rather than accusing science or NOAA of making fundamental blunders.

      Btw: the NOAA data are that, DATA, Facts. I link it here again.

      In the last decade the oceans have added around 10×10^22 Joules of thermal energy. That is a massive amount. The equivalent of 1.5 Billion Hiroshima bomb energy equivalents over 10 years or 5 bombs per second! This is in the past 10 years alone, a time where you say warming has stopped!

    3. No, Copie, its just the old ability of warm saline water at the ocean surface to be more dense than the cooler, less saline water below it, and thus sink into the depths.

      But still not as dense as yourself, judging by your ignorant comment on this subject without being aware of the thermohaline circulation of the World Ocean.

      Whilst we’re about it, Copie, did you know that particles are also waves? Fancy that!

      Isn’t science wonderful – it rilly makes y’ think, eh?

    1. How about you put an experiment Copie: Get two buckets of water, same amount of water, same initial temp. Put one in a dark corner of the room, put a light over the other. Return after 24 hrs….. measure temps. Report back.
      BTW if you take the 5 Hiroshima bombs per second (heat added at present on average to the oceans) and divide that by the surface area of the oceans, what do you get in Watt/m2?
      Give it a go. You can do it!

  5. Don’t be obtuse, Rob. Try suspending a 200 watt light over the bath for 24 hours and then tell me if the temperature has changed. Or seal the top of you electric jug, tip it upside down and tell me how long it takes to boil.

    1. Simpleton logic with a bathtub and torch only results in simpleton conclusions.

      Is there a wind-driven ocean circulation in your bathtub Copie? Ocean gyres? Ekman transport? Western Boundary Currents? Mesoscale eddies? Taylor columns?

      You can actually simulate some of this stuff Copie, but you’ll need to start spinning your bathtub to emulate the effects of Earth’s rotation.

    2. Copie, since you are interested in the lamp over bathtub experiment, why don’t you do it yourself?
      BTW since I doubt you are able to do the calculation I suggested above, given your comments, I’ll do it for you: Hiroshima bomb = 6.3E13 Jules. x 5 = 3.15E14 Joules. As these are added each second, the additional flow of energy into the oceans to achieve the warming we saw over the last 10 years is 3.15E14 Watt. The Oceans have a surface area of 361 million km2 = 3.16E14 m2 => power per m2 to achieve this heating = 0.87 W/m2

      See, you only need to affect the radiation balance of Earth by that little over a decade to create the warming of the oceans over that time that we observed.

      This simple back of the envelope calculation shows that the warming we measure in the oceans is of the same order of magnitude as the climate forcing we know we are putting on the system due to AGW.

      Now troll off, find two buckets and a lamp and do your experiment!

  6. Perhaps we should use the ongoing example of a volcanoe on the deep seabed, constantly pumping out heat. There is no evidence that this heat accumulates around the volcano rather than rising to the surface, as all heat does.

  7. I see we’ve encountered Copie before on other threads. Defending the much maligned Lord Moncton was his/her last mission here, back in April. I attempted to engage in conversation but no go. Copie is of the kind who likes to drop in for a quick poop and then away.

    Engaging with evidence is not in the mission manual.

      1. I think you’ve just coined a new term, neolfuller! Now wait for it to go viral! Who’s the poet around here?

        Problem with blogflies is that, like ordinary flies, they have a memory that lasts only one second, so what goes around, goes around again, and again…We need Thomas to keep swiping!

  8. Trenberth led the group that concluded for the IPCC AR4 that 25 years was the shortest time over which something meaningful could be said about the global average surface temperature chart. He was saying he still believed that figure several years ago.

    Frame noted that some or all of the Otto authors have said such things in the past. Nevertheless all the Otto group signed off on a statement that what, due to their impression that better data is now available, better minds now exist, better methods have been applied, whatever, we can now speak about finding meaning in a decadal “trend” to the point where, this group suggests, what the world believes the transient climate response is should be altered as a result.

    Consider Balmaseda 2013. One of their prime references, i.e. Levitus, discusses uncertainty in ocean heat storage values saying as much as 8% more heat than they, Levitus, felt confident “finding” had accumulated in the ocean could have accumulated below 3000m citing Kouketsu 2011. “We simply do not have enough… data” is what Levitus concluded, meaning they thought Kouketsu didn’t have enough data, so they left out what Kouketsu found. Nevetheless they mention it. Now this below 3000m heat storage Kouketsu discuss is a lot of heat. Levitus presents a rough calculation involving the amount of accumulating heat they did say they found, i.e in the 0-2000 m layer. That heat, if it was “instantly transferred” to the lower 10km of the atmosphere, Levitus says, warms it by 36 degrees C. So what Kouketsu finds is another 2.8 degrees C. And what about the layer 2000m-3000m?

    Levitus pointed to aerosols as another potentially large source of uncertainty: Kaufmann 2011, Solomon 2010, and Solomon 2011. I presume Otto are not assuming geoengineering, i.e. stratospheric aerosols, in their calculation to replace the effect of aerosols that will no longer be present once CO2 emissions are reduced. Hansen repeatedly states we are almost “completely ignorant” of their true effect, although he has recently increased the factor he applies to include their cooling effect in his calcuations.

    Is there enough data about the oceans or aerosol effect to conclude what Otto conclude?

    My understanding of the 2 degrees target which many have been saying would be impossible for civilization to achieve under any scenario of emission reduction considered by reports such as the Stern, etc., given the pre-Otto idea of TCR, was that no one who actually knew what it was ever regarded it as “safe”. Schellnhuber described it, I believe, at the 4 degrees conference in the UK, as if engineers building a nuclear reactor in your own neighborhood told you it had a 25% chance of blowing up and destroying your home. No one would accept such odds for anything happening near their own home, yet everyone is expected to accept worse odds for everyone and all known life’s home, i.e. the planet. Yet that, according to Schellnhuber, was what the 2 degrees target given the old assumptions about how fast civilization could reduce its emissions and how much warming was probable as a result of the GHG that would be in the atmosphere at the peak, was what negotiators and commentators were blithely discussing. “It’s only the planet we are talking about”, he said, I thought, somewhat sadly.

    Considering all this, it seems to me Otto may be grasping at straws, because if things are as those authors all thought things were, the balance of probability in their minds was that civilization was already committed to an unstable planetary system warming out of control and they didn’t like that.

    1. Thanks for this David. Much appreciated. John Cook at Skeptical Science has also covered this ground, with an excellent graph showing deep sea-level rise. I believe that the Southern Oscillation plays a part in burying the heat deep in the oceans.
      My question for those up on the science is, how long can the ocean keep storing heat before it starts releasing it back into the atmosphere?

  9. Perhaps you should quote someone other than Kevin Trenberth when speaking about this mystical ” heat hidden in the deep ocean” David Lewis.
    It has been revealed that Trnberth and Gerald Meehl, when they were searching for the “lost” heat did not physically test any temperatures.
    Instead, they used what they term ” a powerful software tool known as the Community Climate System Model” to find this hidden heat?

    1. The deep ocean warming predicted by the NCAR climate model was later confirmed by measurements from the ARGO float program. See Levitus (2012), Nuccitelli (2012) and Balmaseda (2013).

      This is pretty much what we expect when the ocean gyres spin-up. Something observed in Roemmich (2007,) when they examined changes in the South Pacific subtropical gyre just to the east of New Zealand.

      And by the way Copie, the quality of your trolling leaves a lot to be desired. I expect it gives lurkers a few chuckles.

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