Archive for March, 2010

Storms and climate change

March 25, 2010

I’ve been pretty distracted recently with the Institute of Physics issue. I’ll hopefully draw that chapter to a close in the next couple of weeks (it looks like the IoP are going to stick their head in the sand and wait for it to blow over) but right now I’m bringing my current project to a close so I thought I’d look at how that work has gone and where it’ll go in the future.

The work I’ve been doing at Manchester over the last few years is looking at how storms form – the kind of storms that lead to floods like the one seen in Boscastle in 2004.

These type of storms are pretty difficult to forecast because they are often smaller than the computer model grid box size that such models use to chunk up the atmosphere into a more manageable mathematical problem. I spoke about this in a recent edition of the NERC Planet Earth podcast.

I’ve been part of a couple of big projects that try and observe these storms as they form. We do this by getting big teams of scientists, around 50 or so, to go to a certain location for a few months and then use surface stations, aeroplanes, weather balloons, radar, lidar and satellite data to get a really good picture of what’s going on.

The video below shows the Chilbolton radar scanning convective clouds as they develop whilst someone launches weather balloons in the bottom left hand corner – this is pretty typical of what goes on at several locations during these campaigns, although this is the biggest dish we’ve used.

I’ve only been looking at a small part of the storm problem: how does air that descends from the stratosphere influence these storms?

I’ve shown that this upper-level air can sometimes make storms less likely by introducing thin layers into the atmosphere that can cap storms before they get going (Russell et al., 2008) and sometimes make storms more likely by changing the temperature structure of the atmosphere to make the convection more powerful (Russell et al., 2009).

That doesn’t sound much like progress, does it? Well, now that we know a lot more about these two types of effect, we can start to generalise them and use that knowledge to help forecasters improve their predictions and computer models. This is what we are working on now.

So how does climate change fit in to all this?

The next big step in this work is to try and define a “storm environment”, including what we now know about these upper-level features, and apply this to the kind of projections that climate models produce. These projections use even bigger grid boxes than weather models so this step will not be easy but if we can show that this method works using the data that is available now (and hope for better resolution soon) then we can start to think about the likely changes in this storm environment. These big storms can really affect people’s lives so this type of work is something that would influence how we start to prepare for the future.


ResearchBlogging.orgRussell, A., Vaughan, G., Norton, E., Morcrette, C., Browning, K., & Blyth, A. (2008). Convective inhibition beneath an upper-level PV anomaly Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 134 (631), 371-383 DOI: 10.1002/qj.214

ResearchBlogging.orgRUSSELL, A., VAUGHAN, G., NORTON, E., RICKETTS, H., MORCRETTE, C., HEWISON, T., BROWNING, K., & BLYTH, A. (2009). Convection forced by a descending dry layer and low-level moist convergence Tellus A, 61 (2), 250-263 DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0870.2008.00382.x

Institute of Physics S&TC evidence submission – what’s actually wrong with it?

March 6, 2010

There’s clearly some interest in the IoP evidence submission and my original letter to the IoP didn’t really go into my objections in great detail. I thought I should go through the evidence submission in one place instead of explaining my views in response to blog comments.

Overall, I’m not objecting to the statement because I disagree with it (although I do). I object to it because, for an evidence submission, it contains no evidence and it is judgemental. The IoP should be embarrassed to have its name associated with it and, in my opinion, should retract this evidence statement. Here are my thoughts on why the first 8 points from the submission are inadequate:

“1. The Institute is concerned that, unless the disclosed e-mails are proved to be forgeries or adaptations, worrying implications arise for the integrity of scientific research in this field and for the credibility of the scientific method as practised in this context.”

This point contradicts the IoP’s assertion in their recent press releases that they accept the current understanding of climate science as presented by the IPCC. More worryingly, despite the fact that CRU’s research findings have not been undermined by the email leak, this point implies that the integrity and credibility of the whole of climate science is now in doubt. There is no justification for this extrapolation even if CRU’s research were compromised.

“2. The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions and freedom of information law. The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital. The lack of compliance has been confirmed by the findings of the Information Commissioner. This extends well beyond the CRU itself – most of the e-mails were exchanged with researchers in a number of other international institutions who are also involved in the formulation of the IPCC’s conclusions on climate change.”

This is a rather one sided analysis of the unique issues relating to the data that CRU use – there is what I consider to be a more balanced and better informed overview here.

Further, UEA present a different interpretation of the Freedom of Information issues informed by their correspondence with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

“3. It is important to recognise that there are two completely different categories of data set that are involved in the CRU e-mail exchanges:

• those compiled from direct instrumental measurements of land and ocean surface temperatures such as the CRU, GISS and NOAA data sets; and

• historic temperature reconstructions from measurements of ‘proxies’, for example, tree-rings.”

There’s not much to take issue with here other than the very final part – “for example, tree rings” – which doesn’t really give an indication of the full range of proxy measures that have been used in the reconstructions.

“4. The second category relating to proxy reconstructions are the basis for the conclusion that 20th century warming is unprecedented. Published reconstructions may represent only a part of the raw data available and may be sensitive to the choices made and the statistical techniques used. Different choices, omissions or statistical processes may lead to different conclusions. This possibility was evidently the reason behind some of the (rejected) requests for further information.”

“This possibility was evidently the reason…” I read this as wild speculation. Is there any evidence to back this theory up? If not, it has no place in an evidence submission. More generally, though, why have the studies that have investigated the details of the proxy compilation in the IPCC report (The “Wegman” report, 2006 and The National Research Council Report, 2006) not been mentioned and critiqued?

“5. The e-mails reveal doubts as to the reliability of some of the reconstructions and raise questions as to the way in which they have been represented; for example, the apparent suppression, in graphics widely used by the IPCC, of proxy results for recent decades that do not agree with contemporary instrumental temperature measurements.”

For me, this is the low point of the evidence submission. Surely the reason for asking organisations like the IoP to provide evidence is that they have the knowledge to provide context to the issues at hand. This point has not done that – it is merely an ill informed judgement on a quote from an old email (the “…hide the decline…” one).

If this point were to be taken seriously, they would need to have referred to the figures in specific papers or documents where they believe that the proxy records were suppressed.

I suspect that they have not done this because there is no evidence to back up this point. For example, Briffa et al. 1999 (“Reduced sensitivity of recent tree-growth to temperature at high northern latitudes” in Nature) specifically discusses the issues of dendroclimatology divergence. Chapter 6.6 of the IPCC AR4 WG1 report also looks at the details of the proxy reconstructions of the climate of the last 2000 years, including divergence. There are other examples. I cannot see how the IoP can interpret this as suppression.

”6. There is also reason for concern at the intolerance to challenge displayed in the e-mails. This impedes the process of scientific ‘self correction’, which is vital to the integrity of the scientific process as a whole, and not just to the research itself. In that context, those CRU e-mails relating to the peer-review process suggest a need for a review of its adequacy and objectivity as practised in this field and its potential vulnerability to bias or manipulation.”

This point again seems one sided and gives no recognition to the efforts of the scientists in question to engage with their critics before they were subjected to unfounded attacks on their work and integrity.

In relation to the second issue in this point, peer review, the IoP should surely have looked beyond an account of what people were saying in an incomplete archive of private emails. If we look at what actually happened in the public arena then, as an example, certain papers that were discussed in those emails were not excuded from the IPCC report as was suggested.

“7. Fundamentally, we consider it should be inappropriate for the verification of the integrity of the scientific process to depend on appeals to Freedom of Information legislation. Nevertheless, the right to such appeals has been shown to be necessary. The e-mails illustrate the possibility of networks of like-minded researchers effectively excluding newcomers. Requiring data to be electronically accessible to all, at the time of publication, would remove this possibility.”

Again, there are particular issues relating to a small percentage of the data used by the CRU. Newcomers to the field were not excluded from contributing (if anything, the work of CRU in collecting all this data and producing usable girded products promotes the inclusion of newcomers) but the issues relating to the data mean that, at presnt, to replicate the work they would have to request the data from third parties themselves.

This point again seems rather one sided. For example, was the aim of the FoI requests really to replicate the CRU temperature product? This blog post and some of the comments indicate that it probably wasn’t. But I agree that making the data available is still important as a matter of principle.

“8. As a step towards restoring confidence in the scientific process and to provide greater transparency in future, the editorial boards of scientific journals should work towards setting down requirements for open electronic data archiving by authors, to coincide with publication. Expert input (from journal boards) would be needed to determine the category of data that would be archived. Much ‘raw’ data requires calibration and processing through interpretive codes at various levels.”

Similar to the final sentence of point 7, this is a nice recommendation but it does not really address the issues at hand. Incidentally, this proposed “standard” is not even employed by the IoP’s own journals – for example, ERL allows data to be uploaded with papers but it is not required. To imply that CRU have acted badly by not complying with this non-existent standard makes no sense.


Anonymous members of the Institute of Physics Science Board (2010). The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Memorandum

Dear Institute of Physics…

March 3, 2010

After publishing my post on the CRU and S&TC yesterday, I looked into the IoP’s evidence submission in a bit more detail and was quite surprised. Here is an open letter to the IoP about that evidence:

Dear Institute of Physics

As a member of the IoP I am very concerned about the recent memorandum submitted by the IoP to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

In my view, it is unfair to criticise the CRU on the basis that they did not comply with data sharing standards that, at present, don’t exist. There is clearly a need for rules regarding openness in relation to data and methods but it is foolish to retrospectively admonish people for not following them! Do the journals currently published by the IoP employ the data policies suggested in your statement?

There also seems to be some misunderstanding in the statement of the particular issues relating to the data that the CRU use in their research and how some of the issues discussed in the private and incomplete email records were resolved in the peer reviewed literature and other open arenas. In particular, point 5 of your evidence is incorrect and irresponsible given that it casts unwarranted doubt over the findings of the IPCC.

Furthermore, your statement gives no recognition to the efforts of the scientists in question to engage with their critics before they were subjected to unfounded attacks on their work and integrity and orchestrated FoI request campaigns.

Finally, I am confused as to why the Energy group was tasked with preparing the statement and not the Environmental Physics group, who would have been more aware of the particular issues in this case.

I realise that a small clarification has been issued but if the IoP continues to stand by this statement then I will have no other option but to reconsider my membership of your organisation.

Yours faithfully,

Andy Russell MInstP

Some similar posts:

Stoat: The IoP fiasco
Some beans: A letter to the Institute of Physics

CORRECTION: The statement was written by the “Energy Sub-group of the IoP’s Science Board” not the “IoP’s Energy Group” as I previously thought. Either way, the IoP has still not been open about who wrote the statement.

UPDATE 5/3/2010: In response to my letter I was sent an email from the IoP standing by the submission and an anonymous statement from a member of the Science Board about the process of writing the evidence submission. Here is that statement:

“The IOP contribution has been widely understood and welcomed – not universally, apparently, but then there is a debate going on. Scientists are sometimes criticised for not engaging, and I hope we can look forward to hearing from professional bodies representing other branches of science.

“The Institute should feel equally relaxed about the process by which it generated what is, anyway, a statement of the obvious. The standard process for policy submissions by IOP – it makes dozens per year – was followed. Typically a call for evidence is spotted or received by IOP HQ. Usually the timescale is tight. A first draft is put together at Portland Place – working scientists just don’t have time to do this. The draft is then emailed round to all members of IOP advisory bodies that might want to contribute, which is where working scientists come in. Science Board is one of several such bodies. When we do respond – my personal strike rate is definitely under 50 per cent – we copy round our responses, so other committee members get multiple opportunities to comment if they wish to. During this phase people can and do say “Sorry, I disagree”. Remember that there is a tight deadline, and by the time it is reached, everyone who seriously wants to comment will have done so. Collective responsibility then kicks in, which is why I am not revealing my identity.”

UPDATE 6/3/2010: apparently not realising that it kind of proves my point about the sort of behaviour Phil Jones has had to deal with for years, I got an email today in response to my perfectly reasonable assessment of the IoP’s evidence submission:

For a physicist you are a bit of a cretin.

However your views on the release of scientific data for verification are positively neolithic.

What kind of blind, bigoted AGW Alarmist tosser are you?

Pull your head out of your arse and smell the coffee!

Have a nice day!

The Climatic Research Unit and the Science and Technology Committee

March 2, 2010

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee met yesterday for a one off evidence session looking at the disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. This blog post is a quick summary of what I thought were the key issues. [Apologies for the use of some jargon that crops up because of the nature of the CRU emails.]

Lord Lawson and Dr Benny Peiser were first up. They represent the Global Warming Policy Foundation who, amusingly, failed to plot 8 temperature values correctly in their logo – I’m not sure that this gives them the authority to question 25 years of academic research on climate data but let’s see what they had to say…

Lawson’s main point was about the fundamental importance of transparency in science (not that Lawson or Peiser have ever been scientists). However, he would not answer the question put to him about who funds his organisation – this was a bit of a cheap shot but it helped make the point that transparency is only important to them in other organisations.

Evan Harris MP did excellent work in setting Lawson up for a fall in his questions about the “…hide the decline…” emails. Lawson was claiming that the details of dendroclimatology divergence were not discussed in any of the subsequent key papers on tree ring based climate reconstructions. Harris then got Lawson to agree that if the CRU scientists could show that they did discuss this matter in their publications then this was not an issue. This comes up again later.

Ian Stewart MP also asked some questions about work that the GWPF plan to do that highlighted their lack of scientific credentials or ambition. Lawson also brought up an incorrect criticism of satellite measurements, which Prof. Julia Slingo (MetOffice) would subsequently correct, and claimed that the “hockey stick” graph was “fraudulent” and periods of it were based on only one tree, claims which he has no evidence to back up.

Next to be questioned was Richard Thomas CBE, UK Information Commissioner (2002-2009), who provided some quite technical details on Freedom of Information – I’m not too sure what he added to the session. I suspect I do not understand enough about FoI laws but my interpretation of his evidence was that CRU may or may not have done anything wrong and that methodology, if documented, has to be distributed under FoI requests but there is no requirement to document it.

I felt that the most important witness, Prof. Phil Jones (accompanied by UEA vice-chancellor Prof. Edward Acton), did not look particularly well and spoke a bit shakily. He went over quite a bit of the background to CRU’s work and data policies and delt with most of the issues. However, he could have done much better when asked about reproducibility of CRU’s gridded surface temperature products by others: all he needed to say was that as long as someone spent the time collecting the data from meteorological organisations and read some scientific papers then they could, with a bit of work, re-produce the CRU temperature product!

This was typical of his statments – it seemed like he missed the point of many of the questions – this was quite a contrast to Lawson who was obviously more comfortable with the rhetoric required to successfully get through these sessions. In particular, Jones’ statement that he’d sent some “awful emails” was probably meant as a joke but it didn’t get any laughs.

Evan Harris MP completed his manoeuvre of highlighting Lord Lawson’s misunderstanding of the divergence issue – Phil Jones described that the “trick” was discussed in a Nature paper, where he suspects they were the first group to use the term “divergence”, and that they were explicit in subsequent papers about this issue. I suspect that this will be a key point in the committee’s report.

Harris appeared to be the only member of the committee that understood the background enough to have devised a consistent line of questioning to the witnesses. Indeed, some of the questions from other committee members made it clear their understanding of peer review and research methods was not great.

My live streaming of the event cut out as Sir Muir Russell (Head of the Independent Climate Change E-Mails Review) took the hot seat so I missed his and Prof. John Beddington (Government Chief Scientific Adviser), Prof. Julia Slingo OBE (Chief Scientist, Met Office) and Prof. Bob Watson’s (Chief Scientist, Defra) statements but reviewing the Gaurdian live blog of the session, there don’t seeem to have been any more bombshells. The most important development was that the quite negative Institute of Physics evidence submission came up – the final group of witnesses felt that it pre-judged the outcome of the enquiry.

My overall impression was that the committee, as well as the GWPF, didn’t seem to understand enough about the scientific process to make progress in this case: papers don’t have a right to be published – they have to be good enough; scientific methods are discussed in papers but no-one publishes computer code of how the analyses were performed – this should probably change though. Phil Jones was also not well prepared to answer general questions from a non-specialist panel and would clearly prefer to deal with arguments in the pages of peer-reviewed journals.

Antarctic climate change – the exception that proves the rule?

March 1, 2010

Antarctica has been in the news recently because two large icebergs (one about 60 miles long and the other about 50) have broken off the continent. These “calving” events often occur naturally and these ones are probably not linked to climate change, although they might affect the global ocean circulation.

But I thought that this would be a good opportunity to have a look at the general climate situation in the South Pole region…

The clearest signal is rapid warming that has been seen on the Antarctic Peninsula (the bit that points up to South America) over the last 50 years.

The picture for the rest of the continent is not so clear, mainly because of the lack of data. For comparison, the USA has over 1000 climatological observing stations, some of which go back to the late 1800s; Antarctica currently has around 55 stations, very few of which go back to before 1957, (plus a similar number of automatic weather stations, which tend to not be maintained for long periods) and these data are used to represent a much bigger land area.

Antarctica compared to the USA[Image from NASA]

Nonetheless, there have been some high profile studies looking at Antarctic temperature trends, some finding cooling, some finding warming and nearly all being controversial.

So why is the warming on the Peninsula so clear?

The reason is that the warming is mostly driven by atmospheric circulation changes and not the increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations (although global climate change patterns forced by GHGs can include atmospheric circulation changes).

Ozone "hole"The key factor is that the ozone hole above the South Pole has changed the wind patterns – when ozone is removed from the stratosphere, less solar UV radiation is absorbed so the polar stratosphere cools. This increases the temperature change as you move away from the pole and, in turn, has changed the westerly (clockwise) winds that circle the pole – they are now further south and faster.

This wind pattern spreads down through the atmosphere towards the planet’s surface and has, therefore, brought more warm air from over the Southern Ocean to the Peninsula. This circulation change has less effect on the Antarctic interior and possibly even isolates it from the rest of the Earth system.

This climate change pattern is really interesting to study and we can even use ice core data from the Antarctic to look at how these winds have changed in the past – I’ve recently reviewed the literature on this subject (Russell and McGregor 2010).

Korhonen et al. (2010) have even found another mechanism of how these wind changes have affected the climate. As the wind speed over the ocean increases, it throws up more spray and this means that more clouds can form over the Southern Ocean and Antarctica (I’ll write a post later about how clouds form). If there are more, bright clouds around then these reflect away more incoming sunlight, which will cool the region beneath these clouds.

So, to bring all this together, if the Antarctic continent has been cooling (which isn’t clear) then this could be because the normal rules don’t apply to Antarctica. Does this mean that we can say that Antarctic climate change is the exception that proves the rule of GHG forced climate change?

Probably not, but it does highlight just how complicated the climate system is and how much more there is find out about it!


ResearchBlogging.orgKorhonen, H., Carslaw, K., Forster, P., Mikkonen, S., Gordon, N., & Kokkola, H. (2010). Aerosol climate feedback due to decadal increases in Southern Hemisphere wind speeds Geophysical Research Letters, 37 (2) DOI: 10.1029/2009GL041320

ResearchBlogging.orgRussell, A., & McGregor, G. (2009). Southern hemisphere atmospheric circulation: impacts on Antarctic climate and reconstructions from Antarctic ice core data Climatic Change DOI: 10.1007/s10584-009-9673-4


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