Posts Tagged ‘science’

Useful climate tools and data sites

January 11, 2011

Here are some links to useful climate data/tools. There’re my favourite places to get simple data.

If anyone uses anything different, please leave let me know!

KMNI’s Climate Explorer – excellent tool to get loads of data and basic plots. I’ve always found the inface friendly too.

NASA’s GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP) – raw station data and nice plotting tool.

UEA’s Climatic Research Unit have lots of data but no plotting tools.

Daily Earth Temperatures from Satellites – if you want satellite derived temperatures from various levels, this is the place to go.

NOAA’s National Climatic Data Centre – looks like there’s lots there but I’ve never really looked through it.

The University of Wyoming’s weather balloon data – probably a bit niche for this list but this is an amazing archive of balloon data from all over the world! Surely you need to check just how strong the Antarctic inversion is today? No?

The volcano: an interesting scientific distraction.

May 27, 2010

I realise that the volcano that is currently erupting in Iceland has caused a lot of problems for a lot of people.

However, if I can see one plus side it’s all the impromptu atmospheric science that is going on around it. For example, the first paper about the volcano, which is looking at the electric charge of the ash plume from balloon measurements taken over Scotland, has just been published. [As an interesting aside, one the instruments that was used in this work uses the plastic case that holds the toy in a Kinder Egg!]

This is remarkably quick work. To collect data in April and then publish a paper in May is almost unheard of.

There’s plenty more examples of this and I’m sure lots of interesting science will emerge in the coming years as a result of this unforeseen event.

In Manchester where I work, a lot of people have put their usual work to one side to concentrate on the plume. One of my colleagues is currently in the Shetland Isles repairing an instrument that we moved up there last month to observe the plume and many others are away manning instruments on research planes that are investigating the plume or analysing the data that has been collected.

This is all an inconvenience and big projects are getting delayed but many people are working really hard to understand the ash cloud and are finding out new things along the way. So it’s not all bad.

ResearchBlogging.orgR G Harrison, K A Nicoll, Z Ulanowski and T A Mather (2010). Self-charging of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic ash plume Environ. Res. Lett., 5

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

On “the real holes in climate science”

February 10, 2010

[This post is based on a question I got in response to a previous post but thought it deserved a short post on its own as there's a few interesting points.]

There’s been a lot of bad press recently for climate science but a lot of has focused on very minor issues. For example, most of the coverage on the UEA CRU email leak/theft/hack (so-called climategate) has focused on what some of the “skeptic” community wished was in the emails rather than what was really there. The Guardian has gone over some of the issues from the leak in depth in a recent series of articles, although this seems like a lot of focus on old issues. As Prof. Phil Jones himself said in a recent interview in The Sunday Times: “I wish people would read my scientific papers rather than my emails”. Glaciergate was equally blown out of all proportion given that the original claim only appeared in one sentence in a 3000 page report.

In the midst of all this, Nature printed a nice feature looking at the real big gaps in climate science (Schiermeier 2010), but it is behind a paywall, which is a shame because it’s a good piece. So, I thought I’d provide a very quick summary here.

Regional climate prediction

We still don’t have sufficient computing power to run models at high enough resolution to make projections on the scale that would be useful to policy makers. This is clearly required to make big infrastructure decisions.


Projections of precipitation patterns are really hard to make as they depend on temperature changes, circulation changes, radiative balance changes and pollution (and, therefore, cloud condensation nuclei) changes. Yet precipitation changes will probably have the biggest impact on society.


The effect of aerosols (i.e. small solid particles or liquid droplets suspended in the atmosphere) is a big unknown. Different types do different things and its not really certain whether they have a generally cooling effect – by reflecting away solar radiation – or a warming effect – by promoting more cloud growth and trapping more terrestrial heat. That said, any cooling effect would be very unlikely to reverse the warming impact of greenhouse gases.

The tree-ring controversy

This relates mostly to the “hockey stick” graph and the reliability of the palaeoclimate data we use to put our current climate into perspective. It’s important that we learn from past climate changes as we only have one atmosphere and can’t do experiments with it. But it is not easy to get palaeoclimate data (tree rings, ice cores, sediment cores) or to interpret them properly.

So what is the “consensus”?

In a certain sense, when people talk about the “scientific consensus about climate change” they really mean little more than our understanding of the greenhouse effect, our impact on it and that things are very likely to get messy in the future. All the details are still very much under investigation.


ResearchBlogging.orgSchiermeier, Q. (2010). The real holes in climate science Nature, 463 (7279), 284-287 DOI: 10.1038/463284a

Skepticism or denial?

February 3, 2010

Whilst I would describe myself as a scientific skeptic, in that I will try to investigate claims before coming to a judgement, I would not say I was a “climate change skeptic”. This term is often used to label those that are irrationally dismissive of the scientific evidence (or worse). Several commentators on climate issues, notably George Monbiot of the Guardian, have now started referring to many within this group as “climate change deniers” as it appears that any amount of evidence counter to their stance will alter their belief in that position. One prominent blogger, though, found the use of the denial tag unhelpful and has set himself the challenge, as a layperson, “to make sense of the global warming and climate change debates” via a new blog.

Now, though, we have an opportunity to test the scientific integrity of one of these skeptics. Anthony Watts, an American weather presenter, blogger and self proclaimed climate change skeptic, was instrumental in setting up a web campaign to survey the United States climatological surface station records – This is a laudable scientific aim, regardless of the fact that it was done in the belief that it would show that the surface temperature recording method was flawed and that the warming trend observed in the US was an artefact of the local micro-conditions.

The analysis on the website consists of quite a lot of not-very-scientific comments about photographs on how poorly sited some of these stations are. Watts has also published a report with some of the photographs alongside their temperature records. However, Matthew Menne (a scientist at the American National Climatic Data Center) and co-authors have published a peer reviewed, systematic analysis of the US surface station temperature records. The results show that the poorly located stations, as determined by, actually show a negative bias relative to the well located sites. This means that the poorly located sites introduce an artificial cooling in the temperature record, not a warming as Watts predicted. Clearly, the uncovering of such a bias in the surface station network in the US means that the infrastructure requires tighter regulation as it is not, at certain locations, doing its job properly.

In this situation, I suspect that a true skeptic would be proud that their effort had highlighted a real issue and contributed to the scientific understanding. However, as approached their investigation with the hypothesis that the network would introduce artificial warming, how will they react?


ResearchBlogging.orgM. J. Menne, C. N. Williams, & M. A. Palecki (2010). On the reliability of the U.S. Surface Temperature Record Journal of Geophysical Research : doi:10.1029/2009JD013094


The paper can be found here
There is a more thorough analysis of the paper by the Skeptical Science blog
There is some comment in The Guardian’s Environment blog

Glaciergate in perspective

January 18, 2010

The story is about a claim in the 2007 IPCC report that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035.  It turns out that the evidence for this claim was from a speculative comment made by a not-very-prominent glaciologist in New Scientist in 1999.  The Times and The Express have gone to town with this story.  So, what does it really mean?

A little bit of background…

To understand the significance of Glaciergate, we first need to understand how the IPCC works.  So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is split into 3 Working Groups:

  • WGI: The Physical Science Basis
  • WGII: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
  • WGIII: Mitigation of Climate Change

Each group produced a separate report in 2007.  They were each about 1000 pages long.  This was the fourth IPPC report round, the others were in 1990, 1995 and 2001.

WGI reviews and synthesises all the work on the physics and chemistry of the Earth system and tries to make projections of how things like temperature, rainfall and atmospheric circulation will change in the future.  I refer to this report a lot in my work as a meteorologist/climatologist.

I know a little about Working Group II – it is written by hydrologists, glaciologists, economists, social scientists and medical scientists – but I have very little idea about what goes on in WGIII.  I also confess that I’ve never looked at the WGIII report.  WGs II and III rely on a certain degree of speculation; it is their business to ask what the world would be like if certain things happen based on the projections from WGI.

Was the Himalayan meltdown a “central claim” in the IPPC report?

The 2035 date relating to the Himalayas appears in one sentence in Chapter 10 of the Working Group II report.  So this is one sentence in nearly 3000 pages. As far as I can see (please correct me if I’m wrong) the 2035 claim was not repeated in the WGII Summary for Policymakers or the overall Synthesis Report.  This was not a central claim.

Given that WGII is speculative by nature then Glaciergate appears to be a reviewing error rather than an attempt to distort the science.  Why the claim was given an implied “very likely” (90% certain) tag is worrying but then this is the first questioning of anything in the report that I can remember since it was published in 2007 – that says a lot for the skill and thoroughness of the report reviewers.

Most importantly, though, the WGII glacier claim changes absolutely nothing about the fundamental science behind climate change that appears in WGI.  This is like saying you wont trust anything in the economics section of The Times because they once printed a football result wrong.  The WGI science is all robust and, if anything, quite conservative in its claims and projections.

Dr Rajendra Pachauri (IPCC Chair) is a former railway engineer with a PhD in economics and no formal climate science qualifications…

Today’s Express also makes this statement as if it undermines the whole of the IPCC.  If anything, it just shows that the reporter has very little idea what the IPCC actually does.  Pachauri has worked in several different scientific disciplines and has headed a large organisation before.  In my mind, that more than qualifies him to head the IPCC.

Anyway, if you’re looking for people with in depth knowledge of specific fields, then there are the WG Chairs.  For example, WGI was chaired by Susan Solomon, who stands a pretty good chance of being awarded a Nobel prize for her work in the 1980s on the ozone “hole”.  Beneath the WG Chairs, each chapter has at least 1 co-ordinating author and 1 lead author.  Beneath them, each chapter also has many contributing authors, all experts in their field.

This attack on Pachauri doesn’t hold up very well.

The revelation is the latest crack to appear in the scientific concensus over climate change…

This claim was made in the Times yesterday, with the other cited cracks being the CRU email theft and something about sea level rise estimates.  This claim seems to assume that “consensus” means that no new work is going on in the climate sciences or at least demonstrates a complete ignorance of how science works.

Things will change in the science, which is exactly why the plans for the next IPCC report (due in 2014) are already well under way!  These are exciting (and, if I’m honest, a little depressing) times for climate science so its disappointing that many people outside the research community don’t want to know about it.

Britain’s snow and climate change

January 8, 2010

NOTE: This post is from January 2010. I put a temperature anomaly plot from October 2010 here and I’ll do one for November 2010 as soon as the data is available.

I’m sure most of the Brits out there have seen this amazing NASA image of Britain covered in snow.  I love satellite images and use them a lot in my research – they really help me get a grasp of the big picture.

But what does this cold weather tell us about climate change?  Well, if we examine the whole northern hemisphere and look at how the temperatures for December compared to those from the last 30 years, then we get an interesting picture:

So, northern Europe and North America were colder than usual.  But southern Europe, Greenland, the Arctic and north Africa were all warmer than usual.  The situation for January will probably be quite similar.  So, looking at the bigger picture, the recent cold conditions in the UK don’t really tell us much about climate change – we need to look on big scales in both time and area.

Snow in Manchester

January 5, 2010

I’ve not gone to work today.  There’s quite a bit of snow out there.  But why?

Well, the main reason why it’s cold here is because it is winter.  This sounds obvious but it’s worth remembering why it gets cold in winter.  Earth rotates with a tilt so, throughout the year, different parts of the planet get more sunlight.  At the moment, the UK is getting less sunlight so it’s colder.

However, the reason why it is just so cold and snowy right now is a bit more complicated.  If you look at the pressure chart below then you can see that the isobars are almost parallel  from the Arctic all the way to the north of the UK.  This means that very cold air is flowing right to our doorstep.  Brrr!  Watch out further south as the front (the region where the cold air meets slightly warmer air, which produces the precipitation) moves southwards and takes the snow with it.

Copenhagen and other disasters

December 31, 2009

I recently did a little interview for Newsround about the Copenhagen summit.  They filmed it before the conference had started so I tried to be upbeat and optimistic about the outcome.  As it turned out, the summit was a bit of a disappointment.  The Copenhagen Accord seems a bit lame, especially pages 4 and 5, which are a couple of blank tables shoved on the end.  It reminds of the kind of thing you would do at school if you had no results but wanted to make your report a bit longer.

Looking back, I had absolutely no reason to be optimistic about Copenhagen.  My relatively short education/career in weather and climate science has been littered with events that should’ve made me more realistic.  Here are a few such events…

1997 – Kyoto

In 1997 I’d just started my physics degree and was really interested in environmental issues.  I followed the Kyoto negotiations.  The big problem here was the unwillingness of the USA to ratify the agreement.  Even before the protocol had been finalised, the US Senate had decided not to ratify anything that did not include binding targets for developing nations.  This failure is not surprising given that the way members of the Senate fund their election campaigns – they are left with a responsibility to the interests of organisations who are resistant to big changes.  Al Gore, as vice-president, nonetheless signed the protocol in 1998.

2000 – George W. Bush

I was an MSc student in 2000, studying environmental science at UEA.  Knowing Bush’s background, his election seemed a big step backwards in the political negotiations regarding climate change.  It was.

2001 – IPCC Third Assessment Report and the “hockey stick”

Just as I was starting my PhD in Antarctic climate science, the 3rd report of the IPCC was finished.  The high media profile given to the report was an inspiration for my work but one of the details in the report has been under intense scrutiny since 1998 when it was first published in Nature.

The level of scientific and media analysis of this work must be unprecedented.  The attempts to discredit the science and reputations of the scientists involved with the Hockey Stick graph has continued right up until the UEA email theft in 2009.  However, the science has stood up to all the questions asked of it.

2003 – European heat waves

These heat waves were one of the clearest signals of a changing climate in Europe and resulted in an estimated 30,000 deaths.  30,000!  Most of these people were probably ill or vulnerable but the press coverage of this never seemed to reflect the scale of the disaster.

2004 – George W. Bush, again

2007 – Bali

Maybe the 2007 UNFCC conference would result in a better outcome?  Well, there’s Yvo de Boer (Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC) breaking down in tears at the final press conference.  Not a high point.

Ok, so Bali wasn’t so bad – some sort of agreement was cobbled together at the last minute but there was certainly no sense of pulling together.  So why is this all going so badly?  In 1987, with the Montreal protocol, World leaders managed to get together and solve the global CFC/ozone problem.  That process happened quite quickly but how long will it be before the solution to the climate problem starts to even get on the right track?  Will it be before the end of my career?  Regardless, Copenhagen was not that point.


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