Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


2011: 9th Warmest Calendar Year On Record, Even With A La Niña

NASA’s James Hansen and a few of his colleagues released their assessment of 2011 global temperatures recently.  In short, 2011 was the 9th warmest year in the GISS dataset.

Just as importantly, this situation occurred in the midst of a continuing La Niña event that is of moderate strength.  La Niña is characterized by a general cooling of the tropical Pacific waters near the surface; it is frequently referred to as being the opposite of El Niño.  As La Niñas progress, global temperatures tend to cool from their normal state.  This of course has implications as scientists work to differentiate the effects of natural climate processes and those brought about by humans.  If one year’s temperatures are cooler than the preceding year’s (or are warmer), does that mean that global warming has stopped (as skeptics like to say) or does that mean that there are competing forcings that affect the temperatures recorded?

It is the assessment of an overwhelming majority of climate scientists that global warming has not stopped.  Instead, the 2nd half of 2010 and all of 2011 were dominated by La Niña events.  What does this mean?  It means that if the La Niña events had not occurred (and if there were no El Niños either), in other words purely “normal” conditions, 2011 likely would have been warmer than was recorded.  This should become obvious in the next 6 months to 3 years as this La Niña dissipates and conditions across the globe respond accordingly.  It takes ~6 months for downstream effects to show up in observations after ENSO phases start and after they go away.

Here is Hansen et al.‘s updated figure showing global land-ocean temperatures using an index:

Figure 1.  Global surface air temperature anomalies relative to 1951-1980 base period for annual and 5-year running means. Green vertical bars are 2σ error estimates (Hansen et al., 2010). [Source for all graphs: Hansen]

The last black square on the right hand side of the graph is 2011′s temperature index value: +0.51°C.  You can clearly see where the 9th highest ranking comes from when viewing this graph.  You can further see that 2011 was warmer than 2001, 2004 and 2008 (simply comparing the past 10 years of values), as well as every year prior to 2000 save 1998, the year when the last century’s strongest El Niño occurred.

But I wrote above that large changes can occur year-to-year and this is evidenced by the jagged look to the yearly data in the graph above.  So what happens if the data is analyzed in such a way as to remove the yearly signal?  Furthermore, can the ENSO and solar cycle signals be quieted down to get a better idea of what the global temperatures are likely doing?  Yes they can, as the following graph demonstrates:

Figure 2. Global surface air temperature anomalies relative to 1951-1980 base period for (a) the 12-month running mean, and (b) the 60-month and 132-month running means.

The right panel of Figure 2 demonstrates the results of the removal of the ENSO signal (red line, 60-month running mean) and the solar cycle signal (blue line, 132-month running mean).  The addition of more months into the running mean helps to remove more and more noise (to a limited degree, of course).  What is left behind is increasingly the global warming signal in global temperature data.  A key takeaway is this: the same general result can be seen regardless of the specific temperature dataset employed.

To expand on this topic a little more, here is a graph comparing mean temperature anomalies and the Nino 3.4 index (and index used to characterize the ENSO signal as El Niño or La Niña):

Figure 3. Global monthly and 12-month running mean surface temperature anomalies relative to 1951-1980 base period, and 12-month running mean of the Nino 3.4 index.

Paired with the Nino 3.4 index data, it is very easy to pick out the ENSO influence on the temperature data.  Peaks in global temperature anomalies tend to occur during El Niños while troughs in anomalies tend to occur during La Niñas.  As you can see, claims that global warming has “stopped” in the past couple of years are not likely to be correct since a prolonged La Niña has occurred during that time frame.  One good indicator of whether or not global warming has stopped will be what the global temperature anomaly is ~6 months after the next El Niño peak occurs (likely sometime in the next 3 years).

Another good indicator of whether global warming has stopped or not will be what global temperature anomalies register as the upcoming solar maximum descends from its next peak.  As the following graph illustrates, the peak is likely to occur 3+ years from now:

Figure 4. Solar irradiance from composite satellite-based time series. Data sources: For 1976/01/05 to 2011/02/02 Physikalisch Meteorologisches Observatorium Davos, World Radiation Center and for 2011/02/03 to 2012/01/11 University of Colorado Solar Radiation & Climate Experiment. Data are concatenated using the 2010/02/03 to 2011/02/02 period.

It is important to note that the global temperature response to the solar cycle is delayed by ~18 months.  So in 4-5 years from now, we’ll have a much clearer idea of the effects of global warming in the 1st half of the 2010s were.  That time period will occur after the next solar cycle maximum and after the next El Niño.  It strains credulity to think that global temperatures will be lower after those two milestones than they are today.

My thoughts on this are easily understood: it is more likely that global temperature anomalies will continue to exhibit decadal-scale rises than falls in our future (21st century).  As I’ve stated many times before, it is also likelier that projected temperature increases are underestimated, not overestimated.  We are more likely to read about additional top-10 warmest year on record in our future.  That said, I’d be happy to be wrong about all of this.  The changing environment we’re living in demands changes to the way our societies function.  I don’t believe those changes will be equally catastrophic to everybody around the globe.  But all of us will be affected by this phenomenon in one way or another.  How we decide to handle those changes will be the key.


State of the Poles – Jan 2012: Arctic Ice Near Historic Lows; Antarctic Ice Above Average

The state of global polar sea ice area in early January 2012 has temporarily returned to climatologically normal conditions (1979-2009).  Arctic sea ice has recovered very quickly after starting the freeze season slowly and Antarctic sea ice has melted more slowly than is normal for this time of year.  Put another way, polar sea ice has recovered from an extensive deficit of -2 million sq. km. area a couple of months ago to no anomaly today.  That said, sea ice area spent an unprecedented length of time near the -2 million sq. km. deficit in the modern era.  Generally poor environmental conditions established and maintained this condition, predominantly across the Arctic, this year.

Arctic Ice

According to the NSIDC, weather conditions this fall were slightly less conducive for Arctic sea ice melt than was the case in 2007, the year that witnessed the record low extent.  As such, December 2011′s extent was the 3rd lowest on record.  Additionally, Arctic sea ice extent on December 31st measured just 13.25 million sq. km.  That was only 561,000 sq. km. more than the 2010 record low extent.  Because the dipole anomaly didn’t set up in the same way or with the same intensity as in 2007, Arctic sea ice extent has measured slightly higher than record minima in recent months.  We can’t count on these types of weather variations in the future, of course.  Another reason ice extent was low but didn’t set another record was the difference in ice motion: sea ice was likelier to remain in the Arctic in 2011 than in 2007 or 2010.

Since September’s record low, Arctic sea ice has refrozen rapidly.  December’s sea ice extent increased by 2.37 million sq. km. (vs. 1.86 million sq. km. average).  This situation mimics that of recent years after ice extent reaches low values in September and the sun sets for the winter.  The ocean released massive amounts of heat to the atmosphere, especially this fall since the AO index has been extremely positive.  This has caused cold air from the continents to be bottled up in a stronger vortex than normal and has drawn heat from the Arctic Ocean as it passes over the warmer fluid.

In terms of longer, climatological trends, Arctic sea ice extent in December has decreased by -3.5% per decade  These rates are more negative this year than the previous year (a trend that has continued).  These rates also use 1979-2000 as the climatological normal.  There is no reason to expect these rates to change significantly any time soon.  Additional low ice seasons will continue.  The specific value for any given month during any given year is, of course, influenced by local and temporary weather conditions.  But it has become clearer every year that the establishment of a new normal in the Arctic is occurring.  This new normal will continue to have far-reaching implications on the weather in the mid-latitudes, where most people live.

Arctic Pictures and Graphs

The following graphic is a satellite representation of Arctic ice as of December 12, 2011:

Figure 1 – UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20111212.

Compare this with January 7th’s satellite representation, also centered on the North Pole:

Figure 2 – UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20120107.

Hudson Bay finally froze over completely.  The sea ice in the Bering Sea formed normally.  What is missing is the sea ice north of Scandinavia.  This is the result of anomalously warm waters from the Gulf Stream being drawn further north than is normal.  This is due to the exceptionally positive AO index during the past couple of months.  As a side note, this phenomenon combined with the moderate La Nina in the Pacific Ocean has led to January being a warm and dry month for most of the U.S. so far.  The AO index is returning to more normal values now, so cold air outbreaks will become more likely in February.

Overall, the health of the remaining ice pack is not healthy, as the following graph of Arctic ice volume from the end of December demonstrates:

Figure 3 – PIOMAS Arctic sea ice volume time series through December 2011.

As the graph shows, volume hit a record minimum earlier in 2011 before returning to the -2 standard deviation envelope.  I know most folks don’t have a very good handle on statistics, but conditions between -1 and -2 standard deviations are rare and conditions outside the -2 standard deviation threshold (see the line below the shaded area on the graph above) are incredibly rare: the chances of 2 of them occurring in 2 subsequent years under normal conditions are very, very remote.  Hence the assessment that “normal” conditions in the Arctic are shifting from what they were in the past few centuries.

Switching back from volume to area, take a look at December’s areal extent time series data:

Figure 4 – NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent time series through early January 2012.

As you can see, the sea ice extent has spent all of the fall and early winter well outside of the -2 standard deviation region, just as it has for 5 winters in a row.  It cannot be stated otherwise: these conditions are not indicative of a healthy system.

Antarctic Pictures and Graphs

Here is a satellite representation of Antarctic sea ice conditions from December 12th:

Figure 5 – UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20111212.

Compare that graphic with the same view from January 7th:

Figure 6 – UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20120107.

Ice loss is easily visible around the continent.  High ice concentrations remain well into the austral spring east of the Antarctic Peninsula (the land mass that “points” to South America).  Conditions of Antarctic sea ice remain good this year.

Here is the Antarctic sea ice extent time series from December:

Figure 7 – NSIDC Antarctic sea ice extent time series through early January 2012.

After conditions caused a slowdown in melt in late November and early December, the remainder of December and January was marked by normal ice melt rates.  At this point, no news is good news.  The Arctic is providing more than enough excitement for the time being.


Here are my State of the Poles posts from December and August.

You can find NSIDC’s January report here.

Cross-posted at SquareState.


On Super PACs and “Conservative” Columnsists

I’m going to revisit a writer whose work continues to demonstrate how non-conservatives conservatives have moved.  The Denver Post’s David Harsanyi opines on Super PACs and, according to his title, “free will”.  Like most other “conservatives”, he argues that free speech is critical to our way of life and the Supreme Court “conservatives’” pre-meditated choice to issue a decision that didn’t even deal with a case that was brought before them somehow increases free speech (in the form of money, of course).  He continues by lamenting that citizens don’t have this same freedom because they have to file reports with the federal government when they join with at least 11 other citizens to donate money to political campaigns.

The crocodile tears shed for citizens sounds good until you think about which citizens have the most money: those already contributing to Super PACs.  I don’t have a single friend or activist acquaintance that has the financial ability to donate tens of thousands or millions of dollars to any campaign or issue of their choice.  Therein lies the problem with the argument: do super-corporations (especially those based over-seas) have more freedom of speech than a citizen of the United States?  Should they have more freedom than we do?  I don’t think so.  But “conservatives” today do.

Note further that “conservatives” wouldn’t be extolling the virtues of Citizens United if their elite-blessed candidates weren’t expected to be the primary beneficiaries of the decision.  Such is the reality in the hyper-partisan environment those same “conservatives” have spent 50 years creating.

And how much does this columnist actually believe in “free will” anyway?  If the belief was consistent, free will would extend to all personal choices, including what women decide to do with their own bodies.  That is the crux of the matter: too many partisans – on both sides of the aisle – are only willing to push for “rights” and “freedoms” when it’s convenient for them to do so.  Consistency is another casualty of today’s hyper-partisanship.


December 2011 (Scripps) CO2 Concentrations: 391.80ppm

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 391.80ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i’s Observatory during December 2011.  These readings are from the Scripps’ dataset, not NOAA’s, which was my original data source when this series began.

391.80 is the highest value for December concentrations in recorded history. Last year’s 389.68 was the previous highest value ever recorded.  This December’s reading is 2.12ppm higher than last year’s.  As I’ve written before, this increase is significant.  Of course, more significant is the unending trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. Last year was no different: the 394.34 concentration is the highest value reported both last year and all time.  If we extrapolate last year’s value out in time, it will only be 3 years until Scripp’s reports 400ppm average concentration for a singular month (likely May 2015).

Judging by the year-over-year increases seen per month in the past 10 years, I predict 2012 will not see a monthly concentration below 390ppm.  I had earlier predicted that 2011′s minimum would be ~388ppm.  I overestimated the minimum somewhat since both September’s and October’s measured concentrations were just under 389ppm.

CO2Now has the following graph on their front page:

It shows concentrations in the Scripps dataset going back to 1958.  As I wrote above, concentrations are persistently moving upward.

Given our historical emissions to date and the likelihood that they will continue to grow at an increasing rate in the next 25 years, we will pass a number of “safe” thresholds – for all intents and purposes permanently as far as concerns our species.  It is time to start seriously investigating and discussing what kind of world will exist after CO2 concentrations peak at 850 and 1100ppm.  I don’t believe the IPCC has done this to date.  To remain relevant, I think it will have to do so moving forward.

Cross-posted at SquareState.

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Sen. Mark Udall’s “Bipartisanship”

How well did Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s idea that Democrats and Republican Teabaggers sit next to each other during the 2011 State of the Union address?

By any common sense approach, it was an abject failure.  Sure the Senators intermingled for one evening.  Then the Republican Teabaggers threatened to filibuster a record number of bills, nominees for posts were needlessly held up for months on end before being overwhelmingly approved once they allowed votes to come up.  Oh, there was also a “little hiccup” in the economy when those same Teabaggers threatened to not allow a vote to increase the federal debt ceiling, which resultedin a downgrade of the US credit rating.  That’s correct: the same targets of Udall’s goodwill took our economy to the edge of disaster for purely political reasons: if the economy tanks, President Obama would be unlikely to win reelection this year.

So how does Sen. Bipartisanship respond?  By re-issuing his silly call for Senators to sit together again this year and show Americans they can get along.  The Republican Teabaggers want to shut down the government and the economy, Senator Udall.  What is it going to take for you to accept that basic truth?

Senator, if you want to prove to Americans you and your colleagues can do your jobs, pass a jobs bill; pass a federal budget on time; let the Bush tax cuts expire as designed; confirm or deny nominees but make the votes happen.  Somehow I think running a campaign ad that one of your accomplishments was calling for Senators to sit together during a speech while tens of millions of Americans remained underemployed, losing their households and savings and health care and hope for the future, won’t win over too many voters.  Do something tangible, Senator.  No more empty gestures.  No more searching for the Holy Bipartisanship Grail.


Germany Installed More Solar PV In December Than The U.S. Did In All Of 2011

I’m so glad the U.S. has a more efficient marketplace than those socialist European countries.  That oft-parroted talking point must be the reason that Germany installed more than twice as much solar PV in December 2011 than the U.S. did in January through December 2011.  That’s right: twice as much in 1/12th the time at half the cost.

It’s a good thing we Americans have everything figured out already.  Otherwise, we would be trailing in installing technologies that we invented.  Oh wait, we are trailing.  The bottom line: feed-in tariffs work.

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Slow 2011 Hybrid Car Sales & $4 Gas

I’ve read numerous articles in the first week of the new year describing the “disappointing” sales numbers of hybrid and electric vehicles in the U.S. in 2011.  It somehow makes sense to declare a subsector industry dead after sales came in under expectations.  Interestingly, the same hybrid/electric naysayers didn’t have the same opinion when internal combustion car sales tanked a few years back.

Here is the latest article, written from the Detroit Auto Show.  It brings together a couple of salient facts which aren’t explored in any depth.

Hybrid sales waned as gasoline prices ebbed in 2011, declining to 2.2 percent of the market from 2.4 percent a year earlier, according to the research firm LMC Automotive. Meanwhile, sales of the Nissan Leaf electric car and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in each fell short of expectations.

Analysts do not expect the segment to grow significantly this year: the combination of gas prices below $4 a gallon and higher upfront costs for the cars is not attracting consumers.

I understand the higher upfront costs, especially in the continued economic malaise that most Americans are experiencing.  The $4 per gallon of gas is an interesting factoid to throw in there though, don’t you think?  After all, we’ve only visually seen $4 gas once so far.  Gas prices in 2011 came close to $4, but the magic `4` never appeared on signs.

Which brings me to the following: demand in 2011, especially the 2nd half of 2011, was multiple percentage points below demand in 2010.  Yet gas prices rose to close to $4 anyway.  It’s all supply and demand, you might say, especially demand in other countries which would lead to higher fundamental prices.  Well, oil prices shot up in Feb-Apr from $84 to almost $114 per gallon, then fell back below $80 by Sep (when gas prices were highest, despite slack demand in the U.S.).  Oil is trading at more than $100 per gallon again now, yet gas prices continue to decline.

No, there are more variables than simply supply and demand at play.  $4 gas represents an important psychological barrier for traders just as it does for gasoline consumers.  There is incredible pressure to keep prices from rising above that threshold because too few people can think critically: when prices pass the threshold, one trader panics, then most everybody else panics.  Consumers are just as irrational, however.  More than anything, they sense that $4 gas represents some kind of significant threshold, even though too few consumers can analyze at which threshold gas represents a significant point at which their household budget is adversely affected.  Moreover, consumers have an irrational desire to recoup additional costs of a hybrid/electric vehicle inside of 1 year.  Where are their similar demands for products they’ve been buying their entire lives?  It really doesn’t exist.

In 2000, Toyota sold 5,600 Prii in the U.S. (the 1st year available).  In 2011, Nissan sold 9,700 Leafs in the U.S. (the 1st year available), or 73% more units than the Prius.  75% more sales of just 1 new hybrid/electric is a very significant number.  Imagine if there were 73% more sales of a new kind of cell phone than a different cell phone 10 years after the first was introduced.  That would be touted as a wild success story.  The poor treatment of the hybrid/electric vehicle segment is pitiful.  Is there a long path toward 1.5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015?  Yes, there is.  But you might want to share with the rest of the car industry that having aggressive 2015 goals is a really bad idea.  I doubt you’ll receive much of an audience.

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Climate Change Basics – Energy & Projections

In July, I wrote a post that laid the groundwork for the discussion of climate change basics: Gases, Forcing & Surface Temperature.  This post follows onto that initial post by discussing energy within Earth’s climate system.  As in that post, I will focus on the results in the IPCC’s AR4.  There is a wealth of additional results in the scientific literature since the 2007 Report and I will share some of those in future posts.  In other words, the IPCC information will be used as a baseline.  This post is a little long, but I think it’s worth reading in its entirety.

Energy Content

First, here are two views of the energy content in the climate system.  The first is from the IPCC’s WGI Technical Summary:

Source: IPCC AR4 Figure TS.15.  Energy content changes in different components of the Earth for two periods (1961-2003 (blue) and 1993-2003 (burgundy)).

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