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More Discussion on Warming “Hiatus”

After a lengthy absence during which I studied for the most challenging mental exercise I’ve ever faced – departmental Comprehensive Exams – I’m going to kick off 2014 with another discussion about the early 21-century warming “hiatus”.  There is good reason for this: the climate is complex and understanding the individual parts remains as active research, to say nothing of how those parts interact, which adds complexity upon complexity.  It also gets me back in the swing of writing again.

The motivation for this piece is a new paper, “An apparent hiatus in global warming?”.  Here are important parts of the abstract (you can read the entire abstract at the link):

Global warming first became evident beyond the bounds of natural variability in the 1970s, but increases in global mean surface temperatures have stalled in the 2000s.  Increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, create an energy imbalance at the top-of-atmosphere (TOA) even as the planet warms to adjust to this imbalance, which is estimated to be 0.5–1 W m−2 over the 2000s. [...] An energy imbalance is manifested not just as surface atmospheric or ground warming but also as melting sea and land ice, and heating of the oceans. More than 90% of the heat goes into the oceans and, with melting land ice, causes sea level to rise. For the past decade, more than 30% of the heat has apparently penetrated below 700 m depth that is traceable to changes in surface winds mainly over the Pacific in association with a switch to a negative phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) in 1999. Surface warming was much more in evidence during the 1976–1998 positive phase of the PDO, suggesting that natural decadal variability modulates the rate of change of global surface temperatures while sea-level rise is more relentless. Global warming has not stopped; it is merely manifested in different ways.

Some important notes here.  Greenhouse gases consistently increased during the 20th century, with increasing rates in recent decades.  But how do those GHGs affect the climate?  They emit radiation back towards the Earth’s surface, but it takes time for that radiation to manifest as detectable heat.  It’s a slowly accumulating effect, which other processes and phenomena influence.  To be more specific, the Earth’s surface temperature (land and ocean) shows the effect of that slow accumulation decades later.  This decade’s surface temperatures are largely the result of GHG concentrations from 20-30 years ago.  Which means that today’s concentrations will largely affect surface temperatures 20+ years from now, not today.

Let’s take a look at one of the study’s graph’s – global mean surface temperature anomalies from 1850-2012.

 photo GlobalMeanTemperature-TrenberthampFasullo2014_zps15374d73.jpg

Figure 1. Global mean surface temperature anomaly (1850-2012; Trenberth & Fasullo) as observed by the four most used datasets.

After a rapid rise in the 2nd half of the 20th century, it does indeed appear as though warming has paused since 2000.  But I just wrote that GHG concentrations increased throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.  So why does the “pause” appear in the temperature record?  Because of other climate processes, in this case natural processes that I’ve also written about (see here and here).

 photo Global12-monthrunningmeansurfaceTanomaly-TrenberthampFasullo20140113_zps3f9a0298.jpg

Figure 2.  Global mean surface temperature anomaly (12-month running mean) with El Nino (orange) and La Nina (blue) events highlighted.

Figure 2 shows how the biggest high-frequency climate oscillation impacts global mean surface temperature anomalies.  Following the record-setting 1997-1998 El Niño, annual temperature anomalies stayed primarily within +0.6 to +0.7C.  The paper hypothesizes that the 97-98 El Niño initiated a change in longer-term oscillations – namely the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (related to the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, which impacts my own research).

 photo PDOIndex1950-2013TrenberthampF20140113_zpse6e432fa.jpg

Figure 3. Time series of Pacific Decadal Oscillation Index (1950-2013).

Phases characterize the index: warm (1977-1998) and cool (1948-1976 & 1999-current).  Look back at Figure 1 and the PDO’s effect on global mean surface temperature anomalies is clear: less warming is present during the cool phases and more warming during the warm phase.  Now, this analysis is limited by the relatively short observational period, but researchers are teasing out PDO effects from paleoclimatic studies going back hundreds of years.  The PDO’s cool phase is characterized by cooler than normal eastern Pacific sea surface temperatures.  Averaged out over 10-30 years, the cool phase looks remarkably similar to La Nina.  Conversely for the warm phase, the eastern Pacific is much warmer than normal and resembles a long-term El Niño.

Now for some complexity.  The short-lived El Niño/La Niña events occur on top of the PDO signal.  So the Earth can have a long-term cool phase (negative PDO) and have both warm and cool ENSO phases (El Niño/La Niña) on annual to interannual timescales.  Look at Figure 2 again to see the additive impacts.  The 1997-98 El Niño occurred at the end of the last PDO warm phase, but also during a warming trend whose timescale exceeds the PDO’s (anthropogenic climate change).  Four recent La Niñas occurred during the current negative (cool) PDO phase within the past 10 years (see Figure 2).  Is it any wonder then that global mean surface temperatures haven’t risen at the same rate they did during the 1977-1998 period?

So what does this mean going forward?  First of all, I disagree with the 2nd half of Trenberth’s statement: “This year or later, it’s possible that El Niño will occur again in the Pacific. Will that trigger another change in the PDO, that in turn could trigger a resurgence in global surface temperature warming? Only time will tell, Trenberth explained.”  Given the historical PDO record, I seriously doubt the next El Niño will switch the PDO phase back to positive (warm).  The PDO has been in its current negative phase for only 14 years or so now.  It’s more likely that this negative phase will continue for at least the next 5 years.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it continued for the next 10-15 years.  Which doesn’t mean global temperatures won’t rise; it means they would likely rise at a slower rate than they did during the late 20th century.  When the next PDO positive phase occurs, global temperatures will likely show that shift by increasing at a faster rate than during the past 15 years.

Lastly, just because the Earth’s surface hasn’t warmed quite as much as expected in the past 10-15 years doesn’t mean the heat disappeared.  What you heard as a kid was true: energy cannot be destroyed, only changed.  The heat energy emitted by GHGs during the past 30 years went to a place humans don’t measure very well or very much: the deep ocean, as this graph shows:

 photo Ocean_heat_content_balmaseda_et_al_zps23184297.jpg

Figure 4.  Anomalous ocean heat energy locations since the late 1950s.  The purple lines in the graph show how the heat content of the whole ocean has changed over the past five decades. The blue lines represent only the top 700 m and the grey lines are just the top 300 m.  Source: Balmaseda et al., (2013)

This graph shows that during the global warming “pause” period (1999-current), the ocean below 700m absorbed the majority of the heat of the entire ocean system.  You can also quite clearly see the anomalous heat content of recent years.  This increased oceanic heat content will manifest itself in upcoming decades and centuries.  Sea levels will rise because warmer substances occupy more volume than cooler substances.  That effect alone threatens the majority of the Earth’s human population.  It also threatens frozen water reservoirs: the globe’s ice caps.  As they melt at an increasing rate throughout this century, global sea levels will rise even further.  As warmer deep ocean water returns to the surface and interacts with a warmer atmosphere which can hold more moisture and therefore heat, the heat will eventually transfer to the atmosphere where we can more regularly measure it.  So aside from the natural climate oscillations discussed above (ENSO & PDO), much of this heat will affect us at some point.

Will we be ready for those impacts?  Contemporary examples suggest no, but municipalities are taking already visible threats more seriously every day.  Those local efforts will guide actions at higher levels of government and society.


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NASA & NOAA: August 2013 4th Warmest Globally On Record

According to data released by NASA and NOAA this month, August was the 4th warmest August globally on record.  Here are the data for NASA’s analysis; here are NOAA data and report.  The two agencies have different analysis techniques, which in this case resulted in different temperature anomaly values but the same overall rankings within their respective data sets.  The analyses result in different rankings in most months.  The two techniques do provide a check on one another and confidence for us that their results are robust.  At the beginning, I will remind readers that the month-to-month and year-to-year values and rankings matter less than the long-term climatic warming.  Monthly and yearly conditions changes primarily by the weather, which is not climate.

The details:

August’s global average temperature was 0.62°C (1.12°F) above normal (1951-1980), according to NASA, as the following graphic shows.  The past three months have a +0.58°C temperature anomaly.  And the latest 12-month period (Aug 2012 – Jul 2013) had a +0.59°C temperature anomaly.  The time series graph in the lower-right quadrant shows NASA’s 12-month running mean temperature index.  The 2010-2012 downturn was largely due to the latest La Niña event (see below for more) that ended early last summer.  Since then, ENSO conditions returned to a neutral state (neither La Niña nor El Niño).  Therefore, as previous anomalously cool months fall off the back of the running mean, and barring another La Niña, the 12-month temperature trace should track upward again throughout 2013.

 photo NASA-Temp_Analysis_20130831_zps3ff2a250.gif

Figure 1. Global mean surface temperature anomaly maps and 12-month running mean time series through August 2013 from NASA.

According to NOAA, April’s global average temperatures were 0.62°C (1.12°F) above the 20th century average of 15.6°C (60.1°F).  NOAA’s global temperature anomaly map for August (duplicated below) shows where conditions were warmer and cooler than average during the month.

 photo NOAA-Temp_Analysis_201308_zpsf2f24a41.gif

Figure 2. Global temperature anomaly map for August 2013 from NOAA.

The two different analyses’ importance is also shown by the preceding two figures.  Despite differences in specific global temperature anomalies, both analyses picked up on the same temperature patterns and their relative strength.

 photo NinoSSTAnom20130924_zps74ba969c.gif

Figure 3. Time series of weekly SST data from NCEP (NOAA).  The highest interest region for El Niño/La Niña is NINO 3.4 (2nd time series from top).

The last La Niña event hit its highest (most negative) magnitude more than once between November 2011 and February 2012.  Since then, tropical Pacific sea-surface temperatures peaked at +0.8 (y-axis) in September 2012.  You can see the effect on global temperatures that the last La Niña had via this NASA time series.  Both the sea surface temperature and land surface temperature time series decreased from 2010 (when the globe reached record warmth) to 2012.  Recent ENSO events occurred at the same time that the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation entered its most recent negative phase.  This phase acts like a La Niña, but its influence is smaller than La Niña.  So natural, low-frequency climate oscillations affect the globe’s temperatures.  Underlying these oscillations is the background warming caused by humans, which we detect by looking at long-term anomalies.  Despite these recent cooling influences, temperatures were still top-10 warmest for a calendar year (2012) and during individual months, including August 2013.

Skeptics have pointed out that warming has “stopped” or “slowed considerably” in recent years, which they hope will introduce confusion to the public on this topic.  What is likely going on is quite different: since an energy imbalance exists (less energy is leaving the Earth than the Earth is receiving; this is due to atmospheric greenhouse gases) and the surface temperature rise has seemingly stalled, the excess energy is going somewhere.  The heat has to be going somewhere – energy doesn’t just disappear.  That somewhere is likely the oceans, and specifically the deep ocean (see figure below).  Before we all cheer about this (since few people want surface temperatures to continue to rise quickly), consider the implications.  If you add heat to a material, it expands.  The ocean is no different; sea-levels are rising in part because of heat added to it in the past.  The heat that has entered in recent years won’t manifest as sea-level rise for some time, but it will happen.  Moreover, when the heated ocean comes back up to the surface, that heat will then be released to the atmosphere, which will raise surface temperatures as well as introduce additional water vapor due to the warmer atmosphere.  Thus, the immediate warming rate might have slowed down, but we have locked in future warming (higher future warming rate).

 photo Ocean_heat_content_balmaseda_et_al_zps23184297.jpg

Figure 4. New research that shows anomalous ocean heat energy locations since the late 1950s.  The purple lines in the graph show how the heat content of the whole ocean has changed over the past five decades. The blue lines represent only the top 700 m and the grey lines are just the top 300 m.  Source: Balmaseda et al., (2013)

Paying for recovery from seemingly localized severe weather and climate events is and always will be more expensive than paying to increase resilience from those events.  As drought continues to impact the US, as Arctic ice continues its long-term melt, as storms come ashore and impacts communities that are not prepared for today’s high-risk events (due mostly to poor zoning and destruction of natural protections), economic costs will accumulate in this and in future decades.  It is up to us how many costs we subject ourselves to.  As President Obama begins his second term with climate change “a priority”, he tosses aside the most effective tool available and most recommended by economists: a carbon tax.  Every other policy tool will be less effective than a Pigouvian tax at minimizing the actions that cause future economic harm.  It is up to the citizens of this country, and others, to take the lead on this topic.  We have to demand common sense actions that will actually make a difference.

But be forewarned: even if we take action today, we will still see more warmest-ever La Niña years, more warmest-ever El Niño years, more drought, higher sea levels, increased ocean acidification, more plant stress, and more ecosystem stress.  The biggest difference between efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to scrub sulfur and CFC emissions and future efforts to reduce CO2 emissions is this: the first two yielded an almost immediate result.  It will take decades to centuries before CO2 emission reductions produce tangible results humans can see.  That is part of what makes climate change such a wicked problem.


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NASA & NOAA: April 2013 13th Warmest Globally On Record

According to data released by NASA and NOAA last week, April was the 13th warmest April globally on record.  Here are the data for  NASA’s analysis; here are NOAA data and report.  The two agencies have slightly different analysis techniques, which in this case resulted in different temperature anomaly values but the same overall rankings.  Most months, the analyses result in different rankings.  The two techniques do provide a check on one another and confidence for us that their results are robust.

The details:

April’s global average temperatures were 0.50°C (0.9°F) above normal (1951-1980), according to NASA, as the following graphic shows.  The past three months have a +0.53°C temperature anomaly.  And the latest 12-month period (Apr 2012 – Mar 2013) had a +0.59°C temperature anomaly.  The time series graph in the lower-right quadrant shows NASA’s 12-month running mean temperature index.  The 2010-2012 downturn was largely due to the latest La Niña event (see below for more) that ended early last summer.  Since then, ENSO conditions returned to a neutral state (neither La Niña nor El Niñ0).  Therefore, as previous anomalously cool months fall off the back of the running mean, and barring another La Niña, the 12-month temperature trace should track upward again throughout 2013.

 photo NASA-Temp_Analysis_20130430_zpsd93c9d48.gif

Figure 1. Global mean surface temperature anomaly maps and 12-month running mean time series through April 2013 from NASA.

According to NOAA, April’s global average temperatures were 0.52°C (0.94°F) above the 20th century mean of 13.7°C (56.7°F).  NOAA’s global temperature anomaly map for April (duplicated below) shows where conditions were warmer and cooler than average during the month.

 photo NOAA-Temp_Analysis_201304_zps204a8f35.gif

Figure 2. Global temperature anomaly map for January 2013 from NOAA.

The two different analyses’ importance is also shown by the preceding two figures.  Despite differences in specific global temperature anomalies, both analyses picked up on the same temperature patterns and their relative strength.

Both analyses show much cooler than normal conditions over most of North America, Europe, and northeast Asia.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this is in response to the abnormal jet stream.  Large, unmoving high pressure centers blocked the jet stream at different locations in the Northern Hemisphere multiple times this winter and spring.  The jet stream therefore assumed a high amplitude pattern where the trough and ridge axes were tens of degrees of latitude apart from one another.  When this happens, very cold air is pulled southward and warm air is pulled northward (look at central Eurasia).  In April 2013, the specific position of the high pressure centers caused cold air to spill southward over land as opposed to over the oceans.  These cold air outbreaks were an advantage for the US in that severe storms were unable to form.  This situation obviously broke down in the past couple of weeks and we have correspondingly seen devastating severe weather outbreaks across the south-central US.

During the second half of last year, a ENSO-neutral state (neither El Niño nor La Niña) began, which continues to this day:

 photo NinoSSTAnom20130501_zpsf742a7c0.gif

Figure 3. Time series of weekly SST data from NCEP (NOAA).  The highest interest region for El Niño/La Niña is NINO 3.4 (2nd time series from top).

The last La Niña event hit its highest (most negative) magnitude more than once between November 2011 and February 2012.  Since then, tropical Pacific sea-surface temperatures peaked at +0.8 (y-axis) in September 2012.  You can see the effect on global temperatures that the last La Niña had via this NASA time series.  Both the sea surface temperature and land surface temperature time series decreased from 2010 (when the globe reached record warmth) to 2012.  So a natural, low-frequency climate oscillation affected the globe’s temperatures during the past couple of years.  Underlying that oscillation is the background warming caused by humans.  And yet temperatures were still in the top-10 warmest for a calendar year (2012) and individual months, including through March 2013, in recorded history.  We ascribe a certain status to top-10 events.  April 2013 obviously missed the top-10 threshold, but it remains close to that level of anomalous warmth.  However, the difference in temperature magnitude between the 10th and 13th warmest Aprils is measured in tenths of a degree.

Skeptics have pointed out that warming has “stopped” or “slowed considerably” in recent years, which they hope will introduce confusion to the public on this topic.  What is likely going on is quite different: since an energy imbalance exists (less outgoing energy than incoming energy due to atmospheric greenhouse gases) and the surface temperature rise has seemingly stalled, the excess energy is going somewhere.  That somewhere is likely the oceans, and specifically the deep ocean (see figure below).  Before we all cheer about this (since few people want surface temperatures to continue to rise quickly), consider the implications.  If you add heat to a material, it expands.  The ocean is no different; sea-levels are rising in part because of heat added to it in the past.  The heat that has entered in recent years won’t manifest as sea-level rise for some time, but it will happen.  Moreover, when the heated ocean comes back up to the surface, that heat will then be released to the atmosphere, which will raise surface temperatures as well as introduce additional water vapor due to the warmer atmosphere.  Thus, the immediate warming rate might have slowed down, but we have locked in future warming (higher future warming rate).

 photo Ocean_heat_content_balmaseda_et_al_zps23184297.jpg

Figure 4. New research that shows anomalous ocean heat energy locations since the late 1950s.  The purple lines in the graph show how the heat content of the whole ocean has changed over the past five decades. The blue lines represent only the top 700 m and the grey lines are just the top 300 m.  Source: Balmaseda et al., (2013)

Paying for recovery from seemingly localized severe weather and climate events is and always will be more expensive than paying to increase resilience from those events.  As drought continues to impact US agriculture, as Arctic ice continues to melt to new record lows, as storms come ashore and impacts communities that are not prepared for today’s high-risk events (due mostly to poor zoning and destruction of natural protections), economic costs will accumulate in this and in future decades.  It is up to us how many costs we subject ourselves to.  As President Obama begins his second term with climate change “a priority”, he tosses aside the most effective tool available and most recommended by economists: a carbon tax.  Every other policy tool will be less effective than a Pigouvian tax at minimizing the actions that cause future economic harm.  It is up to the citizens of this country, and others, to take the lead on this topic.  We have to demand common sense actions that will actually make a difference.  But be forewarned: even if we take action today, we will still see more warmest-ever La Niña years, more warmest-ever El Niño years, more drought, higher sea levels, increased ocean acidification, more plant stress, and more ecosystem stress.  The biggest difference between efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to scrub sulfur and CFC emissions and future efforts to reduce CO2 emissions is this: the first two yielded an almost immediate result while it will take decades to centuries before CO2 emission reductions produce tangible results humans can see.  That is part of what makes climate change such a wicked problem.


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NASA & NOAA: March 2013 9th, 10th Warmest Globally On Record

According to data released by NOAA, March was the 10th warmest globally on record.  Here are the NOAA data and report.  NASA also released their suite of graphics, but their surface temperature data page is down today, so I cannot relay how NASA’s March temperature compares to historical Marches.  Once their site is back up, I will update this post.  [Update: NASA's analysis resulted in their 9th warmest March on record.  Here are the data for  NASA’s analysis.] The two agencies have slightly different analysis techniques, which in this case resulted in not only different temperature anomaly values but somewhat different rankings as well.  The two techniques provide a check on one another and confidence for us.

The details:

March’s global average temperatures were 0.59°C (1.062°F) above normal (1951-1980), according to NASA, as the following graphic shows.  The past three months have a +0.57°C temperature anomaly.  And the latest 12-month period (Apr 2012 – Mar 2013) had a +0.60°C temperature anomaly.  The time series graph in the lower-right quadrant shows NASA’s 12-month running mean temperature index.  The recent downturn (2010-2012) was largely due to the latest La Niña event (see below for more) that ended early last summer.  Since then, ENSO conditions returned to a neutral state (neither La Niña nor El Niñ0).  Therefore, as previous anomalously cool months fall off the back of the running mean, and barring another La Niña, the 12-month temperature trace should track upward again throughout 2013.

 photo NASA-Temp_Analysis_20130331_zps2e2b340a.gif

Figure 1. Global mean surface temperature anomaly maps and 12-month running mean time series through March 2013 from NASA.

According to NOAA, March’s global average temperatures were 0.58°C (1.044°F) above the 20th century mean of 12.7°C (54.9°F).  NOAA’s global temperature anomaly map for March (duplicated below) shows where conditions were warmer than average during the month.

 photo GlobalTemperatureAnomalyMap201303_zpsf432fd9b.gif

Figure 2. Global temperature anomaly map for March 2013 from NOAA.

The two different analyses’ importance is also shown by the preceding two figures.  Despite small differences in specific global temperature anomalies, both analyses picked up on the same temperature patterns and their relative strength.

The very warm conditions found over Greenland are a concern.  Greenland was warmer than average during more months in recent history than not.  In contrast to 2012, northern Eurasian temperatures were much cooler than normal.  This is likely a temporary, seasonal effect.  Long-term temperatures over much of this region continue to rise at among the fastest rate for any region on Earth.

The NASA and NOAA surface temperature maps correlate well with the 500-mb height pressure anomalies, as seen in this graph:

 photo NOAA500hPaanomalymap201303_zps6d024aed.gif

Figure 3. 500-mb heights (white contours) and anomalies (m; color contours) during March 2013.

Note the correspondence between the height map and the NASA & NOAA surface temperature maps: lower heights (negative height anomalies) present over the North Atlantic and northern Eurasia overlay the cold surface temperature anomalies at the surface.  Similarly, warm surface temperature anomalies are located under the positive 500-mb height anomalies.

These temperature observations are of interest for the following reason: the globe came out of a moderate La Niña event in the first half of last year.  During the second half of the 2012 and the first part of 2013, we remained in a ENSO-neutral state (neither El Niño nor La Niña):

 photo NinoSSTAnom20130401_zpsf59ac6f7.gif

Figure 4. Time series of weekly SST data from NCEP (NOAA).  The highest interest region for El Niño/La Niña is NINO 3.4 (2nd time series from top).

The last La Niña event hit its highest (most negative) magnitude more than once between November 2011 and February 2012.  Since then, tropical Pacific sea-surface temperatures peaked at +0.8 (y-axis) in September 2012.  You can see the effect on global temperatures that the last La Niña had via this NASA time series.  Both the sea surface temperature and land surface temperature time series decreased from 2010 (when the globe reached record warmth) to 2012.  So a natural, low-frequency climate oscillation affected the globe’s temperatures during the past couple of years.  Underlying that oscillation is the background warming caused by humans.  And yet temperatures were still in the top-10 warmest for a calendar year (2012) and individual months, including March 2013, in recorded history.

Skeptics have pointed out that warming has “stopped” in recent years (by comparing recent temperatures to the 1998 maximum which was heavily influenced by a strong El Niño even), which they hope will introduce confusion to the public on this topic.  What is likely going on is quite different: a global annual energy imbalance exists (less outgoing energy than incoming energy).  If the surface temperature rise has seemingly stalled, the excess energy is going somewhere.  That somewhere is likely the oceans, and specifically the deep ocean (see the figures below).  Before we all cheer about this (since few people want surface temperatures to continue to rise quickly), consider the implications.  If you add heat to a material, it expands.  The ocean is no different; sea-levels are rising in part because of heat added to it in the past.  The heat that has entered in recent years won’t manifest as sea-level rise for some time, but it will happen.  Moreover, when the heated ocean comes back up to the surface, that heat will then be released to the atmosphere, which will raise surface temperatures as well as introduce additional water vapor.  Thus, the short-term warming rate might have slowed down, but we have locked in future warming (higher future warming rate) as well as future climate effects.

 photo Total-Heat-Content.gif

Figure 5. Total global heat content anomaly from 1950-2004. An overwhelming majority of energy went to the global oceans.

 photo Ocean_heat_content_balmaseda_et_al_zps23184297.jpg

Figure 6. New research that shows anomalous ocean heat energy location since the late 1950s.  The purple lines in the graph show how the heat content of the whole ocean has changed over the past five decades. The blue lines represent only the top 700 m and the grey lines are just the top 300 m.  Source: Balmaseda et al., (2013)

Balmaseda et al.’s work demonstrates the transport of anomalous energy through the depth of the global oceans.  Note that the grey lines’ lack of significant change from 2004-2008 (upper 300m).  Observations of surface temperature include the very top part of this 300m layer.  Since the layer hasn’t changed much, neither have surface temperature readings.  Note the rapid increase in heat content within the top 700m.  Given the lack of increase in the top 300m, the 300-700m layer heat content must have increased.  By the same logic, the rapid growth in heat content throughout the depth of the ocean, which did not stall post-2004, provides evidence for anomalous heat location.  You can also see the impact of major volcanic eruptions on ocean heat content: less incoming solar radiation means less absorbed heat.

A significant question for climate scientists is this: are climate models capable of picking up this heat anomaly signal and do they show a similar trend?  If they aren’t, then their projections of surface temperature change is likely to be incorrect since the heat is warming the abyssal ocean and not the land and atmosphere in the 2000s and 2010s.  If they aren’t, climate policy is also impacted.  Instead of warmer surface temperatures (and effects on drought, agriculture, and health to name just a few), anomalous ocean heat content will impact coastal communities more than previously thought.  Consider the implications of that in addition to the AR4′s lack of consideration of land-based ice melt: sea level projections could be too conservative.

That said, it is also a fair question to ask whether today’s climate policies are sufficient for today’s climate.  In many cases, I would say  they aren’t sufficient.  Paying for recovery from seemingly localized severe weather and climate events is and always will be more expensive than paying to increase resilience from those events.  As drought continues to impact US agriculture, as Arctic ice continues to melt to new record lows, as storms come ashore and impacts communities that are not prepared for today’s high-risk events (due mostly to poor zoning and destruction of natural protections), economic costs will accumulate in this and in future decades.  It is up to us how many costs we subject ourselves to.

As President Obama began his second term with climate change “a priority”, he tosses aside the most effective tool available and most recommended by economists: a carbon tax.  Every other policy tool will be less effective than a Pigouvian tax at minimizing the actions that cause future economic harm.  It is up to the citizens of this country, and others, to take the lead on this topic.  We have to demand common sense actions that will actually make a difference.  But be forewarned: even if we take action today, we will still see more warmest La Niña years, more warmest El Niño years, more drought, higher sea levels, increased ocean acidification, more plant stress, and more ecosystem stress.  The biggest difference between efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to scrub sulfur and CFC emissions and future efforts to reduce CO2 emissions is this: the first two yielded an almost immediate result while it will take decades before CO2 emission reductions produce tangible results humans can see.


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NASA & NOAA: January 2013 Was 6th, 9th Warmest Globally On Record

According to data released by NASA and NOAA last week, January was the 6th and 9th warmest January’s (respectively) globally on record.  Here are the data for  NASA’s analysis; here are NOAA data and report.  The two agencies have slightly different analysis techniques, which in this case resulted in not only different temperature anomaly values but somewhat different rankings as well.  The two techniques provide a check on one another and confidence for us.

The details:

January’s global average temperatures were 0.61°C (1.098°F) above normal (1951-1980), according to NASA, as the following graphic shows.  The warmest regions on Earth coincide with the locations where climate models have been projecting the most warmth will occur: high latitudes (especially within the Arctic Circle).  The past three months have a +0.58°C temperature anomaly.  And the latest 12-month period (Feb 2012 – Jan 2013) had a +0.58°C temperature anomaly.  The time series graph in the lower-right quadrant shows NASA’s 12-month running mean temperature index.  The recent downturn (2010-2012) is largely due to the latest La Niña event (see below for more) that ended early last summer.  Since then, ENSO conditions returned to a neutral state (neither La Niña nor El Niñ0).  Therefore, as previous anomalously cool months fall off the back of the running mean, and barring another La Niña, the 12-month temperature trace should track upward again in 2013.

 photo NASA-Temp_Analysis_20130131_zpsdfcedaac.gif

Figure 1. Global mean surface temperature anomaly maps and 12-month running mean time series through January 2013 from NASA.

According to NOAA, January’s global average temperatures were 0.54°C (0.97°F) above the 20th century mean of 14.0°C (57.2°F).  NOAA’s global temperature anomaly map for January (duplicated below) shows where conditions were warmer than average during the month.

 photo GlobalTemperatureAnomalyMap201301_zps05956f2c.gif

Figure 2. Global temperature anomaly map for January 2013 from NOAA.

The two different analyses’ importance is also shown by the preceding two figures.  Despite differences in specific global temperature anomalies, both analyses picked up on the same temperature patterns and their relative strength.

The very warm conditions found over Greenland and Alaska are a concern.  These areas were warmer than average during more months in recent history than not.  Additionally, Australia was much warmer than usual.  Indeed, Australia’s January average temperature was the highest on record: +2.28°C (4.10°F!) above the 1961–1990 average, besting the previous record set in 1932 by 0.11°C (0.20°F).  In contrast to 2012, Siberian temperatures were cooler than normal.  This is likely a temporary, seasonal effect.  Long-term temperatures over northern Siberia continue to rise at among the fastest rate for any region on Earth.

These observations are also worrisome for the following reason: the globe came out of a moderate La Niña event in the first half of the year.  During the second half of the year, we remained in a ENSO-neutral state (neither El Niño nor La Niña):

 photo NinoSSTAnom20130301_zps06ef6b19.gif

Figure 3. Time series of weekly SST data from NCEP (NOAA).  The highest interest region for El Niño/La Niña is NINO 3.4 (2nd time series from top).

The last La Niña event hit its highest (most negative) magnitude more than once between November 2011 and February 2012.  Since then, tropical Pacific sea-surface temperatures peaked at +0.8 (y-axis) in September 2012.  You can see the effect on global temperatures that the last La Niña had via this NASA time series.  Both the sea surface temperature and land surface temperature time series decreased from 2010 (when the globe reached record warmth) to 2012.  So a natural, low-frequency climate oscillation affected the globe’s temperatures during the past couple of years.  Underlying that oscillation is the background warming caused by humans.  And yet temperatures were still in the top-10 warmest for a calendar year (2012) and individual months, including January 2013, in recorded history.

Skeptics have pointed out that warming has “stopped” or “slowed considerably” in recent years, which they hope will introduce confusion to the public on this topic.  What is likely going on is quite different: since an energy imbalance exists (less outgoing energy than incoming energy) and the surface temperature rise has seemingly stalled, the excess energy is going somewhere.  That somewhere is likely the oceans, and specifically the deep ocean.  Before we all cheer about this (since few people want surface temperatures to continue to rise quickly), consider the implications.  If you add heat to a material, it expands.  The ocean is no different; sea-levels are rising because of heat added to it in the past.  The heat that has entered in recent years won’t manifest as sea-level rise for some time, but it will happen.  Moreover, when the heated ocean comes back up to the surface, that heat will then be released to the atmosphere, which will raise surface temperatures as well as additional water vapor.  Thus, the immediate warming rate might have slowed down, but we have locked in future warming (higher future warming rate).

In a previous post on global temperatures, I pointed a few things out and asked some questions.  The Conference of Parties summit produced no meaningful climate action (November 2012).  Countries agreed to have something on paper by 2015 and enacted by 2020.  If everything goes as planned (a huge assumption given the lack of historical progress), significant carbon reductions wouldn’t occur until later in the 2020s – too late to ensure <2°C warming by 2100.  If, as is much more likely, everything doesn’t go as planned, reductions wouldn’t occur until later than the 2020s.  Additional meetings are scheduled for this year, but I maintain my expectation that nothing meaningful will come from them.  The international process is ill-equipped to handle all the legitimate interest groups in one fell swoop.

Instead, actions that start locally and grow with time are more likely to address emissions and eventual warming and other climate change effects.  People started small-scale activities in cities around the world in recent years.  There are also regional and international carbon markets.  While most markets were poorly designed, lessons learned from the first generation can be used to make future generation markets more effective.  As these small-scale efforts grow and their effects combine, larger bodies will need to address differences between them so that they work for larger populations and markets.

Paying for recovery from seemingly localized severe weather and climate events is and always will be more expensive than paying to increase resilience from those events.  As drought continues to impact US agriculture, as Arctic ice continues to melt to new record lows, as storms come ashore and impacts communities that are not prepared for today’s high-risk events (due mostly to poor zoning and destruction of natural protections), economic costs will accumulate in this and in future decades.  It is up to us how many costs we subject ourselves to.  As President Obama begins his second term with climate change “a priority”, he tosses aside the most effective tool available and most recommended by economists: a carbon tax.  Every other policy tool will be less effective than a Pigouvian tax at minimizing the actions that cause future economic harm.  It is up to the citizens of this country, and others, to take the lead on this topic.  We have to demand common sense actions that will actually make a difference.  But be forewarned: even if we take action today, we will still see more warmest La Niña years, more warmest El Niño years, more drought, higher sea levels, increased ocean acidification, more plant stress, and more ecosystem stress.  The biggest difference between efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to scrub sulfur and CFC emissions and future efforts to reduce CO2 emissions is this: the first two yielded an almost immediate result while it will take decades before CO2 emission reductions produce tangible results humans can see.


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55.7% of the Contiguous United States in Moderate or Worse Drought – 12 Feb 2013

According to the Drought Monitor, drought conditions are relatively unchanged in the past two weeks. As of Feb. 12, 2013, 55.7% of the contiguous US is experiencing moderate or worse drought (D1-D4). The percentage area experiencing extreme to exceptional drought increased from 19.4% to 17.7% in the last two weeks. Percentage areas experiencing drought across the West stayed mostly the same while snowpack increased. Drought across the Southwest decreased slightly. Meanwhile, storms improved drought conditions in the Southeast.

This post precedes a significant snow event across the High and Great Plains.  The NWS expects up to a foot of snow in some areas of the Plains over the next couple of days, which will provide about 1″ of liquid water equivalent.  Since these areas currently suffer from a 2-4″ liquid water deficit, this storm will not break the short-term drought.  Moreover, long-term drought will only be broken by substantial spring and summer rainfall.  After one or two more Drought Monitor updates, we should see some welcome differences in these maps.

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Figure 1 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions as of the 12th of February.

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Figure 2 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Western US as of the 12th of February.  Some small relief is evident in the past week, including some changes in the mountains as storms recently dumped snow across the region.  Mountainous areas and river basins will have to wait until spring for snowmelt to significantly alleviate drought conditions.

 photo CO_drought_monitor_20130212_zpsf4ce66ed.png

Figure 3 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of the 12th of February.  Drought conditions held mostly steady across the state in the past week.  For the first time in over a month, less than 100% of CO is experiencing Severe drought conditions.  This improvement occurred over the southwestern portion of the state due to mid-season snow storms.  Unfortunately, Exceptional drought conditions expanded over the northeastern plains.

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Figure 4 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Southeast US as of the 12th of February.  As mentioned above, drought conditions contracted a little and grew less severe in the past couple of weeks.  The worst hit area, in central Georgia, has experienced the longest duration drought conditions on this map.

Cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) are present in the eastern Pacific, according to current MJO and ENSO data.  Additionally, eastern Pacific SSTs are cooler than the climatic average due to the current negative phase of the IPO.  This in turn is due in part to global warming, which is causing warmer western Pacific and Indian Ocean SSTs than usual.  The cool SSTs in the eastern Pacific initiate and reinforce air circulations that generally keep precipitation away from the Southwest and Midwest US.  This doesn’t mean that drought will be ever-present; only that we are potentially forcing the climate system toward more frequent drought conditions in these regions.  Some years will still be wet or normal; other years (increasing in number) will be dry.  This counters skeptics who claim that more CO2 and warmer temperatures are better for plants.  If there is no precipitation, plants cannot take advantage of longer growing seasons.  Moreover, we will experience years with increased food pressure.  These conditions’ extent in the future is up to us and our climate policy (or lack thereof).

While MJO, ENSO, and IPO are all in phases that tend to deflect storm systems from the Southwest, this week’s storm demonstrates that the conditions are not ever-present.  Weather variability still occurs with the dryer regime.  Put another way, weather is not climate.


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Climate Sensitivity and 21st Century Warming

I want to write about shoddy opining today.  I will also write about tribalism and cherry-picking; all are disappointing aspects in today’s climate discussion.  In climate circles, a big kerfuffle erupted in the past week that revolves around minutiae and made worse by disinformation.  The Research Group of Norway released a press release that somebody’s research showed a climate sensitivity of ~1.9°C (1.2-2.9°C was the range around this midpoint value) due to CO2-doubling, which is lower than other published values.

Important Point #1: The work remains un-peer reviewed.  It is part of unpublished PhD work and therefore subject to change.

Moving from that context, what happened next?  The Inter-tubes were ablaze with skeptics cheering the results.  Additionally, groups like Investor’s Business Daily jumped on the “global warming is hooey” bandwagon.  Writers like Andy Revkin provided thoughtful analysis.

Important Point #2: Skeptics view some model results as truthful – those that agree with their worldview.

IBD can, of course, opine all it wants about this topic.  What obligation to their readers do they have to disclose their biases, however?  All the other science results are wrong, except this one with which they agree.  What makes the new results so correct when every other result is so absolutely wrong?  Nothing, as I show below.

Important Point #3: These preliminary results still show a sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions, not to the sun or any other factor.

For additional context, you should ask how these results differ from other results.  What are IBD and other skeptics crowing about?

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Figure 1Distributions and ranges for climate sensitivity from different lines of evidence. The circle indicates the most likely value. The thin colored bars indicate very likely value (more than 90% probability). The thicker colored bars indicate likely values (more than 66% probability). Dashed lines indicate no robust constraint on an upper bound. The IPCC likely range (2 to 4.5°C) is indicated by the vertical light blue bar. [h/t Skeptical Science]

They’re crowing about a median value of 1.9°C in a range of 1.2-2.9°C.  If you look at Figure 1, neither the median nor the range is drastically different from other estimates.  The range is a little smaller in magnitude than what the IPCC reported in 2007.  Is it surprising that if scientists add 10 more years of observation data to climate models, a sensitivity measurement might shift?  The IPCC AR4 dealt with observations through 2000.  This latest preliminary report used observations through 2010.  What happened in the past 10 years that might shift sensitivity results?  Oh, a number of La Niñas, which are global cooling events.  Without La Niñas, the 2000s would have been warmer, which would have affected the sensitivity measurement differently.  No  mention of this breaks into the opinion piece.

Important Point #4: Climate sensitivity and long-term warming are not the same thing.

The only case in which they are the same thing is if we limit our total emissions so that CO2 concentrations are equal to CO2-doubling.  That is, if CO2 concentrations peak at 540ppm sometime in the future, the globe will likely warm no more than 1.9°C.  Note that analysis’s importance.  It brings us to:

Important Point #5: On our current and projected emissions pathway, we will more than double pre-industrial CO2 concentrations.

 photo CO2_Emissions_IPCC_Obs_2011_zpsa00aa5e8.jpg

Figure 2.  Historical emissions (IEA data – black) compared to IPCC AR4 SRES scenario projections (colored lines).

As I’ve discussed before, our historical emissions continue to track at the top of the range considered by the IPCC in the AR4 (between A2 and A1FI).  Scientists are working on the AR5 as we speak, but the framework for the upcoming report changed.  Instead of emissions, planners built Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) for the AR5.  A graph that shows these pathways is below.  This graph uses emissions to bridge between the AR4 and AR5.

 photo CO2EmissionsScenarios-hist-and-RCP-2012.png

Figure 3. Representative Concentration Pathways used in the upcoming AR5 through the year 2100, displayed using yearly emissions estimates.

The top line (red; RCP8.5) corresponds to the A1FI/A2 SRES scenarios.  As Figure 3 shows, our historical emissions most closely match the RCP8.5 pathway.  The concentration for this pathway through 2100 is 1370ppm CO2-eq, which results in an anomalous +8.5W/m^2 forcing.  This forcing is likely to result in 4 to 6.1°C warming by 2100.  A couple of critical points: in this scenario, emissions don’t peak in the 21st century; therefore this scenario projects additional warming in the 2100s.  I want to make absolutely clear this point: our business-as-usual concentration pathway blows past CO2-doubling this century, which means the doubling sensitivity is a moot point.  We should investigate CO2-quadrupliung.  Why?  The peak emissions and concentration, which dictates the peak anomalous forcing, which controls the peak warming we face.

The IBD article contains plenty of skeptic-speak: “Predictions of doom have turned out to be nothing more than madness”, “there are too many unknowns, too many variables”, and “nothing ever proposed would have any impact anyway”.

They do have a point with their first quoted statement.  I avoid catastrophic language because doom has not befallen the vast majority of people on this planet.  Conditions are changing, to be sure, but not drastically.  There are too many unknowns.  Most of the unknowns scientists worked on the last 10 years ended up with the opposite result that IBD assumes: scientists underestimated feedbacks and results.  Events unfolded much more quickly than previously projected.  That will continue in the near future due mainly to our lack of knowledge.  The third point is a classic: we cannot act because others will not act in concert with us.  This flies in the face of a capitalist society’s foundation.  Does IBD really believe that US innovation will not increase our competitiveness or reduce inefficiencies?  Indeed, Tim Worstall’s Forbes piece posited a significant conclusion: climate change becomes cheaper to solve if the sensitivity is lower than previously estimated.  IBD should be cheering for such a result.

Finally, when was the last time you saw the IBD latch onto one financial model and completely discard others?  Where was IBD in 2007 when the financial crisis was about to start and a handful of skeptics warned that the mortgage boom was based on flawed models?  Were they writing opinion pieces like this one?  I don’t think so.  Climate change requires serious policy consideration.  This opinion piece does nothing to materially advance that goal.


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El Niño and La Niña Redefined

This is the week to publish lots of interesting events and articles apparently.  I have a number of things I would love to post about, but only so much time.  Here is one that relates directly to something I posted on earlier: warmest La Niña years.  Just a few short weeks after NOAA operations wrote that 2012′s La Niña was the warmest on records, NOAA researchers announced they recalculated historical La Niñas because of warming global temperatures.  NOAA confirmed something that occurred to me while I was writing that post: eventually, historical El Niños will be cooler than future La Niñas.  How then will we compare events across time as the climate evolves?  The answer is simple: redefine El Niño and La Niña.  Instead of one climate period of record, compare historical ENSO events to their contemporary climate.  In other words, “each five-year period in the historical record now has its own 30-year average centered on the first year in the period”: compare 1950-1955 to the 1936-1965 average climate; compare 1956-1960 to the 1941-1970 average.  This is different from the previous practice in which NOAA compared 1950-1955 to 1981-2010 and compared 2013 to 1981-2010.  The 1950-1955 period existed in a different enough climate that it cannot be equitably compared to the most recent climatological period.

 photo ENSO-Nino34-NOAA-Recalc-201302_zpsb3caed50.jpg

Figure 1. “The average monthly temperatures in the central tropical Pacific have been increasing. This graph shows the new 30-year averages that NOAA is using to calculate the relative strength of historic El Niño and La Niña events.”

I want to point out something on this graph.  Is long-term warming evident in this graph?  Yes, there is.  But note they plot the breakdown by month.  The difference between 1936-1965 and 1981-2010 in October is >1°F.  Meanwhile, the same difference in May is ~0.5°F.

Here is the effect of NOAA’s change:

 photo ENSO_comparison_NOAA_201302_zps74082d08.jpg

Figure 2.  3-month temperature anomalies in the Nino-3.4 region.   (Top) Characterization of ENSO using 1971-2000 data.  (Bottom) Same as top, but using 1981-2010 data.

NOAA’s updated methodology resulted in the identification of two new La Niñas: 2005-06 and 2008-09.  The reason is warmer temperatures in the most recent decade than the 1970s (it sounds obvious when you say it like that).  That warming masked La Niñas with the old methodology.  It also means that the 2012 La Niña is no longer the warmest La Niña, as I related from the National Climatic Data Center last month:

 photo NOAA-Temp_Anomalies_201301_zpsa1d00432.png

Figure 3. Anomalies of annual global temperature as measured by NOAA.  Blue bars represent La Niña years, red bars represent El Niño years, and gray bars represent ENSO-neutral years.

That record will now go down as a tie between 2006 and 2009, with 2012 coming in a close third.  This situation is analogous to the different methodologies that NOAA and NASA use to compute global temperatures and where they rank individual years.  Records might differ because of methodological differences, but the larger picture remains intact: the globe warmed in the 20th and so far in the 21st centuries.  That signal is apparent in many datasets.  Within the week, I’m sure we’ll hear from GW skeptics that La Niña years have been getting cooler since 2006.  Here is what is most important: 2000s La Niñas were warmer than 1990 Niñas, which were warmer than 1980 Niñas, etc.


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57.7% of Contiguous US in Moderate or Worse Drought – 29 Jan 2013

According to the Drought Monitor, drought conditions are relatively unchanged in the past two weeks. As of Jan. 29, 2013, 57.7% of the contiguous US is experiencing moderate or worse drought (D0-D4). The percentage area experiencing extreme to exceptional drought increased from 19.3% to 19.4%. Percentage areas experiencing drought across the West stayed mostly the same at the end of January as they were at in the middle. Drought across the Southwest decreased slightly. Meanwhile, drought across the Southeast grew due to relative lack of precipitation.

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Figure 1 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions as of the 29th of January.

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Figure 2 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Western US as of the 29th of January.  Some small relief is evident in the past week, but note the lack of change of drought conditions across the regions, despite recent snows throughout the mountains.  Mountainous areas and river basins will have to wait until spring for snowmelt to help start to alleviate drought conditions.

 photo CO_drought_monitor_20130129_zpse63adfc2.png

Figure 3 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of the 29th of January.  Drought conditions held steady across the state in the past week.  100% of Colorado experienced Severe or worse drought conditions for the past three weeks.

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Figure 4 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Southeast US as of the 29th of January.  As mentioned above, drought conditions expanded and worsened in the past couple of weeks.  The worst hit area, in central Georgia, has experienced the longest duration drought conditions on this map.  Drought has expanded and contracted around this area during that time.

The latest seasonal (three-month) outlook from the National Weather Service predicts enhanced chances for above-average temperature and below-average precipitation for the central US.  This means that drought conditions are likely to continue for at least another three months and probably longer if prevailing conditions do not change.  One of the major weather stories of 2012 was drought; 2013 is shaping up to have the same story.

What is causing this?  A combination of factors: the Arctic Oscillation (AO), the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), the El-Nino and Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), and background climate warming.

As I discussed in my last drought post:

The lack of sea ice in the Arctic back in September is part of what caused the negative phase of the AO.  The Arctic Ocean absorbed solar radiation instead of reflecting it back to space.  The ocean then slowly released that heat to the atmosphere before new ice could form.  That extra heat in the atmosphere changed how and where the polar jet stream established this winter.  Instead of a tight loop near the Arctic Circle, the jet stream has grown in North-South amplitude, allowing cold air to pour to latitudes more southerly than usual and warm air to move over northern latitudes.  The large amplitude jet has kept the normal type of storms from moving over locations that used to see them regularly during the winter.

An active MJO is keeping trade winds stronger than they otherwise would be, which piles up warm ocean water in the western tropical Pacific Ocean.  This causes cool, deep ocean water to rise in the eastern Pacific, as seen in Figure 5.

 photo MJO_20130202_zps7c1d39cf.gif

Figure 5Madden-Julian Oscillation conditions as of 2 Feb 2013 from NOAA-CPC.

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Figure 6ENSO conditions as of 2 Feb 2013 from NOAA-CPC.

Cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) are present in the eastern Pacific due to the current MJO and ENSO data.  Additionally, eastern Pacific SSTs are cooler than the climatic average due to the current negative phase of the IPO.  This in turn is due in part to global warming, which is causing western Pacific and Indian Ocean SSTs warmer than usual.  The cool SSTs in the eastern Pacific initiate and reinforce air circulations that generally keep precipitation away from the Southwest and Midwest US.  This doesn’t mean that drought will be ever-present; only that we are potentially forcing the climate system toward more frequent drought conditions in these regions.  Some years will still be wet or normal; other years (increasing in number) will be dry.  This is a counter to skeptics who claim that more CO2 and warmer temperatures are necessarily better for plants.  If there is no precipitation, plants cannot take advantage of longer growing seasons.  Moreover, we will experience years with food pressure.  These conditions’ extent in the future is up to us and our climate policy (or lack thereof).


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58.9% of Contiguous US in Moderate or Worse Drought – 15 Jan 2013

The storm systems that moved over the US in the past month alleviated some of the drought conditions across the US, according to the Drought Monitor. As of Jan 15, 2013, 58.9% of the contiguous US is experiencing moderate or worse drought (D0-D4). The percentage area experiencing extreme to exceptional drought decreased from 21.3% to 19.4%. Percentage areas experiencing drought across the West stayed mostly the same in the middle of January as they were at the end of December. Drought across the High Plains expanded slightly during the same period. Meanwhile, drought across the Southeast and Midwest shrank due to the aforementioned storm systems.

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Figure 1 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions as of the 15th of January.

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Figure 2 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Western US as of the 15th of January.  Note the lack of change of drought conditions across the regions, despite recent snows throughout the mountains.  Mountainous areas and river basins will have to wait until spring for snowmelt to help start to alleviate drought conditions.

 photo high_plains_drought_monitor_20130115_zps74706e61.png

Figure 3 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Midwest US as of the 15th of January.  This region also has not seen any meaningful shift in drought conditions recently.  The Plains will likely have to wait until spring and summer for drought relief.  This sector of the country does plant a significant amount of crops.  The winter wheat crop has already been devastated.

 photo CO_drought_monitor_20130122_zpsdf0e871b.png

Figure 4 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of the 15th of January.  Drought conditions worsened slightly across the state in the past week.  Now, 100% of Colorado is experiencing Severe or worse drought conditions.  The percentage area with Extreme drought conditions is 5% higher than last week.  There was no significant difference in Exceptional drought area since last week.

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Figure 5 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of July 31, 2012.  This figure shows how extensive the current drought is – both in space and time.  Severe or worse drought has afflicted close to 100% of the state for almost six months now.  While specific regions of the state have received some rain or snow, it hasn’t been enough to break the drought yet.  The percent area with Extreme or worse drought has decreased from 73.67% on July 24th to 65.35% on July 31st to 58.64% on January 15th.  The southeast part of the state has seen the worst of conditions, as Figure 5 and 6 demonstrate.

 photo CO_drought_monitor_20110614_zps5253e3a1.png

Figure 6 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of June 14, 2011.  Eighteen months ago, more than half of Colorado was drought-free.  As you can see, the southeast part of the state has seen Severe or worse drought conditions for a long time now.

The US is not likely to see drought relief through March (drought predictions are accurate for ~3 months at a time) .  A negative Arctic Oscillation (AO; Figure 7) is challenging the return to ENSO-neutral conditions, which should allow normal precipitation to fall over the US.  The AO has been negative in previous winters and it has caused the severe winter storms that affected the northeastern US as well as UK (record wet year in 2012) and Scandinavia.

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Figure 7Arctic Oscillation time series from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

The lack of sea ice in the Arctic back in September is part caused the negative phase of the AO.  The Arctic Ocean absorbed solar radiation instead of reflecting it back to space.  The ocean then slowly released that heat to the atmosphere before new ice could form.  That extra heat in the atmosphere changed how and where the polar jet stream established this winter.  Instead of a tight loop near the Arctic Circle, the jet stream has grown in N/S amplitude, allowing cold air to pour to latitudes more southerly than usual and warm air to move over northern latitudes.  The large amplitude jet has kept the normal type of storms from moving over locations that used to see them regularly during the winter.

Hence, the drought we see now over the US is causally linked to the Arctic Oscillation as well as the long-lasting, moderate La Niña (2010-2012).  Both of the natural variations exist on top of the background climate, which we are warming (this is why there was record low Arctic sea ice in 2012).  We will continue to see the climate modulate normal weather conditions until we stop emitting greenhouse gases.  As I’ve written, that isn’t likely to happen any decade soon.

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