Defenders of the orthodox sometimes suggest that I publish my own work in peer-reviewed journals, and that by doing so I will have ‘an effect’. I decline, for all sorts of good reasons, but mostly because on this website I am not addressing scientists or governments but interested citizens, and they don’t read the various journals anyway. But I do, and I thought it might be useful to show what I have in mind about the generality of ‘journal articles’ that are thought to be important in climate science. So here is one, announced only the other day via a press release from the University of Hawaii.
The press release headline is ‘Extreme Pacific sea level events to double in future’, and that is scary enough. The article is by Matthew Widlansky and Axel Timmermann at the University of Hawaii and Wenju Cao of the CSIRO, and, as so often with university press releases, although there is a citation to Widlansky et al 2015, you won’t find such a paper if you search for it, even in Google Scholar. It is presumably about to be released. So you have to go with versions of the press release.
What does it tell us? The University’s statement informs the reader that Many tropical Pacific island nations are struggling to adapt to gradual sea level rise stemming from warming oceans and melting ice caps. Now they may also see much more frequent extreme interannual sea level swings. I hope that passage is not in the article, because it is misleading. Those island nations that are struggling are doing so because the freshwater lens they rely on for fresh water is diminishing because of over- population, and/or because of tourism and its less beneficial consequences (see, for example, here). But there has been nothing striking in sea-level changes in the Pacific. Here is a graph for Tuvalu, whose leader keeps claiming that it is sinking into the ocean. Kiribati as much the same, as are the islands closer to Australia.
The press release goes on: The culprit is a projected behavioral change of the El Niño phenomenon and its characteristic Pacific wind response, according to recent computer modeling experiments and tide-gauge analysis by Widlansky and his colleagues. And at once my sensitivity to language goes into high alert, because modelling exercises are not ‘experiments’ at all. Modelling is simulation, and modelling outcomes are not experimental results.
The authors assert that el Nino conditions mean the lowering of tides in parts of the ocean that can be as great as 30 cm, and if the water level stays low enough long enough it leads to the exposure of shallow marine eco-systems, parts of which can die. Yes, that is the case. Now comes the AGW scary stuff.
The team of scientists recently asked, how will future greenhouse warming affect the El Niño sea level seesaws? The scientist used state-of-the-art climate models, which accounted for increasing greenhouse gas concentrations, together with simulations of the observed climate and tide-gauge records to verify the model results. They determined that projected climate change will enhance El Niño-related sea level extremes. By the end of this century the experiments show that the intensified wind impacts of strong El Niño and La Niña events are likely to double the frequency of extreme sea level occurrences, especially in the tropical southwestern Pacific.
Now the press release is silent on all the technical stuff here, and since the paper hasn’t been published I can’t delve into it myself, other than to point out, again, that modelling runs are not ‘experiments’. But we can at least recognise that so-called ‘state of the art climate models’ have not shown themselves to be all that good in predicting actual temperature, as you can see from the next graph, one I’ve used before.
In fact, these CIMP5 (state-of-the-art) models routinely over-estimate temperature, and that is probably because they over-estimate the importance of carbon dioxide.
Widlansky et al apparently don’t know of the discrepancy, or just ignore it, because they claim that their results are consistent with previous findings that showed the atmospheric effects of both El Niño and La Niña are likely to become stronger and more common in a future warmer climate… The possibility of more frequent flooding in some areas and sea level drops in others would have severe consequences for the vulnerable coastlines of Pacific islands.
There’s a lot of conditionals in all this: ‘likely’, ‘would have’ and ‘possibility’ don’t sit comfortably with the claim in the headline: ‘Extreme Pacific sea-level events to double’. But it’s the heading that causes anyone to read on. So let’s ask other experts whether or not it is likely that a future warmer climate should produce stronger el Nino and la Nina effects. This is what the IPCC said in its AR5 (page 21 of WG1):
Due to the increase in moisture availability, ENSO-related precipitation variability on regional scales will likely intensify. Natural variations of the amplitude and spatial pattern of ENSO are large and thus confidence in any specific projected change in ENSO and related regional phenomena for the 21st century remains low.
That’s not exactly strong support for Widlansky and co., is it. I doubt that the authors mentioned it in their paper. Why would the IPCC be so tentative? Well, it is agreed (even by the IPCC) that knowledge about clouds and water vapour is low. That means nobody really knows what happens when there is more cloud, as there would be in a warmer world, since more warmth leads to more evaporation from the oceans. More clouds and water vapour do mean a greater greenhouse effect (more warmth trapped below the clouds for longer), but they also mean a higher albedo for the planet (more white surfaces reflecting sunlight, leading to a cooler world). What’s the likely net outcome? I don’t know, and nor does the IPCC. Since the oceans cover a little more than 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, this is not a trivial matter. It is also why ‘climate sensitivity’ is such a vexed question.
So there you are. Here is a paper that went through peer review, that magical process beloved of the orthodox. All we have is the media release, which is overblown and full of misleading and one-sided stuff. No matter, few news organisations are likely to go to the actual paper when it comes out. The university’s media release will be the real source of whatever ‘news’ comes out of this piece.
There are so many ‘peer-reviewed’ papers like this one.They assume that there will be a warmer climate, and then use models to tell us that scary things might happen. What we the people need are papers that go past all this rubbish to find out out exactly what ‘natural variation’ is all about. In the meantime, we in Australia are probably going to have a hot dry summer, and though la Ninas tend to come on the heels of el Ninos, we should expect drought conditions in more of eastern Australia and an enhanced bushfire risk.
Footnote: While this sort of stuff is being published in peer-reviewed journals, the public seems uninterested, as this graph suggests.
Perhaps there’s a connection.
Further footnote: David Evans, a modeller who has come to distrust the global circulation models, is writing a series of essays on what he sees as their faults. You can see them on Jo Nova’s website, here, for example. I won’t be able to comment on them for about a month, but those interested in models should certainly check these essays out.