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It's only May but why wait?

20 May 2020 | News Roundup

It’s official. 2020 is among the hottest years ever. And no silly complaining that it hasn’t technically happened yet. Gavin Schmidt has spoken, and when Gavin Schmidt speaks, computers speak. See, “With today’s update to GISTEMP, 2020 is now virtually certain to be a top 3 year (in timeseries back to 1880), the 6th year in a row more than 1ºC above the late 19th C, and a good chance of breaking the record (~70%).” So never mind Toronto breaking an 81-year-old record for cold the day before. Forget April 2020 being colder than April 1998 on land globally. Never mind waiting to see what we can actually measure, on the ground or from space. That’s just real-world stuff. We’re talking models here.

It will not be easy for people like Schmidt to admit that computer simulations of climate did not work nearly as well as expected in the heady early days. It’s what he does and he has long been very proud of it. For instance in an enthusiastic, even evangelical TED talk in 2014 he showed us how well his models had captured 20th-century temperature. Or rather, how well he thought they did.

It’s intriguing to watch him dismiss their failure to match reality throughout the first half of the century as mere “noise”, then praise their “predicting” rising temperatures in the face of rising CO2 from about 1970s on. But there’s nothing very magical about tweaking a complicated set of equations to match a limited set of known inputs to a limited set of known outputs.

Especially when what should always have bothered him, and many others, is that these same “tweaked” models were rubbish at predicting other outputs. And not just the unknown future. They could not cope with the first half of the 20th century without being retweaked in ways that made them unable to cope with the second half. They couldn’t do the 19th century. Or the 14th. Or any other century. (Unless of course you did something funny to the data so temperature flatlined and you could then match it to flatlined CO2 if not to, say, real-world temperature readings.) They couldn’t even cope with the last few decades in the part of the atmosphere where the models were supposed to have the clearest view on greenhouse warming.

In the end, the argument will not be settled by Gavin Schmidt’s computer telling us 2020 was hotter than an oven before it even happens. Nor by computer simulations of what temperature ought to have been. It will be settled by what temperature is. And in that spirit, and without exaggerating the precision of measurements of temperature around the world even if the approximations seem to support our own point of view (as Schmidt did in 2014, saying flatly “We know what happened over the 20th century, right? We know that it’s got warmer, we know where it’s got warmer”) we want to wait and see what it was like before crying “Gotcha” or indeed anything else.

3 comments on “It's only May but why wait?”

  1. I can hardly wait until the next clown tries to sail his boat from Alaska to the north pole. I find these guys very entertaining...sailing 90 miles before they're blocked by a wall of ice...in mid-August...about 1500 km short of their goal. There's a reason why the northwest passage isn't open to shipping 12 months of the year...or even 2 months of the year for that matter.

  2. As I look at the model results I have to question the thought process used to proclaim them accurate. First the numerous models are all over the place in predictions but all are to hot so far. So the "approved method" is to take the average of many . This is like the 4th grade "guess the number of jelly beans" then averaging all the answers. We know that at most only one can be right and most likely all are wrong but they only accept the ones that are near the others for their average. I note that not only are the model results spread out they are incoherent. No two have matched wiggles. Often one is trending down while others are trending up. This does not instill confidence in me. Then I look at the projected maps from 20 years ago and see that some areas got the sign of the change wrong. Then I look at other aspects of the projections like rainfall and clouds and note they are worse than temperature. I cannot conclude that the models are working at all let alone well.

  3. Well here in the UK it is unusually warm for the time of year with temperatures in the low 20s degrees C. We had an unusually warm & dry April after virtually continuous rain since last September. The weather pattern suddenly changed at the end of March from a continuous series of rainy depressions coming in from the Atlantic to dry anticyclonic, which, true to anticyclonic weather patterns refuses to budge. We have had virtually no rain since the end of March & I fear we may have a drought. This anticyclonic weather pattern always seems to centre on the British Isles in preference to anywhere else in Europe & prevents Atlantic depressions from getting any further East than the West of Ireland. This kind of weather tends to hang about like a bad smell & even if it is displaced, the displacement seems to be only temporary, the anticyclonic pattern springs back again. We usually get this anticyclonic weather later in the year, say June or July. but it's early this year. However, the year is by no means finished yet & this may be all the summer we get!

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