Climate officials and climate provisionals | Brussels Blog

Climate officials and climate provisionals

posted by Geoff on 24th Mar 2012

There have been some interesting sessions at the House of Commons Climate Audit Committee.

Conventional coverage by the media largely covers the debate between official scientists (such as those in the IPCC) and the climate sceptics (or lying bastards as some of us call them). But for us cognoscenti the real debate is between the officials and the provisionals. The climate provisionals think climate change is much worse than the officials admit.

I don’t want to be disrespectful of those that have suffered in the complicated Irish tragedy and I have tried to think of alternatives to the terms “officials” and “provisionals” but I can find nothing else that has the right emotional power. The many tragedies that climate change is beginning to visit on the world will dwarf the troubles in Ireland.

Briefly, the officials are mostly hard core professional of academic scientists, who are cautious in their approach and chosen by governments to work on the science and publish or advise when they are sure of their work. Many of them are climate modellers, who are using computer programmes to predict the future course of our climate from a myriad of data sources.

On the other hand provisionals, are a more mixed bunch, some scientists with enough qualifications to join the officials, if they so wished, but the provisionals also include various bloggers. The provisionals generally believe that the officials are not up to speed.

The officials have a much greater presence in the scientific literature – nearly all of them have better qualifications than the provisionals – they publish mostly in peer reviewed scientific papers. The provisionals publish in blogs – occasionally making the leap into the scientific literature such as Tamino’s blog piece that is also a paper, Global temperature evolution 1979–2010, in Environmental Research Letters.

I include in my meaning of the “climate provisionals” those that have significant knowledge of what’s going on with the climate. They will tend to follow climate related issues day-to-day. They seem more willing to speculate than the officials – in public at least. The Arctic Methane Emergency Group are on the alarmist fringe of the provisionals but they may well be right.

These representatives of the provisionals had a chance to put their case to the House of Commons Climate Audit Committee recently. So did two representatives from the officials: Professor Tim Lenton and Professor Julia Slingo. There were two interesting topics that were quietly disputed.

  • How fast will Arctic Ice disappear?
  • Will much methane be released from Arctic seas soon?

Do form your own opinion (see Appendix) but my assessment is:

  • The provisionals said that summer Arctic ice will disappear in a few years. They panic about methane releases.
  • The officials said that summer Arctic ice will disappear in decades. Don’t worry about methane yet.

Not all provisionals go with the methane panic (See DOSBAT) but one of their defining characteristics is a reluctance to simply follow the official line.

I’m waiting with interest but I expect the Climate Audit Committee not to completely follow the official line and give the provisionals some credence.

A good quote from an honorary provisional “The trouble with climate modellers [the officials] is that when there is conflict between their models and the real world, they believe their models.”

Geoff Beacon

P.S. The BBC  reports the Arctic Methane Emergency Committee, Climate ‘tech fixes’ urged for Arctic methane. This has an stunning graph on Arctic Sea Ice.  If the sea-ice goes will the East Siberian Arctic Shelf become a serious climate feedbacks? That may be the next question.

Appendix – the Arctic sea ice debate

The excerpts in this Appendix show different views on the rate of sea ice loss in the Arctic.  Tim Lenton and Julia Slingo estimate the pace of sea ice loss to be significantly slower than the Peter Wadhams suggests using data from the Polar Science Centre, University of Washington.  Tim Lenton and Julia Slingo are experts in climate models. Peter Wadhams is a scientist that measures ice thickness.

If the historically verified climate models are found to be under-performing is this a sign that new feedbacks are beginning to be important. If so, how important?

Tim Lenton, Peter Wadhams and John Nissen at the HOC Environmental Audit Committee

Peter Wadhams: “Every time a submarine goes to the Arctic, we go on and collect ice thickness data. That has been going on for 40 years and it is what has enabled us to spot the thinning of the ice. In fact, it was 20 years ago that we first detected from the 40year data versus the 20-year data that the ice had thinned by about 15%. Now, looking at the latest data, it has thinned by more than 40%, about 45%. That is perhaps more serious than the shrinkage so far, because what we have now in the Arctic sea ice cover is a cap over the top end of the earth that is shrinking slowly but thinning rapidly. The next stage will be a collapse, where the thinning becomes great enough that the winter growth is more than offset by the summer melt. That is something that, if we look at the volumes of ice that are present in the summer, the trend is so rapidly downwards that that might be happening within three or four years.” From transcript.

Tim Lenton: “ I personally think it highly unlikely that we would lose the ice in the next few summers. My best guess is sometime in the 2030s, maybe 2040s roughly, there will be an ice-free summer. I personally would put quite a lot of clear blue ice-free water between my own position and John’s about how strong the feedback from the methane release is. It is not fair to say it is never really addressed. My colleagues down the road in the Hadley Centre in Exeter have permafrost in the latest state-of-the-art model being run at the moment for the next round of IPCC projections.” From transcript.

Julia Slingo at the HOC Environmental Audit Committee
This is reported in the Guardian, Met Office: Arctic sea-ice loss linked to colder, drier UK winters:

Slingo also dismissed fears that the Arctic could be entirely free of sea ice in summer as soon as 2015. Between 2025 and 2030 would be the earliest date she would consider it possible, she said, and the Met Office’s latest models suggested 2040-60 as most likely. “Our expectation is certainly not in the next few years as you’ve heard from some evidence,” she said.

She also said that suggestions the volume of sea ice had already declined by 75% already were not credible. “We know there is something [happening on the thinning of sea ice] but it’s not as dramatic as those numbers suggest.”

The problem, she explained, was that researchers did not know the thickness of Arctic sea ice with any confidence. She hoped a new ice-monitoring satellite launched in 2010, Cryosat2, would help with more accurate measurements.

The Polar Science Centre, University of Washington describes the Arctic Sea Ice Volume Anomaly in technical terms. This is reported in the Guardian, Arctic sea ice is melting at its fastest pace in almost 40 years.

Separate, less reliable, research suggests that Arctic ice is in a downward spiral, declining in area but also thinning. Using records of air, wind and sea temperature, scientists from the Polar Science Centre of the University of Washington, Seattle, announced last week that the Arctic sea-ice volume reached its lowest ever level in 2010 and was on course to set more records this year.

The new data suggests that the volume of sea ice last month appeared to be about 2,135 cubic miles – just half the average volume and 62% lower than the maximum volume of ice that covered the Arctic in 1979. The research will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research.


The problem is that when the Arctic atmosphere is cold, many Arctic systems are stable. It was observations of these conditions that were used to build the climare models. It did not matter much if the air temperature 2 meters above ground was -40 or -20, the Arctic was stable. However, when the temperature is -2C and above, then everything changes – ice melts and CO2 and methane are released. And, this happens even if the temperature rise is on one south facing slope,and the average temperature across a broader area remains below the melting point.

Likewise warm currents can warm very small volumes of the seas or small areas of the seafloor permafrost.

Then, such local warming tends to spread. This is not accounted for in the models. Nor do the models include any kind of carbon feedbacks or ice dynamics. The models tell us a good deal about how the Arctic works when it is below freezing. However, they tell us almost nothing about how the Arctic behaves as it melts. In particular, they tell use very little about how fast the melt occurs. The only thing we are sure of is that the Arctic melt will include carbon feedbacks which will accelerate global warming to levels greater than forecast by the “official” climate models.

The US Federal Budgets of 1995 et seq is responsible for modern climate models that do not include carbon feedbacks and realistic sea level rise. Under that budget environment, climate researchers that suggested that climate change was imminent, lost their funding. Note for example the EPA programs dealing with climate change. Then, the models at all organizations that received federal funding were calibrated to put off the loss of Arctic sea ice for at least 4 generations (60 ) years.

Aaron Lewis ( March 25, 2012 at 9:51 pm )

PThis is significant part of a letter my MP got from the Met Office on my behalf:

“Carbon dioxide and methane release from permafrost is an area of active research at the Met Office Hadley Centre. A simple framework has been developed for estimating the amount of carbon dioxide and methane release from permafrost. and to estimate the impact of this release on the global mean temperature. We expect this work to be published within the next 2 months. This is a step towards full representation or the permafrost climate feedback within the more complex Hadley Centre climate models – the outputs of which are used by the IPCC – which we plan to achieve within the next 2 years.

Currently, no work has been undertaken to incorporate methane release from ocean hydrates lnto Hadley Centre climate models.

I hope this helps.”

Does it help?

Geoff Beacon ( March 28, 2012 at 7:45 pm )

Good post.

I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason we amateurs are less inclined to ‘toe the party line’ is because we really don’t know enough? I’d agree with Slingo’s 2025 – 2030, although that’s my ‘most likely’ window.

Due to the massive losses of sea-ice volume shown by PIOMAS in Spring 2010/11 I’m veering towards the ‘earlier rather than later’ camp. But from all the papers I’ve read I still see ample reason to expect a more drawn out final recession with a levelling of the current precipitous volume loss.

Anyway, anyone who says the Arctic isn’t in a downward spiral is merely showing they’ve not the vaguest brush with the evidence.

Chris Reynolds ( March 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm )

Forgot to ask – I saw your comment over at Tamino’s. Hope you don’t mind my asking – but who’s taken offence at this post? No need to go into details if they’re deniers, they’re boring and get way too much air time as it is.

Chris Reynolds ( March 29, 2012 at 9:21 pm )

John Mitchell of the Met Office’s Hadley Centre has kindly replied to me. I had asked him about the treatment of various feedbacks in climate models. (I have added brackets to the numbering of my questions in lieu of the colour coding in his reply) He says

Hi Geoff

I apologise for not answering earlier – I now work part time.

Based on help from my colleagues

(1). reduced sea ice cover reflecting less of the sun’s heat back out to space,

(2). changing ocean circulation patterns

1,2 are in most models and have been for years

(3). less carbon dioxide absorption by the oceans

(4). increased soil respiration

3,4 are in most carbon cycle models and fairly well established. There are a good number of such models in the current IPCC assessment

(5). more forest fires

5 we don’t do yet, but could be important for changing ecosystems response to climate.

(6). melting permafrost

6a/b we don’t have in the GCM, but have some simple modelling of. Too early to show any results yet, but we plan to publish later this year. Bottom line is that both CH4 and CO2 will be released as permafrost thaws. The magnitude is uncertain, but likely to be significant.

(7). increased decomposition of wetlands

7, we have in HadGEM2 but didn’t enable as a fully coupled feedback, but we can diagnose changes in wetland extent and CH4 emissions

I would add that although these things may be important, they are not always easy to quantify, model, initialize and validate, especially 5-7. That is why is taking time ot implement them.


Geoff Beacon ( March 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm )


Check over at my blog on the March Miscellanea post- I’ve finally replied to you.

Sorry for the delay. You might also find my most recent post about models and Arctic sea ice of interest.


Chris Reynolds ( April 2, 2012 at 9:54 pm )

Thanks Chris,

“ianam” on the Deltoid open thread for March.
I didn’t take it too seriously.

You might be amused at the response I get from York Council’s (free!) wifi for the page:
“Content of type Intolerance blocked: Content filtering”

I found your discussion with Steve Bloom on DosBat very illuminating. Part of the reason
is that this sort of discussion is hard to find between “the professionals”.

Best wishes


admin ( April 20, 2012 at 8:36 am )

Margaret Heffernan’s TED lecture: Dare to disagree

After the discovery,”It was fully 25 years before the British and American Medical profession abandoned the practice of X raying pregnant women.”

Gorge Bernard Shaw said:

” All professions are conspiracies against the laity.”

Geoff Beacon ( September 8, 2012 at 9:56 am )

The Huffington Post hits hard on this issue:

Arctic Crisis: Far From Sight, the Top of the World’s Problems

admin ( September 12, 2012 at 10:46 am )

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