Is the chilling truth that we’re to blame for the big freeze?

The Irish Independent this morning has a useful full-page piece by Ed Power in its ‘Weekend Review’ section on the extreme cold spell. He canvassed three perspectives, and I find myself, not for the first time, somewhat at odds with Ray Bates, adjunct professor of meteorology in UCD.

I know Ray quite well, and always enjoy a friendly banter when we meet at conferences. I’ve listened to him speak on numerous occasions. His expertise and integrity is beyond question, but I reckon Ray is a disciple of the cup-half-full school, and appears to enjoy being a counterpoint to the ‘consensus view’ (among climate science, certainly, if not meteorology, a related but quite different discipline). “It is impossible to explain these large [weather] anomalies in terms of global warming”, Ray is quoted below.

He could as easily have pointed out that it is equally impossible to categorically rule out that we may well be experiencing a marked destabilisation in climate patterns. Globally, the evidence for systemic, wide-ranging and non-linear disturbances to climate systems is compelling. Ray appears to poo pooh these by harking back to the 1950s and scares about the possible climate impacts of atomic bomb tests. This is just a little reminiscent of the canard about climate science promising us a new ice age back in the 1970s (a favourite of lazy media commentators).

Meteorology is primarily about the study of weather, and weather is indeed a fickle beast, as Ray quite correctly points out. Climate science is about peering through the ‘noise’ of variability to reveal the underlying longer-term trends. Hence, the two disciplines often do not see eye to eye.

While I don’t share Ray’s view of underlying global warming being a slow-moving phenomenon, I unreservedly accept his bona fides in making the argument. The term ‘sceptic’ has come to be seen as a term of abuse in climate science. Genuine, informed scepticism is both welcome and necessary, and Ray Bates is, in that real sense, a sceptic.

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From the Irish Independent:

So – is the Arctic weather all our own fault? Are we to blame for the blizzards and the icy mayhem? The mere question provokes a storm of disagreement among climate experts.

Some regard the unseasonable big freeze as irrefutable evidence that decades of human pollution have pushed existing climactic patterns to breaking point, unleashing a vengeful fury of extreme weather.

Others contend the snow storms buffeting the country, trapping thousands in their homes, are simply a statistical anomaly that have little to do with long-term trends in worldwide temperatures.

“The phrase ‘climate change’ may have to be retired in favour of ‘climate disruption’,” says Climatechange.ie founder John Gibbons. “Go back just a few years. In November 2009 we had record floods. January last. . . the worst freeze in 50 years. Now we’re back to it again.”

No single event, he says, can be attributed to climate change (which scientists believe is linked to the warming effects of greenhouse gases resulting from human activity). Cumulatively, however, it is clear profound changes are shaking global weather systems to their core.

“The rate we are seeing weather anomalies indicates something quite serious is happening with the climate system,” he says. “There are few people in expert circles who would disagree. The problem is they can’t tell you what would happen next. It’s like a runaway horse. It’s out of control and you don’t know what it’s going to do.”

There is, he acknowledges, an irony to the fact ‘global warming’ may be responsible for five inches of snow in Dublin. At a scientific level, however, this is a completely logical turn of events.

“When Ireland froze last January, weather stations in Greenland were recording temperature increases in the range of 3.8 to 8.8 degrees centigrade. They were completely off the chart.

“Weather systems are normally held within extremely cold areas such as the Arctic. Essentially, it’s too cold there for the ‘cold’ to move.

“What we’re seeing now is a weakening of the intense cold in the Arctic. That weakening is allowing the Arctic air to ‘slip away’ and so, of course, it lands on us. The cooling we are witnessing is mirrored by a dramatic warming in Greenland.”

Gibbons, an environmental writer and commentator, believes we are only seeing the start of things. “What does climate change and the warming effect tell us? It tells us we are going to get an intensification of storm activity and that we are going to get increased precipitation.

“That can include more snow, which might seem counter-intuitive.

“I know it can be difficult to explain, but snow falling from the sky can be a symptom of. . . increased warming. People are going to say, ‘that’s crazy’. Well, believe it or not — increased warming in cold areas can lead to more snow, not less.”

However, this opinion is not universally shared. “It is impossible to explain these large [weather] anomalies in terms of global warming,” says Ray Bates, adjunct Professor of Meteorology at UCD. “We are having a cold spell at the moment. The past two winters have been quite cold as well — colder than normal, after decades in which there was very little frost. These are local anomalies in the Irish climate.”

That’s not to say global warming hasn’t impacted on the weather, he says. It’s just that the changes are long-term and, compared to the current blizzards, relatively subtle.

“We’ve had a lot of variability in the last few years in Irish weather,” says Prof Bates. “We’ve had very wet summers in 2008 and 2009. We’ve had three winters in which we’ve had a lot of cold weather. We had ice on Sandymount Strand in January 2009.

“This year we have the record November cold spell. These are features of the natural variability in our climate. In the background, we’ve had global warming going on. The main signal of global warming, which we can attribute to greenhouse gas increases, is the rise in sea level, which is occurring at 3.2mm per year.”

Rising sea levels aren’t to be scoffed at. Nonetheless, they are unlikely to have triggered the current severe weather, he says. “A lot of commentators are saying this is a sign of man-made climate change. I wouldn’t agree with that at all. [Climate change] would lead to some extra warming in the atmosphere and to some excess rainfall — but nothing to the extent of the anomalies we have seen in our recent wet summers.

“The rainfall November of last year was 200pc to 300pc above normal. What you’d expect from global warming would be a 6pc or 7pc increase in average rainfall due to temperature increases.”

There is a third school of thought. Some scientists believe global warming is not the only factor behind the weather extremes of the past two years or so. According to Professor Michael Lockwood of the department of meteorology at the University of Reading, changes on the surface of the sun may play a role too.

At the moment, he says, the sun is going through a period of ‘low’ activity, with less sunspot agitation than normal (sunspots are areas of intense heat on the surface of the sun, visible as dark blots). When this is combined with high-altitude jet-stream winds, as is happening presently, it gives rise to a phenomenon he describes as ‘jet-stream blocking’.

Over the next few years, he says, the likely result will be colder winters and heavier snowfall. “It looked last week like we had a blocking event formed. The phenomenon is really a snaking of the jet stream. It can start to pull lower altitude, cold Russian air back in over Europe,” he said.

“November is a pretty good predictor of what December through February is going to be like.”

Not everyone goes along with this. People are seeking an explanation for freak weather when none may exist, says Prof Bates.

“People are always looking for reasons for anomalies. I’m old enough to remember the 1950s, when people were blaming the atomic bomb tests for causing what was considered strange weather. The variability in our climate has always been there and will always be there whilst in the background we have global warming, which is slowly starting to be felt,” he says.

In the opposite camp, Climatechange.ie believes that the extreme weather is likely to grow even more extreme in the decades ahead. “We appear to be at the end of a very long, benign period,” says Gibbons.

“The climactic conditions that allowed humanity to prosper are [over]. We may have to brace for more of this. I think we are in an incredibly dangerous position.

“The time for getting the reins back on the horse is running out. The first thing you’ve got to do in a crisis is recognise there is a crisis.”

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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12 Responses to Is the chilling truth that we’re to blame for the big freeze?

  1. Delio says:

    Good to see the question at least being posed by the Independent – a lot of their recent coverage has veered between flippant and skeptical. The tone of this article is serious, and thankfully, they managed to resist the obvious temptation to get in some talking head from the Other Side. The other useful thing about the article is that’s how I stumbled across this blog – good stuff, guys (it is all guys, right?) keep the excellent postings coming. D

  2. Brian O'Brien says:

    I have to say John that I think you’re being far too polite with Prof Bates. For him to describe the effects of global warming as ‘long term and relatively subtle’ (assuming he’s being fairly quoted above) is laughable. Also, he calls this big freeze “…local anomalies in the Irish climate” when this is patently part of a vast weather/climate system stretching from Siberia to the Arctic to Greenland. This is just plain wrong. As for Professor Sunspots from the UK, come on folks, the solar activity card has been thoroughly played out, and proven to be irrelevant. How come the piece didn’t get a comment from an Irish climate scientist, as opposed to (retired) professor of meteorology? I’m not sure the former would have been quite as dismissive about this bizarre string of ‘once in a century’ events that now appear to be rolling in every few months….

  3. james nix says:

    Yes, Bates doesn’t appear to have support to be so dismissive.

    March 5, 2004: “Global warming could plunge North America and Western Europe into a deep freeze, possibly within only a few decades. That’s the paradoxical scenario gaining credibility among many climate scientists. The thawing of sea ice covering the Arctic could disturb or even halt large currents in the Atlantic Ocean. Without the vast heat that these ocean currents deliver–comparable to the power generation of a million nuclear power plants–Europe’s average temperature would likely drop 5 to 10°C (9 to 18°F), and parts of eastern North America would be chilled somewhat less. Such a dip in temperature would be similar to global average temperatures toward the end of the last ice age roughly 20,000 years ago.”
    http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2004/05mar_arctic/

    Jan 2010: “An unprecedented extreme in the northern hemisphere atmospheric circulation has driven a strong direct connecting current between the Gulf Stream and the West Greenland current. The unprecedented negativity of the “Arctic Oscillation” and the strong connection of the Gulf Stream with the Greenland current are exceptional events. More exceptional weather events are predicted with anthropogenic climate change, but this could be a natural variation of weather and currents.”
    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/1/6/822520/-Freak-Current-Takes-Gulf-Stream-to-Greenland

  4. John Gibbons says:

    @ Delio
    Glad you found it useful.

    @ Brian
    Feedback appreciated. I do genuinely like Ray Bates, and think he’s trying to make points that need to be made, and as mentioned above, I don’t for a moment question his bona fides. I just struggle a little to shrug off absolutely everything that we see happening as being just another weather event.

    @ James
    The good news, you might say, is that there’s no evidence at the moment to support the thesis that the Atlantic Conveyor is in trouble, and just as well, since an Ice Age would be not much less shitty than runaway global warming (yes, of course, we could end up with both, at least for a while – the ‘Snowball-in-Hell’ effect, is my patented description!)

  5. Paul Barry says:

    I generally find Prof Bates underwhelming as a climate science expert. He was on Tonight with Vincent Browne (with Kevin Myers) during the summer and he was most disappointing. He’s no denier, but I don’t believe he is well informed about the whole debate: so he gets pushed around easily.

    @Brian O Brien

    Don’t confuse Mike Lockwood (Prof Sunspots) with the other “It’s the sun!” numpties. His theories and research is legitimate and valuable, and tends to undermine denier beliefs. I went to a lecture he gave in Trinity College a few months ago. His theory explains regional, decadal phenomena – particularly cold periods that happen during solar minima, particularly over Europe.

    Interestingly, he showed us evidence that during the “little ice age” summers were in fact just as warm as other years. Lockwood’s theories, in fact, support the notion that the “little ice age” may have been more of a regional phenomenon. If he is correct, we may, paradoxically, experience these extended cold-snaps (in Europe) for a decade or two even while global warming continues to gather momentum.

    Lockwood is completely in agreement with the scientific consensus on global warming and has published papers that attest to this. At the lecture, he provided some very interesting insights about what it is like to be a climate scientist: he regularly receives abusive emails from deniers, some of which contain death threats.

  6. paul cullen says:

    John Gibbons – when will you stop? Anthropogenic global warming, sorry climate change, sorry climate disruption is a non-falsifiable hypothesis and therefore does not belong in the province of science. It it’s getting warmer, it is of course global warming. If it is getting colder, it is still global warming, but we will call it something else. I am interested by the argumentative hoops you and your colleagues are now going through faced with temperatures of below -10 degrees Celsius in Ireland. If the Irish weather was as unusually warm as it is now unusually cold, you would not have used a single one of those arguments, being content to say: “see, we told you so”.

  7. Paul Barry says:

    @paul cullen
    (Your ignorant comment hardly merits a response from anyone. The following is for the benefit of others who may be reading this blog)

    There are no argumentative hoops, just straightforward distinctions between weather and climate; between Ireland and the Earth as a whole. It’s cold for a couple of weeks, but the earth is warming. How could that be? It’s a paradox (an apparent contradiction). It’s not that hard to understand.

    And of course AGW is falsifiable in hundreds of ways. If you can show any of the lines of evidence to be false, you are there: sea-level rise, IR absorption spectra for CO2, satellite radiation measurements, downward surface IR measurements, total planetary ice-mass loss/gain, ocean temperatures etc.

    It is more a matter of having the will to understand than the ability: of being more interested in finding out the facts than rationalizing your prejudices.

  8. paul cullen says:

    @Adam Smith
    Hi Adam. Thanks for the tip. As it turns out, I have been living in Germany for the past 20 years and can tell you that we are having a much colder November/December than normal, with airports closed because they are running out of de-icing solution and so on. Also, my home help comes from Russia (Siberia, actually) and she tells me that her family back home are also complaining of unusual cold (which is something in Siberian winter, don’t you think?). Thanks for the NOAA map. I note that it shows a positive temperature anomaly for both Russia (4 to 8 degrees Celsius, if I am reading the graph correctly) and my home town of Münster (plus 2 to 4 degrees). But hey, those NOAA guys are really smart and have much better thermometers than us idiots on the ground.

  9. Paul cullen says:

    John, please have the courtesy and courage to publish my last comment. Every word in it is true.

  10. John Gibbons says:

    @Paul Cullen

    “But hey, those NOAA guys are really smart and have much better thermometers than us idiots on the ground.”

    Well said Paul, couldn’t agree more. Good of you to finally cop the difference between (selectively) stringing together a few anecdotes and third hand home help observations versus systematic instrumental recording across thousands of sites using highly sophisticated and sensitive equipment, including satellite-based monitoring, as Adam Smith sets out above.

    No one here is especially interested in sparring with ideologues who (consciously or otherwise) parrot propaganda cooked up by right wing organisations like the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, etc. in an ever-more desperate defence-at-all-costs of the sinking ship formerly known as free Market fundamentalism.

  11. Brian O'Brien says:

    Someone needs to remind our friend Paul Cullen that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.

  12. Paul Cullen says:

    OK guys. I am not going to respond to any of your ad hominem stuff. Let’s just wait until what you call “anecdotes” add up until they become what you term”data”. Time will tell.

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