Confused at the National Post

A colleague recently pointed me to a debate on an MIT email list over Lorne Gunter’s National Post article, Forget Global Warming: Welcome to the New Ice Age.

The article starts off with anecdotal evidence that this has been an unusually cold winter. If it had stopped where it said, “OK, so one winter does not a climate make. It would be premature to claim an Ice Age is looming just because we have had one of our most brutal winters in decades,” I wouldn’t have faulted it. It’s useful as a general principle to realize that weather has high variance, so it’s silly to make decisions on the basis of short term events. (Similarly, science is a process of refinement, so it’s silly to make decisions on the basis of a single paper.)

But it didn’t stop. It went on to assemble a set of scientific results of varying quality and relevance, purporting to show that, “It’s way too early to claim the same is about to happen again, but then it’s way too early for the hysteria of the global warmers, too.” That sounds to me like a claim that the evidence for anthropogenic global warming is of the same quality as the evidence that we’re about to enter an ice age, which is ridiculous. It fails to inform the layman either by giving a useful summary of accurately characterized evidence or by demonstrating proper application of logic.

Some further digging reveals that the article is full of holes:

If you look at the data, it’s clear that the statements about increasing sea ice extent are misleading. Also, the thickening cited is clearly not universal:
“As of January 1, 2008 Environment Canada analysis indicates sea ice cover over the Northern Hemisphere has recovered to near normal extent. However, much of the thick multi-year ice in the eastern and even central Arctic Ocean has been depleted and replaced with thinner more newly formed first year ice.”

The -0.3F temperature for the US correct according to the NCDC Jan 08 climate report. However, it’s a red herring, hardly indicative of anything because the variance in monthly temperatures is large. NCDC reports that it was the 49th coldest Jan. on record (they don’t say whether they mean 20th century or the 1895-2008 referenced elsewhere in the report). That puts it squarely in the middle of the historical distribution.

The other statement in the same paragraph, “The U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) reported that many American cities and towns suffered record cold temperatures in January and early February.” appears to be incorrect, at least for January – all I see in the NCDC report on selected extremes are warm records, not cold. In any case, records aren’t very helpful – the regional and daily variance in temperature is large, so even in a warm year there are cold records, and vice versa. You have to understand more about the distribution to determine whether you can make any meaningful statements about climate based on short term data.

It’s also untrue that “China is surviving its most brutal winter in a century.” (unless perhaps brutal refers to some metric other than temperature). Instead, “This winter has been the nation’s coldest since 1986-87, as measured by the lowest average temperature, the China Meteorological Administration said on Monday.”

With respect to snow cover, it does appear to be a record, just barely. But a higher-resolution time series tells a different story.

I’m not sure what Toggweiler and Russell material is used, but it seems fairly clear that the article distorts their arguments, if you read their recent Nature article. One National Post statement in particular is extremely misleading: “the computer models that show polar ice-melt cooling the oceans, stopping the circulation of warm equatorial water to northern latitudes and triggering another Ice Age (a la the movie The Day After Tomorrow) are all wrong.” There are no such models. Models show that warming more than offsets circulation effects. The T&R article is getting heavy play on conservative/skeptic blogs, who gleefully ignore the fact that it says, “It is noteworthy in this regard that the westerly winds in both hemispheres have been shifting polewards and getting stronger over the past 40 years, partly in response to the warming from higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations.” It takes some real doublethink to use an article premised on anthropogenic global warming to debunk global warming.

The Sorokhtin comment is unverifiable (by me), but Sorokhtin has published with Chilingar and Khilyuk which does not speak well for his taste in colleagues. A K&C paper arguing against human involvement in climate was demolished in rebuttals. I believe that there’s also a rebuttal of the rebuttal by K&C & Sorokhtin, but I can’t find it. Unfortunately the articles aren’t free online anymore, but I remember reading the original K&C and being floored by magnitude of some of the errors. Viscount Monckton wrote his own rebuttal of the rebuttal, also off the rails. See also Deltoid & n3xus6 on this.

There’s an interesting exchange in the comments at RC on Hell frozen. Comment 46 cited a similar Investors Business Daily editorial that also mentions solar scientist Tapping. Evidently an RC regular wrote to Tapping to ask him about it (see comment 63). Tapping responds:
Hi Steve, The article is rubbish.
I believe that global climate change is the biggest problem facing us today. As yet we have no idea of exactly how serious it can get or where the tipping point may be.
The lateness of the start of the solar activity cycle is not yet enough to be something to worry about. However, even if we were to go into another minimum, and the Sun dims for a few decades, as it did during the Maunder Minimum, it could reduce the problem for a while, but things will come back worse when the cycle starts again.
We are looking at the downside of the freedom of the web. Its freedom extends to bad information being circulated.

If you google Lorne Gunter (author of the National Post article) you’ll find regular hatchet jobs, citing all the usual climate skeptics – Baliunas, Soon, Legates, Idso, and the old discredited arguments (satellites don’t show warming, it’s cosmic rays, water vapor is 97% of the greenhouse effect).

According to the NYT, Conrad Black, founder of the National Post, is scheduled this week to start serving a 78 month sentence for fraud.

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