Climate science: observations vs. models

Richard K. Moore RKMblogspot

Updated from original, Republished by Global Research (version of 8 Jan 2010):

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.
— Bertrand Russell, Roads to Freedom, 1918

Science and models

True science begins with observations and measurements. These lead to theories and models, which lead to predictions. The predictions can then be tested by further measurements and observations, which can validate or invalidate the theories and models, or be used to refine them.

This is the paradigm accepted by all scientists. But scientists being people, typically in an academic research community, within a political society, there can be many a slip between cup and lip in the practice of science. There are the problems of getting funding, of peer pressure and career considerations, of dominant political dogmas, etc.

In the case of models there is a special problem that frequently arises. Researchers tend to become attached to their models, both psychologically and professionally. When new observations contradict the model, there is a tendency for the researchers to distort their model to fit the new data, rather than abandoning their model and looking for a better one. Or they may even ignore the new observations, and simply declare that their model is right, and the observations must be in error. This problem is even worse with complex computer models, where it is difficult for reviewers to figure out how the model really works, and whether ’fudging’ might be going on.

A classic example of the ’attached to model’ problem can be found in models of the universe. The Ptolemaic model assumed that the Earth is the center of the universe, and that the universe revolves around that center. Intuitively, this model makes a lot of sense. On the Earth, it feels like we are stationary. And we see the Sun and stars moving across the sky. “Obviously” the universe revolves around the Earth.

However, in order for this model to work in the case of the planets, it was necessary to introduce the arbitrary mechanism of epicycles. When Galileo and Copernicus came along, a much cleaner model was presented, that explained all the motions with no need for arbitrary assumptions. But no longer would the Earth be the center.

In this case it was not so much scientists that were attached to the old model, but the Church, which liked the model because it fit their interpretation of scripture. We’ve all heard the story of the Bishop who refused to look through the telescope, so he could ignore the new observations and hold on to the old model. Galileo was forced to recant. Thus can political interference hold back the progress of science, and ruin careers.

Climate models and global warming

Over the past century there has been a strong correlation between rising temperatures, and rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, caused by the ever-increasing burning of fossil fuels. And it is well known that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Other things being equal, higher CO2 levels must cause an increase in temperature, due to trapping more heat from the sun. Many scientists, quite reasonably, began to explore the theory that continually rising CO2 emissions would lead to continually rising temperatures.

Intuitively, it seems that the theory is “obviously” true. Temperatures have been rising along with CO2 levels; CO2 is a greenhouse gas; what is there to prove? And if the theory is true, and we keep increasing our emissions, then temperatures will eventually reach dangerous levels, melting the Antarctic ice sheet, raising sea levels, and all the other disasters presented by Al Gore in his famous documentary. “Obviously” we are facing a human-generated crisis – and something has got to be done!

But for many years, before Gore’s film, governments didn’t seem to be listening. Environmentalists, however, were listening. Public concern began to grow about CO2 emissions, and the climate scientists investigating the theory shared these concerns. They had a strong motivation to present the scientific case convincingly, in order to force governments to pay attention and take effective action — the future of humanity was at stake!

The climate scientists began building computer models, based on the observed correlation between temperature and CO2 levels. The models looked solid, not only for the past century, but extending back in time. Research with ice-core data revealed a general correlation between temperature and CO2 levels, extending back for a million years and more. What had been “obvious” to begin with, now looked even more obvious, confirmed by seemingly solid science.

These are the very conditions that typically cause scientists to become attached to their models. The early success of the model confirms what the scientists suspected all along: the theory must be true. A subtle shift happens in the mind of the scientists involved. What began as a theory starts to become an assumption. If new data seems to contradict the theory, the response is not to discard the theory, but rather to figure out what the model is lacking.

In the case of the Ptolemaic model, they figured out that epicycles must be lacking, and so epicycles were added. They were certain the universe revolved around the Earth, and so epicycles had to exist. Similarly, the climate scientists have run into problems with their models, and they’ve needed to add more and more machinery to their models in order to overcome those problems. They are certain of their theory, and so their machinery must be valid.

Perhaps they are right. Or perhaps they’ve strayed into epicycle territory, where the theory needs to be abandoned and a better model needs to be identified. This is the conclusion that quite a few scientists have reached. Experts do differ on this question, despite the fact that Gore says emphatically that the “science is settled”. Which group of scientists is right? This is the issue we will be exploring in this article.

Question 1

Compared to the historical record, are we facing a threat of dangerous global warming?

Let’s look at the historical temperature record, beginning with the long-term view. For long-term temperatures, ice-cores provide the most reliable data. Let’s look first at the very-long-term record, using ice cores from Vostok, in the Antarctic. You can click on any of the following graphs to get a bigger image, and in some cases additional information will be shown as well.

Data source:

Vostok Temperatures: 450,000 BC — Present

Here we see a very regular pattern of long-term temperature cycles. Most of the time the Earth is in an ice age, and about every 125,000 years there is a brief period of warm tempertures, called an inter-glacial period. Our current inter-glacial period has lasted a bit longer than most, indicating that the next ice age is somewhat overdue. These long-term cycles are probably related to changes in the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit, which follows a cycle of about 100,000 years.

We also see other cycles of more closely-spaced peaks, and these are probably related to other cycles in the Earth’s orbit. There is an obliquity cycle of about 41,000 years, and a precession cycle, of about 20,000 years, and all of these cycles interfere with one another in complex ways. Here’s an article from NASA that discusses the Earth’s orbital variations:

Next let’s zoom-in on the current inter-glacial period, as seen in Vostok and Greenland, again using ice-core data. Temperatures here are relative to the value for 1900, which is shown as zero:

Vostok Temperatures: 12,000 BC — 1900

Data source:

Greenland Temperatures: 9,500 BC — 1900

Here we see that the Southern Hemisphere emerged from the last ice age about 1,000 years earlier than did the Northern Hemisphere. During this recent inter-glacial period, temperatures in both Vostok and Greenland have oscillated through a range of about 4°C, although the patterns of oscillation are a bit different in each case. As of 1900, in comparison to the whole inter-glacial period, the temperature was 2°C below the maximum in Vostok, and 3°C below the maximum in Greenland.

As of 1900, temperatures were rather cool for the period, and in Greenland, they were close to a minimum. Based on the Greenland record, it appears that the Northern Hemisphere has begun its overdue descent into the next ice age. Let’s next zoom-in on the most recent 4,000 years, to get a clearer picture of Northern Hemisphere temperature patterns.

This first record is from Spain, based on the mercury content in a peat bog, as published in Science, 1999, vol. 284, for the most recent 4,000 years. Note that this graph is backwards, with present day on the left:

This next record is from the Central Alps, based on stalagmite isotopes, as published in Earth and Planteary Science Letters, 2005, vol. 235, for the most recent 2,000 years:

And finally, let’s zoom-in on our Greenland record for the most recent 4,000 years:

The first two graphs confirm the main characteristics of the Greenland record, although the patterns are a bit different in each location. They confirm that during the past few thousand years, in the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures have been 2-3°C higher than present-day temperatures. They also confirm that the Northern Hemisphere is now descending into the next ice age, in a series of declining peaks. It is important to note that even when temperatures were significantly higher than today, the polar bears did not go extinct, island nations were not flooded, there was no runaway release of methane, etc. etc.

In the Greenland graph, we see that the most recent peak began emerging around 1800, long before human-generated CO2 became significant. If this peak follows the natural, long-term pattern, we would expect temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere to rise somewhere between .5°C and 1°C between 1900 and about the year 2000, and then to resume the steep decline toward the next ice age.

The following graph, from the IPPC’s own Jim Hansen, shows that there has indeed been just such a rise from 1900, and it also indicates that a steep decline might have begun in January, 2007:

NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)
Dr. James Hansen
Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index in .01°C
1800 – 2008

Let’s zoom-in and look at very recent temperature records, to see if this steep decline can be confirmed. The following three graphs, from various sources, all show that temperatures leveled off beginning about 2004, and they all show a steep decline beginning January, 2007:

UK’s Hadley Climate Research Unit Temperature anomaly (HadCRUT)
Dr. Phil Jones
HadCRUT Global temperature Anomaly
1988 – 2008

University of Alabama, Huntsville (UAH)
Dr. John Christy
UAH Monthly Means of Lower Troposphere LT5-2
2004 – 2008

Remote Sensing Systems of Santa Rosa, CA (RSS)
RSS MSU Monthly Anomaly – 70S to 82.5N (essentially Global)
2004 – 2008

Next, let’s append temperature increments from the above graphs to our Greenland record, to get a reasonable picture of the temperature patterns in the Northern Hemisphere from 500BC to Present:

Here we see that the most recent peak has reached its maximum, resuming our descent into the next ice age. This peak fits the long term pattern of descending peaks, which are separated by about 1,000 years. Based on the data we have looked at, all from mainstream scientific sources, we are now in a position to answer our first question with a reasonable level of confidence:

Answer 1

Temperatures, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, have been continuing to follow natural, long-term patterns — despite the unusually high levels of CO2 caused by the burning of fossil fuels. There have indeed been two centuries of global warming, and that is exactly what we would expect based on the natural pattern. We have now passed the maximum of that warming, and that maximum was well below earlier temperature peaks during the era of civilization. We can now expect several centuries of global cooling, and perhaps worse. We may in fact be starting the very rapid (and overdue) temperature descent that characterizes the end of every inter-glacial period.

Question 2

Why haven’t unsually high levels of CO2 significantly affected global temperatures?

One place to look for answers to this question is in the long-term patterns that we see in the temperature record of the past few thousand years, such as the peaks separated by about 1,000 years in the Greenland data, and other more closely-spaced patterns that are also visible. Some forces are causing those patterns, and whatever those forces are, they have nothing to do with human-caused CO2 emissions. Perhaps the forces have to do with cycles in solar radiation and solar magnetism, or perhaps they have something do with cosmic radiation on a galactic scale. Until we understand what those forces are, how they intefere with one another, and how they effect climate, we can’t really build useful climate models, except on very short time scales.

We can also look for answers in the regulatory mechanisms that exist within the Earth’s own climate system. If an increment of warming happens on the surface, for example, then there is more evaporation from the oceans and more precipitation. While an increment of warming may melt glaciers, it may also cause increased snowfall in the arctic regions. Do these balance each other or not? Increased warming of the ocean’s surface may gradually heat the ocean, but the increased evaporation acts to cool the ocean. Do these balance each other?

Vegetation also acts as a regulatory system. Plants and trees gobble up CO2; that is where their substance comes from. Greater CO2 concentration leads to faster growth, taking more CO2 out of the atmosphere. Until we understand quantitively how these various regulatory systems function and interact, we can’t even build useful models on a short time scale.

In fact a lot of research is going on, investigating both lines of inquiry. However, in the current public-opinion and media climate, any research not related to CO2 causation is dismissed as the activity of contrarians, deniers, and oil-company hacks. Just as the Bishop refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, so today we have a whole society that refuses to look at many of the climate studies that are available.

I’d like to draw attention to one example of a scientist who has been looking at one aspect of the Earth’s regulatory system. Roy Spencer has been conducting research using the satellite systems that are in place for climate studies. Here are his relevant qualifications:

Roy W. Spencer is a principal research scientist for the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the U.S. Science Team Leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR-E) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. He has served as senior scientist for climate studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

He describes his research in a presentation available on YouTube:

In the talk he gives a lot of details, which are quite interesting, but one does need to concentrate and listen carefully to keep up with the pace and depth of the presentation. He certainly sounds like someone who knows what he’s talking about. Permit me to summarize the main points of his research:

When greenhouse gases cause surface warming, a response occurs, a ‘feedback response’, in the form of changes in cloud and precipitation patterns. The CRU-related climate models all assume the feedback response is a positive one: any increment of greenhouse warming will be amplified by knock-on effects in the weather system. This assumption then leads to the predictions of ‘runaway global warming’.

Spencer set out to see what the feedback response actually is, by observing what happens in the cloud-precipitation system when surface warming is occurring. What he found, by targeting satellite sensors appropriately, is that the feedback response is negative rather than positive. In particular, he found that the formation of storm-related cirrus clouds is inhibited when surface temperatures are high. Cirrus clouds are themselves a powerful greenhouse gas, and this reduction in cirrus cloud formation compensates for the increase in the CO2 greenhouse effect.

This is the kind of research we need to look at if we want to build useful climate models. Certainly Spencer’s results need to be confirmed by other researchers before we accept them as fact, but to simply dismiss his work out of hand is very bad for the progress of climate science. Consider what the popular website SourceWatch says about Spencer.

We don’t find there any reference to rebuttals to his research, but we are told that Spencer writes columns for a free-market website funded by Exxon. They also mention that he spoke at conference organized by the Heartland Institute, that promotes lots of reactionary, free-market principles. They are trying to discredit Spencer’s work on irrelevant grounds, what the Greeks referred to as an ad hominem argument. Sort of like, “If he beats his wife, his science must be faulty”.

And it’s true about ‘beating his wife’ — Spencer does seem to have a pro-industry philosophy that shows little concern for sustainability. That might even be part of his motivation for undertaking his recent research, hoping to give ammunition to pro-industry lobbyists. But that doesn’t prove his research is flawed or that his conclusions are invalid. His work should be challenged scientifically, by carrying out independent studies of the feedback process. If the challenges are restricted to irrelevant attacks, that becomes almost an admission that his results, which are threatening to the ‘climate establishment’, cannot be refuted. He does not hide his data, or his code, or his sentiments.

Question 3

What is the real agenda of the politically powerful factions who are promoting global-warming alarmism?

One thing we always need to keep in mind is that the people at the top of the power pyramid in our society have access to the very best scientific information. They control dozens, probably hundreds, of high-level think tanks, able to hire the best minds, and carrying out all kinds of research we don’t hear about. They have access to all the secret military and CIA research, and a great deal of influence over what research is carried out in think tanks, the military, and in universities.

Just because they might be promoting fake science for its propaganda value, that doesn’t mean they believe it themselves. They undoubtedly know that global cooling is the real problem, and the actions they are promoting are completely in line with such an understanding.

Cap-and-trade, for example, won’t reduce carbon emissions. Rather it is a mechanism that allows emissions to continue, while pretending they are declining — by means of a phony market model. You know what a phony market model looks like. It looks like Reagan and Thatcher telling us that lower taxes will lead to higher government revenues due to increased business activity. It looks like globalization, telling us that opening up free markets will “raise all boats” and make us all prosperous. It looks like Wall Street, telling us that mortgage derivatives are a good deal, and we should buy them. And it looks like Wall Street telling us the bailouts will restore the economy, and that the recession is over. In short, it’s a con. It’s a fake theory about what the consequences of a policy will be, when the real consequences are known from the beginning.

Cap-and-trade has nothing to do with climate. It is part of a scheme to micromanage the allocation of global resources, and to maximize profits from the use of those resources. Think about it. Our ‘powerful factions’ decide who gets the initial free cap-and-trade credits. They run the exchange market itself, and can manipulate the market, create derivative products, sell futures, etc. They can cause deflation or inflation of carbon credits, just as they can cause deflation or inflation of currencies. They decide which corporations get advance insider tips, so they can maximize their emissions while minimizing their offset costs. They decide who gets loans to buy offsets, and at what interest rate. They decide what fraction of petroleum will go to the global North and the global South. They have ‘their man’ in the regulation agencies that certify the validity of offset projects. And they make money every which way as they carry out this micromanagement.

In the face of global cooling, this profiteering and micromanagenent of energy resources becomes particularly significant. Just when more energy is needed to heat our homes, we’ll find that the price has gone way up. Oil companies are actually strong supporters of the global-warming bandwagon, which is very ironic, given that they are funding some of the useful contrarian research that is going on. Perhaps the oil barrons are counting on the fact that we are suspicious of them, and asssume we will discount the research they are funding, as most people are in fact doing. And the recent onset of global cooling explains all the urgency to implement the carbon-management regime: they need to get it in place before everyone realizes that warming-mongering is a scam.

And then there’s the carbon taxes. Just as with income taxes, you and I will pay our full share for our daily commute and for heating our homes, while the big corporate CO2 emitters will have all kinds of loopholes, and offshore havens, set up for them. Just as Federal Reserve theory hasn’t left us with a prosperous Main Street, despite its promises, so theories of carbon trading and taxation won’t give us a happy transition to a sustainable world.

Instead of building the energy-efficient transport systems we need, for example, they’ll sell us biofuels and electric cars, while most of society’s overall energy will continue to come from fossil fuels, and the economy continues to deteriorate. The North will continue to operate unsustainably, and the South will pay the price in the form of mass die-offs, which are already ticking along at the rate of six million children a year from malnutrition and disease.

While collapse, suffering, and die-offs of ‘marginal’ populations will be unpleasant for us, it will give our ‘powerful factions’ a blank canvas on which to construct their new world order, whatever that might be. And we’ll be desperate to go along with any scheme that looks like it might put food back on our tables and warm up our houses.

Update: see comments for Author’s note and link to newly revised version of this article.

6 responses to “Climate science: observations vs. models

  1. Check this site out for the latest on the Antarctic temps.

    They seem quite disappointed really. I wonder how they justify the predictions?

    There might be global warming or cooling but the important issue is whether we, as a human race, can do anything about it.

    There are a host of porkies and not very much truth barraging us everyday so its difficult to know what to believe.

    I think I have simplified the issue in an entertaining way on my blog which includes some issues connected with climategate and “embarrassing” evidence.

    In the pipeline is an analysis of the economic effects of the proposed emission reductions. Watch this space or should I say Blog

    Please feel welcome to visit and leave a comment.



    PS The term “porky” is listed in the Australian Dictionary of Slang.( So I’m told.)

  2. New version:


    I’ve re-written the main section of the document, where I deal with “Question 1” – Are we facing dangerous global warming? I show dramatically that the two hemispheres have quite different climate patterns, and that global averages are characteristic of neither hemisphere. I’ve added strong arguments as to why global averages are meaningless, and why the famous hockey stick is an illusion.

    I’ve also inserted a new “Question 3”, What are we to make of Jim Hansen’s prediction that rapid warming will soon resume? Here I analyze Hansen’s arguments in his latest report on 2009 temperatures. I argue that he has drifted into that epicycle space, where theories become assumptions and observations are ignored that disagree with the model. I argue that his claims in the article are meaningless illusions.

    I’d welcome any feedback on the current version, whether positive or negative, and if anyone’s forwarded or posted the earlier versions anywhere, please follow up in the same venues with the new version. It now includes an internal link, that points people back to the document’s home, where the latest version can always be found.

    Many thanks for all the help and support I’ve received on this project.

    best wishes,

  3. I was wondering what is up with that weird gravatar??? I apprehend 5am is early and I’m not looking my best at that hour, but I hope I do not look like this! I may but make that face if I am asked to do one hundred pushups. lol

  4. Its nice to find rural development information. I found your blog after lots of searching on Yahoo

  5. Its nice to find rural development information. I found your blog after lots of searching on Bing

  6. Most people would agree with this, in my opinion the author could not be more right.

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