Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rant on climate change

Warning: this is a rant. A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook a link to an unscientific article about climate change which rather annoyed me.

When I call the article unscientific, I don't mean that "it challenges the commonly accepted ideas about climate change". Challenging accepted ideas is at the very core of true Science (with a capital S). What I mean is that this so-called "challenge" does not follow the basic rules for Science, for science reporting, or for journalism in general. It follows the rules of propaganda. 

The article in a purported news outlet is based on an article in a second news outlet, which was in turn based on an article in a third news outlet. This house of cards was ultimately built on a blog post. The original blogger is either utterly stupid, or a deceitful, shameless charlatan who has pledged mindless allegiance to the climate change deniers club. Either way, his blog post is complete garbage. But of course, you wouldn't know that if you just read the first news article that my friend posted.

If there are valid scientific arguments against climate change exist, this is clearly not one of them. 

New scientific study

The link was to an article in Federalist Papers.

Let's start with the alarmist title: "New Scientific Study Demolishes Liberal Climate Change Arguments". The rhetoric is a bit distasteful. It is rather unlikely that a single paper could "demolish" the conclusions of 3,894 peer-reviewed journal papers. And climate change is not a liberal thing. It's a science. People who disagree with climate change are allowed into the club, so long as they agree to follow the basic tenets of Science

But... rather than quibble about rhetoric... If the purpose of the Federalist Papers article is to present Science, they would post a link to the paper, or at the very least, properly cite the article by giving the title, authors, and where it was published. Where is this new study? The article only provides us with two sources, neither of which is to a scientific article. Both are links to Daily Wire -- not to a reputable peer-reviewed science journal. 

The Federalist Papers article claims that the study is the "most recent findings from the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI)". This contradicts the Daily Wire article that they cite. Here is a quote from the the Daily Wire article: "The Telegraph newspaper in the UK has published a fascinating article detailing data from the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI)." The new scientific study is not from the DMI, but derived from data from the DMI. 

Ok... my skeptic flag is going off. There seems to be  pattern of deception here; is this an attempt to make the new scientific study appear more significant than it is? If a reputable organization that should be full of climate change zealots says that climate change is a hoax, well gosh darn it, that's compelling. We shall see just how significant the "new scientific study" really is.

The Daily Wire article in turn, gives a link to an article in Telegraph. This article cites a blog post from Paul Homewood, who provides his terse commentary on six graphs from DMI. Six graphs and 147 words of careful, detailed scientific explanation. (Note: when I said "detailed scientific explanation", I was being sarcastic. I dunno if that was clear.)

Ok... so let's count. The article from the Federalist Papers cites Daily Wire, which cites Telegraph, which cites a blog, which cites DMI. We have a fourth-hand account of DMI data, with the conclusions largely drawn from a blog which is called a "scientific study". Fourth hand reporting of uncited sources is bad journalism, and as we all know, playing telephone with the Telegraph generally leads to misinterpretation.

So, even without researching the claims in the blog, this is just plain sloppy journalism.

The mean temperature of the Earth

The original Federalist Papers article starts with a meme that claims the Earth's mean temperature is unchanged between 1996 and 2016. The meme does not cite the source of this information. Again, very, very sloppy journalism.

Is this true? I did a little fact checking. Here is a chart from NASA.

"With the contribution of eight consecutive high monthly temperature records set from January to August, and the remainder of the months ranking among their five warmest, 2016 became the warmest year in NOAA's 137-year series."

Here's a blog post that deeply investigates that meme. I quote the conclusion of the blog post:

"So in summary, whoever made up that meme 1) lied about their numbers, 2) is ignorant of the actual temperature data, and 3) abjectly ignorant of basic statistical concepts.  And then they had the balls to call Al Gore and progressives liars.  How quaint."

So, you have the choice between believing a meme that offers absolutely nothing to back it up and actual data from NASA and NOAA. I heartily welcome a legitimate critical look at the data and analysis from these organizations, but the meme is an insult to my meager intelligence.

In my book, the fact that Federalist Papers included that meme is a huge discredit to the article, and puts the whole website in a bad light. Note: While most of the Federalist Papers article was based on the Daily Wire article, the stupid meme was brought in by Federalist Papers.

Quotes from the Telegraph

After the meme, the Federalist Papers article gives a quote which it says is from  Telegraph. (I assume that the quotes did actually come from the Telegraph article. I tried to look at this article, but it was behind a paywall.) I will analyze the claims in this quote one at a time.

"Ever since December temperatures in the Arctic have consistently been lower than minus 20 C." 

This is a factual statement, and could be deduced from the original data from DMI.

However, DMI cautions about the interpretation of this data. (The bolding is my own, to call note to the warning. The capital letters on "NOT" are from the original.)

"The temperature graphs are made from numerical weather prediction (NWP) "analysis" data. Analyses are the model fields used to start NWP models. They represent the statistically most likely state of the atmosphere, given the information available to make the analysis. Since the data are gridded, it is straight forward to deduce the average temperature North of 80 degree North. However, since the model is gridded in a regular 0.5 degree grid, the mean temperature values are strongly biased towards the temperature in the most northern part of the Arctic! Therefore, do NOT use this measure as an actual physical mean temperature of the arctic. The 'plus 80 North mean temperature' graphs can be used for comparing one year to an other."

Even if Telegraph was making proper use of the data, the statement does nothing to refute climate change. What was the typical temperatures during this part of the year ten or twenty or forty years ago?

The Federalist Papers article stops there in summarizing Homewood's blog. The blog goes on to say that the Arctic temperatures "are currently below average".

Here is the plot, taken from Homewood's blog post (which came from the DMI website), which he uses to support this statement. The green line is the average temperature, and the red, jagged line represents the temperatures from 2017.

Ummm.... I may not be so good at math and stuff, but the red line appears to me to be almost entirely above the green line. Homewood has either made an honest mistake, or he is deliberately misinterpreting this graph to support the climate change denier narrative. I think this statement might not get past peer review in a real scientific article.

"In April the extent of Arctic sea ice was back to where it was in April 13 years ago."

This is based on the following comment from Homewood's blog: "Average April ice extent has now been stable since 2004."

Here is a closeup of the last 18 years from this chart, with a horizontal line in green so we can compare. To me, it looks like you could legitimately make the statement that the April ice extent is very close to what it was 11 years ago, but that's a misrepresentation of all the available data. All real-life data has variability, so you need to do some stats on the trend. Our good friends at DMI did the stats, came up with a regression line (in black), and concluded that the ice extent has been shrinking by 2.8% per decade. That's how Science is done.

Homewood has resorted to egregiously cherry picking data. That's how Propaganda is done. 

"Furthermore, whereas in 2008 most of the ice was extremely thin, this year most has been at least two metres thick." 

The quote from Telegraph is consistent with Homewood's terse analysis. This analysis is based on his subjective summary of the following two maps. For convenience, I combined the two into one image and put them side-by-side.

My own subjective analysis is two-part. First, I have to agree with his assessment that there is a lot of healthy green and yellow in the 2017 map of the area around the North Pole -- more so than in 2008. Santa will be happy to hear that, but this is subjective. More importantly, I have to ask myself why Homewood chose 2008 as the year to compare against. I had a peek at DMIs map from 2007. This would clearly be a bad map for a climate change denier to compare against, since it would not support the narrative. Once again, Homewood has cherry-picked data with a lot of variability. Bad Science. 
The second part of my subjective analysis is that the map on the right has a whole lot more purple than that on the left, particularity on the right side of the map. Purple represents ice that is less than a meter thick. This is alarming. This is the thinnest and hence the most precarious area. Since the transition between water and ice at 32 degrees involves a lot of energy exchange, I would guess that if this ice cover is lost, it will be hard to regain.

Now for the objective analysis. Homewood has conveniently ignored the graphs in the upper-right hand corner of the images which compare the ice volumes over multiple years. I expand them and show the two below.

The gray swath on both graphs is the average of the years 2004 and 2013. The width of the gray swath is 2 standard deviation units. Under the assumption of normal statistical variation, we would expect that data would fall in this range about 95% of the time.

Note from the graph on the left that 2008 hugs the edge of the gray swath. (The 2008 data is the dark black line.) This demonstrates that 2008 was an anomalous year, with exceptionally low ice volume. Hint to cherry-pickers: This would be a great year to compare against, since it is not very representative of the typical year between 2004 and 2013. 

More importantly, note the graph on the right which shows that 2017 (and 2016, for that matter) are both well below the gray swath. This is clear evidence that the 2017 and 2016 data is not just a statistical anomaly. This is real. There has been a statistically significant reduction in Arctic ice volume when you compare 2016 and 2017 to the time period from 2004 to 2013.

Homewood's statements are refuted by the very graphs he submits as evidence.

"The Greenland ice cap last winter increased in volume faster than at any time for years."

This is directly from Homewood. He provides a graph from DMI to support this, but really only states his conclusion. The graph all by itself is hard to make sense of, since none of the axes are labelled. 

But from reading the actual webpage on DMI, this statement is mostly factual, but misleading. Snow accumulates during the winter and large pieces of ice break off into the ocean (called calving) in the summer. Homewood has looked at the accumulation part, and in just one year.

Quoting from the DMI website:

"Over the year, it snows more than it melts, but calving of icebergs also adds to the total mass budget of the ice sheet. Satellite observations over the last decade show that the ice sheet is not in balance. The calving loss is greater than the gain from surface mass balance, and Greenland is losing mass at about 200 Gt/yr."

(A Gt is a gigaton, one billion tons. The yearly loss of 200 Gt amounts to a block of ice that is about 6 kilometers by 6 kilometers by 6 kilometers.)

Ok, so, I have been loosing money in the stock market practically every year for like 36 years... and this year (so far) I'm doing better than other years. Maybe I will wind up with a net loss at the end of the year, but I dunno yet. Ummm... should stay in the stock market?

"As for those record temperatures brought in 2016 by an exceptionally strong El Niño, the satellites now show that in recent months global temperatures have plummeted by more that 0.6 degrees: just as happened 17 years ago after a similarly strong El Niño had also made 1998 the “hottest year on record”."

This is the final part of the quote in the Federalist Papers / Daily Wire quote from Telegraph. I don't know where this came from. It is not in the blog post by Homewood. Clearly it was not derived from actual data from NOAA. The graph below compares global temperatures of 2017 against the eight warmest years on record. I don't see a 0.6 degree plummet. I see something more like 0.2 degrees.

But clearly, 2017 is starting out with lower temperatures than 2016, so although his point is exaggerated by a factor of three, the good news holds -- this year has (so far) been cooler than last year. But before we get out the party hats and champagne, the bad news is that 2017 is on track to be the second warmest year since 1880. And by the way, the eight warmest years in the 137 year record were 2016, 2015, 2014, 2010, 2013, 2005, 2009, and 1998 -- all of which are in the last two decades. 


The direct conclusion is that the blog that all this is based on is complete trash, and the subsequent articles in Telegraph, Daily Wire, and Federalist Papers are lazy and irresponsible.

One would be tempted to make some generalizations here. I want to make it clear that I am not arguing in favor of the generalizations.

First, one may think that I am saying that, since this particular sequence of webpages is poppycock, the entire climate change theory must be correct. This would be poor reasoning. Strong evidence against climate change may exist, but this is definitely not it!

On the other hand, the data and papers from DMI, NOAA, and NASA that are mentioned here provide some pretty clear evidence that climate change is real. I welcome any cogent analysis that proves otherwise.

Second, one may think that I am saying that the three news sources mentioned are unadulterated BS. Again... poor reasoning. I would definitely argue that, based on his atrocious blog, Paul Homewood has demonstrated that he has no business writing about science. But, while the articles in the news sources are downright sloppy journalism that appears to be propaganda, my only conclusion is only that these websites should be read with skepticism. As should all news sources...

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