Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Reason to Want Global Warming

Those of you who do not read the Journal of Geography and Natural Disasters before breakfast each morning missed something interesting.  On 17 March that journal published a paper by M. J. Kelly of Cambridge University on the subject of “Trends in Extreme Weather Events since 1900- An Enduring Conundrum for Wise Policy Advice”.  Now, we know that human activities have added a lot of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere since 1900, and we know that CO2 has a net warming effect on the planet.  Numerous press reports have claimed that global warming must cause an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.  Interestingly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (usually familiarly referred to as the IPCC), which has consistently warned about anthropogenic global warming (AGW), has never endorsed this position. 

Global warming, according to both model calculations and observations, causes the most warming at higher latitudes and the least warming near the equator.  In the language of meteorology, the meridional temperature gradient (the temperature contrast between equator and poles) is decreased.  But global weather is driven primarily by that gradient: when the meridional temperature gradient is large, polar air is colder relative to equatorial air, so the pole-to-equator density contrast of Earth-surface air is larger, exerting larger forces to drive dense polar air toward the equator and vice versa.  The cold air sinks and flows equator-ward, the warm air rises and flows pole-ward, and the Coriolis effect diverts these flows into giant circulation patterns, including (at the extreme) cyclones and hurricanes.  A larger temperature contrast between equator and poles causes larger density differences and pumps more energy into these global-scale motions.  More energy in the same mass of air means higher velocities.  In other words, the obvious effect of global warming is to reduce the temperature contrast and cause lower wind speeds.

And of course, we humans injected vastly less CO2 into the atmosphere in the 50 years from 1900 to 1950 than we did in the following 50 years: therefore AGW must have been much stronger in more recent history.

But so much for how things “ought” to work: Dr. Kelly has (gasp!) actually looked at the data on weather extremes to address this issue.  He found that “the weather in the first half of the 20th century was, if anything, more extreme than in the second half”.  In other words, the actual quantitative data on weather extremes confirms the common-sense understanding of a decreased meridional temperature gradient and agrees with the consensus of the IPCC, but flatly contradicts the glib prophecies of impending doom of the fear-mongers.  These prophecies, though quantitatively unfounded, have the PR virtue of being frighteningly draconic and easily understood by politicians and policy makers who think and argue qualitatively.  But who gets more attention, the person who says "Tomorrow will be a little better than today", or the one who shouts "Disaster coming!"?

Dr. Kelly concludes, “The lack of public, political and policymaker appreciation of the disconnect between empirical data and theoretical constructs is profoundly worrying, especially in terms of policy advice being given.”

You don’t have to take my word for this.  The original technical publication is available online:

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