Understanding Trenberth's travesty
Posted on 12 December 2009 by John Cook
Throughout the Climategate controversy, the second most cited email is from climate scientist and IPCC lead author Kevin Trenberth. The highlighted quote is this: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't." This has been most commonly interpreted (among skeptics) as climate scientists secretly admitting amongst themselves that global warming really has stopped. Is this what Trenberth is saying? If one takes a little time to understand the science that Trenberth is discussing, his meaning becomes clear.
If you read the full email, you learn that Trenberth is actually informing fellow climate scientists about a paper he'd recently published, An imperative for climate change planning: tracking Earth's global energy (Trenberth 2009). The paper discusses the planet's energy budget - how much net energy is flowing into our climate and where it's going. It also discusses the systems we have in place to track energy flow in and out of our climate system.
Trenberth states unequivocally that our planet is continually heating due to increasing carbon dioxide. This energy imbalance was very small 40 years ago but has steadily increased to around 0.9 W/m2 over the 2000 to 2005 period, as observed by satellites. Preliminary satellite data indicates the energy imbalance has continued to increase from 2006 to 2008. The net result is that the planet is continuously accumulating heat. Global warming is still happening.
Next, Trenberth wonders with this ever increasing heat, why doesn't surface temperature continuously rise? The standard answer is "natural variability". But such a general answer doesn't explain the actual physical processes involved. If the planet is accumulating heat, the energy must go somewhere. Is it going into melting ice? Is it being sequestered deep in the ocean? Did the 2008 La Nina rearrange the configuration of ocean heat? Is it all of the above? Trenberth wants answers!
So like an obsessive accountant, Trenberth pores over the energy budget, tallying up the joules accumulating in various parts of the climate. A global energy imbalance of 0.9 W/m2 means the planet is accumulating 145 x 1020 joules per year. The following list gives the amount of energy going into various parts of the climate over the 2004 to 2008 period:
- Land: 2 x 1020 joules per year
- Arctic sea Ice: 1 x 1020 joules per year
- Ice sheets: 1.4 x 1020 joules per year
- Total land ice: between 2 to 3 x 1020 joules per year
- Ocean: between 20 to 95 x 1020 joules per year
- Sun: 16 x 1020 joules per year (eg - the sun has been cooling from 2004 to 2008)
These various contributions total between 45 to 115 x 1020 joules per year. This falls well short of the total 145 x 1020 joules per year (although the error bars do overlap). Trenberth expresses frustration that observation systems are inadequate to track the flow of energy. It's not that global warming has stopped. We know global warming has continued because satellites find an energy imbalance. It's that our observation systems need to be more accurate in tracking the energy flows through our climate and closing the energy budget.
So what may be causing the discrepancy? As the ocean heat data only goes to 900 metre depth, Trenberth suggests that perhaps heat is being sequestered below 900 metres. There is support for this idea in a later paper von Schuckmann 2009. This paper uses Argo buoy data to calculate ocean heat down to 2000 metres depth. From 2003 to 2008, the world's oceans have been accumulating heat at a rate of 0.77 W/m2. This higher trend for ocean heat would bring the total energy build-up more in line with satellite measurements of net energy imbalance. However, von Schuckmann's results were published after Trenberth's paper so I look forward to seeing how this plays out in future papers.
So to summarise, Trenberth's email says this:
"The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't."
After reviewing the discussion in Trenberth 2009, it's apparent that what he meant was this:
"Global warming is still happening - our planet is still accumulating heat. But our observation systems aren't able to comprehensively keep track of where all the energy is going. Consequently, we can't definitively explain why surface temperatures have gone down in the last few years. That's a travesty!"
Skeptics use Trenberth's email to characterise climate scientists as secretive and deceptive. However, when one takes the trouble to acquaint oneself with the science, the opposite becomes apparent. Trenberth outlines his views in a clear, open manner, frankly articulating his frustrations at the limitations of observation systems. Trenberth's opinions didn't need to be illegally stolen and leaked onto the internet. They were already publicly available in the peer reviewed literature - and much less open to misinterpretation than a quote-mined email.