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Crux of a Core, Part 2 - Addressing Dr. Bob Carter

Posted on 9 March 2011 by Rob Honeycutt

In Part 1 of this article I responded to Dr J Storrs Hall's misrepresentations of the GISP2 data, where I laid out the essential error of conflating a local temperature record with global average temperatures.  As well, I laid out the current understanding of mild Holocene cooling as presented by Miller 2010, which uses multiple temperature sets to understand global temperatures.

Now I'm going to look at another wide-spread misrepresentation of the GISP2 data coming from Bob Carter.  Dr. Carter hails from Australia and has a background in paleontology, stratigraphy, marine biology, and environmental science.  He also is a science advisor for Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI) along with Monckton, Willie Soon, and others.  He shows up frequently in the press and there are a great many re-publications of his lectures on Youtube that get large numbers of views.

Bob Carter frequently lectures on climate change as a "skeptic" claiming that there is nothing to worry about.  He says current warming is natural and is nothing out of the ordinary.  In his lectures Carter makes extensive use of the same GISP2 data that was used by Dr Hall, only Carter's errors, given his background in this field, appear to be much more egregious.

Fig 1: Screenshot of Carter lecture showing 6 time frames for warming and cooling

Here in Fig 1 Carter points to various time scales related to GISP2 over the past, and like Hall, he gives no indication that this is one local temperature record. He merely presents it as a global proxy. His claim is that whether the planet is warming or cooling is just a matter of where you choose to look in the record. Yet again, we have someone conflating a local temperature with global averages. The overall data series is GISP2, but Carter's series 5 and 6 come from the modern global average temperature data (though Carter does not provide any reference other than GISP2). We already know that points 5 and 6 are not from GISP2 because that data series ends around 1850.

If Bob Carter were honestly trying to understand the Greenland temperature, he would make the attempt to reconstruct the modern temperature record in Greenland.  Or, very least, he would attempt to compare high latitude temperature average to the GISP2 data.  Or, if Carter were looking to give us a presentation on global temperature over the Holocene, he surely possesses the technical skills to combine a broad range of temperature series in order to present a clearer picture of the Holocene and compare that to the modern record.  He does none of these.

Fig 2: Screenshot of Carter lecture addressing the Holocene

Next Carter drills in closer to the Holocene, presenting here, according to the title of his slide, the past 5,000 years. Carter is making the claim that there have been numerous clear warming periods during the Holocene, which are identified by the green bands. At the bottom of the slide he cites a paper which I assumed, as one normally would, that the chart being presented comes from the paper he's citing. This took some effort to track down because it's not very clear from the video.

Fig 3: Paper citation for the graph

What I managed to make out is that the citation is for Grootes 1993, a paper titled Comparison of oxygen isotope records from the GISP2 and GRIP Greenland ice cores, published in Nature, 366, pages 552-554. I went to the Nature website and purchased a copy of the paper expecting to find the chart Carter is presenting. It's not there. There is nothing resembling Carter's chart in this paper.  There is only brief mention of the Holocene in the paper, one in the abstract to say, "Greenland has been remarkably stable during the Holocene, but was extremely unstable for the period representing the rest of the core."

We can follow this for a moment though.  GRIP and GISP2 are two separate ice cores drilled on the Greenland summit.  The locations for the two projects are less than 20 miles from each other (Fig 4).  Therefore, these two records of temperature are little more than a corroboration of each other. These are not two distinctly different temperature records.

Fig 4:  GRIP and GISP2 locations.

Any changes in the climate record need to have a mechanism for the change. Even natural warming or cooling occurs for a reason. In a local record, like GISP2, many of the larger changes prior to the Holocene are offset by the Byrd ice core in Antartica (Alley 2000, Alley 2010) shown in Fig 3. Other blips in the GISP2 record are a function of local physical events like snow drifts (Alley 2000). In this there is no way to infer from GISP2 alone that any rise or fall in the record is a function of global temperature changes without looking at a wider range of site records.

Fig 5:  GISP2 and Byrd ice core records offsetting events (Alley 2010)

But again, this is relative to the time period prior to the Holocene.  Grootes 1993 proceeds to state that, "The Holocene is a period of relatively stable climate in both cores with mean O18 values of -34.7 and -34.9 for GISP2 and GRIP respectively.  The small Holocene O18 fluctuations of 1-2 occur too frequently to allow an unambiguous correlation between the cores." This directly contradicts the assertions that Carter makes suggesting that there are clear warming periods in the Holocene record evidenced by GISP2 and/or GRIP. The case can be made, looking at multiple lines of evidence, that the Holocene has cooled 1–2°C over the past 6,000 years (Miller 2010), but any inference about global temperatures made from Greenland alone can not be supported.

As I've stated in previous articles here on Skeptical Science, I'm not a scientist. At best I'm a spectator and enthusiast regarding climate issues. I have a great deal of respect for people who have put in the great effort required to achieve a PhD in their chosen field of study.  These are the people society looks to as experts, the people who have the deepest understanding of a subject matter. But when I can spend a few days researching a presentation like Dr Carter's and identify gaping holes in his claims, this causes me a great deal of concern.

Science is merely the collective knowledge of the human race.  We have a very serious problem when the knowledge we hold is so obviously misrepresented by those whom we should trust to convey that knowledge. 

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Comments 1 to 18:

  1. Rob,

    Nice work. Do not sell yourself short. Also, you are in excellent company and on the side of science, not ideology. That matters.
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  2. So…Besides representing data in a misleading way, it would appear that Carter has lost the ability to make a proper citation; something that (hopefully) was a (minimal) equirement of his earning his doctorate...
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  3. To be a participating scientist in the advancement of our collective science knowledge one is constantly accountable for being accurate in referencing other scientists, peer reviewing others research, and in the the reporting of your own research. If one is not then they will not be part of the enterprise of advancing science in the long term and their career as a scientist will be limited. If one's career diverges from being a scientist than you may prosper as a former scientist, by not acting as accountable to science.
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  4. Your Miller 2010 link in the first paragraph is broken
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  5. Fixed the link. Thanks!
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  6. Rob, as for not being a scientist, I have to say that it is by no means regarded as a hurdle by skeptics themselves. There is a large number of skeptic diatribes against argument from authority, what makes one an expert, the lack of necessity of having a degree in a field to reach that status, etc, etc.

    Considering that Monckton himself is anything but a scientist, Carter or anyone defending the SPPI's campaign could not possibly make such an argument in good faith.
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  7. Phillippe... I honestly think this is one of the biggest problems with the climate issue. Nearly everyone with a keyboard and access to the internet is suddenly an "expert."

    This bit about Carter really irked me. Writing this I really had to tone down my original dismay at the shoddy research coming from him. There are lots of folks out there who are computer programmers who fancy themselves climate scientists, people who have never written a paper on any aspect of physical science. Those guys you can discount as just not knowing what they're doing. But Carter has published before. He knows how to produce work that can get through peer review. But when it comes to this issue he somehow feels justified at not doing any real homework. It's just inexcusable.

    Heck, and all this just came out of the first 6 mins of a 40 minute lecture.
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  8. My review of the first few minutes of that video went like this:

    Professor Carter gets off to a bad start by asking "is the climate warming?" in the context of the last 16,000 years. No-one is suggesting that anthropogenic global warming was occurring 16,000 years ago, so this is a pointless diversion from the question of whether the planet is warming today, as a result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions since the start of the industrial revolution, approximately 250 years ago.

    Then he looks at the last 10,000 years - same problem.

    Then he looks at the last 2,000 years - same problem again.

    Then he looks at the last 700 years - same problem again.

    Finally he looks at the last 100 years and acknowledges that in the only timescale that matters for anthropogenic influences, yes the global climate is warming.

    Does this sound like an unbiased and honest approach so far? Indeed not. Any reasonable person with a little understanding of climate science would already be suspecting an attempt to deceive the uninitiated.

    It gets worse. The professor then cites the last 8 years of temperature 'stasis', clearly implying that anthropogenic global warming should be a continuous, monotonic process which erases all natural interannual variability in global temperature, and that any failure of each year to be warmer than the preceding year must be a refutation of anthropogenic global warming. Well, anyone who knows anything about climate knows that the oceans continue to circulate, the sun continues its regular ~11-year cycle of varying irradiance and so on. It's simply a nonsense to imply that these things are going to cease to exist just because human activity is causing long-term global warming, and Professor Carter knows this, so already (only 5 minutes into the first video) we know for certain that his intention is to deceive, not to present an honest assessment of the topic.

    His next point is to say that 100 years is "too short a period of time over the dataset" to be statistically significant, but this again is nonsense - climate scientists work with 30 years of data on the basis that this is a long enough period for long-term global temperature trends to be distinguishable from natural interannual variability. 100 years is certainly long enough and the professor knows it - again, an attempt to deceive.

    He continues by pointing out other places in the 2,000-year record where global temperature rise is comparable in rate and magnitude to the rise of the last century. What is the significance of this? No-one is arguing that the climate never changed before as a result of natural forcings, so this has no bearing on whether or not human activity is causing warming now, as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. Another red herring. Nor does the current warming have to exceed previous warmings in either rate or magnitude in order to be anthropogenic.

    The professor says "Is warming happening? It depends". Well, no, it doesn't depend - warming *is* happening on the only timescale that is significant for the issue of *anthropogenic* influences, i.e. since the start of the industrial revolution. The intention is clearly to mislead the audience.

    The next illustration displayed by the professor shows the last 5,000 years or so, highlighting previous warm periods. He says "there is nothing unusual about the late 20th Century warm period", as if comparing the rate or magnitude of recent warming to past climate changes is enough to confirm or refute its anthropogenic origin - it isn't. Nothing about past climate changes has any bearing on whether or not we are causing the current warming - it only has relevance for the *consequences* of that warming, how easily we will cope with it and so on.

    The professor actually claims that "it's not going to get warmer next, it's going to get colder", on the basis that it has been colder in the past (during the several ice ages of the last 400,000 years), but in making this claim he completely ignores the fact that human activity has dramatically increased the atmospheric concentration of global warming gases and that this will inevitably continue for decades to come.

    I could go on, but really we've seen more than enough already. Professor Carter is clearly only interested in hoodwinking his audience by presenting them with arguments which he knows are misdirections, because he knows that all the palaeoclimate he is presenting has no bearing whatsoever on the issue of recent anthropogenic warming.

    [Note: I haven't attempted to 'tone down' my review of Carter's shoddy video - I hope it's acceptable here]
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  9. I'm fairly new to the whole AGW topic. I've always wondered, though, when people dismiss AGW because it's been hot before, and there's been a lot of variation in the temperature record, have any gone on record as saying how hot it would have to be to "prove" the anthropogenic part? i.e. by their own criteria (no science, no models, no measurement of forcings, etc) just statistics of past variation, how hot is hot enough? And if they've figured that out, are they willing that humanity should wait until it's that hot? Isn't that a fair set of questions to ask them?
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  10. I cannot describe accurately, and in detail my opinion of Carter's antics, and ethics, due to the comments policy of this blog. What I can say is that the best definition of an "expert" is somebody who knows all the obvious blunders in their subject, and how to avoid them. Carter, it appears, knows all the obvious blunders in his subject, and uses that knowledge as a play book. He is, therefore, no expert.
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  11. Jimwit @9, brilliant questions.
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  12. Carter has excellent credentials in sedimentology and paleo-oceanography, but multi-disciplinary quantitative climate science is clearly beyond him. That's OK, we can't all be experts in everything. Unfortunately, he apparently thinks he has a place at the table to comment when he simply doesn't have the goods. This is probably a source of frustration that drives him to more and more extreme contrarian rants - a vicious downward cycle.

    The good news for science is that it moves forward in spite of the best or worst efforts of individual scientists. Carter's activities may be distressing and sad, but ultimately they are unimportant. Although the meme of the individual genius having brilliant insights that move science in great leaps forward is popular, it is an illusion. Science moves forward only when the community of scientists is prepared to accept and apply new knowledge. To paraphrase the bard, "Genius, is not in our stars, But in our ourselves, that we are underlings."
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  13. The "Miller 2010" link doesn't work. It leads instead to the following message:

    "Sorry, your request could not be processed because the format of the URL was incorrect. Contact the Help Desk if the problem persists. [SD-001]"

    What is the TITLE of the Miller's article to search it on google?
    (searching just the author's name is useless in google)
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Fixed links in post. The title is Temperature and precipitation history of the Arctic.
  14. Miller, G. H., J. Brigham-Grette, R. B. Alley, L. Anderson, H. A. Bauch, M. S. V. Douglas, M. E. Edwards, S. A. Elias, B. P. Finney, J. J. Fitzpatrick, S. V. Funder, T. D. Herbert, L. D. Hinzman, D. S. Kaufman, G. M. MacDonald, L. Polyak, A. Robock, M. C. Serreze, J. P. Smol, R. Spielhagen, J. W. C. White, A. P. Wolfe, and E. W. Wolff. 2010. Temperature and precipitation history of the Arctic. Quaternary Science Reviews 29(15-16): 1,679-1,715, doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.03.001.

    6.5 Mb download available from:
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Hot-linked URL.
  15. Many numerical data sets from paleoclimate research, including GISP2, are archived at the Paleoclimatology division of the National Climatic Data Center (of NOAA, USA) at . (I used data from that archive when I made some figures for a textbook to be published in 1996. Then the division was a part of the National Geophysical Data Center.)

    The data center requests the users to cite data contributors, and usually the recommended way is to refer to the original publications. So, it may be legitimate that a presentation referring to a scientific paper contains graphs different from those which appear in the paper. It is expected, of course, that the user correctly understands and represents the data. (I think that such procedures of scientific data management have been designed on the assumption that no one will misuse them deliberately. This may a problem nowadays.)

    As far as I know, their documentation is not so more than what the scientists submitted, and it may use technical terms and conventions (e.g. what "before present" means) specific to the discipline of the authors. Better documentation will help, but the bottleneck seems to be human resources rather than information technology or standardization.

    To avoid misuse, we, the data users, should not be overconfident about our own understanding about technical terms and conventions. We should first consult reference books or textbooks of the relevant discipline, and if we are still not sure, we should perhaps ask either the data center staff or the author of the original study.
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  16. Very commendable, Rob. Although you state that you're not a scientist, you obviously are scientifically competent enough to put to shame the likes of those, such as Carter (I'm loath to dignify him with his scientific title), who are willing to misuse/abuse/misinform/disinform - whatever his excuse is.
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  17. With respect to 'legitimate' credentials of climate scientists, I attended a Monckton presentation in Noosa, Qld, in January, 2010, where Monckton was introduced by Dr Carter. Carter announced to that credulous audience that Lord Monckton's qualifications as a MA (Classics and Maths) were ideal to equip him to speak on the subject of Climate Change - so I guess that makes anyone and expert.
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  18. In the blog post it is stated that:
    "In this there is no way to infer from GISP2 alone that any rise or fall in the record is a function of global temperature changes without looking at a wider range of site records".

    I think the reason that people sometimes get confused and use GISP2 to represent global/large scale temperature changes - is caused by the text in the abstract that is quoted in the GISP2 data file

    The abstract states:
    "Greenland ice-core records provide an exceptionally clear picture of many aspects of abrupt climate changes, and particularly of those associated with the Younger Dryas event, as reviewed here"

    The only data in the file is from GISP2, one needs to read the full article to find out that the statement in the abstract is based on multiple data sets.
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