The Weekend Wonk: A Theory so Cutting Edge, it’s Hard to Prove

April 5, 2014

I’ve been covering the evolving debate on the impact of arctic warming and ice loss on mid-latitude jet streams and weather.(see that video with Jennifer Francis and Jeff Masters below)

Above, part 1 on Dr. Steven Vavrus’ talk at the American Meteorological Society. In part 2, below, you’ll hear some of the tough questions and pushback at the end of the talk. This is a fascinating window into the real ongoing debate – not whether climate change is happening, but HOW is it happening, and how is it playing out.

Climatewire via Sciam:

At the meeting, proponents of the hypothesis, including its originators and supporters—researchers like Rutgers’ Jennifer Francis and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s James Overland—presented data on how they believe a warming Arctic is affecting lower-latitude weather.

Other scientists, in turn, presented evidence from model studies and statistical tests showing no such linkage.

“It was a very interesting meeting because there was a great deal of debate,” Meier said.

David Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist and a researcher at Rutgers, who lead the workshop committee, said it’s hard to find statistically significant signals in part because dramatic Arctic sea ice loss has only been going on for a short period of time, since 2007.

“It’s clearly not nearly long enough a record to be able to identify any linkages in a statistically significant sense,” he said.

Robinson believes the hypothesis is a strong one. “I think Jen Francis presents incredible evidence,” he said.

But the way that science works is that someone puts forth an idea, and then “everyone has at it,” he said.

Arctic signal can be hard to read
That’s the phase this hypothesis is in. The next step is for researchers working on the topic to come up with some common definitions and metrics, said Robinson.

He said federal agencies, if they take an interest, could also put out calls for more research on the topic.

Since such a hypothesis will be difficult to prove using only data from observations, models can also play a role, said Clara Deser, a scientist who heads the Climate Analysis Section within the Climate and Global Dynamics Division at NCAR.

“Then we can do our experiments where we tinker with the sea ice and look at where the wind patterns and the weather patterns respond,” she said.

Deser, who also attended the September meeting, said she is now working on setting up some model experiments with researchers at the United Kingdom’s Met Office Hadley Centre and the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis.

As the report summarizing the meeting pointed out, because weather in the mid-latitudes is so variable and is affected by so many factors, teasing out a signal from the Arctic could prove difficult.

The tropics also influence weather in the middle latitudes, and a number of other climate oscillations can also play a role.

Looking beyond a single cause
In a schematic included in the meeting report, numerous arrows flow in and out between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes, highlighting just how complicated a problem this is.

Looking for one primary cause to explain a weather event will always be problematic, said Deser, because the system is so complicated.

Nonetheless, every time there is an extreme weather event, the question of climate change “always gets asked,” she said.

“We are always wanting to find a single cause for our weather events. And I think that the real world is very complicated,” Deser said.

This winter was no exception. As cold weather and record snow pummeled the East Coast, some wondered if the frigid temperatures could also be due to the meandering jet stream, pushed by a warmer Arctic.

In February, several leading climate scientists wrote a letter, published in Science, addressing that very question.

“Some have been touting such stretches of extreme cold as evidence that global warming is a hoax, while others have been citing them as evidence that global warming is causing a ‘global weirding’ of the weather. In our view, it is neither,” the letter read.

In other words, the frigid winter weather was just that: weather.

As to whether scientists can link the next big heat wave or weeklong storm system to a warmer Arctic, at least for a few more years, the jury on that is likely to remain out.

Below, the arguments of Dr. Kevin Trenberth and Dr. Jennifer Francis on this issue. I’m very pleased that my video series began following this discussion almost a year before it really hit the news pages.



6 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: A Theory so Cutting Edge, it’s Hard to Prove”

  1. mpcraig Says:

    In your study of this issue, here is a paper to add to it in case you missed it:

    “During the negative NAO, the North Atlantic jet stream and storm track are shifted southwards, leading to more intense cold air outbreaks over northern Europe and the eastern United States.”

    Click to access 1748-9326_9_3_034018.pdf

  2. redskylite Says:

    G. Branstator published a paper in 2002 in this area exploring teleconnections and the jet stream:

    (2002) Circumglobal teleconnections, the jet stream waveguide, and the North Atlantic Oscillation. J Clim 15:1893–1910.

    and a good detailed examination of the effect published by the Potsdam Institute (Petoukhov, Rahmstorf, Petri and Schellnhuber)

    “The 32-y period analyzed in our paper is too short to draw firm conclusions as to the frequency of the studied quasiresonant extreme events in the future. However, there exist some indications for more favorable conditions for the occurrence of the above peculiarity in the shape of Graphic in recent decades. The ongoing inhomogeneous process of global warming, mostly the result of anthropogenic forcing, causes the so-called Arctic amplification induced by the reduction of snow and polar sea ice cover”

  3. Snow White Says:

    Not forgetting the recent paper by James Screen from the University of Exeter over here in Soggy South West England

    “This study has provided evidence of a causal link between observed Arctic sea ice changes, the large-scale atmospheric circulation and increased summer Northern European Precipitation.”

  4. dumboldguy Says:

    Peter says “I’m very pleased that my video series began following this discussion almost a year before it really hit the news pages”.

    Peter has done a fine job on this topic on Crock, and this is another great addition to the string. I for one am getting tired of all the yada-yada and hand wringing over “teasing out signals” and the huge debate we’re having. Keep digging for info and thinking, but I myself am just waiting to see what happens to sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet, and temperatures and weather in the northern hemisphere during 2014 and what the strength and impact of the El Nino of 2014-2015 will be.

    I think that what is likely to happen will replace the the rather soporific and dense language of the quote from redskylite with something like “Holy Horsepucky, the SHTF at long last in the Arctic!”

    “…the frequency of the studied quasiresonant extreme events…more favorable conditions for the occurrence of the above peculiarity in the shape…..the ongoing inhomogeneous process…..”. Lord love a duck!


    • redskylite Says:

      I agree with the (notso) dumboldguy and I wish German scientists would learn plain English – but its as good as it gets and I do like Potsdam’s attitude and visit their site for news often. Peter has done a truly fine job and I think this website is focused and great.

  5. […] 2014/04/04: PSinclair: The Weekend Wonk: A Theory so Cutting Edge, it’s Hard to Prove […]

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