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New Paper: Models Vs Observations In The Tropical Troposphere

Ross McKitrick, Climate Audit

Climate models not only predict far too much warming, but they potentially get the nature of the change wrong

Tim Vogelsang and I have a new paper comparing climate models and observations over a 55-year span (1958-2012) in the tropical troposphere. Among other things we show that climate models are inconsistent with the HadAT, RICH and RAOBCORE weather balloon series. In a nutshell, the models not only predict far too much warming, but they potentially get the nature of the change wrong. The models portray a relatively smooth upward trend over the whole span, while the data exhibit a single jump in the late 1970s, with no statistically significant trend either side.

Our paper is called “HAC-Robust Trend Comparisons Among Climate Series With Possible Level Shifts.” It was published in Environmetrics, and is available with Open Access thanks to financial support from CIGI/INET. Data and code are here and in the paper’s SI.

Tropical Troposphere Revisited

The issue of models-vs-observations in the troposphere over the tropics has been much-discussed, including here at CA. Briefly to recap:

* All climate models (GCMs) predict that in response to rising CO2 levels, warming will occur rapidly and with amplified strength in the troposphere over the tropics. See AR4 Figure 9.1  and accompanying discussion; also see AR4 text accompanying Figure 10.7.

* Getting the tropical troposphere right in a model matters because that is where most solar energy enters the climate system, where there is a high concentration of water vapour, and where the strongest feedbacks operate. In simplified models, in response to uniform warming with constant relative humidity, about 55% of the total warming amplification occurs in the tropical troposphere, compared to 10% in the surface layer and 35% in the troposphere outside the tropics. And within the tropics, about two-thirds of the extra warming is in the upper layer and one-third in the lower layer. (Soden & Held  p. 464).

* Neither weather satellites nor radiosondes (weather balloons) have detected much, if any, warming in the tropical troposphere, especially compared to what GCMs predict. The 2006 US Climate Change Science Program report (Karl et al 2006) noted this as a “potentially serious inconsistency” (p. 11). I suggest is now time to drop the word “potentially.”

* The missing hotspot has attracted a lot of discussion at blogs (eg and among experts (eg There are two related “hotspot” issues: amplification and sensitivity. The first refers to whether the ratio of tropospheric to surface warming is greater than 1, and the second refers to whether there is a strong tropospheric warming rate. Our analysis focused in the sensitivity issue, not the amplification one. In order to test amplification there has to have been a lot of warming aloft, which turns out not to have been the case. Sensitivity can be tested directly, which is what we do, and in any case is the more relevant question for measuring the rate of global warming.

* In 2007 Douglass et al. published a paper in the IJOC showing that models overstated warming trends at every layer of the tropical troposphere. Santer et al. (2008) replied that if you control for autocorrelation in the data the trend differences are not statistically significant. This finding was very influential. It was relied upon by the EPA when replying to critics of their climate damage projections in the Technical Support Document behind the “endangerment finding”, which was the basis for their ongoing promulgation of new GHG regulations. It was also the basis for the Thorne et al. survey’s (2011) conclusion that “there is no reasonable evidence of a fundamental disagreement between models and observations” in the tropical troposphere.

* But for some reason Santer et al truncated their data at 1999, just at the end of a strong El Nino. Steve and I sent a comment to IJOC pointing out that if they had applied their method on the full length of then-available data they’d get a very different result, namely a significant overprediction by models. The IJOC would not publish our comment.

* I later redid the analysis using the full length of available data, applying a conventional panel regression method and a newer more robust trend comparison methodology, namely the non-parametric HAC (heteroskedasticity and autocorrelation)-robust estimator developed by econometricians Tim Vogelsang and Philip Hans Franses (VF2005). I showed that over the 1979-2009 interval climate models on average predict 2-4x too much warming in the tropical lower- and mid- troposphere (LT, MT) layers and the discrepancies were statistically significant. This paper was published as MMH2010 in Atmospheric Science Letters

* In the AR5, the IPCC is reasonably forthright on the topic (pp. 772-73). They acknowledge the findings in MMH2010 (and other papers that have since confirmed the point) and conclude that models overstated tropospheric warming over the satellite interval (post-1979). However they claim that most of the bias is due to model overestimation of sea surface warming in the tropics. It’s not clear from the text where they get this from. Since the bias varies considerably among models, it seems to me likely to be something to do with faulty parameterization of feedbacks. Also the problem persists even in studies that constrain models to observed SST levels.

* Notwithstanding the failure of models to get the tropical troposphere right, when discussing fidelity to temperature trends the SPM of the AR5 declares Very High Confidence in climate models (p. 15). But they also declare low confidence in their handling of clouds (p. 16), which is very difficult to square with their claim of very high confidence in models overall. They seem to be largely untroubled by trend discrepancies over 10-15 year spans (p. 15). We’ll see what they say about 55-year discrepancies.

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