Surprise, Surprise: The Future Remains Hard to Predict


“There is a huge discrepancy between the data and the forecasts.”

In what realm do you think this “huge discrepancy” exists? The financial markets? Politics? Pharmaceutical research?

Given how bad humans are at predicting the future, this discrepancy could exist just about anywhere. But the above quote, from the University of Alabama-Huntsville climate scientist Roy Spencer, is talking about computer models that predict global warming:

Data from NASA’s Terra satellite suggests that when the climate warms, Earth’s atmosphere is apparently more efficient at releasing energy to space than models used to forecast climate change may indicate, according to a new study.

The result is climate forecasts that are warming substantially faster than the atmosphere, says Dr. Roy Spencer, a principal research scientist in the Earth System Science Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The previously unexplained differences between model-based forecasts of rapid global warming and meteorological data showing a slower rate of warming have been the source of often contentious debate and controversy for more than two decades.

In research published this week in the journal Remote Sensing, Spencer and UA Huntsville’s Dr. Danny Braswell compared what a half dozen climate models say the atmosphere should do to satellite data showing what the atmosphere actually did during the 18 months before and after warming events between 2000 and 2011.

“The satellite observations suggest there is much more energy lost to space during and after warming than the climate models show,” Spencer said. “There is a huge discrepancy between the data and the forecasts that is especially big over the oceans.”

Not only does the atmosphere release more energy than previously thought, it starts releasing it earlier in a warming cycle. The models forecast that the climate should continue to absorb solar energy until a warming event peaks.

This being climate science, Spencer’s research was immediately turned into a political football. (“I cannot believe it got published,” one critic said of Spencer’s paper.)  Of all the challenges in the modern world, it’s hard to envision one that is harder to forecast than the climatic future, given the fantastically complex and dynamic elements at play. While the spectacle of climate scientists shouting each other down may be unseemly, perhaps it’s the best path to arriving at useful understanding of the benefits — and limitations — of their models.

(HT: Eric M. Jones)


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  1. Gary says:

    Todd C,
    The atmosphere actually holds a miniscule amount of heat compared to the oceans. Spencer has looked at the failure of the oceans to warm since 2003 and rather than wonder where the missing heat is (like Trenbirth, the critic aghast that he should get published), he’s looked at the data measured by satellites and thinks that more is escaping to space than was previously thought. Overall there is more heat in the oceans than two hundred years ago, but evidence from paleo-data proxies suggest that the ocean heat content a thousand years ago was similar to today. Climate is a combination of many cyclical processes but the prediction of future climate is hard because we don’t understand the cycles well enough to be able to separate out the amount of human contribution.

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  2. Pedro J. says:

    Why Everything in Superfreakonomics About Global Warming Is Wrong (
    shows that people over here knows about climate science the same I know about economics (not even 101).

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    • Jon says:

      @Pedro – yesssssss, b/c we know that A) all models are always 100% absolutely correct and B) science never changes nor C) do paradigm shifts occur.

      But that’s okay – CO2 is still a lagging indicator.

      Frankly, most econ blogs have better science on them than science blogs – precisely b/c they don’t have a vested interest.

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      • JohnS says:

        Hang on – you actually think that scientists are untrustworthy about science by the very fact that they are scientists, since they have vested interests? Do you apply the same reasoning to other professions as well?

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      • steve says:

        Scientists, engineers, and mathemticians can be paid to lie just like anyone else.

        Do you seriously consider a scientist hired by an oil company to be unbiased. Well its true of government funded scientists as well. Government funded scientists get paid to do more studies if they find something dangerous while they get defunded and ignored if they say everything is fine. Over time this dynamic just makes sure all of the scientists screaming the sky is falling are the best funded and most prominant. It doesn’t even require duplicity on the part of the scientists. Although, that happens too.

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      • JT says:

        1. Spencer uses very simplified models in his referenced work, so that sword cuts both ways.

        2. CO2 is both a lagging indicator and a leading forcing mechnism. When something else warms the earth, CO2 is released (lagging indicator). When excess CO2 is added to the system, the mean temperature near ground level increases (forcing mechanism, leading indicator).

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    • Mary says:

      “Why Everything in Superfreakonomics About Global Warming Is Wrong”

      I read Superfreakonomics. I’m a meteorologist with considerable knowledge on the subject. I found the chapter on Global warming generally accurate and very interesting. I went to the website you referenced and was bored and unimpressed. He appeared to simply have an agenda and be furious with the possible solutions presented in Superfreakonomics. After all, the doom and gloomers generally don’t want to solve the problem or have it go away. They were generally furious in 2008 and 2009 when global temperatures were falling. You think they would be happy.

      My professional opinion is that almost everything I read about global warming in Superfreakanomics was spot-on…controversial…but spot-on. Levitt and Dubner didn’t present it as perfect or the holy grail…just presented a nice, well informed discussion.

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      • Pedro J. says:

        “I read Superfreakonomics. I’m a meteorologist with considerable knowledge on the subject.”

        Meteorology and climatology are not quite the same subject.

        “I went to the website you referenced and was bored and unimpressed.”

        But this is not about your feelings. It is about arguments. If you find any wrong argument in the link and links pointed there, I am sure some people over here would be happy to know.

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      • Mary says:

        “But this is not about your feelings. It is about arguments. If you find any wrong argument in the link and links pointed there, I am sure some people over here would be happy to know.”

        Very true. I tried to re-read your link. Basically it tries to discredit based on differences in opinions or interpretations. You can’t point out anywhere where he is wrong because he is basically just voicing differences in opinion…and he’s entitled to his opinion.

        The article doesn’t present a single factual error. Obviously, the author sees the problem from an entirely different perspective. That’s good but doesn’t invalidate what L&D say in Superfreak.

        L&D never presented the mitigation proposal in Superfreak as a total cure to what ails us. They merely presented the thinking on the subject and what is being done.

        Compared to the outlandish exaggerations in Al Gore’s movie which were generally given a free pass by climate scientists, Superfreak is comparatively written at a much higher level of science.

        BTW, Meteorology and climatology are the same subject…atmospheric science. Obviously they are different in some respects but the same physics are at work. Just 20 years ago, climatologists were a rare species doing very obscure work going unnoticed with tiny funding. Now, they are suddenly rock stars garnering billions in funding and appearing in movies and on the nightly news. Trust me, they don’t want the global warming issue to fade away. Sometimes it takes a meteorologist with no stake in the game and a serious respect for the difficulty of forecasting to remind climatologists that climate change science is in it’s infancy and they know a lot less than they think they do.

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      • Pedro J. says:

        “The article doesn’t present a single factual error”

        Just one easy, factual example

        “5) “changes in carbon dioxide levels don’t necessarily mirror human activity”

        This is misleading. The change in CO2 levels since the industrial revolution is caused solely by human activity.”

        But if you want quite a few more, just follow the links (they were linked in the original link I cited)

        “Sometimes it takes a meteorologist with no stake in the game and a serious respect for the difficulty of forecasting…”

        That was my point. Forecast in meteorology and forecasts in climatology are two different animals. In the first case it is an problem of precise initial conditions, in the second case a problem on boundary conditions. As a meteorologist I am sure you know it is impossible to say the temperature at midday next December 15th but not a very risky prediction to say that the mean of dec will be lower than the mean of august (at least if you are sited in the north hemisphere).

        “climate change science is in it’s infancy and they know a lot less than they think they do”

        Climate change science has at least a century of history and I am sure (as happen with all the experts in any subject) climate researchers are sometimes too confident in their predictions. But that is not an argument to excuse the pointed obvious errors in Superfreakonomics. The authors didn’t know the subject and made some mistakes. Understandable (or not if they had asked a few climatologists) but so easy to solve as recognizing those mistakes and trying to be less biased.

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  3. Joel Upchurch says:

    What may be far worse than the climate science models are the economic models. I find it very questionable that we can increase our use of carbon based fuels for the next 100 years. We may already be at peak oil and peak coal is in the foreseeable future. China has already exceeded their domestic coal supply and is importing coal and frankly the logistics of coal are not favorable. Coal will become more difficult to extract and haul to the end user until we finally reach the point where it produces no net energy. We will be forced to adopt a low carbon economy before we can damage with global warming.

    We must switch to a nuclear powered economy before our fossil fuels run out. There is enough Uranium and Thorium to provide power for us to last thousands of years using breeder reactors.

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  4. Victor says:

    While global warming science may or may not be shaky we do know that the actions we have been taking to stop it aren’t the worst thing in the world. “Oh no we made the air cleaner and stopped being dependent on oil and coal for energy. If only we had known global warming was a sham earlier on. Then we could have stayed exactly the way we were. ” Arguments attacking global warming science don’t disprove the fact that it is only one of the many reasons we should change our ways.

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  5. Ben Harack says:

    DeSmogBlog has a good summary of how Spencer’s work has repeatedly been smashed by real scientists.

    It appears he has been a scientist-for-hire for quite some time.

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