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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)