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Hockey stick becomes a wheelchair

Written By: - Date published: 2:15 pm, April 30th, 2013 - 23 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, farming, food, global warming, science - Tags:

This was originally posted on The Daily Blog last week. 

Early last month there was a study published by Marcott et al with a reconstruction of the climate from available proxy data  since the last major glacial events which ended about 11,000 years ago. As the editor summary states at the AAAS’s Science Magazine

The pattern of temperatures shows a rise as the world emerged from the last deglaciation, warm conditions until the middle of the Holocene, and a cooling trend over the next 5000 years that culminated around 200 years ago in the Little Ice Age. Temperatures have risen steadily since then, leaving us now with a global temperature higher than those during 90% of the entire Holocene.

This warming after the last glaciation coincided and probably triggered the rise of the agricultural based culture that our civilisations are still highly dependent on today.

Since then, as can be seen in the chart from Jos Hagelaars which is a composite of 3 studies in different periods , the average world air temperatures haven’t varied that much – at least until recently.

The AB12 line at the end of the chart is a rather optimistic* projection from the IPCC AR4 report projecting the coming century. Since the atmosphere and oceans together constitute a heat transfer mechanism called weather, and we are looking forward to a severe shift in climate, I’d anticipate that the agricultural foundation of our civilisation is going to have problems that it has never seen.

The average resolution of the data with a reasonable level of confidence on the Marcott study is only at about 120 years because much of the period relies on measurements taken from the debris and sediments left by the natural world. Each sample comes from long ago and typically has been churned by biological systems and erosion, and in any case reflects local climate conditions. So what is seen is for each point on the graph is a composite of samples across many locations and across decades rather than a year by year record.

It overlaps with the finer grained data from the past ~1500 years from Mann et al 2008 derived in part with from still living or fossilized trees and actual instrumentation after our ancestors started to use thermometers. And the expansion of the studies used to make up that is below that.

As usual, the great “skeptics” clobbering machine is in full swing on the Marcott study. dana1981 at Skeptical Science (a site that specialises in observing the breed) observes:-

The Marcott paper has been subjected to an immense amount of scrutiny, particularly in the climate contrarian blogosphere, with criticisms about everything from the wording of its press release to the timing of its Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) publication.  Unfortunately climate contrarians have been so noisy in their generally invalid criticisms that the media has begun to echo them, for example in this Washington Post blog.

There was such unusual interest in the paper that Marcott et al that they put out a response in which  they explained some of the underlying science for the people unfamiliar with the techniques.

But as dana points out the difference between actual skepticism and the rubbish that many of the more pathetic scientifically illiterate climate skeptics like Ian Wishart practice.

It’s worth taking a moment here to reflect on real skepticism.  Spending literally dozens of blog posts attacking a study because its results seem inconvenient is not real skepticism. Comparing climate scientists to the mafia is not real skepticism.  Nitpicking minor details in press releases and media articles while ignoring the discussion in the paper itself is certainly not real skepticism.

If you want an example of real skepticism, look no further than Tamino’s Open Mind blog.  Tamino read the Marcott paper, noted they had expressed doubt about the robustness of the final uptick in their proxies, looked at the data, identified the proxy dropout issue, tried some new analyses, and found that the proxy uptick is probably real but probably smaller than it appears in the paper.  Also see similar efforts by Nick Stokes.  These are the approaches of real skeptics.  At least the manufactured controversy over the Marcott paper has served to show who the real skeptics and “honest brokers” are.

The irony is that the climate contrarians are being their own worst enemies here.  A ‘hockey stick’ shape means less past natural variability in the climate system, which suggests that climate is relatively stable.  It’s revealing that in their zealotry to deny that the current global warming could possibly be unnatural and unprecedented, the contrarians are actively trying to undermine their only potentially valid remaining argument against serious climate mitigation.

Nevertheless, all signs indicate that the current rate of warming is very rapid, probably unprecedented in the past 11,000 years; that if we’re not at the highest temperatures during that timeframe, we will be soon; and that despite the contrarians’ best efforts to argue otherwise, we’re not yet doomed to catastrophic climate change.

But Dana181 is an optimist about how resilient our civilisation is, especially in it’s agricultural underpinnings. It is pretty clear to anyone like myself has a background in earth sciences that the IPCC reports are conservative because they are limited to solid confirmed data. But we’re still severely limited in what we know about what affects climates past, present and future.

But what we can be sure of is that the weather will get a lot more variable and extreme as the energy in the ocean and atmosphere builds up. It could be that this happens slowly enough for farming to adjust. But when you look at the dependence of farmers in extreme climates around the world who are reliant on regular weather like the monsoons in Bangladesh or the mild winters in the gulf stream washed areas like Europe, it is clear how reliant we are for food on our relatively unchanging climate of the past 11,000 years.

I also found this great visualisation of the snow over europe in 2010 when the massive warming in the arctic pushed the cold jetstream down over europe. I’d expect that this sight in Northern Europe will become more common for some decades until the north gets somewhat warmer. More energy in the Arctic weather systems means that there is more energy to push cold air south. Eventually (quite some time away I hope) the same will happen in our South Island when the West Antarctic ice sheet starts breaking up and the extra energy in the south will forcing the southern jetstreams further north.

That is what climate change does – it shifts weather patterns as the atmosphere and oceans disperse the heat.

Visualisation of the snow over europe in 2010

This image just illustrates how vulnerable Northern Europe is to climate fluctuations. As near as I can figure it out, the snowfall was almost exactly on the bounds of the last glaciation in that region.


23 comments on “Hockey stick becomes a wheelchair”

  1. One Anonymous Knucklehead 1

    Yeah, the glaciation map tells a very similar story.

    Meanwhile, looks like 400ppm by mid 2015 or so.

  2. Bill 2

    Seems the jury is still out on whether wind speeds increase or decrease in a warming planet.

    But if they increase, then all the irrigation schemes and drainage projects and ordered displacements (let’s just ‘forget’ about soil types for the moment) that might be brought to bear on agriculture…well, you can irrigate and drain flattened crops all you like I guess.

    • Murray Olsen 2.1

      I’d put my money on wind speeds increasing as the energy in the atmosphere increases, but a decrease could be possible if the extra energy were evenly distributed. I expect dustbowls like the ones that emptied out the middle of the US and A, mixed with swamps. I should note that I’m not a climate scientist and I don’t have a hell of a lot of money, but I am very worried.

      • One Anonymous Knucklehead 2.1.1

        I think its clear that at the moment the “plan” is for there to be a medium to serious global catastrophe.

      • lprent 2.1.2

        It should (on average) cause increased speeds during the interim as the poles heat up and get rid of their ice. It depends on how much heat gets pushed/pulled into the polar oceans

        In the longer term, I’d expect that the equilibrium that happens in a 4 centuries or so will depend on the heat absorbtion levels in the oceans. Currently the estimates for that keep rising. But since we only have a few decades of decent information we simply don’t know how much is due to effects like the el nino/la nina and other similar effects.

        We’ll have better data in the next half century, when I suspect it will all be somewhat moot anyway.

      • Jenny 2.1.3

        The cyclone Bopha effect.


        ……the strongest tropical cyclone to ever hit the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, making landfall as a Category 5 super typhoon with winds of 160 mph (260 km/h). Bopha originated unusually close to the equator, becoming the second-most southerly Category 5 super typhoon, reaching a minimum latitude of 7.4°N on December 3. Only Typhoon Louise of 1964 came closer to the equator at this strength, at 7.3°N.[1] After first hitting Palau, where it destroyed houses, disrupted communications and caused power outages, flooding and uprooted trees, Bopha made landfall late on December 3 on Mindanao, an island that had been devastated byTropical Storm Washi in December 2011. The storm caused widespread destruction on Mindanao, leaving thousands homeless and more than 600 fatalities.

        After hitting Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley provinces, Typhoon Bopha crossed the southern and central regions of Mindanao, cutting power to two provinces and triggering landslides. More than 170,000 people fled to evacuation centers. The typhoon moved to the South China Sea west of the Palawan island province, eventually dissipating on December 9.

        Quickly following after Cyclone Sandy which went unusually North to strike the heavily populated East Coast of the US. Bopha hardly got any attention in the Western world. But the devastation was enormous. Philippine expats. I spoke to here, explained to me that in Northern regions where hurricanes are more common, most houses are heavily reinforced against Cyclonic weather. Not so in the South close to the equator.

        Hurricanes and cyclones reach such incredible speeds due to the twisting motion imparted to them by the earth’s rotation. Known as Coriolis. The coriolis effect (or force) is most experienced in (relatively) narrow bands between the tropic of cancer in the Northern Hemisphere and the tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere. After which other weather effects become dominant. Greater temperature inversions nearer the poles tend to slow winds down. In the other direction Coriolis effects become weaker the closer you get to the equator and the less dominent it is in weather systems. That is why hurricanes are pretty much unknown on the equator. However, with more energy in the system you can forget all that. Monstrous seasonal storms will become much more common way beyond their current boundaries. Generally Hurricanes lose strength as soon as they cross land. New Zealand with miles of open ocean presenting a very thin target could see winds that dwarf anything ever seen before anywhere in the world. During Hurricanes, open ocean acts as a heat engine imparting energy to the storm. More ocean, more energy.

        I think we can safely discard the notion of “life boat New Zealand”

  3. Colonial Viper 3

    Our civilisation and way of life depends on massive energy usage. Building renewable energy generation of any scale and electric cars to go with it takes massive energy usage.

    And meanwhile, we’re stuck in a political economic paradigm extolling the virtues of selling, consuming and using up more and more, faster and faster.

    It’s going to be a very interesting next 50 years.

  4. karol 4

    I am awe of physical anthropology/archaeology and studies of earth’s early pre-history. I am always more intrigued by such studies than by space exploration. I never did past stage one archaeology/anthropology, but I learned enough to appreciate the sophistication of the science.

    And I always get more fascinated with archaeology/pre-history than with space exploration. The length of time for the earth to evolve in a way to enable human habitation and agriculture is particularly fascinating.

    The impact of climate change on agriculture is a major worry. And NZ’s agriculture industry, at least in the mainstream, doesn’t look like taking notice, or looking for ways to prepare for the possible changes. It’s all the same old short termism.

    • lprent 4.1

      We are relatively lucky in NZ. Because we’re skinny and surrounded by oceans and have a good mix of currents and are mid-latitudes, we’re unlikely to have many extremes of climate shifts. The oceans buffer the climate extremes.

      Unless of course we get too much CO2 in the atmosphere and the Antarctic icestore really melts, in which case we have no idea what will happen (apart from sea level rises of up to 70m over a few hundred years).

      • Murray Olsen 4.1.1

        How lucky will we be if the cyclone zone comes far enough south to include half the North Island? I know the ocean heat sink around us makes the difference between summer and winter less than continental, but why couldn’t the annual average shift drastically?

      • Jenny 4.1.2

        We are relatively lucky in NZ. Because we’re skinny and surrounded by oceans and have a good mix of currents and are mid-latitudes…..



        Only if you believe people in other countries are going to agree to die quietly in their millions, (possibly billions).

        • lprent

          I’m expecting famines, wars and refugees. These happen in normal times as well (you only have to visit Auckland to see the results). But the key thing is that this will be a very slow and drawn out disaster. Because while it is fast in geological terms, those timescale terms has a second that is about a decade in length (which is why you see much of the conversation in climate referred to in decadial terms).

          People and societies adjust in those gradual timescales. That is what makes it different to the your top three catastrophic extinction events which were/would be deaths at a opinion time.

          BTW: I knew that I’d finally gotten the earth sciences perspective when I was in university and realised that I’d started thinking of a million years as being a quite short time period. I was looking at some block faulted limestone looking for fossils to date it at the time.

  5. Jenny 5

    Here is a little pop quiz for you karol. And you too Lynn.

    On a scale of One to Six.
    Six being the Permian–Triassic extinction event.
    One being a non-event talked up by a global conspiracy of scientists to boost their funding.

    Where would you place climate change?

    6. Permian–Triassic extinction event. The worst ever, (so far) with up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species wiped out. It is the only known mass extinction of insects

    5. The famous KT event that ended the age of the dinosaurs. It is estimated that 75% or more of all species on Earth vanished.

    4. Global Thermonuclear War (The only mass extinction event in this list that has never occurred). Due to imponderables, like Nuclear Winter, radiation sickness, famine, water contamination, infra structure breakdown, disease etc. The death toll can only be a guess. Some estimates are 30% fatalities. Some more extreme guesses, total extinction.

    3. World War II
    World War II is the deadliest human conflict in history. Over 60 million people were killed. 2.5% of the world’s human population.

    2. World War I. Estimates of casualty numbers for World War I vary a great deal; estimates of total deaths range from 9 million to over 15 million

    1. Global climate change conspiracy. While not exactly a mass extinction. When this global conspiracy is finally uncovered, it is expected that all universities will be closed down and all leading members of their faculty will be indicted and their millions of intricate fake reports and false figures will be burnt. All lying copies of National Geografic and Scientific American will also be burnt. Following this. The arrest of all their co-conspirators in every government and military force in the world. Including all the Pentagon Chiefs and Heads of Staff. Climate Change conspirators like John Key and Barack Obama will not escape the dragnet.

    Enter your number in the comments.

    • lprent 5.2

      Same order as a nuclear war over the next century. Mostly because we just have no idea about how to deal with a changing climate on our agricultural base.

      We can probably handle the rising sealevels, crazy weather, and the other assorted mayhem (although I’d suggest avoiding living in much of Bangladesh, any atoll, seashores, and anywhere land has been reclaimed from marshes (BTW: I live on a ridge).

      But famine and pestilence are going to be a major problem. We simply don’t have the technology at present to cope with rapidly changing climates on food crops.

    • Murray Olsen 5.3

      It wouldn’t be as bad as nuclear war simply because of the longer time scales, but if it triggered one due to scarcity of resources – 4.5

      • Jenny 5.3.1

        Good. At least we are all on the same page then.

        The next thing is: What are we going to do about it?

  6. johnm 6

    ‘Climate Collision Course: CO2 Levels About to Hit 400 PPM
    In a first in human history, “it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400-ppm level without losing a beat.” ‘


    ‘Now we know that the Earth has shown a remarkable ability to regulate its temperature within a range conducive to Life, and that several natural carbon cycles have served as temperature regulators. When humans extract carbon from geologic reservoirs hundreds of millions of years old, dumping it into the surface reservoirs (especially the air), we are attacking the Earth’s metabolism.

    There’s no known means of getting rid of the excess carbon we’ve already disgorged. The only secure way to sequester carbon is to leave it in the ground. Fossil fuel extraction must stop.’

    ‘The truth is, we are in terrible, terrible times on every front. Judge that however you wish, call me whatever, but we are in terrible times and they are going to get a lot worse. Climate change is not for the faint of heart, that is for sure. There is a growing number of credible people who are convinced, based on science, that we have very few years left on the planet. Maybe fewer than 10, and certainly no more than 35.

    Global warming alone is sufficient to cause extinction of all life, and it is far worse than most people know because all our information is so filtered and politicized. We have triggered between 8 and 12 feedback loops that contribute to increased warming, depending on which expert you pay attention to. Living beings are dying, forests, the oceans, hundreds of species per day are going extinct, plants are dying, rivers are dying, aquifers are depleted, and the dying is going to get a lot bigger before it gets smaller. The things that are causing the dying, including the CO2, are increasing every year. Every year we put however much percentage again over last year’s amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. If we could stop right now, which is not possible, the earth would continue to warm because of the melting glaciers, ice caps and permafrost that have been triggered. The role in climate stability that the ice caps and ice sheets play is critical to understanding what is occurring and what will occur. ‘

  7. Jenny 8

    In the fight against climate change coal has been identified as the number 1 causative factor.

    James Hansen has said: “If we can’t stop coal, it is game over for the climate.”

    “No new coal mines”

    The Auckland Campaign against coal

    An Auckland Coal Action campaign against a proposed new coal mine which is to be situated halfway between Miranda and Pokeno has achieved its first victory.

    After organising a mass signing of submissions to go to the Waikato Regional Council to oppose the consent.

    The good news is that this consent has been declined.

    This is only a partial victory, as the council have given Glencoal one month to resubmit

    The grounds for the council’s knock back of the mine consent are:

    Lack of consultation with local iwi about cultural values.

    Lack of information about dust control in drought conditions.

    Lack of information on the use of a local stream (not the Kopuera)

    Lack of information about the stability of the sides of the mine.

    The application will be permanently declined if Fonterra does not provide this information by the end of May.

    All we need to do now, is turn this partial decline of Fonterra’s consent for the Mangatangi coal mine into a permanent one.

    If you are in Auckland and you want to do something about climate change, make sure you support Auckland Coal Action.
    ACA meetings are held the first Saturday of each Month in the Quaker Meeting House, 113 Mt Eden Road Auckland.

    All welcome.

    Next meeting is May 4 from 2pm onwards.

    This is a link to the ACA leaflet put out to the Mangatangi community about the coal mine.



    The Auckland campaign for a coal-free Aotearoa

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