The 2013 global mean temperature

29 01 2014

In December 2013 we published an estimate of the global mean temperature up to the end of October 2013, based on an average of the three main global temperature datasets – Met Office and University of East Anglia (HadCRUT4), NOAA National Climatic Data Center (NOAA NCDC) and NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies (NASA GISS).

The United Nations’ World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the IPCC’s provisional estimate global mean temperature for 2013 is 0.5 °C ± 0.1 °C above the long-term (1961-1990) average.

For HadCRUT4, the provisional estimate for the whole of 2013 is between 0.39 °C and 0.59 °C above the long-term (1961-1990) average of 14.0 °C, with a central estimate of 0.49 °C.

This means 2013 is in the top ten warmest years on record and we continue to see near record global temperatures like those which resulted in 2000-2009 being the warmest decade in the instrumental record.

As always the latest figure has generated interest in the media, which focuses on how it relates to previous forecasts from the Met Office.

The global mean temperature is just one of many indicators – including sea level rise, shrinking glaciers and reducing Arctic sea ice – that give even more confidence that the world is warming. Climate models are an invaluable tool in helping us to understand past changes and predict how temperatures may change in the future; they have provided overall good advice capturing and representing the warmer world we now live in.

We can see from the IPCC AR5 report figure below how global temperatures have risen since 1860 and how the latest provisional observational estimates still lie within the range of the forecast models. This figure also shows that, looking back over the entire observational record there are a number of occasions where the observations lie close to both the upper and lower bounds of the model simulations, so what we are seeing at the moment is nothing new.

Time series of global and annual-averaged surface temperature change from 1860 to 2012 showing results from two ensemble of climate models driven with natural forcings and human-induced changes in greenhouse gases and aerosols compared to observations of global mean temperature from three different datasets relative to 1880-1919. CMIP3 relates to the suite of climate models used in IPCC AR4 and CMIP5 those models used in IPCC AR5.*

Time series of global and annual-averaged surface temperature change from 1860 to 2012 showing results from two ensemble of climate models driven with natural forcings and human-induced changes in greenhouse gases and aerosols compared to observations of global mean temperature from three different datasets relative to 1880-1919. CMIP3 relates to the suite of climate models used in IPCC AR4 and CMIP5 those models used in IPCC AR5.*

So, why might the global mean temperature be different from forecasts? Well, we know that, due to the lack of long-term observing sites in polar latitudes, HadCRUT4 underestimates the contribution from Arctic warming which has accelerated in recent years.

There is also increasing scientific evidence that the current pause in surface warming is associated with natural variability in the global oceans, as they absorb heat from the atmosphere. Changes in the exchange of heat between the upper and deep ocean appear to have caused at least part of the pause in surface warming, and observations suggest that the Pacific Ocean may play a key role. You can find out more about the recent pause in warming here.

*Figure modified from Bindoff, N. L., P. A. Stott, K. M. AchutaRao, M. R. Allen, N. Gillett, D. Gutzler, K. Hansingo, G. Hegerl, Y. Hu, S. Jain, I. I. Mokhov, J. Overland, J. Perlwitz, R. Sebbari and X. Zhang, 2013: Detection and Attribution of Climate Change: from Global to Regional. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T. F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S. K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P. M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, in press.

Should climate models have predicted the pause?

27 09 2013

Media coverage today of the launch of the 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC has again said that global warming is “unequivocal” and that the pause in warming over the past 15 years is too short to reflect long-term trends.

Over recent days some commentators have criticised climate models for not predicting the pause. It’s good to see this being addressed, and so begin to clarify the difference between climate model projections and predictions.

We should not confuse climate prediction with climate change projection. Climate prediction is about saying what the state of the climate will be in the next few years, and it depends absolutely on knowing what the state of the climate is today. And that requires a vast number of high quality observations, of the atmosphere and especially of the ocean.

Whilst the last decade has seen a rapid increase in good observations of the surface and upper ocean, thanks to Argo floats, we have very few for the deep ocean. Without these requisite observations to initialise, i.e. set running, a climate prediction, it is impossible to have predicted the current pause, however good the climate models.

On the other hand, climate change projections are concerned with the long view; the impact of the large and powerful influences on our climate, such as greenhouse gases. Projections capture the role of these overwhelming influences on climate and its variability, rather than predict the current state of the variability itself.

The IPCC model simulations are projections and not predictions; in other words the models do not start from the state of the climate system today or even 10 years ago. There is no mileage in a story about models being ‘flawed’ because they did not predict the pause; it’s merely a misunderstanding of the science and the difference between a prediction and a projection.

As the IPCC states in line with our three papers on the pause, the deep ocean is likely a key player in the current pause, effectively ‘hiding’ heat from the surface. Climate model projections simulate such pauses, a few every hundred years lasting a decade or more; and they replicate the influence of the modes of natural climate variability, like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) that we think is at the centre of the current pause.

The Daily Telegraph today also covers the science of the pause.

Critically there is ever more confidence that the world is warming as a result of human actions, and limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases.

Met Office in the Mail on Sunday

15 09 2013

An article appears in the Mail on Sunday today focusing on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) forthcoming Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) which it bills this as the ‘world’s most authoritative climate study’.

It’s fair to say that AR5 is expected to be the most comprehensive review of climate change science to date. The first part of the report, from its Working Group I (WGI), has been worked on by more than 800 scientists from around the world who have assessed more than 9,000 scientific publications and taken into account more than 50,000 comments from over 1000 expert reviewers.

The WGI report is now in its final stages and the major conclusions will be finalised and released on 27 September. It is at that point that we should debate its findings and their implications.

Further parts of the report, from its Working Group II and III, as well as a final version of the whole report will be published next year.

The Mail article also discusses the recent pause in warming, which the Met Office looked at in a series of papers, released in July. Many of the issues raised in the article are addressed in those reports, which you can see on our website.

The article also goes on to mention some of the claims made in a commentary published by Nic Lewis yesterday. This is a lengthy and technical commentary covering several topics and will require time to provide as helpful a response as possible, so further comment will be released in due course.

There are a couple of points raised in the Mail story which should be addressed now, however.

The article states that the Met Office’s ‘flagship’ model (referring to our Earth System Model known as HadGEM2-ES) is too sensitive to greenhouse gases and therefore overestimates the possible temperature changes we may see by 2100.

There is no scientific evidence to support this claim. It is indeed the case that HadGEM2-ES is among the most sensitive models used by the IPCC (something the Met Office itself has discussed in a science paper published early this year), but it lies within the accepted range of climate sensitivity highlighted by the IPCC.

Equally when HadGEM2-ES is evaluated against many aspects of the observed climate, including those that are critical for determining the climate sensitivity, it has proved to be amongst the most skilful models in the world.

Finally, in our aim to provide the best possible scientific advice to the UK Government, the Met Office draws on all the scientific evidence available to us. This includes many other physically based climate models from leading research centres around the world, which provide a range of climate sensitivities and a range of potential future warming.


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