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Climate Research Priorities

Edward A. Reid Jr.
Posted On:
Jul 25, 2017 at 7:01 AM
Climate Change

Tracking changes in Earth’s climate is important. Climate change measurement is a unique challenge, because the experiment is ongoing, as it has for billions of years. Also, the experiment cannot be rerun if there is a measurement problem, because each day is unique. This means that instrument accuracy and reliability are essential; and, that the instruments must be placed carefully, to ensure that they are measuring the correct conditions or events. In addition, the changes being measured are quite small, so the measurement approach must ensure that the act of measuring the changes does not alter the conditions being measured.

The US Climate Reference Network (US CRN) satisfies the requirements discussed above, but only for the US. The satellite measurements also satisfy those requirements globally. However, the Global Historical Climate Network (GHCN), which provides the measurements used to produce the temperature anomaly products maintained by NOAA/NCEI, NASA GISS, Hadley Centre and others does not satisfy those requirements. Measurement station accuracy is known to be persistent problem, as is measurement station location. Many station locations have been compromised by progressive urbanization. Other locations were compromised when they were installed, such as those on or adjacent to buildings or those installed at airports. The time has come to abandon the GHCN.

The calibration of the satellite measuring systems are regularly checked against deep space temperature and the temperatures measured by balloon-mounted radiosondes. Satellite land surface temperature measurements can also be checked against the measurements taken by the US CRN; and, could be checked against measurements taken by similar installations at other locations around the globe, if and when such installations exist. Satellite sea surface temperature measurements are routinely checked against measurements taken by buoys deployed across the world’s oceans. It is also time to abandon collection and analysis of sea surface temperature measurements taken by sensors in the engine cooling inlets of ocean going vessels, or by lowering buckets over the sides of ships to collect water samples for measurement.

The satellite measurements are far more comprehensive geographically, far more accurate than most ground-based temperature measurements, and far less influenced by progressively changing conditions on the ground. The satellites also primarily measure changes in the temperature of the troposphere, where heat energy accumulating in the atmosphere is stored.

However, as important as tracking changes in the earth’s climate is, the more important issue in climate change research is developing an understanding of both the natural and the anthropogenic factors which affect the climate. This is essential to developing a model of the climate which actually models how the climate would respond to various changed conditions, of which increased atmospheric CO2 concentration is one of many. Current climate models do not actually model the real climate well. This is hardly surprising, since many factors and events which affect climate are not well understood; and, thus, not included in the current climate models.

The primary factors which drive current climate models are climate sensitivity to CO2 and various forcings, including clouds. There is no experimentally established value for climate sensitivity, which is why values ranging from 1.5 - 4.5ºC per doubling of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere are used in model runs, rather than a single, experimentally determined value. Likewise, it is not even certain whether the forcing associated with clouds is positive or negative. Exercising climate models using a range of values for their primary drivers produces a wide range of potential future scenarios. However, none of these climate models have been validated, nor are they likely to be, as long as they do not include the range of significant natural factors which have affected global climate throughout the ages. These factors include El Nino Southern Oscillation, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and The Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation.

Current models also do not account for the effects of solar events or changes in solar activity of emissions. This is a particularly significant omission, since solar activity is the source of virtually all the energy which heats the earth and its atmosphere. It seems inconceivable that a climate which accurately models the real climate is possible without appropriate treatment of solar influences.

Therefore, the primary focus of climate research must shift to understanding and quantifying all the significant factors which affect the climate; and, to using that knowledge to develop a climate model which actually models the real climate. Once this model has been developed and verified, the more difficult task of determining whether the model has any forecasting effectiveness can begin.

It seems ludicrous to believe that we can accurately model an extremely complex system we do not understand. It seems at least equally ludicrous to believe that we can control an extremely complex system that we do not understand. It seems even more ludicrous to believe that we can understand how that extremely complex system would react in the distant future, if we cannot understand how it reacts now.