12 March 2010

Sea Level in IPCC: "Far Worse" than the Himalaya Glacier Error

[UPDATE: 3/17, Over at Real Climate contributor Eric Steig takes issue with this post writing:
. . . Many colleagues of mine that I know are sincere seem to think Pielke is "reasonable." All I can say is that well meaning people thought that Joe McCarthy was 'reasonable' too. Those people weren't paying attention (or they rather un-American values). Now: read this post by Stefan (ippc-sealevel-gate/ in which he is unambiguously saying that IPCC is conservative (not alarmist), and then read RP Jr's post in which he miscontrues Stefan's post to mean that "another leading scientists says that IPCC is flawed." THERE is stealth advocacy for you. Look me in the eye and tell me you think Piekle is being "reasonable" here. (Note: I grant you that it is possible that Pielke may just be too stupid to have understood what Stefan wrote. But I doubt that. --eric

Real Climate contributor Stefan Rahmstorf has written an interesting post criticizing about the IPCC's handling of the issue of sea level rise in the IPCC AR4 WG I report:

In its latest report, the IPCC has predicted up to 59 cm of sea level rise by the end of this century. But realclimate soon revealed a few problems.

First, although the temperature scenarios of IPCC project a maximum warming of 6.4 ºC (Table SPM3), the upper limit of sea level rise has been computed for a warming of only 5.2 ºC – which reduced the estimate by about 15 cm. Second, the IPCC chose to compute sea level rise up to the year 2095 rather than 2100 – just to cut off another 5 cm. Worse, the IPCC report shows that over the past 40 years, sea level has in fact risen 50% more than predicted by its models – yet these same models are used uncorrected to predict the future! And finally, the future projections assume that the Antarctic ice sheet gains mass, thus lowering sea level, rather at odds with past ice sheet behaviour.**

Some scientists within IPCC warned early that all this could lead to a credibility problem, but the IPCC decided to go ahead anyway.

Nobody cared about this.

Rahmstorf explains that he sees this error as being worse than the 2035 glacier error (emphasis added):
Why do I find this IPCC problem far worse than the Himalaya error? Because it is not a slip-up by a Working Group 2 author who failed to properly follow procedures and cited an unreliable source. Rather, this is the result of intensive deliberations by Working Group 1 climate experts. Unlike the Himalaya mistake, this is one of the central predictions of IPCC, prominently discussed in the Summary for Policy Makers. What went wrong in this case needs to be carefully looked at when considering future improvements to the IPCC process.
A few weeks ago Robert Watson, former director of the IPCC, suggested that some might ask a question about the issues raised in the IPCC:
Some would say that only four mistakes or imprecise wording have been found in the 1,000-page Working Group II report, and none in working groups I and III, and so would ask: Is there really a problem?
After Richard Tol's guest posts here over the past two weeks (more to come next week) on issues in WG III and now an IPCC contributor taking the IPCC AR4 WG I to task, I don't think that the hypothetical "some" would continue to be asking whether there really is a problem.


  1. Rahmstorf does not give the whole story.

    They had to choose between (1) leaving ice out (knowing that this would lead to an underestimate of the risk) or (2) putting it in (knowing that there was a recent paper with a crazy number that would dominate the assessment).

    Option 3 (quality-weighting a complex literature) would have been too controversial.

    It is an interesting case. The IPCC preferred not to mention it rather than note that Science had just published alarmist nonsense.

  2. So now the apocalyptic alarmists start finding egregious errors in AR4 - errors that UNDER-estimate the results of warming? Interesting how a formerly flawless document suddenly grows warts only AFTER alarmist assertions have been debunked in such a public fashion.

    Don't tell me.... "IT'S WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT!"

    "It's worse than we thought" - the last refuge of climate scoundrels.

  3. How many times do alarmists get to claim, worongly, tha 'it is worse than expected', when in fact it is far better than they claim, and still maintain a shred of credibility.
    Sea levels are not increasing dramatically or dangerously, except in the bizarre-o world of climate alarmism.

  4. Is Rahmstorf saying that projections that were too scary were consciously minimized by the IPCC and that that kind of groupthink has also to be avoided?

    It seems like the simple solution would be to post all datasets, models and conclusions and let the rest of the world have at it. It would be real science, with mess and egos and disagreements, but better than possibly fake "consensus."
    Why is it so hard to go ahead and simply treat climate and related sciences as postnormal?
    It seems like the world would win- what's keeping us from tossing IPCC and having an global open (among disciplines) discussion of a global open problem.

  5. Sharon - all the IPCC does is review existing published literature, so all the stuff included is out there already. No review/synthesis is going to be perfect or satisfy everyone. But I think the IPCC reports are a good starting point for getting an overview of what is known. Maybe people just need a realistic attitude to how good such a report can or cannot be.

  6. This reminds me of M Night Shyamalan's movie, The Village. Boogie, boogie, boogie.

    Then there is Dr. James Lovelock reported to have said that C02 may be staving off a new ice age. http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/162506/How-carbon-gases-have-saved-us-from-a-new-ice-age-

    Now what is the worse bogeyman to avoid?

  7. Does Stefan really believe that it is unreasonable to expect ice mass gain when precipitation over Antarctica is projected to increase while temperatures remain below freezing? Does he really believe that a record of sea level only fifteen years long can determine the degree to which projections are in the right neighborhood? Does he really believe that 6.4 ºC of warming is worth speculating about in terms of sea level given that it is frankly impossible?

    If so, he's got some problems...

  8. New report in GRL:”The rising temperature of about 0.5oC in the tropics so far has not yet affected the global tropical storm days.”

    Wang, B., Y. Yang, Q.-H. Ding, H. Murakami, and F. Huang
    Climate Control of the Global Tropical Storm Days (1965-2008)
    Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2010GL042487, in press.
    [PDF] (accepted 9 March 2010)

    The tropical storm days have a consistent global record over the past 44 years (1965-2008), which provides an alternative metric for integrated information about genesis, track, and lifespan. Seasonal-reliant singular value decomposition is performed on the fields of the global storm days and sea surface temperature by using the ‘best track’ data. The leading mode, which dominates the variability of the global total number of storm days, displays an east-west contrast between enhanced activity in the North Pacific and reduced activity in the North Atlantic and a north-south contrast in the Southern Hemisphere oceans between active tropics and inactive subtropics, which are coupled with the El Niño and a positive phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The second mode reveals a compensating trend pattern coupled with global warming: upward trends over the North Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific warm pool (17.5oS-10oN, 70-140oE) and downward trends over the Pacific, especially the South Pacific. However, the global total number of storm days shows no trend and only an unexpected large amplitude fluctuation driven by El Niño-Southern Oscillation and PDO. The rising temperature of about 0.5oC in the tropics so far has not yet affected the global tropical storm days.

  9. Sharon F,
    What the IPCC shows is junk.
    If the IPCC was an audited annual report for a public company, the SEC would be investigating, shareholders would be suing, and banks would reducing their exposure.

    I think a good rule of thumb is to realize that there is an inverse relationship between the credibility of a given issue and the number of scary headlines its promoters produce.

  10. David Stern.

    You said "all the IPCC does is review existing published literature, so all the stuff included is out there already. "
    But I had said "It seems like the simple solution would be to post all datasets, models and conclusions and let the rest of the world have at it. "
    I don't believe that all the papers cited by the IPCC had been posted to a place where the public could examine and comment on their datasets models and conclusions. If they had we probably wouldn't be having many of the discussions we are now.

  11. "It's worse than we thought" is Rahmstorf's stock phrase. Remember that he was the lead author on the paper in 2007 that made up projected trends in the future, averaged the made up numbers with real past data, and concluded that the new numbers proved "it's worse than we thought!"

    "It's worse than we thought" IS an accurate description, however, when we realize it is an unintended summary of the state of climate science.

  12. If the IPCC could get their message across with less extreme references, why wouldn't they?

    That they chose not to refer to those studies suggests an interest in conveying a convincing message, not necessarily informing AR4's readers of what was out there.

    There might also be the idea that "it's not only worse than we thought, but much worse than we can tell you." But I doubt that.

    Despite what a lot of us apparently think, these guys are grown-ups.

  13. 8-That's almost as bad a title as “Forty-five years of observed moisture in the Ukraine: No summer desiccation (yet).”-the actual title of a paper in GRL which gave no justification for assuming that summer dessication must happen eventually. That was quite simply at odds with the data but not frightening.

    Talk about spin control.

    Idea: Ban the word "yet" from the scientific literature.

  14. Have a look at Acid Seas:
    Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis, Ocean Acidification by Carbon Dioxide.

    The statement is made:

    "The uptake of anthropogenic carbon by the ocean changes the chemical equilibrium of the ocean. Dissolved CO2 forms a weak acid. As CO2 increases, pH decreases, that is, the ocean becomes more acidic. Ocean pH can be computed from measurements of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and alkalinity. A decrease in surface pH of 0.1 over the global ocean was calculated from the estimated uptake of anthropogenic carbon between 1750 and 1994 (Sabine et al., 2004b; Raven et al., 2005), with the lowest decrease (0.06) in the tropics and subtropics, and the highest decrease (0.12) at high latitudes, consistent with the lower buffer capacity of the high latitudes compared to the low latitudes. The mean pH of surface waters ranges between 7.9 and 8.3 in the open ocean, so the ocean remains alkaline (pH > 7) even after these decreases.

    The consequences of changes in pH on marine organisms are poorly known (see Section 7.3.4 and Box 7.3). For comparison, pH was higher by 0.1 unit during glaciations, and there is no evidence of pH values more than 0.6 units below the pre-industrial pH during the past 300 million years (Caldeira and Wickett, 2003)12. A decrease in ocean pH of 0.1 units corresponds to a 30% increase in the concentration of H+ in seawater, assuming that alkalinity and temperature remain constant."

    Hence we get the claim that “the ocean” has become 30% more acidic since the start of the industrial revolution. There are actually four oceans, five counting the Southern ocean and all are different. There can be no single pH value for the world’s oceans, any more than there can be a single surface-air temperature for the globe. The range of pH can vary extensively as described here:Chris Jury13, Center for Marine Science, Biology and Marine Biology, University of North Carolina,

    “On some reef flats pH values have been measured to vary from as low as 7.8 to as high as 8.4 in a single 24 hr period (Yates and Halley, 2006). In some lagoons, pH has been measured to vary as much as 1 pH unit in a day (e.g., 7.6 to 8.6). Seasonal and even multi-decadal cycles of pH variation in reef water have also been measured (Pelejero et al., 2005). While some of the pH values that organisms see in the field may be less than ideal for growth, many are able to tolerate a fairly wide range of pH values, at least for short periods of time.” (meaning decades, not days or weeks,).

    Read the rest at SPPI, here:
    "Acid Seas - Back to Basic"

  15. Hence we get the claim that “the ocean” has become 30% more acidic

    This really annoys me. The reason we use a logarithmic scale is because that is how things actually work. To use an absolute scale is basically meaningless.

    Likewise decibels are logarithmic, because an absolute doubling of noise energy is NOT twice as loud.

    It's deliberately unscientific and alarming to choose to use that 30% value, and the people who do so should be ashamed of themselves. Even if it is true, which I doubt.

  16. Dr. Pielke,

    I’ve been MIA for a while. Two questions (with respect):

    1) Have you kept your promise yet?

    2) Have recent events impacted in any way upon your view that governments would be well advised to regulate CO2 emissions?

    P.S.) Don’t get me wrong -- I appreciate the level of integrity, insight and open discourse you bring to the debate.

  17. Inasmuch as we are talking about pH numbers generally above 7.8+, it would seem that "less alkaline" would be more appropriate than "more acidic"

  18. David Stern (Fri Mar 12, 04:57:00 PM MST ) sez:

    “all the IPCC does is review existing published literature”

    Ignoring all the activist so-called “literature” which produced the Himalayan glacier farce and so many others

    When the IPCC does bother to draw upon real science, they actually “review [and deliberately distort] existing published literature”

    Click here for just one of countless glaring examples. For the full story, examine the science presented directly above the text which that link points to (as well as the rest of the post).

    The IPCC is a purely political organization which deliberately distorts science (and activist propaganda) in order to ostensibly support a predetermined and purely political conclusion. The IPCC is hopelessly corrupt should be done away with (along with the rest of the United Nations)!

  19. The quote from James Lovelock didn't sound quite right. I searched around and found another article with more context. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article7061020.ece

    It seems to me that a more accurate description that Lovelock is a climate MODEL skeptic. That doesn't bother me, since I'm a model skeptic myself.

  20. Offense if the beste defense:

    John Houghton in the Times (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article7061646.ece) :
    "If the IPCC has a fault, it is that its reports have been too cautious, not alarmist"

  21. -20-Itis69
    John Houghton in the same piece:
    "But a report from Greenpeace or any other campaigning body would not be included because the science would not be considered robust enough."

  22. I responded at Real Climate as follows:


    (#78) I may indeed be "too stupid" to understand what Stefan wrote about sea level rise. I understood him to suggest that the IPCC made a mistake far worse than the glacier mistake because it underplayed the literature on sea level rise. Hence, Stefan says "What went wrong in this case needs to be carefully looked at when considering future improvements to the IPCC process."

    I interpret flaws in the IPCC process to be flaws irrespective of the error of the sign with respect to the magnitude of climate effect. Wouldn't you agree?

    Did I get that wrong?

    Also, I appreciate your commitment to not personalizing issues and focusing on the science.

    All best, Roger

  23. This is what you get when otherwise reasonable people are so fixated on framing an issue as a battle between good and evil that they have to interpret everything in those terms. It's bizarre.

  24. While I would agree that the sea level 'flaw' that emerged in the AR4 is of greater consequence than the glacier issue (or the way that disasters are represented for that matter), I do think that Eric stepped way over the line (a la Agassi perhaps :)) and owes you an apology.

    Roger I think you've made a pretty compelling case that there are substantial procedural issues with how the IPCC compiles its reports.
    I'm wondering if you'd care to speculate what kind of recommendations the IAC will make following its review...

  25. I post my reply here aswell, since Eric replied to my comment (see update above) and Pielke is not allowed by the moderators to comment at realclimate. That way, open debate is possible.

    78 Eric,
    Stefan is saying that IPCC is conservative (not alarmist). This is clear in Pielkes post. I fail do see that Pielke distort anything. Stefan is indeed saying that IPCC is flawed: “Why do I find this IPCC problem far worse than the Himalaya error? What went wrong in this case needs to be carefully looked at …” Pielke argues that being conservative or alarmist is equally problematic, since he want accuracy (that the IPCC report represent truth out there).

    Deliberate conservatism is most likely a political strategy by the IPCC. I recognice it from Bert Bolin, the first head of the IPCC. He established the strategy of conservatism as the most effective way to advocate climate policy in the long term (we might loose 10 years for politics, but climate is here to stay he argued). That many sceptics claim that the IPCC is alarmist may amplify this conservatism, and sceptics was one reason to why Bolin advocates this from the beginning, he was afraid that errors migh be effectively used against his and the IPCC climate avocacy. This discussion is a good example that IPCC is not and cannot be objective. IPCC is part of a complex unfolding of climate science and politics and society and sceptics and business ….

    Pielke is NOT stealth issue advocate, I would say. He is an open advocate To be stealth, by definition, one needs to hide ones politics. but I do think that Pielke should be even more open about his advocacy, especially since he is advocating rather intensively. I dont find this to be a big problem, Pielke is just one individual and science should promote open debate with diverse viewpoints. Much more problematic is that IPCC work in stealth fashion as they claim to have no prescriptive role for policy, yet having a highly influencial position in both science and politics.

  26. In comment #173 at Real Climate, I quoted Stefan Rahmstorf:

    “A number of broadly based assessments have appeared since the last IPCC report, which all conclude that global sea level rise by the year 2100 could exceed one meter:”

    Then I asked, "Obviously, global sea level rise by the year 2100 “could” exceed one meter. What was the most probable sea level rise in each of the assessments?"

    So far, no reply by Rahmstorf or any of the Real Climate authors.

  27. Rahmstorf proposes that the relationship between sea level rise rate and temperature is as


    dH/dt = a(T-To)+bdT/dt

    where H is the sea level
    T is the temperature at time t
    To is a constant, the "equilibrium temperature"
    b and a are constants

    a, b, and To are determined by fitting to the measured tide gauge data and measured

    temperature data.

    Counter-intuitively, he finds a negative value for b.

    He claims that this equation is an explanation for the behavior of sea level as a function

    of temperature. As such, it can be used to predict sea level rise for various future

    temperature rise scenarios. Similarly this equation would have still been valid for

    different past temperature profiles.

    Here is the problem. if you let T=Cexp(-at/b), then the sea level rise rate will always be

    zero. Given the values that Rahmstorf finds for a and b, and judiciously choosing C, you

    can create a temperature vs time that would not have been far-fetched for the last century

    or this century. Yet Rahmstorf's equation will yield zero sea level rise.

    I believe that this point invalidates his proposed relationship between temperature and sea

    level rise rate.

    You can see his paper "Global sea

    level linked to global temperature."

    You can see the details of my argument here.

  28. correction to my previous comment...

    let T=to + Cexp(-at/b)

  29. "Counter-intuitively, he finds a negative value for b."

    It's not counter-intuitive that the coefficient in front of dT/dt (change in temperature versus time) would be negative.

    Imagine that the of the world shot up to boiling instantaneously. The amount the ice caps melt instantaneously would be near zero, but over the long run the ice caps would obviously melt.

    So the faster the temperature rises, the larger the difference is between the temperature and the total amount the sea level has risen.