19 April 2010

The Missing Heat

In the released CRU emails NCAR climate scientist Kevin Trenberth says:
The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't.
Last week Science magazine gave Trenberth a chance to explain what he meant by this comment, which has been much discussed in the aftermath of the released emails (the image above is from that article). In that article, Trenberth, and Kevin Fasullo, write:
Over the past 50 years, the oceans have absorbed ~90% of the energy added to the climate system; the rest has gone into melting sea and land ice and heating the land surface and atmosphere ( 4). CO2 concentrations have further increased since 2003, and even more heat should have accumulated at a faster rate since then. Where has this energy gone (see the figure)?

. . . Since 2004, ~3000 Argo floats have provided regular temperature soundings of the upper 2000 m of the ocean, giving new confidence in the ocean heat content assessment—yet, ocean temperature measurements from 2004 to 2008 suggest a substantial slowing of the increase in global ocean heat content (see the figure, panel A) ( 10). If the extra energy has not gone into the ocean, where has it gone?
Where indeed?

The open admission that scientists don't understand the location of the missing heat is a vindication for my father, who has been discussing this issue since 2006, and taking a lot of grief for it. For instance, in 2006 my father noted that model predictions and observations of the accumulation of heat in the oceans were diverging:
The mismatch between the data and the model predictions, however, raises serious questions on the ability of the multi-decadal global climate models to accurately predict even the global average variability and long term trend of the radiative imbalance of the climate system.
In 2008, the ever-astute Richard Harris of NPR was one of the very few picked up on this issue:

But if the aquatic robots are actually telling the right story, that raises a new question: Where is the extra heat all going?

Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research says it's probably going back out into space. The Earth has a number of natural thermostats, including clouds, which can either trap heat and turn up the temperature, or reflect sunlight and help cool the planet.

That can't be directly measured at the moment, however.

"Unfortunately, we don't have adequate tracking of clouds to determine exactly what role they've been playing during this period," Trenberth says.

It's also possible that some of the heat has gone even deeper into the ocean, he says. Or it's possible that scientists need to correct for some other feature of the planet they don't know about. It's an exciting time, though, with all this new data about global sea temperature, sea level and other features of climate.

My father explained why this matters, presenting a rather uncomfortable perspective:
The observed absence of heat accumulation (of Joules) in the upper ocean (and in the troposphere) for the last four years means that there has been NO global warming in these climate metrics during this time period. It is unknown whether this is a short term aberration but, regardless, it is clear that the IPCC models have failed to skillfully predict this absence of warming.
You can read an interesting exchange from earlier this week among Roger Pielke, Sr., Kevin Trenberth and Josh Willis on my father's blog here.

What to take from this?

First, there was ample indication of issues associated with the divergence of model projections and accumulated heat years ago, but for whatever reasons, it was not openly discussed, with the exception of the 2008 NPR story (perhaps I've missed others).

Second, it took the released CRU emails to open up a public scientific dialogue on this subject, which suggests that there are some issues with either model projections or observations. Judging from the Pielke-Trenberth-Willis exchange, I'd put my money on problems with the models.

Third, none of this should alter how we think about the policy issues, as uncertainties have always been with us and always will. But getting uncertainties out in the open is a new thing for the public face of climate science and undoubtedly some will likely try to reassert the old ways of suppressing uncertainties.

The story of the missing heat does not indicate that climate science is a fraud or that we need not worry about a human influence on the climate system. What it does tell us is that there have been some unhealthy goings on in the climate community and we should all bask in the new found sunshine.

So where is the missing heat? Apparently no one knows, but I hope they find it soon.


  1. "The story of the missing heat does not indicate that climate science is a fraud"

    I'm usually cautious of Trentberth since I always felt that he was holding the truth.

    But an open and honest exchange with your father make him look a lot more honest and inconspicuous than is usual. when scientist present such an attitude I don't think of fraud.

    But when scientist act like the realclimate folks usually act, then fraud comes fast to mind.

  2. These data show that global warming (net radiation) is ongoing but the sink where the heat is stored is unknown. Three options:

    1. The top of the atmosphere, net radiation data is wrong.

    2. The ocean heat data is wrong.

    3. The heat is going somewhere else.

    #3 seems the most unlikely to me, but that is how the article is written. Isn't 1 or 2 more likely?

  3. Hi Roger, you write, "So where is the missing heat? Apparently no one knows, but I hope they find it soon." But you had also said just before that, based on the Pielke-Trenberth-Willis exchange, your bet would be on flaws in the IPCC models turning out to be the explanation, rather than problems in the observations. In that case, you don't really expect anyone to find the missing heat -- you really mean you hope the matter will be settled soon and that there will be agreement that there is no missing heat -- isn't that right?

  4. When you look for something that long and that hard and still cannot find it then you can conclude that it only existed in the minds of people.

    When a theory fails a test of criticism, its continued acceptance means it has become dogma.

    It is little wonder that the missing heat has been described as a 'tragedy' within the AGW priesthood.

    We should be thankful to the CRU whistle-blower for revealing that publicly.

  5. As we didn't have accurate ocean temperature data before 2004, I'm bewildered why anyone would present a graph pretending the ocean heat content calculation was accurate before then. Surely that part of the graph was derived from the assumption that the energy balance demanded that the ocean store the heat: An idea now in tatters. The main purpose of the Argo experiment was to verify that assumption but it actually refutes it. We can even conclude that the trapped heat postulation was grossly exaggerated and that it was actually escaping the atmosphere all this time.

    Also that sea level rise is an ongoing recovery from the last ice age so putting the CO2 graph beside it is misleading too. The real time to panic is when the sea level starts to drop because we'll be heading back into another ice age. Maybe time to scale back the money on modeling and channel it back into obs. We still need to identify that missing carbon sink too.

  6. Judith Curry is doing a good job of repositioning herself in the climate debate by supporting the need for open access to data etc. Is Trenberth attempting a more difficult makeover?


  7. I saw the lengthy exchange posted on your father's site yesterday and read it twice. In a world where 0.7 C/century trends in global average temperatures is picked out of a signal that can vary by 0.8 C in one year and monthly blips merrit a press releases, the OHC is likely the best metric to really track what is happening in the climate. Your father is clearly important in pushing this and holding Kevin Trenbreths feet to the fire but Josh Willis is a hero in this as well. He is committed to getting the measurements right above all else. He is not a climate skeptic but he's also not pushing a political position. Climate science needs more scorekeepers like him.

  8. I followed this story through reading Roy Spencer's blog at one point.

    There is almost nothing in the current science of climate that stands up to intellectual scrutiny.

    My university science studies were some time ago and unexceptional, however I was able to persuade two climates scientists to admit that there is no way to predict future states of the climate system with useful (public policy) accuracy. This was around two years ago.

    Before Guardian discussions went tabloid, the vast majority of qualified, convincing contributors were extremely sceptical (in the everyday sense of the word).


    It amazes me that the denizens of Realclimate and satellites do not understand the appalling impression they leave on civilised observers.


    "But getting uncertainties out in the open is a new thing for the public face of climate science"

    That is going to destroy public faith in science for some time to come. In my view, that is a very good thing.

  9. Large uncertainties shouldn't change how we think of policy? Couldn't disagree more. Wise, moral people do not hijack enormous sums of money and consign billions of people to degraded lives while ignoring large uncertainties.

  10. I can't see wether the radiation line (black, 1st graph) is incoming or outgoing. Given my obtuseness I'd prefer not to have to guess. I really would appreciate a clarification.

    I find it boring that heat is expressed as a flux, instead of an energy. I suppose it is related to the need to calculate radiation budgets. But flux is not energy, and the figure for (heat) energy accumulation won't come straightforward.


  11. Fraud in the sense of Madoff? Not likely.
    The situation is much more complex.
    AGW- the alarmist belief that CO2 is causing a global climate catastrophe- is similar to tulipomania or the mortgage/real estate bubble:
    A series of bad ideas reinforced by people whose self interests were enhanced by pushing one version of events and information and ignoring or suppressing others.
    Frankly the AGW promoter assertion that sense there was no 'smoking gun' (as they themselves defined 'smoking gun') was always a transparent straw man argument.

  12. If not for the innate resistance of the human mind to accept that it has been on a wild goose chase for it's entire professional career, it would be easier for the climate professionals to accept that there probably isn't any missing heat to be found. That having been said, astrophysicists have been searching for missing matter, with similar negative results, for far longer. Such is the nature of the scientific pursuit of TRVTH.

  13. I think there is no missing heat. Never was because the heating appears to have stopped in 1998. And now a waning El Nino, extremely low solar activity and a reversal of the PDO, things are about to change, I think, for the next decade or two—and not in the way some experts and many politicians need it to or believe it will (get out your woolies, chaps, it's going to get a bit chilly).

  14. "none of this should alter how we think about the policy issues, as uncertainties have always been with us and always will"

    "Damn the torpedoes - full stream ahead!"

    To act under significant uncertainties increases the certainty thaat your policy outcomes will be bad.

    Until we have sufficiently resolved the uncertaintes (at least have an hyptothesis that actually predicts what we can measure in the real world), then we should be deferring any consideration of costly policy.

    Of course, those people whose bread and butter is provided by formulating policies will more than likely disagree.

    Not for the first time Roger, your role as an "Honest Broker" is questionable.

  15. Roger,

    I think you have misstated the relevance of uncertainty to policy. Some proposed policies are only possible when uncertainty is low, so the discovery of larger-than-thought uncertainties would necessarily doom them. What I hope you meant to say is that large uncertainties imply that we should look for policies that make sense regardless of uncertainty size. An example might be investing in future technological advancements, which will pay off regardless of the outcome of global warming.

  16. The heat is in Trenberth's kitchen, can he stand it?

  17. -15-Brian

    Well said. I guess if one thinks that everything was certain and loose ends all tidied up, then yes, this news might cause some rethinking.

    My point is that if you recognize the uncertainties (as many of those skeptical claim to) this news shouldn't change the importance of -- as you well state -- "that we should look for policies that make sense regardless of uncertainty size"

  18. -14-Geckko

    "To act under significant uncertainties increases the certainty thaat your policy outcomes will be bad"

    No. All decisions take place under uncertainties, some quite profound. The task is to make good decisions not eliminate uncertainty.

    Also, I do not characterize myself as an "honest broker" -- pick yourself up a copy of the book to see what I say ;-)

  19. -3-Alex Harvey

    Nope. I think that there is indeed missing heat.

    -2-David Stern

    The option of Trenberth (2008) and Pielke Sr. is that it has radiated out to space, a version of your #3.

  20. Roger

    I'm more than a bit puzzled here. When your father refers to "missing heat," it is usually in respect to "heat in the pipeline." That is, heat that is somewhere within the planetary system, held in a reservoir, to be released at a later date. If the missing heat has been radiated out to space, then it can't be "in the pipeline."

    Heat in the deep oceans can contribute to global warming - radiated heat cannot. Rather a big difference. The whole "in the pipeline" thing seems to be a hand-waving exercise to keep the "trend" alive. Deep ocean reservoirs of heat would save the models - radiation would deeply damage them. Seems like a critical matter to me.

  21. -20-Mark B.

    My father has recently addressed this, e.g., here:


    He writes: "There is no heat in the pipeline that has not been realized in sea level change."

    If you have specific questions for him please post them here, and I'll be sure to see that he gets them!

  22. -20-Mark B.

    Heat in deep ocean reservoirs can't save the models because the ocean equilibration time is a very important model parameter. If they've missed it by an order of magnitude or more, the predicted future acceleration of temperature increase isn't going to happen.

  23. It is possible to make good decisions in the presence of uncertainty, provided that the magnitude of the uncertainty been accurately characterized. You have to know what you don't know.

  24. It should be noted that the graphic at the top of the post shows the _change_ in ocean heat content. The rate-of-rise in OHC has declined in recent years, but OHC continues to rise. The captions and labels on the graph are accurate, but might be missed by the casual reader.

    The discrepancy between model predictions and measured OHC is significant. It is also significant that this discrepancy hasn't gotten a lot of attention, either in climate science publications or in communications with the public and policy makers.

  25. Sean said "...Josh Willis is a hero in this as well. He is committed to getting the measurements right above all else. He is not a climate skeptic but he's also not pushing a political position. Climate science needs more scorekeepers like him."

    I heartily agree. It is disheartening, though, that we have reached the point where a researcher dedicated to doing good research and accurate, reliable data collection is a "hero" rather than a "good scientist".

  26. Regarding #19, perhaps I've misunderstood David Stern, but I thought energy radiated into space would fall under his option 1, where he says the NET radiation data is wrong. Don't we monitor inflow and outflow? We would have to be missing some outflow at the top of the atmosphere for the heat to be missing, assuming the current measured energy balance is in agreement with models.

  27. If the models fail to fit to reflect reality, and the discussion is about policy, do we restate reality to fit the models and save the policy?

  28. The simplest explanation may be that they have modeled the CO2 absorption/emission wrong.

  29. Roger:
    Given your dad's unfailing politeness during some rather nasty exchanges with RC, I hope he has a wry smile on his face with the latest exchanges with Trenberth and Willis.

  30. This sounds like something that quite some more years of delaying can be squeezed out of. Can the tactic of sending Anthony Watts to accuse scientist organisations of fraud before publishing any analysis be dropped now? :-)

  31. Roger - you missed out this quote from Trenberth from the leaked CRU emails:

    "How come you do not agree with a statement that says we are no where close to knowing where energy is going or whether clouds are changing to make the planet brighter. We are not close to balancing the energy budget. The fact that we can not account for what is happening in the climate system makes any consideration of geoengineering quite hopeless as we will never be able to tell if it is successful or not! It is a travesty!"

  32. Charlie said... 24

    "The rate-of-rise in OHC has declined in recent years, but OHC continues to rise."

    Sure looks like a down slope to me.

  33. Heat can be stored. For instance heat stored in the oceans. If objects can store heat, then have any objects increased in size or mass that might store this heat? What object has exponentially increased in size or mass and gravitational pool? An object that has grown in size or mass and its gravitation pull is so powerful that no energy can escape?

    Using the most advanced satellite thermal detection gear available, a large, ever increasing heat trapping agent has been detected at Latitude 34° 59′ N to 36° 41′ N - Longitude 81° 39′ W to 90° 19′ W. This heat trapping agent appears mobile. At times the agent is found at the surface while other times its is airborne.

    Other locations that this heat trapping, exponentially size increasing, gravity defying agent has been detected is at 55°40′34″N 12°34′06″E and 38°53′42.4″N 77°02′12.0″W .

    More research is needed. Please send donations to : 

    Southern Hemisphere cyclone off the coast of Florida
    123 the Florida Peninsula is 50% gone
    Airbrush, TN 00000

    The heat you find could be your own!


  34. -2-David Stern

    The option of Trenberth (2008) and Pielke Sr. is that it has radiated out to space, a version of your #3.

    No that is my #1 - something is wrong with the radiation data.

  35. Perhaps more attention should be paid to ocean temperature history reconstructions than northern hemisphere atmospheric reconstructions. Recent papers that utilize mg/ca ratios demonstrate significant MWP warming. I guess the heat didnt bother hiding then.

  36. Roger-19, I guess I may be mincing words then but if you allow for the missing heat to have radiated out to space, as you seem to in your response to David Stern, then that's not really the same as allowing for the missing heat to be undetected in the ocean depths, or in some other part of the Earth's climate. If it is agreed that the missing heat has radiated out into space, it will follow that CO2 emissions are not the cause of the observed temperature rise, right?

  37. @ Richard (35),
    The AGW community dependence on what is in effect magical thinking to sustain their climate crisis would give people considering less contentious issues pause to reflect.

  38. In my view, debating the science is a fruitless exercise, unless you enjoy it. Two professionals could spend the rest of their lives arguing this single point.

    I notice that AGW proponents try to steer the argument toward science for precisely that reason.

  39. #36 Alex Harvey,

    If the heat is going to space it could be the result temporary changes that cause the earth to lose more energy than it gains. So the loss in itself would not show that previous warming could not be a result of CO2. However, if the earth's energy balance naturally shifts between negative and positive then CO2 argument is much less credible since it rests on the assumption that 'nothing else can explain the changes'. That is why Trenbrenth is so desperate to show that the heat is hiding somewhere.

  40. #32 Harrywr2 says "Sure looks like a down slope to me."
    and provided the link
    which does indeed show slightly declining annual global OHC numbers since 2003 or 2004.

    Strangely, the same page that has the graph with OHC declining over the last few years links to an article that shows slightly increasing OHC over roughly the same time period : Leviticus 2009, "Global ocean heat content 1955–2008 in light of recently revealed
    instrumentation problems"
    ftp://ftp.nodc.noaa.gov/pub/data.nodc/woa/PUBLICATIONS/grlheat08.pdf -- see for example graphs S13 and figure 1.

    Has there been another re-re-analysis ?

  41. I'm going with Dr Spencer's theory #2


    "Well then maybe it was the period BEFORE 2000 where there was an imbalance, with extra energy being lost by the Earth, but no cooling, and NOW the solar and infrared flows are once again in balance. Just a thought."

    The big climate question was always the forcing multipliers. If there are no multipliers and if the CO2 effect has a short time lag time then .8 degrees C should already be in the system.

  42. If the "missing heat" is simply a reflection of errors in measuring, something to keep in mind is that the OHC is essentially an integration of past heating, while the satellite measurements are measuring current energy flows.

    Small errors in the satellite measurements may be impossible to ever detect and correct. But a small energy imbalance in ocean heating will eventually be integrated into a measureable difference in ocean temperature/total heat content.

    My bet is that ocean heat content is the more accurate reflection of what is truly happening to the earth.

    As Harrywr2 notes in #42, the big climate question is the climate sensistivity or forcing multipliers. The behavior of OHC is consistent with a radiative forcing from CO2 being reduced out by negative feedback from cloud changes aka "infrared iris" as hypothesized by people like Lindzen.

  43. My view on the missing thermal energy is that it is a fools paradox.

    The weather on earth is driven by processes involving deterministic chaos, with many of the initial start conditions being driven by short-term 'spikiness' of energy delivery each day to our rotating planet from the sun - in all it's varied forms.

    Then there are seasonal variations, which are influenced by the overall change to TSI and the 'quality of the light' and changes to solar wind strength and density during the 9 to 12 year solar cycle.

    Trying to adequately model such a complex and dynamic system, which if full of quasi-cyclic variation is an impossible task, even if we had sufficient accurate data at a high level of both spacial and temporal granularity.

    Searching for our planets heat balance is a fool's errand, as the net energy flow is always either positive or negative at any moment in time and long-term variations wander between the various strange attractors.

    ATB, Tenuc

  44. This has sparked two questions to mind:

    1) if there are unknown heat reseviors with as yet untracked transport mechanism into and out of the atmosphere -- doesn't this invalidate the assumption that all warming not accounted for by known mechanisms must be due to AGW?

    2) looking at temperature as a function of radiative balance TOA is interesting, but do we also know the net energy transfer across the mantle<->crust<->atmosphere boundary with any certitude? We're under a heat lamp and on a hot plate -- both boundary conditions would seem interesting. Solving PDE's without good boundary conditions... not advised. :)