by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.
One of the main conclusions of the 2007 IPCC report was that the warming over the last 50 years was most likely due to anthropogenic pollution, especially increasing atmospheric CO2 from fossil fuel burning.
But a minority of climate researchers have maintained that some — or even most — of that warming could have been due to natural causes. For instance, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO) are natural modes of climate variability which have similar time scales to warming and cooling periods during the 20th Century. Also, El Nino — which is known to cause global-average warmth — has been more frequent in the last 30 years or so; the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) is a measure of El Nino and La Nina activity.
A simple way to examine the possibility that these climate cycles might be involved in the warming over the last 50 years in to do a statistical comparison of the yearly temperature variations versus the PDO, AMO, and SOI yearly values. But of course, correlation does not prove causation.
So, what if we use the statistics BEFORE the last 50 years to come up with a model of temperature variability, and then see if that statistical model can “predict” the strong warming over the most recent 50 year period? That would be much more convincing because, if the relationship between temperature and these 3 climate indicies for the first half of the 20th Century just happened to be accidental, we sure wouldn’t expect it to accidentally predict the strong warming which has occurred in the second half of the 20th Century, would we?
Temperature, or Temperature Change Rate?
This kind of statistical comparison is usually performed with temperature. But there is greater physical justification for using the temperature change rate, instead of temperature. This is because if natural climate cycles are correlated to the time rate of change of temperature, that means they represent heating or cooling influences, such as changes in global cloud cover (albedo).
Such a relationship, shown in the plot below, would provide a causal link of these natural cycles as forcing mechanisms for temperature change, since the peak forcing then precedes the peak temperature.
Predicting Northern Hemispheric Warming Since 1960
Since most of the recent warming has occurred over the Northern Hemisphere, I chose to use the CRUTem3 yearly record of Northern Hemispheric temperature variations for the period 1900 through 2009. From this record I computed the yearly change rates in temperature. I then linearly regressed these 1-year temperature change rates against the yearly average values of the PDO, AMO, and SOI.
I used the period from 1900 through 1960 for “training” to derive this statistical relationship, then applied it to the period 1961 through 2009 to see how well it predicted the yearly temperature change rates for that 50 year period. Then, to get the model-predicted temperatures, I simply added up the temperature change rates over time.
What is rather amazing is that the rate of observed warming of the Northern Hemisphere since the 1970’s matches that which the PDO, AMO, and SOI together predict, based upon those natural cycles’ PREVIOUS relationships to the temperature change rate (prior to 1960).
Again I want to emphasize that my use of the temperature change rate, rather than temperature, as the predicted variable is based upon the expectation that these natural modes of climate variability represent forcing mechanisms — I believe through changes in cloud cover — which then cause a lagged temperature response.
This is powerful evidence that most of the warming that the IPCC has attributed to human activities over the last 50 years could simply be due to natural, internal variability in the climate system. If true, this would also mean that (1) the climate system is much less sensitive to the CO2 content of the atmosphere than the IPCC claims, and (2) future warming from greenhouse gas emissions will be small.
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