Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
It’s a cold clear night here along the north Pacific coast where I live, with a waxing moon surveying the scene. As befits New Years Day, I’ve been thinking about the past and the future … and I always do my best thinking down by the ocean. I live near the coast, and on a clear day, beyond the nearby forest and the far hills you can see a tiny bit of the Pacific from our house.
So this morning the gorgeous ex-fiancee and I took a walk along the coast. We’ve finally gotten some rain, and the land between our place and the coast has performed its annual green miracle …
We drove up the coast to Goat Rock. Whenever I get to the coast, I am always surprised by the stunning immensity of the land and sea scape. The cliffs and the rocks and waves seem to go on forever. It gives a person an honest and very valuable sense of insignificance …
As we walked, I got to considering where I stand in this great game of climate science. In addition to it being a New Year, a few posts ago I hit a milestone of another kind—I’ve now had over five hundred posts published here on WUWT. I certainly had no expectation when I began writing for the web that it would end up so all-consuming.
And reflecting on that accomplishment, I realized that I owe some thanks to the people who made it possible. First, to Anthony Watts. He has taken immense amounts of heat based on the mistaken idea that he approves of my writings in advance. He has been incredibly generous in giving me carte blanche to publish anything within reason, including stories from my past and present, without the slightest editorial interference. And despite the fact that we only communicate occasionally, he has become a very good friend. I also need to mention the incredible amount of time that Anthony has put in and continues to put in on the website. It doesn’t run itself, and it takes its toll, so I invite everyone to cut him some slack, his email box is always too full.
Next on the list are the WUWT moderators, who keep everyone (including myself from time to time) in line. Like Anthony, they make no money, they are all volunteers.
While I pondered my debts, we continued walking down the coast, where we had the pleasure of coming across some sea lions enjoying the New Year’s Day sunshine, hauled out on a rock not far offshore. They are much bigger and more dangerous than they look from a distance, with very large and very sharp teeth. Having been up close and personal with a couple of them in the past, I can also testify that they have halitosis that would blister paint, but we were too far away to catch even a hint of that. It was great seeing them, I like being where the wild things are …
Having thanked the sea lions, I’d like to thank some other folks. First on the list are all of the folks who pointed out my errors to me. I prefer those folks who do so humanely and politely, but I’ll take correction wherever and however I can find it—it prevents me from spending weeks, months, or years going down the wrong path.
Another group of folks who get my thanks are people like Leif Svalgaard and Robert Brown and others, people who pick up an idea and take it further, add to it, provide links to more information, and the like. There are many more than those two who do not enter the conversation to drag it down, but to move it forwards. You know who you are, my sincere thanks to you for the time and effort that you put into your comments.
Then there are the other guest authors, who make WUWT so much more than just another climate news aggregation site. They put large amounts of time and effort into their posts, and even when I disagree with them I respect their contributions.
Next, I want to thank those folks who disagreed with me not because they dislike me, but because in their honest scientific opinion I was wrong. Whether or not I was wrong, and whether or not I disagree with them, I appreciate folks like Steven Mosher and Joel Shore taking the time and effort to put their views forwards and defend their ideas. Science is an adversarial system, it depends on people trying to find fault with other people’s claims, and so their part is essential.
The next group of folks who get my thanks are the people who spend time abusing me all over the web, like Poptech, and the lady in the Batcave over at HotWhopper, and the like. Quite often when I publish something, within a day or two my thoughts are being discussed (and often roundly abused) around the climate blogosphere. This gives my ideas a reach that they would never have otherwise, and ensures that my thoughts are read by people who wouldn’t come to WUWT otherwise. It also drives traffic to this site, as people want to find out why the heck those folk have their knickers in such a twist over what I’ve written.
We walked on … the coast where I live is primordial, elemental. It was a pleasure to be out in the sunshine on such a clear and lovely day. How can one not be awed and thankful when walking in such a place?
The final group of folks that I want to thank are the “lurkers” who read and read and read but never comment. The lurkers are the group that I actually write for. When I’m in a passionate dispute with someone, I may know that my chances of changing my adversary’s mind is miniscule … but I’m writing for the lurkers, and they may not have made up their minds. So I advance my case even in the face of obstinate refusal.
And we drifted on south down the coast, that good lady and I, and she gets my profound thanks as well. She puts up with my climate obsession even though she doesn’t understand what drives me, I can’t imagine doing this without her. As she and I walked, I got to thinking about what I want to do over the next five hundred posts or so. Of course I want to continue to learn more and more, and I naturally want to keep on pointing out and disassembling the bad science that pours in an endless stream from what should be reputable scientific journals. But mostly what I’ve been thinking about is just what we don’t know about the climate. In many ways, what we don’t know is much more important than what we do know.
Let me start the investigation of what we don’t know by giving a description of the system that we are studying. The climate is a driven, damped, resonant, planet-scale heat engine. It has at least six major subsystems—the hydrosphere, which encompasses all the liquid stuff; the atmosphere, all the gases and vapors and particles and chemicals floating around us; the cryosphere, all the frozen stuff; the lithosphere, all the solid stuff; the biosphere, all the living stuff; and the electrosphere, all of the electromagnetic interactions.
None of these subsystems are particularly well understood from a climate perspective. In addition, they each have internal cycles, resonances, and feedbacks. To add to the complexity, the systems all interact in a host of ways, exchanging matter and energy at all scales. And even the range of spatial and temporal scales is daunting, from molecular to planet-wide and from pico-seconds to millennia.
This complexity means that for someone to consider themselves a “climate expert” they would have to be an expert in all of the following fields from A to Z and more—atmospheric physics; bacteriology; biochemistry; biogeochemistry; biostatistics; botany; chaos theory; climatology; computer science; constructal science; crop science; cryology; dendrochronology; electrometeorology; environmental bacteriology; environmental chemistry; evolutionary biology; geography; geology; geophysics; glaciology and hydrometeorology.; helioseismology; high-energy physics; history of the climate; hydroclimatology; limnology; marine biology; marine chemistry; mathematical modelling; meteorology; microbiology; oceanography; paleoclimatology; parasitology; physical chemistry; plant biology; plate tectonics; population dynamics; soil science; solar astronomy; solar physics; statistics; stratospheric and tropospheric chemistry; volcanology; and zoology. (With thanks to the folks at the Global Warming Policy Foundation for portions of that list.)
As a result, there’s no way any of us could possibly know what most of climate is about, there are no climate experts. But even with all of us together, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge.
With that as a prologue, let me give at least a partial list of what we don’t know about the climate. Now, bear in mind that I’m not saying we don’t have theories about any number of these questions. Everyone has theories about some or all of these unanswered puzzles, including myself. But there is no agreement, no so-called “consensus”, about the following matters:
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE PAST AND PRESENT
• Why the earth has been generally cooling since we came out of the last ice age.
• Why the earth generally cooled from earlier in the millennium to the “Little Ice Age” in the 1600-1700s
• Why the earth generally warmed from the “Little Ice Age” in the 1600-1700s to the present.
• Why the warming of 1910-1940 was as large and as fast as the warming of 1975-1998.
• Why the warming that started in 1975 plateaued in the last couple decades.
• What the current generation of climate models are missing that made them all wrong about the current plateau.
• Why there has been no increase in extreme weather events despite a couple of centuries of warming.
• Why the albedo of the northern hemisphere is the same as the albedo of the southern hemisphere, year after year, despite radically different amounts of ocean and land in the two hemispheres.
• Why there has been no acceleration of sea level rise despite numerous predictions that it would occur.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE FUTURE
• Whether the earth will warm over the next decade.
• Whether the earth will warm over the next century.
• What the climate of 2050 or 2100 will be like. Wetter? More windy? More droughts? Calmer? More hurricanes? Fewer tornadoes? We don’t have a clue.
• Whether a couple of degrees of warming would be a net bonus, a net loss, or a catastrophic Thermageddon.
• Whether predicting future climate is a “boundary problem”.
• If predicting future climate is a boundary problem, what the boundaries might be and what their future values might be.
• Whether the evolution of the climate is predictable even in theory over anything but the short term.
THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
• Why the system is so stable in the very short term (decadal), e.g. the net top-of-atmosphere (TOA) imbalance hasn’t varied by much more than half a watt per square metre over the last 14 years of the CERES records.
• Why the system is so stable in the short term (centuries), e.g. a variation in surface temperature of only ± 0.1% over the 20th century.
• Why the system is so stable in the longer term (millennia), e.g. a variation in surface temperature of only ± 0.5% over the Holocene.
• Why the system is so stable in the even longer term (a million years), e.g. a variation in surface temperature over the period of the ice ages of only ± 1% over the last million years.
• Why the system is so stable in the longest term (a half billion years), e.g. the sun has increased in strength by ~5% over that period, an increase of about 16 W/m2. According to the accepted theory, such an increase in forcing should have led to a surface temperature increase of 13°C over that period … why didn’t that increase happen.
• Why we are no closer to getting a value for the so-called “climate sensitivity” than we were thirty years ago. After uncountable hours of human labor, after huge increases in the size and complexity of our models, after unprecedented increases in computer power, after millions and millions of dollars spent on the problem, the error bounds on the answer have not narrowed at all … why not?
Anyhow, my plan for a reasonable number of the next five hundred posts is to put forward and explain what I think are the answers to the important questions listed above. Not that the other questions are unimportant, but for me those questions go to the heart of the problem with climate science. I think that the underlying paradigm of climate science, which is that the changes in surface temperature are a linear function of the changes in forcing, is simply not true. I think that the whole concept of “climate sensitivity” does NOT describe how the climate works.
So those are my thoughts for this New Years Day—to concentrate on the mysteries, to look at the questions whose answers are still over the horizon, hidden somewhere beyond that mysterious line in the distance that implores us to sail off and investigate the unknown …
My best to everyone, my thanks to anyone else I should have thanked and forgot about, and may all of your New Years be filled with sunlight far-reaching on the sea, with wild animals visiting your dreams, with your eyes seeking far beyond your own personal horizons, and with the goals of your lives supported and nourished by the rocky bones of the earth itself …
PS-New Years resolutions? … well, mine is to maintain my sense of awe at the marvelous climate system that so entrances and ensorcels us all … and to be more Canadian in my responses to people who specialize in ad homina. Wish me the best, it’s an uphill swim.