Tag: Pakistan

The Current Wisdom: Overplaying the Human Contribution to Recent Weather Extremes

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly posts in which Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

The Current Wisdom only comments on science appearing in the refereed, peer-reviewed literature, or that has been peer-screened prior to presentation at a scientific congress.

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 The recent publication of two articles in Nature magazine proclaiming a link to rainfall extremes (and flooding) to global warming, added to the heat in Russia and the floods in Pakistan in the summer of 2010, and the back-to-back cold and snowy winters in the eastern U.S. and western Europe, have gotten a lot of public attention.  This includes a recent hearing in the House of Representatives, despite its Republican majority.  Tying weather extremes to global warming, or using them as “proof” that warming doesn’t exist (see: snowstorms), is a popular rhetorical flourish by politicos of all stripes.  

The hearing struck many as quite odd, inasmuch as it is much clearer than apocalyptic global warming that the House is going to pass meaningless legislation commanding the EPA to cease and desist from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.  “Meaningless” means that it surely will not become law.  Even on the long-shot probability that it passes the Senate, the President will surely veto, and there are nowhere near enough votes to override such an action.

Perhaps “wolf!” has been cried yet again.  A string of soon-to-be-published papers in the scientific literature finds that despite all hue and cry about global warming and recent extreme weather events, natural climate variability is to blame.

Where to start?  How about last summer’s Russian heat wave?

The Russian heat wave (and to some degree the floods in Pakistan) have been linked to the same large-scale, stationary weather system, called an atmospheric “blocking” pattern. When the atmosphere is “blocked” it means that it stays in the same configuration for period of several weeks (or more) and keeps delivering the same weather to the same area for what can seem like an eternity to people in the way.  Capitalizing on the misery in Russia and Pakistan, atmospheric blocking was added to the list of things that were supposed to be “consistent with” anthropogenically stimulated global warming which already, of course included heat waves and floods. And thus the Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 became part of global warming lore.

But then a funny thing happened – scientists with a working knowledge of atmospheric dynamics started to review the situation and found scant evidence for global warming.

The first chink in the armor came back in the fall of 2010, when scientists from the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) of the Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented the results of their preliminary investigation on the web , and concluded that “[d]espite this strong evidence for a warming planet, greenhouse gas forcing fails to explain the 2010 heat wave over western Russia. The natural process of atmospheric blocking, and the climate impacts induced by such blocking, are the principal cause for this heat wave.”

The PSD folks have now followed this up with a new peer-reviewed article in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that rejects the global warming explanation. The paper is titled “Was There a Basis for Anticipating the 2010 Russian Heat Wave?” Turns out that there wasn’t.

To prove this, the research team, led by PSD’s Randall Dole, first reviewed the observed temperature history of the region affected by the heat wave (western Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, and the Baltic nations). To start, they looked at the recent antecedent conditions: “Despite record warm globally-averaged surface temperatures over the first six months of 2010, Moscow experienced an unusually cold winter and a relatively mild but variable spring, providing no hint of the record heat yet to come.” Nothing there.

Then they looked at the long-term temperature record: “The July surface temperatures for the region impacted by the 2010 Russian heat wave shows no significant warming trend over the prior 130-year period from 1880 to 2009…. A linear trend calculation yields a total temperature change over the 130 years of -0.1°C (with a range of 0 to -0.4°C over the four data sets [they examined]).” There’s not a hint of a build-up to a big heat wave.

And as to the behavior of temperature extremes: “There is also no clear indication of a trend toward increasing warm extremes. The prior 10 warmest Julys are distributed across the entire period and exhibit only modest clustering earlier in this decade, in the 1980s and in the 1930s…. This behavior differs substantially from globally averaged annual temperatures, for which eleven of the last twelve years ending in 2006 rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record since 1850….”

With regard any indication that “global” warming was pushing temperatures higher in Russia and thus helped to fuel the extreme heat last summer, Dole et al. say this: “With no significant long-term trend in western Russia July surface temperatures detected over the period 1880-2009, mean regional temperature changes are thus very unlikely to have contributed substantially to the magnitude of the 2010 Russian heat wave.”

Next the PSD folks looked to see if the existing larger-scale antecedent conditions, fed into climate models would produce the atmospheric circulation patterns (i.e. blocking) that gave rise to the heat wave.  The tested “predictors” included patterns of sea surface temperature and arctic ice coverage, which most people feel have been subject to some human influence.  No relationship: “These findings suggest that the blocking and heat wave were not primarily a forced response to specific boundary conditions during 2010.”

In fact, the climate models exhibited no predilection for projecting increases in the frequency of atmospheric blocking patterns over the region as greenhouse gas concentrations increased. Just the opposite: “Results using very high-resolution climate models suggest that the number of Euro-Atlantic blocking events will decrease by the latter half of the 21st century.”

At this point, Dole and colleagues had about exhausted all lines of inquiry and summed things up:

 Our analysis points to a primarily natural cause for the Russian heat wave. This event appears to be mainly due to internal atmospheric dynamical processes that produced and maintained an intense and long-lived blocking event. Results from prior studies suggest that it is likely that the intensity of the heat wave was further increased by regional land surface feedbacks. The absence of long-term trends in regional mean temperatures and variability together with the model results indicate that it is very unlikely that warming attributable to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations contributed substantially to the magnitude of this heat wave.

Can’t be much clearer than that.

But that was last summer. What about the past two winters? Both were very cold in the eastern U.S. with record snows events and/or totals scattered about the country.

Cold, snow, and global warming? On Christmas Day 2010, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Judah Cohen, a long-range forecaster for the private forecasting firm Atmospheric and Environmental Research, outlining his theory as to how late summer Arctic ice declines lead to more fall snow cover across Siberia which in turn induces atmospheric circulation patterns to favor snowstorms along the East Coast of the U.S. Just last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists held a news conference where they handed out a press release  headlined “Climate Change Makes Major Snowstorms Likely.” In that release, Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, laid out his theory as to how the loss of Arctic sea ice is helping to provide more moisture to fuel winter snowstorms across the U.S. as well as altering atmospheric circulation patterns into a preferred state for big snowstorms. Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters chimed in with “Heavy snowstorms are not inconsistent with a warming planet.”

As is the wont for this Wisdom, let’s go back to the scientific literature.

Another soon-to-be released paper to appear in Geophysical Research Letters describes the results of using the seasonal weather prediction model from the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) to help untangle the causes of the unusual atmospheric circulation patterns that gave rise to the harsh winter of 2009-2010 on both sides of the Atlantic. A team of ECMWF scientists led by Thomas Jung went back and did experiments changing initial conditions that were fed into the ECMWF model and then assessed how well the model simulated the known weather patterns of the winter of 2009-2010. The different set of initial conditions was selected so as to test all the pet theories behind the origins of the harsh winter.  Jung et al. describe their investigations this way: “Here, the origin and predictability of the unusual winter of 2009/10 are explored through numerical experimentation with the ECMWF Monthly forecasting system. More specifically, the role of anomalies in sea surface temperature (SST) and sea ice, the tropical atmospheric circulation, the stratospheric polar vortex, solar insolation and near surface temperature (proxy for snow cover) are examined.”

Here is what they found after running their series of experiments.

Arctic sea ice and sea surface temperature anomalies.  These are often associated with global warming caused by people. Finding:  “These results suggest that neither SST nor sea ice anomalies explain the negative phase of the NAO during the 2009/10 winter.”

(NAO are the commonly used initials for the North Atlantic Oscillation – and atmospheric circulation pattern that can act to influence winter weather in the eastern U.S. and western Europe. A negative phase of the NAO is associated with cold and stormy weather and during the winter of 2009-10, the NAO value was the lowest ever observed.)

A global warming-induced weakening stratospheric (upper-atmosphere) jetstream. “Like for the other experiments, these stratospheric relaxation experiments fail to reproduce the magnitude of the observed NAO anomaly.”

Siberian snow cover.  “The resulting [upper air patterns] show little resemblance with the observations…. The implied weak role of snow cover anomalies is consistent with other research….”

Solar variability.  “The experiments carried out in this study suggest that the impact of anomalously low incoming [ultraviolet] radiation on the tropospheric circulation in the North Atlantic region are very small… suggesting that the unusually low solar activity contributed little, if any, to the observed NAO anomaly during the 2009/10 winter.”

Ok then, well what did cause the unusual weather patterns during the 2009-10 winter?

The results of this study, therefore, increase the likelihood that both the development and persistence of negative NAO phase resulted from internal atmospheric dynamical processes.

Translation: Random variability.

To drive this finding home, here’s another soon-to-be-released paper (D’Arrigo et al., 2001) that uses tree ring-based reconstructions of atmospheric circulation patterns and finds a similar set of conditions (including a negative NAO value second only to the 2009-10 winter) was responsible for the historically harsh winter of 1783-84 in the eastern U.S. and western Europe, which  was widely noted by historians. It followed the stupendous eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki the previous summer. The frigid and snowy winter conditions have been blamed on the volcano. In fact, Benjamin Franklin even commented as much.

But in their new study, Roseanne D’Arrigo and colleagues conclude that the harshness of that winter primarily was the result of anomalous atmospheric circulation patterns that closely resembled those observed during the winter of 2009-10, and that the previous summer’s volcanic eruption played a far less prominent role:

Our results suggest that Franklin and others may have been mistaken in attributing winter conditions in 1783-4 mainly to Laki or another eruption, rather than unforced variability.

Similarly, conditions during the 2009-10 winter likely resulted from natural [atmospheric] variability, not tied to greenhouse gas forcing… Evidence thus suggests that these winters were linked to the rare but natural occurrence of negative NAO and El Niño events.

The point is that natural variability can and does produce extreme events on every time scale, from days (e.g., individual storms), weeks (e.g., the Russian heat wave), months (e.g., the winter of 2009-10), decades (e.g., the lack of global warming since 1998), centuries (e.g., the Little Ice Age), millennia (e.g., the cycle of major Ice Ages), and eons (e.g., snowball earth).

Folks would do well to keep this in mind next time global warming is being posited for the weather disaster du jour. Almost assuredly, it is all hype and little might.

Too bad these results weren’t given a “hearing” in the House!

References:

D’Arrigo, R., et al., 2011. The anomalous winter of 1783-1784: Was the Laki eruption or an analog of the 2009–2010 winter to blame? Geophysical Research Letters, in press.

Dole, R., et al., 2011. Was there a basis for anticipating the 2010 Russian heat wave? Geophysical Research Letters, in press.

Jung et al., 2011. Origin and predictability of the extreme negative NAO winter of 2009/10. Geophysical Research Letters, in press.

Min, S-K., et al., 2011. Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes. Nature, 470, 378-381.

Pall, P., et al., 2011. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas contribution to flood risk in England and Wales in autumn 2000. Nature, 470, 382-386.

Leaving Afghanistan?

On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Kabul, stated that the United States “will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July.”  But as Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reports, the planned reductions likely wouldn’t lead to a major change in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Indeed, even as Gates is stating that the United States will adhere to its date to begin withdrawing troops, negotiations are in the works that could establish a long-term security presence for the U.S. beyond 2014 and might include permanent military bases.

Secretary Gates and General Petraeus both claim progress in Afghanistan.  But their concepts of progress are murky and exist within a strategy that has never had clearly defined objectives.

Today, I attended a discussion on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan hosted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.  The other attendees included journalists, think tankers, and government professionals—former and current.  On The Skeptics blog, I outlined some of the important points of discussion that I think help explain our broader problems in the region.

I would characterize the general mood as grim. A few attendees pointed to the killing of a number of Taliban figures in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and reports of progress in Marja and the rest of Helmand province as evidence of progress. These gains, one speaker maintained, were sustainable and would not necessarily slip in the event that U.S. forces are directed elsewhere.

(Giles) Dorronsoro (visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment), disputed these assertions. He judged that the situation today is worse than it was a year ago, before the surge of 30,000 additional troops. The killing of individual Taliban leaders, or foot-soldiers, was also accompanied by the inadvertent killing of innocent bystanders, including most recently nine children. So there is always the danger that even targeted strikes based on timely, credible intelligence, will over the long term replace one dead Talib with two or four or eight of his sons, brothers, cousins, and tribesman. How many people have said “We can’t kill our way to victory”?

For Dorronsoro, the crucial metric is security, not number of bad guys and suspected bad guys killed. And, given that he can’t drive to places that he freely visited two or three years ago, he judges that security in the country has gotten worse, not better. Many U.S. and Western troops cannot leave their bases without encountering IEDs or more coordinated attacks from insurgents. U.S. and NATO forces don’t control territory, and there is little reason to think that they can. Effective counterinsurgencies (COIN) are waged by a credible local partner, a government that commands the respect and authority of its citizens. That obviously doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. The Afghan militia, supposedly the key to long-term success, is completely ineffective.

Click here to read the entire post.

Obama’s Afghanistan War Plan

President Obama released his Afghanistan war review today. It highlights progress on the battlefield against insurgents, the success of Special Forces operations and drone strikes, and achievements in training the Afghan security forces.

I have four thoughts on the matter:

First, scattered throughout the document are passages such as “al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker,” “[a]l-Qa’ida’s senior leadership has been depleted,” and “al-Qa’ida’s leadership cadre have diminished.” However, can we deter more jihadists than our efforts help to inspire? After all, “fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad and his incompetently constructed bomb in Times Square. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter failed British “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

Second, although there is a persuasive case to be made that the United States should disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration never clarifies explicitly how it will encourage Pakistan to do more to fight militants that frequently attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The review claims “improved understanding of Pakistan’s strategic priorities,” but policy considerations seem to fail to take into account that no amount of pressure or persuasion will affect Pakistan’s decision to tackle extremism, particularly when its strategic priorities are tied directly to reinforcing Islamist bonds across its borders as a buffer against Indian encirclement.

The third core reality ignored in the review is the importance of regional actors, namely Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors (this list is not meant to preclude the inclusion of other countries). As long as the United States is at war, regional rivalries and insecurities will play out in Afghanistan at the expense of Afghan civilians and coalition forces.

Lastly, if the United States insists on pursuing the so far fruitless mission to create a viable Afghan government and economy, then U.S. officials should stop saying that the United States is not nation building in Afghanistan (and stop using the oft-repeated euphemism “capacity building”). After all, what is nation building? Perhaps in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton it is providing Afghanistan’s pervasively corrupt and predatory government with “economic, social and political development, as well as continued training of Afghan security forces.”

Overall, modest and ephemeral tactical gains have given the administration cause for optimism. It also gives the military a chance to buy more time, which means that the president will stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. But a residual U.S. troop presence will remain in the country long after that official date.

Any policy, including war, makes sense only insofar as the United States and its citizens receive significant benefits in exchange for that policy’s political and economic costs. The Afghan War’s current cost-benefit disparity would call for a scale-down in mission objectives and correspondingly in troop presence. But for now, the United States would rather fixate on pipe dreams and on asserting America’s permanent role in Central Asia.

Wikileaks Sheds Light on Government Ineptitude

For years I have told anybody who would listen how U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan contribute to Pakistan’s slow-motion collapse. Well it appears that my take on the situation was not so over-the-top. Amid some 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables released by online whistleblower Wikileaks, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson warned in cable traffic that U.S. policy in South Asia “risks destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and the military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis without finally achieving the goal.”

On one level, this cable underscores what a disaster American foreign policy has become. But on another level, the leak of this and other cables strikes me as completely odd and slightly scary. How did Pfc. Bradley Manning, who stands accused of stealing the classified files from Siprnet and handing them to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, obtain access to these files in the first place? How does a young, low-level Army intelligence analyst gain access to a computer with hundreds of thousands of classified documents from all over the world?

After 9/11, the government made an effort to link up separate archives of government information. In theory, anyone in the State Department or the U.S. military can access these archives if he has: (1) a computer connected to Siprnet, and (2) a “secret” security clearance. As Manning told a fellow hacker: “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” Manning said he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months.”

I’m all for less government secrecy, particularly when U.S. officials are doing bizarre things like tabulating the biometric data of various UN officials, the heads of other international institutions, and African heads of state. That these supposedly “confidential” communications were so easily leaked highlights the appalling ineptitude of our unwieldy national security bureaucracy. Indeed, the phenomenon of Wikileaks says as much about government policy as it does about government incompetence.

Cutting the Fuse

I’m thrilled to be participating in a day-long conference on Capitol Hill next week to coincide with the release of a new book from the University of Chicago, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. Co-authored by Robert Pape and James Feldman, the book builds on Pape’s earlier pioneering work, including here and here, into the causes of terrorism. Drawing on data compiled by the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism (CPOST), the book includes chapters on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Chechnya and Sri Lanka.

The authors’ concluding observations offer some hope for those of us who have been calling for a new narrative pertaining to counterterrorism, one that begins with the presumption that fear is the terrorists’ true weapon. A strong, resilient society retains the ability to kill or capture those who would harm innocents to make a political point, as the United States has done since 9/11. But a country of more than 300 million people shouldn’t cower before a few hundred individuals with delusions of world domination, but who are too frightened and weak to show their faces for years.

I think that the book’s conclusions might be a bit too optimistic as far as the politics of counterterrorism goes. There are still ample incentives for people to hype the threat of terrorism, and not enough competing pressures to dial back the most extreme claims of impending doom. But perhaps we are approaching a “period of understanding” as Pape and Feldman claim?

I certainly hope so.

‘Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.’

Earlier this year, both The New York Times and The Washington Post confirmed that the Obama administration authorized the CIA to kill American-born, Yemeni-based Islamic cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Several people I admire and respect—and who are far more versed in the legal aspects of the “war on terror”—have already weighed in on whether the U.S. Government is authorized to kill U.S. terror suspects abroad, so I defer to those experts.

But what’s interesting is that the U.S. Government has killed “many Westerners, including some U.S. passport holders” in Pakistan’s tribal areas dating all the way back to the Bush administration, according to Bob Woodward’s new book.

Jeff Stein over at WaPo’s SpyTalk writes that according to Woodward, on November 12, 2008, then-CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden disclosed the killings to Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari during a meeting in New York. At the meeting, Zardari allegedly said, “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

It now appears that two human rights groups are challenging the legality of the Obama Justice Department’s right to kill U.S. citizens abroad. Will these groups now do the same with former Bush officials, too?

Musharraf Cometh?

Last Wednesday, former Pakistani President and military leader Pervez Musharraf announced he intends to return home as head of a new political party called the All Pakistan Muslim League. Sources close to Musharraf say he is reportedly eyeing the presidency and prime ministership. Amid ongoing political unrest and economic uncertainty under the leadership of President Ali Asif Zardari, U.S. leaders may hope that Musharraf can bring some semblance of stability to the country given recent developments, but his return could be something of a mixed blessing.

On Friday, Imran Farooq, a founding leader of MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement), the fourth-largest political party in Pakistan, was stabbed to death in London. Since 2009, more than 200 MQM workers and supporters have been the victims of targeted killings.  Because MQM dominates the Muhajir urban centers of Sindh, including Karachi—Pakistan’s largest city of more than 16 million—each targeted killing unleashes waves of violence that further contributes to the city’s deteriorating law and order situation. Indeed, when news of Farooq’s death reached Karachi, rioters torched vehicles and scores of people were killed and injured.

These targeted killings reflect a multi-dimensional problem. Part of it is tit-for-tat gang warfare between Muhajir-dominant MQM and Pashtun-dominant ANP (Awami National Party). [Note: When I was in Karachi a couple years back, I was warned to steer clear of certain areas that were MQM “turf.”] It is important to note, however, that MQM has made it a point not to conflate violence with Pashtuns; in fact, ANP continues to make it a point of joining the two together in order to condemn MQM for highlighting the increasing number of Taliban seeking refuge in Pashtun areas of Karachi. Another part of this ongoing violence is competition over new development in the city, the ANP’s resistance to the government’s redress of illegal land encroachment, and the collusion of political parties with criminal networks and religious extremists. MQM has been quite vocal about what they called the increased “Talibanisation” of Karachi, a concern that foreign diplomats have continually ignored.

The tragedy is that Musharraf was driven from power to bring democratic governance back to Pakistan. But despite his back-room dealings that brought an incompetent Zardari to power, and a crackdown on the judiciary that led to the former military leader’s ignominious resignation, Pakistanis stuck in desperate straights might welcome Musharraf back with open arms. Perhaps if he returns to the political game, the West will pay more attention to events unfolding in Pakistan.