Topic: Energy and Environment

Straw Men

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Benjamin Santer and his mentor, Tom Wigley, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research seem, well, a little obsessed over Cato’s Pat Michaels.  First, Santer threatened to “beat the cr&p out of him”, and then Wigley tried to foment a cabal to “re-assess” his doctoral dissertation, under grounds that were completely, unalterably, and demonstrably 100 percent false.

So it’s no surprise that they have just published—two years after the fact—what they consider to be a rejoinder to Michaels’ 2010 testimony to the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science and Technology of the United States House of Representatives.  There’s about as much real substance here as there was in Wigley’s very ill-informed (and seemingly actionable, if Michaels didn’t have a day job here at Cato) campaign against his doctorate.

It’s just been published in the journal Climate Dynamics.  This is technically peer-reviewed, but, judging from the climategate emails and the serial paper trail of threatening journal editors (say, by writing to the University administrations where they worked) as well as the less than high quality contents of the actual paper, it makes you wonder just how critical the reviewers actually were.

In their paper, Wigley and Santer wrote:

Michaels’ 2010 Congressional testimony…is in conflict with the results presented here. This testimony makes the claims that “…greenhouse-related warming is clearly below the mean of relevant forecasts by IPCC”, and that “… the Finding of Endangerment from greenhouse gases by the Environmental Protection Agency is based on a very dubious and critical assumption”. The “assumption” referred to here is the IPCC statement that is the primary focus of the present paper, i.e., the statement that most of the warming since 1950 is very likely due to the human-caused increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.

Regarding Michaels’ statement that “…greenhouse-related warming is clearly below the mean of relevant forecasts by IPCC” Wigley and Santer argued that:

Roughly half of these [IPCC climate model] simulations did not consider the cooling effect of indirect aerosol forcing, so the results, on average, would be biased towards trends that are warmer than observed even if the models were perfect (cf. Santer et al. 2011).

So the climate models are biased to producing more warming than is observed? Isn’t that what Michaels said? These guys just won’t take “yes” for an answer.

And in fact, the reference in the above quote to “Santer et al. 2011” is a paper published by Santer and Wigley (and 15 others) that finds:

The multi-model average [lower atmospheric temperature] trend is always larger than the average observed [lower atmospheric temperature] trend…[a]s the trend fitting period increases…average observed trends are increasingly more unusual with respect to the multi-model distribution of forced trends.

That says what you think it says! Model temperature trends are always higher than the observed temperature trends and that over longer periods (i.e., more robust analysis) the model/observed discrepancy grows. Here is the relevant figure from that paper.

Figure 1. A comparison between modeled and observed trends in the average temperature of the lower atmosphere, for periods ranging from 10 to 32 years (during the period 1979 through 2010). The yellow is the 5-95 percentile range of individual model projections, the green is the model average, the red and blue are the average of the observations, as compiled by Remote Sensing Systems and University of Alabama in Huntsville respectively (adapted from Santer et al., 2011).

Their own analysis supports Michaels’ contention, which they somehow say is wrong.  Beats me.

In fact, their picture looks an awful lot like the one that Michaels used in his testimony (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Range of climate model probabilities of surface temperature trends (gray shading) overlaid with the observed surface temperature trend from the Climate Research Unit (blue line) (data through September 2010).

It’s worth noting that Michaels’ was the first presenter of this type of chart several years ago.  In fact, Wigley reviewed a paper it was in, helped get the editor to kill it, and then, with Santer, published something mighty similar.  How strange for someone they are arguing is wrong.

It goes on.

They then take exception with Michaels’ statement to Congress that the IPCC’s central finding that “[m]ost of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” is “dubious.”

Wigley and Santer spill a lot of ink over the concept that in the absence of everything else, that the potential warming from anthropogenic greenhouse gases is likely greater than the observed warming. Michaels didn’t say that it wasn’t. In fact, most people believe this as true.

Michaels was concerned about the observed warming not some hypothetical, unrealizable (and therefore unverifiable) change. After all, it is the actual warming that the environment largely responds to. So when assessing the accuracy of the IPCC statement on observed warming, it is therefore appropriate to divide it up between various elements as he did.

While there’s a lot of gory detail in this discussion (see here, for more ), one thing that I think we all should be able to agree on is that it is physically impossible for something (like the emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases) to be responsible for causing more than 100% of what has been observed, and that such statements like this one from Wigley and Santer’s paper,

Here, the probability that the model-estimated GHG component of warming is greater than the entire observed trend (i.e., not just greater than ‘‘most’’ of the observed warming) is about 93%.

is something other than science, because one surely cannot find something that nature will not reveal.

The bottom line here is that in their paper, Wigley and Santer seem to place more import on the attack of Pat Michaels, than they do on the actual logic behind it.


Santer,  B. D., C. Mears, C. Doutriaux, P. Caldwell, P.J. Gleckler , T.M.L. Wigley, S. Solomon, N.P. Gillett, D. Ivanova D, T.R. Karl, J.R. Lanzante, G.A. Meehl, P.A. Stott, K.E. Taylor, P.W. Thorne, M.F. Wehner, F.J. Wentz, 2011. Separating signal and noise in atmospheric temperature changes: the importance of timescale. Journal of Geophysical Research116, D22105. doi:10.1029/2011JD016263

Wigley, T.M.L., and B.D. Santer, 2012. A probabilistic quantification of the anthropogenic component of twentieth century global warming. Climate Dynamics, doi: 10.1007/s00382-012-1585-8

Carbon Tax Follies

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

There seems to be a noticeable murmur around town about a carbon tax—a tax on the amount of carbon dioxide that is released upon generating a unit of energy. Since fossil fuels—coal, oil, natural gas—are both the source of over 75% of our energy production and emitters of carbon dioxide when producing that energy, a carbon tax insures that the price of everything goes up.

There is one and only one justification for a carbon tax—an attempt to influence the future course of the earth’s climate (or, as some people prefer, to mitigate anthropogenic climate change) by trying to force down the emissions of the most abundant human-generated greenhouse gas.

But of all the things that a carbon tax will do (raise prices, increase bureaucracy, elect Tea Partiers, etc), mitigating anthropogenic climate change in any meaningful manner is not one of them.

The annual carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S., currently about 5,500 million metric tons per year, only contributes roughly 0.003°C/per year of warming pressure on global temperatures (see here for a handy way of making that calculation). So the best that a carbon tax could ever hope to achieve, climatically, would be to prevent this amount of warming each year by completely eliminating all carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S.

If we went to zero emissions tomorrow,  the carbon tax would prevent about 0.26°C of global temperature rise by the year 2100. According to the latest projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the projected temperature rise by the end of the century ranges from about 1.1 to 6.4°C, with a business-as-usual rise of around 3°C (put me down for 1.6° until then, unless nature is being a blatant liar).  The “mitigated” rise is proportional to the expected temperature rise. A carbon tax enacted today that is immediately and completely successful at eliminating all U.S. CO2 emission would lower rise in temperature expected by the end of the century around 10%.  This amount is small, of little consequence, and in fact will be difficult to detect.

It is also not going to happen.  We only have the capacity to produce about 30% of our electricity from non-carbon emitting fuel sources (primarily nuclear and hydroelectric). So it will take time, and probably a lot of time (many decades) before our energy needs could possibly be met without emitting CO2 into the atmosphere.  And of course, as time ticks by before eliminating or at least appreciably reducing  our emissions, the amount of global warming saved by such action declines (and become less and less consequential), as does the justification for the carbon tax.

I am just in the early stage of this analysis, so the numbers above are a bit rough (but conservative). In the future I hope to produce a menu of emissions reductions/climate savings options—but one without prices.  That way the policymakers will see what they are going to be getting for whatever price they decide to assign. So too will the general public. And what they will all see is that whatever level of carbon tax they decide upon,  they will get a lot of climate nothing  for a lot of financial something.

The best thing would be for policymakers to just leave well enough alone, for on their own, carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. have been declining for more than a decade (and in fact are pushing levels of the early 1990s, And even if such a reduction doesn’t result in any scientifically detectable climate impacts, at least it hasn’t cost us anything.

Obama on Energy

Today Politico Arena asks:

What will the president’s reelection mean for gasoline and electricity prices over the next four years?

My response:

Unless Obama takes some extraordinary measure like imposing price controls, which is possible but not likely, his reelection will probably have little effect on energy prices over the next four years. Oil prices are determined largely by international markets, over which an American president has little if any control. If anything, the domestic shale oil boom that leads the news in the Wall Street Journal this morning is likely to result in lower energy prices.

But there’s a caveat, and that’s the global warming agenda of the environmental zealots. Al Gore, Governor Cuomo, and Mayor Bloomberg are only the latest to promote as conventional wisdom the idea that global warming causes more and more severe hurricanes, despite the lack of credible evidence supporting the claim. Thus, as less expensive fossil fuels promise to help our sluggish economy out of recession, environmentalists will be urging the president to wean the nation away from those fuels and toward far more expensive renewable energy.

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, if cap and trade and other such measures are again before us—perhaps through lawless executive order. Reaching vast areas of life, like Obamacare, the president’s energy agenda could, as he promised four years ago, “fundamentally transform e United States of America.”

Arguing over Sandy

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

On Monday of this week, three prominent and influential scientists published an opinion piece in Politico arguing that anthropogenic global warming was responsible for making the destruction from “super storm” Sandy significantly worse than it otherwise would have been. They added that if we don’t “cut industrial carbon pollution,” we are going to get more of the same, and then some.

On the same day, I argued here at Cato@Liberty that it could be reasoned that anthropogenic global warming lessened the impact of Sandy.

The scientific truth about the situation is that it is impossible to know who is right—the uncertainties are just too large. But I think it is fair to say that no matter what direction the influence of anthropogenic global warming was on Sandy, in net it was quite small.

One difference between my piece and the Politico article co-signed by Dr. Robert Corell (“senior policy fellow for the American Meteorological Society and former Chair of the United States Global Change Research Program”), Dr. Jeff Masters (“the founder and Director of Meteorology for Weather Underground and a former NOAA Hurricane Hunter”) and Dr. Kevin Trenberth (“Distinguished Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research”) was that I tried to stick to a scientifically defensible argument.  In their piece, they juiced up their case with some—how should I say this?—rather dubious facts.

The worst of these was claiming that “[o]n the stretch of the Atlantic Coast that spans from Norfolk to Boston, sea levels have been rising four times faster than the global average.” They implied that anthropogenic global warming was the reason why.

This is simply untrue.

While it is true that the long-term (~20th century) rate of sea level rise along that stretch has been about twice the global average over the same period, it is scientifically well-established that the regional enhanced rate of sea level rise is due to ongoing geologic processes resulting from end of the last ice age. When these non-anthropogenic processes are properly subtracted out of the tide gauge record of sea level observations, the rate of sea level rise that is left over is virtually the same as the global rate of rise, not four times faster.

The same conclusion is reached if you limit your comparison to the period of satellite observations of sea level, which began about 20 years ago.  The figure below shows a map of the satellite-measured trends in sea level from 1993 through mid-2012.  The global average rate of rise is 0.12 inches per year, which is represented by a sort of greenish yellow color.  Turning your attention to the Northeast coast of the United States (you might have to squint a bit), you see that the color there is also sort of greenish yellow—in other words, right about the global average.  Places where the sea level is rising four times faster than the global average are colored a light pink; while there are a few such places, none of them are anywhere near the stretch of coast between Norfolk and Boston.

Figure 1. Spatial distribution of the rate of sea level rise across the globe as measured by satellite altimeters (Source: University of Colorado Sea Level Group, modified to reflect English units).

It is somewhat telling when prominent climate scientists have to resort to incorporating incorrect (and readily debunked) science to try to bolster their case for climate alarm—an alarm that was raised to try to scare us into accepting regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

A Nation in Decline?

Der Spiegel, the German magazine, argues that the recent election campaign is evidence that the United States is a nation in decline. Certainly the political system is having its problems, but Der Spiegel’s prescription of going further into debt to build high-speed trains and other European follies is a dubious way to fix those problems.

The real decline is in the Republican Party, which couldn’t manage to capture the White House or the Senate despite high unemployment and other economic problems. Given the economy, this election was the Republicans’ to lose, and lose it they did. They began shooting themselves in their collective feet early in the last decade when they made immigration a big issue, thus earning the enmity of Latinos, the nation’s fastest-growing and second-most important ethnic group.

Unfortunately, our two-party system too often limits voters to a choice between a social & fiscal liberal vs. a social & fiscal conservative (or, worse, a social & fiscal liberal vs. a social conservative & fiscal liberal). A large percentage of potential voters don’t feel comfortable in either party, and the libertarian side of me thinks, or hopes anyway, that many of those “independents” are socially liberal but fiscally conservative.

By focusing on fiscal issues, the tea parties seemed to provide an alternate route, one that set social issues aside. But, as Marian Tupy notes, too many Republican candidates made social issues a major part of their campaigns, thus alienating both Democrats and independents. Romney, who was neither a true fiscal nor social conservative, didn’t help by offering an inconsistent message, as often criticizing the president for cutting budgets, such as medicare and defense, as for spending money.

So the next two years look to be the same as the last two: Democrats in the White House and controlling the Senate while Republicans hold the House. Does that mean more gridlock, with Republicans opposing any tax increases and Democrats opposing any budget cuts?

In the face of a fiscal cliff–meaning automatic budget cuts and tax increases if Congress doesn’t find another resolution–Obama hopes for a Grand Bargain in which Republicans accept some modest tax increases in exchange for some modest budget cuts. However, I suspect Republicans are immediately going to regroup for 2014 and 2016, and won’t want to commit themselves to such a bargain. Moreover, most of the push against a Grand Bargain is coming from liberals, not conservatives. So I suspect we will be seeing two more years of gridlock.

Take my issue, transportation, which Congress has to deal with again in 2014, the year the 2012 transportation bill expires. What would a Grand Bargain look like for reauthorization of the gas tax and the spending of those tax revenues? A five-cent increase in gas taxes in exchange for cuts in some of the worst examples of pork? It doesn’t seem likely; increased gas taxes would just feed the pork barrel, and any cuts in pork would probably be restored in annual appropriations. Fiscal conservatives have nothing to gain by supporting such a Grand Bargain.

Does that mean the U.S. is in decline, as Der Spiegel says? Not necessarily. Elections today are no more contentious than they were between 1876 and 1900, when several presidential elections were decided by less than a percent of the vote and at least two of the electoral college winners lost the popular vote. Politics then were dirtier, or at least as dirty, as any time in American history.

The real threat to the future of the country is not political polarization but the huge fiscal hole Congress has dug, which means the real question is whether our economy can recover enough to ever fill up that hole. The standard free-market answer is that the uncertainty created by Obama’s overregulation and inconsistent attitudes towards business will prevent such a recovery. We can only hope that this is wrong.

If they are to participate in this recovery, Republicans must drop the emphasis on social issues (which aren’t really decided at the national level anyway) and their hostility towards immigrants. I hate to think that America’s future depends on Republicans coming to their collective senses, but the alternative of Democrats suddenly becoming fiscally conservative seems even less likely.

New Evidence that Plants Are Slowing the Growth of Greenhouse Gases

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Scientists have known for decades that, as global carbon dioxide levels increase, so too does the standing biomass of the world’s plants. Carbon dioxide is a strong plant fertilizer.

As plants grow better, they also increasingly act as carbon sinks as they convert atmospheric carbon dioxide, with a little help from water and sunshine, into carbohydrates stored as biomass. Some of that carbon is returned to the air annually through decomposition, but other portions are are stored for longer periods in the soil, downed logs, houses, etc.  This plant-based carbon sink helps to offset the growth of global carbon dioxide emissions from human activities (primarily from the burning of fossil fuels). Together, the terrestrial carbon sink, along with the oceanic carbon sink, annually takes up more than half of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions—and remarkably, as global CO2 emissions have increased, so too has the global CO2 sink.

But now comes new evidence that plants may be helping to combat global warming through another mechanism as well, slowing the build-up of the atmospheric concentration of methane (a greenhouse gas some 25 times more effective than CO2 on a molecule-for-molecule bases at adding pressure for the world to warm).

As shown in the fugure below the jump, the growth rate of the atmospheric concentration of methane (CH4)—which is projected by the IPCC to be rising rapidly—began slowing down in the early 1990s and even topped out for a few years in the mid-2000s. Since about 2007, the atmospheric concentration of CH4 has been rising again, but only at about half that of the pre-1990 rate.

Figure 1. Atmospheric methane concentration (source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
This behavior is not understood by climate scientists. It contravenes alarmist scenarios of runaway global warming fueled by a positive methane feedback (the scenario for which is that warming leads to thawing of the arctic permafrost, which releases methane, which leads to more warming, and so on).

A team of scientists from Lund University and Stockholm University set out to investigate recent claims that some plants release methane and are therefore a source of global methane emissions. They set up instruments to measure methane exchange on a collection of individual branches of four different tree species in a 100-year-old forest in central Sweden. A set of control experiments was also conducted in a laboratory setting. They just published their findings in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Much to their surprise, the researchers found that the trees (both in the field and in the lab) were taking up methane rather than releasing it. They suggest that the presence of a “bacteria with the ability to consume [methane] would be a possible explanation for [the observed behavior].”

That’s not the only good news.

The researchers then executed the extremely risky (and oft ill-advised) maneuver of scaling up from a few tree branches in central Sweden to the level of the global forest canopy. Their research “indicates that the canopy might play an equally important role [in CH4 uptake] as the soil in the global context.” In other words, their results show that trees are playing a large (and hitherto unknown) role as a sink in the global methane cycle.

The culprit?  Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

In the authors’ own words (with my emphasis):

Two recent studies give alternative explanations to the slow-down in the growth rate of atmospheric methane in the last decades. One of them indicates that it is due to a stabilization of fossil-fuel emissions (Aydin et al., 2011) whereas the other explains it by a decrease in microbial methane sources in the northern hemisphere (Kai et al., 2011). Our results offer a third explanation: that an increasing amount of CH4 has been taken up by vegetation during the last decades as a consequence of increased greenness (Myneni et al., 1997), NPP [net primary production] (Nemani et al., 2003) and GPP [gross primary production] (Chen et al., 2006) as observed by satellite remote sensing.

This is still highly a highly speculative result and one that will require a heck of a lot more study and independent confirmation. But it is a novel finding and goes to show that there is still a lot of interesting research ongoing in the field of climate (change), and that most definitely the science is not “settled.”


Sundqvist, E., et al., 2012. Atmospheric methane removal by boreal plants. Geophysical Research Letters, 39, L21806, doi:10.1029/2012GL053592

Did Global Warming Reduce the Impacts of Sandy?

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

The press has been quick to jump on the idea that post-tropical cyclone Sandy (it was not a hurricane at landfall) was worsened by anthropogenic global warming and that “superstorms” are here to stay.

But I must ask the impertinent question: could anthropogenic global warming actually have lessened the impacts of Sandy?

There are basically three pro-global warming talking points involving Sandy: 1) global warming has caused sea levels to rise, thus making the storm surge larger, 2) global warming has led to higher sea surface temperatures and thus stronger hurricanes, and 3) global warming is making extratropical circulation features more conducive to intense and slower moving storm systems.

There is precious little evidence to definitively support any of these points when applied to Sandy, and, in fact, there exists a body of evidence pointing to the opposite conclusion—that anthropogenic global warming may have actually acted to mitigate the intensity of Sandy. Perhaps what lies closest to our current best understanding is that anthropogenic global warming made little contribution one way or the other.

Let’s start with sea level rise.  Water levels at New York City’s Battery Park location have been measured and recorded since 1856. The full record shows an overall (relatively steady) rise of about 0.11 inches per year, for a total rise between 1856 and now of just a bit more than 17 inches. How much of this has to do with anthropogenic global warming? Maybe a third, or about 6 inches. Of the rest, about half was caused by a subsidence of the land (geological processes related to the end of the last ice age, see Engelhart et al., 2009 for example), and the remainder to a warming up from the naturally occurring cold period which ended in the mid-19th century. So of the total 17.34 feet of water (above the station datum) recorded at The Battery tide gauge during the height of Sandy, about 0.5 feet of that could probably be linked to anthropogenic global warming.  This is not nothing, but the overwhelming majority of the damage done by the storm surge would have happened anyway. For comparison, the influence of the full moon that night was about as large as the influence of anthropogenic global warming.

As to anthropogenic global warming’s impact on the path, frequency, and intensity of hurricanes, there is a mixed bag of potential outcomes which may be detectable far in the future (towards the end of the century)  if anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The current science suggests that the frequency of hurricanes could decrease, the intensity may increase slightly, and the preferred path may be displaced out to sea (Wang et al., 2010). The net effect on the U.S. is anyone’s guess at this point (but 2 of the 3 argue for fewer hurricane impacts in the U.S.).  But what virtually everyone does agree upon is that any influence of anthropogenic global warming on hurricane characteristics is not detectable in today’s climate (see for example, Knutson et al., 2010). So that talking point is basically off the table.

Which brings us to the third global-warming-made-Sandy-worse talking point—the influence of anthropogenic global warming on the extratropical circulation characteristics.

This is where the rubber really meets the road when it comes to Sandy’s behavior.  Without the northward, and ultimately westward pull from the upper atmospheric jet stream, Sandy would have progressed harmlessly eastward, away from the Northeast coast, and out to sea.  But that is not what happened. Instead, a fairly deep trough (southward excursion) of the jet stream was coincidentally passing through the eastern U.S. just as hurricane Sandy was progressing up (but offshore) the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. This trough had the effect of attracting Sandy, and drawing it northwestward, pumping energy into it, and changing its character from a hurricane to an extra/post tropical storm system (also known as a Nor’easter in this part of the country).  In October, this type of behavior is not particularly unusual. The preferred tropical cyclone track maps provided by the National Hurricane Center (Figure 1) indicate a general tendency for tropical cyclones in October to curve back into the northeastern U.S.—just like Sandy did.

Figure 1. Prevailing tropical cyclone tracks for the month of October (source: National Hurricane Center,

In fact, since the beginning of the 20th century, there have been about a dozen or so tropical cyclones that have made landfall in the U.S. north of Cape Hatteras which had a westerly component to their trajectory either immediately before or just after they came ashore. This includes historically damaging storms such as the 1903 New Jersey hurricane, the 1938 Long Island Express hurricane, and 1972’s Hurricane Agnes which is still the flood of record in many parts of the Northeast.

The last one was tropical storm Danielle, over twenty years ago. This is the longest interval in the record (since 1900) between westward-component storms north of Hatteras.  So much for the influence of global warming!

So, given this fairly typical behavior—why would anyone even consider that anthropogenic global warming played a role in Sandy?

For two reasons: 1) any bad weather these days is immediately linked to global warming by someone with an agenda, and 2) there was a paper published last spring (Francis and Vavrus, 2012) in which the authors concluded that the decline of Arctic sea ice (tied to anthropogenic global warming) was causing the Arctic to warm up faster than the lower latitudes, reducing the natural north-south temperature gradient which is where the jet stream (and extratropical storms) gain energy.  According to Francis and Vavrus, a less energetic jet stream contracts and becomes more meandering, with relatively deeper troughs and higher ridges which produce slower moving storm systems and more extreme weather.

Since Sandy was strengthened and pulled ashore by a deep trough/ridge system in the jet stream, folks are quick to assume that the Francis and Vavrus mechanism tying in anthropogenic global warming must be involved.

Not so fast!

This is like claiming to have made a new discovery that, when flipping a coin, heads are now more likely to occur than tails.  And wouldn’t you know, the next time the coin is flipped, it came up heads—to which you proclaim, “See, I told you so.” And since heads are associated with a bad outcome, the press flock to your explanation.  But what is completely overlooked, is that other researchers have examined every coin flip for the past 60 years and found that heads and tails occur with equal likelihood. So the current heads outcome is simply part of the natural 50-50 occurrence of heads or tails.

In this case, the other researchers are a pair of atmospheric scientists from Cornell University which have examined the forward speed of all nor’easters along the East Coast from 1951 through 2006 (Bernhardt and DeGaetano, 2012). And what they found, in their own words, was “There was no clear trend in [nor’easter forward] speed during the time period, although considerable season-to-season variability was present.” In other words, while there is a lot of storm-to-storm and season-to-season variability, there is no overall trend towards slower moving nor’easters (Figure 2)—so much for the Francis and Vavrus hypothesis.

Figure 2. Average speed of East Coast winter storms (nor’easters), from 1951-2006 (source: Bernhardt and DeGaetano, 2012).

And, there has been a lot of other research on changes in the patterns and characteristics of the Northern Hemisphere jet stream during the period of anthropogenic global warming which did not find that same thing that Francis and Vavrus found (we detailed many of these findings in our March 8, 2012 Current Wisdom).  At least one of those papers suggested that the methodology employed by Francis and Vavrus “can generate false, or mask actual, variability patterns including trends” (Strong and Davis, 2007). Others concluded that global warming contracted, the jet stream, flattened it over the eastern U.S., and sped it up a bit—characteristics, which, along with a decreased temperature gradient, if applied to Sandy, would have combined to produce a less intense post tropical storm system than if global warming had not been occurring.

So rather than anthropogenic global warming making Sandy worse, it could have actually lessened its intensity and impacts.

The truth is, is that it is impossible to know how, or even if, global warming played any role at all in the lifecycle of Sandy. The science is all over the map, and the signal-to-noise ratio is so low that no matter what is occurring its impact in any direction is undetectable.

But it is sexier and has much more press appeal to proclaim that the destruction wrought by “superstorm” Sandy is the product of our unrestrained fossil fuel consumption, rather than the equally plausible opposite—that anthropogenic climate changes may have combined to lessen Sandy’s intensity.


Bernhardt, J.E., and A.T. DeGaetano, 2012. Meteoro­logical factors affecting the speed of movement and related impacts of extratropical cyclones along the U.S. east coast. Natural Hazards, 61, 1463-1472, doi:10.1007/s11069-011-0078-0

Engelhart, S.E., et al., 2009. Spatial variability of late Holocene and 20th century sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast of the Unites States. Geology, 37, 1115-1118.

Francis, J., and S. Vavrus, 2012. Evidence linking arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes. Geophysical Research Letters, 39, L06801, doi:10.1029/2012GL051000.

Knutson, T. R., et al., 2010. Tropical cyclones and climate change. Nature Geoscience, 3, 157-163, doi: 10.1038/ngeo779

Strong, C., and R. Davis, 2007. Winter jet stream trends over the Northern Hemisphere. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 133, 2109-2115, doi:10.1002/qj.171

Wang, C., et al., 2011: Impact of the Atlantic warm pool on United States landfalling hur­ricanes. Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L19702, doi:10.1029/2011GL049265.