About That Russian Heat Wave

So, let’s take a short stroll down memory lane, when we saw headlines like this last summer:

Climate Experts Agree: Global Warming Caused Russian Heat Wave

Now, let’s hop over (it’s not far, either) to this place, where the owner was upset that the NYT wasn’t connecting the Hell and High Water dots to the Russian heat wave, as well as other sweltering episodes happening around the same time elsewhere around the world.

In fairness, the intensity of the Russian heat wave was so unfamiliar to Russians that even the country’s leaders started sounding like Joe Romm.

Alas, some stories don’t stand the test of time–or science, as this NOAA release makes clear in its headline and opening sentence:

The deadly Russian heat wave of 2010 was due to a natural atmospheric phenomenon often associated with weather extremes, according to a new NOAA study.

Further down, here’s the money passage:

While a contribution to the heat wave from climate change could not be entirely ruled out, if it was present, it played a much smaller role than naturally occurring meteorological processes in explaining this heat wave’s intensity.

Of course, In the next breath comes the obligatory but-this-is-a-window-into-the-future:

The researchers cautioned that this extreme event provides a glimpse into the region’s future as greenhouse gases continue to increase, and the signal of a warming climate, even at this regional scale, begins to emerge more clearly from natural variability in coming decades. Climate models evaluated for the new study show a rapidly increasing risk of such heat waves in western Russia, from less than one percent in 2010, to 10 percent or more by the end of this century.

And there’s nothing wrong with saying that. It’s reasonable speculation based on the science. [NOAA’s press office corrects me, saying “this ‘glimpse into the future’ is far from speculation–it is an important result of the study.”]

But the people who like to tell scary stories don’t see much point in being circumspect. So far, no acknowledgment from this usual gang of storytellers that maybe they got a little too carried away on this one.

[For some media coverage on the NOAA study, see here, here, here, and here.]

33 Responses to “About That Russian Heat Wave”

  1. Gavin says:

    In your eagerness to tell someone “I told you so”, you might want to be a little more circumspect yourself. For instance, from Dole et al (2011):

    With only 50 ensemble members in these simulations, a meaningful assessment of changes in the tails of the distributions is not possible.

     
    yet it is precisely the changes in tails of the distribution that is used in fractional attribution for specific extremes. As I have said elsewhere, attribution of extremes is hard. People tripping over themselves to use them to support a particular narrative (including this post) are walking on thin ice.

  2. Tom Fuller says:

    #1, Evidently pointing out that others have broken through the thin ice constitutes walking on thin ice?

    Not sure I follow…

    Thanks for treasuring my comment at your place of business in your private collection. It was too good and too true for public consumption.

  3. Keith Kloor says:

    Tom,

    I’ve asked you (and others) not bring your grievances against other blogs into this space–especially in this thread, where it is OT.

    Gavin,

    At a recent AAAS session I attended, where you were part of a panel, you decried sensationalist coverage, using this particular headline and story as an example.

    I don’t see what I’m pointing out in my post as any different from what you complained about in this instance (RE: London underwater story).

  4. grypo says:

    “Of course, in the next breath comes the obligatory but-this-is-a-window-into-the-future:”
     
    It fairly obvious you are trying to create a narrative when you accuse the authors of doing the same as ROMM.
     
    And there’s nothing wrong with saying that. It’s reasonable speculation based on the science.
     
    But it appears you do have a problem with them saying that, why?  It’s obligatory?  Is there a reason for the sarcasm?  Perhaps there’s a reason the scientists described the future results of their study?  But where’s the ‘hook’ in that line?  We already know that the scientists think.
     
     

  5. Keith Kloor says:

    grypo,

    You gotta be kidding me. You’re honing in on one word, even though I agree the passage is perfectly acceptable. I’ll tell you what: just so you and others don’t allow your own filters to get too waylaid by my sarcasm, I’ll go and cross it out.

    How is it “fairly obvious” that I’m accusing the authors of doing the same as Romm. On the contrary, they contradict what Romm et al shouted from the rooftops last summer.

    No, I guess what they do doesn’t somehow amount to the same thing as that “London underwater…” story that Gavin rightly laments.

  6. Tom Yulsman says:

    Keith: I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree that the sarcasm was uncalled for, as was the labeling of the model results as “speculative.”
    The fact is that most research in this field does indeed show that as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise we can expect an increasing risk of events like the Russian heat wave. It is true that this is based in large measure on computer modeling. But is that “speculation”?
     
    My dictionary defines “speculate” as “form a theory or conjecture about a subject without firm evidence.” So are you arguing that computer modeling results do not constitute “firm evidence”?
    If so, then what do you think about projections of warming over the coming decades, ice sheet behavior, sea level rise, etc. Is it all just “speculation” and therefore worthy of sarcastic dismissal?
    The fact is that models have predicted many things that are now being observed.
    But we’ll talk about this in greater detail in our next coven meeting.  ;->

  7. grypo says:

    You’re right, it’s not ‘fairly obvious’.  I’m a bit cranky.  But it is something different.  It’s downplaying the importance one of Romm’s messages, (which scientists agree with) that these types of events are more likely to happen in the coming decades due to man-made gases.  And it’s more than just the ‘one word’, it’s your inability to parse what Romm does well and what you disagree with.  If fact, that’s much of what the Romm article discusses.
     
    As the UK’s Royal Society and Met Office (the UK’s National Weather Service [i.e. meteorological office], within the Ministry of Defence) said in their must-read statement on the connection between global warming and extreme weather:


    “We expect some of the most significant impacts of climate change to occur when natural variability is exacerbated by long-term global warming, so that even small changes in global temperatures can produce damaging local and regional effects.”

  8. Keith Kloor says:

    Tom (6)

    As you were rightly correcting me, I was hearing from NOAA’s press office, and have made the necessary changes in the text of the post.

    So I stand corrected–on that part of my post.

  9. Keith Kloor says:

    grypo (7),

    If Romm said just this and only this–“that these types of events are more likely to happen in the coming decades due to man-made gases”-that would be fine.

    But it is well documented that he goes way beyond that, which is what the thrust of my post is about.

    Even Gavin Schmidt, who makes a brief appearance in this thread to register his disapproval with my chiding of Romm and his colleagues at CAP, said this much to the NYT, related to the Russian heat have:

    “If you ask me as a person, do I think the Russian heat wave has to do with climate change, the answer is yes. If you ask me as a scientist whether I have proved it, the answer is no–at least not yet.”

  10. Howard says:

    Tom:
     
    Evidence is data collected from the physical realm (Terra Firma… firm evidence… get it???).  Models are speculation because they are not real.
     
     

  11. Tom Fuller says:

    I think using extreme weather events as a ‘preview of coming attractions’ is legitmate, but a bit dangerous unless highly caveated. I think most of the releases I’ve seen on this topic (not just Russia) do a fairly good job on the caveats, but they get immediately stripped from the descriptions of the more excitable bloggers, such as Romm.

  12. As I understand it, Gavin’s point is that the cited paper can no more disprove the connection than Gavin can prove it.
     
    Much of the issue I have with how this matter is being discussed is the idea that gradual changes in forcing will yield gradual changes in climate. Neither the general principles of fluid dynamics nor the evidence of paleoclimate support this. Accordingly, we may see very severe events of various sorts far more frequently than would otherwise be the case.
     
    However, characterizing the frequencies of rare events even in a stable environment is very difficult, and requires much longer records than exist. This means that even if these events happen MUCH more frequently than they would otherwise, the statistical demonstration will be very difficult.
     
    On the other hand, some events do have causes. One could argue, for example, that the collapse of the World Trade Towers is not statistically demonstrated to have been caused by the airplanes that crashed into them. We do not have enough examples of large airplanes crashing into large buildings to make that linkage statistically significant. But we know form first principles that if you push something hard enough it will fall over.
     
    There are other forms of reasoning besides the statistical. According to meteorlogists, we are seeing excursions from normal atmospheric patterns with larger amplitude and larger frequency than in the past. Is this not what we should expect in a changing climate regime?
     
    I think a lot of the thinking on this matter is confused. It is an overreaction to blame everything with certainty on anthropogenic climate changes, but it is an excessive counter-reaction to say  that this or that event is “perfectly natural”. As Kevin Trenberth says, human influence is a part of every single environmental event occurring now or henceforth. The burden of proof regarding whether it is negligible is shifting as the size of the human impact increases.
     
    And here again, we see a tendency in the press to overvalue a single publication.
     
    This issue is an interesting and intellectually subtle one. Making a statement that is both fair and terse is hard. “No single event can be attributed to climate change,” the standard of the past twenty years, has been burned in; almost everyone accepts it. But perhaps it is too strong.
     
    You can’t blame most individual bad weather events on anthropogenic climate forcing. That remains true. But extraordinarily strange events are another story. For instance, if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet does in fact collapse in this century, there will still be no statistically significant evidence that it is due to humans. There would be only one event, too few to do any meaningful statistics with. But that sort of proof would be unnecessary in that event. There’s nothing else to blame it on.
     

  13. a.scientist says:

    Michael Tobis is wrong when he write that collapse of the WAIS would not be accompanied by statistical evidence.  Of course it would, in the form of long-term changes to the WAIS that precipitate a collapse.  Does he think that it will remain unchanged, and then one day … poof!  ??

  14. Tom Fuller says:

    The WAIS, IIRC, has been projected to disappear for purely mechanical reasons unrelated to anything humans do since about the 1930s (Don’t have the cite). I am sure anthropogenic global warming may contribute to its inevitable demise and maybe speed it along, but blaming global warming for this is kinda like blaming global warming for dawn.

  15. A.scientist appears to be talking about what I would call data, not statistics.
     

  16. a.scientist says:

    Michael Tobis, statistics are the lens through which we view data.  My dictionary says that statistics are the “mathematics of the collection, organization and interpretation of DATA.”  There is no attribution of cause and effect in the climate system without statistics, at least insofar as science is concerned.

  17. thingsbreak says:

    @14 Tom Fuller:
    The WAIS, IIRC, has been projected to disappear for purely mechanical reasons unrelated to anything humans do since about the 1930s (Don’t have the cite).
     
    I’m not reflexively calling BS on this (I haven’t looked into it), but I’ve heard far too many people saying similar things about the GrIS which just ain’t so not to be a little suspicious. Now, I don’t know if the WAIS experienced anything like GrIS’s Neoglacial readvance, but I would be surprised to hear that it was doomed prior to the relatively recent warming of the Southern Ocean. It didn’t “disappear” during warmer than present interglacials, so I’m not sure I understand what the ostensible death blow was supposed to have been decades ago…

  18. Tom Fuller says:

    Too bad you can’t get past calling names or we could talk about it. Do you have any Jewish acquaintances you call ‘kike’ because you’re sure it isn’t offensive? Any Hispanic friends you’re sure won’t mind ‘spic’? How about the ‘n’ word? They don’t mind–they use it with each other all the time, right?

  19. thingsbreak says:

    @18 Tom Fuller:
    Too bad you can’t get past calling names or we could talk about it. Do you have any Jewish acquaintances you call “˜kike’ because you’re sure it isn’t offensive? Any Hispanic friends you’re sure won’t mind “˜spic’? How about the “˜n’ word? They don’t mind”“they use it with each other all the time, right?
     
    What the hell?

  20. Tom Fuller says:

    My reaction exactly, you goon.

  21. Keith Kloor says:

    Tom (18, 20):

    You’re out of line. Please, don’t force my hand, again.

  22. Tom Fuller says:

    Sorry. Taking a break now.

  23. Sashka says:

    @ Tom (6)

    Of course everything based on computer modeling is speculation. I don’t know how anybody familiar with science to any extent could claim that modeling results constitute “firm evidence”. I’m not sure I’d count it as any sort of evidence at all. Before computer modeling results can be consider evidence they should be confirmed by the observations. Despite the claims that you heard that such confirmations exist it is not true. If any predictions were confirmed by observations (e.g. polar amplification – even that is observed only in Northern Hemisphere so far), those predictions were or could be derived theoretically. There is nothing (that I know of) that was predicted only by computer models and confirmed by observations.
     

  24. Sashka says:

    @ Tobis (12)
     
    Much of the issue I have with how this matter is being discussed is the idea that gradual changes in forcing will yield gradual changes in climate. Neither the general principles of fluid dynamics nor the evidence of paleoclimate support this.
     
    Could you specify “the general principles of fluid dynamics” that don’t support this idea? At what time scales can be the paleoclimate evidence applied?
     
     

  25. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Tom you need some anger management therapy or at least a break from blogging….time to re-retire for a while perhaps?

  26. kdk33 says:

    It is true that this is based in large measure on computer modeling. But is that “speculation”?

    No.  Speculation is more certain.

  27. BPW says:

    Michael Tobis @12,
    “I think a lot of the thinking on this matter is confused. It is an overreaction to blame everything with certainty on anthropogenic climate changes, but it is an excessive counter-reaction to say  that this or that event is “perfectly natural”.”
     
    This is true, but I don’t think anyone is saying the Russian even was “perfectly natural”. But is may be simply natural, but not something which occurs often. A one-year event is worthless as an indicator. Now, if it becomes regular–every few years or even every decade or so–then there is an argument to be made. Otherwise it is nothing more than an anomaly and cherry picked for effect.
     
    Tom Fuller @18,
     
    WTFIUWT? That was, by far, the most unhinged post I have seen from you and, though I don’t post often, I read often. And I am not even saying, as some might, that you are, in general, irrational. But, seriously? Thingsbreak’s comment was pretty benign. But you go with ‘k’ and ‘s’ full on? You may as well have just written out ‘n’ as well.
     
    Life is too short Tom. No reason to drop racial slurs–pointed or not–in these discussions.
     
    Just my opinion. But that post was pretty weak.
     

  28. Tom looks more unhinged than he deserves to. He was actually mad at something TB said in another thread.
     
    Overwrought, yes, and a tactical blunder, obviously. In fact I for one don’t think “denier” is in the same class as those other words. But not as actually crazy as might appear at first glance to someone who hadn’t seen the other thread unfolding.
     

  29. BBD says:

    Michael Tobis
     
    #28
     
    Civilised. Thank you.

  30. Neven says:

    Tom you need some anger management therapy or at least a break from blogging”¦.time to re-retire for a while perhaps?


    Wasn’t he supposed to be retired because of some job due to which he wouldn’t have time for the climate blogosphere?
     
    Anyway, I recall Tamino’s piece on the Russian heat wave:
     
    Clearly, this July has been significantly hotter than previous years in the record. In fact the average daily high temperature for July 2010 is 3.6 standard deviations above the mean of all recorded July values. For a normally distributed random variable, the chance of being so extreme is only 0.0003 “” less than 1 chance in 3000. Which agrees with statements from Russian meteorological officials that such a heat wave hasn’t been experienced in Moscow in at least 1,000 years.
    And that means that the suggestion that this heat wave is just a natural variation, not due to global warming, is implausible. Or as we say here in Maine, t’aint likely.
     
    The way I see it in retrospect: It was either a bizarre heat wave somewhere at lower latitudes or sea ice annihilation. Take your pick.

  31. Neven says:

    Alas, some stories don’t stand the test of time
     
    What makes you think this story over? Could it be wishful thinking on your part?

  32. ivp0 says:

    Interesting thread.  It reminds me of Hurricane Katrina.  “Absolute guaranteed proof of global warming and there would be plenty more where that one came from”… followed by the quietest 5 year period of hurricane activity in over 100 years.
    Even highly educated people from fine ivy league schools still confuse weather and climate.

  33. ivp0 says:

    @17 TB says “doomed prior to the relatively recent warming of the Southern Ocean.”
    What Southern Ocean warming??
    http://i56.tinypic.com/2lvbu5x.jpg
    (RSS Graph compliments of Bob Tisdale)

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