World on Brink of New Temperature Record (Despite a Coy El Niño)

Usually, a big, fat El Niño sets the world up for a new temperature record; see the correlation in the chart below. (For a good explanation of why, read this post by Bill Chameides of Duke University.)

TempAnomElNino jpeg

And for most of 2014, forecasters have been debating whether a big one would or wouldn’t show sometime soon. However, in its latest ENSO forecast, out 6th November, the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has grown far more “iffy”:

The CPC/IRI ENSO forecast has dropped the likelihood of El Niño again, to 58%, despite the presence of “borderline” El Niño conditions (i.e. warmer equatorial Pacific sea surface temperature, and some reduction in rain over Indonesia). El Niño is still expected, but with less confidence.

But the Australians, in an even more recent update (18th November), think we may see a last minute appearance for this year’s elusive El Niño:

The Pacific Ocean has shown some renewed signs of El Niño development in recent weeks. Above-average temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean have warmed further in the past fortnight, while the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) has generally been in excess of El Niño thresholds for the past three months. Climate models suggest current conditions will either persist or strengthen. These factors mean the Bureau’s ENSO Tracker Status has been upgraded from WATCH to ALERT level, indicating at least a 70% chance of El Niño occurring.

Regardless of whether El Niño shows, it is too late in the year for it to significantly pump up global temperature anomalies. So it should be tough for 2014 to take the number one spot. Or will it?

From Columbia University’s Earth Institute, we can see where the records stand:

Top 10 Warm Years jpeg

Note: the slight differences between the anomalies recorded by the two US government agencies, NOAA and NASA, are due to different measurement procedures. Nonetheless, for both time series, the years from the last decade dominate the table and broadly align. And for 2014?

The NASA data (here) have been published out to October and show an average temperature anomaly for the first 10 months of the year of 0.66 ⁰C. The nine months of data put out so far by NOAA (here) average 0.67 ⁰C. While the Pacific Ocean may not be characterised as exhibiting a full-blown El Niño, it certainly is on the warm side, with the result that the final months of the year are likely to come in well above average, temperature-wise.

So the annual global mean temperature record looks almost in the bag for 2014. Whether this record will be enough to put paid to the climate skeptic meme that global warming stopped in 1998 is doubtful (the old records will likely be beaten but not smashed). But the evolving data do show that when the next El Niño arrives, it will build on an ever hotter base.

Thus mankind presses ever further into unchartered temperature territory. The foolhardiness of this risk-taking amazes me.

7 responses to “World on Brink of New Temperature Record (Despite a Coy El Niño)

  1. Interesting post. Note – the 2014 NOAA figure is for their standard baseline of 1901-2000. Reduced to a 1951-1980 baseline it is +0.64 degrees (still heading for a record).

    I was curious as to why the anomalies are different for the two datasets. It is very easy to get the original data, which is close to that given in the chart – the differences might be rounding errors. I expected that the NASA temperatures could be systematically higher than than the NOAA ones due to different measurement or processing techniques, even though they’re supposed to be relative to the same baseline.

    However that turns out not to be true. From 1880 to the 1970s, the NOAA and NASA temperatures are, on average, the same, with a standard deviation of 0.025 degrees – presumably a rough measure of the accuracy of their estimates. But since the 1970s the NOAA temperature has been consistently lower than the NASA temperature, with the difference increasing in time. The biggest difference was 2007, when NASA = 0.62 degrees, NOAA = 0.55 degrees.

    If we take the “pre-industrial” temperature to be the 1880-1920 mean of -0.28, (don’t know if that is how it is usually done), 2014 could reach +0.95 degrees above pre-industrial.

    Since 1980 a new temperature record has been set every 4.5 years, on average. Not surprisingly, 4.5 years of global warming trend = 0.07 degrees; interannual fluctuations also = 0.07 degrees. So, I expect this pattern of temperature records to continue. Even if 2014 and 2015 set back-to-back records, that would not be unprecedented – it happened in 1980-81 and again in 1997-98.

    • Robert: whenever I think about comparing time series I usually start by rereading this post by Tamino at Open Mind:

      http://tamino.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/comparing-temperature-data-sets/

      My understanding is also that much of the difference between data series comes form the number of Arctic measuring stations and how statistical “infilling” is conducted. Skeptical Science has a post about this issue here:

      http://www.skepticalscience.com/how_global_warming_broke_the_thermometer_record.html

      Tamino’s argument is that this all comes out in the wash if you focus on the trend.

      As regards the cycle, I guess the problem is that we don’t have a stationary series; or at least, if we did, it now appears to be breaking down. The Bill Chameides post I linked to in my pst basically says we don’t know what will happen to ENSO as the planet warms.

      The New Scientist also has an interesting article in this week’s issue about how warming is showing up in northern ocean latitudes regardless of El Nino:

      http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429954.000-recordbreaking-ocean-temperatures-wreak-havoc.html#.VG5vPaW9qg8

      My bottom line is that all this translates into greater uncertainty. And uncertainty is at the heart of my conflict with the skeptic’s world view. For me, the world is faced with ever more uncertain outcomes; i.e., greater risk. And the best response to higher risk is to be more conservative. If you don’t really know the extent to which belching out more CO2 into the atmosphere translates into differing outcomes, then you should belch out less CO2. The skeptic’s argument is that if you are faced with uncertainty then you should continue with business as usual. This, to me, flies in the face of any rational business logic.

  2. Thanks for those links. There is also an interesting post and discussion of the Berkeley Earth values at realclimate. The upshot seems to be that that NASA temperatures are likely to be more accurate and that NOAA has drifted off a little.

    Your remarks about risk are interesting. The IPCC went to great lengths in their last report to explain risk and uncertainty in detail. However, I don’t know if anyone took much notice. Imagine if the central projections for the next 40 or 100 years were the same but the uncertainty were 10 times smaller – I suspect that would hardly change the public discussion or public policy at all. The central problem to me is the long time scale.

    I am not even sure that uncertainty is really taken seriously even in smaller decisions. When a large power plant or motorway (or a new runway at Heathrow) is being considered, usually what I see is that decisions are based on the main projection. There may be a tiny section on “risks” at the end of the report saying eg “There is a risk that the demand forecasts are inaccurate”. I wonder if there are any case studies of risk being genuinely taken into account in a major decision and how it worked out.

  3. Justin,

    I am with you… “The foolhardiness of this risk-taking amazes me.” Thanks for continuing your efforts to raise everyone’s awareness of the terrible risk we are taking with the planet.

    Bill M

    • Thanks Bill. Sometimes I feel I am living on the set of that great movie “The Truman Show”. There is also a great body of economist jokes that start with the line: let’s imagine there is X”. I feel we are living inside one of those jokes that goes something like this: “Let’s imagine that there is no climate change, now go about your lives as normal.”

  4. whether claiming the warmest year, on the second decimal place – and 1 hundredth of a degree C is useful or not, is subject to debate – James Hansen said something similar on the rankings.

    note that the error here is + or – 0.1C (to be generous) which is an order of magnitude higher than the measurement to hundredths

    additionally, the expectation was that we would be warming at 0.2- 0.3C per decade now. So if this year is 1 hundredth of a degree higher (or lower) than the previous hotter year (error +- 0.1C), it really is pretty meaningless. The pause or slowdown in the rate of warming continues… and the models will still look like they are running too warm.

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