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Climate models accurately predicted global warming when reflecting natural ocean cycles

Published on 7 August 2014 Global

Predicting global surface temperature changes in the short-term is a challenge for climate models. Temperature changes over periods of a decade or two can be dominated by influences from ocean cycles like El Niño and La Niña. During El Niño phases, the oceans absorb less heat, leaving more to warm the atmosphere, and the opposite is true during a La Niña.

We can't yet predict ahead of time how these cycles will change. The good news is that it doesn't matter from a big picture climate perspective, because over the long-term, temperature influences from El Niño and La Niña events cancel each other out. However, when we examine how climate model projections have performed over the past 15 years or so, those natural cycles make a big difference.

A new paper led by James Risbey just out in Nature Climate Change takes a clever approach to evaluating how accurate climate model temperature predictions have been while getting around the noise caused by natural cycles. The authors used a large set of simulations from 18 different climate models (from CMIP5). They looked at each 15-year period since the 1950s, and compared how accurately each model simulation had represented El Niño and La Niña conditions during those 15 years, using the trends in what's known as the Niño 3.4 index.

Each individual climate model run has a random representation of these natural ocean cycles, so for every 15-year period, some of those simulations will have accurately represented the actual El Niño conditions just by chance. The study authors compared the simulations that were correctly synchronized with the ocean cycles (blue data in the left frame below) and the most out-of-sync (grey data in the right frame) to the observed global surface temperature changes (red) for each 15-year period.

It's also clear from the grey figure that models that are out-of-sync with the observed changes in these ocean cycles simulate dramatically higher warming trends over the past 30 years. In other words, the model simulations that happened not to accurately represent these ocean cycles were the ones that over-predicted global surface warming.

The claim that climate models are unreliable is the 6th-most popular contrarian myth. The argument is generally based on the claim that climate models didn't predict the slowdown in global surface warming over the past 15 years. That's in large part because during that time,we've predominantly experienced La Niña conditions. Climate modelers couldn't predict that ahead of time, but the models that happened to accurately simulate those conditions also accurately predicted the amount of global surface warming we've experienced.

Yu Kosaka and Shang-Ping Xie from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography published a paper in Nature last year taking a similar approach to that of Risbey and colleagues. In that study, the authors ran climate model simulations in which they incorporated the observed Pacific Ocean sea surface temperature changes, essentially forcing the models to accurately reflect the influence from these ocean cycles. When they did that, the authors found that the models simulated the observed global surface temperature changes remarkably well.

The results of these studies give us two important pieces of information:

  1. When they reflect the actual changes in ocean cycles, climate models are quite accurate even in their short-term temperature predictions.
  2. The short-term slowdown in the warming of global surface temperatures is likely predominantly due to these ocean cycles.

The second point is supported by many recent studies finding that unprecedentedly strong Pacific trade winds have been churning the ocean and funneling more heat to the deeper layers, leaving less to warm the surface. All signs point to this being a temporary change, and once the oceans begin to switch back to more frequent El Niño conditions, we expect to see less efficient ocean heat absorption leading to accelerated warming of global surface temperatures.

It's unfortunate that in the meantime, people who don't understand how the climate or modeling work have used the surface warming slowdown to incorrectly argue that climate models aren't reliable and that global warming is nothing to worry about. This new study shows once again that climate models are indeed reliable, and if we don't soon act to slow down human-caused global warming and the risks it poses, we're likely headed for a very bleak future.

Source: The Guardian | 21 July 2014