What’s the Warmest Year – and Does it Matter?

Cross-posted from NextGenJournal

Climate change is a worrying phenomenon, but watching it unfold can be fascinating. The beginning of a new year brings completed analysis of what last year’s conditions were like. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited annual statistic is global temperature.

This year was no different – partway through 2010, scientists could tell that it had a good chance of being the warmest year on record. It turned out to be more or less tied for first, as top temperature analysis centres recently announced:

Why the small discrepancy in the order of  1998, 2005, and 2010? The answer is mainly due to the Arctic. Weather stations in the Arctic region are few and far between, as it’s difficult to have a permanent station on ice floes that move around, and are melting away. Scientists, then, have two choices in their analyses: extrapolate Arctic temperature anomalies from the stations they do have, or just leave the missing areas out, assuming that they’re warming at the global average rate. The first choice might lead to results that are off in either direction…but the second choice almost certainly underestimates warming, as it’s clear that climate change is affecting the Arctic much more and much faster than the global average. Currently, NASA is the only centre to do extrapolation in Arctic data. A more detailed explanation is available here.

But how useful is an annual measurement of global temperature? Not very, as it turns out. Short-term climate variability, most prominently El Nino and La Nina, impact annual temperatures significantly. Furthermore, since this oscillation occurs in the winter, the thermal influence of El Nino or La Nina can fall entirely into one calendar year, or be split between two. The result is a graph that’s rather spiky:

A far more useful analysis involves plotting a 12-month running mean. Instead of measuring only from January to December, measurements are also compiled from February to January, March to February, and so on. This results in twelve times more data points, and prevents El Nino and La Nina events from being exaggerated:

This graph is better, but still not that useful. The natural spikiness of the El Nino cycle can, in the short term, get in the way of understanding the underlying trend. Since the El Nino cycle takes between 3 and 7 years to complete, a 60-month (5-year) running mean allows the resulting ups and downs to cancel each other out. Another cycle that impacts short-term temperature is the sunspot cycle, which operates on an 11-year cycle. A 132-month running mean smooths out that influence too. Both 60- and 132- month running means are shown below:

A statistic every month that shows the average global temperature over the last 5 or 11 years may not be as exciting as an annual measurement regarding the previous year. But that’s the reality of climate change. It doesn’t make every month or even every year warmer than the last, and a short-term trend line means virtually nothing. In the climate system, trends are always obscured by noise, and the nature of human psychology means we pay far more attention to noise. Nonetheless, the long-term warming trend since around 1975 is irrefutable when one is presented with the data. A gradual, persistent change might not make the greatest headline, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth ignoring.

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4 thoughts on “What’s the Warmest Year – and Does it Matter?

  1. OK, I’m guessing they are centered means, so 2003, is the mean from 2001-2005, which explains why the chart doesn’t run thru 2010.

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