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Q&A with Benjamin Santer and Tom Wigley

Media Kit: News Release | Q&A with Study Authors

The principal authors discuss the rationale and methods used in the paper "Forced and unforced ocean temperature changes in Atlantic and Pacific tropical cyclogenesis regions," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (see news release for full citation).

Why investigate regional temperature change in the oceans?

Our work was largely motivated by Kerry Emanuel's 2005 Nature paper. Emanuel's paper provided compelling scientific evidence of a link between changes in sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and changes in hurricane intensity. His research focused on those portions of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean where intense tropical cyclones form (typically referred to as "hurricanes" in the Atlantic or "typhoons" in the Pacific). In these cyclogenesis, or hurricane-formation, regions, Emanuel found a strong correlation between historical increases in SSTs and increases in hurricane intensity, based on maximum wind speeds.

Two subsequent papers in Science (by Webster et al. and Hoyos et al.) reported that historical increases in the number of severe (category 4 and 5) hurricanes were also closely related to SST increases in hurricane breeding grounds.

Taken together, these three papers suggested that it was important to learn as much as we could about the possible causes of SST changes in these key Atlantic and Pacific hurricane-formation regions.

But didn't scientists already know a lot about the causes of SST increases?

Yes and no. It is true that many so-called "detection and attribution" (D&A) studies had attempted to understand the causes of observed changes in the Earth's surface temperature. In most cases, however, D&A research has looked at combined changes in land and ocean surface temperatures rather than at changes in SSTs only. The focus of most previous work has been on global- and continental-scale patterns of surface temperature change, rather than on temperature changes in relatively small regions (such as the hurricane-formation regions that we studied).

Those large-scale D&A studies showed that the observed warming of the land and ocean surface over the second half of the 20th century could not be explained by natural climate variability alone. The common denominator in this work was that a substantial human contribution was required in order to explain the observed warming. At the onset of our investigation, however, it was not clear that these large-scale D&A results were transferable to the much smaller scales of hurricane-formation regions.

Did any previous detection and attribution investigations look specifically at ocean temperatures?

Yes. Several D&A studies (such as the 2005 Science paper by Tim Barnett and colleagues at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography) have considered changes in the heat content of the ocean. The focus of this type of work has been on changes at large spatial scales (averaged over the entire globe, or over individual ocean basins, for example).

There are only a few recent papers (by Knutson et al. and Karoly and Wu) that have tried to look at the causes of more localized changes in SSTs. These papers have relied on a relatively small number of computer models (2-3) to make inferences about the levels of natural climate variability of SSTs.

If previous work examined only a few climate models, did you look at a larger collection of climate model results?

We looked at output from over 80 simulations performed with 22 different climate models. These are computer models of the atmosphere, ocean, and sea ice. The models were developed at 15 research institutions around the world. We archive results from these models at Lawrence Livermore National Lab (an activity sponsored by the Office of Science of the U.S. Dept. of Energy).

Why do you need to use computer models?

Observed climate changes are the result of many different factors, and it is difficult to separate out the individual climate effects of these different factors using observations alone. Models are helpful in disentangling these effects.

In the real world, we are performing an unprecedented, and uncontrolled, geophysical experiment. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we've been burning fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) that emit greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Land use changes, such as deforestation, also contribute.

We know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that these activities have changed the chemical composition of Earth's atmosphere. We also know that greenhouse gases have important heat-trapping properties. It's virtually certain that the burning of fossil fuels has made a major contribution to the global-scale surface warming we've observed over the last century. Estimating the contributions of human activities to regional-scale climate change is a more challenging problem.

Unfortunately, the geophysical experiment that we are performing with our planet doesn't have a "control." In other words, we do not have a parallel "undisturbed Earth," with no human-caused changes in greenhouse gases, against which we could compare our present situation. Without such a control experiment, we have to resort to other means to estimate how the Earth's climate might have evolved in the absence of human influences.

We do this by performing the idealized control experiments that we can't conduct in the real world. In a computer model, we can fix atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases at pre-Industrial values. We then run the model with these fixed greenhouse gas levels, and simulate hundreds of years of undisturbed climate. This provides invaluable estimates of "climate noise"—the climate variability that arises purely from natural interactions between the atmosphere and ocean. El Niños and La Niñas are good examples of natural climate noise.

So one possibility is that the observed SST changes in the hurricane-formation regions could be explained by the noise of natural climatic variability. Did you examine this possibility?

Yes we did; and we found that the observed SST increases in these hurricane-formation regions were generally much larger than model estimates of climate noise. Figure 2 from our paper shows this quite clearly, particularly for SST changes over the last 100 years (from 1906 to 2005). It's on such long, century time scales that we'd expect to see clearest evidence of climate warming caused by gradual increases in greenhouse gases.

How reliable are these computer model estimates of climate noise?

That's a difficult question to answer briefly, partly because the characteristics of climate noise are different on different timescales. In our case, we are most interested in the properties of climate noise on timescales ranging from several decades out to a century. Information about the noise on these longer timescales is crucially important, because we wish to determine whether a slowly-evolving human effect on climate (arising from gradual increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels) is beginning to emerge from this background noise.

If we wished to use the observations themselves to quantify noise on these decade-to-century timescales, we would need long, continuous, and reliable records from instruments measuring SST changes in hurricane-formation regions. These records would have to stretch back for hundreds of years, to well before the start of the Industrial Revolution. The early parts of such records would provide information about SST changes in the absence of human interference. We could then determine whether the observed SST changes over the 20th century were unusually large. At best, however, SST records cover only the last 150 years. Even these records do not provide information about "pure" climate noise—they are contaminated by the warming caused by human activities.

This leaves us with a tricky problem. Since we can't estimate the century-timescale climate noise directly from observations, we must instead estimate it with computer models. We obtained noise information from most of the world's computer models (as shown in our Figure 2). Using many different models allows us to assess the effects of differences between models. We find these differences to be unimportant.

Although we can't easily test how well models simulate climate noise on timescales of centuries, we can check how well they do on timescales of a decade or shorter. On these timescales, we have up to 15 independent samples of decade-long fluctuations in SST from instrumental measurements, so it's meaningful to compare modeled and observed estimates of climate noise. If models successfully reproduced observed climate noise on these shorter timescales, this would give us some confidence in their ability to reliably simulate climate noise on longer timescales.

So, did you test model variability on these shorter timescales?

Yes. We made these comparisons on two different timescales. We looked at both the year-to-year and the decade-to-decade SST variability in Emanuel's hurricane-formation regions. Our noise comparisons involved observations on the one hand and model simulations of 20th century climate change on the other. Unlike the control runs described earlier, these 20th century experiments use computer models based on our best estimates of historical changes in such things as atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, the Sun's energy output, volcanic aerosols (particles and gases that can absorb or reflect heat), etc. The SSTs in these 20th century runs typically increase over the 20th century. From each modeled and observed SST data set, we subtracted the overall warming trend, and then estimated the climate noise from what remains (the so-called residuals).

What did you find?

In terms of the year-to-year SST variability, models and observations agreed reasonably well. More importantly, there was no indication that the models we used systematically underestimated the observed SST variability. A systematic underestimate of SST variability would imply that models weren't simulating enough climate noise, thus reducing confidence in our finding that the observed SST changes could not be explained by climate noise alone.

Results were more ambiguous for the decade-to-decade SST variability. On these timescales, the majority of models underestimated observed SST variability in the Atlantic hurricane-formation region and overestimated SST variability in the Pacific region. If these errors "leaked" into the longer century-scale noise estimates, they would have different implications for the two regions we considered.

In the Pacific, climate noise would be even less likely to explain the observed SST changes in the Pacific. In the Atlantic, however, we may have underestimated the true contribution of climate noise to observed SST changes. But this is unlikely to negate our key results. The models that we used would have to underestimate Atlantic SST noise by a factor of 2 or 3 for noise to explain all of the observed warming in the Atlantic hurricane-formation region.

So, you eliminated climate noise as the primary explanation for observed SST changes. How, then, did you reach the conclusion that the warming in the Atlantic and Pacific hurricane-formation regions was primarily driven by human-caused changes in greenhouse gases, as opposed to changes in other external factors, like the Sun's energy output?

We did this by analyzing results from one particular computer model: the Parallel Climate Model (PCM) jointly developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. During the late 1990s at NCAR, Warren Washington and Gerald Meehl performed a suite of "single forcing" experiments with the PCM. In these runs, external factors that influence climate were changed individually rather than in concert. In one experiment, only greenhouse gases were varied (according to their historical changes over the late 19th and 20th centuries). In another experiment, only tropospheric and stratospheric ozone levels were changed, and so on.

This elegant set of experiments allowed us to quantify the contributions of five different factors to the SST changes in the hurricane-formation regions. In these PCM studies, human-caused increases in greenhouse gases were by far the largest single contribution to the overall warming of SSTs.

Didn't you also find that massive volcanic eruptions contribute to some of the "wiggles" in the time series of observed SST changes?

That's right. Our analysis provides compelling evidence that big volcanic eruptions have pronounced short-term (2- to 3-year) cooling effects on SSTs, even in relatively small regions of ocean real estate (like Emanuel's hurricane-formation regions). We also see such cooling effects in 20th century computer runs that include historical changes in volcanic aerosols. However, these are short-term influences, and they cannot explain the SST increases over the 20th century.

The bottom line is that climate noise and the short-term effects of volcanic eruptions do have some influence on SST variations in the Atlantic and Pacific hurricane-formation regions, but these influences are small relative to the effects of human activities—particularly the effects of human-caused increases in greenhouse gases.

—Ben Santer and Tom Wigley
Revised September 6, 2006


The National Center for Atmospheric Research and UCAR Office of Programs are operated by UCAR under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation and other agencies. Opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of any of UCAR's sponsors.

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