Wednesday, January 4, 2012
In discussion on yesterday's post, commenter Chris R. pointed me to another recent Hansen paper (with coauthors M. Sato and R. Ruedy) Climate Variability and Climate Change: The New Climate Dice. I will explain the thrust of the paper by focussing on this part of Figure 4:
So the way to read the x-axis scale is that "-2" say is a summer that would be "two sigmas" below the average summer for a particular location and would thus be an unusually cool summer that we would only expect to occur in a few percent of years (assuming the 1951-1980 climate), while a "+3" is an extremely hot summer that would likely be hotter than any summer in living memory (again, assuming a stationary climate like that of 1951-1980).
So, as we would expect, the distributions shift to the right over time - in the 2000s, an average summer would have been a "+1" - one sigma above the mean - in 1951-1980. However, the really eye opening thing is that the distributions are not just shifting to the right but also getting broader - by a lot. What that means is that the probability of extremely hot scorching summers is getting bigger much faster than we'd expect just from the shift in the mean temperature. The globe is not just getting warmer, it's also getting more variable in temperature at the same time and this increase in variability is really noticeable.
For those of us over about 40, you can basically think of the baseline period 1951-1980 as "like my childhood". So then a "+2" would be roughly "hottest summer in my childhood". A "+3" would be "a summer that would have been the hottest in living memory - almost inconceivably hot in the climate I grew up in". But by the 2000s, such a summer would occur in about 10% of the years in that same location (This is the global average chance - some places have done better, others worse. You'll have to make the obvious corrections if you've moved around).
Thus it becomes almost immediately obvious that events such as the Moscow 2010 summer or the Texas 2011 summer are indeed features of the new climate and would have been very unlikely had the climate not shifted. It's also clear that there's much worse on the way. Indeed, the first thing I wanted to do when I saw the figure above was construct the extrapolation. So I did my own hand fit to Hansen et al's figure in order to extract the mean and standard deviation of the rescaled summers - these look like this:
You can see that the distribution is getting broader at about half the rate that it's moving rightwards (ie to the hot).
That let me make this extrapolation for the 2050 climate:
You can see my fits to Hansen et al's data as the thin lines, but the main point of the figure is the heavy plum colored line which is my 2050 extrapolation. So this is what to expect by mid century if recent trends continue. There's no guarantee that they will of course, but it's probably a better guess than anything else. And if they do, we are looking at the average summer being almost a "+2" on the 1951-1980 scale. And the "+3" "hotter than living memory" type events will be occurring around 1 year in 4 or so. And "+4" and "+5" events that would have been completely inconceivable will be happening often enough to notice - you'll likely experience a "+4" summer for your climate and, at a minimum, you'll be reading about the "+5" events in the news if you are lucky enough not to experience one.
This does not mean that every summer will be a killer summer. The broadening of the distribution means that it's still possible to very occasionally get to very cool "-2" summers. A "cooler than average" summer in the 1951-1980 distribution will become a 1 in 5 event in 2050 rather than a 1 in 2 event - but they won't stop altogether. Still, under these circumstances, it's perhaps not surprising that PDSI projections are saying there will be a lot more drought.
Nothing is going to be the same.