IPCC vs Reality: Who Got it Right?

How did the projections from the IPCC 3rd and 4th reports match up against recorded temps for the last decade?

WHO: Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany
Grant Foster, Tempo Analytics, Garland, Maine, USA
Anny Cazenave, Laboratoire d’Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales, Toulouse, France

WHAT: Comparing the projections from the IPCC 3rd report in 2001 and the IPCC 4th report in 2007 to the observed climate data to 2011

WHEN: November 2012

WHERE: Environmental Research Letters Vol 7, No. 4 (2012)

TITLE: Comparing climate projections to observations up to 2011

The IPCC. It is the favourite punching bag of climate deniers and conspiracy theorists alike, who all like to claim that the reports are faulty or flawed or incorrect. So these researchers decided with the 5th Assessment Report due soon to go back to the 3rd and 4th reports, check what was in the projections and see how accurate they were on temperature rise and sea level rise. Kind of like a mid-term report card!

Five years ago, the CO2 concentration and global temperatures were closely following the projections of the IPCC 3rd report, and sea level rise was tracking along the upper limit of the uncertainty range. So where the sea level rise projections were plus or minus several millimetres a decade, the observed data was only on the plus side. How did the projections look with an extra five years of data?

The IPCC projections didn’t attempt to include the effect of solar variability, volcanic eruptions or El Niño in their temperature models because those things are random and therefore pretty impossible to predict in the future. The observed data was adjusted to remove the random variability from solar, volcanic and El Niño effects so that the researchers were comparing apples to apples when trying to assess the accuracy of the IPCC projections. For those playing at home, they used a multivariate correlation analysis (yeah, I love those too!).

The data adjustment removed the cold anomaly from the 1992/3 Mt Pinatubo eruption, and the ‘exceptionally high’ 1998 temperature maximum from the extreme El Niño event.  The observed data showed warming of 0.3oC from 1990 to 2011. The IPCC 3rd report projected 0.2-0.4oC warming to 2011 and the 4th report projected 0.3-0.5oC warming. So for temperature increases, the IPCC was pretty much spot on.

3rd report projections in blue, 4th report projections in green, observed data in red, shaded areas are the uncertainty range. (from paper)

3rd report projections in blue, 4th report projections in green, observed data in red, shaded areas are the uncertainty range. (from paper)

So what about sea level rise? The IPCC got that one wrong, but not in a way that climate deniers can celebrate – they underestimated it by 60%.

Sea level rise: measured data in red, third assessment in blue, fourth assessment in green (from paper)

Sea level rise: measured data in red, third assessment in blue, fourth assessment in green (from paper)

The IPCC best assessment was 2.0mm per year of sea level rise, and the satellite based recorded data is actually 3.2mm per year (±0.5mm error range). The researchers tried to work out if the huge difference between the projection and the recorded data was because of variability over recent decades, and decided it was unlikely because the IPCC similarly underestimated the sea level rise from 1961-2003. It was even more unlikely because the rate of sea level rise over the past 130 years has a ‘highly significant correlation with global temperature’.

This is scientist for almost identical, because those of you that read the IPCC 3rd report will remember that when the IPCC says ‘very likely’ they mean there’s a 90-99% chance it will happen. Talk about understatement.

What did the IPCC miss for sea level rise? Well firstly, it’s worth mentioning that most of the world’s scientific community didn’t expect humanity to ignore them when they warned of climate change, so their predictions were more conservative as they hoped we wouldn’t keep burning carbon at greater and greater rates as we are currently doing.

The key part though is ‘future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow’ which is scientist for big and unexpected changes, like the Arctic Death Spiral we had this summer where they found the Arctic was melting about 80 years ahead of schedule. The Arctic wasn’t supposed to be ice free in the summer from climate change until 2100, but we might get to see it as early as 2020.

What does that mean for future climate change projections? Well, it’s not pretty. So far the IPCC has been either seriously accurate (yay science!) or their worst case scenario underestimated what we’re actually doing to the planet. Which means that while the picture that the IPCC paints doesn’t look very appealing, it seems that reality could be a whole lot worse. My suggestion once again is that we stop burning carbon.


Brisbane floods 2011 (photo: Eric Veland, flickr)


Too Hot in Texas

New modelling of climate change effects on mosquito populations in the United States has surprising results – it might get too hot in summer even for the mosquitoes

WHO: R A Erickson, S M Presley, Department of Environmental Toxicology, and Institute of Environmental and Human Health, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas
K Hayhoe, Department of Political Science, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas
L J S Allen, Institute of Environmental and Human Health, and Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas
K R Long, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas
S B Cox, Department of Environmental Toxicology, and Institute of Environmental and Human Health, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas and Research and Testing Laboratory, LLC, Lubbock, Texas

WHAT: Population modelling for the Asian Tiger mosquito which carries dengue fever under two climate change scenarios

WHEN: 5 July 2012

WHERE: Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 7, No. 3 (July-Sept 2012)

TITLE: Potential impacts of climate change on the ecology of dengue and its mosquito vector the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus)

This group of researchers in Texas decided it would be interesting to look at different climate change emissions scenarios from the IPCC and see what the effect of climate change might be on everybody’s ‘friend’ the Asian Tiger mosquito. For those of you who haven’t met the Asian Tiger mosquito, it is the type that carries dengue fever, which makes you very sick. So understandably, how climate change affects the population spread of this mosquito is pretty important.

The Asian Tiger mosquito is not your friend (Wikipedia)

The researchers looked at three localised areas in the US to run their model – Lubbock TX (where their University is), Atlanta GA, and to look at the potential geographical spread of the mosquito; Chicago IL.

Many of the predicted consequences of climate change are currently happening decades ahead of schedule, and one of the consequences is the expansion of the tropical belt by around 2- 4.8o latitude since 1979. This wasn’t expected to occur until 2100, so it means mosquitoes could be moving north faster than previously predicted.

The climate scenarios used were the A1FI (high emissions) and B1 (medium emissions) from the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, which relate to approximately 970ppm (A1FI) and 550ppm (B1) of CO2 in the atmosphere. To give some context for those numbers, we’re currently sitting at 391ppm. 550ppm is where feedback loops have already kicked in and there are large ocean ‘dead zones’ where there’s not enough oxygen for plant and animal life. 970ppm is the IPCC’s ‘worst case scenario’ where there is mass biodiversity loss and a high likelihood of mass extinction events.

IPCC Emissions Scenarios A1FI (above) and B1 (below)

Anyway, back to mosquitoes. The researchers used three of the world’s best and most detailed climate models; the CM3 model from the UK’s Hadley Centre, the National Centre for Atmospheric Research model in Colorado, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s CM2.1 model. They used the mean temperature data from their three locations and combined it with the climate model to work out what the average temperatures might look like under the scenarios. Then they applied those conditions to mosquito populations to see what might change.

What they found was very interesting, and not what the researchers had originally expected. While the population size and duration of the mosquito season in Chicago increased across the board along with the potential dengue fever outbreak size, in Lubbock and Atlanta the mid-summer temperatures got too hot even for the mosquitoes.

Chicago (left) and Lubbock (right) with mid and end of century predictions. Chicago has an increase in mosquito population while Lubbock has a noticeable mid-summer die-off of mosquitoes (from paper)

While the mosquito season in Lubbock started earlier and had a potential for greater dengue fever outbreaks, the super-hot summer temperatures under both of the climate change scenarios modelled led to mosquitoes dying and a reduction in potential dengue fever outbreaks. This could have many social and health policy ramifications in the areas studied and also shows that the local level effects of climate change may manifest in ways we haven’t previously thought of.

Humans are notoriously difficult to predict and we don’t know yet what humanity will do about climate change in the near future. This gets combined with natural systems and feedbacks that are highly integrated and complex which means one seemingly unrelated process may be triggered in another previously unrelated process.

However, complexity doesn’t mean that models aren’t relevant or useful and the proverbial baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. Models give us a range of possibilities to plan for and allow humans the opportunity to act in our own long term best interests.

Currently, we’re not acting for our long term well being, and humanity is currently burning carbon at a rate that matches or beats the A1FI high emissions scenario that very probably leads to mass extinction, including humans. Which means that now would be the time to stop burning fossil fuels. Before Texas becomes so scorching hot that even the mosquitoes die from the mid-summer heat.