About this page
Many people seem willing to accept opinions from non-experts in meteorology while relying on experts in other matters. This page suggests where you should start if you really do have an open mind. Astronomers, astro-physicists, oceanographers, for example, may work in closely related fields but will not be experts on climate. Nor will former Chancellors of the Exchequer and many other people who may be eminent in their own fields.
- Climate Change, fact or fiction
- Public perceptions
- Climate - what are the arguments
- Snow in the UK - is it so unusual?
- Some Climate Data
When is a specialist needed?
Like most people, if I feel unwell, I go to a doctor in the first instance. If he diagnoses or suspects something seriously wrong, such as cancer, I would normally expect him to send me to a cancer specialist. Naturally, I would expect that specialist to be in the relevant type of cancer. I would not expect to go to a mental health specialist, a gynaecologist, a dentist, a biologist even though all might know more about cancer than I do. I certainly would not expect to get sent to a meteorologist!
Meteorology is a multi-faceted science with many specialisms. Met Office forecasters who appear on BBC TV and radio have specialist training in their fields, including interpretation of computer generated forecasts to various needs. I have had a wide experience in meteorology as a senior forecaster, cloud physics researcher, stratospheric researcher, director of a branch responsible, inter alia, for maintaining data archives and as Divisional Director of weather observing.
I and the BBC forecasters are generalists. We probably know more than most about the atmosphere and how it works. We will have a good idea about the science of climate change. However, neither I nor they would claim to be experts. Nor would we wish to be involved in detailed climate change arguments but would refer anyone with an open mind to the relevant experts. Indeed, I would recommend anyone seriously interested in climate to do just that. Of course, I recognise that there are those who do not have open minds and are willing to jump to conclusions on the basis of poor evidence and little understanding.
Who are the experts and where can they be found?
First, I would visit the websites of the Royal Meteorological Society and the American Meteorological Society and see what they say. These are independent learned scientific bodies and can be relied upon for a balanced view. I might then ask them directly for advice on which scientists had written reviewed papers on the subject in their journals and those of other similar bodies.
For those who do not understand the principle of peer review, I can write as someone who has been at both ends of the process. Any scientist wishing to publish in journals of such societies has to undergo critical scrutiny of his or her work. Reviewers are anonymous as far as the author(s) is (are) concerned. The reviewer has to consider his or her own reputation with editors and, so, is under pressure to do a sensible and sound job. They are, by nature, likely to be hypercritical.
The Hadley Centre was set up by Mrs Thatcher, arguably one of her more enlightened actions. Its aims were defined as to establish itself as a leading centre in the world in climate research and climate modelling. Its main objective is to provide to government and the public an authoritative assessment of both natural and man-made climate change. The strategic aims of the research programme are:
* To understand the processes influencing climate change and to develop climate models.
- To analyse the observed climate record, including monitoring of climate in near real time and the extent of natural variability.
- To detect climate change and assess the extent to which climate change can be attributed to specific causes.
- To use models to predict climate change, including a full assessment of the uncertainties.
- To advise government policy on the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.
- To provide a focus for relevant national research programmes and use results from them.
An important factor in the study of climate in recent years has been the increasing perception of the many inter-actions between atmosphere, oceans and earth. The Hadley Centre has had to involve experts from many disciplines including atmospheric chemistry, the biosphere, the cryosphere, the stratosphere, the physics and chemistry of the oceans, etc etc.
The Centre was established as part of the Met Office for good practical reasons such as the existence of the top scientists in the field and the economy of scale regarding the use of super-computers. Nevertheless, the Centre has staff from many countries, often on short term exchanges.
There can be few better places to start to understand about climate, how it is changing and what are the possible causes. see Climate change pages on the Hadley Centre pages of the Met Office website.
Why is meteorology so often misunderstood?
The most likely reason is that we live in the atmosphere and think that we understand it. For thousands of years man has tried to predict the weather using basic observations and experience. There have been many, often rather poor and unsatisfactory, attempts to describe commonly experienced events in terms understandable to the lay person. I do not think that I have ever seen a good description of a sea breeze in a geography text book or an RYA publication. Gusts and their behaviour are not well understood, even by many forecasters. I have met forecasters who could not give a correct explanation of the Coriolis effect.
It is not surprising that members of the general public look for simplistic explanations where they do not and cannot exist. In the early post-war days of trans-Atlantic flights, aircraft passing over NW England often made condensation trails. Sometimes, these would be seen to persist and spread out. Later there would be rain. The man on a Manchester omnibus was led to think that the rain was a result of the moisture put into the air by the aircraft - "It stands to reason, dunnit?" Any meteorologist would know that, ahead of a warm front, air that is rising will become more humid, therefore condensation trails will persist and may well grow to merge with the pre-frontal cirro-stratus. Yes, persistent condensation trails may well presage a warm front but cannot be the cause of the rain.
I tell that true story as a simple example of what can all too easily be done by non-experts when trying to understand the atmosphere. Too often people, who may be well known make statements and assertions with no supporting evidence other than a stated or implied "It stands to reason, dunnit?" Because they are well known and have a high profile, they are believed, even though, in reality, they do not understand the science.
So, what do the statistics show?
I have discussed some misunderstandings and misconception son my page Public perceptions and will not repeat them here. I did point out that much nonsense was written and spoken about the University of East Anglia and their use of temperature records from different locations. This has been done in the UK for temperature records back for about 350 years. Anyone wishing to read about this can start with Wikipedia. This shows a
diagram of annual average temperature over central England since about 1650.
The Central England Temperature Series. (Here and below, click on the thumbnails.)
That graph is, of course, only a small start of the story and is based upon data that can certainly be queried. Reliable data are really only available from recent years but they do lend support to the fact that climate is changing. This diagram of global average temperatures shows data compiled by three separate organisations. The UK Hadley Centre, the NOAA National Climate Data Center and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Science. Importantly, the diagram show error bars.
Do these data mean anything?
By themselves, the answer is probably NO although a closer examination and the use of surrogate data from ice cores and other sources do show that warming on the global scale is happening faster than ever in the past. The statistics can also be used to suggest the effects of man.
However, statistics in isolation do little to advance science. They can only suggest what to look for as possible physical causes of observed effects. They can help to verify physical understandings.
The real answer has to come from modelling the atmosphere and trying to examine different scenarios. Global numerical climate models are the same as Numerical Weather Prediction models. The main differences are in how the models are run. For day to day forecasting, a detailed analysis is essential and forecasts are run for periods of a few days. Over these periods, changes in land use, chemical content of the atmosphere and so on can be ignored.
For monthly, seasonal, annual and century forecasting, effects such as changes in solar heating, air-sea-land interactions, land use, atmospheric chemistry and other effects can all be included. It is possible to look at effects of major volcanoes, changes in the earth's orbit, changes in sunspot activity and other factors. How good the models are is always going to be a matter of some uncertainty. One way to look at this is to compare model results with actuality. This diagram shows how the climate model has been able to replicate average world temperatures over the past 150 years,
Modelled versus observed global average temperatures"]].
I hope that this page will encourage greater use of advice from those who really know about the science rather than those who may be experts in other fields. Scientists are by nature cautious. Where there are doubts, they will say so and be all too ready to indicate uncertainties in their findings.
Whether you have well researched doubts regarding the science of global warming or whether your scepticism is of a more intuitive nature, I suggest that it is sesnible to heed the advice that the best available science can provide. Obviously we must keep on improving understanding. We must also be looking at the realities of fossil fuel availability and the costs of extraction.