The science questions following a global deal on climate

15 12 2015

There has been a huge amount of worldwide media coverage following the weekend’s announcement of a globally agreed deal to try to limit global warming to 2 °C or less. Here Professor Stephen Belcher, the Director of the Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services, discusses some of the scientific questions raised by the agreement.

At the heart of the Paris agreement is the aim to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels”*. Why 2 °C? Because global governments have previously agreed this is an achievable target which could reduce some of the most dangerous impacts of climate change – such as melting of ice in places like the Greenland which would cause large scale sea level rise.

The agreement went even further, however, by saying efforts should be pursued to “limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C”. This is a more ambitious target, especially given news from the Met Office in November that the world has reached the 1 °C above pre-industrial marker for the first time this year.

It raises some interesting questions for scientists as to how we can achieve this: how much do we need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions? How quickly do we need to make those cuts? What else might we need to do to be able to keep warming to 1.5 °C – for example, would we need to develop technologies that actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere? If temperatures overshot 1.5 °C and then reduced to 1.5 °C, would sea level also overshoot and then reduce?

To answer these questions more precisely will require scientists to get an even more detailed understanding of how sensitive our climate is to CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Key to this will be improving understanding of what we call ‘Earth system feedbacks’. These are natural feedback processes which could either increase or decrease the amount of warming we might expect in response to a given amount of greenhouse gases. For example, we know that there are stores of greenhouse gases ‘locked away’ under frozen ground (permafrost) in some parts of the world, such as northern  Russia. If that permafrost melts due to climate change, the gases would be released – which could further increase warming.

Scientists around the world are already working on providing answers to these questions by developing a new breed of ‘Earth System Models’ (essentially complex simulations of our planet run on powerful supercomputers), which take more of these feedback processes into account, and so will help inform planning of emissions to achieve the warming targets agreed in Paris.

Whether we limit warming to 2 °C or 1.5 °C, it’s clear we can expect some further change to our global climate over the coming decades. Research shows us that this will lead to some impacts and it’s vital that we understand in more detail what this means at a regional and local level.

For example, research tells us that some parts of the world can expect more extreme weather – including heat waves and increases in extreme rainfall. For those planning everything from future homes, to flood defences, to vital infrastructure, the detail on what to expect is essential.

Again, these are questions which science is already working to answer by harnessing new research and ever more powerful supercomputing technology. At the Met Office, we’ve published papers showing that we can expect more intense summer downpours for the UK in future – which raises the risk of flash flooding. We’ve also shown how the chances of summer heatwaves in Europe have dramatically increased.

There’s still much more work to do in this area and it will be vital that the information generated by this research is presented in a way that allows everyone to make informed decisions about how we can become more resilient to our climate – whatever changes we can expect.

*There’s a lot of scientific debate about exactly what ‘pre-industrial levels’ means and how you would measure that, but here we use the average of temperatures during the period 1850-1899 as our representation.





Climate change and weather caught in a media storm

11 12 2015

December so far has been characterised by intense media discussions about climate change and its relationship to weather.

Early in the month, the Met Office welcomed the BBC Trust report, which recognised there was a serious breach of their editorial guidelines and that the What’s the Point of the.. Met Office programme, aired in August, had failed to make clear that the Met Office’s underlying views on climate change science were supported by the majority of scientists.

Trustees considered audiences were not given sufficient information about prevailing scientific opinion to allow them to assess the position of the Met Office and the Met Office position on these criticisms was not adequately included in the programme.

In the wake of Storm Desmond, there have been further media comments about the relationship between climate change and weather.

On Monday, in a blog, we were very clear not to link the record-breaking rainfall with climate change.  This is what Professor Dame Julia Slingo, Met Office Chief Scientist has said: “It’s too early to say definitively whether climate change has made a contribution to the exceptional rainfall. We anticipated a wet, stormy start to winter in our three-month outlooks, associated with the strong El Niño and other factors.

“However, just as with the stormy winter of two years ago, all the evidence from fundamental physics, and our understanding of our weather systems, suggests there may be a link between climate change and record-breaking winter rainfall. Last month, we published a paper showing that for the same weather pattern, an extended period of extreme UK winter rainfall is now seven times more likely than in a world without human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

So, we have been clear: it’s not easy to link a single weather event to climate change, but last weekend’s record rainfall aligns with the pattern highlighted by our scientists. The Met Office expects an increase in heavy rainfall associated with climate change and this is an active area of research. A recent paper by the Met Office’s Mike Kendon highlights several key findings connected with rainfall records:

  • Since 2000 there have been almost 10 times as many wet records as dry records.
  • Remarkably, the period since 2010 accounts for more wet records than any other decade – even though this is only a five-year period. It also includes the winter of 2013/14: the wettest on record.

Guided by peer-reviewed science, the Met Office recognises the climate is changing, and with that comes an expectation that more records will be broken.





Did climate change have an impact on Storm Desmond?

7 12 2015

The exceptional rainfall in Cumbria over the past few days saw the fall of numerous records and has led many to ask whether it is linked to climate change. The records are based on digitised data going back to the 19th Century.

A gauge at Honister Pass recorded 341.4mm of rainfall in the 24-hours up to 1800 GMT on 5 December 2015, making for a new UK record for any 24-hour period. This beat the previous record of 316.4mm set in November 2009 at Seathwaite, also in Cumbria. A new 48-hour record (from 0900 to 0900 hrs) was also set, when 405mm was recorded at Thirlmere in Cumbria in just 38 hrs.

The weekend’s record rainfall was associated with a persistent, south-westerly flow bringing a ‘river of moisture’ from as far away as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Ocean temperatures in the West Atlantic are currently well above normal and may well have contributed to the very high levels of moisture in the air masses which unleashed rainfall on the Cumbrian fells.

Professor Dame Julia Slingo, Met Office Chief Scientist, says “It’s too early to say definitively whether climate change has made a contribution to the exceptional rainfall. We anticipated a wet, stormy start to winter in our three-month outlooks, associated with the strong El Niño and other factors.

“However, just as with the stormy winter of two years ago, all the evidence from fundamental physics, and our understanding of our weather systems, suggests there may be a link between climate change and record-breaking winter rainfall. Last month, we published a paper showing that for the same weather pattern, an extended period of extreme UK winter rainfall is now seven times more likely than in a world without human emissions of greenhouse gases.”





2015 likely to be the warmest on record

25 11 2015

This year’s global average surface temperature is likely to be the warmest on record according to data from the Met Office, and is expected to continue the trend showing 15 of the top 16 warmest years have happened since 2001.

These findings concur with the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) findings also announced today.

2015 a more ‘clear-cut’ record

Provisional figures up to the end of October show this year’s near-surface global temperature as estimated from the HadCRUT dataset has been around 0.71 ±0.1 °C above the 1961-1990 average of 14.0 °C.

This is in-line with the Met Office’s forecast, issued in December 2014, which predicted 2015 global temperatures would be between 0.52 °C and 0.76 °C* above the 1961-1990 average, with a central estimate of 0.64 °C.

In HadCRUT, this year is clearly warmer than 2014, the previous nominal warmest year in the record, which was 0.57 ±0.1 °C above the 1961-1990 average.

Global Temperature graph

Colin Morice, a climate monitoring scientist at the Met Office, said: “Last year was nominally the warmest year in our records but wasn’t much higher than the other top warmest years. This year the temperature is markedly warmer than anything we’ve previously seen in the 166-year record, meaning its position at the top of the rankings looks set to be much more clear cut.”

 

The HadCRUT dataset, jointly compiled by the Met Office and Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, uses data from more than 6, 000 observation sites around the world and observations from ships and buoys at sea. It is recognised as one of the world’s leading indices of global temperature.

Temperatures 1 °C above ‘pre-industrial’ for first time

2015 is set to mark the first time in the record that annual global temperatures reach 1 °C above ‘pre-industrial’ temperatures (taken here as an average of the 1850-1900 period*).

This is important because governments around the world have agreed the aim of trying to limit warming to 2 °C or less above pre-industrial to try to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

Leading independently-run datasets agree

Findings from HadCRUT are very similar to independently-run global temperature datasets compiled by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

Information from all three datasets is included in an announcement from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on global temperature, which also concludes this year is likely to be the warmest on record.

Where did 2015’s warmth come from?

This year has seen a strong El Niño develop, with unusually warm sea surface temperatures across the Tropical Pacific, releasing heat into the atmosphere and pushing up global temperatures.

Global Temperature chart

Global Temperature chart

While this has contributed to 2015’s warmth, this is likely to be comparatively small compared to the long-term influence of warming caused by human greenhouse gas emissions.

This is backed up by research from the Met Office last year which showed global temperatures seen in recent years would be highly unlikely in a world without human influence on the climate.

What’s in store for the year ahead?

Last year saw record or near record warmth globally, this year is warmer still and the current expectation is that next year will also be warm.

This is due to two factors: firstly, the ongoing warming due to human influence, and secondly although the current El Niño is expected to peak around the end of this year, its main warming influence is usually felt in the months afterwards. For example, a strong El Niño peaked at the end of 1997 – but it was 1998 which went on to become a record (at the time) by some margin.

There are other natural factors – such as changes in longer term ocean cycles or volcanic eruptions – which could act to reduce global temperatures next year, so there will always be some uncertainty.

The Met Office will give more detail in the expected global temperature for 2016 when it publishes its forecast in the latter part of December.

 

* While late 19th century temperatures are commonly taken to be indicative of pre-industrial, there is no fixed period that is used as standard and a variety of other periods have been used for observational and palaeo datasets. There are limitations in available data in the early instrumental record, making the average temperature in the reference period less certain. There is not a reliable indicator of global temperatures back to 1750, which is the era widely assumed to represent pre-industrial conditions. Therefore 1850-1900 is chosen here as the most reliable reference period, which also corresponds to the period chosen by IPCC to represent a suitable earlier reference period.





So what happened to our summer?

28 08 2015

Our Chief Scientist Professor Dame Julia Slingo OBE FRS reflects on this summer’s weather and what has influenced it:

No-one can deny that we have had a pretty disappointing summer with a lot of unsettled weather and only a few warm spells, especially through July and August. Our weather has been dominated by low pressure over and to the west of the country that has brought us periods of heavy rain from the south – what we call the Spanish Plume. So what has been happening?

If we look beyond our shores there have been some big changes in the global climate this year. El Niño is in full flight, disturbing weather patterns around the world. The low pressure that has dominated our weather is part of a pattern of waves in the jet stream around the world that has brought crippling heat waves to places like Poland and Japan. And, looking back over past El Niños, you could have expected that a more unsettled summer might be on the cards for the UK. Closer to home the North Atlantic is more than 2 degrees colder than normal. It seems quite likely that the unusually cold North Atlantic has strengthened and pushed our jet stream south, also contributing to the low pressure systems that have dominated our weather.

So could all this have been anticipated? Seasonal forecasts for this summer suggested that temperatures and rainfall would be near normal. However, as the season progressed all the leading models around the world failed to capture the signal for unsettled weather over the UK. We all know that forecasting months and seasons ahead is still in its infancy and much more research needs to be done. On the other hand our day-to-day forecasts have been really successful in allowing us to warn of bad weather, highlighting yet again the benefits of our research that has delivered year-on-year and decade-by-decade improvements in forecasting skill. Our 5-day forecast is now as accurate as our 1-day forecast was when I started my career. This enables us to make so many decisions that keep us safe, protect our property, keep our infrastructure running and even when to go out and enjoy the sunshine!

All of this cannot happen without improvements to research and technology, and this week the first phase of our new supercomputer went live, five weeks ahead of schedule. This will enable us to provide even more accurate and relevant weather and climate forecasts to all of us, our government, emergency responders, and our many other customers at home and abroad.

The news that the BBC has decided that the Met Office won’t be their main weather provider when the current contract ends has raised the question of where will the new provider get their information from. It’s important to understand that no weather forecasting organization, whether it is a National Met Service like the Met Office or an independent company, can provide a service without a forecast, and that it is the leading meteorological agencies, like the Met Office, that build and deliver those forecasts. So whoever the BBC chooses to deliver their weather services in future, you can be sure that Met Office observations and forecasts will continue to be at the heart of them. We are committed to driving forward the skill and usefulness of our forecasts and ensuring that all of us benefit from the advances the Met Office makes in the coming years with our new supercomputer.





Met Office Science Camps a huge success

20 07 2015

Over 200 secondary school pupils have taken part in four Met Office Science Camps this year.

The overnight camps, held at Met Office HQ in Exeter, provided a unique opportunity for 11-13 year old to join in a selection of hands-on activities led by Met Office staff. The activities covered a wide range of topics and helped explain how we measure and forecast the weather and climate.

Science Camp May 2015

Twelve schools and three scouts/guide groups took part in the events and Director of Science at the Met Office, Andy Brown said: “As well as being fun, Met Office Science Camps engage, challenge and enthuse students, encouraging them to develop scientific skills and hopefully inspire the scientists of the future.”

As one of the UK’s top science and engineering organisations, the Met Office is continually looking at ways to engage people, young and old, in the fascinating worlds of weather and climate science.

The Met Office Science Camps are part of the Met Office STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math’s) Outreach programme which aims to improve understanding of how weather and climate are measured and forecast. The programme has been awarded the European Meteorological Society Outreach and Communication Award in recognition of our outstanding efforts to engage young people.

Over the last decade or so, predicting the weather and climate has become one of the most important areas of scientific research. Work at the Met Office is incredibly varied, and this is reflected in the variety of career opportunities available, including everything from Science and Forecasting to Engineering and Business Development.

You can hear from a whole range of different people who are employed at the Met Office, from IT specialists to Climate Change scientists, in a series of podcasts.

How to Register

If your school or organisation would like to be added to our mailing list for the 2016 Met Office Science Camps, please email us at science.camp@metoffice.gov.uk with your name and the school (or organisation) that you are emailing on behalf of. We take group bookings from schools or other organisations, rather than individual campers. If you are a parent or student looking to get involved then please get in touch with a teacher at your school and ask them to contact us.

If you have any queries, please email us: science.camp@metoffice.gov.uk.





Met Office awarded for its collaborative work overseas

15 05 2015

The International Development team at the Met Office has won a prestigous award for its work helping increase the access, use and benefits of climate information services to 2.4 million people in Kenya.

The British Expertise International Award for ‘Outstanding International Collaboration’ was given to the Met Office for its work with the Adaptation Consortium delivering the ‘Mainstreaming Climate Adaptation into Planning’ project.

Other partners in the consortium are Christian Aid, the International Institute for Environment and Development, Kenya Meteorological Services and the National Drought Management Authority Kenya.

The project aims to address the underlying causes of vulnerability to climate change while strengthening adaptation to future extreme events. It has improved access to climate and other information, integrated climate change adaptation into development plans, developed better water infrastructure and training in water governance, and improved disease surveillance.





The Spectator: How accurate is the Met Office?

11 07 2013

In an article which appeared in the Spectator online today, Rupert Darwall makes a sustained attack on climate scientists and specifically on the Met Office.

His main point seems to be that the Met Office gets weather forecasts wrong. To answer that, you can see our accuracy figures online and these are regularly updated to reflect our recent performance.

At the time of writing this blog, the Met Office is beating all of its forecast accuracy targets. As an example, 87.7% of our next day maximum temperature forecasts are accurate to within 2C. The target is 80%.

The Met Office is consistently recognised by the World Meteorological Organization as one of the top two most accurate operational forecasters in the world.

No forecaster can be accurate 100% of the time and we don’t claim to be, but we are at the forefront of weather and climate science and are continuing our world class research to ensure the UK stays a leader in this field.

In the article, Rupert Darwell gives a few examples of forecast errors to back up his claims – these all refer to our long-range (three month) outlooks. This is a challenging area of forecasting and the Met Office has always been clear that these long-range forecasts are part of our ongoing research and development. We acknowledge that the public favour our short-range forecasts, which they download in their millions on iPhone, Android and now Kindle apps.

With time, continued research will hopefully yield similar improvements in our long-range outlooks as we have seen over time in our short-range forecasts. As an example of that progression, our four day forecast is as accurate today as our one day forecast was 30 years ago.

The article also talks about the Met Office ‘bracing’ the UK for a ‘decade of soggy summers’.

This is a misrepresentation of the science, as the statement refers to media reporting following a press conference hosted by the Met Office. The conference came at the end of a science workshop attended by experts from across UK academia to look at the potential causes behind the UK’s recent spell of unusual seasons.

During that press conference, scientists talked to the media about some of the latest research discussed at the meeting. This included research from the University of Reading which looked at long-term temperature patterns in the Atlantic which may impact weather patterns over Europe – potentially influencing a higher frequency of wet summers for a given period of time.

Scientists were clear to say this was early research and they were not issuing a forecast, but some parts of the media reported it that way. We issued a blog in reaction to this, to make clear that there was no expectation every summer would be wet for a decade – but The Spectator article makes the same claim again, despite all of this publicly available information to the contrary.

Apparently, “the Met Office has decided that global warming means colder summers in Britain”. This is news to the Met Office, which has been very careful to say that more research needs to be done to understand what impacts changes in our climate (such as reduced Arctic sea ice) could have on UK climate. Again, this seems to be a misinterpretation of our position.

The Met Office has already discussed the issue related to Doug Keenan, which you can also read about on our blog. You can also see a discussion paper we published on the issues he raises.

On global temperatures, you can look at our HadCRUT4 pages – which show 2010 and 2005 are respectively the first and second warmest years on record, with all the supporting data available online. You can also look at a report from the WMO released last week.

There are many other points to address in the lengthy Spectator article, too numerous to detail in this blog.

However, as a final point, Rupert Darwall says: “At the very least, the Met Office has a duty of care to the rest of us: to be balanced and objective, to admit when they’ve got it wrong, not to indulge in speculation and to tell us what they don’t know.”

The Met Office recognises this duty of care and takes it very seriously, which is why our impartial advice is based only on evidence from world class research. Our scientists have and will continue to report those findings as they are, without censorship, to enable people to make informed decisions.

The Met Office is very proud of its science and scientists. Indeed last year the Met Office published 267 peer reviewed scientific papers in academic journals and is widely recognised as one of the best geosciences institutes in the world.





Recent climate research in the news

21 05 2013

A research paper published in Nature Geoscience (Otto et al, 2013) led to a fair amount of media coverage yesterday, including articles in the Guardian, BBC and an opinion piece by Matt Ridley in The Times (this article is behind a pay wall).

The research paper looked at a ‘best estimate’ of the warming expected when the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is doubled over pre-industrial levels (known as the Transient Climate Response).

Alexander Otto, Research Fellow in Climate Decisions at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, was the lead author of the research.

He has written an article discussing the science and the implications of the research which can be seen on the Research News pages on our website.

Here is a short extract from Alexander Otto’s article :

“We published a paper in Nature Geoscience on Sunday giving a new best-estimate of 1.3°C for the Transient Climate Response, or the warming expected at the time carbon dioxide reaches double its pre-industrial concentration, using data from the most recent climate observations.

This best-estimate is lower than the HadGEM2 [one of the Met Office climate models] TCR value of 2.5°C and it is also 30% lower than the multi-model average of 1.8°C of the CMIP5 models used in the current IPCC assessment. Does this mean that the Met Office’s advice to government is based on a flawed model? Certainly not.

It is well acknowledged by all that the HadGEM2 model is at the top end of the range of TCR values in CMIP5, but we need a diverse range of TCR values to represent the uncertainties in our understanding of climate system processes. And the Met Office’s advice to government, like any solid policy advice, is based on the range of results from different models, not just their own.

The ‘warming pause’ over the recent decade does not show that climate change is not happening. And it certainly does not mean that climate scientists are “backing away” from our fundamental understanding.

Every new decade of data brings new information that helps reduce uncertainties in climate forecasts. In some ways, the picture changes surprisingly slowly for such an intensely scrutinised problem… This study highlights the importance of continued careful monitoring of the climate system, and also the dangers of over-interpreting any single decade’s worth of data.”





Setting the record straight in the Daily Mail

8 03 2013

In response to our complaint to an article by James Delingpole in the Daily Mail on 10 January 2013 the Daily Mail has now published a response from the Met Office Chairman on its letters page.

Met Office mettle

James Delingpole’s views misrepresent the Met Office’s reputation for world-class weather and climate forecasting and research (Mail). The UK can be rightly proud that the Met Office is among the world’s top two national weather forecasting services.

We’re proud that, in independent surveys, more than 90 per cent of the public regard our warnings as useful and more than 80 per cent of the UK public trust our forecasts and warnings. This respect for our professionalism and impartiality has been built over 150 years of forecasting for the nation.

We aim to use our world leading scientific expertise to protect life and property and increase prosperity and wellbeing right across the UK. We provide impartial services ranging from forecasts and warnings to the public, services to transport operators, so we can fly, drive or sail safely, and advice to the energy, retail and health sectors so we can all go about our daily lives safely and efficiently.

Our forecasts on radio, TV, mobile phone apps and newspapers are a source of daily interest as well as essential advice to the public.

Whatever a journalist’s views are about climate change – and they have a right to air them – let’s not degrade the institutions on which the public rely.

GREG CLARKE,

Met Office chairman, Exeter, Devon.

Although this does not fully address all the issues we had with the original article we do accept that a published letter recognises our concerns and has taken steps to resolve some of them. The Daily Mail has also offered to append this letter to the original article.

We are grateful to the Daily Mail for dealing with our objections to the inaccuracies in the original article and the efforts made to find a constructive resolution. We are, as ever, grateful for the role the Daily Mail, and other print, online and broadcast media have in bringing key forecasts, warnings, and science to the attention of the public.








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