26 May, 2007

From the Mouths of Babes: Climate Analysis That Actually Works

Kristen Byrnes, a fifteen-year-old in Portland, Maine recently put up a website as an extra credit assignment for her high school Honors Earth Science class. Well, give that girl an A and let the UN's IPCC mandarins know they're being held back for the remedial class.

Ms. Byrnes' analysis of complex climate and weather data has proven prescient in calling the end of the Australian drought almost a month in advance. By itself, that would only make for intriguing human interest copy. If enough forecasts are made, someone somewhere will always get lucky.

This story is different.

The analysis and common-sense reasoning that enabled Ms. Byrnes to see what the Gorethodox flocks had not tells a much more interesting story, raising serious questions about some of the most critical assumptions and uncertainties behind long-term climate models and forecasts.

In late April, heading into the southern autumn, Ms. Byrnes wrote on a discussion board:

I was just looking at my ENSO 3.4 chart... [and it's] been positive for 95% of the last 6 years. Since Austrailia [sic] experiences warm and dry conditions during positive ENSO, six years of drought would not surprise me. But it is headed negative very quickly now, so you might want to dust off your umbrella. [emphasis added]
('ENSO' stands for "El NiƱo/Southern Oscillation", as Noel Sheppard of NewsBusters explains.)
As if on cue, Australian news reported last week that:
The El Nino weather system has run its course... the worst drought in a century could be coming to an end, as heavy rain soaked parched southeastern Australia.
Ms. Byrnes explains (far more succinctly than the IPCC's massive report) what led her to make the call:
The reason that computer climate models do not work is because they cannot predict volcanoes, ENSO and solar variance. They also do not understand how water vapor and clouds work...
Read that again. Write it down. And tack it to your computer monitor. Re-read daily as needed. The kid has nailed it. In two sentences. From the mouths of babes...

The lack of attention to water vapor and clouds as massive sources of uncertainty in climate models is a glaring omission in most coverage of global climate. We hear much about CO2 (because it enables an elaborate and wholly synthetic sin-guilt dynamic, filling a void in our increasingly secular culture). We never hear about how water variables are three times as important as CO2 in affecting climate. (There's less Bush-bashing potential in going after Poland Spring or Dasani.) Byrnes continues:
From about 1944 to 1976 the ENSO was mostly negative and solar increased then decreased. Temperatures during this time cooled a little. Since 1976 the ENSO has been more positive. This along with increasing solar activity has combined to warm the globe. What is expected over the next few years is for the ENSO to move back to a negative phase and for solar activity to level off then go down. That is why the weather guy said that in 5 years global warming will be a joke.
If someone from the Harvard or MIT admissions offices is reading this, do yourselves a favor: Call this girl. Offer her a full ride. Now.

H/T and much more detail: Noel Sheppard of NewsBusters via Steven Milloy's JunkScience.

Closing thoughts:

1) In much of the Islamic world (to put it mildly), a 15-year-old female would not have access to the kind of intellectual cultivation, encouragement or freedom this young woman obviously has.

2) This is an interesting illustration of the value that outsiders can bring to a problem that 'officials' and 'experts' are unable or unwilling to crack. The fresh eyes of the uncredentialed, unbiased and marginalized often hold the key to new insights in science--the ultimate meritocracy. So it has been throughout history. The Internet gives legs to that dynamic. The freedoms of liberal (old meaning) Western Democracies give it staying power.

3) As I've said all along (usually in jest!) it is those of us in colder climes who have a natural incentive to challenge global warming hysteria. Who woulda thunk... Maine. Go figure.

4) The Byrne story reminds me of Elijah's prophecy in 1st Kings, 18:1,43-45:
1 After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: "Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land."
...
43 "Go and look toward the sea," [Elijah] told his servant. And he went up and looked. "There is nothing there," he said. Seven times Elijah said, "Go back."

44 The seventh time the servant reported, "A cloud as small as a man's hand is rising from the sea." So Elijah said, "Go and tell Ahab, 'Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.'"

45 Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel.
Or to quote one of my favorite politicians:
"...an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm."
Bottom line: we don't, can't and shouldn't attempt to control the climate. We should listen more carefully to fresh voices like Kristen Byrnes who are trying to understand it and who don't (yet) have to feed at the official scientific and academic funding troughs with the biases they inevitably introduce.

UPDATE I: I just ran across this well-informed analysis of the IPCC preliminary report from a February post over at Error Theory (lots more detail in his post).
The Report acknowledges that indirect solar effects are the only candidate for powerful natural warming effects. Evidence that some kind of powerful indirect solar effects exist is acknowledged. But indirect solar effects are then omitted from both the computer models that are discussed, and from the conclusions that are drawn based upon the computer models. The result is the classic problem of the omitted variable. Warming effects get misattributed to the greenhouse/anthropogenic effects that ARE included in the model. Thus the main conclusion of the Report is based entirely on elementary errors of logic and statistics. [emphasis added]
In other words: it's the sun, stupid.

UPDATE II: Anchoress was way ahead of me with this story on Friday, throwing down a challenge to Al Gore--would he debate Ms. Byrnes? Don't hold your breath. Anchoress writes:
I’m wondering if Al Gore... would be amenable to a public debate with this 15 year old high school student who is impressively and credibly debunking Gore’s entire “Inconvenient Truth” by using actual science... Aside from the scientific information Byrnes lays out, she takes “An Inconvenient Truth” apart, almost scene-by-scene, concurring with what she believes Gore got right, and convincingly taking a baseball bat to what she thinks he gets wrong.
I repeat: Brava, Kristen!

UPDATE III: Welcome Anchoress readers! (I am always delighted to read her stuff.) If you're in an Al Gore-fisking mood and haven't had enough yet, you might want to check out a long fugue/rant I penned last week--Al Gore, Demagoguery and the Danger of Delusional Distraction--inspired after meeting with some extraordinary Boston-area bloggers doing some original reporting on the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) story. Don't know about that one, think it's a local flap, or can't imagine how it's connected to Al Gore and global warming? Check it out:
Gore has moved in my book from amusing distraction and nuisance to loud and powerful distraction and nuisance to a potentially dangerous and demagoguic distraction and nuisance. Every moment Gore keeps a phantom fear of slightly warmer temperatures and slightly higher sea levels in the public eye drains resources and resolve from fighting a battle that could easily make this nation unrecognizable within a generation--as is already happening in Europe.
---
The short take [on the ISB] it seems, is this: Wahhabist Saudi money becomes instrumental in funding takeover of local Boston mosque by radical, anti-Semitic, hate-spewing, terror-apologist foreign nationals who score an eye-poppingly sweet deal with the city and who, when reporters and bloggers start asking questions, explode a veritable cluster bomb of speech-chilling lawsuits and gag-order attempts at anyone and everyone within range--to the point (thankfully) that Jews, Christians, Muslims, and (even more unbelievably) the Boston Globe and Boston Herald all find themselves on the same side, looking at one another and asking:

Wait just a doggone minute... Isn't this America? Isn't there a First Amendment?

...and concluding that well yes, there is, but it doesn't really mean much if everyone is chilled into silence by fear... unless some brave soul is willing to get up on the barricades, paint a target on his or her chest and without trembling or looking down yell: Stop! No! This will not stand. I was privileged to meet some of those individuals last night.

UPDATE IV: Couldn't resist sharing this gem from Bert Prelutsky over at Attack Machine, who remarkes that global warming hysteria "reminds me a lot of religion".
I am not a religious person [he writes], but if I’m going to accept anything on faith, I would prefer to lay my money on an invisible force than on Al Gore. The one, after all, somehow managed to create the seas and the stars, dogs, deer, peaches, sunsets and Man, himself; and also found the time to act as a muse for Johann Sebastian Bach, Thomas Jefferson and, I suspect, the fellow who invented baseball. On the other hand, we have Al Gore, the pumpkin-headed schnook who couldn’t even carry his home state in a presidential election and claims to have created the Internet, but never quite [got] around to getting a patent.