Archive for July, 2015

Still hopeful about the Daily Mail

July 23, 2015
Daily Mail Despair 2

The Daily Mail still thinks that the Earth’s changing climate is a point-scoring game.

On Tuesday I expressed some hope that the Daily Mail had begun reporting climate change developments as ‘straight news’.

I didn’t have to wait long to have my hope apparently dashed by the Daily Mail leader comment on Wednesday (quoted in full below).

But in fact I am still hopeful. This is not because I am a dullard but because there are genuinely reasons to be hopeful about the Daily Mail’s attitude. Read on for my reasons.

Daily Mail Leader Comment Wednesday 22 July 2015

In a major report last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave a grave assessment of how man-made global warming was rapidly destroying the Arctic ice cap.

Steadily increasing temperatures had made the pack ice contract by up to 12 per cent between 1979 and 2012, leading to rising sea levels which threatened to swamp coastal regions – not to mention endangering stranded polar bears.

By the middle of the century ‘a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean’ was likely for a large part of the year, the report predicted.

How interesting then, that the latest analysis of 88 million measurements from the European Space Agency’s Cryosat satellite show the northern ice-cap INCREASED by a staggering 41 per cent in 2013 and, despite a modest shortage last year, is bigger than at any time for decades.

Of course, the climatologists will come up with explanations – as they did for the fact that global temperatures have barely changed since the year 2000.

They’ll say 2013 was a freak year, that in spite of temporary fluctuations long-term trends remain the same, that cooling ‘episodes’ are as much a feature of climate change as warming and so on.

But the more they juggle their theories to fit the inconvenient truths, the more the public will question whether these prophesies of global doom are based on genuine science, or guesswork.

And they will rightly wonder whether solemnly committing to climate change targets while saddling ordinary people with a raft of spurious green taxes serves any real purpose – other than being an expensive exercise in gesture politics.

The sheer perniciousness of this article offends me. I feel as though the Daily Mail has spat in the face of truth.

I have three responses: two graphs and comment

Here are two graphs that genuinely summarise the situation we all face.

First of all here is the data on which the Daily Mail are reporting. This is a graph of arctic sea-ice volume – the product of the area of sea-ice, and its thickness.

Notice that it goes up in 2013 – that’s the ‘staggering’ 41 per cent increase to which the Daily Mail refers. This is what the Daily Mail report as an ‘an inconvenient truth’.

Arctic Sea Ice Volume

And to the best we can understand it is ‘true’. But it is not so much ‘inconvenient’ as ‘irrelevant’.

The graph below shows arctic sea-ice area – a much simpler thing to measure and something for which we have data stretching back to 1979.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

It is clear that since roughly 1995 sea ice has been disappearing. Whereas we used to have around 7 million square kilometres of sea ice in September at the end of the annual melt, we now have only around 4 million square kilometres. That’s 3 MILLION square kilometers of missing sea ice!

In this context, the increase in Sea Ice extent and volume in 2013 can be seen for what it is: a blip on a downward trend.


There appears to be a power struggle at the Daily Mail

While the Leader Comment on Wednesday was the usual pernicious material one expects, since Tuesday there have been no less than four ‘straight’ stories about Climate Change.

When institutions change their position there is inevitably a period of flux in which the  institution cannot ‘speak’ coherently.

Despite ample cause for despair, I am still hopeful that the Daily Mail’s powerful influence over Middle England can be a force for good.

If Darth Vader can abandon the Dark Side, then so can the Daily Mail.


July 21, 2015
Map of the world showing regions that in June 2015  were warmer or cooler than they 'normally' are. Dark red shows record warm regions. Source NCDC - see text for link. Click image for a larger version.

Map of the world showing regions that in June 2015 were warmer or cooler than they ‘normally’ are. Dark red shows record warm regions. Most of the Earth is warmer than it has been historically. Remember that June is the height of Southern Hemisphere winter. Source NCDC – see text for link. Click image for a larger version.

Sometimes it is difficult to stay hopeful.

And the NCDC ‘State of the Climate’ report for June 2015 is so shocking that I really should feel no hope at all.

What does it say to put me in such a mood? Well it is authoritative and detailed, but here’s a taster.

June 2015 also marks the fourth month this year that has broken its monthly temperature record, along with February, March, and May. The other months of 2015 were not far behind: January was second warmest for its respective month and April was third warmest. These six warm months combined with the previous six months (four of which were also record warm) to make the period July 2014–June 2015 the warmest 12-month period in the 136-year period of record, surpassing the previous record set just last month (June 2014–May 2015). … the 10 warmest 12-month periods have all been marked in the past 10 months.

In short, the surface temperature of the Earth is dramatically warm and it looks likely that the calendar year 2015 will be the hottest ever.

And yet I feel hopeful. Why?

Because this is how the Daily Mail reported this news (Link)

June warmest EVER recorded globally as forecasters warn 2015 set to be a record breaking year

That’s right, the Daily Mail reported this as a completely straight news story. It is not spun. It is not used to imply that Climate Scientists are corrupt or left-wing. No jokes are made about hiatuses or the growth of arctic sea ice.

I honestly never thought I would live to see the day that the Daily Mail reported serious climate change news as serious climate change news. And yet here it is.

If newspapers such as the Daily Mail can really break their links with climate change deniers then the fear, uncertainty and doubt that they spread will begin to dissipate. And then we can all get busy actually solving problems rather than arguing.

It’s one reason to be hopeful. And for now, that’ll do.


The Figure is from NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, State of the Climate: Global Analysis for June 2015, published online July 2015, retrieved on July 20, 2015 from

Physics is more than applied mathematics

July 13, 2015
A problem set for potential applicants in the foyer of the Cavendish Laboratory. Despite appearances - this is not physics!

A problem set for potential applicants in the foyer of the Physics department of a premier UK university. It looks like physics, but it is in fact maths. The reason is that in the context of this problem, the string cannot pull a particle along at all unless it stretches slightly. Click the image for a larger diagram.

While accompanying my son on an Open Day in the Physics Department of a premier UK university, I was surprised and appalled to be told that Physics ‘was applied mathematics‘.

I would just like to state here for the record that Physics is not applied mathematics.

So what’s the difference exactly?

I think there are two linked, but subtly distinct, differences.

1. Physics is a science and mathematics is not.

This means that physics has an experimental aspect. In physics, it is possible to disprove a hypothesis by experiment: this cannot be done in maths.

2. Physics is about this world and mathematics is not (necessarily).

The canvas for mathematical ideas is much wider than the canvas of physics.

A small subset of mathematics seems to correspond with observable physical phenomena to a shocking extent. This we call applied mathematics. However, mathematics describes many things which don’t correspond to phenomena in this world.

Physics makes use of some mathematical ideas

The productive interplay between experiments and mathematics cannot be better illustrated than in a recent joint biography of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.

Michael Faraday didn’t write a single equation in his whole life. Beyond arithmetic he was essentially mathematically illiterate. But he could reason with ideas and images and – most importantly – by experiments.

James Clerk Maxwell’s approach in contrast, used mathematics and experiments in a more balanced manner, but with mathematics as his especial strength.

What united them – and still unites them – is that they were both fascinated by the actuality of the physical world: in short, they both loved Physics. Their ideas – both experimental and mathematical – changed human history.

The complexity of even simple physics

My visit reminded me of the complexity of mathematical descriptions of phenomena which at first sight appear simple. And this put me in mind of a previous article I wrote on what happens when you let go of a stretched slinky spring.

I don’t mind if you don’t read the article, but do enjoy the video.

P.S. If you are interested in the stupid problem at the head of the article, you can read my detailed analysis here (pdf document).

The Global Warming ‘Hiatus’: My part in its downfall*

July 9, 2015
Comparison of 10 year trends (upper graph) and 30-year trends (lower graph) of two estimates of global mean surface air temperature.

Comparison of 10-year trends from two estimates of global mean surface air temperature. Notice how variable the 10 year trends are in both data sets. The most recent red analysis from NOAA shows no evidence of a hiatus, but the real story is that 10 years is just too short a time to make reliable ‘trend’ estimates. For comparison, look at the 30-year trends on the same data at the end of this story. By the way: The two data sets would normally overlap each other but have been offset to allow you to see the data more clearly. Calculations by, and thanks to, Ed Hawkins. (CLICK FOR A LARGER GRAPH!)

Friends: Sorry for the reduced frequency of blog postings. Work has been busy and in my spare time I have been indulging myself by reading books and recording music. These activities feel great, but I am still constantly itching to write about … well, everything!

Anyway: to the business at hand…

Some of you may have seen articles around the web stemming from an article in Science describing new estimate of the trend in global temperatures. The new work has increased our estimate of the warming trend in recent decades, invalidating the use of the term ‘hiatus’ to describe the recent trend. And in a small sense – I actually helped!

The new estimates are based on re-consideration of existing data on the air temperature above the ocean and land surfaces.

For the Land Surface Air Temperature (the temperature record derived from conventional thermometers in Stevenson screens), the most significant effect has been the use of a new data bank of surface temperature records, developed under the auspices of the International Surface Temperature Initiative (ISTI).

ISTI was born – or at least conceived – at a meeting at the Met Office in 2010, and since its start I have sat on its steering committee! My role on the committee has been minor – essentially keeping open channels between the metrological and meteorological communities. But I was there!

It has taken 5 years of work – by other people – to reach the point at which a ‘data bank’ has been released, and then still further work to allow the formation of a ‘data product’.

The data bank can be downloaded for free and if anyone disagrees with the conclusion then they can devise a method of analysis and test it for themselves.

And the point is…

… no serious enquirer can reasonably doubt that the Earth is warming – the evidence is overwhelming.

Skeptics at first rubbished the estimates of global surface air temperature and said they were – in essence – bogus.

When the Berkeley Earth estimate showed essentially the same trend as the other estimates, skeptics changed their tune

Now they believed the data in detail and said ‘look: the warming has stopped!’

And at first sight it might seem that the new study refutes that claim. This brings us to the key point.

The new estimate differs only minutely from the old estimate. The real significance of the new analysis lies in the fact that this minute change was enough to remove the trend. This shows how statistically fragile the trend was.

Now the new estimate is likely to be better than the old estimate since its includes more station records from new locations. But ’10-year trends’ in this data are just to ‘noisy’ to draw any conclusions.

For comparison compare the 30-year trends in the graph below with the 10-year trends shown at the head of this article.

NOAA 30 year trends

Comparison of 30-year trends from two estimates of global mean surface air temperature. Notice how similar the 30-year trends are in both data sets. Calculations by, and thanks to, Ed Hawkins

It is interesting to note that the ‘noise’ on the data is not statistical noise. It occurs because there are many ‘cycles’ around the globe with periods of ‘a few’ years, and one must average over many of these cycles before one get reasonable trend estimates. You may also like to check out articles by:

===================================== *With apologies to Spike Milligan

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