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Antarctic Warming Revisited: Blog Analysis (turned scientific paper) Tempers Alarm

Back in January of 2009, I reviewed the implications of a then just-published article in Nature magazine that was billed as shedding important new light on some aspects of the long-term (since the late 1950s) temperature history across Antarctica.

The article, by Eric Steig and colleagues, described more warming taking place over a larger portion of Antarctica than had previously been recognized. The implication was that the temperature rise across Antarctica was not lagging behind the rest of the world and thus “not bucking the trend of global warming” as apparently some “contrarians” were claiming.

Now, that result must be tempered, as a new paper is forthcoming that improves upon the analytical technique developed by the Steig team and finds significantly less warming across the continent as a whole (about 50% less), and a different geographical pattern of temperature changes across Antarctica—results that fit more closely with the existing (that is, pre-Steig et al.) perception of what was going on down there. Basically, when a more correct analysis was performed, our understanding of what has been occurring in Antarctica has been firmed up, rather than being badly shaken—Antarctica, on average, has warmed a little bit over the past 50 years, with the largest and most significant warming being concentrated in the regions around the Antarctic Peninsula, rather than spread somewhat evenly across the continent (as the Steig et al. result showed).

But, perhaps the most interesting part of this story is that the new analysis grew from the blogosphere.

Soon after the Steig et al. article was published, it was being examined and critiqued on various blog sites. Among the criticisms was that the statistical technique pioneered by the Steig team was improperly implemented and that the published results were influenced by these inaccuracies.

An effort grew from these blog discussions to develop a better implementation of the methods and the results revealed a rather different picture of the patterns of temperature evolution across Antarctica than did the original Steig et al. paper (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Patterns of temperature changes over Antarctica (1957-2006) based on the new, updated analysis (left) and as reported by Steig et al. (right) (figure source: The Air Vent)

The Blogosphere at its Best

Now, this type of thing happens fairly frequently in blog space—a spirited critique of a scientific publication. But what doesn’t happen very frequently, is that the blog discussions are formalized and submitted to a scientific journal. And in this case, not only were they submitted, but after a lengthy and extremely thorough review process, the new, improved findings have been accepted for publication in the Journal of Climate—a very well-respected scientific journal.

This shows the utility of blogs at their best—initial informal critical discussion that hits upon a legitimate and important point of science, which is then formalized, submitted, and accepted into the peer-reviewed scientific literature, thereby making a much more permanent, citeable and, in fact, more widely accessible, contribution to the scientific knowledge base.

Kudos to Ryan O’Donnell, Nicholas Lewis, Steve McIntyre, and Jeff Condon.

To read more about how all this came to pass, please visit Jeff’s blog where some of the authors describe all that was involved from start to finish and include a preview of their results.

I wrote in my original MasterResource article “[The Steig et al. paper was] all in all a reasonable approach to the problem—but likely not the final word on the matter.” The new paper by O’Donnell et al. pretty much confirms this, and adds important new words to the story. Lead author Ryan O’Donnell describes it like this:

In my opinion, the Steig reconstruction was quite clever, and the general concept was sound. A few of the choices made during implementation were incorrect; a few were suboptimal. Importantly, if those are corrected, some of the results change. Also importantly, some do not. Hopefully some of the cautions outlined in our paper are incorporated into other, future work. Time will tell!

This is the way science is supposed to work. I am delighted to see the blogosphere opening the doors to scientific contributions to a wider audience. I hope this trend continues—science will be the better for it. But, importantly, to achieve this contribution, it requires a great deal of effort, persistence, and fortitude that extends far beyond a comment thread on a blog somewhere. I encourage more people who really are interested in making a lasting impact to grin and bear it and make the effort—it is an effort that can be rather painful, but which provides great satisfaction in the end, and best of all, it keeps science moving forward.

So blog away, but when you hit upon something that you think is scientifically important, take the time to write it up and send it in to a journal—the end result could be rewarding for all of us.

4 comments

1 Robert L Hamilton, Engineer { 12.11.10 at 4:37 am }

As much as the Warmers deny it, AGW is based on two graphs and a ‘Noncept.’ Nor is it anything New; such was proposed as soon as we determined that Aristotle’s element, Air, was a mixture. It was determined that the atmosphere weighs about 10**19 pounds and at a concentration of 300 parts per million (by volume) the CO2 weighs about 5*(10**15) pounds. Currently we produce about 10**11 pounds annually. Of the two graphs, MBH98 and the Keeling Curve, the first was summarily deconstructed and shown to be a hoax. The Keeling curve requires — over 40 years — an addition of 10**13 pounds per year. Professor Keeling would never return my calls nor answer my mail and I think he died a few years back. The ‘noncept’ is of course the ‘greenhouse effect.’ This was examined experimentally over 100 years ago by Prof. R. W Wood of Johns Hopkins U and found not to exist and High School Physics shows why: when a molecule radiates energy it cools and when another molecule absorbs that energy, it warms. So the net result is null; there is no increase in temperature. This entire fiasco is a sham and I think at least some of the ‘warmers’ know it and they are just crooks robbing the public treasury. Even the American Association for the Advancement of Science are on board the scam! One of the major factors in atmospheric temperature control is this: Each pound of rain or ice that falls has carried over 500 Btu’s high into the atmosphere where at least half that energy is radiated into the galaxy. If someone ever updates ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and . . .’ this current hoax will be a chapter. My www is being reconstructed and will have a link to some of my thoughts on the subject. Thanks for your time and Enjoy the Day. Robert L Hamilton, Engineer

2 Jon Boone { 12.11.10 at 9:22 am }

Another timely report from Chip Knappenberger. Thanks. For those interested in pursuing some of the methodological issues in play with statistical analyses of complex systems, I strongly recommend reading Jonah Lehrer’s current article in The New Yorker, “The Truth Wears Off.”
Here’s a link to the abstract, though a subscription is needed to read the full article:http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer

3 MarkB { 12.11.10 at 6:10 pm }

Please note that the new paper was only published after a long, painful review process in which one reviewer apparently obstructed as long as possible. If this reviewer was part of the notorious “Team,” then this publication is notable as much for the effort to keep it from being published as for its content.

4 Robert R. Reynolds { 12.12.10 at 1:33 am }

I have believed that greenhouse gases were given much more control over a warming Earth than deserved, but this data leaves no ground for the AGW crowd to stand on. But my long experience with a desert climate, Tucson, AZ, shows humidity plays an important role in the night / day temperature spread. In winter with humidity as low as 5 %
frozen greens on our golf courses are frequent. With higher humidity and some cloudiness, frozen greens are rare.

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