Science Panel Backs Study on Warming Climate
The New York Times, June 22, 2006
WASHINGTON, June 22 -- A controversial paper asserting that recent warming in the Northern Hemisphere was probably unrivaled for 1,000 years was endorsed today, with a few reservations, by a panel convened by the nation's pre-eminent scientific body.
The panel said that a statistical method used in the 1999 study was not the best and that some uncertainties in the work "have been underestimated," and it particularly challenged the authors' conclusion that the decade of the 1990's was probably the warmest in a millennium.
But in a 155-page report, the 12-member panel convened by the National Academies said "an array of evidence" supported the main thrust of the paper. Disputes over details, it said, reflected the normal intellectual clash that takes place as science tests new approaches to old questions.
The study, led by Michael E. Mann, a climatologist now at Pennsylvania State University, was the first to estimate widespread climate trends by stitching together a grab bag of evidence, including variations in ancient tree rings and temperatures measured in deep holes in the earth.
It has been repeatedly attacked by Republican lawmakers and some business-financed groups as built on cherry-picked data meant to create an alarming view of recent warming and play down past natural warm periods.
At a news conference at the headquarters of the National Academies, several members of the panel reviewing the study said they saw no sign that its authors had intentionally chosen data sets or methods to get a desired result.
"I saw nothing that spoke to me of any manipulation," said one member, Peter Bloomfield, a statistics professor at North Carolina State University. He added that his impression was the study was "an honest attempt to construct a data analysis procedure."
More broadly, the panel examined other recent research comparing the pronounced warming trend over the last several decades with temperature shifts over the last 2,000 years. It expressed high confidence that warming over the last 25 years exceeded any peaks since 1600. And in a news conference here today, three panelists said the current warming was probably, but not certainly, beyond any peaks since the year 900.
The experts said there was no reliable way to make estimates for surface-temperature trends in the first millennium A.D.
In the report, the panel stressed that the significant remaining uncertainties about climate patterns over the last 2,000 years did not weaken the scientific case that the current warming trend was caused mainly by people, through the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
"Surface temperature reconstructions for periods prior to the industrial era are only one of multiple lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that climatic warming is occurring in response to human activities, and they are not the primary evidence," the report said.
The 1999 paper is part of a growing body of work trying to pull together widely disparate clues of climate conditions before the age of weather instruments.
The paper includes a graph of temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere that gained the nickname "hockey stick" because of its vivid depiction of a long period with little temperature variation for nearly 1,000 years, followed by a sharp upward hook in recent decades.
The hockey stick has become something of an environmentalist icon. It was prominently displayed in a pivotal 2001 United Nations report concluding that greenhouse gases from human activities had probably caused most of the warming measured since 1950. A version of it is in the Al Gore documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, and Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, have repeatedly criticized the Mann study, citing several peer-reviewed papers challenging its methods.
The main critiques were done by Stephen McIntyre, a statistician and part-time consultant in Toronto to minerals industries, and Ross McKitrick, an economist at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
They contended that Dr. Mann and his colleagues selected particular statistical methods and sets of data, like a record of rings in bristlecone pine trees, that were most apt to produce a picture of unusual recent warming. They also complained that Dr. Mann refused to share his data and techniques.
In an interview, Dr. Mann expressed muted satisfaction with the panel's findings. He said it clearly showed that the 1999 analysis has held up over time.
But he complained that the committee seemed to forget about the many caveats that were in the original paper. "Even the title of the paper on which all this has been based is as much about the caveats and uncertainties as it is about the findings," he said.
Raymond S. Bradley, a University of Massachusetts geoscientist and one of Dr. Mann's co-authors, said that the caveats were dropped mainly as the graph was widely reproduced by others. (The other author of the 1999 paper was Malcolm K Hughes of the University of Arizona.)
The report was done at the request of Representative Sherwood Boehlert, the New York Republican who is chairman of the House Science Committee, who called last November for a review of the 1999 study and related research to clear the air.
In a statement, Mr. Boehlert, who is retiring at the end of the year, expressed satisfaction with the results, saying, "There is nothing in this report that should raise any doubts about the broad scientific consensus on global climate change which doesn't rest primarily on these temperature issues, in any event or any doubts about whether any paper on the temperature records was legitimate scientific work."
A signature piece of evidence for global warming -- a compilation of data showing that a sharp rise in temperatures made the late 20th century the warmest period in 1,000 years -- is probably true, a national panel of scientific specialists concluded yesterday.
A graph of the data has become an icon of global warming and is often referred to as ``the hockey stick" because of its shape: A shaft that shows a long period of relatively little change in Northern Hemisphere surface temperatures, and then a spike upward during the last 100 years or so that resembles the blade.
Since the first version of it was published in a scientific journal in 1998, environmentalists have seized on the graph as powerful evidence of human-induced climate change, while some critics have called it alarmist, questioning its methodology and the accuracy of its temperature data.
Last year, the dispute catapulted into the national political arena after Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Energy Committee, asked the three authors of the 1998 study -- including a University of Massachusetts professor -- for a detailed accounting of their government and private funding, data, and methods. A range of scientists and other legislators blasted the request as an intimidation tactic, contending that other researchers would be reluctant to embark on such studies if they knew they would be under such scrutiny by members of Congress.
The National Academy of Sciences, which advises Congress and the government, was then asked to conduct an independent review by the chairman of the House Science Committee, Republican Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York.
``Our conclusion is that this recent period of warming is likely the warmest in the last millennium," said John M. Wallace, one of the 12 panel members and a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.
During a Washington press conference yesterday, other members of the panel said that they had a high level of confidence -- 90 percent to 95 percent -- that the planet is in its warmest period in 400 years and that the odds are ``2 to 1" that this is probably the warmest period stretching back 1,000 years, as the original study concluded.
The panelists had far less confidence in the reliability of temperature data from longer than 1,000 years ago; the initial study did not look that far back. And they said that because it was difficult to reconstruct exact temperatures for specific years, they were unable to support the study's contention that the 1990s were the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year, at the time of the study , in the past 1,000 years.
Still, Wallace said, the general trend holds true: ``This doesn't change the scientific landscape in terms of the greenhouse warming debate," he said.
Scientists widely believe that power plant and car emissions of carbon dioxide that become trapped in the atmosphere are the primary cause of the earth's temperature rise of about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century. The 1998 study supports that view -- the rise in temperature coincided with the Industrial Revolution -- but scientists have amassed other long-term evidence, including the retreat of glaciers and the melting of polar ice caps.
Because reliable temperature records stretch back only about 150 years, scientists must infer past temperature and climate data from natural archives, such as tree-growth rings, corals, ice cores, and cave deposits. For example, trees at high latitudes and altitudes grow faster during warmer periods, so scientists can determine how warm it was from the size of growth rings. The thickness of sediment layers at the bottom of certain lakes also provides temperature clues because the increase in snow melt in warmer periods washes more sediment into lakes. Scientists also examine other records, such as historical accounts of wine harvests or paintings of glaciers in northern regions.
Scientists had been gathering data from these indirect methods for years, but they had not been put together until Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, Raymond Bradley of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Malcolm Hughes of the University of Arizona created a statistical model that enabled them to construct a 1,000-year temperature record and plotted the results on an easy-to-read graph. A version of the graph going back 600 years was published in their 1998 study in Nature. An expanded one stretching back 1,000 years was part of a landmark 2001 international report on global warming that concluded humans were driving the rise in temperatures. The graph, the hockey stick, soon became the most recognized statistical visual of global warming, reproduced in media accounts the world over and more recently in former vice president Al Gore's movie ``An Inconvenient Truth."
It was also seized upon by critics. An economist and a minerals consultant in Canada uncovered inconsistencies in the model used to create the graph and questioned the use of certain data they said biased the results. Critics also said the methodology might have underestimated past periods of warming, especially a warm period that may have started about 1,000 years ago. If that is true, it would mean that the earth may have had a wider natural climate swing in the past millennium than scientists had believed -- possibly indicating the current warming trend is not such an anomaly.
Yesterday, panel members said there was isolated evidence of a warmer earth about 1,000 years ago, but it appeared regional. They suggested that it did not reflect the overall global temperature at the time. They also said that while there were certain biases in the report, they got roughly the same results as the initial study when they used different methodologies to put together the data. The report said that Mann's study had been supported by ``an array of evidence" in other studies and that his and his collaborators' findings were not even a primary piece of evidence of human-induced global warming.
Panel members said that while the earlier study was not perfect, Mann and his colleagues should be praised as the first to devise such detailed global temperature measurements and that its benefits far outweighed any detriments. However, in a nod to the difficulty some critics had in getting data from the original researchers to replicate the initial study, they urged climate researchers to more readily share their data. The panel also called for more research to improve the reliability of temperature estimates from before 1600.
``The hockey stick is alive and well," said Bradley, director of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Climate System Research Center. He said the original research paper was never meant to be taken as absolute and even included the words ``uncertainties and limitations" in its title. ``Nothing changes the general shape."
The National Academy of Sciences study did not mollify critics, however, who said that great uncertainty still existed about temperatures prior to 1600. Those critics agree that the scientific data show a distinct warming from about 400 years ago until now, but ``substantially larger uncertainties" exist looking further back, said Ross McKitrick, an economist at the University of Guelph in Canada who has been one of the primary critics of the study.
A spokesman for Barton said a separate group of statisticians recruited by his energy committee was still examining the 1998 study. Barton spokesman Larry Neal said `` all we want to know is whether the numbers add up."
Earth warmest in at least 400 years, panel finds
National Research Council report undermines critics of 'hockey stick' data
MSNBC staff and news service reports. June 22, 2006
WASHINGTON - Weighing in on the highest profile debate about global warming, the nation's premier science policy body on Thursday threw its weight behind controversial data and voiced a "high level of confidence" that Earth is the hottest it has been in at least 400 years, possibly even longer.
A panel convened by the National Research Council reached that conclusion in a broad review of scientific studies, reporting that the evidence indicates recent warmth is unprecedented for at least the last 400 years.
The panel of top climate scientists told lawmakers that the Earth is running a fever and that human activities are responsible for much of the recent warming. Their 155-page report said average global surface temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere rose about 1 degree during the 20th century.
The report was requested last November by the chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., to address naysayers who question whether global warming is a major threat.
Last year, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, launched an investigation of three climate scientists, Boehlert said Barton should try to learn from scientists, not intimidate them.
The Bush administration also has maintained that not enough is known about the threat to warrant new emission controls that the White House says would have cost 5 million Americans their jobs.
Many scientists tie warming temperatures to rising emissions of certain gases like carbon dioxide. While essential to survival, carbon dioxide has seen a spike as fossil fuels are burned by cars and factories, leading to concerns that it and other gases are exacerbating the greenhouse effect that keeps Earth warm.
The numerous indications that recent warmth is unprecedented for at least the last 400 years and potentially the last several millennia, in combination with estimates of external climate forcing variations over the same period, supports the conclusion that human activities are responsible for much of the recent warming, the panel wrote.
'Hockey stick' debate
The research data criticized by warming skeptics was published in 2001 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body that has led international warming research.
Climate scientists Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes had prepared the graphic, concluding that the Northern Hemisphere was the warmest it has been in 2,000 years. Their research was known as the hockey stick graphic because it compared the sharp curve of a hockey blade to the uptick in temperatures over the last 140 years, and the sticks long shaft to centuries of previous climate stability.
The National Research Council panel concluded that the Mann-Bradley-Hughes research was likely to be true, said John Wallace, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington and a panel member. The conclusions from the research are very close to being right and are supported by even more recent data, Wallace said.
The panel looked at how other scientists reconstructed the Earths temperatures going back thousands of years, before there was data from modern scientific instruments.
For all but the most recent 150 years, the academy scientists relied on proxy evidence from tree rings, corals, glaciers and ice cores, cave deposits, ocean and lake sediments, boreholes and other sources. They also examined indirect records such as paintings of glaciers in the Alps.
Combining that information gave the panel a high level of confidence that global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries, the panel said in its report.
Overall, the panel agreed that the warming in the last few decades of the 20th century was unprecedented over the last 1,000 years, though relatively warm conditions persisted around the year 1000, followed by a Little Ice Age from about 1500 to 1850.
'Plausible' scenario past 400 years
The scientists said they had less confidence in the evidence of temperatures before 1600, but found it plausible that temperatures during the last few decades of the 20th century were warmer than during any comparable period over the preceding millennium.
They also considered the data reliable enough to conclude there were sharp spikes in carbon dioxide and methane, the two major greenhouse gases blamed for trapping heat in the atmosphere, beginning in the 20th century, after remaining fairly level for 12,000 years.
Between 1 A.D. and 1850, volcanic eruptions and solar fluctuations were the main causes of changes in greenhouse gas levels. But those temperature changes were much less pronounced than the warming due to greenhouse gas levels since the mid-19th century, the report said.
The National Research Council is part of the National Academies, a private organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.
MSNBC.com's Miguel Llanos and The Associated Press contributed to this report