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Magnetic attraction of climate 'scepticism'

Richard Black | 15:36 UK time, Friday, 30 October 2009

There's been interest on this blog and elsewhere about a meeting organised on Wednesday by Piers Corbyn, the independent UK weather forecaster who argues that the sources of modern-day climate change lie in magnetic interactions around the Earth rather than greenhouse gas emissions on it.

Sun clouds and chimneysSo - a genie to your Aladdin, though emphatically not all-powerful - I thought I'd go along.

Held at Imperial College London - Mr Corbyn's alma mater - the meeting featured presentations from Northern Ireland's famously "climate-sceptical" environment minister Sammy Wilson, botanist and ex-BBC TV nature presenter David Bellamy, and a handful of academics - as well as from Mr Corbyn himself.

(The meeting wasn't endorsed or sponsored by Imperial - I'm sure they'd want me to point that out.)

If you're a practising scientist reading this and are wondering "why did he bother?", by the way, read on... I've an assignment for you at the end.

Like other "sceptical" meetings I've attended, it featured a heady melange of science (some of which would be swiftly dismissed in some quarters as pseudo-science) and politics.

"We're going to refute, totally, the CO2 theory of warming," said Mr Corbyn in his introduction.

"Carbon dioxide is innocent of all accusations relating to global warming," said Hans Schreuder, who runs a website called ilovemycarbondioxide.com.

"I am a denier, and proud to be one," declaimed David Bellamy.

There was much more in this vein, including regular demonisations (and one quite amusing piece of mimickry) of Al Gore, complaints that environmentalism is essentially an anti-technology religion, and - frequently - the contention that governments have embraced CO2-mediated warming as a vehicle for raising taxes.

Al GoreIn fact, according to this meeting, the current rise in CO2 has very little to do with the burning of fossil fuels.

Why it's rising participants were not completely sure, although outgassing of the oceans as they warm could be a reason, some suggested - an extension of the notion that in the past, warming has driven CO2 to higher levels, rather than the other way round.

(The mainstream interpretation of past climatic variation is that greenhouse gas release has amplified warming caused by variations in the Earth's orbit - Milankovitch cycles - resulting in interglacial warm periods; CO2 concentration may lag behind temperature rise, but also contributes to it.)

When asked by my colleague Roger Harrabin (there to report for Radio Four's PM programme) how they felt about indications that CO2 emissions are changing the acidity of the world's oceans - with potentially major implications for the marine food web - speakers were uniformly "relaxed".

Ocean acidification is "utter nonsense" said Piers Corbyn.

Hans Schreuder spoke of the "great misconception" that warmer oceans will carry more CO2. (The mainstream interpretation of acidification isn't that oceans are absorbing more CO2 because they're warmer, by the way, but simply because there is more of it in the atmosphere).

The panel said that if we asked the real experts on this - based in Australia - they would say reefs are in a healthy state.

(I've sent e-mails to some eminent Australian coral scientists asking what they make of this, and I'll post their responses if and when they arrive.)

If there's no truth to CO2-based warming and no need to do anything about it, then why, you might ask, isn't that accepted and understood in the spheres of science, politics and public opinion?

David BellamyThe answer given here is that scientists are desperate to maintain the myth - even through "fraud", according to David Bellamy - in order to perpetuate the "global warming industry" in which they work, while politicians (as noted earlier) see it as a tax-raising exercise.

Environmentalism is a "religion", and the media just want scare stories.

Added to all that is the woefully poor scientific literacy of the UK population. (A climate researcher working at Imperial, who had come to the meeting out of curiosity and who was listening aghast, commented quietly: "And this meeting is a prime example of it".)

Some of the accusations are, frankly, easily dismissed.

Finding no net warming since 1998, the story goes, the "warmers" have since had to abandon the phrase "global warming" as a scary thing and have invented the phrase "climate change" instead.

In that case, why is the organisation set up in 1988 called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and not the Intergovernmental Panel on Global Warming? Why, the following year, did Margaret Thatcher raise the "problem of global climate change" with the UN, rather than the "problem of global warming" - and call for negotiations leading to "a framework convention on climate change"? Why did the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 adopt a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change rather than on Global Warming?

Perhaps someone has been back in a time machine to alter all the documentation.

We've been here before and will doubtless come here again. These issues have been bashed around the world wide web: if you want more - well, surf, fill up, enjoy...

It was a promise of new science from Piers Corbyn that brought me along to the meeting so let's concentrate on that.

In case you haven't come across his work before, Mr Corbyn has developed his own method of weather forecasting based on patterns of solar activity and interactions between the magnetic fields of the Sun and the Earth.

He's not shy about lauding the success of his technique in comparison to methods employed by what you might term "mainstream" forecasters, such as the UK Met Office.

Margaret ThatcherDetractors point out that he has not published scientific papers detailing his methods, meaning that it's impossible for others to verify them; also, that because his company WeatherAction sells these forecasts, he has a commercial interest in promoting his own success and in denigrating competitors.

At the meeting, he explained that the essential ingredients are phenomena that he terms "red strikes" and Swips (solar weather impact periods).

They derive from solar and magnetic phenomena, and are to some degree inherently predictable, he says - some forecasts can be made two years in advance.

He uses historical datasets to make correlations between patterns of strikes and Swips and patterns of weather. His forecasting works by assuming that a certain pattern of strikes and Swips now is likely to produce the same weather pattern as it did in the past.

During the meeting, Mr Corbyn made concrete forecasts relevant to the UK; here they are.

The period from 17-19 November, he says, carries an 85% probability of a storm surge in the North Sea. This will probably lead to snow and blizzards in Scotland and northern England, perhaps a few days later. There are likely to be coastal flood warnings for East Anglia and Holland.

The UK winter, he forecasts, is likely to be cold with some very cold spells. His bete noire, the Met Office, says in an "early indication" that temperatures are likely to be near or above the recent average (3.7C for December), though there is a one in seven chance of a cold one.

So there you are. The forecasts are out; let battle commence.

Mr Corbyn said that this presentation revealed more details of his weather forecasting technique than he has made public before, which is why I've detailed it here - the main interest, for me at least, is the climate stuff.

In his view, climate change ancient and modern can also be laid at the door of solar variability.

He is not the first to make this claim, of course.

Its most prominent champion in recent years has been Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark. He argues that variations in the flux of cosmic rays arriving at Earth - variations caused by the fluctuating solar wind - affect cloud formation, which in turn affects the Earth's temperature.

Several recent scientific papers have poured cold water on the cosmic theory of modern-day climate change; and Piers Corbyn doesn't agree with it either.

One of his arguments is that the cosmic ray mechanism would produce an 11-year cycle of temperature variations, because of the 11-year solar cycle. But when he did a Fourier transform - a mathematical process that draws out frequencies contained in a complex wave - on the often-used HadCRUT dataset of the Earth's temperature, he found that the dominant signal is a warming and cooling with a period of 22 years, not 11.

(This used annual average temperatures; Mr Corbyn tells me he is planning to do the same kind of analysis using records of monthly and daily temperatures.)

Fourier transform of temperature record from Piers Corbyn
A Fourier transform of the temperature dataset shows a strong 22-year cycle, says Piers Corbyn

So what's going on? His explanation is that at the peak of each solar cycle, the polarity of the Sun's magnetic field reverses. So for 11 years it's aligned with the Earth's magnetic field, and for the next 11 it lies in the opposite direction.

This alignment, he believes, largely determines the flux of solar particles into the Earth's atmosphere - and thus the temperature distribution around the planet's surface.

The next ingredient is the Moon. Every 9.3 years, its orbit crosses the elliptic, the apparent path of the Sun across the celestial background - a lunar node. Crossing once in an "upwards" direction and once in a "downwards" direction, the complete cycle takes 18.6 years.

Mr Corbyn says that his analysis shows the main peaks in the temperature record occuring shortly after the concurrence of a lunar node and the maximum of an odd-numbered solar cycle.

Graph from Piers Corbyn
Sharp rises are said to occur when solar and lunar components co-incide

His idea of a mechanism for this is a work in progress. But he has calculated that when you combine the two cycles - lunar nodes and the 22-year solar cycle - what comes out is another cycle with a periodicity of about 60 years.

Next, this voyage of discovery takes us to the Pacific Ocean. There you'll find a natural cycle of temperature called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which also appears to have roughly a 60-year periodicity.

Can the PDO affect - or even determine - temperature rises and falls across the Earth?

One "sceptical" US scientist, Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, thinks it can.

He claims that temperature changes seen over the course of the last century - both during warming and cooling phases - are principally determined by the "phase" of the PDO, with a little involvement from greenhouse gases.

(Cautionary note to climate sceptics planning to seize on Dr Spencer's work as unequivocal proof that man-made climate change is a myth: it uses a computer model! Therefore, by all that sceptics stereotypically hold dear, it cannot be correct, because as you all know: you can't trust models.)

So here is Piers Corbyn's hypothesised connection: he thinks the 60-year cycle derived from combining the periods of the lunar nodes and the 22-year solar cycle drives the PDO; and that the PDO drives global temperatures.

In fact, he holds that such mechanisms drive many, perhaps all natural cycles, including the El Nino Southern Oscillation and North Atlantic Oscillation.

To complete the even longer-term picture, I should add that he has proposed a variant to the traditional Milankovitch cycle picture of Ice Ages; but frankly this blog post is already longer than a Led Zeppelin drum solo and I should attempt some closing thoughts while you're still awake.

You can find a presentation very similar (perhaps identical) to the one he gave at Imperial here [2.5Mb ppt] - the conference site doesn't appear to have presentations posted yet, though organisers suggest it will over the weekend.

Thames Barrier

After the meeting I had a chat with Joanna Haigh, a solar physicist at Imperial who's published papers on potential links from solar cycles to climate change, and who's known Piers Corbyn on and off for years.

Her reaction: publish the science. Get it out in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, put all the physics in, and let other scientists scrutinise and pick over and debate and criticise - this is the way science advances.

Here's a simple reason why. Even if CO2-mediated warming were wrong, only one out of Henrik Svensmark, Roy Spencer and Piers Corbyn could possibly be right, because they all disagree with each other.

Only the development of properly scrutinised and quantified theories, tested (in the real world where possible) and debated through the traditional avenues of science, could tell which one; and the others would have to be prepared to retire gracefully, as scientists ought to when their pet ideas are proven wrong.

Mr Corbyn tells me he has drafted a paper on some of the climate (as opposed to weather) ideas, though it's not yet been submitted to a journal.

He also says that in one sense it doesn't matter what theories he is developing or how well they're developed; CO2 and other greenhouse gases from human activities cannot be the main driver of warming because they cannot explain a number of features, including the apparent levelling-off of temperatures since the turn of the century.

(It's important to note, of course, that mainstream climate science says this is quite easily explained, with La Nina and (according to some accounts) the cooling phase of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation temporarily blotting out greenhouse warming.)

Did the meeting live up to its billing of "refuting, totally, the CO2 theory of warming"?

Hardly. Because doing that seriously doesn't mean refuting it to my satisfaction, or yours, or that of the audience scattered about the Imperial College lecture theatre on Wednesday; it means convincing the greater community of climate scientists, and that brings us back to... publishing.

What some in the sceptical camp do not appear to appreciate is that published, peer-reviewed science is not only the sole way of establishing and improving theories; it's also, now, the only route to the policymakers they want to influence.

Modern-day ministers and their scientifically-qualified advisers are absolutely not going to listen to half-developed, unpublished theories or complaints about fraud and conspiracies.

As I noted above, many speakers at the meeting labelled mainstream climate science as "politicised". And in one sense it is: whenever a scientist steps away from considering what the data tells you is happening to suggesting what political or social actions sensibly flow from the data, it must be partially politicised.

And why not? I remember at an important HIV/Aids conference back in 2003 interviewing a very feisty French virologist who was gathering signatures from scientists for a petition demanding that governments put more money into providing anti-retroviral drugs for poor countries.

"What is the point of us researching the disease and developing drugs if no-one is going to pay for them to get to the people who need them?" was the basic argument.

James HansenPolitical? You bet.

And for good or bad, that's exactly what politically active climate scientists such as Nasa's Jim Hansen are doing - demanding the action that they think is justified by the science they have developed.

It doesn't automatically negate the worth of the science they do, for virologist or climatologist.

But politics cuts both ways. The timing of this week's meeting is a case in point.

I asked Mr Corbyn whether dropping hints of a new theory of climate change into the mix shortly before the UN summit in Copenhagen was accidental.

He initial answer was that it was "deliberate", before clarifying that the date had first been chosen to mark the first anniversary of the third reading of the UK Climate Change Act; but that when it was pointed out that Copenhagen was just around the corner, he and the other organisers had concluded it was "good timing".

"We are involved in the political debate about climate change," he told me. "The whole regime is suspect and has to be destroyed."

If you really wanted to be cynical, you could argue that enough information on the concept has been released to tantalise the palates of those hungry for a non-CO2 theory, but not nearly enough to allow proper scientific scrutiny.

It does generate a climate projection that is very different from the IPCC's - a "general cooling to 2030 and probably beyond", with temperatures staying below 2002 levels for perhaps a century.

Unlike a weather forecast duel, I don't think policymakers will want to wait until then before deciding whether greenhouse emissions need to be tackled.

Now, doubtless many of you will have views on the science and everything else in this post, and I look forward to reading them.

But the responses I would particularly invite are from working scientists - physicists, climatologists, and those in related fields.

At the beginning of this post, I suggested working scientists might like to read to the end - and here's why.

Piers Corbyn hasn't given you a scientific paper here but I hope I have relayed the main elements, and you can see his presentation for more details.

So please - have a look around. Some of you know about this stuff - orbital precession, solar cycles, Fourier transforms, magnetic dipoles - far, far better than I do. When you have a free moment or two, don't turn to Tetris, but have a play with this box of toys.

The datasets Mr Corbyn used are publically available, as is information on cycles of lunar nodes and such like.

Do the numbers and mechanisms stack up? Is the theory plausible? Compelling? Completely nuts? What do you think?

As of now, does it even qualify as a theory?

I'm certainly not qualified to pronounce judgement - but some of you may be.

I look forward to seeing what you come up with... and so, I'm sure, will everyone anxious to make sure that negotiators in Copenhagen are armed only with the best scientific evidence.

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