Weather and Climate Data: Water – The Ignored Variable

by Dr. Tim Ball on May 9, 2011

in Atmosphere,Data,Land,Politics

Knowledge of the subject and an ability to understand how words are used is required to know how misleading interpretations are created to pervert climate science. It is part of the attempt to persuade the public so their collective voice can overwhelm scientists asking legitimated questions: it’s a variation of the consensus argument. The opening statement of an article in the November 9, 2005 ScienceDaily provides a good example. It said,

A new report indicates that the vast majority of the rapid temperature increase recently observed in Europe is likely due to an unexpected greenhouse gas: water vapor.

It is important because new measures of water vapor in the stratosphere and upper troposphere are causing consternation. The findings might help explain why global surface temperatures have not risen as fast in the last ten years as they did in the 1980s and 1990s. But if true, it puts official climate science claims in jeopardy.

The 2005 comment is remarkable because of the phrase “unexpected greenhouse gas,” which betrays either ignorance of the science or an attempt to mislead. Water vapour is by far the most important greenhouse gas, being 95% by volume of the total greenhouse gases and anything but “unexpected”. A second comment in the article gives insight about what is going on, but very few, including many scientists, would know the real purpose of the article.

The authors, led by Rolf Philipona of the World Radiation Center in Davos, show experimentally that 70 percent of the rapid temperature increase is very likely caused by water vapor feedback.

Unless you read every word and know why and how it is being used a misconception is created. The word “experimentally” is critical because it means it is not an actual observation but one achieved in a computer model. The claim is qualified as “very likely”, which official science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say is better than 90%. Then, there is the unqualified phrase “rapid temperature increase,” which implies something unusual happened with the temperatures when there is no evidence. Few know what the word “feedback” means in climate science. It can be either positive (if it enhances a trend) or negative (if it counters the trend). The IPCC were confronted with the problem that even if CO2 doubled or tripled, there was a very small upper limit to temperature increase, so they created a positive feedback. They claimed a CO2 increase would cause a temperature increase and higher evaporation with more water vapour in the atmosphere. This greenhouse gas would, as a positive feedback, cause the temperature increase to continue. All of this obscurity, deflection, and conditional information are swamped by what will stay with the public: the headline. It categorically states, without the conditions in the article, that, “Water feedback is rapidly warming Europe.”

The total of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is not known. Even less is known about how much they vary. Figure 1 shows part of the problem with climate science and why there’s so much false information and misunderstanding. Some gases are identified as variable, but the reality is they are all variable. If the amount of one changes, then the percentage amount of all others change. The problem is the measure of variability is being applied in different ways. Water vapor is the only one shown with a range of variability from zero to 4%. Why? In fact, it is never zero. The range reflects the variability of water vapor in the atmosphere from one region to another; however, it is considered constant globally over time.

Atmospheric gases

Figure 1: Atmospheric Gases (GHG = Greenhouse Gas)

CO2 and CH4 are considered constant throughout the atmosphere, but that is not correct either. The variability used here means they increase in amount over time, but that is not known.

Ongoing Problem

The amount of water vapor in the air has always been a challenge to meteorology underscored by development of four different measures:

  • Absolute Humidity: Ratio of mass or weight of water vapor per unit volume of air – grams per cubic meter.
  • Specific Humidity: Ratio of the mass or weight of water vapor in the air to a unit of air including the water vapor – grams of water vapor per kilogram of wet air.
  • Mixing Ratio: Ratio of the mass of water vapor to the mass of dry air -grams per gram or grams per kilogram.
  • Relative Humidity: Ratio of amount of water vapor in the air as a percentage of what it could hold.

The latter is the one most people know, but is of little value scientific value. You can have a relative humidity (RH) of 80% but a totally different amount of actual water vapor in the air. This is because the amount held is a function of temperature. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air.

Let me complicate the issue further. On October 13, 1927 at In-Salah, Algeria, temperature fell from an afternoon high of 52.2°C to –3.3°C (126°F to 26°F) the following morning, a drop of 55.6°C (100°F). It was not due to a drop in CO2, but a very low level of water vapor, the most important and abundant greenhouse gas. Average Relative Humidity for the hot deserts is generally below 30%, but can be as low as 2%. However, the amount of water in the air could be higher than in a parcel of very cold air.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 Report has two sections that talk of water vapor. Section 2.5.6, Tropospheric Water Vapour from Anthropogenic Sources They reach no conclusion except that irrigation is considered a major source, but

Uncertainties in the water vapour flow to the atmosphere from irrigation are significant.

Section 2.3.7, Stratospheric Water Vapor concludes:

…there is little quantification of the stratospheric water vapour change attributable to different causes. It is also likely that different mechanisms are affecting water vapour trends at different altitudes.

In summary, they confirm we don’t know anything, and can’t know, because we don’t have the data. What IPCC don’t tell you is that this is true for the entire climate system – yet they continue to present forecasts (scenarios) full of certainty.

Temperature data and its relationship to human production of CO2 is the total concern of the IPCC. The world believes they are examining all weather and climate variables and mechanisms – they are not and do little to dissuade this perception. Even if they were to examine everything there is not enough data or understanding to know what is happening. Data about water in all its forms is less available and more limited than most other weather variables, yet it is essential to atmospheric processes. The density of network recording stations required is many factors greater than for temperature. Precipitation amounts are far more variable than any other element.

Precipitation Data Totally Inadequate

In 2006, an attempt was made to forecast summer monsoon rains for the Sahel in Africa. They failed and concluded:

Climate scientists cannot say what has delayed the monsoon this year or whether the delay is part of a larger trend. Nor do they fully understand the mechanisms that govern rainfall over the Sahel.
(Source: “Waiting for the Monsoon” Science VOL 313, 4 Aug 2006.)

Worse, when they projected long-term trends one model said wetter, the other drier. Why?

One obvious problem is a lack of data. Africa’s network of 1152 weather watch stations, which provide real-time data and supply international climate archives, is just one-eighth the minimum density recommended by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Furthermore, the stations that do exist often fail to report.

They also concluded that the resolution of the models was inadequate and unaware of the underlying mechanisms.

Even with adequate precipitation stations and data it can’t provide answer because they don’t include all the factors. For example, in the mid 1980s western Canada crop predictions anticipated below average yields. They were equal or slightly above average. What happened? What did they miss? Answer; moisture precipitated out as condensation.

A layer of air immediately above the surface is critical as the interface between the surface and the atmosphere. Contrary to popular belief the atmosphere is mostly heated by the ground. At night, the ground gives up heat stored during the day to try and maintain atmospheric temperature. It means the layer of air near the ground continues to cool, which is why lowest temperatures are often shortly after sunrise. This cooling near the surface causes condensation when the temperature drops below the Dewpoint temperature, which is deposited as liquid above freezing and frost below.

Forgotten Moisture

In the late summer of that 1980s year, daytime temperatures were high, generally 27-28°C, which meant it could hold lots of moisture. At night, temperatures dropped to record lows around 3-5°C and moisture deposition was heavy. In a three-week period this yields upward of 50 mm (2 inches) of precipitation equivalent. Farmers know that amount of moisture can be critical to “fill out” a crop. It has several advantages over normal precipitation. It occurs at night when heat stress on the plant is reduced. Evaporation is reduced. Distribution is more even and widely distributed than rainfall. Unfortunately, it is not moisture counted in the weather statistics used by all the experts. Ironically, it’s moisture farmers know about because, until it evaporates, it can delay harvesting.

Anyone that claims we have any idea what is really happening with global weather and climate is displaying how little they actually know. The IPCC say they are 90% certain global warming and climate change is due to human-produced CO2.