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A (PDQ) PDO Primer

The term “PDO” is coming up more often in climate discussions. What it is and why it’s being bandied about are explained in this post from our content partners, Climate Central.

Surf along California's Mendocino Coast. Photo: Craig Miller

Surf along California's Mendocino Coast. Photo: Craig Miller

Did Someone Say “PDO”?

By Heidi Cullen, Phil Duffy and Claudia Tebaldi

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a page-one story looking into why climatologists and TV meteorologists are at odds over global warming.

The article, which quoted one of the authors of this post, pointed out that while climate scientists almost universally agree that human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are warming up the planet, a significant percentage of TV meteorologists do not. In fact, a recent study from George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin showed that out of 571 TV meteorologists surveyed, only about half believed that global warming was happening and fewer than a third accepted the proposition that climate change was “caused mostly by human activities.” The survey also suggested that TV meteorologists view climate change as mostly a natural phenomenon.

Joe Bastardi, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, stands squarely in the natural causes camp, and he offered up his own explanation recently on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. On the comedy show, Bastardi said the global warming trend is just temporary and caused by a mix of volcanic activity, solar cycles, warmer ocean temperatures and specifically a natural climate pattern known as the “PDO” or Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Bastardi has provided a great opportunity to educate the public about climate change. And as climate scientists, we’d like to take a moment to talk about natural climate variability specifically.

The solar cycle and volcano arguments Bastardi gravitates toward are fascinating. But when it comes to climate change, these natural sources of climate variability are incapable of doing the heavy lifting. In fact, they’ve been raised, tested, and solidly laid to rest by the climate science community. Variations in solar output are too weak, and in any case repeat every 11 years, and so cannot explain a steady warming trend over 40+ years. As for the volcano argument, eruptions are also too puny. Globally,volcanoes, like Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano as well as those under the sea release a total of about 200 million tonnes (metric tons) of CO2 annually.

That may sound like a lot, but it’s trivial when compared to human activity. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), global fossil fuel CO2 emissions for 2003 tipped the scales at 26.8 billion tonnes—over 100 times more. Let’s just say human activity can bench press a whole lot more warming than the sun’s variations and volcanoes combined.

Before we move on to the role of the Pacific, we want to first thank Bastardi for daring to mention the phrase P-D-O on television. While geeks like us find the Pacific Decadal Oscillation fascinating, alphabet soup has a tendency to make the public’s eyes glaze over.

The PDO is just one of many natural oscillations in the climate system. It is characterized by a positive or “warm”  phase, and a negative or “cool” phase, which refer to the pattern of anomalies in sea surface temperatures and air pressure between the north central Pacific Ocean and the northeastern Pacific. The El Niño/La Nina cycle, for example, is another natural oscillation. Its period, about three-to-seven years, is shorter than the PDO’s, but in fact, the PDO is often thought of a slower version of El Niño, as some of the manifestations are similar.

Image: NOAA

For example, in the warm phase of the PDO, temperatures in the northwest region of North America tend to be warmer than average, while the southeastern U.S. tends to be cooler than average. Bastardi believes the warming trend (shown below) is only temporary because the phase in which the PDO has predominantly been at the same time, with its warmer than average tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures, is temporarily juicing the system. He forecasts the global temperature trend will dip back down once the PDO shifts back.

blog_monthlyPDOHere’s the problem. First and foremost, while the PDO is important in driving regional climate variations, it has no clear effect on global temperatures. And although the PDO was in its warm phase during the majority of the time from the mid 1970s to the present, it also shifted sharply in multiple instances (see chart), which is inconsistent with the steady global warming trend during the same period. For example, the decade from 2000 to 2009 was the warmest on record globally, but the PDO was not positive throughout that period.

It has been said that the truth is stubborn. This idea gives climate scientists a small sense of relief in that eventually, the stubborn truth will be recognized; that the recent global warming trend is real and caused mostly by human activities.

References for this article are shown in the original post at Climate Central.

NOAA Confirms El Nino

Image from NASA

Warm water patterns in the Pacific during normal (upper) and El Nino (lower) years. The lower image is from 1995-96. Image from NASA

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today confirmed what many had pretty much surmised: El Nino is back.

Officially the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the cyclical pattern of ocean conditions has broad implications for weather and the Pacific food chain.

According to the NOAA news release:

“NOAA expects this El Niño to continue developing during the next several months, with further strengthening possible. The event is expected to last through winter 2009-10.”

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center suggested about a month ago that conditions were right for the return of El Nino.

More recently, the high incidence of underweight sea lion pups turning up along the California coast was taken by some as a harbinger of ENSO. During El Nino cycles, normal upwelling of deep, cold water slows down, essentially shutting down the “food elevator” for many species.

Of course, there can be an upside. According to NOAA:

“El Niño’s impacts depend on a variety of factors, such as intensity and extent of ocean warming, and the time of year. Contrary to popular belief, not all effects are negative. On the positive side, El Niño can help to suppress Atlantic hurricane activity. In the United States, it typically brings beneficial winter precipitation to the arid Southwest, less wintry weather across the North, and a reduced risk of Florida wildfires.”

Links to climate change are less clear. Some scientists have suggested that warming air and sea temperatures might bring about more and longer El Nino events.