Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The twilight zone

After about 12 weeks (is that a record?), I eventually managed to wring a reply out of GRL (with reference to our Comment on Frame et al).

Given the lengthy delay, I suppose the decision (rejection) was not that much of a surprise, but the reviews that it was based on leave us feeling like we're somewhere in the twilight zone. The Editor didn't actually explain his decision at all, but merely enclosed the reviews. Maybe it is supposed to be obvious, but we are rather baffled by it all.

There are a total of 3 reviews - itself something of a surprise, as AGU policy indicates that generally only 2 (including the original author) will be used to review a Comment and Reply. Perhaps the 3rd reviewer was some sort of tie-breaker - this would help to explain the delay, but in that case the decision is even more surprising, since Reviewer 3 (a named climate scientist working in this sub-field) strongly recommends publication of this "highly valuable contribution".

Reviewer 1 is Dave Frame, and his review was pretty much as expected. I don't have any major gripes with that, athough perhaps if he was more confident of his ground he could have actually recommended publication rather than not. I'm unconvinced by his promises to sort it all out in forthcoming publications, as he has not conceded on some of the (IMO unarguable) points that we have made.

That leaves the enigmatic Reviewer 2. He spends a full 3 pages on a diatribe about the faults of the original Frame et al paper, a further page criticising their Reply as inadequate and evasive, and only devotes a single page to discussion of our Comment, the gist of which is that we didn't criticise things in quite they way he would have done himself had he bothered to. His summary recommendation against publication is essentially on the grounds that it would be best not to draw attention to the original Frame et al paper because it is so bad!

Unfortunately, the genie is well out of the bottle on that point, with the paper already cited a number of times, including extensively by the IPCC AR4 drafts (I'll probably get my head chopped off for daring to say that). We consider that, given the impact of the paper, it is irresponsible of GRL to not allow our criticism of it to be published - or at least give us a chance to improve our Comment in the light of the reviews received. But regardless, we now feel like we are sitting in the twilight zone, where criticism of Hegerl et al is disallowed specifically because many others have made similar mistakes, and criticism of Frame et al is apparently disallowed because the original paper is so bad it should never have been published. (We should make it clear that we find R2's comments to be rather harsh in this respect - we sense a bit of a power struggle over who should be considered an authority in this field. IOO Frame et al did represent some progress on what had gone before, but also took a step or two backwards in some respects.)

No doubt we will eventually be able to publish our ideas in a stand-alone paper, but it will take time and effort that could have been more fruitfully expended elsewhere. Part of the reason we haven't already done this is the suspicion that some might say our criticism is too trivial to publish, unless we justify it by tying it directly to the existing literature. And if we are going to name and criticise specific authors, it is only reasonable to give the original authors the chance to respond directly in Comment-and-Reply format. But it seems that this is no longer an option. Meanwhile, climate scientists (including, but not limited to, the IPCC authors) press on regardless, blissfully unaware of the problems in what they are doing. They may even feel more strongly justified now in what they are doing, having successfully shaken off some attacks :-(

On the positive side, one more climate scientist (R3) seems to be pretty much on-board and on-message (I only used these buzzwords to annoy jules who hates them). On top of one more who we've had some recent email correspondence with, there are some signs that the tide will start to turn eventually. Jules and I have been fortunate enough to get invited to a workshop in the UK later this month on uncertainty and probability in climate science. I'm sure these issues will get a good airing there - unfortunately, it coincides with an IPCC lead author meeting, so some of those who need to hear it most urgently will not be able to do so!

Saturday, May 27, 2006


As I mentioned, we had a short holiday recently. With the approach of rainy season (it's been raining almost non-stop for a month, but it's not "Rainy Season", just rainy!) we dashed off at the first sign of a few clear days to play in the last bit of snow - or so we hoped. It's been quite warm so we weren't quite sure what to expect.

We shouldn't have been so pessimistic. Due to the amazingly heavy snow fall there was over the winter (the most in 50 years, perhaps) the huts were still substantially submerged.

Our destination was Karawasa Col in the Kita Alps - a north-east facing corrie (so why do they call it a col?) that reliably keeps some snow right through the year. Last time we were there (last autumn), the path down the valley took us through some shrubby maple and rowan trees, with astonishing autumn colours, but limited views. This time...

...the trees were nowhere to be seen, blanketed under a huge layer of snow!

The main purpose of the trip was just to get some practice in steep snow, so we marched up the very steep 700m climb to the ridge where we had some food in the (virtually submerged) Hodaka sanso (about 1/3 from the RHS on that photo, not that it's visible). Then we had...

...700m of glissading back down to the col! Rather like Ben Lui in Scotland, but about 3 times bigger.

The huts were great this time - almost empty, so we had great service and two very comfortable nights. My only complaint is the panda-face sunburn of someone who foolishly underestimated the glare off the snow, and the smug sarcasm of a wife saying "told you so" :-)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Global warming risk 'much higher'

OK, back to some climate science to keep poor Rufus happy (it's not for nothing that I've kept the "Empty Blog" name - even scientists have holidays). Readers have been clamouring for my opinions on this story. And by "readers", I really do mean both of you, separately, which is something of a record :-) Perhaps I should wait until I get to see the papers themselves in a few days, but it's more fun to speculate in advance with no knowledge of the facts :-)

Actually, I will not comment in detail on the science - it looks like two groups have found some observational (historical) evidence of a significantly positive carbon cycle feedback, meaning that any particular emissions pathway will lead to a higher atmospheric CO2 concentration than was previously expected. I will assume for now that this science is solid enough in itself, and merely discuss the presentation of the results.

According to the BBC article, one of the two groups has presented its results in terms of redefining climate sensitivity to account for this feedback, giving a range of 1.6-6.0C rather than the previous 1.5-4.5 (IPCC TAR). If this is really what they have done, it seems to be a confused and unhelpful approach to me. Climate sensitivity is traditionally defined as the equilibrium temperature rise associated with a doubling of atmospheric CO2. As such, it is completely independent of questions about the origins of that CO2, eg how anthropenic emissions vary over time, what proportion of anthropogenic emissions are disolved in the ocean, any other feedbacks in the carbon cycle etc. Of course, one can define anything one likes, but the only way I can see to interpret the new definition would be to say something along the lines of "If we were to consider an emissions pathway that would result in a steady-state doubling of CO2 under the assumption that the carbon cycle feedback does not exist, then the resulting temperature change in the real world (accounting for this feedback) would be likely to be in the range 1.6-6.0C" or some similar verbiage. That's a bit of a mouthful, and it's not clear exactly in what way it would be useful.

What the research does suggest (assuming it holds up under scrutiny) is that for any particular emissions pathway, the resulting CO2 level is likely to be somewhat higher than was previously thought. That does mean that the transient SRES results would have to get bumped up a bit (but to compensate, perhaps the highest ones could be "updated" to more plausible values anyway). Equivalently, for any particular stabilisation level, permitted emissions would have to be lower. I'm not sure of the magnitude of the difference between this and previous work though - AIUI there has already been some research suggesting a positive carbon cycle feedback - it seems that this might be more along the lines of data firming up this as-yet-uncertain hypothesis, than something strikingly new on its own. The BBC journalist talks up this research as a "challenge" to "the consensus view of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)" but I think it would be more realistic to describe it as a slight nudge.

"Research whaling fleet" leaves to catch 260 whales in northwestern Pacific

OK, I admit that I put the quotes in that headline, which are not there in the original. I particularly like this line from the news article:
The fleet will return to Japan in mid-September after collecting such data as the stomach contents of whales, and chemical pollutants accumulated in whale bodies before they are sold at fish markets in November.
I do wonder if they will actually publicise the chemical pollutants accumulated in whale bodies before selling the meat? The cynic in me thinks not. Probably the unsellable meat will just be dumped on schools (and perhaps hospitals) anyway...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Announcing: Moderated global change discussion forum

As posted to sci.env and elsewhere (?):


We are creating a moderated newsgroup/mailing list for the discussion of environmental science, economics, policy and politics, especially as related to global change issues such as climate change, biodiversity, and sustainability.

The signal to noise ratio on sci.environment and similar unmoderated discussion lists has dropped to the point where it can no longer sustain interesting or informative exchanges of information and ideas.

The success of the lightly moderated discussions on the blog has revealed that the hunger for serious and informed discussion remains. However, blogs do not fully replicate the broad-ranging conversational style that usenet once supported even in controversy-prone areas of interest.

Fortunately, new tools allow us to recapture most of the usenet experience without going through the tedious and archaic process of setting up a "big-eight" newsgroup.

It is difficult to specify what "fair" or "unfair" moderation means without getting tediously legalistic. To avoid endless haggling about this, we formulate our policy thus:

Posts will be admitted to the list if and only if ANY moderator finds the submission to be constructive and/or interesting, on topic, and not gratuitously rude.

We are not unanimous in our opinions, and are open to submissions from people outside the spectrum of opinion represented by the moderators.

We will endeavor to remove obvious provocations ("trolls"). We also discourage postings that are redundant, in the sense that the poster has already made their points and does not seem to take account of the responses but is merely insistently reasserting points previously made.

Whether, as a consequence of this policy, you find the list useful and interesting or otherwise is left to yourself. If you don't like our list, by all means make your own.



Probably the easiest way to participate is to point your browser to
and you can read the messages immediately.

You may send submissions through the web interface, or by email to

Using the interface in this way does not require you to get a Google login.

"Membership" is encouraged, as it permits us to give individual participants an overall approval, reducing propagation delays and the workload of the moderators. Membership does not automatically imply email delivery of messages. Non-members may also post but all their
messages require moderation.


It is also possible to subscribe to the newsgroup as an RSS feed. See
for more information


We are in the process of setting up an NNTP feed through gmane. When it is available we will offer futher information.


You can subscribe to globalchange as a mailing list, but you have to use the web to sign up. Go to
and click "join this group" and follow instructions.

To use this approach you will need to have or set up a free google login.

If you subscribe to the email, you need not ever use the web interface or your google account again. You may send submissions by email to


Looking forward to reviving the historically interesting and productive usenet-style conversations on environmental matters, we are,

your globalchange moderators:

James Annan
Raymond Arritt
Coby Beck
William Connolley
Michael Tobis

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Exciting ebay auction item

Here's a special opportunity for all of my readers:

Broken green laser pointer (item 9726296628 end time 23-May-06 23:21:02 BST)

I've generally had no problems with ebay, but recently someone sold me a laser pointer that doesn't work. The seller appears to be a box-shifter who simply doesn't respond to problems (of course I noticed he'd had a small proportion of problems before bidding, but thought I was unlikely to be one of them), and paypal's "dispute resolution" isn't worth the (non-functioning) web page it is written on.

I was amused to find that the very first item ever bought on ebay was a broken laser pointer. So here is your chance to re-create a moment in history!

Happy bidding, and good luck!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Ho hum

Another week, another rejection (without review) from Nature. This was an attempted comment on Hegerl et al, which can be found here. The points we were trying to make will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read my previous comments such as the comment on Frame et al which we are still waiting to hear anything about, after a full 2 months at GRL. Basically, there are two main reasons why Hegerl et al's "pdf" is not actually a valid probabilistic estimate of climate sensitivity at all. Firstly, they ignore much of the data that bears on the matter (and which indicates a highest likelihood of a value of about 3C), and secondly by starting off with a prior that assigns very high probability to high sensitivity and ignoring most of the evidence to the contrary, they ensure that the result also has a high probability of high sensitivity - albeit far lower than their prior did. Of course these...limitations...are prevalent in much of the literature.

Nature's excuse this time? Editor Nicki Stevens wrote:
we have regretfully decided that publication of this comment as a Brief Communication Arising is not justified, as the concerns you have raised apply more generally to a widespread methodological approach, and not solely to the Hegerl et al. paper
Yes, you read that right. Because everyone else has been doing much the same thing, they aren't interested in ensuring that the stuff they publish is valid. Really, there seems little answer to this beyond picking our jaws off the floor and keeping it in mind when we read future Nature papers. (FWIW, it was also Nicki Stevens who told us that our GRL manuscript didn't provide enough of an "advance in significantly constraining climate sensitivity relative to prior estimates".)

Meanwhile, we have people like Gavin Schmidt quite prepared to openly dismiss the bulk of peer-reviewed literature in this area with such comments as "Basically no one really believes that those really high sensitivities are possible," and "even Hegerl's top limit is too high". Not that I'm criticising him for that - quite the reverse, but the fact that there is such a credibility gap between what has appeared in the literature, and what at least some responsible and reputable scientists think, should surely be seen as rather worrying by all who are interested in ensuring that the scientific process works as intended. It is quite clear that (unless our arguments are wholly invalid, and so far no-one has suggested why they should be) none of the published "pdfs" actually provide any credible support for the belief that S is greater than 6C even at as little as the 5% level (for example), but according to Nature, as long as everyone keeps on getting this wrong together, they aren't interested in correcting the mistaken (and alarmist) impression that they have helped to foster. We feel like the boy who tells the emperor that he has no clothes, except that we are not even being allowed to say it, at least not anywhere that it will be seen.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

My cubicle

I've worked out how to make youtube work ok - it doesn't like the native avi files from my digital camera (truncates them to a few frames), but everything seems to work fine after conversion to mp4. So now I can bore you regularly with tedious home movies of trivia. Let's start off with a look at my cubicle where I sit and pretend to work all day :-)

Ok, that wasn't really about my cubicle, but rather the amazing optical illusion, which you can make for yourself from here (direct link to pdf to print out and make your own).

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


One of the minor perks of being an expat in Japan is that when some British VIP scientist person visits, we tend to get invited to make up the numbers at a party at the Embassy - which is a rather nice building with a lovely garden in the middle of Tokyo. For example, a couple of weeks ago we got to meet Sir John Hougton of IPCC and Hadley Centre fame, who was in town to pick up one of the two Japan Prizes awarded annually (Japan's answer to the Nobel prizes). A couple of years ago it was the turn of Sir John Lawton - who was Chief Executive of NERC (and therefore my boss4 or thereabouts) back when I was in the UK. It is interesting to see both the high importance that the Japanese attach to environmental science, and the prominence of UK scientists in their thoughts. Anyway, I'm digressing.

Last night, we were back at the embassy for a party in no-one in particular's honour - it was just the annual early summer party of the Cambridge and Oxford Society of Tokyo. The current Ambassador very generously maintains the long-running tradition of hosting a party before it gets too hot to enjoy the garden (and showing a video of The Boat Race). Of course, it goes without saying that the ambassador is always a member of the Society - in fact he is always its President, although these days perhaps there is a little more nervousness than there used to be at the time of a new appointment :-) Much to our surprise, Crown Prince Naruhito was there as well, plugging his newly-translated book (sans wife though). He looked relaxed and pleased to be there, and even (so jules says) cute, but also perhaps a little....smaller than we had expected (jules even rather cruelly suggested that a bit of foreign blue-eyed blood might help to keep the royal family from disappearing under the tables completely). Neither of us dared to interrupt the halo of female admirers that seemed to follow him wherever he went. I also resisted the temptation to balance my wine glass on his head, or ping profiteroles across the room at him. Which considering the generous quantities of both which were made available, was remarkably restrained, I thought.

Oh, and the best team won, too.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

"Leak" of IPCC AR4

So, the nasty US Govt (in the form of the Climate Change Science Programme) has "leaked" the draft AR4 by putting it on a password-protected site, but issuing passwords automatically to anyone to bothers to ask for one. And the usual suspects are getting predictably outraged over it.

First, it does look like a clear breach of the conditions that the IPCC attached to the report - that it should not be distributed any further. That's naughty of the US CCSP. On the other hand, it is not clear that the IPCC has any real mechanism to refuse access to anyone who asks for it anyway - some septics have been observed to label themseves "IPCC expert reviewer" by way of credentials, and I've not heard of anyone complaining that they have been refused access - not that my lack of knowledge on these matters can be considered definitive of course, but does anyone have any evidence to the contrary?

But as importantly, those who are complaining in advance about the IPCC authors being flooded by "comment spam" have obviously not checked to see what the US CCSP has actually done. They are soliciting comments for themselves, which they will then take into account in their official comment, and they specifically instruct reviewers to not also email the IPCC directly. I assume the IPCC authors will not consider themselves to be under any obligation to deal with comments from people who they did not give the report out to in the first place. So the US CCSP will be the ones filtering any comment spam they generate. I can't imagine they will be silly enough to simply pass on the whole heap of comments unchecked (inclusive of any and all clue-free drivel they receive) as their official response, but it would be funny if they tried.

And furthermore, probably no-one had even heard of this "leak" until it was splashed in the press. I'm not going to blame the journalists really - information wants to be free - but there is some irony in people thundering about a "secrecy breach" and thereby magnifying it by orders of magnitude. Although I would agree that it is best to allow the review and redrafting to take place in an orderly manner and out of the full glare of the press, it's not as if there are any "secrets" in the document anyway - it is only a literature review, after all.

Golden Week Walk

"Golden Week" is a group of near-consecutive holidays when everyone in Japan goes on holiday together. We went up into the mountains around Kinpu-san in the Okuchichibu area on a 3 day trip to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder with 150 others in a small hut that would have comfortably held...oh, about 50 or so :-) I'm not exaggerating when I say that there was literally insufficient floor space for me to lie on my back on the first night. It's about the 4th time we've been walking in this area, but we've never hit peak season before.

This is Kobushigoya where we spent a rather sleepless night:

At this time of year there is still plenty of snow around above 2000m or so (at least, under the trees - open rocky areas were clearer), but we were lucky and had bright sunny weather for 3 solid days. And by staying in a more remote hut on the 2nd night, we even had room to lie down and sleep. Here is one of the views along the way:

And here is Jules enjoying a packed lunch of rice and a whole dried fish on the summit of Kinpu-san.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"Quake jolts area south of Tokyo"

Top News Article | "Quake jolts area south of Tokyo"

"Area south of Tokyo" happens to be where we live, in Kamakura. The house is still standing though. There have been several decent-sized quakes in the last couple of weeks, all centred on the Sagami Bay area just off the coast here. That was also the epicentre of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923...

Japanese abductees

A long-running story in the Japanese press has been the fate of the 13-16 people who were abducted from Japan to North Korea, apparently to teach Japanese to spies. It's been used repeatedly as a stick to beat the nasty North Koreans with (and of course it is a rather shocking story).

Recently, the USA's might has been enlisted to back up the Japanese outrage, complete with a congressional hearing and photo-op with Bush himself, at which he said:
"It is hard to believe that a country would foster abduction. It's hard for Americans to imagine that a leader of any country would encourage the abduction of a young child. It's a heartless country that would separate loved ones."
However, a quick google on Japan child abduction tells rather a different, but equally shocking, story. The links that come up first do not talk about the handful of Japanese abducted to North Korea...but instead, the much much larger number of children abducted TO Japan, following the breakdown of their parents' relationship. Yes, Japan is internationally renowned as a safe haven for child abduction - refusing to sign up to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, and routinely ignoring and over-ruling any settlements made in a foreign court, irrespective of where the child has been raised. Even the USA itself condemns this behaviour in strong language:
in cases of international parental child abduction, foreign parents are greatly disadvantaged in Japanese courts, both in terms of obtaining the return of children to the United States, and in achieving any kind of enforceable visitation rights in Japan. The Department of State is not aware of any case in which a child taken from the United States by one parent has been ordered returned to the United States by Japanese courts, even when the left-behind parent has a United States custody decree.
The possibility of any mainstream Japanese media commenting on the obvious hypocrisy in this is vanishingly small, of course.