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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Skeptical Science: The e-mail travesty in misquoting Trenberth

The e-mail travesty in misquoting Trenberth

by villabolo, Skeptical Science, April 10, 2011

"The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't." -Kevin Trenberth
Trenberth's statement was used completely out of context by those behind the fake 'Cimategate' scandal. The statement is distorted to mean that there is no global warming. That is not the case.
Trenberth's job is to track exactly how much energy is reaching us from the sun, and how much of that warming has been absorbed by the air, land, oceans, and melting ice. He also calculates how much is reflected or radiated from each of these places. The more global warming there is, the more energy is absorbed by all these places.
Therefore, Trenberth was talking about where some of the warmth has gone, not that there is a lack of warmth. The illustration below shows what the situation is. Please note the lack of information from the deep oceans.
Figure 1. The global annual mean Earth’s energy budget for the March 2000–May 2004 period in W/m2. The broad arrows indicate the schematic flow of energy in proportion to their importance. From Trenberth et al. (2009).
The situation can be easily explained by the following analogy.
Suppose you are an accountant for a major corporation which grossed 1 billion dollars last year, an increase from the previous year. Your job is to find out where and how that money was spent. You take into account every detail such as salaries, benefits, purchases, etc.. Ideally, your goal as an accountant is to account for every dollar spent or left over as profit. Realistically you can be off by a small amount without worry.
Imagine, however, that 10% (100 million dollars) is unaccounted for. That would be serious. You know that the money has been there all along but where did it go? Was it due to waste or mismanagement of company resources? Is there someone stealing the money?
Suppose now, that the accountant sends an e-mail saying, "I cannot account for the lack of money and it's a shame."
Now imagine a person who wants to defame the company. He hacks into the e-mail and quotes the accountant out of context by claiming that the company is actually losing money..
When Trenberth said, "...we can't account for the lack of warming...", he meant the same thing as that accountant. He could not accurately determine the Earth's complete global energy budget because the measurements he had for the ocean's warming only went down to 900 metres (little over 1/2 mile) and oceans can be much deeper than that. Our measurements of how much energy is in our atmosphere are accurately known, however.
Trenberth, K. E., Fasullo, J. T., and Kiehl, J. 2009. Earth's global energy budget. Bulletin of American Meteorological Society, 90:311-323.

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