Yellowknife, Canada, where the annual mean temperature is zero degrees Celsius.
In times of publish or perish, it can be tempting to put "hiatus" in your title and publish an average article on climate variability in one of the prestigious Nature journals. But my impression is that this does not explain all of the enthusiasm for short-term trends. Humans are greedy pattern detectors: it is better to see a tiger, a conspiracy or trend change one time too much than one time too little. Thus maybe humans have a tendency to see significant trends where statistics keeps a cooler head.
Whatever the case, I expect that also many scientists will be surprised to see how large the difference in uncertainty is between long-term and short-term trends. However, I will start with the basics, hoping that everyone can understand the argument.
Statistically significantThat something is statistically significant means that it is unlikely to happen due to chance alone. When we call a trend statistically significant, it means that it is unlikely that there was no trend, but that the trend you see is due to chance. Thus to study whether a trend is statistically significant, we need to study how large a trend can be when we draw random numbers.
For each of the four plots below, I drew ten random numbers and then computed the trend. This could be 10 years of the yearly average temperature in [[Yellowknife]]*. Random numbers do not have a trend, but as you can see, a realisation of 10 random numbers appears to have one. These trends may be non-zero, but they are not significant.
If you draw 10 numbers and compute their trends many times, you can see the range of trends that are possible in the left panel below. On average these trends are zero, but a single realisation can easily have a trend of 0.2. Even higher values are possible with a very small probability. The statistical uncertainty is typically expressed as a confidence interval that contains 95% of all points. Thus even when there is no trend, there is a 5% chance that the data has a trend that is wrongly seen as significant.**
If you draw 20 numbers, 20 years of data, the right panel shows that those trends are already quite a lot more accurate, there is much less scatter.
To have a look at the trend errors for a range of different lengths of the series, the above procedure was repeated for lengths between 5 and 140 random numbers (or years) in steps of 5 years. The confidence interval of the trend for each of these lengths is plotted below. For short periods the uncertainty in the trend is enormous. It shoots up.
In fact, the confidence range for short periods shoots up so fast that it is hard to read the plot. Thus let's show the same data with different (double-logarithmic) axis in the graph below. Then the relationship look like a line. That shows that size of the confidence interval is a power law function of the number of years.
The exponent is -1.5. As an example that means that the confidence interval of a ten year trend is 32 (101.5) times as large as the one of a hundred year trend.
Some people looking at the global mean temperature increase plotted below claim to see a hiatus between the years 1998 and 2013. A few years ago I could imagine people thinking: that looks funny, let's make a statistical test whether there is a change in the trend. But when the answer then clearly is "No, no way", and the evidence shows it is "mostly just short-term fluctuations from El Nino", I find it hard to understand why people believe in this idea so strongly that they defend it against this evidence.
Especially now it is so clear, without any need for statistics, that there never was anything like an "hiatus". But still some people claim there was one, but it stopped. I have no words. Really, I am not faking this dear colleagues. I am at a loss.
Maybe people look at the graph below and think, well that "hiatus" is ten percent of the data and intuit that the uncertainty of the trend is only 10 times as large, not realising that it is 32 times.
Maybe people use their intuition from computing averages; the uncertainty of a ten year average is only 3 times as large that of a 100 year average. That is a completely different game.
The plots below for the uncertainty in the average are made in the same way as the above plots for the trend uncertainty. Also here more data is better, but the function is much less steep. Plots of power laws always look very similar, you need to compare the axis or the computed exponent, which in this case is only -0.5.
It is typical to use 30 year periods to study the climate. These so-called climate normals were introduced around 1900 in a time the climate was more or less stable and the climate needed to be described for agriculture, geography and the like. Sometimes it is argued that to compute climate trends you need at least 30 years of data, that is not a bad rule of thumb and would avoid a lot of nonsense, but the 30 year periods were not intended as a period on which to compute trends. Given how bad the intuition of people apparently is there seems to be no alternative to formally computing the confidence interval.
That short-term trends have such a large uncertainty also provides some insight into the importance of homogenisation. The typical time between two inhomogeneities is 15 to 20 years for temperature. The trend over the homogeneous subperiods between two inhomogeneities is thus very uncertain and not that important for the long-term trend. What counts is the trend of the averages of the homogeneous subperiods.
That insight makes you want to be sure you do a good job when homogenising your data rather than mindlessly assume everything will be alright and raw data good enough. Neville Nicholls wrote about how he started working on homogenisation:
When this work began 25 years or more ago, not even our scientist colleagues were very interested. At the first seminar I presented about our attempts to identify the biases in Australian weather data, one colleague told me I was wasting my time. He reckoned that the raw weather data were sufficiently accurate for any possible use people might make of them.Sad.
[UPDATE: In part 2 of this series, I show how these large trend uncertainties in combination with the deceptive strategy of "cherry-picking" a specific period very easily produces a so-called "hiatus".]
Related readingHow can the pause be both ‘false’ and caused by something?
Atmospheric warming hiatus: The peculiar debate about the 2% of the 2%
Sad that for Lamar Smith the "hiatus" has far-reaching policy implications
Temperature trend over last 15 years is twice as large as previously thought
Why raw temperatures show too little global warming
Notes* In Yellowknife the annual mean temperature is about zero degrees Celsius. Locally the standard deviation of annual temperatures is about 1°C. Thus I could conveniently use the normal distribution with zero mean and standard deviation one. The global mean temperature has a much smaller standard deviation of its fluctuations around the long-term trend.
** Rather than calling something statistically significant and thus only communicating whether the probability was below 5% or not, it fortunately becomes more common to simply give the probability (p-value). In the past this was hard to compute and people compared their computation to the 5% levels given in statistical tables in books. With modern numerical software it is easy to compute the p-value itself.
*** Here is the cleaned R code to generated the plots of this post.
The photo of YellowKnife at the top is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.