I’ve written before about the claim that there has been no warming for the last 16 years. This is often made by those who are skeptical – or deny – the role of man in climate change. As I mentioned in my earlier post, this is actually because the natural scatter in the temperature anomaly data is such that it is not possible to make a statistically significant statement about the warming trend if one considers too short a time interval.
The data that is normally used for this is the temperature anomaly. The temperature anomaly is the difference between the global surface temperature and some long-term average (typically the average from 1950-1980). This data is typically analysed using Linear Regression. This involves choosing a time interval and then fitting a straight line to the data. The gradient of this line gives the trend (normally in oC per decade) and this analysis also determines the error using the scatter in the anomaly data. What is normally quoted is the 2σ error. The 2σ error tells us that the data suggests that there is a 95% chance that the actual trend lies between (trend + error) and (trend – error). The natural scatter in the temperature anomaly data means that if the time interval considered is too short, the 2σ error can be larger than the gradient of the best fit straight line. This means that we cannot rule out (at a 95% level) that surface temperatures could have decreased in this time interval.
We are interested in knowing if the surface temperatures are rising at a rate of between 0.1 and 0.2 oC per decade. Typically we therefore need to consider time intervals of about 20 years or more if we wish to get a statistically significant result. The actual time interval required does vary with time and the figure below shows, for the last 30 years, the amount of time required for a statistically significant result. This was linked to from a comment on a Guardian article so I don’t know who to credit. Happy to give credit if someone can point put who deserves it. The figure shows that, in 1995, the previous 20 years were needed if a statistically significant result was to be obtained. In 2003, however, just over 10 years was required. Today, we need about 20 years to get a statistically significant result. The point is that at almost any time in the past 30 years, at least 10 years of data – often more – was needed to determine a statistically significant warming trend and yet noone would suggest that there has been no warming since 1980. That there has been no statistically significant warming since 1997 is therefore not really important. It’s perfectly normal and there are plenty of other periods in the last 30 years were 20 years of data was needed before a statistically significant signal was recovered. It just means we need more data. It doesn’t mean that there’s been no warming.