Is Climate Chaotic or Cyclical? The Transition from Uniformitarianism to Catastrophism.

Guest opinion: Dr. Tim Ball

In the 1990s a clear divide existed between the east (the Soviet Union and China) who said climate change is cyclical and the west (the US and Europe) who believed it was chaotic. The former argued that all we need to do is determine the major cycles and how they interact to start understanding and to predict. The latter that climate was chaotic as expressed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report and predictions were not possible.

In climate research and modeling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible.

Chaos theory was the source of the Lorenz based story prevalent at the time that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Japan it arrives as a storm in California many days later.

The media reported the divide as a political difference, a product of the Cold war. In fact, the divide continues with Russia and China consistently offering different views and challenging more extreme claims in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Reports. Of course, as long as they are listed as “developing nations,” they always vote for a transfer of wealth as set out in the Kyoto Protocol and its replacement, the Green Climate Fund.

My views on the dichotomy began to formulate earlier from empirical evidence. Research and analysis of data quantified from the Hudson’s Bay Company weather diaries and instrumental records detected a very strong 22-year drought cycle in the middle latitude record for York Factory on Hudson Bay. I included the results in my doctoral thesis (1982) against the advice of my supervisor. He did not disagree with my work; he just thought it was too controversial for my committee to accept. I left it in, and it triggered an interesting experience. The chairman of the committee, Professor C. G. Smith[1], who studied historical precipitation records, especially those of the Radcliffe Observatory, did something unusual. After all the committee members asked their questions, he asked them to agree to tell me I had passed so we could then partake in an unfettered discussion about the issue of cycles.

Part of the discussion included the early work on tree rings in North America, particularly the work of A.E. Douglass, founder of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in 1937. As that biography notes,

“He discovered a correlation between tree rings and the sunspot cycle.”

His work became the basis of dendrochronology, which triggered work in tree ring sequences as a proxy indicator for a wide range of correlations. Of course, correlation does not mean cause and effect, but it does trigger searches for potential mechanisms.

One graph (Figure 1) illustrates the type of work produced and shows the correlation between the 22-year sunspot cycle and drought periods across the Great Plains as deduced from tree rings.

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Figure 1

It is interesting because when I used the graph in presentations to western North American farmers I did not add to it but simply noted that the sequence anticipated a drought in the late 1980s and that is precisely what occurred. Also notice the decline in sunspot numbers associated with the Dalton Minimum from 1790 to 1830. It is tempting to assume the different durations of droughts, one longer from circa 1820 and the other shorter from approximately 1840 was a result of the reduction in sunspot numbers.

Before we organized the conference on the impact of the 1815 volcanic eruption of Tambora, it was assumed the eruption caused the decline in global temperature of the period. While preparing for the conference, it became apparent to myself and fellow organizers, Cynthia Wilson and Richard Harington, that global temperatures were already in decline and a likely explanation was the decline in sunspot numbers. Remember, this was pre-Svensmark’s cosmic theory. Indeed, the idea of even a correlation between sunspots and temperature was just gaining wider legitimacy from the work of John Eddy. As a result, we invited him to be the keynote speaker at the conference. The question that emerged during the conference was how would the impact of Tambora change if global temperatures were rising at the time. The same questions were asked the impact on precipitation patterns, especially droughts. One of my contributions to the symposium was to detail the severe drought in Central Canada from approximately 1816 to 1819. I will return to the significance of these observations later.

Two other experiences reinforced my views on the cyclical versus the chaos controversy. The first occurred when I was invited by the editors to submit a chapter to the book Climate Since A.D. 1500. The editors had each chapter author review another author’s chapter. I worked with Ye. P. Borisenkov, the Soviet historical climatologist, whose chapter “Documentary Evidence from the U.S.S.R” used the Russian Chronicles among other sources. Borisenkov’s work was recognized as a major contribution to the current claims of a cooling over the next few decades by Dr. Abdussamatov.

The second event occurred when I gave a paper at the 1988 Annual Geophysical Society General Assembly in Bologna, Italy that focused on evidence for climate change from historical records. This was among the earliest public presentations of climate research from the vast potential of the Vatican archives. It was also an early public presentation of the remarkable resources from China. In both the Russian and Chinese connections I learned that the leaders, Russian Czars, and Chinese Emperors, kept weather and crop journals for a very practical reason. They needed to prepare for the social unrest that inevitably followed crop failures.

Through the work with Borisenkov, I became aware of Nikolai Kondratieff (variously Kondratiev) and his theory of climate and economic cycles. It was this focus on food production, especially subsistence crops like cereal grains, which led to the first practical application of the cyclical approach in Russia. Between 1919 and 1921 Kondratieff plotted the relationship between grain production and drought and produced the K-Cycle. It was a predictive tool based on the idea that all economies and civilizations exist based on their ability to feed themselves. An important idea that led to my dictum that, there are no farms in the cities, but there are no cities without farms. In the west, the most common application of Kondratieff and other climate cycles are in the financial markets. It is summarized in books such as “Climate: The Key to Understanding Business Cycles.” I also learned that other Russian climatologists were doing much better, more open, and innovative work, such as the work on energy balance of Mikhail Budyko.

I later learned more about Chinese climatology when working with Chinese climatologists. The Chinese realized that to improve their economy and achieve greater control required increased food production. They realized, to maintain large work forces in urban areas you required vastly improved food production. I learned very early in studying history that an Agricultural Revolution preceded the Industrial Revolution. The Chinese were already triple–cropping in many parts of southern China but there was vast potential in the north-eastern region. They were charged with working with Canadian climatologists and agronomists to study how and why Canadian farmers were so successful in crop production in cold climates.

Parallel to these different studies and analyses of climate, the philosophical views of the pattern of evolution were changing. In the west the biblical view of Neptunism, the pre-and post-flood worlds was replaced by Uniformitarianism. This was generally adapted and adopted as the notion that change is very gradual over long periods of time. I believe it is a major reason why the unchanging nature of the Sun/Earth relationship remained the view. This persisted, even though Croll and others culminating in the work of Milankovitch, showed it was constantly changing.

The two notions crossed paths in 1960 when MIT meteorologist and computer modeler, Edward Lorenz, introduced the aforementioned butterfly, with its wider application as the Chaos Theory. This view seemed to resurrect and confirm the 19th century claims of Cuvier that changes occurred triggered by extreme events or catastrophes. In the 20th century, Stephen Jay Gould combined the two views with what he called punctuated-equilibrium. This proposed that gradual change was periodically interrupted by catastrophic events. It certainly seems to fit events like the eruption of Tambora, but also applies to events like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

These discussions raised important questions about the difference between equilibrium and steady–state. This included the apparent resilience of the atmosphere to catastrophic events and the inevitable role of feedbacks, questions, and challenges still central to climate research and pushed aside by the singular focus of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Right now, the easterners, particularly people like Abdussamatov and Usoskin, are making better predictions about the coming cooling trend as they follow the solar cycles than the IPCC, now represented by the IPCC. Of course, there are some of us in the west who believe the Russians are closer to reality. Consider the comments by Joe Bastardi on the trend in this video. But why listen to him? He is one of those deniers. Joe can use my argument that those who call us deniers and are mostly the chaos believers need to be right to explain why their forecasts, both weather, and climate, are so wrong. Is it possible that Joe and all us deniers will become part of the Russian collusion investigation?


[1] Craddock, J. M., and C. G. Smith (1978), An investigation into rainfall recording at Oxford, Meteorol. Mag., 107, 257–271.

via Watts Up With That?

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November 25, 2017 at 02:48PM

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