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How John Cook unskeptically believes in a hotspot (that thermometers can’t find)

John Cook might be skeptical about skeptics, but when it comes to government funded committee reports, not so much.

The author of “skeptical science” has finally decided to try to point out things he thinks are flaws in The Skeptics Handbook. Instead, he misquotes me, shies away from actually displaying the damning graphs I use, gets a bit confused about the difference between a law and a measurement, unwittingly disagrees with his own heroes, and misunderstands the climate models he bases his faith on. Not so “skeptical” eh John? He’s put together a page of half-truths and sloppy errors and only took 21 months to do it. Watch how I use direct quotes from him, the same references, and the same graphs, and trump each point he tries to make. His unskeptical faith in a theory means he accepts some bizarre caveats while trying to whitewash the empirical findings.

In the end, John Cook trusts the scientists who collect grants funded by the fear-of-a-crisis and who want more of his money, but he’s skeptical of unfunded scientists who ask him to look at the evidence and tell him to keep his own cash.

These two graphs are not the same

The Climate Models predict a hot spot the weather balloons can't find any trace of. See the deadly graphs.

The climate models predict a hot-spot over the tropics. The weather balloons show there is no sign of it. Quote the CCSP report graph (A) is described as: "PCM simulations of the vertical profile of temperature change due to ...well mixed greenhouse gases."

Thousands of radiosondes, and three decades of satellite measurements show unequivocally that there is no hot spot, not a hint, or glimmer, nothing within a standard deviation of what the catastrophic models expected. Watch Cook struggle against the vast weight of the empirical evidence. He “knows” the hot spot pattern is there even though the thermometers disagree… “Unfortunately, that elusive hot spot has been devilishly hard to measure.” Devilish indeed. The rest of the global atmosphere is measurable, but up there in the critical zone above the tropics, the radiosondes hit the Bermuda Triangle of equipment failures.

Ground thermometers are so clever that John’s happy to trust they give accurate readings of trends, even when people build airports next to them. But up in the sky, repeated day after day for decades, the thermometer results around the climatically weird zone are still so uncertain that a completely clear unambiguous result is, err, obviously “wrong”. He doesn’t trust the simple temperature sensors in radiosondes, but he does trust a computer algorithm that converts wind-shear to degrees C. He won’t trust weather balloons, but he trusts the impenetrably complex atmospheric simulations. He won’t trust the long term data, but he does trust monthly analysis using the same equipment. Cook is a study in faith, hope, and flawed reasoning.

Either the models or the radiosondes are wrong. The radiosondes agree with the UAH satellite, and all of the measurements are based on far fewer assumptions than climate models are. Occam’s razor suggests it’s hard to believe the models get it right when the simpler data that is measured by two different methods definitively disagrees. The other satellite set, by the way, RSS, hardly supports the models either (see more on that below).

Catch me? No misquote me

So what’s my biggest misunderstanding? It’s a misquote. His. Right from the start he gets things wrong, quote: Jo Nova leads with the headline “The greenhouse effect is missing”. Except I’ve never said that and the headline is “The greenhouse signature is missing”. It’s a totally different point.

Cook’s big (wrong) claim

Cook gets ambitious and goes out on a limb with what is really a major assertion: “…the hot spot is not caused by the greenhouse effect.” Which shows how little he reads from his own heroes, Hansen and Santer et al. All of whom disagree.

Graph A above is what the models predict will happen due to “well mixed greenhouse gases”. That includes the effects of the feedbacks, as well as the direct effects of CO2. But the largest feedback is water vapor, and it’s a greenhouse gas. Look in the IPCC AR4, Chapter 8, or read Hansen et al 1984 : they call it “Water Vapor” feedback. The IPCC (for a change) don’t mince words, “Water vapour is the most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.” Hansen is specific in his 1984 paper. His reference to “infrared opacity” is another way of saying “greenhouse effect”:

Water vapor feedback arises from the ability of the atmosphere to hold more water vapor as temperature increases. The added water vapor increases the infrared opacity of the atmosphere, raising the mean level of infrared emission to space to greater altitude, where it is colder.

Not to put too fine a point on it, check out the IPCC graph (below). Which feedback factor has the highest theoretical influence? Would that be water vapor on its own, or water vapor pegged back by the lapse rate negative feedback? “WV” is way out ahead of the rest of the pack — clouds might rock, but their feedback is half the effect of humidity, and the much vaunted effect of snow-and-ice-albedo-changes is a mere quarter of the effect of increasing humidity. (NB: Climate scientists use the term “WV”, the rest of us just say humidity.)

Compare the power of the feedbacks according to the IPCC graph

Compare the power of the feedbacks according to the IPCC

Ergo, Cook’s on his own with his claim, and he doesn’t try to explain why the so-called gurus of global climate science are wrong. Maybe he just forgot that the greenhouse effect can be caused by other things than CO2.

He goes on to say “In fact, we expect to see an amplified warming trend in the troposphere no matter what’s causing the warming.” Now he’s back to talking about the idea of a greenhouse “signature” and as if it was only ever skeptics who referred to that graph as the signature of the greenhouse effect.  But the CCSP Document I quote from has the word “fingerprint” all over it. So the original graph was intended to be the signature pattern the models were looking for, and if they had found it, you can be sure they would have kept using the term. But since they didn’t find it, the modelers use the fall-back that strictly any form of warming ought to increase evaporation, increase humidity, and in the world of climate models, raise the level of  warming 10 km up over the tropics (ie, create a hot spot). Strictly that’s true, but it’s not a point Cook probably wants to push.

The obvious reading we take from the measurements is that the theoretical feedback that’s meant to drive the catastrophe doesn’t occur no matter what forcing is at work. Rephrased: the models are worthless, no matter what’s driving the climate. Rephrased again: the models contain a large amplifying feedback due to water vapor, and the missing hotspot reveals that it doesn’t exist.

Sloppy sloppy sloppy

If scientific accuracy was important you’d think he would be more careful: “The hotspot is actually due to a basic law of physics called the moist adiabatic lapse rate (MALR).” Except it’s not a law of physics, it’s just a measurement. It’s the rate at which fast humid air cools as it rises, and the answer can vary depending on how saturated the air is — from 4 C/km up to 9.8 C/km. Not a law, not basic, and not something I disagree with.

Measurements don’t usually change the climate by themselves either. The MALR is not a “thing” like clouds, humidity, or radiation. Some thing must cause the rate to change, and that’s what matters. So what affects the lapse rate? Stuff like radiation coming in, radiation going out, latent heat being brought in, and convection stirring it all up.

Inasmuch as anyone can tell, the hot spot is created (in the models that is, not in real life) by several mechanisms, but one of the main ones is the extra water vapor that is supposed to be “thickening the blanket” 10km above the tropics. The models assume relative humidity stays constant, and if it did, that would mean an increase in the greenhouse effect due to water vapor. Note that the same radiosondes that record no rising temperatures in the upper troposphere also record that relative humidity fell (Paltridge 2009), which is what you’d expect if there was negative feedback, but not what you expect if you trust computer models.

The lapse in judgment

Lapse rate is an unintuitive term. Imagine a packet of moist air rising. As it inevitably expands, it cools, and there comes a point when moisture starts condensing into cloud — when that happens, latent heat is dumped into the atmosphere. This is the heat energy that was picked up from the oceans when the water evaporated. This cycle is the world’s evaporative air conditioner. It transports heat energy from the ocean up to the sky, and that means that the atmosphere can radiate more heat out to space. In a sense, the convection carries heat up through the blanket of greenhouse gases (which is mostly water) and if it goes high enough it will also allow more energy — in the form of photons — to escape the planet, be free and warm Jupiter, Mars or the rest of the galaxy.

Cook himself acknowledges that the warming effect of latent heat release up high in the troposphere partly offsets the cooling (by allowing more radiation to escape the atmosphere).

The Santer 2005 paper, which he refers to, weakens his case. Cook shows one graph (A) the short term one, but leaves off the other (B) which is the long term effect (see both below). In the long term trends you can see the result that Cook won’t acknowledge outright — the observations that really matter are far away from the “theory”. The theory, the models, the idea behind the big scare: it’s demonstrably wrong. Who’s in denial?

 Models predict upper tropospheric warming that observations don't find.

Models predict upper tropospheric warming that observations don't find. (Click to see the large version)

I know I hardly need to add any more, but indulge me.

Douglass et al, responding to Santer, concluded:
Model results and observed temperature trends are in disagreement in most of the tropical troposphere, being separated by more than twice the uncertainty of the model mean. In layers near 5 km, the modeled trend is 100 to 300% higher than observed, and, above 8 km, modeled and observed trends have opposite signs.

CCSP models versus observations

From the CCSP report. The models are compared to actual observations. If the models are aiming to predict the climate this is not what I call "a direct hit".

As I mentioned already, RSS might agree with a couple of the outlier models, but notice (red squares) it didn’t find any amplification: O°C . It’d be a reasonable guess that the models which the RSS values agree with are also not the same models that project catastrophic temperatures. When people talk about “broadly consistent agreement” this is what they are referring too: one data set out of four is just barely overlapping with about 4 of the 47 or so models. And when John Cook acknowledges that Satellites still show tropospheric trends less than expected, remember, he’s describing results that are so far less-than-expected they’re actually negative.

It’s been nine years since the radiosonde and satellite data came in from the last long warming period (1979 – 1999). The well funded team of the faithful adherents have been reanalyzing the data and denying the obvious ever since. The best results they can scratch together after all these years and many adjustments is that the errors bars were wider that what they thought (Santer 2008 ) and really the hot spot is there (it is!), it’s just invisible in the noise, darn it.

If we can’t measure the hot spot with thermometers, how the heck can we do it with wind gauges

Cook calls Allen and Sherwood’s analysis “independent” because they chuck out the temperature readings and use wind-shear to measure the temperature. Normal people would call it “imaginative”, “creative”, or more likely: desperate. If we can’t measure the hot spot with thermometers, how the heck can we do it with wind gauges, and if we can’t get weather balloons to tell us the temperature of the air as they pass through it, why would anyone think we could “measure” the temperature of the air 10 km up using computers in New York that are 3,000 km from the equator? This is like sooth-saying with a silicon crystal. It’s the kind of reasoning you get when a government pours $79 billion into supporting a theory and none into finding holes in it. Researchers are so used to spouting self-satirical bluster and getting away with it, they actually believe their own PR.

I might add that in the very short form of The Skeptics Handbook I mentioned that believers of the catastrophic theory would say “Santer” and “Sherwood”. Even with the booklet right in front of him, Cook jumps through those hoops.

The unskeptical scientist

If Cook is hoping to be accepted as a skeptical scientist he needs to turn his skeptical brain on full time. At the moment it’s a patchy affair. For him to keep believing in the coming catastrophe he needs to assume a satellite set and two radiosonde sets that agree with each other are both completely wrong; that wind-gauges are a good way to measure degrees C even though they were never designed to do that, and that weather balloons aren’t good enough to measure the temperature (or the humidity), but climate models a magnitude more complex have most of it figured out.

If sanity prevails, I’ll welcome him. The world needs real skeptics. The fake-ola ones help provide cover for the freeloading parasites that want to scare us out of our wits and our wallets.

Hat tip to Joseph DB for the notification 🙂


Hansen, J., et al., 1984: Climate sensitivity: Analysis of feedback mechanisms. In: Climate Processes and Climate Sensitivity [Hansen, J.E., and T. Takahashi (eds.)]. Geophysical Monographs Vol. 29, American Geophysical Union, Washington, DC, pp. 130–163.

IPCC, AR4, Chapter 8, page 632.

Santer, B.D., Wigley, T.M.L., Mears, C., Wentz, F.J., Klein, S.A., Seidel, D.J., Taylor, K.E., Thorne, P.W., Wehner, M.F., Gleckler, P.J., Boyle, J.S., Collins, W.D., Dixon, K.W., Doutriaux, C., Free, M., Fu, Q., Hansen, J.E., Jones, G.S., Ruedy, R., Karl, T.R., Lanzante, J.R., Meehl, G.A., Ramaswamy, V., Russell, G. and Schmidt, G.A. 2005. Amplification of surface temperature trends and variability in the tropical atmosphere. Science 309: 1551-1556

Douglass, D.H., J.R. Christy, B.D. Pearson, and S.F. Singer. 2007. A comparison of tropical temperature trends with model predictions. International Journal of Climatology, DOI: 10.1002/joc.1651.

B. D. Santer *, P. W. Thorne, L. Haimberger, K. E. Taylor1, T. M. L. Wigley, J. R. Lanzante, S. Solomon, M. Free, P. J. Gleckler, P. D. Jones, T. R. Karl, S. A. Klein, C. Mears, D. Nychka, G. A. Schmidt, S. C. Sherwood, F. J. Wentz: Consistency of modelled and observed temperature trends in the tropical troposphere, Intl. J. Climatol., Vol. 28, 2008, 1703-1722.  DOI: 10.1002/joc

Allen, R. J. and S. C. Sherwood, Warming maximum in the tropical upper troposphere deduced from thermal wind observations. Nature Geosci., Vol. 65, 2008, 399-403.

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