Letter | Published:

No increase in global temperature variability despite changing regional patterns

Nature volume 500, pages 327330 (15 August 2013) | Download Citation

Abstract

Evidence from Greenland ice cores shows that year-to-year temperature variability was probably higher in some past cold periods1, but there is considerable interest in determining whether global warming is increasing climate variability at present2,3,4,5,6. This interest is motivated by an understanding that increased variability and resulting extreme weather conditions may be more difficult for society to adapt to than altered mean conditions3. So far, however, in spite of suggestions of increased variability2, there is considerable uncertainty as to whether it is occurring7. Here we show that although fluctuations in annual temperature have indeed shown substantial geographical variation over the past few decades2, the time-evolving standard deviation of globally averaged temperature anomalies has been stable. A feature of the changes has been a tendency for many regions of low variability to experience increases, which might contribute to the perception of increased climate volatility. The normalization of temperature anomalies2 creates the impression of larger relative overall increases, but our use of absolute values, which we argue is a more appropriate approach, reveals little change. Regionally, greater year-to-year changes recently occurred in much of North America and Europe. Many climate models predict that total variability will ultimately decrease under high greenhouse gas concentrations, possibly associated with reductions in sea-ice cover. Our findings contradict the view that a warming world will automatically be one of more overall climatic variation.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences programme Mathematical and Statistical Approaches to Climate Modelling and Prediction. C.H. also acknowledges the CEH National Capability Budget. P.D.J. has been supported by the US DOE (grant DE-SC0005689). V.N.L. and T.M.L. were supported by NERC (grant NE/F005474/1).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Wallingford OX10 8BB, UK

    • Chris Huntingford
  2. Climatic Research Unit, School of Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Philip D. Jones
  3. Center of Excellence for Climate Change Research, Department of Meteorology, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah 21589, Saudi Arabia

    • Philip D. Jones
  4. School of Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Valerie N. Livina
  5. National Physical Laboratory, Hampton Road, Teddington TW11 0LW, UK

    • Valerie N. Livina
  6. College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4PS, UK

    • Timothy M. Lenton
  7. College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QF, UK

    • Peter M. Cox

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Contributions

C.H. devised the paper and figure structure, performed the numerical analyses and led the interpretation of the results. P.D.J. provided the individual CRU station data. V.N.L. assisted in processing the ECMWF re-analysis products. P.M.C. aided with selection of main results for presentation. T.M.L. and P.M.C. helped to place results in the context of the broader climate change debate. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Chris Huntingford.

Supplementary information

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Tables 1-2 and Supplementary Figures 1-8. It focuses on (a) reproducing the main paper figures, but given as individual seasons, (b) showing examples of weather station temperature data and (c) presenting predictions by the individual models that contributed to the CMIP5 database.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12310

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