Global Warming XV: The Coming Ice Age

A recent Politico report tells us that Trump’s Deputy National Security adviser, K. T. McFarland, put a copy of two Time magazine cover pages in his reading list. One cover, which showed a lone penguin on a mound of snow and ice, had the title: How To Survive the Coming Ice Age: 51 Things You Can Do to Make a Difference. It’s from April 9, 1977. The other cover, which showed a lone polar bear on a small floe, had the title: Be Worried: Be Very Worried: Climate Change isn’t some vague future problem—it’s already damaging the planet at an alarming pace. Here’s how it affects you, your kids and their kids as well. Headlines for some of the issues’ stories, shown on the cover are: Earth at the Tipping Point, How It Threatens Your Health, How China & India Can Help Save the World—Or Destroy It, and The Climate Crusaders. It’s from April 3, 2006. The point of this juxtaposition is to demonstrate that since scientists once worried us about a coming Ice Age and now they alarm us with talk of roasting, they really haven’t a clue.

In fact, the Coming Ice Age cover is a fake. Here’s Time’s own explanation. The con artist had changed the headline, three digits in the year, and a couple of the top story teasers from a 2006 Time cover. According to Politico, an unnamed White House colleague defended McFarland on the grounds that the cover was “fake, but accurate.” (?!?!?) In fact, the cover is not only fake, but it is inaccurate. The opposite of the truth.

Here’s the fake cover and the one the con artist modified, from the Time explanation.

My essay deals with the idea that in the 1970s climate scientists thought that we were heading for an Ice Age. You can read more about K. T. McFarland in Wikipedia. Word is that she will be appointed our ambassador to Singapore, and inside the beltway types are wondering if it’s a dream come true for her, or exile.

Were scientists worrying about the Earth falling into an Ice Age in the 1970s? No.

I should say this. The Earth’s history shows that it has Ice Ages and Interglacial Periods. Here’s some useful data:

This data is from a 2008 paper in Nature and shows the Antarctic temperature and CO2 concentration from the remarkable ice core data, going back 800,000 years. Close to the present is to the left, and the distant past is to the right on this graph. The temperature shows the temperature difference between a modern average and the past temperature in degrees C. The temperature difference between an ice age and an interglacial period in Antarctica, as it is elsewhere, is about 4 or 8 C (7 to 15 F). The point to take from these data is that glacial periods and warmer periods alternate. As we are presently in an interglacial period that began 14,000 or 12,000 years ago, most people would predict that we are likely to have another ice age in the future. That prediction supposes that the same natural factors that produced the climate alternation in the past continue to produce the same effects in the future.

Scientists have known since the late 1800s about the greenhouse effect, and the main greenhouse gases. These gases are H2O (water vapor) and CO2. Indeed, but for these atmospheric gases absorbing upward moving long wavelength infrared radiation from the Earth’s surface, the average surface temperature would be around -5 C, about 20 F! Everything would be frozen. The most intense Ice Age ever. This natural greenhouse effect is the reason that the average surface temperature is 12 or 15 C, in the upper 50s F.

Greenhouse gases are not the only things that influence the flow of energy through the atmosphere. Aerosols are another important factor, and they are complicated. These are tiny particles or even molecules suspended in the atmosphere. Are they black carbon, soot? Then they absorb energy where they are, high in the atmosphere, and stop it from reaching the ground. Are the nitrates and sulfates? Then they reflect energy and neither warm the atmosphere nor the ground. But they may seed the formation of clouds, which also reflect incoming energy, and stop upward moving energy sending it back down. As I said, it’s complicated, and you can read about it here. That’s where I get this interesting graph:

In this graph, time moves from left to right, beginning in 1850. The blue shows stuff, mostly sulfates, blown into the atmosphere by major volcanoes. The red shows the Earth’s surface temperature anomaly, the difference between the temperature around the 1980s and the graphed date. You can see the gradual rise of about 1 C due to global warming, but after the big volcanoes you can see that the temperature drops below the trend for a couple of years. It takes that long for the sulfates blown into the stratosphere to settle out of the atmosphere. Not shown here is the immense Mt. Tambora volcanic eruption of 1815, which produced the Year Without a Summer, as it is known in Europe. I’m wandering from my point because this is so interesting.

That point is that the effects of aerosols are complicated, and in the 1970s some climate researchers pondered the effects of global aerosol pollution from burning coal. Burning coal puts a lot of bad stuff in the atmosphere. In addition to soot, it puts sulfur compounds up there, which lead to acid rain. It puts mercury into the air, which ends up in fishy predators. It puts uranium and other long-lived isotopes into the air, from where it settles on the ground and into the water. More too. So, some researchers wondered if humans were putting enough coal and oil junk into the air to cause general cooling. No one was predicting an imminent ice age. These researchers knew and understood the greenhouse effect, and they and other scientists generally believed that humans were warming the climate by adding significant amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Put another way, in the 1970s scientists believed that if natural factors alone operated as they had in the past, the Earth would enter an ice age at some unspecified but distant time, say 20,000 or 30,000 years from now. They understood the greenhouse effect, and they could see that humans were upsetting the natural factors by adding CO2 to the atmosphere in massive amounts. They could see that we were doing other things to upset the natural factors. They studied all these. During the decades since, computing power for data analysis and theoretical models has increased immensely. The Space Age began, and data from satellites became available. The relevant laws of nature, the properties of greenhouse and other gases, aerosols, radiation, and other factors, however, did not change. Our new power and knowledge has solidified and confirmed what has been clearly known for many decades: humans are causing the Earth to warm by burning fossil fuels.

K. T. McFarland, who has studied foreign affairs, worked in politics and as a staff member in national security areas, and broadcast in national security affairs for Fox News, apparently knows little or nothing about climate science. I’ve never met her, I confess. I don’t know, and I haven’t read, if she believed that the fake Time cover was a real one. Apparently, it has been circulating in the right-wing world for some years. The idea is consistent with what she’s have heard on Fox News, that the climate change alarmists are mistaken, foolish, and corrupt. Her colleague who defended her with the “fake, but correct” claim doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. I’d say that “fake, but correct” will enter our language along with Kelly Ann Conway’s famous “alternative facts.”

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Filed under Climate Change, Environment, Science in the News

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