Category Archives: Science in the News

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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Bret Stephens’s NY Times Op-Ed on Climate Change: Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

Bernard,

This April 28 Bret Stephens op-ed debut is way off the mark every inch of the way.

First, what Old Jew Of Galicia? Milocz wrote that epigraph and hundreds or thousands have cited it as if it’s ancient and real wisdom that transcends the folly of whomever you want to lambaste. But what Old Jew of central or western Europe would use precise figures like 55% as opposed to 60% to describe degrees of being sure that one is right? And right about what? Everything? It seems to me that’s the only possibility of the quote, given no other information than the “quote” itself. It seems to be about totalitarian regimes that rewrite truth and history to their liking and allow no dissent. But that’s a whole different world! Climate scientists are not claiming they’re 100% right about everything, only 97% right about something very important that they’ve looked at from dozens or hundreds of different angles and almost always come up with the same conclusion, which is that warming will with high likelihood accelerate and all of humanity with high likelihood will be in a peck of trouble therefrom.

Then he writes, “In the final stretch of last year’s presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her team thought they were, if not 100 percent right, then very close.” Polls and betting sites showed a consistent 70-85% likelihood of Clinton winning, with her likelihood increasing right at the end most likely due to Trump’s bizarre behavior and words in the last debate, together with some of the Comey stuff. I tracked these numbers myself for several months from multiple sources. Who is Stephens to claim that Clinton and company thought they were all but 100%? He cites no source. It’s mere supposition.

Citations of made-up quotes, and suppositions? We are to trust and believe this writer over hundreds or thousands of scientists and their experiments and analyses and peer reviews?

Scientists are 100% right about Bernoulli’s Law, and thank goodness, because if they were not 100% right then some planes would go down inexplicably. Humanity is 100% right that four colors suffice to color a planar map so that no two countries with a shared boundary that’s more than a single point will have the same color. Anything not proved or demonstrated correct through a combination of rigorous analysis and consistent results from thousands of experiments can be no more than an informed opinion. Stephens does not apply information to buttress his opinion. Therefore his opinion is all but worthless. He does not cite even one example of “much else that that passes as accepted fact [but] is really a matter of probabilities.” He does not cite even one example of “history … littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.” He seems not to understand that conviction is only “beyond a reasonable doubt” not “with absolute certainty.” He’s not worth listening to or reading.

And the New York Times has broken a contract with its readers by giving an imprimatur of believability and merit to him by publishing this op-ed.

Wayne

 

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Global Warming X – Petition Urges Trump to Abandon Paris Accords

Bernard,

Here is a report about a petition that Dr. Richard Lindzen and others organized urging Donald Trump to abandon the recent Paris Climate Accords. Curious what you make of this list of people. Anyone you know? Notable names or names interesting for other reasons:

  • Freeman Dyson
  • George Hacken – physicist who specializes in safety-critical control systems (interesting to me)
  • George Devries Klein – prof emeritus U of Illinois, lots of published papers – worth a look
  • Richard E. MacFarland
  • Bjorn Peters
  • Harrison Schmitt, astronaut and senator
  • Fred Singer
  • Michael Stopa, PhD Physics, U Maryland
  • Wyss Yim – Hong Kong

Unusually many people from Sweden and Norway. Not one person from China! Or even India? Or Russia? Why not?

Wayne


Wayne,

None of the guys on your selected list are climate scientists.

Freeman Dyson, a now elderly guy, won Nobel laurels for showing that the versions of quantum electrodynamics that won a shared Nobel for Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga were mathematical transformations of each other. I don’t know about further major contributions he may have made in that part of physics. It’s not my specialty, but I know that many of the researchers of that generation, such as Feynman and Schwinger continued to make major contributions. He is now a kind of visionary thinker who does not limit himself to high energy or quantum physics, or even to science. He’s a smart guy with many ideas, and inevitably some are kind of loopy. I read about his writing on climate change, but I don’t remember the details. I follow several climate change blogs written by professional climate change scientists, and they have written about his ideas. As I remember, they say that he doesn’t know what he is talking about in the realm of climate science even though he is obviously knowledgeable about physics generally speaking. I could find these blog posts, if you wish, or I’ll link to them in what would be Global Warming XI.

As for George Devries Klein, who I guess I’ve heard about now that I Googled him, he’s another elderly guy who evidently did important work in geology who is now pronouncing about climate science without publishing any actual climate science research. Here’s a useful and friendly article about him.  Continue reading

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Global Warming IX – The Climate Has Always Changed …

Wayne,

Global warming deniers tell us that “the climate has always changed, and it always will.” The deniers assert this truth as grounds for complacency and inaction. They imply that the climate scientists who are warning us about the dangers and causes of global warming don’t know this fact and that the researchers are alarmists. Often, the deniers follow their truth with a falsehood: that the scientists are uncertain as to the cause of the present warming. Once the scientists have figured out the causes, then we can deal with problems we know are real they say.

As part of your suggestion that we devote part of our blog to fact-checking and idea checking of matters of current interest about which we have useful perspectives, I’m posting this ninth in my series on global warming. I’ll put this issue of historical climate change, warming and cooling in perspective. I’ll show how changes in the world’s climate during the period of settled agricultural, civilized existence compare to changes in the geologic past. My conclusion, and yours and of our readers to this, ought to be one of alarm. Indeed, when deniers accuse someone as an “alarmist” the accusation carries the connotation that the alarmist is unnecessarily fearful and likely exaggerating the danger. In the case of warming of the Earth caused by human’s burning of fossil fuels, alarm is appropriate.

Here is a reconstruction of the Global Mean Temperature throughout the Phanerozoic Era; that is for the past 550 million years, about 1/8th of Earth’s history. Click the chart to view a larger version.


Professor Christopher R. Scotese shared this remarkable data with me.

The horizontal axis is millions of years, with the distant past to the left. The vertical axis is in Celsius and runs from 10 C (50 F) to 28 C (~82 F). For context, from this data, 2016 was 14.5 C (59 F). The acronyms are: PETM Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (55.8 Ma, million years ago), EECO Early Eocene Climatic Optimum (54-46 Ma), MECO Mid-Eocene Climatic Optimum (42 Ma), EOT Eocene-Oligocene Transition (40-33 Ma), MMCO Mid-Miocene Climatic Optimum (15-13 Ma), LGM Last Glacial Maximum (21,000 years ago), PAW Post-Anthropogenic Warming (+5000 – 10,000 years in future). This last is a prediction, of course.
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Denying Evolution is Implicitly Denying That Airplanes Fly

Bernard,

Our choices and uses of words get us into endless troubles among ourselves (speaking about all humanity here).

The word “evolve” connotes development from simpler to more complex, or from primitive to something better, whatever “better” might happen to mean in the context. The word “evolution” connotes something gradually changing from simpler and more primitive to something more complex and increasingly better.

Everyone agrees that living things and their artifacts change. We individually grow and decay and die, our human groups form and fracture and disappear, fashions come and go. Nothing – but nothing – is static and unchanging, not even the most rugged mountain, not continents, not the tilt of the earth’s axis. We know these things now. Time and change mean exactly the same thing. There would be no time if there were no change, and vice versa.

We humans don’t agree yet on the fundamental cause or causes for change. But some of us humans now know the key mechanisms of physical change, through logic and science, and only through them. Energy continues to flow from some unknown starting point billions of years ago. Suns eventually beam energy onto earths that have energetic molten cores. Atmospheres form. Sunlight whips up winds and clouds. Rain. Bodies of water. Energy from sunlight and/or geothermal vents churns up more complex molecules in water and mud. Eventually some molecules self-replicate as ever more complex crystals. After a few billion years, primates and humans emerged here along with self-awareness and science and poetry. No master designer needed. True, there’s an enormous amount more to learn and know about exactly how and when. But we can now predict with increasing accuracy, for example the next three days of weather. Darwin and Wallace predicted in the 1860s that a moth with an extraordinary 18-inch tongue must exist on Madagascar; 40 years later biologists found exactly that. Accurate prediction distinguishes logic and science from belief. Humanity knows that vaccinations can bring down certain people a little or even a lot, but we predict accurately that if not enough people get vaccinated for some dread disease, then far more people will suffer terribly or die, for example with smallpox or polio or (hopefully soon) Ebola.

Some humans don’t accept the above. Instead they apply intuition along with inherited texts and myths to explain the world around them and the visible relentless change in everything. As you wrote in a recent blog entry, we humans have the illusion of free will, that things happen because we choose for them to happen. The multiplicity of religions and gods among humans demonstrates that no one such belief or text or myth could be the sole ultimate truth. In contrast, logic and science are the same everywhere around the planet. The art of engineering rests completely upon logic and science. Believers can ride in airplanes miles up in the sky only because logic and science and engineering were applied carefully with highly predictable (but not always perfect) outcomes: flights across continents, around the world, all the way to the moon and Mars and out towards the stars.

What can we say to people like Pence to help them understand the bedrock truths and facts of logic, science, engineering and prediction? I imagine talking about the Mississippi River. Look at the empty oxbows, the enormous delta south of New Orleans. Did some self-aware entity design these patterns? If you, all-knowing Mr. Pence, were tasked with designing the Mississippi, would you make hundreds of thousands of false starts that leave abandoned side oxbows and dead-end bayous? Or would you just make a perfect Mississippi and be done with it? The last is obviously an absurd notion. There’s no being done with it. We ourselves can see and feel the rains and floods and re-channeling. The Mississippi is an enormous changing entity, writhing and evolving under the flow of energy transformed into moving water. Is the Mississippi somehow “better” today than it was yesterday? Meaningless question. Could be worse today. It depends. And the Mississippi will disappear too, someday.

There is no Theory of Evolution, really. We’re stuck with those words right now. The bedrock truth is, everything changes always and everywhere, all things are interdependent, some things happen to persist in their current environment while other unlucky things wither or die. To deny Evolution is to deny logic, science, engineering, prediction, and commercial airline flight. One might accuse the deniers with being freeloaders or parasites or worse, taking the fruits while rejecting the toil and the blood and suffering invested by millions of humans, Galileo and so many others, to bring us, with many fits and starts and backtracks, this far out of the darkness. We cannot, we must not allow ourselves to sink back into that darkness.

Wayne

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Science in the News – Women Scientists

Wayne,

As you know I have a Science in the News section to each day’s talk in my University of Tampa Physics 125 class. Last week and next, my students are studying “The Universe”, and I have been telling them about the Cosmic Distance Ladder. This is an overlapping sequence of methods that astronomers use to measure the literally astronomical distances necessary to understand the universe.

I find it easy to locate major news stories, either from the world of science or from current events, that connect to each lecture. In this post, I’m pasting in two of my view graphs for next Monday’s and Tuesday’s sections: Science in the News: Women in Science.

For a new post, here are two slides from my Science in the News for Physics 125.

Take a look at the first PowerPoint slide below.

The left-most curve shows the brightness variation of a certain type of variable star. You can see that it gets brighter and dimmer and brighter again with a period of a few days. It turns out that if you had a bunch of these variable stars at the same distance you’d observe that the brighter the star, the longer it takes to brighten and dim and brighten again. Thus, if you see one of these stars, and you measure how long it takes to brighten and dim, you can estimate how far away it is by comparing its brightness, as you see it, with what you know is the actual brightness, if it were to be at that “all at the same distance.”

Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered this relationship, the right-most curve, about a hundred years ago, while she worked as an “astronomical computer” at the Harvard Observatory. You can read about these women, the “computers”, in the second item linked below. It’s an interesting account.

This particular discovery of hers was the key to Edwin Hubble’s proof that the Andromeda Galaxy was 2 ½ million light years away, outside of the Milky Way, and that was key to his discovery of the expansion of the Universe.

Henrietta Leavitt’s boss, astronomer William Henry Pickering, had an unusually broad-minded and enlightened attitude toward scientific women, but she was doing her work in Boston at the same time as Emmy Noether could not get a regular academic appointment at Gottingen, even though the famous David Hilbert tried to get one for her.

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Way to go, Trudeau! Quantum computing and the observable universe

Wayne,

This Slate posting recounts Justin Trudeau’s off-the-cuff description of quantum computing during a press conference. Not just a handsome face, and not just a prime minister! (of Canada) His words:

“Normal computers work, either there’s power going through a wire or not, it’s one or a zero. They’re binary systems. What quantum systems allow for is much more complex information to be encoded into a single bit. A regular computer bit is either a one or zero, on or off; a quantum state could be much more complex than that because as we know things can be both particles and waves at the same time and the uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computer. That’s what’s exciting about quantum computing…”

Bernard


Following links from the splendid piece on Trudeau, I was very much struck by this article by Dennis Overbye. From it:

“So where is the center of the universe? Right here. Yes, you are the center of the universe.

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