Ozone Hole Leaks and Other Tales

Guest commentary by Figen MekikGrand Valley State University

“But Figen, humid air feels oppressive, heavy!” students told me, almost in unison. A very treasured moment indeed. I just got a glimpse of probably a long held misconception: water vapor is heavier than dry air. So, we took out our periodic tables and calculators, and went on to calculate the molecular weight of H2O and how it compares to that of N2 and O2 (most of the atmosphere). Happy that I corrected a major fallacy, I didn’t see the rest coming.

Apparently, there are many other sinister fallacies lurking just underneath the surface of the heavy wet air idea. One student asked “is the formula for water vapor the same as for liquid water?” and was astonished to find out that it is always H2O regardless of phase, even in ice! I said “we like to keep things simple in science” and a couple of ladies giggled “as if!”

Then another admitted that he always thought water split into H2 and O2 upon evaporation which would make wet air heavy. Another student answered him with “No way man. When water vapor condenses to liquid, the molecules get bigger which is why liquid water is heavier than vapor.” So we had a long discussion about molecular dynamics of evaporation and condensation. Also, once I helped the students realize the stark contrast between what they think they know (water vapor is heavy) and something else they know from the Weather Channel (low pressure means rain), the cognitive dissonance (the psychological tension created by conflicting knowledge) drove them to question both “bits of knowledge” and to adjust their ideas. By the end of the hour, they were saying this is SOOO weird, humid air rises. Who knew!

Here are some other common and very tenacious misconceptions:

[1] Seasons are caused by cyclical changes in Earth’s proximity to the Sun. The main causes underlying this one likely are that [a] intuitively it makes sense and [b] textbooks frequently exaggerate the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit to the extreme that such an idea is logical. The problem is this misconception is extremely popular, from kindergarten to high school physics teachers. A very confused young man once told me openly “Well, my third grade teacher told me that the Earth’s axis is tilted and that is why we get different seasons and it’s winter in the northern hemisphere, when it’s summer in the southern hemisphere. My high school earth science teacher told me during the summer we are closer to the Sun and summers are hot everywhere. Now you are saying my grade school teacher was right all along. And there is all this hype about sunspot activity being the real cause behind global warming. Since the Sun causes our seasons for whatever reason, that sounds believable to me. But you say it’s CO2 in the atmosphere causing global warming. How do I know I can trust you?”

He has a point! And it is very difficult to address the inconsistencies in his education convincingly. I could have told him about my PhD and that I am a climate scientist, but that really doesn’t have much currency in such situations. So I acknowledged that he has a valid point and devoted the next month to demonstrations and data and error margin analysis to empower the students to the point that they could understand the science for themselves. We couldn’t cover coastal geology that semester because we ran out of time, but I think it was worth it anyway.

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