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A lot of what gets discussed here in relation to the greenhouse effect is relatively simple, and yet can be confusing to the lay reader. A useful way of demonstrating that simplicity is to use a stripped down mathematical model that is complex enough to include some interesting physics, but simple enough so that you can just write down the answer. This is the staple of most textbooks on the subject, but there are questions that arise in discussions here that don’t ever get addressed in most textbooks. Yet simple models can be useful there too.
I’ll try and cover a few ‘greenhouse’ issues that come up in multiple contexts in the climate debate. Why does ‘radiative forcing’ work as method for comparing different physical impacts on the climate, and why you can’t calculate climate sensitivity just by looking at the surface energy budget. There will be mathematics, but hopefully it won’t be too painful.
The release of the IPCC Working Group II summary report (on climate change impacts) lead to a large number of stories on climate change in the media and, inevitably, lots of requests for media appearances for climate scientists on the journalists’ Rolodex. On the same day, there was a short article in Science on the ‘framing’ of science communication.
The Science piece, by Scibloggers Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet, make the point that the way science is expressed in public makes a difference to how it is received. So much, so uncontroversial. However, it generated some trenchant counter-arguments, (and counter-counter-arguments), possibly because they start off criticising a bit of a strawman ‘scientist’ who thinks that ‘if only laypeople better understood technical complexities… controversies would subside’. It’s certainly possible that such people exist, however, they are unlikely to be found among the scientists who are active in trying to communicate to the public. However, instead of arguing about this in a rather abstract way, I thought I’d illustrate the issue by discussing three interviews I did last Thursday and Friday in relation to the IPCC WG II release.
Guest commentary by Figen Mekik – Grand 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!
The already-reeling "consensus" supposedly linking climate change to CO2 is about to receive its final coup-de-grace from a remarkable new result announced in a press conference today by Dr. Ewe Noh-Watt of the New Zealand Institute of Veterinary Climatology . Noh-Watt and his co-workers, describing work funded by a generous grant from the Veterinary Climate Science Coalition, declared "We have seen the future of climate — and it is Sheep." Prof. Jean-Belliere Poisson d’Avril, star student of Claude Allegro Molto-Troppo (discoverer of the Tropposphere) reacted with the words, "Parbleu! C’est la meilleure chose depuis les baguettes tranchées!"
The hypothesis begins with the simple observation that most sheep are white, and therefore have a higher albedo than the land on which they typically graze (see figure below). This effect is confirmed by the recent Sheep Radiation Budget Experiment. The next step in the chain of logic is to note that the sheep population of New Zealand has plummeted in recent years. The resulting decrease in albedo leads to an increase in absorbed Solar radiation, thus warming the planet. The Sheep Albedo hypothesis draws some inspiration from the earlier work of Squeak and Diddlesworth  on the effect of the ptarmigan population on the energy balance of the Laurentide ice sheet. Noh-Watt hastens to emphasize that the two hypotheses are quite distinct, since the species of ptarmigan involved in the Squeak-Diddlesworth effect is now extinct.
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