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Storm World: A Review

Filed under: — mike @ 18 June 2007

If you are a RealClimate regular, you are undoubtedly aware of our ongoing interest in the developments in the scientific understanding of potential hurricane-climate change linkages. This is an area of the science where a substantial body of significant new research has emerged even since RealClimate’s inception in late 2004. The scientific research in this area, and the media frenzy and political theatrics that have inescapably followed it, are thoughtfully placed in a broader historical context in a fascinating new book by Chris Mooney entitled Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming. Anyone who is at all interested in the scientific history that has led to our current understanding of Hurricanes and their potential linkages with climate change, will find this book a page turner. The book is a nice complement to Kerry Emanuel’s recent book Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes (which too is so readable that it lies on our coffee table). Mooney in a sense picks up where Emanuel’s left off. Like Emanuel, he explores the history of the science. But he uses this historical context, and his studies of the personalities of key actors, to explore how the current scientific debate can be traced back to a rift that has emerged over many decades between distinct communities of atmospheric scientists.

Those looking for a polemic (the title of Mooney’s previous book, after all, was “The Republican War on Science”) will be disapointed. Mooney has clearly matured as a writer, and this latest book constitutes his best effort to date. He delivers a thoughtful, non-partisan, and scientifically and historically accurate review of the emergent science exploring the potential influence of climate change on hurricanes.

If you’ve followed the scientific debate on global warming and hurricanes, you will recognize many of the characters in Mooney’s tale (yours truly even gets mentioned a few times :) ). You will also not be surprised to find that William Gray and Kerry Emanuel are the two most prominently featured scientists. In part of course, because they neatly symbolize the two opposing camps in the current debate: contrast for example Emanuel’s work demonstrating a linkage between increasing hurricane intensity and global warming with Gray’s denial of any such link. However, Mooney also traces their respective work back to two different historical schools of thought in the atmospheric science community. On one side are the data-driven empiricists, such as Redfield, Loomis,and Riehl and on the other side the theorists such as Espy, Ferrel and Charney. Gray naturally follows in the tradition of the first group (his Ph.D adviser was Riehl who is sometimes credited as the father of the field of tropical meteorology). Emanuel, a student of Charney, follows in the tradition of the great theorists in atmospheric science. Of course its not quite that simple (and Mooney acknowledges as much). Though Emanuel may perhaps be best known for his theoretical investigations of Hurricane potential intensity, he has also done considerable work analyzing observations. And while best known for his work deducing from observations the parameters governing hurricane genesis, Gray has nonetheless made forays into “theory” (though the results have been decidedly mixed). But the historical context that Mooney provides gives quite a bit of insight into the divergent views that have arisen among partisans in the current hurricane-climate debate.

Mooney covers many of the themes and issues we’ve discussed here before, but adds his own novel interpretations and uncovers a number of key historical details, in the process of stitching together a compelling narrative. Naturally, there is discussion of the hoopla over the active 2004 and 2005 Atlantic hurricane seasons and the aftermath of Katrina. There is extensive discussion of the high-profile studies by Emanuel, Webster, Curry and coworkers (see e.g. here and here) which, eerily coincident with the record-setting 2005 season, first suggested a detectable climate change signal in hurricane behavior. Due attention, in turn, is payed to the active scientific debate these studies have subsequently generated. Mooney describes the debate over the role of natural vs. anthropogenic factors in observed tropical warming trends that have been related to increased hurricane activity, and there is a fair amount of discussion of the partisanship that high-level NOAA administrators have apparently taken in this debate. But, you might ask, what is the bottom line taken by Mooney? What side of the debate does he come down on? Well, again, those looking for a fight will again be disappointed.

Mooney doesn’t come down on any particular ‘side’ of the debate. Instead, he explores the nuances of the scientific findings and views of the various protagonists, and helps the science and the scientists speak for themselves. For example, he gives Bill Gray credit (and rightly so) for the important contributions he has made to our current understanding of hurricane genesis, and shows a somewhat bemused admiration for Gray as a sympathetic relic of a dying breed of atmospheric scientist. But this does not stand in the way of him criticizing Gray (again rightly so) for his curmudgeonly scorn of current generation scientists, and in particular his somewhat irrational rejection of the science supporting an anthropogenic influence on climate. Mooney articulates his criticism gently, by citing Arthur C. Clarke’s “First Law”

When a distinguished elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

There should be no misunderstanding. While Mooney is indeed balanced, he is not completely agnostic either. He recognizes that hurricane characteristics are indeed changing and that, while we may not yet have arrived at definitive answers to the underlying scientific questions, we ought to be concerned.

One could quibble with some details of the book. As we have remarked before, one should be very careful about giving too much weight to any one late-breaking paper. Where there are certainly exceptions where paradigms are dramatically broken on the strength of one groundbreaking paper, science rarely works that way. Instead, scientific understanding generally advances slowly and steadily, based on the results of many independent studies. Mooney however gives quite a bit of weight to the recent article by Kossin et al just published as the book was completed. While this study is undoubtedly an important contribution to the literature, introducing a potentially useful methodology for refining estimates of past tropical cyclone activity in all the major basins, it is hardly the last word (see e.g. the discussion thread in our previous article on the paper). And in places, the implications of that paper are overplayed. For example, Mooney appears in places to imply that the paper’s findings challenge the contention that climate change can be tied to increasing hurricane intensity. While the Kossin et al results do challenge some of the findings described in the work by Webster et al (2005) (i.e., the trends for the Pacific and Indian basins), they reinforce the conclusion of positive intensity trends for the Atlantic. Perhaps more importantly, the paper in no way challenges the Emanuel (2005) study demonstrating a close linkage between warming sea surface temperatures and hurricane intensity for the Atlantic. Indeed, those latter findings have been reinforced, not challenged, by more recent work (e.g. Sriver and Huber).

These are minor quibbles however. Mooney chose to walk a minefield in attempting to assess a controversial and quickly evolving field in climate research. He not only succeeded in producing a fair and accurate description of the science, but provides us a fascinating read as well. There is a good chance the book will achieve a very wide readership. If so, then Mooney has performed a real service by helping communicate a subtle but important topic within the scientific discourse to the person on the street.

Note: Chris Mooney has provided us with an early copy of Storm World and we’re reviewing it before the official publication date–July 9–so you can’t get the book yet in stores. However, you can order it on Amazon.com. You can also visit the book website for more information (including an excerpt of the first chapter).


157 Responses to “Storm World: A Review”

  1. 51
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #47, and “more of the precipitation [for hurricanes] is coming from high altitude…”

    I’m wondering if the hailstorm we experienced during Hurricane Emily in Brownville, TX, in 2005 may have been caused by precip coming from higher altitudes. The weatherman & someone here on RC said that that hail was most unusual during hurricanes.

    Is the precip maybe coming from even higher & colder altitudes, or is the cold belt in the sky sinking down a bit — maybe bec the GHG belt is not allowing as much heat to escape up higher? Or is that just too high?

  2. 52
    Rod B says:

    Lynn (51), put that way I must admit it has logic.

  3. 53
    Steve Sadlov says:

    This year’s season is off to an interesting start. On the one hand, in the Pacific, conditions are ENSO neutral bordering on La Nina. However, a slight complication is that we appear to be either at the start of or on the cusp of a negative PDO.

    Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, the classic El Nino type of config continues – the jet stream is going straight across from just off the SE coast of the US toward Iberia and the UK. No wavyness there. Also, Sahara and Sahel dust have all but shut down the Cape Verde segment of the storm factory.

    The UK Met forecast appears to be well put.

  4. 54
    B Buckner says:

    Lynn #51 – you mention the importance of the glacial melt cycle to irrigation and drinking water supplies. I’ve always been a bit confused on this issue. In a receding glacier, the melt water is volume is larger than the annual snow fall. This is obviously not a sustainable situation as the glacier will ultimately disappear. If global warming were to stop and the glacier stabilizes, would not the annual runoff from the glacier decrease? It seems the issue should be how much snowfall is there and when does it melt, rather than the condition of the glacier.

    Regarding your comment on the insurance industry already making changes to account for the increased frequency of hurricanes, is it possible the hurricane worries could justify rate increases?

  5. 55
    Tim McDermott says:

    re 55:

    Regarding your comment on the insurance industry already making changes to account for the increased frequency of hurricanes, is it possible the hurricane worries could justify rate increases?

    Of course. The market understands the changes that are going on. Even the Wall Street Journal gets it right on the news pages.

  6. 56
    Jim Galasyn says:

    I’ve thought for quite some time (since reading the first IPCC report in ’92) that climate change might be more about increasingly violent and extreme weather than anything else. I appeal to nonlinear dynamics (“chaos theory”) for support; as a general rule, increasing the value of a control parameter in a nonlinear system causes the system to pass through various dynamical regimes (phase changes). For the global climate, I can imagine some regimes are characterized by more violent or more extreme weather over short time scales.

  7. 57
    Tim McDermott says:

    the correct link to the WSJ story on hurricane insurance on the east coast is: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118118169877827318.html

  8. 58
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re 55 melting glaciers

    A Sacred River Endangered by Global Warming
    Glacial Source of Ganges Is Receding

    By Emily Wax
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, June 17, 2007; Page A14

    …But recent reports by scientists say the Ganges is under even greater threat from global warming. According to a U.N. climate report, the Himalayan glaciers that are the sources of the Ganges could disappear by 2030 as temperatures rise…

    The shrinking glaciers also threaten Asia’s supply of fresh water. The World Wildlife Fund in March listed the Ganges among the world’s 10 most endangered rivers. In India, the river provides more than 500 million people with water for drinking and farming.

    The immediate effect of glacier recession is a short-lived surplus of water. But eventually the supply runs out, and experts predict that the Ganges eventually will become a seasonal river, largely dependent on monsoon rains….

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/16/AR2007061600461.html

  9. 59
    James says:

    Re #55: [If global warming were to stop and the glacier stabilizes, would not the annual runoff from the glacier decrease? It seems the issue should be how much snowfall is there and when does it melt, rather than the condition of the glacier.]

    That’s essentially true, but what alpine glaciers do is to smooth out the melting. If you get X amount of snowfall, then without a glacier most of it melts in spring, by late summer there’s little runoff, so you’re set up for spring floods/fall droughts. With a glacier the melting is slowed, giving less of the runoff in spring, more in the fall. You get the same total of water over a year, but a different distribution.

  10. 60
    Lawrence Brown says:

    In comment 44, Chris Mooney brings out the point that,based on theoretical considerations, the “average hurricane ‘will’ intensify even if it has not already”. If memory serves, when the mean or average goes up in a statistical distribution curve, the extremes become more likely. What initially was,say, two standard deviations away on the original curve, is now higher on the curve, and closer to the mean. This appears to be ipso facto corroboration that more extreme events will have a higher probability of occurence, or a shorter recurrence interval.

  11. 61
    Timothy Chase says:

    James (#60) wrote in part:

    … what alpine glaciers do is to smooth out the melting. If you get X amount of snowfall, then without a glacier most of it melts in spring, by late summer there’s little runoff, so you’re set up for spring floods/fall droughts. With a glacier the melting is slowed, giving less of the runoff in spring, more in the fall. You get the same total of water over a year, but a different distribution.

    This is probably what is most significant effect, but there are a few other changes which I would like to mention. For example, when a glacier scatters sunlight back into space before it has a chance to be absorbed and converted into thermal radiation, the glacier reduces the global temperature to a small extent, but locally its effects are much more significant. In the absence of such scattering, the temperature in the region will be considerably higher, resulting in greater evaporation, both where ice has been replaced by darker soil and further “downstream.”

    Additionally, with the glaciers gone, there will be a different distribution of warm and cold air masses, changes in the patterns of wind and precipitation. Carrying this a little further, higher rates of evaporation are likely to result in precipitation occuring closer to where the evaporation took place in both time and space. To an increasing extent this will be where the vast majority of evaporation is currently taking place: over the oceans. Over land, rainfall will tend to become more infrequent in many places, and when it does occur, it will more likely be the result of violent storms, appearing as flash floods.

  12. 62
    ray ladbury says:

    Lawrence, That depends on how storm intensity is distributed, which is ultimately driven by the energetics of storm activity. It may also be that the median intensity would not change appreciably, but that the high-end tail of the distribution would get a lot thicker. This could happen even if the windshear effect impedes TC formation.

  13. 63
    Carl says:

    Who is Timothy Chase? Since he seems to be familiar with the posters of the blog entries, I assumed that he was one of them, but it appears he’s just a regular poster. What is his credentials?

  14. 64
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Ray is right on the mark in post 62. Figure 6.6part (a),on page 129, a distribution graph using a normal distribution from “Global Warming The Complete Briefing” 3rd Edition by John Houghton shows just what Ray says should happen. Unfortunately I’m unable to transfer the scanned graph on this posting board. The text transfers but not the curves.

    More
    record hot weather
    Cold
    Average
    Increase in mean
    Figure 6.6 Schematic diagrams showing the effects on extreme temperatures when (a) the mean increases leading to more record hot weather, (b) the variance increases and (c) when both the mean and the variance increase, leading to much more record hot weather.

  15. 65
    ray ladbury says:

    Carl, Timothy Chase’s credentials are an insatiable curiosity, unflappable good will, and an eagerness to go and find things out when the rest of us don’t know. Beyond that I do not care what his credentials may be.

  16. 66

    #53 Its no longuer closer to the border of an El-Nina year I think. I enjoyed watching the daily progressions of sst’s around the Galapagos Islands lately being warmish. Its been a roller coaster ride, teetering one way or another once in a while. I guess you may call it unstable neutral conditions.

  17. 67
    Timothy Chase says:

    Carl (#63) wrote:

    Who is Timothy Chase? Since he seems to be familiar with the posters of the blog entries, I assumed that he was one of them, but it appears he’s just a regular poster. What is his credentials?

    Sorry – I honestly don’t mean to mislead anyone, but sometimes people get the wrong impression.

    I don’t have any background in this stuff. Back in high school I managed to teach myself some calculus, stepped through the derivation of the Schwartzchild solution and taught myself some fairly basic Quantum Mechanics. I learned enough of the latter that I realized for example that in the probability density formalism, it could be viewed as a logic in which truth values were no longer true or false, 1 or 0, but complex numbers, individual elements in the probability density array were statements, and operators such as the position or momentum operator were logical transformations taking you from one set of statements and their truth values to another set of statements and their truth values. But all of that physics is pretty rusty by now.

    I went into the navy, then I got a BA in philosophy, focusing on epistemology and the philosophy of science, then did the Great Books program at St. John’s where a large part of their method involves the use of discussion or “dialogue” as a process through which the insights of the participants can build upon one another. That is probably a fair part of what Ray calls my “good will,” at least in terms of my style. At the same time, I think I am still probably a little tougher than I should be on those who don’t quite yet realize that we are really on the same side.

    I like being able to pick things up and I get obsessed with various subjects. But in the final analysis, I am not really anyone special. However, I do believe that one should act as one would have others act.

  18. 68
    Carl says:

    #65 Dr Ladbury
    Well you should be careful about somone you don’t know dominating this forum so much. Everything he says is not true:
    (#61 under “Cockburn’s form”)
    “New approaches to solar power – perhaps photovoltaics which achieve the 95% efficiency of plants …”

    Plants have 7% total efficiency if you assume that absorption of chlorophyll is 100% between 400-700. Sugar cane is said to be more efficient (total efficiency about 8%), probably because the main product (sugar) is cheaper to produce than more complex chemical compounds. The quantum efficiency (the rate at which one photon produces a free electron) of plants is close to 100%, but similar efficiency is not impossible to achieve in silicon.

    Plants have other problems, chlorophyll absorbs blue light and red light, but not green (hence the color of plants), the energy of each electron is not maximized (this is why multiple junction solar cells are more efficient than single junction cells), and of course that the trapped energy is used in inefficient chemical processes.

    Don’t get me wrong, I find most of Tim’s commentary enlightening, it’s just that it’s also very authoritative for an anonymous layman (googling Timothy Chase gives nothing).

    sources
    http://www.upei.ca/~physics/p261/Content/Sources_Conversion/Photo-_synthesis/photo-_synthesis.htm
    http://www.life.uiuc.edu/govindjee/whatisit.htm
    talk by someone (sorry can’t find his name) from Fraunhofer institue in Freiburg, Germany on multiple-junction solar cells

  19. 69
    Fred Heutte says:

    Congrats to Chris on excellent work. I bought a copy at Kramerbooks in DC on Wednesday night and read most of it on the flight back to Oregon yesterday. More on the content later, but I think it will be in many bookstores shortly.

  20. 70

    [[Ray is right on the mark in post 62. Figure 6.6part (a),on page 129, a distribution graph using a normal distribution from "Global Warming The Complete Briefing" 3rd Edition by John Houghton shows just what Ray says should happen. Unfortunately I'm unable to transfer the scanned graph on this posting board. The text transfers but not the curves. ]]

    If you can see the scanned file properly on your monitor, then get ahold of a nice freeware screen-capture program like MWsnap, choose the select-any-rectangle feature and save it as a bitmap file. I don’t think you can show pictures in this blog, but you can include a link to them, assuming you have a web site somewhere.

  21. 71
    ray ladbury says:

    Carl, one of the nice things about this website is that most of the regulars have at least learned that you never rely on a single source for your information (unlike many in the denialist, but then, bless their hearts, there are very few sources of good quality disinformation to choose from). I have great respect for autodidacts, Tim included, particularly when the continue to try to learn. I myself, despite having a PhD in physics, am an autodidact–wrt climate, but also gemology and minerology, history and economics (I’ve been referred to in the past as a veritable landfill of information).
    One other thing about Tim, he accepts correction gratefully, as he realizes such correction bestows the gift of learning. Do not hesitate to correct Tim, me or anyone else if we have our facts wrong.

  22. 72
    Hugh says:

    This is the graph that #64 is referring to, it’s from TAR

    http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/images/fig2-32s.gif

  23. 73

    Got another abrupt wake up call which made my heart skip a beat a few days ago on the news. A leading scientist/spokeman at the Australian CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Australia’s main think-tank on all things envirnonmental etc said quite emphatically that the antartic and artic melts will be total and that the climatic process is now irreversible and it’s a “done deal”. That means that in our young kids lifetime they will be witness to the disintegration of all of the world’s ice shelfs and the corresponding rise in sea level that will bring about. He says the rate of melting is much grater than anyone previously realised. He mentioned the mid century as the time where things will get really scary. Even he said if the world’s industrial CO2 was stopped tomorrow all ice flows/glaciers/ice shelves will melt completely. So looks like the only alternative is to begin to relocate most of the world’s cities pretty quickly. I imagine the sea level rise will be in excess of 10M since Greenland alone will account for a 7M rise.
    I’m not a Christian, actually a buddhist..but I recall in revelation something about satan coming like a thief in the night..to me the extent of climate change has caught everyone by surprise and more than qualifies the analogy ‘thief in the night’.

    [Response: Frankly, I can't believe that anyone from CSIRO would have said that. There is a great deal of uncertainty (and concern) in the rate of change of ice sheet mass, but claims that total disintegration will occur in the next few decades are absurd. I hope that you merely misheard him. - gavin]

  24. 74
    Carl says:

    #70 Timothy: That’s great, Tim. Personally, I have great interest in these issues, and I found this blog after discussing these issues with skeptics at another forum. I’m also a layman in this field, my specialization is semiconductor optics (I study quantum dots) and I’m pursuing a PhD in Physics. That’s why I felt I had to give you an update on the yield of photosynthesis compared to what semiconductor solar cells can do ;)

    #71 Ray: No problem! I’m looking forward to increasing my knowledge of this field greatly, while being careful not to get overly confident. I’m basically here to arm myself against the denialists and the extreme alarmists, to better inform the people I discuss this issue with in other forums, be it online or offline.

  25. 75
    J.C.H says:

    Carl – I’m enjoying the education on solar cells. People tend to have unreasonable expectations of emerging solutions. Replacing fossil fuels is going to be a hard slog.

  26. 76

    Gavin, nope! that why I took notice..I was waiting for that current affairs segment due to my interest in the issue and I clearly saw and heard him say that. Mind you I was waiting for a researcher to tell it as it is..and he did! The statement ‘irreversable and ‘done deal’ was to me the most chilling. Lets all hope the CSIRO is wrong.

  27. 77
    Carl says:

    #75 J.C.H
    One of the major problems with straight single junction silicon solar cells (Si SC) is that they’re too expensive for their efficiency. Also, in larger applications the low-voltage/high-current properties of Si SC becomes a problem due to ohmic losses.

    So, one approach is to build more efficient and more complex multi-junction solution and focus light onto them. This is the idea behind the concetrators – if you focus the sunlight to an array of small dots on a surface, you need less of the expensive solar cells per surface area and watt generated. The problem you add is that you have to adjust the lenses as the sun moves (this is referred to as ‘tracking’). But then again, that makes it more efficent in collecting light per unit area than a passice Si SC.

    Still, the Si SC have the big silicon industry and it’s vast resources and know-how behind it, so it’s still the cheapest solution.

    A multi-junction SC has layers of different band-gap semiconductors, it’s fundamentally the same idea as a color CCD. First detect blue, then green, then red, and then infrared. The high-bandgap material is transparent to the longer wavelengths, letting them through. This way you not only can absorbe light over an extended spectrum, but you also generate electrons with a higher potential for the shorter wavelengths that have higher photon energies. Recent multiple-junction concentrator SC can have a total efficiency of up 30% to the grid. Unfortunately, they are still prototypes, and so very expensive.

  28. 78

    Re #73 Gavin,

    The CSIRO spokesman did not say there would be a total disintegration in the next few decades. “He mentioned the mid century as the time where things will get really scary.” Both Greenland and the West Antarctica ice sheets have started melting and unless we reduce the CO2 concentration then this melting will only accelerate and lead to their total disintegration. Stabilisation of CO2 will not be enough because there are the two positive feedbacks of ice – albedo and surface height – lapse rate, which ensures that the melting accelerates.

    Can you see any prospect of CO2 levels stabilising? Do you really believe that with higher levels of CO2, and no Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets that the East Antarctic ice sheet would survive?

  29. 79
    Timothy Chase says:

    Carl (#68) wrote:

    .#65 Dr Ladbury
    Well you should be careful about somone you don’t know dominating this forum so much. Everything he says is not true:
    (#61 under “Cockburn’s form”)
    “New approaches to solar power – perhaps photovoltaics which achieve the 95% efficiency of plants …”

    Plants have 7% total efficiency …

    The quantum efficiency (the rate at which one photon produces a free electron) of plants is close to 100%, but similar efficiency is not impossible to achieve in silicon.

    Yes, it was the quantum efficiency which I was thinking of. In fact I bought the copy of Nature in which the article on the research appeared. Likewise, I certainly wasn’t thinking the efficiency was at all spectra.

    Anyway, for those who are interested in what we are talking about, here is a pop article:

    Quantum secrets of photosynthesis revealed
    Published: 14:00 EST, April 12, 2007
    http://www.physorg.com/news95605211.html

    Basically, with the electron transfer, they had been thinking that it was multi-step, from one chemical center to another, but apparently it is done all in a single step using what is essentially Grover’s algorithm, a form of quantum calculation for searching databases.

  30. 80
    Timothy Chase says:

    Carl,

    With respect to my speaking with such authority, I don’t. I go out of my way to emphasize the fact that I am not an authority, and I have gone out of my way even to call attention to the fact that people are correcting me, that I was wrong, and that I am grateful for being corrected.

  31. 81
    MLF says:

    RE: J.C.H.

    I’m rooting for the Air Car and I think everyone else should too: http://www.autobloggreen.com/2007/06/09/autoblog-qanda-miguel-celades-sales-manager-of-mdi-they-make-th/

  32. 82
    Timothy Chase says:

    Carl (#74 wrote:

    #67 Timothy: That’s great, Tim. Personally, I have great interest in these issues, and I found this blog after discussing these issues with skeptics at another forum. I’m also a layman in this field, my specialization is semiconductor optics (I study quantum dots) and I’m pursuing a PhD in Physics. That’s why I felt I had to give you an update on the yield of photosynthesis compared to what semiconductor solar cells can do.

    Well, I know they are doing interesting things right now. I had heard of the 40% efficiency. Likewise, there is also a kind of three-dimensional architecture which they are getting into right now. Not especially familiar with that as of yet though.

    Anyway, if you stick around just a little bit, you will notice that I go out of my way to point out that I am not an expert. But I try to be accurate. On occasion I will slip, perhaps as the result of misremembering things. And part of what I like about this place is that there are people who know a great deal more than I do, and they will usually call me on things if I get something wrong. I appreciate that.

    I was strongly involved in the evolution/creationism end for the past several years. DebunkCreation was an earlier hangout, then an organization called the “British Center for Science Education,” despite the fact that I live in Seattle. They are still trying to get on their feet, but I wasn’t comfortable with how they looked to me as some kind of “science expert.” I was also extremely uncomfortable with how some of the atheists were treating their Christian allies – despite all the emphasis we were placing on setting that issue aside.

    I strongly believe that when you are cooperating with others, you need to learn how to set aside your differences. And I greatly appreciate the fact that atheism vs religion is not an issue here. That kind of thing tears me up inside, particularly since I can identify with both sides in that “debate.”

  33. 83
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Re #73 and Gavin’s response.
    Gavin – let’s get your credentials out in the open. Have you ever been too close to a pile of ice that was moving too fast (10 m/s)?

    In general, people are caught in ice falls and avalanches when they have bet their life that an avalanche or ice fall will not happen in the immediate future. Never the less people are killed in icefalls and avalanches on a regular basis.

    I know a bit about ice, and yet I have been all together too close to ice moving way too fast. Ice is a very nonlinear material. Cold, it is very strong. However, as it approaches its melting point, it is quite weak. If only 18 feet of (melt) water collect in the bottom of a surface feature such as a crevasse, then that amount of water can split an ice sheet from top to bottom � even if the ice sheet is a kilometer or a mile or two thick. Thus, if there is essentially any surface melt, then you end up with a pile of ice rubble with little mechanical strength that will slide down hill. This is why soot on the ice is so critical to global warming � the soot accumulates on the surface of the ice sheet producing melt water every summer. That melt water then warms the core of the ice. Moreover, the soot enhances the growth of algae that further reduces albedo.

    It is drizzling in Greenland today. In the last year, rain or drizzle has been reported somewhere in Greenland in every month. Sure, the top of the ice sheet gets good and cold in the winter, but ice is a pretty-good insulator that cold does not penetrate the ice sheet significantly. On the other hand, on warm days, the melt water carries a lot of heat deep into the ice very fast. Go talk to a bunch of ice climbers about what happens to ice in a climate where it rains or drizzles throughout the year. It does not so much melt as turn into a giant pile of ice rubble, which has little mechanical strength, and is free to slide downhill. Or, think of the ice falling off the ski lodge roof on that last day of spring skiing. It looks clear and solid, but it is close to its melting point and is mechanically weak. Then, it breaks off all at once with a crash.

    Much of the WAIS is grounded several hundred feet BELOW sea level. As long as the seawater contacting the submerged ice is below 0C then the melting of the ice by the salt water will tend to keep the ice hard and strong. However, if the temperature of the seawater in contact with the ice were to rise above 0C then the melting of the ice by the saltwater will weaken the ice AND cause a local density current that will circulate more seawater into contact with the ice. Physics says this is a very powerful, if rather local feedback. Having fresh water ice hundreds of feet below the surface of the sea is energetically different from having ice floating on the surface of the sea.

    These are local effects that do not show up on the global climate models. Thus, ice melt is happening faster than the models predict, and effects are happening before the ice melt is complete.

    [Response: I'm not sure who you are arguing with here. Claims of near or medium term total disintegration of all ice sheets are bogus and it does nobody any good to support such statements. This is a completely different issue as to whether there will be increased dynamical loss of ice sheets in the near future - particularly Greenland and WAIS. On that, I am extremely concerned - both due to ongoing measurements of dynamic changes, increased surface melt area and lower altitude retreats, and our lack of a good understanding of the processes. There can be extremely serious sea level changes due to this that could be devastating, but it would still fall far short of total disintegration. Hyperbole is not necessary to convey the problem here. - gavin]

  34. 84
    Timothy Chase says:

    J.C.H. (#75) wrote:

    Carl – I’m enjoying the education on solar cells. People tend to have unreasonable expectations of emerging solutions. Replacing fossil fuels is going to be a hard slog.

    I think some of the expectations are a little unreasonable at this point, but I am still hoping for an international Manhattan project of sorts – to push the envelope of what is possible. Currently it looks like we are trying to get countries to limit their emissions and insisting on higher standards, which is all well and good, but countries should be pooling their efforts in the development of new technologies.

    At the same time, one thing that Jim Hansen has been suggesting is that we can try to limit our emissions by centralizing the processes where they are emitted. One approach to this, for example, would be the development of hydrogen cars. Gasoline or oil would still be used in the separation of hydrogen, but at centralized locations where it would be easier to capture the emissions. I don’t know how easy that would be to impliment, and I suspect it would involve some difficulties, but it seems a reasonable approach.

    However, other countries are already doing a far better job of designing cars with lower emissions than our domestic auto producers while holding down costs – so part of what is holding us back at least with respect to lower carbon emission gasoline cars would seem to be an industry which is dragging its heels and successfully lobbying the goverment. But this may limit the international market for their autos.

    I hold out fair amount of hope at least in developing countries for carbon sequestration via AgriChar/BioChar – which produces some carbon free fuels, sequesters carbon for centuries and raises agricultural productivity considerably (which will be particularly important in the decades ahead) while avoiding the use of phosphates. The avoidance of phosphates isn’t directly related to controlling greenhouse gases, but the phosophate runoff from agriculture encourages algae blooms responsible for many of the dead zones which have been occuring along our coastlines through the creation of anoxic conditions.

    But we should also recognize the fact that AgriChar will be used as a form of charcoal for the purpose of cooking, at least for a while, and much of the recent increase in carbon emissions (since 2000) has been due to solid fuels in third world countries.

  35. 85
    Carl says:

    Re (#82 Timothy Chase)

    “DebunkCreation was an earlier hangout,”

    Ah, then I actually did find you when I googled for you. I have experience of that ‘debate’ (as you so eloquently put it) as well. Sometimes it feels like pumping water out of a leaking boat: you have the tools, and it’s not overly difficult, but it’s perpetual hard work never the less. I’m an agnostic, so I think we have the same stance on the evolution/creation issue.

    Anyway, the I should check the Nature letter (?) in the library. It matters little for semiconductor photovoltaics, but might be very important for cheaper solar cells based on dyes or organic materials.

  36. 86
    Timothy Chase says:

    Carl (#82) wrote:

    “DebunkCreation was an earlier hangout,”

    Ah, then I actually did find you when I googled for you.

    You might have also run across a few small fragments of my former self from my Objectivist days – trying to build a kind of decentralized approach which emphasized intellectual independence. I created the original Objectivist Ring – managed to get a website by Jimbo Wales on it as well as several of the independent leading intellectuals, including Chris Sciabarra. Wales went on to found Wikipedia, oddly enough. Incidently, if you ran across some poetry, that is an altogether different Timothy Chase.

    Regarding the atheism vs. religion conflict within the pro-evolution movement, Carl continues:

    I have experience of that ‘debate’ (as you so eloquently put it) as well. Sometimes it feels like pumping water out of a leaking boat: you have the tools, and it’s not overly difficult, but it’s perpetual hard work never the less. I’m an agnostic, so I think we have the same stance on the evolution/creation issue.

    Well, with me, I would classify myself as a humanistic, quasi-Spinozist neo-Aristotelean with platonic elements and a Zen Buddhist view of religion. A bit of a fusion. Not quite the same thing, but the difference obviously isn’t relevant.

    Anyway, the I should check the Nature letter (?) in the library. It matters little for semiconductor photovoltaics, but might be very important for cheaper solar cells based on dyes or organic materials.

    I believe it was a letter. Not as authoritative, obviously. Several pages though.

    In the case of organics, do you know to what extent we are looking to imitate or even harness nature? I understand that there exists a phage which infects a marine bacteria and substitutes its own version of photosynthetic rhodopsin while disabling that of the host. It is presumably more efficient than what the host originally has.

    I also understand that to some extent we are already investigating the use of viruses in the manufacture of smaller electronic circuits. Likewise, we’ve been considering the modification of metabolic pathways in bacteria for use in manufacturing for some time now – as this would be more environment-friendly than current methods.

    And I am curious to what extent we might employ metamaterials in solar power – given their unique optical properties. Not something that I would normally consider as it would seem cost-prohibitive, but in some cases they have found that self-assembly is surprisingly easy – leading to dramatically lower costs of production.

  37. 87
    Timothy Chase says:

    Lawrence Coleman (#73) wrote:

    A leading scientist/spokeman at the Australian CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Australia’s main think-tank on all things envirnonmental etc said quite emphatically that the antartic and artic melts will be total and that the climatic process is now irreversible and it’s a “done deal”.

    Hansen has emphasized the non-linearity and wet disintegration of much of Greenland’s ice – which he believes the IPCC is in large part ignoring in its forecasts. Likewise he has emphasized the positive feedback which may occur between Greenland and Western Antarctic Peninsula. I suspect he is right on target with respect to this or slightly conservative in his estimates given the most recent projection of 2020 (regarded as somewhat extreme by some in the field) for an ice-free summer in the Arctic ocean.

    But I don’t think that anyone in the mainstream is even considering the total disintegration of Greenland’s glaciers within this century a remote possibility. Likewise, we are worried about losing much of the Western Antarctic Peninsula within this century, but I personally would doubt that we will ever lose all the ice of Antarctica. In fact, I don’t believe I have ever run across that sort of claim before.

  38. 88
    Timothy Chase says:

    Aaron Lewis (#83) wrote:

    Re #73 and Gavin’s response.
    Gavin – let’s get your credentials out in the open. Have you ever been too close to a pile of ice that was moving too fast (10 m/s)?

    Gavin Schmidt is a climatologist and modeller at NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies who has worked closely with Jim Hansen and Michael Mann, published quite a few peer-reviewed papers, and recently finished work on the GISS ModelE… but these are just some details I have inadvertently run across.

    What is your background?

    Were you recently on a vacation somewhere? How was it?

  39. 89

    Apparently the guy who mentioned the role of soot in arctic melting was right and I was wrong — the article really did say that it was having a major effect. Still mostly greenhouse gases, of course, but even so, my post was wrong.

  40. 90
    Lawrence Brown says:

    On Barton’s comment on number 70:
    “If you can see the scanned file properly on your monitor, then get ahold of a nice freeware screen-capture program like MWsnap, choose the select-any-rectangle feature and save it as a bitmap file. I don’t think you can show pictures in this blog, but you can include a link to them, assuming you have a web site somewhere.”

    Thank you for the helpful info. I’ll follow up on the necessary software and perhaps be more successful on transferring pertinent information on future tries.
    This site sure has a lot of talented bloggers, due in large part, I suspect to the diligence and scientifically accurate presentations of the volunteers who monitor the site. As someone commented earlier, this site is a great source for getting ammunition to rebut the spiritual descendants of those who put Galileo under house arrest and burned Giordano Bruno at the stake, for having the unmitigated gall to speak scientific truth to power.

  41. 91
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Re 88

    I am an old guy. I learned Formula Translation Language feeding card decks into the original NCAR CDC 6600 (Which later became a 66/6700.) I worked for Jay Forester in the days when he was working on Limits to Growth. (My Advisor at SUNYA did not like the modeling work that I was doing for Jay Forester. I had my modeling described with language that could melt the whole of the Greenland Ice Sheet in a flash. )

    I expect the only peer reviewed thing by me that you will find is on the physics of bioremediation of oil in seawater from the days when I was at Bechtel. Most of my work was on risk management, regulatory compliance, pollution prevention, and waste minimization. If you can get into a DOE reading room, you can find other things that I wrote. (Although, I am no longer allowed to read some it.)

    However, I can still ski double black diamonds. A year ago I was playing on a snowfield that I had played on since 1980. One minute it was there, and 3 minutes later it was � gone! Let me tell you that there is a big difference between reading a statement that the snowfields in California are retreating, and having one fall out from under your feet. Statistically, it was nothing! Maybe the size of a football field, and what slid was only 8 or 10 feet thick. But, it happened so fast!

    My understanding is that the global climate models are not capturing the dynamic behavior of the ice. My personal experience is that dynamic behavior of ice can be disconcertingly fast. On a chunk of ice the size of Greenland, disconcertingly fast would be – - Well, much faster than the climate models predict.

    So, anybody else ever use a dog turd to melt a hole in the ice so you could go ice fishing? It works. (At least on pond ice.) Ever sprinkle a handful of coal dust across the lake to melt the ice so you could put the canoe in the water? It works. Anybody else scoop a handful of snow off a glacier and look at the critters in it? They really are worth looking at because they change the albedo of the snow, and they use nutrients deposited form the air to facilitate their growth. Therefore, the albedo of snow and ice depends on everything that falls out of the atmosphere and all previous deposition that surface melt has exposed. If the model does not allow for this change in albedo, then snow and ice is going to disappear disconcertingly faster than the model predicts.

    So What? The problem is that we do not have to get all the way to total meltdown before ice melt starts to affect us. Open up the Arctic sea ice, and the Arctic is no longer a desert. A large source of moisture at the North Pole will change our weather patterns. California�s water systems are engineered for a very narrow range of climate. Too much rain, and we have a problem; too little rain and we have a problem.

    Let us pretend that we can buy AGW insurance, but we cannot make a claim until at least 5 years after we sign the contract. When is the earliest that we could possibly (assume p=.05) expect to make a claim either of economic damages or of damages to our social systems or the environment?

    The models, as presented do not give the general reader who wishes to be prudent any guidance. Prudence is a virtue. We should facilitate it

    For a good rest go to http://www.clu-in.org.

  42. 92
    Timothy Chase says:

    Aaron Lewis(#91) wrote:

    My understanding is that the global climate models are not capturing the dynamic behavior of the ice. My personal experience is that dynamic behavior of ice can be disconcertingly fast. On a chunk of ice the size of Greenland, disconcertingly fast would be – - Well, much faster than the climate models predict.

    You are quite right.

    We are having difficulty modeling all of the feedbacks and things are moving along more quickly than anticipated. According to the recent IPCC report, the Arctic sea wouldn’t experience an ice-free summer until at least 2050. Now it is looking more like 2020. Likewise, when they project a sea level rise somewhat less than a meter, they aren’t taking into account the nonlinear nature of the process, the various kinds of feedbacks, or for that matter, the possibility of positive feedback between glacier loss in Greenland and the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

    But these are points which Jim Hansen has been raising for some time. He has been pointing out that this would be nonlinear, that it would involve various forms of positive feedback which were not yet accounted for by the models, and that it would be a wet process. He has been pointing out this will be stochastic. And he is also pointing out that sea level rise could be several meters.

    Publicly.

    In the meantime, we are getting a crash course on much of the dynamics of ice melt, whether it happens to be due to melting snow being darker than the ice and therefore absorbing more sunlight, or creating channels of runoff which lubricate the glaciers so that they can move more quickly, the various processes of disintegration, or the effects of soot on snow.

    In any case, personally, I at least expect these guys to be keeping up with everything that we are learning regarding glacier dynamics. They understand how important it is in terms of the global climate, and they have access to all the scientific literature – including the results of the extremely detailed studies being done out in the field. But at the same time, it helps if we don’t exaggerate the threats as this could cause climatology to lose some of its credibility – which is something that would play into the hands of certain groups.

    Anyway, I think I share some of your concern. I am in no way a professional, but there hasn’t been a day that has gone by for the past several weeks that I am not obsessing a little about the arctic, Greenland or the Himalayas – or more likely all three. I think we both share some grasp of their importance. I am pretty sure these guys do too.

  43. 93

    [[As someone commented earlier, this site is a great source for getting ammunition to rebut the spiritual descendants of those who put Galileo under house arrest and burned Giordano Bruno at the stake, for having the unmitigated gall to speak scientific truth to power.]]

    Actually, Bruno was a pseudoscientist even by the standards of the day. But he was executed for his theological statements, not his “scientific” work.

  44. 94

    Aaron,

    You are quite right. Earth science is catastrophic, not uniform as the scientists imagine. This is because they take averages. For instance the climate of florida is so attractive that people go there to retire or on holiday. But it is one of the places on this Earth where hurricanes strike. 99.9% of the time you could live there in a trailer home, but if it was not possible to evacuate there would be few people left alive there now.

    The Boxing Day tsunami was another good example of a sudden event causing destruction, but happening on a scale so short that it made no difference to the average sea level around the Indian Ocean.

    But if a similar short event happens to the global climate there is nowhere we can evacuate to. These rapid warming events do happen. The last one occurred 10,000 years ago at the start of the Holocene. Then temperatures in Greenland jumped 20C in a mater of years, when the sea ice in the Greenland-Iceland-Norwegian Seas suddenly melted. Now, we know that the Arctic ice will be gone within a few years. If the temperature in Greenland jumps another 20C how long will the ice sheet last then? How will the West Antarctica ice shelves cope with a 7 m rise in sea level?

    Timothy says don’t panic, the scientists know what is happening. But how are they going to save us? The Greenland ice sheet has started melting and they have done nothing. If it melts even faster what can they do?

  45. 95

    Aaron Lewis, that’s also my understanding of the nature of antartic/greensland ice as well. It’s not like taking an ice lump and calculating the rate of melting at a set temp over a day. The way that ice has formed over the millenia and it’s relationship with the bedrock below and the structural dynamics at play within the average glacier make the way it will melt very variable and based on many factors. Also that fact that huge areas of the iceflows will suddenly collapse like a house of cards when the temp reaches a certain point all indicate that the disintegration process will happen much sooner than forcast. As is happening right at this minute the low lying ice shelves are breaking apart and drifting north.. then as temp warms another 0.5C higher the ice at higher altitudes will begin to disintegrate with resulting fast flowing glaciers. Not sure how many realise just how fragile the ice shelves are and how soon we will lose them.
    On another note…latest from Sliver solar cell tech, is that Origin energy plans to start commercial production within a year and rapidly accelerate production from then on. The initial cost per kw will only be about 10% cheaper but when large production plants have been built the cost will steadily drop. Here’s a thought..why dont the inventors of Sliver cell use the technology the germans have invented to coat the sliver subsrate with broad spectrum light absorbing chemicals..don’t know if it’s possible or not..can’t imagine why not though?

  46. 96
    ray ladbury says:

    Alistair, panic is rarely a profitable activity–unless it is the people around you who are doing it while you keep your head. The Boxing Day tsunami is a good example. If the ocean suddenly pulls away from the beach, it’s generally a good idea to seek higher ground. Lack of tsunami awareness. Science can’t save us. It can tell us what the consequences of our actions may be, though and so, hopefully increase our awareness. If we take responsible actions, science may even be able to respond and buy us more time with new technologies that both mitigate the harms and capitalize on the benefits of a warmer climate. Ultimately, however, our fate depends on our actions. Think of it as an intelligence test. Have our superior brains conferred up on us sufficient intelligence to avoid the fate of a yeast colony in a bottle of beer–i.e. dying in our own waste.
    This is precisely the sort of hazard we haven’t been good at dealing with–a hazard that poses little imminent risk, but requires lont-term planning to avoid severe long-term risk. It is a question of whether the sort of strategic, disciplined thinking that science fosters can become widespread enough for us to avert catastrophe. Know anyone taking bets?

  47. 97
    Timothy Chase says:

    Alastair McDonald (#94) wrote:

    Timothy says don’t panic, the scientists know what is happening. But how are they going to save us? The Greenland ice sheet has started melting and they have done nothing. If it melts even faster what can they do?

    Alstair,

    If you really want something to worry about, consider the possibility of the spontaneous decay of the false vacuum. A bubble would form, expanding at the speed of light and wipe out all life as it swept through the universe. Chances are you wouldn’t even know what had happened. At this point, theoretically it is at least possible. It would have happened before, you say? It only has to happen once. Besides, it did happen once before about 13.9 billion years ago, I believe.

    Zap!

    So it is a tad unlikely, perhaps, but possible. Or if you want something a bit more likely, a cosmic string we failed to notice – we may have spotted one of those before in its distortion of the images of distant galaxies, a stray bit of strange matter, a supernova, a spiraling pair of neutron stars, a marauding black hole, or just a large asteroid we hadn’t noticed. And I could in all likelihood dream up a few more nightmares to keep you awake at night if I really wanted to. Some of these are so quick you wouldn’t have a chance to even notice – particularly those involving some sort of highly theoretical and exotic physics.

    Another Holocene Maximum is possible, but at this point we can’t say how likely it is, and it probably isn’t so likely that we need to worry about it a great deal. Lets stick to the threats which are actually probable if we don’t change our current trajectory. No need to dream up nightmares or other things that might go bump in the night, however satisfying it might be for your imagination.

  48. 98
    sidd says:

    Re:
    Comment by Aaron Lewis � 23 Jun 2007 @ 10:01 pm
    “On a chunk of ice the size of Greenland, disconcertingly fast would be – - Well, much faster than the climate models predict.”

    what do the models predict ? A millenium for substantial melting in Greenland and Antarctica ?

    the GRACE results show mass loss in Greenland and Antarctica of the order of hundreds of cubic km/yr. These contribute around a mm/yr to global sea level rise. Greenland has about 3 million cubic km of ice, Antarctica about nine times more. At this rate it would take several millenia to substantially melt these sheets. My question is then, how much faster can this mass loss become ? Is it conceivable that we will see mass loss of a thousand cubic Km/yr in the next decade ? or worse ? Sea level rise is about 3mm/yr today. If this increases to 3cm/yr, we will have meters of sea level rise this century.

  49. 99
    Ike Solem says:

    Regarding hurricane risk, it’s worth mulling over the oft-repeated statement that “we can’t say that any single event is due to global warming”. The obvious response is than to ask, “How many events does it take?”.

    The simple analogy is to a tossed coin. The coin might be loaded, or it might not. How many coin tosses will it take for one to determine that the coin is definitely loaded? Would one coin toss do it? Woul ten suffice? How about a hundred? Even if you got ten heads in a row, could you state, with total certainty, that the coin was loaded?

    Similar arguments are tossed around in the hurricane debate. The argument for an effect is that a larger and deeper surface warm layer in the oceans will provide the energy and fuel for more intense hurricanes. The argument against an effect is that other estimated effects of global warming (increased wind shear) will counteract this. The strength of the warm water effect is also debated.

    Insurance companies don’t have any doubts about the types of changes they expect to see now and in the future. In fact, they recognize that there will be an increasing risk of hurricane damage and are moving away from insuring hurricane-prone regions entirely. See Insurance Industry Warns of Climate Disaster, for example. They seem to be focusing on adaptation – noone is going to reverse current trends under current CO2 emmission practices.

  50. 100
    Lawrence Brown says:

    In comment 93. Barton Paul states.
    “Actually, Bruno was a pseudoscientist even by the standards of the day. But he was executed for his theological statements, not his “scientific” work.”

    The following is from the Vatican web page : “In the same rooms where Giordano Bruno was questioned, for the same important reasons of the relationship between science and faith, at the dawning of the new astronomy and at the decline of Aristotleâ��s philosophy, sixteen years later, Cardinal Bellarmino, who then contested Brunoâ��s heretical theses, summoned Galileo Galilei, who also faced a famous inquisitorial trial, which, luckily for him, ended with a simple abjuration.”

    The ideological descendents of the middle ages, like those who tried and suceeded in silencing Galileo,Bruno and others , are with us in modern times and to this very day.
    Back in 1981, James Hansen did a study showing that the Earth was warming and predicted back then that there would be global warming of “almost unprecedented magnitude” in this, the 21st century. The Department of Energy, as a result, took draconian measures, reneging on promised funding which forced layoffs and a narrowing of the scope of research at Goddard Institute.(Source:”The Change In The Weather” by William K. Stevens). Not long ago when Dr. Hansen was being interviewed on 60 minutes, the camera flashed briefly on a government “censor” of sorts, monitoring the interview. Oscar winner Al Gore, documents how a White House official with no scientific background edited an EPA assessment and deleted any mention of the dangers imposed by a warming planet.


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