RealClimate logo


Solar

Filed under: — stefan @ 4 May 2010

The new novel Solar by Ian McEwan, Britain’s “national author” (as many call him) tackles the issue of climate change. I should perhaps start my review with a disclosure: I’m a long-standing fan of McEwan and have read all of his novels, and I am also mentioned in the acknowledgements of Solar. I met McEwan in Potsdam and we had some correspondence while he wrote his novel. Our recent book The Climate Crisis quotes a page of McEwan as its Epilogue. And of course I’m not a literature critic but a scientist. So don’t expect a detached professional review.

In interviews McEwan describes his difficulties in approaching the topic of climate change: “I couldn’t quite see how a novel would work without falling flat with moral intent.”

One solution is that he makes his protagonist who tries to “save the world”, the Nobel laureate physicist Michael Beard, thoroughly pathetic and unlikeable. (Actually quite unlike any scientist I know, but certainly less boring than us at Realclimate.) The only redeeming feature of Beard is his sarcastic humor. When his business partner is worried that claims of global warming having stopped will ruin their grand solar energy scheme, Beard (after expertly refuting the “no warming since 1998” myth) retorts:

Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Even as we speak, the inhabitants of the island of Carteret in the South Pacific are being evacuated because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. Malarial mosquitoes are advancing northwards across Europe… Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!

This is McEwan’s funniest book. The humour in it is another way around the moral gravity of the subject. In an interview he said:

The thing that would have killed the book for me, I’m sure, is if I’d taken up any sort of moral position, I needed a get-out clause. And the get-out clause is, this is an investigation of human nature, with some of the latitude thrown in by comedy.

Half-way through the novel Beard gives a riveting speech on climate change to an auditorium full of pension-fund managers (representing 400 billion dollars of investments) – a speech that I’d be almost tempted to steal and use verbatim myself at some occasion. But what could have been tedious – a whole lecture embedded in a novel – is turned into a hilarious scene where Beard is engaged in a losing battle with his bowels, trying to continue speaking while swallowing down “a fishy reflux rising from his gorge, like salted anchovies, with a dash of bile”.

McEwan showing off that he can write such a speech better than a scientist is reminiscent of his novel Enduring Love, to which he appended an entire scientific paper about a psychological disorder (De Clerambault’s Syndrome) that allegedly inspired the book. Later he admitted this “paper” was part of the fiction. He’d even submitted it to a journal, but one of the reviewers smelled a rat.

McEwan’s deep (and often playful) affinity to science is one of the hallmarks of his writing and of course one reason why I like his novels. The other is his stunning power of observation; he seems to be reading people’s minds, cutting right through their delusions to get to the deeper truths. In that, his analytic work as a writer resembles that of a scientist.

McEwan is a forceful rationalist and well-versed in science culture, and his witty observations on that are a big part of the fun of his books. In Solar, for example, he pokes some hilarious fun at the social constructivists. Beard chairs a government committee to bring more women into physics, and a social scientist on his committee introduces herself with a speech on how a particular gene is not discovered by scientists, but is rather a social construct.

Beard had heard rumours that strange ideas were commonplace among liberal arts departments. It was said that humanities students were routinely taught that science was just one more belief system, no more or less truthful than religion or astrology. He had always thought that this must be a slur against his colleagues on the arts side. The results surely spoke for themselves. Who was going to submit to a vaccine designed by a priest?

This develops into my favourite subplot. At a press conference of his committee, the journalists are “slumped over their recorders and notebooks” and “depressed by the seriousness of their assignment, its scandalous lack of controversy”, as “the whole project was lamentably worthy”. Beard makes some fairly harmless remarks about the efforts of bringing more women into physics perhaps reaching a ceiling one day, because they may have a preference for other branches of science. The social constructivist explodes (“Before I go outside to be sick, and I mean violently sick because of what I’ve just heard, I wish to announce my resignation from Professor Beard’s committee.”) Predictably, that makes the predatory journalists spring to life, and in the following McEwan spins a completely credible story how Beard’s remarks turn into a media storm where Beard’s love life is dragged into the tabloids and his “genetic determinist” views are linked to Third Reich race theories. One journalist, “more in the spirit of playful diary-page spite”, calls him a neo-Nazi.

No one took the charge seriously for a moment, but it became possible for other papers to take up the term even as they dismissed it, carefully bracketing and legalising the insult with quotation marks. Beard became the ‘neo-Nazi’ professor.

McEwan knows what he is writing about: he became subject to a media storm about his Islam-critical views a few years ago. I read Solar in February (thanks to an advance copy that the author had sent me), in parallel with the unfolding surreal, but real-world media campaign against IPCC, and found that McEwan dissects the mechanisms beautifully.

McEwan says that the idea to make a Nobel laureate the main character of his new book came to him in Potsdam, when attending the Nobel Cause Symposium organised by our institute in October 2007 (and on page 179 his hero Beard returns from a conference in Potsdam). At the time I discussed with him whether this wouldn’t be a good topic for a novel: humanity facing an existential threat that is well-understood by its scientists, but largely ignored by a population who prefers to delude itself in creative ways about the gradually unfolding disaster. McEwan responded: everything there is to say about this situation has already been said by Thomas Mann in his novel Death in Venice.

I’m glad he tackled the topic of climate change nevertheless. It’s McEwan at his best. Intelligent, funny, and full of insights. Read for yourself!

Link: Here is McEwan speaking about Solar (and about his views on climate change) in a TV interview.

726 Responses to “Solar”

  1. 651
    Timothy Chase says:

    CORRECTION

    The link to the videos for Climate Denial Crock of the Week is:

    http://greenfyre.wordpress.com/denier-vs-skeptic/denier-myths-debunked/climate-denial-crock-of-the-week

    (The blog software edited the link that had created.)

  2. 652
    Jim Eager says:

    Le me second Tim and urge everyone to go vote for Peter

    You need to vote today because voting closes tonight and Peter is behind by some 260 votes at the moment.

  3. 653
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “But it seems to me that the time constant (related directly to the half-life) for the atmospheric C14 curve will also be the time constant for all atmospheric CO2 .”

    Then you haven’t understood a thing.

    There’s no point continuing the lesson. It’s ended.

  4. 654
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Not only is it ignorant, insulting and obscene,”

    In what way?

    Because you don’t like it?

  5. 655
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “WV is typically found in concentrations around 10x of CO2 (~4,000ppmv or so). On Venus it is something like 2ppmv.”

    And O3?

    When we missed that we had a big problem…

    ppb?

  6. 656
    Timothy Chase says:

    Secular Animist wrote in 633:

    Here’s something to consider when thinking about why and how people form their views of “objective reality”.

    Earlier this month, 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences, including 11 Nobel laureates, signed a letter defending climate science against politically and financially motivated attacks. The letter said in part: …

    The Washington Post, NYTimes and Wall Street Journal may have refused to print it, but across the pond at The Guardian UK we have:

    Open letter: Climate change and the integrity of science
    Full text of an open letter from 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences in defence of climate research
    6 May 2010
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/06/climate-science-open-letter

    … and the article printed on the same day:

    Leading scientists condemn ‘political assaults’ on climate researchers
    Celia Cole, 6 May 2010
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/06/climate-science-open-letter-nas

    A bit of good news…

  7. 657
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Mis-education continues long after graduation.”

    Palin is milking the market. Murdock is milking the market. These are not uneducated people (well, maybe Palin, but she’s not as ignorant of her failings as she seems: she’s marketing her failings).

    The parents are being mis-educated by such bias journalism who are pandering to what makes them comfortable and scaring with what they’ve been led to believe is a scourge.

    But it wasn’t the education system that let them down, except by poor management by the population.

    But kids willing to question their parents will look and find.

    They may reject what they find from discomfort either in the message or in the censure of their peers and “betters”.

    But they WILL find.

  8. 658
    David B. Benson says:

    Martin A (644) — Electrical analogy is fine for the net flux between resevoirs for any linear system. So as long as you are willing to use a linear approxiamtion, that’ll work. By the way, ratio of atmosphere to ocean carbon is about 730:38000 so you surely need to represent the ocean.

  9. 659
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 610 Martin A CO2 half life –

    A perturbation of the amount of atmospheric CO2 has several half-lives, at it first decays towards an equilibrium with the upper ocean, while that equilibrium decays towards one with organic C on land (? or not, I’m not sure about that part?), and then that equilibrium takes a long time to decay towards equilibrium with the deep ocean, while at the same time the CO2 in the ocean comes to equilibrium with carbonate minerals, and then over many many many many thousands of years, the CO2 of the whole non-geologic reservoir comes to equilibrium via an imbalance between chemical weathering of some silicate minerals, organic C burial, and geologic emissions; climate itself can affect the equilibria.

    There’s a difference between the longevity of a change in amount of CO2 in total and the residence time of a CO2 molecule. If there is a disequilibrium of C between two reservoirs, that might be expected to decay over the same time frame as the mixing of C atoms among the two – however, if this disequilibrium is caused by a change in the total amount of C among them, then the equilibrium values will be different then before (and their proportions could be different, too). And then the two-reservoir system may also be in disequilibrium with other reservoirs… etc.

    See also

    http://chriscolose.wordpress.com/2009/12/08/interactive-carbon-cycle-model/
    From a link from that, I calculate some residence times for C atoms – see and of this comment:
    http://chriscolose.wordpress.com/2009/12/08/interactive-carbon-cycle-model/#comment-1432
    and maybe a link or two I put in here:
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/12/unforced-variations/comment-page-21/#comment-151663
    ******Such as:

    David Archer (4 June 2008) The millennial atmospheric lifetime of anthropogenic CO2, Climatic Change, 90:283–297
    http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~archer/reprints/archer.2008.tail_implications.pdf

  10. 660
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Ray Ladbury says: 14 May 2010 at 1:30 PM

    Unbounded risks worry me.

    And you’ll hear, “Oh, but we can adapt!”

    No, we can’t, unless “adaptation” means fleeing from large swathes of the globe we’re now busily filling with humans. See this summary of our physiological capacity to tolerate high wet-bulb temperatures, “Heat stress: setting an upper limit on what we can adapt to”

    Of course, the response to this is predictable: “7 degrees is a upper, extreme worst-case scenario!” Surely, but what about weather? We’re not talking about a geographically smooth, uniform upward swerve, rather for any given location we’re looking at a series of excursions with an upward trend. So we won’t need to get to a worst-case scenario before we see increasing statistical inevitability manifest itself in the form of abandonment of previously livable geography.

  11. 661
    Joe Cushley says:

    Would love to sign up at Brighter Planet, really enjoy Climate Denial Crock Of The Week, but it keeps asking me to type myriad two word Captcha thingies… My ex-girlfriend’s consultant neurosurgeon was, erm, a consultant on McEwan’s novel, Saturday. He did his research thoroughly. Haven’t read Solar but fully intend to. Incidentally, back in the 1970s, I tended what was apparently the biggest array of solar panels in the UK which was used to heat the outdoor swimming-pool at my school, St Christopher, Letchworth Garden City, UK. God knows how effective they were. The water from the pool was pumped along the top of the angled, matt-black panels and ran down through them, to be pumped back into the pool. It was good fun, but they kept springing leaks. The school was very progressive – vegetarian, had its own school council where we could make basic school law, and we called all our teachers by their first names. I campaigned for the then Ecology Party in the 1979 Thatcher landslide. Over 30 years later the UK has got its first Green MP. Hallelujah…

  12. 662
    Walter Crain says:

    SecularAnimist, (#633)
    you said,
    “Earlier this month, 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences, including 11 Nobel laureates, signed a letter defending climate science against politically and financially motivated attacks….”

    nice list! i saw 7 JIMs! (and one “jay”)

    ****PROJECT JIM****

  13. 663
    Stephen Baines says:

    For those wanting to vote for Peter Sinclairs Climate Denial Crock of the Week on Brighter Planet…The voting does not end until just before midnight TOMORROW.

    The race is neck and neck with another project out of a high school in Montana. Tough competition as they seem quite organized with alumni and students voting.

  14. 664
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 600, 605 John E. Pearson

    Ts^4 = (1+n)*Te^4 is the formula for surface temperature Ts as a function of n layers of atmosphere that absorb no solar radiation but each absorbs all LW radiation, and Te^4 * sigma = S*(1-albedo)/4 = the solar heating of the systmem, which all occurs at the surface, and there is no convection (or conduction, of course) of heat through the system.

    The formula for skin temperature is

    Tskin^4 = 1/2 * Te^4

    for a layer that has only just enough optical thickness to absorb some nonzero but insignicant fraction of the LW radiation from below (so that it doesn’t change the outward flux to space by a significant amount), and is thin enough to not absorb any of it’s own emitted photons; this optical thickness is from absorption and is evenly distributed over the LW spectrum (greybody), and this layer doesn’t absorb any solar radiation. This thin layer emits upwards and downwards with the same fraction of LW blackbody flux that it absorbs from either direction, but since it absorbs no radiation from above, the fourth power of it’s temperature must be half that of the brightness temperature of the flux per unit area from below, which is approximately the flux per unit area that must be leaving the planet, with the brightness temperature Te (brightness temperature defined for the flux from the whole LW spectrum). Quasi-LTE must apply to this thin top layer in order for the equation to work

    Notice that if the uppermost layer of the atmosphere absorbs solar radiation, it will have a higher temperature. If the LW absorption optical thickness (over the whole uppermost layer or at least the top portion of it) is increased, then the portion of that layer which has low-enough LW-optical thickness to act as such a skin layer shrinks, which, if the SW optical properties are held constant, reduces the solar heating of the skin layer, bringing the equilibrium temperature of the skin layer down, approaching the skin temperature for the case of no solar heating of the skin layer. This will be qualitatively true even if the optical properties vary over wavelenght within the LW portion of the spectrum (at least as long as some portions of the LW spectrum don’t have a decreased optical thickness while others have increased optical thickness), but it will change the equation. (This is related to stratospheric cooling in response to greenhouse gases, though it should be added that the whole of the stratosphere is not actually a skin layer (generally), and the stratospheric cooling that is in response to instantaneous stratospheric forcing, and that makes the tropopause level forcing with stratospheric adjustment/equilibration lower than the instantaneous tropopause-level forcing, is a greater cooling than the full equilibrium stratospheric cooling that is left after the surface and tropospheric temperatures increase, etc.)

  15. 665
  16. 666
    Tom Dayton says:

    Martin, regarding CO2 “residence” time versus “adjustment” time, in addition to the excellent explanations and links that others have given you, try this at SkepticalScience.com: CO2 Has a Short Residence Time.

  17. 667
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Septic Matthew,
    Wow…just wow. You know, I have some beefs with teachers’ unions, too, but mostly, they are fighting for their life in a world full of politicians that would rather blame them for the fact that Americans are stupid than blame the parents or their frigging devil spawn.

    And given that corporations are spewing 70000 gallons of oil a day into the gulf, funding the climate denial movement–and before that, the tobacco-denial movement, gutting regulation of mine and oil-rig safety, buying up congressmen like it’s a frigging firesale, don’t you think you might wanna reconsider that equation?

    The corporation is actually younger than predictions of anthropogenic climate change. It has been tremendously successful in insulating the powerful from responsibility for their actions–which after all was the intent.

  18. 668
    Brian Dodge says:

    Martin A — 14 May 2010 @ 2:28 PM – If you’re going to think about the carbon sinks in electrical terms, you need to really make it a little more complicated, with capacitors that represent the Northern and Southern hemisphere land plants, and an inductive coupling between them that represents the seasonal exchange of CO2 between them. (During winter in the north, decaying annual plant growth releases CO2, while southern land plants are absorbing it; vice versa during northern summer). The capacitors are different sizes (different land area north and south). Similar processes occur between ocean and land, with both biological and chemical components, so you need to star adding capacitors and sinks for tha North & South Atlantic, N&S Pacific, Indian, Arctic etc oceans, and a network reactive and dissipative couplings among them. The “reactive” exchanges are larger than anthropogenic emissions, but our emissions only push the atmospheric CO2 one direction – up. The sinks(biological, ocean, and geologic weathering) have vastly different rates and endpoints – R(s) and V(s) in the electrical model – so the CO2 lifetime doesn’t have a simple or easily measured time “constant”.

  19. 669
    dhogaza says:

    back in the 1970s, I tended what was apparently the biggest array of solar panels in the UK which was used to heat the outdoor swimming-pool at my school, St Christopher, Letchworth Garden City, UK. God knows how effective they were. The water from the pool was pumped along the top of the angled, matt-black panels and ran down through them, to be pumped back into the pool.

    My father was doing this with something he built at a neighbor’s house (we had no pool) back in 1958-1961, not quite sure when, exactly (but in that range).

    The pool was heated, so the system was meant to be a pre-heater.

    I was always told it worked quite well, but seeing as I was like 4, 5, 6 or so … who knows!?

  20. 670
    Patrick 027 says:

    I forgot an important point regarding the role of the atmospheric weight and it’s limits – see point c. here:
    http://chriscolose.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/goddards-world/#comment-2304

  21. 671
    Nick Gotts says:

    ‘Crock of the Week’ is catching up. – John P. Reisman

    Pharyngula is on the case! Climate denialists should fear this fellow.

  22. 672
    Nick Gotts says:

    Somehow that reminds me of my childhood — growing up during the Cold War (e.g. Cuban missile crisis) and knowing that human civilization could end in 40 minutes on any given day. – SecularAnimist

    It still could. Apparently we had a close shave in 1995. If AGW continues unchecked, international tensions are very likely to rise as some nuclear-armed states run out of the resources to feed their populations and resort to stirring up hatreds against traditional enemies, or the countries most responsible for their problems. There have been a number of recent reports on the geopolitics of climate change.

  23. 673
    Septic Matthew says:

    667, Ray Ladbury, given that corporations are spewing 70000 gallons of oil a day into the gulf, funding the climate denial movement–and before that, the tobacco-denial movement, gutting regulation of mine and oil-rig safety, buying up congressmen like it’s a frigging firesale, don’t you think you might wanna reconsider that equation?

    No. Neither corporations are major threats to democracy nor public employee unions are major threats to civilization. Teachers’ unions are partly responsible for the retention of incompetent teachers in the public school system, and that is a small threat to civilization, which could become significant in the upcoming 40 years (the time period specified by BPL.) But I included teachers among the public employees unions, not by themselves: all together, they are more of a problem, as illustrated by Argentina, Greece, Detroit and California. Corporations, as you know, are pouring billions of dollars annually into wind, solar and biofuels, not just oil into the Gulf.

    [edit – enough]

  24. 674
    Completely Fed Up says:

    The electrical analogy is just smokescreen. There’s only one type of electron, so MA’s model cannot apply when we’re talking about different carbon isotopes.

    Unless he’s thought of a way to paint electrons.

    Remember, his original question was can we use the C14 isotope ratio to work out how long anthropogenic carbon will persist.

    The answer is “no”, and unless he’s worked out how to model different isotopes of electron, his naive^wmendacious response is not applicable.

  25. 675
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Hence my belief that the time constant for transfer of all CO2 from the atmosphere to the biosphere is the same as the time constant given in the reference for the transfer of carbon14 CO2.”

    But we haven’t added C14. We’ve changed C12 to C14.

    We haven’t charged up the atmosphere when we tested nukes.

    And the equipartition of C14 about the two reservoirs has not reduced the amount of Carbon either.

    Therefore your attempt to falsely segue from C14/C12 ratio leveling to Carbon emission sequestration is patently meant to deceive.

    If your model is to relate C14/C12, your resistor is that graph posted earlier with a half-life of ~10 years. However, you have to find some way of getting the electrons in one capacitor (equating to C12) to move to the other capacitor (equating to C14) WITHOUT ADDING ELECTRONS to the system.

    If your model is to relate available Carbon sources to the unavailable Carbon sources, then we are charging up the “available sources” capacitor. However that resistor the capacitor is discharging through is NOT the one that moves available carbon sources around.

  26. 676
    Martin A says:

    David B. Benson: Yes, clearly I’m assuming linearity. Interesting that there is ~50 times the CO2 in the sea as in the air.

    Patrick 027: Thank you for the links. Yes, assuming 1st order dynamics is clearly the simplest possible model that neglects all but one of the possible interactions.

    Tom Dayton: Thank you for the link. – looks simple enough for me to understand. I’m still struggling to grasp the difference between the half life (or half-residency duration) for an individual CO2 molecule and for a mass of CO2 but, hopefully, I’ll get there.

    Brian Dodge: Thank you. Yes, clearly there is no limit to the complexity of models that could be constructed. I’m interested in the simplest possible models for two reasons:

    – My experience in other areas is that a simple model (1st or 2nd order dynamics) will often explain 90% of the dynamic behaviour of a system. I’m interested in doing my own “sanity check” on what I read about CAGW , not in producing models of the ultimate precision.

    – I seem to be struggling to understand even the simplest possible model, so introducing extra complexity would probably just increase my confusion.

  27. 677
    Martin A says:

    Completely Fed Up: Thank you for trying to help me understand. I’m still not there.

    You said But we haven’t added C14. We’ve changed C12 to C14.
    We haven’t charged up the atmosphere when we tested nukes.

    My belief is that most of the radiocarbon resulting from a nuclear detonation is the result of the reaction between the neutrons released in the explosion and atmospheric nitrogen:

    n + N14 –> p + C14

    The radiocarbon produced is new carbon that was not there before and there is no change in the mass of nonradioactive carbon that was already present in the atmosphere.

    See, for example, Sakharov’s paper:

    http://www.princeton.edu/sgs/publications/sgs/pdf/1_3-4Sakharov.pdf

    I’ve read the web page CO2 Has a Short Residence Time http://www.skepticalscience.com/co2-residence-time.htm
    and I can’t follow the writer’s argument. He says ‘Dissolution of CO2 into the oceans is fast but the problem is that the top of the ocean is “getting full” (…)’

    If the system is assumed linear, then the time constant to restore equilibrium is not affected by how much CO2 you have injected into the atmosphere. If you inject new CO2 into the atmosphere, the sea/atmosphere equilibrium levels will change, but not the time constant of the exponential curve to move to a new equilibrium.

  28. 678
    Hank Roberts says:

    Martin, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” — apocryphal, often attributed to Einstein.

    When you use an analogy instead of studying the science, you’re apt to confuse yourself because your analogy isn’t really like reality.

    People used to model cognition as clockwork, then as computers–same problem. The brain isn’t a clock or a computer. The climate isn’t an electric circuit.

    For a good example of how that approach can go wrong, you might look at this reference from 2001:

    “I refer you to my recently published textbook, “Global Warming: The Hard Science” (Prentice Hall, ISBN 0582-38167-3), Sections 8.6 and 8.8. These sections discuss the oceanic uptake of CO2 ( and 14C) and contain a number of side-boxes in which analytical solutions to simple box models are provided that clarify the key concepts and factors.

    Since previous people (the people at Marshall Institute in particular) had made a number of erroneous claims around this issue, I made sure that I addressed it clearly in my book. I would stress, however, that the concept of a single atmospheric lifetime is not really valid when applied to CO2 (see pp 20-21 and 65 of my book for further discussion relevant to your questions).”

    ——-

    That’s from a page at http://www.john-daly.com/dietze/cmodcalD.htm (Dietze is an electrical engineer who tried to model CO2 lifetime; he got comments from a number of climate scientists over several years, though it appears they never convinced him that his simple model needed more help.)

  29. 679
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “My belief is that most of the radiocarbon resulting from a nuclear detonation is the result of the reaction between the neutrons released in the explosion and atmospheric nitrogen:”

    And in tonnes, what amount has been changed by that method?

    How much carbon is in the carbon cycle.

    Compare and contrast.

  30. 680
    RichardC says:

    Thanks for the tip on what sounds like a great read. McEwan’s use of a despicable protagonist is an insult like the insults thrown by denialists, but it differs in that it isn’t offensive.

  31. 681
    Martin A says:

    Hank Roberts:

    brain isn’t a clock or a computer.
    The first is apparent. The latter is debatable, depending on what you mean by “a computer”. If you mean that it is not a Von Neuman machine, that is also clearly true.

    climate isn’t an electric circuit.
    Obviously it isn’t.

    However, a linear lumped parameter model describing the transfer of a gas between reservoirs is described by exactly the same differential equations as a corresponding electrical circuit. Insights into the behaviour of the circuit are precisely applicable to the reservoir model.

    If the results are not realistic, it is not because using an electrical analogy. It is the result of using a model that inadequately represents the physical reality.

  32. 682
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “McEwan’s use of a despicable protagonist is an insult like the insults thrown by denialists,”

    I think it’s just his way of avoiding slamming for being biased for AGW. Heck, appearing in an old photo playing softball is enough to get you labelled as a les bian to the talking heads in the US…

  33. 683
    Martin A says:

    Completely Fed Up. About 1.75 tonnes of C14 was generated as a result of atmospheric tests.

    What did they do to you?

  34. 684
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Insights into the behaviour of the circuit are precisely
    > applicable to the reservoir model.

    The model is not the climate.

    Plankton species will change with no summer Arctic sea ice. How? What difference does this make in primary productivity up the food chain?

    Look at where the cutting edge research is being done in climatology.

  35. 685

    #671 Nick Gotts

    ‘Crock of the Week’ has lurched ahead.
    http://brighterplanet.com/project_fund_projects

    My question is this. Why can’t we get a similar response to sign the international climate petition?

    A climate policy that has more potential to help modern civilization prevent the worst cases scenarios? It really is our best chance at a better future.

    Please, everyone, learn the issue

    http://www.climatelobby.com/fee-and-dividend/

    and sign the petition.

    http://www.climatelobby.com/


    A Climate Minute The Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future – climatelobby.com
    Learn the Issue & Sign the Petition

  36. 686
    Martin A says:

    Hank Roberts: The model is not the climate.

    I’m not sure that anyone said it was. I was interested in rough estimates of the time additional CO2 remains in the atmosphere. Nothing to do with plankton.

  37. 687
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re Martin A. – “I’ve read the web page CO2 Has a Short Residence Time http://www.skepticalscience.com/co2-residence-time.htm
    and I can’t follow the writer’s argument. He says ‘Dissolution of CO2 into the oceans is fast but the problem is that the top of the ocean is “getting full” (…)’”

    I presume that if one reservoir is getting full, that means that the equilibrium level in the other reservoir(s) will start to increase by the same amount as the CO2 that is added. In other words, for each 1 Gt of CO2 we add to the atmosphere, if the upper ocean is nearly ‘full’, then the equilibrium (with the upper ocean) CO2 level in the atmosphere will also have gone up by almost 1 Gt, so the disequilibrium between the atmosphere and ocean (if in isolation) might still decay with the same time constant, but that decay would have very little effect on how much CO2 is in the atmosphere, because the equilibrium amount (taking the atmosphere and upper ocean in isolation) would start to almost keep up with the actual amount.

    Imagine if you have several tanks interconnected by channels of varying widths, and pour some water into one of the tanks and then watch how the tank levels adjust. Now imagine one of the tanks has an upper lid so that it can’t hold more than a set amount…

    Time constants can change, though, although I’m not sure of any clear examples, except in that – if we include the effect of climate change on the C cycle (as opposed to isolating the C-cycle’s direct reaction to C amounts), what if the upwelling of deeper ocean water were slowed down (just a hypothetical example – upwelling in a ring around Antarctica could be enhanced by warming (at least until the warming penetrates through the deep ocean source of that water), from what I’ve heard, but anyway…) – then the abiotic exchange of C between the upper ocean to the deep ocean would slow down. If the rate of organic C sinking from the upper ocean to the deep ocean changed… etc.)

  38. 688
    Anonymous Coward says:

    John (#685),
    My experience is that petitions don’t sign themselves and that even smallish real-world organizations are able to get many more signatures than you tend to get from “web accretion”. I’m not sure why an organization would commit resources to such an online petition. Perhaps another format can be worked out with input from organizers who have a track-record at getting people involved?

  39. 689

    Nick Gotts 672,

    That makes four times we almost had a nuclear war. I thought it was only three (1962, 1971, 1983). Thanks!

  40. 690
    Geoff Wexler says:

    “Co2 decays with a single time constant”.

    One of the reasons why this very poor model is accepted so easily, is the way that maths tends to be taught nowadays. I have met students who appear to think that the mathematical world is populated by rising and falling exponential functions and very little else. They may know about addition, but do not ask what the sum of a few exponential functions, each with different time constants and amplitudes, might be like.

    At a deeper level there are people who are not used to thinking that physical quantities can be added up. That is one reason why the idea that the “CO2 followed the temperature” during a deglaciation is regarded as being so crucial. It does not occur to such people that the warming at that time would have consisted of the sum of several contributions, i.e that from external causes such as Milankovitch forcing, and internal ones such as CO2 changes.

    Denialists exploit this difficulty,that some people have in counting beyond one, when they offer their consumers simplified choices between “all due to CO2” and “nothing due to CO2”.

  41. 691
    David B. Benson says:

    Martin A — Then I suggest reading David Archer’s “The Long Thaw”.

  42. 692
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Completely Fed Up. About 1.75 tonnes of C14 was generated as a result of atmospheric tests.”

    Good.

    Now what is the total carbon in the carbon cycle in tons.

    Compare that with 1.75 tonnes.

  43. 693
    Completely Fed Up says:

    Mike doesn’t seem to want to read this, so I’ll do it again:

    If your model is to relate C14/C12, your resistor is that graph posted earlier with a half-life of ~10 years. However, you have to find some way of getting the electrons in one capacitor (equating to C12) to move to the other capacitor (equating to C14) WITHOUT ADDING ELECTRONS to the system.

    If your model is to relate available Carbon sources to the unavailable Carbon sources, then we are charging up the “available sources” capacitor. However that resistor the capacitor is discharging through is NOT the one that moves available carbon sources around.

    When he said: If the results are not realistic, … It is the result of using a model that inadequately represents the physical reality.

    He didn’t connect the dots: your model inadequately represents the physical reality, Mike.

    Deliberately, I add.

  44. 694

    Climate Crock is ahead now. I tweeted and invited my followers to retweet: http://twitter.com/philipmach

  45. 695
    Hank Roberts says:

    > the time additional CO2 remains in the
    > atmosphere. Nothing to do with plankton.

    Sorry, but you _have_ contradicted yourself. This is what “not simpler” means; the atmosphere on Earth is the way it is because of life on Earth. http://www.jameslovelock.org/page6.html

    You can’t model it as though life weren’t involved. The model won’t work.

    Increase of atmospheric CO2 promotes phytoplankton productivity
    www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118811203/articletext?DOI=10…

    http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange1/current/lectures/kling/energyflow/energyflow.html

    http://www.google.com/search?q=plankton+greenhouse

  46. 696
    Hank Roberts says:

    > plankton
    Just look at this one picture, if you don’t look at anything else:

    http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange1/current/lectures/kling/energyflow/typeecob2.gif

  47. 697
    Hank Roberts says:

    > plankton
    Oh, you should read this too. It’s not a _simple_ relationship to model; the people doing the work might interest you. Just another example from the large amount of current research that’s easy to find:

    http://www.ercim.eu/publication/Ercim_News/enw65/huisman.html

    —excerpt—
    Global Warming could Destabilize Plankton in Oceans

    by Jef Huisman and Ben Sommeijer

    Global warming of the surface layers of the oceans reduces the upward transport of nutrients. Computer simulations predict that plankton growth will become unstable when the supply of nutrients is reduced. This may have a negative impact on the food chains of the oceans and on uptake of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the oceans….

    … Because the oceans cover more than 70% of the earth’s surface, marine phytoplankton is quantitatively important for reducing the greenhouse effect on earth.

    … This model prediction was rather unexpected, because it contradicts conventional wisdom that deep plankton in the oceans would represent a stable system. Therefore, the scientists compared their model predictions with data from long-term time series of plankton in the subtropical Pacific Ocean …. Phytoplankton in the subtropical Pacific indeed exhibits complex population fluctuations, consistent with the computer predictions. These results have recently been published in Nature (19 January 2006) in the article “Reduced mixing generates oscillations and chaos in the oceanic deep chlorophyll maximum”.

    Mathematical Model and Solution Methods
    The new model predictions are based on mathematical simulation of the dynamics of the plankton species and the nutrients in the ocean. The model consists of a set of integro-partial differential equations of advection-diffusion-reaction type. The ‘integro’-part in the equations originates from a nonlocal integral term describing the penetration of light into the water, subject to absorption of light by photosynthesizing phytoplankton. The numerical solution of the model was based on a finite volume method, with spatial discretisation of the differential operators as well as the integral term. The advection terms were discretised by a so-called third-order upwind biased formula, the diffusion terms by a symmetric second-order formula, and the integral term by the repeated trapezoidal rule. The resulting system of stiff ordinary differential equations was integrated over time by means of an adapted version of the widely-used computer code VODE (http://www.netlib.org/ode/) which is based on an implicit time integration method to cope with the stiffness of the system.

    Computational advances increasing the efficiency of numerical solutions of the model were essential to analyze these intriguing fluctuations in the phytoplankton as a result of global warming.

    Links:
    http://www.cwi.nl/projects/pdels/Phytoplankton/
    http://www.science.uva.nl/ibed/amb
    http://hahana.soest.hawaii.edu/hot/hot-dogs
    http://www.nature.com/nature

  48. 698
    Martin A says:

    Hank Roberts – thank you for all the references. Clearly plankton are an important part of the biosphere in terms of the CO2 cycle.

    My thanks to all who have helped me understand better the dynamics of atmospheric CO2.

    I find it surprising that one respondent who, despite himself suffering a serious misconception on the origin of nuclear test generated radiocarbon* saw fit to characterise my descriptions of my understanding with request for correction of my errors as in some way intentionally deceptive:

    his (…)mendacious response is not applicable.

    …Therefore your attempt to falsely segue from C14/C12 ratio leveling to Carbon emission sequestration is patently meant to deceive.

    * He had wrongly believed that C14 was created from C12 already in the atmosphere as a result of nuclear detonations, so the total count of atoms of atmospheric carbon remained unchanged. In fact, the C14 produced by nuclear tests is new additional carbon, produced from atmospheric nitrogen by the neutrons released in the explosion.

    I’ll sign off from Realclimate now and I won’t be back. I’ll seek information from what you would probably call “denialist” blogs where, to be frank, I find the atmosphere more relaxed – and populated by the scientifically literate from many fields.

  49. 699
    John E. Pearson says:

    Martin A wrote: “So if I inject x tonnes of radiocarbon CO2 into the atmosphere and, N years later, there is only x/2 tonnes remaining in the atmosphere this does *not* indicate that the half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere is N years?”

    I’ve not been following this discussing but just read the above question. I wrote a paper on an obliquely related issue in a different context a few years back. You can answer your own question in the following way. Let C be the concentration of co2 and C* be the concentration of radioactive co2. I assume you have a model for C and you want to inform that model by making measurements of C*. Here is the way to do it: Include C* in your model. Assume that the parameters governing its behavior are identical to those governing C. If your model includes reservoirs that contain both C and C* include the concentrations of both forms of co2 in the reservoirs, Cr and Cr*. Initially Cr* is presumably zero while Cr is not. Consequently C and C* will not have the same dynamics. A measurement of C* does not necessarily give you the information about C that you might first guess.

  50. 700
    Hank Roberts says:

    Chuckle. Good luck, Martin.
    Remember, check their cites to make sure they’re describing the papers correctly.
    “Trust, but verify.”