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Forbes’ rich list of nonsense

Filed under: — group @ 6 January 2011

Guest commentary from Michael Tobis and Scott Mandia with input from Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, and Kevin Trenberth

While it is no longer surprising, it remains disheartening to see a blistering attack on climate science in the business press where thoughtful reviews of climate policy ought to be appearing. Of course, the underlying strategy is to pretend that no evidence that the climate is changing exists, so any effort to address climate change is a waste of resources.

A recent piece by Larry Bell in Forbes, entitled “Hot Sensations Vs. Cold Facts”, is a classic example.

Bell uses the key technique that denialists use in debates, dubbed by Eugenie Scott the “Gish gallop”, named after a master of the style, anti-evolutionist Duane Gish. The Gish gallop raises a barrage of obscure and marginal facts and fabrications that appear at first glance to cast doubt on the entire edifice under attack, but which on closer examination do no such thing. In real-time debates the number of particularities raised is sure to catch the opponent off guard; this is why challenges to such debates are often raised by enemies of science. Little or no knowledge of a holistic view of any given science is needed to construct such scattershot attacks.

The approach also works somewhat in print, if the references are sufficiently obscure and numerous. Ideally, someone will take the time to answer such an attack, but there is a fundamental asymmetry of forces at work. It is, in fact, easier to form an allegation than to track down a reasonable explanation of what it means and how it really fits in to the balance of evidence. Also, the skills required to reflect the science are deeper than the ones required to attack it; hence the defenders are outnumbered and outgunned. Still, sometimes an article is prominent enough that it merits a detailed response.

The slightly out of the ordinary thing about Bell’s piece is that he casts his attack not as an attack on science (his usual method) but on the media:

As 2010 draws to a close, do you remember hearing any good news from the mainstream media about climate? Like maybe a headline proclaiming ‘Record Low 2009 and 2010 Cyclonic Activity Reported: Global Warming Theorists Perplexed’? Or ‘NASA Studies Report Oceans Entering New Cooling Phase: Alarmists Fear Climate Science Budgets in Peril’?” he begins.

But the remainder of the article is true to the form. Bell gallops through all the purported “good news” that the media ignored. The implication is that the media is complicit in overstating the climate change story.

But these aren’t the sorts of observations that most people generally receive from the media. Instead, they present sensational statements and dramatic images that leave lasting impressions of calving glaciers, drowning polar bears and all manner of other man-caused climate calamities.

Many intentionally target impressionable young minds and sensitive big hearts with messages of fear and guilt. Take, for example, a children’s book called The North Pole Was Here, authored by New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin. It warns kids that some day it may be “easier to sail than stand on the North Pole in summer.” Imagine such images through their visualization: How warm it must be to melt that pole way up north. Poor Santa! And Rudolph! Of course it’s mostly their parents’ fault because of the nasty CO2 they produce driving them to school in SUVs.

Lots of grown-ups are sensitive people with big hearts too. Don’t we all deserve more from the seemingly infinite media echo chamber of alarmism than those windy speculations, snow jobs and projections established on theoretical thin ice?

Whether the enemy is the “mercenary” scientific community, the “power hungry” liberal politicians or the “sensationalist” press matters little. What matters is to suggest the public has been manipulated, before starting the manipulation in earnest. The strategic point is to divert attention from what most scientifically informed people consider the key facts: the climate is changing as a result of human intervention. The longer we delay taking policy action, the more damage we will take and the more an effective policy will cost. It is conceivable and increasingly foreseeable that we will delay long enough that useful policy becomes infeasible and both human civilization and the biosphere will be permanently damaged.

The near-silence of the media on these matters is considered by many to be a key part of the problem. Yet, in this context, Bell suggests we are ignoring “the good news”.

Does he have a point? Is there really much of substance that qualifies as good news justifying his conclusion? The value of his piece depends crucially on how newsworthy his good news was, and how these items fit into the big picture.

We counted eleven assertions of fact in his gallop. Let’s look at each of them and place them in context. Bell especially emphasizes his first two points, so we examine them in detail (quotes from the article are bolded).

Record Low 2009 and 2010 Cyclonic Activity Reported

Bell’s first claim is not a confidence builder.

It’s possible that Bell is referencing a specific metric of hurricane activity (Accumulated Cyclone Energy), but that does not give a full story, nor does it show ‘record lows’. According to NOAA the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, which ended Dec 31, was one of the busiest on record. In the Atlantic Basin a total of 19 named storms formed – tied with 1887 and 1995 for third highest on record. Of those, 12 became hurricanes – tied with 1969 for second highest on record. Five of those reached major hurricane status of Category 3 or higher. 2010 was just behind 2004 and 2005 for earliest occurrence of a third category 4 hurricane.

It is true that none of the 12 hurricanes made landfall in the US (though tropical storm Hermine made landfall in US and hurricane Karl made land fall in Mexico but caused major flooding in Texas. But the climate system cares nothing for national borders. This may be just a lucky break . Looking in detail it is attributable to some other features of the prevailing winds last year.

What is certainly untrue is that there was “record low” cyclonic activity in the Atlantic!

What about elsewhere? A tie for the strongest eastern Pacific hurricane on record (Celia). A category 5 hurricane hitting the Philippines (Megi).

Did the press ignore this story? Even on this Bell’s leading point is dubious. But in the context of climate change, sea surface temperatures continue to increase and strong tropical cyclones continue their upward trend. So Bell leads off with a real clunker.

NASA Studies Report Oceans Entering New Cooling Phase

Bell’s second point, also from the lead paragraph:

According to two separate NASA studies, one conducted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the other by the Langley Research Center, the oceans now appear to be heading into another natural periodic cooling phase within a typical 55- to 70-year dipolar warm/cool pattern.

We traced this claim to an internet article by Justin Berk that says:

Two separate studies through NASA confirm that since 2003, the world’s oceans have been losing heat. …

Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, published his first report about the warming oceans. The article Correcting Ocean Cooling published on NASA’s Earth Observatory page this week discussed his and other results. Willis used data from 1993-2003 that showed the warm-up and followed the Global Warming Theory. In 2006, he co-piloted a follow-up study led by John Lyman at Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle that updated the time series for 2003-2005. Surprisingly, the ocean seemed to have cooled. He was surprised, and called it a ‘speed bump’ on the way to global warming.

But the excellent article “Correcting Ocean Cooling” which Berk references (and to which Bell is implicitly referring) for this actually explains how Willis went back and found that his earlier report of cooling was erroneous!

So the new Argo data were too cold, and the older XBT data were too warm, and together, they made it seem like the ocean had cooled,” says Willis. The February evening he discovered the mistake, he says, is “burned into my memory.” He was supposed to fly to Colorado that weekend to give a talk on “ocean cooling” to prominent climate researchers. Instead, he’d be talking about how it was all a mistake.”

Berk is so happy to find the word “cooling” in an article that despite the title “Correcting Ocean Cooling” he doesn’t bother to read or understand the whole point of the article. It’s really a very compelling example of how superficial this kind of journalism is; Berk gets something backwards, Bell picks it up, and Forbes, no less, uses it to lead off an article (albeit an op-ed column).

What’s more, the NASA article itself is from 2008, so even if the press had reported it as news as Larry Bell suggests, it would not have been in 2010. But in fact, the news was that the previous evidence of cooling was erroneous. Bell’s second point is simply wrong as well.

Now that we have some sense of the quality of Bell’s research, we’ll go a little more quickly through most of the other points, saving for last a case where he might have a stronger point.

A special press conference called by IPCC spokesman Kevin Trenberth announced “Experts warn global warming likely to continue spurring more outbreaks of intense activity.” Christopher Landsea, a top U.S. expert on the subject, repeatedly notified the IPCC that no research had been conducted to support that claim–not in the Atlantic basin, or in any other basin.

This famous controversy occurred in 2004 and is not 2010 news. Nor was it ignored by the press. We doubt that Landsea went so far as to claim that “no research had been conducted to support that claim” but if he did he is certainly incorrect. This topic goes back at least to 1987 with a paper in Nature by Kerry Emanuel. Kevin Trenberth offers some salient points about the controversy from his point of view:

  1. I was not an IPCC spokesperson and I was not advertised as such. Landsea claimed otherwise.
  2. I did not call the press conference, it was called by Harvard university (Paul Epstein and Jim McCarthy), I participated.
  3. There was a ton of research including my own on changes in the hydrological cycle that were pertinent but not specifically Tropical Storm based, as well as Kerry’s work.
  4. Landsea did not notify IPCC once, let alone repeatedly. He called a press conference and resigned from IPCC but he was not even part of IPCC. He had been asked by me to write something as a contributing author. It was a horrible distortion of many facts.

A globally viewed December 2005 BBC feature alarmingly reported that two massive glaciers in eastern Greenland, Kangderlugssuaq and Helheim, were melting, with water “racing to the sea.” … Only 18 months later, and despite slightly warmer temperatures, the melting rate of both glaciers Kangderlugssuaq and Helheim not only slowed down and stopped, but actually reversed.

This again is not 2010 news since it happened in 2007. It is a fact that after a massive retreat from 1991 to 2005 Kangderlugssuaq regained a tiny fraction, less than a tenth, of that retreat by 2007. This may be of interest to glacier dynamicists, but its climatological importance is nil. Glaciers worldwide are in massive retreat. Indeed, Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier lost another 5.2 square km in 2009.

[The] ice cap has been accumulating snow growth at a rate of about 2.1 inches per year

The top of the ice caps are growing slightly as expected, since warmer air contains more moisture which will fall in those places as snow. The issue that the public ought to pay attention to is the much larger and accelerating melt at the edge of the ice sheet. This is not especially 2010 news, but in any case it is sleight of hand. The real action is the instability at the edges, which already dominates the accumulation in the interior and looks likely to overwhelm it.

The new sea level, which has been stable, has not changed in the last 35 years.

Just wrong:

Figure showing the last 18 years of sea level rise derived from satellites and validated against tide gauges. (Update: longer records available here).


… if you want a grant for a research project in climatology, it is written into the document that there ‘must’ be a focus on global warming.

There are many grants supported by the grant agencies. Some are very broad and some very narrow. While it is possible that some grants specify “global warming”, it is relatively unusual. Currently open climate calls in the US through NSF can be seen at here. The claim simply isn’t true.

The Indian Ocean, for example, was higher between 1900 and 1970 than it has been since.

This is at least a current topic. It probably is based in Patterns of Indian Ocean sea-level change in a warming climate, Han et al. Nature Geoscience 2010. They conclude that “sea level has decreased substantially in the south tropical Indian Ocean whereas it has increased elsewhere. This pattern is driven by changing surface winds associated with a combined invigoration of the Indian Ocean Hadley and Walker cells, patterns of atmospheric overturning circulation in the north–south and east–west direction, respectively, which is partly attributable to rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases.”

So yes, there are apparently parts of the Indian Ocean where sea level has declined. This just leaves more water to pile up elsewhere. In fact, it shows how powerful the forces of climate change already are, in order to be able to outweigh the generally rising ocean volume in a limited area. It is hard to see how this rises to a general interest topic or how it qualifies as “good news” though.

The Northwest Passage has certainly opened up before.

This is untrue in recorded history. The traversals prior to 2007 were in very specialized boats and often took years. In 2007 and 2010, genuine shipping lanes opened up for the first time. It was possibly open in the mid-Holocene about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago and was certainly open millions of years ago. But since the opening of the passage itself received far too little attention (in our opinion), it is hard to see what Bell is complaining about.

in February 2009 it was discovered that scientists had previously been underestimating the re-growth of Arctic sea ice by an area larger than the state of California (twice as large as New Zealand)

“Previously” is grossly misleading. This was an instrumental glitch that lasted a few weeks. And February 2009 was not in 2010 either.

… previous estimates of Greenland and West Antarctica ice melt rate losses may have been exaggerated by double.

We’ve saved this for last because here Bell has a fraction of a point; as far as we can tell the only thing he raises that is 1) current and 2) arguably of general interest and 3) arguably good news. The use of the word “exaggerated” however is malicious and unjustified.

There are a number of ways of estimating the large scale mass balance of the ice sheets. Prominent among them uses information from the GRACE satellite, which measures the gravitational field of the earth. By its nature, the resulting measures are very large scale. They are complemented by precise local measures of ice altitude, for example, which are precise but cannot give broad coverage. To estimate ice cap melting the GRACE results also have to be combined with an estimate of the post-glacial rebound from the last ice age (which is still affecting the mass distribution of the Earth’s crust). Observing a planet is tricky business.

A recent publication by Wu et al makes the claim that:

“these [previous] results were not properly corrected for glacial isostatic adjustment, the phenomenon that the Earth’s crust rebounds as a result of the melting of the massive ice caps from the last major Ice Age around 20,000 years ago. These movements of the Earth’s crust have to be incorporated in the calculations, since these vertical movements change the Earth’s mass distribution and therefore also have an influence on the gravitational field.”

There is some contention here. If it proves true, it is an example of science at its best; a sequence of corrections converging on objective truth. The original estimates would have been corrected, pretty much by a factor of two as Bell says.

So this is current, substantially good news, and possibly salient for a general audience. On the other hand it is only good news about bad news; the ice retreat may have been overestimated, but we are still talking about hundreds of billions of tons more ice melting than accumulating every year, and this rate still shows signs of accelerating.

In this case, it is worth noting that all the evidence is that the ice sheets are losing mass and that the loss is accelerating. The Wu et al paper would be simply a recalibration of the net loss. This is good news, but not great news, and is certainly no evidence at all that climate change is negligible.

Please notice how we are trapped in a polemical double bind here.

What the naysayers will do is celebrate every correction that makes matters look less dangerous and criticize every correction that makes matters look more dangerous. In the former case, the older measure will have been “exaggerated”, and “corrected” by some noble and courageous hero. In the latter case, the newer measure is treated as the “exaggeration”. Thus, every single change in the estimate of any quantity is treated as evidence of the grand conspiracy.

What should be celebrated as advances of truth are instead recast either as the bad scary science defeated by the good non-scary science or the other way around. This is especially evident in the clumsy way the Willis tale is told, wherein the casting is confused because one person takes both roles.

So what remains of the criticism Bell raises? Very little indeed! The only unreported good news is that ice cap melting might have been overestimated, though it is still large and probably accelerating. The other ten of his eleven points are essentially nonsensical. I am not being partisan or oppositional here. I examined every point with an open mind and came up with ten points that boil down to complete nonsense and the last one a bit heavy on the spin.

Ultimately, though, the criticism of the press is ludicrous. The naysayers ought to be thrilled at the lack of interest in climate change shown in the press, at least in North America. The longer we delay, the bigger the topic gets, and the more ridiculous the refusal of the press and policy sector to grapple with it becomes.

Yet widely respected publications like Forbes seem eager to promulgate great clouds of rhetorical ink to make the problem seem ever more trivial and distant. If there is good news of general interest, of course it should be reported. But Bell seems to want, instead, to invent it.

334 Responses to “Forbes’ rich list of nonsense”

  1. 251
    Jim Dukelow says:

    Re #2, the Maddow Robinson interview:

    As much as I like Maddow and dislike Robinson, this interview was one of her worst moments, when she allowed her ideology to trump her knowledge/ignorance about various subjects.

    She mischaracterized the active scientific research area of hormesis and never allowed Robinson to talk about the subject. DOE has supported for about fifteen years the BELLE project (Biological effects of low-level exposure), a serious attempt to explore the science around the famous dictum of Paracelsus that “the dose makes the poison”. In fact the scientific evidence for the existence of hormesis (beneficial effects at low levels of exposures toxic at high levels) is pretty persuasive.
    Consideration of hormesis is not limited to radiation; think Vitamin A, necessary in low doses, toxic in polar bear liver.

    Maddow needs to recognize her areas of ignorance and back off of the political correctness. Robinson will never recognize his areas of ignorance, but that’s another topic for another day.

    Jim Dukelow

  2. 252
    flxible says:

    Kevin – re “regular mounties” on the St Roch – from current RCMP Services page: “RCMP patrol vessels are staffed by regular members who have had the same training as regular personnel plus additional specific on-the-job training in navigation, seamanship or engine equipment operation. Navigators hold certificates of competency ranging from Watchkeeping Mate with a Command Endorsement to Master 350 Home-Trade.”

    Details of the St Roch voyages, captained by experienced Norwegian mariner Henry Larsen, who realized after the St Roch took 2 seasons for the 1st trip, that the route explored by both Amundsen and Larsen wasn’t useful so his 2nd trip [the "single season" one] used a friendlier route, the one more likely used now by others.

  3. 253
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    Jim Dukelow: I watched the Maddow/Robinson interview a few days ago, and while I agree with you that Maddow was hardly impartial, the interview was very revealing of Robinson’s character. If you ask me, a loony like Robinson deserves hostile journalism, and any other approach to him would be a dereliction of duty. Just my 2c.

  4. 254
    Susan Anderson says:

    bafflegab, definitely.

    and on being left behind, since I’m feeling humorous, for those who can decipher French (*very* OT):

    “au secours, au secours, je suis gauche derriere”

    Once someone demonstrates they are uninterested in learning the facts, and continues to reassert the same stale tired stuff, it is time to stop feeding the trolls.

  5. 255

    Dan H, here are the NASA GISS global land-sea temperature anomalies for the last 13 decades:

    1880s -0.28
    1890s -0.25
    1900s -0.26
    1910s -0.28
    1920s -0.18
    1930s -0.04
    1940s 0.04
    1950s -0.02
    1960s -0.01
    1970s 0.00
    1980s 0.18
    1990s 0.31
    2000s 0.54

    Homework: Perform a linear regression of dT on decade. Follow with a quadratic regression. Use a partial-F test to see if the quadratic term is justified. Is the warming accelerating? Yes or no?

    This will be on the test.

  6. 256
    jgarland says:

    @252 Small quibble. The west to east voyage of the St. Roch took 3, not 2, summer sailing seasons. The 28 month voyage encompassed the summers of 1940, 1941, 1942.

  7. 257

    #255–Barton, I think you just pulled an Euler on Dan’s Diderot. . . except that this time, statistics are actually the point.

    I do like decadal averages as illustrative, as most folks understand the calculation of a mean fairly well–much better than an F-test, anyway.

  8. 258
    FurryCatHerder says:

    adelay @ 220:

    I totally understand that extreme precipitation events can seem to be … rather extreme.

    However, many floods in inhabited areas (don’t hear much about tens of square miles / kilometers in the middle of nowhere being flooded in some horrible fashion …) are made worse by land use changes as well as human development. Between impervious cover (roads, buildings, car parks) and changes in whatever is in the soil (monoculture crops, lawns, etc), the ability of the soil to absorb a rain is typically severely compromised. Roads and buildings can act as levees (albeit, low ones) in the worst places, even when there are no other flood control projects.

    The only time flood control projects seem to work near enough to 100% to be truly worthwhile are for sea reclamation projects, or when the area is reasonably near the headwaters of the river.

    The volume of water that even a 100 year flood event can produce is huge and trying to restrain a flood of that magnitude is folly. If the river weren’t so central to New Orleans’ existence, the Atachafalya should have been allowed to capture the Mississippi. But instead, the Old Man River Control Structure was been built, expanded, extended, reinforced, fortified, and a fair number of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s said. I’m Jewish — I’d say an entire Rosary if that’s what it took. But the reality is that sooner or later, the Mississippi will change its course, and sooner or later Brisbane will discover that living in a flood plain isn’t always a nice idea.

  9. 259
    FurryCatHerder says:

    Rod B @ 223:

    In addition to Hadley cells (mentioned by another poster), you also have to look at what causes “rain” to happen, and particularly how a storm can intensify once it has begun.

    A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor at a given temperature. This =lowers= the relative humidity, which is the ratio between what the atmosphere can hold and what it is holding. At the same time, the change in relative humidity per degree C is quadratic, not linear. So a negative change in air temperature results in a greater amount of water vapor needing to condense. Thus a warmer climate will tend to produce greater volumes of rain for a constant decline in temperature.

    [Response: actually it's exponential, not quadratic, but your basic point is correct. - gavin]

  10. 260
    Rod B says:

    David Miller, FurryCatHerder: thanks for the help.

    Variations in Hadley cells strikes me as too broad, general and high level to explain the regional anomalies. I can see how this might affect the whole of the Arctic for example, but affecting northeastern Australia is considerably more difficult to picture.

    The relative humidity factor doesn’t really explain a region suffering extreme drought for a couple of years and then extreme rainfall the next year.

    On the other hand I’ve wondered how GW by itself might cause heavier rainfalls. So that explanation helps answer a question I’ve had but not asked.

  11. 261
    Dan H. says:

    It seems that the Brisbane flood was man-made afterall.

  12. 262
    Susan Anderson says:

    Information about how the excess water was handled, which is very interesting, does not alter the total amount of excess water. 6 inches in half an hour. No matter how humans handled the excess, the record stands.

  13. 263
    Brian Dodge says:

    “…it is time to stop feeding the trolls.”

    Naw, it’s like skeet shooting – the more you practice, the better you get. Plus you learn something new – the “Australian ironwood or gumwood” is probably a hard species of Eucalyptus or Acacia, and the use of the colloquial term “ironwood” likely meant that it is denser than water. But, I agree, potting fish in a barrel can get boring.

  14. 264
    adelady says:

    Dan, man-made? I think the general view that dam management very effectively delayed flooding in Brisbane by at least a week, *and* kept the flood more than a metre below what it would have been without Wivenhoe is the correct view.

    Holding back more water than two and half Sydney Harbours is a pretty good effort.

  15. 265
    Dan H. says:

    It was a pretty good effort adelady. But was the effort worth it went they had to let loose with all that water. Delaying the flood may have been worthwhile if it allowed residents to evacuate. However, the delay did result in a more severe flood when they did release the water.
    Do you believe the efforst was the wiser choice? This article apparently did not.
    Granted, I am half a world away, but it still sounds like the inhabitants were caught unaware when the high likelihood of heavy rains were known.

  16. 266
    Jim Dukelow says:

    Re #253, Comment by Anonymous Bloke:

    Robinson certainly deserves hostility, but my problem with Maddow in this interview was that she didn’t recognize her ignorance in this area of science, was not prepared, and did not let Robinson state his case. She is very intelligent and I expect better of her.

    Jim Dukelow

  17. 267
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    Dan H. #265 If the media reported the science instead of giving column inches to the kind of horse-feathers you’re peddling, Queenslanders might have taken the clear warnings they were given more seriously. Instead they’ve been fed a steady diet of Monckton mendacity, and here you are playing your own tiny little part in that.

  18. 268
    adelady says:

    The \inhabitants\ might not have taken much notice, but the officials were well aware. In the end, only one, just one, man drowned in Brisbane – because he went into flowing waters, alone, and was sucked into a drain.

    In 1974, 14 people died in the Ipswich / Brisbane area. All the other deaths you’ve heard of (and the ones that are not yet confirmed) occurred in different areas (Toowoomba, Lockyer Valley) or in earlier weeks well away from that catchment.

  19. 269
    JiminMpls says:

    #246 Hank

    You must realize that for Dan H and others with freshly laundered gray matter, your graph will be seen as “proof” that CO2 does not cause warming. After all, CO2 emissions and concentrations have increase since 2000, but temperatures have been flat or even cooled slightly!

  20. 270
    JiminMpls says:

    #260 The relative humidity factor doesn’t really explain a region suffering extreme drought for a couple of years and then extreme rainfall the next year.

    Queensland and Victoria are no more the “same region” than Maine and Florida or sweden and Italy are. The droughts and floods did not occur in the same region. Same continent, yes, same region, no.

  21. 271
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Dan H.,
    Congratulations. You have just discovered one of the limitations of any risk mitigation scenario. It is never possible to design for the absolute worst case. Usually, the planning is for a 100-year event. Unfortunately, hundred year events by definition do not happen very often, so we may underestimate what constitutes such an event, especially if the distribution is thicktailed or the distribution is changing with time (as in climate change). If a 100-year event now occurs every 30 years, we have trouble, and if we are just at the cusp where the frequency is increasing, the now-30-year event will still not have occured in living memory. This is one of the factors that makes the onset of severe climate change a very risky time, even though the worst of it may not occur for a century.

  22. 272
    Didactylos says:

    Jim Dukelow: hormesis is the basis of homeopathy. I think Maddow was perfectly justified in treating it with contempt, particularly given Robinson’s views on it.

    Due to the low quality of research in the area, I’m not certain why you want to defend it at all. Anyone seriously studying low-dose effects can do so quite happily without ever using the word “hormesis”. They should avoid the term, in my opinion, given its anti-science origins and associations. And in general, I think they do avoid the term.

  23. 273
    FurryCatHerder says:

    Rod B @ 260:

    (Oh, and thanks to Gavin for the correction in re exponential versus quadratic — makes the point all the more valid.)

    What “Global Warming” does is make the atmosphere more energetic with more widely varied conditions. For example, the quadratic exponential increase in water vapor content means you can have more of a drought, if precipitation doesn’t happen (because more water can “stay” in the atmosphere and not on the ground), or you can have more of a torrential downpour (because there is more water to precipitate), if precipitation does happen.

    Drought also isn’t just “no rain”, it can be “not enough rain”. The other thing that happens in a warming atmosphere is increased evaporation caused by a decrease in relative humidity. So an amount of rain that was once acceptable can be unacceptable, simply because of the rise in temperature. Once in the atmosphere that moisture has to go somewhere and it can come down in an area that could handle one amount of rainfall, but not the enhanced amount. Thus, you can get both “drought” and “flood”, in addition to “warmer”.

    (… and for that reason, I prefer “Climate Change” to “Global Warming”)

  24. 274
    Sou says:

    @ DanH #261 – I’d suggest waiting for the review of the event before believing what you read on a blog. Remember, the authorities had managed to get the flood mitigation portion of Wivenhoe Dam almost all empty even right up to Friday 7 January. (On 30 December it was 20% full, then emptied again. Probably averting at least a minor flood in December/early January.)

  25. 275
    Adam R. says:

    JiminMpls says:

    After all, CO2 emissions and concentrations have increase since 2000, but temperatures have been flat or even cooled slightly!


    ht: Tamino

  26. 276
    David Miller says:

    Rod B says in 260:

    Variations in Hadley cells strikes me as too broad, general and high level to explain the regional anomalies. I can see how this might affect the whole of the Arctic for example, but affecting northeastern Australia is considerably more difficult to picture.

    Rod, I see you haven’t changed a bit. Ever the troll, trying to lay low and cast doubt. Always trying to appear to ask penetrating questions, every willfully ignorant of the answers.

    Let me suggest that in the concern you appear to describe above you never did any actual research on hadley cells at all. Had you but gone to the wikipedia page, for example, you’d have learned that hadley cells extend from the equator 30 degrees north and south to the ITCZ (intertropical convergence zone). Beyond the ITCZ, the mid-latitude cells extend to the polar cells at about 60 degrees N/S.

    In other words, expanding the hadley cells by a few degrees North drives the dry belt between it and the mid-latitude cells expand. That makes for a couple hundred miles of additional desert, though those on the southern band of the old ITCZ may realize increased precipitation because they went from being in the dry zone to being in the edge of the hadley cell.

    I have no problem accepting that as a mechanism for increased drought and increased flooding in Australia in varying PDO phases. It’s not necessarily the only mechanism, but no one here has proposed that it was.

    Not understanding what you were pointed to, and casually dismissing it because it doesn’t fit the result you want is hardly the mark of someone trying to understand.

  27. 277
    john byatt says:

    The Murdoch press, Brisbane’s \Sunday Mail\ managed to explain the cause of the floods in Australia as being down to La Nina alone, No statement from either the B.O.M. nor C.S.I.R.O, instead they give us comments from this \reader of gizzards and entrails\ who according to the Mail correctly predicted the event, Ken Ring, predicts cyclones during the cyclone season and always in the middle of the Month. comments at weatherzone

    recycles 18 year old weather maps from the B.O.M.

  28. 278
    Brian Dodge says:

    ” …how the excess water was handled,” Susan Anderson — 14 Jan 2011 @ 4:35 PM
    “This system will provide up to 18 hours advance warning during a flood event
    which allows the implementation of an early release strategy to lower the
    storage of Wivenhoe in the event of an imminent flood.

    Currently the ability to release significant volumes of water from Wivenhoe
    Dam is limited by low level bridges across the Brisbane River at Kholo,
    Savages Crossing and Burton’s Bridge. Savage’s Crossing is cut by a flow of
    around 130m3/s, Burtons Bridge at 430m3/s and Kholo Bridge at 550m3/s. If
    these bridge’s were raised to allow a discharge of 1,200 to 1,500 m3/s to be
    released without submerging them, then the opportunity for early releases
    becomes more attractive.”

    “Currently the flood manual for the operation of Wivenhoe and Somerset has four procedures.
    Procedure 4 marks the change from flood mitigation to ensuring the
    safety of the dam by passing the flood and occurs at approximately EL74. ”

    It’s easy to see in hindsight that protecting the low level bridges as the reservoir was filling to eventually reach Procedure 4 wasn’t the best idea, but the politically imposed rules & regs, plus only an 18 hour warning window required just that.

    for a different take on what human actions, or inactions, contributed to the flooding see
    “A 2007 joint SEQW-government feasibility study recommended options to increase the capacity of the dams at Wivenhoe and Somerset (which feeds into the Wivenhoe), stating that neither dam “currently satisfies the ANCOLD [Australian National Committee on Large Dams] guidelines on Acceptable Flood Capacity (2003)”. If these options had been implemented, the flood disaster could have been mitigated.”
    “In other words, all aspects of water policy are now determined not by social need, but by profit.” It was deemed unprofitable to spring for raising the bridges – a free(ish) market failure.

  29. 279
    Brian Dodge says:

    Luckily, the worst political suggestions weren’t implemented -

    “Posted Wed Oct 6, 2010 12:52pm AEDT
    The Queensland Opposition has questioned why water is being released from Wivenhoe Dam in the state’s south-east.
    The dam level has reached 100 per cent of capacity and controlled releases began this week.
    But Opposition spokesman Jeff Seeney told Parliament that the dam is not completely full.
    “Is not this release of water from Wivenhoe Dam, when it is holding only 40 per cent its available storage capacity, a clear indication that the Government has learnt nothing from the water crisis and is still failing to plan for the next inevitable drought,” he said.
    But Natural Resources Minister Stephen Robertson says the extra capacity is needed to prevent a repeat of the 1974 floods.
    “What the Member for Callide [Mr Seeney] – on behalf of the LNP [Liberal National Party] suggests, is that Wivenhoe Dam should not be used for flood mitigation purposes,” he said.
    “As a result of that, puts into jeopardy the very safety of people in Brisbane and surrounding areas?

    “Mr Speaker, this is grossly irresponsible.”

  30. 280
    John Mashey says:

    re: Queensland
    Dams can be good for any or all of:

    a) Power
    b) Storing water for release during drought
    c) Holding back water that if released then could contribute to flooding.

    When a place is subject to *both* drought and flood, one needs precognition to always do the exact right thing. If people release too much water in advance of a predicted flood, but then a big drought sets in, there will be complaints. If the dam gets too full, and then big storms come and water has to be released, that’s trouble. Unfortunately, data from the future is unavailable. :-)

    When I lived in PA/NJ, I never encountered this, but areas of California and Australia share the issue of having both b+c, and as a result often display an obsession with hydrology, for good reason.

    CA also has the issue of depending on a big natural reservoir, Sierra snowpack (Queensland doesn’t) to supply the state during the 6 months where there is little or no rain most places. Faster snowmelt is *not* a help.

  31. 281
  32. 282
    Rod B says:

    David Miller, it still sounds a bit magical and “It might be…”-like which hardly comes across as a physics hypothesis or theory. What in global warming, even if not uniform, would cause the Hadley cell to shift a few degrees — other than the 20-30 degrees it shifts seasonally anyway? And why would such a shift cause eastern Australia drought one year and deluges the next? (However, it does very loosely match the southwestern drought of last year — though it’s inconsistency doesn’t add up.)

    If my questions annoy you, don’t try to answer them.

  33. 283
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    Rod B #282 What, uncertainty in science? Who knew. Next thing you’ll be telling us more research is called for, which funnily enough is exactly what “scientists say”.

  34. 284

    Rod @ 282:

    Go to the kitchen. Get a large pot of water. Fill it.

    Start with a low boil. Observe the patterns. Turn up the heat. Observe the change in patterns.

    The water is still at the boiling point — 212F / 100C — but the circulation pattern of the boiling water is different.

  35. 285
    D. Price says:

    On the Australia theme formally drought ridden Victoria is now braced for floods. A few years ago it was predicted that South East Australia would be permanently dry. People should be cautious of making predictions based on current weather events.

  36. 286
    Sou says:

    @ D.Price #285 said: ” A few years ago it was predicted that South East Australia would be permanently dry.”

    I know of no such prediction from anyone, let alone from anyone knowledgeable about such matters, and I live in south eastern Australia. (I’m not saying no-one made this prediction.) Can you provide a reference including who made the prediction, when they made it, the forum in which it was made (eg newspaper article, blog) and what are their credentials?

    The tentative suggestions I heard from the CSIRO back in the 1970s (based on their analyses at the time), was that human-caused climate change would result in most of south eastern Australia becoming drier, not move to a permanent state of dryness. Even this very tentative expectation is becoming blatantly evident.

    As the analytical capability has improved, the expectations of climate scientists are being refined AFAIK, the expectation for south eastern Australia over coming decades, if we do nothing about CO2 emissions, is that it will continue to have hotter and drier extremes, and when it rains it rains in buckets (like it is now).

  37. 287
    john byatt says:

    #286 Sou, The sceptics have been making similar claims here that the scientists told them that it would never rain again in south east Queensland , they just refuse to read the science, Climate change is likely to affect extreme rainfall in SE QLD, Abbs et al (2007}, projections indicate an increase in 2 hour,24 hour and 72 hour extreme rainfall events for large areas of SE QLD especially in the Mcpherson and great dividing range west of brisbane and the gold coast .Projections also indicate that the regions of east Australian cyclone genesis could shift southward by two degrees latitude (approximately 200 km) by 2050, Leslie et al (2007), while the average decay location could be up to 300 km south of the current location. Models estimate that the number of strong cyclones reaching the Australian coastline will increase, and ‘super cyclones’, with an intensity hitherto unrecorded on the Australian east coast, may develop over the next 50 years Leslie et al(2007).Therefore despite a projected long term decrease in rainfall across most of Queensland, the projected increase in rainfall intensity could result in more flooding events.

  38. 288
    adelady says:

    Rod B My own suspicion is that Perth was the canary in the Hadley cell coalmine 30 years ago. We won’t really see this as a clearly defined system shift for another 10-20 years even though the effect is obvious, but I think that will be the eventual analysis.

    “Rainfall declines have significant implications for water availability. For example, inflows into Perth’s dams averaged 338 Gigalitres per year between 1911-1974 and only 81.8 GL between 2001-2006.” 250GL less in just 25 years. See the last graphic on this page.

    The main reason for my view is that I grew up in Adelaide and I still live here. It used to be reliably predictable that whatever weather Perth had would arrive here 2-4 days later and then move fairly smoothly, and gradually southeast, across to Melbourne. Now, even if Perth gets some rainfall, the weather system often moves sharply southeast so that even the southwest corner of Tasmania can miss out. I knew about these changes. And then I discovered the Hadley cell and the expected poleward movement of weather systems. Hey presto!

    There was also some mention a couple of years ago about Antarctic circulation patterns changing (due to the ozone hole?) and thereby dragging Southern Ocean circulation away from the Australian mainland. Feel free to correct me – I’m working from memory alone just now.

  39. 289
    Ray Ladbury says:

    D. Price@285.

    Source? I’d be surprised if there were a peer-reviewed paper that predicted this?

    Also, if you’ve ever seen an arroyo in Arizona during the monsoon, you know that drought does not preclude occasional flooding. In fact, the more impulsive the precipitation, the less effective it is at replenishing groundwater.

  40. 290
    Rod B says:

    Thanks for the help One Anonymous Bloke, adelady, FurryCatHerder, et al. It still doesn’t address the year switch from drought to deluge. While miles from conclusive regarding the drying in SW Australia, One Anonymous Bloke’s reference supported a bit by the other explanations does pose an interesting physics-based hypothesis deserving of further thought.

  41. 291

    Rod B,

    Variations in Hadley cells strikes me as too broad, general and high level…

    That’s fine, but that’s an emotion. That’s eyeballing the problem. Would you send a man to the moon by looking at the rocket and saying “yeah, that looks about the right size, let’s give it a try” and then launching some poor soul into the sky based on how it “strikes” you?

    What in global warming, even if not uniform, would cause the Hadley cell to shift a few degrees — other than the 20-30 degrees it shifts seasonally anyway?

    This is a question you should answer yourself by doing some research. There is a lot of material out there on Hadley Cells and global warming.


    From Lu (2007),

    A consistent weakening and poleward expansion of the Hadley circulation is diagnosed in the climate change simulations of the IPCC AR4 project. Associated with this widening is a poleward expansion of the subtropical dry zone. Simple scaling analysis supports the notion that the poleward extent of the Hadley cell is set by the location where the thermally driven jet first becomes baroclinically unstable. The expansion of the Hadley cell is caused by an increase in the subtropical static stability, which pushes poleward the baroclinic instability zone and hence the outer boundary of the Hadley cell.

    If you don’t understand this, you need to do enough studying of the underlying concepts to do so. You don’t get to just wave your hands dismissively and say “sounds like hooey to me, I can’t understand it, so it’s magic and it’s not true.”

    Separately, look at a globe. The seasonal location of the Hadley Cells is directly tied to the location of the sun (i.e. south in December, north in June). This powerpoint has a few images that make that clear.

    Next look at a globe versus this cut away of the cells. Look at the distribution of arid areas on the globe versus the cells.

    Obviously, there are a lot of factors (ocean circulation, land masses, etc) which go into where precipitation does or does not fall, but it’s also quite obvious after doing the comparison that Hadley Cells have a huge amount to do with precipitation patterns. The middles of the cells tend to be arid, while the edges are wet.

    Now, look at Australia. Notice how it’s mostly desert? Notice how the north is just at the northern edge of the Hadley Cell, where things just start to turn from very, very wet to very, very dry — and they usually get some rain? And then notice how Southern Australia is just on the other side of the cell, where things tend to get wet again, and they get rain? And most of Australia in between is arid desert in the center of the cell?

    So, expand the cell. Shift it a bit. The north could get a lot of rain that previously fell in the ocean to the north. The south could stop getting rain that traditionally does fall. Since the cells shift seasonally, and there will be more moisture in a warmer atmosphere, and more evaporation at the warmer equator, when rain does come (i.e. when the Hadley Cell is in the right position for a region at the right time of year) that rainfall can be markedly greater.

    It’s not that hard to understand… unless you simply don’t try, because you just plain want to look for reasons not to.

  42. 292

    Rod B,

    Pertaining to that long post…

    Of course, all of this is still just eyeballing it, so it’s not strictly right. Someone needs to put a lot of time into thinking about this and researching it… and what do you know, people have! 5,160 papers/articles worth since 2005!

    And no, this doesn’t mean they can accurately predict where every drop of rain will fall in the next ten years. But it’s not all hand waving, either.

  43. 293
    Rod B says:

    Bob (Sphaerica), if a guy shows me a bottle rocket he just bought at the fireworks display and tells me he is going to launch a guy to the moon on it, I most certainly can credibly wave my hands and say “I don’t think so…. it doesn’t look detailed or big enough to me,” after just eyeballing it. Just as I can reasonably say ‘global warming causing changes in tropical winds, convection, and moisture, causing the Hadley cell to shift over 20-50 years’ sounds too broad and general to be an answer why eastern Australia was in a drought last year and had deluges this year.

  44. 294
    Maya says:

    But Rob, the guy with the bottle rocket was *trying* to explain rocket propulsion to you, and you’re still waving your hands, going “I don’t think so…” Bob’s explanation made sense; what’s the problem?

  45. 295
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    Rod B #293: So you don’t like the short answer, and you don’t like the long answer (thank you very much Bob (Sphaerica), that was fascinating and informative). As far as I can see, your only course of action now is to delve into the science that people have pointed you to, get an in-depth understanding of it, then come up with your own soundbites to explain complex phenomena.

  46. 296
    SecularAnimist says:

    One Anonymous Bloke wrote: “… your only course of action now is to delve into the science that people have pointed you to …”

    Well, of course that’s not the only course of action available to Rod.

    For example, he might also ignore the science that people have pointed him to, while continuing to maintain an ideological denial of the real problems of AGW behind a facade of “skepticism”.

  47. 297

    Rod B,

    …if a guy shows me a bottle rocket…

    I wasn’t talking about bottle rockets, I was talking about actually sending people to the moon, as in “you wouldn’t undertake such a venture without getting a lot more specific than eyeballing the capabilities of the rocket.”

    Just as I can reasonably say ‘global warming causing changes in …’ sounds too broad and general…

    So what you are basically doing is equating climate science (the daily labors of thousands and thousands of scientists, over decades and decades and decades) to bottle rockets… because you personally don’t understand it.

    Let’s be clear about this. Climate scientists do not have a problem with this. You do. They understand it. You don’t. It falls to you to educate yourself, not to declare other people ignorant (or flawed in their thinking) because you sort of feel like maybe what they’re saying isn’t, you know, quite right, and all.

    You asked a question. You got a reasonable answer. Now you want to hem and haw and stick to whatever position you very religiously adopted before even asking the question.

    Don’t you see the problem here?

  48. 298
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    Bob (Sphaerica) #291 Are you saying that GCM’s predicted changes to the Hadley cells, and now we’re seeing those changes? That would be quite an accomplishment.

  49. 299
    Daniel Bailey says:

    Re: One Anonymous Bloke

    Actually they did:
    Prediction=Quan et al. 2002
    Confirmation=Fu et al. 2006, Hu and Fu 2007

    Source here

    The Yooper

  50. 300

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