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Scientific confusion

Filed under: — gavin @ 16 November 2011

“We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”


I read this quote on a wall on Mark Cane’s office at LDEO (Columbia) many years ago and always wondered where it came from. He found it as an epigram in a book on ‘Stochastic Differential Equations‘ by Bernt Øksendal where it is sourced to a sign outside the mathematics reading room at Tromsø University. The actual source appears to be a 1951 report on an education workshop by Earl C. Kelley, a professor at Wayne University (sleuthing by QI).


55 Responses to “Scientific confusion”

  1. 51
    Chris R says:

    Eric, Inline response to #49,

    Thanks. The key issue is whether total emissions (and amplifying ‘natural’ emissions) get to the mass of the PETM. We’re massively exceeding the rate, so I do accept that they may.

    More from Skeptical Science.

    The authors find that the maximum PETM rate of emission for organic carbon as the source is equivalent to 6.2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, and for methane as the source, 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. For comparison: 2010 human-carbon emissions were 30.6 billion tonnes.

    So if organic carbon was the source, current emissions are almost 5 times faster than the PETM, and if methane, current emissions are rising 27 times faster.

  2. 52
    CM says:

    John McCormick (#47),

    I dont’t think I was trying to reassure anyone, more like trying to get them worried on a higher level and about more important things—to paraphrase the OP.
    ;-)
    Note that some amount of this particular kind of stuff has probably been hitting the fan for thousands of years during the present interglacial, as bits of permafrost left on the Siberian shelf by the last glaciation have thawed and eroded, fizzing methane. Recent research shows there’s lots more of this going on than we thought. But do present observations mostly show something that has been going on all the time, just without scientists freezing their butts off to observe it? Or do they show an acceleration signaling the onset of a potentially huge anthropogenic carbon feedback, as one would rather expect now that we’re defrosting the Arctic? If so, slow and insidious, or fast and catastrophic?

    From Shakhova (2010):

    The annual outgassing from the shallow [East Siberian Arctic Shelf] … is of the same magnitude as … existing estimates of total CH4 emissions from the entire world ocean (…). Although the oceanic CH4 flux should be revised, the current estimate is not alarmingly altering the contemporary global CH4 budget. These findings do change our view of the vulnerability of the large sub-sea permafrost carbon reservoir on the ESAS; the permafrost “lid” is clearly perforated, and sedimentary CH4 is escaping to the atmosphere.

    There remains substantial uncertainty regarding several aspects of the CH4 release… To discern whether this extensive CH4 venting over the ESAS is a steadily ongoing phenomenon or signals the start of a more massive CH4 release period, there is an urgent need for expanded multifaceted investigations into these inaccessible but climate-sensitive shelf seas north of Siberia.

    Scientists rushing to sea isn’t the real story, the real story’s in what they publish when they get back. Eventually.

  3. 53
    John McCormick says:

    RE # 52, CM, I get your point in the last paragraph. Thanks

  4. 54
    wili says:

    I hesitate to add more about methane here, but it is not completely off topic, since it is a good example of how frustrating scientific uncertainty about important developments can be.

    This was one of the first articles that really got me concerned that something a feedback may have started:

    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-08/nocs-woc081409.php

    “Warming ocean contributes to global warming

    The warming of an Arctic current over the last 30 years has triggered the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from methane hydrate stored in the sediment beneath the seabed. Scientists at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Birmingham, Royal Holloway London and IFM-Geomar in Germany have found that more than 250 plumes of bubbles of methane gas are rising from the seabed of the West Spitsbergen continental margin in the Arctic, in a depth range of 150 to 400 metres. Methane released from gas hydrate in submarine sediments has been identified in the past as an agent of climate change. The likelihood of methane being released in this way has been widely predicted.”

    But it was the possibility that this process was happening in the much shallower (average ~50 m) area of the vast (~200 k^2)East Siberian Arctic Shelf that really had me concerned since the methane would have little time to dissolve into the ocean before entering the atmosphere there. Toward the bottom of this page, you can link to Shakhova’s slide presentation on this from last year:

    http://symposium2010.serdp-estcp.org/Technical-Sessions/1A

    Slides 33 and 34 are key. 33 shows the basic level, without figuring in sudden releases or ‘fluxes’, from the area is ~8 Tg/year. But 34 shows that the directly measured fluxes show methane releasing at up to three orders of magnitude faster than the general rate, and if higher rate were to be extended throughout the region, it would add up to ~3.5 Gt/year just from ESAS. I take these, then, to mark out the range of possible current (at the time) emissions–certainly higher than the 8 Tg figure but presumably much lower than the hypothetical ~3.5 Gt figure. But that leaves quite a wide range–was it closer to 10 Tg or 100 Tg or larger?

    So that was the rate already at least a year ago. But then this year there was news of a ‘dramatic’ increase in this rate and “massive discharges” that required scientist to go up “at short notice.” Does this mean a 10% increase? 50%? 100%? An order of magnitude? Two?…

    http://en.rian.ru/science/20110902/166364635.html

    http://arctic.ru/news/2011/10/data-arctic-methane-will-be-available-six-months

    I’m hoping for the lower ranges in both areas. Certainly there is no evidence from monitoring stations that multiple gigatons of methane are now coming out of these areas.

    http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/dv/iadv/graph.php?code=BRW&program=ccgg&type=ts

    If this is part of a feedback mechanism implying exponential growth, even moderate initial increases are worrying.

    The whole thing is, in some ways, too depressing to even contemplate. But, like a train wreck, it’s something I can’t seem to take my eyes off. So any info or insights would be appreciated.

  5. 55
    Jerry Dickens says:

    Good grief! I thought we decided as a community to stop discussing seafloor methane and pre-Quateranry climate. In only complicates matters, and forces us to reconsider how carbon and sulfur cycle in the time domain.

    There have been a string of recent papers on the PETM and other past hyperthermal events of the Early Paleogene. Rob Deconto and colleagues (I think) will have another coming out prominently very soon.

    About two years ago, Gavin Schmidt suggested I write a post on this topic. I guess maybe I should take him up on the task. I had no idea it was so interesting to others.

    I wrote my latest views on the topic in an online, open-access journal (COP), so that anyone, anywhere with a computer can read.
    http://www.clim-past.net/7/issue3.html (p. 831-846).

    I guess this have to suffice until I get a few free days and Gavin’s go-ahead … might also need David Archer’s blessing ☺


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