Ford addresses climate change, fails to take responsibility

I don't believe in using the "new year" as an opportunity for reflection. Instead, we should reflect on our lives and society every day, and try to make decisions that we can defend and be proud of. For those of you who might think of the new year differently, a recent press release by Ford might provide some hope for the coming year [LINK]. The corporation has issued a report about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, and claims to be ready to do its part in minimizing emitted carbon dioxide. The report itself [LINK] reports on the progress Ford has made since 2000 in reducing GHG emissions, and says that they plan to do more. It seems like something to be optimistic about.

Don't forget though, that while Ford does now make the Ford Escape Hybrid, a SUV that gets a respectable 36 mpg (city, 31 hwy), it also produces the Lincoln Aviator (13 mpg city, 18 hwy) and the gigantic Ford Excursion for which I couldn't even find fuel economy numbers. I'm not saying this report is purely lip service, but like all giant corporations, Ford is mostly concerned with money, not carbon.

Just to end on an up note, it is nice to hear a corporation at least mention climate change as an important issue, and maybe that is a small victory that bodes well for the coming year.


Tropical storm Zeta, as in Catherine ... wuh?

Geez, I keep thinking the Atlantic tropical cyclone season is over, and new storms just keep forming. Tropical Storm Zeta formed recently [LINK] near the Azores. It's a weak, but pretty well organized. It's not supposed to strengthen much, and probably won't affect land in any important ways.

I am still having a lot of trouble believing that these horrendous hurricane seasons are really due only to something called the Atlantic multidecadal mode. The real upsetting part is that we won't solve the debate, at least not in a concrete way, for at least 10 years, and probably more like 25 years. Of course, if the hurricane "season" starts earlier and lasts longer every single year, some of the more skeptical hurricane experts might come around... we'll see.


the senate actually does something right?

While the House really dropped the ball by passing a bill that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the Senate seems to have stepped up a little, at least blocking that part of the bill [LINK].

Just to get very political and very opinonated for a moment...

What is the deal with Sen. Ted Stevens? The republican from Alaska seems bent on railroading domestic policy by getting billions of dollars wasted on huge projects in his home state. Remember the bridge to nowhere? [LINK] I can understand him wanting to get money into Alaska, but has this man no shame, and even worse no sense of pride in the natural (relatively unspoiled) beauty of his state? How can a state that has almost no people demand so much attention in Washington, DC? It is amazing.

Also, if you've been listening to any of the pundits or Congressional hearings, have you noticed that people trying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling have stopped saying "wildlife" or "refuge?" They like to use ANWR as an acronym, pronounced AN-war. It is an old, but useful tactic. I hate marketing.

Sorry for the politics, but it's my blog.

A related blog

Jeff Masters, a meteorologist at wunderground.com has blogged about the Atlantic multidecadal mode, with a figure showing the AMM index even [LINK]. Unfortunately he doesn't give his references, although I'm sure he isn't making anything up.

The weird thing is that he says, "One of the leading theories is that changes in the ocean's salt content causes a speed up or slow down of the Gulf Stream, due to the fact that density differences between lighter fresh water and heavier salty water drive weaker and stronger ocean currents, respectively. This circulation (called the "thermohaline circulation") is thought to cause the warm phase of the AMO and warmer Atlantic SSTs when it speeds up, and cooler SSTs and a cool AMO phase when it slows down." This doesn't actually make sense to me, and I think Masters just got a little confused about some terms. The gulf stream is a result of western intensification... also known as a western boundary current. It is almost entirely wind driven; basically the trade winds blow the water south and west over the tropical Atlantic and the Coriolis force, conservation of momentum, and the existence of the continent (stopping the water from going further west) all combine to make a very strong, narrow current, which we call the gulf stream. There are similar currents on all the major western boundaries. The thermohaline circulation, as its name tries to imply, is driven by density differences of sea-water that arise from differences in temperature and saltiness. Thus, the two currents are fundamentally different phenomena (wind (dynamics) versus density (thermodynamics) ). My guess is that Masters just shouldn't have said "gulf stream" at all, as the rest of the sentence seems to implicate the THC. Even so, it is a useful post, and a good blog.


exactly how a democracy should NOT work

Can you imagine a group of surgeons standing over a patient, arguing about how to operate? The patient is lying there, anesthetized and oblivious, while a group of highly trained doctors argue. One refuses to allow any procedure to be performed unless he is allowed to remove the appendix. Another demands a pacemaker be put in place, even though most of the doctors don't see any need for a pacemaker. The belligerence of the pro-pacemaker surgeons means that the other must accept this ridiculous "preemptive" procedure in order to even perform the originally intended work. So they argue through the night, with the patient lying there the whole time, chest open. Finally, as they all get a bit punchy, wired on caffeine, sleep deprived, they reach an agreement. They'll do it. Now that they've worn themselves out by arguing about what to do, they go to work. One goes toward the appendix, since he added it to the pacemaker agreement, and some others start installing a pacemaker, having won that battle. The rest go to work on the original procedure, only to realize that all the space in the operating room, and all the surgical tools, are being used by the surgeons who are doing the other procedures.

Can you imagine that?

Well, that's pretty much how I view this weekend's marathon session of congress. I think the huge military spending bill is kind of like the pacemaker... unnecessary, but they had numbers so they get to do it. Drilling in the arctic national wildlife refuge is kind of like the appendix. Well, I suppose it would be more like removing the spleen. It's there and doesn't do anything, but if you go in and mess with it, all kinds of hell could break loose. Maybe my metaphor could use some work, but it's at least as good as the legislation that was being rewritten all weekend. How are laws passed in this manner ever going to do any good for our society? Anyway, a description of the proceedings is available in the NYTimes, or any other newspaper today. Here's a little taste:
"'A can't-pass measure has been added to a must-pass measure in order for the Republicans to give an early huge Christmas gift to the oil companies of the United States,' said Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts." [LINK]

Great. Let's go get some oil!


America, hide your shame...

Today's NYTimes editorial, titled America's Shame in Montreal is an indictment of the behavior of the US delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal. Here's a short bit:
"For its part, the Bush administration deserves only censure. No one expected a miraculous conversion. But given the steadily mounting evidence of the present and potential consequences of climate change - disappearing glaciers, melting Arctic ice caps, dying coral reefs, threatened coastlines, increasingly violent hurricanes - one would surely have expected America's negotiators to arrive in Montreal willing to discuss alternatives." [LINK]

The UN is touting Montreal 2005 as a success, with "more than forty decisions that will strengthen global efforts to fight climate change." [LINK]

It's hard for me to really know if anything interesting or substantial has come from Montreal 2005, since it was hardly covered in the crappy mainstream media, which has been my only real source of news lately because I don't have much time to read the in-depth coverage that I'd really like to. My first guess though is that nothing particularly interesting happened at the conference. Most likely a few countries (Canada, Britain, etc) agreed to keep pushing for more responsible energy policies, but no one agreed to actually do more than they are supposed to already be doing. The US acted like a spoile child, "In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the United States finally agreed to allow new discussions, but only after everyone consented to a huge escape clause saying any talks will be 'open and nonbinding,' and 'will not open any negotiations leading to new commitments.'" [LINK]

In the meantime, prominent climate scientists are starting to think about real-life The Day After Tomorrow scenarios. James Hansen, NASA Goddard, has an editorial essay in Climate Change that goes through some rather dire scenarios [LINK]. Essentially, he's worried that the response time of large icesheets (Greenland mostly, but also Antarctica) is only 100-300 years, which is similar to the combined time it takes for humans to see the climate really changing and then do something about their climate-changing activity. Hansen sees a scenario where water pools on the tops of the ice, causing melting downward, lubricating huge chunks of ice sheet, which then break off and plunge into the ocean. Sea levels could rise by several meters in a few years, displacing many millions of people in a short amount of time. It isn't a likely scenario, but we can't yet rule it out.


A quick article about hurricanes and global warming

I just came across a nice article in The Independent about the possible link between global warming and tropical cyclones [LINK]. Steve Connor writes a good summary of this summer's hurricane season and scientific debate.


Harlan Watson, environmentalist

There's a little story in the Washington Post, by Juliet Eilperin, about Harlan Watson being potentially tied to ExxonMobil [LINK]. He's in Montreal right now as a "climate negotiator," where according to Eilperin he's "spent the past week in Montreal touting the administration's record on climate change." Apparently he's not that into talking about the Kyoto Protocol, or even what happens when it expires.

I'd like to be outraged, or even frustrated by these kinds of stories, but it is hard when we've had 5 years of it, with 3 more coming.

Ronald Brownstein is trying to keep spirits up by writing about state-level initiatives are getting greener [LINK], but it's a hard sell these days. I suppose we should all just start doing everything we can as individuals, and support these local and state-level efforts. Maybe that can do enough to get us to the next administration, which will hopefully be a little more environmentally conscious.


the end of hurricane season


Moments after I posted this little good-bye to the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, I learned tropical storm Epsilon had formed. Yes, the 26th named storm. It doesn't really have the nice ring that alpha, beta, and delta had, but it is impressive. It shouldn't do much, but that's what we all said about Delta. Here's a little pic of baby Epsilon; it is the blob of maximum water vapor in the middle of the Atlantic, on about the latitude of South Carolina.

As this record hurricane season finally ends, I have to admit that even I am stunned by the level of Atlantic tropical cyclone activity. Tropical storm "Delta" has claimed several lives in a tragin end to a series of tragic - and epic - storms [LINK]. The season included two of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record (Katrina and Rita), and devastated not only the Gulf Coast, but large parts of central America (e.g., Stan).

Will next summer be even worse? Probably not. The last two years have probably been exceptionally strong. However, it is likely that next year will be a severe hurricane season. It doesn't matter whether this activity is due to the active phase of the "Atlantic multi-decadal mode" or because an anthropogenic trend in large-scale conditions, either way the short term (next 5-10 yesrs) is clear. Big, strong, and frequent tropical cyclones. And with more and more people living along coasts in ever more expensive homes, the total damage in dollars will continue to get worse with every season.

Rumor has it that there are some very interesting (and controversial) findings about to be published in the scientific literature about the global warming signal in tropical cyclone activity. I'm going to try to follow up on these rumors, and if I find out what is coming, I'll try to give a little synopsis here.


Climate news

Since I've been too busy to post lately, here's a link to New Scientist's climate change section: [LINK]. Hopefully I'll be able to do more than this soon, but work is piling up faster than I can take care of it.... it's almost like studying climate is important or something.


Misconceptions about climate change, or a Chinese conspiracy?

While waiting for a script to run today, I started browsing through the Climate Ark news feed [see Links Menu, right], and came across a crazy looking entry:

Global warming began over 5,000 years ago
: "A SINO-AMERICAN team of scientists has disputed the traditional thinking that global warming, partly resulting from excessive timber cutting, is a relatively recent modern phenomenon %u2014 they argue it's at least 5,000 years old." (emphasis added)

Reading this article, distributed by the Chinese news agency Xinhua, I couldn't understand what it had to do with global warming. This confusion resulted in spite of, or maybe because the article expressly ties archaeological data about the use of plants in Chinese towns 5000 years ago to carbon dioxide emissions.

The argument in the article says that "prehistoric" humans burned lots of wood for cooking, lighting, and making things. This required a lot of wood, requiring a lot of lumbering. Someone referred to as "Luan" says that the increase in carbon dioxide probably started before the industrial age.

Now, this was hard for me to believe. There are just so, so many things wrong with this story. Thinking maybe it had just slipped through the cracks, I looked around a little bit, and found that the story had made it onto Yahoo! News and also some site called ArchaeologyNews.org. It was also slightly rewritten on a site called sina.com [LINK], starting with the bold statement: "It is common sense nowadays that excessive carbon dioxide in the air caused by excessive lumbering leads to global greenhouse effects" (emphasis added). A search through GoogleNews shows 4 articles (Times of India, Xinhua, Shanghai Daily, People's Daily Online) carrying the same story.

What is wrong here?

First, there is the issue of "scientists" overstepping their expertise. This is an archaeology project, not a paleo-climate reconstruction. They are perfectly welcome to explore how plants were used in ancient China; that is a great project, and is probably very interesting for archaeology and sociology, and maybe even as an application of geochemistry and geochronology, but it is a far cry from doing a paleo-reconstruction of the composition of Earth's atmosphere. In fact, we have very good reconstructions (cf., the Mann et al. papers), which don't show much change in the pre-industrial years. There is some before the 1800s, but I don't think it is statistically significant.

Second, the report is focused on global warming attributable to cutting down trees. It goes further, suggesting that ancient people could have cut down enough trees to change atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. Okay, burning biomass releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but that carbon dioxide came from the atmosphere in the first place... there isn't much contribution unless you get carbon out of the lithosphere (rocks, like coal). It is still uncertain how much carbon ecosystems can suck out of the atmosphere and put into the lithosphere (by dying and rotting). Most people who think about these issues are dealing with areas like the Amazon rainforest and huge coral reefs, not the edges of forests in ancient China. The amount of wood harvested by ancient peoples, even integrated over all societies from 10,000 years ago to 1000 years ago, can't compete with what modern humans are doing. We have industrialized deforestation, whereas ancient people used what they could by chopping down each tree and dragging it back to the village. The assertion in the article is ludicrous.

Third, the article gives no reference and few hints for finding the study itself. In the Xinhua article, one name appears, "Kuan Fengshi," and one other one ("Luan") which after some investigation must be referring to Luan Fengshi, the actual name of someone at the university cited. I was able to find a web page in english that describes the project [LINK]. There are two English and two Chinese publications, but they are both about surveying the area, not about plants used by the ancient inhabitants. So there's no credibility here.

Finally, is there some connection between this disinformation and a Chinese interest in climate change being discredited (or at least weakened)? Afterall, China is a huge energy user, and to keep their economy growing at the crazy rate it has achieved lately, they can't stop to make things too green. I don't have any evidence that this is the case -- i.e., that China is purposely releasing misleading news about climate science -- but I think it is worth putting out there for now.


Pollution of a different kind

I just read this little Andy Rooney-esque rant on wired: [LINK]. It ends with a good line: "The world is noisy enough without adding completely useless aural pollution to the mix. So knock it off, wouldja?"

I agree. Noise pollution is out of control, both inside and outside cities. Living in LA has been a loud 4 years. Whenever I get away from the constant cacophony of loud, distracting noises, I am berated by a not-quite-white noise the fills the background. I live near the intersection of I-405 and I-10, and there the background drone is constant. At 4:00AM I wake up and hear traffic. At 9:00AM I wake up and hear traffic. The only relief is from other, louder noises.

That is all. We should learn to be quieter in all respects.


"Where's the beef?" ( or "Why vegetarians are just better people")

This is again off topic, but interesting in a tangential sort of way. It does seem like I've gone away from climate-related posts more and more as I became more and more dedicated to the idea of being a "topical" blog. Oh well.

Anyway, I just read a post by George Monbiot about beef in the UK and imported beef from Brazil. I like to read Monbiot because he's got references, but I also have to admit that I like to see things I know in print, e.g.,
We shouldn't be eating beef at all. Because the conversion efficiency of feed to meat is so low in cattle, there is no more wasteful kind of food production."

George Monbiot, Are You Paying to Burn the Rainforest? [LINK]

Basically, Monbiot is demonstrates a shortcoming of globalization. Even if people in Britain aren't directly buying Brazilian beef, or if they only buy some, the beef is getting exported from Brazil. Whether it goes to catering companies, stores, restaurants, dog-food companies, whatever, the beef is moving out of Brazil. That leaves less domestic beef in Brazil, which means there's more demand for beef production, and more impetus for people to burn down the Amazon to create pastures. By eating beef, people are indirectly burning down the Amazon. That destroys species, and might have serious large-scale environmental consequences.

[I had a paragraph here about how destroying the tropical rainforests could have far-reaching impacts on weather and climate, but I've decided to leave that for another time.]

Also, a couple lines in Monbiot's article about the treatment of workers on the beef ranches in Brazil reminded me of migrant farm workers in USA, especially California. For a quick introduction to that topic, check out Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness, section 2.

If you happen to make it down to this point of the post, good for you! But also, I'm thinking about trying to organize my thoughts better for the blog. Right now it is whatever strikes my fancy, and then a few minutes of stream-of-consciousness writing. I've noticed that other blogs (some at least) have been doing a better job of writing a coherent "article," and that seems like a good idea. I'm not sure that I can really do it, but I'm thinking about trying. If you have any climate-related issues that you think I should tackle, leave a comment.


Tropical cyclone Stan

It was easy to miss the category 1 hurricane that made landfall in Central America a few days ago, mostly because the media in the USA doesn't report on storms that don't threaten Americans. ... um, well, that is North Americans.... um, I mean, well, I guess I mean people in the United States of America.

So while the tropical system called 'Tammy' is dumping some rain on the southeast, Stan dumped rain across central America, including large regions of deforested moutains. When forests are ripped out of the mountainsides, there's not much holding the top-soil down, and torrential rains can easily cause landslides. That's what is happening across the region now. Here's a link to a BBC article about the devastation: [LINK].

Also, according to Jeff Master's blog [LINK], there is a lot of unsettled activity in the tropical Atlantic, so look for Vince to form sometime next week. There's a good chance there will be more storms than names this year, meaning that it will be a banner year for Atlantic tropical cyclones.


Look out, even the cowboys are starting to believe

This post doesn't really have much content, since the story was already covered here, but a little website called YubaNet.com has a story about the German study [LINK] discussed previously [PermaLINK]. I just wanted to post this one because YubaNet.com is apparently a news website for northern California, where cowboys (yes, you could call them hicks) still often outnumber normal people. When they are reporting on climate change, we must be experiencing a social paradigm shift. Perhaps this is part of the pre-propoganda tactics that were mentioned on Rhinocrisy [LINK]. Eventually everyone will be comfortable with the idea that the world is warming, and maybe then we can do something about it. Of course, it might already be too late, as I think Geoge Monbiot believes [LINK].

I said, "Good day!"


Germans are on board!

A lot of news stories are starting to come out referencing studies going into the next IPCC assessment of climate. This is the same report that came out in 2001 (3rd assessment report), and twice before that. The idea is that about every 5 years a lot of the experts in climate science get together, collect a lot of scientific papers together and try to extract a few basic conclusions about what we know about climate. [FYI: Every report has had the same conclusion: human activity has warmed the surface of Earth, and will continue to do so unless drastic actions are taken immediately. See also Hansen et al. (1981)]

Today there's a report about a German contribution [LINK]. Apparently one of the best climate models in Germany, and the world, is used for a projection of future climate, and it doesn't look good. They find rising sea-levels and hotter summers in Europe; there are longer droughts and bigger floods. This is all becoming redundant (at least in terms of the overall picture). While climate scientists are trying to work out details, there is such a strong consensus on global warming that it is a non-issue at this point.

Also, Joseph Smagorinksky is dead [LINK]. Smagorinsky had a huge influence on the development of climate models, not to mention demonstrating the usefulness of computers in the early days, and helped to establish the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton. GFDL has been one of the foci of climate research in the USA for decades now.

On an unrelated point, a week ago I went to see Al Gore give a talk about climate change. It was being filmed for a DVD that is in the works. For the most part, it was an impressive demonstration. I hope the DVD will match the presentation, and that it will be viewed by people who don't know about climate change, i.e., people who are exposed to politically motivated anti-science views of climate change and don't know to be skeptical of them. An Al Gore in 2008 website has the text of a more political talk about climate change[LINK].

Browsers browsers everywhere

I never know what browser to use.

I don't use MSIE. Not just because I don't use any MS products (really, not even Office... can you believe it?). Not just because it has myriad security problems. Those are true though. It also isn't just a protest, really. For the past few years, MSIE was left behind, tasting the dirt flung into its face by better browsers like Firefox and its mozilla predecessors. Recently I think I heard that MSIE has tabbed browsing now. Yay! Welcome to 2001, Microsoft, glad you could make it.

Anyway, I'm vascillating between three (sometimes four) browsers now. The first one is the default Apple browser, Safari. Other browsers claim to be the fastest, but just from every day experience, Safari is fast. It is simple, and doesn't try to do too much. It has tabs and a download manager. The bookmarks manager is clumsy though. The bookmarks bar is nice, but ordinary. The thing that makes me always go back to it is that integration/cooperation with the operating system. I can drag and drop or cut and paste just about anything. I think there's RSS support of some kind in the Tiger edition, but I'm still using Panther for now.

A while back I started playing with Firefox. It is slick. There's something that feels smooth and glossy about using Firefox. It has that RSS support that always seems like such a good idea. (and it is). It has tabs. It has a download manager. It's bookmark system is simple, but not great. Like Safari it has that nice little google search bar in the address bar. It doesn't act quite as nicely with OS X though... keystrokes are different and things don't paste quite as well. The only other downside is that it sometimes -- only sometimes -- seems sluggish when loading, and it has even become unresponsive a few times.

A cousin of Firefox, Camino is also a slick little browser. It is smaller and faster than the fox. It has tabs and bookmarks and download managers and all that. In fact, overall, this browser might be the best bang for the buck. The problems are with little things. Forms don't quite work sometimes, or pages look a little wrong, with text floating over and out of frames. It doesn't do RSS either. Since it is so similar to Firefox, I wonder if it will continue to be developed.

Finally, I downloaded Opera the other day. I've only just started playing with it. It claims to be the fastest browser because it knows how to read pages better. I don't believe that. In fact, about the only gripe I've got with this browser so far is that it isn't very fast... apparently. It likes to put up the whole page at once, which is great for small pages, but if there's a lot of data to load, it has a slight delay. I do wonder if it is faster with a slower internet connection. Maybe for those people who are stuck with dialup speeds it has an advantage. I'm very impressed so far with the RSS capabilities (it has a reader built in). The keystrokes are different from the others, which makes me think a little more about how to navigate. The mouse gestures feature is very interesting, but might not be quite as useful as you think at first. It has a notes tool that might be useful, and a links tool that could be to some people. Oh, and have you ever accidently closed a page and then screamed out, "no.... wait!" as it closes forever? Well, Opera has a built in backup for that. Close the page? Just click on the little trash bin, and there it is, waiting for you to reopen it. I'm still in the honeymoon phase right now, but as I see it, Opera has the potential to win me over, and make me get rid of my dock icons for Safari and Firefox.

I know this post is random and off topic, but browsers are important. Imagine what the world would be like if we all used MSIE5.5... [shudder]. Comments and suggestions are welcome, as long as you don't recommend MSIE.


The King Mum speaks...

So you've probably seen this already, but you just have to read the quotes by Barbara Bush: [LINK]. I won't make comments, as it is just a cheap shot at this point, and if far from the discourse I try to pursue on this blog.


NCPA full of poop

Just a heads up to everyone: The "National Center for Policy Analysis" is a right-wing, pro-big-business propoganda machine. It is that simple. They are posting tons and tons of "press releases" and "statements" and "news stories" and whatnot that downplay climate change. They are attacking the science, bashing the scientists, giving credence to discredited research, trying to talk around the problem, ignoring the problem, and generally just misinforming the public. If you see the NCPA as a source of anything, either disregard it or get a second (unbiased) opinion. If this organization gains any popularity with the mainstream media, it will be a great disservice to the public, increasing ignorance of the basic, proven science involved with climate change.

Time for Plan B.... Jesus does abortions

Ouch, that is a rough headline.

Chris Mooney [LINK] has an op-ed in the LATimes today [LINK] about the FDA railroading science to instead follow a more theological approach to family planning. Mooney is the author of The Republican War on Science, a book I'm very interested in reading, but haven't had the chance just yet. Look for his name on some very interesting pieces around the web, and he's also doing a lot of book publicity right now so he's pretty visible. I don't know anything about the FDA or Plan B, so I can't comment on the science directly, but the story is both interesting and remeniscent of recent science vs. special interests stories, so I thought I'd throw it out there.


Again with the cyclones

The current issue of Science has an article about tropical cyclones in a warming world. It can be found on the Science site [LINK], or on Peter Webster's web site [LINK]. Here's the info:
Webster, P.J., G. J. Holland, J. A. Curry, and H.-R. Chang, 2005: Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment, Science, 309 (5742), 1844-1846.

The findings are actually not too surprising given the recent studies reported here and all over the news. The study looks at the last 30+ years of tropical cyclone frequency and intensity and does a statistical analysis of it, comparing it to SST. There is a warming SST throughout the tropics, but there doesn't seem to be a significant relationship to more frequent cyclones, except in the north Atlantic. However, there is a significant trend toward more intense cyclones (category 4 and 5) over the same time and in all parts of the tropics. The maximum intensity isn't increasing, at least as measured by maximum wind speed, but there are more and more big cyclones.

For those of you who don't mind reading technical writing, check out the article. It has lots of references to other relevant work, including the scientific basis for the controversy over this topic.

The authors can't rule out long-term oscillations as the cause of the trend, but their statisitics seem to point to a much longer period than the literature has usually found in cyclone activity. The conclusion is that the number of hurricanes doesn't seem to be related to the warming SSTs (and thus global warming), but the strength of those hurricanes is increasing, and is probably related to global warming. This is important for people because it tells us that we need to prepare for more Katrina-like storms in the future; not just in New Orleans, but across the entire gulf coast and southeastern coast. Other parts of the world also need to prepare for more large hurricanes, like Japan, Taiwan, and Mexico.

thinking ahead

I hope the developers of this resort [LINK] have taken sea-level rise into account. Otherwise, the whole thing will be under water in 50-100 years.

word verification activated

Because of the increasing number of spam comments on this blog, I've activated the word verification system provided by blogger. This will force commenters to type a word into a field before publishing the comment. This should stop automated comments. It is sad that we have to do this, and I think it must say something about our society. I will let you decide what it says though. Please don't stop leaving comments though, even though it is a few more keystrokes.

Moon stuff

A story in The Register [LINK] (and a lot of other new sources today) reports NASA is about to "lay out its plans" to send astronauts to the moon by 2018. That seems like a long time from now, but considering that the plans will call for a new vehicle (not designed), a launch platform (not designed), a lunar landing module on the platform (not designed), and plans for a small moon base (not even designed in concept, I guess), it sounds much more ambitious.

While I am not yet convinced that money should be diverted from basic science to manned exploration, I must admit that I am a big fan of the idea of space exploration/colonization. My main reason for being pro-space is because I'm convinced that the longer we keep our species (and let it be the plural form) isolated on this little rock, the more likely it is that we're going to get completely wiped out by a global catastrophe. I know, I sound crazy, but it is true. If Earth is "special" or at least rare in the universe, it is our responsibility to preserve biological diversity.

Back to the money. If this is really one of our top goals for the next couple decades, maybe it is time for a reorganization of resources. Let's have an exploration/colonization division and a science and research & development division within, say, NASA. Fund them separately, but have strong links and no impediments to the two working together. There is, afterall, a lot of overlap between them, especially at the beginning. However, NASA is not only devoted to space stuff; it also is a major source of research funds and resources for people studying Earth, and that should be maintained. Even as we learn more and more about the universe, there remain myriad unanswered questions about our own world. I don't say this out of self-preservation, I'm more than happy to go and work on problems involving other worlds, but we need to know how our own works now, and we don't.


Paradise lost.... and gone forever?

Today we can take a break from worrying about humans causing climate change. Instead, let's take a look at humans poisoning themselves and their planet. In a story in the LA Times, Gary Polakovic reports on the dismal quality of the air in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks [LINK]. The pollution, much of it ozone and NOx (apparently), is wafted into the moutains from the San Joaquin Valley below. I don't really think I need to comment on this, except to say that our society really should address these kinds of problems. Remember the old saying, it's a dirty bird that spoils its own nest.


why google is still going strong

Because they hire "the father of the internet" to a made up position called Chief Internetevangelist [LINK].


FEMA article

A story in the LATimes [LINK] by Peter G. Gosselin and Alan C. Miller tries to blame changes in Washington, D.C. beauracracy for deemphasizing FEMA's role in disaster prevention and mitigation. It's kind of interesting, but I imagine at least some FEMA people would have to disagree. I'd hope so anyway.

Taking responsibility for the safety of the populace

On Weather Underground (wunderground.com), Dr. Jeff Masters writes a short piece on the politics of natural disaster preparedness [LINK]. Here's a short exerpt: "[Hurricane Katrina was a] horror unimagined by anyone, except by every hurricane scientist and government emergency management official for the past forty years and more. It was a certainty that New Orleans would suffer a catastrophe like this."


Gerard Baker rips us a new one

Gerard Baker writes in TimeOnline.co.uk, "the intellectual looters have busied themselves with plundering half-truths and false analyses to advance one of their most precious agendas: global warming."

Before you get upset, go read the piece. It isn't factually incorrect. People are coming out of the woodwork to say that Katrina is a product of global warming. Of course, it is not, at least not directly. Even in my post earlier, I didn't really mention that. We've been down this road before. There isn't much theoretical or observational evidence that the frequency of tropical cyclones increases with global warming, but there is evidence that they become more intense. Katrina is not really an extraordinary storm; there have been lots of big, intense hurricanes in the past. I think it is likely that links between cyclone frequency and global warming will emerge eventually, probably just through a longer cyclone season... i.e., a longer time of optimal conditions for cyclogenesis will probably spawn more cyclones. It's also likely that stronger cyclones (as discussed here before, including discussion of Kerry Emanuel's recent study) will mean more named storms, and lay-people will interpret that as "more" cyclones when really they are just more intense.

Gerard Baker goes one to rip Bush a new one too. He chastises the US federal government for flubbing this disaster relief so far. I won't comment here, but I'll bet you can guess where I fall on the issue... you'd be pretty close.

Too much to cover.... a long post today

I know, I know, the western front has been quiet all too long. In fact, I've had two failed posts recently, and never corrected the problems.

After such a long absence from the "blogosphere," there is an overwhelming amount of ground to make up. I won't try here today.

Instead, I'd suggest looking at the "War Room" blog on salon.com [LINK]. You will need to watch an advertisement to get a day pass to salon, but it is very much worth it... since it will cost you nothing but a few seconds of time to watch a commercial for, e.g., the ACLU. Today Tim Grieve, the main (only?) author, is reporting on Katrina aftermath, including the poor response of the Bush administration. There's also an entry about a biologist at the FDA resigning because of the agency letting politics win over science [LINK]. So, that is the recommended reading for today.

On the science front, I don't have much time now to cover anything in any depth. However, if anyone happened to catch William M. Gray (Colorado St. U.) on Tucker Carlson's MSNBC show the other night, you might have been surprised to hear an atmospheric scientist literally decrying the human-caused global warming. I know I was. I'm unaware of any other atmospheric scientists, including climate scientists, hydrographers, geographers, and oceanographers, who don't believe human activities have led to the dramatic global warming over the past 50 years or so. William Gray, for all the good work he's contributed in the past, seems now incapable of separating personal beliefs from scientific evidence. His views are surprising, given his active role in tropical cyclone predictions, which are cited on several web sites, like CaribWx.com. There is an interview with Gray on discover.com [LINK] which starts out sounding fine, and then degenerates into Gray decrying global warming. Gray seems to link changes in ENSO, ocean circulation, and other global patterns with cyclone activity, but doesn't believe that there is any link between such phenomena and human activity. He claims most of the older atmospheric scientists are with him on this, but I doubt that very much. While it is true that Gray is a pioneer in cyclone prediction, his views on global warming are extremely outside the mainstream, and I have found no scientific evidence that his view are defensible. One of his co-authors, Chris Landsea, is another hurricane expert who doubts the connection between hurricanes and global warming, but I don't know about his beliefs regarding anthropogenic climate change (although I suspect they are within the mainstream).

In extraterrestrial news, Enceladus, Saturn. A small moon with a +5 K temperature anomaly at the south pole and an atmosphere of 90% water vapor that has the highest reflectivity of any object in the solar system (big objects only?), has been featured in a lot of news stories over the past couple days [LINK]. It is a weird little place, and the astrobiologists are starting to get interested, I'm sure.

On a related note, I can't wait until extraterrestrial life is confirmed on any of our nearby candidates (Mars, Europa, Enceladus). It will likely make some people rethink some very backward views of the universe.

Finally today... obviously I've spent more time on this post than I should have... I wanted to link to a few climate change related news items. In the UK, 18 organizations ranging from environmental groups to Christian groups have formed "Stop Climate Chaos," a poorly named movement aimed at putting pressure on the UK government to do more about global climate change [LINK][LINK]. Also out of the UK, the WWF-UK (a member of Stop Climate Chaos) has issued a report about possible risks to species around the coasts of the UK. Sea-surface temperature is increasing, and sea level is rising, which could impact many aspects of both animal and plant life in the not-too-distant future. A very, very interesting study has been published linking an increase in a fungal blight in British Columbian lodgepole pines to increased summer rainfall. While the increased rainfall would usually be a good thing for the trees, the fungus can kill them, and the fungus depends critically on summer moisture to disperse spores. There isn't local warming around the affected area, but the increased rainfall seems linked to a trend in the climatic record (and is apparently not due to any known oscillation/cycle) [LINK][BioScience]. James Reynolds reports in The Scotsman that seabirds around Scotland's coast have had a very poor breeding season, and is probably due to a decline in the population of sand eels, which are a common food source for the birds. The report suggests climate change may be playing a role, although no explanation for such an assertion is provided by the article [LINK].


the troposphere, captain, she's WARMING

Honestly, I didn't know there was any real controversy about whether the tropospheric temperature was rising or not. I'm sure I've seen some papers questioning trends, etc, but a few stories I've seen in the popular press [e.g.,Economist.com] lately have made it seem like the skeptics actually had a case.

That link to the Economist article (no byline) explains this controversy and how it might be getting resolved. Basically, numerical models of the atmosphere predict a large warming in the free troposphere (about 1 km to 10 km), associated with increased carbon dioxide. The observations of tropospheric temperature are known to be kind of flaky, but not bad. Those observations, from some satellites and weather balloons, show no warming comensurate with surface temperatures. What does that mean?

Well, let me tell you this. It does NOT mean that we don't understand global warming or the atmosphere. We can see warming at the surface, with reliable thermometers and long records. There's no question. That warming can not be independent from the free troposphere. I've recently seen some skeptical web sites saying the warming is concentrated over a few years in the early 70s, right before satellites go up, and that might explain why the satellite records show no trend. Wrong.

In the "current" (I have to verify that) issue of Science, three papers discuss how the instrumental record (of weather balloon data and satellite data) could be wrong. In two of them, when corrections are applied, the free troposphere is actually warming. All these findings will have to be verified by other people who work with observations, and this might even warrant re-running our reanalysis models with the correctly-calibrated data, but it seems that if this turns out to be true, we will have a much better picture of global warming so far. I doubt that it will improve our projections, since simulations were already doing the right thing.

More on this later.


more about hurricanes

CNN has an article about the same old debate that I've blogged about before: does global warming affect tropical cyclones? [LINK][old post]. Kerry Emanuel has a new study coming out in Nature that shows that hurricanes in the Atlantic and Pacific have gotten bigger and stronger over the past few decades, and apparently he's convinced it is global warming and not some natural cycle in hurricane intensity. Chris Landsea is quoted in the CNN piece sounding skeptical.

Chris C Mooney has already blogged about this story, even posting the abstract from the Nature paper [LINK]. He mentions the CNN story, but praises it. After actually seeing the abstract, I'd say the CNN story is talking up the controversy. Yes, Emanuel is linking the change to global warming, but he is also clearly mentioning the natural variability.

The study is actually a fairly straight forward exercise. Emanuel got some data from the US National Hurricane Center and the Japanese analog, as well as some SST data and reanalysis. He uses a more or less intuitive measure of the power dissipated by cyclones, and then simplifies it somewhat. That gives him an index of hurricane power through time, and he uses regions of high cyclogenesis to construct the time series. Once he's got the index, it is easy to just compare it with historic records of surface temperature and wind, etc. There are a few fishy details. For one, he smoothes everything with a 1-2-1 filter, and does it twice. He says that is to reduce the interannual variability, but it might blur things and make correlations higher. His statistics are based on linear regression coefficients, which is fine and good, but with the smoothing I'm a little concerned. I'd have liked to see him remove the interannual variability with a more sophisticated method. These are details though. The concerns raised by Landsea in the CNN article are not obvious, but might be available in the supplementary methods section on the Nature website, but I haven't had a chance to read it.

So my conclusion for now is to tentatively believe these results. The records are a little noisy, even with smoothing, but the trends are probably real and significant. The index used makes sense as a measure of hurricane destructiveness, and Emanuel is pretty careful about attributing the trend to anthropogenic causes. This should be a concern. Tropical cyclones are a very important part of the climate because they tranport so much energy out of the tropics, and between the ocean and atmosphere. If we are screwing with them, there are definite possibilities for feedbacks that might amplify climate change in ways that haven't been considered very well.


monsoons are serious

Reports from India are pointing to an intense Indian monsoon this year [Indian monsoon death toll soars], saying "the rain on Tuesday was the heaviest recorded in a single day in India... More than 65cm (26 inches) fell in Mumbai."

I just wanted to post this article as yet another reminder that global climate change doesn't just affect the temperature. As global warming progresses, it is extremely likely that regional monsoons will be affected (in different ways in different regions). Similarly, some studies suggest the intensity of monsoons, droughts, tropical and midlatitude cyclones will all be larger in a warmer climate, or at least that variability will increase.

This matters for more than forecasting weather. People's lives are at stake, especially for the millions of people (most of them poor, despite places like Malibu) who live in low-lying coastal areas that are impacted by seasonal inclement weather. In places like Mumbai (and Malibu, I suppose), severe weather events can cost millions of dollars in damages, affecting local and non-local economies. Climate change has far-reaching consequences, as you knew already.

Hush-hush Pacific climate agreement

Briefly looking at the news today, you will almost certainly have missed the announcement that the USA, China, India, Australia, South Korea, and Japan have made an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century. That is, unless you are scouring the Australian news sites, like the Sydney Morning Herald, which ran the headline: Pact halves emissions by the next century. The agreement is tentatively called the "Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate."

I can't say that I actually know anything about this agreement. One reason for that is that it is not being covered anywhere, especially in the major USA news sources. This was also pointed out by Triple Pundit today. VOA did carry a story about it, by Scott Bobb [LINK], but it says no more than the SMH story.

Update/Correction: The big USA news agencies do in fact have the story. For example, I found the Reuters report buried in the NYTimes International section. I still don't see the story at all in the LATimes though.

Okay, so we see that the story isn't being covered very well. Why is that? Well there are two possibilities. First, it might be because no one cares about covering important climate-economic policy news, but that is unlikely. Second, it could be because it is a non-story. I'm ignoring the possibility that there is a vast conspiracy to hide the Bush administration's concern over climate change. I think the second possibility is most likely. According to the stories I have found about this agreement, it is focused on techonology and sharing technology.

The idea is that by using more efficient technologies, greenhouse gas emissions can be cut significantly. We've started to hear this from the GWB administration recently, despite Dick Cheney's well-known distaste for conservation. The agreement doesn't seem to set limits or goals for cutting emissions, which means there's nothing to enforce. Apparently there will be a fund into which each member state will deposit money for R&D of new efficient technologies.

Using more efficient technologies is a great idea! I think we should do it right now. Maybe we could pass a bill that says that all new power plants must meet specified minimum standards. We could even build in a grandfather clause so that old power plants could keep working, and just install new, efficient equipment when they need to replace old equipment. Let's call it the Clean Air Act. Oh, wait, didn't we do that in 1970? IT DID NOT WORK. There are loopholes, and as long as the government allows dirty energy to be cheaper than clean energy (through massive subsidies on oil and coal, and poor enforcemnent of the Clean Air Act and others), there is no way that better technologies will be able to compete. Add to that the new "energy bill" that may be making its way through congress right now [LINK], and we see that this new Pacific agreement is, for the USA at least, nothing but lip service and business as usual.

When will the USA government wake up to the realities of climate change? When will it understand that energy security is not about military action in the Middle East? When will the largest economy, most lawful democracy, and most technologically advanced country in the world take its responsibility to be a world leader in the arena of climate change and alternative energy seriously? As far as I can see, the answer to this last question is only, when it isn't the USA.


a small story

I saw this link on the front page of the BBC news website today:

BBC NEWS | Africa | Polygamy no fun, admits Ethiopian

I'm not going to say anything about it, you can come to your own conclusions.


Brazil, a land of contrasts

Another story out of Wired, this one dated 16 May 2005, reports on the success Brazil is having with ethanol and biodiesel [LINK]. Usually people say that using biofuel is a zero sum gain as far as climate change goes, since it takes carbon from the living biosphere and puts it into the atmosphere, only to be reabsorbed by the biosphere as new crops are grown. So, if this holds, as it should I guess, Brazil is starting to get it. Unfortunately, Brazil is also destroying the Amazon at an alarming rate [LINK].

Baby steps forward in Africa (Rwanda)

In a story sent to me today by Mel S., Cyrus Farivar writes for Wired about Rwandan prisons recycling the human waste to generate first energy for cooking and lighting and second fertilizer for the prison gardens [LINK]. Basically they collect the wast and ferment it, collecting the methane produced and burning it as fuel. It's a good idea, and has won an Ashden Award. I have a sneaking suspiscion that they could streamline the process for efficiency, though, and produce much more energy and probably lose much less of the very, very greenhouse gas, methane. Definitely a good idea though, and a great story out of the heart of Africa.


Just some links to keep you happy

Hell-O blog-readers!

After coming into the office this morning after a relaxing, news-free weekend, I started reading news and getting agitated. Not all of it is climate related (which, is supposedly this blog's theme, supposedly), but I thought I'd just throw out some of the articles I've read this morning.

So the big news in the atmosphere is Hurricane Emily, which has now crossed the Yucatan. I wonder how close the eye came to the impact site of the meteor that ended the dinosaurs' reign? I suppose that the diameter of the hurricane is bigger than the crater, but amazingly has less energy than that unleashed by the impact. That's a lot of energy. For up to the date information, see the National Hurricane Center.

Slightly concerning for those of us with ties to environmental groups, the FBI has been keeping tabs on some groups that support environmental (or social or progressive) activism [LINK]. Why? More importantly than 'why?' is the more specific question, why are they doing so with anti-terrorism task forces and funds? This is blantantly politically motivated. This sort of behavior by the federal government is taking us back in time to more invasive and paranoid days, and simultaneously toward a very Orwellian future.

Getting less related, but still sort of following the lines of this blog, the solar car race is happening. There's a story in the SF Chronicle about it [LINK], with a focus on the Cal and Stanford teams. While racing this fragile little solar cars seems silly and just a diversion, the technologies and skills and press coverage that this race and these teams generate will help move away from the dirty hydrocarbon economy that we live in today. More information about the American Solar Challenge can be found at americansolarchallenge.org.

Moving away from environmental and climate issues completely, but staying in the realm of science, there's a news story about a new study of an extra solar planet that orbits three suns. None of the stories I read really do this story justice, but it sounds really interesting, and might have important ramifications for understanding how solar systems form [LINK].

And moving past hard science news, and into more murky waters, there's a column by Gina Piccalo in the LATimes about atheists in America. It's kind of a strange piece in the sense that it implies that there's a lot of stigma attached to being an atheist in today's USA [LINK]. No doubt there is in some places. No doubt that religious types feel various feelings ranging from confusion to pity to anger and hate and fear when confronted with real-life atheists. However, this probably isn't a serious issue for most atheists, at least in my experience. I'd guess that at least half the people I know are atheist or at least agnostic, and I don't think they are facing much difficulty due to non-belief. Well, I hope not. The column also mentions, and reminded me of, a great web site for those out there who don't invoke mystical forces in their world-view. It is called the Brights' Net, and I have to say that I think it is a clever and harmless site/idea. It is very non-confrontational, very pro-people, and doesn't condemn anyone.

So that's what's been on my mind today. Also, crude oil prices dropped this morning to about $57.20/barrel. However, as I understand it, today the whole market is adjusting to some kind of profit reports or something... so everything seems to have gone down a bit.


Oil... *sigh*

As I haven't really posted much lately, here's a little something from The End of Oil, which I'm just about done reading finally.

American cars and trucks burn two of verery three barrels of oil used in the United states -- and one of every seven worldwide -- a figure that is hardly surprising, given that economy standards have been frozen since 1988. Today, American cars need to achieve and average fuel economy of just 27.5 miles per gallon, while "light trucks," that hugely popular category that includes pickups and SUVs, need achieve only 20.5 miles per gallon. Even a modest improvement in fuel-economy standards -- say, 32 mpg for cars and 24 mpg for light trucks -- would by 2010 be saving 2.7 million barrels per day -- or nearly twice as much as could be pumped every day from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

While we can quibble over some of the numbers (and remember that this book is now about 2 years old, so things have gotten even worse), this is another in a big pile of examples out there about how we need to straighten up in terms of our energy consumption. Oil is going fast, and climate is changing faster. This is not a problem for the next generation or the one after that. These are issues that will be the MOST IMPORTANT IN THE WORLD in the next decade. This IS LIFE AND DEATH for thousands - maybe millions - of people who are alive today. Let's address things now and save the world... does that sound optimistic? Yeah, you didn't think I could do it, did you?


Are you callin' me out?

So, as my iMac continues to compile, I keep reading Nature articles to amuse myself. The editorial this week is about one Representative Joe Barton (R, TX), who has sent official-ish inquiries to several climate scientists asking for more information about their research [LINK]. Yes, that seems good, except we know that this is politically motivated, and Barton is looking for holes to exploit. He's not a very good environmentalist. Barton is using an article from the Wall Street Journal as his guide to understanding the science involved. Unfortunately, the WSJ is a right-wing rag, at least in its editorials. RealClimate.org has addressed a recent, related WSJ editorial (21 June 2005), refuting it's conclusions beyond a reasonable doubt [LINK]. The Nature editorial doesn't say too much, except that these are issues that are being exploited and politicized, and that they are too important to do that. The editors of Nature are correct.

Let's party like it's 2005!

Okay, one more while my iMac is compiling things...

This year we have an extra second to savour (yeah, it looks British, doesn't it) the sweet year that has been 2005. Yes, a leap second has been announced, to be added to the final moments of the year [LINK]. The extra second is added to make up for small variations in the length of day (i.e., Earth's rotation).

How will you spend your bonus time?

Crikey! ... oh, wait, Aussies don't really say that...

So this is just too cool not to post, despite it being off topic. Researchers from Australia have applied acoustic physics to understand how didgeridoos make those crazy sounds [LINK]. Apparently it's all about changing the position of the glottis (part of the windpipe), enhancing certain frequencies and getting a different resonance inside the didgeridoo. So neat!


The emperor has no clothes, Bush announces.

Will he actually do it? Will GWB actually say he believes in climate change? An article in the TimesOnline [LINK] suggests he might this week at the G8 conference. Of course, if we're to believe all the rumors and conjectures about the conference, all foreign debt will be forgiven, new energy sources will be developed, tested, and implemented, food sources will be secured, and all disease will be erradicated. But maybe, just maybe, GWB will finally say something like, "climate change is real, and it is a problem that we need to deal with. Let's smoke'em out!" Or something like that.


Amber Waves of Plastic

Wouldn't it be nice to have bio-degradable plastic? Well, it turns out that not only does it exist, but it's apparently gaining some popularity. An article in the LATimes by Stephanie Simon [LINK] covers the basic ideas. Here's one promising quote:
"'Anything you can make out of petroleum, I can make out of corn and soybeans,' said Larry Johnson, director of the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University.

The article also mentions several companies that have products made from bio-plastic. Some of them are big corporations, but some are smaller, and I thought I might add a couple links just to get the word out. So here they are:

  • Of the Earth (Oregon, Apparel) [LINK]
  • Pacific Coast Feather Company (Washington, Beds, Pillows, linens, etc... but I don't know about their animal friendliness yet) [LINK]
  • Faribauli Mills (Minnesota, Blankets)[LINK]

Okay, so that was all for now. Bio-plastic. Space age!! How about growing some bacteria or algae that can just keep reproducing and be harvested for bio-plastic... there's a multi-billion dollar idea.


But Chinese is such a difficult language!

The LA Times has a story today by Evelyn Iritani about the Chinese interest in US businesses [LINK]. I am particularly interested in how this apparent bid by CNOOC Ltd. for Unocal is going to play out. Probably Chevron has them beat, but keep yours eyes peeled. Either way, we are seeing consolidation in the oil industry already, as oil prices climb ever higher. By the way, don't believe this BS about not having enough refineries; that is not why crude oil prices are rising.

See, it's not only NASA

Melinda Mahaffey reports on the Outside Online website [LINK] that the Planetary Society's experimental solar sailing spacecraft was launched, and is now missing. Sad news, to be sure. Solar sails are kind of interesting, and might not be a bad idea, if combined with some kind of engine to get accelerated at the start. The PS still hopes the Cosmos 1 is alive and well, but it seems pretty unlikey at this point.


Deep throat of climate change

So a guy named Piltz has singled out Philip Cooney and Harlan Watson as key players in the administration misusing and misrepresenting climate science [LINK]. I can't go into any depth on this issue here and now, but this is the kind of story that should be out there making big news. Cooney has resigned over the allegations, which I think means something. I'll certainly be trying to follow up on this in coming days. Any input or insight from you would be great... send links if you got 'em.


Hurricanes and climate change

I have commented before about how it is hard to write about findings and controversies in fields closely related to one's own. Today I'm going to go a step further by complaining (or commenting, or reporting, or opining) about a subject that is basically my own field of study, but about which I know very little. Today's topic, without further adieu, is the link between hurricanes and climate change.

My interest in this, at least my more intense interest right now (which will probably dissipate in about 10 minutes), was spawned by an article on the Environmental News Network [LINK], apparently originating from Reuters and written by Michael Chirstie. Here's a quote:
"...studies by Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, indicate the 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in sea surface temperatures predicted by the IPCC would raise the upper limit on a storm's intensity by 10 percent. Landsea said those changes were largely imperceptible given the overall ferocity of hurricanes. "

The Landsea referred to is Chris Landsea, a well-known atmospheric scientist. Kerry Emanuel is an expert on hurricane intensity and atmospheric convection.

Reading this story made me wonder about the possibility of hurricanes being affected by a warming climate. This is not something I haven't thought of in the past, but I never thought of it as particularly provocative or controversial.

There are a couple of issues here. Well, more than a couple, but only a couple that I want to touch on here. First, we need to address how this story is being covered by this article. After that, I want to just think about the science briefly, mostly to raise some points that are not related to what is being discussed in the article but are obviously relevant to the spirit of the article.

The first point is pretty straightforward. The article is focusing on the potential damage, in terms of dollars, of tropical storms, specifically hurricanes. A hurricane is just a tropical cyclone with a high degree of organization, allowing stronger winds and the famous "eye." The article is really trying to discuss a correlation between hurricane intensity and global warming. It mentions that there is believed to be a long term cycle associated with tropical cyclone intensity, and also notes that "climatologists" believe there is also a trend in "hurricane activity." It highlights this debate, but also tries to bring politics into it by mentioning that some climate scientists feel they are being forced to downplay climate change evidence. In short, the article is confused on several levels.

First let's actually ignore politics other than scientific ones. That is, it is safe to assume that whatever debate is at hand has nothing to do with the federal government or funding or anything like that. These are good scientists who are doing good work, and may or may not have differing opinions based on the evidence.

Next, let's decide what "hurricane activity" is. In my opinion, "hurricane activity" is really referring to the number of hurricanes, or more generally the number of tropical cyclones generated. This is a research area known as cyclogenesis, which maybe could be specialized by tropical cyclogenesis. However, the article itself goes on to discuss the strength, or intensity, of hurricanes. Kerry Emanuel, the same one as above, has a simple thermodynamic model that predicts the potential strength of tropical cyclones. It doesn't deal with cyclogenesis though. The model assumes a cyclone exists, and then just guesses how strong it could give based on the conditions in which it exists. In the article, everyone seems to conclude that in a warmer climate, there would be a slight increase in hurricane strength. This is not something that can be put in stone yet, but let's just take it as given: in a warmer climate conditions will allow hurricanes to be slightly (around 10%) stronger, in terms of maximum sustained wind speed. Fine. However, earlier in the article says, "Last season's $45 billion devastation, when 15 tropical storms spawned nine hurricanes in the Atlantic and Caribbean, prompted climatologists to warn of a link to warming temperatures." This doesn't say anything about hurricane intensity, but rather hurricane frequency.

Now let's think about each effect separately. Does global warming suggest changes in (A) hurricane intensity and/or (B) hurricane frequency.

For (A), we already agreed. Yes. There is probably going to be a slight increase in hurricane intensity, but it probably won't be incredibly dramatic. Warmer sea-surface temperature, greater wind shear, and higher low-level relative humidity will all contribute to stronger tropical cyclones.

What about (B) though? This is the hard part, since the subject of cyclogenesis is tricky. What "spins up" hurricanes? You need to have a big blob of organized convection in the tropics, which then propagates poleward and begins to spin and become more organized. That initial blob and the subsequent propagation and organization are hard to predict. They depend on a delicate balance of wind and moisture influences all happening over nice warm water. A lot of people who think real hard about this have been saying, for many years now, that a key ingredient for many tropical cyclones is a passing "easterly wave." That is, an organized motion in the atmosphere coming from the east. The idea is that the easterly wave can help the initial organization of the storm, and then moves away and allows the cyclone to move away and strengthen. (At least, that's the way I've interpreted it so far.) In the Atlantic, and maybe even in the eastern Pacific, these waves originate over northern Africa. Understanding of these waves, and the precise way they help organize convection over the ocean. is still just beginning. There's a lot of work to be done. What can we say then about cyclogenesis under a global warming scenario? Well, we can expect that these easterly waves have something to do with heating over the continent, which is likely to increase in a warmer climate. Whether this increases the number of waves or the amplitude is not yet known. How such changes would change the number of tropical storms formed is also unknown. The first guess would be that there would be more easterly waves of significant enough amplitude that more cyclones can form and propagate poleward.

If that guess is true, which can't yet be confirmed, at least by me, we can guess the future. More hurricanes in the future, with a slightly higher average intensity. This is not what Chris Landsea thinks will happen, which you can read about on NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory website [LINK]. He cites a few studies, and comes to approximately the same conclusion about peak intensity, but refrains from saying anything about average intensity. However, he doesn't seem to see any reason to believe more or less hurricanes will form. The main reason is that the whole atmosphere will change, so the thresholds for cyclogenesis will change. This, I think, neglects the importance of easterly waves in cyclogenesis. As you can see, this is a complicated problem, and there's no reason to think there should be consensus at this point.

As a further caveat, it is also conceivable that more and/or more intense easterly waves originating over northern Africa could also reduce hurricane formation. By carrying very warm, dry air over the ocean, where young hurricanes might be forming, these layers, called "Saharan air layers," could inhibit convection and stop the hurricane in its tracks. So, yeah, basically you read all the way down to here to find out that we (or I at least) have no answers for you. Sorry about that.


Just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg

A small story from NYTimes, by Danny Hakim, says that the trend in SUV purchases lost a little steam in the first quarter of 2005. Here's a particularly egregious statement by a Houston auto-purchaser:
The New York Times > Automobiles > A Love Affair With S.U.V.'s Begins to Cool: "For Ms. Cooks, gas prices, which are $2.09 a gallon for regular at a Shell station nearby, were not part of her decision, and she said she came close to buying a Lexus S.U.V. The 300C, equipped with a gas guzzling Hemi engine, is hardly akin to a Toyota Prius.
'Gas prices worry me with any vehicle,' she said. 'One day they're up, the next day they're slightly down.'"

This is what she said as she was buying a Chevrolet 300C. While some consumers are starting to think about fuel economy, I fear that a great many still see the current spate of high gas prices as only that. A temporary increase, probably associated with the summer season. But, Ms. Cook, you are wrong. Things are going to get worse and worse. This is our chance to take some steps away from petroleum, and we really should take them.


Well, what else can we do?

In a rather bland report, NYTimes reporter Felicity Barringer [LINK] says some long-time "environmentalists" are starting to accept the possibility that using nuclear power might be a viable option. While I accept that waste generation and storage/disposal are important problems that still haven't been adequately solved, I have long been in the pro-nuclear power camp. The public at large has serious issues with anything "nuclear" or "radioactive," but it seems like that might have something to do with growing up in a world in which they were constantly threatened with nuclear annihilation. Duck and cover, anyone?

Today we have to make decisions with imperfect knowledge and technology. On the one hand we know that fossil fuels are starting to run low (by the way, I still like "Out of Gas", see previous post) and we also know that using them is contributing to a warming planet. On the other hand, we are afraid of using nuclear technology because it can be used for unfriendly purposes and we don't have a very good way to take care of the waste. Also, nuclear fission is not really a renewable energy source, unless we can mine Uranium out of Earth's core. What do we do? Should we abandon both and hope that somehow other renewable energy sources are quickly improved? I'd say that is not the best solution. Let's face up to the facts, and say that the dangers posed by nuclear power right now are far smaller than those posed by fossil fuels or a global energy crisis. With that decision, the immediate future should rely heavily on nuclear fission, with at least one eye toward the future, which should include nuclear fusion along with renewable energy sources (solar, wind, etc.). Or at least that's how it seems to me.


It doesn't relate to the things I usually post here, but this is too cool not to mention. Some folks at Cornell have made a robot that reproduces itself! Yes, all our dreams have come true. Okay, well, it isn't quite that good, since all it does is reproduce itself, and it can only do that in idealized conditions. It is still a very impressive demonstration. The future applications are endless, once the technology (hardware & sofware) advances. The story can be found on wired.com, and is written by Stephen Leahy [LINK].


A helpful site?

So I heard about this "new" website called GreenerChoices.org. I haven't looked at it much yet, but it might be useful from what I see. It seems to be from Consumer Reports, which isn't a bad thing. If I find anything particularly good, I'll post it later.


Dairy waste as an evironmental problem

It's funny how we become more and more specialized in a field, learing all kinds of details about one little niche, while we can be completely ignorant of other parts of the field. Then you have to wonder about defining a field and subfields and such, but anyway that was just a comment meant to lead into this story. I really don't know very much about air pollution, from the chemical and health sides of the story. Yeah, greenhouse gases or water vapor and I can keep up, but volatile organic compounds and I struggle more than I'd like. Related to a mother's day conversation I had this weekend, I happened upon a story about air pollution due to dairies in California [LINK]. It seems that California somehow classifies the waste produced by cows according to a study conducted in 1938, and now they are trying to decide how to update their classification.

First off, I don't doubt that people could measure cow waste in 1938. It probably isn't that difficult to do. Of course, there might be differences in what you measure, and methods of measuring, but I wouldn't be too surprised if modern techniques gave approximately the same answer for some "control cow." However, I have a strong feeling that today's dairy cows are demonstrably different from those in 1938. Today, dairy cows are raised and used for just a few years before being shipped off to become hamburger or dog food or whatever. These cows don't live like normal cows. They don't wake up each morning, eat some grass, and eventually get milked by some farm hand. They are attached to automatic milking machines, they are forced to continuously produce milk until their production decreases below some threshold, and who knows what kinds of, let's just say medicine, they are given. So, yeah, it is probably nigh time to update that classification.

The article mentions three distinct numbers, ranging from about 6 pounds of waste per year per cow to about 38 pounds per cow per year. This isn't total waste, obviously; if you've ever spent time around cows you'll know they produce about 6 pounds of waste per day, and maybe more. These numbers try to measure the effect on air quality. So that would include the gas cows expel, and some fraction of their solid waste that might end up in the air. I have no clue how they try to measure that, but the range of estimates suggests there is disagreement about how it should be done. The article makes certain to suggest these numbers are "politicized," with environmentalists (whoever they are) favoring the larger number and the dairy industry (or some lawyers who work for some big agri-business) favoring the smaller number.

An interesting tidbit is that the San Joaquin Valley has terrible air quality, and the dairy industry is a giant polluter locally. You can confirm the bad air quality by looking it up, which I did this weekend while investigating a different matter. If the dairies can be shown to be culpable for the pollution, it would be a great step forward to regulate their waste in a more reasonable way. After all, there weren't always 2-million cows being stored in the SJV.


Highly recommended reading: Out of Gas

Over the course of a couple hours (spread over yesterday afternoon and this morning), I read Out of Gas by David Goodstein. It came highly recommended by an astrophysicist friend of mine, and was loaned to me by a fellow climate scientist. Many of you may have already read this very popular book, but for those of you who have not, I can only say it is worth the couple hours.

The subject matter is not cheery. Subtitled, The End of the Age of Oil, Goodstein quickly describes how M. King Hubbert predicted the end of the USA's oil dominance in the 1970s two decades in advance, and goes on to explain that the same factors are beginning to come all too clear in the world oil resources. Goodstein is a physicist, a distinguished professor at Caltech, and has written several books and hosted The Mechanical Universe for PBS [additional bio]. He doesn't work for the oil companies, and neither does he owe loyalty to the Sierra Club. I wouldn't be surprised if he does become a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists at some point, though. The book is political only after it makes its reasoned, scientific arguments. Essentially Goodstein recognizes the impending global energy crisis, makes conservative estimates of how far away this crisis will be (following the more statistically and logically sound reasoning of Hubbert and followers), and concludes that the world can't keep going like this much longer. We must find an alternative to fossil fuels. Keeping a strong grounding in fundamental physics, giving some of the relevant physical and historical context, Goodstein reviews the pros and cons of known alternatives, and finds all of them lacking.

Out of Gas is a call to engineers, physical, social, and even life scientists to wake up and start to address this problem immediately. The stakes are high, and the rewards of successfully averting the coming catastrophe are even greater.

An aspect of this book that I can't help but give some bonus attention is the way all the arguments are based on fundamental, freshman-level physics. A quick look using a popular search engine for either "David Goodstein" or "Out of Gas" or both shows no immediate negative response. Books that politicize or over-dramatize these issues, or are written by non-experts are routinely criticized by right-wingers and nay-sayers for (generally) ridiculous reasons. Having simple arguments using basic physics written by an established, respected physicist lends credibility to Out of Gas unknown to many of the book's peers. In my experience, people arguing against alternative energy or global climate change (also touched on in the book) try to confuse the issues with circular or wrong-minded refutations, but it is harder for them to do so with such clear arguments.

So go now, and read this nice little book. Pass it along to your friends and colleagues. Let's start working on this before the worst case scenario befalls us, and we are sent spiralling into a Mad Max world of regional warlords fighting for water and oil, with widespread hunger, murder, and misery. Yes, we really are talking about the fate of our entire species.


Tiger in the spotlight

I'm not planning on running out to buy the newest version of Mac OS X, but the cnet review [LINK] makes it sound pretty nice. Apparently there are still some problems with wireless compatibility with some secure networks, but that will all be dealt with quickly. I'm also looking forward to an update to 10.3.10 (if it comes) that will give me just a little bit of the new good stuff and make me want the full blown 10.4.

save some soybeans for me

Also out of Science this week (see post below), some studies saying that climate change might adversely affect crops are being published. The news article [Inman 2005 (427): 2] sites two studies that test how increased ozone and carbon dioxide might affect soybeans. It seems the ozone slashes soy yield while CO2 boosts the yield, but not as much as previously thought. The article ends with a quote from Julia Slingo, a prominent climate scientist: "These results are very serious ... Food security is much more insecure than we had thought."

it's not all bad news

A story in the NYTimes by James Gorman [LINK] discusses to rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in eastern Arkansas. Apparently this bird has been thought to be extinct for years, and the cause of their extinction was destruction of their habitat. According to the article, people have been looking for this bird for a long time, and liken it to a "holy grail" of birdwatching. The discovery is published in Science Online [LINK]. Only one male has been confirmed, but there is enough habitat to support a small population, and the search for more continues.


Don't freak out

This morning I saw an article [LINK to PolitInfo.com] about replacements for CFCs being "greenhouse gases."

Okay, let's stay calm. First the review: CFCs are chlorofluorocarbons, molecules that contain chlorine, fluorine, and carbon, and were used as refrigerants (and whatnot) for many years. Unfortunately, these long-lived molecules make their way into the stratosphere, where they interact (read destroy) ozone. This is an unambiguously bad thing because that ozone resides in the "ozone layer." The ozone layer is an unambiguously good thing because ozone strongly absorbs ultraviolet light, which damages and mutates living cells. So the OZONE LAYER stops the ULTRAVIOLET RADIATION from giving us SKIN CANCER, but the CFCs destroy the OZONE, allowing harmful radiation to reach the surface. Okay that is the CFC science review. As for the history, basically some chemists (Rowland, Molina, Crutzen) figured out that these molecules do destroy ozone, and linked them to observed "ozone holes," mostly found over Antarctica (but not exclusively). Somehow governments from around the world actually got together and ratified the Montreal Protocol in 1987, strengthened it in London in 1990, and CFCs should be eliminated completely by 2010. They'll still be in the atmosphere and ocean, but slowly they will disappear.

Okay, I won't do a review of the greenhouse effect. Suffice to say that greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation, which essentially trap energy in the atmosphere, warming it. There are six main greenhouse gases (not including water vapor), and the two most important are carbon dioxide (CO_2) and methane (CH_4). The new report says that the replacements for CFCs are also "heat trapping gases." Okay, that is bad news, but the amount of that material must be miniscule compared to carbon dioxide. The response should be an investment in finding more suitable replacements for these materials, and as pointed out by UN Environment Program spokesperson Michael Williams, proper treatment of the currently used materials:

"'What you can do is prevent leaks. You can make sure that when these substances need to be replaced or when the equipment is being thrown out that they are not simply being vented into the atmosphere. That they are destroyed afterwards - contained and destroyed,' he said. 'We also need to have more research on some of the emerging technologies where there could be gases that do not have this problem, where they could be good for both the ozone and the climate change. And, that obviously will be the long-term solution.' "

While this is a problem that should be addressed, we can not lose sight of the big picture. The flux of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere must be reduced before we do irreparable harm to the climate system.


fixed the link color

Okay, SSRD told me a while back to change the color of the links because they were too light. Finally today I did it. All the links should now be approximately black. YAY!!

To help pass the time

I don't think I've blogged this site before, but Earthwatch Radio is an excellent resource for environmental news. It can be a little ecology-centric, but we have to understand how phenomena like global warming and urban sprawl affect wildlife and ecosystems. The really nice thing about the site is that it is available in several formats. It is all on the web for browsing, which you can get to by the above link. The stories are also available on the radio, which I have never listened to, but is neat. They also have short podcasts, which is how I became aware of Earthwatch Radio. That means you can download mp3s of the shows (which are quite short, usually about 2 minutes) and listen to them at your leisure, like on the bus to or from work. Podcasting essentially requires an RSS feed (see Wikipedia) to keep you updated, but also allows RSS readers (like Firefox) to check on updates, making browsing even easier.

Okay, so my rambling aside, there are two points to this post:

1. Earthwatch Radio is kind of interesting, and you might want to check it out.

2. Podcasting is also kind of interesting, and I recommend checking out this phenomenon before you fall too far behind the curve.


I'm moving to Canada

In yet another good decision, the Canadians have struck a deal between the "auto industry" and the government. Apparently they've come to an understanding which will promote less disgusting vehicles [LINK]. Honestly, this sounds really amazingly good, but I don't know from this story exactly what kind of auto industry really exists in Canada. The story makes it seem like an important part of the economy, but I'm not aware of any Canadian cars... but that's just because I haven't moved there yet. I can't wait, but I guess I'll have to buy a jacket.

I see you

I read this story in E-Commerce Times today [LINK] about Google introducing a new feature wherein a search for a location returns not only a nice map (with the possibility of driving directions) but also a satellite picture. At first I thought it might be kind of cool, but not mind-blowing. Seeking just to waste a few minutes, I went and checked it out. Of course, the first place I looked for was my house, and since I'm in the middle of LA, I knew the satellite images would exist. I type in my address, and click on the maps.google.com link that appears [LINK], and then up comes a satellite image of west LA. No surprise. There is, however, a little zoom bar, so I zoom in, and in again. It gets down to about the size of my neighborhood, which isn't too bad. Then I was impressed enough to blog the new feature, and I tried to save the picture. Well, they don't seem to allow that in any obvious way, for which I don't blame them. On a related note, they also tile a copyright in transparent text across the image. In trying to save though, I accidently dragged the picture, and IT MOVED!! Yes, you can drag a little hand cursor around and the map scrolls around, and builds itself when you go beyond the initial area of the search. It is really cool. You can zoom out to the continents and zoom in to neighborhoods (where images are available). Some places have lower resolutions than others, but it's really good in cities. A handy tool that I don't think is implemented yet would be a location grabber, so you can click a spot and get it's address or coordinates or at least zip code or something. That is probably a tough thing to do though, so might take a while.