ClimateWizard.org: A web resource?

Having just ready this brief article [LINK] about a new web site called ClimateWizard.org, I was skeptical of its usefulness. Essentially, this is a web application that just makes reasonably nice map representations of some climate model runs (from the last IPCC report) guided by user input. The input is limited to what geographic region to map, which admittedly is the only way most people think to look at these kinds of simulations. The user can choose the USA and zoom in on specific states, or can choose "global" and choose individual countries and territories. Not everything seems to work (e.g., Guam doesn't show any data), but most of the buttons I clicked generated maps. The user also gets to choose a specific month, or annual average, and can plot the average or change in surface temperature or precipitation either for the past 50 years, the projections at 2050, or (for the USA) projections for 2100. As of writing this, the choices also including picking one of three models or the model average. It is unclear what exactly is being plotted for the past 50 years, the documentation indicates it is a combined observational data set, but there are two curves in a small timeseries plot that are not obviously explained(figure). All in all, it is a fun little application, though not the grandiose life-altering tool that the news article seems to suggest.

Now, a little criticism to go along with the overview. There are definitely really good things about this application, including using Google Maps as the underlying mapping framework. This is nice because it works well, looks good, and people know how to deal with it. That is a definite win. There are some limited download options, too, which is good so that people (especially students??) can just grab the image and put it into a document. They can also get the data in GIS format, which is good for some small set of people who know what to do with that. It would be nice to expand that to include some other common data formats, like HDF or netCDF. Of course, that would be mostly helpful to more experienced users, which gets to another point. This application, as a framework for quickly looking at data and downloading a small subset of it, seems like it could be really useful for all kinds of people, from policy makers to serious scientists, and back to students (and grad students) and teachers (and college profs). In its current state, it's a toy though. The limitation to these three models is curious, since the data from 20+ models should be readily available, and the limitation to surface temperature and precipitation are arbitrary. Yes, that is what most people will be interested in, but having an advanced tab and then having a lot more variables would be great. For example, maybe a high school or college student is doing a report on climate feedbacks, and wants to see how cloud fraction changes in the models. It's a trivial thing to add to this app, but its absence means the student will have to rely on secondhand information or be much more industrious. My other criticism is that the color choices for the contour maps are not that good. It's the standard blue-to-green-to-yellow-to-red rainbow. It works reasonably well for surface temperature and less well for precipitation. The real problem is that they apply it to the changes, which for most places are small making them light yellow or greenish. It's especially apparent in the precipitation, where it is often difficult to even discern the sign of the change.

Okay, one more important criticism. These global models do a poor job in representing regional climate, and there is little evidence that they accurately predict changes in regional climate to the level that this application implies. You can, for example, zoom in on Haiti and see that the model average temperature change at 2050 is about 1C (except for some whitish points that don't make sense on the color scale). But these are about 15 grid points, which are not the native grid points from the model, which have fraction amounts of land and almost no representation of the topography of Haiti. What I'm saying is that you can't trust a few points from one (or three) models to give an accurate portrayal of climate change unless you can verify the fidelity of the models at those points using observations and have an understanding of the limitations of the modeling framework. Looking at the past 50 years is helpful to ascertain some sense of the models' ability in the region, but as mentioned above, it isn't even clear what is being plotted for that in the application. If the blue line is the models and the black line is the observations, then the correlation is generally pretty poor for Haiti, right, but the trend is pretty decent, it's just that the average of the models doesn't have much variability (unless it is the other way around, or if the blue line is one of the models instead of the ensemble... but these are not explained).

So, overall, I like ClimateWizard.org, but I think there is a lot of room for improvement, both for the present purposes and for future expansions to more serious data exploration.


More coverage of the Carteret Islands

In the NYTimes.com today (slash yesterday) there's a story about the disappearing Carteret Islands by NEIL MacFARQUHAR. Again the article paints the sea-level rise in the Carteret Islands as a product of global warming, but I remain very skeptical of the assessment. I still haven't seen a reasonable attribution study about these islands, and the rate of sea-level rise there seems at odds with the small global trend.


The future of energy: oil sands

According to an article from Agence France-Presse, ExxonMobil's Canadian subsidiary is going ahead with a $7BILLION project in Alberta to mine oil out of the oil sands. It's supposed to eventually produce 300,000 barrels per day. That's a spicy meatball.

The company is also touting (read: "greenwashing") it's carbon emissions and efficiency standards, claiming to have reduced emissions by 7% last year. To their credit, they aren't talking about reducing their use of fossil fuels, just being more efficient with them.

What does it all mean? ExxonMobil's products account for a gigantic chunk of fossil fuel carbon emissions, and the fact that they are pouring billions of dollars into expansion means they don't expect to be selling less fossil fuel any time soon. That they are getting more efficient in their treatment of fossil fuel just indicates that they are trying to squeeze every last penny from the cheap fuel (and also get to claim they are being "green"). At the end of the day, these stories are the ones that make me pessimistic that anything will abate humanity's appetite for cheap, dirty energy. Sure there is hope in increasingly aggressive restrictions and regulation of carbon emissions, but with the power/money behind the ExxonMobils of the world, it's hard to imagine that they don't have plenty of wiggle room, nor that they will fail to get more wiggle room built into future regulations.

Or maybe I'm just having a bad day. Read more about ExxonMobil's intersection with climate and environmental issues in a WaPo piece from a couple years ago by Steven Mufson.


Nuclear power, the book

Though I haven't read a word of this book yet, I'm going to post the link just to get the word out. It's called Prescription for the Planet, and it is written by Tom Blees. He seems like an interesting guy, who has spent much of his life running a small fishing boat, traveling, and trying to provide safe drinking water to Central American children. Somehow in the course of his adventures, he came to be interested in technologies that he think provide a relatively easy way to solve global warming issues. One of them is the Integral Fast Reactor. Not convinced, neither am I, but you can start by checking out Barry Brook's latest blog entry, which provides links to his other entries on this book. Brook seems to be on board, devoting a series of extended posts to discussing the ideas in the book. There is also an official Prescriptionfortheplanet.com website, and you can read chapter 4 for free [link].

I'm hoping to have a chance to devote some time to the book soon, or at least explore some of the technologies that it promotes. If I do, then I'm sure you'll read it here!


Saturday means a video

Okay... not every saturday means a video, but this one does.

I just wanted to share this week's installment of Climate Denial Crock of the Week with Peter Sinclair, which I have to admit that I've really taken to in the past couple weeks. It is a series of well-produced (by internet standards) short videos that dissect global warming deniers arguments.

This video is actually directly related to a pair of recent posts, in which I showed you Rep. Boehner being a jack-hole and also explained that breathing does not produce a net source of carbon dioxide. It's like blogosphere synergy!


Friday means a comic

Ok... not every friday means a comic, but this one might as well. It's PhD comics from a couple days ago. I won't paste it in here to avoid copyright issues, but here's the link.

And while you are clicking, hit one of those ads at the top. It's friday after all.


Stubbornness is a function of age?

I like this quote from Carl Sagan quite a lot:
At the heart of science is an essential tension between two seemingly contradictory attitudes -- an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. Of course, scientists make mistakes in trying to understand the world, but there is a built-in error-correcting mechanism: The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking together keeps the field on track.
-- Carl Sagan, The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, Parade, February 1, 1987

There is a lot of information in that quote, really. The part at the end, that scientists cam make mistakes in their attempt to understand the world, is what I want to point out today. Further, it seems to be common for older scientists to become mistaken, and I think for many of them it is that they become locked into that ruthless skepticism that Sagan refers to, but lose part of their openness. We discussed this in depth with Freeman Dyson, who seems to have an emotional reaction to climate change that fires up his skepticism and closes down his openness.

Another example seems to be George Kukla, a renowned scientists from Columbia University. Kukla is best known for his tremendous work in paleoclimate, where his specialty has been in exposing the role that orbital variation plays in changing climate [see bio]. Kukla is now emeritus at Columbia, but is a "special research scientist" at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and appears to be marginally involved with some ongoing research. Though less visible than Dyson, or less credible people like Pat Michaels or Fred Singer, Kukla has been a skeptic of anthropogenic climate change. He is often quoted (or liberally paraphrased) as believing that variations in sunlight are causing the current global warming, which will turn toward a new ice age in the future.

I just read a 2007 interview with Kukla [link] in Gelf Magazine. I urge you to check it out. Somehow I ended up there after watching a short video clip from Letterman [link] in which Kukla appears. In the interview, Kukla seems to present evidence that the current warming is very similar to warming during previous interglacial periods that then transitioned to glacials. However, there are several points of fact that are misrepresented. For example, Kukla says

The knowledgeable climate students know that the global climate works in cycles. The relatively short cycles happen to be about 60 to 80 years long, out of which one half goes up and the other half down. Right now the Northern Hemisphere appears to be at the turning point of the warming branch. Just wait!

Well, there certainly are cycles in climate, but the "short cycles" of 60-80 years are certainly not well quantified or understood. In fact, I know of no compelling evidence for periodicity in this range. There is a lot of interest in "decadal variability" in the climate system, which could certainly be a source of noise in the spectrum around 60-80 years, but is unlikely to be a cycle by any sort of sensible definition of the word. The second part of the quote above, that the northern hemisphere is now turning from warming to cooling, is likely to be shown false very shortly. This is really just a regurgitation of the common climate change denier tactic of using insignificant short-term trends to say something that is false. We can only hope that Kukla is around in a few more years to see the results.

Here's another quote from the interview:
What happened then was that the shifting sun warmed the tropics and cooled the Arctic and Antarctic. Because the tropics are so much larger than the poles, the area-weighted global mean temperature was increasing. But also increasing was the temperature difference between the oceans and the poles, the basic condition of polar ice growth. Believe it or not, the last glacial started with "global warming"! The shifts of solar orbit today are about two to three times weaker than in the last glacial, or by the way, in the last 400,000 years. So, on that basis, we have little to worry.

In this we see Kukla's motivation: he is so enraptured by the astronomical theory of climate change, that he has closed his mind to other forms of climate change. This is his downfall on this topic, for some reason he can't see the vast difference between past climate change and current global warming. He's still not nearly as severe an offender as other skeptics, though. He recognizes important aspects of anthropogenic activity, but somehow ignores them. He also sees, as he says above, that changes in sunshine are very small right now, and later in the article he even acknowledges that, "No doubt that we have about 10,000 or even possibly 20,000 years still ahead before the major ice advance can start." This implicitly means that there are very different timescales involved, but this just isn't enough for Kukla. Above, he also says that a sign of the oncoming ice age is a warming tropics and cooling poles. However direct observation shows that the polar regions are now warming twice as fast (at least in the Arctic, more mixed in the Antarctic) as the globe as a whole. This should be a red flag, but to the true believer, it is evidence against the common thinking.

Okay, you are getting the idea, and I don't want to beat up on this guy, so just one more quote, showing again that Kukla almost accepts the current thinking:

The CO2 certainly has an influence. For instance, it appears that already now, with still relatively low concentrations, it may have a significant warming impact on the night [temperature] minima. And because the usual way to determine the daily mean is as the average of the daily minimum and maximum, here we go! But it is difficult to be sure: more clouds can do the same.

So he clearly says that people are changing climate, yet then he says they aren't. If you are confused about what Kukla believes, then I think you join a long list that probably also includes Kukla himself.

Again, let me stress that George Kukla has made impressive and important contributions to our understanding of paleoclimates. All I am saying is that his current opinions about global warming seem to be somewhat off the mark. My opinion is that he has become fixated on the astronomical theory of climate change to such a degree that he can no longer tolerate the rational arguments for anthropogenic climate change, which are founded in basic science and backed up by direct observation. Like quite a lot of scientists who are, well, let's just say "getting up there in years," he has developed an emotional response to the current science that can not be defended by scientific arguments. I hope he comes around at some point.


Marathon runners not a source of CO2 to atmosphere -- shocker!

I'm so glad that RSS exists, so that I don't miss stories like "Barton worries that EPA will regulate runners" from Kate Sheppard at Grist. Did you read it yet? Just in case you didn't, let me recap for you. Representative (from Texas) Joe Barton (Republican) is the ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which means he's the most senior Republican on the committee. This committee's role is, from Wikipedia:

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce has developed what is arguably the broadest (non-tax-oriented) jurisdiction of any Congressional committee. Today, it maintains principal responsibility for legislative oversight relating to telecommunications, consumer protection, food and drug safety, public health, air quality and environmental health, the supply and delivery of energy, and interstate and foreign commerce in general. This jurisdiction extends over five Cabinet-level departments and seven independent agencies--from the Energy Department, Health and Human Services, the Transportation Department to the Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and Federal Communications Commission — and sundry quasi-governmental organizations.

Which is to say, this is a pretty powerful committee. They get to advance (or squelch) a lot of potentially important legislation. And Barton, as ranking member, is a powerful guy within this powerful committee. So it matter that he thinks crazy things, like that marathon runners could be considered a source of pollution. Yeah, didn't you read that article? It goes back to the EPA's decision that carbon dioxide can be considered a pollutant, and as such can be regulated. Barton thinks that people are point sources of carbon dioxide, and I guess because marathons are a large group of heavily exhaling people, Joe thinks that means a large source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The point Barton is trying, and failing, to make is that carbon dioxide is difficult to regulate because it is a naturally occurring substance that is a basic part of all life on Earth. The reason he is trying to make this point is because he doesn't want to believe that the EPA has the right to regulate carbon dioxide. There are two reasons he doesn't want to accept that. First, because he's a Republican, and that party has decided to oppose regulation of nearly any kind. (Examples, regulating financial institutions like AIG or energy brokers like Enron.) Second, as part of Barton's ideology, he can't accept that humans affect the Earth adversely, so he emotionally reacts to climate change by denying it.

The point I want to make is that Barton is wrong about marathon runners. They aren't a source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, even though they do exhale carbon dioxide. The reason is that humans are part of the terrestrial biosphere, which is part of the global carbon cycle, which is basically in balance except for the perturbation from burning fossil fuels. To see this, think about that air you just exhaled, which is relatively enriched in carbon dioxide. Note, you don't breathe in pure oxygen, and you don't exhale pure carbon dioxide. How did that CO2 get into your breath? It is a byproduct of your physiology, mostly it come from breaking down sugars, which provides you with energy. So that means we're a source! No, wait a minute, where did those sugars come from? You ate them! This is exactly why we eat, to ingest the nutrients that will supply us with energy. So think about that for a second: we eat foods that have carbon in various organic molecules, which we break down to get energy, and CO2 is made as a byproduct and respired.

But that means humans (and all animals) make CO2 and put it into the air.

Yeah, but it all comes from somewhere. Let's take me as a simple example, or a cow. The point being, the cow and I are vegetarians, so most of the CO2 we respire comes from breaking down plant matter. Where does the carbon in that plant matter come from? Remember what we all learned as kids, plants breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen. Yes, plants take the CO2 right out of the air. They take CO2 from the air, water from the soil, and sunlight, and perform photosynthesis, which is to say 6CO2 + 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2. Like magic, isn't it. On the right side are just 6 molecules of oxygen along with a sugar molecule that is holding onto some carbon and oxygen, which I'll eat and break down for energy, releasing CO2. Magic.

So there's a balance... like a cycle of carbon in the biosphere. This is why, in principle, biofuels should be carbon neutral. Breaking down plant matter moves CO2 around, eventually expelling it into the atmosphere, but eventually it is sucked back into the biosphere by autotrophs like plants and phytoplankton.

So what's the problem with burning fossil fuels? Well, that takes carbon from the lithosphere and suddenly introduces it to the atmosphere-biosphere-ocean system. There is normally exchange between the lithosphere and the rest of the climate system, but that is a very slow process, which combustion accelerates. There's no where for that extra CO2 to go because each part of the cycle only has so much wiggle room. The result is a build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere, where it enhances the greenhouse effect, and chaos ensues. Carbon dioxide isn't a pollutant like CFCs, then, but the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels is basically the same. Whatever oil, coal, or natural gas is pulled out of the rocks needs to be accounted for, because that is the potentially harmful carbon.


Climate change refugees

George Monbiot says that about 2,600 people are evacuating from Carteret Islands in the tropical west Pacific. He attributes the evacuation to three things, mostly sea-level rise, but also the removal of mangroves and local volcanic activity. The sea-level rise apparently is manifest as high tides in springtime, which flood the very low atoll. The YouTube video below appears to corroborate the view that sea-level rise is pushing these people from their homes.

I don't have any real knowledge of this situation, but I have to admit that I am skeptical that this "sea-level rise" is due to global warming. There certainly has been measured sea-level rise, and some regions are likely to be harder hit than others, but the video appears to suggest this atoll has been cut into two by rising water, and the shoreline has receded by tens of meters (reportedly in just a few years). This does not suggest the kind of sea-level rise expected globally. The wikipedia page for the Carteret Islands also imply that there is not much evidence for this being a result of global warming, pointing out other influences that might be deleterious to the atoll, including normal erosive processes, isostatic adjustment, and use of dynamite fishing. If anyone knows of a true attribution study, that would be great, but until I see one, I am working under the assumption that this migration is probably related to human activities, but unlikely to be strongly related to global warming.


A new physics book

Without time this week to keep up with the latest climate news, I haven't been able to blog much. Last night a friend of mine sent a message about a new physics book, which you can see below. So in lieu of actually writing something interesting, I'll just say that this new book exists and is written by Jason Zimba, who was a graduate student of physics while I was an undergraduate. He was a TA while my cohort and I were going through the introductory series, and was quite liked as an instructor. So it makes sense that he has gone on to write an introductory text himself, so with no further delay, check out Forces in Motion:


Marketing climate science to influence public opinion

There's an article in the NYTimes.com about a report about to be issued relating to the way global warming issues are discussed in public forums. I don't think I totally understand what the report says, and I guess we'll see when it is officially released, but I think the take-home message is going to be that we have to use marketing techniques to convince the public that climate change is an important issue. This is a direct (and obvious) reaction to the tactics of the right-wing conservatives, who use exactly the same thinking when issuing their talking points. 

For my $0.02, I don't like it. I'm not opposed to more effective communication and education techniques, I'm actually all for them. To change the focus of the arguments, however, to avoid using words like "environment" and "global warming" seems to be a big much. I do agree that making the link between renewable energy sources and a more productive and cleaner future is great, as is the flip side of linking dirty fossil fuels to a poorer and scarier future. But from my point of view, we should focus on rational thought and scientific findings to guide us, and not marketing chatter. 

Of course, that's why I'm a scientist and not an marketing professional. Which brings up another point, that is sometimes overlooked. Who's delivering this message to the public? It is often scientists themselves, and this is a mistake. Scientists have a particular culture, and the way we communicate is often not the most effective way to convey things to an impatient public. Sure there are some really great popularizers of science, and they are invaluable to both the scientific community and the general public. But when it comes to convincing "Joe the plumber" that the government needs to take action on climate change, it's hard to imagine that Jim Hansen or even the late greats Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman could have had much influence. No, at a certain point this leaves the realm of the scientists, and needs to be handled by professionals. I don't know who these people are, or what their motives and incentives to popularize the rational views on climate policy will be, but I do know that scientists only stand to screw it up... we've all seen scientists trying to talk to the public, and more often than not it doesn't go well.


Melting glaciers, changing rivers

Well, in another blatant theft from DeSmogBlog, I bring you Jeanne Roberts' article about glaciers in the Swiss-Italian Alps melting. The interesting part of this article is not just that the glaciers in Europe are melting, this is really old news by now, but actually that the Swiss and Italian governments are implicitly acknowledging -- and I dare say adapting to? -- climate change by renegotiating their border. Yeah, two countries are talking about how to redefine their border without bothering to send a bunch of kids to their horrible dismemberment and death. 

The importance of the melting glaciers is clear for countries like Switzerland, which are landlocked and use mountain runoff for freshwater. The melting glaciers provide a lot of fresh water to streams and rivers, that is then used for the human population of those countries. In a glacier-free Europe, that source of water is gone, and countries will have to rely solely on seasonal snowpack melting. This isn't a great strategy, though, since the melt season is getting longer and longer, and seasonal snowpack is quite variable. Essentially the absence of the glaciers will add a level of instability to the water resources of interior Europe.

It is also worth noting that this story comes on the heels of a scientific paper about changing streamflow made waves two weeks ago. The paper is by Dai et al., and is in the upcoming issue of Journal of Climate. Some of the news coverage of the paper was a bit out of control. The paper is a compilation of data sets from around the world, measuring streamflow in large rivers. The main point of the paper is to show the basic results of the combined data set, and to provide a climatology to other researchers who want to know how much freshwater is going from the land into the oceans. You wouldn't have gotten that from the media coverage, much of which seemed to focus on the Colorado river, which isn't even mentioned in the paper by name. The headline grabbing aspect of the paper is a cursory examination of the trends in the data. Freshwater input into all the ocean basins except the Arctic show a decrease in overall streamflow, while the Arctic has an increase. It is not clear from my reading of the paper that these trends are (1) statistically significant or (2) attributable to climate change. The first point will be cleared up over the next couple of years as more people look at the statistics of this and other data sets. The second point will hopefully be better accounted for in future studies by trying to explicitly incorporate human-made changes in streamflow (for agriculture and including building dams and resevoirs). In the meantime, it is an interesting data set, and could have important implications for budgets of freshwater flux to the oceans. Whether the rivers are drying up remains an open question, and one that a lot of us are very interested in.