Daily Archives: June 19, 2013

The Ocean is the Dog. Atmospheric Temperature is the Tail.

Let me ‘splain.

If you want to know exactly where your dog is, you could put at GPS sensor in the middle of it’s body, perhaps near the pancreas. It would give you an average position for your dog, and would be most accurate most of the time.

If you put the GPS sensor on the tip of the dog’s tail, and used that to estimate where your dog is, you would be nearly wrong much of the time, even if over the long term this would be a good estimate for where your dog has been.

More importantly, if you wanted to measure the movement of your dog, the GPS sensor in the middle of the dog’s body would tell you pretty accurately if the dog is moving or still. But a GPS sensor on the tip of the dog’s tail would often indicate movement when the dog is, essentially still (but wagging its tail).

The question has been brought up: Is global warming stalled? People suggest this because atmospheric temperatures have not gone up as much as they might be expected to go up if we used a straight line matched to the last 30 or 40 years of data. Like this:


(That graph is from here.)

Thinking that this means that global warming has stalled, however, is like thinking that your dog is on the bottom step of your porch jumping up and down, when really, it is on the top step of your porch sleeping (and the dog’s tail is hanging down by the lower setp, wagging because it is having a happy-dream).

When the sun’s light reaches the earth, a certain amount of it bonces off shiny things and goes back into space. The light that does not bounce off is absorbed momentarily by atoms and converted to heat. That heat eventually goes out into out space as well, but it takes time. Greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere cause the departure of the heat to slow down. Increased greenhouse gasses have caused the entire system to heat up because the atmosphere does a poorer job conducting this heat to the upper reaches of the atmosphere and beyond.

But, only a tiny percentage of the sun’s energy that is converted to heat actually contributes to warming of the atmosphere and thus to things like how hot it is outside, or how much evaporation there is (which causes both drought and heavy rain, depending). About 93.4% of this energy actually goes into the ocean, 2.3% into the air, and the rest into other things.

For this reason, when you focus on just the heat in the atmosphere (or, for that matter, just the atmosphere and the surface of the sea), to measure or describe global warming, it is like tracking the tip of your dog’s tail to determine its location, instead of the body of the dog. It will work, and over time be a good approximation of global warming/dog location, but over shorter time scales, looking only at the atmosphere/tail will show more variation than is useful in answering the important questions.

Those important questions being “Is global warming continuing?” and “Where is my dog?”

Don’t let the tail wag the dog.

Dog Tail Photo Credit: buzzsnap via Compfight cc

SkepchickCON 2013 at CONvergence

CONvergence is the world’s largest fan run science fiction and fantasy convention held in Bloomington, MN on or around July 4th every year. An informal subset of the activities that occur at this huge gathering of people wearing costumes and stuff is a set of panels organized by Skepchick, focusing on various aspects of skepticism and science. I’ll be on a few of the panels this year, as usual.

Below is the poster for the SkepchicCON at CONvergence. Also, donations are needed to help fund this worthy effort. Click here to find out more and donate.

Skepchickcon poster.sm

Why you sound so stupid when you say “global warming has stopped”

Science is good at seeing things that you can’t really see. For example, science can provide an accurate three dimensional model of a critically important molecule even though no one has ever directly seen what this molecule looks like. That three dimensional model of the molecule can be used to understand things such as a) how life works and b) how to address some important disease.

Science can measure the exact proportions of each of several elements that are invisible that make up the air. We can sense the air but we can’t see Nitrogen vs. Oxygen vs. CO2 in the air, while Science can. Science can ascertain the invisible and the unpalpable. The actions and effects of those elements in the air are critically important. Were it not for Science’s ability to “see” them we would understand very little about some very important things.

There is a neat device some biology teachers use to get this point across. It is called The Ob=Scertainer. It is a device that demands that a student make the leap from thinking that if you can’t see something you can’t “see” it, to understanding that we can “see” what we can’t “see” if we are just a little smart about it. Or more accurately, if something does not leap to full realization of your usual senses, that does not mean it can’t be understood and no conclusions can be reached about it.

Before I describe that device, a small digression.

Years ago I was teaching a seminar in which we read a paper that would fit well into the modern “skeptics” community (I don’t mean science denialist here, but rather, regular skeptic) very much on the hyperskeptical end of the skeptical spectrum. The paper was about a certain skeleton found at a certain site, a very important one. Everybody who was anybody thought this skeleton was a burial, where a dead guy was put in the ground and covered over. The author of the paper argued that you could not say this. Every tiny bit of evidence that the skeleton was a burial was examined by the author and discounted. At the end there was not one stitch of evidence left uncriticized, unquestioned, in this paper. The students in the seminar all agreed that this set of bones was not a burial, and indeed, may not have even been an articulated skeleton.

One example of the critique involved the measurement of the distance between bones that normally adjoin in the human body. In most cases the distances between articular surfaces was outside the range found in normal humans, suggesting that the “skeleton” may not be “articulated.” In my view, all of these arguments were irrelevant. The bones were all in approximately the right place, the individuals was in a fetal position, sort of, and although it was not clear that there was a hole dug (the nature of the excavation did not allow this) there was a scattering of stones on top of the bones, which were then in turn buried over 60,000 years or so of accumulation of sediment above the skeleton.

In other words, the skeleton was to me clearly a burial, and the students had all been talked out of thinking this by a hypercritical, almost post-modern attack on the original conception. Which is a good thing, even if it is wrong. Evidence unassailed is never as good. But still, the thing was probably a burial.

So, I did this. I told the students that I was going to buy a beer for everyone in the room except the one person who was under 21, and she would have a non-alcoholic beverage of her choice. But only under one condition. Everyone was to write on the index cards I was passing out whether or not they thought this skeleton was a burial (write “burial”) or not (write “not burial”), without anyone else seeing their card. If everyone had the same exact opinion, everyone got a drink. Otherwise, nobody got a drink.

The cards were distributed, stuff written on them, and collected. The decision was unanimous. When push came to shove, when something very important (a beer) was at stake, each student decided that the burial was a burial.

Because a) it was a burial and b) the scales had cleared from the eyes of the students.

Now, back to this device that biology teachers use sometimes.

The Ob-Scertainer.
The Ob-Scertainer.

It is a box with a certain shape inside. The space inside the box has various little walls or pegs or whatever inside the hollow area. Inside the box is a ball bearing that can move freely around in two dimensions. By tilting the box this way and that one can get a sense for what sorts of obstructions are inside the box, and attempt to draw a map of the interior space.

The students are in this way challenged to draw a two dimensional model of something they can’t see using indirect (and admittedly fuzzy) evidence. It takes time, there are sometimes errors, but they manage.

Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh are in a boat. They are in the middle of a deep, cold lake. If the boat sinks they will die of hypothermia and their corpses will sink to the bottom. There is a device in the boat that will sink it instantly, or alternatively, propel the boat to the safety of the shoreline where there are three martinis waiting for them, but it all depends on all three of them correctly answering a question. Notice that this is different from the scenario above, where the students only had to all agree. The students in my seminar were in fact interested in the truth, while the three people in this boat in this lake are not. So getting it right is the thing.

The question is, “Is global warming real, human caused, and important, yes or no.”

They don’t know who is asking the question. It could be the Heritage Institute, it could be Michael Mann with his finger on a remote that operates the device. But they are told that the best available science will be used to determine if they are wrong or right.

They will all answer “yes.”

Scientists know that greenhouse gases, mainly CO2, are increasing in the atmosphere. They know that this increases the amount of the sunlight that gets converted to heat staying around on the Earth longer, as opposed to going into outer space. They know that this heat is distributed among several parts of the earth approximately as follows:

  • Ocean 93.4%
  • Atmosphere 2.3%
  • Everything else 4.3%

Everything else includes the land surface of the earth and various ice sheets and so on.

Over the last several decades the overall temperature of the atmosphere, that 2.3% part of the equation, has gone up on average. Given any reasonable time period, i,e 10 or 15 years, it really has never gone down, though it has failed to go up very much now and then. The overall trend is up.

However, we have really good measurements (for the last several decades) for the Atmosphere, and for the surface of (but not the deeper parts of) the Ocean. This means that when the heat goes up more than expected in the Atmosphere, which it has done now and then, we can guess that this involves less heat going into the Ocean or to those other things. Conversely, when the temperature goes up less in the atmosphere than expected, we can guess that the “missing” heat went into the Ocean or one of the other places heat might go. For example, the heat in the atmosphere has not gone up over the last few years as much as predicted by drawing a straight line covering the last few decades, but instead,

  • Greenland ice cap has lost a lot of ice (which takes up heat).
  • The Arctic sea has lost a lot of ice (which takes up heat).
  • The few measurements in the deep ocean that we have show that it has gained a lot of heat.

It all makes sense and pretty much fits together, but there are many who claim that “global warming has plateaued” or that there is a “hiatus” in global warming.

See the extra heat going into the ocean? From Balmeseda, Trenberth and Kallen, 2013. Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat conent. Geophysical research letters 40(1-6).
See the extra heat going into the ocean? From Balmeseda, Trenberth and Kallen, 2013. Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat conent. Geophysical research letters 40(1-6).

OK here’s an analogy. You make $50,000 a year. You pay out 10,000 in taxes. Then, suddenly, taxes go up and now you are paying $20,000 a year in taxes. Would you claim that $10,000 a year has disappeared into thin air? No. The money still exists. Its just not you YOUR pocket (you are the Atmosphere) It is now in the Government’s pocket (the Government is the Ocean). And, in fact, since you are so small and the Government is so big, this shift in heat, er, money, will be noticed by you (the person) a lot, but very little by the big giant government.

People can see or feel when it is hot and cold, to a lesser extend they can know when there is drought, when there are major storms, when there are fires, and if they are paying attention they can observe when the sea rises up and eats part of New Jersey. But they can’t see when the surface of the earth, the ground, below your feet, goes up a half a degree, or when the ocean at depth gets a tiny bit warmer. They can see, on the news, the melting of the Arctic ice, but they may not “see” (as in “get”) the connection whereby Arctic ice melts and sucks energy out of the atmosphere that might otherwise have been a heat wave in Paramus.

But Science can see that!

There is not a hiatus in global warming. There is not a plateau in global warming. Global warming has not stopped. However, climate change (including and especially global warming) is one or two orders of magnitude more complex that, say, the plot of this book:

Global warming is slightly more complicated than this, despite the usual commentary by conservative columnists in The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
Global warming is slightly more complicated than this, despite the usual commentary by conservative columnists in The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, who apparently can’t find their belly buttons.

But you wouldn’t know that from what we often see in the press, among commenters who demand that global warming be simple, or at least, exploit the belief that it is simple to misconstrue the meaning of any evidence of complexity. Shame on them.

The Ob-Scertainer requires that a student admit that she or he can know something unseeable. Modern medicine does that too. As does every electronic device you use, pretty much. And so does understanding climate change.

We don’t have time any more to mess around with denialism, false balance, and willful ignorance. Get on board or get a D, or even an F.

Graph of global temperatures from HERE.

CNBC stands for Could Not Be Correct?

… or Climate Noobs Bork Climate-science?

… or Can’t News Be Correct?

(add your own below)

The thing is, CNBC, which is supposed to be a news station, is fueling public misunderstanding of climate science. This is bad journalism, and virtually criminal given the importance of climate change and the need for good science based policy related to climate change. We are long past the point where we can tolerate false balance, astro-turfing, and rating mongering. We need to have a good public understanding of climate science, we need it now, and we need “news” organizations like CNBC to stop doing what they are doing.

CNBC has Joe Kernand, who according to Media Matters

was the most vocal CNBC figure on climate change in 2013, frequently pointing to cold weather to suggest that global warming is not occurring. Kernen has long pushed climate science misinformation. In a 2007 segment, he cited the “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” a movie that promoted discredited claims, to criticize singer Sheryl Crow and “An Inconvenient Truth” producer Laurie David for speaking to college students about climate change. In 2011, Kernen co-authored a book titled Your Teacher Said What?!: Trying To Raise a Fifth Grade Capitalist in Obama’s America that compared climate scientists to “high priests” whose work should not be trusted

CNBC has Larry Kudlow, of The Kudlow Report, who

… campaigned against cap-and-trade in 2009, by denying climate change (“a lot of scientists are now saying … this whole thing is just kind of a scam analysis”) and citing The Heritage Foundation’s exaggerated cost estimates for the proposed cap-and-trade program.

CNBC has Rick Santelli who

…is a regular CNBC contributor who some claim fomented the Tea Party movement with a well-publicized rant against government assistance for homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages. Santelli denies climate change, including saying in 2013, “when it comes to macroeconomics or climate change, I think trying to say that the scientific method is alive and well is a real stretch.”

Meanwhile, from Forecast the Facts:

Climate change is “just kind of a scam analysis” by “high priests,” according to the cable business channel CNBC. The majority of its coverage of climate change casts doubt on the science behind it, a Media Matters analysis found.

Several CNBC figures, including host Larry Kudlow, co-anchor Joe Kernen, and contributors Rick Santelli and Dennis Gartman deny manmade climate change — even arguing with their guests from the business world who talk about the risks climate change pose to the economy.

The only scientist that CNBC hosted on climate change in the first half of 2013 was William Happer, a physicist who has not published any peer-reviewed climate research, and who is the chairman of the fossil-funded George C. Marshall Institute.

Forecast the Facts has a petition you can sign, which reads:

Tell CNBC Chief Executive Officer and President Mark Hoffman:

Tell your on-air personalities to stop promoting global warming denial and start reporting the facts on the economic risks of fossil-fueled climate change.