Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Lake That Ate Santa Claus (and some bad reporting?)

OK, so supposedly a fresh water lake has appeared at the North Pole and it is ENORMOUS and Santa Claus has been missing since and is presumed dead. OK, not really. The Giant Lake is really just a “pond” of meltwater on top of the polar sea ice, on the North Pole. But wait, actually, it is not really at the North Pole, it was photographed by some scientists who hang around the North Pole but this pond, which is small but was photographed with a wide angle lens, isn’t really exactly at the North Pole anyway, and these ponds form there all the time in the summer.

But really, even though they form all the time in the summer you can bet that fresh water ponding on the surface of the ice in the Arctic is way more common these days on average, than it was in the past because, in fact, arctic ice is melting a lot more than it was in the past. But the fresh water on the surface is not the point; the point is ice free sea surface in the Arctic, which has been at an all time high over the last few years. And this has caused serious concern that gas escape pathways will be opened up in the Arctic sea. This would mean that methane currently trapped in the form of methane hydrates on and beneath the surface of the world’s oceans, where they are near the surface in the Arctic, will be more easily released in abundance. Methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas and could cause very rapid warming that would in turn increase the release of methane. Also, as methane is “oxidized” (i.e., chemically undergoes a similar process to burning but without the fire part) it turns into CO2 and water. This in turn uses up the area’s oxygen. If enough methane hydrate oxidizes in the Arctic sea that region could become anoxic (the oxygen to make the CO2 and Water from Methane Hydrate is taken out of the water or air where it happens) and lots of species could go extinct instantly. And it could even remove enough Oxygen from the air that …. OMG, that sounds pretty bad.

We can not say that “ponding” on the arctic ice is not related to global warming. Melting ice in the Arctic … every drop of it, or should I say every ice cube of it, melts because of heat and this heat is greater because of global warming. Some of that water in those ponds would not be there were it not for global warming. It is not like “nature” does some things (like, melt stuff) and “global warming” does some things and they are separated. Long gone are the days when we can, or should, say “you can’t attribute a specific weather event to global warming.” Rather, we need to say “you can’t remove global warming as a factor in any weather event.” Seriously. The former is an absolutely out and out lie. The latter is 99% true, something you should bet on if you don’t want to be wrong most of the time.

Still, the water on the surface of the ice is not of any great interest. I’m not sure, though, which is worse: Pointing out that the water is ponding on the surface of the ice and causing people to think this is important because it was mentioned in the Christian Science Monitor or some place, or spending a lot of effort explaining that this one thing some reporters said (but that no scientists have said) is not important and therefore (to some) GLOBAL WARMING IS A HOAX AIEEEEEEE!!!!1!!

(How likely that is to happen and how bad it would be is currently very much a matter of debate. But trust me, keep an eye on the methane hydrates. Even a low level of conversion into gas could be pretty serious stuff.)

Speaking of the Christian Science Monitor … this is the possible bad reporting part … I have a vague memory of a couple years back when somebody quoted themselves in some sort of science news story or blog or whatever. Is that what this is?

The part circled in red is simply the text of a previously posted item on the CSM web site. This story quotes this.

The photograph above, from the North Pole Observatory web cam, is of the pond, except since this photograph was taken just a few minutes ago it shows it as all frozen over again because these things come and go. Compare the photo to this one posted by Maggie Koerth Baker.

Stem Cells Approved By Vatican May Not Exist

… which would be really funny because … well, you clearly see why this is funny.

Christian groups and sects are often opposed to the use of biological tissue that would otherwise be discarded in research and therapy including “stem cell research.” This is because they think some of that biological tissue could be future parishioners, or because they watched too many Disney movies involving fairies. Or something. Anyway, there is this one kind of stem cell that exists among regular cells that can be extracted from the body of a living, breathing already signed up parishioners and the use of these stem cells to cure horrid diseases and such would not violate anyone’s sensibilities. So The Church has (more or less) said OK to that. The problem is, they, these stem cells, might not actually exist. From a news report in Nature:

Proponents of very small embryonic-like cells (VSELs) extracted from bone marrow say that the cells have the potential to transform regenerative medicine. A trial has begun in Poland, and cell-therapy company Neostem in New York is planning another in Michigan.

But in a major blow to the field, a paper published on 24 July in Stem Cell Reports suggests that the diminutive stem cells are not real1. Led by Irving Weissman, a prominent stem-cell researcher at Stanford University in California, the study is the fourth to refute the cells’ existence — and the most thorough yet.

It will be interesting to see how this works out.

Terry McAuliffe vs. Ken Cuccinelli

This is a very important political ad because it involves climate change and climate change denialism in the political process. This (involvement) needs to happen in every single campaign from now on, for every single office. This is a start. A slow start, but at least a start.

There is important context for this ad that you can get HERE from Peter Sinclair.

All we need to do to fix our system of education is …

… well, actually, you can start by shutting up.

Then, while you are sitting there quietly read this: Why Teaching Is Harder Than It Looks.

Then, add your advice about how we can fix our system of education to the comments below. But each suggestion must be paid for (with money) and fit into the schedule (by paying someone to do what you suggest instead of what they are at present required to do).

Which means, ultimately, there is one fundamental answer to improving our system of education: Throw money at it. For starters, stop taking money away from it. The, put more in.


Photo Credit: chrissuderman via Compfight cc

Al-Kadada evidence for 5,500 year old human sacrifice

This is a site in the vicinity of Meroe in the Sudan, and seem to date to a period of transition between foraging and farming. From The Telegraph:

In a graveyard in Al-Kadada, north of Khartoum, the archaeologists have dug up the tomb of a man and a woman facing each other in a ditch, with bodies of two women, two goats and a dog buried nearby.

The discovery of the group “confirms” excavations last year which found traces of the oldest human sacrifice ever identified in Africa, Jacques Reinold, a researcher for the French section of the Sudanese antiquities department, said.

What do you think about the interpretations being offered? Do you think that the earliest archaeological evidence of “human sacrifice” is likely to be one of the first instances of such behavior? What are the alternative interpretations of this find?

Photo is of rock art from Tadrart Acacus in Ghat District of western Libya, in the Sahara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, dating to between about 12,000 and 1,900 years ago.

“We Have To Shut It Down”

UPDATE: Mass Coal Plant Protest Happening Now FOLLOW: ?@oharjo #summerheat #coalisstupid #CloseBraytonPt @350Mass @efeghali for updates.

UPDATE Brayton Point Coal Plant Protest Live Streaming HERE.

This morning, Sunday, July 28th, there is an action happening in Southeastern Massachusetts. A group of climate activists are going to shut down a coal plant and replace it with solar panels and wind generators.

Obviously the solar panels and wind generators will be mainly symbolic because you can’t build a lot of large infrastructure while the police are bearing down on you. Indeed, local police have been depicted in the press as being ready to grab all the protestors and take them to “an undisclosed location.” Sounds ominous. Word from the street, by the way, is that the local police and authorities have been having reasonable discussions with the protesters, so while I would expect nearly 50 arrests or so, there won’t be a riot and no on is going to Guantanamo. But, an important point will be made. And you need to know the point.

This is a Summer Heat protest against, at the immediate and small scale, the operation of the Brayton Point coal plant, which is the largest fossil fuel burner in the Northeast. The protest calls “or Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and others to immediately close the Brayton Point coal plant and ensure a just transition for workers and host communities towards a healthy and sustainable future.”

This is not the first protest activity at this power point. In mid may, a boat was set up to interfere with a large coal delivery. From a piece in The Nation about Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara’s earlier activities:

Early on the morning of May 15 … Ken and Jay motored up to Brayton Point in a thirty-two-foot lobster boat, which they’d acquired and rechristened the Henry David T., flying an American flag and a banner that read #coalisstupid. They were about two hours ahead of the Energy Enterprise, and Jay, skippering, positioned the lobster boat in the ship channel along the pier—right where the 689-foot freighter would have to dock and unload. Intending to stay a while, they proceeded to drop a well-fastened, 200-pound mushroom anchor off the stern of the Henry David T.

Ken called the Somerset police and said they were there to carry out a peaceful protest. Sometime before 11 am, the Energy Enterprise came into view, followed close by multiple high-speed Coast Guard boats. As the freighter bore down on Ken and Jay, the ship’s captain made radio contact, ascertained their intentions, and advised them and the Coast Guard that he had ordered “defensive measures” on deck and was prepared to “protect” his crew. Meanwhile, from somewhere above them on the pier, Ken and Jay heard the distinctive chck-chck of a rifle, chambered and ready. When the freighter finally came to a stop, its prow loomed over the lobster boat. Coast Guard personnel boarded the Henry David T. and ….

The action is going to happen in about 31 minutes as I write this. Keep an eye on the news. Let every one know this is happening/has happened.

Oh, and to the protesters carrying out this action: Thank you for your service.

Gilberton, Pennsylvania Police Chief Mark Kessler

OK, watch this and answer a question for me. The question is, does our American love for free speech translate into ignoring this man’s behavior, or does our (seemingly less important) American love for freedom for all require that a person who behaves this way NOT be the chief of police of any governmental unit of any size, ever, anywhere?


If I lived in Gilberton, Pennsylvania, I’d probably start carrying around a gun to protect myself from the police chief. I wouldn’t do that because I love guns or really want to carry one around. I would do so because I consider myself a potential target of Chief Kessler’s, even now, living hundreds of miles away from him. It would be very hard for him to make more clear the fact that he is waiting for the opportunity to kill “libtards” when the opportunity arises, and it is abundantly clear from this video (and his other videos) that Chief Kessler is fully unhinged and should not be trusted with a weapon of any kind.

A little context from Hunter at Daily Kos:

Mr. Kessler has managed to accidentally shoot himself in the past. No, none of us are particularly surprised. Yes, Mr. Kessler has formed his own militia group in the event that federal law enforcement officials may at some point try to take his guns and therefore will need to be shot—but fear not, as he is very clear that you may only murder federal law enforcement officials with “just cause,” and there is nobody better at determining when there is “just cause” to start murdering people than a group of gun-hoarding conspiracy theorists agitated about the perceived power of the United Nations.

Police Chief Mark Kessler: Yeah, we’ve got to take away his guns.

A Picture of Dorian Storm

Dorian is a tropical storm that formed in the eastern tropical Atlantic ago. Dorian is probably going to head almost straight west-northwest and menace the vicinity north of the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. This is going to take some time. By the end of the weekend, Dorian will be encountering islands in the northeastern Caribbean as a topical storm, most likely. The chance of Dorian remaining as a storm (as opposed to regressing to a depression) or strengthening from storm to hurricane is not at all large. But, unlike some others storms we’ve seen lately, Dorian seems to gain a little strength or add a certain degree of organization rather than the opposite. Over the next few days, Dorian will pass over warmer waters, which should strengthen it, but the storm will also encounter win shear and drier mid-level winds, which may weaken it. Here’s the thing: If Dorian gets strong enough soon enough, the storm will start to make a bit more of its own weather and survive threats from shear or dry conditions.

So what you say? This storm is days away and has little chance of being a hurricane. Well, that’s all true, but there’s more.

First, Dorian formed very far east. That is unusual this early in the year. Second, if Dorian becomes a hurricane and had formed this far east the storm will come close to (but not break) some sort of record, or at least be impressive. Third, and this is highly speculative, but there are some models rumored to project Dorian forming a very large hurricane, traveling up the Atlantic coast, menacing (just barely) New England and hitting Nova Scotia. The chance of that exact thing happening are pretty much zero. That would be close to 2 weeks from now, and we simply can not predict what a hurricane is going to do in two weeks.

But the reason this is interesting is that the hurricane tarot cards have a North Atlantic track in Dorian’s Future, and it’s current track may have Florida in its future. Therefore, we will want to watch Dorian.

If any of this works out, Dorian will be a long-lived hurricane. If warm Gulf waters strengthen Dorian, the storm will then appear younger than it is for a while. Then, at the end, things could get very ugly all of the sudden.

Climate Change Panel at SkepchickCON 2013

With J. Drake Hamilton, Shawn Otto, Greg Laden, and moderated by Desiree Schell.

The sound is messed up in the beginning, but gets much better after a while:

A full transcript, graciously and painstakingly produced by Avery Thompson, and other information about the panel, is HERE at Skepchick.

Please feel free to add comments or questions below, and I’ll be monitoring comments at as well.

Important New Science on Melting Glaciers

Most of the current models of glacial ice melting (and contribution to sea level rise) focus on ice melting and less than they need to on the process of glaciers falling apart in larger chunks such as ice bergs. Also, current understanding of glacial ice melting due to global warming indicates that the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is more vulnerable to melting over coming decades or centuries than is the Eastern Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS). New research from two different teams seems to provide a major corrective to these assumptions.

First, about how glaciers turn into ocean water.

ResearchBlogging.orgConsider this experiment. Take a large open-top drum of water and poke a hole near the bottom. Measure the rate at which water comes out of the hole. As the amount of water in the drum goes down, the rate of flow out of the hole will normally decrease because the amount of water pressure behind the hole decreases. Now, have a look at a traditional hourglass, where sand runs from an upper chamber which slowly empties into a lower chamber which slowly fills. If you measure the rate of sand flow through the connecting hole, does it decrease in flow rate because there is, over time, less sand in the upper chamber? I’ll save you the trouble of carrying out the experiment. No, it does not. This is because the movement of sand from the upper to lower parts of an hourglass is an entirely different kind of phenomenon than the flow of water out of the drum. The former is a matter of granular material dynamics, the latter of fluid dynamics.

Jeremy Bassis and Suzanne Jacobs have recently published a study that looks at glacial ice as a granular material, modeling the ice as clumped together ice boulders that interact with each other either by sticking together or, over time, coming apart at fracture lines. This is important because, according to Bassis, about half of the water that continental glaciers provide to the ocean comes in the form of ice melting (with the water running off) but the other half consists of large chunks (icebergs) that come off in a manner that has been very hard to model. By treating the ice as a granular substance, Bassis and Jacobs have been able to look at the relationship between the large scale geometry of glacial ice and the smaller scale process of ice berg calving.

From the abstract of their paper:

…calving is a complex process and previous models of the phenomenon have not reproduced the diverse patterns of iceberg calving observed in nature… Our model treats glacier ice as a granular material made of interacting boulders of ice that are bonded together. Simulations suggest that different calving regimes are controlled by glacier geometry, which controls the stress state within the glacier. We also find that calving is a two- stage process that requires both ice fracture and transport of detached icebergs away from the calving front. … as a result, rapid iceberg discharge is possible in regions where highly crevassed glaciers are grounded deep beneath sea level, indicating portions of Greenland and Antarctica that may be vulnerable to rapid ice loss through catastrophic disintegration.

ResearchBlogging.orgThis is interesting in light of a second recent paper, by Carys Cook and a cast of dozens, which looks at Antarctica during the Pliocene. Green house gas levels were about the same during much of the Pliocene as the current elevated levels, and sea levels may have been many meters higher at various points in time as well. From the abstract of that paper:

Warm intervals within the Pliocene epoch (5.33–2.58 million years ago) were characterized by global temperatures comparable to those predicted for the end of this century and atmospheric CO2 concentrations similar to today. Estimates for global sea level highstands during these times imply possible retreat of the East Antarctic ice sheet, but ice-proximal evidence from the Antarctic margin is scarce. Here we present new data from Pliocene marine sediments recovered offshore of Adélie Land, East Antarctica… Sedimentary sequences deposited between 5.3 and 3.3 million years ago indicate increases in Southern Ocean surface water productivity, associated with elevated circum-Antarctic temperatures. The [geochemistry]… suggests active erosion of continental bedrock from within the Wilkes Subglacial Basin, an area today buried beneath the East Antarctic ice sheet. We interpret this erosion to be associated with retreat of the ice sheet margin several hundreds of kilometres inland and conclude that the East Antarctic ice sheet was sensitive to climatic warmth during the Pliocene.

This is, to me, one of the most disturbing facts about climate change that we learn from the paleo record. It may be reasonable to say that our near doubling of greenhouse gasses have brought us to a situation in which it is normal to have perhaps something like 20 meters more sea level than we have today, and that the only thing keeping that from happening is … well, nothing, really, other than time. Glaciers tend to behave glacially, after all. Cook et al. look at sediments offshore from Antarctica deposited during the Pliocene periods. Using fingerprinting with specific stable isotopes they were able to determine that at certain times during the Pliocene sediments were being deposited in the ocean from an eroding landscape that is currently deeply and firmly buried under the EAIS. This seems to suggest that under conditions not necessarily very different from today, large areas of Eastern Antarctic, thought to be iced over long term, can be ice-free. If those vast areas were ice free, than the ocean would have been much higher, and it seems that the ocean was, in fact, higher at that time.

I asked Jeremy Bassis, lead author of the ice-as-granular-material paper, if he could translate the modeling work done by him and Jacobs into an estimate of how fast glaciers could disintegrate. He told me that it was hard to say. Their models help them “… understand the different patterns of calving that occur and based on that, it looks like some regions of Antarctica and Greenland might be vulnerable to disintegration. However, the simulations we did took place over a few hours so to translate that into an actual sea level rise estimate we would need to run the models for much longer. The best I can say for sure is that based on our model, important processes are not included in current estimates of sea level rise.” He also noted that most models that don’t use paleo data assume iceberg calving at present rates from their current position at the sea. Their paper, however, suggests that these may not be good assumptions.

Sadly, none of this work will be included in the upcoming IPCC reports. The time cycle for IPCC is rather ponderous, which may be good in some ways, but also has disadvantages. These two papers exemplify an effort to address one of the biggest unknowns in climate change, the nature and character of meltdown of the polar ice caps. We need to put more resources into this sort of study.

Meanwhile, don’t throw away your knickers.

Bassis, J. N., & Jacobs, S. (2013). Diverse calving patterns linked to glacier geometry Nature Geoscience DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1887

Cook, Carys, Flierdt, Tina van de, Williams, Trevor, & et al (2013). Dynamic behaviour of the East Antarctic ice sheet during Pliocene warmth Nature Geoscience DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1889

Levees and the National Flood Insurance Program (NAP)

The National Academies Press of the United States has recently released a report that will be of interest to those of you concerned with climate change (which better be every one of you dammit!). The report talks about increasing floods due to weather whiplash and sea level rise due to glacial melting (and subsidence), mainly in relation to the levees program and insurance, but also more generally. Here’s a small excerpt to give you a flavor:

Community flood risk scenarios will continue to evolve as change occurs. Climate change will have a variety of regional impacts, and the geographic location of a community will affect how changing conditions affect risk. Some areas will have more droughts, some will have more frequent floods, and others will have more intense floods. Research to understand these hydrologic changes is ongoing (NRC, 2011, 2012a). A recent special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2012) indicates a likely increase in many regions of the frequency of heavy precipitation events, and when coupled with increasing vulnerability presents a myriad of challenges for coping with climate-related disastersIPCC. Galloway (2009) cites 11 major international studies conducted from 1987 to 2002 that all predict significant climate change–induced hazards, including increased flooding, higher mean atmospheric temperatures, higher global mean sea levels, increased precipitation, increased strength of storms, more energetic waves, storm surges that reach further inland, undercapacity of urban sewer- age and drainage systems, increased vulnerability of port cities, and disproportionate impacts on disadvantaged population segments (Galloway, 2009). The rise in sea level and the increase in storm surge due to climate change puts many coastal areas at risk from intensified flooding (NRC, 2010).

Hirsch and Ryberg (2012), in examining trends in annual floods at 200 stream-gauge sites in the United States, found that , while there appeared to be no strong statistical evidence for flood magnitudes increasing with increasing global mean carbon dioxide concentration, there were differences in flood magnitudes among the four quadrants of the conterminous United States (Figure 6-8). They indicate that the attention should be paid to the effects of changes in the relative “importance of the role of snowpack and rain on snow events.” Raff (2013) suggests that the increase in magnitude of floods in the northeastern and midwestern United States (Figure 6-9, Upper Right), may have consequences in the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri watersheds (Hirsch and Ryberg, 2012; Raff, 2013).

The Draft National Climate Assessment, issued in January 2013 by the National Climate Assessment Develop- ment Advisory Committee, begins with the statement:

Climate change is already affecting the American people. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. . . . The largest increases have occurred in the Northeast, Midwest, and Great Plains, where heavy downpours have exceeded the capacity of infrastructure such as storm drains, and have led to flooding events and accelerated erosion.

The report goes on to point out the increasing vulnerability to flooding of those in floodplains and coastal areas

You can buy the report for a mere $53, or download it for free. (Downloading from the NAP involves signing in and stuff, but it is pretty easy, though at the moment their server is running a bit slow since they just publicized the report and everybody wants a copy of it.)

Go HERE to get the report.