Can We Trust Climate Scientists?

One of the claims deniers are now making is that we can’t trust the climate scientist that are involved with global warming research. Their line of reasoning is that their grants and positions depend on finding evidence of global warming and they risk losing either, or both, if they ever find anything else. This, of course, is so ridiculous as to be funny, except there are people that believe this. So, let’s examine this and see if there is any truth to the claim.

The basis, and motivation, for the claim comes from the fact that deniers are paid by the fossil fuel industry to discredit climate research. The funding is dependent on finding the results the fossil fuel industry wants. In other words, it is directed funding. This funding source greatly damages the credibility of the deniers, much to their chagrin. They can’t get funding from any other source and are stuck with it. So, they respond by trying to paint authentic climate researchers with the same brush. If they are getting funding to find evidence of global warming, then we can’t trust them, either. The irony of this argument is that they are themselves saying they can’t be trusted. By making the claim that directed funding discredits you, they are admitting their own directed funding must discredit them. But, this posting is about the credibility of climate scientists, not the lack of credibility of the deniers.

The claim of the deniers depends on one thing – are the climate scientists being directed in their research? Do they receive funding to find evidence of global warming? Or, are they simply receiving funding to do research and let the chips fall where they may?  If this claim they are being directed is not true then we should be able to find research results that do not support climate change. This is actually pretty easy to do. Climate and weather are very complicated and not everything is going to lead to global warming.

A recent announcement from the National Science Foundation (NSF)  illustrates this. A researcher at the University of Michigan studied the effects of pollen on the climate and found something interesting. It had been thought pollen had little effect because it was such a large particle it would settle out. But, Dr. Allison Steiner and her team found that pollen particles actually break apart and become many small particles. These small particles lift water vapor up into the atmosphere where they assist in cloud formation. It this way, pollen actually works against global warming by providing a cooling effect.

By the way, Dr. Steiner gets her funding from the NSF. So much for being paid to find only proof of global warming.

Another example is some work done by scientists at Princeton University, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science and the Australian University. They studied the way droughts are measured and they state there is an issue with the way droughts are measured. One of the beliefs about global warming is that the amount and severity of droughts worldwide will increase as the climate warms. The most common measure of drought, the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), has shown that this is actually happening. However, this team of scientists studied the PDSI and their conclusion (released in November 2012) is that this measure is in error because it was dependent on climatic conditions off the past. When they adjusted the measure to account for climatic changes due to global warming they found little change in the amount of drought over the last 60 years.

Again, credible scientists at reputable institutions finding results that do not support global warming.

This is the way science works. Researchers do the work and discover what the science says. If the science does not support what they believe, then they will change what they believe. The science is irrefutable.

The deniers fail in this manner. When the science does not support what they want to sell the public, they simply discard it and find a new false argument to try and persuade people to believe in what they want them to believe.

The claim that climate scientists are getting paid to prove global warming doesn’t pass the credibility test. Climate scientists are paid to do climate research. There will be a climate with, or without, global warming. Their jobs do not depend on global warming and anyone thinking about this for even a few seconds will see that is true. If nothing else, we need a much more robust understanding of climate science for weather forecasting. That, by itself, is enough to justify all of the climate research being done and that would be true even if there were no such thing as global warming. The issue of global warming simply makes it that much more important.

Scientists are not motivated to find a specified result. They are motivated to find the correct result and to find it first. Honors go to the first, not the second. They do not give the Nobel Prize to runners-up. But, at the same time, by the scientific method, any scientific finding must be repeatable by anyone else. Scientists are not magicians and do not have special powers. They have special training and experience, but anyone with similar training and experience must be able to replicate their results. If only one person can do it, it isn’t valid. If some scientist was to announce some kind of result and it couldn’t be validated by other scientists the damage to that person’s career can be devastating. Consider what happened to Pons and Fleishmann after their cold fusion announcement.

Finally, consider this. Much of the research on climate change was done during the administration of George W. Bush between 2001 and 2009. The Bush administration was openly hostile to climate change research and worked to suppress it. The irony is that, contrary to claims by the deniers, climate scientist were actually risking their careers by finding evidence of global warming, not the other way around.

What can we conclude? Can we trust climate scientists? The answer is that we can trust climate scientists to do valid scientific research in climate change and the science they produce is not directed by the funding source.

If only the deniers could make the same claim.

El Nino is back. What does it mean?

El Nino is the name given to the natural cycle that involves the eastern Pacific getting warmer in the area close to the equator. (La Nina is the name for the alternative cycle when the waters there are cooler. The two together are known as the El Nino Southern Oscillation – ENSO.) This is one of the most significant natural cycles and occurs every few years. It has the potential to change weather around the world. Take a look at this graphic showing the sea surface temperature anomaly. The darker the red, the warmer it is relative to the long-term average.

Source: Climate Reanalyzer

You can clearly see how the water temperature off western South America is warmer than usual, which is the classic definition of El Nino. The name comes from how local fishermen noticed the change  in the water and how it seemed to always arrive in the late fall – about Christmas time. El Nino means ‘the boy’ and refers to the Christ child of Christmas. The name has stuck.

But, the important thing is to notice how the warm water stretches all the way across the Pacific Ocean. The significance of this lies in the fact that warm water creates atmospheric low-pressure areas which results in thunderstorms. There is now a Pacific Ocean-wide corridor of low pressure which will allow thunderstorms to develop and travel all the way from Asia to South America. One of the things this leads to is a change in the Hadley Cells.

Hadley Cells are circulation patterns in the atmosphere. Warm air near the equator rises and then travels towards the poles at high altitude. When the air reaches the mid-latitudes it sinks back to the surface and travels back towards the equator. This circulates heat and causes the trade winds. A stronger El Nino results in stronger Hadley Cells. Live Science has a nice graphic here showing how this all works.

You can probably see where this is going. More heat is being circulated through-out the world as a result of El Nino. Changes in the heat and water vapor input in a given region will result in changes to the weather in that region. How much of a change and what kind can be expected? That is a big variable. Some regions will experience greater rainfall. Others will experience droughts. Depending on the strength of the El Nino event, the effect could be anywhere from very mild to catastrophic.

Some of the most dramatic example of El Nino effects is a series of famines that have occurred in what is modern-day India, including the Great Famine of 1876-1878 (5.5 estimated dead) and the Bengal Famine of 1770 (10 million estimated dead). These famines occurred when the monsoons did not occur and the crops failed. The famines were greatly aggravated by British mismanagement.

What has been found is that severe droughts in India always occur during El Ninos, but not every El Nino leads to droughts in India. The apparent link seems to be where the Pacific is warmest. When it is warmer in the Central Pacific, India has droughts. When it is warmest in the Eastern Pacific, India is spared. Take a look at the plot of surface temperatures, similar to the plot above.

Source: Climate Reanalyzer

The figure above showed the difference from the average. This plot shows the actual average temperature. The way I interpret this data is that it is warmer in the Central Pacific region than in the Eastern Pacific region off of South America. This could be bad news for India. The good news is that Britain is not handling the management any more.

But, El Ninos are not bad news for everyone. Actually, for us in the U.S. it will be a good thing. A typical El Nino brings mild temperatures and more rainfall for the southern half of the country. This would be particularly welcome in the mid-Plains and the Southwest where drought has been raging for many years. In fact, several states out here are at risk of running out of water.  More rain would be good.

So, let’s talk about the White Elephant sitting in the middle of the room. Is global warming affecting the ENSO cycle? Quite simply, we don’t know yet. There are some that believe a connection exists, but more data is needed. What is known for sure though, is the El Nino affects the short-term accuracy of our computer models. The models are highly accurate when predictable conditions exist. But, unpredictable events like ENSO and volcanic eruptions disrupt them. The good news is that when the events occur and are included in the models, the models once again become highly accurate – in excess of 95% accurate and getting better. I have not heard what the models are forecasting with the this current El Nino included, but I will keep a look out for any news.

The effect of water vapor on global warming

One of the false arguments global warming deniers make is that CO2 measurements are unimportant because water vapor is much more effective greenhouse gas. This is one of those statements that has just enough truth behind it to obscure the lie.Yes, water vapor is a very potent greenhouse gas, much more so than CO2, but what the deniers don’t want to admit is that the reason there is water vapor in the atmosphere is because something else warmed it up in the first place.

This process makes water vapor a positive feedback agent with the potential to approximately double the amount of warming due to other sources. As the atmosphere gets warmer the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere also increases. The increased level of water vapor will then trap more heat, resulting in warmer temperatures and even more water vapor. But, the water vapor cannot do it alone. There must be some agent to start the process and that agent in our current situation is CO2. By dumping billions of tons of CO2 in our atmosphere every year, we trap heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise radiate into space and this leads to warmer atmosphere. This warmer atmosphere then leads to more water vapor.

Since water vapor is so important in the process we need to know just how much effect it has on the climate. A team of scientists used measurements from instruments onboard the Aqua spacecraft to make direct measurements of this effect. According to their work, water vapor amplifies global warming by 2.2 watts per square meter per degree Celsius (plus or minus .4 watts per square meter per degree Celsius). In comparison, the solar index (the amount of energy reaching Earth from the Sun) is about 1360 watts per square meter. For every one degree Celsius change in temperature, water vapor increases the amount of energy stored in the atmosphere by about .16%. It may not sound like much, but you keep doing that every day for a long period of time and it will add up to a very large amount of energy stored in the atmosphere that we would not otherwise have.

The scientists point out that this is only a short-term measurement because the amount of data is small. This figure is subject to short-term changes in the weather and climate fluctuations. They used these figures in models to try and determine a long-term value and the models suggested it is between 1.9 and 2.8 watts per square meter per degree Celsius. As more data is collected this figure will be refined to a more accurate value.

Forest Fires and Arctic Melting

The summer melt season of 2012 was very dramatic. Take a look at this plot from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

The dark, solid line is the 1989-2010 average Arctic sea ice extent. The dotted line is the 2012 sea ice extent. The light gray line on the left is the 2014 sea ice extent. We can see from this plot that the 2012 extent was pretty average for what has been observed this century all the way up to early-June. At that point, it took a severe turn for the worse and the extent simply collapsed, reaching the all time record low in September.

Something similar was observed in Greenland at the same time. Normally, the ice on top of the ice sheet doesn’t melt, or melts very little. It is over 2 miles high in places and the highest elevations remain below freezing, even during the summer. But, in the summer of 2012, 97% of the ice sheet was melting at one time. This was the most extensive melting event since 1889.

A new study done by researchers at Dartmouth College found evidence that this extensive melting on Greenland was not due solely because of global warming, but by a combination of warming and soot from wildfires. In particular, extreme forest fires in Siberia sent soot and particulate matter high in the atmosphere and some of that matter settled on the Greenland ice sheet. By making the ice slightly darker (known as lowering the albedo), the soot increased the amount of sunlight absorbed by the ice and increased the melting. There is evidence something similar may have occurred in 1889, as well.

The question I now have is, did this also happen to the sea ice? The fires of 2012 may have been responsible for the Greenland melting, but wouldn’t explain the sea ice melting. The fires didn’t start until July, so the smoke could not have been on the sea ice at the beginning of June. The smoke was blowing across the Pacific by early-July, so it is possible it fell on Greenland in time for the big ice melt.

However, there were also massive forest fires in Siberia two years earlier, in the summer of 2010. If the smoke from those fires was lofted high in the atmosphere it might have taken over a year to fall in the Arctic region. We would need to get some ice cores that included that time frame and see if there are traces of soot in the ice. Then, we would need to check the composition of that soot to try and identify where it came from.

This doesn’t mean climate change is off the hook. Even with the soot, global warming is responsible because it made the Arctic region warmer (allowing the ice to melt) and it is also responsible for the events in Siberia that led to the wildfires (putting the soot in the air).

This year might be a test of the hypotheses. If it took 1-1/2 to 2 years for the 2010 smoke to get to the Arctic ice, then that would be a good starting guess for how long it took the smoke from the 2012 fires to get there. If so, this might be a very bad year for Arctic sea ice melting.

Severe Weather in the United States

There was a very interesting article in the May 6th issues of Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union. The article, Severe Weather in United States Under a Changing Climate, takes a thorough look at the way various aspects of severe weather have changed since the 1950s and the message is pretty definitive. There is a nice graphic (figure 1 in the article) that shows the frequency of different kinds of severe weather in each decade since the 1950s. It takes a little bit of reading because there is so much information in the figure, but certain things really stand out right away. Below is a summery of some of the information in this paper.

Damages due to billion dollar events
The NOAA/NCDC Billion Dollar Weather website lists 151 weather/climate disasters resulting in at least $1 billion in damages that have occurred since 1980. The damages for these events have all been adjusted to reflect constant dollar values (2013 dollars). The total amount of damages exceeds $1 trillion. That comes out to about $3000 for every person in the U.S., or roughly $100 per year on average. The total for 2011 was for about $200 for every person ($60 billion total) and $360 per person in 2012 ($110 billion total). These costs are only as a result of the billion dollar-plus events and include such events as major heat waves, severe storms, tornadoes, droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfire. The list does not include expenses such as increased expenses for utilities, food and increased insurance that are the result of daily climate change conditions.

Temperature extremes
The article states the average temperature has increased by 1.5 degrees F since 1895 with most of the warming occurring since 1970, “culminating with the warmest year on record in the United States in 2012.” They found there has been a significant increase in the number of record high temperatures the last two decades. There has been a significant drop in the number of record low temperatures over the same period. Heat waves have become more frequent across the U.S.

Precipitation extremes
Over the last three decades the heaviest rainfall events in rainy areas have become more frequent and the amount of rain in heavy rain storms has been significantly above average. Other areas have seen significant decreases. The total number of extreme snowstorms has been substantially higher the last three decades.

Floods and droughts
There has been no nation-wide trend detected for droughts, but regional trends have been detected. In particular, the on-going drought in the western U.S. has resulted in the driest the region has been in 800 years. Floods have followed the same pattern. We don’t know enough yet to detect a nationwide trend, but regional trends have been detected. In other words, it appears the regions that tend towards the dry end are getting drier and regions that tend toward the wet end are getting wetter.

Hurricanes and severe storms
There has been an increase in the intensity, frequency, and duration of category 4 and 5 (the strongest) storms in the Atlantic. The number of category 3, 4 and 5 storms in the North Atlantic since the year 2000 is the greatest since the 1950s. This increase in activity is linked to higher sea surface temperatures. The number of strong tornadoes and East Coast winter storms have not been seen to have changed over the last 60 years.

As we all know, weather forecasting is complicated and difficult. So, too, is the climate. But, what we see is a very clear picture that severe weather in the U.S. is becoming ever more severe. We may not have all of the details worked out just yet, but there can be no doubt that the weather is changing in response to a changing climate. And, once again, we see the end user is the one that gets stuck paying the bills. Everyone always passes increased costs on to their customers. The people at the end have no customers to pass it on, so they get stuck.

So, when you decide to deny climate change and resist efforts to do something about it, be sure to pull out you checkbook and make out a check to the rich and powerful.

West Antarctic Ice Sheet Has Passed the Point of No Return

Researchers with NASA and the University of California – Irvine have released the results of their study of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) have found the ice sheet can no longer be prevented from melting into the sea. They studied how the speed of the ice has increased over recent decades, the slope of the land that it is traveling over and how much of the ice sheet is floating on sea water.

A key part of their research is the finding that the grounding line is retreating for all of the glaciers studied. The grounding line is the last location where the glacier is supported by land. Seaward of that line the ice is floating in sea water. This sea water is warmer than the ice and melts it. Over recent decades, the grounding line has been retreating as the glaciers get lighter and float higher. At the same time, the water has been getting warmer, melting the ice at a faster rate.

This information, combined with the finding that there is no landform under most of the glaciers to slow them down and they they reach the conclusion the melting will continue. But, much of the land the ice is located on is actually below sea level, so as the glaciers retreat, the sea water will follow and continue to melt the ice. All of these findings lead to the conclusion that it is now inevitable the ice sheet will completely melt.

How long will it take to melt all of the ice sheet? Probably centuries before it is all gone. But, there will be substantial effects to the world’s sea level starting even today and getting worse over time. By itself, the WAIS will increase the world sea level by about four feet.

So what? If it isn’t going to happen for centuries then we really don’t have to worry about it now. Let the people centuries from now worry about it. They will probably have better technology to deal with the problem that anything we have today. That is the position of the climate change deniers and, just like everything else they say, it is wrong.

It may take some centuries for the sea level to rise by the total four feet, but we will be seeing increases of inches within the coming decades and that is enough to lead to substantial coastal flooding and loss of land. What this means is that we are going to incur the cost of this sea level rise today. Not centuries from now. Today.

So, once again, take out your checkbook and made out a check to the climate change deniers. They keep telling us there is nothing to worry about and we keep believing them.

Charles Krauthammer and Global Warming Science

The Washington Post published a column by Charles Krauthammer where he questions climate change science. Let’s be very honest here. The column is well thought out and is not inflammatory. But, it is also wrong on the basic implied assumption.

What he says is that science is an ongoing process and we cannot come out and say that some scientific issue is closed to debate. This is an accurate assessment of the scientific process. Science never ends. However, the implied part of his column is patently wrong. To suggest that the climate change deniers might have credibility simply because the scientific method requires continuous debate and review is, to put it bluntly, just flat out wrong. What makes it even worse is how he himself produces an example to show just how wrong he is.

He cites the case of mammograms.

It was long assumed that mammograms help reduce breast cancer deaths. This fact was so settled that Obamacare requires every insurance plan to offer mammograms (for free, no less) or be subject to termination.

Now we learn from a massive randomized study — 90,000 women followed for 25 years — that mammograms may have no effect on breast cancer deaths. Indeed, one out of five of those diagnosed by mammogram receives unnecessary radiation, chemo or surgery.

This is a true statement, but actually makes exactly the opposite point that he wants. What we have in this case is a situation where a rigorous, scientific study revealed new information. Climate change deniers are not engaged in any kind of scientifically valid study that disputes the current climate science. And, that is the problem.

Based on Krauthammer’s logic, we should allow anyone with any kind of contrary viewpoint equal time with the scientists. I agree that contrary scientific evidence should be allowed and considered, and it is. But, climate change deniers are not producing this science. Claims that climate change violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics is not scientifically valid (there is no 2nd law violation). Claiming that the greenhouse effect doesn’t exist is not scientifically valid (the greenhouse effect has been rigorously proven). Claiming climate is changing due to natural cycles is not scientifically valid (there are natural cycles but it has been shown what we are experiencing is not one of them). All of these claims, and many, many more, have all been shown to have no basis in the scientific facts.

So, why should they be considered in any scientific debate? Simply, if you are not going to perform as a scientist, don’t be surprised when you are dismissed by the scientific community. And, most importantly, NEVER suggest that deniers are being ignored because climate scientists want to pursue some agenda. There is NO agenda and climate scientists will be the first to tell you they would love to find out climate change is not real. The scientists are the ones most familiar with the effects of climate change and what we are seeing is not pretty. I would be very happy if someone could show that we really don’t have anything to worry about.

Krauthammer is wrong. The science is as settled as it can be at this time. The amount of evidence is massively overwhelming. The deniers really are flat earthers and should be ignored until they can produce something that is scientifically valid.

But, there is more to the story.  Now, it turns out, there is a movement to censor Krauthammer for what he said. I am as strongly opposed to this as I am to giving any credence to the deniers. Freedom of speech is a cherished freedom in this country and we don’t have to look very hard to find countries where they cannot enjoy that freedom. If Krauthammer, who is not a scientist, wishes to express his opinion then he is free to do so. But, so are we. And, if I want to point out that Krauthammer is wrong and misguided, then it is my right to do so.

So, Mr. Krauthammer, I respectfully wish to tell you that you are completely wrong and misguided in your statement.