Thursday, January 27, 2011

Making the Case as Simply as I Can

In the last several months, I've thought a lot about the need to complexify the seemingly simple. Obviously, I think that's too often overlooked, but I don't want to forget the need to cut to the chase. That's what this entry is about.

What is the simplest scientific case that can be made for the fact that humans are changing the climate?

Understanding two indisputable facts and knowing some grade school-level vocabulary makes a very compelling case. That's just three simple things.

Simple Thing #1:
I'll start with the grade school vocabulary. You need to know the difference between weather and climate. Weather is about the state of the atmosphere with regards to temperature, moisture and wind at a given time in a given place. Climate is the weather over a long period of time; typically on a scale that is at least decades long. Knowing what the weather is tells you what clothes to wear today. Knowing what the climate is tells you what clothes you should own.

Oh, and you should understand the meaning of the word "global."

It may be cold in Washington this winter. That's the weather. And it's not global.

Simple Thing #2 (a.k.a., Simple Fact #1):
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases absorb heat in the atmosphere and make it warm up. We can demonstrate that very, very easily in the laboratory.

Get yourself a seltzer bottle and try it at home. It really is that simple. I'd be more inclined to put the jars in a sunny spot than to use the lights, but it will work either way. 

Of course, you'd be right to note that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the jar is considerably more than that of the atmosphere. Indeed. But, hello! The atmosphere is miles thick -- it's a heck of a lot bigger than that jar. And Earth is blanketed by all those miles of atmosphere that trap heat in.

Simple Thing #3 (a.k.a., Simple Fact #2):
Each and everyone of us (assuming that us means folks who are sitting in comfortable homes or offices while the chill of winter is outside our walls and that we've been in some sort of vehicle in the last few days) is adding ton after ton after ton of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. 

Really. Tons and tons. If you burned 10 gallons of gas in the last week or two, the stuff didn't just go away. You turned about 60 pounds of gasoline into about 180 pounds of carbon dioxide. Add to that the fuel to heat your house, to make and transport the things you own and have consumed, build your roads and other infrastructure, and to move your military about and have them do their (our?) business and pretty soon it adds up to lots and lots of carbon dioxide. 

And there are hundreds of millions of us living this lifestyle and billions more who aspire to it.

(To refresh your memory on how burning stuff creates more weight of carbon dioxide than the weight of the stuff you started with, take a look back to this post with its nifty animations.) 

There's more to it...
Of course you can get complicated pretty quickly, and to really understand climate change you need to read and understand more than the few paragraphs I've put together here. But the above really is beyond dispute. And understanding the above makes it very, very difficult to dispute that the stuff we humans are (and have been) up to is changing how the atmosphere works in ways that are making the planet heat up. 

That's it: two little facts and a bit of grade school vocabulary. Is it simple enough for you? 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Up close and personal with extreme snowstorms in Oswego, NY.

The Doppler-on-Wheels in action.
 Credit: CSWR
In early January, the National Science Foundation highlighted research that aims to learn more about lake effect snowstorms and how they are formed.  Researchers in Oswego, NY are utilizing a new radar tool, the Doppler-on-Wheels (DOW), to take measurements literally inside a lake-effect snowstorm as it forms and travels across the lake.

Oswego, NY and the nearby Tug Hill Plateau region are known as some of the "snowiest" regions in the United States.  An average of 300 inches (25 ft!) of snow falls here each year, the largest average snowfall of any non-mountainous region in the United States.

The region's notoriety for snow is due to its proximity to the Great Lakes.  As cold Arctic air sweeps down over the warm lake water, water vapor is formed.  The water vapor condenses to form clouds that continue to move across the lake and dump enormous amounts of "lake-effect snow" on nearby communities.

The DOW, a portable Doppler radar dish mounted on the back of a flatbed truck, is a blizzard chaser's dream come true.  The DOW can reveal information about the inner workings of snowstorm that normally can't be seen with distant radars.  In addition to measuring wind and snow intensity, the DOW can analyze fine-scale properties such as the density of the snow, whether it forms pellets, and its snow crystal type.  These fine-scale properties can have a huge influence on the severity of a storm, often determining whether it will snow a few inches or a few feet.

Researchers hope that insight into how lake effect snowstorms are formed will help to better predict snowy outcomes in both the short and long term.

Sharinne Sukhnanand

These briefs are part of a weekly series of updates to the PRI publication: Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future.  The entire series can be found here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A sampling of things I listen to on my morning commute

As a telecommuter, I have a loop-shaped morning commute.  I take a walk to wake me up, keep me from becoming even tubbier, see the world and listen to podcasts.  What podcasts?  They vary across a range of topics that my brain sees as connected to the social and natural world and how people learn about that stuff.  That's nice and narrow, isn't it?

Sometimes I end up listening to just one particular episode from a series as I'm looking for a particular author talking about her or his book, but most of the time I listen to regularly podcasted programs.  In this post, I'll give attention to both categories -- the ones I listen to regularly and one "special" episode.  And I'll give you a sentence or two about why I like them. 

I'd thought about listing a bunch, but today I'll just do a few with the intention of coming back to the topic with additions when the mood strikes.  

None of these are focused exclusively on climate change, though many have the occasional (or, in the case of the first and third, frequent) program dedicated to it.  The links typically will take you to the show's homepage.  You can generally find a link to subscribe there, or type or paste the name into iTunes search box.
The Long Now Foundation's monthly Seminars were started in 02003 to build a compelling body of ideas about long-term thinking; to help nudge civilization toward our goal of making long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare.

  • Ideas: How to Think About Science (from CBC Radio) This series gives a good overview of thinkers in the nature of science.  It's a few years old now, and it's been a while since I listened to it, but it's a good course to stick in your pocket.  How to Think About Science is really a subset of their Ideas program, which is also quite good.
The Canadian Broadcasting Company has perhaps as rich an array of good podcasts as NPR, and I live within broadcast range to catch some of it over the air.  In fact, as I looked at CBC's podcast page (the previous link), I saw a new one which I'll just go ahead and add a new bullet for:

  • The Bottom Line, with David Suzuki (from CBC Radio)  As noted above, I just stumbled across this (it's new!), but I've never been disappointed with David Suzuki's work.  He's the pre-eminent Canadian environmental journalist.  Wouldn't it be nice if the US had one of those?  Or a few that you had to choose amongst?  Ah well, at least we can listen to Suzuki's fine work more easily in this digital age.  
Here's an episode description to whet your appetite: "David Suzuki goes camping in Haida Gwaai with former Minister Jim Prentice. They discuss the root of the word economics and climate change. David also interviews the former chief economist of the World Bank about the cost of climate change."  There's my morning commute for tomorrow.

  • Radiolab (from WNYC) Radiolab is just a delight.  The way the hosts play with ideas and bring life to science is hard to top.  Here's a blurb from a show a couple of years ago, Stochasticity, that I really liked:
"Stochasticity (a wonderfully slippery and smarty-pants word for randomness), may be at the very foundation of our lives. To understand how big a role it plays, we look at chance and patterns in sports, lottery tickets, and even the cells in our own body. Along the way, we talk to a woman suddenly consumed by a frenzied gambling addiction, meet two friends whose meeting seems to defy pure chance, and take a close look at some very noisy bacteria."

And, of course:

  • TED  My guess is you already know about this, but if not, follow the link and be prepared to surrender some time to some great talks.   I'll also note that I'm pleased that TEDx Buffalo is coming April 7, 2011.  TEDx are locally organized TED Conferences.  I'm kind of excited about it...

Click on the episode name to get to the identified special episode.  Clicking on the podcast name will take you to the series site.
  • This American Life: Kid Politics (from Chicago Public Media)  This episode of one of the most popular podcasts that there is includes a segment on climate change understanding and the resistance to changing one's mind.  It's fascinating.  And it's got a dash of extra coolness because I know Roberta Johnson a little.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Year 3000

I'm a few days late for my weekly posting. I was waiting for some sort of inspiration and I just found it: Global Warming: Dire Prediction for the Year 3000.  The timing of this article is ironic because just yesterday I found myself pondering the year 3000. I'm not sure why; it's not something I regularly consider. I'm a young and spry 34 years old and I think about everything that's changed in my lifetime. I started out using a rotary phone and had a tiny black and white TV that had four fuzzy channels: 2, 3, 5, and 9. Now it seems like no one can live without their flat screen TV's with 500 channels, their internet, or their cell phones. When I was in grade school and saw my first computer is was an enormous, imposing machine that most people never used. Now they are the size of a piece of paper and we can't live without them. And our enviroment has changed so much in my 34 years. We've lost so many species and destroyed so much land. Until relatively recently industries were freely allowed to pollute our land, air, and water. On the other hand, we are more aware of environmental issues now. We recycle, we have laws in place lessen environmental pollution, we have NGO's advocating on behalf of animals, plants, ecosystems... It's overwhelming to even comprehend where (or if) we will be in the year 3000. What will Earth be like? From what I've read of this article, computer models show there is little hope for our world, even if we completely stop creating excess carbon dioxide. Luckily, researchers seem a smidge more optimistic and I am too. We can change things for the better. Just think about my 34 years-- where we quickly jumped from low tech to high tech, from mass consumerism to eco-friendly. It's a drop in the bucket compared to the 989 more years we have to go until 3000. The prediction doesn't have to be dire. Things certainly will be different but hopefully not dire.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Geologic Now ≠ Human Now. And, Baby it's Hot Outside.

I started writing this before today's announcement from NOAA that 2010 tied for the warmest year on record.  My original text was funnier, based on predictions that a cool December bumped it out of the top spot.  Ah well.

2010 didn't set a new record for the hottest year in human history.  2010 tied 2005 for the warmest year.   I guess global warming has stopped.  Whew.  I'm so glad we can relax now.  Not.

Pardon the linguistic structure I used to the irritation of many while I was a teenager.

2005 stands as the warmest year ever.  Does that mean global warming is over?  Um, well, no.  With today's announcement, I guess I need to change the highlighted sentence.  I hate it when reality deflates my rhetorical shenanigans.  Let me try again.

2010 wasn't the hottest year ever.  Does that mean global warming has reached it's peak?  Um, well.  It kind of was just as warm as the warmest year ever, so probably not. See?  That's just not as provocative.  Darn it.  And, baby it's hot outside.

Baby, it's hot outside.

But, if the globe is warming, shouldn't every year be hotter than the last?  Shouldn't every day be hotter than the last?  Every second?

December was cool (and, hey, it's pretty cold out now where I am) so maybe we've turned a corner!  Well, no.

The human now referenced in the title of this post occurs during the geologic now.  But the geologic now lasts a lot longer than the human now.  The Long Now Foundation does things to help us understand this (and produces really interesting podcasts).  They're building the 10,000 Year Clock to help drive the message home.  This relates too to the issue I raised a few weeks ago about how I'm not particularly concerned with saving the Earth.

So, the "Baby it's hot outside" line isn't about the human now.  It's about the geologic now.

Today isn't the hottest day ever.  Does that mean we're cooling off?  I think most of us think that's a silly question.  At what scale does it stop being silly? Last month wasn't the hottest December ever.  Does that mean we're cooling off?  Last year may or may not be the warmest year on record.  Does that mean we're cooling off?

The last decade was the warmest decade in a few million years.  Does that mean we're heating up?  That might well be the same kind of error (but in the opposite direction) that I've tried to caution against in the last paragraph.

Is it a mistaken claim?  How do we decide?

There are lots of issues to consider.  Here they are a few stated very briefly followed by short explanations:
  • If we chose a different date to start the year, the warmest year on record would have been last year.  January 1st starts the year by the historic agreement of a bunch of humans, not because something in nature says so.  If we chose a different starting date for the year, we have a couple of different year-long periods that were the warmest on record globally in the immediate past.  The warmest 12 months on record and the warmest "meteorologic year" (November to November) both occurred in 12 month periods bridging 2009 and 2010.  
  • A year is but a blip.  That's part of the point of this post.  Looking at one year tells you something, but with the context of history, it tells you a lot more.  Here's looking back to 1880:
Oh, Baby It's Hot Outside.

And going back over a millennia: 

I, Like, Really Mean It.  Baby It's Hot Outside!

  • Human history is but a blip.  I'm not worried about global temperatures soaring to the warmest temperatures in geologic history, and therefore don't feel the need (or have the time) to go further back in time.  I will note that the temperature has varied quite a bit over the 4.5 billion years of Earth history.  Right now (in both the human and geologic sense) humanity is at the end of the timeline.  And, on most scales, humanity is just a blip on scales where you can envision the depth of geologic time.  Humanity -- modern humans; homo sapiens -- have only been around for a couple hundred thousand years.  Pause and think about how big a billion really is -- it's a thousand millions; and a million is a thousand thousands.  4.5 billion -- the age of Earth is a whoppingly large number.  Blip.  I tell you: Blip.
I've got no real idea if, when some sentient beings billions of years in the future, look back at Earth's history they will see humanity as just a blip.  And I don't want to get all mushy or philosophical about it.

What I do know is this: Baby, it's hot outside!  (Geologically speaking).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Precautionary Principle

Every since climate change became public debate, I've encountered people on both sides of the climate change fence and many who are on the fence as well. I respect every one's opinions and their reasons for believing what they do. I never try to enter into a climate change debate because I'm certainly not an expert. But, unfortunately, since people know I'm a biologist, they automatically want to poke me on the issue. With climate change, I always resort to the precautionary principle. Here's a definition from

Main Entry:   precautionary principle 1
Part of Speech:   n
Definition:   the theory that an action should be taken when a problem or threat occurs, not after harm has been inflicted; an approach to decision- making in risk management which justifies preventive measures or policies despite scientific uncertainty about whether detrimental effects will occur
Example:   The precautionary principle was adopted by the UN Conference on Environment and Development.
Etymology:   1988
Main Entry:   precautionary principle 2
Part of Speech:   n
Definition:   in environmental matters, the theory that if the effects of a product or action are unknown, then the product should not be used or the action should not be taken
Example:   A comprehensive definition of the precautionary principle was spelled out in a meeting of scientists, lawyers, policy makers and environmentalists.
Etymology:   1988

When people start spewing out statistics and talking conspiracy theories, I just simply state that no matter what, it's always wise to take precautions. Worst-case scenarios should always be considered and planned for. We should never wait until disaster happens to act. In this case, even if climate change turns out to not be as deleterious as originally thought, the precautions put in place will be to our advantage no matter what the scenario. Can anyone say that moving towards sustainable energy is a bad thing? Is changing our consumptive, polluting behavior a bad thing? No. Usually when I break out the precautionary principle, the argument stops and agreement begins. Try it sometime.