Thursday, January 31, 2013

China's Smog, and Pennsylvania's

Here is a set of stunning pictures of the smog in China, from The Atlantic.

The NY Times also had an article, saying factories were being shut down and some government vehicles being being taken off the road.

The other day after lunch at a Chinese restaurant, I saw an elderly Chinese man leaving by putting a mask on his face. There was a slight temperature inversion here with some gray and freezing fog (smog?), but it didn't seem especially bad to me.

A few days ago I was reading about the smog in China, and came across the story of the Donora Smog. Since I grew up a few dozen miles from there, but had never heard of this incident, I was intrigued.

It happened in 1948 -- a smog episode in the town of Donora, PA in western Pennsylvania. The smog was so bad people could not leave the town because they couldn't see far enough ahead of them to make it out.

Read that again. People couldn't see far enough ahead of them to escape town.

In a town of 14,000, it killed 20 people and sickened 7,000. It was, of course, caused by pollution from the town's steel and zinc mills, which was trapped by a temperature inversion. Despite pleading, the factories at first refused to close their factories.
On October 27, 1948, thick, opaque smog began to cover the small, flat river town. "You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," said resident Bill Schempp in a 1998 Tribune-Review article by Lynne Glover. Schempp described the scene as something "out of this world." He would recall to David Templeton in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "if you chewed [the air] hard enough, you could swallow it."
And this:
Those who tried to escape found their attempts futile. Devra Davis, author of When Smoke Ran Like Water and epidemiologist, toxicologist and air pollution expert, said that those who tried to escape could not because they could not see through the smog while driving. This occurred even when the town kept its streetlights on during the day in an effort to combat the problem. The dense fog had the residents trapped in the small town, and they had no choice but to ride it out.
This was the most serious episode of air pollution in US history, and it, with the London Smog of 1952 (4,000 dead; or was it 12,000?), lead to the movement for clean air.

The Madness of People

"I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people."

-- Isaac Newton, after losing most of his money in the South Sea Company stock bubble of the early 18th century

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Cost of Pilot Lights

Because I don't like getting my head blown off, I've always avoided pilot lights on gas stoves and such (it's the same reason I avoid fireworks as well), which was a problem when I was a kid because for awhile we had a stove with a finicky light, and I wouldn't help my mother get it back on. (My little brother stepped up to the task.) And I'm not "handy," as they say, and I didn't even know that pilot lights went away about 20 years ago, which is what the guy who came to service my gas furnace told me today. Now they have a ceramic heater that is switched on by electricity, heats up to 1200 °F, which then ignites the flow of gas. Not sure if that'd work for a gas stove where you want a flame immediately, but anyway, he told me it wasn't a safety feature but a change made for efficiency -- it costs $9.50/month for the gas to keep a pilot light lit. I'm don't know if that's now or 20 years ago, but I'm surprised either way, and never realized pilot lights consumed that much gas. My gas bill for January was $42, so that'd be a substantial fraction. For November it was only $13, so a pilot light might have nearly doubled that. Thus does energy efficiency happen.

When Journalism Becomes Linkalism

Via Portlandia:

Where the Heat Went

A commenter here makes a good point: there has been more heat going into the top 700 meters of the ocean in the last 16 years then there were in the previous 16 years. Here's a graph:

(Data here.) If all of the ~ 9 × 1022 J that has gone into the top part of the ocean in the last 16 years had gone instead, say, into the atmosphere, it would have warmed it by roughly ~ 7°C.

(Mass atmosphere = 5 x 1018 kg, specific heat ~ 1000 J/kgK, ignoring variations with pressure and temperature and all that -- this is just a back of the envelope number, and a small envelope at that. Of course, all the extra heat wouldn't go into the atmosphere, but this illustrates how much extra heat is in the system, and how much atmospheric heating can be lost when the ocean warms.)

"Faith is a Padlock of the Mind"

"Faith is a padlock of the mind, and few keys can open it."

-- Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist, in a post about anti-evolution efforts in Texas.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Scientists' Dueling Letters to the Editor Re: Warming

In dueling letters in the Oregonian, scientist David Douglass of the University of Rochester responds to Andreas Schmittner's letter to Gordon Fulks op-ed:
Schmittner is wrong when he says that the statement "global temperatures have not risen during the past 15 years" is not true. Most climate scientists agree that that the earth has not warmed during the past 15 years.
Douglass is simply wrong -- the ocean has warmed strongly in that time, according to NOAA data:

Global Ocean Heat Content 1955-present 0-2000 m 

This means the top half of the ocean has warmed by about 0.8 × 1022 J/yr, or an average of 250 terawatts (TW). Divided over the entire Earth's surface (viz. assuming all the extra heat goes into the ocean) it comes to an average of 0.5 W/m2. That's a lot of warming.

The two-dimensional surface of a planet with a thin gas above it is about the worst place to look for the kind of energy imbalance that additional greenhouse gases create. The oceans have a heat capacity (mass × specific heat) about 1,000 times that of the atmosphere.

Think of it this way: Imagine you have a children's swimming pool with a strong light shining down on it, with a rock in the middle of the pool that sticks above the surface.

Now you want to know, is the light above getting more intense?

Where are you going to look? Are you going to set your thermometer a few millimeters just above the surface of the rock, and see if the temperature there is changing?

Or are you going to stick your thermometer in the water and see if that's changing.

You will, of course, stick it in the water. The rock is close to the water so swirls in the water near the rock can affect the temperature you measure there, and winds carry heat to and from the oceans, etc. No one would dream of measuring just above the rock (though you'd surely start there, because you don't want to get your feet wet).

Of course, we live on such a rock, and that's ultimately the temperature we care about. But anyone would certainly expect, in the children's swimming pool, that if you measure the water warming up, the thin layer of air just above the rock is eventually going to warm up too.

It's no different. The surface is subject to natural variations, and choosing 15 years is a cherry pick. (Why not choose 12? Or 18? Or 30?)

Not to mention, there has been surface warming in the last 15 years. It's just that it hasn't risen above its statistical uncertainty by the canonical 2-sigma.

HadCRUT4's 15-yr trend is, from the SkS trend calculation, 0.098 ± 0.143 °C/decade (2σ). That's a positive trend, i.e warming, and statistically significant at the 83% confidence level. But note that it would have to be above 0.14 °C/decade to be statistically significant at the 95% confidence level, and that's not always going to be the case for short time intervals. Sometimes it will be even stronger, like the period 1975-1998. But picking that period would be cherry picking, too.

Unless temperature increases monotonically upward, with, say, each month 0.001 °C warmer than the month before, contrarians will always be able to find some period where warming is less than 2σ (95%) significant. If it's not 15 years it will be 12 years or 7 years or something. So this game is about all they have left to rely on.

And you can bet than when the next El Nino comes and surface temperatures shoot up, they will be crying that the increased trend isn't a proper measure because it cherry picks the last few years. Bet on it.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Is the Future "Bleak?"

An editorial in the Washington Post by World Bank president Jim Yong Kim means well -- but unfortunately he writes sentences like this:
If there is no action soon, the future will become bleak.
First of all, who really believes the World Bank does anything but represent the interests of the status quo? And the status quo means fossil fuels....

But more to the point, there is no sharp transition where before it the future is sunny, and after it the future is "bleak." It's a continuum, as far as anyone really knows (no, "tipping points" are a very vague science with little to substantiate them. They may be out there, but no one knows where or when.)

I have on my book shelf a book titled Seven Years to Save the Planet: The Questions and Answers, by Bill McGuire.

It was published in 2008. Do I really think that after 2015 comes and goes -- 2+ years from now -- it will all be too late, that the planet will not be salvagable at that point?

No, I don't. Equally, I do not think Jim Yong Kim knows that the future will be "bleak" if we don't act "soon."

We should act soon, but it's very likely we will not. That will be problematic, but the worst thing we can to is tell today's children that their teens and 20s and 30s will be "bleak" because we didn't act by 2015.

The world isn't going to collapse anytime soon, people will get by as they have always found a way to get by, limping and bitching all the way, probably with even more problems than their parents and grandparents, but then there seems no end of problems even if climate change wasn't happening.... but labeling the future "bleak" is false, wrong, and most of all, useless. Because we all have to live there whether we like it or not.

Friday, January 25, 2013

How They Lie (George Will edition)

In "Recipe for conservative revival," George Will writes,
He [Obama] says that “the threat of climate change” is apparent in “raging fires,” “crippling drought” and “more powerful storms.” Are fires raging now more than ever? (There were a third fewer U.S. wildfires in 2012 than in 2006.) 
By now, I hope, you know the denialist's game: cherry pick a year and ignore trends.

Here is the annual data for U.S. acreage burned, from the National Interagency Fire Center:

Notice any trend?
Notice why George Will might have picked 2006 at his year for comparison??

At least, I guess, it keeps you on the Sunday talk shows. For some reason.

Where the (Federal) Money Went

In today's column, Paul Krugman said that the current high federal budget deficit is due to the financial crisis -- specifically lower federal receipts and higher spending on unemployment insurance.
The truth is that the budget deficits of the past four years were mainly a temporary consequence of the financial crisis, which sent the economy into a tailspin — and which, therefore, led both to low tax receipts and to a rise in unemployment benefits and other government expenses. It should have been obvious that the deficit would come down as the economy recovered. But this point was hard to get across until deficit reduction started appearing in the data.
This seemed unlikely to me, but you know, he's right.

Here are federal receipts:

FRED Graph

Peak-to-trough the decline was $460 B. And here's unemployment payments:

Graph of Personal current transfer receipts: Government social benefits to persons: Unemployment insurance

Trough-to-peak the difference was $130 B. 

Adding them makes a budget change of $590 B, which if you subtract from today's deficit of $1.2 T gives about $600 B, not a lot higher than what Bush had it up (well, down) to, about $400 B):

FRED Graph

On a per capita, inflation-adjusted basis, total government spending (federal + state + local) has decreased 5.9% in the last 9 quarters.

Teach the Controversy

Via Why Evolution is True. Several more here, for sale on t-shirts, all just as good:

Geocentric Universe tshirt from Teach the Controversy

Today's Sea Level Stupidity: Las Vegas Review-Journal

An editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, trying to argue against action on climate change, writes:
"Ocean levels are not rising."
Really? Is that so difficult for a newspaper writer to check?


No: dishonest.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

More Gordon Fulks (PhD) Shenanigans

Here more suspicious science from Oregon contrarian Gordon Fulks PhD Physics: In Jan 2012 he gave a talk at a meeting of the Oregon Meteorological Society. (XXX). His slides include this one on sea level:

which is strange: His talk was given in early 2012, so why does the data stop in early 2008? CU's data usually of less than 6 months....

No one, of course, should be surprised at the answer: the data after Fulks' cutoff did not fit his denier storyline, having continued on its long-term trend:

He also choose data that didn't apply an inverse barometer correction (which accounts for changes in sea level height from changes in air pressure), which can have a short-term effect but doesn't affect long-term trends.

Folks like Fulks PhD Physics aren't interested in a real exploration of the data and the science. They get up every morning thinking only of how they can cram it into their chosen position.

Theory and Practice

"In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

-- Yogi Berra

Another Contrarian Wrong About Sea Level

Here's another instance, from Willis Eschenbach, where a contrarian was oh-so-sure that sea level really was plummeting and that NASA's explanation had to be wrong:
The sea level was going up at about 3 mm per year. In the last year it fell about 6 mm. So that’s a change of about a centimetre of water that NASA says has fallen on land and been absorbed rather than returned to the ocean. But of course, the land is much smaller than the ocean … so for the ocean to change by a centimetre, the land has to change about 2.3 cm.

To do that, the above map would have to average a medium blue well up the scale … and it’s obvious from the map that there’s no way that’s happening. So I hate to say this, but their explanation doesn’t ... hold water ...
As far as I can tell, no correction (let alone rethinking) has come forth.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Gordon Fulks PhD Physics, Gets Smacked

Oregon climate change skeptic denier had an op-ed in the Oregonian the other day, "The changing climate of climate change." It contains the usual distortions
The evidence causing great grief is the refusal of the global temperature to increase for the past 15 years. It sloshes back and forth as one would expect on a planet with vast oceans and atmosphere that are never in equilibrium, but does not warm as some claimed it would with slowly increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Consequently, cracks are developing in the scientific facade supporting the dogma.
and the usual histrionics
Reading the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is much like reading Pravda during the Cold War: You do not look for beliefs, but for hints of change.
ending with the usual bullshit
Although the public has little knowledge of science and too easily falls for scams, scientists know that they cannot hold onto theories in the face of contravening evidence, even with vast government largess hanging in the balance. Those who have struck a Faustian bargain are beginning to worry that the devil may one day come to collect.
Today's paper has a letter from Oregon State University climate scientist Andreas Schmittner that gives Fulks a failing grade in science:
As a climate scientist who actively works and publishes in this field, I know what most of my colleagues also know. Temperatures and sea levels are rising, glaciers and sea ice are melting, and man-made greenhouse gases are to blame.

Gordon Fulks, however, in his Jan. 20 column ("The changing climate of climate change"), disagrees. Can he be right? Let's examine his arguments.

Fulks claims that global temperatures have not risen during the past 15 years. This is not true. Most heat trapped by carbon dioxide and other gases added to the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans, as clearly seen in measurements available at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. Could the warming observed during the past 100 years be from heat that "sloshes back and forth" between the oceans and the atmosphere, as Fulks claims, or changes in the sun? No.

Even former climate skeptic Richard Muller, who has recently re-examined the surface temperature measurements, comes to the same conclusions as other climate scientists before him: Humans are the main cause.

Fulks flunks climate science. He cherry-picks information that supports his conclusion and ignores the rest. That's not science. Could it be that Fulks is right and a new ice age is imminent and all the academies of sciences that predict further warming are wrong? Of course.

But it is similarly unlikely that smoking is healthy and all medical associations are conspiring to fool you with their "radical" views on tobacco.

Schmittner is an associate professor in Oregon State University's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.
Schmittner is a climate modeler, and the lead author of this 2011 paper in Science that combined paleoclimate data with a climate model and found a lower than usual value (2.3 K) for climate sensitivity, with a lower uncertainty range (1.7 - 2.6 K, with 66% probability).

There are several other letters in the paper, too, none of them in support.

You really have to wonder why a paper like the Oregonian keeps publishing this kind of stuff. My theory is that it attracts a lot of traffic from debating commenters (so far, 233 on the original article), but maybe I'm just cynical.

Oh yeah -- Fulks wants you to know he has a doctorate in physics. He really wants you to remember that, even announcing it before he asked a question at a seminar (who does that kind of thing?), though there's no evidence he has legally changed his name (yet) to "Gordon Fulks PhD Physics."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"The South has decided to be defeated and dumb."

Garry Wills in The New York Review of Books:
But the current South is willing to cut off its own nose to show contempt for the government. Governor Rick Scott of Florida turned down more than $2 billion in federal funds for a high-speed rail system in Florida that would have created jobs and millions of dollars in revenues, just to show he was independent of the hated federal government. In this mood, his forebears would have turned down TVA. People across the South are going even farther than Scott, begging to secede again from the Union. Packer notes that the tea is cooling in parties across the rest of the nation, but seems to be fermenting to a more toxic brew in the South. No one needs better health care more than the South, but it fights it off so long as Obama is offering it, its governors turning down funds for Medicaid. This is a region that rejects sex education, though its rate of teenage pregnancies is double and in places triple that of New England. It fights federal help with education, preferring to inoculate its children against science by denying evolution.

No part of the country will suffer the effects of global warming earlier or with more devastation than the South, yet its politicians resist measures to curb carbon emissions and deny the very existence of climate change—sending it to the dungeon with evolution and biblical errancy. One doesn’t need much imagination to see the South with lowered or swollen waters in its rivers and ports, raging kudzu, swarming mosquitos, and record-breaking high temperatures, still telling itself that global-warming talk is just a liberal conspiracy. But it just digs deeper in denial. The South has decided to be defeated and dumb.
He ends with:
This is the thing that makes the South the distillation point for all the fugitive extremisms of our time, the heart of Say-No Republicanism, the home of lost causes and nostalgic lunacy. It is as if the whole continent were tipped upward, so that the scattered crazinesses might slide down to the bottom. The South has often been defeated. Now it is defeating itself.

Gerrymandering: "Affirmative Action for Politicians"

From a great comment on Krugman's blog:
"Republicans now must rely entirely on affirmative action for politicians, i.e., gerrymandering, to keep themselves in the game."
(Republicans kept control of the House of Representatives, even though they collectively received about 1 million fewer votes than Democratic candidates in November.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

An Upward Spike in Sea Level

Sea level has risen about 18 mm in the last 12 months, and is now above its 20-year linear trend, according to data the CU Sea Level Research Group released today:

And, it's another indication that, whatever's going on with surface temperatures, the big massive ocean is warming and, hence, expanding upward. (Roger Pielke Sr, among many others, emphasized this: "...the importance of monitoring the variability and trends of ocean heat content as the most appropriate and accurate way to assess global warming and cooling (i.e., the radiative imbalance of the global climate system)."

Back during the 2011 sea level dip, scientists were saying that the El Nino-to-La Nina had put a lot of water (via rainfall) onto land, and it would drain off in a year or so and sea level rise would be back on track. Some tried to pretend otherwise. Guess who was right.

Here's NASA's Josh Willis talking about the dip in sea level just over a year ago, and saying it was unlikely to continue:

As he says at the end, "the long-term outlook is definitely one of rising sea level and global warming." Don't bet against it.

True (and Funny) Facts About the Seahorse

From Ze Frank, via Why Evolution is True:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Rick Perry: Praying Yet Again

Some people choose to wallow in complete ignorance:
Gov. Rick Perry recommended prayer rather than changes in gun laws to combat violence in society, following President Obama’s call for increased gun control and enforcement.
Just a year and a half ago, Rick Perry prayed for rain:
“Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”
And how did that work out? Not at all, of course -- 2012 was as a drought year in Texas.

How can a huge, entire state not laugh this man out of office??

Mendeleev's Predictions

I am a big fan of predictions -- especially mathematically accurate predictions like Einstein's result for the anomalous perihelion shift of Mercury, or Schwinger's prediction of the electron anomalous magnetic moment (g-2 ≈ α/π) -- or even QCD's prediction for the muon capture rate by protons, which was recently confirmed -- but Mendeleev didn't do so bad either:

Exaggerating the Effects of Climate Change

While I defer to no one about the long-term threat of climate change if CO2 emissions aren't curtailed, this is ridiculous:
"Climate change affects everything that you do," said report co-author Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. "It affects where you live, where you work and where you play and the infrastructure that you need to do all these things. It's more than just the polar bears."
Frankly, I can't think of a single instance in my entire lifetime where I considered climate change in any of my decisions about anything. Anything.

Granted, I now live in Oregon, which has a two-season mild (and boring) climate which escaped last year's big eastern heat wave. And someday the declining snowpack here will be a problem. But I've lived in Arizona, where it once got so hot (122°F) they closed the airport because they didn't have charts on the performance of planes above 120. I've lived in New Mexico, where it got hot but, frankly, my bigger problem was riding my bike to school in the early 20°F mornings in their dry, cold air. I've lived in New Hampshire, where I put a crack in windshield trying to hack off a thick inch of ice, and once had to shovel out four 3-ft snowfalls in the month of March.

But it was New Hampshire. I certainly didn't blame it on climate change, and actually I kind of liked all that snow.

If you're not a well-to-do American, a relatively impoverished person living near the equator in a developing country, climate change can already be a problem. And it's going to be a problem for everyone if CO2 emissions keep increasing exponentially, as they are.

But it's just not a problem now, in the United States, for most people. It just isn't. Maybe if you're a midwestern farmer affected by the drought -- but then, you get compensated handily for it. It costs the country a little bit, less than what falls in between our couch cushions. It might have cost some people a little extra for Hurricane Sandy, maybe 10%, but there have been big storms up the east coast in the past and will be more in the future, even if the climate change doesn't change.

It's going to be a big problem, and how do you get people interested in what's to come? I don't know, but if they're too dumb to understand (or accept) the science, they'll pay for their stupidity, as will those who come after them. But it's not now a big problem, certainly not to the extent of Cutter's quote above, and exaggerating does more harm than it helps.

To my mind, one exaggeration like that can undo all the good, thousands of hours of work by all the scientists who carefully and meticulously write assessment reports and try to accurately portray the science. Which is really a shame.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Drought Cost: $5.20 per ton of CO2

NY Times:
The worst drought in 50 years could leave taxpayers with a record bill of nearly $16 billion in crop insurance costs because of poor yields....

Separately, a record $11.4 billion in indemnities for crop losses has been paid out to farmers, and officials say that number could balloon to as much as $20 billion.
Given U.S. emissions, that works out to $5.20 per ton of CO2.

I'm just sayin'.

Amazing Solar Eruption

From NASA:

Monday, January 14, 2013

Swimming Through Beijing

Some incredible air pollution in Beijing:

Kottke has pictures of the CCTV building in Beijing, taken two days apart that are equally frightening.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ocean Weather

Here is a nice (and useful) description of decadal climate variability as "ocean weather," by the Met Office:
There are strong analogies between weather forecasting for a few days ahead and longer-term decadal forecasts for the next few years. When we make a weather forecast we are predicting what the likely evolution of the atmospheric circulation will be over the next few days; when we make a decadal forecast we are essentially predicting ocean 'weather' - in other words how the oceanic circulation will evolve over the next few years and its subsequent impact on the atmosphere. The different timescales for these forecasts reflects the differences in density and thermal capacity noted above.
Given that, their ensemble prediction (10 individual forecasts) for the rest of this decade is:
Global annual temperature record since 1950 and the latest ensemble of forecasts from the Met Office decadal prediction system produced in December 2012 : This link opens in a new window
In other words, the change in average global surface temperature is forecast to be ±0.2°C by the end of the decade. That is, noise and thermal inertia pretty much precludes making a climatological meaningful forecast on such a short time scale.

I wish this was the last time any of us had to write that, but surely it won't be.

The rest of their article -- about testing their predictions, and about warming over the next 5-10 years, is worth reading too. They conclude:
The latest decadal forecast, issued in December 2012, show that the Earth is expected to maintain the record warmth that has been observed over the last decade, and furthermore a substantial proportion of the forecasts show that new record global temperatures may be reached in the next 5 years.  
That should keep the David Rose's of the world employed for a few more years, at least.

Carbon Tax: Australians Losing Interest?

Australians may be losing interest in their carbon tax -- or at least
 griping about it. The Australian reports:
THE number of complaints from consumers about the federal government's carbon tax dropped dramatically in the last three months, according to consumer watchdog figures.

The Australian reports that data obtained from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) shows it received just three complaints a day about the tax between October and January.

That compares with 10 to 15 complaints at the beginning of October, and 60 complaints a day in the Gillard government's first 100 days in office, the newspaper reports.

The figures reportedly show that complaints related to the tax now make up just one per cent of total complaints received by the ACCC.
Maybe that it's just that their world hasn't come to an end with enactment of the tax, despite predictions.

There is some talk of a tax here in the Pacific Northwest, where state transportation people are worried that electric cars aren't paying their fair share of road upkeep from gas taxes. British Columbia has had a carbon tax for four years:
British Columbia collects about $1 billion each year from its carbon tax. The downside? Heating prices went up and gas is up 30 cents per gallon (or about 7 cents per liter). But the government takes the carbon tax revenue and then turns around and puts it towards lowering the income and corporate tax rates, as well as providing targeted rebates for low-income and rural citizens.
Slowly but surely, a Pigovian carbon tax is coming everyone's way.... and perhaps someday people will wonder why there was ever any other kind of tax.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cynicism Re: Mark Lynas

Ted Worstall at also takes Mark Lynas to task, and adds:
I have to admit that the cynic in me is concentrating upon this part:

     "I published my first book on global warming in 2004,"

Which means that someone wishing to publish another book in the near future will need to have changed his public views in order to have something different to say in the new book. But that is me being horribly cynical.
Time will tell, but would you bet against it?

Vikings, Greenland, and the Medieval Warm Period

The standard story is that the Vikings, ferocious warriors all, settled in Greenland during the balmy Medieval Warm Period, and then bailed when the MWP ended and the weather turned colder.

Maybe not.

As der Spiegel reports, they might just have gotten homesick -- too isolated from trade, too far from home:
The descendants of the Vikings had persevered in their North Atlantic outpost for almost 500 years, from the end of the 10th century until the mid-15th century. The Medieval Warm Period had made it possible for settlers from Norway, Iceland and Denmark to live on hundreds of scattered farms along the protected fjords, where they built dozens of churches and even had bishops.

Their disappearance remains a mystery to this day. Until now, many experts had assumed that the cooling of the climate and the resulting crop failures and famines had ushered in the end of the Scandinavian colony. But now a Danish-Canadian team of scientists believes that it can refute this theory of decline.
These scientists looked at the bones left on Greenland -- of the human inhabitants, of their lifestock, and of what they fished.

They found that, when the warming ended, the Vikings quickly turned to seafood, especially seals. Which makes sense -- no one's going to just starve to death, especially hard-assed warrior types.

The rest of the story seems more speculative, but plausible:
The scientists suspect that a combination of causes made life there unbearable for the Scandinavian immigrants. For instance, there was hardly any demand anymore for walrus tusks and seal skins, the colony's most important export items. What's more, by the mid-14th century, regular ship traffic with Norway and Iceland had ceased.

As a result, Greenland's residents were increasingly isolated from their mother countries. Although they urgently needed building lumber and iron tools, they could now only get their hands on them sporadically. "It became more and more difficult for the Greenlanders to attract merchants from Europe to the island," speculates Jette Arneborg, an archeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. "But, without trade, they couldn't survive in the long run."

The settlers were probably also worried about the increasing loss of their Scandinavian identity. They saw themselves as farmers and ranchers rather than fishermen and hunters. Their social status depended on the land and livestock they owned, but it was precisely these things that could no longer help them produce what they needed to survive.
In the end, the inhabitants of Greenland just might have seen no future for themselves there, and returned "home." The lack of valuable tchotchkes suggests the departure was orderly, and not the result of disease or calamity, which you would expect if the climate were failing.

The great thing about history is that is it always more complex than we assume. This seems like another example that proves that rule.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Bargaining With the Horse

Via Why Evolution is True:
"There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

-- Robert Ingersoll
There's a new book coming out that looks good: The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Another Review of "The Eskimo and the Oil Man"

Awhile back I discussed, positively, Bob Reiss's book The Eskimo and the Oil Man. Chris Winter, a reader here, wrote his own review recently, and liked it as much:
"I recommend The Eskimo and the Oil Man with full marks and consider it a keeper. That said, however, I feel the author focuses too narrowly on Shell's representative Pete Slaiby. I have no doubt Slaiby is a good man, but his opinion on the concern for safety of the oil industry in general is suspect at best."
He also writes, "I'll simply point out that, in the Arctic, Shell has performed poorly over the past two summers. It is not ready to begin drilling." Not only that, but Shell is having lots of problems with an towed drilling platform that has run aground south of Alaska. (Video here.) That's probably undoing much of the good word Slaiby has been working to gain in the the last several years. The platform is south of Alaska, but you have to wonder how, if they can't control a smaller platform there, they could handle a larger problem much further north in (now) total darkness.

Shell will probably eventually get its way on being allowed to drill in the Arctic, if it wants to -- it's hard to see the U.S. and Alaskan governments simply saying "no" -- unless they quit first because of the cost. So far they've spent about $4.5 billion.

Chris also has a review of Michael Specter's Denialism, which I mentioned earlier and am still working through.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Big Earthquake in southeastern Alaska

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: 2013-01-05 08:58:19 UPDATED: (Mwp 7.7) SOUTHEASTERN ALASKA 55.3 -134.7 (2b02a)
Date: Sat, 5 Jan 2013 09:11:22 +0000 (UTC)
From: (USGS ENS)
Reply-To: <>

Globe with Earthquake Location


Preliminary Earthquake Report
Magnitude 7.7 Mwp
  • 5 Jan 2013 08:58:19 UTC
  • 4 Jan 2013 23:58:19 near epicenter
  • 5 Jan 2013 00:58:19 standard time in your timezone
Location 55.292N 134.728W
Depth 9 km
  • 101 km (63 miles) SW (221 degrees) of Edna Bay, AK
  • 102 km (64 miles) W (259 degrees) of Craig, AK
  • 106 km (66 miles) S (182 degrees) of Port Alexander, AK
  • 1032 km (641 miles) NW (315 degrees) of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Location Uncertainty Horizontal: 12.3 km; Vertical 4.4 km
Parameters Nph = 362; Dmin = 103.9 km; Rmss = 1.14 seconds; Gp = 129°
M-type = Mwp; Version = 7
Event ID us c000ejqv ***This event supersedes event PT13005000.
For updates, maps, and technical information, see:
Event Page
USGS Earthquake Hazards Program
National Earthquake Information Center
U.S. Geological Survey

Friday, January 04, 2013

Mark Lynas: Worse Than Tuskegee?

Wow. Mark Lynas, science journalist, has just admitted that he hasn't respected science.

Lynas is author of, among other works, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. It has gotten a lot of acclaim -- even David Archer recommended it in his U Chicago lectures on climate science -- but now you have to wonder.

Lynas just admitted he was wrong about GMOs -- genetically modified organisms. At a lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference yesterday, he said:
"I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment."
A brave admission, you say? Not so fast, I say. That demonization, by no means limited to Lynas, has done great damage over the years. It has even convinced African governments not to accept GMO imports to feed their starving people -- food that you and I eat every day -- and how much worse, morally, can you get than that?

There has never been scientific proof that GMOs are harmful -- ever. The Pustzai experiment was clearly a crappy one, with bad methodology, and showed nothing.

Between Armad Pustzai and Anthony Wakefield, has any country ever done more scientific damage in a few short years?

Almost a decade ago I went to a conference for science journalists at Cornell, where their biologists tried to explain to us how GMOs were little different from conventional cross-breeding.

Most of us got it, but there were a couple of liberal (excuse me -- "progressive") writers for places like In These Times who insisted on finding faults.

I never wrote much about GMOs -- I queried Wired about writing on the moral failings of NGOs in Africa, and got sent to a conference of anti-GM activists in Kentucky, but my article go watered down to a "Why GM Food Could Start a Trade War" -- my fault as much as theirs.

I didn't write much more about GMOs after that, and instead turned to climate change. But my opinion about GMOs never changed: if you can still stomach this controversy, I would recommend you read Pandora's Picnic Basket by Alan McHughen, which is the best, most scientifically inclusive presentation I've read so far.

Keith Kloor has recently explained it well: there is just no scientific basis for opposing GMOs.

And there never has been. How people like Mark Lynas never saw that, I don't know. Frankly, I think it's because he is more of an activist than a science journalist, and that is dangerous -- and it immediately makes his writing on climate change suspect, too, no matter how much you or I might like it.

In my opinion, the damage done by the likes of Lynas and sympathetic NGOs is an ethical travesty, worse than what the US government did in Tuskegee. African governments have turned down food that you and I eat on a daily basis -- almost all processed food you buy in an U.S. grocery store contains GM ingredients, particularly soy and corn. (About 5 years ago, on a lark, I went to a grocery store manager in Portland and asked him if his store sold any genetically modified ingredients. No, he said. I knew he was clearly wrong, but was just testing.)

A quick little apology isn't going to cut it here. Lynas ought to be drummed out of the profession of science journalism.

Remaking "Cosmos" (Ugh)

Apparently they are going to remake Cosmos -- the heralded television series hosted by Carl Sagan, who was infamous for his talk about "billions and billions," but which actually did a damn good job of popularizing science -- with Neil deGrasse Tyson as host.

That's like remaking Citizen Kane -- it can't be done, and should never be attempted.

But it seems Tyson (deGrasse Tyson?) is more interested in being popular than being scientific. He just told the Columbia Journalism Review:
"I tweet random thoughts I have. I don’t have a lesson plan. In fact, people say, ‘Can you tell me the latest on this discovery?’, and it’s like, no, that’s not why I’m tweeting. I occasionally will reflect on a discovery, but I’m not your news service. The 140 characters are giving you access to how my brain is wired in any day of my life, how I see things."
This is disappointing. Science is the antithesis of Twitter-thinking -- it requires deep thinking about all the angles. And, when you're done, thinking about it all over again.

Ray Pierrehumbert put it well on the dedication page of his textbook Principles of Planetary Climate -- "For Arnold E Ross, who taught us to think deeply of simple things."

Tyson ought to be explaining how science requires such thinking, good and deep thinking, which is never done in X numbers of characters.

This is an opportunity missed.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Wind Energy Tax Credits Extended

By the way, the fiscal cliff legislation just passed includes an extension of the wind energy tax credit -- "a tax credit of 2.2 cents/kWh that is applicable to power generated from wind farms for the first 10 years from the start of operation."

It also a total of $76 B in corporate tax credits, so they'll be no whining about special green energy boondoggles....
General Electric and Citigroup, for instance, hired Breaux and Lott to extend a tax provision that allows multinational corporations to defer U.S. taxes by moving profits into offshore financial subsidiaries. This provision -- known as the "active financing exception" -- is the main tool GE uses to avoid nearly all U.S. corporate income tax.

Liquor giant Diageo also retained Breaux and Lott to win extensions on two provisions benefitting rum-making in Puerto Rico. (Washington Examiner)
These days our entire government is a boondoggle.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Bus Crashes and Seat Belts

oregon bus crash deadman passA bus crash in eastern Oregon just killed 9 people and injured many others, after running off the snowy highway and rolling 200 feet down a steep embankment. It sounds terrifying(*).

Why don't buses have seat belts? The driver of the bus had a seat belt (he survived). What about everyone else? What about school buses?

This article in Business Insider says it's mostly the cost. With high, padded seatbacks close together, riders are consider to be "compartmentalized" (and apparently they don't consider kids able to use seat belts properly - really?). And they're just not cost effective, it reports:
A study done by the Alabama State Department of Education found that it would cost between $32 and $38 million to install seat belts on all the state's [school] buses, while only saving one life....

The federal government only requires seat belts in small buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds where having a seat belt would affect safety.

The greatest risk isn't riding the bus to school, it's approaching and leaving the bus, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But what about private buses? Why can't they at least give passengers the option? The cost?

This article says 6 states now require seat belts on school buses.

I know from my own days of riding a school bus -- an hour each way up until grade 9 -- that kids don't sit still on the bus. Or, at least, we were allowed to get away with not sitting still. But adults on a charter bus can sit still.

Now I am going to wonder/worry about this the next time I ride a bus.

(*) I drove through there when I moved to Oregon. It was January, and the only place I encountered snow was the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon, and it was fairly serious. Coming down out of there to Pendleton -- the area where this bus crashed -- is pretty hairy.

Greatness Achieved, Darkness Defeated

Knock, Knock by Band of Horses: