Help from the Tundra

From Bob Park’s newsletter:

One of the global warming nightmares is that thawing permafrost might release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. This positive feedback would accelerate warming. A group led by M. Turetsky of Michigan State found that new plant growth in thawing Canadian peat bogs more than offset the release of methane.

I looked for Turetsky’s study and found this press release linking to this abstract

WIRED Correlations

I may have referred you to Wired Magazine in the past, on occasion, but I will no longer do so. I must henceforth refer you to “WIRED” magazine. The all-caps rendition is a sort of concession to the fact that they are, at least indirectly, paying me a few dollars.

In association with the PBS TV station KCET, a new popular science TV show is starting called “Wired Science”, oops, “WIRED science“. I’ve seen the pilot and it’s not bad at all. Of course, given the connection to WIRED, they need some sort of interactive media angle. One low-hanging fruit of course is to start a blog. They asked around for science bloggers who were interested in and capable of reaching a broad audience and somehow ended up with me, among others. Now it’s a bit odd that they ended up with me. I’ve never thought of “In It” as appealing to a broad audience, though it largely discusses how to reach a broad audience.

Well, now I get to put up or shut up. There are professional promotional dollars here, and even (full disclosure) a modest recompense for me. So we’ll see if all my thinking about reaching a broad audience has resulted in any actual, you know, skill.

Unfortunately there is already a “WIRED Science” blog at, so we had to come up with another name, and under time pressure settled on Correlations. So this is to announce that I’ll be doing genuine outreach on the Correlations blog associated with WIRED Science on television.

“In It” fans should not be concerned. “In It” is not going away or changing substantially. I’m just going to be putting a few extra brain cells into a bit of pop science every week. Cross-linking to and from “In It” may be expected, but I will try to stick with the existing tone and content of this blog here.

More about Correlations can be seen at co-correlator Tara Smith’s blog.

I look forward to conveying the substance of climate science and computational science to a broad audience without worrying too much about the noise factor.

Good News Bad News

The good news is that the first new nuclear plant in the US in ages is being proposed for Texas, and the City of Austin is thinking about chipping in. Thus it is an important step to realistically addressing greenhouse gas accumulation.

The bad news is that the plant will be sited next to existing nuclear facilities near Bay City TX at Matagordo Bay, and so, as far as I can tell, would add to the already vast industrial infrastructure at risk from sea level rise.

Generalized Climate Change

A report called “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change”, written by some generals and admirals of the US military, was released in April of this year by an outfit called The CNA Corporation, and is available for you to download.

The report gets it right, I think. Climate change isn’t the big problem; it’s all one big problem, but climate change makes it worse.

In the vocabulary of military people it comes out like this:

Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security risks for the United States. Accordingly, it is appropriate to start now to help mitigate the severity of some of these emergent challenges. The decision to act should be made soon in order to plan prudently for the nation’s security. The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse with delay.

I wouldn’t put it that way myself, but it’s true enough.

The report is available from which summarizes as follows:

The report includes several formal findings:

  • Projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security.
  • Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.
  • Projected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world.
  • Climate change, national security and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.

The report also made several specific recommendations:

  • The national security consequences of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national defense strategies.
  • The U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate changes at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.
  • The U.S. should commit to global partnerships that help less developed nations build the capacity and resiliency to better manage climate impacts.
  • The Department of Defense should enhance its operational capability by accelerating the adoption of improved business processes and innovative technologies that result in improved U.S. combat power through energy efficiency.
  • DoD should conduct an assessment of the impact on US military installations worldwide of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other possible climate change impacts over the next thirty to forty years.

The Long Now

The Long Now is a very impressive site which has been up for years apparently. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Of course since Stewart Brand is one of my main intellectual influences it’s little surprise I’d like his organization’s blog. I’m just sorry I’ve missed it for so long.

Anyway, Alexander Rose hits the nail on the head with yesterday’s entry “Engineers vs. Druids“.

We have seen this now playing out all over the world where the “druids” have come out against many low-to-no carbon methods of generating power (wind, hydro, nuclear and in some cases solar all fit this bill). What is often missing from these arguments are the larger contexts that now global warming is forcing upon us. We see opposition of wind farms world wide due to ‘unsightliness’ or because they may kill several hundred birds per year (However it is estimated that there are 32,000 air quality related deaths each year in the US, and hundreds of thousands world wide due to coal burning alone).

It seems that while we argue over how pretty a wind mill is, the earth’s climate continues to change. And soon the New England beach homes whose views may be adulterated by the windmills will be underwater.

Knowing Whom to Trust

It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that this is the number one issue; not overpopulation, not climate change, not war. All of these problems rest on miscommunication, sometimes even deliberate miscommunication, which in turn rest on misplaced trust. The idea of democracy rests on a belief in the fabric of society maintaining valid networks of trust. Whether this happens or not is determined by social aspects of the society.

Specifically, where science is at issue, the problem is determining whether the dude in the white coat is actually an authority.

In this article I talked about authority-detection circuits in the scientific mindset, alleging that despite absolutely no expertise in medicine beyond the man on the street, and an actual incapacity to understand the arguments made by a certain MD, I was convinced that the man was a genuine expert conveying genuine expertise with due regard for uncertainties. I alleged that familiarity with the culture of science gave me the grounds for such insight. As Piet Hein once said “truth is constructed in such a way that it can’t be exaggerated”.

John Fleck encouraged me to expand on this theme. At present I owe John, thanks to an impromptu lunch in Albuquerque a few days ago which, in addition to being great fun, put a research group in touch with a leading researcher we ought to have known about.

I think at some point a discussion of the nature of intuition won’t be off topic for this blog. It’s deeper than you might think. I highly recommend the rather misnamed book “Sources of Power” by Gary Klein (MIT Press) for a remarkably original investigation into how successful people actually make decisions.

For now, though, I’d just refer you to an anonymous blog entry that’s made a splash (linked from Slashdot, no less) entitled Is Scientific Journalism Doomed? As you can guess it takes a rather pessimistic stance.

Nevertheless, since John the journalist linked me the scientist to the right person for some interdisciplinary work I am proposing now, we can claim a refutation that expertise detetction must be unique to practicing scientists.

The anonymous blogger acknowledges being somewhat new to the process, and is also faced with the more difficult process of passing muster rather than of detecting puffery.

Probably the central point I have to make in this blog is that knowing who is the real deal is the crux of all of our problems. I’m trying to add that credentials aren’t necessary or sufficient in either the judge or the defendant.

Certified Alarmism Free!

Google AdSense ads clipped from my gmail display. Note the last one.

Certified Alarmism Free!
Peer reviewed!
Tell Your Friends!
What, Me Worry?

Should I put a line item in my grant proposals for advertising to the general public?

It appears that the folks have funding to do so.

Two questions:

1) Where is the money coming from for this? (Well, OK, in some sense we know that, but the question is how many readers don’t take the time to ask themselves that question.)

2) How is disinterested science supposed to prevail over interest-group science under these circumstances? Seriously, should we have an ad/PR budget? (What passes for “outreach”, at least at US institutions, remains pretty much pro forma.)

Also, to ice the cake, the CO2 “science” home page currently concludes as follows:

Tell Your Friends!
When was the last time you referred someone to the Center’s website? We challenge you to introduce two new people to CO2 Science each week. More…

Hmmm, science by Ponzi. Great idea. Guerilla marketing, it’s called in some circles.

What can we do in response with our new line item? Let’s, hmm, offer a chance for a trip to Hawai’i with each download of an actual peer-reviewed paper. Or maybe we can tap into the “free mp3 with a six-pack of Pepsi” thing with “free pdfs”! Come on people, let’s be creative here!

Ocean to Violate 1976 EPA pH Standards

Another direct CO2 effect:

“Atmospheric CO2 concentrations need to remain at less than 500 ppm for the ocean pH decrease to stay within the 0.2 limit set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [1976],” remarked Caldeira. “If atmospheric CO2 goes above 500 ppm, the surface of the entire ocean will be out of compliance with EPA pH guidelines for the open ocean. We need to start thinking about carbon dioxide as an ocean pollutant. That is, when we release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, we are dumping industrial waste in the ocean.”

CO2 -> plants -> hydrology

This is a few weeks old, but I haven’t seen much mention in the blogosphere. Perhaps I missed it.

A significant study by Betts et al. of the Hadley Centre in the UK examines the observational record for biotic-CO2 feedback on hydrology. Plant physiology is substantially affected by the increases in CO2, directly, without any reference to climate change. Betts confirms that the net effect of the increased availability of CO2 is to reduce water uptake by plants and increase total runoff.

Assessments of the effect of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations on the hydrological cycle that only consider radiative forcing will therefore tend to underestimate future increases in runoff and overestimate decreases. This suggests that freshwater resources may be less limited than previously assumed under scenarios of future global warming, although there is still an increased risk of drought. Moreover, our results highlight that the practice of assessing the climate-forcing potential of all greenhouse gases in terms of their radiative forcing potential relative to carbon dioxide does not accurately reflect the relative effects of different greenhouse gases on freshwater resources.

The BBC article that pointed me there concludes that this result reduces the likelihood of droughts (especially, I’d think, in biologically productive regions), and increases the likelihood of flooding. Similar articles appear elsewhere in the UK press. No sign of it over here. Here’s how the Telegraph spins it:

Dr Betts said that the effect was a double edged sword: “It means that increases in drought due to climate change could be less severe as plants lose less water.

“On the other hand, if the land is saturated more often you might expect that intense rainfall events are more likely to cause flooding.”

He said that until now scientific models had only looked at the effect of gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide on global warming.

If one wanted to look at their full effect on flooding and drought, the effects on plants had to be considered too.

Dr Betts said he had communicated his results to the EA, who have been working on a Government study which said the flooding risk to rivers could increase up to 20 times by the 2080s.

This estimate would now have to be revised upwards.

What had the EA said to that? “They were very cross,” he said.

“Very cross” indeed. Hail Britannia!

Anyone have an idea out there what this “20-fold” business is about? Is the Telegraph out of control again? (And what’s the “EA” anyway?)

As for the big picture, it looks to me like another example of difficulties communicating across disciplinary boundaries. It’s hard enough to have climatologists and hydrologists communicating effectively, without having to bring plant physiologists into the loop. In the present case, what climatologists consider climatology has very little to do with the global change dynamics at issue.

Now climatologists don’t always have to be the intermediary and in this case we shouldn’t be. In fact biologists commonly consider themselves a customer of hydrology and so do hydrologists. In this case the coupling works the other way around and perhaps the phenomenon was missed for a while.

The push from the early 90’s to create an overarching discipline of “earth system science” that ought to be looking for and systematizing these sorts of couplings seems to have run out of steam from what I can tell. The troubles at NASA can’t be helping.