Monthly Archives: May 2012

Greenland’s Ice Sheet Melting — A Typical SWAG Story

Last Friday,  CNN and NPR ran a story about ice melt in Greenland.   A new study says the rate of melting in Greenland  is  less than the rate shown in other studies.   The NPR story had a less optomistic tone than the CNN story.  Both stories noted the new reduced level, and both emphasized  global warming as a still  urgent issue, just a little less troubling in the near future.

An article written last fall talked about how  Greenland  is melting faster because the ice is darker because of discoloration caused by air pollution.

Science is messy and it’s going to get things wrong from time to time as it progresses.  Older UN reports have said increased snowfall will offset the increased melting in Greenland. That is the nature of the Scientific Wild Ass Guess.  Lot of guesses, and frequently the guesses disagree.   Some necessarily will be wrong. These are difficult subjects, and guessing is a necessary part of the process.

I have long suspected that government funding encourages wild guessing.

A scientist gets a job studying a perceived problem, in the form of a grant from the government.   If the study shows the perceived problem was less important than thought… new funding.  No funding means it’s time to apply for a new grant.

This prejudice towards a specific outcome, can and frequently does impact the results of studies.  The  study will almost certainly raise new questions, and have new uncertainties.  New guesses.   If a conservative guess means unemployment, and a wild one continued employment…..well?

Governments need a problem to be immediate and serious.  Any study that does not feed that government need will likely lead to unemployment.

When I look at IPCC data, I see guessing  everywhere;  the sun, clouds, oceans, visible air pollution.   The IPCC  predicted that 2025 would be a degree C warmer than 1990 (in their original assessment in 1992) and it would happen in a fairly linear manner of about .3 degree C per decade.   And the world did warm a bit for about 6 years….and then it stopped.

The world has warmed less than predicted with high carbon dioxide levels.  Of course, that doesn’t prove them wrong, natural climate variation could be  masking a real problem.  They chose to make wild guesses in a climate system that is naturally unstable. The politics of climate science encourages such guessing.  In 2007 they lowered the rate to .2 degree C increase  per decade.  Wrong again, at least so far.

My best guess: the IPCC is wrong.  All the wild predictions for 50 or 100 years are just that, wild guesses.  I hope they are wrong…because I don’t think society can fix the problem the IPCC sees  in a way the IPCC would like.  But then I’m guessing too.


Nuclear Power in Japan No More

On March, 10, 2011, Japan got 30% of its power from Nuclear, today it is Nuclear free. The last operating Nuclear plant has been shut down for routine maintenance.  It will not be started until it has been certified safe by local officials who are in no hurry.  Power failures this summer are possible.  It could drive manufacturing offshore, looking for more reliable or perhaps cheaper power.

I understand the Japanese reaction to the Fukashima nuclear power plant disaster, particularly in light of their WWII experience, but is it wise?  I’m not sure.  I suppose it depends on which demon you fear more, Nuclear energy or carbon dioxide.

What would I do, if I were in the predicament they find themselves in?  I don’t know for sure.  Clearly the Japanese were not good Nuclear operators, but the alternatives all have consequences too.  Are there ways they could become a better operator?  Are there changes to the plants that could and should be made?

Let’s make the wild ass guess assumption that carbon dioxide does matter and that Japan still wants to meet their Kyoto obligations.   Japan has a problem. Japan is going to produce much more carbon dioxide and they are going to fail to meet their obligations under the Kyoto treaty.  Before the disaster of March 11, 2011, Japan was struggling to meet Kyoto.  They were buying credits from abroad and they were madly planting trees…but they were still coming up a bit short.

In 2010, Japan’s power operations produced about 65% of Japan’s man made carbon dioxide.  With no Nuclear, they must rely on coal and natural gas. If we assume the mix of coal and natural gas stays the same, the change in emissions will be linear.  A 30% increase in power emissions means a 20% increase in total emissions.  Japan is the third largest economy in the world, this is a significant event.

Japan, in 2008, was #38 on the per capita list of carbon producers .  This single change moves them up the list and into a tie with Russia at #23.  The USA was, in 2008 when the list was calculated, sitting at #12.  I suspect when the 2012 list gets made in a few years, the USA will be a bit better (low emissions being better) than Canada, currently 15th on the list.

I think we all know why Japan made the choices they made.  China is headed in the opposite direction, constructing many new Nuclear plants as they struggle to clean the air in their cities.  France is a relatively low carbon emitter because of Nuclear Power.  It will be interesting to see what they do next.

We all face similar choices as we try to decide what is and isn’t important to our society.  I don’t  know quite how I feel about Nuclear Power.  I suspect it is the best house in a bad neighborhood.  If carbon really matters, we need Nuclear power.  If its importance is overblown…how overblown is overblown….we still may need Nuclear power depending on how wrong the IPCC actually is.  If the actual impact carbon dioxide has is only 25% of what the UN says it is, we still may want more Nuclear power for a variety of reasons.

I’d like to see more and better global warming science before I make up my mind.  Science that doesn’t know what the answer is before they begin.  In other words a better IPCC.  In the mean time, I suspect we are stuck with Nuclear Power…and may even want to add a bit more.

Super Moon — Not Quite Circular Thoughts

This weekend we get a close up view of a full moon, called a Super moon.  It happens because the Earth and Moon are as close together as they will be for a while.

The moon and the planets have elliptical orbits.  We all know it, but we still think of them as being circular.  The notion that the moon will appear brighter and bigger, because it is closer to us seems odd.  We all get the benefit of it this weekend with a really cool full moon.

Ever think about why February only has 28 days?  Earth’s elliptical orbit.  Winter and summer are different lengths.  Summer is 3 days longer than Winter in the Northern Hemisphere.   The Earth is closest to the sun in January and furthest away in July.  It takes longer to go around the big part of the ellipse.

In about 11,000 years the opposite will be true.  The seasons will shift, summer and winter will change places as the earth wobbles as it orbits.  There will also be more variation between winter and summer than today as the elliptical orbit gets bigger.  And the sun will be a bit lower in the sky in summer and a bit higher in winter as the amount of axial tilt is reduced.

The Earth’s orbit changes because of all the other orbiting bodies in our Solar System.  It’s gravity doing its job.   The Earth changes in three ways,  the size of the ellipse, the amount of the axial tilt, and the wobble of the planet.

These orbital cycles are believed to change climate as they change.  Some scientists think they are a dominant factor in our  ice age world.  As the orbit changes shape, it changes the amount of solar energy that reaches the Earth.

I could try to explain how it works, but others do it better. If you are interested, the National Academy of Sciences has a great group of diagrams that explain the cycles.  In the mean time enjoy the full moon in the warmth of a peak period in our ice age cycle.

If Carbon Matters — Don’t Ignore China

Anthropogenic carbon dioxide statistics tell an interesting story.  The world is changing and changing rapidly, but the rhetoric has been slow to adjust.  Climate politics continues to focus on the USA and Western Europe, and that is a mistake.

We in the USA have a large carbon footprint.  We use lots of coal in power generation, manufacture lots of stuff, heat and air condition our homes, and drive large vehicles.  The US per capita production of carbon dioxide peaked in 1973 at about 22.3 metric tons per capita.  We now (2008) stand at about 17.5.

Yes, we peaked almost 40 years ago.  I was not expecting that data.  Big houses, big cars….lots of electrical use.  Surprising!  And we continue to improve.  Our population grew at 9.8% in the first 10 years of the 21st century, and our carbon production as a country went down.

2012 will likely be a very good year on the carbon front in the USA.  We had a mild winter, used more natural gas in power generation (which means less coal), and our gasoline consumption is down.  It went down during the recession, and has continued down into 2012 as we have begun to see the benefits of fuel efficient vehicles.  Two offsets, the USA is now a net exporter  of gasoline  (which counts as US use in the statistics) and we are using more in manufacturing.

Qatar is the largest per capita user, the USA (using 2008 data) is 12th, just behind Australia and just ahead of Saudi Arabia.  We still have a long way to go, but we are improving. China has been doing the opposite.   A Reuters article dated June 8, 2011, reported China’s carbon output increased 10% in 2010 and was 25% of the worldwide total, number one in the world by a wide margin. The US, still second  has fallen to about 18% of the total.  We were 30% just 13 years ago.

China’s rise has been spectacular as the chart below demonstrates:

Chinese Carbon Dioxide Emissions

The Chinese economy is the rock star of 21st century economics.   A small player 20 years ago is now the second largest economy in the world.  Perhaps that is why Al Gore, James Hansen and so many global warming activists have been quick to blame the US and have been slow to recognize the problem that is China emissions.

China is overwhelming  the data.  In 1999 they were less than half the US total, In 2006 they passed us.  The recession slowed carbon production in the western world, but not in China.    Soon, (maybe 2013) China will  produce more than the USA and Western Europe combined.    China really matters.

If carbon dioxide production is a problem…and I said IF, then the solution to the problem lies East of the USA…..way East.  We in the USA could reduce our production to zero, and we’d still fail to meet UN goals for the world….because of China.

Cover Art Tells a Story — But Is it True

I’m a fan of irony.  I was in a video store recently, when I wondered by the documentary section…and there it was, Al Gore’s DVD cover, dripping with irony.

The cover says it all.  Smokestacks galore billowing smoke ….and then the smoke morphs into a hurricane.  An Inconvenient Truth, catchy title.

Carbon dioxide, the villain in Mr. Gore’s film is nearly odorless and colorless.  Factories billowing smoke on the cover and throughout the film are mostly billowing water vapor and/or air pollution depending on the source.  Some carbon dioxide is present, but since it is colorless it is not visible. All throughout the film carbon dioxide and air pollution are equated to each other, a factual error, emphasized by the cover.

The film is full of dirty polluting factories.  Factories can pollute…but if the pollution is visible, it is the more traditional air pollution we all love to hate.  Carbon dioxide is a green house gas, visible air pollution usually is not a green house gas. Most visible air pollution cools the planet.

Visible air pollution by definition is not colorless.  The visible haze block some light. This causes more of the suns energy to be reflected back to space without ever reaching the earth’s surface.  Just about everybody …including Mr. Gore’s friends at the IPCC, acknowledge that this form of pollution is a cooling event.

Air pollution looks bad….and marketing is all about appearance.  Never let facts get in the way of a good story.  All throughout the film, we see polluting factories and then the subject of carbon dioxide appears…it is a classic bait and switch..they really are two very different subjects.

I spent another post discussing the Katrina Hurricane.  It was a monumental mess.  Many politicians made mistakes.  Poor human behavior deserves credit for the mess that was New Orleans in 2005.  A category 3 storm adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico.  Sounds like normal weather to me if we can classify the last 100 years or so as normal.  Mother Nature  being Mother Nature.

In its 2007 Synopses, the IPCC said that there was not enough evidence to draw conclusions about global warming and hurricanes.    And they like to draw conclusions.

The inconvenient truth about science is this, truths are rare indeed.  Science is a process and in that process the facts of the day change with knowledge.  The title of  the film is catchy and successful, but is it truthful?

Remember, we are talking about long range world wide weather forecasting  combined with assumptions about energy use.  These predictions go 100 years into the future.  How well would you have done in 1890, predicting energy use for the year 2000.


When the UN wrote their first climate report in 1990, they were beginning a process that predicted the climate in 2100, two years later.  Who knows what our energy mix will be a hundred years from now.   Not you, not me and  not Al Gore.  Nobody knows!

I’m sorry….truth is just the wrong word.

The business of climate science is one giant scientific wild ass guess.  Mr. Gore appears to think anybody that doubts is being fooled or foolish.  Maybe, but I’d take the other side of that bet, anytime.  With so many variables, and so many unknowns, success is far from assured.  Doubt is the smart play!

In the film Al Gore uses a quotation from Mark Twain to discredit his opponents.

What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know; it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so”

The title of the piece, firmly puts Mr. Gore in the we know for sure camp.   Maybe it just ain’t so.