Nero was an emperor of Rome, and not looked upon kindly by history. A great fire swept through Rome, rumored to have been started by Nero himself to clear more land for his own estate. Nero supposedly did little to stop it, which is why we have the phrase "Nero fiddled while Rome burned".
The analogy to climate change is glaringly obvious. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil has dumped vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air – far more than the total from all volcanoes combined, for example. This greenhouse gas essentially traps heat*, preventing natural physical processes from letting the Earth maintain its temperature. The end result: the Earth is heating up.
The vast, overwhelming majority of real climate scientists agree with this assessment. Oddly, the fossil fuel industry doesn’t. They sponsor a lot of very loud and very wrong "think tanks" who deny the very existence of the problem the industry itself created. So the Earth heats up, and they fiddle with the truth.
As I wrote recently, global warming is in the news because it’s very likely that the hurricane Sandy was influenced by our changing climate. I’m not the only one to think so. Climate scientist Randy Horton says, for example, that melting sea ice and a declining jet stream may have been in part responsible for steering Sandy into the east coast, instead of over the open ocean as late-season hurricanes usually do.
The deniers, of course, are spinning this faster than the hurricane itself.
Those of us on the side of reality in this issue want it to be about science, but we must see that it’s about politics. When a large number of sitting members of the US House of Representatives science committee are avid and avowed global warming deniers, this is about politics. When we see the fossil fuel industry funding those very people, it’s about politics.
Perhaps that stranglehold of political denial is loosening up a tiny bit. Business Week, not usually known for leftist leanings, just published a story called "It’s Global Warming, Stupid" and put it on their front page. The two presidential candidates have hardly talked about it, and not at all in the debates, despite this being the biggest medium-term crisis the world is facing. President Obama did finally speak out, on MTV of all places (which is actually pretty good; hopefully a younger audience will listen), but could’ve put in a lot more details of what he actually plans to do.
Of course, Governor Romney is wearing his past statements like an albatross around his neck. He has mocked global warming, and said many times he would dismantle FEMA. He flip-flopped on that just this week, kindof, saying FEMA does an important job. However, given that he said it was "immoral" – his word – to fund FEMA, I have a difficult time believing he’s being entirely honest now.
Because the issue was ignored in the debates, Science Debate put on a mock 4th Presidential debate dealing with global warming, with candidate stand-ins talking about the issue. If only that had been real. If only.
So we still have a long way to go. Things in the Senate aren’t much better, with people like James Inhofe (R-OK) still sticking by his claim that the very idea of global warming is a hoax. Happily, some people are willing to hang that one around his neck, too. But it’s not enough. Not nearly.
And there’s more bad news. One of the biggest weapons we have against hurricanes like Sandy is our fleet of weather satellites, tracking the storms and allowing scientists to predict the path and ferocity of storms, sometimes days in advance. Sandy’s track was predicted amazingly well due to this. But our very ability to do this is in jeopardy: the New York Times is reporting that we may be facing a weather satellite crisis, with an aging fleet of satellites breaking down and no replacements ready for launch for quite some time. There may be a years-long gap in our coverage of storms from space because of this.
And during all of this, the deniers fiddle. They argue and spin about statistics, misleadingly plotting data. They talk about sunspots, they talk about cycles, they talk about other planets, and all the while they are desperately trying to distract you from the real issue. The Earth is warming up, the change is real, it’s dangerous, it’s already affecting us noticeably, and we’re not doing anything to stop it.
The public is catching on to this. Recent polls show that Americans are more accepting that global warming is real. That’s good news, and an excellent start.
But it must be translated into action. We have an election coming up in a few days. Many of these climate change deniers are up for re-election, while others are seeking office. If you are an American, I urge you to do your research and vote accordingly. Literally, our future is in our hands.
<em<Image credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
* Technically, CO2 is transparent to visible light, but opaque to far infrared. Sunlight gets through, warms up the ground, which then radiates that heat as infrared. The CO2 won’t let that radiate away into space, so the heat stays on Earth, warming the ground (and oceans!) further. But saying "it traps heat" is close enough.
What is now the post-tropical cyclone Sandy, as seen by the NASA/NOAA weather satellite GOES-13 at 06:02 Eastern US time, on October 30, 2012:
[Click for a much larger version, or get the 3600 x 3000 pixel image.]
Like anyone not on the east coast, I have been watching this event unfold from the sidelines. Twitter has been an amazing source of information (and misinformation, in general quickly debunked). I saw links to a video of transformer exploding on 14th street, ubiquitous flooding, cars floating in water, and so much more. There were so many pictures, real and fake, that Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic wrote a great article on how to distinguish between them.
The pictures have been powerful, but the stories have been amazing. I’ve seen messages from friends who are safe offering – publicly – their apartments and houses for strangers who need a place to stay. People rescuing others from the flooding. Calls for watching out for neighbors, relatives, even pets, with responses. The most moving, perhaps, is of nurses at the NYC hospital carrying infants down nine flights of stairs in the dark after a generator went out.
That one will haunt me for a long, long time.
A question I’ve seen a lot is: what was the role of global warming in all this? Christopher Mims wrote a short, measured analysis of this that matches my thinking almost exactly. Basically, it’s hard to know the precise role of global warming in the formation, movement, power, and damage caused by Sandy, but what we do know is that the Atlantic had warmer temperatures for longer than usual – conditions consistent with global warming – and that is a source of both energy and water for the hurricane. There is some thought that the huge arctic sea ice melt this year may have contributed to the abrupt westward turn of the hurricane into the coast. Correlation isn’t necessarily causation; the details are difficult to calculate and we may never know.
But we do know that something looking very much like this has been predicted by climate scientists. This may be an unusual event – after all, the nor’easter timing was important, and the spring tides from the full Moon contributed as well – but it’s hard to say just how unusual it will be in the future. Warmer waters lead to an extended hurricane season which can stretch into the time when nor’easters are more likely to occur. These circumstances loaded the dice. And as Mims so aptly phrased it, the reality of global warming means "climate change, by definition, is present in every single weather event on the planet."
There has been some political opportunism with this storm as well. I am not a fan of such parasitism; latching on to an opportunity under the thinnest of pretense to trump a partisan view. However, let me be clear: we just had the world’s biggest metaphor come ashore in the United States. Years of outright climate change denial and faux skepticism will hopefully be shaken by this event. Sea ice melting happens far away; droughts, fires, shifting weather is unpredictable and difficult to grasp; statistical graphs are easily manipulated by special-interest groups and generally difficult to interpret anyway. But a hurricane a thousand miles across doing tens of billions of dollars of damage and causing untold chaos is more than a wake up call.
It should be a shot of adrenaline into the heart.
My own heart goes out to everyone who has had to deal with this storm, and I am uplifted by the stories of heroism, self-sacrifice, and selflessness. I am a skeptic and a realist, but there is also a streak of optimism in me. When faced with extraordinary challenge, I will always hope that humans will rise to match it.
Image credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
Sometimes climate change deniers make it all too easy.
The UK paper Daily Mail has a long history of courting climate change denial, and apparently it has no wish to change. It recently posted an atrocious article called "Global warming stopped 16 years ago, reveals Met Office report quietly released… and here is the chart to prove it". The article was written by David Rose, who wrote a pretty inaccurate article earlier this year on a similar topic.
In fact, this new article was so blatantly wrong that the MET office – the national weather service for the UK – wrote a rebuttal to it detailing the flaws. To start with, they point out they did recently update their global temperature databases, but that’s a very different thing than "quietly releasing a report", as Rose claims. Cue the conspiracy music!
It gets worse from there. They take on his points one at a time and take them down. I highly recommend reading them. And if you haven’t gotten your fill of it, or you’re still not convinced, you can check out The Carbon Brief’s article that gives more details on Rose’s denial.
Or you can read the takedown by Skeptical Science.
Or by Open Mind. In fact, let’s take a closer look at that.
Tamino, the author of Open Mind, shows just how Rose picks and chooses his data to make it look like global warming stopped years ago. In the picture here, the top graph shows what Rose says the temperature looks like: flat across the past 15 years or so. But that’s terribly misleading: the starting point he chose falsely makes the graph look flat. The bottom one shows the true situation as Tamino describes it. You have to go farther into the past to find a reasonable starting point, and when you do, you see what looked flat is actually a rising temperature over time.
To do what Rose did in that upper graph is to strain reality (and credulity) past the breaking point. It’s almost as if Rose specifically chose the data that he liked and rejected the rest. That’s a big no-no in the reality-based world. Tamino thoroughly vaporizes Rose’s article, showing that it’s wrong in its most basic assumptions, its methodology, and its conclusions.
But other than that…
This article is just another in a long line of climate change denials that fiddles with the data to make it look like the Earth isn’t warming up. But it adds up. This kind of nonsense is damaging to real efforts to do something real about a real problem. And venues like the Daily Mail are all too happy to fan the fire while the world burns.
One of the weirdest (and by that I mean most ridiculous) claims I’ve heard from global warming deniers is the idea that somehow there is a cabal of scientists making up all the information we see about climate change.
First, scientists aren’t very good at that sort of collusion. As Ben Franklin said, "Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead." Scientists as a rule tend to abhor misleading people or out-and-out lying. And those who do tend to be caught by the peer-review process.
Anyway, ignoring the idea that tens of thousands of scientists are playing a Jedi mind trick on the rest of us without a single one of them betraying the secret (and no, Climategate and its sequel don’t count since that was all trumped up smoke and mirrors by the denier crowd), the real reason this claim is ludicrous is because of its supernova-bright irony: a lot of the deniers can be traced to having fossil fuel funding.
Or, as this infographic from Occupy Posters puts it so succinctly:
Mind you, this isn’t supposed to be evidence that global warming deniers are paid frauds. It’s simply using Occam’s Razor, asking which makes more sense. Taken that way, it just shows the idea that scientists are on the wrong side of this is really silly.
Incidentally, guess who’s funding Mitt Romney’s campaign to the tune of tens of millions of dollars? Anyone? Bueller?
With the arctic melting earlier and deeper every year, with temperatures rising, with extreme weather more common, with glaciers retreating, with sea level rising, with droughts ravaging the US, reality is diverging more and more from the claims of the deniers.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen a new Symphony of Science – videos autotuning scientists and science popularizers to promote critical thinking – and I’m pleased not only that a fresh one went up, but that it’s about a topic near and dear to me (and should be to everyone): climate change.
It’s nice to see Asimov included in the video. And I like the message: we can fix this if we take it seriously and try. I wind up spending a lot of my time and effort debunking the shills of the oil industry, and it’s good to remember we also need positive messages, too.
Earlier, I wrote that arctic sea ice had yesterday reached record low levels, blowing through the previous lowest-seen minimum in 2007, even though there’s still a lot of melting left to go.
NASA just released this visualization of the arctic region showing just how bad it is:
The white area is the extent of sea ice as of August 26, 2012. The orange line is the average minimum extent from 1979 – 2010, the time covered by satellite observations. In other words, every year they measure the outline of the ice when it reaches its minimum, usually in September, and then averaged those positions for that timespan.
As you can see, we’ve been well below the usual minimum ice extent for some time – not just where we usually are this time of year, but the actual minimum amount… and we still have weeks of melting yet to go.
I want to note that this does not necessarily mean we’ll see sea level rising from this. That ice is floating on the water, and in general when ice melts the water level stays the same. You can see this for yourself: put ice in a glass, then fill it with water. Mark the level. Wait until the ice melts and you’ll see the level hasn’t changed. The ice displaces (pushes aside) an amount of water exactly equal to its own weight, so when it melts that water fills up the same volume the ice displaced. The level stays the same.
However, because ice is frozen fresh water, and the sea is salt water, floating ice may actually raise the sea level a bit. Still, the far bigger concern is ice on land that melts and flows into the ocean. That certainly can raise the sea level. Greenland has the second largest reservoir of frozen water on Earth, and it’s seeing unprecedented melting.
So yeah, global warming is a concern, no matter how many people deny it. And it’s not something we should blow off and worry about later. It’s happening now.
Image credit: Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
I’ve been holding off writing about this until it was official, and now it is: the area of the arctic covered by sea ice has reached a record low.
[Click to embiggen.]
"Sea ice extent" is (more or less) a measure of the amount of ice covering the sea surface. It’s measured using satellite data; the area is divided into many bins, and sea ice extent is calculated by adding up all the bins with more than 15% ice in them. Every year the ice starts to grow in the autumn and melts in the summer, so you get a sine-wave curve of extent every year.
Satellite observations began in 1979. In the graph above, the dark line is the average summer extent for the period 1979 – 2000. The gray area around it is the measurement uncertainty (2σ if you want to be exact). The dashed green line is the extent for 2007 – the previous record low year – and the blue line is 2012. I added the red line so you can compare 2007 to now. The data numbers show the record is broken, though on the graph they look tied. [UPDATE: The new plot made by the NSIDC for August 26 clearly shows the extent is now lower than the lowest point in 2007.]
As you can see, we’re still on the way down, weeks ahead of the date of the lowest extent in 2007. The minimum extent in 2007 was reached on September 16. In 2011 – which had the second-lowest extent on record, essentially equaling that of 2007 – lowest extent happened on September 9. This year it was August 25.
Notice any trend there? I don’t want to make too much of the idea that it’s happening earlier every year because there aren’t enough data points, but it’s consistent with the Earth’s temperature increasing. The massive heat wave that melted so much ice in Greenland this summer may have something to do with this as well.
Here’s a map from the National Snow and Ice Data Center showing the extent for August 25, 2012. The orange line is again the average for August 25 taken over the years 1979 – 2000. White shows ice, blue is ocean, gray is land; you can see Greenland directly below the ice, with Canada and the US to the lower left. Obviously, the sea ice extent for August 25 is way, way below average compared to the past.
I’ll be honest: this map and graph are making me unhappy. The fantastic website Skeptical Science has more about this. The most worrisome aspect of this to me is how this accelerates. Ice is bright white, so it reflects sunlight. Sea water is much darker and absorbs that light. So the more ice you lose, the darker overall the arctic gets, and the faster it melts.
Of course; we’ll hear the usual excuses and cherry-picking from the denier set, but here are the facts:
The Earth is warming up. The rate of warming has increased in the past century or so. This corresponds to the time of the Industrial Revolution, when we started dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases warm the planet (hence the name) — if they didn’t we’d have an average temperature below the freezing point of water. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which is dumped into the atmosphere by humans to the tune of 30 billion tons per year, 100 times the amount from volcanoes. And finally, approximately 97% of climatologists who actually study climate agree that global warming is real, and caused by humans.
Far from being a fluctuation, these records getting broken are more likely a trend, and it’s more likely we’ll see more of them.
Graph and image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
Let me be clear right off the top: global warming is real. There is vastly overwhelming evidence for it and scientific consensus about it, and the only people still sowing doubt about it appear to be motivated more by ideology and corporate interests than scientific evidence.
Having said that, one thing I’m careful about when I talk about it is linking specific weather events to the worsening climate. We humans like to connect events if they occur at the same time, whether they are actually connected or not. So when huge storms spawning tornadoes ravaged the midwest last year, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When a huge glacier calved off Greenland a few weeks ago, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When Greenland got a tremendous burst of warm air that caused unprecedented ice melting, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When wildfires erupted over the US and Russia this summer, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. I said these events are all consistent with global warming, but not necessarily caused by it.
Now, however, things have changed. New evidence has arisen that indicates the extreme heat waves that are cooking the US are in fact and in deed caused by global warming.
[UPDATE: Talk about timing: the NOAA just released their State of the Climate report, showing that July 2012 is the hottest month ever recorded in the history of the contiguous United States.]
Climate scientist James Hansen – who, in the 1980s, was the first to talk about the idea that the planet is heating up – has published research linking global warming and these extreme events. It’s explained in an article on the NASA site: Hansen and his team looked at northern hemisphere surface temperatures going back to the early 1950s. At any given time, some places are hotter than average, some cooler. So they plotted these temperature deviations from average and got a bell curve, just like the bell curve some teachers use to grade students. Most temperatures are near the average value, while very hot or very cold places are less common; the graph peaks in the middle and falls away to either side.
All well and good. But when they plotted these temperatures over time – looking at the average temperature for a given year as well as the extreme events – they saw three things, none of them good. One was that, over time, the average temperature moved to the right – that is, the the overall temperature got hotter. Second, there were fewer cooler temperatures – the graph on the left got weaker. Third, there were more extreme heating events – the graph got stronger on the right.
The green line shows the smoothed average curve for the time period of 1951 – 1980. The filled in part shows the curve for the decade of 2001 – 2011. Note that it’s skewed right, and there are more hot events as well.
It hasn’t been your imagination. We’re getting hotter, and we’re seeing more extremely hot summers. You can confirm this for yourself: walk outside.
Personal anecdotes aside, the data back that conclusion up. Statistically speaking, the temperature "anomalies" are highly significant, meaning they are almost certainly real. In the 1950s, extreme heat waves like we’re seeing now were rare to nonexistent. Today, 10% of the northern hemisphere experiences these heat waves. Dr. Hansen says that without global warming, these anomalies wouldn’t be happening. In other words, our warming planet is the culprit behind these extreme events.
This doesn’t mean every summer will be hotter than the last, or have worse heat waves. But as Dr. Hansen points out, it does mean that in general that’s what we’ll see. Climate Scientist Michael Mann describes it this way:
It is not simply a set of random events occurring in isolation, but part of a broader emerging pattern. We are seeing, in much of the extreme weather we are experiencing, the “loading of the weather dice.” Over the past decade, records for daily maximum high temperatures in the U.S. have been broken at twice the rate we would expect from chance alone. Think of this as rolling double sixes twice as often as you’d expect – something you would readily notice in a high stakes game of dice. Thus far this year, that ratio is close to 10 to 1. That’s double sixes coming up ten times as often as you expect.
What Dr. Hansen’s research shows is that again, while any specific event is hard to blame in its entirety on global warming, the overall trend we’re seeing – including these disastrous heat waves causing deaths, massive crop failures, drought, and wildfires – is linked to global warming. As he put it:
This summer people are seeing extreme heat and agricultural impacts. We’re asserting that this is causally connected to global warming, and in this paper we present the scientific evidence for that.
That’s a pretty firm commitment. And one that will, no doubt, make heads explode amongst climate change denialists. They will obfuscate, they will nitpick, they will distract, they will deny. But they are wrong. The media, and more importantly, politicians, need to understand that.
Again, as Dr. Mann says (emphasis mine):
The time for debate about the reality of human-caused climate change has now passed. We can have a good faith debate about how to deal with the problem – how to reduce future climate change and adapt to what is already upon us to reduce the risks that climate change poses to society. But we can no longer simply bury our heads in the sand.
As I’ve said before: when does weather become climate? It’s starting to feel like now.
Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
The Greenland ice sheet is huge: 1.7 million square kilometers (650,000 square miles), and commonly creates a lot of icebergs in the summer.
This season is no exception, and in mid-July, during the biggest melt ever seen, In 2005, NASA’s Terra Earth-observing satellite took this quite beautiful shot of icebergs floating off Greenland in Baffin Bay: [NOTE: My mistake, I thought this was a recent pic, but it's actually from 2005! Oops. I somehow missed that, and thanks to r721 in the comments for pointing it out. I'll note I saw this picture before all the Greenland melting news, and was going to post it simply because it was beautiful! Then all the other news came out, and so I waited to post it. Sorry about the error, and I'll add that this doesn't change anything I wrote here except for the part I struck through above about timing.]
[Click to hugely englacienate.]
Note the scale; the image is about 45 km (27 miles) on a side. The image is a mix of natural colors and infrared; that makes the water look deep blue, the ground brown, and vegetation red (the Greenland coast has grass and other plants). The icebergs are easy enough to spot, some are several hundred meters across. The smaller ones pose the biggest navigational hazard, and images like this (as well as spotters on the sea and in the air) help seafarers avoid the worst of them.
And one thing I want to note. Last week I wrote about the Greenland ice melt in July, and as usual got some, um, interesting comments about it. I was very careful when talking about the Greenland melting and not tie it to global warming; I start the paragraph saying it’s difficult to pin any specific event with climate change, and end with saying the melting is consistent with what we expect. I even mention the fact that some of the melting is probably due to historic cycles, yet many people made comments as if they hadn’t read that particular statement. It’s amazing to me. It shows the state of the "debate" now; it doesn’t matter how careful I am and what pains I take to be accurate. The attacks blow through as if – oddly enough – facts don’t matter.
It would be so much easier if I could just make things up out of thin (but hot) air, find some small niggling point to amplify well beyond what’s called for, to bend facts like moldable plastic to fit whatever preconceived ideology I have.
But when it comes to things like this, I have no ideology. Seriously. I would love for global warming to not be true. I would love it if the facts indeed showed our climate is stable, or that the change is natural, or that the change won’t have any deleterious effects.
Alas, that’s not the case. Reality is, in the end, real. As is global warming, and the sooner we get past the political noise about it, the better.
Image credit: NASA/JPL
Last week, a huge chunk of ice broke off of Greenland’s Petermann glacier, an event called a "calving". The iceberg is now moving down the glacier’s fjord, as seen by NASA’s Terra Earth-observing satellite on July 21, 2012:
Note the scale. The iceberg is well over 100 square kilometers in size – about 50 square miles, or 30,000 acres. That’s larger than the island of Manhattan in New York City. An even larger iceberg broke off in 2010.
This image comes on the heels of an announcement that Greenland is seeing "unprecedented" melting. By July 12, 2012, as much as 97% of Greenland’s ice sheet had experienced some degree of melting. On July 8, just four days earlier, only 40% of the ice had experienced some melting:
[The map shows ice that has had some melting in red, and areas showing no melting in white. The left map is from July 8, the right from July 12.]
This does not mean that 97% of the Greenland ice sheet has melted away! The map shows all the places where at least some melting has occurred. Some of this melting is simply due to it being summer, and in some places there is evidence of a historic cycle of melting. But this widespread a melting has not happened in the 30 years satellites have been used to map the region. Normally, about half the ice on Greenland experiences some melting.
The culprit appears to be several waves of warm high-pressure ridges that have swept over Greenland, each stronger than the last, with the most recent one squatting over the island for about a week.
As always, it’s difficult to pin any specific weather event on global warming. But every day, the list of suspicious events grows longer. The Petermann calving happened much farther up the glacier than has occurred before. Waves of warm air over Greenland are unusual. And the weird weather we’ve been getting is consistent with what’s been predicted for a planet that’s warming up.
And while climate change deniers put up insulting billboards and compare climate scientists to child molesters, the Earth is getting warmer. While antiscience Congressmen write fallacy-laden op-eds and elected officials run witch hunts against scientists, the Earth is getting warmer.
We need serious people in charge, because it’s way, way past time to take this seriously.
Image credits: Terra picture: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using data from NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team; Melting map: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory and Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI and Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory
- Huge glacier calves off Greenland
- Enormous glacier calves in largest Arctic event seen in 48 years (with followups here and here)
- EXCLUSIVE: Michael Mann responds to Rep. Barton
- Five shots against global warming denialism