Sunday, December 19, 2010

Thinksee Nosebetter and Cold Snaps

As winter takes hold in the Northern Hemisphere, we can count on many of those in denial about climate change to re-emerge after a summer of ignoring hot weather extremes to cite local cold weather as supposedly evidence against climate change. It is a Thinksee Nosebetter special, fully lacking any semblance of critical thinking - if it is "cold" somewhere, how can there be global warming?

It is worth pointing out first that "cold" is a relative and inexact term and that snow does not equal "cold". In many areas increases in heavy snowfall events are an expected consequence of global warming due to increased moisture in the air. And global warming does not mean there is no more winter or that everywhere always has sweltering heat going on. There will still be winter and cold, but in general averages will creep higher and warm extremes will become increasingly more common as cold extremes become less common.

Of course the main point I have made and will continue to make is that local and even regional cool spells over the course of weeks and even a season do not at all preclude a long-term worldwide shift toward a warmer climate. It is wrong to look at the relatively strong North Dakota economy of the past couple years and assume that the national and global economy must be fine too.

If you look around you can find plenty of individuals doing quite well in this down economy. Some, like a foreclosure specialist, may be doing well exactly because the overall economy is not doing well.

Similarly some of the current news-making cold outbreaks, particularly across Europe, may very well be due to global warming. This is the point where Thinksee Nosebetter tunes out and refuses to listen further because of a desire to believe that snow in England is not just a result of an unusual atmospheric circulation pattern but justifies denial of climate science.

It should be noted that at least for this past November in the non-tropical Northern Hemisphere besides northern Europe and part of western North America most other areas had above normal temperatures, and in many areas well above normal. What those maps of November temperature illustrate is that the hemisphere was warmer than normal overall because of the prevalence of warm anomalies. But some areas were under cooler temperature regimes basically because of a redistribution of air masses from the average configuration. The noted coldness across Europe is part of the other side of the coin of the extreme warmth in many other areas in the Northern Hemisphere.

For further more thorough explanation of the science behind the theorizing of how the warming world is helping drive cold winter weather in some areas I point to RealCimate. In short, the decreasing Arctic sea ice as a result of general warming may be driving circulation anomalies sending colder weather over some areas. Where there had been more sea ice and now there is less, more warmth is coming from the ocean into the atmosphere, and that warmth leads to rather persistent changes in the flow of air masses and weather patterns across a much larger area.

More simply, it is not as cold overall, but some of the cold has been shifted around to places that usually do not experience it.

There remains much to be learned about how and to what extent some people may experience cold spells systematically because of global warming. But certainly everyone will still at least occasionally experience cold weather due to random fluctuations in weather. Only the foolish and ignorant of climate science think those instances disprove that the climate is warming.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Arsenic and New Life

Last week there was quite the hubbub (for a science story) over the reported discovery of life in a form unlike ever seen before. Specifically it was said that microbes were found that can use arsenic in place of phosphorus in its molecular structures.

I bring up this issue here because it provides a good demonstration of why one should not get carried away with some isolated, new, hyped tidbit that supposedly overturns much established understanding. Unfortunately those inclined toward disbelieving climate science do that rather frequently. Some people will trumpet whatever they think implies that global warming is not real, not driven by human activities, not really a problem, etc.

The first problem is that uninformed hype, speculation and reading only headlines can give a very false impression. This "arsenic life" report is nothing out-of-this-world, and similarly often what some people think is or is being sold as evidence against climate change is anything but.

The bigger issue is that discoveries that purport to overturn what had been considered well-understood often do not actually pan out. In the case of the "arsenic life" it looks like the evidence is actually very weak. Continually there are unwarranted bleats of, 'Look at this - it proves global warming is no worry!' Even with the information is not being misinterpreted by non-experts, the support for such foundation-shaking claims regularly falls apart.

There is nothing wrong with scientific claims that would change our thinking nor that those usually fizzle out. That is all part of how science works. For any number of reasons subsequent work, study, and research typically shows scientists with a new idea just got it wrong. It is quite rare that the many scientists working for many years are wrong and the small number reporting a new finding a right.

Though it looks unlikely, this "arsenic life" claim may hold up with time and not be shot down. For now though the prudent approach is to hold a skeptical view of the claim. The evidence has potential serious flaws, and it would be a rather shocking discovery. Likewise, the prudent view on climate change is not to think that decades of research by thousands of individuals has not been fundamentally offbase while a few naysayers have it right. That, not blanket disbelief, marks true skepticism. Science will continue to hone our knowledge. Perhaps we will find those naysayers have it right, and somehow everyone else has long been wrong. But the overwhelming weight of the current evidence gives no real reason to assume that.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Unfortunately today we got to see again the figurative blinding dollar signs in the eyes of the Herald at the prospect of even more oil in the region. Climate science denier Harold Hamm says "jump", and the Herald says, "how high? how many times? anything else we can get for you?"

An oilman (actually not just any oilman, but "the billionaire oilman from Oklahoma whose company runs more rigs in North Dakota than any other") says there is more oil in the region than the U.S. Geological Survey said a couple years ago. So suddenly we need to rush to make another reassessment. Strangely though, when climate scientists continually confirm the reality of climate change and highlight the threats we face now and over the next few generations, there is no call for action from the Herald. Hmmm, I wonder if it could be because one says, "We can all be rich, I tell ya, rich!" (yay!), and the other says that we have to face the consequence of our corner-cutting actions and be willing to pay the price of maintaining a livable climate (*yawn*).

What made news here on the climate front today was North Dakota's (or at least Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's) hope that the state would not have to spend the remaining 80% of the $500,000 set aside for suing Minnesota over their measure to include the cost of carbon pollution in its energy bills. The desire is that Minnesota move back to ignoring the cost of carbon pollution, and the belief is that perhaps the increase in Republican numbers in their state legislature will lead to that happening.

If only there was real news right now about actually dealing with climate change...