The current cold snap may be more than just a blip. Two leading climate researchers have found evidence that the Earth may be heading into a cooling period which could last 20 to 30 years. Better keep those snowshoes handy!
Courtesy United States Geological SurveyWhen I read this story the other day, I thought to myself: why didn't I think of that? Or maybe I did think of it, but as usual no one was listening when I pitched the idea for an action-packed spy movie about climate change. Or were they?
The Central Intelligence Agency does have a bunch of high-powered satellites and other "classified" instruments, so it's possible they've been using them to eavesdrop on my conversations with friends about possible sci-fi movie plots.
What's more likely: they figured out on their own that intelligence-gathering instruments could be really helpful to scientists, who can read detailed pictures of melting sea ice, growing desserts and other phenomena to better understand how climate is changing the planet.
The C.I.A. recently confirmed that it had revived this controversial data-sharing program known as Madea, which stands for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis. If you decode that C.I.A. code name, it means that government spies are working with climate scientists to gather images and data about environmental change, as well as its impact on human populations.
Not everyone is convinced that climate change is a real threat to national security, and so some complainers are complaining that this collaboration between scientists and the C.I.A. is a misuse of resources, but what do they know?
Really? What do they know? So much of what happens over at C.I.A. headquarters is top-secret.
Maybe the whole thing doesn't sound that action packed, but I'm telling you, if you had the right actors playing the scientists, it could be a blockbuster. And if you have the right scientists analyzing the data, it might provide really valuable insights into global environmental change.
Courtesy ESACan it be true? Yes, for a mere $5,544 dollars round-trip airfare to Greenland! In March 2009, the European Space Agency launched the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) into orbit around our planet, which is now transmitting detailed data about the Earth’s gravity. The GOCE satellite uses a gradiometer to map tiny variations in the Earth’s gravity caused by the planet’s rotation, mountains, ocean trenches, and interior density. New maps illustrating gravity gradients on the Earth are being produced from the information beamed back from GOCE. Preliminary data suggests that there is a negative shift in gravity in the northeastern region of Greenland where the Earth’s tug is a little less, which means you might weigh a fraction of a pound lighter there (a very small fraction, so it may not be worth the plane fare)!
In America, NASA and Stanford University are also working on the gravity issue. Gravity Probe B (GP-B) is a satellite orbiting 642 km (400 miles) above the Earth and uses four gyroscopes and a telescope to measure two physical effects of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity on the Earth: the Geodetic Effect, which is the amount the earth warps its spacetime, and the Frame-Dragging Effect, the amount of spacetime the earth drags with it as it rotates. (Spacetime is the combination of the three dimensions of space with the one dimension of time into a mathematical model.)
Quick overview time. The Theory of General Relativity is simply defined as: matter telling spacetime how to curve, and curved spacetime telling matter how to move. Imagine that the Earth (matter) is a bowling ball and spacetime is a trampoline. If you place the bowling ball in the center of the trampoline it stretches the trampoline down. Matter (the bowling ball) curves or distorts the spacetime (trampoline). Now toss a smaller ball, like a marble, onto the trampoline. Naturally, it will roll towards the bowling ball, but the bowling ball isn’t ‘attracting’ the marble, the path or movement of the marble towards the center is affected by the deformed shape of the trampoline. The spacetime (trampoline) is telling the matter (marble) how to move. This is different than Newton’s theory of gravity, which implies that the earth is attracting or pulling objects towards it in a straight line. Of course, this is just a simplified explanation; the real physics can be more complicated because of other factors like acceleration.
Courtesy noneSo what is the point of all this high-tech gravity testing? First of all, our current understanding of the structure of the universe and the motion of matter is based on Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity; elaborate concepts and mathematical equations conceived by a genius long before we had the technology to directly test them for accuracy. The Theory of General Relativity is the cornerstone of modern physics, used to describe the universe and everything in it, and yet it is the least tested of Einstein’s amazing theories. Testing the Frame-Dragging Effect is particularly exciting for physicists because they can use the data about the Earth’s influence on spacetime to measure the properties of black holes and quasars.
Second, the data from the GOCE satellite will help accurately measure the real acceleration due to gravity on the earth, which can vary from 9.78 to 9.83 meters per second squared around the planet. This will help scientists analyze ocean circulation and sea level changes, which are influenced by our climate and climate change. The information that the GOCE beams back will also assist researchers studying geological processes such as earthquakes and volcanoes.
So, as I gobble down another mouthful of leftover turkey and mashed potatoes, I can feel confident that my holiday weight gain and the structure of the universe are of grave importance to the physicists of the world!
Courtesy RrrrredHey, Buzzketeers. I’m going to be straight with you up front (I always am):
I haven’t actually seen “The Day After Tomorrow,” even though it will feature prominently in this post. I did see the preview, however, and I know the title, so I’m confident that I can sum the film up pretty accurately.
The is how The Day After Tomorrow goes, more or less:
The kid from Spiderman, Peter Parker, is a young scientist trying to make a name for himself in the big city. He has a crippling fear of wolves. Trying to be a famous scientist, however, is a lot like trying to be a Hollywood celebrity: there are a million other kids out there just like you, except that some of them are better looking with bigger muscles, or more feminine ankles, so you have to be willing to act a little crazy, or go on camera naked.
Peter Parker, fortunately, opts for the “act a little crazy” route. He soaks up a couple red bull-vodkas and starts researching. After 7 panicked days and 6 insane nights, Peter says, “Check it out! The Day After Tomorrow, the poop is really going to hit the fan!” But the scientific community was all, “Whatever, Parker. Take that shirt off, and let’s get you on camera.” They were so preoccupied with the thought of Peter’s scientist muscles that they failed to realize that he was right! Like two sick bears squatting on an airboat, the poop was really about to hit the fan.
Sure enough, Peter Parker’s discovery proved to be accurate. The planet’s ocean currents went all haywire, and a couple days later things got really cold and stupid. Peter Parker, despite being shirtless at this point, was more prepared for the situation than everyone else, and he grabbed a sled and went to rescue a friend of his, possibly a beautiful woman or man, who was trapped in an elevator behind some very impressive icicles. Along the way, Peter had to avoid the many wolves that immediately moved into the frozen cities in search of delicious, un-canned human food, but once he rescued his beautiful friend the wolves could no longer be dodged. After a 45-minute-long wolf-fighting scene, Peter emerged bloody and victorious. He had truly conquered this world of the day after tomorrow!
It’s a little silly isn’t it? I mean, everyone knows that ocean currents are vital for spreading heat across the planet, and moderating higher latitude climates. Duh. Surface water is warmed in the tropics, and is pushed into currents by regular wind patterns and the rotation of the Earth. As it reaches colder seas, the water releases heat and moisture into the atmosphere. Colder and saltier now (because the salt in water doesn’t evaporate), the water is denser, and it sinks down to join deeper currents, where it will flow thousands of miles around the planet, before eventually returning to the tropics to be warmed again. Tada. And, of course, shortly after the end of the last ice age, a huge, cold, freshwater glacial lake burst its shores and spilled into the north Atlantic, halting this water cycle and disrupting the Gulf Stream current to plunge the Earth into another thousand years of coldness. But that sort of thing couldn’t happen the day after tomorrow, could it? Noooo. We all know that. It would take years for such a tremendous change in climate to occur. What a silly movie.
Or… maybe not. A new study from the University of Saskatchewan suggests that the story of Peter and the Wolves may not be as far fetched as we all thought. Based on lake core samples, the research seems to indicate that the drastic cooling, at least in Europe, could have occurred over a period as short as just a few weeks, not over the space of years, as was previously accepted.
Lake cores are samples of the deep mud and sediment at the bottoms of lakes, and they’re surprisingly useful for telling what happened above a lake a long time ago. Think about it—if things got really windy, for example, lots of dust and dirt would be blown onto the lake, and it would eventually settle down to the bottom, forming a unique layer. Or if all the plants nearby died suddenly, you’d probably see less pollen in the layer deposited at that time. Scientists can even look at the isotopes of the atoms in lake core layers to learn about what was happening at the time—carbon isotopes can show how much stuff was alive in the lake, and oxygen isotopes can indicate local temperature and rainfall. Examining cores from a very old lake in Ireland, the researchers discovered that the transition to the Younger Dryas period (the sudden return to ice age-like conditions) happened very suddenly, perhaps in as short a time as a month. Peter Parker was right! Peter Parker was right!
As I understand it, though, this rapid and severe change hinges on the North Atlantic Current (the Gulf Stream) being totally shut down very quickly. Cold fresh water released by melting icecaps could very likely affect weather patterns, but something on this scale would require a fairly catastrophic event—some scientists suggest that the Younger Dryas could have been triggered by some sort of extra-terrestrial impact, although the theory is heavily debated.
Still, if some hot young scientist approaches you with some hot young ideas, don’t immediately insist that he take his shirt off—he might be saying something worthwhile
Phil Jones, the director of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain, is stepping down from his post pending an investigation. Jones is at the center of a controversy over the CRU’s activity. E-mails released on the web seem to indicate a variety of improper behavior, including manipulating data, destroying data, refusing to share data with other researchers, and trying to prevent researchers with other theories from getting their results published. Jones has not been officially charged with any wrong doing at this point. But until the controversy is settled, he will relinquish his position as director of the unit.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania State University has launched a review of Michael Mann, a University scientist also involved in the controversy and author of several of the e-mails.
We discussed the controversy in more detail in this post, with updated information in the comments.
A controversy is brewing in the world of climate science. On Thursday, November 19, a Russian website posted over 1,000 e-mails and almost 3,000 data files from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. The CRU is one of the major centers of climate research in the world, and provided much of the data for the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
The e-mails, written by some of the leading climate scientists in Britain and America, seem to suggest some very disturbing behavior:
* manipulating climate data to fit pre-existing theory
* refusing to share data with peers to check for accuracy
* circumventing legal requirements to release information, and even deleting some of it
* pressuring journals to reject papers that don’t fit the theory, and even pushing editors out of their posts
The story has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. You can find a good summary of how the story broke on Pajamas Media. Blogger Bishop Hill is keeping a running list of the most controversial e-mails. And, if you just want a quick summary, there’s “Three Things You Absolutely Must Know About Climategate.”
The University has acknowledged that its system was illegally hacked, but cannot vouch for the authenticity of every item. (There is also some suggestion that the information may have been leaked by an insider.) Several authors and recipients have verified some of the e-mails as genuine; as of this writing, none of the messages have been refuted. The sheer amount of data – over 170 megabytes – suggests this is not a hoax, though many authors have cautioned that it would be easy for a prankster to slip a few bogus e-mails in with all the legitimate ones.
But, assuming the e-mails are genuine, what do they tell us?
The alleged non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act is a legal matter. We can say nothing about it, other than no charges have been filed, and everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The e-mails which seem to describe fudging the facts to fit the theory have received the most attention. It would be disturbing indeed if scientists at a major research institute were falsifying data. Though only a handful of papers have so far been implicated, if the allegations are borne out it would cast a pall over these scientists’ other work, their collaborations, and even work done by other scientists which was based on the disputed data.
These particular e-mails have also received the strongest defense. The authors, and even some third-party observers, maintain that the messages are being quoted out of context and misinterpreted, and that some phrases which appear damning actually have innocent explanations. (To date, there has been little reporting on the much larger, much more complex data files, which may shed light on this issue.)
Perhaps most disturbing, from a science standpoint, are the withholding of data from outside researchers, and the pressure put on journals to not publish dissenting views. Science absolutely relies on vigorous, evidence-based debate. If the evidence is not made available, the debate cannot take place. Furthermore, proponents of human-caused global warming have long criticized dissenters for not publishing their papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. However, if it turns out that those journals were controlled by proponents who actively kept dissenters out, then the argument loses merit.
On this last point, global warming proponents and dissenters agree. Writers such as Megan McArdle and George Monbiot argue that the case for human-caused global warming remains strong, but that subverting the peer-review process blocks scientific progress and is a major blow to credibility.
So, what next? Politicians in Britain, Australia and America are calling for investigations. Climate studies are funded with taxpayer dollars, and lawmakers pass legislation based on the information the studies provide. Governments have an obligation to make sure it is accurate. And, as noted earlier, the easy work of reading the e-mails has largely been done. The more difficult task of sifting through the data files will take longer. Already, some programmers are questioning the computer models CRU developed to predict climate. If there are more updates, we’ll be sure to post them here.
A British court has ruled that belief in climate change qualifies for protection under laws safeguarding freedom of religion in that country. (The ruling stems from a case where a man was fired from his job as head of sustainability at a real estate firm because of his strongly held ecological beliefs.) According to the ruling, “A belief in man-made climate change and the alleged moral imperatives is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religious and Beliefs Regulation.”
This is wrong. Whatever your position on climate change, it is a scientific issue, one based on observable evidence and interpretation of said evidence. Calling it “a philosophical belief” removes it from debate, and means you can accept it or deny it, regardless of evidence. That’s not science, and that’s not right.
Courtesy Courtesy of Ranveig at Wikimedia CommonsIn anticipation for the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit coming to the Science Museum of Minnesota, I found myself wondering, why do we call it the Dead Sea? The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth and one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, 6 to 10 times saltier than the Atlantic Ocean. Because the salt creates such a harsh living environment, the only organisms that will survive in the Dead Sea are bacteria and algae. Any fish that accidentally swims into the Dead Sea from one of the freshwater streams that feed it, like the Jordan River, would die instantly!
The sea is so salty because of evaporation. The high temperatures and low humidity in the region cause the water in the sea to evaporate very quickly, leaving behind all the dissolved mineral salts. Some salts sink to the bottom and some wash ashore leaving a salty crusty beach.
Courtesy Courtesy of Isewell at WikiMedia Commons
Because of the high concentration of mineral salts in the Dead Sea, the water is more dense than both freshwater and the human body. This means that our bodies become buoyant, like a cork, and we can easily float on it. When you take a dip in the Dead Sea you can actually kick back and read a book like floating on a raft. In fact, it is hard to actually “swim” in the sea.
Courtesy Courtesy of Xtall at WikiMedia Commons
The Dead Sea has been a tourist attraction since the time of Herod the Great in the 1st Century BCE. The Dead Sea isn’t just a novelty for “fun while floating” but the mineral salts have been used in Egyptian mummification, in agricultural fertilizers and even in modern day cosmetics. Check out these links to learn more about Dead Sea geography, how it was formed, how it is used by humans, and some of the issues it faces today.
Courtesy ScienceApeOh, you thought I forgot about the Geoengineering Extravaganza I promised, after just one entry? Did JGordon forget? Or is he just demonstrating a tremendous lack of respect for the Science Buzz audience?
Neither, respected friends, neither. First of all, I’ve never forgotten anything in my life. (This is in case anything I do eventually relates to someone else owing me money.) And I think I’ve demonstrated my respect for y’all over the years.
No, what happened was this: on Tuesday evening, my sock caught on a nail sticking out of my kitchen floor, and I went down like a redwood. Dried or decomposing pieces of food cushioned the fall for most of my body, but I’m afraid my face landed squarely in the mousetrap, which I had just baited with fresh poison. Luckily the trap pinned my lips shut before I ate too much of the poison, but I mix some potent poisons, and it only took a little to put me out.
My poisons are designed to remove a mouse from consciousness for anywhere from a week to several months, long enough for me to shave them, and ensure that they wake up somewhere frighteningly unfamiliar, like Thailand, or inside of someone recovering from major surgery.
At any rate, I was out for almost all of yesterday. It’s good that I woke up when I did, because I was covered with mice, but I’m afraid I just never found the opportunity to do another geoengineering post.
So, let us continue with the “forget about the greenhouse gases, and just cool this place off, now!” theories. That is, those theories that could reduce the amount of absorbed heat (from the sun) rather than reduce what’s storing the heat (greenhouse gases). It’s called solar radiation management, and it includes a wide range of potential projects. And I shall now introduce you to several, starting with the most weaksauce of them, and moving on to something with giant space guns.
When I call something “weaksauce,” I don’t mean to imply that it’s a bad idea, only that it doesn’t involve huge guns, or giant sulfur-spewing zepellins. Sort of like how cool roofs are weaksauce. Cool roofs have come up on the Buzz before. The idea is that by simply having lighter-colored roofs, more sunlight and heat is reflected back away from the Earth. And, aside from the planet heating up a little less, your house heats up a little less too, so you don’t have to use as much energy on air conditioning, and the power companies don’t have to burn as much coal, etc. Pretty neat, huh?
Unfortunately, it’d be pretty tricky to get enough people to have reflective roofs for it to make much of a difference to global temperatures—otherwise the cooling would just be local, and who cares about that, right? Plus… no giant guns, or anything.
Not like the plans to build a sunshade in space. They have guns.
Remember that season finale episode of The Simpsons, where Mr. Burns built a giant metal shade to block the Sun from Springfield? I hope you do, because some scientists are actually proposing something like that, but on a larger scale, and in space. Like, massive mirrored satellites. Or there’s the plan mentioned in this Atlantic article (which I’ve linked to before)—A professor at the University of Arizona proposes building 20 giant electromagnetic guns (rail guns?), each more than a mile long, with the purpose of firing Frisbee-sized ceramic disks into space. Each gun would fire 180,000 disks a minute, 24 hours a day, for 10 years. At that point, there should be enough disks suspended “at the gravitational midpoint between the Earth and the Sun,” that sunlight headed toward Earth would be significantly scattered… lowering the planet’s temperature. Unfortunately, the technology for these guns doesn’t exist, it would be really expensive, and it would kind of last forever. Also, one gets the feeling that this professor is just trying to make a point. On the other hand… giant disk guns.
And then there are the middle ground plans, like cloud enhancement. The idea there is to make the clouds puffier and whiter by blasting seawater up into the air with special ships. These nice, white clouds would, again, reflect more sunlight away from the Earth, cooling things down. It shouldn’t last forever, and who doesn’t like puffy white clouds? Unfortunately, it ain’t cheap, and as with all most of the other solar radiation management plans, we don’t know exactly what all the repercussions would be. Clouds are just clouds, right? Yes, but clouds affect how much rain we get, and who gets it, and how much plants photosynthesize, and so forth and so forth. And the plan is slightly less gunny than the space-sunshade thing.
Next time we’ll move on to “carbon-removal projects.” But right now I have to get the taste of mouse blood out of my mouth. (It’s an ingredient in the poison.)
Courtesy D. HarlowEver want to change the world?
No, I’m not talking about the awesome drums and bass album you’re working on. And I’m not talking about your new theory of about time and mountains and stuff. And I’m not talking about your award winning bowel movements.
I’m talking about shaking the heavenly spheres until they throw up a little. I’m talking about jamming your boot into the nearest orifice until the planet cries uncle. I’m talking about pinning its arms and slapping its belly until it forgets its own name in frustration. I’m talking about changing the world.
Sure, it’s sort of supervillain territory. And it used to be that you’d need a bad childhood and some sort of superpower, or maybe a giant laser for this sort of thing. But these days… these days you don’t even need to be super-mega-rich to tear the planet a new one; you only need to be super rich. And it could be that the planet needs a new one torn.
We haven’t really talked much about geoengineering here on Buzz, which is weird, because it falls under both “quick fixes” and “things that might look awesome,” categories I very much appreciate. This is why I prefer to deal with hangnails by shooting them off, and why my dog has painted-on zebra stripes. (The “quick fix” there was spray paint being used to make him look less stupid.)
Geoengineering is engineering on the global scale; it’s changing the planet to solve some problem. What if we could, for instance, stop global warming without changing our energy-hungry lifestyles? What if it was as quick and cheap as spray-painting the dog?
The thing is, many geoengineering projects would be quick and easy (relative to, say, transitioning the planet to renewable energy). But, like spray-painting the dog, geoengineering comes with the potential for serious problems. If we’re spray-painting the dog instead of washing him, we have to keep spray-painting him forever, or else one day we’ll have an obviously incredibly unwashed dog on our hands. And what sort of health problems might a spray-painted dog unexpectedly develop? And can we get used to living with a dog that is spray-painted?
(Bryan Kennedy posted a link to an article about these issues this summer. Check it out.)
Consider these problems with me as we turn away from painted dogs, toward the wide world of geoengineering. In the coming days, if I remember to, and if I’m not feeling too lazy, we will meet some possible geoengineering scenarios. And, remember, these aren’t totally sci-fi—they’re very possible (for the most part). The question is, do we really want to do them?
And so, geoengineering day 1: A fart like you wouldn’t believe.
Y’all know what killed the last dinosaurs, right? Yes: loneliness. But how did they get so lonely? It was that, ah, meteorite thing, right? A big space rock smashed into the Earth, boom, no more dinosaurs. But it’s not like all the dinosaurs got smashed by that falling rock. Most of the trouble came after the impact. Vast quantities of dust were thrown way up into the atmosphere when the space rock hit the planet… and it stayed up there for a while. The affect all that dust had on climate is pretty complicated, but, if we boil it way down, it basically blocked sunlight, and made the world a shadier, colder place for a while. Lots of plants couldn’t live in colder, darker conditions, so they died. And the dinosaurs couldn’t live without those plants, and so they died. (Again, it’s more complicated than that, but…)
And now… now we have a situation where, in the coming decades, the world may be getting much hotter than a lot of organisms can survive for very long. We aren’t hoping for an asteroid or meteorite to smash into us, of course, but is there another way to fill the sky with sun-blocking particles?
Yes. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines exploded, blasting millions of tons of sulfur into the sky. All that sulfur, and other tiny particles from the eruption (called aerosols), reflected lots of energy from the Sun back into space. Because it’s solar energy that provides the heat for global warming (greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide just trap the heat here), the Pinatubo eruption is thought to be responsible for temporarily lowering global temperatures by about 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit). That might seem like only a small drop, but a few fractions of a degree change in temperature worldwide can have a big affect on climate, and when we think about how it was caused by just one eruption… We could do it too! We could change the world!
One of the major ideas in geoengineering is to essentially recreate the Pinatubo eruption. Over and over again. Factories on the ground could pump tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, where it would bond with water vapor and condense around floating dust, blocking solar radiation from heating the planet. (This article envisions zeppelins hovering 12 miles up, tethered to factories by SO2-carrying hoses.)
The project might cost only tens of billion dollars (small potatoes when talking about changing global climate), and it might actually work… but then what? What happens once the dog has been spray-painted?
Some scientists are concerned that all that SO2 in the atmosphere could damage the ozone layer, which protects us from UV radiation from the Sun. (After Pinatubo erupted, the ozone layer suffered temporary but significant depletion.) Others point out that the project would do nothing to remove greenhouse gases, so that once the sulfur settled back down to Earth, we’d face very sudden temperature rises again; we’d have to continue to block out the Sun until we could decrease our production of greenhouse gases. The main thing that could happen is, well, we don’t totally know what would happen. It’s unlikely that a solution like this would only lower global temperatures, but exactly how it would affect other aspects of the climate and life on the planet is unclear…
Is it worth it? Should we pump the skies full of sulfur gas, even if we don’t understand everything that could happen because of it? What if it was the only way to hold off a “tipping point”? (Many climate scientists are concerned that gradual global warming will lead to a “tipping point,” after which warming accelerates rapidly. Thawing frozen tundra, for instance, might release vast amounts of trapped methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.) Or do you think geoengineering would distract us from addressing the basic causes of climate change?