Stories tagged global warming


A friend clued me in that the prestigious Science Museum of Minnesota's blog seems to be largely written by Science Museum staff who don't appear to be up to speed on climate change science. I've been buzzing through Science Buzz and it is clear that some buzzers may not know how to find peer-reviewed science and scientific statements on climate change. Given that your project is funded by the National Science Foundaiton, it seems very important that your staff posters get up to speed on science.

So, I offer a few helpful links:

Climate scientists answering questions about climate science, at

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, at

Climate literacy for educators and students, at

Dr. Stephen Schneider's website on climate change science, at

As well, your staff may want to review the many statements authored by professional scientific bodies on climate change, including those of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological get the idea.

It's a shame that the best science education institution in the state doesn't require that its Science Buzz staff get up to speed on cimate science.

J. Drake Hamilton
Science Policy Director
Fresh Energy


Sun with sunspots
Sun with sunspotsCourtesy NASA

One of the most common questions I hear about climate change is "Isn't it just the sun?" Days (sun out) are warmer than nights (no sun), and sunny days are usually warmer than cloudy days. Let's be honest, it would also be much easier on the conscience. After all, we have about as much chance of controlling the sun as I do of getting my cat to do the laundry. But our actions do impact the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Scientists who are interested in climate have been looking into this. A new paper by Anja Eichler and her colleagues from Switzerland and Russia looks at this problem by comparing records of how brightly the sun has been shining to the temperature in central Asia over the last 750 or so years. Now you're probably thinking, "Hey, who had a thermometer in Siberia 750 years ago?" It turns out that the part of Siberia near Mongolia and Kazakhstan has glaciers that are actually pretty good at recording the temperature.

So what'd they find? The sun is pretty important. It explains well over half of the wiggles in the temperature curve . . . until 1850. After that the sun is still kind of important, but changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere do a much better job explaining the recent warming.

Other scientists have found the same story using different methods, so I think we're homing in on a solid answer.

If you want to read the paper yourself, it is in press in Geophysical Research Letters. The story's not free on-line, so you might need to head to a library to check it out.

According to British scientists, 2008 will probably be the coolest year this decade. Now, this has been a very warm decade, so that's not saying much. But still, each of the last three years, and four of the last five, have been cooler than their predecessors. Does this mean that Global Warming (tm) has reversed? Leveled off? At least slowed down a bit?

"Absolutely not," says the man whose job depends on finding evidence of continued warming. Interesting how that works out...


Water vapor in action: Hoh Lake, Washington.
Water vapor in action: Hoh Lake, Washington.Courtesy S. McAfee

I hate it when bad news gets confirmed.

That’s just what happened when Andrew Dessler and his colleagues at Texas A&M were able to show that a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. Unfortunately, water is a greenhouse gas, so more water vapor means the earth warms, so the atmosphere can hold more water, which is a greenhouse gas . . . I think you can see where this is going. It’s a nasty feedback circle. If the earth stays more or less the same temperature, we don’t worry about this too much because there’s a really good way to get water out of the atmosphere. In fact, it just shut down air and highway travel all over the East Coast.

It may seem like a no-brainer that warmer air holds more water, but these scientists were able to put solid numbers on the link between temperature and water vapor, which is a big deal. They used information from a satellite called the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder to measure the amount of water in the air.

Using information from 2003 to 2008, they found that for every 1 degree Celsius the earth warms, the extra water in the air traps 2 watts for every square meter of the earth. If you stored that up over a square meter for an hour, you could run a 100-watt light bulb for about a minute. Bet you wouldn’t even notice that in your electric bill. But the earth is big, so let’s put it in perspective and do the math.

The surface of the earth is 510,072,000 square kilometers. According to howstuffworks, your run-of-the-mill power plant puts out 3.5 billion kilowatts in a year. That means the extra warming that water vapor adds for every degree the earth gets warmer is about the same as the annual output of 290 power plants, give or take. That’s a lot of light bulbs.


You may have read a couple weeks ago a NASA report stating that October 2008 was the warmest October ever on record. An enormous hot spot was observed over Siberia, an incredible 10 degrees warmer than normal, raising the global average.

However, the appearance of the words “hot” and “Siberia” in the same sentence made some people suspicious. A couple of bloggers took a closer look at the data, and they found that, for dozens of reporting stations in Siberia, the average October temperature was exactly the same as the average October temperature. That’s pretty much impossible. Clearly what happened is someone copied the numbers from the wrong column, leading to greatly inflated figures, which were then eagerly reported.

So, what can we learn from this little episode?

1) Even experts make mistakes. Though this particular expert, Dr. James Hansen, seems especially prone to making mistakes that support his views. That’s only human, I suppose, but it means we should pay attention to who is publishing a study, and whether they are pushing a particular point of view.

2) Weather is not climate. One sparrow does not make a spring, and one October does not make a global warming crisis. Especially when the October in question was not actually, you know, warm.

3) Read the fine print. Just like the item below, the headline told one story, but the pesky little facts told a very different one. (One of the most important things it tells us is that the folks in charge of monitoring the world’s climate don’t even bother to double-check their own data!)


OK, Science Buzz writers! Time for a pop quiz. Let’s say you were writing a blog post based on the following two facts:

  • Arctic sea ice, 2007: 1.59 million square miles (the lowest on record)
  • Arctic sea ice 2008: 1.74 million square miles (the second-lowest on record)

What would your headline be?

Well, you could give it a positive spin and say something like, Sea ice grows, but that would rather miss the big picture, doncha’ think?

Or you could go all negative and say Sea ice near historic lows, which again would be accurate, but overlooks the dynamics of the situation.

A nice fair-and-balanced approach would be to say Sea ice grows, but remains near record low. That covers all your bases.

The one thing you cannot do is lie and say Arctic sea ice shrinks to 2nd-lowest on record Because it’s not, actually, you know, shrinking. It’s growing.

Lying is a bad idea, even if you don’t necessarily subscribe to the Ninth Commandment.

  • Lying is bad for journalism. People look to journalists to give them the straight dope. If a newspaper can’t be trusted, why bother reading it? (This may explain the recent precipitous decline in newspaper readership.)
  • Lying is bad for the environmental movement. When the lies are exposed – and they always are, though usually not in the second freakin’ paragraph – it confuses those who are undecided as to where they stand on this whole global warminging thing, and it gives ammunition to the skeptics who say it’s all a hoax and a scam.
  • And most of all, lying is bad for the Earth. Governments are setting policies in response to climate change. If we take action based on the belief that sea ice is shrinking, when in fact it is growing, it could very well mean the end of life on this planet.

Just a little something to keep in mind as you compose your Buzz posts. Be careful out there.


Mountain pine beetle: download brochure by clicking on Forest Service
Mountain pine beetle: download brochure by clicking on Forest ServiceCourtesy US Forest Service

Why are all the trees dying?

Last summer I spent a week in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain National Park. One question was repeatedly being asked by visitors, "Why are all the trees dying?" In many places every lodgepole pine over five inches was dead as far as the eye could see. From the Mexican border all the way up into Canada millions and millions of acres of mountain pine forest are dead or dying.

Mountain Pine Beetles

A black, hard-shelled beetle called Dendroctunus, which means tree killer, drills through pine bark and lays its eggs in the sweet, rich cambium layer that provides nutrients to the tree. They also inject a fungus to stop the tree from moving sap, which could drown the larvae. Officials claim that this is the largest known insect infestation in the history of North America.

Why is this happening now?

Mountain Pine Beetles used to be mostly killed off by -30 to -40 degree below temperatures. That has not happened for about ten years. Eight years of drought also has weakened the trees and their ability to flush out invaders with sap flow.

Dead trees create problems

Dead trees will eventually fall down. This means removing millions of trees near homes and along roads and trails.

At Vail Ski Resort, for example, which has been particularly hard hit, workers have removed thousands of dead trees and planted new ones. In Yellowstone the beetles are killing the white-barked pine trees, which grow nuts rich in fat that are critical to grizzly bears in the fall. In Colorado and Wyoming, officials have closed 38 campgrounds for fear trees could fall on campers. They have reopened all but 14.

Wildfire is the biggest threat. Many homes and communities are surrounded by dry, dead trees. The Forest Service and logging companies are clear-cutting “defensible space” so firefighters have a place to fight fires. The amount of dead wood is overwhelming, though. Hopefully entrepreneurs will find ways to use it. I am afraid that what is left behind is not going to be very "scenic" for a long time.

Learn more about the mountain pine beetle infestation

Source article: New York Times
Video: Americas disappearing forests
US Forest Service: Regional bark beetle information
Denver Post editorial by Merrill Kaufmann: Battling the pine beetle epidemic
32 page teacher packet (pdf): Mountain Pine Beetle Mania

Science fiction writer Michael Crichton died on Tuesday, November 4. He is famous for such books as The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man. And Jurassic Park. In recent years he became an outspoken critic of global warming, pointing out what he saw as the unscientific nature of the debate and the rush to solutions which he argued would do more harm than good.

Science debate 2008
Science debate 2008Courtesy Science debate 2008.
Follow the link below to see the how presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain answered a series of questions about science policy, covering topics including stem cell research, global warming, renewable energy research, science education, space exploration and more. Obama's answers were submitted in August, and McCain's this past Monday.

Click here for the candidates' answers to the top 14 science questions facing America.


Where, oh where, have my sunspots gone?: Sunspot activity tied a record low of zero in August, 2008.
Where, oh where, have my sunspots gone?: Sunspot activity tied a record low of zero in August, 2008.Courtesy NASA

For the first time in almost a century, the Sun has a spotless record. There were no observed sunspots in August. None. Zero. Zip. Can't get a record any lower than that. That's the first time this has happened since 1913.

That's before commercial radio. Before talking movies. Before World War I. Why, it's almost as long as since the last time the Cubs won the World Series.

Now, that's a long time!

Plus, as we've discussed before, the Sun has been unusually quiet of late. Sunspots generally go through an 11-year cycle, and we're a couple years late for the next rise in activity.

But, you are no doubt wondering, what does this mean to me, the Average Joe? (Assuming your name is indeed "Average Joe," which would be pretty remarkable and, ironically, not average.) Well, sunspots seem to be tied to weather. Three times, since astronomers began observing suspots, has the Sun fallen silent, and each time coincides with significant drops in global temperatures. One such dip, from roughly 1600 to 1750, was so severe it is known as "The Little Ice Age."

Are we heading into another glacial period? Much too soon to tell. But if you start feeling chilly, keep your eye on the Sun. Astronomers will be doing the same.

(NOTE FOR THE METAPHORCALLY-IMPAIRED: That was meant figuratively. Do not look directly at the Sun with your naked eye. You'll burn out your retina.)