Stories tagged climate change

Some of Liza's RSS feeds
Some of Liza's RSS feedsCourtesy Liza Pryor

"Stanford creates 100 million dollar energy research center"
"Stanford University is creating a 100-million-dollar research institute that will focus on energy issues, including the search for ways to reduce global warming, officials said."

"Home turbines fail to deliver as promised, warns British study"
"Home wind turbines are only generating a fraction of electricity promised by the manufacturers while some even fail to yield enough energy to run the turbine's electronics, a British study warned on Tuesday."

"'V-wing' turbine gets study cash"
"An unusual design of wind turbine with a pair of giant vertical wings could one day be generating electricity for the UK Grid."

"China's BYD to bring plug-in hybrid, electric cars to US in 2011"
"China's BYD Auto announced plans Monday to enter the US market in 2011 with a range of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. It would likely be the first Chinese automaker to enter the highly-competitive US market and beat many established automakers in offering an extended-range electric vehicle to US consumers."

"A bicycle evangelist with the wind now at his back"
"For years, Earl Blumenauer has been on a mission, and now his work is paying off. He can tell by the way some things are deteriorating around here."


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.

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.)


Is it hot in here, or is it just me.: Research and debate continues on global warming. Image by ! "S4N7Y" !
Is it hot in here, or is it just me.: Research and debate continues on global warming. Image by ! "S4N7Y" !

(With the Republican National Convention literally across the street, the Science Museum of Minnesota will be closed starting Friday, August 29. But Science Buzz marches on! To honor our convention guests, I’ll be posting entries focusing on issues where science and politics overlap. Hopefully this will spur some discussion. Or at least tick some people off.)

Let’s start with a nice, safe topic. Like global warming. Because Lord knows, we haven’t discussed that enough.

We recently passed an important milestone in the climate change debate: it was 20 years ago this summer that global warming became a political issue in America, thanks to NASA’s Jim Hansen testifying before Congress. (Some wags have noted that the global temperature in June 2008 was cooler than in June 1988--but that’s weather, not climate.)

There was a dust-up recently concerning the American Physical Society, a leading scientific organization. One of its units, the APS Forum, published a paper by Christopher Monckton arguing that carbon’s impact on climate has been greatly overstated. The Forum intends to publish additional papers in its journal, Physics and Society, as part of a public debate on global warming science.

Some in the news media inaccurately reported that the APS itself had reversed its stance on global warming. This was not the case—the society as a whole maintains that human activity is the main cause of recent climate change. The journal is put out by APS Forum, which is just one of 19 units within the larger organization. But at least they are willing to have the debate.

Meanwhile, Australian astronomer Ian Wilson is predicting global cooling. His research finds that the main driver of Earth’s climate is the Sun’s activity, and that has been decreasing of late.


Going, going, gone?: Will global warming doom the tuatara?
Going, going, gone?: Will global warming doom the tuatara?Courtesy Andrew_mrt1976

The tuatara looks like a lizard, but it ain’t. It actually split off from the lizard family tree some 200 million years ago, frolicked with the dinosaurs, and is considered a “living fossil.”

How much longer it will go on living is a matter of some debate. Restricted to a few small islands off New Zealand, the tuatara has long been classified as a vulnerable species. But some researchers feel it faces a new threat: global warming.

Many reptile reproductive systems are tuned to temperature. If the weather is warm, a male hatches. If the climate is cold, the egg produces a female. Some researchers fear that warming temperatures will lead to nothing but male tuataras within 75 years, ending the species’ 200-million-year run.

Most of the article is hidden behind a subscription wall, so I don’t know if the researchers ever get around to explaining how the tuatara survived the much, much warmer temperatures of the Mesozoic, and the much, much cooler temperatures of the Ice Ages, without going extinct then, too. But I’m sure it’s a beautiful explanation, though.