Sunday, December 27, 2009

The "Saturation Myth"

William Lynch wrote in the News and Observer on Dec.17 that more than 300 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere would absorb all of the infrared re-radiation coming up from the Earth's surface. According to that logic, further increases in CO2 would not cause any more global warming. Unfortunately, Dr. Lynch repeated a very old mistake, first made around 1900. But Dr. Lynch has good company, as Knut Ångström was the first scientist to make this mistake.

Increasing carbon dioxide will continue to increase global warming. Satellite measurements show that as atmospheric CO2 increased between 1970 and 1997, from 320 to 365 ppm, there was greater absorption of the infrared wavelengths absorbed by the CO2 (see Two other articles extended those findings through 2006 when CO2 was up to 380 ppm. And the satellite observations indicate there is still plenty of infrared yet to be absorbed, so further increases in CO2 will cause further warming.

Ray Pierrehumbert and Spencer Weart give a more complete explanation and history at There are somewhat complicated reasons why the saturation hypothesis is a myth. The most important one may be that CO2 absorbs infrared at several wavelengths, and the energy at many of those wavelengths is not yet completely absorbed by CO2, and will not be even at double, triple, or four times the pre-industrial concentration of 280 ppm!

Is there some aspect of global warming that these climate scientists have not thought of already? Climate science, it's their passion AND their business!

We ignore history at our peril.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Carbon Dioxide Lessons

With the Copenhagen meeting in the news, I wanted to give my talented students an up-to-date picture of climate change science. The best available evidence makes deciding what to do more rationale and less emotional.

Examining climate change means understanding the greenhouse effect, and the atmosphere's key greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2). A greenhouse gas has two essential characteristics. First, it lets short-wavelength sunlight pass through the atmosphere.

This sunlight heats up the Earth's surface, which then sends out its own light energy, in the form of longer wavelength infrared light.

Greenhouse gas characteristic #2 - it absorbs the infrared light from the Earth, preventing this heat energy from passing through the atmosphere, away from the planet. When carbon dioxide absorbs this infrared light, it heats up and emits its own infrared light, most of which heads back towards the Earth. Infrared heat bounces back and forth between the surface and the atmosphere, warming the planet.

Infrared light eventually leaks through the atmosphere back to space. But the more greenhouse gases there are, the longer this takes and the warmer we get.

We depend on the greenhouse effect to keep Earth's temperatures livable. Take away all greenhouse gases and the average temperature would be 60°F colder. But it is the increased greenhouse effect caused by higher than usual carbon dioxide levels and other greenhouse gases that drives our climate change concerns.

Why is CO2 increasing, and by how much? When we burn coal, oil, gasoline, natural gas and even wood, carbon dioxide is a by-product.

Before people started burning fossil fuels there were about 280 parts of CO2 per million parts of other gases in the atmosphere (280 ppm). Today the CO2 concentration is around 387 ppm, higher than it has been for at least 650,000 years, and it continues to rise at an ever-increasing rate, now nearly 2 ppm per year.
The Keeling Curve, showing the record of atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements from the observatory atop the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii

Do we know that this atmospheric CO2 comes from burning fossil fuels? Yes. As John Rennie recently pointed out in Scientific American (11/30/2009), human activities now release over 8 billion tons of CO2 each year, while the nearest "natural" source, volcanoes, average less than one-third of a billion tons per year. Moreover, the amounts of different isotopes of carbon atoms found in the atmosphere confirm that the vast majority of this CO2 comes from burning fossil fuels.

Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas. Water vapor is also transparent to sunlight and absorbs infrared light. As some climate skeptics point out, there is more water vapor in the atmosphere than CO2, so why worry about CO2?

Carbon dioxide absorbs a portion of Earth's infrared light that water vapor cannot absorb, and water vapor cycles in and out of the atmosphere in days, while CO2 molecules can stick around for 100 years. Also, as temperature rises due to carbon dioxide's greenhouse impact, more water evaporates into the air, further increasing the greenhouse effect. In this way water evaporation makes carbon dioxide's global warming impact even greater.

There are still other greenhouse gases - including methane and ozone air pollution. To compare the relative warming caused by the human-generated portion of these gases, imagine Earth covered with football fields, each with an overhead array of light bulb sockets filled with 100 Watt lightbulbs. Carbon dioxide's warming effect would be like turning on 74 such lightbulbs over each football field. Methane adds 21, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons add 22, and ozone air pollution adds 16.

Accumulated over the planet, the energy increases produced by adding all these 100 Watt lightbulbs warms the Earth significantly more than the background greenhouse effect we depend on for a comfortable life.

How much warmer?

Long-frozen mountain glaciers and the giant ice sheets atop Greenland and Antarctica are melting at increasingly faster rates. Since 1974, 95% of 829 documented physical changes on the planet have been in directions consistent with warming (see Nature,

The same study found that in 90% of over 29,500 cases of plants or animals altering the timing of their seasonal cycles or shifting their home ranges, the changes were consistent with warming.

This article appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer on Thursday, December 17, 2009.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Backyard Hawk

Never one to make a definitive statement when there is any doubt, this is likely an immature red-shouldered hawk. He has shown up two mornings in a row now. Yesterday he dared Connie to drive past as he perched proudly on the top of our mailbox post at the head of the driveway. This morning he found the top of the bluebird nestbox at the far end of our backyard. I got the binoculars so Connie could confirm it was the same fellow she saw yesterday. He decided to get a closer look, and flew towards the house, landing on a branch in a large red maple, about 25 feet from our bedroom window. I decided it was time to get the camera and telephoto lens. He (or she?) waited patiently. This is the first of about a dozen shots I got off before it was time to fly. Mr. Hawk seemed to notice me in the window, and may have decided it was not wise to stay in one place too long with a human watching.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Skeptics Spin Doubt, Scientists Study Data

My foot doctor suggested I participate in an experiment that might help relieve my heel pain. He thought my scientific background would lead me to appreciate the opportunity. What it caused me to do was get a second opinion, and politely decline. You see, experiments often do not turn out as hoped. From the scientific standpoint, unexpected, even undesired results increase our knowledge, always a good thing. But it was my foot and my mobility, and I was not interested in taking chances on losing many years of hiking through wonderful woods with my lovely wife.

We are conducting a giant experiment on this planet today. And undoubtedly we will learn much whichever way that experiment turns out. But Earth is, after all, our only home. No other planet helps us grow food, find clean water, or breathe oxygen. We may not be close to losing Earth's life-supporting environment, but the great climate change experiment might not turn out as anyone expects. That's the tricky thing about experiments.

While skeptics spin their tales of doubt, scientists continue to decipher the atmosphere's riddles. The scientists' goal is understanding. The skeptics' goal is uncertainty. Whom would you trust to advise you on the health of your planet?

Recent spins point to temperature data that, if you turn sideways and peer through one eye from an obtuse angle, could look like a global temperature decrease over the past several years. A temperature decrease does not fit with global warming does it? Trouble is, if you turn the other way, peer through the other eye, the decrease goes away (see S. Borenstein, News and Observer, 10/27).

While those profiting from our current energy dependence on fossil fuels would be happy to keep us confused just enough to maintain the status quo a while longer, there exists a host of data that clears away the confusion. This data focuses on the responses of plants and animals involved in this giant experiment.

Ecologists call these plants and animals bioindicators, species whose presence or absence indicates the quality of the environment. The valuable thing about bioindicators is that they give a much better reading of environmental quality than a hundred or a thousand or a million thermometers. Those thermometers can only tell us the temperature at specific locations and specific times. The plants and animals live across an entire range of the environment 24-7. If you want to know what's happening to climate, ask the plants and wildlife.

Scientists have been doing that for years. Skeptics have not thought of that yet. They are too busy talking to you and me and bunches of important folks in Congress.

Birds arrive at their usual time in the spring, but their food source has already come and gone. Trees drop leaves earlier than usual, or their flowers open up weeks earlier than before. Rosenzweig et al. (see Nature magazine, May 15, 2008, Vol.453, pages 353-358) reviewed changes in the observed timing of various life cycle stages over the past 34 years in species ranging from weeds to trees and from molluscs to mammals. They found that 90% of 28,800 measured shifts in timing matched what would be expected if the climate was warming. It appears that plants and animals have not been swayed by the skeptics, and have reached a broad consensus on climate change.

It is time to listen to these plants and animals and the scientists studying climate change instead of to self-appointed critics quick to highlight any detail that might support their case. Time to decide if using Earth in a big experiment is good for our long-term health.

It cannot happen soon enough. The world is meeting in Copenhagen to take the next critical steps tackling climate change. Without firm commitments from both the President and Congress of the United States to lead in solving a problem we did more than our fair share to create, the developing countries of the world can hardly be expected to do their crucial part.

If ever you wanted to help protect this one planet you call home, now is the time, and the U.S. Senate is the place. Sit back and watch the experiment unfold, or step up and do something for the future health of Earth, and everyone who lives on it or will. Contact your Senator, indeed every Senator not sure of the science and let them know that the plants and animals on the planet do not doubt the evidence of global warming. Giant unplanned experiments on the only planet we know of that supports life might not be a good idea.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Anthocyanins in Quercus rubra

Northern Red Oak leaves on 11/14/09 in Cary, North Carolina

As deciduous trees prepare for the winter season, they get ready to drop their leaves. Frost and wind would damage the leaves, and a large number of damaged leaves would rob the tree of water and open it up to infection by bacteria, fungi, and viruses. So as trees prepare to drop their leaves, they produce changes at the base of the petiole where the leaf attaches to the stem. These changes occur in an abscission layer of cells which are easily altered to allow the petiole to detach from the stem and separate the leaf from the tree. The tree also thickens cells along this abscission layer to prevent water loss and pathogen entry through the soon-to-open wound. Once these changes cut off the flow of water to the leaf, the leaf can no longer conduct photosynthesis, and the green pigment chlorophyll, integral to photosynthesis and the green color of leaves, breaks down. As the green chlorophyll dissolves away, the remaining pigments in the leaf may be seen, and in northern red oak, that means anthocyanins. Guess what colors anthocyanins are!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Securing Ecosystem Services

Stream in Julian Price Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

One more gem from Ken Burns' National Parks documentary that applies to our backyards as well as to a nature park:

"Consecration to the task of adjusting ourselves to the natural environment so that we secure the best values from nature without destroying it is not useless idealism, it is good hygiene for civilization."

---George Melendez Wright, National Park Service Biologist

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Steve Forbes and Al Gore Agree!

Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant, New Hill, NC, September 2006

In his recent editorial in Forbes Magazine, Steve Forbes berates the need to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ("This obsession with carbon dioxide is misplaced."), yet many of the actions he recommends do precisely that. Building nuclear power plants, developing carbon capture and sequestration, using white roofs and roadways, easing access to wind power, and improving the efficiency of energy transmission all are good things BECAUSE they reduce carbon dioxide emissions by reducing our use of fossil fuels! So if we judge by what he says we should do, the emphasis on reducing carbon IS a good thing. Mr. Forbes goes on to conclude his comments with this statement, "The idea that there must be a trade-off between growth and green is pernicious and false." Have not Al Gore, President Obama, and many others been saying for some time now that going green will not have to harm the economy, that there is money to be made in switching to more renewable forms of energy? So Steve Forbes agrees with Al Gore and President Obama that green forms of energy can actually improve the economy! This is great news indeed.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why Preserve a National Park

Sunrise at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, July 24, 2007

From Ken Burns' National Parks documentary, Episode 5:

"Science embraces mystery...It says '...we need to hold onto these places [National Parks], and I can't give you a precise reason why, but the reason will come along later, and if we don't have them we'll never be able to explore the answers to the questions we'll be asking.' So they hold the answers to questions we have not even yet learned to ask."

---Kim Heacox, writer

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Skeptics Spin, Scientists Study

While the skeptics spin, scientists survey and scrutinize how the natural world is already responding to climate change. From polar bears to plankton and fish, from birds to arctic shrubs, many animals and plants show the effects of recent and current climate change in their abundance, health, and phenology. Such ecological indicator species integrate the impacts of climate change across scales of time and space our measurement instruments cannot match.

Now citizen scientists everywhere can join professional scientists in helping us all better monitor and understand what our co-inhabitants on spaceship Earth are telling us about the pace and magnitude of climate change. The USA National Phenology Network recently began registering individuals interested in helping monitor the timing of recurring life cycle changes in plants in North America. Future plans call for similar efforts to include animals and physical phenomena such as when ice melts on ponds.

My environmental science students will be adding their observations from Raleigh this fall and spring. Consider joining up and adding information from your backyard or neighborhood.

This flowering dogwood, in a picture taken in Raleigh, NC on October 11, 2009, shows signs of the early fall season in reddening leaves and mature fruits.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

See Scientia Pro Publica #13!

The letter to George Will below appears in Scientia Pro Publica #13! Visit this blog carnival for lots of other interesting science writing!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A letter to George Will

I just emailed this letter to George Will ( in response to his inane October 1 article about global warming.
- - - - -
Mr. Will,

Just a brief note to let you know that, in my humble opinion, you are a danger to the human race. You have let your political philosophy so infuse your intellect that you cannot look at anything objectively.

I received a Ph.D. in biology, for research on air pollution, in 1981, and have followed air pollution and climate change issues closely ever since. Your misrepresentation of science, and of atmospheric and climate science, is astounding. You must have no capacity for shame. Of course, it is easy to let one's firm, absolute beliefs shield one from petty things like shame and honor and honesty. After all, if you are right, you cannot be wrong.

My concern with climate change is first and foremost for my three daughters. I wish that you and other climate skeptics turn out to be correct, as I would not wish the unpleasant consequences we seem headed for on anyone. But the evidence has reached the point where
significant action to avert serious problems is past due. We are foolish to delay.

As a supposedly intelligent observer and writer, you have every right, and even obligation, to critically evaluate and comment upon alternative courses of action we might take to address the
climate-change challenge facing us. You even have the right in a free country to misrepresent the scientific evidence. However, when you misrepresent the scientific evidence, you do yourself, your children, and the rest of us, serious harm.

Risk assessment is the job of trained scientists. The folks doing the risk assessment have spoken, not with one voice, but with many. You ought to try to listen to them, rather than listen so intently to a few critics and ignore the consensus. Yes, consensus is valuable and important. That does not mean the consensus is always correct, just most likely to be so, especially the longer it exists and grows in strength.

Risk management is the job of politicians, that is, all of us. You confuse risk management and risk assessment at our peril. What if you are wrong this time? And even if you end up being correct, you have greatly damaged the understanding of the difference between science and politics. Science is about finding out why things work the way they do, not about supporting your political views. Cloud that difference and you put us back in the dark ages where those who knew they were right ruled knowing they were right and others were simply wrong.

---Denis DuBay.
Science teacher
Raleigh, North Carolina

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Farm Animal Waste Contaminating Water Supplies

As the report, Moove that Manure, in Scientific American describes, manure from large farm animal operations can overwhelm the systems meant to contain or dilute it. The result is often contaminated surface waters and groundwater. This is but one symptom of the unsustainable system of agriculture we are growing in America and many other countries around the world.

In the farms of yesteryear, manure was not simply a waste product, but essential fertilizer. It enriched the soil for the next growing season, and helped prevent erosion and the depletion of soil fertility. The smaller and more diverse farms of that day could optimize their use of everything because they did not depend on the mass production of any one product.

But we don't have to return farming to what it was 50 or 100 years ago to make it once again sustainable. We may have to change our conception of a reasonable size for a farming operation, establish incentives that promote diverse agricultural businesses, and remove barriers that make it difficult for small farms to thrive. But we can do those things while still taking advantage of new technologies such as genetic engineering.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Positive Feedback and the Runaway Greenhouse

Two recent reports about climate change research send up red hot flares warning of positive feedbacks promoting global warming.

The first is a report by Richard Kerr in Science magazine (see Kerr 2009) of research conducted by Amy Clement and colleagues at the University of Miami in Florida. The bottom line in this study finds that warming ocean temperatures may cause low clouds to thin, allowing more sunlight to reach the ocean and cause further warming of the ocean surface. In turn, this increased warming could cause further cloud thinning allowing even more sunlight to reach and warm the ocean. This positive, or reinforcing feedback provides one of the more frightening scenarios of climate change. The runaway greenhouse effect that a positive feedback loop could trigger threatens to make the worst predictions of the IPCC look tame.

The second report, by Charles Hanley of the Associated Press (see Hanley 2009), examines the findings of a host of permafrost scientists from Canada, Russia, the United States, Germany, Britain, Norway, and Sweden. The common thread here involves permafrost melting across the far northern hemisphere in response to rising temperatures. The danger lies with the large amounts of methane locked in the, until now, permanently frozen lands of the Arctic. If those lands thaw and release this methane, it would add significantly to the already dangerous greenhouse effect from the excess carbon dioxide we have added to the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Methane's greenhouse gas potential, molecule for molecule, is 21 times that of carbon dioxide. The release of even a fraction of the many billions of tons of methane locked up in the Arctic would cause a degree of increased warming sure to melt even more permafrost, and yes, you guessed it, release yet more methane. That should sound familiar, as it represents one more way that a positive feedback cycle threatens to produce a runaway greenhouse effect and catastrophic global warming.

And while climate scientists have been aware of both of these positive feedback possibilities for years, these new findings suggest that the possibilities may become reality. Both reports underline the need for continuing research, but both also point to a growing risk of extremely nasty climate surprises.

Climate skeptics are quick to point out that climate predictions may exaggerate the dangers of global warming. These two reports underline the fact that climate predictions may also greatly underestimate future global warming.


Hanley, C.J. 2009. Climate trouble may be bubbling up in far north. News and Observer, Raleigh, NC. September 3, 2009 (Associated Press).

Kerr, R.A. 2009. Clouds appear to be big, bad player in global warming. Science 325:376.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Picturing Air

In the alternative energy video, "Kilowatt Ours", a resident of West Virginia laments the loss of a favorite mountain to mountain-top-removal coal mining. He recalls someone asking him if he had a picture of the mountain, and he replied that he did not, and for two reasons. First, it can be difficult to take a picture of a mountain since it is big and if you are close to or on it, how do you take a picture of it. Second, he lived on and around the mountain all his life, he never thought it would go anywhere, so why would he need to take a picture of it?

Similar difficulties face one wishing to take a photograph of the air. How do you take a picture of something that is all around you? Why would you take a picture of something that is ever-present?

Describing a hypothetical picture of air, one could mention it's oxygen content, temperature, water vapor content, water droplet density, carbon dioxide level, ozone concentration, particulate matter load, visibility or clarity, color, and the speed and direction of its movement. Some of these characteristics would show up in your image, some not, depending on their particular levels at the time.

How would you frame all of that?

Friday, August 28, 2009

13 National Academies of Science joint statement!

The National Academies of Science of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America have agreed that
"...climate change is happening even faster than previously estimated; global CO2 emissions since 2000 have been higher than even the highest predictions, Arctic sea ice has been melting at rates much faster than predicted, and the rise in the sea level has become more rapid. Feedbacks in the climate system might lead to much more rapid climate changes."

They go on to claim that "The need for urgent action to address climate change is now indisputable."

This is not the press release of a group of people who jump to conclusions.

The full 2-page report, issued in May 2009, may be found here:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century!!!

This is from the L.A. Times for August 25, 2009:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trying to ward off potentially sweeping federal emissions regulations, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a rare public hearing on the scientific evidence for man-made climate change.

Chamber officials say it would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century" -- complete with witnesses, cross-examinations and a judge who would rule, essentially, on whether humans are warming the planet to dangerous effect.

"It would be evolution versus creationism," said William Kovacs, the chamber's senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs. "

Does anyone else see just how appropriate the analogy is to the Scopes monkey trial, where creation was pitted against evolution, religion against science? So the U.S. Chamber of Commerce likes comparing its push to challenge the science of global warming to a religious crusade? I understand their bias, but that they would admit it up front is surprising.

Full L.A. Times story here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

2009 Year-to-date Land and Sea Temperatures

I've heard the climate change skeptics are excited that there has been a cooling trend that might appear to call into doubt forecasts of global warming. Not sure where they are getting their data, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released it's July 2009 State of the Climate Global Analysis. There does not appear to be much of a cooling trend. If you look at their graph reproduced above, it shows the dramatic warming recorded in the combined global sea surface and land surface temperatures over the last 130 years.

They have also produced a graph separating the sea surface and land surface temperature record over the same 1880 to 2009 time period. You can see in the image below that both ocean and land surfaces show this warming trend. I wish there were a cooling trend overall, but it just isn't there.

The entire July 2009 report (including the two graphs above) may be found at the following link:

State of the Climate - Global Analysis - July 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

No words, just enjoy!

This view along the Boone Fork Trail in Price Lake Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway might make a nice screensaver image.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sun and Clouds

Turns out that the impacts of water vapor and water droplets in the air pose some of the biggest unknowns when it comes to understanding global climate change. This picture of sunset over Bogue Sound, North Carolina, taken this past Saturday evening, makes clear that water droplets, that is, cloud, blocks sunlight, reflecting it back into space and preventing it from warming the earth. However, water vapor, which does not form cloud, acts as a powerful greenhouse gas, transparent to sunlight just like the glass window on a greenhouse, but absorbing the heat produced by that sunlight when it hits the earth's surface. As the earth warms, more water of course evaporates. The big unknown concerns what will happen to all that extra water vapor in the air. Will it form more clouds, blocking sunlight and providing for a net cooling effect on the earth? Or will that extra water vapor stay in the vapor phase, that is, not form more clouds, allow sunlight to reach the earth's surface, and hold in the resulting heat making the earth even warmer? This latter possibility goes by the term, positive feedback loop. Warmer temperatures cause more water evaporation - in turn the greater amount of water vapor, though transparent to sunlight, holds in the heat generated by that sunlight, and causes the earth to get warmer still - in turn causing more water evaporation, over and over and over.

Climate scientists have long considered this issue, as you can read at At least one recent report suggests that the positive feedback loop may predominate, see Strong evidence that cloud changes may exacerbate global warming

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Scanning the horizon at the beach

Just returned from a week at the beach, Emerald Isle specifically, in North Carolina between Swansboro and Morehead City. Last night the air was quite clear, giving us great distance visibility. We picked out the Cape Lookout lighthouse beacon on the horizon, which raised the question how far is the horizon?

We found an online tool to help answer this question, namely,
Distance to Horizon Calculator. You plug in how many feet you are above sea level, and it calculates the distance in miles to an object that appears on the horizon. If the object is also some distance above sea level, you could just add its height to yours.

For example, if you are standing on the beach, about six feet above the water, an object just on the horizon would be about three miles away. As we sat on the porch of the place we were staying in, about 50 feet above sea level, we could see about 9 miles to the horizon. The Cape Lookout lighthouse, with its rotating beacon 150 feet above sea level, appeared to be on the horizon from our porch location 50 above sea level, suggesting it was about 17 miles away. This estimate matches that made using a map of the area.

It was interesting to watch the ocean change during the week as the weather changed from very windy and bright to calm and cloudy, with lots of other combinations in between, including lightning, thunder, and lots of rain. But you know what they say about a rainy day at the beach.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Constructing Earth

Sculpture at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City
June, 2009

Since no one has managed to dig beneath Earth's crust to view the insides of our planet, one could assume this to be a hypothesis of what you might find. Good questions about such a hypothesis would be how to test it, and what the implications of such an interior would be for those of us living on the surface. What does this image conjure up for you?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

How to tell a biased source of online information?

Left out an important piece of information in the News and Observer article. The key to figuring out whether you are informed or misinformed on something complex like climate change is knowing how to evaluate your sources of information. The U.C. Berkeley Library has a nice guide to Evaluating Web Pages for reliability and trustworthiness. When it comes down to who are you going to believe, you need to have a rational way to answer that question, and this is it. If you want to know whether you can rely on what you are reading or not, it's essential. Take a look.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Irresponsible Climate Skepticism

George Will is at it again, spinning more irresponsible climate skepticism It's lonely, caring about carbon. The following response appeared in the News and Observer on August 3, 2009.

The skeptics are all wet


RALEIGH - Writers such as columnist George Will would like to credit the state of climate science and the ineptitude of the current administration in Washington for India and China's reluctance to commit to significant carbon emissions reductions. To the contrary, Will and others deserve some credit for the behavior of the world's two population superpowers.

The global warming skepticism of Will and other climate critics has helped keep the United States on the sidelines for the past decade. The U.S. and other wealthy nations must lead before the poorer nations of the world will follow, and leadership does not happen overnight with one election.

One recent Friday evening in a local pizzeria, a friend told me that either climate science is still quite unsettled about the existence and causes of global warming, or that climate scientists are not doing a good job communicating what they knew.

But again, the climate critics should take the credit. It is easy to make the case that a complex problem such as climate change is still an unsolved, controversial issue worthy of continued public debate. Just look at what some of South Africa's leaders did to the spread of HIV-AIDS when they gave support to mavericks who were skeptical that the HIV virus causes AIDS.

There is no scientific doubt that the HIV virus causes AIDS. However, a few scientists initially doubted that a single virus could cause the array of symptoms and diseases attributed to AIDS. Leaders such as South Africa's Thabo Mbeki took these AIDS denialists seriously, and with government support their irresponsible skepticism led to widespread avoidance of effective drug treatments and safe sex practices. Thousands lost their lives -- years after the scientific community had demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the HIV virus causes AIDS.

In a democratic society with a free press, scientific findings with political and public policy consequences depend upon the good judgment of citizens for resolution. If advocates choose to misrepresent scientific uncertainties -- and there are always uncertainties in any science -- then they will likely succeed at confusing citizens. For a public with neither the time nor the expertise to do the in-depth research, media reports of any debate or controversy are simply accepted as evidence that the science is indeed unsettled and not yet ready to inform significant action.

So George Will and other climate skeptics continue to spin the evidence irresponsibly and convince themselves and the public that we need more definitive research before taking action on global warming. They may well continue to succeed, but they will still be wrong.

Climate researchers (please see Climate Change at the National Academies and RealClimate) have many questions and continue to explore for urgently needed answers. But they no longer question the dominant role that human-generated carbon dioxide plays in global warming. The evidence, like that for HIV and AIDS, is overwhelming and clear. They no longer doubt the catastrophic effects unchecked climate change will wreak on the planet, because they can already detect the earliest signals of those effects.

Everyone -- scientist and nonscientist, environmentalist and skeptic -- needs to help answer a basic climate change question: What do we plan to do about it? We must quit questioning the scientific facts and start talking about what we will do about them.

Are we willing to let the poorest peoples of the world take the major hits from climate change without any help from us? Are we willing to allow climate change to alter our coastlines, our weather patterns and biological communities in ways we cannot easily predict and at speeds that will likely overwhelm everyone's capacity to adapt?

Energy legislation recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives is a weak attempt to begin to answer these legitimate policy questions. We can hope that the Senate will not only view the House bill as a start in the right direction but will strengthen that first step with a bill more worthy of a compassionate and capable nation. We can help make our future, and the future for our children, safer, more secure and richer in many ways by embracing sources of energy that do not release carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, and by conserving our use of energy in every way imaginable.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why Dogwood Flowers Catch the Eye

The dogwoods are out! Three decades ago we learned what that meant as only living in Atlanta can reveal. Now they are at it once again here in our home in North Carolina.

Of course the answer to the question includes dogwood's early appearance in spring before many other flowers are out and when few leaves have yet emerged. Spring sunlight filtered only by naked branches highlights both white and pink varieties of Cornus florida. Dogwoods filling the gap under a canopy of larger trees show the typical layered growth of a sub-canopy species, spreading branches horizontally so leaves capture the greatest amount of the limited supply of the sun's photons that penetrate deep into the forest. Before the leaves emerge, the showy flowers often mimic the green layering to follow, creating waves of white and pink.

But the dogwood's "flowers" consist of more plant parts than the typical flower. Those showy "petals" started out as four green bracts that enclosed an inflorescence, a bunch of the dogwood's tiny green flowers. As the bracts unfold they reveal 10 to 20 or more of C. florida's real flowers, the tiny green knobs collected at the center of the bracts. Each of these flowers will open, and small insects will spread pollen from the four anthers of each flower to the pistil of other flowers. The resulting fertilization of ovules will lead to the bright red berries each containing a single dogwood seed this fall. Each dogwood inflorescence can produce one to several berries.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains a page with all the botanical information you could ever want to know about dogwoods here:

Visit this interesting site for a complete photographic sequence of dogwood flowering and fruiting:

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Purplish Delights

This is a redbud, known to scientists as Cercis canadensis. It is a small tree, one of the first to flower in early spring, they are out now in Raleigh. Its other common name is Judas tree. Redbud is a member of the legume or bean family, the Fabaceae, and like all members of this family, actually enriches the soil it grows in. Legumes have tiny nodules on their roots designed to provide ideal habitat for nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These bacteria have the unique ability to capture nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and convert it to a form of nitrogen that the redbud, and any other plant, can take in through its roots as fertilizer. They generally make more of this fertilizer nitrogen than their host plant needs, and the extra enriches the soil for later plant growth. And since plants cannot take in nitrogen from the air, this is a very good thing. So besides providing an absolutely stunning splash of purple, redbuds are also good for the soil.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Among the first flowers!

Longer days and warmer temperatures open up opportunities to observe nature coming alive. Share your reactions to this view of bluets, found in Cary, North Carolina. Do you suppose bluets are insect-pollinated or wind-pollinated?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Reckless George

The News and Observer in Raleigh published this letter, which I will reproduce here.

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George Will demonstrated reckless disregard for the whole truth in his two recent diatribes against the science of global warming (Feb. 16 and Feb. 28). His tactics border on dishonesty, choosing which facts to report and which facts to omit to best make his case.

The Arctic Climate Research Center makes clear in the statement Will cites that although global sea ice area has recently increased, Northern Hemisphere sea ice area has continued to decrease. Will may hope that few of us will actually go and read this statement, for once you do you realize that climate scientists predicted that sea ice area in the Southern Hemisphere is expected to increase before it decreases due to global warming, offsetting the expected (and observed!) sea ice area decreases in the Northern Hemisphere.

This is exactly what is happening, providing further confirmation that the climate scientists' predictions about global warming are not only scary, but accurate.

Denis DuBay

Monday, February 23, 2009

An old time climate skeptic is at it again. George Will adds to a sad record of sticking his head in the sand with another weak objection to the science behind climate change. Already two letters to the editor (Frank Tursi, and Loren Hintz) have pointed out fallacies in Will's reasoning.

It seems George is taking liberties with other people's data. Especially egregious is his misrepresentation of data from the Arctic Research Center at the University of Illinois. The Center posted a statement objecting to Will's interpretation of its data, which unambiguously show a decrease in sea ice since 1979 rather than the increase or no change that Will reports.

But a picture is worth a thousand disclaimers. Follow the link below for a graph of Arctic sea ice extent shown as the anomaly from the 1979-2000 mean ice extent. This means that the zero line on the y-axis represents the mean sea ice extent during the years 1979-2000. The jagged up and down line shows the deviation from that 1979-2000 mean. Sea ice is clearly decreasing since 1979.

The tragedy here is the willingness of otherwise intelligent people like George Will to either outright lie to make a point, or to be so self-deceived that they cannot see reality when it stares them in the face. There is no excuse for the intellectual dishonesty and/or careless scholarship represented by Will's latest disgrace of a column. We all deserve an apology, and his and our children and grandchildren deserve a retraction of his ridiculous rant that only makes it more likely that they will suffer from our inaction regarding climate change.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Climate Change Mistakes

On July 10, 2007, Max Borders, an analyst with the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, wrote an op-ed piece in the News and Observer - see Energy bill generates hidden taxes and little else. Although the bill considered by the North Carolina legislature, Senate Bill 3, had a lot of problems, so does Mr. Borders' article. Read about them here, Energy Errors.