Posts Tagged ‘The Register’

Climate contrarians spreading confusion

June 27, 2012

XKCD wrote a cartoon about my dilemma

I write this blog to stop myself going crazy: but those Climate Contrarians over at The Register keep pushing all my buttons! Take this extract from the end of a recent article

Meanwhile there’s reason not to panic even though the 450 ppm target will never be achieved [1]. US government climate modelling now suggests that warming will only just exceed 2°C – or even come in well below – at 780 ppm CO2.[2] It has become clear that the Antarctic ice cap actually froze into being while levels stood at 600 ppm, and that no matter what happens it’s going nowhere for thousands of years [3]. Many scientists suspect that the Sun actually has much more effect on climate than current climate science suggests [4], and major physicists believe a period of low solar activity is approaching which could usher in a “mini ice age” of the kind seen in the 17th and 18th centuries [5].


Even if none of those reasons not to panic contains the slightest grain of truth – even if it really is time to panic about carbon – in the real world picture now developing, activists would surely be well advised to abandon their various marginal crusades – against meat, against mythical fat people, against wasted milk, against hosepipes and farting camels and coffee and all the rest of the silliness, and try to make a case for action that has some internal consistency. ® [6]

Let’s look at these six points in turn:

[1] Panic isn’t what anyone wants to create. We have lots of problems facing us(e.g. feeding ourselves, keeping healthy, world population etc.), and climate change is one more. Panic won’t help with any of them, but a sense of urgency and importance is appropriate. Why does The Register mock people’s perfectly reasonable concerns?
[2] Climate Sensitivity. By how much does global mean temperature change when carbon dioxide concentrations double? We don’t know, but estimates range from roughly 2 °C to 4 °C . It could be much larger, but even the smallest of these figures will usher in significant climate change. And if the permanent arctic ice cap disappears – as seems likely – then all of these calculations become irrelevant . Furthermore we are (realistically) going to at least double CO2 levels. Slowing down emissions now would probably be a good idea. Why doesn’t The Register recommend that?
[3] The Antarctic Ice Cap formed 34 million years ago when the continents were in different places. In particular the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were connected through the Central American Seaway. The growth of the ice cap was triggered by the breaking off of South America from Antarctica which created a circular weather system which ‘sat’ on the south pole and reduced the flow of the heat from the equatorial regions. Frankly, the concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere was a tiny perturbation on that kind of  gigantic change of oceanic and atmospheric circulation. Why does The Register write this irrelevant nonsense?
[4] Solar output has been pretty constant, and is certainly not responsible for the recent warming seen on Earth. Why does The Register write this irrelevant nonsense?
[5] The ability of scientists to predict solar behaviour is limited. At the moment all predictions are based on statistical correlations with previous solar behaviour. If there was a reduction in solar output and a mini-ice age that would probably help reduce global warming, but it is completely out of our control or knowledge. Why does The Register write this irrelevant nonsense?

and finally the truth

[6] The Register is fed up with ‘silly stories’ about Climate Change. Well so am I! But what I try to do is sift the wheat from the chaff. Climate Change is a serious issue and serious journalists should take it seriously.

Cosmic Rays and Climate Change

August 31, 2011
Clouds - condensed water vapour - formed around tiny particles emitted from jet engines

Clouds - condensed water vapour - formed around tiny particles emitted from jet engines. Do cosmic rays give rise to similar 'contrails' that initiate the growth of clouds? Click for larger version

Cosmic rays are the particles (probably protons and not ‘rays’ at all) that are ejected from extreme events throughout our galaxy and beyond, that bombard the Earth from all directions. I discussed the basic phenomenology and the fantastic satellite recently launched to study them here. This article is about recent stories reporting a link between cosmic ray flux and the formation of water droplets in the atmosphere -clouds. Various articles describing the research can be found here:

Water molecules in the atmosphere have quite different effects depending on whether they are present as droplets – i.e. in a cloud – or as isolated molecules i.e. water vapour. In either form they have roughly similar effects on infra red light emitted by the Earth, but as we all know, clouds block visible light. The process by which droplets form has been the object of extensive study for more than a century – one of the major effects affecting the stability of droplets is called the Kelvin effect – and yet still we do not collectively understand how water vapour condenses in the atmosphere to form cloud droplets.

Of course we don’t know nothing, but even though the process of droplet formation is ubiquitous and important, the process is complex. The most significant fact is that even when there is more than enough water vapour in the air to form liquid droplets (so-called super-saturated air) they just don’t form by themselves. The chance of the water molecules clumping together by chance is infinitesimal. In practice, they need a ‘seed’ of some kind which allows water molecules to stick to it and which forms the ‘nucleus’ of a droplet which can grow.

CERN's Illustration of the process of droplet formation

CERN's Illustration of the process of droplet formation. Click for larger version. Courtesy CERN

The research from CERN (who can generate proton beams very easily) evaluated the effect of cosmic rays (i.e. fast protons) on the formation of the smallest droplets under different simulated atmospheric conditions and in the presence of different impurities. The results were complex, but can be divided into two parts:

  • When simulating the atmosphere at an altitude of 1 kilometer (3000 feet) where the temperature is approximately -10 °C (prime cloud forming temperature) , they were surprised to find that the rate of droplet formation was only one thousandth of  that observed in the real atmosphere, with or without the ‘cosmic ray’ bombardment.
  • When simulating the atmosphere at an altitude of 5 kilometers (16000 feet) where the temperature is approximately -25 °C – they found that ‘cosmic ray’ bombardment enhanced the rate of tiny droplet formation by a factor 10.
So the results indicate that droplet formation is even more complex than had been previously considered. But as many reports were at pains to point out, this is not really news because nobody ever thought they understood the process in the first place! And the droplets formed in the experiment were still too small to grow into cloud droplets and scatter light. Small droplets – perhaps 10 nanometers (50 atoms) do not necessarily grow to be large 1 micron size droplets typically found in clouds. Small droplets tend to evaporate faster than larger droplets and so when there is a mix of droplet sizes, small droplets tend to shrink and larger ones tend to grow – that is a manifestation of the Kelvin effect I mentioned above. However, no doubt we will eventually figure out how the process works.
However, I would like to single out the disingenuous Andrew Orlowski who writes for the Register for special castigation. Mr. Orlowski is an iconoclast who enjoys mocking the achievements of others. From reading his articles it is cleat that Mr. Orlowski objects to the idea that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions could conceivably be affecting the climate. So Mr Orlowski loves the idea that Cosmic Rays could be affecting the climate because they are ‘not our fault’ and we can just ignore the ‘liberal whingers’ calling for controls on energy usage. I don’t know why he so persistently rejects the idea that carbon dioxide emissions could be affecting the climate, because its a pretty sound idea with quite a lot of evidential and theoretical support. But every report he writes on the subject focuses on the things which people can’t explain and implies that the whole concept is thought up by a liberal/authortarian elite who – unlike the free-thinking Mr Orlowski – are unwilling to accept new data. However he never has the honesty to state what he actually thinks. So, for example,  he ends his article with a quote implying that the lead author thinks that previous climate studies are bunkum.
When Dr Kirkby first described the theory in 1998, he suggested cosmic rays “will probably be able to account for somewhere between a half and the whole of the increase in the Earth’s temperature that we have seen in the last century.”
But in fact the actual results of Dr. Kirkby’s work are completely inconclusive – telling us only what we knew before – that we don’t understand the basic process of cloud formation.
As new research fills in the gaps in our knowledge of the many complex factors that affect our climate, many media sources invite us to view the work in an essentially confrontational light. The question they ask is whether this report strengthens the views of climate change ‘skeptics’ or climate change ‘supportors'(!). Frequently one voice from each camp will be quoted to further this sense of antagonism. But in fact there will always remain many areas of uncertainty and we – you and I and scientists and governments – have to cope with this uncertainty. We have to make our Climate Models as best we can even though we don’t understand all the elements: We have to make decisions about energy usage and generation (Wind turbines, Electricity pylons, banned light bulbs) in the face of this uncertainty. These decisions  are difficult enough in themselves and we would all do better without this kind of tribal response to each new piece of information.

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