Have Recent Weather Events Moved More of Us to Listen to Science? ~ Jeremy Hance

Via on Nov 16, 2012
Hurricane Sandy storm surge on the New Jersey shore. Photo by: Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force/New Jersey National Guard.

Droughts, Fires, Heat Waves and Hurricanes. Oh My!

As the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, killing over 100 people and producing upwards of $50 billion in damage along the U.S. East Coast, has reignited a long dormant conversation on climate change in the media, it’s important to note that this is not the only weird and wild weather the U.S. has seen this year.

In fact, 2012 has been a year of record-breaking weather across the U.S.

The worst drought in decades, unprecedented heatwaves and monster forest fires.

While climatologists have long stated that it is not yet possible to blame a single extreme weather event on climate change, research is showing that rising temperatures are very likely increasing the chances of extreme weather events and worsening them when they occur.


In March, the U.S. suffered a truly bizarre extreme weather event. A heat wave that made early spring feel like the height of summer. The March heat wave shattered 15,272 day and nighttime records across the U.S. and made March 2012 the warmest March on record for the country.

Then came summer 2012 when a longer than usual heatwaves worsened forest fires, exacerbated drought, and led to a series of destructive wind and thunderstorms known as derechos. July 2012 set the record for the warmest month ever in the U.S., beating out past scorchers set during the Dust Bowl.

The link between such extraordinary heat waves and climate change is crystallizing. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that extreme heat waves have increased worldwide by at least 50 times during the last 30 years. The research, headed by James Hansen of NASA, concluded that anthropogenic global warming was the only explanation for the observed increase in heatwaves.


Heat makes fire more likely and 2012 was a record breaker for forest fires in the U.S. New Mexico suffered its largest wildfire yet with 289,478 acres (117,148 hectares) burned up in the Gila National Forest.

Another fire in New Mexico, however, proved to be the most destructive in the state’s history when it destroyed over 250 buildings.

Colorado suffered a particularly damaging wildfire as well. The Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed over 300 homes, killed two people, and prompted a visit from President Obama. It was the state’s second largest wildfire on record.

While several factors are leading to explosive monster fires, including the practice of suppressing small fires rather than letting them burn out, scientists are increasingly outspoken that there is also a climate factor in these conflagrations. Rising temperatures, droughts, and less snow pack are increasing prime fire conditions in some parts of the U.S., particularly the Southwest.

“I have no doubt climate change is playing a role in this,” climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, who heads the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), told The Salt Lake Tribune in July. Located in Boulder Colorado, Trenberth’s NCAR lab was evacuated during the Waldo Canyon Fire.


A record drought hit the U.S. heartland this spring and then spread, impacting over half of the contiguous U.S. by the end of the summer. The government declared disaster areas in 1,692 counties across 36 states.

The combination of record heat and dryness decimated the nation’s globally important corn crop, with around 45 percent lost, fears for another global food crisis have risen for next year.

The price of corn, which is used to feed livestock and for biofuels, hit a record high in August. Even as the U.S. East Coast was hammered by rain, drought conditions still persist across much of the U.S.

A recent report in American Meteorological Society has shown that climate change is increasing the likelihood of such droughts. For example, it found that climate change had increased the chances of a major drought in Texas in 2011 by 20 times.

“This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level,” Jonathan Overpeck, climatologist with the University of Arizona, told the Associated Press over the summer. “The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

Notice that scientists do not say climate change has caused these extreme events, instead they argue that rising global temperatures have increased the likelihood of extreme events and increased their potency. A common metaphor to describe this phenomenon is that climate change has “loaded the dice” for extreme weather events.

So, what about Hurricane Sandy?

The connection between hurricanes and climate change has come under more debate than heatwaves and droughts. However, scientists still point several ways in which the storm may have been exacerbated by climate change.

Year after year of rising sea levels, caused by climate change due melting glaciers and the fact that warmer waters actually expand, certainly added to Sandy’s devastating storm surge, which hit 14 feet in some places.

A warmer ocean also results in increased evaporation, leading to heavier precipitation. Combining the sea level rise with more precipitation probably resulted in a double whammy for coastal flooding.

In addition, higher oceanic temperatures and more precipitation may increase the intensity of some hurricanes. In fact, recent science shows that while hurricanes in general may occur less often due to climate change, particularly intense ones, like Sandy, are expected to occur more frequently in upcoming decades. Temperatures over the Atlantic Ocean were three degrees C (5.4 degrees F) above average during the reign of Sandy.

Hurricane Sandy’s track. Notice how it veers eastwards. Image by: Cyclonebiskit.

Finally, the hurricane’s route was pushed by a rare blocking pattern, an unmoving block of atmosphere pressure, near Greenland.

This blocking pattern, which pushed Sandy westwards into New Jersey and New York, may be connected to sea ice loss in the Arctic, according to recent research.

Usually a hurricane like Sandy would move out eastwards and perish over the ocean, but this one was steered directly into the coast.

Much more research on this theory is needed, but it may be that Arctic sea ice loss, which hit a new record low this year, could have helped form the blocking pattern that brought Sandy along its unusual course.

“I would be very cautious,” Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of physics of the oceans at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told Reuters. “But there is reason to suspect that there could be a connection between the record sea ice loss this summer and the path of this storm.”

Much more research on this theory is needed, according to experts. In fact, the research on how the warming atmosphere is impacting extreme weather is still in its infancy. Hurricane Sandy, itself, was a truly bizarre storm, a combination hurricane and snowstorm, that has not been studied widely by climatologists.

Still, scientists are beginning to see stark changes in extreme weather around the world, not surprising given that weather systems are not independent of our climate, and new research is showing that a warmer world is very likely a more extreme one.

It’s not going to get any better, experts say, until societies begin to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions while adapting to a more extreme atmosphere.

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*Adapted from mongabay.com.

Mongabay.com provides news, information, and analysis on environmental issues, with a special focus on tropical rainforests. The web site features more than 70,000 photos and has a section about forests for children available in nearly 40 languages.



Editor: Olga Feingold

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43 Responses to “Have Recent Weather Events Moved More of Us to Listen to Science? ~ Jeremy Hance”

  1. Mark Ledbetter says:

    It's pretty clear that temps are rising. What's less clear is whether they're human-made. Al Gore's 15 separate lines of converging evidence and his 97% number for climatalogists on the other new thread are impressive. But I still haven't seen anyone address the feedback problem.

    Which is, as I understand it…

    Scientifically, extra carbon in the atmosphere, in and of itself, can only account for a fraction of the rise in temps. For carbon to be the cause, there has to be a positive feedback loop of some sort that multiplies the effect of carbon. The assumption of a large feedback loop is made in all the computer programs that predict human-made global warming. Yet, no such loop has been found. I've asked at least twice here on Ele, with all its knowledgeable people, but no answer. You can't be certain about human causation without addressing that major problem, can you? And you all seem pretty certain. Anyone know anything about the feedback loop?

    Also, Cat 1 Sandy wasn't really that big a deal, or wouldn't have been if it weren't for too many people living where they shouldn't live (In THAT sense, the tragedy was certainly human-caused. People didn't used to build in flood zones). There have been lots of bigger storms hitting NY and N Eng before the carbon era. Check out:

    1944. The Great Atlantic Hurricane. Landfall in NY at Cat 3.
    1938. The Great New England Hurricane. Landfall on Long Island at Cat 3, 17.6 ft storm surge in Rh Island. Cat 5 gusts in N Eng of 186 mph before the meter broke.
    1821. Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane. Only 'cane with eye crossing NY.
    1815. Great Sept Gale of 1815 (the word hurricane was coined later). Est. Cat 5 at landfall.
    1635. The Great Colonial Hurricane (obviously named later!) Est Cat 4 or 5.

    Then there's the dustbowl of the 1930s and the murderous midwest droughts and heat waves of the 1880s (or was it 90s?).

    Could it be that we're all over reacting due to limited experience?

    • Thanks for your comment, Mark. I'm not personally a climate scientist, which is why I lean toward the worldwide experts in the field of climate science for my information. Hoping someone with more expertise can directly answer your question. While extreme weather has certainly happened in the past, the consensus is these extreme weather events are occurring more frequently.

      You might be interested in this recent documentary about the Dust Bowl: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/

      This recent elephant post has some great links: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/11/algorhythm

    • Greg Laden says:

      Rather than cherry picking convenient data points, mark, om needs to carry out a systematic study with good methodology and including all the data. That's been done, you're wrong.

      This is what a climat science denialist looks like. Easy to spot, hard to understand the motivations of.

    • Mark, I recommend you check out figures 5 & 6 in this article: http://nrtee-trnee.ca/munich-re-case-study

      The case study is worth reading in its entirety.

    • @LazarLA says:

      Mark,__That the earth is warming primarily due to increasing CO2 levels has been well established for decades. There are no climate, atmospheric or physics related scientific organizations that dispute this claim. ____The Climate Scientists at Skeptical Science write this:____"An enhanced greenhouse effect from CO2 has been confirmed by multiple lines of empirical evidence. Satellite measurements of infrared spectra over the past 40 years observe less energy escaping to space at the wavelengths associated with CO2. Surface measurements find more downward infrared radiation warming the planet's surface. This provides a direct, empirical causal link between CO2 and global warming."____In answer to your last question, the overwhemling evidence leads to the opposite conclusuion: that we are severely underreacting to a clear and present threat to human society. __

    • Mark, there are a few additional responses to your comment/questions that aren't attached to your comment via the reply button. I think you'll find they answer your questions in detail. Thanks for getting a conversation rolling on this very important topic.

  2. Harold Gardner says:

    Although I find it clear that we are in a climate warming trend that is at least exacerbated by human activity, I worry that your post looks to recent weather for climate evidence. Unfortunately, it just does not work that way, and this leads to much confusion exploited by the climate change deniers. Climate is about long term trends; not about recent weather.

    Sandy was not a large or unusual storm. Where it landed was the issue. If Sandy had hit the Gulf Coast, the impact would likely have been minimal.

    • @LazarLA says:

      Harold, current weather is also "exacerbated" by human caused climate change
      Example: Most of the damage from the storm was due to storm surge – from seas that are nearly a foot higher than they were 100 years ago. There is also strong indication that "left turn" path of Sandy was a result of a changing high pressure systems due to the loss of polar ice cap.

      Kevin Trenberth from the National Center for Atmospheric Research says it much better than I can:

      “Global warming is contributing to an increased incidence of extreme weather because the environment in which all storms form has changed from human activities.”"

  3. [...] his answer, Obama re-iterated his acceptance of climate science and discussed how progress on tackling climate change might proceed in his second term, though he [...]

  4. Greg laden says:

    Harold, over100 dead people and their families disagree. Actually, because of terrain this would have been worse, not better in the gulf. And yes, the science linking warming to human activity is solid. What is your motivation for denying that?

  5. David W. Fischer says:

    Harold Gardner: "Sandy was not a large or unusual storm." — beg pardon, Harold, but that's incorrect. Sandy's tremendous devastation was the result of several factors, among them the fact that it was, geographically, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. Also, "When hurricane hunter aircraft measured its central pressure at 940 millibars — 27.76 inches — Monday afternoon, it was the lowest barometric reading ever recorded for an Atlantic storm to make landfall north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The previous record holder was the 1938 'Long Island Express' Hurricane, which dropped as low as 946 millibars." (http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/30/us/sandy-records/index.html)

  6. David W. Fischer says:

    Mark Ledbetter: First, I'll presume that you aren't a big fan of Al Gore. But that's a distraction. Gore is not a scientist; he's a policy advocate. Let's focus not on the conspicuous personalities who, understanding and trusting the science, have expressed concern about global warming, but on the science itself, because science is what this is all about and the policy advocates sometimes get things wrong, but it is not fair to blame the scientists for advocates' failures.

    "What's less clear is whether they're human-made" — Actually, it is quite clear — increasingly so, year after year — that the rapid warming of Earth's surface is caused by humans. Variations in solar radiation, the influence of volcanic eruptions, and several hundred other possible factors have been studied and quantified, and none explain the current warming trend. The factors that do make sense, geophysically, are decreased global phytobiomass (that is, a marked in decrease the total mass of living photosynthetic plants and plankton, both on land and in the water, from deforestation and ocean acidification) increased atmospheric CO2 and CH4 (methane = "natural gas"), along with the feedbacks (read on).

    Most significantly, the weather [climate] trends we keep seeing are quite uniformly as predicted by climate scientists. When scientists make predictions (especially predictions others are not making) and those predictions are borne out, that's pretty compelling evidence that those scientists are on the ball. No one else predicted, 20+ years ago, that NYC was increasingly at risk from a storm like Sandy, with a surge whose impacts were exacerbated by higher sea levels. No one else predicted, 20+ years ago, that we would see extraordinary droughts and heatwaves where we have seen them (e.g. the North American mid-continent). No one else predicted, 20+ years ago, that we would see a strong trend toward hotter, drier summers, complete with major crop losses, in the Northeastern states, with fewer *hours* of precipitation and more heavy-precipitation events. …

  7. … It's pretty hard to argue against mainstream climate science's data and methods when they keep being right. It reminds me of some of the systematic hypotheses mycologists (that's what I do, first) have made over may, many decades about which mushrooms are related to what other mushrooms, i.e., evolutionary relationships. DNA studies have borne many of those hypotheses out and contradicted others. Those hypotheses that were based, for example, on chemical characters and microcharacters (e.g. spore morphology) rather than on macroscopic field characters have largely been validated by DNA testing; hence, we have doubled-down on appreciation of the importance of microstructure in assessing evolutionary relationships between different "kinds" of mushrooms.

    Re: "I still haven't seen anyone address the feedback problem. … For carbon to be the cause, there has to be a positive feedback loop of some sort that multiplies the effect of carbon. The assumption of a large feedback loop is made in all the computer programs that predict human-made global warming. Yet, no such loop has been found." — Well, in a sense, you're right; there is no such "loop" — it is, in fact, a whole bunch of loops. Here are the two biggest ones so far, shorthanded for your convenience ("^" means "increase" or "increased"):
    1. ^Atmospheric CO2 –> ^Atmospheric and water-body-surface temperature –> ^Atmospheric H2O vapor (because warmer water evaporates more readily, and warmer air can hold more water vapor) –> ^Atmospheric and water-body-surface temperature (because H2O vapor, too, is a very potent greenhouse gas) —— OR in a more abbreviated form – ^CO2 –> ^temperature –> ^H2O vapor –> ^temperature
    2. ^Atmospheric CO2 –> ^Atmospheric and water-body-surface temperature –> decreased land and sea ice and snow cover (especially in the Northern Hemisphere and in high-elevation mountain regions) –> decreased albedo (solar reflectivity) –> increased absorption of solar radiation –> ^Atmospheric and water-body-surface temperature —— OR in a more abbreviated form – ^CO2 –> ^temperature –> decreased albedo –> ^temperature …

  8. … "Also, Cat 1 Sandy wasn't really that big a deal…" — Tell that to the folks in Hoboken, Staten Island, lower Manhattan, Long Island, and the other areas Sandy devastated! (wink)
    "Category" for a hurricane is specified strictly by its wind speed; that is *not* the parameter meteorologists and climatologists point to when asserting that Sandy was unprecedented.

    Two important notes: First, I consider it *very* important to note that the coincidence of a full-moon high tide significantly exacerbated Sandy's devastation, and that certainly cannot be blamed on global warming. Second, I must point out that your assertion that "People didn't used to build in flood zones" is wholly incorrect. In fact, humans have throughout the course of human and civilizational history, and throughout the world, chosen to live in flood zones. By and large, the soil in flood plains is highly fertile, and there is plenty of fish, game and wild foods too. We're temporally myopic: as long as our gardens are productive and there's fresh meat, we don't concern ourselves all that much with the risk of a 100-year flood that we might never see, let alone the 500-year flood we will not likely see.

    "Then there's the dustbowl of the 1930s and the murderous midwest droughts and heat waves of the 1880s (or was it 90s?)." — Yup, we've had bad droughts and heatwaves before, and without global warming, they would happen again anyway. The difference today is that we know (presuming we trust the climatologists, NASA, NOAA, the National Academies of Science, etc.) that we have to expect these meteorological phenomena to continue to get worse and more frequent in this and coming decades, and the data for what we have seen so far bear witness that those historic events you mention were lesser events, meteorologically, than the droughts and heatwaves we are seeing now, as measured by a number of key parameters.

    "Could it be that we're all over reacting due to limited experience?" Oh, that this were true! If anything, the evidence suggests that we may be UNDER-reacting.

    Here's the thing, Mark: Within and beyond science, we all have confirmation biases — things we *hope* are true — that almost invariably color our perceptions. In the case of global warming, every person on Earth who has even a vague understanding of how dangerous systematically heating Earth's biosphere is has the same initial confirmation biases: "we can't possibly emit so much CO2 into our atmosphere to cause a problem" "it's not warming" "it's not our fault" "we don't need to reduce carbon emissions" and so on. Like the general population, climate scientists are parents and grandparents. They would all sleep better at night if fossil-fuels-CO2-global warming were a disproven theory. To find the world's scientists worrying SO much about anthropogenic global warming (and increasingly so as we learn more and more about it) after looking in every corner and under every stone for a contradiction (or a silver lining) makes it pretty difficult to assert, as some have, that confirmation bias is leading them to a false and frightening conclusion.
    –David William Fischer, Mycologist, American Mushrooms™

  9. Mark Ledbetter says:

    First, I want to put in a word for Harold (and the same word for myself). A couple of people seem ready to pounce on him for a reasonable set of assertions: that there is warming, that it is at least exacerbated by human activities, that local events should not be considered proof of warming, and that Sandy was not particularly unusual in the long course of things. Such attitudes don't make him (or me) "deniers."

    There are some fairly good and sobering answers to my question on the "feedback loop problem." Thanks to those, especially David, who took the time. And at least one person mentioned the acidification of the oceans caused by release of carbon, which might be more real and potentially disastrous than warming (more real assuming the feedback loop problem has merit, which of course is not a common assumption here). Acidification is something possibly big but ignored in all the noise about warming.

    • Timmy_Robins says:

      Well , ocean acidification is climate change's evil twin , they are like two sides of the same coin , they are both equally real and potentially disastrous.

      How can you doubt the realness of climate change but not that of ocean acidification when they are both caused by overabundance of CO2?

      • Mark Ledbetter says:

        Hey Timmy,

        For the reasons stated way up at the top. There is extra carbon going into both the atmosphere and the ocean. And there is warming and acidification. But the as for the warming part, scientific calculations say there's not enough extra extra carbon going into the atmosphere to cause more than a small part of it. So, there are two possibilities. 1) the bulk of the warming is caused by something else, presumably natural cycles. 2) There is a positive feedback loop somewhere that multiplies the effect of the carbon. But such a feedback loop hasn't been found. Thus my question and skepticism.

        As I said just above, there have been some fairly good answers to my question on the feedback loop. Not conclusive, but fairly good.

        • Timmy_Robins says:

          "But the as for the warming part, scientific calculations say there's not enough extra extra carbon going into the atmosphere to cause more than a small part of it."

          I dont know where you read that but it is not consistent with what scientists say. Since 1750 CO2 has increased 36% and methane 148%….3/4 of the increase in the last 20y comes from burning fossil fuels….and it is very likely it will keep increasing.

          • Mark Ledbetter says:

            Timmy, the problem of insufficiency of carbon is real, from what I've read, and confirmed by our resident expert David up above. And there's another related problem. Hoping that David will read and answer, I'll attach a lengthier response at the bottom of the replys where David is more likely to see it. G' day to you!

  10. timful says:

    I cannot see how it makes a big difference whether humans are causing global warming or whether it contributed to recent weather events. The real question is what do we do about it. Just because recent warming is caused by human activity does not mean it is easy to stop. Nor does it guarantee that there will never be any climate change not due to human activity. It may be more effective to use our energy and ingenuity to adapt to these changes, rather than attempt to freeze the earth's climate exactly as it is today. We are going to have hurricanes, droughts, and heat waves in any case. Probably we should address these problems directly, rather than looking for a silver bullet in C02 emissions control. Likewise with other predicted outcomes of global warming. In many cases, these are exacerbations of existing problems, like tropic disease. If that is really the problem we are concerned about, let's attack those diseases and save millions of lives at all temperatures.

  11. David W. Fischer says:

    Tim, first, as a biologist, I have to tell you something I always hate telling people: We cannot adapt to the level of warming we're causing if we do not quickly begin mitigating; we cannot "adapt" to our own extinction. (Many of the world's greatest scientists in all fields, who have naturally been drawn to look into global warming science themselves, including Frank Fenner [the only person to ever eliminate a deadly contagious disease, namely smallpox], Stephen Hawking and others are quite confident that the best we can do at this point is to try to mitigate by reducing emissions rather than racing toward our own end, and of course to adapt as best we can in the meantime.

    Second, understanding that our emissions are the cause is vital to any effort toward mitigation and is also key to understanding what changes are coming, so we can formulate sensible adaptive strategies. It's very difficult to pull a thorn out of your heel if you're pointing the tweezers at your toes, you see… ;-)

    • timful says:

      Is there really a scientific consensus that global warming will lead to human extinction? I had thought we were mainly looking at new weather patterns, rising sea levels, and expanding tropics. Change is always frightening, but what here threatens human extinction? It seems to me that life thrives on warmth. Humans first emerged near the equator and in the US, at least, have been migrating back in that direction.

      • Timmy_Robins says:

        I think Mr. Fischer here can explain it better since he is the expert but I dont think we are talking about "warmth" here and specially about the kind of warmth that makes life thrive , we are talking about temps and effects of climate change that might eventually disrupt food production and that can also trigger mass die-offs of marine and land animal species plus other things like an increase in fungal,viral and bacterial infections in both plants ,animals & possibly humans too….in fact many of these things are already happening .

        It is important to distinguish belief from fact , maybe you believe a little warmth is good for everyone but the facts show you couldn't be more mistaken….it's not just that simple.

        • timful says:

          According to http://rainforests.mongabay.com/0301.htm 50% of all life is found in tropical rain forests. I don't know exactly how they are measuring this, but it fits with what we can all see: there is a lot more life in warm tropical regions than in cold arctic regions. Of course, not all of this life is congenial to human life, but if that is really our concern, let us focus on that directly, rather than trying to make sure tropical regions do not expand.

          • Timmy_Robins says:

            Yes but in tropical regions rainfall is key. You dont get all this life from warmth alone. If climate change causes more dry spells in these regions, and it could, the oposite would be true. More warmth doesnt neccesarily mean more rainforests.

          • timful says:

            In general, warmer temperatures lead to more ocean evaporation and more precipitation. You are right that it could fall in all the wrong places. So, the safest bet is to not let anything change. Except that may not be possible. So, we need to make sure we are not clinging to the past for emotional reasons when there may be new pathways forward if we can adapt to change. Also, bear in mind that a large portion of the human population is not exactly thrilled with their lives today. They will not be easily persuaded to forgo improvements in their own children's lives today to avoid potential problems for our species in the future.

          • Timmy_Robins says:

            I totally agree , I think it is too late to stop it . There is not enough political or personal will to do something about it, sad but true.

            As for adaptation , it remains to be seen if we will make it or not.

  12. David W. Fischer says:

    Tim, first, as a biologist, I have to tell you something I always hate telling people: We cannot adapt to the level of warming we're causing if we do not quickly begin mitigating. Second: Just as heart surgery will not help someone with kidney disease, we cannot sensibly plan to mitigate *or* adapt to anthropogenic climate change without understanding the etiology (cause) of the problem. We cannot remove or treat the thorn from our heel with the tweezers at our toes.

  13. David W. Fischer says:

    Tim, go to YouTube and watch "Six Degrees" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfBMUd-Es0M). It's only about 12 minutes long and will greatly improve your understanding of why a six degree (Celsius) rise in average global temperature (about 11 degrees Fahrenheit) is more than our species can survive. I know six degrees doesn't sound like much, but it is; most of the reason can be summed up as total planetary biological collapse. It is very, very scary stuff, and the evidence that our current emissions path will cause that much heat buildup by 2100 keeps growing.

    • timful says:

      Thanks David, but I could not get that video to play. Can you point me to another source? And, who is predicting a 6 degree rise by 2100? It seems to me that we are simply putting carbon back into the atmosphere that has been removed by plant life, and were it not for some clever creatures to dig up all that sequestered carbon and recombine it with oxygen, plant life would eventually extinguish itself.

  14. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Timmy, according to skeptic scientists (and there are some!) calculations show that the extra carbon can only account for a small part of the rise in temps. To account for the rest of the rise, you have to assume either natural causes or a feedback loop, and no adequate feedback loop (I've read) has been discovered. I've asked several times about the feedback loop problem here on Ele and finally this time there are some answers from knowledgeable people like David. David confirmed the reality of the feedback loop problem up above and proposed a group of loops, of which he presents two:

    1. a bit of CO2 warming increases water vapor which increases temps.
    2. that warming melts snow and ice which reduces the reflective capacity of the earth, again increasing temps.

    SInce carbon alone isn't enough to account for the rise, do those kinds of things make up the difference? David obviously thinks so. I think's it's possible but I'm not ready to commit. For one thing (and I hope David reads and jumps in here) there is now another problem…

    Computer programs that predict human-made warming do so on the assumption of feedback loops. But feedback loop generated warming should also lead to easily and accurately measurable warming that takes place at some altitude over the tropics. But that particular warming trend isn't happening, leading to the possibility that the computer predictions are wrong, and simply lucky in predicting what would have actually come to pass anyway even without the carbon.

    David, m' man, are you there? Any answers? Waiting with bated breath.

  15. David W. Fischer says:

    "Do feedbacks make up the difference?" you ask; "David obviously thinks so." Really, what I think is that the scientists are right; what I think, while based on the science, is irrelevant to the facts, and pertinent only to my interactions with others, especially when I am teaching others.

    I provided factual information about the geophysical processes that have been demonstrated to account for the warming (and which have consistently predicted what we see later in the real data). Whether or not you or any other individual are "ready to commit" isn't my concern. I will say this: you'd be hard-pressed to find a single respected scientist who agrees with your specific mode of "skepticism". "…feedback loop generated warming should also lead to easily and accurately measurable warming that takes place at some altitude over the tropics"? What scientist(s) think that is the case? In any matrix, heat does not spread uniformly throughout the substrate. We are seeing, as predicted, the most warming at the coldest places and times, i.e. average winter temps have risen more than average summer temps in most temperate-zone regions; same for average nighttime temps vs. average daytime temps, and tropical vs. temperate vs.polar zones; heat tends to go where it's coolest. Look at polar views of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (you can do this quickly and easily via Google Earth) and you will see at a glance why climate change phenomena are different in two hemispheres.

    I will leave you with a suggestion: ask yourself why your arguments haven't been reflected in the journals. I think there comes a point at which the lay person needs to listen to the experts' advice. Usually, failing to do so leads directly to unfortunate outcomes.

    If you want to eat a mushroom after I've advised you against it because you're not "committed" that my understanding of that mushroom is "enough" for you to heed my warning, that's your choice. If you want to not try to mitigate against future global warming despite the reality that all but a vanishingly small set of scientists say we'd better do so, that, too is your choice.

    Best of luck to you.

    • timful says:

      I think you are a little disingenuous in your citations of science. You correctly assert that the climate is warming and human activity is a major cause. But then you jump to warning of total planetary biological collapse and human extinction by 2100, as if the majority of scientists are with you on that. Where do you find that consensus?

      And if the threat is really that severe, shouldn't we be doing a lot more than reducing human CO2 emissions? Organic decay and forest fires pump 439 Gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, dwarfing the 33 Gigatons added by burning of fossil fuels. Shouldn't we be trying to control those much larger sources as well? Or, would you be in favor of launching sulfur into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight, as one Nobel Prize winning Scientist has proposed? (see http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/08/0… ).

  16. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Damn it, David, you require me to do some work. I hate it when people do that.

    Anyway, your question, "What scientist(s) think this is the case?" [that the computer programs which assume feedback loops also predict things that aren't happening]

    "Computer climate models based on the CO2 theory of global warming predict that the atmosphere, especially the lower atmosphere, should heat up faster than the earth's surface. But satellite data show the reverse. At altitudes up to at least 10 kilometers in the tropics, which is where the difference is most conspicuous, the atmospheric warming rate is lower than at the surface."
    That's from Global Warming False Alarm by Ralph Alexander (former physics prof?). R.A. sources info for the atmospheric warming problem from various places including: "A Comparison of Tropical Temperature Trends With Model Predictions" from International Journal of Climatology 28, pp. 1693-1701 (2008)

    Yes, your knowledge and confidence are both impressive, but there are scientists on the other side (though, as you say, a very tiny percent) whose knowledge and confidence are equally impressive. So I can't be swayed simply by knowledge and confidence. I CAN be swayed by the sheer numbers of climate scientists who believe in human-generated global warming, but not swayed all the way until I see a stronger argument for the feedback loops and an explanation for why the atmospheric warming isn't following computer models.

    And hey, what's so bad about my "specific mode of skepticism"? If you're worried about the policies I support, I've written here on Ele a number of times in the comments section against promotion by government of the Great Carbon Machine we all rely on. Here: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/02/tea-party-
    And here: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/12/great-biki
    And on other threads I can't find.

    G' day

    • timful says:

      I remain baffled by what you mean by "swayed all the way," or "the other side," as if there is some essential yes or no question at issue here. Suppose global warming is caused by increased solar output. Does that mean we should sit back and be fried? No. What matters is the magnitude of warming we can expect, how we might mitigate it, and how we can adapt to it. These are not yes or no questions and there are a wide range of scientific views. Clearly, additional C02 in the atmosphere retains more of the sun's energy. Reducing the 33 Gigatons that humans generate annually by burning fossil fuel will likely reduce the warming effect. Whether that will succeed remains to be determined. Organic decay and forest fires add far more than fossil fuel, about 439 Gigatons annually. A small change in those much larger contributors might be more effective. My main concern is that humans have a built in emotional attraction to turning back the clock, that may draw us toward the wrong solutions here. Polarizing debate around a mostly meaningless question will not help matters.

      • Mark Ledbetter says:

        David, I think you make an excellent point in moving the focus to what we should do, no matter what the cause.

        As to "swayed all the way"… I just mean I still doubt whether either "side" actually knows the answer yet, considering the complexity of the problem. As to "sides," well, this issue is so polarizing, that "sides" have been established and it's very hard not to identify with one side or the other. In fact, I don't identify with one side or the other (despite what David might think!) and I have a feeling you don't either. But we're abnormal, I'm afraid.

        • Mark Ledbetter says:

          Whoops! Damn I hate the lack of editing on this site. That was addressed to Timful, not David.

        • timful says:

          Thanks Mark. My point about the "sides" was simply that it's not black and white. There is a continuum of scientific opinion about how much warming will occur. The questions you raised about feedback loops are very much to the point. On the face of it, one could expect that higher concentrations of CO2 would accelerate its uptake by plant life, while at the same time slowing the decay processes that return it back into the atmosphere. In fact, a recent study indicates the earth has doubled its uptake of CO2 over the past 50 years ( see http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/08/02/earths-co2-… ). This has nothing to do with whether man is causing warming. It may have a great deal to do with how we can best respond to it.

        • timful says:

          Thinking more about this taking "sides," it is striking. The real issue here could not more obviously be a continuum: Are we going to warm by 1 degree, 2 degrees, 3 degrees, or 10? Yet, we have somehow found a way to marshall our arguments around a mostly meaningless yes or no question that has only one virtue: it lets us join one team or the other. It is the same thing we see in our political process. David did not even address the substance of your last post, except to say the person you referenced is on the wrong team.

          This is also exactly why we should not place our bets on CO2 emissions control. Our most formidable adversary on this planet has always been other humans. Cooperation for "the good of the species" is the last thing in our minds or in our genes. And, if we indeed want to go that route, and think about some idea of a common good for all mankind, we would need to start by saying the US has long since exhausted its global carbon budget, and may as well turn off the lights right now. I do not think we are ready to do that, which is why we need to grow through this challenge, not shrink from it.

  17. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Lot's of good info, David. I hope you're wrong and fear you're right. And congrats on your book. Anyone interested, here it is: http://www.amazon.com/Edible-Mushrooms-America-Fi

  18. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Readership has probably dropped off to, maybe, two? Which is too bad. Just as things are getting interesting. Not only has David provided lots of good info, Timful has just presented some more info on feedback loops and some deep insights on taking sides. Which is why I write again. To point that out. Because it's buried where no one will ever see it (even if anyone is still here) in the comments under my contribution just above that starts: Damn it David!

    Timful points out another feedback loop, one which confirms an observation made by Mr. S on another thread: that feedback loops tend to be negative rather than positive. I.e., they tend to move things back towards equilibrium rather than away from it. I.e., a feedback loop would theoretically be more likely to reduce the effect of carbon rather than multiply it. Timful points out that extra carbon in the atmosphere has resulted in a great increase in carbon uptake by plant life.

    Even more interesting are Timful's ponderings concerning "taking sides," a disease that infects all humanity, including even really smart and educated members of humanity, and EVEN! readers and article writers for Ele! I am not claiming immunity from this disease, by the way, though I at least recognize and try to avoid it. Anyway, I hope Timful doesn't mind if I unbury a bit of his/her observations for those who don't want to go into earlier comments:

    Timful: "Thinking more about this taking "sides," it is striking. The real issue here could not more obviously be a continuum: Are we going to warm by 1 degree, 2 degrees, 3 degrees, or 10? Yet, we have somehow found a way to marshall our arguments around a mostly meaningless yes or no question that has only one virtue: it lets us join one team or the other. It is the same thing we see in our political process. David did not even address the substance of your last post, except to say the person you referenced is on the wrong team.

    This is also exactly why we should not place our bets on CO2 emissions control. Our most formidable adversary on this planet has always been other humans. Cooperation for "the good of the species" is the last thing in our minds or in our genes. And, if we indeed want to go that route, and think about some idea of a common good for all mankind, we would need to start by saying the US has long since exhausted its global carbon budget, and may as well turn off the lights right now. I do not think we are ready to do that, which is why we need to grow through this challenge, not shrink from it."

    • timful says:

      Thanks Mark! I am optimistic. Not just about plants pulling more CO2 from the atmosphere, but also for a slow down in the decay processes that put it back.

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