WHAT’S UP THERE AND HOW WE KNOW

What would it feel like to be a tiny crab scuttling about at the bottom of a very shallow pond that is being filled with toxins?  We should know.  We are looking up through a very thin and increasing polluted layer of air — air that is getting rapidly hotter.

If you compare our earth to an apple, the atmosphere is no thicker than the skin.  The troposphere is the layer we live in. Almost all of our weather occurs here, and it only goes up about six miles.  That’s less than six minutes of drive time on the open road.

Next comes the stratosphere.  That ends about 30 miles up.  This is a kind of shield. It’s where the protective ozone layer is, as well as the continent-sized hole we’ve punched in it.  If you want to know what the planet would be like without our atmosphere, think about the surface of the moon.

Tracey Holloway, Director of the UW-Madison Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment,  speaking at the UW-Arboretum Winter Lecture Series, gave me some clarity on how we get our climate information and what some of it is telling us.

Our climate data comes from many sources.

1.      Ice cores (Ice core data is king.  It is a true time capsule of trapped atmosphere from the past.)

2.      moss in peat bogs.

3.      sediment in lakes.

4.      tree rings.

5.      computer modeling.

No one is modeling climate on their laptop.  The computers that shoulder the load are massive and costly, and they operate out of 16 centers around the world — each doing its best to figure out what is going on up there. We have three of them in the U.S.

  • The NASA computer modeling program is operated in New York (above a restaurant that used to be featured on Seinfeld).
  • The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) program works out of Maryland.
  • A National Science Foundation team operates its center out of Boulder, Colorado, and is said to have the largest number of atmospheric scientists gathered in one place of anywhere in the world.

    ..THAT SINKING FEELING.

While much of the information we hear about global warming is stated as a rise in average annual temperature, that doesn’t really tell us anything we can grasp in our day to day lives.  A temperature rise of a few degrees doesn’t seem that bad, until you start to break it down and make it personal to your own area.

Take Wisconsin summers.  Take a day in June.  We all remember days in June that were a perfect 70 with a gentle breeze.  We also remember that rare day when the temperature hit 100, and that freaky cold spell when it dropped below freezing.

Holloway said what’s predicted is that we are going to see more of those weird days out on the end of the range.  What used to be rarely possible will now become all too probable.  Forty years from now that rare 100 degree day may be much more typical and we will be looking at some June days that top 110 degrees.

Check out this graph Holloway showed us from 2002 that details carbon emissions per person by nation.  Look at the US at the top of the heap.  Things have gotten worse yet in the past nine years.

We have got to turn this around.

And we know how.

We fill our tanks with gas and motor off.  All too soon, the tank is empty.  Where did all that gas go?  It’s now CO2 heading up into the atmosphere, where it will stay for 200 to 500 years, because there’s no quick way to get rid of it.

We have to take our foot off the accelerator, and hit the brakes.  We don’t have to give up every comfort.  We don’t have to go back to the stone age.  Look at Europe.  They live very well, and yet their consumption is about half that of ours.

Let’s go put on a sweater and turn down the thermostat, and on the way turn off that light you aren’t using right now.  Then let’s oil our bicycle chains.  It’s going to be spring soon.  You never know, but increasingly, the odds are, it will be an early, warm one.

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12 replies

  1. “We fill our tanks with gas and motor off. All too soon, the tank is empty. Where did all that gas go? It’s now CO2 heading up into the atmosphere, where it will stay for 200 to 500 years, because there’s no quick way to get rid of it.”

    No it dosen’t, the infinitesimal amount of extra CO2 in the atmosphere which most intruments cannot even measure aids in increasing agricultural output which in turn helps feed our burgeoning population.

    Dosen’t sound like a pollutant to me.

    Cheers

    Roger

    http://www.rogerfromnewzealand.wordpress.com

    C

    • Thanks for your comment, Roger.
      Here’s what atmospheric scientists tell us.

      • There is absolutely no difficulty detecting CO2 even a thousand times lower than we are currently detecting.
      • While plants can and do use and sequester a small amount of carbon from the air, 7 billion tons of carbon from burning fossil fuels is going into the atmosphere every year at this point and only 1 billion is being pulled back into the land biosphere. 2 billion more tons are being absorbed by the oceans – but it’s pretty simple math to see that we are forcing the carbon levels up every year and every day.
      • Manmade inputs are more than double natural input levels at this point, and it will take at least 200 years to flush it out.
      • Our CO2 levels have been rising steadily for at least the past 50 years (basically as long as measurements have been taken.)
      • CO2 levels have risen and fallen in conjunction with ice ages and interglacials for the past 800,000 years.
      • But now we are WAY off the charts for historic atmospheric CO2 levels.

      None of this is controversial in the world-wide scientific community, though it seems to be deliberately misinterpreted and unfortunately widely misunderstood.

      • Denise, thank you for your reply.

        Many of the things you have mentioned are true, however I still maintain that the amounts of CO2 we are concerned about are very difficult to measure. Do you know I actually tried to purchase such an instrument so I could measure CO2 concentrations myself but they were all several decimal points from the required accuracy required to measure 1 to 10 parts per million by volume. With expensive scientific instruments with constant callibration, it is no doubt possible.

        If you will allow me, I would like to mention some processes of which you needed to mention in your comment but are definitely not mentioned by the “atmospheric scientists” who are causing you such anxiety.

        If you are going to alter your life so radically, and recommend that others should follow suit with such confidence, you should ask your “scientist” friends for at least one of the following.

        1 Empirical proof that shows the causation factor of CO2 with respect of Global Warming.

        2. Statistical proof of Anthropogenic CO2. In case you dont know it, correlations are never proof.

        3. Evidence for the “Anthropogenic CO2 causes Global Warming” hypothesis to be adopted over the null hypothesis?

        Now you may need a little reading to understand what these things are. Here is a site which describes what is needed for #3 which might help. http://www.experiment-resources.com/null-hypothesis.html

        When you can point your readers to at least one scientific, peer reviewed publication that shows at least one of the above, then you will be in a position to envangelise your beliefs.

        None of the things you have mentioned above are generally misunderstood as you claim, the fact is there is simply no scientific proof for the causation and effect that is claimed.
        I humbly suggest that this is something that you need to add to your understanding.

        (Good luck by the way with your subsistance farming effort. If you can actually feed yourselves without using diesel,petrol, gas or nitrogen fertiliser etc., you will need to become a lot tougher than you look in your photograph.)

        Cheers

        Roger

        http://www.rogerfromnewzealand.wordpress.com

        PS. By the way the recent rises of CO2 concentrations are often credited for us not slipping into a Malthusian melt down. e.g.
        http://rebirthofreason.com/Articles/Schieder/Ayn_Rand_and_the_End_of_Malthus.shtml

      • Thanks for commenting again, Roger.
        I respectfully disagree with several of your arguments with atmospheric scientists. For starters, I see no reason to put their professional title in quotes. They are fully accredited members of the scientific community trained at premiere institutions.
        I am familiar with the null hypothesis concept that you linked to. My husband teaches this concept to his freshman biology students, and I have no doubt that all professional atmospheric scientists learned about this at the beginning of their rigorous and extensive BS, MS, PhD studies and postdoctoral studies, which preceded their peer-reviewed professional careers . Their consensus findings pointing to anthropogenic causes of rising atmospheric CO2 and resultant global warming are based on detailed models looking at decades of data. The models are straightforward, multiparameter mass balances that account for what comes out of smokestacks and tailpipes worldwide as well as the natural sources and sinks in the biosphere. Evaluation of these inputs and outputs has established the link with rapidly increasing CO2 well beyond the null hypothesis.

        On the subject of nitrogen fertilizer use on my own farm, I’d like to clarify that my only sources will be nitrogen-fixing cover crops and composted manure. Many organic farmers have established superior soil tilth and very adequate nitrogen levels by these means, certainly on small scale (my scale) and even medium scale farms.

  2. Don’t mean to be nasty, Denise, but a question: why are you moving out to the country? You will have to depend on your car and drive it many more miles than you do in town, where you can rely on your bicycle. Do you see the irony? [For the record, we do live about 6-7 miles out of town in the country. Our place in town could not support the gardens that I have. And I just don’t like living cheek-by-jowl with other people.]

    • You aren’t being nasty, Dennis. That’s a valid question, and one that we have asked ourselves. Frankly, knowing what I have learned in the last few years, I would probably aim the rest of my life in a different arc — stay in Madison, buy into a co-housing unit and volunteer at the arboretum and community gardens.

      But owning land and taking care of it has been a lifelong dream, and when the opportunity to get the 44 acres that we both fell in love with came up, we jumped. Since then, we feel honor bound to follow this path and make it as green as we can by undertaking some sustainable agriculture there.

      This is the awkward period when we need to drive back and forth. We try to minimize the trips, drive at the speed limit and as greenly as possible. We maximize what we accomplish in each trip and work till it is too dark to see to offset that fossil fuel we burn.

      When we do make the move in 2012, we will concentrate on using as little fossil fuel as we can to produce food for our local markets and do our best to be part of the solution.

      But it’s all a gray area ultimately, isn’t it? I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I keep searching.

  3. It is hard to give up that kind of lifelong dream, isn’t it? We have only 7 acres and too much of it is wooded, so I don’t have quite the garden space I would like (well, I could if I were to cut back on one of my prairie plots!). But I also keep thinking that what little contribution you and I make to GCC is infinitesimal compared to the coal plant China puts on line each week, or the millions of new cars being driven in India and China, or the environmental regression we are seing in this country. I would be a lot more enthusiastic about cutting back my carbon emissions if I knew there was a mighty movement supported by governmental policies.

    The other concern is rising oil prices. Oil is slowly becoming increasingly scarce and more expensive to extract. I click on this URL most days to keep track of oil prices:
    http://www.upstreamonline.com/marketdata/markets_crude.htm;jsessionid=D4477AB521B58D2F4A7A510906D12F32.upstream.dinar
    OIl is for the most part above $110 and creeping upward. That’s going to bite a lot harder on those of us who live in the country.

    • I hear you, Dennis.
      Here is my take on the China issue. Individual Chinese people are still burning less fossil fuel than we are. AND if we stop and look at what the Chinese are burning all that fuel for — much of it is to produce all the inexpensive toys that we in the U.S. are still sucking up like heroin. (I don’t exclude myself, although I try to be mindful about getting new things — especially if they were produced in China because they were probably made in an environmentally destructive way). I don’t think China would be such a serious CO2 contributor if we weren’t financing so much of their industry with our demand.

      And oil, yes. Interesting website you linked. We are going to have to adapt to rising oil costs, and it’s going to hit those in the country hard. It’s going to hit agribusiness hard, and then the cheap food we have grown accustomed to will be history.

      Speaking of which, I’m going to blog about the Midwest Organic Farming conference next week. That should be a little more upbeat.

  4. Denise,

    “I am familiar with the null hypothesis concept that you linked to. My husband teaches this concept to his freshman biology students, and I have no doubt that all professional atmospheric scientists learned about this at the beginning …”

    Are you saying that you are able to produce a scientific, peer reviewed and published paper that proves the “Anthropogenic CO2 causes Global Warming” hypothesis using the null hypothesis concept I refered to?

    Thats great! I have been searching for such a paper for the last 18 months! Please refer me to it as soon as possible .

    Cheers

    Roger

    http://www.rogerfromnewzealand.wordpress.com

    PS I hope you have a good team of horses or bullocks to pull your plow.
    Can your husband manage a blacksmiths shop as well. You might be able to produce charcol from the trees on your property as well.
    I can also refer you to some great sites which describe how iron can be found in swamps. A technique used by the vikiings.

    • Roger,

      I think my husband can better respond to your continued interest in the null hypothesis. I have a masters degree in science writing, but Doug has had a long career in biotechnology and has a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry, and he currently teaches biology at the college level.

      Hi Roger, Doug here:
      You probably won’t find a paper that dismisses the null hypothesis when describing why anthropogenic CO2 is the cause of global warming. In fact, the null hypothesis is pretty much never mentioned in scientific papers from any scientific discipline, whether it is medicine, physics, chemistry or climate science. The reason is straightforward. Here’s why.

      The null hypothesis simply states that an absence of any relationship explains the data at least as well as the presence of a proposed relationship. In the US legal system, a defendant is innocent (the null hypothesis) until proven guilty, and guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. In science, statistical correlation is the basis for establishing “reasonable doubt” about the null hypothesis.

      For the most part, researchers don’t bother to submit scientific papers that can’t discount the null hypothesis. If they were to submit a paper that can’t dismiss the null hypothesis, it would be rejected by peer reviewers at the scientific journal, whose job it is to ensure that published papers meet the statistical-correlation-beyond-the-null-hypothesis standard. So across all branches of science, the null hypothesis is generally not mentioned in print because ruling it out is so fundamental to publication.

      On a personal note, we have a blacksmith friend who is raising a young ox as we speak. How cool is that! Denise and I are still not “evolved” enough to be following his lead, but we do hope to buy one of his broadforks for building better soils sometime soon.

      I see from your own website that you are pretty invested in dismissing the climate science consensus. We probably will have to agree to disagree on this subject.

      All the best,

      Doug

      • Doug and Denise,

        Thanks for your answer.

        As a scientist then you must be well aware of what constitutes scientific proof.

        I did mention two other methods at arriving at a definitive proof in my previous comment to your good lady.

        “1 Empirical proof that shows the causation factor of CO2 with respect of Global Warming.

        2. Statistical proof of Anthropogenic CO2. In case you dont know it, correlations are never proof.”

        I don’t know of any other methods to come to a definitive proof but as a scientist you may be able to enlighten me.

        As for the climate science consensus you mention, to be quite honest I am not aware of such a thing.

        BTW Economics is my thing and the reason why I am concerned with this “Anthropogenic CO2 causes Global Warming” hypothesis is that I am very aware of what following the IPCC recommendations re co2 emission reductions will do to our well being. To an economist with even modest training it is obvious that the cost of these reductions will ruin your economy and mine and therefore it is important that we know absolutely that this sacrifice will save the planet and we do not bear this terrible cost in vain.

        I trust you see where I am coming from, I am not questioning AGW theory simply out of pig headedness, I am questioning it because I understand the path where we are being led and my concern for humanity.

        Cheers

        Roger

        http://www.rogerfromnewzealand.wordpress.com

        BTW I have a cousin who spent about 30 yrs in a community in Alaska preparing for the forthcoming nuclear holocaust. Although the Wisconsin climate is no doubt a little milder, there seem to me many similarities about what you guys are proposing to do.

      • Hi Roger,
        Doug here again.

        To reiterate, the statistically based correlation between anthropogenic CO2 emissions and global warming are the basis for the many many peer reviewed papers on the subject, and they constitute a climate science consensus as clearly supported by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

        You raise a very important point in noting that mitigating global warming through significant reductions in CO2 emissions could harm the global economy. I think this is the underlying reason why so many rich and fuel intensive business people lobby so hard against this field of science!

        I too worry that the economic path forward looks difficult. In a similar vein, I would add that failure to significantly reduce CO2 emissions will put us on a path to economic ruin, not to mention ecological ruin, because we’ll have to struggle to adapt to a warmer, more hostile environment. Here’s a link to an interview where both a US Navy Rear Admiral, and a Marine Corps Brigadier General in the US Southern Command recently shared the US military perspective on impending worldwide disruptions from climate change.

      • Ignoring climate change won’t make it go away. It will just push a worsening problem into the future. The sooner we listen to the well-credentialed experts, the better the outcome. No way this is going to be easy. In fact, I’m sure you’re right, it will be pretty disruptive and hard. But still, better than the alternative of waiting and paying an even steeper price.

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