Tag Archives: science

Scientists Start Effort to Determine What Weather Events Result from Climate Change

Heavy weather : Nature : Nature Publishing Group.

Nature
477,
131–132
(08 September 2011)
doi:10.1038/477131b
Published online
07 September 2011

Severe storms make the public think of climate change. Scientists must work to evaluate the link.

Extreme weather makes news, as was demonstrated last month by the blanket coverage of the devastation caused to the east coast of the United States by Hurricane Irene. But was the prominence of the story a feature of modern media hype in a rolling-news world? Hardly. According to a New York Times analysis, when Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Florida in 1992 and killed 22 people, it received twice the traditional news coverage that Irene did.

What is new is that coverage of extreme weather is now often accompanied by a question: is this a consequence of climate change? This question was raised frequently after Hurricane Katrina smashed through New Orleans in 2005. Most climate scientists responded equivocally, as scientists do: climate is not weather, and although all extreme weather events are now subject to human influence, global warming driven by greenhouse gases cannot be said to ’cause’ any specific manifestation of weather in a simple deterministic sense.

“Most people associate the climate with the weather that they experience, even if they aren’t supposed to.”

Is that response enough? The question, after all, seems fair, given the dire warnings of worsening weather that are offered to the public as reasons to care about global warming. It may irritate some scientists, but in fact the question can be seen as a vindication of their efforts to spread the message that the climate problem is a clear and present danger. Most people associate the climate with the weather that they experience, even if they aren’t supposed to. And they are right to wonder how and why that experience can, on occasion, leave their homes in pieces.

Given the growing interest, it is a good sign that scientists plan to launch a coordinated effort to quickly and routinely assess the extent to which extreme weather events should be attributed to climate change (see page 148). The ambitious idea is in the early stages, and its feasibility is yet to be demonstrated. It will require funding, access to climate data from around the world and considerable computer time. Funding agencies and climate centres must provide the necessary support.

As operational climate-attribution systems develop, it is important that they do not remain purely an academic exercise. To reach out to the public, attribution scientists could do worse than to ally themselves with meteorologists — including commercial providers of weather forecasts — to explain how climate change affects the risk of extreme weather. There is, after all, a lot of scope for the makers and presenters of daily weather reports to inform their listeners and viewers more solidly about consequences of climate change than they have chosen to do in the past.

Climate scientists, too, have an obligation to provide more coherent answers to queries (or doubts) as to how global warming influences our weather. An attribution system with ample resources, running in near real time, could prevent scientists’ answers to those questions seeming either too cautious or too alarmist and speculative. It could also prevent the public from getting the (false) impression that climate research is confined to the virtual world of climate models and has little to offer when it comes to current reality, or that climate science is a quasi-experimental field that yields scary but mostly unverifiable results. The service’s broad integration into people’s daily lives, through the old and new mass media, would be a good way to seed greater acceptance of climate scientists’ actual services to society and the problem of climate change.

There are constraints here. Attribution is only as good as the models and statistics that power it — and the various existing climate models project different trends in future extremes in some regions. There is a lack, or poor availability, of long-term observational records, and of climate data with high spatial and temporal resolution. And however it develops, climate attribution will remain rooted in probabilities. Not even the most thorough study can work out with absolute confidence the exact fingerprint of global warming in a given weather event.

What about Irene, then? A concerted attribution effort should help to resolve, in the not-so-distant future, the ongoing controversy over the effect of climate change on hurricane formation. Whatever the result, if the exercise can prevent people from building houses along the most vulnerable coastlines, it will be worth the effort.

Seattle scientists snuff out wildfire myths

CultureLab: Seattle scientists snuff out wildfire myths.

Nidhi Subbaraman, contributor

Wildfire.jpg

Arizona is prone to wildfires (Image: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/Rex Features)

This summer, forest fires swept through parts of Arizona and New Mexico scorching property and vast expanses of ecosystems and resulting in the evacuation of the enormous Los Alamos National Laboratory. Many fear that more extreme weather may mean wild fires will only become more common in coming years. So what can we do about it?

Last week, scientists at the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle, Washington, set out to answer that question – and to smoke out some common myths about forest fires, and their control and prevention.

In a discussion at the lab in Seattle’s Fremont neighbourhood, scientists who recently returned from studying the wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico started by clarifying just how common these fires are – and how infrequently they make headlines. In 98 per cent of cases wildfires quietly burn out and go largely unnoticed by the public, said fire and environment researcher David Peterson. Small fires seldom make the news or draw much scientific interest. But it’s these fires that unexpected weather can amplify until they become massive wildfires that need thousands of fire fighters and dozens of air tanker planes to control.

And while there’s no question that wildfire fighters and smoke jumpers make a huge difference in controlling fires, when it comes to actually dousing the flames, the researchers explained that it’s really up to the elements. “Suppressing” a big wildfire – a costly business – is only really effective to guide its path until rain finally snuffs it out. A more effective method for fighting wildfires is to treat fire-prone land before a blaze begins, they argued.

For example, people who live in areas where forest fires are common have figured out the benefits of periodically clearing their land with controlled burns. In rotation, once every other year or so, they burn down the vegetation on the land, and start the season with a fresh planting. This, said Brian Potter, who works on the atmospheric interaction of fire, has come to be accepted scientifically as an effective way of preventing against big wildfire breakouts – if planned and managed correctly.

But controlled burning continues to be a subject of hot debate because it comes at a cost. Smoke from such fires is hard to control, and a fire burning in one location could send its smoke downwind to another location, exposing people to harmful health effects.

The other issue of course is the risk that the fire could get out of hand. The 1980 Mack Lake fire in Michigan, for example, started as a prescribed burn. However, an unexpected turn in weather turned it into a wildfire which spread and claimed several lives. “The first thing it did was burn up the burn boss’s house on the edge of the lake,” Potter said.

“We’ve got past the scientific debate of whether you need to sometimes use fire to control and ecosystem,” Potter, said. “But we’ve not moved past the social debate of when it is acceptable.”

A second major way that land and wooded areas can be maintained is by periodically removing the shrubbery and small plant matter from the base of a wooded forest. “Thinning” the growth in this way, said Morris Johnson, who studies fire ecology, reduces the severity of a forest fire if it were to sweep through the area. Unfortunately, implementing such a strategy would require a shift in the funding and policy focus of current controllers. “The initial cost of removing and thinning is going to be a lot,” Morris conceded. “But it’s cheaper to maintain.”

As to the question of climate change, ongoing research is hinting at a link between hot and dry, and cool and wet spells, with the location and severity of big forest fire breakouts. “I will argue this with a lot of my scientific colleagues till we’re both blue in the face,” Peterson said, “But for the most part I believe that fire is dependent on climate.”

This means that if temperatures get hotter as models estimate, the severity of forest wildfires would increase – and the resources dedicated to curbing the damage they cause would swell proportionately. It’s one of the arguments, Peter says, for re-evaluating policy to shift funding and focus towards wildfire prevention: to better equip us to deal with bigger, badder fires of the future.

climate sceptics take note: raw data you wanted now available

OK, climate sceptics: here’s the raw data you wanted – environment – 28 July 2011 – New Scientist.

Anyone can now view for themselves the raw data that was at the centre of last year’s “climategate” scandal.

Temperature records going back 150 years from 5113 weather stations around the world were yesterday released to the public by the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. The only records missing are from 19 stations in Poland, which refused to allow them to be made public.

“We released [the dataset] to dispel the myths that the data have been inappropriately manipulated, and that we are being secretive,” says Trevor Davies, the university’s pro-vice-chancellor for research. “Some sceptics argue we must have something to hide, and we’ve released the data to pull the rug out from those who say there isn’t evidence that the global temperature is increasing.”

Hand it over

The university were ordered to release data by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, following a freedom-of-information request for the raw data from researchers Jonathan Jones of the University of Oxford and Don Keiller of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK.

Davies says that the university initially refused on the grounds that the data is not owned by the CRU but by the national meteorological organisations that collect the data and share it with the CRU.

When the CRU’s refusal was overruled by the information commissioner, the UK Met Office was recruited to act as a go-between and obtain permission to release all the data.

Poland refused, and the information commissioner overruled Trinidad and Tobago’s wish for the data it supplied on latitudes between 30 degrees north and 40 degrees south to be withheld, as it had been specifically requested by Jones and Keiller in their FOI request and previously shared with other academics.

The price

The end result is that all the records are there, except for Poland’s. Davies’s only worry is that the decision to release the Trinidad and Tobago data against its wishes may discourage the open sharing of data in the future. Other research organisations may from now on be reluctant to pool data they wish to be kept private.

Thomas Peterson, chief scientist at the National Climatic Data Center of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and president of the Commission for Climatology at the World Meteorological Organization, agrees there might be a cost to releasing the data.

“I have historic temperature data from automatic weather stations on the Greenland ice sheet that I was able to obtain from Denmark only because I agreed not to release them,” he says. “If countries come to expect that sharing of any data with anyone will eventually lead to strong pressure for them to fully release those data, will they be less willing to collaborate in the future?”

Davies is confident that genuine and proper analysis of the raw data will reproduce the same incontrovertible conclusion – that global temperatures are rising. “The conclusion is very robust,” he says, explaining that the CRU’s dataset of land temperatures tally with those from other independent research groups around the world, including those generated by the NOAA and NASA.

“Should people undertake analyses and come up with different conclusions, the way to present them is through publication in peer-reviewed journals, so we know it’s been through scientific quality control,” says Davies.

No convincing some people

Other mainstream researchers and defenders of the consensus are not so confident that the release will silence the sceptics. “One can hope this might put an end to the interminable discussion of the CRU temperatures, but the experience of GISTEMP – another database that’s been available for years – is that the criticisms will continue because there are some people who are never going to be satisfied,” says Gavin Schmidt of Columbia University in New York.

“Sadly, I think this will just lead to a new round of attacks on CRU and the Met Office,” says Bob Ward, communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. “Sceptics will pore through the data looking for ways to criticise the processing methodology in an attempt to persuade the public that there’s doubt the world has warmed significantly.”

The CRU and its leading scientist, Phil Jones, were at the centre of the so-called “climategate” storm in 2009 when the unit was accused of withholding and manipulating data. It was later cleared of the charge.

US science cuts pay for war – and we all suffer

US science cuts pay for war – and we all suffer – opinion – 26 July 2011 – New Scientist.

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the horrendous cost of pursuing the “war on terror” may give his followers cause for celebration

WHEN Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this year, many commentators saw it as a turning point in the war on terror. However, a host of measures suggest that bin Laden’s goal – to strike a long-lasting blow to the system of government of the US and to the health and well-being of its citizens – may have been achieved.

Last month, the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, released a report entitled “Costs of War“, which estimates the cumulative cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be up to $4 trillion.

What has this vast amount of money achieved? Both Iraq and Afghanistan continue to rank low in political freedom, warlords continue to control much of Afghanistan, and gender and ethnic segregation in Iraq are now worse than they were before 2001.

At the same time, the US economy is in trouble. Unless the country’s debt ceiling is raised by 2 August, the US will default on several of its major financial commitments. Many of the key programmes that contribute to the quality of life of most Americans are under threat.

From a scientific perspective, the appropriations bills now before Congress suggest that the US’s dire fiscal straits will inflict long-term damage to its technical leadership.

The House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space and Technology has recommended cancelling the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the fabulously successful Hubble Space Telescope, because of a cost overrun of $1.6 billion. If this project is cancelled, once Hubble reaches the end of its working life in 2014 we will lose our chance to witness the first moment in cosmic history when the sky lit up with stars, less than a billion years after the big bang.

Beyond the direct loss to science, we need to ask what the next generation of bright minds will lose. The remarkable images captured by Hubble have inspired a generation of people to dream about the universe and its myriad possibilities, and have doubtless inspired youngsters to consider a career in science.

For those of a more practical bent, funding for energy efficiency and renewables could be cut by a whopping 27.3 per cent. It is hard to imagine an applied research programme that is more relevant and important to the health and security of our society.

Cutting that funding is likely to have economic consequences too. In this highly competitive world, the country that leads the research and development in these areas will gain a huge advantage. One only has to consider the fraction of the US’s gross domestic product that resulted from R&D a generation or two ago into technologies ranging from the transistor to the microchip.

If, as a consequence of a decade of unprecedented military spending, we are prepared to give up our grandest intellectual dreams while at the same time cutting efforts to solve the chief technological challenges we face, have we not lost far more than we may have we won?

Lawrence Krauss is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University in Tempe. His most recent book, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s life in science was published in March (W. W. Norton & Co)

9 Out of 10 Climate-Change-Denying Scientists Have Ties to Exxon

Nine Out of Ten Climate Denying Scientists Have Ties to Exxon Mobil Money – Environment – GOOD.

If you spend any time at all browsing comments on articles about climate change (and bless you if you’ve managed to avoid it), you’ve likely read the same handful of long-debunked arguments against the reality of anthropogenic global warming (or “man-made” global warming). Recently, you’ve also almost definitely seen links to this website—”900+ Peer-Reviewed Papers Supporting Skepticism of “Man-Made” Global Warming (AGW) Alarm”—created by the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The problem is, of the top ten contributors of articles to that list, nine are financially linked to Exxon Mobil. Carbon Brief, which examined the list in detail, explains:

Once you crunch the numbers, however, you find a good proportion of this new list is made up of a small network of individuals who co-author papers and share funding ties to the oil industry. There are numerous other names on the list with links to oil-industry funded climate sceptic think-tanks, including more from the International Policy Network (IPN) and the Marshall Institute.

Compiling these lists is dramatically different to the process of producing IPCC reports, which reference thousands of scientific papers. The reports are thoroughly reviewed to make sure that the scientific work included is relevant and diverse.

It’s well worth reading the rest of the Carbon Brief analysis. According to the GWPF, the purpose of the post is to “provide a resource for peer-reviewed papers that support skepticism of AGW or AGW Alarm and to prove that these papers exist contrary to widely held beliefs.” It’s true that supporters of real climate science too often trot out the “peer-review” argument. While an essential cornerstone of science, peer-review “is not foolproof,” as the founders of Real Climate explained a long while back.

Unfortunately, exposes like this one don’t seem to matter much. Nearly four years ago, Newsweek ran a bombshell of a feature (the image above is from the issue’s cover) that broke down exactly how fossil fuel companies—and specifically Exxon Mobil—were funding the climate denial machine. A couple years ago, Climate Cover Up gave a much deeper, book-length look at exactly that. Last year, Naomi Oreskes and and Erik Conway released Merchants of Doubt, that looks at how the very same tactics (and in some cases, the very same scientists) are being used in the anti-climate science field now as were used by those who denied the health risks of cigarettes half a century ago.

Anyone paying close attention knows that Exxon Mobil and others who profit from selling fossil fuels are underwriting “science” that calls the reality of climate change into question. But the money shapes the messaging that pollutes the minds of those who aren’t paying quite as close attention.

The International Space Weather Initiative

The International Space Weather Initiative – NASA Science.

A key problem organizers hope to solve is a gap–many gaps, actually—in storm coverage around our planet. When a big storm is underway, waves of ionization ripple through Earth’s upper atmosphere, electric currents flow through the topsoil, and the whole planet’s magnetic field begins to shake.

“These are global phenomena,” says Davila, “so we need to be able to monitor them all around the world.”

Industrialized countries tend to have an abundance of monitoring stations.  They can keep track of local magnetism, ground currents, and ionization, and provide the data to researchers.  Developing countries are where the gaps are, particularly at low latitudes around Earth’s magnetic equator.

Although space weather is usually associated with Earth’s polar regions–think, “Northern Lights”–the equator can be just as interesting. For example, there is a phenomenon in Earth’s upper atmosphere called the “equatorial anomaly.”  It is, essentially, a fountain of ionization that circles the globe once a day, always keeping its spout toward the sun. During solar storms, the equatorial anomaly can intensify and shape-shift, bending GPS signals in unexpected ways and making normal radio communications impossible.

“International cooperation is essential for keeping track of the equatorial anomaly,” he adds.  “No single country can do it alone.”

It’s no coincidence that the inaugural meeting of the ISWI is being held in Egypt, an equatorial country.  Of 30 nations sending representatives to the ISWI, more than two-thirds are clustered around the magnetic equator.  This could lead to a revolution in studies of low-latitude space weather.

ISWI (project map, 550px)

A map of ISWI-brokered space weather monitoring stations. Prospective participants should visit the ISWI home page to learn more about available projects and how to become involved.

There is much to do beyond the equator, too. During the meeting, researchers and students will learn how they can set up monitoring stations for cosmic rays, ground currents, magnetic storms, and auroras.  There’s a phenomenon for every latitude and level of expertise.

“We are offering a whole buffet of research opportunities,” says Davila.

Researchers who miss the first meeting will get many more chances.  The International Space Weather Initiative is an ongoing program with get-togethers planned on an annual basis at different spots around the world.  The next meeting will be held in Nigeria in November 2011.

No country is too remote, too small, or too poor to participate.  Indeed, notes Davila, “the smallest most out of the way places are often where data are needed most.  Everyone is invited.”

Interested? Details and contact information may be found at the ISWI home page: http://iswi-secretariat.org/

Scientists Decide on Top 5 Issues for Sustainability: Scientific American Podcast

Scientists Decide on Top 5 Issues for Sustainability: Scientific American Podcast.

It’s the environmental question of our time: what sustainable practices can keep our planet optimally habitable? Now a group of international scientists has published a report outlining five key areas of concentration necessary to protect the environment, as well as human societies and economies. The report was published by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council.

And the winners are…

Forecasting —we need to have pertinent & accurate forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people.

The second is observing. We need to develop better observation systems to record global and regional environmental change.

Three is something they call confining—anticipating and recognizing disruptive environmental change to quickly manage it.

Four: Responding—Determine those institutional, economic and behavioral responses that will make global sustainability possible.

Lastly, five is a big one: encourage innovation in technology and policy to achieve sustainability.

Clearly, these bullet points represent an overarching, general strategy. The next step, already underway, is to create an organized and focused international structure that can make these five recommendations a reality—and soon: the ICSU hopes for significant progress in all five areas within the next decade.

—Christie Nicholson

BP spill: Scientists scramble to find out where the oil went

BP spill: Scientists scramble to find out where the oil went | Environment | The Guardian.

Researchers set off in search of data on oil discharged in Gulf of Mexico, and a slice of the $500m fund pledged by BP

The twin drilling platforms rising from the waters above BP‘s blown well look like the brooding guard towers of a lost ruin, which in a sense they are: the relics of a disaster zone now turned into an open-air science quest to claim a slice of $500m (£316.5m) in research funds.

Ten days after BP’s well was plugged with cement, teams of scientists are scrambling to set sail in the Gulf to collect baseline data on the oil before it biodegrades and changes, as well as get noticed by the distributors of the fund pledged by BP for research into the ecological consequences of the spill.

Below deck on the Arctic Sunrise, five miles off the BP well, Rainer Amon, an ocean scientist at Texas A&M University at Galveston is looking over data on hydrocarbon and oxygen levels generated by sensors lowered to depths of about 1,000 metres.

It’s his second trip to the waters around the well since the BP spill. In June, Amon was part of a Texas A&M team that made a crescent-shaped tour around the well, finding high concentrations of methane gas as well as oil.

Instead of today’s deserted seas, his photos from June show dozens of oil response boats, and thick clouds of black smoke billowing from the surface of the water.

On his return voyage he is encountering a void. “If that oil and gas had been consumed by bacteria you would expect to see more oxygen depletion than what we have seen,” he said.

“Was it just a fluke that we found it, or is there an oil carpet on the ground?”

So where is the oil? It’s been two months since any new crude from BP’s well entered the Gulf. Independent estimates suggest 4.4m barrels of oil spewed out into the Gulf of Mexico, but there is no scientific agreement on its fate. “You could say it’s a mystery,” said Amon.

Did the oil sink to the bottom? A University of Georgia research expedition earlier this month discovered a thick coating of oil on the sea floor, 16 nautical miles from the BP well-head.

Is it floating in the depths? One team of researchers reported finding a deep sea plume of oil and natural gas the size of Manhattan, that was slow to degrade. A second study of the plume found the oil and gas were quickly being gobbled up by microbes.

Federal government agencies, meanwhile, have been seen to play down the long-term effects of the oil.

“We still have not got to the bottom of where the majority of the oil went,” said Adam Walters, a Greenpeace scientist. “The work is sound but the conclusions are really clutching at straws.”

The uncertainty about the fate of the oil has deepened the sense of urgency among scientists to gather evidence from the deep water and the ocean floor, and to begin weighing the effects of the spill on marine life.

That in turn has scientists clamouring for the release of the BP research funds, the bulk of which have yet to be awarded.

Amon, who faced a long wait for grant money to come through, got out to sea again by jumping on board a Greenpeace ship. The campaign group has been offering the Arctic Sunrise to research scientists. That was a definite attraction for Amon, who was otherwise facing a seven-month wait for a research grant – by which time the processes governing the oil that entered the Gulf would be well advanced.

Another A&M researcher on board, Cliff Nunnally, is hoping to gather samples from the sea floor.

In addition to the headstart on research, there is a cost incentive. Research vessels, depending on their equipment, can cost upwards of $30,000 a day, the biggest single expense on a scientific mission. Then again, as Amon notes, on a fully staffed research voyage, he would not be personally overseeing the winch lowering his massive steel-framed device into the depths.

Other traditions are being challenged in these early days of the quest for oil, fuelling suspicions among some scientists that the White House and BP are trying to dictate the agenda for the next generation of Gulf research.

At first, BP intended to follow standard academic protocols and hand control of the fund, which will be awarded over 10 years, to a consortium of independent scientists to review research proposals.

But the White House later instructed BP to involve Gulf governors, who have been pushing to direct money towards in-state researchers over the more prominent and widely recognised ocean science institutions. There are also concerns that politicians, rather than scientists and other technical experts, could define the parameters of further study.

But even with those reservations, there is a sense in the scientific community that the catastrophe of the BP oil spill is opening up an entirely new frontier for research in one of the most highly industrialised, yet biologically rich, marine environments on the planet.

A decade ago, Nunnally, then working on his master’s degree, was part of an ambitious product to conduct a census of marine life, on the ocean floor and in the depths, from Texas to the Florida coast.

The project was commissioned by the Minerals Management Service, which was the government agency overseeing offshore oil drilling until it was reorganised following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The project took four years, but in all that time Nunnally said it never occurred to the scientists they would soon be out there again.

“For all the ship time and all the conversations that we had with our colleagues that is the one conversation we did not have: what will we do in 10 years’ time if there is an oil spill and we have to come out and do it all over again?”