Archive for 2010 February

Global warming skeptics see a couple of trees, miss forest

Those who would like to see humanity take action to reduce the harmful effects of global warming have had a frustrating couple of months, due in part to over-reaching by those urging action.

Skeptics and deniers had a field day when, for instance, Al Gore claimed the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer in as soon as five years, based on the work of a scientist who quickly insisted he had said no such thing. 

It's frustrating not just because Al Gore should know better, but because although his mistake looks bad to the uninformed, in the broader picture it's a trivial error. 

That's right — trivial. 

The Arctic probably won't be ice-free in the summer by 2015…but ice-free in the summer by 2023 is a real possibility, or so I was told at the 2008 American Geophysical Union by J.C. Comiso, an expert on ice-sheet dynamics at GISS. No one raised an eyebrow over this estimate: it's middle of the road. 

Similarly, the deniers are crowing because the 2007 IPCC report included a projection that the Himalayan glaciers that support five major rivers, on which one billion people in Asia depend for water, were estimated to be likely to melt away by 2035. 

The actual date in which these glaciers are estimated to disappear? 


That's according to a tiny story on page A6 in the Los Angeles Times published today, too small, unfortunately, to be included in the on-line version. Here's the full gist of the detail:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been under fire after it was found that one of its 2007 reports wrongly included a prediction that Himalayan glaciers could vanish by 2035. The figure should have been 2050. 

So, by the apparent logic of the skeptics, because those who worry about global warming over-reached slightly, we can safely ignore the effects of an ice-free Arctic nor a Tibetan plateau without glaciers. 

All that will still happen — but not as soon as some feared. 

Excuse me for asking, but why is reassuring? 

Nonetheless, apparently it is…as veteran science journalist Charlie Petite puts it, in his mild way: 

One thousand parts per million CO2, here we come?

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The problem with global warming

It's the wrong phrase, as "gentleman cartoonist" Keith Knight so wittily demonstrates


Or, as Barry Goldwater might say, extremism in defense of weather is no vice. 

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Antarctic ice in broad-scale retreat: USGS

According to the USGS, the Antarctic ice shelves contain about 91% of the world's frozen water. So news that they are melting across the full extent of the planet's coldest continent, and have been steadily since l949 because of global warming, is not great news, despite what deniers such as George Will call the "tantrums" of climate scientists. 

In the introduction to the paper, the team of international researchers warns:

Antarctica is Earth’s largest reservoir of glacial ice. Melting of the
West Antarctic part alone of the Antarctic ice sheet would cause a
sea-level rise of approximately 6 meters (m), and the potential
sea-level rise after melting of the entire Antarctic ice sheet is
estimated to be 65 m (Lythe and others, 2001) to 73 m (Williams and
Hall, 1993).

Yes, that's a heck of a lot of ice. Won't happen overnight. But the map of the melting is not reassuring.

The geographers write (speaking of the ice shelf connection to Charcot Island):

From 1947 to 1986, southern Wilkins “b” [connection] was fairly stable, with only a slight amount of retreat. By 1990, southern Wilkins “b” exhibited an increased rate of retreat (table 7A). Retreat continued until 1997, then the rate of retreat increased from 1997 to 2000 and increased consider- ably more from 2000 to 2002 (the period of fastest retreat), with some measurements showing a retreat of more than 1.5 km a-1. The retreat of both Wilkins “a” and Wilkins “b” ice fronts from 2002 to 2009 left only a narrow strip of ice pin- ning the shelf to Charcot Island. When the ice bridge fractured in 2009, Wilkins “b” ice front disappeared. Considering that the flow of the ice shelf is in a northerly direction (Vaughan and others, 1993), there is little recharge of ice to this area, leaving it very unlikely that the ice shelf will recover.

Oh well. After all, George Will tells us we have had "no statistically significant warming since l995." 

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The hamburger of the future?

A prize-winning image from a Science magazine visualization competition:


An explanation from Science:  "…marine scientist Jennifer Jacquet of the University of British Columbia in Canada and digital artist Dave Beck's illustration uses this absurd, grotesque image to make their point: Overfishing and climate change have significant consequences for marine ecosystems. As the numbers of larger fish dwindle and ocean temperatures rise, the sea becomes more and more ideal for the floating creatures, Jacquet says."

Scary thing is, although the jellyfish burger might be grotesque and not be that tasty, the idea is not so absurd: the proliferation of huge jellyfish and squid has already been observed along the coasts of Japan and California

h/t: Bioephemera

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Environment gets 1.5% of news coverage in 2009

That's according to the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism

 Global Warming Generates Little Heat in the Media | Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ)_1266729030942
Global warming gets most of the press that goes to the environment. (When was the last time you saw a headline that mentioned habitat?) But all the environmental news put together adds up to only about 1.5% of the total news in 2009. 

To put this number in context, Tiger Woods all by himself has been generating about four times the news coverage given to the entire planet. 

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Our galactic neighbor, seen as never before

Science fans and Internet junkies no doubt have been caught glimpses of the latest set of images from NASA's astonishingly far-sighted WISE (Wide Infrared Survey Explorer) mission. 

Here's my personal fave: our closest galactic neighbor, Andromeda. Although about 2.5 million light years from our sun, this galaxy is actually bigger than the Milky Way, experts say. This is a reconstruction for our eyes from infrared data, with mature stars in blue, and young stars in red and yellow. 

NASA was so smart — is so smart — to put its chips on unmanned missions and high technology. Sending men into orbit around the earth or even to the moon to show we can do it is all but pointless these days. 

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Fog fading in NorCal: redwoods threatened?

According to a just-released study by UC Berkeley researchers, based primarily on airport cloudbank measurements, fog in summer is less prevalent in Northern California over the last hundred years, down by about a third, which could threaten the beautiful, iconic redwoods of the northern California Coast.


A couple of qualifications; first, as the new study by James Johnstone and Todd Dawson notes, this does not match results from all the previous research. Work by Robert Bornstein's team at San Jose State found more wind and fog in the summer along the California coast in the last thirty years. Their argument is that more anthropogenic heat in the hotter interior regions of the state leads to a bigger thermal low, thus pulling more ocean air and more wind and fog across the coastal mountains.

Johnstone and Dawson. by contrast, link the decline in fog to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Second, the trend looks alarming over the last century, but over the last fifty years it's not so evident, and (unlike, for instance, the decline in arctic ice). Interestingly, the fog levels look today not so different from those of the l950's, when the PDO was also negative, as it is now.


Nonetheless, for those of us who love redwoods, this is troubling news.

Redwoods are to fog as fish are to the sea…


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The world boiled down to a drop

From a nice (if much too short) interview with the great new poet Vera [corrected] Pavlova:

There’s a line in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God
that reads: “She didn’t realize she was the world and the heavens
boiled down to a drop.” Your poems feel that way to me—tiny verses with
the glint of whole galaxies in them. How does this relate to the
purpose you find in poetry?

I thank you for a nice quotation and for your subtle understanding
of my poems. Indeed, this is how I understand the purpose of poetry: to
boil the universe down to the size of a poem, a novel down to eight
lines. An ideal poem, just as the DNA, contains all the information
about its author.

I love this woman/poet. Is that wrong?


Here's another of her tiny masterpieces: 

I broke your heart
now barefoot I tread
on shards

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Paging Dr. Mamet…Paging Dr. Mamet…

The most dominating dramatist of the last twenty or so years in this country is surely David Mamet, whose most seen work is probably The Untouchables, but whose outpourings fill shelves and theaters around the country and the English-speaking world. 

This domination may or may not be good news who care more about character than plot, because Mamet's characters, although powerfully driven and mysteriously real, tend to blur in the memory. 

They do not have the touch of the divine that some writers — such as Shakespeare and Williams — can mysteriously achieve. 

But, maybe that's unfair. Maybe it's me. Maybe I just don't like many of Mamet's characters, in plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross or American Buffalo, and perhaps that's my flaw, not his. When I do like his characters, as in my personal fave, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, I like Mamet very much. 

Since it came out thirty years ago, I think it's fair to reveal the irony of the title. The perversity is that young people, young couples, can fall in love, and not want to admit it to each other. 

Bring that to life and you will have a hit, and yes, this is the play that made Mamet a star. 

In that light, I wish he would put his mind to work dramatizing this great anonymous postcard from Postsecret: 


When PostSecret is good, it is very very good, and this Valentine's Day it was good. 

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Dianne Feinstein and Westlands: Secret Sweethearts?

Almost two years ago, the tenacious Lloyd Carter — a former reporter turned water law expert — wrote a public letter to Senate Dianne Feinstein, calling her out for her work on behalf of cotton and almond growers of the so-called Westlands water district of the Central Valley.

As he commented on his site, in April 2008:

California environmental groups have grown increasingly concerned that
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein is secretly negotiating a "sweetheart"
deal with the Westlands Water District that will harm the Delta and
will allow continued irrigation of high selenium soils.
Environmentalists remain deeply suspicious of Westlands' claim that it
has a viable solution for the drainage crisis affecting the western San
Joaquin Valley. Westlands, which only has a few hundred growers, is
seeking enough water annual to meet the needs of a city of 10 million

Last September, Feinstein called for the spending of $750,000 on a National Academy of Sciences study of the exhaustive science on the Delta fisheries (but, interestingly, on her site claimed she was backing an Obama administration request…that in fact she spearheaded). 

Now, long before the study has been completed, Feinstein has drafted legislation lifting pumping restrictions in the Delta, for the sake of Westlands. (Her office is continuing to avoid responsibility, but according to the excellent enviro reporter Bettina Boxall of the LA Times, who has seen the language of the bill, it "would effectively weaken new pumping restrictions designed to protect
the imperiled delta smelt and crashing stocks of migrating salmon.")

The move surprised other Democrats in the California legislature:  

"This came as a bit of a shock that she did this," said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena).

He represents the North Coast, which has been hurt by two years of bans
on commercial salmon fishing stemming from collapsing salmon stocks.

"If this were to go through, it would have a devastating impact on
Northern California and other jobs and other economies in the state,"
Thompson said.

This move raises huge questions — legal, political, scientific, legislative — but for now, one can only think back on Carter's prescient warning and recall the old line: Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

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