Thursday, November 26, 2009

The ongoing debate/firestorm over the recent hacking of climate-related e-mails has lead me to post a few thoughts and responses I've sifted through in recent days, for better or worse. Here goes...

"As a sociologist, I can't imagine what's so unusual about these emails. Science is messy. The brilliance of science as a system isn't its individual findings, but rather how their iterations function as a whole to produce general truths. This is because SCIENCE IS MESSY.

Before deciding to hop on the academic track, I used to be a carpenter. Guess what? Carpentry is messy too. Life is messy. At the end of the day, despite countless dismays, and conversations about how this house will never stand, none of the houses I ever built came crashing down. Why? Because there are a lot of nails and joints in there, and one piece cut too big or too small doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of difference in the end."

- anonymous

From Peter Watts, scientist and author:

"Science doesn’t work despite scientists being asses. Science works, to at least some extent, because scientists are asses. Bickering and backstabbing are essential elements of the process. Haven’t any of these guys ever heard of “peer review”?

"That’s how science works. It’s not a hippie love-in; it’s rugby.

"This is how it works: you put your model out there in the coliseum, and a bunch of guys in white coats kick the shit out of it. If it’s still alive when the dust clears, your brainchild receives conditional acceptance. It does not get rejected. This time."

"As for me, I’ll follow the blogs with interest and see how this all shakes out. But even if someone, somewhere, proves that a handful of climatologists deliberately fudged their findings — well, I’ll be there with everyone else calling to have the bastards run out of town, but it won’t matter much in terms of the overall weight of the data. I went running through Toronto the other day on a 17°C November afternoon. Canada’s west coast is currently underwater. Sea level continues its 3mm/yr creep up the coasts of the world, the western Siberian permafrost turns to slush. Swathes of California and Australia are pretty much permanent firestorm zones these days. The glaciers retreat, the Arctic ice cap shrinks, a myriad migratory species still show up at their northern destinations weeks before they’re supposed to. The pine beetle furthers its westward invasion, leaving dead forests in its wake— the winters, you see, are no longer cold enough to hit that lethal reset button that once kept their numbers in check.

I could go on, but you get my drift. And if the Climate-Change Hoax Machine is powerful enough to do all that, you know what?

They deserve to win."

- Peter Watts (his complete post regarding "email-gate" can be found here).

I received a couple of e-mails from climate change deniers positively giddy about the recent hacking of e-mails from scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit. For people who consistently doubt the veracity of the science surrounding anthropogenic climate change this was the "smoking gun" many had been waiting for, seeming to PROVE that a handful of scientists were secretly plotting and scheming, "manipulating the numbers" to skew the science in favor of man-made climate change. But a closer inspection of the e-mails shows something much less dramatic: that science is inherently messy (because scientists are - surprise! - just as human as the rest of us). They bicker, complain, compete, gossip and vent occasional bursts of rage at professional deniers intent on interfering with their research. I find the timing of all this very curious: with a global climate change summit at Copenhagen just a few weeks away. My hope is that this [pr mess] will shine a bright light on the huge and growing body of science, the mountain of mounting evidence, that people will look at this topic with fresh eyes. My fear is that this will only increase the decibel level of the shouting underway, entrench the skeptics and further embolden the conspiracy theorists who see deception under every rock. The evidence is there, for people truly willing to look. It's easier to follow incendiary blogs and TV talking points than it is to truly sift through the science and assess the evidence objectively. All of us bring along our own biases, even scientists. But when scientists are wrong their peers, their competitors, take JOY in pointing out their mistakes and errors. As you'll see below, science is messy, but the PROCESS eventually comes up with truth, however impermanent. Isaac Newton was a complete jackass (from what I've read) but his theory of gravity still holds up pretty well. For those who see these leaked e-mails as evidence of a vast conspiracy all I can say is be patient. His theory has stood the test of time. Only time will tell if climate change science is the "hot air" skeptics believe it to be. To those who still doubt, all I can say is be prepared for more unpleasant symptoms, bizarre storms, floods, droughts, super-hurricanes and climate oddities in the years ahead. This is a slow-motion transformation, but the paradox remains: by the time the last piece of the (climate) puzzle falls into place it will be far too late to do anything about it. We'll have no choice but to adapt, take it on the chin. I hope we come to our senses before we reach that inevitable "tipping point", but I'm not longer optimistic we'll be able to save ourselves (from ourselves).

For more information on this hacked e-mail tempest in a teapot, including 60 mb worth of leaked e-mail text (most of it mind-numbingly dull) click here for a long, detailed post from's Maggie Koerth-Baker. If you're looking for more ammunition, a point-by-point refutation of all the claims and counterclaims dredged up by persistent deniers, click here to read "How to talk to a climate change skeptic" at

So much for the increasingly partisan, angst-ridden subject of climate change. It's easier to shift gears and focus on weather, which may or may not be safer ground, something almost all of us can agree on. BTW, our record-warm November is not necessarily evidence of climate change. One month doesn't prove anything (even though we're seeing temperatures more than 10 degrees above average, even though November is turning out to be warmer than all of October!) One month does-not-a-trend-make. This is weather, not climate. It's true that Novembers are trending warmer, with less snow, the past 10 consecutive Novembers warm enough to play golf. Ask your grandfather how often he got out to play golf in November when he was growing up. One storm, one week, one month, even an entire season or year doesn't prove anything. What's critical is not what's happening over Minnesota, but the global snapshot, over many years - decades. All of us are armchair experts on weather, the day to day fluctuations and variations. Few of us possess the tools to be able to monitor the entire planet over a long period of time, objectively, comprehensively. I rely on the thousands of PhD climate scientists worldwide who do this for a living. In this crowd, in spite of what you may have read, there is still widespread agreement that the changes are real, happening even faster than the latest 2007 IPCC report predicted across in northern latitudes and polar regions. Sorry, I'll throw my hat in with these guys and gals until a better theory comes along to explain what we're witnessing on a planetary scale.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hacked e-mail is new fodder for climate dispute

Published: November 20, 2009

Hundreds of private e-mail messages and documents hacked from a computer server at a British university are causing a stir among global warming skeptics, who say they show that climate scientists conspired to overstate the case for a human influence on climate change.

The e-mail messages, attributed to prominent American and British climate researchers, include discussions of scientific data and whether it should be released, exchanges about how best to combat the arguments of skeptics, and casual comments — in some cases derisive — about specific people known for their skeptical views. Drafts of scientific papers and a photo collage that portrays climate skeptics on an ice floe were also among the hacked data, some of which dates back 13 years.

In one e-mail exchange, a scientist writes of using a statistical “trick” in a chart illustrating a recent sharp warming trend. In another, a scientist refers to climate skeptics as “idiots.”

Some skeptics asserted Friday that the correspondence revealed an effort to withhold scientific information. “This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud,” said Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist who has long faulted evidence pointing to human-driven warming and is criticized in the documents.

Some of the correspondence portrays the scientists as feeling under siege by the skeptics’ camp and worried that any stray comment or data glitch could be turned against them.

The evidence pointing to a growing human contribution to global warming is so widely accepted that the hacked material is unlikely to erode the overall argument. However, the documents will undoubtedly raise questions about the quality of research on some specific questions and the actions of some scientists.

In several e-mail exchanges, Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and other scientists discuss gaps in understanding of recent variations in temperature. Skeptic Web sites pointed out one line in particular: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t,” Dr. Trenberth wrote.

(A smoking gun that disproves climate change, evidence of massive scientific cover-up? I doubt it - but I fear it's more ammunition to fuel conspiracy theories, leading to more delay, more confusion, more obfuscation and denial. The complete New York Times article is here).

Changes in the climate and a windier Great Lake

Published: November 16, 2009

Chalk up another effect of climate change: it’s getting windier over Lake Superior.

That is the conclusion of a study by scientists who have looked at the effects of increasing surface water temperatures in the lake and air temperatures over it. The water has warmed faster than the air, creating instability in the air mass that results in stronger winds.

Ankur R. Desai of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an author of the study in Nature Geoscience, said the effect was due to ice, or lack of it.

“Less ice in the winter means stronger winds in the summer,” Dr. Desai said.

Ice coverage of Lake Superior has declined in recent decades, which means that the lake starts to warm sooner, becoming stratified. The earlier this stratification occurs, Dr. Desai said, the warmer the top layer gets in the summer.

Data from buoys and satellites showed that this warming outpaced that of the air above it. That means the thermal gradient between the two was reduced.

The rest of the New York Times article is here.