Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.

INDEX

A Farewell to Ice

and possibly to common sense

in Science , Thursday, January 05, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I read the recently published book "A Farewell to Ice", by Peter Wadhams. It recounts Wadhams' long involvement in sea ice research, intertwining popular science and anecdote. It's quite an entertaining read, and makes some compelling points, but I came away from it feeling a slight sense of disquiet. This arose not from the predictions of the grim consequences of sea ice loss - which are hard to disagree with - but more down to the presentation.

At some point in the distant past I moved in quite close circles to Peter Wadhams. I'm not sure if we ever met, but I don't think so. But my impression is that he always had a reputation for being ever so slightly out on the fringe, which actually would probably have appealed to me. Although he has had a long and fruitful career, somehow he seems to lack a certain sense of gravitas. Of course you could also say that this is because unlike a lot of his peers, he's not a pretentious, self-important windbag. Nevertheless, his claims about a murder conspiracy directed at climate scientists a few years back were not only extremely far-fetched but also very hurtful to friends and relatives of the said scientists.

Wadhams also emphasises the importance of field data and actually understanding physical processes over modelling, a point that his critics in the denial looney corner conveniently overlook, but which I fully concur with. In fact my own skepticism about modelling as the solution to everything played a large part in my forced exit from the field, many years ago. It wasn't a good line to take when dealing with a boss who seemed to actually live in a computer simulation.

But back to "A Farewell to Ice". The big problem is that Wadhams cannot help himself from making dramatic predictions. Does it really matter if the North Pole is ice free next year or in ten years? Or even in a hundred years? The big fight now is countering the blatantly dishonest denial campaign, and its harnessing of an army of illiterate trolls and pseudo-scientists. Giving them a headline like "all ice will disappear next year - oh, and by "disappear" I mean only 1 million square km will remain - is a gift from the Gods. He may, god forbid, even be right, but it's neither here nor there. There is little point in writing a book like this and playing to the gallery. If it cannot even convince a mild skeptic, what is the point? Allowing it to be so easily dismissed as wild-eyed scaremongering is extremely careless, to put it mildly.

I'm also a little puzzled about the bibliography. If he believes that Seymour Laxon and Katharine Giles were so important, why does he not reference their research, in particular Laxon's exhaustive, diligent and controversy-avoiding work on refining techniques for determining sea ice freeboard (and hence the key thickness measurement) by satellite remote sensing? All I can recall is a dismissive, generic comment on missions such as Cryosat. Well, ok, maybe upward facing sonar from submarine is more accurate, but he's hardly going to generate much coverage that way.

So, "A Farewell to Ice" is a good, accessible book, and a worthwhile and recommended read. The science is extensive, fairly comprehensive and sound. But in failing to rein back on some of the more emotive aspects, it also ends up as a lost opportunity, and does little, for me, to dispel the vague feeling that maybe he is just slightly bonkers.

Melt Season

the charlatan’s lament

in Science , Monday, September 09, 2013

Although it’s been many a year since I was paid to be a climate scientist of sorts (i.e a very poor example of one), I still try to keep up with developments, both on the science and political fronts. So I’m interested in what the so called “deniers” have to say.

Some weeks ago I wrote a review of James Delingpoles’s “Watermelons” book.  Although I’m hardly sympathetic to his views, I was genuinely interested to see what he had to say, and read all the way to the end. After a while it got a bit hard-going.  He’s no scientist, and while openly, and repeatedly making no claim to be one, he in fact clearly believes he understands science, scientists and scientific method. He doesn’t, and probably never will. It’s a pity, because he’s a good, erudite writer, and seems to have a well developed sense of humour and irony. If only he could just let his pathological hatred of wind turbines lie, and above all refrain from his all too frequent, sickeningly vitriolic ad-hominen attacks, he might be able to provide a valuable sense of perspective in the climate change debate, in the sense of discussing and forming policy.

But when you see this sort of article - “Arctic ice melt IS a problem because Right-wing newspapers smell, explains Guardian climate expert”, well, you can see why even the Telegraph doesn’t want to feature him in their print edition or anywhere outside of their nest of rabid right wing bloggers.

The comments section on his blog is quite an experience. It’s an overflowing cesspit of the worst knuckle-dragging examples of stereotypical British beer-fuelled closed mind thuggery.  While the odd voice of reason tries to chime in, it is only to be dragged down by boorish, Pavlovian knee-jerk reactions from Delingpole’s mindless followers.  I cannot believe that he himself is not sometimes alarmed by the sheer brainlessness of his virtual entourage.  And yet…

And yet, when you read some of the stuff he writes about climate scientists, such as:

a dishonest, highly politicised scientific establishment, in bed with scaremongering green NGOs, shyster politicians, rent-seeking corporations and ignorant, irresponsible media outfits has been warning the world of a terrible environmental threat variously called “global warming” or “climate change” which only exists in the form of computer projections

or

As we’ve seen in the Climategate emails, in Gleickgate, in Amazongate, in Glaciergate, in the machinations of the IPCC, in the data manipulations by NASA and CRU, in the public statements of activists like James Hansen and Sir Paul Nurse, the “scientists” can no longer be trusted to give it to us straight. It’s why what they think, or don’t think, about issues like arctic sea ice is of such marginal relevance to the main story.

or even

snivelling, mendacious, corrupt, shrivelled-and-syphilitic-membered, pseudo-scientific, rabid climate trolls. Let’s be hearing your pitiful excuses….

…then you can see why he gets the following he does.

Yes, that’s the kind of rhetoric that the once-respected Daily Telegraph presents under its banner. Pretty depressing stuff.

On the day that two brilliant, dedicated and sadly-missed climate scientists, Seymour Laxon and Katharine Giles (heard of either, Delingpole ?) were honoured at the ESA Living Planet Symposium in Edinburgh, maybe it’s time to be thankful that the vast majority of the research community just get on with doing the best work they can, despite crap salaries, no job security, and endless stress, to provide us all with a chance of providing future generations with a liveable world.

Global Warming is a Marxist Plot

pass me a polar bear steak

in Science , Thursday, July 11, 2013

Watermelons”, by James Delingpole, is a major broadside against the acceptance of anthropogenic, in other words, human-influenced, global warming, otherwise known as AGW.

As an alumni not only of UCL’s Climate Research Group, indeed a founder member, but also of the British Antarctic Survey, de facto I would not be expected to align myself with the sceptics and deniers of AGW. Even worse, my University research work was on physical and computer modelling of vertical-axis wind turbines. Delingpole is not big on wind energy. But if my science background has taught me anything, it is to consider all aspects of an issue, so I was genuinely interested to see what Delingpole had to say. And according to Amazon reviews he’s an entertaining writer. So why not?

I decided not to read any further reviews - most on Amazon are pure hagiography anyway - but to make up my own mind.


I have to confess I’d never heard of James Delingpole. I haven’t really followed the AGW sideshow of warmists and deniers, and I’ve got very little patience for the question “do you believe in global warming?”. Belief doesn’t come into it. On this topic I base my views on proven facts and well reasoned hypotheses. And on those grounds, frankly, I lean towards the “insufficient data” response so far. As does a good proportion of the scientific community. But this leads us to the crux of the problem: many people, including most journalists and all politicians, cannot deal with anything beyond “yes” or “no”. Or what a man in the pub told them the other day. James Delingpole is less complicated: he can’t deal with “yes” either.

“Watermelons” actually makes several very valid points. Principal amongst these is pointing out the scale of the industry that has grown up from the AGW theory, or “threat”, and that fact that it could be very awkward for a lot of very large vested interests if AGW were to be disproved. He also, correctly in my view, exposes the excesses of the large eco NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth who have long since abandoned their grass roots calling and turned into massive global corporations. But then he calls out the motives of the Greens, claiming that it’s all a global sinister conspiracy to destroy the capitalist growth economy and dismantle civilisation. Hmm. Well, how does that square with the aforementioned NGOs becomming the epitomy of capitalistic achievement? Again, it’s not a simple case of black and white.

And this runs all through the book. It thrives on polarities, on stereotyping, on tarring all with the same brush. All it takes is one scientist to be found - alledgedly - tampering with the evidence, and then all scientists are “liars”. I don’t particularly want to rehash the ins & outs of Climategate, but one particular stolen email is held up as evidence of extreme evil:

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last twenty years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline”

Anybody with any passing familiarity with research work will see little wrong here. Perhaps if we substitute “trick” with “technique”, and realise that Nature is the most prestigious and tightly reviewed science journal around, then it becomes clear that the first part refers to a well accepted adjustment to account for known distortions. Same for the second part, this referring to the extremely well documented fact that tree ring count data needs to be treated carefully for recent years. This, in an email which was never intended for any other than close colleagues who understand the shorthand and can read between the lines. This is not evidence of any kind of fraud. And worse, I don’t doubt that Delingpole knows this.

That some scientists did a deal with the devil by exaggerating some of their predictions in order to encourage funding, that some politicians saw a fantastic vote-grabbing potential in a dumbed down version of these predictions, and that a whole bunch of entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and career Greenies then jumped on board, well this is none other than the capitalist growth economy, which the author defends tooth and nail, hard at work.

There is little real addressing of the science in the book. It is dismissed as a new religion, with climate scientists as its high priests. Actually, I note that in his blog Delingpole refers to them as climate “scientists”, presumably because they don’t do real science. When he does mention science, it’s usually to dismiss the “hockey stick” graph of accelerated warming yet again, with the usual fallacies, or to come up with claims like Arctic sea ice only recedes in the summer but freezes again in the winter, or that the Northwest passage was perfectly navigable a century ago,since Amundsen sailed through it. What he fails to mention is that it took Amundsen 3 years, wintering over twice in sea ice. On the other hand, this year, a normal sailboat, with an experienced skipper, can just sail straight through.

The old chestnut of the Medieval Warming Period (MWP) comes up a lot too, as “proof” that AGW doesn’t exist. What he seems unable, or unwilling, to grasp is that likely natural drivers for the MWP are reasonably well established, and that climate variation, both global and local, on all sorts of timescales, is well accepted. AGW theories concern themselves with modification of the natural variability due to human activity, largely due to carbon dioxide (not “carbon”) emissions. Still, in respectable scientific circles the jury remains out on the real impact. But as mentioned before, expressing reasonable doubt isn’t good for funding.

But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Delingpole claims it’s not about the science, and anyway that he is not a scientist. Rather, it’s about massive scale misrepresentation. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t give him an open license to misrepresent in turn.

Frequently I started to get the impression of some incipient eye-swivelling as Delingpole ranted on about one or other of his more far-fetched conspiracy theories or character assassinations, but most of the time he pulls back from the brink just in time. However, he goes way beyond the acceptable in his treatment of Michael Mann, and his characterisation of Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring” as a “mass-murderer” is unforgivable. His description of pretty much everybody on the opposing side of his arguments as “Nazis” is also a little tiring.

But despite this, I do find myself in agreement with him on some of his specific criticisms of bodies like the IPCC, and some instances of scientists overstepping the mark. I also share his dislike of the extreme end of the Green movement. But the general tone of the book is of a foaming-at-the-mouth, sub Jeremy Clarkson rant, preaching to his followers and making no attempt at reasoned dialogue. In this he lets himself down. AGW has been used and abused by far too many agenda-owning special interests, and there are tales there that deserve to be told. But wrapping it up in a vitriolic and very largely unjustified attack on dedicated working scientists is not the way to go about.

I approached “Watermelons” with an open mind, I read it right to the end, and I even found myself nodding in agreement more often than I might have expected. But my remaining impression is of a foul mouthed attention-seeking little boy screaming “ITS NOT FAIR!!!”. A balanced debate on AGW is urgently needed, but “Watermelons”, sadly, is as unbalanced as it gets.

The Great Ocean Conveyor

It’s science, Jim

in Science , Sunday, June 23, 2013

I’ve just finished reading “The Great Ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate Change” by Professor Wally Broecker. Finding the odd 20 minutes here and there on trains is not the ideal environment to read a book like this, so a wet Sunday afternoon provided a good excuse to sit down and read it properly.

This isn’t a “global warming disaster” book on either side of the battle lines. In fact, as one reviewer describes it, it’s a new genre, the science detective thriller. Well actually, that might be taking it too far. There have many popular science books written in narrative form, often with plenty of human drama interwoven in. This is not that kind of book. Actually, it is right on the extreme between popular science and textbook or peer-reviewed journal, but none the worse for that.

Over 137 fairly dense pages, Broecker describes his original thesis for the global circulation system which drives heat exchange between the poles and the tropics, which he names the Great Ocean Conveyor. One part of this, the upper level North Atlantic limb is well known under the name of the Gulf Stream. He starts off with a preamble on the discovery and confirmation of the Milankovitch insolation cycles, and from this starting point looks at shorter term fluctuations in temperature and ice cover which are due to other factors than planetary mechanics.

Along the way, he describes the various proxy measurements of climate, starting with oxygen isotope concentrations in ocean sediments and ice cores, and techniques invented to provide reliable dating. The discussion of the sheer inventiveness of some of the methods used and the elegant ways in which they are developed to me is the core of this book.  In fact, if I have any criticism, it would be that some kind of overall treatment of the Great Conveyor itself seem to be missing. I would have liked to see a conclusion, and perhaps some better global illustration of what is known about it. The book focuses on the geochemistry, which is fine, but a little more ocean dynamics would have been nice.

The concluding chapter discuses the Anthropocene - defined as the geological period we’re now living in, starting from the point where human activity has a significant impact on atmospheric CO2 levels. One might expect this chapter to flourish a few dramatic, doom-laden scenarios as a dramatic sign off, and probably if it were a standard popular science book, the editor would have demanded this.  But actually, Broecker confesses that he’d rather avoid the mistake of crying wolf, and holds back from stating or implying that the conveyor-based mechanisms he has discovered for abrupt climate change necessarily apply the current context. However, he does emphasise that we are still far from having an answer to everything, and that the one constant is that the Earth’s climate system is full of surprises. We may well be able to deduce what happened in the past, but quite possibly we’ll only know if todays’s concerns about climate change hold up after the event.

A reader with no scientific background would probably have to skip some of the more technical discussion, which is a shame as I don’t doubt it these sections could be made more accessible. For myself, although I have had some exposure to glacier geochemistry, and can grasp the basics, there were still a few passages where my brain went blue-screen. In particular the discussion of NO4* as a proxy, which left me completely baffled - even more so as I haven’t been able to find any discussion of this anywhere else. There are a also a few key points which are presented as an elegant twist, a scientific sleight of hand, which would no doubt get a round of appreciative grunts, if not outright applause, in a scientific forum, but might be a little lost to a general readership. In shoer, and to some extent, this book does not quite seem to know who its audience is.  But that’s not a major issue. All in all, it’s an enthralling and mentally refreshing read, and I recommend it to anybody interested in what really lies behind the climate change story.