Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Investigating Climate Change

Following up our discussion of Global Climate Change, I wrote to friend of mine, atmospheric scientist James Kasting, who was the fellow who proved that Mars could have struck a high-CO2 Gaia balance, if it had been larger... the real expert on a star's Continuously Habitable Zone (CHZ). Jim offered me the following --

Hi David,

Kasting-planet-bookNice to hear from you! I only work a little on global warming these days, although I do teach about it in my introductory Earth science class. So, I can answer some of your questions, but I'm not a real authority. I've cc'd my colleague Ken Davis over in Meteorology on this reply. Ken works on the modern carbon cycle and can correct any mistakes that I may make.

With regard to your question about missing CO2 sinks, I think that the consensus view now is that it is going into the terrestrial biosphere, i.e., plants and soils. Some of this CO2 could "come back" at us in a few decades as the climate warms and as decomposition of soil carbon speeds up. In the short term, though, the terrestrial biosphere is expected to take up more carbon as a consequence of CO2 fertilization of plant growth. So, there are competing effects. Ken would know more than I do about the state of this argument.

The most credible scientific statements about global warming are those published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their website is: . The most recent full report is dated 2001. There is another one in progress at the moment. The last report is quite clear in making the point that anthropogenic global warming is for real. And I expect that the forthcoming report will make even stronger statements on this matter.

state-of-fearA good debunking of Michael Crichton's State of Fear book is given in the posting: State of Confusion.

At least I think this is the website that my colleague Richard Alley referred me to some time ago. I was going to read State of Fear myself, but Richard assured me that it has been thoroughly debunked on the Web.

And now further followup from Penn State atmospheres expert Ken Davis:

“ I would add that about half of the current 'sink' of CO2 is probably the ocean, and half the terrestrial biosphere. The ocean is likely to remain a fairly steady sink on the 100 year time scale, while the terrestrial biosphere, as Jim said, may remain a sink or become a net source depending on how ecosystems respond to climatic change, and also depending on how people alter the landscape. A primary focus of my research these days is on the current biospheric sink, and its likely evolution in the next century.

“There are a series of US government sponsored reports
being drafted now that should provide a good overview of various issues. For example, I'm helping to write one on the state of the carbon cycle, that addresses the question you asked about CO2 sinks. But the IPCC is great.”
I proceeded to ask Ken a few quick questions.

1. Where do you come down on sea-fertilization to spur both fisheries and carbon sequestration?

Very questionable, as best I know. You certainly can stimulate biological activity, but whether or not it is a net sink is very uncertain. I am not an expert.

2. Are you concerned about the clathrate hydrate deposits sitting at the bottom of some sea beads, possibly being released into the atmosphere?

Again, I'm not expert, but I believe there are certainly such deposits. I think that long ago (50-60 million years?) there were possibly large releases. I heard some good discussion at the ICDC7 meeting in Boulder last September, but haven't read the papers., I think. Proceedings online. Some fantastic overview talks at the beginning.

3. I thought that climate change experts were concerned about the sea's ability to continue absorbing CO2 at high rates.

Not as far as I know. Lots of water, 1000-year turnover time. It is the gorilla long-term for carbon storage/release. More concern about it acidifying so much that the micro-flora/fauna may be faced with large-scale changes in where they can/can't survive. More alarming than climatic change in some ways. Again, very good overview of some high-profile pubs were given at the ICDC7 conference.

Real science can be far more fascinating than polemic. But dig it, folks. These guys know their stuff. They know FAR more than you and me. There are mostly NOT polemically driven. And they are very, very concerned.

And there is no excuse whatsoever for cutting energy/atmospheres research in half, when we should be tripling it EVEN IF HUMAN-GENERATED CLIMATE CHANGE WEREN’T REAL, AFTER ALL.

There isn’t even a good kleptocratic reason to be doing this. Either the perps are cosmically stupid... (plausible)... or else they are dominated by people who already live in a desert and see any global change as likely to bring more rain to THEM. Also very plausible.


Anonymous said...

Nice summary. Thanks for tapping your sources.

Another scary:

The oceans off of Oregon and Washington are developing great big biological dead zones, apparently from a warming-induced shut-down in the circulation that brings nutrients to the surface for microflora to feed on. Dead birds, dead fish, starved seals.

It is horribly discouraging to know about this stuff, and then read letters to the editor or blog posts that are still at the level of "Gee, maybe we'd be better off it were a little warmer! I hate cold winters and I'd love it if California sank and Nevada had some seafront properties, haw-haw-haw!"

I suspect it will take some massive, scary die-offs before the public sits up and pays attention. The pleasant, happy noise from the idiot box might drown out anything else.

New at Red Lobster: All you can eat Guppy Fry Fridays! Blackened Tilapia on special. Air conditioning surcharge waived for parties over ten.

Xactiphyn said...

There isn’t even a good kleptocratic reason to be doing this.

Never underestimate the power of self denial.

Anonymous said...

Are there any examples of societies that have avoided ecological disasters when the cure involved going against the interests of the elites?

Was anyone opposed to saving the ozone layer?

Anonymous said...

More concern about it acidifying so much that the micro-flora/fauna may be faced with large-scale changes in where they can/can't survive.

That's what I remember hearing speculation about. More red tides and poisonous bacteria due to chemical changes in the ocean, both industrial toxins and simple carbolic acid. The die-off of reef ecosystems globally is already pretty well-documented.

What isn't well-publicized is population shifts due to bad management, e.g. overfishing. In many parts of the world, fish stocks are being ecologically replaced with "trash species" like jellyfish. These consume the resources that the fish you actually want would, hindering your fish stocks' return to a viable population.

Combine that with changes in the ocean's currents and things do begin to look a little scary. The ocean has more to do with the planet's long-term health than the land, most specifically the top 100 feet... a thin skin that isn't so massive that we couldn't destroy it piecemeal if we put a little effort into it.

And yes, stefan, your cynicism seems warranted to me. But then, I've said before, "something isn't a problem until the boss has a problem," and words to the effect that we were all doomed because the world is currently run by pointy-haired weasels. (And also that I have no objection to California sinking into the sea, but that's an entirely different topic.)

Anonymous said...

They could be controlled by Sauds, or it could be, as suggested on the last thread, that they simply don't believe in a non-zero-sum world so they assume that anything harmful or destructive they do will necessarily help them in some unexplained manner.
I assume that this is the sort of thinking that lead earlier societies to perform human sacrifice.

David Brin said...

Whatever your politicalpersuasion, you need to buy and read Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE. No one is a world citizen without it.

Having said that, I do consider him to be a prime example of the Cotton Mather syndrome... the new prune-faced puritanism of the intellectual liberal movement. The Paul Ehrlich prim conservatism (as opposed to libertine neocons) advising us to save every penny and sit and shiver in the dark.

The only success stories Diamond cites are Tikopia and Tokuygawa Japan and a few others that laid down DRACONIAN sustainability rules that were also rules to benefit the ruling class. There has got to be a better way to save the world.

Genuine liberalism... neither libertine nor nostalgic... could do it. If we quadrupled research and dedicated ourselves to a scientific civilization.

Anonymous said...

"Was anyone opposed to saving the ozone layer?"

Sort of.

There are a lot of folks who think that there never was a threat to the ozone.

This crowd believes that the switch from Freon to (substitute) was either 1) an overreaction by enviro-nazis, or 2) a ploy by the refrigerant industry to force everyone to buy the pricier substitute.

You could google around and probably find all sorts of conspiracy pages on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, Stefan.

Doesn't look like anyone anywhere near as powerful as the oil and coal companies were defending freon.

Jared Diamond, Dr. Brin?

Yikes, it took me a year to slog through Guns, Germs and Steel.

Is Collapse any better?

I don't want to read another 100 pages about the distribution of corn seeds again....zzzzzzz.

Anonymous said...

I thought Collapse was a little more monernist than that Dr Brin.

Both Iceland and Montana seemed to be positive examples of societies seeing the problem and acting on it.

And even the the ecological difference between Haiti and the Dominican republic showed how the same starting point can lead to differnet results depending on the leadership (although this would be a platonic philospher king approach of course), But even in that case he makes the point about the need for development of local NGOs and civil society to maintain this standing.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...the site appears to be parked or highjacked, though the whois record points to a University of Colorado fellow. Oops...that expired on 21-July-2006. I bet it's been snatched up by someone.

Anonymous said...


I'm butting in here for the first time basically because this is my field of work - I'm a (micro)palaeontologist, I worked on mass extinction connected with environmental collapse and I used to study dead plancton, and foraminifera in particular.

Foraminifera (both plancton and benthos) are currently being investigated as the chief candidate to the role of CO2 sink in the oceanic waters - the critters build carbonate shells ("tests") which fix the stuff.

We know for a fact that foraminifera acted as CO2 sink in the past, basically regulating the planet's atmospheric and climatic status by decreasing/increasing their reproductive cycles, fixing the carbon and then croaking and sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

Our main concern at the moment is, can foraminifera out there _now_ act as a CO2 regulator?
A lot of pointers seem to suggest that human activity in the last few centuries has put too much CO2 in the atmo for the little critters to swallow it.

As it usually happens, the system being a cycle, compromising a part of it causes further damage and a bad feedback.
Cue to broken feeding chains, shifts in habitats, the whole shebang.

The jury is still out on the subject (AFAIK), but from what was published and presented in Florence 2004, the outlook is bleak.
The system as provided included a nice regulation mechanism, but the user has apparently overloaded it.

I just hope we won't be forced to stop the system and restart it after re-installyng the OS (should someone remember where we put the backup discs) ....

And as I am at it, good call on "Collapse", but there's another way of looking at how bad things are/might be that you gentlemen might like to check out and include in your models (as I'm trying to include it in mine)- I mean the panarchy/resilience model developend by the guys at

And here I cut this long-winded rant.

Rob Perkins said...

a) It is a pricier substitute, which is far more sensitive to moisture and leakage in air conditioning systems than Freon. That has raised the price of installation and maintenance of air conditioning systems. Perhaps it's also raised their efficiency, I dunno.

b) Its introduction corresponds to the expiration of Freon's patents.

c) People have said to me that Freon is heavier than air, and can't understand how it could get to the upper atmosphere in the first place, to do its damage to the ozone.

d) If you don't think DuPont is as powerful on the world scene as Exxon or Shell (or whatever they're calling themselves these days), I suggest another think.

At least, those are the arguments I've heard about it. I'm not really interested in conspiracy theories about it; the newer refrigerant is the law and I'm happy to oblige on a luxury item like a home air conditioner.

But if there's a decent *history* on the subject, I'm interested.

David, thanks for posting the comments of your scientist friend.

Anonymous said...

Massive research?

Just levy a big ole carbon tax. The market will respond pretty quick.

Boring, but effective.

Anonymous said...

Rob Perkins c): Salt and metals are heavier than water, but since they dissolve in water, they are found suspended in seawater. Freon is heavier than N_2, O_2, and CO_2, but it will still diffuse readily in our atmosphere. The newer larger numbered Freons are heavier and diffuse less easily.

David Brin: Did you hear about the NORAD transcripts on 9/11? They show that the brave talk of our 'leaders' making hard decisions happened after the all the planes were already down.

Anonymous said...

... he suddenly put his head in his hands and cried. "Flight 93 was not shot down," he said when he finally looked up. "The individuals on that aircraft, the passengers, they actually took the aircraft down. Because of what those people did, I didn't have to do anything." -- from the Vanity Fair article at

And are the people we're trusting to keep us safe with their global-scale decisions, are they trustworthy on climate change?

Anonymous said...

"are they trustworthy on climate change?"

When the time for decisive action finally comes, they'll be prepared with a stirring speech and a package of tax breaks for Halliburton's sand bag subdivision.

Xactiphyn said...

Frosty, I'm very confused. What was damaging about that quote?

Anonymous said...

Foraminifera (both plancton and benthos) are currently being investigated as the chief candidate to the role of CO2 sink in the oceanic waters - the critters build carbonate shells ("tests") which fix the stuff.

Doesn't oil come from plankton?

Anonymous said...


Monkyboy writes Doesn't oil come from plankton?

Oil is the product of decomposition and distillation under specific (and not so common) conditions of the organic matter derived by the death of marine biomass - mostly plankton, yes.

But foraminiferal tests are basically carbonate shells, that survive the decomposition of the dead foram, and accumulate to form massive layers of carbonate rocks.
That's where CO2 gets trapped, in the form of Calcium Carbonate - limestones.

Limestones do trap a higher quantity of carbon than coal seams or petroleum reservoirs (both requiring special, uncommon conditions to develop), and as noted by other posters, are more efficient at keeping the stuff out of the system.

Coral reefs, now, used to work the same way by the same principle (atmospheric CO2 fixed as limestone), but they are getting scarcer by the day - chiefly through climatic change and (to a lesser extent) human interference.

Hope this clears my previous long-winded and obscure post!

Rob Perkins said...

Gah! Tangent, you mean to say that no matter what anyone does in the U.S., the carelessness of coal miners in Asia will negate our combined efforts?

Got to be a way to put out those fires.

Anonymous said...

Mark: I thought that quote directly supported what Brin's been saying about how the action of citizens is more effective than the authorities, quoted directly from one of the people in the chain of authority.

In the rest of the article, the time lags detailed by the tapes, quotes, and discussion indicates that our national leaders really didn't and couldn't do anything effective. Within the time-scale of real-life terrorist attacks, Bush, Cheney or anyone in a command post can't do anything effective. Any boasting that they made crisp decisions or could do anything essential is just political puffery.

Anonymous said...

Rob Perkins: We've got underground fires here in the USA burning continuously since 1961: See Centralia Pennsylvania:,+pennsylvania

Rob Perkins said...

Frosty, the fact of a single similar fire in PA is tangential, if putting it out along with halting all the cars in the U.S. still doesn't solve the problem, because of similar problems in Asia.

Hank Roberts said... has a search box at the top of the home page.

Acidification, 2005 (also discussed more recently, but this was the main thread):

See their sidebar on the right -- the "Contributors" are the climate scientists who run the page. The list of Comments is recent replies by anyone; below that the list "... With Inline Responses" gives links to the places where the climate scientists have followed up (in a different font/color) in a particular comment.

They invite experts in to start new threads frequently.

Lag time for responses to show up is sometimes significant -- the site's done by very busy people.

I've seen no better resource.

2001 is the predicted time when calcium carbonate (aragonite) will be soluble in sunlit/shallow water and we lose the plankton that make shells from it. At that point the whole food chain gets recreated from scratch ("scratch" being photosynthesis, the point where most raw material becomes life, in shallow ocean water). Whether there's a spot at the top of it for large mammals will be interesting.

We are seeing the Fermi Paradox in action, I think.

Or else the aliens are reworking the planet to suit their own tastes before revealing themselves. I've always wondered if some of our leaders were human. Time will tell.

Hank Roberts said...

Typo above, 2100 is the predicted time aragonite will be soluble in sunlit shallow ocean waters. The cite is to a 2001 publication.

Primary source:

[PDF] WHOI Calcification Workshop May 2001 Organic Carbon ...
... Aragonite and Calcite Saturation Depths in the Global Oceans.

Adrian Cotter said...

Here's a classic one from Peggy Noonan (speech writer for George Bush Senior) who know believes in globalwarming. But if it is a problem, we should blame the scientists. It's their fault for being partisan and not being clear enough.

Glen said...

In the ongoing debate between the warmers and the skeptics, my impression is that the skeptics are winning. Read to get their side of the story.

Relative to RealClimate, ClimateAudit has the benefit of not being heavily censored to present a single favored side. Thus, actual debate takes place in the comments, with those who have contrary views allowed to fully (if politely) state their case.

Anonymous said...

Seen from a larger perspective, Crichton's book is just part of his whole approach to sales: controversy. All of his books take on similarly absurd and often imflammatory themes:

1) Jurrasic Park: Science plays god and pays in a psuedo-Christian karmic outcome

2) Rising Sun: Look out, Japs!

3) Disclosure: Look out, Women!

State of Fear is just another in a line of schlock meant for the hollywood production mill