23 July 2012

There is no greenhouse effect

Quote-miners will love that subject line, and it isn't a statement of my belief.  But it's been recurring some that there are people denying that anybody believes that there is no greenhouse effect.  Yet, typically on the same day as that claim, I keep seeing people deny that there is a greenhouse effect.  It's also common enough that Fred Singer, who probably would label me as a 'warmist', has made his own complaints about people denying that there is a greenhouse effect.

Nevertheless, it's always a good idea to check in more systematically to what is really out there.  The search here will limit itself to Google searches which show up for the exact phrase "there is no greenhouse effect" and are within the past year.  Alas (I keep giving away the surprise ending) it turns out that there really is no difficulty at all in finding sites which claim that there is no greenhouse effect.  And, of course, are wrong in doing so.  If someone were to demonstrate it and be correct, I'd have to be nominating them for major scientific medals.  No such concern with these.
The arguments claiming to 'disprove' the greenhouse effect's existence seem to fall mainly in to 3 groups.  I add the usual 'other' category since a philosopher friend has noted that all classification schemes wind up with one.

The first group, the 'linguistic argument' is the silliest.  The problem with it is to mistake the words used to describe something with the thing itself.  And then consider that if you can find a problem with the words, that there's nothing being described.  Poof, it's gone.  In this case, that if greenhouses don't operate by the 'greenhouse effect', that there is no greenhouse effect in the earth's atmosphere.  I discuss it at more length in Greenhouse misnomer.  The thing is, the words we use don't change the reality we're trying to deal with.  The earth's atmosphere, due to water vapor, carbon dioxide, and some other rare gases, is fairly transparent to solar radiation and absorbs the earth's radiation pretty well.  It's been suggested that we call it 'atmosphere effect' or 'Callendar effect' instead.  They might be better names, but, regardless, whatever words you use, the fact of selective absorption of energy by the atmosphere remains.

The second argument also relies on giving words supremacy over the reality they're working to describe.  One of the may verbal descriptions of the second law of thermodynamics is that 'heat doesn't spontaneously flow from a colder source to a warmer one'.  But that's only a partial description -- as usual, the statement requires that you make some assumptions.  Those assumptions aren't all true when considering the flow of energy by radiation in the atmosphere. In order to apply the second law properly, you have to sit down with the mathematics.  If you don't want to, or can't apply the mathematics, at least remember that the first law of thermodynamics regards the conservation of energy, not 'heat'.  Radiation carries energy, as does the motion of particles, the elevation of those particles (such as make up the atmosphere above ground), and other things.  'heat' refers only to temperature.  The conservation of energy applies to all, and means that if radiation goes from here to there, there gets hotter (has more energy).

Venus supplies the third argument, which strikes me as bizarre, but, then, so does denying that there is a greenhouse effect.  If you look at Venus, particularly at the surface, it is exceptionally hot.  Far hotter than its blackbody temperature (about 224 K, colder than the earth's 255 K !) would suggest, and far hotter than Mercury -- which is closer to the sun and you'd expect to be hotter than Venus.  The reason for that exceptional warmth is the extreme greenhouse Venus has due to its extremely heavy greenhouse atmosphere.  It has about 90 times the surface pressure of the earth, and almost all of that is due to carbon dioxide, versus the Earth's about 0.04%  Ok, that makes it apparent why someone who would want to deny that there's a greenhouse effect (or at least that CO2 isn't a greenhouse gas) would go to Venus.

The argument, however, is absurd.  I haven't gone in to detail about this yet, but there's a concept called 'potential temperature'.  This is the temperature that a blob of gas potentially has -- if you moved it in a plastic bag that perfectly insulated it against heat conduction or radiation but was fine with shrinking to fit your blob as you moved it from where it was to the surface.  There is an old saying that 'hot air rises', which runs in to a bit of a problem with the fact that at 10 km elevation (the tropopause in mid-latitudes) the local temperature is far colder than the surface is.  If hot air rises, why is that much higher air so cold?  Because the potential temperature is so high for that air.  If you lowered that blob to the surface, it would be much warmer than the surface air.  Take a tropopause temperatures of, say, 225 K, versus surface temperature of 300 K.  By the time you brought that blob down to the surface it would be 325 K -- it really is the hotter air.

The argument relies on a ... well, I don't know what to call it, but it isn't honest or accurate.  The argument relies on taking the (observed) temperature at some large height and then bringing it down to the surface and saying that this potential temperature explains why the surface is hot.  It's a falsehood, though, because it doesn't explain why that temperature isn't reached until the great (observed) elevation.  If there were fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that elevation would be lower is the truth that is being ignored.  It is the balance between incoming energy, albedo (reflection), and greenhouse effect which determines the temperature through the depth of the atmosphere.

Linguistic argument
Second Law Argument
Venus is warm because of surface pressure / lapse rate, not a greenhouse effect

Other / Multiple

The links show some overlap, citing each other or the same, somewhat older, sources.  This takes us past the 20 links standard. Peruse them yourself, of course. That's rather the point. That, and the reference for future use that there are indeed people (and sites to publish them) who deny that there is such a thing as a greenhouse effect.

We also see that some of the same names are showing up.  We've previously seen icecap and 'climaterealists' on the blog here as unreliable sources.  More of the same.  And several others up there, I've seen in my other looking around -- such as the oft-reprinted + rewritten John O'Sullivan.  There's a certain persistence involved.

In doing this look-around, I also noticed the 'there is no greenhouse effect' argument getting unfriendly response from WUWT and Jo Nova's.  Notice also that I'm quoting Fred Singer above, and Roy Spencer for one of the physics descriptions.

18 July 2012

Career Day Educational Paths

Scientists spend a lot of time learning things, so it isn't unreasonable that the path to a career in science includes a lot of time in school. Along the way, though, remember that it is the learning things that is the important side, not so much the grades. For me this meant, for instance, taking optional classes that I was not necessarily going to get good grades in. But I learned a lot in them, more than if I'd taken the safer, easier classes. That has served me well.

College is the first part of the path. College expenses have soared since I was in school. But the method that worked for me is still available. Namely, we had very little money at home, to the point where no 4 year school was affordable. I had worked my junior and senior years of high school, not that it would have come near covering college costs, but it helped give me at least some spending money in college. The main thing was to select several schools and see who would come up with a good enough financial aid package for me to afford to attend. I wound up with the maximum in loans, the maximum in state and federal grants, the maximum in summer job earning requirement, maximum in work-study, and an aid plan that meant I'd graduate with zero dollars in savings. The rest, which was a lot, was scholarships from my school -- Northwestern University. That meant that I'd wound up at the most expensive school I'd applied to. The least expensive was my state school, which said that they'd give me much less than they thought I needed (and agreed with Northwestern about how much I and my family could come up with). Easy decision, even though they'd originally been my first choice.

Something that is more an option now than back then is to spend your first two years at a community college. Expenses are much lower, and the standard freshman chemistry/biology/physics/calculus are taught by people who are interested in teaching them, versus four year schools where it's often viewed as undesirable to teach such classes. I took Calculus III and Ordinary Differential Equations at my local community college and was very happy with the results.

As I was selecting colleges, I heard that the typical college student changes major 3-4 times. So in addition to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science that I planned to major in, I also required that the school have a good Astronomy department and one or two other things. This helped narrow the field, and it ensured that if I decided I didn't like what I started with, I could change major to something else and still be in a good department. First I changed to just Electrical Engineering. Then to Applied Math. My area of application was originally supposed to be fluid dynamics, but that sequence was cancelled. So I jumped over to Astrophysics for my application area.

A couple of things I did in college worked out very well, and even better for my sons since they didn't have to take time to figure them out after they got to college. First, regardless of what area(s) you're interested in, join up and be active in the student groups for that interest. Different fields have different personalities, so you can get clues about whether you'd be happy in that field early on. The student groups also have more information on just what the field is like. Also join the more general groups, like Society of Women Engineers or National Society of Black Engineers (two excellent groups on my campus, probably our best-run).

Second, is to make some kind of connection -- maybe a job, maybe volunteering -- to work with someone in research. This is what I did for work-study the last two years of college. It gave me excellent practice at doing science as opposed to just taking classes about science. And it gave me a good working relationship with someone active in a field I was interested in (ice ages and climate change).

Thanks to my experience working with a professor while I was an undergraduate, I realized that my graduate school experience would depend strongly on whether my adviser was someone I could work happily with. You spend a lot of time with your adviser. If you're dreading each meeting, every day, it's going to be a very long and unpleasant time in school if you even get the degree. On the other hand, there are a lot of different people and types of people, even within the department. And many different departments in the country. Again, I was not as concerned about exact area of research I would do -- the universe is interesting. At one school, I'd have been doing theoretical climatology, at another I'd have been doing numerical models of tornadoes. At the school I went to, the University of Chicago, it was polar oceanography. While I was happy enough with the people I talked to at the other schools, my adviser and several other faculty were a step above in our conversations.

After graduate school, it's likely that you'll spend time in a postdoctoral position. Almost certain in biological sciences, likely in physical sciences. I earned an unrestricted ocean modeling fellowship -- meaning that I could do my ocean modeling at any school, with any adviser, that I chose. It's a great setup, though rare. More typically, you'll be reading help wanted pages of your professional society's web site. Anyhow, during this phase, be looking for your next job starting from day one. (I waited, which was not a good idea.) Most postdocs are only a year or two, so you'll need to be looking either for your next postdoc or a longer term position.

Every two or three years, there is a flurry of reports about the 'looming terrible shortage' of math/science/engineering people. Often, they include comments about how anybody who earns a degree (or, specifically, doctorate) in these areas will be flooded with offers. These articles have been common since I was an undergraduate, and I've seen sources saying so since the mid-1960s. There has never been a shortage in the sense of fewer applicants than jobs. The major report that came out when I was in school, which contributed to a surge in graduate students in math/science/engineering, turned out to have used fewer than 3 applicants for every 2 jobs as its definition of 'shortage'. My friends who were among the 1 in 3 who did not get jobs in science disagreed with that definition. Things are better now, but there is not, and never has been, a guarantee, or a shortage. So thinking about your job hunt much earlier than I did (not until after I defended my thesis) is a good idea, basically a requirement.

17 July 2012

Career Day Biographical Notes

I'll be talking with a career day crowd Friday, which reminded me that many of the questions the coordinator offered for the speakers to consider are also relevant to my purposes in the blog. For this note, I'll take up the more biographical side of things.

The only thing I can suggest is universal in scientist biographies is that we all think, and did so from an early age, that the universe is very interesting. Or at least some part of it is. I wasn't very excited about insects when I was young (they're more interesting to me these days, now that I'm ... less young). But a friend who is an entomologist, with particular interest in bees, has always been. It seems common, which saddens me, for kids to be taught not to ask questions, and not to find the universe so interesting, somewhere between, say, 10 and 18 years old. Scientists are ones who never lost that interest. The proverbial childlike sense of wonder about the universe is with us still.

Often that wonder and interest translates to doing a lot of learning. Sometimes we did it in school, and sometimes on our own. Not all of us were interested in school, or got particularly good grades in it when young. If not in school, then many did their learning by a lot of reading on our own (my path) or going out and observing the world (my biologist friend). But there are also scientists who weren't terribly interested in studying or practicing science prior to college; interested in the universe, but not so much or in a way that they'd start watching the bees in their back yard, or reading their way through the library.

My path also included a small telescope, messing around with electronics, taking apart clocks (they were mechanical in those days!), playing and watching baseball, running around, swimming, watching some good TV shows, and watching a lot of bad TV shows. And I read a lot -- some math, science, and history, and a lot of science fiction and mysteries. The telescope was the sort of 'Christmas' telescope that serious amateur astronomers intensely dislike -- poor mount and not very good optics. Worse, I sometimes used it watching through the window (you can hear their wails from here). But ... bad as it was, and my use of it ... it opened a new universe to me. I could see Jupiter's moons, that Saturn was blobby (not good enough to show me rings), and a huge increase in number of craters on the moon. I was practically Galileo!

Through the end of high school, at least, I haven't noticed much difference between the people who eventually became scientists and those became engineers. All the preceding applies to both. Indeed, in high school, I'd decided I was going to be an engineer -- Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (I was going to get both degrees). Conversely, the descriptions above apply to many people I know who never went in to science or engineering. My exchange student son, for instance, went in to business and now works in IT at the Deutscher Bank.

You don't have to be good at math to be good in science. Needs saying. I was, so I do kinds of science that use a lot of math. But not everyone is, and even those who are ok with math don't always like to do it. There are areas of science that don't use much math.

Which brings up the suggestion end of things: Try a lot of different things. Try math, biology, physics, chemistry, meteorology, oceanography, just plain walking through the woods, and watching city pigeons. Make mud pies, run, play sports, learn a musical instrument, learn languages. Do some reading, some observing. Fool around with ideas from my project folder. Make up your own projects and see what happens.

For the parents, do support and encourage your kids in trying things, but don't suspend your parental judgement. The idea of trying lots of different things, without worrying about whether you're good at them, is one my mother applied in raising my sisters and me. It was one of her most brilliant ideas, which I've stolen for my own parenting. But this didn't stop her from steering me away from inventing my own rocket fuel when I (a very clumsy 10 year old) was interested in trying that.

16 July 2012

Reality Based Decision Making

I have a radical idea - "reality-based decision making".  I'm in favor of it, is the apparently radical part.
  • Reality: Local sea level is rising, and the rate of rise has been increasing.  (Note, by the way, that this isn't true of all areas.  Global mean sea level is rising and accelerating, but some local areas are seeing a local sea level fall -- the land is rising faster than the water due to solid earth activity.  But the examples below come from areas where it is true.)
  • Reality: This increases the area that can be affected by storm surge if nothing changes.
  • Reality: It means some areas currently occupied will go below sea level if nothing changes.
  • Reality: Those previous 3 mean that if nothing changes, more people will be affected, possibly killed, than already are, each year or decade.
Decision? Well, I don't know.  Of course I know what I prefer, but that's neither here nor there.  I live more than 30 meters (100 feet) above sea level.  No plausible storm surge or sea level rise for the next several centuries is a risk to my house.

Given those realities, it would be reality based decision making to respond:
  • I don't care, let the low-lying areas drown.
  • Let the buyer beware.
  • We should rezone to have less property in the way of the storm surge.
  • No new building in the areas that already flood more than once a decade.
  • If anything bad happens, we'll declare a state of emergency and let taxpayers from the rest of the country bail us out.  Too bad, though, for the people who are killed.
  • We'll build a dike to keep the water out.  After all, that's what the Dutch have done.
  • The cost of response is greater than the value of the lives and property that would be destroyed, so don't respond.
  • The cost of rebuilding after this predictable event destroys the area is good for the economy.
  • ....
What isn't reality based decision making is to respond:

10 July 2012

Summer Questions

Been a while since I hung out the shingle -- so here's a place for your questions/comments/suggestions that don't fit with any particular post.

On a different matter, I've noticed that my older posts don't get comments.  This strikes me as odd because I don't close comments.  And recent comments are always shown at the bottom of the page, along with a subscription to comments rss feed on the right hand side.  If they weren't being read, no surprise that there are no comments.  But some posts have had most of their reads months and even years after the original appearance.  Any ideas?

09 July 2012

Logical Fallacies and Scientific Method

Cracked had a very nice article on logical fallacies -- that we all make as a matter of course.  Also some good illustrations and suggestions.  Aside from the fact that it was a humor magazine that had such a nice article on rational thought, I was struck by the fact that each of the points mentioned are ones that the practice of science has addressed.

The 5 natural fallacies mentioned are:
5. We're Not Programmed to Seek "Truth," We're Programmed to "Win"
4. Our Brains Don't Understand Probability
3. We Think Everyone's Out to Get Us 
2. We're Hard-Wired to Have a Double Standard
1. Facts Don't Change Our Minds

Let's take a look at what science method does to combat these:

07 July 2012

In the weekend heat

Sometimes it's easy to take the weather personally.  Yesterday, DC set its record for consecutive days 95 F or above (35 C), with 9, and will likely obliterate it by going to 11 straight days, adding in today and tomorrow.  The record it breaks, 8, was first set in 1987 -- the first summer I was here.  It was tied twice more, first in 1993 -- my third summer.  At the time, the summer of 1987 set many of the all-time records for sustained heat.  Probably several of the summers since then would have as well, if 1987 hadn't beat them to the punch.  Rephrase: many of the past 25 years would have set sustained heat records if compared only to the observations from 1880-1980.  What used to be unheard of is now 'normal', or at least common.  I'll be pulling down the data once NCDC is working again.

In the midst of the heat, well, we're hot here, and thunderstorms, I'll remind folks of the fact that you shouldn't run in thunderstorms.  That also applies to biking and walking and other outdoor activities.  If it's only heat you're dealing with, remember to drink enough fluids.  And, one trick for keeping cool while exercising is to dump some cool/cold water on your head.  Preferably to get a hat wet (it soaks up more water than my ever-thinning hair).  For more extreme cases, some ice cubes under your hat.

While my power came back after about 20 hours, friends didn't regain it until Tuesday (~90 hours) or Thursday (~140 hours).  Again, this is for wealthy, and densely populated, areas of a wealthy country.  West Virginia has not been faring as 'well'.  See this also.  Noticed in passing (unfortunately I don't remember exact source, quite possibly a Capital Weather Gang tweet*)  was that US average was 214 minutes of power failure per year.  Unfortunately, even the better parts of this area are likely far in excess of that.  Certainly my 20 hours this time are not balanced off with 6 previous years of 0.  In other wealthy countries, it's order 20 minutes per year.  In other words, US average is 10 times worse than other countries, and the Capitol area is closer to 100 times.  This is not the first time we've lost power this year, and won't be the last.

* My apologies to the original source if it wasn't this.  In any case, Capital Weather Gang is well worth reading, and has a blog as well.

At the same time as we were obliterating our record for sustained extreme heat, a friend bragged that Phoenix, Arizona, had its coldest 4th of July in 100 years -- 76 F (25 C).  We were 20 F hotter.  A different friend commented that he'd escaped the DC heat by going to the Bahamas.  Summer in the Caribbean to escape the heat ...

06 July 2012

Century storms

"That's two straight years we've had a 'storm of the century'; those weather guys are idiots!"  Not long after I moved to the Washington, DC area, this happened, and the quote is real.  I'm not sure that the storms involved really were 'storm of the century' events -- events that if we had a long enough record, we'd see happen about 10 times per 1000 years -- but it's something to think of a little quantitatively, particularly in light of my normally abnormal note.

Let's suppose that we're building a house and would like it to last 30 years.  Well, to be specific, let's say we'd like a 99% chance of it lasting that long.  Obviously it has to be able to survive events that we'd expect to happen once per year.  And we can probably ignore things that we'd expect only once in a million years.  But what about a once in 100 year event?  The name misleads us in to thinking that the next time such an event would happen is 100 years after the last time.  While natural reading, it's wrong mathematics.  We could easily be in the unlucky 30 years that sees a 100 year event.  We could even see it twice.  But is there less than a 1% chance of having one 100 year event in a span of 30 years?  That's our design requirement.  If it can be expected more often than that, our house design is not reliable enough.  We need something better. And we'll need to get quantitative.

05 July 2012

Normally abnormal

Normal and abnormal are among those words that don't mean a lot without knowing the context; 'rapid', I avoid entirely having hung around with both nuclear physicists and astrophysicists, for whom rapid can mean a femtosecond, or 100 million years. It's normal to be hotter or colder than normal.  It would be highly abnormal to always be right at normal.  While perfectly good English, let's do some work to make this real for understanding weather and climate.

One sense of 'normal' we have is the average value.  The average temperature for July 2nd in my area is, say, 86 F (30 C).  This is a useful figure, at least in the sense that we then expect temperatures to be closer to that than, say, 50 C, or 10 C.  But it would be highly abnormal -- something seldom seen -- for the temperature to be exactly 86 F for five consecutive July 2nds.

To take a comment of mine from Tuesday, we had about 1 hour of winds averaging 50 mph (22 m/s) in the recent storm.  Such winds are highly abnormal, in that the average is 5-10 mph.  But there are 8766 hours in a year.  It is normal, I believe (haven't pulled down the full data set), for at least 1 hour in the year to average 50 mph here. One sense of normal is the arithmetic average.  Another is 'what are the winds you see less than 1% of the time'?  That would be the 99th percentile winds -- you get that or faster 87.66 hours per year.  99.9th percentile is 8.766 hours, which I think is about right for 50 mph in this area.  99.99th percentile is something you expect to see about 50 minutes each year (maybe this is where we were).  In other words, it is normal to be that abnormal.

04 July 2012

Happy 4th of July

Hope everyone is having a happy 4th of July.  For the USA readers, two sets of words in reminder:

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
(et seq.)

The Constitution of the United States

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Back to me:

Though today is the day officially designated for the first, I think the second is the more significant for what it is we are celebrating.  The constitution is the basis on which we celebrate being a nation.

03 July 2012

Adapted to the weather?

I'm going to do some complaining about the recent power failures from Chicago through the Washington DC area, and there will be some relevance to talk about climate change adaptation.  But first, a few words about my background to be making complaints.  I'm not someone who has never been without electricity for an extended period before, nor, for that matter, without running water.  I've hand-pumped my water for some weeks.  And I carried it a couple hundred meters in buckets to water my grandmother's recent plantings in the hot and dry, by the standards then, summers of 1987-1988 in the midwest. While I like modern technologies, not least because it is why I reached age 10, I know how to live ok on a late 19th century level, and have done so.

In discussions about climate change, I hear that "Don't worry, we'll adapt to it." and
"Mitigating climate change means returning to 19th century technology."

I'll leave aside whether the recent derecho represents climate change.  And even more so the question of whether the change has a human fingerprint on it.  I live in the national Capitol area for what is supposed to be the richest and most technologically advanced country on the earth.  And many, large population, counties around me are among the wealthiest in the country.  If any area should be well-adapted to current weather, forget to climate change, it is this area.  Let's just consider events already in hand.