Tuesday, January 26, 2010


If I'm ever at a loss for something to rant about all I have to do is read the comments on an NPR story. Does Fox News pay some of their fans to go to the NPR site and make comments? Is it possible there are that many people who really think scientists are perpetrating a conspiracy over global climate change? Why? Why would we do that? What POSSIBLE reason could a scientist have for this? Do the naysayers think all us scientists have property at 250 feet above sea level and now we want sea level to rise so we'll have an ocean view?

I admit that me, personally, I am in this exact situation. When Florida goes underwater again my creeks will probably get salty at high tide. But it will take hundreds of years to achieve this amount of sea level rise. This is not a valid capitalistic motive for me.

In this particular NPR story, Methane Causes Vicious Cycle in Global Warming, the interviewer talks to various scientists involved in a new article in Science. I googled Paul Palmer and found the actual title of the paper is Large-scale Controls of Methanogenesis Inferred From Methane and Gravity Spaceborne Data. The NPR story can't even include the actual title of the paper because it is written in that inaccessible language of peer reviewed journals. I don't have proper permissions to download the PDF of the actual paper, so I can't check the citations to see if my old advisor from FSU is listed. Dr. Chanton does lots of work on methane himself. One of his interests is methane production in thawing permafrost. This NPR story makes reference to that source of methane. I'm guessing they are using satellite data to confirm what Dr. Chanton found on the ground.

"A study published last week in Science magazine suggests that at least part of this increase is coming from the vast wetlands in Canada, Russia and the Arctic. The methane in wetlands comes from naturally occurring bacteria. But study author Paul Palmer at the University of Edinburgh says the bacteria are producing more methane because the temperature is rising."

And then somebody throws up a comment afterwards saying, "As the permafrost has started thawing in Alaska, it is release enormous amounts of methane. Surprised this wasn't mentioned." What do you mean wasn't mentioned? It's RIGHT THERE! "vast wetlands in Canada, Russia and the Arctic" IS the permafrost in Alaska. What do you think is frozen? The wetlands! The temperature is rising and the bacteria is producing more methane. Maybe you were confused about the earlier study about the permafrost melting. I'm pretty sure it's not releasing methane just because it's melting. I don't believe there are pockets of methane shooting out like the scenes in the fire swamp in The Princess Bride. The permafrost is not like a giant box of swamp gas-filled chocolates. I believe the permafrost methane comes from the bacteria breaking down the newly available thawed out organic material. I'm going to email Dr. Chanton and check. This may be confusing a lot of people. (OK, he's out of the office until the 28th so I will just have to update this if I'm wrong.)

So here's my problem. Even the person who AGREES with the article is having a problem with reading comprehension. It is so difficult to rewrite this stuff without using words like methanogenesis you can't really win. "Releasing methane" is perceived to mean something different than "producing more methane."

Then there are the people who just flat accuse the scientists of lying and in the process reveal that they are not just confused but kind of malicious. "Did you know that if your are drinking say...a whiskey coke, and you walk away from it, the ice melts but the glass is pretty much at the same level as when you left it when you return. I'm tired of hearing bull. Many of these nightmare flooding scenarios are based on melting sea ice. come on...." I am pretty sure the physics of ice floating and volume displacement are not lost on oceanographers. None of them have EVER said melting sea ice is going to raise sea level because of the added volume of water. What it will do is the same thing as what happens to your "whiskey coke." It gets watered down. Try to freeze that glass full of coke, water, and alcohol now. You can get the fresh water back out again and leave concentrated alcohol and coke syrup behind. Sea ice is similar. Melting it will lower the salinity of the ocean and raise the temperature. Ice bounces the warming rays of sunlight but dark water just soaks it up. In the winter when there is hardly any sun on the North Sea ice forms. The salt is excluded as the sea ice freezes, making a dense brine that sinks and sets up ocean currents. Messing with that process upsets all kinds of checks and balances in the climate.

Then there is this phenomenon of thermal expansion. The vast majority of people seem to misunderstand this. I bet that they think the water level goes up because the ice melts and adds more water -- completely wrong. Whiskey coke guy was right that a lot of people are probably confused, but not the SCIENTISTS! Most sea level rise is just because hot water takes up more volume than cold water. You can do this experiment in the damn microwave oven. Put cold water in a tall glass measuring cup. Nuke it. Lo and behold the water level will go up. So it's not that the climate change specialists don't know what they're talking about, they are just having an INCREDIBLY hard time explaining it. Hell I didn't really even understand it well enough to attempt an explanation until I went to graduate school just for that purpose.

So I'm not sure if I believe the scientists because I've studied the science, or if it is a cultural bias I have. I know these scientists personally and they are smart cookies. They are strictly logical people. They are never passive aggressive or self serving in any way. They are interested in figuring things out and making them work, not so much caring about money or personal influence. They are like the opposite of bankers. If the IEEE and NYSE accidentally scheduled simultaneous conferences the hotel might suffer a matter/anti-matter catastrophe. My friend Dr. David Kunkee designs these satellites that take measurements of physical parameters of the planet. This alone inclines me to believe papers like the one referenced on NPR that are based on spaceborne data.  I wonder how many of the people posting negative comments on this NPR story about methane just don't know a single real scientist? Would they be less skeptical if they did? What's it take for people to take a scientist's word for it? I would think being vetted by NPR and being publishing in Science would be a good start. Neil deGrasse Tyson just needs to be on TV more. And I will save my rant on what happened to my professors for another day.

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