Monday, January 30, 2012

Warming, Cooling, or Staying the Same?

So is the planet warming, cooling, or doing neither? Apparently, there are studies which support each of the three conclusions. This news report points to research that shows that there has been no warming since 1997 and that we may indeed be heading for a serious cooling period. Here are the highlights:
The supposed ‘consensus’ on man-made global warming is facing an inconvenient challenge after the release of new temperature data showing the planet has not warmed for the past 15 years.

The figures suggest that we could even be heading for a mini ice-age to rival the 70-year temperature drop that saw frost fairs held on the Thames in the 17th Century.

A painting, dated 1684, by Abraham Hondius depicts one of many frost fairs on the River Thames during the mini ice age
Based on readings from more than 30,000 measuring stations, the data was issued last week without fanfare by the Met Office and the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit. It confirms that the rising trend in world temperatures ended in 1997.

Meanwhile, leading climate scientists yesterday told The Mail on Sunday that, after emitting unusually high levels of energy throughout the 20th Century, the sun is now heading towards a ‘grand minimum’ in its output, threatening cold summers, bitter winters and a shortening of the season available for growing food.

According to a paper issued last week by the Met Office, there is a 92 per cent chance that both Cycle 25 and those taking place in the following decades will be as weak as, or weaker than, the ‘Dalton minimum’ of 1790 to 1830. In this period, named after the meteorologist John Dalton, average temperatures in parts of Europe fell by 2C.

However, it is also possible that the new solar energy slump could be as deep as the ‘Maunder minimum’ (after astronomer Edward Maunder), between 1645 and 1715 in the coldest part of the ‘Little Ice Age’ when, as well as the Thames frost fairs, the canals of Holland froze solid.

Yet, in its paper, the Met Office claimed that the consequences now would be negligible – because the impact of the sun on climate is far less than man-made carbon dioxide. Although the sun’s output is likely to decrease until 2100, ‘This would only cause a reduction in global temperatures of 0.08C.’ Peter Stott, one of the authors, said: ‘Our findings suggest a reduction of solar activity to levels not seen in hundreds of years would be insufficient to offset the dominant influence of greenhouse gases.’

These findings are fiercely disputed by other solar experts.

‘World temperatures may end up a lot cooler than now for 50 years or more,’ said Henrik Svensmark, director of the Center for Sun-Climate Research at Denmark’s National Space Institute. ‘It will take a long battle to convince some climate scientists that the sun is important. It may well be that the sun is going to demonstrate this on its own, without the need for their help.’

Dr Nicola Scafetta, of Duke University in North Carolina, is the author of several papers that argue the Met Office climate models show there should have been ‘steady warming from 2000 until now’.

‘If temperatures continue to stay flat or start to cool again, the divergence between the models and recorded data will eventually become so great that the whole scientific community will question the current theories,’ he said. He believes that as the Met Office model attaches much greater significance to CO2 than to the sun, it was bound to conclude that there would not be cooling. ‘The real issue is whether the model itself is accurate,’ Dr Scafetta said. Meanwhile, one of America’s most eminent climate experts, Professor Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology, said she found the Met Office’s confident prediction of a ‘negligible’ impact difficult to understand.

‘The responsible thing to do would be to accept the fact that the models may have severe shortcomings when it comes to the influence of the sun,’ said Professor Curry. As for the warming pause, she said that many scientists ‘are not surprised’. She argued it is becoming evident that factors other than CO2 play an important role in rising or falling warmth, such as the 60-year water temperature cycles in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Pal Brekke, senior adviser at the Norwegian Space Centre, said some scientists found the importance of water cycles difficult to accept, because doing so means admitting that the oceans – not CO2 – caused much of the global warming between 1970 and 1997. The same goes for the impact of the sun – which was highly active for much of the 20th Century.

‘Nature is about to carry out a very interesting experiment,’ he said. ‘Ten or 15 years from now, we will be able to determine much better whether the warming of the late 20th Century really was caused by man-made CO2, or by natural variability.’ Meanwhile, since the end of last year, world temperatures have fallen by more than half a degree, as the cold ‘La Nina’ effect has re-emerged in the South Pacific. ‘We’re now well into the second decade of the pause,’ said Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. ‘If we don’t see convincing evidence of global warming by 2015, it will start to become clear whether the models are bunk. And, if they are, the implications for some scientists could be very serious.’
I should think so, and not only the scientists but also all the journalists, politicians, and others who've placed so much confidence, not to mention their credibility, in what those scientists were forecasting.

It may turn out that the global warming folks are right, but it has always been the case with science that the best approach is an open-minded skepticism toward any theory for which the data and/or the methodology is uncertain. Skepticism is also prudent when a scientific forecast coincides with someone's ideological agenda, and it's always wise to be leery of anyone, for example Al Gore, who claims that the science on a matter is "settled." It rarely is.

Arsenic and Old Life Forms

A year or so ago a NASA chemist named Felisa Wolfe-Simon, then at NASA's Astrobiology Institute in Menlo Park, California, stirred controversy in the scientific world with claims that she had coaxed bacteria from an arsenic-rich lake in California to swap the usual phosphorus in their DNA for toxic arsenic. The discovery that living organisms could function and thrive on arsenic rather than phosphorous had lots of implications, including implications for origin of life scenarios. Apparently life was more flexible than previously surmised and this might make abiogenesis easier to accomplish than had been thought.

Well, perhaps not. Like so many discoveries having to do with the origin of life and evolution it turns out that Ms Wolfe-Simon's work has fallen under a pall. It can't be duplicated by other researchers.

The New Scientist reports that:
... after trying to grow the same strain of bacteria in a soup containing arsenic, other researchers have failed to repeat the findings. "To the limit of what our spectrometer will detect, there's no arsenic in the DNA," says Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who posted her results to a blog this week.

Wolfe-Simon has defended her original results and is continuing to analyse her lab-grown bacteria at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "As far as we know, all the data in our paper still stand," she told New Scientist. "We shall certainly know much more by next year."
Perhaps she'll be vindicated, but it's still true that whether it's microfossils of bacteria found in meteorites, or primitive ape-men, or alleged vestigial structures, or a host of other finds that subsequently turn out to have been mistakenly advertised as confirmations of darwinian evolution, it seems as though eagerness to make a breakthrough leads to an awful lot of damaged scientific reputations.