Archives for July 2009

Barbecue summer? Newsnight turns up the heat on man from the Met Office

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Richard Cable | 10:36 UK time, Wednesday, 29 July 2009

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Viewers of Newsnight on Tuesday evening will have enjoyed the spectacle of Nick Robinson gently roasting Ewen McCullum, Chief Meteorologist at the Met Office, over his organisation's prediction earlier this year that we were 'odds-on for a barbecue summer'.

But as cool drizzle descended across the UK, Mr McCullum resolutely refused to engage in the spirit of playful chiding. 'When you're forecasting so far ahead you have to base the forecast in probabilistic terms and quite frankly I don't think the media grasped that. It tends to be very deterministic so clearly the barbecue summer and the heatwaves got the headlines,' he said.

Nick was having none of it. Producing the Met Office press release, he quoted the fateful headline 'The Coming Summer is Odds On for a Barbecue Summer', adding, 'there aren't many journalists who would have turned that into a headline that says, 'Barbecue Summer - 'Maybe, Says the Met Office.'

Quite. And this highlights the core problem with much of the debate around climate change. As many of the excellent and voluminous exchanges on Bloom blog comments will demonstrate, the devil with the science of anthropogenic global warming is in the detail - detail that is crucially lost when scientists and/or their media advisors cherrypick the tastiest findings of their research and turn it into exciting headlines.

The rationale is obvious and shares much with consumer product launches. We want people to sit up and pay attention to the stuff we've made and done, so we tease them in with a juicy tidbit. Problem is, the juicy tidbit is often the only part of the story that makes it into the public consciousness, and then only in a considerably fattened and jucified state. This doesn't matter if we're talking about a pair of trainers, but it is of considerable importance if it shapes the policies, via the electorate, that will determine the future of the planet.

An example? This is how a report entitled 'Changes in Continental Freshwater Discharge from 1948-2004' comes to be press released as 'Water Levels Dropping in Some Major Rivers as Global Climate Changes' before finally being transmogrified by the international press into 'Major rivers drying up'. As the Bloom post 'Major rivers aren't drying up (or how alarmism doesn't help)' demonstrates, the science by no means supports the sexy headline.

Some (climate) models aren't worth the flirt, new research shows

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Shanta Barley | 13:35 UK time, Tuesday, 21 July 2009

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Climate change scientists have models coming out of their ears. (Not the leggy variety, alas, but complex mathematical equations which try to project future temperature change.)

So how does a boffin decide which ones to use? Many scientists place their trust in models which accurately mimic past climate change, in the hope that they will continue to 'tell the truth' in the future.

But a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that this trust could be misplaced. The ability of a model to faithfully simulate past climate change is 'no guarantee of future skill', according to research by Catherine Reifen and Ralf Toumi at Imperial College .

Reifen and Toumi played around with the models of temperature change in the 20th century. To their surprise, they found that models which painted a faithful picture of climate change between 1900 and 1919 failed miserably between 1920 and 1939. The same applied between 1901-1920 and 1921-1940, and so on up until 1999.

Why's that? Simply put, models aren't very good at multi-tasking. A model may be very good at simulating the effect of El Nino on temperatures in the tropics, but isn't as good at everything else. But because El Nino and other 'strengths' like sea-ice come and go, no single model can consistently hit the nail on the head all the time.

That's why it's important that we include as many models as possible in our climate change projections, the study concludes. 'We do not know which feedbacks will dominate in the future', warn Reifen and Toumi, 'and the inclusion of the largest possible number of models could increase the range of predictions.'

So where does this leave us? You'll be glad to hear that the IPCC hasn't fallen into the trap flagged up by this report: it gives equal weighting to all models.

Less pleasing is its own admission of fallibility on the subject of models. 'What does the accuracy of a climate model's simulation of past or contemporary climate say about the accuracy of its projections of climate change?' mulls the IPCC in its Fourth Assessment. 'This question is just beginning to be addressed...'

Follow up: 'Unpredictable weather: why the climate is not a model citizen'

Is Top Gear really 'the only programme on BBC television that doesn't believe in anthropogenic global warming'?

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Shanta Barley | 09:28 UK time, Tuesday, 21 July 2009

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According to James Delingpole over at the Spectator, Top Gear is 'the only programme on BBC television that doesn't believe in anthropogenic global warming.'


Now, we're all familiar with Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson's penchant for hippy baiting, but is this latest claim true? Not in the slightest, according to Clarkson himself.

Clarkson, as any avid Times reader will know, does believe that burning fossil fuels warms the world. It's just that he doesn't see the need to freak out about it.

'Global warming's coming', wrote Clarkson in 2007, 'so you can don your King Canute hat and stand on the beach waving your Toyota Prius at the advancing heatwave, but it won't make a ha'p'orth of difference.'

'Unless we stop thinking of ways to prevent global warming', Clarkson argues, 'and start to address the problems it will cause when it gets here, our children are going to finish their days in an overcrowded, superheated vision of hell.'

Will climate change disorientate fish?

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Shanta Barley | 13:01 UK time, Monday, 20 July 2009


Humans are regularly lost at sea but what about fish? New research suggests that climate change could disorientate fish by enlarging their ear bones, which they use to navigate.


Previous studies found that seawater rich in carbon dioxide (CO2) shrinks the shells of corals and shellfish by reducing the availability of the bio-mineral aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate and key constituent of shells.

The ear bones (otoliths) of fish are made of aragonite, too. David Checkley at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and his colleagues therefore expected the otoliths of fish reared in CO2-rich seawater to shrink.

To their surprise, the opposite happened. The more carbon dioxide they added to the water, the larger the fishes ear bones grew.

Checkley's team reared the young of white sea bass in seawater containing three levels of CO2: low (380 uatm), medium (993 uatm) and high (2559 utam).

The medium concentration here is approximately 2.5 times the current CO2 concentration, and is likely to occur in the atmosphere by the year 2100, the study notes.

The weight of ear bones rose by 10-14% in fish reared at the medium concentration of CO2, and by as much as 26% at the highest level.

It is hard to overstate the importance of ear bones: when small but perfectly formed, in humans as in fish they help us navigate, stay upright and survive. And studies show that fish with asymmetrical ear bones have difficulty navigating and are less likely to survive than normal fish.

Will fish with larger ear bones suffer a similar fate? It's too soon to tell, but right now there's no conclusive evidence that fish with larger ear bones fare worse than normal fish.

Deep-sea heat: now there's the rub

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Shanta Barley | 17:23 UK time, Thursday, 16 July 2009

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About 55 million years ago and over a period of less than 10,000 years, the Earth warmed up by 5 to 9 degrees C. It was so hot, in fact, that crocodiles frolicked in Canada.

But at the same time, the most severe extinction of deep-sea foraminifera recorded in the last 65 million years took place. Why? A new study published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology sheds light on the mystery.

Dr Laia Alegret and colleagues at the University of Saragossa in Spain pored over ancient marine sediments containing the remains of foraminifera, tiny creatures which build shells from calcium carbonate.

Previous studies had tentatively put the unfortunate fate of forams 55 million years ago down to ocean 'acidification': perhaps rising levels of carbon dioxide reduced the amount of calcium carbonate available to shell-builders?

But according to Alegret's experiments, foraminifera did not fall foul of a drop in the ocean's pH. Nor did they die from a lack of oxygen. What killed 'em, scientists now say, was the heat.

Indeed, the team thinks that deep-sea heat (the ocean bottom reached 15 degrees C, compared with 4 degrees C today) directly affected the metabolism of these coolth-loving creatures, impairing their ability to feed, reproduce and convert carbon into shells.

'The exact causes of the extinctions are not clear, yet', notes Dr Alegret, 'but they are likely to be related to paleoecological and paleoenvironmental instability triggered by global warming.'

Many scientists believe the past is the key to the future: could the impact which climate change had on life 55 million years ago act as a guide to the future, given that the Earth could warm by up to 4 degrees C by 2100?

Not necessarily, warns Dr William Hay, a geologist. 'The past climates of the earth cannot be used as a direct guide to what may occur in the future'.

Bloomin' green energy key to Exxon's 'scum back'

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Shanta Barley | 12:07 UK time, Wednesday, 15 July 2009


Most oil companies are backing away from renewable energy but ExxonMobil has just announced plans to invest $600 million in developing a 'green' fuel from the scum of the Earth: algae.


Algae are life's arch ascetics. Tiny plants, they have tiny demands (just a whiff of waste CO2, a dash of dirty water and a sprinkling of sunlight, if you please) yet manufacture huge quantities of oil.

Within five years, Exxon and its new partner in grime, Synthetic Genomics, hope to have engineered a strain of algae that secretes an 'economically viable, low net carbon emission transportation fuel', according to its vice president of research and development, Emil Jacobs.

'Algaculture', as it's referred to by some, makes a lot of sense if reducing greenhouse gas emissions is your priority. Not only do algae eat three times their own weight in CO2, but Exxon intends to 'fatten' them on waste greenhouse gas that would otherwise have been pumped into the atmosphere by nearby factories.

Can't the algal farms suck carbon dioxide straight out of the atmosphere, erasing fossil fuels from the equation altogether? 'Sadly not', says Dr Jacobs. 'It's not economically viable right now to extract CO2 from the air.'

What's more, algae are ferociously productive: up to 40 times more productive than soy, according to Exxon's calculations. That doesn't mean algal farms won't take up a lot of land if they become a hit, of course. 'It's too early to predict how much land it would require to produce algae fuel on a large scale', notes Dr Jacobs. 'But it won't be a trivial amount of space'.

Follow up: BP brings 'green era' to a close

'Global warming is all a myth', according to the Spectator

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Shanta Barley | 16:36 UK time, Tuesday, 14 July 2009

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Anyone seen the front page of the Spectator this week? Sprawled on a deckchair, wearing a pair of sunglasses and clutching a glass of chilled red grape juice in one hand, is Earth. In holiday mode. 'Relax', it coos. 'Global warming is all a myth'.


A man has written a book which proves beyond all doubt, according to James Delingpole, that climate change 'is a dangerous, ruinously expensive fiction ... with no basis in scientific fact.'

That man is Professor Ian Plimer, an Australian geologist, and his book is called 'Heaven and Earth'.

'Sceptics' who refuse to acknowledge that the planet is warming are a dying breed, which makes Professor 'Cede no ground' Plimer all the more precious, writes Delingpole.

'Where fellow sceptics like Bjorn Lomborg or Lord Lawson of Blaby are prepared cautiously to endorse the International Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) more modest predictions', he notes, 'Plimer will cede no ground whatsoever'.

There's no doubt that some of Plimer's claims are true. For example, it's true that the Earth hasn't always had polar ice caps. They only formed about 35 million years ago, according to Dr Axel Kleidon. And it's true that climate change has occurred in the past, before humans existed.

For example, Earth's average temperature soared by up to 6 deg C about 55 million years ago, long before humans started burning the fossil fuels which contribute to climate change today.

But Bloom takes great exception to Plimer's claim that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than humans, mainly because we've already written a blog which says the opposite ('Tongan volcano spectacular, but small fry all the same').

Indeed, not everyone is as madly in love with Professor P as the smitten Delingpole. Take George Monbiot, who has drawn up a list of Plimer's mistakes. Apparently Plimer 'confuses the Sun's rotation with orbital motion around the solar system's centre of gravity'. Naughty professor.

All in all, Plimer's book is dismissed by Monbiot as 'utter nonsense' and 'a hilarious series of schoolboy errors'. Strange. I wouldn't have put Monbiot down as the giggling type.

BBC stifles climate change debate, says Sissons

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Shanta Barley | 18:56 UK time, Monday, 13 July 2009

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Britain's longest-serving national news presenter, Peter Sissons, has delivered a withering critique of the BBC's stance on global warming, claiming that it is 'effectively BBC policy' to stifle the views of climate change sceptics.


'I believe I am one of a tiny number of BBC interviewers who have so much as raised the possibility that there is another side to the debate on climate change', he told the Daily Mail.

'The corporation's most famous interrogators invariably begin by accepting that "the science is settled", when there are countless reputable scientists and climatologists producing work that says it isn't', Sissons concluded.

Follow up: Unpredictable weather: why the climate is not a model citizen
Follow up: Is the climate warming or cooling?
Follow up: Giant trees decline in Yosemite: climate change may, or equally may not be to blame

Did Al Gore and the IPCC deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? Discuss.

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Shanta Barley | 17:41 UK time, Thursday, 9 July 2009


According to the eponymous Alfie, a Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded 'to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses'.


So what's it doing in the hands of Al Gore and the IPCC, wonders Dr Jon Barnett in the latest edition of the journal Climatic Change.

Sure, Gore and Co. opened society's eyes to the dangers of global warming, but climate change research has also given the world a jolly good excuse to gear up for war, he points out. War. As in the opposite of peace.

Why? Because an apocalyptic vision of climate-induced chaos is music to the ears of thumb-twiddling national security forces in the West, opines Dr Barnett, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne's Department of Resource Management and Geography.

'Security and defence agencies require problems to justify their continued existence in a world where the threat of war has diminished since the end of the cold war', Dr Barnett suggests. 'They seem to be appropriating the dangers of climate change to serve these institutional agendas'.

To illustrate his point, Barnett cites a report commissioned by the US military, which eagerly warned that climate change will 'potentially destabilize the geopolitical environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war due to resource constraints'. (More money, please.)

Of course, none of this is the fault of Al Gore and the IPCC: they are but pawns in a wider geopolitical game. As Al Gore said in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech about something entirely different, 'we never intended to cause all this destruction, just as Alfred Nobel never intended that dynamite be used for waging war.'

Who can you trust? Not scientists, say ... scientists

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Shanta Barley | 15:58 UK time, Wednesday, 8 July 2009


ExxonMobil is still pumping money into organisations which publish 'misleading and inaccurate information' about climate change, according to the Guardian. How rotten of them. How shocking. Or is it?


According to new research published in the journal PloS ONE, scientists (all of 'em, not just the ones in the pay of ExxonMobil) regularly publish 'unreliable' research.

'Even if conducted at best possible practice, scientific research is never entirely free of errors', note Thomas Pfeiffer at Harvard University and Robert Hoffman at MIT.

Now get this. Researchers who work on 'hot' subjects like climate change (and yeast, apparently) are more likely to get it wrong than those who slave away over the less glamorous aspects of science.

Fine, everyone makes mistakes. But what if members of the scientific community are deliberately publishing misleading and inaccurate research?

'In highly competitive fields there might be stronger incentives to 'manufacture' positive results by, for example, modifying data or statistical tests', concludes the study.

Worrying stuff. If it's true - here's hoping that the study's authors made a few mistakes themselves.

Is the climate warming or cooling?

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Shanta Barley | 12:57 UK time, Tuesday, 7 July 2009


You may have heard that the climate has been 'cooling' since 1998. And you would be right, according to new research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

But you'd be wrong to think that the recent 'cold snap' is evidence that global warming is science fiction, say David Easterling and Michael Wehner, who are based at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, respectively.

'Claims that global warming is not occurring that are derived from a cooling observed over such short time periods ... are misleading', the researchers warn.

Why the defensiveness? Because there have been rather a lot of these 'cold snaps'. There was one in 1977-1985 and another one between 1981-1989. Oh yes and there'll probably be one in 2016-2031, if the study's models are correct.

Cold snaps are to be expected as the planet warms, Easterling and Wehner hasten to add: the climate system is naturally very variable, and volcanic explosions sporadically pump the atmosphere full of climate-cooling particles, which reflect sunlight back into space.

'It is reasonable to expect that the natural variability of the real climate system can and likely will produce multi-year periods of sustained "cooling" ... even in the presence of long-term anthropogenic forced warming', the researchers conclude.

So: expect chills interspersed with your 'hot flushes', Mother Nature. The doctor says they're perfectly natural.

Climate change to blame for Scottish flock's shock weight loss?

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Shanta Barley | 17:55 UK time, Monday, 6 July 2009


Wild sheep on a remote Scottish island are shrinking, and new research suggests that they're global warming's latest warning. But is climate change really to blame for the dip in this mouton célébré's size?


According to Tim Coulson and colleagues at Imperial College London, Soay sheep on the Outer Hebridean island of Hirta shrank by two kilos over the 25-year long study.

And it's not because they've discovered the Atkins diet: Professor Coulson says that climate change is shortening Europe's harsh winters, allowing the puny sheep that would normally perish in the cold to survive.

'The Soay sheep provides another example of how far-reaching and unpredictable the effects of climate change can be', he remarks in the Times.

While there's no doubt that Europe's winters have become markedly warmer since the '70s, allowing the sheep to shrink, not all scientists are as sure as Professor Coulson that climate change is pulling the strings.

This 2007 study by Dr Anastasios Tsonis, for example, points the finger at natural variability rather than greenhouse gas emissions. The North Atlantic Oscillation, the northern hemisphere's weather-maker, has simply been stuck in 'positive' (a.k.a. winter-warming) mode since the 1970s, he suggests.

'The standard explanation for the post 1970s warming is that the radiative effect of greenhouse gases overcame shortwave reflection effects due to aerosols', notes Dr Tsonis.

'However [our models suggest] an alternative hypothesis, namely that the climate shifted after the 1970s event to a different state of a warmer climate, which may be superimposed on an anthropogenic warming trend', he concludes.

So: William Blake's 'Little Lamb' can still thank the mild and the meek for its existence - but not necessarily climate change.

The Princess Parrotfish and the Pea

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Shanta Barley | 13:43 UK time, Thursday, 2 July 2009



According to new research published in the Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, parrotfish are invading the Mediterranean, courtesy of climate change.

Decked out in gaudy colors and in constant, Sisyphean need of dental care (the only way they can stop their beaks from growing is to chomp constantly on dead coral), parrotfish are the C-class celebrities of 'hot-water' coral reefs in the Pacific and the Red Sea. So what on Earth are they doing in the Mediterranean?

They're taking advantage of climate change, says Dr Michael Arvedlund, the author of the study. The first blue-barred parrotfish was speared off the coast of Israel in 2001, he says, and many more will follow as the water warms. (By 1-2.5C in 2099, if this European Commission report is correct.)

Hang on. Surely the 119 mile long water tunnel we built between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean in 1869 helped, you ask? (Of the 1000 'immigrant' species that call the Med home today, 62 of them got there via the Suez Canal, according to Dr Bariche at the American University of Beirut.)

'This first observation [of blue-barred parrotfish] in the Mediterranean is probably due to the migrational possibility via the Suez Canal', Dr Arvedlund admits. 'However, settling is highly dependent on optimum conditions, and such circumstances in a subtropical region for a tropical fish species may be due to climate change.'

Climate Connections 3: Wimbledon

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Shanta Barley | 20:48 UK time, Wednesday, 1 July 2009


Hats off to the Guardian's Barnay Ronay for bravely making the jump between Wimbledon Centre Court's fancy new retractable roof and global warming.

Without people like him, Climate Connections (a series exploring the theory that every major news story ends up being connected in some way - no matter how tenuous - to climate change) simply wouldn't be possible.


In his article, 'Fluffy balls and flat hair: it's a different game under that roof!', Barnay rues the era of excessive towel-swabbing and transparent T-shirts that has been ushered in by Wimbledon's new roof:

'... a greenhouse effect does seem to be in operation, driven by overhead lights, filtered sunshine and communal body heat. The effects of this were more noticeable in Wawrinka, who by the end appeared to be weeping salt water from every pore.'

Have you seen an earlier climate connection, or do you have climate connections of your own? Add yours in as comments on this story.

Sea turtles, climate change and the 'Germaine Greer Effect'

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Shanta Barley | 14:36 UK time, Wednesday, 1 July 2009


Climate change may not look like a militant feminist but it's turning sea turtles female and could eventually wipe out males altogether, according to research published in the journal Global Change Biology.


Researchers at the University of Wales say that they have proof that the temperature of green sea turtle nests on the tiny volcanic island of Ascension has risen by almost half a degree in the last century.

Warm nests might sound cosy to you, but they could prove fatal to sea turtles if conservationists aren't careful, the study warns. 'Warming temperatures might lead to the production of only female hatchlings and so to extinction', says Professor Graeme Hays, the lead author of the study.

Why? Well, just as the fruitiness of a red wine depends on the temperature at which it was fermented, the sex of a sea turtle egg depends on the temperature at which it was incubated.

In fact, when temperatures rise above 29.5C, which is increasingly likely under climate change, nests pretty much produce only female turtles, according to research published in the journal Science.

There's hope yet, however. Light coloured beaches, which can be as much as 3C cooler than dark beaches, could save the day, according to the study.

'The continued success of the Ascension Island green turtle rookery', says Professor Hays, 'relies on the production of male hatchlings from the lighter coloured beaches on the island'.

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