January 27, 2005

The Sky's Gone Out!

One of my more fundamental beliefs is that the future is largely unknowable. Time itself may well be an illusion -- our physicists certainly haven't figured out what it is yet (some persuasively deny it exists). The notion that anyone could deduce from a mechanism whose present actions we do not understand and cannot predict three months from now (quick: What will the weather in Washington, D.C., be when the Nationals have their home opener this April? I know the precise game time, which is published, but I do not think anyone could tell me the temperature when the first pitch is thrown out, or even if the first pitch will be thrown on -- the game's being played is contingent on the weather).

So what am I to make of Cassandras like this:

Global warming might be twice as catastrophic as previously thought, flooding settlements on the British coast and turning the interior into an unrecognisable tropical landscape, the world's biggest study of climate change shows.

Researchers from some of Britain's leading universities used computer modelling to predict that under the "worst-case" scenario, London would be under water and winters banished to history as average temperatures in the UK soar up to 20C higher than at present.

Globally, average temperatures could reach 11C greater than today, double the rise predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body set up to investigate global warming. Such high temperatures would melt most of the polar icecaps and mountain glaciers, raising sea levels by more than 20ft. A report this week in The Independent predicted a 2C temperature rise would lead to irreversible changes in the climate.

Well, yes, if everything goes wrong, everything goes really wrong. But is this something about which we can do something (other than pray), or are we hurtling along on an indifferent chunk of rock that geologically is about to have yet another change of life:

SUFFOCATING global warming is to blame for the worst mass-extinction on Earth, according to international researchers tracking the cause of the "Great Dying" 250 million years ago.

Until now, circumstantial evidence suggested that an asteroid wiped out more than 90 per cent of all marine life and almost 75 per cent of all land plants and animals, like that which took out the dinosaurs 65
million years ago.

But new geochemical and fossil data reported today in the journal Science indicates that continuous volcanic eruptions in Siberia set off
runaway global warming with disastrous consequences. According to the new view, long-term planet-wide warming dramatically reduced oxygen and nutrients in the oceans and on land.

"The severe global warming had a devastating effect," said Kliti Grice, an organic geochemist who led a team of researchers from Curtin University of Technology in Perth. "Life suffocated or starved."

When I was a kid, I used to imagine that if I didn't watch the Phillies play, they would lose. It was comforting to think that I somehow was involved in their destiny, that my devotion to the team had some impact on their success (and perhaps, like the doomsday computer modellers, my model had validity: If I stayed home to watch the game on TV and didn't go to the store and bother the clerk who had a fight with his girl friend that upset her father who was a groundskeeper at the Vet who didn't make the mound the way Steve Carlton liked it...). So if there is to be a global catastrophe of global warning, if the sky is to go out, isn't it comforting to think that your fellow man's sin has brought us to the brink, and your own virtue may yet redeem us?

Me, I'm more worried that I might have been rude to the clerk who sold me my spanking new Washington Nationals hat, and he got into a fight with his girlfriend....

Posted by Ideofact at January 27, 2005 12:26 AM

Still, if London's underwater and winter's banished, that's some consolation.

Posted by: dearieme at January 27, 2005 06:19 AM

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
London is drowning-and I live by the river

Posted by: Mitch H. at January 27, 2005 02:30 PM

OK, there's been global warming before. The questions are, is it happening now, and is it happening because of humans? A consensus seems to be forming around "yes" and "yes", in which case action to reduce the human causes is warranted, don't you think?

See RealClimate in general for more on this; it's "a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists." This post in particular, "Just what is this consensus anyway?", seemed a useful summary to me.

Posted by: Thomas Nephew at January 28, 2005 02:14 PM


If human activity is responsible for global warming, then why is Mars also experiencing global warming? Is it the fumes emitted from Spirit and Opportunity?

The Mars evidence, if true, pretty much means that the "yes" and "yes" consensus is hooey.

I keep an open mind about this stuff -- I'd like to see more study of the evidence from Mars, more understanding of how solar activity (which isn't constant) affects the earth, and how other variables fit in, but anyone who says he understands this stuff well enough to offer predictions should play the lottery -- his odds of being right are far better there.

Posted by: Bill at January 30, 2005 11:21 PM

"anyone who says he understands this stuff well enough to offer predictions should play the lottery -- his odds of being right are far better there."

_Anyone_? And you know that how?

I don't see how Mars' warming trend needs to have much bearing on evaluating the human effect on this planet's climate. It's a different planet, with different atmosphere, probably different geology, no open ocean, etc. It may have a more variable year-to-year temperature history than Earth. Given that most of the "snow" on Mars is frozen CO2, I'd guess there's a bit of an acceleration built in to any warming trend. At any rate, neither the article you link to nor the one it links to speculate on how the Mars data affect the analysis of warming on this planet.

Perhaps solar activity is the main underlying reason, and in that case it will no doubt be part of the explanation for Earth warming as well. But I'd feel like I was sticking my head in the sand if I discounted a consensus of trained climatologists quite so easily as you do.

Meanwhile, I'd also guess that we have much less of a timeline with Martian temperatures to work with. I'm not sure we can afford to wait for a statistically satisfactory number of years of average annual temperature on Mars to work out what to do about warming on this planet.

Posted by: Thomas Nephew at February 10, 2005 04:02 PM