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Every year, microscopic phytoplankton turn about 50 billion metric tons of carbon into plant life. Much of that carbon comes straight out of the atmosphere. On the surface of things, that sounds pretty good – but a paper in today’s Science reports that below the surface it’s rather more complicated.

The study – called VERTIGO, in one of oceanography’s acronymic triumphs – involved 17 authors and more than 40 scientists from seven countries. They sailed the seas off Hawai’i and Japan, chucking recently invented, free-diving samplers overboard to follow what happens to all that carbon after it becomes phytoplankton. The short answer is, it gets recycled. And while recycling is a good thing to do with bottles and cans, doing it with carbon is counterproductive.

When phytoplankton decomposes near the ocean surface – between 100 and 1,000 meters depth, in a literally gray area called the twilight zone – it results in no net carbon storage. It’s the same reason that burning biodiesel creates no net emissions (the french-fry-scented carbon coming out your tailpipe is just going back where it had been during the last growing season).

Before VERTIGO, hopes had been high that most of those gigatons of phytoplankton sank to the bottom of the ocean, far from the atmosphere, where they could start their million-year conversion to more oil. Evidence from the project suggests that 50 to 80 percent of the carbon never sinks past 500 meters. The amount varied between the tropical and temperate sampling sites. Extrapolate those two estimates across the globe, and that’s a difference of 3 billion tons of carbon reaching the deep ocean. For perspective, that uncertainty is equal to half the world’s current fossil-fuel emissions.

How does the plankton decompose? That’s ecology at work for you. Even though diminishing light shuts out plant life below about 100 meters depth, zillions of intrepid zooplankton squirt around in the twilight zone scavenging falling detritus. The recycling happens over and over as well-fed zooplankton excrete marine snow (one of the most delicate euphemisms ever invented), to be scavenged by deeper, even more intrepid creatures. The result is that surprisingly little carbon makes it from surface waters into the depths.

If you’ve ever heard of a global-warming solution involving fertilizing the ocean with iron, this is what people have been talking about. Dump iron in the surface waters and phytoplankton multiply like crazy, pulling extra carbon dioxide out of the air, dying, and sinking. Oceanographers were once hopeful about this, but actual experiments – involving 100 square kilometers near the Galapagos and in the Southern Ocean – made them suspect that very little carbon made it down to the depths. The VERTIGO results indicate their skepticism was warranted, but might also suggest that some parts of the ocean are better places to try than others.

Image (detail): Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Cheers to Woods Hole wunderkinder Carl Lamborg and Phoebe Lam.

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Paper in a recent issue of Climatic Change: Understanding public complacency about climate change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter

And we’re not talking about out-of-touch middle Americans, either. We’re talking 212 MIT grad students. When asked to anticipate CO2 levels under two emissions scenarios, more than 3/4 gave answers that would require carbon dioxide to disappear from the universe.

The authors, John Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney, are from MIT, too – so they likely weren’t intending to take a cheap shot at MIT’s reputation. Rather, they were pointing out how tricky it is to imagine complex systems at work – and how our brains gravitate toward easy (but error prone) ways of thinking.

At the heart of the problem is our obsession with CO2 emissions and removal rates. As the MIT students demonstrate, it’s all too easy to think that if we can level off our emissions (itself an almost unimaginably remote goal at the moment), CO2 levels and temperatures will start to drop. Problem is, that misses the (dare I say it?) inconvenient truth that emissions already outpace removal by more than 2 billion tons per year. So just leveling off emissions still means a steady, uncompromising rise in atmospheric CO2.

The authors do a nice job of drawing comparisons: We typically deal with the world on some sort of a “wait-and-see” basis. Is the kettle boiling? Wait for the whistle. Is the bathtub full? Turn off the tap. That’s how most of us operate. When even slightly more complicated relationships are left to the public to decide, it’s always a struggle: look at the battles we’re still fighting to get people to wear seat belts and vaccinate their kids.

If reasonably smart people are prone to making foolish errors when it comes to climate change, it’s even easier to lead them into those errors with some sophistry. That’s what Myron Ebell, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has made a career doing: popping off fallacies and ad hominem attacks with the unerring regularity of Wallace’s automatic porridge-flinger.

He probably doesn’t realize it, but he got his comeuppance this month, in a Vanity Fair interview. He scoffed his way through his questions, insulting climatologists’ pedigrees rather than addressing their research (NASA’s Jim Hansen “isn’t even a climate scientist!” Right, he’s, uh, an atmospheric physicist. Your point?). Fortunately, interviewer Michael Shnayerson cut away regularly to get counterpoints from actual climate scientists.

Ebell’s ability to lap up disapproval, badmouth the opposition and crow about his own brilliance is infuriating, especially for someone whose own climate credentials add up to an undergrad degree in philosophy. But it reminds me why critical thinking is still the most important subject in school.

Documentary director Martin Durkin takes unsavoriness one step farther. In “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” Durkin falsified data on temperature graphs and claimed they came from NASA when in fact they came from an obscure journal populated by other climate skeptics. And all this in the name of revealing some sort of carefully concealed truth to the public.

Tellingly, e-mails from the U.K.’s Times asking Durkin for explanation received unprintable replies. When you don’t have anyplace left to argue from, you start yelling. Squeaky wheels are the same the world over.

I’d write something unprintable myself, but I’m holding fast to the belief that people can still tell a shaky argument by the way it’s delivered. Shrill, blustery, self-congratulating, or circular? Not interested. Reasonable premise, reliable evidence, intact logic? Let’s talk.

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pencilchew.jpgMaybe the occasional Scribble Reader has wondered just who in the heck this Scribbler is. But let me tell you, that ain’t nothin’ compared to how much I wonder who the heck you guys are.

But that’s the beauty of Web 2.0, ain’t it? No more agonizing over the wording of your letter to the editor of Omni Magazine in the hopes of seeing your name in print. Just hit the Comments button and fire away.

So here’s your chance to do some scribbling of your own and fill me in on one or more of the following 15 pressing questions:

1. How did you get here? (no need to get cosmic on this one)

2. Have you visited this site before?

3. Are you just here for the baby turtles? (you would not believe how many people search the Internet each day for baby turtles)

4. What kind of posts do you like the best? (a) ocean science (b) climate change (c) birding (d) surfing (e) other?

5. Are the posts (a) about right or (b) too damn long?

6. Would you like more coverage of (a) climate change (b) islands being devastated by rats (c) weird deep-sea creatures (d) earthquake-type stuff (e) celebrity feuds and/or adoptions (f) sex (g) atmospheric physics (h) other (please specify)?

7. How educated are you: (a) made it out of high school; curious about the world (b) still interested in most things (B.S.) (c) able to detect the infantile flaws in some stories; peripherally interested in all the rest (M.S.) (c) basically humoring me (Ph.D.)?

8. Do you wish the words I use were (a) longer (b) shorter (c) funnier (d) snarkier (e) less stupid (f) rhyming?

9. Do you occasionally wonder what possesses me to spend an hour or so writing about such obscure topics?

10. More pictures? (Of what?)

11. Are you not leaving comments because (a) the posts arrive fully formed and inviolable (b) you never make it to the end of a post (c) it’s interesting, just not that interesting (d) try writing about something that matters (e) you have a lingering feeling that even though only a tiny fraction of the world’s population will ever look at a comments page, you might come off sounding stupid and someone, somewhere, might snicker at you from the lonely confines of their poorly lit hovel

12. If scientists were to turn their collective intellectual power toward designing one and only one robot animal, what animal should that be?

13. I am an heir/heiress and I would like to contribute ___ million dollars to further the Scribbler agenda

14. Do I know you? How?

15. Setting aside the surfing and the birding for a moment, if there was one thing in the world you’d like me to write about, what would it be?

I’m really not kidding about this. Answer as much or as little as you see fit. Post a comment – or – if you don’t feel like going totally public – send aphriza at gmail dot com an e-mail. Thanks for reading.

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A follow-up on that last climate post (thanks to all who read and commented):

Tune in to ABC Wednesday afternoon for a televised debate about climate change. The lineup pits climate scientists Richard Somerville, Brenda Ekwurzel, and RealClimate‘s Gavin Schmidt against skeptics Michael Crichton, Richard Lindzen, and Philip Stott. (Lindzen and Stott are respected scientists – it’s not clear what landed Crichton on the panel besides name recognition).

Lindzen is one of the most exalted and crotchety thorns still jabbing at climate science’s side. I’ve heard from casualties of his atmospheric physics classes that he’s a very difficult man to out-argue. Here’s hoping that the debate rises above bait-and-switch (i.e., “We’re not causing all of it, so we shouldn’t worry about it.). At the same time, here’s hoping it doesn’t sink so deeply into differential equations that we hear an entire TV nation simultaneously scratching its head.

Another of MIT’s esteemed climate scientists, Carl Wunsch, was the victim of severe mischaracterization on the UK’s Channel 4 program “The Great Global Warming Swindle” last week. Wunsch thinks that climate change is real and dangerous, but wishes that people would stop proclaiming that the Gulf Stream is about to shut down. When he tried to say as much to Channel 4, he found himself edited down to a sound bite implying that human carbon emissions are inconsequential. You can find his side of the story at RealClimate as well as a copy of his politely irate e-mail to Channel 4.

And in today’s NYT, a plea for moderation on both sides. The story cites scientists unhappy with Al Gore’s stark assessment who still think society needs to be taking strong steps.

The trouble is that moderation is not a very good spur to action, as well-meaning RealClimate reader “Colin” sweetly illustrated:

I have no idea where the truth lies in any of this, but I come down on the sceptic side, because I believe if there really was a problem, the government would, as an example, drop VAT to zero on all energy efficient goods, cars etc, to encourage the masses to buy items that are good for the environment.

He continued:

Could all you climate scientologist answer me a few questions? Why can’t all you people who really know get together and present a totally unbiased and impartial, scientific paper on what is really happening, declaring all sources of funding etc?

Sounds like the IPCC report to me. Still, I like this comment, because it demonstrates that people actually do expect government to act in our best interests. Trouble is, that means government inaction is sort of implicit evidence that things aren’t as bad as they sound.

In that case, Gore’s conviction that people need to be shocked into taking matters into their own hands sounds like wisdom. But how do you square that with science’s tradition of careful analysis and understatement? Good luck to Somerville, Ekwurzel, and Schmidt.

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Ripples of excitement and indignation are spreading across the Internet following the releases of a deliberately provocative TV show and well-timed book. Both chalk up climate change to natural causes such as cosmic rays. Science aside, the ripples show us something about the public’s level of scientific involvement.

The book, by Nigel Calder and Henrik Svensmark, suggests that cosmic rays – not carbon dioxide – are responsible for changes in the Earth’s temperature. The argument is that cosmic rays bombard the atmosphere with high-energy particles that induce cloud formation. Clouds reflect sunlight, so when the Earth gets more cosmic rays it’s likely to cool. Regardless of how big a carbon-dioxide blanket we may have thrown up into the atmosphere.

The folks at RealClimate do a pretty thorough job of countering this argument (briefly: no trend in cosmic-ray arrival over the last half-century; plenty of other causes of cloud formation; and the relationship holds only if you factor out upper- and middle-atmosphere clouds and concentrate on low clouds).
Still, read the comments on a BBC news blog for a glimpse of how the public feels. Comments are fairly equally divided between people who believe the IPCC and people who are still in denial. Many post long, impassioned treatises.

A few points recur:

1. as consensus about climate change grows, skeptics take increasing pride in their position

2. arguments in favor of doing something about climate change are often emotional calls to restore dignity to the Earth – making them suspect in the eyes of skeptics, who see themselves as pragmatic and canny

3. all opponents are characterized as cherry-picking their examples

4. people seem to believe there is some simple way to present the evidence, and they don’t understand why it hasn’t been made available

5. people don’t believe they misunderstand the science; they believe the media has misrepresented it

It’s science’s very democratic nature that’s at fault here. The public does at least understand that science is an ongoing argument and that the truth can be arrived at by level-headed inspection of the evidence. The problem seems to be that people don’t expect the evidence to be so complicated.

When a pattern is presented simply – like the hockey stick graph – some people get the nagging sense it has been manipulated to look that way. Explanations for why data manipulations are justifiable lead back to the complaint that it shouldn’t be so complicated and that the real, simple answer is being concealed. Even worse – bogus manipulations can be camouflaged in similar justifications, leaving the rest of us at a loss for whom to believe (skim the RealClimate article for a typically bewildering example).

I suppose we can take some comfort that the public is so clearly interested in this sort of science. But I’m disturbed by the way science-journalism-for-profit finds itself at odds with their readers’ best interests. A Danish professor bubbling with enthusiasm for cosmic rays is a quaint news story. It’s not right to present it as a nail in the coffin of anthropogenic climate change, just to increase circulation. Nigel Calder, as a past editor of New Scientist, ought to know better.

Sadly, capitalism seems to have won out already: Amazon suggests five similar titles that, for between $11 and $33 (eligible for free shipping) will reassure you that global warming isn’t your fault, and it’s everybody else who’s crazy.

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Amid all the gloomy projections about the effects of climate change, a study in today’s Science reports a new effect that might inject some hope into the sorry state of ocean fisheries: increased upwelling.

What’s upwelling? Funny you should ask. I was surfing in dreadfully cold Monterey Bay water last week when I turned and looked straight in the eye of a surfacing gray whale about 40 meters away. Both my ice-cream headache and the whale’s presence were products of upwelling, a fact of life along the western coast of North America and other continents.

During upwelling, vagaries of wind patterns and fluid dynamics draw very cold, nutrient-laden water up from the depths, freezing surfers’ skulls and kick-starting a food-chain party for krill, squid, fish, seals and whales. (For more specifics, see Bay Nature.) Upwelling zones around the world occupy less than 1 percent of the ocean, but account for 20 percent of the world’s fish catch.

In the new study, Helen McGregor from Germany’s University of Bremen and colleagues used sediment records to reconstruct the sea surface temperature at Cape Ghir, Morocco, over the last 2,500 years (around 2,490 years longer than previous studies of upwelling and climate change). The record showed colder waters – indicative of upwelling – during warm times like the Medieval Warm Period. But the strongest signal by far came during the twentieth century, when water temps dropped by 1.2 degrees C. If the standard air-temperature records look like a hockey stick, the water temperatures look like a mirror image.

But how could global warming do anything to change ocean currents? The authors suggest that more atmospheric CO2 could change the air-temperature balance between coastal land and waters. That would change the prevailing air pressure (i.e., weather systems), and the pressure difference would fuel stronger winds along the coast, stirring more upwelling. (See the Science article for a suitably technical description of this.)

With ocean fisheries in dire trouble (thanks to population growth and the fact that seafood is so yummy), increased upwelling could nourish more fish and slowly help us out of trouble in that respect. Upwelling also brings up centuries-old water that has never seen our CO2-rich atmosphere. That deep water would draw more CO2 out of the atmosphere than a similar amount of surface water. (Although this sounds good from a global-warming standpoint, it would speed the acidification of the oceans, a slowly building nightmare that Elizabeth Kolbert recently discussed for the New Yorker.)

One of the major problems with getting people to take notice of climate change is its complexity: we can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen, and we can’t even assemble a complete list of the kinds of things that will happen. Often, this uncertainty winds up skewed into either a simplistic doomsday scenario or a “jury is still out” assessment – both rather easily dismissable, I’m afraid. Fortunately, the scientists are still out there, assiduously working out the specifics.

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I’m on record as being happy that climate change has finally become an issue that regular folks can sit up and take notice of. People other than career climate scientists now seem to recognize ideas such as (a) sea levels are rising, (b) warmer waters are to hurricanes as gasoline is to a barbecue, and (c) the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else.

Even the idea of unpredictability in future weather seems to be gaining traction – a major advance for a public who like to think that science is about making things more certain.

Case in point: I flipped open the new Eddie Bauer catalog (don’t ask) and hit upon this gobsmacker of a pitch:

Weather happens. Be ready. Spring weather patterns keep getting tougher to predict. But you’ve got things to do and you’re going to do them. Luckily, you know us.

For this, Eddie Bauer gets my newly inaugurated “chutzpah” tag. Judging by the catalog photo, protection from climate change can be found in a WeatherEdge Spring Parka (“will have you laughing in the face of spring showers”) for $78.

And look at the attractive middle-aged man laugh as adorable flecks of seafoam spray at him from a New Hampshire seawall! Secure in his breathable waterproofedness, he plunges one hand into his pants pocket (revealing natty yellow-plaid cuff of Patterned Long-Sleeve Oxford Shirt Relaxed Fit) and laughs at the sky. His perky, sky-blue-raincoated companion (no wedding ring) giggles admiringly next to him, as if to say “you choose the greatest vacation spots, you rugged, beautiful man.”

Behind them, a second woman approaches the seawall, cautious arms raised as if the earth may convulse at any moment and pitch her into the ocean. Her lips are parted; perhaps she is whispering “I don’t know, guys, New Scientist claims that weather is only going to get wilder.”

But they keep their windbreakered backs to her.

(image from the New Scientist article)

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The Al Gore Union

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For brief minutes at lunchtime today, I was on the other side of a cavernous ballroom from the gray and blue pixels in the center of this photo. It was Al Gore, carrying his message of hope and responsibility to 5,000 scientists who don’t need to hear the dire part of the “Inconvenient Truth” talk.

Gore put the problem as simply and forcefully as it needs to be put: we are witnessing a collision between our planet and our species. At the same time, the free exchange of ideas that Gutenberg invented and our founding fathers built a nation on has been stymied by the one-way information flow of television.

Using Abraham Lincoln’s word, he charged scientists to “disenthrall” the nation from the shared illusions that allow economists, TV programmers, and the rest of us to think only in the short term.

Citing this administration’s infringements on the freedom of government scientists, but stressing that the problem goes beyond Bush and Cheney (and beyond political parties), he asked how we could have become so desensitized to stories like these when they appear on the news.

In a talk that ranged from a brief (but very funny) Clinton impersonation, to tropospheric ozone, to the amygdala, to Mahatma Gandhi, Gore nailed his message. To call them his lines would make the talk seem calculated. And even though it must have been, Gore managed to be funny, friendly, strident, expansive, impassioned, and utterly authentic.

The proof was in the pudding. Speaking to the largest body of earth scientists on the planet, who else could get away with saying that by committing ourselves to the cause, “streams of energy will flow and converge, and they will remove obstacles from your path.”

As Gore finished, the standing ovation seemed spring-loaded. Oceanographers swelled; volcanologists erupted in applause; seismologists beat their hands together with tectonic force; solar physicists radiated enthusiasm; biogeochemists fizzed; I think even those wretched Mars rovers paused for a moment in appreciation. For three glorious minutes of ovation, it had become the Al Gore Union.

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David Attenborough suggests the battle against climate change could start with a “moral change.” Such as, the BBC reports, the one Attenborough grew up with during World War II, when wasting resources was viewed as simply wrong. This shift in attitude might finally get us past that tired excuse that small differences can’t produce large results. After all, he says, “It’s not that we thought we were going to defeat Hitler by eating a lot of gristle.” But they finished their supper anyway.

Of course, charging emitters 14 bucks per ton of carbon dioxide sounds like a pretty sane suggestion, too. Particularly coming from a Harvard economist.

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Here’s to Kofi Annan for talking about the “frightening lack of leadership” from some of the world’s economic (and emissions) giants at a conference on climate change in Nairobi, Kenya. There’s two sides to every story, of course, and our government’s goes like this:

“We think the United States has been leading in its groundbreaking initiatives.”

That’s from undersecretary of state Paula Dobriansky, and though the New York Times didn’t specify, she seems to have said it with a straight face. She went on to list a couple of these initiatives.

Curiously absent from her list were prominent Bush strategies including “closing eyes” and “clicking heels together three times.”

Read all the way to the end for a proposal and a choice comment from Swiss president Moritz Leuenberger: “This is not a fight against nature. It is a battle against shortsighted egoism.”

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