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July 31, 2003

Éppur, Si Muove

No doubt about it, the Earth is warming up. However, Mars, Pluto, and Neptune's largest moon, Triton are also warming up. This presents something of a problem for those who blame human activity for the recent increase in the earth's temperature, as Homo Sapiens is so far found on only one of these heavenly bodies.

There is a theory that explains the temperature increase in all 4 locations, one that Senator Inhofe alluded to on Monday during a session of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. It can be stated in fairly simple terms. "As the output of energy from the Sun increases or decreases, the average temperature of the earth also increases or decreases." Those seeking a somewhat more detailed explanation should look here.

The "Blame the Sun" hypothesis, for lack of a better term, has the virtue of simplicity, and observation data from the planets and moon above to back it up. But since it posits a culprit other than S.U.V. driving Americans as the root cause of global warming, it's not popular. It may also be fairly easy to prove or disprove, though as of yet no money has been budgeted for testing.

NASA is being given huge amounts of money to study global warming, yet it hasnÂ’t proposed the obvious project of designing a small, inexpensive satellite to precisely measure solar output over time. Studies of solar variability to date have relied upon data from old satellites not designed for the purpose of reliable multigenerational solar output measurements, and proxy data in, for example, deep-sea sediment cores. [See, for example, Haigh et al., "Climate Variability and the Influence of the Sun," Science 294:2109-11 (2001).] The U.S. pays about $2 billion a year of our money for global warming studies; that can buy a lot of silence.

Two billion dollars buys a lot of silence because keeping quiet and not deviating from accepted mainstream opinion is how struggling young climate scientists gain a place at the government teat. Those whose opinions formed the conventional wisdom indirectly control much of the access to federal funds through peer review, a process that is ideally used to make sure that the best scientific proposals get their share of always scarce federal funds. In practice funds go to research that won't contradict the conventional wisdom, as the conventional wisdom is what the reviewers built their careers on in the first place. Peer review is at least as much about protecting one's turf as it is promoting good science, and often more.

So, once one has decided to build a career on the foundation of global warming, challenges to the conventional wisdom must be vehemently rejected.

But a climate expert at today's hearing told Inhofe that the mainstream climate research community believes the Soon and Baliunas study is "nonsense."

The study is "fundamentally unsound," testified Michael Mann, University of Virginia environmental sciences professor and a lead author of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report.

From the coverage here one would be forgiven for thinking Drs. Baliunas and Soon are the worst sort of charlatans, but their credentials argue otherwise. The article above also argues against the Baliunas/Soon study being arrant nonsense. Despite the fact that the story originally came from the Environment News Service, three of the four scientists mentioned in the article question the notion that human activity is responsible for the recent rise in global surface temperatures. Last time I checked "widely accepted" mean something like "nine of out ten dentists agree," not "one out of four scientists insists."

Yes, I know that's probably not accurate on a wider scale.

The paper Dr. Mann rejects so strongly can be seen here. Judge for yourself, but the reason he's gotten so....exercised about the study in question may not be because it contains questionable data or bad science. No, the problem with the Baliunas and Soon paper is that it explicitly rejects the foundation of Mann's career, the "hockey stick" an estimated measurement of the earth's temperature over the last thousand years, much of the older data for which was extrapolated from tree ring records. Here's an excerpt from a separate study of the Mann research, discussing the methodology employed to create the hockey stick.

Figure 62 (a) shows the graph from Mann et al (1998)reconstructs Northern
Hemisphere climate from AD 1400 using the proxies already available, particularly multiple relatively-short runs of tree-ring width and density data from high latitude and altitude regions of Eurasia and North America. To this derived composite record are appended thermometer measurements from 1902-97. Figure 62 (b) from their 1999 paper extends the proxy record back to AD 1000, and updates the instrumental record to include 1998.

I would point you to Dr. Mann's original research, but unlike the Baliunas and Soon paper, it is not freely available online. So much for the scientific ideal of shared knowledge.

Here's what the Mann hockey stick temperature graph looks like.

According to Drs. Soon and Baliunas, one of the problem with Mann's curve is that much of it rests on too narrow a datasource, the tree rings, what they call a "climate proxy."

Research over the last several decades has provided additional climate proxy results. Analyses of climate proxies, which include tree growth, boreholes, pollen, sea sediments, coral, ice cores and mountain glacier deposits, document two climate anomalies in the last 1,000 years. One is the so-called Little Ice Age (ca. 1300 - 1900 A.D.); the other is the Medieval Warm Epoch (ca. 800-1200 A.D.) when the temperature was significantly warmer than in the 20th century in many regions of the world. These additional results, developed from expert opinions, came from such disparate proxies that they cannot generally be quantitatively compared on a temperature scaled to each other or to the SPM record. However, the local record can be aggregated to yield qualitative results on the two major anomalies of the Second Millennium.

According to Soon and Basiunas, a more accurate portrayal of the earth's temperature swings over the last 20,00 years would look like this chart, first published in 1997.

Just a little different, don't you think?

Baliunas and Soon also caution against drawing any firm conclusions based on growth rings taken from trees at higher latitudes, just where Mann got his data from.

As has been pointed out by many researchers, tree growth records, especially at high latitudes, have been showing unusual behavior: in recent decades, trees at high latitude have exhibited declining density of their growth rings, independent of rising temperature (see Figure 8). Experts on tree growth have been debating this strange phenomenon, with no resolution of the problem. Of course, factors other than temperature influence tree growth; possibly these other factors, such as levels of precipitation and available nutrients, change with time.

There are two points to note here: first, the unusual 20th century tree
growth trend occurs in the period used for calibration of the SPM record [1902-
1980], and perhaps partly in the period of validation (1854-1901). Without
understanding the profound disagreement between temperature readings and tree ring density, it is impossible to make reliable statements on the temperature of the past 1,000 years. The second point is that without understanding the disagreement between temperature and tree growth, it is possible that this phenomenon has occurred from time to time earlier in the record, further making a conclusion about 1,000-year temperatures untenable.

The Baliunas/Soon paper is a broadside of data, fired at the very basis of the studies that form the latticework upon which current global warming theory is built. In order to protect his career, Michael Mann had to call it nonsense, regardless of the whatever scientific virtue the study possessed. His position, and those of the dozens of climate scientists, hundreds of politicians and thousands of environmental activists are as threatened by this study as Pope Paul V was by Galileo's teaching of a heliocentric solar system.

And, like the Catholic Orthodoxy before them, the scientific orthodoxy has largely managed to prevent open discussion of evidence that undermines their position.

But still, it moves!

Update: Two articles on global warming, by Drs. Soon and Baliunas, at Tech Central Station.

Posted by Bigwig at July 31, 2003 12:02 AM | TrackBack
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I can't quite wrap my brain around this at present...the heat wave in Seattle is making it unbearable to do anything other than lay here and actively sweat.

Posted by: Beth at July 31, 2003 01:03 AM

Well done, Bigwig.

If we do see some sort of climate shift in the near future (natural or man-made), it's not likely to be the catastrophe that Dr. Mann predicts.

Humans have survived severe climates for eons. Bad weather may have helped kill off the dinosaurs, but I have a strong hunch that it's going take more than a permanent heat wave to do us in at this point.

Posted by: ronbailey at July 31, 2003 05:01 AM

A physicist friend of ours backs the sun theory. I don't know much about the subject, but the way he explains it, it makes much more sense than the current "humans is evil" global warming theory. I don't doubt that humans can have a detrimental effect on the environment on a small scale, but large scale? I think we're way too insignificant for that.

Posted by: Rita at July 31, 2003 06:47 AM

But, but, humans are evil. Right? Bueller?

Posted by: Big Dumb Cousin at July 31, 2003 10:27 AM

If I could bring myself to believe that our climate was balanecd on a knife-edge, and if I could believe that man is powerful enough to maintain on that edge, and if I were not aware that a single volcano could literally as well as figuratively blow the whole concept apart, and if I were not aware that Dr. Mann first claimed there was no medieval warm despite written historical records, then claimed it was limited to the North Atlantic region until written records from China showed it there also, and then claimed it was only the Northern Hemisphere until the same proxies he uses showed it in South America and Africa, and if I believed we export SUV's to other planets, then I might be more inclined to worry about this - and yell for more nuclear plants, fuel recycling...

And don't tell me to buy wind-power stock: the project near Long Island, covering more area than the Island, will produce - unreliably and at a hellacious amount of dollars and more upkeep than Imelda's shoe closet - enough power to light most of the homes - but then not a single business, hospital, police station, road...

Posted by: John Anderson at July 31, 2003 10:34 AM

Nice article, good to hear that there are alternative theories. The debunking of the blame-cars theories seems to be going well, but this is the first coherent and simple counter-argument I've seen.

BTW, it's "Eppur si muove" - "but yet it moves".

Posted by: Dominic at August 1, 2003 06:05 AM

Whoops! Bad source on the quote. Thanks, Dominic.

Posted by: bigwig at August 1, 2003 08:01 AM

This will all be great comfort when New York is underwater.

Sadly you have fallen for the fallacy of assuming you have an "either/or". It's perfectly possible that the sun has grown hotter *and* greenhouse gases are warming up the earth, in which case it remains the case that cutting the latter would be a good idea.

Posted by: Dr Z at February 3, 2005 11:06 PM
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