Wednesday, December 28, 2016

tweeblaarkanniedoods in paradise

A week ago, at just before 4 am Mountain time, the sun was directly over the Tropic of Capricorn somewhere offshore of the current Kuiseb River delta. The delta moves around with the shifting sands of the Namib through which it flows, when it is flowing, into the East Atlantic. The Kuiseb river is the usually accepted southern boundary to the range of the Welwitschiaceae; a cryptobotanic family of plants that contains but one species called tweeblaarkanniedood in Afrikaans. They are ugly (came in 4th, with 12% of the votes, in a 2009 Daily Telegraph poll to determine “The World’s Ugliest Plant”) shriveled poorly differentiated plants that some think may include individuals that are more than 2,000 years old.

Being able to sense the directly-over-headedness of the sun requires relatively simple tools. You can use a plumb-bob to make a fairly vertical pit, and then see how far down the circle of light from the sun illuminates the pit before hitting the side. You can use this to tell time, and the more modern sundial is sort of an inverted version of the vertical pit-style sun directly-over-headedness meter.

Using a vertical pole-style (which can also be constructed using a plumb-bob, but not as easily as a pit) and a vertical pit-style sun directly-over-headedness meter a Greek fellow in Egypt determined the diameter of the earth at about the same time some of the oldest tweeblaarkanniedoods were just germinating. The measurement was to about 0.4% over of the currently accepted value, which is mind-blowingly amazing. What is even more amazing is that those newly germinated tweeblaarkanniedoods would be over 1,500 years old before the idea that the Earth was spherical (roughly), and therefore even had a diameter, would really catch on.

The fact that the data that showed that the earth was round, and even showed what size it was, were available to anyone with access to a shovel and a bit of string (a plumb bob is just a piece of string with a weight –like a rock- at one end) did not mean that just anyone could accept the conclusion. There were many competing theories about the size and shape and placement of the earth, and they used the tactics of facilitated cognitive dissonance that work so well with the human brain to out-perform actual reality in the arena of believability.

The triumph of cognitive dissonance over reality has a long and twisted history in human culture. It also rarely turns out well, and, somewhat unfairly, it often turns out very bad for those who cling to reality in the face of very popular or very powerfully supported cognitive dissonance. Index Librorum Prohibitorum listed, until it was formally abolished on the 14th of June 1966, many ideas –like Galileo’s heliocentric solar system- whose authors were censured for believing in the apparently heretical portions of reality. Yes the list changed over the years, and Galileo was not in the last edition, but it was always a list of writings that communicated ideas that were deemed dangerous to the Catholic church for people to know.

The human context in which ideas are avoided is usually one filled to bursting with ideas of questionable worth; at least history would see the ideas put to the question. Few still believe in the veracity of “The Protocols of Zion” or subscribe to the concept of the “blood libel” conspiracy, yet they, and their counterparts, steered the course of history as much as, if not much more than, mundane truths proven by documented observation.

In a few short weeks the USA will inaugurate a new presidency. Donald John Trump ran a campaign that appeared to be more successful because of his support for stupid, verging on crazy, conspiracy theories; chief among them the bizarre “Birther” ideas and vague “Truther” notions. Even people who do not believe the nonsense conspiracies will state that the Donald would “tell it like it was” even though some of his more popular notions of how it was were inconsistent with a reasonable concept of reality based on simple observable information.

There are so many ideas which could run afoul of the rapidly approaching Trump administration. I am not even sure where to start. Stem cell research? Cancer research? Infections disease research or epidemiology? The banner denial issue does, however, appear to be climate change.

I have introduced indicators of climate change many times in this blog. Mostly I talk about sea ice as I think that is a clear and unbiased indicator statistic. It is mostly a lag indicator. It is true that decreasing sea ice in the arctic can increase the amount of heat adsorbed by the earth, and increase the rate of warming. However, the amount of sea ice statistic mostly tells us how warm the planet has become. It takes heat to melt ice so less ice usually means more heat. We do not expect the amount of sea ice to tell us much about how much the temperature of the global climate will rise in the future.

There are lead indicators. Because of the newness of many aspects of climate research it is impossible to pull up some archival data to determine how much the temperature of the earth will increase in response to increases in a particular set of lead indicators. Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide levels, for instance, are expected to cause an increase in global temperatures, so the concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is a lead indicator of global climate temperature increase; Carbon Dioxide goes up, and then temperatures increase.

Graph from

One potential lead indicator, that has a lot of scientists worrying a lot, is the increase of atmospheric Methane. Rising temperatures have begun to cause the release of what could be immense amounts of methane in the frozen, or more precisely previously frozen, north. In Siberia escaping Methane has blown giant plugs of permafrost out of the ground, and left strange craters that look a lot like what I imagine the result of some huge alien space laser blast to look like. The reason Methane release is such a scary lead indicator has less to do with alien invasion, and a lot to do with the fact that it is many times as effective a greenhouse gas as Carbon Dioxide, and we have no real control over the rate it is being released. Some estimates have the climate impact of the rate of increase of Methane concentration in the atmosphere equaling the impact of the current increase in Carbon Dioxide; if Methane release rates continue to increase it could become the major driver of future temperature increases.

Yamal hole in 30 kilometres from Bovanenkovo

This runaway increase in global climate temperature is what climate scientists call a “positive feedback loop”. It had previously appeared to me that Climate Change Deniers (CCD) were evolving along with the preponderance of the evidence. The primordial CCD simply denied that the climate was changing. Later versions simply refused to entertain the notion that human generated greenhouse gasses could have any effect on the planet. I expected a new species who begrudgingly acknowledged that humans were causing a problem, but insisted that the problem was manageable because there was no such thing as a positive feedback loop.

It appears as if the new administration will (attempt to at least) reset the clock and seed a new crop of primordial class CCD. Will we see brave scientists standing against this wave of cognitive dissonance, or will we see smart scientists, who have understood the uncomfortable positions in history, and just step aside as the new truth is unveiled for all to genuflect at and believe?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The More Horseman of the Apocalypse

The cabinet of Donald Trump develops, and as it gels we get a glimpse into the shades and tones of a future where reality is politicized. What I had originally thought was a simple war on science has expanded to possibly include intelligence and diplomacy too. Anything that potentially conflicts with PeOTUS Donald trump’s world view or personal ego may be the focus of some kind of attack. However, the confusion and lack of actual information leaves everything in a fog of speculation.

I interact daily with MANY people who voted for Mr Trump. The one thing they have almost all said motivated them to vote for him was that he “told it like it was”. I have joked that his performance in the third presidential debate suggested that “it” must be a confused illogical jumble of sentence fragments, and the cabinet he is creating suggests that my attempt at humor may have been close to the truth of the mater.

"The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." – 2012 Tweet by Donald Trump

I was, apparently, wrong about Myron Ebell being the presumptive Administrator of the EPA. Trump has nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Edward Scott Pruitt to the position instead. Pruitt is much less anti science than Myron, but, because of the special relationship Myron had with science, this is faint praise for Ed. Ed is actively promoting several lawsuits against the EPA on behalf of the state of Oklahoma. Most of the suits concern the EPA’s efforts at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” – “The Climate-Change Gang” Scott Pruitt and Luther Strange, The National Review 7 May 2016

Ed is more likely to get past Senate confirmation than Myron would be, so his nomination may be more a nod to political necessity than a shift from “nutty like squirrel poo” positions to just “squirrel poo”. Ed’s anti-science leanings are not likely to incur correction from Rick Perry who will be sitting at the same table in the seat labeled Secretary of Energy, and looking intelligent in his glasses.

Or maybe Rick Perry will not be sitting at the table as he has famously called for the elimination of the Department of Energy, and so there might not even be a chair labeled "Secretary of Energy"; at one point he was so convinced that the Department of Energy should be no more that he proactively forgot the name of the Department. Perry is famously against the acceptance of many parts of reality (like evolution or climate change or …), but like a good politician he frames his denials as championing of “Choice” and “Freedom”. This rhetoric resonates with that of the anti-science sentiments of Betsy DeVos who will be sitting at the table in the chair marked “Secretary of Education”.

Early speculation had placed shockingly anti-science former neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson in the Secretary of Education seat, but apparently he will be sitting in the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development seat. I am not sure why Ben got the HUD chair. I think it has something to do with the fact that he is African-American and once even lived in a city. Though HUD Secretary is probably not a science-intensive position he should be able to contribute his voice to the reality-denying choir when inconvenient aspects of reality are being described.

Potentially counterbalancing at least one of the ideologically anti-science folks at the cabinet table is Trump’s pick for Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson. Rex is the sitting CEO of an actual technology corporation: Exxon-Mobil. Unfortunately Exxon-Mobil has maintained that the conclusions of scientific research, especially global climate change research, should be ignored when it is inconvenient. Rex appears to be able to distinguish between good science (that which profits Exxon-Mobil), bad science (that which is awkward to the growth of Exxon-Mobil), and the ugly science (That which might even cost Exxon-Mobil money). The Secretary of State is a highly influential position, but it, like HUD, does not have scientific interests as the centerpiece of its focus.

The Department of Health and Human Services controls not only the administration of healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid, but also the FDA, NIH, and the CDC. Congressman Tom Price R-GA has been nominated by Trump to sit in the HHS Secretary chair. Tom, like Ben, is a former MD who has turned into a politician. He is a vocal opponent of “Obamacare”, and his nomination is probably largely tied to a likely push to dismantle the ACA. His potentially more damaging anti-science leanings are inferred from those who support him. The Christian Right think he will resonate with the homophobic leanings of our VPe (Mike Pence) and others (like Ben and Betsy) to make responses to public health issues less blind to any possible association with what they see as immoral activity. Tom is also endorsed by the important-sounding largely anti-science group called the “Association of American Physicians and Surgeons”; they have interesting positions on Ebola, vaccines, and “alternative” medicine.

“Yet the CDC bureaucracy will continue to fund useless, sodomy-enabling local and state programs, unless grown-ups show up for work. Like possibly Tom Price.” – “Will Tom Price Clean Up Feds' HIV/AIDS Program?” Linda Harvey 7 December 2016 in MISSION: America

It is strange, on initial examination, that the name Heidi Heitkamp is being floated as Trump’s possible nominee for Secretary of Agriculture. The USDA is another department that focuses on modern scientific inquiry. Heidi neither looks like the women in Trumps life nor acts like the reflexively anti-science people he has already nominated for his cabinet; she is also a Democrat. There are strong political reasons to nominate Heidi though. Agribusiness donors like her, and pulling her out of the senate would empty a seat in the senate that would likely be filled by a Republican. Could she be a voice of reason in the cabinet? Will she really be nominated? The GOP has a majority and does not desperately need to take her senate seat now.

“Stop denying science and accept the fact that GMO ingredients are just as healthy as any other ingredient.” – Senator Heidi Heitkamp D-ND July 7,2016.

Another moderating voice might be prospective Science advisor Tom Massie. Tom is a really smart tech-savvy engineer turned politician. His views on science are eclectic at times, and he confuses his positions with political doublespeak. He supports labeling of GMO food and calls it making non-GMO seeds available to farmers. Would he be employed to champion science or to provide confusing language that obfuscates the motivations of the anti-science shock troops?

In addition to the metaphorical war on science one can see the drum set of actual war being set up in the cabinet: there is the snare drum of possible support for Russian military action, the bass drum of selective filtering of intelligence information (possibly left over from the famous reports of weapons of mass destruction we invaded Iraq to find), the hanging toms of re-framing Asian arena diplomacy to “make better deals, the floor tom, with its deep commanding tone, is probably reserved to sound out some action against ISIS, or Islamic terrorists, or maybe just some nebulous set of “bad people”, and  maybe "China" should be visualized as the hi-hat. Trump will have at least three rather hawkish former generals to take turns playing Keith Moon on his war set while the rest of the cabinet provides some regressive religiously-motivated melody of breaking culture.

“It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom.” – JK Galbraith in “The Affluent Society” 1958

With great power comes the potential for great screw ups. The history of the USA is ripe with abuses of presidential power that have negatively impacted the lives of many of its citizens. The cry of “Government Overreach” has heralded the creation of our current crop of demagogues; like our PeOTUS. The vehminence of the complaints might make one think for a moment that they are decrying the way Jackson handled the Native Americans, or Roosevelt handled the Japanese Americans, or the Jim-Crow laws of the 1950s, or slavery, or any one of the horrific somethings that abuse of federal power has burned into the history of the US.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Shackleton and Ebell

Though “official winter” waits on the rapidly approaching winter solstice the cold winds that bite through clothes to deliver the season’s messages insist that winter has arrived on the sagebrush landscape of the Utah high desert. We even got a load of that white stuff that makes it so hard to drive when it is on the roads, and, no, I don’t just mean Utah drivers…. With winter also comes the annual crop of climate change deniers confusing weather and climate so that they can state there is "clear evidence" that the planet is not warming. This year the claims resonate with the voices of potential cabinet post appointments the incoming POTUS is suggesting.

Half of our planet is seasonally warming now. The wobble that slants the sun’s rays in the northern hemisphere, where most of the habitable landmass exists, brings summer to the southern hemisphere. The equinox that brought night to the arctic, and halted the annual melting season for sea ice in the arctic sea, brought daylight to Antarctica, and began the season of melting to the band of water surrounding that continent. Shortly after the long Antarctic dawn a significant anomaly in southern sea ice levels was first observed; the sea ice levels dropped to historic lows, and have continued at record low levels as the Antarctic melting season approaches its halfway point. The anomaly is really striking. Sea ice coverage is now around two million square kilometers less than has been observed at the same point in the melt cycle in recent years. That is a lot of missing ice.

Until last year the recent Antarctic sea ice coverage data has been trending at record high levels. Temperatures were increasing dramatically in Antarctica so, since higher temperatures should melt ice faster, increased sea ice was counter-intuitive. I like anomalies so I wrote a blog post about it in July of 2014. I postulated that the increased sea ice was actually driven by the higher temperatures and increased melting as lower-density meltwater would freeze faster at higher atmospheric temperatures than the bulk higher-salt seawater it floated on. There have now been several papers postulating the same thing. However, I am much cooler for coming up with the idea simply by doing an inventory of my belly-button lint and waving my hands around; I avoided any reliance on authoritative observational data(aka reality) or pesky modeling. Though I should note that the fact that the melt-water enhanced sea ice coverage hypothesis can be easily derived from introspection just shows how it is also an intuitively natural explanation, and that lends it some elegance.

Any discussion of a major data set in climate science runs afoul of poor reporting and deliberate obfuscation. Just last month Tom Edinburgh and Jonathan Day teased Antarctic sea-ice extent data out of the century-old logbooks from the Scott and Shackleton expeditions. Who would not find this information interesting; the scientists who collected this data literally died while in the field collecting it! Most data sets are not so melodramatic; I have rarely encountered an Excell spreadsheet that has brought a flush of pride in being human to my eyes, and so it is exciting to see papers like the Day and Edinburgh “The Cryosphere” paper. Now picture the record high maximum sea ice extent coupled with a human-interest driven estimate of little sea ice difference in 100 years, and, well, you have the fuel climate denial runs on. Day himself wrote clarification articles trying to point out that his presentation of the Scott- Shackleton data did nothing to disprove global climate change, and I wonder if he was surprised that his words of clarification were not important to the denier crowd.

“Previous studies have concluded, the Antactic and Greenland ice sheets are probably thickening rather than melting” -- Myron Ebell

Climate change deniers come in several flavors. The most common these days is the “it is warming but people are not causing it”flavor. The POTUS has put Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in as transition lead, and therefore most likely post-transition head of, the EPA. Myron is a “little or no warming” denier. Michael Shnayerson called CEI “one of the brightest stars in its constellation of climate skeptics” in a 2007 Vanity Fair article about Myron. It appears as if Trump has enlisted Myron as another general, like Betsy DeVos who I wrote about in an earlier post, in his war on science; Myron will apparently handle the global climate change front.

Temperatures in the arctic can swing in a matter of hours by an order of magnitude more than the values given for warming as a result of global climate change. Bizarre föhn winds can even raise temperatures to well above freezing in the Antarctic winter; on July 14th 2010 one such wind was observed to spike temperatures at a monitoring station from around minus twenty-seven (Fahrenheit) to plus fifty degrees (a total shift of 77oF or almost 43oC) in a few hours. Despite the fact that “the place that’s warmed the most was the Antarctic Peninsula”, (John Turner, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey) even that large increase (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or just about 3 degrees Celsius) is swamped by the Antarctic’s wild short-term weather phenomena.

So how can a source of confusing information as large as the continent of Antarctica provide something useful to talk about? I, like many of you who read this blog, like ambiguity, but hate obfuscation; mysteries are interesting, but murkiness is not. I believe Antarctica presents us with a game of honest mysteries played for truly terrifying stakes. Likely levels of melt of just the West Antarctic ice sheet could raise the level of the sea by 3.2 meters (like 10 feet). Does this melting take a hundred years, or much less? There are other scary contributors to potential sea level rise, like the Greenland ice sheet, but Antarctica is the major player, so it is very worth looking at. The stakes of such a huge rise in sea level include, of course: displacing hundreds of millions of people, destabilizing all of human civilization, diseases and famines, decline of humanity, and yada...yada...yada; you get the picture I’m sure.

So what does this interesting potential shift in melting patterns for Antarctica bode for the future of humanity?  I’m not sure of course, but it is probably not good. One of the ways in which the water goes from on the land, where it does not make the seas rise, into the sea, where it does, is by the fracturing of glaciers flowing into the sea. In Antarctica many of those glaciers are held in place by large floating ice shelves. Some of these ice shelves, like Larsen A and B, have been collapsing in recent years, and more are expected to follow. The glaciers the collapsing ice shelves release could rapidly (not weeks, but maybe decades) cause the sea levels to measurably rise.

I –for one- am kinda interested in the rate of progression of phenomena that could cause the collapse of civilization. There are all sorts of great questions. Unfortunately, as part of the war on science, parts of NASA that examine earth-based phenomena, like global climate change, may not be adequately funded by the incoming administration.  This could prevent us from adequately understanding what is going on on our planet. 

I do think I can authoritatively state, at least as far as rising sea levels are concerned, that one can put off stockpiling popcorn and ammunition until it goes on sale over the northern hemisphere summer.