Wyrd - OE: that which has become; fate-shaping; destiny-unfolding

Friday, 21 October 2011

'Climategate' dragon dealt final blow by skeptic-funded team

The last gasp of the 'Climategate' conspiracy may well have been spent.

A group of physicists, in part funded by the Koch brothers -- who have long-backed the climate skeptic cause -- have been forced to confirm that global warming is all-too-real. So it's not, after all, a shimmering illusion, conjured up by a feverish conspiracy of grant-hungry climate scientists -- as often alleged by the wilder elements in the skeptical camp.

The graph from the Berkeley team speaks for itself:

Their work in digging out more weather station data, and extending the record back to 1800, has served , if anything, to throw the temperature rise of the last 40 years into sharper relief.

 From the BBC report, the head of the Berkely team behind the climate data re-hash, has said:

"Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK," said Professor Muller.
"This confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate change sceptics did not seriously affect their conclusions."

Whilst their surprise may in itself be surprising to many climate scientists, having an critical eye cast over such climate research is no bad thing. In fact it's essential. Lack of openness is what helped the charges of a climate science conspiracy stick. It's only right that science which is making big and bold claims -- and which demand of us big changes in the way we live --  be rigorously dissected.

'Climate change is a crock; global warming is garbage'

No, the words above aren't snatches of the latest utterances from Perry and Bachman. It's not just Tea Party-enthralled Republicans who think that climate change and global warming suck. I do too.

If we really are locked in a life-or-death struggle for the future of the planet – for the security and happiness of our grandchildren – how on earth did we end up with 'global warming' as the rallying cry for action? A good call, maybe, from the point of view of climate scientists; after all, they've taken the temperature of the planet, and it's undoubtedly bumping up. But only on average.

Which is the first big problem – 'on average'. 

You need to average out a dozen years (or more) of data from thousands of weather stations  – again, carefully averaged across the whole globe – just to pin the tricksy 'global warming' beast down. But you, me and the guy across the street, can't experience this nebulous global average directly.

We see weather, which changes hour-by-hour; we see rainy, sunny, and snowy days following each other in a whirling succession (well I do, living here in the UK..). We find that even the broad sweep of last month's weather highs and lows are quickly submerged by the experience of what's happening here and now. And last year's weather is a land only dimly recalled.

Yet we're expected to keep in mind that, although we may personally be thigh-deep in snow with record-breaking cold, the world is still – on average and overall – getting a little bit warmer ever day. I'm afraid that's stretching the imaginative capacity of many of us just a little too far. Global warming suggests a tidy year-by-year progression – which is something weather just won't deliver on.

Worse, global warming doesn't seem like such a savage monster. If push comes to shove, I think secretly most of us (in the temperate world at least) rather like the sound of a couple of extra degrees of warmth. In the end, 'warming' just doesn't sound very worrying.

Climate change is no better.

Geologists will all too readily regale you with tales of how the climate for individual regions, and for the globe as a whole, has zipped up and down over the last 4 billion years. We've had ice-ball earths, where virtually the entire globe was swathed in ice; we've had hothouse episodes where crocodiles idled through steamy swamps at the north pole; and we've had everything in between, with jagged climate cycles that follow the earth's wobbly orbital history.

So, climate change is real and it's happening now, is it? Well, duh.

And again, these are simple flat words that fail to capture the scale of what we're doing to the planet. If our century-long poking of the climate beast were to be told as a story, having such banal main characters would be an audience killer. No wonder so many are drifting away at the back. 

Of course, the radical fringe have had a good stab at sexing-up the debate – and have bought 'climate chaos' into the narrative. That does at least grab the attention. And it connects to the possible consequences of a warming world – extreme events becoming more extreme, and more frequent.

But it also suggests we are throwing a switch to a complete tumult of crazy-and-chaotic weather. That isn't what scientists are saying about the planet's future climate. And again, everyday experience does not confirm anarchic weather ruling the airwaves. So 'climate chaos' opens climate worriers to the 'Peter crying wolf again' allegations; and we all know what happened to Peter.

So where does that leave us?

Well, listen to what the scientists are saying about consequences of man's meddling with Mother Earth. There is at least a 50% chance that we will push the global thermometer up by over 2 degrees C in the next century. Once past that point, there's no return. We'll have given the planet enough heating momentum, that it will keep on running with it for thousands of years. And the changes in the climate at a rate faster than anything experienced in recent geological history.

What we're inflicting on the planet is a climate shock. What we're taking is a reckless gamble with our grandchildren's future. Climate shocking? Climate gambling? These probably aren't going to be the new buzz phrases of the debate over man's reckless environmental tampering. But taking the language away from the sterile and anodyne is essential if acres of words are to finally take hold – and end up blossoming into real action.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Skating on thin ice

If a picture paints a thousands words, then maybe a nicely-framed graph can sketch out a good few dozen. The one place on the planet where climate change isn't measured in tiny fractions of a Fahrenheit -- or in the remorseless millimetric lapping of sea-levels -- is the Arctic. Here, summer-on-summer, great wedges of sea-ice are swallowed back into the warming sea -- and winter isn't claiming them back:

The winter's sea-ice volume for the last 32-years 

And remember that's a zero-based graph - which is exactly where sea-ice volumes appear to be racing.

That isn't a measly chipping away -- something monstrous has caused the amount of sea-ice to crash by two-thirds over the last three decades, the time we've been tracking sea-ice by satellite. The numbers come from the satellite's daily mapping of sea-ice area; computer modelling fills in that all-important third dimension -- the ice thickness -- to give the volume figures above.

Mention computer models, and eyebrows are raised -- after all models are just best guesses, aren't they? And of course guesses can be wildly wrong. But these numbers match other ways of checking ice thickness, especially from those on the 'ground'. And those 'on the ground', are all at sea -- literally, as the ice has gone. Listen to Dr David Barber's description of unprecedented areas of 'rotten ice' on his expedition to the Arctic -- 22 mins into this video of the Oslo Science Conference.

A twenty-five year veteran scientist of the Arctic, he is shocked by what he found. If the Arctic is the 'canary in the coal-mine' of global warming, then the time for its tweeting is long past. The poor bird would seem to be heading for an imminent swan-dive to the cage floor.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Wyrd climate - the first weft

The climatic future of the planet is a shifting, shimmering web. One that each and every action we undertake bends and shifts and reworks. The ancient Germanic tribes of northern Europe understood this idea of an interwoven and self-shaped destiny - they called it wyrd.

Climate science can open small portals onto the tumultuous twist of connections that we call the planetary climate system. And the images from those fleeting glimpses of the state of our climate are troubling and stark. The climate is being changed in a way that is unprecedented in recent times. And by recent I mean recent for the 4-and-a-half billion year-old Earth Mother -  for at least the last 40 million years.

As a geologist, I know that roiling change in the climate is a constant. Earth has her cycles and rhythms and random punctuations of disaster, played out over tens and hundreds of thousands of years But this new age we are ushering in -- with our Great Climate Experiment, the Anthropocene -- is different. Because we are creating the first hyperthermal in 40 million years -- and the rate of change is faster than anything the planet has experienced in that time.

With this site I'd like to help open wider those windows, to peer in on the inner workings of the climate; to bring the debate above the noisy and partisan 'denier vs warmist' war that has spilt into the political mainstream. Man-made climate change is real, its consequences dire precisely because they are ultimately unfathomable. Mapping the bounds of our newly created geological epoch, and finding where the serpents and dragons actually be -- that's what I'd like to help unfurl, in my own limited way.

The climate debate, like all great social struggles, is one of competing stories. That makes the story-teller a much-needed lightning rod -- transforming the powerful but dry-and-sterile language of science into symbols of real human meaning. Climate change challenges the very myths and narrative of the modern consumer age. Perhaps we still have time to strike words down for a new and glorious saga.