Dec 172013
 

Damn it’s cold this morning. Negative 26 Centigrade. Or 27 if I believe the local news. And it’s not even winter yet!

To be sure, I still prefer to live in the Great White North instead of any of the numerous southerly climates full of crazy people, but sometimes, it’s a bit too much. Like, when you feel like you need to put on a spacesuit just to step outside to grab your newspaper from your doorstep.

Yes, I still subscribe to a newspaper. Or rather, I again subscribe to a paper after canceling my Globe and Mail subscription more than a decade ago. I accepted their offer for a free three-month subscription back in the summer, and I became used to it. More importantly, I realized that there are things I’d never even read or hear about had they not been in the paper. Electronic media is great, but it tends to deliver the news that you actually want to hear. Especially as services like Google News or Facebook employ sophisticated algorithms that try to predict what you’re most likely to read based on your past behavior. So if you wish to step outside of your comfort zone, to have your views challenged, not simply confirmed… well, a newspaper helps.

Besides… as a last resort, you can also use a newspaper to start a fire to keep warm.

 Posted by at 7:39 am
Nov 302013
 

It’s only November, for crying out loud, but winter has arrived with a vengeance.

Yesterday, the temperature was -21 centigrade (at least according to Microsoft; on the Weather Channel, it was “only” -18 I believe.)

Today, we are enjoying a balmy -12.

And winter is officially still more than three weeks away.

Brrrr.

 Posted by at 2:40 pm
Nov 182013
 

When you have a family member who is gravely ill, you may not have the stamina to pay attention to other things. When you have a family pet that is gravely ill, it’s almost as bad (actually, in some ways it’s worse, as a pet cannot tell what hurts and you cannot explain to the pet why unpleasant medication is necessary or discuss with the pet the available treatment options.)

As I’ve been dealing with a gravely ill cat in the past six weeks, I neglected to pay attention to other things.

I did not add a blog entry on October 31 with my drawing of a Halloween cat.

I did not comment on Remembrance Day. I am very fond of Remembrance Day, because it does not celebrate victory nor does it glorify war; on the contrary, it celebrates sacrifice and laments on the futility of war. This is why I am so unimpressed by the somewhat militantly pacifist “white poppy” campaign; in my view, they completely miss the point. I usually put a stylized poppy in my blog on November 11; not this year, as I spent instead a good portion of that day and the next at the vet.

I most certainly did not comment on that furious (and infuriating) wild hog of a mayor, Toronto’s Rob Ford, or for that matter, the other juicy Canadian political scandal, the Senate expense thing. That despite the fact that for a few days, Canadian news channels were actually exciting to watch (a much welcome distraction in my case), as breaking news from Ottawa was interrupted by breaking news from Toronto or vice versa.

I also did not blog about the continuing shenanigans of Hungary’s political elite, nor the fact that an 80-year old Hungarian writer, Akos Kertesz (not related to Imre Kertesz, the Nobel-laureate) sought, and received, political asylum, having fled Hungary when he became the target of threats and abuse after publishing an article in which he accused Hungarians of being genetically predisposed to subservience.

Nor did I express my concern about the stock market’s recent meteoric rise (the Dow Jones index just hit 16,000) and whether or not it is a bubble waiting to be burst.

And I made no comments about the horrendous typhoon that hit the Philippines, nor did I wonder aloud what Verizon Canada must be thinking these days about their decision to move both their billing and their technical support to that distant country.

Last but certainly not least, I did not write about the physics I am trying to do in my spare time, including my attempts to understand better what it takes for a viable modified gravity theory to agree with laboratory experiments, precision solar system observations, galactic astronomy and cosmological data sets using the same set of assumptions and parameters.

Unfortunately, our cat remains gravely ill. The only good news, if it can be called that, is that yesterday morning, he vomited a little liquid and it was very obviously pink; this strongly suggests that we now know the cause of his anaemia, namely gastrointestinal bleeding. We still don’t know the cause, but now he can get more targeted medication. My fingers remain crossed that his condition is treatable.

 Posted by at 9:34 am
Sep 272013
 

It is now formally official: global surface temperatures did not increase significantly in the past 15 years or so.

But if skeptics conclude that this is it, the smoking gun that proves that all climate science is hogwash, they better think again. When we look closely, the plots reveal something a lot more interesting.

For starters… this is not the first time global temperatures stagnated or even decreased somewhat since the start of recordkeeping. There is a roughly 20-year period centered around 1950 or so, and another, even longer period centered roughly around 1890. This looks in fact like evidence that there may be something to the idea of a 60-year climate cycle. However, the alarming bit is this: every time the cycle peaks, temperatures are higher than in the previous cycle.

The just released IPCC Summary for Policymakers makes no mention of this cycle but it does offer an explanation for the observed stagnating temperatures. These are probably a result of volcanic activity, they tell us, the solar cycle, and perhaps mismodeling the effects of greenhouse gases and aerosols, but they are not exactly sure.

And certainty is characterized with words like “high confidence,” “medium confidence” and such, with no definitions given. These will be supplied, supposedly, in the technical report that will be released on Monday. Nonetheless, the statement that “Probabilistic estimates […] are based on statistical analysis of observations or model results, or both, and expert judgment” [emphasis mine] does not fill me with confidence, if you will pardon the pun.

In fact, I feel compelled to compare this to the various reports and releases issued by the LHC in recent years about the Higgs boson. There was no “expert judgment”. There were objective statistical analysis methods and procedures that were thoroughly documented (even though they were often difficult to comprehend, due to their sheer complexity.) There were objective standards for claiming a discovery.

Given the extreme political sensitivity of the topic, I think the IPCC should adopt similar or even more stringent standards of analysis as the LHC. Do away with “expert judgment” and use instead proper statistical tools to establish the likelihood of specific climate models in the light of the gathered data. And if the models do not work, e.g., if they failed to predict stagnating temperatures, the right thing to do is say that this is so; there is no need for “expert judgment”. Just state the facts.

 Posted by at 10:45 pm
Sep 272013
 

I’ve been hesitant to write about this, as skeptics will already have plenty to gripe about, I don’t need to pile on. And I swear I am not looking for excuses to bash the IPCC, not to mention that I have little sympathy or patience for skeptics who believe that an entire body of science is just one huge scam to make Al Gore and his buddies rich.

But… I was very disappointed to see plots in the latest IPCC “Summary for Policymakers” report that appear unnecessarily manipulative.

Wikipedia describes these as truncated or “gee-whiz” graphs: graphs in which the vertical axis does not start at zero. This can dramatically change the appearance of a plot, making small variations appear much larger than they really are.

To be clear, the use of truncated plots is often legitimate. Perhaps the plot compares two quantities that are of a similar magnitude. Perhaps the plot shows a quantity the absolute magnitude of which is irrelevant. Perhaps the quantity is such that “0” has no special meaning or it is not a natural start of the range (e.g., pH, temperature in Centigrade).

But in other cases, this practice can be viewed as misleading, intellectually dishonest (for instance, it is common for financial companies to manipulate plots this way to make their market performance appear more impressive than it really is) or outright fraudulent.

So here we are, the 2013 IPCC report’s summary for policymakers has been released in draft form, and what do I see in it? Several key plots that have been presented in truncated “gee-whiz” form, despite the fact that the quantities they represent are such that their absolute magnitudes are relevant, that their variability must be measured against their absolute magnitudes, and where zero is a natural start of the range.

I am presenting the original plots on the left and my crudely “untruncated” versions on the right:

This is not kosher, especially in a document that is intended for consumption by a lay audience who may not have the scientific education to spot such subtleties.

The document is still labeled a draft, with copy editing in particular yet to take place. Here’s to hoping that these plots (and any similar plots that may appear in the main report) are corrected before publication, to avoid the impression of trying to exaggerate the case for climate change. Scientists should be presenting the science objectively and leave the manipulation, even inadvertent manipulation, to politicians.

 Posted by at 10:22 pm
Sep 172013
 

It has been known for some time: In the past decade, perhaps decade and a half, there was no significant global warming.

There are many explanations proposed for this slowdown/pause, and the actual cause is likely a combination of these: ocean surface cooling, natural climate oscillations, an unusual solar minimum, water vapor, aerosols, you name it.

Here is one problem with these explanations: These are the same ideas that were proposed, as alternatives to anthropogenic CO2, as causes behind the observed warming, by climate change “skeptics”, only to be summarily dismissed by many in the climate change community as denialist crackpottery.

Sadly, this may very well mean that climate skeptics will claim victory, and those inclined to listen to them will conclude that all this global warming hogwash was just some scam dreamed up by Al Gore and his cronies. Meanwhile, we tend to forget about other things that elevated atmospheric CO2 levels do, such as ocean acidification; not to mention other, equally threatening global environmental concerns, for instance species extinction occurring on a scale not seen since the day of the dinosaurs.

 Posted by at 7:43 pm
Apr 202013
 

It’s official (well, sort of): global warming slowed down significantly in the last decade and a half.

No, this does not mean that the climate skeptics were right all along. Far from it: their attacks on science, their ad hominem attacks on scientists, their conspiracy theories are all nonsense.

What it does mean, though, is that the climate alarmists were not exactly right either. Overstating the case did not help. Far from creating public support, it may have in fact fueled climate skepticism.

The basic science is not wrong. Take a gas like CO2 that is transparent to visible light but absorbs IR a little more efficiently. Pump it into the atmosphere. Visible sunlight still reaches the surface, but less heat escapes radiatively to space at night. So, the surface gets warmer. Simple. This much was known back in the 19th century, to people like Fourier in 1827, Tyndall in 1872, and last but not least, Arrhenius from Sweden who, in 1896, actually calculated the amount by which the Earth would warm up, or cool, if the amount of CO2 were to change in the atmosphere.

But the devil is in the details. The Earth’s atmosphere is not just a column of static, transparent air with various amounts of CO2. It is a turbulent thing, with many feedback mechanisms, some positive, some negative. The oceans play a big role. Foliage plays a big role. Changes in industrial practices, fewer particulates in the air, play a big role. And so on.

And we also know that the Earth’s climate is not exactly a fragile little thing. After all, it has been relatively stable over geological timescales, allowing life to flourish and evolve. So I always thought that it is rather preposterous to assume that a few hundred years of industrial pollution can do what geological upheavals, global catastrophes, and so on could not: tip the balance and cause a runaway effect.

So we are left with the basic questions. How much will the climate change in the foreseeable future? What are its effects on humanity? And what can we do about all this?

The answer, I fear, remains as elusive as ever. And ridiculous schemes like “carbon trading” don’t help either.

 Posted by at 10:40 pm
Mar 192013
 

Looking out my window this morning, here is the winter landscape that I saw:

This is not what those blasted groundhogs promised. They are bold-faced liars, the little creeps. The next time you run into Punxsutawney Phil or Wiarton Willie, keep an eye on your wallet; you just don’t know what the little sons of bitches are capable of.

 Posted by at 8:23 am
Jan 122013
 

I only noticed it in the program guide by accident… and I even missed the first three minutes. Nonetheless, I had loads of fun watching last night a pilot for a new planned Canadian science-fiction series, Borealis, on Space.

Borealis 24

The premise: a town in the far north, some 30 years in the future, when major powers in the melting Arctic struggle for control over the Earth’s few remaining oil and gas resources.

In other words, a quintessentially Canadian science-fiction story. Yet the atmosphere strongly reminded me of Stalker, the world-famous novel of the Russian Strugatsky brothers.

I hope it is well received and the pilot I saw last night will be followed by a full-blown series.

 Posted by at 12:41 pm
Jan 092013
 

No, not Deep Purple the British hard rock group but deep purple the color. And pink… on Australian weather maps. These are the new colors to represent the temperature range between +50 and +54 degrees Centigrade.

Deadly deep purple (and pink)

There is another word to describe such temperatures: death. This is not funny anymore. If weather like this becomes more common, parts of our planet will simply become uninhabitable by humans without high technology life support (such as reliable, redundant air conditioning). In other words, it’s like visiting an alien planet.

 Posted by at 10:06 am
Dec 132012
 

713391main_pia16197-43b_smallImagine a world with weather. Hydrocarbon rains falling from an orange sky onto a deadly cold surface with chunks of ice as hard and as dry as rock; or onto vast hydrocarbon seas driven by freezing winds.

Meanwhile, through the orange haze overhead, you may glimpse a giant orb, filling half the sky, and surrounded by an even more magnificent flat ring.

This world exists. It’s Saturn’s moon Titan, the only body in the solar system other than the Earth with a stable liquid on its surface and genuine weather with precipitation and a “hydrological” cycle.

And now we know for sure that Titan has real rivers. Dubbed “Mini Nile” on NASA’s Web site, this 400 km long hydrocarbon river is the largest seen to date, and it appears to be filled with liquid along its entire length.

I truly envy those humans who, hopefully on a not too distant day in the future, will stand on the banks of this river, perhaps not even wearing a pressure suit just heated clothing and a breathing mask, and stare at this river in awe.

What will they find in the liquid? Is it harboring some primitive form of life?

 Posted by at 10:39 am
Nov 052012
 

It appears that there is middle ground after all between pro-nuclear complacency and anti-nuclear alarmism.

Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker, points out that “America’s hundred-and-four nuclear reactors handled hurricane Sandy with far less trouble than other parts of the power grid”. But he goes on to note that a higher storm surge could have caused grave trouble, just as the tsunami did in Japan. He quotes a former nuclear engineer who said that complacency “is precisely that kind of closed or narrow mindedness that allowed Fukushima to happen.” The United States has a significant number of vulnerable plants. Whereas in Japan, the history of the island is known going back well over a thousand years (a history, specifically the history of the tsunami of 869, that Fukushima’s designers chose to ignore, with tragic consequences.) In the US, records only go back a little over three centuries, so if anything, more caution should be warranted.

But Osnos is not advocating shutting down the industry. “the key is not to pretend that the nuclear industry is a house of cards,” he writes, “but to prevent a non-disaster from becoming a disaster.”

Unfortunately, our memory for disasters tends to be alarmingly short. Osnos points out that after a flood wreaked havoc with New York’s subways in 2007, some 30 million dollars were spent on flood protection… and that’s it. Then it was all forgotten. One can only hope that Sandy will leave a more lasting impression when it comes to disaster preparedness, especially when nuclear plants are concerned.

 Posted by at 7:40 am
Jun 182012
 

Here is a wonderful solution to the problem of climate change: if you don’t like the science, outlaw it. At least this is what the state legislature of North Carolina is doing, in an attempt to address the escalating costs of protecting the state from rising sea levels.

I may have concerns about the quality of climate models and the validity of some of the more hysterical predictions, but politicians should be obligated to follow the best scientific advice available. Picking the science based on ideological preferences belongs to the Dark Ages, not the 21st century.

 Posted by at 11:17 am