Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cherry-picking contrarian geologists tend to obscure scientific truth

GINA Rinehart notoriously claims she has never met a geologist who believes "adding more CO2 to the atmosphere will have any significant effect on climate".

To listen to prominent "contrarian" geologists such as Ian Plimer, you might imagine she never could.

But, despite the bluster, our contrarian geologists are out of kilter with their own community and seem deeply confused about the way the greenhouse effect - by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere, for example - has shaped both the past and the present.

All geology students learn of the importance of the greenhouse effect. It's simply impossible to understand the geological record without it.

In his 2001 award-winning book A Short History of Planet Earth, Plimer has numerous references to the greenhouse effect.

He explains what all young geologists learn as the faint young sun paradox:

"The early sun had a luminosity of some 30 per cent less than now and, over time, luminosity has increased in a steady state.

"The low luminosity of the early sun was such that the Earth's average surface temperature would have been below 0C from 4500 to 2000 million years ago. But there is evidence of running water and oceans as far back as 3800 million years ago." The question is, what kept the early Earth from freezing over?"

Plimer goes on to explain: "This paradox is solved if the Earth had an enhanced greenhouse with an atmosphere of a lot of carbon dioxide and methane."

Here's another quote from Plimer, referring to a time 100 million years ago when the dinosaurs roamed the planet: "The peak of 6 per cent carbon dioxide was at the time of a protracted greenhouse and maximum sea level. At this time, mean annual surface temperatures were 10C to 15C warmer than now."

The problem is, although his temperature estimate is about right, his CO2 estimate is about 50 times too high. CO2 levels were more like 0.12 per cent. At just three times present levels, this is a target we are on track to reach early next century.

Jump forward to 2009 and in his book Heaven and Earth Plimer seems to have quietly forgotten those geological lessons in stating: "Over geological time there is no observed relationship between global climate and atmospheric CO2."

Exactly which Plimer are we to believe?

Scientists are notoriously sceptical of the data collected by others. But ignoring a respected source is reprehensible. Cherry-picking only the data that fits is borderline. Deliberately misrepresenting data or making it up is just not on.

Here's an example. In a section from his new book, How To Get Expelled from School, as reprinted in The Weekend Australian recently, Plimer claims: "Antarctic ice core (Siple) shows that there were 330 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air in 1900; Mauna Loa Hawaiian measurements in 1960 show that the air then had 260ppm carbon dioxide."

Plimer goes on to say: "Either the ice core data is wrong, the Hawaiian carbon dioxide measurements are wrong, or the atmospheric carbon dioxide content was decreasing during a period of industrialisation."

The implication is there must be something terribly wrong with the orthodox climate science and we are all being taken for a ride.

The problem is that the primary data sources explicitly state the Hawaiian Mauna Loa CO2 measurements for 1960 were in the range 313-320ppm, and that Siple air of age about 1900 has a CO2 content of 295ppm, with the 330ppm concentrations having an estimated air age of 1962-83, entirely in keeping with Mauna Loa.

Who has been taken for a ride?

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. Plimer has persistently claimed that volcanoes contribute much more CO2 to the Earth's atmosphere than do our own activities, blithely ignoring US Geological Survey reference data showing just the opposite - volcanoes emit CO2 at about 1 per cent of the rate of anthropogenic emissions.

Another common meme promoted by our contrarian geologists is that it is now a fact that the climate is cooling.

But may we ask by whose data is this a fact?

Certainly not NASA's, which showed last year was the hottest on record, followed by 2005, 2007, 2009 and 1998. In fact, NASA ranks nine of the hottest 10 years ever recorded between 2001 and last year. You'd reckon NASA had learned a few lessons about being careful with data.

Variations on decadal timescales are more relevant to climate trends than annual variations. NASA shows the average temperature over the decade 2000-09 was a full 0.2C higher than in the 1990s - the biggest decadal rise in temperature ever recorded.

With an increase of more than 0.5C over the past 40 years, the decadal trend is now warming faster than ever. It beggars belief that any serious scientist could assert the climate is cooling.

Our contrarian geologists also avoid the devil in the detail. NASA's data shows that winters are warming faster than the summers and the Arctic faster than the tropics. While the lower atmosphere is warming, the upper atmosphere is cooling.

These characteristics provide diagnostic fingerprints of the heat trapping expected for a greenhouse effect. They provide the smoking gun that points to rising greenhouse gas levels as the cause,  and rule out warming because of additional heat input from the sun.

Could that be why you won't hear our contrarian geologists refer to such data? Could their real agenda be in manufacturing doubt rather than the search for scientific truth?

If so, it wouldn't be a first, as Naomi Oreskes points out in her recent book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

Now here's a point for those who, like Rinehart, think all geologists toe Plimer's contrarian line.

Oreskes is a noted geologist. Having published groundbreaking research on the origin of the giant South Australian Olympic Dam deposit, she has arguably contributed more to the understanding of Australian mineral wealth than has Plimer.

Now just imagine a meeting between Rinehart and Oreskes - that would be interesting!

Mike Sandiford is professor of geology at the University of Melbourne

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mixed report card for environment

Tom Arup 
The Age, December 13, 2011

The State of the Environment Report can be downloaded here. It is a very large file (118MB). There is also a summary (1.1MB).

CURRENT government spending has been unable to arrest Australia's alarming decline in native animal and plant populations, one of the biggest probes into our environmental health has found.

The 900-page State of the Environment report, released yesterday, has also concluded that global warming, population growth and economic development have become the main drivers of environmental impacts across the country.

In a mixed scorecard, the report, produced every five years, says available evidence suggests the population, range, and genetic diversity of a wide range of Australia's wildlife species is in decline.

Despite ''promising'' government investment in measures to reduce the main pressures on biodiversity, such as revegetation and curtailing invasive species, they have not been substantially reduced and species decline isn't being reversed.

''While all jurisdictions have appropriate goals in high-level plans, these are often not matched with implementation plans or levels of resourcing capable of achieving the goals,'' the report says.

Since it was compiled, the government has committed an extra $950 million of carbon price revenue towards biodiversity.

The report also identifies unexpected declines in bird and mammal numbers in northern Australia - where land clearing and development pressures are less than the south - suggesting the trends might be worse than previously expected.

The head of the scientific panel behind the work, Dr Tom Hatton from CSIRO, told The Age there are still many parts of Australia in a good environmental state. But he identified coastal and semi-urban areas as increasingly facing the impact of rapid urban development and climate change. Dr Hatton said some positive signs were emerging that the link between economic and population growth and environmental damage could be reduced with innovation and improved efficiencies.

''Our per-capita water use is going down in the capital cities,'' Dr Hatton said, ''and there is some early evidence our landfill waste generation is slowing. So I'm hopeful we can decouple economic growth from the environment. Confident? Well that's another question.''

Environment Minister Tony Burke said yesterday: ''There's acknowledgment in the report that given the amount of degradation that's happened in some places, we're never going back to the original environment that was here 200 years ago. But we can get it to a much better state of health.''

Marine environments are in generally good condition. But there is substantial degradation in southern and eastern waters - including Victoria's seas - with ecosystems in bays and near coasts in generally poor health. Port Phillip Bay could be the marine ecosystem most invaded by foreign pests in the southern hemisphere.

With David Wroe

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Protecting biodiversity would limit damage

Nicky Phillips 
The Age, December 12, 2011  

THE impact of climate change on Australia's animals and plants could be significantly reduced if other threats to biodiversity are managed, a new report says.

The review, the most detailed scientific paper on the impact of climate change on the region to date, says climate change is unavoidable because global emissions are not yet under control. Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands are particularly vulnerable, it says.

The report's lead author, the conservation biologist Richard Kingsford, said the effects of global warming could be offset by more than half by reducing the impact of feral animals, pollution, habitat loss and other threats to Australia's ecosystems.

Global warming will have consequences for all plant and animal species, from micro-organisms to large mammals living on land, in freshwater systems and the ocean, said Professor Kingsford, the director of the Australian wetlands and rivers centre at the University of NSW.

The review cites many independent scientific studies that demonstrate the effects of global warming on biodiversity, and its projected impact.

Rising temperatures will exceed some species' tolerance, especially in alpine regions, while increases in fire and drought will alter vegetation, favouring grasslands over trees and woodlands.

Rising sea levels will have a significant impact on low-lying islands, especially in the Pacific, while an increase in ocean acidification will affect marine animals with calcified skeletons.

"Ultimately we are dependent on biodiversity for our livelihood," Professor Kingsford said. "Plants provide the oxygen we need; the water we get from rivers is supported by catchments filled with plants and animals, and most of our food is supported by biodiversity."

Already many changes among animals and plants have been observed, Professor Kingsford said, such as coral bleaching, altered flowering patterns and shifts in the migration times of animals, particularly birds.

The last resort to prevent extinction for some species would mean relocation to a new habitat, he said.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Butterfly effect flags climate chaos

Jo Chandler 
The Age, December 10, 2011

Any regular observer of the annual international climate talks that have become a fixture on the Yuletide calendar over the past 17 years will be aware that these events create their own extreme weather. Conference rooms heavy with hot air are suddenly lashed by tornadoes of frenzied resolve and energy, most of which blow themselves out. Then there are the thunderous exchanges, frosty relations, occasional showers of aspiration, and the dustclouds of vanished hope.

What it all means it's often hard to say, the 10,000-plus players from 195 nations having evolved a banal language of negotiation that is near impenetrable to the uninitiated. One might be forgiven for thinking they are talking about someone else's planet.

But from outside the artificial atmospheric bubble of the UN climate talks, this planet continues to issue statements more eloquent, powerful and enduring than any of the human chatter. Its voice can be found in the volumes of scientific journals and expert reports as new pages are added to the evolving 150-year-plus archive of climate knowledge.

This year, the 12 days of Durban talks coincided with a torrent of new science, much of it timed to exploit piqued interest in climate issues (not always successfully). It began with a blast from the wild ocean waters south of the Roaring Forties, and finished on butterfly wings in the gardens of Great Britain. Links are included below.

November 29: The morning after South African President Jacob Zuma opened the Durban talks with the declaration that ''for most people in the developing countries and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death'', scientists at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre in Hobart published an analysis collating the latest findings on the Southern Ocean, one of the most powerful players on global and regional climate.

Over the past 50 years its cold, deep waters have gulped down the lion's share of the heat and CO2 being pumped out by human enterprise, its mighty currents ploughing more than 40 per cent of the extra carbon dioxide into the deep water. As a consequence, the ocean is becoming more acidic - the upshot of an intense chemical attraction: CO2 loves H2O, and vice versa. The chemistry plays out in a lowering of the pH of seawater, eroding the capacity of the tiny organisms at the bottom of the marine food chain to build shells and skeletons. The timing of the threshold at which the Southern Ocean waters actually become corrosive to shells has been brought forward from around 2050 to around 2030.

Salinity is also changing. Samples hauled up from the abyss four kilometres down find the waters are both freshening (less salty) and warming.

The southern waters are warming faster than other oceans, the temperature rise trickling down to greater depths. Water temperature around Antarctica has a critical influence on ''the largest single uncertainty in estimating the future range of sea level rise … the question of what's going to happen to the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland'', says ACE CRC Oceans program leader Dr Steve Rintoul.

November 30: As the World Meteorological Organisation releases news that 2011 has been one of the warmest years on record despite the moderating influence of a cooling La Nina event (, Australia's Climate Commission publishes the latest of a series of reports on The Critical Decade, shifting discussion from broader environmental concerns to more intimate questions of human health.

The report declares climate change to be one of the most serious threats facing Australians' health, due to the increased risk of death or injury during extreme weather events, and an expected rise in infectious disease and mental illness. No one is immune, the report warns, but the most vulnerable will suffer disproportionately - children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, remote indigenous communities.

December 1: With Arctic temperatures rising at almost twice the average rate of the planet, the permafrost - the vast frozen tundra that holds about 1700 billion tonnes of organic matter accumulated in soils over thousands of years - is thawing. ''That is about four times more than all the carbon emitted by human activity in modern times, and twice as much as is present in the atmosphere now,'' say the authors of a commentary published in Nature, informed by a survey of 41 permafrost scientists from around the world.

In recent years there have been reports of ancient carbon and methane bubbling out of lakes and igniting tundra fires. ''Carbon released into the atmosphere from permafrost soils will accelerate climate change,'' the article states. How much of an effect the thaw will have is highly uncertain. But the scientists do anticipate it will be faster than the models suggest. They calculate that permafrost thaw could, over this century, put as much carbon into the atmosphere as deforestation (if forest loss continues at current rates), making it ''cause for serious concern''.

Their fears are compounded by the observation that permafrost emissions include significant quantities of methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The survey, they say, ''outlines the additional risk to society caused by thawing of the frozen north, and underscores the urgent need to reduce atmospheric emissions from fossil-fuel use and deforestation. This will help to keep permafrost carbon frozen in the ground.''

December 2: The powerful role of carbon dioxide as a regulator of Earth's climate over deep history is further exposed in an analysis of ancient algae found buried in seabed cores. It reveals that a drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide of about 40 per cent appears to have been the driving force behind the formation of the Antarctic ice sheet 34 million years ago, say US scientists at Yale and Purdue universities in a paper in Science. ''The evidence falls in line with what we would expect if carbon dioxide is the main dial that governs global climate; if we crank it up or down there are dramatic changes,'' said Purdue's Professor Matthew Huber. ''We went from a warm world without ice to a cooler world with an ice sheet overnight, in geological terms, because of fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels.''

While the study sheds new light on the consequences of a moment one scientist described as ''the mother of all climate tipping points'', the factors that drove the fall in carbon dioxide levels remain a mystery.

December 4: At the heart of scientific investigation and public discussion about climate change is how much warming is influenced by humans, and how much is the consequence of natural variation. A fresh investigation of this question by Swiss climate modellers, using new methodology, concludes that natural factors are extremely unlikely to have contributed more than about one-quarter of the temperature rise observed in the past 60 years. Since 1950, the average global surface air temperature has increased by more than 0.5 degrees celsius. To distinguish between human and natural causes of warming, the scientists analysed changes in the balance of heat energy entering and leaving Earth. Their findings, in Nature Geoscience, echo other investigations, and lead to ''an even higher confidence about human influence dominating the observed temperature increase since pre-industrial times''.  

On the same day, two other papers explore different facets of the changing marine environment.

One looks at oxygen levels in the tropical north-east Atlantic Ocean. Fish need to swim - and breathe. Global warming is believed to be influencing the expansion of areas of the ocean in which dissolved oxygen levels are declining. A collaboration of American, German and Canadian scientists used individually tagged fish as part of their exploration of Atlantic waters. Their work plots a decrease in upper layer oxygen levels, and concludes that oxygen depletion and the expansion of the deep oxygen minimum zone may reduce the habitat of some fish species. This, combined with overfishing, may threaten the sustainability of valuable fisheries, they warn.

Meanwhile, anyone fishing for some good news might find a skerrick of it in a paper out of Queensland's James Cook University. The scientists set out to study the capacity of species to adapt to warmer waters. The team found that one species of common tropical reef fish was able to acclimatise within a couple of generations. The spiny damselfish didn't like being suddenly moved into warmer waters, explained Professor Philip Munday, but its descendants coped. Munday was not as reassured by his results as some media commentators. ''This is just one fish,'' he told the ABC. ''It is a complicated story. This is just one little piece of good news in that otherwise very worrying story.''

December 5: A week into the talks in Durban, and news breaks that global emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels jumped by the largest amount on record over 2010. After a two-year slump in emissions during 2008 and 2009 as a result of the global financial crisis, emissions rose 5.9 per cent last year according to the analysis of the Global Carbon Project. ''There's no evidence that this trajectory we've been following the last 10 years is going to change,'' observed a leader of the analysis team, Dr Glen P. Peters of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo. 


December 7: The UN Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO) issues its first report on the State of the World's Land and Water Resources. Between 1961 and 2009, cropland grew by 12 per cent, but agricultural production expanded by 150 per cent, thanks to yield increases in major crops. But the rates of growth are slowing, and the report plots an increasing imbalance between availability and demand for land and water resources. The number of areas reaching the limits of production capacity is fast increasing, the report warns.  

On the same day, the US National and Oceanic Atmospheric Administration reports that in 2011 the US experienced a record 12 separate billion-dollar weather/climate disasters, with an aggregate damage total of about $US52 billion ($A50.7 billion).

Meanwhile in Britain, data published from the biggest ever survey of butterflies shows that nearly three-quarters of butterfly species that breed in the UK have declined in numbers over a decade. Richard Fox, lead author of the survey, told the Guardian that the results were ''significant, worrying and depressing''.

He described butterflies as the canaries in the coalmine of the environment, the health of their populations providing a telling narrative stretching back - in the context of Britain - to the 1600s. ''We have just gone through a decade which has had the highest levels of public awareness about wildlife and conservation and effort and public money gone into the landscape for wildlife: in that context it's pretty bad news.''

December 8: As Durban negotiators entered the last phase of talks, Dr James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Space Institute - and the scientist who first raised concerns about global warming before the US Senate in 1988 - had a message for them. If the world begins reducing CO2 emissions by 6 per cent a year starting in 2012, atmospheric levels can return to the "safe" level of 350 ppm that he and others have long called for. "If the world waits until 2020 to begin, it will need to reduce CO2 by 15 per cent a year to reach 350 ppm. We are out of time."

Jo Chandler is a senior writer.