06 September 2012

The Relativity of Wrong

Recent political comment brings me back to a point I'd written about before, under the label of Successive Approximation.  The better title, unsurprisingly, is Isaac Asimov's The Relativity of Wrong. 

I first became aware of Paul Ryan's lie when my wife asked me, having mentioned nothing about context, whether a runner could conceivably mis-remember his marathon of somewhat over 4 hours as having been somewhat under 3 hours.  As has been reported in many places, and some reporters having done some experiments, the answer is no.  It is completely implausible that someone, especially someone with only one marathon, could make that mistake as an honest mistake.  Confusing a little over 4 for a little under ... maybe.  You would likely have trained for some time under 4 and that number could have stayed with you longer than your disappointment in not making your goal. 

But confusing your over-4 hours, a perfectly respectable time to cover a marathon if nothing to brag about for an open class man, for sub-3 -- a time that entitles you to some bragging (as a friend worked to earn the right to) and is achievable only with some serious training and talent -- is not an accident.

The political side of this, well, not so very interesting.  Except for the fact, perhaps, that Ryan is supposed to be a leading light for Republican number-crunching.  Number types are even less likely to make a mistake like that.  At least as a mistake. 

More interesting, and perhaps useful, to the local purpose is to look some at how to assess the relativity of wrong.  The route I took in the successive approximation post was quantitative.  Some articles have taken something like that, observing that his claimed time was about 70% of his actual time, or, conversely, that he lied by about 30%.  That's actually much too generous to his lie.  The problem with that is that if he had claimed the world record time (a bit less than 2 hours faster than he ran, as opposed to the somewhat more than 1 hour of his actual lie), it would only be scored as 50% wrong.  You can't run faster than the world record, or you'd be the record holder, which even Ryan didn't claim.  So, the most he could have lied by is about 2 hours (iirc his actual time was 4:01, and the world record back then was about 2:07, so 114 minutes).  His actual lie is about 65 minutes (taking 2:50-something as 2:56) wrong, so 57%, more than half, of the span that he could possibly have lied by.  That could be refined some by comparison against, say, the race winner's time, or the Olympic qualifying time.  But you get the idea.  And the 57% is about double what the other approach shows.  Compare how wrong something is with how wrong it could be.

But some things, and this is where I'll especially invite comments, don't lend themselves to that kind of quantification.  For instance, I'm comfortable with saying that it is more wrong to say that the earth has no greenhouse effect than it is to say that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas.  But how can we assess this comparative wrongness with the error in saying that CO2 levels have not risen over the past 200 years?

So I'll invite description of approaches to assessing relative errors, preferably with examples.  Note, too, that it's best to have them be objective examples -- so which candidate is better kinds of things are not going to work.  Marathon times and the radiative properties of the earth's atmosphere aren't partisan matters.

23 July 2012

There is no greenhouse effect

Quote-miners will love that subject line, and it isn't a statement of my belief.  But it's been recurring some that there are people denying that anybody believes that there is no greenhouse effect.  Yet, typically on the same day as that claim, I keep seeing people deny that there is a greenhouse effect.  It's also common enough that Fred Singer, who probably would label me as a 'warmist', has made his own complaints about people denying that there is a greenhouse effect.

Nevertheless, it's always a good idea to check in more systematically to what is really out there.  The search here will limit itself to Google searches which show up for the exact phrase "there is no greenhouse effect" and are within the past year.  Alas (I keep giving away the surprise ending) it turns out that there really is no difficulty at all in finding sites which claim that there is no greenhouse effect.  And, of course, are wrong in doing so.  If someone were to demonstrate it and be correct, I'd have to be nominating them for major scientific medals.  No such concern with these.
The arguments claiming to 'disprove' the greenhouse effect's existence seem to fall mainly in to 3 groups.  I add the usual 'other' category since a philosopher friend has noted that all classification schemes wind up with one.

The first group, the 'linguistic argument' is the silliest.  The problem with it is to mistake the words used to describe something with the thing itself.  And then consider that if you can find a problem with the words, that there's nothing being described.  Poof, it's gone.  In this case, that if greenhouses don't operate by the 'greenhouse effect', that there is no greenhouse effect in the earth's atmosphere.  I discuss it at more length in Greenhouse misnomer.  The thing is, the words we use don't change the reality we're trying to deal with.  The earth's atmosphere, due to water vapor, carbon dioxide, and some other rare gases, is fairly transparent to solar radiation and absorbs the earth's radiation pretty well.  It's been suggested that we call it 'atmosphere effect' or 'Callendar effect' instead.  They might be better names, but, regardless, whatever words you use, the fact of selective absorption of energy by the atmosphere remains.

The second argument also relies on giving words supremacy over the reality they're working to describe.  One of the may verbal descriptions of the second law of thermodynamics is that 'heat doesn't spontaneously flow from a colder source to a warmer one'.  But that's only a partial description -- as usual, the statement requires that you make some assumptions.  Those assumptions aren't all true when considering the flow of energy by radiation in the atmosphere. In order to apply the second law properly, you have to sit down with the mathematics.  If you don't want to, or can't apply the mathematics, at least remember that the first law of thermodynamics regards the conservation of energy, not 'heat'.  Radiation carries energy, as does the motion of particles, the elevation of those particles (such as make up the atmosphere above ground), and other things.  'heat' refers only to temperature.  The conservation of energy applies to all, and means that if radiation goes from here to there, there gets hotter (has more energy).

Venus supplies the third argument, which strikes me as bizarre, but, then, so does denying that there is a greenhouse effect.  If you look at Venus, particularly at the surface, it is exceptionally hot.  Far hotter than its blackbody temperature (about 224 K, colder than the earth's 255 K !) would suggest, and far hotter than Mercury -- which is closer to the sun and you'd expect to be hotter than Venus.  The reason for that exceptional warmth is the extreme greenhouse Venus has due to its extremely heavy greenhouse atmosphere.  It has about 90 times the surface pressure of the earth, and almost all of that is due to carbon dioxide, versus the Earth's about 0.04%  Ok, that makes it apparent why someone who would want to deny that there's a greenhouse effect (or at least that CO2 isn't a greenhouse gas) would go to Venus.

The argument, however, is absurd.  I haven't gone in to detail about this yet, but there's a concept called 'potential temperature'.  This is the temperature that a blob of gas potentially has -- if you moved it in a plastic bag that perfectly insulated it against heat conduction or radiation but was fine with shrinking to fit your blob as you moved it from where it was to the surface.  There is an old saying that 'hot air rises', which runs in to a bit of a problem with the fact that at 10 km elevation (the tropopause in mid-latitudes) the local temperature is far colder than the surface is.  If hot air rises, why is that much higher air so cold?  Because the potential temperature is so high for that air.  If you lowered that blob to the surface, it would be much warmer than the surface air.  Take a tropopause temperatures of, say, 225 K, versus surface temperature of 300 K.  By the time you brought that blob down to the surface it would be 325 K -- it really is the hotter air.

The argument relies on a ... well, I don't know what to call it, but it isn't honest or accurate.  The argument relies on taking the (observed) temperature at some large height and then bringing it down to the surface and saying that this potential temperature explains why the surface is hot.  It's a falsehood, though, because it doesn't explain why that temperature isn't reached until the great (observed) elevation.  If there were fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that elevation would be lower is the truth that is being ignored.  It is the balance between incoming energy, albedo (reflection), and greenhouse effect which determines the temperature through the depth of the atmosphere.

Linguistic argument
Second Law Argument
Venus is warm because of surface pressure / lapse rate, not a greenhouse effect

Other / Multiple

The links show some overlap, citing each other or the same, somewhat older, sources.  This takes us past the 20 links standard. Peruse them yourself, of course. That's rather the point. That, and the reference for future use that there are indeed people (and sites to publish them) who deny that there is such a thing as a greenhouse effect.

We also see that some of the same names are showing up.  We've previously seen icecap and 'climaterealists' on the blog here as unreliable sources.  More of the same.  And several others up there, I've seen in my other looking around -- such as the oft-reprinted + rewritten John O'Sullivan.  There's a certain persistence involved.

In doing this look-around, I also noticed the 'there is no greenhouse effect' argument getting unfriendly response from WUWT and Jo Nova's.  Notice also that I'm quoting Fred Singer above, and Roy Spencer for one of the physics descriptions.

18 July 2012

Career Day Educational Paths

Scientists spend a lot of time learning things, so it isn't unreasonable that the path to a career in science includes a lot of time in school. Along the way, though, remember that it is the learning things that is the important side, not so much the grades. For me this meant, for instance, taking optional classes that I was not necessarily going to get good grades in. But I learned a lot in them, more than if I'd taken the safer, easier classes. That has served me well.

College is the first part of the path. College expenses have soared since I was in school. But the method that worked for me is still available. Namely, we had very little money at home, to the point where no 4 year school was affordable. I had worked my junior and senior years of high school, not that it would have come near covering college costs, but it helped give me at least some spending money in college. The main thing was to select several schools and see who would come up with a good enough financial aid package for me to afford to attend. I wound up with the maximum in loans, the maximum in state and federal grants, the maximum in summer job earning requirement, maximum in work-study, and an aid plan that meant I'd graduate with zero dollars in savings. The rest, which was a lot, was scholarships from my school -- Northwestern University. That meant that I'd wound up at the most expensive school I'd applied to. The least expensive was my state school, which said that they'd give me much less than they thought I needed (and agreed with Northwestern about how much I and my family could come up with). Easy decision, even though they'd originally been my first choice.

Something that is more an option now than back then is to spend your first two years at a community college. Expenses are much lower, and the standard freshman chemistry/biology/physics/calculus are taught by people who are interested in teaching them, versus four year schools where it's often viewed as undesirable to teach such classes. I took Calculus III and Ordinary Differential Equations at my local community college and was very happy with the results.

As I was selecting colleges, I heard that the typical college student changes major 3-4 times. So in addition to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science that I planned to major in, I also required that the school have a good Astronomy department and one or two other things. This helped narrow the field, and it ensured that if I decided I didn't like what I started with, I could change major to something else and still be in a good department. First I changed to just Electrical Engineering. Then to Applied Math. My area of application was originally supposed to be fluid dynamics, but that sequence was cancelled. So I jumped over to Astrophysics for my application area.

A couple of things I did in college worked out very well, and even better for my sons since they didn't have to take time to figure them out after they got to college. First, regardless of what area(s) you're interested in, join up and be active in the student groups for that interest. Different fields have different personalities, so you can get clues about whether you'd be happy in that field early on. The student groups also have more information on just what the field is like. Also join the more general groups, like Society of Women Engineers or National Society of Black Engineers (two excellent groups on my campus, probably our best-run).

Second, is to make some kind of connection -- maybe a job, maybe volunteering -- to work with someone in research. This is what I did for work-study the last two years of college. It gave me excellent practice at doing science as opposed to just taking classes about science. And it gave me a good working relationship with someone active in a field I was interested in (ice ages and climate change).

Thanks to my experience working with a professor while I was an undergraduate, I realized that my graduate school experience would depend strongly on whether my adviser was someone I could work happily with. You spend a lot of time with your adviser. If you're dreading each meeting, every day, it's going to be a very long and unpleasant time in school if you even get the degree. On the other hand, there are a lot of different people and types of people, even within the department. And many different departments in the country. Again, I was not as concerned about exact area of research I would do -- the universe is interesting. At one school, I'd have been doing theoretical climatology, at another I'd have been doing numerical models of tornadoes. At the school I went to, the University of Chicago, it was polar oceanography. While I was happy enough with the people I talked to at the other schools, my adviser and several other faculty were a step above in our conversations.

After graduate school, it's likely that you'll spend time in a postdoctoral position. Almost certain in biological sciences, likely in physical sciences. I earned an unrestricted ocean modeling fellowship -- meaning that I could do my ocean modeling at any school, with any adviser, that I chose. It's a great setup, though rare. More typically, you'll be reading help wanted pages of your professional society's web site. Anyhow, during this phase, be looking for your next job starting from day one. (I waited, which was not a good idea.) Most postdocs are only a year or two, so you'll need to be looking either for your next postdoc or a longer term position.

Every two or three years, there is a flurry of reports about the 'looming terrible shortage' of math/science/engineering people. Often, they include comments about how anybody who earns a degree (or, specifically, doctorate) in these areas will be flooded with offers. These articles have been common since I was an undergraduate, and I've seen sources saying so since the mid-1960s. There has never been a shortage in the sense of fewer applicants than jobs. The major report that came out when I was in school, which contributed to a surge in graduate students in math/science/engineering, turned out to have used fewer than 3 applicants for every 2 jobs as its definition of 'shortage'. My friends who were among the 1 in 3 who did not get jobs in science disagreed with that definition. Things are better now, but there is not, and never has been, a guarantee, or a shortage. So thinking about your job hunt much earlier than I did (not until after I defended my thesis) is a good idea, basically a requirement.

17 July 2012

Career Day Biographical Notes

I'll be talking with a career day crowd Friday, which reminded me that many of the questions the coordinator offered for the speakers to consider are also relevant to my purposes in the blog. For this note, I'll take up the more biographical side of things.

The only thing I can suggest is universal in scientist biographies is that we all think, and did so from an early age, that the universe is very interesting. Or at least some part of it is. I wasn't very excited about insects when I was young (they're more interesting to me these days, now that I'm ... less young). But a friend who is an entomologist, with particular interest in bees, has always been. It seems common, which saddens me, for kids to be taught not to ask questions, and not to find the universe so interesting, somewhere between, say, 10 and 18 years old. Scientists are ones who never lost that interest. The proverbial childlike sense of wonder about the universe is with us still.

Often that wonder and interest translates to doing a lot of learning. Sometimes we did it in school, and sometimes on our own. Not all of us were interested in school, or got particularly good grades in it when young. If not in school, then many did their learning by a lot of reading on our own (my path) or going out and observing the world (my biologist friend). But there are also scientists who weren't terribly interested in studying or practicing science prior to college; interested in the universe, but not so much or in a way that they'd start watching the bees in their back yard, or reading their way through the library.

My path also included a small telescope, messing around with electronics, taking apart clocks (they were mechanical in those days!), playing and watching baseball, running around, swimming, watching some good TV shows, and watching a lot of bad TV shows. And I read a lot -- some math, science, and history, and a lot of science fiction and mysteries. The telescope was the sort of 'Christmas' telescope that serious amateur astronomers intensely dislike -- poor mount and not very good optics. Worse, I sometimes used it watching through the window (you can hear their wails from here). But ... bad as it was, and my use of it ... it opened a new universe to me. I could see Jupiter's moons, that Saturn was blobby (not good enough to show me rings), and a huge increase in number of craters on the moon. I was practically Galileo!

Through the end of high school, at least, I haven't noticed much difference between the people who eventually became scientists and those became engineers. All the preceding applies to both. Indeed, in high school, I'd decided I was going to be an engineer -- Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (I was going to get both degrees). Conversely, the descriptions above apply to many people I know who never went in to science or engineering. My exchange student son, for instance, went in to business and now works in IT at the Deutscher Bank.

You don't have to be good at math to be good in science. Needs saying. I was, so I do kinds of science that use a lot of math. But not everyone is, and even those who are ok with math don't always like to do it. There are areas of science that don't use much math.

Which brings up the suggestion end of things: Try a lot of different things. Try math, biology, physics, chemistry, meteorology, oceanography, just plain walking through the woods, and watching city pigeons. Make mud pies, run, play sports, learn a musical instrument, learn languages. Do some reading, some observing. Fool around with ideas from my project folder. Make up your own projects and see what happens.

For the parents, do support and encourage your kids in trying things, but don't suspend your parental judgement. The idea of trying lots of different things, without worrying about whether you're good at them, is one my mother applied in raising my sisters and me. It was one of her most brilliant ideas, which I've stolen for my own parenting. But this didn't stop her from steering me away from inventing my own rocket fuel when I (a very clumsy 10 year old) was interested in trying that.

16 July 2012

Reality Based Decision Making

I have a radical idea - "reality-based decision making".  I'm in favor of it, is the apparently radical part.
  • Reality: Local sea level is rising, and the rate of rise has been increasing.  (Note, by the way, that this isn't true of all areas.  Global mean sea level is rising and accelerating, but some local areas are seeing a local sea level fall -- the land is rising faster than the water due to solid earth activity.  But the examples below come from areas where it is true.)
  • Reality: This increases the area that can be affected by storm surge if nothing changes.
  • Reality: It means some areas currently occupied will go below sea level if nothing changes.
  • Reality: Those previous 3 mean that if nothing changes, more people will be affected, possibly killed, than already are, each year or decade.
Decision? Well, I don't know.  Of course I know what I prefer, but that's neither here nor there.  I live more than 30 meters (100 feet) above sea level.  No plausible storm surge or sea level rise for the next several centuries is a risk to my house.

Given those realities, it would be reality based decision making to respond:
  • I don't care, let the low-lying areas drown.
  • Let the buyer beware.
  • We should rezone to have less property in the way of the storm surge.
  • No new building in the areas that already flood more than once a decade.
  • If anything bad happens, we'll declare a state of emergency and let taxpayers from the rest of the country bail us out.  Too bad, though, for the people who are killed.
  • We'll build a dike to keep the water out.  After all, that's what the Dutch have done.
  • The cost of response is greater than the value of the lives and property that would be destroyed, so don't respond.
  • The cost of rebuilding after this predictable event destroys the area is good for the economy.
  • ....
What isn't reality based decision making is to respond:

10 July 2012

Summer Questions

Been a while since I hung out the shingle -- so here's a place for your questions/comments/suggestions that don't fit with any particular post.

On a different matter, I've noticed that my older posts don't get comments.  This strikes me as odd because I don't close comments.  And recent comments are always shown at the bottom of the page, along with a subscription to comments rss feed on the right hand side.  If they weren't being read, no surprise that there are no comments.  But some posts have had most of their reads months and even years after the original appearance.  Any ideas?

09 July 2012

Logical Fallacies and Scientific Method

Cracked had a very nice article on logical fallacies -- that we all make as a matter of course.  Also some good illustrations and suggestions.  Aside from the fact that it was a humor magazine that had such a nice article on rational thought, I was struck by the fact that each of the points mentioned are ones that the practice of science has addressed.

The 5 natural fallacies mentioned are:
5. We're Not Programmed to Seek "Truth," We're Programmed to "Win"
4. Our Brains Don't Understand Probability
3. We Think Everyone's Out to Get Us 
2. We're Hard-Wired to Have a Double Standard
1. Facts Don't Change Our Minds

Let's take a look at what science method does to combat these:

07 July 2012

In the weekend heat

Sometimes it's easy to take the weather personally.  Yesterday, DC set its record for consecutive days 95 F or above (35 C), with 9, and will likely obliterate it by going to 11 straight days, adding in today and tomorrow.  The record it breaks, 8, was first set in 1987 -- the first summer I was here.  It was tied twice more, first in 1993 -- my third summer.  At the time, the summer of 1987 set many of the all-time records for sustained heat.  Probably several of the summers since then would have as well, if 1987 hadn't beat them to the punch.  Rephrase: many of the past 25 years would have set sustained heat records if compared only to the observations from 1880-1980.  What used to be unheard of is now 'normal', or at least common.  I'll be pulling down the data once NCDC is working again.

In the midst of the heat, well, we're hot here, and thunderstorms, I'll remind folks of the fact that you shouldn't run in thunderstorms.  That also applies to biking and walking and other outdoor activities.  If it's only heat you're dealing with, remember to drink enough fluids.  And, one trick for keeping cool while exercising is to dump some cool/cold water on your head.  Preferably to get a hat wet (it soaks up more water than my ever-thinning hair).  For more extreme cases, some ice cubes under your hat.

While my power came back after about 20 hours, friends didn't regain it until Tuesday (~90 hours) or Thursday (~140 hours).  Again, this is for wealthy, and densely populated, areas of a wealthy country.  West Virginia has not been faring as 'well'.  See this also.  Noticed in passing (unfortunately I don't remember exact source, quite possibly a Capital Weather Gang tweet*)  was that US average was 214 minutes of power failure per year.  Unfortunately, even the better parts of this area are likely far in excess of that.  Certainly my 20 hours this time are not balanced off with 6 previous years of 0.  In other wealthy countries, it's order 20 minutes per year.  In other words, US average is 10 times worse than other countries, and the Capitol area is closer to 100 times.  This is not the first time we've lost power this year, and won't be the last.

* My apologies to the original source if it wasn't this.  In any case, Capital Weather Gang is well worth reading, and has a blog as well.

At the same time as we were obliterating our record for sustained extreme heat, a friend bragged that Phoenix, Arizona, had its coldest 4th of July in 100 years -- 76 F (25 C).  We were 20 F hotter.  A different friend commented that he'd escaped the DC heat by going to the Bahamas.  Summer in the Caribbean to escape the heat ...

06 July 2012

Century storms

"That's two straight years we've had a 'storm of the century'; those weather guys are idiots!"  Not long after I moved to the Washington, DC area, this happened, and the quote is real.  I'm not sure that the storms involved really were 'storm of the century' events -- events that if we had a long enough record, we'd see happen about 10 times per 1000 years -- but it's something to think of a little quantitatively, particularly in light of my normally abnormal note.

Let's suppose that we're building a house and would like it to last 30 years.  Well, to be specific, let's say we'd like a 99% chance of it lasting that long.  Obviously it has to be able to survive events that we'd expect to happen once per year.  And we can probably ignore things that we'd expect only once in a million years.  But what about a once in 100 year event?  The name misleads us in to thinking that the next time such an event would happen is 100 years after the last time.  While natural reading, it's wrong mathematics.  We could easily be in the unlucky 30 years that sees a 100 year event.  We could even see it twice.  But is there less than a 1% chance of having one 100 year event in a span of 30 years?  That's our design requirement.  If it can be expected more often than that, our house design is not reliable enough.  We need something better. And we'll need to get quantitative.

05 July 2012

Normally abnormal

Normal and abnormal are among those words that don't mean a lot without knowing the context; 'rapid', I avoid entirely having hung around with both nuclear physicists and astrophysicists, for whom rapid can mean a femtosecond, or 100 million years. It's normal to be hotter or colder than normal.  It would be highly abnormal to always be right at normal.  While perfectly good English, let's do some work to make this real for understanding weather and climate.

One sense of 'normal' we have is the average value.  The average temperature for July 2nd in my area is, say, 86 F (30 C).  This is a useful figure, at least in the sense that we then expect temperatures to be closer to that than, say, 50 C, or 10 C.  But it would be highly abnormal -- something seldom seen -- for the temperature to be exactly 86 F for five consecutive July 2nds.

To take a comment of mine from Tuesday, we had about 1 hour of winds averaging 50 mph (22 m/s) in the recent storm.  Such winds are highly abnormal, in that the average is 5-10 mph.  But there are 8766 hours in a year.  It is normal, I believe (haven't pulled down the full data set), for at least 1 hour in the year to average 50 mph here. One sense of normal is the arithmetic average.  Another is 'what are the winds you see less than 1% of the time'?  That would be the 99th percentile winds -- you get that or faster 87.66 hours per year.  99.9th percentile is 8.766 hours, which I think is about right for 50 mph in this area.  99.99th percentile is something you expect to see about 50 minutes each year (maybe this is where we were).  In other words, it is normal to be that abnormal.

04 July 2012

Happy 4th of July

Hope everyone is having a happy 4th of July.  For the USA readers, two sets of words in reminder:

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
(et seq.)

The Constitution of the United States

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Back to me:

Though today is the day officially designated for the first, I think the second is the more significant for what it is we are celebrating.  The constitution is the basis on which we celebrate being a nation.

03 July 2012

Adapted to the weather?

I'm going to do some complaining about the recent power failures from Chicago through the Washington DC area, and there will be some relevance to talk about climate change adaptation.  But first, a few words about my background to be making complaints.  I'm not someone who has never been without electricity for an extended period before, nor, for that matter, without running water.  I've hand-pumped my water for some weeks.  And I carried it a couple hundred meters in buckets to water my grandmother's recent plantings in the hot and dry, by the standards then, summers of 1987-1988 in the midwest. While I like modern technologies, not least because it is why I reached age 10, I know how to live ok on a late 19th century level, and have done so.

In discussions about climate change, I hear that "Don't worry, we'll adapt to it." and
"Mitigating climate change means returning to 19th century technology."

I'll leave aside whether the recent derecho represents climate change.  And even more so the question of whether the change has a human fingerprint on it.  I live in the national Capitol area for what is supposed to be the richest and most technologically advanced country on the earth.  And many, large population, counties around me are among the wealthiest in the country.  If any area should be well-adapted to current weather, forget to climate change, it is this area.  Let's just consider events already in hand.

18 June 2012

Quick Notes

 Sea Ice:
  • Alastair, in case I didn't confirm it earlier, you're on for the 50 quatloos for September NSIDC sea ice extent over/under 4.15 million km^2.  I'll stand with that even with the recent drop in ice extent.
  • All are welcome to enter in the poll at the bottom.  I see few are taking the higher side of estimates.  I hope that's not because you're intimidated by my guesses!  When I'm confident about what I'm doing, I'll call them predictions.
  • The June Arctic Sea Ice Outlook is out (more in a post to come).  The guesses I'm involved with are 4.4, 4.8, 4.9, with the 4.8 likely to come down when we make a run with more recent initial conditions.  (Again, this first one was from December)
  • GCOM-W1 did indeed enter orbit safely and instruments are powering up and being checked out.  The bad news is that AMSR2 is looking at 12-18 months from launch before its data distribution (to me at work) becomes operational.
  •  The recent rapid drop-off (and then plateauing) is more or less to be expected.  I think.  If I'm wrong, Alastair stands to win his 50 quatloos. 

  • My meeting went well.  My thanks to the JMA and JAXA (Japanese Meteorological Agency and Japanese Space Agency). And especially Misako Kachi who took lead in coordinating it.
  • Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kamakura, and Mt. Fuji all are excellent places to visit as a tourist.  Selected photos to come.
  • Someone with approximately zero Japanese language skill, but ok English, can indeed tourist around Japan ok.  (Exhibits 1 and 2 being my wife and me.)
  • If you're not Japanese, be sure to stay at a Ryokan if you have a chance.  We stayed at Fujitomori.
  • 13 time zones followed by several 12 hour working days are difficult.
 continued ...

17 May 2012

AMSR 2 on the way!

My contact inside JAXA sent this note:

GCOM-W1 was launched at 1:39 18 May (Japan Standard Time) as scheduled, and the satellite was separated from the rocket successfully.

This is the satellite carrying the AMSR-2.  Keep your fingers crossed for successful deployment.  But this is a major step to operations!

09 May 2012

Sea Ice Predictions 2012 Open Poll

The poll for your guesses on September 2012 sea ice extent (NSIDC) is open.  All the way to the bottom of the page.  If you'd like to explain how you arrived at your guess, please do post a comment explaining it.  If it's a substantial explanation (i.e., one I could steal research for my professional use), I'll also bring it up here to the main post.

Poll is open to the end of June, EDT.

08 May 2012

2011 Sea Ice Outlook Verification

Sometimes time passes faster than you'd think.  I'm sure that's where Einstein got the principle of relativity from.  In any case, I realized that we're about to be submitting our guesses for the 2012 sea ice outlook and I never did get around to examining, on the blog, how our guesses for 2011 did.  In brief, pretty well.

As I'd expected,  the statistical ensemble was low, and the Wang et al. model was high.  The June Wu et al model was a touch high, and the August version was right on (given its reporting precision).  Also, and reassuring, is that all our guesses were within 0.5 million km^2 of the observation.  That's what we've estimated as the standard variation in sea ice extent.

It's a good sign that we were within that range.  Also, 0.5 million km^2 is the variability estimated by almost all groups that provide an estimate for it.  Even though that number is suspiciously round, we actually arrived at it by data analysis.  It's a statement of how much the ice pack varies, rather than the quality of the methods.  The quality of the methods is how their error compares to the 0.5.

For the coming year, we've got some modifications in mind (experiments) for the Wu et al. approach, and I've already made some for the statistical ensemble. 

Plus, I'm going to be taking a look, perhaps getting Wu to play too, at whether this past winter's heavy sea ice cover in the Bering Sea was something we could have (or did) estimate in advance.  The model runs are already done.  It's 'just' a matter of analyzing them.

07 May 2012

Heartland on Ice

What's old is new once again.  I'd actually written most of this in February, when Heartland was in the news.  But between one thing and another, hadn't posted it.  Now that  they're in the news again, it seems once again to be apt.  As usual, my interest is on the science.  Since a number of Heartland supporters are saying things in the vein of Heartland made a misstep in acting as they did, because it takes away from their message on the science.  The supporters think Heartland is doing well on the science.

Now that I've looked in to what Heartland Institute has had to say on sea ice, I can say with confidence that they are not doing well on the science.  They don't know (or lie about) the difference between ice area and ice extent, don't know how much area of ice there is, don't know where it forms, make up numbers even if you ignore the difference between area and extent, lie about what authors say in their scientific papers, treat 2 years as plenty for establishing a climate trend if it is in one direction, but ignore the 30 year trends when it isn't, don't know the difference between sea ice and ice shelves, don't understand how sea level changes, and others I'll let you classify yourself.

The gory details, examples being from their web site, are below the fold.  A different point is, I don't expect everyone to be expert on sea ice, or even pay attention to it.  If Heartland had ignored sea ice, that's fine (at least it is if they're not saying things which require understanding sea ice).  But they chose to write about it.  And the people whose articles I'm quoting are Jay Lehr, their science director, and James M. Taylor, a senior fellow for the Heartland Institute focusing on environmental issues.  In other words, major players in deciding what Heartland says about science, not someone who might once have said something stupid about sea ice while passing through the office.

Having done my homework, I'm comfortable in saying that Jay Lehr and James M. Taylor are unreliable sources on the science, and Heartland Institute is as well.  See below for my homework example.

18 April 2012

In the mean time ...

I will indeed be getting back to the simplest climate model, including that comment from Nick Barnes that got clobbered by my fingers being fatter than my smartphone buttons. (Deleted rather than approved message, fortunately I still have it in email.)

While waiting for that, some video suggested by Hank Roberts in a comment a fair while back (December 9th, 2011):
Recommending -- from the AGU videos, Ben Santer on Steve Schneider.
He begins with a memorial -- Steve Schneider is part of history.
He goes on to a teaching story.
CG43G : AGU Fall Meeting 2011

AGU is the American Geophysical Union. I was surprised when, a while back, someone congratulated me on my 25 years as a member. They do some good work there. I just didn't realize that I was that old.

Different recommendations, also from Hank:
http://www.skepticalscience.com/pics/MSU_cherries.gif might be a nice illustration for your discussion of results on deciding trends; it's from http://www.skepticalscience.com/news.php?p=3&t=130&&n=1005

Also a re-recommendation of the very cool slider graph tool here -- page down to get to it:

During the multitudinous-record-setting month of March (for the US, at least) anonymous mentioned http://www.wunderground.com/climate/extremes.asp, which is a nice place to check out record temperatures and precipitation.

In a different mean time matter, I am starting to take http://penguindreams.wordpress.com/ live. There is much sawing and hammering still to do, but there are also a couple of real posts there already. My plan has always been for that blog to be the place where I don't restrain my use of math and scientific language. Questions are still, as always, welcome, including on that scientific language. If you don't have an intuitive idea already of what a Rossby radius is, do ask. Just that over there, I won't examine my language for such terms and go for verbal instead of mathematical descriptions. For those who'd like to get more in to guts of the science, a la scienceofdoom, that'll be the more apt place. If you think this blog is already scarily mathematical, that place might best be one to leave to other readers. The most recent note there is nonmathematical, just promises (threatens?) math to come. No plans to abandon this one. Just that sometimes things come up, such as Nick's questions/comments, where it would be easier to just whip out the mathematics straight off.

Also, now that I'm catching back up here (partial blame to my son who introduced me to World of Warcraft :-), there are answers showing up to long-asked questions. Or at least responses. Please check the 'recent comments' links below for yours Jacob.

22 March 2012

Technical followup on the simplest climate model

Tuesday I took up reconsidering the simplest climate model.  This time, I'm trying to get rid of the annoying bit of having to know the planet's albedo (reflectivity) in order to find its temperature.  Instead, to have some fundamental relationship between temperature and albedo, so that everything in the model is either a fundamental constant (the Stefan-Boltzmann constant), or a fundamental principle (black body radiation, this new albedo-temperature relationship).  No great surprise that some readers have already caught on to some of the issues I wanted to talk about.

One, which I'll continue to defer for now, is the fact Arthur mentioned that what this model works with is the earth's blackbody temperature -- its temperature as seen by how much energy it releases to space -- rather than surface temperature.  Since we all live somewhere towards the surface, surface temperature is the more interesting number.  What the difference between what the model can give us and what we're truly interested in does is to suggest that an important theoretical issue is to develop an understanding of how planetary blackbody temperature relates to surface temperature.  Or (scarier) to see if it does relate in any consistent way.  But heads up that such a discussion will be coming.  Finding these issues, and seeing why they're important, is one of the purposes of the ultra simple models like this.

More issues were brought up by Nick Barnes, who also provides Python code for running your own version (see his first comment for that link).  I hope you've spent some time with either the spreadsheet or Nick's Python (use a 2.7 set-up, per Nick's comment on Tuesday) or do so now, as you read this post, and some more as you decide whether and how it makes sense.  The spreadsheet is in OpenOffice format (.ods) but I've opened that with MS Excel previously.  If you can't, please let me know.

Now, in saying 'issues', I don't mean that there's any terrible comment being made.  Rather, it is the truth that even very simple models like this one have some subtleties that you should explore before drawing your conclusions about nature.  I'll take up the more physical side of interpretation next, but first let's take a look at some of the technical issues.

20 March 2012

Return of the simplest climate model

The simplest climate model balances the energy leaving the earth to space with the energy coming in from the sun.  If the climate is not changing, these two will be the equal.  As long as climate is not changing rapidly, a modifier we can make quantitative, they'll be very nearly equal.  It turns out that even for fairly rapid climate changes, by standards of geological history, the earth is very close to that balance.

I'm actually going to take a different approach this time around.  Key to deciding how much solar energy comes in to the earth (more precisely, the climate system) is knowing the albedo -- what fraction of incoming energy gets bounced right back out.  That makes the model unsatisfactory to me on a theoretical basis.  We have to know the earth's albedo to compute its blackbody temperature (the temperature which provides that balance).  The problem with that is that the albedo itself is a climate term.  The state of the climate -- how many clouds we have, how large the sea ice pack is, how large the continental ice sheets and deserts are, how green the forests are -- determines the albedo.  Knowing either the blackbody temperature or the albedo is a climate observation.  Given one, we can compute the other from that simple model.  And, which is a good point, we can compare our computed temperature with the observed.

Is it possible to remove or weaken that restriction on the albedo?  And if so, can we learn anything about the climate system?  Yes, and yes.

I'll do something that would be quite improper if I were to claim that it was exactly true, but which will turn out to be extremely educational.  Namely, I will make up a relationship between albedo and earth's blackbody temperature. 

19 March 2012

Tempest in an ice pot

There's a bit of a tempest at WUWT and Steven Goddard's regarding satellite data on sea ice.  And there are some anxious comments about FOIA filings to be made regarding data that's been hidden.  I have to concede that it takes a bit of a historian to know what's really being said in the IPCC first report regarding sea ice.  (see page 224, figure 7.20 for the source of the tempest.)  Fortunately, I am such a historian :-)  To give away the ending: There's nothing terribly dramatic going on in the sea ice or the history. But I'll take the chance to talk history of sea ice analysis.

The tempest arises because the figure shown there has sea ice cover in the early 1970s in the Arctic being notably lower than it was through the 1980s.  (Curiously, no interest is displayed at either site regarding the Antarctic being far higher in the 1970s than the 1980s.)  If the figures were commensurate with the satellite observations such as those used in the Cryosphere Today anomaly figures, it would suggest that the Arctic coverage of the last few years wasn't as remarkable as we've generally thought.  (On the other hand, it would also say that the 'record high' Antarctic coverage of recent years was not particularly high at all, a point being neglected at both sites.)

16 March 2012

Jupiter and Venus

If you've been looking in a generally westerly direction in the early evening, you've, no doubt noticed the two exceptionally bright 'stars'.  Those are Jupiter and Venus, also exceptionally close to each other.  On one view, they're awfully close -- about 3 degrees, or 1/30th of the distance between directly overhead and the horizon.  To a different view, however, they're very far apart -- about 6 full moons would fit between them.

Technology keeps advancing.  In the 1970s, it was about all I could do to get a photograph of a nearly full moon through my telescope.  A fair amount of patience was needed to get the focus right, avoid contaminating light, and so forth.  Below is my phone photo of Jupiter (the fainter one) and Venus.  I was in a well-lit parking lot, and it wasn't much past sunset (hence the bright lower portion of the photo), and had just aimed the phone in the general direction of the planets.

I'll invite you all to contribute your own photos of the planets. 

15 March 2012

25 years ago this summer

I realized today that 25 years ago was my first summer in Washington DC area.  At the time, that summer set many of the local records for hottest summer, longest streaks of hot days, and many variations on that.  I've asked a friend who is local and extremely in to weather observation* how recent summers would compare, and he said, with little hesitation, 'hotter'.  What used to be record-setting is now not very noticeable.

I made the challenge/request on my twitter feed (http://twitter.com/#!/rgrumbine), but for here: I'd be interested in seeing a widget+ of some kind that would track this year versus 1987 in DC and Chicago.  Plus, of course, any other cities you're interested in.  1987 was, at the time, an extremely hot year.  For another comparison, say summer 1981?  1982 was part of the major El Niño of 82-83, so perhaps would not be a good year to reference.

For keeping an eye on weather by way of twitter, I like the Capital Weather Gang for Washington DC, and Tom Skilling for Chicago.  I'm sure there are a bunch of other good sites even for those two cities.  I just have personal connections to those two.  I was secretary to the local AMS chapter some eons back when Skilling was the chapter president.

For a mailing list to discuss weather on, send an email with the phrase 'subscribe wx-talk' to LISTSERV@LISTSERV.ILLINOIS.EDU Mailing lists, I'll add, are not web pages, or web sites, or chat rooms.  Different thing, with different strengths.

06 March 2012

Open Lab 2013

The Open Lab is now open again, taking nominations for posts from October 2011 through October 2012.  See Bora Zivkovic's note making the original announcement.

Also see the 'open lab 2013'  link on the right.  Feel free, of course, to nominate posts of mine.  But, more importantly, I encourage you to nominate science posts you like, regardless of where from.

01 March 2012

The Return of Questions

It's been a long while, but at last here's a question place post for you all to ask about what's on your mind.  Particularly if what's on your mind has something to do with thinks I know about :-)

29 February 2012

AMS feeds for scientific articles and a sampling

Very few scientific articles get any splash in the media, even those parts which pay some attention to science.  Readers then can build a mistaken impression that there are only a few scientists, a few dozen, tops, working in any given area. 

The American Meteorological Society is one of very many professional societies which publish scientific journals.  They also have RSS feeds for their journals, and a relatively open access policy to their older (than 2 years) articles.  Below is a biased sampling (the bias being that I'm interested in these articles and will be pulling them down at work) of recent articles.  There's quite a lot more going on than you're liable to hear of in media, by quite a few more people than you'll ever hear of. 

Some of the papers will probably inspire a need to make use of my guide to science jabberwocky.  That's not a knock on the papers, just a reminder that fields do develop vocabularies to ensure that the professionals all know what each other means.

If you are fairly good with your technique, you can set up your own double-diffusive staircases.  (The first paper discusses observations in nature of the effect.)

31 January 2012

Undergraduate Opportunities from NASA and NSF

Last Monday was opportunities for high school, and by chance, today, I'll move up to college.  From one of my email lists:

NASA offers paid undergraduate and graduate level internships in a wide variety of disciplines.  Over 200 internships are available.  The deadline is March 1st, but offers may begin going out as early as Feb. 2nd.  Visit http://intern.nasa.gov to apply for up to 15 opportunities with a single application.

NSF offers a wide variety of paid summer research experiences for undergraduates.  To search over 600 programs, please visit:  http://www.pathwaystoscience.org/undergrads.asp

For summer research specifically in ocean sciences:

For summer research specifically in engineering:

For mentoring and professional development support, please take a look at AGEP alliances:

30 January 2012

Starting a bestiary of oscillations and cycles

A bestiary originally was originally a book of pictures and descriptions, often with morals attached, of animals.  Well, that was the middle ages.  The version I've got in mind is one describing the more or less regular oscillations or cycles in the earth system, its orbit, and the sun.  For now, I'll describe just the period and its name and invite you to add to the list.  Also, I won't worry about whether the named thing is a proper oscillation (such as tides) or more of an index that may not have any particular period (PNA).  The later rendition will have some discussion of what happens in each and concern about whether the variation is a real thing or just an artefact of how people looked at the data.  For those who'd like to jump straight to discussion of weather cycles directly, I'll suggest William Burroughs' Weather Cycles, Real or Imaginary

As always, you're encouraged to add your own suggestions!

24 January 2012

National Center for Science Education now also defending science on climate change

The National Center for Science Education is now also engaging on teaching good science on climate change.  I've long been a member, because they've been for even longer helping ensure that science is taught in biology classes.  I'm not quick on the announcement, it was originally made on the 16th.  But if you haven't seen the mention yet, it's new to you :-)

I'll add a few thoughts of my own as a long-time member, and one who had suggested some time back to the director, Eugenie C. Scott, that they take this step.  One of the things I like about the NCSE is that their focus is on the science.  They're not the place to go if, say, you want someone to lobby for your idea for solving climate change.  They're a good place for parents, teachers, school boards, to go with questions and concerns about whether the science in your school's textbook is good, or is even science.  NCSE is also a good place to go to find out what is happening in your state regarding attempts to change the science curriculum away from science.  The main page address is http://ncse.com/

It was partly the tracking of attempts to remove teaching evolution in biology classes and other such anti-scientific moves that made me suggest also covering climate change science.  Increasingly, over the last 10 years, bills opposed to teaching good science in biology classrooms have been including directives opposed to teaching good science in earth science classrooms.  Bills to deny that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, or deny that there's a greenhouse effect, or to deny that CO2 is increasing and this is due to human activity, and other versions of denial.

16 January 2012

High School Student Science Opportunity in the Arctic

Call for High School Applicants
Joint Science Education Project
Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

The Joint Science Education Project (JSEP) announces a call for applications from high school students interested in participating in field research in Greenland.

A limited number of high school students from the United States will join peers from Denmark and Greenland to spend three weeks during summer 2012 doing field science in and around Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and visiting a research station on the Greenland ice sheet. Students will work with arctic scientists and with their peers on research projects in a wide variety of fields including biology, geology, climatology, chemistry, and engineering.

The program is sponsored by NSF's Office of Polar Programs in collaboration with the Joint Committee.

Application deadline: Friday, 17 February 2012.

More information, including the application, is available at: http://www.arcus.org/jsep

For questions, please contact:
Shelly Hynes
Email: shynes@nsf.gov

12 January 2012

Parts per million

One of the sillier arguments against climate change, especially human-affected climate change, is to claim that since CO2 is a trace gas, it can't have any significant effect.  It's now about 395 parts per million in the atmosphere.

It happens that I'm taking some medicine at the moment.  100 mg of one, and 10 mg of another.  To make the math easy, let's say I weigh 100 kg.  mg is milligram, so there are 1000 of them per gram.  1000 grams is 1 kg.

That first medication represents 1 part per million.  The second is a mere 0.1 parts per million.  The body is a complex system.  Small amounts of things can be very important.  Climate is also a complex system.

Let's continue a little in this vein.  Daily nutrition requirements, which I'll take from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reference_Daily_Intake , include:
  • 1000 mg Calcium --> 10 ppm
  • 1000 mg Phosphorous --> 10 ppm
  • 60 mg Vitamin C --> 0.6 ppm
  • 15 mg Zinc --> 0.15 ppm
  • 2 mg Manganese --> 0.02 ppm
  • 80 micrograms Vitamin K --> 0.008 ppm
  • 6 micrograms Vitamin B-12 --> 0.0006 ppm
If you'd like to avoid scurvy, rickets, pellagra, and a host of other illnesses, you have to treat concentrations far, far lower than 400 ppm as being important.

11 January 2012

Happy New Year

Happy new year folks.  Couple of months there when I was off to other things.  One of which is that my oldest son introduced me to World of Warcraft.  Not a whole lot of science content there, but I don't do science all the time.

It looks like some of the comments you made during my disappearance didn't come up even though I approved them, I thought.  They should be there now. 

During my blog-vacation, I did have a number of ideas for articles, and made some progress on background work for some.  So things will be livening up.