Thursday, November 02, 2006

Everyone Talks About The Weather ...

There is only one nature - the division into science and engineering is a human imposition, not a natural one. Indeed, the division is a human failure; it reflects our limited capacity to comprehend the whole. ~ Bill Wulf

If you put two people who have never met together in a room, it is a near certainty that they will, at some point, begin to talk about the weather. It is amazing that the one thing that we all have in common is a thing that practically no one really understands.

The weather and the climate, which is, of course, weather over a long time period, have always been a prime concern of human beings. This makes sense because, in a very real sense, the climate affects our well-being, even our ability to exist. Despite the importance of the topic, it's very clear that we don't understand much about how the planetary weather machine works. If we needed proof (and we get some very regularly in the form of the daily weather guess by meteorologists), this year's dire hurricane predictions should have clinched the case. By now, we should have suffered up to 17 named Atlantic tropical storms according to the people put out statements on the subject. Well, even with the predilection the hurricane people have developed for naming every patch of clouds running around in the tropical latitudes it has been a blissfully quiet year.

Believe me, having had three hurricanes pass over my house in three years (and I live a hundred miles from the Gulf Coast), I am very glad that they were wrong. But, such failed predictions, coupled with what appears to be a global lack of understanding of global warming and cooling, is worrisome. It's fairly clear that no one has a clue about what is really going on in the atmosphere.

In fact, it seems that weather experts aren't even clear on what has gone on in the past. For example, the global warming people seem intent on blaming everything on human intervention. While global warming does seem to be occurring, laying the blame for it solely or primarily on controllable effects like industrial carbon dioxide emissions may be burying our collective heads in the sand.

To wit: It's been typical to make it sound as though current global warming is somehow something that is different from past climatic variations. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Temperatures during the age of the dinosaurs were higher. In fact, during the Earth's oxygenated history, polar caps have not been the norm. It further turns out that the idea that there were few climatic variations during so-called stable periods has, in fact, been an illusion.

Evidence has been found that surface ocean temperatures during one part of the Cretaceous varied by as much as 11 degrees F. If you're wondering, that's considered to be a lot of variation. As one scientist put it, “We're learning that our climate, throughout time, has been a wild beast.” Indeed.

I'm not trying to downplay global warming. If it is occurring, and it appears to be (right now), puny attempts to reduce industrial emissions may have little or no effect on it. There's a lot going on that can affect the climate, and we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to finding out what that is.

For example, the Earth sits at an angle of about 23 degrees relative to its orbit around the sun. This tilt in our axis is what gives us the seasons. But the Earth is like a gyroscope which precesses or wobbles around, changing the angle of that axis tilt. It turns out that some scientists think there's a correlation between that wobble and some species extinctions. Why? Because the precession causes climatic changes and major climatic changes can cause a serious species reshuffling. There's also a longer term wobble of the orbit itself that factors in.

Then there's the sun itself. Like any star, it varies in output. There's an 11-year cycle that is typically identified with sunspot activity, but the sun can also be more or less intense. These fluctuations are small, but they don't have to be very large. In fact, such a small variation is thought to have been a cause of the Little Ice Ages that have occurred in historic times.

Of course, when no one is quite sure why something happens, you can get some way-out-there ideas, the latest of which seems to be to invoke cosmic rays. I mentioned in a recent piece how these cosmic phantoms have always been a popular thing to invoke when a mysterious intervention was required. Sure enough, a group has gone so far as to claim cosmic rays could be a cause of global warming. They feel cosmic rays help cause clouds by releasing electrons from atoms which act as catalysts to form cloud-building compounds. It seems, though, that the sun's magnet field has increased over the 100 years, which reduces the number of cosmic rays reaching the Earth, cutting down on the clouds and increasing the amount of global warming.

As a digression, this hundred-year or so period coincides very nicely with the rise of industrial gases normally blamed by the more traditional global warming crowd.

At any rate, the fun-loving gang at CERN, who are willing to give most anything a try, are going to run an experiment to see if they can show the cloud-making capabilities of high energy particles like cosmic rays. In an experiment called CLOUD (tortuously derived from Cosmic Leaving Outdoor Droplets – yeesh), a high energy beam will be shot into a chamber of the purest air on the planet to see what the effects are. If this sounds very much like a juiced-up version of a Wilson cloud chamber science fair project, the principle is similar. Except with a whole lot more energy involved.

But all of this is getting away from the main point. If global warming is happening, there are going to be large effects on life on this planet. As we've seen based on last year's hurricane predictions, no one really knows what all of the effects might be, but I can suggest a few. For starters, ocean levels will rise, meaning that I am likely to have a lovely beachfront view if I last long enough. Secondly, areas that are some now prime crop growing areas will become deserts while the total land area is declining; a lot of people are going to be very hungry. You don't have to be a genius to see these things in the offing, yet no one seems to be taking any steps to deal with them.

It is well and proper to study the causes of weather and climate variation, but we should also be concerned with dealing with the impending effects. Better, if these studies help us predict climate change with something that resembles accuracy (as opposed to the by-guess-and-by-golly method used now), we'll know what preparations to take. But, as long as we think that reducing some emissions (not a bad thing in and of itself for our health and well being) is somehow going to change the course of climate change, we're probably fooling ourselves into not taking the actions we need to take to ensure our continued existence.

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