Category Archives: Discussions

Conversations – don’t we have the same amount of water?

Name redacted asked:

Please educate me if I am wrong, but I have been of the understanding that the Earth has the same amount of water in/on it that it has had for thousands of year, perhaps millions. It is just a matter of distribution. Some zones get way more than they need, and others have droughts.

Sure thing. This will be a bit long, because it’s a complex topic. First off, the only water that counts here is fresh water. Sea water’s not very useful for drinking, irrigation, washing, or industrial purposes.

So we’re focused on fresh water. For the entire history of the United States (and longer for older countries that dig wells) we’ve been relying on subterranian water reserves for a huge portion of our fresh water. Aquifers have a history of having a lot of clean, fresh water.

The first problem is that it takes a long time for them to fill up, and in the last hundred years we’ve been pulling water out faster than they’ve been refilling. That trend has been getting worse as more people have used more water. So those water sources are actually running out – there’s not as much there as there used to be. Once we pull it out of the ground, it becomes part of the water cycle, being moved around as rainstorms, or more often flowing down to the sea. Either way, it was once a reliable source of water, and now it’s not.

The second problem is snowpack. This is part of the drought (water shortage) that California has been facing. Normally large parts of California rely on the snow that accumulates in the mountains during the winter to provide water as it melts. The recent drought has meant that in some places where snowpack – and so water reliability – has been measured, there has been no snow for the first time in recorded history. That means no water. There are a LOT of people around the world that rely on similar patterns of snowfall, and because weather patterns are changing around the world, water availability is too.

And then there’s the question of what makes for “good” water. The reality is that we’ve “removed” a lot of water from the equation by polluting it. Removing some pollutants from water is very, very difficult and expensive, and as with desalination, we don’t currently have the infrastructure to do it at any meaningful scale.

This is why people are so up in arms over hydro-fracking. The waste products of it really are toxic – there’s no question about that, if pour it in the ground, things die. And there’s a real risk that it’s getting in ground water near fracking sites. Once groundwater is poisoned, there is NO method to make it clean again.

Then there’s the issue of changes in temperature. Let’s look at rainforests, for a moment. What’s a rainforest? It’s a place that gets so much rain that water is no longer a limiting resource. Life in rainforests gets so dense and weird and beautiful because there’s just water EVERYWHERE, and so things can grow everywhere. There are temperate rainforests, and there are tropical rainforests. In both cases, the amount of available water is more than local life can use up.

But here’s the thing – tropical rainforests get much, much more rain than temperature rainforests, even though the “saturation” effect is about the same. Why is that? Because tropical rainforests are hotter. The water they get evaporates much, much faster. That means that a place in the tropics that gets the same rain as the Smokey Mountains (one temperature rainforest, at least historically), is NOT a rainforest. It can’t be, because there’s not enough water available.

And that’s the other part. If rainfall stays the same, but temperatures rise, the amount of available water decreases, because more of it evaporates. We’re already seeing the effects of this. In California, before the drought started, we were already seeing some plant species dying out at higher altitudes and repopulating themselves at lower altitudes because while rainfall had stayed steady, temperature had risen, meaning available water had decreased. On the other side of the country in the Appalachians, a decrease in AVAILABLE water and an increase in temperature have meant that some salamander species have been shrinking at a rate of around 1% per generation since the 1980s.

The total quantity of water contained on Earth is much the same as it has been, but that has no meaning if that water is not available for our use, or the use of other life forms.

That’s what is meant by water scarcity.

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Mass Extinction

Note: This post is relevant

A recent report has garnered some attention for its declaration that we have entered Earth’s sixth Mass Extinction – the first since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. They also state that humans, as a species are at risk of going extinct.

I’ve got lots to say about all this, but right now I want to address how we know what we know.

Most people not involved in the study of plant and animal populations don’t have a very clear idea of how scientists come to conclusions like this. There’s no reason they SHOULD, but having an idea of how we know what we know can act as a defense against those who say things like this are all made up.

When I was in college, I spent one week on some islands in the Bahamas (terrible, I know), studying a population of iguanas. I was part of a group of around 10 people led by a biologist who had been doing this for 20 years. This species only lives on three islands, and was almost extinct when he started studying them.

20 years later, with the help of the Bahamian government, they were doing quite well, and he had a massive amount of information about the iguanas, how long they lived, how many there were, what their breeding habits were, and so on.

This was achieved by spending between two weeks and a month on the islands about once a year.

This same biologist was doing similar studies of turtles in a couple places in Indiana, Nebraska, and probably a couple other places I’m not remembering.

I also spent time in Tanzania, and talked to biologists there who were studying everything from plants to elephants.

I also talked to scientists at the New England Aquarium that monitor fish and sea turtles populations all along the East Coast of the United States.

When I worked for a state department of natural resources, I spent two summers doing similar work to what I had done with the iguanas and turtles, this time with snakes. There were fewer of us studying many more populations, so it took us a full summer to cover about half the significant habitats in the state.

I also did some filing work for that department, going through the records of citizens reporting in about animals they had seen.

Now I regularly interact with people who are doing the same thing with bird species – counting them, weighing them, and monitoring how their populations have been changing for the last 50 years.

I’ve also been talking to people who’ve collected plant and bird records from scientists and hobbyists going back in to the 1800s.

This is just the tangential experience of one person, who studied biology as an undergrad in one college, and worked for a couple science-related organizations afterwards.

In the U.S. alone, there are thousands of colleges and universities that do similar kinds of research at different levels. Every state has an agency that ALSO hires scientists to do research. Every state also has people who closely monitor wildlife for their own reasons – hunters, birdwatchers, reptile enthusiasts, frog enthusiasts, fishermen, and so on.

Many of the colleges I mentioned ALSO do research in other countries all over the world, but all of those countries also have their own researchers and institutions doing their own work.

This work involves individually counting lizards, or snakes, or turtles, or birds, insects, or fish, or mammals, or plants, or sometimes number of flowers ON plants.

On every continent, in every country, in every habitat in all conditions of all seasons, there are thousands of people constantly monitoring the myriad of organisms we share our planet with – and in some cases rely on.

All of these people also share their data, and publish it, and cross-check it, and add it in to common databases that cross international boundaries. All of this work goes back generations, and as the human population has grown, so to has the number of people studying the world we live in, as well as our capacity to do so.

That is how we know that species are going extinct. That is how we know that the climate is changing – because for every person I mentioned who’s studying life on earth, there’s also someone studying the planet’s past, and someone studying the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and someone studying how those chemicals behave in different conditions.

The entire planet is changing all around us, and everybody who’s watching can see it.

A reminder on terminology

This one comes up a lot, so I thought I’d copy and paste a recent answer here. Deniers will often bring up the shift, in news and political media, from talking about “global warming” to talking about “climate change”, as if this was something orchestrated by the political Left, just in the last few years.

Climate change has been a term used in the scientific community since at least the 1930’s, Daniel. It’s been the most common term, used by scientists, since at least the 1960’s.

Global warming was adopted in the popular press because it’s a simpler concept, and it catches attention. The shift to using “climate change” in the popular press and in politics came about because of a memo Frank Luntz sent to the GOP, telling them to use “climate change” because it sounds less scary.

The change in terminology ONLY happened in the popular/political press, and it was a change initially designed to serve the rhetorical purposes of the denial movement.

About that hockey stick

So, this hockey stick thing from god knows how many years ago that nobody apart from friends of the authors has been able to reproduce. 

This is false. It has been false for years. This is why I get pissed off when I’m talking to deniers.

This is why I CALL them deniers – they keep repeating the same claims over and over again no matter what happens. It’s dismissing of evidence.

It’s the parable of the duck all over again.

If you see someone making this claim, or talking about “the hockey stick” calling it broken, or debunked, or whatever – they are either lying or they have been lied to. Either way, you have my full permission to copy and paste this post. If I find more articles, I’ll add them in and re-post. 

Enough already.

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6124/1198.full : Reinforces Mann’s original finding that recent warming is unusual over a period of 11,300 years.
Supplementary info here:http://www.sciencemag.org/content/suppl/2013/03/07/339.6124.1198.DC1/Marcott.SM.pdf

http://www.leif.org/EOS/2009JD012603.pdf : Finds the same pattern from research in South America.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2010GL044771/abstract : Corroborates Mann’s finding that recent warming is unprecedented for last 1,000 years.

http://www2.ucar.edu/atmosnews/news/846/arctic-warming-overtakes-2000-years-natural-cooling :UCAR gets the same pattern from the arctic

http://www.meteo.psu.edu/holocene/public_html/shared/articles/Goosseetal-CD06.pdf : Another group (yes, it includes Mann) gets the same pattern with numerous datasets.

http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v3/n6/abs/ngeo865.html Surface temperatures on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania since 500 AD.

http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v6/n5/full/ngeo1797.html : Same bloody pattern.

Addressing tired arguments

This is a response to someone talking about sea ice “recovery”, and then throwing out a number of baseless assertions in the ensuing discussion. I’ll let you, dear reader, guess what I’m answering to. It’s nothing new or original:

Continue reading

Yukon First Nation opposes fracking until proven 100% safe, perpetuates poor understanding of the notion of certainty

“That essentially gave us the direction to oppose fracking within our traditional territory until it can be proven to be 100 per cent safe as relates to drinking water and other issues,” said Chief Joe Linklater.

So this is good news, overall, but here’s my gripe:

The 100% threshold has been a serious problem for the climate change movement. It’s a useful figure for rhetoric, but that means that we have to be 100% certain that humans are the cause, and 100% certain that warming will be a problem, and 100% certain that one alternative power source will provide 100% of our power needs.

It’s an unreachable standard. (More below the fold) Continue reading

Will plants and animals be able to adapt to climate change? For many of them, probably not.

One way in which deniers often try to say there’s no reason to worry about climate change, even if it is happening, is by saying that species will just adapt to it, and everything will be just fine. There are a number of other arguments tied up in this one, but only a couple of them are directly relevant to answering this argument. First, there is the question of the scale of the change. If we look at the current temperature, and assume that this is as warm as it’s going to get, then really, there’s no cause for alarm. Indeed, the letter from the Hudson Institute makes the case that in the last ten thousand years we have seen climatic changes like the current one, and in some cases higher temperatures. The article does NOT note that those events were regional, not global, and it also fails to take global CO2 levels into account.

NOTE: The relationship between CO2 and global temperature is not under debate by any reasonable people, and I don’t have space to address that issue here, so if you want to look into that, either send me a note and I’ll discuss it later, or go here and see if you can find your answers. It will have to suffice, for now, to say that the influence of CO2 on atmospheric temperature has been tested, calculated, retested, and confirmed repeatedly from the late 1800’s, through the military’s development of heat-seeking missiles, and is now the field of fourth-grade science fair projects.

So – while regional temperatures, may have risen comparable amounts in the last couple thousand years, what about CO2 levels? Since that’s what’s driving this temperature increase, and we know that when CO2 increases, it takes time for the temperature to rise in response, how does today’s CO2 level compare?

Temperature and CO2 since the last ice age. Data sources: Vostok, Law Dome, Mauna Loa. Continue reading