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Climate Change: A Snowball of Warmth July 9, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
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1 comment so far

This is a follow-up to the previous post, which explained feedback loops and their significance within the climate system in much more detail.  Please refer to that post for background information.

“Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change.” -The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment.

That irreversibility is the result of positive feedback loops.

There are a number of self-magnifying positive feedback loops in the climate system.  Like a snowball rolling down a snowy hill, these phenomena grow stronger as they continue.  All of them are triggered by a warming planet and in turn warm the planet even more.

The presence of all these warming feedback loops means that once the planet warms past a certain threshold, we won’t be able to reverse the effects and global warming will be unstoppable.  That is not to say that it will continue forever, but we will not be able to stop the full extent of the warming that will then occur.

As I wrote yesterday about the snowball analogy, a person farther down the hill could theoretically stop the rolling snowball while it was the size of a baseball or a basketball or probably even the size of one of those big yoga balls.  But you wouldn’t be able to stop the snowball once it reached the size of a car or a house.  Once the snowball gets that big, it’s going to roll all the way to bottom of the hill no matter what you do.

There is some point in that progression where the snowball becomes too big to be stopped.  A similar threshold exists for climate change; once the planet warms enough and there is enough CO2 in the atmosphere, we are committed to the full extent of climate change.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure where the threshold lies.  Currently, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is 392 parts per million (ppm). Some scientists say the threshold is at 450 ppm.  Other say 500 ppm.  A few even say 350 ppm, which we are already past.  Either way, there is a point-of-no-return and it is close.

In this post, I will lay out the specific positive feedback loops that could make climate change unstoppable.

Sea Ice

As you’ve probably heard, arctic sea ice levels are declining rapidly as the oceans warm.  This sea ice decline is itself a positive feedback loop.  “Albedo” is a measure of how much radiation an object reflects.  What radiation isn’t reflected is absorbed (causing that object to heat up).  An object’s albedo is represented in decimal values ranging from 0.0 (0% radiation reflected) to 1.0 (100% radiation reflected)

Ice has a very high albedo, around 0.9.  It is very reflective (hence snow blindness and sun burns on the ski slopes) so it absorbs very little heat.  When solar radiation strikes sea ice, most of it gets reflected back up into the sky.  In the past, sea ice has covered much of the arctic ocean, turning the region into a giant mirror as far as solar radiation is concerned.

With warming waters, however, more and more of the arctic has lost its sea ice, exposing the water beneath.  Water has a very low albedo, around 0.1.  Instead of reflecting that radiation, it absorbs 90% of it and, as a result, heats up.  As sea ice levels decrease, more of the arctic is absorbing heat instead of reflecting it.  This, obviously, warms the water further.

Warming water melts more ice, exposing more water, which absorbs more heat, which melts more ice…you get it.  This is a classic positive feedback loop.

Water Vapor

When you think of a greenhouse gas, you probably think of carbon dioxide.  Most people are surprised to discover that water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas.  In fact, it is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

As the climate warms, the atmosphere becomes more humid.  Warmer air can hold more water vapor.  As a result, as the planet warms, the air will be able to hold more of this greenhouse gas, which will cause more warming, which will allow the air to hold more water vapor…etc.  Positive feedback loop.

Methane Hydrates

You may recall from BP’s containment dome debacle that the procedure was thwarted by “methane hydrates.”  Methane hydrates are a frozen slurry of – you guessed it – methane (and water). Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

If the oceans warm to a certain point, these hydrates could melt and release their methane, which would rise through the water and enter the atmosphere.  There, they would increase the greenhouse effect, warming the oceans further, melting more methane hydrates, releasing more methane etc.  …there’s a pattern emerging here.

Methane hydrate deposits are found around the world and could amplify global warming.


Permafrost is soil that has been frozen for at least two years.  It contains a lot of dead organic matter that would be decomposed very quickly in warmer climates.  That decomposition releases methane, and global warming is melting that permafrost and making the arctic one of those warmer climates.

Like methane hydrates, as permafrost melts, it releases significant quantities of methane.  This, as you now know, soon enters the atmosphere and causes more warming, which melts more permafrost etc.

Western Siberia contains the world’s largest peat bog.  Its 385,000+ square miles (France and Germany combined) are estimated to contain 100 TRILLION lbs of methane.  It is already melting…


Desertification, Amazon loss, cloud cover, and terrestrial phenomena such as forest fires and soil respiration may also form positive feedback loops for global warming, although they are less well established.


Climate propagandists dismiss this simple science and those who explain it as “alarmist.”  While it may be alarming, raising awareness about these threats is not dishonest or unduly sensationalist.  People need to know why the long-term threat of climate change poses short-term urgency.

Rest assured, though, even without these simple and highly probable positive feedback loops, climate scientists explain that global warming will still be “substantial and critical.”  We cannot afford to put off addressing climate change any longer.

Balancing Act April 14, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Media, Politics.
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In February, Washington Post columnist George Will wrote a piece entitled “Dark Green Doomsayers.”  This column, joined by two others over the last three months, was littered with blatant mistruths and distortions about climate science.  For example, Will claimed that a study said global sea ice levels hadn’t changed in 30 years when in reality it documented a loss of 520,000 square miles.  Either painfully ignorant or deliberately deceitful, Will’s work has rightfully incited intense criticism of the Post.

Arctic sea ice is retreating rapidly, and global levels have definitely decreased.  Will claimed that no change had occurred while sea cover the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma disappeared.  Credit: NSIDC
Arctic sea ice is retreating rapidly, and global levels have definitely decreased. Will claimed that no change had occurred while sea cover the combined areas of Texas, California, and Oklahoma disappeared.    Credit: NSIDC

The paper has taken halfhearted steps to redeem itself.  The Post’s ombudsman responded, but really just defended the paper and its editors.  Then the Post ran two powerful letters to the editor debunking Will’s columns (one of them written by the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), whose work Will also misused)…only to allow Will to misrepresent WMO data again in his third column!

Newspapers have a responsibility to provide accurate information to their readers.  Permitting such thoroughly disproven material to be published, even in an opinion piece, undermines the journalistic integrity of the entire paper.  And clearly others at the Post agree.

Because the editorial staff so clearly shirked their duty, serious journalists at the Post have stepped in.  A week ago, Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan finally chastised Will – from the Post’s news section.  Their article on sea ice decline included a paragraph that reads: “The new evidence…contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will.”

This is unprecedented.  The task of fact-checking or retroactively correcting an errant columnist should fall to the editors or ombudsman, not to writers on page 3. And this incident skirts a journalistic issue of great importance to climate coverage in general: opinions in news.

News articles are supposed to contain facts, not opinion.  In this case, Eilperin and Sheridan were justified because Will has been so verifiably and even quantifiably wrong in his recent columns that the existence of his errors is fact.  But subtly opinionated news has plagued global warming coverage for years.

At the beginning of the year, I set out to examine the interaction between the media and the uninformed American public here on this blog.  And as I wrap up this endeavor, I am also putting the finishing touches on an honors thesis investigating bias in the print coverage of climate change.  To that end, I conducted a media analysis examining news stories (omitting editorial content) that mentioned global warming and how they portrayed the state of climate science.

I focused on measuring the “bias of balance,” which occurs when reporters artificially equalize two unequally supported, competing viewpoints (like climate scientists versus skeptics); essentially overzealous attempts at objectivity.  But the most interesting results appeared when I separated my data by source.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are among the nation’s leading newspapers.  And because writers for all three ostensibly strive for the same impartiality and cover the same set of climate-related events, one would think that their climate news coverage should be quite similar.

In my data sample, coverage in the NYT and WP was nearly identical in tone.  The WSJ was a whole different story.
In my data sample, coverage in the NYT and WP was nearly identical in tone. The WSJ was a whole different story.

And in the New York Times and Washington Post, it is.  In the Wall Street Journal, however, articles are fully twice as likely to emphasize caution and voluntary programs to address climate change (rather than immediate, mandatory regulation).  They’re also five times as likely to present with doubt the concretely established existence of anthropogenic (human-caused) warming.  That’s just in news stories, not opinion columns or letters.  This suggests that editorial voices can infiltrate into supposedly objective news articles to significantly influence coverage.

But even the most accurate climate coverage may be lost on many people.  A recent Gallup survey showed that a record high 41% of Americans now think that news stories exaggerate the seriousness of climate change (3x more Republicans than Democrats).  Yet the lessons of my thesis apply to threats that people actually comprehend and respect too.

According to Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, distinguished journalists now leading the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, “the primary purpose of the media is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”  And if that is true, today’s media are largely failing.

With pundits driving coverage and politicians’ sound-bites replacing expert analysis, real journalism is getting drowned out; we should be hearing from Joe the Economist, not Joe the Plumber.  And the fact that you can turn on different “news” stations and see completely different views of the world is a shameful indictment of our overly politicized country.

He may be thinking hard, but whatever comes out of his mouth will not better our country in any way.
He may be thinking hard, but whatever comes out of his mouth will not better our country in any way.

The media have collectively settled on a misguided notion of balance and “fairness” as their single-minded priority for journalism.  But what this country really needs right now is an emphasis on accuracy; viewers should not get to decide what facts are real.  There is far too much at stake for such foolishness.

Opinion journalism has its place, and that’s not on the cover or under a breaking news headline.  It’s at the back of the paper behind even the comics, opposite the editorial page where commentaries belong.

A version of this post ran in the Chronicle at Duke University.

A Chilling Experience: Comment Response January 13, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
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This post is in response to an extended comment posted by the moderator of ThePeregrin.com.  In order to fully understand this post, I suggest reading my post “A Chilling Experience” (below), and his comment to it.  He also posted my post and his comment on his site under the title “Climate Change: One Blog Gets It Wrong,” so I thought I should return the favor.  The following is also posted as a response on ThePeregrin, but I just wanted to have the chance for a little rebuttal here.  Enjoy.


“Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my blog, as well as for your layout compliments.  I would like to address a few of your points, though.

First, you mention the “hockey stick” controversy.  As I understand it, the argument is about the source data of one study reconstructing North American surface temperatures over the last millennium.  It boils down to whether a certain tree species’s ring data should be used.  And according to RealClimate, despite the controversy, the main point that the last decade has likely been the warmest in at least 1000 years still stands.

But it’s silly to get bogged down by a single group of tree rings when we know from many other sources (tree rings from other species, but also thermometers, ice cores from both the Arctic and Antarctic, sediment cores, corals et al.) that we are currently experience a period of rapid, sustained warmth, and that this warmth is highly correlated with human industrialization.

Now I know that correlation does not prove causation, but if you understand the basics of the greenhouse effect, we can easily demonstrate how this warming occurs.  It is not controversial that greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide, methane, even water vapor) trap infrared solar radiation close to the earth as heat.  We owe the habitability of our planet to this concretely established phenomenon.  It is also verifiably proven that the combustion of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide.  This too is beyond argument.  So when temperatures rise in conjunction with a massive increase in atmospheric CO2 levels, and we know that we’re releasing gigatons of CO2 into that same atmosphere via fossil fuels and deforestation, I feel quite comfortable saying 1+1=2.  It’s not faith in science, it’s just that simply apparent.  But I set out to address your points specifically, not the larger matter in general.

You mention physicist Richard A. Muller of the University of Berkeley.  I followed the link you provided in your comment but was unable to find the specific lecture to which you referred.  I would be grateful if you could send me a more direct link, but it doesn’t really matter.  Muller may disagree with MBH98 (the “hockey stick” report) and he may even be correct.  But he maintains that anthropogenic warming is occurring. A simple search of climate change terms on that site quickly led me to a paper he authored in which he explains, in no uncertain terms, that global warming is occurring and anthropogenic (caused by humans) via fossil fuels and deforestation (6th paragraph).  You say Muller said that Al Gore lied about the conclusions of MBH98, but Muller would also say that you were lying about his conclusions about Gore’s use of MBH98 if you try to use them to refute the existence of global warming (as you did in your post).

By all means, do your own research, and, when possible, take advantage of opportunities to learn directly from knowledgeable sources.  But one quote doesn’t disprove a report and one scientist isn’t widespread dissent.  There is remarkable scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.  I’d urge you to watch “An Inconvenient Truth” for more on that point but I don’t think you’d appreciate it.  Instead, I will suggest you read the reports by Naomi Oreskes at the University of California San Diego (which Gore was citing).

Now, for your second point.  Your “recent report” is a piece by Michael Asher that appeared in the prestigious, peer-reviewed scientific journal Daily Tech (for clarification, Daily Tech is none of those things: it is an online magazine that provides, according to its “About Us” section, “hard-hitting and up to the minute CE, PC, IT and information technology news”).  It has no environmental science credentials.  And then there’s Michael Asher.  With no apparent background or training in science, Asher has, as Mitchell Anderson at DeSmogBlog put it, “a monotonous habit of slagging climate science.”  He, like many other climate-denying bloggers, simply tries to poke holes in legitimate work and contributes nothing to the actual body of knowledge.  And, like you appear to have done with Prof. Muller, he has just cherry-picked a single data point that happens to coincide with his preconceived notions, despite the fact that the organization from which it is taken harbors no uncertainty about climate change.  But let’s examine his claims.

Asher wrote, “Thanks to a rapid rebound in recent months, global sea ice levels now equal those seen 29 years ago…” It is true that “sea ice levels” are roughly equal to those in 1979, the first year in which sea ice mass came under satellite observation.  But what Asher doesn’t realize or more likely ignores, is that the situation isn’t that simple.  According to NASA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, 2008 saw the second lowest summer medium since the observations began, continuing a negative trend.  Some researchers predict we will see the first ice-free arctic summer within the next 20 years.  And while I would enjoy continuing this play-by-play on how Asher lied in his “report,” I find that the work has already been done in wonderful, cited detail by the blog greenfyre’s.  So in the interest of time and on the off chance that anyone is still reading this, I will urge you and others to check out that post to see explicitly how Asher is deceitfully wrong.  And he is.

In conclusion, you are correct in that pollution is not a good thing.  Smog does suck.  But please allow me to correct your lemming metaphor: in today’s world, the cliff is rushing towards the hapless rodents (all of us).  And not only are we doing nothing to avoid the approaching danger, we are in fact accelerating its approach.  And if anyone is leading us to our demise, it’s climate skeptics.  As for your populist claim that Americans are generally well informed, I submit to you every public policy class I’ve ever taken explaining rational ignorance, a heap of public polling statistics I no longer have the drive to track down, and a sarcastic “yeah, right.”

I too apologize for the length of my reply; this nerve is worn out as well.


Jamie Friedland”