Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Stef's Long Post About Climate Change

We’ve just come back from a couple of days in the Western Isles of Scotland. And, as one does, we caught a couple of ferries between one island and another.

I could enthuse about the scenery in that part of the world for a long time, even if it does piss down most of the time, but that’s not important right now. The reason why I mention our ferry rides is that we saw a lot of raised beaches from the boat.

Raised beaches are beaches or wave cut platforms raised above the shoreline by a relative fall in the sea level. In some places you can see three or four distinct platforms on a hillside. What those beaches tell us is that…

  • Sea levels have changed quite significantly over relatively short geological timescales.
  • The changes are quick, with relative sea level changing by fifty-foot or more in sudden jumps. Otherwise they wouldn’t be as distinct as they are. Sometimes the sea jumped up or down, sometimes the land did.

OK, I’m a geology geek but this stuff is relevant to the global warming ‘debate’ that is currently raging in the media.

I have said this before but the reality of our existence is that we are sitting on the crust of a ball of molten rock, spinning through a vacuum at thousands of miles an hour. The ambient temperature of the space around us is –273C and our planet is constantly bathed in lethal radiation. If it wasn’t for the stabilising effect of the Moon, our planet would tumble erratically, seasons would last for years and the business of Life would be extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. On top of all that, this stuff is variable. The Earth is constantly cooling and degassing, the heat from the Sun has increased by at least 30% since the Earth was first formed.

I really could go on about the improbability of our continued existence for a very, very long time.

Now, I’m a non-fundamentalist advocate of intelligent design. That’s not to say I believe that ‘God’ set this all up, just that someone did but I’ll shelve that belief for a minute. Thinking strictly scientifically, how could it be that the conditions on this planet; temperature, availability of water, surface radiation etc, have stayed within the relatively narrow range required for the continued existence of life as we know it for the 650+ million years that it is supposed to have existed?

The scientific explanation invokes the concept of Homeostasis

Homeostasis is the property of an open system; especially living organisms, to regulate its internal environment so as to maintain a stable condition, by means of multiple dynamic equilibrium adjustments controlled by interrelated regulation mechanisms.

Which is techno-babble for ‘It just happened’. Fans of homeostasis basically believe that life adapts to changes in the environment and may actually interact with the environment in a way that encourages equilibrium. The classic Daisyworld computer simulation and the Gaia concept are examples of homeostatic thinking. More sun = more white daisies. Less sun = more black daisies. A real world example would be trees growing more vigorously due to more carbon in the atmosphere. More vigoroustree growth = reduction in atmospheric carbon.

There’s no doubt that the living world does contain an almost infinite number of interactions that help stabilise our environment. It’s fucking marvellous. What is not so clear is whether this system was established by accident or design. I’m particularly interested to know how the homeostatic argument accounts for all the astronomical factors that ensure environmental stability and shield life from harm. The tremendous significance of the moon, the shielding effect of the Earth’s magnetic field, a rotation pattern that ensures reasonable days and nights and annual seasonality. Again I could go on for a long time. Just take a look at any of the other planets in the Solar System to see how extreme the results would be if just one of those factors were out of whack.

It’s one thing to say that living things have an impact on atmospheric composition, it’s another to imply that they can collectively move planets around. Actually, there is the basis for a very interesting theory of life in that last statement if someone smarter than me ever got hold of it.

When pondering upon such things, my heart is always warmed by the Biosphere 2 story. Built in the 1980s and costing something like $150m, the idea was to demonstrate that people could live in a scientifically designed closed system. I still fondly remember the coverage of the first ‘mission’ and the sight of eight intrepid pioneers suited up like astronauts or, more appropriately, Heaven’s Gate cult members, waving and smiling before being sealed up on their voyage of exploration.

It didn’t work. Twice. Homeostasis proved terribly elusive in the real world and the Bionauts began to run out of oxygen straight away. They had to have more pumped in. The last time I looked the site was up for sale for use as a spa, resort or, most significantly, a church. The Eden Project in Cornwall is sort of a homage to Biosphere 2, without the inconvenience of trying to make the system work.

I’ll chuck a couple of more personal favourites into the pile whilst I’m at it. If you radiocarbon date the Earth’s atmosphere it comes out at less than 30,000 years old, which is why radiocarbon data needs ‘correcting’ before publication. If you date the atmosphere based on Helium isotopes it comes out at 175,000 years old. I mention these two nuggets on the basis that they either mean radioactive dating techniques are crap, that Bible fans might have a point or, more intriguingly, the Earth has been stripped of its atmosphere more than once. Which would beg the question what were living things doing whilst all that was going on?

So, where am I going with all this?

First off, the notion that there is a 'correct' temperature for the Earth, as advocated by the Global Warming industry, just blows me away. The Earth’s temperature has always shown variability and always will. The real blessing, or handy accident, has been that this variability has somehow managed to stay within a survivable range over millions of years. My, how fortunate. The notion that we should somehow strive to stabilise the Earth’s temperature is arrogant and chauvinistic in the extreme, even if it were possible.

Secondly, we really haven’t the faintest fucking idea how this system works. Scientists acknowledge that the ecosystem is self-correcting but have decided that human pollution is being generated at a rate faster than it can be absorbed and that it is the major driver in climate change. And data that doesn’t fit in with that view is flatly ignored. Take the news that the Sun’s temperature has increased steadily over the last 20 years for example.

Finally, you’ve got to ask yourself what are the scientists and politicians playing at? What’s the real agenda here? The level of debate over this issue is retarded and misleading to say the least. Even a non-atmospheric disaster such as last year’s tsunami managed to get groups with a vested interest in climate change shamelessly jumping onto the bandwagon.

Sea levels are going to change and we ain’t going to stop that, with or without Kyoto. Instead of pissing about worrying about continued consumption of hydrocarbons that scientists are saying we’re going to run out of anyway, we should be discussing how to deal with the certainty of sea level change. The reason why this year’s hurricanes had they effect they did, and the tsunami before that, is partly because of sloppy management but more significantly because more people are occupying marginal land, all over the world. How much debate is taking place about that?


Paul Ashton said...

Good thinking and well written argument against the climate change lobby. I have a theory that the politicians are desparately keen on controlling climate because they fear mass migrations of unwanted immigrants (in eons past frontiers didn't exist and man migrated very quickly from Africa to Tierra del Fuego, always in search of a better climate). That and the fact that politicians have huge egos, large enough to have them believe they are capable of changing the earth.

One aspect I would disagree with is the concept of time. As a geologist I consider time to be the least understood parameter in the equation of life. We can start to believe in concepts like Gaia simply because the earth has had so much time to settle down - albeit within a range of potential catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

Volcanoes, by the way, are huge emitters of "greenhouse gases" and the planet has survived billions of years, with life on it too!

Apprentice said...

Paul Ashton aka focalplane on Flickr. Oh my.

The beaches where I live have also suddenly shelved in the past 4-5 years. There was a big 'clean up' here post the pit closures and a 'Turning The Tide' Euromoney thing pulled thousands of tons of mine dumping pollutants off the shorelines. So the plateaux were new then, and they are different now. By 3 or 4 feet, but that is a lot.

No debate. There are largely ineffectual lobbyists, direct actionists seem to do more, and then they get tired or bicker or whatever. Rising was a good place to be for a while, one felt like things were being heard.

Through RT I saw an incredible slide show, to link our 3 common idioms. A man in his late 20s had gone back over the ground his father had trod 25 years before, taking pictures of exactly the same places, with his father's cameras. And the father had been a climber, a mountaineer in some really wild and lonely places. The Andes, the Alps, the Himmalayas you name it.

Only 25 years on, you'd think there wouldn't be much difference, in places where humans don't routinely go. But the changes were breathtaking. Snowlines, glacier height and depth, treelines, all that. Huge, huge differences. What started as a son's physical challenge to his father, turned him into a passionate campaigner. All that icy snowy stuff has melted and gone somewhere. And not into the sea.

We are running on hot.

Northun Munki in Oxford Circus said...

The Drake Equation -

As for Biosphere 2, here's an interesting paper on the concrete effect:

also apparently the soil was too rich with organic materials.

Also - how do you radio carbon date the atmosphere? As far as I'm aware radio carbon dating uses the half-life of C14 (Carbon 14 - 14 being the atomic weight)?

Even if you had a sample of air from 20,000 years ago how sure could you be that the carbon in the CO2 was formed at that time???

Stef said...

Re. Biosphere 2

I’m not suggesting that the oxygen disappeared magically, just that the people behind it didn’t know how and that, whilst looking dandy on paper, practical homeostasis that supports a complex ecosystem is not that easy to set up and it’s well arrogant for scientists to pretend that they do.

es, several explanations were given for the missing oxygen but it’s kind of telling that they weren’t backed up by a practical demonstration. Without that you might as well claim pixies did it.

Re. Radiocarbon dating

As originally conceived, back in the 1940s, the test assumed that the level of carbon 14 in the atmosphere had reached equilibrium at some point over the last 4,500 million years. Results were originally based on that assumption. It was subsequently proven to be incorrect and that the level of atmospheric carbon 14 was still rising. The period of time taken for equilibrium to be reached has been calculated as being 30,000 years. That’s a max figure and using Libby’s own data the age of the atmospheric C14 reservoir has been dated at 10,000 years. (refs Libby 1955, Lingenfelter 1963, Seuss 1965, Switzer 1967 and Cook 1968).

I’m not claiming a Young Earth here - there is a range of alternate explanations…

Stef said...

re. The Drake Equation

I know it's very famous and all and I'm an insignificant unemployed bullshit artist but...

Consider the variable

fl = the fraction of the above which actually go on to develop life

Right now, according to empirical data, the value for fl is ZERO. No-one has so far synthesised even a single cell. The fact that life exists on this planet is NOT proof that life 'just happens', unless you make so serious assumptions not included in the equation.

Drake's equation is a shocking deceit IMHO and is simply a sleight of hand designed to make the statement 'there are lots of stars so there must be lots of life' sound more scientific and quantifiable. Right now it simply ain't.

Calling up the Law of Big Numbers whenever you hit a stumbling block that you cannot otherwise explain is chickenshit science IMHO and usually the sign of some kind of cop out

Stef said...

and finally...

My post was referring to the continuation of conditions that continue to support life over 650m years rather than to the origin of life

The start of Life is a wonderul thing, however it happened, but the fact that the Earth has maintained its climate within a range capable of sustaining that life for such a long time is a pretty close second

Stef said...

And if any of the above seemed aggressive it wasn't meant to be

Science and politics share a lot of similarities, particularly these days. Cases are 'sexed up' and the 'you are with us or you are against us' card is played with disturbing frequency

I'm 'with' none of the bastards. Well, maybe not quite none...

David said...

I've been filing stuff for a couple of years that contradicts either global warming or our role in it, and you've clearly found another heap of different material showing the same result. If it's so easily done why do all the bloody sheep let their taxes rise to hell just because Uncle Tony and others say it's for our own good. I hope the illusion will be shattered by the facts sooner or later or we'll all be sent back to medieval times.

Feel free to repost all my material, that's why it's there.