Denial among physicists, part 1

This past Friday and Saturday I attended the annual meeting of the New York State Section of the American Physical Society, at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. This meeting is held once per year, with a different specialized topic every year. I had never been before; the topic usually has little  to do with my field. This time, though, the topic was “Physics of the Atmosphere and Climate”. The organizers invited me, and I went. I thought it would be interesting to meet some of my colleagues from physics departments in my home state. Also, I love the Adirondacks, the mountains near Plattsburgh.

It was a very small conference, maybe 30 people in the room. There were a total of ten talks. Of the speakers, only four, by my count – including me – were active researchers in atmospheric or climate science, by which I mean people with a recent record of publishing research articles in this field. The others appeared either not to be active researchers at all (they were college or university faculty whom I assume hold pure teaching positions), or researchers in other areas of physics.

I bring up the expertise and research activity of the participants because it was also unusual in my experience. Most scientific conferences I attend are held for the sole purpose of sharing research results within a specific field (or sometimes, a set of closely related fields). The participants, consequently, tend to be researchers in that field. They expect to be held to a high standard of evidence and argument, because they know the room will be full of other researchers with expertise in their field.

The defining feature of this conference for me turned out to be climate denial. I had not encountered this before, to this degree and of this kind, in my professional life. (Richard Lindzen was one of my teachers in graduate school, and I came to know him quite well; that was different, in several ways, and is a topic for another time.) There really is a consensus among climate scientists; while one can hear much debate about many issues at any scientific conference in our field, I have never heard wholesale rejection of that consensus at one. I had not expected it here either, at a conference of physicists. Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have. In any case, I was genuinely stunned at first.

At least three of the participants at the meeting – all three of them speakers, so their talks formed a significant fraction of the program – were deniers[1]. I heard two of their talks; I missed the third because I had made a prior commitment that required leaving a little early. The third speaker, however, made his views clear in questions and comments to other presenters throughout the meeting, and I also spoke with him in the hallway outside the auditorium during one of the breaks.

Today I will describe the first of the two talks that I heard by these speakers.

This speaker was a physics faculty member who, judging from his web page, does not seem to be active in research of any kind. His career appears to consist entirely of public communications of various sorts decrying “global warming alarmism”.

The talk was almost entirely without relevant facts. I don’t mean that that I disagreed with his interpretations of such facts as he presented (though that is certainly true) but that for almost the entire talk, he didn’t present any facts that were relevant to a critique of mainstream climate science, as practiced by scientists and published in the scientific literature.

Much of the talk consisted of general statements about the scientific method. (“If a theory doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s false.”) The innuendo seemed to be that mainstream climate scientists don’t follow that method. Almost no evidence was presented to back up this claim. This speaker did critique statements about climate science, but these statements were taken mostly from non-scientific sources.

The speaker pointed out an error in a children’s book about climate change. He pointed out what he claimed was an error in a Greenpeace protest sign. The statement on the sign was “CO2 kills”. The speaker argued that this was wrong, because humans are not harmed by breathing the small concentrations of carbon dioxide that exist in the present atmosphere. (This is true, but a totally irrelevant canard, though one often brought up by the crudest deniers. Nobody serious – including Greenpeace, I suspect – argues anything different. The problem with human-induced increases in CO2 is that they warm the climate, and also that they acidify the ocean, but not that the higher levels of CO2 are harmful to humans directly.) He showed a page of links that came up in a google search he had done on climate (I can’t remember the exact search term) and critiqued that.

At a couple of points, this speaker did present actual data on issues which have been subjects of legitimate debate in climate science. In both cases – I counted two slides of this type, in a talk over thirty minutes long containing about that many slides – the substance was grossly mischaracterized. By this I mean that the speaker raised a criticism of the mainstream view of anthropogenic global warming which is old, and which has been addressed and answered exhaustively in the literature, without mentioning those answers. In neither case was a peer-reviewed source cited. To critique the IPCC report, the author did not show a figure from it and explain what was wrong with it. Instead he showed the aforementioned figure from a children’s book – whose caption, the author claimed (and I will grant without checking, for the sake of argument), contained an error – and one figure obtained from another well-known denier. I assume the latter figure was unpublished, as no published source was cited, only the name of the person who had provided it, in the form “from (person’s name)”.

This speaker spoke admiringly of several well-known deniers, including Fred Singer. Fred Singer is a physicist with a long career as a denier on every environmental and public health issue of the last half century for which government regulation threatened to become (and eventually was) a solution[2]. Singer argued in the 1960s that cigarette smoking did not cause cancer, authoring pseudoscientific reports for the tobacco industry to cast doubt on all the reports written by the panels of scientists which concluded that cigarettes did cause cancer. Now he is an author of the “NIPCC Report”, the parallel pseudoscientific report on climate. (I have a copy on my desk at the office; the sponsors seem to have sent a copy to every climate scientist whose mailing address they could obtain.) The speaker urged the audience to read the NIPCC report.

When the talk was over and it was time for questions, a couple of the other scientists in the room challenged the speaker with questions and comments that clearly indicated disagreement, but were stated fairly calmly. I raised my hand after them, and stated my objections in an angry tone of voice. I told the speaker that if he believed there was something wrong with the entire peer-reviewed climate science literature (including the IPCC) – as he clearly did – then, this being a meeting of the American Physical Society, he should directly critique that scientific literature, instead of spending the majority of his time on children’s books, non sequiturs from Greenpeace signs, the results of google searches, and platitudes about the scientific method. I said that he should pick on someone his own size.

In the next post I will describe the second denialist talk that I heard, my response to it, and the conversation I had with the third denier in the hallway outside. Today I will just say that I showed visible anger in all three exchanges. While that anger was genuine, it was not so overpowering that I couldn’t have stayed quiet. I could have, and seriously considered doing so. My ultimate decision to respond in the way I did was conscious. I am still thinking about whether it was the right response. So far, I still think it was.

In the next post (or maybe the one after) I will try to articulate why I think this, but for now I recommend this article. The title is about “funders and foundations”, and I am neither, but the arguments apply more broadly.

[1] I no longer use the term “skeptics” to describe those who do not accept the basic conclusion of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists that humans are causing significant global warming. A skeptic is someone who needs to see all the evidence and consider it carefully before being convinced. I do not see how an intellectually honest person can deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming after carefully considering all the evidence. The only way I can see arriving at such a position is either to be unaware of the full body of evidence (intentionally or otherwise; but if someone with a public profile on the issue is ignorant of the evidence, it has to be at least partly intentional), to deny the validity of that evidence (“climate scientists’ jobs, funding etc. depend on scaring the public about global warming, so I don’t believe what they say”), or to be unable or unwilling to use logic to draw conclusions. Taking a public position on the basis of any of these is not skepticism, it’s denial.


[2] Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, 2010, Bloomsbury.


The size of it

What a day yesterday.

adam march photo

The organizers are saying 400,000 people. That is an astonishing number, but it did seem an endless throng. It didn’t move at all for the first couple of hours; we were wondering what was going on. Afterwards, I read somewhere that people filled the entire 4-mile length of the route, so some had to finish before others could start.

A friend who didn’t march said right after that she had thought she wouldn’t fit in because it was all “climate scientists and ex-hippies”. I said that wasn’t what I had seen. Ok, there were a few of both for sure, but you don’t get to 400K with just those factions. Most of the crowd looked pretty civilian to me.

I read a quote from someone today (can’t remember who now, nor find it) to the effect that this was the biggest political demonstration about anything in the USA in a very long time. True, no doubt; what came closest? Can’t have been anything more recent than the last Iraq war, if that. Certainly, I can remember no show of feet like this in my adult lifetime on any “environmental issue”, let alone climate.

The mass of the thing was profoundly heartening, because ignorance and denial still loom so large on this issue in this country, and nothing else seems able make a dent in the hard core of it. We know that facts from the mouths of scientists (or anyone) are not going to cut any ice with those who get their information from Fox News or the Wall Street Journal op-ed page – which unfortunately includes about half of Congress – because if they could, they would have by now. The only thing that will matter is sheer force of numbers. We showed that we had that.

On a much smaller scale, I carried an intentionally nerdy and obscure sign (thanks for the idea Michela) to create teachable moments. Indeed maybe half a dozen people asked me what it meant, allowing me to explain the mechanics of carbon emissions scenarios and IPCC assessments to interested citizens. Here’s a photo of me explaining it to one of New York’s finest:


We ended the day exhausted but happy. It was a privilege and a great thrill to have been able to march. We made the kids come, figuring that someday they’d appreciate  having been there. In the event, they seemed to appreciate it right then. There’s hope yet.

First review ever

The first review of my book just appeared online, in the publishing trade magazine Kirkus. It’s gratifyingly positive. I know that, for multiple reasons, I shouldn’t get in the habit of reading reviews in the hope that they will make me feel happy. Nonetheless, this one did.

This being not just the first review of this book, but the first book review I’ve received in my life as an author, I am re-posting the whole thing here:

Sobel (Environmental Sciences and Applied Physics and Mathematics/Columbia Univ.) grapples with the “complex questions involving science, engineering, politics, and human psychology” that arose in Hurricane Sandy’s wake.

The author, who spends much of his time at Columbia studying climate and extreme weather, looks to Hurricane Sandy as a good example to help explain the scientific modeling that predicted the hurricane’s birth and path. Sandy was certainly an unusual event—in the past 150 years of keeping weather records, no hurricane has made the fast left turn she did—and Sobel wants readers to comprehend Sandy as both a specific phenomenon and within the global picture, to understand the nature of Sandy and the atmospheric forces at play, which means a considerable dip into physics, meteorology and climatology. That dip turns out to be gratifying, as the author provides a readable introduction to patterns in the global atmosphere, their changes and the influence they have on weather events. Once through this basic course, which includes forays into hurricane science, winter weather and the history of forecasting, readers will walk away with a handle on the dynamics of weather systems. Sobel uses music to help explain coherent patterns applicable to weather, and he delivers approachable discussions of the Fujiwhara effect (“Two giant entities in the atmosphere, dangerous and powerful but elemental…normally solitary, each doing its own thing, engage with each other”) and other phenomena. For tonal color, Sobel ends his examination of Sandy with a look at the Occupy movement and its role in recovery from the storm. He then shifts to a satisfying survey of updates and clarifications on the climate change front (including the vexing water-vapor issue) and the evolution of risk-management barriers and preventative measures.

An engaged and engaging examination of “what current science allows us to say (or does not) about Sandy’s relation to human-induced climate change.”

New York’s rainiest day

On August 12 and 13, a new record was set for the most rainfall in a 24-hour period at any location in New York State. 13.57 inches of rain fell in 24 hours at Islip MacArthur Airport in Long Island. (That’s about 345 mm, for anyone outside the US.) This breaks by about 2 inches the previous NY State record, set just three years earlier, in August 27-28 during Hurricane Irene in Tannersville, NY.

The new record was officially verified by the National Weather Service just this past Wednesday, in this Public Weather Statement put out by our local office, in Upton, NY (which happens also to be on Long Island, not far from where the record-breaking rainfall fell).

The same office has also put up a nice web page on the details of the event, featuring lots of maps and charts for weather nerds. Their summary of the meteorology reads as follows:

“An anomalously deep upper level trough was moving into the northeast the morning of August 13th, transporting deep moisture over Long Island. At the surface, a parent low pressure system was moving across southeast Canada, with secondary low development just south of New York City. Heavy precipitation focused along and just north of the warm front associated with the secondary low pressure system. The mean storm motion was parallel to the orientation of the warm front and was significant in helping maintain heavy rain over Islip, NY for several hours.”

You can watch the radar animation on the web page and see what was going on. Not only was the “mean storm motion … parallel to the orientation of the front”, but the shape of the storm, as evident in the radar reflectivity (which is a very close indication of where rain was falling and how hard), was roughly linear and oriented along the front. The storm was like a long thin snake moving almost exactly straight ahead, with no component of the motion perpendicular to itself. Any point below it stayed below it as it moved.

This is often how the very highest rainfall totals are achieved at single locations: not just a hard rain, but a hard rain staying in the same place for a good while. This means either a storm that sits still – as in the record-breaking floods in Boulder, Colorado last September – or one that is so large that it takes a long time to entirely pass over, even though it’s moving. Tropical cyclones in particular can rack up huge accumulations, as they are sometimes all of the above: big, dumping prodigiously, and slow. Irene in 2011, our previous record-breaker, was an example of this.

Or, a storm like this Islip system – long in one direction and moving in exactly that direction – can do it.

Mountains help. A strong wind carrying moist air into the side of a mountain – where it will be forced uphill, cooling as the pressure drops and condensing the vapor – is a key ingredient in a lot of records, including the previous one set in Irene in Tannersville. That town is in the Catskills, right up against Hunter Mountain, a popular ski resort with a summit 3200 feet high (a respectably big mountain in this part of the world). In this new Islip record, though, no mountains were involved. Long Island is quite flat.

While the new record is for the 24-hour rain total, the time series graph of rain rate and accumulation on the NWS page shows that most of it – about 10 inches – fell in just 2 hours. This rapid dump made for some very severe flash flooding. The page shows many photos of cars submerged and washed off the road, as described in the New York Times story the day after.

Yes, this is exactly the kind of thing we expect to happen more in a warming climate. A warmer atmosphere can contain more water vapor, and that gain can be realized in extreme precipitation events (even though global average rainfall will increase more slowly than water vapor does, because it is constrained by global energy balances which don’t track water vapor and can’t change as easily). So records like the one that just broke are going to break more frequently than they used to, and already are.

I’m sorry I wasn’t in Islip to see 13.57 inches of rain – or even in the city, which got a couple inches; I was out of town altogether. (I have seen a daily rainfall in that ballpark just once, in Darwin, Australia, where I had gone specifically to see it, which is a story I will write about another day.)  But just so we aren’t too awfully impressed, the global record for 24 hour rainfall is 1.825 meters, or 71.8 inches. That’s more than 5 times our new New York State record. This record was set on La Reunion, an island in the south Indian ocean – in a tropical cyclone, on the side of a mountain.

Emotional outburst due to lack of atmospheric one

I am currently frustrated, as it seems I often am, by the current display on our local weather radar. It has been unseasonably hot and humid here in New York City for about a week. Now, the climax that we residents of the humid eastern US habitually look forward to after waiting through such steamy periods is in sight. A solid line of thunderstorms (some of them severe) is stretching across Jersey and just south of the city. To get there it had to pass through NYC, but as it did it developed a gap, which we were in. We got jack diddly, at least here in northern Manhattan.

The cold front will pass through this evening regardless, and the heat will break – presumably for good, as we head into fall. And there’s a chance of more thunderstorms later. But still, I feel cheated.






Back to school heat in NYC

In New York City, today’s temperature was forecast to be hotter than any yet this summer (though it hasn’t got there yet, there is still time). This is a little unusual since it is already September. I got an inquiry from a reporter today, containing the following questions:

“This summer’s seemingly mild weather was actually warmer than average.  Has climate change caused us to have a new normal?  And while  a 92 degree day on September 2nd is not unheard of, is there a larger case of climate change going on?”

Here is the answer I sent, edited and expanded a bit for this post:

Yes, there is certainly a new normal as far as temperature is concerned. It was a cool summer compared to recent decades, but those have been warm compared to the longer-term historical record, due in large part to human-induced global warming. Thus this summer was still warm compared to the long-term average (which means, since the mid-19th

It’s worth also mentioning that the coolness this summer was limited to our half of the country; the west was extremely hot even compared to recent years, with bad forest fires in the Pacific NW, the drought in California etc.

One can’t assign the hot weather today to global warming though – at least not for the most part. It’s never a good idea to attribute a single day of weather to long-term trends, because the natural day-to-day (and even month-to-month or year-to-year) fluctuations are large. On the other hand, it is safe to say that global warming will mean more 92-degree days after Labor Day in years to come, compared to the past.

Because of natural variability, some summers are a little warmer, some are a little cooler. But global warming keeps continuously pushing them all warmer. So by sometime in mid-century, the coolest summer in any given decade is still very likely to be hotter than even the hottest summer that anyone alive now (or their parents, grandparents etc.) has yet experienced.

Climate Central did a nice piece recently which includes an online form allowing you to see how this summer stacked up against the historical record for many US cities. Here is the image I got by selecting San Francisco, where this summer broke the all-time record according to the graph – I’m not sure why the title is just “Near Record Warmth”. The bars are the different years ranked by their average temperature.


Maya Lin and the long thin coast

Today I saw Maya Lin’s piece “Pin River – Sandy (2013)” at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, NY. (This was my second time; I had seen it about a year earlier at the Pace Gallery in Manhattan.) The photo (taken by me) shows what the piece looks like from across the room. It’s the outline of the areas of New York and New Jersey that flooded during Sandy.

maya 1

The medium is little metal pins, like slightly bigger versions of the straight pins used in sewing, stuck directly into the wall. Here is a close up:

maya 3

This piece brings out one of the changes in awareness that Sandy forced on people in this region. We know now much better than we did before what places are at low elevation near the water: what their names are, and where they are.

It’s inherently hard to visualize the region inundated by the storm, though. It’s a large area, but in most places it’s very narrow in width inland from the coast, compared to its length along the coast. If you want to look at it all on a map, the map has to be so large that the flooded area looks like little more than a line – a one-dimensional region rather than a two-dimensional (much less three-dimensional) one.

The New York Times had an interesting solution to this in the online version of an article that came out a few weeks after, summarizing the damage:

They did it with interactivity, so clicking on some place produces a zoomed-in view of that place, with information in a few different formats (photos, text, map) about what happened there.

It’s harder in a static medium. Lin’s piece first highlights the almost-curvilinear nature of the flooded land area, by showing nothing else but the negative white space of the wall. But one is inevitably drawn in for a closer look at the pins, forcing a direct perception of finite width.