July 7, 2006

The Fire This Time: More Perspective Needed

Filed under: Droughts

Some prominent scientists are becoming increasingly restive about the shrill portrayal of global warming science in popular media. The latest round concerned a paper by A. L. Westerling (Scripps Institute of Oceanography) relating an dramatic increase in western forest fires to regional warming and changes in the onset of snowmelt.

Coloroado University’s Roger Pielke Jr., one of the nation’s preeminent scholars about how science and society interact, called it “a useful paper that adds to our knowledge and hopefully will stimulate further research on the integrated effects of climate-society-policy.” But then, he warned that “At the same time I can envisage the paper being used simply as a caricature in the global warming debate—Global Warming Causes Forest Fires!—but that would be a shame because fire policy is more complex than that.”

Well, of course, what he feared would happen, did happen. And the resultant headlines are another sad commentary on how cursory reporting on global warming has become, and how little attention is paid to the facts as they stand. Nowhere, for example, did we read Westerling’s words: “Whether the changes observed in western hydro-climate and wildfire are the result of greenhouse gas-induced global warming or only an unusual natural fluctuation, is presently unclear.”

Why so unclear? In large part, because the science isn’t straightforward, and three decades is a very short period of climate time.

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Corals and Climate Change

Filed under: Adaptation, Animals, Plants

A newly-released report (available here) details the results of a 2005 workshop jointly sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanagraphic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on ocean acidification. Oceans are projected to become slightly more acidic because of increased absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This could affect coral reefs and other marine organism that produce calcium carbonate for their skeletons. Acid dissolves carbonate.

Generally, the report concludes that 1) the world’s oceans will acidify over the 21st century, and 2) that marine calcifying organisms (including corals and coral reefs) will be greatly harmed.

Heard this before. With regard to global warming, simply substitute any object (oceans, pandas, humans) and add the words “greatly harmed.” Amazing, though, that the planet has warmed for 100 years and human life expectancies have doubled, isn’t it?

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