Tuesday, 26 July 2011

An Element of Surprise

I'm surprised at how scientists are often surprised, and sometimes even astonished. For example, researchers and marine biologists were surprised by the rapid recovery of nearshore environments along the US coastline of the Gulf of Mexico in the months following the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010. Marine biologists were surprised at the rapid recovery of bleached areas of coral along the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland, Australia. Others had been surprised at the extent of the bleaching in 2008. Scientists were "Surprised to Find Earth's Biosphere Booming" (abstract here) when they looked for the first time, though whether it was the scientists themselves, or merely reporters who were surprised, is a moot point . Scientists were surprised (some were astonished) to find an "ozone hole" (so-called) over Antarctica several decades ago, when they looked for the first time. Scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were surprised to discover that some shell-building creatures unexpectedly build more shell when exposed to ocean acidification caused by elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

With all these expressions of surprise (most seem to be confined to press releases or interviews, may be a clue there?), it might be interesting to attempt to analyse the reasons. Had the scientists studied earlier oil spills and ecological impacts? If so why were they surprised at the rapid recovery? (I wasn't, but then I'm not a marine biologist). Large oil spills in colder waters were followed by rapidly reducing impact and fairly quick recovery. In the Gulf the water is much warmer, which should mean more rapid dispersion of the oil, and conditions conducive to oil-gobbling bacterial growth. Sea conditions also favoured skimming and collection of the surface oil close to the US coast, and rougher weather further out dispersed the oil. Perhaps they'd been influenced by all the reports of an ecological disaster which hadn't yet occurred in the first few days and weeks of the spill? Perhaps they just had pre-conceived notions of the likely extent of the damage and slow recovery speed. If so, they go down a notch in my estimation.

I can acknowledge genuine surprise when an event or result is "off the scale" in one direction or another, such as when quasars were discovered, but when investigating the unknown, surprise is misplaced. Sometimes, a statement of surprise reveals more than was intended. Recently, some scientists were surprised to discover that it's warmer sea water which melts Arctic Ice, rather than warmer air. I'd suggest that reveals more about them and their extent of knowledge of physical processes than it does about the rate of melting they reported (see A Question of Scale (2))

Reporters and science correspondents (some of the latter's scientific understanding seems to be less than that of the general population) were surprised that a slightly warmer, wetter world with more "carbon pollution" produced more and bigger plants. I've read that the "carbon pollution" (carbon dioxide or CO2) is "plant fertilizer". It's a little more than that, it's the only source of carbon for plants. Its increasing concentration is the main reason the Earth can provide enough food to feed its population. That's one of the few bits of "settled science" I know of. It's outrageous that children are taught that CO2 "damages the environment". It's astonishing that in an Australian survey, 44% thought that food and drink would be safer if they contained less CO2, and 37% thought we'd be better off with less carbon in our bodies. It's even more disturbing that some think CO2 is a pollutant that will affect our breathing. We breathe out air with 100 times the concentration of CO2 in the air we breathe in. Try a "carbon-free" diet (if you can).

I don't want to more than mention coral bleaching and so-called ocean "acidification" as I intend to look at both, maybe in more than one post. Some time ago, the existence of an "ozone hole" over the Arctic was announced by a few more surprised scientists. I wasn't surprised, in fact I was expecting such a discovery. Why? because the atmospheric conditions there indicate that there should be a reduction in ozone concentration, though to a lesser degree than over Antarctica. In fact, low ozone concentration there had been known for decades.The term "hole" is just another example of hyperbole, as it represents a reduction of up to 50% in ozone concentration in the Antarctic situation. The New Scientist hyperboled (just made the term up) in 1987 that "The ozone hole over Antarctica emerged suddenly and without warning", and this untruth is repeated widely over the internet. The thinning had been observed for more than a decade, but satellite data had been filtered out as anomalous. The link between chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and ozone depletion is said to be "settled science" (where have I heard that before?) yet the chemistry is complex, and I'm not totally convinced that they and similar compounds are the sole cause.

Continuing the "cool" theme, why should glaciologists be surprised by the behaviour of a glacier that hasn't been studied in detail before? Glaciers by definition move downhill, which invariably means from colder to warmer regions. In mountain regions, the lower end (snout) will melt during summer months, If it's moving fast enough, the movement may more than offset the melting, and the glacier grows in length, otherwise the snout retreats uphill. I distrust over-emotional reactions from those who should be dispassionate observers and recorders, such as "I almost wept to see the extent of the melting". Glaciers accumulate ice from snow and frost, move downhill, and melt in summer, all three aspects at various rates for different glaciers. Some grow, some stay the same length, and some shrink. For glaciers it's the never ending cycle. Those passionate observers (who never visit in winter - I wonder why?) need to get used to it. They also need to avoid extrapolating their conclusions to things or areas they haven't studied. This is especially true for glaciers; those in adjacent valleys, even parts of the same glacier, may be behaving quite differently. Studying only a few retreating glaciers is like studying patients in hospital and attempting to deduce the health of the general population.

In coastal regions, a glacier may reach the sea, and the ice may float on the sea surface to form a tongue, sometimes tens of km long. It shouldn't require a lifetime of study to realise that ice is brittle, and these floating tongues are vulnerable to extreme tides, wave action, and transverse currents. Why should a glaciologist be surprised or even shocked that a large chunk of such a tongue can break off? If such "catastrophic" events (for whom or what are they "catastrophic"?) didn't sometimes occur, the tongue would be much longer. The same is true for ice shelves. The breakup of several ice shelves in Antarctica  has repeatedly occurred over decades, but each event was treated as if it was the first, and the observers were duly surprised or shocked. For some collective surprise and no doubt astonishment, read "Ancient Ice Shelf Snaps, Breaks Free From the Canadian Arctic" with its obligatory link to global warming climate change. Or "Giant Ice Shelf Breaks Off in Canadian Arctic" from National Geographic News (my emphasis):
A huge Canadian ice shelf 500 miles (800 kilometers) from the North Pole has disintegrated, leaving a large floating island of ice stranded 30 miles (48 kilometers) offshore, scientists reported yesterday.
The entire 25.5-square-mile (66-square-kilometer) Ayles Ice Shelf broke free from the northern coast of Ellesmere Island on August 13, 2005
Note that the ice shelf disintegrated, yet was somehow still entire after it broke free. Stranded actually means "To be driven or run ashore or aground", not quite what was meant. Surprisingly (I can be surprised too), the article doesn't mention polar bears - it does of course, I was just trying to raise the tone above the cuddly emotional level:
And recent studies have shown that a loss of Arctic ice is causing polar bear populations to plummet, leading to a proposal to include the bears on the U.S. endangered species list.
Really? What studies are those ? Trust the NG to be rational and objective - for a brief moment it was:
Pack ice normally buffers the ice shelf from ocean movement. But with little ice and strong offshore winds, waves were able to batter the ice shelf, weakening it. 
Of course, climate change global warming is at work:

Sixteen months of study led Copland and colleagues to the conclusion that several factors were at work, mostly related to global warming. 
Before the breakup the Canadian Arctic had six ice shelves. "Now there are five," Copland said. In the past hundred years, he added, Canada's ice shelves have shrunk by 90 percent.
Or is it?
"We can't say that this [specific] event is due to global warming, but it definitely fits the long-term trend." 
I do wish people would make their minds up. I'm surprised at their lack of conviction.

UPDATE: This is a good 'un - researchers surprised by their own predictions!
"Wildfires in Yellowstone Will Increase as Global Warming Continues"
US university researchers made the forecasts buy examining climate data from 1972 to 1999 and combined that data with figures on the size and frequency of Rocky Mountain fires in the same period.
"What surprised us about our results was the speed and scale of the projected changes in fire in Greater Yellowstone," professor Anthony Westerling of the University of California, Merced, told AFP.
 From "More big Yellowstone fires predicted with climate change" in the Los Angeles Times
Westerling and four coauthors examined climate and fire data from 1972-1999 and then used projections from three global climate models to predict wildfire trends for the rest of the century.
I might ask what use global climate models could possibly have in projecting an accurate future temperature profile in Yellowstone, but I won't.

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