Posted Tuesday, May 14, 2013, at 2:01 PM
Photo by NASA/SDO
[UPDATE (May 15, 02:15 UTC): Make that four: That spot just blew out a fourth flare, this one topping out at X1.2.]
The Sun has been a bit quiet lately, with only minor hiccups of activity here and there. But that changed on May 13, when a sunspot just over the Sun’s limb erupted in the most powerful flare so far this year.
But it didn’t stop there: A few hours later it flipped out again, blasting out an even more power flare… and then again a third flare erupted, more powerful than the last two!
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory caught the whole thing, so I put together a short video showing the first two parts of this dramatic three-act play.
The scale of this is hard to grasp. Flares are caused when the magnetic field lines of the Sun get tangled up, and then snap, releasing their energy. The amount of energy is beyond staggering: It’s equivalent to millions of nuclear weapons all going off simultaneously! Astronomers classify flares according to the energy released; B and C are the lowest, then M, and then X-class flares at the top of the scale. Each class is a factor of ten more powerful than the one below.
Photo by NASA/SDO and NASA/ESA/SOHO
These three were all X-class, and in order they were X1.7, X2.8 and X3.2. That means the last of the three was nearly twice as powerful as the first. All three triggered coronal mass ejections, huge expulsions of billions of tons of material out into space. The last one was so big it will probably catch up with and ram into the earlier two.
I’ll note none of this presents a danger to us on Earth (though we have space probes that may catch the edge of these blasts, and the operators have been notified). But it’s a good reminder that the Sun is still on the low side of its 11 year peak. It’s been relaxed lately, but that doesn’t mean it won’t freak out again over the next few months.
And that’s exactly why we study it. Big eruptions can damage satellites, interrupt communications, and even cause blackouts on Earth. Our eyes in the sky give us a better view, and more importantly, advance warning. Hopefully, if the Sun does decide to aim something our way, well have enough time to deal with it. Satellites can be shut down, power can be shunted through different parts of the grid, and damage minimized. The Earth's atmopshere protects us fragile humans on the surface, too. But our electronics are expensive, our economy depnds on them, and we have to be aware of the Sun's potential influence on them.
Astronomy and space exploration can pay off, folks. Quite literally, in this case.
Posted Tuesday, May 14, 2013, at 8:00 AM
Los Angeles is a fun town—as long as you’re not a) driving around in it, or 2) trying to see any stars except for the TV and movie kind.
It’s a big city, and a lot of the light used to illuminate it goes into the sky. We call this “light pollution”, because it’s wasted, and also because it can ruin the view of the sky. LA is particularly bad because it’s spread out over a huge area, and to see anything at all in the sky you have to get really, really far out of town.
So I will admit to being pretty skeptical when I first saw the picture below: it purports to show the Milky Way—the faint fuzzy band of light strewn across the sky from our galaxy itself—seen over LA!
Seriously, right? That’s nuts.
But it’s also real. It was taken by Aaron Kiely, who works on spacecraft data at NASA’s JPL, and who’s familiar with techniques to squeeze extra information out of them. That lends him more credence right away. He also has a more detailed explanation of how he put the image together on his Flickr page, and after reading it I was satisfied it’s legit; the techniques he used were very similar to ones I used myself back when I worked on Hubble images!
The idea is that even when you have a very bright foreground (like LA), the fainter background (like the Milky Way) is still there, it’s just that the photons from it are vastly outnumbered. But if you take lots and lots of pictures, those photons build up. Then you can add the pictures together to create one where you can see fainter objects.
The problem is the Earth spins, so the Milky Way and the stars in the sky move. Normally you could just shift all the pictures to line them up, but in this case, though, Kiely used a wide-angle 11mm lens, so the pictures are distorted. That makes a simple shift much harder to do. So instead, he used some math to make a model of how the stars moved across the frame of the picture over time. This created a series of curved lines, all different depending on where they were in the frame:
That is essentially a map, a grid, showing where a star would be given its position and the time the picture was taken. He then used that model to warp each image, placing them all on a common frame, and added them together:
Cool. The Milky Way can now be seen, but it’s still faint; the bright sky is still swamping the Milky Way light. He needed to subtract it, reduce its influence. So Kiely turned to math once again.
Imagine the sky were the same brightness everywhere. All you’d need to do is find out what that value is (using Photoshop or any number of other image manipulation packages) and subtract it. But the sky brightness changes from spot to spot. Kiely wrote some software that examined the sky brightness all over the image and made a smooth two-dimensional map of it—like how throwing a blanket over a bunch of boxes on the floor smooths out their bumpiness. For those math nerds out there, he fit a polynomial to the background excluding stars and the landscape at the bottom, fed the coefficients into a least squares fit routine, and boom. 2D map made.
Subtracting that from his co-added picture, and voilà! You get the Milky Way hanging eerily over Lalaland.
Well, almost. Shifting and adding all the images together blurred out the hills and city at the bottom, so he took the nice, sharper shot of that from one of the single pictures and replaced the blurred portions.
Some people might think this is “cheating”, since so much manipulation is involved. I can understand that, but I’m not so upset. First of all, this is art, not science. Well, it is science; science used to make art. And it’s beautiful.
But moreover, let me ask you this: What isn’t cheating? A camera by its very nature shows us things our eyes cannot see. It collects light for far longer than our eyes do, it responds to color differently than our eyes do, it converts light to digital data, and it even performs a lot of mathematical manipulation of the picture before we even see it.
For some, “cheating” is when you’re showing something in the picture that wasn’t there in the first place… but even then it may not be so bad; astronomers combine images from different telescopes all the time. I only get upset by that when it’s presented as an actual photo; the person doesn’t let you know it’s been manipulated. Honesty is the best policy.
So to me, what Kiely did is not only legit, but also useful. He was able to tease out information that was in his pictures but far too faint to see in any one shot. And the result is amazing.
Tip o' the lens cap to FakeAstroPix on Twitter.
Posted Monday, May 13, 2013, at 11:11 AM
Photo by NRC, modified by Phil Plait
Over the past few years, the Canadian government has been lurching into antiscience territory. For example, they’ve been muzzling scientists, essentially censoring them from talking about their research. Scientists have fought back against this, though from what I hear with limited success.
But a new development makes the situation appear to be far worse. In a stunning announcement, the National Research Council—the Canadian scientific research and development agency—has now said that they will only perform research that has “social or economic gain”.
This is not a joke. I wish it were.
John MacDougal, President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”*. Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, also stated “There is [sic] only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge ... second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.”
I had to read the article two or three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something, because I was thinking that no one could possibly utter such colossally ignorant statements. But no, I was reading it correctly. These two men—leaders in the Canadian scientific research community—were saying, out loud and clearly, that the only science worth doing is what lines the pocket of business.
This is monumentally backwards thinking. That is not the reason we do science. Economic benefits are results of doing research, but should not be the reason we do it. Basic scientific research is a vast endeavor, and some of it will pay off economically, and some won’t. In almost every case, you cannot know in advance which will do which.
In the 19th century, for example, James Clerk Maxwell was just interested in understanding electricity and magnetism. He didn’t do it for monetary benefit, to support a business, or to maximize a profit. Yet his research led to the foundation of our entire economy today. Computers, the Internet, communication, satellites, everything you plug in or that uses a battery, stem from the work he did simply because of his own curiosity. This is the sort of research that the NRC is now moving away from†. The kind of work Maxwell did then is very difficult to do without support these days, and we need governments to provide that help.
In his statement above, Goodyear did throw in a mention of “social benefit”, and I’ll agree that does motivate many scientists—making life better for people is a strong incentive—but again, you cannot always know what research will do that and what won’t.
And that’s OK, because it’s not like the money is wasted when invested in science. For one thing, the amount of money we’re talking about here is tiny, tiny, compared to a national budget. For another, investment in science always pays off. Always, and at a very high rate. If you want to boost your economy in the middle and long run, one of the best ways to do it is invest in science. Instead of slicing away the scope of what scientists can do to save pennies and focus on narrower goals, the government should be increasing their budget and widening their vision.
But the Canadian government is doing the precise opposite. If proposed and immediate economic benefits are the prime factors in choosing what science to fund, then the freedom of this human endeavor will be critically curtailed. It’s draining the passion and heart out of one of the best things we humans do.
By doing this, the Canadian government and the NRC have literally sold out science.
* Correction 1 (May 22, 13:00 UTC): It appears that this quotation from the Toronto Sun has a transcription error; what MacDougal said was very similar to this but not word-for-word. For more information and clarification, please read this update on this situation.
†Correction 2 (May 22, 13:00 UTC): In the original text, I wrote that if Maxwell were to apply to the NRC for funding, he would be turned down given the new stress on industrial science. However, the NRC is not a grant-funding agency, so the text has been modified to reflect that. For details and clarification, please read this update on this situation.
Posted Monday, May 13, 2013, at 7:30 AM
[UPDATE (May 14 02:30 UTC): Welcome home to the three astronauts of Expedition 35, who safely touched down in Kazakhstan after an amazingly successful mission on board the ISS. My special thanks to Chris Hadfield, who has done more for space outreach and public excitement than most of us could accomplish in a lifetime.]
At 23:08 UTC tonight (7:08 p.m. EDT), a Soyuz TMA-07M capsule will undock from the International Space Station. On board will be three astronauts: Commander Chris Hadfield, and Flight Engineers Roman Romanenko and Tom Marshburn. This will mark the official end for Expedition 35 and the beginning of Expedition 36.
When they undock they will have logged 146 days on the station—five months—and in that time Hadfield has taken and tweeted hundreds of astonishing pictures of the Earth from space. His charm and clear passion for what he does have earned him a devoted following on Twitter, and I include myself among them.
As a tribute to this great man and the work he has done, here are a few of my favorite pictures he’s sent back to Earth from his perch 400 kilometers above its surface. (Note: My pal Joanne Manaster collected her favorite videos by Hadfield, too. All the photos below are by NASA; click them to embiggen.)
If you ever need a definition for the word “meander”, this river in Bolivia ought to take care of it. A commenter on Hadfield’s Facebook page was able to track it down. The Sun is well off to the right (the cloud shadows give that away), and so the glowing orange color is most likely due to the rising Sun reflecting off the water in the river.
Japan Ice Swirls
Frigid currents carrying ice swirl off the coast of Japan, forming delicate and lovely patterns in the ocean.
This is the volcano Mount Okmok in the Aleutian Islands. Covered in snow, half-hidden by clouds, it took some sleuthing to track down its identity once Hadfield tweeted the picture. It’s about 12,000 years old and erupts every couple of centuries.
OK, so I’m slipping a video into this list of photos. But how could I leave this out? A couple of school kids asked Commander Hadfield what happens when you wring out a wet washcloth in space, so he demonstrated. The result? Pure awesome.
Also, did you see the video of him playing and singing David Bowie's "Space Oddity"? It's amazing.
From space, many signs of humanity are visible. Here, a lone airplane cuts its way across the Tatra mountains in the Carpathians.
Eddies in the Stream
When water, land, and air interact, the results can be delicate and gorgeous. These swirls are called von Kármán vortices, formed when air blows past an obstruction, like, say, Isla Soccoro off the Pacific coast of Mexico.
Impact of Space Travel
This gorgeous shot shows Canada’s mighty St. Lawrence river. But my astronomer’s eye immediately noticed the circular feature to the right: the huge Manicouagan crater, formed when an asteroid or comet hit about 200 million years ago.
As clouds flutter past the tiny island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic, they form a herringbone pattern. Together with the island, that takes on a literal meaning: it really does look like a fish skeleton!
The Beauty and Threat of Vesuvius
I love this picture: Looking down the throat of Mount Vesuvius, surrounded by towns and cities. More than half a million people live in the “red zone” of the volcano’s blast region.
One of the best self-portraits of all time: Hadfield floats in the space station’s cupola, as the SpaceX Dragon capsule approaches.
In a similar vein, he also took a phenomenal picture of the Soyuz TMA-07M, the capsule he’ll be riding home, when it first approached the space station in December 2012.
The Richat Structure is a geologic dome in Mauritania. This is an uplifted and folded terrain (called an anticline), with eons of erosion exposing its interior structure. One of the most recognizable natural features seen from space, the concentric circles are due to different types of rocks composing the structure. In general, the oldest part is in the middle, and the features get younger as you move out across its 20-kilometer (12-mile) radius, like nested Russian Matroschka dolls.
Black Sea, Blue Microbes
When I saw this, I thought it was artificial, but in fact it’s Monte Argentario, a peninsula off the west coast of Italy*. It used to be an island, but over time, sea and river currents dumped sediment into the area, eventually connecting it to the Tuscany region of Italy’s mainland.
Emerald Isle Storm
How You Dune?
Glaciers in the Himalayas send down tongues of ice into the valley below. The low Sun in this picture really brings out the relief, highlighting the rugged topography of the region.
Bonus pic: Fixing a Leak
Just days before Hadfield was scheduled to return to Earth, one of the station’s cooling systems sprung a leak, with ammonia snowflakes blowing out into space. NASA scheduled a contingency spacewalk, and the problem was quickly fixed. Hadfield took this picture of his two crewmates—including Tom Marshburn, who is coming home with him—after they finished the repair.
Congratulations to Hadfield, Romanenko, and Marshburn for a successful mission. And I look forward to the new crew— Karen Nyberg, Fyodor Yurchikhin, and Luca Parmitano—when they arrive later in May. I hope they continue the grand tradition of Hadfield and those before him, and continue to send us such beautiful and moving photos of our Pale Blue Dot.
Posted Sunday, May 12, 2013, at 6:32 PM
Chris Hadfield—astronaut, and commander of Expedition 35 on the International Space Station—is full of surprises. He's been tweeting amazing pictures from space for months, and has even sung a duet with a musician on the ground.
Still, this I did not expect: a full-blown music video of him singing and playing guitar to David Bowie's "Space Oddity." This is, quite simply, amazing.
Commander Hadfield comes back to Earth tomorrow, riding the fiery chariot of a Soyuz capsule. One of his crewmates coming home with him is ... Tom Marshburn.
Posted Sunday, May 12, 2013, at 8:00 AM
I like to live a spoiler-free existence, preferring to have no or at least minimal preconceptions when walking into a movie theater or sitting down to watch Doctor Who. I have remained amazingly and happily in-the-dark about the new Star Trek movie, for example, despite the existence of, y’know, the Internet.
Despite that, I found myself clicking on the trailer for the upcoming movie Gravity. I really don’t know anything about it, but my fellow Slatester Forrest Wickman made such a compelling case for the teaser, I decided I had to see it.
That looks amazing. I don’t generally judge a movie just on special effects, but I like the way this was shot, and it looks like there’s a lot of attention to detail. And best yet, the trailer gives you enough information to be intriguing, to draw you in, but not enough to ruin anything.
Plus, I do have something of a crush on George Clooney, so there’s little doubt I’ll watch this when it comes out in October.
Coincidentally, this trailer was released around the same time NASA was planning an astronaut spacewalk to fix a coolant leak on the space station. Cue the conspiracy theorists in 3 … 2 … 1 …
Posted Saturday, May 11, 2013, at 2:31 PM
On Thursday night, reports of a stream of UFOs over Chile and Argentina started making the rounds. It was caught on video, and it’s pretty amazing!
It’s with some relief I can say that’s not a fleet of alien spaceships bent on either enslaving the human race or possibly eating us. It's not even a swarm of meteors: what you're actually seeing there is a satellite dramatically breaking up as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. And it’s even been identified: it was the Cygnus mass simulator, a payload lofted into space by the Antares rocket in April!
That was the first successful launch of the rocket by the Orbital Sciences Corporation, placing several small satellites into orbit. Eventually, the rocket will also be equipped with a cargo delivery spacecraft called Cygnus, planned to take supplies to the space station. For the first test flight on Apr. 17, Antares carried a dummy payload with the same mass as a Cygnus to test out the rocket systems.
Antares put the Cygnus dummy into a low orbit. At that altitude the atmosphere is thin, but it’s there. Over time, drag affected the satellite, lowering its orbit, dropping it into thicker air, slowing and dropping it more. On Thursday night local time (Friday morning, May 10 at about 01:00 UTC), the Cygnus dummy payload dropped down enough to experience re-entry. As it slammed through the atmosphere at several thousand kilometers per hour it compressed the air in front of it, heating it up. The pressure and heat disintegrated the structure, and it fell apart, blazing across the sky.
The timing, direction, and speed are all consistent with it being the Antares payload, so it looks like we can move this event from the "UFO" into the "IFO" category.
I’ve seen hundreds of meteors, so I’m pretty familiar with what they look like. I’ve only witnessed a couple of satellite re-entries, and there’s no mistaking the two! Meteors are moving at interplanetary speeds, and zip across the sky. Satellites are more stately, moving at a fraction of a meteor's speed, and you commonly can see the little bits and pieces burning and falling away as they go by. It’s astonishing.
As more private companies get into the launch game—and with everyone walking around with a private movie studio packed into their phones—we’ll be seeing more video like this. I hope that as these sightings and videos become more common, people will learn even more about what’s going on literally right over their heads.
Posted Saturday, May 11, 2013, at 8:00 AM
On May 9, 2013, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide hit a new record high. Announced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the levels of CO2 in the air on that day* reached a daily average of 400 parts per million (ppm). This is the highest level of atmospheric CO2 in human history, and in fact the highest level for at least 800,000 years. It gets worse: the amount of CO2 in the air likely hasn’t been this high since the Pliocene Epoch, more than three million years ago.
Photo by NOAA
Welcome to the new age of climate change. It’s here, and it’s here to stay.
The measurements were made by the Scripps Oceanographic Institute using a device located at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. They are the longest-running measurements of their kind anywhere in the world, with continuous readings since 1958, started by Dr. Charles Keeling—hence the term Keeling Curve for the plot. While it’s measured in Hawaii, it’s proven to be a pretty good indicator of worldwide levels.
The device measures the amount of carbon dioxide in dry air, and expresses the result as number of molecules per million, usually called parts per million. So for every million molecules of air measured (mostly nitrogen and oxygen), 400 of those molecules are CO2.
Photo by Scripps Institute/UCSD
It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Yet the affect is profound. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; it is transparent to visible light, but opaque to far infrared. So sunlight passes through it easily, hitting the Earth’s surface. The ground then warms up and emits infrared light. However, that light cannot get out; it is absorbed by the CO2. This retains the heat, warming the Earth up. That’s why CO2 is monitored so carefully; it has a direct link to global warming.
There are other greenhouse gases as well, like water vapor and methane, but those have a steady effect on the Earth, relatively unchanging over time. CO2, on the other hand, has been increasing as we burn fossil fuels, adding to its effect over time. This is why we are so concerned about it.
To know the CO2 levels before the 1958 measurements began, other types of methods are used. For example, ice cores taken in various locations around the world (Greenland and Antarctica, for example) are excellent proxies; gas bubbles containing CO2 trapped in ancient ice can be measured, and the age can be determined very accurately (by counting the seasonal ice layers, or measuring the isotope levels of oxygen). That’s how we know that this new level of 400 ppm is unprecedented for nearly a million years. Similar techniques show that the last time levels were this high was several million years ago, in the Pliocene.
The exact level of CO2 fluctuates all the time, even hour by hour. The 400 ppm level has been breached several times on the hourly basis over the past few days, but May 9, 2013 was the first time a daily average exceeded 400 ppm. It will certainly drop below that again; the annual cycle goes up and down by roughly 8-10 ppm, and peaks in May. So it’ll bounce above and below 400 for the net few weeks, but for the next few months will probably start heading back down again to its minimum in October (which will likely be about 394 ppm). But then it will inexorably rise again, and by next May will be even farther above 400.
Graph by NOAA
Let me be clear: 400 ppm is a rather arbitrary number. It doesn’t mean temperatures will suddenly soar, or anything like that. But we humans love our milestones, especially when they are round numbers—a fact understood, no doubt, by the Wall Street Journal and the authors of the execrable OpEd I eviscerated this yesterday.
It may be arbitrary, but it is still a stark reminder of many things, none of them good:
- CO2 levels are rising, and they’re rising far faster than any time in human history (and at least for the past 11,000 years).
- CO2 is for real and for sure tied to rising heat content of the Earth. For quite some time that heat has been going into the air, and we’ve seen rising temperatures around the world. At the moment, a lot of that heat is going into warming the oceans, but climatologists expect to see air temperatures increasing rapidly again soon.
- This has direct impacts, like increased temperatures in the air and water, melting ice, and more severe weather. It also has indirect impacts, like fluctuating weather patterns. This makes it difficult to tag any freak storm to climate change, but it does mean that over time, we’ll see more and more. Worse droughts and floods, more forest fires, increased ocean acidification, and more are all expected due to increased carbon dioxide in the air.
- All this is happening on a timescale hugely accelerated over natural cycles. The Earth tends to changes over millions of years; we’re doing this to it in just a century. Without time to adapt, this will have a profound impact on life around the globe.
The simple truth is this: More carbon dioxide is in the air than there has been for millions of years. The world is warming up, and it’s due to human influence. If we do nothing it’ll continue to rise, and even if we get our act together it’ll get worse before it gets better.
* The NOAA is reporting the May 9 level as 400.03, while the Scripps site reports it as 399.73. Part of that is due to simple time-of-day cutoffs, but since the 400 level is somewhat arbitrary anyway, it’s a quibble.
Posted Friday, May 10, 2013, at 11:27 AM
Photo by NASA
[UPDATE (May 11 at 15:45 UTC): Two astronauts performed an EVA this morning to swap out the ammonia pump suspected of causing the leak. After a successful swap with a spare unit, no more leaking of ammonia snowflakes has been seen, so for now it looks like the problem has been fixed! As I write this they are cleaning up and preparing to go back inside the space station, where they will keep a close eye on the pump and the coolant system to make sure eveything is working as it should.]
Right now, NASA is planning at least one EVA—extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalk—for an astronaut on the International Space Station to investigate and hopefully repair a coolant leak. NASA says the crew is not in danger, and the ISS is otherwise operating normally. Pete Harding at NASASpaceflight.com has a detailed article on this situation.
Basically, turning solar energy into power for the station generates heat, which must be removed. A cooling system is used that is essentially a series of ammonia-filled pipes; they run over the heated area, warming up the ammonia, which is then pumped away from the hot spot so it can radiate that heat away into space.
A small leak in one of the pipes has been known for years. It was so tiny it wasn’t a huge concern; a mission a few years back brought more ammonia to the station to refill the pipes. But on May 9, ground controllers noticed the leak had increased suddenly, and astronauts on board ISS saw flakes of frozen ammonia leaking out into space. Because of this, a spacewalk is being scheduled most likely for Saturday, May 11, to take a look and identify the culprit. A second, later EVA will probably then be needed to swap out the faulty part.
UPDATE (May 10, 2013): Video taken on the ISS shows some of these ammonia ice flakes moving away from the affected area:
This situation is serious, but being handled. Everything on the ISS has redundant backups, so the pipe is being shut down and the backup unit getting prepped for use.
This does throw a monkey in the wrench of the schedule; Commander Hadfield, Tom Marshburn (a likely candidate for at least one of the spacewalks), and Roman Romanenko were already preparing for their return to Earth on Monday. That’s now on hold for a while, probably until the situation is under control. It’s not clear how long the delay will be, or what this will mean for the launch of the next crew of three astronauts to the station, due for late May.
Spaceflight enthusiasts are discussing this on the NASASpaceflightNow forum, and it’s fascinating to read. It’s clear NASA is taking this very seriously, as you’d expect, but it doesn’t sound like this is a life-or-death situation. Still, any time a contingency (extra) spacewalk is added in, there are inherent dangers. Hopefully the engineers on the ground and the astronauts on-board the ISS will take care of this quickly and efficiently.
Posted Friday, May 10, 2013, at 7:45 AM
I see a lot of pretty amazingly bad global warming denial online. It ranges from mildly cherry-picked data to such baldly transparent garbage that you have to wonder if the person who wrote it can possibly, actually believe what they are saying is true.
After reading dozens, hundreds, of such mind-numbing articles, I think we’ve found a winner. One that is so sweepingly wrong and based on such a ridiculous premise that it’s weapons-grade denial. Unsurprisingly, it was published in the Wall Street Journal, which has a lengthy history of printing reality-free OpEds about climate change. Perhaps surprisingly, it was penned by two actual scientists, William Happer and Harrison Schmitt. I’ll have more about them later.
I present to you the article, titled—seriously—“In Defense of Carbon Dioxide”. At least the title isn’t misleading; it really is an article that is saying, “Sure, we’re dumping vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, but don’t worry, because plants love it! We had lots more CO2 in the air millions of years ago and everything was fantastic!”
If you think I’m being unfair or mischaracterizing the article in any way, then please go read it. You’ll see that is precisely what the article is stating. It is a piece of—if you’ll pardon the expression—breath-taking illogic and intellectual legerdemain.
However, it boils down to two basic and overwhelming problems: global effects of more CO2 in the air, and the rate of increase.
You’re Getting Warmer
Their main point is the idea that you can just increase the CO2 in the atmosphere and then stand back and watch plants grow better; everything will be hunky-dory. That is monumentally naive. That might work in a small greenhouse or in a lab, but on a whole planet you’ll run into the fact that the ecosphere is incredibly complex. That extra CO2 means a lot of extra heat, and that will have all sorts of ramifications.
Sure, growing pineapples in Toronto might be fun, but what do you think will happen in Kansas when the summer heat gets cranked up to broil, and changing weather patterns dry up all the rain for a few months at a time?
Everything comes with a price. Droughts, flooding, fires, rising sea levels…increasing CO2 may help some plants in some places, but it will have catastrophic effects elsewhere. The authors just dismiss all this without evidence. Hence my use of the term “denial”.
Simply claiming increased CO2 will help plants grow while ignoring everything else it does is a stunningly tone-deaf argument, yet one deniers seem to use over and again. Looking at a few plants growing better due to more CO2 is like ignoring that you killed a patient while curing their hangnail.
Then there’s the problem of rate. Sure, CO2 levels were higher in the past. But it’s not just the amount the counts, it’s how quickly it rose to that amount. Solid research done over the past few years has shown that the current rate of increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is entirely unprecedented over at least the past 11,000 years (and almost certainly much farther back than that). There were times in the past when the amount was higher, but it took millennia to reach those levels. We’re about to blow through the record like a rocket, and we’ve done it in a mere century.
That means there’s no time to adapt. Evolution takes time, which means countless species of animals and plants won’t adapt. It’ll cause a massive disruption of the planet's ecosphere on a colossal scale.
Dr. Michael Mann is a climatologist whose famous “hockey stick” graph showed global temperatures were rising rapidly—a result that has been confirmed over and again, despite denier claims. I asked him about this Wall Street Journal OpEd, and he said:
It took nature hundreds of hundreds of millions of years to change CO2 concentrations through natural processes such as natural carbon burial and volcanic outgassing.
So, yes, 100 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous period, CO2 concentrations were higher than today, and the Earth was warmer than today. Nature buried all of that carbon over a timeframe of 100,000 years. What we are doing is unburying it. But not over 100 million years. We're unburying it and burning it over a timescale of 100 years, a million times faster. There is no precedent in Earth history for such an abrupt increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.
Think of it this way: Imagine driving a car at 100 kilometers per hour. Apply the brakes slowly and evenly, and over enough time you will gently and smoothly glide to a stop.
Smash into a telephone pole and you’re dead.
In other words, rate matters. Happer and Schmitt completely ignore that.
If You Can’t Take the Heat, Write for the WSJ
This idea that CO2 isn’t dangerous has been a denier talking point for some time now, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. They claim that CO2 is just a natural and “harmless byproduct of nature”, which is bonkers; try living on Venus to see why.
That politicians would say something this utterly nonsensical is de rigueur. But the authors of that atrocious Wall Street Journal article are scientists. William Happer is a physicist at Princeton University, but also denies that the current warming is due to increased carbon dioxide.
The other author may surprise you: Harrison Schmitt, a geologist and Apollo 17 astronaut who walked on the Moon in 1972. However, as I’ve pointed out before, being a hero doesn’t make you an expert on climate change. He has a long history of flat-out denial of global warming as well, making some pretty bizarre and completely wrong claims about Arctic sea ice, for example.
That’s the part that really gets me. The arguments they make in that OpEd don’t even come close to passing a scientific smell test. As climatologist Michael Mann points out, “The whole article is built on a fallacy, a straw man.”
I agree. It’s just another in a woefully transparent series of Wall Street Journal OpEds denying the reality of global warming. They ignore evidence, use cherry-picked data, pollute the discussion, and distract from the real problem.
They are simply, plainly—and dangerously—wrong.