Searing Heat, Raging Wildfires Offer ‘Teachable’ Summer Moments

Numerous media reports dealing with wildfires, with record-breaking heat, and with a possible connection to climate change capitalize on 2012 weather anomalies for a ‘teachable moment.’ And two articles in academic journals provide more context on the subject.

Some teachable moments last longer than others.

Like for a whole season, for instance, or even longer.

The spring and summer of 2012, both soon past tense, provide an apt example, at least insofar as North America is considered. Coming after an unusually mild winter — wondering why the pets are experiencing such nagging flea problems this summer? — the spring’s searing wildfires across much of the West by mid-summer had begun to share the limelight with record-high temperatures turning much of the nation’s corn crop to waste.

Reports in two journals — one linking specific weather events to climate change and the other exploring the impacts of local weather experiences on climate attitudes — add more context to the range of analyses.

“The facts speak loudly for themselves,” respected journalism academic and science writer Tom Yulsman, of the University of Colorado, wrote in Columbia Journalism Review in mid-July. “As of July 12, 76 active wildfires were burning across more than 2.1 million acres of the American West — an area nearly as large as sprawling Los Angeles County. And the heart of the fire season is still ahead of us.”

“The fires have predictably followed six months of paltry precipitation and near-record warmth in large parts of the region,” Yulsman wrote, pointing to “a death spiral of rapid melting” by March for Colorado’s snowpack.

Writing around that same time in the Omaha World-Herald, reporter Nancy Gaarder led her report — “So, Just How Bad is This Year’s Drought?“:  ”The extraordinary drought that has exploded across the country shows no signs of abating. Instead, what began as a ‘flash’ drought — a quick flare-up of extremely dry conditions — has settled in and is intensifying.”

Gaarder wrote of “a fresh round of analyses by the nation’s leading drought and weather forecasting agencies” which she said collectively “fleshed out a discouraging picture of what has become the most widespread U.S. drought since 1956.”

Reports of local, city, and state record-high daily temperatures became old-hat, yesterday’s news, as each day, each week, and each month overtook previous records set just shortly earlier.

According to Yulsman, reporters and commentators “chose to emphasize different parts” of the forest management/drought/climate change/growing population equation in their coverage.

“Some examined decades of forest management policies that have left many forest ecosystems overgrown and fully fueled for intense fires,” he wrote. “Others examined the climatic factors that lit the fuse.”

“Some missed the mark in their coverage, with over-simplification and lack of appropriate skepticism,” Yulsman wrote, while “many others added important information to public discourse on this increasingly critical issue.”

Reviewing Temperature Records Newly Broken

Climate Central science writer Andrew Freedman pulled together a number of coverage threads in a July 30 blog posting “Extreme Heat Continues to Plague South Central States.” He noted in that piece that Tulsa, Oklahoma, had so far that month had 16 100-degree days and that through July 29 its average high was running 5.3 degrees above average. Tulsa experienced one record overnight low, reaching down only to 88 degrees F and breaking its previous overnight lows of 87 degrees in 2011 and 1980.

Looking back over the first seven months of the year, Freedman reported that the U.S. had recorded its warmest January-to-June period on record, with its warmest March, third-warmest April, and second-warmest May.

“This marks the first time that all three months during the spring season ranked among the 10 warmest, since recordings began in 1895,” Freedman wrote. He added that daily record-high temperatures generally had been outpacing daily record lows by two-to-one.

“This year-to-date, record-daily highs have been outpacing record-daily lows by a ratio closer to nine-to-one.” “When you look at all warm temperature records, including overnight low temperatures compared to all cold temperature records, the ratio is closer to seven-to-one,” he reported.

Extensive Network News Coverage

Coverage of a weather/climate connection wasn’t limited to the print media, of course. Throughout much of the summer, it wasn’t unusual to find the prime-time “flagship” network news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC all leading their broadcasts with either wildfire or scorching heat stories. NBC’s environmental affairs coordinator Anne Thompson must have garnered as much airtime as anyone, but ABC at one point gave the lead story on its evening coverage to its “Good Morning America” weather editor, Sam Champion. Responding to a question from anchor Diane Sawyer after his report on the day’s scorching temperatures, Champion opined freely that he personally concludes that manmade emissions from fossil fuel combustion — specifically CO2 — lie at the heart of the warming weather pattern. It’s time to reduce those emissions, he told Sawyer.

On CBS, meanwhile, a leading scientist with The Nature Conservancy, M. Sanjayan, took over as the networks’ science and environmental commentator, seemingly violating the proverbial “iron wall” such news organizations traditionally have maintained between straight news reporting and advocacy.

Sanjayan had some insightful points to make in a summer commentary on wildfires and climate change, but Columbia Journalism Review‘s Curtis Brainard headlined a late-August report “CBS Goofs Up the Green Beat” on a second story. Brainard faulted the network for “allowing him [Sanjayan] to interview a fire ecologist from The Nature Conservancy without mentioning that the contributor is a lead scientist at the very same group.”

Labeling Sanjayan’s report “basically fine,” Brainard wrote that “the lack of disclosure is a serious problem.”

“Not only must the network mention Sanjayan’s affiliation with The Nature Conservancy in every report,” Brainard wrote, “but he should also avoid interviewing his colleagues there whenever possible — which is almost always.”

That breach notwithstanding, however, much of the mainstream network and cable coverage of the weather/wildfire/possible climate connection appeared generally responsible and more or less in keeping with the state of scientific understanding, complete with appropriate qualifications and references to uncertainty. There clearly were instances of over-playing and of under-playing the possible climate connections, and one activist media watchdog group, Media Matters, was particularly critical of what it characterized as “the missing climate context” in April-June coverage by national newspapers and major network and cable companies. “The major television and print outlets largely ignored climate change in their coverage of wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico, and other western states,” the interest group said in a July 3 analysis. All together, the group reported, only 3 percent of the reports on wildfires in the West mentioned climate change — 1.6 percent of television segments and 6 percent of text articles.”

Researchers Link Local Weather to Climate Attitudes

In the academic literature, researchers Patrick J. Egan and Megan Mullin, of New York University and Temple University respectively, wrote this summer that “For each 3.1 degree Fahrenheit that local temperatures in the past week have risen above normal, Americans become one percentage point more likely to agree that there is ‘solid evidence’ that the Earth is getting warmer.” They wrote that their research suggests “the size of the effect is substantial” but “short-lived” and therefore “does not induce long-term attitude change.” They wrote in The Journal of Politics in July that the effects of local weather on attitudes toward climate change are “most pronounced among the least educated.”

“The effect of weather on beliefs is significant and substantively large, even more so after longer periods of unusually hot or cold weather,” they wrote, even though “without a doubt, short-term weather variation provides little information about broad climatic trends.” They wrote that individuals routinely “draw inferences about society’s problems from their personal experiences [and] generally put too much weight on those personal experiences in forming their beliefs about the state of the world …. We find evidence of memory-based processing in which short-term fluctuations in the weather affect attitudes about global warming.”

Scientist Hansen’s ‘Loaded Climate Dice’ Analysis

In a paper published August 6 in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” — “Perceptions of Climate Change” — NASA climate scientist James Hansen and two co-authors , wrote that “Early public recognition of climate change is critical.”

Researchers for decades have thought that “by the early 21st century, the informed public should be able to recognize that the frequency of unusually warm seasons had increased,” they wrote, because the ‘climate dice,’ describing the probability of unusually warm or unusually cool seasons, would be sufficiently loaded (biased) as to be discernible to the public.”

Emphasizing that “summer temperature anomalies are changing,” Hansen acknowledged that “we were motivated in this research by an objective to expose effects of human-made global warming as soon as possible.” He added that “we use an empirical approach that does not require knowledge of the causes of observed climate change” and “avoid any use of global climate models, instead dealing only with real world data.”

“The climate dice are now loaded to a degree that a perceptive person old enough to remember the climate of 1951-1980 should recognize the existence of climate change, especially in summer,” Hansen and his colleagues wrote. “We can say with a high degree of confidence that events such as the extreme summer heat in the Moscow region in 2010 and Texas in 2011 were a consequence of global warming,” they concluded. “Today’s extreme anomalies occur as a result of simultaneous contributions of specific weather patterns and global warming,” they wrote.

With fall school semesters underway and prime-time vacation rentals giving way to off-season “bargains,” what lessons from the spring and summer will media carry into the coming fall? Will the first warmer-than-”normal” spell herald “told-ha-so” skeptical news coverage? Will warmer days in some coming winter months (in some locations or many) erase spring and summer lessons hard-learned?

The “teachable moments” of spring and summer 2012 for sure will be followed by teachable moments yet to come. What remains unclear is how well the media’s past lessons-learned will influence their future coverage. To be continued.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail:
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37 Responses to Searing Heat, Raging Wildfires Offer ‘Teachable’ Summer Moments

  1. Peter Capen says:

    Unfortunately, “teachable moments” serve no useful purpose if they are not understood, connections “between the dots” are not made, and they are not followed up by any concrete action. There has been an “avalanche” off scientific research reports and lay articles that summarize the studies on global warming and what the growing body of evidence suggests is causing it. But the politics in this nation continue to be in stasis when it comes to actually confronting the enormous challenge an increasingly hotter planet presents. Those who continue to deny reality, or persist in claiming their continued confusion about the issue, either do not want to change their ways, or have been content to remain in blissful ignorance. But, of course, neither stand will prevent the planet from continuing to warm and for the resulting environmental impacts to grow steadily worse. In 1936, Winston Churchill famously said, (we go on) “in strange paradox, deciding only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift,” (even while) the era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close.” Although Churchill was warning the British people of the gathering clouds of war, his words are just as prescient today when it comes to the very real threat global warming presents to modern civilization. If we and our leaders continue to sit on our hands and do nothing to confront the challenge, we will have no one to blame but ourselves as the problems grow worse. And we will be condemned by future generations for our unconscionable inaction.

    • Dan Rogers says:

      I agree with you entirely Mr. Capen. We ought to be taking well-reasoned measures to deal with the foreseeable results of continued warming. Inaction, however, is being fostered by people urging us to take useless measures to slow down or stop the warming.

      Intelligent people in leadership positions, such as President Obama, find themselves politically restrained from advocating those well-reasoned measures. Why is this so? It’s because there is a great deal of money to be made by prosecuting, with great vigor and great expense, a fantasy war on carbon dioxide, and hastily converting America’s electricity generation system over to nuclear power. To make sensible preparations for continued global warming, however, is to admit that the continued warming cannot be stopped by this fantasy war on CO2, and such an admission cuts the legs out from under the grand scheme to make billions of dollars waging that useless war. Those people and companies standing to gain from that war will not willingly forgo those gains. They will continue to insist that climate change is taking place “unnaturally,” and should be counteracted at all costs in order to save the planet.

  2. Windy says:

    Based on your premise, extended freezes and snow in the Sahal Desert are teachable moments too only they would be teaching moments that would counter claims of warming. Anecdotal evidence of warming or cooling for a couple of months over an infintesmal portion of the planet is a losing game that will only backfire with the next big snowfall.

    The climate dice paper has no traction with the public at large and outside of a small group of activists it’s, pardon the pun, coming up craps.

    I think that the people that are addressing energy issues such as sustainable energy technologies and energy independence as the way to move the public forward on climate change have the right idea.

    • Peter Capen says:

      It seems clear that the writer either did not understand the Hansen PNAS article, or did not bother to read it prior to making this vacuous comment. James Hansen is one of the leading climate scientists in the world and has been warning of the threat posed to the planet from rising CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels since the 1980s. In his 1988 testimony before Congress, his comments of what was in store for the planet if CO2 emissions continued to rise proved to be right on the mark. That he has become more strident in his warnings based on his scientific research, as well as more “activist,” is a result of both the elites and the public’s failure to heed what Hansen and other major climate scientists have been saying for some time now. The real villain in this life and death drama is not Hansen or other climate scientists, it is the complete failure of the mainstream media to inform the public, corporations willingness to spend unlimited amounts of cash to sow confusion in the public’s mind, the political establishment which has shown a venal and cowardly failure to act, and a public that has largely been content to wallow in continuing ignorance. Continuing to deny reality is not an option.

      • Windy says:

        Pete…you’re too emotional get a grip. I read the paper and I was disappointed and I’m not alone in the scientific community. Hansen’s results are greatly influenced by his choice of start date.

        Hansen is just another climate scientist and only time will tell if he was even accurate. His model is facing problems which you chose not to address. Hansen himself has admitted last year in an ARXIV article that I read that his model was accumulating too much ocean heat. I went to the ARGO data myself to confirm what he mapped out in the paper because it is very important problem and I take a responsible approach to confirm most climate science first hand by examining the data for myself. There are newspaper clippings of Hansen in the 1980s and 1990s making all kinds of predictions that haven’t come close to materializing that shouldn’t be ignored in evaluating his MO. If he was wrong then, I have the right to determine if he is right or wrong now. He is not an infallible god and science is not a dictatorship. Deal with it.

        I will continue to evaluate the science which is still unfolding and contains large uncertainties. For instance a brand new discovery about aerosols that violates Plank’s Law has just come out of MIT which is sure to revise climate model construction. I emailed my cousins (climate modelers) for feedback and I await information on the impacts. My opinions will likely change based on what I find, as I’m not married to a particular view. You need to quit imagining that you’re somehow the arbiter of scientific truth and accept that there are going to be differences in opinion for quite some time. If you continue to be intolerant of others you will just end up bitter and frustrated.

        • Brian Dodge says:

          “Hansen’s results are greatly influenced by his choice of start date. ”

          That is A LIE.

          see –

          “The support critics offered for their assertions was that the 1951-1980 base period that we used to define climate anomalies was biased. Here we repeat our analysis with alternative base periods, reconfirming and strengthening our conclusions, and we add further information.”

          • Windy says:

            You provide an email discussion not peer reviewed work. Please try to be civil. Just because someone disagrees, as many do, that the Hansen analysis is not robust, it doesn’t make them liars. Time, and it will take more time, will tell if the US land based temperatures are even accurate. A new bias-controlled NOAA temperature network (USCRN), was set up to look for bias in the current land based temperature network. The current network showed July 2012 US average to be 77.6 degF whereas the new bias-controlled USCRN network showed the July 2012 average to be 75.5 degF.

          • Brian Dodge says:

            There is no peer reviewed, e-mail discussion, or blog science which repeats Hansen’s analysis with alternate base periods which shows that it makes any difference in Hansen’s results. The methods and data are available – disagreeing, or believing, aren’t enough – Hansen’s showed you his, now show your work.
            Moving the goalposts to USCRN network doesn’t count; you have to compare apples (current network probability distribution) to apples, and any bias in the current network just offsets the initial center of the distribution, and doesn’t change it with time – global warming does.

      • Dan Rogers says:

        Who is denying reality? To think that a minuscule gas in the atmosphere is the cause of climate change is the actual, critical denial of reality that is going on.

        Do you CO2 fanatics ever wonder why Al Gore isn’t running the EPA? Could it be that President Obama and his people do not actually buy the CO2 fairytale? The President has long impressed me as being, above all else, an intelligent man who can recognize baloney when baloney is being served. For political reasons he pays lip service to the greenhouse gas fairytale from time to time — something I don’t approve of — but it is clear to me that the President is a committed skeptic when it comes to the matter of anthropogenic climate change. Thank heavens for that!

        • Mack says:

          You’re right Dan, he could only afford one day out of his busy golfing schedule to attend Copenhagen.

        • John says:

          Whether or not Obama “buys into the CO2 fairytale”, perhaps you should go back and read up on Svante Arrhenius, who a century ago showed, quantitatively, how increasing CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to an enhanced greenhouse effect. And yes, he accounted for water vapor. If he was wrong, can you show how he was wrong quantitatively?

        • Brian Dodge says:

          Get 3 one liter bottles of water. Leave one pristine, put 5 drops of red food dye in one(~280 ppmv), and 7 drops of dye(~390 ppmv) in the third. Compare the colors of the three water bottles aginst a white background, then get back to me on the effect of “miniscule” amounts of strongly absorbing molecules dispersed in transparent media.
          Since red food coloring is actually a 1% solution of 2-Naphthalenesulfonic acid, 6-hydroxy-5-
          ((6-methoxy-4-sulfo-m-tolyl)azo)-, disodium salt in water, try it again with 500 and 700 drops in the respective bottles.

          If we could see color where CO2 absorbs, the change caused by human FF emissions would be obvious. Since we can see changes in Arctic sea ice, and temperature records, the changes from CO2 ARE obvious.

          • Mack says:

            I prefer a different analogy Brian. Make up a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle and put your finger on less than 1/2 of one piece to warm it up and see what effect it has on the temp. of the rest of the jigsaw.

  3. Peter Capen says:

    To follow up on my previous comments about our utter failure to respond to the challenge of global warming, one need only consider, for instance, what is likely to happen to food prices globally in the years ahead as the planet continues to warm and weather becomes more extreme. In the just published OXFAM report, “Extreme weather, extreme prices: The costs of feeding a warming world,” the report begins by saying, “Climate change is making extreme weather – like droughts, floods and heat waves – much more likely. As the 2012 drought in the US shows, extreme weather means extreme food prices. Our failure to slash greenhouse gas emissions presents a future of greater food price volatility, with severe consequences for the precarious lives and livelihoods of people in poverty.”

    Moreover, agricultural production is closely tied to the availability of abundant water. Increasing water scarcity from deepening droughts impacts adversely every aspect of our lives. Consider just for a moment what happens to nuclear power generation when these plants must be shut down because the lack of cool water. Or what about the increasingly bitter competition between farming and hydrofracking. In the years ahead the problems of growing enough food at prices people can afford and growing water scarcity are only going to grow worse the longer we fail to respond to the role of human caused CO2 emissions and their link to a steadily warming planet.

  4. GWS says:

    1. Could the comments policy please be followed and enforced (!):
    - Submit comments that are on topic and contribute in a positive manner to the community
    - Be as concise as possible
    - Comments and/or links that are defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening, contain personal or ad hominem criticisms will not be posted.

    Since a while now the troll “Dan Rogers” regularly posts here in violation of the above, particularly arguing a rather silly, long debunked CO2-does-not-affect-climate myth. So I suggest
    2. DNFTT

  5. Dan Rogers says:

    I know what trolls are in Norse folklore, but I am unfamiliar with the contemporary use of the term. Is it flattering or insulting? And what does DNFTT mean?

    GWS objects to my expressing the belief that carbon dioxide is probably not the driving force behind atmospheric warming. His objection appears to be based solely upon his belief that my belief is heretical, and he is upset that I have the temerity to express such views after he has been so kind as to advise me that I am wrong.

    It kinda takes your breath away.

    • Nullius in Verba says:

      The term ‘troll’ originated on Usenet and actually referred to the fishing technique ‘trolling’ which meant throwing bait into the water to get the fish biting. It had nothing to do with Norse folklore.

      In the original Usenet usage, a ‘troll’ was a person who deliberately started arguments between other people by posting some provocative and controversial statement, usually cross-posted to multiple groups whose participants were bound to disagree, and then sitting back and watching the fight. Nowadays it seems to be used to refer to people who go to sites where their views are in the minority and argue.

      The theory is that if everybody ignores the bait the troll will get bored and go away – hence the phrase ‘do not feed the troll’ (DNFTT). But that only applies if their intention is purely to start an argument, rather than to express their opinion. Even so, refraining from arguing with controversial statements does usually lead to a more peaceful conversation.

      Sometimes people are identified as trolls to be ignored not to prevent arguments, but to prevent minority views being expressed. This is particularly the case when a group has been set up to promote one particular view, as a place where people of that view can come together and converse. Since this site has been set up to support activities to ‘improve public understanding of climate change’ from the point of view of those convinced action is needed, views contrary to that position are not welcome. There is a feeling of territorial ownership.

      I would argue, though, that a site devoted to improving the public understanding of climate change needs to listen to and investigate the reasons many people are not convinced, and would find it useful to be told if there are problems with their approach that would cause them not to be convincing. They can practice their techniques, to see what works best. It seems to me that a few contrary voices are both useful and necessary. It also demonstrates tolerance and openness to contrary ideas, which is itself powerfully persuasive. Or at least, the opposite is powerfully anti-persuasive.

      Since my comments generally get passed through moderation, I assume the site owners agree. Not all sites do, so all credit where it is due.

  6. GWS says:

    Dan, as the comment policy is obviously not enforced, I make one more comment to feed you, hopefully for the benefit of onlookers:
    1. That atmospheric CO2 affects climate is considered a scientific fact, not my opinion. A casual look into 100+ years of climate science provides that info. Indeed, you therefore express a “belief” and insofar you show that you are entitled not only to your your own opinion but also to your own facts
    2. You are a well-spoken denier, aka you express your opinion rhetorically very well, however your CO2-does-not-affect-climate opinion is not borne in evidence but instead you use logical fallacies (such as this one: to cover the lack thereof. Your CO2-does-not-affect-climate opinion in itself is used by you as a straw man ( to spread post-unrelated political opinions and attacks of yours
    3. You have turned my well-intentioned hint at violation of the comment policy using two more logical fallacies, ad hominem and appeal to emotion
    4. I now expect you to move the goal post by re-specifying your CO2-does-not-affect-climate opinion

    • Dan Rogers says:

      Okay. CO2 does not control the climate.

      GSW, You claim that I have brought politics into this debate. I hope I have not done so. My political leanings — quite liberal on almost every issue — are almost completely at odds with what I believe about global warming and its causes. I despair at having, as allies in the global warming debate, so many people who are stupidly ultra-conservative in their politics.

      During my work as a volunteer in the Obama re-election campaign, I am regularly involved in rather lively discussions with fellow Democrats who have the same orthodox views on global warming as Al Gore and his people. They usually feel quite convinced that Mr. Gore is right in everything he says, while at the same time they usually have no clue as to how much CO2 is in the atmosphere. They are just blindly and fanatically faithful to the Gore gospel and would not think of questioning any of it.

      • John says:

        I’ll repeat my comment from above, given the reply to GWS above:
        Whether or not Obama “buys into the CO2 fairytale”, perhaps you should go back and read up on Svante Arrhenius, who a century ago showed, quantitatively, how increasing CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to an enhanced greenhouse effect. And yes, he accounted for water vapor. If he was wrong, can you show how he was wrong quantitatively?

        • Dan Rogers says:

          Arrhenius theorized how increasing CO2 in the atmosphere should enhance global warming. Theoretically, he was right.

          I cannot tell if or how he was wrong in his quantitative calculations — i.e. that doubling CO2 would cause an increase of about two degrees celsius in atmospheric warming — but I believe that his workbench calculations did not take into account all of the many other changes that would take place on the planet along with the doubling of CO2, such as increases in cloud cover, increased uptake of CO2 by green plants, increased water vapor in the air, etc., some of which would enhance warming, and others of which would tend to counteract it. Put plainly, his quantitative “prediction” about CO2′s likely — or certain — effect on warming was simplistic. He was saying that a doubling of CO2 in the air would increase atmospheric temperature by about two degrees, if everything else remained static. Everything else, however, was very likely to change.

          It should be remembered that Arrhenius was in fact an advocate of global warming, believing that increased CO2 from fossil fuel combustion would actually be a beneficial thing for mankind, making the planet a more congenial place for civilization. He did not believe global warming was a bad thing to contemplate, and for that reason he may have had a tendency to magnify it to some degree and to pay scant attention to factors that might counteract it.

          • John says:

            I think a few comments ago you said that CO2 could not be an important greenhouse gas. And now you are saying that it is. Arrhenius had to guess at a lot of things, but he got the climate sensitivity to increased CO2 almost right. For anyone to believe you, you would have to make your qualitative arguments quantitative. And what has ‘changed’ uniformly in the last century to invalidate his prediction?

        • Nullius in Verba says:

          The mechanism proposed by Arrhenius was falsified within a few years of its publication by Angstrom. In fact, many years later Manabe and Strickler used the first computer models to calculate that the mean surface temperature of the Earth would be 60 C using those same principles. (It’s actually about 15 C.) It was only in the 1960s that the correct mechanism for the greenhouse effect was understood.

          The problem is best illustrated with a more familiar physical example, which is to calculate the magnitude of the greenhouse effect in a pond full of water.

          Since liquid water is transparent to visible sunlight, but absorbs and re-emits thermal infrared within about a millimetre, it makes an ideal greenhouse agent. Sunlight shines through a pond and is absorbed at the bottom, warming it. The bottom re-emits the energy as infrared, but the water absorbs it almost immediately and then re-emits it in all directions, including down. Each millimetre-thick layer above does the same. It is as if you took a greenhouse gas like water vapour and compressed it 20,000 times to make a super-powerful greenhouse ‘gas’ you could study in the lab.

          It’s a straightforward physics calculation to show that according to the Arrhenius greenhouse mechanism the bottom of a 1 metre pond would be heated to more than 1000 C.

          Clearly that’s not true. In fact, the magnitude of the effect in liquid water is virtually zero. And yet, there’s no doubt that water is transparent to visible light and opaque to thermal infrared, and that it re-radiates the radiation it absorbs downwards. How can this be the case, and there be no greenhouse warming?

          It’s an entertaining puzzle to see if you can resolve the mystery on your own. But even if you do, it still illustrates how physics can be more subtle than it first appears, and how even experts like Arrhenius can get it wrong.

          If it is reasonable to believe in the greenhouse effect without truly understanding it, without being able to readily produce any empirical reasons by which one can know it to be true, why is it not reasonable to disbelieve in it the same way? Why does a disbeliever have to meet a high scientific standard, having to present detailed quantitative calculations to justify their opinion, but a believer gets credit for simply believing? Does that make sense?

          • John says:

            First, Angstrom criticized Arrhenius but those criticisms never held.

            Second, you have an incorrect view of the optical properties of water. Sunlight shining on water will be absorbed in the infrared very near the surface. It is not opaque to IR. Solar radiation will heat a water surface, but it takes mixing to bring that heat to deeper depths. Penetrating wavelengths, like in the blue, have very little energy to contribute to heating. This is why lakes during the summertime are warm at the surface, and cold at depth. The surface becomes stabilized (lighter) through solar heating, and very little of this gets mixed to deeper depths. So, I suggest you go jump in a lake.
            Finally, it is a matter of belief. I suggest you submit your scientific findings to a reputable journal and allow it to be reviewed by other scientists. Yes, these might be high scientific standards, but it is not belief, it is physical understanding.

          • Brian Dodge says:

            The magnitude of the effect is 60 to 80 degrees C in salt gradient solar ponds. The salt density gradient in the ponds is analogous to the atmospheric pressure density gradient, and it is remarkable that a 3 meter deep pond works so well even with the conductivity o water being so much higher than air.
            The greenhouse effect is not a matter of belief, but of measurement. measurements of the IR absorption and emission of CO2 and H20, the measurement of the exponential variation of humidity with temperature which dominates positive feedbacks, the measurements which show cloudiness is higher over cooler high latitude oceans than at the equator precluding significant negative cloud feedback, measurements by IRRI of the negative productivity of rice with rising temperatures already being observed. If you don’t understand it, believing that AGW can’t be true, instead of believing the 97% of scientists that do understand it and say it is happening, is just plain silly.

          • Nullius in Verba says:


            “First, Angstrom criticized Arrhenius but those criticisms never held.”

            What gives you that impression?

            “Second, you have an incorrect view of the optical properties of water.”

            You know, I always find the effects this example has fascinating. People who previously accepted the greenhouse effect suddenly switch to picking holes in it with even more intensity than the sceptics. Believers seem to come up with a wider range of ideas, but seemingly put less thought into thinking them through. The psychology is fascinating.

            “Sunlight shining on water will be absorbed in the infrared very near the surface.”

            There are two problems with this – first, most of the energy in sunlight is not in the infrared; and secondly, if it was true, the argument would also apply to CO2. Sunlight shining on air would be absorbed in the infrared near the top of the atmosphere.

            “It is not opaque to IR.”

            This seems to be counterpoint to claims that CO2 is not opaque to IR. Would you like to see the data, or did you have something else in mind?

            “Solar radiation will heat a water surface, but it takes mixing to bring that heat to deeper depths.”

            I suspect you’re thinking of deeper waters, like oceans. Sunlight penetrates up to 100 m before being absorbed, penetration below that requires mixing, down to 500 m depending on the season. Beyond that, mixing is slower than convection so over most of the world surface heat can get no further – the only mechanism for moving heat into deeper waters is the descent of cold water in the polar oceans.

            But here I was talking about a metre, shallow enough for almost all of the sunlight to reach the bottom.

            “Penetrating wavelengths, like in the blue, have very little energy to contribute to heating. This is why lakes during the summertime are warm at the surface, and cold at depth.”

            That’s incorrect. But I don’t need to explain the actual mechanism because you allude to it yourself in the next sentence.

            “The surface becomes stabilized (lighter) through solar heating, and very little of this gets mixed to deeper depths.”

            Well done! You need to explore this concept a little more.

            “So, I suggest you go jump in a lake.”


            “I suggest you submit your scientific findings to a reputable journal and allow it to be reviewed by other scientists.”

            What is this magic stamp of authority that journals have for believers in the climate orthodoxy? Journals have no official powers or authority to rule over science. Journal peer review is not the way science is tested and approved – journals are simply a convenience to aid scientists to locate findings of interest to them.

            It used to be done by scientists writing directly to one another. Then when that got too cumbersome, certain individuals acted as clearing houses for letters between scientists, letting everyone know what was going on. Then societies were formed, and they organised the letters they received into journals, for the convenience of their members. Popular journals could afford to be a little fussier with what they published, and thereby enhance their own value, but ultimately they’re just a collating service. Published science stands or falls on the evidence published, and on the scientific community reading the papers checking it. It makes no difference whatsoever how the community get to hear about it – whether by direct letter, or through academic gossip, or via books or newspapers or blogs. The science stands or falls on its own merits, not those of its venue.

            In this case, there would be no point in submitting it to a journal because it’s already well known. Heat transport is pre-university physics, the optical properties of water have been thoroughly measured, and the implications for the greenhouse effect were, as I say, realised and published back in the 1960s.

            There are many bits of science where the general public is given an incomplete, muddled, or incorrect explanation. Many people I know believe electricity is conveyed by electrons flowing down wires at the speed of light. If I tell them that the electrons only move a few millimetres per second on average, and that most of the energy is carried in the space surrounding the wire, not in the wire itself, they think I’m talking nonsense. But it’s been standard physics for over a hundred years.

            The greenhouse effect is the same. But while people can be persuaded about electricity, the political war around climate change has hardened beliefs, and nobody listens.

          • Nullius in Verba says:


            “The salt density gradient in the ponds is analogous to the atmospheric pressure density gradient”

            Well done on bringing up solar ponds! Solar ponds do indeed work by the Arrhenius mechanism (while ordinary ponds work more like the atmosphere). But the salt density does not play an analogous role to the atmospheric density, and you don’t explain the reason for the difference in behaviour.

            What is it that the salt density is intended to prevent? Why does it result in no temperature gradient in water when it is not prevented? And why does the same phenomenon not produce the same effect in air?

            “If you don’t understand it, believing that AGW can’t be true, instead of believing the 97% of scientists that do understand it and say it is happening, is just plain silly.”

            This is wrong in just about every possible way.

            I do understand it. I do believe that the greenhouse effect exists and that anthropogenic CO2 increases it. It’s not true that 97% of scientists say the currently observed warming is mostly anthropogenic, the figure is actually around 85%. And scepticism and critical thinking are never silly.

            If you don’t know the reasons for something yourself, it’s perfectly OK to question it.

            Sceptics believe that argumentum ad verecundiam is a fallacy. Believers apparently see it as a virtue. That seems to be the fundamental difference between the two sides.

        • Mack says:

          Svante Arrhenius, Tyndall, and others took what might happen inside a glass tube and simply extrapolated that directly to the earths atmosphere. Sort of colouring book level science but not whats happening in the real world.
          Here’s a small thing to think about..why did Arrhenius call it “carbonic acid” (weakly acidulated water?) Is that just an archaic term? Maybe he realised the extreme difficulty of producing, transporting (through glass tubes) and storing of CO2 without it coming in contact with or displacing air and its attendant water vapour. Any plumber will tell you that water and air gets into everything. Don’t forget the equation of acid and marble chips gives CO2 + water. So when Tyndall looks inside his glass tubes what is he “seeing” in reality? Is it what the teacher ,drawing little circles of carbon and oxygen on the blackboard, says it is ie carbon dioxide? Or is it “carbonic acid” “carbonic acid gas”?
          Speaking of teachers not living in the real world, some have drawn little pictures of the sun and earth on the blackboard and geometrically figured out that the TOA gets an average of 340w/sq.m instead of the reality of the measured 1360 odd w/sq.m.
          My perspective on the AGW issue is here..(warning, there’s a lot of reading, but it’s not my fault :) )

          I’m in the comments to the young Sth African who seems to have an open mind about the whole thing.

          • Brian Dodge says:

            Solar irradiance is about 1366w/m^2, on a square meter perpendicular to the solar radiation at the radius of earth’s orbit. The earth intercepts sunlight over a circle whose area is 1.275e14m^2, or about 1.74e17 watts. The spherical surface area of the earth is ~5.1e14m^2; dividing 1.74e17 watts by 5.1e14m^2 gives about 341watts/m^2, the average insolation accounting for diurnal and latitudinal projected angular changes of the surface of the earth with respect to the incoming solar radiation. That’s the reality in which teachers and everyone else lives.

          • Mack says:

            Wrong Brian Dodge 1366w/sq.m is the “solar constant” or the average yearly solar irradiation at the TOA. It has been measured since 1902 (at the Smithsonian Institute) and sattelite readings now keep it up to date and accurate. Your tutors have been telling you that this figure of about 340w/sq.m.which you, Trenberth, NASA,(ie Jimmy Hansen) et al have geometrically arrived at attenuates down to about 161w/sq.m. at the earths surface. You are just going to have to read Nasif Nahle to be convinced of this but the real irradiance at the surface of this earth is about near enough to that 340w/sq.m. figure you people arrived at for the TOA. This is the real world where a sq.m metal plate (inches thick ) in equatorial regions gets hot enough to fry eggs on.(think of the equivalent electrical wattage) and you are telling me that some of this is due to “backradiation” from the atmosphere. It’s the sun stupid.

          • Mack says:

            Scrub the last word out of that posting Brian.

  7. John says:

    Nullius, I suggest that you look up the absorption spectrum of pure water.

    • Nullius in Verba says:

      Certainly John. Here’s one example:
      (The chart entitled ‘The visible and UV spectra of liquid water’)

      You can see that over the thermal infrared portion of the spectrum, the absorption coefficient is 3-7 orders of magnitude greater than at visible wavelengths.

      • John says:

        Which means that those wavelengths are absorbed very near the surface, stablizing the water column.

        Concerning your experiment:
        “Since liquid water is transparent to visible sunlight, but absorbs and re-emits thermal infrared within about a millimetre, it makes an ideal greenhouse agent. Sunlight shines through a pond and is absorbed at the bottom, warming it. The bottom re-emits the energy as infrared, but the water absorbs it almost immediately and then re-emits it in all directions, including down. Each millimetre-thick layer above does the same. It is as if you took a greenhouse gas like water vapour and compressed it 20,000 times to make a super-powerful greenhouse ‘gas’ you could study in the lab.”

        …I would love to see some empirical data. Or is this a thought experiment?

        • Nullius in Verba says:

          “Which means that those wavelengths are absorbed very near the surface, stablizing the water column.”

          Which wavelengths are you talking about? The visible wavelengths of the incoming sunlight? Or the infrared wavelengths of incoming… what, exactly?

          “I would love to see some empirical data. Or is this a thought experiment?”

          Empirical data on what? You’ve surely seen a pond, before!

          Do you mean empirical data to show water absorbs and re-emits infrared within a millimetre or so? The spectrum I linked shows that. Or if you doubt that, there are various experiments that could be done to show it. The most straightforward and graphic would be to use a thermal IR camera, if you have access to one. But I’m sure some simple home experiments could be devised.

          • John says:

            Oh. I thought you had done the experiment and had some data to share.

            I was talking about IR wavelengths.

          • Nullius in Verba says:

            Of course I’ve done the experiment. Anyone who has observed a swimmimg pool or a garden pond at close quarters has done the experiment.

            The experimental result is that water, transparent to visible and opaque to infrared like CO2, absorbing and re-emitting thermal IR in all directions, exhibits zero greenhouse warming. This is accurately predicted by the correct theory, but the Arrhenius theory – in which heat is ‘trapped’ by the ‘greenhouse’ material and the back-radiation from it increases the temperature of the surface – gets it totally wrong.

            It’s not that big a deal, since the correct mechanism is understood by physicists, and it does predict greenhouse warming in the atmosphere. The actual reason for the different behaviour is that air is compressible and water is not, but the conventional Arrhenius mechanism says nothing at all about this, and you’d never guess that compressibility was critical to the effect having only seen the ‘Al Gore’ version of the physics. It’s not as simple as it is commonly portrayed.

            “I was talking about IR wavelengths.”

            Right, so where is this IR coming from? The sunlight streaming in is primarily at *visible* wavelengths. (In fact, if you pass the sunlight through a pane of glass, it’s *entirely* at visible wavelengths, and the principle still stands.)

            The sunlight at visible wavelengths passes through the transparent water and heats the bottom of the pool. The question is where does this heat go next? When the bottom radiates thermally, what happens to it?

            It’s the IR emitted from the *bottom* of the pool into the water that we’re discussing. Just as in the atmospheric greenhouse theory sunlight (mostly) passes through the atmosphere and hits the ground before being radiated thermally and absorbed by greenhouse gases. Why do you say IR is being absorbed at the top?