Monday, January 30, 2006

Exxon Profits from High Energy prices

Is this good or bad? Most consumers filling their tanks at an Exxon (Esso) service station probably think Exxon's profits are iniquitous. But surely, we should expect Exxon to make good profits when product prices are high; shouldn't we? I mean if they can't make a profit now, when could they? When oil was $10 a barrel (not so long ago) I didn't hear much rhetoric then; when gas/petrol prices were low and sustaining economic growth of the rest of the economy.

Does Exxon contribute to "global warming"? Or is it those same consumers again? You could say it's a symbiotic relationship - the one cannot exist without the other. So, if all the hairshirts would like to sell their gas-guzzlers and get on their bikes, I suppose all would be well - no greenhouse gases and no Exxon to complain about! Except it will never happen. Even hairshirts have to travel to their favorite anti-oil industry rallies!

Meanwhile fellow super-major BP has its own "info-mercial" campaign, currently running in the Daily Telegraph. You see, BP used to stand for British Petroleum. Now its stands for Beyond Petroleum. Even though most of its revenue and probably all of its profits are still generated from petroleum it wants us to believe otherwise.

Personally I would rather go with Exxon on this one. At least they are true to their identity!

Who is this Stark guy?

Monday morning - time to see what the BBC has for us.

Headline banner "Stark Warning over Climate Change". Contents are conclusions from a February 2005 conference organized by the British Meteorological Office and have been published by the UK Government. Scientists claimed at the conference that greenhouse gases will soon increase to "dangerous levels", reaching the so-called tipping point where major calamities could occur. Such as the Greenland ice cap melting, sea level rise of 7 meters by the year 3006, and other catastrophes that would convince the believers of John's Revelation that they are on the right course for rapture.

Following from all the doomsday scenarios there is a small glimmer of hope, as one scientist points out the statistical uncertainties surrounding all the predictions.

I am going to have to be a little cynical about this (it is after all in my nature to cynically question such matters) and state that I marvel that the British Meteorological Office was capable of organizing a conference. They have an appalling record of missing the prediction of major storms in the UK (the 2005 Birmingham Tornado being the latest example) and, in collaboration with the BBC manage to dun down the information at their disposal to cartoon pap that they believe the lay community of weather watchers might be able to understand.

For the record, we planned the past weekend using accuweather and they got it right. Which they usually do! Perhaps they should organize the next climate change conference?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

It's a sunny day in Wales

Which, some would say, is a rare thing indeed. So there we were, striding out across the The Berwyns when we met a man and his dog coming the other way.

"Must be Global Warming!" he said.


Friday, January 27, 2006

Shocking Survey for Science

This BBC article is "advertising" a program on the impact of science in education. Or rather the apparent lack of impact. The BBC reports that a survey shows that less than 50% of people in the UK accept the theory of evolution and that many would like to see creationism and/or intelligent design included in the school curriculum. I don't watch much televsion but this program might have been worth time on the potato couch. The irony is that the program aired last night!

The Beeb does it again!

Once again, the BBC manages to put out a report that gives the impression that the planet is doomed with increasing sea level rises. This time some of the evidence is quoted and it's worthwhile taking a look at it. Remember the geological context of where we are in time - coming out of a glacial period during the past 10,000 years and more.

"The data was obtained from locations throughout the globe, although the number of tidal gauges increased and their locations changed over the 130-year period.

These records show that the sea level has risen, and suggest that the rate of rise is increasing.

Over the entire period from 1870 the average rate of rise was 1.44mm per year.

Over the 20th Century it averaged 1.7mm per year; while the figure for the period since 1950 is 1.75mm per year."

I would like to know exactly where these locations were (some areas of the globe are known to be vertically unstable). The experiment was modified over the 130 year span so there is no consistency. But the data suggest a very consistent result, nonetheless. Look at the rise in sea level for just the 20th Century: the second half had ever such a slight increase in sea level rise. The typical media statistical representation quoted above makes it difficult to be sure but I would think that the avreage increase from 1900 to 1950 was around 1.65mm/yr while from 1950 to 2000 it was, as reported, 1.75mm/yr. That's not exactly an overwhelming increase, folks! And given that the number of stations increased and were changed during the time period, it is possible that there is no statistical significance in the work at all!

My point here is not to deride the research (I don't have the details to do so) but to deride the level of journalism that the BBC has stooped to. This is neither good reporting nor good opining.

But it doesn't half make good reading if you wear a hairshirt to work and have a mantra that goes "Kee Oh Toe"!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Darwin the Geologist

An interesting review of an even more interesting book by Sandra Herbert on the early years of Charles Darwin's career - when he was a geologist.

As a geologist myself, this article makes very pleasant reading. Geology taught Darwin the need to document observations in minute detail, to recognize that much of the geological record is missing, and to also admit defeat when the evidence overwhelmed against him.

As a student I well remember first being introduced to Charles Darwin, not as the author of Origin of Species but as the geologist who proposed a theory for the development of coral reefs as atolls. This theory was proved many, many years later. Happily the geologist who was able to core deep below an atoll placed a sign next to the borehole that states "Darwin was Right!"

So it is strange at a time when many non-scientists clamor for Darwin's name to be struck off the education curricula that more scientists don't place signs around the many modern proofs that evolution is no longer a theory but a fact. The discovery of DNA and subsequent gene mapping have demonstrated what Darwin could only suppose - that species do indeed have common origins.

I also wonder what Darwin would make of the current religio-political environment surrounding "intelligent design".

Friday, January 20, 2006

23 Days - is it enough?

The BBC carries this interesting article on an experiment to be undertaken around Darwin Australia to study the effects of tropical weather systems, their clouds, and climate change. Undoubtedly an impressive science project except for one small paragraph:

Investigations are limited to 23 days, the length of time for which Southern Surveyor is able to remain at sea

Do you see where I am going with this?

Monday, January 16, 2006

On Hybrid Cars

James May writes in the Daily Telegraph of his experience with a Toyota Prius hybrid car and comes to the conclusion the concept is flawed. His logic is quite clear - you only fill up a hybrid with gasoline/petrol and there is no way of "topping it up" with electricity.

What the hybrid does do, of course, is to convert kinetic energy back to electricity when it makes sense to do so. This requires extra kit, a more complicated design and, inevitably, a heavier vehicle to move around. Which is why May is not impressed.

Years ago, I remember riding with an experienced lady driver (she used to drive in rallies in the 1950s) who drove a very nice Hillman coupé. She used a lot of what she called "scotch petrol". This really wasn't scotch! She simply turned the ignition off and coasted down hills, thereby saving on fuel. Today that couldn't be done. The steering lock would ensure that the vehicle would leave the road at the first downhill turn and with power steering unpowered the first corner might not be navigable anyway! In many ways this illustrates the problems that our sophisticated lives have generated. What used to be simple is now complex. What might have made sense fifty years ago is impossible today - unless, of course you still happen to own and drive a pristine 1950s Hillman!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Lorenz Paradigm

Do read this from Envirospin. Common sense and science can be one! To quote:

"computations of forecast skill are much harder than the forecasts themselves, and the next level, forecasting the skill of the skill forecast, is insurmountable when a complex system such as the climate is involved"

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Most of the geological record is missing!

A thought that came to me as I was looking at photos of cores of rocks deposited millions of years ago. The record as we see it shows what is preserved, it lacks what wasn't. An obvious statement perhaps, but consider this: what we see tends to stay in the mind, what we can't see tends to be ignored. So it is with geological cores. An example:

A sequence known geologically as a turbidite consists of sediments that were deposited in deepwater having been rapidly dumped from a shallow water environment. For example, a mass of unstable sediment sitting near the edge of the continental shelf, can be triggered by an earthquake into a huge underwater flow down the continental slope onto the abyssal plain. Such processes happen all the time (see this explanation).

In the geological record we may see hundreds of discrete turbidite beds stacked one of top of the other. They are quite easy to detect, having unique characteristics defined as Bouma sequences. What is interesting is that an entire Bouma sequence from coarse sand at the base to fine silt at the top might have only taken days to form. In truth, most of the bulk of sediment arrived almost instantaneously. Eventually conditions reverted to "normal" and a slow, fine rain of mud created the final part of the sequence until another underwater avalanche rushed down the slope. Such turbidity currents might occur over widely spaced intervals. The result is that the sedimentary evidence is biased toward what we see and that is a lot of material deposited in a day or two compared with not much fine material that might have taken hundreds of years to accumulate.

A similar situation exists onshore in a desert. We see sand dunes marching across a desert (well, they move quite slowly, but they do move!) and then see a frozen dune in a Triassic outcrop and can identify its origin by the internal texture and structure that is preserved. But we are not seeing a moving dune, rather the last position of that dune system before it was buried as geological history.

The science of geology allows us to reconstruct what probably happened in either case (for example we can predict current and wind directions) but what the geological record can't tell us is what might have been happening during the much larger gaps in the record.

This phenomenon mirrors the major misunderstanding that under-pins most modern scientific thinking on global warming - we spend far too much time emphasizing what we can see and measure, not enough time on thinking about what we can't see and measure. If we could we wouldn't make so many sweeping statements that translate into fear and panic in the non-scientific layity (and that includes the politicians!)

Let's Pour Confusion on the Global Warming Debate!

Well, that's what the BBC is doing by posting a report on geological findings about a warming period at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). It's not so much what is said as what isn't.

For example, the "rapid" rise in global temperature at the PETM subsequently took 140,000 years to reverse. Now, in geological terms, 140,000 years is definitely rapid, so why the implied contrast?

It's also interesting that one of the results of the PETM is a flourishing of mammals (and they were our ancestors!) This could not have been a bad thing, except of course if you are green in which case it is obvious that any advance of mammals must have included the wiping out of other species and that should not be allowed to happen - it's just too natural.

As a scientist i find it hard to measure the impact of an article like this one. I would like to know how a lay person reads it.