Azimuth on Google Plus (Part 3)

I’ve been spending a lot of time Google+ lately, trying to drum up interest in the Azimuth Project. Unsurprisingly, my ‘fun’ posts have attracted more attention than those dealing with serious issues. This confirms my suspicion that computers were invented so we could goof off while it looks like we’re working.

My most popular contribution was this eye-catching image:

63 people shared it with others, despite my warning that it causes brain damage. By the way, there’s another cool illusion at the end of this post, but it’s only visible to people who read the whole thing.

The second most popular tidbit was this movie of Alvin Lucier’s “Music for solo performer”. If you enjoy puzzles, watch it before reading my explanation, and try to figure out what’s going on:

This piece exploits the fact that the brain’s alpha waves—which only start when you’re relaxed with eyes closed—have a frequency of 8-12 hertz. Thus, if amplified enormously, they can be made audible! To perform this piece, you put electrodes on your head and route the signal through an amplifier to loudspeakers coupled to percussion instruments. The performer here wrote:

I welcomed the challenge to reduce my performative activities to a minimum. While working out my interpretation I slowly learned to be aware of my mental activities. I acquired a sensitivity for subtle changes in tension and the ability to switch the state of my brain from beta to alpha and back again. Nevertheless, the outcome is not completely controllable. This makes the live act quite thrilling.

For more, read the text on YouTube.

But I posted about some deadly serious issues, too!

Is the Earth’s surface warming?

In 2010, a Berkeley physicist named Richard Muller decided to launch the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project to independently check what the Earth’s surface temperature has been doing. The team included physicists, statisticians, and the climatologist Judith Curry, noted for “challenging the IPCC consensus” (her words).

The Charles G. Koch Foundation, which helps bankroll those who support inaction on climate change, gave Muller’s project $150,000. Anthony Watts, one of the big climate skeptic bloggers, wrote:

I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce…

On the other side of the aisle, some who believe in global warming pre-emptively pooh-poohed the project.

Now BEST has released a bunch of papers on their results. Here’s their summary:

Global warming is real, according to a major study released today. Despite issues raised by climate change skeptics, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study finds reliable evidence of a rise in the average world land temperature of approximately 1 °C since the mid-1950s.

Analyzing temperature data from 15 sources, in some cases going back as 1800, the Berkeley Earth study directly addressed scientific concerns raised by skeptics, including the urban heat island effect, poor station quality, and the risk of selection bias.

On the basis of its analysis, according to Berkeley Earth’s founder and scientific director, the group concluded that earlier studies based on more limited data by teams in the United States and Britain had accurately estimated the extent of land surface warming.

“Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other times in the U.S. and U.K.,” Muller said. “This confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate change skeptics did not seriously affect their conclusions.”

Anthony Watts’ response is here. As you might have guessed, he’s not “accepting whatever result they produce”.

Is it even possible for someone to back down from a position they’re deeply invested in? It may require a bit of help—an act of kindness. In Brian Merchant’s article Do climate skeptics change their minds?, he writes:

I asked Anthony Watts, the meteorologist who runs what may be the most popular climate-skeptic blog, Watts Up With That, what could lead him to accept climate science. A “starting point for the process,” he said, wouldn’t begin with more facts but instead with a public apology from the high profile scientists who have labeled him and his colleagues “deniers.”

Should we study geoengineering?

Should we study our options for fighting global warming by deliberately manipulating the Earth’s climate? This is called geoengineering—and not surprisingly, it makes lots of people nervous. There are plenty of things to worry about. But can we afford to completely ignore it?

An organization called the Bipartisan Policy Center, set up by four famous US senators, two Democratic and two Republican (Daschle, Mitchell, Baker and Dole) has released a report on this question.

Written by a panel of 18 experts on the natural sciences, social sciences, science policy, foreign policy, national security, and environmental issues, the report concludes that the U.S. government should start a “focused and systematic program of research into climate remediation.” They emphasize that it’s “far too premature to contemplate deployment of any climate remediation technology”, and note that:

Most climate remediation concepts proposed to date involve some combination of risks, financial costs, and/or physical limitations that make them inappropriate to pursue except as complementary or emergency measures—for example, if the climate system reaches a “tipping point” and swift remedial action is required.

But, they point out that even if the U.S. decides not to engage in geoengineering, it “needs to evaluate steps others might take and be able to effectively participate in—and lead—the important international conversations”.

Climate science report

The World Resources Institute has put out a 48-page report called Climate Science 2009-2010, reviewing recent work. For example:

• 2000-2009 was the warmest decade on record since 1880 (NASA).

• The area of Arctic ice that’s been around for many years decreased by 42 percent between 2005 and 2008. This ice has gotten about 0.6 meters thinner during that time. The average thickness of the seasonal ice in midwinter is about 2 meters. (Kwok et al.).

• Ocean acidification—caused by the buildup of carbon dioxide concentrations—is a threat to coral in areas such as the Great Barrier Reef, and is happening much more quickly than anticipated (De’ath et al.). It is now recognized as having implications for the entire ocean food web which is critical to whales, fish, and mollusks (Munday et al., Gooding et al. and Comeau et al.).

• A global average temperature increase of 7° C, which is toward the extreme upper part of the range of current projections, would make large portions of the world uninhabitable to humans (Sherwood et al.). For more, see my article How Hot is Too Hot?

• Recent literature (Yin et al.) suggests that sea level rise will likely not be even around the globe. In other words, sea level rise does not occur just like water being added to a bathtub. As a result, the northeast coast of the United States may be especially affected by changes in sea level due to changes in ocean circulation.

• The latest research (Francis et al. and Petoukhov et al.) also suggests that recent winter weather experienced in temperate Northern Hemisphere could be connected to climate change. As winter sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean disappears, it can create a pressure and temperature gradient that sucks heat out of Europe. Therefore, recent extreme winter weather is not inconsistent with increases in global average temperature.

Shrinking Arctic lakes

Some Arctic lakes are shrinking. Why? One possibility: warmer temperatures and higher winds could cause more evaporation. Another: melting permafrost could let lake water soak into thawed soil. The scientist involved, Mark Carroll at the University of Maryland in College Park, “is not aware of any evidence that the permafrost in the far north is melting yet”. Hmm—compare my article Melting Permafrost.

Experiments in deforestation

Starting in December, a Malaysian state-owned company will start chopping down 75,000 hectares of rainforest on Borneo, to create yet another palm oil plantation. Unfortunately, that doesn’t count as newsworthy! What’s news is that a team led by Rob Ewers at Imperial College London will do an experiment based on this. Working to Ewers’s design, the loggers will leave patches of rainforest of different sizes, and at different distances from other patches of rainforest, to determine the effects of different levels of deforestation.

Permian-Triassic extinction

About 251 million years ago, our Earth suffered its biggest mass extinction event ever: the Permian-Triassic extinction. As many as 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates went extinct! Here’s what the sea bottom looked like before:

and after:

It took 50 million years for the Earth to completely recover its biodiversity!

Naturally there’s a lot of interest in figuring out what happened. The CO2 concentration soared to 2000 parts per million, and the temperature rose about 8 °C, but other things may have been at work too. I won’t attempt to discuss all this here!—just one little bit of news. Gregory Brennecka and others from Arizona State University and University of Cincinnati found that the ocean was low in oxygen for at most tens of thousands of years before the Permian-Triassic extinction. That’s shorter than previous estimates.

They saw a big shift in the ratio of 238U to 235U in carbonate rocks immediately prior to the mass extinction, which they claim signals an increase in oceanic anoxia—this is apparently a new technique. The team also found higher Th/U ratios in the same interval, which indicate a decrease in the uranium content of seawater. They also consider lower concentrations of uranium in seawater to be a sign of ocean anoxia.

Planet 3.0

Azimuth has joined Planet 3.0 an organization of climate-related blogs that also features blog articles of its own. It has an editorial team consisting of Michael Tobis and Dan Moutal, and a scientific advisory team consisting Steve Easterbrook, Arthur Smith, Michael Tobis, and Bart Verheggen.

I don’t know much about it yet, but it could be good. I’ve been wanting more people to join me blogging here on Azimuth, to build up more of a community and a higher level of energy, but maybe this is a better solution: keep Azimuth as is, but also put climate-related blog articles on Planet 3.0. We’ll see.

The part you’ve been waiting for

As with the picture at the top of this article, if you focus on any small patch, strange things seem to start happening everywhere else. Your eyes gets curious, and it’s hard to avoid looking. As your eyes flicker back and forth, the horizontal lines seem to twitch and bend.

At least, that’s what I see!

15 Responses to Azimuth on Google Plus (Part 3)

  1. It’s good that we joined Planet 3.0! I think the lines are parallel. I could start to blog here on Azimuth. I could write about:

    – the need for open computational science in environmental issues
    – Sage math in particular -some old or new tutorials
    – Remote sensing and image processing s important role in the form getting the raw images/satelites
    – box models to get a feeling of how things work in global warming cycles

    pick one or two and i can start working on them!

  2. Dan says:

    My impression is that atmospheric CO2 has a much more direct impact on ocean acidification (basic chemistry) than it does on global temperatures (multiple feedback cycles working in both directions). My other impression is that potentially disrupting the entire oceanic ecosystem by crossing some “pH of no return” threshold sounds far, far worse than any sea level or temperature rise I’ve seen projected.

    So I’m puzzled by the continued emphasis on global warming. Both problems admit the same solution (reduce atmospheric CO2), but GW feels like a distant and abstract threat relative to OA. Is there an obvious gap in my understanding? Is institutional and cultural inertia to blame? Or are the skeptics just keeping public focus pinned on GW?

    I look forward to finding out how I’m wrong. It’s pretty awful to see the GW “debate” rage on if the one major policy decision that hinges on it has already been forced by a much simpler and more immediate mechanism.

    • John Baez says:

      Everything I know about ocean acidification is here:

      Ocean acidification, Azimuth Library.

      Coral reef: acidification, Azimuth Library.

      You’ll see here that the chemistry is not so ‘basic’ (ugh, what a pun): it’s actually quite tricky!

      Also note that ocean acidification combines with global warming to threaten reefs:

      • Dan Charles, Massive coral die-off reported in Indonesia, Morning Edition, August 17, 2010.

      • James Cook University Media Office, Worst coral death strikes at SE Asia, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, October 19, 2010.

      International marine scientists say that a huge coral death which has struck Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean reefs over recent months has highlighted the urgency of controlling global carbon emissions.

      Many reefs are dead or dying across the Indian Ocean and into the Coral Triangle following a bleaching event that extends from the Seychelles in the west to Sulawesi and the Philippines in the east and include reefs in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and many sites in western and eastern Indonesia.

      “It is certainly the worst coral die-off we have seen since 1998. It may prove to be the worst such event known to science,” says Dr Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook Universities. “So far around 80 percent of Acropora colonies and 50 per cent of colonies from other species have died since the outbreak began in May this year.”

      This means coral cover in the region could drop from an average of 50% to around 10%, and the spatial scale of the event could mean it will take years to recover, striking at local fishing and regional tourism industries, he says.

      Given this, I don’t think of global warming as “distant and abstract” compared to ocean acidification. However, I think the short-term threat of sea level rise tends to be exaggerated, the short-term threat of flooding and drought tends to be underappreciated, and the threat of ocean acidification tends to be off the radar of most people.

      A lot of geoengineering proposals, e.g. those that reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the ground, don’t do anything for ocean acidification.

  3. William Rutiser says:

    Does Brennecka offer any possible explanations for the mechanism underlying the isotope ratio changes?

    • John Baez says:

      I haven’t been able to find the paper by Brennecka that’s being discussed here, so I don’t know the answer, but I bet he must have a mechanism in mind, or he wouldn’t be using these isotope ratios as a proxy for the amount of oxygen in the ocean water.

      • Walter Blackstock says:

        I think this is the paper.

        • Gregory A. Brenneckaa, Achim D. Herrmanna, Thomas J. Algeoc, and Ariel D. Anbara, Rapid expansion of oceanic anoxia immediately before the end-Permian mass extinction, PNAS, published online before print October 10, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1106039108

        Abstract: Periods of oceanic anoxia have had a major influence on the evolutionary history of Earth and are often contemporaneous with mass extinction events. Changes in global (as opposed to local) redox conditions can be potentially evaluated using U system proxies. The intensity and timing of oceanic redox changes associated with the end-Permian extinction horizon (EH) were assessed from variations in 238U/235U (δ238U) and Th/U ratios in a carbonate section at Dawen in southern China. The EH is characterized by shifts toward lower δ238U values (from -0.37‰ to -0.65‰), indicative of an expansion of oceanic anoxia, and higher Th/U ratios (from 0.06 to 0.42), indicative of drawdown of U concentrations in seawater. Using a mass balance model, we estimate that this isotopic shift represents a sixfold increase in the flux of U to anoxic facies, implying a corresponding increase in the extent of oceanic anoxia. The intensification of oceanic anoxia coincided with, or slightly preceded, the EH and persisted for an interval of at least 40,000 to 50,000 y following the EH. These findings challenge previous hypotheses of an extended period of whole-ocean anoxia prior to the end-Permian extinction.

      • John Baez says:

        Yes, that must be it! Thanks, Walter.

        I added a link to a free online version so William Rutiser can find the answer to his question. As usual on this blog, folks can click on the journal title for the official journal version of the paper and the title for a free version (which may not stay around for long).

  4. some guy on the street says:

    A recently-read item popped back in my head on seeing both illusions: The case of the Clandestine Cephalopod; the page there links to yet another page, including a video connecting the two nifty frames. Particularly, the biologist who caught these found there isn’t actually any good match between the camouflage pattern and the background it’s hiding on! The ocean is indeed full of nifty things that can teach us much!

  5. David Corfield says:

    Looks like the military have a way to go yet, though they’re getting there, at least as far as infrared goes.

  6. Anthony says:

    words that go with azimuth Azalea azeotrope Azilian azimuth azione azo azoic azonal azote azoth Azrael Aztec azulejo azure azygous azymous might help understand the A to Z of it all.

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