BLOG TOPIC Cherry-picking Geologists Tend to Obscure the Truth
_"Scientists are notoriously sceptical of the data collected by others. But ignoring a respected source is reprehensible. "
Mike Sandiford is a professor of geology at the University of Melbourne. He wrote this opinion piece for the Australian published December 31, 2011._ Express your opinion about this and other issues on our BLOG
Rinehart notoriously claims she has never met a geologist who believes
"adding more CO2 to the atmosphere will have any significant effect on
climate". To listen to prominent "contrarian" geologists such as Ian Plimer, you might imagine she never could.
SUN'S LUMINOSITY "The early sun had a luminosity of some 30 per cent less than now and, over time, luminosity has increased in a steady state. "The
low luminosity of the early sun was such that the Earth's average
surface temperature would have been below 0C from 4500 to 2000 million
years ago. But there is evidence of running water and oceans as far back
as 3800 million years ago." The question is, what kept the early Earth
from freezing over?" Plimer goes on to explain: "This paradox
is solved if the Earth had an enhanced greenhouse with an atmosphere of
a lot of carbon dioxide and methane."
PILMER'S CO2 PROBLEM Here's another quote from
Plimer, referring to a time 100 million years ago when the dinosaurs
roamed the planet: "The peak of 6 per cent carbon dioxide was at the
time of a protracted greenhouse and maximum sea level. At this time,
mean annual surface temperatures were 10C to 15C warmer than now." The
problem is, although his temperature estimate is about right, his CO2
estimate is about 50 times too high. CO2 levels were more like 0.12 per
cent. At just three times present levels, this is a target we are on
track to reach early next century.
QUIETLY FORGOTTEN Jump forward to 2009 and in
his book Heaven and Earth Plimer seems to have quietly forgotten those
geological lessons in stating: "Over geological time there is no
observed relationship between global climate and atmospheric CO2." Exactly which Plimer are we to believe? Scientists
are notoriously sceptical of the data collected by others. But
ignoring a respected source is reprehensible. Cherry-picking only the
data that fits is borderline. Deliberately misrepresenting data or
making it up is just not on.
AN EXAMPLE Here's an example. In a section
from his new book, How To Get Expelled from School, as reprinted in The
Weekend Australian recently, Plimer claims: "Antarctic ice core
(Siple) shows that there were 330 parts per million of carbon dioxide
in the air in 1900; Mauna Loa Hawaiian measurements in 1960 show that
the air then had 260ppm carbon dioxide." Plimer goes on to say:
"Either the ice core data is wrong, the Hawaiian carbon dioxide
measurements are wrong, or the atmospheric carbon dioxide content was
decreasing during a period of industrialisation." The
implication is there must be something terribly wrong with the orthodox
climate science and we are all being taken for a ride. The
problem is that the primary data sources explicitly state the Hawaiian
Mauna Loa CO2 measurements for 1960 were in the range 313-320ppm, and
that Siple air of age about 1900 has a CO2 content of 295ppm, with the
330ppm concentrations having an estimated air age of 1962-83, entirely
in keeping with Mauna Loa.
A RIDE Who has been taken for a ride? Sadly,
this is not an isolated case. Plimer has persistently claimed that
volcanoes contribute much more CO2 to the Earth's atmosphere than do our
own activities, blithely ignoring US Geological Survey reference data
showing just the opposite - volcanoes emit CO2 at about 1 per cent of
the rate of anthropogenic emissions.
DODGY FACTS Another common meme promoted by our contrarian geologists is that it is now a fact that the climate is cooling. But may we ask by whose data is this a fact? Certainly
not NASA's, which showed last year was the hottest on record, followed
by 2005, 2007, 2009 and 1998. In fact, NASA ranks nine of the hottest
10 years ever recorded between 2001 and last year. You'd reckon NASA
had learned a few lessons about being careful with data. Variations
on decadal timescales are more relevant to climate trends than annual
variations. NASA shows the average temperature over the decade 2000-09
was a full 0.2C higher than in the 1990s - the biggest decadal rise in
temperature ever recorded.
DEVIL IN DETAIL With an increase of more than 0.5C
over the past 40 years, the decadal trend is now warming faster than
ever. It beggars belief that any serious scientist could assert the
climate is cooling. Our contrarian geologists also avoid the
devil in the detail. NASA's data shows that winters are warming faster
than the summers and the Arctic faster than the tropics. While the
lower atmosphere is warming, the upper atmosphere is cooling. These
characteristics provide diagnostic fingerprints of the heat trapping
expected for a greenhouse effect. They provide the smoking gun that
points to rising greenhouse gas levels as the cause, and rule out warming because of additional heat input from the sun. Could
that be why you won't hear our contrarian geologists refer to such
data? Could their real agenda be in manufacturing doubt rather than the
search for scientific truth? If so, it wouldn't be a first, as
Naomi Oreskes points out in her recent book Merchants of Doubt: How a
Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to
THE POINT Now here's a point for those who, like Rinehart, think all geologists toe Plimer's contrarian line. Oreskes
is a noted geologist. Having published groundbreaking research on the
origin of the giant South Australian Olympic Dam deposit, she has
arguably contributed more to the understanding of Australian mineral
wealth than has Plimer.
Now just imagine a meeting between Rinehart and Oreskes - that would be interesting!
Mike Sandiford is professor of geology at the University of Melbourne
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