What Would You Say

First of all, before I get to the real subject of this blog post, let’s all agree on one thing. “What Would You Say” is one of the best songs EVER. Of the thousands of songs in my purchased music library, there are only a few where I NEVER skip to the next song when they start playing. This gem by the Dave Matthews Band is one of those songs. If you don’t agree with me, then I think maybe we can’t be friends. Some things are simply too important.

Do those last couple of sentences sound like our modern world of politics? Of course they do. Seemingly every day, we find a new way to explode into further division, and all too often, our President is the one to light the match. The latest such incident occurred when NBC reporter Peter Alexander asked a question that, prior to 2016, would have been considered a softball by anyone on either side of the aisle:

“What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now, who are scared?”

This is what the President said (I listened to the clip and wrote it down):

“I say that you are a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re sending out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers, and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism.”

So first, analyst of all things that I am, let’s break that down. The President said he would say to Americans that we are all terrible reporters. Well that makes me feel like he’s talking right over my head – I’m not a reporter at all, although I’m sure if I were, I’d be a terrible one. The bad signal thing, I’m not really sure where to start with that – perhaps someone cut off the Presidential limo on the way to the press conference after signaling they were turning the other way.

But then there’s the second to the last sentence, and that’s the one that intrigues me the most. It’s basically restating what Mr. Alexander was getting at in the first place. Many of us ARE scared (even if YOU aren’t), and many of us ARE looking for answers and for hope. So what would YOU say to THOSE people?

Let me rewrite that a second so it’s now clear that I am speaking directly to you, the reader of this blog post: what would YOU say to those people?

What if I asked every adult American with the ability to speak, what would he or she say to scared Americans right now? I would fully expect millions of unique takes on that. But how many would answer with “you’re a terrible reporter”? Is that how YOU would answer? And to be fair, think back to before the actual question was even asked and the actual response was even given – before it would have even occurred to you to respond with “you’re a terrible reporter”. If I were President – a truly horrifying concept for everyone involved, here is how it might have gone down:

“What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now, who are scared?”

“I would say that this virus has offered us an opportunity to do something that seemingly nothing else could – a chance to break through our divisions and recognize we are all Americans, and we are all fighting this common foe. And I would say we have a long way to go before we win this fight – but we will win it. I want the American people to know that their Government is doing everything it can to protect them from this threat, and that it will continue to do so until the threat has been mitigated. We have the greatest health care workers in the world, the strongest medical research community in the world, and the most resilient people in the world. We will prevail, because we are the greatest nation on Earth.”

I even threw a couple of “Murica” sentences in there at the end, because dammit, that’s what many of us want to hear right now. Don’t make us promises nobody can keep, don’t give us specifics nobody can predict, just tell us we’re awesome and we’ll get through this. If ever there was a time for rah-rah speeches devoid of real content, that time is now.

What would YOU say?

Here’s what Dave Matthews would say:

“I don’t understand at best. I cannot speak for all the rest. Every dog has its day. Every day has its way of being forgotten. Rip away the tears. Drink a hope for happy years. And you may find a lifetime’s passed you by. Everyone goes in the end. Don’t cut my life line.”

What would YOU say?

If you a monkey on a string?

That’s a thick string but you get the point.

Ma Ma Ma My Coronavirus

So here I am again, apologizing for not having posted in a while. I’d love to say it’s because my day job is interfering again. But actually what happened is I contracted the coronavirus and succumbed to it. I was THIS close to figuring out what that bright light was, and then I realized I forgot to turn off the iron, and by the time I took care of that, the dimensional rift was closed, and so here I am. Again.

Disclaimer: I did not contract the coronavirus (that I know of), and I did not die (that I know of), and I did not resurrect (no deity would ever agree to that, so I’m certain of that one). I did, however, forget to turn off the iron. Fortunately it has an auto-shutoff feature.

Everybody else is talking about the coronavirus, so I figured I might as well get in on the action. Before I proceed, I need to remind you to take the necessary precautions. Since the coronavirus is all over this article, please wash your eyes thoroughly before reading. Please also disinfect the mouse pointer and individually scrub each pixel on your screen. Please do not let the words in this blog post gather in a public space, and if you’re drinking a martini while reading, please make sure that it is fist bumped, not shaken.

Our world was polarized before this virus hit. And only in such a world could a virus get politicized. There could not be a more apolitical organism (can I even call it that?) than a virus. It will hijack the reproductive machinery of any cell, with no discernment for political party, gender, religion, or predisposition toward pineapple on pizza (boom).

I’ve heard and even made the argument that this virus is no worse than the flu, which has admittedly killed far more people. But the flu is already far more widespread and has had far more time to do its dirty work. I’ve also heard and even made the argument about only 2% of us actually being as risk – primarily the elderly and people with existing health conditions. But therein lies another difference between the coronavirus and the flu: the coronavirus kills a lot more at-risk people. And that alone ought to be enough to convince you that health organizations are not going overboard at all in response to this virus. I had tickets to the Frozen Four College hockey tournament in Detroit, which has now been closed to fans. So yeah, I’m disappointed. But I also have an 89-year-old mother who would probably not survive the coronavirus. Which should be more important? And why should the answer change when we raise it to the level of our entire society? We all know and love somebody in the 2%.

Meanwhile the President is telling us Europe and Mexico are the reasons we have any specks of coronavirus in America.

Instead of lashing out and looking for an enemy to blame (like we do in response to just about everything we don’t like), we should take this opportunity to recognize the real lesson from all of this: our perception of ourselves as the dominant species on Earth is arrogance at its extreme.

In 1897, H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” was published. You will have difficulty finding a more incredible literary response to two (at the time) fairly recent developments in our understanding of the universe around us: the first detailed map of the planet Mars, and newfound insight into how vulnerable we are to creatures too small to be seen with the naked eye. Wells’ Martian invaders were profoundly more advanced than us, and they quickly pushed us to the point of extinction before falling prey to microscopic warriors.

Viruses are the ultimate suicide bombers. Not only do they not care, they don’t even not care. They’re not even alive. In fact, for something that small and uncaring and unalive, they are remarkably accomplished. I don’t think viruses get enough credit for the impact they’ve had on the world. Perhaps this latest virus is just the embodiment of a protest.

This is nothing new, either. We have routinely fallen prey to things without brains, throughout our history, at rates that make wars look like child’s play. The Black Death. The Spanish Flu. Tide Pods. We like to think we are all that. But we are not even some of this.

And so it shall pass, that we will survive the coronavirus, and eventually even our economies will fully recover, and life will return to its arrogant equilibrium. And then an asteroid will smash us to pieces.

Is that a virus or a rock?

Zeroes and Ones

The smallest possible bit of information about the world is known as, well, a bit. Computers are based entirely on that fundamental notion – that the entirety of anything we need to do can be built upon a series of yes/no questions and answers. A bit can have one of two values – zero or one. It’s equivalent to on or off, up or down, left or right, pineapple on pizza or no pineapple on pizza (yes I’m going to continue to use that one until far beyond when I should).

Each of the characters in the sentence I am typing is composed of eight bits – eight sets of on/off settings. If you do the math, that leads to 256 possible values, which is more than enough to cover the number of letters and numbers that can be selected in an English language blog post, as well as all the necessary punctuation.

The way we view the world should be at least as expressive, and yet it is not. Imagine if we each had even just eight sets of yes/no questions that defined our political views, the combinations of which would lead to 256 different political “parties”. And yet we only have two such parties, and the answer to that one yes/no question automatically defines the answers to the other seven, whether we like it or not.

As I type this, the impeachment trial is underway for President Trump. But I already know the outcome, as do you and anyone else that pays attention to American politics. The same could be said for the House vote to impeach him in the first place. Everything goes along party lines. The only choices are zeroes and ones. Oh sure, there are exceptions. A few Democrats voted against impeachment, for example. But that was not for some noble cause to broaden our minds. It was because those lawmakers were afraid of the singular opposing party voting them out of office. If any Republicans vote to remove Trump from office, it will ultimately be for the same reason. And the fact that Trump is President at all owes to the same foundation – at the end of the day, people vote for one party or the other.

Look back at every election in recent memory. Both candidates get over 40% of the vote even in a “landslide”. That means a good 90% of the election was decided before the primaries – whoever was going to be the Democrat was going to get 40+% and whoever was going to be the Republican was going to get 40+%. The election itself then gets routinely decided by what we call “battleground” states, whose apparent distinction from the rest of the country is that their truly independent voters can’t get the fence post out of their backsides until the morning of the election.

Think about this for a second. A President who said as a candidate that he could shoot somebody and still get the votes was completely right. There is no threshold beyond which a party-line voter won’t vote for their candidate. And 90% of us are party-line voters. Why do we even have debates? Why is the election cycle so ridiculously long when 90% of it is set in stone? Couldn’t this all be done in the course of a couple of weeks at most? We like to pretend that there is some noble process of confronting the issues of the day and whittling down to the two best choices we can possibly make, but let’s face it – any two people will do for 90% of us.

The other 10% of us are, to be sure, intriguing people. Perhaps they really do try to employ the full eight bits of information and calculate where they stand. But because there are relatively so few of them, the end result of those people’s choices end up looking completely random against the backdrop of the other 90%. And then there are the equivalent of greater than 100% that don’t even vote. Do they view the world in eight bits? And if so, what have they discovered that convinces them they should leave the election to the one-bit voters that pick our President every damned time?

As we careen toward the inevitable conclusion of the impeachment trial and the 2020 election cycle that follows, let’s stop pretending, if only for a moment, that American politics is anything more than zeroes and ones. Who knows, you might find it opens the door to a whole universe of new ways to waste your time.

A listing of the first 45 Presidents of the United States.
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

The Question of the Year

So – yeah, day job siphoned away my free time again this past month – sorry about that. But now that Christmas is fading into the rear view mirror, and as we count down the final days of the decade, I thought it would be good to…

Wait a second, back up a bit. Are we counting down the final days of the decade? Work with me on this.

It seems fairly obvious to most of us that we’re counting down the final days of the decade. On January 1, it would seem safe to say that the 2020’s will begin. The last time we had some Twenties, we decided they were Roaring. Will these next Twenties roar? Maybe. But do they really start on January 1, 2020? Let’s follow that thread for a moment.

If the 2020’s begin on this coming January 1, then the 2010’s began on January 1, 2010. And the 2000’s began on January 1, 2000. And so on and so forth through the past centuries, until you get nearly all the way back to the beginning of the years A.D. So the 10’s started on January 1, 10. But that would mean the 0’s started on January 1, 0. And now we have a problem. There was no year 0. The last year B.C. was 1 B.C., and the first year A.D. was 1 A.D. That means if the next decade starts on January 1, 2020, then by extrapolation the first decade A.D. only had nine years in it (years 1 through 9) – basically a complete failure as a decade. Ergo, the 2020’s have no choice but to officially start on January 1, 2021.

If you don’t like that, centuries are even worse. The first century started in the year 1, and having 100 years in it like any good century should, ended on December 31, 100. The second century started on January 1, 101. Extrapolating forward, the 20th century started on January 1, 1901, and the 21st century started on January 1, 2001.

If you don’t like that, millennia are worse still. Despite all the fanfare and hoopla we put into New Year’s Eve in 1999, we were basically a year early in our celebration of the new millennium, which didn’t start until January 1, 2001.

All of this, of course, roots back to our decision at some point to establish the transition point from B.C. to A.D., and at this point I need to clarify “our” refers to Western Christian-centric civilization and its associated calendar system. Astronomical, Buddhist, and Hindu calendars are all examples of systems that do in fact have a year 0. So why did those calendars have a year 0 while “ours” doesn’t? A big part of the reason is that the whole A.D. thing was introduced when Roman culture still had a significant influence on the world, and there is no zero in Roman numerals. The history of zero even as a concept is a fascinating subject all its own, and maybe that’ll be the subject of a future post here. But for the purposes of this post, in 525, a monk named Dionysius Exiguus established that it had been 525 years since the birth of Christ, and the world effectively shrugged its shoulders, and that’s what our nation and many others accept to this day when keeping time.

Fortunately, we have not had occasion as yet to worry about when the first ten thousand years A.D. have elapsed. There is no official term in the English language for that number of years, but the Japanese have a word for it: banzai. And one day, thousands of years from now, assuming we haven’t exterminated ourselves as a species, I am fairly certain our descendants will all wrongly celebrate the beginning of the second banzai on January 1, 10000.

Cheers! Can’t believe it’s only a year and change until the next decade starts.

Why on Earth Not

First, apologies for the delay in getting this post out. To my great dismay, I am not yet making enough money off this blog to quit my day job, which decided to consume a bit more of my time in recent weeks. But enough excuses, here we go. In the past six posts, we’ve basically gone over the following…

Everything can absorb energy in the form of photons, and therefore heat up to some degree (no pun intended). Everything with a temperature above absolute also emits energy in the form of photons, which can in turn be absorbed by other things. Air is a thing, so it absorbs and emits photons too, making our Earth warmer than if it didn’t have an atmosphere. Clouds reflect some of the Sun’s photons but also absorb the ones emitted by you and me, arriving at some sort of balance in the grand scheme of things. Liquid water absorbs a lot of photons and heats up, but ice reflects a lot of them and stays relatively cool. But if you float a piece of ice in water that’s getting warmer and warmer, the ice will melt, and the resulting water will absorb more photons and heat up accordingly. When we dig into the ice that hasn’t melted yet, we find strong evidence the Earth has been warming rapidly in the last couple of centuries, and other ways of measuring Earth’s temperature over the past several decades have confirmed that. The warming is strongly correlated with the concurrent rise in concentrations of gases that we have been pouring into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. Changes in global sea level from melting ice in the polar regions further confirm these trends. Our best and brightest minds have created sophisticated models that accurately predict the present from the past, and are therefore reasonably reliable about predicting the future from the present. And if we continue to burn fossils fuels at our current rate, the models all agree the consequences will be severe.

That’s climate change in one paragraph.

Suppose you don’t believe the models, even though there’s no reason to doubt them on general trends. You still have to contend with a planet that’s getting warmer. Suppose you don’t believe it’s getting warmer, even though it clearly is. Well, the most reliable force in the universe – the desire to make money – disagrees with you. As just one of countless examples you can find with minimal Googling, consider the winemaking industry. Grapes like a little bit of Sun, but they don’t like scorching heat. As temperatures rise at lower latitudes, the conditions become less ideal for growing top quality grapes. One solution to this problem is to start growing them at higher latitudes – and that is exactly what French winemakers have been doing for years now – buying up land in southern England. Assuming that’s not just a precursor to a future invasion, the French would not be spending their money doing this if climate change wasn’t real. It’s not just money either – the French have a great deal of national pride, so why on Earth would they make themselves more dependent on England if they didn’t feel overwhelmingly compelled to do so?

Suppose the climate wasn’t changing at all, even though it is. Let’s talk about the energy industry, which is often (and sometimes rightfully) blamed for slowing acceptance of reality. First, if I may digress (of course I may, this is my friggin’ blog), why are some people so opposed to advancement only when it comes to how we generate energy? We all happily lap up the advances in computing technology that have converted powerful computers from room-filling mainframes to PCs to phones to smart watches. But a sizeable chunk of us are perfectly content to accept that the only way to generate energy is by burning stuff. Meanwhile, a vastly more efficient resource visits us on a daily basis – literally like clockwork. The Sun has been churning out the energy required to keep Earth warm and livable for billions of years. Solar radiation itself – in the form of those pesky little photons – provides a direct source of energy, but the Sun also heats our atmosphere to drive the wind. Meanwhile, the technology to harness solar and wind energy has advanced tremendously in recent years, to where it makes just as much economic sense to the energy companies to make the switch as it does for consumers. And in fact energy companies have been major players in advancing those technologies. Why on Earth would they be investing in solar and wind if it didn’t make them money in return?

Suppose continuing to burn stuff was the best way to go, even though it isn’t. Here’s the problem: there are no more dinosaurs. Normally that’s not a problem, but in this case it is. All the dinosaurs that were ever going to die and turn into fossil fuels have done so. And sure, eventually other animals (including us) will turn into fossil fuels – but that will take millions of years. So for every dinosaur-equivalent of fossil fuels we burn, there are exactly zero available to take its place. Meaning we will run out at some point. I’m sure you can think of all kinds of things you use up at home. Do you just assume you will magically never run out? Of course not. So why on Earth would we make that ridiculous assumption as a species?

The climate change debate has been steered by myopic interests toward the same questions for decades now: is the Earth really getting warmer? Are we responsible? Will things go very badly if we don’t change anything? Should we do something about it? The answers to the first three questions are yes, most likely, and sure looks like it. Meanwhile, the answer to that last question is the same answer not just to climate change, but also to becoming more efficient, saving more money, and avoiding an energy crisis. It’s an answer best phrased as a question.

Why on Earth not?

The future should be so bright.

Supermodels

I am good at math. Way gooder than I am at writing. In fact, I have always been irritatingly good at math. In second grade we played Around the World with math flash cards, and I crushed it. One day I went around the room four times and never lost. It’s a complete mystery why I never found myself duct-taped to a telephone pole. Probably because everybody knew I wasn’t that good at anything else. Yeah, I love math.

Perhaps the thing I love the most about math is it’s unforgiving rigidity. Two plus two has only one answer, no matter what you do. But I also love math’s utility in my world. I have a budget spreadsheet filled out to my retirement. I use math to keep track of every hockey roster I assemble. I even use math to track whether I’m going to keep all my perks on Southwest as the end of the year approaches. And I love the purity of never being able to blame math for anything. If something gets miscalculated, I’m the one who did it.

I love science just as much as I love math. It’s not as easy to say I’m good at science, because that could mean a number of different things. My degrees are all in what the University of Colorado calls Aerospace Engineering Sciences, and I’ve taken some good science classes, and the running joke whenever I’m introduced to someone new is that I’m a rocket scientist. But even though I love the scientific method and try to apply it wherever I can in life, I don’t consider myself a scientist. I’m an engineer – a mercenary who exploits science and math for profit.

I love models just as much as I love science and math. Now, when I said I love math and science, there was probably no ambiguity. But when I say I love models, well, what does that mean? Models that walk down a runway? I’m sure they’re nice people, but no, that’s not what I mean. Model airplanes? My brother loved those, and yes they are pretty cool, but I never had the patience to work with them the right way. Modelo beer? Well, yes, but that’s not where I was going with this.

I love mathematical models. And what the hell are those? Just like a model airplane is an attempt to capture the most important physical aspects of a real airplane, a mathematical model is an attempt to capture the most important physics of a real “whatever”. That “whatever” could be the Earth’s atmosphere, or it could be your retirement planning, or it could be the quantum mechanical foundations of everything we see around us. All three of these examples have some fairly complex mathematics behind the models, and all three of them also have to make assumptions where there isn’t a reasonable mathematical building block.

Models don’t have to be complicated. For example, suppose you are in your car, and you want to get from point A to point B. Let’s say you’re traveling 50 miles an hour, and point B is 500 miles away. The math is easy enough here that you know it’ll take you ten hours at that speed. But you could express this as a model if you were so inclined. The building block for your speed could be labeled “v” (for velocity), the building block for your distance traveled could be labeled “x” (because mathematicians like to use “x” in these cases), and the building block for time could be labeled “t”. The mathematical model for how far you travel (x) in a given amount of time (t) at a given speed (v) is then written as x = v times t. 50 miles per hour times 10 hours = 500 miles. That is a mathematical model.

While models don’t have to be complicated, the ones that aren’t complicated usually aren’t that useful. You were able to figure out the answer above without having to go through all that algebraic nonsense. But suppose you started at point A with the car in neutral, and then you had to accelerate up to your cruising speed. And then you had to account for friction of the tires on the road surface, which changes over the course of the 500 miles you’re traveling. As does the wind that might help or hinder your car. As will the curves in the road, and changes in elevation along the way. And of course the traffic, which confounds even the best of our navigation apps. Eventually, the real world gets complicated enough that building a mathematical model is well worth the time. Such is the case with Earth’s atmosphere, and that is why modern weather forecasting centers around mathematical models.

Attempts to model the way our atmosphere behaves date back to the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the advent of computers around the mid-century mark that implementation of these models became even remotely practical. If it takes ten times as long to model the weather as it takes for the weather you’re modeling to happen, that’s not much use. But computers have become ever more powerful since their early days, and now we can predict the weather pretty accurately several days in advance. For most of us, our personal experience with weather forecasts always focuses on when somebody got something wrong. But if you think about it, they’re usually not wrong, at least not to a level that would have changed your plans. It rarely snows a foot when clear blue skies were forecasted. Hurricane tracks have become remarkably accurate in the days leading up to landfall. Scientists are tirelessly working on ways to improve our models of the weather. Some of it is just about buying more powerful computing systems. Some of it is about getting more accurate measurements from radars, satellites, and radiosondes (more about that below). And some of it is about developing better mathematical approximations of the physics. As it turns out, even if we had perfect measurements, perfect equations, and infinite compute resources, the forecast would still degrade the farther out you go in time. That’s because the things that happen at the molecular level are chaotic, and that chaos spreads over time like ripples in a pond (the “butterfly effect”).

A key to any mathematical model is how it is initialized – meaning how we state the conditions at the start of the modeling process. In the simple car example above, the initial conditions could have been stated as “the car is moving at a speed of 50 miles per hour when it leaves point A”. For weather models, we have to state things like “the temperature and humidity at various heights in the atmosphere were this”, and we’d typically get that information from radiosondes (ballon-borne instruments that take measurements as they go up) or satellites (which use photons of various types to infer the temperature at various heights). The more accurate you initialize a model, the better its results will be. Or more succinctly, garbage in, garbage out. As long as we continue to invest in satellite technology and other types of observations, we’ll continue to move farther and farther away from garbage in, and our forecasts will continue to improve, although the butterfly effect will keep them from ever reaching “perfect”.

Just like we model our weather (what’s it going to be like over the next few days), we also model our climate (what’s it going to be like over the next few decades). Asking “what will the globally averaged temperature be in twenty years” is very different from asking “what will the temperature be in Denver at 2pm this Saturday”. The dominant forces that determine the answer to the first question are different than the dominant forces that determine the answer to the second. And because it’s over a broader scale both in space and in time, the effects of chaos are dampened out in the question of climate. So even though an accurate weather forecast can only go out to a couple of weeks at best, a properly constructed climate model can go out to many decades. We know this because we’ve been able to validate the accuracy of our climate models by running them on the past and comparing them with what we know has happened. That gives us confidence to talk about the future, which means we can deduce from our current rate of climate change what the world might very well look like, say, by the year 2100. In the case of the studies carried out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we’ve run a lot of models with a lot of different initializations, and with a lot of different assumptions about the rate at which we continue to inject (or not) more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. Again, I urge you to take a look at all they’ve done on their website. I’ll only summarize it here, with pictures from the IPCC’s latest report.

First, what is climate change already doing to our world? The picture below is jam-packed with answers to that question, and no amount of words from me can add to that.

The movie’s already started.

Next, where are we headed? That depends primarily on what we decide to do as a species. The leading scientists on this issue have modeled a range of such behaviors, each one with a different Representative Concentration Path (RCP) for carbon dioxide emissions. A specific working group (WGIII) was tasked by the IPCC with looking at a range of carbon dioxide concentrations as part of this process. Carbon dioxide is typically measured in parts per million. Today, it averages a little over 400. For reference, when I was in grad school running atmospheric models myself, a typical value was in the mid 300’s. The picture below summarizes the findings of the IPCC and WGIII for various scenarios, ranging from stringent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (RCP2.6) to no efforts at all (somewhere between RCP6.0 and RCP8.5). In graph (a) below, the lines indicate these different paths, and the shaded areas indicate the resulting range of carbon dioxide concentrations. Graph (b) shows the resulting temperature change for these ranges of carbon dioxide concentrations.

The plot thickens.

Finally, the picture below summarizes what we’ll be dealing with if climate change continues at its current pace.

You may not like the ending to this movie.

These are not just isolated models generating the results shown here. They are collections of models run over hundreds of scenarios – supermodels, if you will. The scary part? Things like the disappearance of ice in the Arctic are happening even faster than what the models had previously forecasted. So while it’s fair to argue that we don’t know for sure where climate change will take us, if anything we are being conservative. The next (and final) post in this series will talk about what we can do to change the current course, and why climate change is only one reason to do so. But for now, take a moment to listen to the supermodels.

The Hockey Stick

If you’ve been reading this blog since its third post, then two things can be said:

  1. You have some combination of very low standards and not enough to keep you occupied
  2. You know I love sports, and hockey in particular

I’ve tried my hand at both ice and roller hockey. Well, really only once in roller hockey – I got so freakishly overheated in my gear that I haven’t played again since. Ice hockey provides the perfect balance of heated metabolism in a chilled environment. Fire and ice, so to speak.

I didn’t play hockey as a kid. In fact, I never got on ice skates until two weeks before my first game. At the end of 1991, my roommate and I threw a New Year’s Eve bash at our apartment, and my newfound friends from graduate school were among the attendees. As we were standing around the keg, already vigorously hydrated, someone said “hey we’re gonna start an intramural hockey team, you wanna join?” My vigorously hydrated response was “Sure! I’ve never skated before but I’ll play goalie!” (Editor’s note: the goalie is generally supposed to be the most skilled skater on the team). My first game was an affair to remember; I didn’t put my skates on until the end, so I couldn’t tighten them enough, and I was falling off my ankles the entire game. I had to be helped off the ice. But by the end of the season I made a couple of saves and was unanimously voted “most improved player”. Apparently none of the early struggles discouraged me; I still play today (although I’ve mostly hung the goalie pads up).

Around the same time I took up hockey, I was starting my own graduate work with that same group of friends. My degree was Aerospace Engineering Sciences, and my focus area was remote sensing, which is basically trying to gain information about something without touching it. More specifically, I worked in satellite remote sensing, which is trying to gain information about the Earth from an instrument perched in space. Even more specifically, I was working on algorithms that try to infer where and how much it is raining. In order to do that, I needed to take some classes about atmospheric physics, and the University of Colorado was gracious enough to offer them. It was during those years in the early 1990’s that I got to take a longer look at what was then called “global warming”, a name just as unfortunate as “the greenhouse effect”.

A few years earlier, as an undergraduate, I attended a “global warming” themed event at the university, right in the middle of an Arctic blast that had Colorado submerged in below-zero weather for a couple of weeks straight – and of course we all thought that was at least very funny, and at most an indictment of “global warming”. Today, anytime it gets unusually cold anywhere, somebody inevitably says “so this is global warming, huh?” Which is why “global warming” is a very unfortunate term indeed, and has generally been replaced with “climate change”. Equally unfortunate is that the new term hasn’t been able to escape the stigma of the old one.

Here’s one problem with the term “global warming” and the broader concept of generally “hotter temperatures” in recent years: they don’t match up well with day-to-day human experience and perception of temperature. We don’t directly sense a globally averaged temperature; we sense the temperature of where we are, at a given location and a given moment in time. In other words, we directly sense weather, but climate change is not about weather, it’s about, well, climate.

Here’s another problem: what’s really happening with climate change is that more energy is being trapped in the Earth and its atmosphere, and sometimes that means it gets hotter somewhere, and sometimes it means it gets colder somewhere else, and sometimes it translates into specific events, like a more intense storm drawing from the higher amount of available energy. This includes all kinds of storms, including winter storms, which make us all think of exactly the opposite of “warming” and “heat”.

All of that said, a broader effect of our recent changing climate is that the Earth, on average, is getting warmer. So first, how do we know that? The answer is the result of a monumental effort across multiple domains of science, and across a century and counting of time. I could spend pages upon pages going through all of that, and I still wouldn’t do it justice. I also wouldn’t be able to tell you any better than the brightest scientists across the world, who have been studying the topic for decades. So I’m going to start by pointing you at one of their websites, the most recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Now, if you are one of those folks that simply don’t trust the scientific consensus on this issue, there is nothing I will be able to say to change your mind. I could hope you’d go to their website and see the thoroughness of their work, as well as their own admissions about where they are more or less confident about various aspects of the issue. I could hope you’d then read the references they cite, and then use your favorite search engine to bounce off the counter-arguments, giving all of it an equal and unbiased treatment. But since hope alone doesn’t write blogs, I’m going to continue here as though you did all that, whether you did or not.

So let’s talk more about temperature. The Earth has been around for four and a half billion years, which is long enough to have seen a lot changes in its globally averaged temperature. We can make educated inferences about the climate hundreds of millions of years into the past, based on what the fossil and rock records indicate. We can infer the temperature and concentrations of various atmospheric gases in the polar regions by drilling ice cores, sometimes over two miles deep and extending back to 800 million years. For more recent estimates, we can look at tree rings or even written records. For even more recent estimates, we have actually deployed instruments across the Earth that can measure temperature and concentrations of atmospheric gases. For the most recent estimates, we have had satellites in orbit that can measure these things by collecting the photons that are cascading from our Earth back into space.

Putting all of these things together, and comparing them to one another as best we can so that we know we’re dealing with apples and apples, if you look at a graph of temperature versus time over the past millennium, you get something looking like a hockey stick: a long period of fairly steady or even slightly declining temperature (the shaft) followed by a short period of rapid warming (the blade).

The hockey stick graph has been a subject of vigorous debate since it first came out in 1998. But on the whole, the general idea conveyed by the graph has survived this scrutiny: it is considerably warmer now than it has been in at least the last thousand years. The next question is “why?” Well, let’s take a look at the graphic below, basically “Figure 1” from the report I linked you to above.

Kinda looks like there’s a correlation here, no?

The first graph above (a) is the change in globally averaged temperature (degrees Celsius) since 1850. On the “hockey stick” graphs that go back to the year 1000, the increase shown starting in the early 1900’s gets squished to the right, very good for showing an image of a hockey stick, but not so useful for seeing what happens during the increase, which is why I’m not showing you the hockey stick graph.

A couple of things to notice in (a): first, even globally averaged temperature varies naturally from year to year or even over a period of years. Some of this is just pure chaos, while some of it is due to combinations of events like the solar cycle or the eruption of a volcano here and there. The second thing to notice is the general trend toward warmer temperatures over time. A number of volcanoes have erupted during that time, which tends to block sunlight with ash and have a cooling effect, but there hasn’t been any noticeable trend in volcanic eruptions either way. The solar cycle is eleven years, but the upward trend in temperature has lasted beyond several of those. So the Sun and Earth themselves don’t seem to be the likely causes for the increase in temperature.

Ok, now look at the second graph (b). Sea level is another thing we have progressively become better at measuring over time, and the trend is eerily similar to that for the temperature. That shouldn’t be too surprising: warmer temperatures means more ice melts, putting more liquid water into the oceans. Now look at graph (c). That’s the increase in “greenhouse gases” over the same period of time, including carbon dioxide. Now look at graph (d). That’s the increase in the amount of carbon dioxide from the stuff we do. So, in summary, (a) says the Earth is getting warmer, (b) seems to confirm (a), (c) says it’s likely due to increased greenhouse gases, and (d) says that’s likely our fault.

To state it more scientifically, here are the words of the IPCC:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen. 

Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

When a scientist (and especially a large group of scientists) says things like “unprecedented”, “extremely likely”, and “dominant”, people should listen. Given what clearly appears to be happening, the next post will talk about where we think that might lead in the future. But for now, consider perhaps the most tragic consequence of climate change: if it continues to get warmer, all the ice will melt for good, and eventually it will not be cost effective to keep ice frozen in large buildings, and hockey will be eliminated from society, turning the “hockey stick graph” into the omen to end all omens. I for one do not want to live in such a world.

Fire and Ice

When we spent a little time on Thales a couple of posts ago, we touched on the importance of water to our survival (or even being here in the first place). Water is a remarkable substance, regardless of which planet or moon it might call home. It is, as you’ve probably heard, the universal solvent, meaning it can take a whole range of different substances and break them down into their individual atoms, so that they can interact and recombine in all kinds of different ways.

What makes water even more remarkable for us is that we live on a planet whose temperature is in just the right range that water can exist in all three basic states: gas, liquid, and solid. In the same post that referenced Thales, I noted that water vapor – the gaseous form of water – is extremely variable in our atmosphere, and also a fairly potent “greenhouse gas”. The liquid form of water is the main source of life for us, not just because we need to take it in on a daily basis, but also because we are literally made of water – 90 percent by weight. Water is likely the medium in which life on Earth first formed, so it’s not too surprising that it still forms most of what we are today. Water in solid form is a bit more fleeting for most of us. The average temperature across most of the Earth is simply too high for water to remain frozen – and so we either have to wait for a winter storm, expend significant energy keeping water frozen, or trek to some other location on the planet – generally either very high or very far north or south.

Wherever you may find it, ice has a different kind of relationship to photons, compared to the liquid and gaseous forms of water. The latter two generally like to absorb photons, but the crystalline structure of ice tends more to scatter and reflect them. That is why liquid water, especially on a grander scale, appears dark blue to us, while ice appears more white. Liquid water absorbs most of the Sun’s light (and therefore heats up in the process), and ice reflects most of the Sun’s light (and therefore remains relatively cool).

In addition to being at just the right distance from the Sun to support water in all its glorious forms, the Earth is also tilted at just the right angle to give us a well-defined set of seasons. Winter in a given hemisphere begins when that hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun the most, and summer is of course the opposite. Whichever hemisphere you’re in, for all of the history our species has known, winter has lasted long enough that the polar region facing away from the Sun gets cold enough that its water has turned to ice. Meanwhile, summer has not lasted long enough for that ice to melt away entirely, which is why we have come to expect the Arctic and the Antarctic to be substantially covered by ice year-round. The reflectance (brightness) of ice is a big reason for that. Even when the Sun’s photons are beating down on Antarctica, the continent stays relatively cool by rejecting said photons back into the atmosphere.

Let’s move our minds back to warmer climes for a moment, where it’s a very hot day, and your thirsty, and so you pour yourself a glass of ice water. Have you ever noticed that ice water feels incredibly colder than just cold water with no ice in it? That’s because the water is donating vast amounts of energy (heat) to the ice so that it can melt, which is a process that demands some amount of energy (ice is stubborn). Water is very much up to the task, and the more heat there is in the water, the faster it happens. Well, the sheets of ice in the Arctic are nothing more than a big ice cube, and the Arctic Ocean is nothing more than a big glass of water. So if the Arctic Ocean gets warmer, the Arctic ice sheets will melt faster. And then – and here is the geophysical bitch of it all – what was once bright, highly reflective ice has been replaced with dark, highly absorptive water. So now the water absorbs more photons from the Sun, and gets even hotter, which causes the ice to melt even faster. This is what they call a feedback loop. Who are they? I have no idea. But it doesn’t matter, the physics is ridiculously simple. Your respect for my PhD should rightfully be declining at an alarming rate. Much like the amount of ice in the polar regions. Whoops, I got ahead of myself there. Pretend you didn’t read that.

Antarctica is a little different from the Arctic because there’s an actual landmass there (i.e., a continent). But the edges of Antarctica are directly exposed to the Southern Ocean, and so if, hypothetically, the water around Antarctica were to get warmer, we’d see more icebergs fall off of Antarctica as it melts. I stopped just short of getting ahead of myself there.

Let’s just say this. In the year 2100 and beyond, If you want to hear Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”, even though it will have long since vanished from the Top 40, you will be able to download it in any number of ways. If you want to see ice sheets and glaciers in the polar regions, you may need a time machine. Dammit, got ahead of myself again.

A Game of Photons

A Cloud of Uncertainty

As an asthmatic child that missed a lot of school and didn’t play in many sports, I had to find truly innovative ways to geek out. I checked out the same dinosaur book from the library so many times that my first grade teacher just gave it to me one day. I wrote my own books, albeit near complete plagiarism, on chemistry and astronomy. And in an attempt to combine my geekdom with my love for the sports I couldn’t play, I created an entire league of dinosaur football teams, meticulously setting up all the yard markers and providing play-by-play for my audience of me. Cue sad music.

One other thing that has fascinated me since I can remember is weather. And within that, I continue to be mesmerized by clouds. I was still pretty young when I started to memorize all the different types – stratus, cumulus, cirrus, nimbus, cumulonimbus, cirrocumulus, altostratocumulocirrus… ok I may have made that last one up. My PhD thesis (CU Boulder – go Buffs!) was in large part about teaching a machine to categorize clouds in satellite imagery. As a postdoc (College Park, Maryland – go Terps!), I signed up to participate in a science outreach event with local kids – and so of course I created a big poster of all the different cloud types. My favorite scientific paper ever – by a landslide – was about how artists had portrayed clouds in paintings throughout history. Yeah, I like clouds.

In the last post, we explored the complex interactions between the Earth and it’s atmosphere with respect to temperature and photons – a discussion scientists typically refer to as the radiation budget. But we didn’t give a moment’s consideration to clouds, and their impact is profound. As many types of clouds as there are, the radiation budget only cares about two broad categories: clouds that cool us down, and clouds that warm us up.

The clouds that cool us down are typically thick – from space they look white, because they are reflecting the Sun’s photons back up upward, preventing them from reaching the lower atmosphere or us. The clouds that heat us up are typically thin (usually wispy cirrus) – they let a lot of the Sun’s photons in, but then they block the infrared photons from us and our atmosphere from getting back out.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? But think about how fast clouds develop, move, and dissipate, and then extrapolate that to days upon weeks upon months upon years – it’s really hard to figure out what the overall effect is. The end result is that we have a lot of uncertainty surrounding clouds and their effects on how temperatures vary across the Earth and over time.

People don’t like uncertainty. We want things to be black or white, yes or no, left or right, innie or outie, pineapple on pizza is genius or pineapple on pizza is Satan incarnate. We don’t like gray area. We want things to be settled, so we can move from step A, which is now done, to step B. How the hell can we move to step B if we haven’t answered step A with 100 percent surety?

There are few ways in which we are sillier as a species than in our desperate need for certainty (and along with that, our utter disdain for uncertainty). Nowhere are we sillier in our need for certainty than in the case of weather. It has become part of our culture to state in beer hall conversations that the weather people can never get the forecast right. And yet, they get it right an overwhelming percentage of the time. It’s just that we only remember the occasions when they are wrong. And yet, even when they are wrong, it is mostly about whether rain turned to snow, or if one particular spot got hit a little harder than another. How often do you get a blizzard when the forecast was sunny skies? Even our predictions of hurricane tracks are pretty damned good, Sharpies notwithstanding. The uncertainty is rarely about whether a big event is going to occur, it’s more about exactly when and exactly where the effects will be exactly this or exactly that.

Why can’t we get it all right down to that very last detail? Because just like our radiation budget is ultimately governed by the actions of unimaginably tiny photons, the circulation of air and heat in our atmosphere is ultimately governed by the actions of unimaginably tiny molecules, and we don’t know where all those molecules are to begin with, much less where they will end up a minute, an hour, or a couple of days from now. But why are we so brutal to our weather forecasters? Predictions about what’s going to happen to our economy are even more imperiled. How did all those predictions about the last Presidential election go? Why aren’t you a millionaire from having successfully predicted the outcomes of all the football games last season? Uncertainty rules the world. It is not a weakness of any particular endeavor, it is a fact of life. And in the case of weather and climate, a big part of that uncertainty can be traced back to clouds.

But if we knew everything that was going to happen, all of the time, what would be the point of free will? We would just be making decisions that we would have no other choice but to make. Clouds are the spice of life. A toast, to Habanerocumulus.

I don’t know about you, but I see a T-Rex returning a pick six.

A Bunch of Hot Air

Over 2500 years ago, a series of Greek philosophers attempted to understand and describe the reality of the world around us. One of the very first was a man named Thales of Miletus. Thales applied his intellect to a great deal more than just philosophy.  He was a respected advisor to the Ionians, and he is said to have been the first man to successfully predict a solar eclipse.  He also tried his hand as a tactician, once helping an army cross a river by ordering a crescent-shaped bypass to be shoveled around behind them, thus reducing the flow of the river ahead so it could be forded and passed. But for the purposes of this already digressing blog entry, Thales’ biggest contribution was his attempt to answer the question, “What is everything made of?” Thales proposed that all things in the universe are made from water.

That sounds like a quaint notion now, but consider just how revolutionary his proposition was.  Until Thales made that bold statement, the Mediterranean was awash in mythology from East to West.  All of the happenings on Earth and in the sky were attributed to one or more gods, with no further explanation deemed prudent or necessary.  For Thales to come forth and suggest that the world was made of something other than the labor of deities, whether that something was water or beer, was nothing short of a giant leap for humankind, on equal footing with the first steps of Neil Armstrong on the Moon.

When you consider where Thales lived, it does not seem silly at all that he selected water as the fundamental substance of all things.  He was a man of the sea, living in an island and coastal culture, surrounded by water in its liquid form, so much that it seemed the very Earth on which he stood was merely floating in the midst of an endless ocean. Water was critical to survival then as now. We know today that water and carbon form the basis for our entire biology, so to elevate water to the status proposed by Thales so many centuries ago is most certainly a forgivable crime. This is a central tenet of science: the people who have been wrong play just as important a role as the people who have been right. Science transcends ego. What matters is not whether Thales was right or wrong, but that he even asked the question.

Following on the thread pulled by Thales, another philosopher named Anaximenes (also of Miletus) proposed that all things are made of air. This is just as remarkable as Thales’ idea, given that in most circumstances air cannot be seen. People knew of air on some level because it can be felt – hot air, cold air, and most importantly, moving air (more lovingly known as wind). As a life giving substance, air is just as precious as water for us – but we also now know that we are not made solely of either, and that both are made of atoms. You might imagine it took centuries or even millennia after Thales and Anaximenes to figure that out, but in fact it took mere decades for the philosopher Democritus to suggest it and even give atoms their name (a name meaning “that which cannot be cut”). It then took a couple of millennia for us to rediscover atoms, and another couple of centuries to actually see them with electron microscopes. Imagine the level of abstract thought to have come up with the notion in the fifth century BC, when no microscopes of any kind were available.

Back to water and air: it’s fairly common knowledge that water is made of molecules, each of which contains two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen – H2O. Air is also made of molecules, but with quite a bit more variety, leading to a mixture of invisible gases that surround us and our planet. The most common molecule in the air is nitrogen, making up 78 percent of our skies. Only 21 percent is oxygen, the gas we all need to breathe. Almost 1 percent is argon, and the rest is a smattering of other molecules – such as methane, carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrous oxides, and an extremely variable amount of water vapor.

Besides turn hot, turn cold, move, and keep us alive, what does air do? Well, getting back to the hot and cold part, the air at any given place and any given time has a temperature. There can’t be any question you read the last post, right? Ok, I’ll give you a few minutes. Let me know when you’re ready.

Welcome back. So, anything made of atoms or molecules with a temperature higher than absolute zero radiates energy in the form of photons. The air, being made of atoms and molecules and typically having a temperature higher than absolute zero, therefore radiates energy in the form of photons. Science is relentless. The air can also absorb the photons radiated by other things, just like other things can absorb the energy radiated by air and other other things. How much is absorbed depends on what molecules are involved. And that’s where things get even more interesting.

You know from experience that different substances absorb sunlight differently. A white shirt reflects a lot more light than a black shirt, and so you feel cooler and look brighter in white than in black. Most substances also absorb certain colors of light differently than others. The typical healthy plant contains a fair amount of chlorophyll, which absorbs more blue and red light than green light, and therefore reflects more green, some of which strikes our curious eyes, behind which our brains recall, oh yeah, most plants are green.

This concept extends into kinds of light and radiation that we cannot see – like ultraviolet and infrared. At the temperature of most things on Earth – including you, those things are emitting infrared radiation more than anything else. Some of those photons travel upward into the atmosphere, where they hit the different molecules in the air, and those molecules in turn might scatter or absorb the photons, depending on the molecule. On balance, the molecules that absorb the most photons in our atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane.

So now you’ve got this rather complicated situation. The Sun, thousands of degrees hot at its surface, from 93 million miles away, radiates photons of visible light in all directions, and some of those photons plunge into the top of our atmosphere. Some are absorbed, some are scattered, and some make it down to the surface, where they hit all manner of things, including us. This causes us to heat up and emit more of our own infrared photons back into the atmosphere, which then absorbs some and scatters some, and the photons it absorbs causes it to heat up and emit more of its own infrared photons in all directions, including back toward the surface, where they hit all manner of things, including us. This causes us to heat up some more and… you get the picture. You may have heard of this effect before – it’s called the greenhouse effect…

…which is a misleading name, as is the idea of a blanket. Greenhouses and blankets keep things warm because they don’t let the warm air escape. The atmosphere stays warm because it lets a lot of photons in but it doesn’t let all of those photons escape back into space. Eventually, even if getting absorbed and re-radiated many times along the way, some photons do eventually make it all the way up to the top of the atmosphere and trickle into space, but the rest contribute to warming our Earth and atmosphere. And so we end up arriving at some sort of equilibrium, which brings with it a general distribution of temperatures throughout the atmosphere and across the Earth. Forget greenhouses and blankets: because of the things that photons do, a planet or moon with an atmosphere is generally warmer than one without. That’s why the night side of our Moon, essentially the same distance from the Sun, is always unimaginably cold, while the night side of our Earth can often be perfectly comfortable. More generally speaking, it’s one reason our planet can support life as we know it. Usually, a bunch of hot air is couched as a negative thing. In this case, we owe it our existence.

What goes up must usually come back down.