Science is supposed to be unbiased, seeking to understand the workings of nature untainted by the personal beliefs or prejudices of its practitioners. Nature alone is the arbiter of truth—when science and nature disagree it is science that is wrong. But science is practiced by human beings, who cannot keep their beliefs, whether engendered by religious, philosophical, or political leanings, from skewing any result that is equivocal or highly complex. Presented here are two examples taken from the pages of Nature, perhaps the world's primer scientific journal. One is a rehash of temperature history in northern latitudes with a new statistical twist, the other a report on a study regarding fracking. One shows how what scientists leave out of their studies may be more important than what they put in. The other shows how a headline can spin the results of a report even when its authors are carefully neutral in their conclusions.
Often ignored in times of calamity, and eclipsed in the media by faux crises like Global Warming, humanity is facing the very real possibility of food shortages in the future. Given that the average citizen of a developed country consumes eight times their weight in food each year, this is no small problem. Not to fear, dedicated teams of scientists and technologists are on the job, trying to invent the food of the future. Many of the proposed solutions center on being able to print edible objects using 3D printing technology. This would allow raw feed stocks of protein, carbohydrate, starch, and other substances to be combined into food on demand in our homes—food tailored to individual nutritional needs with less waste than conventional preparation. Moreover, the raw material could come from unlikely sources: algae, seaweed, mealworms and insects. Will future food save the planet?
It's everywhere on Earth, on the other planets and moons of the solar system, and even in comets from deep space. It is the frozen form of water, commonly called ice. Something so ubiquitous and familiar, one would think that science knows a lot about ice. It turns out science knows less than we might suppose. In a commentary in the journal Nature, an ice scientist raises ten open questions about ice. For example, the article states: “We cannot predict with certainty when and where ice clouds will form in the atmosphere; areas of the sky remain humid when we would expect them to freeze.” Ice is a fundamental part of Earth's climate, yet these questions and others remain unanswered. How can climate science claim to predict the fate of the polar ice sheets or mountain glaciers when we do not really understand the substance that they are made of?
There has been a wave of triumphal announcements by climate change proponents recently, almost giddy over the summer shrinkage of the Arctic ice sheet. “Lowest level ever!” they proclaim, thought that is not quite true. Nonetheless, The Arctic pack ice has been receding over the last decade or so, but that is only natural. You see, there is a well known, if poorly understood, linkage between the ice at the north pole and the ice in and around Antarctica—and the ice around Antarctica is doing quite well. Satellite radar altimetry measurements indicate that the East Antarctic ice sheet interior increased in mass by 45±7 billion metric tons per year from 1992 to 2003. This trend continues today, reinforcing recent scientific investigations into this millennial scale oscillation between the poles. According to studies, this is how things have been for hundreds of thousands of years.
Between 15 and 20 million years (Myr) ago, Earth's climate took a pause during its long slide into the Pleistocene Ice Age for a period of real global warming. During this relatively brief time glaciers around the world retreated and there are indications that, at least around the edges of the continent, there was significant vegetation on Antarctica. Temperatures may have been as high as 11°C higher than today. Scientists say this global warm spell took place under under CO2 levels in the range of 190–850 ppmv, both significantly higher and lower than today's 390 ppmv. It is hoped that studying conditions during the Miocene warming can provide constraints on the fundamental laws governing the climate system. Why? If the Pleistocene Ice Age is truly coming to an end, as some have said, this may be the climate of the future.
A new Current Biology paper proposes that the accumulated output of dinosaur flatulence could have changed the global climate during the age of the dinosaurs. Insert dinosaur fart joke here. No, seriously, this is a real report in an actual scientific journal. It just happens to be on a subject that the news media could not resist blowing out of proportion on their best day. Given that much of the CO2 in Earth's atmosphere was emitted by some form of living creature this is a serious area for study by environmental scientists. So after giving the chattering media magpies some time to calm down, here is a more serious take on this heady topic.
It is accepted that the ancient Sun was considerably cooler than our local star is today, so much so that Earth a few billion years ago should have been a lifeless frozen ball. But scientists have also shown that the planet was not frozen—shallow seas warmer than any modern ocean abounded with microbial life. A recent study, detailed in the journal Nature, is a good example of the sometimes convoluted, even improbable reasoning is used to get a handle on earthly climates during eons long vanished. Using the fossilized impact dimples from rain drops that fell 2.7 billion years ago, researchers have calculated new limits on the density of Earth's atmosphere. This, in turn, has implications on the development of the ancient atmosphere and what role greenhouse gases may have played in warming the young Earth.
The ineffective and mostly ignored Kyoto agreement is due to expire in 2012. Climate change activists around the world are girding their loins in preparation for the battle over Kyoto 2, the follow on treaty. Their goal? New regulations for black carbon, methane and driving anthropogenic CO2 emissions to zero. Leaving no bad idea unused, there is talk of implementing a global cap & trade system where developed nations that are able to reduce emissions beyond their Kyoto targets can sell excess reduction credit to other developed nations through the Emissions Trading mechanism. Beyond that, rather than negotiating CO2 emission reduction targets on a nation-by-nation basis—as in the current Kyoto framework—a future level of maximum allowable global temperature increase can be chosen. It is clear that the warmists have made the transition from irrational to delusional.
Many people have been pushing natural gas as the fuel of the future. Less polluting than oil or coal, the only thing holding gas back has been supply, causing a scramble for new gas fields using the latest drilling techniques. The conclusion of a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is that drilling for natural gas in shale formations, using the process known as fracking, has seriously contaminated shallow groundwater supplies beneath Pennsylvania. Duke University scientists sampled well water across 175 kilometers of far northeast Pennsylvania centered on the town of Dimock, made famous by the film Gasland. The analysis does not indicate how pervasive such contamination might be.
Methane is an important greenhouse gas, 30 times more potent than CO2, but our knowledge of the methane cycle is woefully inadequate. Sediments on the ocean's floor contain immense quantities of methane and there are enormous fluxes of methane into and out of these sediments. Trapped frozen in ice, there are some 10,000 gigatons of carbon stored under the sea—twice as much carbon as contained in conventional fossil fuel reserves. Some scientists consider the release of this methane the single worst environmental danger we face as a species. A massive release of ocean floor methane could cause real runaway global warming that would have dramatic impact on life. But methane continually leaks from seabeds around the world, contributing to the total amount of carbon injected into the ecosystem. A new report finds that ocean methane concentrations have been underestimated by a factor of 10 to 20 fold.
An investigative report published by The New York Times identifies important but previously unnoticed environmental hazards in natural gas fracking. Potentially the most serious disclosure is that waste water from natural gas drilling wells can contain levels of radioactivity that far exceed Federal drinking water standards. And that is not the only significant problem reported. In other areas, the disposal of used fracking solution by re-injecting it into the ground may be contributing to earthquakes. With turmoil sweeping the world's major oil producing regions and demand for energy continuing to rise, the US has been developing new natural gas fields at an accelerating pace. In the rush for energy independence is America getting fracked?
Given the ongoing controversy over global warming the question of whether humans can change Earth's climate is a familiar one. Lost in the fight over anthropogenic global warming is a more subtle and possibly more important question—how has climate changed people. In recent decades, the fossil record of hominin evolution and behavior, though still incomplete, has improved greatly. Triggered by a recent National Research Council (NRC) report, a perspective article in the journal Science poses the question, “did climate change shape human evolution?”
Remember the 2010 BP Gulf Oil disaster? For 83 days it dominated news broadcasts in the US and was followed with interest around the world. Ecological activists wailed that the Gulf would never recover, alternative energy advocates demanded all off shore oil production be shut down, and the Obama administration quickly reversed its plans to open up more coastal areas for oil exploration. Now things have gone strangely silent regarding the worst ever US oil spill. A report commissioned by the reparations fund director pronounced Gulf fisheries mostly recovered and a number of scientific reports found that both oil and natural gas released by the spill had amazingly disappeared. Some environmentalists are still howling but the crisis seems to have passed much more quickly than even the most optimistic predictions.
Scientists believe that carbon released from the ocean floor played a key role in past episodes of climate change. Around 55 million years ago, the break-up of the northeast Atlantic continents was associated with the injection of large amounts of molten magma into seafloor sediments. Formation of the North Atlantic basalts heated the carbon-rich sediments, triggering the release of large quantities of methane and carbon dioxide into the ocean and atmosphere. It has been suggested that this release of previously sequestered carbon was responsible for a 100,000 year period of rapid temperature rise known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM. Three letters published in Nature Geoscience suggest that carbon trapped beneath the seabed continues to influence carbon dynamics, at least in the deep ocean.
Carbon monoxide, CO, is a trace gas that is important in atmospheric chemistry. It indirectly influences climate and has significant effects on methane and ozone levels. CO is a byproduct of combustion—particularly the incomplete burning of fossil fuels and biomass—and conventional wisdom says that humans, with their tendency to set things on fire, should be responsible for releasing much of the gas into the atmosphere. Little is known about the abundance and sources of CO prior to the industrial age, or about the importance of anthropogenic activities have had. A new study in the journal Science presents a 650-year-long record of CO atmospheric concentration using samples from Antarctic ice cores. Reconstructed past CO variability and its causes have come up with a shocking fact: CO levels are at a 2,000 year low. Apparently, humans actually prevent wildfire, reducing the release of carbon monoxide and, consequently, CO2.