Thursday, April 14, 2011

No Haven for Science, Part 3

FINALLY continuing the climate change email saga. Here is my response to "Carl", the ignorant but sure climate change denier.
Hey, [Carl]. Thanks for the reply.

I think the issues you bring up -- is CO2 the greatest factor in climate change, what other factors are there, etc. -- are good questions and are issues actually being tackled in the climate community. One only needs to follow some of the conversations on [Lab Email] to see all of the factors (including CO2) that are constantly under scrutiny by the scientific community (solar input, the role of aerosols, and more). It is a complex question indeed.

I am CC'ing the climate list again because I believe that your concerns are legitimate but ultimately ones that have been addressed by the scientific community. I do not mean to ridicule whatsoever! The experts on the climate list can address your questions far better than I, and communicating the state of climate science to non-experts (such as myself, see below) is a key part of our careers.

I must admit that I'm not a climate scientist; I merely follow the email list because it interests me. That said, one need not be a specialist to see that the article you originally sent out does not pass the "smell test". The entire article leaves nearly all the work to the reader when it comes to trying to figure out if any of this is true.

A smattering of references (note that they were not placed in the article itself, but rather in the comments section -- this should be a huge red flag) does
very little to settle the matter because if one actually reads them, they are extremely inconclusive. For example, the second reference reports that the recent sporadic pole movement is somewhat expected and not necessarily indicative of a pole reversal. The Nature article (one must find this independently as no link or actual reference is given) concludes with "The evidence relating [pressure systems with magnetic field shifts] is less convincing and there is clearly a need for further comparisons of meteorological data...". This paper is from 1974. If more research was required then, why not include a paper that is more recent? Several articles are --at best -- only tangentially related to the topic.

Some claims are so far fetched that eyebrows should raise instinctively. For example, Mr. Aym says, "And what normally happens is that all hell breaks loose." Normally??? He just stated that flips occur every 500,000 years! We have no frame of reference for what is "normal"!

It requires no specialized degree to administer a smell test, just a recognition that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This is why I sent out the picture -- I wasn't sure if you were serious or just trying to stir up some fun on the climate list. Whenever you get an article like this, sniff around to see if any of it stinks.

To get to the core of the matter, however, specialized knowledge of the physics and science behind the article is required. That is a big problem, because this article is written in such a way as to obfuscate issues so that it is difficult for a lay person to know what is real and what sounds real but is false. Though I am not a climate scientist, I am a space plasma physicist who studies the Earth's magnetosphere. There is a lot that is fundamentally wrong with this article; I'll hit some of the main issues.

First off, the major solar driver of climate and weather is light radiation. This is not affected by our magnetic field. Studies to how fluctuations in solar intensity affects climate change are performed frequently; it is important to note that we are in the midst of a historic solar activity minimum while Earth surface temperatures continue to rise (for example, see here).

The idea that the Earth's magnetic field shields us from "cancer causing radiation" is demonstrably false. It is the atmosphere that does the greatest amount of shielding. If there was no magnetic field, particles with energies equal to those captured in the radiation belts would not penetrate very deeply into our atmosphere. Currently, these particles can still penetrate near the magnetic poles, but again only to the extent that only very high altitude flights are affected. To penetrate to ground level, only super-energetic (>>GeV) particles have enough energy, and such particles are already moving quickly enough to be only slightly deflected by the Earth's magnetic field. Cancer causing radiation from the sun, as far as humans are concerned, is better known as ultraviolet radiation. This is not shielded by the Earth's magnetic field but by our atmosphere. If the Earth's magnetic field blocked UV rays, we wouldn't be having this conversation now.

Finally, the assertion that Sun's "magnetosphere" (known as the heliosphere as it is a solar, not terrestrial, body) can affect the Earth's rotation, wobble, and core to any significant degree is again incorrect. While the heliosphere transmits extensive energy to the Earth via the solar wind, this energy is dispersed through well known electric current and plasma flow systems. The energy balance is well accounted for without including any change to the Earth's rotation, etc.. Even if all of this energy was put to changing the rotation, wobble, or core, it could barely make a dent in these high-inertia systems.

This is my honest attempt to answer your original question about the veracity of the article. As for some of your follow up questions, the climate community will do a far better job than I. I hope you found this helpful and I'm happy to discuss it further.

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