Wool gets in the eyesRichard Treadgold | June 20, 2011
With the Royal Society smoke ‘n’ sea level rise
Professor Keith Hunter, the Society’s Vice President of Physical Sciences, who contributed to the paper, says researchers are starting to be able to estimate the amount of rise that we should expect to see over this century and beyond. But he says these projections of future sea level rise depend upon the future melting of ice sheets, which is poorly known.
“The uncertain knowledge about ice sheet behaviour is the key reason why IPCC projections in 2007 did not state upper bounds for sea level rise. Similarly, Ministry for the Environment guidance in 2008 wisely left open the question of any upper limit on sea level rise.”
The paper states that some early scientific work into the effect of a warming climate on ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica suggested that many metres of sea level rise could occur within a century. However, it says few scientists now consider that such rates are possible.
What do we learn from this?
We learn that we can’t guess future sea level rise, since we can’t guess future ice sheet melting; our mates at the UN and the MfE won’t touch it, and our first guess was several metres but now only the cranks go that far.
The press release expresses complete ignorance on future sea level rise. Great. So we also learn that scientists can make complete ignorance appear very interesting.
A failed experiment is still useful. It tells you something you didn’t know before, so it’s a step forward. But to put it into a press release? You should save a press release for the big stuff. Is there anything big in the press release?
The opening statement (now we’re going backwards) isn’t exactly portentous:
New research on the melting of ice sheets is helping coastal managers understand how to plan for future sea level rise.
That’s slightly interesting, but the press release then contradicts itself. We’ve already heard it — the guff about we can’t guess this and we don’t know that, as though it’s highly scientific and fascinating. The admission of ignorance.
But how can coastal managers (whatever they are) learn anything useful to their planning if we can’t guess future sea level rise? Missing out the upper limit misses out the very point of an estimate! Nobody plans for the lower limit, everybody cares about the upper limit! Without it, the whole exercise is useless. The IPCC forgot its customers.
What did Keith Hunter say: “these projections of future sea level rise depend upon the future melting of ice sheets, which is poorly known.” That won’t help our “coastal managers” one bit. Why does the Royal Society tell us that it’s “helping”? We’ll check the paper, but if the press release reflects what’s in it, I’m pessimistic. We can expect complete ignorance.
We can read several sentences and still remember the first; we can follow the thread of an argument, and we expect the Royal Society to do the same. It’s odd that they can’t manage it and even odder that they don’t seem to think we can either. Because here they have said A = B, then four sentences later they say A ≠ B.
FAIL. And we noticed.
Anything else in the press release? Anything big?
Well, I’m embarrassed to say so, because this comes from the Royal Society, who have always been the most prestigious and trustworthy organisation in the country, but the biggest thing in the rest of the press release, issued with great fanfare last September — check this out for yourself — is the news from Professor Hunter that “the majority of New Zealand’s large towns and cities are on our coasts.”
What can I say? Why did they bother?
So (smiling), maybe there’s something big in the paper?
The Royal Society paper
The first words of the summary that begins the RS paper are:
When the Earth was warmer, global sea levels were several metres higher than at present.
Are they stating a simple correlation here, a coincidence? Like, two things happening at the same time, but not necessarily connected? Are they hoping we’ll make a connection without them having to explicitly state it — or are they really claiming the warmth caused higher sea levels? Because there are no words that logically connect the two parts of the sentence, there’s just a comma. A small thing, a comma, and very versatile; it can even imply “then.” But it doesn’t actually mean “then” — not ever. Not then, and not now.
So you could say with equal truth that when the Earth was warmer (comma), dinosaurs walked around on it. But they’re not going to say that dinosaurs might … whoa, they’re not, are they? Or you could say: when the Earth was warmer (comma), no people were alive. This is fun!
When the Earth was warmer (comma),
- CO2 levels were much higher.
- plants grew faster and further than you can imagine.
- Australia and New Zealand were literally at arm’s length.
- the Romans expanded their empire.
- Britain and Europe were one.
- Greenland was green.
- nature invented the hippopotamus.
- the Egyptians invented public granaries.
- Africa and South America were joined at the hip.
Are they saying that warmth made the sea level higher? Is that it?
But if they are, they’re simplifying it too much. Because temperature is not the only driver of sea levels — there are other things: tectonic activity, rebounding of the mantle after the ice age, subsidence from withdrawal of ground water, melting of glaciers and ice sheets and even the saltiness of the sea water.
Then there are short and medium-term factors, like barometric pressure and oceanic oscillations like ENSO.
It’s wrong to say that if the temperature rises then so will the sea level. It may not. Of course, the question to ask ourselves is: “What are they really saying?” It’s hard to tell — almost as though they are being deliberately vague.
The paper continues
Global warming results in rising oceans.
So they are saying it. Silly them. It’s a simple statement, but it’s not always true. If “global” warming tended to increase sea levels by, say, 0.3 mm/yr, but local isostatic rebounding was occurring at 0.4 mm/yr, the sea level won’t rise, it’ll actually fall, because the land is rising.
The next one’s a purler.
Scientific understanding of how climate change is driving sea level rise has improved in the past four years and recent estimates of future rise are greater than those assessed in previous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.
There are two parts to this sentence:
- Knowledge has improved.
- Recent estimates are greater.
This time the two parts are joined by an ‘and.’ This is different from using a comma, because there’s even less logical connection between the two parts. All that’s necessary is for the two things to coexist temporally (exist at the same time). We can put many things together in this way and have fun doing it.
Knowledge of sea level rise has improved (and)
- postal rates are up.
- the moon is full.
- John Key is now Prime Minister.
- we’ve lost the America’s Cup.
- New Zealand is a leading builder of luxury yachts.
- the Rugby World Cup is less than 70 days away.
- the population of New Zealand has passed 4 million.
- crude oil prices are declining.
- our cat died.
But none of those statements bears any relation with the first (about knowledge of sea level rise) and no statement joined to another by an ‘and’ ever will. What is the Royal Society telling us with this statement?
Being charitable, I would suggest that your guess is as good as mine. Other people, I’m sure, will believe the RS is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
Because the inescapable implication is that recent estimates of future sea level rise are greater than ever before because knowledge has improved. But they (cleverly?) don’t say that, and we must ask why?
In fact, recent estimates of future sea level rise are greater for no better reason than that certain people blinded by their own expectations think they should be greater. Otherwise, why avoid stating the reason? It’s more than suspicious, it’s disgraceful.
That’s all for now. This is a bit long. I’ll discuss the rest of the paper soon.