Category Archives: Global Warming

Global Warming and India

Now that Donald Trump has pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, concerned environmentalists are wondering if the conference goals can be achieved. Progressive states like California hopefully will step up to take actions where Washington is ducking out. Individual actions by folks like you and me are also important and may help make up for the nation’s lack of responsibility.

A lot of attention is being paid to what China will or won’t do … much less to another important living lightly on this small planet Earth Matters player – India. India, with well over a billion people, could soon compete with China for the dubious distinction of being the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gasses. The country is rapidly evolving from a place where few people had electricity to one where everyone enjoys the comforts of modern living.

Today, India badly needs a green revolution. Most of its electricity production is coming from coal. Coal is cheap and abundant, but the worst source of greenhouse gases. At present, about 120 coal burning power plants are being constructed there.

At the climate change conference in Paris, it was India, rather than the United States or China that was the bogeyman. If any scientist at the conference were asked to define the biggest threat to the global environment, he or she would automatically say “India.”

India’s pursuit of the China experience would be a nightmare scenario for global warming. China’s annual emissions per person are 7.1 tons. In India, it is only two tons. If India continues to go the coal route, they will catch up with China in terms of emissions in a generation or two.

Climate scientists agree that the success or failure to achieve temperature goals will depend more on India than on any other nation. Over 300 million Indians are not yet on the grid, but will be soon, one way or the other. Fortunately, India has good potential for developing power from wind and solar instead of coal and oil. All that they need is a trillion or so dollars of green development. India will have to up its game if it wants scads of private financing for wind and solar. It will need a fair tax structure, governmental incentives and land use policies designed to encourage renewables.

Indians, of course, have no interest in feeling guilty to please the developed world. They argue that North America, Japan and Europe have built their national wealth on the back of cheap oil and coal and that denying India that same opportunity would be morally wrong. But implicit in India’s argument is a pledge verging on blackmail … pay us or we will embrace a high-carbon future. They have less to lose than most other nations.

It clearly is in the interest of the developed world to help India go the route of renewables, rather than coal. Hundreds of billions of dollars in private or public funds will be required if that is going to happen.

Wouldn’t it be great if the United States and the other countries of the world that are spending massive amounts of money on weapons of war would realize that spending some of that money on solar panels and wind generators for South Asia would help save the world from the consequences of global warming?

This article first appeared in the August 2, 2017 issue of the Rossmoor News. Author, Bob Hanson can be emailed at

World Population and Me

Ever drive down the 24 freeway and get the feeling that there are just too many people around? I remember learning in high school that there were about 2 billion people in the world. That seemed a lot at the time. Now I hear we are sharing the planet with around 7.5 billion others. Experts say that number could be up to 24 billion by 2050.

Each night there are over 240,000 more mouths to feed than there were the night before. Should we be concerned? You’re darn right! Those of us in the upper one percent of the world’s population, income-wise (meaning you have a household income of $34,000 or more) probably will always be able to have food on our tables and water in our taps. How about the 99 percent? Right now we are hearing of wide-spread famine in many parts of Africa and some parts of Asia.

This will only get worse as the numbers grow. This earth we live on is a terrific place, but never designed to be home for unlimited numbers of humans with modern day consumption habits.

Climate change is global and even if we in affluent Walnut Creek aren’t likely to be directly affected by it (Tice Creek isn’t likely to get up to Rossmoor Parkway), boy, are those of us who will be around for a while going to feel effects of it indirectly. Our president thinks immigration is a problem now … just wait a few years. Pacific Islanders are already looking for new homes and half of Bangladesh will likely be under the sea.

A few years ago, I happened to get into a discussion with a couple of young Mormon missionaries. I shared my concerns with them regarding families in their church having large numbers of children. They assured me that there is no cause for concern … that everyone on the earth could easily fit into the state of Texas. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Most developed nations have lowered their birthrates to the replacement level. Today, 80 nations are at or below replacement level fertility. Birth control has made that possible. However, the remaining 140 or so countries are lagging behind. For the most part, these nations are part of the Third World and lack the financial means to provide their citizens with family planning services. It is estimated that for a ridiculously low $4 billion a year we could provide contraception for the 222 million women with a current unmet need. I think that is less than half the cost of one new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier or about what will be spent on the new football stadium in Las Vegas that will house the Raiders.

The current U.S. Congress can be counted on to cut funding for international population control efforts … not expand it. So, if our government isn’t about to try and save the world from the ravages of over-population, what can we do? One option would be to just lament, complain and hope that the next Congress and administration will take the problem seriously.

A better solution, I think, is for those of us who appreciate the severity of the situation to dig into our deep pockets and send a check to one of the several organizations working to provide reproductive services to the women of the Third World. Four fine groups are valiantly working on the issue. The first one is the United Nations Population Fund (www. The second is the International Planned Parenthood Federation ( Number three is the Population Connection ( Last, but not least, is Engender Health ( I invite all of you to check out their programs on the Internet and if you are impressed, hit the donation button. They are all doing terrific work and all need our giving dollars.

I know it is always a tough decision who to support and who to say “no” to. For me, the top two priorities of giving are organizations dealing with population issues and anti-nuclear weapons groups. The success of both groups is essential if our great grandchildren are going to inherit a livable world.

This article first appeared in the May 10, 2017 issue of the Rossmoor News. Author Bob Hanson can be emailed at doctoroutdoors@

SYRIANA – a geopolitical thriller about Big Oil

Sustainable Rossmoor will present the movie SYRIANA on Wednesday, October 11 at 7 pm in Peacock Hall.  The movie focuses on petroleum politics and the global influence of the oil industry. Big Oil’s political, economic, legal, and social effects are felt worldwide from the players brokering back-room deals in Washington to the men toiling in the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. This thriller weaves together multiple storylines that show the human consequences of the fierce pursuit of wealth and power.

A career CIA operative (George Clooney) uncovers the disturbing truth about the work to which he’s devoted his life. An up-and-coming oil broker (Matt Damon) faces an unimaginable family tragedy and finds redemption in his partnership with an idealistic Gulf prince. A corporate lawyer faces a moral dilemma as he finesses the questionable merger of two powerful U.S. oil companies, while across the globe, a disenfranchised Pakistani teenager falls prey to the recruiting efforts of a charismatic cleric. Each plays their small part in the vast and complex system that powers the industry, unaware of the explosive impact their lives will have upon the world.

Credit: Photo by REX/Snap Stills 5

Clooney won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role, and Stephen Gaghan’s script was nominated by the Academy for Best Original Screenplay. The film is R rated for violence and language. Subtitles in English. An optional discussion follows.

SYRIANA: Behind the Film.

Stephen Gaghan, Academy Award-winning screenwriter & director of Syriana, talks to Charlie Rose about learning from the real-life CIA protagonist how Washington D.C. orchestrates coupes, etc. (4 min video).

“The Oil business and the Arms business are the same business” Gaghan heard this repeatedly (1.5 min video).

Audiotape, 9 min with Gaghan about why he wanted the first half of this post 9/11 film to be confusing, why he doesn’t consider the film depressing, and where the “voices” in the film come from.

Credit: Photo by REX/Snap Stills 5

Why does the US need Middle Eastern oil? Still? We have oil wells. We’re energy independent now, . . . aren’t we?

Our “energy independence” refers to electricity generation only. In 2016, U.S. net imports (imports minus exports) of petroleum from foreign countries were equal to about 25% of U.S. petroleum consumption. The world’s top three oil producers are Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the US – in that order.

Petroleum includes crude oil, natural gas plant liquids, liquefied refinery gases, refined petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel fuel, and biofuels including ethanol and biodiesel. About 78% of gross petroleum imports were crude oil in 2016. The majority of that is refined in the US, and then exported. That is to say, US refineries “need” Middle Eastern oil much more than US consumers. The price US citizens pay in pollution, corruption, wars, the international arms industry, . . . is all for the benefit of Big Oil. All this continues despite the drop in oil prices and production which began in 2013.

Upcoming Films: TBA

Carbon Dioxide Matters

In an earlier “Earth Matters” column, I wrote about water being so essential to life as we know it that a water world seems the only way life might evolve. Here, I examine carbon dioxide, the essential building block of life.

Carbon: The Starting Point

A carbon atom can make four chemical bonds. This gives it an ability to bond with other carbon atoms, along with a wide variety of larger atoms to form “organic compounds.” These are the chemicals of life. You can get an idea of what some of these molecules look like by searching “sugar molecule image” or “vitamin molecule image” on your computer or iPhone.

When carbon is exposed to oxygen and a little heat, it ends up making a double bond with each oxygen to make a CO2 molecule shaped like this O=C=O. This is what happens when we burn coal or petroleum.

In the early earth, roughly 3.5-billion years ago, almost all the available carbon and oxygen was in the form of atmospheric CO2. The amount of free oxygen in the atmosphere was less than 1-part-per-million. Today it is 208,500-parts-per-million (about 21-percent).

How do we know this? Because we can determine the age of various rock formations. Those containing alternate layers of magnetite and hematite (iron oxide, rust red) are the banded-iron formations, younger than around 2-billion years ago. By that time there was enough free oxygen in the atmosphere to rust the iron in sedimentary rocks.

So where did that all that free oxygen come from? As it turns out, both Cyanobacteria and an earlier form of microbes called Archaea leave fossil structures, and dating of the earliest formations containing those structures indicate that the oldest recognizable life on earth is at least 2.7-billion years old (very recent findings suggest an even earlier time, possibly 3.5-billion years). Use your computer to search “cyanobacteria fossil record.”


This is where the carbon dioxide comes in: These organisms are photosynthetic, using the energy of sunlight to combine water and CO2 to fix the carbon into carbohydrates and releasing atmospheric oxygen. In its simplest form: 6CO2 + 12H2O + light g C6H12O6 + 6O2 +6H2O. What this equation means is that for every molecule of carbohydrate made through photosynthesis, 6-molecules of carbon dioxide are removed from the atmosphere and 12-atoms of oxygen are returned to the atmosphere.

Now, billions of years later, all our sustenance and all renewal of oxygen comes from photosynthesis that begins with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and ends with the death of organisms in which the carbon has been “fixed”. Most decay, releasing the CO2 back into the atmosphere. A small fraction, however, are buried in marshes and shallow seas, where the carbon is buried deeper and deeper in sediments. And, over long time, the pressure on the carbon converts it into petroleum and coal.

This gradual removal of fractions of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over billions of years resulted in the fall of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from about 18-percent to its present level of 0.04-percent. Estimating the amount of carbon dioxide in the early atmosphere of earth is much more difficult than estimating the percent of oxygen. Both Venus and Mars have atmospheres that are more than 90-percent carbon dioxide. Estimates of early earth carbon dioxide levels are derived from measurements of volcano outgassing.

Radiative Forcing

However, that early earth was very much warmer. Light from the sun delivers energy to the earth. The earth, itself, absorbs this energy and radiates most of it at the longer wavelengths we call heat. Every gas in the atmosphere absorbs this heat and distributes according to a mathematical formula called “radiative forcing.” This is not a guess; it is a well-established predictive theory that has been tested repeatedly. Carbon dioxide has a particularly strong radiative forcing and since the beginning of large-scale industry, carbon dioxide levels on earth have been continuously increasing in a curve that is not straight, but is getting steeper as time goes by. Continuous measurements show that both atmospheric and ocean temperatures steadily increasing. Search “co2 earth” for today’s level.

If we went back in time to an earth where Archaea and Cyanobacteria were the only life, the continents would have no recognizable shapes. We would have to wear a space suit with oxygen supply and a good cooling system. The land would be barren of all recognizable life except these simple organisms, appearing as green or red or orange slime in ponds, marshes, and shallow seas. The moon would be so much closer to earth that the tides would be gigantic. To go back in time, just search: “cyanobacteria doing the dance of 3.5-billion years.”

This article first appeared in the February 1, 2017 issue of the Rossmoor News, author Wayne Lanier.

Looking for Good News? This Isn’t the Right Place

As an environmentalist, I often wish I had some good news to write about. The year 2017 isn’t starting out as the right year for that to happen. Our president-elect has nominated several folks who couldn’t be worse choices for the future of the planet. Everyone who will have any say about environmental issues appears to be a climate change denier.

Rick Perry, nominated as head of the energy department, suggested we dismantle the department four years ago when running for president. Scott Pruitt, who has been chosen to head the Environmental Protection Agency, boasts about leading the charge against pollution limits on toxic substances like soot and mercury that put us all at risk for increased cancer. Donald Trump’s other selections aren’t much better.

Before the last election, there were 182 climate deniers in Congress. I suspect that number has gone up. More than 60 percent of Americans are represented by someone who refuses to accept the scientific consensus on climatic disruption. Would you be surprised to hear that these members of Congress have received more than $73 million in campaign contributions from oil, gas and coal companies during their political careers?

Americans were divided on many issues in November, but no one consciously voted for dirty air and polluted water. I’m afraid that may be what we will be getting.

We Know It’s Real, Does He?

Trump says he doesn’t know whether global warming is happening or not and it appears he doesn’t care. Last month, one of his transition team members, Anthony Scaramucci, went on CNN to ridicule climate change while stating that the earth is 5,500 years old. That shows the kind of scientific evidence he is listening to.

Almost every day, we hear of some new environmental catastrophe. I happen to be a forest lover…a tree hugger, if you will. Anyone who has ever driven to Yosemite or Lake Tahoe has witnessed the thousands of dead trees caused by fire and droughts. Most people don’t realize that there is another leading cause of the forests dying off – bugs. The latest influx of bark beetles is directly attributable to our warming environment and lack of rainfall. In normal times, when a bug found its way under a pine tree’s bark, the tree would put out a surge of sap to envelop and kill the bug. With less ground moisture and hotter days, the tree can’t protect itself and, in a matter of weeks, the bug has encircled the tree and killed it.

Other distressing news stories related to global warming: Greenland has lost 9 trillion tons of ice this century; Australia’s Great Barrier Reef faces ecosystem collapse; the world’s largest herd of reindeer has lost 40 percent of its population since the year 2000; polar bears are in danger of extinction because of loss of sea ice in places like Hudson Bay; sea level rise is causing cities like Miami and Virginia Beach to flood more often, even in modest storms; 2016 proved to be the warmest year in recorded history with autumn temperatures in the Arctic soaring 36 degrees above historic averages.

Everyone is familiar with the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Future historians may well relate the story of Trump tweeting while the world’s coastal areas drowned. At present, war refugees are a terrific problem. Twenty years from now refugees from low-lying coastal areas such as Bangladesh may present an equally dire situation. Glaciers are rapidly melting and the polar ice is going fast.

The Center for Media and Democracy recently published a leaked memo that outlined Trump’s disastrous energy agenda. The plan is to eliminate most federal environmental regulations, halt work on renewable energy and ignore global warming. The United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreements, lift the coal lease moratorium, relax federal fuel economy standards and push ahead for more oil drilling.

Yes…for an environmentalist…good news is hard to find. Let’s not go down without a fight.

This article first appeared in the January 18, 2017 issue of the Rossmoor News, author Bob Hanson.

Nuclear Power Is Not Green Energy

Some of my fellow environmentalists are promoting the idea of building new nuclear power plants as an alternative to fossil fuel power plants. The nuclear power industry and its governmental allies are spending tens of millions to promote atomic power as an “emissions-free” energy source. There are several reasons that I don’t think that is a good idea. I am pleased that PG&E decided to decommission Diablo Canyon, rather than apply for a renewed permit.

History of Nuclear Power Plants

When nuclear power plants were first proposed back in the 1950s, they were sold on the basis of “almost free electricity.” That has proven to be a false hope. The costs of constructing the plants make them considerably more expensive than wind, solar and geo-thermal developments. Insurance companies wisely want nothing to do with them, so the U.S. government has to be willing to pay in the event of a disaster such as Fukushima or Chernobyl. Both of these plants are requiring tens of billions of dollars to shut down and clean-up. The areas around them will be uninhabitable for centuries, while those poor souls who were living in the neighborhoods at the time of the accidents suffer cancer rates that are off the charts.

What about the spent fuel, which is still highly radioactive? Most of it is being stored at the power plant sites. The citizens of Nevada have made it clear that they don’t want it to be buried in their backyard. If the moribund and scientifically-indefensible Yucca Mountain were to be revived, millions of tons of waste would need to be transported by rail or roadways from all across the country … another disaster waiting to happen.

Nuclear energy is created by mining uranium. This process causes serious health problems for the miners, including lung cancer and uranium poisoning. Best it be left in the ground.

Nuclear Power 20th Century Technology

Of the more than 230 attempts by the United States to construct atomic power plants in the 20th century, only 99 reactors are still operating. Most of them are nearing the end of their useful life. Fortunately, there are many alternatives. Wind and solar are growing by leaps and bounds and other sources, such as tidal energy and wave energy, are waiting to be harnessed. Energy efficiency is making big strides to reduce our needs for power. LED lights require only a small fraction of the electricity required by incandescent lightbulbs. People are becoming more aware and concerned. It’s nice to know we are helping save the planet while reducing our power bills.

Building new nuclear power plants applies a 20th-century technology to a 21st century problem (global warming). Proponents of nuclear power would have us believe that humankind is smart enough to safely store nuclear waste for a quarter of a million years, but at the same time isn’t smart enough to figure out how to store solar electricity overnight.

I say let’s place our bets on true renewables and keep the nuclear genie in the bottle.

This article first appeared in the January 4, 2017 issue of the Rossmoor News, author Bob Hanson

Life … Is It Sustainable?

One of my favorite songs is Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” I often marvel at what we call life. How fortunate we are to have been able to participate! Then I wonder… How much longer will life as we know it continue on this planet?

Carrying Capacity of Earth

Some scientists believe that the “carrying capacity” of Earth is no more than two or three billion people. We are rapidly approaching seven billion. Each day that goes by sees an additional quarter million humans living on the planet.

Taking one African nation as an example: the United Nations expects Niger’s population of 16 million to explode to 200 million plus by 2100. Humanity should be able to solve the population problem. Eighty nations of the world are now at or below replacement rate fertility. But that still leaves about 140 other countries with expanding birth rates.

Will The Population Stabilize?

Some experts say that providing access to modern contraception for all of the women of the world who want it could be accomplished for roughly $4 billion a year. We spend that on our military every couple of days. Some religions are obstacles to population stabilization. You know who they are. Scientists tell us that there have been five mass extinctions in the history of the world and that we are in the beginnings of the sixth. Previous ones have been caused by natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions or collisions with other heavenly bodies. This will be the first caused by humans.

Some studies indicate that up to half of the present species may become extinct by the year 2100. Current extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times the pre-human levels. We have just recorded the warmest month on record. Of course, global warming by itself isn’t likely to end life for humans on the planet. A nuclear war between the United States and Russia could do just that in a matter of hours or days. A pandemic caused by super-germs or viruses that are immune to all of our current medicines could wipe out humanity in a few weeks, and there are various other scenarios that could lead to the same end. (Armageddon, I suppose if you are a believer in the Bible as gospel truth.)

Most of us here in Rossmoor don’t have many more years to live, so you can say: Why worry? We’ve had our good times. On the other hand, many of us would like to see our grandchildren and great grandchildren enjoy a good life also. It is easy to be apathetic and fatalistic and question whether anything we do can make a difference.

I for one will be trying to follow the advice of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead when she said, “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”

Even if things do continue to get worse, at least you will know you did what you could make a better ending.

Positive Actionable Steps

Suggestions: Support environmental organizations like, Friends of the Earth and Sustainable Rossmoor. Give a few bucks to International Planned Parenthood or some other group working to control population. Reduce your carbon footprint (turn down the thermostat, walk, bike or use public transport, eat food grown locally, etc.).

Enjoy the Earth while it is still livable.

This article first appeared in the October 12, 2016 issue of the Rossmoor News, author Bob Hanson

Is Global Warming the Cause of Recent Weather Disasters?

I read in the newspapers and see statements on television that many conservative politicians and conservative religious organizations “do not believe in global warming” or “climate change.”

Scientific Basis vs. Belief

This is puzzling for a scientist. Rarely do scientists use the word “believe” in discussing science. They generally “accept” repeated verification of experiments and measurements that support the “predictive basis” of global warming. Essentially, that means the body of ideas called “climate change” makes predictions that, when carefully tested in experiments, measurements and observations by hundreds of different scientists, working for many different universities, institutions and government services, all in many different countries, all openly published in scientific journals, all carefully reviewed for accuracy and clarity, have been reliably verified.

Any science advances slowly by building such a body of verified predictions. When the subject of the science is very complicated and involves very slow observable changes, unanswered questions remain for a long time.

A simple scientific theory, such as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, is easily accepted because it repeatedly makes useful predictions that come true in a short time. When you fly from Paris to San Francisco, your pilot uses a Global Positioning System (GPS) to plot and follow a great circle route over the Arctic that is the shortest distance. The GPS satellites move so fast in their orbits that the precise timing of radio signals between satellites and the airplane GPS system requires Einstein’s equations.

Scientific Theory

This matter of reliable practical prediction is exactly what scientists mean by the word “theory.” Global warming is also a theory that makes predictions, but it is very, very much more complex than Relativity Theory. Useful predictions usually require extensive measurements of many environmental variables and super computers cranking through many different simultaneous equations.

One problem is that the required measurements have only been carried out recently, so scientists have only a short history in which to discover and account for complicating factors. The journal Science, in the weekly issue of June 24, critically examined this matter in an article titled, “How Climate Change Affects Extreme Weather Events.” Mathematician Peter Stott looked at how climate scientists dissect weather data to pinpoint any effects of global warming. Their method is conceptually simple, but complicated in practice: They write the equations predicting temperature or rainfall with and without the factor of climate change.

Running the computations over huge amounts of data gathered between 1950 and 2010, they can then compare the predicted values to the observed values. When they do this for temperature, they find the distribution of temperature change centers on 0 degrees Celsius when they omit the factors of climate change and shows an upward change to around 1.6 degrees Celsius when they include climate change. The actual observed value is slightly higher, increasing to almost 2 degrees Celsius.

When the same procedure is used to examine rainfall distribution, they find the observed return times for extreme rainfall events, such as el Niño, and dry times, la Niña, are much more accurately predicted by including climate change factors. Both of these results clearly indicate that anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming predicts weather extremes, such as the recent years of high rainfall and flooding in the American south and probably the increase in massive tornados. It does not, however, make such exact predictions as: “There will be a tornado here next month.”

The Butterfly Effect and Mathematics

This is because many climate calculations involve the mathematics of “Chaos Theory.” Examined by a number of early mathematicians, the French mathematician Henri Poincaré was one of the first to practically exploit this area of mathematics in which very tiny variations in the initial conditions can be amplified into giant changes over the course of time. This is the famous “butterfly effect” in which the flap of a butterfly’s wings somewhere in Asia results in a hurricane over the Gulf.

The biggest problem with these studies, however, is actually the time scale of existing data. In the examples cited, the earliest climate data began in 1950, giving a study time of only 60 years. Before the 1950s, the extent, regularity and precision of measurements are insufficient to permit such comparisons.

Moreover, the beginning of anthropogenic global warming only goes back to the mid-1700s, the Industrial Revolution. Yet, there is clear evidence of wide changes in global temperature over millions of years of prehistory. These include the astronomical Milankovitch Cycle, which drove the more recent ice ages; and, the operation of the gulf stream, which long moderated the north polar icecap (except for the Younger Dryas, a brief period of extreme cooling when the gulf stream was interrupted by rapid glacial melt).

The useful side of these observations is that we should be seeing slight global cooling, not global warming, from both the Milankovitch Cycle and any interruption of the Gulf Stream.

So, how fast is the atmospheric CO2 level rising? Measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii between 1955 and 2015 show that the concentration of CO2 is doubling about every 35 years. Furthermore, the curve is slightly concave upward, indicating a slow, but steady increase in the rate of increase.

During this time of direct and careful measurement, CO2 levels have gone from about 315-ppm (parts-per-million) to 397-ppm. For climate scientists this is not a matter of “belief,” but a matter of the best explanation of data.

This article first appeared in the September 21, 2016 issue of the Rossoor News, author Wayne Lanier

Study Predicts Rise in Sea Level

A group of eight scientists, supported by NASA and several university institutes, have been studying two glaciers in northern Greenland since 1975. They have used the most sophisticated radar technology to measure glacier volume, glacier movement and glacier melt.

Zachariae Isstrom

As they report in the Dec. 11, 2015 issue of the journal Science, one of these glaciers, named Zachariae Isstrom, abruptly accelerated in its melting and frequency of “calving” in 1987. This glacier, alone, contains sufficient frozen water to raise the earth’s sea level 1.6-feet if it completely melts. It covers some 35,000-square-miles of Greenland and is roughly half-a-mile at its greatest height.

So, is this a “plot” by scientists to get more grant money? Is it all “just a theory”? How precise are their measuring techniques, and do they really know what they are doing?

Simply reading through the article in Science, just over three pages packed with data and conclusions, is both difficult and not sufficient to answer these questions. Their article is only the final summary and conclusions of a long program of detailed study, spelled out over some 25 earlier articles referenced.

In a moment of nostalgia, I miss the early days of my graduate education. Papers had fewer authors, often only one. Papers were longer and presented everything in detail, usually over some 30 pages. The language was comfortable prose rather than the terse, telegraphic writing in today’s reports. Tracing the course of this massive study has been more like an archeological dig, carefully sifting the pages and making sure the layers are in order. No wonder our politicians do not get it! The real problem is that many authors bring many areas of special expertise. Terse writing enables journals to more rapidly present ongoing research.

The first thing I did was consult with a friend who works for the U.S. Navy building really weird and expensive ships. He immediately identified the radar used and confirmed that it does, indeed, measure stuff down to an accuracy of 0.5 inch. They fly it in satellites and on airplanes. They also use sensitive gravity meters (actually called gravimeters) to determine mass.

So the graph in Science, which shows the progressive loss in size and mass of the glacier Zachariae Isstrom over 25 years, is quite accurate. Even to showing a brief period when melting slowed completely between 2002 and 2004. Moreover, we know why it is melting faster. Much of it is actually below sea level, but it is held in place by a “sill” over which it must slide to escape to the sea. Large ocean-going icebergs calve off at the sill and float out to sea. As this happens, the remaining glacier is pushed up on the sill.


These measurements also explain how and why the other glacier, Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden, which is connected to it, is not melting so fast. Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden is on much higher ground, with a higher sill. The water run-off, measured in gigatonnes (Gt = millions of metric tonnes), is about the same for both glaciers. The calving, however, occurs at a much lower rate for Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden. Still, both glaciers together contain 3.6 feet of ocean rise. All of this is within the scientific meaning of the word “theory.” First, a “hypothesis” is an informed “guess” about cause, but even so, it must make testable predictions. If these predictions are sufficiently tested and come “true,” then it becomes a “theory,” which is a statement of causes that makes verifiable, practical predictions. Relativity is often cited by “deniers” as “just a theory” – meaning some impractical thought stuff unconnected with our real world. Well, when you fly from London to San Francisco, it’s relativity that gets you here. Because your pilot depends on the GPS satellites, which move so fast that relativity is required for them to determine each other’s actual time and actual position.

So if it is “just a theory,” then you may be for a swim in the ice-free polar ocean (which is still very, very cold). What we have seen here is that polar melt is complex and requires very accurate and long-term measurement to understand. The road is bumpy, but the trend is very certain. Climate change does exist; it results in predictions that can be verified with long-term study. Denying it, or hoping for an unexpected change in the theory, is of little comfort. Note: You can get further information, and pictures, about all this if you Google “another major glacier comes undone JPL.”

This article first appeared in the April 06, 2016 issue of the Rossmoor News, author Wayne Lanier.