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Monday, November 05, 2007

Partial book review: final impression

Obligatory disclaimer...

This is the continued review of the book, Wild Weather; The Truth Behind Global Warming. You can find part one here.

When I left off my earlier review, I was into the chapters of actual extreme weather events; Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Blizzards, Ice Storms, Drought and Fire.

Each chapter gave a at least one extreme weather events from the past, and at least one in recent years. Aside from the occasional statement of "global warming will make this worse/happen more often," it was quite balanced. The author does particularly well when discussing his specialty, trees. I did find his phrasing curious for many things. For example, when describing how insects survive freezing in the winter, such as how important it is that the freezing occurs between the cells, not in them, he describes it as if they are in control of the process. Or that animals choose whether to hibernate or migrate. I had this strange image of a squirrel thinking "gee, it's getting cold out. I wonder if I should store food and hang around for the winter, or go south this year?" I think, perhaps, a lot is lost in trying to simplify the descriptions, or perhaps he's just used to writing children's books and has the habit of talking down to children that is so common in books aimed at children. I don't know, but it sure was strange to read it.

Beyond that, there are little extras, such as How to Make a Quin-Zhee, or How to Prepare for a Hurricane Watch, as well as tidbits of trivia.

In reading the chapters, I came away with two things. First, the 1880's were a nasty time (which I'm not really surprised at, since there were two major volcanoes that decade, one in 1815, and Krakatoa in 1883). Second, even though he tries to imply that extreme weather events are more common and worse off today because of global warming, what we're seeing now doesn't hold a candle to some of the events in the past, such as three hundred year droughts.

Then we get to the second last chapter, Global Warming. This is where the balance disappears. I'll excuse the claim that 2005 was the hottest ever recorded, as the book was probably published after Hansen's error was discovered and NASA was forced to republish the corrected list, showing that 1934 was the hottest year instead of 1998. The claim that "Overall, Earth's temperature is within 1.8F (1C) of its highest temperature levels in the past million years," however, is another story altogether. It's already been established that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than now, and that the Roman Optimum was even warmer still.

The one that really had me shaking my head was his description of the greenhouse effect itself.

While I can understand why the greenhouse was used as a metaphor to describe what these gases in our atmosphere do, it's probably caused more misunderstandings than anything else.

The author writes:

Radiation emitted by the sun passes through the Earth's atmosphere, which resembles, in a crude way, a pane of glass on the roof of a greenhouse. As the sun's short-wave electromagnetic energy (visible wavelengths between 380 and 775 nanometers) passes through the glass roof, it hits the floor of the greenhouse - the surface of the Earth.

So far, so good.

Energy is absorbed and then re-radiated as a much longer wave (longer than 775 nanometers).

Still on the right track...

The long-wave radiation cannot pass through the glass roof, and thus, the greenhouse gets warmer. Similarly; the next time you open your car door after it has been sitting out in the full sunshine with windows closed, you will immediately notice that it is much hotter than the air outside.

That loud noise you hear is me banging my head on the desk.

The car in the sun analogy is even worse than the greenhouse - and it's an analogy taken straight from a David Suzuki speech, if I remember correctly.

Here's what really happens. When those long waves pass through the atmosphere, the greenhouse gases absorb them - the word "trap" is often used - for a short time. These gases then re-radiate the energy back out in all directions, some back to the earth, some out into space.

There's more to it than that, though, and you will rarely hear about it on either side of the issue. Earth is not a closed system the way a real greenhouse is, and certainly not like a car in full sunshine with the windows closed! What is forgotten is fluid dynamics. Things like clouds, wind, solar activity, even cosmic winds, the Earth's rotation and the tilt of its axis, all have their influence. The car in the sun with the windows closed has none of those things. That's why temperatures in a car can get hot enough to kill. To accurately compare, you'd have to not just open the windows, but the doors and the sunroof. You'd then have to make sure the car is in shade at least sometimes, slosh some water or ice shavings in there every now and then - oh, and it needs to be moving, too.

It doesn't get any better. In describing the make up of the atmosphere, he writes:

"... the troposphere, is made up of nitrogen (78 percent), oxygen (21 percent), argon (0.9 percent), and .1 percent other gases. This is the air we breathe. The "other" category includes gases such as CO2, methane, water vapor, and about 27 other trace gases..."


Once again, he relegates water vapor to a trace gas, after CO2 and methane. It would be more accurate to call it a "variable gas."

PERMANENT gases in the atmosphere by percent are:

Nitrogen 78.1%
Oxygen 20.9%

(Note that these two permanent gases together comprise 99% of the atmosphere)

Other permanent gases:

Argon 0.9%
Neon 0.002%
Helium 0.0005%
Krypton 0.0001%
Hydrogen 0.00005%

VARIABLE gases in the atmosphere and typical percentage values are:

Water vapor 0 to 4%
Carbon Dioxide 0.035%
Methane 0.0002%
Ozone 0.000004%

Note that water vapor can be up to 4%. Heck, anything better than 1% puts it higher than all but two of the permanent gases - hardly a "trace gas." (I would like to know just where in the world water vapor in the atmosphere would be 0%, since even the driest areas of the world, such as the tundra and the Antarctic, still have some moisture in the air.) Water vapor is also responsible for most of the greenhouse effect (I've read anywhere from 70% to 95% of the greenhouse effect is due to water vapor. See page one page two page three for a detailed description.)

The author then proceeds to make pretty much the same claims about CO2 and global warming that Gore does in AIT. Even the charts he uses look like the same ones in AIT. At least he brings up the Maunder Minimum and the effects of solar activity, though he repeats the claim that polar bears numbers are diminishing (they aren't), among others. On and on he goes with the litany of evils laid at the feet of global warming - without any references to back up his claims. Given what he's been using for resources, listed at the back of the book, it's no surprise that many of these are exaggerated, misrepresented, or simply wrong. I won't bother listing them here, since I've already discussed them when reviewing both the book and movie, AIT.

The final chapter is Hope for the Future. After another list of doom and gloom, he talks about things like how expected increases in the cost of gas is a good thing, as more companies are looking to producing hybrids, and mentions companies expanding into or using alternative energy sources. His historical perspective regarding recycling is a bit off, as he writes:

Twenty-five years ago, recycling was in its infancy. Today, recycling is a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry.

He forgets that humans have recycled (and reused) anything and everything they could for as long as we've around - it's just that no one ever called it recycling. The metal industry in particular has always encouraged recycling, Medieval tavern owners used to pay people to return the bottles drinks were sold in, and even scrap wool was sold on street corners to passersby.

That final chapter is the shortest of them all, at barely over 5 pages, and it's rather empty of anything that might be described as hopeful - unless you've got stocks in GE or DuPont. I'm not sure what that says about the author's real thoughts are about the future.

The book ends with a Wild Weather Timeline, Amazing Facts and Figures and What Others Say.

In conclusion, I found myself mostly unimpressed with this book. I can make exception for some things due to the size of the book, and I can live with the slightly odd phraseology he uses. The actual extreme weather events he describes are interesting, but he fails to make his case that these events are occurring more often, that they will get worse, or that global warming is the cause. There are too many factual errors and gaps of information, and a complete lack of hard references.


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