Is the public debate on climate change turning a corner?

September 23, 2014

When I started this blog in late 2009, things were not good with climate change in the media: the UEA/climategate emails had just been leaked and COP15 in Copenhagen didn’t go so well.

A couple of years before that, though, I felt that there was quite a lot of optimism. IPCC AR4 and the Stern Review had made a real splash. It felt like there could be some significant, global action on climate change. But that didn’t happen.

However, maybe we’ve turned a corner in the last week or so.

The obvious focal point is the really successful People’s Climate March, which took place at many locations around the world and attracted far more people than were estimated in advance. I went along to the London one and there was a good atmosphere and loads of people, somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 according to different estimates. I think the prediction beforehand was for around 10,000 people turning out.

400,000 at the climate march in New York

400,000 at the climate march in New York

But that’s not the only positive news.

The Rockerfeller family have decided to withdraw their investments in fossil fuels. The Guardian describe this as a big “symbolic boost” for the fossil fuel divestment movement in general. I suppose I should investigate our investments at Brunel University and see if we can do anything on this front as well.

And Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, has used some strong words in announcing their decision to leave the American Legislative Exchange Council lobby group, who also work to stifle progress on positive climate change responses. The choice quote from Schmidt being:

The facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring, and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.

So hopefully this means that there’ll be lots of people watching the UN Climate Summit today and expecting something positive.

I won’t be holding my breath but I’m feeling more confident than I have done for a few years.

Book review: Brunel by LTC Rolt

January 30, 2014

LTC_ROLTShort review
Excellent read on 2 levels: the actual biography is really enjoyable and authoritative because of Rolt’s access to Brunel’s papers; and the introduction describing how Rolt’s hatchet job of John Scott Russell (the “other” engineer on the failed SS Great Eastern project) is probably unfair is fascinating from a historical/interpretation point of view. Overall, I came from a position of relative ignorance about Brunel’s life and work and was surprised at how unsuccessful Brunel was a commercial engineer (though his innovation is almost unrivalled).

Long review
Somehow, I have now been a lecturer at Brunel University for 3.5 years. It seems like only yesterday that I was starting this blog as a postdoc at the University of Manchester. In those 3.5 years my responsibilities have expanded (at home and at work) so, as I said in my last post, blogging has taken a backseat, which is a shame as I quite enjoy it.

The point of a brief autobiographical introduction is that my knowledge of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s life and work was relatively low when I took the job here at Brunel University. I knew he was an official, BBC advocated “Great Briton” but that was about it.

I did have a little go at addressing the conflict of being a climate scientist at a university named after one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution on my work blog recently (and in a talk for the London Science Festival) but I still felt that I really needed to find out more.

So I picked up a relatively old biography – LTC Rolt’s Isambard Knigdon Brunel, first publsihed in 1957 – which is still considered authoritative as Rolt had unprecedented access to the Brunel archive.

I’m glad I did. It’s really well written and has a nice mix of quotes from contemporary documents and descriptions of the engineering projects alongside important personal events. It flows really well too, which is surprising given the temporal overlap of much of Brunel’s work: I’ve tried to summarise this overlap in a little timeline that you can see below.

A timeline of Brunel’s major projects. Bridges and tunnels are shown in blue; railways in black; ships in red; and other projects in green. Start and end dates are not definitive. I’ve washed out the shading where a project continued without Brunel’s intense contribution. Brunel died in 1859.

A timeline of Brunel’s major projects. Bridges and tunnels are shown in blue; railways in black; ships in red; and other projects in green. Start and end dates are not definitive. I’ve washed out the shading where a project continued without Brunel’s intense contribution. Brunel died in 1859.

The timeline also demonstrates how Brunel’s work was very intense (in a relatively short life – 1806-1859) and covered a wide range of areas: tunnels, bridges, railways, ships and other projects.

As an academic, I was quite interested in Brunel’s “impact”. What surprised me was that relative few of his projects were successful commercially. His ships were all failures commercially. The Thames Tunnel was a death trap that was never used for its intended purpose. The Great Western Railway’s legacy is somewhat tarnished by the “Gauge Wars”.

Perhaps this is a harsh summary of his work but it made me feel a bit closer to him: he wasn’t a great businessman but he was a successful innovator and researcher. His ideas were ahead of their time and were difficult to monetise in that period. His longer term legacy was much more important and changed the way that engineering was done globally.

Perhaps the most interesting passages in the book are those relating to John Scott Russell, who worked on one of Brunel’s biggest failures: the SS Great Eastern. Rolt tries to argue that Scott Russell was the villain in that piece and deliberately tried to undermine Brunel’s ship. However, the excellent introduction (by RA Buchanan) highlights some of the flaws in Rolt’s argument and supposes that Rolt’s position was driven by his desire to absolve Brunel of the SS Great Eastern’s failure and was biased by the contents of the Brunel archives.

Overall, highly recommended reading.

Thunderstorms in the IPCC AR5

January 28, 2014

It’s been a while since I blogged; I hope you didn’t think I’d forgotten you! My workload has “shifted” recently and I’m doing a bit more teaching/supervision/management these days. Blogging has taken a bit of a backseat. So I’m a bit late on this one but thought that it was still interesting. Anyway, enough of the excuses…

I’ve often thought it was odd that the potential changes in frequency and/or intensity of small scale severe storms/thunderstorms – one of my areas of research – was absent from the IPCC TAR, AR4 and SREX.

This has been put right in the IPCC AR5, which was published in late 2013 but, if anything, it highlights some of the problems with the slow and rigidly structured IPCC process.

So here’re a few sentences from IPCC AR5 that deal with severe thunderstorms:

The large-scale environments in which [severe thunderstorms] occur are characterized by large Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE) and deep tropospheric wind shear (Brooks et al., 2003; Brooks, 2009). Del Genio et al. (2007), Trapp et al. (2007; 2009), and Van Klooster and Roebber (2009) found a general increase in the energy and decrease in the shear terms from the late 20th century to the late 21st century over the United States using a variety of regional model simulations embedded in global-model SRES scenario simulations. The relative change between these two competing factors would tend to favour more environments that would support severe thunderstorms, providing storms are initiated.

Overall, for all parts of the world studied, the results are suggestive of a trend toward environments favouring more severe thunderstorms, but the small number of analyses precludes any likelihood estimate of this change.

It’s a pretty good, concise summary of work in this area up to 2012/13. (I’ve not included some of the text on examples and the few studies outside of the US, you can find the full text here towards the end of section 12.4.5.5 Extreme Events in the Water Cycle. There’s another bit in 2.6.2.4 Severe Local Weather Events as well.)

However, whilst the IPCC report was being published, this paper came out:

Diffenbaugh, N. S., Scherer, M. and Trapp, R. J. (in press) “Robust increases in severe thunderstorm environments in response to greenhouse forcing” PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1307758110

They say:

We use an ensemble of global climate model experiments to probe the severe thunderstorm response. We find that this ensemble exhibits robust increases in the occurrence of severe thunderstorm environments over the eastern United States. In addition, the simulated changes in the atmospheric environment indicate an increase in the number of days supportive of the spectrum of convective hazards, with the suggestion of a possible increase in the number of days supportive of tornadic storms.

It’s a much more up-to-date and robust analysis of the problem and even uses the CMIP5 climate projections that form the backbone of the IPCC AR5. (I’ve been working on something similar for the Northern Hemisphere but not quite finished it yet!) I guess that this paper must have been accepted for publication after the deadline for the IPCC process so it isn’t mentioned. It’s a shame as a citation to this paper would have added something to the argument.

And this seems to be a problem with the IPCC. Climate science research is a much bigger area now than when the IPCC process started in the late 1980s/early 1990s. So a whole area of research (e.g. severe thunderstorms in a changing climate) becomes a couple of sentences with the most up-to-date paper missing.

As good as the IPCC has been over the years, perhaps it’s time to move on. The SREX example seems to be a good one: a multi-disciplinary, timely analysis of an important area. I think that a series of special reports like SREX would be a better use of valuable time than an AR6.

MOOCtual Assured Destruction

July 15, 2013

Similar to MAD, where every state feels they need nuclear weapons simply because every other state does, perhaps every university needs a MOOC simply because their competitors do.

So the question “How do we make money from MOOCs?” becomes moot. The MOOC (nuke) is of no real use to the university (state) but not having it is a disadvantage.

Some thoughts on MOOCs

July 3, 2013

Coursera-LogoI’ve recently finished a Coursera Massive Online Open Course, or MOOC, called Introduction to Sustainability, which was run by the University of Illinois.

I completed it as a student, that is; as far as I can tell, Coursera MOOCs, whilst being “open” from the student side of things, appear quite elitist from the delivery end. So Brunel University might not meet their requirements as a provider, although I think they say that they consider providers outside their preferred group on a case-by-case basis. So maybe, what with my department – the Institute for the Environment – winning the Queen’s Anniversary Prize recently, we could be seen on Coursera one day! (And other platforms are out there: EdX; FutureLearn.)

Anyway, I’m very proud of myself for getting through the course as it involved quite a bit of work over an 8 week period when I was, amongst other things, delivering two MSc modules as a lecturer, going to China for 10 days and doing all the usual lecturer-type research and admin things. Phew!

I then foolishly started another 2 MOOCs as a student, including Climate Literacy. One of these I completed and the other I dropped out of (that was Climate Literacy – it was good but I had too much other stuff on to be able to complete it).

So the point of this post is to share some thoughts on the course, provide some signposts to other interesting looking climate related MOOCs that I might have a go at and perhaps think about how MOOCs might fit into the future of Higher Education.

Money

One of the key issues with MOOCs is how to make money from them and there’s a list of “Eight Possible Coursera Monetization Strategies” that I’ve seen in a few places. These seem to be direct monetisation techniques where I would have thought that the most obvious route would be via increasing awareness of your university’s courses and increasing recruitment that way. Indeed, the first message I received from the Sustainability MOOC organiser following completion was an invitation to another course that had a fee.

And why not? It clearly takes a lot of time and effort to put these courses together and if you have a group of potential students who are interested in what you’re teaching then perhaps I’m surprised that paid-for courses weren’t mentioned earlier and/or more often. (In fact, one of the other MOOCs I’ve started since completing the Sustainability one [not Climate Literacy, I might add] were much more aggressive with promotion for their paid-for courses. Unfortunately, their MOOC was a lot less slick than Sustainability [e.g. quiz questions incorrect, delay in starting] so I can’t imagine it’s a great advert for them.)

Sus_stateStill on the money theme, I almost stumped up the $39 for the “Signature Track” which is offered with the Climate Literacy MOOC – this requires you to jump through some hoops every time you do an assessment to prove that it’s you taking the tests. I’m not quite sure of the advantage of this. I suppose the current “Statements of Accomplishment” would be pretty easy to copy if you really wanted to – see mine to the right – and if the Signature Track gives you something that can be more rigorously linked to your profile then that would be nice. But then this could be solved by making user profiles public with grades of the MOOCs you’ve completed, which I don’t think they do right now. Either way, I’m glad I kept my $39 as I didn’t finish that particular course anyway!

MCQs

MOOCs naturally rely heavily on Multiple Choice Questions for assessment as they can be marked with no human effort. However, I quite often found the questions to be ambiguous – especially when I knew quite a lot about the topic of the question; this was true for both the Sustainability and Climate Literacy MOOCs. Naturally, the instructors want to set questions that require some thinking. For example, one of these question and answers sets is better than the other:

Who is the current Secretary General of the UN?

a) Kofi Annan
b) Ban Ki-moon
c) Tony Blair
d) Surakiart Sathirathai

Who is the current Secretary General of the UN?

a) Banana
b) Ban Ki-moon
c) Sponge Bob Squarepants
d) 42

The next level of question would be where there isn’t one indisputably “right” answer but where the question requires some thinking and is open to some interpretation. This requires even more thinking on the part of a student (and instructor) as an answer that the instructor deems as wrong could be right in certain circumstances (or vice versa). There then becomes an element of second guessing the instructor to put answer that you think they would say was “right” rather than the answer you think/know to be “more right”.

I hope that this isn’t to confusing a point or taken as a specific criticism of the Sustainability MOOC; it is a general point that setting good MCQs is very hard (and fundamental to the success of the MOOC structure).

Instructions

I’d like to think that I’m quite good at reading instructions and following them. Despite this, I managed to incorrectly do one type of assessment (the “Forum Achievement”) 2 weeks in a row in the Sustainability MOOC. By the time I’d worked out exactly how to do it (it was a little complicated!) I’d been given too many penalties to make it likely I’d pass the MOOC via that route (there were 2 other routes, fortunately). So, my point is, that instructions need to be really clear or else people will drop out/fail through little fault of their own. Maybe this feeds in to…

Low completion rate

The Times Higher recently reported that MOOC completion rates are below 7%. I’m not really sure why you’d expect completion rates to be high: it’s free to sign up and there is no consequence of dropping out. And “drop outs” may just be people who found out what they wanted to know and then didn’t complete the assessments. Although, one MOOC they reported on had a 0.8% completion out of 83,000 starters, perhaps that’s a bit worrying. [A point as an aside: are there many stats on MOOCs made available yet? I'd like to have a look if there are but haven't stumbled across any yet. UPDATE (5/7/2013): Katy Jordan's analysis on this is really good!]

Massive!

Maybe I hadn’t appreciated how big these beasts are: following Week 1 of Climate Literacy I had a quick count and there were over 4,000 posts in the Discussion Forums. That is big.

“Inspiration”

I got the feeling that I was not the only lecturer/academic sitting the MOOC. A lot of the buzz around MOOCs is probably within the Higher Education sector so I’d suspect that many of us are seeing what they involve. And I was inspired by what I saw. I added a session to one of my modules that was based on some of the reading I did during the MOOC and I may even record some supplementary lectures for my modules in our Virtual Learning Environment. I think that the MOOC has given me confidence to push more of the “information transfer” sessions online and use contact time for more interactive/problem based learning. This latter area is something that I think MOOCs will always struggle with, despite…

Peer Review

As well as MCQs, a lot of MOOCs use peer review to mark work (e.g. you write a short essay and another student on the MOOC marks it). They tend to take an average of a group of peers but you’re still a little at the mercy of the random selection of peers. And with such large groups it must be very hard for moderators to deal with abusive/bad peer reviewers – there could be 10,000s of peer reviewer comments in the early weeks of a MOOC.

Overall…

…I’m quite impressed by how much the MOOCs made me think and learn and I’ll be keeping an eye on how they develop. I’d certainly be happy to see applicants to our MSc courses taking MOOCs in preparation and as evidence that they are motivated to study.

Finally…

Some other interesting looking environmentally themed MOOCs on Coursera:

Tornadoes and climate change

May 21, 2013

I’m sure you’ve already seen the sad news about the tornado in Oklahoma – it looks like it has done a lot of damage and claimed a lot of lives.

Tornadoes are not uncommon in that area and it is almost impossible to make good forecasts of where they will hit as they are too small for computer forecast models to capture. Even the scientific understanding of how they form is not great as it’s really hard to get good measurements of them in their destructive phase.

I’m sure that the discussion will now turn to the role of climate change in this particular event but, as usual, that’s a very difficult question to ask despite recent efforts on this front. At one level it’s quite easy to speculate that if the warm air heading north from the Gulf of Mexico that fed the storm that spawned the tornado was warmer than it otherwise would have been then, yes: climate change could have made this event more likely and/or stronger.

But the atmosphere doesn’t really work like that and the number of complex factors required to produce any specific tornado makes the cause and effect arguments that are wrapped up in the  “link to climate change” question very, very difficult.

But perhaps we think about this more statistically and ask whether tornadoes will get stronger and/or more likely in a warmer future climate.

Again, this is really difficult because climate models certainly don’t have the power (i.e. high enough resolution) to represent tornadoes. So you can’t just go through climate model data and count the tornadoes that it thinks will occur.

If we think statistically again, though, we can look for the change in larger scale conditions that usually produce tornadoes.

Unfortunately, this isn’t particularly clear either.

Whilst the increased warmth and moisture predicted by climate models will mean more energy would be available to developing tornadoes, the climate projections also show a decrease in the occurrence of the wind patterns that are needed to form tornadoes.

Nonetheless, one thing that does seem likely is that we can still reduce the likelihood of a stormier future world. If you compare the storminess of climate simulations with, say, “medium” and “high” greenhouse gas concentrations (as done here) then the “medium” case looks better than the “high”.

More on Antarctic sea ice

April 11, 2013

I wrote a post recently on Antarctic sea ice where I only included sea ice extent at minimum month, mostly because it was a nice figure.

Anyway, I just noticed this nicer figure from a new paper in the International Journal of Climatology (Tareghian and Rasmussen, 2013):

Quantile regressions (20th, 50th, and 80th percentiles) and standard linear regression of monthly sea ice extent (1979–2010) for (a) the Northern Hemisphere and (b) the Southern Hemisphere

Quantile regressions (20th, 50th, and 80th percentiles) and standard linear regression of monthly sea ice extent (1979–2010) for (a) the Northern Hemisphere and (b) the Southern Hemisphere from Tareghian and Rasmussen (2013)

This shows the difference in the annual trends as well as the seasonal ones.

Reference

Tareghian, R. and Rasmussen, P. (2013), Analysis of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extent using quantile regression. Int. J. Climatol., 33: 1079–1086.

Climate quick fix! (But please sign this disclaimer first.)

April 1, 2013

Quick_fix

Geoengineering sometimes looks like a good option: international agreements on greenhouse gas emission reductions don’t seem to be going anywhere so having a back-up plan to deal with global temperatures would be useful.

However, there are potentially big problems with tinkering with the climate system more than we already have.

Haywood et al. outline one of these problems in a new Nature Climate Change paper that was published this week.

They look at the response of the climate in models when you add aerosol particles to the stratosphere – this will reduce the amount of energy entering the climate system by reflecting some of it away.

The unintended consequences, however, are not good: global rainfall patterns change as a result of the intervention and could lead to droughts in some areas e.g. the Sahel. (These outcomes are sensitive to where the aerosol is added and, of course, are subject to all the usual model uncertainties.)

So it would seem that geoengineering might only be useful if there are international agreements on who takes responsibility for the outcomes. Best get those negotiations started ASAP then!

There’s some more comment in The Gaurdian.

Antarctic sea-ice growth in Nature Geoscience

March 31, 2013

There’s a new paper on Antarctic sea-ice in Nature Geoscience so I thought it might be a good time to have a quick look at how this story has developed recently. (The short version: the small increase in Antarctic sea ice is most likely a result of a complicated coruination of: density changes in the surface layer of the Southern Ocean (a result of temperature and salinity changes), which stops warm deep water reaching the surface and melting the sea ice; changing wind patterns (partially a result of ozone depletion) that leads to ice drift increase and increased sea ice extent; and melting from the bottom of ice shelves adding cool water to the ocean surface layer that further reduces deeper warm water reaching the surface and reducing sea ice melt.)

Firstly, though, why does anyone care about Antarctic sea-ice? Well, it’s been increasing a little recently. This isn’t quite what you’d expect in a changing climate where the change is being driven by an increase in energy being retained in the system by an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

In contrast, we often hear about sea-ice loss in the Arctic, which is often linked with climate change. However, if we compare the Arctic loss with the Antarctic gain you can see that one is clearly more of an issue than the other:

Sea ice extent in Arctic and Antarctic

Sea ice extent for the month when its at its minimum (i.e. the end of local summer) Source: James Hansen

Nonetheless, its still interesting to think about why Antarctic sea ice is increasing.

The best theory around five years ago (Zhang 2007) was that the surface layer of the Southern Ocean was changing density and that this stops the warmer water below getting to the surface and melting the sea ice. The change in density itself is driven by a couple of factors, such as increased evaporation from warmer Southern waters that increases rainfall in the seas around Antarctica and freshens the water and changes in salinity driven by the sea ice changes themselves (sea ice rejects salt as it forms).

Last year, the big advance was the use of satellite observations to show that changing wind patterns in the Southern Hemisphere (which I’ve written about here) were driving the sea ice extent increase via increased ice drift (Holland and Kwok 2012).

The new paper (Bintanja et al. 2013) shows that melting from the bottom of ice shelves – where the Antarctic glaciers flow out over the ocean – produces a layer of cold water that stops warmer water below reaching the surface and slowing sea-ice growth. Although,  Holland (of Holland and Kwok) isn’t convinced that the experiments are a good demonstration of the mechanism.

So this is quite a complicated situation to understand. However, the ocean and air temperatures around Antarctica aren’t decreasing so that isn’t the reason for the sea ice increase, even though it may seem like the most obvious. To find out the real reason you need to dig a little deeper.

In the immortal words of Father Jack Hackett…

March 25, 2013

180px-Jack_award“Award! Award! Award!”

To be more specific: I found out a few weeks ago that I’ve been awarded the Royal Meteorological Society‘s (RMetS) Michael Hunt Award, which is “for excellence in increasing the understanding of meteorology or its applied disciplines among members of the general public”. Get me!

And don’t worry, I’m sure it wasn’t given to me for this blog, which has only rarely been updated in the last year or so – I blame having kids and my change from postdoc to lecturer, which have occurred since I started blogging. I also do other outreach/public engagement things like school visits, Skeptics in the Pub talks, science festival events and wotnot. It’s usually a lot of fun and to get an award for doing it is great!

Oddly enough, though, my previous post on this blog was slightly critical of a recent RMetS Meeting on climate change communication; I’m glad that they didn’t hold that against me!

So, to continue that theme, I thought I’d make another couple of points about RMetS and how it communicates with the outside world…

Most of RMetS’ effort goes into their meetings and publications, which are excellent for academics but what about everyone else?

I know that they run events in schools and at science festivals, which is great.

The previous RMetS Chief Exec had a blog for a while (it was quite fun, I enjoyed the posts about his watch) and it’s now become a more general society blog but I think that there’s still room in the weather and climate blogosphere (ugh, never though I use that word seriously) for coverage of big issues. For example, The Carbon Brief has only been going since 2011ish and it has become an excellent resource. Whilst I suspect that RMetS want to keep it a bit more light-hearted, there’s still some low hanging fruit here that I’m sure RMetS could grab. Even the columns in the (recently departed) “theWeather” magazine would have made excellent blog posts that I’m sure would get widely read but they were never (as far as I know) made available online.

I loved “theWeather” magazine and it even won an award or two but, given the way that publishing and reading habits are changing, perhaps it wasn’t the time to launch a subscription only print magazine.

I just hope that the RMetS can find more of a place online where most people do their communicating these days, particularly in terms of climate change. (Whether that’s a good thing is another matter!)

What I would do is set up a network of early career meteorologists, climatologists, oceanographers etc. to run a collaborative blog on the RMetS website. One of the most interesting and exciting things I’ve done outreach-wise was the EPSRC-funded (now EPSRC-non-funded) NOISEmakers ambassadors scheme. It was great meeting up with scientists that you wouldn’t normally work with and discuss ideas (perhaps a little bit like the JASONs but not as serious!) In my case, this led to writing some nice general audience pieces, starting my own blog, networking with other people about communication and even working on papers and research proposals with people I met through NOISEmakers.

Finally, I also thought I should find out who Michael Hunt was and found this clip on youtube, you can see Hunt at 3.39, he’s got a good look!


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