Archive for December, 2010

Why does it snow?

December 22, 2010

The Barometer guys have just published a new episode on snow. It’s another good one. I’m starting to really miss being involved with the show!

In this episode they talk for a bit about how snow forms and it reminded me of this really nice video showing the melting layer in a precipitating cloud (click to play):

In the higher levels of the cloud (where it’s really cold) the precipitation starts out as ice and snow, which falls much slower than rain. But if you look closely at about 2 km you can see the point where the ice and snow melts and becomes rain – this is known as the melting layer. The rains falls much quicker than the snow above.

It snows at the ground when the lower levels of the atmosphere are particularly cold and so the snow doesn’t melt. This is what’s been happening recently.

Just a bit of fun?

December 16, 2010

Environmental Microbiology recently published a list of anonymous referee quotes from their reviews from the preceeding year. They did this in the interest of seasonal merriment.

Some of the quotes are quite funny:

“This paper is desperate. Please reject it completely and then block the author’s email ID so they can’t use the online system in future.”

“Reject – More holes than my grandad’s string vest!”

I’m not so sure that publishing this stuff is a good idea. Here are a few reasons:

1) The intro to the list says “Here are some quotes from reviews made over the past year”. To me, this implies that they were sent to the authors of the submitted papers. But they actually read much more like Comments to the Editor, so the authors of the papers in question wouldn’t see these comments. This list has got a bit of media attention and I suspect that to people that haven’t been involved in the review process and don’t understand the context will assume that scientists are rude, tactless and take advantage of the anonymity that peer review allows.

2) The other problem with publishing Comments to the Editor is that the reviewers probably wrote them without thinking that they would be published – they are often explicitly listed as confidential on the reviewer comments form (I don’t know if this is the case for EM). I hope the EM editor asked permission before publsihing these comments. I know that not all editors are so considerate: an editor of a journal I once wrote a review for cut and pasted some of my “confidential” comments into my review for the authors. There was nothing offensive in those comments but it was information that I thought would be useful to the editor that I didn’t think would help the authors revise the paper. If I’d have known it would be sent to the authors I would have written it in a different style.

3) Perhaps more worrying is if reviewers for EM are writing their reviews in the knowledge that the editor may use their “funny” comments in the December issue (this is the 2nd year that EM have done this list). As an Associate Editor of a journal, I often find that the comments written specifically for me are the most useful information in deciding the outcome of the review process. If reviewers are trying to get a punchline in that statement then that runs the risk of making the review process harder than it needs to be or skewing the reviewer’s tone.

4) I don’t know how many manuscripts EM have submitted each year but the authors of the paper that this refers to could probably work it out:

“The presentation is of a standard that I would reject from an undergraduate student. Take Table 1: none of the data has units or an explanation. Negative controls gave a positive signal, but there is no explanation of why and how this was dealt with; just that it was different.”

It’s not very polite (or funny actually).

5) Finally, a few of the comments give the impression that the peer-review process is a bit cliquey:

“Ken, I would suggest that EM is setting up a fund that pays for the red wine reviewers may need to digest manuscripts like this one. (Ed.: this excellent suggestion was duly proposed to the Publisher. However, given the logistical difficulties of problem-solving within narrow time frames, combined with the known deleterious effect of transport on good wine, a modification of the remedy was adopted, namely that Editors would act as proxies for reviewers with said digestive complaints.)”

This kind of comment makes me think that having open, non-anonymous peer-review would be for the best.

Anyway, I suspect I’m being a bit of a killjoy but I’m not sure the laughs are worth the potential damage that these quotes can do.

Book review: Solar by Ian McEwan (2010)

December 9, 2010

I’m a fan of McEwan so I was keen to give his latest book a read as it touches on climate change.

The main character, Michael Beard, is a Nobel prize winning physicist with his best work a long way behind him. He’s taken on the figurehead role for a new renewable energy institute.

He initially sounds dubious as to the importance of climate change and seems to have taken the role largely for the money.

However, by the end of the novel, which covers the years 2000-2009, he his convinced about the importance of his innovation in solar energy in relation to dealing with climate change. He even delivers the following darkly humourous passage to convince a colleague that they need not worry about acquiring funding for their project:

“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Even as we speak, the inhabitants of the island of Carteret in the South Pacific are being evacuated because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. Malarial mosquitoes are advancing northwards across Europe… Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!”

Beard is quite an unpleasant character and, as is typical for McEwan’s novels, the story develops around a series of problems that snowball out of control from seemingly unimportant events. That said, this is probably the most comical McEwan book I’ve read – one or two scenes are full-on slapstick.

There’s also a strange part of the book that I recognised as being lifted from Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Even more strangely, when Beard re-tells these events at a later stage in the book another character questions the authenticity of Beard’s story (and even mentions that it was in the Douglas Adams book!) In retrospect, this small sub-story reflects the main course of events.

Perhaps the key theme, though, is the nature of academic achievement. In particularly, Beard’s reflections on his glory days and his more recent accidental absorption of a younger colleague’s similar purple patch. It’s an engrossing and tangled story that develops…

Overall, it’s a tragic, darkly comic romp through the lives of some seriously flawed people.

WUWT alarmism?

December 6, 2010

Watts Up With That? recently published a post about an improvement to a method developed by Steig et al. (2009). This paper aimed to identify temperature trends over the data sparse Antarctic. The improved method has been accepted for publication in Journal of Climate, which is a decent achievement.

Firstly, I think its great that this exchange of ideas is happening in the peer-reviewed literature and not only on blogs.

I say this because, as Watts demonstrates, blogs can be used to insinuate things that are not the case.

For example, there is a quote from one of the paper authors in the post:

“I would hope that our paper is not seen as a repudiation of Steig’s results, but rather as an improvement.”

Yet Watts decided to title his post “Skeptic paper on Antarctica accepted – rebuts Steig et al”. Whilst I realise the difference between “rebut” and “repudiate”, it strikes me as poor form.

There also seems to be a tone of indignation in Watts’ part of the post about how long it took to get the paper through peer review and that one of the “difficult” reviewers had probably been involved with the initial paper:

“Anyone want to bet that reviewer was a “[hockey] team” member?”

I don’t understand why Watts is surprised about this: if you contribute something novel to the literature then the peer review process assesses that work against itself; if, on the other hand, you criticise and amend other people’s work then it would be irresponsible of the journal editor not to send the paper to one of the people being questioned.

Anyway, so what is the difference between the two analyses? Here are the plots that are provided before the paper is published properly:

The striking differences in the update are the increased positive trend on the peninsula and a “new” negative trend from the South Pole to the eastern Weddell Sea. The positive trend over most of Western Antarctica has also largely gone.

I expect Real Climate will post a response once the full paper is published so I don’t want to try to pick the methods apart here.

However, it struck me as a little odd that Watts was almost celebrating the re-affirmation of a massive warming on the Antarctic Peninsula!

Sure, the atmospheric dynamics of this region are very complicated and it’s not clear exactly what the distribution of temperature changes mean. But this “victory” seemed to focus more on getting one over the “hockey team” (ugh) rather than achieving something potentially useful.

ResearchBlogging.orgRyan O’Donnell, Nicholas Lewis, Steve McIntyre, Jeff Condon (2011). Improved methods for PCA-based reconstructions: case study using the Steig et al. (2009) Antarctic temperature reconstruction Journal of Climate, in press