Tag Archives: Michael Mann

Pioneers of climate science win “Nobel” prize for environment

Warren M. Washington, the father of climate modeling, and Michael E. Mann, who was vilified by fossil fuel companies and  politicians for his work on climate change, have been awarded 2019 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement — often regarded as the “Nobel prize for Environment.”

Washington (left) and Mann (right) are two of the most accomplished climate scientists. Image credits: Joshua Yospyn.

Computers only truly entered our lives a couple of decades ago, but it’s hard to imagine life before them — especially in science. Processing power has enabled us to gain a much better understanding of the world around us, opening incredible new avenues for research. But before this happened, in the 1960s, a young African-American scientist named Warren M. Washington worked to develop climate models of the Earth.

Washington recognized how important computers would be, and together with colleagues, he developed one of the first-ever true climate models of the Earth. As the calculators improved, he continued his work, adding even more parameters to the model like oceans, sea ice, and rising CO2 levels. This model was one of the first major indicators that increasing CO2 levels would lead to global warming.

“Dr. Washington has been a pioneering climate scientist for over 40 years and has been at the leading edge of climate model development,” said John Shepherd, former Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. “Much of what is known about the Earth’s climate system and climate modeling is directly traceable to the lifelong work of Dr. Washington.”

You could hardly imagine a more deserving recipient than Washington, whose name has become synonymous with climate modeling.

“Dr. Washington literally wrote the earliest book on climate modeling,” said Shirley Malcom, Director of Education and Human Resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She is referring to his seminal work, An Introduction to Three-Dimensional Climate Modeling, that was written with Dr. Claire Parkinson.

Meanwhile, Michael Mann struggled with other problems. He was one of the first pioneers to incorporate climate proxies such as tree rings, lake sediments, and ice cores into planetary climate models. Along with colleagues, he also produced what is quite possibly the most controversial (and one of the most important) graphs in the world: the “hockey stick graph.”

The hockey stick graph describes a pattern reported by Mann, Bradley & Hughes (1999), where the temperature graph is relatively flat until about 1900 (this being the stick part), and then increasing rapidly due to man-made global warming (this being the blade part). More than two dozen reconstructions, using various statistical methods and combinations of proxy records since it was released.

The hockey stick graph was strongly attacked by fossil fuel lobby groups, which disputed the methodology and results. As a result, Mann was subjected to intense scrutiny, as well as blistering political and legal attacks — from which he escaped unscathed.

However, Mann didn’t retreat inside the lab: instead, he became a public advocate of good science, communicating the existence of climate change and the need to address it as soon as possible. In a 2015 interview with ZME Science, Mann discussed the “powerful vested interests” opposing the acknowledgment that climate change is happening.

“Powerful vested interests have spent tens of millions of dollars in the most expensive disinformation campaign in human history — the campaign by fossil fuel interests to confuse the public and policymakers about the reality and threat of human-caused climate change,” he said at the time — and he has not changed his mind since.

His contribution to the field, both as a scientist and as a communicator, cannot be overstated.

“Professor Mann did not choose the easy way out. For his courage in the face of this challenge, Mike Mann is not just a great scientist, but also a hero,” concluded Prof. Naomi Oreskes, science historian and author of the book Merchants of Doubt.

The two will deliver a public lecture on their work at the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center on May 2, and will officially be awarded the prize a day later, on May 3rd.

US politicians held an insane and embarrassing hearing just to attack climate science

The hearing, led by Chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology Lamar Smith, descended into an old-fashioned bullying of science, with Smith and his peers stepping way out of bounds just to make it seem that scientists have no idea what they’re doing — and they themselves, the politicians, are much better informed.

Climate change has been associated with droughts and water scarcity. Image in Public Domain.

In the US, anti-science is winning, at least at a political level. Just after President Donald Trump ordered a massive rollback of rules that limited carbon emissions, and a few weeks after he released a budget proposal which aims to slash funding for science and health agencies, the Trump administration made it clear once more that they have no regard for science or the environment. The mock hearing, called “Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method,” was basically a series of accusations and name calling, with Lamar Smith especially saying that climate scientists use “alarmist findings that are wrongfully reported as facts.”

“Much of climate science today appears to be based more on exaggerations, personal agendas, and questionable predictions than on the scientific method,” Smith said.

Smith, who has received more than $600,000 from the fossil fuel industry during his career in Congress (like almost all climate change deniers), is well known for conducting “witch hunts” against scientists. In the past, he has threatened to prosecute the NOAA if they don’t release public information about how their studies are conducted — which might not sound that unreasonable if the information wasn’t already public. I guess this just goes to show how well-informed Smith is. But back to the hearing. Michael Mann — a Penn State University professor of atmospheric science who has been repeatedly threatened for his work on climate change — was the only climate scientist participating at the hearing.

Lamar Smith climate change

Lamar S. Smith, member of the United States House of Representatives, did his best to make it look like climate scientists don’t know what they’re doing. Image credits: House Judiciary.

Several colleagues have urged Mann to boycott this hearing, as everyone was well-aware that it’s basically a charade.

“In the past, the science community has participated in these hearings, even though questioning the basics of climate change is akin to holding a hearing to examine whether the Earth orbits the sun,” wrote David Titley, a professor in the department of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, in the Washington Post on Tuesday, the eve of the hearing. Enough!”

But in a room stacked with career politicians and lawyers, Mann was the only non-denier scientist, and he felt that injecting some science into a hearing that was “ostensibly supposed to be about science” was necessary.

Michael Mann climate change

Michael Mann was the only scientist chosen to represent what’s basically a consensus on climate change. Image credits: Karl Withakay.

Judith Curry, a former professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who has retired from academia due to what she calls the poisonous nature of the scientific discussion around human-caused global warming, turned to paraphrasing Donald Trump to emphasize her points:

“Let’s make scientific debate about climate change great again,” she said.

When asked about the Antarctic Ice, Curry highlighted the limits of her knowledge, by giving a bizarrely vague answer focusing uncertainties due to past measurement issues and regional differences. Mann was quick to tell her that we now have satellites (called GRACE) that measure ice, so we clearly know we’re losing ice. Another scientist present at the debate, Roger Pielke, who doesn’t currently study climate science, seemed to take a more reasonable position and even argued for a carbon tax at one point, though he is well known for publishing a piece where he states that the price of disasters is rising, but not because of climate change. Criticism of that piece led his editor to respond and publish a rebuttal.

Three out of the four scientists present at the hearing are at the fringe of science, Judith included. Considering that 97% of scientists agree that man-made global warming is a thing, it’s at least strange that 75% (3 out of 4) are climate change deniers. It’s almost like the hearing’s opinions were predetermined and they don’t really care about the science, isn’t it?

“For a balanced panel we would need 96 more Dr. Manns,” said Democrat Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon.

But this was just the beginning, the best was yet to come. Smith objected to Mann quoting articles from Science magazine, stating that Science “is not known as an objective magazine.” I’m surprised he didn’t call it fake news. Not long after that, the name calling began. California Republican Dana Rohrabacher likened the tactics of climate scientists to the those of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, while Georgia Republican Barry Loudermilk said of Mann:

“We could say you’re a denier of natural change.”

Climate change co2

Yes, this totally looks like natural change to me. Image credits: Hanno / Wiki Commons.

Mann stood his ground, and he too accused the politicians of being swayed by the money they receive from fossil fuel companies. Basically, he tried to present science and objective facts to some of the biggest climate change deniers in Congress. By the end, it was clear that the scientific reality is not enough for Lamar Smith, who said that scientists have lost their way, and that:

“Their ultimate goal,” he said, “is to promote a personal agenda, even if the evidence doesn’t support it.”

Ironically, despite overwhelming evidence, despite decades and decades of thorough research done by thousands of people, Smith, like EPA chief Scott Pruitt, believes that the science is not in yet. It’s almost like he has a personal agenda that he’s pursuing, even against all the evidence. But hey, who needs facts when you have alternative facts?

At the end of the day, objective observers will easily discern the scientific reality from the bias. But what happens in the US is extremely worrying. The country is the world’s second largest polluter, and any backtrack of environmental issues will have drastic consequences not only for Americans themselves but for the rest of the world as well.

Scientists identify new mechanism through which climate change causes droughts and flood

As if global warming wasn’t wreaking enough havoc on the world, researchers have found that it is in fact doing even more harm than we thought.

Visualization of a wavy jet stream. Image credits: NASA.

Turning up the heat

The effects of climate change are so deep and far-reaching it would take far too long to discuss them here — you can read detailed articles on NASA, the EPA, or WWF. Some of the most noticeable effects include amplifying drought and flooding, which were discussed in this study.

Climate and weather shouldn’t be mistaken for one another, but climate does affect the weather, sometimes with disastrous effects. What this study does is show another mechanism through which it does that, uncovering “a clear fingerprint of human activity.”

“Our work shows that climate change isn’t just leading to more extreme weather through the usual mechanisms,” said lead author Michael Mann, a professor at Penn State University in the United States.

Basically, what Mann and his collaborators found is that climate change affects jet stream in a way that “favours more extreme and persistent weather anomalies.”

Jet streams are fast flowing, narrow, meandering air currents found in the atmosphere. They are westerly winds, flying from west to east, and form as a result between the atmospheric heating by solar radiation and the Coriolis force that acts on those streams (the Coriolis force is caused by the planet’s rotation around its own axis). Driven by the contrast between hotter and colder air, jet streams can reach speeds greater than 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) — which is why sometimes faster to travel from Los Angeles to New York than the other way around. But that’s not all jet streams do.

“Relatively small changes to the jet stream can have a large effect on weather and extreme weather,” co-author Dim Coumou, a professor at the Institute for Environment Studies and VU University Amsterdam, told AFP.

Basically, warming weather causes the stream to be more “stuck in place” which means that the weather won’t change as much and extreme events will last longer.

Stalling jet streams

Clouds over a jet stream. Image credits: Ellywa at Dutch Wikipedia.

As the Earth continues to heat up, it’s important to note that heating doesn’t take place in a uniform matter, some areas heat up more than others. The Arctic, for instance, heats up twice as more than the global average, which means that the contrast between the frigid polar air and the tropical air diminishes — and with it, the jet stream slows down. As it turns out, factors which favor the slowing down of the stream have increased by 70 percent since the beginning of the industrial age. This is not really a new idea, emerging some 50 years ago, but was subject to some criticism and debate and is still challenged to an extent.

But what this study does is that it makes a connection between jet streams, global warming, and the effect this has on humans.

“What the new study does is connect the dots between the increased frequency of this jet stream effect and human-caused warming on the planet,” Mann said.

In case you’re wondering what the effects of this phenomenon are, the study authors write that this “adds to the weight of evidence for a human influence on the occurrence of devastating events such as the 2003 European heat wave, the 2010 Pakistan flood and Russian heat wave, the 2011 Texas heat wave and recent floods in Europe.”

Climate change is much like a squid, extending its tentacles across the entire planet, often in obscure and unforeseeable ways, which is why it’s more important than ever to tackle it. Yet Mann, who is set to testify this week before Congress in a session about climate change, isn’t very optimistic about the US climate plan:

“That’s going to be a fake debate. But this stuff is where the real debate is now.”

Journal Reference: Michael E. Mann, Stefan Rahmstorf, Kai Kornhuber, Byron A. Steinman, Sonya K. Miller & Dim Coumou — Influence of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Planetary Wave Resonance and Extreme Weather Events. doi:10.1038/srep45242

Scientist interview: Michael Mann [meteorology / climate change]

A few days ago, we wrote an article about our featured researchers – outstanding men and women in their field, who recently published highly interesting studies. Today, we’re talking to Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). His voice is one of the loudest and clearest when it comes to climate change and he shared his thoughts with us:

michael mann fixed

Andrei Mihai: Hello and thank you for taking the time to talk to us – we greatly appreciate it! About this study – I’ve been reading an increasing number of studies indicating that the so-called “global warming hiatus” is actually the deep oceans absorbing the heat [1, 2, 3]. Can we talk about a consensus on this issue? Is there still scientific merit to claiming that there is a global warming hiatus?

Michael Mann: In my view “hiatus” is a misleading term, because warming has not stopped, either at the surface or in the ocean sub-surface. There has been a temporary slowdown in surface warming, which is what our study seeks to understand and explain. We conclude that the temporary slowdown is due to internal climate variability related to the Pacific ocean, and that is consistent with other studies arguing that there has been increased ocean heat burial in the tropical Pacific over that timeframe. So I think there is an emerging scientific consensus here, though the language that has been used is sometimes inconsistent and even misleading. It is indeed critical to distinguish between warming at the surface, and the warming of the climate system overall (as much of the heating is contained within the oceans).

AM: Indeed, there seems to be this wrong idea that global warming is only affecting our atmosphere. But as you also pointed out at one time, it’s not the the actual temperature of the world today that’s worrying, but rather the rate at which is changing. Do we have a rate of warming for the deep oceans, something that might be correlated to atmospheric heating? Do you agree with the idea that we are altering the climate so much we’re basically living in a new geological era, the Anthropocene?

MM: Yes—interestingly, there is a study just out within the past couple days (Nature Climate Change) concluding that the rate of warming we are seeing may be without precedent in at least a thousand years.I’m quoted about that study here: http://www.climatecentral.org/news/warming-rates-unseen-in-1000-years-18745

It is really the rate of warming that is the greatest cause for worry, as the rates of change in climate we are seeing may well challenge the adaptive capacity not just of ecosystems but of human civilization itself.
AM: It does seem like quite a dire picture, but even though climate change is one of the hottest topics (heh) right now, it’s in quite a peculiar situation; while the science seems to be pretty clear, the public is heavily divided. Why do you think this happens?
MM: Well, I wrote a book about that question, entitled “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” [link]. It is about my experiences in the center of the climate change debate, and about the powerful vested interests that have spent tens of millions of dollars in the most expensive disinformation campaign in human history, the campaign by fossil fuel interests to confuse the public and policymakers about the reality and threat of human-caused climate change.
AM: Perhaps on a related note, what do you think about the recent scandal around Willie Soon? Is this type of funding acceptable? Is everybody just making too much fuss, or is he actually guilty of unethical behavior?
MM: Well, as scientists we are expected to disclose conflicts of interest when we publish studies. In Soons case, we’ve learned that his publications were being provided as “deliverables” to fossil fuel interests funding his campaigns. Yet he did not disclose that funding in the manuscripts. That’s a no-no. It gives against not just the ethical guidelines of journals and institutions, but against the ethical bind we have with the public as scientists.
AM: I read on your page that you’ve studied, at least to some extent, the connection between malaria and global warming. With the temperature continuing to rise, should we expect the potential range of malaria to increase, as the mosquitoes become adapted to broader habitats?
MM: As our study concludes, the situation is somewhat complicated. Because of the temperature thresholds involved in the processes that govern the Malaria parasite development, it is possible that currently very warm regions could actually see declines in Malaria transmission. But of perhaps greatest concern, many highly populated regions like Nairob that have historically not been prone to Malaria because of cool temperatures could see very large increases in Malaria transmission with even modest additional warming. It is these sorts of “non-linearities” as we term them, that cause scientists the greatest concern when it comes to human-caused climate change.
AM: In another study, you looked at the reliability of tree rings as proxies for climate change. Did you find an unreliability in using tree rings as climate proxies?
MM: No—our studies have just shown that you have to understand the limitations of any types of proxy information you are using (whether tree-rings, ice cores, corals, etc.). And there is more robustness in reconstructing past patterns of climate change when you incorporate as many types of complementary information as possible.
AM: In the end, what is your future research direction? What would you like to figure out next?
MM: I’m working on a number of issues right now. Some of them involving paleoclimate—understanding past climates better as a way of better informing our understanding of human-caused climate change. Other projects deal with estimating the impacts of projected climate change on water, food, land, the health of ecosystems. Other projects I’m involved in are aimed at better understanding natural climate variability and distinguishing natural and human impacts on climate.