Update on Antarctic ice and global warming

The point of the previous item about how scientists think about public policy, which referred to Richard Muller's book Physics for Future Presidents, was that many scientific issues are too complex to be resolved in op-ed columns. Or even Atlantic website posts!

But several people have asked for elaboration of this sentence I quoted from Muller:

"An example of distortion is the melting of the Antarctic ice -- something that actually contradicts the global warming model but is presented as if it verifies them."

What's the logic there? My main answer is, read the book! But to be more responsive, here's the reasoning in a nutshell (my paraphrase, alongside USGS map of Antarctica):

antarctica.jpg

Higher temperatures (ie, "global warming") would mean more evaporation from the oceans. That would mean more clouds, which over Antarctica would mean more snow. (The air over Antarctica would be warmer, but on average still well below freezing.) More snow would mean more Antarctic ice, not less. Yet the Antarctic ice cover is decreasing, not increasing.

"Does the decrease in ice mean that the model is wrong -- that global warming is not taking place?" Muller asks. "No, not at all. It simply shows the inadequacies of the model. Even with global warming, local weather (even for a whole continent) can cause behavior that deviates from the computer calculation. One result is certain: the melting of Antarctica provides no evidence whatsoever in favor of global-warming predictions." He then goes on to discuss other evidence that does support the predictions. To be 100% clear about it: Muller is not at all a "denialist" about climate change. Eg: "Global warming is real. It is very likely caused by humans. By the end of the twenty-first century it will (if caused by humans) grow enough to be disruptive." He is just urging readers and policy makers to be precise about what the evidence shows and doesn't show.

You know where to go for more.

UPDATE: this site, from NASA, allows you to create your own maps showing how much the average temperature in different parts of the world has risen over any interval you choose since 1880. For instance, this map, below, shows surface temperature differences in June, 2009 versus a 1951-1980 average baseline:

GHCN_GISS_1200km_Anom06_2009_2009_1951_1980.jpg


More here from Michael Goodfellow of Free the Memes.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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