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What Global Warming Advocates Can Learn from Geologists


While playing golf this past weekend (pretty good day on the links – front nine 3 over, back nine 6 over) with the usual crew, the subject of Superstorm Sandy came up in the context of global warming.

My friends are, shall we say, VERY progressive and, to paraphrase the ol’ Bill Clinton campaign mantra, they basically turned the conversation into a rant with the theme “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

Being the naive scientist that I am, I said something along the lines of, “Wait a minute guys, what evidence do you have that Sandy was a direct result of global warming?” (Setting aside the entire discussion about global warming as proven or not.)

The answers were revealing, “Normal hurricanes are maybe 300 miles wide, the size of this storm was beyond all norms. What do YOU think the explanation is?” To which I replied that, not being a climatologist, I couldn’t offer an opinion, since I didn’t have the training or the facts to have an informed opinion. Their response, “95% of the world’s leading scientists have concluded that global warming is man-made!!!” And my reaction was, “So what? Tell me how that proves ANYTHING about what made Sandy so large.”

After a lot of muttering and snarking, I threw up my hands and said, “Guys, read some geology to get a sense of scale.”

It was all really instructive, especially their willingness to make a cause and effect argument without a shred of evidence, and to be smugly passionate about it, to boot.

But, it made me see how hugely different my sense of scale and time is from theirs. For them, 100 years of observation provides all the data that’s needed to understand the geophysical and geochemical drivers of our planet’s behavior.

I think of Collins, Markello, et al.’s “Carbonate Analogs Through Time (CATT) Hypothesis.” The masterful compilation of sea level, temperature, magnetic polarity and other global variations over 540 million years makes me profoundly grateful for the sense of time and change geology has given me.

For example, there are highly episodic sea level fluctuations in the last 10 million years, increasingly frequent changes in magnetic polarity and a trend towards increasing CO2 that started… wait for it… in the Jurassic 190 million years ago. Then, there are the episodic (but increasing) levels of heavy oxygen (O 18), which started about 50 million years ago, but really started accelerating about 2 million years ago.

So, I see a dynamic world with hundreds of millions of years of data that clearly show that tens, or even hundreds of millions of years ago, the earth’s climate, sea level and even CO2 content reached levels we are currently attributing to man-made causes. As a result, it’s pretty hard for me to look at Hurricane Sandy and instantly think of it as human-caused.

What do you think? Should global warming advocates take a broader view of our current climate? Please, leave a comment below.

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