Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Spotless Sun: Blankest Year of the Space Age

Astronomers who count sunspots have announced that 2008 is now the "blankest year" of the Space Age. As of Sept. 27, 2008, the sun had been blank, i.e., had no visible sunspots, on 200 days of the year. To find a year with more blank suns, you have to go back to 1954, three years before the launch of Sputnik, when the sun was blank 241 times. "Sunspot counts are at a 50-year low," says solar physicist David Hathaway of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. "We're experiencing a deep minimum of the solar cycle."

The image, taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) on Sept. 27, 2008, shows a solar disk completely unmarked by sunspots. For comparison, a SOHO image taken seven years earlier on Sept. 27, 2001, is peppered with colossal sunspots, all crackling with solar flares. The difference is the phase of the 11-year solar cycle. 2001 was a year of solar maximum, with lots of sunspots, solar flares and geomagnetic storms. 2008 is at the cycle's opposite extreme, solar minimum, a quiet time on the sun.

And it is a very quiet time. If solar activity continues as low as it has been, 2008 could rack up a whopping 290 spotless days by the end of December, making it a century-level year in terms of spotlessness.

Hathaway cautions that this development may sound more exciting than it actually is: "While the solar minimum of 2008 is shaping up to be the deepest of the Space Age, it is still unremarkable compared to the long and deep solar minima of the late 19th and early 20th centuries." Those earlier minima routinely racked up 200 to 300 spotless days per year.

Some solar physicists are welcoming the lull. "This gives us a chance to study the sun without the complications of sunspots," says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center. "Right now we have the best instrumentation in history looking at the sun. There is a whole fleet of spacecraft devoted to solar physics--SOHO, Hinode, ACE, STEREO and others. We're bound to learn new things during this long solar minimum."

As an example he offers helioseismology: "By monitoring the sun's vibrating surface, helioseismologists can probe the stellar interior in much the same way geologists use earthquakes to probe inside Earth. With sunspots out of the way, we gain a better view of the sun's subsurface winds and inner magnetic dynamo."

"There is also the matter of solar irradiance," adds Pesnell. "Researchers are now seeing the dimmest sun in their records. The change is small, just a fraction of a percent, but significant. Questions about effects on climate are natural if the sun continues to dim." Pesnell is NASA's project scientist for the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a new spacecraft equipped to study both solar irradiance and helioseismic waves. Construction of SDO is complete, he says, and it has passed pre-launch vibration and thermal testing. "We are ready to launch! Solar minimum is a great time to go."

Coinciding with the string of blank suns is a 50-year record low in solar wind pressure, a recent discovery of the Ulysses spacecraft. The pressure drop began years before the current minimum, so it is unclear how the two phenomena are connected, if at all. This is another mystery for SDO and the others. Who knew the blank sun could be so interesting? More to come...


The green bubble bursts

Amid the energy crisis, Democrats are losing the high ground on the environment to a GOP that is pushing oil drilling.

As the election enters its endgame, Democrats and their environmental allies face a political challenge they could hardly have imagined just a few months ago. America's growing dependence on fossil fuels, once viewed as a Democratic trump card held alongside the Iraq war and the deflating economy, has become a lodestone instead. Republicans stole the energy issue from Democrats by proposing expanded drilling -- particularly lifting bans on offshore oil drilling -- to bring down gasoline prices. Whereas Barack Obama told Americans to properly inflate their tires, Republicans at their convention gleefully chanted "Drill, baby, drill!" Obama's point on conservation and efficiency was lost on an electorate eager for a solution to what they perceive as a supply crisis.

Democrats and greens ended up in this predicament because they believed their own press clippings -- or, perhaps more accurately, Al Gore's. After the release of the documentary film and book "An Inconvenient Truth," greens convinced themselves that U.S. public opinion on climate change had shifted dramatically, despite having no empirical evidence that was the case. In fact, public concern about global warming was about the same before the movie -- 65% told a Gallup poll in 2007 that global warming was a somewhat or very important concern in comparison to 63% in 1989. Global warming remains a low-priority issue, hovering near the bottom of the Pew Center for People and the Press' top 20 priorities.

By contrast, public concern about gasoline and energy prices has shifted dramatically. While liberals and environmentalists were congratulating themselves on the triumph of climate science over fossil-fuel-funded ignorance, planning inauguration parties and writing legislation for the next Democratic president and Congress, gas prices became the second-highest concern after the economy, according to Gallup.

This summer, elite opinion ran headlong into American popular opinion. The train wreck happened in the Senate and went by the name of the Climate Security Act. That bill to cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would have, by all accounts (even the authors'), increased gasoline and energy prices. Despite clear evidence that energy-price anxiety was rising, Democrats brought the bill to the Senate floor in June when gas prices were well over $4 a gallon in most of the country. Republicans were all too happy to join that fight.

Indeed, they so relished the opportunity to accuse Democrats of raising gasoline prices in the midst of an energy crisis, they insisted that the 500-page bill be read into the Senate record in its entirety in order to prolong the debate. Within days, Senate Democrats started jumping ship. Democratic leaders finally killed the debate to avert an embarrassing defeat, but by then they had handed Republicans a powerful political club.

Republicans have been bludgeoning Democrats with it ever since. They held dramatic "hearings," unauthorized by the Democratic leadership, on the need for expanded oil drilling to lower gas prices. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich quickly announced a book, "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less," a movie and a petition drive. And Republican presidential candidate John McCain stopped making speeches about his support for bipartisan climate action, which is how he had started his campaign, and attacked Obama and congressional Democrats for opposing drilling instead.

On June 9, three days after the emissions cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate, Obama led McCain by eight points, according to Gallup. By June 24, the race was in a dead heat, a shift owed in no small part to Republicans battering Democrats on energy. Seeing the writing on the wall, Obama reversed his opposition to drilling in August, and congressional Democrats quickly followed suit.

But the damage has largely been done. In following greens, Democrats allowed McCain and Republicans to cast them as the party out of touch with the pocketbook concerns of middle-class Americans and captive to special interests that prioritize remote wilderness over economic prosperity.

In a tacit acknowledgment of their defeat, some green leaders, such as the Sierra Club's Carl Pope, have endorsed the Democrats' pro-drilling strategy. But few of them seem to realize the political implications. The most influential environmental groups in Washington -- the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund -- are continuing to bet the farm on a strategy that relies on emissions limits and other regulations aimed at making fossil fuels more expensive in order to encourage conservation, efficiency and renewable energy. But with an economic recession likely, and energy prices sure to remain high for years to come thanks to expanding demand in China and other developing countries, any strategy predicated centrally on making fossil fuels more expensive is doomed to failure.

A better approach is to make clean energy cheap through technology innovation funded directly by the federal government. In contrast to raising energy prices, investing somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion annually in technology R&D, infrastructure and transmission lines to bring power from windy and sunny places to cities is overwhelmingly popular with voters. Instead of embracing this big investment, greens and Democrats push instead for tiny tax credits for renewable energy -- nothing approaching the national commitment that's needed.

With just six weeks before the election, the bursting of the green bubble is a wake-up call for Democrats. Environmental groups, perpetually certain that a new ecological age is about to dawn in America, have serially overestimated their strength and misread public opinion. Democrats must break once and for all from green orthodoxy that focuses primarily on making dirty energy more expensive and instead embrace a strategy to make clean energy cheap.

By continuing to hew to the green agenda, Democrats have not only put in jeopardy their chance of taking back the White House and growing their majority in Congress, they also have set back the prospects of establishing policies that might effectively address the climate and energy crises.


NBC film crew trapped on Arctic icebreaker due to freezing weather

But they still believe in global warming, of course

So, here we are. In the Arctic. Day 23. Good times! Producer Paul Manson and I, along with cameraman Callan Griffiths and soundman Ben Adam, were sent here on assignment to report on climate change and the Arctic for an upcoming broadcast. The primary news peg - and one reason for our visit - is that for only the second time in recorded history the Northwest Passage is ice free, effectively clearing this shortcut between Europe and Asia.

Our intention was to stay on board for 10 days, shooting video and interviews. Mother Nature, apparently, had other plans. Inclement weather, along with an emergency search and rescue mission, has spoiled all five of our attempts to leave the ship. Getting stuck in the Arctic is not uncommon; getting stuck five times is like punishment.

We left NYC Sept. 3, joining up with a team of scientists from ArcticNet on board the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, Amundsen. (In Canada, the Coast Guard is civilian, not military. It is part of the country's Department of Oceans and Fisheries.) This particular Coast Guard ship has been dedicated to scientific research and outfitted with all the necessary tools. In a unique partnership, the scientists work side-by-side with the Coast Guard crew. For example, the scientists are testing water samples and sediment samples (from the ocean floor) as well as mapping uncharted territories in this remote part of the world. There are 40 scientists, 40 Coast Guard members and the four of us. By now we're part of the team, learning to help on deck, in the lab and at dinner.

We boarded the Amundsen Thursday, Sept. 4, in Resolute Bay, a small Inuit village, along the Northwest Passage. The plan was to fly off by helicopter at the northern most civilian community in North America, Grise Fjord, and then begin our long journey home. Freezing rain and harsh weather kept our chopper grounded both Monday and Tuesday. The ship kept going and our chance to get off passed. We continued North with the expedition along the coasts of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, coming within 900 miles of the North Pole.

Over the next couple weeks, we would make three more attempts to fly to land. Each one failed due to weather. Unbelievably, on Thursday our absolute best chance to get off the ship failed, too. The ship was diverted back north to assist a search and rescue mission, something the crew says has only happened once or twice in the last couple years. From the beginning, we were warned that the ships primary mission was science. The cost of operating this icebreaker and moving the expedition forward is $50,000 a day. While we've been welcomed guests on board, we knew the ship wouldn't be stopping for us.


Two natural components of the presently progressing climate change are identified

The first one is an almost linear global temperature increase of about 0.5 øC/100 years (~1 øF/100years), which seems to have started at least one hundred years before 1946 when manmade CO2 in the atmosphere began to increase rapidly. This value of 0.5 øC/100 years may be compared with what the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists consider to be the manmade greenhouse effect of 0.6 øC/100 years. This 100-year long linear warming trend is likely to be a natural change. One possible cause of this linear increase may be Earth's continuing recovery from the Little Ice Age (1400-1800).

This trend (0.5øC/100 years) should be subtracted from the temperature data during the last 100 years when estimating the manmade contribution to the present global warming trend. As a result, there is a possibility that only a small fraction of the present warming trend is attributable to the greenhouse effect resulting from human activities. Note that both glaciers in many places in the world and sea ice in the Arctic Ocean that had developed during the Little Ice Age began to recede after 1800 and are still receding; their recession is thus not a recent phenomenon.

The second one is the multi-decadal oscillation, which is superimposed on the linear change. One of them is the "multi-decadal oscillation," which is a natural change. This particular change has a positive rate of change of about 0.15 øC/10 years from about 1975, and is thought to be a sure sign of the greenhouse effect by the IPCC. But, this positive trend stopped after 2000 and now has a negative slope. As a result, the global warming trend stopped in about 2000-2001.

Therefore, it appears that the two natural changes have a greater effect on temperature changes than the greenhouse effects of CO2. These facts are contrary to the IPCC Report (2007, p.10), which states that "most" of the present warming is due "very likely" to be the manmade greenhouse effect. They predict that the warming trend continues after 2000. Contrary to their prediction, the warming halted after 2000.

There is an urgent need to correctly identify natural changes and remove them from the present global warming/cooling trend, in order to accurately identify the contribution of the manmade greenhouse effect. Only then can the contribution of CO2 be studied quantitatively.


Big natural climate change very recently

WINTER 1947, when Britain could have used some global warming

After the Second World War Britain was bombed out, bankrupt, exhausted and desperately short of fuel. The winter of 1947 sank the country to a level of deprivation unknown even during the war. A catalogue of weather calamities precipitated a national crisis and changed Britain and the rest of Europe for decades afterwards.

The winter began deceptively, with just a brief cold snap before Christmas 1946. Snow lay thick on the ground when, in mid-January, temperatures soared so high that it felt as if spring had arrived early. The snow thawed so rapidly that it set off floods - just as hurricane-force winds brought down roofs, trees and even houses and a railway bridge in Birmingham. But real winter arrived soon afterwards as the country was gripped in an Arctic freeze that lasted for two months, with snow whipped into monstrous drifts that buried roads and railways. The temperature fell to -21C at Woburn, Buckinghamshire.

On February 20 the Dover to Ostend ferry service was suspended because of pack-ice off the Belgian coast. It became the coldest February ever recorded - and there was virtually no sunshine for almost the whole month.

The freeze paralysed coalmines, with coal stocks often stuck at the collieries by railways and roads buried in snow. Even carrying coal by sea was hazardous, with storms, fog and iced-over harbours.

A week after the freeze began, the Minister of Fuel and Power, Emmanuel Shinwell, ordered electricity supplies to be cut to industry, and domestic electricity supplies to be turned off for five hours each day, to conserve coal stocks. Whitehall and Buckingham Palace were reduced to working by candlelight. Television was closed down, radio output reduced, newspapers cut in size and magazines ordered to stop publishing. The emergency package hardly made a difference to power supplies but was a crushing blow to public morale.

Food supplies shrank alarmingly and rations were cut even lower than they had been during the war. Farms were frozen or snowed under, and vegetables were in such short supply that pneumatic drills were used to dig up parsnips from frozen fields. For the first time, potatoes were rationed after some 70,000 tons of them were destroyed by the cold.

The Government tried a deeply unpopular campaign to encourage everyone to eat a cheap South African fish called snoek, millions of tins of which had been imported - but it tasted disgusting and was used eventually as cat food.

Those delivering food supplies were battling to get through blizzards and snowdrifts, and The Attlee Government was seriously worried that the country could slide into famine.

March turned out even worse than February. March 5 brought the worst blizzard of the 20th century. Supplies of food shrank so low that in some places the police asked for authority to break open stranded lorries carrying food cargoes. On March 6 The Times reported: "The blizzard has virtually cut England in two. It is almost impossible to get from South to North."

Eventually, on March 10, a sustained thaw set in - and triggered another spectacular disaster. After weeks of deep frost, the ground was so hard that the melting snow ran off into raging torrents of floodwater and, to make things worse, a huge storm dropped heavy rain. Indeed, it was the wettest March on record in England and Wales. The winds whipped up floodwater into waves that breached dykes in the Fens, flooding 100 square miles of rich farmland, and houses collapsed. Canada sent food parcels to stricken villages in Suffolk, and the prime minister of Ontario even offered to help to dish them out.

It is difficult to imagine a worse run of weather, although the Government was blamed for the food and fuel crises. Elected in the summer of 1945 with a landslide majority, the Labour administration had embarked on a radical programme of nationalisation, including the health service, coalmining, electricity supply and railways. But it was caught unprepared when people began to buy electric fires and immersion heaters, and power stations could not meet the rising demand for energy.

Yet despite the collapsing economy and threat of starvation, the Government carried on behaving as if it were in control of a world superpower. Military expenditure was 15 per cent of GDP - far higher than before the war - and included the development of Britain's own nuclear bomb, as well as forces stationed in Europe and across the Empire. With a hugely ambitious programme of free healthcare and reconstruction, it was simply unsustainable. The winter of 1947 led to savage cuts in public spending at home and contributed to the humiliating devaluation of sterling from $4 to $2.80 the next year.

Less than two years after winning the war, the nation was left freezing cold, plunged into darkness and on the brink of starvation - and for many people it showed that national planning and socialism did not work. Labour was turned out of office in a landslide defeat at the next general election.


Australian recycler warns of job cuts from Global Warming laws

RECYCLING giant Visy has warned that the Government's proposed emissions trading scheme would force it to immediately close two recycling and paper manufacturing facilities with the direct loss of 160 jobs. Visy, renowned as one of the nation's greenest companies, has slammed the proposed scheme's cost of $20 on a tonne of emissions, in its response to the Government's emissions trading green paper.

Its submission states that a $20 a tonne carbon price would damage Visy's "corporate engine", Visy Pulp & Paper, jeopardising at least $1billion in planned investment. "Visy's first-mover status in environmental performance puts it at a disadvantage compared with other Australian industries, including its competitors," the submission says. "The CPRS (Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) does not recognise the carbon benefits from recycling, leading to severe collateral impacts on Australia's domestic recycling/remanufacturing industries. "Full action of permits will unnecessarily damage the economy and constrain businesses' capacity to invest in reducing emissions."

The submission says there should be a full transition of benefit flows from existing greenhouse gas abatement schemes, as the current ETS design places current programs in jeopardy. It adds: "The proposed EITE (emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries) compensation does not protect against carbon leakage, carbon magnification and loss of jobs and investment."

The Government's climate change adviser, Ross Garnaut, will present his final report on climate change to the Prime Minister tomorrow. Opposition emissions trading spokesman Andrew Robb warned that the Government's 2010 ETS start date and the global economic situation were causing concern. "The whole purpose of an ETS is to give businesses an incentive to introduce new emissions-reducing technologies," he told The Australian. "Visy has been an activist for climate change. They've done some really outstanding things, but because they've moved early they are below the compensation threshold. They will get zero compensation yet they have to sell their products on world markets."

Mr Robb said the ETS was starting to erode confidence and affect business decisions. "Professor Garnaut has been able to put out a green paper of his own, do modelling and is about to issue a final report. The Government has achieved very little of that," he said. "It will undermine investment confidence and business decisions at a critical time when we've got the world financial markets in meltdown."



For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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