Guest post by Thomas Fuller
There would be no global warming without new technology. And that’s not because new technology uses so much energy.
It’s because new technology has allowed us to measure new phenomena, and old phenomena with radically more powerful tools.
Mike Smith gives us an example in his book ‘Warnings’, a great story about how technology addressed the warning system for U.S. tornadoes (and which is advertised here on the right hand column).
He notes that many tornadoes that are called in to reporting centers today would never have been noticed before, thanks to a growing American population and the ubiquity of mobile telephones. So although it may look like we have more tornadoes than in the past, it’s just more and better measurements.
The same is more or less true of hurricanes. Before satellite coverage began in 1969, we really didn’t know exactly how many hurricanes actually happened in a given year, nor how strong they were. If they didn’t make landfall, they would only be catalogued if planes noticed and reported them, and they would only be measured if specially equipped planes basically flew through them and charted their strength. Some have tried to estimate hurricanes from previous eras (and Judith Curry is talking about the subject on her brand new weblog), but different scientists have come up with different answers.
Funnily enough, the answer that indicates hurricanes are getting stronger got published in the IPCC, while the answer that contradicted it resulted in the resignation of its author from the IPCC. Time will tell.
The phenomenon is certainly also true of measurements of ice extent, volume and area, which would not be possible without satellite imagery. Without satellites, we would be blissfully ignorant of what’s going on there, or at least in the same condition of partial ignorance that led the New York Times to predict global warming or a new ice age several times in the 19th and early 20th Century. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose…
New technology has had a radical effect on the time series of measurements made for extended periods before the technology was adopted. Sailors used to measure sea surface temperatures using a thermometer in a bucket lowered into the sea. When Argos buoys began providing a network of more accurate measurements, there was a break in the timeline.
When surface stations converted to electronic thermocouples on a short leash, the adjustments required caused another break in the data series. (I guess readers here might know something about that already.) Scientists have worked hard to make adjustments to correct for the new sources of data, but the breaks are still pretty noticeable.
The sensible thing would be to give the new technologies time to develop an audited series of measurements long enough to determine trends, rather than grafting new data on top of older, less reliable series. But there are two objections to this: First, who’s to say another new measurement technology won’t come along and replace our brand new toys and resetting the clock to zero? Second, and of more concern, there is a whole scientific establishment out there saying we don’t have time to wait for a pristine data set. Some say we’ve already waited too long, others say that if we start today (and they really mean today), we just might avoid climate disaster.
And if you start to muse on the remarkable coincidence that warming apparently started at the same time as we got all this new-fangled technology, why that makes you a flat-earth denialist. Or something.
As it happens, while serving in the U.S. Navy I took sea surface temperatures with a thermometer in a bucket. There were not many detailed instructions involved. Should I have done it on the sunny side or the shady side? Nearer the pointy end of the ship (that’s technical talk) or the flat back end? How long was I supposed to leave the thermometer in the water?
I wouldn’t want to make momentous decisions based on the quality of data I retrieved from that thermometer, which wasn’t calibrated–I think the U.S.N. stock number was like 22, or some other low number indicating great antiquity. I much prefer what comes out of Argos.
But there are times I wish all those fancy instruments on the satellites were pointing at another planet.
Thomas Fuller http://www.redbubble.com/people/hfuller