If the ‘Science is Settled,’ Why are There So Many Questions?

I read a fascinating article in Nature.com on the influence of the Southern Ocean on climate.  I’m not a scientist, so I can’t examine the truth of the article, but I do know words. Certain words and phrases in the article make me think we don’t quite have Climate Change figured out.

 The title was a bit odd for a ‘settled science.’

How much longer can Antarctica’s hostile ocean delay global warming?

The waters of the Southern Ocean have absorbed much of the excess heat and carbon generated by humanity.

The first sentences relay the first discovery of the phenomenon. Then…

Although controversial when she encountered it back in 1994, this powerful upwelling is now recognized as a hallmark of the Southern Ocean, a mysterious beast that swirls around Antarctica, driven by the world’s strongest sustained winds. The Southern Ocean absorbs copious amounts of carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere, which has slowed the rate of global warming. And its powerful currents drive much of the global ocean circulation.

I noticed these phrases along the way:

enormous data gaps

bolster understanding of how the Southern Ocean — and the global climate — functions

improving predictions of how quickly the world will warm

New technologies are allowing us access to these remote areas

This raises new questions 

Scientists only started to realize how important the region is for controlling global climate in the 1980s,

is leading an effort to gather the first real-time data on the chemical and biological processes 

With the new data, Sarmiento and his team can test their models and refine estimates 

researchers are getting some of their first glimpses in near-real time

the question now is whether the higher CO2 emissions during winter represent larger trends

It would imply that potentially there is a much weaker 

Le Quéré says it’s unclear 

Scientists are also beginning to pin down

I stopped less than halfway through the article.

These are by definition phrases pulled out of context.  On the other hand, they are phrases about the very real questions which are being asked about a phenomenon which has huge impact on the climate: the effect of the churning Southern Ocean.  Apparently, the watery area around Antarctica cools down the Earth as very cold water churns up from far below the surface. Do we understand it well enough? No.

This was ‘discovered” in 1994, is barely understood now, and could possibly impact all of the so-called Climate Science. It is one of many factors which may – or may not – affect the global climate.

 Settled?  Not at all.



10 thoughts on “If the ‘Science is Settled,’ Why are There So Many Questions?

  1. fred.bloggs

    NO science is ever “settled”; just ask (deceased) philosopher Karl Popper: A scientific theorem is one that can be independently tested more than once, and the test must be able to return an unambiguous true/false answer regarding the validity of the theorem. If different tests can be constructed using different areas of science, drawn from fully independent lines of raw data, and the true/false results hold, this strengthens the case for believing (at least tentatively) in the theorem.

    Climate is full of feedback loops in different scales, and chaos theory and fractal phenomena mean that trying to isolate one portion of the system for an independent test is almost impossible. Global-scale phenomena such as more solar heating at the Equator and less solar heating at the poles can be understood, but smaller-scale phenomena of how the energy flows are much more susceptible to local events.

    In terms of raw data, 70% of the surface of the Earth is water, and the (few) meteorologists I’ve chatted to say that the advent of significant satellite data reporting, both in terms of water temperature, and in terms of water vapor in the atmosphere, has revolutionised forecasting — there are multiple models run to decide forecasts for the next few days, the forecast is chosen from an “informed consensus” of these models, and the actual weather outcomes are checked to see of the models can be tuned to be more accurate.

    I recall a post-war pilot saying that the forecast for more than 2 days ahead was not that reliable (based on his 1950s experience), and mentioned this to my meteorologist friend. He said that with the advent of satellites, 4-day forecasts were becoming quite accurate.

    Okay, enough of weather. Some comments on climate, which assume that there is some agent capable of raising global temperatures:

    – Note that the Earth is nearer the Sun during the southern summer, and further from the Sun during the southern winter. This means that us southern-hemisphere dwellers see more extremes than northern-hemisphere dwellers — the northerners see milder (less cold) winters and milder (less hot) summers, on average. [Extreme weather events are a separate topic, which may be connected, but while I note that others have raised this topic, I don’t know enough to comment here.]

    – The southern hemisphere has a much higher water-to-land ratio than the northern hemisphere, so be wary of assuming that local conditions can be easily extrapolated to global conditions; and

    – Theorem: “Humans are highly adaptable to environment, and so effectively set up their lifestyles optimised around current conditions”. To the extent that the theorem proposed here is true, ANY significant aberration from current conditions (whether caused by volcanoes, penicillin-resistant superbugs, SMOD impacts, etc) will be highly disruptive. This is especially true as the global population level is currently taxing the Earth’s resources at a significant level — potable water supplies is one of the baselines people have used to convert different “resource currencies” into a single standard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. onwyrdsdream

      Humans adaptability is more or less a market function,. Even for sudden change, except in the case of instant death, the market will offer the best answer to wants and needs of the most people with current production, and bend production toward those needs quickly. This requires a certain liberty in production. All of this is the opposite of the prescription of those who’d use almost all of the power of humankind to adapt the planet constantly so that it appears as a steady state. Rather than bending with the wind, which is somewhat easy for individuals to do, they think it is better just to stop the wind itself. In fiction, men who know less than they think who think they can be gods generally have sorry ends. If the human race decided to do the same, directing the means of production via government agency in order to oppose all of nature despite not needing to, I think Venezuela-world is the best case scenario.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. onwyrdsdream

    My inclination is that as long as there is a giant white landmass under the Arctic or antarctic pole we’re going to, at best, remain in an interglacial period. The effect of something as large as Antarctica reflecting most of the sunlight that hits it back up is just too big. As long as it continues to do so, it won’t melt. As long as it doesn’t melt it’ll continue to do so. At least until our axis tilt changes, the sun expands, our orbit decays, or continental drift happens. So, not so quickly as to affect the lifespan of that one Hillary campaign worker.


    1. fred.bloggs

      Interesting comments, thank you.

      The Antarctic has solid mass underneath; the Arctic itself has none. Some landmasses near the Arctic (e.g. Greenland, Iceland) are the source of glaciers, and these do not have a direct southern-hemisphere counterpart.

      The angle of incidence is important here… think of a desk, a sheet of writing paper, and a lamp. If the lamp is directly above the sheet, then you’ve got Equator-like, or at least Tropic of Capricorn/Cancer-like conditions. However, imagining moving the lamp so that it’s almost off one end of the desk, and it’s shining incidence on the paper at the other end of the desk. In this case, the “grazing” angle of the sun (from the ground, never seen as getting more than a few degrees above horizon level) means that the effective energy delivered per square meter is small, even during the summer solstice.

      Axis tilt does occur. I’ve seen the Earth’s rotation likened to a spinning top — it can spin with pools of stability for a while; other times, a wobble can throw of the spin. (We’re talking about thousands-of-years timescales here.)

      Finally, I’ll note that the argument that “everyone else around me doesn’t care, why should I” is a strong argument, but taking a personal stand on things that matter to you (as far a possible, holding the Constitution of your nation sacred, and trying to assert your position in a way that does not cause immediate detriment, disruption or undue distress to others) is something I’d recommend. Actions speak louder than words.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dave Alexander (formerly ukuleledave) Post author

        Thanks for the thoughtful responses.

        I hope I’m not too science-challenged that I can still dispute the Climate Change folks, while admitting that science is hard. My premise — and I stand by it — is that science of this magnitude is hard even for today’s scientists. New factors in the climates of the Earth are being discovered all the time. New things are being learned about the ‘established’ markers of past temperatures. We cannot predict the future temperature – just as we still struggle to estimate the past temperatures.

        The so-called temperature differences claimed by climate change folks over the last hundred years or so amount to a half a degree, give or take. I just don’t think science has a good enough grasp on temperatures globally in 1916 in order to say it is warmer now. Secondarily, did I do that? Is the temperature of Earth constant? Was it ever constant. History tells us the answer is no.


  3. onwyrdsdream

    Ultimately, taking away human flexibility in order to attempt to make the world as a whole less variable is wrongheaded. Which if you agree, is already enough to skip the rest.

    But, if not, by way of analogy, If it were a fantasy novel, it would be like this.

    The seers and astrologers all claim that a dragon is coming that will end the world, and the king and the church gather all their wealth, and the wealth of their people in order to build a great spear that will slay the dragon. Because the great labor of mankind was put into mining and refining that spear, only barely enough was reserved for farming, and this particular year the rainfall patterns were a bit off, there was a bit of an early winter, there is a great famine and 20% of the population dies. But they have the spear so that when the dragon comes, the rest will live. But, in their entire lives, the dragon never comes, and the spear gathers rust.

    Alternately, the dragon comes, and it wasn’t so fearsome as they thought, because in the end what they had was only a prediction. They could have slayed it with just an ordinary knight with a lance, but those 20% are still dead.

    Alternately, the dragon came and was far more terrible, so that the spear didn’t work at all.. but those 20% died early a lingering and painful death of starvation rather than the near instant end of the dragon’s flames.

    It isn’t an issue of caring or not caring. It is more, as someone who manipulates data for a living, the resolution of the data we have that relate to climate on a global scale is akin to being asked to find evidence of the Loch Ness monster by relying on a Polaroid taken from the space station while flying over Cuba.

    Land temperature can vary a few degrees across a modest sized city, and they measure the temperature in Antarctica with what? 8? 10 sensors? If I picked 15 thermometers from the temperature record of North America, could you reach a conclusion as to if the landmass as a whole was warming or cooling? They have the nerve to make claims as to if that entire landmass is warming or cooling based on that sort of data. And because these hard to reach, difficult to measure places have so much land (or sea) area, any error on any of the sensors would have a rather dramatic effect on the global mean temperature. And then, most temperature measurements are +/- 2 degrees precision, and that is all, best case, but they make claims out to two decimal places with 4 (or more) significant digits. Makes me want to smack their hands with a ruler and send them back to 8th grade.

    They’d have you believe they can pinpoint which butterfly causes the tornado in the US, and I don’t buy it. But without that sort of high resolution 4 dimensional fluid model, how can they claim that there use of the vast resources of humanity would be in any way better than the default? The default would be to slowly increase human wealth, more perfectly answering the wants and needs of the masses. Generally whatever they do should be worse, since at least if wealth is left in the hands of those who earned it it’ll grow.

    Spending it in huge quantities on something we’re not even sure if it IS a problem isn’t going to increase wealth any more than breaking someone’s window would just by virtue of him having to pay someone to make a new window. In any case, an intractable problem today with the trillions we are presently worth would be much lighter in the future, the technology would be cheaper and we’d have more money to spend on it, when we have far better data, better tools, and a thousand times the wealth and more. I can’t see future generations blaming us any more than we blame Lincoln for not achieving a moon landing during his presidency. Whereas, if in the future we suddenly have dramatically less wealth, that is a sign that civilization collapsed, and at that point what climate is doing is hardly going to be something we concern ourselves with. After all, our ancestors became modern humans in the midst of an ice age. Civilization won’t end because of climate, but if it did end, well, if the temperature went up 4 or 5 degrees I think our theoretical primitive descendants would like that better than if it was 4 or 5 degrees colder.


  4. fred.bloggs

    Great discussing this stuff with you guys. Where’s the appropriate setting and beverages when we need them?

    Just for fun, there’s been a story on the Australian ABC (think as in BBC, non-commercial) regarding a Queensland Senator Malcolm Roberts, who is defiantly anti-climate-change, and is also clear that coal mining interests amongst his constituency is an important part of his job as a representative.

    He wrote to NASA, with a “Please Explain” (see Pauline Hanson for the canonical Australian etymology of that phrase), and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), Gavin Schmidt, wrote a polite but quietly hilarious response, which is going viral on social media, at this URL:

    The story was only posted on the ABC News website an hour or so ago, so this reporting is hot off the press:


    Director Schmidt politely provided some fun points in response; some noting some “misconceptions” in Sen. Roberts letter:

    1. In the letter obtained by Fairfax Media and circulated widely on social media, the NASA scientist directed Senator Roberts to a number of links on the NASA website that published the entirety of NASA’s raw data and the code they use to analyse that data.

    2. The first “misconception” noted by Mr Schmidt related to a graph that Senator Roberts had included in his request.

    The graph, as Mr Schmidt pointed out, originated from the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN), a project run by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

    “Perhaps you might not be aware, but NOAA is a different US Govt. agency than NASA, and questions relating to their activities or products might be more usefully addressed to them,” Mr Schmidt said.

    3. The NASA climate scientist continued his letter to Mr Roberts by explaining homogeneity adjustments.

    “The claim that GISS has ‘removed the 1940s warmth’ in the Arctic is not correct,” he said.

    Mr Schmidt explained that temperature records were homogenised.

    This, he said, was a “necessary task to ensure that non-climatic influences in the analysis are minimised as much as possible”.

    Mr Schmidt urged Senator Roberts if he had any remaining questions, to perform his own analyses.

    “Finally, might I suggest that you avail yourself to the resources provided by the Bureau of Meteorology or CSIRO in Australia for further details on this topic,” the letter concluded.

    The news story also gives a link to [an edited montage of] a lively exchange between Sen. Roberts and particle physicist Prof. Brian Cox on the program “Q&A”, from mid-August this year. The URL for that story is:


    Have fun!


  5. fred.bloggs

    [Dave, onwyrdsdream and any lurkers/onlookers: Apologies if this is a duplicated post; my browser had a glitch.]

    First of all, great to have this discussion with you… where’s the appropriate beverages and location when you need them?!

    A news story hot off the press in just the last hour or so:

    NASA director debunks Malcolm Roberts’ theory on climate data manipulation in polite letter (the ABC in Australia is non-commercial, like the BBC in Britain):


    Sen. Roberts’ constituency includes quite a number of people that believe in coal as a jobs/wealth generator, and he stands up for them. His party, One Nation, led by Pauline Hanson, is an ultra-conservative (by Australian standards) party… perhaps Tea Party might be an analogy.

    His letter to the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), Gavin Schmidt, contains a mistake plus some misconceptions that are politely corrected in a letter that is now on social media at:

    * Sen. Roberts challenges NASA regarding a graph… published by a project of NOAA… oops!;

    * All of NASA’s raw data, and the programs used to analyse them, are available freely on the NASA website; and

    * The question of “homogeneity”, especially regarding Arctic data, trying to separate climate information from shorter-term phenomena, is also explained.

    There’s also a link to a mid-August ABC program called “Q&A”, where Sen. Roberts debated climate science/skepticism with Prof. Brian Cox…
    the video with excerpts from the exchanges is fun to watch.



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