Big hit beats global warming

Global warming is for sissies. Here's a macho problem for dedicated environmentalists.
Javier Cuadros | Feb 21 2009 | comment  

We have gone through a cold spell in Britain, with heavy snowfalls in many parts of the country. I knew, then, that it was coming and it did come -- right on the first day: a newspaper article reassuring us that these fluctuations in weather conditions are no more than noise and do not affect the well-established existence of man-made global warming.

I will not discuss this or similar articles because it is evident that a local short-term temperature change is meaningless against the long-term pattern. I am, though, interested in the predictability of the appearance of these stories in the media. The campaign on global warming is on and it has to be more explicit in moments like this when our subconscious may make us waver just so faintly. Lest we forget.

The article in the Daily Telegraph said that this spell of bad weather was not simply irrelevant, but was yet another confirmation of global warming. Curiously, it is a feature of man-made global warming that every fact confirms it: rising temperatures or decreasing temperatures, drought or torrential rain, tornadoes and hurricanes or changes in the habits of migratory birds. No matter what the weather, some model of global warming offers a watertight explanation.

For a scientist like me, this sounds fishy. I imagine that there are a good number of models, each with different assumptions and results, but we are never given a general view of these models, what data they use, how their results compare and where and when their predictions apply. The impression is that science popularisers cherry-pick whichever happens to provide the results that match the news of the day.

One very useful tool in this respect has been the conceptual change from global warming to the more adaptable one of climate change. The bigger the target, the easier to hit it. Somebody should take care that the target is not so big that it becomes impossible to miss.

I was away for my Christmas holidays in Spain recently, and there I had more first-hand evidence of the campaign. I met a fellow scientist whom I had not seen in many years. I knew he had been working on carbon accumulation in soils. When he began this work at the end of the 1980s, global warming was starting to make the news. He naturally thought that this was a study of great potential interest. He carried on for years, during which the political situation around the issue changed.

The conclusion of his investigation is that, globally, the ability of soil to accumulate carbon is 100 percent greater than the current estimation. Here is a piece of science of great relevance to the hottest issue of the moment and one that deserves to be looked into in detail, as it affects our predictions substantially.

The response of the research institution in which my colleague works was to refuse to publish his results. There was no peer-review of the methods or science in the work. My colleague’s track record shows that he is a competent scientist with numerous papers published in highly-regarded international journals. The quality of his research was not the issue. The decision was political. His laboratory is directly dependent on the regional government in that part of Spain, and in this government’s agenda global warming features prominently. My colleague’s results were seen as possibly undermining the strength of their case.

This is not an isolated case. Research institutions have issued statements positioning themselves in the matter. They want to be in -- in with the media, in with public acceptance, in with Government policies, in with those who allocate funds.

Ethics is a central issue in the global warming debate, which is all about protecting future human generations. But ethical considerations also prescribe that research institutions should not manoeuvre to make the best of their opportunities at the cost of coercing researchers. Science’s goal is truth about nature and this can only be found in a climate of intellectual freedom.

Global warming has become a powerful political tool. One can see the reasons. Proving it wrong (if wrong it is) is sufficiently difficult to allow using it for quite a long time. There is an element of personal guilt, as we all contribute to global warming, but not too much. Basically it is the rich multinationals which are responsible. Thus we are called both to a cathartic personal conversion and to a noble struggle against the evil polluters of our fragile planet. All this helps to suppress the dissatisfaction of what otherwise could be a life empty of worthwhile goals. Global warming is therefore an immensely appealing cause.

However, if we are really concerned about the Earth’s future, here is another serious danger: a large meteorite impact.

The earth has been struck by large meteorites regularly, albeit with decreasing frequency. The impact record is well documented and there is little doubt about the frequency of such events. We have learned about it from a number of sources. In some cases, the actual impact crater has been preserved and we can measure the age of the impact. In other cases the crater has disappeared, presumably because plate tectonics movement has caused the corresponding crust slab to sink below the crust, but there are signs of the impact in other parts of the planet as the debris settled and generated rocks of measurable age.

Finally, we know about the number of large bodies going around in the Solar System and their probability of hitting planets. After all, the planets were formed by accretion of matter in which larger bodies kept capturing smaller ones passing by. A sizeable proportion of the mass of the planets was added by large impacts. The reason why large impacts become less frequent is that planets have been clearing the solar system of these smaller bodies by incorporating them.

Well then, statistically, one of these impacts is overdue. A large meteorite impact is much more lethal than global warming, if only because the effects are so swift: immediate and complete destruction locally and extremely severe destruction in days to months around the globe. For a complete description of the effects of such an event one can refer to Walter Alvarez’s book Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Crater of Doom, which tells the story of the unfolding of the hypothesis of a meteorite impact causing the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period. It is great fun to read.

There is recent evidence of these phenomena. In 1994 we witnessed the collision of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter. In 1996 the Earth had a near-miss with an asteroid which missed us by about 450,000 kilometres, an equivalent in time of four hours. This asteroid was discovered only a few days before the near-miss.

Bear in mind that there are thousands of asteroids near us, of all sizes, and they can cause devastation ranging from local to planetary scale. The Spaceguard and Near-Earth Object programmes in the US are tracking them. Currently, the ESA is preparing a mission called Don Quijote to test the deflection of an asteroid by impact with a spacecraft. Other models of defence have appeared in the media. However, pleas by scientists for more funding have been futile.

Why aren't environmentalists interested? Even a rather small asteroid would cause a local disaster that would make the worst oil spill a laughable matter by comparison. The science is there, the catastrophic effects are there. But something is missing-- there are no baddies. Who is to be blamed if a big rock drops out of nowhere? And what am I supposed to do about it? The problem and the response are distant and impersonal. They do not generate emotion and thus the asteroid menace has no value as a political weapon.

But, who knows? An intelligently orchestrated campaign could spiral into an ever-present news story which pricks our consciences and makes Small-Solar-System-Body-Counter-Impact policies a political hot potato, dominates the government's research budget and even provides thousands of jobs. The time to start is now.

Javier Cuadros is a specialist in earth science. He works in London.

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