TCS Daily


Antarctica Is Cooling

By Herbert Inhaber - April 2, 2002 12:00 AM

So the Antarctic is cooling after all. Years of news reports claimed that it was warming, and that gigantic icebergs would calve off and melt, turning New York's Central Park into a pond. But the boy who cried "wolf" cried once too often. It turns out that most of the Antarctic measurements in the past had been taken on a small peninsula, and not over the vast wind-blown expanse of the frozen continent.

Why did the past measurements concentrate on one peninsula? This is where the scientific outposts are. It reminds me of the old story of the drunk who lost his car keys at night. He crawled around near a lamppost, where a policeman confronted him. The constable asked him if he had lost the keys near the post. "No", was the reply, "but there's light here."

The story is more than a hoary joke. The models used as a the basis for the proposed Kyoto treaty predict that the polar regions, both North and South, would be the first to see increased warming due to greenhouse gases. But now apparently the opposite is true, at least for Antarctica.

As a footnote to all this, the Larsen B ice shelf recently collapsed and headed out to sea, producing crows of "I told you so" from global warming scaremongers. But at the same time, five other ice sheets that have been studied for years seem to be increasing in size. Since most of the continent is getting colder, the total amount of ice apparently is increasing, not decreasing, regardless of what one ice shelf does or does not do.

Predictive Models

There is nothing wrong with using models for prediction. Physics can be described as a set of models, and as a physicist I appreciate this. The astronauts who went to the moon bet their lives on the validity of Newton's models of force and gravitation.

But Newton's models (and a host of other physics models) have been proved right in a million applications, at least on a large scale (on the atomic scale, his predictions were modified by Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck and a host of other physicists).

Anyone who has attended a scientific conference knows that speakers present various models of nature, many of which are discarded later as not in accordance with reality. This is a normal part of science, and nobody worries too much about it.

But in the case of the Kyoto Treaty, industrialized nations are betting billions or even trillions of dollars that the vastly complicated models, attempting to combine meteorology, physics, chemistry, hydrology, mathematics and other scientific fields, are right. Surely such an enormous bet has never been taken before in the history of mankind.

If the models had always been proven correct, as in the case of Newton's laws on a macroscopic level, there would be no cause for apprehension. But the Antarctic evidence, and other data too numerous to list here, suggests that human hubris has taken over - we don't know as much as we think we do. "[W]e really don't understand the climate dynamics of Antarctica," said Peter Dornan to the Christian Science Monitor. Dornan, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led a recent study of climate in Antarctica.

Climate and Change

Climate modelers like to take the long view, attempting to predict temperatures a century from now. Let's take the long view backward, and see how humans have coped with warmth. The answer should help abate concerns over global warming.

Start at the beginning. From all evidence, humans first began in Central Africa, not known for many snowstorms. Our ancestors somehow adapted to high temperatures, and prospered.

Now consider the major ancient civilizations. The Babylonians and Sumerians did well in hot climates. The Egyptian dynasties built magnificent pyramids and tombs, all in hot climates. Even in China, most of the fabulously wealthy cities of ancient times were in the warm parts of the nation, not in frosty Manchuria.

This does not mean that the ancients necessarily liked the hot climates. Although we know a lot about them, if they made any comments about the weather, most have been lost. But somehow they managed to cope with blazing hot days and humid nights.

Contrast this with northern peoples. None of this is meant as criticism of such groups as the Canadian Eskimos, who are among the most artistic communities on earth. But when we think of magnificent civilizations of yore, somehow people in cold climates don't come to mind. In Europe, the Vikings in frosty Scandinavia built a civilization of sorts in the Dark Ages. Yet most of what they owned was stolen from lands in warmer climes.

Human civilization started in warm climates, prospered in those climates compared to frosty regions, and will likely do so in the future.
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