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Monthly Archives: February 2014

First Americans May Have Lived on Land Bridge for 10,000 Years

Source: First Americans May Have Been Stuck in Beringia for Millennia

The “Beringian Standstill” hypothesis was first proposed by Latin American geneticists in 1997, as a way to explain the genetic evidence indicating that Native Americans started diverging from Siberians 25,000 years ago. In contrast, the archaeological evidence for the first Americans goes back only 15,000 years, to the end of the ice age known as the Last Glacial Maximum.

In this week’s issue of the journal Science, three researchers report new clues that support the claims for Beringia’s lost world. They say fossilized insects, plants and pollen extracted from Bering Sea sediment cores show that central Beringia was once covered by shrub tundra. That would have made it one of the few regions in the Arctic where wood was available for fuel.

Thousands of Siberian migrants might have found refuge in central Beringia until the climate warmed up enough for glaciers to recede, letting them continue their movement into the Americas, the researchers say.

The Oldest Piece of Earth’s Crust Dates to 4.4 Billion Years Old

The best resource in book form I have found that discusses how the age of the Earth is known is The Age of the Earth by Brent Dalrymple. It is a bit of a dry read but packed with info. There are also good summaries at Talk Origins the first being by Dalrymple himself.

It sounds like they used the Uranium-Lead concordia method (also described here), which takes advantage of the fact that there are two different ways Uranium decays into lead. One from U-238 to Pb-206 and another from U-235 to Pb-207. It is a particularly useful test because zircon doesn’t incorporate lead into its crystal at the time it forms.

Source: Oldest Rock Speck Zeros In On Earth’s Cooling Date

The oldest remaining grain of early Earth’s original solid rock crust has now been confirmed to be a 4.374-billion-year-old old zircon crystal from Jack Hills, Australia.

That age should settle a scientific debate over the accuracy of that mineral’s internal clock, and cuts the time from when Earth was hit by a Mars-sized body (which led to the formation of the Moon) and the cooling and creation of Earth’s first solid crust from 600 million years to 100 million years.

The age of a grain is figured by measuring the amounts of the parent uranium isotopes compared to the daughter lead isotopes.

The Psuedoscience of Whole Foods

Source: Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience

But you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.

I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market.

Nearby are eight full shelves of probiotics—live bacteria intended to improve general health. I invited a biologist friend who studies human gut bacteria to come take a look with me. She read the healing claims printed on a handful of bottles and frowned. “This is bullshit,” she said, and went off to buy some vegetables. Later, while purchasing a bag of chickpeas, I browsed among the magazine racks. There was Paleo Living, and, not far away, the latest issue of What Doctors Don’t Tell You. Pseudoscience bubbles over into anti-science. A sample headline: “Stay sharp till the end: the secret cause of Alzheimer’s.” A sample opening sentence: “We like to think that medicine works.”

Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey to be Available in Half a Billion Homes

I’m psyched. No pressure Mr. Tyson.

Source: Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey

Fox Networks Group (FNG) announced today that COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY will debut simultaneously across multiple U.S. Fox networks, including Fox Broadcasting Company (FOX), National Geographic Channel, FX, FXX, FXM, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, Nat Geo Wild, Nat Geo Mundo and FOX Life on Sunday, March 9 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT). This first multi-network launch event for Fox Networks Group, along with the series debut on Fox International Channels and National Geographic Channels International, will make COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY available on 220 channels in 181 countries, with an overall footprint of more than half a billion homes.

After the cross-network premiere event, COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY will continue its epic 13-episode run, airing Sundays (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX, and Mondays – with all-new bonus footage and behind-the-scenes content – on the National Geographic Channel (NGC) (10:00-11:00 PM ET/PT).

Egregious Misrepresentation of Lenski’s E. Coli Experiment

What do you do when a scientist runs a long-term experiment where E. coli bacteria evolve a new metabolic pathway in the lab thus completely refuting the creationist claim that evolution can’t add new information? You lie of course. Well, you get a friend of yours to make a video for you where he lies for you. That’s just what Ken Ham did during his recent debate with Bill Nye.

Richard Lenski’s lab has been running a long term evolution experiment with E. coli for the last 25 years. During the course of the experiment the bacteria evolved the ability to metabolize citrate. This is a direct and deadly blow to creationist claims that evolution can’t create “new information,” like new metabolic pathways.

The thing to realize is the researchers still have the strains frozen and available to work with, in addition to having “snapshot” samples taken every so often during the experiment. Because of this they are able to sequence the genomes of the relevant strains. From doing so they know this is definitely not a case of an existing ability that was suddenly “turned on.”

The link below includes commentary by one of the experimenters involved.

Source: Zachary Blount on “Ham on Nye” Debate, Follow-up #3 | Telliamed Revisited

Of course, this attention has also been a bit troubling because it has led to repeated disparagement, dismissal, distortion, and misrepresentation of my work by both professional and amateur creationists. These creationists often get entirely wrong the work my colleagues and I toiled long and hard to do, likely because they haven’t bothered to read our papers, learn the details and methods, or think much about the results. (I suspect some duplicity is in there, too.) Reflexive, unthinking dismissal bothers me – maybe because my parents and devoutly Southern Baptist Granny told me when I was a child that this is something that civilized folk simply should not do.

The second argument was more direct. Both Ham and Fabich asserted that the Cit+ function did not evolve because using citrate did not involve “any kind of new information … it’s just a switch that gets turned on and off.” (Fabich went on to state that this “switch” is what we reported. That is emphatically not true. It beggars belief that anyone, much less a trained microbiologist, could actually read our 2012 paper, where we reported the genetic basis of Cit+, and come away thinking this.) Variations on that wording are often used by creationists who discuss the citrate work because it implies that Cit+ arose because of a pre-existing regulatory switch and involved no evolution at all. But that simply is not the case – that wording, dare I say it, is a lie.

Regular E. coli cells have no existing genetic regulatory circuitry that “flips a switch” to allow them to start growing on citrate in the presence of oxygen.

Silly Claims by Ken Ham About Evidence for a Young Earth

This article tackles a few of the claims made by Ken Ham in his debate with Bill Nye. As is the norm with creationist arguments the claims are fact-challenged, full of shoddy (or dare I say deceitful) logic, and have been debunked for decades. I found this excerpt particularly amusing for its analogy.

Ken Ham uses young earth arguments debunked over 20 years ago in Bill Nye debate

The “amount of helium,” “amount of sediment in the sea” and other “amount” arguments have also been debunked because the young earth creationists only take into account the factors that add certain substances and then ignore the processes that remove these substances and the point of which equilibrium is met.

Through measuring the amount of trash in your house, we can conclude that your home is no more than a week old. We can reach that conclusion by factoring the trash that comes into your residence every day and by completely ignoring the weekly trash pickup or any other consideration. Using half of equations in conjunction with “we don’t know something therefore god did it” is how young earth creationist arguments work.

Climate Change Basics and Evidence

After 8 years of total inaction on climate change it appears that the people in Washington might finally take some kind of steps to start changing the amount of CO2 we release in to the atmosphere. As this possibility gets closer to happening the forces that are opposed have started to ramp up their efforts to muddy the waters. The strategy seems to be to make things just confusing enough for us laymen to push some of us from supporters of doing something to either opposed or not sure. From outrageous accusations of fraud based on nothing more than innuendo, like the stolen and quote mined CRU emails, to a resurgence of much debunked claims flooding the UK press the heat is on, so to speak.

Since I’ve been reading about the subject recently I wanted to write something about it. I wasn’t really sure what I could add though. There are already some very excellent sites out there and I don’t think I could really do a better job than them. I finally decided I would just collect together some information from a couple different sources, if for no other reason that to have it all in one place for myself. Also, I have been personally surprised at just how clear and simple the evidence for The Big Picture® actually is. For all the arguing coming from the critics you would think it was all pretty complicated. While the details may be complicated, the overall picture is pretty clear.

All credit is due to the sites I am using. Primarily Skeptical Science but also Real Climate for research purposes. All the nifty graphs come from Skeptical Science though it is ultimately getting them from the original scientific literature and/or the IPCC Reports.

The Big Picture
Taking the broadest view of climate change the argument is basically this. There are gases in the atmosphere that absorb and trap long wave radiation keeping it close to the earth. CO2 is one of these gases. The concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are increasing. The increase is due to human activity. Observation shows the amount of radiation escaping the planet is in fact going down. Observation shows the amount of radiation re-emitted toward the earth from the greenhouse gases are in fact going up. Observation shows the earth’s land, atmosphere and oceans are in fact accumulating energy (heat).

Greenhouse Gases
Anyone who took a intro chemistry course in college, or maybe even high school, might remember doing a lab where you saw something like this:

or this:

What you were seeing was the emission spectrum of a specific element (hydrogen and iron in the examples above). Each element has a unique pattern of wavelengths where it absorbs or emits electromagnetic radiation (a.k.a. light).  Above we are looking at the visible spectrum but the electromagnetic spectrum also extends to shorter wavelengths like ultraviolet and X-ray and to longer wavelengths like infrared, microwave and radio wave. Chemical compounds of more than one atom also have these same types of patterns.

When sunlight comes to the Earth it is in the visible and ultraviolet part of the spectrum. After the radiation is reflected or absorbed and re-emitted from the surface it is in the infrared part of the spectrum. CO2 is known to absorb wavelengths in this part of the spectrum. This is known both just from our knowledge of theoretical physics and chemistry, and from direct observation in the lab. This research goes back long before climate change research was even a concern.

It stands to reason that if there is more of a radiation absorbing gas in the atmosphere then more radiation will be absorbed. When that happens the molecules become more energetic, sometimes transferring their energy to other molecules thus increasing the kinetic energy (energy from motion) in the system. Temperature is simply a measure of average kinetic energy in a system, so this means the temperature will go up. Another possibility is the molecule will just reemit the radiation in all directions, including back to the surface of the Earth.

CO2 In The Atmosphere Is Increasing
This one is pretty simple. CO2 has been measured for several decades at over a hundred different stations. This video shows the change in parts per million over time.

Radiation Escape At CO2 Wavelengths
This is just a matter of direct observation. Since 1970, the radiation escaping the Earth at CO2 wavelengths has gone down. At least 3 different studies have shown this result using data from a few different satellites. This graph shows the change that occurred between 1970 and 1996. More recent studies have shown the trend has continued.

Re-emitted Radiation At Earth’s Surface
I mentioned above that once CO2 absorbs radiation that it re-emits it. This can happen in any direction. Some will leave the atmosphere, some will be absorbed by other molecules, some will come back to the Earth’s surface. Recordings at the surface show that this is indeed happening precisely at the wavelengths of CO2. The graph shows the increase in radiation reaching the earth at various wavelengths since 1973.

Humans Are Responsible For The CO2 Increase
So how do we know the increase in CO2 is from humans? Our first indication should just be common sense. We know that we are using fuels that release CO2 when burned. We are burning a lot of the stuff. 29 gigatonnes per year to be exact. The stuff has to go somewhere and we are seeing an increase of it in the atmosphere. The amount we are releasing is greater than the amount of increase in the atmosphere, which is 12 gigatonnes per year.

It could be though that maybe something else is absorbing what we release. Clearly all 29 gigatonnes are not staying in the atmosphere. In fact the oceans and the Earth’s biomass (plants) are taking some of it up. The oceans are absorbing some of it at about a rate of 6 gigatonnes per year and the biomass at the rate of 11 gigatonnes per year. That leaves the 12 gigatonnes increase we see in the atmosphere.

There is more evidence than that though. There are 2 types of carbon atoms that differ only by the number of neutrons in the nucleus. One is called C12 the other C13. Fossil fuels have a higher concentration of C12 to C13 than the atmosphere does. (Side note: this is because the fuels are essentially fossilized plant matter and plants “prefer” C12 since it is lighter and takes less energy to use). If the CO2 increase is from our fossil fuel burning then we should expect the ratios of C12 to C13 to change.

The below graph shows the measured change in ratio. There are 2 things to note about this graph. First is that it is using the C13/C12 ratio which means as fossil fuel emissions go up(i.e. C12 goes up), the ratio goes down. Also the scale on the right side of the graph is inverted. Notice the scale gets more negative as you go up. This is to more easily see the relationship between emissions and the ratio.

Is It Getting Warmer?
The unequivocal answer here is yes. I think we have already seen that if it isn’t we have some serious explaining to do. Less radiation is measured escaping. More radiation is measured at the surface. If it is not getting hotter then where the heck is it going?

From all the bickering from critics you would think that this is a contentious issue. “It hasn’t warmed since ’98”. “The CRU temperatures are a fraud.” And on and on. It is actually a pretty open and shut case. The ocean is a much better absorber of heat that the land or the atmosphere. Those who question warming are simply forgetting to look at the oceans!

From the graph we can probably see why the rise in land temperatures can be so hard to spot. It is a small fraction of the total. But the oceans absorbing that much heat has consequences as well. It melts ice which normally would reflect incoming radiation better than land does. This can lead to a feedback where hotter oceans lead to more trapped heat which leads to hotter oceans, etc. Hotter oceans also mean more evaporation which of course leads to more precipitation (everyone enjoying the massive snow precipitation this winter? get used to it).

Just how much heat is that anyway? As John Cook at Skeptical Science puts it, “imagine 190,000 nuclear power plants pouring their energy output directly into our oceans”. Thats a lot of heat!

Cycles Within Cycles or What Climate Change Doesn’t Predict
If someone said to you that the fact it gets colder at night was some kind of proof against global warming you’d probably give them a funny look. You might do the same if they said that the fact that there are still winters and still summers meant climate change was a scam. Yet, those are precisely the kinds of arguments people, especially conservative commentators, make all the time.

Climate change theory does not claim CO2 is the only driver of climate. It does not claim we will stop having summers and winters. It does not claim that every year will be hotter than the last in a continuous upward spiral. There are other cycles going on. One cold winter does not invalidate a long term trend. And neither does one big snow fall. In fact , as mentioned above, larger precipitation events are a predicted consequence of climate change. More heat = more evaporation = bigger snowfalls. There may be less total snowfalls due to the temperatures dropping to 32 less of the year but the events we do have may be bigger. In fact this is exactly what we have seen this year. The Earth as a whole had the hottest January on record!

What climate change theory does say is that those other cycles do not account for the changes we see. For instance the sun has had slightly cooling trend over the last 30 years or so. Other than the sun there are exchanges of heat between the oceans and the land and atmosphere (El Nino, La Nina ). These other factors can easily lead to year to year fluctuations but the overall trend (over decades) is up.

Skeptical Science
If you want to know more, or have specific questions you’ve wondered about, please stop by Skeptical Science. It is a great site and he has indexed most of the claims climate change critics make and gives answers by explaining the relevant scientific studies. He even has discussions of the claims being made in the news by critics the last few months. If you really like it you might even want to click the donate button on his front page. It is so nice to have a place that uses the science instead of spin to discuss this important topic