Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Ice Loss in the Arctic

I've been waiting for the Piomas data on Arctic ice volume for September to appear here so that I could draw a graph.

It appeared today. And here's the graph I wanted to draw (click to enlarge):

In the 1980s, the minimum summer ice volume was a little under 14,700 km³. As is clear from the red plot, 77.8% of this was gone by September 2012.

The trend of this graph is clear: every reasonable extrapolation of the data hits zero well before 2020.

The video below by Peter Sinclair, including footage from the BBC, the American Meteorological Society, NASA and NOAA, puts it into context. The loss is unprecedented in the last two thousand years, possibly much further. 

The main impact is an increase in sunlight absorbed by the oceans, adding yet more energy to the chaotic system we know as the atmosphere, and driving weather systems further away from long-term stable patterns and towards more extreme variability and unpredictability. 

The outcome for the future: more frequent and more severe storms, floods, drought and other meteorological extremes, making it more risky and more expensive to grow crops, making vulnerable people on marginal lands even more vulnerable, reducing the safe area of the world for housing even as populations increase, and so on. I don't think there are any serious climate scientists who would dispute this.

Twenty years ago I wondered what effect a severe climate threat that we as a global community are creating would have on our attitudes, our perception of ourselves as a species and our ethics. Now that it's happening, we can see for ourselves:
  • A minority, including virtually everyone who studies the climate or the biosphere in any scientific depth (science being "what we do to keep us from lying to ourselves"), is deeply affected by what they have come to understand and consistently call for urgent change at the individual, local, corporate, regional and geopolitical levels;
  • An influential minority opt for utter delusion or wilful ignorance, crying foul at those who gather the data and frantically producing vast quantities of anti-climate-science propaganda, to the delight of (and often with the brazen financial support of) stakeholders who feel threatened by the idea of people accepting that it is real;
  • And the vast majority of people on the planet are unable or unwilling to devote much thought or emotional effort to assessing what's going on or reflecting on the implications, either because the information simply isn't available to them, or because they consistently choose style over content and stick to preferences, tribalism and tradition rather than perspective. Or they're too scared to look; or they're too pre-occupied to look; or they've just come to believe that there's nothing else they need to know. After all, who wants to be told that they're lacking in perspective? The idea of dwelling on the big picture probably doesn't look like a great deal of fun to a lot of people.
It's all understandable; but if that's basically how humanity responds in the face of a major crisis, then we're stuffed.

My feeling is that this is only the first stage in a process of growing awareness, and the message of the wilfully ignorant will slowly but surely look more and more ridiculous and be listened to less and less. We'll get there in the end; but it's going to be a bumpy ride. How bumpy depends on what we do with the rest of our lives.

It strikes me that the more we can raise awareness of it in normal social contexts, rather than in polarised debates or in statements by activist organisations or special interest groups, the better. The future will be very different to the present, for all of our everyday lives. Humanity's role in climate change will have to become a topic of everyday conversation and rumination before we'll really start wanting to make the deep changes we need to make in order to begin slowing the destruction.

No government can devote an electorate's resources to fix a crisis and a threat to future generations if the electorate are only peripherally aware of it. And no company can devote funds to acting ethically if their customers only base their choices on cost and quality of the product. Nobody's going to fix this but us – the people – wanting it fixed, and living like we want it fixed.

We're responsible for being aware, for communicating and living according to what we know, and for encouraging others to do so too. Preferably without making it easy for those bent on disagreeing to demonise us. If more of us can do that a bit more, over time we'll get somewhere.

To those who are already devoting their lives to doing just that: thank you. 
To those who want to do more: good luck.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Quantum Mechanics In Your Face

I love the mysteries of nature. But what I love even more is when something that may appear mysterious, and is frequently misrepresented and misunderstood as being mysterious, is exposed in all its logical clarity by a master of the subject.

Some familiarity with linear algebra and the notion of quantum states as objects in Hilbert spaces is necessary if you want to follow the logic as it's presented. That's a question of obtaining competence with a mathematical toolkit, which isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it's available to anyone who takes it on.

It's easier, of course, to keep it mysterious by not fully taking that step, and there's nothing wrong with that. But keep a beady eye out for those who assert that quantum mechanics is fundamentally mystical or paradoxical or incoherent, and perhaps aren't sufficiently imaginative to recognise that there are subjects for which far more clarity exists than they may experience themselves. Especially those who make a living by doing so.

There are a lot of them about.

So here we have a public lecture on quantum mechanics by Sidney Coleman of Harvard University, given in 1994. In it, he explains how quantum mechanics is not at all reliant on:
  • anything special about the measurement process
  • the collapse of the wavefunction
  • indeterminacy
  • anything inherently probabilistic or random
  • non-locality or spooky action at a distance
It's fashionable to go all out to get people excited about the weirdness of quantum mechanics. And that's great... to start with. Hopefully the people who are truly excited by it will, at some stage, want to know what's going on, rather than just holding on to the idea of it being weird.

Bursting the mystical bubble of something doesn't make the wonder of it go away. It opens it right up, and opens up new worlds with it. As Feynman put it, "It only adds. I can't understand how it subtracts."

If you prefer to get your insights from the greats while watching the wonders of nature and listening to music rather than attending lectures, then I don't blame you. Watch this video instead. It's nice :)

Tip of the hat to Matt Strassler.