Archives: 11/2010

The Current Wisdom

The Current Wisdom  is a series of monthly posts in which Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

The Current Wisdom only comments on science appearing in the refereed, peer-reviewed literature, or that has been peer-screened prior to presentation at a scientific congress.

 More Good News About Sea Level Rise

In the last (and first) installment of The Current Wisdom, I looked at how projections of catastrophic sea level rise—some as high as 20 feet this century—are falling by the wayside as more real-world data comes in. In the last month, there’s been even more hot-off-the-press studies that a) continue to beat down the notion of disastrous inundations, and b) received no media attention whatsoever.

Last month, I featured a new analysis which showed that the calibration scheme for satellite gravity measurements was out of whack, leading to an overestimation loss of glacial ice from Greenland and Antarctica by about 50%.   

This time around, there are two brand-new studies which further dampen the fears of rapid sea level rise spawned by a warming climate.  The one estimates that about 25% of the current sea level rise has nothing whatsoever to do with “global warming” from any cause, but instead is contributed by our increasing removal of fossil groundwater to suit our growing water demands. And the second estimates that the total sea level rise contribution of one of Antarctica’s biggest outlet glaciers—one which has been called “the weak underbelly” of the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet—is most likely only going to be about 1/2 inch by the year 2100. Neither met the press, which is why you are reading about them here.

Last month we concluded that “things had better get cooking in a hurry if the real world is going to approach these popular estimates [3 to 20 feet of sea level rise by 2100]. And there are no signs that such a move is underway.” Now, there are even more signs that the massive sea level rise candle is flaming out as rapidly as cap-and-trade in an election year.

A team of scientists from the Netherlands, headed by the appropriately surnamed Yoshihide Wada, have been investigating the magnitude and trends of groundwater usage around the world. For millennia, humans  “mined” water under the surface, but the volumes were globally inconsequential.

Wada et al. found many regions, including the Midwestern and Southwestern U.S., in which groundwater extraction exceeds groundwater replenishment. Around the world, Wada et al. found that the total excess was about 30 cubic miles per year in 1960, which rose to about 68 by the year 2000.

What on earth does this have to do with sea-level rise?

Remember that, outside of nuclear reactions, matter is never destroyed.  Water taken out of the ground either runs off to a creek and makes it back to the ocean, or it evaporates.  Because the total water vapor concentration in the atmosphere is constant (depending upon the average temperature of the water/atmosphere interface), the additional evaporation is available for precipitation, adding to that which runs off.   

68 cubic miles of added water to the ocean each year amounts to about three-hundredths of an inch of sea level. Granted, this is a small amount, but (despite the scare headlines emanating from our greener friends), the annual rate of global sea level rise during the past 20 years has only been about 0.12 inches per year.  So groundwater extraction accounts for about a quarter (.03/.12) of the current rate of sea level rise.

This is a rather large bite out of the apple of sea level rise, and it means that estimates of just how much sea level rise is being caused by ongoing global warming have to be slashed.

In a much-hyped paper appearing in Science magazine back in early 2007, Stefan Rahmstorf and colleagues (including NASA’s infamous Cassandra James Hansen, the Nouriel Roubini of climatology), proclaimed that sea level rise is occurring at a rate which was at the very high end of the projections from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—fuelling claims that the IPCC sea level rise projections from climate change were too conservative.

(Hansen is also the lonely champion of the notion that sea level will rise 20 feet in the next 89 years.  Twenty years ago, he predicted that New York’s Westside Highway would be inundated by now.)[1]

If the Rahmstorf et al. analysis were updated through 2010 and the impact from groundwater depletion figured in, it would turn out that the observed rate of sea level rise from global warming would fall at or below the IPCC’s mid-range projection which ultimately results in about 15 inches of sea level rise by 2100. Such a finding of course would ignite very  little hype—which is why you are reading it here.

Ah, but you say, don’t the global warming doomsayers tell us that  the rate of sea level rise will accelerate rapidly as the climate warms and glaciers atop Greenland and Antarctica slip off into the seas, and so the total rise by the end of the century will be much above a value based on an extrapolation of the present?

The idea—graphically portrayed in Al Gore’s science fiction film—is that summer meltwater will flow down the, say, 10,000 feet required to get to the bottom of Greenland’s ice, and “lubricate” the flowing glaciers.  (Of course, the reason glaciers flow to begin with is because the pressure is so great that the bottom water is liquid, but never mind that fact).

Last time, I noted a recent paper by Faezeh Nick and colleagues that basically pooh-poohed the idea that surface meltwater does this. 

Offing the PIG

Another oft-repeated threat is that there are a plethora of glaciers in Antarctica that are grounded in the oceans, and that higher water temperatures will lead to melting from below that will ultimately “unground” them, floating them and causing rapid retreat.  

Alarmist fingers are most often pointed at Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier (PIG), the leading candidate to unground and raise sea levels by up to 4.5 feet a relatively short amount of time.  It was Terence Hughes (from University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, which—surprise—thrives on climate change) in the early 1980s that labeled the PIG as the “weak underbelly” of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet for, in his view, having the biggest potential to contribute a lot of sea level rise in a short amount of time.  Hughes’s belief has become popular of late as the rate of retreat of the PIG increased in the early 1990s.

In 2008,  University of Colorado’s Tad Pfeffer and colleagues projected that the PIG (and the nearby Thwaites glacier) would add between 4.3 and 15.4 inches of sea level rise by 2100.  In early 2010, the reliably alarmist New Scientist headlined “Major Antarctic Glacier ‘Past its Tipping Point’”, inaccurately quoting Oxford’s Richard Katz who actually said “the take-home message is that we should be concerned about tipping points in West Antarctica and we should do a lot more work to investigate” (translation: can I scare you into sending me more money?).

But throwing cold water in the PIG pen are the prolific polar researcher Ian Joughin and his colleagues.  In a new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, Joughin et al. reported their efforts to simulate the future behavior of PIG using a “basinscale glaciological model” that they verified against a large amount of satellite observations documenting the flow rate and thinning rate of the PIG. Once they were happy that their model depicted the observations correctly, they turned to look at what the future may hold in store.

What they found came as a bit of a surprise. 

Instead of an accelerating retreat, it seems that the PIG’s still-tiny decline may remain constant. Joughin et al., write:

PIG’s dramatic retreat and speedup may not indicate a trend of continued acceleration, and speeds may stabilize at their current elevated levels as thinning continues.

This result ties into another investigation of  recent PIG behavior that was published this summer.  In that one, Jenkins et al. concluded that the geometry of the sea floor upon which the PIG rested is what allowed for a rapid retreat when warming first commenced. In other words, the PIG was predisposed to a rapid response—initially.

When Joughin et al. plug potential future climate change into their glaciological model of PIG, they found that the initial acceleration is not maintained for very long, and instead soon stabilizes. This has large implications. Instead of PIG contributing many inches of sea level this century, they found about a single inch—and that was the worst case.  Joughin and colleagues best estimate is something closer to ½ inch.

Joughin et al. conclude:

While we have not modeled the other [nearby Antarctic] glaciers, PIG is the most rapidly changing and largest contributor to the current imbalance, indicating future model-derived upper bounds on 21st century sea level for the entire region are likely to fall well below the heuristically derived 11-to-39 cm upper bound [Pfeffer et al., 2008].

Hardly catastrophic.

Sooner or later, these facts may penetrate into public consciousness… but until then I hope you’ll continue to consult The Current Wisdom.


Hughes, T. J., 1981, The Weak Underbelly of the West Antarctic Ice-Sheet. Journal of Glaciology, 27, 518–525.

Jenkins, A., et al., 2010. Observations Beneath Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica and Implications for its Retreat. Nature Geoscience, 3(7), 468–472, doi:10.1038/ngeo890.

Katz, R. F., and  M. G. Worster, 2010. Stability of Ice-sheet Grounding Lines. Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 466, 1597-1620.

Nick, F. M., et al., 2009. Large-scale Changes in Greenland Outlet Glacier DynamicsTtriggered at the Terminus. Nature Geoscience, DOI:10.1038, published on-line January 11, 2009.

Pfeffer, W. T., Harper, J. T., and S. O’Neel, 2008. Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-century Sea-level Rise. Science, 321, 1340-1343.

Rahmstorf, S., et al., 2007. Recent Climate Observations Compared to Projections. Science, 316, 709.

Joughin, I., Smith, B. E., and D. M. Holland, 2010. Sensitivity of 21st Century Sea Level to Ocean-induced Thinning of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L20502, doi:10.1029/2010GL044819.

Wada, Y., et al. 2010. Global Depletion of Groundwater Resources. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L20402, doi:10.1029/2010GL044571.


[1] In 1988, author Robert Reiss asked Hansen, whose office is on Broadway, what greenhouse-effect changes would occur in the next twenty years.  He said, among other things, “The West Side Highway [which runs along the Hudson River] will be under water. And there will be tape across the windows across the street because of high winds. And the same birds won’t be there. The trees in the median strip will change.” Then he said, “There will be more police cars.” Why? “Well, you know what happens to crime when the heat goes up.”

Libertarians in the News

Libertarians are getting strange new respect. Or at least the major media are mentioning libertarians and libertarian ideas more often. Just a few items I noticed this weekend:

New York Times political reporter Matt Bai profiles David Kirkham, founder of the Utah Tea Party, one of the first Tea Party groups to draw political blood when it knocked off Sen. Robert Bennett in the Utah Republican caucuses. Kirkham, he says, is a classic car enthusiast and a father of four. He was largely apolitical until he saw how socialism worked in Poland and then was shocked by the bailouts and overspending here at home. And, Bai says, now he’s a “self-described libertarian.”

The Los Angeles Times reports from Flushing Township, Michigan, on how four “budget hawks,” including libertarian economist Mike Gardner, got themselves elected to the township Board of Trustees and started cutting the budget. So far they have “shrunk the Police Department from 13 officers to six, eliminated the building inspector and park staff positions, and cut board members’ dental, vision and guaranteed pension benefits.”

And my favorite: The Washington Post speculates on how a newspaper in 2020 might look back on the legalization of drugs if it happened in 2010. One of their fantasies:

As Ohio and other states ask their voters to make a choice on marijuana, the decades-old debate over coast-to-coast legalization shows signs of becoming a central focus in the 2024 presidential campaign. Hillary Rodham Clinton, again seeking her party’s nomination, may back legalization as a way to win over libertarian-minded voters who still think of her as a big-government Democrat, even after her stint as chairman of the board at the American Enterprise Institute.

Yeah, it’s hard to imagine those libertarian-minded voters not liking Ms. Big Government, even after she allied herself with the think tank that housed many of the intellectual architects of the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, here’s a story on a non-libertarian politico. In a wrap-up of Democratic problems in the Midwest, the Washington Post tells of one activist at Ohio State University:

Joey Longley, a 19-year-old sophomore, showed up on campus as an evangelical Republican. But five of the seven young men in his Bible group were Democrats, and he found that his Democratic friends shared his socially conservative, fiscally progressive views.

David Kirby and I have written a lot about fiscally conservative, socially liberal voters and how they give a libertarian tilt to voters often called “moderate” or “centrist.” But this is a reminder that some swing voters hold the opposite set of views.

On Election Eve…

With Tuesday’s election widely predicted to bring a near-historic shake-up of the political establishment, here are some things we can say for certain even before the first results are tallied:

  1. This election will be a win for economic conservatives, not social conservatives.  Not surprisingly given the economic climate, economic issues dominated the campaign, with social issues barely registering.  This was particularly helpful for Republicans, since economically conservative, socially moderate suburban voters, who backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008, switched to Republicans this year. There is a lesson here for Republicans in the future.
  2. In the months leading up to the election, we have heard a great deal about the so-called “civil war” in the Republican Party.   As it turns out, there wasn’t one.  Despite some spirited, even bitter, primary fights, Republicans of all stripes were able to unify around a common opposition to the Obama agenda.  But having achieved electoral success, Republicans will now be forced to confront the serious divisions in their party: tea partiers vs. the GOP establishment; economic conservatives vs. social conservatives; budget hawks vs. neoconservatives.  The “civil war” will be back with a vengeance.
  3. Voters will choose Republicans in this election because they aren’t Democrats.  It doesn’t mean that voters have fallen in love with the Republican party.  In fact, polls show that Republicans remain only slightly more popular than used car salesmen—or Democrats.  At best, voters are willing to give Republicans one last chance.  If they don’t deliver, it will be a long, long time before they get another one.
  4. No issue hurt Democrats as much as the health care bill.  It wasn’t just that voters hate the bill—they do—but that it crystallized the average American’s antipathy to a government that was too big, too costly and too out of touch.  Voters will declare that they don’t want government running health care…and come to think of it, they don’t want government running much else either.

Good Point

In his recent book Ill Fares the Land, a passionate defense of the democratic socialist ideal, the historian Tony Judt writes that Hayek would have been (justly) doomed to obscurity if not for the financial difficulty experienced by the welfare state, which was exploited by conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Yes, if Hayek had been wrong about the viability of the welfare state, then his warnings would have had less resonance.

This line appears in a generally thoughtful treatment of how The Road to Serfdom has stayed in print for decades and become a bestseller in the past two years. The article by Jennifer Schuessler appeared in the New York Times Book Review last July, but has only just come to my attention.

The Success of SpeechNow

This morning the United States Supreme Court refused to consider the appeal in the case of v. Federal Election Commission. That’s a shame.

I have written before about the SpeechNow case. Here’s a brief summary of the issues. The judiciary has long held that individuals could spend as much as they wished on elections. The traditional rationale for restricting spending – preventing corruption of the political process – did not apply to spending by individuals. If that is true, the SpeechNow plaintiffs wondered why individuals joined in a group (and independent of the candidates and parties) should not have the same freedom from restrictions.

It turned out, thanks to Citizens United, that individuals did have that right to be free of limits on campaign spending as recognized by a federal court. That same court maintained, however, that the associated individuals still had to register with the Federal Election Commission as a “political committee.” The paperwork and related rules complicate and discourage participating in politics. By refusing to hear SpeechNow’s appeal, the Supreme Court has decided that these associations must register with the government before engaging in politics.

Nonetheless, the SpeechNow plaintiff deserve our thanks. They have gotten a lot more than “half a loaf” out of their effort. True, the government is still too involved in electoral speech, but the limits on political speech and association have been invalidated. That is a real achievement and more evidence that the long era of restrictions on campaign finance is drawing to a close.

Free Deirdre McCloskey E-Book from University of Chicago Press

Every month, the University of Chicago Press offers a free e-book from its catalog of thought-provoking titles. This month it’s Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006).

We discussed her follow-up volume, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (2010), in last month’s Cato Unbound. Back in 2006, Cato Policy Report gave a short summary of McCloskey’s argument in The Bourgeois Virtues.

Her argument as I understand it is that commerce and virtue can be mutually reinforcing. Obviously they aren’t always so, but this positive feedback loop has governed much of world history in the modern era, helping to create the world we see around us today. I’d encourage anyone who takes interest in the intersection of markets, virtue, and modernity to take a look. And best of all, it’s free.

The Budget Hearing Scam

Colbert King, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning columnist, has a pretty good handle on how D.C. mayor-elect Vincent Gray’s call for “more public input” on the budget would work out in practice:

The council is elected to make decisions, not to take polls. What’s more, people know a set-up when they see it. Gray’s scenario, intentionally or not, is a prescription for raising taxes. Here is how it would work:

Council members, with the elections safely behind them, produce a deficit-closing term sheet that reads like a doomsday manifesto. It describes deep cuts in areas likely to produce the most screams: public safety, education, health care, workforce reductions, arts and culture, etc.

That is followed by council hearings at which long lines of witnesses representing nonprofit advocacy groups and employee unions produce gripping testimony that predicts untold pain and agony resulting from the projected program and payroll cuts.

Following the hearing, which stretches late into the night or the next morning, the lawmakers conclude, reluctantly of course, that there is strong “public” opposition to cuts in government and that they, as conscientious legislators, have no alternative but to keep the government at its current size and, instead, close the deficit with tax increases on middle- and high-income D.C. wage-earners.

King, a longtime close observer of D.C. politics, is describing an example of the general problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs – every government program has a few beneficiaries who will show up to defend it, while the taxpayers who will pay for each of these programs have much less incentive to devote time and money to opposing proposals for spending.