What is Normal?

I often raise the issue of "What is Normal" when discussing climate.  The media frequently declares certain weather events as so "abnormal" that they must be due to man-made factors.  A great example is the current Texas drought, which is somehow unprecedented and thus caused by CO2 despite the fact that the great dust bowl drought of the 1930's was many times larger in area and years in duration.

The EPA has a new slideshow purporting to aggregate these "abnormalities."  While I could spend all year going through each slide, I want to focus on just one.

Now we all know that the EPA is just full of sciency goodness and so everything they say is based on science and not, say, some political agenda.  And the statement and the pictures above are absolutely correct, as far as they go.  But they are missing a teeny tiny bit of context.  Here is a longer history of that same glacier (thanks to the Real Science blog for the pointer, this is a much better map than the one I have used in the past).

The 1948 position is way up at the top.  You can see that the melting since 1966, which according to the EPA is an "acceleration," is trivial compared to the melting since 1760.  Basically, this glacier has been retreating since at least the end of the little ice age.

Those who want to attribute the recent retreat to CO2 have to explain what drove the glacier to retreat all that way from 1760 to 1960, and why that factor stopped in 1960 at exactly the time Co2 supposedly took over.

By the way, this same exact story can be seen in glaciers around the world.  Glaciers began retreating at the end of the little ice age, and if anything that pace of retreat has slowed somewhat over the last few decades.



  1. John Cunningham:

    I lived in Alaska for 25 years, and I once had the great chance to take a boat tour through Glacier Bay. the chronological map of the recession of the glaciers was impressive indeed. When Sir George Vancouver explored the area in 1792, there was no bay at all, a smooth extent of coastline. John Muir explored the area in 1879, when huge retreats had occurred.
    In reality, the glacial recession is part of the rising temps coming out of the Little Ice Age.

  2. Gil:

    All Warren & co. have to show is that the carbon that is unlocked from burning all that coal and oil somehow makes it back to into ground instead of staying in the atmosphere. As long as it stays in the atmosphere primarily as CO2 then the atmosphere will trap more and more heat.

  3. Dan:

    Not to mention, Warren, that glaciers exist through the combined influence of temperature, precipitation, and cloudiness. If the balance of precipitation moves from summer to winter, glaciers can grow despite increased temperatures. Alternately, in a system where precipitation remains unchanged, a 3 degree wintertime temperature increase combined with a 1 degree summertime temperature decrease will register as a net warming trend, but will tilt the velocity towards glacial advance.

    Alarmists tie glaciers to temperature in a 1:1 framework, usually with maps and photos, but glaciers are heavily influenced by at least 3 interconnected variables. Many, like the Cascades glaciers, are also influenced by thousands of years of volcanic activity, which can encourage glacial advance, or retard glacial retreat, with insulating layers of ash.

    When I was a ranger at Mount Rainier, visitors would ask if the Nisqually Glacier's retreat was a sign of global warming. I would always answer "no..." pause to enjoy the looks on their faces, and then finish that "it's a sign of local warming." Then I would go on to explain about the different influencing factors, and how none of them necessarily directly implicated climate change anywhere else on the globe, and certainly not any anthropogenesis.

  4. Don Long:

    I really liked your post here. I've been thinking along the same lines for a long time. There are a few things that folks in the press have been "forgetting" to mention, and I think your posting speaks to some of these things.

    1. "climate change" is being portrayed as something that is a result of industrialization, when the climate has never been static. The Earth is always warming or cooling, and only rarely "stable".

    2. I seem to remember hearing, back in history classes, that there was once a land bridge connecting today's Alaska and Northeast Russia, called the Bering Straight. Since then, sea levels rose. Sea levels have been rising for at least 12,000 years, well before the first smoke stack or SUV or "global warming denier" came on the scene.

    3. Isn't the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria underwater? Somehow sea levels rose, submerging that city, without any capitalist activity.

    4. I seem to recall hearing that the Finger Lakes in New York State were carved out by glaciers receding at the end of the last Ice Age. I believe, but can't be 100% certain, that glaciers receding from New York is indicative of a warming trend. My recollection of dates is hazy, but I think those glaciers vanished well before the Industrial Age.

    5. The Fertile Crescent was quite arid by the time the last Roman Emperor ruled. I don't recall any modern industrial activity taking place in the late Roman Empire.

  5. Mark:

    @Gil your assertion that CO2 will necessarily trap more heat if in the air is false. Most of the world in unaffected by CO2 because all the heat CO2 would trap is already trapped by the H2O in the air which traps heat of the same (similar) bandwidth as CO2. This is why, until recently alarmists would grudgingly admit that the CO2 effect is mostly very close to the poles where the air is very dry (dryer than desert dry - we are going actual H2O content instead of relative humidity)

    There is also a diminishing return. IF you already have a CO2 molecule in the air, and add another one, there is already a chance that the first molecule "caught" the heat, so the second one is less effective, so at some point adding CO2 to the air will have no effect at all. I think Warren has posted that the Max effect (and this is written in IPCC) assuming no positive or negative feedback is about 1.5°C Of course if we had massive positive feedback in our atmosphere like the Alarmists claim, our atmosphere would be unstable, and would have blasted into space eons ago.

  6. Gil:

    Rubbish Mark, more CO2 equals more heat-trapping, period. On the other hand, if there was some industrial process that extracting hydrogen and oxygen in a way that such plants were emitting new H20 en masse into the atmosphere then you also have another GHG problem. The Sun belts out plenty of heat onto Earth thus there's plenty of opportunity for more heat retention.

  7. Dan:

    The data I've seen point to acceleration of melting since the Industrial Age began.

    Despite the current warming trend, another true ice age will occur again, perhaps in the next 1,000 to 5,000 years. We've been in an inter-glacial period for 10,000 years, and that's the longest inter-glacial period of the past 500,000 years or so, an epoch in which the earth has been relatively cool compared to its overall history.

    It's quite possible that with our current technology, we could keep the pending ice age from being as severe as previous ones. A solar mirror in space to direct heat toward the planet, for instance, may mitigate the glacial spread. It will be interesting to see how things turn out.

  8. Bram:

    Amusing that a minor glacier retreating is considered the horrible impact of "global warming".

    When the Little Ice Age began, towns and farms were literally crushed under rapidly advancing glaciers. The harsh winters caused mass famines which were accompanied by plagues.

  9. Benjamin Cole:

    Nice bit of blogging. It is sad when science--from creationism to global warming--is corrupted to partisan ends.

  10. Mark:

    @Gil before you proclaim rubbish you need to study up a bit on the science. CO2 absorbs light of wavelength X and releases it at wavelength Y which can not be re-absorbed by CO2 again. H2O behaves the same. If the H2O has already absorbed wavelength X CO2 will not be able to absorb it again, it is no longer there. If on CO2 absorbs wavelength X the other CO2 will not be able to absorb it again, because it is again released as Y.

    You might want to read up on some of your **Alarmist** literature to find out how the system really works. It is actually printed right in the IPCC report.

  11. caseyboy:

    @Dan, I'm thinking we sell "Carbon Debits" to beat the coming ice age. That's right, you pay me money, I won't plant a tree, I'll cut one down with a gasoline power saw and burn it in an outdoor fire pit.

  12. Dan:



  13. IGotBupkis, Unicorn Fart Entrepreneur:

    Thing is, there are two factors that affect glacial retreat -- temperature AND precipitation. If there is less snowfall, then there will be smaller glaciers. You can say this is due to heat, but the driest deserts on earth are cold deserts -- notably in the Antarctic and in the Andes, the driest, which is the Atacama. Until you establish that the glacial retreat is not precipitation0-driven, you can't make the claim that it has anything to do with warming, and even not necessarily then.

  14. IGotBupkis, Unicorn Fart Entrepreneur:

    >>> Rubbish Mark, more CO2 equals more heat-trapping, period.

    Gil, this statement is so utterly unfounded as to lend challenge your capacity for the least sort of rational analysis entirely.

    The ice core record shows massive data which details that CO2 in the atmosphere trails the global temperature, not leads it... including times when the CO2 concentration is VASTLY higher than current levels, as well as times when the temperature was VASTLY higher than it is now, as in double-digits greater.

    Further, the notion that so-called "scientists", who cannot succeed in reliably predicting snow at any location with 48+ hours of accuracy can, somehow, manage to reliably predict the "average global temperature" (whatever the heck that means) even five years hence is itself ludicrous, to say nothing of the fact that they're claiming the capacity to do with with tenths of a degree accuracy!!!

    Such "certaintists" are nothing but agenda and dogma driven, self-serving charlatans and demagogues who serve to advance either themselves and their Quack Science or the collectivist, ideological agenda which underpins it.

    Additionally, the climate is a very, very complicated feedback system, one with hundreds, if not thousands, of interacting variables which detail the temperature, humidity, and other factors of different layers of the atmosphere, cloud cover mechanisms as both solar reflectants and temperature "internal reflectors" (i.e., reflecting various forms of photo-energy reaching the surface back down at the surface, holding it in). Other factors include the ocean as a huge heat sink, which would produce a detectable increase in water temperatures at one or more ocean levels (as with the atmosphere, there are ocean-based thermoclines which do not mix naturally very much, and which isolate temperatures and contents considerably from one another). There was a new set of tools deployed in the early 2000s which allowed the collection of data at various different locations and depths which should readily show if there is any increase in water temperatures. Last I heard, these measurements were not showing any substantial increases.

    Another ocean-related feedback mechanism is that CO2 dissolves in water -- there is a massive amount of CO2 in a cubic foot of water (at higher pressures we call this "Soda Water". Add sugar, coloring, and some minor flavoring as trace elements and we call it "Coca Cola").

    Now, if you increase the CO2 in the air, then the ocean will automatically absorb more of it. More critically, if we just suppose that things DID heat up from CO2, then you will melt a lot of ice, dumping a large amount of additional fresh water into the oceans, that will produce a massive increase in its ability to absorb still more CO2... and lowering the temperature.

    As a final comment, there is the simple fact that we simply don't understand the effects of Chaos on the complex models involved -- if the models were worth a crap, then we could plug in decades old data and reliably get "predictions" of what followed. This can't be done, because at this point the models are garbage. Climate, in fact, was one of the initial drivers towards the investigation of "chaos theory" -- this is where the term "Butterfly Effect" occurred, coined by Edward Lorenz while noting the sensitivity of 1960s climate models to "initial conditions" -- From the wiki:
    In 1961, Lorenz was using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, when, as a shortcut on a number in the sequence, he entered the decimal .506 instead of entering the full .506127. The result was a completely different weather scenario.
    This, along with other events including the steady rise in computing power available to the average researcher, led to the modern interest in Chaos Theory, the study of nonlinear dynamic (complexly interacting) systems.

    Our current understanding of both Chaos Theory AND the nonlinear dynamic system which we call "Climate" is woefully inadequate to make the kinds of long-term predictions these quacks, charlatans, and demagogues make. And yes, that is exactly what these people are.

  15. Gil:

    So, Mark, you resort to two standard denialist fillers - the Earth had a different climate aeons ago when humans weren't around and comparing meteorology and climatology. So not only is the air becoming heat-retaining but the ocean is becoming more like soda water - charming. How is this a good thing? Yeah some people and animals will adapt but others won't. That's evolution.

  16. Bram:

    I opened two beers. I put one back in the refrigerator, the other in the sun. An hour later, the warm one was flat, the cold one still had carbon bubbles floating up.

    Made me think three things:
    1. The sun warms the Earth.
    2. Cold water holds more carbon than warm water.
    3. Cold beer tastes better.

  17. rox_publius:

    "Rubbish Mark, more CO2 equals more heat-trapping, period"

    well, that certainly settles it, now, doesn't it?

  18. Mark:

    Look at the two pictures and then tell me, who wants a f-n GLACIER? The first picture is ugly mass of ice and cold. The second picture is a beautiful bay.

  19. IGotBupkis, Sailing the Economic Seas Betwixt Scylla And Charybdis:

    >>> So not only is the air becoming heat-retaining but the ocean is becoming more like soda water – charming. How is this a good thing?

    It gives idiots like you who don't comprehend the entire concept in the LEAST something to whine about...?

    "Becoming more like soda water"? It's got CO2 dissolving in it, yes, this makes that statement "true".

    It is, however, a lot like saying that, by taking a drink of water, your body is becoming a lot more like the ocean.

    Except that my statement is a hell of a lot closer to Actual Truth than your statement.

  20. IGotBupkis, Sailing the Economic Seas Betwixt Scylla And Charybdis:

    >> So, Mark, you resort to two standard denialist fillers

    A) I realize reading comprehension is not your strong suit, but MARK didn't mention the CO2-in-solution issue.

    B) Note, of these two "denialist fillers", one of which you utterly ignore, the other you just stupidly naysay with an utterly half-assed analogy... meanwhile, you trot out the standard "I can't win on facts so I'll call you names" response of attempting to suggest that not agreeing with your lack of scientific rigor AND abysmal lack of capacity to grasp how vast that lack of rigor is, is equivalent to denying the occurrence of the Holocaust. This is incompetence on multiple levels on your part: Rhetorical, critical analysis, factual, and evidentiary.... just to name four.

    In summary, Gil's ineffectual response basically amounts to: "Facts? Facts? Weee don' neeeed no steeeekin' FACTS!!?!?!?"

  21. Goober:

    Gil - How about we focus on the point of the article. I know this is hard, but can you at least concede that Warren is correct that it does not look like CO2, industrialization, anthropogenic global warming, and so forth had very little, if anything, to do with the recession of the Glacier Bay glaciers?

    Forget the argument about whether anthropogenic global warming exists or not - do you support the theory that the reason that the Glacier Bay glaciers have receded is due to human influence on the climate?

    If so, support your thesis, because I think Warren made a pretty compelling case that anthropogenic global warming had at best a tiny, trivial effect on the glaciers, but more likely had no effect at all, and i would honestly be very interested in your rebuttal as to why you think that this is incorrect.

    If not, then agree with Warren.

    Avoidance of this is only going to further cement the fact that you are totally disinterested in dealing with facts and are therefore only interested in evangelisation of a belief that you hold without any basis in evidence. Any overall discussion of global warming in response to this will do likewise. We are talking about Glacier Bay glaciers, and the cause of their recession. Respond to that and we'll go from there.

  22. RandomReal[]:

    Oooo -- From the caption: 2000 cubic miles of glacier loss since 1960. Sounds scary. But, that translates into about 1 inch. Anyone notice?

    In[2]:= 2000 mi^3 /(131.6 10^6 mi^2)*
    Out[2]= 0.0000151976 mi
    In[3]:= 0.0000151976 mi 5280 ft/mi
    Out[3]= 0.0802432
    In[4]:= 0.0802432 ft 12 in/mi
    Out[4]= 0.962918 in

    * Ocean area from Wolfram|Alpha

  23. RandomReal[]:

    Oops - should have been 12 in/ft (Damn English system)