Looking at Clouds From Both Sides

The Science and Environmental Policy Project is one of the best sources of information on the climate debate. Its The Week That Was is a great way to stay current on developments. This week, along with much else, Ken Haapala, President of SEPP, addresses the fiendishly complicated, and still not understood, role of clouds:

One of the disturbing characteristics of many politicians, “experts” on climate science, and even established scientific organizations is to talk about the greenhouse effect as simple physics. It is not. It is a complex process that has been ongoing for billions of years with varying concentrations of atmospheric gases, that have changed significantly. Human emissions of carbon dioxide are not changing the atmosphere to something that has not existed before. … Today, “dry” atmosphere (from which all water has been removed) is about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon and 0.4% carbon dioxide.

Of course, dry air only exists in a laboratory, and any calculations based on dry air must be verified by observations. Unfortunately, such necessary observations are ignored by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its followers such as the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). Instead, these organizations add an assumed influence of the importance of water vapor, not one based on observations.

This is critical. Water vapor, not CO2, is by far the dominant greenhouse gas, yet global warming advocates base their assumptions about its effects on theory as embodied in models, not empirical observation. In other words, we really don’t know clouds at all.

Water vapor varies from considerably less than 1% to about 4% of the actual atmosphere, not dry. Usually, the polar regions have less than 1% water vapor, and the tropics almost 4%. Water vapor creates several problems in estimating the greenhouse effect, including clouds and interfering with the greenhouse effect of other gases.
Separating the troposphere from the stratosphere is the tropopause, where water freezes out. The altitude of the tropopause varies from 18km (59,000 feet) at the equator to 8km (26,000 feet) at the poles. In the troposphere, heat transfer by convection is as important as the heat transfer by infrared radiation from the surface to the atmosphere. The entire system is complex and not easily modeled.
No one fully understands the role of clouds, which, generally, cool during the day and warm during the night. Cirrus clouds, thin, wispy clouds above 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) composed of ice crystals, may be an exception. According to MIT Emeritus Professor of Meteorology Richard Lindzen, cirrus clouds have a warming effect, and by accumulating and thinning, may have a significant impact on regulating the temperature of the earth.

The manner in which water vapor interferes with the greenhouse effect of other gases is a separate problem, also not well understood. It requires an understanding of molecular physics, which is not sufficiently well developed to make general calculations. …

In the energy range of the infrared emanating from the earth, the molecules have a wide array of rotational and vibrational states that can change by absorption or emission of infrared radiation, or by collisions with other atmospheric molecules. Separately, solar ultraviolet light has enough energy to dissociate oxygen molecules (O2) into two oxygen atoms (O), which than can combine with other O2 to molecules to produce ozone (O3). Needless to say, the physics is not simple.

Here’s where I come in.

On the Power Line blog, John Hinderaker posted an informative 10-minute interview by John Robson, on Climate Discussion Nexus, of William van Wijngaarden at Department of Physics and Astronomy, York University, Canada. Van Wijngaarden received his doctorate in physics at Princeton and has published extensively in fields such as Quantum physics, Brownian motion, the Photoelectric effect, Electromagnetically induced transparency, Ultrahigh precision laser spectroscopy, as well as climate issues of temperature, precipitation, and humidity.

Van Wijngaarden’s description of the complexity involved is much needed. As his interviewer, Robson, states:

But part of understanding science is understanding where the complexities lie, and not getting browbeaten, especially by people who aren’t scientists or won’t admit science is complex, into believing it’s so simple a child can explain it with a crayon.

There is much more, but I will conclude with this:

Since most of the greenhouse effect occurs in the troposphere, and water vapor already broadly absorbs the narrow absorption frequencies of methane and nitrous oxide, their global warming effects are minimal. Also, absorption frequencies of methane and nitrous oxide experience a broadening, but not as significant, water vapor is more dominant. Nevertheless, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and others, have contrived a misleading metric, or measurement, called the global warming potential. For practical observations, the term is meaningless. Yet, “global warming potential of methane” is being used to damage agriculture in the US, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

When one is listening to a politician or “expert” claim the dangers of carbon dioxide, methane, etc., it may be useful to ask oneself “Does this person understand complex natural phenomena such as quantum physics or Brownian motion?”

The answer, for most global warming alarmists is No. But one person who does understand the scientific underpinnings of the climate debate is Trump adviser William Happer, the Princeton physicist who is much maligned by the political Left, but is an expert in precisely the fields of science that are relevant to evaluating the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming theory.

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