Reflecting on warming whats watts

Jim Hansen knows about the atmosphere from top to bottom. He began his career as an atmospheric physicist, studying under James van Allen, after whom the Van Allen Belts of the upper atmosphere are named. He published papers on the Venusian atmosphere before he moved on to our own. So when Hansen stops talking about degrees of temperature and starts counting how many watts of energy reach Earth's atmosphere and how many leave it, I recognize that we are getting down to the nitty-gritty of what...

Turning up the heat

Ever since the rise of concern about climate change during the 1980s, the scientists involved have been dogged by a small band of hostile critics. Every time they believe they have seen them off, the skeptics come right back. And in some quarters, their voices remain influential. One leading British newspaper in 2004 called climate change a global fraud based on left-wing, anti-American, anti-West ideology. And the best-selling author Michael Crichton, in his much-publicized novel State of...

The ocean conveyor

Broecker is a maverick a prodigious and fearless generator of ideas, and one of the most influential figures in climate science for half a century. Sometimes he can be more. Amid the admiration for his science, you hear some harsh words about him in the science community. A bully, some say, especially to young scientists a man who will use his influence to suppress ideas with which he disagrees. For a man in his seventies, he certainly comes on strong and relishes conflict. Here are his...

Hydroxyl holiday

The day the planet's cleaner didn't show up for work It could be the doomsday that creeps up on us unawares the day the atmosphere's cleaning service fails to show up for work. For one of the most disturbing secrets of our planet's metabolism is that just one chemical is responsible for cleaning most of the pollution out of the atmosphere. If it took a day off, we would be in serious trouble, with smog spreading unchecked across the planet. The chemical in question is called hydroxyl. Its...

In the jungle

Would we notice if the Amazon went up in smoke I he Amazon rainforest is the largest living reservoir of carbon dioxide on the land surface of Earth. Its trees contain some 77 billion tons of carbon, and its soils perhaps as much again. That is about twenty years' worth of man-made emissions from burning fossil fuels. The rainforest is also an engine of the world's climate system, recycling both heat and moisture. More than half of the raindrops that fall on the forest canopy never reach the...

The pulse

The Arctic pack ice extended so far south that Eskimo fishing boats landed on the northern coast of Scotland. They didn't meet much opposition, because the hungry Highlanders had abandoned their crofts after grain harvests had failed for seven straight years, and had gone raiding for food in the lowlands to the south. In the 1690s temperatures in Scotland were more than 3 F below normal snow lay on the ground long into the summer. Those who stayed behind were reduced to eating nettles and...

The doomsday device

A lethal secret stirs in the permafrost One of my favorite films is Dr. Strangelove. It was made back in 1964, when the biggest global threat was nuclear Armageddon. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, and starring Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair-bound caricature of Henry Kissinger, the film was a satire of the military strategy known as Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD, for short. The plot involved the Soviet Union's building the ultimate defense, a doomsday device in the remote...