Feed on

Yesterday I suggested that the articles on both Picketty’s super-duper-mega-important book of the century on capitalism as well as the Yglesias piece on the gender wage gap were deserving of a fine toothed comb. Here, Matt Rognlie (whose blog I used to follow but for some reason I can’t get his feed to work for me), makes a particularly detailed critical observation about the book (i.e. the entire thing may be built like a famous Don McLean song).

Now for the (sort of) lament. About 10 years ago I started taking a strong interest in environmental issues and in particular trying to get up to speed on how climate modelers do their business, on how economists estimate damages from global warming and a whole host of related issues. As I peruse various research papers and journals on the topics and especially the punditry’s reporting on papers I do not have in front of me, from time to time I find myself wanting to have an “academic oracle” of sorts to both help me clarify some questions but most of all to have them help me know when I am being duped, or a about to be duped. When one enters the academy, the expectation is that this is the sort of place where such oracles exist. But the climate in the academy doesn’t actually seem to be amenable to these sorts of things. Granted, I’ve only reached out explicitly to have questions answered about a dozen times since I started here (and in some of them I did get some suggestions for reading, in others just a quick “I’ll get back to ya!” sort of response), but I certainly have never once in my time fielded a call or an e-mail from someone asking me to clarify an economic comment that was read or a view that they may have held. I find this regrettable, and truly sad. One reason I put my old student groups together was at least to try to find a group of people committed to such an exercise and to be able to at least ask hard questions “within the tribe” … but I’ve since pulled the plug on that.

I’d suggest the culture is not really amenable to open inquiry, especially given my impressions (OK, they’re more than impressions) of how us racist, sexist, baby-seal clubbing, paid lackeys of corporate America economists are thought of on campus. That said, I truly did want to ask someone the following question, because I feel like I am being bamboozled by a “denier” … I just read a piece talking about the “green-housiness” of methane. For those of you who follow the fracking debate or the global warming question in some detail, you are surely familiar with the argument that CH4 is something like twenty-times more “powerful” a GHG than CO2 is … and that although it has a shorter half-life in the atmosphere, should any considerable amount of methane be released due to leaky fracking pipes, or worse yet from warming permafrost, then we’re toast – any impacts of CO2 are small in comparison. Hence, we already know that a huge chunk of current warming is attributed to agricultural practices, and some folks argue that fracking is actually carbon positive because so much methane leaks from wells (though my understanding of both the economics and the science of fracking suggests this is massively overstated).

So I’d LOVE to have someone help me understand the gist of the argument I read about today (and yes, I was a physics major for most of my college life). The claim was this: that YES it is true that methane is much more “green-housy” than carbon dioxide. But since it absorbs energy at similar places in the electromagnetic spectrum as a FAR MORE abundant molecule in the atmosphere, that being water vapor, that both water vapor and methane cannot both be absorbing the same energy from the sun. And if that is the case, then while technically in a glass jar methane is indeed a greenhouse gas, in effect since so much water is already in the atmosphere then the additional methane we’d get, even if all of the permafrost on Earth laid a massive perma-fart into the atmosphere, then we wouldn’t see much, if any, radiative absorption from it.

I just truly want to understand the chemical-physics here. Do any of you know? I’m going to give it one more shot and pluck a faculty member out of the blue on campus to see if they can help me understand it. If this is in fact true, wouldn’t this have had to been known for a long time and been written into an IPCC report at least? If it has not been understood, then how is it possible that it either has been misunderstood for so long, or that we have been so “confident” in much of climate modeling. And yes, I’ve read a lot on climate modeling – and this does not have to make anyone into a denier … the fact is, the way we model the climate is extremely primitive. I recommend reading the work of Daniel Botkin (who seems to be living the life I always imagined for myself when I was a kid in Queens) for good intuitive explanations for what those models do. I recommend this book, which I’ve worked through a couple of times, to learn about global warming forecasting.

Have a nice weekend.

6 Responses to “The Fine Toothed Comb and a Weekend Lament about Cow Farts”

  1. chuck martel says:

    Here’s one way information is disseminated:

    Article in the on-line Alaska Dispatch:

    Descending permafrost
    Permafrost researcher Nikolay Shiklomanov has for 18 years shoved pointy steel probes into the ground around Barrow to determine how much of the ground thaws by the end of each summer. When he hits something hard, he knows he has reached permafrost, ground that remains frozen all year. The depth his probe penetrates at the end of summer is called the “active layer.” It represents how much soil thaws each year; beneath it is permafrost.

    Though he knew air temperatures were getting warmer in Barrow, the George Washington University scientist noticed the thickness of the active layer had not changed much in 18 years of probing. That led him to look at the readings of differential global positioning systems receivers that showed him the precise elevations of his plots since 2003. He saw dramatic sinking and extrapolated. His conclusion: The ground surface of today is one foot lower than it was in 1990.

    “The active layer appeared to be stable, but the permafrost table was going down,” Shiklomanov said. He added that most of Barrow is probably a foot farther from the stars than it was 20 years ago due to thawing permafrost.

    My email to Mr. Shiklomanov:

    Having some familiarity with permafrost, I’m a little perplexed by this article. If, indeed, the subsidence of the ground in the Barrow area is due to the shrinkage of the permafrost without an increase in the depth of the active layer that would seem to indicate that the permafrost was melting at the junction between its bottom and the unfrozen material below it. Or would it? Is a satellite measurement of this dimension within the margin for error?

    I’d appreciate it if you could provide a link to an article that goes into this subject a little further.


    His response:

    Dear Tom,

    Thanks for the link. I have no idea where they got this information. I do not remember any interviews to those guys. Probably from my AGU presentation or abstracts. Indeed, the upper portion of the permafrost is usually extremely ice reach due to ice segregation at the bottom of the active layer. The melt of this ice results in thaw settlement and subsidence at the ground surface. Since we are measuring active-layer thickness from the surface, we might not detect increase of the ALT. Anyway, attached is paper ascribing our observations.

    Thanks for your interest,


    Nikolay Shiklomanov

  2. Harry says:

    Having spent much time at the business end of cows, and some time riding horses, cows do not fart.

    Send a cow into a corn field and let her eat, she will blow up and die unless you or a vet will pierce her in the right place with a trochar, an instrument my father used and which we kept in a cabinet. Cows, unlike horses or humans, do not pass gas. Cows do chew a cud, and do expel the product of digestion, which includes gasses. No farmer has ever been killed when walking into the barn from these gasses, even in Winter in New York State, the home of Wintercow.

    Manure is a problem, but also a blessing. It takes a tractor and a manure spreader, not a village, to spread it, and the wise farmer does not waste it. There is never enough of it.

    Yet the city slickers who want to buy organic food complain about the smell, and if they are more refined worry about fumes from cow flops, a problem in Greenwich, Connecticut, or Rhode Island, where the CO2 and CH4 is building up from the cow flatulence.

  3. RIT_Rich says:

    It was my understanding that all of these gases operate at certain wavelengths, even CO2, and one those wavelengths are saturated, then any additional amount of a particular gas will not lead to increased “heat” absorption. I.e., there’s diminishing returns to the heat absorption of any gas.

    The counter argument to this is that we also need to consider the amount of heat…loss. The argument that AGW people make is that increased levels of a particular gas may not affect the absorption of heat, but will affect the loss of heat (i.e. decrease it), hence leading to more warming.

    So, this is probably the argument you’ll hear: heat loss is reduced, even if absorption is not increased. I have no idea how this balances out, or if even if anyone knows how this balances out in the real world.

  4. Harry says:

    WC, I too would like to understand the science more, from disinterested people. On this blog you have provided a vast chain of resources, including links to Coyote’s links, and if one reads them, I can understand your comments better, and as long as the metaphor is bovine effects on certain wavelengths of radiation, you have helped me to distinguish bullshit from a meadow muffin.

    Methane, the major component in natural gas, when released into the atmosphere, oxidizes and turns into water and deadly CO2. This is a reason PETA gives in its war on Holsteins. Going back to what Gabe asked, why should we pay these fools any attention at all? Except for a big qualifier: there are thousands of them at the EPA, and like yellow jackets if one is squashed, they release pheromones that attack deniers.

  5. RIT_Rich says:


    This is a good article on the issue. Read the comments, as they are more informative than the article itself. It appears the issue is not absorption, but the emission (loss) of this energy from those molecules. The argument being that methane operates at different altitudes than H2O (which it overlaps somewhat in its absorption wavelength) so it still contributes to the “greenhouse effect” because it prolongs the presence of the “heat” in the atmosphere before it is radiated back into space.

    Now, the flip-side to this would be that methane breaks down in the atmosphere, and that it would take a very large increase to have an effect. Cow farts, probably, are very insignificant.

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