Snowball Earth, Baked Alaska
by Jo Abbess
8th January 2009
Sometimes, the daily newspapers, even the most well-respected ones, get their Science in a twist.
The Daily Telegraph started early this year, with an awful and inaccurate summary of some startling results from the geology of ancient rocks.
Despite several informative Press Releases, and several write-ups by the academic world, the Daily Telegraph correspondent got it muddled.
Things could have been eased if the journalist had published corrections after receiving communications from the researchers themselves and a group of Climate Change activists and bloggers.
But, no. The Daily Telegraph has so far refused to admit they got it wrong. Plus, they’re not replying to e-mails on the subject.
I think we can put The Daily Telegraph forward for an early nomination for the science blog RealClimate’s “Most obstinately wrong media outlet” review of 2009, to add to their runner up status in 2008 :-
To : email@example.com,
Dear Richard Alleyne,
I am writing to you for the second time in connection with your article entitled “Greenhouse gases could have caused an ice age, claim scientists”, which I read in the online Daily Telegraph on 1st January 2009 :-
After corresponding with Dr Huiming Bao, one of the researchers who co-wrote the paper with Dr Ian Fairchild, and verifying with him my understanding of the research paper (published in Science Magazine on 2nd January 2009) and other materials kindly provided by him, I can assert with a very high degree of confidence that your reporting was inaccurate.
I am so confident that you are mistaken in what you wrote, that I feel justified in asking you to publish corrections to your article, as it could obviously be misleading to let mis-interpretation stand uncommented.
I shall give you a short summary of where I believe you have failed to grasp what is being said by the scientists.
1. The article title
The title for your article is an inaccurate summary of the research paper.
You wrote : “Greenhouse gases could have caused an ice age, claim scientists : Filling the atmosphere with Greenhouse gases associated with global warming could push the planet into a new ice age, scientists have warned.”
These statements bear no resemblance to the contents of the research paper, entitled “Stretching the Envelope of Past Surface Environments: Neoproterozoic Glacial Lakes from Svalbard”.
The research paper presents evidence that whilst the Earth was in a very cold phase, weathering of rocks must have been greatly reduced, because of signs of a build-up of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, that had direct chemical effects on rocks formed during that period.
Weathering of rocks is one of the main geological processes that removes Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere and locks it into land and ocean material.
If weathering over the entire planet were severely restricted, this must imply that the land and ocean are covered. Since the period is presumed to have been very cold, the conclusion is that the Earth must have been extensively covered in ice.
Since the formation of the Earth, Carbon Dioxide has continually been added to the atmosphere through the process of vulcanism : volcanoes spew massive amounts of Carbon Dioxide, Methane and other gases and particles into the atmosphere.
If no weathering of any significant amount is taking place, Carbon Dioxide must be building up in the atmosphere.
The evidence that the research paper analyses also includes signs that as the cold phase on Earth ended, rocks were formed that showed that weathering had re-commenced.
This means that Carbon Dioxide build-up in the atmosphere causes Global Warming, or the ice age would not have ended.
All the analysis of the rocks was based on the ratio of the three main Oxygen isotopes in the material. Various chemical reactions were proposed to account for the results, and the conclusion is that the rocks at the time of the end of the ice age were formed in lakes that were rapidly evaporating, pointing to rapid global warming.
A more correct title for your article could have been : “Greenhouse gases ended an almost permanent ice age, claim scientists // Without the Greenhouse gases from volcanoes, the planet could still be in an almost totally icy state, scientists have concluded”
2. Your first, second and third paragraph
You wrote : “Researchers at the University of Birmingham found that 630 million years ago the earth had a warm atmosphere full of carbon dioxide but was completely covered with ice. // The scientists studied limestone rocks and found evidence that large amounts of greenhouse gas coincided with a prolonged period of freezing temperatures. // Such glaciation could happen again if global warming is not curbed, the university’s school of geography, earth and environmental sciences warned.”
Well, the number of years ago actually given was 635 million years (approximately), in both the Louisiana State University official Press Release and the research paper itself.
And yes, the Earth itself was cold and probably mostly covered in ice.
And yes, the Earth had a warm atmosphere, if it had the high levels of Carbon Dioxide that the evidence points to. Ice over large parts of the Earth had caused weathering processes to virtually cease, and so Carbon Dioxide that was continuing to come out of volcanic eruptions was accumulating in the atmosphere.
The Earth was cool before the Carbon Dioxide accumulated. The Carbon Dioxide did not cause the Earth to cool down, and it did not cause the ice to form.
The presence of high levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, led to a warming atmosphere, which led to the melting of virtually all, if not totally all, of the ice of Earth, by the process of Global Warming.
This statement, then, is ridiculous “Such glaciation could happen again if global warming is not curbed…”
3. Your fourth and fifth paragraphs
You wrote : “While pollution in the air is thought to trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, causing the planet to heat up, this new research suggests it could also have the opposite effect reflecting rays back into space. // This effect would be magnified by other forms of pollution in the earth’s atmosphere such as particles of sulphate pumped into the air through industrial pollution or volcanic activity and could create ice age conditions once more, the scientists said.”
Here you make one giant leap of confusion in my opinion, conflating the concept of “Greenhouse gases” with the more general term “pollution”.
If you consult the literature on the various “radiative forcing” of various atmospheric gases and airborne particles, some of them cause Global Dimming, and hence Global Cooling; whilst others cause Global Warming.
The United Nations body of work, and that of the major scientific establishments around the world attest to the fact that some gases and chemicals and particles are warming the atmosphere, and the land and the oceans, and some are preventing that warming.
With non-gaseous substances it can often depend on the height at which they sit in atmosphere.
Let’s take a classic example : that of the Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption in 1991. This is what Wikipedia says :-
“The effects of the eruption were felt worldwide. It ejected roughly 10 billion metric tonnes (10 cubic kilometres) of magma, and 20 million tons of SO2, bringing vast quantities of minerals and metals to the surface environment. It injected large amounts of aerosols into the stratosphere—more than any eruption since that of Krakatoa in 1883. Over the following months, the aerosols formed a global layer of sulfuric acid haze. Global temperatures dropped by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F), and ozone depletion temporarily increased substantially.”
Here’s a transcript of an excellent piece about Global Dimming :-
Radiative forcing : Figure SPM.2 on Page 4 in here :-
There are ongoing arguments about how various aerosols (airborne particles of various kinds) impact on Global Warming : soot, for example :-
4. The next paragraph
You wrote, quoting Dr Ian Fairchild : ” “It happened naturally in the past, but the wrong use of technology could make it happen again.” ”
You may or may not be aware of the efforts to “geo-engineer” the planet, by, for example, dumping iron filings in the oceans to seed Carbon Dioxide-sucking phytoplankton growth :-
or spraying sulphates into the upper atmosphere to reflect some of the Sun’s light back into space, hence causing Global Cooling :-
What Dr Fairchild is referring to is that possibility that this action could cause such a strong Global Cooling that the Earth could freeze over, just as it did in Precambrian times.
He is pointing to the risk of injecting large quantities of sulphates into the upper atmosphere, because the final effect is not quantifiable.
5. Your last paragraph
You wrote : “The limestones studied were collected in Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean, which is covered in ice and snow.”
The important point to mention is that this area, even though it is currently mostly covered in ice and snow, has rock formations at the surface, which are exceptionally well-preserved, showing signs of glacial retreat – in other words, at one time even this area was ice-free.
The rocks in the area preserve strong evidence of the air and water conditions at the time they were formed in their chemicals and isotopes, and they indicate that planet-wide Global Warming took place, when the atmosphere was very rich in Carbon Dioxide.
6. Extra links that point the way to more accurate information
I would appreciate your acknowledgement of receipt of this communication, and a response concerning whether and when you will be publishing corrections to your article.
Comments from Dr Huiming Bao, one of the researchers
Regarding the paragraph starting “A more correct title for your article…”
Dr Bao writes : “I would prefer this “Scientists discovered evidence of extremely high CO2 concentration near the end of a global glaciations event ~635 million years ago” ”
In discussing the age of the rocks : “the number of years ago actually given was 635 million years (approximately)”
Dr Bao writes : “It is ok to use 630 instead of 635. It’s a round up. In fact, we don’t know the exact age. It could be anywhere from 650 to 580.”
In discussing the end of the ice age : “the conclusion is that the rocks at the time of the end of the ice age were formed in lakes that were rapidly evaporating, pointing to rapid global warming”
Dr Bao write : “Note that we deliberately leave room (or you can say “vague”) for either snowball or slushball.”
A “Snowball Earth” would be almost 100% glaciated. A “Slushball Earth” would be mostly glaciated, still allowing some weathering of rocks, still building up Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
The rocks under analysis could have been deposited in an evaporating lake when the Earth was still highly glaciated in the “Slushball Earth” scenario, or they could have been deposited in an evaporating lake when the Earth was undergoing a period of intense Global Warming at the end of a “Snowball Earth” scenario.
In discussing the coincidence of a highly glaciated planet and high levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere :-
Dr Bao writes : “might be influenced by my co-author Ian Fairchild who may insist it’s still cold during the deposition of [ the rock formation under analysis ].”
In other words, either the rock was formed while the planet was still cold, before it started to undergo intense Global Warming, or the rock might have formed during the period of intense Global Warming, but the evidence shows that a period of intense Global Warming must have taken place. It can be deduced, as the rock formation points to extensive glaciation and de-glaciation.
Where Richard Alleyne writes : “While pollution in the air is thought to trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, causing the planet to heat up, this new research suggests it could also have the opposite effect reflecting rays back into space. // This effect would be magnified by other forms of pollution in the earth’s atmosphere such as particles of sulphate pumped into the air through industrial pollution or volcanic activity and could create ice age conditions once more, the scientists said.”
Dr Bao writes : “I did not say this. Such statement or content is not in our paper either. Perhaps, the author quoted Ian’s “small-talk” in a wrong way.”
When I corresponded with Dr Huiming Bao in response to these comments, I asked :-
“I think it would be fair to say that, on the evidence you have so far that (a) If [ the rock under analysis ] was laid down while the Earth was cold, the evidence is that the Earth became less cold quite soon after that; OR (b) If [ the rock under analysis ] was laid down as Global Warming from the ice age was taking place, that the Earth would be warming up rapidly then. Is that OK, or is that really wrong of me to say that ?”
Dr Bao replied : “That’s fine.”