PoliSci: Galileo Galiperry

In the most recent Republican Presidential Candidate debate [1], moderator John Harris from Politico put candidate John Huntsman on the spot about his criticism of many fellow Republicans as “a bunch of cranks.” Harris then said,

HARRIS:  . . . You yourself have said the party is in danger of becoming anti- science. Who on this stage is anti-science?

Huntsman then responded:

HUNTSMAN: Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I’m saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science.

In Huntsman’s other comments, he didn’t name any names. But afterward Harris turned to Governor Perry to confront him on his boldly anti-science statements.

HARRIS:  . . .  Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were [sic] not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

Perry then responded (I’ve removed text where he stumbled or stuttered in his response, but preserved entirely  the meaning of his response):

PERRY: Well, I do agree that . . .  the science . . . is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at . . . jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is. . .  is nonsense . . . just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell. . . . Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.

Harris then took Perry to task on his process of finding out the science:

HARRIS: Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you’ve done that . . . Are there specific . . .  scientists or specific theories that you’ve found especially compelling . . . ?

Perry responded with a kind of half-answer, half policy statement, without really answering the question (he doesn’t name a single scientist):

PERRY: Let me tell you what I find compelling, is what we’ve done in the state of Texas, using our ability to regulate our clean air. We cleaned up our air in the state of Texas, more than any other state in the nation during the decade. Nitrous oxide levels, down by 57 percent. Ozone levels down by 27 percent. That’s the way you need to do it, not by some scientist somewhere saying, “Here is what we think is happening out there.” The fact of the matter is, the science is not settled on whether or not the climate change is being impacted by man to the point where we’re going to put America’s economics in jeopardy.

Perry is dead wrong on the science which is, in fact, completely clear:

  1. The average global temperature has risen about 1.0 degree Celsius since the mid-1800s. This is only an average. Some areas have risen more, some less. To put this in perspective, if your body temperature increased by about 1.0 degree Celsius you would be running a fever of 101F and would require medical attention. A 1.0 degree Celsius rise  is about the same as a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in your body temperature from 98.6F. Temperature increases always have serious consequences, just as temperature decreases have serious consequences.
  2. CO2 has increased in concentration in the atmosphere since the mid-1800s, which coincides directly with the period when humans began using the high energy content of fossil fuels to power our industrial revolutions.
  3. The CO2 which has been added to the atmosphere has a nuclear fingerprint that tags it as having come from sequestered carbon sources, such as buried coal and oil deposits. Carbon from near the surface of the Earth has a different fingerprint. The amount of sequestered-carbon-based CO2 in the atmosphere is the primary component of CO2 which is increasing.
  4. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Increased CO2 traps more heat and raises the temperature. This causes more water to enter the vapor state. Water vapor is a much stronger greenhouse gas. The added water vapor amplifies the warming effect of the CO2. More heating and more CO2 continues to add more water vapor to the air, further amplifying the warming.

What bothered me most about his response was his invocation of Galileo to defend his thinking. As an educator, and an armchair lover of science history, his complete ignorance of both science and science history was striking. Why invoke something you clearly don’t understand to defend your ignorance?

The one thing Perry has right is that Galileo was definitely going against the status quo. The science debate about whether or not the Earth was the center of the universe was not purely a science debate, however; it was informed in Europe by Biblical literalism, which meant that the common belief that the Earth was the center of the universe was the prevailing belief. However, that belief (like many others about the universe at the time) was held absent any actual data, or at least absent strong and convincing data.

Galileo was one of the first to turn the telescope to the sky and study astronomical bodies. What he observed became the first CONCLUSIVE evidence that the Earth could not possibly be the center of the universe. He saw the moons of Jupiter for the first time, and those moons clearly orbited Jupiter and NOT Earth. He studied the phases of Venus and interpreted their pattern to mean that Venus orbited the Sun, and not the Earth. If the moons of Jupiter and the planet Venus was not orbiting the Earth, why would the Sun or all the other stars be orbiting the Earth?

Galileo used a version of what we now call the scientific method. He gathered evidence. From this data he discerned that the hypothesis of a Sun-centered cosmology was a better explanation than the Earth-centered cosmology. He wrote up his findings in a book, the prevailing method of disseminating scientific evidence at the time. The book couldn’t be printed fast enough. His colleagues consumed his ideas, gathered more evidence, argued about the implications. But his method of argument, and his conclusions, angered the Pope. Galileo was dragged before the Inquisition, forced to confess, and then imprisoned in his house for the rest of his life.

Galileo used experimental methods to gather evidence, compared two hypotheses, and discerned that one was a much better explanation. Today’s practicing scientists use the same approach.

They gather data. Global land and sea temperature measurements overwhelmingly tell us the Earth has been warming at an increasing rate since the 1800s. That warming is in the lower atmosphere; the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) is cooler, telling us heat is trapped down here by the surface. They have measured CO2 levels and observe they have risen ahead of warming. They have measured the nuclear properties of the CO2 and learned that it came from carbon originally sequestered deep in the earth, rather than surface carbon.

The best hypothesis that explains all the data is human burning of originally sequestered fossil fuel, trapping more heat and warming the Earth. 98-99% of active climate researchers not only agree with this conclusion, they routinely use it to predict the outcome of climate disruptions across the Earth. Those researchers are the descendants of Galileo, using science to understand the world.

People like Rick Perry don’t understand science, and they certainly do not practice it. They think that when people put their ideas on the internet, YouTube, or in a self-published book that this amounts to science. It does not. Skepticism without reference to actual data is not actual skepticism; it’s denialism.

Certainly, Perry or the “scientists” he did not name and who deny climate change are not Galileos. They are Inquisitors, lacking an understanding of science as a means to understand the natural world. They stand in judgment of scientists. They try to poison the public against scientists and the scientific method, and when they fail they try to redefine science. But like the Pope and the Inquisitors, all that will be remembered is that they stood against the truth, and fell before it.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/08/us/politics/08republican-debate-text.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

PoliSci: Perry on Climate

Science is sometimes very helpful when trying to sort informed political candidates from uninformed ones; uninformed or misinformed candidates are likely to make bad decisions when it comes to crafting policy. America deserves the most qualified policy makers.

Today, Gov. Rick Perry got some press for his statement on Climate Change (we’ll get to that in a moment). This got me thinking about what we know about climate change and the human contribution to it, as well as what what are the different Republican candidates’ positions on Climate Change and Energy Policy.

Let’s start with the science. Here is what we know about climate change:

  1. The average global temperature has risen about 1.0 degree Celsius since the mid-1800s. This is only an average. Some areas have risen more, some less. To put this in perspective, if your body temperature increased by about 1.0 degree Celsius you would be running a fever of 101F and would require medical attention. A 1.0 degree Celsius rise  is about the same as a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in your body temperature from 98.6F.
  2. CO2 has increased in concentration in the atmosphere since the mid-1800s, which coincides directly with the period when humans began burning coal and other fossil fuels to power the industrial revolution. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which in larger concentrations traps more heat at the Earth’s surface.
  3. The CO2 which has been added to the atmosphere has a nuclear fingerprint that tags it as having come from sequestered carbon sources, such as buried coal and oil deposits. Carbon from near the surface of the Earth has a different fingerprint. The amount of sequestered-carbon-based CO2 in the atmosphere is the primary component of CO2 which is increasing.
  4. Increased CO2 causes heating, which causes more water to enter the vapor state. Water vapor is a much stronger greenhouse gas. The added water vapor amplifies the warming effect of the CO2. More heating and more CO2 continues to add more water vapor to the air, further amplifying the warming.
  5. The long-term climate outcomes of the added heat-trapping gases is an area of active research. Heating will be part of it, but in addition large volumes of melted arctic and antarctic ice  are entering the Earth’s oceans. Large amounts of cold water entering the oceans may have other disruptive effects on the transport of energy across the earth. Thus, while strong climate disruption is expected, it may not all be heating. What is clear is that regional climates will be disrupted; how that will happen is a matter of scientific study.

The above issues, which are the knowns in all of this science, are clearly described, detailed, and developed in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and summarized in the last IPCC Report.

What do current contenders for the GOP Presidential nomination think about the science? Have they digested the uncontested scientific facts, or have they missed too many days of school? What are they doing with that understanding?

  • Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney both appear to accept the scientific facts [1]. They have previously supported cap-and-trade measures to control the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere. Their heads are in the right place. Of late, since seeking the nomination, they have backed off their original statements supporting cap-and-trade. They claim they have changed their minds to protect the economy from higher energy prices. We can argue whether this is bad policy – fossil fuels cannot last forever and alternative energy will be needed to meet increased demand and decreased supply. But that is a substantive policy discussion, where the basic facts appear not to be in question. Tim Pawlenty, now no longer in contention for the nomination, also backed off of cap-and-trade.
  • Michelle Bachman has come out strong in denial of the basic facts of climate. In fact, her ignorance runs deep into ignorance of basic chemistry and physics. “Carbon dioxide is natural. It occurs in earth . . . Carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas. It is a harmless gas,” [1] she said during a floor debate in the House on cap-and-trade. Her policy choices will be necessarily ill-informed, if not reckless. She needs a good science advisor, somebody with backbone. Arguing that CO2 is harmless, in this specific case, is like arguing that putting a fence around your pool to keep your toddler from falling in is senseless because water is natural.
  • Ron Paul has command of some facts, but misses the whole picture. “There is clear evidence that the temperatures in some parts of the globe are rising, but temperatures are cooling in other parts. The average surface temperature had risen for several decades, but it fell back substantially in the past few years. Clearly there is something afoot. The question is: Is the upward fluctuation in temperature man-made or part of a natural phenomenon.” [2] He goes on a small sidestep, talking about previous warming periods (which had nothing to do with the causes of the current period). Then he finally gets around to saying, “It is clear that the earth experiences natural cycles in temperature. However, science shows that human activity probably does play a role in stimulating the current fluctuations.” Ron Paul advocates removing subsidies for oil and coal, allowing their prices to normalize in the market, and causing pressure to develop alternative energies. Again, here we reach a substantive policy discussion that is built on top of an acceptance of the scientific knowns.An addendum to the Ron Paul story. When climate researcher emails were stolen and released on the internet, this causes a false stir about scientists “making up” climate change. Four independent reviews of the people involved in the mails, and the wider scientific community, cleared all doubt about the integrity of the scientific process. Ron Paul, however, jumped on the bandwagon of people using this as a chance to ignore the science and try to take the cheap way out of a substantive policy discussion. “The greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on […] global warming.” [2] Foo on you, Ron Paul.
  • Rick Perry has entered the race for the GOP nomination. On Wednesday, Perry called human-induced climate change “a scientific theory that has not been proven.” [3] Ironically, Perry seems to be a victim of the kind of very poor science education policies he tried to shove on the State through appointment of fundamentalist Christians as chairs of the Texas State Board of Education. First of all, scientific theories explain facts; they are better than facts. So by definition, a theory has been proven. “I do think global warming has been politicized. … We are seeing almost weekly or even daily scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing our climate to change. Yes, our climate has changed. It has been changing ever since the Earth was formed. But I do not buy into a group of scientists who have, in some cases, been found to be manipulating data.” None of what Perry says is true. Not only is he in zero command of the basic science, he seems to be mis-leading his supporters. The debates in the scientific literature are about the severity of impacts and the kinds of impacts, not whether there will be impacts. Nor is there scientific disagreement about the existence or cause of warming trends. He uses mis-direction by noting climate has changed in the past; that’s smoke and mirrors, meant to distract you from the truth that humans have been leading this one since the industrial revolution.
Indeed, science provides a valuable litmus test for us in this early stage of the Republican primary. The question remains: will Republicans choose to nominate someone who cannot command a basic understanding of established scientific fact, or will they choose a leader and a strong policy maker?

The Greenhouse Effect Part 2: Hot Car, Hot Earth

High temperatures in Texas have been above 100 for over a month. When we park our car to go shopping, there is rarely any tree shade in which to place the car. As a result, the car is left in the direct glare of the sun, with windows closed (since we don’t like the idea of car theft). We go shopping. When we step from the mall to the parking lot, we experience a temperature difference of about 35 degrees Fahrenheit (going from an air-conditioned building at around 70 degrees to a local atmospheric temperature of 105). When we open the door of the car and jump inside, our bodies experience a FURTHER 25-degree temperature difference, this one between the ambient outdoor temperature (105) and the inside of the car (about 130 degrees). But wait . . . hasn’t the car been sitting in the air, coming into thermal equilibrium with the surroundings? Yes, but the total heat energy in the car is not simply that due to the energy entering the vehicle from the sun or from thermal contact with the atmosphere; it’s much higher, due to the heat-trapping action of the greenhouse effect.

Let us explore how the greenhouse effect works in a car. Solar radiation passes through the windows in the car and is absorbed by the materials in the car – the seats, the dashboard, the carpets, etc. Light is made from photons. For each photon, there is a direct relationship between energy and wavelength:

E = h/λ

Here, h is Planck’s Constant: h = 6.626 x 10-34 J ⋅ s. If, in a beam of solar radiation, you have more photons present with short (small) wavelengths, then the beam of light carries more overall energy than if it is composed primarily of long (large) wavelength photons. What is the composition of wavelengths of light before it enters the glass?

Solar irradiance spectrum above atmosphere and at surface
Solar irradiance spectrum above atmosphere and at surface

Light which has reached the surface of the earth has a composition as shown left [1]. Focus on the red-colored distribution; we see that a great fraction of the spectrum is concentrated in the visible portion of the spectrum, between 450-700 nm. Most of the spectrum lies in the infrared – the portion of the spectrum whose energy we feel as heat. These are wavelengths above 700nm. The remainder of the spectrum is ultraviolet – short wavelengths, below 450nm.

Absorption and transmission of glass
Curves show the absorption and transmission coefficients for glass as a function of the wavelength of light. Blue indicates ultraviolet, yellow visible light, and red indicates infrared or heat energy.

This is the spectrum of solar radiation that reaches our windshield and our passenger and rearview windows. These transparent materials are really transparent only to what we consider “visible” light, as illustrated by the graphic on the left [2].

Since most of the solar radiation enters as heat, and glass strongly absorbs heat, this leads to the glass re-radiating heat energy in all directions; some of it enters the car, the rest returns to the environment. Visible solar radiation is readily transmitted through the glass; this is absorbed by the materials in the car, while some of it (the colors we see) are reflected as visible light. The energy absorbed by materials in the car is re-radiated as heat energy (infrared). Some of this reaches the glass and is again primarily absorbed rather than transmitted. The glass then re-radiates the heat energy in all directions, some re-entering the car and some leaving the car.

We see how the equilibrium situation reached by the inside of the car is not represented by the external temperature; most of the sun’s radiation enters the car as heat, and most of that is trapped by the glass. The visible light that enters the car is primarily re-radiated as heat, and most of that is also trapped by the glass. So there is more heat energy trapped in the car than would be without the physical and chemical tendency of glass to absorb and trap heat energy. This is why a hot car on a hot day is at a higher internal temperature than the ambient air, and this is the essence of the greenhouse effect.

So where does this leave us with our great automobile, the planet Earth, on whose skin we ride in an endless waltz around our central star? There is no glass that surrounds Earth, but there is an atmosphere. What are the radiation transmission and absorption coefficients of our atmosphere?

Transmittance of radiation by atmospheric gases as a function of wavelength in the UV, visible, and infrared parts of the spectrum.
Transmittance of radiation by atmospheric gases as a function of wavelength in the UV, visible, and infrared parts of the spectrum.
Absorption of radiation by atmospheric gases as a function of wavelength in the infrared.
Absorption of radiation by atmospheric gases as a function of wavelength in the infrared.

The graphs above show the transmittance (top) and absorption (bottom) of radiation as a function of wavelength [3].Transmittance is shown for many common atmospheric gases all the way from UV to thermal infrared. Absorption is shown for these same gases, but only for the thermal infrared portion of the spectrum (heat energy). Keep in mind that the sum of transmittance and absorption must equal 100% (1.0); that is, when light strikes a material it must either be absorbed or transmitted – there are no other options. So if a gas has a high transmittance, it necessarily will have a low absorption.

Let’s choose a single gas and discuss its measured properties. Let’s choose water (H20). Water transmits nearly all visible wavelengths of light. It transmits parts of the infrared spectrum, but absorbs wide portions of that spectrum; it therefore is a good “greenhouse gas”  – one which readily absorbs infrared (heat). Looking closely at the absorption curves in the infrared, we see this property reinforced (the absorption is highest when the curve is near the bottom of each graph).

How about CO2? We see that CO2 transmits a lot more of the infrared portion of the spectrum, but it has segments where its absorption is very strong. Looking closely at the absorption, we see this confirmed. CO2 is less strong of a greenhouse gas compared to water, but it’s a good contender. But, except for methane (CH4), it’s a vastly superior greenhouse gas compared to other things in the atmosphere: CO, O2, O3, etc.

We need no glass to cause absorption of the heat energy re-radiated by the surface of the earth; we have greenhouse gases, which fill the same purpose as the glass in our car windows. What is the gas composition of the earth’s atmosphere? It is as follows [4]:

  • N2: 78.084%
  • O2: 20.946%
  • Ar: 0.9340%
  • H20: ~0.4% (varies with height in the atmosphere – closer to the surface it varies between 1-4%)
  • CO2: 0.039%

and other gases. Of the greenhouse gases, CO2 is second in concentration only to water. Water vapor clearly plays an overall larger role in the fact that our surface is warmer than expected due to incident solar radiation.

Let’s consider one last question before we close this post. If H20 is such a stupendous greenhouse gas, surely a little CO2 can’t be causing all this warming?

We’ll explore that question in the next post.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunlight#Composition

[2] Mitalas, G. P. and Stephenson, D. G. “Absorption and Transmission of Thermal Radiation by Single and Double Glazed Windows.” 1962.  http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/obj/irc/doc/pubs/rp/rp173/rp173.pdf

[3] http://www.heliosat3.de/e-learning/radiative-transfer/rt/Lecture-7.pdf

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmosphere_of_Earth

The Greenhouse Effect Part 1: Temperature and Thermodynamics

Complete misunderstanding of Nature leads to poor statements about the greenhouse effect.
Bad Science on Parade: a Fox News segment argues against CO2 as a greenhouse gas. This segment represents a failure to understand science, both on the part of the presenter and on the part of the media giving time to the presenter.

Most of the time, organizations like Media Matters are a bit too left-wing for my tastes. However, recently they blogged [1] about a Fox News segment where a meteorologist [2] claimed that one of the laws of thermodynamics “proves” that global warming cannot happen. The stark scientific ignorance illustrated by this Fox News segment got me thinking about the physics of the greenhouse effect. I figured it was time for a refresher. After all, the Greenhouse Effect is real, it happens, and is not in conflict with any law of nature (in fact, it’s an inevitable consequence of physics and chemistry) [3].

A simplified illustration of the greenhouse effect and its part in the cycle of enegy flow on earth.
A simplified illustration of the greenhouse effect and its part in the cycle of enegy flow on earth.

Quite simply, the greenhouse effect occurs when the temperature of a system rises to a higher level than that expected simply due to the action of an external input of energy. For instance, if the sun were the only way to heat the surface of the earth, our planet would be much cooler than it is (independent of the actions of our species) and relatively inhospitable to life as we know it. Gases in our atmosphere absorb the heat energy radiated by the surface of the earth and re-radiate it in all directions, including right back at the surface. This causes the surface of the earth to be much hotter than is possible only by the activity of the sun.

Let’s explore some of these ideas in a bit more depth. First, what is temperature? Temperature is a measure of the heat energy possessed by a system. The system can be made of many parts – for instance, air is made from an extremely large number of molecules (about 6.02×1023 in every 24 liters of air). Each molecule possesses a certain amount of energy, in the form of motion (translation), vibration, rotation, or combinations of all three. While each molecule may possess differing degrees of these fundamental energies, they collide with other molecules and exchange energy. This would seem an unfathomably complex set of behaviors – translation, vibration, rotation, collision with an unknown number of neighbor molecules, and exchange of energy during collision. Heat energy represents a statistical average of the behavior of all of these individual parts, and is a study all of its own (Statistical Mechanics, or “Stat Mech”). Temperature is a measure of the heat energy possessed by a system. [4]

When two systems are brought into contact, such that they can exchange energy (we’ll explore what that means in a bit), what determines how energy will be exchanged is the relative temperatures of the two systems. If one system possesses a higher temperature than the other, then heat energy will be  transferred from the hotter system to the cooler system, until they reach a new and common temperature and no longer exchange heat energy. This is what is meant by “achieving thermal equilibrium” or reaching an “equilibrium state”. Two systems can begin each in isolation, unable to release or receive energy; in that case, they will maintain their original temperatures and each is said to be in their own equilibrium states. When brought into thermal contact, such that they can exchange heat energy, the new system they represent – the sum of the two – is NOT in its thermal equilibrium state. Energy must be exchanged until a common temperature is reached. This represents motion toward and achievement of equilibrium.

All of these ideas are summarized neatly in the laws of thermodynamics [5]:

  • The Zeroth Law: if two systems, labeled A and B, are both in thermal equilibrium with a third system, labeled C, then A and B are in thermal equilibrium with each other.
  • The First Law: the change in total energy of a system is the result of the heat energy added TO the system and the work done BY the system.
  • The Second Law: a process which only transfers heat energy from a cooler system to a hotter system is impossible.
  • The Third Law: in a perfect crystal (a regularly ordered solid) the entropy (a measure of disorder in a system) approaches zero as the temperature approaches zero.

Let’s close out this little post by exploring these laws and their relevance to the greenhouse effect. We’ve already explored the zeroth law a bit by thinking about a hot system coming into thermal contact with a cold system, and the new total system seeks a new equilibrium. Imagine that we have three such systems: A, B, and C. We bring A into contact with C and find no change in temperature; they must have been in thermal equilibrium already. We bring B into contact with C and also find no change in temperature, so they too are already in thermal equilibrium. Therefore, we know automatically that A and B are also in thermal equilibrium.

The first law tells us how the total energy of a system can be changed. If we add heat energy to that system, its total energy increases. If we do mechanical work on that system, its total energy also increases. If the system does mechanical work, its total energy decreases. If the system loses heat energy, as by coming into contact with a cooler system, it also decreases its total energy. The first law tells us how heat energy and work energy relate to changes in the total energy of the system, and is a restatement of energy conservation (in order to change you total energy, heat energy must change hands and/or work energy much change hands. If you lose, something else gains, and vice versa.

The second law places limits on the kinds of processes that can occur and helps define a “reversible” process (once whose effects can be reversed) and an “irreversible” process (one whose effects cannot be reversed without an external forcing factor). For instance, the law states that if two bodies are brought into contact and one is hotter than the other, it is IMPOSSIBLE for the hotter object to gain heat energy from the cooler object and thus increase the temperature difference between them. That is, it’s IMPOSSIBLE if the ONLY way energy can be exchanged is via heat energy. If there is also mechanical work being done, then it IS possible to transfer heat energy from the  cooler object to the warmer one, as detailed in the first law. You refrigerator is just such a system. A mechanical pump does work on a fluid, and the fluid take heat energy from the inside of the fridge (system A) to the outside of the fridge (system B). System B is hotter than system A, but as long as the mechanical pump continues to do work (thanks to external energy supplied by the electrical grid), heat can move from cooler to hotter; when the pump fails or is switched off, heat can no longer make that journey as heat energy exchange then becomes the sole mechanism by which heat energy can be moved.

The third law tells us what happens to the disorder, or entropy, or a perfect crystal when that system is cooled (e.g. by doing work to remove heat energy from the crystal) toward absolute zero temperature. The disorder will tend to zero as well.

The earth is a system, but it is composed of many separate subsystems, and it is not isolated from external factors. All of the earth subsystems are at different temperatures, and thus are exchanging energy with one another and trying to reach a thermal equilibrium. Energy is injected into the earth primarily via the sun (some energy at the surface results from geothermal processes inside the earth). The energy causes the temperature of the surface to change, as well as that of the atmosphere. The surface radiates solar energy as heat and light; the atmosphere absorbs that and then it, too, re-radiates the energy (primarily as heat). The surface and atmosphere are in thermal contact, and their different temperatures promotes a constant exchange of energies that represents these systems trying to achieve thermal equilibrium. What is key in all of this is that the earth is not a closed and isolated system; it is in thermal contact with the sun, in that energy radiated by the sun can enter the earth system and affect the temperature of its various subsystems. So there is not only nothing here that violates laws of nature; these behaviors are all an INEVITABLE CONSEQUENCE of the laws of nature.

In the next post (“Hot Car, Hot Earth”), we’ll explore the physical and chemical properties of  atmospheric gasses that makes them a key player in the greenhouse effect.

[1] http://mediamatters.org/blog/201108090029

[2] The forecaster in question is a regular contributor to Fox News on climate matters, Joe Bastardi. According to his Wikipedia page, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Bastardi, he holds a “degree in meteorology” from Penn State. He currently works for WeatherBell Analytics LLC. WeatherBell is a private company whose mission is to provide ” . . .a meteorological consulting firm that assists weather sensitive businesses to better manage their weather risk.” http://www.weatherbell.com/about-us/

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_effect

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temperature

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_thermodynamics