Notes from a Warming World

Temperature Gauge

First They Come for the Climatologists

graphic of a earth-globe with a thermometer rising from it

If you thought death threats to scientists belonged only in Dan Brown thrillers, time for a reality check.

In June, several of Australia’s leading climate scientists had to be rushed to a secure location after they received emails and phone calls threatening violence, sexual assault, and attacks on their family members. The threats intensified in the weeks leading up to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s introduction of a tax on carbon emissions. Several scientists had to switch to unlisted home phone numbers and delete social media profiles that had been defaced. Australian police are investigating the threats.

“It is clear that there is a campaign in terms of either organized or disorganized threats to discourage scientists from presenting the best available climate science on television or radio,” says Professor David Koroly of the University of Melbourne.

US scientists, too, have been targets of intimidation, especially following the so-called Climategate “scandal” in 2009. Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, and NASA scientist James Hansen have been special targets of the most virulent hate mail.

Apparently some climate deniers don’t understand that threatening the messengers won’t change the message.

Mushrooms on the Move

Truffles, a delicacy in French and Italian cuisine, may soon be adding flavor to German cooking. The hard-to-find mushrooms are migrating north because of warming weather.

photo of a silver plate containing black trufflesPhoto courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Swiss climatologist Ulf Buentgen says a rise in average temperatures over the past century may be shifting the natural habitat of truffles. Buentgen found about four pounds of Burgundy truffles in southern Germany during an expedition with a specially trained truffle-scenting dog last year. The climatologist, who of course ate the truffles, says that such finds are rare and could be explained by climate change.

The initial discovery led to a more extensive study, which has uncovered 210 sites with truffles in eastern Switzerland and Germany. The finds could prove lucrative for northern and central European states. The much sought-after warty fungi used to flavor anything from pasta dishes to sausages can fetch up to $1,400 apiece.

Buentgen says that the migrating mushrooms are of “enormous scientific, economic, and gastronomic importance.”

Sometimes Coal Can Cool

It appears China’s soaring coal consumption in the last decade actually held back global warming. Sounds counterintuitive, right? But a new US-Finnish study explains that unregulated sulfur emissions from coal plants helped keep temperatures down. This is because coal emits sulfur, which stops the sun’s rays from reaching Earth.

The report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says sulfur emissions could explain why global temperatures didn’t rise steadily from 1998 to 2008 even though 2005 and 2010 are tied as the hottest years on record. Climate skeptics often argue that this uneven temperature rise disproves the view that greenhouse gas emissions are heating the planet.

Robert Kaufmann, a Boston University professor who was part of the research team, says this has happened in the past, too. Greenhouse gas emissions soared in the post-World War II economic boom in Western countries and Japan without causing a corresponding temperature rise. “What happened was, at the same time sulfur emissions increased very rapidly, thereby canceling much of the greenhouse gas effect,” Kaufmann says.

But then major industrial nations started to curb sulfur emissions in the 1970s and global temperatures began to rise. More recently, global coal consumption rose by 26 percent between 2003 and 2007, with China accounting for more than three-quarters of the increase. China has only recently started to install sulfur scrubbers on its coal plants. “So we already see temperatures starting to increase again,” Kaufmann says. “It rose in 2009, it rose in 2010 and that may be one reason for that increase.”

While sulfur serves as a temporary coolant, it also contributes to acid rain and human respiratory problems. Turning to sulfur to curb global warming, Kaufmann jokes, is like saying: “We’ll pick our poison.”

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