Problem Solving Denial Style. Lobotomize Science

February 14, 2018


Don’t you feel better now?

Ars Technica:

There were plenty of striking things about Monday’s budget news, given that it contained lots of draconian cuts that were simultaneously restored because Congress had boosted spending the week before. But perhaps the most striking among them was an item in the proposed budget for NASA: Trump wants to block the follow on to a highly successful NASA mission.

To truly appreciate just how awful this is, you have to understand the history of that satellite and what it means to the scientific community as a whole. So let’s step back and take a look at why the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (or OCO) exists in the first place. It turns out it was built specifically to handle some outstanding questions of the sort that people in the administration say are important, and killing its successor would mean the existing mission never lives up to its full potential.

Real uncertainty

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory’s primary job is to see what’s happening to the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. You may think that’s a solved issue: we’re emitting a lot, and levels are going up. And that’s true to a point. But once you pass that point, you enter a world where there are lots of details, and many of them matter.



Humanity, it turns out, is just one of a huge number of sources of carbon dioxide—and there are things that remove it as well. Plants, for example, remove so much carbon dioxide through photosynthesis that we can track the seasonal appearance of leaves in the Northern Hemisphere because the process removes so much of the gas from the atmosphere. Some of that gets held for the long-term as wood; another portion returns to the air when the leaves drop in the autumn. Other processes cycle carbon through vast amounts of plankton in the oceans. Geological processes also act as sources and sinks for the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide. 

So much is going on that one source described the carbon cycle as including “every plant, animal, and microbe, every photosynthesizing leaf and fallen tree, every ocean, lake, pond, and puddle, every soil, sediment, and carbonate rock, every breath of fresh air, volcanic eruption, and bubble rising to the surface of a swamp, among much, much else.” Humanity’s fossil-fuel burning isn’t so much a direct pipeline putting carbon dioxide into the air as it is a subtle lever that’s pushing off the balance of a complex system.

Although the carbon cycle is complex, we have a relatively good idea of how it works. And, plus or minus a few gigatonnes here and there, we know the volume of carbon dioxide handled by most of the sources and sinks.

That said, this is still an area where there are significant uncertainties. People make a big deal about false uncertainties in climate science—we know the temperature’s rising, and we know human carbon emissions are the primary driver, but people keep trying to pretend there’s uncertainty there.

But the carbon cycle is a case where the uncertainties are real, and scientists will tell you as much. We don’t have as good a handle on some of the sources and sinks as we’d like. And, more importantly, these things are dynamic and change with time. To give one example, water dissolves more gas when it’s cold. We’re warming the oceans, which means they will be able to dissolve less carbon dioxide. Are the oceans starting to weaken as a sink? We don’t really know at this point.

NASA gets involved

These uncertainties were so real and so widely acknowledged by the scientific community that NASA got involved. NASA funded the OCO to provide global coverage of carbon dioxide levels year round. The satellite takes more than a million data readings every day, with each reading covering only about three square kilometers. This will allow us to identify individual sources and sinks and determine how they change with the seasons. And, because it’s placed in an orbital train with five other Earth-sensing satellites, any changes can be correlated with what’s going on at that location based on what those other satellites are seeing.

In short, the OCO is a recipe for important science. But the importance went well beyond the satellite’s technical capabilities. Simply getting any data from the satellite would allow us to start the long-term monitoring of all of the Earth’s carbon dioxide processing. We’d have the data we’d need to start detecting whether any of that processing changed as the planet warmed.

In fact, the work of the OCO was considered so important that NASA was willing to do it twice. The first Orbiting Carbon Observatory failed to separate from its launch vehicle and ended up falling back to Earth over the Indian Ocean. NASA built a second and successfully put that one in orbit. It’s now been operating just shy of four years, and the first scientific results have already been published. The data’s in place to start monitoring for changes in the Earth’s carbon budget, and an Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 was in the planning stages.

Trump wants NASA uninvolved

Yet this is precisely the point where Trump wants NASA to blind itself. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory is just starting to reduce some of our uncertainties about carbon fluxes, but is already closing in on double the originally planned mission lifetime. A lot of hardware lives well beyond its planned lifetime, but we can’t expect OCO to go on indefinitely, and NASA was appropriately planning on having something ready to replace it.

Yet the Trump budget plan refers to the successor as a “lower-priority science [mission] that cannot be accommodated under constrained budgets” and suggests that the data could be gathered by other satellites, although it doesn’t name any of them.

But wait, there’s more.

The Hill:

President Trump’s 2019 White House budget reportedly includes a proposed cut to the National Weather Service that would eliminate hundreds of jobs.

As part of an 8 percent cut to the agency’s budget, the Trump administration would nix 355 jobs, including 248 forecasters, saving an estimated $15 million, according to The Washington Post.

Last year, the total cost of weather and climate change-related disasters totaled more than $300 billion, making 2017 the costliest year on record for such events.

The budget would also cut millions of dollars to the agency’s surface and marine observations program, the tsunami-warning program and activities that invest in weather modeling.

An agency workforce analysis from 2016 noted a “mismatch … between workforce and workload” in some aspects of the National Weather Service, evidence cited in the budget as a reason to cut positions.

The National Weather Service’s labor union criticized the cuts, saying they would create a “perfect storm” hindering the agency’s ability to provide reliable forecasts and natural disaster warnings.

“We can’t take any more cuts and still do the job that the American public needs us to do,” union president Dan Sobien told the Post. “There simply will not be the staff available on duty to issue the forecasts and warnings upon which the country depends.”



5 Responses to “Problem Solving Denial Style. Lobotomize Science”

  1. indy222 Says:

    Gruesome, is the only word. So are the human pictures.

  2. Sir Charles Says:

    All these guys who were shouting “Bernie or bust” can be so proud of themselves…

    • toby52 Says:

      So should Jill Stein, Green Presidential candidate, who said that “Clinton would be worse for the environment than Trump”. How many still believe that?

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    Tramp is treating science like himself – like a piece of sh!t. Below an article in Nature:

    Trump science budget sows confusion

    US president makes last-minute decision to abandon proposal for major cuts to National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and Department of Energy’s science office.

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