On the occasion of Russia signing the Kyoto protocol:
Climate warming or climate collapse?
First published at www.biotic-regulation.pl.ru/pogoda_e.htm 14 February 2005. Moved to www.bioticregulation.ru 14 February 2009. See also our commentary "Models and Theories" made December 30, 2008 in the discussion of HESS Opinion "The art of hydrology" by Prof. H. Savenije where we further elaborate on the topic of mathematical modelling in modern science.
1. Weather and climate
Accurate long-term weather forecasts are principally impossible.
But climate is not weather.
Scientific approach allows one to study the nature of climate stability on Earth and its possible changes under human impact.
Already at school one possesses some knowledge of climate. Climate is warm in the tropics and cold near the poles. It is harsh far from the sea and milder near the seacoast. It is very dry in the deserts. In every climatic zone at different times one observes different weather. Basically, climate of a given area is constituted by the given frequency and timing of occurrence of the particular weather types.
Weather forecasts make use of the inertia of atmospheric and oceanic processes. That is, the arising cyclones and anticyclones do not dissipate and disappear immediately, but move in a given direction at a given speed for a certain time. This allows one to relatively accurately predict weather changes over a time period equal to the time of existence of these phenomena. This time is normally rather short and does not exceed several days. At the time scale of one month or entire season (spring, summer, autumn, winter) weather forecasts acquire probabilistic nature and are made on the basis of long-term weather records for the considered area. By definition, such forecasts cannot predict anything that had not happened before.
Accurate long-term weather forecasts are principally impossible. Any slightest change in the initial conditions, by far less than the technical inaccuracy of their measurements, can lead to drastically different weather scenarios. This effect can be compared to a pendulum mounted upside-down: initially left in the vertical position it can swing in any direction affected by slightest fluctuations, which one cannot either predict or measure.
Climate is not weather. Scientific approach allows one to study the nature of climate stability on Earth and its possible changes under impact of the human-induced environmental change.
2. Climate stability
The main observed feature of Earth's climate is its stability.
It has allowed life to persist on Earth through billions of years.
However, this stability is not of physical nature.
Physically, the climate of Earth with its easily evaporating and freezing hydrosphere, is unstable.
The main observed feature of Earth's climate is its stability. It allowed life to have existed on the planet for several billion years. Paleodata corresponding to over half a billion recent years indicate that the mean global surface temperature has deviated from its present value of +15 oC by no more than 5 oC to either side, i.e. it has not decreased below 10 oC or increased above 20 oC. The registered sequence of glacial and inter-glacial periods is an unambiguous testimony of climate stability. Indeed, increase in surface temperature brought about forces compensating this increase (i.e. the advance of ice shields). Conversely, the decrease of surface temperature with growing area occupied by glaciers brought about forces responsible for subsequent temperature rise and retreat of glaciers.
Analysis of the physical properties of the atmosphere, oceans and continents on Earth reveals that the climate of our planet, where the major part of the surface is covered by the liquid hydrosphere of the oceans, is physically unstable. The amount of atmospheric water (vapour and clouds), which is in continuous turnover evaporating from the surface of oceans and continents and precipitating in the form of rain and snow, is strictly related to the temperature of the Earth's surface. With increasing surface temperature the amount of atmospheric water vapour increases in geometric progression, doubling per each ten degrees of temperature rise (and, respectively, decreasing twofold per each ten degrees of surface temperature drop). This phenomenon is well-known and used in daily life, for example, when we warm the washed clothes to dry them.
Atmospheric water is the main greenhouse substance of the atmosphere, which captures thermal radiation of the planet's surface and redirects it back to the surface, thus additionally heating it. (As everybody knows, there is no frost when the sky is cloudy.) With increasing surface temperature the exponentially growing amount of atmospheric water leads therefore to further exponential increase of surface temperature, and so on. Therefore, if the process of water evaporation from the oceanic surface is not controlled by some external forces, nothing can stop an accidentally initiated process of unlimited increase in surface temperature, until the oceans are fully evaporated. Simple physical estimates show that in the latter case the final temperature of the Earth's surface will reach +400 oC, where no life is possible. On the other hand, if by any chance the surface temperature starts decreasing, nothing will stop the exponential diminishment of atmospheric water content and the associated drop of surface temperature until the entire hydrosphere is frozen. In this state it reflects a major part of the incoming solar radiation, so that the resulting temperature of the planetary surface will be around −100 oC, again prohibiting life existence.
3. Natural biota
What are the forces stabilising terrestrial climate?
Climate stability on Earth is maintained by natural biota.
The power of transpiration (water evaporation by plants) is 300 times higher than the global energy power of the modern civilisation.
Undisturbed natural forests represent most effective systems controlling water cycle on land.
On cultivated lands with highly productive "wrong" biota a powerful mechanism destabilising the environment is in action.
What are the forces that are controlling evaporation over the oceans and on land and maintaining the temperature of the Earth's surface within the life-compatible corridor? It can be easily found out that these can be neither forces related to surface non-homogeneity of the continents, which constitute only one third of the planetary surface; nor Coriolis forces arising due to Earth rotation; nor forces of global circulation of atmospheres and the ocean. In other words, neither the spherical form, nor rotation, nor the uneven surface of the planet has anything to do with climate stability. Climate stability on Earth is maintained by the natural biota, i.e. by ecological communities of plant and animal species on land and in the ocean, that are not disturbed by anthropogenic activities.
Biotic control of the environment and climate of Earth is as complex a process as life itself. However, some of its elements are relatively well studied. Rate of water evaporation from forest foliage can exceed manifold the rate of evaporation from open land or water surfaces, due to the fact that leaves of forest trees have a multilayer spatial distribution (i.e. there are several leaf surfaces above each unit area of the surface). The ecological process of water evaporation from the foliage is called transpiration. The global power of solar radiation used for transpiration, which is fully under biotic control, is 300 times larger than the energy consumption of modern civilization. In the oceans the depth of light penetration depends on water turbidity. The latter is dictated by the living cells of phyto- and zooplankton, which produce various surfactants allowing to regulate evaporation and temperature of the water surface. There are many other nearly obvious but less focally studied biotic mechanisms of environmental control. These mechanisms are inherent to the natural biota undisturbed by man — intact forests unaffected by cutting and fire, undrained bogs, oceanic ecosystems not polluted by oil.
The complex nature of biotic environmental control renders useless possible anthropogenic attempts of interfering with or perfecting its mechanisms. In the light of this complexity, the efforts on studying these mechanisms in all the detail appear similarly unjustified. Biotic regulation of the environment adjusted and tested over several billion years cannot be improved by man. The only thing man can do is to conserve it and not to impede its functioning.
What is happening today to the biotic mechanism of environmental control? Undisturbed natural forests represent most effective systems controlling water cycle on land. Rates of evaporation and precipitation in tropical rainforests are twice as high as the rates of evaporation and precipitation over open oceanic surface. Biotic regulation of water cycle performed by undisturbed temperate and boreal forests is the same effective in summer months, but it is switched off in winter and weakened in spring and summer. Every spring we witness how our biota wakes up and commences, again and again, its attempts on switching environmental control on and restore the environment in a state optimal for our existence. However, thoughtlessly as ever, we continue to cut, burn and exterminate the natural biota. Our task is to obtain economically profitable maximum crop yields from our agricultural fields, to grow economically valuable timber. Natural forests are negatively labelled "climax", referred to as containing rotten timber, having low timber productivity, etc. However it is these forests that had existed over hundred millions of years without human interference that represent the biota capable of effective environmental control.
Organisms grown on cultivated lands and in exploited "forests" are not biota. These plant species and people feeding on them never form a natural ecological community capable of environmental regulation. Quite the opposite, due to the achieved high productivity of these combinations of living organisms artificially set together, their environmental impact is considerable but destructive, and might even exceed in its magnitude the stabilising impact of the natural aboriginal biota which used to exist on the considered territory.
Over several thousand years the humankind has been quite successful in destroying natural biota on land and in the coastal zone. Only the biota of the open ocean can be still considered as relatively undisturbed. Territories currently occupied by deserts used to be covered by forests that had been swept away by human-induced cutting, burning and subsequent overgrazing by cattle. The extant steppes, prairies and savannahs are intermediate stages of the on-going process of forest extermination. It is remarkable that man is not successful in turning the disturbed areas with destroyed natural biota into flourishing gardens or highly productive pastures for any considerable period of time comparable to the time of existence of natural ecosystems. High productivity of artificial biological systems is, at high cost, attained on a very limited spatial scale for a short time, to be followed by complete degradation of productivity and desertification of the area. In deserts the stabilising process of environmental biotic control is simply switched off, so deserts (including glaciated territories of the past and present) cannot contribute to the global environmental degradation. By contrast, on cultivated lands with highly productive "wrong" biota (producing, at a high rate, things that are useful for man (milk, meat, corn, etc.) but making no ecological sense) a powerful mechanism destabilising the environment is in action.
4. World "culture" of forest cutting
Unique geographic position made Europe the cradle of the disastrous "culture" of forest cutting.
As a global threat to human existence the "culture" of forest cutting is more dangerous than the other anti-humane "cultures" of the past and present, including the "culture" of Inquisition in the middle ages, "culture" of concentration camps in the twentieth century, "culture" of terrorism today.
Violation of the biotic control of the environment results in environmental and climatic chaos, increasing frequency of anomalous and often catastrophic fluctuations of environmental conditions.
Looking at the map one immediately notices the unique feature of Europe: its highly jagged coastline and the numerous internal seas. This unique geographic position makes the precipitation regime in Europe less dependent on the degree of disturbance of land biota as compared to internal continental territories and slows down (although not averting) desertification. Namely this unique geographic position made Europe the cradle of the "culture" of forest cutting, which is now dominating in the world. Natural forests flourishing in Europe were exterminated throughout the continent and turned into cultivated lands. This led to unprecedented population growth, overpopulation, intense emigration of Europeans to all parts of the world and, as a consequence, world-wide spread of the European "culture" of biota extermination. Where previously in existence, traditional aboriginal cultures sparingly using nature and maintaining ecologically sustainable low population densities, were swept away. As a global threat to human existence the "culture" of forest cutting is more dangerous than the other anti-humane "cultures" of the past and present, including the "culture" of Inquisition in the middle ages, "culture" of concentration camps in the twentieth century, "culture" of terrorism today. (In this light the image of Europe as a global fighter for human rights acquires a strong hypocritical component.) The discovery of fossil fuel prevented the global human population from relaxing to the sustainable natural limits, by accelerating the process of nature cultivation, which resulted in extermination of natural biota on the most part of land on Earth.
Violation of the biotic control of the environment results in environmental and climatic chaos, increasing frequency of anomalous and often catastrophic fluctuations of environmental conditions. Europe and USA, where natural biota is practically totally destroyed, experience such extremes most often. Recent catastrophic tsunami in December 2004 was conditioned by processes in the Earth core that are not related to any anthropogenic or biotic activities. However, the tsunami-induced elevation of huge water masses by several dozens meters and the associated globally significant disturbance of the functioning of the oceanic biota (phyto- and zooplankton) could significantly change the regimes of evaporation and precipitation on a global scale. In the absence of biotic control which would mitigate such anomalous fluctuations this likely led to the catastrophic world wide weather changes (like, e.g., snowfalls in California immediately following the tsunami).
The environment is least prone to anomalies in those regions where biotic regulation of the environment is still in action. These are the remnant tropical rainforests of the Amazon, Equatorial Africa, India, Indonesia, Northern Australia; boreal forests of Canada and Russia.
5. Forest cutting threatening the climate of Russia
Climate of the north-west of Russia, Siberia and Far East is still maintained within limits favourable for human life due to the huge, continental-scale territories covered by undisturbed forests.
Biotic regulation of forests in Western Europe was destroyed completely several centuries ago. In the last century, mostly in its second half, biotic regulation of forests was destroyed in Finland and Sweden.
A similar process of extermination of natural forests is now in full swing in Leningrad district, Karelia and Far East in Russia. Voices are heard calling to spread the "advanced" Swedish-Finnish technology of natural forests extermination to Siberia and the whole north-west of Russia.
After extermination of natural forests the climate of Russia, including water cycle, will be irreversibly undermined. The country will gradually desertify. Putting things simply, Russian people will have no place where to live and spend the expected increased income.
Russia is not Europe. The latter is partially protected from desertification by its geographic position; Russia is not. Climate of the north-west of Russia, Siberia and Far East is still maintained within limits favourable for human life due to the huge, continental-scale territories covered by undisturbed forests. It is highly dangerous to consider the forests of Russia as an economically valuable timber store and sell them out to industrial companies, as was done in Europe and USA. Although, in contrast to tropical forests possessing only a limited potential for self-recovery after clear cutting, boreal forests are able to restore after cutting and fire, they do so very slowly, on a time scale of over hundred years. Immediately after cutting the biotic regulation of the environment is switched off completely. In a re-growing forest it is severely weakened, as far as all energy available to the ecological community is spent on most rapid self-recovery. Similarly, an ill man recovering from a serious illness is unable to work until complete recovery.
It is not until the forest become fully mature ("overgrown" or even "rotten" from the point of view of forest industry) that the natural age distributions and population densities of plants and animals are restored and the maximum intensity of environmental regulation is attained, which can be further maintained for unlimited time periods. Forest businessmen interested exclusively in economically valuable timber cut forests long before the forest ecological community reaches its natural state, thus completely depriving the forest of its ability to regulate and stabilise the environment. Biotic regulation of forests in Western Europe was destroyed completely several centuries ago. In the last century, mostly in its second half, biotic regulation of forests was destroyed in Finland and Sweden.
In Finland, in a short time period of several decades, all natural forests were replaced by live stands of economically valuable timber. To facilitate forest exploitation the territory of Finland was covered by a dense network of motorways. The length of motorways per unit area in Finland is the largest among European countries. A similar process of extermination of natural forests is now in full swing in Leningrad district, Karelia and Far East in Russia. Voices are heard calling to spread the "advanced" Swedish-Finnish technology of natural forests extermination to Siberia and the whole north-west of Russia.
Sweden and Finland are Baltic states. Their climate can still remain suitable for human life for some time after elimination of natural forests. For Russia extermination of forests would be fatal. Russian climate, harsh as it is, still remains suitable for human existence due to the country-wide absence of roads. This unique feature hinders immediate destruction of natural ecosystems in a major part of Eurasia. It is naive to hope that if natural Russian forests are destroyed and turned into managed stands of economically valuable timber, this will lead to doubling or tripling of the gross domestic product. (It is similarly naive to hope to solve economic problems of Russia by selling out its water resources). After extermination of natural forests the climate of Russia, including water cycle, will be irreversibly undermined. The country will gradually desertify. Putting things simply, Russian people will have no place where to live and spend the expected increased income. Moreover, extermination of natural Russian forests will contribute to the collapse of global climatic conditions.
6. Atmospheric carbon dioxide
CO2 is the major global anthropogenic pollutant and the second important greenhouse gas of the terrestrial atmosphere after atmospheric water vapour.
As long as the climate of Earth (which is physically unstable) remains under biotic control, there is no CO2 problem.
But if one continues extermination of natural ecosystems, climate stability on Earth will be irreversibly lost.
In this case, independent of whether CO2 emissions grow or decline, the climate of Earth will collapse coming to one of the two life-incompatible states similar to those found on Mars and Venus.
The Kyoto protocol aimed exclusively at controlling the anthropogenic CO2 emissions is harmful in that it creates an illusion that something has been undertaken aimed at environmental stabilisation.
So far most climatic problems have been related to the on-going increase of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide CO2, which is the major global anthropogenic pollutant. CO2 is the second important greenhouse gas of the terrestrial atmosphere after atmospheric water vapour. The absorption band of CO2 covers only 20% of the width of the thermal spectrum of the Earth surface. Absorption of thermal radiation in the remaining parts of the spectrum (and including the CO2 absorption band) is performed by atmospheric water vapour and clouds
If the climate of Earth were physically stable at any mean global surface temperature, then one could discuss various questions like possible surface temperature changes due to increasing CO2 concentration, shifts of climatic zones, beneficial or malicious nature of such changes with respect to human well-being, etc. However, as long as the climate of Earth (which is physically unstable) remains under biotic control, there is no CO2 problem. First, the biota can compensate the adverse increase in atmospheric CO2 by regulating the water cycle, i.e. atmospheric concentrations of the major greenhouse substance, water. Second, the atmospheric CO2 itself is under full biotic control, as far as global productivity of biota on Earth is such that it can radically change the atmospheric carbon store in a time period of ten years. Natural biota can use both mechanisms with varying intensity, to cope with CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere. As noted before, these biotic processes cannot be modelled in any detail due to their unprecedented complexity.
Obviously, if the anthropogenic CO2 emissions were cut off, this would make it easier for the natural biota to return the global environment to the unperturbed state. The Kyoto protocol imposing some limits on the rates of carbon emissions in all countries abiding by it, is scientifically justified in this sense only. If one continues extermination of natural ecosystems, thus completely destroying the biotic regulation mechanism, climate stability on Earth will be irreversibly lost. In this case, independent of whether CO2 emissions grow or decline, the climate of Earth will collapse coming to one of the two life-incompatible states similar to those found on Mars and Venus. The available estimates show that such a transition can take less than one century.
Therefore, the Kyoto protocol aimed exclusively at controlling the anthropogenic CO2 emissions and not even mentioning the idea of the necessity of conservation and restoration of the natural biota of land and ocean, is not only useless, but also harmful. This is because it creates an illusion that something has been undertaken aimed at environmental stabilisation. For Russia, in particular, it would be much more beneficial to continue using its fossil fuels at a rate necessary for the Russian people, but completely stopping any forest exploitation. Russian stores of oil, natural gas and coal are more than sufficient for Russians to develop high technologies and remain competitive on the world economic and military arenas.
Compared to the recent triumphant development of physics, with participation of all most brilliant minds of the humanity, such sciences as biology, ecology and climatology, i.e. the main sciences about life and its environment, have progressed modestly.
Have there been any conceptual advances in our understanding of the phenomenon of life?
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were marked by an explosive development of experimental and theoretical physics. That the discoveries made by physics were highly reliable (i.e. they captured the truth about how the universe is organised) was proved by their grandiose practical implications, that is, by the effective work of technical devices built on the basis of these discoveries. Automobiles and trains moved and carried people and loads, jet planes flew, spaceships rotated around the planet and came back to Earth, telephones, television, radio, nuclear powers and nuclear weapons all functioned.
There is a limited range of spatial scales bearing directly to life functioning. Physics (and chemistry as the integral part of physics) have in detail studied practically the entire range of life-relevant space scales, from the radius of atom nucleus to the radius of our planet. The discoveries made on this life-relevant range of scales during the last two centuries have revolutionised our daily life. Further advancements in astrophysics dealing with interstellar space scale and physics of elementary particles dealing with space scales far less than proton radius are unlikely to affect our daily life to any comparable degree. This has lead to a considerable decline of social enthusiasm with respect to physics as a science which, until very recently, seemed to be capable of continuously yielding an infinite number of revolutionary technical implications.
Compared to the recent triumphant development of physics, with participation of all most brilliant minds of the humanity, such sciences as biology, ecology and climatology, i.e. the main sciences about life and its environment, have progressed only modestly. The conspicuous advance of molecular biology owes itself to the corresponding achievements in physics and chemistry. In its essence molecular biology deals with molecular anatomy of the cell. Surgeons know how to cut the living body, how to delete and replace human organs. Modern molecular biology allows one to do the same at the level of macromolecules of the living cell. However, surgery as a science has not lead to any conceptual breakthrough in our understanding of the phenomenon of human life. Neither did molecular biology with respect to our understanding of the phenomenon of life as a whole. This follows already from the fact that 99% of DNA is still considered to be "junk" DNA irrelevant to the organism functioning. Life is an informational structure unprecedented in its complexity. Of primary importance is not how life information is written, but what it is about. DNA molecules carry information about the environment where the organism must survive and function, i.e. the ecological and climatological information. Modern molecular biology does not make us closer to deciphering this information. Even those incorrigible optimists who believe that everything in the world is always developing in the right direction cannot get completely rid of a suspicion that there are some problems with ecology and climatology, and that the ideas in the air about approaching unprecedented global disasters might well have a scientific basis.
8. Mathematical computer models
Huge recent progress in computer technology has greatly facilitated scientific research.
The opposite side of the coin is that all those fields of knowledge where, in contrast to physical problems, no direct experiments testing the model predictions could be performed, were invaded and colonised by computer modelling, including ecology and climate science.
Such computer models are equivalent to a table of the experimental data exposed to a set of chaotic mathematical operations.
Where it is possible to set up the necessary experiments, one must set them up and cannot replace them by computer simulations. Where the necessary experiments cannot be performed, only strict physical theories (not models!) must be used for generating scientific predictions.
Huge recent progress in computer technology (appearance of Internet, computer programs, electronic communication) has greatly facilitated scientific literature search and scientific research in general. This, in its turn, has lead to a widely-spread overestimation of the scientific potential of computer simulations, often considered to be nearly infinite. A huge number of computer models were created, from global circulation models of the atmosphere and ocean to models of ecosystems and human societies. All those fields of knowledge where, in contrast to physical problems, no direct experiments testing the model predictions could be performed, were invaded and colonised by computer modelling.
Somewhat simplifying these models are built as follows. One takes a dataset formed by experimental data derived from measurements. Extensiveness of the dataset used is determined by the available computer power. Then one postulates some arbitrary correlation links between the measured variables. These correlation links form the mathematical structure of the model. The plausibility of the chosen numerical parameters of the postulated correlation links is tested on the basis of the established statistical criteria. After that, using the established correlation links, one makes a forecast. If the forecast is disproved by the additional or newly available data, then the number of parameters employed in the correlation links is increased until the coincidence between the forecast and the observations becomes satisfactory. For example, in one model the global carbon cycle was modelled by 1,500 non-linear integral-differential equations, which were used to make predictions about the future increase of atmospheric CO2 concentration. When analysed in detail, many such models appear to violate the energy conservation law and/or the second law of thermodynamics (see, e.g., Makarieva et al. (2004) Ecological Modelling 176: 15-26 for an example of such a model which got published in Nature).
Such computer models are equivalent to a table of the experimental data exposed to a set of chaotic mathematical operations. It is clear that the number of possible models describing a give dataset is infinite. The predicative power of models is zero, as far as by definition they are fitted to describe the already existing patterns only. There appeared modeller societies in different fields of knowledge. Similar to societies of sportsmen, these societies develop on the basis of competitive interaction directed towards attaining the best result according to the formally established rules. There appeared "scientific" journals publishing only models on the basis of anonymous reviews. Any scientific papers written at odds with the adopted modelling rules are rejected by the anonymous modeller reviewers. The modeller society finds sponsors who support modelling "research" and publications. Scientists basing their research on the well-established physical laws and unwilling to participate in elaboration of models, have to organise their own scientific journals. However, computer model fitting takes by far less time than true scientific research. The modellers have therefore much more time for fund-raising, that is, for persuading potential sponsors in the importance of their activities. The modellers are more successful in getting funded. In this situation true science obviously loses to modelling and is merely left to perish.
Complex computer simulations are necessary and effective and are part of natural science if and only if they are based on a strict physical theory, which has been tested in a huge number of experiments; or when they are used to statistically process the experimental results. Computer simulations based on strict physical laws allowed one to precisely calculate the trajectories of spaceships and missiles, processes in nuclear reactors and accelerators of elementary particles. Computer processing of experimental data obtained in the aerodynamic tubes allowed one to build optimally shaped planes and other high-speed transport. When there is theory valid to the known accuracy and when the uncertainties of input experimental data are also known, computer gives a unambiguous answer to the posed question.
However, even in these cases the computer potential is often overestimated. Projects are developed to replace the expensive experiments (for example, in aerodynamic tubes, condensed matter physics, nuclear reactors) by much cheaper computer modelling. The dangerous outcome of these tendencies are most vividly manifested in the increasing frequency of catastrophes of jet planes, spaceships and nuclear reactors.
Returning to climatology and ecology (that is, the science of life and environment, which is much wider than the science of anthropogenic pollution) we stress that in contrast to the predictions of theoretical physics the global-scale predictions of climatology and ecology cannot be experimentally tested, as far as our planet exists in a single number. However, these predictions must be reliable more than any others. Despite the unprecedented complexity of the studied object, life + its environment, reliable predictions of its behaviour can be only obtained on the basis of strict, well-established physical laws. Any conclusions that cannot be derived from such laws but stem from computer modelling should be discarded as unscientific.
To conclude, where it is possible to set up the necessary experiments, one must set them up and cannot replace them by computer simulations. Where the necessary experiments cannot be performed, only strict physical theories must be used for generating scientific predictions.