The Icemen Cometh?

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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74 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    I don’t know that anybody has really suggested how to deal with glaciers sweeping down from the north. If we really were entering an actual ice age with all that comes with that i’d say we should try to do something about it. I have no idea whether that would be possible, but the likely loss of human life that would go with trying to live in an ice age world would suggest we give it a shot. We could certainly adapt to a vastly different climate, which likely be the biggest actual thing we could do. It would also depend on the speed of the change.

    One of the major problems with the climate change we are seeing now is how fast it is coming. A new glacial age could take a thousand or two years which give us a lot of time to adapt and to figure out if we could do anything else. There is a bit of research showing that glacial ages have come fast (hundreds of years) in the past. I believe they have found massive shifts in climate in Europe based on a timescale of years or decades based on the warming N Atlantic waters shutting off. This should give us real pause when looking at AGW since very fast climate change is likely to be really hard to adapt to.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to greginak says:

      If we really were entering an actual ice age

      No, we are in an ice-age, but in an interglacial period. And another glaciation is a certainty, as I understand. The only question is when within the next 5k years…which of course is a long time on the human scale.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to greginak says:

      I don’t know that anybody has really suggested how to deal with glaciers sweeping down from the north.

      This is the plot of Thor 3, actually. It’s Ragnarok, and the Frost Giants send the glaciers south.

      We defeat them by doing nothing. After a thousand years, after our cities have crumbled into dust from age, we build the new ones slightly farther south.

      …it’s not a very good movie.Report

  2. zic says:

    Where I live, 15,000 years ago, the ice flowed five miles deep. I can see the scars it left on the earth. I have a small camp on a lake that was once the bed of a glacier; the landscape around me is littered with rocks scooped up from all over the place north of me, and the sand left behind is deep. The mountains here, they say once they stood taller than Everest, bared down to it’s crystal heart; gem stones abound here.

    But that is not our problem right now; our problem is too-rapid change. Shock therapy style change.

    Every time I hear, “Change is the norm,” I wanna snap back, “Yes it is, but the trend lines are not the norm.”Report

  3. Kim says:

    If we’re looking at the loss of more than 50% of currently habitable land for any reason, we have to look at Geoengineering. Or at least I’d like to, before we wind up with a lot of dead people and possible/probable panepidemics.

    That said, my “oh god this is dangerous” is not Nearly as much triggered by Geoengineering to increase temperatures.That’s called “global warming” and we’ve been studying that for a while.

    Also, greg’s right with the timescales. If you’re only putting a little bit of heat into the atmosphere over a long period of time, you have more margin to correct yourself (and analyze how well you’re doing).
    Cool Link.

    If we accept the premise, momentarily, that we’re going to be looking at upwards of 9C increase from current temps before the next glaciation period, then we don’t worry (as if we don’t fix that, we’re already at “critical geoengineering threshhold”). If, however, we are more optimistic about us fixing problems, and say 5C and then flatline or decreasing, then we ought to put some resources into figuring out when this is coming, and how to fix it.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Kim says:

      Good link, Kim. This was particularly interesting, at least to me.

      “There is a tendency these days to focus on whatever agrees with global warming and the idea that we are living in an unusual climatic epoch,” Kukla said. “Certainly the earth as a whole is warming right now. But you have to remember that the tropics and subtropics comprise about 50 percent of the total surface area, so conditions there dominate the average.”

      On the other hand, glaciation emanates from the polar regions, which together comprise only 14 percent of Earth’s surface. And the preponderance of evidence suggests that ice ages begin building at the poles thousands of years before their effects are felt elsewhere, he said.

      Thus, the important indicator of impending glaciation may not be global mean temperature so much as the temperature difference between the poles and the equator. Theoretically, the larger the difference the stronger the probable flow of water vapor from the tropics toward the poles, where it would fall as snow to feed the growing ice fields.

      The ultimate significance of human-induced global warming may therefore depend more on how it affects water-vapor transport, than its influence on average global temperature or any effect on the underlying glacial cycle, Kukla said. It is conceivable that greenhouse warming could even hasten the transition to glacial conditions by exacerbating the polar/equatorial temperature difference and increasing the rate of water transport poleward.

      Based on the record revealed in ocean and lake sediments, the most likely scenario over the next few thousand years is for the volume of ice in the polar regions to slowly grow, gradually dropping sea level and increasing the polar/equatorial temperature differential. Except near the poles, oceans and continents will remain relatively warm, although the climate will become increasingly unstable. Ultimately, a surge of built-up polar ice into the mid-latitude oceans will plunge the continents into ice-age conditions.


      • Barry in reply to James Hanley says:

        I would point out that there are scientists doing a lot of work on both how the Arctic/Antarctic regions affect global climate, and what’s going on there. Barring a serious collapse in civilization, we’ll spot anything happening in those regions quickly.Report

  4. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Unfortunately, glaciers & humans operate on completely different time scales, so even if we had glaciers coming right around the corner, we would still have to deal with the effects of warming first.

    Especially since, AFAIK, we have no idea why glacial periods happen (aside from we know things get colder, but not why exactly they get colder).Report

    • Glyph in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Unfortunately, glaciers & humans operate on completely different time scales

      That’s how they get ya.Report

      • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

        Your children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s… [deep breath]… children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children are fished!Report

      • Barry in reply to Glyph says:

        That’s the root of the problem. 1 degree C per millenium is different than 1 per century, which is itself different from 1 per decade.Report

    • Barry in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      “Especially since, AFAIK, we have no idea why glacial periods happen (aside from we know things get colder, but not why exactly they get colder).”

      ‘Exactly’ does a lot of work there. We do have an idea of why glacial periods happen. Milankovich Cycles.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Barry says:


        I was wondering why you put in the link to the Milankovich Cycles down below. This time I took a few minutes & read the article. I remember doing the orbital computations related to Milankovich’s work in my orbital mechanics class, but his name was never tied to the curriculum, probably because we weren’t interested in the effects on climate, just the motions themselves. I have to say, the guy did some pretty impressive work. Today we can easily do the calculations for the movements with Excel, but to do it in a WWI POW camp, with pen & paper… well, the guy did have lots of free time, I suppose.

        Anyway, thanks for pointing that out. I learned something new today.Report

  5. Roger says:

    Just to clarify. The relevant debate isn’t between AGW and the start of the next ice age (or technically the end of the current interglacial as we are still in the ice age which began 2.7 million years ago most likely triggered due to the change in ocean streams caused by the uniting of the Americas) It is between the earth becoming three degrees on average warmer or three degrees colder. (Or choose another number.)

    The climate has been swinging dramatically and violently up and down since the advent of the ice age. Temperatures and precipitation can and often has changed in periods measured in years or decades. Indeed, a dominant theory among anthropologists is that the reason agriculture was not widespead prior to 10,000 years ago is that weather patterns were too inconsistent until the advent of the current interglacial.

    I have no idea what the weather will be like next week, let alone the climate absent human interference over the next century. Nobody does. But it could be the same, warmer or colder. If I was to choose based upon human utilitarianism, I would do so in the same order. Colder is worse than hot, all else equal.Report

    • Kim in reply to Roger says:

      Why the hell is colder worse than hot? at 12 degrees hotter, we have most of the world’s temperate zones uninhabitable. at 7 degrees hotter, we have most of the humid tropical biome uninhabitable.

      If we were 7 degrees cooler, do we see an equivalent population displacement?
      Can you cite some sources?

      “Indeed, a dominant theory among anthropologists is that the reason agriculture was not widespead prior to 10,000 years ago is that weather patterns were too inconsistent until the advent of the current interglacial.”

      How much of the temperature/precipitation changes have been because of ENSO? When you look at studies, are they removing that from consideration?Report

    • Barry in reply to Roger says:

      “I have no idea what the weather will be like next week, let alone the climate absent human interference over the next century. ”

      Yes, but climatologists (and anybody checking the records would).Report

      • Roger in reply to Barry says:

        To the extent the past is a predictor of the future, I agree completely. That explains why the models were so accurate at predicting the last ten years.Report

  6. Francis says:

    “In general moderate warming is vastly preferable to moderate cooling”

    Who is offering moderate cooling? Moderate cooling is no longer an available option, unless we deliberately start (and keep) pumping particulate matter into the atmosphere. The 1970’s mini-crisis about global cooling was attributable to a lack of modeling power in climate models to determine whether atmospheric particulate matter would outweigh ghgs in affecting climate. GHGs won (and the US cut way back on particulate pollution).

    What’s actually preferable is no change. See here. (Short version for those too lazy to click: One of the leading scientists on economic responses to climate change — Richard Tol — has significantly revised his earlier papers. Most models now show economic losses even at small increases in temperature.)

    (And for those inclined to credit economic models over climate models, why? As the last few years have shown, economic modeling is far less mature and far more subject to bias than climate models. Climate models, at least, have been shown to have skill. Listen to the TED talk of a leader modeler and blogger at Real Climate, Gavin Schmidt, here. Highly recommended.)

    If only moderate warming is desired, then we still have to start shutting down power plants pretty quickly. And the best way to do that is with appropriate incentives. How many people here are willing to advocate for a direct tax on carbon emissions? We can use the revenue to cover a possible shortfall in the Social Security Trust Fund.Report

  7. Michael Cain says:

    “Throw another log on the fire!” Although we may have gone overboard.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    It’s also true that in general moderate inflation is vastly preferable to moderate deflation, so let’s keep those printing presses running.

    I’m being silly, though. Nobody would say that, because money is a serious thing,Report

    • Patrick Bridges in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Money is the perfect commodity for dealing with environmental uncertainty – you can both insulate your house with it and burn it for warmth!Report

    • Patrick in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I’m being silly, though. Nobody would say that, because money is a serious thing,

      Didn’t Friedman say that?Report

    • Barry in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Mike, the central banks of the developed world can tackle moderate inflation quite nicely.
      Please read your Krugman.Report

    • Barry in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Um, you are aware of the power of central banks to deal with inflation, aren’t you?

      Please re-read your Krugman.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:


      This has been bugging me. I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Are you mocking the idea that moderate deflation is worse than moderate inflation, or would that be misreading you?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        It’s quite true (AFAIK) that moderate deflation is worse than moderate inflation, but who one dismisses all fears of inflation with that bromide? No one who’s serious about the economy.

        So when AGW is dismissed with the bromide that a bit of warming is better than a bit of cooling, I smell lack of seriousness.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        From what I understand, the problem with moderate deflation is that, historically, it has predated some seriously awful depressions/recessions.

        In and of itself, it doesn’t strike me as bad.

        It tends to reward saving rather than spending. I guess I can see how that might be bad for some economies.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Mike, thanks, now I follow you.

        Jay, the theory is that if there’s deflation people delay purchases, expecting them to become cheaper, but this decline in demand can result in people being laid off, which can further depress demand, resulting in recession or even depression. Moderate inflation encourages people to buy now because the goods will be more expensive later, thus stimulating demand, putting more people to work, and so further boosting demand, to keep the economy humming along. That’s the theory, anyway, and it seems logical…if any macroeconomic theories can be trusted.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        This snippet (which I would expect every serious climatologist to agree with) was from a comment where I said AGW is real and called for R&D to improve our knowledge in terms of models (climate and economics) and abatement.

        The scientific process is being severely threatened by the way it has been pulled out of the regular process and amplified by politics, the media and vested interests. If anyone is really interested in knowledge, I recommend scientists convene a cease fire where they agree to abide by a more professional and balanced approach which preserves the integrity of the process.

        Complicating matters is that it REALLY is not just about science, it is about how we solve the problem too. And just as burning fossil fuels (one of the greatest cultural solutions of all time) has negative externalities (pollution and greenhouse gases), the steps we take have externalities too. These include the impacts if the solution on economic prosperity and the longer term well being of humanity.

        It isn’t as simple as three degrees warmer than whatever the hell it would have been otherwise (which we can guess at by assuming continuity of current trends). It is the pros and cons of the net climate we actually achieve, less the cost of our cure directly and the various externalities. The externalities include any positive spin offs from the knowledge, and any negative effects of lower economic growth. Lower economic growth feeds back into the models though, as wealth leads to the ability to create and afford various solutions.

        It is no secret that the people calling for greater centralized command of the economy are inordinately aligned on the catastrophists side and those fearing centralized command lean to the denialist and temperate side. Wow, what a coincidence!

        Serious solutions will involve recognizing all these factors. Better climate science with less political posturing, actual investment and experimentation in abatement technology, alternative energy sources based on science not religion, recognition that economic growth is at least as important as climate, and recognition that the same command which can be used to influence climate can be used to abuse fellow men and reduce prosperity.

        My guess is that we will never achieve this balance. Instead the problem will work itself out via decentralized activities. The science will stumble along and get better. Inventors and entrepreneurs will discover decentralized ways to produce cleaner energy and/or abatement technologies. Some states will use the problem as a way to secure more power for elites, cronies and incumbents, and lower the welfare of its citizens. Others will resist this temptation and thrive in comparison.

        Just a guess.Report

      • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        And this is why I get frustrated.

        Because, you’ve called me a freaking catastrophist.

        \Well, above I’ve bloody well mentioned a non-centralized way that you can contribute to “making the world a little better”. It even turns a profit!

        At about this point, I think it doesn’t jack well matter what the scientists do. Their work is fine. But if we don’t get any plans on the books other than genocide, what the hell does it matter?

        When genocide is the preferred case for a majority of Earth’s money, it’s not going to be pretty, is it?Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        Kim, we must be using words differently.Report

      • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        If we gain 10 degrees Celsius, we lose most of the livable areas on the planet. This is basic science, not related to models at all (It’s a temperature versus humidity curve for habitability of warmblooded creatures, with humans able to survive at slightly higher temps because of all our sweat glands).

        I’m not saying that’s going to happen, even if we continue to be stupid:

        At the bottom’s a 100 year forecast. Now, we might get worse than that (turn it up a degree or two, and tropical/humid biome areas become roughly uninhabitable — or assume a bit more temperature variability there, remembering that a day will kill you, if it’s above critical temp/humidity).

        I don’t know. I can see how large scale destruction might be called catastrophist. But I don’t see it that way (even if we lose Florida entirely). That’ll be opportunities to build in new places and in new ways.Report

  9. Citizen says:

    So we do everything correctly and cut carbon emissions and whatever else we are doing to raise temperatures. There are many physicist that present data the sun is getting hotter.

    I would propose it would be poor practice to attempt Geoengineering at any large scale as there is a high probability it would be done incorrectly, or have a catastrophic unforeseen flaw. At least with the current in place system the hysteresis is livable.

    I have seen the models used to try and simulate reality and even the most proficient of the human race are often handed their posterior on a clay platter.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Citizen says:

      A lot of the proposed geo-engineering options all have one benefit: none of them are long term persistent. So if things start to go wonky, we just stop what we are doing and the effects should roll back within a year or two.

      I mean, in essence, all the CO2 & methane we are pumping into the atmosphere is geo-engineering.Report

      • Citizen in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Unless we have done it before and seen the effect consistently roll back, SHOULD is bearing a lot of weight.

        Do we even know what happens if we stop pumping methane and CO2? Its a place we haven’t been for awhile.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        They said that the surfactants they were using with the BP oil spill were Harmless.
        That’s certainly not what the risk assessments said (when you’re using stuff that hasn’t been tested in a particular way, and using it more than what it was tested for…)Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        “They said that the surfactants they were using with the BP oil spill were Harmless.”

        They also said that trying to plug the well would result in a massive rupturing of the crust under the Gulf that would release a few gigatons of methane clathrates and wipe out all surface life.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Pardon, but you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.
        That was a 10% chance, based on the best risk assessments the government had. Of course, there was a different probability on “wipes out
        all life on the eastern seaboard” (with the surfactants going airborne and
        being blown up the Atlantic coast)…

        Personally, I think a 10% chance of wipes out all life on earth is a Bad Thing. You?Report

  10. Roger says:

    Would you guys say climate science today is more or less advanced than nutrition science was in the nineties?

    Just asking.Report

    • zic in reply to Roger says:

      I would say with both the problems were not so much the science as the misrepresentation of that science in popular culture.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Roger says:


      @zic is right. Both are trying hard to suss out complex & poorly understood systems. A single study in either topic is insufficient evidence for anyone to make any kind of policy proposal, yet the media & political bodies jump on each one that supports their bias as if it is clear & convincing evidence of such.

      My personal philosophy, the more politicized a scientific topic, the more I want there to be enough research for a large meta-analysis/literature review to be done before I trust it.Report

      • Roger in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        MRS and Zic,

        I disagree with your confidence in nutritional science of the nineties.

        I agree that politics, vested interests and the media distort both pictures and amplify BS, massively so. Indeed, that is kinda the point.

        I am looking forward to your post, MRS.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        I think you misunderstand my overall confidence in nutritional studies. There are a lot more charlatans peddling nutrition science than there are climate science, mainly because there is a lot more money to be had selling your book based on your research. The complexity of properly understanding nutrition & our bodies responses to it is a tough job means the honest practitioners have a lot of uncertainty to deal with, & I appreciate that.

        This is why I hold off until I see a literature review.Report

      • Roger in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Good comment, MRS.Report

  11. Is the world still warming? Depends on yer time scale. Last 17 years, nope it’s paused. Since the Little Ice Age, sure it’s warmer. Since the Holocene Optimum? No, it’s cooler now. Since the end of the last glaciation, yes a lot warmer. Since the beginning of the current Ice Age, colder now. Since Eocene? Lot colder now. Common misconception, the ice sheets will not be rolling south from the Arctic like a slow motion tidal wave crushing all in it’s path. It will start snowing a lot more, imagine ten feet in a day. By the time you realize you are in trouble it is way too late to do anything. So much snow it can’t all melt in the summer. Then winter starts again. Fore ya know it, 1000 feet of ice. Very few refugees from the northern tier states. Some say it is cold enough now for the snow to start big time, all we need is more moisture. If we must geo-engineer let’s go for warmer and soon.Report

  12. Barry says:

    Here’s the Wikipedia article on the Milankovich cycles:
    The article discussing the various periodicities in theory, models and data.Report

  13. dennis p brown says:

    This whole thread is silly – why not argue something worthwhile like the Higg’s field … wait, that is complex and since few could even begin to understand what it takes to decide if this is real or made up, it is pointless. No one here can follow climate models in a manner to argue whether they are incorrect. Since thousands of people who do understand such things all agree the models have no obvious errors that invalidate the basic fact the Earth is warming due to CO2 put their by all of us, than it is stupid to make these arguments one way or the other. Climate models are most likely fairly good predictors of future temperatures so, this is settled science. The ONLY issue is how best to address this problem – oh, by the way, the Sun will, in time, fail. Just like, in time, another ice age will occur. Again, these are debates for people who are really silly – our way of life for most people’s children and certainly their grand children are in serious danger by AGW, We have a responsibility to deal with that issue, not argue proven science.Report

    • Roger in reply to dennis p brown says:

      Who is arguing proven science?

      I agree completely that we have a responsibility to deal with the issue in a factual and cost efficient manner based upon our values and priorities.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Roger says:

        Ignore him @roger , I’m pretty sure this is the same seagull who showed up the last time we had an involved discussion of this topic, because back then he basically told us all we could not possibly understand the climate science & should just believe the experts.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        Thanks MRS.Report

  14. Barry says:


    “From what I understand, the problem with moderate deflation is that, historically, it has predated some seriously awful depressions/recessions.”

    Or rather, is the result of such.

    James – what you’re saying was first formulated (or written down) by Fisher during the early Depression. When deflation hits, real interest rates increase. Investments which were sound now become unsound. People know that anything available for purchase now will still be available later, and probably at a greater discount. Given that and the fact that business is horrible, they’ll hoard cash.Report

  15. Roger says:

    As I suggested in my original comment from which this snippet was taken, I suggested that the path to any serious effort to address AGW is going to depend upon better science in the fields of climate modeling, adaptation and technology.

    As usual Meghan says it better:

    “Since we are probably not going to conserve our way to safety, and hopefully not going to inqvade China to keep it from getting rich, if we want to keep the climate from warming further, then we have something much more important to do than buy Volts: find a stable, cheap renewable resource that can actually replace all our power generation needs, or figure out an engineering solution that can take greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, or keep the planet from warming anyway. Perhaps those things are not possible. But however difficult they are, they seem more likely than getting Americans to drop their per-capita emissions back to something more like Slovakia’s.”

    See her full post here:

    • Kim in reply to Roger says:

      I’m all for a fusion reactor, if you’re campaigning for one.
      Until we have one out of prototype stage, though, I’m more willing
      to believe that we’ll manage to get solar down to scale and put
      it on most American buildings.

      Dropping American emissions down some is easy. I propose we
      avoid energy slums, and otherwise focus on building better housing
      stock (preferably by employing people who actually care about
      doing the job right — studies say these are more likely to be women).

      I think we ought to be designing plans for all occasions, not just
      because I think it’s probable that Americans will have large sacrifices
      to make in the years ahead (irregardless of Global warming), but
      because the planning based on our best models will get us to
      throw more money at the science end of the equation.

      [Plus: labgrown food might provide us a way to reduce emissions
      by creating less methane and foresting more of the Eastern US]Report

      • Roger in reply to Kim says:


        The point is that whatever we do must be based upon an expectation that it actually solves the problem.

        Again… We need to understand the problem better. Science.

        We need to understand how to reverse or adapt to undesired climate change. Science and markets.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        beg pardon, but that assumption seems facile at best.
        Why pretend that we’re going to be able to solve it?
        If you don’t have numbers that you can point to, I’m going to design for ALL contingencies, rather than just the GOOD ones. This is why pessimists prosper, and optimists find out exactly how hard the stock market can crash their portfolio.
        Pessimists hedge.

        Finding a “solution” could happen, I won’t deny it. It’s not the way I’m betting, though. Runaway solutions are too common in nature (see the melting of Antarctic ice, recently referenced). But there’s a worse issue. Say we “solve” the “warming issue” — but the gulf stream moves? BAM! We’ve lost England (may have gained half of Greenland).

        Planning for problems is just smart business sense.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        I did post a link about what happens when the earth gets too hot/humid for human life (well without air conditioners)… A possible adaptation for that contingency would be to send everyone towards the poles.Report

      • Roger in reply to Kim says:

        I was suggesting preparing for all contingencies, but I disagree strongly with pretty much everything else you wrote.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        neat trick, disagreeing with the science when it doesn’t suit you.
        I’m satisfied with saying that the probability of the earth warming 10 degrees appears low, at the moment, and that we’ll probably get things under control before then. (I predict enough suffering at 3 degrees or so that folks will start trying to fix things. Or murdering massive numbers of people. Actually, probably both — different people, naturally).Report

    • Barry in reply to Roger says:

      First, it’s ‘Megan’, not ‘Meghan’.

      Second, she’s been caught in so many lies problems with facts and arithmetic which happen to be in her favor that nothing she writes is trustworthy.Report

  16. Roger says:

    Get serious and drop the ad hominem BS, Barry. Very, very bad rhetorical trick.Report