Three Things Not Caused by Climate Change – Watts Up With That?


Guest Essay by Kip Hansen – 5 September 2021

The marvelous John Brignell used to keep a list of all the things that were claimed to be caused by Global Warming or Climate Change, as it is called today.  Alas, the page was last updated 8 years ago.  In 2015, Brignell apologized for discontinuing updates and additions – the list had become just too long and verifying all the links too time consuming.

I hope that some lonely, well-retired and bored reader here will take up the torch, and after obtaining Brignell’s permission, put the list up on the ‘Net once more, with the myriad of additions that will be needed.  It might be both fun and amusing.  It will definitely fill many otherwise lonely hours that would be wasted streaming and bingeing 1970s TV shows and old movies.  Besides, it would be a public service.

From the constant flood of news stories that pour into my inbox and various feeds, I can add three more things to that list – things falsely or erroneously claimed to be caused by climate change.

1.  Albatross Divorces

This is one of the more amusing claims made recently in the media.  The venerable New York Times headlines:  Climate Change Is Driving Some Albatrosses to ‘Divorce,’ Study Finds

The study is titled “Environmental variability directly affects the prevalence of divorce in monogamous albatrosses” (Ventura et al. 2021) and appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 

Spoiler Alert:   To the study author’s credit, the phrase “climate change” does not appear in the paper – not once.  The word “climate” does appear in the body of the paper, but only once and that is in the URL – a web link – to the location of a database. 

What is this all about?  Well, in the first place, it is the result of a wonderfully detailed, massive research project on black-browed albatrosses carried out over a 15-year period.  This magnificent bird is listed under the ICUN Red List system as Least Concern. 

Francesco Ventura and his co-authors recorded data on about 1000 banded albatross, their mates and breeding success over many years at breeding sites on New Island, in the Falklands. .  Their final analysis is good news which, of course, is not mentioned in the media reports:  “we found that this albatross population is increasing and that the sustained population growth is underpinned by high survival rates of both adults and juveniles and by high productivity rates.”

So what’s the problem?  In years when there are fewer little fishes on which the albatross depend for feeding near the breeding sites, albatross parents have to fly further to find food for the chicks and breeding success declines – but not seriously enough to affect overall population size.   However, these normally monogamous, mated-for-life, birds tend to change mates more often after breeding failure.  The study tests hypotheses about breeding success and rates of partner-switching (termed “divorce”)  and further tests hypotheses about the effects of wind and sea surface temperatures (SST) on instances of albatross divorce.

Here’s what they found in regards to SST:

The divorce rate seems to average at about 4 or 5% over time but their (very complex) models show that the rate increase in years with higher SST.  Note that the range of SST (anomaly) is only 1 °C and the trend, if there is a trend in the SST anomaly, looks very flat to possibly down trending a bit – if the one high year, 2017, is considered an outlier. 

The paper is more of an avian sociological study than an environmental study.  Environmental variables were windowed in time and applied to all birds.  Wind data was on a breeding-year basis (the general windiness of a whole year). 

Bottom Line:   Like all other population studies, this one finds only vague associations which are then used as supporting evidence for hypotheses. This is not necessarily bad.  It is not clear if avian divorce is important or not, either for albatross or other bird species.  It appears that SST may be related to food availability, though that is not tested at all in this study but is just assumed, and that somehow, also unexplained, that annual “windiness” somehow benefits the monogamy of albatross.  One thing is certain: Climate Change does not cause Albatross Divorce.

2.  Climate Change Threatens the Smithsonian

Here’s the lie:  “Now, because of climate change, the Smithsonian stands out for another reason: Its cherished buildings are extremely vulnerable to flooding, and some could eventually be underwater.”

This quote from the NY Times article Saving History With Sandbags: Climate Change Threatens the Smithsonian authored by Christopher Flavelle

Note: I generally object to the use of the words lie and liar – they are very harsh, and imply knowing the mind of another person.   So, let me modify this by noting that it may be an unintentional lie inspired by radical climate catastrophe ideology or mandated Editorial Narrative. But, to my mind, no experienced journalist with a long record of writing about the U.S. Federal government could be this ignorant of the history of our national capital.

Even the readers of the NY Times, usually all-in on the dangers of climate change, couldn’t swallow this one.  Reader comments included: 

“Blaming every flood on climate change is as disingenuous as standing in congress with a snow ball to say the climate isn’t changing. Yes this is a consequence of human activity – filling in a marsh and building a museum on a flood plain.”

“Yet more unscientific blame on “climate change”. Maybe that will be a risk here at the end of the century, but sea levels won’t rise much in our lifetimes. As the buried lede shows, the real issue is that this was all built in marshland, and nobody planned to put collection material in the basement.”

“Not a word in the article about how the buildings in the mall are sinking? I have to admit I am surprised. They are at least 2 inches lower (marshy subsidence) then they were in 1900. That’s going to flood them way faster than any projected climate change. Narratives are narratives I guess.”

The readers are absolutely right, Washington, D.C. was built on a drained marshland – tidal marsh

This is tidal marsh and frequently flooded by both tides and rains.  The water table is right below the surface.  These two illustrations from the U.S. Geological Survey explain:

The situation at the Mall in Washington D.C. is similar to the two images:  on the left, the Mall is built on land where the water table is very close to the surface (see just under the words “Land surface”).  If one digs down more than a foot or so, there’s the water.   The multiple level basements of the Smithsonian Museums extend far below the top of the water table. 

Wet basements are a failure of civil engineering.

Aggravating the situation is the fact that the Mall area of our capital has subsided – by sinking into the muddy marshland — by more than a foot since 1800 – at a rate of more than 6 inches per century.  (Snay et al. 2007).

Any flooding caused by rainfall is down to bad civil engineering and lack of proper infrastructure: failure to build adequate storm drain systems, flood water swales and to waterproof foundations and basements.

Bottom Line:   As with other claims that climate change induced sea level will flood our cities and put them “underwater”, this one is a wild exaggeration and shifts the blame for present day problems.  These museums have problems caused by their geology, history and a failure to maintain them and their collections properly.   Climate Change does not threaten the Smithsonian museums of Washington D.C.

3.  The Spread of Barren Land

There are many parts of the world where it is normally so dry, places that have so little rain, that they are marginally, functionally, deserts.  This state called their local climate.  Climate types around the world can be classified according to the Köppen climate classification system.

This map (click it for a large view in a new tab/window) informs us that much of the United States, west of the Rocky Mountains, and Mexico have normally dry climates – all those red, brownish, and orangish areas.  The real sand and rock deserts are bright red.  The orangish areas are classified BSh.  This climate type is “semi-arid steppe climate in which the coldest month has an average temperature above 0°” and is found in many parts of the world including much of northern Mexico and the American Southwest, in a strip just south of North Africa’s Sahara, and a small area on the eastern-most point of Brazil.

It is that little eastern tip of Brazil that has promoted the claim that is contrary to fact.  In a long narrative-journalism piece for the New York Times, Jack Nicas , a technology journalist, writes “A Slow-Motion Climate Disaster: The Spread of Barren Land” with a sub-title of “Brazil’s northeast, long a victim of droughts, is now effectively turning into a desert. The cause? Climate change and the landowners who are most affected.

Really?  Let’s try looking at some reality-based facts. 

Nicas is correct, Brazil’s northeast has always had droughts and has a Köppen climate classification  “BSh”.  BSh climate is “semi-arid steppe climate in which the coldest month has an average temperature above 0°”.   It is not turning into a desert – if the American Southwest is considered a desert, which it is by many, then Northeast Brazil is already a desert. 

Let’s see, using real ground-truth measures, if the climate of NE Brazil is changing.  We can do this by looking to the past.  The late-great meteorologist, William M. Gray, of the Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, mentored a young Brazilian student, Rodolpho P.L. Ramos who, with the support of the Brazilian government, worked on his master’s thesis at Colorado State.  His 1974 thesis was “Precipitation Characteristics in the Northeast Brazil Dry Region by Rodolpho Paes Leme Ramos” [ .pdf here ].

Here’s the rainfall data from the past: 1972 as evaluated contemporaneously by Ramos:

In NE Brazil, the average annual rainfall form 1931-1960 was 474 mm (18.6 inches).  In 1972, it was 521 mm (20.5 inches).  But almost all of that rain fell in just six three-day rain episodes.   That pattern leaves a lot of dry, rainless days the rest of the year.  So, what is the climate like half a century later?

According to Climate Data, the same city has been getting an average of 443 mm/yr (17.4 inches), about an inch less than in the 1931-1960 period.

So what has happened?  People – too many people – and grazing animals – too many grazing animals.  One explainer, at Study.com, states simply: 

“Desertification occurs due to a decrease in vegetation. This can happen naturally due to a drought or can be caused by human activities. The lack of plants can cause changes to the land. Plants help shade the soil, so when plants are removed, the soil will be exposed to the sun and will dry out more quickly. The roots of plants often help hold soil in place.

If plants are removed, the soil will have nothing protecting it, and it will be more susceptible to erosion by wind. This will reduce fertility of the land because the top layer of soil that will be blown away by wind is often the richest in nutrients. Once this top layer of soil is removed, the land will no longer be fertile and will be unable to support the growth of vegetation. Eventually, the land will become so dry and devoid of vegetation that it will be classified as a desert. “

Another important more general study  — “The Effects of Tropical Vegetation on Rainfall” – found in 2018 that “Tropical deforestation leads to reduced evapotranspiration and reduced surface roughness, increasing local surface temperatures by 1–3 K. …. Reductions in evapo-transpiration lead to reductions in moisture recycling, and extensive tropical deforestation can reduce regional rainfall by up to 40%.”  A Brazilian study specifically looking at NE Brazil in 2014 states bluntly: “Approximately 57% of the Brazilian northeast region is recognized as semi-arid land and has been undergoing intense land use processes in the last decades, which have resulted in severe degradation of its natural assets.”

In 1974, when Ramos was writing his thesis, he stated “Serious social and economic problems result from the regional population requirements of over 20 million people and their dependence upon agriculture.”  Too many people, too many plows, too much livestock. Too many people harvesting cooking fuel (wood and brush).  Too many plows turning the soil into powder, too much livestock ranging over the land and eating everything they can. 

Today?  “Brazil’s northeast, the world’s most densely populated drylands, with roughly 53 million people, is among the most at risk. The region is known for droughts and poverty…” (Nicas in the NY Times article).  Of course it is at risk, a dry land that had trouble supporting 20 million people in the 1970s, a land already degraded by 300 years of overuse, now after 50 more years of land degradation, is being asked to support 53 million – support them with arable land, water, food, cooking fuel, agricultural opportunities …. an impossible task. 

And the role of climate change?  The climate of the Brazilian Northeast may have become dryer by a small percentage, less than 10%, which can be accounted to the effects of land use change, deforestation or devegetation and overuse of limited water resources.  These environmental factors result from overpopulation, doubling of the already troubled 20 million in the 1970s to over 50 million today.

Overall, globally, there has been far more greening than desertification. Some places are being stripped of their vegetation, you can see the browning of NE Brazil,  but far more area is gaining vegetation:

Bottom Line:    It is not global warming or global climate change that is driving desertification of the Brazilian Northeast but environmental degradation driven by a more-than-doubling of the population to unsustainable levels, over-farming, over-grazing, over-use of limited episodic water supplies and the deforestation and devegetation driven by the need or cooking and heating fuel for those 53 million people. All of those factors lead to reduced precipitation in a self-perpetuating downward cycle.

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Author’s Comment:

On Desertification:  I saw much this same thing in the Dominican Republic’s El Sur – The South.  This area in the southwestern-most portion of the country.  It is naturally dry, brush and cactus on the lowlands and the mountains mostly denuded by 400 years of demand for wood.   Free ranged cattle and goats have stripped the land to the bare sand and rock.    My wife and I worked with local non-profits (including Sur Futuro) to forward their efforts in sustainable reforestation which included planting crops under the restored forest canopy – coffee bushes, cocoa, squashes, citrus and other tropical fruits.   These types of projects are very effective in recovery of the land. 

Better land use practices lead to better futures.

Thanks for reading.

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