Basic climate science update: Debunking Don Surber

January 5, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.


See here for information on the graphic.

promo_368_0.jpegWhen I started this blog, I swore to myself I wouldn’t spend too much time and energy debunking the Daily Mail’s columnists and editorial writers on issues like the damage done by mountaintop removal mining or the threat of global climate change.

But alas, sometimes I just can’t help myself … so here goes.

On New Year’s Eve, the DM’s Don Surber declared on his blog that he had discovered The Final Nail in the Global Warming Coffin.  He pointed his readers (and there are an alarming number of them, for his blog at least) to an item in Science Daily:

To assess whether the airborne fraction is indeed increasing, Wolfgang Knorr of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol reanalyzed available atmospheric carbon dioxide and emissions data since 1850 and considers the uncertainties in the data.

In contradiction to some recent studies, he finds that the airborne fraction of carbon dioxide has not increased either during the past 150 years or during the most recent five decades.

And then, in an editorial published yesterday, the Daily Mail summarized Knorr’s study this way:

Then there is the contention by Wolfgang Knorr of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol in England that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are about where they were 160 years ago.

Ironically, the DM editorial then commented:

Earth science is far more complicated than government officials wish to admit.

What they should have said was, Science is more complicated than we here at the Daily Mail understand.

Here’s why:

Knorr did indeed publish a short paper in Geophysical Research Letters called, “Is the airborne fraction of anthropogenic CO2 emissions increasing?”  Here’s the summary:

Several recent studies have highlighted the possibility that the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems have started loosing part of their ability to sequester a large proportion of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions. This is an important claim, because so far only about 40% of those emissions have stayed in the atmosphere, which has prevented additional climate change. This study re-examines the available atmospheric CO2 and emissions data including their uncertainties. It is shown that with those uncertainties, the trend in the airborne fraction since 1850 has been 0.7 ± 1.4% per decade, i.e. close to and not significantly different from zero. The analysis further shows that the statistical model of a constant airborne fraction agrees best with the available data if emissions from land use change are scaled down to 82% or less of their original estimates. Despite the predictions of coupled climate-carbon cycle models, no trend in the airborne fraction can be found.

So what does that mean? Well, it most definitely does not mean  that Knorr found (as the Daily Mail wrote) that that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are about where they were 160 years ago.

Start with the global carbon cycle, explained in a pretty basic way here by the Woods Hole Research Center.


You see, not all of the carbon dioxide emissions released by human and other activity go into the atmosphere. Some are sucked up by “sinks” like the oceans.

What Knorr was studying was what share of those emissions go into the atmosphere, versus which share go someplace else, like the oceans. He found that the percentage going into the atmosphere was not increasing … this is quite different from a finding that the emissions of carbon dioxide aren’t increasing or — as the Daily Mail wrongly told its readers — that the percentage of the Earth’s atmosphere that is made up of carbon dioxide isn’t increasing.

As the Real Climate blog pointed out:

Case in point, Knorr (GRL, 2009) is a study about how much of the human emissions are staying the atmosphere (around 40%) and whether that is detectably changing over time. It does not undermine the fact that CO2 is rising. [See graphic at the top of this post] The confusion in the denialosphere is based on a misunderstanding between ‘airborne fraction of CO2 emissions’ (not changing very much) and ‘CO2 fraction in the air’ (changing very rapidly) …

Or as even noted climate science contrarian  Pat Michaels wrote on his blog:

It is not that the total atmospheric burden of CO2 has not been increasing over time, but that of the total CO2 released into the atmosphere each year by human activities, about 45% remains in the atmosphere while the other 55% is taken up by various natural processes—and these percentages have not changed during the past 150 years.

Now, this particular issue is actually part of a more complicated scientific discussion over whether the percentage of carbon dioxide emissions going into the atmosphere is increasing. You can read more about that here and here.

But there’s absolutely no truth to the idea that the study cited by Surber and the Daily Mail shows carbon dioxide levels in the world’s atmosphere haven’t increased. And it’s too bad Surber and the Daily Mail got this so wrong … West Virginians deserve honest information about climate change from their public officials and from the media.

26 Responses to “Basic climate science update: Debunking Don Surber”

  1. […] Blogs @ The Charleston Gazette – » Basic climate science update: Debunking Don Surber – view page – cached When I started this blog, I swore to myself I wouldn’t spend too much time and energy debunking the Daily Mail’s columnists and editorial writers on issues like the damage done by mountaintop removal mining or the threat of global climate change. […]

  2. PDXile says:

    Don Surber doesn’t understand fractions. I’m not surprised.

  3. Don Surber says:

    Nice post. Please remove the overblown picture of me. People can go to for that sort of thing.

  4. JB says:

    Thanks for you fantastic rebuttal Don.

  5. Rich says:

    Is that the BEST Don Surber can do? Not even a lame, cursory attempt to rebut the substance of this post? No need to answer either question — while my questions aren’t purely rhetorical, the answers are quite obvious and go without saying.

  6. Thomas Rodd says:

    Senator Franken, quoting former Senator Moynihan:

    “You are entitled to your own opinion…but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

    It’s sort of embarassing for the Daily Mail (not Surber — his faith-based false facts are to be expected, I’m afraid) to make such a silly error.

    How long before health care passes and we move on to climate legislation?

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for your comment … my apologies that you were offended by the photo.

    It was honestly not my intent to use a photo that had been doctored in any way. (Though I have to admit being tempted to use the “Simpson-ized Don Surber” that the Raging Red blog previously posted).

    I thought the one I had used was simply a cropped version of the Daily Mail’s promotional photo of you. I apologize for my error. I have replaced that photograph with one taken directly from the Daily Mail Web site.

    I’d be interested in your response to the substance of my post, though.

    Again, my apologies.


  8. Brandon says:

    Oh yea we really need climate legislation. Record snow this week in Vermont shut down 1 nuclear power plant and another had to pull back to 80% due to some water freezing in the coolers according to Well the snow on top of the solar panels keeps sunlight from reaching the grid and of course we can’t turn the windmills on due to the birds migrating and would they turn with all the snow on them? This time in the winter is another proven point the reason the environmentalists left the term “global warming” and started using “climate change”. I would bet all of Americans are loving coal fired power plants due to the fact that the other sources are buying power off of coal plants such as John Amos because they can’t keep up with the demand. Another thing is that I hope people remember Rahall for defending the EPA and Obama against coal and don’t pay attention to this political stunt released today. I hope Byrd and Rahall r on their way out. This is the year for surface and underground miners to wake up and vote people in that are for us 100% of the time and not just on election year. Also thanks for advertising Mr. Surber’s column I had never checked it out. I love my surface mining job and we won another one today. Hopefully a good sign of what the future holds. Being a political year there will b lots of pressure put on politicians.

  9. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    A couple interesting posts about the cold weather and climate change, from Joe Romm’s blog, Climate Progress:


    That second one is especially interesting:

    BEIJING: Freak snowstorms and record low temperatures sweeping northern China are linked to global warming, say Chinese officials….

    The head of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau, Guo Hu, linked the blizzard-like conditions this week to unusual atmospheric patterns caused by global warming.

    ”In the context of global warming, extreme atmospheric flows are causing extreme climate incidents to appear more frequently, such as the summer’s rain storms and last year’s icestorm disaster in southern China,” Mr Guo told Beijing News.


  10. PDXile says:

    I’m puzzled by people who believe that global warming and winter are mutually exclusive.

  11. A-mouse says:

    First, I dont think that was actually Don Surber replying to the post.

    Secondly, there’s sort of a question I have indirectly related to this post, that I’m exploring just for presenting some thoughts and perhaps provoke a little scientific discussion.

    Say that, as we’re sure of, CO2 emissions are increasing. At the same time–and I’m making a big assumption here–forested land area is declining. If the rate of CO2 emissions going to the atmosphere is constant, while (in other terms) Net Primary Production is declining (assuming it is), then you have more CO2 being taken up by fewer plants and other biological materials, each year. Turns out NPP increases with higher temperatures (per square meter of producing area). See figure 6a here:

    Now, if, as I’m assuming (no time to do the research), NPP is climbing at an equal-ish rate that high carbon-sink matter (amazon rainforest) is being diminished, and the rate of carbon to atmosphere is constant…well, that would ‘prove’ that global mean temperature is rising, just as the chart shows at the top of this blog.

    Of course, that also assumes a constant annual emissions and a constant exchange of carbon between ocean and atmosphere. We know emissions are going up, however. There is also research (Yale geophysicist) suggesting that the ocean’s are absorbing carbon from the atmosphere at a slower rate:

    “Warm cola holds less fizz.” So, we now “know” that oceans are losing some of their ability to absorb CO2. This suggests that even if the CO2-to-atmosphere rates have been constant, this may not hold. Combine that with increases in atmposheric CO2 concentration, potential decreases in the ability of biomass to increase it’s NPP as temp’s rise (thus, their ability to absorb CO2 will also eventually decline, as everything has a capacity), and we may be in more trouble than we can even see at the current moment.

    Just some thoughts, I’d love to hear others.

  12. Andrew says:

    Will it change to “Global Cooling” next? How bout “Climate Confusion” or “Climate Fluctuation”?

  13. Dave Bassage says:

    Nice job Ken. I had missed that edition of the daily mail, apparently, or I would have offered my own rebuttal there, covering much the same ground you did, but also including an interview with Dr. Knorr conducted shortly after his findings were released.

    Here’s what he had to say about his research and its implications for climate policy folks:

    “Dr Wolfgang Knorr has found that natural ‘sinks’ like oceans and forests have absorbed the same percentage of CO2, despite man-made emissions shooting up to 35bn tonnes a year.

    His research suggests the earth may be able to absorb more carbon than previously thought, and may explain why climate change is happening more slowly than in some predictions.

    He says his research is “good news” for the current Copenhagen climate talks, but warns they must still produce an agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

    And Dr Knorr denies his research backs up people who deny the reality of climate change. He told Original 106.5: “That would be a very superficial interpretation of these results. Half of the CO2 we emit stays in the atmosphere and that’s enough to cause global warming.

    “Also, this research is only based on the past. We are pushing the system to its limits and it might break at some stage, as the model suggests. But it hasn’t happened yet. I would not experiment with the climate system.”

    However, he does believe his findings offer hope for the current Copenhagen climate talks, in which world nations are seeking an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

    He said: “It’s good news because some suggestions that these things have already declined may have been false alarms. It is not as dire as we think.

    “That makes it slightly easier to stabilise the CO2 and the climate, so that’s good news for the negotiations because it’s tough enough to impose the necessary limits on CO2 emissions.”

    But he is adamant the talks must agree to a cap on carbon, and believes climate change sceptics will find little use for his research.

    He said: “We have had a lot of research that could be interpreted that way [as supporting climate change denial]. I believe science has to be open and fair and we should not hide any of the results.

    “Climate critics will always find something, no matter what the results are. It’s not an indication not to do anything and you can always misinterpret results. But I think that kind of misinformation dies out quickly, I don’t see a problem.” ”

    with additional discussion here:

    It’s also worth noting that Knorr’s research results are in direct conflict with other research indicating the absorption rate of oceans and land masses IS declining, specifically that while the total volume of CO2 absorbed remains constant, the overall increase in released CO2 means a higher percentage of that
    released CO2 is staying in the atmosphere. The difference between the two conclusions appears to lie in different interpretations of land mass absorption.

    and interpreted here:

    What typically happens next in cases where independent research yields different conclusions is that the research of both will be carefully studied, attempts made to duplicate the results of each, and a new paper will be released identifying any flaws in either piece of research or analysis. Stay tuned…

    And it’s important to note that neither paper provides valuable ammo for the skeptic crowd. Both agree that atmospheric CO2 concentrations are increasing. Where they differ is in what percentage of the increase in emissions is re-absorbed in land and sea. The results of one affirm that we’ve got a big problem to address. The results of the other supports the conclusion that the
    problem is even bigger.

  14. […] and/or understood this study and/or, apparently, even the press release.  Ken Ward Jr. of the WV Charleston Gazette did a great debunking of one such piece of muddled nonsense by the Charleston Daily Mail’s Don […]

  15. Lewis Baker says:

    Yes it certainly is cold. But that doesn’t mean global warming or climate change isn’t happening. With a little common sense the doubters should know if it’s extra cold here, it is probably extra warm somewhere else.

    For an indication of how the arctic air mass dropping south across North America is balanced out, go to the site and set the weather map to “clouds”. Then zoom out and change the view to “world”, and set the clouds in motion by clicking the “past” button for a video of the past several hours. You’ll see arctic air racing south across North America, and another massive movement of air from across Asia headed north. This unusually massive pattern has been going on for days, and may stay in motion for days to come.

    This sloshing of the atmosphere requires energy to set it in motion. Global warming means there is an increasing amount of energy in the atmosphere, which will be expressed in a great stirring of the air, as well as a gradual warming at our latitude, on average. We should expect more cold waves as well as more heat waves, more severe storms as well as more droughts.

    A greater mixing of the atmosphere also means a greater relative warming of the poles over time, leading to faster melting of the ice caps.

    Even more scary is the melting of the permafrost (frozen soils) in the subarctic. Besides thawing out the planet’s deep freeze and exposing wooly mammoth carcases, massive quantities of methane trapped in the permafrost is beginning to be released. The methane is a much worse greenhouse gas than CO2, so we may have already set in motion a run away reaction we can not stop, and mankind may get to witness a change of climate the world hasn’t gone through in millions of years.

    So to the deniers out there, enjoy this balmy weather, because you ain’t seen nothing yet. Get ready for the million year flood.

  16. Casey says:

    I thought this letter was interesting regarding cost effective planet cooling and CH4.

    and also this John Coleman video.

  17. […] Blogs @ The Charleston Gazette – » Basic climate science update … […]

  18. Dave Bassage says:

    Great link, Ken. Besides finely complementing (and complimenting) your own work, I thought the following observation in the comments section summed up the skeptic thought process on this succinctly:

    “In other news, the fraction of humans capable of giving birth has not changed much over the centuries, thus proving that the world’s population is not growing.”

  19. Thomas Rodd says:

    Great series of posts. This blog is kickin’!

    A-mouse says: “we may be in more trouble than we can even see at the current moment.”

    I agree. As a lawyer representing people with injuries, real and threatened, I’m familiar with the exaggeration phenomenon. People with an axe to grind tend see their situation as more dire than perhaps a neutral person would.

    But with climate change, I’m afraid the reverse is true. For a lot of reasons, it seems quite possible that we don’t yet see or know the half of how grim the future is likely to be for our children and grandchildren.

    Let’s pass health care and get to work on climate legislation — ASAP!

  20. Red Desert says:

    Did anyone read the WSJ piece on methane cited in Casey’s comment? Pretty interesting and worth a look. I wouldn’t mind knowing a bit more about this. I think trapping and colleting methane can get pretty expensive, depending on the source.

  21. Casey says:

    Red Desert, I too think the potential to more cost effectively address warming with CH4 reductions than CO2, is interesting. I think ignoring that info shows a desire by many to kill coal more than to mitigate any warming. I’m doing my vegan part.

  22. Dave Bassage says:

    Yes, methane is a key part of the greenhouse gas puzzle. They presented the numbers a bit differently in that link, but I think (I may be wrong) consistent with my research that shows methane on a per molecule basis to be 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, but lasting a sixth to a tenth as long in the atmosphere.

    Interestingly, I presented that information by invitation to a forum packed with coal industry folks over six years ago as they considered the potential to offset their CO2 footprint by capturing coal bed methane. To the best of my knowledge nothing developed in that arena, but again, I could be wrong.

    As a humorous aside, part of my research for that presentation included an internet search. When I queried “coal bed methane, greenhouse gas”, the first hit was my own name on the agenda for the upcoming event. I remember thinking if I could only click on that link and find out what I was going to say, I could save myself a lot of work!

    I don’t know that capturing methane poses any greater financial burden than capturing CO2, although in both cases of course not producing it in the first place is much cheaper.

    The methane factor is one of the reasons using seasoned wood in my wood stove is considered carbon neutral, an argument I’ve intuitively found hard to grasp.

    A tree left to rot in the forest produces methane – a factor that makes dammed impoundments where vegetation was not cleared in advance large sources of methane. But the same wood seasoned under roof before burning does not produce methane, albeit the same overall carbon content as it would have naturally.

    It’s my understanding that many greenhouse gas reduction strategies include formulas that allow for increased credit for methane reduction relative to similar quantities of CO2 reductions. Hopefully that sort of flexibility will remain, so entities can utilize the most cost effective means to reduce their footprints.

  23. […] I Will Cheer When Betty Shutters the Daily Mail By Hippie Killer You can and should read Ken Ward’s lengthy takedown of Don Surber’s latest dirty diaper here. But my version goes something like […]

  24. […] Blogs @ The Charleston Gazette – » Basic climate science update … […]

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