Extra! Extra! Global warming on Mars!

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Wednesday, March 21, 2007

For 3 weeks, an angel and a devil have perched on my shoulders. The devil whispers in my left ear, "Blog about the global-warming-on-Mars thing! C'mon, it'll be fun!" The angel on my right shoulder says, "Don't do it! You can't win this one, bub."

OK, the devil wins. But, mind you, I will not use the following words: global-warming deniers; liberal climate-change agenda; Rush Limbaugh; Al Gore. That would be politics. We don't do politics; we do science. So I will talk about the latter.

On February 28, National Geographic online posted an article about a "controversial theory" that an increase in the Sun's energy output explains global warming, not the buildup of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.  The controversial theorist quoted in Habibullo Abdussamatov, head of space research at Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Abdussamatov says that "simultaneous warming" on Mars and Earth backs up his solar-warming theory. The logic: Earth is warming; Mars is warming; the common denominator on the two planets is the Sun; therefore the Sun must be causing the warming on both planets.

By the way, Abdussamatov doesn't go along with the greenhouse effect, either. The National Geographic article says that he does not believe carbon dioxide contributes much to climate change on Earth and nothing at all on Mars. To say this is at odds with prevailing scientific understanding would be an understatement. But let's not go there. Why consume your valuable time "proving" the greenhouse effect. I might as well offer evidence that the sky is blue, too, while I'm at it.

I was moved to write this blog after watching this "global warming on Mars" story spread like a virus across the blogosphere for 3 weeks. One thing became obvious after reading all the posts: political agendas, not facts, were in the driver's seat. Nobody seemed curious about Abdussamatov's data — if he has any — or what an actual living, breathing Mars researcher might have to say. Nobody even raised these questions.

Also absent was any attention to the obvious flaw in the "global warming on Mars" logic. On Earth, what we commonly refer to as global warming is a systematic pattern of climate change driven by a rise in the atmosphere's average temperature. It's supported by decades, if not centuries, of data, decades of climate modeling research, and endorsed by the most knowledgeable climate researchers in the world: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC recently came to the consensus that 1) global climate change is happening and 2) humans are responsible for making much of this change happen because of stuff they do, like pumping enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

And the "global warming" on Mars? Over a period of several years, Mars Global Surveyor images showed that the planet's south polar cap of frozen carbon dioxide has been thinning. This suggests the martian climate may be warming — at least at the south pole. The bloggers also mention research they say shows warming is also occurring on Triton, Pluto, and Jupiter.

But what does this mean? OK, I thought, maybe anti-global warming bloggers can't just e-mail a scientist and have any hope of getting an answer. So I did. I contacted Bruce Jakosky, a professor of geological science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Among many other things, Jakosky studies the evolution of the martian atmosphere and climate. Here is what he said in his e-mail:

"I've heard the argument and it is not a valid one.  The ‘global warming' on Mars is an observed transient effect that manifests itself as a decrease in one location of the covering of CO2 frost (as I understand the argument). The key issue is that it is a transient, not that it represents a monotonic warming ... 

"Using the Mars data as an argument for a changing solar constant is absurd. We don't understand Mars well enough to make that case.  And, more importantly, we have direct measurements of the solar input to the Earth over a couple of decades now that show no such increase."

But you don't need a Ph.D. in Mars science to figure out that a pattern of warming in one region of Mars (the south pole) observed for a few years does not "global warming" make. It's comparing apples and oranges.

But, like I said, this isn't about science. It just reminds us that nothing — not even our beloved egg-headed planetary research — is immune from being turned into fuel for partisan political warfare.

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