Scroll To Top

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Insects and microbes and OCO-2 conspiracy theories at WUWT

Sou | 12:16 AM Go to the first of 5 comments. Add a comment

Anthony Watts has done it again. Put up a really weird article that none but the scientifically illiterate could allow on their blog as a straight article. But as his friend Willis Eschebach pointed out so clearly, Anthony Watts is scientifically illiterate.

I can't say it's enjoyable making fun of the articles by Ronald D "OMG it's insects" Voisin, because I do believe he is one of the few genuine deniers at WUWT, and probably a very nice, if very eccentric, chap. It's just that he is a conspiracy theorist of the "climate science is a hoax" type, so much so that I'd not even rate his articles as pseudo-science. (Type Voisin into the search bar to learn more about how Ronald's mind works, or fails to work.)

Just the same, there are people commenting on his latest atrocity (archived here), which has prompted me to point out where he's gone wrong - which is just about everywhere. First, I'll put up the map of atmospheric CO2 that Ronald was writing about. It's the one shown by the OCO-2 team at AGU14. Click to enlarge it.

Source: NASA/JPL

Look at the legend at the bottom - the scale goes from 387 ppmv to 402.5 ppmv, which shows that the satellite is detecting CO2 at a very fine scale. Then look at the title up top. The map is of averaged carbon dioxide concentration over the few weeks from 1 October this year through to 11 November.

You can read more about the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 on its website here, and you can browse the data released so far here. I also wrote about it a few days ago.

In a nutshell

To summarise, Ronald thinks that the OCO-2 project is a scam. A scientific plot against him and his fellow deniers, with results that are fudged or worse. He misinterprets the above chart. He wrongly thinks that it's insects and microbes that are causing CO2 to rise, not human activity.  His logic is a massive fail - he neglects to explain how insects and microbes have suddenly been able to add about 900 billion tonnes of carbon or two trillion tonnes of CO2 to the air in a space of 150 years. Where is this explosive increase in microbes and insects, such that no-one noticed? Ronald doesn't say.

This article wanders a bit into soils and bugs and microbes and other things so it's a bit long. But read on if you are interested in such things.

Ronald gets things upside down

Ronald started off with this:
A Cynical Engineer: There are three scenarios for the future of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory:
1) NASA will continue to report transparent scientific results that will quickly and stunningly turn CAGW upside down. We will all realize that global CO2 emissions are not at all as taught, preached or predicted. That human emission to global atmospheric CO2 concentration is and always has been a small single-digit contribution. That if we shut human CO2 emission down completely tomorrow little would happen to the future trajectory of global CO2 concentration. And indeed, had we humans never industrialized, little would be different about that trajectory over the past 60 years right up to today.

I'll interject here to point out that the map of OCO-2 that was posted with the article clearly show that human emissions are not insignificant. They are immensely significant. The legend on the map shows CO2 concentrations of between 387 ppm and 402.5 ppm - whereas pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 was around 280 ppm. The increase of 43% is all because of human activity. His notion of "single digit contribution" is fine, provided the units are Teratonnes (trillion tonnes).

At the time of AR5, we'd emitted around 545 Gt carbon or 2,000 Gt CO2 or 2Tt CO2 equivalent which has added around 0.88 Teratonne CO2 to the air (IPCC AR5 WG1). Rounding up that makes about 2 Teratonne emissions and 1 Teratonne added to the atmosphere, which fits with Ronald's "single digit" - though definitely not his "small contribution".

Ronald puts on his tinfoil hat

Ronald's next point was pure unadulterated paranoid conspiracy theorising, and his final point was correct, in regard to the first attempt:
2) NASA will homogenize the data with such effort as to make the original data set unrecognizable. There will be lots of hand waving and we’ll endure continued lame explanations such as in the caption that was released with this initial data set.
3) The OCO instrument will suffer a premature and catastrophic failure.

He then went on to elaborate.
When the first versions of the OCO were being launched I thought to myself: Great, let’s cut to the chase scene, grab the crucial data, and get this AGW malarkey over with quickly. But then scenario 3) happened…twice.
This comment puts Ronald fairly and squarely into the science-illiterate denier camp. I don't know why he said that scenario 3) happened twice. As far as I know there was only one failure back in February 2009. Am I wrong? The satellite failed to reach orbit and crashed.

Ronald can't read a colour chart

Ronald's later comments demonstrate that he can't read the CO2 map. He wrote:
And just what would NASA have us believe about this first OCO product:
a) That shortly before this last October 1st, industrial production shut down in the Ohio Valley, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. That as of October 1st, U.S. industrial production has been concentrated in the lush Appalachian Slopes of the Carolinas, Georgia and Northern Florida.

Now if you look at the chart, it's showing yellow over Ohio and over South Korea, so I don't know why he listed those regions. Western Europe doesn't have that many coal-fired power plants these days and fairly stringent regulations on those that exist. South Korea has five coal-fired power plants, but their combined capacity is considerably less than its nuclear power plants plus renewables (mainly hydro). Taiwan has the largest coal plant in the world, the Taichung power plant, which also has the dubious distinction of being the largest single emitter of CO2, according to Wikipedia. Taiwan lies just on the edge of the yellow off China. I expect the signs of CO2 depend on how the wind blows.

Ronald interprets the map further, writing:
b) That farming activities may account for the CO2 plumes over the lush forests of South America and South-Central Africa. While Australian industrial activity may have pushed it’s CO2 output upwind into the lush forests of Malaysia.
Well, that's not exactly what the scientists found. They compared the charts with maps of biomass burning and found that this accounted for much of the red spread across the middle of the chart - South America, southern Africa and Indonesia. The west to east winds blow the CO2 across the world. Most CO2 emissions from power plants in Australia are confined to a narrow band around the east coast, and would be fairly quickly blown further eastward. Australia is small fry on a global scale, though a very large fry on a per capita scale.

Ronald also decided, presumably just by looking at the map:
c) That the oceans are net absorbers of anthropogenic CO2 contrary to this most recent observation.
How he came to that conclusion is anyone's guess. Much of the ocean is coloured green - around the middle of the scale, particularly in the northern hemisphere, which makes sense heading into the northern winter. (In summer the ocean tends to be a CO2 sink and in winter it's a CO2 source.) There are also very large red and yellow splotches over the masses of ocean, particularly in the southern hemisphere. Some of this could be from CO2 still coming out of the ocean. A lot of it would be windblown CO2 from the continents. Down near Antarctica there is a big splotch of dark blue, which ties in with the known CO2 sink in that region (there's a recent paper on this, too).  There are other sinks, like the one in the North Atlantic, described in this paper.

OMG it's insects

Ronald finishes with his "OMG it's insects" line again. He wrote:
Or…is there a different explanation from what NASA seems to believe? Like:
Insect and microbial emissions, each at 10X all anthropogenic emission, dominate in these lush forested areas while the historically mildly warming oceans are also net CO2 contributors. And, anthropogenic emission is essentially irrelevant to atmospheric CO2 concentration at an approximately 2% contribution to the natural flux.
Do you spot all that is wrong with that paragraph? The first thing is that Ronald must be assuming a very large increase in microbes and insects. Or a very large increase in their metabolic activity - such that they are now adding to atmospheric CO2.

Insects and microbes and soils and us

Insects and microbes certainly do contribute to the CO2 flux. (This 1998 paper estimated that the total amount of prokaryotic carbon is equal to 60% to 100% of the total in plants. There are possibly more recent estimates.) For example, many microbes help store CO2 by binding it in soils. Others release CO2 from soils, and this activity is increasing as described by Ben Bond-Lamberty & Allison Thomson  in Nature in 2010. They write about climate change accelerating the terrestrial carbon cycle. It has also been found that there are limits when it comes to storage in soils. This paper by Kees Jan van Groenigen and colleagues, suggests that:
The increase in soil C turnover with rising CO2 leads to lower equilibrium soil C stocks than expected from the rise in soil C input alone, indicating that it is a general mechanism limiting C accumulation in soil....
...Why does increased atmospheric CO2 stimulate the turnover of soil C? Larger soil C input rates under increased CO2 cause an enhanced supply of easily metabolized substrates (10), which can stimulate the decomposition of native soil organic matter, mobilizing C reserves assumed to be protected from microbial attack (14). This process, commonly called “priming” (15), has previously been described as short-term and idiosyncratic (16). However, recent studies indicate that it is a widespread and persistent phenomenon (17, 18). Our results now suggest that it is also a general and prolonged response to increased atmospheric CO2. 

But remember, what Bond-Lamberty, Thomson and Kees Jan van Groenigen and co. found is a consequence of the increased CO2 that we humans have added to the air. It wouldn't be happening if not for humans. So it isn't support for Ronald's wrong assertions.

Ronald also wrongly claims that the oceans are net contributors. I've just written about how the oceans are net CO2 sinks. It's chemistry and physics.

TS2.8.1 of the AR5 WG1 Technical Summary has the numbers on CO2 from human activities, and the land and ocean sinks. In regard to Ronald's insects and microbes on land, the IPCC states (TS.2.8.1) that:
Natural terrestrial ecosystems (those not affected by land use change) are estimated by difference from changes in other reservoirs to have accumulated 150 [60 to 240] PgC between 1750 and 2010. The gain of carbon by natural terrestrial ecosystems is estimated to take place mainly through the uptake of CO2 by enhanced photosynthesis at higher CO2 levels and nitrogen deposition, longer growing seasons in mid and high latitudes. Natural carbon sinks vary regionally due to physical, biological and chemical processes acting on different time scales. An excess of atmospheric CO2 absorbed by land ecosystems gets stored as organic matter in diverse carbon pools, from short lived (leaves, fine roots) to long-lived (stems, soil carbon). {6.3; Table 6.1}

If Ronald's insects and microbes are on balance adding to atmospheric CO2 any more than they've done in the past, it's most likely as a result of human activity. Whether they are or not depends on whether or not their numbers are increasing and how they are responding to the increase in CO2 - which is caused by human activity. Insects and microbes live and die. When they die they sequester any CO2 they contain - although other organisms, like soil microbes and fungi, would make use of it.

Anyway, if there is an increase in CO2 being produced as a consequence of there being an increase in insects and microbes (and I don't know if there is), it is more than compensated for by the extra absorption on land and sea. The land and oceans are still net sinks of CO2.  All we can do is hope they remain that way or our descendants will be in for a very rough ride.

As an aside, for lovers of old scientific papers, I found this paper written by John H Northrop in 1926, on CO2 production over the lifetime of Drosophila.

From the WUWT comments

There's a mixed response to Ronald's article. Some people are concerned that it lowers the tone of WUWT (as if!). Others are all in favour - anything but humans. Note: the comments below aren't indicative of the overall mix. Most WUWT-ers have lapped it up, fallen hook, line and sinker, as you'd expect.

Dermot O'Logical doesn't buy it:
December 29, 2014 at 9:05 am
This is just raw entrenched tin-foil-hat-brigade cynicism.
It adds no value to the debate.

Andy Mac (@AndyMeanie) objects to the conspiracy theorising:
December 29, 2014 at 9:14 am
You know when you start going into the realm of conspiracy there is something not quite righ about the articles why not just compare these observations to the models released last month by NASA re:mixing?
The tone of this article doesn’t do WIWT justice, IMHO.

Kasuha is a rare WUWT-er who sees this article for what it is:
December 29, 2014 at 10:27 am (extract only)
I really believe articles like this should not be allowed past WUWT QA.

Barry is another of the very few down-to-earth people at WUWT:
December 29, 2014 at 10:57 am
This guy needs to find a new hobby (maybe lithography). With anthropogenic CO2 emissions only 2% of the total, one would not expect their signal to be very strong at any given time (relative to “background”). Also note the color scale, while extreme blue to red, is only 387-402 ppm. And besides, as Kasuha points out, what really matters is the accumulation of CO2 over time, i.e., increasing from 300 to 400 ppm.

dont drink the koolaid is correct, though I doubt he or she knows why.
December 29, 2014 at 11:08 am
This one month of OCO observations tells us a great deal about the accuracy/error of Contemporary Orthodox Climatology and the relative presence of Atmospheric Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide.

Mike M. tries to bring some semblance of respectability to denialism, but the rest of the comments show he fails miserably.  Deniers will latch onto anything, provided it's not humans. Even if it's rising CO2.
December 29, 2014 at 11:39 am
This is the sort of thing that gives climate skeptics a bad name.
Voisin writes “That human emission to global atmospheric CO2 concentration is and always has been a small single-digit contribution.” That is not even wrong. If one interprets to mean that annual emissions, expressed in ppm, add single digit amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere then yes, that is true. But so what? The emissions largely accumulate year after year.
Then “That if we shut human CO2 emission down completely tomorrow little would happen to the future trajectory of global CO2 concentration.” Again, we have to guess at what he means. If he means that CO2 will stay nearly constant on a human time scale, then yes, after a small initial drop it will. But so what? If he means that CO2 will keep increasing as it has been, then he is out to lunch. From where will that CO2 magically appear?
Then “And indeed, had we humans never industrialized, little would be different about that trajectory over the past 60 years right up to today.” Absolute nonsense. From where has the CO2 in the atmosphere come? And to where has all the CO2 from burning fossil fuels gone?
Is Voisin the clown who thinks that climate is controlled by a gigantic nuclear reactor at the earth’s core? I couldn’t figure out how to search for that.
As for the last sentence, yes, Voisin is that clown.

DMA brings up Murry Salby and his foolish "theories":
December 29, 2014 at 11:48 am
This map and the conclusion that the anthropogenic contribution to total atmospheric CO2 content is very minor underscore the findings of Murry Salby that have been effectively prohibited from being published.

James Abbott tries to inject some realism - but hits the dead brains of deniers.
December 29, 2014 at 11:59 am 
Ronald D Voisin is a retired engineer.
And good luck to him in his retirement, from where, as a suggestion, he should resist the temptation to write opinion pieces which have absolutely no basis in fact whatsoever.
We can put numbers on global CO2 emissions from the key contributing sectors and estimate the response of planetary systems to those emissions.... The net increase in atmospheric concentration fits pretty well. Given the step change in concentration since the industrial revolution cf the previous million years or so, it would need a spectacular new explanation as to where the extra CO2 came from if not us.
Two recurring themes of ideological scepticism are (a) that CO2 has a very minor role in global temperature and (b) that humans cannot be responsible for changing the climate/global environment.
The first denies the natural GH effect and cannot explain the ice ages.
The second is an almost religious view along the lines of “the Earth is so big … how could we humans possibly ….”.
Ronald D Voisin goes even further into anti-science with his claim that
“had we humans never industrialized, little would be different about that (CO2) trajectory over the past 60 years right up to today.”

mpainter thinks that "OMG it's insects" is a "sophisticated analysis" and undoubtedly thinks the OCO-2 mission, which is unbelievably sophisticated, isn't. Think about how NASA is able to measure differences of several tenths of a part per million of a gas in the atmosphere, by satellite instruments. It's surely mind-boggling to all but the illiterati.
December 29, 2014 at 1:24 pm
Voisin makes a sophisticated analysis of the dilemma faced by NASA scientists. Unless this new satellite can somehow be rigged into “detecting” anthropogenic CO2, the whole CAGW alarmist machine falters. Abbott will have to go back to shrilling about acid rain.

gymnosperm is incapable of independent (or rational) thought.
December 29, 2014 at 1:38 pm
Where can I buy a tinfoil hat? Silence from Ferdinand? The fundamental point that this data contradicts everything we think we know about CO2 stands. It speaks to a far greater role for microbial respiration, particularly in the oceans…

Tom J gives a "wow" but suffers a major comprehension problem. Remedial English classes are recommended.
December 29, 2014 at 4:08 pm
I copied this paragraph directly from NASA’s very own website.
‘Preliminary analysis shows these signals are largely driven by the seasonal burning of savannas and forests,” said OCO-2 Deputy Project Scientist Annmarie Eldering, of JPL. The team is comparing these measurements with data from other satellites to clarify how much of the observed concentration is likely due to biomass burning.’
Wow. In the first of a two sentence paragraph the source states, “…analysis shows…signals are largely driven by…burning…”, and in the next, and remaining sentence, and concerning the exact same issue, states, “…is comparing…data from other satellites to clarify how much…is likely due to…burning.” Clearly, these people don’t know the difference between a fact and a supposition. Either that, or they simply don’t care. What is one’s bet: the former or the latter?
Voisin’s attitude is clearly justified.
I don't understand what he's going on about. Here are some satellite images of fires in November in central Africa. More here. It makes sense to compare the data of CO2 with data of fires to determine how much of the CO2 is from burning biomass and how much from other sources.

Poor old jorgekafkazar mistakenly thinks that "OMG it's insects" lands a mortal blow on science.
December 29, 2014 at 4:25 pm
Whenever a post delivers a solid blow to the Gullibles’ cause, their screaming and whining here increase by an order of magnitude. They remind me of:
Black Knight: ‘Tis but a scratch!
King Arthur: A scratch? Your arm’s off!
Black Knight: No, it isn’t!
King Arthur: Well, what’s that then? (points at arm, on ground)
Black Knight: I’ve had worse.
The more Black Knight denial here, the better the post.

Latitude is a regular denier at WUWT who doesn't have a clue about CO2 or tipping points. He doesn't realise that scientists long ago figured out that it rains!
December 29, 2014 at 5:17 pm
Why would anyone want to measure CO2 at this time….other than to get more data to disprove the theory
The theory was a sight increase in CO2 would cause a tipping point…and we would have run away global humidity
We passed that tipping point years ago…..temperatures flat lined..CO2 continued to rise ~2ppm/year…humidity stayed the same

Peter doesn't understand that CO2 is an input into the models as much as an output, and that OCO-2 results so far do "match the models". They also match the measurements taken at the surface.
December 29, 2014 at 7:50 pm
I vote that OCO will unfortunately suffer a catastrophic failure. The data is inconvenient and does not match the models.

Bates, Nicholas R. "Interannual variability of the oceanic CO2 sink in the subtropical gyre of the North Atlantic Ocean over the last 2 decades." Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans (1978–2012) 112, no. C9 (2007). doi:10.1029/2006JC003759, 2007 (open access)

Bond-Lamberty, Ben, and Allison Thomson. "Temperature-associated increases in the global soil respiration record." Nature 464, no. 7288 (2010): 579-582. doi:10.1038/nature08930 (open access with content sharing initiative)

van Groenigen, Kees Jan, Xuan Qi, Craig W. Osenberg, Yiqi Luo, and Bruce A. Hungate. "Faster Decomposition Under Increased Atmospheric CO2 Limits Soil Carbon Storage." Science 344, no. 6183 (2014): 508-509. DOI: 10.1126/science.1249534 (subs req'd)

Northrop, John H. "Carbon dioxide production and duration of life of Drosophila cultures." The Journal of general physiology 9, no. 3 (1926): 319-324. (available here)


  1. "(In summer the ocean tends to be a CO2 sink and in winter it's a CO2 source.)"
    I think you may have that back to front . . .

    1. I probably should have left that out. I'm trying to find a general rule of thumb. As I understand it, in summer you get more phytoplankton gobbling up CO2, but you also get cold upwelling water being warmed in a lot of places. Which wins out seems to vary from place to place.

      I did check what I wrote at the time, but now can't find it so I can't check if it was an "on average" or just some regions.

      Here's a bit of a rundown on what happens in different places.

  2. There seems to be a conflict with the IPCC and other authors that state that CO2 is well-mixed in the atmosphere and that a reading at one point on the globe is indicative of the entire globe.

    1. Dale, CO2 is well-mixed in the atmosphere. Look at the chart above, which illustrates this admirably. Look for the following:

      The legend shows the range lies between 387 and 402.5 parts per million. That means that the variation is really only from large "lumps" of newly released and newly absorbed CO2. Otherwise you would see a much larger range in ppm because the amount that churns through the fast carbon cycle is large. (see )

      You can see in the above where CO2 is coming from and going to over the weeks shown. You can see how it's carried from the source around the world before eventually dispersing so you can no longer detect it from the background CO2.

      You can also tell there is little difference between CO2 readings at any point on the globe (except of course where there is an abnormal amount being emitted) by measuring CO2 at different sites.

      Cape Grim, Tasmania - way down the bottom of Australia
      September 2014 395.852

      Mauna Loa, Hawaii - thousands of km away -
      November 2014 397.13 ppm

      The reading at one point is *indicative* of the global CO2 but not identical. Global CO2 is calculated based on measurements at different locations around the world, such as on this map:

      Here is how NOAA works out global values:

      What is so wonderful about OCO-2 is how it can detect such tiny differences in concentration in the atmosphere - of a mere few tenths of a ppm. That means the scientists can see hotspots where CO2 is coming from and hotspots where it is being absorbed. Of course CO2 is coming in and going out of all over the oceans and all over the land - what the satellite is picking is where there is more than average going in and coming out. Just what I called the "hot spots".

    2. You should probably read the article before commenting.

      The chart from above is also shown here. 387 to 402 ppm is well mixed.

      Or read this one. The satellite "takes 16 days to get a full set of global data, with a million readings a reading a day which yields tens of thousands of data points."

      Prior to the OCO-2 satellite, data was provided by the NASA Aqua satellite
      as well as numerous ground stations.


Instead of commenting as "Anonymous", please comment using "Name/URL" and your name, initials or pseudonym or whatever. You can leave the "URL" box blank. This isn't mandatory. You can also sign in using your Google ID, Wordpress ID etc as indicated. NOTE: Some Wordpress users are having trouble signing in. If that's you, try signing in using Name/URL or OpenID. Details here.

Click here to read the HotWhopper comment policy.