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Monday, December 22, 2014

Tim Ball FAILS Carbon Cycle 101 at WUWT

Sou | 12:52 PM Go to the first of 42 comments. Add a comment

I'm flat out getting a few things done before the Christmas break, so this is just a short article. It's necessary because if you read WUWT, you'll leave it scratching your head wondering how it could claim to be a climate site.

Before I begin, if anyone wants to read up on the carbon cycle, one of the best sites that describes it for the non-scientists out there, is NASA's Earth Observatory website.

NASA's OCO-2 Satellite

The topic is NASA's OCO-2 project, which was launched earlier this year. NASA gave a report at AGU. They've been collecting data since early September. I'll let the scientists tell it, if you have the time:

It 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. What they have to do is determine differences of maybe only one or two parts per million (there are around 400 ppm of CO2 in the air today).

I've been wanting to write this for a few days now, and have been prompted to get a move on by one of the sillier articles from conspiracy theorising Tim Ball (archived here).

(Tim calls himself a climatologist. Nothing could be further from the truth as you will see. All he is is a retired geography teacher from a University. He published almost no research over his entire career. He is being sued for defamation, so you can tell he's well experienced in spreading disinformation. He's also an A Grade Conspiracy theorist of the anti-semitic, One World Government, New World Order kind. Anthony Watts likes him and his work. He publishes his silliness all the time.)

Where does CO2 come from and where does it go?

Today Tim Ball wrote an article that showed he hasn't the first clue about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He seems to think that the climate science community, of which he erroneously claims to be a part, says that all of the CO2 that is emitted each year comes from human activity. Of course it's not. Here is what happens:

  • Humans emit around 30 Gigatonnes of CO2 each year, of which around 45% to 50% ends up in the atmosphere. The rest is absorbed at the surface (oceans and plants and soil).
  • Plants emit about half the amount of CO2 that they absorb, so on balance they are net absorbers, through photosynthesis. They cycle a huge amount of CO2 each year, much more than human activity.
  • There is also a lot of CO2 exchanged at the surface of the ocean. On balance, the oceans are carbon sinks (net absorbers), which is why they are getting more acidic (pH is dropping). 

There is a huge amount of CO2 cycled through the surface-plants-ocean-atmosphere each year - way more than humans emit from burning fossil fuel and land-clearing etc. Between 1015 and 1017 grams (1,000 to 100,000 million metric tons) of carbon move through the fast carbon cycle every year.  It goes in and out of plants on land and in water, it goes in and out of the oceans. Compare that to the 9 billion tonnes of carbon (not CO2) that humans are adding to the air. Tim put up a table of CO2 sources, but he neglected to factor in the sinks. He didn't tell his readers that plants and oceans etc absorb more each year than they emit.

Most of the carbon that's exchanged between the surface and the atmosphere each year is not from human activity. Up until the industrial revolution, each year the amount absorbed was roughly equal to the amount emitted. Now that we're adding so much to the air each year, plants and oceans are absorbing a lot more (about half of what we're putting into the air) but they can't keep up with all of it. So that's why the atmospheric CO2 has increased from around 280 ppm to 400 ppm. A big enough amount on a geological timescale but a phenomenal amount on a human time scale. That's what is causing global warming.

Here is a picture from NASA's OCO-2 satellite, that Tim also put in his article at WUWT. I've sharpened it a bit so you can see the land masses more clearly:

This map, pieced together with data from NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, shows global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from Oct. 1 through Nov. 11.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Source: BBC

Humans are exonerated, we can breathe out freely :)

Tim quite ludicrously wrote this about an article at the BBC, saying "scientists don't know nuffin'". He wrote:
Preliminary evidence essentially exonerates humans as the source of CO2. That is a narrative unacceptable to the IPCC and all their media supporters. As a result the BBC, whose lack of journalistic integrity and political bias, was exposed in the emails leaked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), are obliged to spin the evidence. One comment in the article says,
It is possible to see spikes, too, on the eastern seaboard of the US and over China. These probably include the additional emissions of CO2 that come from industrialisation.
This misinformation is contradicted by the lower than average levels over the UK and Europe.
Now why he thinks that the UK and Europe emit at least as much CO2 as the north eastern USA and China is anyone's guess. It wouldn't - it has much less manufacturing and relatively less fossil fuel compared to other sources (renewables and nuclear) than either place. (You can see more yellow over eastern Europe, which could well be fossil fuel burning.)

Grass doesn't burn?

Then Tim writes:
Another comment on Figure 1 says,
Also apparent are the higher concentrations over South America and southern Africa. These are likely the result of biomass burning in these regions.
This misinformation is a contradiction because the area of southern Africa is mostly grasslands and desert. How does that generate “biomass burning”? Figure 2 shows a map of the climate zones of Africa, ironically, it appears in an article pleading for financial help to deal with climate change. 

Good lord! Tim thinks grass doesn't burn! Goodness knows why. It can't be because he's from Canada. Here's a NASA image of fires in southern Africa:

NASA explained:
Several large fires were burning in South Africa when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image on September 15, 2010. Wind blows the thick plumes of pale brown smoke east over the Indian Ocean. The fires are outlined in red.
Most of the fires were probably set by people who use fire as a tool to manage land, but some of the fires may be wildfires. The savannas of southern Africa have long been shaped by fires, which remove woody bushes to make way for grasses. Since September is the end of the dry season in South Africa, plants are at their driest and the landscape is prone to fire.

One of the first times I saw a wildfire up close was a grass fire - as a child. We were driving down the Hume Highway and there was a huge blaze racing through pastures. The flames were very high and the fire was moving extremely quickly (away from us). My father drove down the side road so we could gawk. I think he saw it as a teaching moment. He used to say that you run "through" a grass fire (the front can be very wide, but it isn't usually deep - maybe only a few metres at most. Grass burns quickly, so it burns out quickly and you can run through it to get to clear ground on the other side. Don't try this at home!); avoid going deep into bushland in the fire season; and if caught on the road in a forest fire don't leave the car. Close all the windows and bunker down and cover yourself with a woollen blanket or similar and hope you survive. [Added a bit later by Sou.]

Incidentally, five homes were burnt to the ground in early season wildfires not far from where I live in Victoria this month - which burnt over grassland and farmland.

 [Update] And here's an image of fires in Australia particularly those in the Angry Summer of January 2013 when Australia was on fire, from an article I wrote earlier this year. Remember most of Australia is desert and grassland or low scrub:

Sources and sinks

At AGU14, someone asked the question about whether the red splotches were net sources. The scientist replied that now they are, but in six months time [many of them] will turn into net sinks. To see if they are sources [or sinks] overall, you'll need at least a year of data.

Tim doesn't understand that.  He's not a climate scientist. He's a fruitcake.

There's a lot more nonsense in Tim's article. I've just used it to write about the OCO-2 project and to correct some of the idiocy that is fed to the gullible readers at WUWT.

Further reading and plant fluorescence map

You can read more at Live Science. There's also a great article on the plant fluorescence map obtained from the OCO-2 data, at Science mag. It deserves its own article - maybe later. Here's a sneak peek:

From Eric Hand at Science:
About 1% of the light that strikes plants is re-emitted as a faint, fluorescent glow—a measure of photosynthetic activity. Today, at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union here, scientists released a map of this glow (pictured, with data averaged from August to October of this year) as measured by the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. The NASA satellite launched in July with the goal of mapping the net amount of carbon in the atmosphere. But the fluorescence map, an unexpected secondary capability, provides a more direct measure of carbon fluxes: the amount mopped up by plants during photosynthesis or released during respiration. The findings will help scientists disentangle inputs and outputs in places like the Amazon rainforest, where there are both big emissions from deforestation and big sinks from photosynthesis. 
Read the full article here.

From the WUWT comments

There is a heap more in the comments than I have time to read, let alone write about. Here is a small sample:

Michael Moon is unaware that the mechanisms for CO2 absorption and release are the same as they've always been. There is no "new" explanation needed, other than with all the extra CO2 we're pouring into the air, plants are taking up more CO2 and the increases partial pressure at the oceans means they are absorbing more as well. The science of that is old knowledge.
December 21, 2014 at 1:06 pm
It is very hard to draw conclusions from this CO2 chart. Springtime in the SH should show reduced CO2 there as plant growth surges drawing CO2 from the atmosphere, and fall in the NH should show increased concentrations as leaves fall and begin to rot.
No one has yet suggested a mechanism by which only around half of human emissions enters the atmosphere, year after year. The graphic with annual emissions totals is revealing because, as Dr. Ball points out, human emissions are less than the annual variability of natural sources.
There is no way Mother Nature could vary as much as she does, and yet take up half of our emissions every year. Something else must be happening. The chemistry of the oceans is immensely complex, and appears to me to be the most likely driver of atmospheric CO2.

Louise Nicholas is wanting to be a good little WUWT-er, but is having a bit of trouble maintaining the stance in the face of such utter nuttery from Tim Ball
December 21, 2014 at 1:33 pm
“A recent example appeared from the BBC, triggered by more evidence that contradicts the hypothesis, that human produced CO2 is almost the sole cause of global warming. ”
Don’t get me wrong- I totally agree with what Tim Bal says- but am missing the link as to why the fact that C02 concentration varies across continents/oceans contradicts the IPCC hypothesis. How are the IPCC results dependent on C02 being constant? Like temperature, I’ve always assumed C02 concentrations varied, and it was just the “change” the average change that was being measured Just as I think it’s nonsensical to make climate predictions on a world (as opposed to local) averages- it seems crazy to base predictions on an average increase in C02. However, I’m having a hard time explaining to my layperson friends, how the fact that it varies across continents nullifies the IPCC hypothesis. Can anyone help explain this in layman’s terms?

Barry notices just how well CO2 is mixed in the atmosphere and how finely tuned are the satellite instruments
December 21, 2014 at 2:10 pm
The range on the graph is very narrow, 387 to 402, despite the wide range in color scheme. Besides, how is biomass burning (farmers burning their fields, or grasslands to prepare for planting) not considered human activity?

wickedwenchfan is a conspiracy nutter
December 21, 2014 at 2:47 pm
This was never about science. This was always about usurping National laws with international ones. In short, power.

Goldie professes personal incredulity. In the video, the scientists say that while the data comes from a vertical column of the atmosphere, there is greatest sensitivity near the surface. Over the next few months they'll be refining things to get an even better picture.
December 21, 2014 at 3:18 pm
I somehow wondered why this project was going to provide anything useful at all. I assume that the results as graphed are not surface concentrations but average tropospheric concentrations. If so, how does that help? If one is trying to pinpoint a source, the measure needs to be for the lower troposphere. I suspect what we are seeing are the spring blooms in the Southern Hemisphere – noticeably missing in Australia due to the aridity, but present in Indonesia and Papua to the North. Personally I think the jury is out – not on humanity’s guilt. I never believed that, but on what this is actually showing. Could be that this is a white elephant because we will never really know what we are looking at.

Hans Erren says it will get interesting...
December 21, 2014 at 3:25 pm
It will be very interesting for the coming years, the Bern model expects a sink saturation soon and a huge increase in the airborne fraction, it will be interesting what the sinks will do, and now there will be no hiding when they won’t saturate.

François had the last word (so far) in a dig at Tim Ball's anti-semitism and political ideology:
December 21, 2014 at 4:30 pm
The Catholics are responsible, or the Jews, certainly not us red-bloodied twice-born Republicans. Hey, did you notice it is getting warmer?

You can read more comments here, to get an idea of how few WUWT readers understand the first thing about the carbon cycle.


  1. Sou, Tim Ball shouldn't really have to mention the natural sinks. If they weren't there roughly offsetting the planet's natural emissions, we'd long ago have turned into Venus. All it takes is a moment's thought. That's just too much to ask of some people I suppose.

  2. Sou -

    I read that post and chuckled to myself in anticipation to your take on it.

    Here's my favorite part:

    ==> "Preliminary evidence essentially exonerates humans as the source of CO2. "

    How is that to be interpreted - that there is only one ("the") source for CO2, and it isn't humans?

    Of course, the data are only preliminary. Maybe when more data come in they'll show that humans are "the source" and then the IPCC and their media supporters can throw a party.

    1. Joshua, you prompted me to add some sub-headings :) Plus a short anecdote about the first grass fire I saw, as a child. It was scary.

  3. Tim Ball is Anthony Watts with Added Words (c).

  4. "Plants emit about half the amount of CO2 that they absorb, so on balance they are net absorbers, through photosynthesis. They cycle a huge amount of CO2 each year, much more than human activity."

    Most of the other half of what plants absorb is emitted by microbes breaking down plant matter on the ground and in the soil. In that way, the net absorption of plants is a very small fraction of the total turnover.

  5. The anthropogenic cause of the rise in atmospheric CO2 really is a touchstone in discussing climate change, distinguishing those with whom rational discussion is likely to be possible, from those with whom it is, to say the least, unlikely. The evidence for the rise being anthropogenic is extremely robust, and the arguments easily understood by anybody capable of operating a bank account. I have done my best in the past to try and explain this over at WUWT, but decided it wasn't worth the effort, as opposition only seems to reinforce incorrect beliefs regarding the carbon cycle there. I have great admiration for Ferdinand Engelbeen, who has continued to patiently and politely explain this one, in spite of the rather mixed reception he seems to get. The skeptics will only marginalize themselves from the debate by clinging on to canards than the average man in the street will be able to see through instantly. WUWT really are continuing to score own goals with this topic.

  6. one of your best Sou, will spread . tks

  7. Of course there are nuts on all sides, including those who'd like to rule the world -- I recall a college classmate telling me fifty years ago that while I was a nice guy, my sense of humor would mean they'd have to have me shot after the revolution. or Revolution. Those notions are still out there on all sides if you go far enough, that is, too fat. Just find Dick Cheney then go 180 degrees away until you come 'round the far side where that lot overlaps with all the other extreme 'must control everything' thinkers.

  8. (in jest) I'm starting to be sceptical on who the deniers think are humans. It might very well be that they think only those people who do not increase the CO2 amount in the air are humans. Thus they'd be arguing for the personal carbon budgets for people to be included in the humanity. While I'm not entirely against this sort of rebranding of 'human' and thus also 'anthropogenic' this raises some rather scary inductions about their motives. Are they potentially behind the NWG-scare stories that are circulated through various websites? Are the stories actually true and are they just waiting for some high ranking denier to become carbon neutral??

    1. That's One World Gobbermint, OWG.

      Please, get your cons piracy misinformation correct.

  9. I fail to see the rationality of condemning the BBC which as far as I can see was just parroting the Press Release.

    But then again why not create bogeymen every chance you get?

    1. I lost all respect for the BBC as a news source when they insisted on using Nigel Lawson as their go to man for insight into climate change: so its bizarre to see them being condemned as part of the great world wide conspiracy (that actually wasn't there in the emails anyway).

    2. the BBC has long been a bogeyman for the wing-nuts here in the UK, in whose eyes, they'll *always* be a henchman of the EUSSR multicultural PC Nazi hegemony, however much they uncritically parrot press-releases from the GWPF and other tiny right-wing pressure groups such as the Taxpayers' Alliance.

      (for some stupid reason they've not yet realised this, and still insist on pandering to a minority who will never be swayed.)

    3. I have always liked the BBC. But recently I have felt it has become more reactionary. It does not ask such searching questions of the powers that be, that they should ask. Even John Humphries on the Today program seems to go easy on the people he interviews.

      I do not know if they have been cowed by the current government and/or they are conscious that their charter comes up for re-negotiation in a year or so. Shameful that the powerful and influential have put it it in this position and and that it has buckled under the pressure.

    4. My suspicion is that the BBC's senior executives are hoping to preserve their bloated salaries by sucking up to whoever is their current paymaster. The days of Reithian values are long gone.

    5. How are the leaders at the BBC chosen? In Canada, the CBC is run as an "independent" organization, meaning that when the leader steps down, the party in power names a new leader, but that leader doesn't follow the government when it falls.

      The current government has been around long enough that at least two of the major crown corporations (CBC and the post) have leaders devoted to shutting down their organizations. And they'll still be around if (as we hope) the government gets replaced next year.

    6. Coincidentally, on BBC Radio 4's Today program this morning there was a short piece on the hazard to molluscs caused by changes in ocean chemistry. While it seems there is a sympathetic editor on the program who wanted this discussed, John Humphries was openly contemptuous of the whole thing. When the scientist being interviewed tried to outline how by 2100 the future looks bleak Humphries tried to dismiss it all by asking 'well what about in the next 5 to 10 years'. At which point I turned my radio off in disgust.

    7. Yes, I do not know what has happened to Humphries. He used to be quite broadly liberal and asked good, open, searching questions. He also is tending to talk over people/experts and not letting them make their points without interruption.

    8. How are the leaders at the BBC chosen?

      It is a complex governance setup at the BBC with governors and a Trust. There is a system of checks and balances so there is a lot of to-ing and frowing over appointments. It is always eventually tinged by the political hue of the government of the day.

    9. I think the Beeb powers-that-be are worried specifically about what UKIP might do to them if it gets a share of power. There's no reason for them to be similarly worried about the Greens.

      The there's the continuing appeal to journos of counter-factuals, focusing on which they see as necessary to drawing eyeballs.

    10. The people currently running BBC News actually believe that celebrity trials and royalty is what the BBC News should be about. They have said so, and they were appointed for that very (defensive) reason. Reithian they are not.

      It's not UKIP they're worried about, it's Cameron's pandering to the Tory Right who are brandishing the UKIP threat.

      Other parts of the BBC, such as Science, remain excellent.

      Humphries has been acting the arse for some years now, I've given up listening, frankly.

  10. People might take a look at the closely-related Cheshire Claim: Rupert Darwall Copies Satellite CO2 Nonsense From Murry Salby and especially, watch the short NOAA animation of the planet breathing CO2 in and out on a yearly basis ... by latitude.

    Then take a look at these tweets by Alex Epstein and Rupert Darwall, 2 up-and-coming cogs in the machine.

    Put another way:
    science via ideology: through a glass opaquely

  11. "Today Tim Ball wrote an article that showed he hasn't the first clue about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

    The intentional dissemination of disinformation and cluelessness are not entirely orthogonal to each other, but I think there's much more of the former involved with people like Tim. Indeed, there may be very little of the latter involved. After all, successful science disinformation has to be wrong, so why struggle to make it look seamless when that's not possible anyway and the intended audience has low standards?

    So maybe give him, Willis, Bob, Willard etc. a little less credit for being dull.

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. @Rum Runner

      Are you just being serious or just trying to be unnecessarily argumentative? Quite clearly it is not the relative amounts that are important but the excess accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. Do you really not know that? Are you just being willfully ignorant? Please try thinking about it before posting again and being so condescending. It just makes you look stunningly Dunning-Krugeresque.

    2. Happy holidays to your smug self, Rum Runner. But can you even read whole paragraphs, or just the bits that feed your confirmation bias? Note the words "cycled through" in the sentence you quoted. Do you understand what that means? I guess not. And then, at the end of that same paragraph, Sou says:

      Tim put up a table of CO2 sources, but he neglected to factor in the sinks. He didn't tell his readers that plants and oceans etc absorb more each year than they emit.

      That should be your New Years resolution, Rum Runner:

      "I will learn to read all the words on the page. And then I will sit back for a few moments and contemplate what they mean before I say something that makes me look as stupid as a bag of hammers."

    3. RR is an imbecile with no understanding of physical climatology, the carbon cycle, paleoclimate etc. He has proved that here and at ATTPs now. Far worse, he refuses to accept correction and acknowledge error, so he cannot learn nor engage in rational discussion.

    4. I think you are being far too kind to poor RR. Not understanding how adding inputs to a system previously in equilibrium moves the system to a new state does not require any specific knowledge, merely a capacity for rational thought that anybody with a reasonable intellect would possess.

    5. If that was what you wanted to say then you made a complete pig's ear of it. I will go further and say that was not what you said.

      Perhaps you just reflected and decide what you said did not hold up so you would pretend you were sayting something else?

    6. So RR wants greater consistency in units used. I'd have thought he'd be more concerned about the gross errors committed over at WUWT, but I guess that as they are convenient to the fossil fuel industry he will let them pass without comment.

    7. RR

      I, like Sou, have no doubt that nature's cycle dwarfs that of man's input. The problem is, is that she did a pretty poor job of showing it.

      I would dispute that, but it's irrelevant. I suspect most here are familiar with the observational data which is available online.

      The source is predominantly the human transfer of carbon from geological sinks to the atmosphere and so to the terrestrial carbon cycle. This is an additive process that greatly exceeds the rate at which the terrestrial carbon cycle permanently removes carbon from the atmosphere.

      This is sufficiently well understood that failure to grasp it is a litmus test for poor topic knowledge.

    8. Rum Runner

      Don't be so ridiculous. Just scroll up to the top of the subthread and read what you said if you have forgotten.


    9. Rum Runner
      I am not interested in arguing some semantic quibbles with you. I do not agree with you because it was obvious what was being said and the choices of unit were irrelevant and did not detract from the point.

      But, specifically, so you don't have any quibble, you quoted the same units in your original post - billions of tonnes. So how we were supposed to infer you were talking about inconsistent units I do not know. Not that it is relevant to anything.

      If you want to comment try addressing a valid issue instead of trying to play word games and being obnoxious.

    10. RR

      Look at the observations. The annual cycle is not the trend.

      Keeling curve.

      This is what matters.


    11. Exactly BBD. RR does not seem able to see the relative amounts are not particularly important - it is the consistent imbalance that is the issue. I suspect he has not understood my original reply to his post and has gone off on this gish gallop about units.

    12. A cycle has a peak, a trough and so an amplitude. RR needs to think about this wrt the numbers from the variability of the terrestrial carbon cycle.

    13. Perhaps Rum Runner would understand this :

      "Income 20 shillings, outgoings 19 shillings and sixpence, result : Happiness. Income 20 shillings, outgoings 20 shillings and sixpence, result : Misery".

  13. I'm not a fan of RR's style, but ... What *does* the following sentence mean?

    "Between 1015 and 1017 grams (1,000 to 100,000 million metric tons) of carbon move through the fast carbon cycle every year."

    The link Sou gives doesn't explain whether this is an uncertainty, or a range for different parts of the fast carbon cycle, or a range of *the* annual fast carbon cycle, or ...

    I'd like to know.

    1. It's the uncertainty.

      It doesn't really matter what the amount is because it's what cycles through naturally. It's the new stuff at the margins, the CO2 resurrected from fossil fuels, that are causing the variation. 400ppm CO2 does not occur in the normal run of events, or at least hasn't for a very long time.

    2. I find it hard to believe that they don't know the natural carbon budget to the nearest two orders of magnitude, so I suspect this interpretation isn't quite complete.

    3. I find it impressive that scientists know it within two magnitudes, but I'm of an age where I don't take such things for granted. It's not an easy calculation to make and there's hardly an embarrassment of data available.

      What we do know is that ambient CO2 remained remarkably stable for a very long time before we introduced the industrial society. The details of the balance are uncertain but we know that there is normally a balance.

    4. To illustrate the complexity, here's a link to a recent paper in Nature Geoscience on carbon fluxes from land to ocean - talking about a *change* in the flux of carbon to inland waters in the order of one Pg carbon a year (since pre-industrial). That's huge.


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