Friday, August 12, 2016

Wannabe pseudo-scientist Anthony Watts makes a flawed assessment of coastal research

Sou | 4:32 PM Go to the first of 7 comments. Add a comment
A rather ordinary pseudo-scientist (prominent in climate science denying circles) claims that the observations taken by a team of scientists at Delaware Bay must be in error. Anthony Watts, whose sole qualification in science is that he owns a "climate hoax" conspiracy blog (wattsupwiththat.com), claims (wrongly of course) that a paper published in Nature's Scientific Reports is fundamentally flawed (archived here).
Xiaolong Geng and Michel Boufadel,
researchers at NJIT's Center for
Natural Resources Development,
examine salinity gradients
on the Delaware Bay shore. Source: NJIT

The authors of the new paper are Xiaolong Geng, Michel C. Boufadel & Nancy L. Jackson from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (engineering and chemistry departments). They were studying subsurface water and salinity in the section of a Delaware Bay sandy beach between the low and high tide marks, known as the inter-tidal zone.

In this zone, water is trapped between the grains of sediment. This water, known as pore water, has its source from a combination of sea water washed in by the tide and groundwater. Because of the diluting effect of groundwater, it would be expected that the salinity levels of this pore water would be lower than sea water if the only mechanism operating were mixing of the water. That's not what the scientists found.

What the researchers found was that the average salinity in the upper inter-tidal zone, the high tide line, was 60 grams a litre (g/L) with some values reaching as high as 100 g/L. By contrast, the nearshore seawater had salt concentrations of only 25 g/L.

Figure 1 | Sites of wells measuring water flow and salinity at Slaughter Beach in Delaware Bay. Four piezometer wells (PW1−PW4) were installed along the intertidal zone of the beach to monitor groundwater table fluctuation due to tidal action. The mean sea level was assigned as the elevation datum (0.0 m). Major processes of subsurface pore water flow and salt fate are illustrated in the Figure, including the upper saline plume, the freshwater discharge tube, the classic saltwater wedge, and pore water evaporation from the beach surface. Note the exaggerated vertical scale. The map of the studied site is obtained from Jackson et al. (2015). Source: Geng16

Salinity in a dynamic habitat for crabs, mussels and sea anenomes

The researchers figured that the only explanation for the high levels of salinity was evaporation, which would leave the remaining water saltier. From the press release at ScienceDaily.com:
The intertidal, or littoral, zone, is a dynamic habitat, washed by seawater at high tide and uncovered at low tide, that is favored by crabs, mussels and sea anemones, the birds and sea mammals that feed on them, and plants such as kelp. Many of these animals burrow in the beach to find food and to seek protection from predators and the action of waves, and are in near constant contact with pore water.

The researchers have developed models that show that increases in temperature associated with global warming will not only make inland locations more salty, but would also create drastically different pattern of pore water salinity that will have implications for animals and plants in the intertidal zone.

"Evaporation is an important driver of underground water flow and salinity gradients, and animals such as mussels and crabs are affected by changes in salinity. If the concentrations are too high or too low, they will move away," noted Geng.

From the paper, the authors wrote how salinity and water at the sites was variously affected by:
  • evaporation, particularly around noon and particularly nearer the high tide mark
  • inundation by tide, which diluted pore water and, at times and closer to the low tide mark, provided enough water so that it wasn't affected by evaporation
  • waves, which brought in more water (similar to tidal action)
  • beach capillarity.

On that last point, the authors wrote:
The pore-water salinity near the beach surface was also dependent on beach capillarity, namely on water retention. For example, if evaporation removes 10% of the pore volume (of the porosity), then a decrease in moisture from 80% to 70% would increase the salinity by 11%, but a decrease from 15% to 5% increases the salinity by 300%. For this beach, the sand cores were used to obtain capillary-retention properties, and along with calibration, the capillary fringe was found to be approximately between 0.2 m and 0.5 m. As the groundwater table rose, the capillary fringe provided water to the beach surface from below. This could result in two opposing outcomes: when meteorological conditions favor high evaporation, the capillary fringe would result in higher pore-water near the beach surface, which would subsequently evaporate and increase the salinity, as reported by Geng and Boufadel for inland environments. But under unfavorable meteorological conditions for evaporation, the rise of water by capillarity would dilute existing high pore-water salinity at the beach surface. 

Surprise: pseudo-scientist writes hogwash

Pseudo-scientist Anthony Watts disputes both the observations and the findings. He said on his blog "I’m pretty sure I don’t believe [it] one bit".  Unusually, Mr Watts gave his reasoning for not believing the results. His thinking went like this:
Because we’ve also been told that global warming will cause more rainfall, thus increasing freshwater stream outflow and freshwater ground recharge.
What I deduce is that he is arguing that there will be more groundwater, therefore when the sea-groundwater mix on the beach evaporates, there will be a greater proportion of groundwater in the mix, therefore when the water mix evaporates there won't be as much salt left behind - or something like that. It's not at all clear from the WUWT article that Mr Watts knows himself what he is arguing. Unfortunately he doesn't provide any research or data of his own that would help to clarify how his mind is working (or not working). Mr Watts does not provide any indication that he's measured:
  • the salinity of groundwater or sea water in the area of Delaware Beach
  • how the salinity of groundwater or sea water is expected to alter as warming continues
  • the ratio of groundwater to sea water in the high tide zone of the beach
  • how much the ratio of groundwater to sea water would change as the world warms
  • how much evaporation would change as the world warms.

How the pseudo-scientist's reasoning is flawed

None of that stopped Anthony (Mr Watts does sound a bit too pompous, don't you think?) from claiming that "the study data gathering looks to be flawed from the start". He degenerated into pseudo-science quackery from that point on, maybe in the mistaken belief that it made him look clever and knowledgeable. Anthony wrote:
the study data gathering looks to be flawed from the start as they say: “The team analyzed nearly 400 sediment samples collected during the sequential phases of a complete tidal cycle, from day to night, on seven discontinuous days.” Seven days? One beach? That’s not enough to say anything useful about trends, nor to extrapolate to local, regional, or global climate. They say “These elevated levels can only be caused by evaporation…”. Well sure, It’s called weather. Changes in weather cause changes in evaporation. If they were really thorough scientists, they would have setup an evapotranspiration measuring weather station nearby…so that they could factor in the changes in weather to their study. In fact, the word evapotranspiration doesn’t even appear in the paper. 

I don't know why Anthony thought the authors should have used the word "evapotranspiration", which (for for the benefit of the layperson) is described by the Bureau of Meteorology as "the term used to describe the part of the water cycle which removes liquid water from an area with vegetation and into the atmosphere by the processes of both transpiration and evaporation". From my reading, the white sandy beaches of Slaughter Beach in the region they were studying was not supporting any great volume of plants, and the scientists were just looking to measure evaporation from the water in the sand, not evapotranspiration.

Nor do I understand why Anthony would think that the authors extrapolated to local, regional or global climate. They didn't. What they were investigating was the impact on the immediate community in the littoral zone on the beach. As stated in the press release:
The intertidal, or littoral, zone, is a dynamic habitat, washed by seawater at high tide and uncovered at low tide, that is favored by crabs, mussels and sea anemones, the birds and sea mammals that feed on them, and plants such as kelp. Many of these animals burrow in the beach to find food and to seek protection from predators and the action of waves, and are in near constant contact with pore water.
In the paper, the authors expressed it this way:
We anticipate our quantitative investigation will shed light on the studies of salt-affected biological activities in the intertidal zone. It also impacts our understanding of the impact of global warming; in particular, the increase in temperature does not only shift the saltwater landward, but creates a different salinity distribution that would have implications on intertidal biological zonation.

Anthony Watts explains what he would have done, but didn't. He quoted from the paper:
"Our results (Figs 2 and S3–S8) suggest that the measured subsurface intertidal salinity, especially in the top beach layers, correlated strongly with the diurnal cycle. In the morning, humid atmospheric conditions resulted in negligible or no evaporation from the beach. During daylight, especially around noon, the relatively high air temperature and low humidity caused high evaporation, extracting pore water from the beach and leaving the salt behind, thereby resulting in high salinity near the beach surface."

Anthony decided that instead of considering weather conditions which, as his quote illustrates, they did, the researchers should instead have considered weather conditions. He wrote:
Well, yes, but if you were measuring temperature, humidity, and solar radiation, such as an evapotranspiration [station] would do, they could correlate increased evaporation to weather conditions that were measured at the time at the beach along with their monitoring wells.

Umm - what is Anthony going on about? He should have read the part he quoted. He's complaining that the scientists didn't do what his quote showed that they did do. As the scientists reported, the salinity tracked expected evaporation over the daily cycle. (I can't help but wonder what words Anthony's confirmation bias translated to his brain.) The authors reported the weather conditions in the supplementary material. There was no rain during the study period, so that helped. They were able to correlate salinity measurements observed in the drill sites with the diurnal variation in weather, which was consistent with evaporation.

Anthony continued but this time he just made up stuff out of thin air:
Instead, what they’ve done is lazy; they took seven days worth of data, extrapolated it to a global effect, and simply blamed the universal boogeyman, “global warming” and not looked beyond their own noses, then had an eye-catching headline created with their press release.
What a sad state of science this is.

Well, no. Anthony got it quite wrong as usual. He's the one being lazy. If he hadn't been so busy trying to find something wrong with the research and pretend he was cleverer than real scientists, he might have read their paper properly. On the other hand, as Anthony's good friend Willis has indicated, even if Anthony had a year to read a science article he wouldn't understand it.

Thing is, Anthony just made all that up. There was no extrapolation to a global effect. (For one thing, the earth isn't totally covered with beaches.) Nor did the authors blame their findings on global warming. On the contrary, the suggestion was that this has always been what's happening on beaches. The authors were mainly reporting what they found at the time when they took the measurements.  They were interested in exploring the intricacies of the inter-tidal zone, which can be a rich habitat housing all sorts of creatures. As the authors wrote in the paper:
The salinity structure in beaches subjected to tides and waves involves complex behavior due to seawater-groundwater circulation and mixing, which affect beach bio-geochemical processes, such as nutrients transformation and ecological functions. It is commonly assumed that the high salinity observed in the intertidal zone of a beach is that of seawater, which is due to neglecting the evaporation from the beach surface. 

Thing is, it's pseudo-scientists like Anthony Watts who are typically lazy, sloppy and prone to conspiracy ideation.  It's a sad state indeed that idiots like Anthony Watts are adored by so many other idiots.

Global warming and salty beaches

If I were to speculate, I'd say that this article caught the attention of Anthony Watts because the press release had the words "global warming" in the title. Anthony's main purpose in life these days is to promote conspiracy theories postulating that climate science is a hoax. Waving the words "global" and "warming" together in front of him has the same effect as a red rag does with a bull (and Anthony Watts shares some similarities with an enraged bull).

In the paper, the authors wrote about how, in the light of their research, global warming might affect beach environments (my paras).
In inland environments, evaporation would increase the pore water concentration more or less uniformly across vast distances. However, this study showed that the salinity in the pore of an intertidal beach could vary over a large range within only a few hours and within a short distance, and it could reach an extremely high value (up to 200 g/l) that only halophilic bacteria can tolerate.

Our numerical investigation revealed that an increase in temperature or a decrease in relative humidity (e.g., due to climate change) would not only increase the pore-water salinity in the beach, but would also alter its spatial distribution; abrupt salinity increases are expected to occur immediately near the water line. This change in salinity zonation has consequences on biogeochemical reactions in pore water and on the ecological function and structure of beaches.

This study was conducted in the intertidal zone of the beach. In the supratidal zone of beach, evaporation could persist for longer time and salt-feeding would take place due to large wave run-up or unsaturated flow of ambient saline water. Therefore, evaporation might demonstrate more remarkable effects on supratidal pore-water salinity.

Field campaign and numerical modeling need to be carried out in beach supratidal zone to further examine the complex interaction between surface evaporation and subsurface saline pore-water flow such as the formation of surficial salt crust and the balance of salt structure affected by multiple surface and subsurface factors. In addition, the slope of our studied beach is approximately 0.1, which is much steeper than many natural beaches. Beach slope might affect the extent of intertidal zone across the shoreline and subsequently alter exposure time of the beach segment to evaporation. Therefore, topography could be another factor affecting subsurface salt distribution in coastal beaches subjected to evaporation, tides and waves, which needs to be considered in future.

From the WUWT comments

All the WUWT conspiracy theorists come out to play. Few of them give any indication that they've bothered to read the article, let alone that they've understood it. They first tranche of "thoughts" are meaningless one-liners. There were also a heap of comments from evaporation deniers.

John doesn't know what it is that he's saying is "bunk" but he knows it's the right thing to say at WUWT:
August 11, 2016 at 12:23 pm
More bunk.

I've no idea what Bartleby thought he read. Not even Anthony Watts was claiming that salt evaporates when water does:
August 11, 2016 at 12:24 pm
Simple stupidity. Salt doesn’t evaporate.

tadchem's comment came right after Bartleby's, so it could be that tadchem is saying that Bartleby's comment is stupid. Or it could be about nothing at all, and is just what he or she thinks is expected at WUWT. In any event, like John, tadchem shows no sign of having read, let alone understood the article:
August 11, 2016 at 12:26 pm
Sometime I suspect that there are graduate level courses in universities on “How to be stupid.” 

There were a heap of comments from people saying that the scientists were stupid. None of which gave any indication of why they were stupid, or what the WUWT-ers would have done differently, or what conclusions they would have drawn, or if the WUWT-ers would even have thought to investigate what happens in the micro-communities on beaches (or that they knew that life existed on beaches).

JustAnOldGuy probably doesn't even know the topic of the article. He could have written the same comment under any article at WUWT:
August 11, 2016 at 2:23 pm
The sad part is they don’t even have to grade stupid on a curve and no remedial courses are required for their culturally disadvantaged students.

Greenhouse effect denier, David Ball wonders, irrelevantly:
August 11, 2016 at 12:27 pm
Does anyone else recall the scientific method? 

Dinsdale probably doesn't believe in evaporation:
August 11, 2016 at 12:28 pm
You know climate science is junk when any [trimmed] can get published with any random theory. 

son of mulder doesn't believe in evaporation either:
August 11, 2016 at 12:35 pm
Where does the extra salt come from if sealevel is rising surely salinity will decrease otherwise? On a similar vein, if the amount of seawater increases how does that effect pH? Does it dilute acid or alkalai? 

Ryan S. is another one who doesn't believe in evaporation:
August 11, 2016 at 12:37 pm
But, sea level is going up, ergo, more water and less salinity right?
I’d take this study with a grain of salt. 

Bobby Davis has a "thought" about the relation between acidification and salinity:
August 11, 2016 at 12:52 pm
I thought the oceans were becoming acidic though. Wouldn’t that counter the salinity? HAHA! Idiots!!!!!!!

Terry doesn't name any 14 year old school science project that did better than this, nor why it would:
August 11, 2016 at 1:45 pm
Good God……..Even 14 year old school science projects are better than this. Or maybe it is actually a 12 year old school science project. 

H. D. Hoese missed more than "something", he or she missed the entire thing:
August 11, 2016 at 2:47 pm
Interesting paper, but difficult to connect the various factors. This is an estuarine beach, unless I missed something they did not consider fluctuations from freshwater input. Delaware Bay has a long history of water use from the river. The salinity of the bay should be the background level, varying by season, year, etc.
Long way from the worst I have read, but being from the Gulf wonder why the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative funded this. We have saltier beaches. 

rishrac wishes he or she was a climate scientist. Universities got a break there, thankfully :)
August 11, 2016 at 5:51 pm
Who thinks up these stories? Must have been a slow semester…or its become mandatory for schools that take federal aid, they have to publish a story about how bad AGW is. So they sit around thinking up the most ridiculous story… so does the ocean become less salty? Oh, oh,… they can go to the Jersey shore were they dredge up sand off shore to rebuild the beaches.. wait ! … oh no sea level rise. Will the horrors never End? Shouldn’t the beaches be under water ? I wish I was a climate scientist so I could understand all this… (sarc ) 

References and further reading

Xiaolong Geng, Michel C. Boufadel, Nancy L. Jackson. "Evidence of salt accumulation in beach intertidal zone due to evaporation." Scientific Reports, 2016; 6: 31486 DOI: 10.1038/srep31486 (open access)


  1. WUWT is like Chinese Whispers played in an asylum. Nurse Ratched (Anthony) starts the game, misinterpreting the paper. And then its the inmates' turn to take it anywhere they choose.

  2. Sometime I suspect that there are graduate level courses in universities on “How to be stupid.”

    Sometimes(!) I wonder about how Muphry's Law seems to be the norm rather than the exception at WUWT.

  3. Sometimes(!) I wonder about how Muphry's Law seems to be the norm rather than the exception at WUWT.

    Anthony has rigorous recuiting standards?

    1. Of course. There's a long set of skill-testing questions. If applicants answer too many of them correctly they fail.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. When I read Antony's 'evapotranspiration' faux pas I thought it summed the man up perfectly. I mean, he could have easily googled it to be sure. He's a clown, pure and simple.

    The less said about his acolytes the better.

  6. @sou
    Watt a boring weekend...

    so long and thanks for all the fish


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