The Whole Truth

by James R. Barrante, Ph.D.

We have all seen the famous ice-core graphs from data taken from Vostok Station, Antarctica.  The CO2 graph going back some 400,000 years is particularly interesting.  The graph clearly shows atmospheric levels of CO2 rising and falling on a periodic basis.  The maxima, occurring approximately every 100,000 years at a level of about 280 ppm, represents the four interglacial periods, like the period we have been in for the last 10,000 years.  By contrast, there are four minima at approximately 180 ppm corresponding to the periodic ice ages experienced by the globe over the past 400,000 years.  We must keep in mind that on a scale of 400,000 years, a 200-year time period is about the width of the ink line.  Usually attached to the end of of the graph, representing a time period of about the last 150 years, is a vertical line shooting up to over 350 ppm, and then extrapolated into the future.  The caption found on many of these graphs is, “for the past 400,000 years CO2 levels in the atmosphere have never exceeded 280 ppm until now.”  It is perhaps one of the most dishonest interpretations of data I have seen in my long scientific career.

Now, before going on, let me say that there is nothing dishonest about the ice-core data itself.  It represents a beautiful piece of research done under miserably cold conditions by a group of scientists with the best intentions in mind.  What is dishonest is the idea that the graphs represent global temperature and global CO2 levels.  For example, ice core data came from samples of ice taken from the deep in the snowpack of Antarctica.  The ice came from snow that fell through the atmosphere of Antarctica (not New Jersey) and CO2 levels were determined from air trapped in those bubbles.  It is unlikely that those bubbles of air represent anything but the air over Antarctica.

The last part of the graph showing the last 150 years where “global CO2” shoots up to over 350 ppm was not constructed from Vostok ice-core data.  It was constructed from data obtained from measurements taken on Mauna Loa, an active volcano.  It would seem logical that the water temperature around Hawaii is a little warmer than the waters surrounding Antarctica, and since we know that atmospheric CO2 levels are controlled by water temperature, it would make sense that (volcanic action aside) CO2 levels around the Hawaiian Islands should be higher than around the South Pole.

So, when we say that CO2 levels never have exceeded 280 ppm for the last 400,000 years, that has only been verified over Antarctica.  We have no research suggesting that this is true for any other part of the globe.  You see, in science, an average of a specific property such as temperature, taken at different points with different measuring devices is just a number with no specific meaning.  The number describes something that does not exist.  For example, if you did not know the shape of an NFL football and I told you it had an average diameter of 6.64 inches, what shape would you expect it to have?  A sphere?  Obviously, the average diameter of a football doesn’t exist.  The same thing is true for average global temperature, average CO2 level, average sea level, or average global anything.  To suggest that it does is scientifically dishonest.

The only time that a an average is scientifically significant because it increases the precision of a measurement is when one measures the exact same thing with the exact same measuring device, under the exact same conditions hundreds of times.



Filed under Basic Science, Global Warming

9 responses to “The Whole Truth

  1. Robert Little

    Prof. Barrante,
    There is an Antarctic core sample that does show higher concentrations of greenhouse gases, that taken from the Law Dome, with CO2 in particular approaching 350ppm..

    What is your take on this?
    – RL

    • Yes, I know about the Law Dome samples. I would have been happier if they had come from Vostok. Unfortunately, Law Dome is on the coast and Vostok is far inland. There is at least a 40-degree C temperature difference between the two areas. I think it is safe to assume that Law Dome research is consistent with the level of CO2 in the atmosphere over Law Dome being 350 ppm. My problem is connecting the level of CO2 in the atmosphere with the temperature of the atmosphere. There is no proven theoretical link, at least none that I can find consistent with the fact that the atmospheric temperature appears to change about 600 years before CO2 level changes.


  2. Richard Heys

    NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratories Globalview includes data from air sampling at dozens of sites around the world, including at the South Pole, showing that atmospheric CO2 levels vary little with location. Doesn’t that pretty much kill your argument?

  3. When I wrote this article, I was not aware of this. This definitely proves that since 1960 CO2 levels at both the South Pole and Hawaii were above 280 ppmv. However, it doesn’t provide any evidence that in the last 400,000 years CO2 were never above 280 ppmv at any location of the world.

    • Richard Heys

      Thank goodness there’s no need to attempt an impossible proof as ‘never above…at any location in the world’. You wrote, “We have no research suggesting that this [the CO2 record of Vostok] is true for any other part of the globe.” We do know from atmospheric sampling at dozens of sites around the globe going back a half-century that CO2 levels have been similar within a few ppm everywhere tested, including the South Pole. So unless you can show that Vostok’s atmosphere is different enough from everywhere else, I think your argument against the validity of coupling Vostok’s ice core history with recent CO2 measurements fails.

      • My point exactly. So why do climate scientists claim that CO2 levels have never before been greater than 280 ppmv, since, as you point out, it can’t be proven. Another thing is interesting. If CO2 levels are uniform over the globe, because of good mixing(?), this must play havoc with Henry’s Law, since ocean surface temperatures are not uniform.

  4. Richard Heys

    Scientists probably make that claim because, that’s where the evidence, inconclusive though it is, points:
    A. Direct measurements at many sites around the world show that over the last few decades CO2 is nearly the same everywhere.
    B. There’s apparently no reason to think that this was not true in earlier times.
    C. Therefore, the Vostok history probably is representative of the entire globe.

    Perhaps you would have given a less harsh characterization in the first paragraph of your essay that the graphs’ captions constitute ‘…one of the most dishonest interpretations of data i have seen….’, if the authors had inserted a qualifying word or two in the captions? I do think that most of them are sincere and honest in their work.

    As for Henry’s Law, it must be ‘trying’ to work, but there’s probably little chance for anything close to an equilibrium to be established between gaseous and dissolved CO2 on a regional scale: the Earth’s atmosphere is really dynamic, with winds going around the globe in days, spinning and mixing over warm currents and cold currents and from pole to pole probably within a couple-year time scale..…

  5. Ridley Scott

    I agree with your suspicions of climate change.

    People are genuinely unaware that science has been wrong about a great many things in the past, and will be in the future.

    People will never accept that science is a matter of faith – because in their hearts they know its true. If you have any nous you become deeply skeptical of modelling.

    Henry’s constant will simply vary with temperature. Neither here nor there,

    Have been reading your math text. It’s pretty handy.


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