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  Nr. 9 - November 1998
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The Scientific View

by Dr Seymour Laxon, November 1998
(Dr. Laxon is a lecturer in the Department of Space and Climate Physics, University College London, and a frequent visitor to Paros)

We scientists back in the UK who play around all day with our computers and satellite data have two main objectives: - firstly to understand what on earth is going on with the climate system, and secondly to ensure that we try to tell ordinary folks what’s going on - otherwise what's the point of us doing the work in the first place?

So, by way of clarification, I would add the following comments to Gyp's article: Specifically it's important to understand that "El-Nino" and "Global Warming" are not the same thing (and I work in a place stuffed with other scientists who spend their whole time looking for black holes and know nothing about climate)!!

El-Nino is a periodic oscillation in the Pacific Ocean temperatures that occurs about every 5-10 years and has been going on for at least the past 400 years. Sure it has an adverse affect on the climate, but we still don't yet understand exactly how it affects things. Global warming on the other hand is completely different. The whole "Global Warming" thing rests on the theory that oil and gas burning since the industrial revolution, which is known to add carbon di-oxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, will eventually cause the Earth to warm. Therefore it cannot be said to be the same thing as "El-Nino" events which have been occurring since well before the industrial revolution (the earliest was recorded in 1567).

As for "Global Warming" now being a fact...well it would be nice to have a lot of facts to work with in science, but unfortunately they are few and far between. The only fact we can be really sure of is that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the universe. (It's a fact for example that, in theory, it is possible for your head to levitate several inches above your body and then re-attach itself without any ill effects. This is, however, extremely unlikely - see Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle).

I would say in preference that the consensus is now moving towards the view that some of the things we are seeing going on today with the world's weather may be due to shoving all that C02 into the atmosphere. The trouble is of course that whenever you talk to a journalist they want a straight yes or no answer... something which it’s pretty impossible to give. More likely then that perhaps 50% of scientists these days are saying yes rather than no, something a bit different from hard fact.

Even though our computer models and satellite measurement systems are getting fantastically complicated, they are nowhere near as complex as Mother Nature herself. It's like trying to simulate the complex systems in a jumbo jet with, say, a paper dart.

The simple fact is that there's an awful lot still to do to understand the world’s climate and how it might change. You might, in the light of all this, think that it's not worth bothering, given how far away we are from really understanding what's going on. The consequences of "Global Warming" though are pretty serious - you can't exactly just scrap the Earth when it breaks and go buy another one down the local store! Moreover, how would us scientists have any more fun if the problem were solved as simply as that
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