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Sylvia Earle has spent almost a year of her life under water

Sylvia-in-DeepSea-Sub-Coiba_cKipEvans_1564-copy.670p
Kip Evans/Mission Blue

Climate Desk has launched a new science podcast, Inquiring Minds, cohosted by contributing writer Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To subscribe via iTunes, click here. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, and like us on Facebook.

This episode of Inquiring Minds also features a discussion of the latest research on how conspiracy theories fuel the denial of science on issues ranging from climate change to vaccinations, and on how scientists are reconsidering the origins of life and … yes, bringing Mars into the picture.

Sylvia Earle hasn’t quite spent a year under water -- yet. At age 78, she’s at over 7,000 hours, which translates into about 292 days.

But she’s going strong. “I just added a few more hours to time under water,” Earle says, “because I’ve just returned from the Gulf of Mexico, 100 miles offshore to a place called the Flower Garden Banks, where at this time of the year, several key species of corals whoop it up and do what it takes to make more corals.” Earle is referring to the phenomenon of mass coral spawning, in which huge numbers of corals all release gametes into the water at once, which in turn float to the surface where fertilization occurs. To hear divers tell it, these events of mass reproduction are one of the great wonders of the undersea world -- one that all too few of us ever get to see.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Can we finally have a serious talk about population?

sao paulo skyline
Shutterstock
A view of Sao Paulo, Brazil, one of the world's largest megacities with nearly 20 million people.

Climate Desk has launched a new science podcast, Inquiring Minds, cohosted by contributing writer Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To subscribe via iTunes, click here. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, and like us on Facebook.

This episode of Inquiring Minds also features a discussion of the latest myths circulating on global warming, and the brave new world of gene therapy that we're entering -- where being rich might be your key ticket to the finest healthcare.

Today, as the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its latest mega report [PDF], averring a 95 percent certainty that humans are heating up the planet, there's an unavoidable subtext: the growing number of humans on the planet in the first place.

The figures, after all, are staggering: In 1900, there were just 1.65 billion of us; now, there are 7.2 billion. That's more than two doublings, and the next billion-human increase is expected to occur over the short space of just 12 years. According to projections, meanwhile, by 2050, the Earth will be home to some 9.6 billion people, all living on the same rock, all at once.

So why not talk more about population, and treat it as a serious issue? It's a topic that Mother Jones has tackled directly in the past, because taboos notwithstanding, it's a topic that just won't go away.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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4 climate myths you’ll hear this week

Your uncle, yelling at you about how global warming has stopped.
Shutterstock and Jessica Robertson/USGS
Your uncle, yelling at you about how global warming has stopped.

Leading into Friday's upcoming release of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report, climate skeptics have gone into overdrive. They're doing anything they can to undermine public acceptance of the dangers posed by global warming, which, at least according to a leaked draft of the report, is "extremely likely" (or, 95 percent certain) to be caused by human activities.

Unfortunately, much of this glut of misinformation is likely to make its way to people in your life -- whether it's your congressmember, your favorite talk radio host, or even your family. Heck, this stuff might even pop up in a heated conversation over your dinner table with your Uncle Larry (who always seems to be dying to argue about climate change).

To prepare you, here's the truth about four myths you're likely to hear about climate science and the IPCC report: 

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What it’s like to spend 55 days in space

Marsha Ivins on Space Shuttle Columbia, 1997.
NASA
Marsha Ivins on Space Shuttle Columbia, 1997.

Climate Desk has launched a new science podcast, Inquiring Minds, cohosted by contributing writer Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To subscribe via iTunes, click here. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, and like us on Facebook.

This episode of Inquiring Minds also features a discussion about new developments in science, including research suggesting that political biases are so pervasive that they can interfere with your ability to do math, and mounting evidence of the dangers of head injuries received from playing football. 

There aren't many people on Earth who have spent more of their life in space than Marsha Ivins.

A veteran of five Space Shuttle missions -- in 1990, 1992, 1994, 1997, and 2001 -- Ivins has spent a total of 55 days in orbit, on missions devoted to such diverse tasks as deploying satellites, conducting scientific research, and docking with Mir and the International Space Station. Her jobs? Flight engineer, load master, robot arm operator, and photography manager, among other things.

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Did climate change worsen the Colorado floods?

Two Colorado National Guardsmen waist deep in Boulder floodwaters.
Colorado National Guard
Two Colorado National Guardsmen waist deep in Boulder floodwaters.

Last Thursday, as torrential rains turned into floods that washed away homes, roads, and bridges in Boulder, Colo., and the surrounding region, the local National Weather Service forecast office went ahead and said what we were all thinking. It put it like this:

MAJOR FLOODING/FLASH FLOODING EVENT UNDERWAY AT THIS TIME WITH BIBLICAL RAINFALL AMOUNTS REPORTED IN MANY AREAS IN/NEAR THE FOOTHILLS.

The word "biblical" certainly captures the almost preternatural scale of the Colorado floods, and the rainfall that caused them. Indeed, according to climate scientist Martin Hoerling of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "this single event has now made the calendar year (2013) the single wettest year on record for Boulder."

But does that mean that climate change is involved? Although suggestive, broken records alone do not constitute definitive proof that humanity's fingerprints have been left on a particular weather disaster. On the other hand, climate scientists say with considerable confidence that a hotter planet will feature more extreme rain events, much like this one.

So what can actually be said about the Colorado floods in a climate context?

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Science confirms: Politics wrecks your ability to do math

math is hard
Shutterstock

Everybody knows that our political views can sometimes get in the way of thinking clearly. But perhaps we don't realize how bad the problem actually is. According to a new psychology paper, our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.

The study, by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues, has an ingenious design. At the outset, 1,111 study participants were asked about their political views and also asked a series of questions designed to gauge their "numeracy," that is, their mathematical reasoning ability. Participants were then asked to solve a fairly difficult problem that involved interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific study. But here was the trick: While the fake study data that they were supposed to assess remained the same, sometimes the study was described as measuring the effectiveness of a "new cream for treating skin rashes." But in other cases, the study was described as involving the effectiveness of "a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public."

The result? Survey respondents performed wildly differently on what was in essence the same basic problem, simply depending upon whether they had been told that it involved guns or whether they had been told that it involved a new skin cream. What's more, it turns out that highly numerate liberals and conservatives were even more -- not less -- susceptible to letting politics skew their reasoning than were those with less mathematical ability.

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Here comes the story of no hurricanes

The tracks of all Atlantic hurricanes from 1851 through 2012. So far, 2013 would add nothing to this image: There haven't been any hurricanes.
Nilfanion
The tracks of all Atlantic hurricanes from 1851 through 2012. So far, 2013 would add nothing to this image: There haven't been any hurricanes.

From a PR standpoint, it was surely an ingenious idea: Let's name hurricanes after leading members of Congress who deny that humans are causing global warming! That's the gist of the "Climate Name Change" campaign that launched last month, and the promotional video has already garnered over 2 million YouTube views.

There's just one problem: Thus far this season, the hurricanes haven't shown up. In fact, the dearth of hurricane-strength Atlantic storms up until now, despite blockbuster pre-season forecasts, counts as downright mysterious. "We've never seen this level of inactivity with the ocean conditions out there now," says meteorologist Jeff Masters, who is co-founder of Weather Underground, a popular meteorological website. There has even been speculation that 2013 might rival 2002, a year in which the first hurricane of the season didn't form until Sept. 11.

Meanwhile, a new scientific paper suggests that climate change will decrease, rather than increase, the likelihood that Superstorm Sandy-like storms -- atmospheric black swans that take left turns towards the U.S. East Coast -- will strike in the future. And a leaked draft of the U.N.'s forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has significantly downgraded our confidence in the idea that global warming will lead to more intense hurricanes (or, is already doing so).

It's more than enough to make a reasonable person wonder: What the heck is up these days with hurricanes -- and with global warming's supposed influence upon them? And do scientists know anything for sure about this, or are they just sticking out a finger in the (very fast) wind?

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Is global warming really slowing down?

Fox News in October 2012.
Fox News in October 2012.

Chances are you've heard people say that global warming has "stopped," "paused," or hit a "slowdown." It's a favorite talking point of political conservatives like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who recently declared that there has been "no recorded warming since 1998." Climate skeptics frequently use these arguments to cast doubt on climate science and to downplay the urgency of addressing global warming. Last year, for instance, Fox News pronounced global warming "over."

Scientists disagree. It's true that they also acknowledge the slowdown: A new paper just out in the prestigious journal Nature, for instance, cites the "hiatus in global warming" and seeks to explain it with reference to changes in the tropical Pacific. The recently leaked Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, too, cites an "observed reduction in surface warming." But scientists say the slowdown is only temporary -- a result of naturally induced climate variability that will soon tip back in the other direction -- and that more human-caused global warming is on the way.

So who's right? Here's what you need to know about the slowdown, why it's happening, and why the threat of global warming is still very real:

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How much should you worry about an Arctic methane bomb?

planet-earth-bomb.jpgIt was a stunning figure: $60 trillion.

Such could be the cost, according to a recent commentary [PDF] in the journal Nature, of "the release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia ... a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012." More specifically, the paper described a scenario in which rapid Arctic warming and sea ice retreat lead to a pulse of undersea methane being released into the atmosphere. How much methane? The paper modeled a release of 50 gigatons of this hard-hitting greenhouse gas (a gigaton is equal to a billion metric tons) between 2015 and 2025. This, in turn, would trigger still more warming and gargantuan damage and adaptation costs.

The $60 trillion figure went everywhere, and no wonder. It's jaw-dropping. To provide some perspective, 50 gigatons is 10 times as much methane as currently exists in the atmosphere. Atmospheric methane levels have more than doubled since the industrial revolution, but this would amount to a much sharper increase in a dramatically shorter time frame.

According to the Nature commentary, that methane "is likely to be emitted as the seabed warms, either steadily over 50 years or suddenly." Such are the scientific assumptions behind the paper's economic analysis. But are those assumptions realistic -- and could that much methane really be released suddenly from the Arctic?

A number of prominent scientists and methane experts interviewed for this article voiced strong skepticism about the Nature paper. "The scenario they used is so unlikely as to be completely pointless talking about," says Gavin Schmidt, a noted climate researcher at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

Schmidt is hardly the only skeptic. "I don't have any problem with 50 gigatons, but they've got the time scale all wrong," adds David Archer, a geoscientist and expert on methane at the University of Chicago. "I would envision something like that coming out, you know, over the centuries."

Still, the Nature paper is the most prominent airing yet of concerns that a climate catastrophe could be brought on by the release of Arctic methane that is currently frozen in subsea deposits -- concerns that seem to be mounting in lockstep with the dramatic warming of the Arctic. That's why it's important to put these fears into context and try to determine just how much weight they ought to be accorded.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Watching Fox News makes you distrust climate scientists

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Media Matters/Fox News

In the past several years, a number of polls have documented the huge gap between liberals and conservatives when it comes to their acceptance of the science of climate change. Naturally, then, researchers have increasingly turned their attention to trying to explain this dramatic divide over what is factually true. And it wasn't long before they homed in on the role of conservative media in particular -- thus, a number of studies (e.g., here [PDF]) show that watching Fox News increases your risk of holding incorrect beliefs about the science of climate change.

Now, a new paper [PDF] just out in the journal Public Understanding of Science takes this line of inquiry further, beginning to unpack precisely how conservative media work to undermine the public's acceptance of science. The paper shows that a distrust of climate scientists is a significant factor underlying the modern denial of global warming, and moreover, that watching Fox News and listening to Rush Limbaugh both increase one's level of distrust of these scientific experts. Or as the paper puts it, "[C]onservative media use decreases trust in scientists which, in turn, decreases certainty that global warming is happening."

Read more: Climate & Energy