Volcanoes, Weather and Computer Models (Plus Marijuana and Psychosis)

Scarcely a week goes by without some scaremongering headline about climate change, premised on apocalyptic conclusions drawn from some computer-generated model. Modeling lies at the heart of the whole vast climate-change industry, one sparked by the big government–backed computer modeling centers in the US and UK. To understand the frail connection between these models and the realities of world climate today and tomorrow, consider the crisis in world travel and aviation prompted by the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland.

The current eruptions began on March 20; the plume of ash from the larger, ongoing eruptions that began on April 14 led to systematic grounding of international and local European flights, losing airlines billions in revenues and paralyzing the travel industry.

There are very well documented cases from the 1980s of volcanic ash — ie., microscopic jagged particles of pulverized rock — bringing jumbo jets over Indonesia within minutes of disaster. The U.S. leaves the airlines to decide whether it’s safe to fly, whereas European governments say Yea or Nay, based on computer models from the Volcanic Ash Center in London and Eurocontrol, an organization that co-ordinates air travel.

But as red ink spread across the airlines’ balance sheets and passengers bunked down for days at hubs like Frankfurt, questions about computer modeling of the extent of the potentially lethal plume became more insistent. Exactly how far had the plume extended? How come monitoring planes were reporting safe conditions in areas the models were identifying as no-fly zones?

Computers at the British Met Office, led by a climate change zealot, which earlier made a national laughing stock of itself for forecasting a ‘barbecue summer’ last year and a mild winter for this year, produced a stream of maps predicting the ash would cover a vast area, eventually stretching from Russia to Newfoundland. But across almost all of it, there was virtually no ash at all, and none visible to satellites. (It didn’t help that the main monitoring plane was laid up for a paint job.)

‘We never understood why a blanket ban had been imposed – something that would not have happened in other parts of the world,’ a senior airline executive told The Mail on Sunday..’Safety is always our paramount concern, but this seemed like over caution gone mad. As the days went by without the restrictions being lifted, we became more and more concerned that the policy was based on theoretical models which had little grounding in reality.’

The inherent limitations of modeling were starkly displayed by the experiences on the night of Feb. 28, 2000 when the crew of a DC-8 NASA used for atmospheric research discovered first-hand that ash plume forecasts are not perfect. Here’s how Peter Spotts of the Christian Science Monitor (April 18, 2010) described the incident:

“The DC-8 was en route to Kiruna, Sweden, for the start of a research study of atmospheric ozone over the Arctic. Some 35 hours earlier Iceland’s Mt. Hekla volcano had sent clouds of ash and steam soaring to altitudes of 45,000 feet.The DC-8 was cruising at just more than 500 miles an hour at 37,000 feet and some 200 miles north of where the plume was predicted to extend. But the highly sensitive research sensors aboard the craft detected a sudden rise in ash particles and sulfur dioxide. For seven minutes, the craft flew through a tenuous ash cloud some 800 miles from the volcano.

The only visual clue they had: They couldn’t see stars in the night sky, a common phenomenon when flying through high-altitude cirrus clouds. Cockpit instruments reported no unusual engine behavior. The crew smelled nothing unusual. And they saw no other visual clues that would tip them off to the presence of volcanic ash. The crew reported the encounter to air-traffic controllers and continued to Kruna.”

An initial inspection on landing disclosed no apparent damage. It was only later, back at home base, that “deeper inspections showed that internal cooling passages had been clogged, with some of the engines’ areas of highest temperature showing signs of unusual heat stress. In essence, all the engine’s internal parts were coated with fine white powder. The leading edges of turbine blade were pitted. The build-up of heat from clogged cooling passages blistered coatings on several internal components. Moreover, some research suggests that if the plane had encountered the ash in daylight, the crew still might have had no visual clue because the ash could well have been encased in ice ,looking like high-altitude cirrus clouds. The bottom line, from the research team: “The insidious nature of this encounter and the resulting damage was such that engine trending [readings from in-flight instruments] did not reveal a problem, yet hot section parts may have begun to fail [through blade erosion] if flown another 100 hours.”

The plume had spread in entirely unanticipated ways, ways that seem obvious after seeing photographs of the Eyjafjallajökull eruptions. Take a look at both the ground level and satellite pictures of the plume and you’ll understand the hopelessness of modeling the peculiar vagaries of the plume: swirls, layering, branching, etc. Every aspect of this well-described incident defies computer modeling and prior turbine design knowledge: the plume was somewhere that would never have been predicted by a model, the ash particles were ice-encased , the expected turbine blade erosion damage didn’t show up; the main damage mechanism was overheating.

I called Pierre Sprey, a defense analyst with a background in statistics and a healthy skepticism about climate modeling and he gave a dry laugh. Back in the 1970s Sprey had done some environmental consulting and speedily learned first hand the insuperable difficulties of a seemingly elementary assignment in air pollution: modeling the behavior of a plume drifting downwind from a single smoke stack. “It was a vastly simpler problem than some generalized climate model, but still hopelessly intractable” when it came to predicting the downwind dispersion of the plume and its toxic constituents.

Sprey found, to his surprise, that the useless air pollution models he was dealing with in the early 1970s were actually based on WWII models developed to predict the behavior of chemical warfare weapons being tested by the British at Porton Down back in the 1940s. What emerged with finality from those tests was that there was no knowing where the poison gases might head, and indeed one powerful inhibition against the use of chemical weapons has always been the ease with which, amid a sudden shift in the wind, some act of stupidity by the gassers can end up killing one’s own troops, as unforgettably described by the poet Siegfried Sassoon in his WWI memoirs.

Contrast the demonstrated impossibility of computer modeling the simple downwind dispersion of a plume from a single smokestack or volcano with the mind boggling scientific hubris of trying to model the climate of the entire globe.

Here we start with endlessly faulty data – from instruments parked on urban “heat islands” to severely massaged data bases of daily temperature readings, from sketchy numbers for the vast reaches of the planet where there are almost no readings, to purging of decades of inconvenient data. Then these are meshed with models constructed around bad thermodynamics, baseless suppositions about the hugely dominant heat effects of water vapor and clouds, and hopelessly inaccurate quantifications of carbon uptake by the earth’s forests and oceans.

These quack science models are further skewed by the modelers’ doctrinaire anti-carbon passions, the vetting of their results by the corrupt bureaucracy of the UN’s IPCC, and the dependence of their salaries on the expectations of funding agencies.

Small wonder, then, that the modelers’ computer “reconstructions” of the planet’s past climate conveniently wiped out the well-documented three century long Medieval Warming Period as well as the subsequent five hundred years of Little Ice Age–nor is it surprising that their terrifying computer prognostications in the IPCC’s 2001 Third Assessment failed to predict the next decade’s absence of any global warming trend at all.

Marijuana: Boom and Bust, Issues of Price and Psychosis

JT writes

“Having Grown High Quality Bud for some 20 years I noticed the price dropped several years ago. In the late 80’s and early 90’s you could get up to $300/oz. Now the correct price seems $150-200. This is for high grade sinsi. The quality of Mexican reefer had improved and demand was down. IMO, the right price seems to be around $200 an ounce. You might get $250 but you need to look for these buyers.

“OMT, the impact of workplace drug testing is impacting usage. Less demand and larger supply of good reefer has taken its toll.”

Gregg writes


What are the odds of cannabis-induced psychosis?

To make a very long, painful story short, our son was hospitalized from early April 11 until April 19 with cannabis-induced psychosis. He is now in a 28 day in-patient chemical dependency program. At this point in time it is not clear whether the psychotic condition is temporary or permanent (e.g., schizophrenia or bipolar disorder). To our knowledge, and the results of his toxicology reports, no other drugs besides cannabis were consumed or detected. He was attending school in Canada and had access to cheap BC bud.

20% THC cannabis can serve as a trigger for psychotic events and a person may never have a psychotic episode without having smoked such a product. This dangerous ‘product’ is not the same thing as that from his parents’ generation. Our son’s university had 3 cases of psychosis this semester and the local ER psychiatrist said there have been 30 cases in our metro area of 400,000. Even very occasional users of high THC cannabis can become psychotic; the April 10 Financial Times had a narrative of a medical marijuana user whom had a psychotic event the first time he smoked ‘Sensi Star’.

So… What are the odds of cannabis-induced Psychosis? Here is a rough estimate, based on our experience and discussion with the university’s student health center director:

In a university of 15,000 students, assume half are cannabis smokers.

• Of the 7500 cannabis smokers, half use occasionally or recreationally (say, once a week or less) without dependency or ill effects. Just a pleasant buzz.

• 3750 students, or 25% of the student body, are regular users (more than once a week), of which half smoke high-THC cannabis (e.g., BC Bud, Sensi-Star) and similar ‘products’. The THC concentrations approach 20%.

• 1875 heavy users of high-THC cannabis are further broken down into two-thirds that smoke a few times a week (they have homework to do) and one-third which smoke daily or several times per day (roughly 600 daily users, that forgot they have homework to do).

• The 600 daily users of high-THC product probably are asymmetrically distributed amongst the student body; the largest single group (say, 300) are freshmen. 300 upper classmen have been able to withstand heavy daily use and still function (the other would-be upper classmen have burned themselves out and left the population).

• 3 known cases of cannabis-induced psychosis have occurred on the campus during the winter term. Other cases may be unknown and unreported (i.e., the student left at mid-term, never to return, without explanation).

• Thus, the odds of cannabis-induced psychosis could be as high as 1-in-100 in an at-risk population, if we assume that the 300 freshmen whom are daily users are the ones experiencing the psychotic episodes.

• Compare the odds of a life-altering cannabis-induced psychotic episode with driving a car… if you risked death, disfigurement, permanent disability or serious injury 3 times a year driving a car, would you ever drive a car?

• Even if we are off by a factor of 10, is it a “reasonable” risk? What are the long term societal costs of cannabis-induced psychosis?

Legalizing the current unregulated “more THC is better” practices in California or BC is DANGEROUS. We have a situation analogous to where a person buys a six-pack of beer and one can is 3.2%, 4 cans are 4.5% and one is 90% alcohol — they all taste the same to a kid. And you don’t know what you drank until they are consumed.

People are going to use cannabis, legal or not. I am of the opinion that it should be legal, safe and regulated because this semi-legal status in California or Canada or illegal status in most of the US only benefits criminals and hurts innocent people. Sell 5% THC weed and tax the hell out of it to fund drug and alcohol treatment programs.

Put this in our pipes and smoke it. Safe, legal, taxed and regulated. Nothing in between.

“This uneducated opinionated farmer”

Dear CounterPunch,

I read with interest JoAnn Wypijewski’s article Mongrel Politics in your current newsletter and was frankly entertained by it, but I can’t figure out why you wasted the space, as I doubt that your readers (certainly this reader) subscribe to your publication for its humor (other than ironic) and entertainment value. What instructive value do the ramblings of an old Southern farmer have about race and politics? Does the author feel that this fellow’s views are representative of the people of South Carolina? Of Southern Tea Party members in general? Did the author publish the views of this uneducated opinionated farmer to make some point about something? God help you if this was just a scurrilous article to make the Tea Party crowd look stupid and racist. It may be these things, but an interview with this guy doesn’t convince me of anything and I would hope does not convince your readership of much.

Jim Morrin
Chicago, IL

Jim – So much of somewhat predictable nature has been written about the Tea Party, and about renascent populism that we figured a solid shot of an actual racist actually talking — as opposed to being mediated through the SPLC or a thousand bien-pensant liberal commentaries – would be a breath of fresh air. And yes, I’d say Stewart’s views, eccentric in parts, are reflective of the fact that there is a vast swatch of very unPC sentiment and ideas out there. You take pains to say S is “uneducated”as well as being “opinionated”. As opposed to whom? The Republican leadership? Nancy Pelosi? Chuck Schumer, a rabid Zionist and whore of the banks? We didn’t want to convince you of anything in particular. Just to inform you. Irony was not intended. Our mission is not to ride endlessly along a very predictable and very narrow groove.

Best, Alex C

The Decline of the Chinese Communist Party

In our latest terrific, subscriber-only newsletter, we print “Hu Jia’s Imprisonment and the Mockery of Citizens’ Rights in the Chinese People’s Republic”, a savage indictment of recent developments in the CPR by Chaohua Wang, who has been in political exile from China ever she escaped in 1989, having been a leader of the left student faction during the Tienanmen demonstrations. Beginning with the fate of human rights activist Hu Jia, Chaohua excavates recent alarming trends in China and describes what she calls “a qualitative shift”:

“Nowadays, talk of Chinese characteristics serves the authorities not only to pacify a restless society but, in a much more aggressive fashion, to serve profiteering purposes for the rich and powerful. A telling aspect of the shift is in the government’s dealing with both social unrest and political dissent. That is to say, in the government’s determination to usurp the civil rights of the Chinese people. Social unrest and political dissent are not, of course, the same, as Beijing is well aware. But the Party’s attitude toward both hardened at about the same time. The key events behind this toughening were the Beijing Olympics of August 2008 and the world financial crisis, triggered by the Lehman Brothers’ collapse a month later….

“…The global importance of China’s economy seems to be depriving its leaders of any capacity for self-reflection, often to the point of caricature in dictatorial displays without the slightest sense of humor. …

“…What has changed from bad to worse is the growing indifference of the Party even to keeping up appearances. Recent cases combine the outrageous with the absurd. For example, socially and politically abused people in China tend to seek redress by petitioning higher levels of government against their immediate abusers. At the annual session of the National People’s Congress and the National Political Consultancy Conference last month, proposals were circulated among the organizers, to the effect that petitioners should be arrested if they shouted slogans or staged sit-ins outside government offices. The reason? Respectable officials need proper rest and shouldn’t be disturbed by such unruly elements….

“…Last year, a woman in Chengdu, provincial capital of Sichuan, started to burn herself to death in protest, when demolition crews surrounded her three-storey home and began to level it with their bulldozers. Her extreme action did not stop them. When she was rushed to hospital, her family members were forbidden to see her in the last days of her life and news media were blocked from covering the case…

“…This is one of the most startling new developments in Chinese society: victims are turned into enemies of the state and enemies of the law.”

Also in our latest newsletter we feature JoAnn Wypijewski’s riveting and highly entertaining interview, Mongrel Politics. Some samples of grassroots political philosophy outside the Beltway in the year 2010:

Stewart: Now, Ron Paul: I voted for him in the primaries because he stood for peace, which is what Americans wanted and why they voted for Obama. They did not want to redistribute the wealth. All they wanted was No War!

JW: So you’re against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

S: All right, now let me tell you somethin’ that’ll really blow the minds of whoever listens to this. We do not live in a democracy, even a representative democracy called a republic. We live in a mediacracy.

JW: Meaning M-E-D-I-A?

S: Right. Most people vote according to how they are influenced by the media. Ever since back in the Fifties I could read the newspapers, I didn’t care who won the elections, I was not political, I never voted for 30 or 40 years, but I could tell who was gonna win the elections. All I had to do was open the newspaper, The New York Times, and I’d say, well, look, they favor Johnson more than they do Goldwater; Johnson’s gotta win. I didn’t know why, but ever since then I have been thinkin’ about it. Finally, I figured it out.

The people that own the media determine who’s gonna get elected because most of the idiots out here are just gonna turn on that TV; they don’t have the sense to turn on the Internet and find a different viewpoint. And the people that own the seven or eight big media conglomerates, they start at the primary level, so, by the time you get to the national level – like Obama against McCain – they’ve already been vetted on both sides. It doesn’t matter which one wins, so, in the end, if we had voted for McCain, we’d have gotten the same war that we got from Obama.
I called up a radio station before Obama got elected, I said, “He’s not gonna end the war. I know who owns the media, and I know why they put him in there, and they want us in Iraq.”

I have ancestors that’ve been rabid Christians, crazy Christians, ’cause there’s no other kind, ’cause they been lied to, and you can’t be lied to all your life without bein’ insane. It’s just garbage in, garbage out.

So, we are a lied-to people. We are an insane people that believe in all kind of things that aren’t supported by evidence, by facts, by anything, because the Jews had the wisdom – you know, Paul nearly fell off his horse when he was ridin’ around tryin’ to kill the Christian Jews; he said, my god, they will send money to Jerusalem if we can just convert these people! Big stroke of genius, and they’ve been doin’ it ever since!

Yeah, I understand why we’re fightin’ in Iraq, ’cause Israel wants to bomb all those people back to the Stone Age. The reason terrorists are over here is because they are being colonized, the same way that the American Indians fought my ancestors ’cause they were takin’ their land. It makes sense. But the Jewish media talks about terrorism, says it ain’t got nothin’ to do with Palestine. It’s ’cause they hate our freedom, all kind of lies, and the American people: yuh, yuh, the Jews are right. Yuh, gotta protect Israel, preacher said so, God’s chosen people, hallelujah Israel. I wanna go to heaven, and when the Messiah comes along, I gonna be his man.

JW: So, are you a pagan?

S: I worship god, the same god that my ancestors worshiped for 40,000-50,000 years, and my god is life.

The articles by Chaohua and JoAnn are important testimonies. Let me urge you to Subscribe Now!

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.