The NSF Corrects an “Error” in Error.

The NSF, after receiving an email from a concerned citizen, recently made a correction to a statement that had been on their website for several years. Unfortunately, the NSF ought to know better than to allow a web site administrator to overrule the findings of qualified scientists on the say so of a lay commentator.

At issue is a comment on an NSF page titled “The Importance of Sea Ice”. The page discusses the findings of two expeditions relating to changes in arctic conditions over a forty year period. Originally, the page contained the following paragraph(1):

“One unexpected finding concerned the salinity of the water. When the scientists first arrived at the Arctic ice pack in October 1997, they discovered that the water was much fresher than it had been when the same area was analyzed 20 years earlier. They concluded that the melting of the ice pack during the summer of 1997 caused the water to be proportionally less salty. Such a change can have serious consequences for marine life as well as for how ocean water circulates and interacts with the atmosphere. In addition to altering salinity, melting sea ice also raises worldwide sea levels, with potentially significant effects for coastal cities and towns.”

Of course, as any diligent fifth grader knows, Archimedes Principle states that an object immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces. This implies that floating ice displaces a volume of water equal to the melted volume of the ice itself. Citizen Dave Burton noticed the discrepancy(2) and sent the NSF a message:

“Since the error was on your site for over 6.5 years, misleading readers into believing that melting sea ice contributes to coastal sea level rise, I think it is important that you identify the error on your site, with a footnote which explains what was wrong with it.”

And belying the usual claims of an unresponsive government controlled by a global conspiracy to distort science in order to bolster some hidden political agenda, the NSF did exactly as Mr. Burton asked, removing the last sentence, and adding the following note in its place:

“[Editor’s note: An inaccurate statement about sea ice and rising sea levels has been deleted. We regret the error.]”

A victory for common sense and democracy in action!

Only one problem. Mr. Burton was flat WRONG, and the NSF should not have listened to him. Sea ice is mostly fresh water because the salt quickly leaches out of it once it forms. Persistent sea ice, ice that has been frozen for thousands of years—the bulk of the global ice pack and the very ice the scientists are worried about–is entirely fresh. Salt water is denser than fresh water, so the volume of sea water needed to buoy a block of freshwater ice is slightly less than the volume of fresh water in the ice.

A layman like Mr Burton cannot be expected to know this, or to know that calculations show that, in fact, melting pack ice will increase the volume of the ocean by enough to raise sea levels by 4 centimeters(3) all by itself. But the scientists who did the field work know it, and the website administrator at the NSF should have consulted them before taking the word of a lay “armchair quarterback” over theirs.In fairness, the original NSF wording does overstate the risk from pack ice. But, if pack ice melts, it means the hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated snow sitting on the antarctic landmass and in Siberia are melting as well and THAT could raise sea levels by enough to flood the ground I am standing on, here in a suburb of Houston.

Those who think they have the simple solution usually don’t understand the problem. Those who think their devotion to radio talk shows and a subscription to Popular Science make them wiser than the best minds of an entire field of credentialed science are invariably wrong.

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3 – Peter D. Noerdlinger, Kay R. Brower “The Melting of Floating Ice will Raise the Ocean Level”, Geophysical Journal International, 2005

The Mother Creator

A snippet from “Doomsday”

The ice was patient and inexorable, and whatever civilization could develop during the interludes was quickly consumed on its return. But The Way was the only civilization needed for the edification of the soul, and the flock was well adapted to the cycle of ages. During the warm times, towns and institutions were rebuilt, libraries were refilled from the vaults of the Archive, and new generations were inculcated into The Way and felt the loving presence of The Mother Creator in their lives. And so they lived, generation to generation, through peace and adversity, until the signs foretold the returning ice, and some unlucky generation began the preparations for the cycle to begin again.

And when the ice was at hand and bounteous Nature could no longer support Her flock, the masses prepared for the ancient ritual — known to all through the faith — in which the living sacrificed themselves to produce sustenance for their posterity. The caretakers, selected and instructed each by his role in the divine calling, saw this manna stored in the warm moist depths of the hibernacula amongst the egg cases of their brethren, and then entered the temperate waters themselves and slipped into the deep, unencumbered slumber of hibernation.

The culling was a brutal affair for those submitted to it, but it was a joyous rebirth they bequeathed, and a solemn duty for all. Those who strayed from The Way, either in action or in spirit, could hope for no better alternative, and were soon blotted from history along with the crops and the weeds and the trappings of material wealth, leaving no heir and no memory of their passing.

And so the world had been, carefully in balance but forever afoot, since the Mother Creator had wrung its germ out from the void, fertilized it with the scattered seeds of night, and molded it into the abode of life upon which to host Her flock. It was a cruel and a wonderful world, and the one could not be separated from the other. The world provided for the body, The Way provided for the spirit, and death made way for renewal.

“Spring bloomed not amongst the weeds of ancient summer”, lamented the poet, “and wretched frost, her cold entreaty, did till upon Creation.”

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever

This is a wonderful illustration or how different groups can see common wisdom in radically different views.

This euphonious aphorism was recently used in a TED lecture and immortalized by Symphony of Science and YouTube. Usually atributed to Gandhi (the Mahatma) , it actually goes back at least to Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 636 in FPA Book of Quotations (1952) by Franklin Pierce Adams).

To rationalists, it is a fundamental truism, reminding us that our existence is precious and fleeting and made wonderful by rational inquiry and understanding. But to Isodore, who was perhaps the last of the ancient Christian philosophers, it was an equally fundamental truism meaning the exact opposite, that mortal life is an affliction, rendered endurable by piety and study of the scripture in preparation for eternity.

Both are right, even though both cannot be right, and handhi and Mohammed, who actually said very similar things, were just Johnny come lately.

Incidentally, the attribution to Ghandi is probably due more than anything to popular awareness (Isodore is not well known), illustrating yet another truth—opinion does not grow more correct with popularity.