Climate, Computers, and Clay Tablets

R. Borger’s “Mesopotamishes Zeichenlexikon” (the definitive index of Cuneiform), A.R. George’s “The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic”, a high-res print of the Atrahasis tablet (courtesy of the British Museum) and my computer cluster “PsiCorps” running a climate simulation.

Twenty thousand years ago the Earth was a very different place. Ice, in some places over a mile thick, covered large areas of the world. With a vast amount of water locked in the ice caps and glaciers, sea level was 300 feet or more lower than what it is today. In this alien landscape our ancestors lived, clustered then as now along rivers and near the ocean shoreline. But their world was changing.

By 12 thousand years ago the earth was warming, and the great ice sheets were melting. Sea levels started to rise, and rivers overflowed their banks. Areas populated for generations were quickly covered by the sea. In some places, huge lakes formed behind great dams of ice. When these dams ruptured, unimaginable floods swept the land with walls of water hundreds and even thousands of feet high moving down the river valleys, scouring the landscape at 80 mph or more. To the mesolithic humans who witnessed these events, it must have seemed that the entire world was being destroyed by great floods. For thousands of years after the glaciers retreated, perhaps as recently as 5000 years ago, less spectacular but locally devastating floods occurred as the earth’s hydrology and geology adjusted to the new climate regime. And even after that great floods occasionally swept more limited areas, much as they do today.

Our ancestors did not know about “normal” extreme weather, much less Milankovitch cycles, plate tectonics, or changes in the thermohaline circulation. They struggled to understand what happened, and as the centuries went by, the stories of the great floods were told and retold, passed down by an oral tradition that modern ears can scarcely appreciate. Some saw the floods as divine punishment directed at man, others as a great battle between the gods in which man was simply caught in the crossfire. Given the enormous destruction, it was assumed that those who survived must have had the favor of the gods. As time went by civilizations rose and fell, and the stories were adapted to fit the politics and beliefs of the times. But the core stories of a great Deluge were preserved, and events that were separated in space and time were merged between various cultures.

In the region we call Mesopotamia there was a story of a man named Atra-Hasis receiving a warning from the gods to build a great boat and save his people from the Deluge. Eventually another story was told of an arrogant young leader who struggled with the questions of life and death. It was an epic story of maturity, kingship, and the search for understanding, and seems to have been based on a real king. At some point it incorporated the tale of Atrahasis as the man the king Bilgamas sought at the end of his journey. Around 3000 BC, scribes began using the new technology of writing to preserve the stories, using a script we now call cuneiform. Over time the language changed a little, the story was fine tuned, but the story of Gilgamesh, and his maturity from despotic ruler to Great King was preserved. And on Tablet XI of the Epic was the story of his meeting with Ut-napishti (as Atrahasis was then known) and hearing of the great deluge; perhaps a lingering memory of the catastrophic flood events thousands of years earlier.

Other cultures also preserved memories of great floods, either directly or indirectly. The small kingdom of Judah was conqured by the Babylonians, and as was their custom, the royal families and priests of Judah were sent into exile elsewhere in Babylonian lands. The exiled priests eventually incorporated Babylonian stories of the creation of man, and of Ut-napishti and his great boat, in their own stories of creation, survival, and founding of their nation. But rather than being simply the interplay of many gods in which Man was a pawn, they placed these stories within the context of the revelation that there was only one God, and it was that God who guided human history in general and their destiny in particular. Thus a new religion, Judeaism, took form. With the coming of the Roman empire 500 years later, the Akkadian language, cuneiform, and the stories of Gligamesh were slowly forgotten. But the tale of Ut-napishti, now called Noah, lived on in the Torah and became part of the traditions of a new religion, Christianity. Eventually the story was absorbed into another religion also founded in the region, Islam. And so the stories lived on.

By the 1800′s the science of archeology was born, and long lost civilizations were rediscovered. Tablets containing what is now called the “standard version” of the Gilgamesh text had been found by Austen Henry Layard in 1849 in the city of Nineveh. The Epic was rediscovered and publisized by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853. Linguists and archeologists eventually recovered much of the ancient languages of Assyerian, Sumerian, and Babylonian. Over time more and more fragments were found, and much of the original poem has been restored along with earlier versions of the stories that comprise it.

So we reach the present day. In my office are banks of computers making billions of complex calculations every second, analyzing the climate of past years and projecting the climate of years yet to come. This work is in the hope that unlike our ancestors, we can shape our future rather than simply react to events beyond our understanding. While monitoring calculations in an analysis of historical rainfall patterns, I have been slowly working my way through the Epic of Gilgamesh and how it came down to us. I am struck that here at the leading edge of human technology, surrounded by devices our ancestors would have called magic, I am able to study copies of 4000 year old clay tablets that in their own way record past climate changes, stories there were passed down from my ancestors over the course of thousands years. Thus the human effort to understand and find meaning in our world continues. It is truly awe inspiring to consider that incredible journey, and humbling to contemplate my very small part in moving it forward.

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The story of how we got where we are is remarkable. The above brief summary is based on over two centuries of accumulated research in sciences like geophysics and archeology, and one that probably isn’t too far from the “truth”. The only significant speculation is if the stories of a Great Flood that many cultures share trace all the way back to the dramatic environmental shifts that happened at the end of the last glacial epoch, or more “recent”, disconnected regional events (of which there have been many). I suspect some of the stories might go all the way back to the great post-glacial floods, but even if not, they still represent the human need to understand the past and explain how, and why, events happen. Oh, and if you’re curious, solving complex four dimensional equations is easy; reading Babylonian cuneiform tablets, now that’s hard, especially since most of the scholarly publications are in German!

PS – I just returned from two weeks in Iceland, and will be posting about that and the upcoming hurricane season.  This was a post on my old blog, but I think is still timely and reflects what it’s like to do this kind of research.

Some thoughts on Climate Change

A lot of people have generated a lot of words about the topic of climate change. An awful lot of them really probably shouldn’t because they don’t really know what they are talking about, and all they are doing is spreading misinformation (even if well intentioned) and/or further inflaming an already politically charged debate. Unfortunately, even some people who do know what they are talking about sometimes go beyond their areas of competence and, more importantly, convolve science, policy, and politics.  This is a long post, sorry about that, but complex subjects require thoughtful discussions, and short posts can’t cover the topic. Even this is abbreviated to the point of oversimplification. It is a sad commentary on our society that nuanced discussions are virtually impossible in social media, yet that is increasingly how views are expressed.  Even 24 hour “news” outlets tend to focus on short, sound-byte driven coverage.  But enough whining.

So why am I writing this, and why should you care what I think? A bit of background first … I’ve been involved in climate change research and policy since the mid 1990’s.  I participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change RA4, and was invited by both Republican (Bush 43) and Democrat (Obama) administrations to be on the US committee.  I declined both of those invitations, because I was uncomfortable with the political nature and overtones of that process, and preferred to remain in the international realm and not be overly associated with a single government’s viewpoints or policies.  That is not to criticize those who are on the US committee, but I must say was not alone in being uncomfortable with how the US conducts its process, and some pretty prominent scientists have quietly declined to participate in it.  This leads me to my first point.  The IPCC and individual government processes to study climate change were in theory a good idea, but got off track as they have moved further away from science into policy.  There are essentially three aspects to the climate change issues (or any technical issue for that matter):

  1. What are the facts?  In this case, is the climate doing, why is it doing it, and what is it likely to do in the future?
  2. What are the implications and impacts?  In other words, what are the potential impacts of any climate changes?
  3. Given the impacts, what (if anything) do we need to do about it, based on the causes?

(1) and (2) are essentially only science.  What you believe, your politics, your religion, have nothing to do with it.  It’s not simple, but it’s just data and the laws of physics and probability.  The third, on the other hand, is mostly politics.  Sure, science, engineering, and economics will tell you if the policies you want to propose are rational, or will do anything about causes and effects, but ultimately it is a policy question, and that’s a political question that (hopefully) is informed by the science.

In my not so humble opinion, one key problem is the current system tries to do all three in a single process. And that’s a Bad Thing.  Because climate is such a complex and technical issue, and because some scientists have not kept these three things separate, politicians and those who think in political terms have attacked the science because they no longer see it as science, but just another political tactic associated with an agenda. Lets be clear here: I could design a response to the worst projections regarding climate change that would make the ghost of Adam Smith write a new chapter in Wealth of Nations singing its praises, or Zombie Lenin to burst out of the mausoleum and cry Отлично! in the heart of Red Square.  Another key problem is that because the “left” (in quotes, there are no real leftist or liberal movements in the US, but that’s another discussion) has fully taken up the cause because if fits with their worldview, and allows many of their agenda points to be pressed under the rubric of “doing something” even if those things wouldn’t really do much about the underlying problem.  Likewise, much of the opposition on the “right” (and again, in the US, there are no politically conservative movements in the US) is based more on a reaction to the policy proposals of the “left”, and the false concept that anthropogenic climate change is a fake issue to promote those policies.

But I get ahead of myself.  Let’s take the three aspects above in sequence.  First, what are the facts?  While the technical details are complex, it’s really fairly simple.  Humans have in an extremely short time (geologically speaking) radically altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, as well as the surface of the Earth.  These changes must, by the very nature of the Earth’s climate system, result in changes from historical weather and climate patterns because the system is interactive.  That’s the theory, and the theory is backed up by observations at the local level, going back to studies at the turn of the *last* century (late 1800’s) that rain patterns east of Paris began to depend on the day of the week, due to the dust churned up by the city. This is backed up by modern studies (PDF).  At the planetary level, changes are harder to detect, but are also becoming increasingly evident.  So while the details are complex, don’t be drawn in debates over minutia.  While there are scientists that have legitimate, credible concerns about various technical issues like cloud depiction in models, or sensor changes over time (I’m among those who feel tropical cyclone intensity changes are not within the ability of the quality of our historical data to detect), these concerns do not compromise the overarching conclusion:  human activities are causing ahistorical, “unnatural” changes both weather and climate, and those changes are increasing.  It is wrong of activists on the “left” to trash scientists with concerns (I’ve actually been called a “Climate Denier” because I expressed concerns over the hurricane data – and I’m a long time advocate of “doing something that works” on this issue!), just as it is wrong for those on the “right” to attack scientists from the other perspective.  Have no doubt: the science is never perfect, but it is solid, and actionable.

So, what about those impacts (aspect number 2).  That is a bit fuzzier, but again the data says there is a problem, and it is getting worse.   We are already seeing significant changes in agriculture, animal migration patterns, disease outbreaks, and a myriad of other indicators.  Note these reinforce point one, and show that this isn’t just a small group of climate specialists – multiple fields are seeing impacts.  So the second aspect is also clear: while exact nature of these impacts is somewhat fuzzy, the best science indicates that there are and will be increasingly negative impacts for both humans and the natural world.

OK, what to we do (aspect 3).  As noted above here is where things have broken down, largely because the politics (which should have been confined to policy decisions) has infected the science.  Much of the climate debate is focused on the IPCC and their periodic reports.  The problem is that this is a fundamentally political process.  The IPCC does not do original research.  It simply periodically compiles and synthesizes the latest research into a comprehensive report.  The problem is that process ultimately goes through review by the political levels of the participant governments.  Then it ends up in what is called a COP, or more formally, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The 24th such meeting is in progress in Katowice, Poland as I write this.  The current meetings (Sunday, 9 December 2018) have broken down over whether the phrase “welcome” or “takes note” will be used to receive the latest IPCC report. Yeah, seriously, that’s the hang up, although of course that’s just the excuse being used by some parties to sabotage the process.  Rather that let the process work by receiving a technical report (albeit one already tinged by politics), some national governments are using the process to avoid discussing the implications of the report on bogus grounds.  It’s insanity, but it’s the way things work.  But, to be honest, the IPCC/COP process has never worked.  The various agreements as agreed never had any chance of actually doing anything about climate change anyway.  Too many secondary issues involving wealth transfer from first to third world, economics, and so forth became convolved in trying to fix the problem at hand.

How do we fix this broken process?  As “long” as this post is, that would take a lot longer to even begin to discuss.  The first thing is to get the national governments out of the review process for the IPCC technical reports, and disconnect the policy creation process from the technical assessment process at both the national and intergovernmental levels.  People on the “right” need to realize that while the “left” may have been the first to jump on the bandwagon, and push their “solutions” (that, naturally, also address their worldview), there are a lot of options to address the problem, some of which would actually work, and give the average “progressive leftist” a serious case of hives.  Things like nuclear power, or free market approaches to energy production/distribution (the current system isn’t anything approaching a free market).  Another significant problem, especially here in the US, is the fact that some have confused religion into this.  I don’t separate in this discussion politics and religion, mostly because here in the US the two are somewhat inseparable since everything in this benighted land becomes about the two party political system.  But an unfortunate (and incorrect) view has developed particularly in the US that science in general and environmental and biological science in particular are “anti-Christian” in some way.  Again, long discussion involving theology as much as science.  But this also highlights another complex aspect of the problem.  People on the “left” or “right”, or “Christian” vs “Atheist” really don’t understand each other, and don’t communicate.  And it seems like they are more eager to score points and demonize the other than acknowledge the complexity of the discussion, take the time to understand why people hold the views they do, and reach some conclusion based on neutral facts that can be mutually agreed on.

The bottom line is that the climate issue highlights many of the flaws that are inherent in the present system of human governance and decision making at the national and nation-state level.  In the US, it highlights the dysfunctional nature of the media, educational system, and political party systems in particular.   I’m a scientist, not a politician, and I don’t have any good ideas on how to fix the process so that we can address issues like Climate Change in a way that has any hope of working.  But I know for sure we are headed for some really bad times ahead if we don’t.  It’s a pretty planet, with amazing places and wonderful people.  Let’s figure out a way to not screw it up …