The Biggest Control Knob: CO2 in Earth's Climate History

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 9:05 PM GMT on March 24, 2010

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It's been a busy past two months of weather and climate change news, and I haven't found time to blog about the research presented at December's American Geophysical (AGU) meeting in San Francisco. That is the world's largest scientific conference on climate change, and the place to be if you want to get the pulse of the planet. The keynote speech at the AGU meeting was given by Dr. Richard Alley of Penn State University. Dr. Alley is the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at the Pennsylvania State University, and one of the most respected and widely published world experts on climate change. Dr. Alley has testified before Congress on climate change issues, served as lead author of "Chapter 4: Observations: Changes in Snow, Ice and Frozen Ground" for the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and is author of more than 170 peer-reviewed scientific articles on Earth's climate. He is also the author of a book I highly recommend--The Two Mile Time Machine, a superb account of Earth's climate history as deduced from the 2-mile long Greenland ice cores. A standing-room only audience of over 2,000 scientists packed the lecture hall Dr. Alley spoke at, and it was easy to see why--Alley is an excellent and engaging speaker. I highly recommend listening to his 45-minute talk via a very watchable recording showing his slides as he speaks in one corner of the video. If you want to understand why scientists are so certain of the link between CO2 and Earth's climate, this is a must-see lecture.


Figure 1. Dr. Richard Alley of Penn State University, delivering the keynote speech at the 2009 AGU conference on climate change.

The Biggest Control Knob: CO2 in Earth's Climate History
Earth's past climate has been shaped by a number of key "control knobs"--solar energy, greenhouse gas levels, and dust from volcanic eruptions, to name the three main ones. The main thrust of Dr. Alley's speech is that we have solid evidence now--some of it very new--that CO2 has dominated Earth's climate over the past 400 million years, making it the climate's "biggest control knob". Dr. Alley opens his talk by humorously discussing a letter from an irate Penn State alumnus. The alumnus complains that data of temperatures and CO2 levels from ice cores in Antarctica don't match:

"CO2 lags Earth's temperature...This one scientific fact which proves that CO2 is not the cause of recent warming, yet...Dr. Alley continues to mislead the scientific community and the general public about 'global warming'. His crimes against the scientific community, PSU, the citizens of this great country, and the citizens of the world are significant and must be dealt with severely to stop such shameful activities in the future".

Dr. Alley explains that the irate alumnus is talking about the Antarctic ice core record, which shows that as we emerged from each ice age, the temperature began increasing before the CO2 did, so increased CO2 was not responsible for the warmings that brought us out of these ice ages. Climate change scientists and skeptics alike agree that Earth's ice ages are caused by periodic variations in Earth's orbit called Milankovich Cycles. "There's no doubt that the ice ages are paced by the orbits", says Dr. Alley. "No way that the orbit knows to dial up CO2, and say 'change'. So it shouldn't be terribly surprising if the CO2 lags the temperature change. The temperature never goes very far without the CO2. The CO2 adds to the warming. How do we know that the CO2 adds to the warming? It's physics!"

Dr. Alley then discusses that the physics that govern how CO2 absorbs and re-emits heat energy, when plugged into state-of-the-art climate models, show that about half of the observed 5 - 6°C natural warming that occurred since the last ice age ended was due to extra CO2 added to the atmosphere. At the peak of the Ice Age, CO2 was about 190 ppm. By the end, it was about 280 ppm (Figure 1). Earth's orbital variations "forced" a warming, which caused more CO2 to escape from swamps and oceans, with a time lag of several centuries. The increased CO2 reinforced the warming, to double what it would have been otherwise--a positive feedback loop. "Higher CO2 may be forcing or feedback--a CO2 molecule is radiatively active regardless of how it got there", says Dr. Alley. "A CO2 molecule does not remember why it is there--it only remembers that it is there". In other words, the fact that higher CO2 levels did not trigger an end to the Ice Age does not mean that the CO2 had no warming effect. Half of the the observed 5 - 6°C natural warming that occurred since the last ice age ended was due to the extra CO2 added to the atmosphere. So, the irate PSU alumnus was half right. The CO2 does lag temperature. However, we can only explain approximately half of the warming since the last ice age ended if we leave out the increase in CO2 that has occurred. "If higher CO2 warms, Earth's climate history makes sense, with CO2 having caused or amplified the main changes. If CO2 doesn't warm, we have to explain why the physicists are so stupid, and we also have no way to explain how a lot of really inexplicable climate events happened over Earth's history. It's really that simple. We don't have any plausible alternative to that at this point".


Figure 2. Ice core record from Vostok, Antarctica, showing the near-simultaneous rise and fall of Antarctic temperature and CO2 levels through the last 350,00 years, spanning three ice age cycles. However, there is a lag of several centuries between the time the temperature increases and when the CO2 starts to increase. Image credit: Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences: Global Warming Facts and Our Futures, originally provided to that site by Kurt Cuffey, University of California, Berkely.

CO2 and temperatures rise and fall in synch
Dr. Alley continues with a discussion of how CO2 and temperature levels have risen and fallen in synch over most of geologic time. But for many years there was still a mystery: occasionally there were eras when temperature changes did not match CO2 changes. But new paleoclimate research, much of it just in the past two years, has shown that nearly all of these mis-matches were probably due to suspect data. For example, the mismatch in the Miocene Era has significantly improved, thanks to a new study published this year by Tripati et al. Another example occurs during the Ordovician Era 444 million years ago, as discussed in a recent post at the excellent skepticalscience.com blog.


Figure 3. Atmospheric CO2 and continental glaciation, 400 million years ago to the present. The vertical blue bars mark where ice ages have occurred. The length of the blue bars corresponds to how close to the Equator the ice sheets got (palaeolatitude, scale on the right side of the plot). The left scale shows atmospheric CO2 over the past 400 million years, as inferred from a model (green area) and from four different "proxy" fossil sources of CO2 information. This is Figure 6.1 of the Palaeoclimate chapter of the 2007 IPCC report.

Is there anything else we should be worried about?
Dr. Alley continues with a discussion of other influences that may be able to explain global warming, such as volcanos, changes in solar output, and cosmic rays. A whole bunch of the competing hypotheses don't work", says Dr. Alley. "When there's a bunch of big volcanos, they make it cool. If volcanos could get organized, they'd rule the world. There might be a tiny bit of organization due to flexing of the crust, but they're not controlling the world".

Regarding solar changes: "When the sun changes, it does seem to show up in the temperature record. As far back as we can see well, the sun is friendly, it doesn't change much. If the sun changed a lot, it would control things hugely. But it only changes really slowly--as far as we can tell. The record doesn't go back as far as we'd like, and there's work to be done here--but it just doesn't seem to be doing much".


Figure 4. Greenland ice core proxy measurements of temperature (top curve) and cosmic ray flux (bottom curve) for the past 60,000 years. The Earth's magnetic field weakened by 90% 40,000 years ago, for a period of about 1,000 years, but there was no change seen in the temperatures in Greenland.

Regarding cosmic rays: "The sun doesn't change much, but the sun modulates the cosmic rays, the cosmic rays modulate the clouds, the clouds modulate the temperature, and so the sun is amplified hugely. It's really interesting hypothesis, there's really good science to be done on this, but there's reason to think its a fine-tuning knob". He goes on to show an ice core example from a period 40,000 years ago (Figure 4) where the Earth magnetic field had near-zero strength for hundreds of years. This allowed a massive flux of cosmic rays to penetrate to the Earth's surface, creating a huge spike in ice core Beryllium-10, a radionuclide made by cosmic rays. If cosmic rays were important to climate, we would expect to see a corresponding major swing in temperature, but the ice core shows no change during the period of enhanced cosmic ray bombardment 40,000 years ago. "We had a big cosmic ray signal, and the climate ignores it", Dr. Alley comments.

How sensitive is climate to a doubling of CO2?
The IPCC report talks extensively about computer climate models' calculations of "climate sensitivity"--how much Earth's climate would warm if CO2 doubled from pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm, to 560 ppm (we're currently at 390 ppm). A mid-range number from the 2007 IPCC report often used by climatologists is that the climate sensitivity is 3°C for a doubling of CO2. Dr. Alley takes a look at what paleoclimate has to say about the climate sensitivity to CO2. "The models actually do pretty well when you compare them to the past. The best fit is 2.8°C.

Dr. Alley concludes, "Where we really stand now, is, we're not quite at the pound on the table, this story is very clearly not done. But an increasing body of science indicates that CO2 has been the most important controller of global average climate of the Earth."

I'll have a new post Sunday or Monday.

Jeff Masters

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Quoting Jeff9641:


I'll remember you this time next week and we'll see who's right. I've seen many times on the Florida east coast of this happening once the weather stays warm for several days at a time. I'm sticking to it 5 to 7 degree rise around Florida over the next week.


Even with 90 degree temperature the Gulf of Mexico will take more than two weeks to react. You will only be heating a small layer on the top of the water surface. Yes mixing by currents will mix in the warmer waters from the surface, but it takes a lot of warming on the surface to get the gulf Temperature to rise.

Especially once off the continental shelf it will take a month or so of hot temperatures 85 and above to get those deep waters to react. To get Gulf temperature to warm to say 80 degrees that's a 20 degree difference in most areas in the Gulf right now.

I own a fish tank with 35 gallons in it. It takes almost 2 days with a heater in the water to raise the tank temperature to 80 degrees that's with a heater in the water and the surrounding air temperature in the low 70's.

Heating the Gulf is slower than you think.

Plus satellite and buoys are only measuring surface temperatures. Ten feet under the buoys of surface water it could be 5 degrees colder. I know most of you have been in a lake and hit a cold pocket that when you float on your back its warm , but when you put your feet down its colder in the bottom layers of the water column.
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Recent GOES SST Weekly Composite Imagery Links
GOES SST/SSH images for 3/25/2010





Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 431 Comments: 131504
Welcome to the LSU Earth Scan Lab.

The ESL is a satellite data receiving station and image processing facility for environmental data from six unique earth observing sensor systems. We specialize in real-time access to satellite imagery and measurements of the atmosphere, oceans and coastal areas within the Gulf of Mexico / Caribbean Sea region, data which we obtain directly from satellite transmissions to three antennas on LSU rooftops. These data have many applications for research, education, and state emergency response.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 431 Comments: 131504
Quoting atmoaggie:

???


i had a floating ad for a survey and if i did it i think they were offering chocolate.

i'm a non paying blogger, i don't know if that is the difference.
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ESL WAVCIS LAB

GOM 120 Hour Water Surface Temperature Forecast Model
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 431 Comments: 131504
Quoting hurricane23:
Water temps near home are never an issue come the meat of the season. If we dont have a severe cyclone in the gulf this year it wont be because of sea surface temperatures.


That would depend on where "home" is. There is a lens of warm water that parks off the Florida SW coast that, IMO, has affected some storms. Charlie, Katrina, Irene, Fay and Wilma all gained strength while pulling on that lens of energy.
Member Since: September 23, 2006 Posts: 1 Comments: 2694
problems with the NOAA 24hr WV loop at http://www.weather.gov/sat_loop.php?image=wv&hours=24
could i get a link to another site by someone, or will i find this a satellite issue across the board?
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Quoting Jeff9641:


I'll remember you this time next week and we'll see who's right. I've seen many times on the Florida east coast of this happening once the weather stays warm for several days at a time. I'm sticking to it 5 to 7 degree rise around Florida over the next week.

Hokey, dokey.
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Quoting WaterWitch11:
good morning everyone

it's so hard to believe that winter is already gone and spring is here!

what's up with the floating ads?

???
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Shear is starting to really drop across the Atlantic.....

This is 24hrs out


This is 144hrs out
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Quoting hurricane23:
Water temps near home are never an issue come the meat of the season. If we dont have a severe cyclone in the gulf this year it wont be because of sea surface temperatures.


yes... even on a normal year the gulf is so warm in august it feels like a tepid bath.
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good morning everyone

it's so hard to believe that winter is already gone and spring is here!

what's up with the floating ads?
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Station 42056
NDBC
Location: 19.874N 85.059W
Conditions as of:
Thu, 25 Mar 2010 13:50:00 UTC
Winds: E (90°) at 11.7 kt gusting to 13.6 kt
Significant Wave Height: 4.9 ft
Dominant Wave Period: 7 sec
Mean Wave Direction: E (85°)
Atmospheric Pressure: 29.96 in and rising
Air Temperature: 78.8 F
Dew Point: 74.8 F
Water Temperature: 78.3 F
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Water temps near home are never an issue come the meat of the season. If we dont have a severe cyclone in the gulf this year it wont be because of sea surface temperatures.
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Quoting atmoaggie:

Wow, I didn't realize it was that far off...



It’s Official: Coldest Winter Ever
Saturday, March 20, 2010 7:42:55 AM
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NEXRAD Radar
New Orleans, Storm Relative Mean Radial Velocity 0.50 Degree Elevation Range 124 NMI

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 431 Comments: 131504
Quoting CyclonicVoyage:
Morning All.

Interesting article from the Farmers Almanac for Florida.

Annual Weather Summary: November 2009 to October 2010

Winter will be warmer than normal, on average, with the coldest temperatures occurring in mid-January. Rainfall will be above normal, with the best chance for any snow in the north around Christmas.

Wow, I didn't realize it was that far off...
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BULLETIN - EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA
833 AM CDT THU MAR 25 2010

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN NEW ORLEANS HAS ISSUED A

* SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING FOR...
NORTHERN ST. HELENA PARISH IN SOUTHEAST LOUISIANA...
NORTHWESTERN TANGIPAHOA PARISH IN SOUTHEAST LOUISIANA...
SOUTHEASTERN AMITE COUNTY IN SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI...
PIKE COUNTY IN SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI...
THIS INCLUDES THE CITY OF MCCOMB...
WALTHALL COUNTY IN SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI...

* UNTIL 930 AM CDT

* AT 830 AM CDT...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE METEOROLOGISTS DETECTED A
LINE OF SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS. THESE STORMS WERE LOCATED ALONG A
LINE EXTENDING FROM 10 MILES NORTH OF GILLSBERG TO GILLSBERG TO
DARLINGTON...OR ALONG A LINE EXTENDING FROM 9 MILES EAST OF LIBERTY
TO 14 MILES SOUTHEAST OF LIBERTY TO 6 MILES WEST OF GREENSBURG...
AND MOVING EAST AT 55 MPH.

* OTHER LOCATIONS IN THE WARNING INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO
MAGNOLIA...SUMMIT...OSYKA...KENTWOOD...SALEM...TYLERTOWN AND DEXTER

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS...
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 431 Comments: 131504
Quoting AussieStorm:
Good Morning and Good night. My only post on this Blog topic.

Good nighrning, aussie.
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Morning All.

Interesting article from the Farmers Almanac for Florida.

Annual Weather Summary: November 2009 to October 2010

Winter will be warmer than normal, on average, with the coldest temperatures occurring in mid-January. Rainfall will be above normal, with the best chance for any snow in the north around Christmas.

April and May will be warmer and much drier than normal.

Summer will be cooler and rainier than normal, with the hottest periods in early to mid- and mid- to late August. Watch for a major hurricane in late August or early September.

September and October will be slightly cooler and much rainier than normal.



However, the Farmers were grossly wrong about the temps. I think the -NAO through everyone for a loop though. Hard to include a twice in a lifetime event in a forecast. Otherwise it's been fairly accurate thus far.
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Quoting IKE:


You weren't giving buoy readings in the loop current.

I'll post the link before you go crazy! Drink coffe and relax!

Go crazy? As far as relaxing...I'm relaxed.


He also referenced buoy 42040.

"Station 42040 was disestablished effective 10/7/2009."
http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/station_page.php?station=42040

And from the maintenance page: http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/ops.shtml
"42040 March 2010 Restore Station Data."

WU needs a bit more of a dynamic system that drops buoys once they stop reporting for a few days and reinstates them once they have data again. Misleading.

In our system, we cease reporting a buoy once it is 2 hours old and any that come back, or are added, automatically get used and reported. But, our data is used by mariners and sent over satellite. They require misleading things like buoy data from months ago not be present. (Hey, in rough seas with lots to do, I don't blame them for wanting us to remove the process of scanning the date when they just want to know the current wind and wave measurements and quickly.)
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Good Morning and Good night. My only post on this Blog topic.
Member Since: September 30, 2007 Posts: 9 Comments: 15998


AOI

AOI

AOI

AOI

Humor in Comments
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300. IKE
Quoting Jeff9641:


There are 80 temps over the LOOP CURRENT! Temps are 10 to 20 degrees warmer over the current than anywhere in the Gulf.


You weren't giving buoy readings in the loop current.

I'll post the link before you go crazy! Drink coffe and relax!

Go crazy? As far as relaxing...I'm relaxed.

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Quoting Jeff9641:


This was from this site. I'll post the link before you go crazy! Drink coffe and relax! I see what your saying I wonder if this are old maybe last year. There are 80 to 83 temps over the Loop Current.

http://www.wunderground.com/MAR/flm.html





A few spotty areas of 300 K in the loop current (80 F).


Figure 1: Aqua/MODIS SST composite produced by the SPoRT group at NASA's Marshall pace Flight Center.

Age of pixels in above plot in days:

Figure 2: Latency of pixels in Figure 1 in days.

Source: http://weather.msfc.nasa.gov/sport/modis/sst_comparison.html

Could be a hair warmer in the loop current than shown in Figure 1.

And you said 5 - 7 degree warmup in a week? That sounds tough to do. And 80 degree weather? Someone has a mean 24 hour temp of 80 degrees? Where? (I think you are 2 months early with that)
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Quoting CycloneOz:


Not most of my life...I was just starting to get concerned about it. That was in 2003.

And yeah...15 minutes / 5 people.

I was pretty sure we had a CO2 problem up through my final semester of college at A&M. We covered it well in atmo chem, physical climatology, atmo physics (covering radiative transfer), atmo thermo. Then, in my very last semester, I started asking too many questions in air pollution meteorology and a course styled global climate change, and of my adviser, the physical climatology prof. Started scrutinizing the data and the assumptions used in the conclusions. I got familiar with what little we actually know about the climate system.

They tried to get me onboard and it almost worked. I don't think there was any ill will or conspiracy or anything like that. I just think that most of my profs believe it would be positive if CO2 were to be controlled along with the byproducts of doing so. Some, however, do harbor misgivings about the same things I do.
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294. IKE
It ain't no 83-85 degree water temps anywhere in the northern GOM right now.

Buoy 42022 isn't reporting Data for last 45 days: No data available., but neighboring buoys are in the 60's....

Station 42040 was disestablished effective 10/7/2009.
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Quoting Seastep:
Minnemike - Don't get caught up in the minutia. Predictions either validate or they don't.

Along with Levi's, here's mine in case you haven't seen it. Will be updated after 2010 comes in. Levi says 30 years, but 10 will be plenty statistically, imo. No way the temps rise fast enough. Just not plausible. Of course, that might change in the next 10 years, but I highly doubt it. That trend line should jump less and less over time.

Really no need to get into the minutia, other than for academic purposes. The predictions validate or they don't.


Ummm, is the last frame supposed to say 2005?
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Quoting Jeff9641:


I live near Orlando and go to the beach all the time on weekends and I'm noticing water temps along the east coast of FL are rising 1 to 2 degrees a day now that the warm weather is back. Ocean temps are nearing 70 south of Melbourne to 64 at Daytona Beach. Oceans temps are warming quick here around FLorida.


Water temps still around 60 in Apalachicola on Wednesday morning when I had no luck fishing for the first Spring wave of trout and redfish.........Gotta wait a few more weeks for the fishes to come out of their winter slumber up here.......... :)
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Quoting Jeff9641:


Storm track seems to wanna stay south for the next few weeks. This continues then we may have a wait awhile for a huge outbreak. We'll see I maybe wrong!


I agree and hope that things will stay as quiet as possible in April this year as we start heading into the Summer before H Season....We will probably have a few strong fronts or lows move through the SE in April but based on the water temp scenario, I would rather have them sooner than later in April.
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Quoting Minnemike:

i like that you often come across with your own take on things, using your increasingly expertise knowledge on tropics to self support opinions. i wish for you to do the same with the GW/AGW debate. temper the matter with the full discourse on the subject, and steer clear of wishcasters, doomcasters, and listcasters :)

Quoting 278. FFtrombi 10:25 AM GMT on March 25, 2010:
I and probably many others enjoy the links and discussions you post, so don't take it too personally if people call you out on posting non-scientific papers with ebullient language and very few actual conclusions.

Levi --
Let me be the first to second these two comments. Please DO continue to post. I always enjoy reading your tropical weather-related postings, and I often learn new stuff from them. Most of the time I have enjoyed reading your GW postings, too, even when I don't agree with your conclusions. Just not this last one.

Besides, taking risks and making mistakes is how we humans learn, although at times that can be a pretty painful way to get educated. In fact, in the early days of the 'net, when it was still mostly ARPAnet, I had an email sig that said something like: "I know we're supposed to learn from our mistakes. But WHY does a good education require so MANY?!" ;)

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Good Morning. In terms of severe weather this season so far, or the lack thereof, I saw a great segment last night with Dr. Forbes on the Weather Channel who basically opined that one of the reasons for the lack of organized severe weather in the SE for March has been the very cool continental shelf Gulf waters this year which has limited the warm instability at the surface so far as fronts have come through. That may change in April as the Gulf waters start to really warm, but, will also depend on how many additional frontal lows we will get in the coming month but so far so good.
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Coldest Winter in Siberia
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Good morning guys WE NEED RAIN so whats up with you
Member Since: June 13, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 12840
280. xcool
mmm
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Quoting leftovers:
yesterday was so nice here in e cent florida good morning
Good Morning. Yall have had a lot of rain, I guess some sun is welcome there.
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@Levi32
There is no "other side" in science, there is just data, and interpretation. I and probably many others enjoy the links and discussions you post, so don't take it too personally if people call you out on posting non-scientific papers with ebullient language and very few actual conclusions.
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Imani looks annular
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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