I recently came across mention of a new book with a rather OTT title: “Planet on Fire (A manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown)”, by Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourne-Langton. I haven’t read it, but its sales blurb starts with:  

“In the age of environmental breakdown, the political status quo has no answer to the devastating and inequitably distributed consequences of the climate emergency. We urgently need an alternative to bring about the rapid transformation of our social and economic systems. As we rebuild our lives in the wake of Covid-19 and face the challenges of ecological disaster, how can the left win a world fit for life?”

Could it be that the fire is only in the language used here, rather than in the problems the authors believe exist and require urgent remediation?

I can guess what the remainder of the book contains, and I doubt I would be that interested. I’ve long become inured to ‘super-hype’ of the environmental breakdown/catastrophe/chaos variety, but ‘Planet on Fire’ hit a relatively new nerve – one that had only just recently been pinged in the geological part of my forebrain by a relatively recent article in The Conversation. Written by Helen Williams (a reader in geochemistry at Cambridge University), it describes a real planet on fire, the Earth 4.5 billion years ago after it was involved in interplanetary snooker. Hit by a Mars-sized object (Theia), the Earth became molten down to its core – a planet covered in a continuous molten magma ocean a thousand kilometres deep. Now that’s what I would call global heating or a planet on fire!

But how do we know this stuff? It happened so long ago, what is left? The answer is virtually nothing that a geologist can deal with. This seems to me to be similar to the situation with regard to Global Warming where solid “evidence” doesn’t exist, it comes from glorified and intensely complex mathematical models of how the planet’s atmosphere and hydrosphere ought to operate. Four and a half billion year old terrestrial conditions are also inferred from will-o’-the-wisp evidence, because no rocks of that age will ever be found on Earth – the whole crust and mantle were molten, so no rocks existed. Even after crystallisation of the thousand-kilometre-deep melt began, the first crystals to form would have been denser than the remaining melt and so settled through the magma to its floor, never to be seen again. And after the top of the magma ocean congealed, all of those most ancient of surface rocks would have also been lost to us, being subducted into the depths after billions of years of  plate tectonics. The early Earth would have been much hotter than today and so plate-tectonics would have run much faster, relatively quickly devouring rocks of the much smaller micro-continents. The oldest rocks that we know are about 3.7 billion years old, which is more than several hundred million years younger than those inferred first surface rocks.

So, with no surviving rocks as evidence, where do we start? Planetary billiards is inferred from geochemical similarities and differences between Earth and lunar rocks (and meteorites) and aspects of celestial mechanics. Calculations (i.e. mathematical models) of the energetics of such systems suggest accretion of Theia’s core into the Earth and the complete melting of the outer parts of the Earth. But the evidence for the progressive crystallisation of the molten Earth is even more hairy. Some of those deep accumulations of early dense crystals do, however, melt at hotspots, become buoyant, and are carried up to the surface, changing as they rise to form volcanic rocks. These melts bring with them subtle geochemical evidence (usually in the form of unusual isotopic ratios) of the pre-melt existence of those earliest of crystals and thus of those magma oceans.

To conclude, no rocks exist for our study, nor even the first crystals, but just a geochemical taint, a vagueness in very old volcanic rocks. This, and much modelling, is now being used to reconstruct the Earth’s hot-headed adolescence. Isn’t science just wonderful – when it’s done properly?

Diffuse though the evidence for the magma ocean is, to me the Earth’s hot conditions have more credibility for their former existence, than climate science’s “evidence” for catastrophic global warming of a few degrees, 80 years hence. In particular, the reconstructed early history of the Earth-Moon system still fails to fully incorporate all of the evidence available and this is acknowledged, even by Wikipedia. And, like all good scientific endeavours, there is no attempt to sweep away the evidence that does not fit. It is healthy science. Work continues to resolve issues and it looks to an outsider to be vibrant science. What a contrast with the study of climate change, where “the science is settled” and its conclusions are now a consensus, a dogma.  

My interest was piqued by the Conversation article because, when I read geology back in the early 1960s, the evidence for the early phases of the Earth’s history was pure speculation and was summed up in the famous James Hutton 1788 quote that for the Earth “We find no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end.” This changed when we brought back lunar rocks and attention turned to assimilating evidence from those ancient rocks, with dates comparable with the inferred periods of a global magma ocean. Geology (or rather geochemistry) is now challenging the claim of no evidence for Earth’s beginnings, and mathematical models are being used to test hypotheses. Meanwhile, on the basis of models, the most extreme of climate activists, like the authors of the “A Planet on Fire” book, are absolutely sure they know how we will end, unless we take drastic measures now.

I was tempted to end by writing ‘vive la différence’, but then realised that this is totally wrong. What I wish for is an honest and vibrant climate science, one that is self-correcting and not overly focused on carbon dioxide. The climate does change and has done so in the past. It should be studied, but without the blanketing pall of future catastrophe.

21 Comments

  1. The slow, cynical, data-free devolution of “climate science” into a perverse blend of faux religion, faux science and tremendous hype is disgusting.
    It correlates nearly perfectly with the marketing needs of fear mongers in media, oligarchs and tired corrupt governing classes.
    From “global warming ” to “climate change ” to the latest “climate emergency “, it is all just ways to monetize “typical climate”.
    The utter lack of significant warming or change, much less “crisis” cannot stand in the way of the great faux “reset”. Everyone except those calling for the “reset” get their lives diminished, restricted and impoverished.
    The billionaires and their lackeys get to stay on charge.
    And the climate will continue to ignore the vast marketing campaign and its lies.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Unfortunately the meme of the planet being on fire has been growing of late, especially via the route of reference to bushfires, which reference however doesn’t always make it through to the headline banners involved (nor are said bushfires typically put in historic context). But it actually goes back a long time, and had some purchase via ‘terminal metaphor’ variants of catastrophe narrative such as comparing the planet’s climate status to a house on fire or a crowded theatre on fire or whatever. E.g. oceanographer and climatologist Prof Stefan Rahmstorf in response to science communicator Joe Duggan’s question ‘how do you feel about climate change?’, 2016: “Sometimes I have this dream. I’m going for a hike and discover a remote farm house on fire. Children are calling for help from the upper windows. So I call the fire brigade. But they don’t come, because some mad person keeps telling them that it is a false alarm. The situation is getting more and more desperate, but I cant convince the firemen to get going. I cannot wake up from this nightmare.”

    “What I wish for is an honest and vibrant climate science, one that is self-correcting and not overly focused on carbon dioxide. The climate does change and has done so in the past. It should be studied, but without the blanketing pall of future catastrophe.”

    I’ll drink to that.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Alan

    OK. I’ll believe you about the molten earth, but where did all the water come from?

    Like

  4. Dunno Bill, But Wikipedia has a reasonable account of the two main theories for the origin of water on Earth. It must have originated early because the oxygen isotopic ratios in reworked zircon grains in Archaen rocks from Australia, which were reworked from even older Hadean rocks suggest the presence of water when they first formed.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Alan,

    As I see it, there are obvious comparisons to be made between climate science and the study of the Earth’s early development. In both cases, one cannot use laboratory experiment to test theories (e.g. “We took one planet, pumped its atmosphere full of CO2 and waited 100 years”, or “We took two planets and smacked one into the other”). In both cases, mathematical modelling is a necessary surrogate for true experimentation. In both cases, history is reconstructed using indirect and often tenuous evidence. So what is the real difference? Is it, as this article seems to be suggesting, simply the difference in the levels of confidence shown by the respective participants when confronted with a body of evidence of a particular strength? For example, how do you think the relative strength of evidence stacks up for the Theia thesis compared to the thesis that the MWP didn’t happen, or if it did, it wasn’t a single global event?

    You can take that as a rhetorical question.

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  6. @Bill – https://www.space.com/36661-late-heavy-bombardment

    partial quotes – “The LHB may have been key to delivering water to Earth. Models show that when the planet formed, it was too hot to hold onto the life-giving liquid. Instead, water must have been delivered by other means.,,,,,
    Asteroids currently are the most likely suspect for delivering water to the planet. The small rocky bodies could have carried water and organic material to the surface during the LHB as they slammed into the surface.”

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  7. DFHUNTER
    Forgive a stupid question, but where did the asteroids get all that water? Someone must be making it, and in some location where it’s not too cold for it to freeze, and not too hot for it to evaporate away. Unless it’s enclosed in some kind of galactic sauna…

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  8. Geoff Chambers

    as you may have noted from my previous comments, to quote jethro tull – i’m as “thick as a brick”

    but it makes sense to me…. but get the joke (I think) – the answer is 42

    Like

  9. ps – maybe JIT can do a Prequel to “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” with “Planet on Fire” & “demolition of the Earth by a Vogon constructor fleet to make way for a hyperspace bypass” as the theme?

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  10. John, I have been for a long time a strong advocate of what I call prima facie science. I suspect I adopted this stance when having to make judgements upon undergraduate research in subjects very different from my own. I consider a reasonable case is being made in science if all the evidence for a conclusion is marshalled together and (most importantly) evidence apparently against a proposition is considered and countered. That to me is good or best science: in my judgement much of climate science fails this test, often quite badly.

    I also believe there can be such a thing as elegance in science, a form of reasoning that strikes you as having a form of beauty (I do not have the skill with words to fully describe it) or experiments are devised so well that they stand out as exemplary. I still vividly recall one, and only one, particular undergraduate thesis that showed elegance. The experiments she designed were simple yet beautifully designed to obtain answers. For me they were elegant and, because this is so rare I immediately awarded her a first-class mark. The first marker had awarded a third class mark because the student had analysed her data using the wrong statistical package. His view prevailed, but to this day I believe the student was robbed. Elegance is so very very rare.

    So what has this to do with making judgements between science applied to Earth’s distant past and whether there was a MWP?

    With respect to the former, much of the understanding of Earth’s earlier history advanced when evidence came from the analysis of moon rocks. These are old enough to fill in some of the gaps. One of my most abiding memories about this lunar research was the enormous flowering of techniques and reasoning that were applied to these most precious of rocks. Truly elegant science on a global scale. I am impelled to believe the results and conclusions reached.

    In contrast, I have real reservations about the proxies used by climate science to make judgements about past temperatures. For me, questions about how temperature is record recorded in ice, when it has to go through the snow, firm to ice transitions make any palaeotemperature determinations suspect. I also have suspicions about temperatures derived from tree rings and/or speleothems. Judging whether or not the MWP was global or not is also contentious. Arguments are made that in many parts of the world, the time when the MWP occurred is marked by periods of drought or even cold conditions so the MWP was not a global phenomenon. For me this is spurious reasoning. Today increased warmth is not universal – the Arctic Ocean may be warming and losing summer ice, but the Antarctic is apparently getting colder and its surrounding ice pack enlarging. Concentrating only on Arctic ice is not prima facie science in my book.

    In science, nothing can really be proven, so strictly speaking no one can prove whether Earth was wacked by Theia, or if there never was a MWP.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. It’s at times like these that Erta Ale springs to mind. Sometimes I can’t remember what it’s called, because I like to call it the hellmouth, & sometimes I claim that it’s in Egypt (it’s in Ethiopia). Rather surprisingly, it’s a permanent lava lake. How could it persist for so long? Mysterious. Equally mysterious to my mind is that an Earth with a molten surface could persist for more than a fortnight. I immediately want to start calculating heat loss by Stefan-Boltzmann. But there is much more to this than simply the fourth power of temperature.

    Dunno if that will appear. Anyway, two thoughts that bubble to the top of my mind now that I think of Erta Ale: i), has someone called a beer after it? and ii) could we safely dump canisters of vitrified nuclear waste down it?

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  12. JIT. Erta Ale sits right on top of the African Rift which is actively being pulled apart. This means that the top of the mantle is continually being stretched and depressurised, leading to it becoming partially melted and made buoyant. Thus the cooling surface of the lava lakes are constantly being replaced by fresh hotter magma from the depths passing through continuously opening fractures. If the rift stopped stretching, the lava lakes would not be replenished, would cool and would crystallise into solid lava.

    With respect to Hadean magma oceans, why do you have to spoil it with mathematics and physics? The wonder of global oceans of magma a thousand kilometres deep should be enough to stimulate your soul, without trying to “understand” it. Stephan-Boltzmann, really! I think you want to spoil it for everyone.

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  13. –DFHUNTER
    Forgive a stupid question, but where did the asteroids get all that water?–
    A simple answer is that space rocks which hit Earth, migrated into inner part of solar system to where the Earth is.
    Or came from beyond the frost line or also called snow line.
    Or Near Earth Asteroids have been in these orbits for “only” a few million years {rather a few billion years}.
    So large part of what know about space rocks is what is found in terms meteorites on Earth surface.
    Or
    “To date, there have been nearly 1,100 recovered falls (meteorites seen to fall) and nearly 40,000 finds (found, but not seen to fall). It is estimated that probably 500 meteorites reach the surface of the Earth each year, but less than 10 are recovered.”
    https://psi.edu/epo/faq/meteor.html
    Frost line (astrophysics):
    “In astronomy or planetary science, the frost line, also known as the snow line or ice line, is the particular distance in the solar nebula from the central protostar where it is cold enough for volatile compounds such as water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide to condense into solid ice grains.”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frost_line_(astrophysics)

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  14. “In science, nothing can really be proven, so strictly speaking no one can prove whether Earth was wacked by Theia, or if there never was a MWP.”

    Well if we found Theia {and did a lot measuring, it could firm up idea a bit}:
    Searching for Theia
    “Yuan’s first move was to do some simple calculations, first comparing the size of the two LLSVPs to the size of Mars’ mantle — a rough estimate for Theia’s. He found the two LLSVPs were 80 or 90 percent of the size of the Mars mantle. When he added the moon? “Almost a perfect match,” he says. “So then I thought, it’s not that crazy.” ”
    https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/there-might-be-remnants-of-an-ancient-planet-buried-inside-earth-yup
    [[“I hope more researchers will test our hypothesis, to collect more evidence to either prove or disprove it,” Yuan adds.]]
    As for Medieval Warm Period. I think main thing, is was there Little Ice Age.
    And seems we been a long term gradual cooling period for about 5000 years, and LIA appears to been the coldest time. Or MWP was one of many warmer over last 5000 year. And more significant warm period was earlier than 5000 years ago, or the Holocene Maximum- a warmer period in which it’s tree line is still frozen. And Sahara Desert was green.

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  15. Gbaikie. I remain firm in the claim that science is unable to prove anything. It is true that it is possible to assemble sufficient evidence that a possible explanation is acknowledged to be most likely to be correct. It would then become part of “textbook science” accepted by all except for cranks or a few determined individuals who refuse to acknowledge that some evidence against a theory is invalid. This is why, very occasionally some textbook science is overthrown and the person responsible is lauded. It also explains why there are still a few flat-earthers, individuals who cling to their own preferred evidence.

    As to proving an impact hypothesis with another proto-planet (Theia), those attempting to do so cannot even agree about the size of Theia (one or four times the size of Mars). With respect to the nature of Large low-shear velocity provinces (LLSVPs) and if these might be parts of Theia’s mantle, there is considerable debate about them. Hell, there are even competing hypotheses as to how much of the mantle is being connected – just the uppermost mantle or all of it. This controls how deep into the planet the relatively cold subducting lithospheric slabs descend. This has enormous implications for the origin of LLSVPs. There is also talk of lithospheric slab graveyards within the mantle: a particularly gruesome concept that I must think more about.

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  16. Beth

    Serfs sometimes have one-track minds.
    Get out more and smell the roses,
    or do you only grow grade A turnips in your field now?

    Or do you feel deprived,
    Living on a continent sans volcanoes?
    where fire consumes many a gum tree.

    Like

  17. Lemmings over the cliff…The book blurb:

    “In the age of environmental breakdown, the political status quo has no answer to the devastating and inequitably distributed consequences of the climate emergency. We urgently need an alternative to bring about the rapid transformation of our social and economic systems. As we rebuild our lives in the wake of Covid-19 and face the challenges of ecological disaster, how can the left win a world fit for life?”

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Scientific method..H/t Feynman. First you guess, then you test.

    -Elsewise you jest accept the vision of the annointed

    Alan, Re roses, a poem.
    Yea dance,,,

    Scent of tea roses wafting
    in the air, coupes of sparkling
    champagne at the bar, art deco
    lighting creating a golden
    atmosphere for the tea dance.
    Tinkling piano, ‘I’ve got you
    under my skin,’ couples gliding
    across a parquetry floor,
    doing their best to emulate
    Ginger and Fred’s perfect
    synchronicity.
    bts

    Like

  19. I just found an intriguing blog which I would like to bring to your attention. It is someone’s COVID project to analyse the raw temperature data for individual countries, making no adjustments, and observing the results. He makes intriguing suggestions about urban heat islands and also discusses direct anthropogenic heating – how much are industrial activities etc warming the atmosphere. Several countries exhibit cooling. In most, the warming trend is much less than we might expect. There is also a 0.8 degree jump in temperature in 1988, which is flattened out by “The Science”.
    https://climatescienceinvestigations.blogspot.com/?m=1

    “As the data shown in Fig. 44.1 indicates, the total warming in Europe for the 250 years before 1981 was so small (less than 0.25 °C) that it was less than the natural variation in the mean decadal temperatures over the same period”

    Liked by 1 person

  20. In today’s world “honest climate science” is an oxymoron.
    Insightful people here and elsewhere have noticed the similarities between the climate consensus and covid. Now, thanks to email leaks, as well as watching nation after nation impose new levels of police state tactics,, we see that covid consensus is in fact very similar to the climate consensus.

    Like

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