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The Chinese scientific revolution aims to tackle climate change

Posted on 28 November 2014 by John Abraham

This article is about the future landscape of science in general, and climate science in particular.

Just a few days ago, the Chinese Academy of Sciences hosted a small workshop which involved scientists from around the world that work on a device called the Expendable Bathythermograph, or XBT for short. The obscurity of the conference speaks volumes; it didn’t get much, if any, press attention. This fact tells a lot about the host nation.

XBTs are devices that are used to measure ocean temperatures. They were developed many decades ago to help navies determine the depth of the thermocline. Submarines positioned below the thermocline are more able to avoid detection. The devices are released from the deck of a ship and they fall through the water, recording temperatures along the way. As they fall, they unspool a copper wire which is connected to a data collection device so that temperatures can be recorded.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of these devices are dropped into the world’s oceans. A huge database, stretching back to the 1960s is available for climate studies. The problem is that the devices are designed to be, well, expendable and cheap. When their wire spool runs out, the wire breaks, and the torpedo-like device detaches from the ship and sinks to the ocean floor. The expendable nature of the device has forced the cost per device to be low.

As a result, no pressure sensors were installed on the devices so water depth cannot be determined directly. Depth has to be inferred from a correlation of prior experiments. If the correlation is not correct, a scientist will not accurately know the depth of the probe in the water and consequently, will not be able to calculate the energy of the ocean waters. Ocean heating is the hallmark of global warming. If we can’t use XBTs to get an accurate sense of ocean heating, we are flying blind.

So, understanding the accuracy of XBT fall rates (the rate that they descend in the water) is one of the most important and difficult issues in all of climate science. Part of the difficulty is that devices have changed as the years have passed (both device size and weight). Also, fall rates depend on the temperature of the water (colder water is more viscous and thereby retards probe motion). In addition, the height from which the devices are launched impacts the speed of their entry into the water, and their subsequent descent. All of this makes for time and spatially varying fall rates – real mess.

Despite this, only a small handful of scientists are actively working to improve XBT accuracy, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences decided to bring them all together. This unique group of individuals met for three days to try to hammer out a “best practices” standard. While we don’t know yet what the outcome is from this meeting, we see that China has taken a leading role as a scientific player. Approximately half the attendees were Chinese and travel funding was made available by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

While in many parts of the world, like Australia and the USA in particular, funding for basic research is decreasing, in China things are different. Funding is increasing in critical scientific areas. Perhaps more importantly, in China, scientists are respected. In my country, as well as in Canada, and Australia, whenever you tell people you are a scientist, you must prepare for a negative reaction.

Perhaps it is because we understand human evolution, the history of the universe, climate change, or the causes and effects of acid rain as just some examples. Understanding basic science is a threat to many people in my country. Just being a scientist means I represent those things that are an anathema. It is a very sad state when the people who are most needed to help us navigate our social problems are dismissed by a sizable population.

This is not the case in China. My Chinese colleagues get support from their government, their media, and the larger society. They don’t have to wade through hate mail upon coming to the office in the morning. Mail that can always be identified by its terrible speeling an, punctuation!

Yes, the center of intellectual capacity is clearly shifting toward China. That country has a forward looking view of the future. Not only in clean energy and climate, but in information systems, health care, nanotechnology, and other high-technology areas.

I spoke to Dr. Jiang Zhu, the director of Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences. He told me,

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. Excellent article John. I would add that, while budgets may not be increasing in Europe either, scientists there do still receive a lot of respect and attention, and science and scientists are regularly in the news. In addition, I do not think that the situation you describe for scientists working on topics that are "anathema" to many people is transferable to the sciences in general.

    However, we could use some more solidarity in the sense that physical scientists ought to be supportive of other sciences they may consider less rigorous, such as biology. And vice versa: more scientists from all fields ought to support their colleagues in climate and evolution sciences, who regularly get attacked, because silence only reinforces the notion that you described as "Understanding basic science is a threat to many people in my country" in the general population.

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  2. I hope the current support of basic science continues in China. However, the power of pursuers of profit and the temporary popularity for unsustainable harmful action they can create could easily overcome the apparent support for basic scieence in China. Hopefully, the powerful people infuencing China are becoming genuinely interested in the development of a sustainable better future for all life on this amazing planet. Hopefully, they will resist the temptation to return to pursuing a better present for themselves any way they can get away with.

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  3. "That country has a forward looking view of the future. Not only in clean energy and climate..."

    I'm not exactly sure how you can say that about a country that burns about half of all coal burned in the world.

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  4. Wili, maybe after suffocating in the worst pollution clouds seen in the world, having to cure millions of people with respiratory illnesses and facing possible civil uprisings against pollution they are finally realizing that burning coal is a race to disaster.

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  5. Maybe China official commitments of a peak in coal in 2020 are a bit too conservative (from

    Has China already reached peak coal?

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  6. Oh Goody!   How does one say  "Clean Coal"  in Chinese?

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  7. Good thing that we are no longer part of England.   Though it would have been nice if someone had identified the the author as English and not american.

    After doctors, the rest of the top ten occupations seen as prestigious include military officers (78%), firefighters (76%), scientists (76%), nurses (70%), engineers (69%), police officers (66%), priests/ministers/clergy (62%), architects (62%), and athletes (60%).  LINK


    As to the wonderfulness of china.  It is the most poluted country on the planet.

    There is a reason that those who can are leaving and taking their money with them to the tune of about a biillion dollars every three years.

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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] Shortened link. Please use the link tool on the second tab of the comments box to shorten excessively long url's.

  8. @6...  Cantonese is "gonjeng mui." :-)

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