In my opinion, this comment by Anastassia Makarieva on the interactive part of the ACS website, as well as being a strong defense of their paper, is a powerful indictment of the state of affairs in the peer review of climate science. Given the grief of rejection, the tone is remarkably restrained. Instead, there is a channelling of energy into a righteous intensity which makes this a bit of a classic. Use the first link for the full version with all footnotes included.
Interactive comment on “Where do winds come
from? A new theory on how water vapor
condensation influences atmospheric pressure
and dynamics” by A. M. Makarieva et al.
A. M. Makarieva et al.
Received and published: 26 April 2011
Aside from our technical response to Dr. Held1 we also wish to discuss the criteria he
uses to assess our manuscript. All theories should be subjected to similar standards
of scrutiny regardless of whether they conform to conventional thinking or not. We find
many examples to show that much of the argument against our theory and in favour
of conventional ideas appears based on misconceptions. We conclude with an appeal
concerning the wider practical importance of our ideas.
1 High bar for unconventional findings
Dr. Held starts his review with the recommendation to reject our manuscript. He explains
that a study that goes against the standard perspective or aims to overturn the
conventional wisdom has to pass a high bar.
As science students we are taught about the sins of confirmation bias – that is the need
not to allow our preconceptions and judgements to cloud our objectivity. We should not
reject ideas, or data, that fail to conform to our expectations any more readily than
those we agree with. We all agree with that as an abstract idea though it can be hard
to achieve in practice. Biases are often hard to perceive for those who hold them
especially if they are pervasive. But we should strive for objectivity – when biases are
identified we must do what we can to remove or minimise them.
Dr. Held believes our theory has to pass a high bar because of the accumulated evidence,
implicit as well as explicit, that argues against it. Dr. Held does not spell out any
evidence at all (so it all remains implicit in this case), but it is presumably a statement
of his confidence that climate modelers already have a handle on the basic principles
on how the World’s climate works. Clearly we disagree with this. If there were such
evidence the scientific approach requires that it is presented to us so that we can address
it explicitly. When it is not specified we can perhaps be forgiven for believing that
the bar has been placed infinitely high: a serious case of “confirmation bias”. Such
biases must be questioned by all of us with a training in science (regardless of views
concerning our theory).
Dr. Held concludes his review by recommending that we should avoid appealing to
authorities. He is referring to our selected quotes by Brunt and Lorenz. Normally we
would agree that such quotes are out of place in a physics paper. However, in this case
we made an explicit choice as we felt that we needed them. Our appeals to authority
are intended to counter the (familiar) arguments based on implicit evidence: that our
theory is not needed, or wrong, or the bar should be raised just because climate scien-
tists already have all the theory they need and there are no major gaps and flaws. Our
point is that climate theory is full of basic questions and doubts and many respected
authorities say so. For us a particular value of the opinions of Brunt and Lorenz lies in
the fact that they were formulated prior to the era of computer modelling. Nowadays
we find simulation is too often allowed to replace physical understanding2. Targeted
coding of numerical models can successfully simulate numerous patterns, including
many prohibited by the laws of nature3.
2 Low bar for “conventional” findings?
A higher bar for unconventional ideas automatically implies a lower bar for conventional
ones. Introducing a positive feedback – relating the height of the higher bar to the
number of studies that have passed the lower bar – in time if this continues a once
vibrating scientific community can be trapped in dogma. An objective culture might be
eroded by overconfidence in its own monolithic vision. This may be especially likely
in climate sciences due to the considerable effort invested in presenting a confident
unified front to the outside world.
Attitudes to vapor sink dynamics illustrate our concerns. Water vapor condensation is
a ubiquitous process in day-to-day weather and climate processes. Nonetheless the
nature of the associated pressure gradients has never received a theoretical investigation.
These gradients are seldom mentioned (even to discount them) in the reviews of
the general circulation theory. We find that in the microphysical studies of the phase
transitions of water vapor the physical causes of condensation are usually neglected.
E.g., in the study of Vesala et al. (1997), characterized as a clear and accurate theoretical
description of condensation by Kolb et al. (2010), it is emphasized that any
global processes that induce the conditions required for condensation to occur are not
considered and that such conditions are assumed to be predetermined. Most existing
accounts of the vapor sink, like the study of Lackmann and Yablonsky (2004), are
based on empirically fitted numerical models and do not provide or allow for a transparent
physical interpretation. These simulation studies differ in their formulations, results
and outcomes. But we see that in climate science the outputs of models of varying
degree of complexity can contradict each other without triggering any discussion or
The few studies designed to investigate the vapor sink appear from our evaluations to
be based on unphysical assumptions, like the gravity defying levitation of liquid droplets
in motionless air5 in the study of Bryan and Fritsch (2002) or atmospheric warming by
spontaneous drying in the study of Spengler et al. (2011), as endorsed by Dr. Held
in his review6. Nevertheless, because these flawed results have been “conventional”
enough to pass over the bar, they are considered benchmarks or physicality tests for
getting other ideas over the same bar.
A paradox, considering the common claims of general consensus, is that we find that
even basic questions are controversial in climate science circles. This is a result of
limited attention and investigation. These are not idle claims. For example, does condensation
in a volume of atmosphere (near-) immediately lower pressure at the surface
or must one wait until the droplets precipitate out to the surface – views among climate
scientists differ on this basic question with a majority apparently believing the latter to
be true7. Recently a modelling study (Spengler et al., 2011) was required to illustrate
that, since gas obeys a different equation of state than liquid, changes of air pressure
and fall out of droplets occur on different time scales. Indeed, as condensation occurs
the air pressure is lowered at the surface near instantaneously (at the time scale defined
by the speed of sound and height of condensation). These points are all obvious
enough when viewed from the perspective of basic physics.
There are deeper misunderstandings, like confusing heat and work. Any spatially nonuniform
warming of the atmosphere can be brought back to equilibrium by heat transfer
(e.g., by radiation to space) without any work performed or dynamic flow generated. In
contrast, to compensate for gas removal from an atmospheric volume, mass can be
only resupplied there by performing work on that volume by way of its compression.
This fundamental difference between pressure gradients associated with heat versus
gas removal is ignored. E.g., Spengler et al. (2011, p. 358) believe that as heating is
offset by diabatic cooling there would be analogous compensation for drying (=vapor
sink). This confusion between heat and work is perhaps a key (pervasive) misconception
about vapor sink dynamics.
In summary, despite some claims by climate modelers at GFDL8 that the vapor sink
is comprehensively included in current global circulation models, it is unclear how this
could be achieved given the poor state of either theory or empirical understanding.
3 Science: One bar for all
In our paper, the pressure gradient due to the inherent spatial inhomogeneity of the
condensation/evaporation process is derived for the first time in the scientific literature.
It is further shown that in the atmospheric context this gradient is of sufficient magnitude
to be considered as a major driver of atmospheric dynamics.
The criteria to be applied in assessing the value of new scientific propositions are
reasonably simple. Is our proposition consistent in terms of its form and logic with
basic physical principles? We say “yes”. Does it make predictions that can be tested?
Again we say “yes”. Has anyone shown any error in the mathematical or physical
reasoning? Here the answer is, as far as we can see, “no” – there are valid differences
of opinion, and no shortage of misunderstandings, but no-one has shown an error. We
thus see no valid scientific argument for a “higher bar” and none has been presented. A
study should not be rejected (i.e. given a “high bar”) because its results are surprising
or because people find the equations hard to follow or because the reviewer believes it
is wrong but can present no evidence – these are not the criteria we should accept.
The validity of any new proposition in science is ultimately tested by empirical evidence.
In climate science the situation is peculiar in that the objects of interest often exist in
a single number – e.g., the Hadley circulation – and the underlying systems cannot
be modified at the discretion of the investigator. Unlike chemists or particle physicists,
climate scientists cannot easily set up and perform experiments on many of the phenomena
they study (see, e.g., Held (2005) for a discussion). In such a situation the
first test a new theory (in our case, the proposition that atmospheric dynamics is driven
by the vapor sink) can be expected to pass is to explain the existing evidence better
(i.e., with fewer empirical parameterizations and on a unified physical basis) than the
old one (in our case, the proposition that winds are driven by heat). In our present
work and other recent papers we offer a number of examples indicating that this can
be achieved (e.g., Makarieva and Gorshkov, 2010, 2011; Makarieva et al., 2009, 2010,
2011). One cannot expect a few people to fully elaborate a new theory and analyze all
available evidence in one paper. This is seldom how science progresses. We believe
that publication of our findings in the meteorological literature will encourage other climate
students to investigate the problems, test our propositions and reach their own
We also see an opportunity to study some aspects of condensation dynamics in the
laboratory. Condensing vapor allows for a one-dimensional flow between warm and
cold liquid surfaces. Vapor arises by evaporation at the warmer surface, flows towards
the colder surface and “disappears” (i.e. condenses) there. Such a one-dimensional
motion with zero velocity at both boundaries is by definition impossible for a noncondensable
gas in which mass is conserved. There is a number of studies, both
empirical and theoretical, where such phenomena have been investigated independent
of atmospheric sciences, see a recent review by Kryukov et al. (2010). In the Earth’s
atmosphere the surfaces where condensation occurs (i.e. on moisture droplets) do not
coincide with the upper boundary surface of the circulation but are distributed within
the atmospheric column allowing for macroscopic motions in all directions. Once our
theoretical propositions are seriously analyzed and studied, this may stimulate other
investigators to attempt replicating relevant processes in the laboratory.
Why bother? There are several reasons. Here we highlight one which we consider the
most important. If we are correct that it is principally the vapor sink that determines
large-scale atmospheric dynamics, then all changes in terrestrial vegetation (and associated
changes in terrestrial vapor dynamics) threaten drastic changes in seasonal
wind patterns and, associated climates (Sheil and Murdiyarso, 2009). Such modifications
are unrelated to other aspects of climate change such as those related to
greenhouse gases etc. – but will be inherently regional and threaten many human
populations9. Those who find these ideas unlikely should pause to consider the costs
of being wrong – how certain need they be to discount the risk? We do not have a
model South American or North American continent in the laboratory to test empirically
what happens if their forests are destroyed or degraded.
While the climate community strives to impose global regulations on humanity based
on their understanding of climate, climate scientists should not be afraid of investing
in the constructive evaluation of provocative results10. Despite considerable scrutiny
from large numbers of climate scientists over the last nine months, for which we are
grateful, we have not been shown to be wrong. We request that reviewers begin to
allow for the fact that we might be right. If true our theory has implications for the lives of
many people and for the global environment. For both scientific and moral reasons we
believe our ideas urgently need concerted objective examination by climate scientists.
To make responsible predictions and elaborate strategies that are compatible with longterm
human well-being, we need to ensure that the physical principles underlying our
shared understanding of atmospheric circulation are correct. This calls for scrutiny
not just of our propositions but of all the models that are currently utilised. We call
on climate scientists to ensure good open-minded science striving for objectivity and
insight – please place all bars accordingly.
Acknowledgements. We thank all people who discussed our work. Our special thanks are
due to Drs. Peter Belobrov, Paulo Nobre and Stefan Emeis, whose comments submitted to this
discussion did not require a response from the authors but were greatly appreciated. Upon the
closure of this discussion, further developments with regard to our paper can be monitored at
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