By Neal Singer

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Mark Boslough at AGU meeting raises specter of killer asteroids and what to do about them

He’s also deadly serious about monitoring climate change

If people had to bet their own money on climate change, would it change their opinions? A poster at this year's meeting of the American Geophysical Union asked just that question. (Photo by Ralf Roletschek via Wikimedia Commons)

Think you might be more careful in asserting your opinion on climate change if you were putting money on it? A poster session of the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, "Using Bets to Reveal People’s Opinions on Climate Change,” delivered some conclusions on that very subject. The meeting was held in San Francisco in mid-December.

Primary session convener Mark Boslough (1446 ) — an asteroid impact-effects physicist and climate-change gadfly — along with co-organizers Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol and James Risbey of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) — wrote that “A long-standing means of revealing people's actual preferences . . . involves gambles and bets. People tend to place bets when they are confident of their opinions.” Furthermore, “We [authors] relate bets and gambles to actual information on climate change and propose ways in which the scientific community can use markets of bets as a tool to resolve ambiguities and to communicate scientific facts with an appropriate level of certainty to the public."

While this Skinnerian approach — incentivising beliefs about climate change to conform to facts, with a penalty for guessing wrong — might seem far-fetched in its small sampling (six individual bets) and speculative conclusions, a poster from England (which lists Mark’s work first in its source list) a few feet away proposed to start an actual market in climate temperature and airborne carbon dioxide. “The person who presented it [Mark Roulston of Winton Capital Management in the UK] is serious,” Mark says. “A betting market is legal in England.” 

Other posters in the session focused on different aspects of climate betting, such as insurance plans. “We’re going to hold this session again next year, but we’re going to promote it, so I think we’ll get more abstracts,” Mark says.

Thus far, he says, “We show that for the last few decades, most bets placed [on climate change] would have been lost by contrarians and would have been won by people who endorse the mainstream scientific position.”

The point, says Mark, is “When people talk, they talk across each other; they’re not talking about the same thing. So create a bet with unambiguous terms: the high tomorrow will be 77 degrees or not. When you make a bet and you lose, you have to admit your position was wrong.”

Work on the betting approach is continuing beyond the AGU meeting. On Jan. 30 in London, Roulston emails, Winton Capital Management and the London School of Economics are hosting a lecture “to give exposure to the idea for creating a climate prediction market,” where participants can bet on the value of climate variables up to several decades in the future. Mark Boslough also has submitted an abstract to talk about the subject at a Santa Fe climate conference in February.

Nudging asteroids as planetary defense

But this is only one of Mark's ideas. Earlier that day, in one of the larger convention halls, in a session titled “Asteroid, Impact Risk, and Planetary Defense,” he hosted a session with 35 abstracts on methods to nudge — either by nuclear, direct physical impact, or gravitational means — offending asteroids out of paths that would collide with Earth, while using telescopes to identify and help characterize the qualities of particular asteroids. “It was a broad-ranging session about discovering, characterizing, and assessing risks from asteroids for planetary defense,” says Mark. Researchers from Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, NASA, and various university researchers were among those participating.

The AGU media group held a press conference on this subject and invited Mark to participate, but he preferred to sit in the audience, waving when referenced, as LANL folk weighed in on the strategies for nuclear weapons to deter hostile asteroids.

On the same day, Mark presented a poster with 18 co-authors on the possible effects of asteroid-driven tsunamis striking a coast, should an asteroid strike the ocean directly or explode above its waters. The paper summarized the result of a workshop held last summer with many of the co-authors.

Not willing to communicate on a solely academic basis, Mark then put out an email broadside to 30 or so geophysical scientists, detailing an inexpensive but tasty restaurant to purchase burritos for dinner at 6 p.m., and then gave directions to a particular bar “for interesting discussions throughout the night.”

How warm did things get?

Three mornings later, he co-hosted and was primary convenor for a prized [American Geophysical] “Union” session, which highlighted controversial high-profile research about the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, (PETM) 56 million years ago, when CO2 and temperature rapidly increased more or less simultaneously.

How warm did things get? “There were palm trees in Alaska and crocodiles swimming in the Arctic,” Mark says. “It’s very relevant to today because it was another case of very rapid C02 increase and very rapid warming, just like now. In fact, we’re putting CO2 into the atmosphere faster than it came into the atmosphere during the PETM.”

The relevance of the session was the reason why it was given the status of a Union session, he says. Twelve speakers, all with “invited” status, included Richard Alley, a recent lecturer at Sandia and host of the TV series, Earth: The Operator’s Manual. Wally Broecker, who coined the term “global warming” in a landmark 1975 paper, was a co-organizer. The session was recorded and is available online.

He may use some of his organizing energy at Sandia, he says, “to help smooth the upcoming transition for our technical people working on climate security.”

Other Sandia conference contributions focused more on the basic technical building blocks that Sandia researchers generally provide.

Selected at random from more than 50 presentations, there were a laboratory-scale method for more quickly analyzing noble gases migrating through rock, providing input parameters for improved gas migration models (led by Scott Broome, 6914), reducing errors in satellite-simulated views of clouds with an improved parameterization of unresolved scales (Benjamin Hillman, 6913), a computational method to help more efficiently place sensors around a gas-emitting area to determine if a problem exists and where (Katherine Klise, 6912), and a description of an upcoming NNSA book that takes a physics-based approach to discussing trends in nuclear explosion monitoring research (Megan Slinkard, 5752).