Book Review – Louis Agassiz, a biography by Christoph Irmscher

Agassiz coverI first heard of Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) in my beginning geology courses. A Pleistocene lake, Lake Agassiz, which covered parts of Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and Minnesota, was named after Agassiz posthumously because of Agassiz’s research on glaciers in the Swiss Alps.

Aggasiz was born in Switzerland and educated there and in Germany, receiving a PhD. in 1829 in natural science, and a Doctorate in surgery and medicine in 1830, the later to please his Calvinist father.

In 1846 he moved to America where he became a professor of Zoology at Harvard, founded the Anderson School of Natural History near Cap Cod (one of the first coed colleges) that eventually became Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Agassiz was a passionate collector and established what would become the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He advertized far and wide for specimens, living or dead.

According to Irmsher, Agassiz was a complex man, a great friend to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and an arch-rival to Charles Darwin. He was a passionate scientist and part P.T. Barnum. And he had a dark side.

Irmsher writes that Agassiz’s story is “riven with the contradictions of a man who wanted to come across as both rigorously professional and unrelentingly popular, a man who believed that science practiced with due diligence could clear up not only the little problems that confounded the specialists but also the whole cosmic puzzle itself. Agassiz was one of the first to establish science as a collective enterprise. Yet he insisted on putting his own personal stamp on anything that came out of the museum he had founded and forbade his assistants to claim credit for any part of their own research done on company time. He was an ardent advocate of abolition, yet he also believed in the racial inferiority of blacks.”

Agassiz’s study of glaciers and fossils lead him to reject Darwin’s new theory of evolution. Rather, Agassiz was somewhat of a Creationist, but not as the term is currently used. Agassiz believed not in continuous evolution, but a series of creation events, in “oscillations,” where ice ages killed off everything and God created and recreated life anew.

Agassiz published over 400 books and scientific articles and was one of the first to propose that Europe and North America were once covered by glaciers. He was, however, a great proponent of field work, “study nature, not books.” He was also the consummate lecturer and his lectures were not confined to the classroom. His “popularity in America transcended class as well as regional boundaries.”

Irmsher spins an interesting story of a complex man based largely upon abundant correspondence from Agassiz, his contemporaries, and his wife and sister.

One of Agassiz’s great strengths was his ability to explain science to the layman. Irmsher writes in the epilogue, “as Louis Agassiz drifts into the sunset of this narrative, it is worth remembering how his struggles, problems, and aspirations are still with us. Yes, we haven’t moved beyond his biases and blindnesses as much as much as we would like to think we have, but that isn’t all. In my view, Louis Agassiz was never more provocative than when he argued science ought to be part of the general fabric of society.” I agree. More emphasis on science is needed in general education.

If you are interested in the history of science, its development and its characters, you will be interested in the story of Louis Agassiz.

The book is available is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available at Amazon as a hardcover book (to be released Feb. 5) and a Kindle edition. It is also available from Barnes & Noble.

Greenland from 39000 feet

The great circle airline route from Los Angeles to London passes over Hudson Bay (very icy on June 10, 2012), and southern Greenland. The photos below, taken from our flight to London at an altitude of 39,000 feet show the terrain near the southern coast of Greenland. The coastal area is not covered by the continental glacier of central Greenland. The sea, within a few miles of the coast contained hundreds of icebergs.

The first photo shows the general terrain of coastal Greenland. From 39,000 feet you can see the curvature of the earth, look at the horizon.


The next photo shows a small, snow-covered glacier near the center of the picture, along with a terminal moraine (pile of rocks) spilling into an estuary.



Ice loss minimal in Antarctica, Greenland, and Himalayas

Ice caps and glaciers wax and wane in response to many cycles. In this post I examine recent research on the state of the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps, and glaciers in the Himalayas.


Satellite measurement of glaciers in the Himalayas revealed that these mountains lost only one-tenth the ice between 2003 and 2010 compared to the loss reported in previous estimates. (Source). The Guardian (U.K.) reports that Bristol University glaciologist Prof Jonathan Bamber said: “The very unexpected result was the negligible mass loss from high mountain Asia, which is not significantly different from zero.”

This study period is very short and the results could be an artifact of the variable monsoons. The results could also reflect the difference between extrapolation from a few ground stations and more complete measurement by satellites. Satellite measurement is based on gravity, a method that is capable of giving a detailed picture. Gravity measurements are also used in mineral exploration.


A new surface mass balance (SMB) map of Antarctic shows no significant trend for the period 1979-2010. Note that this is a modeling study, but the authors claim it is in good agreement with 750 surface measuring stations. See full paper and graphics here.



During the mid-2000s, Greenland received much publicity because of the rapid melting of outlet glaciers in the western and southern part of the island. A new study shows that this melting is part of a cycle that produced rapid melting in the 1930s as well. The study authors attribute the melting “with a relatively strong influence of Atlantic water and a lower influence of polar water on the shelf off Greenland, as well as with warm summers and the negative phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation. (Source). The study was based on analysis of sedimentary deposits. Here is their graph of relative melting.

Rutgers University keeps track of snow cover around the world. Their data show as slight, but steadily increasing snow cover in Greenland since 1966. See graphs for the northern hemisphere as a whole here. There is a slightly increasing trend.

Two of the studies cited above give short-term glimpses of what is happening. They do not necessarily reflect long-term trends. But CAGW proponents and the press are quick to cite such studies when the trends go their way. And, even the short-term studies suggest that natural forces easily overwhelm any alleged influence of carbon dioxide emissions.

For the story on Sea ice see Arctic sea ice reaches seasonal low.

See also:

Ice Ages and Glacial Epochs

When Antarctica Freezes Over

Arctic tipping point, will there be an ice-free Arctic

2010 the 9000th Warmest Year

The year 2010 was one of weather extremes due mainly to the transition from El Nino to La Nina. The year has been much touted as the warmest in the last 150 years or at least the warmest since it was cooler. But, looking at a longer perspective, the 10,500 years of our current interglacial period, 2010 was cooler than about 9,000 of those years.

That is the contention of geologist Dr. Don J. Easterbrook. “One of the best ways to look at long-term temperatures is with isotope data from the GISP2 Greenland ice core, from which temperatures for thousands of years can be determined.” By looking at the ratio of oxygen- 16 to oxygen-18, the temperatures at the time snow fell over the glaciers can be determined. “The age of such temperatures can be accurately measured from annual layers of accumulation of rock debris marking each summer’s melting of ice and concentration of rock debris on the glacier.”

Cuffey and Clow

See Easterbrook’s full article here.

Research Review #2: The Blue Mystery, toads, and rare earth metals

From time to time I will summarize new science research from recently published, or about-to-be published papers. Usually, notice of the research comes in the form of press releases from universities that are made available to the media. Although the Arizona Daily Star sometimes prints science stories, their selection of stories seems to be confined to reprints of AP articles. So here are some of the stories I didn’t see in the Star.

The Blue Mystery


Most Egyptian pottery is undecorated, but during the New Kingdom, the period when Egypt was at the zenith of its power, a variety of pottery was elegantly decorated in a distinctive pale blue.

Most blue comes from copper, but “Copper-based pigments must be applied in thick layers and were added after firing, so they tended to flake off when an object was handled. Instead of copper, the colorant used on most of the blue painted pottery is cobalt, which was fired onto the pots.” Where did the cobalt mineral come from? “Generic Geologist” Jennifer Smith finds the source. See:


New alloys key to efficient energy and lighting


A recent advance by Arizona State University researchers in developing nanowires could lead to more efficient photovoltaic cells for generating energy from sunlight, and to better light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that could replace less energy-efficient incandescent light bulbs.

Mastery of Rare-earth Elements Vital to America’s Security

Karl A. Gschneidner Jr., a senior metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, today cautioned members of a Congressional panel that “rare-earth research in the USA on mineral extraction, rare-earth separation, processing of the oxides into metallic alloys and other useful forms, substitution, and recycling is virtually zero.” Rare-earth elements are critical components in the great majority of America’s high-tech commercial and military products. Yet the United States and other nations have ceded much of this alloying knowledge to China.

Glaciers Melting, not so fast

The melting of glaciers is well documented, but when looking at the rate at which they have been retreating, a team of international researchers steps back and says not so fast. Previous studies have largely overestimated mass loss from Alaskan glaciers over the past 40-plus years, according to Erik Schiefer, a Northern Arizona University geographer who coauthored a paper in the February issue of Nature Geoscience that recalculates glacier melt in Alaska.

Were short warm periods typical for transitions between interglacial and glacial epochs?

Researchers evaluate climate fluctuations from 115,000 years ago

At the end of the last interglacial epoch, around 115,000 years ago, there were significant climate fluctuations. In Central and Eastern Europe, the slow transition from the Eemian Interglacial to the Weichselian Glacial was marked by a growing instability in vegetation trends with possibly at least two warming events. This is the finding of German and Russian climate researchers who have evaluated geochemical and pollen analyses of lake sediments in Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg and Russia. Writing in Quaternary International, scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), the Saxon Academy of Sciences (SAW) in Leipzig and the Russian Academy of Sciences say that a short warming event at the very end of the last interglacial period marked the final transition to the ice age.

Ancient Corals Hold New Hope for Reefs

Fossil corals, up to half a million years old, are providing fresh hope that coral reefs may be able to withstand the huge stresses imposed on them by today’s human activity.

Reef ecosystems were able to persist through massive environmental changes imposed by sharply falling sea levels during previous ice ages, an international scientific team has found. This provides new hope for their capacity to endure the increasing human impacts forecast for the 21st century.

El Niño and a pathogen killed Costa Rican toad, study finds

Challenges evidence that global warming was the cause


Scientists broadly agree that global warming may threaten the survival of many plant and animal species; but global warming did not kill the Monteverde golden toad, an often cited example of climate-triggered extinction, says a new study. The toad vanished from Costa Rica’s Pacific coastal-mountain cloud forest in the late 1980s, the apparent victim of a pathogen outbreak that has wiped out dozens of other amphibians in the Americas. Many researchers have linked outbreaks of the deadly chytrid fungus to climate change, but the new study asserts that the weather patterns, at Monteverde at least, were not out of the ordinary.

The role that climate change played in the toad’s demise has been fiercely debated in recent years. The new paper, in the March 1 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the latest to weigh in. In the study, researchers used old-growth trees from the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve to reconstruct moisture levels in that region over the last century. They expected to see global warming manifested in the form of a long-term warming or drying trend, but instead discovered that the forest’s dry spells closely tracked El Niño, the periodic and natural warming of waters off South America that brings drought to some places and added rainfall and snow to others.


IPCC and Peer Review

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that all of its reports and predictions are based on strictly peer-reviewed scientific papers. Well, not exactly. Recent investigations have shown that many IPCC reports were based on everything from magazine articles, telephone conversations, and propaganda from radical environmental groups.

Mountain Ice

In its most recent report (the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, aka 4AR), the IPCC stated that observed reductions in mountain ice in the Andes, Alps and Africa was being caused by global warming, citing two papers as the source of the information. However, one of the sources quoted was a feature article published in a popular magazine for climbers which was based on anecdotal evidence from mountaineers about the changes they were witnessing on the mountainsides around them. The other was a dissertation written by a geography student, studying for the equivalent of a master’s degree, at the University of Berne in Switzerland that quoted interviews with mountain guides in the Alps. See story in London Telegraph:

Himalayan glaciers

The IPCC claim that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 was based on an unverified magazine article and the IPCC knew it. Nevertheless, the IPCC let the statement stand for purely political purposes.

The claim that Himalayan glaciers are set to disappear by 2035 rests on two 1999 magazine interviews with glaciologist Syed Hasnain, which were then recycled without any further investigation in a 2005 report by the environmental campaign group World Wildlife Fund. This fact was brought to the attention of the IPCC before they published their 2007 report, but the IPCC let the statement stand. The original article was based on a short telephone interview with scientist Syed Hasnain, then based in Delhi, who has since said his views were “speculation”. The lead author of the IPCC chapter said, “We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.” This alone shows that the IPCC is a political body rather than a scientific one.


The IPCC also made false predictions on the Amazon rain forests, referenced to a non peer-reviewed paper produced by an advocacy group working with the World Wildlife Fund. This time though, the claim made is not even supported by the report and seems to be a complete fabrication. See story at

Floods and Hurricanes

The IPCC report wrongly linked global warming to an increase in the number and severity of natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. The claims were based on an unpublished report that had not been subjected to routine scientific scrutiny – and ignored warnings from scientific advisers that the evidence supporting the link was too weak. The report’s own authors later withdrew the claim because they felt the evidence was not strong enough. The IPCC’s 2007 report contained a separate section that warned the world had “suffered rapidly rising costs due to extreme weather-related events since the 1970s”. This claim was touted by Obama last fall: “More powerful storms and floods threaten every continent.”

Coral Degradation

In Chapter 6 of 4AR, the IPCC claims that coral degradation is caused by global warming. The source for this claim is promotional literature by Greenpeace. The IPCC also based reports on solar and wind power on Greenpeace documents.

See report:

Implications for US climate policy:

The EPA based its carbon dioxide endangerment finding on the IPCC. The EPA is supposed to vet the peer-review process from outside sources of information, something it did not do, so the EPA did not comply with the law. See ClimateAudit analysis: