A simple IR experiment to prove that the North Carolina Sea Level Rise Bill is just flat wrong

July 5th, 2012 by Charles Xie
Last month, North Carolina's Senate passed a bill that would have required the state's Coastal Resources Commission to base predictions of future sea level rise along the state's coast on a steady, linear rate of increase. This has sparked controversies across the nation amid the record heat waves in many states.

If the lawmakers had done our very simple IR experiment on visualizing thermohaline in a cup, published in the July issue of last year's Journal of Chemical Education (see the image to the left), they would have had a better understanding about the possibility of the nonlinear acceleration of ice shelf melting: The less salty the seawater is, the faster the ice shelf above it melts. And the faster ice melts, the less salty the seawater will become. This creates a positive feedback loop that accelerates the melting process. If the speed of ice melting in systems as simple as a cup of saltwater is not as nice as the "steady, linear" rate some of the lawmakers would like to see, who can be sure that systems as complex as the Earth would follow a "steady, linear" trajectory of change?

If you bother to read on, this experiment uses just a cup of tap water, a cup of salt water, and some ice cubes. The two cups are placed next to each other on a table for comparison. (a) An IR image right after an ice cube was added to a cup of freshwater (left) and a cup of saltwater (right). (b) An IR image taken after four minutes showing a downwelling column in the freshwater. (c) An IR image taken after nine minutes showing the tabletop was cooled significantly near the freshwater cup. (d) An IR image taken after 16 minutes showing that the bottom of the freshwater cup became cooler than the top whereas the bottom of the saltwater cup remained warmer than the top.

To see the entire process caught under an IR camera, you can watch the embedded YouTube videos in this blog post. Feel free to send these videos to your representatives if you happen to live in the coastal area of North Carolina. Or send to a science teacher in North Carolina in the hope that the bill will be revised in the future to consider the possibility of nonlinear acceleration.

Note that these videos do not represent any political view and should not be considered as in support of any agenda, my purpose is only to provide a humble scientific demonstration to prove that things do not always go smoothly as we wish.

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