Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth movie review

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 5:02 PM GMT on June 19, 2006

Al Gore's global warming movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," aims to call attention to the dangers society faces from climate change, and suggests urgent actions that need to be taken immediately. It is based on a slide show on climate Gore has presented to audiences worldwide over 1000 times in the past 15 years, but it is not purely a documentary. Gore's movie is an advocacy piece that is part documentary, part biography, and part campaign ad. I'll discuss all three of these aspects below. In brief, Al Gore has the right idea--climate change is an urgent issue that requires immediate action, and his thoughtful movie is a welcome addition to the usual array of mindless Hollywood summer fare. However, the movie has flaws. The presentation of the science is good, but not great--I rate it B minus. The excessive details on Al Gore's life make the movie too long, and his insistence on using the movie as something of a campaign ad detracts from its message.

An Inconvenient Truth as a biography of Al Gore
The creators of the movie presumably thought that simply presenting Gore's slide show would be too dull, so they decided to give the movie some human interest by interweaving a biography of Al Gore's life. Al Gore has led an interesting life, but "interesting" and "Al Gore" are not words one can often put together. As my daughter noted in her movie review yesterday, Al Gore is boring, and the 20 minutes or so of biography presented in An Inconvenient Truth is too much for a movie that is 1 hour and 36 minutes long. For example, I didn't really need to see the road where Al Gore totaled his car when he was 14 years old, or a replay of his loss in the 2000 election. On the other hand, some details of his past were interesting and relevant, such as the fact that he took college courses in the late 1960s from Harvard's Dr. Roger Revelle. Revelle and Dr. Charles Keeling were the pioneers in measurements of atmospheric CO2, and thus Gore got a very early exposure to the now infamous "Keeling Curve" (Figure 1), showing the build-up of atmospheric CO2. This early exposure to the significant impact humans were having on the atmosphere deeply affected Gore, and in the movie he details efforts he made to call attention to the issue long before most people had heard of it, back in the 1970s and 80s. Gore's slide show appropriately displays many graphs of the Keeling Curve, as it is probably the most important and most famous finding in climate change science.

Figure 1. The Keeling Curve is a record of CO2 measurements taken at he top of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii since 1958.

The science of An Inconvenient Truth
The science presented is mostly good, and at times compelling, but there are a few errors and one major distortion of the truth. Gore does an excellent job focusing on the most important issues, and usually presents them with a minimum of hype and distortion. The only exception to this comes in his treatment of global warming and extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

Basic global warming science
Gore begins the science part of his talk with a very easy to understand presentation on the basics of how the greenhouse effect works. His speech is clear, the graphics top notch, and he spices it up with a hilarious two-minute cartoon depicting roughneck global warming gases preventing poor Mr. Sunbeam from escaping Earth's atmosphere. Gore addresses the argument of skeptics who claim that the Earth is too big for humans to affect by showing Space Shuttle photos of how thin the atmosphere really is compared to the vast bulk of our planet. "The problem we now face is that this thin layer of atmosphere is being thickened by huge quantities of carbon dioxide," he asserts, which is not correct. The build-up of CO2 has virtually no effect on the density or thickness of Earth's atmosphere. The correct thing to say would have been, "The problem we now face is that this thin layer of atmosphere is being made more opaque to the transmission of infrared radiation (heat) by huge quantities of carbon dioxide."

Gore shows an impressive series of "then and now" images documenting the widespread retreat of many glaciers over the past century. Most dramatically, he shows Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro, whose 11,000 year-old glaciers are almost gone. While not all the world's glaciers have retreated in the past century, Gore's presentation is an effective and reasonable way to show how global warming has affected the majority of the world's glaciers. Greenhouse skeptics, including Michael Crichton in his State of Fear book, are fond of bashing those who use Mt. Kilimanjaro as a poster child for demonstrating global warming. They cite scientific research showing that the glacial retreat on Mt. Kilimanjaro is due to drying of the atmosphere, not global warming. However, as discussed at great length in a post, the research which supposedly supports the skeptics' claims has been widely misquoted and misinterpreted, and much of Kilimanjaro's melting can indeed be ascribed to warming of the atmosphere since 1960.

Gore does an excellent job discussing the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica. Again, Gore's graphics are superb, and he does a nice job narrating. He shows animations of what a 20-foot rise in sea level would do to Manhattan, Florida, India, and China. A 20-foot sea level rise is what we expect if all of Greenland or all of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt. Such a 20-foot rise is not expected by 2100, and it would have been appropriate for Gore to acknowledge that the consensus of climate scientists--as published in the most recent report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)--is that sea level is likely to rise between 4 and 35 inches, with a central value of 19 inches, by 2100. He should have also mentioned that temperatures in Greenland in the 1930s were about as warm as today's temperatures, so the current melting of Greenland's glaciers does have historical precedent. Nevertheless, the risk of a catastrophic melting and break-up of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets is very real, when we consider that sea level before the most recent ice age was 15 feet higher than it is now. Gore is right to draw attention to what might happen if sea level rose 20 feet.

Drought and heat waves
An excellent discussion of the most serious climate change issue our generation is likely to face, the threat of increased drought and reduced water supplies, is presented. Gore makes reference to the extreme heat wave that affected Europe during the summer of 2004, and I was glad to see that he didn't blame the heat wave on global warming--he merely said that more events of this nature will be likely in the future.

Hurricanes and severe weather
The biggest failure in the movie's presentation of science comes in the discussion hurricanes and severe weather events. The devastation wrought by Katrina is used to very dramatic effect to warn of the dangers climate change presents. We are told that Katrina grew "stronger and stronger and stronger" as it passed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico that were heated up by global warming. We are told that global warming is increasing the intensity of hurricanes, but not provided information on the great amount of uncertainty and vigorous scientific debate on this issue. Graphs showing recent record insurance losses from natural disasters are presented, but no mention is made of how increasing population and insistence on building in vulnerable areas are the predominant factors causing recent high insurance claims from disasters such as Katrina. Gore points to some unprecedented events in 2004 as evidence of increasing severe weather events worldwide--the record 10 typhoons in Japan, the most tornadoes ever in the U.S., and the appearance of Brazil's first hurricane ever. However, examples of this kind are meaningless. No single weather event, or unconnected series of severe weather events such as Gore presents, are indicative of climate change. In particular, the IPCC has not found any evidence that climate change has increased tornado frequency, or is likely to. Gore doesn't mention the unusually quiet tornado season of 2005, when for the first time ever, no tornadoes were reported in Oklahoma in the month of May.

Other science
Gore presents many other important aspects of climate change, including the threat of abrupt climate change leading to a shut-off of the Gulf Stream current, the increase in damaging insect infestations and tropical diseases, loss of coral reefs, loss of ice in the polar ice cap, and melting of permafrost in the Arctic. With the possible exception of his treatment of the spread of tropical diseases, all of these issues were presented with sound science.

An Inconvenient Truth as a campaign ad
Gore has repeatedly said that he has no intention of running for president again, and that this movie was created as part of his life-long passion to protect the environment. Gore undoubtedly does care very deeply about the planet, but this movie very much looks like a campaign ad. We are shown many scenes of Gore being applauded, Gore traveling the globe to present his slide show, and Gore working to uncover evidence of Republican shenanigans to alter or suppress climate change science. Gore is portrayed as a humble and tireless crusader for good, and if the movie is not intended to promote his political ambitions, it is certainly intended to benefit the Democratic Party. All this gets in the way of the movie's central message.

At the end of the movie, we are presented with the same image that Gore started the movie with, that of a beautiful river in the wilderness. Throughout the movie, Gore emphasizes how beautiful and special our planet is, and he does an effective job conveying this. He also makes a powerful case that something can and should be done to protect the planet, and it is worth hearing his message, even if the science is flawed and the messenger does get in the way of the message. Overall, the movie rates 2.5 stars--worth seeing, but you might want to wait until the DVD comes out.

At the end of the movie, Gore presents some tips on how everyone can contribute, and points people to his web site, However, I would recommend that people who want to get educated about climate change get their information from web sites not associated with a politician; perhaps the least politicized source of information is the latest scientific summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC), a group of over 2000 scientists from 100 countries working under a mandate from the United Nations in the largest peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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176. OneDay
1:16 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
(referring to Austin NWS discussion, not politics... ;-)
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175. OneDay
1:11 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
Nice find, bappit. It's looked exactly like that (a decaying ts or td) all day long on radar and satellite. Per the Houston/Galv radar, the system does not look to be moving much at all; perhaps slightly w of s. What do you think?
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174. bappit
12:54 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
I don't expect politicians to do anything about CO2 until people are dying in droves. There are too many conflicting interests for anything to happen. Debating the science is a waste of time. Besides, there are just too many heffalumping people on earth and will be for a long time to come.

Ok, that's cynical, but it feels good to get it said. We should be debating interests, i.e., priorities, not science. Debating science is a distraction supported especially by those happy with the status quo. It is like smoking cigarettes. Common sense says it cannot be good, but there are dollars to be made. I'm not thinking of the fossil fuel industry either. Changes would cause disruptions for lots of industries/ways of life.

Also, I agree that Gore is a politician and just can't help it. He will promote himself no matter what. But that is again cynical of me. He may surprise. Jimmy Carter was a lousy politician and look at all the good he has done since then. Maybe Gore can, too.
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173. bappit
12:47 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
From the Austin forecast discussion:


I'd call it tropical even though it originated with a cut off low. Of course, one can only expect rain from it and if it heads west that will be greatly appreciated by folks I know.
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172. jeffB
12:16 AM GMT on June 20, 2006
Gatorboy wrote:

Why does everybody think we will destroy our atmosphere, dont we realise that Planet has been around for Billions of years, i doubt during our 100 years of having automoblies and factories that we have destroyed the atmosphere.

*rolls eyes*

Yes, we're all claiming that we're going to send the atmosphere *poof* flying out into space, and we're all going to wither in the resulting hard vacuum.

The planet has, as you say, been around for billions of years. (Thank you for granting that it's been more than 6,000 years, at least.) During the earliest part of that history, it had a thick, healthy atmosphere, containing almost NO free oxygen. The advent and spread of photosynthesis pumped oxygen into the atmosphere, incidentally frying much of the life that had previously been present -- anaerobes tend not to do well in oxygen-bearing atmospheres. What's left of that first, thriving ecosystem? Stuff living around deep-sea vents and deep within the Earth's crust. Oh, yeah, and perennial favorites like C. botulinum.

So, sure, let's not worry about it -- global atmospheric change is perfectly natural. But let's hope that we aren't left in an ecological niche like that occupied by C. botulinum, and that whatever species succeeds us is nicer to us than we are to the poor little botulism germs...
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171. Mysticdog
11:27 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
I need to correct something, I messed up on the DOE data, I was doing coveresions to take it into pounds, then decided against it. The totals since 1980 are 511 BILLION metric tons, and the total US contribution is 142 BILLION metric tons.

In relation to that, the total atmospheric CO2 content is 730 billion (non metric) tons (1980). in 2003 , the world dumped 25 billion metric tons additional CO2 into the atmosphere due to energy production, or roughly a 3% addition over the natural equilibrium. This DOES NOT INCLUDE wood burning for land clearing, concrete production, etc.

So, what is the effect of a major volcanic eruption.

"Models for the composition of the pre-eruption vapor suggest that it contained a minimum of approximately 96 Mt H2O, 42 Mt CO2, and 3 Mt Cl, in addition to 17 Mt of SO2. The mole fraction composition of the vapor was X(H2O) = 0.80-0.83, X(SO2) = 0.01-0.04, X(CO2) = 0.15, and X(Cl) = 0.01, indicating that the vapor was not excessively SO2-rich. The volume and density of the vapor at depth prior to eruption were at least 0.25 km^3 and about 0.6 g/cm^3, respectively."

42 Million tons for Pinatubo, a major eruption.

Can we stop with the volcano blaming yet?

How do we know the CO2 build up is from fossil fuels? Well, for starters, what do you think happens to oil, gas and coal when they are burned? Fossil Fuel heaven? They turn into CO2.

Now, go figure out how many tons of fossil fuels get burned a year. This is also easy to do, the DOE tracks it. YOu may need to convert some volumes into weights, but that should be easy for everyone out of highschool (you did pay attention in chemistry class, right?)

Now multiply that by 3. It should be higher, but thats a nice easy number. A ton of burnt oil gives three tons of CO2 or so. So again, where do you think all that goes?

Finally, scientists can tell that it is CO2 from fossil fuels, not from natural sources. The carbon in fossil fuels have been isolated from the atmosphere for millions of years - all of the C14 isotopes have decayed into C12. The relative amounts of C14 in atmospheric CO2 have fallen dramatically except for a brief period of above ground nuclear testing, because we continuously inject massive amounts of C12 enriched CO2 into the air.

Can we close the case on who is making the CO2?

We know, positively, that CO2 absorbs IR light better than O2 and N2. Why? Chemistry will teach you.

The electrons holding molecules together via chemical bonds vibrate. They can stretch and twist and wiggle, according to the geometry of the molecule in question. These vibrations occur at the same frequencies as IR energy. When IR energy passes the molecule, it is absorbed by the molecule by the wiggle of the atoms.

O2 and N2 are binary molecules. They can stretch relative to each other, and thats about it. CO2 has 3 atoms. They can do various wiggles in relationship as well as symetric stretches and Asymetric stretches. Methane has five atoms, and they can do all kinds of crazy vibrations, which is why it is so much more effective an IR sponge than even CO2.

You shine X amount of IR energy through a CO2 cloud, and it only lets Y amount pass through. And gets warmer in the process. It passes that heat on to its surrounding gas molecules in our atmosphere.

So, can we please close the case on whether CO2 traps heat?
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169. Weather456
7:33 PM AST on June 19, 2006
my new blog entry
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168. ForecasterColby
11:32 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
AnneAbrams - IMO, you're being pretty naive about Gore. To say that Al Gore doesn't have political ambitions is to say that the sky is green, or a Category 5 just hit Winnipeg. It just...doesn't make sense :)
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167. ForecasterColby
11:25 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
That's generally my position, WSI. I think part of the problem with modern enviornmentalism is that most of the big lobbies won't take a victory where they can get one.

Our planet would be much better off if we a) build some nuclear power plants and b) planted some trees. Those two simple steps would do a lot to reduce whatever warming is human caused, and just generally keep the planet healthy.

I would like to draw attention to the fact that the high end of the sea-rise estimates is 35 inches. Less than 3 feet. Before the last ice age, seas were 15 feet higher (per Dr. Masters) - clearly, we're nowhere near unprecedented.
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166. WSI
11:10 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
I am not a Gore fan, but I will probably watch the movie. Regardless if you believe we are causing warming or not, wouldn't it be good to treat the environment as well as we can?
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165. StormJunkie
10:28 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
Tropics talk has been deffered to turtlehurricane's blog for now.

And for those that have not seen, please check out The easiest way to find the best models, imagery, and much more. Including WU blogger storm video.

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164. SFWeatherMan
10:16 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
I'm sorry, but while I agree with you on the relevant points, I cannot disagree more on your recommendation to wait until the DVD. This movie is an imperative, in my view, for anyone who cares what happens to our planet. Yeah there is biographical stuff, but I actually walked away less likely to think that Gore is interested in running for President.
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163. AnneAbrams
9:47 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
Gore in his movie points out that 900 plus published scienific articles support "global warming" truths while an effort has been made politically to cast aspersions in 56% of news articles on the subject...Jeff, can you comment on this?

Also...I heard Gore in an interview with call ins say he is not a candidate, not interested. And his very low key speaking voice kinda says that also. DISPITE several call-ins asking him to run. His stated goal is to draw attention to the frailty of our planet and to get people to think about taking better care of it. I applaud that goal, and I believe he has no political agenda aside from the one he states.
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162. disneylogic
5:57 PM EDT on June 19, 2006
well all i[n]dications point towards this has happened many times before

that's certainly true, but civilization wasn't around then. some of the records show sea levels 75 meters higher than they are now. what do you think that would do to the U.S. economy?

actually, noone's talking that 75 meters is realistic, not any time soon. But 9 meters is. small changes can have big impacts. anyway, in terms of direct inundation, you can check it out yourself.
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161. disneylogic
5:49 PM EDT on June 19, 2006
the abrupt change in climate possible per the mathematics of climate dynamical systems can go any way, not just towards planet warming. i don't think anyone is arguing that the Gulf Stream might disappear. it's just that it'll change it's route significantly, thrusting most of Europe into a climate comparable to northern Scandanavia. or, depending upon how things are set up (we just don't know), the heating could tip a global climate into an ice age. it depends upon the magnitude and nature of couplings and forcings.

only other thing i have to ask about the movie, which i have not seen, is where, if the movie is so bad, are the alternatives, the publicly engaging and entertaining documentaries by people more familiar with the science and the issues? i mean, there's Divine Wind. what else is there? noone reads or seemingly cares about AGU position papers, and noone will learn much if U2 produces a song about it. yet, those guys are communicating.
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159. Levi32
1:49 PM AKDT on June 19, 2006
Oh sorry for the confusion Michael. We were talking about it just a second before that comment sorry.

I must go now. Limiting blog time you know lol. Talk with you all later!
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158. Levi32
1:46 PM AKDT on June 19, 2006
Michael my statement is true about anylized lows. Forecasted lows are another deal all together.

Anyway, there is a surface low as per the latest surface map, and if this moves over water we will see what happens. Right now models keep it over land, where only rain and flooding will be the problems.
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155. LSUHurricaneHunter
9:45 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
530 PM EDT MON JUN 19 2006




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154. Levi32
1:39 PM AKDT on June 19, 2006
Look, there is a surface low on the latest analysis. Convinced now? There is a surface low, the question is: is it tropical? And will it move over water?
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153. Levi32
1:37 PM AKDT on June 19, 2006
Yes Michael I look at cyclone phase if there is chance for a full-blown depression. If I am looking for a tropical low or disturbance, I look at the normal model runs. The cyclone-phase page only shows well developed lows that have been on the charts for some time. Also they are only anylized if they are initialized on the model runs, and we all know the initializations are not the real surface analysis.
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152. rwdobson
9:36 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
"One would like to concur with the NWS about the TX weather being non-tropical, if it weren't for the obvious cyclonic rotation of the system."

umm, upper level lows also have a cyclonic rotation. as do non-tropical surface lows. as do mesoscale complexes of thunderstorms rumbling across the plains. the presence of a cyclonic rotation does not make something tropical.
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151. StormJunkie
9:36 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
franck, upper level lows have circulation also, how would you differentiate it?

and can a low level low even be cold core?
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150. HAARP
9:31 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
well all idications point towards this has happened many times before

scottsman pointed out about deforestation and i think that is a bigger issue imho

there are many problems that are bigger than global warming ... like sooner or later we will outgrow this planet...

just think this is all just a foolish distraction from everything else...

and another reason to get the people against one another and arguing so they can shaft us behind our backs and we dont even see it coming...

in other words ..

political buisness as usuall
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149. StormJunkie
9:35 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
The Bahamas are extremely hot for this early in the season also.

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147. franck
9:32 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
One would like to concur with the NWS about the TX weather being non-tropical, if it weren't for the obvious cyclonic rotation of the system.
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146. Cregnebaa
4:31 PM EST on June 19, 2006
how many times has the co2 levels risin???

but how many times as fast a the rise in the last 100 years?

In the past, how did the CO2 levels drop naturally are we hindering that avenue now with deforestation and destruction of plant habitat?
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145. StormJunkie
9:31 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
All.... HARRP?

Go back and read my comments and tell me I am being biased!

That is my point, we can not even start to talk about how to deal with it because everyone has more fun bickering about it.

That being said, there are interesting areas of weather in the tropics that we can learn from, so can we please stick to those for the most part?...:)

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144. Levi32
1:29 PM AKDT on June 19, 2006
Michael why do you only look at that phase analysis? Look at the real runs. They all show at least a batch of potent thunderstorm activity forming in the area. The GFS has an 850mb vort max forming, along with a weak surface low/trough. And The ETA, Canadian, and NOGAPS all had something forming there.
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143. StormJunkie
9:29 PM GMT on June 19, 2006

look at these and use the 850mb vorticity. Best way to see potential depressions.

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142. Cregnebaa
4:22 PM EST on June 19, 2006
True my point is that just because you can't prove something doesn't mean it's not happening. You look at indications and trends.
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141. rwdobson
9:30 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
discussion is from 236 PM CDT Monday Jun 19 2006

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140. HAARP
9:27 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
um there is no doubt our globe is warming...

this has happened how many times since earth formed???

how many times has the co2 levels risin???

see my point fail to point out other possibilities...thus making all your statements biased and worthless
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138. Levi32
1:27 PM AKDT on June 19, 2006
I mean it is a surface low, not just upper low.
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137. StormJunkie
9:27 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
Hey Dob, what time was that discussion?

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136. Levi32
1:25 PM AKDT on June 19, 2006
Rwdobson the NWS is probably right that this is cold-core, but it is surface based.
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135. HAARP
9:21 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
Posted By: Cregnebaa at 9:17 PM GMT on June 19, 2006.
Look at how long it took to prove smoking causes lung cancer, for years there was just a correlation, if you smoked you were more likely to get lung cancer, but they couldn't prove it.


oh my...

you missed my point ... At least with smoking there is a control group to compare data with...thus making it provable that smoking highers your risk for getting some cancers...

so does eating certain foods too...and other chemicals we put in our bodies...

with earth there is no control to test hypothesis against...

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133. rwdobson
9:25 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
surface obs...surface obs show winds 5-10 mph in houston. not a very impressive tropical storm.
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132. rwdobson
9:23 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
turtle says there is a surface low, but this is what the Houston NWS says (from their forecast discussion):

"Want to reiterate that this is a cold-core middle to upper level low pressure system and not a surface based tropical system impacting the area. As a result...tides will not be impacted."

I think I'll go with the NWS on this one.
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131. Levi32
1:19 PM AKDT on June 19, 2006
Hi everyone just popping in to see what's happening.

SJ it's true there is a surface low near Houston. One, look at visible loops. Two, look at the surface obs. both clearly point to a surface circulation. This is a rare feature. It's not a normal upper low, being so small, and it's not a normal mesoscale thunderstorm complex. This thing could almost be classified as "tropical". Very weird item to watch.

Regarding the Bahamas disturbance, there is no surface low, and the circulation you see is the upper low itself. I would watch this area closely as well, because all the models including the GFS have something forming there and moving towards the Carolinas or Florida.
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130. StormJunkie
9:19 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
Afternoon Creg.

We do not need to prove gw, it is happening for what ever reason, and we don't really need to debate it too much. We need to prepare for it. Talk is cheap. It is time for humanity to take action, but I don't think we will ever be able to get along well enough.

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129. StormJunkie
9:17 PM GMT on June 19, 2006
The Bahamas thing may be what several models have shown forming/moving off the SC/NC coast.

Check out turtlehurricane's blog sayuh.

He is claiming that there is a surface low now at the TX ULL. I have not seen this anywhere but his blog, but it could be. It would be unusual.

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128. Cregnebaa
4:05 PM EST on June 19, 2006
Look at how long it took to prove smoking causes lung cancer, for years there was just a correlation, if you smoked you were more likely to get lung cancer, but they couldn't prove it.
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