Tyndall conference in Ireland

This weekend, I caught the last day of a climate conference honouring the memory of the great Irish scientist John Tyndall. Born in County Carlow, Tyndall became a key member of the Royal Society around the time of Charles Darwin. He studied under Robert Bunsen in Germany and did much to promote the idea of experimentation in science. Among his many contributions are the discovery of the Tyndall effect (an explanation for the colour of the sky in terms of the scattering of light) and pioneering works in optics.

Tyndall’s most important contribution was his experimental demonstration of the greenhouse effect. He was the first to show that certain gases – notably carbon dioxide and water vapour – absorb radiation of infra-red wavelength, thus trapping heat reflected from the earth. This discovery forms the bedrock of the modern climate science. Today’s phenomenon of global warming (measured as an increase in global temperature, glacier-melt and sea level rise over the last few decades) has been attributed to an increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

The 2011 Tyndall climate conference was sponsored by the EPA and the Royal Irish Academy

The conference celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Tyndall’s landmark paper On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours and took place in Dublin castle, a superb venue in the heart of Dublin’s vibrant city center (and the seat of British rule in Ireland only a century ago). Day one was an overview of Tyndall’s life and work, with a keynote lecture by eminent climatologist Richard Sommerville. The next two days featured slightly more technical talks on climate science. You can find the conference program and book of abstracts here.

I caught several excellent talks on Friday, including a talk on climate sensitivity and feedback mechanisms by John Mitchell of the UK Hadley Centre, and a talk on tipping points and their predictability by Peter Ditlevensen of the Center for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. Another talk, by George Moore of the University of Toronto, suggested that we may already have passed such a tipping point. The lecture  ’20 years of IPCC projections’ by Ulrich Cubasch of the Free University of Berlin, demonstrated how well IPCC projections have stood the test of time. This is a point often overlooked in discussions of climate science in the media. The public are wary of theoretical models, and climate scientists sometimes forget to point out that we have had twenty years to test predictions – so far, the projections have turned out to be all too accurate.

Possibly the most advanced talk of the day was by Professor Ray Bates of the Meteorology and Climate Centre at University College Dublin, a former professor of meteorology at the Neils Bohr Institute. In his talk, Ray presented a new global climate model, contrasting it with the recent model of Dick Lindzen. The Lindzen model is quite controversial as it suggests that conventional climate models overestimate the contribution of an enhanced greenhouse effect on climate. In good scientific fashion, Ray outlined the basic physics underpinning the two models, steering clear of polemics and concentrating on the science. You can Ray’s paper on his, and other, models here .

All in all, a great conference, I was sorry to miss the first two days. One of the aspects the increased teaching workload in the Institute of Technology sector is that there is almost no time left over for conferences – someone’s idea of increased productivity.


Richard Sommerville did a very nice interview on the Pat Kenny show, a flagship radio show on RTE radio 1. Pat raised almost every point favoured by climate skeptics, while Richard provided clear and cogent answers to each. Well worth a listen, you can download a podcast here.

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