A science presenter, writer, speaker & former TV host; author of The Skeptic's Handbook (over 200,000 copies distributed & available in 15 languages).


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Life copes: The horses that adapted to massive climate change in just 800 years

In evolutionary terms, it’s a blink. Around 1200-1400AD a bunch of people bought a few domestic horses to far east freezing Siberia, where the temperature sometimes falls below -70. Somehow the horses have already become physiologically and genetically well adapted to the extreme climate. The panic-merchants would have us believe that the climate is changing “faster than evolution”, but biology and genes turn out to be amazingly flexible. (Who knows, maybe 4 million years of swinging ice ages has that effect on gene pools?)

DNA studies revealed that these horses were all derived from distant domestic horses, even though wild unrelated horses lived in the region til 5,000 years ago. This is pretty spectacular.

Dr. Ludovic Orlando: “This is truly amazing as it implies that all traits now seen in Yakutian horses are the product of very fast adaptive processes, taking place in about 800 years. This represents about a hundred generations for horses. That shows how fast evolution can go when selective pressures for survival are as strong as in the extreme environment of Yakutia.”

Analyzing the genomes shows that it’s not driven by mutations in genes as much as by changes to the regulatory [...]

Life on Earth more adaptable than models predict

Potato Beetle

Researchers predicted a particular beetle would not be able to get into the cold areas of Kazakhstan and western China. But the sneaky beetles learnt to cope with the cold by burying themselves in the ground.  The modelers failed completely to predict the spread. Imagine the ecological modelers who are not only using inadequate biological models, but guesstimating the future temperature with climate models that don’t work either.

In the last 500 million years as life on Earth evolved the temperature has swung up and down through a range of about 15C. We are currently in the cooler half of that temperature range, in a mini-warm-moment surrounded by ice ages. Despite this, the climate-industry is panicking that a half a degree of extra warmth this century will wipe out species that survived the last ten million years.

The potato beetle laughs at them.

Crop pests outwit climate change predictions en route to new destinations Scientists highlight the dangers of relying on climate-based projections of crop pest distribution


Humans live from -50C to +40C, but two more degrees will kill us. Panic now.

Humans can adapt to live in locations where the monthly average is over 40°C, and as low as -50°C. That’s a 90°C range. The world has warmed by 0.9°C in 100 years (or less, depending on adjustments). This warming was so dangerous that global population only expanded from 1.7 to 7 billion.

Now, if the IPCC are right, we might heat up by another half a degree by 2100 — shifting those extremes from -49°C up to 41°C.

Prof. Andy Pitman, one of Australia’s leading climate scientists, responds to this risk with all the usual careful analysis we’ve come to expect from mainstream climate experts. Here’s another “children won’t know what snow is” type of Global Panic quote:

“I expect by 2050 … people just don’t go outside,”

– Professor Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at UNSW.

So that’s the end of golf, surfing, and picnics then. Somewhat confusingly, he also said (in the same interview) that we won’t necessarily notice that extra warmth: “… because humans acclimatise to heat quite quickly”. This is what 95% certainty looks like in 2015, ladies and gentlemen — abject panic and [...]

Salmon quite happy to adapt to warmer world

You will never guess, but salmon that survived the hot Holocene period, and the even hotter Eemian, will probably be OK in a slightly warmer world. Expert researchers found this surprising.

Given the broad spread of Salmon in the Northern Hemisphere, and their past survival through every single interglacial warm period of the Pleistocene, I would have thought that they could cope with quite a bit of  climate change. As it turns out, they cope so well, that even salmon eggs that come from a 12C environment can be raised in an environment a whopping 8C warmer, and they were not noticeably any worse off.

Part of the concern with salmon was the spawning and eggs, and the problem with getting the salmon to shift their maternity wards and childcare arrangements (which they seem very attached too). But presumably those breeding grounds have varied before in temperature, and salmon didn’t die out, so — at least with this problem — nature has it figured out.

Map: Salmon and Climate Change, Fish in hot water, Red List.

Atlantic salmon also show capacity to adapt to warmer waters

Populations of Atlantic salmon have a surprisingly good capacity to adjust [...]

Whales dive to nearly two miles depth, hold breath for two hours

Friday curiosity: Duck-diving Cuvier’s beaked whales can hold their breath for over two hours, and reach a depth of 2 miles (3.2 km) underwater. What’s more, when they come up, they recover in an unbelievable two minutes. (Actually, I really do find this hard to believe. Two minutes? Seriously? )

Cuvier Beaked Whale | Oceanus Magazine Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

These whales can go four times deeper than modern nuclear submarines which are estimated to have a hull crush depth of around 730m. Presumably the Department of Defence will be looking into blubber power or nuclear whales.

But seriously, whales and seals can hold their breath for a ridiculously long time because they pack a lot of oxygen away in their muscles — it’s attached to myoglobin which they have in abundance. Myoglobin‘s quite a lot like the haemoglobin molecule found in blood, it uses iron to bind the oxygen.

For a completely useless culinary tip, whale meat is thus the absolute reddest-of-red-meats and very iron rich –  “perfect” then,  for anemic vegetarians.

Scientists monitored Cuvier’s beaked whales’ record-breaking dives to depths of nearly two miles below the ocean surface and some dives lasted for over [...]

Zebra Fish like it warm – they swim faster and adapt even better to climate change

Experiments with Zebra Fish show that if their embryo’s develop in warmer water, they not only are able to swim faster but they cope better in both warmer and colder water. (How catastrophic can that be, I ask you?)

ScienceDaily (Aug. 14, 2012) — New research by McMaster University biologist Graham Scott suggests that growing up at warmer temperatures helps some aquatic animals cope with climate change, raising questions about the limits of adaptation.

Scott and Johnston found that when embryos raised in warm water experienced temperature variation as adults, they could swim faster, their muscle was better suited for aerobic exercise, and they expressed at higher levels many of the genes that contribute to exercise performance.

The improvements were true for the adult fish in warmer and colder water alike — a finding that surprised the researchers.

“We thought that they might do better under warmer conditions because they grew up in warmer conditions. We didn’t think they’d also do better under colder conditions, but they did.

Their research shows the fish are hardier after being raised in a warm-water nursery, and raises the question of how far the temperature [...]