Flawed Science Behind Nitrogen “Crisis” (Briggs and Hanekamp)

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From Science Matters

By Ron Clutz

The Dutch Nitrogen Faux Crisis — Jaap Hanekamp Interview

William M Briggs and Jaap Hanekamp discuss the Dutch nitrogen “crisis.”

Farmers in the Netherlands are unhappy with government wanting to shut them down or reduce their operations, because of a supposed plague of nitrogen.  The “crisis” is, however, completely model driven. First by the Curse of the Wee P, and second by Lack of Skill.

Jaap and William have been involved in this “crisis” for many years, publishing often on how much over-certainty there is and about bad models.  Give a listen and find out why the government is wrong and they are right.  For those who prefer reading, below is an excerpted transcript from closed captions in italics with my bolds.

How in Netherlands Nitrogen Policy Became Nature Policy

The Netherlands is famous for its Dutch cheese, not for much longer as the government sells off all of the Farms or or buys up all the farms. We’ve been working on this this topic. Our audience knows me a little bit but they don’t know you. Jaap has formal training in chemistry and he is a chemistry professor. He’s also got a PhD in Theology and teaches on that. And he and I have been working together on this so-called crisis, this fake crisis for a number of years.

So the so-called uh mediator who was once a part of the official panel to investigate the crisis, and due to some sort of bureaucratic trick, became an independent expert, today recommended that the government buy off the biggest farmers. What’s the deal with that?

Of course we have a small country with loads of agriculture so the government and house of Parliament and NGOs from the environmental side think that we should reduce our impact on ecosystems, nature in the Netherlands. That is strange, given our history. You know, it’s long been said that God created the world, and the Dutch created the Netherlands. It’s so obvious here that we engineer nature, like any other organism or creature on Earth that reorganizes nature around itself to suit itself. But we in the Netherlands were rather exuberant in that arena so we created our whole ecosystem around us in terms of of cities, in terms of agriculture. Any kind of Natural Area we might have is created in the Netherlands almost literally either intentionally or unintentionally anyway. And those places are quite nice and beautiful.

There is sort of a very strong protective streak in policy saying we should protect the natural areas we still have, and protect simply means more or less a status quo, keep it as it is which doesn’t make much sense. But the weapon of choice is nitrogen now. There is a strange thing about this because influences are from all sides, especially here groundwater, precipitation, temperature, climate and so on, and of course also nitrogen. And we chose nitrogen, so nature policy is nitrogen policy, and nitrogen policies are nature policy in the Netherlands. Which is a very odd thing to do but anyway this is what we have.

The Dutch government wants to spend 30 billion euros which is a large chunk of our budget on protecting nature via the reduction of nitrogen emissions and depositions. So that’s it.

Believing in Ecological Crisis

But why why do they believe that this crisis exists? I mean they must have had something in the expertocracy as I call it. They have Solutions in search of problems in my my estimation. They have a solution they want to meddle with certain things because of their understanding of what nature is. So they go look for a problem, and they created a lot of nitrogen other other countries are using carbon dioxide, of course the Netherlands as well, l so we’ve part of that of course.

But why this thing and after you answer why, then let’s start talking about the the research that they’re using on this and and the stuff that you and I have discovered.

Why can be answered on multiple levels. You could look from a scientific perspective, which is not really that interesting; we’re going to discuss this later. Because the problem we have nowadays everywhere is that science or scientism or exportocracy should solve everything and anything. Whether or not there’s a problem, there must be some solution to some issue because of science. That’s a huge problem in itself. Why do we think that science could actually do that, or understand it or research it, or fathom it to such an extent I would actually find solutions to to the problems that might exist or might not exist.

The other part is harder to Fathom; it has to do likely with the problem coming from the 1970s: Acid rain and the disappearance of forest. The forest dieback was originally a German issue. Der Spiegel actually brought out a huge paper with the title The Ecological Hiroshima, the idea that acid rain would obliterate within a decade every single forest in the world.

I remember that, it was sort of the the climate change catastrophe 101 basically. That acid rain story sort of disappeared from view, people didn’t talk about it anymore. But during that time of the 1970s and 80s dangers of agriculture came into view because producing ammonia and of course deposited on nature areas.

And the idea was, okay ammonia is of course a base, but it will acidify the soil
and that will destroy the forest and will aid in the forest in dying off.

So that’s where it originated, say 50 years ago. But of course the whole Forest dieback disappeared and now it’s about soil acidification and loss of biodiversities. Those are the the terms that actually have survived the debacle of the acid rain Forest dieback apocalypse.

On the one hand we can very well monitor the dying of forest; you can actually observe that. Yeah it didn’t happen, not even close. So they had to move away from that theme. I still remember pictures of monuments dissolving into nothing as if this has happened overnight; algae blooms on lakes as if these were brand new; all kinds of things like that. So they had the same problems. not just in Germany yeah. And course the the famous dangers came from Eastern Europe, loads of sulfur dioxide from foundries for instance were blasted into to Forest. And sulfur dioxide is not really a healthy chemical if you if the concentration is really high. Of course most plants or humans or any other organism would really love to have sulfur dioxide blown in their face so sulfur dioxide was an issue. And that was tackled since then which is basically a good thing. You obviously shouldn’t pump stuff in the air just randomly.

But of course the story got bigger and bigger and in the end disappeared because yeah the forest just grew happily uh through all our own brouhaha about all these problems. But what remained is the idea that ammonia changes soil chemistry, changes ecosystems, changes our biodiversity and that’s a bad thing. And it just became a matter of theology almost; it became a truism. And then it seems after that truism, they went in search of evidence in the form of models.

Examining the Notion of Chemical Critical Loads

The science of nitrogen and the impact on ecosystems has been around now for the past 50 years, at the same time as the forest issue. And it never has grown out to be an adult critical discourse scientifically speaking. Now it’s just confirming what the other guy says and based on the work from some other type; so there’s no real conflict no real discussion within this discourse at all. It’s just basically doing the same old same old thing and sort of publishing stuff without really critically reflecting on the results that came out of that research.

And we’ve shown that especially when we have to discuss the critical loads issue. The idea was that beyond a certain level of deposition per area, ecosystems suffer from a certain kind of deposition, meaning the the amount of nitrogen that’s falling on the land, in precipitation or dry deposition or whatever you can imagine.

Critical loads have been devised on the idea that above a certain kind of of raining down or depositing a certain chemical, ecosystems suffer a certain amount of risk, that’s the critical loads topic that now you and I have investigated that quite thoroughly. We’ve found it to be at best wanting, that’s being very very euphemistic.

We discovered so many caveats, which are embarrassing on the one hand,
on the other hand sloppy, imprecise, statistically nonsensical,
experimentally badly done.

So to apply this idea of nitrogen critical loads you have to define the critical point when we’re gonna stop things. They went and did these experiments, basically they took small plots just a couple of meters square. And they would grow certain grasses or other other types of plant matter on this and they would measure all kinds of things: the rate of growth, the width of the stems, and the root penetration and so on. And if they tested a difference between something that had a higher nitrogen content than a lower nitrogen content and it gave a wee P value, well that was said to be a nitrogen critical load. But there was no consistency to what they meant by a critical load or what was actually affected or the or the range of stuff that could be affected. And they had these ridiculous numbers extrapolating from a couple of square meters to the area of the entire country

Using these kinds of things, we showed if you just take a proper accordance of the uncertainty in these measurements, the critical loads just evaporate, they have no meaning unless you were to design really good experiments . We proposed large scale experiments taking a couple of hundred square meters and doing this experiment for years and years and years.

But there’s another problem you described quite well in in our paper. Of course nitrogen instigates change in ecosystems but the question is: In what terms do you regard this as damage or bad? Sure things change, but to what extent does is change a good thing or or not?

They assumed that change of any kind was a Bad Thing. Any difference between the sort of control group and a nitrogen group was considered bad. Which is which is ridiculous because you have to have nitrogen, you can’t eliminate nitrogen. It’s absolutely like eliminating carbon dioxide. In epidemiology you can do elimination studies, for instance antioxidants intake. You can do that because you can survive antioxidants intake for a certain while. But you can’t really do an elimination study in nitrogen and plant growth no that’s not going to work.

The other great thing we found is that there’s always a background concentration in the atmosphere and how much deposited on the area you’re looking at and background is important because you want to know at the control level how much nitrogen will rain down anyway. We found that studies were taking yearly averages, sort of polls of plots of the countryside. Which of course doesn’t give us much information about anything.

So you cannot really take the control and look at the experiment. They would calculate these single numbers from a small area and apply them either to an entire region or even Countrywide. And then averaging by year. I mean as the basis of policy it’s quite absurd. Of course there are other observational studies which are much harder to do experimentally. That is observing what happens to to certain ecosystems in in areas where there’s much more nitrogen deposition than somewhere else. But it’s hard to to extrapolate precise information from these studies anyway.

So this whole critical load debate is basically devoid of any critical reflection. We were the first ones that published a paper which was critical on on anything. And of course we got no response from the community, nothing at all. There was a weak response in Dutch in an internet Forum, which was poorly written and and sort of a hand-waving response. There was no real critical reflection on that at all. And we weren’t surprised because the researchers in that Arena are not at all versed in critical discourse as we are in chemistry. In mathematics and in physics you have to be critical, you’re critical of other people as well, because that’s how the the whole discourse develops. But in this matter not so much, in this discourse none whatsoever.

Central Role of Aerius OPS Chemical Transport Model

In fact the whole nitrogen policy is reduced to two things: the critical loads we just discussed and Aerius OPS (Operational Priority Substances), which is a model. Aerius OPS is a transport model that calculates the emission or actually how much of a certain chemical is transported through the atmosphere, and where and and to what extent it deposits at some point from the source where this emission comes from.

Now you can imagine to measure and analyze deposition in the Netherlands you would have maybe a hundred thousand measuring points. Or you can measure different chemicals like ammonia which is not possible. So I always say modeling itself is not a problem, but you have to model in this case because you can’t sample a hundred thousand areas in the Netherlands and decide exactly how much were the deposits. And that still doesn’t cover the problem: Where do all these emissions come from, which is another issue altogether.

So modeling itself is not a problem but OPS areas is a problem and keep in mind both critical load and Aerius OPS are part of the nitrogen laws in the Netherlands so in order to define how much you contribute to nitrogen deposition in Netherlands you have to use areas OPS the model run by the National Institute of Health and Environment. You have to use that model to calculate your own addition to the background levels of of nitrogen deposition. So it has huge policy implications.

Now I was part of a scientific committee that had to analyze the scientific quality of areas OPS and and all the other stuff. Not critical loads by the way, we didn’t discuss very much. But here’s the thing: We never really looked under the hood in OPS, we never looked at the Machinery of OPS. We did say as a committee the calculations done per hectare were too imprecise. That’s as far as we got with our criticism of Aerius.

Then of course validation studies via FOIA requests came on the table and you were courteous enough to look at these validation studies, which by the way we didn’t get as a scientific committee, which still annoys me actually. As a good scientist, you know science needs to be transparent. That’s the a priori of any kind of scientific work. People should have put on these validation studies immediately on the table. That’s what you do; you don’t make others to have to ask for them. That’s part of questioning the science. But here that makes you a denier and so forth; you’re just supposed to accept because this is how the expertocracy works.  But we did get these things and we were able to investigate how well this model performed you can explain much more than I can what were the what were the results. 

We have a two-tier approach here. The first part was for our esteemed colleagues to provide the underlying data of these validations. We didn’t get that, at least not immediately; there’s a nice story to that. But the first stage of this two-tier approach was your analysis of the quality of the validation studies, and how well the model actually worked according to those studies.

Aerius OPS Model Lacks Necessary Predictive Skill

Let me explain something about this model: it stinks, it doesn’t have good predictive ability at all. I want to explain this concept called skill. I’ve explained it a million times but it never sticks in people’s minds for some reason. So we have this expert model this OPS model, with all kinds of science going it. And it makes predictions of something like SO2 or NOx concentrations of something like this in the atmosphere. Now that’s a very sophisticated model, there’s lots of code and all this kind of stuff in here.

Before you continue you do an experiment. You open a bottle of sulfur dioxide or ammonia or whatever gas can be transported through the atmosphere. You measure distances over time, or over a certain time frame you measure concentrations when you open the bottles and you afterward find certain atmospheric concentrations. And of course they diminish over time because of a convection of wind, blah blah. You have these data from these measurements which has a certain precision. But now the model subsequently needs to predict based on all this physics and chemistry and these concentrations you just measured in the experiments. So the sophisticated model is making a prediction of these numbers.

I’m just going to take the seasonal average, the location experimental average we have. I’m going to make a guess of the mean, just the average, and I’m going to pretend that average is itself a forecast. In other words for every measurement I’m going to predict the mean. Now that’s a really crude model; it’s a very simple but a useful model. In fact we use it all the time to say winter is colder than summer in the northern hemisphere because of these types of averages.

It’s a very rough and crude model, but if this OPS model itself has any weight to it,
it should easily beat this mean model.

It should be more precise than just taking seasonal averages. That’s what skill is. The skill is relative performance over a supposedly weaker model. The OPS model often does not have skill against this simple mean model. It just doesn’t work. The error of the model itself increases as the concentration of the chemical (whatever we’re measuring) increases.

In other words, when these chemicals are in small amounts down and hovering around zero, the model has skill. But if you get large amounts and they become interesting, the model becomes worse and worse and worse .

So that’s one of the problems with it. The second problem is when our researcher ran the model for a farm at a particular downwind site. It’s what you’re supposed to do if you have a farm yourself so our researcher populated this farm with 400 fictional cows and then halved it to 200 cows and halved it again to 100 cows and then again to zero cows. And looked at comparing the amount of nitrogen that was deposited at this particular location according to OPS. OPS predicted the grand difference between all 400 cows and no cows at all was just under six moles per hectare per year. From 400 to 200 cows, it went down to like four or something so we’re talking about a difference of two moles per hectare per year. So now tell us as a chemist what is the difference in terms of numbering six or four or two

But of course that’s just completely fictional because there is no way
I can tell the difference between four and six moles per hectare per year.
I couldn’t measure it.

Though the model says as we increase the number of cows the amount deposited does increase. So based on that if I had to make a policy decision I’d say: Oh this is terrible the only way I could fix this is if I eliminated the cows or I’d cut them in half and then the number does go down. So based on that kind of reasoning therefore I should do something.

But you’re talking about a difference so small, so down into the noise you’d never be able to tell if you really reached it in reality. That’s our main criticism against this this whole policy making. It’s completely virtual, it sort of suggests a world which doesn’t exist, except in the zeros and ones in the computers. The biggest problem I have with the model is that it’s completely an imaginary reality not the world that we live in.

I couldn’t stress this enough Aerius is Central to the whole policy making. You need to use it in order to have a computation whether or not you add or subtract, increase or decrease your ammonia additions to a nature area near by. That is of course very worrying because that’s still in place. This model should be scrapped immediately because it produces bogus results as this very nice pictures shows. At least it should be tested, be investigated and then judged by independent parties.

Food Supply and Livelihoods At Risk from Nitrogen Policies

The irony of this whole situation is that the Dutch institution literally produces misinformation . We show that it’s completely misinforming about the reality of of any kind of nitrogen deposition from a certain Farm which wants to increase or decrease its number of animals.

That’s actually the case, so now where are the Netherlands going to get their food once the Farms are shut down,  Of course it’s not suddenly we have less food to eat no that’s not how it works. Fortunately that’s not how agriculture markets work, happy to say.

But there is another problem which I do not understand: We have a war in Ukraine in our backyard. If War would actually be extended to other parts of Europe we have a big problem, also a big agricultural problem. So where do we get our food from? So yes of course you can you can diminish your your livestock that’s not gonna over change overnight the the the food situation. But in this particular case, this could be more worrisome in the long term.

There’s also another problem, the biggest issue now is that we invest huge amounts of money to buy out all these farmers, and we have no idea what we get back for it. More nature? Of course we know this is not going to happen because it’s a virtual world all these policy makers look at. But of course that means less income for the Netherlands and more unemployment. So it’s a lose-lose situation on all sides.

We don’t get what we want in nature, and we get less income and and food
not just for us, but actually for the European Union and beyond.

People should be looking meticulously at the Netherlands, because what’s happening here is a huge top-down policy influence on a huge economic sector based on mere fantasy of apocalyptic risks related to nitrogen deposition. Because other countries like Canada, US and and other European countries are feverishly hoping the Netherlands government can pull this off. Because it’s a trick to disenfranchise huge parts of of the population in the Netherlands for no Return of Investment.

Footnote: List Of Evidence Showing There Is No Nitrogen “Crisis” In The Netherlands

To read studies exposing the flawed science basis to the so called Dutch nitrogen crisis, see the link above at wmbriggs.com.

There is no nitrogen emergency,
except for government nitrogen policies
threatening global food supply.