Changing Weather

Changing Weather

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In 2016 I was asked to give a PowerPoint presentation to a large hiking organization in SW Colorado covering the topic of “Changes in Atmospheric Composition and Temperature and Their Effects on Weather and Hiking”.  It was well received, and as  there are still a lot of people who don’t really understand all the interactions and causes, I thought it might be worthwhile to post a condensation of it as an article on this forum.

To begin with, I must say up front that I am a scientist / educator and am convinced by the data that these changes are taking place.  According to the recent national election, there must be a bit less than half of Americans who may not agree with the data and my conclusions.  Only in America do many people accept weather predictions from a rodent but deny climate change evidence from scientists.  For those people, Happy Groundhog Day!  And, if you are in that category, feel free to save your time, and stop reading this article now.

Only in America

I gathered my information from scientific articles, the National Weather Service, NOAA, Weather Underground, National Climatic Data Center, National Geographic Society, insurance company data, numerous web sites, and personal observation. 

In a nutshell, we are seeing an increase in weather extremes, and will continue to see more increases in the future…… more rain, more hail, more snow, more flooding, more flash floods, more drought, more wind, more lightning, more heat waves, more cold waves, more pest infestations, more wildfires, etc, etc.  Yes, we will continue to have lots of nice days for hiking and climbing, but fewer overall every year as the years pass.

Temperature Changes

First, some specifics:

1. AIR TEMPERATURE The global air temperature at the Earth’s surface has increased 0.9 degree Fahrenheit between 1970 and 2010, and has risen more since. And, there is a far greater warming north of the Arctic Circle than below it.

2. HEAT WAVES – of which night time lows are one indicator – are striking a growing portion of the U.S.– a 31% increase, from 4% in 1970 to 35% in 2010.

3. MOISTURE has risen about 4% since 1970 according to satellite data.  Average global specific humidity has gone from 10.2 in 1970 to 10.6 in 2010.

4. EXTREME RAINFALLS  The percentage of the U.S. getting an elevated portion of precipitation from extreme events has risen from 9% in 1970 to 16% in 2010, and is increasing.

Everyone has probably heard of the warming effects of “greenhouse gases”, particularly CO2.  Those effects are real, and CO2 is a major culprit (about 57%). However,there are also other contributors.


1. Greenhouse gases

A. H2O vapor – most abundant Greenhouse Gas – warms the Earth by reflecting heat back to Earth at night, cools by clouds reflecting sun light back into space during day time.

B. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) – large amounts created by combustion of   hydrocarbon fuels (causes about 57% of global warming by gases)

C. CFC’s – 100% human created material, very powerful (15,000 X more effect per molecule than CO2)  (25%)

D. Methane (CH4)  about half is created by rice farming and cattle for human consumption (25X more than CO2)(12%)

E. Nitrous Oxide (N2O) about half caused by high temperature burning of hydrocarbon fuels (in coal and gas fired power plants, in jet aircraft, and in automobile engines) (230XCO2)(6%) 

2. Plant removal

A. Some of the light energy that impacts plants is converted by plants, through photosynthesis, into chemical energy (sugars, starches, and oils). This conversion results in less energy being available to be converted in to heat energy, which can be radiated back into the atmosphere. Thus a cooling effect. However, deforestation, urbanization, and other plant removal schemes remove these organisms that were creating the energy reducing / cooling effect.

B. As photosynthesis takes place, green plants remove CO2 from the air and produce oxygen. When the plants are removed, or burn, or die, this CO2 removal function is lost.

3. When plants or any carbon-based fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, wood, etc) are burned massive amounts of CO2 are produced. Because of this, CO2 is being produced about 400,000 times faster than it is currently being sequestered by plants.

4. Albedo – light absorption - land surface changes – heat conversion vs. light reflection. Anything with a dark color will absorb light and convert it to heat. Conversely, the lighter the color, the more light energy will be reflected back into the atmosphere. For example – put your hand on a white car in the summer and then on a black car- note the temperature difference.

A. A black roof or black road (such as asphalt) will absorb light energy and get hot during the day (low albedo)

B. A white roof or road (such as concrete) will reflect more energy and notget as hot during the day (high albedo)

C. When land surfaces are changed by development of any kind, the albedo is usually changed

5. Urban Heat domes – buildings and pavement absorb heat all day, and radiate it into air at night. Buildings have more surface area than the land they are built on. This increased surface area (the walls of the buildings) absorbs heat during the day, and radiates it back into the air at night. Compounding the situation, as noted above, if the buildings and / or pavement are dark in color in areas that are exposed to direct sunlight, more heat will created. This combined effect makes for a more intense heat dome. Going a step farther, if the urban area has a traditional wind pattern at night, as most areas tend to, the air warmed by the buildings will rise, thus forcing the winds to flow over, or around, the area, thus reducing the cleansing / mixing effect of evening winds, and the area experiencing the urban heat dome will also experience more air pollution. Increased air pollution will reflect more heat back to the ground… quite the compounding effect…. A “local” warming. As the human population migrates to cities, and they get larger, more and more urban heat domes are created.

6. Limestone is being converted to Portland cement in huge volumes for construction, and in the conversion process large volumes of CO2 are created and released into the atmosphere. Limestone (CaCO3) is heated → CaO (Portland cement) + CO2. Living organisms in the sea sequester CO2 in the production of shells, which eventually form the rock limestone. Limestone is a huge CO2 reservoir for the Earth.

7. As noted above, most limestone is created by living organisms over time, combining CO2 dissolved in water with Calcium. Chemical pollution and water temperature changes are severely reducing the numbers of these organisms today, reducing the natural cycling of CO2, hence increasing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere and waters.

There is a greater warming north of the Arctic Circle which is being mostly caused by the deposition of black soot resulting from hydrocarbon burning (diesel, coal burning, wildfires, dung burning, etc), in mid-lattitude areas that are carried northward by atmospheric processes. Soot heats the air 1 million times (1,000,000X) more per unit mass than does CO2, having a particularly strong warming effect over the Arctic. For example, January 19, 2016 the temperature at the North Pole was about 25 degrees F warmer than normal (the 100+ year average) for that date.

Temperature Departure 1 14 2016
Temperature Departure from Average - January 14, 2016

Weather patterns are often closely related to what is happening to the jet stream.  A jet stream forms high in the upper troposphere between two air masses of very different temperature. The greater the temperature difference between the air masses, the faster the wind blows in the jet stream. The strongest jet stream winds occur between air masses having the largest temperature differences over the deepest layer of the troposphere. Since colder air is more dense than warmer air, there is an air pressure difference between them at any altitude. And if the warm and cold air masses are quite deep, higher altitudes in the atmosphere experience progressively larger air pressure differences.  Even though the wind "tries" to flow from high pressure to low pressure, the turning of the Earth causes the air flow to turn to the right in the Northern Hemisphere  (west to east), so the jet stream flows around the air masses, rather than directly from one to the other.

Jet Stream FormationJet Stream
Jet Stream Formation Profiles

The jet stream tends to slow down due to the now warmer temperatures north of the Arctic Circle, and as it does, instead of the more normal fairly smooth west to east pattern (positive phase), it tends to take a more wavy west to east pattern (negative phase), with huge bends, creating high-amplitude troughs and ridges bulging northerly and southerly.

Arctic Oscillation

Slower progression of upper-level waves cause associated weather patterns in mid-latitudes to be more persistent, which lead to an increased probability of extreme weather events that result from prolonged conditions, such as drought, flooding, cold spells, and heat waves.  Often, these huge bends will get stuck, and will not move, setting up “blocking highs” and “cutoff lows”, which result in extreme weather events that can last for days or weeks.  Thus, we often see at the same time nasty cold and snow in the east and northeast U.S. (or heavy rains) and very warm and dry weather in the west and southwest U.S. (South-bending trough in the east and north-bending ridge in the west).  And, sometimes just the opposite, depending on where the wavy pattern happens to get stuck.

Jet Stream July 2 2013
Jet Stream Pattern on July 2, 2013

Satellite Photo
Satellite Photo, July 4
Rainfall Map
Rainfall Map, July 2-4

For example: Heavy Rain & Flooding of July 2nd-6th, 2013  A very anomalous pattern set up across the U.S. in early July featuring a persistent upper level trough over and just west of the Mississippi Valley and a downstream ridge off the Mid Atlantic Coast. This brought deep layer moist tropical air into the Southeast for several consecutive days resulting in torrential rains, flash flooding and river flooding. While several episodes of severe weather also occurred during this period, the heavy rain and accompanying flooding were the primary impacts.  There was a large swath of 10+ inches in the Florida Panhandle and Southeast Alabama, up to almost 20”  Similar conditions have affected the Colorado Rockies in recent years, when the jet stream wobble was farther west, resulting in substantial mountain flooding, some serious hiking and climbing situations, and stratospheric increases in homeowner insurance rates.

Heavy precipitation days are increasing even in places where precipitation is decreasing, such as the 2015 devastating flash floods in Death Valley, California.  “Dirty air” (pollution) fosters precipitation extremes. Changes to clouds suppress precipitation and encourage drought in some areas where moisture in low-lying clouds is in tiny droplets.  And, in taller clouds pollution has the opposite effect – increasing heavy rain, hail, and wind.  Very dirty conditions can increase the probability of heavy rain 50% and at the same time reduce the probability of light rain by 50%.

Certain common bacteria (Pseudomonas syringae, found on many plants) are sucked up into the air by fast rising air and facilitate the formation of more and larger hail.  From 2010 to 2012 insurance claims resulting from hail damage increased 84%.  Getting caught in a hail storm, especially with big hail stones, is no fun for hikers or climbers!

Now for some basic atmospheric physics:  Warmer air can hold more water than cooler air.  For example: One cubic yard of air can hold 1 teaspoon of water at 50 degrees F, 2 teaspoons of water at 73 degrees F, 3 teaspoons of water at 85 degrees F, and 4 teaspoons of water at 93 degrees.  Heat energy is required to cause water to evaporate.  This energy is stored in that evaporated water, and is known as the “latent heat of water.”  As water vapor condenses into liquid water this heat is given off into the air, which drives storms.  Warm air rises, which causes updrafts.  Common cumulus clouds have updraft speeds of about 5 mph.  Typical thunderstorms have updraft speeds of 15-30 mph.  And, today’s supercell thunderstorms, which are getting more common, can have updraft speeds of up to 175 mph.   What goes up also comes down, and we are often seeing wind gusts going down at over 100 mph, which after hitting the Earth’s surface move laterally at 100+ mph.  This can make for exciting times when hiking through forested areas as trees are being blown down, or trying to climb a cliff face while experiencing similar winds.

Storms are also sometimes forming much faster.  For example, in 2013 when Oklahoma City experienced two EF-5 tornadoes within several weeks, the second one formed from what was a blue sky 30 minutes earlier!  Also forming are increased downpours / heavy rains. Thunderstorm losses increased 500% from 1980 to 2011 according to giant insurance re-insurer Munich Re. 

For hikers, not only floods, but flash floods present an ever increasing danger.  These can be caused by rain events miles away from an area being hiked in and come rushing in unexpectedly, sometimes causing deaths (such as noted in Zion National Park in 2015 when 7 experienced hikers were killed in a flash flood).

Hikers killed in Zion Park Keyhole Canyon Flash flood 2015
Hikers killed in Zion Park Keyhole Canyon Flash flood 2015

Oak Creek normal
Slide Rock Park in Oak Creek Canyon on a typical summer afternoon
Oak Creek flash flood
Oak Creek flash flood

Even on very steep slopes the danger can be great, as was seen in the deaths of a very experienced mountain climbing husband and wife who were struck by a rock and mud slide while climbing on Crestone Needle, a 14.000’ mountain in the Sangre de Christo mountain range in Colorado in 2010.  They had started their climb with totally blue skies.

On steep slopes and cliffs rockfalls are more common now, due to both, moisture getting into cracks and heating / cooling (expansion / contraction) of rocks with cracks.

Missionary Ridge lnadslide
1998 Missionary Ridge landslide
2015 Burnt Timber Creek Rockfall
2015 Burnt Timber Creek Trail landslide

During storms lightning is often created, and research published in the journal Science indicated as the planet warms there is an increase in lightning strikes.  The hazard to hikers, and anyone outside for that matter, is increasing.  Colorado is a state with lots of people outside in the open, hiking, and that state has the 3rd highest annual rate of people being struck by lightning (Florida is 1st and Texas ranks 2nd).  For example, in 2015 36 people were struck by lightning in Colorado.  Handily, only about 10-15% of people struck by lightning die. But, on the other hand, most survivors are severely injured, with the majority sustaining long-term injuries, including nerve and muscle damage, such as numbness and weakness in the limbs, temporary or permanent paralysis, cardiac arrest, concussions, seizures, blown out ear drums, and cataracts.  Many also suffer severe psychological changes.  Any moisture on the body is instantly changed to steam, resulting in burns and things like shoes or clothes being blown off.  Metallic objects like zippers, cell phones, iPods with ear phones can cause burns or explode due to being superheated by the lightning.

On July 17, 2015 I was hiking in the San Juan Mountains on McMillan Peak with a group, as weather began to move in from the south.  Lightning started to occur to the south, and I became a bit concerned.  A discussion with the trip leader resulted in us turning back just below tree line. 
Within minutes, lightning was striking the ground in the area above tree line that we had been headed for.  A bit later that day 4 hikers were struck while hiking on Mt. Yale just above tree line, and 1 died.  A month later (August 18) a friend of mine was struck by lightning while hiking in the wilderness a few miles west of where we had been hiking.  He survived, but his life has been severely altered. 

And, last but not least, due to damage to the ozone layer by the release of bromine and chlorine pollution, we area seeing substantial increases of UV-A and UV-B, which is resulting in lots more sunburn, skin cancers, and cataracts.  The numbers go up greatly as you get to higher elevations, such as when people hike in mountains (For example, hiking in the mountains of Colorado provides a 400% increase in UV radiation when compared to walking in New York City).  Every year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, and colon!  I must admit to being a poster child for this, as I have been hiking at high elevations for over 50 years and piloted gliders to altitudes of 18,000 feet above sea level for 20 years.  Skin cancer removal surgery has become an annual event for me.  I’ve retired from gliding, but still thoroughly enjoy hiking the hills and bagging the peaks as often as possible, but still pay a price.  Sun screen and protective clothing / hats help, but much damage is already done in earlier years.

 We will continue to have many fun, safe hikes and mountain climbs, but…… With a changing atmospheric chemistry and warming world, a NEW NORMAL will be  seen in weather…….. EXTREMES…. 


Very rapidly forming storms

Stronger storms

High intensity rainfall

Floods – both river floods and flash floods

Hail – bigger and greater volume


Wind – increases in high velocity

Blizzards / Extreme cold

Heat waves, Record High Temps, High night low temps


Sunburn, skin cancers, and cataracts

There is nothing you can do about the weather, so just adjust your activities to it. Check weather forecasts before you set out on your activities, and keep your eye on it as the day passes.  Be aware.  Be careful.  And continue to safely enjoy the good days for hiking and climbing.

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Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Jan 12, 2017 10:03 am - Hasn't voted

PMed you

regarding attaching your jpgs to this article.


gliderman - Jan 18, 2017 9:58 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: PMed you


Thanks for your help.

Finally got some jpgs attached, but forgot to give some proper titles, and now am not sure how to go back and add them to the images in the article.

Also, there were several images that didn't want to come out properly as they were not jpgs but images I had placed in Word pages, and I haven't figured out how to make jpgs out of them.

Oh well, at least now some images are there and help make some of my points in the article.

Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Jan 20, 2017 10:12 am - Hasn't voted

Re: PMed you

Looks a lot better with the images in place!


yatsek - Jan 19, 2017 6:11 am - Hasn't voted

Unfortunate beginning

Sorry to have to say this, but you mix science with politics at the very start ("According to the recent national election, there must be a bit less than half of Americans who may not agree with the data and my conclusions"), which undermines your credibility as a scientist and made me stop reading although I'm not American, I don't ask rodents for weather forecasts and I don't deny climate change (I'm not convinced it's primarily human-induced though).


rgg - Jan 19, 2017 4:24 pm - Hasn't voted

Changing Weather discussions are always mixed with politics

First of all, I have no doubts whatsoever that global warming is a problem. In fact, I believe it's the biggest problem facing mankind right now.

I'm also convinced that, without mankind, there wouldn't have been a problem. Sure, there are natural fluctuations in climate, but what we have seen the last century, and especially the last few decades, is far beyond any natural fluctuations. Humans are to blame.

Those that accept this don't need convincing. However, many don't accept that humans are responsible. Whether this is because they haven't really looked into it with an open mind, or whether they don't trust officials (including climate scientists), or whether they simply don't want to believe it, never mind the evidence, thank you - I don't know. And there is even a small (and dwindling) minority that don't even believe that there is such a thing as global warming at all.

Not mixing science with politics would be the right thing to do - if you want to preach to the choir. However, it's not the scientists that need convincing. They already are. Politicians are the ones that have the power to act. Some have no doubts that we must, but others think different. And, let's face it, politicians are not known for their ability to be objective when they don't like the consequences. Some are honest, willing to do what's best for their community, country or the world, but many simply ignore any inconvenient truth.

I'm still confident that if we act soon enough, we can cope, but if the politicians keep talking without taking decisive action, eventually the cumulative greenhouse gases will spin out of control. We have little time to waste. Even if we would completely stop emitting greenhouse gases this instant, the highly elevated concentrations in the atmosphere would take years to come down again, and all the time the earth will keep warming up. Not only do we need to lower our emissions, and drastically, no, we also have to actively get a whole lot of these greenhouse gases out of our atmosphere.

Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Jan 19, 2017 6:26 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Changing Weather discussions are always mixed with politics

Not too long ago, changing weather discussions used to be mixed with burning witches!


rgg - Jan 20, 2017 7:14 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Changing Weather discussions are always mixed with politics

Ah, yes, enjoying the great outdoors around a big bonfire with friends and family, entertainment included. Those were the days! Who is bringing the marshmallows?

Come to think of it, these fires probably are what started global warming. Really. You want proof? Just measure the temperature somewhere, start one and measure it again. I predict it will be higher. It's hard science, irrefutable.

If only we hadn't burned them all, those witches might conjure up a spell to solve the whole problem.

Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Jan 20, 2017 9:08 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Changing Weather discussions are always mixed with politics

One could call the age we live in "The Age of Measurement".


yatsek - Jan 20, 2017 1:08 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Changing Weather discussions are always mixed with politics

To Rob,

Surely there are various reasons that some people, including some scientists, are not convinced that climate change is human-induced. The reasons that make me personally doubt that are:

1 We still know little about the atmosphere, oceans and links between them plus that one can interpret available data in many ways. (When I was at school, in the 1970s, most scientists thought we might be entering a human-induced Ice Age.) I find some of the arguments against anthropogenic warming pretty convincing, e.g. here on pages 20-22

2 I used to work at a state-run research institute and met quite a few people who would produce pseudoscientific stuff just to get money from the government/anybody

3 The issue has been highly politicized and there's big money behind it

However, I would certainly not mind the best economically developed countries reducing their greenhouse gases emissions and helping other countries reduce their own instead of trying to force them to do so. Still, I think a much more helpful move would be a kind of money for woodland scheme, i.e. substantial money transfers from the rich to the countries that live off their timber, especially tropical countries but also European, such as Romania, in order to stop deforestation.

Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Jan 20, 2017 4:53 pm - Hasn't voted

Now that you've got

all the images in place I've read tha article and am ready to comment on it.

Let me first say that I do not question that Global Warming is upon us and that Climate Change is happening. What shouldn’t be news but may be to some, is that they’ve always been with us and always will be. I do not doubt that our trashing of the planet may be playing some role in this and that we should stop contributing sooner than later. I also suspect that the forces at play here are beyond our control and that the climate will do as it will, just as it did to our ancestors over the last couple million years.

However, I must take exception to some of the assertions you make in this article.

In the first paragraph you say, “there are still a lot of people who don’t really understand all the interactions and causes”. Are you saying that you do?

I am no scientist but have read a good deal on climatic history and I am puzzled as to why it is rarely spoken of by scientific community in the context of current climate discussions. Not saying there’s a conspiracy just don’t understand why it’s not added to the evidence.

You list “What Causes Global Warming”, which is all well and good except that you leave out a few things:

Volcanic Eruptions-These are a pretty big contributor to change and one that humans have no control over.
Solar Insoation-We don’t know a lot about this, other than it has an effect. It is caused by changes in the Earth’s angle to the Sun. Changes in the orbital parameters of the Earth-eccentricity, obliquity, and precession of axis-cause variations in the intensity and distribution of solar radiation.
Solar Ouput-It varies and it’s well known that it does.
Ocean Currents-Barely beginning to get a glimpse of what the effects of these are. We’ve only recently started to figure out the whims of El Nino and La Nina. The Atlantic Conveyor Belt apparently turns Ice Ages off and on and we only recently became aware of it.
I guessing there may be a few million other things involved that we haven't "discovered" yet.

FYI~Some of my information above comes from The Long Summer by Brian Fagan.
A book which I highly recommend if your interested in weather history. Living in the Age of Measurement, many things that were previously hidden, as far as climate history, are being revealed and it’s pretty amazing!


rgg - Jan 22, 2017 9:27 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Now that you've got

"Let me first say that I do not question that Global Warming is upon us and that Climate Change is happening. What shouldn’t be news but may be to some, is that they’ve always been with us and always will be. I do not doubt that our trashing of the planet may be playing some role in this and that we should stop contributing sooner than later. I also suspect that the forces at play here are beyond our control and that the climate will do as it will, just as it did to our ancestors over the last couple million years. "

Yes, it's true that climate change isn't anything new; it's been happening as long as the earth exists, and natural factors will continue to have an impact. However, and unlike what climate change skeptics are implying or even saying outright, that does not mean that mankind can have a free pass at messing up our climate. It's cumulative. What we do to our climate comes on top of whatever happens naturally.

Any scientist that claims to fully understand all the interactions of and changes to our climate, is a scientist I won't take seriously. It's the nature of science to examine any theory when evidence that contradicts it is presented, and that means a scientist must always be prepared to discard a theory if it's proven to be wrong.

However, in practice, many theories that were considered true but turned out to be not, were only adjusted. Take mechanics, for example. After Newton's work, physicists for a long time accepted that his laws of motion where absolutely true.
Only much later, when studying motion on atomic scale, did we find out that Newton's laws didn't apply, and quantum mechanics provided the new theory. Likewise, extremely fast moving objects didn't comply, and it was discovered that nothing could move faster than the speed of light - which lead to relativistic mechanics. Does this mean Newtonian mechanics is wrong? Yes and no. Theoretically, yes. For all practical applications that don't involve atomic scale or extremely high speeds, Newtonian mechanics works just fine.

The fact that there is uncertainty among scientists about many aspect of climate change isn't ignored by the scientists at all. In the fifth report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, every key statement is qualified by an estimation to its certainty.

Volcanic activity is indeed a natural factor impacting our climate. The ash clouds from a massive eruption could indeed lower average global temperatures by several degrees, causing a new ice age. Should that happen, then we should keep burning lots of fossil fuels to counter that effect, at least until the ash clouds start to dissolve. But would you want to hose down a building before it's even burning?

I won't go into all the other natural phenomena, other than again referring to the 5th IPCC report: between 1951 and 2010, natural forces are likely to be responsible for between -0.1° and + 0.1°, while observed warming is between +0.6° and +0.8° (see figure SPM.3 in the Summary for Policymakers; I rounded the numbers to 1 decimal place). Note the qualification of "likely": the report doesn't claim certainty for these conclusions.

I'm not familiar with Brian Fagan or his book, so I can't comment on it. For me, the IPCC is the authoritative body. I'll accept that there are probably some mistakes in their report - the authors are scientists, but they are also human. However, pointing out a mistake or questioning an uncertainty doesn't disqualify the report or its conclusions. It has been approved by virtually every country in the world.

For the sake of full disclosure: I have a background in science, though I changed careers a long time ago. I also own shares in a big oil company, so it's not in my best interest if we would drastically cut down on oil consumption. However, I won't deny science because I don't like its conclusions.

Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Jan 22, 2017 12:03 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Now that you've got

"However, I won't deny science because I don't like its conclusions."

Not denying science, just prefer looking at the big picture.

Viewing: 1-12 of 12