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Climate Hustle

Global warming continues despite continuous denial

Posted on 11 December 2014 by John Abraham

Human emissions of greenhouse gases cause the Earth to warm. We’ve known that for decades – actually for over 100 years. But how do we measure warming? How fast is the planet heating? Turns out, this is conceptually easy to answer, even though it is difficult to implement the required measurements.

In order to measure how fast the planet is heating, we can measure the difference in incoming and outgoing energy at the top of the atmosphere (just like keeping track of a bank account by comparing deposits to withdrawals). Another way to measure a warming planet is to simply to measure how much energy is stored within the planet’s climate (like watching the balance of a bank account). Both methods should give the same answer. If you have more deposits than withdrawals to a bank account, you will see your balance increase.

Fortunately both of these methods, when used by climate scientists, tell the same story. The Earth is out of balance; we are gaining 0.5 – 1 Watts per square meter of area.

Okay, so what are the impacts of this heat? What should we experience? The answers to these questions were addressed in a recent paper (Abraham, Fasullo and Laden) published by the National Center for Science Education. This paper, which is geared toward an informed but not expert audience, focuses on the current energy imbalance, the recent trends in atmospheric temperatures, and the issue of the so-called “pause” of global warming. As a spoiler, we show that the “pause” is not really a thing.

First, there has been no pause or even slowdown in the warming of the planet. We provide updated information from NOAA which clearly shows a continued heating of the world’s oceans – the reservoir where most heat ends up. We compare energy contained in different layers and discuss the transfer of energy from the surface regions to the lower regions. When you look at the oceans, the so-called pause is simply a redistribution, a burying of heat to deeper waters.

Ocean heating data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ocean heating data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

So, why is more heat being stored in the deep oceans? The leading idea is that changes to Pacific winds have created a temporary condition which resembles a La Niña event. The conditions are characterized by a cool pool of water in the Pacific as winds push water from the coast of South America toward Australia. This trend in Pacific water temperatures is alternatively called the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).

The important thing is, this oscillation is partly (perhaps mainly) natural and it doesn’t last forever. At some point, it will end and heat which was being buried in Pacific waters will end up elsewhere.

People who are interested in this are also watching patterns of atmospheric pressure and flow in the Pacific. Of particular importance is sea-surface winds which are updated daily here. If the winds switch and begin flowing from west to east, we will see a pickup in Pacific temperatures and a potential El Niño. If that occurs, we can expect 2015 to likely be the hottest year in recorded history.

Another thing to watch is the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI). Daily values are located here. The SOI is a measure of the difference in pressure anomalies between Tahiti and Darwin, Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology,

the SOI gives an indication of the development and intensity of El Niño events. The SOI is calculated using the pressure differences between Tahiti and Darwin. Sustained negative values of the SOI below −8 often indicate El Niño episodes. These negative values are usually accompanied by sustained warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, a decrease in the strength of the Pacific Trade Winds.

Now, I am not saying that El Niño/La Niña cycles are also identified as PDO or IPO cycles. The point I am trying to make is these wind patterns in the Pacific and surface water temperatures in the same region help dictate short-term and multi-year temperature fluctuations worldwide.

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. We seem to discuss this topic ad nausea while studiously ignoring where ocean heat goes to and what its effects on the cryosphere are. Pity. Is it too scary?

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Please enter the the term "ocean heat" into the SkS Search box. You will see that your claim is entirely unfounded with respect to this website.

  2. The findings in the NOAA paper discussed above do not agree with findings from scientists at NASA published in Nature Climate Change in October 2014.  NOAA consider "When you look at the oceans, the so-called pause is simply a redistribution, a burying of heat to deeper waters" while NASA states "NASA Study Finds Earth’s Ocean Abyss Has Not Warmed" (  

    The report states"Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, analyzed satellite and direct ocean temperature data from 2005 to 2013 and found the ocean abyss below 1.24 miles (1,995 meters) has not warmed measurably". The leading author of the study states:  "The combination of satellite and direct temperature data gives us a glimpse of how much sea level rise is due to deep warming. The answer is — not much." 

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  3. william - The only issue here is semantic. There is a considerable increase in ocean heat content for 700-2000m (often referred to as deep) ocean, some warming in the 0-700m layer (increased transport to depth, apparently), and _so far_ only a small amount of warming in the >2000m ocean (abyssal). 

    There are significant regional differences; the Southern Ocean near Antarctica is showing a great deal of deep warming, right where the thermohaline circulation dives, for example. And the changes evident in the abyssal ocean are as one would expect given the time delays for circulation - you can actually see the decades or centuries delay for abyssal circulation in the observed temperature changes. The spread of warmth from the Antarctic downflow is quite evident. But there simply hasn't been time for much of the abyss to be affected, _yet_.

    So the confusion seen (and pushed by some of the denial sites, I'll note) is due to confusing a warming deep ocean with the time capsule of the abyssal, where most AGW effects haven't quite reached yet.

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  4. William, not to be piling on, but in your own comment you showed why the difference.  NOAA is measuring 0-2000 meters, and you state

    "the ocean abyss below 1.24 miles (1,995 meters) has not warmed measurably"

    So by your own reference they are measuring different things.

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