The Definitive Global Climate Change (aka Global Warming) Thread — General Discussion and Questions
Paraphrasing Aaron Moyer from "The Definitive Firearms Thread" – I am creating this thread so that questions can be asked freely, myths can be dispelled, and people can make the best decision for themselves about what, if anything, they should do to prepare for climate change. I will try to provide some general primer materials to demistify the science and explain what climate change means as clearly as possible. I look forward to questions and interactions with anyone in the community who is interested or curious about the subject.
Who am I and why should anyone believe what I have to say on this subject? Well, I post under my real name so any search engine will pull me up on top. I am a research scientist and professor with an environmental engineering degree from MIT and a doctorate in ecology from Penn State. I am what is termed an 'interdisciplinary' scientist which means someone who works across many scientific fields. This gives me a broader view than many of my colleagues on issues such as climate change. I teach graduate classes on the subject but also have taught it to middle schoolers, at open venues, a local church, and through newspaper editorials.
My wayward past has led me to work in some capacity or other on all seven continents and also spend several years on or under most of the world's oceans either collecting data or serving my country. Having lived and worked overseas, I have developed a global perspective and experienced a wide range of regional enviromental and economic conditions.
I don't have an agenda to fill here, I just want to provide my expertise and knowledge to this community at PeakProsperity.com that has taught me so much. I am here for the same reason as many of you. Namely, to understand and prepare for what the future holds. I have a family – enough said.
I will post materials to help foster discussion but truly hope to gain insights from other participants on this thread.
We hear a lot of talk about fiscal crises and balancing the national budget these days, never mind wrestling to balance our own family budgets. Given this attention to fiscal responsibility, I thought perhaps putting our climate change problem into fiscal terms might make it more understandable and meaningful for many people. What I am talking about is the Earth’s energy budget. We are currently importing more energy from the Sun than we are exporting to the rest of the universe. The imports come in the form of sunlight and the exports are a combination of light (reflected from the planet) and heat that is radiated in all directions. When the climate is stable, the energy budget is balanced. If we export more energy than we bring in, then the planet cools and ice ages occur. Conversely, if we import more energy than we export, the energy has to be stored somewhere as extra heat. Luckily for us, the Earth has a great storage tank called the oceans that soak up most of the extra energy and release it back to the atmosphere more slowly over time. This is a bit like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that the United States maintains, just in case the flow of imported oil gets slowed down. The oceans act to moderate sudden climate changes by soaking up and releasing energy from the sun. This smoothes out temperature changes between day and night and between summer and winter. However, problems arise when energy fluxes remain out of balance for many years.
So let’s get back to the Earth’s energy budget. We currently import and average of 262 W/m2 of the Sun’s energy across the planet and export roughly 261.15 W/m2 of energy as reflected light or heat (Hansen et al. 2005). The amount of sunlight reflected increases or decreases with changes in the planet’s color. So, if we have more bright white clouds, snow and ice, then we reflect more of the sunlight. However, if the snow and ice melt or the clouds dissipate, we absorb more of the light because water, soil and vegetation are darker. The rate of heat export varies with the temperature of the planet. As the temperature rises, the heat release increases exponentially. This means that small increases in the Earth’s temperature result in larger amounts of energy being radiated out into space until a balance is reached. This is how the moon works. During the day, the surface heats up to a toasty 235 degrees Fahrenheit while at night the temperature drops to a mind numbing -243 degrees. Thankfully, our planet doesn’t have temperature extremes like the moon. The reason for this is that the atmosphere that envelops our planet slows down the rate of heat loss. In our financial analogy, it is like an export tax with some of the heat sent back to Earth. The atmosphere acts like the windows in your car. Sunlight gets in, but heat release is slowed down. The inside of your car doesn’t melt because, as the temperature inside rises, greater amounts of heat energy are released until the energy coming in and going out are balanced. This is why you’ve heard of global climate change being called the greenhouse effect. The analogy to a greenhouse isn’t perfect, but it does give the general idea of how certain gases, namely water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and several others, act to slow down the rate of heat loss. Burning fossil fuels pumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and strengthens the greenhouse effect, kind of like putting double-paned windows on your house to keep the heat in.
So, if you whipped out your calculators earlier, you could have calculated that the Earth has an energy imbalance of 0.85 W/m2. How do we know this? We have had satellites in space for several decades now. We are able to measure the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth, and also measure the amount energy being released by it. So how bad is our energy balance problem? What seems to be a measly amount, at 0.85 W/m2, is enough to permanently light 45 100W light bulbs on every football field sized area of the planet. That would be about 4.3 trillion light bulbs globally. Put another way, the Earth is currently storing an amount of energy equal to roughly 520 Hiroshima nuclear bomb blasts every single minute of every single hour of every single day all year long. We are gaining 29 times as much energy as all of humanity consumes for all purposes in a given year. This would be a great return on our investment if we wanted to heat the planet; the problem is that we don’t want to do this. To date, the planet has warmed by only 1.25 degrees because most of the heat has been soaked up by the deep oceans or expended melting glaciers and sea ice. This energy doesn’t disappear, it just get’s delayed before equalizing with the atmosphere. Because of time lags in the climate system, we can’t just stop this process whenever we want. If we could somehow stop all emissions of greenhouse gases today, the planet would still warm by another 1 degree because of what we have already set in motion. The planetary energy crisis is ominous. If we want to maintain a climate similar to the one we have today for our children and grandchildren, then the human race needs to achieve an 80% cut in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. This is a tall order by anyone’s measure, but this is one budget that we cannot afford to ignore.
Why are you down here with the retired circus geeks and the mad men and women chained to the wall? It’s damp and gloomy. Nobody ever reads us, and the adults upstairs lace our rations with thorazine to keep us from moaning and screaming!
Pleased to meet you and..allow me to ask the first question. I’ve glanced at the climate change info, but have never gotten too deeply into it, as it just confuses the h*** out of me. Would you please, in laymen’s terms, sparing me the math if that’s possible, tell me what you think the number one myth is?
Given the forum guidelines I thought that a thread like this had to exist here. I’d be happy to get out and see th light of day (literally and figuratively!). I opened this thread in reponse to Chris’ podcast. I’ve since been informed that there is an ongoing discussion on the subject matter up in the fresh air somewhere.
To answer your question I can give you a link to an excellent site for keeping track of a variety of climate change myths (http://www.skepticalscience.com/). This site discusses the “skeptic” arguments and provides the actual published science on the matter. It can get technical at times but does a good job of discussing the materials.
For me the main ‘myth’ I run into is that climate changes all the time, usually due to the sun, so we (humanity) can’t possibly have any part in it. Skipping the math – first of all, just because climate responds to changes in the amount of solar energy that arrives at the planet doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed in other ways too. At its simplest, you have energy coming in (sunlight) and energy going out (heat). How can you tell if the increasing global temperature is caused by increased greenhouse gases trapping heat versus changing amounts of sunlight increasing the temperature? The easiest way is to realize that each will give you different types of temperature change. If the growing warmth were all due to increased amounts of solar energy we would expect temperatures to increase most during the day and during the summer when the sun is actually shining more brightly and for more hours per day. In the case of the greenhouse gasses that trap heat, you will get temperature increases year-round but they will be most apparent at night and during the winter when temperatures should drop quickly because the sun isn’t shining or at least is only doing so fewer hours per day. The greenhouse gases act like a blanket that slows the rate at which heat escapes.
There is a lot of noise from one year to the next but globally this is the pattern we see. The planet is warming but it is warming most at night and during the winter. This is what makes heat waves increasingly deadly (e.g Europe 2003, Russia 2010). It doesn’t cool down enough at night to let people recover enough to face the next scorching day. Those regions haven’t been accustomed to such warmth don’t have air conditioning in most homes. In Europe upwards of 30,000 people died, in Russia it was 50,000. This is a big part of why Europe is so active about addressing global climate change.
Thanks for touring the dungeon!
So glad to hear from a bona fide scientist!
I was wondering about how global climate change in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, and 50 years may effect weather patterns: rainfall, temperatures: lows, means, and highs across the United States. I’ve noticed the USDA planting zones moved in a northerly direction. And I’m also concerned about ocean currents and jet stream impacts (like Iceland and the U.K. getting colder).
But there seems to be little concrete information and few maps available. I want to be able to have some ideas of what areas of the world would be good candidates for eventual relocation, if one wanted fertile land with mild temperatures, plentiful rainfall and aquifers, abundance of nature, timber, and natural resources, low population density. (So far the Pacific Northwest looks nice.)
I don’t know if anyone’s seen this, but here’s a short article:
New USDA Plant Zones Clearly Show Climate Change (January 27, 2012)
“Planting zones are retreating north all over the country, but the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) won’t state the obvious: the shift is a rock solid indicator of climate change.
“On Wednesday, the USDA released a new plant hardiness zone map, which contours the nation according to average annual lowest winter temperatures. The new zones analyze these temperatures for the period 1976-2005, updating a 1990 version of the map, which covered 1974-1986.“
The article in the link above also features a link to an Interactive Map (linked to right underneath this line) that features a slider you can drag quickly left and right to see the difference nationally:
And for those who don’t plan on visiting either of the two links above, just look at the expansion of Zone 7B in the map below.
You are asking the $64 million (maybe now it is trillion) dollar questions. You won’t find good maps because they do not exist. The Global Climate Models (GCMs) are too coarse resolution to really infer what surface conditions are going to be like at the scale of a residence. There are an increasing number of Regional Climate Models (RCMs) that are trying to downscale the GCM data in a coherent way to provide potentially useful climate information that decisions can be made with but they are still rough. I would not literally bet the farm on their outputs! For what it is worth, I have also looked at the PNW as an option.
I am not a fan of the model ensembles that are all in vogue these days. If you don’t know what these are they are like the poll of polls that are used so much in politics (add every poll together and voila, you have no idea what the errors are). You take model outputs from 16-21 models and average them together under the assumption that the errors should cancel out and provide a better overall product. One of the things I have my budding scientists looking at are ways to evaluate which (if any) of the GCMs are more reliable for given regions in the US.
My main interest these days, however, is the changes in climate variability that are already occurring. I am using more than a hundred years of high resolution climate observation data for the US and Australia to examine changes in the likelihood of different conditions occurring for smaller regions of each country. Most everyone gets hung up on the average increase in temperature or rainfall but I am more interested in what people/plants have to experience. For example, where I live, we had the wettest year on record a year ago (shattered the previous record by about 15%) and now we are 6 months into the driest period on record. On ‘average’ everything is great! We don’t live in the average though.
We don’t have materials ready for prime time yet but later this year I hope to have things in a form that the community can explore and examine to see what their regions of interest are doing climate-wise.
Thanks for links. I had heard of the hardiness zone changes but hadn’t seen those figures. If you want to see a nice depiction of what future climates mean over time take a look at the projected future of NH (http://downloads.globalchange.gov/usimpacts/pdfs/northeast.pdf)
With regard to the rising minimum temperatures, Poet, sent a Washington Post link that had this quantification of the effect in the United States from NOAA’s Climate Extremes Index.
In the last several decades, the prevalence of extremely warm low temperatures has overwhelmed extremely cold low temperatures. In 2011, 26.1% of the country experienced extremely warm low temperatures. The amount of country that experienced extremely cold low temperatures? Just 2.6%.
Thank you Mark
OK, then here is a controversial comment: I understand from a planetary astrophysics point of view, the earth is a little bit too cold. According to the planetary astrophysics that I read, if we wanted to build a perfect earth from scratch we would make it a lttle bit closer to the sun than presently. I live half way between the equator and the north pole, yet I have ice outside my window 2-3 months a year. That is unreasonable. I am too cold. We have an entire large continent that is completely uninhabitable because of the extreme cold (Antartica). Even southern Canada is too cold for most people’s tastes. And how about Siberia, Greenland etc.
From an objective view global warming with an estimated 15% greater precipitation and higher CO2 (number one limiting nutrient for plants!!!) should be a good thing, if we take out subjective feelings about having to move away from coastlines that become inundated with rising oceans and even balanced against expanded desert regions. So, people will flee areas where deserts expand and islands disappear, but vast new areas open up for humans to live. If the average termperature went up 6 degrees C (which by the way would be more in the polar regions and less in the equator) then more/expanded deserts would become unbearable and support less life BUT this is balanced against other areas finally opening up for human and plant life. I understand that Iceland and Greenland are finally starting to grow things like potatoes NOW because of the increased warmth and that the Dakotas and Minnesota already have a significantly longer (2-4 weeks) growing season. Further, the increased temperatures are emphasized in the polar regions and we will get much more rain (although not at the equator). I am looking forward to my part of Virginia having a similar climate to that of Georgia and my native upstate NY becoming more like Virginia. I understand that the oceans will rise, and that means low lying islands will disappear and maybe even much of Florida, but I dont consider that the end of the world, particularly if Greenland finally turns green and Canada finally becomes bearable in the Winter again. I am building a house on a small island now and plan to elevate the house on an extra 50cm concrete. (50 years from now that still might be too low I suppose but I dont think that is the end of the world). We need to get over the fact that we live on a water planet. This is a water world. We need to “get used to it.” We should not live on an ice planet. Of course many of our cities need to be rebuilt, and we need to plant trees and help suitable animals migrate for the new “reset.” Major cities such as Hiroshima, a firebombed Tokyo (1950s) and Seattle have been rebuilt (in the case of Seattle, on top of the old city). It was not the end of the world then and will not be the end of the world in the future, but instead will be an opportunity to do things better.
I am much more worried about CO2 dissolved in the ocean. I think that might be a bigger problem. The increase in free hydrogen concentration is almost double I think (0.2 or 0.3 pH units) and entire categories of animals may disappear. Tell me if my facts are wrong. Arent you worried about ocean pH? Why isnt that a bigger problem?
You provide a lot to chew on! I am unsure which astrophysics you are referring to. The solar flux at the Earth has been increasing at a rate of about 10% every billion or so years as the Sun matures. No need to move the planet, just wait and we’ll get that extra sunshine. The interesting thing is that the temperature range of the planet has been much more stable than would be expected if the temperature of the Earth system was a passive response to solar forcing.
I like your controversial commentary but it basically ends up in a question of value judgements, perfect for who, for how long? I was recently in New Hampshire and everyone was complaining about the lack of snow. They like to ski. As for me, I am quite happy not shoveling very much this winter. Throughout the period of life on this planet the response of the sense that things are too cold (or too warm), has been to get up and move (or propagate more efficiently in that direction if we are talking plants). Currently we are turning up the thermostat on the planet. Some people are going to be more comfy and others are going to be less comfortable. When I moved back from Brazil and visited some family, my wife turned up the thermostat one winter night and was quite comfortable. The rest of the house that was alseep under many blankets awoke very uncomfortable indeed! Some species will be winners, others will be losers – ultimately. The main problem is that we (humanity and the rest of life) all need to get from here to there.
The idea that warming the planet suddenly opens up a new continent (Antarctica) or makes much of Canada and Siberia now pleasantly warm is fine if someone wants to sit on their porch and enjoy the air but it isn’t going to help anyone make a living there. Just because central Canada suddenly has a good temperature for growing corn will not make it Iowa. Without the soils you can’t grow the crops. For most species the problem is the rate of change in the climate. I believe that you are right that we will have to try to help things along but we will be experimenting with the entire planet. We do not know how to build a functioning self contained ecosystem (see Biosphere 2).
My concern where we (humans) are concerned is that we have no idea of what we are setting ourselves up for. We have the idea that things will get a few degrees warmer, meh. Big deal, that happened since breakfast today already. This is not how it works though. We warm the planet and we effectively inject the climate system with steriods. A few places may actually get more stable climatically but most will see very different patterns of weather. We already are (hope to be able to show this well later this year). Also, climate systems are chaotic. Right now we are getting a gradual change in conditions but there is no guarantee that this will continue. Things can change abruptly and right now we have no idea of when, but there is some recent research that is looking for indicators of reaching such tipping points.
Your concern about ocean acidity is very astute. About half of the planet’s carbon uptake for productivity is from phytoplankton in the world’s oceans. Rising acidity messes wth their ability to form skeletons/shells. Osteoporosis for the masses. These are the base of the food chain in the oceans, soak up half the carbon dioxide and provide half of the annual oxygen production for all of us. Ecosystem services are important….