Science

It’s Getting Hot in Here… Or Is It?

A Melting Iceberg in Antarctica.

Recently, there has been a great amount of fuss and debate over global warming and climate change. I often wonder how scientists can better communicate their knowledge about Earth’s climate to the general public and, more importantly, to politicians.

I do not always agree with climate change alarmists. However, I know enough to know that I (and you, too!) should be thinking about climate change and about how to lessen my impact on the planet. Does this mean I worry when I throw away a plastic food wrapper or a styrofoam cup? No. I do try to recycle an reuse when possible, but I try not to worry excessively about little American wastes. Does this mean that I support nuclear power and will buy a fuel efficient car a year or two from now? Yes. These are bigger issues I’m willing to take a stand on.

Back to climate change, though… one of the biggest problems with the way people think about climate change is that they try to relate climate change to their daily lives. To a certain extent, one can look at the weather outside one’s window and try to understand this weather in the context of the Earth’s larger climate. To a large extent, however, one cannot do this. One really has to think about overall Earth cycles and about the larger scheme of climate and how climate changes. These cycles range from regional to planet scale on timescales ranging from hours to thousands of years. Humans are programmed to think on middle scales and on small (relative to Earth history) timescales. Humans have little trouble thinking about, say, the weather in Boston on a given Thursday afternoon. However, thinking on the scale of a hundred years is a stretch for the human mind, in many ways. Personally, I have trouble worrying about what is going to happen to Earth in a hundred years. I certainly don’t care what the weather on Februrary 22nd 2107 is going to be. Likely, I’ll be dead, and even if by some miracle I’m still alive, I can just check the weather report that morning. A thousand years into the future is even farther beyond my grasp, even with my mind trained to think on geological timescales.

This winter has been a strange, mostly warm winter. Snowstorms in places such as Colorado and Southern California aside, this winter is one of the warmest on record. This past January was the warmest January on record since detailed climate records were first kept the 1880s.

Understanding and appreciating climate change is far from easy. Although this January was fairly warm, this February has been much colder. It’s been bitterly cold and snowy here in Boston, at times. Global warming alarmists point to warm temperatures in places such as New England while those who criticize global warming point to places such as Colorado where the weather has been unusually cold and snowy.

One has to be careful, though, relating a warm winter to climate change. Yes, overall average Earth temperatures seem to be on the rise. However, temperatures may not necessarily rise steadily from year-to-year and some places may actually end up becoming colder as a result of climate change. Just because it isn’t getting warmer everywhere, though, doesn’t mean that global warming and climate change aren’t happening.

One way that I think about climate change is in terms of extremes. Humans are stressing the planet. We’re stressing the atmosphere, the oceans, and various ecosystems. Scientists are still learning much about climate change and natural climate fluctuations, but personally I believe that the anthropogenic affect on climate is simply creating more extremes. We’re speeding up natural processes and making natural processes more severe. For instance, we’re making hurricanes stronger and more frequent. We’re making the weather extremely warm in some places and extremely cold in others. And so on… none of what’s happening on Earth is abnormal, per say. The Earth has been much warmer and much cooler in its past history.

There is danger in these extremes. Humans and ecosystems in general are able to adapt fairly easily to slow, steady changes. Fast changes and extreme fluctuations are more difficult to manage and overcome.

Evelyn

Evelyn

Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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16 Comments

  1. February 22, 2007 at 12:55 pm —

    I'm not sure that it has been established that we are making hurricanes stronger and harder, really. From my understanding, that is a predicted effect of warmer ocean temperatures, but the recent high-profile hurricanes have been more of a confirmation bias thing rather than real data about that.

  2. February 22, 2007 at 1:07 pm —

    Is it hot in here? No, it's just you… and your damned first world fossil fuel dependence! (Anti-pickup line for climatologists.)

    From what little I understand of the climate change science, I agree with your analysis. The "global warming" name was an early and unfortunate misstep. I've taken to thinking of it as pumping more energy into the system, rather than a uniform warming. Or perhaps it's even more accurate to think of it as plugging a hole that would otherwise let energy escape. Either way, the effect is the same: net energy increase.

    They key being the word net. The increase isn't uniform or even particularly symmetric. But, thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, that heterogeneity wants to find a stable equilibrium. What greenhouse gases do is eliminate one of the mechanisms for achieving that equilibrium, namely the radiation of heat out into space. So, we still have to achieve equilibrium, but more burden is placed on the other mechanisms… in other words, weather. More energy going into generating weather means more extreme weather gets generated while seeking equilibrium.

    Deltas trending upward! Yegods!

  3. February 22, 2007 at 1:21 pm —

    >However, thinking on the scale of a hundred years is a stretch >for the human mind

    That's a big part of the problem, isn't it? Politicians (and the public) can't see trends beyond about 4 or 5 years?

    AGW seems actually like a very short-term problem on geological time scales. The worst predictions say that the average temperature will go up by 10 degrees in 100 years, but what will happen in 1000 or 1 million years? (We know that some time over the next 40 million years we will be hit by a big asteroid, and that will cause some serious climate change.)

    I think you are right, Evelyn, to note that in addition to the average increase in temperature, the trend is to make the weather more extreme. There is a serious of global maps in this week's issues of _New Scientist_ showing the trends of drought, temperature variations, etc. that are predicted from the current trends.

    In the long term, we're probably doomed, but it's right now that we have hundreds of millions of people living on the coasts and relying on a stable climate to generate enough food in the breadbaskets to feed us all. I believe in doing everything we can (I ride a bike and try to conserve energy), but the truth is that the experiment is already under way. Things are going to have to get a lot worse before anyone in power will be willing to do something about it, and by then it will be too late. Easter Island, the Maya, etc…. evidence from the past suggests that we humans aren't good at adapting when there is a rapid change in the climate. (I'm a sad excuse for a humanist….)

  4. February 22, 2007 at 1:31 pm —

    Actually, there is a fair amount of scholarly data on hurricane strength

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/309/57
    is a recent example.

    Science 16 September 2005:

    Vol. 309. no. 5742, pp. 1844 – 1846

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1116448

    Prev | Table of Contents | Next

    Reports

    Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment

    P. J. Webster,1 G. J. Holland,2 J. A. Curry,1 H.-R. Chang1

    We examined the number of tropical cyclones and cyclone days as well as tropical cyclone intensity over the past 35 years, in an environment of increasing sea surface temperature. A large increase was seen in the number and proportion of hurricanes reaching categories 4 and 5. The largest increase occurred in the North Pacific, Indian, and Southwest Pacific Oceans, and the smallest percentage increase occurred in the North Atlantic Ocean. These increases have taken place while the number of cyclones and cyclone days has decreased in all basins except the North Atlantic during the past decade.

  5. February 22, 2007 at 1:34 pm —

    Oh, forgot this more recent one:

    Science 1 December 2006:

    Vol. 314. no. 5804, pp. 1442 – 1445

    Increasing Trend of Extreme Rain Events Over India in a Warming Environment

    B. N. Goswami,1* V. Venugopal,2 D. Sengupta,2 M. S. Madhusoodanan,2 Prince K. Xavier2

    By using a daily rainfall data set, we show (i) significant rising trends in the frequency and the magnitude of extreme rain events and (ii) a significant decreasing trend in the frequency of moderate events over central India during the monsoon seasons from 1951 to 2000. The seasonal mean rainfall does not show a significant trend, because the contribution from increasing heavy events is offset by decreasing moderate events.

  6. February 22, 2007 at 1:58 pm —

    > Politicians (and the public) can’t see trends beyond about 4 or 5 years?

    Not to forget: Jesus will come and rapture us(*) any day now, so why worry?

    (*)Well, not us particularly, but, you know… your neighbours and stuff..

  7. February 22, 2007 at 3:34 pm —

    A thoughtful piece, Evelyn. I especially like the point about timescales so large that most of us find them difficult to grasp.

    I used to be opposed to nuclear power as a domestic / industrial power source; now I see that it can offer a lot that conventional fuels can't. Though there are tradeoffs, properly managed nuclear fission should be part of our energy infrastructure.

  8. February 22, 2007 at 7:25 pm —

    Would it be more easily possible to worry about what the world will be like in 2050?

  9. February 22, 2007 at 7:45 pm —

    I also was in the past anti nuclear but after I started to read about the low energy dencities of most alternative clean power sources nuclear started to move in to my number one spot as a primary power supply. If the current style of industrial economy is to be maitained in low carbon fuel economy then it is a logical choise.

    That is not how ever what I came to say and perhaps it is a silly question but I will put it forth any way.

    I am assuming that in the last 15000 years since the end of the last ice age that the climate has changed considerably and I am also asuming that it will contiue to do so with our increased carbon emissions into the air are affecting the climate. My stupid questions is, assuming carbon emissions can be lowered to some desirable level, how will we know if the climate that emerges from this is close to the one that the world should be having.

    On an extention to that how long would the recalibration be between our adpotion of a post carbon economy and the climate aproching its "normal" mode for its corrent point in its maga cycle.

    On a side note this is my first winter in the sub artic and the old timers out here tell me that there has been more snow this year and last year then normal. This to me is consistant with climate change as in this semi arid cold climate even a small increase in temperature can increase the amount of snow fall.

  10. February 22, 2007 at 10:10 pm —

    how will we know if the climate that emerges from this is close to the one that the world should be having.

    There's really no such thing as the climate we "should" have; the concern is maintaining a climate conducive to human society, i.e., keeping the climate we want to have.

  11. February 23, 2007 at 3:55 am —

    I think it's more reasonable to say that we don't want the climate to become something that our planet can't take. Accidentally setting something off that just spirals out of control in a feedback loop.

    A global temperature rise of only a few degrees could trigger a whole range of other mechanisms that increase the temperature even further. Perhaps those mechanisms even used to have a braking/counter mechanism that no longer exists or functions properly because of human interference on the planet.

    Since we don't even know exactly how it works yet, perhaps we shouldn't be so blasé when messing around with it. You know, like you just start pushing buttons only to then be surprised when the whole thing blows up in your face.

  12. February 23, 2007 at 4:41 am —

    Oh come on, we'll be all dead in the year 2012, so why worry? ;)

    Seriously, maybe we have an effect on climate change, I really don't know; in this case the only way to do something is cancel from our lives cars, busses, airplanes, and house heting systems.

    I've not driving license, I go around fine by busses and foot … but you could really figure a life without cars and in cold houses?

    I don't think so.

  13. February 23, 2007 at 5:49 am —

    One thing about living in the sticks is that you're more likely to be attuned to the natural environment, something that is hard to achieve in a big city. I spend a great deal of time outdoors, and always observe nature – plants, birds, insects, etc.

    I have been at the same place for 20 years and can't help but notice how things have changed. For example in the last couple years we have seen bird species that were never around before. Frogs and toads have all but disappeared, even though our lake remains pristine. And the ice on the lake goes away about 2-3 weeks earlier.

    This may just be part of a normal cycle; I have no way to know.

  14. February 23, 2007 at 6:45 am —

    voss63, along with everyone else, I realize it's not possible to eliminate all pollution and waste altogether. But there's a lot of things we can do that aren't happening yet. Like leaving the car at home and taking the bus/train instead. Instead of heating the whole house, just heat one or two rooms. And make sure your house is better insulated instead of leaking all its heat out, forcing you to continually keep warming the place up just to keep out the cold.

    And of course, there's a number of ways to create power using small scale clean energy, like solar power. It'll never be enough to power your entire house, but it'll be enough to help reduce the amount of energy you require from other sources.

    It's going to take quite a bit of time and lots of hard work to achieve a society/culture where waste of resources and energy has been reduced to a minimum, but it's not like we have a lot of other options …

  15. February 23, 2007 at 6:53 am —

    I think exarch has made a crucial point here. It is not clear that the slowly changing temps are the thing we most have to worry about. It is the potential for feedback loops and "tipping points" that is truly scary. I for one, get the heeby-jeebies when I think about the possibility of the Gulf Stream shutting down. The implications of this for the populations on the upper Atlantic (and really everyone else) would be immensely bad.

    Evelyn (or anyone else), do you know how seriously we should be considering things like a gulf stream shut down? Is that idea coming from the more alarmist fringe, or is it taken seriously by climatologists?

  16. February 23, 2007 at 9:47 am —

    I think the Gulf Stream shutdown is a possibility, but I think nobody really knows all the factors involved, so it's hard to tell what the likelyhood is, or if it's likely, what the tipping point would be. So I would put things like that in the alarmist corner. But I'd also like to add to that last remark that just because someone is alarmist doesn't mean they can't be right …

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