Where is the heat going?

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It is a good article but a lousy headline.  The December 7 issue of New Scientist has a cover head-line Climate showdown: Is it time to stop worrying about global warming? That will create the wrong impression among those many people who get no further than headlines. And it certainly doesn’t convey the message of the article itself.

The article does acknowledge that “the average surface temperature of the planet seems to have increased far more slowly over [recent years] than it did over the precious decades.”

But says:

“This doesn’t mean that climate change has stopped, any more than the very rapid warming seen in the 1990s meant it had accelerated.”

Several reasons

The article a describes several reasons that help explain the current situation. To do this it stresses “it helps to think about heat energy rather than temperature.” In summary:

“In terms of heat. There are three possible reasons why the Earth’s surface temperature hasn’t increased much recently”

  1. Less heat arriving from the sun. “The sun’s heat output rises and falls in an 11-year cycle and measurements by spacecraft such as SOHO show it did dip particularly low recently.”
  2. Increased levels of sulphur aerosols in the atmosphere could have reflected more of the sun’s heat back into space. “Levels of sulphur dioxide have risen in the past decade, mainly due to lots of small volcanic eruptions.”
  3. More of the heat gained by the planet “ends up somewhere other than the lower atmosphere, whose temperature we focus on.”

Ocean – the main culprit

The article points out the most likely storage place for this heat is the ocean.

“Water covers more than 70% of the planet and the stuff has a huge capacity to absorb heat: around 3000 times as much energy is needed to warm a given volume of water by 1°C as is needed to warm the same volume of air.

“Observations show that a whopping 94% of the heat energy gained by the planet since 1971 has ended up in the oceans, with another 4% absorbed by land and ice. . . . So all the surface warming since 1971 is due to just 2 per cent of the heat. If just a little more heat than usual has been going into the oceans, it will have had only a slight effect on ocean surface temperatures, because of water’s huge capacity to absorb heat, but a large effect on atmospheric temperature. And several studies show that the oceans have indeed been soaking up even more heat than normal.”

The article goes on to suggest this is because there have been lots of La Niňas (which cause the Pacific to soak up heat – thus cooling the planet) lately but no major El Niňo (which extract heat from the Pacific to the atmosphere and warm the planet) for the past 15 years.

The graphic from the article illustrates where the heat has gone.

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The whole process is obviously complicated and there are various opinions among climate scientists about the relative importance of the different processes distributing heat. There is even a suggestion “that soaring aerosol emissions from China may have contributed to the slowdown” of surface temperature increases. However:

“the mainstream view expressed in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is that about half of the surface slowdown is due to the oceans, and the other half due to the sun and extra volcanic aerosols.”

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16 responses to “Where is the heat going?

  1. Stuart Mathieson

    It’s an interesting article but I was taken a back by the cover. Not the first time an editor or publisher has used an inappropriate headline or label to attract attention and exploit controversy to boost sales, “The God Particle” springs to mind. Unscrupulous sceptics have used it many times. The Daily Mail and The Telegraph are examples where a phrase, sentence or even email has been taken out of context to misrepresent the detailed account.

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  2. Not the first time an editor or publisher has used an inappropriate headline or label to attract attention and exploit controversy to boost sales, “The God Particle” springs to mind.

    A catchy headline can do a lot of damage.
    Science deniers don’t read beyond the headlines.
    Much the same thing happened with National Geographic and their “Was Darwin Wrong?” cover story.

    Well, no. He wasn’t. But you’d never know from the creationist blogs that took just the cover and ran with it.

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  3. Funny how Roger Pielke Snr has been saying for years that the oceans are the main heat sink for years, and was vilified for doing so.

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  4. Doesn’t sound very likely.
    Besides if anybody was silly enough to “vilify” him for saying something so mundane as “the oceans are the main heat sink”, he could just point to the mainstream science.
    Job done.
    Where did you get this strange story from?

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  5. Where did you get this strange story from?

    Andy probably sourced it from The Daily Currant.

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  6. “Climate Misinformer: Roger Pielke Sr”

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/skeptic_Roger_Pielke_Sr.htm

    Pielke on Ocean Heat

    http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2012/04/22/comment-on-ocean-heat-content-world-ocean-heat-content-and-thermosteric-sea-level-change-0-2000-1955-2010-by-levitus-et-al-2012/

    In terms of the NS article, we know that the models are running too hot and climate sensitivity to CO2 has been downgraded by several recent papers, as acknowledged by the IPCC.

    I guess they are covering themselves as the dangerous AGW theory starts to lose credibility

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  7. So while less heat emission from the sun may be part of the reason, it must surely also have something to do with the global financial crisis and the economic slowdown that occurred in many countries for a few years. That meant less business activity, less manufacturing, less transport and less emissions. In turn it slowed the global climate change at least a bit.

    And while it takes a lot of heat to warm up water, the long term effect on ocean temperatures that are rising more gradually, will also be affecting global climate severely and catastrophically. It may just take a bit longer.

    The absorbed heat in the ocean water will lead to weather changes, as it already has over recent decades, and also have glaciers and ice caps around the poles been melting at unprecedented rates.

    I would not rest calmly on reading this more qualifying bit of scientific news.

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  8. Andy, read the article – they discuss the problems with models there.

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  9. Andy, I read your links.
    I still have no idea where you got this strange story from.
    Neither link supports your claim.

    Roger Pielke Snr has been saying for years that the oceans are the main heat sink for years, and was vilified for doing so.

    So Roger has been saying for years that the oceans are the main heat sink.
    (That’s about as daring and edgy as saying that clouds are made of water vapour.)
    Yet you claim he’s been “vilfied” for saying so.
    ???

    (..awkward silence…)

    Andy?
    You’ve got it wrong again.

    Andy, read the article

    Good advice.
    You might even want to take the parts from your links where they mention “oceans are the main heat sink” and quote them directly.
    Good luck with that.
    Also, it would be interesting to see just how “they” “vilified” this poor man.

    I guess they are covering themselves as the dangerous AGW theory starts to lose credibility

    Then don’t let “them” get away with it, Andy.

    Tell us who “they” are and show us the bit where “they” vilfy Roger because he said that the oceans are the main heat sink.
    Please.

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  10. I followed the link you provided and it led to a short editorial that didn’t mention models. Is there a full article that is not behind a paywall?

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  11. Yes, there is a full article. If you are registered you can access it although I bought my own copy. The reference to models is entitled “Why didn’t models predict the slowdown” on p 36.

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  12. Yes, there is a full article. If you are registered you can access it although I bought my own copy.

    Credit cards. Wonderful things.

    Roger Pielke Snr has been saying for years that the oceans are the main heat sink for years, and was vilified for doing so.

    Hmm.

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  13. Mind you, I don’t buy New Scientist regularly as it usually disappoints – just that this headline did jump out at me in the supermarket.

    >

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  14. Ok thanks Ken.
    I haven’t bought a copy of New Scientist for a long time.

    It’s Christmas, egg nog takes precedence over magazines!

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  15. Stuart Mathieson

    Andy.
    “In terms of the NS article, we know that the models are running too hot and climate sensitivity to CO2 has been downgraded by several recent papers, as acknowledged by the IPCC.

    I guess they are covering themselves as the dangerous AGW theory starts to lose credibility”.

    Andy – your completely kidding yourself if you think you are part of some consensus and “they” are a fringe element. You are the fringe element because by your own admission you only read blogs and you think it’s all about short term variations. The basic science (like the speed of light) doesn’t “go away”. The accumulation of stored energy in the system has to be somewhere. In the atmosphere, in the hydrosphere or even the geosphere. What is precisely indeterminable because of complex processes like deep ocean currents, is the rate at which it migrates from one to another but migrate it does and the oceans like the ice are very large reservoirs but they ain’t infinite! This stuff is going to come back at you sooner or later. If the amount of warm “water” is coming into the bath faster than its going out, it’s rising and it’s going to overflow!

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  16. Andy+Keyboard+Eggnog = Roger Pielke Snr has been saying for years that the oceans are the main heat sink for years, and was vilified for doing so.

    Andy+Keyboard+Daily Currant = But hey, I just saw that Al Gore invested $200million in a fracking company. Rats leaving sinking ships springs to mind
    (link)

    (sniff)
    Good times.
    There was also that bit about the glass jars.

    Like

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