“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” — William Gibson
Global warming at it’s simplest is little more than the imbalance between the heat energy received from the sun and held within the system, versus the heat energy reflected back into space. If we lose too much we get cold. If we gain too much we get hot. Ultimately that warming or cooling changes the climate itself up and down in very precise natural cycles. But over the last two hundred years, and especially in the last 50, something has gone terribly wrong. There is way too much carbon in the atmosphere, and there is a serious imbalance in the planetary heat gain. Excess energy (0.58 watts per square meter) is not being re-radiated back out into space at the same levels it has been in easily-tracked cycles for the last 4 million years. Zero point five eight watts doesn’t sound like much until you factor in the total surface of the earth and crunch the numbers. As someone recently posted, that heat gain imbalance is equivalent to exploding three Hiroshima-sized bombs into the oceans every second since 1961. That is enough extra heat to vaporize the entire water content of Sydney Harbor every 12 hours.
Earth’s Energy Budget Remained Out of Balance Despite Unusually Low Solar Activity (2012)
There is a pretty simple way to think about this if you understand a bit of the background. For starters, a tree grows and as it does it sequesters carbon in its tissues, in the lignin and the cellulose, the sugars and starches in it’s sap, and etc.. If we humans come along and cut down that tree to burn for heat, then we are releasing the stored carbon from solar gain over a time period equal to that tree’s life span – so fifty, a hundred, maybe two hundred years. That’s not a lot of of carbon output in the greater scheme of things, at least not on any time scales that matter to climate.
The problem is two-fold and really started a couple hundred years ago when we discovered fossil fuels and began to dig them up out of the ground to burn. When we did that, we started releasing millions of years of sequestered carbon in a time scale that is literally overnight when compared to the geologic time scale during which all that carbon was put away. Additionally, all that incredibly powerful and cheap energy gave us the option to apply it to our food supply, and of course as every biologist can tell you, when you increase the food supply you increase the population. Almost our entire food supply now is converted oil, and one consequence of that fact means that there are over 7 billion of us, all spewing out formerly-sequestered carbon from fossil fuels. Additionally we are taking over and converting to farms all those wildlands formerly sequestering carbon as old growth forest, grassland and prairie, peat bog, jungle and so on. As human fossil fuel consumption and carbon outgassing increases, the natural living systems that provide planetary climate resilience are decreasing – all as a result of human activities.
If you think about this in terms of an annual solar gain/carbon budget, then anytime we generate or consume energy within the domain of a year’s worth of solar gain (or even within 200 years as in the case of a big old maple) then we are not adding substantially to the carbon side of the equation. Cows, corn, trees, soybeans, termites and so on are all within the annual carbon/solar gain budget for the living systems of the planet. You can even see this principle in action if you look at a graph of carbon measurements over time. Carbon in the northern hemisphere goes up in the winter, and down in the summer. This happens because all summer long the trees and grasses and flowers are taking in carbon and turning it to body mass. In the winter everything sleeps, so the carbon builds up in the atmosphere. (I would include a graph from NOAA here but their web site is shut down because of those idiots in Congress.) That cycle is the planetary breath of life – in and out.
None of what we do would matter all that much if we were sticking to that annual in/out carbon/solar gain budget and if there were only a half a billion of us. But because we are so many and we are releasing hundreds of millions of years of stored carbon formerly sequestered in fossil fuels in only a couple centuries we have become significant agents of change in the large scale carbon cycles that generate climate and ultimately, the weather. What we add that is outside the annual carbon/solar gain budget is all about outgassing the fossil fuels and disabling the global living systems of natural resilience.
The carbon balance in the atmosphere is and has been incredibly finely tuned over the last 4 million years with only the tiniest fraction of a CO2 shift causing global climate change as regular as a heartbeat. Remember, we are talking about a ridiculously powerful gas that alters the entire climate of the planet from ice age to an interglacial and back by simply shifting 100 parts per million up or down – from 180 ppm during a glaciation, to 280 ppm during an interglacial and back again. That is an absurdly tiny amount of gas that produces an 18 to 25 degree up or down global average temperature change in a highly stable cycle for millions of years, but that’s how it works and that’s what the global living system does. In our earth system, temperature, methane and CO2 are coupled, so whatever happens to one happens to all and it doesn’t matter which one goes up or down first – with a bit of a lag time, as soon as one moves the others follow – in a time scale measured in years or a few decades. Normally it begins with a shift in the Milankovich Cycles, but we have seen other triggers on many occasions. We have excellent physical evidence, observation and empirical data for how this happens.
Because of fossil fuels, we humans are adding about 4 gigatons of extra CO2 into the atmosphere per year for at least the last 25 years, and the rate of release is accelerating way above the normal annual cycles. The oceans and other natural processes have soaked up some part of that carbon already but not enough, and as a result of that extra carbon (over 400 ppm as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory this past summer during the Northern hemisphere peak output) there is now a gross imbalance in the in/out exchange of energy (solar heating versus planetary re-radiation of that heat back into space.) The planet is heating, both the atmosphere and the oceans themselves – most of the excess heat going into the oceans because the atmosphere holds only about 2 percent of that gain. Remember, as I mentioned above, temperatures, CO2 and methane are coupled in this living system, so whatever happens to one happens to all.
So, we are already at 120+ ppm above and beyond the concentration that normally creates a natural global warming into an interglacial period from a glacial epoch, and we haven’t even included methane which would push us up at least another 50 ppm. (not to mention increased water vapor held in the atmosphere from the extra warming, and nitrous oxide and a whole raft of other powerful greenhouse gases)
How do we know that it comes from human activity? Here’s the thing – we can fingerprint the isotopes of carbon. We have a very good data set about all the natural processes, how much carbon comes from volcanoes, from forests, from a tailpipe or a chimney, how much is captured by the oceans and so on. Plus we have very accurate data about atmospheric concentrations going back hundreds of thousands of years. Natural processes cannot explain the extra CO2 that we are seeing, and that rapid rise began at the same time as the industrial revolution. We know with a high degree of certainty what is normal for this planet when we look at the hard data in ice cores and sediments from glacial epochs during the last 4 million years. The current climate change direction is unprecedented. For the last 4 million years the pattern has been extremely stable – glacial – interglacial – glacial – interglacial, over and over and over again.
The global climate – as well as all the weather generated by that climate – is driven by a steep temperature gradient between the poles and the equator. When it is very cold at the poles and very hot at the equator, the dissipation of heat energy along that gradient compels the jet stream to act as a laminar flow, going around the poles at a very high rate of speed, keeping all that dense, dry, very cold air right over the poles. That also means that the weather systems progress around the planet in a fairly rapid and orderly pattern. Rain today, sun tomorrow and so on, all the highs and lows moving along in sequence like boxcars on a train track.
The poles heat first and fastest. When the energy gradient between the poles and the equator becomes shallow, such as is happening now because of all the extra CO2 and other GHGs (like water vapor) which are retaining heat in the atmosphere, then the jet stream loses energy and instead of acting as a laminar flow (separating very cold and dry air masses from very wet and warm air masses) it begins to meander, with peaks of warm tropical air extending way up into the Arctic where it should never go, and cold dry air slipping way down deep into the tropics where it should never go. Additionally, that loss of energy in the jet stream creates what are called blocking patterns, cut-off highs and lows that anchor in place and keep the weather systems stuck in place instead of progressing eastward in an orderly fashion, distributing their energy from place to place as they move in an easterly direction.
Dr. Jennifer Francis
Does Arctic Amplification Fuel Extreme Weather in Mid-Latitudes?
We have seen this pattern of over-the-top extreme storms and broken records again and again around the planet in the last 10 years, everywhere from Pakistan, Italy, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, Mexico, South America, as well as in dozens of places around North America – with Sandy of course, and with Colorado, the floods in Texas, Louisiana and Maryland simply being the most recent. The jet stream locks in place, and whatever is under it or on either side of it just gets hammered and hammered and hammered. It doesn’t matter if it’s a baking hot spell and drought that wipes out crops and generates massive megafires such as in Europe and Russia in 2003 and 2010 and recently in California and the Pacific Northwest, or as a freight train of low pressure systems that dump a year’s worth of rain in two days. The cause is the same – forced abrupt climate change due to human-caused global warming generated by our dumping too much CO2 into the atmosphere.
We have many factors at play in the climate system: the co-opting of enormous areas of wild landscapes and natural living systems for agriculture, massively increasing population, multiple positive feedbacks (forest fires, soot, ice loss, permafrost melting), the loss and redistribution of natural carbon sinks such as eHux, and consumption of fossil fuels at a scale never imagined. Human activity is destroying the natural capacity for carbon pump-down. On a healthy earth, carbon residence time in the atmosphere has been about a hundred years. Now it’s up to at least 800 years, so even if we stopped all carbon outputs tomorrow – totally ended it – we still face a thousand years of heating just from all the carbon we have up there now. As William Catton says in his book, “Overshoot” we have become Homo Colossus. A half billion humans would not do much to this planet. But 7 billion plus are changing the atmospheric chemistry and the oceanic chemistry to such a point that we are making the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and all the other species who are adapted to a temperate climate.
We are forcing a heating that has not been seen on this planet in 55 million years, not since the PETM. The reality is inescapable. The data doesn’t lie. The living systems and infrastructure developed by human beings will not be able to withstand the speed, intensity, duration and violence of the weather systems generated by the current level of global warming. Never in all of human evolution have we as a species had to contend with a hot state planet. And when the PETM hit all those millions of years ago the earth was already in a hot state. All the species then were well adapted to heat, both dry and humid. Remember, this was a time when there were crocodiles in North Dakota and date palms on Baffin Island. Even so, when the climate popped hot into the PETM we still lost over 70 percent of all species globally.
There is a direct causal link between human activity, CO2, climate change and the pattern of intense, chaotic, and extremely violent weather systems that have been and will continue to dismantle human infrastructure. Eventually those weather systems will destroy modern agriculture as we know it and that will pretty much be it for this current human civilization. Without food you don’t have population. Without population you can’t support our incredibly complex technology and that’s pretty much that. We have seen this pattern of environmental degradation preceding the collapse of every civilization that came before us. There is not a damn thing we can do about it. We bought it, we broke it and now it’s time to pay the piper.
Instead of cooling slowly until we hit the critical threshold (tipping point) where the climate flips cold and into the next glacial epoch, we are now in the early stages of an unnatural climate shift, going the wrong way, out-of-cycle, to a hot state climate that this planet hasn’t seen in 55 million years. All our contemporary species here now are cool-adapted for a temperate planet and very few will survive into the new hot-state environment. That most likely includes us humans. Just wait until the methane bombs kick in from the clathrates and the permafrost. We are in the initial stages of the climate flip right now. Within 50 years this entire planet will be well on the way into an entirely different climate state.
And if you still have doubts, consider this – as Peter Sinclair says in a video on his Climate Denial Crock of the Week series: http://climatecrocks.com/
“Scientists at NASA collected, compiled and compared 29,500 data sets of natural rhythms – physical and biological markers such as migration of birds, blooming of flowers, migration and spawning of fish, dates of mountain snow-melt, peak flow of mountain-fed streams – 90 percent of the changes were in a direction “expected as a response to warming.” The lesson here is that birds, rivers, lakes, fish and glaciers have no political agenda, but climate deniers and their wealthy sponsors do. And the very same people who told you that weapons of mass destruction were real are telling you that climate change is not. We will never know all the answers to the questions about climate, but what real scientists are telling us is that climate change is real, we are doing it, the consequences are dire, and we need to stop.”
the actual study:
That’s what we are facing now, and whether you agree with the cause or not, can we afford to ignore these changes?
Welcome to the Holocene Extinction Part 2.
Welcome to a brave new world…
Here are several reference web sites for additional reading on the current state of climate science:
Best site on the web for explaining climate change science & rebutting global warming misinformation:
Alder Stone’s essay: Why large-scale, abrupt climate change (probably) cannot be stopped (& we must, thus, increase our adaptability)
Spencer Weart’s complete hypertext history of how scientists came to (partly) understand what people are doing to cause climate change.
National Academy of Sciences – Climate Change booklet (pdf)
NOAA Global Warming FAQ