If a simple switch raised the temperature 40 degrees tomorrow…

A few years ago I read an interesting article that stated that the record high temps where outpacing record low temps in the 2000’s by about a 2 to 1 ratio. That is disturbing, in that statistically we should expect the highs and lows to average out pretty close to even. And 2 – 1 is simply not close to even. But it really isn’t a fact you throw out to sway people on the fence. You have to have some understanding of logic and statistics for that number to matter. It isn’t shocking if you tell it to someone who doesn’t have logic in their toolkit. And if you do have logic in your toolkit, you already understand exactly what is happening and don’t need convincing about how bad things are getting.

Fast-forward to last week. There is a great article at Capitol Climate that points out that last year the ratio was more like 14 to 1. That number has a bit more impact. Think about that for a minute. For every low temperature record we set in 2011 we set 14 highs. That is pretty striking even if you have no grasp of the real meaning of the numbers. Imagine if one year we had 2 record breaking lows and 28 highs. How exactly do you brush that under the denialist rug? And when some of those highs are sustained five, six, or seven day temperature runs, that looks even worse. More over, some of these highs are pretty significant even as one off events. Bismark for example, with a temperature 41 degrees over the seasonal normal. Minneapolis 39 over normal…

But that is not nearly as disturbing as this article, which points out that the record highs are a measure of surface temperature. And surface temperature is such a small amount of total warming that we can almost all be denialists and ignore it.


Surface temps in fact are only about 3% of total warming. That is just the part we all notice. The oceans, landmasses, ice converting into water, water converting to vapor, all of that is still heat in the system. And it all counts.

Imagine the closed system of a planet for a moment. Imagine the kind of heat necessary to cause the kind of temperature changes that are being shown. As the above article points out that kind of heat increase spread over the entire system is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 Hiroshima size bombs per second continuously from 1961 to today. That is a substantial bit of energy. But we are spreading it over the entire planet. And we are only directly noticing the increase in the atmosphere. Just 3% of the total increase.

The trouble is that the ice and oceans can’t take the extra heat forever.

When I over-clocked my first computer, way back when, I had a heat sink that was far more than the chip required under normal circumstances, but far less than it needed at speed. Add a fan and everything works great. But the guy who sold it to me sold it as a fan free sink. The chip would slowly heat the aluminum block and fins when the machine was under load, but the block would cool off when the chip was at idle. Because I knew nothing about overclocking, I assumed that the testing I had done confirmed a good cooling system. But the testing was far too short. Under a long term load the heat sink slowly but surely reached the point that it was no longer able to accept heat from chip, and convection air cooling simply wasn’t enough. A few hours of heavy use later the CPU literally melted from the strain.

That is what we are doing today, in this system we call earth. The oceans are acting as a heat sink. But they can’t do that forever. At some point we will be adding more heat to the system, faster than the oceans can absorb it. At which point they stop. And all that extra heat that has only been hitting our atmosphere as 3% of the total heated add will change. When suddenly 60-80% of that heat is in the air, it will really turn some heads.

It will also be far too late.

It is also worth noting some concepts that we should all have, but that are not always noticed by people when they look at the data on warming. Concepts sometimes hidden in the terms “average” and “record temperature.” For example the idea of a record high is very simple. It means the highest temperature ever observed in that area for that time period. A record high for Salt Lake for January is self explanatory. What we sometimes forget is that another record high for the same area for the same period is thus more difficult to achieve. Each successive record should be more rare and indicates a larger change. In even a relatively stable system, records become more and more rare until you simply stop setting them.

That isn’t happening with temperatures. We continue to see records set year after year. And not just occasionally. Very often we have records that break old records from just a few years before, in-turn breaking 2 years before, which breaks 4 years before, which…

In other words, we have a tendency to think of a record as something unique, or unusual, because it should be (in a stable system) and should indeed stand for some time. Yet that isn’t happening. And that includes lows. It isn’t just remarkable that we are setting high temp records, or that we are seeing 14 highs for each low. It is in its own way remarkable that we are seeing lows set at all. The fact that we see both high and low records continuing to be set tells us that the temperatures are diverging. Which again has long been predicted as part of global warming, and is one reason many suggest using the phrase “climate change” instead.

There is also a concept hidden in the term “average.” Though many people seem to think of “average” weather as a synonym for “typical,” in a way that is misleading. Each of those 14 to 1 highs is added into the average. Which means the average is slowly creeping upwards. When a high is reported that is 40 degrees above average for an area for a time period that seems pretty warm. But if that average includes data from all the other warming trends, it is hiding something. A location that sets a record for 40 degrees above average might actually be 45, 50, 55 or even more above the average for pre-warming weather.

Now imagine that happened all at once. Imagine that we could link all of the warming we see to single event, a large hypothetical switch. And the instant that switch was flipped cities around the world suddenly reported temperatures as much as 60 degrees over their seasonal normals, the sea levels rose, storms increased and became more destructive, and entire species where wiped out. Who would flip that switch?

The only reason we are not trying to flip the switch back is a combination of propaganda from the companies profiting from the switch staying in place, and inability by humans to see long term cause and effect as clearly as short term.

Aren’t we smarter than that?

  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on March 19, 2012 - 10:55 am

    As the saying goes, “None of us is as dumb as all of us.” That helps explain the politics of climate change.

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