Wednesday, August 15, 2012

An Essay Concerning Our Global Heat {Distribution} Engine

I read Gail’s {Gail Binkly, editor of the Four Corners Free Press} excellent articles on climate change with much interest; particularly “Locals’ views differ on warming theory,” where the opinions were truly saddening.

Quotes such as: “It’s climate change, but I’m not sure it’s man-made” - “It may not be something we’re causing” - “may be part of a cycle that may have come along regardless” - reveal a sad lack of basic understanding regarding our planet’s physical situation. We as a society must become clear that the physical dynamics at work in this global warming thing are indeed well understood by those who study climate.

 Please consider our planet for a moment,
orbiting around our sun through a cold solar system. Earth was blessed with being just the right size and distance from the sun’s heating influence for evolution to make the difference between becoming a blue planet of life or dead like Mars and Venus. Today’s atmosphere and its climate are the product of many billions of years worth of day by day geology, later joined by the processes of life.

Our atmosphere has evolved to a state of 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, with a fraction of 1% inert gases (mainly argon) and 0.1% water vapor. According to old text books, squeezed into there was 0.03% CO2 and other greenhouse gases. However, our fossil fuel burning is pushing that concentration past 0.04% these days. This is worrisome because it’s like putting on an extra sweater when you don’t need it and it’s alarming because people still refuse to come to grips with that reality and its implications.

Look at astronaut’s pictures of our planet’s horizon. Our atmosphere is that narrow glowing ribbon, proportionally it’s thinner than the skin on an onion.

But size is a deceiving indicator of importance, considering that together with that tiny percentage of greenhouse gases, this sliver thin layer of troposphere along with the oceans, have became a heat engine circulating air, moisture, heat and energy around our globe. This is where our weather comes from; the end result of interconnected global circulation patterns; a mighty global heat engine at work.

One of many reasons we can trust the consensus understanding of climatologists regarding these greenhouse gases is because the Air Force spent years doing atmospheric studies to understand it. And why did it matter to them? Because without a flawless understanding of the energy physics of the various gases in our atmosphere, heat seeking missiles would have been impossible.

“Skeptics” will suggest it’s the sun causing all this warming. But they ignore the fact that our sun has been closely observed for a long time and the range of it’s fluctuations is miniscule compared to the warming we are witnessing.

“Skeptics” claim* there hasn’t been any warming in the past decade or so. But the surface data they point to ignores the warming that continues being recorded in our oceans. In fact the data they point to doesn’t include most of the Arctic Circle where the greatest warming is being observed. They also ignore the melting throughout our world's frozen realms, known as the cryosphere, as sure a global thermometer as we can hope for.

Back to that global heat engine. We know greenhouse gases are for real; also that society is injecting them by the gigatons; thus they WILL increase our atmosphere’s insulation - it’s unavoidable physics; it will warm our planet, that warming will continue melting our cryosphere, it will increase evaporation along with our atmosphere’s holding capacity for water vapor, the most powerful greenhouse gas of all. It will increase the energy within our weather system.

Look at it another way - how can you warm a heat engine and not increase its activity? In the case of our planet that would be increasing extremes in atmospheric conditions resulting in increasing storms, heat waves, droughts, extreme wind events, extreme down pour events, even cold waves.

For example, given the melting at the North Pole, large areas of sun reflecting ice cap are being replaced by heat absorbing ocean water. This water is warming, some turning into vapor, then the heat drives convection columns high into the troposphere. In turn, creating circulation patterns that haven’t existed in eons. These go on to impact the polar circulation cell, which then impacts the flow of the Jet Stream.

One of the cascading consequences is reflected in the Jet Stream’s more erratic behavior of late. Getting more serpentine it reaches further south, grabbing warm air masses and shoving them up into Arctic regions. This in turn forces cold Arctic air masses to be displaced and forced southward. When these Arctic Fronts flow into the Atlantic Ocean’s moisture saturated skys, well what do you expect? Severe winter storm events. Next time something like that happen, check out the temperatures in the Arctic Circle, you’ll see what I mean.

It’s simply global heat exchange in action. There is nothing surprising about it. This is exactly the sort of behavior climatologists have been warning us about. Of course, self styled “skeptics” will never share that part of the story with you since all they focus on is winning their political battles.

Unfortunately, our planet doesn’t care who’s winning the political argument - all it does is react to what we are doing to it. And while our planet and life will surely do fine given eons to adjust -
we and our society along with our gods will not fair so well.
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 * Another favored "skeptical" talking point is the so-called CO2/temperature lag in the paleoclimate record.  However, a closer look shows that this claim ignores the full spectrum of facts.  Professor Richard Alley gave an excellent lecture that examines the scientific data regarding the dynamics of atmospheric CO2 in Earth's history:
The Biggest Control Knob:  Carbon Dioxide in Earth’s Climate History
Professor Richard B. Alley ~ Bjerknes Lecture American Geophysical Union ~ December 2009
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Science keeps moving forward and a recent paper published in Nature improved on the early study by adding 80 proxy records from around the globe to the original ice core data upon which this knowledge was based.  It appears, the lag times were much shorter than originally speculated.  For more on that see:
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In reviewing my links I noticed that I only had two for  It was partly by design because I didn't want to seem to over rely on those folks ~ but in truth for a person without a scientific background SkS is the most valuable informational climate change website going:
A) They do an excellent job of describing the science.
B) They are packed with links to the actual science.
C) They have an first rate comments section that stays on point, remains civil and gives a full airing to criticisms and contrarian views. 

It is a source of further learning, insights and more complete understanding and a place where your questions are taken seriously.

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1 comment:

Peter said...

I've taken some heat for using the term "Heat Engine" since Earth isn't technically a heat engine... so there is a bit of the metaphorical in the title ~ an image I'm trying to project.

Perhaps "heat distribution mechanism" is more accurate, but it sounds like hell, so I'll stick with the less than technically accurate, slightly poet, "Global Heat Engine"
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For a nice visualization of a part of that global heat engine watch this:

NASA | Dynamic Earth