Climate Conversations: Earth’s energy imbalance

Clyde Burnett, Boulder County.  Question: NOAA and NASA have stated that 2016 had the highest temperature for 137 years, but TV doesn’t mention global warming or climate change. Isn’t there a climate science connection?

Answer: One might arrive at the logical explanation that TV announcers and the public are ignorant of the connection.

So, I remind you that it is the balance of solar incident energy and the outward infrared heat energy that determines the Earth’s radiation temperature of –18o Celsius. The average global surface temperature of 15oC, to which humans and our supporting animal and plant life has evolved, is actually 33oC greater, due to the immense heat trapping of the atmospheric greenhouse effect. It is this process of infrared absorption in a series of absorptions and emissions by trace gases in the lower atmosphere that produces our beneficial surface temperature. Water vapor is the strongest absorbing greenhouse gas, in part due to the oceans on 70% of the Earth’s surface. This process involves the water feedback and its buildup of water vapor. This also applies to the trace constituents, like CO2 and CH4, so that they have a controlling function on the total water vapor and its heat trapping.

These processes of radiation and temperature balance are universal laws; they are not subject to annulment by humans, but now the 7 billion person population has made a 43% increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration. This is due to increased power generation by burning fossil fuels and has resulted in a dangerous energy imbalance that is now producing our observed global warming.

Question: This somewhat uncertain temperature increase of a few degrees doesn’t seem like much of a climate change. Why worry?

Answer: The geographic spread of warm temperatures has allowed mosquitoes carrying diseases like zika and dengue to move northward. Note also that this is the diurnal average over seasons and geography; look at the extreme heat events. Al Gore, in his excellent introduction to the Climate and Health video states that there are more deaths from heat stress than any other extreme weather.

Now let us look at the other responses of our planet to that energy imbalance. The important processes of ice melting and water vaporization take place without change to temperature of the water. Much of the energy imbalance that is used to melt ice in glaciers and polar ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica does not show up in temperature change. This meltwater results in global sea level rise, and of course thermal expansion of ocean water results in additional sea level rise. The NOAA sea level rise prediction, based on business as usual, is 2 ft. in the next 50 years.

These are remote events for Nederland and Peak-to-Peak residents, although we may have confusing episodes of extreme weather. We need not examine each for climate change; this is simply a logical result of the energy imbalance when winds bring extra water vapor from the warm sea surface of the Gulf of Mexico or winds from the warm Pacific or Atlantic. It is that extra water vapor with the lifting of its 539 cal/gm latent heat of vaporization that produces the super cells with tornadoes in the southern states. Global warming and extreme weather is generally increasing as the heat sinks of glacier and sea ice disappear.

These planetary responses are logical results of the global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels with increased CO2 emissions. Al Gore notes that climate change mitigation will also reduce other health pollution problems. I believe that the lack of human response may be partly due to poor science education. Or do we need to attribute it to a lack of responsibility for the health of our planet and our children and grandchildren?