Big Picture Climate Change The Data

Spikes & Slopes

by Jo Abbess
3 December 2009

One Hot Year

1998 was a very hot year. Worldwide, the land and sea surface temperatures spiked sharply upwards. Scientists said it was supposed to get hot, but not this hot. Yet by the year 2000, things had cooled back down again. In fact, they were a little cooler than 1995. [1] The detailed analysis made it seem like a murder mystery – who killed the heat ? What happened to Global Warming ?

Part of the forensic evidence came from analysis of Mount Pinatubo. On 15th June 1991, it experienced massive volcanic eruption causing an enormous plume in the sky, easily visible from space. [2] [3] The sulphur dioxide in the plume deflected the sun’s heating rays from Earth, and temperatures on the ground plummeted around the world. Yet, despite this cooling effect, land and sea surface temperatures were back to normal by around 1995, just in time for the sizzle of 1998. [4]

It seemed likely that spikes and slumps were just natural cycles; the climate systems moving from one stable pattern to another. For years, big loops of wind will rotate in one direction, and weathermen know what the temperatures and rainfall will look like. And then the whole setup will flip and change, and temperatures, rainfall and winds will all be different. [5]

Research showed that the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) created drought weather conditions in 1997, causing massive forest fires in Indonesia that helped drive up worldwide temperatures in 1998. [6]

A “nuclear winter” from the occasional volcanic eruption, or a “fry up” from flip-flops in big climate circulations only have a short-term impact on global temperatures. [7] The Climate is always changing. There are ups, and there are downs, but no permanent changes. Don’t believe the spikes.

However, a truly astonishing fact emerged. Almost hidden underneath the spikes and slumps of the 1990s, the Earth was continuing to warm up. There was a clearly detectable, relentless trend. [8] [9] [10] [11] This upwards slope had been particularly steep since the early 1970s. [12] And incredibly, although there was debate about exactly how much faster, [13] [14] the data said that the rate of change was increasing. [15] [16] Global Warming had arrived, and it was accelerating.

The mystery deepened. Which part of the Earth system could be responsible for holding on to this extra heat ? Large-scale changes in weather systems and volcanic eruptions would only affect the surface of the land and sea. [17] What was missing were temperature readings deep down in the ocean, where the real, long-lasting signature of Global Warming was to be found.

Ocean Watching

Anybody who has ever waited for a kettle to boil knows that things take time to warm up. And any person who has watched a detective drama on television knows that feeling a coffee cup for residual warmth tells you how long the victim has been gone from their house – things take time to cool down.

It’s this “thermal inertia” that dictates, for example, why the sea can be too cold to swim in, even on a hot June day when the beach is blistering; and why, potentially, there’s more Global Warming coming than the Earth has seen so far.

The World Ocean is so big, you can’t argue with it. It takes a lot to warm this enormous bath up, yet several kilometres down the temperatures are rising steadily, with some variations, but not the wild spikes and slumps seen on the surface of the seas. [18]

Under the sea, although the changes are small, the temperatures just keep going up and up, and they have been doing so, pretty much uninterrupted since the 1950s. [19] [20]

The instrumental record of the deep ocean temperature shows that heat is being locked away down there; most of the total heat from Global Warming eventually ends up there – over 90% of it. [21]

Increase the atmospheric levels of Greenhouse Gases and there will be an imbalance between the sun’s energy coming in and Earth energy escaping. [22] Observation satellites in geostationary orbit confirm that the Earth glows more as it heats up, trying to radiate extra heat away. It will take time to find a new equilibrium, and in the meantime it’s heating the Earth up – just like the Laws of Physics said it would. [23]

It’s as if somebody put a huge fire under the World Ocean, except the heat is not coming from the centre of the Earth, [24] [25] and it can’t all be explained by changes in the sun or deforestation. [26] [27] Global Warming is mostly due to carbon dioxide emissions, from burning Fossil Fuels. [28]

The oceans are heating slowly; the heating seen now is 25 to 50 years behind time. [29] [30] [31] This “time lag” is crucial. The ocean “thermal inertia” means that the whole Earth will continue warming up, and not settle down quickly, even with controls on Fossil Fuel emissions.

Once carbon dioxide is put up into the air, it stays up there for a long time, continuing to force more warming. [32] [33] [34] [35] This long “lifetime” makes carbon dioxide different from other Greenhouse Gases that decompose, or come out of the air in days, months or years. [36]

The extra heat will continue to work its way through the Earth systems, causing more of the same damage done so far to weather systems, basic geological processes, and plant and animal life. [37]

Longlife Greenhouse Gas

Carbon dioxide is a truly “naughty” Greenhouse Gas. It caused over three times as much heating in 2005 as methane, [38] and somewhere near half of all extra heat in the oceans since 1950 came from the build-up of this one gas in the air. [39] [40]

During the period 1959 to 2008, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose by 22%. [41] Mankind was responsible for a large portion of the extra. [42] Just like cholesterol where there are good fats (natural) and bad fats (processed), in carbon dioxide there are telltale chemical markers called “isotopes”. Research showed some carbon dioxide is natural; some comes from burning Fossil Fuels. [43]

Although an individual molecule of carbon dioxide will find its way in around four or five years into something else, like a leaf or a wave, [44] [45] carbon dioxide is shared amongst all parts of the Earth system. Some of the carbon dioxide piling up in the air will get sucked up by “carbon sinks” on land and at sea; but some will get pushed back out, by trees at night, for example, when they’re not photosynthesising sunlight. If we added no more, the total in the air would stay the same for decades.

Even were emissions to become under control, the fraction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could take centuries to pass through the global carbon cycle, lower and level off. Total elimination from the atmosphere could take tens of thousands of years, as carbon dioxide gets taken into rocks and sediments. [46]

Global Warming Carries On

The Global Warming problem will not be over when carbon dioxide emissions are reduced, even if atmospheric concentrations of the gas are stabilised. [47] [48] Carbon dioxide will hang about, recycled in and out of the atmosphere. The oceans and the atmosphere will carry on warming until the Earth’s energy balance is regained. [49] Not as much as at the moment, but still warming up. It’s worse than putting an extra blanket on your bed. It’s like putting an extra blanket on each night.

Stopping the heating effect is crucial, and stopping it soon. [50] [51] The longer it goes on, the worse it will be. [52] [53] Bear in mind that warming seems to be getting faster, and the exponential rise in carbon dioxide emissions is mostly to blame. Unfortunately, there is also
another dangerous factor at work.

Since 1950 it is estimated that about 10% of the heat from Global Warming ended up in the oceans. Most of the rest was reflected back out into space. [54] A large part of this was because of airborne particles; “global dimming” shielded the Earth from the full effects of Global Warming. As industry is cleaned up, these “aerosols” have reduced and Global Warming has accelerated. [55]

The heating effect could be here a long while. Temperatures will slope upwards, and could stay there. Unavoidable warming yet to come is called “commitment”, [56] and everyone should be scared of it. Climate Change “commitment” implies continuing changes to the environment, which may become less able to support Life on Earth in the way it does now. The lingering effects of the shift in temperature will trigger long, slow climate changes that will go on for possibly hundreds (or thousands) of years. And the risk is that some of the rolling changes could become permanent. [57]

In the short-term, the “transient climate response” would add about three degrees of Global Warming to the Earth before 2100. [58] [59] In the longer term, the temperature at which the Earth settles down, the “equilibrium climate response”, could be several degrees higher than the first three degrees, depending on how long humanity keeps slow-cooking the Earth. [60]

The warming oceans will continue to expand and so sea levels will continue to rise. [61] And to make it worse, the warming atmosphere will cause continued melting of the major ice sheets and ice caps, which could melt completely away. [62] But that’s not all.

Climate Change Carries On

During hundreds of millions of years, the Earth went through periods of warming (and cooling) of a similar magnitude to the current risk, but they mostly took millions of years to happen. That’s plenty of time to adjust to new temperatures. If warming happens really fast, much of Life on Earth might not survive. Problems pile upon problems, “positive feedbacks”, which confusingly, often have negative consequences.

For example : higher carbon dioxide levels cause Global Warming, which causes Earth processes to change, which causes more carbon dioxide Emissions from natural sources, which causes further Global Warming. And so on.

Which Earth processes change ? Included on the upward slope of change are things growing and grazing on land, at sea. Melting ice caps, glaciers. Wilder weather, changing habitats. Some alterations may take time to make an appearance, but could become permanent changes.

Climate Change in the weather systems is already causing extreme weather events and making rainfall random, [63] increasing risks of flooding and droughts.

High up in the mountains and at the poles, a process of meltdown has started : ice and glaciers are melting away, gradually disappearing over the cycle of the seasons. [64] Some high parts of the world may lose most of their snowfall, and so never build up ice again. [65]

Sea levels are rising, [66] and there is stress on fresh water supplies in many river systems; both effects threaten food security. Deserts are already on the move, adding to the farming problems caused by warming temperatures and changes in rainfall. [67] Even if carbon dioxide levels were to be reduced to a flatline “safe” level, the oceans would still rise for centuries. [68] Where people live will need to change.

With more carbon dioxide building up in the air, more ends up in the seas. Around the world seawater is more acidic. In the longer term, as the oceans get hotter and more sour, this endangers marine life everywhere. Much of the excess carbon dioxide is mopped up by creatures in the oceans, so if the sea cannot support so much life, more carbon dioxide will be left floating in the air. [69] On land, in the longer term, forests may get much smaller, limiting their ability to store carbon dioxide; again, leaving more in the air. [70]

At the North Pole in particular, as the Arctic Ocean receives all the ice and glacier meltwater from the land, and as increased rainfall in the region runs off into the sea, the sea will become more fresh, less salty. It could interfere with the massive overturning currents of seawater that keep heat travelling from the Equator to the North. [71] [72]

As Climate Change takes hold, the pattern of the seasons and rainfall is changing, meaning that whole colonies of plants and animals must migrate or perish. Trees, in particular, migrate very slowly from danger zones. Over the next hundreds and thousands of years, the distribution and variety of plants and animals will change over the whole Earth. [73]

The overall impact could be devastating.

Gaps in understanding

There are still some fuzzy areas in Climate Change Science, some “known unknowns”. For example “climate sensitivity”, how sensitive the whole Earth system is to heating from higher Greenhouse Gases levels. Work needs to be done to explain the exact contribution from clouds and airborne particles, the “aerosols”. [74] There needs to be more work on closing the energy and carbon “budgets”, to understand where all the heat and carbon go in the highly complex Earth system. [75]

Is there an absolute temperature rise for added atmospheric carbon dioxide ? James Hansen’s research suggests that the Earth can expect, long-term, a total of six degrees of warming unless mankind reduces carbon dioxide concentrations to 350 parts per million. [76] The current level today is 384.38 parts per million. [77]

There is not a clear picture on how large geographical areas will respond in detail. [78] One critical case is the Amazon rainforest; if permanently lost, the Earth may have crossed over into an entirely new state from which it can never recover. [79]

In some respects, data collection has been poor. [80] Until recently there have not been enough monitoring stations on land or at sea. [81] Even though international space programmes have caused megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, satellites are proving highly helpful, filling in gaps in knowledge. [82]

Some research has shown that seismic activity, and therefore earthquakes and volcanoes, could increase with rapid Global Warming, in which case there might be a “negative feedback” from the increased upheaval, keeping things from warming. [83] Or not. [84]

The “animal inertia” of the cutesy bears and little furry things – their inability to migrate to escape the inhospitable heat is of concern. [85] But by far the most worrying thing is the inability of plant life to adapt or move to the poles fast enough. [86] This inertia could really knock a hole in photosynthesis and destroy the “carbon sink” effect. [87]

However, it is not yet known if carbon sinks are degrading at the rates suggested; [88] [89] and some may be balanced out by increased vegetation growth from the “fertilisation effect” [90] and new ecological niches as permafrost and ice thaws. [91]

In the end, the most important issue is probably “social inertia” : the speed at which humanity can change its behaviour as a species. The Earth is already committed to a changing Climate. The question is : “to what extent” ? The answer depends largely on how rapidly knowledge of the risks can be translated into industrial and social change.

[1] NASA (2009)
[2] Geological Society (The) (Accessed 26 November 2009)
[3] (2007)
[4] NASA (2009)
[5] IPCC (2007b) Section 3.6, Box 3.4
[6] Bowman et al. (2009)
[7] Japan Meteorological Agency (Accessed 26 November 2009)
[8] Meteorological Office (2009) Figure 1 “Global ranked annual HadCRUT3”
[9] Forecast Earth (2009)
[10] von Schuckmann et al. (2009)
[11] Domingues et al. (2009) Fig. “Comparison with previous upper-ocean (0–700 m) estimates”
[12] ClimateProgress (2008)
[13] Vose et al. (2005)
[14] IPCC (2007a) AR4 WG1 Chapter 3 Supplementary Materials Section 3.B.1
[15] IPCC (2007b) Table 3.2, Table 3.3, FAQ 3.1
[16] Houghton J., (2009) p. 71
[17] RealClimate (2005)
[18] Domingues at al. (2008) Figure 1 : “Estimates of ocean heat content and sea surface temperature”
[19] Levitus et al. (2005)
[20] Levitus et al. (2009)
[21] IPCC (2007f) Section
[22] Archer D., (2007) p. 148
[23] Archer D. (2007) Chapter 3 “The layer model”
[24] Huang S., (2006)
[25] Barnett et al. (2005a)
[26] Royal Society (2008)
[27] IPCC (2007g) AR4 Synthesis Report : Summary for Policymakers : Section 2
[28] IPCC (2007h) AR4 WG1 Chapter 7 Frequently Asked Questions 7.1
[29] Hansen J. et al. (2004)
[30] NOAA (2001)
[31] Archer D., (2007) Chapter 12, pp. 148, 150
[32] Houghton J., (2009) p. 47
[33] Nature Magazine Online (2008)
[34] Archer et al. (2009)
[35] Matthews and Caldeira (2008)
[36] IPCC (2007d) AR4 WG1 Chapter 10 Frequently Asked Question 10.3
[37] IPCC (2007d) AR4 WG1 Chapter 10 Section 10.7
[38] IPCC (2007c) Table 2.1
[39] Murphy D. M. et al. (2009) Figure 6a “Cumulative energy budget for the Earth since 1950”
[40] NOAA ESRL (Accessed 26 November 2009)
[41] NOAA (2009)
[42] Houghton J., (2009) Figure 3.4
[43] Climate Central (2008)
[44] Houghton J., (2009) p. 37
[45] Nature Magazine Online (2008)
[46] Global Warming Art (Accessed 26 November 2009)
[47] Meehl et al. (2005)
[48] IPCC (2007d) Section 10.3.1
[49] Friedlingstein and Solomon (2005)
[50] Meinshausen et al. (2009)
[51] New Scientist (2009b)
[52] IPCC (2007j) AR4 WG1 Chapter 9 Section 9.6.1 Methods to Estimate Climate Sensitivity
[53] Anderson and Bows (2008)
[54] Murphy D. M. et al. (2009) Figure 6b “…positive forcings…balanced by stratospheric aerosols”
[55] IPCC (2007e) AR4 WG1 Technical Summary : Section TS.3.1.3
[56] IPCC (2007d) AR4 WG1 Chapter 10 : Executive Summary : Mean Temperature
[57] Solomon et al. (2009)
[58] IPCC (2007j) p. 666 Executive Summary “Estimates of climate sensitivity”
[59] National Centre for Atmospheric Science (2009)
[60] Hansen et al. (2008)
[61] Wigley T. M. L., (2005)
[62] Lenton et al. (2008)
[63] IPCC (2007d) AR4 WG1 Section 10.7
[64] Borgerson S. (2008)
[65] Barnett et al. (2005b)
[66] IPCC (2007d) AR4 WG1 Executive Summary : Radiative Forcing
[67] ABC Rural (2009)
[68] Reuters (2009)
[69] WBGU (2006)
[70] Jones C. et al. (2009)
[71] Toggweiler (2008)
[72] IPCC (2007e) Technical Summary : Section TS.6.2.3 : Robust Findings
[73] IPCC (2007d) AR4 WG1 Executive Summary : Climate Change Commitment (Temperature and Sea Level)
[74] IPCC (2007e) Technical Summary : Section TS.6.1 : Key Uncertainties
[75] IPCC (2007g) AR4 Synthesis Report : Summary for Policymakers : Section 3
[76] Hansen et al. (2008)
[77] CO2Now (Accessed 27 November 2009)
[78] Lenton et al. (2008)
[79] Jones C. et al. (2009)
[80] IPCC (2007b) AR4 WG1 Chapter 3 Section 3.2
[81] Argo (2009)
[82] Rahmstorf et al. (2007)
[83] New Scientist (2009a)
[84] (2009)
[85] Home Office (2006)
[86] CBS News (2009)
[87] The Daily Climate (2009)
[88] van der Werf et al. (2009)
[89] Knorr W., (2009)
[90] Lewis S. et al. (2009)
[91] Natural Environment Research Council (2009)


IPCC = Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
AR4 = Fourth Assessment Report
WG = Working Group (on the IPCC)


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p. 150 “So the amount of time it will take to balance the energy budget depends on two things. One is the heat uptake by the ocean, and the other is the strength of the feedbacks
such as water vapor. One estimate of the equilibrium time for climate is about 60 years…The best guess is that about 40% of the warming that will occur from the CO2 already released, what is called committed warming, has yet to take place. We have paid for 1deg C warming, but we have so far received only 0.6deg C.”

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ISBN-13: 978-0521528740

p. 37

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the various carbon reservoirs. Carbon dioxide is therefore different from other greenhouse gases that are destroyed by chemical action in the atmosphere…About 50% of an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide will be removed within 30 years, a further 30% within a few centuries and the remaining 20% may remain in the atmosphere for many thousands of years. Although a lifetime of about 100 years is often quoted for atmospheric carbon dioxide so as to provide some guide, use of a single lifetime can be very misleading.”

p. 47 “Suppose, for instance, that all emissions into the atmosphere from human activity were suddenly halted. No sudden change would occur in the atmospheric concentration, which
would only decline slowly. We could not expect it to approach its pre-industrial value for several hundred years. But emissions of carbon dioxide are not halting, nor are they slowing; their increase is, in fact, becoming larger each year. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will therefore also increase more rapidly. Later chapters will present estimates of climate change…prerequisite for such estimates is knowledge of likely changes
in carbon dioxide emissions…”

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Diagram “Carbon Budget for 2deg C” :-

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1959 315.98 ppm; 2008 385.57
ppm; difference = 69.59 ppm
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NOTE : All the charts and graphs show temperatures going up. These confirm the “Hockey Stick”.

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doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812721106 PNAS February 10, 2009 vol. 106 no. 6 pages 1704-1709

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Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory / NOAA
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2 replies on “Spikes & Slopes”

Societal inertia is a feedback system too. If people around the individual don’t do something that is a strong pull to do likewise.

Incredibly good research Jo. I’m impressed with the sheer effort of collecting here 🙂

It’s a goldmine for me 🙂
Keep up the good work..

And, yes, you do a good job with delivering your conclusions too ::))


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