Wed, Dec 24, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Surface temperatures flawed measurement for global warming

By Ka-Kit Tung

For the last quarter of the 20th century, the average temperature at the surface of the Earth edged inexorably upward. Then, to the surprise even of scientists, it stopped. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere continued to rise; indeed, it is higher today than it has been for centuries. And yet, for the past 15 years, according to the conventional way of measuring global warming, the planet does not seem to have become any hotter.

What explains this unexpected turn of events, and what does it mean for future climate policy?

The pause in the rise of surface temperatures is real. It can be observed in surveys of the surface of the sea and in satellite measurements of the troposphere. However, the reason it has occurred is not that our greenhouse-gas emissions are no longer changing the climate; it is that surface temperature is a poor metric for human-induced warming. Indeed, what scientists have figured out is that, instead of warming the surface, the excess heat that is being generated has gone to the deeper oceans.

This calls into question some of the international strategies for combating climate change that are currently being negotiated, such as those aimed at preventing the global temperature at the Earth’s surface from rising more than 2oC above the pre-industrial average.

Scientists probably did not adequately convey to the public that their projections for future warming are based on models that account only for the so-called “forced response” in global mean surface temperatures — that is, the change caused by greenhouse-gas emissions.

However, what is observed at the surface includes unforced, or natural, variations, such as the El Nino and La Nina fluctuations from year to year, and the 60-to-70-year cycle from the fluctuations of the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt in the Atlantic Ocean.

This cycle is now thought to periodically bury heat deep in the oceans. And, because it existed even before humans put significant carbon into the atmosphere, it is likely natural.

Given the oceans’ massive heat-storage capacity, determining how much of the warming remains at the surface over the course of decades is a very difficult task. Though the challenge is beginning to be appreciated, current projections of the dreaded 2oC warming have yet to take into account variable ocean cycles.

To be sure, surface temperatures remain important. They are a better measure of the threats posed by climate change than heat sequestered underwater. However, some of the threats that scientists — and economists — deduce from the surface temperature also reflect natural climate change, and thus cannot be mitigated through the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

The total amount of heat contained in oceans responds to changes in emissions, and is therefore a better metric for measuring such responses. Indeed, it has continued to warm as expected, even as the surface temperature has stopped rising.

The oceans’ heat content is measured by a network of more than 3,000 free-drifting robotic floats spread out across the world’s waters, where they routinely dive 2km beneath the surface. The temperature they measure is transmitted to orbiting satellites and made available online to anyone in near-real time. For ease of interpretation, the oceans’ heat content can easily be converted to a mean temperature after dividing by a constant. In time, models could demonstrate how to relate this new global metric to emissions’ regional climate impact.

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