Breaking News: The Earth Is Still Warming. A Lot

by Glenn Tamblyn, reposted from Skeptical Science

In a previous post we discussed how the argument that the Earth has stopped warming doesn’t make much sense because the people claiming this don’t know how to draw their ‘system boundaries’ correctly – how can you work out whether the Earth is warming if you don’t take account of all the places where it may be warming? And most commentary seems to only focus on surface temperatures. Which is only 3% of the Total Heat Content change.

So in this follow-on we would like to try and convey this warming from all the parts of the climate system in terms that we can all grasp. Grasp at an imaginative and visceral level. Because numbers, no matter how accurate, can be rather dry and hard to digest.

Do the math, Follow the heat….

Previously we showed the following diagram from the IPCC’s 2007 AR4 report, highlighting the warming of the atmosphere and how small it was compared to the total warming.

Now we would like to focus on the total figure at the bottom and try to convert that into numbers that we can all get our heads around. To try and make numbers with lots of zeroes meaningful.

The total heat accumulation in the environment from 1961 to 2003 is estimated as 15.9 x 1022 Joules. Got that? Is that clear in your head? Now read on…

Next, this graph from the National Oceanographic Data Centre, looking at Ocean Heat Content in the upper half of the ocean shows the following:

Roughly 5 x 1022 Joules since 2003. Since the IPCC’s graph above up to 2003 shows that most of the energy from global warming is in the oceans, to a first approximation, Ocean Heat Content change since then is going to be close enough to the Total Heat Content change.

So, total heat content change from 1961 to 2011 – 50 years – is approximately 21 x 1022 joules.

210000000000000000000000 joules

(a joule is 1 watt for 1 second. So a 100 watt light bulb will use 100 joules in 1 second)

A BIG number but somewhat unreal. So how much heat is this. What could it do? What is it in the real world, where we don’t routinely look at numbers that big.

That is HOW Big…?

This is a rate of heating of 133 Terawatts. Or 0.261 Watts/m2

133 Terrawatts is 2 Hiroshima bombs a second. Continually since 1961.

Over 50 years it could heat around 500 trillion tonnes of water from 0 °C to 100 °C – around 870,000 Sydney Harbours.

If we now add in the heat needed to boil water dry once it has reached 100 °C and apply this to Sydney Harbour we calculate a very simple answer:

It would boil Sydney Harbour dry EVERY 12 HOURS!

One of the worlds great harbours boiling dry twice a day! And this has been happening for the last 50 years.

Imagine. You get up in the morning to go walk the dog before you go to work and there is Sydney Harbour – ferries, yachts, tourists. The Bridge (Australians still sometimes still call it the Coat-Hanger) and the Opera House. When you come home from work that night the ferries and the yachts are all sitting in the mud at the bottom of the now evaporated harbour. And this has been happening twice a day since before the Beatles first started making Hits.

But why don’t we notice this? Because instead of all this heating happening just in Sydney Harbour, this is spread out through out the worlds oceans. And they are huge: 2,300,000 times the size of Sydney Harbour. So heat that boils the harbour would only warm the entire ocean by a fraction of a degree. So we don’t notice it much. Not that it isn’t real, just that we don’t notice it.

And if this much heat had instead gone into just warming the atmosphere – you know, that thing we call Climate – it would have raised Air temperatures by around 42 °C over the last 1/2 Century! When I was in kindergarten, in 1961, a hot day at the beach was 35 °C. Imagine that it was now 77 °C

So lets investigate…

Where could this heat have come from?

Since the extra heat, mainly in the the oceans is the equivalent of warming the atmophere by 42 °C, if this heat had been extracted from the atmosphere to warm the oceans we would have seen a drop in Air temperatures of a similar scale: ≈ 40 °C or so of atmospheric cooling. I think we can agree that this hasn’t happened.

Similarly, if freezing of ice & snow was supplying heat that could warm the oceans – hard to imagine what the process might be but theoretically possible so we need to consider it – this would require the freezing of around 12,500 Billion tonnes of extra ice per year. In contrast actually 500 Billion tonnes of ice is melting each year. No, that isn’t the source.

Could it be Geothermal heat – heat coming from inside the Earth?

Sorry, no, that doesn’t work either.

The rate of geothermal flux to the surface, for the entire Earth is around 47 Terawatts. This comes from residual heat remaining from when the Earth was first formed and heat from radioactive decay of minerals within the Earth. And it doesn’t change suddenly. What is sudden? To a geologist, 100,000 years is sudden.

But this flow is only around 1/3rd of what is needed to account for the increase in heat. And since this flux has been very steady for a very long time, it can’t be the source of the change in heat content. Since it has been so constant for so long, the normal geothermal energy flow must be part of the normal heat balance. Therefore to account for the increase in heat content, the global geothermal heat flux would need to have increased by a factor of 4 over the last 1/2 century – 1 normal flow and 3 extra flows.

Suggest an idea like that to any geologist and just watch for the look on their face!

And now we have run out of terrestrial heat sources that might do the job. Since Geothermal Energy is the only energy source on the planet large enough to even conceivably supply this much energy and even it is too small, that leaves only one option left.

An imbalance in the heat flows to and from Space. Nothing else fits the evidence.

Lets be very clear about this: NOTHING ELSE FITS THE EVIDENCE

Not theory, not ideology, not political views, not internal variability, not questions over surface temperature records, not fudged or not fudged data, not hockey sticks or Medieval Warm Periods, or perhaps missing ‘hot-spots’.

The Earth is experiencing an energy imbalance with space!


So, this imbalance could be because the Sun is getting warmer. But it’s not.  Over the last 1/2 century the Sun has, if anything, cooled slightly. See here, here, and here.

So what are left standing as viable explanations?

Greenhouse Gases and Clouds. Known Greenhouse Effect impacts of the GH gases, and possible changes in cloud behaviour. Exactly where most informed discussion of AGW occurs. The known impacts of GH Gases and the recognised uncertainties over cloud behaviour.

Some Cloudy thinking…

Lets look a little more closely at clouds. Clouds have both a cooling effect and a warming effect, depending on the type of cloud. See here and here. Low level clouds cause some cooling because they tend to reflect sunlight, while high level clouds cause some warming by trapping Infra-Red radiation.

However we can rule out the effect of low level clouds causing changes in reflection of sunlight as a cause. If the warming was because of this we would expect to see that Atmospheric warming would be strongest when the Sun is shining – Daytime & Summer. But its not – see here. Warming is happening just as much or more at Night-time or in Winter. In contrast the GH Effect operates 24/7. So low-level cloud changes can’t be the cause. The evidence just doesn’t fit.

So what we are left with are just 2 possibilities. High level clouds are increasing – relative to low level clouds, because it is the difference between their 2 effects that counts, or the GH gases are causing more of the GH effect.

Add to this that our understanding of the radiative effects of GH gases is based on masses of detailed data and is applied in many fields – Astronomy, Defence, Satellite observations of all types, Meteorology, even designing Micro-wave ovens – oh, and Climate Science.

Whereas the “It’s the clouds” answer requires that certain types of clouds have become more common, but other types haven’t. Without any viable mechanism to explain why.

It has been suggested that Cosmic Rays may influence cloud formation, and this is certainly a possibility although the evidence suggests the effect if it exists isn’t very strong. And this theory is based on Cosmic Ray levels reaching the Earth varying over the 11 year Solar Cycle. So this can’t explain continuous warming over nearly 5 Solar Cycles – there would need to be a long term trend in Cosmic Ray levels which isn’t supported by the observations. And this theory predicts that the changes will occur in low-level clouds and as we discussed earlier, this sort of change is contradicted by the evidence about when the warming is happening.

So, we have a solid understanding of the effect of the GH gases, and clouds need to be doing some surprising flip-flops to be the only possible alternative explanation.

Can we totally rule out cloud flip-flops? No. But what are the odds that masses of detailed data are wrong but instead ‘something else’ is happening. Possible yes. But probable? Likely? No.

The number that changed the world….

All this can be deduced from one simple number – 21 x 1022 – that removes almost all other considerations from the table.

Its GH Gases or high level cloud changes. NOTHING ELSE FITS THE DATA.

When the first analyses of Ocean Heat Content calculated from old temperature data from the oceans where first published in the early 2000’s, they were described as the ‘Smoking Gun’. Because they were. They are the primary observational evidence for Global Warming and the human nature of it.

So think about this the next time you look at a picture of Sydney Harbour. Or any other harbour of your choice.

As it boils dry in your minds eye, ask ‘Why?’. The possible answers to your question are very limited. Very limited indeed.

This piece was originally published at Skeptical Science.

30 Responses to Breaking News: The Earth Is Still Warming. A Lot

  1. malexy says:

    I just skimmed this….what a great piece…very well done.

  2. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    I like the messaging:

  3. Lara says:

    Is this is true that all that heat is in the oceans, then why are scientists saying we are in an extended “La Nina” (cooling) cycle?

  4. Chris Winter says:

    Absolutely brilliant illustration of the meaning of ocean heat content RE: Sydney harbor. Every media outlet should be sent a press kit distilling this into a sound bite. Most of the media today don’t understand this — and it is a travesty that they don’t.

    One quibble. It seems to me that in the paragraph reproduced below, the term should be “high-level clouds.”

    However we can rule out the effect of low level clouds causing changes in reflection of sunlight as a cause. If the warming was because of this we would expect to see that Atmospheric warming would be strongest when the Sun is shining – Daytime & Summer. But its not – see here. Warming is happening just as much or more at Night-time or in Winter. In contrast the GH Effect operates 24/7. So low-level cloud changes can’t be the cause. The evidence just doesn’t fit.

  5. ozajh says:

    Whereas the “It’s the clouds” answer requires that certain types of clouds have become more common, but other types haven’t. Without any viable mechanism to explain why.

    Ummmmm, contrails? (Just sayin’.)

  6. Leif says:

    El Nino, La Nina are currents in the Pacific Ocean that have different temperatures. Think of a cool still bath tub and dump in a pot of hot water. The water looks the same but you could scald your hand in one spot and be in cold water right next to it. Ocean currents can work on an ocean scale, the function of salt and fresh, hot and cold, trade winds, Coriolis forces, land barriers, and more,and/or any combination there of. The temperature difference between these two currents is only a few degrees C but can have a readily accepted climatic effect on large areas. Now couple that with an area the ~size of Mexico, changing from sub-zero,F to 32+F. Think that you could expect some effect on the bordering neighbors? That is what is happening in the Arctic Right Now! It is also a lot bigger and closer than the South Pacific licking the South American coast.

  7. owlbrudder says:

    Oooooooh, look! A nice, shiny conspiracy theory! Now, where did I put my tinfoil hat?

  8. Rob Painting says:

    Lara – check out this animation on La Nina/El Nino. Note what happens during La Nina – a lot of heat gets buried below the surface in the western Tropical Pacific (tilting of the thermocline) and cool water wells up from the deep along the coast of North & South America. These processes cause cooling of global surface temperatures through the ocean-atmosphere heat exchange.

    With El Nino heats wells up to the surface in the central and eastern tropical Pacific, and the upwelling of cold water along the Americas shuts off. The end result is that a lot of heat from the ocean is given up to the atmosphere, which warms up abruptly and raises global surface temperatures. But much of this atmospheric heat is radiated out to space.

    So, although it seems counter-intuitive, La Nina is when the Earth gains a lot of energy, and El Nino is when the oceans loses heat to the atmosphere – and the Earth loses energy.

  9. Tom King says:

    Moving the discussion to the actual energy spreadsheet will pry open people’s dormant imaginations. If the heat isn’t appearing in one place then it must appear in another. Now the deniers will get to put on their Sherlock Holmes hats and pretend that they are experts on this issue too. But at least they won’t be able to pretend that nothing is happening.

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks to Glenn and John Cook. This is just excellent.

    One question, for Glenn or Joe:

    How much more heat can the ocean take? Is there a saturation process ahead, or are releases from ocean to atmosphere predicted?

  11. Mike 22 says:

    The heating rate today is much higher than the average heating rate since 1961. Its more like turning the whole of Sydney Harbor into steam every four hours. It will go faster still when the aerosols go away.

    If someone could animate this example, Sydney Harbor at full boil, this would be a great teaching tool.

    …”radiative forcing from increased greenhouse gases (IPCC, 2007) is estimated to be about 1.3% (1.6 PW), and the total net anthropogenic radiative forcing once aerosol cooling is factored in is estimated to be about 0.7%”

  12. Serge Young says:

    Great post, excellent diagrams and reasoning. Another huge concern with Ocean warming is that it is wiping out coral reefs. Many of our modern medicines are derived from coral. It’s hard to imagine how we reverse these trends.

  13. Tom King says:

    That’s an interesting question. I’ve read that even without man’s actions the oceans are likely to evaporate away in a billion years simply because of the gradual warming of the Sun. In such a situation the hydro-cycle will probably be insane. I picture constant rain that immediately evaporates despite perpetual 100% humidity. Air pressure would also have to increase to something close to what’s at the bottom of the ocean since the ocean would now be suspended above us.

    Of course, our billion year fate is more extreme that our short term prognosis. But if we work backward from the long term we might acquire more understanding of our immediate future. Mega storms seem to be on the menu.

    How to integrate this unhappy outlook with my penchant for a more cheerful stance is a problem for me. As long as we embrace the seriousness of our circumstance I am optimistic that green energies will arrive just it time to diminish the disasters ahead. The four horsemen will still arrive, but only riding ponies.

  14. squidboy6 says:

    Try swimming down into the very depths of the oceans and see how much colder they are versus the surface – even in the tropics – and maybe, just maybe you might start to understand the complexities of the currents in the oceans.

    You could try to stay on the coast of California when the wind blows in the Spring and experience the upwelling that occurs when the surface waters get blown offshore and the colder, deeper waters replace them. Don’t use a wetsuit. El Nino and La Nina are another cycle but the ocean isn’t just a pool of water like a bathtub. It isn’t uniform, it isn’t the same density throughout the volume.

    You might want to study a little before asking such a simple question…

  15. Solar Jim says:

    RE: “This is a rate of heating of 133 Terawatts. Or 0.261 Watts/m2”

    In recent analysis of the measured energy imbalance of the planet, James Hansen reports a heat gain for the planet of 0.58 Watt/m2. Since this heat gain is double that of the historic value reported here, current data would seem to indicate a strong acceleration of global heating.

    Considering the recently reported Arctic methane destabilization (under water) as well as melting permafrost and ice sheet melt rate, the planet seems headed toward abrupt climate change. Humanity seems to be winding the spring of a spring-loaded Holocene climate, via oxidizing biologically stored lithosphere carbon into prehistoric atmosphere concentration of carbonic acid gas.

    This seems to indicate the planet does not consider petroleum (and related mined substances) as “energy resources.” That is, only one species (out of perhaps ten million) lives this myth via the ability of mining and ignition.

    Natural law will determine reality.

  16. Tom King says:

    Its occurred to me that carbon is also sequestered in lumber. Although a large part of modern home construction is toxic, it isn’t too difficult to imagine a world where people live in eco-friendly wooden homes that sequester tons of carbon.

  17. Solar Jim says:

    RE: …”radiative forcing from increased greenhouse gases (IPCC, 2007) is estimated to be about 1.3% (1.6 PW), and the total net anthropogenic radiative forcing once aerosol cooling is factored in is estimated to be about 0.7%” (Trenberth, 2012 submitted)

    That 0.7% is approximately 800,000 Gigawatt potential forcing. Hansen’s recently measured 0.58 W/m2 is 296,000 Gigawatts. Anyone see an ominous trend here? And if aerosol pollution is reduced from one factor or another . . .

  18. Daniel C Goodwin says:

    Thanks for this lucid explanation. One typographic problem: on my browser (Firefox), the total heat accumulation number looks like 15.9 x 1022 Joules. I can figure out that this really means 15.9 x 10^22 Joules, but it might cause some confusion.

  19. Leif says:

    Great suggestions and insights all, thank you. Last December I was tripping on the cold and warm anomalies and wrote this to a friend. Rob Paintings comment, #3b, got me thinking:

    “Could that “some reason” in fact be the late freeze of the open Arctic waters. The north Pacific is one of two major entry points for warm air to enter and replace the rising air above the open Arctic, the other being the North Atlantic. As winter settles in the continental land mass cools much faster than the open water so that air must sink and go someplace. South would be the obvious call IMO. Thus bringing cold Arctic air further south and replacement warm moist Pacific air further north. Jet Streams shift, weather patterns shift. Anchorage AK has had rare “Winter Rain” in December and temperatures similar to ours here in NW WA at times this winter. Wondering where the Pacific NW rain went, look further afield. Wondering why? I would suspect Climatic Disruption might be a good place to start.

    Want warmer winters in the deep south, refreeze the Arctic sooner. That is my story and I am sticking to it.”

    I would add, record snow fall, (remember ~4% more moisture in the air), in many parts of Alaska as the Arctic started to refreeze.

    So how many “Hiros” are given up to the atmosphere by the open sea as opposed to iced, over the course of several months? A wild guess would be millions! We may be setting up a new “Trade Wind” powered by Earth’s surface temperature differentials.

  20. Leif says:

    To continue, Last winter January I was playing with numbers and this question: “How many Hiros of latent heat released in one inch of rain over the area of South Dakota!” My answer (which begs for conformation), was 110,000 Hiros! So clearly millions of Hiros of heat transferring to the Atmosphere could be realistic.

  21. Glenn Tamblyn says:

    Actually Chris, although it seems counter-intuitively, it is low level clouds that reflect more sunlight and high level clouds that contribute more to the GH Effect. Low level clouds are often denser and more water than ice and they are good reflecters. And since they are in the warmer lower atmosphere their contribution to the GH Effect is smaller. High level clouds are not as good reflectors but because they are in colder air they are larger contributors to the GH effect.

  22. Glenn Tamblyn says:

    Mike Roddy

    The much greater thermal capacity of the ocean is the basis for the ‘more warming in the pipeline’ concept which many people mistakenly take to mean heat coming out of the ocean. In fact your term saturation isn’t too far off the mark.

    Actually what happens is that the ocean needs so much heat to raise its temperature that until its temperature has risen enough, it draw most of the additional heat.

    One analogy I like is to think of 2 tanks of water, joined by a small pipe. so they have a common level. One tank is small and the other huge. If we start pumping water into the small tank its level starts to rise. The level difference between the 2 tanks now starts to generate a flow through the pipe from the small one to the huge one. But since the larger tank is so much larger, its level only changes slowly in response. The small tank keeps rising until the flow through the pipe equals the flow rate being pumped into the small tank. Then the rate of rise in level is constrained by how long it takes to fill the big tank.

    The water is heat, the water being pumped into the small tank is the radiative imbalance, the small tank is the atmosphere and the large tank is the ocean. And the level is temperature.

    In the situation we are in the rate at which water(heat)is being pumped into the small tank (atmosphere) keeps increasing since we keep expanding the imbalance by adding more CO2. So the level (temperature) of the small tank (atmosphere) is still able to rise faster than the big tank (ocean), but it is still being retarded by the slower rise of the large tank. If we stop adding CO2 we still have to wait for the large tank (ocean) to fill with water (heat) to a new equilibrium level before all the level (temperature) rise stops.

    So at that point the oceans are if you like ‘saturated’ with heat but there isn’t a reverse flow through the pipe from Large (ocean) to small (atmosphere). Just the original flow returning to zero.

    To complete the analogy. the water pumped into the small tank is controlled by a float valve that will shut of the flow when the level is high enough. CO2 sets the cut-off point for the float-valve and when we add CO2 we are adjusting the ‘set-point’ for the valve.

  23. Glenn Tamblyn says:

    Mike 22.

    I tried to find some art-work of a drained Sydney Harbour – perhaps from a SciFi novel. No such luck. If you come across something I would love to use it.

  24. Glenn Tamblyn says:

    Thats correct Daniel. The SkepticalScience’s formatting allows things like superscripts. It is 10^22.

  25. Glenn Tamblyn says:

    One correction I need to make – Joe had cross-posted this article before I was alerted to this and correctted it on SkS.

    The figure I gave for the ratio between Sydney Harbour and the entire ocean is more like 2,300,000,000, not 2,300,000. I missed 3 orders of magnitude when I was comparing 2 figures, one in cubic metres, the other in cubic kilometers.

    This doesn’t effect the basic conclusion, just highlights why the oceans need so much heat to see much temperature rise.

  26. Glenn Tamblyn says:


    I’m not sure oceans boiling on a billion year time scale is quite accurate but it is in the ball-park.

    The Sun will keep on warming as it has for the last 4.5 billion years. And the Earth’s basic thermostat will keep on adjusting the climate to compensate. Carbonate weathering of rocks will keep drawing CO2 levels down to compensate for the warmings Sun.

    On observed trends, within 500 million years CO2 levels will drop to effectively zero. And all plant life on Earth wil become extinct. Followed closely by all animal life.

    Archaic forms of bacteria will still survive as they always have – last as they were first – but steadily the planet will keep warming until the oceans boil etc.

    Another 500 million years? dunno! But eventually.

    The only long term survival strategy for life on Earth then will be to slowly move the Earth out to a larger orbit as the Sun warms.

    This is a trivial problem when looked at on a large time scale. An asteroid does a controlled close fly-by of the Earth every 100 years and ever so slowly nudges us out to a wider orbit. Trivial really.

    We almost have the technology to do that now. So long as we don’t let little things like the collapse of civilisation get in the way.

  27. Mike 22 says:

    Glenn, this turns up, , but the contours are way too steep.

    What about crowd sourcing it through the Skeptical Science website? Put in a “teaching tools wanted” box. Needed: artist’s impressions of Sydney Harbor at full boil, giant pasta optional.

  28. Mike 22 says:

    “Now class, how much energy does it take to boil the entire Sydney Harbor dry in 4 hours? (picture of giant box of pasta being poured into Sydney Harbor at full boil) Anyone? 500 terawatts! (kid in back of room falls asleep), which you could get from 200,000 nuclear reactors, (zoom out on picture of 200,000 nuclear reactors, two per square mile, covering New Zealand,with arrows pointed at Sydney Harbor) or SIX atomic bombs going off every second (video of six bombs per second in Sydney Harbor)(kid in back of room wakes up). Now class, suppose we wanted to keep boiling Sydney Harbor for a long long time, for the next ten thousand year, at an ever increasing rate? Can anyone tell us how long we could keep that up before we use up all the uranium on the planet? One year, two years? So what’s our solution? We use the Sun! (image of giant maginifying glass in outer space, focused on Sydney) No, not that way, this way. (Teacher lights propane torch, makes CO2 gas, demonstrates how colorless and odorless CO2 blocks IR transmission through cell.)

  29. Glenn Tamblyn says:

    Thanks Mike 22

    That image will do. I will update the SkS post with that.

    Joe, if you are following this thread, you might want to update your post here after I have added the graphic.