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2016: Record temperature for 3rd straight year

Wikipedia Commons: Polar bear starving on Svalbard because of ice melting early

Reports are out today that 2016 set a record for global temperature for the third year in a row.

A lot of people don’t quite grasp an important part of the science of global warming. A few degrees doesn’t seem like much. But it’s all about thermodynamics.

Heat is a measure of energy. At the particle level, heat energy is the jostling of electrons, atoms, and molecules. With global warming, it’s not just that the earth is warmer. Even a tiny increase in global temperature means that there is a tremendous increase of the total energy in the atmosphere and oceans.

Because the earth heats unevenly, ocean currents and weather systems are constantly working to stabilize and equalize the temperature gradients from the hot equator to the cold polar areas. Much of what’s scary about global warming is that the winds, ocean currents, evaporation, and precipitation systems that are driven by heat energy are disrupted.

Inevitably, a severe cold snap in midwinter causes some people (not to mention the right-wing media) to doubt and deny global warming. What they don’t realize is that, if it’s abnormally cold in the United States, then it’s because normal weather systems have been disrupted. Arctic air has moved too far south, displaced by warm air over the arctic that has moved too far north. As they say in thermodynamics, nature abhors a gradient. So this abnormal reversal of hot and cold air is the earth’s weather systems working extra hard to reduce temperature gradients and stabilize the atmosphere. It’s also the additional energy in the atmosphere that drives larger and larger tropical storms, more tornadoes, wetter monsoons, drier droughts, and so on. Normal weather patterns break down.

So it’s important to think not only of earth being warmer, but also to think about the increasing heat energy making the atmosphere increasingly turbulent, wreaking havoc with ocean currents, and screwing up ecosystems that have depended on a stable climate for centuries or millenia.

One Comment

  1. Jo wrote:

    Your posts are always interesting and thought-provoking. That wins any day vs. “alternative facts.”

    Wednesday, January 25, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

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