Why greenhouse gases heat the ocean

Figure 2: The change in the skin temperature to bulk temperature difference as a function of the net longwave radiation.

There is an associated reduction in the difference between the 5 cm and the skin temperatures. The slope of the relationship is 0.002ºK (W/m2)-1. Of course the range of net infrared forcing caused by changing cloud conditions (~100W/m2) is much greater than that caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gases (e.g. doubling pre-industrial CO2 levels will increase the net forcing by ~4W/m2), but the objective of this exercise was to demonstrate a relationship.

To conclude, it is perfectly physically consistent to expect that increasing greenhouse gas driven warming will heat the oceans – as indeed is being observed.


The need for such an analysis grew out of a series of discussions with S. Fred Singer. The M-AERI was developed with funding from the Earth Observing System program of NASA. Participation in the SAGE cruise was supported by a grant from the NSF (OCE 0327188). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Page 2 of 2 | Previous page

94 comments on this post.
  1. Coby:

    Very interesting, and surprising to me. Is this skin layer an actual physical layer in the sense that water molecules in that layer tend to stay in that layer? I have trouble imagining that it is, but if it isn’t then wouldn’t the constant mixing negate the kind of insulating effect you are talking about here?

  2. Alexander Harvey:


    “how can a forcing driven by longwave absorption and emission impact the ocean below since the infrared radiation does not penetrate more than a few micrometers into the ocean?”

    It strikes me as sad that this question needs answering or even asking.

  3. Steve Sadlov:

    RE: #1 – Indeed, I would think that any net increment in energy due to a net increment in long wave incident radiation would rapidly and efficiently dissipate in the enormous mass of water. So, yes, it would ever so slightly warm the mass. Ever so slightly ….

  4. Hank Roberts:

    Coby, see the link in the second paragraph, it describes observations of the layer, and how persistent it is, and how it is reestablished after being broken up. It seems to make sense as described.

  5. Hank Roberts:

    > I would think … would rapidly and efficiently dissipate
    This is worth looking up, you will find a lot of information available about thermal layering in the ocean and in fresh water as well. Or take a dive into a deep lake sometime and notice the transition. See also ‘overturning’ as a seasonal phenomenon in lakes, for example.

  6. Gar Lipow:

    I’m a bit confused. I think this is one of those cases where it is not what you don’t know that hurts you, but what you don’t know that is not so. Let me lay it out step by step so that someone can correct.

    1) There in an exchange of heat energy between atmosphere and ocean.

    2) Heating up the 1 mm (or smaller) topmost layers of the ocean (the “skin”) decreases the thermal gradient thus slowing the loss of heat from the ocean into the atmosphere.

    3) If the ocean tends to lose heat to atmosphere, then this means that the ocean is warmer than the atomosphere? true? Heat tends to move from hot to cold.

    4) But if we are warming that mm or less, then we are *increasing* the gradient between the warmer ocean and the cooler atmosphere.

    All right, so I’m misunderstanding either what is being said or how heat exhange between the ocean and atmosphere works, probably both. Please correct. I’ve been a persistent poster here, and am obviously not a skeptic. I’m just having trouble following and need a clairification.

    [Response: In a stable climate the net heat into the ocean would be zero. At some places there would be heating of the ocean, in other places, cooling of the ocean (generally, the cooling goes on at high latitudes, warming in the tropics, but there is a lot of variation associated with the shape of the basins, the thermohaline circulation etc.). In general, the heating would match the cooling and the ocean heat content would be roughly stable (though on short timescales that wouldn’t be true due to processes like ENSO etc.). There is a slight asymmetry in the heating and cooling because of the presence of convection (cooler seawater is heavier and therefore tends to sink), so the stable processes described above really relate mostly to the parts of the ocean where convection is not occuring. The skin temperature in areas where the ocean is being heated, is generally warmer than the bult temperature, but in this example, the ocean is losing heat to the atmosphere (the skin SST is less than bulk T). Along comes some extra LW forcing (due to greenhouse gases or clouds etc.), and according to the figure, this reduces the difference between the skin and bulk temperature and reduces the rate at which this area would be cooling (and thus causes anomalous heating). In a region where the ocean was already being heated, the same pattern would be seen but now since the skin SST was warmer, the skin-bulk difference would increase, causing more heat to go into the ocean. In an anomaly sense, the two cases are similar. -gavin]

    [Response: I try a different way. To your point 3 the answer is yes – the ocean surface is on average warmer than the overlying air, because the ocean absorbs a lot of heat from the sun, part of which it passes on to the air above. Your confusion arises simply because we are now discussing how the bulk of the ocean below the skin layer gets heated. Thus we are talking not about the gradient between sea surface and overlying air, but we are talking about the gradient through the skin – i.e., the water temperature difference between the top and bottom of the skin layer, which controls how heat flows across this layer, from the bulk of ocean water below to the surface. Obviously, if you heat the top of the skin layer, this reduces the heat flow across this layer from below. Clear? Or still confusing? -stefan]

  7. L. David Cooke:

    Hey All;

    Just one quick question regarding a quote from the article.

    “During a recent cruise of the New Zealand research vessel Tangaroa, skin sea-surface temperatures were measured to high accuracy by the Marine-Atmospheric Emitted Radiance Interferometer (M-AERI), and contemporaneous measurements of the bulk temperature were measured at a depth of ~5cm close to the M-AERI foot print by a precision thermistor mounted in a surface-following float.”

    Does this mean that the following float was passing through water that had just been thoughly mixed by the Screws or Propellors of the ship?

    Dave Cooke

    [Response: Surface following, not ship following! – gavin]

  8. Gar Lipow:

    Re: 6 – “bulk” being atmosphere?

    [Response: No. Bulk is in reference to the ocean mixed layer – i.e. what you’d get if you sampled the first few meters of ocean. Sorry for the confusion. – gavin]

  9. D. B. Coleman:

    I would find the original post much easier to understand if information from the Response to Comment 6 was included. Since the assumption in the original post seems to be that the ocean is warmer than the atmosphere, it would be nice to state this at the beginning, even before explaining skin temperatures and gradients.

  10. Gar Lipow:

    Ok -I think you finally hammered it into my simple mind. We have skin (first mm or less of ocean). We have bulk (next few meters of ocean). So:

    Example 1) The ocean is losing heat to atmosphere (skin colder than first few meters of ocean ). A greenhouse effect heats the skin. The temperature difference between the skin and the first few meters of the ocean is reduced. The ocean loses heat more slowly than before.

    Example 2) The ocean is gaining heat from the skin . The skin is warmer than the first few meters of ocean. A greenhouse effect heats the skin more. The temperature difference between the skin and first few meters of ocean is greater. The first few meters of the ocean warms faster.


    Sorry it took a few tries before I got it.

  11. Graham Dungworth:

    I used to determine heat flow heat in the sedimentary column, from both offshore and onshore exploration wells.The theory cited is fine.
    Average ocean water depth of almost 4km for the oceans, of mass about 1.1*10exp24gram, reveals about 0.25*10exp18gram in that top 1mm surface zone. I did a quick google re-the annual mass of water flowing from the Amazon and get 6.6*10exp19gram water/year. The Amazon represents the greatest rate of return of all rivers.
    Glaciers also retreat. The oceans are warming largely because the warming of the atmosphere makes the rivers warmer. I don’t doubt the skin effect I just think the obvious has been neglected.

  12. C. W. Magee:

    So how does one calculate the skin temperature in the roaring forties, where gale force winds are constantly ripping the tops off of 5 meter swells?

  13. Eli Rabett:

    WAGNER (wild assed guess no explanation required) you could manipulate the absorption of the skin layer by tossing a small amount of different oils onto the surface. The surface layer will spread efficiently over a fairly large area. Depending on the oil, the IR, UV and vis absorption properties of the skin layer will vary systematically.

  14. Steve Sadlov:

    RE: #5 – The first thermocline is usually a few fathoms down. That is not what this paper is addressing.

  15. Steve Sadlov:

    Unless the air temperature was significantly lower than the bulk water temperature, a skin temperature, albeit slightly elevated versus the bulk temperature, by incident long wave radiation, would have an truly insignificant effect. Most places in the tropics it would, if anything, tend to inhibit ingress of conducted thermal energy from the (warmer than the water) air. The two main places I can think of where this may be of consequence would be where the Japanese Current gets into higher latitudes and similarly where the Gulf Stream does. On cool or cold days where there is sufficient sunshine, GHGs would reradiate and warm the skin. The loss of heat from the warm current would indeed be inhibited by the slightly lower thermal gradient due to the “inversion layer” caused by the warmed skin. We are talking about a very particular combination of factors here. I really must wonder whether or not the study actually measured this mechanism at all or did they measure some other effect?

  16. Steve Sadlov:

    RE: #12 – Yes indeed. This effect would not be very likely in such a setting.

  17. Steve Sadlov:

    RE: #13 – on that note, consider the possible effects due to biological factors, plankton blooms, floating organic debris / organisms’ waste products, etc.

  18. Hank Roberts:

    As an amateur, reading what’s there:

    > 12 how would you calculate skin temperature in the roaring forties…
    Not — see the link in the second paragraph of the main post,
    or read at least this bit:

    “… the eddy cannot transport heat across the ocean surface by itself. The heat balance in the skin layer must be accomplished by molecular processes, hence the thin skin layer. The actual thickness of the skin layer depends on the local energy flux of the molecular transports, which is usually less than 1 mm thick and can persist at wind speed up to 10 m/s. For stronger winds, the skin layer is destroyed by breaking waves. Observations indicate that the skin layer can re-establish itself within 10 to 12 seconds after the dissipation of the breaking waves (Ewing and McAlister, 1960; Clauss et al., 1970).”

    Re Steve’s belief noted in 5 that heat would “rapidly and efficiently dissipate in the enormous mass of water … ” the article seems to say the thin skin prevents that while it’s in existence; when it’s broken up, mixing occurs– but still not completely, water sorts out in layers.

    Again, no pretense I know about this, I’m just saying –read the articles linked in the first few paragraphs of the main post and some of these simple questions are answered there.
    Add hurricanes, see Stoat today for link to a nice recent example of the sea surface showing a clear cooling track after passage of the most recent big storm off Japan.

  19. Todd Albert:

    I hate to be nit-picky, but temperatures in Kelvin should not include the degree symbol, right?

  20. Chuck Booth:

    Re #6
    Gar, I think you meant to write: …this is one of those cases where it is not what you don’t know that hurts you, but what you [do] know that is not so. Yes?

  21. Gar Lipow:

    Re: 20 – yes.

  22. L. David Cooke:

    Dr. Schmidt;

    Thanks, I was able to locate this link regarding the surface following sensor.


    Dave Cooke

  23. Richard Allan:

    Will wind speed alter this relationship substantially?

    For example, supposing it is more windy when it is very cloudy.

    A stronger wind would I imagine cause more evaporation and cooling of the skin layer, making the skin minus bulk temperature difference even more negative. Removing this effect from Figure 2 (ie removing some of the hypothetical skin minus bulk temperature differences due to windy, cloudy conditions) would increase the calculated gradient further.

    Of course, if there is no relationship between wind speed and net radiation then this does not apply. Presumably this has been checked or would be easy to investigate?

    [Response: Anything that effects the surface fluxes (latent, sensible, LW+SW) will effect the skin temperature difference – and so wind speed clearly will. There is a general relationship between the diurnal cycle and winds – though I’m not sure of the amplitude of that at this particular site. But the amount of data looked at here is averaged over a number of days and so variations in incoming SW and in wind speed are probably well enough sampled to give a robust result. Peter Minnett is currently on a cruise off Iceland, but when he gets back, I’m sure he’d be happy to give you more details on the other factors in this physics. – gavin]

  24. Hank Roberts:

    The excerpt I quoted says below windspeed that disrupts the skin layer, heat transfer occurs by ‘molecular processes’ — my guess would be that includes include both radiation and evaporation — anyone know?

    I’d also think humidity at low windspeed would be pretty close to saturated in the air right next to the skin layer, limiting evaporation rate, and that wouldn’t change as quickly when cloud cover changed, compared to radiation rates.

  25. Jeffrey Davis:

    I’m thoroughly confused. We’ve just had a recent post that said that there had been an unexpected drop in ocean temps. Or at least that a new batch of instruments had indicated a drop.

    [Response: short term drop, long term heating. – gavin]

  26. L. David Cooke:

    RE: #25

    Dr. Schmidt;

    If all things remained the same then what accounts for the “unexpected drop in ocean temps”? It appears the SST radiational and convective processes have not changed. The ocean currents have been relatively stable with a 20 Deg. E and about a 15 Deg. N deviation in the N. Atlantic seasonal Anti-Cyclonic position. (This is not unique over the last 30 years.) If anything the CO2 in atmospheric solution has increased, the data from ARM.gov indicates the solar SW/LW input appears stable,(with a slight SW decrease).

    There has been a change in the apparent average humidity and air pressure according to the NESDIS NCEP data for the NH Analysis, indicating a greater deviation of the Northern Jet Stream and an apparent increased rate of pressure zone movements across the temperate zones. (I know this is a weather phenomenona and not climate; however, it would seem unusual that a possible natual deviation might be great enough to overcome an apparent 30 year trend suddenly without a noted significant weather event other then a possible SST heat transport of the 2005 Hurricane Season.)

    Can you offer any insights as to the apparent deviation? BTW, I have not noticed it in any of the historic data; but, have you seen the New Foundland SST deviations as great as occured earlier this summer? Is it possible that the heat transport of the 2005 hurricanes may explain this years deviation? If this is true is it possible that the GHG as a contribution to GW may not be as big an issue as has been presented in the popular press? Thanks for you consideration, I apologize if it may be more appropriate to take this offline.

    Dave Cooke

  27. Carey Scortichini:

    Regarding Figure 2: Have the data in this Figure been published in a peer-reviewed journal? What is the correlation coefficient associated with the linear fit of the data?

    [Response: This is unpublished data, but I know that it is being written up as part of a larger discussion on ocean air-sea interaction. As mentioned above, Peter is on a cruise right now, but I’m sure he will be happy to answer your questions when he returns. -gavin]

  28. J. A. Smith:

    As an oceanographer working on air/sea interaction and mixed layer dynamics, I hope I can clarify this issue somewhat (in fact, I’m at sea right now on the R/P FLIP, gathering data to study wave and mixed layer dynamics, but this is off the point).

    I think a major aspect of the balance has been glossed over: the ocean is heated mainly by the visible part of the spectrum, the energetic part of the sun’s glare. This penetrates several meters (blue-green can penetrate several 10’s of meters, particularly in the clear water found away from coasts). In contrast, the only paths for heat LOSS from the ocean are infrared (blackbody) radiation and latent heat (evaporation). The sun heats the uppermost few meters; this has to find its way to the actual very thin surface layer to be lost. In equilibrium, then, there is a significan flux toward the surface a few cm under, and the sense of flux from infrared alone has to be significantly upward. Given this, it is quite clear that any reduction in the efficiency of upward radiation (by, say, reflecting it right back down again), will have to be compensated for by increasing the air/sea (skin) temperature difference, hence having a warmer subsurface temperature.

    This still leaves aside the latent heat flux, which in general accounts for something like half the upward heat flux.

    The balance is NOT, as portrayed here, between up and down infrared; rather it is downward “visible” (including ultraviolet, even), versus upward NET infrared and latent heat fluxes.

    Once trapped in the mixed layer, any excess heat makes its way down into the interior via much larger scale processes, including lateral advection and mixed-layer deepening due to wind and wave induced motions. This large-scale vertical redistribution takes a while- decades to hundreds of years- before equilibrium is re-established. The fact that we can already see this is quite remarkable.

  29. Hank Roberts:

    > The fact that we can already see this is quite remarkable.
    Say more, please? For us non-experts, remarkable how? Change in rate compared to prior experience?

  30. Joseph O'Sullivan:

    Thanks you JA Smith!

    Just the fact you are commenting from the R/P FLIP is really interesting. I remember reading about FLIP when I was young and trying to pick a career. Info about the FLIP is here:

    The explaination about different wavelengths is very helpful. It’s useful to step back and see the big picture when you are trying to make out the details. I understand the orginal post better now.

    I try will apply what I have learned about climate science and try to answer #29 (Hank Roberts). The large-scale vertical redistribution of the excess (anthropogenic) heat is remarkable because of how rapidly it is occuring and how widespread it is.

    If I remember correctly the signal of the excess heat detectable in the oceans is not just a local phenomenon. Because it was so widespread, natural cycles were ruled out.

    Second the oceans, as a whole and not including current shifts like ElNino, change temperature slowly. The heat signal was detectable quickly and is increasing quickly and this is unusual in the normally stable oceans.

  31. Hank Roberts:

    > Info about the FLIP is here: http://www.mpl.ucsd.edu/resources/flip.intro.html
    Yeah! I remember when that was first launched and tested. Wonderful ship, amazing idea.

  32. Peter Hearnden:

    If the oceans aren’t ‘warmed’ by LW radiation then how come they are not significantly cooler than we see, closer to the -18C of a non ghg world?

  33. herb:


    PS: i am creating a website called weather on the web, where everyday people take pictures and write blog posts about weather in their area and around the country.

    this is not spam or anything. i am a total weather fanatic!

    if interested, please email me herb1090 – at – comcast.net
    *again, email not comment!*


  34. Hank Roberts:

    Peter, nobody said that. See #28.

  35. Peter Hearnden:

    Re #34, Hank, yes, of course. I’m not saying that what happens I’m saying it seems to me that’s (taken to an extreme) the implication of what Fred Singer is saying. Clear the world oceans do respond as the main post and #28 say.

  36. Bryan Sralla:

    Re #28: J.A. Smith’s commentary was on the mark. This RC post confuses the whole issue of ocean heat balance.

    As a starting point, the only significant external heat source is incoming shortwave. This incoming shortwave heating is balanced by ocean heat loss through back radiation (41%), evaporative heat loss (53%), and heat loss by conduction and convection (6%). The net changes in heat loss through these processes are affected by GHG’s. For example, increased well-mixed CO2 and water vapor decrease the rate of heat loss through back radiation.

    It is humbly suggested that the processes governing ocean heat changes are not as straitforward as they might seem however. Ocean heat content is ultimately controlled by a number of complicating factors including positive and negative forcings and feedbacks dealing with clouds, water vapor, and also CO2. These forcings and feedbacks effect the processes by which the ocean looses heat to remain in balance. It would be my suggestion that all the governing factors are still incompletely understood. Since the heat storage capacity of the ocean is >1000 times that of the atmosphere, having a solid handle on all these is crucial to accurately projecting even average mean climate across multi-decadal time. The new ocean heat numbers are not mearly interannual variability, but represent a challenge for the community to better understand all of these processes.

    [Response: Actually, downward LW (~350 W/m2) is about twice as large as absorbed SW (~175 W/m2) as a heat input into the ocean. -gavin]

  37. Rob Neff:

    I was wondering if you were familiar with Lyman’s latest report (http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/~lyman/Pdf/heat_2006.pdf). My understanding of it is, is basically that every so often the equatorial oceans get hot enough they blow away the clouds and release heat into space. This accounts for the tropics not experiencing big temperature shifts during times of global warming. (But doesn’t let Europe and North America off the hook, unfortunately, since we’re not so close to the equator). I was wondering, did I get this simplification right, and how this would affect climate modeling?

    [Response: See our recent post. -gavin]

  38. Bryan Sralla:

    Re #36: “This incoming shortwave is balanced by *net* ocean heat loss through back radiation (41%)” The key word *net* should have been used. Obviously much of the LW emmitted is absorbed in the atmosphere and emmitted to the ocean.

    Gavin, thank you. For the layman however, this may be unclear (as is this thread). In its simplest form averaged over a year, can not the ocean heat balance be expressed as:


    where: Q is the change of energy expressed in Joules,
    Q(s)is incoming shortwave, Q(b) is the “net” back radiation loss, Q(e) is the net loss from evaporation, and Q(h) is the heat loss by conduction and convection

    Please forgive a math-challenged geologist

  39. Graham Dungworth:

    Re# 28 onwards.
    There’s more than just the physics of absorption/emission. Up to 9% of the incoming short wave radiation(400-700nm)is incorporated into biomass by photosynthesis, admittedly requiring other nutrients in optimal abundance. One third of this is lost by respiration, with degradation back to CO2, eg. at night. The biomass creates degraded longer wave energy at depth, well below the “skin depth”. The net effect of biomass is to enhance warming. The residue of biomass is incorporated into sediments, eventually as fossil carbon, limestone, sulphides and sulphates.

  40. Yartrebo:

    Photosynthesis is a pretty small contribution, as the necessary nutrients are almost never all available, particularly in the open ocean. I would be suprised if so much as 1% of incoming SW radiation was incorporated into biomass (1% is about as efficient as the most efficient land crops are at photosynthesis, net of respiration).

    Also, virtually all of the biomass rots (degrades to CO2 or CH4) long before it has a chance to settle into sediments. This is a good thing, or else the biosphere would have run out of carbon long ago, as plate tectonics only recycles buried carbon on the scale of tens to hundreds of millions of years.

  41. L. David Cooke:

    Re: #39

    Hey Graham;

    Of the remaining SW ~160 Watts/meter^2 what percentage results in the death of biomass and the removal of the associated carbon fixing activities? Is there an approximation as to the percentage of annual phytoplanton that has been killed by UV since 1970 as a result of the Stratospheric Ozone reduction. (By the way, how would this be measured, sampled turbidity and at what depth would this measure be appropriate?) Or maybe a correlation of Dobson Units to metric tons of global biomass reduction per day due to the UV ionizing effect?

    We also have the question of if the phytoplankton is not killed; but, just “mamed a little” by UV, would this have a negative effect on the carbon fixing level of activity? The next question is what is the ratio of UV affected biomass CO2 fixation to CO2 fixation of non-UV affected biomass?

    Sorry if the questions appear retorical I actually am interested if work in this area has been done, I have seen little as of yet. As to the LW effects, I am curious if the phytoplankton are dead and they add to the turbidity then they would particpate in an increase in the conversion of incoming EMR to LW and it’s transfer to the liquid it is suspended in would they not? Would turbidity not also play in the potential heat content of the top 10-40 meters? Is it possible to extract the turbidity data from the OceanColor data?

    Sorry for the many questions, I just have not seen any data that addresses them. Since my thoughts would not be unique, I can only assume that this data is not of any value in relation to the issues…

    Dave Cooke

  42. Michel:

    Just juming on this thread to signal that “The Economist” weekly is doing a special on climate change.
    the editorial is free (I think) : http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=7884738

  43. savegaia.de:

    just want to share this new wiki on AGW.

    Pretty new, and i looking forward to relevant contributens(wikis, additions, ideas, comments and such).


  44. Graham Dungworth:

    Re#40 and 41
    The ideal conditions I quoted, are perhaps never realised so I concur with Yartrebo that much lower efficiencies are probable. Of course if oceanic biomass or nutrient levels have not changed over time the system remains in equilibrium, there is no net change.
    However, over the time frame cited for GW effects we have degraded landscapes, forest clearance and soil erosion carries an increased load of nutrients into the oceans. Increased algal and plankton blooms in the Mediterranean and European coastlines are now annual events.
    Biomass carbon oxidises back to CO2, releasing the same heat of combustion that generated it utilising SW radiation. That gives rise to the upward kick in the Keeling curve saw teeth during the Northern winters. Most of the photosynthesis and respiration apparently occurs in the northern hemisphere.
    Again, only a tiny fraction of carbon and sulphur are preserved in the crust and as Yartrebo points out cycling occurs over a very long timescale, ca.t1/2=300-400 million years. Igneous and volcanic rocks have very low carbon and sulphur contents and reduced iron(FeII), the exhaled gases are oxidised, CO2 and SO2. However,carbon in sediments is predominantly carbonate(1 carbon reduced atom to 5 Carbonate carbon atoms), sulphate S equi abundant with sulphide(reduced or elemental)and ferric(FIII).Conventional opinion has always considered that descending plates compress and heat adiabatically as a pure physical process. However, all of the carbonate, carbon in kerogen and coal and sulphates and oxidised Fe are transformed with silica into reduced silicate forms and oxidised gases CO2 and SO2, the free energy changes result in degraded heat. I’ve added this paragraph as it is peripheral to the remark as to what drives the plates. The plates are driven by the chemical free energy changes in the crust and not necessarily by the average isotropic heat flow ca. 70mW/m2, from below the crust. How variable are the annual heat flows concentrated along mid oceanic ridges? I don’t know. I just feel uneasy about accrediting a recent enhanced oceanic heat content to a purely physical process.

  45. Bryan Sralla:

    Re: #44 “only significant external heat source is incoming shortwave.”

    A “non-significant” heat source is from seafloor spreading. Spreading rates have averaged 2-8 cm/year since early Mesozoic. The rate of heat transfer is very small relevant to the current climate discussion. There has been some work by a group from Japan. I will try and find a recent paper and post it.

    The prevailing theory on plate motions involves mantle convection. Rates of seafloor spreading may however contribute (over geologic time) to significant eustatic sea level variation. Changes in sea floor spreading rates effect the volume of the mid-oceanic ridges which may contribute to changes in the volume of the ocean basins.

  46. steve:

    I have a stupid question, and I hope someone can provide me with a (perhaps less than stupid) answer. First of all, I have only been looking at this topic for about a week, and really have no idea what I’m doing, and really don’t know what to think. I would like to know if there is any importance to a possible increase in the potential energy of the planet (perhaps based on the biosphere, ie. trees grow, chamical potential is released when wood is burned, or perhaps some mechanical atmospheric effect that increases potential energy by separating air masses – maybe generation of wind would be related, just wondering.) I ask because my limited understanding is that temperature is related to kinetic energy, but would not register an overall increase in potential energy, in which case energy from the sun could be partitioned in heat energy emitted from the planet and work used to increase potential energy, possibly allowing an energy balance that does not require a radiation balance, and also does not require a warming effect. Is there any way that this sort of mechanism could have importance to the question? Maybe this is already included in the arguments, just not in a way that was obvious to me. Again, I apologise if the question is ridiculous, but I really am very new to this.

  47. Bryan Sralla:

    Re #46: Steve, your question is not stupid. The first law of themodynamics governs system energy, heat and work. I hope someone with a better background in classical physics than myself will field your question.

  48. John L. McCormick:

    Please indulge my jumping off the thread to respond to theJames Turner on Sept. 8. It deserved a retort.

    James Turner, this is an attempt to use British Petroleum data to challenge your proposition tht CO2 increase is driven by global warming. If you really believed what you are saying:

    [the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is growing BECAUSE of global warming]

    you will conclude the planet is in a heck of a fix. That is, unless you refute (do you?) the physics of CO2:

    Most of the light energy from the sun is emitted in wavelengths shorter than 4,000 nanometers (.000004 meters). The heat energy released from the earth, however, is released in wavelengths longer than 4,000 nanometers. Carbon dioxide doesn’t absorb the energy from the sun, but it does absorb some of the heat energy released from the earth. When a molecule of carbon dioxide absorbs heat energy, it goes into an excited unstable state. It can become stable again by releasing the energy it absorbed. Some of the released energy will go back to the earth and some will go out into space.

    So in effect, carbon dioxide lets the light energy in, but doesn’t let all of the heat energy out, similar to a greenhouse. Agreed???

    Because of our heavy use of fossil fuels, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing since the industrial revolution. ( 280 ppmv Pre-IR and 380 ppmv, 2005) Agreed????

    1. Global fossil fuel use data from British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2005 provided the following coal, oil and natural gas production for 2003 and 2004. I estimated 2005 data using conservative percent increase.

    2003- 5.185 billion tons
    2004- 5.538 billion tons
    2005- 5.954 billion tons (7.5 percent increase)

    2003- 28.1 billion barrels
    2004- 29.3 billion barrels
    2005- 30.8 billion barrels (5 percent increase)

    Natural Gas
    2003- 92,053 billion cu ft.
    2004- 94,462 billion cu ft.
    2005- 97,298 billion cu ft. (3 percent increase)

    Global Tons of CO2

    2004- 12.671 billion tons
    2005- 13.621 billion tons

    2004- 12.851 billion tons
    2006- 13.494 billion tons

    Natural Gas
    2004- 5.526 billion tons
    2005- 5.691 billion tons

    Total CO2
    2004- 31.048 billion tons
    2005- 32.807 billion tons

    1 GtC corresponds to ~3.67 Gt CO2
    2.12 GtC or ~7.8 Gt CO2 correspond to 1 ppmv CO2 in the

    D. Schimel,et.al,CO2 and the carbon cycle. Pages 76-86
    in [IPCC 95])

    The January 2006 Mauna Loa CO2 concentration increase over 2005 was 2.98 ppmv, or 23 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.

    If that increased CO2 concentration was driven by global warming, please tell us how much warming was observed from 2004 to Jan. 1, 2006. Or, do you want to revise your proposition?

  49. Graham Dungworth:

    Re# 45 and 46
    For simplicity, for an Earth at “equilibrium” the energy of incoming SW radiation is balanced exactly, from physics, by the outgoing energy of LW radiation, otherwise the Earth would either warm up or cool down. This isn’t exactly true. You will remember James Lovelock writing, that by consideration of the planetary atmospheres of Mars and Venus with thermodynamically equilibrated products, they are dead planets, at least they are so now. Here on Earth, from the base of the crust upwards, the mix of elements as elements or compounds, up through to the top of the atmosphere are not at chemical equilibrium.
    As a consequence of chemical potential and incoming SW radiation the observed mix is far from an equilibrium position. An analogy would be the two states of a re-chargeable battery or a fuel cell. The chemical potential or Gibbs energy state of a reaction is the driving force that drives the reaction to a mininum free energy or Delta G=0. The formula used unites all 3 laws of thermodynamics and is usually represented for a chemist or geochemist by the relation
    DeltaG=DeltaH(enthalpy)- T*Delta S
    Consider a reaction-
    C + 2Fe2O3 == 4FeO + CO2
    On the left is elemental and reduced C(carbon) and ferric oxide(oxidised iron). On the right is reduced iron as ferrous oxide and carbon dioxide(CO2).
    On the left is how the Earth’s(crust), in part, exists now. On the right is how the Earth existed, in part, some time before the origin(s) of life.
    We have ignored water as part of the fuel cell. Also ferric oxide is usually noticed as rust. It is a hydrate,ferric hydrate. I’ll write it as 2(Fe(OH)3.5H2O) so it is balanced(stoichiometric)with the above formula.
    Mars and Venus had their compliment of water after accretion. It is believed water photolysis occurred on these planets, giving hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen was lost to space leaving highly reactive oxygen to combust reduced carbon(C and CH4) and sulphur(inc sulphide) to acid gases as well as oxidise near surface elemental or ferrous iron to ferric(red) iron. This water photolysis must have happened to the primordial Earth, with loss of Hydrogen to space but it was stopped, as it is today, by the presence of ozone(O3) which requires high oxygen tension to form and it quickly reoxidises hydrogen via OH hydroxyls back to water.
    Carbon(oil/gas/coal)is highly reduced and combusts with Oxygen, both with high chemical potential) in the atmosphere to give rise to CO2, the well known GHG.It gives a lot of heat off in the reaction. In the top equation ferric oxide will combust C to CO2. The reason the Earth today does not resemble the right hand side of the equation is that life’s biochemistry does a great miracle; CO2 is driven by enzyme catalysts and SW radiation(the energy source)to produce a far from equilibrium source of reduced carbon, reduced sulfur amongst other elements,namely living flesh, plant or animal. Too much CO2 and the oceans become acidic. Too little CO2 and the oceans become basic. The living Earth is also described as a huge oxidative reductive system. A Scandinavian chemist, Sillen, revealed it was also a great acid/base catalysis system as well.
    36% of the mass of the Earth is iron, free or elemental iron, Fe, typically highly reduced. If we could rehomogenise it the equilibrium process would prevail- a dead planet would result- and it’s unlikely that the life process could recommence.
    The Earth’s crust(2.2*10^25g)contains 8.3% by mass of iron, not as FeII as one might expect on a primordial Earth but a mix with oxidised ferric. Geochemists or cosmochemists quote elemental compositions in atoms per 1000atoms of silicon. Elements like carbon and sulphur get lost in these classifications. If one analyses the crust and oceans in elemental compostions relative to carbon one gets the remarkable compoition
    For every carbon atom in the crust there is half an atom of S, 4 atoms of Fe.etc. OK- one can recast as S1, C2 etc. The present day chemical potential ie. the excess energy stored from incoming SW over history has charged the original dead battery. It also contains historical information about the original stoichiometry. Note the 10 molecules of water for every carbon atom or for 2 of the ferric atoms that now reside in the crust(the other 2 in basalt and granite(minor)). If you add up the mass of carbon as carbonate(eglimestone) and carbon(kerogen/coal/oil/gas) in the crust it comes to ca. 98*10^21g. Those original 10 molecules of water(gas and liquid)would have been present as chemical hydrates, I’ve depicted them as rust above. The stoichiometry detailed above accounts for a water mass of 1.48*10^24g. The known water content of the Earth’s oceans is ca.1.2*10exp24g!
    For those of you who are familar with Earth accretional history, the Earth’s water complement is a hidden assumption, it is based on an ad hoc late accretion by dirty snowball impacts. Years ago this stoichiometric chemical potential theory was rejected. A famous American geochemist pronounced it was fallacious. Were it true it would be valid and he stated that the Earth’s mantle was a far greater repository of carbon than the crust, at least 7 fold greater, yet without any evidence to support that claim. At the time my claim was that apart from the odd diamond, the mantle was barren of carbon.
    Finally, going back to Bryan’s remark, he is certainly correct that the physical heat flow generated at ridges etc is tiny with respect to the flux of SW radiation. I’m addressing the biomass. On the desert surface that heat generated during the day is rapidly lost by more numerous LW photons at night. In those verdant valleys and oceans the SW has catalysed growth of biomass that doesn’t perish and re-oxidise overnight. It is stored and released as heat and delayed at the organims will. Of the 100% SW energy received, 100% was not re-emitted. How much is re-emitted? Over geological time ie the hundreds of millions of years it must balance out but with a chemical potential of components in a far from equilibrium state. Over the short term relevant to climate studies are their great swings in biomass abundance for reasons I mentioned before.
    I’m not if this answers Part of Steve’s query but the chemical potential can be converted into mechanical and electrochemical equivalents.

  50. Bryan Sralla:

    Re #48: John, you say “you will conclude the planet is in a heck of a fix. That is, unless you refute (do you?) the physics of CO2:”

    John McCormick, please understand that others do in fact comprehend and fully embrace Wein’s Displacement Law and Stefan Boltzmann, but are not yet convinced we completely understand the whole process of how the dynamic earth/ocean/atmosphere climate system works. Yes, most of us really do understand the basic physics that dictate a doubling of CO2 will warm the atmosphere 1 degree C. Please accept that beyond the fundamental laws however, there is a bunch more we are not as sure about. This includes all of the forcings and feedbacks that govern ocean heat content. Hopefully, we can all agree that we need to continue this wonderful research endeavor to better understand this facinating and important portion of earth science.

  51. Yartrebo:

    Those percent increases for coal and oil use are way out of line. Oil is growing more like 1% or 2% a year and is very well documented (ASPO has assembled some awfully detailed historical information on oil if you want to check – http://www.peakoil.ie/), and coal maybe 2% (good figures on this are hard to come by, since little coal is traded internationally). 7.5% growth would be a nightmare scenario, as emissions would double every ten years. It happened with oil between WWII and the first Oil Shock (1970 or so), but it’s unlikely to happen for oil, coal, or natural gas ever again because of geological constraints.

  52. John L. McCormick:

    Yartrebo, I used British Petroleum’s energy statistics at:


    Using the BP data and my hand-held calculator, the increase for coal, 2003-2004 is 6.8%, oil, 4.3% and natural gas 2.6%. Sorry to break the bad news to you. Check the data yourself. And, that was not the point of my retort to Mr. Turner. Please read his comments, then mine. I believe you will see MPOV.

  53. steve:

    Thank you Bryan. I do hope that someone will clear this up for me. However, it looks like perhaps this thread is winding down and I came too late. It only occured to me today, after looking at threads in various places for about the past week that I have really not heard much about the stored potential energy from the sun. ( I haven’t had the guts to post before that first one, but maybe that will be easier now.) My question really hinges on what that balance is. For instance, if we are truly burning fossil fuels, then presumably (from my estimation, correct me if I am mistaken) that fuel we are currently using was at one time derived from solar energy and stored as coal and oil. If this is true, then it appears that during the time which that energy from the sun was stored on the planet, the radiative fluxes to space may have been less than the input from the sun. Another example may be that of hydroelectric power. There is quite a bit of energy stored behind a dam. I don’t know how much or if it is enough to be significant, but I believe based on my limited science background that much of that water was lifted from the oceans, using solar power, and deposited at high altitudes at various places on earth. This is work. The fact that we can derive power from this work tells me that potential energy has been stored on the planet, apparently solar energy. I do not pretend to know the magnitude of these various stored energies. Certainly geothermal is not solar in origin, and could not be included. I do not have the faintest idea what the energy balance is with respect to the sun. Is the earth’s potential energy increasing or decreasing? Maybe no one is sure at this time, or maybe someone does have an answer. I’m glad that you didn’t just toss the question aside, because I think it is a neat one. If the planet warms, causing more water to be transported to higher elevations (work, possibly resulting in stored potential energy, which may have originated in the kinetic energy deposited by the sun) does the additional work done take enough from the solar kinetic energy to allow for a balancing impetus to the expected temperature increase? I did not see this addressed, at least not explicitly on the “greenhouse effect” page of Wikipedia, my primary information source. I’m not even certain how to go about calculating the sums of possible potential energy stored per year of solar origin, but with all the folks working in the field, I’m sure someone has done the work. I suppose it would be more industrious of me to try and sort out the literature, but I was hoping to take the easy way out and have someone hand me the answer. Now I really want to know, and I don’t have enough background to understand this point. I have been thinking of the earth as a heat engine that absorbs from a hot source, deposits to a cold source, and does work, some of which is stored as potential energy, but I don’t know how much or if the rate at which we are currently releasing that stored potential by burning fossil fuels has radically changed that balance as well. It is possible that due to fuel burning, the potential currently being released, which was stored for a long time, is making the situation worse and, coupled with reduced radiative losses, is adding to the atmospheric heating. Also, perhaps increased CO2 and heat increase the rate of plant growth, and somewhat balance that effect. All I want to see is some kind of treatment of the earth’s potential energy of solar origin, or some reason (hopefully that I can understand) of why it is cancelled in one fashion or another and can be dismissed. Again, I only ask because my limited review, for the last week, of some of the internet discussions, heavily implies that one of the bases for the calculations of how much global warming to expect is the assumption of radiative equivalence between the energy coming from the sun and that leaving through the atmosphere, to allow the planet to maintain a more or less stable temperature, which is related to kinetic but not potential energy. I am curious if considerations such as the ones I have mentioned will in any way affect those calculations, or if they are already included.

  54. steve:

    Sorry Graham,

    I didn’t see your reply until after I wrote the next one. I appreciate your response.


  55. John L. McCormick:

    RE # 50

    Bryan, my post at #48 was intended to respond to Mr. Turner’s post at

    the thread titled: How do we know that recent CO2 increases are due to human activities?

    He posted the following:

    [This is an attempt to make wishy/washy data look much more reliable than it really is.

    I do agree that global warming is taking place but it is my position that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is growing BECAUSE of global warming. I have yet to see any reasonable argument that can challenge my proposition].

    My data, from the BP Energy Stats, refute his proposition. I know most RC contributors

    [comprehend and fully embrace Wein’s Displacement Law and Stefan Boltzmann, but are not yet convinced they completely understand the whole process of how the dynamic earth/ocean/atmosphere climate system works.]

    I thought it was of some value to suggest to Mr. Turner that global warming is partly the cause of the increasing level of CO2 in the atmosphere, (positive feedback from warm oceans and land) but fossil fuel combustion is the primary reason in light of the fact that CO2 concentrations prior to the IR were essentially level (roughly 280 ppmv)going as far back as you choose.

  56. L. David Cooke:

    RE: #53

    Hey steve;

    If I understand correctly, I think your question maybe more of, “Given the current energy input by Sol what is the energy balance?”. I believe what many have shared here is that there are large variations in these values. For your purposes I think this could be simplified with a short answer based with an approximation of the current observations. (Note: Not that I am an expert; however, I have recently enjoyed an educational opportunity that attempted to addressed this question.)

    In essence at the Top of the Atmosphere (TOA) the total incoming Solar energy is approximately 1368-1374 watts per meter^2, (it depends on which satellite and the time frame you are considering). At the surface the incoming value can range from between 15 and 850 watts per meter^2 depending on latitude, weather and the seasons. Generally, it appears that the incoming energy averages somewhere between 250 to 300 watts per meter^2 across the surface facing the sun. (A good source for radiative measurements can be found at http://www.arm.gov. A reasonable text might be “Energy, its Use and the Environment” by Hinrichs and Kleinbach.)

    Of the roughly 300 watts per meter^2 reaching the surface, it appears that over the long haul about 60 watts per meter^2 might become sequestered for some time period with a average current total radiative balance around positive 2 to 8 watts or an average of around 1.5 to 2 watts per meter^2. (Note: See Hansen et al (2005) (Reference NASA’s Goddard site at ( http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/2005/ or a slight discussion of planetary energy imbalance with references at http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/news/2005/story11-04-05.html ), which suggests of the approxiamte incoming 300 watts around 0.85 watts are noted as an increase related to the current global warming phenomena.) Of the @ 60 watts of sequestered energy approximatly 60 watts per meter^2 per day might be sequestered for the long haul and be entombed in either methane hydrates or ionic compounds sequestered in the ocean floor. Based on the suggestions here in this post it looks like more then 90% of Sol’s energy locked up in hydrates or oxides are likely released in natural geologic activities on the order of millions of years. (This current apparent positive balance can easily be overcome by an ice age glaceriation effect and the release of the balance may be the only means of the ice age receeding.) This remains a point for discussion in many circles the least of all might be here. Does this help?

    Dave Cooke

  57. Ray Lopez:

    I’ve read this thread and would like to point out a possible reason the oceans, which act the same way a capacitor acts in a RLC circuit, namely to store energy, might be the cause of global warming: ENSO events will alter weather patterns, release heat and CO2 into the air. Thus ENSO events, which statistically have increased in the last 25 years, are the cause, not the effect, of increased global warming. The analogy is discharge of a capacitor’s energy back into the RLC circuit when the capacitor is overloaded, or simply due to cyclical flucuation.

  58. Leonard Evens:

    Cause of growth of CO_2 concentration.

    It is well established that CO_2 concentration is growing because of human activities. This is not today a matter of serious debate. While nothing in science is ever established beyond all possible doubt, some things are really not worth pursuing further without overwhelming evidence supporting the contrary opinon. I suggest that anyone who argues otherwise in this forum should be categorized as eccentric, at best.

  59. John L. McCormick:

    Bryan, RE # 50

    You asked me to accept [beyond the fundamental laws however, there is a bunch more we are not as sure about.] Yes, lots we are not sure about.

    And, you suggested [Hopefully, we can all agree that we need to continue this wonderful research endeavor to better understand this fascinating and important portion of earth science.] Yes, the international science community, with public funding and support, must continue [this wonderful research endeavor to better understand this fascinating and important portion of earth science.] Earth science is fascinating for this layperson and I thank the RC contributors and the legion of gifted scientists providing us with insights into the workings of our marvelous planet.

    But, the more I learn the more anxious I become.

    I am interested in the most intricate and compound workings of the earth/ocean/atmosphere climate system but smelling the smoke is enough for me to call the fire department.

    I know the Arctic long-term sea ice is diminishing. High altitude ice in the Andes, Alps and Himalayan mountains is melting (locals say the melting is rapid). Western North American mountain snow pack is diminishing and melting earlier as stream flows indicate less water availability for the densely populated cities of the Southwest.

    And, I have a reasonable suspicion that US, China and Indian coal deposits are destined for synthetic oil and electric power stations. That **certain** increase of CO2 emissions will not be sequestered despite the irrational (self-serving) optimism of coal interests and despairing hopes of some environmentalists. That idea is a non-sequester.

    That leaves me and us with more research and less time to prepare for what is about to hit our children hard and fast.

    When will you be satisfied you have enough knowledge to separate your desire for more understanding from your demand for action (both mitigation and adaptation)? What is your convincing tipping point?

  60. steve:

    Dave, RE #56

    Thank you. That does help. I appreciate the direction to other websites of interest that will shed more light on the issue.


  61. Steffen Christensen:

    Re: steve’s #53. Estimates of the total power generated by the Earth (mostly from radiological heating, but also from settling, phase conversion, and primordial heat) run around 30 TW (terawatts) ( http://www.es.ucsc.edu/~afisher/CVpubs/pubs/VonHerzen2005_TectComment.pdf ). The Sun sends about 174 000 TW of power towards the Earth’s disk, a lot of which doesn’t make it to surface. The average power delivery, over all the seasons and the whole Earth (not just the part facing the Sun), is around 31 000 TW, as estimated from Earth’s mean temperature of 15 degrees Celsius and a Bond albedo of 0.29. So the Earth’s self heating is around 0.1% of the Solar heating.

  62. savegaia.de:

    As life is common in space, enhanced civilizations will face the same planet global warming problems which ouccur by civs emission.

    So why is the planet climate so fast to un-balance?
    Is it to stop specific kind of lifeforms?
    Is it an big IQ test?

    It’s all about critical mass, so about the convincing tipping point of each single beeing will make desisions.
    The problematic is basicly lifeforms start to requognize global events rather late.
    So is this part of a test our species faces here, do we need a 100,00 years break of favourable life conditions – and even we not survive such a break?

    Mankind has the potential to counter earth fever, we are rightnow at the tipping point.

  63. Yartrebo:

    Re 52: Don’t take a banner year (for the fossil fuel industry) and extrapolate out into the future. Also, don’t rely on only one source for your information, especially a biased industry source. Claiming that oil production is growing at a 5% rate and coal at 7.5% is a very far out claim. It might be so, but it’s such a high number that it needs to be backed up with some serious data and reasons to explain why in a world economy growing at a few percent a year, energy usage is growing by around 5% a year (coal and natural gas are about 20-25% of the world energy supply each, and oil is about 40%, which works out to a 5% weighted average using your numbers).

    Increases in fossil fuel usage almost always lag behind GDP growth (because of systematic underreporting of inflation?), and worldwide GDP growth is usually a few percent a year, including every year from 2000 to 2006. China might be racing ahead and chalking up 5-10% emissions increases and 10% GDP growth, but Europe has close to 0% emissions growth. For a worldwide average, 2% growth in energy usage is considered fairly rapid.

    If energy usage was indeed growing at 7.5% long term (with that kind of growth rate, coal would approach 100% of the energy supply in a few decades), then we would have to worry about a lot more than global warming – things such as oxygen depletion (only 20% or so of oxygen available) and carbon dioxide poisoning (over 5% is quite fatal) would become major issues as 2100 came along as coal usage would increase about 1,000-fold (doubling once every 10 years). CO2 levels would be around 1.5% and growing by about 0.2% a year. Obviously 7.5% is a ludicrous rate for long term fossil fuel usage.

    The rest of your argument is quite sound, but the energy numbers and extrapolation you posted are just really out of whack. Please check your numbers with various sources, including some non-industry and non-government sources (those two tend to be perennial optimists). I’ve done so, and you can find all sorts of contradicting information (after all, it’s economics and politics, two fields full of manipulation and lying). Often even basic definitions (ie., what is oil) are different from source to source, leading to very different numbers.

  64. L. David Cooke:

    RE: #57

    Hey Ray;

    I have seen a clear indication in the Sept 2005 Duke study alluding to the capacitive coupling of heat content increase to the worlds warming. However, I have also observed that Sol’s output indicates an inductive character. If the cycles of source and the heating were in phase then as Sol was at maximum then the earth’s content would be at minimum. When Sol was at minimum then the earth’s content could be at maximum. To put the current GW character into your engineering perspective then if the phase has shifted such that the peaks matched could be a partial explanation for GW.

    How would this “phase” be changed would be the question to address. Has the sun’s energy cycle shifted or has the Earth’s heat cycle shifted? Based on all the data here it appears that the Earth’s heat content has not “discharged” sufficiently through the atmosphere into space. (As in a LCR circuit with a wave length of 11 or 22 or 41 odd years.)

    Given this it would appear that the additional Solar energy is going into increasing the ambient earth heat content. However, if the discharge path is simply at a higher resistance and not an open circuit then simply put the heat content will increase until either the capacitor or the resistor fails. (However, unlike normal engineering rather then the resistor failing open, in this case it should fail short circuited.)

    So what happens if the capacitor fails, it would be likely the heat content out is going to match the heat content in. Does this characteristic match any historical data? Unless the worlds oceans are a good conductor I would suggest this is unlikely. It would be more likely for evidence to the opposite, that the capacitor fails open rather then the normally expected short circuit.

    If the character of a failed capacitor is not observable then it must be the resistor that fails. Meaning that at some point the energy content rises to the point the resistor shorts out and the heat content is dropped suddenly. This characeristic would be very similar to what was observed in the 2005 hurricane season in the N. Atlantic, a sudden release of heat to the upper atmosphere where it can be transported to the Poles for emission into space. (Now if we simply had the means to observe a IR plume at the poles this effect should have been clearly observable.)

    Apparently, the ENSO and the PDO are likely natural phenomena that seems to be a sign that this “discharge” event has occurred. As of yet I have seen no other hypothesis that would explain these atmospheric characteristics. (If you have a better explanation of how these events occur I would be very interested in reading them.)

    Granted even my explanation is not a great model either; however, defining the devices and the circuit accurately can be important, if you want to accuratly explain long term weather or small term climate outlooks from a model. My concern when reading your post appeared to be the character you had alluded too did not match my understanding. Have you a better definition of how you see the components and the circuit schematic?

    Dave Cooke

  65. John L. McCormick:

    RE #63

    Yartrebo, lets give it a rest, huh. If you cannot trust BP to use figures that did not come from a .org web page, then we have nothing to discuss.

  66. KC Truby:

    So, we have conflicting reports in the SAME YEAR.

    Ocean Cooling Confounds Climate Models
    Climate Science, August 14, 2006
    A new study of ocean temperatures indicates significant cooling over the years 2003-2005. This unexpected result has implications for climate models. As Roger Pielke SR of Colorado State University says, “The explanation of this temporal change in the radiative imbalance of the Earthâ??s climate system is a challenge to the climate science community. It does indicate that we know less about natural- and human-climate forcings and feedbacks than concluded in the IPCC Reports.” Read more analysis from Professor Pielke here.

    The Competitive Enterprise

  67. Phil B.:

    Peter Minnett, I enjoyed your writeup. I have a question. Using the basic conduction equation from my physics book and length of L=.05 m, thermal conductivity of k = .585 W/m-K, and a delta T of -.25 K, I get ~ -3 W/m^2. If I look on your chart for night time conditions you have about -88 W/m^2. A substantial difference. What am I missing here? Thanks Phil

  68. Yartrebo:

    John, why do you have such faith in the BP numbers? They have the scientific rigor of a press release. That rate of growth (7.5% for coal, 5% for oil) gives a 2100 projection that’s more than 100-fold over the IPCC business-as-usual projection of CO2 emissions.

    When much simpler possible explanations exist such as tar sand production being reclassified as oil production (without backdating – a common error in the energy industry) and the admission of China that coal production was severely understated (again, without backdating), why go with the explanation that stretches believability (that we’ve entered a brave new world where energy usage races ahead and breaks all historical ties to GDP growth). I’m not saying those are the reasons, but they are two very large events that have happened in the last two years and could completely throw off (to the upside) any statistics that aren’t properly backdated.

    I cannot prove or disprove any of these allegations because BP keeps secret how it comes up with its numbers, but the onus should be on BP to prove that their numbers are accurate, and they have failed to do that.

    PS: Backdating means that if you change the definition of something (like now including bitumen as oil production), you revise the old data so that bitumen is also included in the old data. It’s so obvious that it’s generally taken for granted in science, but in the energy industry it’s often not done (probably for political purposes, since the revisions are almost always up and not down).

  69. Robin Johnson:

    Uh… Yartrebo and John.

    I don’t think that you should extrapolate from two years data. Plus, fossil fuel production is not the same as fossil fuel consumption. Coal and oil are often stockpiled – oil and coal stocks often exceed many months of supply – and with Middle East tensions and expectations of increased prices – stockpiling would not be surprising. Additionally, there are plenty of good historical data sources available. Try some searches over at The US Department of Energy. The International Energy Review 2004 provides spreadsheet data (that’s quite interesting for stat heads). Additionally, according to The EIA, 2005 over 2004 was only a 1% increase (the 2004 4% increase over 2003 was slightly anomalous it would appear). (1997 over 1996 showed a similar anomaly of 3%).


    On the other hand, the acceleration of energy consumption by India, China, Middle East and South America from increasing population and increasing consumer Western style consumption WILL drive energy usage up – India and China instead of leapfrogging into modern technologies are adopting inefficient but quick and cheap energy technologies. Oops. So I fully expect energy usage to balloon beyond the usual 1-2% increase with the recent population bulges in Southwest Asia, Africa and Latin America along with increased Westernization. As the oil runs low – coal gasification will become economical [double the CO2 increase per barrel] so things will definitely get worse from a CO2 perspective. So, to say that that fossil fuel consumption growth is going to stay at 1-2% per annum may not be true. Even 2% growth is ruinous – twenty years of 2% growth translates into a 50% increase. Cue the doom music…

  70. Robin Johnson:

    And I should have added, according to the IEA – world coal usage grew 8% in 2003 and 7% in 2004. World natural gas usage grew 4% per year in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

  71. John L. McCormick:

    RE # 68, 69, 70

    Folks, are we dancing on pinheads again?

    The fact I included one-year growth percentages of oil, coal gas, production (consumption????–what does that really matter- the fuel will be consumed) has absolutely nothing to do with my original response to Mr. Turner’s post at the thread titled:

    How do we know that recent CO2 increases are due to human activities?:
    22 DEC 2004

    PLEASE read his post on the other thread then my post at #48 here and try to see the salient point I was offering Mr. Turner to consider.

    There, I said increased fossil fuel production (and of course fossil fuels are produced for consumption even if they are stockpiled for a rainy day) emitted more CO2 than sinks can accommodate so the atmospheric CO2 concentration increased. Because of global warming? To the degree that warmer oceans and land presented positive feedbacks of CO2; YES.

    I say, be done with the discussion about Yartrebos interpreting my 2003-2005 growth percentage as a projection of future fossil fuel production. I DID NOT MAKE PROJECTIONS. Enough! PLEASE.

  72. Graham Dungworth:

    There is an alternative way to check the growth of emissions. Firstly, look at a global polltion map from envisat that dates back to 2002. I’ve asked them to update it a year ago, to no vail yet
    Secondly,the most up to date figure plots of the famous Keeling curve which shows the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere are available from NOAA. They were not available for a year prior to this January passed, a consequence of grant funding cancellation by the US administration. Many, complained bitterly, inc myself so they were reintroduced.
    The CO2 graph opens for Mauna Loa in the central Pacific. Click for other locations. The saw tooth is a consequence of photosynthesis in the Northern Hemisphere starts in Spring and plants absorb CO2 so the amount of CO2 drops. At the end of the growing season plant life decays releasing excess CO2 into the atmosphere and the build up of CO2 occurs through to the following spring. Keeling noted that most productivity which is land based occurs in the Northern Hemisphere and dominates that for the southern hemisphere.
    If you toggle for isotope 13CO2 data another fascinating factor is explained as such.
    Firstly, From the pollution map it is evident that most fossil fuel combustion occurs in the Northern Hemisphere. If you toggle around for many other global stations it becomes evident that it takes between 6 months to 1 year for CO2 released to diffuse around the atmosphere.
    Secondly, a bit of detailed chemistry is relevant.
    Carbon is recycled geochemically by CO2 emissions from volcanoes, oceanic ridges, wethering of limestiones and calcareous shales etc. Biosynthesis by life, namely photosynthesis, preferentially selects the common isotope 12C(99% abundant) because the heavier stable isotope 13C(1% abundant)is kinetically slower, it doesn’t diffuse into leaf tissue or calls as quickly. The carbon in fossil fuels such as coal/oil is isotopically light, ie it is depleted in the heavier 13C isotope. By definition, limestone,CaCO3,is taken to have zero depletion ie. 0 on a parts per thousand(mil) scale. Coal/oil etc when analysed give values of ca. -30 per mil ie. the negative sign means they are depleted in the heavier isotope by 30 patrs per thousand relative to the defind 0 depletion or enrichment for limestone. Some biogenic gases eg methane are often even more depleted down to -50 per mil.
    When you look at the C isotope fractionation for CO2 in the atmosphere it is vastly different. It used to be ca. -7 per mil in agreement with volcanic emissions, igneous carbon and even diamonds. Currently, the value is below -8 per mil. The most depleted value is in Korea, I presume because of all the industrial emissions from China. For Mona Loa you can see a variable trend where recently CO2 in the atmosphere is getting isotopically lighter by 0.06 per mil annually.

    The CO2 isotope values can be used to do a mass balance on atmospheric fossil fuel emissions. The mass of the atmosphere is 5.12*10exp21g. If CO2 is 385 ppm(by volume) we can calculate the mass of CO2 knowing its atomic mass is 44 and that of the other components(N2 and O2 etc)average 30; so we have to multiply the volume mesure by 44/30 to get CO2 mass measure.
    It is claimed by the IPCC that ca. 5.7 gigatonne CO2(note carbon is atomic mass 12, to get gigatonne C we would multiply by 12/44 since CO2 is C plus 2*O(oxygen=atomic mass 16))is combusted annually.
    THAT fossil fuel combustion has an isotope C of -30per mil. It dilutes the heavier ca.-8 characteristivc of the atmosphere as a whole.
    From one year to the next the mass balance is
    Total Mass carbon(yr1)*fractionation factor1= Total Mass carbon(yr2)*fractionation factor2 + (X*-30)where
    X=gigatonne fossil CO2 generated from yr1 to yr2.

    Doing all of that, from Mona Loa data that I think is the best database, I got 5.78 Gigatonne CO2 from current fossil fuel released recently per annum.
    Hence, There is no justification for claiming that fossil fuel combustion rates are growing by that huge 7-8%.
    On errors- -30 I think is the value I think was used to corroborate former IPCC book values.There are accumulations of Russian biogenic gas that fractionate down to -70. This would reduce the apparent isotope determination of combusted fossil fuel. Nevertheless,
    if we see a marked increase in that downslope isotope gradient we will be aware of it within a time frame of months.
    Both the envisat polltion map, if updated annually? and the carbon isotope database will provide a valuable alternative method for checking on national and global emissions.

  73. Graham Dungworth:

    Re# Apologies.


  74. John L. McCormick:

    Graham, thank you. A very interesting post.

    But, I believe the following is in need of adjustment.

    You said:

    [It is claimed by the IPCC that ca. 5.7 gigatonne CO2(note carbon is atomic mass 12, to get gigatonne C we would multiply by 12/44 since CO2 is C plus 2*O(oxygen=atomic mass 16))is combusted annually.]

    [5.7 gigatonne CO2] should read 5.7 gigatonne Carbon, which multiplied by 44/12 or 3.667 would yield 20.9 gigatonnes of CO2. I see this reversal often; C becomes CO2 and CO2 becomes C even among the pros.

    Do you agree?

  75. Graham Dungworth:

    Greatly appreciate your comment John. You are absolutely correct. Also, the following paragraph reading “Doing all of that ..” should be corrected to read 5.78 Gigatonne C from current…
    For the mass balance we have 1971.2 Gigatonne CO2 in dry atmosphere; equivalent to 537.6 Gigatonne C in atmosphere; for which the observed isotope fractionation factor is -8.40 in yr1 and then -8.46 for yr2. The fossil fuel isotope fraction is assumed to be -30.

  76. Ray Lopez:

    Re #64 L. David Cooke – I enjoyed your post. It brought back memories of solving second-order differential equations with constant coefficients. Of course the real world is not as simple but oftentimes a simple model will approximate reality to an astonishing extent. I particuarly liked this passage of yours: >>Apparently, the ENSO and the PDO are likely natural phenomena that seems to be a sign that this “discharge” event has occurred. As of yet I have seen no other hypothesis that would explain these atmospheric characteristics.< < This is the issue: if ENSO and PDO are signs of the "discharge", then does it lead or lag CO2 production? Recall it depends in an RLC circuit on the damping factor and/or time constant parameters (see - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RLC_circuit). Even if C02 is a forcing function (see the section “Convolution Integral” in the Wiki article) the response of the earth would depend on the time constant/ damping of the circuit. I don’t know enough about modeling the earth to give an answer, but I doubt anybody has actually done this sort of calculation–most likely climate scientists simply do linear regression statistical analysis rather than trying to actually come up with a closed-form solution equation. A statistical analysis will never give a cause or effect answer, just correlation. But it is entirely possible that the ENSO/PDO events are “leading” GW rather than “lagging” (i.e., they are a “cause” of GW not an “effect”). One possible physical explanation: the heat trapped in the earth from 1000s of years of activity (human or otherwise) is slowly coming out of the system, even though there is not that much extra CO2 being produced to explain the jump in temperatures since 1981. Certainly perfecting such a model would explain the heretofore unexplained jump in ENSO/PDO that occured in the late 20th century, which apparently is the basis for the concern over global warming.

  77. Wacki:

    “when clouds are present, they emit more infrared energy towards the surface than does the clear sky.”

    What? I thought clouds were a negative feedback. I thought the light color bounced radiation back into space. Is this not true? From your “lessons from venus”:

    Because of the cloud cover, the surface temperature of Venus would be a chilly -42C if were not for the greenhouse effect of its atmosphere.


    [Response: Clouds have multiple effects. They change the albedo (a cooling effect), but they also absorb and emit LW radiation (a warming (greenhouse) effect. The net effect of any one cloud is a complicated function of it’s height, ‘thickness’, the temperature profile, ground conditions below etc. -gavin]

  78. L. David Cooke:

    Hey Ray;

    It is too bad I would not be able to hold a serious conversation regarding second-order differential equations. I think we could have a fun discussion off line. However, all I am is a simple self taught Technical Specialist/Network & Systems Engineer who is trying to return to college after 30 years for a BA, possibly in Earth Science EDU.

    I did pursue your reference to the Convolution Intregral, it appears in the text to be related to impulse inputs, the problem is the inputs we are discussing are clearly Sinusoidal in nature. I even went so far as to look up the reference to the dirac delta tranform and the Cauchy distribution. The Cauchy distribuiton may be related though there does not appear to be a clear relationship, we acutally have a mean that has values on both sides of the reference; however, the mean is ever increasing and the values rarely ever return to the former levels in the early sample time period. (A true normal distribution would have outliers on both sides of the mean regardless of sample time.)

    This was the reason that Dr. Elsner’s study was so interesting. He actually applied the Granger Test very well. The problem for me was the “Tounge in Cheek”, treatment of a low density gas heating a high density liquid. As to the Layman et al, I see some interesting data; however, I don’t know that this is not a deviation rather then a trend or a sign of the new plateau.

    Following the Cauchy Distribution took me to the Hodgson’s Paradox. It almost seems appropriate to the discussion and maybe appropriate in regard to the current climate change discussions. I did find your thoughts on the ENSO/PDO to be an interesting viewpoint. I always thought the East-West ITCZ NH flow to be the normal movement and the West-East ITCZ NH flow to be the reaction that feed the heat content release into the Polar Easterlies. However, in your response I saw you indicting the case of “leading GW rather then lagging” and that brings up the question which is normal and which is the reaction…? During a cooling trend would these cycles reverse?

    Dave Cooke

  79. Mark UK:

    With regard to the BP numbers… Unfortunately most of that data is at best “guestimates”. The private oil companies are accountable to some extent on their numbers, but the national oil companies in most cases either do not have accurate data on their production, consumption or reserves or choose not to release this information. There is no checking mechanism in place for national oil companies and they sit on by far the largest oil reserves. So, those BP numbers, don’t put to much confidence in them. They are simply collected from all sorts of sources without any rigorous study as to their validity…

  80. Barton Paul Levenson:

    Okay, I have a denialist who also denies CFCs affect ozone. Her latest line is that the ozone hole should be over cities where CFCs are used, not the poles. I was almost ready to answer that and realized I didn’t know the answer. Why are the ozone holes at the poles?

    -Confused in Pittsburgh

  81. Jeffrey Davis:

    Re: 80


    (Google Query: Why are ozone holes at the poles?)

  82. Leonard Evens:

    Barton, re 80:

    The link Jeffrey gave explains the polar vortex and why it leads to an ozone hole in the south over the antarctic and to a lesser extent in the north over the arctic. The other important point is that CFCs are well mixed in the atmosphere and by the time they get to the stratosphere they would certainly not be concentrated in any specific region. See


    for an extensive discussion of all aspects of ozone depletion. It is a bit out of date, and I’m sure there have been some refinements, but it answers all the basic question and addresses all the points typically raised by denialists. It specifially addresses various misunderstandings based on not recognizing that the ozone depleting gases are well mixed and it explains the specific atmospheric characteristics at the poles which lead to the vortex and the ozone holes.

  83. Joseph O'Sullivan:

    RealClimate had a post that had a short and easy to understand answer for why ozone depletion occcurs at the poles


    Here’s a more detailed paper about ozone depletion
    In particular this:

  84. CapitalistImperialistPig:

    Many, myself included, found this post confusing.

    Observations of ocean temperatures have revealed that the ocean heat content has been increasing significantly over recent decades (Willis et al, 2004; Levitus et al, 2005; Lyman et al, 2006). This is something that has been predicted by climate models (and confirmed notably by Hansen et al, 2005), and has therefore been described as a ‘smoking gun’ for human-caused greenhouse gases.
    However, some have insisted that there is a paradox here – how can a forcing driven by longwave absorption and emission impact the ocean below since the infrared radiation does not penetrate more than a few micrometers into the ocean? Resolution of this conundrum is to be found in the recognition that the skin layer temperature gradient not only exists as a result of the ocean-atmosphere temperature difference, but also helps to control the ocean-atmosphere heat flux. (The ‘skin layer’ is the very thin – up to 1 mm – layer at the top of ocean that is in direct contact with the atmosphere). Reducing the size of the temperature gradient through the skin layer reduces the flux. Thus, if the absorption of the infrared emission from atmospheric greenhouse gases reduces the gradient through the skin layer, the flow of heat from the ocean beneath will be reduced, leaving more of the heat introduced into the bulk of the upper oceanic layer by the absorption of sunlight to remain there to increase water temperature.

    The post is confusing because it seems to imply that heating the skin layer decreases the ocean â?? atmosphere heat flux. It doesnâ??t â?? it increases it. What is decreased is the net flux from the ocean below to the skin layer. The basic principle is very simple â?? more heat incident on the ocean makes it warmer.

    The supposed paradox arises in the fact that there is no obvious way for the heat absorbed in the skin layer to be transported to the warmer ocean below. This idea demonstrates that a little microphysics can be a dangerous thing. What the warmer skin layer does is result in less net conduction to the surface (on account of the smaller gradient) and suppression of convection which would otherwise transport more of the colder skin layer water into the depths (likewise).

  85. Hank Roberts:

    Are you drawing that from Pielke Sr.?

  86. CapitalistImperialistPig:

    Some odd characters inadvertently made their way into the previous comment. I was trying to say that sensible and latent heat flux from the skin layer to the atmosphere increased due to heating of the skin layer by longwave.

  87. Alan:

    RE #59

    And, I have a reasonable suspicion that US, China and Indian coal deposits are destined for synthetic oil and electric power stations. That **certain** increase of CO2 emissions will not be sequestered despite the irrational (self-serving) optimism of coal interests and despairing hopes of some environmentalists. That idea is a non-sequester.

    Thanks for the laugh at the end of that paragraph. Just thought I would point out that we Aussies are also partners in that suspisious club, few countries can dig up large quantities of coal as efficiently we can.

  88. John L. McCormick:

    RE # 87

    Alan, I could also describe carbon sequestration as a pipe dream.

    Consider this: US electric power generation stations, in 2005, emitted 2.44 bilion tons of CO2. In volumetric terms that is 1.12 trillion cubic meters of gas, or for US non-metric types, 268 cubic miles of carbon dioxide gas.

    Compare that to 2005 US natural gas shipments of 24 trillion cubic feet. That equates to 163 cubic miles of gas flowing through about 1.4 million miles of natural gas pipelines (American Gas Association).

    Bottom line: capturing, transporting and storing carbon dioxide from current US generating stations would require handling 1.6 times more volume than all US natural gas deliveries via pipelines at least one meter in diameter (consider the rolled steel demand for how many thousands of miles of pipe).

    It is worth repeating: that 1.12 trillion cubic meters of CO2 emissions will increase in volume as more coal plants are added to the US grid. Each year, more CO2 to fill underground caverns. One could imagine the US interior rising as the gas pushes up the land surface.

    Does CO2 sequestration sound like a pipe dream to you?

  89. Yartrebo:

    Re #87 and #88:

    That’s not even the half of it. Carbon sequestration reduces the efficiency of the power plant by about 10% and increases the cost per kW*h by about 2 cents (~50% increase) – and the CO2 still has to be shipped and stuffed underground as you mentioned.

    Considering that coal competes on cost, large scale carbon sequestration truly is a pipe dream.

  90. Ferdinand Engelbeen:

    Sorry for the late drop-by.

    I have two questions about this project:

    – I suppose that the IR waves reflected by clouds has more or less the same spectrum as was emitted by the surface. But is that the same for CO2 re-emitted IR waves (after absorption)?
    – While I am still learning about the behaviour of clouds, clouds are mostly water drops. This means that fine water drops reflect/transmit IR and don’t absorb (much) IR, or they should heat up and disappear. Isn’t that similar for the skin effect of the ocean’s surface?

  91. Martin Lewitt:

    How and when will this skin phenomena be incorporated into the models? Since variation in solar forcing is strongly coupled to 10s of meters of the ocean surface, while the above result is proposing that variation in GHG forcing is coupled to the ocean by an intermittent skin effect, climate model sensitivitivities GHG and solar forcings should be different.

    “Independent observational” validations of climate model sensitivities based on paleo climate data have largely been based on the assumption that climate sensitivities to solar and GHG forcing changes will be the same. Given large differences in ocean coupling, I don’t see where the modelers are entitled to this null hypothesis, unless they can reproduce it with models incorporating this intermittent skin phenomena.

    I suspect that climate sensitivity to solar is significantly greater and thus will equilibrate over longer time scales than GHG forcings. Based on the observational studies, the models are probably in the right ball park in their sensitivity to solar forcing, and probably share correlated errors in their handling of GHG forcings that make the model sensitivities to GHG forcings similar to that of solar when their coupling with the ocean and thus the climate sensitivity is lower.

    How do the models handle GHG/ocean coupling currently?

  92. pete best:

    So now we know why GHG heat the ocean but by how much and what is the latency relative to land heating?

    I have read around 1 deg C and about 30 years of latency

  93. Jerry Steffens:

    Isn’t surface heating (by whatever means) effectively transported downward by wind-driven mixing? (Hence the term, “mixed layer”.)Why so much attention to the penetration depth of radiation?

  94. Harold D. Pierce, Jr.:

    To what extent do undersea volcanoes and vents contribute to ocean warming? I did a Google search on “map of active undersea volcanoes and vents” and got zip. We know that there are a great many of these. Is there any estimate of the amount of energy released into the ocean from them and how long it takes the heat to come up to the surface? Since the oceans cover ca. 70% of the earth surface, I would be quite tempted to assume that a substantial contribution to climate change could come directly from undersea ocean heating. It would seem to me that until these data are obtained, we should reserve some judgement on the contribution of GHG to global warming.