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Q & A about the Gulf Stream System slowdown and the Atlantic ‘cold blob’

Last weekend, in Reykjavik the Arctic Circle Assembly was held, the large annual conference on all aspects of the Arctic. A topic of this year was: What’s going on in the North Atlantic? This referred to the conspicuous ‘cold blob’ in the subpolar Atlantic, on which there were lectures and a panel discussion (Reykjavik University had invited me to give one of the talks). Here I want to provide a brief overview of the issues discussed.

What is the ‘cold blob’?

This refers to exceptionally cold water in the subpolar Atlantic south of Greenland. In our paper last year we have shown it like this (see also our RealClimate post about it):


Fig. 1 Linear temperature trends from 1901 to 2013 according to NASA data. Source: Rahmstorf et al, Nature Climate Change 2015.

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Can a blanket violate the second law of thermodynamics?

Filed under: — stefan @ 20 September 2016

One of the silliest arguments of climate deniers goes like this: the atmosphere with its greenhouse gases cannot warm the Earth’s surface, because it is colder than the surface. But heat always flows from warm to cold and never vice versa, as stated in the second law of thermodynamics.

The freshly baked Australian Senator Malcolm Roberts has recently phrased it thus in his maiden speech:

It is basic. The sun warms the earth’s surface. The surface, by contact, warms the moving, circulating atmosphere. That means the atmosphere cools the surface. How then can the atmosphere warm it? It cannot. That is why their computer models are wrong.

This is of course not only questions the increasing human-caused greenhouse effect, but in general our understanding of temperatures on all planets, which goes back to Joseph Fourier, who in 1824 was the first to understand the importance of the greenhouse effect.

The atmosphere acts like a blanket which inhibits heat loss. In fact according to Roberts’ logic, a blanket could also not have a warming effect:

It’s simple. The body warms the blanket. This means that the blanket cools the body. So how can the blanket warm it? It cannot!

The answer is simple. The warm body loses heat to the cold air. The blanket inhibits and slows this heat loss. Therefore you stay warmer under a blanket.

The Earth loses heat to the cold universe. The atmosphere inhibits this heat loss. Therefore, the surface remains warmer than it would be without the atmosphere.

It is true that the surface loses heat to the atmosphere – but less than it would otherwise lose directly to space. Just as I lose less heat to the blanket than I would otherwise lose to the air, without blanket.

Of course, in neither case is the second law of thermodynamics violated. The heat always flows from warm to cold – just more or less effectively. The processes of heat transfer are quite different – for the blanket it is mainly heat conduction, for the greenhouse effect it is thermal radiation. The climate deniers claim that the colder atmosphere cannot radiate thermal radiation towards the warmer surface. This is of course nonsense. The cool Earth also sends thermal radiation towards the hot sun – how would thermal radiation leaving Earth know how warm the surface is that it’s going to hit? It’s just that the sun sends more radiation back to us  – the net flow is from hot to cold. More is not implied by the second law of thermodynamics.

Thanks to two Germans (Gerlich and Tscheuschner of the TU Braunscheig – deeply embarrassing for this university), the absurd claim that the greenhouse effect violates the second law of thermodynamics even made it into an obscure physics journal – obviously there was no peer review to speak of. The bizarre article was promptly demolished by some US physicists. Just recently I read the claim again in an article of coal lobbyist Lars Schernikau – with such fairy-tale beliefs of its representatives, one is not surprised by the decline of the coal industry.

The thermal radiation from the atmosphere toward the ground, which allegedly cannot exist, is of course routinely measured, including its increase (see e.g. Philipona et al. 2004, 2012).

And you can even feel it. Those who sometimes sit outside in the garden after dark know this. Under a dense, low cloud layer you do not nearly get cold as fast as on a clear starry night. This is due to the thermal radiation coming from the clouds. They are colder than our body, but warmer than the night sky in clear air.

Roberts said: “Like Socrates, I love asking questions to get to the truth.”  Perhaps he will ponder my answer next time he sits in his garden at night, or slips under a blanket.


Here is the energy balance diagram for our Earth, explained in IPCC FAQ 1.1. The “Back Radiation” makes the greenhouse effect. It is larger than the solar radiation reaching the ground, and measured by a global radiation measurement network.



R. Philipona, “Radiative forcing – measured at Earth’s surface – corroborate the increasing greenhouse effect”, Geophys. Res. Lett., vol. 31, 2004.

R. Philipona, A. Kräuchi, and E. Brocard, “Solar and thermal radiation profiles and radiative forcing measured through the atmosphere”, Geophys. Res. Lett., vol. 39, pp. n/a-n/a, 2012.

AMOC slowdown: Connecting the dots

Filed under: — stefan @ 19 May 2016

I want to revisit a fascinating study that recently came from (mainly) the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab in Princeton. It looks at the response of the Atlantic Ocean circulation to global warming, in the highest model resolution that I have seen so far. That is in the CM2.6 coupled climate model, with 0.1° x 0.1° degrees ocean resolution, roughly 10km x 10km. Here is a really cool animation.

When this model is run with a standard, idealised global warming scenario you get the following result for global sea surface temperature changes.


Fig. 1. Sea surface temperature change after doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration in a scenario where CO2 increases by 1% every year. From Saba et al. 2016.

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Recycling Carbon?

Filed under: — stefan @ 9 May 2016

Guest commentary by Tony Patt, ETH Zürich

This morning I was doing my standard reading of the New York Times, which is generally on the good side with climate reporting, and saw the same old thing: an article about a potential solution, which just got the story wrong, at least incomplete. The particular article was about new technologies for converting CO2 into liquid fuels. These could be important if they are coupled with air capture of CO2, and if the energy that fuels them is renewable: this could be the only realistic way of producing large quantities of liquid fuel with no net CO2 emissions, large enough (for example) to supply the aviation sector. But the article suggested that this technology could make coal-fired power plants sustainable, because it would recycle the carbon. Of course that is wrong: to achieve the 2°C target we need to reduce the carbon intensity of the energy system by 100% in about 50 years, and yet the absolute best that a one-time recycling of carbon can do is to reduce the carbon intensity of the associated systems by 50%.

The fact is, there is a huge amount of uncritical, often misleading media coverage of the technological pathways and government policies for climate mitigation. As with the above story, the most common are those suggesting that approaches that result in a marginal reduction of emissions will solve the problem, and fail to ask whether those approaches also help us on the pathway towards 100% emissions reduction, or whether they take us down a dead-end that stops well short of 100%. There are also countless articles suggesting that the one key policy instrument that we need to solve the problem is a carbon tax or cap-and-trade market. We know, from two decades of social-science research, that these instruments do work to bring about marginal reductions in emissions, largely by stimulating improvements in efficiency. We also know that, at least so far, they have done virtually nothing to stimulate investment in the more sweeping changes in energy infrastructure that are needed to eliminate reliance on fossil fuels as the backbone of our system, and hence reduce emissions by 100%. We also know that other policy instruments have worked to stimulate these kinds of changes, at least to a limited extent. One thing we don’t know is what combination of policies could work to bring about the changes fast enough in the future. That is why this is an area of vigorous social science research. Just as there are large uncertainties in the climate system, there are large uncertainties in the climate solution system, and misreporting on these uncertainties can easily mislead us.

It’s fantastic that web sites like Real Climate and Climate Feedback re out there to clear some of the popular misconceptions about how the climate system functions. But if we care about actually solving the problem of climate change, then we also need to work continuously to clear the misconceptions, arising every day, about the strategies to take us there.

Anthony Patt is professor at the ETH in Zurich; his research focuses on climate policy

What drives uncertainties in adapting to sea-level rise?

Filed under: — stefan @ 17 March 2016

Guest article by Sally Brown, University of Southampton

Let me get this off my chest – I sometimes get frustrated at climate scientists as they love to talk about uncertainties! To be sure, their work thrives on it. I’m someone who researches the projected impacts and adaptation to sea-level rise and gets passed ‘uncertain’ climate data projections to add to other ‘uncertain’ data projections in my impact modellers work bag. But climate scientists do a good job. Without exploring uncertainties, science loses robustness, but uncertainties in combination can become unbounded and unhelpful to end users.

Let’s take an adaptation to sea-level rise as an example: With increasing scientific knowledge, acceptance and mechanisms that would allow adaptation to potentially occur, one would think that adaptation would be straight forward to implement. Not so. Instead of hard and fast numbers, policy makers are faced with wide ranges of uncertainties from different sources, making decision making challenging. So what uncertainties are there in the drivers of change, and can understanding these uncertainties enable better decisions for adaptation?

Prior to considering adaptation in global or regional models, or implementation at local level, drivers of change and their impacts (and thus uncertainties) require analysis – here are a few examples. More »

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