Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Closer Look at Turbulent Oceans and Greenhouse Heating - by Andrew C. Revkin

A sailboat encounters a waterspout along a squall line in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives in 1984 (high resolution). (Credit: Andrew C. Revkin) Click to enlarge.
Earth’s climate is shaped by the interplay of two complicated and turbulent systems — the atmosphere and oceans.  (The photo is from the two years I spent at that interface as crew on ocean-roaming sailboats.)  The oceans hold the majority of heat in the system, are full of sloshy cycles on time scales from years to decades and, despite an increase in monitoring using sophisticated diving buoys, remain only spottily tracked.

It’s no wonder, then, that assessing the mix of forces shaping short-term wiggles in global and regional atmospheric temperature (years to decades) remains a daunting exercise. That’s why it’s worth stepping back after weeks of news about studies of the role of oceans in retarding, and sometimes accelerating, global warming to reflect a bit on the difference between edge-pushing analysis and firm scientific conclusions.

What’s firmly established is that the climate is warming, that the buildup of human-generated heat-trapping greenhouse gases is contributing substantially to the warming and that while the buildup of gases is steady, the rise in temperatures is not.

There’s been a burst of worthy research aimed at figuring out what causes the stutter-steps in the process — including the current hiatus/pause/plateau that has generated so much discussion.  The oceans are high on the long list of contributors, given their capacity to absorb heat.  The recent studies have pointed variously to process in the Pacific and Atlantic and Southern oceans (the latter being the extraordinary band of seas in the Southern Hemisphere where winds circulate around the globe unimpeded by continents).

There’s important work to be done on this question but — as the oceanographer Carl Wunsch notes at the end of this post — the paucity of data on ocean heat makes it tough to get beyond “maybe” answers.

A Closer Look at Turbulent Oceans and Greenhouse Heating - by Andrew C. Revkin

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