A Cold Winter in a (Still) Warming World

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When you look at the big picture, there’s been no “pause” in global warming.


It was Winnipeg’s coldest winter since 1898. Throughout most of North America, the deep freeze broke records, made headlines and (inevitably) provided fodder for global warming doubters, deniers and disinformers.

So where did the global warming go this winter? Answer: nowhere.

While we were freezing like it’s 1898, across the Atlantic Europe was enjoying one of its warmest winters on record. Witness those not-so-wintry Olympics in Sochi.

Even here in North America, it was an unusually warm winter out west – the warmest on record in California where the heat was so parching that by April the state was fully engulfed by drought. Up the road a piece, Alaska basked in its eighth warmest winter ever.

But, as the proverb goes, when a whole bunch of blind men examine an elephant, a tusk, a trunk and a big floppy ear at a time, it can lead to a comically distorted picture of the whole.

The recent pause in global surface air temperature warming (top right). Source: skepticalscience.com/trend.php.

Every month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States – a global authority on weather and climate – analyzes data from around the world and publishes a “state of the climate” report. While we were freezing this winter, it turns out the planet as a whole never even shivered.

Remember November? With hindsight, it was a sign of things to come as a chilly autumn month segued directly into winter, with over a week left to go. Globally? According to NOAA, it was pretty hot that month, record hot:

“The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for November 2013,” NOAA reported in December, “was record highest for the 134-year period of record, at 0.78°C (1.40°F) above the 20th century average of 12.9°C (55.2°F).”

Of course, it wasn’t until December that the cold wave unmistakably swept across most of Canada and the U.S. (Ironically, some climate scientists hypothesize it was a quirky side effect of global warming, the result of a deeply sagging polar vortex meeting a slowly shuffling jet stream.) So what about them apples, NOAA?

NOAA: “The average combined global land and ocean surface temperature for December 2013 was the third highest for December since records began in 1880, at 0.64°C (1.15°F) above the 20th century average of 12.2°C (54.0°F).”

sea level and arctic ice_IPCCAR5_WGI_technical summary

Examples of the not-so-pause: global sea level (top) and Arctic sea ice extent (bottom) from the IPCC’s latest report, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis.

And on it went.

January: “…fourth warmest on record.”

February: “…the 21st highest for February on record.” (That’s warmer than five out of six of those Februaries.)

As for March, the month when winter threatened to take up permanent residence in these parts, the big picture was thoroughly unintimidating: “the combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for March rebounded and was the fourth highest on record.”

As I write this early in May after a (still) unseasonably cold April, NOAA’s monthly report isn’t out yet, but don’t expect any surprises. The last time the world experienced a month that was cooler than the 20th century average for that month, many of you weren’t even born yet. The rest of us didn’t know an MP3 from a B52, and the number one “record album” that month was by a young sexpot named Madonna: Like A Virgin. It was February 1985. Statistically, that kind of warm streak is like flipping heads 350 times in a row. The odds against it happening by chance are so high they make a quadrillion look like small change.

Something similar has been happening with the recent so-called “pause” in global warming. Even though virtually every year since 1997 has been warmer than any year before 1997 (probably going back thousands of years), the slope of the warming trend has slowed down and pretty much plateaued since about 2002. (It should be noted that, recently,  when researchers more accurately accounted for Arctic warming, the pause more or less disappeared from the temperature record.) In statistical terms, there has been no “significant warming” (significant means a 95 percent or greater probability a trend is real, not a fluke) since the mid-1990s. Deniers and disinformers have glommed onto this as “proof” that we’re no longer warming (if we ever were) despite the continuing rise in greenhouse gas emissions (the only credible cause for modern day warming).

(For a balance sheet of human and natural warming and cooling forces – “radiative forcings” – since 1750, see Figure TS.6 on page 54 of this latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

But just as a cold winter in North America can distract us from the big picture of a warm winter worldwide, a stalled warming trend in the air above us can distract us from the fact that the planet as a whole has kept on accumulating heat. It’s just that the heat has found some more determined customers lately: the oceans, the snow and the ice.

While air temperatures have temporarily peaked, the ocean waters that cover 70 percent of the planet, and the ice and snow in polar regions and mountain ranges, have been warming and melting with a ferocity the world has probably not seen since we emerged from the last ice age.

The oceans are the greatest heat sink on the planet. They absorb over 90 percent of the solar energy trapped near the Earth’s surface by the greenhouse effect. But since 1990, these giant shock absorbers have been working overtime, soaking up atmospheric heat about five times as greedily as they were between the 1950s and 1990. If anything, that breakneck pace has increased since 2000, global warming pause be damned.

And then there’s the cryosphere, our planet’s motherlode of snow and ice.

We’ve all heard of the astonishing ice melt in the Arctic. Since the 1950s, the summer ice that covers that frozen sea has shrunk by nearly eight percent per decade (e.g., see Figure TS.1 on page 38).

As momentous as that is (a 50 percent decline in 60 years), the everything-must-go liquidation sale of Arctic sea ice has only accelerated since the late 1990s. Climate scientists are having to revise their estimates of when the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer from “mid-century or later” to “any decade now.”

Climate change doubters like to point out that Antarctic sea ice has been growing, so it all balances out. But the two are not equal. The modest ice expansion over the Antarctic’s frigid waters has been dwarfed by the massive ice loss over the Arctic’s.

What it comes down do is whether we want to see the world as it is or pick and choose only those bits that confirm our biases. When it comes to the planet’s massive cryosphere, the most important question we can ask is what’s been happening to all of it, not just the parts that are growing here or disappearing there. The answer is it’s been going fast.

It may not seem like it to us Canadians, but nearly all of the world’s glacial ice – the ice sheets and glaciers that cover land and mountains (as opposed to oceans) – is concentrated in Greenland and Antarctica, not Winnipeg. Late last year, the UN’s Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) completed its review of the physical science that has accumulated since its last report in 2007 and brought the world up to speed. The average rate of ice loss from Antarctica, the IPCC’s cryosphere scientists estimated, was a formidable 30 billion tonnes per year between 1992 and 2001. But from 2002 to 2011 – the decade when global warming appeared to take a holiday (judging by air temperature) – Antarctica’s ice loss “likely” (IPCC-speak for 66 to 100 percent probability) accelerated to 147 billion tonnes per year.

The acceleration was even more dramatic in Greenland. The IPCC’s experts (leaders and accomplished experts in their respective fields who volunteer their time to produce the IPCC reports) believe it’s “very likely” (90 to 100 percent probability) that ice loss there has vaulted from 34 billion tonnes per year between 1992 and 2001 to 215 billion tonnes per year during the decade of “no global warming.”

Add it up, and in just one recent decade we’ve probably melted over three and a half trillion tonnes of the ice cubes in Mother Earth’s icebox. There is no Safeway or Price Choppers we can go to to put those ice cubes back.

All of this ocean warming and cryosphere melting has sent sea levels soaring. According to data from NOAA, global mean sea level – which had its own little pause in the early 90s – has climbed nearly three inches just since 1997. To put that into perspective, the IPCC estimates that the cumulative sea level rise since 1901 is 7.5 inches. Since most of the recent spike in sea levels has occurred since 2001, nearly 40 percent of the entire sea level rise since 1901 has occurred in little over a decade – while global warming has supposedly stopped.

Climate scientists, the IPCC and every major scientific body on the planet all seek out, see (however imperfectly) and agree on the big picture. They seek clarity, not confusion. They can tell the elephant from the tusks. Whether the air is warming less for 15 years and the ice and oceans are melting or warming more, or vice versa, when skeptical bean-counting climate scientists balance the books, the planet is still running a fever.

The only way to prevent the climate disruption we’re already seeing (for maximum climate volatility, add heat rapidly and stir) from becoming a climate disaster a generation or two from now is to stop adding coal, oil and gas to the fire – and fast.

Aquarian contributing editor Syd Baumel blogs about climate change and other stuff at sydbaumel.blogspot.ca


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