Coming soon: the ‘Big Heat’

14 03 2015
Nafeez Ahmed

Nafeez Ahmed

Nafeez Ahmed

3rd March 2015

Global warming has been on vacation for a few years, writes Nafeez Ahmed. But that’s only because the excess heat – two Hiroshima bombs-worth every second – has been buried in the deep ocean. But within a few years that’s set to change, producing a huge decade-long warming surge, focused on the Arctic, that could overwhelm us all.

We probably have less than five years before we witness the ‘Big Heat’ – a supercharged surge of rapid global warming, destabilizing the climate system in deeply unpredictable ways.

Forget the so-called ‘pause’ in global warming-new research says we might be in for an era of deeply accelerated heating.

While the rate of atmospheric warming in recent years has, indeed, slowed due to various natural weather cycles – hence the skeptics’ droning on about ‘pauses’ – global warming, as a whole, has not stopped.

NASA image of the Arctic sea ice on March 6, 2010. Image: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio; Blue Marble data courtesy of Reto Stockli (NASA/GSFC), via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).Far from it. It’s actually sped up, dramatically, as excess heat has absorbed into the oceans. We’ve only begun to realize the extent of this phenomenon in recent years, after scientists developed new technologies capable of measuring ocean temperatures with a depth and precision that was previously lacking.

In 2011, a paper in Geophysical Research Letters tallied up the total warming data from land, air, ice, and the oceans. In 2012, the lead author of that study, oceanographer John Church, updated his research. What Church found was shocking: in recent decades, climate change has been adding heat to the oceans at an average rate of 125 Terawatts (TW).

How to convey this extraordinary fact? His team came up with an analogy: it was roughly the same amount of energy that would be released by the detonation of two atomic bombs the size dropped on Hiroshima. In other words, these scientists found that anthropogenic climate is warming the oceans at a rate equivalent to around two Hiroshima bombs per second.

Or looked at another way, all the world’s coal fired power stations currently have a generation capacity a little under 2TW. As they are typically about one third efficient, working flat out they would collectively produce about 6TW of heat and power. Now multiply by 20.

Actually, it’s worse. Much worse …

But as new data came in, the situation has looked worse: over the last 17 years, the rate of warming has doubled to about four bombs per second. In 2013, the rate of warming tripled to become equivalent to 12 Hiroshima bombs every second.

So not only is warming intensifying, it is also accelerating. By burning fossil fuels, humans are effectively detonating 378 million atomic bombs in the oceans each year – this, along with the ocean’s over – absorption of carbon dioxide, has fuelled ocean acidification, and now threatens the entire marine food chain as well as animals who feed on marine species. Like, er, many humans.

According to a new paper in Science from a crack team of climate scientists, a key reason that the oceans are absorbing all this heat in recent decades so well (thus masking the extent of global warming by allowing atmospheric average temperatures to heat more slowly), is due to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), an El Nino-like weather pattern that can last anywhere between 15-30 years.

In its previous positive phase, which ran from around 1977 to 1998, the PDO meant the oceans would absorb less heat, thus operating as an accelerator on atmospheric temperatures. Since 1998, the PDO has been in a largely negative phase, during which the oceans absorb more heat from the atmosphere.

Such decadal ocean cycles have broken down recently, and become more sporadic. The last, mostly negative phase, was punctuated by a brief positive phase that lasted 3 years between 2002 and 2005.

Where’s all the heat gone? Buried in the deep ocean

The authors of the new study, Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, University of Minnesota geologist Byron Steinman, and Penn State meteorologist Sonya Miller, point out that the PDO, as well as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), have thus played a major role in temporarily dampening atmospheric warming.

So what has happened? During this period, Mann and his team show, there has been increased “heat burial” in the Pacific ocean, that is, a greater absorption of all that heat equivalent to hundreds of millions of Hiroshimas.

For some, this has created the false impression, solely from looking at global average surface air temperatures, of a ‘pause’ in warming. But as Mann said, the combination of the AMO and PDO “likely offset anthropogenic warming over the past decade.”

Therefore, the ‘pause’ doesn’t really exist, and instead is an artifact of the limitations of our different measuring instruments.

“The ‘false pause’ is explained in part by cooling in the Pacific ocean over the past one-to-two decades”, Mann told me, “but that is likely to reverse soon: in other words, the ‘slowdown’ is fleeting and will likely soon disappear.”

The disappearance of the ‘slowdown’ will, in tangible terms, mean that the oceans will absorb less atmospheric heat. While all the accumulated ocean heat “is certainly not going to pop back out”, NASA’s chief climate scientist Dr. Gavin Schmidt told me, it is likely to mean that less atmospheric heat will end up being absorbed:

“Ocean cycles can modulate the uptake of anthropogenic heat, as some have speculated for the last decade or so, but … net flux is still going to be going into the ocean.”

Next, the heat will transfer to the atmosphere

According to Mann and his team, at some point, this will manifest as an acceleration in the rise of global average surface air temperatures. In their Science study, they observe:

“Given the pattern of past historical variation, this trend will likely reverse with internal variability, instead adding to anthropogenic warming in the coming decades.”

So at some point in the near future, the PDO will switch from its current negative phase back to positive, reducing the capacity of the oceans to accumulate heat from the atmosphere.

That positive phase of the PDO will therefore see a rapid rise in global surface air temperatures, as the oceans’ capacity to absorb all those Hiroshima bomb equivalents declines – and leaves it to accumulate in our skies. In other words, after years of slower-than-expected warming, we may suddenly feel the heat.

So when will that happen? No one knows for sure, but at the end of last year, signs emerged that the phase shift to a positive PDO could be happening right now. In the five months before November 2014, measures of surface temperature differences in the Pacific shifted to positive, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This is the longest such positive shift detected in about 12 years. Although too soon to determine for sure whether this is, indeed, the beginning of the PDO’s switch to a new positive phase, this interpretation is consistent with current temperature variations, which during a positive PDO phase should be relatively warm in the tropical Pacific and relatively cool in regions north of about 20 degrees latitude.

In January 2015, further signs emerged that the PDO is right now in transition to a new warm phase. “Global warming is about the get a boost”, ventured meteorologist Eric Holthaus. Recent data including California’s intensifying drought and sightings of tropical fish off the Alaskan coast “are further evidence of unusual ocean warming”, suggesting that a PDO transition “may already be underway a new warm phase.”

While it’s still not clear whether the PDO is really shifting into a new phase just yet, when it does, it won’t be good. Scientists from the UK Met Office’s Hadley Center led by Dr. Chris Roberts of the Oceans and Cryosphere Group estimate in a new paper in Nature that there is an 85% chance the faux ‘pause’ will end in the next five years, followed by a burst of warming likely to consist of a decade or so of warm ocean oscillations.

Arctic faces a double warming whammy

Roberts and his team found that a ‘slow down’ period is usually (60% of the time) followed by rapid warming at twice the background rate for at least five years, and potentially longer.

And mostly, this warming would be concentrated in the Arctic, a region where temperatures are already higher than the global average, and which is widely recognized to be a barometer of the health of the global climate due to how Arctic changes dramatically alter trends elsewhere.

Recent extreme weather events around the world have been attributed to the melting Arctic ice sheets and the impact on ocean circulations and jet streams.

What this means, if the UK Met Office is right, is that we probably have five years (likely less) before we witness the ‘Big Heat’ – a supercharged surge of rapid global warming that could last a decade, further destabilizing the climate system in deeply unpredictable ways.



Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author, and international security scholar. He is a regular contributor to The Ecologist where he writes about the geopolitics of interconnected environmental, energy and economic crises. He has also written for the Guardian, The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, Prospect, New Statesman, Vice, Le Monde diplomatique, among many others. His new novel of the near future is ZERO POINT.

Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed and Facebook.


This article was originally published on Vice magazine’s Motherboard.





8 responses

14 03 2015
Anthony William O'brien

Looking at the natural cycles we should be freezing our butts off globally. It would seem that the ups and downs with an upward trend, are now ups and pauses. Coming soon; ups and faster ups.

14 03 2015
Chris Harries

Today the International Energy Agency (IEA) has loudly declared that global carbon emissions have stabilised for the first time in 40 years. I really wish they hadn’t used those words because it almost sounds like victory… inducing complacency.

What they really mean is that emissions from fossil fuel burning has peaked, and this very well be a very short hiatus as the world economy has the jitters. It could even be a start of decline, if we do go into deep global recession but the world stabilise sounds so…. stable.

Reality is that emissions from fossil fuel burning have temporarily plateaued at an all time high….. way, way above levels that can stabilise climate.

14 03 2015

The heat cycles in the oceans are MUCH more complex than PDO, and some of them take 500 years to cycle. The interaction between “cycles” alters the future temperatures, so that they will not be true cycles at all. The net effects of all these cycles are completely unknown, so to say “there are signs of the cycle breaking down” is just a scary story.

Hiroshima was a TINY event on the global scale, so the choice of that as the unit for measurement is also chosen for its scariness.

The effects of ocean acidification are not good, but they are extremely patchy at the moment, and at least as complex as heat. The reproductive ability of ocean life means that as one species finds the going too tough, tougher things will take their place. The effects of that will spread throughtout the oceans and be unmeasurable except in particular hot spots, so another scare story there.

14 03 2015

Road Sign: “BRIDGE OUT – DETOUR >>>”
davekimble3: (rocketing ahead in his V8 Landcruiser) “Ha! Just another scary story!”

Tell me – Is there anything that scares davekimble3!?!?!? 😛

“Hiroshima was a TINY event on the global scale” – try telling that to the poor beggars on the ground…

And “The reproductive ability of ocean life means that as one species finds the going too tough, tougher things will take their place.” – yes this is typically the case in BAU evolutionary cycles/timescales, but at the rate we’re trashing the oceans I’ll be surprised if evolutionary proesses can pedal fast enough to keep up. Plus I doubt the turbid, plasticised, acidic, bath water that our oceans are quickly becoming is a particularly easy niche for life to fill either…

14 03 2015

The article is the V8 Landcruiser, while I drive a 1999 Corolla. I am not scared of Global Warming because I believe in imminent Peak Fossils, and none of the IPCC scary scenarios are going to come to pass. Peak Fossils scares me.

All the tiny critters in the ocean with calcium-based exo-skeletons have very high reproductive rates (r-selected). The rate of acidification is low and patchy now, and the scariness comes from IPCC predictions of the FFs burned out to 2100, which as I say, won’t happen.

14 03 2015
Chris Harries

All the same David, I wouldn’t advocate relaxing on the climate change front, on grounds that the worst will never happen… there are already too many people in the word who are complacent. Though I agree with your premise that we’ll see major disruption caused by resource limits long before pollution limits.

Environmentalists tend to focus their efforts on climate because that is seen as an environmental issue (harming terrestrial and marine ecosystems), whereas peak oil issue is more of an economic one (in perception).

A few years ago numbers of climate activists became enthused by Peak Oil falsely thinking that running out of coal and oil could help to bring climate change to a halt. They left when the picture got clouded by the temporal success of unconventional oil to the extent that most people seem to believe we are swimming in the stuff.

It’s not the running out that will be the limit so much as the knock on effect that depletion of cheap oil will have on economies… but I think there’s no need for me to say that here

15 03 2015

Well, good to know something scares you! 🙂

But just how imminent do you believe Peak Fossils is?

My fear is it’s just far enough off, and that we’ll desperately keep scraping the barrell long enough to really make a proper mess of this world.

Calcium-based, high repro rates, or otherwise – mankinds ‘progress’ has always resulted in fewer ecological niche’s and thus fewer tiny (and bigger) critters…

So I hope you’re right, and all of earths life (whats left of it) can get off this crazy merry-go-round!

15 03 2015

> But just how imminent do you believe Peak Fossils is?

Oil is so important to the globalised economy that Peak Oil will be enough on its own to crash the world economy. In fact it already has.

The first signs of Peak Oil were in December 2003 when the oil industry was unable to keep up the 1.6%/year rise that characterised the previous 20 years. The agreement between OPEC and OECD to manage supply to keep the WTI price between $22 – 28/barrel, which had been working well up until then, finally failed. The price rose jerkily until mid-2008 when it reached an intra-day peak of $147/b, $130/b when averaged monthly. The previous 18 months’ rises had sucked $1.75 trillion extra out of the OECD’s budgets. The peak price coincided with Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac entering talks with FDIC that led to them going “under management” and totally freaking out the markets. This, combined with other economic factors, resulted in the GFC, which is not over.

Nothing has been fixed since then, the world debt has become much bigger, and “mark to fantasy” valuations of collateral getting AAA credit ratings goes on as before. QE continues, zero and even negative interest rates, and STILL the recession goes on. The oil producers have turned to tight oil and tar sands to boost production of “oil”, all built with cheap debt and less sustainable than before without high oil prices. Oil, gas and coal prices are down, as are iron ore, copper, aluminium, timber, due to falling demand. Companies are spending their profits on share buy-backs instead of new production capacity.

The whole thing awaits another Lehmann moment, and there are lots of candidates for that. Then the web of Credit Default Swaps that will be triggered will not be able to be honoured except with a fire-sale of collateral, which will expose most of it as being worthless and bring down more banks.

The banking sector is absolutely critical to the functioning of trade, and electricity and computers are absolutely critical to banking. But banking is also absolutely critical to maintaining cash-flow for electricity supplies and computer networks – a “deadly embrace” situation. Once one goes down, the other will too, and it won’t be possible to get them started again, especially since the internet carries most of the world’s communications.

So the short answer is: any day now. 🙂

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