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Despite Unprecedented Heat Transfer to Oceans, NASA Shows January 2014 was 3rd Hottest On Record; Models Hint at El Nino, Big Atmospheric Temperature Jump on Horizon

A cycling between warm ocean surface waters and cool ocean surface waters in the Eastern Pacific called El Nino and La Nina, for centuries, has been a primary driver of relative atmospheric warmth and coolness. During the times when the Eastern Pacific disgorged its heat, the Earth’s atmosphere warmed. And during times when the same region cooled, a portion of atmospheric heat was taken back and transferred into the world’s oceans.

ENSO Index since 1950

(ENSO Index since 1950. Image source: ESRL/NOAA.)

Since about 1300 CE, this cycling governed the top and bottom ends of average global climate. Temperatures during this time remained within about .3 degrees Celsius of a very stable base line. But beginning around 1900, that cycle was broken, with unprecedented and rapidly increasing warmth proceeding along with an explosive human use of fossil fuels.

Since that time, and especially since the late 1970s, the regular El Nino and La Nina cycle has been a less and less reliable governor of atmospheric temperatures. Certainly the El Nino years were generally hotter — a majority of El Nino years since 1980 were record hot ones. And the La Nina years were definitely cooler. But the overall temperature curve skewed upward and even La Nina years featured within the range of top ten hottest years on record with increasing frequency.

The past five year trend only showed a more extreme amplification, when taken in the broader context of an ongoing ocean heat transfer.

The last El Nino year, 2010, was also the last hottest year on record. Being a relatively lack-luster El Nino, with only moderate warm temperature departures for the Eastern Pacific, it is abundantly clear that human-caused global warming was the underlying driver for this record breaker.

Global temperatures since 1880 NASA GISS

(Global Temperature variation since 1880. Image and data source: NASA GISS.)

In the years that followed, 2011 and 2012 featured La Ninas while 2013 was a year in which the Eastern Pacific is neither warm nor cool (ENSO neutral).

In a normal world, under normal climate conditions, such a long period of cool surface waters covering the Eastern Pacific would have driven global temperatures down below typical averages. The vast waters would have sucked heat out of the air and deposited it into the oceans. And, as we will see below, it did suck a massive amount of heat out. But not enough even to bring global temperatures back into the average range, much less put it below the average (both NASA and NOAA show 2011-2013 as top 10 hottest years on record). This is very concerning, especially when we consider, as we do below, that the rate of atmosphere to ocean heat exchange is currently unprecedented.

Despite four years of ongoing coolness in the Eastern Pacific and of a much more vigorous than usual mixing of ocean and atmosphere, global surface temperatures have remained at or near record highs during a time that should have featured a down-turn. Meanwhile, ocean heat content spiked.

And the start of 2014 is no exception.

Third Hottest January On Record

Come January 2014 with ENSO still remaining on the cool side of neutral, reports from NASA GISS show January 2014 was the third hottest in the climate record since measurements began in 1880. NASA’s Land-Ocean Temperature Index  reveals temperatures for the month at .70 degrees Celsius hotter than the 1950 to 1980 average and .90 degrees Celsius hotter than the annual average for 1880.

Global Surface Temperature Anomaly NASA GISS

(Global Surface Temperature Anomaly in degrees Celsius of departure from the, already warmer than normal, 1951-1980 average. Image source: NASA GISS.)

By contrast, January of 2002 and 2003, which were both El Nino years, tied for second hottest in the record at .72 degrees Celsius hotter than the average while 2007, also an El Nino year, showed January at .93 C hotter than average. So the temperatures we are seeing this year, a year in which the Eastern Pacific is still sucking up atmospheric heat, are nearly as warm as recent times in which that same vast stretch of ocean was bleeding heat back to the airs above it.

For atmospheric temperatures to be so hot without the presence of El Nino is, today, an ominous sign for many reasons. First, we are seeing amazing heat spikes in the Arctic. And these spikes largely drove the January temperature anomaly — a clear sign that northern polar amplification is becoming a powerful driver of continued atmospheric warming in its own right. One that may play a harmonic role with the ENSO cycle as the next few decades progress. Second, we may be beginning to see that the ocean, which has taken up so much excess atmospheric heat is starting to lag as a sink even as it is grudgingly shoved back toward dumping a portion of that extraordinary excess warmth into the atmosphere.

As mentioned above, we have seen an unprecedented transfer of heat into the surface, middle and deep ocean over the past decade. And the Argo float graph below bears a stark testimony to this transfer:

OHC_2an

(Image source: L Hamilton. Image data: NOAA. Produced for The Arctic Ice Blog. Note the extraordinarily steep slope indicating recent ocean warming.)

Note the huge jump in ocean heat content that began in 2001 just as the most recent negative PDO and La Nina cycle began to kick in. This vast heat content is now a latent source for atmospheric warming that will, as many scientists note, almost certainly come back to haunt us once the ocean heat uptake mechanism is exhausted.

This Unprecedented Heat Transfer

The graph above provides us with much cause for concern, as ocean heat is certainly spiking. But a recent study provides yet another important indicator — an extraordinary jump in trade wind intensity.

A primary driver of the strength of La Nina and its ability to transfer atmospheric heat into the oceans is the corresponding strength of the east to west trade winds blowing across the Pacific. A strong trade wind blowing over South America and shoving a huge pile of water across the Pacific from east to west generates vigorous upwelling. The strong upwelling, in turn, transfers relatively cool deep ocean waters to the surface, where they take up atmospheric heat. When the trades weaken, the opposite occurs and warmth builds up in the surface waters along with a corresponding shift to El Nino.

Given these factors, it is important to note that a recent study has found that the trade winds over the past decade have been their strongest since at least 1910 with the wind continuing to strengthen and intensify well into 2012.

EnglandFig1450

(Global temperature and wind anomalies with IPO overlay. Negative departures in the lower graph indicate unprecedented trade wind strength through 2012. Image and data source: England Study. Note — IPO stands for Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, a condition related to El Nino and La Nina cycling over decadal periods.)

With such strong trade winds blowing over the Eastern Pacific, we are seeing an unprecedented transfer of heat from the atmosphere to the ocean (validated by both the trade winds data and the Argo float data). And given the strength of this transfer, we should be seeing some of the strongest La Ninas on record. But the ocean is now too warm for that, so instead we are seeing consistent La Ninas of normal caliber over the past 14 year period. A set of La Nina’s consistent enough to shift the Pacific Oscillation into a negative mode and, according to the England study, to temporarily suppress overall atmospheric warming by between .1 and .2 degrees Celsius.

And what this means is that when we see the period of consistent La Ninas end and shift to a time of more consistent El Nino events, that .1 to .2 degree Celsius heat transfer from atmosphere to ocean will stop and we will likely see a correspondingly rapid jump in air temperatures.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, England noted:

“the heat uptake is by no means permanent: when the trade wind strength returns to normal – as it inevitably will – our research suggests heat will quickly accumulate in the atmosphere. So global temperatures look set to rise rapidly …”

Model runs conducted by the England study that take into account trade wind strength and rate of heat transfer into the oceans show an extraordinarily vigorous increase in global temperatures of .2 C to .4 C by 2020 once the global trade winds return to normal. This, potentially very rapid, jump in atmospheric temperatures could be seen over a very short period during the next six years once the trade winds abate and the Eastern Pacific settles again into a more consistent period of El Ninos.

Models Show El Nino May be on the Horizon for 2014

Meanwhile, NOAA models are also beginning to hint that the hammer of Pacific Ocean heat may well be starting to fall. A majority of model runs, as of late January, were showing El Nino emerging in the Pacific by summer of 2014. Five models showed El Nino on the 9 month horizon, while two showed La Nina and three showed ENSO neutral conditions.

The NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory explained these findings:

Of the 10 nearest ranked December-January cases since 1950, FIVE rose to at least weak El Niño status within the next nine months (two within the next three months), while the count of weak or stronger La Niña rankings added up to two cases (1961 and 1967) after nine months. This confirms a noteworthy shift in the odds towards El Niño development in 2014 that was first pointed out two months ago. Compared to last month, the number of cases ending up as ENSO-neutral has dropped to 6 in three months, 5 in six months, and only 3 in nine months (September-October).

… While ENSO-neutral conditions are the safest bet for the next few months, a transition towards El Niño by mid- or late 2014 would not be surprising, perhaps even overdue.

How the Temperature Jump May Unfold

In light of the above reports, it is important to again state how rapid an atmospheric temperature increase of .2 to .4 C over the course of six years is. By comparison, the average decadal increase has been about .15 to .2 C for each 10 year period since the 1970s. So the England study suggests that atmospheric heating could double the usual rate between now and 2020.

What we would expect under such conditions is a gradual abatement of the current and unprecedented trade wind strength over the Pacific Ocean. As the trades weaken, the pool of very hot, deep water east of Australia and the Philippines would begin to shift eastward even as the Eastern Pacific took on uncharacteristic warmth. The long period of mixing with a rapidly heating atmosphere will have created an amazingly large and deep pool of hot water whose intensely high temperature anomalies become increasingly evident at the surface. The hot zone, in this case, exceeds even the extreme anomalies seen during 1998 for this critical region and a massive heat dump into the atmosphere begins.

At this point, single year variations above past record highs may reach or exceed +.1 C or more for multiple years running.

The unprecedented heat bleed from the Pacific doesn’t occur without a number of severe weather consequences. Especially under the gun for this, most recent, potential event of human caused climate change is California and the Desert Southwest. Having labored under drought since the early 2000s, the region sees a radical shift to unprecedented stormy conditions. During winter, a massive flow of heat driven moisture rides up from the Pacific and arcs over California carrying with it a stream of storms. The stormy period drags out for weeks, beginning to resemble the megastorm of centuries past. Cities and industries laboring under the strain of too little water see a sudden and radical, though brief, shift in the opposite direction. California, under the gun for tens of billions of dollars in damages from water shortages and drought instead falls under the gun for possibly hundreds of billions of dollars in storm damages.

El Nino related weather extremes crop up in Africa, Australia, the US East Coast, India, the Pacific Northwest, and in other locations. In all cases the extremes are far more radical than for a typical El Nino year.

Under such a regime, it is likely that global surface temperatures could reach 1 degree Celsius above the 1950 to 1980 average and 1.2 degrees Celsius above the average seen during 1880 by 2020. Very dangerous warming and related extreme weather would be well underway at this time under such conditions along a path toward an even more difficult and violent climate scenario to follow.

Links:

ESRL/NOAA

NASA GISS

Recent Intensification of Wind-Driven Circulation in the Pacific

Unprecedented Trade Wind Strength is Shifting Global Warming to the Oceans

The Pacific Arkstorm

California’s Superstorm

NASA’s Land-Ocean Temperature Index 

Arctic Heat Pushes Sea Ice to Record Low Levels in Early February

The Arctic Ice Blog

The NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory

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Blocking Pattern Serves up Nor’Easter One Week After Sandy as More and More Scientists Affirm Climate Change Made Superstorm Worse

 

A Nor’Easter that could  trouble the New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts coasts with 50 mph wind gusts is in the process of forming today. A deep trough produced by a powerful blocking pattern and worsened by eroding Arctic Sea Ice is channeling a low pressure system that is likely to deepen off Cape Hatteras later tonight.

Models show the potential for a 990 mb low pressure forming off the Northeast coast come Wednesday. The result is that tropical storm force winds may bring 7-8 foot water rises (2-3 foot storm surges on top of high tides) to areas already devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Normally, a water rise of this level would result in light to moderate tidal flooding. However, in areas where dunes have been wiped out, sea walls and board walks beaten to bits, this rather moderate storm surge may re-flood some communities still reeling from last week’s disaster.

Tropical storm force winds may again knock out power in some areas still struggling to repair damage from Sandy. 1.3 million homes and businesses remain without power following the storm, down from 8.5 million a week ago. In addition, 1-2 inches of rain along the coast and snowfall in a region from Pennsylvania to Maine may cause further difficulty — especially for those still without power.

Though this storm is likely to be nothing like Sandy, it is a reminder of a new and ominous weather pattern taking shape this winter. According to numerous Arctic researchers, this year’s record sea ice melt is contributing to a powerful negative Arctic Oscillation. This weather condition has produced a strong trough swooping down from the Arctic and through the Eastern United States. The trough is producing numerous storms — one which combined with Hurricane Sandy to form a powerful superstorm. This week, the trough is bringing an early-season Nor’Easter. An odd second-week appearance of a storm that usually forms during winter.

These weather events may well be harbingers for very stormy conditions throughout the winter of 2012 for the US East Coast and Northeast. Jennifer Francis, an Arctic researcher at Rutgers University warned only just a few weeks ago that human climate change and sea ice loss was resulting in a situation that would likely produce a succession of powerful storms this fall and winter.

As the new storm forms off the East Coast, more scientists are affirming climate change’s role in both making Sandy worse and in producing a general climate of increasingly extreme weather. An article written by Dr. Jeff Masters, Dr. Bob Corell, and Dr. Kevin Trenberth entitled Did climate change contribute to Sandy? Yes published in Politico and Reuters yesterday. The article clearly stated that climate change made Sandy worse and warned that unless human carbon emissions are dramatically reduced more and more severe weather is to follow.

Climate scientists broadly agree that the extreme weather we’ve seen over the past few years is exactly what we’d expect to see in a changing climate. And it’s not just Sandy; we’re on track to have the hottest year in more than a century of record-keeping in the continental United States, the country has suffered one of the most crippling droughts in history, as well as one of the worst wildfire years in history. Last year, when Hurricane Irene hit the United States, meteorologists called it “unprecedented,” yet Sandy has already outpaced the damage from Irene.

We’ll probably never know the exact point when the weather stopped being entirely natural. But we should consider Sandy—and other recent extreme weather events – an early taste of a climate-changed world, and a grim preview of the even worse to come, particularly if we continue to pump more carbon pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes up into the atmosphere.

Jeff Masters is a meteorologist and former Hurricane Hunter, he now directs the climate blog WeatherUnderground. Bob Corell is an American climate scientist. Kevin Trenberth is the head of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. Together, they represent over 150 years of climate science and meteorological experience.

Links:

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1112/83335.html

http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/show.html

Climate Change Refugees — Thousands Likely Left Homeless By Sandy

(Flood damage to Staten Island homes. Image credit here.)

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said today that it’s too soon to know how many were left homeless by Hurricane Sandy.

“I wouldn’t even begin to guess,” Fugate said. “I’d also caution that the number of people at shelters probably wouldn’t be a good indicator of how many people’s homes have been impacted by flooding. We know a lot of people stay with friends and family.”

But judging from the massive number of homes destroyed and flooded over broad swaths of coastal New Jersey, New York and other states, the number is likely to be staggering. The scope is so large that FEMA is struggling to reach all those in need of aid. Some Staten Island residents are still in need of FEMA contact and assistance. For those who have yet to contact FEMA, you can do so by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) or by going to www.disasterassistance.gov/.

The American Red Cross is also conducting a major effort to reach out to and assist those in need. If you wish to help, you can make a donation to the Red Cross Disaster Relief page here. Blood banks are also short of supplies. So any in-person blood donations to the Red Cross would also help.

Unfortunately the scale of this disaster is so large that both FEMA and the Red Cross are still struggling to reach all those in need. Both climate scientists and global threat analysts have been concerned that disasters, like Sandy, caused by climate change would result in large numbers of people made homeless. As weather impacts worsen and some regions become flooded or rendered uninhabitable by drought, the concern is that growing numbers of people will be dislocated.

The ongoing efforts of FEMA and philanthropic organizations are likely to blunt the damage caused by Sandy and allow residents to begin to re-build. However, the risk remains that new storms and sea level rise brewed up by climate change will result in another wave of displacement.

There has been much talk of building infrastructure to help alleviate the impact of future storms and sea level rise. However, without first dealing with climate change’s root cause — continued and growing fossil fuel emissions, such efforts will be like stacking twigs in front of a tsunami. Current levels of CO2 — 400 ppm — were enough to raise sea levels as much as 75 feet in past ages (at rates of rise as fast as 6-10 feet per century). But current emissions are on a path to put world CO2 levels above 600 ppm by mid century and this is enough to result in a sea level rise of 250 feet (likely far faster than 6-10 feet per century).

Current predictions for east coast sea level rise are 2 feet by 2050. However, given the amplified heating caused by human CO2 emissions, this estimate is potentially low by as much as 2 or 3 feet. On top of the sea level rise, you have the likelihood for much more violent storms. More violent even than Sandy. So the notion that infrastructure alone can deal with the problem is a false path. We must also draw down CO2 emissions to have any hope for a stable coastline and to avoid the worst of these home-wrecking storms.

The tragedy in New York and New Jersey is a terrible, terrible loss. And we must do all we can to help those in need. However, we are also morally obligated to do all we can to prevent and lessen the impact of the future storms and sea level rise that is sure to come. And to do that, we must set ourselves on a path toward zero CO2 emission as well as begin the necessary process of building a stronger coastal infrastructure while moving homes back from the rising seas.

UPDATE:

News reports confirm that Sandy has resulted in the destruction of thousands of homes, rendering more than 40,000 souls without shelter. Please help these American climate change refugees in every way you can.

Links:

http://livewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/entry/fema-director-too-soon-to-know-how-many

https://www.redcross.org/donate/index.jsp?donateStep=2&itemId=prod10002

http://www.disasterassistance.gov/

Romney, Who Vowed to Eliminate FEMA, Privatize Disaster Relief and Mocked Climate Change, Finds Extremist Policy Positions Inundated By Superstorm Sandy

Storms, storms, and more storms… After a storm-shortened convention in Tampa and a storm-emasculated final week of campaigning, you’d think the Romney campaign would learn to respect the powerful climate forces he’s gotten so good at ignoring.

And, perhaps, the Romney campaign is a bit taken aback. Or maybe it’s finally starting to sink in that they look like a boatload of out of touch buffoons. After ignoring reporters questions for almost a week, today Mitt Romney finally walked back his long-standing policy position that had pushed for the elimination of critical disaster relief programs like FEMA. Though it seemed a forced and painful admission, Romney, at long last, noted that he wouldn’t underfund or eliminate FEMA, as he had proposed throughout his campaign.

“I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” Romney said. “As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first-responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.”

This statement is in direct contradiction to previous statements Romney made about the role of FEMA. It is also in direct contradiction with Romney and Ryan budgets which cut about 40% from FEMA programs. Such cuts would devastate FEMA’s ability to aid localities and states in the event of a disaster like Sandy and flies directly in the face of lessons Republicans should have learned after Katrina.

The privatization program that Romney and Ryan allude to would be even worse. The result would be that those who could pay to be lifted off their homes by helicopters would be. The rest, those unable to afford a private disaster response service, would be left on their flooded homes to fend for themselves or to perish. Privatized first response would mean that only those able to pay fire services fees would receive defense from fire fighters. The rest would see their homes left to burn.

In the case of disaster response, privatization makes absolutely no sense. Injecting profit motive into a service that saves lives means that fewer lives are saved as the bottom line shifts from the goal of helping people to the goal of accumulating profit. And in the gap between the two extremes of such a heartless program, many would find themselves facing a choice between bankruptcy or having their lives or property saved.

Romney and Ryan’s myopic views on disaster relief are drastically proven wrong with each new major disaster. So it seems, finally, that they have grudgingly relented on their publicly adversarial position toward the beneficial federal agency that is FEMA. But can we trust that this change isn’t anything more than a disingenuous bow to the winds of public opinion? Can we trust that Romney and Ryan won’t sabotage FEMA if elected and attempt to privatize it and other key programs, shifting more money to plutocrats while letting the poor and middle class bear all of the greatly increasing risk?

And what of the issue of climate change? Yes. The climate change that fueled this storm, made it worse, and helped to steer it in toward the East Coast? The climate change that has increased sea levels and is increasing them ever more rapidly? What of that? Is it still drill baby drill until the heartland is burned to a crisp and the coastal cities are all flooded? A recent statement from Businessweek, I believe, provides the appropriate response to Romney’s nonsense:

On Aug. 30, [Romney] belittled his opponent’s vow to arrest climate change, made during the 2008 presidential campaign. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” Romney told the Republican National Convention in storm-tossed Tampa. “My promise is to help you and your family.” Two months later, in the wake of Sandy, submerged families in New Jersey and New York urgently needed some help dealing with that rising-ocean stuff.

I, for one, doubt that the cynical and misinformation spewing Romney/Ryan campaign has one genuine bone of non-token sympathy for FEMA or the disaster victims in their bodies. They have sought at every turn to pull out the underpinnings of supports for people in harm’s way and the national response systems that help Americans who find themselves in the face of disasters of all kinds. They haven’t sought to eliminate or reduce risks. To the contrary, their policies increase them.

This fact cannot be changed by a fake canned food drives for the Red Cross. Canned food the Red Cross has already said it doesn’t need. Nor can it be changed by, yet another, alteration in extreme policy positions. The Romney/Ryan campaign has been nothing if not snarlingly critical of any positive action, but totally lacking in any decent alternative. Instead, they promise to serve up another helping of policies that lead to the likes of Katrina and will likely lead to worse. And, in cases where their positions become unpopular, they simply lie and misinform.

Message to Romney — leadership is not conducting a disingenuous and completely unhelpful photo op. Leadership is actually doing something to help people. Leadership is effectively wielding a government empowered to help those people in harm’s way. Leadership is establishing a moral structure that enables and encourages people to help one another, not one that enables people to profit from harming one another. Leadership is what we are seeing in Obama and Christie’s response in New Jersey. Not from the gimmicks, half truths, lack of response, lack of transparency, media dodging, and tortured walk-backs we are seeing from you.

I don’t know if the Koch-fueled Romney campaign realizes the tenuous and vastly irresponsible positions it has backed itself into. I don’t know if that same Romney campaign realizes that it has set itself up for a terrible moral fall, far worse than Bush, should it be elected. The sins of hubris weigh heavily on Romney and we have gotten just a small taste of it this week. Woe betide America should this …man ever be elected President.

Links:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/wp/2012/11/01/mitt-romney-responds-to-fema-question/

http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-11-01/its-global-warming-stupid#p2

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