Hey Global Warming – 1 Degree? That’s All You got??


On the one hand the public has been listening to dire predictions about the effects of Global Warming, but on the other hand the public is also aware that we’ve only been able to muster about one little degree Celsius of actual warming since the industrial revolution. And when scientists talk about future warming, they’re talking “OMG let’s not get above two degrees!” No wonder over half the people in the United States don’t think Global Warming is a serious issue, and the number of skeptics has actually been on the rise for the last five years (Gallop Poll, March 2010).

I get that. One little degree doesn't sound like much - and in the context of day-to-day weather, it's not. What we can and should be getting excited about (and talking about) is what’s behind that one-degree rise: heat energy, and lots of it. It's not just the temperature in Minneapolis that's up a degree today. It's that the temperature of the entire planet is up one degree.

Let’s look at two analogies:

  1. If you're sitting in the sun, and the skin temperature on your arm goes up 5 degrees - no problem, you're tanning. But if your body temperature goes up 5 degrees — you take your fever to the emergency room. Local temperature rise - no problem. All-body temperature rise — big problem.
  2. On a global scale, suppose someone tells you that ocean levels rose one inch — big deal, right? But now lets look at how much water it takes to raise ocean levels one inch. I did the math – it’s about 2,200 cubic miles.  It would take over 10 million years for the Mississippi River, with zero losses to evaporation, to raise ocean levels that one little inch. Small rise on the ruler, BIG rise in the amount of water.

Back to temperature: to raise the temperature of the planet one degree Celsius requires about 5 exaJoules (5 with 18 zeros after it) of energy. That’s the equivalent to the entire energy consumption of the US for 4 million years. Small rise on the thermometer, BIG rise in the amount of energy.

So, yeah. One degree is all Global Warming’s got. But that one degree packs a heck of a punch. Look at the weather this year. And last year. And the year before that.

The really bad news is that we're adding heat at an accelerating rate. Global Temperature Rise Scenarios 250Look at the Global Warming projections on the chart at right. The entire change in global temperature in the one hundred years from 1900 to 2000 is about that one little degree Celsius. Now look at the temperature rises projected for the next 100 years. The most conservative model has a 2 degree Celsius increase – double what we did in the last century. And the most worrisome model: five times the amount of heat energy added to the system.

11/25/2015 3:47:34 PM

Your math on the Mississippi seems very wrong. You say it would take 2200 cubic miles of water total to raise ocean levels by one inch - ok, let's assume your number is correct. The Mississippi discharges about 133 cubic miles of water into the Gulf of Mexico each year (source: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Mississippi_(river_US).aspx). At that rate it would only take 17 years to raise the ocean one inch, not 10 million years!

Michael Kelberer
9/8/2012 9:33:54 PM

Great lkink, Aglika. All those records and we're only half-way through the year! - Michael

Aglika Yordanova
8/29/2012 10:03:30 AM

Great article! A very good connection between the individual and the global situation is made. Thinking that the changes in climate are happening in a natural way without human's activities is just too naive and irresponsible! Here it is another source of synthesized information about climate change that presents disturbing facts about temperatures rising during the past decades - http://igreenhero.com/some-highlights-from-the-preliminary-noaa-2012-state-of-the-climate-analysis/

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