Baby, it’s cold outside

News comes through this morning via John Gormley and Ciaran Cuffe that the Climate Change Response Bill has at last been published. A public consultation period on the Bill is to run until January 28th next, with a view to enactment in February – assuming, that is, the ragged Coalition can hold together that long.

Thanks to the wonders of WikiLeaks, we have some fascinating insights into the real state of play regarding Ireland and climate change in recent years. My favourite quote is from 2008, attributed to one Tom O’Mahony, described as an assistant secretary, DoE:

The Irish populace has not, “internalized the costs of global warming,” so there is no sense of urgency to move on the issue. Without public pressure to do something, there is a risk that the government will lose enthusiasm for the project and “kick the can down the road”

We’ve already covered the gist of the Bill here previously, so no need to re-hash. In short, Ministers, get on with it, please. Posterity is watching. Meanwhile, as the latest flurries of snow tumble down over Dun Laoghaire, below are a few reflections on what – if anything – this weird weather might be trying to tell us about the bigger climatic picture:

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First, the good news: despite concerns, the Gulf Stream, the powerful current that transfers vast amounts of heat from the equator to north-western Europe, does not appear to be faltering. Were it to stop entirely, average winter temperatures in Ireland would plummet by 5 degrees C, meaning the current freeze would be a regular fixture for several months every year.

Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research warned that the marked overall warming of the earth’s northern half could counterintuitively result in significantly colder winters. Dramatic losses of sea-ice in the eastern Arctic is affecting far more than polar bears. It is also causing regional heating of the lower levels of air –this in turn is leading to strong anomalies in atmospheric airstreams, triggering an overall cooling of the northern continents. This is the conclusion of a study recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Think of the Arctic ocean as a cup of take-out coffee, and the ice sheet as the Styrofoam lid. Take off the lid, and the coffee cools quickly – but the heat loss from the liquid transfers to the atmosphere.

“These anomalies could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and northern Asia,” according to Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study. “Recent severe winters like last year’s or the one of 2005-06 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it.”

What is telling about this statement is that it was issued in early November, well ahead of the current freeze. Prof John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth, Ireland’s top climate specialist, is aware of the Potsdam Institute research, but cautions about extrapolating from what remain weather, rather than climate events. “More extreme weather events are likely when you put more energy into the system”, he told me.

Ironically, if the intense ‘blocking anticyclone’ that is keeping our usual maritime weather at bay and delivering this freezing weather were instead happening in mid-summer, “we’d now be in the middle of a heatwave, and running out of water from that”, added Prof Sweeney.

Global warming is ratcheting up energy in the global climate system, and this is expressing itself in the ever-increasing number and intensity of what we used to call ‘natural disasters’ ­– floods, droughts, landslides, forest fires etc. 2010 is now on target to be globally the hottest year since instrumental records began in the mid-19th Century. While Europe shivers, temperatures in western Greenland are currently an astonishing 10 degrees C above normal

“By global warming destroying the Arctic ice sheet, we’ve essentially changed the climate of north-western Europe, and that simply has to have an effect”, says Dr Kieran Hickey of NUI Galway (and author of ‘Deluge’). “Climatically, we’re moving into unknown territory; when the climate is changing rapidly, you get lots of extremes – look at the flooding and freezing events of the last two or three years. The climate is clearly out of equilibrium”, Kieran told me.

Earlier this year the US the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that the decline in Arctic sea ice will “impact large scale wind patterns over the Northern Hemisphere, allowing cold air to move southward”.

While the underlying heating signal from global warming is unequivocal, translating that into projection for the near future remains problematic. There appears to be an increased likelihood of significantly more severe winters in the next number of years that Ireland may have to learn to cope more effectively with. But in the medium term, experts expect milder, wetter winters to reassert themselves.

Looking ahead, the fear among scientists is that humanity is stumbling unwittingly towards a climatic tipping point and into a future where weather extremes are once again the dominant force in shaping the course and setting severe limits to human progress.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • Ruairí Weldon

    John,
    Last August 31st ,I sent a comment in response to your article(six degrees to annihilation). I predicted severe cold winters ahead and that I intended to stock up on fossil fuels and long-johns to prepare for what I fully expected to happen. Even I was surprised by the ferocity and early arrival of the recent cold spell. The question must be asked as to why a casual observer of climate change, such as myself,could be so confident and accurate on what was later verified. I did mention that I saw similarities with the onset of the Dalton Grand Solar Minima (1795-1830) ,in which the years 1810-1820 were the coldest on record since the 1690s ( frost fairs on the frozen Thames etc.) As I was writing my comment, I read many reports of severe winter weather in the Southern Hemisphere.(their winter 2010)These are some of the places mentioned: Chile (hundreds of people die due to cold), Argentina, Uruguay,Paraguay ,Bolivia, Brazil ,Tasmania, New South Wales and New Zealand (hundreds of thousands of lambs died due to cold).
    Kieran Hickey attributed 20% of climate change to reduced solar activity (Pat Kenny radio show) but he made no mention of this year’s severe Southern Hemisphere winters in a more recend interview with Áine Lawlor. I get the distinct impression that any mention of Sth. Hemisphere’s chilling winters is being avoided as Antarctica being a landmass, the theory of melting Arctic sea-ice (to bring severe Nth. Winters) could be problematic as an explanation to explain the severe Sth. winters. I think many people are going to have to swallow hard and finally face the fact that the sun drives the great climate change/temperature machine and that CO2 forcing is but a very minor back-seat driver.
    Ruairi

  • http://www.climatechange.ie John Gibbons

    Ruairi

    Thanks for your comment. Can I recommend you have a close look at the NOAA website? This is the US government service that is a gold standard in weather and climate. They helpfully chart average global temperatures from c.1850 to 2010, as well as tracking atmospheric CO2 levels from 1959 to date and solar output (W per M/2) since c.1850. NOAA has been tracking global sea levels since around 1910 and Arctic sea ice since 1980.

    http://www.climate.gov/#understandingClimate

    Going back 160 years, there has been no measurable increase in solar output. Zero. Sea levels are rising steadily. Arctic sea ice cover is disappearing dramatically. Solar output cannot be driving either of these processes. Atmospheric CO2 levels, on the other hand, have risen relentlessly, from 310ppm in 1959 to around 385ppm in 2010. That’s around a 25 per cent increase – in just 60 years.

    Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by 0.8C since 1880. This is a profound shift in such a short time. Climate science seeks to critically examine any and all possible contributors to this significant and accelerating heating. We need to know, not so we can crow about one person being ‘right’ and someone else ‘wrong’ but instead, because the future of industrial civilisation (or perhaps human civilisation itself) is at stake.

    If the sun is driving this change, OK, that’s fine. Let’s look at the record (solar output records are very comprehensive and date back a long way), then publish the evidence supporting this view in the peer-reviewed journals, where it will be tested, challenged, and if correct, ultimately widely accepted. Here’s the problem: climate scientists have long been interested in solar influence on climate (kinda hard to ignore that great big ball in the sky), and its effects have been closely studied, and specifically ruled out as causing the underlying global warming trend of the last century and more.

    Regional weather anomalies will continue. Droughts, freezes, heat waves have always been with us; climate change intensifies these weather phenomena by injecting more ‘fuel’ in the form of thermal energy into weather systems.

    We know from the paleoclimatic record that, prior to the industrial revolution, atmospheric CO2 levels had not exceeded 280ppm for at least the last million years, and most probably a great deal longer. We know that atmospheric CO2 is a potent greenhouse gas. Basic physics tells us that more CO2 equals more heat trapping. We know too that positive atmospheric feedbacks will amplify this heat trapping, via, for instance, an increase in water vapour levels.

    Regional phenomena such as the North Atlantic Oscillation can and do create dramatic weather events. Indeed, there is a strong school of thought (as explained in the article above) that loss of Arctic sea ice cover is screwing up weather patterns and inflicting this prolonged freeze on Northern Europe and parts of the US.

    I’m not a climate scientist and Ruairi, I imagine you’re not either. These guys do this stuff professionally, in dozens of countries, using an array of methods for gathering and analysing the data. The preponderance of evidence says that global warming is real, it’s a very serious problem, and human actions are the principal (but not only) driving force.

    Other theories deserve due attention – no one has a monopoly on wisdom – but once the overwhelming evidence from multiple sources points in a particular direction, it’s perverse, rather than smart, to continue perpetually chasing shadows.

    Elvis Presley died in August 1977. Conspiracy theorists say no, he’s alive and in hiding in X, Y or Z place. They may be right, but their failure to support their colourful hypotheses with verifiable evidence suggests otherwise. It’s not impossible that Elvis is alive, it’s just extraordinarily unlikely. Should we thus surmise that there is real “doubt” over Elvis’s death? My point is simply that, with sufficient bloody-mindedness, we can choose to set aside mountains of evidence in favour of whatever theory we care to subscribe to (look at Jim Corr as a sad case in point).

    Finally, can I point you to the ‘Skeptic Buster’ page on this site, which deals in detail with solar output, as well as scores of other controversies, real and imaginary, in climate science.
    http://www.thinkorswim.ie/?page_id=1161

  • Brian O’Brien

    Thanks for all your postings in 2010 John, you’ve really kept this issue on the radar, at a time when it’s (once again) neither profitable nor popular. Fair play, keep it up in 2011…

  • Paul Barry

    John,
    That response to Ruairi’s question is superb. Well done.
    Happy New Year and thanks for the great work.

  • http://www.climatechange.ie John Gibbons

    @Brian

    Cheers, comments appreciated.

    @Paul

    Must confess I did put a little more elbow grease into that response than usual – glad someone out there appreciated! All the best for 2011 Paul.

  • Edmond Shea

    John,
    maybe I’m seeing double? Was this your article from this weekend’s Sunday Trib? If so, looks like it was a Thinkorswim exclusive, as you had it a week ahead! Happy new year, and let me add my compliments for the superb service you run here.

  • http://www.climatechange.ie John Gibbons

    Edmond
    Yup, guilty as charged. I filed the piece with the Trib to run a week earlier (i.e. during the last freeze) but it got stuck in the queue, so I decided to fire it up here anyhow. Here, for the record, is a link to the piece from page 3 of last Sunday’s Tribune:
    http://www.tribune.ie/news/home-news/article/2011/jan/02/its-global-warming-but-our-winters-are-set-to-get-/

    Comments very much appreciated – now, if only I can persuade some of the other authors listed on this site to chip in a bit more regularly….

  • Joseph Curtin

    Tom is now secretary-general in Department of Transport:

    http://www.transport.ie/about/committee.asp?lang=ENG&loc=351