I have long thought that global climate change was chaotic, rather than steadily warming. Global temperatures show self-similar (fractal) variation with time and long-term cycles; they also show strange attractors generally states including ice ages and El Niño events. These are sudden rests of the global temperature pattern, classic symptoms of chaos. The standard models of global warming is does not predict El Niño and other chaotic events, and thus are fundamentally wrong. The models assume that a steady amount of sun heat reaches the earth, while a decreasing amount leaves, held in by increasing amounts of man-produced CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere. These models are “tweaked” to match the observed temperature to the CO2 content of the atmosphere from 1930 to about 2004. In the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” Al Gore uses these models to predict massive arctic melting leading to a 20 foot rise in sea levels by 2100. To the embarrassment of Al Gore, and the relief of everyone else, though CO2 concentrations continue to rise, global warming took a 15 year break starting shortly before the movie came out, and the sea level is, more-or-less where it was except for temporary changes during periodic El Niño cycles.
Hans von Storch, a German expert on global warming, told the German newspaper, der Spiegel: “We’re facing a puzzle. Recent CO2 emissions have actually risen even more steeply than we feared. As a result, according to most climate models, we should have seen temperatures rise by around 0.25 degrees Celsius (0.45 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past 10 years. That hasn’t happened. [Further], according to the models, the Mediterranean region will grow drier all year round. At the moment, however, there is actually more rain there in the fall months than there used to be. We will need to observe further developments closely in the coming years.”
Aside from the lack of warming for the last 15 years, von Storch mentions that there has been no increase in severe weather. You might find that surprising given the news reports; still it’s so. Storms are caused by temperature and humidity differences, and these have not changed. (Click here to see why tornadoes lift stuff up).
At this point, I should mention that the majority of global warming experts do not see a problem with the 15 year pause. Global temperatures have been rising unsteadily since 1900, and even von Storch expects this trend to continue — sooner or later. I do see a problem, though, highlighted by the various chaotic changes that are left out of the models. A source of the chaos, and a fundamental problem with the models could be with how they treat the effects of water vapor. When uncondensed, water vapor acts as a very strong thermal blanket; it allows the sun’s light in, but prevents the heat energy from radiating out. CO2 behaves the same way, but weaker (there’s less of it).
More water vapor enters the air as the planet warms, and this should amplify the CO2 -caused run-away heating except for one thing. Every now and again, the water vapor condenses into clouds, and then (sometimes) falls as rain or show. Clouds and snow reflect the incoming sunlight, and this leads to global cooling. Rain and snow drive water vapor from the air, and this leads to accelerated global cooling. To the extent that clouds are chaotic, and out of man’s control, the global climate should be chaotic too. So far, no one has a very good global model for cloud formation, or for rain and snowfall, but it’s well accepted that these phenomena are chaotic and self-similar (each part of a cloud looks like the whole). Clouds may also admit “the butterfly effect” where a butterfly in China can cause a hurricane in New Jersey if it flaps at the right time.
For those wishing to examine the longer-range view, here’s a thermal history of central England since 1659, Oliver Cromwell’s time. At this scale, each peak is an El Niño. There is a lot of chaotic noise, but you can also notice either a 280 year periodicity (lat peak around 1720), or a 100 year temperature rise beginning about 1900.
It is not clear that the cycle is human-caused,but my hope is that it is. My sense is that the last 100 years of global warming has been a good thing; for agriculture and trade it’s far better than an ice age. If we caused it with our CO2, we could continue to use CO2 to just balance the natural tendency toward another ice age. If it’s chaotic, as I suspect, such optimism is probably misplaced. It is very hard to get a chaotic system out of its behavior. The evidence that we’ve never moved an El Niño out of its normal period of every 3 to 7 years (expect another this year or next). If so, we should expect another ice age within the next few centuries.
Just as clouds cool the earth, you can cool your building too by painting the roof white. If you are interested in more weather-related posts, here’s why the sky is blue on earth, and why the sky on Mars is yellow.