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1979: the year that the climate changed for me

Written By: - Date published: 8:55 am, November 27th, 2013 - 34 comments
Categories: climate change, science - Tags:

On the site we now have a a simple little graphic that shows how much heat has accumulated on our planet. It is expressed as multiples of of the heat energy of Hiroshima sized A-bombs.

I’ve picked 1979 as being the start year because that was the year that I became aware of the effects of changing climate. I was a 19 year old student in my second year of a BSc in Earth Sciences at Waikato university, and the topic under discussion was the WMO’s recent World Climate Conference (good precis of it here).

The basic science that I’d accumulated was sufficient to get the idea of how much climate has varied over the last 1000 million years and how much it’d affected the evolution of life. The last 40 million years or so have been in a ice age that was caused by Antarctica drifting into the south polar location, separating from Australia, and causing the circumpolar currents and air-flows to drop it into the freezer.

Our species entire 3-4 million year evolution had been punctuated and forced by the glacials. In 1979 recent work in the mid 70’s on deep sea cores had shown the glacials to be in a roughly 100,000 year cycle1.

In the late 70’s I was also reading deeply into history of our civilisations in the past 10,000 or so years. With a background of earth sciences resonating in my head with the massive climatic shifts over millions of years, it wasn’t hard to see how damn lucky we humans had been.

After nearly going extinct as a species a number of times in the last 100,000 years, we’d hit a strangely unusual period of climatic tranquility.  We built a civilisation in the shelter of the secure food supply that agriculture in a stable climate can bring. It has been what has enabled us to grow a population from thousands to billions with a a globe-spanning civilisation running a ruddy great big communications network, a global economy, and an orbital infrastructure.

The problem is that it is all still built on top of agriculture. And our agriculture, in fact all agricultural patterns we know of depend on a climatic stability that is pretty abnormal and precarious.

So back to the insert from Skeptical Science. Adding an additional heat equivalent of 4 Hiroshima bombs per second in additional heat into our planets volatiles is a foolhardy idea. The excess heat has mostly been sucked up in the volatiles that make up the oceans. Most of the remainder has been warming the solid water back into the liquid higher heat retaining form in the polar areas2. But the heat hasn’t gone away, it is accumulating.

In climatic terms, the oceans provide our main climate and weather features. As they suck up heat and release it in different parts of the globe, they also moderate it. Living on smallish islands like we do in NZ, you really notice it whenever you go to a continental climate. They so damn cold in winter and excessively warm in winter. That is because land locations far from the oceans are more directly reflect the annual cycles of lengthening and shortening days.

But even in those landlocked locations the majority  of the heat differences are buffered directly or indirectly by the oceans. Warm more energetic air bodies move towards colder regions like oceans which slurp up their heat. Oceans warmer than the air excrete heat to warm it. This heat exchange cycle provides much of our climate and weather patterns. It is a pattern that has now been relatively stable throughout out entire history as a civilised species.

So what happens when you keep tossing massive amounts of extra heat into the oceans? More heat means more energy. More energy means that the weather transporting heat is going to be more energetic. Over the remaining decades of this century it isn’t going to be good if you’re a farmer because the weather is going to start changing on you faster and faster. It might be warmer overall, but that just means more extreme mixing of the summer/winter differences. In other words bigger cold winter storms as polar air is pushed to warmer areas. More rain in places that don’t currently get it. Less rain in places that currently do. But most importantly less ability to predict how the temperatures will equalise themselves – at least for the next few thousand years.

We may be able to compensate partially by predicting weather and climate more accurately. But the problem is that we can generally predict climate over decades a whole lot better than we can predict what happens on a year by year basis. I feel that the farmers are going to be clean out of luck especially if the corporates continue to make money out of their carbon reserves by *burning* them!

If the farmers wind up having big difficulties, then the rest of us will as well.



1. We now know that the 100ky cycle is likely to be a result of  interactions between the forcings of the Milankovitch orbital resonance cycles and the internal climate system oscillations. We don’t fully understand why this cycle happens at that resonance, but in a lot of ways it simply doesn’t matter. At the current rate we’re going, we’re unlikely to be civilised enough to observe the next one anyway.

2. Nothing makes me shudder as much about the lack understanding of basic science as the illiterates who sometimes try to say that recent higher snowfalls in East Antarctica is a indication that global warming isn’t real. Huh?

Extra precipitation in a icy desert that for at least the last 20k years has on average received less than 50mm of precipitation as snow per year. Are they fools?

Firstly it won’t increase the ice mass as any excess mass will simply cause an increased flow of ice over the underlying mountains to the sea. Secondly it means that more heat in the form of air moisture turning to ice is managing to penetrate into the inland areas of east Antarctica. That means that the long term trend in the freezer of the world is that it starting to defrost. Oh shit!

For the nostalgia buffs, this posts front page image is here

34 comments on “1979: the year that the climate changed for me ”

  1. ianmac 1

    In the mid 1950s the IGY (International Geophysical Year) was exploring the potential for global warming and speculating on the effects at that time. As a student it concerned me then and still does. Especially when noting the location on the coast of most of the huge cities of the world. The effect on insect life and cropping was also up for discussion. The science that you have outlined confirms those fears.

  2. Ennui 2

    Nice retrospective Lyn, a few short years prior to your Damascene year I saw a movie in a geology lecture from the US Geological survey, the works of Hubberts and his curve of Peak Oil extraction. I promptly forgot about it for twenty years so you did far better than me. I was aware of the “greenhouse effect” at the time….now renamed / incorporated…..remained vaguely aware.

    For those who want some frightening MP3 listening go to this site http://www.ecoshock.info/
    It features some nasty things re oceanic disasters, oil based collapse etc etc…
    If you find this too depressing and need some psychological assistance try http://www.peakoilblues.org/blog/

    Me, in coming to terms with this, I just try to do little things to make a difference, acting locally one might say. I doubt if it will help but it helps my peace of mind.

    • weka 2.1

      interesting link, peakoilblues.

      I think the biggest issue we have at the moment is psychological. I do the little things too, but few of us are willing or able to do what is really needed. Why aren’t we taking to the streets already, given the stakes? Is it because people don’t ‘know’ enough? Or is it because we can’t cope with the reality? Or is it because we hope that the predictions are wrong, or at least that the future will go down the path of best case scenario rather than worst and thus we will maybe be ok without having to change too much now? All of that is down to how humans process internally and it’s hard to see what can be done until things are so bad people are forced to changed.

      • Ennui 2.1.1

        Glad you liked Kathy McMahon, she is an unstated hero who not only saves lifes, but also enables them to continue, gives them the tools. I hope there are a legion of Kathy fans out there praising her.

  3. Colonial Viper 3

    Nice post lprent. Now can we get back to increasing economic activity and growing consumption in order to deliver higher yields of fiat currency to the investment markets.

  4. Johnm 4

    I think the short film “Last Hours” sums up our probable future 🙁

    The Earth itself is responding with positive feedbacks.

  5. Rogue Trooper 5

    and that’s The Name of The Game : RISK, rather than Solitaire.

  6. johnm 6

    And another excellent summation of what’s happening:

    The Arctic Death Spiral and the Methane Time Bomb

    and: http://www.livescience.com/41476-more-arctic-seafloor-methane-found.html

    Twice as Much Methane Escaping Arctic Seafloor

    • ghostrider888 6.1

      Woooaahh, Mama!

      • johnm 6.1.1

        Hi ghostrider888

        Yes!It looks like our collective arse is grass. Never mind eh? 🙁

        • Rogue Trooper

          the odds are stacked against; there’s profit (not national prosperity, see US ‘energy’ self-sufficiency “trickle-down effects” if at all, only incidentally) in that there oil , etc.

        • Draco T Bastard

          Well, you know, just so long as the CEOs and shareholders get their dosh it’s all good eh /sarc

  7. Ennui 7

    have been in a ice age that was caused by Antarctica drifting into the south polar location, separating from Australia,…..I can just hear the oil company PR blubbering, “Its all down to plate tectonics. Its to blame! Its not our fault!!!!!!

    • lprent 7.1

      Yeah, and you can just see the idiots (you actually can!) pointing out that the world is usually 10-15 degrees C warmer than the last 40my and that all the oil companies are doing is shunting Antarctica a bit early.

      Of course that does rather ignore that all the current species including us are adapted for living in a chilly world. None of our species are particularly adapted to having the temperature shoot up in anything like that amount over a few hundred years. Just look at the diebacks that are happening in the arctic for everything from polar bears to shellfish.

  8. Well if we are on our way out I’d rather go down fighting than on my knees.
    The main positive feedback that we have always controlled and which has set off all the rest is burning carbon for energy.
    If we made zero carbon our last stand we could go with some dignity and humility. Instead of using as an alibi the idea that we cannot survive on renewables lets give it a shot.

    Guy McPherson, or is it Guy McStinction’s latest.

    • Colonial Viper 8.1

      It’ll take 10-20 years of major industrial and infrastructure retooling (expending much ff’s in the process) to reach a position able to sustain decent lifestyles on a zero carbon basis.

      Unfortunately hardly anyone who matters has the stomach for it.

  9. Joe Jones 9

    What a load of old rubbish.

    [lprent: Why? Because you prefer thinking with your dick rather than your brain? And as your only product activity is wanking, sperm doesn’t transmit a good argument to words?

    Idiot troll…. ]

    • Tim 9.1

      Apparently TS has a new troll – or rather a same turd attempting a different stink.
      Not unlike a C73 with a penis fetish.

      WISH I WAS YOU Joe! and Mr 73 – I’d even divide my time equally in my devotion to your causes

  10. johnm 10

    “World’s First Climate Refugee Rebuffed by New Zealand
    A man from the low-lying island nation of Kiribati is told that sea-level rise does not pose risk to him and his family”


    “A man from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, 37-year-old Ioane Teitiota, has been refused his bid to attain legal asylum status as one of the world’s first climate refugees after a judge in New Zealand on Tuesday rebuffed his appeal.

    Teitiota’s ongoing legal challenge presents the case that rising sea levels caused by human-caused global warming have imperiled his ability to live in his home country.

    Kiribati, with an average elevation of only 6.5 feet about sea level, is among the countries scientists say is most vulnerable to rising oceans and stronger storms, both of which increase as climate change continues to make its impact felt.”

  11. Ad 11

    How many beside myself are planning retreat (e.g. early retirement to Wanaka) -rather than action – because this feels too huge to change?

    • Rogue Trooper 11.1

      weeelll, I’ve never been to Wanaka… Thereabouts though.

      • lprent 11.1.1

        Good place for swimming if you wanted to get bitten by duck mites. At least it was in the late 80’s when I was at uni at otago for post-grad

        • Rogue Trooper

          worked out today that you are only seven years older than me. Go figure. ms says we should have a TS party, apparently you have held them before; be a hootenanny.

  12. Rogue Trooper 12

    I say I say, worked out today that you are only seven years older than me, and btw, ms says 😉 it would be a good idea to have a TS party, apparently you have held them before.

  13. rich the other 13

    Plenty of evidence gathered on this topic and is a real meal ticket for many , but when is global warming going to resume ,scientists from the ipcc agree that there has been no warming for 15years, (negotiated down from 18) ,that’s a long time , will it start in 5 days ,5years , 500 years , 5000, years ????.will it ever ??
    The truth is scientists are approaching their role on this topic from the wrong angle, all they see is stop carbon, they never will .
    They need to accept emissions will increase so bans ,carbon trading schemes, taxes etc etc are for the dreamers or politicaly motivated .
    The only realistic way forward is scientific investment in carbon capture ,clean burning technology’s etc etc etc , stop throwing money at the wrong scientists , redirect the spend, this approach is the only hope for a cleaner world .

    • lprent 13.1

      Pretty clear that you are a scientific dickhead (who will now whine about being called that).

      What you are talking about is air temperatures. Guess what, if you’d read the post with your eyes and brain rather than grabbing your dick and getting it to write for you, water is where the heat goes as there is vastly more mass there and it has something like 4-5x the ability to suck up heat.

      So since 1998 air temperatures haven’t risen as they did in the previous two decades. But they are still higher than they were 15 years ago. But fixated dickheads like yourself never seem to think of the water. In the last 15 years we have had the oceans rising in temperature through most of the water column far more than they did in the previous two decades.

      Simple fools like yourself never seem to realise that the actual issue is about heat retention. It isn’t about temperature… It is cock waving fools like you that give deniers a bad name – generally that name starts with the word “stupid”

      I trust that we will see a better standard of cribbing from others from you in the future. Otherwise I will remind you of the same things again…

      • One Anonymous Knucklehead 13.1.1

        A picture tells a thousand words, Rich the Other.

        Lprent has already summed up your behaviour, but I have a question for you.

        Are you misrepresenting the IPCC’s position out of ignorance or mendacity?

      • rich the other 13.1.2

        Handy stuff that water, good to see you recognise the climate has been changing over millions of years.
        My point remains , no amount of crying by a bunch of over paid scientists is going to change anything.
        Governments need to redirect them , let’s talk about coal , the fuel most obsessed about.
        Coal consumption is going through the roof , Japan is the latest country to return to coal fired power generation , Germany , the bastion of wind power is also returning to coal , consumption in Asia is skyrocketing with out taking into account the 1.5 billion who have no electricity .
        China is easing it’s one child policy , the point is the world isn’t about to stop so it’s time to get real , even if the west reduces it’s pollution rates it won’t be enough to make any difference when you take into account the worlds population growth and skyrocketing demand for energy.
        Time to rethink , start advocating for science that will control carbon , the greens solution , tax it , carbon trading etc is a joke .
        One thing is for sure , the spongers on this gravy train are losing credibility and respect internationally , the latest to show signs of going soft on their previously staunch climate position are the Brits.


        • One Anonymous Knucklehead

          Um yes, a mishmash mumble of contradictory waffle, signifying nothing. The scientists who, according to you, have lost credibility, are the same ones you rely on for your references to coal and growth in the developing world.

          On the one hand you failed, like a failure, to answer my question, and on the other, you showed that the problem may be neither ignorance nor mendacity, but rather that you lack the cognitive ability to recognise either.

          What do we want? Better wingnuts!
          When do we want them? Now!

  14. rich the other 14

    Just for you Iprent., this is what’s happening in the real world.

    {. Japan is burning so much coal as it tries to lower the cost of replacing nuclear energy that it may see a surprise dip in imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 2013, the first in four years.

    Many analysts are still forecasting a rise given that Japan’s last two nuclear power plants went offline in September, finishing a complete shutdown of the industry started by the March 2011 Fukushima disaster.

    But under pressure from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to improve industry competitiveness, Japan has thrown out greenhouse emissions limits and its utilities are burning record amounts of thermal coal.

    Japan’s 10 main utilities, making up half of the nation’s coal use, consumed nearly 16 percent more coal in the first 10 months compared with a year ago and imported nearly 11 percent more. Consumption rose 26 percent in October alone }.

    But wait there’s more, thank’s to fracking the cost of natural gas in the U S is one third of the cost in Europe, Europe will be forced to rejoin the real world.

    It’s time to redirect your scientists to some useful work if emissions concern you.

  15. rich the other 15

    Some more reality Iprent ,
    this is actually what’s happening in the world .

    [ China’s coal consumption is forecast to rise by 37.1% by 2020, according to the China National Coal Association in a report.

    Coal consumption in China amounted to 3.52 billion tonnes in 2012, the Coal Association expects this to rise to 4.8 billion tonnes by 2020.]

    Makes a joke of the whole scientific approach to global warming , the world isn’t about to stop.

    • lprent 15.1

      That unfortunately is also my conclusion. However it is having an impact in changing the acceleration rate at which we’re heading towards a stupid disaster.

      The consequences of not doing so are also quite clear. At present I’m expecting to see the we will see further significiant shifts in the frequency of extreme weather events over the next two decades as the southern oscillation shifts back. Greenland is likely to lose its icecap over the next couple of decades. I’d expect increased melt in the west antarctic showing up over the next couple of decades.

      However figures like that rate of growth on coal in China are diminishing rapidly, and the use of coal in other areas has dropped markedly over recent decades.The price of liquid hydrocarbons has been rising rapidly and their use is starting to diminish throughout the world. Some of the energy shift has been going to natural gas, which has been dropping the impact.

      Some of the technologies required to drop the emission levels of greenhouse gases are starting to get to both maturity and mass production.

      We’re nearing the population growth tipping point.

      I’m getting hopeful that we won’t change our climate so much that we trigger a vast dieback amongst the ecosystem we depend on.

      But I suspect that having a technological civilisation in a century is somewhat more problematic as the agricultural systems don’t look like they can withstand the climatic shifts being able to produce enough food for the worlds population.

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