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The Wrath of the Sea

Written By: - Date published: 1:59 pm, January 5th, 2011 - 28 comments
Categories: climate change, science - Tags: ,

In his famous short story Typhoon, Joseph Conrad writes of a negligent sea-captain that “Omens were as nothing to him, and he was unable to discover the message of a prophecy till the fulfilment had brought it home to his very door.”

This is perhaps nowhere more relevant than in the context of the attempt by anti-global warming nutters to explain away recent European ice storms as evidence that global warming is a fiction. Actually, what is happening is a destabilisation of the climate which mainstream scientists have begun to call the “Warm Arctic / Cool Continents” syndrome. [lprent: see NOAA Arctic report card – Atmosphere]

Normally, when the arctic is frozen, a current of air flows around the arctic and blocks its extreme cold from Europe. The prevailing winds in countries like the UK are westerly and winters are mild, most of the time.

But when the ice starts to disappear, there is a significant warming effect from the seawater, which is tens of degrees warmer than the air in winter, and this disrupts the circumpolar air current, producing a system of north-south prevailing winds instead of east-west prevailing winds. Thus, Britain is hit by northerlies instead of westerlies, and the northerlies are so cold that they produce temperatures of 20 below C in the UK and nearly 40 below in Switzerland, as measured recently.

The flip side is that the arctic gets significantly warmer because the northerlies over the continents are matched by southerlies elsewhere, particularly in the mid-ocean areas such as the North Atlantic. It’s been likened by the same mainstream scientists to leaving the fridge door open – the room gets colder and the fridge gets warmer. Thus even as Britain froze in 20 below temperatures this Xmas, parts of Greenland were at +9 degrees due to warm southerlies coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, and to reiterate that’s in the middle of the arctic winter. This means that the ice is continuing to melt in winter as well as in summer. Because of this ‘fridge door’ effect some quite reputable scientists now think the arctic ocean will be free of floating ice in summer as soon as 2013.

A further effect is that the exposed water, tens of degrees warmer than the air, literally steams and puts huge volumes of moisture into the air, so that the northerlies flowing southward dump huge volumes of snow on the landscape.

The image I’ve posted here isn’t a scene from The Day After Tomorrow, but a 7 January 2010 weather shot (click it for larger image). For a curious fact is that all this accords with a theory of the ice ages put forward in the 1950s by researchers Maurice Ewing and William Donn, as described on the website of the American Institute of Physics :

Our current epoch of ice ages, Ewing and Donn argued, had begun when the North Pole wandered into the Arctic Ocean basin. The ocean, cooling but still free of ice, had evaporated moisture and promoted a pattern of severe weather. Heavy snows fell all around the Arctic, building continental ice sheets. That withdrew water from the world’s oceans, and the sea level dropped. This blocked the shallow channels through which warm currents flowed into the Arctic Ocean, so the ocean froze over. That meant the continental ice sheets were deprived of storms bringing moisture evaporated from the Arctic Ocean, so the sheets began to dwindle. The seas rose, warm currents spilled back into the Arctic Ocean, and its ice cover melted. And so, in a great tangle of feedbacks, a new cycle began.

This theory was especially interesting in view of reports that northern regions had been noticeably warming and ice was retreating. Ewing and Donn suggested that the polar ocean might become ice-free, and launch us into a new ice age, within the next few thousand years — or even the next few hundred years.

Or by 2013. The AIP website points out that there were some problems with the Ewing/Donn theory, and it’s 50 years out of date now. but nonetheless the general idea, of a warm Arctic Ocean breeding huge snowfalls all over its continental margin is completely plausible, and fits the more recent Warm Arctic / Cool Continents model.

While it seems nobody thinks we’ll actually have an actual Day After Tomorrow scenario once the polar ice is gone, there is the possibility of something like a reversion to the conditions of the “Little Ice Age” which followed hard on the heels of the Mediaeval Warm Period in Europe, and perhaps for the same reasons. During the Little Ice Age Europe was hit by more and worse storms than today, such as the All Saints Day storm of November 1570 which is estimated to have killed 400,000 people, mainly through flooding in countries such as Holland. While we would expect the casualty toll to be vastly less in a modern society, insurance companies like Swiss Re are nonetheless very worried about the economic implications of a return to such a brutal climate. It’s easily possible to imagine a situation in which power lines down for weeks every winter. The costs would dwarf anything we are likely to spend on developing new green technologies, carbon taxes and so on.

You can search all this stuff using key phrases like warm arctic – cool continents. But the key take home is just the utter triviality and stupidity of the skeptics, who are so much like Conrad’s idiot skipper, sailing blithely into a typhoon:

Dirty weather he had known, of course. He had been made wet, uncomfortable, tired in the usual way … But he had never been given a glimpse of immeasurable strength and immoderate wrath, the wrath that passes exhausted but never appeased — the wrath and fury of the passionate sea. He knew it existed, as we know that crimes and abominations exist; he had heard of it as a peaceable citizen in a town hears of battles, famines and floods, and yet knows nothing of what these things mean…

Or to put it another way: you might not be interested in global warming, but global warming is interested in you.

(I am indebted to a letter to the editor in a recent issue of National Geographic, in which the Conrad quote appears in this connection.)


28 comments on “The Wrath of the Sea ”

  1. I suspect that New Zealand is experiencing a similar phenomenon. It seems to me that in winter more and more storms come from the south and they are getting harsher and harsher.

    There is a comparable photo of the South Island after a 2006 storm at http://www.nasaimages.org/luna/servlet/detail/nasaNAS~10~10~71919~177256:Winter-Storm-in-New-Zealand

    80% of it must be covered in snow.

    I really hope the anti global-warming nutters are right but somehow I do not think so …

    • Draco T Bastard 1.1

      I really hope the anti global-warming nutters are right…

      They’re not. The fact that they believe that they are is what makes them delusional nutters.

    • Sailor Sam 1.2

      Does the above article not dispute “global warming”?
      Anyway this term has long ago been changed to “climate change”.

      And maybe the old theory of warmer Arctic/Antarctic and cold continents holds true as a normal cycle in the earths atmospheric conditions.
      And maybe we humans have nothing much to do with it anyway.
      I am willing to accept there is climate chnage, but am open to the various reasons that may be causing it, man made or otherwise.

      • lprent 1.2.1

        Does the above article not dispute “global warming”?
        Anyway this term has long ago been changed to “climate change”.

        *sigh* Global warming is a cause, climate change is an effect. I realize that scientific morons like yourself frequently confuse the two, but that is really no excuse for the rest of your stupid comment.

        And maybe the old theory of warmer Arctic/Antarctic and cold continents holds true as a normal cycle in the earths atmospheric conditions.

        The theory is pretty specific to the northern hemisphere (ie it is a regional effect) because while the same overall could happen in the southern hemisphere if the circum-Antarctica airflow reduced or stopped, even the worst sailor should be able to read a chart and find that there are no continents particularly close apart from the thin strip of Patagonia.

        I am willing to accept there is climate chnage, but am open to the various reasons that may be causing it, man made or otherwise

        Of course there is natural climate change and it has happened in the past and a lot of the reasons it has happened have been deduced from the geological record plus climate modelling. The work to prove that has happened has come from the same earth scientists that are now saying the human generated climate change is underway.

        So in effect what you’re saying is that you want to pick and choose the results from the earth scientists based on convienience. Tell me, how does it feel to be quite such a hypocrite?

        It is quite evident from what you’re saying that you’re simply wanting to ignore the consequences of being partially responsible for human forced climate change and prefer to dump the whole issue onto kids. You really are the type of fuckwit sailor that Conrad was referring to.

  2. Oscar 2

    Im probably one of those nutters. Its not that I don’t believe in global warming/climate change, in fact, I do think that man has in some small effect contributed.
    I just don’t believe this nutbar theory that CO2 is bad. There was a book I recently read (name escapes me now) that described how in the 15th century, sailors were easily able to traverse from England to Greenland, which coincidentally was largely free of ice in the southern region during the same period.
    Like I’ve said all along, it’s nothing more than a natural cycle, but we just take incidents like the previous two years and blow it all out of proportion.
    My pick: England will experience longer and colder winters while Greenlands ice will keep rapidly expanding and contracting.

    • Draco T Bastard 2.1

      There was a book I recently read (name escapes me now) that described how in the 15th century, sailors were easily able to traverse from England to Greenland, which coincidentally was largely free of ice in the southern region during the same period.

      Whatever gave you the idea that there was anything to stop them?

      • Oscar 2.1.1

        I should have expanded more. Going through the arctic circle. Remember, this is in the days pre compass when they certainly didn’t know greenland was due west.

    • RedLogix 2.2

      sailors were easily able to traverse from England to Greenland, which coincidentally was largely free of ice in the southern region during the same period.

      OK let’s take this statement at face value. It is of course quite wrong to think of these ‘natural cycles’ as entirely mysterious, random and wholly unpredictable…. occuring as it were for no apparent reason. There is always a reason why climate of the planet changes. Climate is essentially an energy balance between three main drivers:

      1. The energy arriving from the sun, which is impacted by the life of the sun itself (it’s very slowly getting hotter), variations in the earth’s orbit…called the Milankovitch cycles.
      2. The location of the continents and oceans with respect to the earths axis which impacts the albedo or reflectivity of the planet as a whole
      3. The composition of the atmosphere which determines how much of the energy reflected from the surface is trapped within the climate system.

      These things all interact to change climate in a very complex fashion… but ultimately the reason for those changes can always be linked back to these fundamental drivers. No scientist has for one moment denied or attempted to minimise these so called ‘natural variations’. Quite the contrary, studying them is the main way they can determine the ‘sensitivity’ of the climate to any given variation in the drivers.

      So when climate scientists look back at this warm period in the Middle Ages (MWP) they only find relatively weak drivers for this change… in other words if the MWP was real then it represented quite a large effect in response to relatively small drivers. Remember… climate never changes for no reason.

      Logically arguing for the existence of the MWP only strengthens the case for a higher climate sensitivity rather than a lower one…. which only increases our own future uncertainties in completely the wrong direction.

    • Zorr 2.3

      “Its not that I don’t believe in global warming/climate change, in fact, I do think that man has in some small effect contributed” comes across to me a lot like the quote “That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut”

      No actual evidence for the stance, just one taken purely on instinct and feel with zero scientific basis. Some links to scientific evidence or peer-reviewed papers would be just lovely right about now.

      • Oscar 2.3.1

        Two things

        1) Humans ignore their gut instinct at our peril. We should listen to our instincts far more than facts/figures and hypothesis. It’s something we have lost touch with

        2) Can you show me ANY peer review evidence that CO2 is bad for Earth?

  3. jaymam 3

    By “anti-global warming” surely you mean “anti-anthropogenic global warming”.
    Almost NOBODY is denying that the climate changes, as it’s done for millions of years.
    Sensible people know that Carbon Dioxide has an insignificant effect on climate.
    The rest are ill-informed or liars.

    • ZeeBop 3.1

      Tell that to Mars and Venus! The size of the Marsian atmosphere is directly related to carbon dioxide acting as a heat trap.

      • Zorr 3.1.1

        Or you could get your planets right and not look like a tard… –facepalm–

        • NickS

          Well, CO2 levels in the Martian atmosphere do play a significant role in keeping Mars warmer than the vacuum of space, and are theoretically one of the things any terraforming operation would likely boost to increase the surface temperature range 😛

    • NickS 3.2

      Yes, because in no way do the double bonds in carbon dioxide absorb parts of the IR spectrum, thus gaining kinetic energy and grater movement, otherwise known as “heat” with some emittance of lower energy photons, if an energised molecule doesn’t bounce off another one and thus spread teh energy around. Enough so, that it does quite clearly result in slower rates of heat loss from the Earth’s surface as CO2 concentrations increase, and can be nutted out from first principles with a bit of (lab) kit* and some basic maths, or just from observational data like Arrhenius did back in the 19th century and work it out yourself.

      Not that you morons could even manage something as simple as that, instead preferring to quote mine, misinterpret and make shit up. Or more regularly, just ignore any inconvenient, well supported factual evidence such as CO2 and H2O absorbance spectra and the distribution of both gases in the atmosphere, and how while the sun’s activity has decreased in the last 2-3 decades, while average global temperatures keep climbing. But hey, just like creationists, HIV denialists, anti-vaccinationists, relativity and holocaust deniers, why let reality get in the way of your personal beliefs?
      1) N2, O2 and CO2 bottles, not perfectly clear on how to manage H2O vapour, but assume small amount of water placed in air tight, highly transparent lab glass container should do, apply gas laws to nut it out.
      2) Obviously take said bottle, add gasses via controllable valve system + variable light source, preferably one that and (digital might be an idea) thermometer and play around with CO2 and H2O gas concentrations while recording temperature curve over a set time period.
      3) And don’t forget the bloody controls, one for CO2 and one for H2O vapour. In which amounts of each are held constant over time. And if done right, statistical analysis might not be needed, but if so, an ANOVA should be fine. As long as it’s not done in excel /shudder

    • MrSmith 3.3

      Jaymam: may I suggest you just light one up, sit back and take it easy.

    • Draco T Bastard 3.4

      No jaymam, the liars are the people who deny the science. People like Monkton and the ill-informed are the people just like you who listen to the liars.

  4. NickS 4

    Good post, and it covers some of the ground concerning current explanations for the EU and NA cold snap. Could have done with a bit more linkage though, as there’s been plenty of stuff on the climate blogs, i.e. http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/12/cold-winter-in-a-world-of-warming/

    Can’t provide more though, had to reinstall windows and have lost a ton of stuff, again…

    • MrSmith 4.1

      A Mac with time machine might stop that happening again NickS. but you no what they say about good advice!

    • lprent 4.2

      That was what I thought, and why I put the post through with limited links.

      Sidetracking: I gave up on Microsoft for my systems a few years ago after using it since dos 2.0. Main reason is that the stability was getting worse rather than better and I was having to rebuild it every 12-18 months. Now all of my systems except for a old windows server are kubuntu with old windows client versions in virtual boxes and in dual boots. I would have gone Mac because it is stable. But their system is just too proprietary for basic tools. With ubuntu I only had to buy slickedit to get my full toolkit. Strange thing is that since then my employed work now splits about even between Linux and Windows whereas it was close to exclusively windows prior

      • higherstandard 4.2.1

        Windows is the antichrist.

      • NickS 4.2.2

        Well, that install of Vista did stay stable for the 3 years after I set it up for my brother, with only a minor blip from my stuffing around with overclocking the CPU the lazy way. 😛

        But since I like my videogames, I’m stuck with windows and until I buy a new PC, instead of recycling, I don’t see myself installing ubuntu any time soon otherwise. Unless I get a netbook. And yes, MS’s current business plan OS wise might make good business “sense” but it’s a pain in the arse for everyone else, especially as XP matured into a fairly solid OS. At least for a MS product.

        Also death unto Apple.

        • lprent

          Dual boot it. Install XP, then install ubuntu. It will correctly repartition. Then you can boot into XP when you want to play games.

  5. john 5

    James Lovelock has described Climate Change as being like walking down a Mountain Spur which gets increasingly steeper and steeper until one falls off the cliff at the end assuming there is mist, like in the Tararuas! Positive feedback processes are happening speeding up the rate of change, it is not a predictable linear process. What is happening, as the post explains, is Climate Change causing extremely cold Winters in the UK at the same time as Greenland is anomalously warmer.
    Climate Change is hitting Queensland at the moment: They’ve had one river system flood before but now it’s all three at once!
    Pakistan is still suffering from the biggest floods ever known.
    Russia had freak heating causing huge fires in their Summer but is now freezing.
    Freak Cold has moved as far south as Cuba and North America is having some of its coldest weather ever.

    In the UK people assumed with Global Warming that snow would eventually be in the past tense, but a destabilised climate system has chaotically thrown a surprise.

    As James Lovelock says in his book Gaia the climate was regulated by life for life but we have so severely impacted this system, that it has at least temporarily ceased to operate.

    Quote from “The revenge of Gaia” Chapter 9 “Beyond the Terminus”:

    “Like the Norns in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, we are at the end of our tether, and the rope,whose weave defines our fate, is about to break.
    Gaia,the living Earth, is old and not as strong as she was two billion years ago. She struggles to keep the Earth cool enough for her myriad forms of life against the ineluctable increase in the sun’s heat. But to add to her difficulties, one of those forms of life, humans, disputatious tribal animals with dreams of conquest even of other planets, has tried to rule the Earth for their own benefit alone. With breathtaking insolence they have taken the stores of carbon that Gaia buried to keep oxygen at its proper level and burnt them. In so doing they have usurped Gaia’s authority and thwarted her obligation to keep the planet fit for life; they thought only of their own comfort and convenience.”

    One of the insights Lovelock gives us is that as the sun heats up Gaia has used ice ages as a means to keep the planet cool, temperature regulation!, Also surprising to us is that Life was actually more abundant especially in the Oceans during these cold periods! Nearer the equator huge areas of land were above sea level during Ice Ages which in this InterGlacial are now below sea level as the World continues to heat up more areas of land will go below sea level.

    • ZeeBop 5.1

      A warmer planet will need to exhaust more heat into space. The processes of
      dumping heat, convection happen more over continents and land masses.
      These weather machines usually dump rain, buy if energetic enough
      they can force rain to cycle a few more times and turn into hail and snow.
      So a warmer planet would expect to see colder winters over land masses.
      Warmer seas means colder continents. If the sun has been unusually
      less hot, then we’re really in deep snow for some time to come.

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