The Hot Zone

Energy Audit

Posted by Alison Hawkes on April 15, 2010
Category : Earth Systems

Where has all the energy from global warming gone?

Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado trying to track global warming couldn’t account for about half of where the all net energy  goes. In a piece published today in the journal Science, the authors looked at measurements of incoming solar energy and outgoing radiative energy to show that the Earth is, indeed, warming. But they concluded that we have no idea where the excess energy is going.

Certain obvious spots to look — surface temperatures and the top 2,000 meters of the ocean water column — have shown some leveling off in temperature increases in recent years. Lest you conclude that climate change is a hoax, other signs of a warming planet are still painfully obvious. Sea levels have steadily risen an average 3.2 mm per year since 1992, while  glacial land ice and water have declined. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are definitely on the increase.

The authors suggested the heat could be sinking into the deepest part of the ocean, which is not well tracked or measured. Some of it’s certainly going to melt polar sea ice. It could be lurking in some unknown spot. Which is kind of scary. What do we not know?

“The heat will come back to haunt us sooner or later,” says the article’s lead author, scientist Kevin Trenberth.

The El Nino Southern Oscillation is the result, in part, of warm waters spreading across the Pacific Ocean and fueling tropical storms. So maybe the energy is seeping out as part of the natural climate cycle — but more intensely?

Where does the energy go? Published in "Tracking Earth's Energy," Science.

Where does the energy go? Published in "Tracking Earth's Energy," Science.

There is also a possibility that satellite measurements of incoming and outgoing energy are somehow skewed, though before 2003 the measured increase was pretty much aligned with computer model predictions. Better measurement tools would certainly help. But the authors put a stern warning on geoengineering tactics, like sending tiny particles into the atmosphere to reflect light back into space.

“Implicitly, such proposals assume understanding and control of the energy flow,” the authors wrote. “Which requires detailed tracking of energy within the climate system.”

It’s like bailing out a failing company or public agency. Before you bring in drastic restructuring, you need an audit. In this case, an energy audit.

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