iwhasup.gif (915 bytes)
intdots.gif (546 bytes)
white1.GIF (834 bytes)

What's Hot? 1998.

It’s official now. The announcement has been made and the arm has been raised: 1998 is the new holder of the title of "the warmest year." The claim is being made that this year is not just the warmest of the last 150 years (the period confined to thermometer measurements), but is indeed the undisputed heavyweight champion of the last millennium.

While most apocalysts are touting this as evidence that dreaded anthropogenic global warming is upon us, we think it has other, less dire, implications.

Not only was 1998 warm, but it broke the old record in the surface temperature history by 0.15°C. This might not sound like much, but consider that during the string of previous records, new ones usually only topped the existing ones by a couple hundredths of a degree or so. Such a large step, like that of 1998, is generally not what is expected from a gradual global warming, but is more indicative of some sort of definable climate event, in this case El Niņo.

The warmth in 1998 is not just limited to surface records; it also shows up in both the satellite and weather balloon data sets. This, in itself, is unusual, since the satellites and weather balloons, which measure temperatures throughout the lower atmosphere, have not shown the warming trend that is present in the surface temperature record for the past 20 years (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Global annual temperatures as recorded in the three temperature records—surface, satellite, and weather balloon. The data have been adjusted to the same starting value in 1979, the year that satellite records began. The values for 1998 represent our best estimates.

This discrepancy between the surface and the lower atmosphere is not predicted by any of the General Circulation Models (GCMs) used to project the future climate under conditions of an increasing anthropogenic greenhouse effect. In fact, it is currently one of the hottest topics of debate in the climate change arena, with the satellite and weather-balloon records coming under increasing attack by those who are wedded to the model results.

But the warmth of 1998 may shed some new light on this discrepancy. The presence of this year’s major El Niņo was clearly observable and documented to have large-scale effects—effects not only felt at the surface, but observable throughout the lower atmosphere, as all three of the temperature data sets attest. The same can be said of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the spring of 1991. That time, the addition of volcanic ash to the upper parts of the atmosphere acted to cool the earth, and the effect was recorded by the surface thermometers, as well as throughout the lower atmosphere by weather balloons and satellites. Events such as these are proof that when something acts to alter the earth’s temperature, our system of temperature sensors accurately records it.

Now, contrast this with the claims of a warming caused by an increased greenhouse effect. Again, this warming is forecast to occur at the surface and throughout the lower atmosphere. Current GCMs project that the warming over the last 20 years because of this effect should have been about 0.36°C. Supporters of the GCM results point to a warming in the surface record of nearly this amount during this time as proof that the models are working correctly.

But the observations from both the satellites and the weather balloons do not corroborate this temperature change. In fact, these two independent sets of observations don’t show much of a temperature change at all, and they are very similar to each other year in and year out. This lends credence to the temperatures they are measuring, suggesting that they’re real and are different from those measured at the surface.

What this all means is that we have an established temperature sensor network that has been proven to work by observing temperature variations caused by real perturbations of the earth’s atmospheric system, yet is unable to capture the hypothesized changes due to an increased greenhouse effect. This news is a powerful indication that something is amiss with our current understanding of how anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere affect global temperatures.

We feel strongly that political policy should follow scientific understanding, not precede it. And the temperatures of 1998 make it patently obvious that our scientific understanding of this issue is far from complete.

 

Cities on Fire

Albert Gore, the Environmental Vice President who would be the Environmental President, is only one millennial election away from getting to sit behind the Big Desk.

But it seems unlikely that the millennial Senate is going to grant him the Kyoto Protocol, which requires some type of financial mechanism (i.e. taxes) that discourages energy use so much that you would prefer a cooler home in the winter and a warmer one in the summer, a smaller car, and more expensive meals. Switch the cat from canned food to crunchies.

Talk about politically incorrect! This will force a Senatorial end-run. Many D.C. insiders expect the EPA to declare carbon dioxide a pollutant and subsequently subject the citizenry to "regulation without legislation" (the 21st-century version of "Taxation without Representation," sans the inherent charm). But that case is hard to make, considering CO2 is as natural as breathing and makes our planet greener. If it caused people to die, however, the EPA could step in and save the day.

A small group of international researchers has been working hard to demonstrate that disproportionately more people will die if CO2 continues to increase. In that vein, a recent Nature piece by NOAA researchers Gaffen and Ross created a pre-Christmas page one stir amidst other pressing news. They determined that the "apparent temperature" (a measure of discomfort that combines temperature, humidity, and wind) and a "threshold temperature" (the temperature beyond which people die disproportionately in some cities) have been increasing in many U.S. metropolitan areas.

This research confirms that surface temperature and humidity in and around major cities have generally been on the rise. The implication is that this may be related to global warming and that more people will die if something isn’t done to stop it. But everyone knows that city temperatures rise compared to the countryside whether or not the planet warms. It’s the byproduct of economic activity like building high rises and making things. (In our Nation’s Capital, it’s the waste heat from all the money changing hands.)

Which makes us wonder 1) why people who live in the hottest places (Miami and Phoenix) have no excess mortality on hot days; and 2) why people who live in cities are healthier than people who live in the surrounding rural areas.

We suggest that the answers are 1) adaptation and 2) infrastructure. Would this nation really be healthier without cities? Many of the environmental idealists pushing Kyoto think so, but hard data argue to the contrary. We might make an exception for D.C.

References:

Kalkstein, L.S., and R.E. Davis, 1989, Weather and human mortality: An evaluation of demographic and interregional responses in the United States. Annals of the Association of American Geography, 79, 44–64.

Gaffen, D.J. and R.J. Ross, 1998, Increased summertime heat stress in the U.S. Nature, 396, 529–530.