December 21, 2004

Where’s the Party?

Filed under: Temperature History

2004 may be the fourth-warmest year on record, but we haven’t had a real first record-setter since 1998, so it’s hardly an indicator of a torrid warming clip.

Preliminary data indicate 2004 is likely to come in as the fourth-warmest year in the surface temperature record. Yet despite all the gloom-and-doom hoopla, we haven’t had an all-time record since the big El Nino year of 1998—a clear indicator that the planet, while warming, surely isn’t doing so at a torrid clip.

If the earth’s climate were really responding the way that climate models project it should, the “warmest year on record” would be announced about every other year (factoring in the observed level of natural variation in annual average temperatures).

But observations show that the “warmest year” record is being set only about once every five years or so. The current frequency of record hot years is an indication that the climate is warming at a rate that lies near the low end, rather than near the upper end, of the range of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections (a temperature rise of 1.4ºC to 5.8ºC by 2100). That may well be because the climate models are routinely fed emissions scenarios that produce the most extreme temperature rise.

Another indication that we are plodding along the low end is that the overall warming trend since 1976—arguably the time when the earth began warming again after a 30-plus year cooling trend (the trend that prompted the mid-1970s fear that we were headed into the next Ice Age)—is a mere 0.17ºC per decade. There is no evidence that that trend is changing, despite claims that we are making things worse at an ever increasing rate (Figure 1). An easy calculation shows that the IPCC low-end and upper-end warming rates are 0.14ºC and 0.58ºC per decade, respectively. Obviously, we are flirting with the low number.

Temperature History

Figure 1. Global average temperature anomalies (from the 1961-1990 mean) since 1976. The established warming trend is 0.17ºC per decade. Any news reports indicating an “increasing” warming trend are hogwash. And we choose our words carefully here.

That should be cause for celebration, given that we couldn’t stop warming no matter how hard we might try. The world isn’t going to overnight develop and implement an alternative (non fossil fuel) power source that can supply the needs of 6.5 billion people. We are stuck with what we have, and we should be thankful that the earth is warming at this relatively slow rate, rather than in the runaway fashion predicted by some climate models (which must be fed inordinately large increases in carbon dioxide to overheat).

If the past three decades or so are any indication (and there is every reason to believe that they are), the climate of the earth is due for a continuation of this modest warming. But, in time, our dependence on fossil fuels will run its course, and we will move on to other sources of energy (and no doubt, other impending crises surrounding them). By then, the global average temperature will likely be a bit higher than it is now, as will agricultural productivity and average human life span.

So, since no one else has, we’ll raise a glass to the temperatures in 2004—and to the fourth-warmest year on record!

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