Filed under: Personal. Tagged as: climate change, climate data, global temperature rise.
I’ve been pestering my family over the last few months about how attempts to curb global climate change has gone way off track and how they need to have a 5-year exit strategy. Obviously, I sound like a nut. They can’t seem figure out why I’m so passionate about the need to form a plan to cope with climate change right now.
I have no doubt that I sound like a religious nut-ball proclaiming armageddon. Unlike a faith based prediction, I actually have a large body of scientific data from which I draw my conclusions. Signal processing is also a specialty of mine, which means I look at the squiggly lines created by data all day in order to figure out what is going on. Looking at climate data isn’t much different than looking at signals from an electrical system. I decided to take a fresh look at publicly available climate data and explain, from an engineer’s perspective, why the data describes a recipe for disaster.
Most of the data and pictures in this article were pulled from Wikipedia articles. I site my sources for each below – so please feel free to do your own analysis and draw your own conclusions. If you don’t agree with my analysis (or if you do), I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Global Temperature Rise
The most obvious place to start is with global temperature rise. Chances are that if you read an article about climate change, they’ll quote some sort of global temperature benchmark such as 1C, 1.5C, 2C, etc. These are temperatures in degrees centigrade above ‘pre-industrial temperatures’. Wikipedia has a great article on the instrumental temperature record of the earths temperatures.
Let me point out first that this is not the most important piece of information to look at… but I’ll get to that in a minute. Temperature rise is the most widely quoted statistic, so it’s important that we address it first. Look at these pictures from NOAH graphing land and ocean temperatures:
‘Global‘ temperatures quoted in news articles is actually the average of land and ocean temperatures. So when you read about a ‘2C rise’, they actually mean a 2C rise in the average temperature of land and sea.
The first thing you should notice is the sharp increase in temperatures over the last three decades. While this is alarming in itself, there is a more complex story at work that you should understand.
The same Wikipedia page on the instrumental temperature record lists the 20 warmest years on record, all of which are in the last three decades. From this data I was able to plot the global average and global land temperatures for the last few decades in Excel. I was also able to use this data to do a linear prediction of temperatures between now and 2020.
Based on this ‘zoomed in’ view, you should be able to see the following points clearly:
- The first thing you should notice is that global temperatures are increasing. No matter how you slice it, that’s reality.
- The second thing to notice is that according to this model, ‘Global’ temperatures are not expected to exceed 1C by 2020. That’s good news for the immediate future as 2C is the threshold where dire predictions occur. However, I’ll explain below why this figure is probably way too optimistic.
- The land temperature is both higher and increasing faster than the ‘global’ temperature. This is important as land is where we grow food and these higher temperatures will adversely affect crop yields. In 2020, this model predicts the increase in land temperature to be double what is was in 2000. Again, this is a very optimistic prediction.
Historical CO2 & Temperature Levels
To really bring this temperature data into perspective though, you have to look back at historical levels. It’s less obvious how off-kilter we are without a frame a reference.
The Wikipedia page on climate change includes this awesome plot of historical temperatures, CO2, and dust as interpreted from ice core samples taken from Vostok, Antarctica:
At first glance, you should notice that CO2 (green) and global temperatures (blue) appear to move in unison. However, when you look even closer, you’ll see that CO2 actually leads temperature. A decrease in CO2 concentration is followed by a decrease in temperature. A rise in CO2 concentration proceeds a rise in temperature. Here are two examples that show what I mean:
Note: This is actually incorrect. I was reading the graph backwards. Temperature actually leads CO2. See the comments below for details.
The left side of box 1 is right on top of a peak in CO2. You can see that the corresponding peak in temperature occurs slightly after the left side of this box. You can see this same phenominon illustrated throughout the graph.
Why Carbon Dioxide Levels Are So Important
The other major fact that you should note from the ice core graph is that maximum concentrations of CO2 have never exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm). Present CO2 levels, measured in Hawaii, have been increasing steadily over the last several decades and presently hover between 380 and 390 ppm. This nice graph of ppm concentration is also referenced on the Wikipedia page for climate change.
The reason carbon dioxide levels are so important is for these two reasons:
- All the historical data we have from ice cores show that temperatures rise with rising CO2 levels.
- Present CO2 levels are much higher than at any point in the last 450,000 years
The last dozen or so articles on climate change that I’ve read have reported that climate scientists expect global average temperatures to hit 2C in 5 to 15 years from now. Based on my own analysis, I completely agree with this conclusion.
The fact of the matter is that CO2 levels are so high that no one knows what will happen. We’re officially in uncharted territory. The one thing we can be confident in is that global temperatures will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.
From reading this article, I hope that you take away the following points:
- A sharp rise in CO2 levels reliably predicts sharp rises in temperature
- In the last 450,000 years CO2 concentration have never exceeded 300 ppm. They are now at 385 ppm and rising.
- Global temperature rise is currently around 0.7C. Once we cross 2C, then bad things happen
- Most experts agree that we will reach 2C between 2015 and 2030 and this forecast is highly likely given the data above.
These are all the reasons why I am strongly urging my friends and family to create a 5-year ‘fall out’ plan. If you take action now, then you’ll have plenty of time to prepare. However, in 5 years, you’re going to be competing with the other 7 billion people for the resources needed to weather the storms of the future.
What do you think? Am I wrong? Am I right? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.