I always cringe when I read or hear someone remark, “I just cleared six inches of Global Warming off my driveway.” It sounds clever, but I when I read or hear this from someone I find myself hoping that the person is trying to make a joke about themselves, and not that the person is trying to make some political statement that they have proof that contradicts real science. Suffice to say that even the most unsophisticated person should know that an observation at any one location is not a valid measure of global change; however, there is more to this issue.
First, the term Global ‘Warming’ is a poor description of what would better be referred to as Global Energy Retention. What most people know about the Sun is that it is bright and hot and therefore anything to do with the sun is a light or a ‘heat’ issue. The fact is that the Sun’s output is energy, and light and heat are merely the forms of energy that we can see and feel. The major player in ‘Global Warming’ is infrared energy, which is a type of energy we can’t see but that we can feel as warmth. The problem is that carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere causes some infrared energy to bounce back to the Earth and the amount of CO2 has dramatically risen in the past 100 years. Because infrared energy is associated with ‘heat’ it would seem to make one believe that this is an issue only about higher temperatures, but it is not.
We don’t ‘feel’ visible light; however, visible light can turn into infrared energy by hitting a dark colored surface. The ‘heat’ we feel off of asphalt is visible light energy that has been converted into infrared energy. This is an important distinction because while we associate infrared with ‘heat’, other types of energy can be converted into infrared energy AND infrared energy can be converted into non-heat energy. For example, the energy that is absorbed in the ocean can evaporate water that can create clouds. Likewise, the energy absorbed by the oceans and the land can cause air to heat and begin moving causing wind. In both situations infrared energy becomes the energy that is converted from ‘heat’ to another kind of energy. This is why it’s so important to understand that Global Warming is not just about ‘heat’ but it is about the Earth retaining more energy.
It is likely that the reason that Global Warming was coined as the term to describe the retention of more solar energy was to help non-scientists and politicians to better understand the effect. The problem with the term is that it creates the impression that with every new day, month, season, and year we should be observing higher temperatures than we remember from the previous year. But because energy can be converted, the retention of more infrared energy does not necessarily mean higher temperatures as some of the excess infrared will be converted into wind and storms.
So where is all this extra energy now? It seems much of the extra energy is being transported (by the oceans and air over the oceans) to where Earth is coldest, the poles. We are seeing a major change in the Antarctic ice shield which makes sense as the Southern Hemisphere is predominantly oceans. We are also seeing more hurricanes and major storms (including snow storms) that indicate ‘Global Warming’ is powering up the weather dynamics across the Earth. The point is that ‘Warming’ is a misnomer when we discuss the impact of Earth’s Energy Retention because the end product is not always ‘heat’.
However, even if there were no issue on energy retention, the idea that a person can judge global weather patterns from what the amount of snow on their driveway is pathetic. It is akin to standing in the kitchen with the refrigerator door open and saying the house is cold. There is no doubt that 1) we have more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than we have had in millions of years, and a dramatic increase in the last 100 years, and 2) more carbon dioxide means more absorption of infrared energy. The situation is real and while the long term impact of Earth’s energy retention cannot be fully understood it never will be a political or a laughing matter.