NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
Abstract wave via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.
The dictionary defines the word “undulating” as having a wave-like appearance. In nature, nothing ever moves in a straight line. There may be a general trend, but things will undulate around that trend. Sometimes above the trend, sometimes below the trend. Human beings are not good at keeping track of the trend as the environment around them undulates around it. The immediate visceral reality can overwhelm any understanding of the trend.
A very good example of this is the spurious “climate change pause”, where an extra high undulation (partly caused by an extra large El Nino event in the Southern Pacific) above the trend in surface temperatures in 1998 has been compared to the following undulating values. The surface temperature undulations have been somewhat mirrored by those of the ocean temperatures. When the oceans take in slightly more of the warming (on average they take in about 90% of the human-induced warming), the atmosphere (which takes in about 2% of human-induced warming) retains slightly less and visa versa. Part of the slowdown in surface temperatures (reflecting surface-level atmospheric temperatures) during the “pause” was due to slightly more heat being taken up by the oceans.
When the cycle reverses, and the oceans both take in less of the warming and release some of the extra heat stored over the past decade or so, the rate of surface warming will accelerate. At this point, the undulations may be well above trend and the newspapers may be full of a “climate change acceleration” rather than a “climate change pause”. With 2014 already setting a new surface temperature high (without any El Nino which tends to release heat from the ocean into the atmosphere), this may start pushing the earth system uncomfortably close to the tipping points that could rapidly reinforce surface warming – such as sea ice loss, rainforest destruction and widespread permafrost melt. With the “pause” years having been ones of continued, and increased, climate-change gas emissions there is now significant additional warming built into the earth system.
The years of the spurious “pause” may come to be seen as a tragically lost chance to make the required changes to human society to forestall large scale climate disruptions. Unfortunately, it seems that human societies are unable to make the kind of widespread changes required without an immediate and obvious danger. The “pause” helped take away the sense of urgency that the above trend temperature rises of the 1990’s had helped create.
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