Stratospheric water vapor decline credited with slowing global warming

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 6:18 PM GMT on January 29, 2010

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After a steep rise in global average temperatures in the 1990s, the 2000s have seen relatively flat temperatures, despite increasing levels of CO2 emissions by humans. This reduced warming may be partially due to a sharp decrease in stratospheric water vapor that began after 2000, according to research published yesterday in Science by a team of researchers led by Dr. Susan Solomon of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder. Water vapor is a potent greenhouse gas capable of significantly warming the planet, and its potency is much higher when it is located in the lower stratosphere where temperatures are extremely cold. Greenhouse gases located in cold regions of the atmosphere are more effective at heating the planet because they absorb heat radiation from the Earth's relatively warm surface, but then re-emit energy at a much colder temperature, resulting in less heat energy lost to space. Even though stratospheric water vapor can exist at concentrations more than 100 times lower than at the surface, the 10% drop in stratospheric water vapor since 2000 noted by Solomon et al. acted to slow down global warming by 25% between 2000 - 2009, compared to that which would have occurred due only to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.


Figure 1. Stratospheric water vapor in the tropics, between 5°S - 5°N, as measured by the HALOE instrument on the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), between 1993 - 2005. The bottom portion of the plot shows the lower stratosphere, just above where tall thunderstorms are able to transport water vapor into the stratosphere. A strong yearly cycle is evident in the water vapor, due to the seasonal variation in heavy thunderstorms over the tropics. Once in the lower stratosphere, the waver vapor takes about 1.2 years to travel to the upper stratosphere, as seen in the bending of the contours to the right with height. Note that beginning in 2001, very low water vapor concentrations less than 2.2 parts per million by volume (ppmv) began appearing in the lower stratosphere, due to substantial cooling. Image credit: Rosenlof, K. H., and G. C. Reid (2008), Trends in the temperature and water vapor content of the tropical lower stratosphere: Sea surface connection, J. Geophys. Res., 113, D06107, doi:10.1029/2007JD009109.

The observations
We haven't been able to observe water vapor in the stratosphere very long--accurate global measurements only go back to 1991, when the HALOE instrument aboard the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) began taking data (Figure 1). Stratospheric water vapor showed an increase of about 0.5 parts per million by volume (ppmv) during the 1990s. But after 2000, a sudden drop of 0.4 ppmv was observed, and this decrease has persisted into 2009. To see how these changes impacted the amount of global warming, Solomon et al. fed the observations into a specialized high-resolution model that computed the change in heat from the fluctuating water vapor levels. They found that the increase in stratospheric water vapor in the 1990s led to about a 30% increase in the amount of global warming observed during that decade, and the decrease of 0.4 ppmv since 2000 led to a 25% reduction between 2000 - 2009.

How water vapor gets into the stratosphere
The stratosphere has two main sources of water vapor: transport from the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) via tall thunderstorms, and the chemical breakdown of methane gas into water vapor and carbon dioxide. With regard to greenhouse effect warming, transport of water vapor by thunderstorms is the most important source, since this mechanism delivers water vapor to the lowest part of the stratosphere, where temperatures are coldest and greenhouse gases are more effective at warming the climate. There is a limit as to how much water vapor that can enter the stratosphere via thunderstorms, though. Temperature decreases with altitude from the surface to the bottom of the stratosphere, where they begin to rise with height due to the solar energy-absorbing effect of the stratospheric ozone layer. As moisture-laden air rises in thunderstorms towards the lower stratosphere, it encounters the atmosphere's "cold point"--the coldest point in the lower atmosphere, at the base of the stratosphere. Since the amount of water vapor that can be present in the atmosphere decreases as the temperature gets colder, and moisture being transported to the stratosphere must traverse through the "cold point" of the atmosphere, the air gets "freeze dried" and loses most of its moisture.


Figure 2. The departure from average of tropopause temperature (dark line) and Sea Surface Temperature (light dashed line) for the tropical Pacific Ocean between 10°S - 10°N, from 1981 - 2007. The tropopause is the bottom boundary of the stratosphere. The SST data is for 139°W - 171°W longitude, and is from the NOAA Optimal Interpolation v2 data set. The tropopause data is from balloon soundings, for the region 171°W - 200°W. The SST is plotted so that the anomalies increase as one looks down. Note that prior to about 2000, tropopause temperatures and SSTs increased and decreased together, but that beginning in 2000 - 2001, a sharp climate shift occurred, and the two quantities became anti-correlated. The sudden drop in tropopause temperature in 2000 - 2001 caused a sharp drop in stratospheric water vapor. Image credit: Rosenlof, K. H., and G. C. Reid (2008), Trends in the temperature and water vapor content of the tropical lower stratosphere: Sea surface connection, J. Geophys. Res., 113, D06107, doi:10.1029/2007JD009109.

Why did stratospheric water vapor drop in 2000?
Tall thunderstorms capable of delivering water vapor into the stratosphere occur primarily in the tropics, particularly over the Western Pacific, where a huge warm pool with very high Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) exists. In 2000, this region experienced a sharp increase in SST of 0.25°C, which has remained consistent though the 2000s (Figure 2). Coincident with this increase in SST came a sharp drop in the "cold point" temperature of the tropopause--the lower boundary of the stratosphere. This reduction in "cold point" temperature meant that less water vapor could make it into the stratosphere over the Tropical Pacific, since more thunderstorm water was getting "freeze dried" out. Did global warming trigger this increase in Pacific SST, resulting in cooling of the "cold point" and less water vapor in the stratosphere? Or was it random variation due to some decades-long natural cycle? This key question was left unanswered by the Solomon et al. study, and observations of stratospheric water vapor don't go back far enough to offer a reasonable guess. One factor arguing against global warming having triggered a negative feedback of this nature is that prior to 2000, increases in Western Pacific SST caused increases in "cold point" temperatures--behavior opposite of what has been seen since 2000.

If global warming has triggered the decrease in stratospheric water vapor seen since 2000, it could mean that the climate models have predicted too much global warming, since they don't predict that such a negative feedback exists. On the other hand, if this is a natural cycle, we can expect the recent flattening in global temperatures to average out in the long run, with a return to steeper increases in temperature in the coming decades. Climate models currently do a poor job modeling the complex dynamics of water vapor in the stratosphere, and are not much help figuring out what's going on. Complicating the issue is the fact that about 15% of all thunderstorms capable of delivering water vapor into the stratosphere are generated by tropical cyclones (Rosenlof and Reid, 2008), and tropical cyclones are not well-treated by climate models. We also have to factor in the impact of stratospheric ozone loss, which acts to cool the lower stratosphere. This effect should gradually decrease in future decades as CFC levels decline, though. The stratosphere is a devilishly complicated place that can have a significant impact on global climate change, and we are many years from understanding what is going on there.

References
Romps, D.M., and Z. Kuang, "Overshooting convection in tropical cyclones", Geophysical Research Letters, 2009; 36 (9): L09804 DOI: 10.1029/2009GL037396

Rosenlof, K. H., and G. C. Reid (2008), Trends in the temperature and water vapor content of the tropical lower stratosphere: Sea surface connection, J. Geophys. Res., 113, D06107, doi:10.1029/2007JD009109.

Portlight Haiti update
Paul Timmons, who directs the Portlight.org disaster-relief charity that has sprung up from the hard work and dedication of many members of the wunderground.com community, was interviewed by NBC yesterday. The reporter doing the story is planning to follow the Portlight-donated goods to Haiti and interview the people with disabilities that receive the donations. It is uncertain when the story will be aired, but I'll try to give everyone a heads-up.

Next post
My next post will probably be Tuesday (Groundhog's Day), when I plan to discuss Phil's forecast for the rest of winter. I'll throw in my two cents worth, too.

Jeff Masters

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A bit off topic (if that is OK?), but interesting from yesterday :)

Dinosaur Discovery Helps Solve Piece of Evolutionary Puzzle
ScienceDaily (Jan. 29, 2010)
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Patrap:
i don't much like that warm water from the yuc strait north ward still a couple of months of cooling left hopefully it cools some more
Quoting drg0dOwnCountry:
What in particular you refering to? Maybe you judge to much from your own state of knowledge.
you are not as smart as you think you are
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 168 Comments: 53285
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 419 Comments: 127355
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 419 Comments: 127355
444. BDAwx
BDA News on Storm This storm was the storm that moved off US east coast on 22nd and started to look slightly tropical. I think it is the same storm (or a previous life) that is now at about 30N, 30W.
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All of this climate change bickering is great fun, but regardless of your stance on the issue, if you've got clear skies right now, look east -- full moon with a very bright Mars directly above it. We are actually quite small and insignificant when you think about it.
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Quoting atmoaggie:
I'm pretty sure someone said climate change would be perfectly obvious within 2 months (that was said on Jan 28). So, either we will be witnessing something special by March 28, or...

Hey, wait. Hmmmm.

I hate to admit it, but he's right! It will be spring...

But if we aren't seeing anything special, outside if NORMAL spring can we go ahead and stop the chicken little stuff? One day (who knows?) a wolf might really be in with the sheep.

(Sry, tired of chasing the latest "Eeeek, this is wild and crazy and not normal for El Nino and/or winter")


I'm pretty sure most people in North America have already seen unusual weather this winter, and unusual weather patterns have occured in the previous few years as well. I have tried to make specific predictions, and some of them have been correct, while others have been wrong due to the erratic nature of weather. For example, I predicted that, while Typhoon Nida was spinning itself weaker, that the subtropical ridge would drift west in its absense, filling in the gap produced by Nida, allowing arctic air to sink into the Central Western Pacific, weakening the westerly winds in the Western Pacific, strengthening the Counter-Equatorial current, and allowing the West Pacific warm pool to drift east, becoming the El Nino warm pool (El Nino Modoki). This did occur, although I did not predict the sudden chain of North Central Pacific extratropical storms injected by Nida into the jet stream, strengthening the PNA, filling in the Hudson Bay low by strengthening it (this was early December), adding an extra boost into the North American storms, the first of which occured December 1, the day after I saw a mosquito in my house fly in from outside. Since this is such an inter-connected and complex system, specific predictions are possible, but they will usually be off by at least a bit. However, according to one of my peers, "supercomputers can't even do that".
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Check it. Has the correction from 2007 been changed back?

Top 10 GISS U.S. Temperature deviation (deg C) in New Order 8/7/2007
Year Old New
1934 1.23 1.25
1998 1.24 1.23
1921 1.12 1.15
2006 1.23 1.13
1931 1.08 1.08
1999 0.94 0.93
1953 0.91 0.90
1990 0.88 0.87
1938 0.85 0.86
1939 0.84 0.85

Here's the old order of top 10 yearly temperatures.
Year Old New
1998 1.24 1.23
1934 1.23 1.25
2006 1.23 1.13
1921 1.12 1.15
1931 1.08 1.08
1999 0.94 0.93
1953 0.91 0.90
2001 0.90 0.76
1990 0.88 0.87
1938 0.85 0.86


439- Then that would confirm the entire peer review process is the same. Same process different opinions :)
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I'm pretty sure someone said climate change would be perfectly obvious within 2 months (that was said on Jan 28). So, either we will be witnessing something special by March 28, or...

Hey, wait. Hmmmm.

I hate to admit it, but he's right! It will be spring...

But if we aren't seeing anything special, outside if NORMAL spring can we go ahead and stop the chicken little stuff? One day (who knows?) a wolf might really be in with the sheep.

(Sry, tired of chasing the latest "Eeeek, this is wild and crazy and not normal for El Nino and/or winter")
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Quoting AstroHurricane001:


You are looking at weekly measurements, while I'm comparing daily SSTs. The rate of retreat in the Gulf Stream near Scandinavia has been rapid, but it has been bobbing back and forth as the current rapidly changes course, and duing a period in late December to early January, the current weakened and broke into eddies, before restrengthening suddenly and plunging into the Labrador Sea. This cycle appears to be repeating itself.


You do realize why we look at weekly and monthly plots of SST, right? Most of our satellite sensors capable of giving us a SST value are not capable of seeing through clouds. If you use a filled-in SST map, it is a composite of multiple day's-worth of satellite passes and or an analysis using what available surface obs exist to adjust old satellite pixels. If it is cloudy in an area for a few days, that area will not update in most of those plots until the next clear pass. (and if you find out exactly what source the WU map has, I would really like to know)

So if you stare at one of those filled-in SST plots a few areas will stay the same from one day to the next, and then (especially in the case of long-term cloudiness spanning weeks or months) suddenly show drastic changes...of course.

I have seen official SST sources show 50 F for Lake Winnipeg through January, though it was frozen over, as it had been cloudy for 2 months during the satellite passes (last year).

Using a daily SST for anything must have a GOES IR plot side-by-side and has huge caveats.
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Quoting drg0dOwnCountry:
You mean you will be gone, before you know about it?

World's glaciers continue to melt at historic rates

Latest figures show the world's glaciers are continuing to melt so fast that many will disappear by the middle of this century

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/25/world-glacier-monitoring-service-fig ures


If my estimates are correct, some drastic climate shifts could occur by the mid-2010s.
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Quoting P451:


It really wouldn't surprise me to see a May tropical storm or a S.Atlantic system this upcoming year.

One thing I paid attention to was the fact that despite all the shear, dry air, and dust.... almost every system that formed this year was VERY tough. They seemed to almost not care about the hostile environment.

It wouldn't phase me to see some interesting events this coming season.


It would be very exciting to see hurricanes like this, but if some of my scenarios unfold then it would mean that something very serious is going on with the climate system. The North Atlantic Gyre is unravelling as previously stated, and this could have devastating effects on populations within hurricane-prone areas (and areas not previously prone to hurricanes). Anybody remember Cyclone Catarina? Link
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Quoting P451:


I'll be in a hole long gone before we know what we're witnessing.
You mean you will be gone, before you know about it?

World's glaciers continue to melt at historic rates

Latest figures show the world's glaciers are continuing to melt so fast that many will disappear by the middle of this century

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/25/world-glacier-monitoring-service-figures
Member Since: September 22, 2005 Posts: 11 Comments: 2032
Quoting P451:


Yes they do. They also evaporate. They also march to the ocean and break off because they have no where else to go. The grow in the winter and retreat in the summer. The grow during seasons of high snowfall and retreat during seasons of low snowfall.

They are a dynamic feature as is all of weather and nature.

They are not static as you want them to be.

Too many people analyze our weather and our planet as a static entity that does not change. So when they see it change they think they are witnessing some grand event. When in fact they are merely witnessing the ebb and flow of life.

But, well, none of this matters, I'll be in a hole long gone before we know what we're witnessing.


A large portion of glaciers are well over 10,000 years old, and they do not restore that quickly after melting, if at all. Chacaltaya melted in 2009, and it was 18,000 years old.

That's called not-in-my-lifetime syndrome (NIMLTS). What if abprupt changes occur in our lifetime? What about the next generation (do you even care about the future after your own)?


Quoting P451:


You really need to chill. You're being disrespectful to well respected members of this community. You will be the one getting banned before anyone else.


Please, do not insult each other over conflicting interests. Disagreements are fine but there is no need to make them escalate into off-topic conflict.
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403:

Milankovic cycles are one way to determine the causes of past glacial cycles. Remember that the two warmest years on record in terms of lower tropospheric measurements were 1998 and 2005, meaning that temperatures over the past decade were generally stable with an upward trend, not cooling. Since a rapid shift occured in water vapor trends in 2000, such a shift could easily occur again, as the increase in CO2 concentrations could mean more tipping points are passed. The water vapor content may be decreasing in the lower stratosphere, but the cooling in that area is a likely direct result of warming in the troposphere, as predicted by climate models, and water vapor in the lower troposphere is still increasing, reducing more of the greenhouse effect to the surface and oceans. We also only have data for a small portion of the upper atmosphere, so this may not represent the whole picture. The point is that while negative feedbacks are present, if we keep putting CO2 into the atmosphere, the likelihood of positive feedbacks overwhelming the system and accelerating the climate into a new state increases. More tipping points will be passed, along with more extremes in all directions, more long-term effects and more ecological damage. There is plenty of uncertainty as the climate system can be fairly erratic, but continuing to feed CO2 into the atmosphere is like feeding a patient a drug without knowing the long-term effects, similar to how we have seen the short-term implications but know little about the longer term.

405, 406:

Methane clathrate releases were observed in 2008 off the Lena river in the Siberian Arctic Ocean, and in 2009 west of Spitsbergen, in the Barents Sea and west of North America. I have only put together an archive of SSTs because I had a hunch that a major change in ocean currents was occuring, so I do not looked at a sequence of changes for other years. However, the shift in the Gulf Stream to west of Greenland is probably unprecedented, as is the disruption of the Humboldt from the southwest and northeast. More info: Link, Link, Link

Also, not all the ice on the planet currently melts. In East Antarctica, some of the ice is as much as four kilometres thick. Arctic sea ice melts easier if it is not several years old.





413:

You are looking at weekly measurements, while I'm comparing daily SSTs. The rate of retreat in the Gulf Stream near Scandinavia has been rapid, but it has been bobbing back and forth as the current rapidly changes course, and duing a period in late December to early January, the current weakened and broke into eddies, before restrengthening suddenly and plunging into the Labrador Sea. This cycle appears to be repeating itself. In your maps, I can see the "flatness" of the ~20C SSTs, the weakness of the Gulf Stream east of the US, and the fact that the Humboldt's current does not reach the equator shortly after turning westward.

In the anomalies map, the cold anomalies in the Gulf Stream and Kushiro currents show up shortly after turning eastward. In the Atlantic, the warm anomalies are over the cooler part of the North Atlantic Gyre and the cooler ones persist over the warm current. Only recently did warm anomalies reach Pine Island Bay in Antarctica. The warm anomalies from Ecuador currently stretch all the way to northern Chile, undermining the Humboldt from the northeast. The ENSO warm pool is now again almost entirely east of 180W, due to the gash in its western side and Nisha.

417:

There is no such thing as an "unskeptical scientist". Most climate scientists were skeptical of global warming at first, but became more convinced as time went on.

422, 423:

Wow! That's the East Coast Nor'easter drifting south (due to the Bermuda High being displaced). Here's a link for more archives of satellite imagery: Link

The North Atlantic Gyre is getting messed up. If there's something truly unusual going on, we'll see when the Atlantic hurricane season rolls around. Some strange things that could potentially happen are early-season hurricanes, hurricanes in the Caribbean in June and July, a hurricane in the South Atlantic, a tropical storm entering the Mediterranean after going through warm waters north of the Bermuda High, extratropical storms curving west of Greenland, a hurricane diverting the Gulf Stream into New York, Cape Verde storms curving back east to hit Africa, tropical storms hitting France and England, storm remnants producing tornado outbreaks in the Midwest and Canada, storms being nearly stationary in the Gulf, cross-overs from Tehuantepec, tropical storms in Costa Rica and Panama, etc.
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Quoting bean9357:
We should declare water vapor a pollutant like co2 & ban it. Hell, just kill all life & the world will be SAVED!

Actualy if you had read a little you would know that water vapor amount can be attributed to methane.
Member Since: September 22, 2005 Posts: 11 Comments: 2032
Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
we just dont really understand as much as we think we understand P451
What in particular you refering to? Maybe you judge to much from your own state of knowledge.
Member Since: September 22, 2005 Posts: 11 Comments: 2032
Quoting P451:


It freezes and it melts. It builds up and it breaks down.

We simply don't quite know where we are in this pattern.

You seem confused. Glaciers do not melt on a regular basis.
Member Since: September 22, 2005 Posts: 11 Comments: 2032
422. jipmg
This is interesting "upper right"

http://www.ssd.noaa.gov/goes/east/catl/loop-ft.html
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All right I know that I can not post this in the blog that Portlight has, as there is no place for comments. Can someone get in touch with either Paul or Patrap about figuring out if there is anyway we as bloggers here can put our voices out there and get the Medical Airlifts restarted?

Apparently due to funding they have stopped airlifting injured Haitians to the US which is basically keeping what they are doing on the USNS Comfort at bay. We need to figure out how we can get that going again.
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We should declare water vapor a pollutant like co2 & ban it. Hell, just kill all life & the world will be SAVED!
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And since we are having a little AGW funny-party...

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Quoting AstroHurricane001:


Now THIS is what I call propaganda. While the whole world was so busy arguing and debating, did anyone bother to look at the real-time data and indicators (ie. SSTs)? If my conclusions are correct, then it means that the global Thermohaline is undergoing a rapid shift, and possibly a partial shutdown. The Gulf Stream's <8C zone has disappeared from the Eastern Hemisphere. The Humboldt's cold water has rapidly retreated, causing floods in Machu Picchu and worsening El Nino weather in South America while the ENSO warm pool weakens but expands. More information on posts 331 and 337.

Don't forget that if we look at one aspect for too long, we miss out on the bigger picture.

Ummm, gulf stream...Eastern (?) hemisphere?

North of England, maybe...

Latest weekly SST from NOAA:


SST Anomaly (with a 1982 to 1996 base period...yeah, that's a weird period):


So you are excited about some shutdown of thermohaline yet the SSTs around and north of England are showing positive anomalies of better than 1 C ?!? Come back with this after the SST around England is at least 5 C below normal and it will make sense...otherwise, this is called winter.
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Try some of these for a different flavor.

Note, some other blogger dismissed these peer reviewed papers for some dated back to the 80's. That is kinda like saying the theory of relativity would no longer be applicable because its old :)

L8R

500 Peer-Reviewed Papers Supporting Skepticism of "Man-Made" Global Warming
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Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 168 Comments: 53285
Quoting P451:


It freezes and it melts. It builds up and it breaks down.

We simply don't quite know where we are in this pattern.

All we know is *maybe* we are helping it along this go around. How much, we don't even know that.

We're just scratching the surface in our knowledge of the planet. We would be fools to pretend we know so much as to be able to predict climate change.

Can't get my forecast correct 72 hours out but I'm going to be told they know the forecast 1,000 years out?

I don't think so....
we just dont really understand as much as we think we understand P451
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 168 Comments: 53285
409. flsky
Quoting dsauder:
That is right Dr Masters. You are beginning to sound sensible. Water vapor RULES the global warming scene! All this nonsense about carbon dioxide was a bunch of eco-terrorist baloney perpetrated by people who had no real understanding of what really goes on in the big picture. They are just evil schemers wanting to make a buck off of the rest of us.

Your arguments would be better received w/o "beginning to sound sensible," "nonsense," "eco-terrorist balony," "people who had no real understanding." "what really goes on," "evil schemers," "wanting to make a buck off the rest of us."
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To my understanding, currently allmost all the ice on this planet seems to melt. And the current observation could just be short fluctuations of climate pattern getting out of order (as we can see). These are short term effects, not long term trends in climate.
Member Since: September 22, 2005 Posts: 11 Comments: 2032
Quoting AstroHurricane001:


Now THIS is what I call propaganda. While the whole world was so busy arguing and debating, did anyone bother to look at the real-time data and indicators (ie. SSTs)? If my conclusions are correct, then it means that the global Thermohaline is undergoing a rapid shift, and possibly a partial shutdown. The Gulf Stream's <8C zone has disappeared from the Eastern Hemisphere. The Humboldt's cold water has rapidly retreated, causing floods in Machu Picchu and worsening El Nino weather in South America while the ENSO warm pool weakens but expands. More information on posts 331 and 337.

Don't forget that if we look at one aspect for too long, we miss out on the bigger picture.

The bigger picture could mean methane forcing taken over ... Astro are there any similar observation from the past - since human ocean current obs took place?
Member Since: September 22, 2005 Posts: 11 Comments: 2032
Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:




Now THIS is what I call propaganda. While the whole world was so busy arguing and debating, did anyone bother to look at the real-time data and indicators (ie. SSTs)? If my conclusions are correct, then it means that the global Thermohaline is undergoing a rapid shift, and possibly a partial shutdown. The Gulf Stream's <8C zone has disappeared from the Eastern Hemisphere. The Humboldt's cold water has rapidly retreated, causing floods in Machu Picchu and worsening El Nino weather in South America while the ENSO warm pool weakens but expands. More information on posts 331 and 337.

Don't forget that if we look at one aspect for too long, we miss out on the bigger picture.
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.