Global “cooling” due in large part to coal plant increase

Why is the Earth so different than Venus? Both planets are roughly the same size, and both exist within what is known as the “Life Zone” in the solar system. (The Life Zone is the region of solar space where it’s possible for liquid water to be found on the surface of a planet.)

I used to ask that question every semester when I got to the section on planetology in an Astronomy course, and I never had a good answer.

The best answer seems to be that life evolved on the surface of the Earth and it didn’t on the surface of Venus. Because of life, much of the carbon CO2 in the early atmosphere, which was created by volcanic outgassing on both planets and was primarily CO2 and methane, both major greenhouse gasses, was sequestered out of the atmosphere and stored in giants rafts of bacteria on the Earth’s surface. As the CO2 was scrubbed, the greenhouse effect diminished and the surface temp dropped. Eventually the temperature dropped to a point where liquid water could collect on the surface, in which even more CO2 could be dissolved, which accelerated the process.

(Key point this. For people who argue that life can not drive global warming (of which the anthropogenic idea is a part), then they have to come up with a different explanation for the primordial cooling of the Earth and otherwise explain the wildly different surface temps between the Earth and Venus.)

Venus, where we have not found life, is still so hot on the surface that the ground has the consistency of stiff oatmeal – it’s not cooled enough to lose its plasticity.

So what happens if we reload the atmosphere with CO2? Temps should rise until the extra CO2 can be absorbed in the water or sequestered by biological processes (like stored in limestone). That assumes that ocean isn’t saturated CO2 (which it appears to be) and can absorb the additional gas. (Bio processes take a very long time, and they can contribute to CO2 just as they can act to sequester it.)

So, if we’re putting more CO2 in the air (which we are) at an increasing rate (which we are), then why isn’t the temperature rising right now? That’s been the biggest criticism of anthropogenic global warming. Temps increased for a while in the early 20th cent. and then started to level off.

A group of scientists think they’ve found the answer.

“”The masking of CO2-induced global warming by short term sulphur emissions is well known – it’s believed that the flattening off of global mean temperatures in the 1950s was due to European and US coal burning, and just such a mechanism could be operating today from Chinese coal,” he told BBC News.

“Other natural fluctuations in the Sun’s output, volcanoes and water vapour have also been proposed for causing the non-warming ‘noughties’, and may have contributed to a degree.

“It needs to be emphasised that any masking is short-lived, and the increased CO2 from the same coal will remain in the atmosphere for many decades and dominate the long-term warming over the next decades.”

Since the end of the study period, in 2007, China’s coal consumption has risen again by about 30%.”

More here.

So this is basically a form of the old Nuclear Winter idea that was thought to be a consequence of an unrestrained global nuclear war (back in the days when we were worried about such things). The problem here is that there’s not enough junk being put into the atmosphere to overcome the greenhouse effect longterm. And since we’re not going to mask it, the system will very quickly and exponentially begin to be driven by the greenhouse warming.

We talk about Venus as a place of run-away greenhouse effect. If we don’t get a handle on things here on Earth, at some point, just in the way that the existence of life on the surface of Earth had the long term effect of cooling the planet, so too will life restore it to a closer resemblance to our sister planet.

About Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...
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One Response to Global “cooling” due in large part to coal plant increase

  1. WhiskyRx says:

    Dean Knisely,

    While I would not argue “that life can not drive global warming,” there are some good reasons to be skeptical of some significant part of the AGW arguments. First, there are some problems alleged with the computer numerical models being used to produce the forecasts. In addition to that article, there is the recurring image of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide lagging the increase in ocean temperatures in all of the data that have been widely published. I don’t know if you are aware of the work of Sally Baliunas on sunspots, but given the correlation of global average temperatures to sunspot activity, there is also this report from last month and a follow-up reported yesterday.

    All of the above, when coupled with the following, leave me somewhat skeptical concerning the claims for AGW:

    • Having a baccalaureate degree in Geology and Geophysics, I am aware of the fact that we have identified 17 distinct periods of global glaciation in the past ~2,000,000 years, which also produced 16 identified interglacial periods. The current period may well be the 17th, and it will be the only one in which human action could have played any significant role.

    • A principal proponent of AGW is NASA’s Dr. James Hansen, whom I recall seeing on (IIRC) 60 Minutes in the 1970s warning about the impending next Ice Age. If I am correct he is the same researcher who, when confronted with his tendency to melodramatic claims, remarked that if Congress didn’t see it as a crisis, there wouldn’t be funding to continue his research.

    • One causal factor (of several) in why I didn’t submit a thesis, and therefore do not have an M.S. in Physics (Air-Ocean Science) from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, is that the tested software (on results of which at least five [5] papers had been previously published), which I was provided by the Professor just before he departed for a one quarter sabbatical, produced some peculiar results. Namely, when one of the limiting values he suggested was entered for one of the two “tuning parameters” and the program run, at day 19, with no possible flux of salinity in the ocean, it produced a sea surface salinity of 6,700 parts per thousand—a physically impossible result. I eventually found the error in the code I had been given, but the loss of several weeks in my penultimate quarter of classwork precluded my gathering enough data to provide the planned analysis. Hence, I have some level of inherent distrust of any computer numerical solution to any class of partial differential equation which has no known analytic solution. You may call that superstition, if you wish, but it is just too easy to use “tuning parameters” to get the result one expects or hopes for.

    • Finally, the Anglican Curmudgeon posted an article on the testimony last year by Dr. Richard Lindzen to the House Committee on Science and Technology concerning AGW. Unfortunately, the link in that article to the pdf of his testimony is no longer functional, and this is about the third or fourth time I have kicked myself for not downloading the document when it still worked. Nevertheless, Professor Lindzen made a very strong case against AGW as a serious threat to the ocean and atmosphere.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

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