Climate Catastrophe: Graphs and Commentary
Ongoing essay: updated regularly, last updated July 8, 2019
Climate data from NOAA unless otherwise stated.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a climate scientist!
A note on the name change
It seems that the names, “Global Warming” and “Climate Change” have recently been superseded by the currently politically correct term, “Climate Crisis.” I don't think Climate Crisis really expresses the gravity of the situation; so as long as we are changing names, let's go with the far more descriptive term, “Climate Catastrophe.”
See below for discussion of Crisis and Catastrophe
Recent Climate Highlights
July 2019 Highlights (in progress)
Guadalajara, Mexico was hit by a freak hailstorm that dumped a record-breaking two meters (6.5 feet) of hail on some neighborhoods.
Temperatures in Anchorage, Alaska reached a record-setting 90° F. on July 4.
June 2019 Highlights (in progress)
June 2019 was, according to the Copernicus Center, the warmest June on record, a full 0.1° C. above June 2016, the previous warmest June. NOAA has yet to release global climate data for June.
Europe was socked with an unprecedented record-breaking late June heatwave.
Much of India broiled in record heat that broke 50° C. (122° F.) in many places. Chennai (formerly Madras), with a population of 9 million has run out of water. Tap water no longer flows.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose by 0.26 ppm, and has breached 410 ppm, averaged over the latest 12 months at Mauna Loa, for the first time.
The weak El Niño episode that began during the Sept.-Nov. 2018 three month period has continued into the April-June 2019 three month period. It is expected to peter out in July. El Niño episodes tend to bring warmer surface temperatures.
May 2019 Highlights
NOAA released Version V of its climate dataset this month. The main difference that I have noticed is that the new version shows more warming over the last few years than the previous version.
May 2019 was extreme, although not quite so horrendous as March and April 2019.
May 2019 was the fourth warmest May on record with an anomaly of 0.85° C. above the 20th Century average, roughly equivalent to 1.04° C. above the last half of the 19th Century average (which the IPCC refers to as “pre-industrial,” see below).
Officially, the current El Niño episode began during the Sept.-Nov. 2018 three month period. A weak El Niño is predicted to continue, possibly into Winter of 2019-20. El Niño episodes tend to bring warmer temperatures.
The latest five 12 month periods ending in May are the five warmest on record, 0.07° C. warmer than the 12 month period ending in May 2010 which was the sixth warmest.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise, and is now at 409.79 ppm, averaged over the latest 12 months at Mauna Loa. This is a rise of 0.29 ppm over last month.
Over 500 tornadoes were reported in the United States during May, some of them quite devastating.
The Southeast United States broiled in record-breaking heat over the Memorial Day weekend.
“But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned: if the sword come and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity: but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand.*” —Ezekiel 33:6 (KJV)
* I will hold the watchman accountable for his death.
How to read this graph:
Some points to note:
This graph compares each month separately to the 20th Century average (for months of that same name only) and ranks them separately. In other words: The month of March is compared only to other Marches. The month of September is compared only to other Septembers. For example: The warmest March, June and October are all colored red. The second warmest January, May and December are all colored orange. The February colored light blue (2013) is between the 11th and 15th warmest Februaries inclusive. The December colored yellow (2017) is the third warmest December and is 0.86° C. warmer than the average of all Decembers in the 20th Century. Etc.
1. The data for this graph come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s climate at a glance section.
2. This graph gives the Earth's approximate average surface temperature for each month. Needless to say, distilling the world's climate into one number per month is a gross over-simplification. Further, surface temperature is only part of the story. Temperatures in the upper atmosphere and ocean depths contribute to surface anomalies through convection and heat exchange.
3. Temperature anomalies are not necessarily distributed equally around the globe. For example, while summer 2017 was third warmest globally, it was the warmest summer on record in California, which, preceded by a wet winter, contributed to devastating Summer and Fall wildfires and the mudslides which followed.
4. Some historic data changed significantly this month as NOAA transitioned to using its Version V dataset. Generally, data change only slightly (at most one or two hundredths of a degree) month to month, as NOAA refines its models and data-crunching techniques.
5. Every month since February 2008 has an anomaly (distance from the 20th Century average) above 0.4° C. The last month with a negative anomaly was Dec. 1984. The highest anomaly was 1.30° C. in March 2016 (up from 1.23 in Version IV and roughly equivalent to 1.49° C. above the 1850-1900 average which the IPCC refers to as “pre-industrial,” levels).
6. This graph shows a short term rising trend from 2008 to the present with a bump during the 2014-2016 El Niño episode. It also shows wide variation from month to month; but the rising trend is still discernible at a glance. 2005 (not shown) was the warmest year to date before this graph. It has since been surpassed by 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively as the warmest year to date.
7. All 12 highest ranking months lie together between Sept. 2015 and August 2016, during a monster El Niño episode. 11 of the second highest ranking months (all except Nov. 2013 which was the second warmest November), 11 of the third highest ranking months, ten of the fourth highest ranking months and 11 of the fifth highest ranking months all lie within the last 60 months. We have experienced a string of over five years with each month except Nov. 2014 having an anomaly of 0.70° C. or greater and also being among the top ten warmest months with that same name. Four of the latest eight months were the second warmest with that same name. In other words there should be no significant doubt that the world is warming drastically.
8. Other models, such as ERA5 which is now used at the Copernicus Center give somewhat different results. Copernicus gives a rough comparison of several climate models now in use.
Which model is correct? all and none. Models are simply simplifications of the real world. No model of a complex system is exact (otherwise it wouldn't be a model).
9. The last five 12-month periods ending in May (2015-2019) have been the five warmest on record, significantly warmer then the 12-month period ending in May 2010, which was the sixth warmest. Eight of the ten warmest 12-month periods ending in May lie within the last ten years. (See table below.)
Why is this graph important?
10. Temperatures appear to have risen about 0.27° C. over the last ten years (difference between average anomaly of 36 months ending May 2019 and average anomaly of 36 months ending May 2009).
A longer term temperature graph — 30+ years
1. This is a “you can't see the forest for the trees” graph. Forests are important; but so are individual trees. Indeed, there is no forest without trees.
2. This graph allows you to see the present in detail. (present here meaning the approximate average monthly surface temperature over the latest 137 months or 11+ years.)
3. You can get a similar graph from NOAA's Climate at a Glance section; but I like the way this graph presents the data. I think the white spaces and the color coding increase readability.
4. Why 11+ year? Why not some other period like 7 or 15 years? No particular reason. With a longer period the lines get squished together and are harder to read. Shorter periods show less data. This started out as a ten year graph but has grown longer as I add months.
5. I intend to update this graph around the 20th of each month when NOAA comes out with a new month of global climate data.
6. How did I get into this? In 2016 my favorite website for news, Common Dreams, used to report the NOAA data month after month as they set new records. They stopped when September 2016 fell to second place. Being curious, I went to the NOAA site and wondered why it wasn't reported as news that the three warmest Septembers on record were in 2015, 2016 and 2014 respectively. After a few months of silence, I decided to start reporting this data myself.
Another 30+ year graph — CO2 in the atmosphere
1. This 30+ year graph of 12 month overlapping periods measures the temperature anomaly from the 20th Century average. The colors refer to the El Niño / La Niña condition during the three month interval centered on the final month of the 12 month period.
2. El Niño / La Niña refer to cyclical changes in atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns over the tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niño episodes usually bring warmer global surface temperatures; La Niña episodes bring cooler surface temperatures. There is a brief explanation of El Niño and La Niña here.
An ONI (Oceanic Niño Index) is computed for each overlapping period of three consecutive months based of conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean. If the ONI index is at least 0.5 (at most -0.5) the three-month period is considered an El Niño (La Niña) period. Five or more consecutive El Niño (La Niña) periods are considered an El Niño (La Niña) episode. An El Niño episode is very strong (strong, moderate, weak) if it contains three El Niño periods with index at least 2.0 (1.5, 1.0, 0.5). A La Niña episode is strong (moderate, weak) if it contains three La Niña periods with index at most -1.5 (-1.0, -0.5). These classifications are somewhat arbitrary.
3. This graph is surprisingly smooth in spite of all the crests and troughs.
4. Exceptionally high temperature crests have followed the two very strong El Niño episodes of 1997-98 and 2014-16. Surface temperatures have fallen after the end of these El Niño episodes but remained much higher than before the El Niño episode began. This happened to a lesser extent after the moderate El Niño episode of 2009-2010.
5. We have just experienced seven consecutive overlapping three-month periods with ONI indices between 0.7 and 0.9. Not surprisingly, global surface temperatures appear to be rising again.
6. This graph consists of a progression of waves with increasingly high crests and troughs. Crests have increased from a height of 0.44° C. (above the 20th Century average) in 1988 to 1.05° C. in 2016. Troughs increased from a height of 0.22° C. in 1994 to 0.56° C. in 2012 to (possibly) 0.81° C. in 2018. Temperature increases do not appear linear; they appear to be accelerating at a super-linear rate.
7. Climatewise, extrapolation and longterm prediction are a very risky endeavor. However, looking at the 30 year graph above, I would not be surprised to see us exceed 1.31° C. above the 20th Century average (roughly equivalent to what the IPCC refers to as 1.5° C. above pre-industrial levels) within a decade.
8. In short: We're in terrible trouble. We better do something quick.
The missing graphs
1. The data for this graph come from the average monthly readings for CO2 in the atmosphere, taken at the Mauna Loa site in Hawaii. Each line in the graph is a weighted average of the current month and the 11 consecutive previous months. (E.g.: The line for March 2018 is the weighted average of April 2017 through March 2018.)
2. CO2 (and other greenhouse gases like methane) in the atmosphere act like a one way glass allowing incoming electromagnetic radiation from the sun to pass through the atmosphere, but trapping outgoing radiation from the Earth, thereby warming the planet.
3. For each month since 1987, the increase has been positive, ranging from 13 to 342 ppb (parts per billion). The average yearly increase over the period covered by this graph (since 1987) is 1.93 ppm (parts per million).
4. The increase over the past 12 months is 2.63 ppm, 36% above the average since 1987. (We have a lot of work to do if we are to meet the goal of the December 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.)
5. The month of February, 2019 set a new record for CO2 in the atmosphere as measured as a monthly average at Mauna Loa: 411.75 ppm. The previous monthly record of 411.24 was set in May, 2018. Significantly, the monthly record for the year is typically set in May, when northern hemisphere trees come out of dormancy and begin to sequester CO2 in earnest. Rarely has a record month been recorded as early as February and never by anywhere near the 0.51 ppm recorded in February, 2019. February also set a record at Mauna Loa in 2017 (by 0.16 ppm), 2013 (by 0.06 ppm), and 2010 (by 0.06 ppm), all within the past decade. This could reflect an increase in CO2 produced by human activity, a failure of forests, oceans or other carbon sinks to absorb CO2, and/or other factors. CO2 in the atmosphere in February 2019 has been surpassed in March, April and May 2019 respectively, each month setting a new record.
6. For six consecutive days in May, 2019, the daily average at Mauna Loa measured above 415ppm, the first time the daily average broke 415 since record keeping began. There was a great brouhaha in the news media over this. But its not single days or weeks that are the problem, it is the consistent month to month increase in the 12-month average as detailed in the graph above. As should have been expected, the monthly average in June fell below 414 ppm.
7. The average reading for CO2 in the atmosphere between July 2018 and June 2019 inclusive was 410.05 ppm. We broke 410 ppm for the first time with the just-released June data. This is a much more important milestone then the 415 ppm daily reading, because unlike the daily readings it is unlikely to come down in future months.
Here should go historic graphs on global land use, droughts, desertification, floods, cyclones, wildfires, etc. Sadly, I have no such graphs, and not even the data to make them. Maybe later.
1. The problem seems to be that weather is by nature extremely variable and extreme events are by nature rare. So how is a changing climate affecting the occurrence and intensity of individual weather events? Statistical methods seems to be of little help here. This article from realclimate.org might give you a feeling for the difficulty and also the advances that have been made in attributing extreme weather to climate change.
2. As an example, if Hurricane Harvey had come ashore in a sparsely populated stretch of the Gulf Coast, it might not even be considered a significant event.
3. It's pretty clear to me that extreme weather events are becoming both more extreme and more likely. Consider: two years in a row of devastating fires in California; heat, drought, floods and fires during Australia's 2019 summer; the current record-breaking heatwave in Europe; and much much more. Climate models can explain these events. I've yet to see any other reasonable explanation.
4. I think that no one has understood the relationship between climate and weather better than Joseph Conrad, who wrote in Typhoon (1902):
Conrad's Captain MacWhirr sailed his ship into the eye of a typhoon, and then brought her battered and bruised into port. Would that the captains of our Ships of State would show such dedication and tenacity.
“Had he been informed by an indisputable authority that the end of the world was to be finally accomplished by a catastrophic disturbance of the atmosphere, he would have assimilated the information under the simple idea of dirty weather, and no other, because he had no experience of cataclysms, and belief does not necessarily imply comprehension.”
Some notes on Science, the IPCC and 1.5° C.
1. This graph (also from NOAA data) of 36 month overlapping averages (each 36 month period ending in month with same name as latest month for which data is available) from 1880 to the present shows a longer term rising trend, with an increasing rate of warming in recent years.
2. I like 36 month overlapping graphs. I think they smooth the data, but not too much. You can view 12 month or 60 month overlapping graphs at NOAA's Climate at a Glance section too.
3. There have been various pronouncements that global warming stopped in 1998 (or some other recent year) and global cooling began. This graph demonstrates clearly, without the need for any statistical analysis, that no such thing has happened.
4. Data previous to the 1960s are from surface-based measurements and probably not as accurate as data from later years which include satellite-based measurements.
5. This graph begins about a century after the start of the “industrial revolution” and well into the 1850-1900 period that the IPCC refers to as “pre-industrial.” It details the sharp and increasing rise in global temperatures with the development of technology.
6. This graph also details the sharp and unprecedented rise in global temperatures beginning around mid-2014 and continuing through mid-2016; and then the slight fall in global temperatures to the period from mid-2016 through mid 2019.
Discussion of Climate Crisis and Climate Catastrophe
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
“They can snow all their clients
By calling it (hah!) Science.”
1. Thousands of scientists contribute to the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Good science is not done by committee — never has and likely never will be. If Albert Einstein had to work with a committee like the IPCC, we might still be struggling without a theory of general relativity.
2. The “IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C” (2018) notes that there are few direct temperature measurements from before the industrial revolution, so they declare that they will use 1850-1900, the earliest period where there exist near-global observations to represent the “pre-industrial” period which ended a century earlier. Huhhh? And these folks call themselves scientists? Why don't they just drop the “pre-industrial” and say they are measuring warming from the latter half of the 19th Century? And just how do they know that 1850-1900 is a good representation of pre-industrial temperatures when there are so few direct measurements?
3. I think “pre-industrial” should mean before the start of the industrial revolution which is generally considered to have begun sometime between 1750 and 1800. I find this conflating of the second half of the 19th Century with pre-industrial times confusing at best and perhaps even a deliberate obfuscation. (Sorry folks. Consider this as coming from an unrepentant paranoid conspiracy theorist.)
How do you convert anomaly from the 20th Century average to anomaly from the 1850-1900 average?
1. It ain't easy.
2. Copernicus Center computes its base period, 1981-2010 as 0.63° C. warmer than the 1850-1900 average. With NOAA's data, I computed Copernicus's base period at 0.44° C. above the 20th Century average. Subtracting, I get 0.19° C., so I add 0.19° C. to NOAA's anomaly from the 20th Century to get a rough estimate of anomaly from the 1850-1900 average. (Sorry folks, but that's the best I can do.)
3. I'm still no closer to an anomaly from real pre-industrial times (before 1750 more or less)
Why 1.5° C.?
1. Based on the recommendations of the IPCC, the Paris Climate Agreement seeks to limit global warming to 1.5°C. above pre-industial (later redefined as 1850-1900) levels. So what's the big deal about 1.5° C. anyway?
2. If (unlike yours truly) you are a normal human being, your body temperature is probably around 37° C. (98.6° F.) Now raise your body temperature 1.5° C. At 38.5° C. (101.3° F.) you are probably feeling sick and better go to bed and drink plenty of fluids. Now raise your temperature another 0.5° C. At 39° C. (102.2° F.) you are feeling terribly weak, dizzy and disoriented. Suppose your temperature goes up yet another 2° C. At 41° C. (105.8° F.) you will die, if your body temperature does not come down very quickly.
3. The analogy is not exact. Gaia (The Living Earth) is much more resilient than we puny humans. She has weathered wilder swings in temperature than this. The climate at 4° C. above pre-industrial times would be very inhospitable to human “civilization,” with monster hurricanes, floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events which would dwarf anything on Earth today. It's very unlikely that many of us would survive a 4° C. rise in the Earth's temperature.
Can Science save us?
1. Well, uh, Science got us into this mess. Scientists taught us how (in the words of Joseph Conrad) “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land ..., with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.” But they taught us much more than that. They taught us how to make lots of money by burning the treasure and fouling the air. They also taught us how to make bombs which would render the Earth uninhabitable by humans for years to come, and oh so much more.
2. So can Science save us? When someone tells you they can clean up the mess they made, but you have to pay them to do it, beware. Now we're told that scientists can geo-engineer the planet to keep it cool. Lots of money to be made on geo-engineering, which, judging by past experiences, will create even bigger problems, that scientists will be very happy to solve for an ever-increasing price.
Global Warming and Climate Change are objective criteria. We can measure temperature today and compare it with measurements taken 50 years ago. Likewise with rainfall, wind velocity, cloud cover, chemical makeup of the atmosphere and other factors, all of which influence climate. The terms Global Warming and Climate Change have served us well. I suggest we stick with them. There is a consensus, not only among scientists, but among all people, particularly young people, that the world is warming and the climate changing.
Crisis is a different matter. Crisis is subjective. Crisis implies a turning point. How do you measure degrees of Crisis? Likewise with Catastrophe. A Catastrophe is a terrible event. How do you measure degrees of terribleness? If one doesn't take advantage of a Crisis to turn in the proper direction, one can easily create a Catastrophe.
Indeed, that is exactly what has happened with our climate. I've been hearing for some 20 years that the Earth is warming and we must take action now. I'm still hearing it 20 years later. I think we are well past the Crisis stage and into Catastrophe. So what is to be done?
Let's revisit Joseph Conrad's Captain MacWhirr. Sitting in the chart room with his ship in the eye of the typhoon, he finally realizes the folly of what he has done. He understands that the worst is to come and his ship is likely to go down with all hands on board. He says to himself, half aloud, “I shouldn't like to lose her.” And indeed, he does not. Against all odds, he sails his ship safely to port, battered and bruised.
Like Captain MacWhirr, I, too, “shouldn't like to lose her.” And Captain MacWhirr has sound advice for us: “Don't you be put out by anything. ... Keep her facing it ... Facing it — always facing it — that's the way to get through. ... Face it. ... Keep a cool head.”
It is difficult to tell people that we are in the proverbial eye of the typhoon and the worst is to come; yet, tell them we must. How are we to face the looming Catastrophe, if we ignore its true nature?
Many have wondered what will happen to mankind as the climate continues to warm. Some say we will continue with business as usual; others say we will join the dodos and the dinosaurs. I suspect somewhere in between. Our current “civilization” is certainly unsustainable; but I see no reason why, with the grace of God, a few of us can't continue to live on Earth in much the same way as our ancestors did during the Pleistocene, which ended about 11,300 years ago.
“Yet will I leave a remnant, that ye may have some that shall escape the sword among the nations, ... and they shall lothe themselves for the evils which they have committed in all their abominations.” —Ezekiel 6:8-9 (KJV)
Unlike the graphs above, the graphs below are based on “proxy data.” That is: global temperatures are inferred from things like tree rings, ice cores, the makeup of the shells of sea critters, type of flora and fauna in the fossil record, etc.
Needless to say the graphs below may not be all that accurate; and the further back in time we go, the less accurate they are likely to be. Nevertheless they seem to be the best we have; so let's go with them.
1. This graph is derived from research by Michael Mann published in 2008.
2. The baseline, 1961 to 1990 average, is approximately 0.14° C. higher than the Twentieth Century average used in the first three temperature graphs above. The scale is Fahrenheit instead of Celsius (1.8° F. = 1.0° C.). The dark gray band represents probable uncertainty.
1. This graph is from research by Shaun Marcott et al. published in 2013 and represents a probable reconstruction of temperatures over the last 11,300 years (Holocene).
2. During the Holocene, mankind learned to domesticate animals, build cities, develop written languages, cut down forests, burn fossil fuels, fight wars etc.
3. The baseline, 1961 to 1990 average, is the same as the previous graph and is approximately 0.14° C. higher than the Twentieth Century average used in the first three temperature graphs above.
4. The gray squiggly lines at the right represent the previous graph superimposed on Marcott's findings.
5. The wide band represents probable uncertainty.
6. This graph shows global temperatures rising 0.5 to 1.0° C. until 7000 years ago and then falling back to a low close to the start of the Holocene. This low is generally called the “Little Ice Age” which lasted, roughly, from around 1500 to around 1900. From the Little Ice Age onward temperatures have risen sharply.
7. One problem with this graph is that the right end of the x-axis (labeled 0) is “the present.” Which year is the present? This is important with temperatures rising by perhaps 0.27° C. in the last decade.
8. It appears from this graph and the temperature graphs presented above that we surpassed the previous Holocene maximum temperature in 2015 and remain above it.
1. This graph represents a possible reconstruction of temperatures during the ice ages and the interglacial periods. (Pleistocene)
2. The scale is Fahrenheit instead of Celsius (1.8° F. = 1.0° C.) and the baseline is the average over the past millennium.
3. The Pleistocene was a succession of wide swings in temperature between ice ages and interglacials, according to this graph by as much as 16° C.
4. I have found it difficult to reconcile this graph with the previous graphs. Since the data come from ice cores, likely they do not reflect global temperatures as a whole.
5. Modern man evolved during this period, probable around 250,000 years ago. Around 50,000 years ago he began to develop more advanced technology and migrated throughout Eurasia, Africa and then Australia and even later, the Americas.
7. Since modern man has been able to survive in almost every ecosystem on the planet, it appears very likely that he will be able to survive in at least some future ecosystem.
8. The same can not be said about “civilization.” “Civilization” developed under some very specific climatic conditions that are unlikely to exist on Earth in the near future.
9. I suspect, if we have not already done so, we will surpass the highest interglacial temperatures soon. (Keep in mind that the temperature has probably risen about 0.27° C. or 0.49° F. over the past decade. (See graphs above.)
1. I don't know where this graph comes from originally. It is all over the internet.
2. 65 million years ago marks the probable demise of the dinosaurs.
3. Temperatures in the Eocene, some 50 million years ago were likely considerably higher than they are today.
4. There are no known “great extinctions” during the Eocene. Indeed, life seems to have thrived during the warm period in the early Eocene.
5. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is thought to have also been much higher during the Eocene than today.
6. The Eocene might give us some clues as to what might happen on Earth in the near future.
More discussion of these and other temperature graphs to be added later
1. I don't know where this graph comes from either. It is also all over the internet.
2. The combination of linear and logarithmic scales on the x-axis are somewhat confusing, but allow for extra detail to be shown in more recent times.
3. 542 million years, back to the Cambrian, is a long time. Planet Earth has weathered a lot of changes. May she also weather this one.
4. Looking at these graphs, one should realize how hard it is to predict the future. Science talks in probabilities. There are few certainties in Science.