November 10 – Getting Hot In Here

Today’s factismal: The Earth is, on average, 1°C warmer today than it was in the 20th century.

Imagine that it is a cold, winters night and you’d like to sleep in a warm bed. Rather than turning up the heat (because that costs money), you put another blanket on the bed. In just a few moments, you are warm and toasty. But why? You can thank the science of thermodynamics. You are warmer than the air around you on all but the hottest days; as a result, heat escapes from you and heads into the air. But when you add a blanket (or wear clothes), some of that heat is reflected back. As a result, you lose heat more slowly and your temperature goes up.

Right now, the Earth has a blanket of what are called “greenhouse gases” around it. The gases, which include carbon dioxide (or CO2), methane, and water, act just like that blanket on your bed. They slow down the rate that heat leaves the Earth, raising the temperature. This effect is not news; scientists first predicted it back in 1896 and have been estimating its effects ever since. And one of the most interesting things about their predictions (other than the fact that they have usually come to pass) is that they have said “there is high confidence that ECS is extremely unlikely less than 1°C and medium confidence that the ECS is likely between 1.5°C and 4.5°C and very unlikely greater than 6°C”.

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average. (Image courtesy NOAA)

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average.
(Image courtesy NOAA)

What does that wiffle-waffle mean? It means that the Earth is likely to warm up and that the amount of warming will be at least 1°C. And this month, we have evidence that they are, once again, right. That’s because, unless the last three months of this year are exceptionally cool (which isn’t likely), the average temperature of the Earth will be  1°C warmer than the 20th century average. To give you an idea of what this means, remember that the average temperature in 1816 (“the Year Without A Summer“) was about 1°C below the 20th century average. So we are now as hot as they were cold. The main difference being that the temperatures only stayed below average for a couple of years in 1816; this year’s high marks the 39th year in a row that temperatures have been above average.

As a citizen scientist, there are two sets of things you can do. The first is to reduce the amount of energy you use; a nice benefit of this is that you also save money. For example, making sure that your tires are properly inflated will save you the equivalent of $0.10 per gallon and save the US the equivalent of 1.2 billion gallons of oil. Adding a layer of insulation to your water heater (like that blanket on your bed) will save you about $30 per year and save the US another 500 million gallons of oil. There are plenty of other way you can save money while saving the planet. But if you still want to do more, why not help record the changes that global warming is bringing to your neighborhood? Join iSeeChange and help them monitor how temperatures, weather, and other things are changing. To learn more, head to:

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