Where Did the 2016 El Niño’s Heat Come From?

By Mike Jonas – Re-Blogged From http://www.WattsUpWithThat.com

1. The basic physics

2016 was claimed as the “hottest year ever”. Well, the hottest for a few centuries, anyway, if the global temperature measures are to be believed. Let’s suppose that they are. It is known that 2016 was an El Niño year, and that the “hottest year ever” was caused by a burst of warm water from the ocean (and we know that CO2 doesn’t act that fast). So – where did the El Niño’s heat come from? Let’s look at some basic physics:

Greenhouse gases (GHGs) warm the atmosphere. From there, the downward Infra-Red (IR) radiation reaches the ocean surface.

IR cannot penetrate more than a fraction of a millimetre into the ocean, so it warms just the surface skin. From there most of its energy goes back into the atmosphere or space, but some of it can convect or conduct into the ocean.

From the 2nd law of thermodynamics, in the absence of work, net heat transfer can only occur from a warmer object to a cooler one. So …

  • The atmosphere cannot warm the ocean surface skin to a higher temperature than itself.
  • Water in the ocean surface skin cannot mix with deeper water to create water of a higher temperature than itself.
  • Water from the ocean cannot warm the atmosphere to a higher temperature than itself.

This means that none of the extra warmth from the ocean which caused the “hottest year ever” can have come from GHGs within the last few centuries. It’s not a question of how much came from GHGs and how much from natural causes. The proportion of the extra heat that actually came from GHGs (within the last few years at the very least) has to be precisely zero.

The basic physics tells us: The atmosphere cannot heat itself !



Figure 1. Can the Atmosphere heat itself?

So where did the extra heat come from; what could have provided the energy to cause a part of the ocean to be hotter than it “ever” had been before?

The argument that GHGs slow down the ocean’s rate of heat loss isn’t the answer. That can cause the temperature to be higher than it otherwise might have been, but, as above, it can’t provide the energy to cause a new high temperature.

A lot of solar radiation is absorbed into the ocean’s surface skin, but this could not have been the source of the extra heat. For that, the ocean’s surface skin would have had to be as warm or warmer than the later El Niño, but it wasn’t.

“Natural variation” won’t cut it as an answer either. The heat has to have physically come from somewhere. We need to know where.

And remember, whatever the process was, it was all going on at a time when temperatures were lower than 2016’s. GHGs were higher than they had been before, but their influence can only be slow and steady. They can’t act as fast as an El Niño.

The only candidate for providing the extra heat appears to be the ITO (“Into The Ocean”), that is, the band of solar radiation with wavelengths from about 200-1000nm which is absorbed below the ocean surface, some of it many metres below the surface. For more on the ITO, see [1] below.

So let’s have a look at the ITO, and see how it stacks up against the IPCC’s favourite pet, CO2.

NB. This is a general comparison between ITO and CO2, it’s not specific to the 2016 El Niño. It also has some pretty rough back-of-envelope calcs that could turn out to be a health hazard. But at this stage, I’m just looking for ball-park figures.


2. ITO vs CO2

[Supporting calcs are in Appendices A, B]

The ITO is controlled by clouds, ie. by changes in cloud cover. The sun has been shown to influence cloud cover [1], so the sun is a factor too, but much more for its effect on clouds than for its TSI.

Over the period 1983-2009 (the only period for which I have the data needed), the IPCC estimate for the increase in CO2 forcing – including feedbacks – was ~0.54 Wm-2 (global average). As I explained in [1] Part 2, this figure was arrived at by the modellers by tuning the climate computer models to match the 20th century warming. In other words, the figure of 0.54 Wm-2 (or its equivalent over some other period) was calculated as the amount that was needed to deliver the observed warming, and then parameterised into the models.

Looking at the ITO over the Pacific tropics, and arbitrarily using only the portion of the ITO that is absorbed from 10 to 100m below the surface, the change in cloud cover from 1983-2009 delivered an extra 0.55 Wm-2 on a global basis. ie, the extra energy delivered into the Pacific tropical ocean 10-100m below the surface was equivalent to 0.55 Wm-2 over the whole of Earth’s surface.

Don’t read anything into the closeness between the IPCC’s 0.54 Wm-2 and the ITO’s 0.55 Wm-2. My ITO calculations were done using some arbitrary numbers, simply to arrive at a ball-park figure, in order to check whether the ITO could have delivered enough energy into the ocean to explain the global warming that the IPCC attributed to CO2. It did.

In a way, it had to. Think of it this way: The warming from CO2 could not have produced the El Niño warming that gave us the “warmest year ever”, as I explained in 1 above. It also for example could not have produced the El Niño warming in 1998, for the same reason. Even with CO2 warming, the only actual source of energy that could have produced those El Niños had to have come from ITO, regardless of where the IPCC thought it came from. So when the modellers were tuning their models to the 20th century warming, they were actually tuning them to the ITO (though they didn’t know that). This means that the ITO must have already delivered the amount of energy that the models assumed had come from CO2.

Now, let’s briefly re-visit the theoretical basis.

3. SCO vs IPCC

The IPCC’s view of climate is CO2-centric. In their version, Earth’s climate is basically stable, with variations caused by varying levels of atmospheric CO2 concentration and by little else. They think that until man-made CO2 came along, there wasn’t a lot that changed CO2 concentration, so Earth’s climate was pretty stable. Various dubious techniques were used to promote this idea, such as the infamoous “hockey-stick” graph produced by Michael Mann in which proxy temperature series that did not support the narrative were truncated. See here.

In the SCO hypothesis (Sun-Cloud-Ocean [1]), the key factor is the solar radiation that penetrates many metres into the ocean – the ITO. The ITO is affected by cloud cover.. Over the longer term (decades to centuries) cloud cover is driven by solar activity, as described by Henrik Svensmark here, and later successfully tested. Cloud cover is affected by solar activity in the short term too, eg as described here, but these short term variations probably have little effect on climate, because it takes time for clouds’ effect to accumulate. Cloud cover does vary naturally for other reasons, but little is known about it.

Clouds have a minor overall effect on average atmospheric temperature [“clouds exert two competing effects .. The balance between these two components depends on many factors” AR4], but they have a significant effect on the ITO and hence on the rate of absorption of energy by the ocean. The ocean can accumulate some of this energy over many years before releasing it. The ocean then acts like a giant heat-pump. Accumulated energy in the ocean is pumped in short (months, years) or long (years, decades) bursts by the ocean into the atmosphere, typically because of an ocean oscillation such as El Niño, AMO, PDO, etc. In the short term, or even over decades, the release of energy might bear little relation to its acquisition.

The global temperature pattern over the 20th century bears little resemblance to the supposed warming by CO2, but it does have a very good correlation with ocean oscillations (see here), and El Niño’s influence is easily seen.

4. Conclusion

I need to re-work everything carefully, and there are still a few gaps in the SCO hypothesis to fill in, but I am confident that I have found the mechanism of the 20th century global warming. It involved the sun, the clouds, and the ocean. SCO fits the evidence, CO2 does not.

Very important: The statement made in 2 above – ” the change in cloud cover from 1983-2009 delivered an extra 0.55 Wm-2 on a global basis” – is a statement that does not rely on the SCO hypothesis. It is what actually happened (apart from any arithmetic error), based only on published data and a straightforward calculation. It is valid regardless of the IPCC or anyone’s hypotheses or CO2 or anything else that might affect the climate.


Figure 2. Absorption by wavelength, depth. The longer wavelengths (over 700nm) are almost completely absorbed in the first metre. Only wavelengths 300-600nm get past 10m depth. Little gets past 100m depth. [Note: Wavelengths 200-300nm are all scattered in the atmosphere and don’t reach the ocean.].Visible light wavelengths very approximately are 400-500nm Blue, 500-600nm Green, 600-700nm Red.


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