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Why the oceans suddenly seem so warm

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Heat this summer has not been normal for most of the world. Globally, July 2023 was the hottest month on record, mainly because the oceans are at record-high temperatures.

This week the team talked with climate scientist Zeke Hausfather about the short term and long term reasons why. They also discuss how we get the ocean data, whether that be from satellites, remote controlled ocean floats, and in some cases — seals. Yes, seals.

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About the Across the Sky podcast

The weekly weather podcast is hosted on a rotation by the Lee Weather team:

Matt Holiner of Lee Enterprises' Midwest group in Chicago, Kirsten Lang of the Tulsa World in Oklahoma, Joe Martucci of the Press of Atlantic City, N.J., and Sean Sublette of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia.

Episode transcript

Note: The following transcript was created by Adobe Premiere and may contain misspellings and other inaccuracies as it was generated automatically:

Hello everyone. I'm meteorologist Sean Sublette and welcome to Across the Sky our national Lee Enterprises weather podcast. Lee Enterprises has print and digital news operations in more than 70 locations across the country, including at my home base in Richmond, Virginia. I'm joined by my meteorologist colleague Matt Holiner in Chicago. My pals Kirsten Lang and Joe Martucci out of the office today.

Our guest this week is Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist. Very deep into the data, has a wealth of information about how much warming is taking place globally. And we really wanted to pick his brain about what's going on in the oceans this year in particular. There has been so much buzz, Matt, about how hot the oceans are right now.

So we wanted to kind of get into some of the reasons for that. Yeah, that's the headline I think grabbed people's attention. Of course, you know, as soon as there was those 100 degree temperature readings off the coast of Florida, then immediately all the headlines were Hot Tub water and everybody knows what a hot tub feels like. It's like, yeah, I don't think the ocean should just be naturally that hot if it's, you know, not being artificially heated.

But I mean, it is just getting warmer. But I also think that sometimes, you know, and that's the challenge, you know, where there's, you know, still doubt, unfortunately, that comes up with climate change because then certain things get exaggerated because there is something because they're also following that. Lots of headlines about the thermal hailing circulation shutting down. And what I liked in our discussion coming up with Zeke was he really dived into that and explained how likely it is and what's really going to happen, because immediately all the means of the day after tomorrow came and it's like, oh, the ocean current shuts down.

It's going to be a global ice age, you know? Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's talk about what's really going to happen, how likely the circulation shutting down really is. That was just one of the things that we discuss about with them. But it's always good to come back to the experts that really know what's going on rather than just people just throwing stuff out there on social media because there's a there's still a lot of bad stuff on social media.

Yeah. And he talked about, you know, if you've never heard of the thermo heal hailing circular ocean, sometimes it's called the MOOC. It has a lot of different nicknames, but he talks about what that is why it's important. He also addressed that 101 degree water temperature, some some things that are going on with that. And we just talked about where we're climate changes now and how much more warming we should expect.

So lots to get to with our conversation with Dr. Zeke Zeke Hausfather, let's go right to it. Dr. Zeke Hausfather father is the climate research lead for STRIVE and a research scientist with Berkeley. Earth is a climate scientist and IPCC author whose research focuses on observational temperature records, climate models, carbon renew, removal and mitigation technologies. Zeke also serves as science science contributor to Carbon Brief and was previously the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, the lead data scientist at SS, the Chief Scientist at Sea 3ai and Co-Founder and Chief Scientist of Efficiency 2.0.

And on top of all that, in his spare time, whatever spare time he has, he runs a very excellent substack with Andrew Dessler over at Texas A&M called the Climate Brink. So we are just pleased as punch as Mama used to say, to have Zeke Harris father with us on Across the sky. Thanks so much for joining us.

Noah is excited to be here. All right. So let's jump right into the whole oceans thing. This has been on top of everybody's climate weather minds for several weeks now about how warm the oceans have been this year with regard to the longer term record. So before we get into the specifics about why they're so warm this year, talk a little bit about, I guess, the metadata, the data sets that we are using and why we are so confident about making such a statement about the oceans being as warm as they are right now.

Sure. So we've collected ocean data for a long time. It was, in fact back in the 1840, as there is an international convention to standardize the collection of temperature data from ships, in part to better understand shipping routes, weather conditions to make ship journeys more predictable. In fact, the reason we start global temperature records like those we produce at Berkeley Earth or NOAA's or the UK Met Office record in 1850 is because that's when we start getting enough ocean data to at least, you know, with reasonable errors, estimate global temperatures.

So in the early days we used to measure ocean temperatures by throwing wooden buckets over the sides of ships, pulling them up, sticking a thermometer in and writing it down in the captain's logbook. Funny story that actually had some biases because as you're pulling a bucket up the side of a ship, it evaporates. Some of the water evaporates off the top and that cools the remaining water in the bucket.

And so you actually get slightly cooler temperatures with buckets around World War Two. We switched primarily to ship engine room and take ballast where the water goes through the whole of the ship to cool the engine. You know, these are steamships or, you know, more modern diesel ships. And it turns out engine rooms are a little warmer. So you have some biases there and translating from buckets to ship endurance.

And then starting around 1980, we really transitioned in large part to automated systems that, you know, there's thousands of them. They float around the ocean, they send data up to satellites. And in more recent years since the nineties, we have satellite radio monitors that can measure the ocean skin temperature directly. And it turns out that all these different sets of instruments largely agree with each other.

You know, you have to correct the biases when you switch from one to the other, of course. But if you do that, you get a pretty good consistent, high quality record of ocean temperatures since at least 1850. And certainly, you know, we have incredibly good records, you know, for the last few decades when we have satellites and buoys and ships and these awesome robots called Argo floats that float around the ocean and dive down to 2000 meters and sample all the ocean heat content and other variables on their way up.

So we're really in the golden age of climate data, particularly when it comes to the ocean today. Real quick, before we talk a little bit more about this year, just for my own thing, in my own mind, I know the Argo floats have become very popular recently. Off the top of your head, an approximation, the you know, to a first order of magnitude about how many of these Argo floats are kind of out there right now.

The latest number I heard and it's a couple of years old at this point, but it's about 3500 Argo floats and they're pretty well distributed around the ocean. There's a few areas they don't get, so they're not great at going under sea ice. In fact, scientists have figured out a pretty cool hack for that. And they actually put thermometers on the top of SEAL's heads like wild animals.

And they dive under the sea ice to get temperatures there. The Argo plates can't go easily. Wait, wait, wait. They put a thermometer on top of the head of a seal. Yep. A couple hundred seals have thermometers on their heads and they're taking measurements. They're very small there. I'm guessing this is a very tiny electro radio transmitter is not something like that.

Yeah, it's a liquid and glass thermometer sticking on there, Ed? No, no. There's a like a little transmitter on the SEALs head that's, you know, pretty small and unobtrusive, but takes measurements when the seals under the ice and then sends it off to a satellite when they get back to the surface and they track the seals and, you know, take it off their head after, you know, a year or so and then, you know, rotate new seals into the the seal temperature monitoring core.

So that's one area that scientists had to fill in the gaps a little bit. The other is the deep ocean. So our current Argo network mostly goes down to about 2000 meters or, you know, 6000 feet or so below that. We haven't had as many measuring systems historically. But there's a new deep Argo program that's trying to fill in some of those gaps.

That's amazing. Matt, you want to jump in with anything? Yeah, I'm still wrapping my mind around seals taking temperature readings for us. That is, if you Google it, there's some very, very adorable pictures of seals with little instruments on their heads. I'm sure. I'm sure. You know, my my question is, you know, as far as the coverage goes and I mean, we're talking about, you know, it seems like in many locations, you know, sea surface temperatures on the rise.

I mean, a combination of El Nino and but also in the Atlantic, seeing the sea surface temperatures on the rise. But I'm trying to kind of get into more of the details about instead of just saying sea surface temperatures are on rise everywhere, are there certain locations where we're really seeing a particular rise more so than other parts of the planet?

Yeah. So historically, you know, over long term changes, you know, some parts of the ocean warming slightly slower than others, like southern oceans. Ocean is always a bit wonky because it has, you know, a lot of overturning circulation and a lot of deep mixing. There's a weird cold patch off the southeast of Greenland that may be related to a slowdown in the thermal handling circulation, though there's a lot of debate around that.

But historically, the oceans have generally warmed at similar rates. This year, though, we've seen this really crazy warmth in the North Atlantic that is far beyond, you know, the level of warming we're seeing in other ocean basins. And so that's that's been really remarkable. And a lot of people have, you know, focused on that as a, you know, very unusual thing and tried to look at different potential explanations for it.

And I kind of want to follow up with that thermo hayling circulation, because immediately when you talk about that, I think of the movie the Day After Tomorrow and how the ocean currents shut down and then suddenly there is this mass blizzard. We went into an ice age. So can you talk about the likelihood of this ocean currents shutting down and what would actually happen if it did happen?

And is it going to be at the scale of the day after tomorrow? Sure. So let's start with the likelihood and then we can talk about the day after tomorrow. So scientists have historically thought the likelihood of a shutdown this century is quite low. You know, most of our climate models show it slowing down, in part as you have a lot of freshwater runoff from Greenland.

So to back up a little bit the way the thermal handling circulation fundamentally works is that as water is traveling north in wind driven currents in the Atlantic, more and more of the water at the surface evaporates, which means that what's left over gets more and more salty because the salt stays when the water evaporates. And as it gets salty enough, it gets denser.

And once it gets dense enough, it starts to sink. And so that drives one of the big ocean circulations is the sinking of saltier water in the North Atlantic. But it turns out if you start melting Greenland really quickly, you dump much of freshwater into the North Atlantic and that can make it less salty, which then makes it not sink, which then can slow down and eventually shut down the circulation.

So climate models historically have not expected a shutdown this century, though they had expected to slow down in the last few years. There's been a couple more speculative papers suggesting that the models might be missing some things and that, you know, the possibility of a shutdown this century is is higher than previously anticipated. That said, this is still a very much on the bleeding edge of science.

So I don't think any of us can say with confidence what's likely to happen this century. We just can't rule out a shutdown. Now, if a shutdown were to occur, it's important to emphasize this doesn't mean the Gulf Stream is shutting down. The Gulf Stream is driven by the rotation of the Earth and winds. It's not going anywhere, but the thermal healing is still very important for heat transfer, particularly to northern Europe.

And so if we were to see a shutdown, we would see temperatures drop, you know, over, you know, coastal northern Europe, probably by, you know, three or four degrees centigrade on average. Some parts around Iceland, you know, you might even get to like eight degrees C drop compared to current temperatures. Not quite day after tomorrow levels, you know, we're not going to see the oceans freeze or, you know, New York become a a winter permanent winter arctic.

You know, we're really talking more about the European side of of the North Atlantic, where the biggest effects could be felt. And over the long term, you know, the effects of warming for most countries in Europe would outweigh the cooling issues associated with the shutdown. It still be bad. You know what affect rainfall patterns a bunch in problematic ways.

You know, it would mean it was a lot cooler, particularly in places like the UK. It wouldn't be a good outcome, but at this point, you know, we're still very much digging through the data and modeling and and trying to get a clearer picture of what exactly is happening with it and what is likely to happen as Greenland melt picks up.

Yeah, I know there was a lot of buzz about this in the last couple of weeks with that I think was a nature communications paper that came out to kind of reignite that conversation back to the to the North Atlantic and the overall global oceans. Well, obviously, climate change is a big issue, which kind of the overall background driver.

But talk a little bit about a couple of these other things that have kind of bubbled ahead or forward. On top of that, you know, obviously El Nino is going on, but there are there's discussions about an underwater volcano in the South Pacific, how fuels and shipping lanes in the North Atlantic might have changed. Could you just talk a little bit about those other kind of mitigating factors and what how much they may or may not be playing a role?

So let's start with the volcano and then talk a bit about sulfur. So there was a very large eruption in Tonga in 2022 of of an underwater volcano. And it affected the climate not by providing key to the oceans because the amount of heat provided by volcanoes, the oceans is actually pretty negligible on a global scale compared to the amount of heat that's being trapped by greenhouse gases.

But what this volcano did that was really weird compared to most volcanoes we see is it shot an incredible amount of water vapor, incredibly high into the atmosphere. It put about 150 million metric tons of water into the stratosphere, which is a part of the atmosphere that doesn't have much water vapor in it usually. And that matters a lot to the climate because water vapor itself is a strong greenhouse gas, But because water vapor, you know, rains out, if you get too much in the atmosphere, it it doesn't last for long.

So it can't really accumulate. But the stratosphere is a little different because there's so little water vapor up there. If you put water vapor up there, it doesn't rain out. And it can stay in the stratosphere for a lot longer than you'd have water stay in the lower part of the atmosphere. It takes a couple of years to clear out, you know, water vapor and into the stratosphere.

And so while most volcanoes actually cool the planet by putting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, if they're really big volcanoes, this one unusually actually likely warmed the planet by putting a lot more water vapor in than it put in CO2. Now, there's been a couple of papers on this that estimated that globally, the magnitude, the effect is probably somewhere in the range of 0.15 Watch per meter squared.

That's a very wonky number. We used to estimate the amount of energy trapped in their system, but to convert them to numbers, people might understand, You know, we're probably talking about somewhere in the range of, you know, five hundredths of a degree centigrade of warming associated this volcano. So 0.05 C, which is not nothing but is not nearly as big as the, you know, excursions and temperature we're seeing globally.

Is there a limit to these temperatures? Is there a threshold like, you know, is there a certain level where the oceans can't get any warmer or are we going to continue to just sled? You know, now an X is going to be 101, 102. I mean, is there a threshold about a limit to where we're going to go and just kind of talk about how exceptional that 100 degree temperature really is?

Yeah. So I think the provisional record was actually 101. Now, granted, it was in an area of very shallow water with a lot of like biomass in the water that can absorb sunlight. So those areas do get in the high nineties pretty frequently. But this was very, very high. And we've seen, you know, high 90 degree temperatures around the Florida Keys a lot this year.

So I think that's, you know, another sign of this exceptional thing that's happening in the North Atlantic in terms of temperatures as far as like how hot it can get, you know, there's not a functional limit that says like when the oceans reach, I don't know, 102 degrees, they don't increase anymore. But what you do have is this sort of relationship where the hotter a surface is, the more heat it radiates.

And it actually radiates heat at the fourth power of temperature to get a little wonky. So you have this Stefan Boltzmann equation at work. And so what that means is that the hotter it gets, the more heat it's getting up to the atmosphere, the harder it is to warm up further because it's giving off more and more heat as it gets hotter.

And so that there ends up being a bit of a negative feedback, as we call it, a countervailing factor of it's just hard to get things that are already hot, hotter compared to getting up cool things. And so that does help provide a bit of a limitation to how hot it can get. I guess on some point it it's a limit of diminishing return once you gets to a certain temperature profile, I'm assuming.

Yep. All right. Good deal. It's one of the reasons why climate change doesn't run away as easily on Earth, which is a good thing. Yes, we like to tell people the planet's not going to turn into Venus any time soon. We got to take a quick break. We'll have more with Zeke House father when we come back on the Across the Sky podcast.

And we're back with Zeke House Father, a climate scientist with numerous organizations. There's a lot of work. Also has a wonderful substack for for folks who aren't very deep into climate science. He runs out with Andrew Dessler over at Texas A&M called the Climate Brink. I want to go back to the the current state of the oceans. We talked a little bit about the underwater volcano in the South Pacific, but there's been a lot of buzz on how fuels used in shipping.

Traffic in the North Atlantic may have played a role. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Sure. So when we think about climate change happening more broadly on Earth, you know, we know that the greenhouse gases we're putting in the atmosphere are warming the planet, but it's not the only thing that humans but the atmosphere. We also put a lot of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.

You know, it comes as a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, primarily in sulfur dioxide, it turns out, is actually a strong cooling effect on the climate. And that's through two different mechanisms. The first is what we call the direct effect, which is that it's very like sulfur dioxide particles are very reflective. So some sunlight hits those particles in the atmosphere.

It bounces back up to space and it just dims the sun essentially at the surface. You know, some people call it global dimming and in areas that are very polluted because of that. The second is the indirect effect where sulfur dioxide particles and aerosols in the atmosphere can serve as cloud condensation nuclei and so can increase the amount of cloudiness in regions where you have a lot of CO2.

And you see this, you know, in contrails from planes and ship tracks, from ships that are going over the ocean where you see like clouds forming in the wake of the ship because of all the CO2 that's coming out of that stack. And it turns out those sort of clouds are good at reflecting sunlight and cooling the surface.

So historically, we've used pretty dirty fuel for ships. You know, it's sort of the fuel that's leftover from oil distillation that's too dirty to burn on land because it would tell us how old are clean air rules. We actually call it bunker fuel. So it's very like tarry goopy stuff that's leftover at the bottom of the stack after oil distillation, and it turns out is a very high sale for content.

And the reason ships are allowed to burn it is because they're mostly far from shore. And, you know, you have less air pollution concerns in the middle of the Atlantic or middle of the Pacific. But unfortunately ships are still using it near port. And a bunch of studies in recent years have found that it has some pretty nasty health impacts on people who live near shore.

There's one study estimated that something like 60,000 people worldwide die prematurely a year because of ship based sulfur pollution. And so because of that, there's been a big push over the last decade to try to phase out sulfur in marine fuels to reduce the harmful human health impacts of burning it. But about 10% of all global sulfur emissions come from ships.

And in the year 2020, the International Maritime Organization put in a new set of rules, essentially reducing the amount of sulfur that ships could emit by 90%. So if you think about 10% of all of our sulfur emissions globally coming from ships, we reduce that 90%. You get, you know, somewhere around a 9% reduction in all global aerosol CO2 emissions, sulfur dioxide emissions.

And that's a pretty big deal. You know, in the recent IPCC report, our best estimate was that, you know, aerosols cooled the planet by about half a degree. C And so if you have a 9% reduction in one year going forward and all of aerosol emissions, you know, 9% of half a degree, C is still a pretty big number.

You know, it's like .05 C And so there is likely roughly that level of additional warming globally from reducing these aerosol emissions. But the thing is, these ships are not emitting globally. They're emitting in particular regions, particularly the North Atlantic, in the North Pacific. And so in those regions we expect a much bigger climate effect from removing these aerosols, reducing the amount of ship tracks and cloudiness in those shipping corridors.

So my colleague at Berkeley Earth, Robert Rohde, he did an analysis where he looked at essentially what's the difference between the temperatures we're seeing over the shipping tracks after the year 2021, the face of this fuel and the other parts of the ocean. And he found that after 2020, those regions warmed about 0.2 see more than the rest of the global ocean.

And so we can say, you know, the sort of shipping track regions in the North Atlantic, North Pacific are probably had at least 2/10 of a degree warming in the last few years because we phased out this low sulfur or sorry, we based off the high sulfur fuel required muscle fuel. All right. So I'm going to turn this over to Matt before I do, I have two quick follow ups.

One is for my own mind, when we think about CO2 being kind of reflective, are we are you saying the CO2 molecule or as as an aerosol with other impurities and too, what is the the the general lifetime of CO2 and those aerosols in the atmosphere before they finally settle out? The reflectivity is primarily the sulfur molecule itself, but it is in an aerosolized form when it's sort of moving around the lower atmosphere, the troposphere, the lifetimes are generally talking about on the order of weeks.

You know, it falls up pretty quickly in the troposphere. If you were to put it in the stratosphere, as we see with like large volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo, there you have the resonance time in the short years. You know, most probably about half of it falls out in the first year. But there's a bit of a tail before it all falls out of the stratosphere.

That's why, you know, we saw something like half a degree C cooling globally the year after Mount Pinatubo erupted. It's because it put so much CO2 up into the stratosphere and that hung around for, you know, couple of years after that, suppressing temperatures. And while we're looking at these other issues that are that are playing into this, you know, another story and that's what I want to kind of focus on.

It is a completely separate story, is it's tied together is the plastic pollution problem in the oceans. We keep hearing about the increasing amount of plastic in the oceans. And of course, there's lots of negatives associated with that. But I wonder if there's been any research at all. Is the plastic, the amount of plastic in the ocean having an impact on the sea surface temperatures, whether lowering them or raising them, or does it seem to not have an impact and it's just a separate environmental issue?

It's a great question. You know, I haven't seen any research on no beetle effects of plastic. I think that even places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a very evocative name, you know, it's not that dense. It's not like if you're going in a boat through there, it's just the surface of the ocean is covered with plastic.

It's like there's pieces here and there. So I'm sure it has an effect because seawater is dark and absorbs sunlight. Plastic is generally not as dark as seawater and reflects sunlight. You know, there probably is on the margins, a cooling effect, but I suspect it's not particularly strong. But it is a big issue, obviously, for for wildlife. And I'm sure a lot of your listeners have seen, you know, David Attenborough's documentaries of like seabirds and remote islands with plastic in their bellies.

And you know, these tragic pictures of, Yeah, let's think forward a little bit. We have made globally some progress in terms of of emissions at least regarding coal. Coal is in decline, at least in a lot of places. My understanding is that China is throwing everything out there, solar and coal and everything. But the demand for coal isn't as high as it used to be.

Having said that, we still are burning a lot of fossil fuels that aren't necessarily coal. So some of the worst case scenarios we imagined 15, 20 years ago don't appear like they're going to be coming to fruition. It doesn't mean it's not going to be bad. But when we look at where policies have kind of evolved to now, how much warming you know, now in the pipeline should we kind of expect in the coming several decades?

And that's a broad question, but let's just just kind of attack where we've come, how far we've come in the last ten or 20 years and and how that might translate forward. Yeah. So so a decade ago, things looked really dire for the Earth's climate in terms of where we were heading. You know, global coal use had doubled over the course of a decade.

China was building a new coal plant just like every three days. And the idea that the 21st century could be dominated by coal, where we'd, you know, double or triple our emissions by 2100 didn't seem that far fetched. You know, today we're in a very different world. Thankfully, you know, clean energy has gotten cheap, but most of the new energy being built worldwide is renewables today, or at least clean energy.

That's it's low carbon. And, you know, global coal use has pretty much flatlined since 2013 or so, which also means that global emissions of CO2 have more or less flatlined over the last decade. The problem is that when I say emissions of flatland, it sort of makes you think, oh, that means global warming is stopped too, Right? But it doesn't quite work that way.

The world is going to keep warming as long as our emissions of CO2 remain above zero. That's really the brutal math of climate change, is that it's not enough just to stop emissions from increasing. You actually have to get them all all the way down to zero to stop warming. If we just line emissions like we are today, what that means is that warming continues at the rate that we've been experiencing for the last decade or 2.2 C per decade or so.

And so if you look at a bunch of different assessments of where we're headed today, and it's been done by the International Energy Agency and the United Nations Governmental Program and groups like, you know, Climate Action Tracker, they all more or less agree that, you know, we're headed for a world of of around three degrees C, maybe slightly below by 2100.

That compares to a world of, you know, four or five C that seemed possible a decade ago. And so that does reflect progress. You know, if we've bent the curve downward of future emissions, we've, you know, made some of these really, really catastrophic high end scenarios a little less likely. But a3c world is still a really bad one.

I mean, we're experiencing a lot of severe impacts of climate change already in terms of heat waves and wildfires and, you know, extreme precipitation events just at 1.2 degrees today. And so if you, you know, more than double that, it's it's a pretty terrible world for for a lot of people and for a lot of nature to, you know, the natural world is a really tough time adapting to very rapid changes in temperature like we'd see.

So three degrees is certainly a lot better than where we're headed, but it's by no means anywhere close to where we want to be. The good news, for me at least, is that the fact that we have started to make some progress means that it's a lot easier to imagine a world where we actually do make more progress.

We continue to these positive trends and accelerate, and we actually do manage to limit warming to at least below two degrees by the end of the century. And I think unfortunately, 1.5 degrees is probably in the rearview mirror at this point, unless we, you know, do some crazy scenario where we pass it and then remove, you know, ridiculous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere to bring temperatures back down.

But but certainly, I think you could say that limiting warming to two degrees or below two degrees is quite possible from where we are today. It would involve getting all of our emissions of CO2 to zero by, you know, 2070 or so globally, which is a big lift, but it's by no means impossible. And it's good to hear a little bit of good news because it is definitely by far mostly bad news.

It comes to climate, but it's good that we're going in the right direction and hopefully the trend will continue. I want to kind of look in the short term, though, you know, we're in this El Nino and that's what's contributing partially to the high sea surface temperature that we're seeing and high global temperatures in general. But looking ahead to 2024 houses, El Nino going to play out.

And what impact is it going to have on 2020 for us? Temperatures? Sure. So there is a growing strong El Nino in the tropical tropical Pacific right now that's really developed rapidly in the past few months. What was interesting is that we switched quite quickly from an unusually long La Nina event. We called it a triple dip, Nina, because it's when you sort of started to come out of La Nina conditions and then dipping back in.

And that happens, you know, two more times after the initial one. Nina But because we rapidly transitioned from La Nina, conditions down, you know, conditions, you know, it's really added a lot of heat, particularly to the oceans. We expect the current El Nino events to continue and strengthen through the end of the year and, you know, stay fairly strong at least through early to mid 2024.

There is some differences in the various modeling groups looking at El Nino, the dynamical models, the more like climate models tend to predict a stronger nino than the statistical models, which are more trying to infer based on you know, the statistics of past El Ninos. What's likely this time around. And that divide is actually kind of remarkable this year compared to the most past years.

I, for one, probably would bet on the dynamical models because they think they capture more of the underlying processes like statistics only bring you so far. But in terms of the effects of the El Nino, you know, it's going to bump up global temperatures as well as sea surface temperatures for the remainder of 2023. You know, it means that this year is now the odds on favorite to be the warmest year since records began, since 1850.

But it's really going to have a big effect next year. And so for 2024, it's likely to be even warmer than 2023 for the year as a whole. And we've seen historically that there tends to be a bit of a lag between when El Nino conditions peak in the tropical Pacific and when the global temperature response to that El Nino event peaks.

And that lag is about three months. So three months or so after you hit peak El Nino conditions, then you have the peak surface temperature response globally across the land and the oceans. And that's been a pretty consistent relationship for the past, you know, 80 years or so at least. So if that holds this time around, you know, and the El Nino peaks in the near the end of 2023, we expect sort of the biggest push to be on early 2020 for temperatures.

So what we'd probably be looking at is a particularly warmer end of winter and into the spring months. So I guess, you know, the groundhog would be predicting an early spring might be what we're seeing in a lot of places would be kind of an idea if this El Nino plays out as it's expected to. Yeah, that's globally like, oh, Nino has very specific patterns of heat and cool associated with it that may affect different regions differently.

So you can't necessarily say like every part of the planet is going to be warmer because of the El Nino. It really ends up depending a bit. Like in California, we tend to get a slightly cooler and Rainier weather with an El Nino years, for example. So the overall pattern of what the impacts that El Nino bring is going to be overriding.

But looking at the big picture, that's probably when temperatures are going to peak would be late winter, early spring. Yeah. All right. Let's go back south again. I was looking at a plot today, I think you actually shared about the Antarctic Sea ice and how it is way below the last 45 years of records. Is there anything that we should take away from that?

I mean, it's kind of a frightening plot or is it just one of those things like we really don't understand the Antarctic ice surrounding the continent as well? It's a signal, but we we really shouldn't panic about it. I mean, what is your take when you see that that kind of graphic of what's going on in the sea ice around Antarctica?

So it's it's definitely disconcerting. Like we've never seen anything like this in the historical record for Antarctic ice. At the same time, Antarctic sea ice has always been a lot more complex, heated and unpredictable than Arctic sea ice. The Antarctic sea ice. If you look at the data since 1979, which is when we first got good satellite coverage to get high quality Arctic wide records, it's pretty much been going down consistently.

Like some years are higher, some years are lower, but there's a very clear linear downward trend as the Arctic warms Antarctica at least through 2020 or so, was bucking that sea ice was increasing overall in Antarctica between 1979 and 2020. And there was a lot of work among scientists to explain why that was. You know, part of it has to do with prevailing wind patterns, part of S2 actually, with the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, which has a cooling impact for the region.

And so, you know, it was always sort of a much bigger question mark of the climate impacts on Arctic sea ice compared to the Arctic words. It's much more straightforward. And so then we get to the last three years where that slight upward trend in sea ice, Antarctica suddenly reversed. You know, it went down, you know, pretty far in 2021 and 2022 and then 2023 hit.

And we really have been at unprecedented lows for the entire year, particularly now, when sea ice should be growing rapidly. And it really isn't. And so there just needs to be a lot more work by scientists to untangle, you know, what are the drivers of this? You know, is it unusual warmth in Antarctica? Is it warm sea surface temperatures?

Are air temperature is is it changing wind patterns that might be breaking up sea ice in ways that we haven't seen before? Like part of the problem is we only have a record going back to 1979 for this region. And so it may well be that there's some modes of variability that could lead to big shake ups in Antarctic sea ice that might have happened before, but just hasn't happened since 1979.

So, you know, I don't think we can rule out that it's primarily caused by human activity. And certainly we expect long term as the Antarctic region warms to sea less sea ice there. But this is so far below what we'd expect to that. I think, you know, we need to take a close look at it and figure out all the different potential causes.

And before we wrap up, every time we get someone on, you know, talking about climate change and what we're seeing out there and all the various issues, I think when it always comes back to is, you know, people read all these articles and it's all doom and gloom, but then it's like, well, what what can I do? What what can I do to make it better?

I think when it comes to the oceans, this is a particularly unique because we don't live in the oceans, we're on land. And so people kind of see the impacts of what's happening on land and where. So I think so many of us are ignorant about what's going on in the ocean. So if you're if someone's listening to this and is alarmed and wants to make an impact and wants to again look at the whole issue, but let's just look at the oceans itself and what are things that individuals do if they want to see these sea surface temperatures not be as extreme?

What are some things that are some proactive things that are people just reading this and saying, well, what do I do? What is your answer for when somebody asked that question? So I think one of the and it's fun, funny to use the word comforting in this environment given everything happening. But one of the more comforting findings out of the recent IPCC report was that if we can get emissions all the way down to zero, warming will stop.

There's not a huge amount of warming in the pipeline that is inevitable, which means that ultimately, like humans are at the drivers wheel here, you know, are in the driver's seat. We get to determine based on how much fossil fuels we burn over the next century, exactly how warm it gets. You know, we're sort of stuck with what we have today regardless.

But we can determine, you know, if it just gets a bit worse or if it gets catastrophically worse. And that's mostly on us in terms of how quickly we reduce our emissions of CO2 from burning fossil fuels and how quickly we switch switch to the clean energy alternatives. So as an individual you know, obviously it's a huge problem that requires collective action globally.

But at the same time, you know, you can do a lot by supporting clean energy technologies because the more people who buy things like heat pumps or electric cars or put solar panels on the roof, the more the price of those technologies go goes down and the more other people can afford to adopt them and know we've really seen that with electric vehicles, which ten years ago were incredibly expensive and today are actually cheaper to own than a gas vehicle over the lifetime.

You know, similarly, solar panels were nine times more expensive a decade ago than they are today. And a big part of what's driven those cost declines is just economies of scale, more and more being built, people learning how to build them more cheaply. You know, it's not fundamental breakthroughs in the physics. It's learning by doing. And so individuals making decisions to, you know, you know, pay a small premium to get clean energy in their personal lives.

But hip hop and electric vehicle solar panel, you know, is an important way to to make it easier for other people who might not be as motivated to be able to adopt those or just make it the default because it's the cheapest thing for people to do. I think the other thing I'd say is that at the end of the day, individuals voluntarily taking action can only take us so far.

You know, we need a stronger policy response by governments to make clean energy cheap and to hold polluters to account. And so I think, you know, at the end of the day, one of the most impactful things you can do on this issue is vote. Tell politicians what you think because they're going to have to help us address this.

So I think you you hit the nail on the proverbial head. There is nobody can fix this all by themselves. But collectively, we can we can make a lot of progress. And there's a lot of good reasons to be optimistic. Before we let you go, in addition to people reading your stuff on Carbon brief and and the Substack, where else can people find your work if you know they're not true wonks or they're not policy wonks or they're not deep into the science, where else can people find what you have to say?

Yeah, so you can you can always follow me on Twitter or whatever it's called this week, right? Or on Threads, which is the new matter owned Twitter competitor. You know, if you can also just read the coverage of climate that's going on in places like The New York Times, The Washington Post or the BBC, it's it's all quality.

And, you know, they they talk to me occasionally and a bunch of other climate scientists, period of of mine who also a great insights in the stuff. So it's a you know it's hard to find good discussions of climate on TV these days. But you know if you turn to the news, you know it's it's dominates the headlines and a lot of it is really well written and really good.

Yeah. One of the things that we've seen in polling is that people trust climate scientists, not so much people on TV. So that's why I always try to refer people directly to you, to Andrew, to Katherine, and have those kinds of folks ask again. Thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it. And we hope that we get a chance to talk to you again soon.

Definitely. It's great to chat. That is so much good information, Matt. I mean, every time I talk to see I've talked to him two or three times before this and I've been following him on Twitter and you heard me just kind of going on and on about the subject. But he has so much good actionable information. He's able to put so many myths to rest very quickly.

And I could just talk to him all day long. But a lot of a lot of wonderful information about where we've come and where we're going. And he's got the data to back it up. Yeah, it really is a fascinating discussion because we re so, so much of the focus is on land and what people are experiencing. But the majority of the planet, 70% of the planet is the oceans, and they're absorbing a lot of heat and they're getting warmer as well.

And when you're calculating these global temperatures, we talk about, you know, this is the warmest year on record, which 2023 seems to be on track to do. So it's not just all the thermometers on land that we're calculating, that we're using all of these booties to measure the temperature of the oceans. And that has a big impact. And that's why the fact that we're having an El Nino, it's an El Nino year when I mean, already we're talking about sea surface temperatures getting warmer and warmer.

But during El Nino, they get even warmer than normal. And so that's what's going to contribute to seeing the high 2023 is going to be so warm. And then it was also interesting how we're kind of teasing ahead to 2024. There's potential for 2024 to be even warmer because we're especially going to start 2024. It seems so warm.

And how even if El Nino starts to wind down the lag in the global temperatures because it has a global impact, will continue. So that's going to be something to watch. You know, it was it was disheartening to hear that about getting even warmer. No, but at the same time, I did like the where he did bring back, you know, it's good to find the positives where we can where we're at where it looks like though, his most dire predictions for what could happen not to play it down and so not to let people's guard down because he has emphasized, you know, three degrees of warming would still be really bad.

But if we're going in the right direction, maybe avoiding that four or five degrees of warming by 2100, at least, that's progress. So let's not let our foot off the pedal. Let's let's keep working. Let's see if we can bring that trend out. How about two degrees instead of three degrees? I mean, the more we can do, you know, it's good to get some good news.

But remember that three degrees is bad because we're already seeing, what, less than one and a half degrees is doing it. It's not good. Yeah. And that's three C, which is five and a half Fahrenheit. So we need to remember that sometimes we are deep into the science that we we kind of fall into the metric, the metric system, which is great.

I love the metric system as a scientist, but a lot of people aren't as familiar with that. So yeah, three C that's about five and a half degrees Fahrenheit. And I was also very grateful that he went back and talked about how we know what the oceans were 150, 175 years in the past when we had some ocean temperature records directly.

But now we get so much of it from satellites and these cool Argo floats spend a little time in Google, Argo floats because they're really, really cool pieces of equipment. Help us see what's going on into the oceans. Matt. You know, next week we've got, you know, football seasons coming. So let's go back on land. Right? But we're into August now and football practices are full tilt at this point, getting ready for four opening opening day in a few weeks and it's still hot.

So we're going to talk to two Douglas Cossa at the Korey Stringer Institute up there at University of Connecticut and talk about the impact of heat on on football players. It can be a very sneaky killer, unfortunately. So we're going to talk to him about that and some of the best practices to keep our players safe so we can enjoy what they do a later on in the fall.

Anything else? But before we take off, then I'll also be interested the impact of folks on the stands, because I've been at some awfully hot, late August, early September games in Texas. And, you know, especially if it's a middle of the day game, I mean, the crowd is in bags. Well, of course, the players absolutely the most, but the crowd as well.

So that'll be an interesting discussion. And then also, you know, we're going to promote it again, if you ever have any questions for us, weather questions, things you'd like to hear us discuss, ideas for the podcast, shoot us an email podcast at Leeds dot net or begin to comment on the show we love to hear. All right, that all sounds good.

I with that we are going to wrap for this week. So for Matt Holiner in Chicago, I’m meteorologist Sean Sublette in Richmond, Virginia at Lee Enterprises, thanks so much for listening. And we will talk with you again next week.

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Across the Sky

The Lee Weather Team hosts a fast-paced weekly podcast that tackles hot topics (and cold!) plus what 
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