The heat of global warming could run the world for 300 years

Since 1961, the world’s oceans have stored enough extra heat energy to meet all of the world’s power needs for 300 years (at 2008 consumption rates).

Here’s how I got to that figure.

I’ve been to a couple of climate science talks recently here in climate science central (Boulder, CO). The big topic these days is extreme weather. Warmer global climate means more heat energy in surface water and air to fuel stronger storms. What none of the scientists seemed to be able to tell me was how much more heat energy (other than “a lot” or “on the order of nuclear weapons”).

So I flipped to the 2007 IPCC report and found a disappointing figure:

The world’s oceans warmed by 0.5 degrees Celsius between 1961 and 2003.

Oo, half a degree. Big whoop. Well, you and I know that water stores incredible amounts of heat energy, and that there’s a hell of a lot of water on the surface of the Earth. So here’s a slightly more meaningful number:

14.1 x 10^22 joules or
141,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules

Joules is a scientific unit for energy. That number is how much extra heat energy the IPCC estimates was stored by the oceans in the last half of the 20th century. If you convert that into nuclear weapons, it’s about

2,247,000,000 Little Boys

Little Boy is the ironically named atomic bomb that incinerated the people and city of Hiroshima back in WWII. Various estimates put its total energy at between 13,000 and 20,000 tons of TNT. I went with 15,000 tons of TNT. At 4,184,000,000 joules of energy per ton of TNT, that’s 62,760,000,000,000 joules per Little Boy explosion.

But getting back to the oceans. Global warming over the past half century has put as much extra heat energy into the oceans as if each person now alive in the United States detonated 7 Little Boy-class atomic bombs to heat up the water.

2.2 billion atomic bombs’ worth of energy in the oceans that the world’s hurricanes and tropical storms now have to drawn on. Is it any wonder that weather is getting extra hairy?

Put that figure in another context: the world’s ballooning and looming energy bill, part of the problem and cause of global warming. The world used about

1.504 x 10^13 watts or
15,040,000,000,000 joules per second of electricity in 2008

Divide that into 141,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules and you find that the extra heat energy stored in the oceans could have powered the world for 9,375,000,000 seconds, or 300 years, if we lived all those years like we did in 2008.

Hydrothermal energy, anyone?

Nuclear War Still Not a Good Idea

A NASA computer simulation shows that nuclear war could throws up a huge soot cloud that warms, rises, and blocks sunlight to cool the Earth. Now that’s the kind of climate change we like to see!

Except there’s also that pesky nuclear winter thing. You know, where the crops die for lack of sunlight and millions of people starve to death.  Not to mention the huge amounts of mutating radiation and radioactive isotopes that cause widespread death and suffering for many years afterward.  What’s more, all that crap in the upper atmosphere helps break down the ozone layer and let in even MORE cancer-causing radiation from the sun.

The original story from National Geographic News gets it mostly right and puts the “nuclear winter” caveat up high. Unfortunately, it has an eye-catching, idiotic headline:

Small Nuclear War Could Reverse Global Warming For Years? (National Geographic news, Feb 22)

Which spawned a ton of stupidly angled follow-ups, some from usually decent news sources:

A Small Nuclear War Would Stall Global Warming (Live Science, 2011 Feb 28)

Reuters picked up the story more than a week later, which is a sign of desperation for copy. Their version of the story doesn’t mention nuclear winter effects till near the end, which is news-speak for “that part is not important or background.” Actually, it IS important, and if you spent five minutes THINKING about the background info, you would realize that putting global warming in the lede and head is a totally cheap scrabble for readership:

NASA: Limited nuclear war could pause global warming (Reuters, 2011 Mar 03)

And it’s just a matter of time until a conservative news source like New American pitches the story as proof that government scientists are crazy:

Govt Scientists Propose Nuclear War to Curb Global Warming (New American, 2011 Mar 03)

Really, this research is about NASA flexing its computer modeling muscles. That nuclear war would be a devastatingly bad thing is decades-old news. The NEWS is that we have a much better ability to describe exactly how bad. Wired, thank goodness, got it right:

How One Nuclear Skirmish Could Wreck the Planet (Wired, 2011 Feb 25)

Yay Boo everyone else.