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?

Tsunamis and the energy of atomic bombs

Despite the title, this is not about the shaky state of several nuclear power plants in post-tsunami Japan. Rather, I want to fawn over Kenneth Chang’s piece, The Destructive Power of Water (NYT 12 Mar 2011). An excerpt:

A typical bathtub holds 40 gallons or so of water. That is 330 pounds. A cubic yard of it, filling what at first glance seems a modest volume of 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, weighs nearly 1,700 pounds, as much as the Smart micro car.

And when water is moving at 30 or 40 miles an hour, like the tsunami that inundated northern Japan on Friday, the heaviness of water turns deadly. Imagine 1,700 pounds hitting you at that speed, and each cubic yard of water as another 1,700 pounds bearing down on you. The destructiveness of a tsunami is not just one runaway car, but a fleet of them.

Explanatory science writing at its best. I love, love, love coming up with these kinds of dimensional reference points so that people really get what I’m talking about (Chang, by the way, is an alumnus of the same SciCom program at UCSC that I just finished last year). One of the professors cited in the article estimates the energy of the tsunami was comparable to that of an atomic bomb. Except we’re talking about sheer mechanical destruction instead of harmful radiation. Unless you count the shaky nuclear reactors …

Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about atomic bomb equivalents hitting Japan.

The point is that water is heavy, and it packs a punch. And the idea brings to mind a director describing the filming of an iconic scene in the 1983 movie Flashdance. A huge bucket of water is dropped on Jennifer Beals’ chest while her character, a dancer, is auditioning. Skip to about 1:25 in this Irene Cara video to watch that moment:

You can see her bracing quite hard against the chair, and watch her torso recoil in slow motion at the impact. According to the director, the first time they tried it, they used a lot more water and pretty much crushed her. And it hurt. Like trying to drink from a firehose.