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Talkin About Hunga Tonga
Humans didn't change much about the climate in the past 365 days, but that volcano sure did.
Herein, I present another environmental article with a bunch of pictures and graphs, and also some lay discussion of atmospheric science. By the time we’re done, we’re going to make the case that:
This year has been absurdly hot,
While mankind may be making the globe hotter, the anomaly of 2023 cannot be explained with anthropogenic sources,
We probably do know the source of all this heat,
The culture war around climate change is preventing us from having nuanced discussions about the sources,
This year’s heat is probably going to stick around through 2024 and 2025 at a minimum before abating.
This year has been absurdly hot. It’s not arguable. Hurricane Lee and Hurricane Jova both just cracked Category 5 status within 36 hours of each other. That’s absurd.
Jova went from category 1 to category 5 in 18 hours, the fastest any hurricane has done that in eight years. While only one of these two is going to hit landfall, there are only two years in history where we’ve had two category 5 storms hit landfall in the same year. California had its first tropical storm landfall in 80 years.
Arctic sea ice extents are currently the fourth worst in recorded history, but were the lowest in recorded history through April:
The last four straight months have set records for sea temperature.
That link above talks about El Niño a lot, which is a real thing, and also about global anthropogenic carbon emissions driving temperature up, which is also probably a real thing, setting aside arguments about how much or how little a thing it is. But an El Niño never did anything like this:
Just to be clear, here’s a graph from the same source where I’ve added in the El Niño years with red arrows:
You can see a bump in sea surface temperature anomaly for each El Niño event, but this year’s anomaly appears to be twice as bad as we might expect. With this sort of a bump, we should expect something major to have happened recently, and if we want to blame that major thing on humans, then we should be able to point to something major that humans did.
Not The Carbon
This graph is from the NASA Global Climate Change center, and is current as of July 17 2023:
A long trend upward for CO2 in parts per million, but the trend is smooth, and has no fantastic jumps since last year. While we may be able to hang some or all of the overall trend on CO2, we cannot hang this particular summer on it. What about the thing the right of center folks like to talk about?
Maybe the Sun Spots?
The NOAA Solar Cycle progression page indicates the past year has been very hot from a solar radiation standpoint, but not too far off the last 2014 peak, and that peak didn’t see ocean temperatures near what we have today.
Back in the 2020 trough, Scott McIntosh and others used the Hale Cycle to predict that Sunspot Cycle 25 would be one of the worst on record, while the “consensus” folks predicted the opposite. So far, the consensus folks appear to be obviously wrong. Were the consensus folks influenced to predict low sunspot activity for this cycle so as to not draw attention away from carbon? Perhaps. More on that in the “culture war” section below.
We have a combination of El Niño effects and solar radiation so far, but there’s another thing folks are missing, in terms of year-on-year jumps.
The Water Vapor
Most of atmospheric water vapor lives down in the troposphere where the clouds live. As HWFO explained while deriving the plan for the World’s Dumbest Reservoir, cloud formation comes from pseudo-adiabatic lifting of moist air parcels in the troposphere, because the water condenses out over a certain limit in the atmosphere called the “lifting condensation limit,” and then precipitates out as rain.
Cloud formation is almost entirely confined to the troposphere because the troposphere has convection. It’s warmer on the bottom and colder on the top, so warm air rises, gets to the top, rain falls, cools, and the thing cycles around. There’s lots of movement up and down in the troposphere, so lots of opportunity for cloud formation and precipitation, which pulls the water in the atmosphere back out.
Not so for the stratosphere.
The defining feature of the tropopause, the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere, is it marks the spot where the air starts to get warmer as you go up. If a body of fluid gets warmer the higher you go, then there’s no convection, and therefore no cloud formation, and therefore no rain to bring the water vapor back to the ground. And water vapor is a baller greenhouse gas. Water vapor accounts for 66% to 85% of the total greenhouse warming of the planet, but clouds bounce sunlight away from the earth when they form, so water vapor’s contribution to overall long term warming trends is poorly understood. Most “runaway” climate models have an increase in water vapor as a main component without a corresponding increase in cloud cover and therefore increase in global albedo. If the water vapor goes up then the earth gets hotter, but only if the clouds don’t increase enough to match.
The last time I read IPCC AR5 they did a really shit job of trying to figure out how clouds were going to change with mean temperature increases because they have a lot of atmospheric chemists in the room and not a lot of hydrologists. I didn’t read IPCC AR6, largely out of a blanket frustration with how little treatment they gave to mechanized agriculture, urbanization, and albedo changes related to the deforestation of half of the Earth’s old growth forests since industrialization. I speculate they’re missing the boat, and some of our anthropogenic climate change is probably due to stuff that is unrelated to CO2, but curiously tracks with it. Speculative soapbox over, back to clouds.
Most “CO2 causes warming” advocates downplay the role water vapor has in warming the planet, because the atmosphere is typically self-limiting of water vapor. When you get too much, it rains, and the only way to increase the ceiling on that is if the Earth were warmer for other reasons, such as possibly CO2. They’re usually right on that account.
Is there anything that could launch a huge amount of water vapor past the tropopause and into the stratosphere where it wouldn’t form clouds? Maybe. And did something like that happen in 2022?
On January 15th 2022, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai (“HT-HH”) submarine volcano exploded in the south Pacific.
This thing caused a 90 meter tall tsunami and capsized boats as far away as Japan and Peru. If you lived in the south Pacific, it was quite a big deal. You could hear the explosion from Alaska.
Normally volcanos provide a net cooling effect on the planet because the soot and garbage (and sulfate aerosols) they eject block out a little bit of sunlight. This one certainly had that, but because it was a submarine volcano, it also boiled a giant chunk of the ocean itself, and sent it hurtling up towards the boundary of space. Here’s what it looked like the next day from ISS:
Luis Millan at NASA JPL recently led a study which estimated that the eruption dumped around 146 teragrams of water vapor into the stratosphere. Not to be confused with the tetragram (YHWH!), that’s 146 trillion grams of water, or two hundred billion cubic meters of water vapor depending on the temperature of it. That’s about one million Hindenburg blimps filled with nothing but water vapor. It’s also 10% of the entire stratospheric water vapor load.
And since there’s no convection in the stratosphere, and therefore no cloud formation, and therefore no precipitation, this water vapor stands to remain stuck up there for a long time. I have no idea how long - that’s a very difficult fluid mechanics finite element analysis problem belonging to a pay grade far exceeding mine, but the authors of the study estimated five to ten years.
How much warming?
The internet contains many tables comparing the relative climate forcing effects of one kilogram of CO2 against other pollutants, but they all exclude water vapor, because water vapor is typically a slave to warming instead of a master of it. Thankfully Millan et al took a stab at answering this question towards the end of their study:
Previous studies of the radiative effects of stratospheric H2O perturbations, including direct volcanic injection, have shown that they can cause surface warming (e.g., Joshi & Jones, 2009; Rind & Lonergan, 1995). As established in Section 3, the HT-HH eruption was unusual in that it injected extremely large amounts of H2O. Preliminary climate model simulations (see Supporting Information S1 for details) suggest an effective radiative forcing (e.g., Forster et al., 2001; Myhre et al., 2013; Smith et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2017) at the tropopause of +0.15 Wm−2 due to the stratospheric H2O enhancement (Figure S3b in Supporting Information S1). For comparison, the radiative forcing increase due to the CO2 growth from 1996 to 2005 was about +0.26 Wm−2 (Solomon et al., 2010).
The authors project this one volcano produced a warming effect on the planet equal to about 5.2 years worth of total global carbon emissions in one go, and it’s going to be stuck up there for over half a decade.
Let’s restate that to be perfectly clear.
If you believe that CO2 is slowly warming the planet, then the net result of this one very unusual volcano will be to fast forward global warming five years, and keep us at that fast-forward location for between five and ten years, and then will slowly abate. But because 2023 internet life is a sea of culture war, that straightforward scientific conclusion has gotten churned into the modern media culture war engine, dragging the study’s authors into the milieu.
Culture War, Hunga Tonga Edition
The chain of events leading to Luis Millan and his cohorts partially disavowing the conclusions of their own study recently in LiveScience begins with Hillary Clinton.
That Trump voters account for only 0.9% of the entire human population should have been enough to dismiss this sort of thing. That Trump voters didn’t fundamentally do anything different in 2023 as opposed to 2022 should have put this to bed. Some folks believe that the USA has an outsized influence on the global climate, and fine, but Hillary gets 9000 reposts on Twitter(X) and click chasing conservative pundits responded by pointing out Hunga Tonga as a possible driver for this particularly unusual year, as collated by Matt Walsh.
Hillary makes an absurd statement that gets traffic. Matt makes a rather uncharitable interpretation of her absurd statement to also get traffic. (cheeseburgers?) Matt mostly defends against the idea that “MAGA Republicans” somehow made the climate especially warmer in 2023, but “it’s the volcanos” plays well in conservative media, which causes The Hill to say “no it’s not the volcanos it’s the carbon.”
Our borked media system took a very nuanced issue about tropospheric boundaries and temporarily entrapped water vapor and made it into a binary absurdity, where it’s either the CO2 or the volcano, and nobody bothers to bring up the sun.
And if you’re a climate researcher, and the reds are using your science to win Twitter arguments, you have to make some kind of statement to make sure your nuanced science doesn’t get you kicked out of cocktail parties or get your funding yanked. So you respond to an email from LiveScience with a detailed explanation of your work, and LiveScience grabs the two sentences which toe the line on the binary without the nuance, and make it seem like you’re not actually predicting the volcano temporarily bumped us five years into the future in climate forcing even though that’s what you said in your study, and probably in your email.
"The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai eruption is peculiar because, in addition to causing the largest increase in stratospheric aerosol in decades, it also injected vast amounts of water vapor into the stratosphere," Manney and Millán said.
Manney and Millán said that more detailed models are needed to reveal how much impact the eruption had on global temperatures relative to burning fossil fuels and the El Niño, but the effects are expected to be much smaller than those from burning fossil fuels.
"Last July's record-breaking global temperatures are just a preview of what may happen if we do not take more bold and ambitious climate action," they said.
Livescience’s author also drops in this gem towards the end:
In May, the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization warned there's a 66% chance that annual mean global surface temperatures will likely cross a dangerous 2.6 F (1.5 C) warming threshold at some point in the next five years.
At 2.6 F of warming, extreme heat waves will become more widespread, with higher chances of droughts and reduced water availability, according to NASA.
Going above 2.6 F could trigger climate tipping points such as the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.
I will not pretend to know whether this “66% chance” figure is accurate, but if it is then there’s no possibility of stopping it now, and we need to start building levies and sea walls instead of pissing about with Goldman Sachs carbon credit schemes. Is that figure real, or did they say that to drive policy? It’s hard to know.
This sort of culture war back-and-forth which causes scientists to parse their results out of fear of being used by out-of-tribe actors may also have happened with the sunspot prediction community referenced above. If someone predicts lots of sunspots, the red media engine gives them traffic, and they get invited to fewer cocktail parties or get their funding yanked. This is the state of modern science, and interpreting the results of modern science requires the interpreter to see past the study into the mind of the author and the social pressures on them.
El Nino will break in a year, Hunga Tonga Hunga will dissipate in five to ten, and the current solar cycle will rain radiation down on us for another two or three at least. The next three years are going to be very hot. Things will ebb after that, and we will be back to the “baseline warming trend” which will continue to warm the planet slowly, although warming deniers will get their clicks for a few years during the fall-off period.
If the World Meteorological Organization and similar groups are right, there is nothing to do but move away from the coast and out of places in a rain shadow. Abandon New York City and Nebraska. Rural Canadian real estate might be a great long term play.
I personally think that CO2 is only responsible for perhaps half of the net anthropogenic warming trend we see today. I personally think we’d still warm the planet even if the CO2 was curbed. I personally think urbanization and mechanized agriculture are causing at least a quarter of it, and the most important thing anyone could possibly do to curb warming is to build nuclear power plants and put south American rainforests into preserves, which we go into briefly here:
I personally think that the net environmental damage caused by humans to the globe is going to peak in around 30 years, right around when human populations start to crater due to the testosterone apocalypse and the spread of anti-natalist feminism. I personally think the earth will probably heal up nicely after that, even though the economy and perhaps capitalism itself will begin a terrible bout of cannibalization.
I personally think I’m very glad I finally finished building my pool.