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Climate Change, Weather Disasters: Read All About It: Thermal Inertia

by Bruce E. Johansen

Thermal Inertia

When the oceans rise a foot, Pacific Islands will be among the first to drown, followed by large parts of coastal cities such as Miami, Manila, Tokyo, Washington, D.C., Mumbai, Kolkata, Shanghai, New York City, and London. This pressing danger is discussed in greater depth in Phillip Muller’s 2013 Washington Post article “Pacific Islands’ Deadly Threat from Climate Change”; the 2014 Nature article “Ocean Warming Underestimated”; “Industrial-Era Global Ocean Heat Uptake Doubles in Recent Decades,” by Peter J. Gleckler et al.; and “The Multi-Millennial Antarctic Commitment to Future Sea-level Rise,” by N. R. Golledge et al.

Climate change also manifests as thermal inertia, which delays the effects of warming, ranging from 50 years on land to about 150 years in the oceans. Combined with climate change deniers’ propensity to confuse long-term climatic warming with the natural variability of weather, thermal inertia can throw a wrench into statistical analyses. The long-term trend of temperatures is still rising. Suffice to say that when exploring climate science, things are sometimes not sexactly what they seem.

Thus, given thermal inertia’s time lag, delivering results a half-century or more after they take place, global warming can appear deceptively less consequential than it really is. Debating these effects years after they are set in motion makes it more difficult to construct a new energy future before the damage becomes irreparable.

Rising temperatures also affect acidity levels, significantly impacting plant and animal life. This change is particularly troubling because acidity kills plankton, the foundation of the entire oceanic food chain. M.O. Clarkson et al. probe this harmful trend in “Ocean Acidification and the Permo-Triassic Mass Extinction,” as do Richard A. Kerr in “Ocean Acidification Unprecedented, Unsettling” and Elizabeth Kolbert in “Unnatural Selection: What Will It Take to Save the World’s Reefs and Forests?” The 2014 Nature essay “Acidic Oceans Shrink Plankton” is another useful source for understanding the severity of this trend. 

Aside from acidifying (in effect, poisoning) water habitat, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides increase temperatures in both the air and the oceans, an area of great concern to coastal residents and others. This is examined in “10 Coastal Cities at Greatest Flood Risk as Sea Levels Rise,” Wendy Koch’s article “Rising Sea Levels Torment Norfolk, Va., and Coastal U.S.,” Coral Davenport’s “Miami Finds Itself Ankle-Deep in Climate Change Debate,” and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Acid Sea.”

Both ocean warming and acidity threaten coral reefs in the tropics worldwide, a subject investigated by Michelle Innis in “Climate-Related Death of Coral around World Alarms Scientists” for the New York Times and by Chris Mooney in “Scientists Say a Dramatic Worldwide Coral Bleaching Event Is Now Underway” for the Washington Post. For a deeper discussion, readers should peruse Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams’s Ocean Worlds, which considers the entire history of Earth’s oceans, including how climate change affects them. Additionally, the articles “Climate Change Disables Coral Bleaching Protection on the Great Barrier Reef,” by Tracy D. Ainsworth et al., and “Ocean Acidification Causes Structural Deformities in Juvenile Coral Skeletons,” by Taryn Foster et al., for Science and Science Advances, respectively, offer trenchant analyses of the damage done to coral reefs as well.

Works Cited