Breakdown: Why Earth is trapping twice as much heat as it used to

Published: Aug. 23, 2021 at 10:17 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The amount of heat being trapped by Earth has roughly doubled since 2005, according to new findings from NASA.

Researchers from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found in a new study that Earth’s “energy imbalance approximately doubled during the 14-year period from 2005 to 2019.”

The study’s lead author Norman Loeb said: “The magnitude of the increase is unprecedented.”

Comparison of overlapping one-year estimates at 6-month intervals of net top-of-the-atmosphere...
Comparison of overlapping one-year estimates at 6-month intervals of net top-of-the-atmosphere annual energy flux from CERES (solid orange line) and an in situ observational estimate of uptake of energy by Earth climate system (solid turquoise line).(Tim Marvel | NASA)

The energy imbalance is how much heat the Earth absorbs from the sun, compared to how much “thermal infrared radiation” the Earth radiates back into space.

Researches pointed to human activity as one of the main reasons for the imbalance.

NASA said the greenhouse gases from human activity, along with increases in water vapor are trapping more heat.

Increases in emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane due to human activity trap heat in the atmosphere, capturing outgoing radiation that would otherwise escape into space.

The warming drives other changes, such as snow and ice melt, and increased water vapor and cloud changes that can further enhance the warming.

Additionally, there is a naturally occurring shift in the Pacific Ocean from a cool phase to a warm one, and it likely played a big role.

“An intensely warm phase began around 2014 and continued until 2020, causing a widespread decrease in cloud coverage over the Pacific ocean and a corresponding increase in the absorption of solar radiation,” researchers said.

NASA used a series of satellites and a network of ocean floats to reach their findings, and compared the data from each.

Loeb said: “The two very independent ways of looking at changes in Earth’s energy imbalance are in really, really good agreement, and they’re both showing this very large trend, which gives us a lot of confidence that what we’re seeing is a real phenomenon and not just an instrumental artifact... The trends we found were quite alarming in a sense.”

Loeb cautions that the study is only a snapshot relative to long-term climate change, and that it’s not possible to predict with any certainty what the coming decades might look like for the balance of Earth’s energy budget.

The study does conclude, however, that unless the rate of heat uptake subsides, greater changes in climate than are already occurring should be expected.

You can read NASA’s full report here.

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