Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Geologic Now ≠ Human Now. And, Baby it's Hot Outside.

I started writing this before today's announcement from NOAA that 2010 tied for the warmest year on record.  My original text was funnier, based on predictions that a cool December bumped it out of the top spot.  Ah well.

2010 didn't set a new record for the hottest year in human history.  2010 tied 2005 for the warmest year.   I guess global warming has stopped.  Whew.  I'm so glad we can relax now.  Not.

Pardon the linguistic structure I used to the irritation of many while I was a teenager.

2005 stands as the warmest year ever.  Does that mean global warming is over?  Um, well, no.  With today's announcement, I guess I need to change the highlighted sentence.  I hate it when reality deflates my rhetorical shenanigans.  Let me try again.

2010 wasn't the hottest year ever.  Does that mean global warming has reached it's peak?  Um, well.  It kind of was just as warm as the warmest year ever, so probably not. See?  That's just not as provocative.  Darn it.  And, baby it's hot outside.

Baby, it's hot outside.

But, if the globe is warming, shouldn't every year be hotter than the last?  Shouldn't every day be hotter than the last?  Every second?

December was cool (and, hey, it's pretty cold out now where I am) so maybe we've turned a corner!  Well, no.

The human now referenced in the title of this post occurs during the geologic now.  But the geologic now lasts a lot longer than the human now.  The Long Now Foundation does things to help us understand this (and produces really interesting podcasts).  They're building the 10,000 Year Clock to help drive the message home.  This relates too to the issue I raised a few weeks ago about how I'm not particularly concerned with saving the Earth.

So, the "Baby it's hot outside" line isn't about the human now.  It's about the geologic now.

Today isn't the hottest day ever.  Does that mean we're cooling off?  I think most of us think that's a silly question.  At what scale does it stop being silly? Last month wasn't the hottest December ever.  Does that mean we're cooling off?  Last year may or may not be the warmest year on record.  Does that mean we're cooling off?

The last decade was the warmest decade in a few million years.  Does that mean we're heating up?  That might well be the same kind of error (but in the opposite direction) that I've tried to caution against in the last paragraph.

Is it a mistaken claim?  How do we decide?

There are lots of issues to consider.  Here they are a few stated very briefly followed by short explanations:
  • If we chose a different date to start the year, the warmest year on record would have been last year.  January 1st starts the year by the historic agreement of a bunch of humans, not because something in nature says so.  If we chose a different starting date for the year, we have a couple of different year-long periods that were the warmest on record globally in the immediate past.  The warmest 12 months on record and the warmest "meteorologic year" (November to November) both occurred in 12 month periods bridging 2009 and 2010.  
  • A year is but a blip.  That's part of the point of this post.  Looking at one year tells you something, but with the context of history, it tells you a lot more.  Here's looking back to 1880:
Oh, Baby It's Hot Outside.

And going back over a millennia: 

I, Like, Really Mean It.  Baby It's Hot Outside!

  • Human history is but a blip.  I'm not worried about global temperatures soaring to the warmest temperatures in geologic history, and therefore don't feel the need (or have the time) to go further back in time.  I will note that the temperature has varied quite a bit over the 4.5 billion years of Earth history.  Right now (in both the human and geologic sense) humanity is at the end of the timeline.  And, on most scales, humanity is just a blip on scales where you can envision the depth of geologic time.  Humanity -- modern humans; homo sapiens -- have only been around for a couple hundred thousand years.  Pause and think about how big a billion really is -- it's a thousand millions; and a million is a thousand thousands.  4.5 billion -- the age of Earth is a whoppingly large number.  Blip.  I tell you: Blip.
I've got no real idea if, when some sentient beings billions of years in the future, look back at Earth's history they will see humanity as just a blip.  And I don't want to get all mushy or philosophical about it.

What I do know is this: Baby, it's hot outside!  (Geologically speaking).


Dugganhaas said...

This was posted on my Facebook page thread on this post:

WillBeFree said...

Where is the science? The solid hypothesis, observation, experimentation and therefore evidence that the hypothesis is accurate? That's the 800 pound gorilla in the global warming room. I would say that if you could supply the science most if not all skeptics would be on side. Think about it, in the face of real science that can be replicated anywhere in the world who could be skeptical? And yet all we get from alarmists is name calling and public relations tactics...such as you suggest in your post. Until then you will have to resort to force (aka government support) to achieve what you wish to achieve. And we all know through history how that usually turns out don't we?!

Paleontological Research Institution said...

Hi WillBeFree,
I'm sorry I didn't respond to this earlier -- as it came a month after the post, I didn't see it until looking back over the year. Here's a post with the most basic science: With what do you disagree?