In the war on climate change, chances are you fall firmly on one of two sides of the conversation. You either believe it’s occurring, or you don’t. Considering how 2015 set records as the warmest on record, there would seem to be a lot of ammunition for believers. However, there are those that continue to argue against its merits.
Recently, ABC News published an article that detailed one of the main arguments that non believers have used to defend their position. It involves temperature data that has been recorded from a point 50,000 feet above ground using a satellite. Based on data that’s been collected via one satellite measurement system there has been no global warming in 18 years. Scientists argue that all of this data is misleading because the difference between temperature measured six feet off the ground is much different than those taken from 50,000 feet above it.
As Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe argues in the piece by ABC, “We care about what's happening where we live. That's why ground-based temperatures are most relevant to humans.”
John Christy from the University of Alabama in Huntsville disagrees. He depends on data from satellite temperature monitoring systems because he believes that “the surface is affected by too many other variables.” In his words, ground measurements don’t do a good enough job of measuring the real mass of the climate system.
Regardless of their arguments, they both seem to agree that the data differs depending on where the measurements are taken. While that may seem obvious - just stand at ground level and look at the snow topped peaks of the Rocky Mountains - what’s important for this debate is comparative temperature change. 2015 was the warmest year on record compared to all other measurements taken from six feet off the ground, however it was the third warmest compared to all other measurements taken via satellite.
One major variable that could be affecting temperature on the ground is heat transference. This occurs in three fundamental ways: Conduction, convection and radiation.
Conduction: The transfer of heat between two parts of a stationary system, caused by a temperature difference between the parts. Heat will always transfer into the cooler object until both reach equal levels. For example, when you touch a hot pan on the stove the heat is attempting to transfer from the metal onto your skin. If you were able to maintain contact with the pan, the heat would continue to transfer into your hand until the temperature in both objects was equal.
Convection: When heat transfers through fluids, such as air or water, the heat moves away from the source and carries energy away with it. The easiest way to think about Convection is to think of the way the air feels in your own home. if you have ever been in, or own, a home with multiple levels, chances are you’ve experienced convection first hand because warm air rises. That’s why an upstairs bedroom may often feel so much warmer than one on the lower level.
Radiation: If heat is transferred by electromagnetic waves then it has done so via radiation. If you put your hand near a car’s hood in the heat of the summer, chances are you can feel the heat emitting, or radiating, off of it. This type of transference increases the temperature of the area surrounding it.
Here’s a quick timelapse to show just how fast and far the interior temperature of a car can rise due to transference.
The sun heats objects that it strikes. In this instance, the dark dashboard and the car seat are heated by the adjacent air due to conduction and convection and then radiate the heat throughout the car raising the temperature even higher. In the example above, it would have only taken two minutes for the car to go from a safe temperature to an unsafe temperature for a child.
If one were to consider the amount of energy that is transferred and radiated by all of the buildings and structures across the globe, then it becomes easier to at least understand why some believe measurements from 50,000 feet above the ground are more valuable for gathering a realistic look at how climates have changed. By removing even one variable you can get a better look at how the actual climate on earth has shifted over time. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still really warm at ground level, and that’s why members on both sides of the community continue to push the topic.
Regardless of which community you’re a part of, one thing is certain; this is a conversation that’s only going to continue heating up as we move forward.
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