Home » Uncategorized » Deep Into the Abyss of Climate Change, and a Case of Australian Media Coverage

Deep Into the Abyss of Climate Change, and a Case of Australian Media Coverage

Global climate is about changing the energy balance of the entire globe – with the climate of the globe, as well as the various regions of the globe, shifting in response. But while what is evolving in terms of beginning regional changes is hard to tell, so far Australia has not been the benefactor of good climate news.

While an unusually dry continent to begin with, Australia experienced a particularly long period of drought into the 2000s (predominantly 2002-2007), that all but dried up several key river beds. The drought also hit Australian farmers particularly hard, leading to an astonishing 4.5 billion dollars by the Australian government in direct relief.

The desiccated period was officially declared over in 2012, but yet, drought returned again in 2013. And over the past few decades, the continent has experienced a significant decline in precipitation – at least some of which, according to a recent study published in the Journal Nature Geoscience, is due to man influenced increases in long term atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.  And according to a recent study published in the world’s leading science magazine, such extreme effects are likely to increase dramatically in Australia as a result of the phenomenon commonly referred to as Climate Change.

What about plain, pure atmospheric heat?

Globally, the year 2013 was one of the warmest on record, according to all three of the major global temperature sets. (NASA’s Goddard, the Climatic Research Unit, or CRU of the University of East Anglia, and NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, though naturally, finding those alone inconvenient, the highly self reinforcing if not self sealing Climate Change Nay-saying Site WUWT adds a 4th – the University of Alabama at Huntsville, led by Roy Spencer, who sees his job as a climate scientist as one to not just necessarily study climate science, but to “minimize the role of government.”)

A composite of all three major temperature sets, according to the World Meteorological Organization, rendered 2013 the sixth hottest on record, and shows that 13 of the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century; meaning every single year since the new millennium began has seen a year warmer overall than all those that occurred prior to 2000, save for one, 1998, just two years before the start of the new millennium.

Yet 2013 saw the U.S. have it’s “42nd” warmest year in modern record.  Being as no year has been below the average globally for over 30 years now, the 42nd warmest means that 2013 in the U.S. was relatively cool.

Not so in Australia, which also saw it’s hottest year on record – it’s hottest year ever in modern times – last year, in 2013.

There’s also some hot air coming out of some Australian newspapers. Or at least an air of inaccuracy. Here, regarding the oceans; the key long term driver of climate.

And not just by a random reporter, but by the Environmental Editor of The Australian.

Ocean temperature are tricky. We can get a pretty good feel for surface temperatures – after all, monitoring surface temperatures around the world isn’t too difficult.

Drop down a little bit, and getting temperature measurements becomes harder. Drop down some more, and it becomes trickier still.

Drop down into the super deep, also known as “The Abyss,” and getting almost any kind of information is exceedingly difficult.

Two leading oceanographers, Carl Wunsch from Harvard University, and Patrick Heimbach of M.I.T.recently tried to wrangle with the problem of the “super deep.” They suggested that while parts of the ocean’s Abyss had been warming – mainly in the high southern latitudes and Western basis of the Atlantic – it has been cooling elsewhere.

Are Wunsch and Heimbach Correct?

Who knows. Probably not even they do; but they almost undoubtedly have a far better feel for the issue than we do. (Though the last time I went spear fishing in the abyss, over 12,000 feet (more than two miles) below the ocean’s surface, now that I think about it, it was colder than normal. Even with my very thick 1 millimeter neoprene t-shirt, I started to get a tad chilly after a few hours battling submarine sharks one handed. And it was, what do you know, in the Eastern, not Western, basis of the Atlantic. So maybe Wunsch and Heimbach are right!)

Yet what did The Australian, and it’s environmental editor, take from this?: “The deep oceans are cooling” (subscription required).

What is simply less than optimal (aka, “bad”) journalism, and what is hard bias on a subject where bias and confusing information has taken over, and subverted the central key facts and issues?

It’s difficult to say, as it’s tough being a journalist these days. For one thing, it’s an important job. Yet there is a citizen army of online opinion makers, as well as far better organized advocacy or pseudo news organizations, all just minutes away from starting a website and being able to create, spin, and re report news, and provide constant yet unfiltered, unaccountable, competition; and a corporate environment that naturally must be sensitive to this. And there is a near constant drum beat of press castigation by those who, mangled as the press sometimes does get things in the name of “false balance,” still don’t like what the press has to say.

Yet despite some popular perception these days – perception largely created by anti science and anti science attacks by Climate Change Naysayers and fossil fuel lobbyist groups – scientists in general, when it comes to science matters, tend to under rather than over state.  It’s the nature of science.

So when scientists write “cherry picks statements” and “misses some key points,” that’s generally the polite and understated way of suggesting that somebody either completely misinterpreted a study and wrote about it accordingly, or simply deceived (themselves) and readers.

Yet in a letter to the editor of The Australian (found halfway down the page), “cherry picking and missing some key points” is precisely what Wunsch asserts about The Australian article.

Their assessment is that parts of the Abyss are cooling.  Some parts are warming. Not most of the deep ocean; but the parts of the ocean even deeper down than that, several thousand meters down and beyond.

The ocean abyss, or abyssopelagic zone, is the hardest part of the ocean to assess.  The surface of the ocean (and the most directly relevant, since it has direct interaction with the atmosphere) is the easiest part to assess. The “deep” ocean refers to the bulk of the ocean, from several hundred to a few thousand meters down, a vast waterland that is far harder to asses than the upper layer of the ocean. d is far harder to assess, and we don’t know exactly what is going on there. Below that even lies “the Abyss.”

Oceans are complex, and, huge.  The world’s ocean (commonly divided into five separate parts), contains over 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of water. Dive down just 8 feet to the deep end of a swimming pool in the summertime, and it’s going to be noticeably cooler than just a few feet up closer to the surface. Trillions of those swimming pools full of water could fit into the world ocean. Yet dive down from the surface of the ocean several meters, and it still gets cooler.

Now imagine diving down a few hundred meters. Or even a few thousand. Meters, straight down. (A mile straight down would be about 1610 meters.)

The abyss lies well below that.  Technically, at 4000 meters  – about two and a half miles – down. The deep ocean refers to the mesopelagic and bathypelagic zones, from between 200 to 4000 meters down, though usually from a bout 1000 meters down (and frequently also includes the deep, deep ocean, or abyss).

Over time, just as in a swimming pool, but by more complex and far slower processes – processes, that Wunsch suggests, are different (or more prevalent) in various areas of the globe – lower and upper ocean layers do intermingle. Ultimately if the upper oceans warm, lower ocean areas will likely warm also.  If just a little bit, and if still remaining, very, very cold.

What is happening in the few hundred to few thousand yards meters below the surface? This is a massive amount of water, and there has been some surmising that these areas might be starting to warm also, reflecting increased heat affects – slow and imprecise as this might be – from mixing above.

It seems to make little sense that as the oceans are being affected, the water just below the upper layer would not, if far more slowly, be so affected as well.  Yet this seems to have persisted in assumption.

The standard assumption has been that, while heat is transferred rapidly into a relatively thin, well – mixed surface layer of the ocean (averaging about 70 m in depth), the transfer into the deeper waters is so slow that the atmospheric temperature reaches effective equilibrium with the mixed layer in a decade or so…It seems to us quite possible that the capacity of the deeper oceans to absorb heat has been seriously underestimated, especially that of the intermediate waters of the subtropical gyres lying below the mixed layer and above the main thermo­cline. If this is so, warming will proceed at a slower rate until these inter­mediate waters are brought to a temperature at which they can no longer absorb heat.

Also found more directly here, the foregoing is from an ad hoc study group at the request of the National Academy of Sciences, published in 1979 (and as aptly noted here by the website SkepticalScience.com.)

The idea that warming “will proceed at a slower rate until these intermediate waters are brought to a temperature at which they can no longer absorb heat” seems reasonable, if slightly contrived, in that if upper waters continue to warm relative to intermediate warmers, then intermediate waters can continue to absorb heat.

But the main point seems well taken:  Upper level absorption of atmospheric heat energy probably can’t tell the entire story, because over time some of that upper level absorption will be absorbed by waters below.

Thus the “transfer” or energy from atmosphere to ocean is ongoing, and fluid (no pun intended), rather than a start and stop process of “mixing until the atmosphere and upper ocean are are in balance,”when the upper level atmospheric mixing is ongoing and increasing –  as the atmosphere itself is re radiating back downward (and in all directions), increasing amounts of heat energy as it is.

This would likely not lead to any short term stases or “complete upper layer mixing” as if it was wholly separate from the rest of the ocean, but an ongoing increase in upper ocean heat, which at the same time is nevertheless very likely not capturing all of the energy being lost back to the earth below it rather than lost to the upper atmosphere and space above due to increasing amounts of absorbed and re radiated thermal radiation via geologically high, and still rapidly increasing, concentrations of long lived greenhouse gases in our atmospheric; because some of that upper ocean heat, in turn, is probably invariably being absorbed by the deeper ocean waters below the upper layer. (And in turn, leading to likely even more deeply entrenched longer term effects.)

Either way, maybe we’re still a little behind the times on the ocean.

And maybe the view that, in a world of wild climate variability,  and long term earth system integration of increased re-radiated short term atmospheric energy from higher collective levels of long term greenhouse gases than have likely been seen on earth in several million years,  we could somehow model a nearly precise pathway of the rate of change, or that increases in temperatures should somehow be progressive on a mind bogglingly short term geologic scale, is misplaced.

Perhaps over a quintillion (specifically, about 1.75 x 10 to the eighteenth power) cubic yards of water, which can hold an incredible amount of energy relative to the atmosphere, and which adjust very slowly – and which to us still remain, somewhat of an “abyss” – are part of the reason why.

As a side note, one way to use the increased net energy being retained by our earth atmosphere system as a result of radically increased concentrations of long lived greenhouse gases (ironically caused in large part by our own use of energy, via the burning of fossil fuels) and “free two birds with one stone,” so to speak, if ever technologically feasible, would be to transfer some of that vast energy out of the oceans in usable form; thus both reducing the impact of our increased atmospheric heat re radiation, and generating energy at the same time.(Rather than generating energy in a way that simply continues to impact atmospheric greenhouse gas buildup, but in a much lesser way, this would offset some of the impact of the atmospheric build up – in essence, be equivalent to “greenhouse gas negative” – while producing net energy at the same time.)

In other words, utilizing a process that both produces usable energy, while at the same time simultaneously reducing the long term phenomenon of Climate Change. Or, looked at another way, reducing the long term phenomenon of Climate Change by a process that as a byproduct, creates not yet another pollutant, but pure, usable, energy itself, instead. (Another, simpler if far more minimal way to do this is to plant a tree or trees with broad upper level limbs on a home’s southern exposure. The tree(s) will take carbon dioxide out of the air while shielding the home from higher angle summer sunlight and thus reduce the need for energy for air conditioning, while allowing some lower angle winter sunlight to reach part of the side and roof of the home, helping to warm it slightly on sunny winter days. Another way would be to paint all roofs in southern high sunshine areas white: While also very minor, the increased albedo from the roof would reflect more solar radiation back out in the atmosphere in relatively short wavelength form where it is essentially not absorbed and re radiated by greenhouse gas molecules, while simultaneously lessening solar absorption by the building, and reducing the need for air conditioning energy for the same temperature level.)

The problem is, we don’t really necessarily know how to extract energy from ocean heat build up on a feasible scale, though Lockheed Martin, among others, is trying, and showing some promise.

Perhaps if the fossil fuel industry took its hundreds of millions of dollar directed toward anti climate change information and advocacy, and directed it into such novel ideas as this instead, we’d be farther along.  At least our level of understanding of the issue of climate change, and thus our assessment of of it, would be better.  And we’d be more focused on solutions and non ideology driven assessment, rather than on zealous advocacy.

Or perhaps if we moved out of this false land of terribly inefficient “cheap” (but highly damaging) energy to that something at least somewhat more closely resembling the real cost of all forms of energy and related processes, we might be able to as well.

And without listening to international anti visionaries such as Bjorn Lomborg, who in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee Environment and Public Works on July 29, 2014, among other times, argued that the affects of climate change won’t really cost much over the long run, and that we can’t use clean energy to help reduce additions to the problem because it is not cheap enough, without seemingly realizing that market needs, not idealism, drive most development and efficiencies (and cost reductions), or realizing that “cheaper,” macro-economically, over time is an entirely relative term. And that the increasingly accumulating build up of heat energy over time, which is likely to radically shift future climate, is not so relative.



  1. […] doesn’t he? (Chubb was responding to Tony Abbott business adviser Maurice Newman advising Australia and the world on Friday of the “perils” of “ignoring nature’s […]


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