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An atomic bomb explosion per second - nightmare or opportunity?


The paper Global reconstruction of historical ocean heat storage and transport by a team of British and American scientists estimates that since 1871 the excess heat that has accumulated in the oceans as a result of rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is 436*1021 ± 91 Joules.

The Guardian calculated this is the equivalent of one atomic bomb explosion per second for the past 150 years.

Converted to terawatts (TW), which is the standard measure of primary energy consumed annually, this is 92 TW, whereas we consume annually around 17.7 TW of power from all sources.   

Another way of looking at this problem would be to consider the value of one atomic bomb’s worth of energy every second.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates the cost of a single nuclear weapon at $20 million, so, the annual cost of producing this amount of energy with atomic bombs would be $631 trillion.

Substituting 1-gigawatt nuclear plants at a cost of $5 billion a piece instead of bombs, the value of this much energy would be roughly $460 trillion a year. (The cost of each plant would be amortized over at least 30 years, but the study says the oceans have been accumulating this energy 5 times that long).

The UN estimates that the current world population of 7.6 billion people will reach 9.8 billion by 2050 so without increasing the demand for energy per person the world will need 29 TW of power, which is at least triple the amount of energy that has gone into the oceans each of the last 150 years.

In nuclear plant equivalents, this would be $153 trillion a year.

As the Guardian points out, this energy drives sea-level rise and enables hurricanes and typhoons to become more intense among the other 100 top environmental impacts that are costing between $4.7 trillion and $6.6 trillion annually. And the problem is escalating as evidenced by the fact that over the period 1990 to 2015 the heating rate has reached three Hiroshima bombs per second, whereas another scientist not involved in the study estimates the current warming rate is as high as six bombs per second.  

As the researchers point out, “understanding ocean heat change and the role of circulation in shaping the patterns of warming remain key to predicting global and regional climate change and sea-level rise.” But understanding something and taking advantage of that knowledge are two different things.

For example, another study this week, The Little Ice Age and 20th-century deep Pacific cooling, by Woods Hole and Harvard researchers suggests that the Little Ice Age, about 700 years ago produced cooling on the surface that, owing to how the ocean circulates, is recorded in Pacific deep-ocean temperatures today.

The following graphic shows the sites of deep-water formation across the planet where surface currents sink to the bottom of the ocean and gradually migrate around the globe.

During the Little Ice Age 1300 to 1850, the average difference between the ocean-surface temperature was .4 degrees C cooler than the Medieval Warm Period per the following graphic.

Gebbie and Huybers compared data taken during the 1870s by scientists on the HMS Challenger to show that most of the world’s oceans have been warming up over the last century, but in the deep Pacific Ocean, around 2 kilometers deep temperatures are still dropping and offset one-fourth of the total global heat gain in the upper ocean.

If a quarter of the heat of warming can be offset by moving cooler water into deep water at the sites of deep water formation, all of it can be moved to depths of 1000 meters in the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans through heat pipes and heat engines that convert about 7% of the heat to the energy the planet desperately needs.

At these depths, this heat drives half as much sea-level rise and zero hurricanes and typhoons.

Just as the Little Ice Age cooled the planet by as much as .8C the current .8C warming can be offset by Heat Pipe OTEC in the service of 29 TW of primary energy for the next 3,250 years, which is the time required to recycle the heat back and forth between the surface 13 times.

And per the following bill of materials this energy can be had for less than the equivalent cost of nuclear power.

Jim Baird's picture

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 9, 2019


"...the world will need at least 29 TW of energy a year..."

Jim, "TW" or terawatt, is a unit of power, not energy. You might as well measure energy in gallons per minute.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on January 9, 2019

Bob the following is from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy, 2017.

First they claim 10 billion will require 94.6 TW (terawatts) to maintain a North America style of living.

Second the graph is called "Energy" for all in the 21st century.

If this is not semantically correct , I guess I'm good in company but essentially your comment is pedantic and adds nothing to the discussion.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 10, 2019

Jim, no, it's not pedantic. If you're going to discuss energy you must know the difference, otherwise you will continue to make no sense.

"Watt" is an SI unit which refers to a specific rate of energy transfer, or power: 1 joule per second.

Energy (measured in joules, ergs, or watthours) is a quantity representing potential to do work. A compressed spring, or a charged battery, or water pumped into a pumped storage facility might be storing 5 joules of energy.

When that energy is used to perform work, the rate at which it is transferred is power, measured in watts.

If you guess you're in good company, you're as wrong as your graph (unless your graph is measuring the rate at which a population consumes energy, but then its label is wrong). You might as well be saying, "The school I attended is five miles an hour away from here."


Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on January 9, 2019

29 TW of energy a year - corrected to 29 TW of power.

The link to the above chart is here.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 9, 2019


"Factor population growth into our thought experiment, and global energy use undergoes another big bang, to an astonishing 95–123 TW annually."

Looking at your source, no wonder you're confused. Author W. Wayt Gibbs, who lists himself as a "freelance science writer", is spouting gibberish characteristic of liberal arts majors who took Introduction to Astronomy for their science credit.

I thought I had a handle on what he was trying to say before I encounted what's above. If you ever see a phrase like "to an astonishing 95-123 TW annually," substute another rate for TW and you'll see what I mean. Referring to a sports car, for example: "to an astonishing 95-123 miles per hour annually...". Makes no sense, does it?

onedit: thinking of a 60-watt light bulb as "a bulb which consumes electrical energy at the rate of 60 joules per second" can help clarify/distinguish the concepts of power and energy.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on January 10, 2019

Going back to basic principles.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that heat is a form of energy, and thermodynamic processes are therefore subject to the principle of conservation of energy. This means that heat energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can, however, be transferred from one location to another and converted to and from other forms of energy.  

The first paper says, since 1871 the excess heat that has accumulated in the oceans as a result of rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is 436*1021 ± 91 Joules.

This is about 2.9*1021 Joules each year. A Joule is a unit of energy and a watt is a unit of power equal to 1 Joule/ 1 second. Since there are 31,536,000 seconds in a year, 2.9*1021 Joules equals to 92*1012 watts which is 92 terawatts (TW).

The correction for the paper Quantification of ocean heat uptake from changes in atmospheric O2 and CO2 composition says the current ΔOHC trend is 1.21 ± 0.72 x 1022 J/yr which is 383 TW.

This is where I have a problem with the semantic difference between energy and power.

The 383 TW is heat (383TWh), to my mind isn’t power. It is energy that doesn’t become power until it is passed through a heat engine on its way between the surface and a depth of 1000 meters where about 7.5% of the heat is converted to electrical energy to become 29 TWe.

This relocation is beneficial for the environment but the heat 354TW now at a depth of 1000 isn’t lost to the system. It will come back to the surface where it will either warm the atmosphere, with the consequences that entails or can be recycled through heat engines to produce more energy until all of the heat of warming is reduced to productive work.     

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 10, 2019

Jim, TW translates to "trillion watts", and the watt is a unit of power - a rate of energy transfer, not a quantity. If you have a problem with it, that's something you need to work on - in fact, it's a pre-requisite.

Your article is rife with examples of this confusion. For example: there's no reason anyone would need to generate all energy stored in the ocean for the last 150 years every year, with atomic bombs, with nuclear plants, OTEC, or anything else, so I have no idea why you're consumed by calculating its cost. 

The attempt to conflate nuclear weapons with nuclear energy is entertaining, however, with accompanying scary, color-enhanced mushroom cloud photo - all standard fare from the 1970s anti-nuke playbook. If you want good company you might find it with other activists (they won't know what a watt is, either).

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on January 10, 2019

Bob, the press release for the first paper says, global warming of the oceans from 1871 to present is roughly 1000 times annual worldwide human primary energy consumption, which is 18TW. 18000TW/150yrs=120TW.

If you would rather add to this heat load by producing nuclear power that is 33% effecient rather converting part of the existing and accumulating heat, and ultimately the entirety of it to productive energy, I suggest that it is you who is the activist and schill for the nuclear industry.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 10, 2019

"...annual worldwide human primary energy consumption, which is 18TW."

Again: watts represent not the quantity of energy consumed, but the rate of energy consumption:

18 TW = 18 trillion joules per second

Where are you getting that figure from? It's nowhere in the paper nor the press release, but sounds like the average worldwide human primary energy consumption rate for 2018, and you are assuming the rate hasn't changed since 1871.

I think it probably has.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on January 10, 2019

Wikipedia "The IEA estimates that, in 2013, total primary energy supply (TPES) was 1.575 × 1017 Wh (= 157.5 PWh, 157,500 TWh, 5.67 × 1020 joules, or 13,541 Mtoe) or about 18 TW-year"

Global Energy Consumption: The Numbers for Now and in the Future

While most educated people know that there are around 8 billion people, very few know how much energy the world uses. Very broadly speaking the more energy we consume, the more stuff we can get, the more places we can, and the faster we can get there. Thus economic prosperity is directly linked to energy consumption as shown by a multitude of sources. Yet for some reason this number is never mentioned. Is it because it is extremely complicated and involves many assumptions? Not really. The answer is really simple: 17.4 Terrawatts for 2015.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 10, 2019

Jim - 18 terawatt-years is not the same as 18 terawatts.

18 terawatt-years (or better, TWy) is a quantity of energy - the amount received from a source transferring it at the rate of 18 terawatts for one year.

To convert to terawatthours, multiply by the number of hours in a year (8760) ≈ 157,680 TWh, just like the article says.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on January 10, 2019

The answer is really simple: 17.4 Terrawatts for 2015.

I guess to simple?

157680 TWh is 18 terawatts.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 10, 2019

A rhetorical question: how many inches per second is a yardstick?

Look up kilowatt and kilowatthour in your Webster's, maybe that will help. I'm done.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on January 11, 2019

A watt is the current of one ampere flowing across a potential difference of one volt.

Time isn’t a factor

A watt equals one joule per second.

1 kilowatt hour equals 3600000J

1 hour = 3600 seconds

1kilowatt /3600seconds = 3600000J/3600seconds

1kilowatt = 1000 joules

 The time cancels out.

18 terawatts can be produced in 1 year, 10 years or 1,000. It just happens to be the amount of primary energy consumed in a single year.

Consume twice as much it lasts half as long or better yet produce twice as much with heat pipe OTEC while reducing global warming.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on January 10, 2019

My nuclear bona fides, 2 of the 10 radioacitve management technologies listed in Wikipedia, the subductive waste disposal method and the Nuclear Assisted Hydrocarbon Production Method are my inventions.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on January 10, 2019

Webster Dictionary



tera·​watt | \ˈter-ə-ˌwät\

Definition of terawatt 

: a unit of power equal to one trillion watts

Examples of terawatt in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web

Global energy use of all types (including fuels) is about 18 terawatts today, so this is a scenario where all the fuel a growing world could want are made in the Sahara, and Africa's drinking water is probably desalinated, to boot. — Scott K. Johnson, Ars Technica, "Carpeting Sahara with wind and solar farms could make it rain," 8 Sep. 2018

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 10, 2019

Your references contradict each other. Webster's says "watt" is a unit of power, renewables advocate Scott K Johnson says it's a unit of energy. Which is it, power or energy? Or are the two the same, the only difference a pedantic one?

Hint: when a physics argument is being waged between a renewables advocate and anyone else, put your money on "anyone else" - RAs are notoriously physics-challenged (it's a unit of power).

Jim, this has been fun, but your pride is getting in the way of you learning something - I can't help you with that. Have a nice evening.

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