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Warming and the Pipelines

In the 2005 paper Earth’s Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications, a team led by James Hansen introduced the concept of global warming “in the pipeline”.

“Earth’s Energy Imbalance”, “radiative forcing”, is the difference between the energy absorbed by the planet and the energy it emits due to increasing gases and aerosols.

It was assumed at the time of the Hansen paper; the Earth was absorbing 0.85 ±0.15 watts per square meter (K/(W/m2) and that measurements of the increasing ocean heat content over the previous 10 years implied that a further 0.6°C of warming was “in the pipeline” without any further change of atmospheric composition.

Climate sensitivity is the metric used to characterize the response of the global climate to a doubling of the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and as the following NOAA graphic derived from Antarctica ice cores studies shows, there is a strong correlation between CO2 concentrations and the temperature change at the surface.

For 25 years the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change settled on a range of 1.5°C to 4.5°C for climate sensitivity but in a 2018 paper Emergent constraint on equilibrium climate sensitivity from global temperature variability this range was narrowed to 2.2–3.4°C with the best estimate 2.8°C.

The atmospheric concentration of CO2 at the end of April 2018, was 410.31 parts per million (ppm) compared to the 1750 reference atmospheric composition of 278 ppm. If a concentration of 278*2 ppm /278ppm leads to a temperature of 2.8°C then the current atmospheric concentration of 410.31/278 implies a temperature increase of (2.8 * 410.31/576) or 1.99°C whereas the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2°C.

In Hansen’s words with respect to the Paris Climate Agreement, “Its a fraud really, a fake”.

We are already committed to a 2°C world and every additional gigaton of carbon added to the atmosphere going forward pushes us beyond the Paris limit.

The NASA GISS record shown below shows 2016 is the warmest year ever recorded to date with a temperature of 1.2°C over the 1880 reference, therefore, about .79°C is currently in the climate pipeline.

The following figure compiled by John Cook of SkepticalScience shows how much global warming is going into the various components of the Earth’s climate system:

Since 93.4% of the heat is going into the oceans, they commit us to an additional .74°C of warming in the future.

Hansen suggests that 25 to 50 years are needed for Earth’s surface temperature to reach 60% of its equilibrium response to the heat in the pipeline.

In Canada, the correlation between pipelines and the ocean is a tale unto itself.

The federal and Alberta governments support a pipeline to tidewater on the coast of British Columbia the intent of which is to significantly increase shipments of diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to overseas market where it is claimed the oil will fetch a better price.

The plan is to trade a pipeline to tidewater in exchange for Alberta’s acquiescence to a national price on carbon. With the spin that the “nation’s prosperity and competitiveness are tied to achieving sustainable economic growth and a successful transition to a lower carbon future.”

Contrary to the notion of a tidewater premium, however, research, conducted on behalf of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Parkland Institute, found that such a premium’ doesn’t exist. Furthermore, the cost of extracting oil from oilsands has historically been unprofitable. The cost of selling the extracted crude has seldom covered the direct costs of recovery; labor to mine the sands and the fuel to extract the crude.

The following chart from the Scotia Bank Commodity Price Index for April 9, 2018, shows oil and gas prices from 1980 to date.

The red line is extrapolated from Scotia Bank Commodity Price Index for February 20, 2014,  showing an average WTI oil price of US$63-65 per barrel is required to yield a 9% after-tax return on ‘full-cycle’ costs for steam assisted gravity drainage and existing bitumen mining operations, whereas for new mining operations the cost is US$100 per barrel.

Prior to 2006 and after 2015 the oilsands have essentially been a losing economic proposition. Nevertheless, the federal and Alberta governments have the effrontery to suggest that a pipeline is a necessary part of Canada’s transition from fossil fuels to a low-carbon economy when 410.31 ppm CO2 commits the planet already to 2°C of warming.

And to emphasize the cognitive dissonance, Alberta governments, since 1975, have managed to convert the province’s ersatz resource bounty into a growing public debt of $45 billion. To say nothing of the $27 billion to $48 billion unsecured liability for cleanup costs of the province’s bitumen tailing ponds.

British Columbia’s Premier Horgan is seeking a seeking a reference case in the B.C. Court of Appeal to affirm its rights over oil shipments of bitumen to ensure British Columbia is never confronted by just such a liability. But the case ignores the elephant in the room, which is sea level rise.

Data suggest that atmospheric CO2 levels during the Pliocene epoch (about 3 Myr ago) that were like today’s, led to sea levels of from 10 to 40, meters higher than today. With +25 meters often given as the number used in most modeling simulations. In which case Vancouver’s iconic waterfront and downtown core would look something like this.

As little as one meter of sea level rise, an engineering report commissioned for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority simulated, in conjunction with a major storm, would put the lower mainland’s port facilities under water.

In this regard, record-breaking ocean heat is leading to supercharged storms that will do that kind of damage.

British Columbia is undercutting its social license to object to imports of bitumen by implementing an LNG tax rebate as an inducement for liquefied natural gas projects in the province. And May 16th, LNG Canada, a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell Plc, PetroChina Co. Ltd, Mitsubishi Corp and Korea Gas Corp committed to start building a $40-billion LNG project in Kitimat that will supply Asian markets with natural gas produced in the northeast of the province that will be shipped to Kitimat by a pipeline built by TransCanada Corp.

The government will be setting a cap on carbon tax at $30, exempting LNG facilities from paying increases that are expected to go up to $50 a tonne by 2021, with the proviso that the rebate would only come if LNG Canada meets its target of being the cleanest LNG facility, in terms of carbon emissions, in the world.

Gas-fired power plants are said to generate roughly half the carbon dioxide of coal plants but half as much CO2 added to an atmosphere that is already bumping up against a 2°C warming limit is still twice as much greenhouse gas as the planet can afford.

The difference between the record 1.2°C temperature mark and 2°C is the thermal inertia of the climate system, which delays the Earths response to climate forcing. It takes time for the oceans to warm and then give up heat back to the atmosphere and to a lesser extent for the ice sheets to respond to global warming and for CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere and the ocean to dissipate.

As Hansen et al. in the paper Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature shows, “climate system inertia means that, if large-scale climate change is allowed to occur, it will be exceedingly long-lived, lasting for many centuries.”

The World Factbook shows that 3,500,000 kilometers of pipeline, in 120 countries convey oil, natural gas and other commodities around the world.

To keep .74°C of warming heat from migrating from the ocean back into the atmosphere what is needed is 250,000, 1 kilometer long, pipes that can produce 30 Terawatts of energy annually, for 3250 Years to reduce the surface temperature to 13.7°C.

The support for nuclear power expressed by James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley notwithstanding, this is the only viable path forward on climate change.

Nuclear power does nothing to dissipate the ocean heat in the pipeline.

The Canadian government has today decided to provide indemnity” to any investors willing to ensure the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline is able to proceed.

They provide no such indemnity, however, let alone support of any kind to “inventors” of technology that provides a sure-fire solution to global warming; a method and apparatus for load balancing trapped solar energy, Cdn patent application 2,958,456, 2017/02/21, US patent application 15/876,123, 01/20/2018.

While Hansen suggests 60% of the equilibrium response to the heat in the ocean heat pipeline is realized within 25 to 50 years, this technology spreads this realization out over 3 millennia.

Just one more example of government favoring large, multinational companies over highly-qualified local companies.

As is ever the case, the one percent do great while the rest of us end up with nothing but the tab.

The climate be dammed.

Jim Baird's picture

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Recent Comments

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 17, 2018

The link for
30 Terawatts, 3250 Years, 13.7
Degrees Surface Temperature
was overlooked in this draft.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 17, 2018

While Hansen suggests 60% of the equilibrium response to the heat in the ocean heat pipeline is realized within 25 to 50 years, this technology spreads this realization out over 3 millennia.

Jim, we don’t want to spread the “realization” of heat in the ocean pipeline over three millennia – ideally, we’d dissipate all the exta heat tomorrow. But we can’t, because atmospheric CO2 is preventing heat from the sun being radiated away as fast as it’s arriving – the Earth’s energy imbalance.

If we could reduce CO2 levels to pre-industrial ones, it wouldn’t matter how much heat was in the ocean pipeline. As Hansen points out, all extra heat would be radiated away within 50 years.

To whatever extent OTEC could mitigate GHG emissions it would limit the progression of climate change. But OTEC is an unproven technology, with unknown costs, and the fact that it might cool off areas of the oceans temporarily is of no additional benefit, as long as atmospheric CO2 levels continue to climb and the Earth’s energy imbalance is extended.

In contrast, nuclear is a scalable technology already proven to be cost-effective, and to mitigate carbon emissions. That’s the reason Hansen, Emanuel, Caldeira, and Wigley argue that’s where we should be placing our bets.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 17, 2018

With respect Bob, the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the extra heat created by human activity. If the same amount of heat that has been buried in the upper 2km of the ocean had gone into the atmosphere, the surface of the Earth would have warmed by a devastating 36C, rather than 1C, over the past century.

Is it better to return this to the atmosphere in 50 years or recycle it at least 13 times all to productive energy over the course of 3,250 years?

There is no way we are going find as much energy as we are going to need in 50 years, nuclear or otherwise, therefore 2 degrees and its consequences are baked in so we better start using an approach that will keep the ocean heat in the pipeline from reemerging.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on May 17, 2018

Jim, it is more feasible to try go 100% renewable with solar and wind than with OTEC. Like Bob noted, it is an unproven technology.

Furthermore, you need an ocean location that is 1 kilometer deep and a sufficient temperature difference. Just imagine putting offshore wind to such locations and the logistic limitations become apparent.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 18, 2018

WIth equal respect Jim –
An infinitesimal fraction of the “extra heat” stored in the oceans was a product of human activity:
Total annual primary energy consumption: 157 pWh/y
Total annual energy from sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface: 779,640 pWh/y
779640 / 157 = 4965.9
The sun is delivering 4965.9 times as much energy to the earth as humans are consuming. Every minute of every hour of every day.
Hansen et al, “Earth’s energy imbalance and implications.” (2011):

Improving observations of ocean heat content show that Earth is absorbing more energy from the Sun than it is radiating to space as heat, even during the recent solar minimum. The inferred planetary energy imbalance, 0.58±0.15 W/m2 during the 6-yr period 2005-2010, confirms the dominant role of the human-made greenhouse effect in driving global climate change.

The problem is not that humans are using too much energy, or that the oceans are storing energy – the problem is that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are not permitting all of it to radiate away once it gets here. Hence, the Earth gets warmer.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 18, 2018

Jarmo, the point is the .74°C in the ocean pipeline. Solar, wind and nuclear do nothing for this and when it t kicks in, the feedback loops associated with 2C also start kicking in.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 18, 2018

Jim –

The existance of “heat” in the ocean, in the air, leaving the exhaust a vehicle, or leaking out the cracks of buildings, does not also necessarily mean that this heat can be used to do useful work without violating the laws of thermodynamics.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on May 18, 2018

Jim, I think the point is we are not going to build an ocean cooling system to stop global warming. OTEC is a fringe technology. I am pretty sure that there is no fossil fuel industry conspiracy behind the failure to scale up this technology since 1970s. You are talking about terawatts when the output of current plants is measured in kilowatts.

It’s better to de-carbonize energy with cheaper and more efficient technologies and like Bob explained, let that .74 degrees C radiate away in 50 years.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 18, 2018

In Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature Hansen et al. point out Argo data reveal that in 2005–2010 the ocean’s upper 2000 m gained heat at a rate equal to 0.41 W/m2 averaged over the Earth’s surface, which is 510 million square meters so annually they accumulated 209 terawatts.

The total annual energy from sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface is a red herring. Of course, most of it is radiated back. The resulting net planetary energy imbalance for the six years is +0.58±0.15 W/m2, therefore 295 terrawatts.

The measured energy imbalance indicates that an initial CO2 target “<350 ppm” would be appropriate if the aim is to stabilize climate without further global warming.

Halting emissions in 2015 causes CO2 to decline to 350 ppm at century’s end. A 20 year delay in halting emissions has CO2 returning to 350 ppm at about 2300. With a 40 year delay, CO2 does not return to 350 ppm until after 3000. These results show how difficult it is to get back to 350 ppm if emissions continue to grow for even a few decades.

The IPCC Mitigation scenario, which says GHG emissions can be kept to less than 2 °C are characterized by atmospheric concentrations in 2100 of about 450 ppm.

Your assessment that that .74 degrees C can be radiate away in 50 years is illusory.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 18, 2018

It is well established that a temperature differential of 20C between the ocean surface and 1000 meters is convertible to work. Much of the latitudes between the 20 degrees either side of the equator a condusive.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Atmospheric ResearchRecord-breaking ocean heat fueled Hurricane Harvey reports that near-surface ocean temperature before the Hurricane Harvey’s passage was upward of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), and after passage the temperature was still around 28.5 C (83 F). Sea surface temperatures above 26 C (79 F) are typically needed for a hurricane to continue to grow.

Temperatures of 24C or better are useful and every degree over this simply increases the efficiency of the heat conversion.

Storms like this and the conditions that produce them are becoming more and more frequent.

Heat pipe OTEC removes about 300 TWh from the surface each year to produce ~ 23TW of power instead of seeing much of it becoming hurricane fuel. The unconverted heat returns through diffusion back in 250 years at a rate of 4meters/year and can and should be recycled at that time.

There is no conflict with the laws of thermodynamics.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 18, 2018

Jim, the total annual energy from sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface is not a “red herring” – my point was to show the energy generated by humans is insignificant. Five thousand times as much energy from sunlight reaches the earth, and the earth radiates 99.958% of both out to space. Both? How could the Earth radiate energy consumed by humans out to space?

Visible light makes up a very small percentage of the energy from the sun which reaches the Earth’s surface – most is absorbed, then radiated as blackbody radiation at infrared wavelengths.

Because there iis no difference between heat created by humans or by the sun, the ocean has not absorbed “more than 90% of the extra heat created by human activity” – it’s absorbed only some of the .042% of the total heat energy trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The other 99.958% has long since disappeared into space.

What’s the best way to prevent increasing levels of greenhouse gases from trapping more and more energy from the sun? Hansen et al, from your source:

Investment is needed in RD&D (research, development and demonstration) to help renewable energies and nuclear power overcome obstacles limiting their contributions…Most of today’s nuclear power plants have half-century-old technology with light-water reactors utilizing less than 1% of the energy in the nuclear fuel and leaving unused fuel as long-lived nuclear “waste” requiring sequestration for millennia. Modern light-water reactors can employ convective cooling to eliminate the need for external cooling in the event of an anomaly such as an earthquake. However, the long-term future of nuclear power will employ “fast” reactors, which utilize ∼99% of the nuclear fuel and can “burn” nuclear waste and excess weapons material. It should be possible to reduce the cost of nuclear power via modular standard reactor design, but governments need to provide a regulatory environment that supports timely construction of approved designs.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 19, 2018

The same day his Finance Minister committed to indemnify the backers of a pipeline through one of the most beautiful harbors on the planet the Prime Minister regaled an MIT audience about as a young man he “was really pissed off” Japan could innovate while Canada didn’t seem to be able to.

That doesn’t begin to describe how this British Columbia innovator feels today.

The hypocrisy of his government no bounds.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 19, 2018

A single hurricane converts 600 TW of energy to water vapor about 99.9% and .1% wind.

There were hurricanes prior to 1750 and you can produce 7 terawatts of power from OTEC when the average surface temperature is ~14C instead of today’s 15C.

The question is how long does it take you process all of the heat that got from you to 14 to a 15+ when emissions have finally stopped.

I estimate it will be 3,250 years.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 19, 2018

my point was to show the energy generated by humans is insignificant.

Bob, I guess I still don’t get your point. My statement was “the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the extra heat created by human activity”, which follows from the John Cook graphic.

True enough 99.958% of the solar radiation is both absorbed and then goes out to space but global warming is all about the .042%.

Per about, solar, wind and nuclear do nothing for the .74°C ocean heat in the pipeline.

Do you seriously believe we are going to down to zero emissions within 40 years in which case we don’t get back to 350 ppm until 3000?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 20, 2018

Jim, even the competent energy experts at IPCC only create models based on assumptions: “If we do this, carbon will end up here,” etc. So I have no idea whether we’re going to get down to zero emissions within 40 years – we’re in uncharted waters. Much of humanity’s commitment will depend on the impact of climate change on the sources of the world’s food over the next few decades.

I agree that solar, wind, and nuclear do nothing for the .74ºC ocean heat in the pipeline, but compared to atmospheric GHGs it’s not much of a problem (as it comes to the surface, 99.958% of it is radiated away as blackbody radiation). Our #1 priority is to stop burning fossil fuel, and if at some point OTEC proves more capable of providing clean energy than nuclear, I’m all for it. In the meantime, we need to go with what works – no time to spare.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on May 20, 2018

wind and nuclear do nothing for the .74°C ocean heat in the pipeline.

Well, neither will OTEC, for the simple reason it is not going to be build to scale required to cool the oceans.

Can you give some sort of estimate how much such a system + the required power links to all corners of our planet would cost? Accuracy of 1 trillion dollars will suffice.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 21, 2018

Energy will cost $44 trillion between now and 2050, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

Depending on the capacity of the OTEC plant, cost decreases by about 22 percent with each doubling of size the plants, here and here shows that the cost of 25TW can cost as little as $28 trillion.

Since we currently get ~14TW from fossil fuels, this would be a net saving of about two-thirds of the replacement cost of the equivalent cost of fossil fuels.

Never mind the savings in storm, sea level, and heat damage costs that would be foregone.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 21, 2018

Bob, we are working to the same end. The comment to Jarmo that OTEC plants with gigawatt capacity could save as much as $50 trillion over the cost of the equivalent cost of replacing fossil fuels seems to be extremely hard to get across.

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