Jan 29 2012
Basic assumptions are the bane of science and scientific progress. So many times a basic, innocent conclusion is cast into concrete with minimal to no supporting evidence. The greatest scientific minds are the ones who recognized when a basic assumption is wrong and needs to be changed in order to realign science with the sum of all known facts at the time. This is how Newton, Kepler, Einstein and many others made their breakthroughs. Sadly, the inertia within the crony scientific community usually lashes out at new thinking. Which is why too many times scientific progress has to blaze through using upheaval and animosity (and sometimes oppression). Comfort with the status quo is hard to fight.
Scientists who make discoveries reassess every aspect of the assumed known science and determine where it was falling down. When you realize an aspect of a scientific theory is in violation of known facts (usually from other fields of science not so well known in the field in question), you can begin to explore where the truth could or does lie. And you discover new truths from the perch of an open mind.
From day one I have looked at the El Niño effect and decided it is impossible for this much heat to build up from solar or atmospheric heating alone. As is usual with the very, very young science of global climate, you should always consider the fact that we have long assumed the wrong cause and effect relationship (e.g., CO2 as a driver, versus results of, warmer temps). It is just as likely (and as I go through this post, becomes more likely) that El Niño is the result of something else, and the atmospheric responses in terms of weather and climate are just that – the response and not the cause. What I walk through below is a myriad of processes that preclude the theory that El Niño/El Niña are driven by atmospheric/solar heating. Which leaves really only one source for the phenomena left, which I introduce through deduction.
Wikipedia has a reasonable description of the conventional wisdom surrounding El Niño:
El Niño/La Niña-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, is a quasiperiodic climate pattern that occurs across the tropical Pacific Ocean roughly every five years. The Southern Oscillation refers to variations in the temperature of the surface of the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean (warming and cooling known as El Niño and La Niña respectively) and in air surface pressure in the tropical western Pacific. The two variations are coupled: the warm oceanic phase, El Niño, accompanies high air surface pressure in the western Pacific, while the cold phase, La Niña, accompanies low air surface pressure in the western Pacific. Mechanisms that cause the oscillation remain under study.
The accepted definition is a warming or cooling of at least 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) averaged over the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean. Typically, this anomaly happens at irregular intervals of 2–7 years and lasts nine months to two years. The average period length is 5 years. When this warming or cooling occurs for only seven to nine months, it is classified as El Niño/La Niña “conditions”; when it occurs for more than that period, it is classified as El Niño/La Niña “episodes”.
Emphasis mine. With a period of 2-7 years and a duration 0.75 to 2 years, it is pretty obvious this probably is not due to solar heating and atmospheric processes alone. Solar and atmospheric heating show annual, seasonal fluctuations. Also, solar heating has been pretty steady over these time scales, as would be the atmospheric response. So it does not seem to logically follow the kind of phenomena is driven by climate.
The amount of heat showing up in this 0.5° heating (El Niño) – or lack if it during cooling (El Niña) – is mind boggling large. Too large to be caused by Sun and Air alone. The other day it dawned on me we can estimate how much energy is required to achieve this kind of warming. And it begins with reviewing the Coriolis Effect on ocean currents, which creates the great Ocean Gyres:
Gyres are caused by the Coriolis Effect; planetary vorticity along with horizontal and vertical friction, which determine the circulation patterns from the wind curl (torque). The term gyre can be used to refer to any type of vortex in the air or the sea, even one that is man-made, but it is most commonly used in oceanography to refer to the major ocean systems.
The “South Pacific Gyre” is the Earth’s biggest system of rotating ocean currents, bounded by equator to the north, Australia to the west, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current to the south, and South America to the east.
The graph above [click to enlarge] illustrates this massive movement of water. It is these ocean gyres which pull warm water up the east coast of North America (i.e., the Gulf Stream) and Arctic waters down the West Coast. It is why most of us would rather swim off the coast of Virginia in the Summer than the off the coast of San Francisco. In the Southern Hemisphere it is identical. The eastern coast of South America gets warm water pumped pole-ward from the equatorial region, while the west coast has a massive cold flow of water from the Antarctic (noted in the diagram as the Peru or Humboldt current).
It dawned on me that this massive amount of cold water flowing down the west coast of South America to the eastern equatorial region of the South Pacific would cool any solar or atmospheric warming without missing a beat. To under stand the amount of water flowing in this current, let’s look at the Gulf Stream for which there is more data available:
A great ocean current transporting about 70,000,000 tons (63,000,000 metric tons) of water per second (1000 times the discharge of the Mississippi River) northward from the latitude of Florida to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.
Since the South Pacific Gyre is the largest on the planet, and the Humboldt one of the largest currents, we can use the Gulf Stream numbers as a conservative representation. That is a lot of water – per second! Try heating that on your stove.
Now let’s look closer at where the El Niño shows up, which will show us why it is impossible for this to be due to heating in the Western Pacific that then travels eastward to build up off the west coast of the Americas. It is impossible because the theory is swimming up stream of the ocean gyres.
Here is a classic El Niño thermal map from one of the largest El Niño periods on record (1997, which was followed by the warmest year on record since the 1960’s) – click all images to enlarge:
If you look closely you can see the hot El Niño phenomena is spreading westward off the coast of Peru. One could see this as building up eastward versus tapering off westward I guess. But when we look at the positions of the South Pacific Gyre currents it becomes clear which direction the water (and heat) is flowing.
I used the following close-up map of the currents in the area of the El Niño hot spot:
To estimate where the warm spot is originating versus spreading, I overlaid (as best I could) the current map on the JPL image of the phenomena (note, the two views are not from the same perspective, so I lined them up in the region of Central America to obtain the best overlay):
In order to better see the primary current flows, I added blue arrows for the cold Arctic and Antarctic currents coming down the west coast of the Americas. These then bend at the equator and flow east-to-west. I also added the warm Pacific equatorial flow that runs west-to-east using a red arrow.
First thing to notice is how the El Niño hot spot clearly trails off the Humboldt current It is NOT coming off the west-to-east equatorial warm current.The equatorial current is well above the phenomena.
To reemphasize, with the polar currents dumping over 70,000,000 gross tons of cold water per second EACH into this area, it is impossible for atmospheric warming to warm this much water. If one BTU is required to warm one pound of water, the number to over power these cold currents is astronomical (and ridiculous). And yes, I have consider the Bernoulli effect of thermal rivers. I think that is what is keeping the warm spot below the west-to-east equatorial flow.
So if not solar/atmospheric heating from the west, what could it be?
One of my biggest peeves with Climate Science today is how it ignores the mass of molten metal under our feet. It is amazing how little we know about the core of the Earth and its effect on climate. The theory of plate tectonics was accepted within my lifetime, so it too is a very young branch of science. We know very little, but what we do know is mind boggling:
In the graph above we see the incredible warm mass existing below us. The big warning sign ‘not to scale‘ needs to be heeded with supreme caution. The mass of warm metal and rock contained in the mantel and core is 6400 kilometers deep. The continental crust upon which we live is one tenth (10%) that molten column. The ocean crust is even thinner at only 1-2% thick (5-10 kilometers).
While our sampling of the atmospheric temperature from land based thermometers is poor (25% of the Earth’s surface taken with sporadic methodologies over a short historical time), and our sampling of the sea surface temperatures is pathetic (for 75% of the Earth’s surface with even less data) our understanding of the energy flow from below is as close to zero as you can get. I can say this. It is not even across the globe or constant in time (think Yellow Stone Park). So we have no idea what the energy input from Mother Earth is in or global energy balance. No idea at all. And with this grand ignorance we make sweeping declarations on global climate?
But we have much more information on the Earth than we did just 30 years ago.
For example, we recently discovered at the oceanic ridges a mass of underwater volcanic structures called black smokers:
What is important to understand about this unique energy transfer system is that water at these pressures will retain and distribute massive amounts of heat energy. This happens because at these depths and pressures, water will not boil, and instead will take heat away – probably great distances:
In contrast to the approximately 2 °C ambient water temperature at these depths, water emerges from these vents at temperatures ranging from 60 °C up to as high as 464 °C.
Water is a rapid transportation system of thermal energy. It can dissipate heat very rapidly. So if there is any energy source that can rapidly warm cold water from the Antarctic, it is likelyy to be volcanic heat trapped in water at extreme depths. This nutrient rich, super hot water would rise through the colder Humboldt current transferring its heat energy as it moved.
So, is there an under water ridge in the area? Yes. And it exists right under the El Niño phenomena. Here is an image of the Pacific Ocean:
Even the untrained eye can see the ridges off the north-western coast of South America that form a triangle . Here is a view with the triangle of ocean ridge highlighted in yellow:
The final piece to the puzzle is to now overlay the currents and warm ocean area to see what makes physical sense.
Clearly, the integrated view of currents, warm water and volcanic/tectonic structures would indicate the El Niño/El Niña phenomena are more likely to be due to underwater warming from volcanism than anything else. Note how the currents align almost perfectly with the triangle of ridges off the coast of South America. Also note how the equatorial current acts as a barrier for the warm waters to go north, instead bending them back to the south of the Equator. I added more red arrows to illustrate how the Humholdt current would draw the hot water over the triangular ridges away.
Also think about the oceanic geography. The ridges form a bowl that could hold much of the super hot water under layers of colder, denser water. As the rate of volcanism rises or continues, the warm dome of water would peak over the ridges and then begin to spread and rise as the Humboldt begins to warm at the equator. This could be the 2-7 year cycle we see. The the pacific equatorial current could be pushing the water into the basin until it overflows. Once enough water is pulled from the bowel, the heating cycle begins.
The bowl inside the ridges is the pot, while the black smokers are the gas stove.
This makes sense when we look at the duration and cycles of El Niño/El Niña. Volcanic phenomena don’t operate on annual cycles like climate. In fact, this region is one of the most geologically active in the world. Active plate tectonics means massive amounts of energy transfer of all kinds. Again, think Yellowstone, but on a much bigger scale and under water.
The physics behind this theory for the El Niño/El Niña phenomena is much more sound than the idea that a ~0.5°C rise in temperature in the Western Pacific air temps can create a 0.5° rise in a current that is moving millions of tons of cold water per second many thousand miles away on the coast of South America. From the view of fluid dynamics, thermal dynamics and geology (plate tectonics) this theory makes much more sense.