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We haven't hit the global warming pause button

24 Jun 2013

Dana Nuccitelli, The Guardian

Recent articles about a global warming 'pause' miss that the planet as a whole is still rapidly warming

When you hear the term "global warming," do you think of the warming of air temperatures at the Earth's surface, or the warming of the planet as a whole?

Only about 2 percent of the planet's overall warming heats the atmosphere, so if we focus only on surface air temperatures, we miss 98 percent of the overall warming of the globe. About 90 percent of the warming of the planet is absorbed in heating the oceans. However, until the past few years, our measurements of ocean temperatures (especially of the deep oceans) were somewhat lacking. Our measurements of surface air temperatures were much more accurate, and so when people spoke of "global warming," they tended to focus on air temperatures.

In the 1980s and 1990s when air temperatures were warming in step with the overall warming of the planet, that was fine. However, over the past decade, the warming of surface air temperatures has slowed. At the same time, the overall warming of the planet has continued, and if anything it has accelerated. This has been difficult to reconcile for those who previously focused on surface air temperatures - what do we say about "global warming" now?

The result is a spate of articles from the New York Times, Washington Post, The New Republic, and Der Spiegel, all of which get most of the facts right (including noting the warming of the oceans), but that all begin from the premise that "global warming" has slowed. It would be more accurate to say that global surface air warming has slowed, but the overall warming of the Earth's climate has sped up.

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