Lately, the world weather has been especially perplexing, influenced by the cold ocean temperatures of a La Niña current in the equatorial Pacific. For Earth’s land areas, 2007 was the warmest year on record.
This year, record cold is more the norm. Global land-surface temperatures so far are below the 20th-century mean for the first time since 1982, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Last month in China, snowstorms stranded millions of people, while in Mumbai, officials reported the coldest day in 46 years.
Yet, England basked in its fourth-warmest January since 1914, the British Met Office reported. The crocus and narcissus at the U.K.’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew flowered a week earlier than last year — 11 days ahead of their average for the decade and weeks ahead of their pattern in the 1980s. In Prague, New Year’s Day was the warmest since 1775.
“It is difficult to judge the significance of what we are seeing this year,” said Kew researcher Sandra Bell. “Is it a glitch or is it the beginning of something more sinister and alarming?”” (Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2008).
Many scientists have pondered this question, as if they did not know the answer, but it is a straightforward application of thermodynamics.
A basic theorem of equilibrium thermodynamics, the EQUIPARTITION OF ENERGY theorem, says that the same amount of energy should be present in all degrees of freedom into which energy can spill.
(How does one demonstrate this theorem? Basically, heat is agitation, kinetic energy at the scale of atoms and molecules. This agitation can spill in a more organized manner, in great ensembles, such as vast low and high pressure system, or large scale dynamics. See the note on entropy and negative temperatures.)
In the case of meteorology, this implies, oversimplifying a bit, that only one-third of the energy should go into heat (and everybody focuses on the augmentation of temperature). Now, of course, since the energy enters the system as heat, non equilibrium thermodynamics imposes more than one-third of the energy will be heat.
As time goes by, though, the other two degrees of freedom, potential energy (represented as the geometry of gradients of pressures, high and low pressure systems, hurricanes) and dynamics (wind speed and vast movements of air masses of varying temperatures and/or pressure; and the same for sea currents) will also store energy.
Thus the new heat created in the lower atmosphere by the increased CO2 greenhouse will be transformed in all sorts of weather weirdness: heat, cold, high and low pressures, wind, and big moves of big things. Big things such as vast re-arrangements of low and high pressure systems, as observed in the Northern Hemisphere, or the re-arrangement of sea currents as apparently also observed, and certainly as it is expected. Since it happened in the past (flash ice age of the Younger Dryas over Europe, 18,000 years ago).
As cold and warm air masses get thrown about, the variability of temperatures will augment all over.
In other words, record snow and cold in the Alps and record warmth simultaneously in England is a manifestation of the equipartition of energy theorem applied to the greenhouse warming we are experiencing. It is not mysterious at all, and brutal variations such as these, including sudden cold episodes, are to be expected, as more and more energy gets stuffed in the planetary climate, and yanks it away from its previous equilibrium.
Wind speed augmentation have already have a spectacular effect: by shaking the waters of the Austral ocean with increasingly violent waves, carbon dioxyde is being removed as if out of a shaken carbonated drink. Thus the Austral ocean is now a net emitter of CO2.
Hence the observed variations are the beginning of something more sinister and alarming. Climate change is changing speed. Up, up, and away.
Note on entropy: Some may object that transforming heat into collective behavior of vast masses of air or sea violates the Second Law Of Thermodynamics, namely that entropy augments always, in any natural process. Well, first of all, the genius of the genus Homo, not to say of all of life itself, rests on local violations of the Second Law. Secondly, the most recent physics recognizes that fundamental considerations allow systems where increased energy lead to increased order (such a system is said to be in a negative temperature state).
Even more revealingly, a massive greenhouse on planet Earth would lead, as happened in the past, to a much more uniform heat, all around the planet, that is, a more ordered state. Meanwhile, the transition to the present order of a temperate climate to the completely different order of an over-heated Earth will bring complete disorder, as observed.