News Stories

Climate Change: Missing Heat

What's going on here? Much of the substance that makes up our universe appears to be missing, and the same thing is true for climate change. Scientists can only account for roughly half of the heat that is believed to have built up on Earth in recent years. Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) think we need to pay more attention to satellite sensors, ocean floats, and other instruments are inadequate to track this "missing" heat, which may be building up in the deep oceans or elsewhere in the climate system.

Last year's rapid onset of El Nino, the periodic event in which upper ocean waters across much of the tropical Pacific Ocean become significantly warmer, may be one way in which the solar energy has reappeared. Also, a percentage of the missing heat could be illusory, the result of imprecise measurements by satellites and surface sensors or incorrect processing of data from those sensors.

NCAR scientist Kevin Trenberth warns us that "The reprieve we've had from warming temperatures in the last few years will not continue. It is critical to track the build-up of energy in our climate system so we can understand what is happening and predict our future climate." He says that either the satellite observations are incorrect or, more likely, large amounts of heat are penetrating to regions that are not adequately measured, such as the deepest parts of the oceans. Compounding the problem, Earth's surface temperatures have largely leveled off in recent years. Yet melting glaciers and Arctic sea ice, along with rising sea levels, indicate that heat is continuing to have profound effects on the planet.

According to Trenberth, "The heat will come back to haunt us sooner or later."

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