This article attempts to consider the combined effect of the atmospheric greenhouse effect and oceanic oscillations. As far as I know no one has previously attempted to describe both phenomena as part of a single global temperature control system. It was prompted by an answer I gave to a meteorologist about my article entitled “The Death Blow to AGW”. That meteorologist had difficulty understanding how a period of steady solar irradiance could nevertheless heat up the Earth. My reply was as follows:

“An electric bar fire with a constant level of output in a room will cumulatively raise the room temperature for as long as the heat flowing from the fire exceeds the heat outflow from the room. Thus a net warming effect from the sun, even if it is in the form of a steady flow of energy from the sun over a few decades will cumulatively warm the Earth until the radiation of heat from the Earth rises to match the excess heat being received. As a result of oceanic time lags that could take some time. There is the mechanism.”

That exchange led to this article via my attempt to find a more accurate analogy than that of the greenhouse effect. I soon realised that the oceans were more significant than the atmosphere since they hold solar heat in greater quantity and for much longer than the atmosphere. My conclusion was that we owe our existence not to an atmospheric greenhouse or blanket but instead to an oceanic hot water bottle. It is what I hope will become widely known as The Hot Water Bottle Effect (THWBE) in place of The Greenhouse Effect.

The recent global warming spell was never a result of any greenhouse effect. It was entirely a result of THWBE whereby heat already stored in the oceans and released by a positive phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation supplemented a historically high level of solar irradiation. With the Pacific Decadal Oscillation now in decline and solar irradiation now falling we are already in very different times.

Ideally this article should be read with certain of my previous articles with this article being regarded as part 4 of a new theory as to how global climate really works. As far as I can see the theory fits the known facts and ongoing observations of the real world as opposed to the speculations of climate modelling.


Previously the time scale of the oceanic changes has been considered to be too long to be relevant to decadal climate change.

This article makes use of recent findings about the relatively short decadal or multi decadal (20 to 30 years) oceanic oscillations that, the writer contends, are short enough to bring the time scales involved in oceanic changes into line with the solar cycles of 11 years or so. It seems to the writer that spreading global oceanic cycles of up to 30 years in length across 3 solar cycles results in a close enough match to fit temperature observations over the past few hundred years and especially since 1961.

Sometimes the solar cycles operate in conjunction with the oceanic oscillations but at other times they work against each other.

For an illustration of the importance to weather and climate changes of the main ocean oscillation in the Pacific see this link. There are similar oscillations in each ocean.

As an example of the oversimplified description of the greenhouse effect and the alarmism that can arise from it see this animated teaching aid.

Greenhouse Effect – animated diagram

The importance of that link is to show that the greenhouse effect is always considered in isolation with no consideration given to any real world link to, or similarity with, the vastly greater potential heat source stored in the oceans.

1. Greenhouses and the planetary ‘greenhouse’ effect

I think we have all heard enough about this subject but I’ve got to deal with it first before I go on to explain how misleading I believe the concept to have been ever since it was first used in connection with planetary climates.

It’s quite clear that overall planetary temperatures are a fine balance between solar energy coming in and that same energy being radiated away into space. Planets with atmospheres stabilise their surface temperatures at a level dependent upon the density of the atmosphere leaving the main variation in planetary temperature dependent on variations in the energy coming in from the local star. I have seen a suggestion that it is density of an atmosphere that matters, not composition, so CO2 may be an irrelevance unless it affects overall density but being such a small proportion of our atmosphere it could not do so. The density proposition certainly fits the observed surface temperature differences between Venus, Earth and Mars.

The question currently concerning us all is whether additional CO2 being added by man to the Earth’s atmosphere is sufficient to destabilise the system and introduce a dangerous level of extra warming.

I’ve made comments on the issues of scale and causation in relation to Earth’s CO2 levels in previous articles but in this article I will consider entirely different and somewhat novel issues.

A planet’s atmosphere is entirely different from a greenhouse. The latter accumulates heat inside by physically preventing escape of hot air thereby concentrating it in a confined space. The atmosphere is nothing like that because there is nothing to prevent hot air rising via convection from the ground to a substantial height.

The role of convection and the subsequent condensation out of water vapour into clouds and then rainfall is currently incapable of quantification as a means of slowing or offsetting any atmospheric greenhouse effect but it certainly does those things.

In general, the warmer the Earth’s atmosphere gets at the lower levels the more vigorous and widespread convection will become because the temperature differential between the surface and space increases thereby invigorating the global convective process. This is why it is often said that a warmer Earth may have more violent storms. However, that is a two edged scenario. If convection increases in an attempt to regain the previous equilibrium then it will stabilise the temperature increase and reduce it back to what it was before. Convection is therefore a negative feedback process that could well be capable of preventing dangerous warming from proportionately miniscule extra anthropogenic CO2.

Extra convection would occur immediately in response to extra warmth (you can see from your local weather how quickly it starts every day as a result of changing solar power as each day progresses) and if the speed of response is quick enough and global it could well prevent any significant warming at all from any warming influences other than the main solar/oceanic driver.

The extra convection would not necessarily result in significantly more damaging storms because it would be spread across the globe and the increase in temperature between the surface and space would not need to become large before the process begins to take effect. We might even not be able to notice or measure it.

2. Blankets

I prefer the idea of the atmosphere being a ‘blanket’ rather than a ‘greenhouse’ but the same principles apply. A blanket does not allow convection, whereas a planetary atmosphere does, so whichever analogy is used it is rendered inadequate by the processes involved in convection.

3. Hot Water Bottles

This is where I have some novel suggestions to make.

The Earth is known as the watery planet with 71% of the surface covered by water and in many places to a substantial depth. That water is also (in addition to the atmosphere) involved in maintaining the Earth’s temperature at a higher level than it otherwise would be.

Importantly both the atmosphere AND the oceans delay the incoming solar heat from being radiated out to space. Neither ADD new heat, both receive and store heat from the sun before it leaves the planet again. In both cases water whether in atmosphere or ocean is by far the main component in delaying the passage of heat back to space. In the atmosphere water vapour dwarfs CO2 and anything else as the main greenhouse gas. The oceans are, again, water but in a far denser form. Heat from the oceans has to be processed through the atmosphere before it can leave the planet.

Now, consider the respective heat storing capacities of water vapour in the atmosphere and the water in all those oceans.

The truth is that those oceans by virtue of the density and volume of the water have a heat storage capacity many magnitudes the size of the heat that can be stored by the atmosphere through the greenhouse effect. My contention is that man made CO2 and other man made trace gases are not only a miniscule proportion of the naturally occurring CO2 and trace gases but in turn CO2 and other trace gases have only a miniscule proportion of the heat storing capacity of the water vapour in the atmosphere AND ADDITIONALLY the atmosphere stores only a miniscule proportion of the heat stored by the oceans. The heat stored by the atmospheric greenhouse effect is far less in quantity and far less long lasting than the heat stored by the oceans.

Man made CO2 is but a tiny part of a tiny part of a tiny part of the whole.

So why do we only ever hear about the heat retaining properties of the atmosphere when the true cause of the Earth having the atmospheric temperature it has is not the atmosphere at all but the oceans?

The truth may well that the atmospheric greenhouse effect is minimal and quickly reduced by convection, condensation into clouds and rainfall and the real thermostat is the oceans.

Regardless of the existence of a heat retaining capacity in the atmosphere there is nevertheless always a net outward flow from surface to space and that will always be so. Greenhouse warming of the atmosphere can only ever be on the basis of a slowing down of the net heat flow from surface to space. The heat always gets out given a little time for the greenhouse style bouncing back and forth between the surface and the molecules of the atmosphere.

It is bizarre to suggest that a significant net slowdown of heat loss in the face of the compensating negative forcings of increased convection and the increased outward radiative flow caused by a greater surface to space differential could be induced by mankind’s tiny contribution to the CO2 in the atmosphere.

After all CO2 is itself only a tiny portion of total greenhouse gases so that it cannot have any significant long term effect when the water vapour primarily affecting atmospheric heat retention is in turn itself but a tiny proportion of global heat retaining capacity when one adds in the vastly greater oceanic heat retaining effect.

For one thing the two negative forcings cancel out much or most of the additional warming from the atmospheric CO2 and for another the atmospheric warming effect is miniscule in relation to the oceanic warming effect. The significance of the atmospheric greenhouse effect seems to have been grossly overstated by ignoring the negative convective and radiative factors and leaving the oceans out of the equation.

I know many clever scientists have produced figures calculating the heat budget of the atmospheric greenhouse effect but the value to be fixed to the convective process as a negative forcing has not been adequately quantified as far as I know. In any event what significance can calculations limited to the atmospheric effect have in the real world where the oceanic effect is so much greater?

4. Conclusion

The sun is the primary temperature driver and warms the oceans in which huge quantities of heat are stored and released into the atmosphere over long multi decadal periods of time usually operating via the oscillations in each ocean. Those oscillations sometimes work together and sometimes offset one another until any time lags are worked through. Additionally at different times they can work with or against the primary solar driver. Each oceanic oscillation has a warming and a cooling mode and they regularly switch between them.

Heat loss from the atmosphere is rapid in relation to heat loss from the oceans despite any atmospheric greenhouse effect whether it be natural or anthropogenic. It is fastest over land where heat received by day is all lost by radiation to space at night although there are seasonal variations around the globe.

As a result, the maintenance of global atmospheric temperature is dependent upon the heat released from the oceans approximately matching any deficit of heat lost by the whole atmosphere to space daily. There is always a net loss of heat on a daily basis from atmosphere to space regardless of any atmospheric greenhouse effect. The bigger the land area the harder the oceans have to work to maintain a specific temperature. To establish the truth of that one has only to imagine the temperature extremes of water free worlds. Such worlds, lacking the moderating effects of oceans bake by day and freeze by night with the only moderating factor being the density of the atmosphere. That is why Venus has a hot surface (dense atmosphere) and Mars a cold surface (thin atmosphere)

So, if for any reason the rate of heat flow from the oceans changes then that will quickly affect atmospheric temperatures.

That brings me back nicely to my overarching theories about the interplay between incoming solar energy and the various decadal or multi decadal oceanic oscillations.

A change in the heat coming from the sun may not have an immediate effect unless it is in phase with the overall average state of the various oceanic oscillations.

Thus a decline in solar energy will have an immediate effect if it occurs at a time when the overall balance of all the oceanic oscillations is negative as now (2007 to date) when the end of solar cycle 23 is significantly delayed and the late start of cycle 24 suggests a weaker cycle than we have had for some time.

A cooling effect of such a solar decline will be delayed if it occurs at a time when the overall balance of all the oceanic oscillations is positive (1998 to 2007) when solar cycle 23 started showing it’s weakness in relation to previous solar cycles but the Pacific Decadal Oscillation was still positive.

An increase in solar energy will have a delayed effect if it occurs at a time when the overall balance of the oceanic oscillations is negative (1961 to 1975) when solar cycles 18 and 19 were historically intense but the effect was masked by the negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

The warming effect will be immediate if it occurs at a time when the overall balance of the oceanic oscillations is positive (1975 to 1998) during the historically active cycles 21 and 22.

Remember that there is a variable lag between the initial solar effect of warming or cooling on the Pacific Ocean and that effect then working through all the other oceanic oscillations so it is difficult to establish the overall balance of the oceanic oscillations at any given time. In fact it is more likely that observed changes in the trend of global temperature will be the first and simplest indication as to when a global shift from solar/oceanic warming mode to solar/oceanic cooling mode and vice versa has occurred.

Indeed on the basis of my previous article about weather being the key it may be possible to get even earlier warning of changes in global temperature trend from observation of the preferred positions of the jet streams and the main high pressure systems.

My comments can be assessed by reference to the actual observations of the real world since 1961 (mentioned above) which is when the Earth embarked on one of the highest periods of solar activity in the 400 year historical record.

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I leave it to others to check whether my comments can be seen to fit real world events prior to 1961.
Forget the greenhouse effect. Embrace the Hot Water Bottle effect.

Published by Stephen Wilde June 25, 2008

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