Storms are Normal: The Nuclear Weapons Equivalency

December 31st, 2014 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

One of the popular (but incorrect) memes of the global warming movement is that storminess is getting worse. While attractive on an emotional level, there is little to no evidence that supports the meme.

Whether it be tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, or any other class of weather event, there is simply no convincing evidence that any of it is getting worse. Storm damage gets worse over time, of course, as wealth and infrastructure grows (there are more targets for severe weather to strike). But that’s not due to “climate change”.

What people don’t realize is the very large amount of energy which courses through the climate system on a continuous basis which drives all weather and storminess.

Approximately 240 Watts per sq. meter of sunlight is absorbed by the Earth continuously, which equates to 122,000 terajoules (trillion joules) of total energy every second over the entire Earth.

To give that number some perspective, it is the same amount of energy released by all nuclear weapons testing over 50 years…but instead released every 20 seconds.

That’s three times all previous nuclear testing every minute.

180 times all nuclear testing every hour.

4,320 times all nuclear testing every day.

And it’s all entirely normal, occurring whether humans live on Earth or not.

Most of that solar energy is absorbed at the surface of the Earth, which then leads to air currents carrying energy vertically and from one place (where more energy has accumulated) to another (where less energy exists)…especially from the tropics to the polar regions.

Water bodies, especially the oceans, store absorbed solar energy for a period of time, and can release it in large quantities because the near-surface water can overturn, making lots of energy available to the atmosphere.

Because of the orientation of land versus ocean, the spherical nature of the Earth, the Earth’s spin, energy storage by the oceans, and other features of the climate system, it is inevitable that there will be localized large differences in energy content of the atmosphere (which drives all weather) which then results in what we consider a severe weather event. Generally, the greater the temperature difference across a distance, the more the potential energy available for storm formation.

For example, the current surface temperature distribution over Asia exhibits temperature differences of over 150 deg F over a few thousand miles. This type of temperature gradient is what drives, directly or indirectly, almost all storm activity.

It worries me that an increasing portion of the public has the impression that storminess has any significance beyond what has been “normal” for thousands of years. The normal state of weather is to be stormy. Even if humans have caused an overall temperature increase of one degree in the last 50-100 years, it would be difficult to impossible to see such a small change reflected in weather when there is already so much energy available for storm formation. The current energy imbalance of the climate system is theoretically estimated to be about 1%. There is no way — given the chaotic nature of weather — to isolate such a small influence from natural variations.

Even a sunny, cloudless day is the result of storms, the rising air in which forces the air to sink over large regions, creating clear skies. In some sense, those clear skies are a necessary part of the storm circulation. Your sunny day is courtesy of someone else’s story day, hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The final fate of most of the solar energy which was originally absorbed at the surface as sunlight is then emitted to space by “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere as infrared radiation. The cycle is complete, and the sun has (for all practical purposes) enough energy to keep the process going forever.

Why am I even bringing this up? Because I saw a news story about some people thinking the localized lake effect snow event in Buffalo last month was due to “climate change”. The claim is so ludicrous that one hardly knows where to start.

Unfortunately, the President’s new initiative to “educate” young people about climate will probably make matters worse, not better.


27 Responses to “Storms are Normal: The Nuclear Weapons Equivalency”

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  1. ren says:

    Happy New Year Dr. Roy Spencer.

  2. Slipstick says:

    Real education, and I’m not talking about ideological indoctrination, is always a good thing.

  3. KevinK says:

    Happy New Year Dr. Spencer, a nice calculation of the scale of the amount of energy involved.

    Regarding Buffalo NY and lake effect, there was a similar storm back in December of 1945, very heavy localized snow. My father was returning from serving in the 8th USAAF in England, he had to walk the last few miles from England in snow up to his hips to get to his house in Buffalo, no cars could move. He said it was harder than fighting the Luftwaffe, ha ha ha…

    Thanks and Cheers, Kevin.

  4. Slipstick says:

    Anecdotally, for my locale, these are some of the record setting events have occurred in the last five years:
    – The hottest summer
    – The snowiest winter
    – The most intense hailstorm (by hail size and duration)
    – The rainiest spring
    – The longest stretch of nights above 70 F
    – We also experienced two all-time record setting snowfalls, one week apart (I’m not certain that was within the five year window, but it was definitely with the last ten)

    Clearly, the weather is more productive of extremes than in the past in my region. Whether there is an increase in average storm intensity I cannot be certain, but, again anecdotally, it definitely feels that is the case.
    (I leave it as an exercise for bored weather historians to determine the region in which I reside.)

    Also consider Sandy and Nuri, both record-setters as to power in their respective regions. They bend the curve up a bit.

    Having spent a winter on the U.P., I have to agree with you that any claim that a lake effect snow event is the result of climate change is ludicrous. Thankfully, most of the media outlets I encountered during and after the event did not mention or outright disclaimed such a connection.

    • Robert Austin says:

      Considering the shortness of the weather record, the occurrence of record breaking weather phenomena is counter intuitively commonplace. So when you say “Clearly, the weather is more productive of extremes than in the past in my region”, you are relying on you gut feeling and not on any dispassionate statistical study of the likelihood of some type of weather record being set over a five year time period. As to Sandy, it is doubtful that it was even a hurricane at landfall so lets not play that one up as some kind of exotically powerful storm.

      • Slipstick says:

        The list I gave is but a sample of the many record setting events that have occurred in the last few years in my region. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to compile the statistics necessary to support my assertion, but I am certain “more productive of extremes than in the past” is an accurate statement. As to Sandy, it was the largest storm on record in the Atlantic and extent is proportional to power.

  5. David Johnson says:

    Excellent end to the year, Thank you

  6. Peter Stroud says:

    An excellent summary of ‘weather’. I think it should be compulsory reading for the head scientist at our UK Met Office. Last winter she declared, with great confidence, on the BBC, that the higher than normal rainfall was due to man made climate change. And, of course we should expect more of the same. Interestingly, one of her juniors expressed the opposite view.

  7. Stephen Wilde says:

    “Even a sunny, cloudless day is the result of storms, the rising air in which forces the air to sink over large regions, creating clear skies. ”

    Very true but also note that the sinking air warms at the dry adiabatic lapse rate as it descends.

    It is that warming on descent that dissipates clouds and results in clear skies. Those clear skies are similar to the clear glass roof of a greenhouse in that they let solar radiation reach the surface beneath.

    That warming on descent also reduces the rate of temperature decline with height which suppresses convection from the surface so that the surface then warms more than it otherwise would have done. That is similar to the way that a gtreenhouse roof supresses convection and allows heat to increase beneath.

    That is the true greenhouse effect and I learned that some 50 years ago but it seems to have been forgotten.

  8. Besides, shouldn’t greenhouse warming tend to occur more towards the poles and less towards the tropics (i.e. poles warm faster), thus flattening the temperature gradient and reducing the potential for storminess?

  9. Mike Mangan says:

    Actually, you put your finger on an observation that is far more threatening than any bogus “climate change.” The presence in our society of a substantial group openly embracing irrationality and beliefs that have no foundation in reality. More extreme weather, one in five women raped on college campuses, racist police wantonly mowing down young black men, all widely held beliefs held completely without facts to support.

    • M. Christ says:

      “More extreme weather, one in five women raped on college campuses, racist police wantonly mowing down young black men, all widely held beliefs held completely without facts to support”

      You can add to the list:

      Man (whose mother was a virgin) is sentenced to death but comes to life three days later and ascends to heaven, man memorizes a 114 chapter text that is written in stone in heaven by way of visions over a 23 year period, man is told by angel where to find gold plates with scriptures written on them and decodes them using magic stones, man builds giant boat and saves the species of the earth while the entire globe floods, man saves his people by parting the red sea and walking through it, evil ex-angel living in fire pit wants me to be bad so that I can spend eternity with him, 2nd law of thermodynamics means that gravity sets the temperature of planets.

  10. ossqss says:

    Thanks Doc!

    Happy day 1 of 2015.

    BTW, typo on 4th to last paragraph. Stormy is missing its “m”. Seems fitting considering the story content ;-]

  11. Thanks, Dr. Spencer.
    Indoctrination of the young doesn’t change the facts, it just delays their discovery.

  12. wyoskeptic says:

    Happy New Year, Dr. Spencer and all who read this.

    I would hope that in this upcoming year more truth would be spread, more truth realized and more truth unearthed. For those who understand the true nature of weather and climate, it is not that necessary to specify since those who pursue that knowledge understand how little we really truly know and how much we assume we know and how much we have yet to learn.

    The Global warming alarmistas, however, do not operate on truth and knowledge, so logic does not sway them. They operate on the belief that they know all they need to know and it is that faith in the warming characteristics of CO2 that explains everything for them. I fear they will never be persuaded of the truth and as long as their truth is what is taught in school, it may never be completely eradicated.

    Should it happen that there is twenty years of a cooling trend leading to something like the Little Ice-age, I am sure they will still be yapping that it is only a matter of time before the warming picks back up again.

    Happy New Year, everyone!

  13. Koji Toda says:

    Happy New Year Dr.Roy Spencer,Thank you for the real education.
    Besides,I would like to point out that the Earth absorbes about 340 Watts per sq.meter of sunenergy instead of 240 watts.

    • Koji Toda says:

      Sorry Dr.Roy Spencer,I’s my mistake.
      Incoming solarenergy is about 340 watts,but the Earth only absorbs 70% of the energy i.e. 240 watts.

  14. fouchet Michel says:

    You said:
    The final fate of most of the solar energy which was originally absorbed at the surface as sunlight is then emitted to space by “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere as infrared radiation. The cycle is complete, and the sun has (for all practical purposes) enough energy to keep the process going forever.
    I thought that at least some of it was radiated from earth surface and ocean to,yes by the way wher to?since there is nothing out there to get it .

  15. fouchet Michel says:

    You said:
    The final fate of most of the solar energy which was originally absorbed at the surface as sunlight is then emitted to space by “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere as infrared radiation. The cycle is complete, and the sun has (for all practical purposes) enough energy to keep the process going forever.
    I thought that at least some of it was radiated from earth surface and ocean to,yes by the way where to?since there is nothing out there to get it .

  16. Slipstick says:

    To extend the Doctor’s analogy and give his numbers some additional perspective, the increase in radiative forcing in the global climate due to increased atmospheric CO2 load is approximately 1.8 W/m^2. This equates to the same amount of energy released by all nuclear weapons testing over 50 years… but instead released every 45 minutes.

    That’s 32 times all previous nuclear testing every day.

    (That seems, to me, sufficient to have at least some effect on storm intensity.)

    And it’s all entirely abnormal, occurring because humans live on Earth and some of them cling desperately to a belief that their actions have no consequential effect on the climate, dismissing, without workable counter-explanation, ever-increasing mounds of evidence to the contrary.

    • Massimo PORZIO says:

      This is a silly issue, I would not reply but today I’ve nothing to do else.
      You missed the point that one thing is doing 32 times the last 50 years nuclear tests in 45 minutes at the same place, one other is perfectly distribute that energy along the whole globe.
      By the way, the following is just a personal thought of a non-scientist, but I really believe that an increase of 1.8W/m^2 at the tropics and the same at the poles should slightly reduce the average temperature difference between the hottest and the coldest places of the Earth, so the effect on storm intensity should be a reduction indeed.

      Have an happy 2015.

      Massimo

  17. Fonzarelli says:

    “ever increasing mounds of evidence to the contrary”

    Like all those failed climate models? (Who’s clinging desperately to a belief here?)

    • Slipstick says:

      What “failed” climate models? The ones for which the observed changes are within the models’ uncertainty are not “failed”. The only failed models I’ve seen lately are those that predicted the climate would be in a period of cooling by now.

      • Fonzarelli says:

        +95% failure, slip? Your entertaining “climate change delusions” here… That’s the problem with AGW; it’s being upheld by spin and not rational thinking. You may be able to spin master your way to victory, but that won’t change reality.

  18. Dr. Strangelove says:

    Food Equivalency of 240 watts/m^2

    Eating 5,000 Calories per day or about 3 cups of Baskin-Robbins ice cream. No wonder 1 of 3 Americans are obese

  19. Brane Jenko says:

    Happy New Year, Dr. Roy Spencer and many thanks for excellent writings.

    I would like to add some comparison to these nice relations between nuclear “tests” and weather. A small rain shower on the area of 1 x 3 km which puts 10 mm (about 0.4 inch) of water on the ground release about 19 GWh of energy to the air due to water evaporation/condensation enthalpy of 0.63 kWh/kg. This is the equivalent of Hiroshima A bomb of 15 kT TNT.

    Not to mention some weather event spanning across the continent….

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