Some Comments on Earth’s “Missing Energy”

April 21st, 2010 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

A recent short article by Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo discussed the fact that our satellites that monitor (1) the total amount of sunlight absorbed by the Earth, and (2) the total infrared (IR) energy given off by the Earth, have suggested that these flows of energy in and out of the Earth’s climate system have been increasingly out of balance in the last 10 years, with an increase in absorbed energy by as much as 1 Watt per sq. meter.

Even though this 1 Watt per sq. meter is small compared to the average flows of energy — which are estimated to be somewhere around 235 to 240 Watts per sq. meter — it represents a substantial heating effect.

The problem is that the oceans have not been warming in response to this imbalance. Trenberth and Fasullo seem to lean toward the possibility that this heat is “missing” somewhere, maybe temporarily trapped in the deep ocean. Roger Pielke, Sr., has voiced his opinion that the heat could not have magically avoided the ocean temperature sensors, both in space and floating around the world’s oceans, which monitor ocean surface and upper layer temperatures.

Since I’ve received a number of requests to give my opinion, I decided I would weigh in on the subject. While I agree that there is a mystery here, there are a few points and opinions I’d like to share.


Trenberth and Fasullo don’t highlight the fact that the “missing” energy is not in the infrared, which is where manmade global warming allegedly originates, but in the reflected solar component. The infrared component has essentially no trend between March 2000 and December 2007 (the last CERES Earth radiation budget data I have analyzed).

This suggests a small decrease in low or mid-level cloud cover, letting more sunlight in. The fact that the extra energy is not showing up as a temperature increase in the ocean makes me suspect the measurements themselves. If there is a problem with the Earth radiation budget measurements, then obviously there is no missing energy.

Trenberth and Fasullo correctly point out that the absolute accuracy of these radiation budget instruments is not good enough to measure very small radiation imbalances…just the CHANGE in that imbalance over time. Well then maybe it was the period BEFORE 2000 where there was an imbalance, with extra energy being lost by the Earth, but no cooling, and NOW the solar and infrared flows are once again in balance. Just a thought.

Trenberth and Fasullo briefly acknowledge that there might be measurement errors involved here, and I would argue that this is much more likely in the Earth radiation budget measurements than in the ocean temperature measurements. The amount of solar energy the Earth absorbs is particularly difficult to measure because a monitoring satellite is only a single point in space, whereas the total amount of sunlight being reflected off clouds goes in all different directions.

Because of this complication, many detailed calculations must be made by the dataset developers to estimate the energy flows at all angles, based upon years of accumulated statistics with radiation budget instruments that measure some of the clouds at different angles. I think the dataset developers are doing the best they can with the available information, but what we are asking the data to reveal to us is a very small signal.

We have already been dealing with some missing global warming in the last 10 to 30 years, since 95% of the climate models suggest our carbon dioxide emissions should have caused more global warming than what has been observed — and that is due to an infrared effect. Now, we are told that there is missing SOLAR energy, too?

This reminds me of the 1990 movie, The Hunt for Red October. After an entire movie dealing with a missing experimental Soviet submarine, the end of the movie shows the Soviet Ambassador asking the U.S. to help find…what!?…ANOTHER missing submarine? It was a funny line.

I’m sorry, but at some point we need to ask whether all of this missing warming and energy are missing because they really do not exist. This is Roger Pielke, Sr.’s opinion, and at this point it is mine as well. Only time will tell.

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