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How Things Have Gotten Hot

Last week I talked about climate change. While we used to call this “global warming,” it is clear the changes are much more complex. Thus the changes to our global climate may be predominantly warming, but there are also places that have a net cooling and many more places where, most noticeably, there is simply disruption of historic weather patterns.

As electromagnetic radiation travels through the earth’s atmosphere much of it is absorbed by various gases, including CO2 and H2O. When longwave energy leaving the planet is absorbed, the earth’s temperature increases. Graphic available as vector from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Atmosfaerisk_spredning.gif

Thermographers have a good place to latch onto the science of climate change. Most of us are familiar with the graph showing transmission of electromagnetic radiation through the Earth’s atmosphere. The two broad “windows” we use are easily recognized, the midwave (2-5 microns) and longwave (8-15 microns) regions. These, and the various other wavelengths of radiation pass through the atmosphere to one degree or another based on how they are absorbed by or transmitted through various atmospheric gases, most notably O3, H2O and CO2.

The short version of climate change goes like this: by burning fossil (carbon-based) fuels, by destroying forests that absorb and sequester CO2 and as a result of various other human activities, we’ve caused a dramatic increase in atmospheric CO2.  How does this affect climate change? Full spectrum sunshine—mostly UV, visible, shortwave and mid-wave energy—still readily passes through the CO2 enriched atmosphere and then it is absorbed by the Earth and warms it. As has always happened, that heat reradiates as longwave energy in an energy balance with the surrounding cosmos.

The added CO2, however, acts as a better “blanket,” trapping and absorbing more energy and keeping more heat within the atmosphere than has been the case in the known past. That energy results in the planet getting warmer. As a consequence of this rise in temperature, glaciers and sea ice have begun melting at an accelerating rate. While their white surface used to be important reflector of full spectrum sun (and heat), the increasing areas of water and land we are now left with absorb more heat causing the changes to accelerate even faster.

As temperatures increase, more water also evaporates resulting in increased atmospheric humidity further wrapping the planet in a heat-retaining blanket. The increased source of moisture and, via evaporation and condensation, increased energy transfer, disrupt and power weather systems, meaning larger and more violent storms.

We can image weather systems like this cold front using hand-held imagers. This work was done by an electrician at Ford who “caught the bug” to image the weather in his free time. Courtesy Stephen Moore, Intrinsic Energies Indications, LLC

The changes that are happening are so complex it is very challenging to model and understand the full ramifications. But the data is quite clear even if solutions are less so. Obviously using less fossil fuel, a limited and increasingly costly resource, is the place to start any conversation. Increasing the efficiency of how we use them is also important, although many postulate we will, after reducing usage through increased efficiency, just use more energy. Personally, I’m willing to take the risk.

I suspect we’ll also soon face hard choices (and, unfortunately, probably also unintended consequences) about whether or not to implement geo-engineering solutions on a global scale. These may include such ideas as seeding the atmosphere with sulphate aerosols to shade the planet or putting iron filings in the ocean to increase CO2 absorption. I worry that humans who have trouble grasping the reasons why we are in “hot water” (no pun intended) will be no better at implementing these global “solutions.”

Thermographers can continue to make a difference with our work every single day we are in the field because nearly all of what we do results in a reduction of energy use. We can also help to shape the societal conversation by insisting that all of us pay attention to the scientific process as we wade through the complex morass of conflicting data. We know science works, and just because we’ve never faced issues this immense does not mean our time-tested approach of science won’t be of value.

Thanks for taking a short, but I think useful, diversion from “pure” thermal imaging! After all, Thinking Thermally happens both on a local level as well as a global one.

Thinking Thermally,
John Snell—The Snell Group, a
Fluke Thermal Imaging Blog content partner

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