400,000 Hiroshima Atomic Bombs Per Day

The energy of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day is how much energy imbalance the earth is absorbing because of global warming. This imbalance was explained by Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California.


Hanson explained that scientists know the earth is out of balance because they have methods to measure the earth’s heat reservoirs. For example, understanding that the biggest reservoir is the oceans, scientists placed 3,000 Argo floats around the world’s oceans. The results show that the upper half of the oceans are gaining heat at a substantial rate. The deep oceans are also gaining heat, but at a lesser rate. Additionally, land at depths of tens of meters is warming at a rapid rate. The total energy imbalance is about 0.60 of a watt per square meter, and when added up across the entire world, it is enormous.


Hansen explains that the energy imbalance trapped in the earth is 20 times the rate of energy used by all humanity: “…equivalent to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day 365 days per year. That’s how much extra energy Earth is gaining each day” (“James Hansen: Why I Must Speak Out About Climate Change,” TED Conference, Long Beach, California, February, 2012).


Hansen’s Hiroshima analogy is impossible to grasp, and yet, this alone tells the story. According to Hansen: “This imbalance means we must reduce CO2 from 391 ppm back to 350 ppm. That is the change necessary to restore energy balance.” Forty years ago, Hansen published an article in Science magazine that changed the world’s perception of climate. The article concluded that observed warming of 0.4 degrees C the prior century was consistent with the greenhouse effect on increasing CO2, that the Earth would likely warm in the 1980s, and that the 21st century would see shifting climate zones, the creation of drought-prone regions in North America and Asia, the erosion of ice sheets, rising sea levels, and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage. All of these impacts have happened or are well underway.


Hansen’s paper resulted in his testifying to Congress in the 1980s.  His testimony emphasized that global warming increases both extremes of the earth’s water cycle—meaning heat waves and droughts on the one hand directly from the warming but also, because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, rainfall will become more extreme with stronger storms and greater flooding.


In April 2004, high-ranking U.S. government officials told Hansen to stop talking about how anthropogenic influences could have a dangerous impact on the climate because it was not understood what “dangerous” means or “how humans affect the climate.” In June 2006, Hansen appeared on “60 Minutes,” stating the George W. Bush White House had edited climate-related press releases of federal agencies to make global warming appear less threatening.


In April 2013, Hansen left NASA to begin a personal mission to educate the world about the dangers of climate change by explaining that adding CO2 to the atmosphere is “like throwing another blanket onto the bed. It reduces Earth’s heat radiation to space. So that there is a temporary energy imbalance.” According to Hansen, the longer we wait to correct the problem, the more difficult and more expensive it becomes. For example, if we had started in 2005, it would have required reductions of 3 percent per year of emissions to restore planetary energy balance and stabilize climate this century. However, if we start in 2013, it will require 6 percent reductions of emissions per year. And, if we start in 10 years, it will require 15 percent reductions of emissions per year; however, by then it will most likely be too late. “But we are not even starting,” says Hansen.


Increase in CO2


The rate of increase of CO2 today is twice the rate in the 1960s. According to CO2Now.org, the March 2013 CO2 level in the atmosphere is 397.34 ppm. Obviously, the rate of increase is growing ever faster, and the world is already within the danger zone. 


Hansen’s speech touched upon climate deniers and he explains away the climate denier claim that the sun is the culprit behind global warming by countering that the current energy imbalance has occurred during the “deepest solar minimum on record when the sun’s energy reaching earth is least.”


The other prominent argument by deniers is that 800,000-year studies demonstrate that rising temperatures led CO2 changes by a few centuries, proving CO2 does not cause global warming. But the lag is exactly what science expects, as CO2 is a feedback to rising temperatures in centuries past. Studies of the distant past show that ice sheets, CO2, and methane were feedbacks that amplified global temperature change, causing ancient climate oscillations to be huge even though the climate change was initiated by a very weak force.


The important point, as far as Hansen is concerned, is that the same amplifying feedbacks are occurring today—physics does not change. As the earth warms because of the CO2 that we put into the atmosphere, ice will melt and warming oceans and melting permafrost will release CO2 and methane, amplifying hotter temperatures, the same as past millennia when slight tilts in the earth’s rotation caused identical conditions.


Ripe for Big Trouble


According to Hansen, the current climate conditions are ripe for serious climatic trouble:“GRACE (“Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment”—twin satellites launched in 2002) shows that both Greenland and Antarctica are losing mass and the rate has accelerated over the past decade—methane is starting to escape from the permafrost.


The last time CO2 was at 390 PPM, sea levels were higher by at least 50 feet—today’s (April 2013) CO2 reading is 397. Time is now the only determining factor to rising sea levels, unless corrective actions are immediately implemented.


If we continue burning fossil fuels at the current rate, sea levels could rise by 18 feet  this century. If we continue burning fossil fuels at the current rate “this century…we will have started a process that is out of humanity’s control.


The results will be that ice sheets will continue to disintegrate and there will be no stable shorelines in the world; the economic consequences will be unthinkable; many species will be exterminated; and coastal cities will be entirely flooded


One recent example of impending doom is that the world has experienced extraordinary heat waves these past few years. Examples of extreme heat include the 2012 drought in the U.S., Russia being hit twice with extreme drought conditions within the past four years, drought in India and Syria, and the list goes on. The recent heat waves have been more than three times standard deviations or, put another way, 50 years ago such heat wave anomalies covered only 2/10ths of 1 percent of the earth’s surface. Today, the anomalies cover 10 percent.  As a result, the world’s breadbaskets are increasingly at risk.


Destined to Persist


Governmental subsidies for the discovery and production of fossil fuels amount to $500 billion per year. This is comparable to the world’s governments joining forces in a space program to send a rocket ship into outer space in order to nudge the direction of a “close-by-asteroid” directly at Earth.


If the world stays on the current path of subsidizing world fossil fuel production, “this path guarantees we will pass tipping points.” This, according to Hansen, is the equivalent of knowing for certain that the giant asteroid is headed for a direct collision course with Earth. 


The “tipping point” is the point of no return when the Earth has finally had enough with cascading ice sheets determining humankind’s fate. Then, it is too late. Unfortunately, the “tipping point” does not sound any alarms beforehand. It just happens.


Interestingly, Hansen started his career studying the planet Venus. Recent studies suggest that billions of years ago Venus’s atmosphere was much like the earth’s with substantial quantities of water on the surface. Over time, greenhouse gases caused evaporation of the water. Today, Venus is the hottest planet at 900 degrees F shrouded by a layer of clouds. It has the densest atmosphere of the terrestrial planets and is kept hot by a thick CO2 atmosphere. In this fashion, the fatal attraction of fossil fuels is bound to vaporize planet Earth’s precious water. 


 Robert Hunziker is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, California.