What is the baseline temperature? (Or: It matters to that one!)


I rarely argue or comment on the various comments on this site. I try to respect everyone’s opinions and give them free voice to share their thoughts on this site as long as it is respectful (if the comments aren’t respectful, I pull them).

In this case though, I want to answer a question that was posed in a comment. The question was great, and I appreciate the effort. Hopefully, I can shed a few thoughts on the subject that are worthwhile. The question, basically, is “What should be the baseline temperature for measuring variations that are man-made or natural?” (Follow the feed link to read the rest of the story).

If you don’t remember from your high school science classes, there are three popular temperature scales that are used. Two of these scales (Fahrenheit or Celsius, a.k.a. Centigrade) are used by the common man and the third scale (Kelvin) is typically only used by certain branches of science. Kelvin is basically the Celsius scale that is calculated down from freezing water (the zero for Celsius) and then re-calibrated so that zero is the point where there is no heat – absolute zero. Yes, I am aware that there are other scales, but scales like Rankine are even less popular; most are rarely used outside of very esoteric areas.

For the majority of scientific measurements and analysis as well as in daily life, one only needs to be concerned with changes in temperature. Therefore, it is more popular to refer to temperature in Celsius since the conversation “It is 5 degrees warmer today than last week” is much more useful compared to “It is 288 degrees Kelvin warmer today than it is on Pluto.”

For the purposes of global warming (man-made or natural), Kelvin has little use. The reality is that carbon-water based life forms on Earth pretty much need to live above the freezing point of water and below its boiling point. Even that range is typically too wide and most life forms need to be between 5 and 40 degrees Celsius for the majority of the time. Being on those extremes or beyond for too long of a period and most organisms start to suffer. Some organisms can handle a larger range and some much smaller.

That is the problem with global warming, regardless of its cause. Many people think that Earth is going to increase temperatures between 1 and 6 degrees (although the most popular consensus is a much smaller range). This is a huge portion of the 35 degree range that is needed to support the types of life forms we have now. If the creature is even more fragile and can only handle a 10 or 20 degree swing, than its life is in serious jeopardy with a 3 or 4 degree average rise.

So while it is interesting to say that the change to Earth is nominal compared absolute zero, it is mostly irrelevant. What is relevant is the change as compared to the typical temperatures that are seen by living things today. If we get out of the range, the consequences on that creature can be disastrous.

I am reminded of the old story that you have probably heard before. A man is walking on the beach and notices a boy that is throwing starfish back into the ocean. For some reason, the beach is covered with starfish and they are dying from the excessive air exposure. The man approaches the boy and informs the boy that he is wasting his time and he can’t possibly save all of these starfish and make any real difference. The boy looks at the man, picks up a starfish, flings it out into the ocean and says, “It made a difference for that one.”

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