Energy consumption and the unexplained winter warming over northern Asia and North America


The worldwide energy consumption in 2006 was close to 498 exajoules. This is equivalent to an energy convergence of 15.8 TW into the populated regions, where energy is consumed and dissipated into the atmosphere as heat. Although energy consumption is sparsely distributed over the vast Earth surface and is only about 0.3% of the total energy transport to the extratropics by atmospheric and oceanic circulations, this anthropogenic heating could disrupt the normal atmospheric circulation pattern and produce a far-reaching effect on surface air temperature. We identify the plausible climate impacts of energy consumption using a global climate model. The results show that the inclusion of energy use at 86 model grid points where it exceeds 0.4 W m−2 can lead to remote surface temperature changes by as much as 1 K in mid- and high latitudes in winter and autumn over North America and Eurasia. These regions correspond well to areas with large differences in surface temperature trends between observations and global warming simulations forced by all natural and anthropogenic forcings1. We conclude that energy consumption is probably a missing forcing for the additional winter warming trends in observations.

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Figure 1: Locations and area-averaged energy consumption of the 86 model grid points used in the perturbation runs.
Figure 2: Differences of seasonal mean surface air temperature between perturbation and control runs.
Figure 3: Decadal land surface temperature trend differences between the HadCRUTv3 surface temperature observations and NCAR CCSM4 twentieth-century ensemble simulations.
Figure 4: Surface air temperature in DJF from the control run and differences in surface wind and temperature between the perturbation and control runs.


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This research was in part supported by the National Science Foundation (ATM-0833001 and ATM-0832915), the Office of Science (BER), the US Department of Energy Regional and Global Climate Modelling programme (DE-SC0004974) and Atmospheric System Research programme (DE-SC0000805), and the NOAA CPO/CPPA programme (NA10OAR4310168). Portions of this study were also supported by the DOE Cooperative Agreement No. DE-FC02-97ER62402, and the National Science Foundation. The NCAR is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

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M.C. conceived the study with G.J.Z. M.C. compiled the global energy consumption data. G.J.Z. performed the numerical simulations and analysed model output. Both G.J.Z. and M.C. interpreted the results and wrote the paper. A.H. analysed the surface temperature trend differences between observations and CCSM4 global warming simulations, and contributed to revising the paper.

Correspondence to Ming Cai.

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Zhang, G., Cai, M. & Hu, A. Energy consumption and the unexplained winter warming over northern Asia and North America. Nature Clim Change 3, 466–470 (2013).

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