Al Stahler: Heat wave |

Al Stahler: Heat wave


You don’t need solar panels to soak up solar energy … just stand in the sun, and sunshine warms your skin.

Just so, sunlight warms the skin of the Earth. Earth’s skin then warms all the air it touches.

But the skin of the Earth does not have to touch the air to warm it. The warm Earth sends infrared radiation off in all directions (we cannot see infrared but we can feel it, coming off a fire). The oxygen and nitrogen that make up most of the air are transparent to infrared – it goes right through, and escapes into space. But water vapor, methane, carbon dioxide – greenhouse gases – soak up infrared, and grow warm. The greenhouse gases then warm the rest of the air around them.

Sunlight warms the air; greenhouse gases add to that warmth.

The air blowing out of your computer is warm. Your computer adds heat to the air, warms the air. So does every other machine we use: that solar-powered yogurt-maker … those wind-powered wind chimes … even our bodies – every living body, plant or animal – all of these add heat to the air.

Adding heat to the air, of course, increases the air’s temperature. That’s what addition is all about.

Suppose I’ve got ten donuts, and I want more. I can add a donut; ten plus one equals eleven donuts. Now I can add another donut, making twelve. I could keep doing addition, over and over, but it’s a slow job. If I want to increase my donut stash fast … way more powerful than addition … is multiplication. If I multiply my first ten donuts by two, now I’ve got twenty donuts. And if I multiply by two again, I’ve got forty. MUCH more powerful than addition.

Thus far, we’ve been looking at raising the temperature of the atmosphere by addition of heat – heat from our machines, our bodies, from greenhouse gases. But if we want to raise the temperature FAST … we need a multiplier.

Car engines that burn gasoline need a spark plug to get the gas burning. In the late 1800s, Rudolf Diesel invented an engine that needed no spark plug.

All engines squeeze the air inside themselves, before igniting the fuel. Squeezing air makes it hot. Diesel engines squeeze air so hard, the air gets hot enough to ignite the fuel … without the help of a spark plug.

Basic principle: Squeeze air, and the air gets hot.

Earth’s atmosphere … the air over our heads … is like clay in a potter’s hands. The potter squeezes the clay here, pushes the clay there. Using her hands, fingers, elbows, the potter moves and molds the clay.

Planet Earth is a potter, molding, not clay, but the atmosphere. The hands/fingers/elbows of the Earth are gravity … heat … and not least, the planet’s spin. Earth spins like a top, turning us toward the sun, then away, giving us day and night.

Earth’s spin shows up, time and again, in the atmosphere. Looking down on the Earth’s north pole, we see Earth spinning counter-clockwise. Tropical cyclones – hurricanes – pick up that counter-clockwise spin. Cyclones outside-the-tropics – the storms we in the foothills welcome in winter – also pick up Earth’s counter-clockwise spin; our winter storms also spin counter-clockwise.

The tropical Pacific, north and south of the equator, can wear two different costumes. One costume makes the ocean warm here, cold there; the other costume reverses the warm/cold pattern. The two costumes might favor tropical winds coming from the east … or no winds from any direction … or even winds coming from the west.

These two costumes of the tropical Pacific are El Niño and La Niña. All last year, the tropical Pacific wore its La Niña costume: Waters around the equator were unusually cold; around southeast Asia, unusually warm. The trade winds blew strong, east-to-west, through the tropics.

Like a potter’s fingers, La Niña in the Pacific squeezed on air around the world; it made conditions friendly to hurricanes in the Atlantic, especially the Caribbean; it strengthened the Indian monsoon.

For some months now, the equatorial Pacific has been shedding its La Niña costume, and warming back up. According to the latest report from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, the tropical Pacific is now “ENSO neutral” (NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; “EN” in ENSO stands for El Niño; “ENSO” encompasses both El Niño and La Niña, both ocean and atmosphere).

With everything connected to everything else, how does today’s state of the waters, state of the air affect us? What about the dozens of other flip-flopping patterns around the globe? And what might our addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere be doing? And then, there’s the sun.

Last week, earth passed through summer solstice – longest day, shortest night of the year. Long hours of daylight – long hours of sunshine – surely affect our weather..

Solstice … ENSO … air and ocean patterns around the world … all pushing and squeezing …

This past weekend, the planetary potter squeezed a huge lump of airy “clay” over the Pacific Northwest. The lump then sank … downward … down toward the ground. It squeezed the air near the ground … the air like that in an engine. This did not just ADD to the heat in the air … it MULTIPLIED it.

We in California enjoy our reputation for being just a bit edgy. This past weekend, our edginess paid off, big-time. Early forecasts had put the high-pressure lump of air right over our heads … but the planet-potter’s fingers pushed it further north. It got hot here, but it got much worse to the north.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and can be reached at

Map showing how last Sunday’s air temps, calculated for 6 feet off the ground, differed from average.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User

Family Focus

See more