[Coral-List] "Heating" vs "Warming"

John Ware jware at erols.com
Tue Oct 3 09:35:27 EDT 2006

Dear List,

While I agree with Les Kaufman that there are many threats to coral 
reefs, some of which may be more important than others, increasing 
temperatures are still the focus of much effort and public attention.

This being the case, our choice of words is important.  In this 
circumstance, I think the choice is clear because of the commonly 
accepted scientific definitions of two very important words:

HEAT is energy transfer due to temperature difference.  This I learned 
in too many thermodynamics classes (one is too many) that I took years 
ago.  The definition has not changed - see the Wikepedia definition.

TEMPERATURE is a measure of the average energy of the particles 
(molecules) that make up the substance whose temperature is being 
measured (sounds circular but its not).

So, things get warmer when they get heat energy.  But that's not the 
only way to warm things up.  For example, simply stirring water with a 
paddle will heat it.  Takes a lot of stirring, but it works.

When someone sticks a thermometer in the ocean (literally or 
figuratively) and the measured temperature is higher than some reference 
temperature, we commonly say the water is warmer.  Given that the 
thermometer is accurately measuring temperature, the temperature 
increase could be caused by a number of things.  But one thing is almost 
sure: that piece of water is NOT the same water as was used in the 
previous temperature measurement.  Currents, tides, waves all act to 
assure that this is the case.

So, the fact that the temperature is higher, that is, the water is 
WARMER does not tell us why the water is warmer.

I suppose a good example is what happens in El Nino years.  When the 
easterly winds stop blowing and the Pacific Warm Pool shifts to the 
east, the water around the Galapagos Islands gets warmer.   But the 
increased temperature is not due to heat becauses the water did not move 
east due to a temperature difference.

Whoever decided that the term "global warming" was useful as opposed to 
"global heating" had it right.  Heating would imply that more radiant 
energy from the sun impinges on the Earth.  However, the sun hasn't 
changed much.  The warming is due to retention of energy, not an 
increase in the energy received.  (And I know that's not a perfectly 
accurate statement because of clouds and aerosols and stuff.  And I also 
know that there are still some around that feel that Global Warming is 
not occurring or is a natural phenomenon or the sun has increased it's 

So, quick summary:  If the word "Heating" was used instead of "Warming", 
it would imply a mechanism for the temperature increase when the actual 
mechanism is very likely not known.


    *                                                           *
    *                      John R. Ware, PhD                    *
    *                         President                         *
    *                      SeaServices, Inc.                    *
    *                   19572 Club House Road                   *
    *             Montgomery Village, MD, 20886, USA            *
    *                       301 987-8507                        *
    *                      jware at erols.com                      *
    *                 http://www.seaservices.org                *
    *                     fax: 301 987-8531                     *
    *             Treasurer and Member of the Council:          *
    *            International Society for Reef Studies         *
    *                                          _                *
    *                                         |                 *
    *   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ *
    *                                        _|_                *
    *                                       | _ |               *
    *        _______________________________|   |________       *
    *     |\/__       Untainted by Technology            \      *
    *     |/\____________________________________________/      *

More information about the Coral-List mailing list