Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Did you ever sit on a hot sand beach and dig your hand down into the sand? You don’t have to dig very far before you get to cool sand … but even though it’s nice and cool a few handwidths down, the fact that it is cool doesn’t matter at all to either the temperature of your feet or to the temperature of the air. The beach air is hot, and your feet can still get burnt, regardless of the proximity of cool sand. I’ll return to this thought in a bit.
I’ve been mulling over the various time lags in the earth’s system For example, the peak temperature during the day doesn’t occur until about three hours after noon, and the hottest months of the summer are about a month and a half after the summer solstice. This is because it takes time for the heat to warm the earth, and that heat comes back out of the earth during the times in the temperature cycles when there is less forcing. I looked at that, and I thought, hmmm … a three-hour lag in a 24 hour daily temperature cycle is about an eighth of the cycle. And a month and a half lag in the annual temperature fluctuations is about and eighth of a cycle … hmmm. I wondered if they were connected.
So I pulled out my bible, Rudolph Geiger’s much-updated 1927 classic, “The Climate Near The Ground” (Amazon, ninety bucks, yikes!). [UPDATE The commenter ShrNfr notes in the comments that there are used versions of The Climate Near the Ground at Abe Books for prices under $10 … many thanks.] It is a marvelous book, from a time when people actually measured things and thought about them. I have a hard copy, it’s my main climate squeeze. However, while writing this I just noticed that an older edition is available as a FREE DOWNLOAD! (Warning: 23 Mb file, lots of pages of good stuff.) The first edition was in 1927 in German, then a second edition updated in 1941 and translated into English. Harvard University Press published the third edition in 1950, followed by a fourth edition in 1960. All of these were updated by the author. A fifth edition was published in 1995, updated by Aron and Todhunter in honor of the 100th anniversary of Geiger’s birth. The hard copy I have is the sixth edition, 2003. I see the online copy is the 1950 Harvard University version. Get it, either in hardcopy or for free. Read it. Every page is packed with actual experimental results and measurements, real science.
In both the 1950 and the modern versions there is a lovely graph showing what are called “tautochrones” of temperature in the ground. Tautochrones are lines connecting observations done at the same time of day. Figure 1, from page 34 of Geiger’s online version (PDF page 60) or page 52 of the Sixth Edition, shows a set of tautochrones.
In my hardcopy version it says regarding this Figure:
“Figure  shows the diurnal variations of soil temperature on a clear summer day in the form of tautochrones. These observations by L. Herr were taken on 10 and 11 July 1934 for ten different depths in the ground; the temperature variation with depth shown here is for the odd hours of the day. The tautochrones vary between two extremes, roughly defined by the 15 [3:00 PM] and 5 [5:00 AM] tautochrones. …
During the course of the day, the pattern appears to be complicated by the fact that, in the intervening time. the heat a various depths in the ground may flow in different direction. For example, at 2100 hours, the highest temperature is recorded at a depth of 5 cm. …”
Note that as the temperature wave moves deeper into the ground, a couple of things are happening. First, at deeper levels, the fluctuations are getting smaller and smaller. Second, there is an increasing time lag for the temperature wave to reach greater and greater depths.
Geiger provides the following equation that gives the relative size of the fluctuation at a given depth.
where z is the depth in meters, s1 is the size of the fluctuations at the surface, s2 is the (smaller) size of the fluctuations at the given depth “z“, t is the total time to complete one cycle in seconds, and a is the diffusivity of the ground in square metres per second. Diffusivity is a measure of how fast the heat moves in a given substance. Solving Equation 1 for z gives:
where log is the natural log to the base e.
OK, so the depth at which the size of the temperature fluctuations drop to some fraction s2/s1 of the initial surface swing is given by that equation. Now, what is the time it takes for the temperature wave to get down to that depth? That is to say, what is the lag in the system at depth z? Geiger gives the equation for that as well, which is
where t1 is the lag time for the temperature wave from the surface to reach the depth z. Now, here comes the interesting part. Substituting the value for z from Equation 2 into Equation 3, we get the following
There are some very curious and useful things about this result.
First, as I had suspected, the lag is indeed a fixed fraction of the length of the cycle. For example, the lag time for the fluctuations of a temperature wave in the ground to drop to half its initial value is 0.11 of the cycle length. If the temperature cycle is 24 hours, the lag time is 0.11 times 24 hours = 2.6 hours. And if the temperature cycle is 12 months, the lag time is 0.11 times 12 months = 1.4 months. Both of these are quite close to the observed lags in the climate system.
Next, note that both the depth z and the diffusivity of the ground a have cancelled out of the equation. This means it doesn’t matter if the temperature wave is moving in stone or sand, or even in some mixture of layers of the two, the lag time for a given loss of fluctuation is the same. I definitely didn’t expect that.
Next, because there is a direct link between the time lag and the size of the reduction in fluctuations, we can calculate the size of the response if there were no lag. In the case of the climate system, the lag implies a reduction in size of about 50%. This would seem to mean that if there were no lag in the system, the full temperature response would be about twice the response that we currently observe with the lags.
Next, this would also imply that for e.g. a 60-year temperature cycle, the lag in the peaks of the cycle would be on the order of 0.11 * 60 years, which is about 7 years. Now, that would seem to imply that if there were a sudden temperature jump we’d see a long lag, since it is akin to a very long cycle. But there’s an oddity in this, which brings me back to the beach and the sand. The oddity is, it doesn’t matter what the ground is doing a meter down. We’re never in contact with the deeper levels. So if there is a sudden temperature jump, the surface of the ground warms quite quickly—and as the example of the sandy beach shows, it is only the top layer of the ground that concerns us. It is only in cyclical fluctuations, where heat is moving both into and out of the ground, that we see a lag. A steady slow increase, on the other hand, wouldn’t show such a lag. At least, that’s my current thinking …
In any case, that’s what I’ve learned over the weekend. Sadly, it’s Monday, so I’m heading back to pounding nails. My next investigation will be to use the marvelous CERES dataset to get a better grip on this question. I can look for example at the lags in the land versus the ocean, which is likely what is giving the “fat-tailed” response. Note that my analysis above is only valid for solids. The ocean is different in two regards. First, it is free to circulate thermally, allowing it to lose energy faster than the land. Second, it is not heated just at the surface, but down deeper. However, I suspect that these two differences somewhat counteract each other, so overall it is following the same type of path as the land, but with somewhat different parameters. But that’s just a guess at this point.
Finally, I make no overarching claims for this lovely result. I’m still struggling to understand the implications of it myself. As always, I’m just reporting my findings as I come across them.
Man, I do love settled science … there are so many unanswered questions. For example … is it just a coincidence that the time lags in the climate system are about equal to the lag time for the fluctuations to reach half of their original value? I suspect that it is not a coincidence, that it is true for any cyclical system in thermal balance. This is because in thermal equilibrium, the amount of heat coming out of the earth has to equal the amount going in, which I suspect relates to the fluctuations falling to exactly half their initial value … but so far I don’t see a way to demonstrate that.
PS—To return one final time to the sandy beach, my natural habitat, the diffusivity of dry sand is on the order of a = 1.3E-7 m^2 per second, with t = 86400 seconds for the cycle length (one day). Using those variables in Equation 2, we find that the depth z required to get only half the temperature swing of the surface sand is only 4 centimeters, or about an inch and a half …
PPS—And yes, I’m sure that there are folks out there who knew this all along … but I didn’t, which is why I’m discussing it.