The world finally appears like it’s slowly starting to wake up from the grips of a fossil fuel influence-induced fever dream. Slowly, despite endemic political meddling by these powerful entities, some changes are starting to happen. Global carbon emissions growth remained flat during 2014 and likely 2015. Renewable energy adoption ramped up. Some major international commitments to reducing global carbon emissions were made.
But the very pertinent question must be asked — are we waking up fast enough? And the still rapidly growing concentrations of gasses that heat the Earth’s atmosphere would seem to supply the answer in the form of a resounding, thunderous — “NO!”
Another Troubling Methane Spike
On January 8th of 2016, we saw another record methane reading for the global atmosphere. The most recent single point peak for NOAA’s METOP measure hit a new all-time atmospheric high of 2,963 parts per billion or just 37 parts per billion shy of the milestone 3,000 parts per billion threshold.
(Another record methane spike rockets its way toward the ominous 3,000 parts per billion milestone in the NOAA METOP satellite array. The location of the current spike appears to be in the region of the Arctic where a number of very large carbon stores are now starting to warm up. Image source: NOAA OSPO.)
As has been typical of this particular sensor array, peak methane readings appear directly over the upper Latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere — hinting that this particular spike may have been generated by some Arctic amplifying feedback related carbon source. It’s also worth noting that the array continues to pick up the overall methane overburden pattern centered atop the Arctic. A troubling overburden that has showed up in a number of sensor arrays over recent years and has been one key bit of evidence pointing toward a potential new trend of amplifying carbon feedbacks in the Arctic.
Atmospheric Methane Averages Continue Measured Upward Trend
In the broader context, we continue to see rising average global methane concentrations after a pause in atmospheric increases during the 1990s through the mid 2000s. This rate of increase is a sign that either new human sources, new global feedbacks from methane sources, or a combination of the two are pushing global totals higher. It is worth noting that the lower Latitude measures like Mauna Loa, however, did not pick up a signal that some kind of major-to-catastrophic environmental methane emission was underway. A situation some observational scientists fear may be possible, but that other, more well-established specialists tend to consider far, far less likely. Regardless of the current scientific conjecture, heightened and rising methane readings in the Arctic remain rather troubling.
To these points, methane readings at Mauna Loa by end of 2015 had hit a range of around 1855 parts per billion even as peak atmospheric averages for the year had hit around 1840 parts per billion. Continuing a general trend of rapid atmospheric methane accumulation of about 7-8 parts per billion per year that started in 2008.
(Significant rates of atmospheric methane increase that began during 2008 continue in the ESRL/Mauna Loa measure. Though these rates of increase are troubling, they do not at this time indicate that a major or catastrophic release from the global environment has taken place. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)
Next to CO2, methane generates the second strongest atmospheric heat forcing. Its accumulation in the Earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of major industrialization at the end of the 19th Century has primarily been driven by a number of human sources — chiefly through the activities of coal, oil and gas extraction, industrial agriculture (meat farming), and waste accumulating in landfills. During recent years, there has been some signal that global wetlands — including the thawing permafrost zones of the world — are also starting to contribute to the overall methane load as the world warms up and the carbon cycle starts kicking into higher gear.
Rates of Atmospheric CO2 Accumulation are Also Ramping Higher with El Nino
To this point, rates of atmospheric CO2 accumulation (the primary heat trapping gas in the atmosphere) also appear to be ramping higher coincident with the influence of a monster El Nino now taking place in the Pacific acting together with global greenhouse gas emissions from human fossil fuel burning that remain near all-time record highs. As large regions of the global ocean warm, the ocean’s ability to act as a carbon sink becomes inhibited. In more extreme cases, where the sea surface temperatures of an ocean that’s already saturated with human-emitted carbon become too warm, then CO2 starts to vent back into the atmosphere. And with what is possibly the strongest El Nino on record occurring coincident with a period of massive fossil fuel based carbon emissions, impacts to the rate of atmospheric CO2 accumulation can become quite dramatic.
It’s for this reason that El Nino years in the context of massive, human-based burning can see spiking global CO2 readings. And it appears that just such an event may now be underway.
(Atmospheric CO2 levels pushing rapidly above 400 parts per million is the ugly legacy of human-based fossil fuel burning. Most recent two-year section of the Keeling Curve shows a substantial accumulation of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere that is well above the current and already very rapid average annual accumulation of 2.2 parts per million each year. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)
According observations taken by Dr Ralph Keeling and fellow researchers at the Mauna Loa Observatory, atmospheric CO2 concentrations jumped by more than 3 parts per million from December of 2014 through December of 2015. This jump in concentration is pretty far in excess of average annual rates of increase in the range of 2.2 parts per million CO2 each year that have been ongoing since the early-to-mid 2000s.
With El Nino still ongoing, we should continue to see such ocean-warming related impacts on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue into 2016. Impacts that may be further enhanced as another strong westerly wind burst along the Equatorial Pacific will likely serve to reinvigorate the current El Nino — making its already substantial influence more long-lasting.
Hat Tip to mlparrish
Hat Tip to islandraider