June of 2017 Was Third Hottest on Record for Globe

According to NOAA, June of 2017 was the third hottest such month in the global climate record since temperature tracking began in 1880. For NASA, June was also the third hottest on record with June of 2016 settling in at 1st hottest, and 2015 and 1998 tied as second hottest. Overall, global temperatures were about 0.91 degrees Celsius warmer than late 19th Century averages in the NASA record and about 1.02 degrees Celsius warmer than the same time period in the NOAA record.

(NASA’s land-ocean temperature graphic showed most of the world blanketed in much warmer than normal conditions. Image source: NASA.)

Around the globe, various climate extremes were quite visible as a result of such considerable warmth. Arctic sea ice extent was 6th lowest on record according to NSIDC while Arctic sea ice volume was the lowest ever recorded according to PIOMAS. NSIDC also found that Antarctic sea ice extent was the second lowest on record. Combined, global sea ice area was the lowest ever recorded.

Weather disasters included severe hydrological events likely influenced by increasing atmospheric water vapor content and evaporation rates due to climate change. These comprised Bangladesh’s devastating June floods and a still ongoing African drought spurring worsening hunger and increasing instances of mass migration. Meanwhile, seven maximum temperature records were broken with the highest temperature ever recorded in Asia during June occurring at Ahwaz in Iran on June 29 and an all-time national June heat record set in the United Arab Emirates on June 16th. Notably, no new all-time cold temperature records were set across the globe during June.

If present trends continue, 2017 is now on track to be the second hottest year in the global climate record. This despite a noted lack of El Nino in the Pacific following a very weak La Nina during late 2016 and running into early 2017. Though not as warm as 2016, it appears that 2017 will range about 1.1 C above late 19th Century values in the NASA record (according to analysis by Gavin Schmidt) along the current path.

This is a very warm range that is likely to keep pushing the climate system into gradually more extreme conditions. Atmospheric CO2, which is rapidly rising due to rampant fossil fuel burning, is likely to average around 407 ppm in 2017. As a result, global atmospheric heat forcing is on the rise with the trend likely to continue upward pending a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Meteorologists, climate scientists, risk experts and climate journalists should therefore remain on heightened alert for dangerous trends related to global climate change.

(UPDATED)

Links:

NASA GISS

NOAA’s Center For Environmental Information

NSIDC

The Polar Science Center

Category 6

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Monitor Shows Carbon Monoxide Spikes to 40,000 Parts Per Billion over California on February 26 — What the Heck is Going On?

Hint: it’s a glitch.

*****

On February 26, The Global Forecast System model recorded an (unconfirmed) intense and wide-ranging carbon monoxide (CO) spike over the US West Coast. A region stretching from British Columbia, through Washington and Oregon, and on over most of California experienced CO readings ranging from about 5,000 parts per billion over the mountains of Southwestern Canada to as high as 40,000 parts per billion over Southern California. Very high peak readings appear to have occurred from Northern California near Eureka and along a line south and eastward over much of Central California to an extreme peak zone just north and west of Los Angeles near Palmdale.

40000 ppbv

(Very large [unconfirmed] CO spike over Western North America near major geological features on February 26, 2016. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

For reference, these (unconfirmed) readings in the Nullschool Monitor were between 25 and 200 times above typical background CO levels of about 200 parts per billion and up to twelve times higher than second highest peak readings over polluted regions of China during the same period.

Major Spike Appeared in Just 3 Hours Starting February 25th

Human-based carbon monoxide sources are not generally known to produce spike readings so high and so wide-ranging over such a short interval of time. It would typically take a considerable emission many days to build up under a stagnant air mass. And, to this point, we do have a couple of dome high pressure systems which have tended to form near the California region over recent days. That said, surface winds in the region at 5-15 mph over most areas could hardly be considered stagnant. In addition, the current spike appears over an interval of three hours in the Nullschool data — going from zero coverage to covering all of California and parts of Nevada, Oregon, Washington and BC over that single short interval. It’s a very brief period for such a large and wide-ranging peak reading to appear so soon. One that would require a rather extraordinary pulse of pollution to produce the readings indicated on February 25-26.

Wildfires could produce a longer-term emissions spike under stagnant air as well. However, the wildfires now reported for California are small and isolated. They have flared, off and on, under drought conditions, for weeks without resulting in any significant large fire outbreaks or related major pollution spikes. So it appears unlikely that they are the source of the current burst. Other events related to the ongoing California drought may have had an impact (apparently, burning of desiccated trees from California’s orchards is currently quite widespread due to ongoing drought conditions remaining in place since 2012). However, such instances would have to have been very sudden and wide-ranging to produce the spike we saw on the 25th and 26th.  Canadian wildfires — of which there have been very small and low intensity hotspot events recently (noteworthy due to their anomalous appearance out of season, if not for their intensity)  — were very far from peak readings in California and did not produce even a moderate level of emissions (undetectable from the visible MODIS sensor).

The Earthquake Precursor Hypothesis

A final suspect for this preliminary observation (which has gotten much hype in social media circles over recent days) is geological. As the apparent spike in the monitor occurs over large fault lines, volcanoes, and above other active geological features along the US and Canadian West, it appears that activity within these features might have produced a brief if intense burp of this gas. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) readings — another geological gas — were also elevated in the monitor, with peak readings again appearing in Southwestern California.

It’s worth noting that no major US or Canadian geological organization has yet made any report on this particularly large CO spike. However, a piece of scientific research in Nature Asia, by K. S. Jayaraman notes that major CO and SO2 spikes may be an indication that future earthquake activity is on the way. According to Nature this kind of intense CO spike occurred prior to a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that shook Gujara in 2001 killing 20,000 people:

Singh said that CO levels were taken by an instrument onboard NASA’s Terra satellite — launched in 2009 — circling the earth in a polar orbit at a height of 705 km. The instrument measures CO concentrations at different heights and also computes the total amount of the gas in a vertical column of air above the earth surface.

Analysis of the satellite data showed a large peak in CO concentrations during January 19 and 20 — a week before the main earthquake event. On January 19, the total CO in the vertical column was also higher than usual. After the 26 January earthquake the concentration of the gas dropped.

According to the scientists, CO gas is forced out of the earth due to the build up of stress prior to the earthquake “influencing the hydrological regime around the epicentre.”

But before we tilt too far into alarmism on this particular possibility, we should consider the fact that the above paper appears to have had no confirmation or further comment in the sciences at this time. So the predictive usefulness of large CO spikes prior to earthquakes remains quite uncertain. And, as noted above, no major geological information outlet has made any warning or comment on earthquake risk.

Furthermore, there’s been no observed spike in earthquake activity along any of the major fault lines over the past week according to USGS observations. Contrary to what some irresponsible analysts have been implying, earthquake activity in the California region over the past 7 days was well within the normal range. At 161 over the past week, this small number is not indicative of any abnormal activity near the various active fault lines. Each year, Southern California alone experiences 10,000 earthquakes, most of which are so small that people don’t even feel them.

The US geological survey also maintains that:

There is no scientifically plausible way of predicting the occurrence of a particular earthquake. The USGS can and does make statements about earthquake rates, describing the places most likely to produce earthquakes in the long term. It is important to note that prediction, as people expect it, requires predicting the magnitude, timing, and location of the future earthquake, which is not currently possible.

Thus the apparent, current very large West Coast CO spike near major fault lines (and over regions suffering from what is now a very severe five-year drought) in this particular monitor remains a bit of a mystery.

Or is it all Just a Glitch?

Considering that all the wildfire and human potential sources for the CO pulse are unlikely to produce the spike in the Nullschool data, that we have no warning of potential impending geological activity from the major agencies, and that we have had no other reports from related agencies to confirm the spike, we should also consider that there may well be something wrong with the monitor. Artifacts can appear in the satellite model data and it’s not unheard of to get a spike reading due to other signals impacting how physical models interpret sensor data.

Carbon Monoxide Hourly Observations San Bernandino

(Hourly carbon monoxide observations in Central San Bernardino do not match high surface CO measures recorded by the GEOS 5 model. Similar lower atmospheric readings come from station observations throughout Southern and Central California. Image source: California AMQD.)

To this point, lack of confirmation at ground reporting stations for high CO readings appearing in the GEOS 5 monitor increase the likelihood that these high peak readings were a glitch or an artifact in the physical data. A cursory view of local warnings shows no local CO air quality alerts for the areas indicated in the Nullschool data set (You can view a list of the local monitors here). Analysis of this data also shows much lower CO readings from these stations in the range of 400 to 1200 parts per billion — quite a bit lower than what the GEOS 5 monitor is showing.

So what we have is one model showing a very high CO spike, but none of the related ground monitors picking it up. Since there are hundreds of ground stations in this region, it seems quite a bit less likely that there is something wrong with each of the readings coming from these stations than from the GEOS 5 model itself.

This begs the question — was there some kind of false positive that confused GEOS 5? Was there some other signal that tripped the model to show such a high reading? But to these points, a general lack of overall confirmation from the hundreds of ground sensors scattered across the region seems to point to the likelihood that such elevated readings in the GEOS 5 monitor were a glitch, an artifact, or a false reading for this atmospheric level.

UPDATED: Final Confirmation — It’s A Model Algorithm Error

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, head of GISS NASA, has confirmed the glitch in his twitter feed which you can read here. He notes:

The Elevated Carbon Monoxide concentrations in the GEOS 5 products since February 25 of 2016 are incorrect. They are the consequence of unrealistic CO emissions computed by our biomass burning algorithm, which is based on satellite observation of fires… GMAO is working to correct this problem.

An excellent further explanation has been given by Bryan, a blogger over at Of Tech and Learning. His explanation is as follows:

“It’s pure coincidence that at MOPITT resumed data collection over western North America while its operating temperature was still stabilizing. Had the instrument’s temperature remained unstable for a few days, it would have looked like the whole globe was erupting gas. If MOPITT has started collecting data over the south pole, open ocean, or some other obscure location, I doubt anyone would have noticed and made a big fuss. MOPITT uses light collected in the infrared part of the spectrum. Based on Terra’s system status, the CO, CO2 and SO2 data collected by MOPITT on the 25th and 26th of February should be highly suspect. On the Earth map, the CO, CO2, and SO2 levels spike sometime between 1pm and 4pm Pacific time on Feb. 25th, which is between 2100 UTC on the 25th and 0000 UTC on the 26th. This is precisely during the time window when MOPITT’s operating temperature is still unstable.”

So a glitch does appear to be the cause of the current CO spike in the Nullschool data.

Links:

Earth Nullschool

AMQD Data

Dr Gavin Schmidt’s Twitter Feed

Active Fire Maps

Canadian Fire Maps

Cascadia Subduction Zone

The San Andreas Fault Line

Carbon Monoxide May Signal Earthquake

Paradise Burning

Copernicus Monitoring System

An Explanation of Carbon Monoxide Concentrations on US West Coast

Hat tip to Mike

Hat tip to MlParrish

Hat tip to WeHappyFew

Hat tip to Coopgeek

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to Bryan

Hat tip to FishOutofWater

Hat tip to Jim Benison

Concern Over Catastrophic Methane Release — Overburden, Plumes, Eruptions, and Large Ocean Craters

The amount of methane in the Arctic hydrates alone is estimated as 400 times more than the global atmospheric CH4 burden. The question is timescale of the methane liberation: gradual, abrupt, or something in between. Satellite monitoring of methane over the Arctic Ocean is necessary. — Dr. Leonid Yerganov

*  *  *  *

Depending on who you listen to, it’s the end of the world, or it isn’t. A loud and lively debate that springs up in the media every time a new sign of potential methane instability or apparent increasing emission from methane stores is reported by Arctic observational science.

On one side of this debate are those declaring the apocalypse is nigh due to, what they think, is an inevitable catastrophic methane release driven by an unprecedentedly rapid human warming of the Arctic. A release large enough to wipe out global human civilization. These doomsayers are fueled by a number of scientists (usually Arctic observational specialists) who continue to express concern — due to an increasing number of troubling, if not yet catastrophic, rumblings coming from the Arctic carbon store. The Arctic is warming faster than it ever has, they accurately note. And this very rapid rate of warming is putting unprecedented and dangerous stresses on carbon stores, including methane, that have lain dormant for many millions of years. The risk of catastrophic release, therefore, is high enough to sound the alarm.

On the other side are a number of mainstream news outlets backed up by a group of established scientists. This group claims that there’s generally no reason to worry about a methane apocalypse. The methane releases so far are relatively small (on the global scale) and there are all sorts of reasons why future releases will be moderate, slow in coming, and non-catastrophic. The methane store most pointed toward by methane catastrophists — a frozen water methane known as hydrate — tends to self-regulate release, in most cases, acting as a kind of pressure valve that would tend to moderate emission rates and prevent instances of catastrophic eruption (Please see The Long Thaw).

A third group appears to have somewhat sidestepped an otherwise polarized discourse. Outlets like ThinkProgress and others have continued to quietly report observations without drawing conclusions, one way or the other, on the issue of near term methane apocalypse. They point, instead, to what are, admittedly, some rather odd and scary methane rumblings going on near the pole. Among this ‘middle ground’ group are a survey of about 100 researchers who’ve identified a likely carbon release (including both methane and CO2) from the Arctic equaling between 10 and 35 percent of the human emission by the end of this Century (Please see High Risk of Permafrost Thaw). It is a ‘middle ground’ that is troubling enough. For 10-35 percent of the human carbon emission coming from the Arctic is a massive release in the range of 1 to 3.5 gigatons of carbon (with a fraction as volatile methane). If such an emission does materialize, it will equal (on the low end) or exceed the annual rate of environmental carbon release last seen during the PETM — a hothouse extinction 55 million years ago that turned the oceans into killers and forced life on land to shrink in size and burrow to avoid the awful heat and stifling atmosphere of that age.

Regardless of where you stand in this discourse, the Arctic itself continues to provide cause for both debate and appropriate concern.

Methane Overburden

Barrow Methane

(Barrow surface methane observations by NOAA ESRL show methane readings that range about 60 ppb above the global average. Note the 50 ppb increase over the past decade coincident with numerous ‘outlier’ spikes [green cross hatches] from local sources. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Perhaps the most obvious sign that there’s something not quite right going on in the Arctic is a large overburden of both methane and CO2 in the region. Looking at NOAA’s ESRL site, we find that methane levels at Barrow, Alaska (one of just a handful of Arctic sensor stations in the ESRL network) are in the range of 1910 parts per billion. By comparison, NOAA’s Mauna Loa Station, on the edge of the tropics and well away from the polar overburden, records about 1850 parts per billion (ppb).

At current rates of atmospheric methane increase, it will take about 9 years for Mauna Loa to catch up to where Barrow is now. But by that time Barrow may be pushing 1970 ppb or more. In addition, all Arctic stations record numerous anomalous spikes in methane from local sources. The ESRL site lists these spikes as outliers. But, for all the ESRL reporting stations, the Arctic stations are the ones that host by far the most numerous such outliers. The local methane sources, therefore, appear to be quite active in the Arctic. An observation that polar scientist, Dr Jason Box, admits keeps him awake at night.

AIRS_Methane

(Global distribution of methane averaged over 2011 by NASA/AIRS. Note the very high concentrations in the Arctic region. For this map, the highest concentrations occur in the Yedoma region of Russia, a region of multiplying methane emitting tundra melt and Thermokarst lakes [see below]. Image source: NASA/AIRS.)

Perhaps the most reliable way to sample the Arctic methane overburden is to get a full view of it through satellite sensors. The above NASA image taken in 2011 shows a massive methane overburden in the upper latitudes that slowly diffuses southward. Note the highest concentrations in this image are near the permafrost zones in Yedoma in northeastern Russia.

NOAA also provides its METOP array which frequently finds methane concentrations at above 2400 parts per billion at the 10,000 to 20,000 foot level in broad blankets over the Arctic region — especially in the months of September through November and then again in January. Again, these measures are the highest in any region of the globe and they occur directly over the Arctic.

Dr. Leonid Yurgonov uses the AIRS/AQUA satellite sensor to provide a record of Arctic methane overburden. One that is clearly visible here:

methane-jan21-31

In the above image we see methane measurements at the 18,000 foot altitude above the Arctic and upper latitudes. The progression is from January of 2009 (furthest left) to January of 2013 (furthest right). Orange coloration represents methane readings in the range of 1850 to 1950 parts per billion. Deep red coloration is in the range of 2000 parts per billion. Note the shift from blues and yellows (1700-1800 ppb) to oranges and reds (1850-2000 ppb) during the five years from 2009 to 2013.

So not only does the AIRS sensor show overburden, but it also finds methane build-up over the period measured.

These combined measures alone provide more than enough evidence of a methane overburden in the far northern region together with a rate of buildup that maintains the overburden and leads the global methane measure. Cause for enough concern among Arctic researchers that they have tended to make statements like this:

The amount of methane in the Arctic hydrates alone is estimated as 400 times more than the global atmospheric CH4 burden! The question is timescale of the methane liberation: gradual, abrupt, or something in between. Satellite monitoring of methane over the Arctic Ocean is necessary! — Dr. Leonid Yurganov, AGU, 2012

Steady Increase So Far

But even if we do have both a buildup of methane in the polar region together with what looks like an ominous overburden, we should be quick to point out that the rate of increase, especially on the global scale, has been mostly steady so far.

Under any catastrophic methane release scenario, we would expect Arctic methane to rapidly jump higher, dragging the global measure along with it. In general, we’d expect almost all sensors to pick up the signal of an exponentially ramping curve. And we don’t see that as yet.

To this point, Dr. Yurganov’s statement from the 2012 AGU presentation is informative:

Current methane growth in the Arctic, including 2012, is gradual… If a sudden venting (bubbling) of methane would happen due to intense hydrates destruction, IASI would be able to detect it NRT.

Though there has been a bit of an uptick in global and Arctic methane increase rates during recent years, they have maintained about a 4-7 ppb annual increase since ending a decade-long pause from 1995 to 2005.

It is worth noting, however, that the global methane measure increasing at an exponential rate would be a trailing measure indicator — occurring only in the wake of any catastrophic or large-scale release. So, as a predictor, the global methane measure isn’t very useful.

Thermokarst Lakes 

Which brings us to the key question — what are the leading indicators of major methane releases or of catastrophic releases of the kind some have feared?

Since we have never directly observed one, and since large-scale or catastrophic releases are merely theoretical at this time, we can only point toward evidence of past large scale releases, and an ongoing, but apparently growing, smaller scale release happening now.

The first such related observation may well have come in the form of an increasing methane emission from Thermokarst Lakes. Thermokarst Lakes form when sections of permafrost thaw and collapse, creating a depression. In wet regions, water soon pools within these hollows. Organic material at the bottom of the pool is provided by thawing permafrost. In the anaerobic lake bottom environment, methane is generated as the organic material is broken down.

Over recent years, this increasingly widespread Thermokarst thaw and formation has resulted in a number of Arctic ‘fire lakes’ popping up — lakes whose methane emission is so great that bubble concentrations are high enough to burn. During winter, these bubbles are trapped beneath ice and when released, create an explosive mixture.

Thermokarst Lake

(Methane production in a thermokarst lake. Image source: The Royal Society.)

From the 1970s through the mid 2000s, it is estimated that some regions of the Arctic experienced as much as a 58 percent increase in methane release due to Thermokarst Lake formation alone. An important measure since a number of studies found that Thermokarst Lake formation was one of the primary drivers of methane release from the Arctic at the end of the last ice age.

But as a catastrophic release driver, Thermokarst Lake formation is relatively mild, even if it is capable of pushing Arctic methane release levels higher. As such, the next indicator — a discovery of large methane releases from the ocean floor in the Arctic — was somewhat more concerning.

Oceanic Plumes

For as of 2011 an expedition to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) found massive plumes of methane as large as 1 kilometer across emitting from the shallow sea bed region off Northeastern Siberia. The researchers, Shakhova and Similetov, seemed very concerned that this might be a sign of a potential impending large scale release on the order of 1 to possibly 50 gigatons. The methane stores for the ESAS alone were massive — in the range of hundreds of gigatons. So even a fractionally small release from this source could be devastating. For reference, a 1 gigaton release would more than double the annual methane release from all global human and natural sources. A 5 gigaton release, on its own, would be enough to more than double atmospheric methane concentrations. And since methane traps heat more than 20 times as efficiently as CO2 over a century time-scale, such a release would result in far more rapid warming than previously predicted by scientific bodies such as the IPCC. A very rapid rate of warming that would be extraordinarily difficult for human civilizations to adapt to.

Of course this announcement set off amazing controversy. We couldn’t be certain what the source of this methane was, some said. Was it submerged permafrost methane? Was it hydrate? Was it free gas methane? And how could we be certain that this release hasn’t been ongoing for some time?

If such a methane release was building up to a catastrophic event, what mechanism would be the cause? In other words, how might gigatons of methane suddenly blow up from the sea bed?

arctic-methane-concentrations-sep-nov-2009-2012

(Lower troposphere methane concentrations over the Kara, Laptev, and East Siberian Seas during September-November of 2009-2012 shows overburden in active oceanic release zones. Image source: Dr. Leonid Yurganov).

This point is worth a bit of further exploration. The issue is that the most unstable form of methane when warmed is the methane hydrate store mentioned above. Methane hydrate is a frozen combination of gas methane and water. It crystallizes into a kind of fire ice under high pressure and in low temperature environments. It typically forms about 200-600 feet below the sea bed as methane bubbling up from warmer regions below contacts seawater, high pressure and cold. If the layer is warmed under human heat forcing, the hydrate thaws releasing its gas. The gas now becomes stored in pockets under high pressure. The gas below pushes against the sea bed above and some of it bubbles out (and these releases are found in the large plumes along the ESAS and elsewhere). But most of it, so far, has remained entombed.

What, then, could cause the large stores of entombed gas releasing from destabilizing hydrate, to break through hundreds of feet of seabed — hitting first ocean water and then atmosphere?

Over the past four years conjecture over this issue has raged on. Swelling at points when Shakhova and Similetov would make a new announcement and then ebbing as a wave of reassurances would rush in from scientific critics and mainstream media.

By summer of 2014 a discovery of new, large-scale plumes in the Laptev Sea by the SWERUS C3 expedition set off another wave of media speculation and controversy. But as the dust settled it became clear that the Laptev sea floor had been added to the list of methane hot spots in the Arctic, following in the footsteps of the ESAS region as an area to watch for potential increasing rates of release.

Tundra Blowholes

In nature, gasses under high and increasing pressure often find pathways for escape. Typically, the escape is gradual — we see this in volcanic regions in the release of magma gasses through cracks in the earth and through vent pathways. And sometimes the escape is far more violent — with hot volcanic gasses blowing away even hill or mountainsides in spontaneous eruption, or bubbling out, en mass, through volcanic lakes to spill toxic plumes over a countryside.

The gas source in question for Arctic methane release — hydrate — is very large. Even at the low end, it is estimated that hundreds of gigatons of the stuff lay buried beneath frozen tundra ground or in ocean stores beneath the seabed. A gigaton is one billion tons. A billion tons of frozen hydrate would cover roughly one cubic kilometer. One cubic kilometer of a flammable gas under high pressure.

And in the Arctic, hundreds of billions of tons lay under rapidly warming permafrost both on land and in the submerged seabed.

Permafrost and Gas Hydrate Methane

(Graphic of permafrost and gas hydrate methane by Carolyn Ruppel. Note that 75 percent of the ESAS sea floor is in the range of 50 meters in depth or shallower and that buried hydrate deposits can be found in the range of 200-300 feet. Image source: Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change.)

As of 2011, some scientists were warning that we were seeing a slow release from some of this submerged hydrate store in the ESAS. By 2014, the potential slow release had expanded into the Laptev Sea.

But that year, 2014, also saw something else. A potential catastrophic release of methane. For in the frozen region of Yamal, Russia the earth near a remote Siberian village began to destabilize. Soon after, according to eyewitness accounts, the area began to smoke. Then, with a bright flash, the ground erupted.

When the smoke cleared, a massive crater was found where only flat, frozen tundra was there before. A giant plug of frozen earth had been ejected violently. And all that remained was an ominous gray-black crater.

Yamal crater

(Yamal Crater as seen from the air. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

Researchers investigating the crater found 10 percent atmospheric methane concentrations at its base.

Overall, it was estimated that about 11 tons of TNT equivalent explosive force was enough to remove this 100+ foot wide and 220 foot deep plug from the Earth. Exploding and burning methane in the range of about 10 tons would have been enough to generate the crater. Gas under high pressure in the hundred + ton range may have been able to explosively excavate this hole.

As a result, the amount of methane in question for this single event was relatively small, especially when one considers the hundreds of billions of tons in the still frozen store.

It appeared that the rapidly warming Yamal territory and a broad region of nearby Northwestern Siberia may be seeing tundra warming extending deep enough to begin to destabilize pockets of relic hydrate. The hydrate in some of these pockets was beginning to thaw and catastrophically erupt to the surface.

By early 2015 a total of seven primary craters and scores of secondary craters of this kind had been discovered throughout this section of Siberia. Local Russian authorities were very concerned — moving seismographs into the area to monitor ground stability in a region that includes one of their largest natural gas developments.

A large upheaval of this kind in the wrong place would easily rupture a pipeline or destroy sections of a gas production operation. But the deeper irony was that continued gas production in this region was contributing to a problem that may well be making the ground far, far less stable and setting up the risk for even larger-scale eruptions.

For the Yamal crater wasn’t important due to the relative size of its methane release — the release was very small in the global context. A mere drop in an ocean of greenhouse gasses being emitted now by humans. It was important due to two other, and perhaps more stark, reasons.

The first was the very violent nature of its release — an eruption similar to that of a volcano — represented a severe geophysical upheaval that was all too likely triggered by a rapid human warming of the tundra. This kind of release, as the Russians in the region were quick to realize, represented a danger to both inhabitants and to infrastructure.

But the second reason is, perhaps, more important. It is the fact that the Yamal crater may well be evidence of the kind of mechanism for catastrophic methane release some of the more conservative scientists have been demanding. It’s possible, then, that the Yamal crater is in microcosm, what a truly catastrophic methane release might look like on the much larger scale. And the critical question to ask here is — could there be a connection between the methane blowholes we are now observing in the Arctic and a number of mysterious and gigantic craters discovered on the sea bed around the world?

Giant Craters on the Seabed

In 2013, marine geophysicist Dr Bryan Davy from GNS Science found what may be the world’s largest gas eruption craters on the seafloor about 310 miles east of Christchurch, New Zealand.

The craters, which the researchers called ‘pockmarks,’ formed in an active gas zone along the ocean bottom. They measured from 250 meters to 7 miles in diameter and about 300 feet deep. With the largest crater able to encompass all of lower Manhattan.

Giant Craters in the Seafloor off Christchurch New Zealand

(Giant craters off Christchurch New Zealand are thought to have formed due to large gas eruptions during previous episodes of sea bed warming. Could human warming set be setting off something similar for the Arctic? Image source: Mysterious Giant Crater Like Structure Found Near New Zealand.)

The craters are thought to have formed during ice ages when sea levels lowered off New Zealand causing the sea bed to warm and gas hydrate to thaw. Eventually, the gas is thought to have erupted into the surrounding water with a portion bubbling up into the atmosphere.

GEOMAR seismic records indicated active gas pockets beneath the crater zones. Dr Joerg Bialas, a GEOMAR scientist noted:

Gas release from the larger pockmarks may have been sudden and possibly even violent, with a massive volume being expelled into the ocean and atmosphere within hours or days.

The 300 foot depth of the craters touched the hydrate stability zone even as their large size indicated that massive pockets of the gas lifted away large sections of sea bed suddenly and violently. It’s the kind of rapid destabilized gas release that may well represent a worst-case Arctic warming scenario.

Cause for Appropriate Concern

So the question must be asked — is the Yamal crater physical validation of a catastrophic methane hydrate release mechanism that has circulated, as theory, through the geophysical sciences for decades? One that involves large eruptions that displace massive sections of earth and seabed during a violent release process. Are the Siberian methane blowholes smaller examples of what can happen on a much greater scale? And does the methane overburden in the Arctic, the documented increasing Thermokarst Lake release, the sea bed methane release in the Laptev and ESAS, and the new formation of methane blow holes in Yamal in the context of a rapidly warming Arctic tundra and sea bed (seeing unprecedented rates of warming) represent a growing risk for this kind of release?

Under even a ‘moderate’ 1 to 3.5 gigaton Arctic carbon release rate by end century given by the survey of 100 Arctic scientists, there will likely be more than enough potential freed methane to include large scale catastrophic releases similar to the kind seen off New Zealand and elsewhere (250 meter to 7 mile wide cratering events).

In this context, the issue is not one of ‘apocalypse now’ or ‘apocalypse not.’ That framing is all wrong. This issue is one of how much or how little geophysical upheaval and related methane release we will see — and how soon. One of how rapidly humans can stop making the situation even worse, by drawing down their own catastrophic emission rates as rapidly as possible.

There is, therefore, more than enough cause for appropriate concern and continued monitoring of what appears to be an ongoing destabilization of Arctic carbon stores — large enough to represent a variety of hazards both terrestrial and atmospheric.

Links:

High Risk of Permafrost Thaw

NOAA ESRL

NASA/AIRS

The Royal Society

Yedoma Thermokarst Lake Formation Increases Tundra Methane Release by 58 Percent

Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change

The Siberian Times

Meltfactor: Dragon’s Breath Hypothesis

AGU 2012 Meeting: Atmospheric Methane Over The Arctic Ocean

Mysterious Giant Crater Like Structure Found Near New Zealand

Scientific hat tips to Dr. Leonid Yerganov, Dr. Gavin Schmidt, Dr. David Archer, Dr. Igor Semiletov, Dr. Natalia Shakhova, Dr. Carolyn Ruppel, Dr. Jason Box, Dr. Peter Wadhams, Dr. Bryan Davy, Dr Joerg Bialas, SWERUS C3, GEOMAR and The Russian Center of Arctic Exploration

“Hey! Ho! Fossil Fuels Have Got to Go!” — World Sees Largest Climate March in History Amidst Mounting Dangers

(PBS expose covering the 2014 Climate March shows that nearly 1,500 organizations including environmentalists, faith-based groups, small business groups, economic and social justice organizations, and student organizations participated in this historic event.)

According to the National Climate Data Center, the summer of 2014 was the hottest in the global record. It was a season of record wildfires, sea surface temperatures far above the 20th Century average, and of record droughts and rainfall events around the globe. And it was a year in which the ability of nations to provide food for the world’s seven billion and growing population amidst a mounting tally of extreme droughts and floods was called increasingly into question.

On Sunday September 24, 2014, the ever-more alarmed people of the world responded.

In New York City, an estimated 410,000 took to the streets to protest the broad failure by global governments and businesses to effectively respond to the growing threat of an ever-increasing fossil fuel emission that is rapidly pushing Earth toward a dangerous hothouse environment. In London, nearly 50,000 protesters gathered as Melbourne, Australia saw 30,000 climate marchers. 25,000 lifted their voices in Paris, 15,000 marched through Berlin, and 5,000 gathered in Rio de Janeiro.

Overall, more than 2,500 protest events occurred in 166 countries around the world. Total participation is now estimated to be more than 750,000 — the largest and most widespread climate protest in history.

Climate March Grist

(Hundreds of thousands gather in New York City for Climate March. Image source: Grist.)

In New York City, the massive march began at 11:30 AM at Columbus Circle near Central Park. More than 550 buses disgorged passengers bearing signs labeled with a variety of apt sayings including: “There is No Planet B,” “Carbon Tax Now,” “Go Vegan,” “This Country has a Koch Problem,” “Never, Never Vote Republican,” and “We Can’t Burn all the Oil on the Planet and Still Live on It.”

The march, which included more than 50,000 students, numerous members of the scientific community, and such notables as Bill McKibben, Ban Ki-moon, Jane Goodall, Vandana Shiva, Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Leonardo DiCaprio, and Al Gore, at times stretched to fully 4 miles in length. Loud chants such as “Hey! Ho! Fossil fuels have got to go!” rocked what many still believe to be the center of global capital.

I Can't believe I'm having to protest this

(Sign speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Image source: Here.)

The rallies came just two days before a global climate summit was scheduled to convene on Tuesday, September 22. The summit, which will include more than 120 world leaders aims to provide more aggressive measures to attack the vast and growing threat of carbon pollution. As of 2013, recent studies showed that human hothouse emissions jumped by another 2.3% — primarily driven by increases in China, India and the U.S. Ominously, both China and India — previous bad actors on climate change due to astronomical increases in coal burning — have decided to opt out of the current climate summit.

A press conference held prior to the climate march drove home the growing plight of millions of people around the world already staring down the face of fossil-fuel inflicted harm. A number that is likely to jump to billions unless our race toward a hothouse extinction is rapidly halted.

peoples-climate-march17

(Is this a game? Image source: Here.)

Stanley Sturgil, a retired coal miner from Kentucky now suffering from black lung made this statement at a press conference before the march:

“Today I march because I want to behold a brighter future. We have destroyed ourselves. We have destroyed our health and I’m here because our political leaders have failed us.”

Marshall Island resident Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner also made this deeply resonant statement:

“We need to act now… We only have one atmosphere and we of the Marshall Islands only have one land we call home. We don’t want to move and we shouldn’t have to move.”

Sadly, if world leaders continue to fail to hear the pleas of their increasingly foundering constituents, residents of the Marshall Islands won’t be the only ones on the move. The migration, under business as usual carbon emissions and an emerging and deadly hothouse world will comprise a majority of the human race.

Links:

Hundreds of Thousands Turn out for People’s Climate March

Summer of 2014 Hottest on Record

Climate Change Summit: Global Rallies Demand Action

Great Photos From the Climate March

Growth Shock Launch: “I Have a Confession to Make … We are in Trouble”

Some of you may have noted my absence. I’ve been nose-deep in completing the launch of a book that has been about 10 years in the making: Growth Shock. It developed both from my experience as an emerging threats expert for Jane’s Information Group and related consulting efforts, later from my connection to thousands of wonderful young people, many of them disadvantaged, through a 6 six year schools campaign, and finally through participation in the direct actions that were Occupy Wall Street and the 2012 Stop the Pipeline demonstration sponsored by 350.org in Washington, DC.

At some point, in the support of these direct actions for positive change, I developed the notion of channeling my energies and talents into works as actions. Growth Shock is the first of these. (Learn more in Growth Shock, Going on Offense and Setting an Example for Kindness Economics.)

Growth Shock Cover Art

(Growth Shock now available)

In support of these efforts, at least 60% of the book’s proceeds will go to 350.org (40%) and to direct funding for freedom from fossil fuels (FEFF) for individuals, localities and communities (20%). But I’m not stopping with these actions. An upcoming third speculative fiction novel in the Luthiel’s Song series will be re-named The Death of Winter and I will be organizing a campaign to raise energy transition funds for public schools around the sales campaign for this book (more on this later). Another publication effort examining the loss of glacial and sea ice and its consequences will direct funds to scientific research through the Dark Snow Project and to help support  James Hansen’s continued work at Columbia University. A fourth and still unnamed publication will also be directed toward reinvigorating policy efforts to rationally and benevolently restrain human population with an ultimate goal to bringing it, along with consumption, back into balance with Earth Systems and to back out of our current and dangerous overshoot. These efforts will likely take years to complete. But they are now on the table.

The Death of Winter

Luthiel’s Song Book III to be re-named: The Death of Winter

This is not at all to denigrate the need for direct action, campaigning, and demonstration. When possible, I will continue to participate in these efforts. But my goal will be to organize my life and my means of life support to also support systems that re-invigorate, restore, renew, and enlighten. This is the basis for the kindness economics proposed in Growth Shock — that our life works re-weave humankind back into the web of life, that we stop breaking it, and that we develop human technologies and thought systems that support life, rather than harm it.

But we’re a long, long way from any of that. And, at this very late hour, some of us are only just beginning to respond as others still languish or remain trapped, captives to systems of harmful consumption and harmful action. Meanwhile, climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion and the institutionalized and greed re-inforced systems that lock the technologies, policies, cultures and thought-systems that cause such harm in place are now in a critical phase of crisis, a phase where harm from these four forces is ramping ever higher, causing great fractures through the structures of modern civilization. Like the metaphorical lemmings, we still run headlong toward the precipice. Sooner or later, we will go over.

Unless we stop. Unless we back away.

We haven’t done this yet. We haven’t even slowed down. And, for this reason, we are in deep, deep trouble.

What follows is an opener to the book Growth Shock. But for you, I’ll provide a bit of qualification. The situation is a shade or two worse than even what I describe in the intro. Though I still believe it is possible for us to stop, to turn around and to make the needed changes, the effort required will be so great that the difference between the death-fed and destruction-creating human world of now and the vital, healthy, sustainable, and reinvigorating the heartbeat of nature human world of our best future is a vast chasm. A great rift that may well be impossible to cross for individuals, communities, and nations. This does not diminish our need to try, to at least make a grand attempt before being overwhelmed by the darkness. To level all our intellect, creativity and tool making abilities toward effecting a positive change, toward reversing the terrible disaster we’ve now set in motion that has already been, for many of the innocent creatures of our world, a horrible apocalypse…

***

Excerpted from Growth Shock:

I have a confession to make. One that is not easy to vocalize. One that is equally difficult to listen to. My confession is not one of a personal nature. I am not revealing my own, petty, individual sins. Instead, I’m making a confession for us all. A revelation of the ongoing and maturing tragedy of our race. One we will each need to be made aware of soon if we are to effectively act. For the age of excess is rapidly coming to a close and we are now entering a difficult and hard to manage age of consequences.

My confession is simply this: we are in trouble. A kind of trouble that is both typical to all living creatures and beyond the scope of anything we humans have yet witnessed. A kind of trouble that is both born of the natural world and directly caused by us.

Our trouble is that over the course of the next century we will run head-long into a number of very difficult to manage shocks that are the result of our unsustainable growth. How we confront these shocks will determine whether or not human civilization survives to reach the 22nd, 23rd, or 24th centuries or whether we, at the very least, encounter a coming age of darkness and decline.

That we will encounter some trouble is now unavoidable. At this point, all we can do is seek to reduce the scale of that trouble and lessen the harm that is its inevitable result. A decade or two ago, if we had acted sooner and with due urgency, we might have prevented harm. But harm is already upon us, growing worse with each passing year. And though our trouble has already become apparent to many, we still languish, squandering the time and effort needed to manage the emerging shocks even as they grow more deadly and dangerous.

If we decide to confront these troubles, what lies before us are many decades or more of sustained effort to reduce the damage we have inflicted upon ourselves efforts from which may arise a new golden age should we overcome these troubles. For pushing beyond our current limits through renewable energy systems, providing direct supports to heal the living world we depend on, establishing more kind and inclusive economic systems, and undergoing the general transition to sustainability necessary to deal with our current crisis results in an ever-expanding justice and prosperity. The potential for a true world without end.

If we do not act, a massive and rapid decline of human civilizations, a mass extinction in the oceans and on land, and a radical re-shaping of the Earth’s environment to a state far more hostile to humankind are all in the offing.

This is my confession. For it is the truth or our age. It is our dire tragedy, and our great hope. For we are living in the age of Growth Shock.

Growth Shock and Our Climate Change Choices: Mitigation and Adaptation, or Harm

Climate change, a topic that once was the purview of scientists and academics, has now become a central issue in today’s political and social discussion. The primary reason for this shift is the emergence of increasingly abnormal, damaging, and severe weather events that have come with greater and greater frequency to plague the world’s cities, states and nations. Tornadoes have devoured entire towns, hurricanes have become more numerous and powerful, freak hybrid superstorms are now a serious risk, 100 year flood events have become commonplace, wildfires are now endemic, causing damage in the billions of dollars annually, and immense country-spanning droughts now range the globe.

A secondary reason for our growing awareness is that it is becoming obvious that the world’s ice sheets are in rapid retreat even as sea levels are on the rise. Nine out of ten glaciers are in decline. The great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland lose hundreds of cubic miles of ice annually. The resultant sea level rise driven by this melt and by thermal expansion of the oceans puts entire cities, states and nations into existential crisis. By the end of this century, practically all of south Florida may be little more than a shrinking archipelago. Some Pacific island nations are planning their inevitable evacuation to places like Australia, New Zealand, or the continents. Almost all coastal cities will be forced to expend significant monies and resources over the next century if they are to have any hope of warding off the rising seas and more powerful storms. An effort that, in the end, may well prove in vain.

It is a slow motion disaster movie script that plays before our eyes now, almost weekly, on the evening news. And there are many, many events that the mainstream media does not cover, likely due to the fact that it has become saturated with stories of this kind.

Growth Shock and Climate Change

Unfortunately this rising climate change emergency is just one aspect of a larger crisis of civilization-wide Growth Shock. Growth Shock is a dangerous condition brought on by a combination of our inexorably expanding global population, our over consumption of renewable and non-renewable resources, and the damage to our environment via carbon pollution that results in climate change. These three forces are all enabled by a great human limiter — Greed — which has been institutionalized in so many of the world’s corporations and is deeply imbedded both explicitly and implicitly in the world’s political systems and ideologies. So to solve climate change, we will also have to do much better at solving the problems of overpopulation, dangerous and violent methods of resource consumption, and the underlying disease of human greed.

To this point it is worth considering a statement from the ground-breaking sustainability work The Limits to Growth:

“If a society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then that society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and optimize for short term gains. In short, that society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.”

I have also just completed my own work on the issue entitled Growth Shock: Tragedy and Hope at the Limits of a Finite World which will see electronic publication within the next two weeks.

Here is the cover image, brilliantly rendered by Matthew Friedman, in which the Vitruvian Man (representing the unsustainable and exploitative structures of humankind) seems to have grown too big for his own good and struggles unhappily against the globe’s confines:

Growth Shock Cover Art

The roll-out for this work will proceed over the next two weeks and it will be managed in such a way as to responsibly redistribute proceeds to charitable causes that, in my view, have been most effective in working to reduce the harm caused by Growth Shock and the related climate emergency (more on this later).

In any case, as climate change is one of the four forces enabling Growth Shock, we have come to a time where we are compelled to make choices and act in ways that prevent further harm through mitigation, to attempt to adapt to the growing nightmare that is now upon us, or to make the choice to fail to act and therefore increase the degree and velocity of harm coming down the pipe.

Mitigation

The obvious and worsening climate emergency that we are now just starting to experience has galvanized a growing cadre of grass roots organizations and individuals dedicated to the cause of preventing as much of the coming damage as possible. These advocates of mitigation believe that strong action now has the greatest chance of reducing future harm. And their efforts and advocacy are based in the sciences. With extreme weather and damaging events ramping up at 400 ppm CO2, the situation is bound to be far worse at 450, 550, 700, or the 900 ppm CO2 predicted under business as usual by the end of this century. Mitigation advocates are clear in the understanding that the less CO2 and other greenhouse gasses we emit, the less dangerous the ultimate crisis will become.

Mitigation and preventing future harm, therefore, must rely on a combination of efforts. Rapidly increasing renewable energy development will be needed to replace a large enough portion of fossil fuel use to sustain life support systems for the planet’s 7 billion human beings. This will involve a politically difficult replacement of fossil energy sources with clean sources like wind and solar as well as the regulation and eventual elimination of carbon emissions altogether. A more efficient use of space and, over all, more efficient life styles will also do much to prevent damage through both reducing energy and materials consumption. Such a transition will be difficult under current economies that are designed to endlessly increase the consumption of materials, labor, and resources all while funneling wealth to the top of social systems. These social and economic structures dangerously enhance the level of damage we cause and so must be challenged and called into question if we are to make much head-way.

To this point, a large shift away from the massive agribusiness of meat farming may well be needed. Today, more than 65 billion livestock are estimated to be held in states of captivity far more brutal and intolerable than even the worst-treated of human criminals. The lifespans of most of these creatures is doomed to a tortuously short 1-4 years and the unspeakable suffering many experience during their times as livestock animals is a black scar of atrocity born by our race.

An estimated 40% of the world’s grain crop goes to supporting this terrible and inhumane manifestation of food industry. Further, the lion’s share of the 30% of human greenhouse gas emissions attributed to human agriculture is based in the meat industry. As such, our industry enhanced dependence on harming animals for food and materials is likely to have to be greatly abated as part of a comprehensive climate change mitigation action. In any case, the amoral practices required by industry to produce such high volumes of meat render it ethically as well as physically unsustainable.

A true comprehensive mitigation will also have to redefine current paradigms of growth and wealth generation. Economic systems will have to become less focused on short term gains and concentrating wealth at the top and more focused on long-term prosperity and survivability through a more equal sharing of and access to more limited resources. The exploitative paradigm of pure capitalism has failed and failed again. This is largely due to the fact that pure capitalism tends to demand all responsibility be placed on the less fortunate and successful masses as the more fortunate are enabled to behave as little more than privileged anarchists. To mitigate the social shocks that are inevitable during a climate crisis and to reign in the massive, excessive and abusive over-use of resources by the wealthy, more responsibility must be demanded from the most privileged members of societies. Wealth compression, therefore, is an effective tool in reducing the harm caused by an over-consumption of resources at the upper rungs of civilization where some members consume more than 100,000 times the resources of a subsistence farmer and about 3,000 times the resources of a person living in today’s middle class.

Since the levels of exploitation and consumption that have enabled climate change to run rampant are encouraged and required by today’s neo-liberal and globalized brand of capitalism, this manifestation of capitalism must be reigned in, caged and defanged if we are to have much hope of mitigating the larger crisis of climate change.

Adaptation

Since we missed our chance to mitigate much of the damage from climate change by about 30 years (we’d have been much better off if we began rapid CO2 reductions, sustainability and wealth compression efforts in the 70s and 80s), a massive effort to adapt to the changes now set in motion will probably be necessary. It is likely that we’ve already locked in many decades of increasingly severe weather, and, likely, centuries of rising seas. Ultimate sea level rise based on the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere will probably terminate at between 15 and 75 feet higher than the current day (rising at between 5 and 15 feet per century). These changes are probably locked in now even if we halt all CO2 emissions today. But, more likely, our best realistic hope is probably to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels at around 450 parts per million, which would result in higher-end damages being locked in for centuries.

As a result, if we are to continue to have powerful, resilient civilizations at the global and continental levels, then we must do serious work to make those civilizations more resilient. Entire cities may have to be moved or surrounded by increasingly tall flood barriers. New port systems will have to be devised to cope with changing sea levels. Architects and engineers will have to alter building and structure design to deal with more vicious storms and weather conditions. Farming will have to become more adaptive. The world’s agricultural systems will have to do more with less. Most likely, humans will have to rely more on grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts (which are more efficient ways to transfer energy and nutrients to the human body) and far less on meat (also a mitigation as described above). We may need to expend resources to ensure that our fellow living creatures, which provide essential life support services, do not become extinct. In short, what damage we cannot prevent via mitigation, we will have to learn to adapt to. As such, human civilization will probably need to take more responsibility in both defending itself and the natural world from the harm that is now coming.

Harm

With carbon pollution already reaching dangerous and excessive levels, any choices that do not mitigate (prevent) or help adapt to future climate change result in an increasing degree and velocity of harm. These choices include climate change denial — which not only insanely disputes the basic physical science behind the effect of greenhouse gasses on Earth’s climate but also ignorantly attributes current increasingly severe weather, temperature and sea level rise to a scientific ‘natural variability’ that denial proponents, purposefully or through blatant stupidity, misrepresent and misunderstand. This is not to confuse those who are understandably scared by the force that is climate change and have succumbed to the natural, though in this case irrational, human response to withdraw from and avoid danger. Political climate change denial seeks to exploit this natural human response for short term political and economic gain and, as such, must be viewed as anathema. Human denial and avoidance of harm, however, is a basic instinct-driven response that must be rationally addressed. In the case of harm caused by climate change, the only rational way to avoid it is through mitigation and adaptation. Denial of the physical forces of the universe unleashed by human over-consumption and institutionalized greed, on the other hand, is little more than a withdrawal into the realm of wishful thinking. Denial, in both cases, causes inaction and paralysis, enables the continuation of business as usual, and, therefore, increases harm.

To this point, any efforts to slow down or reduce mitigation efforts also increases the velocity and force of the harm now rushing toward us. Pressures to slowly mitigate and gradually adapt may seem rational at first, but result in a less tenable future long term. Responses need to be measured, organized and swift — like the emergency procession to lifeboats aboard a sinking ship. Irrationally clinging to damaging systems for as long as possible amounts to playing fiddle on the deck as the critical time to find a place aboard a lifeboat trickles away.

Depression is another natural human response to challenges that far exceed the scope of an individual to overcome. In this case, social depression over climate change has manifest in a form of doomerism that clings to the notion that any action in the face of a growing crisis is futile. To the doomers, I would like to say this:

If there is even a small chance that mitigation and adaptation will bring us through the crisis, then shouldn’t we pursue all efforts and make that likelihood as great as possible? What if the British and the French had simply given up in the face of what, to them, must have seemed an invincible German military juggernaut during the early days of World War II (in fact, their early denial that a problem existed at all set up the conditions for this terrible war in the first place)? To the doomers I would say that the more we fail to respond, the worse the crisis becomes. And a crisis always seems most insurmountable at its start and just before creative response is initiated. Though it is true that many civilizations have failed in the past when confronted with problems that are similar to ours and that climate change, especially, tends to crush civilizations by creating problems that are outside of its ability to evolve and adapt, failure to respond almost always ensures collapse. We may argue now that response is too little too late, but we really won’t know unless we’ve expended all efforts. And so all efforts are, therefore, entirely moral and appropriate.

Lastly, a number of entrenched special interests are heavily invested in harm. These include the world’s fossil fuel companies, the industrial meat industries, a number of investment banking firms that support and profit from such activities via financing, and a large supply chain of industries that produce products based on these activities. Since the resources and profits of these industries are, in part, shared with broader society via the stock market and through the production of cheap, easy to access, goods and services, many states, cities and individuals are also, wittingly or unwittingly invested in harm. As such, a turning away from harm will require conscious choices on the part of individuals, cities, states and industries to not only divest in stock portfolios that profit from harm but also to actively change behavior, methods of consumption and materials use. As we begin this process, entrenched industries and individuals that profit from harmful and exploitative activities are likely to dig in and fight every step of the way. They will attempt to deny us product choices via legislation and market dominance even as they attempt to pretend that harm coming from their practices is both natural and inevitable (directly or indirectly enhancing denialism and doomerism). This institutionalized, irrational and entrenched manifestation of human greed represents the center of gravity of harm coming from human systems and, if we can address it, it is likely that both denial and doomerism will fade.

Considering Moral Responses

In the end, any action that delays or prevents a swift, encompassing, and organized response to climate change increases the level of harm that we are in for. Such a choice, whether conscious or not, is essentially amoral in that it reduces civilization’s chance to survive an emerging existential crisis. A choice that eventually results in an escalating level of damage and loss of lives and livelihoods.

So we’ve come to a tough pass and these, whether we realize it or not, are our choices:

1. To prevent and mitigate harm.

2. To do our best to adapt to the harm that is coming.

3. Or to increase the degree and velocity of harm by failing to act.

My best hopes are for your courage to make the just choices for the sake of you, your family, and for all of us. This is our responsibility to ourselves and each other. And the time to act is now, now, NOW.

Drill Baby, Drill and Climate Change Game Over: US Oil Production Hit Record Growth In 2012

Fracking in Pinedale

(A Fracking Operation in Pinedale, Wyoming. Image source: here)

According to this report in the Wall Street Journal, US ‘oil’ production surged by 14 percent in 2012 to nearly 9 million barrels per day (this figure includes natural gas liquids, hence the quotations, actual crude oil production was about 7 million barrels per day).

This surge in production was fueled, primarily, by a broad application of hydrolic fracturing technology to enhance the rate at which oil and related fuels are squeezed from the ground. Little in the way of new discoveries have resulted in this enhanced flow of climate fire-juice. Instead, new technologies have been aimed at the old, tired, or difficult to reach sources in order to squeeze more from the ground.

It’s a tough gamble for oil and gas companies. The reason is that a massive investment in new drilling rigs and an ever increasing number of fracked wells is required to sustain this large pulse of new oil. By end of 2012, more than 43,500 wells had been drilled, and, perhaps more importantly, a record 19,000 wells were fracked over the same period. All this drilling and fracking activity costs a lot of money. So a price of oil above 95 dollars is required to sustain most marginal operators.

Tellingly, with a slight fall in world oil prices over the past spring, the rate of new wells drilled had dropped and is projected to fall below 2012 numbers by about 1,500 to around 42,000 by end of 2013. US natural gas production has already leveled off due to lower prices and a large portion of this rig count drop includes the lag due to lower natural gas prices. But traditional oil well drilling is also sliding off. So the new focus is primarily on tight oil and oil shale fracking.

Fracking is an energy and water intensive process that costs much more than a traditional oil well. It also results in increased risks of ground-water contamination. So communities across the US have been forced to choose between oil and gas extraction, and keeping their water supplies safe. There is also a longer-term choice on global climate, which we’ll discuss more in detail below.

As noted above, marginal prices need to remain above 95 dollars per barrel for the highest cost operators to make a profit. Embedded in this high marginal price for shale oil is the fact that most fracked wells have a high depletion rate. The result is that flows from these wells drop off dramatically over time. So more and more wells need to be fracked each year to keep overall flow rates high. The end result is that fracked well production creates a net cliff in fracking dependent oil in a 10-15 year time-frame. New basins of fractured oil will, therefore, need to be accessed to keep flow rates high.

Nonetheless, the US is likely to continue to see higher rates of oil production over the coming 5-10 years due to this fracking boom. But at the cost of much more expensive oil and ever-increasing damage to the world’s climate.

Fracking Climate Change Game Over

Oil fracking is a form of enhanced oil extraction. As such, it enables a more rapid extraction of existing oil reserves and, to  a degree, opens reserves that were previously uneconomic to extract. Since less than 1/3 of current fossil fuel reserves can be burned while still maintaining a vague hope of keeping warming below the dangerous 2 degrees Celsius threshold by the end of this century, the race to drill and frack more wells and increase oil production is a race toward climate change game over.

Fracking also results in large methane seeps from fractured wells. These seeps are not included in fossil fuel reserves, yet they still end up in the atmosphere. And since methane is, over 20 years, 105 times more potent than CO2 as a warming agent, this extra emission is a very bad additive to an already warming climate.

The net result is we’ve tapped a more carbon intensive technology to burn more oil faster. In metaphor, we’ve decided not to jog, but to sprint headlong toward the climate cliff.

At current emissions rates and emissions growth rates, the world says farewell to any possibility of preventing a 2 degrees Celsius warming by century’s end sometime around 2025.

Links:

EIA

Record-breaking 19,000 New Wells to be Fracked in 2012

Slower Pace of Drilling Likely For US and Canada During 2013

Is The IEA Advising Investors to Dump Fossil Fuel Stocks?

An eyebrow-raising report in The Irish Times today raised the possibility that one of the world’s foremost energy policy bodies may be suggesting that investors dump fossil fuel stocks. From The Irish Times:

About two-thirds of all proven reserves of oil, gas and coal will have to be left undeveloped if the world is to achieve the goal of limiting global warming at two degrees Celsius, according to the chief economist at the International Energy Agency.

Addressing participants in the latest round of UN climate talks in Bonn, Fatih Birol said this should be an “eye-opener” for pension funds with significant investments in the energy sector – particularly in coal – as well as for ratings agencies.

He predicted coal would be hardest hit in the “unburnable carbon” scenario, followed by oil and gas. “We cannot afford to burn all the fossil fuels we have. If we did that, it [average global surface temperature] would go higher than four degrees.

Fatih Birol is echoing concerns coming from the vast body of climate science that if all the fossil fuels are burned, Earth may well be rendered uninhabitable for human beings. And since less than 1/3 of current fossil fuel stocks can be used and still maintain an economically viable human civilization, that makes 2/3 of those stocks practically unusable. As such, oil, gas, and coal stocks are likely at least over-valued by 2/3 and serious write-down in company stock prices will be inevitable at some point in the near future.

Environmental organizations have seized on this overvaluation and begun to urge investors to transition away from fossil fuel stocks and begin supporting companies that invest in alternative energy. To wit, 350.org has spear-headed such efforts with a broad-based campaign targeting universities, municipalities and even state governments. This divestment campaign has already met with major successes with hundreds of efforts emerging across the US. You can learn more about these efforts here.

For such efforts to reach the international stage would be a major milestone. Fatih Birol’s statements and efforts are, therefore, worth wholehearted support. Preservation of a climate amenable to human civilization should be held as paramount. And current IEA statements appear pursuant to that goal.

 

World CO2 Emissions Set New Record in 2012 at 31.6 Gigatons; On Current Path, World Locks in Dangerous, 2 Degree + Warming Before 2029

According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), world CO2 emissions hit an all-time high last year at 31.6 gigatons. This means that only a 532 gigaton cushion now remains between pushing the world above the dangerous 2 degree Celsius Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity threshold. At the current rate of emissions, we will run headlong into this threshold within a little more than 16 years. So before 2029, without major changes in the world’s energy structure, a civilization-endangering global warming of at least 2 degrees Celsius will be locked in.

In order to attempt to buy time to respond to this growing crisis, the International Energy Agency has published a policy paper containing recommendations for a path forward that is less damaging than the current one. The agency paper noted that the current emission path brings us to 3.6 to 5.3 degrees warming by the end of this century under Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (Which measures about half of long-term warming). This pace of emissions is well above that needed to reach the safer goal of 2 degrees Celsius equilibrium warming or less by the end of this century. A level that climate scientists say human civilizations are better able to adapt to.

Pace of Emissions Increase Slowed

Pace of emissions increase did, however, back off from 2011’s rapid growth, slowing to 1.4 percent. IEA noted that US switching from coal to natural gas and a Chinese energy policy that included greater focus on renewables were major contributors to this slower pace of emissions growth. US emissions fell by a total of 200 megatons, reaching a level last seen in the 1990s. Europe also saw significant reductions — cutting emissions by 50 megatons. Unfortunately, despite a stronger renewables policy, the Chinese still emitted 300 megatons more carbon than in the previous year, while Japanese carbon emissions also advanced by a total of 70 megatons. The loss of ground in Japan was primarily due to its switching away from nuclear power as a primary energy source and returning to more traditional fossil fuels — natural gas and coal.

The hiatus in US carbon emissions may also be somewhat temporary. Natural gas prices are rising and, traditionally, this has resulted in a whip-lash effect driving utilities back to coal generation. It is worth noting, however, that wind energy is now competitive with coal power, while long-term coal prices are increasing. Solar energy prices are also falling rapidly. So let us hope that the natural gas whip-lash effect is somewhat muted by more adoption of renewable energy sources.

IEA Policy Recommendations Both Modest and Ambitious

Despite a greater overall adoption of renewables and lower carbon energy sources, CO2 dumping into the atmosphere is still tracking along the worst case scenario for climate change projected by the IPCC. In order to meet this challenge of rising emissions, IEA urges a number of policy changes to be put in place immediately.

These policies include:

  • A partial phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies
  • Limiting construction of the least efficient coal-fired power plants
  • Increasing renewable energy’s percentage of total energy generation from 20% to 27%
  • Targeting energy efficiency measures for new buildings
  • Reduce methane releases from oil and gas industry activities by half

The IEA claims that these policies would reduce projected 2020 emissions by as much as 8%, preventing about 3.1 gigatons of additional carbon from entering the atmosphere. IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, the report’s lead author notes:

“We identify a set of proven measures that could stop the growth in global energy-related emissions by the end of this decade at no net economic cost. Rapid and widespread adoption could act as a bridge to further action, buying precious time while international climate negotiations continue.”

This IEA report can be viewed as a plea to slow the damage even as it provides a compromise plan that could be put in place. The plan is both modest and ambitious. Modest, because the initial changes are easy to incorporate into the current energy structure. Ambitious because long-term goals involve a phase-out of the use of fossil fuel assets.

This call for comprehensive policy-based fossil fuel stranding and phase-out is the first of its kind from a major world policy body. In total, about 5-6 percent of undeveloped oil and gas reserves are projected not to be used. Also implicit in the the report is a stranding of a large portion of the world’s coal reserves as a larger transition to renewable energy is constructed through 2035. The IEA recommends that oil, gas and coal companies can shift to carbon capture and storage if they wish to protect their assets.

In the end, though, the numbers provided by the IEA will require more clarity in order to add up. More than 2,800 gigatons of fossil fuel are on the books of the world’s fossil fuel companies and none of those assets are yet slated to be captured in order to prevent atmospheric release. Even worse, millions of tons of carbon are released into the atmosphere every year via the process of oil and natural gas extraction. These emissions are not listed as assets, but they still end up in the atmosphere. Cutting them in half, as the IEA recommends, will still leave half of this addition active.

Costs of Damage to Leap Higher If Action is Delayed Until 2020

The IEA’s recommended plan would, at best, keep world carbon emissions about stable through 2020. The result would be that 256 gigatons of carbon will be emitted by 2020 through fossil fuel burning, putting us about half-way on the path to 2 degrees Celsius (equilibrium warming) by that time. Such a plan would leave the world with only about 276 gigatons of carbon wiggle room, requiring a very rapid draw-down of carbon emissions post 2020.

That said, starting implementation now would reduce the costs of a long-term transition away from fossil fuels by $3.5 trillion dollars, according to IEA estimates. So beginning changes now would lay the ground-work for a smoother, more rapid transition post 2020. Also, failure to implement these policies through 2020 puts the world on a path for 2 degree Celsius warming to be locked in sometime around 2025. So it is doubtful the goal of preventing a 2 degree Celsius warming (equilibrium) could be achieved without taking on the modest policy changes recommended by the IEA now.

For these reasons, the IEA plan should be both applauded and looked at with caution. Applauded, because it begins to put in place the necessary framework for long-term emissions reductions world-wide. Applauded, because it barely keeps alive the goal of meeting a less than 2 degree (equilibrium) temperature increase by the end of this century. And looked at with caution because it sails very close to a dangerous climate change wind.

For more comfort, we should ask for a more ambitious set of policies. But given a major dearth of such, the IEA measures are among the most prudent yet advanced. Not really much cause for comfort during this late hour.

Links:

Four Energy Policies to Keep the 2 Degrees Celsius Goal Alive

Delaying Action Until 2020 Costs the World 3.5 Trillion

The Big Thin Begins: Week-Long Cyclone Chews Away Fragile Arctic Sea Ice

cyclone-arcticictn_nowcast_anim30d

(Image Source: CICE)

A moderate-strength cyclone that emerged about six days ago and is expected to last at least until Monday is slowly chewing away a large area of Arctic sea ice near the North Pole. Cyclonic action generated by the storm is now resulting in an unprecedented thinning of central Arctic sea ice. It is important to note that should this ice thinning continue, it could have major impacts on end summer sea ice this year.

The low that is causing the trouble moved out of the region of the Beaufort Sea, skirted East Siberia and had transitioned into the central Arctic Ocean by about May 24th. Since then, it has persisted, remaining nearly stationary with a slow drift back toward the Beaufort. Forecast maps show the low remaining in this region until at least Monday before it weakens and moves toward the Mackenzie Delta. Strangely, long-rage forecasts show it re-strengthening even as it returns to the central Arctic.

Arctic cyclone

(Image source: DMI)

Minimum central pressure continues to hover around 990 millibars. This moderate strength compares to the much stronger Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 which bottomed out around 960 millibars. However, the storm is quite strong for this time of year, when Arctic cyclones tend to be rare and weak, containing enough energy to generate winds that erode sea ice.

This erosion takes place via a pumping process by which the ice is pushed against the ocean surface by the cyclonic wind field. This motion, in turn, stirs up the underlying waters creating a warm, upwelling current. Since the forces occur over broad regions, powerful surface forces allow the upwelling to dredge deep, causing mixing between surface and lower layers. Tendrils and micro-currents of warmer water thus rise to contact the ice. This action can melt the sea ice from below, breaking it into smaller chunks, opening polynas, and riddling the ice with leads. If the storm grows strong enough, large wave action can devour whole sections of ice. But, in this case, the storm does not appear to be powerful enough to generate this kind of wave action.

Since 2012, we have already seen two major upwelling events. One, already mentioned, was the Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012. The second, involved strong off-shore winds during February and March which pushed ice away from shore and, in the region of Barrow Alaska, resulted in near-shore upwelling that temporarily melted ice even as it was pushed out to sea. The combined result was open water during winter.

We can see the storm’s current and projected impacts on the CICE model run posted at the top. CICE is projecting the development of a large area of thin and fractured ice near the North Pole in the storm’s wake even as a region of thick ice north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago erodes. These projections show average thickness in a wide region falling from about two meters to less than one meter.

That’s very thin ice for North Pole regional waters.

Already, some impacts from the storm are visible in Lance-Modis shots of the region.

Arctic_r04c04.2013150.terra.1km

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

In the above shot, we can see the center of our moderate-strength cyclone near the middle-left portion of the image. To the right of the storm center, we can see down through the clouds to areas where the ice has fractured, revealing the dark blue waters beneath. Below the storm center and near the lower left-hand corner of the image is the North Pole. So what we are seeing is a broad area of leads and fractured ice with gaps measuring up to about 5 km wide within 200 miles of the North Pole. This kind of development is not at all usual for late May, much less late August.

CICE model runs show ice in this region continuing to thin, fracture and weaken as the storm passes.

As the storm moves away, it is expected to pull warm air in behind it, which could further weaken the ice. ECMWF weather forecasts show this warm air influx occurring by about June 4:

WarmairRecmnh1202

(Image source: ECMWF)

In the above image, we see 5 degree C temperatures plunging directly into the heart of the Arctic. A powerful late spring event should it emerge.

In the past, storms of this kind have had very little impact on sea ice. However, this year the ice is very thin and spread out. Most ice in the Arctic is showing a thickness of two meters or less. Records of past melt seasons show that two meter or thinner ice is unlikely to survive the melt season.

Furthermore, packs of much warmer air are drawn closer to the Arctic center by a wavy pattern in the jet stream. The result is that large north-south swoops draw warmer air up from the south even as they push Arctic air into more southerly regions. Europe, in particular, suffered due to this mangling of the jet stream. Ironically, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that these very changes in the jet stream are a result of loss of sea ice. So it appears that loss of sea ice is resulting in a snow-balling of forces that contribute to its ultimate demise.

The ultimate result is an Arctic-wide ice thinning impacting even the most central and protected areas. Even in this region of the central Arctic, where ice is usually much thicker, large regions of 2 meter or thinner ice dominate. You have to venture closer to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to find areas of ice thicker than 2 meters. However, as the recent evacuation of a Russian Arctic Expedition in that region shows, even the thickest ice is far more fragile than before.

The result of all this thin and broken ice is that it is much more vulnerable to surface conditions. A storm moving over thin and broken ice is much more likely to churn it up, breaking it and mixing it with the warmer waters underneath. Last year, we saw this process in action during the powerful Great Arctic Cyclone which emerged in August, churning up a large area of the Beaufort Sea, then drawing warm air in behind it, resulting in major sea ice losses.

At times when ice was thicker, moderate or powerful storms would not pose a threat for enhanced melt. But since 1979, the Arctic has suffered an 80% loss of sea ice volume.

This year, sea ice volume is currently at record low levels. Yet the ice pack is very spread out, boasting an area near 2002 values. This combination of wide coverage and low volume leaves the ice very, very thin and fragile. So now, even moderate cyclones like the one hovering near the North Pole can chew away at the ice.

If the CICE projections bear out, we’ll see the central ice pack greatly weakened in the wake of this storm just as solar radiance and warm air build into mid-June. At this point, such injuries to the ice make it more likely that rapid and catastrophic decline in coverage will begin to dramatically ramp up over the next few weeks.

As Neven over at the Arctic Ice Blog notes:

I feel the Arctic sea ice pack could soon go POP under the right conditions.

Let’s see:

  1. Thin, spread-out ice pack.
  2. Persistent storm chewing away the central ice.
  3. Large cracks and areas of open water riddling most of the ice pack.
  4. Large polynas forming behind the ice edge.
  5. Upwelling events eroding the bottom ice.
  6. Loss of Arctic expeditions in the region of the ‘thickest’ ice.
  7. June heat and constant, direct sunlight approaches.

Looks to me like a lot of the ‘right’ conditions are present.

In short, don’t let the high extent and area numbers fool you. The thin, spread out state of the ice leaves it more vulnerable, not less so. The sea ice is weaker and less resilient than it ever was. Only a cold summer and conditions favorable for ice retention are likely to prevent a record melt in either area, volume or extent. On the other hand, very bad conditions could result in near-total melt (under 1 million square kilometers end season area).

UPDATE:

Long-range weather models show the cyclone sweeping down toward the Mackenzie Delta, drifting back toward the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and finally returning to the Central Arctic by mid-June. Such a prolonged storm event would likely have a continuous weakening affect on the ice. Lower temperatures in the storm’s region would be more than countered by active wave energy and tapping of warmer, deeper waters which will have a tendency to erode the ice from beneath. Furthermore, warmer air is shown to follow in the wake of this storm, which may enhance melt through regions of already weakened ice.

In any case, this is a situation that bears close watching. A month-long, or more, storm harrying the Arctic could have quite an impact.

ECMWF weather model forecast for June 9th:

Cyclone june 9

(Image source: ECMWF)

Links:

CICE

DMI

Lance-Modis

The Arctic Ice Blog

Worth Reading: May 29, 2013

Our team of citizen science volunteers at Skeptical Science has published a new survey in the journal Environmental Research Letters of over 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers, as the Guardian reports today. This is the most comprehensive survey of its kind, and the inspiration of this blog’s name: Climate Consensus – the 97%.

Steven Chu is the 100 Billion Dollar Man, How Much Energy (and Money) Will Secretary Moniz Save?

Economists have shown that Steven Chu’s tenure as energy secretary has resulted in policy changes that will save US consumers, the government, and businesses over $100 billion dollars. These policy changes include support for renewables and incentives pushing increased energy efficiency across the board. So with vicious opposition coming from republicans to any new renewable energy and efficiency increases, will Moniz be able to meet or exceed Chu’s strong track record?

House Republicans Push Bill to Undermine Climate Research Funding, Puts Satellites In Jeopardy

A bill being drafted in the House could potentially undermine the climate science research activities and the oceans programs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It also would open up the weather satellite sector, which has been a troubled area for NOAA in recent years, to more privatization.

So what are republicans good at again? Wrecking everything.

Mora County New Mexico Bans Oil and Gas Fracking Because “WATER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN OIL.”

Wells are the Alcons’ only source of water. The same is true for everyone else in Mora County, which is why last month this poor, conservative ranching region of energy-rich New Mexico became the first county in the nation to pass an ordinance banning hydraulic fracturing, the controversial oil and gas extraction technique known as “fracking” that has compromised water quantity and quality in communities around the country.

“I don’t want to destroy our water,” Alcon said. “You can’t drink oil.”

Solar Energy Investment Rebounds

A re-appraisal of the global market for solar PV modules – predictions of higher growth and a rebound in margins – is underpinning massive gains in the stock prices of global manufacturing firms. And some analysts suggest it might be sustainable.

Pace of US Solar Energy Installation Nearly Triple that of Last Year

As of the end of April, 2013, the US has seen the installation of 845 MW of new solar energy capacity, a significant jump over the same period last year — which saw 348 MW installed.

Wind Energy in Cold Climates Set to Expand to 50 Gigawatts by 2017

Wind energy capacity is growing rapidly in the cold climates of the world. According to the latest forecasts, between 45 and 50 gigawatts of wind energy will be built in cold climates by 2017, which would mean an increase of as much as 72 per cent since the end of 2012 and investments amounting to approximately EUR 75 billion.

Researchers Find Connection Between Global Warming and Increased Monsoonal Precipitation

New research by scientists at the University of New Mexico suggests that future warming may lead to above average monsoonal moisture. While that sounds like a ray of sunshine especially to farmers in arid regions, the extra moisture is likely to be counterbalanced by increased evaporative loss.

Understanding Storms and Global Warming: A Quaint Parable

Imagine standing next to Parable Creek, an imaginary rocky brook in New England. The water is rushing past you from left to right, around the rocks that emerge tall above the surface of the stream, mounding over the top of those that are lower down. The deepest parts of the steam are relatively flat but show ripples that belie the presence of other rocks and sunken branches that are well below the water line.
It’s no surprise to regular readers I am quite concerned about climate change. My concern on this issue is two-fold: one consists of the actual global consequences of the reality of global warming, and the other is the blatant manipulation of that reality by those who would deny it.

Sea Ice Melt: When 2040 Predictions Could Happen Tomorrow

ncar_seaice_2040.jpg.CROP.original-original

(NCAR sea ice predictions for 2040)

The above image shows NCAR’s 2006 prediction for potential sea ice losses by 2040, but current rates of sea ice loss could result in such conditions within 1-6 years.

Sea ice melt. It’s something we should all be concerned about. That protective cap of ice over the northern polar region provides a number of beneficial services. Its white, reflective layer cools the Earth, reflecting sun into space. As such it is a haven for Earth’s cold air stores. It also rests above a shallow sea filled with sequestered carbon. The cold cap locks these stores in, keeping them out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Such a large cap of cold ice also has powerful regional influences. Over the past 10,000 years, it has ensured the health of adjacent land tundra which also sequesters massive volumes of carbon locked in organic material. Sea ice and tundra form an insulator that protects Greenland’s massive ice sheets from melt even as they establish a regional climate system that benefits Earth’s life by providing stability in temperatures and weather patterns.

They also form a first line of defense against runaway global warming.

Yet this system — its cold air, its glaciers, its tundra, and its sea ice — is in increasing jeopardy. Sea ice, which is a primary insulator keeping cold air in the Arctic, has declined about 55% by area and 80% by volume since 1979. This loss of ice reduces reflectivity during summer months and enables greater ocean heat uptake, further hastening melt. It also results in warmer seas during winter time, which helps to keep air temperatures much warmer during the coldest season. This one, two punch has the net effect of pushing melt at ever more rapid paces. Now, yearly volume losses are enough, if sustained, to bring the Arctic Ocean to a nearly ice-free state by 2016 plus or minus three years.

For context, take a look at the above NCAR picture again and then take a look at this picture of end summer sea ice in 2012.

arctic-seaice-colorsep15

(Image source: Cryosphere Today)

Not too different, are they?

Another single year loss equivalent to 2012 would push sea ice to a state comparable to the NCAR prediction for 2040. And such a loss could happen this year, or next year, or the following. Unless current trends reverse (an unlikely event given an increasing CO2 forcing), then NCAR’s 2040 prediction will almost certainly happen before 2020.

We are losing the northern polar sea ice. And we are losing it far more rapidly than previously anticipated. With it, we are losing all the beneficial services sea ice provides. So as the sea ice recedes more sunlight will be absorbed by the Earth’s northern oceans. As this happens, oceans will warm faster, melting tundra. Together, warmer seas and warmer tundra will release more methane into the atmosphere. Over time, this will produce more warming. All the added heat will push Greenland to melt at an increasing rate. The flushes of fresh, cold water from Greenland together with loss of sea ice will play havoc with northern hemisphere weather as cold and hot air build up and battle in places where they hadn’t before. Europe and portions of North America will see especially severe impacts from this whip-sawing climate. But the impacts of ice melt and polar amplification will be global, creating weather that is likely to make a mess of the world’s growing seasons, resulting in potentially severe impacts to the world’s food security. Lastly, a more rapidly melting Greenland will increase the rate of sea level rise.

This is why sea ice isn’t just an image on a map or a number on a chart. This is why loss of sea ice is much, much more than an opportunity to drill in the Arctic. An ‘opportunity’ that will only serve to make a growing problem worse.

If Earth were a space ship, its captains and crew would consider the sea ice one of its key human life support systems. Its health and stability would be a primary contributor to the safety of passengers and crew members. Loss of sea ice, in this case, would mean a loss of a vital life support and climate stability system. After loss of sea ice, life on space ship Earth becomes more difficult and the risk of harm to its passengers grows.

This is why we should all be concerned about the dramatic sea ice losses we are now witnessing. This is why we should view the cynical Arctic profiteering of the oil companies with dread. And this is why we should do our very best to slow and halt the human-caused changes that are robbing us of that vital, protective layer of ice over our northern oceans.

Links:

The Arctic Ice “Death Spiral”

Two Mile Wide Tornado Obliterates Moore Oklahoma

Today, a two mile wide tornado touched down just south of Oklahoma City and remained on the ground for nearly an hour. Early reports indicated massive damage with entire neighborhoods reduced to nothing but flinders and at least one local elementary school destroyed. Over 62 people are reported to have suffered injuries with 10 fatalities reported so far.

Initial reports showed the Moore Tornado reaching at least EF4 strength with on the ground assessments likely to upgrade the tornado to an EF5. EF5 is the most powerful rating for tornadoes on the Fujitsu scale. Radar showed a one mile wide tornado wrapped in a two-mile wide debris field remaining on the ground for an extended period of time. Both the size and duration of this event is practically unprecedented in modern meteorology with few events that are easily comparable.

The Moore Tornado was so powerful it flung debris up to 100 miles away. Light debris fall was reported as far away as Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It is likely that damage from the Moore Tornado will exceed 1 billion dollars, ranking it among the top five most damaging tornadoes ever recorded in the United States and being the second tornado in three years to wreck such major damage. Early indications are too premature to determine whether damage from this tornado will exceed that of the 2011 Joplin tornado, which resulted in 2.8 billion in damages — the costliest tornado on record in the US.

Many meteorologists will claim that no one storm is attributable to climate change. That said, the results of climate change — increasing air and water temperatures, increasing atmospheric water vapor, and strange changes to the polar jet stream — make it more likely that severe weather will occur and that severe events will be more powerful. Compared to the 20th century average, the past ten years have hosted twice the number of severe weather events overall.

Echoes of Joplin in an era of continuing severe weather…

(Note: The people suffering from this disaster are likely to need every kind of assistance available, so please think of them and donate generously to help. If you don’t have spare money and still wish to give assistance, please contact your representative in Congress and express your support for FEMA aid to the disaster victims. Also, many disaster relief agencies including the Red Cross and FEMA accept volunteer support during times such as these. In many cases, time and direct assistance is the best kind of aid a person can provide. So please take a moment to consider how you can help the disaster victims.)

UPDATE:

51 now reported dead and at least 120 injured from this terrible tornado.

UPDATE:

“Good” news and bad news. First the “good.” Officials reported Tuesday that the death toll has been reduced to 24 due to double counting. The number of injured, unfortunately, has now increased to 240, however.

For the bad news, Republicans are, just one day after the tornado, seeking to use disaster relief to the victims as a political football, holding funds hostage unless other programs (like medicare, social security, the sciences, and weather satellites used to provide advanced warning for storms like this one) are cut. Among them was Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn who pushed to reduce Hurricane Sandy aid last year. As usual, republicans have put their ideological special interests — primarily providing benefit to the wealthy to the harm of everyone else — before the well being of the American people.

Coburn should be on the ground pledging support to those who were hurt, lost family members or lost their homes, schools, and businesses. Instead, he remains in Washington pandering to his wealthiest donors by, once more, engaging in a game of legislative chicken and threatening to cut the resources needed to heal a gaping wound in the heart of his state. From the point of view of his constituents, many of whom now live in or near a disaster area, Coburn may as well be serving the interests of space aliens for all the good his actions do for the families he is supposed to represent.

Links:

Violent Tornado Devastates Moore, OK

Frequent Updates

The Oklahoma City Tornado

Lake El’gygytgyn Study Shows Ice-Free Arctic At 400 Parts Per Million CO2

(Presentation on Lake El’gygytgyn Findings Prior to Report Publication in Science)

A new study produced by polar researchers and published in the journal Science confirms a much warmer and mostly ice-free Arctic during periods when Earth’s atmospheric CO2 reached levels equivalent to those seen today.

The study took sediment cores from Russia’s lake El’gygytgyn (pronounced El-Gee-Git-Kin) in order to determine climate conditions north of the Arctic Circle during a period around 3.6-2.2 million years ago. During this time, atmospheric CO2 levels were comparable to those witnessed today. So the study may well be a strong allegory for what we should expect if human CO2 levels remain near the dangerously high 400 PPM level.

Lake El’gygytgyn was formed by an impact crater around 3.6 million years ago. It is a deep lake, so deep it would cover all but the top tip of the Washington Monument. For the first 20,000 years after its formation, there was little evidence of life found in sediment cores from the lake bottom. However, after this period, pollen from local plants began to emerge. Some, like Hemlock and Douglas Fir, tend to crop up in much more southern areas indicating that ice-free conditions predominated this extreme northern region.

Julie Brigham-Grette, a professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and lead author of the new study, which was published May 9 notes:

“To get Douglas fir and hemlock that far north of the Arctic Circle — you have to have pretty warm summers and warm winters in order for those trees to establish there… There was probably no sea ice, and the whole Arctic was pretty well forested, so it was a very different world.”

The researchers lead by Julie Brigham-Grette note that for such plants to be established in this region, temperatures would have been about 8 degrees Celsius hotter than today. These temperatures are consistent with a mostly ice-free Arctic environment.

This research, along with a growing body of Paleoclimate science, indicates that climate is much more sensitive to CO2 increase than current climate models may suggest. Overall, Paleoclimate may well be a far better determiner of the end result of human fossil fuel emissions than models which seek to pin down extraordinarily complex processes and are still in the early stages of development. And if past climate indicators do prove to be the best guide, sustained CO2 levels above 400 PPM will push for a long term temperature increase of around 3-4 degrees Celsius globally and 8-10 degrees at the poles. More importantly, these high levels appear to wipe out most ice in the Arctic environment.

Responses to current Paleoclimate research among the scientific community indicate a potential shift to reliance more on this data and less on models for future predictions. Kate Moran, an ocean engineer, notes:

“This new paleoclimate record adds to the growing evidence that Earth’s sensitivity to these levels of greenhouse gases may be higher than previously thought. Understanding Earth’s sensitivity is one of the key parameters for predicting future conditions of the planet under global warming.”

Such arguments aren’t merely academic. Ice loss in the Arctic is proceeding at a pace far exceeding previous predictions. Sea ice has melted by 80% since the early 1980s and rapid glacial melt is occurring in all regions of the Arctic. So we have past Paleoclimate evidence being validated by current Arctic trends which seem to point toward a far more rapid loss of polar ice than previously estimated.

Even more concerning, perhaps, is the fact that the Arctic is responding to CO2 levels of about 2-3 decades ago when CO2 was closer to 350 ppm. Because of natural inertia, the current CO2 levels of 400 ppm won’t begin to have full impact on the Arctic for another 20 years or so. And, in light of recent findings, that is a rather chilling prospect.

Gifford Miller, a professor in the department of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, who conducts research in the Canadian Arctic seems to agree:

“The ice is melting at all elevations,” Miller said. “Even if there is no additional warming, it’s only a matter of time before the ice is all gone.”

In the context of current business as usual fossil fuel emissions, these are substantial statements. If no additional warming is necessary to melt all the Arctic ice long-term, then what happens if CO2 levels increase to 1,000 PPM and temperatures rise to 6 degrees Celsius above average by the end of this Century? One can expect that under such extreme conditions, Arctic changes will be extraordinarily rapid and chaotic.

Links:

Ice-free Arctic May be Near

When the Arctic was 8 C Colder

CO2 Breaks 400 PPM Daily Average on May 13, Exceeding An Extraordinarily Dangerous Level

Mauna Loa 400 ppm Daily

(Image source: Keeling Curve)

Back in early March we began to warn that CO2 levels could break 400 PPM in 2013. In April, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded hourly CO2 levels above 400 PPM for the first time in more than 4 million years. Then, two days ago, daily averages for 400 PPM CO2 were breached.

Whether May averages just below or slightly above 400 PPM CO2 remains to be seen. But it is certainly possible that weekly and even monthly averages of CO2 break this severely high threshold this year. Almost certainly, a month or two of 2014 will see CO2 averages over 400 PPM. By 2015 or 2016, yearly averages for CO2 will exceed that extraordinarily dangerous level.

This massive jump to 400 PPM CO2 from pre-industrial averages is disturbing and alarming for many reasons. The first of which is the heating impact CO2 has on the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Paleoclimate data, a world at 400 PPM CO2 is, on average, between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius hotter. Even worse, temperatures in the Arctic average about 14 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. This increase in temperatures results in radical alterations to the world’s climate, pushes major sea level rises, and results in massive volumes of ice melted. It is doubtful that most of the world’s glaciers and ice sheets could survive such a long-term assault of extreme high temperatures. And it is worth noting that human beings as we know them have never occupied a world without ice.

But even as bad as maintaining CO2 levels at 400 parts per million may sound, worse are the potential feedbacks such a high initial spike of atmospheric carbon may kick off. Vast stores of methane lay locked in the world’s tundra and oceans. Even a small fraction of these gasses liberated by human-caused warming would serve to add more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, further increasing the warming already in store. In addition, as the ice sheets recede, more dark ocean and land features are exposed to sunlight. This loss of albedo results in increased solar heat absorption, further increasing global temperatures. So past climate may not be a perfect analogue to what we may be setting in place. Instead, it may be the launching point for even worse changes.

At 400 parts per million there is the danger that such terrible consequences may well become permanent features of the world in the coming decades and centuries. The current danger is somewhat low due to the fact that, if we were to rapidly reduce emissions now, we might be able to secure a livable climate and let the Earth’s natural processes reduce CO2 levels to 350 PPM or lower over the course of about a century. However, there is risk that the current human forcing is enough, even now, to generate a powerful response from the Earth’s climate and environment. One strong enough to result in CO2 levels stabilizing at the current level or even increasing somewhat due to these natural feedbacks. In order for this to happen, global climate would have to be much more sensitive than scientists currently estimate. But the fact is that, at current CO2 levels, such a dangerous feedback is possible, if not likely.

What is even more maddening, though, is the fact that human CO2 emissions and global CO2 levels are rising at a break-neck pace. Just last year, May CO2 levels peaked at an average of 396.8 PPM. This year’s levels are likely to be 3 PPM+ higher than last year. Global averages have been rising at a rate of 2.2 PPM per year or more. So at the current rate of CO2 rise and factoring in the rate of increased CO2 emissions, it is likely that 450 PPM could be breached in about 20 years. This pace of increase is faster than at any time visible in the geological past by at least a factor of 5. In short, it is likely that Earth has never undergone such a radically rapid increase of CO2.

At 450 PPM CO2, the world is far more likely to experience the kind of powerful global feedbacks noted above. And with world CO2 emissions continuing to increase, it is fair to say that we are in the era of this dangerous climate change now. Which it is why it is very important to recognize that with each passing year of CO2 emission increases and failure to reduce overall world carbon emissions, we pass deeper and deeper into an extraordinarily dangerous territory. Pushes to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels to the ‘safe range’ of 350 PPM must be pursued with great speed and effort if we are to preserve hope of a livable climate for human beings beyond the first half of this century.

Links:

350.org

Keeling Curve

Sea Ice Volume Edging Back Into Record Low Territory

PIOMASapr2013

(Image source: PIOMAS)

Despite an ongoing and precipitous trend of sea ice loss, it still happens now and then. As cold air invades and re-freeze sets in, pace of new ice formation spikes and we get the potential for a bit of ‘recovery’ in sea ice area and extent by March-April following record summer losses. The trend for sea ice area and extent for these months is still down, however. According to NSIDC, extent is falling at a pace of about 2.5% per decade during March and April. This pace of loss is quite modest when compared to summer losses, even though the long-term trend is still down.

Sea ice volume, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. The measure of total ice area + ice thickness as determined by PIOMAS has crept steadily and rapidly downward during both winter and summer months. Though the total loss below the 1979-2012 average is slightly greater for summer (approx. 9,000 cubic kilometers) it does not greatly exceed the loss seen during winter months (about 7,000 cubic kilometers) since 1979. (Percent losses for summer exceed 25% per decade while percent losses for winter are about 13% per decade. So the pace of summer volume loss in this measure is still much greater.)

There is, however, one small wrinkle in this observation. Winter sea ice volume measurements have tended to cluster in a given range before taking large steps down during certain years. Summer, on the other hand, has shown more steady and consistent melt with large step years spaced out by many years of more moderate melt.

So it was little surprise when sea ice volume tied and slightly exceeded March 2011 and 2012 measurements for brief periods during the winter of 2013, edging above the record low value by about 70 cubic kilometers on certain days.

Now, PIOMAS shows pace of volume melt rapidly increasing through mid April. And this new melt has brought Arctic sea ice volume back into record low territory, edging about 80 cubic kilometers below the record set in 2011 for that time.

Sea ice volume is the critical measure now that validation from satellite instruments has clarified the accuracy of PIOMAS modeling. Area and extent only measure the surface as visible from above. But the total proportion of remaining ice is captured by current volume measurements. And what PIOMAS is showing, at this point, is that sea ice volume in the Arctic is currently lower than it has ever been in modern reckoning.

Links:

PIOMAS

NO KXL: No New Pipelines Without Comprehensive Climate Policy

In some ways, watching the current debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline is amusing. The State Department publishes a clearly misleading assessment. Environmentalists cry foul. The EPA suggests carbon off-sets in exchange for approval. TransCanada says suggestions by the EPA are a violation of Canadian sovereignty. Obama is criticized for climate policy weaknesses. His advisers say ‘the pipeline is no big deal.’ And Al Gore and Canadian government officials get into what could be best termed a media bar-room brawl.

But the context of this, sometimes comical, debate is entirely terrifying. As atmospheric CO2 levels speed past the dangerous 400 PPM threshold, Canada is poised to expand extraction of one of the highest emitting fossil fuels on the planet. Ripping up America’s heartland, slapping eminent domain notices on privately held land across the country, they are going through all this expense, effort, and arm-twisting to set a fuse to what NASA scientist James Hansen calls one of the ‘biggest carbon bombs on the planet.’

Tar sands are far dirtier than any other form of oil — nearly as dirty as coal. They represent a vast, if extraordinarily damaging and costly, resource. With oil at 100 dollars per barrel the Canadian government and business community is desperate to sell their polluting and energy-poor goop while many around the world are equally desperate to buy it. A pipeline or two or three (the Canadians have already built one, KXL is number two, and they are now in the process of approving a third) would make access to that oil via the international market much easier while rapidly expanding extraction. Such actions would dramatically increase the rate of carbon emission at a time when world CO2 levels are growing ever-more dangerous.

Scientists question if a world with CO2 much higher than 400 PPM can support 7 billion humans. And a group of similarly concerned scientists recently advised the White House on a growing Arctic emergency in which sea ice may completely melt by end of summer 2015.

The world is rapidly changing. These changes are the result of the fossil fuels we have already burned. But the newer, far dirtier oil Canada wishes to produce will make the situation far, far worse. Already facing serious and difficult challenges resulting from the greenhouse gasses we’ve emitted, we’ll end up facing increasingly harsh adaptive difficulties should we not begin to reduce worldwide CO2 emissions soon — spiking damage to a world and climate humans have uniquely evolved to inhabit. The question at this point, is how much worse will we make our, already dangerous, situation? Do we, in the end, decide to push our climate into a mode so harsh that it would be almost impossible for human civilization to endure?

Whether or not we tap Canada’s tar sands is central to this question. It involves a basic choice. Do we begin to turn away from fossil fuels with an ever-increasing urgency by adopting aggressive climate policies and by refusing to increase extraction of the world’s most damaging form of oil? Or do we shift into high gear in our race to a fast-approaching climate cliff?

Make no mistake. Tapping the tar sands is a huge deal. As James Hansen said, accessing the vast volumes of the world’s dirtiest oil is tantamount to lighting a fuse to one of the biggest carbon bombs on the planet. Environmentalists know it. Hansen knows it. Most scientists know it. But the State Department and Obama Administration officials have continued to make blasé statements regarding this key issue, calling the pipeline moot, or inevitable. Even worse, the US Congress pushes for the pipeline full bore.

That said, one statement from Obama officials did seem to carry a little bit of backward relevance:

“In the absence of a more meaningful energy-policy discussion, Keystone has become a symbolic referendum for a much larger set of issues,” noted Jason Grummet, a bi-partisan policy adviser to the Obama Administration, in a recent interview.

Mr. Grummet’s mention of energy (note the shameful absence of the word ‘climate’) policy hones in on the crux of the whole pipeline/climate conflict — because a complete lack of comprehensive climate and energy policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions long-term spurred the Keystone XL protests in the first place. Keystone carried so much weight and tied in so many monied and powerful special interests, that targeting it remains an effective way to attempt to force needed changes to US climate policy. Such changes — like the adoption of a national carbon tax and transfer, as proposed by James Hansen, — would result in a wide-scale reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by spurring a rapid adoption of alternative energy systems like wind, solar, storage, smart grid, and vehicle to grid technology. Comprehensive climate policy on the part of the US would also push other countries to provide similar agendas. Instead, climate policy lies almost dead on the steps of Congress. It lurches along as EPA still battles for the authority to regulate CO2, as republican members of federal and state legislatures fight to undermine renewable energy and efficiency standards even as they continue to deny even the existence of human caused climate change.

Mr Grummet  is definitely correct. We certainly do need a comprehensive energy and climate policy. And those of us concerned about climate security will keep fighting these dirty tar sands pipelines until we get one that actually puts us on a path toward a safer future. A policy that is strong enough to bend the emissions curve permanently down and put the US on a path toward zero-emissions and all alternative energy sources by 2050 or earlier. This is a matter of morality. It is a matter of preventing and reducing future harm. It is a matter of preserving the prospects for future generations. For us not to act on this issue is unconscionable. For us not to protest these pipelines bearing dirty, dangerous, and depleting oil in the absence of such comprehensive climate policy would render us beings unworthy of honor.

Links:

350.org

Some Obama Advisers Rather Blasé About Keystone Pipeline (Yes, It’s National Journal. So Take it With a Grain of Salt.)

Keystone Uses Eminent Domain to Seize Land in Texas

Al Gore Isn’t Pleased With Canada

Canadian Official Proposes Yet Another Tar Sands Pipeline

Emergency Climate Meeting: White House Officials Told Arctic Ocean Could Be Ice Free Within Two Years

Emergency Climate Meeting: White House Officials Told Arctic Ocean Could Be Ice-Free Within Two Years

PIOMASexponential 2012

This week, a number of top scientists, experts, DoD and Homeland Security Department notables are convening an emergency meeting warning White House officials that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during summertime within two years.

This A-Team (A for Arctic) includes NASA’s chief scientist Gale Allen, National Science Foundation Director Cora Marett, Director of the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia marine scientist Prof Carlos Duarte, and nine other top Arctic specialists together with key representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon.

The Washington meeting is the second major climate emergency meeting of its kind to occur within the past month. Just a few weeks ago, the UK held its own climate meeting in response to severe and unprecedented weather occurring throughout Europe this winter and spring.

Scientists and specialists descending on the White House are now echoing increasingly urgent warnings coming from Arctic experts such as Peter Wadhams and Dr. Wieslaw Maslowski that the Arctic Ocean could be essentially ice free by 2016 plus or minus three years. Trends analysis confirms these scientists’ predictions showing that current average volume melt rates put the Arctic in an ice-free state sometime around 2016. Even worse, an outlier melt year similar to 2007 or 2010 would result in ice-free conditions this year (2013) or in any year following. The result is that the two year warning, in the extreme worst case, could be too late.

We are in the zone of Maslowki’s melt. So any year from now to 2019, according to observed melt trends, could result in ice-free conditions at end of summer.

One of the current set of White House advisors, Prof Carlos Duarte, warned in early April that the ice was melting far faster than predicted and the Arctic could see ice free ocean conditions during summer by 2015. According to reports from The Guardian, Duarte noted:

“The Arctic situation is snowballing: dangerous changes in the Arctic derived from accumulated anthropogenic greenhouse gases lead to more activities conducive to further greenhouse gas emissions. This situation has the momentum of a runaway train.”

Duarte is also the lead author of a paper examining Arctic tipping points and how they are rapidly being passed, resulting in an ever-increasing polar warming. The three primary drivers of these changes include loss of ice reflectivity or albedo, increased release of greenhouse gasses from the Arctic geography and oceans as they warm, and increased release of biologically generated greenhouse gasses as new micro-organisms are able to enter the Arctic environment.

Duarte’s observations are similar to those of other scientists who have warned of amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic. Just last year, NOAA issued a warning that a number of key tipping points had been reached and would result in jarring changes to climates and weather around the globe. In 2011, a group of Russian and US scientists observed massive releases of climate change enhancing methane from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. NASA scientist James Hansen warned of the potential for a powerful Arctic methane release as a result of human forcing in his 2008 book “Storms of My Grandchildren.” And in 2012, NSIDC issued a paper showing that methane release from tundra could amplify human-caused global warming by an additions .4 to 1.5 degrees.

It was the sum total of these warnings and observations that lead to the formation by a group of scientists of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG). AMEG is headed by Peter Wadhams, a noted polar researcher, and is composed of a number of scientists very concerned that Arctic conditions could rapidly deteriorate as an amplifying pulse of methane emerges.

A simple explanation of these system changes can be found here.

Among other things, AMEG is very concerned about the implications of Arctic sea ice melt and methane release for global food security. According to AMEG:

“The weather extremes from last year are causing real problems for farmers, not only in the UK, but in the US and many grain-producing countries. World food production can be expected to decline, with mass starvation inevitable. The price of food will rise inexorably, producing global unrest and making food security even more of an issue.”

AMEG’s observations are consistent with the biology inherent to many grains used for food. These grains evolved in conditions over the past 5 million years or so that required large ice sheets to stabilize the climate. Alterations to weather patterns causing extremes outside of these food crops biological thresholds put them at risk. And the current loss of sea ice is just beginning to kick off such unpredictable and difficult to adapt to extremes.

The sum total of this growing list of scientific observation is that warming and, therefore, sea ice loss in the Arctic kicking into very high gear results in serious and severe consequences.

A Catastrophic Decline

Overall, the Arctic has lost 80% of its sea ice by volume since 1979 and the rate of losses over the past ten years has been accelerating. In addition, strange and dangerous events are cropping up with increasing frequency. The polar jet stream is mangled — a result Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers attributes to loss of Arctic sea ice.

According to Francis:

“The loss of Arctic summer sea ice and the rapid warming of the Far North are altering the jet stream over North America, Europe, and Russia. Scientists are now just beginning to understand how these profound shifts may be increasing the likelihood of more persistent and extreme weather.”

In addition, this winter hosted a freakish and massive sea ice breakup throughout the Beaufort Sea during February and March, two of the Arctic’s coldest months. To say that such an event was unprecedented is almost an understatement. Never before had such a large cracking event been observed during winter. The event was kicked off by strong winds blowing over the Beaufort sea ice. The ice was so thin it couldn’t retain integrity and broke in a spectacular and disturbing series of massive cracks.

You can view this break-up sequence in the below series of images provided by NASA:

A wide and varying range of events can now be shown to have been amplified and worsened by Arctic sea ice loss. These include last year’s drought, 2011’s flooding, the Texas drought of 2011, Hurricane Sandy, this year’s extreme European winter, massive outbreaks of wildfires in the northern hemisphere since 2006, and record summer heatwaves and floods occurring throughout the northern hemisphere over the same period. It is the fact that these blocking pattern generated extreme weather events are now clearly linked to sea ice loss, that constitutes an ongoing and worsening weather emergency.

This past February, the US Department of Defense issued its own concerns. In its Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, the DOD warned of:

“… significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to greater competition for more limited and critical life-sustaining resources like food and water.”

… and that the impacts of climate change could:

“Act as accelerants of instability or conflict in parts of the world… [and] may also lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response, both within the United States and overseas … DoD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on its facilities, infrastructure, training and testing activities, and military capabilities.”

Cause for Serious Response

Now, as this summer’s melt season proceeds, many scientists are increasingly concerned that ice free conditions will appear this summer, next summer, or sometime before 2020. As noted above, such events will have very serious implications for world-wide climate  and food security. And it is these results that the White House is in serious need of addressing. Given such a context, one would hope that US government officials take the clear warnings given by scientists and members of the defense community and begin the policy responses needed to start reigning in human greenhouse gas emissions. It is high time such efforts began. And we are in serious and urgent need that they ramp up rapidly.

According to Duarte, “We are facing the first clear evidence of dangerous climate change.” From here on, things only grow worse.

Links:

White House Warned of Imminent Arctic Ice Death Spiral

Public Statement by Arctic Methane Emergency Group

Professor Joins Fight to Save the Arctic

The Arctic is Already Suffering Dangerous Climate Change

Extreme Weather Events Are Driven By Arctic Melt

Arctic Sea Ice Melt, Methane Release Shows Amplifying Feedbacks from Human Caused Climate Change

DoD’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap

For Central US, Climate Change and a Mangled Jet Stream Means Drought Follows Flood Follows Drought

Human Climate Change is Wrecking the Jet Stream: UK Met Office Calls Emergency Meeting

For Central US, Climate Change and a Mangled Jet Stream Means Drought Follows Flood Follows Drought

 

In 2011, a historic drought severely impacted Texas. Shortly after, record floods hit the central US, pushing the Mississippi and its tributaries to record high levels while ending the Texas drought. One year later, a 55 year drought hit the heartland of the US pushing the Mississippi back to record low levels in many regions.

Enter April 2013 and the weather has once more swung back to the flood extreme of what appears to be a new Drought, Flood, Drought paradigm. This winter, unusually heavy precipitation created a much larger than normal snowpack for the north-central US. Then, in April, warmer weather and a series of heavy rain events combined to push the Mississippi River and its tributaries from record low levels to record and near record high flood stage in many locations.

Now, along the Mississippi and its tributaries, flood gauges are recording moderate to severe flooding at over 60 stations. But this selective dump of large volumes of precipitation over the Mississippi River valley has still left much of the western US in the grips of drought. In fact, 47% of the contiguous US is still suffering from drought even as many places in the Heartland flood.

How can this happen? How can historic and opposite weather extremes such as severe drought and flood repeatedly affect the same region year after year? The answer lies in a re-currence of powerful blocking patterns that keep the polar jet stream in a fixed position for longer periods of time. The result is that weather in a given region tends to persist for longer and longer periods. So if weather gets stuck in a hot and dry pattern, as it did from April to December of 2012, then severe heat waves and drought conditions are most likely to follow. And if the jet stream switches back to a position where it plunges down from the Arctic, expect a long period of cooler and much wetter, stormier conditions, as the Central US experienced January to April of 2013 and which has resulted in the current major flood events.

Looking at the ECMWF weather model forecast for Friday, May 3rd, we can see a persistence of the cool, stormy, wet pattern continuing for the Central US.

Cold air jet

Notice that long tongue of colder air plunging down all the way from northern Canada, through the central US and down into Texas? Sweeping along the trough is a low which will likely bring even more rain to flood-stricken areas later this week. This is the basic pattern that has persisted for the central US all throughout 2013. And the result is more cool air, more storms, and more precipitation for that region persisting for weeks and months on end.

If we look to the west of this cold, wet trough zone, we can find its culprit. A blocking high pressure system that has parked itself just west of the US and Canadian Pacific coasts since this past January. This high is pulling warm, drier air up from the south. It is responsible for persisting drought conditions for the western US. And it is responsible for a big northward bulge in the polar jet stream running up over west-central Canada before an equally exaggerated southward swoop plunges down into the central US.

Classic blocking pattern.

Now, if we rewind to last year, we find an opposite jet stream configuration emerging as a result of a powerful blocking high pressure system forming directly over the central US and bringing record hot temperatures over a broad region. It is the increasingly frequent emergence of these powerful blocking systems that are keeping the weather in a drought-flood bipolarization for the central US.

A growing number of climate scientists led by Jennifer Francis are attributing the greater frequency of blocking patterns and associated extreme weather events to the massive loss of Arctic sea ice since 1979. Overall, 80% of Arctic sea ice volume has been lost at end of Summer over the last 33 years. These climate scientists make a compelling observation that this ice which once trapped cold air to the north and kept warmer air confined to the south, has lost its insulating properties. Now, more warm air invades the Arctic even as more of the Arctic’s colder air tends to seep out into the mid-latitudes. The result is that the polar jet stream, which is powered by north-south temperature differences, both moves slower and forms the large, persistent, blocking wave patterns.

Such a climate regime of more persistent patterns of either extreme wet, cold, stormy weather or extreme warm, dry, drought conditions is likely to amplify as sea ice continues to recede and melt out. These conditions will probably worsen until glacial melt from Greenland reaches a tipping point. Once this tipping point is reached, cold ice bergs will invade the North Atlantic, pushing the cold air pole south and concentrating much colder air around the region of Greenland and the North Atlantic. At the same time that the North Atlantic becomes colder, the tropics become warmer. The result is a rapid acceleration of the polar jet in the region of the Atlantic Ocean. The large temperature differentials caused by this new climate state are likely to drive very powerful storms. It was the potential for such conditions to emerge by or after the mid 21rst Century that inspired Dr. James Hansen to write his ground breaking book “The Storms of My Grandchildren.”

After the current blocking pattern regime switches to the rapid Greenland ice melt regime, Dr. Hansen warns of the potential for ‘continent size frontal storms that pack the strength of hurricanes.’ Such storms would make Sandy seem like kitten’s play.

How do we avoid a continued worsening and more extreme climate? Simple. Stop emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. The sooner CO2 emission reduction and elimination policies are put into place, the less likely the very worst weather changes will emerge. But, until we make the wise, rational choice of CO2 reduction and elimination, we consign ourselves to what is most likely to be a decadal period of worsening and more extreme weather.

Links:

ECMWF

Wild Weather Extremes May Be Sign of Climate Change

In Midwest, Drought Gives Way to Flood

Rain-soaked Midwest Braces for More Flooding

Pace of Sea Ice Melt Increasing, Numerous Regions Showing Rapid Decline

Jaxa sea ice

Last week saw a quickening pace of sea ice melt, with key regions displaying rapid loss of ice.

Most rapid melt occurred in the Barents Sea which saw major ice losses both to the north and south of Svalbard, north and south of Franz Joseph Land, with a large polyna opening to the north of the island and more gradual melt to the south and west of Novaya Zemlya.

Other regions showing rapid melt included the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. Most sea ice in the Okhotsk region has been driven shoreward with Bering ice rapidly melting in the southeast and the entire ice pack there showing thinning and opening polynas.

The Fram Straight and Baffin Bay showed more moderate rates of ice recession.

Sea_Ice_Extent Apr 26

Overall, sea ice extent, according to the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) is currently at 12.86 million square kilometers. This measure is tracking just below values for 2011 for this time of year. Sea ice area also showed more rapid melt this week with values falling by 400,000 square kilometers over the past seven days to reach 12.56 million square kilometers yesterday. Average rates of daily loss remain between 50,000 and 70,000 square kilometers for area with the pace picking up to around 90,000 square kilometers per day at week’s end.

The pace of loss for both area and extent remain above average for this time of year, matching the extreme rate of loss that began to emerge during 2012 at this time of year. Furthermore, all the latest measures show sea ice volume remaining at or near record low levels while multi-year ice coverage is at lowest levels ever.

arctic.seaice.color.000

Loss of Arctic snow cover and corresponding river melt for this time of year also accelerated. Areas near Hudson Bay, in northeastern Europe, and central Siberia showed the most rapid melt. As snow melt accelerates, rivers fill with warmer melt waters that then flush into estuaries and the ocean. This snow-melt flushing warmer water into the ocean usually pushes melt faster during May and June. This year, the process appears to be happening at least two to three weeks ahead of schedule.

Arctictemps27apr2013

Above-freezing air temperatures continue to advance northward. Air warm enough to facilitate large-scale melt has invaded most of Siberia and Northern Europe. This week also saw above freezing air temps regularly pushing north toward Svalbard and into the Barents sea. The Sea of Okhotsk has seen above freezing temps for much of the week, with the Bering Sea also experiencing above-freezing air temperatures. In Canada, the melt line has regularly advanced into Northern Quebec, covering southern portions of Hudson Bay. The southern tip of Greenland also shows consistently above-freezing temperatures. Colder air, however, remains entrenched over north-central Greenland and over the northern portion of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

meanT_2013

Average air temperatures in the high Arctic remain well above normal for this time of year with today’s values showing temps between 6 and 7 degrees Celsius above mean for most areas.

In the context of this report, it is worth noting that sea ice melts at around -1.9 degrees Celsius. So near freezing or above freezing air temperatures are usually enough to promote melt. Ocean temperatures beneath the ice hover at or above the freezing mark as well. So the ice is under stress not only from the surrounding air, but also from beneath as warm water upwelling events have become more frequent. Sunlight is also now a constant in the Arctic. So any open water areas, showing dark ocean, will tend to rapidly absorb heat. In addition, an unprecedented number of leads have shot through the ice this winter and spring. These crack are both darker and warmer than the surrounding ice. So weaknesses are likely to begin to appear as warming starts its more rapid cascade over the coming weeks.

color_sst_NPS_ophi0

As noted above, warmer than freezing sea surface temperatures compose one of the main forces promoting ice melt. The above graph, provided by NOAA, shows expanding regions of above freezing (sea water) surface water in Hudson Bay, The Canadian Arctic Archipelago, in a region of the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska and Canada, the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, in multiple areas over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, and in a growing region of the Barents Sea.

Arctic_r03c05.2013117.terra.1km

The combined impact of constant sunlight, above-freezing water and rising air temperatures is starkly visible in this most recent Lance-Modis satellite shot of a region of the Barents and Kara Seas. This region shows rapidly fracturing ice with numerous expanding polynas as regions of open water creep northward. In large regions, newly open water shows no sign of surface refreeze and instead has rapidly invaded the weaker ice. Such conditions are now common in many regions near the ice edge.

Overall, the Arctic has now entered a phase which shows increasing risk of rapid to very rapid melt. High temperatures, warming and above average ocean temperatures, continued invasions of warm air, rapid snow melt in Siberia and expanding regions of dark, sunlight absorbing water all will likely conspire to speed melt in the coming weeks. So the forecast is for moderate to rapid (and possibly near-record) melt over the next 7-14 days. One caveat is that the Beaufort Sea has remained cold and that Arctic Oscillation has remained positive. The result is that risks for a rapid Beaufort melt appear to be lower at this time. However, ongoing moderate new re-cracking north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago may render this, somewhat comforting, observation premature.

Overall, sea ice melt appears to be on pace to hit or rival most recent record lows. Our forecast remains that there is a high (60%) likelihood that either sea ice area, extent, or volume will reach new record lows in 2013. There is a moderate risk that all measures will show a new record low by the end of this year (35%). And there remains a low but significant risk that the Arctic will be essentially ice-free by the end of this summer (20%).  Chances for total ice melt (an event that likely hasn’t occurred in the past 400,000 years), as noted in previous posts, remains low at 10%.

(Note: we define ‘essentially ice free’ as an Arctic showing less than 1 million square kilometers of surface ice area and/or extent by summer’s end. This ‘essentially ice free’ state is defined as a surface area of less than half that of Greenland.)

As the melt season progresses, we will continue to refine predictions and global risk analysis. It is worth noting that no year since sea ice record keeping began has ever shown risk of total or near ice free conditions. So the 2013 melt season is already a historic one in that respect. Finally, as noted in previous posts, risk for total melt or near ice free conditions continue to rise over the coming years.

Links:

The Japanese Space Agency

Cryosphere Today

Uni-Koeln

DMI Centre for Ocean and Ice

NASA Lance-Modis

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