Wildfire Smoke over North Pole — Web Cam Shows Melt Ponds Beneath Brown Carbon Haze

For Alaska and Canada, as of today, an unprecedented 12,000,000 acres of forest and tundra overlying the rapidly thawing and human greenhouse gas emissions warmed permafrost has burned — going up in vast, billowing clouds of smoke. This smoke has spread out, caught up in the meandering Jet Stream, and is now visible in far-flung locations by both ground and satellite observation.

In addition to painting skies across Canada, Alaska and the Western and Central US milky white, upper level smoke from the fires has crossed Greenland and the North Atlantic, entered the Central Arctic Ocean and is now visible as a hazy pall over web cameras observing North Pole melt.

North Pole Web Cam Smoke Haze Melt Ponds

(Melt ponds and teetering markers near North Pole web cam beneath skies painted gray-brown by wildfire smoke. Image source: North Pole Environmental Observatory.)

In the above image we can see this smoke haze painting the sky a brown-gray pallor in the NEOPAWS North Pole web cam image. Beneath these skies, the sea ice surface has melted to the point that the marker strakes are wobbling off kilter and that substantial melt ponds are cutting deep furrows into the polar ice. The hazy hew of skies in this image together with an overhead cirrus cloud cover tinted brown indicates that smoke particles have been lofted into the Jet Stream level.

Wildfire Smoke over Sea Ice

Satellite tracking of the smoke also confirms ground-based observations. For as of July 6 a large bellow of smoke had wafted up from the unprecedented wildfires burning in Alaska (now at 4.44 million acres and climbing). Drawn up in a high amplitude Jet Stream wave this smoke could clearly be seen traversing the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the MODIS satellite shot:

Wildfire smoke over sea iceUpper level smoke plume in herring bone pattern at center frame

(Top and bottom frame images tracking a plume of wildfire smoke emitting from Alaska, crossing the Beaufort and Chukchi seas on July 7 and entering the Central Arctic on July 12. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

By Sunday, this smoke had become entrained in the draw between a cyclonic circulation over the Laptev Sea and an anticyclone formation on the Greenland side of the Arctic. It’s a dipole pattern that has now lasted for more than a week. One that is regarded as rather unhealthy for late season sea ice totals. Note the herring-bone formation of darkened upper level clouds drawn through the dipole and running diagonally from upper left frame to lower right of the second image. The pole in image 2 is also in the lower right frame.

Conditions in Context — Brown Carbon at Jet Stream Level is an Amplifying Feedback

Lofting large amounts of brown carbon into the Jet Stream level of the atmosphere is an amplifying feedback to human-caused warming. One occurring in addition to the added rate of carbon release generated by these wildfires as well as to a transient negative feedback coming from generating thick, low level clouds, that block out sunlight.

High level clouds alone aid in the heating of the Earth — allowing visible sunlight to penetrate while trapping long rave radiation rebounding from the Earth’s surface. Painting these clouds dark through brown carbon smoke particulate emission into the upper atmosphere provides an added heat kick by further lowering cloud albedo and by re-radiating an overall greater portion of the transient heat. As a final insult, the brown carbon aloft eventually precipitates down to the surface. When such precipitation lands on ice sheets and northern hemisphere snow cover, it darkens the snow and enhances melt. A kind of ominous global warming fallout.

Smokey haze over North Pole melt ponds — one albedo reducing process being reinforced by the other.

Links:

North Pole Environmental Observatory

LANCE MODIS

Alaska Interagency Coordination Center

Canada Interagency Wildfire Center

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

(Please support non special interest based, publicly funded science, climate change mitigation, renewable energy transition, and climate change resiliency efforts)

A Fearful Glance at the Global Carbon Stores — Weekly CO2 Values Hit 404 Parts Per Million a Little Too Soon

mlo two years April 15

(Big jump in weekly CO2 averages during second week of April bring 2015 concentrations into the range of 404 parts per million a month earlier than expected. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Over the past decade, annual rates of atmospheric CO2 increase have remained in a range of around 2.2 parts per million (ppm) each year. It’s a geologically blinding pace of increase driven by a human carbon emission on the order of around 11 billion tons each and every year. Primarily driven by fossil fuel burning, this massive dumping of carbon into the atmosphere is steadily filling up a number of the world’s key carbon stores.

The oceans are brimming full with carbon — as we see in a rapidly rising rate of acidification.  The oceans are warming, steadily losing their ability to keep a higher fraction of greenhouse gasses stored in solution. The trees are lagging in their ability to draw carbon from the atmosphere — a symptom of a combined deforestation, wildfire proliferation, and endemic outbreaks of invasive species that prey on key trees. And the carbon store in the Arctic is showing signs that it may be actively venting higher volumes of greenhouse gasses back into the atmosphere and oceans.

As a leading indicator that some of these carbon stores are starting to fill up, or worse, dump a significant portion of their sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere, we would expect to see spiking levels of CO2 and CH4 in the global measures. Which is why when, starting on April 5 of 2015, Mauna Loa CO2 values shot up to around 404 to 405 parts per million in some of the hourly records, a few eyebrows were raised.

Implications of Hitting Expected Peak Values a Bit too Soon

Typically, atmospheric CO2 peaks around mid-May. And, for this year, following the 2.2 ppm increase trajectory, we would expect a May monthly value of around 404 parts per million. So readings in the range of 404 to 405 parts per million in early April are a significant jump well ahead of the expected marks. If this increase remained consistent and showed continued seasonal rise on through mid-May, it could skew April and May readings upward — well beyond a 2.2 ppm annual increase at peak.

mlo_one_month

(Consistently High CO2 values show up at the end of the monthly measure. Note the frequent hourly departures above 405 ppm. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Typically, the difference between April and May monthly values is in the range of 0.5 to 1 ppm CO2. So an April Average near 404 ppm could yield a May average of 404.5 to 405 ppm or a 2.7 to 3.2 ppm increase over 2014 peak values. A significant high departure that could be a leading indicator of a bad response from the global carbon stores. This possibility was raised as daily Mauna Loa CO2 values ranged from 403.2 ppm through 404.9 ppm from April 5 to 14 and as weekly values for April 8-14 hit 403.9 ppm.

Signal or Noise?

Of course, these admittedly worrisome spikes could well be noise in the overall carbon system. CO2 values have tended to vary more wildly in the Mauna Loa measure recently. And average rates of increase from peak to peak could still fall into the standard range.

It is also worth noting that any major disruption in the global carbon system as it relates to CO2 would also show up as a trailing indicator in the CO2 airborne fraction measure. A higher level of emitted CO2 would remain in the atmosphere as sinks began to fail and as stores became sources. Such a carbon sink failure would eventually show up as a higher airborne CO2 fraction.

Overall, the airborne fraction measure is an indicator of how much of the carbon human beings emit into the atmosphere is being taken up by the global environment:

CO2 Airborne Fraction

(Airborne CO2 fraction showing global carbon dioxide emissions [as gigatons of carbon without oxygen molecular weight added] since 1960 through 2012 and amount of emitted CO2 that has remained in the atmosphere. Image source: James Hansen and The University of Columbia.)

Currently, the amount of carbon from CO2 remaining in the atmosphere is in the range of 45% of the human emission — or around 5 gigatons.

If carbon sinks are retaining their ability to uptake CO2, then the fraction will remain relatively low. If carbon sinks are over-topping and bleeding substantial volumes of their carbon back into the atmosphere, then the airborne fraction measure will tend to rise as a trailing indicator.

During recent decades, the airborne fraction has actually fallen as emissions ramped up — probably due to a combined increase in ocean surface exposure to CO2 and to an initial bump in the rate of CO2 respiratory uptake by photosynthetic life. But considering the very high volume of carbon being dumped into the global system coordinate with a wide variety of stresses to carbon stores resulting from both added heat and chemistry changes, these carbon sinks are under ever-increasing stress. A number of scientific studies have indicated a likely rise in CO2 airborne fraction, under business as usual fossil fuel emissions, to as much as 80 percent through 2100 — with start of carbon store failures during the current decade.

If carbon stores do begin to fail, we would first see atmospheric spikes in the global CO2 and CH4 measures. Then, as a trailing indicator, the CO2 airborne fraction measure would begin to ramp up. In this context, weekly CO2 spikes at Mauna Loa are some cause for concern, but we can’t make any strong calls of a larger carbon system response without a more consistent spike and, eventually, a jump in the airborne fraction.

To this final point, I’ll leave you with the somewhat related Mauna Loa CH4 measure which has, lately, also been showing an increasing rate of accumulation for that greenhouse gas:

Mauna Loa Methane Measure 2004 to 2015

(Mauna Loa Methane measure shows ramping up of atmospheric CH4 readings at that station. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Links:

The Keeling Curve

Doubling Down on Our Faustian Bargain

Modeling The Atmospheric Airborne Fraction in a Simple Carbon Cycle Model

NOAA ESRL

Scientific Hat tip to Dr. James Hansen

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Kevin Jones

Satellite Data Compiled By University of Maryland Shows Amplifying Arctic Methane Release

Climate scientists have long been concerned that rising temperatures in the Arctic, brought about by human caused global warming, could enhance the release of Arctic methane. The methane is stored on the sea bed in the form of methane hydrates, a form of frozen methane that is very unstable. Methane is also locked up in decayed biological matter on the tundras surrounding the Arctic or in the submerged tundra of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

The volumes of carbon-based methane stored in this way are large. Larger, in fact, than all the carbon released by humans through the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial age began. In addition, methane provides a powerful kick to the climate system. Over the course of a hundred years it traps 20 times more heat than CO2, before turning into CO2 and adding even more insult to injury. So even a relatively small fraction of this methane making its way into the atmosphere can have a very significant impact.

The concern of some scientists is that the initial warming caused by human emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses will result in a forcing powerful enough to unlock this methane. To unlock it in high enough volumes that it creates a kind of runaway feedback loop (see Amplifying Feedbacks).

Unfortunately, research in this very new field does indicate increasing releases of methane from the Arctic. Research conducted last year found very large plumes of methane bubbling up from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Many have cautioned that we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from these early indications, despite the fact that previous observations found methane plumes measuring about 10 meters across, while later observations found methane plumes in the same region measuring more than 1 kilometer across.

Now, satellite data compiled by the University of Maryland provides observations of methane release from space. The Atmospheric Infrared Sensor (AIRS) is aboard NASA’s AQUA satellite and has provided a record of increasing methane release over the Arctic since 2003. You can view a slide-show of 2003 through March of this year below:

The months when methane release tends to pulse higher is from October through February, with the most intense pulses occurring in January. Just look at these two images. The first is from January of 2003, the other from January of this year:

Image

Image

As you have probably noticed, there is a striking difference between the methane concentration in the January, 2003 image and that in the January, 2012 image. And based on the trend established in the period shown, we can clearly see we have an amplifying methane release over the past nine years.

When added to observations of amplifying methane release from the seabed, a proliferation of melt ponds over the Arctic tundra releasing high levels of methane, a general melting of the Arctic tundra resulting in the release of methane from decaying material there, and now this series of satellite observations, it appears that we have solid evidence of an amplifying methane pulse in the Arctic. And this is cause for serious concern because it is a powerful feedback to the already strong climate forcing of human greenhouse gas emissions.

Links:

http://asl.umbc.edu/pub/yurganov/methane/MAPS/NH/

http://aqua.nasa.gov/science/images_data.php

http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2012/05/satellite-data-video-shows-methane-escape-in-arctic/

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

For years now, scientists have warned that additional atmospheric heat caused by human releases of carbon dioxide (CO2) could result in amplifying feedbacks that cause even more heat. At first, most of these comments were academic, an exercise in predicting what would happen if humans did not curtail greenhouse gas emissions. But as human CO2 emissions continued to increase, global warming amplified and changes accelerated. Now the warnings from scientists are much more direct. Consider NASA scientist James Hansen’s most recent statement:

“We don’t have a substantial cushion between today’s climate and dangerous warming. Earth is poised to experience strong amplifying feedbacks in response to moderate additional global warming.” – James Hansen

Amplifying Feedbacks via Microphone

An amplifying feedback is a rapidly increasing response to an initial forcing. In everyday life, people are generally familiar with what happens when you put a microphone close to a speaker. The microphone picks up ambient noise, and pushes it out through the speaker. This, now louder, noise is picked up again by the microphone and sent back to the speaker as a much louder input. The loop continues until the speaker is pouring out a rapidly rising wail of sound.

Arctic Sea Ice Melt as Amplifying Feedback

In nature, something very similar can happen as a result of an initial climate forcing. In the Arctic, we can see this in the form of sea ice melt over the past few decades. Increases in ocean temperature and stored heat has gradually worn away at both Arctic sea ice area and Arctic sea ice volume.

In 2007, Arctic sea ice area reached the lowest levels ever recorded, a level far below the 1979-2001 average. Sea ice lost area equal to 20% of the total summer coverage of the previous year. More than 20% of Arctic sea ice gone in one year. Since that time, Arctic sea ice area has failed to recover with 2011 showing the second lowest area on record at end of summer, an area very close to the unprecedented 2007 record low.

Image

The above image shows the difference between 1980 and 2007 Arctic sea ice (Source: Cryosphere Today).

But sea ice area as seen from above only tells half the story. The second half is told by total sea ice volume. Area measures how much surface is covered by ice. Volume measures the total amount of ice by taking into account sea ice thickness. And when looking at volume, there has been a precipitous and unrelenting fall.

Image

Sea Ice Volume shown above is calculated using data from the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System of the Applied Physics Lab at the Polar Science Center and inserting it into a curve fitting process. And the curve shows a near-ice free Arctic under current trends by or before the summer of 2020. In fact, the model shows that September could see ice-free seas as early as 2013. Not likely, but another couple summers like 2007 could bring us very close.

But even if current trends don’t hold, additional statistical analysis shows nearly ice free summers by or before 2035.

And the, usually guarded, IPCC findings point toward ice-free summers before 2050. So depending on the dynamics of Arctic weather, which can certainly be very dynamic, our best analysis points toward a continuation of rapid collapse or a shift to a more gradual melt down.

Regardless of final melt dates, APL sea ice volume measurements show Arctic sea ice is getting very, very thin.

The reason Arctic sea ice melt is an amplifying feedback is due to the heat reflective nature of ice vs the heat absorption nature of water. Water just by virtue of color alone, absorbs more sunlight than ice. This results in water temperature in ice free seas being as much as 5 degrees C warmer than water beneath sea ice. And this warmer water heats both the air and the entire water column. Loss of sea ice alone is a powerful amplifier of temperatures during the Arctic summer and this extra absorbed heat is on top of the extra heat added by human caused global warming via CO2 emissions.

Arctic Methane Releases as Amplifying Feedback

It is the nature of single amplifying feedbacks that they tend to kick off other feedbacks. And this is exactly what is happening with Arctic methane.

In the Arctic, both methane and ice have been locked together in a chilly marriage ever since the roof of the world began to freeze about 10 million years ago. The reason for this is that the bodies of dead plants and animals have accumulated in the tundra’s frozen soil year after year. Dead and decayed biological matter has also been locked in formations called methane hydrates in the shallow Arctic sea.

When the ice melts, seas warm. This results in warmer winds blowing over the tundra. The tundra’s permfrost soils begin to melt and, when they do, bacteria begin to break down the dead matter locked in these frozen soils for so long. Once the matter breaks down, methane is released.

Now methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas — packing a potency twenty times that of CO2. So Arctic methane releases result in a powerful global warming force adding to the effects of sea ice melt and human CO2 emissions. The result is that the Arctic warms even more, more tundra melts, and more methane is released.

Image

Often, when heat melts the tundra, new lakes form. These lakes contain large volumes of methane. Sometimes, researchers ignite this methane to demonstrate how much is being emitted from the lakes. Often, these ignitions result in dramatic plumes of fire, illustrating the explosive nature of methane emissions in the Arctic.

But, sometimes, this new methane seeping up from Arctic soils are ignited by nature in the form of lightning strikes. And these lightning strikes can result in vast tundra fires that burn massive swaths of the Arctic. One such tundra fire recently burned an area the size of Cape Cod in Alaska.

Image

These tundra fires convert massive volumes of biological matter into CO2 which adds another amplifying feedback.

Out Gassing of Submerged Arctic Methane

Even though vast areas of land are now providing amplifying feedbacks as Arctic tundra thaws, some of the thawing tundra isn’t on land, it’s under the water. North of Siberia, the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) is a protrusion of tundra now flooded by the Arctic Ocean. As the water above this shallow shelf warmed, the submerged tundra began to thaw, and as it thawed it began to release methane.

These underwater methane releases were only recently discovered. Since their discovery, the rate of methane release has defied all expectations, pouring more methane into the atmosphere than any other natural source. Just this summer, Arctic researchers including Igor Semiletov discovered enormous plumes of methane venting up from the sea bed. According to the researchers, some of these methane plumes were more than 1 kilometer across.

“Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It’s amazing,” Dr Semiletov said in a 2011 interview. “I was most impressed by the sheer scale and high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them.”

Some of this submerged methane comes from the decomposition of submerged tundra, the rest comes in the form of destabilized methane hydrates. As seen on the map below, the ESAS is just one of many areas where high concentrations of methane hydrate are expected.

Overall, 1700 gigatons of carbon are estimated to be locked up in the melting tundra and more than 4400 gigatons of carbon are estimated to be stored in the form of methane hydrates. By comparison, remaining conventional fossil fuel sources are estimated to contain about 1100 gigatons of carbon — about equal to the amount already emitted. So even if a fraction of Arctic Methane destabilizes it could more than double the impacts of human caused climate change.

But there is additional danger. They include loss of oxygen in the world’s oceans, rapidly increasing ocean acidification, the risk of much larger tundra fires, and the risk of very large fires sparked by lightning strikes in the event of sudden, large methane releases. These dangers should be seen as directly related to the risk posed by amplifying feedbacks.

Combined Impacts

When added to the very high volumes of CO2 produced by human activity, a volume 150 times that produced yearly by volcanoes, the increased heating caused by melting sea ice and increased methane release creates a dangerous amplifying feedback to global warming. The effects of these feedbacks are large and growing larger. The valid concern among scientists and those researching climate change is that these feedbacks will only expand exponentially as human forcing increases, eventually creating a cascade of effects whose scale is beyond the ability of humans to reign in.

Sources:

Cryosphere Today: http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/

National Snow and Ice Data Center: http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

The Polar Science Center: http://psc.apl.washington.edu/wordpress/research/projects/arctic-sea-ice-volume-anomaly/

“Vast Plumes of Methane Seen in Arctic as Sea Ice Retreats” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/vast-methane-plumes-seen-in-arctic-ocean-as-sea-ice-retreats-6276278.html

International Arctic Research Center: http://www.iarc.uaf.edu/en/about

The Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen, 2008

 

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