The Permafrost is Thawing 20 Percent Faster Than Previously Thought

Even in a world at 1 to 1.2 C warmer than 19th Century averages the permafrost is in trouble.

Already, vast thawed lands are starting to release carbon dioxide and methane. Thermokarst lakes bubble with the stuff. And pingos are now starting to erupt as the ice relinquishes the soils of Siberia. Russians, ironically concerned about the safety of an oil and gas infrastructure that helped to precipitate the warming in the first place, are starting to install seismographs to detect these new warming-induced eruptions from the thawed lands. Meanwhile, each new summer brings with it ridiculously warm temperatures, never before seen Arctic thunderstorms, and epic wildfires that rage over these growing piles of peat-like carbon laid down during the course of millions of years of glaciation — but now unlocked in just years and decades by an unnatural thaw.

Permafrost Thawing at 20 Percent Faster Rate Than We Previously Thought

Back in the late 1800s, permafrost covered about 17 million square kilometers of the Northern Hemisphere. In less than 150 years, that extent has been reduced by 2 million square kilometers due to the warming that has, to date, been produced by fossil fuel burning and related carbon emissions. Even worse, according to the new research, present temperatures alone are enough to, this Century, push permafrost coverage back to 12.5 million square kilometers.

That’s about 1/4 of the world’s permafrost gone due to just 1 to 1.2 degrees Celsius of global warming.

(A new study shows that 2 C worth of warming nearly cuts preindustrial permafrost extent in half to around 9 million square kilometers. Warming to 6 C above 1880s averages, which will occur so long as fossil fuel burning continues, will wipe out nearly all of the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost. These thaw rates are about 20 percent more than previously estimated. Image source: An observation-based constraint on permafrost loss as a function of global warming.)

Warm the world by just another degree Celsius to 2 C above 1880s averages and, according to the new research, we’ll end up thawing another 3.5 million square kilometers of frozen ground to an ultimately reduced area of around 9 million square kilometers — cutting the Northern Hemisphere’s original permafrost coverage nearly in half.

Still More Urgency For Rapid Cuts to Fossil Fuel Burning

This newly identified permafrost thaw rate in response to human-forced warming is much faster than previously expected — representing a 20 percent acceleration compared to past permafrost thaw model estimates. And since the frozen ground of the world contains 1.2 to 1.4 trillion tons of carbon locked away over the course of millions of years, so rapid a thaw has big implications in a world warmed by fossil fuel burning.

(Wildfires burn through Siberia during August of 2014. Thawing permafrost lays bare billions of tons of carbon that can then be subject to release by microbes and the warming elements. Bacteria can break down the carbon — releasing methane and CO2. Thawed permafrost also forms a peat-like layer that can burn as more extensive fires rage across the heating Arctic. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Back in 2015, scientists estimated that about 100 billion tons of permafrost carbon would hit the atmosphere over the course of the 21st Century due to human-forced warming. This warming feedback is equivalent to about 10 years of present fossil fuel emissions. Add an estimated 20 percent extrapolated from a faster than expected thaw to that rate and you end up with roughly 120 billion tons of carbon — or 12 years of present emissions bubbling and bursting up out of that previously frozen ground (approximately 40 ppm of CO2e heat forcing as feedback to the present warming).

It’s just another scientific finding of warming-related geophysical impacts occurring on timescales that were faster than previously expected. Still more added proof, as if we required any, that the need for cutting human fossil fuel emissions couldn’t be greater or more urgent. And when seismographs are now being constructed to detect permafrost methane bursts due to pingo detonations, it’s becoming more and more clear that we do not want to precipitate any more volatile Arctic thaw than we’ve already locked in.

Links:

An observation-based constraint on permafrost loss as a function of global warming

Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback

LANCE-MODIS

First Seismic Sensor Installed to Detect New Risk of Exploding Pingos

Hat tip to Ryan in New England

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Unnaturalfx

Beyond the Point of No Return — Imminent Carbon Feedbacks Just Made the Stakes for Global Warming a Hell of a Lot Higher

“It’s fair to say we have passed the point of no return on global warming and we can’t reverse the effects, but certainly we can dampen them,” said biodiversity expert Dr. Thomas Crowther.

“I’m an optimist and still believe that it is not too late, but we urgently need to develop a global economy driven by sustainable energy sources and start using CO2, as a substrate, instead of a waste product.” — Prof Ivan Janssens, recognized as a godfather of the global ecology field.

“…we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it… we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.” — Professor Stephen Hawking yesterday in The Guardian.

*****

The pathway for preventing catastrophic climate change just got a whole hell of a lot narrower.

For according to new, conservative estimates in a scientific study led by Dr. Thomas Crowther, increasing soil respiration alone is about to add between 0.45 and 0.71 parts per million of CO2 to the atmosphere every year between now and 2050.

(Thomas Crowther explains why rapidly reducing human greenhouse gas emissions is so important. Namely, you want to do everything you can to avoid a runaway into a hothouse environment that essentially occurs over just one Century. Video source: Netherlands Institute of Ecology.)

What this means is that even if all of human fossil fuel emissions stop, the Earth environment, from this single source, will generate about the same carbon emission as all of the world’s fossil fuel industry did during the middle of the 20th Century. And that, if human emissions do not stop, then the pace of global warming of the oceans, ice sheets, and atmosphere is set to accelerate in a runaway warming event over the next 85 years.

Global Warming Activates Soil Respiration Which Produces More CO2

This happens because as the world warms, carbon is baked out of previously inactive soils through a process known as respiration. As a basic explanation, micro-organisms called heterotrophs consume carbon in the soil and produce carbon dioxide as a bi-product. Warmth is required to fuel this process. And large sections of the world that were previously too cold to support large scale respiration and CO2 production by heterotrophs and other organisms are now warming up. The result is that places like Siberian Russia, Northern Europe, Canada, and Alaska are about to contribute a whole hell of a lot more CO2 (and methane) to the atmosphere than they did during the 20th Century.

When initial warming caused by fossil fuel burning pumps more carbon out of the global environment, we call this an amplifying feedback. It’s a critical climate tipping point when the global carbon system in the natural environment starts to run away from us.

Sadly, soil respiration is just one potential feedback mechanism that can produce added greenhouse gasses as the Earth warms. Warming oceans take in less carbon and are capable of producing their own carbon sources as they acidify and as methane seeps proliferate. Forests that burn due to heat and drought produce their own carbon sources. But increasing soil respiration, which has also been called the compost bomb, represents what is probably one of the most immediate and likely large sources of carbon feedback.

increase-in-carbon-dioxide-from-soils

(A new study finds that warming of 1 to 2 C by 2050 will increase soil respiration. The result is that between 30 and 55 billion tons of additional CO2 is likely to hit the Earth’s atmosphere over the next 35 years. Image source: Nature.)

And it is also worth noting that the study categorizes its own findings as conservative estimates. That the world could, as an outside risk, see as much as four times the amount of carbon feedback (or as much as 2.7 ppm of CO2 per year) coming from soil if respiration is more efficient and wide-ranging than expected. If a larger portion of the surface soil carbon in newly warmed regions becomes a part of the climate system as microbes activate.

Amplifying Feedbacks Starting to Happen Now

The study notes that it is most likely that about 0.45 parts per million of CO2 per year will be leached from mostly northern soils from the period of 2016 to 2050 under 1 C worth of global warming during the period. To this point, it’s worth noting that the world has already warmed by more than 1 C above preindustrial levels. So this amount of carbon feedback can already be considered locked in. The study finds that if the world continues to warm to 2 C by 2050 — which is likely to happen — then an average of around 0.71 parts per million of CO2 will be leached out of soils by respiration every year through 2050.

rates-of-soil-carbon-loss

(When soils lose carbon, it ends up in the atmosphere. According to a new study, soils around the world are starting to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is caused by increased soil respiration as the Earth warms. Over the next 35 years, the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped out by the world’s soils is expected to dramatically increase. How much is determined by how warm the world becomes over the next 35 years. Image source: Nature.)

The upshot of this study is that amplifying carbon feedbacks from the Earth environment are probably starting to happen on a large scale now. And we may be seeing some evidence for this effect during 2016 as rates of atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation are hitting above 3 parts per million per year for the second year in a row even as global rates of human emissions plateaued.

Beyond the Point of No Return

What this means is that the stakes for cutting human carbon emissions to zero as swiftly as possible just got a whole hell of a lot higher. If we fail to do this, we will easily be on track for 5-7 C or worse warming by the end of this Century. And this level of warming happening so soon and over so short a timeframe is an event that few, if any, current human civilizations are likely to survive. Furthermore, if we are to avoid terribly harmful warming over longer periods, we must not only rapidly transition to renewable energy sources. We must also somehow learn to pull carbon, on net, out of the atmosphere in rather high volumes.

Today, Professor Ivan Janssens of the University of Antwerp noted:

“This study is very important, because the response of soil carbon stocks to the ongoing warming, is one of the largest sources of uncertainty in our climate models. I’m an optimist and still believe that it is not too late, but we urgently need to develop a global economy driven by sustainable energy sources and start using CO2, as a substrate, instead of a waste product. If this happens by 2050, then we can avoid warming above 2C. If not, we will reach a point of no return and will probably exceed 5C.”

In other words, even the optimists at this time think that we are on the cusp of runaway catastrophic global warming. That the time to urgently act is now.

Links:

Quantifying Soil Carbon Losses in Response to Warming

Netherlands Institute of Ecology

Earth Warming to Climate Tipping Point

This is the Most Dangerous Time for Our Planet

Climate Change Escalating So Fast it is Beyond the Point of No Return

NOAA ESRL

Soil Respiration

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Wili

There’s a La Nina Developing — So Why is the World Still Heating Up?

Long term, there’s no doubt what’s in control of the world’s temperature trend. The vast belching of greenhouse gasses by fossil fuel industry and related non-renewable based machinery has caused atmospheric carbon levels to hit 405 ppm CO2 and 490 ppm CO2e this year. All this added carbon has caused the world to warm by a record 1.22 C since 1880s levels during 2016 (approx). But superimposed over this long term warming trend is the natural variability based ebb and flow of atmospheric and surface ocean heat that is the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle.

ENSO — A Wave Pattern Overlying the Long Term Warming Trend

Think of it as a smaller wave pattern that overlaps the current global upswing in temperatures. As El Nino builds and comes into the fore, natural forcings caused by periodic ocean surface warming in the Equatorial Pacific push global temperatures higher. This tends to add to the human forced global warming trend. So, often, El Nino years are also record warm years.

global-temperatures-enso

(El Nino to La Nina temperature variations create a wavy pattern in the overall global warming trend. Note — the record warm year of 2016 is not included in this graph. Image source: NOAA.)

Conversely, La Nina, which generates a periodic cooling in the Equatorial Pacific tends to pull a bit against the long term warming trend. So periods of La Nina tend to show average global atmospheric temperatures in the annual measure drop off by about 0.2 to 0.4 C from the peak periods of atmospheric heating during El Nino. Of course, since the ENSO variability typically follows a range of +0.2 C to -0.2 C but does not affect long term temperature trends, it only takes about a decade for La Nina years to be about as warm as recent El Nino years.

Slight Warming During Fall of 2016 Despite La Nina

During fall of 2015 and the winter and spring of 2016 a powerful El Nino helped to push global surface temperatures into new record high ranges. This happened because greenhouse gasses the world over had been loading heat into the Earth System for some time and the strong El Nino served as a kind of trip wire that opened the flood gates for a surge of atmospheric heat. Which is why 2016 will be about 1.22 C hotter than 1880s temperatures (1 C hotter than NASA 20th Century baseline temps) and why the years from 2011 to 2016 will average above 1 C hotter than 1880s values overall (0.8 C hotter than 20th Century baselines).

But now, with the 2016 El Nino in the rear view mirror and with a La Nina forming in the Pacific, we would expect global temperatures to cool down somewhat. For the most part, this has happened. Back in January and February, monthly average temperatures were as much as 1.5 C above 1880s averages. Since summer, the averages have dipped to around 1 to 1.1 C above 1880s values.

gfs_anomaly_timeseries_global

(Global temperatures bottomed out at around 1 C above 1880s or 0.4 C above the 1981 to 2010 average in this GFS based graph by Karsten Haustein during June then began to slowly climb through fall even as a weak La Nina began to develope.)

With La Nina continuing to form, we would expect these monthly values to continue to fall for a bit as La Nina strengthened. But that doesn’t appear to be happening. Instead, global atmospheric temperatures bottomed out at around 1 to 1.1 C above 1880s levels in June, July, August and September and now they appear to be rebounding.

Polar Amplification Signal Shows Up as a Blip in the Global Measure

In other words, we see a rise in the global temperature trend when we should see a steady counter-trend decline forced by natural variability.

Why is this happening?

The climate evidence points to a rather obvious set of suspects. First, the long term Pacific Decadal Oscillation value has continued to push into the positive range. And this state would tend to favor more heat radiating back into the atmosphere from the ocean surface.

However, if you look at the global climate maps, the major anomaly drivers are not coming from the Pacific, but from the poles. For this fall saw extreme warming both in the northern and southern polar regions of the world. Today, temperature anomalies in both the Arctic and the Antarctic were 5.84 and 4.19 C above average respectively. A rough average between the two poles of +5 C for these high latitude regions. As we’ve mentioned many times before, such severe warming is an obvious signal of climate change based polar amplification where temperatures at the poles warm faster relative to the rest of the Earth during the first phase of greenhouse gas forced warming.

extreme-polar-amplification-november-4

(Extreme warming of the polar regions continued on November 4 of 2016. This warming is pushing against the La Nina trend which would tend to cool the world temporarily. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

By themselves, these abnormally high temperatures at the poles would be odd enough. But when taking into account that La Nina should still be cooling the globe off, it starts to look like this severe polar warming has jostled the La Nina cooling signal a bit — turning it back toward warming by late fall. And if that is what’s really happening, then it would imply that the natural variability signal that is produced by ENSO is starting to be over-ridden by polar amplification based influences. In other words, there appears to be another signal that’s starting to intrude as a polar amplification based temperature spike.

It’s something that has popped up from time to time as a blip in the observational data over the past few years. But fall of 2016 provides one of the stronger signals so far. And it’s a signal related to a set of feedbacks that have the potential to affect the overall pace of planetary warming. Something to definitely keep an eye on.

Links:

NOAA

Karsten Haustein

Climate Reanalyzer

NOAA El Nino

Hat tip to June

Hat tip to ClimateHawk1

Hat tip to JCH

Possible Record Methane Spike at Barrow, Alaska — What Does it Mean?

There’s no avoiding it — climate change is a controversial subject; a threat that should unify us all that, due to reticence, denial, fear, and a basic lack of understanding, is instead often quite divisive. But among the subjects that stand out as real fodder for acidic controversy, the issue of methane feedbacks from the global climate system — the oceans, thawing permafrost, and especially the Arctic — is one of the worst. There’s a noted tendency to either downplay or overplay risks. Though this polarization is likely fed by the general mysteriousness and complexity of the subject, its potential existential nature also feeds into the heat that methane feedback-related discussions tend to draw.

It all makes one hope for improved discussion on the subject. Given the fact that catastrophic methane feedback appears unlikely (but would have a high overall impact if it did emerge), it’s probable that the subject will continue to generate a difficult conversation for as long as human-forced warming is an issue, and so long as the science continues to remain uncertain.

copernicus-observatory

(The Copernicus Observatory shows surface methane hot spots in China, Africa, South America, the U.S., Canada, Europe, Russia and the Arctic. Note that generally high concentrations still tend to center over the Arctic. Meanwhile, the various hot spots seem to indicate major sources like fossil-fuel industry wildfires, wetlands, droughts, the Arctic Ocean and glacial and permafrost thaw. Also note that current readings indicate a serious rise in global methane concentrations, but not a spike that significantly exceeds peak 20th-century additions. It’s worth considering that, during recent years, expanded natural gas exploration and extraction through fracking has likely contributed a substantial new human methane source addition to the global atmosphere. Meanwhile, there is some concern that the Earth System may be starting to mildly feed back by bleeding additional carbon from warming lands, forests, oceans and permafrost.)

It’s not really a question of whether or not some scientists are concerned or if there is a risk, however ill-defined. Dr. James Hansen has often indicated that a strong methane feedback from the Arctic or world ocean system would be a climate nightmare that could well eliminate the time window to respond to prevent catastrophic warming. Methane and other carbon feedbacks are prime suspects for past hothouse event triggers — potentially playing a role in setting off events like the Permian-Triassic Extinction and/or greatly contributing to the loss of ocean health that was a key feature of these extinction events. Neil deGrasse Tyson alluded to this risk in his 2014 rerendering of the science series Cosmos.

Polar researchers, including those at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), often point to varying risks and potentials for methane feedback from numerous sources such as permafrost thaw. Others fear releases coming from seabed stores — claims that often meet stiff resistance from more established areas of the science. But given how close we are to locking in 2-degree-Celsius or greater amounts of warming this century, it doesn’t take a lot of carbon feedback, methane or otherwise, from the Earth System to generate a problem. Even a moderate feedback would cut the time necessary for carbon emissions draw-downs. It is for this reason that monitoring of the methane, and overall carbon feedback, situation is a necessary part of developing a comprehensive climate change situational awareness (which I have worked hard to develop here at this blog). Which is why, today, we are going to talk a little bit about a big methane spike appearing in the hourly readings near Barrow, Alaska.

Apparent Record Methane Spike in the Hourly Readings at Barrow

Yesterday, climatologist Brian Brettschneider, whose Twitter feed provides a good stream of informed climate change-related updates, posted a truncated version of this NOAA ESRL graph:

hourly-methane-spike

The graph tracks hourly methane readings at the data collection location for Barrow, Alaska. As shown, the recent (and unconfirmed) data set shows what appears to be a record methane spike for that location. Also note that big spikes appear in the hourly data at certain points many times since 2000, as is typical during this time of year. Most notably, a similar very large spike occurred in 2004, one that the recent 2016 spike just edges out.

Looking at the graph, there’s a lot that it doesn’t tell us. Firstly, what is the source of this methane spike? If the spike was an outlier with no periodicity it might indicate the potential for some kind of anomaly or human source. However, since seasonal spikes seem to show up in this graph, this hints that the current spike is environmental. In addition, since Alaska as a whole and Barrow in particular both recently experienced some of their warmest weather on record, there’s some reason to suspect that this added heat played a part in the 2016 spike. And, 2004 also saw a period of then-record warmth during summer in Alaska. So Alaska warming is in line as a suspect cause for the 2016 methane spike.

As anomalous spikes go, this one is pretty big — it apparently set a new hourly record methane reading around 2370 parts per billion for the recording station. But since this Barrow spike isn’t visibly part of some big regional methane plume and since the global monitors aren’t recording a big methane jump as well, we can be pretty certain that this particular spike, if confirmed, is a local and probable short-term issue, and not a sudden, huge methane release issue of global importance. However, it does represent another point in a context that seems to include some big local methane sources popping up in the Arctic environment and possibly indicating a larger, if comparatively moderate, regional feedback taking place in response to the warming and thawing ongoing there. (No consensus scientific study has yet fully confirmed such a preliminary observation, which is a threat analysis-based potential identification on my part.)

So, overall, something to add to the big pot of bubbling concerns — but nothing to light your hair on fire over yet.

Conditions in Context

During the 20th century, large-scale industrialization linked to fossil-fuel burning and extraction helped to drive rapid rates of atmospheric methane increase. These rates peaked during the late 1980s and early 1990s when global policy measures helped curtail methane leakage from fossil fuel infrastructure. According to NOAA, annual rates of global atmospheric methane increase peaked in 1991 at a 14.32 ppb yearly jump.

ch4-trend

(Global methane is again hitting a rapid rate of rise. Though the Earth System appears to be providing some ominous rumblings that feedbacks may be on the way, the present spike is likely primarily due to increased fossil-fuel extraction activity, particularly due to fracking. Image source: NOAA.)

Such curtailments helped to produce a mid-1990s to mid-2000s plateau in the rate of atmospheric methane accumulation. Now, with the advent of fracking and with global warming appearing to generate a number of possible new methane sources (or amplify traditional sources) from the Earth System, rates of annual methane increase are again on the rise. In 2014 and 2015, annual increases hit 12.53 ppb (the third highest annual rate of increase in the NOAA record) and 10.07 ppb respectively (tenth highest). Preliminary reports show that 2016 appears to be on track to hit near 10 ppb worth of atmospheric increase.

As a result, it appears that fracking, primarily, and warming-related feedback (possibly secondarily) are contributing to annual rates of atmospheric methane increase that are comparable to peak periods of increase during the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, these rates of increase, though significantly adding a heat forcing that about equals one quarter to one third of the annual CO2 addition, show no current indication of a catastrophic rate of methane increase that would point toward the major environmental releases some have feared. As such, the greatest part of our ability to currently prevent further rising rates of atmospheric methane comes in the form of rapidly reducing all fossil fuel use and particularly to contain and reduce coal mining and oil and natural gas fracking. And if we do that, there will be less heat stress on the environmental methane stores and less overall long-term pressure for the kinds of feedbacks some of us have come to fear.

Links:

NOAA ESRL

All About Frozen Ground

The Arctic Turns Ugly

Hydrate Catastrophe Unlikely

The Copernicus Observatory

Brian Brettschneider

Toward Improved Discussions: Methane

An Update on Fracking Emissions

Cosmos

Hat tip to Griffin

Permafrost Thaw Triggers Anthrax Outbreak, Wrecks Roads, Generates Carbon-Spewing Peat Primed to Burn in the Heat of Human Warming

About 75 years ago, a reindeer fell sick to anthrax. Laying down to die upon the frozen ground of Siberia, the poor creature’s carcass froze in the Arctic climate. With it, the deadly infectious bacteria teeming in the deer’s body were stilled into an inert latency.

In the decades after, billions of tons of carbon bellowed out into the world’s air from fossil-fuel burning and carbon-spewing machines spreading around the globe. The heat-trapping properties of these carbon gasses subsequently warmed the Arctic and the frozen permafrost that was this ill-fated deer’s — and the anthrax’s — tomb.

Extent of Permafrost NSIDC

(Extent of Northern Hemisphere permafrost. Due to human-forced climate change, this permafrost zone is starting to thaw. At about 2 C worth of warming, a majority of this region will be under thaw pressure. Thawing permafrost releases carbon dioxide and methane, unearths ancient diseases, and causes the ground overlaying the permafrost to collapse. Image source: NSIDC and Google Earth.)

For the deer, there would be no second life, as rising temperatures bring decomposition 75 years after its death. But as the flesh of that deer warmed, the long-frozen anthrax bacteria began to revive. Over the past week, this climate-change-released anthrax spread back into the deer population, killing about 2,300 reindeer. It also leapt into humans, resulting in dozens of hospitalizations, with half the victims as children — and so far, one human death.

The Permafrost Tomb Opens to Release Undead Microbes

Permafrost, when boiled down to its basics, is primarily composed of frozen dead things. Much of the material is leaf litter, grass, wood, bark, flowers, or other frozen plant matter. But interspersed among what amounts to a many-meters-thick pile of frozen peat stretching for thousands of miles around the northern continental boundaries of our world, are millions and millions of entombed animal carcasses. Many of these are thousands of years old. Some have been there for almost two million years. And each of them may carry latent viruses or infectious bacteria.

Thawing Permafrost causes land to buckle and collapse

(Thawing permafrost causes the land to buckle and crack even as it releases ancient microbes long entombed in ice. Image source: NSIDC.)

Cold does not always kill these microbes, which are often resilient to harsh conditions. Viruses are famous for their ability to remain dormant in far-flung biological reservoirs for geological time periods. Meanwhile, bacteria are capable of sporification, the generation of a tough protective shell to ward off extreme conditions. As permafrost thaws due to human-forced climate change, these ancient, long-dormant pathogens can become active.

To this point, LiveScience states that:

Anthrax isn’t the only pathogen potentially biding its time in the permafrost. In 2015, researchers announced that a giant virus they’d discovered in the Siberian permafrost was still infectious — after 30,000 years. Fortunately, that virus infects only amoebas and isn’t dangerous to humans, but its existence raised concerns that deadlier pathogens such as smallpox, or unknown viruses thought extinct, might be lurking in permafrost.

Human activities such as oil drilling and mining in formerly frozen Siberia could disturb microbes that have been dormant for millennia (emphasis added).

As Bloomberg recently noted, the surprises coming from climate change can be similar to those hidden in a box of chocolates. But in this case, the nasty center happened to be anthrax.

Permafrost Thaw Crumples the Alaskan Highway

Thaw of the frozen, carbon-rich permafrost as the world is forced to warm not only poses an increasing risk for dangerous infectious disease outbreaks, it also results in weird changes to the land itself. Thaw causes permafrost to sag — sinking into pits, holes and bogs as the crystalline lattice of the old, melting ice collapses. Anything on top — be it buildings, highways, runways, animal paths, pipelines or telephone poles — can find its foundations undermined.

Such is the case with the Alaska Highway running from central Alaska southward through northwestern Canada. Constructed during World War II, this road has long been a critical 1,387-mile artery through which goods and traffic were delivered to the far north. With human-forced climate change causing the permafrost to thaw, the Highway and the communities it supports are in jeopardy. Every year, large cracks form in the road’s supporting structure — some of them wide enough for a grown man to walk in — as the permafrost beneath the road thaws and deflates.

Permafrost thaw causes roads to crack sag and buckle

(Permafrost thaw is causing northern roads like the Alaska Highway to crack, sag and buckle. Image source: NSIDC.)

Jeff Currey, materials engineer for the northern region of Alaska’s Department of Transportation, recently noted:

“The Romans built roads 2,000 years ago that people are still using. On the other hand, we have built roads that within a year or two, without any maintenance, look like a roller coaster because they are built over thaw-unstable permafrost.”

It now costs more than 50 million dollars every year just to maintain the Alaska Highway. That’s about seven times the average maintenance cost of a road of comparable length. Climate change’s impact on the permafrost is responsible for this increased cost. With so few roads running through the far north, the Alaska Highway is critical to the communities it feeds into. However, as climate change causes the road to break and buckle, the future stability of these communities is called into question.

About 1,800 Billion Tons of Flammable Carbon in the Thawing Permafrost

As if thawing, unearthing of disease-carrying carcasses, and sagging lands causing infrastructure to buckle and collapse weren’t enough, the permafrost itself contains enough carbon to significantly amplify human-forced warming. Some of this carbon will be released due to the process of warming-induced decay. In other cases, since much of that thawed permafrost is flammable peat-like material, direct burning becomes an even more rapid carbon-release mechanism. The vicious cycle can be summed up like this: warming = permafrost thaw = more fires = warming.

“You have this climate and fire interaction, and all of a sudden permafrost can thaw really rapidly,” Jon O’Donnell, an ecologist with the National Park Service’s Arctic Network, recently noted in Mother Jones.

In total, it’s estimated that between 1,300 and 1,600 billion tons of carbon is sequestered in just the top three meters of permafrost. Another 400 billion tons of carbon is estimated to be contained in the deep permafrost. To put these numbers in perspective, the atmosphere today holds about 850 billion tons of carbon. So if all the carbon in the permafrost were to hit the atmosphere as CO2, for example, we’d be sitting near 1,000 ppm of that heat-trapping gas, a truly catastrophic number. Thankfully, various inertia keep such a thing from happening all at once. Permafrost thaw takes time, and the process of transforming permafrost to atmospheric carbon does not occur instantly or completely even after the permafrost thaws. Nonetheless, the amount of heat-trapping gasses coming out of these thawing lands is expected to be significant.

As the Arctic is warming by about 0.6 degrees Celsius each decade, the permafrost thaws and some of the carbon that’s entombed there enters the Earth’s carbon cycle. This happens as the frozen lands heat up and are transformed into peat bogs or piles of dry, peat-like material. Methane and CO2 bubbles or wafts up from the newly-formed lakes and the decaying material below. The thawed peat starts to decay. If the decay is dry, then the carbon is released as CO2. If wet, it tends to release more as methane. At times, this gas blasts great holes in the surface or causes the topsoil and grass to ripple as a methane-filled blister rises beneath it. All that newly-thawed material becomes fuel added to the ever more numerous fires that continue to bloom and rage throughout the northern parts of the world.

Permafrost Burning

(Alaskan wildfire burns through a permafrost zone near a frozen river. Image source: National Park Service.)

In total, it’s estimated that around 160 billion tons of this carbon could hit the atmosphere by 2100. That would be like adding nearly two billion tons to the carbon emission from fossil-fuel burning every year. All told, such an emission would be enough to increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations by around 35-75 ppm (depending on the state of carbon sinks), if it all emitted as CO2.  The extra carbon in the air would then trap more heat, generating a self-reinforcing cycle that we call an amplifying feedback.

The frozen land therefore releases disease as it thaws, it crumbles infrastructure, and as it dries and melts and wettens and burns it releases still more heat-trapping gasses. All reasons why we should be very trepedacious about the now-thawing permafrost — embedded as it is with zombie anthrax — as well as the various and multiple other surprises human-forced climate change continues to serve up.

Links:

Anthrax Spewing Zombie Deer are The Least of Your Warming Planet Worries

NSIDC

The Alaskan Highway is Literally Melting

Alaska Sinks as Climate Change Thaws Permafrost

Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback

The National Park Service

More Wildfires = More Warming = More Wildfires

5 Deadly Diseases Emerging From Global Warming

Hat tip to Colorado Bob (who has been warning about diseases due to thawing permafrost for some time now)

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to DT Lange

(UPDATED)

From the Arctic to Africa to the Amazon, More Troubling Signs of Earth Carbon Store Instability

The time for debate is over. The time for rapid response is now. The Earth System just can’t take our fossil-fueled insults to her any longer.

*****

Arctic Wildfires

(These Arctic and Siberian wildfires just keep getting worse and worse, but what’s really concerning is they’re burning a big hole through one of the Earth’s largest carbon sinks, and as they do it, they’re belching out huge plumes of greenhouse gasses. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Carbon Spikes over the Arctic, Africa, and the Amazon

Today, climate change-enhanced wildfires in Siberia and Africa are belching out two hellaciously huge smoke clouds (see images below). They’re also spewing large plumes of methane and carbon dioxide, plainly visible in the global atmospheric monitors. Surface methane readings in these zones exceed 2,000 parts per billion, well above the global atmospheric average.

Even as the fires rage, bubbles of methane and carbon dioxide are reportedly seeping up from beneath the tundra — generating big blisters of these heat-trapping gasses that are causing sections of the Arctic soil to jiggle like jelly. Greenhouse gas content in the blisters is, according to this Siberian Times report, 7,500 parts per million CO2 and 375 parts per million methane. That’s about 19 times current atmospheric CO2 levels and 200 times current atmospheric methane levels. Overall, these carbon jiggle mats add to reports of methane bubbling up from Arctic lakes, methane blowholes, and methane bubbling up from the Arctic Ocean in a context of very rapid Arctic warming.

Surface Methane

(Methane spikes over Siberia, Africa and the Amazon correlate with wildfires and extreme drought conditions associated with human-forced climate change. Add in carbon dioxide spikes over the same regions of Africa and the Amazon and it begins to look like a visible amplifying feedback signal. Image source: The Copernicus Observatory.)

Meanwhile, a global warming-enhanced drying of the Amazon rainforest appears to be squeezing a substantial amount of these hothouse gasses into the Earth’s atmosphere. Copernicus Observatory surface monitors indicate pools of 600 to 800 parts per million CO2 concentrations near and around the Amazon rainforest. These 100- to 200-mile-wide spikes in CO2 concentration are 1.5 to 2 times current atmospheric concentrations. These very high CO2 levels occur even as methane readings over the Amazon are also abnormally high, a possible precursor signal that the NASA-predicted Amazon rainforest wildfires this summer may be starting to ignite.

Any one of these instances might be cause for some concern. Taking all these various observations together looks like a clear signal that the Earth is starting to produce an increasingly strong carbon feedback response to human-forced warming. If true, that’s some pretty terrible news.

Human-Forced Warming Warps the Carbon Cycle

Each summer, the boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere take a big breath. In the warmer airs, leaves unfurl, grasses grow, and all kinds of CO2-respiring organisms take hold. Together, they produce a frenzy of activity, a riot of life gathering great stores of energy for the next plunge into winter. Over time, this natural capture of CO2 stores this atmospheric carbon in plant matter that ultimately becomes soil, permafrost, or is buried in the Earth in the form of various hydrocarbon stores.

It’s this annual great growth and greening that, in large part, drives the seasonal up-and-down swings of the global carbon cycle — a cycle that, under stable conditions, would generate an annual wave in atmospheric CO2 concentrations running over a long-term flat line.

Surface carbon dioxide

(Surface CO2 readings show boreal forest uptake of CO2 over Siberia, Scandinavia, and parts of North America. Note the CO2 surface hot-spots over the fire zones in Central Africa and over the drought-stricken Amazon rainforest. Image source: Copernicus Observatory.)

Ever since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, human fossil-fuel burning has been adding carbon to the atmosphere. The result is that these seasonal swings, driven by plant respiration, have overlaid a significant upward trend in atmospheric carbon, one that this year pushed peak atmospheric CO2 values to near 408 parts per million. This is a level not seen in about 15 million years.

That increase in its turn has dramatically warmed the Earth — a result that has its own larger impact on plants, on the cycles that influence their ability to take in carbon, and even on the older carbon that was long ago stored in plants but is now sequestered in the soil, permafrost and oceans.

Amazon Drought Africa and Siberia Burning

(LANCE MODIS satellite shot shows extensive wildfires spewing large plumes of smoke over Siberia and Africa. Meanwhile, very dry conditions in the Amazon appear to be generating understory fires even as carbon is baked out of the Equatorial soil. Click image to zoom in.)

Warm the world up, as humans have, and you generate what, in scientific parlance, is a carbon feedback. Overall, the ocean can take in less atmospheric carbon and increasingly bubbles with thawing methane, the soils can store less carbon even as more is baked out in the heat, the plants and peats on balance burn more than grow, permafrost thaws and releases its own carbon. It is this carbon-cycle response to warming that is expected to add more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere on top of that already being released through the harmful processes of fossil-fuel extraction and burning.

Warming Forces More Carbon Out of Lands and Seas, Keeps More in the Atmosphere — But How Much is Still Pretty Uncertain

How much heat-trapping carbon the Earth System will ultimately add to human fossil-fuel emissions is kind of a big scientific question, which is answered in large part by how much fossil fuels humans ultimately burn and how much heat is ultimately added to the Earth’s oceans, glaciers, and atmosphere.

Climate Change Impact on CO2 Simulations

(A sampling of climate model-projected Earth System CO2 feedbacks to human-forced climate change. Note the high level of variation in the model projections. It’s also worth noting that these model projections did not include difficult-to-assess permafrost and hydrate responses to warming over the period through 2100. Image source: IPCC AR 4 — Coupled Climate-Carbon Cycle Projections.)

Back in 2007, the IPCC estimated that around 87 parts per million of additional CO2 would be added to the world’s airs by 2100 (under an apparent assumed final human-driven CO2 accumulation of 700 ppm) as a result of this kind of carbon feedback to human warming. This implied about a 20-percent positive CO2 feedback to warming. However, the model projections were wide-ranging (from 4 to 44 percent) and the overall assessment drew criticism due to a lack of inclusion of permafrost and hydrate feedback estimates.

In 2012, the IPCC produced a more uncertain, complex, and unclear set of projections that notably didn’t include permafrost carbon feedback or methane hydrate feedback model projections, the scientific understanding of which is apparently still developing. But despite a good deal of specific-issue uncertainty, the consensus appeared to state that over the medium- (21st century) and long-terms (multi-century), we’d have a significant amount of extra carbon coming from the Earth System as a result of responses to a human-warmed atmosphere and ocean.

Smoke From African Wildfires

(African wildfires, whose smoke plumes are visible here, are just one of many sources of carbon spikes around the globe triggered by human-forced climate change. Amazon rainforest next? NASA seems to think so. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Overall, there’s a decent amount of support for the notion that the Earth System is pretty sensitive to warming, that it tends to respond to even a relatively small amount of initial incoming heat in ways that produce a good deal of extra carbon in the atmosphere. After all, only a small change in the way sunlight hits the Earth is enough to end an ice age and pump an additional 100 parts per million of CO2 out of the Earth’s carbon stores as a result. The added heat forcing provided by the current human fossil-fuel emission is far, far greater than the one that ended the last ice age.

It is in this understanding and context that we should consider what appears to be an increasing number of Earth System responses to a human-forced warming that has currently exceeded 1 degree Celsius above 1880s averages. It’s easy to envision that these responses would grow in number and intensity as the Earth continues to warm toward 2 C above 19th-century averages.

Links/Attribution/Statements

LANCE MODIS

Coupled Carbon Climate Cycle Projections

Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles

Arctic Methane Bubbles are Leaking 200 Times Above Normal

The Copernicus Observatory

The Keeling Curve

Hat tip to TodaysGuestis

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Clouds of Denial Clear as Rising Storm Tops, Middle Latitude Drying Found to Speed Global Warming

“The data shows major reorganization of the cloud system… I consider this as the most singular of all the things that we have found, because many of us had been thinking the cloud changes might help us out, by having a strong feedback which is going the other way instead of amplifying it.”climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan

“Our results suggest that radiative forcing by a combination of anthropogenic greenhouse gases and volcanic aerosol has produced observed cloud changes during the past several decades that exert positive feedbacks on the climate system. We expect that increasing greenhouse gases will cause these cloud trends to continue in the future, unless offset by unpredictable large volcanic eruptions.”Evidence for Climate Change in the Cloud Satellite Record (emphasis added).

Scientists now have a satellite record of cloud behavior over the past few decades. What they’ve found is that, in response to Earth warming, cloud tops are rising even as clouds are forming at higher altitudes. This traps even more heat at the Earth’s surface. In addition, storms are moving north toward the poles, which means more sunlight hits the temperate regions near 40 degrees latitude both in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. This northward movement of storms also causes the Earth to warm more rapidly. In the past, scientists had hoped that changes in clouds would shelter the Earth from some of the greenhouse gas warming caused by fossil fuel emissions. What we are finding now is that the opposite is true. The way clouds change as the Earth warms appears to be increasing the intensity of greenhouse gas warming.

Sowing the Clouds With Doubt, Denial and False Hope

Will the impacts of human-caused climate change be as bad or even worse than we feared? Will the Earth warm as rapidly or more rapidly than climate models suggest?

These are critical questions. Ones that revolve around the issue of how sensitive the Earth is to the added heat build-up initiated by a large and growing pulse of human-emitted greenhouse gasses. One whose answer will have lasting consequences for all those currently alive today and for many of the generations to follow. For if the answer to this question is yes, then we have responded too slowly to what is now a swiftly worsening global climate crisis (and, according to a new observational study, that answer appears to be, with growing certainty, YES).

Storm Track Heading North

(A new study has found that human forced warming drives the storm track toward the poles. This increases drought risk for places like the US Southwest. It is also a part of a larger cloud feedback that is found to have caused the Earth to warm more rapidly. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

In relation to these questions is a noted relevant scientific uncertainty over the behavior of clouds in response to warming. Mainstream science has long produced state of the art climate models showing that changes in clouds due to Earth’s warming was likely a heat-enhancing (positive) feedback overall. And paleoclimate studies have tended to support the kinds of Earth System sensitivity to heat forcing that would result. But due to the fact that cloud behavior is difficult to model (and confirm through observation), there was a decent level of uncertainty in the science over the issue. And it is this seeming gap in our physical understanding that has spurred a big controversy circulating among climate change skeptics/deniers and the mainstream scientific community.

On the deniers side are people like Judith Curry, Roy Spencer, Richard Lindzen, and Anthony Watts (and their fossil fuel backers) who have broadly asserted that clouds respond to warming in a way that alleviates some of the added heat. The group also claimed that the cooling impact of clouds (negative feedback) was strong enough to reduce the Earth’s overall sensitivity to human greenhouse gas forcing to significantly less than the widely accepted 3 C Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity range (ECS — or about a 3 C warming over an approximate 100 year period for each doubling of CO2, or approximately double that warming over the long term). On the other side are the mainstream scientific heavy weights — including notables like NASA GISS’s Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann of Hockey Stick notoriety — along with a large and growing body of studies producing evidence to support the cloud model essays.

The upshot has produced what could best be called a debate enabled to sow doubt (climate skeptics/deniers tend to receive funding from fossil fuel think tanks and other political bodies, which is a marked and glaring conflict of interest) between actual science and what might well be characterized as an intentionally misleading industry PR campaign.

Climate change gallup serious threat

(Climate change is a very serious threat. It threatens the existence of coastal communities like Miami, Norfolk, and New York City, it’s putting the US Southwest into an increasingly dangerous drought and water shortage situation, it’s driving vector driven illnesses like Zika out of their tropical zones, it’s threatening the stability of global food supplies, it’s forcing mass migration on a scale worse than warfare and conflict, and it’s pumping up the intensity of the most extreme weather events. Despite glaringly obvious trends revealing worsening climate states, just 41 percent of the American public views climate change as a serious threat. This is in large part due to confusion sown by climate change skeptics and deniers. Image source: Gallup.)

Wrapped up by this doubt-sowing were a number of scientists who simply seemed to hope that something (even changes in clouds) would give humankind enough time to make the tough policy choices needed to respond to human-forced warming. This group included a number of well-intending individual scientists who simply appeared unwilling to unequivocally accept the stark implications coming from the model assessments and from the paleoclimate proxy data.

Unfortunately, uncertain understanding of how clouds respond to warming has served either as false comfort or fed into yet one more climate change skeptic/denier based doubt-sowing delaying tactic for much-needed global policy action on climate change.

High Clouds, Middle Latitude Drying Enhance Human-Forced Warming

Now, a new observational study headed by Joel Norris has helped to clear up some of this uncertainty. The study used satellite based observation of cloud behavior over the past 25 years to confirm that alterations in Earth’s cloud  cover is producing an amplifying feedback to human caused climate change. In other words, the heat provided by human fossil fuel emissions is forcing the clouds to respond in ways that warm the Earth even faster.

At issue are two big mechanisms. The first is that warming up the Earth’s atmosphere is observed to be forcing the storm tracks toward the poles. This pole-ward movement is resulting in less overall cloud cover for the middle latitudes. Less cloud cover in this region reduces the coverage of bright, reflective clouds which, in turn, generates a loss of Earth reflectivity (albedo). As a result, more of the sun’s rays enter the Earth’s lower atmosphere in this zone which causes the atmosphere to heat up.

The second big cloud feedback mechanism was an observed increase in upper level cloud formation. This is important because high level clouds act as a blanket, trapping more of the Sun’s heat in the atmosphere. What the study found was that cloud tops were both rising even as the number of clouds at higher altitudes was increasing.

All Cloud Trend

(Higher cloud tops and less cloud cover in the middle latitudes means that the Earth warms faster due to human greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, a poleward movement of the storm track facilitates drying across many continental regions including Brazil, the US Southwest, Europe, and parts of Africa, Asia, and Australia. Image source: Evidence for Climate Change in the Cloud Satellite Record.)

This combination resulted in an observed increase in radiative forcing on the order of 0.39 Watts per meter squared. That’s about a 12 percent increase above and beyond the base additional greenhouse gas forcing currently provided by human beings. In other words, the way clouds respond to human greenhouse gas emissions caused the world to warm up even faster.

In addition to these changes that add heat to the Earth System, there is one noted significant knock-on effect. Loss of clouds in the middle latitudes results in less rainfall for places like the Amazon Rainforest, the US Southwest, and large parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. In this way, shifting storm tracks are an enabler not only to amplified global warming, but also to the increasingly prevalent and severe droughts and wildfires that we are now seeing in many of the most highly populated parts of the world.

The new study appears to be robust and has received support from a number of scientists including Dr. Michael Mann, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan. And in response to those sitting on cloud fences, Ramanthan notes in the Washington Post:

“I consider this as the most singular of all the things that we have found, because many of us had been thinking the cloud changes might help us out, by having a strong feedback which is going the other way instead of amplifying it… The uncertainty is narrowing down. I used to say, if I made a 50 percent overestimation of the global warming, it was due to the clouds. But we are running out of that excuse now.”

(UPDATED July 16, 2016)

Links/Attribution/Statements

Evidence for Climate Change in the Cloud Satellite Record

Clouds Study Alarms Scientists

LANCE MODIS

Gavin Schmidt

Michael Mann

Gallup

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to Miep

City-Threatening Wildfires — The North’s New Climate Future

That great roaring sound you’re hearing may just be another 3.6 billion dollar climate disaster…

*****

Reports are in and it’s official — the Fort McMurray Fire was the costliest disaster ever to impact Canada. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), claims of damages for the massive Alberta wildfire have now topped 3.6 billion dollars. That’s worse than the Alberta floods of 2013 at 1.8 billion dollars (ranked third), and worse than the great Quebec ice storm of 1998 which inflicted 1.9 billion dollars (in 2014 dollars) in damages.

Pyrocumulous cloud

(Fires in northern regions and within the Arctic are now so energetic that they often produce pyrocumulus clouds — like this one which was thrown off by the Fort McMurray Fire.)

CEO Don Forgeron of IBC stated that the damage from the fires provide “alarming evidence” that extreme weather events have increased in frequency and severity in Canada. And that’s especially true for wildfires — which are being worsened by a climate change driven warming. The added heat is lengthening the fire season in Northern Latitudes even as it is generating temperatures that are inhospitable to trees that have adapted to live in much cooler climates. It’s also thawing the permafrost — which adds more peat-like fuels for fires to burn.

The Fort McMurray fire erupted under these new climate conditions and under temperatures that were 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) above average at the time of ignition. It forced the entire city of Fort McMurray to empty. It resulted in the evacuation of 90,000 people, the (darkly ironic) temporary shut down of various fossil fuel production facilities, and leveled 2,400 structures. Many more structures were damaged due to smoke or falling embers. In total, more than 27,000 property claims were filed.

Dozens of massive wildfires Siberia

(Dozens of massive wildfires burn through Central Siberia on July 7th of 2016 in this LANCE MODIS satellite shot. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 220 miles. These kinds of events, according to Greenpeace, burned 8.5 million acres last year in Russia. It’s a new climate context that is turning northern regions into a fire hot zone and it’s not at all normal.)

Unfortunately, this fire is unlikely to be a one-off event. Year after year, an Arctic warming at 2.5 to 3 times the rate of the rest of the globe pulls heat northward. Earlier thaws and added fuels combine explosively with swaths of dead trees killed by rampaging invasive species that have arrived from the south. No northern or Arctic nation has been untouched by the extreme fires. Alaska, Canada, and Siberian Russia have all seen extraordinary and massive fires during recent years. Fires that throw great pulses of heat and burning debris high into thunderheads of flame called pyrocumulus clouds. A word that climate change has now added to the popular lingo.

Links/Attribution/Statements:

LANCE MODIS

Last Damage Estimate For Fort McMurray Fire 3.6 Billion

The Climate Context For the Fort McMurray Fire

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Global CO2 Spike Spurs Hottest June on Record, Extreme Weather For US

According to NOAA, the United States just experienced its hottest June ever recorded in the whole of the national climate record starting 122 years ago in 1895. That’s an average temperature of 71.8 F (22.1 C) across the contiguous United States — or 3.3 F (1.83 C) hotter than a typical June.

NOAA Record heat

(The United States just experienced its hottest June on record. The extreme heat comes alongside a period of record global warmth and helped to spur numerous extreme weather events across the country. Image source: NOAA.)

The new national June record broke the old record set back in 1933 and comes amidst a 13 month long streak of record hot months in the NOAA Climate measure. The record US heat also coincided with an extreme Southwestern heatwave, an apparently unquenchable California drought, record low Lake Mead water levels amidst a 16 year drought in the Colorado River basin, severe US wildfires, and the worst flooding in a hundred years to strike West Virginia.

Record heat — both at the national and at the global level — is a well-known driver of extreme weather events such as wildfires, droughts, and deluges. And NOAA shows that six of the past nine years have seen far above average damages due to severe weather — with 2016 tracking near the all time worst year (2011) for number of billion + dollar disaster events. Meanwhile, extreme weather attribution studies are increasingly providing a physical science basis for linking single and regional events with the larger global warming trend.

Heat Driven By Spiking Carbon Dioxide Levels

At the same time that national temperatures were hitting new record highs, average carbon dioxide levels measured by the Mauna Loa Observatory saw record rates of rise for the month. According to NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory, June of 2016 saw average carbon dioxide levels that were 4.01 parts per million higher than June of 2015. That’s a huge jump in the atmospheric concentration of a greenhouse gas that rose by about 1 part per million every year during the 1960s and during recent years has risen by an average of about 2 parts per million.

NASA CO2

(NASA graphic provides a stark paleoclimate contrast to the human carbon dioxide spike. The current rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 levels is faster than at any time in the last 60 million years and, possibly, faster than for any period in which life occupied planet Earth. Image source: NASA.)

Last year saw a record annual rate of atmospheric CO2 increase of around 3.05 parts per million. But the first six months of 2016 have so far greatly outstripped even 2015’s nasty rise — currently tracking 3.59 parts per million above the first six months of the previous year.

Record global greenhouse gas levels and a spike that is essentially vertical on geological timescales are, in greatest portion, driven by human fossil fuel emissions. These spiking levels of heat trapping gasses, in turn, drive extreme global temperatures and related severe weather events. But as the world’s land and ocean surfaces heat up, they tend to also draw in less of the human carbon emission even as they emit more. Expanding deserts, worsening wildfires, expanding ocean hot pools and thawing permafrost all add to this vicious cycle. And it’s possible that we’re starting to see rumor of these amplifying feedbacks starting to kick in now. Which makes the continued burning of fossil fuel that drives the whole vicious cycle an ever more dangerous prospect.

Links/Attribution/Statements:

NOAA

NASA

June Swoon — US Breaks Another Monthly Temperature Record

Bad Rains Fall Across the Globe

Water Knives in the Near Future

US Drought Monitor

Humans are Likely Culprits of Southern European Droughts

Scientific hat tip to Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to Suzanne

Wildfires in the Land of Frozen Ground — 1,000 Mile Long Pall of Smoke Blankets Burning Siberia

It’s another day in a record hot world. And in a few hours, just below the Arctic Circle in Siberia, the temperature is predicted to hit 33.2 C (or just shy of 92 degrees Fahrenheit). According to climate data reanalysis, that’s about 15-20 C above average for this time of year over a land filled with cold weather adapted boreal forests and covering ground that, just below the first few feet of duff, is supposed to be continuously frozen.

image

(33. 2 C [92F] temperatures run to within 3.7 degrees of Latitude south of the Arctic Circle [66 N]. These are readings in the range of 15-20 degrees Celsius above normal and are likely record ranges for the area. Nearby, enormous Siberian wildfires now burn. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

All along the southern and western boundary of this region of extreme heat, very large wildfires now rage. Sparking near and to the east of Lake Baikal during early April, May and June, the fires have since run northbound. Now they visibly extend along an approximate 1,000 mile stretch of Central Siberia ranging as far north as the Arctic Circle itself.

As recently as June 25th, Russian authorities had indicated that around 390 square miles had burned along the southern edge of this zone in Buryatia alone. For other regions, the tally is apparently uncounted. An unreported number of firefighters are now engaged with these blazes and have currently been assisted by an additional 150 Russian Army personnel. The Interfax News Agency also reports that 11,000 personnel from the Russian Army are currently on standby to battle the massive fires, should the need arise.

Massive Siberian Wildfires June 30

(NASA’s LANCE-MODIS satellite shot for June 30, 2016 shows enormous smoke plumes rising up from intermittent wildfires apparently burning across an approximate 1,000 mile stretch of Central Siberia. For reference, right border of frame is approximately 1,200 miles.)

Today’s Siberia is a vast thawing land and armies of firefighters are now apparently necessary to stop or contain the blazes. Already interspersed with deep layers of peat, melting permafrost adds an additional peat-like fuel to this permafrost zone. When the peat and thawed permafrost does ignite, it generates a heavier smoke than a typical forest fire. This can result in very poor air quality and related incidents of sickness. During 2015, a choking smog related to peat fires forced an emergency response from Russian firefighters. The thick blanket of smoke currently covering Siberia (visible in the June 30 LANCE MODIS satellite shot above) now blankets mostly uninhabited regions. But the coverage and density of the smoke is no less impressive.

Peat and thawed permafrost fires have the potential to smolder over long periods, generating hotspots that can persist through Winter — emerging as new ignition sources with each passing Summer even as Arctic warming intensifies. During recent years, wildfires in the Siberian Arctic have been quite extensive. According to Greenpeace satellite analysis, 2015’s wildfires covered fully 8.5 million acres (or about 13,300 square miles). These reports conflict with the official numbers from Russia. Numbers Greenpeace indicates fall well below the actual total area burned.

(Wildfires erupt to the north and west of Lake Baikal in this June 27 rendering of the Japanese Himawari 8 satellite imagery.)

Thawing permafrost under warming Siberian temperatures not only generates fuel for these wildfires, it becomes an additional source of greenhouse gas emissions. And as the area of land wildfires burn in the Arctic expands together with the heat-pulse of human-forced warming, this amplifying feedback threatens to add to an already serious problem.

Links:

Earth Nullschool

LANCE-MODIS

Climate Reanalyzer

Russian Volunteers Seek a Foothold as Wildfires Rage in Siberia

Interfax

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to DT Lange

Dr James Hansen — Human Warming Pushing Seas Toward Exponential Rise of Several Meters This Century

Continued high fossil fuel emissions this century are predicted to yield … nonlinearly growing sea level rise, reaching several meters over a timescale of 50–150 years. Statement from a new scientific study led by Dr James Hansen entitled Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms.

******

This week, Dr James Hansen and colleagues published one hell of a groundbreaking bit of scientific research. It’s a multi-disciplinary study incorporating the work of 19 top climate scientists, glaciologists, paleoclimatologists, and other Earth Systems researchers. Scientists from NASA, GEOMAR, JPL, and other top research agencies including recognized names like Dr Eric Rignot and Dr Makiko Sato all appear on the contributors list.

Global mean sea level change

(Rates of sea level rise since 1900 and associated with a 1.1 C jump in global temperatures have already shown a non-linear progression. Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms attempts to pin down just how fast glacial melt rates will increase over the coming decades.)

The paper covers three topics related to the rapid accumulation of fossil fuel driven greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and related rapid warming — Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms. In other words, the paper looks into what will likely be the initiation of a Heinrich Event during the 21st Century so long as high levels of human greenhouse gas emissions continue.

A Heinrich Event for the 21st Century

For those not familiar with a Heinrich Event — it’s one of those disastrous climate change related incidents that you really don’t want to see emerge. One that drives rapid sea level rise, wrenching climate dislocations, and is likely also a trigger for regional and possibly hemispheric superstorms. Something that’s occurred numerous times in the geological past when the great Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets warmed enough to disgorge armadas of ice bergs into the North Atlantic and/or Southern Ocean. The kind of thing that scientist Steve Pacala called a Climate Monster in the Closet. And Dr. James Hansen and colleagues’ new study is the first of its kind to scientifically explore the potential occurrence of just such a freak and dangerous event during the 21st Century.

Because the paper covers such a broad range of topics related to Heinrich Events, I’ve decided to write a two-blog post covering it. This post will focus on the ice melt and sea level rise issues. The superstorm-generating aspect of Heinrich Events — which Dr Hansen and colleagues found was capable of producing waves powerful enough to pluck 1,000 ton boulders from the sea floor and deposit them upon hillsides in the Bahamas 130 feet above sea level 115,000 years ago — is something we’ll cover in a second related post over the next few days.

Warm Ocean Waters Attacking Weak Glacial Underbellies

The chief driver of Heinrich Events is spiking rates of glacial melt issuing from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets and related outflow of ice bergs and fresh water into the North Atlantic or the Southern Ocean. Hansen and colleagues’ paper builds on recent work by Eric Rignot and others who’ve found that the contact of warming ocean waters with the submerged sea faces of glacial cliffs and undersides of floating ice shelves is a primary driver for melt and ice berg release during periods of local and global temperature increase.

Heinrich Event Amplifying Feedbacks

(Illustration from Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms shows how ocean stratification acts as an amplifying feedback to glacial melt. Cool, fresh surface waters generated by the initial ice release set up a kind of ocean heat conveyor belt that delivers more and more warm water to the submerged underbellies of the great ice sheets. In Greenland, prograde beds limit the amount of ice that can be released in sudden events. In Antarctica, retrograde beds below sea level set up a situation where the amplifying melt feedback is further enhanced.)

Grounding glaciers and ice shelves are, at first, weakened by slow but ramping melt rates. Eventually, the glaciers and shelves collapse due to the weakening process of melt which leads to a surge of previously buttressed ice sliding out into the oceans. As more fresh melt water expands over the ocean surface, it traps heat into deeper layers of the water column near the submerged glacial faces. So initial melt produces an amplifying feedback that delivers more ocean heat to the ice and, in turn, results in more ice rushing out into the North Atlantic or the Southern Ocean.

Exponential Rates of Glacial Melt and Sea Level Rise

It is this mechanism that Hansen and colleagues fear will come into play over the course of the 21st Century. Their paper identifies a risk that such a mechanism could set up 5, 10, or 20 year melt doubling times for Greenland, West Antarctica or both this Century. A new perspective from some of the world’s top scientists that assumes the risk of non linear melt is high enough to present a major concern. As an example, under a 10 year doubling time, the current approximate 3 mm per year sea level rise would double to 6 mm per year by 2026, 12 mm per year by 2036, 2.4 cm per year by 2046, and nearly 5 cm per year by 2056.

Doubling times in non linear events often don’t fit a pure exponential curve — instead tending to follow a series of spikes and recessions with major transitional events coming at the end of any ‘curve.’ But Hansen’s particular perspective is useful given the fact that current rates of sea level rise do not appear to be following a linear pattern and due to the fact that the mechanism for large, Heinrich Event type glacial melt spikes is becoming more supported in the observational science.

Rate of Greenland Antarctica Mass Change

(It’s still early days for Greenland and Antarctic melt. However, current trend lines do point toward a potential for multi-meter sea level rise this Century. Image source: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms.)

Early measures of Greenland and Antarctica ice mass loss imply 8-19 year melt doubling times for Greenland and 5-10 year melt doubling times for Antarctica. For reference, if both these ice systems continued to double mass loss on a roughly 10 year basis, total sea level rise by the 2090s would equal 5 meters or 16.4 feet. By contrast, a 5 year doubling time would result in 5 meters of sea level rise by the late 2050s and a 20 year doubling time would result in nearly a meter of sea level rise by the end of this Century and 5 meters worth of sea level rise by 2160.

Hansen notes that these are still early days and it is unlikely that ice sheet response trends have become clear at this stage. However, initial trend lines, though likely to be less accurate, appear to pose some cause for concern. In addition, Hansen points out that rates of sea level rise are less likely to be constrained by ice sheet inertia during periods when global temperatures are rapidly rising. Projected rates of global temperature increase in the range of 1-5 C this Century is on the order 20-100 times faster than during the end of the last ice age — at the upper end covering all of the 10,000 years worth of ice age warming in just one Century. And Hansen notes that this potentially extreme rate of temperature increase poses a much greater risk of rapid glacial destabilization than is indicated by current IPCC glacial melt models.

Hansen’s research also points to the likelihood that rapid glacial melt would temporarily put a break on rates of global atmospheric warming by cooling local ocean surfaces and increasing the rate of heat transfer into middle ocean layers. And it’s this energy flip-flop and related heightened imbalance that provides a pretty severe potential storm set-up as rates of glacial melt ramp up.

Links:

Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms

Climate Guru James Hansen Warns of Much Worse Than Expected Sea Level Rise

Dr James Hansen

Dr Eric Rignot

Dr Makiko Sato

Heinrich Event

Climate Monsters We Want to Keep in the Closet

Melting in West Antarctica Could Raise Seas By 3 Meters

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to TodaysGuestIs

The Ominous Greenhouse Gas Accumulation Continues: Peak Methane Approaches 3,000 Parts Per Billion as CO2 Growth Rate Jumps Higher

The world finally appears like it’s slowly starting to wake up from the grips of a fossil fuel influence-induced fever dream. Slowly, despite endemic political meddling by these powerful entities, some changes are starting to happen. Global carbon emissions growth remained flat during 2014 and likely 2015. Renewable energy adoption ramped up. Some major international commitments to reducing global carbon emissions were made.

But the very pertinent question must be asked — are we waking up fast enough? And the still rapidly growing concentrations of gasses that heat the Earth’s atmosphere would seem to supply the answer in the form of a resounding, thunderous — “NO!”

Another Troubling Methane Spike

On January 8th of 2016, we saw another record methane reading for the global atmosphere. The most recent single point peak for NOAA’s METOP measure hit a new all-time atmospheric high of 2,963 parts per billion or just 37 parts per billion shy of the milestone 3,000 parts per billion threshold.

Peak Atmospheric Methane Levels Approach 3,000 Parts Per Billion

(Another record methane spike rockets its way toward the ominous 3,000 parts per billion milestone in the NOAA METOP satellite array. The location of the current spike appears to be in the region of the Arctic where a number of very large carbon stores are now starting to warm up. Image source: NOAA OSPO.)

As has been typical of this particular sensor array, peak methane readings appear directly over the upper Latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere — hinting that this particular spike may have been generated by some Arctic amplifying feedback related carbon source. It’s also worth noting that the array continues to pick up the overall methane overburden pattern centered atop the Arctic. A troubling overburden that has showed up in a number of sensor arrays over recent years and has been one key bit of evidence pointing toward a potential new trend of amplifying carbon feedbacks in the Arctic.

Atmospheric Methane Averages Continue Measured Upward Trend

In the broader context, we continue to see rising average global methane concentrations after a pause in atmospheric increases during the 1990s through the mid 2000s. This rate of increase is a sign that either new human sources, new global feedbacks from methane sources, or a combination of the two are pushing global totals higher. It is worth noting that the lower Latitude measures like Mauna Loa, however, did not pick up a signal that some kind of major-to-catastrophic environmental methane emission was underway. A situation some observational scientists fear may be possible, but that other, more well-established specialists tend to consider far, far less likely. Regardless of the current scientific conjecture, heightened and rising methane readings in the Arctic remain rather troubling.

To these points, methane readings at Mauna Loa by end of 2015 had hit a range of around 1855 parts per billion even as peak atmospheric averages for the year had hit around 1840 parts per billion. Continuing a general trend of rapid atmospheric methane accumulation of about 7-8 parts per billion per year that started in 2008.

Mauna Loa Methane

(Significant rates of atmospheric methane increase that began during 2008 continue in the ESRL/Mauna Loa measure. Though these rates of increase are troubling, they do not at this time indicate that a major or catastrophic release from the global environment has taken place. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Next to CO2, methane generates the second strongest atmospheric heat forcing. Its accumulation in the Earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of major industrialization at the end of the 19th Century has primarily been driven by a number of human sources — chiefly through the activities of coal, oil and gas extraction, industrial agriculture (meat farming), and waste accumulating in landfills. During recent years, there has been some signal that global wetlands — including the thawing permafrost zones of the world — are also starting to contribute to the overall methane load as the world warms up and the carbon cycle starts kicking into higher gear.

Rates of Atmospheric CO2 Accumulation are Also Ramping Higher with El Nino

To this point, rates of atmospheric CO2 accumulation (the primary heat trapping gas in the atmosphere) also appear to be ramping higher coincident with the influence of a monster El Nino now taking place in the Pacific acting together with global greenhouse gas emissions from human fossil fuel burning that remain near all-time record highs. As large regions of the global ocean warm, the ocean’s ability to act as a carbon sink becomes inhibited. In more extreme cases, where the sea surface temperatures of an ocean that’s already saturated with human-emitted carbon become too warm, then CO2 starts to vent back into the atmosphere. And with what is possibly the strongest El Nino on record occurring coincident with a period of massive fossil fuel based carbon emissions, impacts to the rate of atmospheric CO2 accumulation can become quite dramatic.

It’s for this reason that El Nino years in the context of massive, human-based burning can see spiking global CO2 readings. And it appears that just such an event may now be underway.

Mauna Loa 3 ppm CO2 increase december to december

(Atmospheric CO2 levels pushing rapidly above 400 parts per million is the ugly legacy of human-based fossil fuel burning. Most recent two-year section of the Keeling Curve shows a substantial accumulation of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere that is well above the current and already very rapid average annual accumulation of 2.2 parts per million each year. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

According observations taken by Dr Ralph Keeling and fellow researchers at the Mauna Loa Observatory, atmospheric CO2 concentrations jumped by more than 3 parts per million from December of 2014 through December of 2015. This jump in concentration is pretty far in excess of average annual rates of increase in the range of 2.2 parts per million CO2 each year that have been ongoing since the early-to-mid 2000s.

With El Nino still ongoing, we should continue to see such ocean-warming related impacts on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue into 2016. Impacts that may be further enhanced as another strong westerly wind burst along the Equatorial Pacific will likely serve to reinvigorate the current El Nino — making its already substantial influence more long-lasting.

Links:

NOAA OSPO

NOAA ESRL

The Keeling Curve

CO2: The Principle Control Nob Governing Earth’s Temperature

A4R Global Methane Tracking

Hat Tip to mlparrish

Hat Tip to islandraider

 

 

One Week After Frank, Arctic Sea Ice Hits New Record Lows

Extreme weather and climate change. The plight of human civilization facing loss of coastlines, stable climates, and predictable growing seasons. The plight of the polar bear. How are they all linked? Well, for one, it now appears that one of the most powerful storms to strike Iceland — an extraordinarily intense 928 mb low pressure system dubbed Frank by the UK Met Office — has played its hand in helping to drive Arctic sea ice to new daily record lows.

The storm, associated with a powerful high amplitude wave in the Jet Stream, aided in shoving some of the warmest temperatures ever recorded over the North Pole. Setting off a rare period of above freezing temperatures during polar night, this extreme weather event dumped an unprecedented amount of heat into the Arctic during what is typically its coldest season.

image

(Dr. Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist at Weather Underground, explains how extreme weather and weaknesses in the Jet Stream recently contributed to record warming and above freezing temperatures at the North Pole last week. Image source: Voice of America News Screenshot.)

It’s the kind of atmospheric heat engine whose climate and weather altering impacts I discussed with Dr. Jeff Masters, Dr Steven Amstrup, and the hosts of Voice of America’s news show #Hashtag — Michael Lipin and Andrew Palczewski — today. The kind of extreme events that become more and more common as the world warms up, dumping an inordinate amount of latent heat into storms as they form and intensify.

But this particular event’s far-ranging impact could also be seen in a warm temperature shift for the High Arctic during Winter. A shift that brought with it a flatlining of Arctic sea ice accumulation.

Typically, during December and on through mid-April, Arctic sea ice area and extent values continue to rise. The cold of polar night settles in over a broad area of water. Bereft of the heating rays of the sun and typically plunged into temperatures well below freezing, the ocean surface becomes covered in an expanding cap of ice. There it provides a stable environment for so many Arctic creatures that have made that place their home. But it has also helped to provide the stable climate of the Holocene — in which for more than 10,000 years human beings and our civilizations have been able to thrive.

chart

(Red flat line in the upper left shows that 2016 is starting off in the range of new record daily lows for Arctic sea ice. It’s one of the best barometers for climate change impact in the Northern Hemisphere and one that is still showing new declines, even in Winter. Image source: NSIDC.)

This year’s massive Arctic warm-up, in association with Frank, appears to have stranded that essential ice accumulation in dead stop. And as of January 4th, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice extent totals remained at 12.8 million square kilometers. That’s about 90,000 square kilometers below the previous record daily low set on the same day just five years ago during the Winter of 2011. It’s also an extent value fully 1 million square kilometers, an area the size of Texas and Montana combined, below the already depleted 1981 to 2010 average.

Cryosphere Today showed Arctic sea ice area also following that ominous flatline pattern — hitting 12.23 million square kilometers in coverage or the second lowest area on record for the day.

Extreme Arctic Warmth on January 5 2016

(Extreme Arctic warmth on January 5 of 2016 coincides with some extraordinary global heat in the above temperature anomaly map. It’s just one more day in a recent severe spate of Arctic warming that has helped to shove Arctic sea ice into new record low territory over recent days. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

Continued warmer than normal temperatures in the Arctic in the range of 3 to 3.5 C above average for the region may well continue to drive this sea ice flat line over at least the next couple of days, pushing area measures into new record low readings even as extent continues to break records.

Failure to freeze during Winter is one of the driving factors of major Arctic sea ice declines during Summer (often called Winter power over at the Arctic Sea Ice Blog). So with sea ice hitting new lows for a, much warmer than normal cold season, we may need to watch out for potential new major losses come summer time. And that’s bad news for everyone — seals, walruses, polar bears, human beings and for many of the creatures below the Arctic Circle that rely on that frozen region for the maintenance of the climate they evolved and adapted to live in. Dr. Steven Amstrup, who has been a fearless advocate for the innocent creatures most likely to be impacted early by human-forced warming of the Arctic, I’m pretty sure, would agree.

Links:

Above Freezing Temperatures at North Pole During Winter

Voice of America News #El Nino, #North Pole, #Storm Frank

The National Snow and Ice Data Center

Cryosphere Today

The Arctic Sea Ice Blog

Polar Bears International

Weather Underground

Climate Reanalyzer

Scientific Hat Tip to Dr Steven Amstrup and Dr Jeff Masters

Hat Tip to Michael Lipin and Andrew Palczewski

Hat Tip to Kevin Jones for helping me keep my eye on the ball

 

Alaska’s Epic 2015 Burning is One Month Ahead of Previous Worst Year; Canada Conflagration Continues, Eastern Siberia Wildfires Light Off

From Canada to Alaska to Siberia, an immense half-crescent of the Arctic is on fire. The hot spots along this zone include freakish fires with 50 mile fronts, fires that generate thunderstorms from the heat of their updrafts, and fires that paint smokescapes over the lake waters of Canada even as they light the sky red:

(Freakish lake fire burns in Saskatchewan, Canada on Monday, July 13. It’s just one of thousands of fires now raging through Arctic lands and 5,105 fires burning through Canada alone.)

Fires, overall, that have been vastly under-reported in the mainstream media. And, even when they are reported, they include often inaccurate qualifiers.

So what the heck is really going on? The human hothouse is generating an ever-greater burning potential throughout the Arctic. One that has erupted toward new levels of intensity this year. One that is plainly and painfully visible to any who care to look.

*   *   *   *   *

In Alaska, a massive area the size of one and one half Connecticuts (7,300 square miles) has already been consumed by fires. A zone of smoldering tundra, boreal forests turned to ash, smoking bogs, and smoldering, thawing permafrost.

But aside from a handful of responsible sources (see also here), the mainstream media just can’t get what is now likely to be the worst fire season ever to strike Alaska right. So let’s take a few moments to set the record straight on what is an unprecedented burning of Alaska’s warming tundra, forests and permafrost. A burning that is related to human greenhouse gas emissions-based heating of the atmosphere in that the thawing permafrost provides additional understory and methane fuels to fires even as it multiplies the number of fire-igniting lightning strikes.

A Failure to Accurately Report on an Ongoing Disaster Directly Linked to Humanity’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions

At first, a sudden, abnormal outbreak of hundreds of wildfires throughout the Arctic state during June was framed ‘not abnormal.’ That is until June shattered all previous records for worst wildfires ever and put all notions that anything normal was going on soundly to bed.

Next, the narrative ran on the false meme that most of the fires were caused by human hands (of the match tossing variety). Any journalist worth their salt, however, could simply check that pseudo factoid against the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center report to find that 377 fires were lightning-caused (well more than half) and that these lightning-caused fires, as of Tuesday, amounted to a whopping 4,675,000 acres burned. The human match, lighter, and campfire ignited fires? A piddly 30,000 acres. In other words, more than 99 percent of all the area burned was due to a warming-intensified proliferation of thunderstorm activity and related lightning strikes.

Alaska Pyrocumulous Clouds

(Pyrocumulus clouds have been popping up like hothouse amplifying daisies all over Alaska since mid June. This ridge fire appears to be in the process of building its own thunderstorm. Image source: ADN.)

Indirectly, we could certainly call this extra lightning human-caused — as the vehicle of greenhouse gas warming has resulted in a marked increase in lightning strikes to the thawing permafrost and heating forest and tundra fuels. But this particular human cause is certainly not of the typical match-throwing, arsonist variety. It’s another story entirely. A much more important story that far too many sources appear to be (unintentionally or deliberately) missing. A story of the plainly visible and worsening impacts of human-forced climate change.

To use any set of language other than to characterize the Alaska burning as unprecedented, freakish, record, and abnormal is vastly irresponsible. Any attempt to attribute the 4,675,000 acres ignited by warming induced lightning strikes to ‘arson’ is equally myopic and misleading. If you’re reading a source that makes these claims, that source is an invalid and untrustworthy reporting medium. One that can’t keep a handle on even the most basic of facts.

Alaska Burning is One Month Ahead of the Worst Fire Year Ever

And when all the dust of this mass misinformation over a critical issue directly related to human-caused climate change settles, we find that Alaska’s fires are now burning at a rate fully one month ahead of the previous all time record fire year of 2004. Tuesday’s total acres burned of 4,705,000 stood but 1,900,000 acres shy of that record. And at the current rate of burning, that total could be consumed within a mere 7-15 days — putting the current Alaska wildfire season, by late July or early August, at new record thresholds with more than a month left for forests, tundra and permafrost to continue to burn.

Alaska Wildfires July 14

(Hundreds mile long smoke plumes issuing from Wildfires in Alaska on July 14. Image source: LANCE-MODIS)

In the July 14 MODIS satellite shot we can clearly see massive smoke plumes billowing up from the still energetically burning fires in Central Alaska. Lightning laden cumulonimbus clouds ride overhead — a pattern refreshed by a continuous influx of warm storm moisture rising up over the Gulf of Alaska and deflected off the ridiculously resilient ridge (RRR) to the south. The storms are still setting off around 3-7 fires each day. A rate of new ignition that, though slower than June, is pushing total number of Alaska fires toward the unprecedented 700 line.

7.5 Million Acres Burn in Canada

Across the border in Canada a whopping 5,105 fires are now also consuming vast stretches of Arctic land. It’s an outbreak that resulted in the largest natural disaster evacuation in the history of Saskatchewan. One that has drawn firefighters from all over the world to combat an immense proliferation of blazes. Blazes that have burned about 7.45 million acres so far or an area about the size of 2.3 Connecticuts.

When combined with the Alaska fires, the total area now burned in Arctic sections of North America now equals about 12.1 million acres or more than 1 million acres burned since this time last week. Rates of burning for Canada are, like Alaska, in many cases unprecedented. Total acres burned for the Arctic nation are now at two times the five year average and three times the 25 year average. Specific regions, like British Columbia, are seeing as much as 10 to 20 times the typical area burned by mid July.

Vast Wildfire Eruption in Eastern Siberia

Moving on across the rapidly thinning ice of the Beaufort, Chukchi and East Siberian seas, we find that Eastern Siberia is also experiencing a massive wildfire outbreak. Reports from Russia on acres burned have tended to be spotty. But this zone near Lake Baikal has seen a persistent and then an expanding propagation of burn zones toward the north and east since April.

Vast burning in Eastern Siberia

(Vast swath burns through Eastern Siberia on Wednesday. Image source: LANCE-MODIS).

Today, the fire outbreak there could best be described as vast. Stretching from Lake Baikal to the Sea of Okhotsk, the fire zone now encompasses a region more than 1,000 miles across. Scores of large fires can be seen burning beneath a massive cloud of smoke that streams all the way down through China, combining with the nasty coal dust cloud stooping over that fossil fuel victimized state.

One cluster of these fires, visible in the upper left of the image frame above and zoomed in below features fires with fronts in excess of 50 miles long. These are truly immense fires. Individual blazes large enough to consume small states burning through the carbon rich boreal forests and permafrost zones:

Massive Siberian Wildfires

(Immense fires with fronts as long as 50 miles from end to end ballooned in Siberia today. Image source: LANCE-MODIS).

For reference, the above image’s lower frame edge covers more than 250 miles. This gives us a sense of the utterly huge fires burning away from lower right to center frame.

Conditions in Context — Human-Caused Warming Vastly Increases Arctic Wildfire Potential, Wildfires Make Climate Change Worse

The massive outbreaks of fires in Canada, Alaska and Eastern Siberia during 2015 are not occurring in a vacuum. They are not isolated disasters to simply report, confuse, forget, and then report again when the new record fires erupt in 2016, 2017, 2018 or 2019. They are instead symptoms of a larger trend of polar amplification in the Arctic.

The more than 1,400 billion tons of carbon in the permafrost is now being set to rapidly thaw. The permafrost, when unlocked from its primordial, thousands to millions year old, ice traps yields this carbon in solid, liquid, or gaseous form. The solid peats, the liquid organic carbons, and the methane seeps all provide new and highly volatile fuels for wildfires.

In addition, boreal forests are not fire resilient like their more southerly cousins. The trees there do not typically face flame or intense ignition sources. So when an atmosphere heated by human fossil fuel burning produces powerful, lightning flinging thunderstorms in the Arctic for the first time in thousands to millions of years, the trees there have no natural defense against the fires that inevitably ignite. Individual trees may as well be standing sticks of dynamite in the face of this warmth-driven barrage.

Other factors include tree killing pest invasions, the thin mat of flammable material that underlies most Arctic forests, and the drying tendency of the added heat itself.

So much forest, tundra soil and permafrost burning in the Arctic can eventually have its own sort of warming-amplifying effect. For the fires, fires that are likely not even natural to the slower periods of warming faced by Earth during past hothouse events, rapidly unlock the carbon stored in the forests as well as the rapidly thawing permafrost beneath. This release adds to the already extremely intense carbon emission from human beings and further heightens the danger of hitting climate points of no return.

This is the signal the media has lost in all its talk of ‘not abnormal’ and ‘arson.’ A warning cry from the Arctic. And one we had better not ignore.

Links:

Alaska Interagency Coordination Center

Canadian Interagency Fire Center

LANCE-MODIS

Alaska Wildfire Photos

Montreal Lake Wildfire at 250,000 Acres

Scary Statistics For Alaska Wildfire Season

Wildfires Set off Largest Evacuation in Saskatchewan History

How Climate Change Makes Wildfires Worse and How Wildfires Return the Favor

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Alexander AC

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Unprecedented Fire Season Has Burned 11 Million Acres So Far For Alaska and Canada

The land of ice is being transformed into the land of fire.

Greenhouse gas emissions are forcing the air to rapidly warm (half a degree Celsius each decade in some places). Frozen lands are thawing, liberating billions of tons of soil carbon as an ignition source for wildfires. And methane bubbling up from lakes, bogs, and wet zones in the soil itself provides yet more tinder for a rapidly developing Arctic fire trap.

Bog fire in Canada

(What the hell is wrong with this picture? Here we have a bog fire burning away in Saskatchewan, Canada on July 1st, 2015. The bright white color of the smoke is indicative of water vapor mixing in. Due to permafrost thaw, both bogs and related themokarst lakes have been emitting higher and higher volumes of methane over recent years. Methane that could well serve as a volatile fuel for fire ignition over wetlands like the one shown above. Image source: Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment.)

It’s a situation that gained explosive intensity this year as global temperatures hit new all-time record highs and as an obnoxiously persistent ridge in the Jet Stream delivered extreme heat to Alaska and Western Canada. As of today the 652 fires in Alaska alone had burned an unprecedented 3.5 million acres. That’s 3.4 million acres burned since June 18th and more than a million acres ahead of the previous record burn year of 2004. Across the border in Canada, an outrageous 4,672 wildfires had put another 6.6 million acres to the flame — double the five year average rate and nearly three times the 25 year average rate.

Wildfires in Canada now are so intense and widespread that the Canadian armed forces have deployed 1,400 personnel to support in a firefighting effort that has drawn resources from as far away as New Zealand. Earlier this week, the fires forced evacuation of more than 13,000 people in Saskatchewan Province alone. Smoke from the fires combined over the past week to form choking clouds that painted the skies milky-white from Alaska to Canada to the Northern and Central US. Smoke and poor air warnings were issued as far away as Denver Colorado, 1,000 miles to the south of Canada’s blazes. Further to the north and west, a massive smoke plume blotted out the sun over a broad region west of Seattle and Vancouver:

smoke plume Pacific Northwest

(Smoke cloud blots out the sun for massive region of the Pacific Northwest on July 5th. Image source: Rapid Response.)

Over the next few days, rains are expected to aid in what is now a massive fire suppression effort ongoing throughout Canada. However, rains have also brought with them an inordinate number of lightning strikes this year. And, contrary to some ill-informed statements in the mainstream press during the past couple of weeks hinting that people were the primary ignition source, lightning-initiated fires have been responsible for 99 percent of the acres burned in Alaska alone (information on acres burned by cause for Canada fires was not available in the CIFFC SITREP). In addition, fires have also shown an uncanny resiliency to rainfall — continuing to burn at a very rapid rate (250,000 acres in just the past day) despite widespread storms continuing to flood in from the Gulf of Alaska.

All these massive fires are burning through tree, scrub and bog. But, more importantly, they are penetrating the insulating layer of soil and contacting the thawing permafrost underneath. This soil-breaking fire mechanism is further exposing and accelerating the release of soil-locked carbon. It is also setting up situations where fires can burn in a thawed permafrost understory for additional days, weeks and months.

Methane spike to 2525

(Summer is not typically the time of year for substantial methane spikes. But we see them Tuesday in conjunction with increased rainfall, wildfires and thunderstorms throughout the Arctic. Image source: OSPO/METOP.)

We can see a hint of this ominous additional carbon release in the weekly methane readings which this Tuesday hit a peak value of 2525 parts per billion (596 mb) and an atmospheric mean of 1827 parts per billion (496 mb) in NOAA’s METOP measure. Meanwhile, CO2 spikes in the range of 410 to 420 ppm are also widespread throughout the Arctic. Indications that the intense fires are dumping a serious amount of carbon into the local and regional atmosphere .

With billions and billions of tons of carbon stored in the Arctic alone over the past 3-15 million years, we really don’t want to be rapidly warming the Arctic environment as we are. As we can see with this year’s record wildfires we’re actively tossing matches into what amounts to a carbon powder keg. So it’s just maniacally insane that Canada’s government is still planning an all-out production of Tar Sands that will make the already dangerous heat and fire conditions for Canada’s people worse and worse.

Links:

Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment

OPSO/METOP

Rapid Response

CIFFC SITREP

Alaska Interagency Coordination Center

Thousands Flee Homes in Saskatchewan

Massive Smoke Plume From Canada’s Wildfires

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to DT Lange

“Worst Fire Conditions On Record” — As Heatwaves, Drought Bake North American West, Wildfires Erupt From California to Alaska

There are 146 wildfires burning in Alaska today. A total that is likely to see at least another dozen blazes added to it by midnight. A total that has already absorbed the entire firefighting capacity of the State and has drawn hundreds of firefighters from across the country in places as far away as Pennsylvania.

For Alaska, it’s a case of record heat and dryness generating fuels for wildfires.

Alaska wildfires Sunday

(MODIS satellite shot of wildfires erupting over a sweltering Southwestern Alaska on Sunday, June 21. Wildfires in permafrost regions of the Arctic like Alaska are particularly concerning as they are one mechanism that returns ancient sequestered carbon to the Earth atmosphere. A sign of a feedback set off by human warming that will worsen with continued fossil fuel emissions. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Deadhorse, at the center of North Slope oil fields above the Arctic Circle set an all time record high of 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 Celsius) on Sunday. That’s 3 degrees hotter than the previous all time record high of 79 degrees (26 C) set on August 16, 2004. The hottest reading for June at that location was a 68 degree (20 C) measure set in 2007. So, basically, Deadhorse just shattered the all-time record for June by 14 degrees (F) and the globally record hot summer of 2015 has only now gotten started.

Other locations experiencing new records for just Sunday included Kotzebue, which set a new all time record highest low temperature of 62 degrees (17 C). This reading broke the previous all time high minimum mark of 56 degrees (14 C), set in 1987. Bethel and Yakutat both tied their daily high minimum temperature records at 54 and 52 degrees (12 and 11 C), respectively.

And yesterday was just one day in long period of record heat for the State. Last month’s NOAA analysis showed temperatures fully 7 degrees Fahrenheit (4 C) above average. It’s a record heating that is now setting off severe wildfires all over Alaska. According to the state’s Wildland Fire Information Center, the relentless heat and dryness has turned spruce, hardwoods, brush, and tundra into dry fuels vulnerable to any ignition source. Over the past week, ignition has come in the form of lightning — with most of Alaska’s 2015 wildfires set off by nature’s spark.

As a result we are seeing nearly double the number of fires during June compared to a typical year. Fires that have already destroyed 30 structures, forced evacuations, and tapped Alaska’s firefighting resources to its limits.

Wildfires Burning in the Rainforests of Washington as Major Heatwave Approaches

Record hot temperatures and wildfires, unfortunately, are not just an issue for Alaska. They’re a prevalent concern all up and down Western North America. A zone that has seen several years of record hot temperatures and dryness. Extreme weather events fueled by such global warming-linked phenomena as a Ridiculously Resilient high pressure Ridge over the Northeast Pacific that has kept heatwave and drought conditions firmly entrenched throughout much of the region for months and years. An atmospheric condition that is also linked to a hot ocean surface water ‘Blob’ in the Northeast Pacific (which is itself implicated in a growing number of marine species deaths).

Paradise-Fire-June-17

(Paradise Fire burning near a drought-shrunken creek in the rainforests of Olympia National Park, Washington. Image source: NPS and Wildfire Today.)

This week, the added heat also generated wildfires in unusual areas like the rainforests of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Driest conditions since 1951 have resulted in a great deal of fire resiliency loss for forests in the region (1951 was the year of the historic Five Forks Fire, one of the worst ever to impact Washington State). Already, a rare early summer wildfire (called the Paradise Fire) has burned through 417 acres of forest.

Firefighters are doing their best to contain the blaze. But the record heat and dryness are multiplying fuel sources. Fires are enabled by dried lichens growing high up in the trees. When flames touch the lichens they rapidly ignite sending sparks to other lichen-covered tree tops. In this way, flames can leap rapidly from tree to tree under current conditions.

It’s very unusual to see fires in this rainforest zone. And when ignitions have occurred in those very rare cases, they have typically flared during late Summer and early Fall. So this June burning has fire officials very concerned — especially given the nearly unprecedented fire hazard conditions throughout the State. Conditions that are predicted to rapidly worsen as an extreme heatwave is expected to build through the coming weekend.

West Coast Heatwave Saturday

(A major heatwave is predicted to invade the US West and Northwest States this weekend. Washington and Oregon are predicted to experience temperatures more typical of desert sections of California and Arizona. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

Temperatures over large stretches of Washington and Oregon are expected to climb into the 90s and 100s, possibly reaching the 110s (Fahrenheit — Celsius range from 33 to 45) by Sunday. For these typically cool, wet States, this brutal heat blow, should it emerge as predicted, will set off a spate of all time record high temperature readings, deepen drought conditions extending northward from California, and heighten fire conditions that are already in the range of worst ever experienced for sections of these States.

California Experiencing “Worst Fire Conditions On Record”

Moving further south along the U.S. West Coast we come at last to the drought hot zone that is California. A State that is now enduring its fourth year of drought. A drought that tree ring studies show is likely the worst such event in 1,000 years.

These harsh climate conditions were starkly highlighted this weekend as reports from State emergency planning officials now indicate that California is currently experiencing its worst fire conditions on record.

Ken Pimlott, Director of CAL FIRE noted:

We measure the fuel moisture content of all of the vegetation -the brush and the trees and we track that over the course of time and compare it month to month each year. And we put it through formulas and determine how much energy and how much heat it will put out when it’s burning. And we have seen -we saw it last year and we will see it again this year- we’ll be reaching records for potential heat output for times of the year that would normally not be burning in those conditions.

Wildfire nonexistent snowpack

(Large wildfire burns in forests along the slopes of Sierra Nevada Mountains whose peaks are now entirely devoid of snow cover. Note that remaining glaciers are shown turning a dull brown in the June 21 MODIS satellite shot.)

So far this year over 1,100 wildfires have already ignited throughout the State. That’s nearly twice the typical number of 650 blazes popping up by this time of year. Exacerbating this stark context is a state water resource crisis compounded by non-existent Sierra Nevada snowpacks and dead trees that now number in the millions.

This is not Normal, Nor Should We View Widespread, Related Events in Isolation

Record and unusual Alaska, Washington, and California wildfires this season are, thus, not occurring in isolation, but as an inseparable feature of ongoing climate trends related to human-caused global warming. In this case, heatwaves are related to visible and extreme record ocean and atmospheric temperatures that have been ramping both globally and in the regions affected over past years and decades. And the fact that 2015 is continuing as the hottest year on record globally should also not be viewed as separate from the events witnessed all up and down the North American West Coast. Events that were largely predicted in many global climate models assessing the impacts of human based greenhouse gas warming on this vital national and global region.

We’ll end here by considering this thought — it’s only June, yet up and down the North American West Coast we are experiencing some of the worst heat, drought, and fire conditions ever recorded. It’s only June…

*   *   *   *

UPDATE NOON EST, JUNE 23, 2015: Satellite Imagery confirms that, over the past 24-48 hours, the wildfire situation in Alaska has continued to worsen. Widespread and large fires running throughout southwestern, central, northeastern and eastern Alaska today expanded and multiplied:

Wildfires Alaska June 22

(Fires flared to dangerous size across Alaska on June 22nd and 23nd. Image source: LANCE-MODIS)

These rapidly proliferating fires cover a diagonal swath stretching about 800 miles from southwest to northeast across the state. The fires are burning through Alaska’s permafrost zone and current intensity in the satellite image is similar to some of the worst Arctic fires we’ve seen during recent years. A substantial number of these fires feature smoke footprints indicating 5-10 mile active burn fronts. Smoke plume size is now large enough to become caught up in the Jet Stream and impact visual features of skies across the Northern Hemisphere.

Based on these satellite shots, it appears that Alaska is experiencing a heightening and very severe fire emergency — one that shows little sign of abatement over the next few days.

Links:

Deadhorse Sets New All-Time Record High Temperature

NOAA Global Analysis May 2015

Alaska’s Wildland Fire Information Center

More Than 100 New Fires Spring Up Across Alaska

PA Firefighters Heading to Alaska to Battle Wildfires

Wildfires Burn in Olympic Rain Forest

Climate Reanalyzer

LANCE-MODIS

California Fire Says 2015 Fire Conditions are Worst on Record

Die-off of Millions of California Trees Centered in Sierra Nevada

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Arctic Methane Alert — Ramp-Up at Numerous Reporting Stations Shows Signature of an Amplifying Feedback

Over the past few months, reporting stations around the Arctic have shown a ramping rate of atmospheric methane accumulation. The curves in the graphs are steepening, hinting at a growing release of methane from a warming Arctic environment.

*   *   *   *

Alert, Canada Methane June 1 2015

(Alert, Canada methane graph shows atmospheric methane increases in the range of 20 parts per billion in just one year. This rate of increase is 2-3 times the global average for the past five years. A skyrocketing rate of increase. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

A Massive Thawing Carbon Store in the Far North

The science is pretty settled. There’s a massive store of ancient carbon now thawing in the Arctic.

In the land-based permafrost alone, this store is in the range of 1.3 billion tons — or nearly double the volume in the atmosphere right now. Arctic Ocean methane hydrates in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf add another 500 billion tons. A rather vulnerable store that does not include hundreds of billions of additional tons of carbon in the deeper methane hydrates around the Arctic in places like the Gakkel Ridge, in the Deep Waters off Svalbard, or in the Nares Strait. Massive carbon stores of high global warming potential gas locked in frozen ground or in ice structure upon or beneath the sea bed.

But now human beings — through fossil fuel emissions — are dumping heat trapping gasses into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate. These gasses are most efficient at trapping heat in the colder, darker regions of the world. And, due to a combination of massive Northern Hemisphere burning, and release from the Arctic carbon stores themselves, the highest concentrations of greenhouse gasses can be found exactly where they are needed least — in the world’s far northern zones .

Arctic Overburden May 29

(The Arctic consistently shows an overburden of methane gas — both at the ground and upper levels of the atmosphere as seen in this METOP graphic from May 29. Such an overburden is but one of many proxy indicators of a ramping rate of release.)

This accumulation and overburden of heat trapping gasses is causing the Arctic to rapidly warm. A rate of warming (now at half a degree Celsius per decade for most regions) that is providing a heat forcing pushing the ancient carbon stores to release. A heat forcing now greater than at any time in the past 150,000 years (and likely more due to the fact that the Eemian Arctic was rather cool overall). A heat forcing rapidly ramping toward at least a range not seen since major glaciation began in the Northern Hemisphere 2-3 million years ago.

The problem for science, then, is two-fold. First, as oceans warm and permafrost thaws, how rapidly will the carbon stores release? And, second, how much of that carbon store will release as CO2, and how much will release as methane? From the point of view of global warming, both CO2 and Methane emissions feedback is a bad outcome of human-forced warming. But methane, which has a global warming potential of between 25 and 120 times CO2 over human-relevant timescales, has a real potential to make an already bad human heating of the Earth System much, much worse.

Methane Bubbles in Thermokarst Lake

(Image source via Science 2.0.)

Most Arctic Reporting Stations Show Rapid Ramping of Methane Gas Accumulation

For this reason, monitoring methane gas accumulation in the Arctic is a key feature of global climate change risk analysis. If the Arctic shows a spiking rate of methane accumulation, then the carbon stores are more susceptible to rapid release of potent heat trapping gasses and we are facing a high urgency situation in need of rapid global response.

Over the past decade, the Arctic has shown numerous isolated or regional spikes to very high methane levels with an overall continued accumulation within the atmosphere. The Arctic also displayed a major overburden of both methane and CO2 — proxy indications of local carbon store feedbacks already ongoing on a minor-to-moderate scale. This combination of overburden and spikes provided a troubling context, especially when adding in observations of methane store release through thermokarst lakes and, later, blow-holes in locations like Yamal, Russia. But up until last year, we had not seen a third, and more troubling, indicator — the ramping rates of atmospheric methane accumulation that would be an early warning that the Arctic carbon store was indeed starting to blow its stack.

But now, that signal is starting to show up at almost every Arctic reporting station. A steepening curve in the Arctic atmospheric methane graphs. A signal we really, really don’t want to be bearing witness to:

Barrow Methane June 1 2015Alert, Canada Methane June 1 2015

Summit Greenland Methane June 1 2015Svalbard Methane June 1 2015

(Major reporting stations from Svalbard to Barrow show a ramping atmospheric methane accumulation [Click on individual images to expand]. It’s a signal that is yet one more indicator of an amplifying methane and greenhouse gas feedback to human warming now going on in the Arctic. Images provided by NOAA ESRL.)

Now, it seems, at the very least, we are witnessing a spike in Arctic atmospheric methane accumulation. Let’s hope it’s just a spike and not the start of another ugly exponential curve associated with human-forced atmospheric warming. But if we are witnessing the early ramp of such a curve, we should be clear that we are now in the context of a worst-case climate change scenario.

Hot-Button Topic of Critical Importance

For years, conjecture over the possible rate of Arctic Methane release in a human-warmed Arctic has been the source of extreme scientific and media-based controversy. Major oil companies have used the issue as an excuse to continue fossil fuel burning (irresponsibly spreading the meme — ‘we’re screwed, so we may as well just keep burning anyway’). Major climate scientists and related media outlets have sought to tamp down concern over large-scale methane release by issuing articles with titles like ‘Apocalypse Not’ with many generally insisting that there is practically zero likelihood of a large-scale methane release or major amplifying feedback. Meanwhile, the observational studies have continued to indicate risk of at least moderate and possibly strong methane feedback in an age of rapid human heating of the Arctic environment (studies like this recent paper which observed microbes tripling the rate of methane gas release in thermokarst lakes as a response to Arctic temperature increase.) Finally, a group of very concerned observational scientists like Natalia Shakhova, Igor Simeletov and Peter Wadhams have warned that a large-scale methane release is likely imminent and begs a major response from the global community (sadly, many of these proposed responses have come in the form of geo-engineering — methods which are far less likely to succeed and far more likely to generate unforeseen and highly disruptive consequences than simple cessation of human fossil fuel emission and a transition to carbon-negative civilizations).

Mauna Loa Methane June 1 2015

(Mauna Loa methane measure through June 1, 2015 shows that lower Latitude regions are also starting to follow a ramping rate of increase. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

All this controversy aside, what we observe now is the following:

  1. Arctic methane and CO2 overburden — proxy indication of environmental release.
  2. Increasing rates of release, indications of increasing release, or possibly increasing release from single sources such as thermokarst lakes, peat bogs, wildfires, and sea bed hydrates and submerged tundra.
  3. A multiplication of observed or discovered methane release sources — thermokarst lakes, methane blow holes, wildfires etc.
  4. A ramping rate of atmospheric methane accumulation at reporting stations throughout the Arctic (most but not all stations).
  5. A ramping rate of atmospheric methane accumulation from global proxy monitors like Mauna Loa and in the global atmospheric average.

Together, these observations represent a troubling trend that, should it continue, will be proceeding along or near a worst-case climate sensitivity track. As such, these new ramping rates of increase in Arctic atmospheric monitors are a very unfortunate indicator.

Links:

NOAA ESRL

NOAA OSPO

Arctic Methane Skyrocketing

Microbes in Thermokarst Lakes Increase Methane Generation with Warming

Arctic Sea Ice Melt, Methane Release Shows Amplifying Feedback to Human-Caused Climate Change

 

Peak Methane Spike to 2845 Parts Per Billion on April 25, 2015 is Just Uncanny

If you look at the annual methane fluctuations in the Arctic — the region where peak global values tend to crop up — highest readings typically occur during the September-through-October time-frame and then again in January.

Over the past few years, peak values have ranged as high as 2600 parts per billion during the fall of 2014 and then again during January of 2015. Typically, peak values then subside as Northern Hemisphere Winter locks in most of the emitting High Latitude sources and we wait for the Autumn and early Winter overburdens to again emerge. So those of us who keep track of methane kinda just sat tight, expecting at least a somewhat calm spring, and waited for the new peak values that would be most likely to pop up by late this year and early next.

But then, on Saturday, this popped up in the NOAA METOP measure:

Major Methane Spike April 25 2015

(NOAA METOP methane measure finds peak values as high as 2845 parts per billion. An extraordinarily high reading, especially for April. Image source: NOAA OPSO.)

A whopping peak value of 2845 parts per billion at the 14,000 foot level of the atmosphere where methane concentrations tend to top out — especially in higher level clouds that have tended to be associated with Arctic wildfires. A value more than 200 parts per billion higher than daily peaks during January of 2015. All-in-all, a huge and unexpected jump at a very odd time for it.

If we look at the above map we find that most of the peak values are in the region of Russia. With many peak values in areas where major wildfires have been ongoing (Lake Baikal region, Khakassia), where wildfires were just starting to flare up (Northern Ukraine), or above other recently thawing permafrost zones. We also find decent spikes over China, Europe, Iceland, spots of the High Arctic, Canada and Alaska, Central Africa, The Indian Ocean, and over Antarctica.

Daily Mean Values Pop as Well

Sam Carana over at Arctic News caught the spike earlier this week and provided this very informative graph cataloging 14,000 to 18,000 foot methane levels for 2015:

Daily Methane Highest Mean 2015

(Daily mean and peak values provided by Sam Carana show how much of an outlier the April 25 spike is. Image source: Arctic News.)

And what we find, from looking at the graph, is that not only did peak values spike to an extraordinary high level in late April, but mean values also took a big jump — rising from 1807 ppb on January 10 to a peak of 1829 ppb on April 22nd. A 12 parts per billion bump in the entire global measure over a four month period (average annual rates of increase have been in the range of 7 parts per billion each year recently). A raging pace of increase 5 times faster than the annual trend.

It’s worth noting that daily peak and mean values do tend to swing back and forth quite vigorously. As an example, a peak mean value of 1839 ppb was recorded on September 7 of 2014. But, as noted above, these are extraordinarily abnormal high values for April. A quite unsettling methane spike at a very odd time of year and happening on dates and over locations that may suggest permafrost zone fire involvement.

Conditions in Context

For context, methane is an extraordinarily powerful greenhouse gas with a global warming potential about 30-40 times that of CO2 over meaningful timescales. Global atmospheric averages for methane have jumped from around 725 parts per billion during the 18th Century to above 1820 parts per billion now. A major scientific controversy is now ongoing over the issue of how rapidly global carbon stores will respond to an extraordinary pace of human warming — with some observational specialists raising the possibility of a very large methane contribution from now activating carbon stores in the Arctic.

Links:

NOAA OPSO

Methane Levels as High as 2845 Parts Per Billion

NASA: Melting, Darkening Arctic Ocean Turns Up Solar Heat by 5 Percent

Atop the world lies a thinning veil of ice. A gossamer lid covering a deep, dark Arctic Ocean. It is a reflector screen for incoming solar radiation during the months-long-day of Polar Summer. And a recent NASA study shows that this heat shield is starting to fail.

Ever since the late 1970s an Arctic warming at 2-3 times the rate of the rest of the globe has set off a 13.3 percent decline of sea ice at end summer during each and every following decade. And that cumulative loss is having an extraordinary impact. For the white, reflective ice cover by September has now, on average, fallen by nearly 50%. What remains is a thinner ice cover. One full of holes and interspersed with great and widening expanses of dark water.

Dark water and thinner, less contiguous, ice absorbs more of the sun’s heat. NASA notes that this added absorption can have far-flung impacts:

While sea ice is mostly white and reflects the sun’s rays, ocean water is dark and absorbs the sun’s energy at a higher rate. A decline in the region’s albedo – its reflectivity, in effect – has been a key concern among scientists since the summer Arctic sea ice cover began shrinking in recent decades. As more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the climate system, it enhances ongoing warming in the region, which is more pronounced than anywhere else on the planet.

For years, polar scientists have been warning of signs this powerful amplifying feedback was speeding an already drastic warming for the Arctic environment. Now, a 15 year satellite survey conducted by NASA provides direct evidence that this is indeed the case — with the Arctic now absorbing 5% more incoming solar energy than it did in the year 2000.

Arctic Sea Ice Changes

(Click Image to Enlarge. Left frame shows summer sea ice fraction change with measures in dark blue showing a greater than 50% loss on average. Right frame shows changes in absorbed solar radiation with most of the Arctic showing a 5 watt per meter squared or greater increase in solar radiation absorption and sections of the Beaufort Sea peaking at 50 watts per meter squared additional solar radiation absorption. Image source: NASA.)

Averaged over the Arctic, the failing summer sea ice and newly revealed dark waters absorb an extra 10 watts per meter squared of solar heat radiation. That extra heat is equivalent to having a 10 watt light bulb burning on every square meter of the Arctic Ocean surface throughout the entire polar summer. Twenty four hours per day, seven days a week for the seasonal period.

In some regions, like the Beaufort Sea near Northern Canada and Alaska, the extra heat absorption is as much as 50 watts per meter squared greater than year 2000 levels. An extraordinary increase in Arctic Ocean heat uptake and, perhaps, one of the chief reasons why higher Latitude ocean surface temperatures have tended to range so high in recent years.

It’s a massive realignment of the Earth’s radiative balance and one that has occurred in only a relatively short period.

NASA scientists are quick to caution that to fully take into account climate variability, the study will need to continue for another 15 years. But when taking into account the massive 35 year drop off in sea ice since 1979, it appears likely that radiative balance changes are even greater than the 15 year NASA study indicates.

September Arctic Sea Ice Loss 1979-2014

(NSIDC sea ice extent losses for Arctic since 1979 showing a 13.3% decadal rate of decline. Image source: NSIDC. Note NSIDC adds a linear trend line. However, historic rates likely show a more rapidly down curving melt progression — see image below.)

Overall, this loss of sea ice and related increased heat absorption has pushed melt season onset times a full week sooner than 1982 onsets 32 years ago. Earlier melt season starts lead to more heat absorption — a classic feedback cycle also recognized in the new NASA report.

In addition, the report links added Arctic Ocean summer heat absorption to loss of older, thicker ice observed throughout the Arctic region. Since 2000, more than 1.4 million square kilometers of 3 meter or thicker ice has melted out of the Arctic Ocean system. That ice has been replaced by coverages of less than 2 meters in thickness — another aspect of amplifying warming feedbacks at play in the Arctic.

Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland, notes:

Having younger and thus thinner ice during winter makes the system more vulnerable to ice loss during the summer melt season.

Whether these amplifying feedbacks will result in ice free summer conditions sooner rather than later is still a matter of some discussion among scientists. Following the 13.3 percent per decade trend puts us at ice free summers sometime around 2030-2035. But the large swings in annual variability could result in an earlier year in which ice free conditions occur. In addition, some scientists assert that amplifying heat feedbacks in the Arctic are enough to result in ice free summers as soon as 2017 to 2020.

To this point it may be worth considering that the 13.3 percent per decade rate may be steepening as is hinted at in the below long term graph:

2014_sea_ice_NSIDC_extended

(Long term melt trend compiled by Larry Hamilton. Image source: Here.)

Regardless of timing, the historic loss of Arctic sea ice is already resulting in dramatic impacts to the Earth’s radiative balance and to the distribution of global surface heat absorption. A circumstance that a number of studies have implicated in changing Jet Stream patterns and enhanced meridional (north to south and south to north) air flows.

Links:

Satellites Measure Increase of Sun’s Energy Absorbed in the Arctic

2014 Melt Season in Review

Arctic Melt Trends

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

Ominous Arctic Methane Spikes Continue — 2666 Parts Per Billion on October 26th

Imagine, for a moment, the darkened and newly liberated ocean surface waters of the Kara, Laptev, and East Siberian Seas of the early 21st Century Anthropocene Summer.

Where white, reflective ice existed before, now only dark blue heat-absorbing ocean water remains. During summer time, these newly ice-free waters absorb a far greater portion of the sun’s energy as it contacts the ocean surface. This higher heat absorption rate is enough to push local sea surface temperature anomalies into the range of 4-7 C above average.

Remnant Arctic sea surface heat

(Remnant extreme heat at Arctic Ocean surface on October 8, 2014. Extraordinary warmth in the range 0f 4-7 C above average is due to recent loss of summer sea ice in the Kara, Laptev, East Siberian and Beaufort Seas. Newly exposed dark surface waters absorb more of the sun’s rays which results in a highly visible temperature anomaly. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer. Image archived by: Arctic News.)

Some of the excess heat penetrates deep into the water column — telegraphing abnormal warmth to as far as 50 meters below the surface. The extra heat is enough to contact near-shore and shallow water deposits of frozen methane on the sea-bed. These deposits — weakened during the long warmth of the Holocene — are now delivered a dose of heat they haven’t experienced in hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of years. Some of these deposits weaken, releasing a portion of their methane stores into the surrounding oceans which, in turn, disgorges a fraction of this load into the atmosphere.

The rate of release intensifies throughout summer. But during the Arctic Fall, it reaches a peak. Then, as sea ice begins to re-form over the surface waters, a kind of temperature inversion wedge develops. The surface cools and the ice solidifies — forming an insulating blanket, trapping heat. The insulating layer, in turn, pushes the anomalously hot mid level waters toward the bottom. This process delivers a final and powerful dose of heat to the Arctic Ocean bottom water and sea bed.

Methane release rates spike as the methane flooding up from the sea bed squeezes out through cracks in the newly forming ice or bubbles up through open waters just beyond the ice edge.

Observed Arctic Methane Over-Burden

During recent years, a troubling methane over-burden has been observed in the atmosphere above these regions during the months of September through November. Dr. Leonid Yurganov — a researcher at the University of Maryland — has been using the IASI sensor to record these events. Last year, he developed this map of September through November methane readings for the 2009-2012 period:

Arctic methane concentrations Sep-Nov 2009-2012

(Highest lower troposphere global atmospheric methane readings were found in the region of the East Siberian, Laptev and Kara seas during September through November of 2009 through 2012. Data provided by IASI. Image source: Dr. Leonid Yerganov via Arctic News.)

The readings above show near-surface averages over a three month period in the regions of highest release. Note that highest methane levels occur over coastal Siberia and in the above ocean zones of near-Russia Arctic Ocean waters.

These measurements have been ramping higher in recent years with near-surface readings in the range of 1950 to 2000 ppb now common for the months of September through November in the areas affected (for comparison, global surface averages are now in the range of 1840 ppm).

By themselves, these measurements are evidence of a substantial Arctic methane release. But further up in the troposphere — at the mid cloud level — even higher levels of methane have been recorded.

For as methane releases from the sea and land surface, it becomes trapped in the mid-cloud layer. There, a sandwich of cloud and moisture form a cap beneath which methane tends to concentrate. In this layer, readings can be quite a bit higher than surface measurements. Recent years have shown numerous instances where methane readings in the mid-cloud layer spiked above 2300 parts per billion.

Last year during September, the now annual plume of methane emitting from the Arctic Ocean pushed readings as high as 2571 parts per billion at this level of the atmosphere. It was a reading more than 700 parts per billion above the global surface average. A spike fueled by the anomalously high rates of methane emission from the Arctic surface waters and Siberian tundra during the Fall of 2013.

This year, despite extraordinarily spotty coverage due to cloud interference, the METOP sensor found Arctic methane concentrations in the range of 2666 parts per billion in the mid cloud layer. The spike occurred just this past Sunday and exceeds the September 2013 spike by 95 parts per billion — a level more than 800 parts per billion above current global surface averages.

Arctic methane spike 2666

(Arctic methane spikes to 2666 parts per billion in the mid-cloud layer on Sunday October 26. Image source: OSPO/METOP.)

In combination, observations of a rapidly warming Arctic Ocean and observations of Arctic methane readings between 6 and 60 percent above the global average in near surface regions and in the mid cloud layer are a clear signal that human-caused Arctic warming is forcing an ever-greater methane release. To a greater and greater extent, large carbon stores are being weakened and tapped by the various mechanisms that are an up-shot of human warming. The location of these large-scale releases, as observed in the satellite record, is confirmation of ground and ocean based observations conducted by Arctic researchers such as Dr. Semiletov and Shakhova. And the releases themselves may well be some validation of our more dire concerns.

This new spike is yet more evidence of a sizeable, anthropogenic-spurred, release that is impacting not only regional methane levels, but global levels as well. Whether this newly observed release is part of a slow global response to the initial human heat forcing — one that will take centuries to fully emerge — or is part of a much more rapid and dangerous response to an also very rapid human heat forcing is now unclear.

What is clear is that feedbacks to the human heat forcing are now starting to become plainly visible. That they are providing evidence of a stronger release from some sources on a yearly basis. A troubling amplifying feedback to the already dangerous and extraordinary human emission. One that should serve both as a warning and as a spur to reduce and eliminate human greenhouse gas emissions from all sources and to switch energy systems away from fossil fuels as swiftly as possible.

Links:

OSPO/METOP

Climate Reanalyzer

NOAA’s Office of Satellite Operations

Arctic News

Dr. Leonid Yurganov

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