New Report: ‘Blowtorch’-Like Ocean Warming Advances Killer Seas, Shifts El Nino, Heats Hydrates

Tampering can be dangerous. Nature can be vengeful. We should have a great deal of respect for the planet on which we live. — Carl-Gustaf Rossby

But as the [IUCN] study points out, 90% of the extra heat that our greenhouse gases trap is actually absorbed by the oceans. That means that the upper few meters of the sea have been steadily warming more than a tenth of a degree celsius per decade, a figure that’s accelerating. When you think of the volume of water that represents, and then try to imagine the energy necessary to raise its temperature, you get an idea of the blowtorch that our civilization has become. — Bill McKibben

The scale of ocean warming is truly staggering with the numbers so large that it is difficult for most people to comprehend. — from the IUCN report Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, scale, effects and consequences

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If there’s one simple fact about past Earth climates that should keep you awake at night, it’s this — warming the world ocean eventually produces a killing mechanism that is unrivaled by any other in Earth’s deep past. Great asteroids, gamma-ray bursters, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanism — none of these can rival the vast damage to life on planet Earth that is resulting from ocean warming.

As a study of the sciences, this assertion would be merely an academic one if the human race weren’t now involved in a great injection of an unprecedented volume of greenhouse gasses into the Earth’s airs. As a critical new ocean report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) points out, these gasses are trapping an extraordinary amount of heat at the top of the world’s atmosphere. In turn, the atmosphere is transferring the lion’s share of this heat — more than 90 percent — into the waters of our world.

The Extreme Amount of Heat Energy Piling up in Our Warming Ocean

As a result, the surface of the world ocean is warming by 0.1 degree Celsius per decade. That may not sound like much, but it takes about four times the amount of energy to warm one gram of water by 0.1 C as it does one gram of air. This property, called specific heat, is a defining aspect of water. Water has the highest specific heat of any common substance.

heat-accumulation-human-forced-zillions-of-joules

(Since the 1970s, about 300 zettajoules’ (ZJ) worth of heat energy has accumulated in the Earth System due to fossil-fuel burning and related greenhouse gas emissions. That’s about 5 Hiroshima bombs worth of heat accumulating every second. Most of that energy has gone into the world’s oceans. So much heat is bound to have consequences, and these impacts are starting to show up in the form of declining ocean health, melting sea ice and glaciers, shifting climate zones and weather patterns, worsening droughts and storms, and threats of Earth System carbon feedbacks. Image source: Explaining Ocean Warming.)

Liquid water is also far denser than air. And this density generates an even higher impact heat energy transfer multiplier. So not only does it take four times more energy to warm a similar weight of water vs air, once warmed, that water contains that higher level of specific heat energy in a much more tightly concentrated package. And when that high heat concentration liquid water comes into contact with other substances — like ice in the form of ocean contact, or air in the form of evaporation, or frozen hydrates on the sea bed — it can pack a serious heat punch.

The vast volume of water in our oceans, therefore, serves as a kind of heat and energy regulator. It takes a lot of energy to warm it up, but once it does, serious environmental changes start to happen as a result. In other words, the temperature of the global ocean could be viewed as the point on which the whole of the Earth climate system pivots. Once the oceans are set in thermal motion, serious changes to the rest of the world are going to take place. To get an idea how much energy the oceans now contain, of how much potential they now have to dramatically alter our world, consider that if these vast waters were not present, the atmosphere now would have already warmed by 36 degrees C due to the heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gasses already in our atmosphere.

Fossil-fuel blowtorch indeed.

Heating Seas Ultimately Become Killer Seas

There’s a starker message to convey here, one that focuses on this simple yet dire question — how do warming oceans kill? In basic terms, they become toxic and anoxic. Warming oceans melt ocean-contacting glaciers. The glacial melt forces seas to rise and forms a freshwater lid on the global ocean, breaking down ocean conveyor belts and preventing mixing. This freshwater lid also deflects heat toward the ocean bottom. This process in turn helps to thaw methane hydrates. Warm waters that don’t mix and that are filled with bubbling hydrates become very oxygen-poor.

barents-algae-bloom

(Massive algae bloom covers tens of thousands of square miles of open water in the Barents Sea during August of 2016. As glaciers melt, oceans stratify and warm; as water oxygen levels drop, and as hydrates vent due to warming, such blooms result in significant reductions to ocean health and a related global mass-extinction threat. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

As the land glaciers bleed out into the oceans, the stratified, oxygen-deprived waters become less and less able to support advanced life. The kinds of life warm, oxygen-deprived waters do support are poison-producing microbes. These microbes thrive in the warm, oxygen-poor waters. If ocean heating continues to progress, the warming seas will eventually fill up with their deadly byproducts. Among the most nasty of these is hydrogen sulfide. If enough of it is produced, it will spill out from the ocean into the nearby air, resulting in land animal mortality as well.

In microcosm, we saw a mild taste of some of these effects this past year in Florida as toxic algae blooms filled the warming state’s waterways and coastlines, even forcing some riverside marinas to close due to toxic gasses wafting up from the purple-green, oxygen-starved waters. These effects are a snapshot of a possible future for Earth’s oceans if we don’t get our act together yesterday.

El Niño Shifted, Ocean Hydrates Threatened

As alluded to earlier in this post, a new report, Explaining Ocean Warming, provides some pretty hard evidence that the oceans are on the move toward a much more harmful global climate state. The study, which has rightly received a great deal of media attention, issues a ‘shot across the bow’ warning to pretty much everyone living today. And it finds serious impacts to the ocean and linked climate systems due to a very rapid human-forced global warming.

These hard findings are worth reading directly:

  1. Sea-surface temperature, ocean heat content, sea-level rise, melting of glaciers and ice sheets, CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations are increasing at an accelerating rate with significant consequences for humanity and the marine species and ecosystems of the ocean.
  2. There is likely to be an increase in mean global ocean temperature of 1-4 degrees C by 2100. The greatest ocean warming overall is occurring in the Southern Hemisphere and is contributing to the subsurface melting of Antarctic ice shelves. Since the 1990s the atmosphere in the polar regions has been warming at about twice the average rate of global warming.
  3. There is likely to be Arctic warming and ice loss, and possibly the essential removal, in some years, of the summer Arctic sea ice within the next few decades.
  4. Over the last 20 years there has been an intensification and distinct change in the El Niño events, with a shift of the mean location of sea-surface temperature anomalies towards the central Pacific.
  5. Currently 2.5 Gt of frozen methane hydrate are stored in the sea floor at water depths of 200 to 2000 m. Increasing water temperature could release this source of carbon into the ocean and ultimately into the atmosphere.

These are all Earth-shattering scientific statements. For those who frequent this blog, points 1 through 3 are probably pretty familiar. The last two, however, require more in-depth explanation.

global-warming-el-nino

(Some scientific studies have pointed out that warming the world ocean will result in a shift of El Niño toward the central Pacific. A new ocean report finds that it’s already happening. Image source: Global Warming May Dent El Niño’s Protective Hurricane Shield, Increase Droughts.)

For a long time now, scientists have believed that El Niño wouldn’t be affected by climate change until the end of this century. But as with sea ice, it appears that such impacts may well be advancing faster than expected. As we’ve alluded to here, there’s been an apparent shift in El Niño toward the central Pacific over recent decades. This may well be a climate change-related shift. The fact that the IUCN report highlights this change is a sign that the broader sciences are starting to tackle the notion of early alterations to El Niño due to climate change as well.

However, the most ominous language here centers around methane hydrate. For years, there’s been adamant push-back against potential risks to hydrates coming from well-respected sections of the climate sciences. Nonetheless, those downplaying the threat of warming to hydrates have yet to produce any conclusive proof as to why warming the ocean bottom and applying heat to hydrates won’t result in at least some feedback from these carbon stores (especially under the higher-range warming scenarios). The IUCN report reiterates this risk by identifying 2.5 billion tons of frozen seabed methane at shallow and mid-ocean depths that will ultimately be exposed to warming — risking both an ocean and an atmospheric release.

These last points serve to underline some pretty basic facts, the chief of which is that pushing Nature, and heating up her life-blood world ocean waters, is a very, very dangerous game. And if this poignant new report sends any message at all it could simply boil down to this — turn back before it’s too late.

Links:

IUCN Report: Explaining Ocean Warming

Specific Heat

Ocean Warming

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

LANCE MODIS

Slimy Green Algae Invades Florida

The oceans are heating up. That’s a big problem on a blue planet.

Global Warming May Dent El Niño’s Protective Hurricane Shield, Increase Droughts

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to George Hayduke

Climate Change is Pushing Lake Okeechobee’s Water Levels Higher — And that’s Bad News For Algae Blooms, Flood Risk

More powerful storms. Heavier extreme rainfall events. Storms with higher potential energy. These are the result of a human-forced warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. And South Florida finds itself sandwiched between heavier evaporation flows streaming off the Gulf of Mexico, a more volatilely stormy North Atlantic, and large rivers of moisture streaming in from the Southeast Pacific.

image

(Atmospheric water vapor levels over South Florida during late June of 2016. South Florida sits between numerous heavily laden atmospheric moisture flows. As human forced warming increases evaporation, these moisture flows expand, resulting in heavier rainfall potentials during storms over South Florida. This climate change dynamic is increasing over-topping flood risks for Lake Okeechobee even as the added heat and rainfall run-off enhances the potential for toxic algae blooms like the one now afflicting South Florida. Image source: Earth Nullschool).

And as these moisture-enhanced storms of climate change dump heavier and heavier rains over South Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, the choice appears to be one between flood risk or toxic algae blooms.

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Flood Risk Worsens With Climate Change

Lake Okeechobee sits at the heart of South Florida. Covering 730 square miles, the lake is bounded on the north, east, and west by farms. Run-off from these farms streams into the lake, feeding the growth of algae blooms. As the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean warmed due to human greenhouse gas emissions, rainfall events over South Florida have grown more intense. This trend increases run-off from pesticide, phosphorous, and nitrogen rich soils which then swell the lake with these chemicals and compounds — many of which promote the growth of cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae).

The increasingly heavy rains also force lake levels higher. During Winter of 2016, the wettest January in South Florida’s climate record pushed Lake Okeechobee’s water levels to 16.4 feet above sea level by February. November through May is South Florida’s dry season. So abnormally wet conditions during a typically dry period greatly increased flood risk for communities surrounding the lake as South Florida entered its June through October wet season.

Heavy rains have continued through recent months and, in order to mitigate the heightened flood risk, the US Army Corp of Engineers has been pumping large volumes of the run-off enhanced, nutrient-rich waters out of the lake in order to relieve pressure on the Hoover Dike. The Dike, for its part, is a 132 mile system of levees surrounding the lake and preventing its waters from flooding local communities during heavy rainfall events.

Lake Okeechobee Algae laden waters South Florida late June

(Lake Okeechobee [upper right of frame] and the algae-laden coastal waters of South Florida as seen in this June 26 LANCE MODIS satellite shot.)

Paul Gray, a scientist with Audubon Florida and Lake Okeechobee expert recently noted:

“One big storm would be a bad situation, really bad. We are nearing the heart of the tropical season and the corps knows they are one storm away from levels they are not comfortable with.”

To reduce pressure on the Dike, the Corps likes to keep Lake Okeechobee in a range of 12.5 to 15.5 feet above sea level. This creates a buffer zone to allow for the impacts of unexpectedly strong storms — like tropical cyclones — which can alone produce enough rainfall to push lake water levels between 1-4 feet higher.

At around 18.5 to 19.5 feet above sea level, the Hoover Dike system is under high risk of a breach or of over-topping. An event which would flood thousands of homes and businesses with 1-5 feet of water and generate a serious risk of loss of life.

So this year, with the dry season acting like the rainy season and with the rainy season now underway, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been releasing much larger volumes from the Lake in what some could call a frantic effort to keep water levels there in the safe range. These efforts, as of Thursday, July 7 produced a Lake Okeechobee water level of 14.93 feet — which was at the top edge of the safe zone. But the effort came at the cost of flushing nutrient rich waters into South Florida’s rivers and estuaries.

Mitigate Flood Risk and Toxic Algae Blooms Result

During recent years, heavy use of fertilizers has loaded up farmland soils surrounding Lake Okeechobee with phosphorous and nitrogen. As human-forced climate change has produced more extreme rainfall events over lands surrounding the lake, greater runoff of these nutrient-rich soils and chemicals into the lake has resulted.

Phosphorous levels, which government regulators like to keep in the range of 40 parts per billion in lake waters, has risen to 100 to 200 parts per billion. That’s 2.5 to 5 times the safe allowable level. And as the Army Corps of Engineers ramped up lake water outflows into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers during recent months, this influx of high nutrient lake waters helped to spur the large algae blooms now afflicting the region.

John Campbell, a spokesperson for the US Army Corps of Engineers recently noted that people often ask:

“‘Why didn’t you release more water?’ Well, this is what releasing more water looks like.”

Due to the increased water outflows from Lake Okeechobee, high nutrient levels hit river systems warmed to bacterial growth enhancing temperatures by climate change. Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) populations in these river and estuary systems then exploded. Goo painted waterways green, putrescent mats of algae formed in calmer waters, and airs smelling of rotten eggs wafted up from the suffocating rivers. These explosive and toxic bacterial growths prompted a declaration of a state of emergency by Governor Rick Scott as four South Florida counties were heavily impacted by the algae blooms.

Algae bloom Florida

(Toxic algae blooms like this one have resulted in beach closures across South Florida. Human-caused climate change spurs an increasing incidence of such toxic algae blooms by increasing water temperatures, which enhances algae growth, and by spurring more extreme heavy rainfall events — which generates increased nutrient influx into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Image source: Surfrider.)

Directly, cyanobacteria can produce a number of toxins capable of harming animal and human organ systems. Most common toxins are neurotoxins and toxins that impact the gastrointestinal track — particularly the liver. In addition, large blooms can deprive waterways of life-giving oxygen. Such anoxic conditions spur fish kills and mass production of hydrogen-sulfide generating organisms — a powerful toxin which generates the sulfuric rotten eggs smell that many South Florida locations are now reporting.

Indirectly, the blooms are unpleasant, unsightly and result in beach closures. And since the blooms became widespread, South Florida has experienced losses to its tourist industry (see toxic algae chokes business) — one of the biggest revenue producers for the State. Yet one more example of how human-forced warming not only harms the health of the natural world, but also harms human systems that rely on such natural wealth and beauty to function.

(Large algae blooms spurred by rising water outflows from an increasingly flood-stressed Lake Okeechobee resulted in tourism industry losses during the Fourth of July weekend of 2016. However, residents are rightfully concerned over long-term health risks due to the algae blooms. Note that purple water in gaps between the algae as well as reports of ‘rotten eggs’ smell is circumstantial evidence of increasing concentrations of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria that tends to thrive in the anoxic dead zones produced by the algae. Video Source: CBS Youtube.)

Conditions in Context

The US Army Corps of Engineers is now reducing Lake Okeechobee water outflows in an effort to limit harmful algae blooms over South Florida waterways and estuaries. Outflow levels, as of June 30 were cut by 35 percent. As a result, some of the nutrients feeding algae blooms will be removed from waterways. But it’s questionable if the large algae blooms can be entirely halted by this mitigation.

Warmer than normal temperatures and heavier than normal rains are expected over this region during the coming weeks and months and these conditions will add to bloom promotion even without a larger pulse of water coming from Lake Okeechobee. In addition, reducing water flows from the lake will again push the lake to rise. And that puts South Florida one large storm away from risking an over-topping of the Hoover Levee System.

Climate change, in this context, has therefore put South Florida in a tough bind between worsening algae blooms over its waterways or worsening flood threats from a swelling Lake Okeechobee. A more immediate problem juxtaposed to the longer term risk of sea level rise — a human-forced ocean invasion which could flood the whole of South Florida by or before the end of this Century.

Links:

Why Drain Lake O? One Storm Could Push it Over its Limits.

What is Causing the Toxic Algae Blooms in Florida’s Waterways?

Army Corps to Reduce Lake Outflows Fueling Toxic Algae Blooms

Toxic Algae Chokes Florida Tourist Industry

Earth Nullschool

LANCE MODIS

CBS Youtube

Surfrider

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

NCAR: Global Temperature Increase To Lower Oxygen Content of Most Ocean Zones by the 2030s

A reduction in the amount of oxygen dissolved in the oceans due to climate change is already discernible in some parts of the world and should be evident across large regions of the oceans between 2030 and 2040. — The National Center for Atmospheric Research in a press release on April 27th.

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Loss of oxygen in the world’s oceans. It’s one of those really, really bad effects of a human-forced warming of our Earth. One of the those climate monsters in the closet that Steve Pacala talks about. The kind of thing we really don’t want to set loose.

Deoxygenated Oceans as Major Killing Mechanism During Hothouse Extinctions

The damage caused by ocean oxygen loss is multi-variant and wide-ranging. The most obvious harm comes in the form of generating environments in which oxygen-dependent life in the oceans can no longer breathe. Any living creature that filters oxygen out of the water for respiration falls under threat due to lowered ocean oxygen levels. A group that includes pretty much all the advanced, multi-cellular life in the seas.

A press statement from the new NCAR study notes:

Scientists know that a warming climate can be expected to gradually sap the ocean of oxygen, leaving fish, crabs, squid, sea stars, and other marine life struggling to breathe.

namibia-hydrogen-sulfide-emission-2007

(Hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria blooms off the coast of Namibia during 2007. Hydrogen sulfide is a highly toxic gas. One that is produced by microbes that live in waters containing little or no oxygen. Image source: Earth Observatory.)

But a second, less immediately obvious hit comes in the form of generating expanding anoxic environments that favor the proliferation of toxin-producing microbes. Called dead zones, these oxygen-poor regions not only provide a suffocation threat to sea life, but they also form areas of water in which environmental toxins can build up. The result is a long-lasting negative impact to the health of life in the ocean and, in the most extreme cases, on land and in the airs as well.

The worst of these toxin-generating microbes are the hydrogen-sulfide producing bacteria. An ancient organism that is incompatible with oxygen-dependent life. A horror out of deep time that has tended to crop up again and again on the list of usual suspects of major hothouse extinction killers. A likely perpetrator of the big ocean and land die offs during pretty much all global warming based extinctions. An organism that dominated the world’s seas and likely vented its deadly gasses into the airs of the world of the Permian — during the worst die-off Earth has ever seen.

In short, hydrogen sulfide is deadly to almost all forms of life that currently dominate the world’s oceans, lands, and airs. And the bacteria that produces hydrogen sulfide requires oxygen-poor environments in which to grow and thrive. A world ocean high in oxygen keeps these little killers hidden away in the deep, dark corners of our Earth. But heat the world ocean up. Deprive it of oxygen. And they start to come out and become a threat (see more in Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse).

Oxygen Loss to Become Widespread by the 2030s

Already today we see regions of the world ocean that are experiencing oxygen loss. Some of this oxygen loss is due to a process called eutrophication. In eutrophication, nutrients overload the ecosystems of water-based environments. As nutrient content rises, large bacterial blooms emerge. Eventually, these blooms overpopulate the waters and devour all the food sources. When the microbes then die en masse, their decay robs the surrounding waters of oxygen — generating a dead zone.

Eutrophication has been sapping the world’s oceans of oxygen over wider and wider regions due to both agricultural run-off (fertilizers and top soils flushed into rivers, lakes and oceans that feed large microbial blooms and related dead zones) and due to nitrogen fall out from fossil fuel burning. But human forced global warming also plays a key roll in the loss of oxygen to the world ocean system.

Ocean Deoxygenation Map

(According to a new study from NCAR, ocean oxygen levels are already starting to fall in some regions due to global warming. If warming continues, NCAR finds that most of the world’s oceans will experience some level of oxygen loss due to this warming and due to a related increased stratification of surface waters. Image source: NCAR.)

The new NCAR study provides an excellent description of how warming the world’s surface waters can reduce ocean oxygen levels:

The entire ocean—from the depths to the shallows—gets its oxygen supply from the surface, either directly from the atmosphere or from phytoplankton, which release oxygen into the water through photosynthesis. Warming surface waters, however, absorb less oxygen. And in a double whammy, the oxygen that is absorbed has a more difficult time traveling deeper into the ocean. That’s because as water heats up, it expands, becoming lighter than the water below it and less likely to sink.

Waters that are less likely to sink are less likely to mix. And waters that are less likely to mix transfer less of the atmosphere’s oxygen to the global ocean. It’s a process called ocean stratification. A set of circumstances triggered by warming that can sap the world’s waters of their ability to support life even as it enhances their ability to generate environments favorable to toxin-producing microbes. And in the absolute worst cases, a stratified, oxygen-deprived ocean can transition into a dead, life-on-Earth-threatening Canfield Ocean.

Mobile Ocean Dead Zone

(Mobile ocean dead zones, like this one seen off the West African Coast during 2015, may grow more widespread as the world’s surface waters are depleted of oxygen due to a fossil fuel emission based warming. A new study from NCAR both explains how warming waters can hold less oxygen and notes that loss of oxygen to ocean surface waters becomes very widespread by the 2030s. Image source: Biogeosciences.)

In the NCAR study, which is well worth reading in full, scientists used model runs to determine when and where climate change would start to deprive the world ocean system of oxygen. The study found that regions off the coast of West Africa, regions west of South America, an area to the west of Australia, and a section of the Beaufort Sea were already experiencing lower levels of ocean oxygen due to global warming. West African seas were the first and hardest hit by warming in the models. This is interesting due to the fact that Namibia on the West Coast of Africa is one of the only regions of the world now observed to experience blooms of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria that extend into the surface waters. West African waters have also generated a number of mobile, low-oxygen dead zones that have spiraled on off into the North Atlantic.

The fact that the NCAR study indicates that global warming has already reduced ocean oxygen levels in a region that is producing both dead zones and, in the case of Nambia, periods during which hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria appear at the surface, is cause for some concern. For by the 2030s, the NCAR model study indicates that global warming will be actively reducing ocean oxygen levels across the vast majority of the North Pacific, a majority of the South Pacific, most of the South Atlantic, and pretty much all of the Indian Ocean region covered in the new research. This raises the risk that open water dead zones like the ones seen off Africa and even hydrogen sulfide producing hot spots like Nambia may begin to creep into other regions of the world ocean — generating further threats to sea life, to fishing industry, and to human beings who depend on healthy oceans for livelihood and for life.

Links:

Widespread Loss of Ocean Oxygen (due to Climate Change) to Become Noticeable by the 2030s

Steve Pacala

Earth Observatory

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Biogeosciences

Mobile Ocean Dead Zones

Eutrophication

Ocean Stratification

Canfield Ocean

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to June

Human CO2 Emissions to Drive Key Ocean Bacteria Haywire, Generate Dead Zones, Wreck Nitrogen Web

Trichodesmium. It’s the bacteria that’s solely responsible for the fixation of nearly 50 percent of nitrogen in the world’s oceans. A very important role for this microscopic critter. For without nitrogen fixation — or the process by which environmental nitrogen is converted to forms usable by organisms — most of life on Earth would not exist.

Now, a new study produced by USC and the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), has found that human carbon emissions are set to drive this essential organism haywire. Forcing evolutionary changes in which the bacteria is unable to regulate its growth. Thus generating population explosions and die-offs that will be very disruptive to the fragile web of life in the world’s oceans.

Trichodesmium_bloom,_SW_Pacific

(A Trichodesmium bloom off New Caledonia. Image source: Earth Observatory.)

Trichodesmium — A Mostly Helpful Bacteria Essential to Ocean Life

Trichodesmium is a form of cyanobacteria. It resides in the near surface zone composing the top 200 meters of the water column. Possessing gas vacuoles, the bacteria is able to float and sink through the water column in order to access the nutrients it needs for growth — nitrogen, iron, and phosphorus. A widespread bacteria, it is often found in warm (20 to 34 C), nutrient-poor waters in the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the North and South Atlantic, the Caribbean, near Australia, and in the Northeastern Pacific.

Trichodesmium congregates in blooms which are generally a straw-like color. For centuries, this coloration has generated its common name — sea straw. However, in higher concentrations it can turn waters red. The Red Sea, for example, owes its name to this prolific little bacteria. Trichodesmium blooms generate a strata that support mutualistic communities of sea creatures including bacteria, diatoms, dinoflagellates, protozoa, and copepods. These small organisms, in turn, are fed on by a variety of fish — notably herring and sardines.

But Trichodesmium’s chief role in supporting ocean health is through making nitrogen in the air and water available to living organisms. It does this by turning environmental nitrogen into ammonia as part of its cellular metabolism. This ammonia can then be used for growth by a wide variety of creatures on up the food chain. Trichodesmium is an amazing producer of this biologically available nitrogen — perhaps generating as much as 50 percent of organic nitrogen in the world’s oceans (70 to 80 million metric tons) each year.

Human Fossil Fuel Burning is Projected to Drive Trichodesmium Haywire

But now a new study by USC and WHOI shows that atmospheric CO2 concentrations projected to be reached by the end of the 21st Century in the range of 750 ppm CO2 could force Trichodesmium’s nitrogen fixation rate into overdrive and lock it there indefinitely.

Trichodesium Nitrogen Fixation before and after

(Rate of nitrogen fixation in Trichodesmium at 380 ppm CO2 [black and red], at 750 ppm CO2 [pink, yellow and light blue], and when CO2 levels are returned to 380 ppm after five years of exposure to 750 ppm levels [dark blue]. Image source: Nature.)

The study subjected Trichodesmium to atmospheric CO2 concentrations (750 ppm) projected under a somewhat moderate rate of continued fossil fuel burning scenario by 2100 for five years. After this five year period of exposure, Trichodesmium nitrogen fixation rates nearly doubled (see above graphic). But, even worse, after the Trichodesmium bacteria were returned to the more normal ocean and atmospheric conditions under 380 ppm CO2, the rate of nitrogen fixation remained elevated.

In essence, researchers found that Trichodesmium evolved to fix nitrogen more rapidly under higher ocean acidity and atmospheric CO2 states at 750 ppm levels. But when atmospheric levels returned to 380 ppm and when oceans became less acidic, Trichodesmium’s rate of nitrogen fixation remained locked in high gear. For an organism like Trichodesmium to get stuck in a broken rate of higher metabolism and growth is practically unheard of in evolutionary biology. Organisms typically evolve as a response to environmental stresses. Once those triggers are removed, organisms will typically revert to a near match of previous states. Strangely, this was not the case with Trichodesmium.

David Hutchins, professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and author of the new study described this alteration to Trichodesium as ‘unprecedented’ stating that:

“Losing the ability to regulate your growth rate is not a healthy thing. The last thing you want is to be stuck with these high growth rates when there aren’t enough nutrients to go around. It’s a losing strategy in the struggle to survive.”

Uncontrolled Blooms, Population Crashes, Biotoxin Production, Dead Zones

Nitrogen is a key component of cellar growth. So Trichodesmium nearly doubling its rate of nitrogen fixation means that the bacteria’s rate of production will greatly increase as atmospheric CO2 levels and ocean acidification continue to rise. Under heightened CO2, the bacteria essentially loses its ability to restrain its population.

La-Jolla-Red-Tide.780

(Large algae/bacterial blooms like this red tide off La Jolla, San Diego are causing the expansion of hypoxic and anoxic dead zones throughout the world’s oceans. A new study has found that one of the ocean’s key microbes goes into growth overdrive as atmospheric and ocean CO2 concentrations rise — which would greatly enhance an already dangerous rate of dead zone expansion in the world ocean system. Image source: Commons.)

As a result, researchers warn that Trichodesmium blooms may run out of control under heightening levels of CO2. Such out of control blooms would rapidly remove scarcer nutrients like phosphorous and iron from the water column. Once these resources are exhausted, Trichodesmium would begin to die off en-masse. As with other large scale bacterial die-offs in the ocean, the decaying dead cellular bodies of Trichodesmium would then rob the nearby waters of oxygen — greatly enhancing an already much amplified rate of anoxic dead zone formation. And we know that anoxic waters can rapidly become home to other, far more dangerous, forms of bacterial life. In addition, large concentrations of Trichodesmium are known to produce biotoxins deadly to copepods, fish, and oysters. Humans are also rarely impacted suffering from an often fatal toxicity response called clupeotoxism when the Trichodesmium produced toxins biomagnify in fish that humans eat. Sadly, more large Trichodesium blooms will enhance opportunities for clupeotoxism to appear in human beings.

Exacerbating this problem of heightened Trichodesmium blooms and potential related dead zone formation is the fact that ocean waters are expected to become more stratified as human-forced warming continues. As a result, more of the nutrients that Trichodesmium relies upon will be forced into a thinner layer near the surface — thus heightening the process of bloom, die-off, and dead zone formation.

Final impacts to ocean health come in the form of either widely available nitrogen, (during Trichodesmium bloom periods) which would tend to enhance the proliferation of other microbial life, or regions of nitrogen desertification (during Trichodesmium die-offs). It’s a kind of ocean nitrogen whip-lash that can be very harmful to the health of life in the seas. One that could easily ripple over to land life as well.

No Return to Normal

But perhaps the most shocking finding of the new research was that alterations in Trichodesmium’s rate of growth and nitrogen fixation may well be permanent after the stress of high CO2 and ocean acidification are removed. Hinting that impacts to ocean health from a rapid CO2 spike would be long-lasting and irreparable over anything but very long time-scales. Yet more evidence that the best thing to do is to avoid a major CO2 spike altogether by cutting human carbon emissions to zero as swiftly as possible.

Links:

Irreversibly Increased Nitrogen Fixation in Trichodesmium in Response to High CO2 Concentrations

Climate Change Will Irreversibly Force Key Ocean Bacteria into Overdrive

Trichodesmium

Earth Observatory

Red Tide Algae Bloom off San Diego

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Trichodesmium: A Widespread Marine Cyanobacteria with Unusual Nitrogen Fixation Properties

Nitrogen Fixation

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Shades of a Canfield Ocean — Hydrogen Sulfide in Oregon’s Purple Waves?

Are we already starting to awaken some of the horrors of the ancient hothouse ocean? Are dangerous, sea and land life killing, strains of primordial hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria starting to show up in the increasingly warm and oxygen-starved waters of the US West Coast? This week’s disturbing new reports of odd-smelling, purple-colored waves appearing along the Oregon coastline are a sign that it may be starting to happen.

Purple Waves

(Purple waves wash over the Oregon beach of Neskowin on August 15. A form of hydrogen sulfide consuming bacteria is known to color water purple. Is this an indicator that the deadly gas is present in Oregon’s waters? Image source: Jeanine Sbisa and Beach Connection.)

A Dangerous Beauty

Oregon beachgoers and ocean researchers alike are flummoxed. There’s something strange in the water. Something that’s coloring the waves of Oregon’s beaches purple even as the off-shore waters are painted greenish-blue. These puzzling purple waves have been washing up along the Oregon Coastline for the better part of a month. And no-one seems to know exactly what’s causing it.

Eyewitness photographer Jeanine Sbisa described the scene at Neskowin:

“The purple was only on the edge of the water. I did not see any patches in the deeper water. ( in fact the deeper water was a beautiful turquoise, instead of the deep blue that it usually is at Winema). Some of the waves were a deep clear purple. Other waves in other segments were a rich foamy lilac color. The colors were amazing. Very beautiful.”

All up and down Oregon’s coastline similar reports have been surfacing. Oregon State Park Ranger Dane Osis photo documented another incident at Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria. And eyewitnesses at some locations have described a ‘funky smell’ issuing from some of the purple-colored waters.

Initial reports have claimed that there’s no evidence the purple waters are harmful. But such assertions may well be premature.

Purple Sulfur Bacteria

At issue is the fact that the waters off Oregon are increasingly warm. They are increasingly low oxygen or even anoxic. Conditions that are prime for the production of some of the world’s nastiest ancient species of microbes. The rotten-eggs smelling hydrogen sulfide producing varieties. The variety that paint the waters green (or turquoise as described by Jeanine Sbisa above) or even an ugly black. And there is one primordial creature in particular that thrives in warm, low-oxygen, funky-smelling water. An organism that’s well known for coloring bodies of water purple — the purple sulfur bacteria.

Purple Canfield Ocean

(Artist’s rendering of what a Canfield Ocean may have looked like. A Canfield Ocean is a deadly hothouse ocean state implicated in 5 of 6 major mass extinction events. And, perhaps, we see a hint of this deadly ocean along the Oregon coast today. Image source: Biogeochemistry.)

In order for blooms of purple sulfur bacteria to form, waters have to be low in oxygen or anoxic. There has to be hydrogen sulfide gas present in the water. And the water has to be relatively warm. This is because the bacteria is warmth-loving, anaerobic, and it uses the sulfur in hydrogen sulfide gas as part of its energy production process.

In the current day, the purple sulfur bacteria is present in anoxic lakes and geothermal vents. But during ancient times and during times of hothouse extinction, the purple sulfur bacteria are thought to have thrived in the world’s oceans — painting them the strange tell-tale purple we see hints of along the Oregon shoreline today. A purple that was the hallmark color of a life-killing hothouse ocean.

In his ground-breaking book “Under a Green Sky,” Dr. Peter Ward vividly describes what a Canfield Ocean may have looked like:

Finally we look out on the surface of the great sea itself, and as far as the eye can see there is a mirrored flatness, an ocean without whitecaps. Yet that is not the biggest surprise. From shore to the horizon, there is but an unending purple colour – a vast, flat, oily purple, not looking at all like water, not looking anything of our world. No fish break its surface, no birds or any other kind of flying creatures dip down looking for food. The purple colour comes from vast concentrations of floating bacteria, for the oceans of Earth have all become covered with a hundred-foot-thick [30m] veneer of purple and green bacterial soup.

The purple sulfur reducing bacteria, though not dangerous themselves, live in a kind of conjoined relationship with the much more deadly hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. The purple, is therefore, a tell-tale of the more deadly bacteria’s presence. And hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria may well be the most dangerous organism ever to have existed on the planet — largely responsible for almost all the great extinction events in Earth’s deep history. For hydrogen sulfide itself is directly toxic to both land and ocean-based life. Its deadly effects are increased at higher temperatures. And not only is it directly toxic in both water and air, if it enters the upper atmosphere it also destroys the ozone layer.

(Video shot on July 18 [please excuse the colorful language] showing purple waters and dead jellies, barnacles and mussels on another Pacific Ocean beach. Video source: Gezzart.)

Purple waters are a sign that the little organisms that produce this deadly agent may be starting to bloom in an ocean whose health is increasingly ailing. Tiny tell-tales that we’re on a path toward a hothouse Canfield Ocean state. A path we really don’t want to continue along through the ongoing burning of fossil fuels. For that way leads toward another great dying.

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Pigmented Salps — An Indicator of Bio-Magnification?

UPDATE TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1: According to reports from Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon’s purple waves are being caused by the large-scale spawning of an oxygen dependent jellyfish-like vertebrate called a salp in the near shore zones along the Oregon coastline. The normally clear salps have apparently developed a purple pigmentation which is coloring the waves in this region a strange hew. The findings, though seemingly reassuring, raise more questions than they do answers.

First, salps do not typically spawn in the near-shore region. However, during recent years, near shore salp spawnings have become more common leading to reports of these jellies washing up all along the U.S. Coastline. Phytoplankton and other bacteria are a typical food source for salps and the jellies are mobile enough to follow this food. So large blooms in the near shore ocean could be one reason for salps coming closer to shore.

Second, salps are typically clear — devoid of any pigmentation. So the question here is how are salps picking up this strange purple color? Since salps are filter-feeders known to eat bacteria, it’s possible that a highly pigmented food source or a source laden with purple sulfur bacteria may be resulting in this odd new coloration for salps. So identifying pigmented salps as the source of the purple coloration does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of sulfur reducing bacteria being present in either the near shore or the off shore waters where salps typically reside and feed. Pigmentation, in this case, may be due to salps bio-magnifying the natural pigmentation in their food source. Given the fact that salp coloration is practically unheard of, it’s somewhat puzzling that marine researchers haven’t investigated this particular mystery a bit further.

Third, the region off the Oregon coastline has been increasingly low in oxygen due to a combination of eutriphication, ocean current change, and ocean warming. This fact of declining ocean health in the off-shore Oregon environment is contrary to assertions circulated in some media sources claiming that large salp blooms are a proof that the environment in the bloom region is healthy. Salp blooms follow bacterial and phytoplankton blooms. And such blooms are well known triggers for dead zone formation. Though salps tend to aid in mitigating these blooms, their presence is not necessarily a sign of healthy waters. Conversely, in the case of very large algae blooms, salps presence may indicate just the opposite. Since salps are oxygen-dependent, it’s possible that the near shore environments where wave mixing tends to oxygenate the water is a drawing these vertebrate jellies closer in due to a loss of an off shore environment healthy enough to sustain them.

As with the freak appearance of pink pigmented salps at Manzanita during 2010, the widespread purple waves off Oregon during 2015 remain somewhat of a mystery. The key question as to why salps, that are known to be a clear-bodied species, are picking up a pigmentation very similar to that possessed by purple sulfur bacteria has not been answered.

Links:

Purple Waves Puzzle Oregon Coastal Scientists

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse — Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans

Purple Sulfur Bacteria

Canfield Ocean

Under a Green Sky

Biogeochemistry

Hat Tip to Wharf Rat

Tumbling Down the Rabbit Hole Toward a Second Great Dying? World Ocean Shows Signs of Coming Extinction.

The last time Earth experienced a Great Dying was during a dangerous transition from glaciation and to hothouse. We’re doing the same thing by burning fossil fuels today. And if we are sensitive to the lessons of our geological past, we’ll put a stop to it soon. Or else doesn’t even begin to characterize this necessary, moral choice.

*    *    *    *    *

The Great Dying of 252 million years ago began, as it does today, with a great burning and release of ancient carbon. The Siberian flood basalts erupted. Spilling lava over ancient coal beds, they dumped carbon into the air at a rate of around 1-2 billion tons per year. Greenhouse gasses built in the atmosphere and the world warmed. Glacier melt and episodes of increasingly violent rainfall over the single land mass — Pangaea — generated an ocean in which large volumes of fresh water pooled at the top. Because fresh water is less dense than salt water, it floats at the surface — creating a layer that is resistant to mixing with water at other levels.

Algae Blooms and Red Tides in the Stratified Ocean

This stratified ocean state began to cut the life-giving thread of the world’s great waters. Reduced mixing meant the great ocean currents slowed. Oxygen transport into the depths declined. Moreover, a constant rain of debris in the form of particulate matter from burning forests and nitrogen oxides from the smoldering coal beds fertilized the ocean surface. Food for algae also came from increasing continental run-off. And a spike in iron loading due to glacial melt added yet more fertilizer. Great microbial blooms covered the world ocean, painting its face neon green, blue, or blood red.

antarctic-algae-bloom-terra

(Stratified Ocean waters hosting massive algae blooms. It’s a combination that can quickly rob ocean waters of oxygen. During the Permian, a transition to stratified and then Canfield Ocean conditions led to the worst mass extinction event in the history of life on Earth. Today, the Southern Ocean’s waters are increasingly stratified due to glacial melt run-off of fresh water. In addition, these waters also host very large algae blooms like the ones seen above in a NASA satellite shot from 2012. Image source: NASA and Live Science.)

Rising CO2 levels increased ocean acidification even as the blooms spread toxins through the waters. When the blooms finally exhausted all the available food in their given region, they died off en masse. And by decay they further robbed the waters of life-giving oxygen. At this point the strains to ocean life became extreme and the first mass deaths began to occur. The stress opened pathways for disease. And the warming, de-oxygenating waters forced migrations to different Latitudinal zones and ocean depths. What life there was that couldn’t move, or couldn’t move fast enough died in place.

Transitioning to a Canfield Ocean

At first, ocean deaths appeared prominently in the bottom regions that saw the most rapid declines in oxygen levels and the swiftest increases in temperatures. For not only did the fresh water at the surface of the world’s oceans prevent mixing — it also prevented the oceans from ventilating heat into the air. Instead, the ocean heat was increasingly trapped at depth. Aiding this process of heat transport into the world’s deeps was a bottom water formation that issued from the hot Equator. There, evaporation at the surface increased saltiness. The heavier, hotter, saltier waters sank — carrying with them the Equatorial surface heat which they then delivered to the ocean bottom.

The hot, low oxygen bottom water became increasingly loaded with methane as the heat activated frozen stores. It created an environment where a nasty little set of primordial, hydrogen sulfide producing, creatures could thrive.  These little microbes cannot live in oxygen rich environments. But warm, anoxic bottom waters are more like the ancient environments from which they emerged. Times long past when the world was ruled by microbes in conditions that were simply deadly to the more complex and cold-loving life forms of later times. To most life, the hydrogen sulfide gas produced by these little monsters is a deadly toxin.

Ancient ocean conditions

(Oxygen, iron and hydrogen sulfide content of the world’s oceans over the past 4 billion years. Ancient oceans were hotter than today. They were rich in iron and densely populated with hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. They were also anoxic. During hothouse events, oceans can again lapse into these ancient ocean states. Called Canfield Ocean environments and named after Dr. Donald Canfield who discovered them, these states are extremely deadly to ocean life. If they become too deeply entrenched, Canfield Oceans can also transform the global atmosphere, resulting in extinctions of land animals as well. Such an event was thought to be the primary killing mechanism during the Permian Extinction. Image source: Nature.)

The rotten-eggs stinking, hydrogen sulfide filled waters at first did their dirty work in silence at the bottom of the warming world ocean. But, steadily, anoxia progressed upward, providing pathways for the hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria to fill up the oceans. Death expanded from the bottom toward the surface.

In all the great mass extinction events but, possibly, one, this heat-driven filling up of the world ocean with deadly hydrogen sulfide gas during hothouse periods represents the major killing mechanism. The other impacts of hothouse waters — ocean acidification and habitat displacement — do provide killing stresses. But the combined zero oxygen environment filled with a deadly gas generates zones of near absolute death in which few things but microbes and jellyfish can live. In rock strata, the anoxic, zones are marked by regions of black as the hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria-filled waters eventually take on the color of tar. In the lesser extinctions, these black zones are confined to the lower ocean levels. In the greater ones, they rise higher and higher.

During the Great Dying, the oceans brimmed full of the stuff. Black, purple and neon green waters bubbled to the surface to belch their lethal loads of hydrogen sulfide gas into the airs. The gas was deadly toxic to land plants and animals alike. And it eventually wafted into the skies, turning it from blue to green and eating away at the protective ozone layer.

In this terrible way, more than 99 percent of all living things were killed off. Of species, about 95 percent of ocean forms were lost with around 80 percent of the land forms being wiped out.

Early Signs of a New Ocean Extinction

The Great Dying of the Permian Extinction 200 million years ago should be a warning to anyone still enamored with the notion that today’s terrifying fossil fuel burning results in any future that is not horrible, wretched, bleak. Today, we dump 11 billion tons of carbon into the air each year — at least six times faster than during the Great Dying. Today, the great melting glaciers are beginning the painful process of ocean death by spreading out their films of stratifying, iron-loaded fresh water. Today fossil fuel industry, industrial farming and warming all together are fertilizing the ocean surface with nitrous oxides, particulates, phosphates flushed down rivers, and an overall increased runoff due to a multiplication of extreme rainfall events.

(The hot blob in the Pacific Ocean is setting off the largest red tide on record. Just one of many dangerous impacts to sea life due to this large region of abnormally warm water.)

And the impacts are visible to anyone who cares to look. In the Pacific Ocean, a climate change related blob of hot water is resulting in mass ocean creature die offs. Low oxygen waters beneath the blob are wrecking large zones of ocean productivity and risking the proliferation of deadly hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. The largest red tide on record has spun off the hot blob. Covering waters 40 miles wide and 600 feet deep, it has left piles and piles of dead shellfish rotting on beaches across the North American West Coast.

Across the Continent, the Chesapeake Bay suffers a proliferation of dead zones and greatly reduced productivity. There’s a rising risk that, during coming years, increased warming will deliver a heavy blow to life in the Bay and turn one of the world’s greatest estuaries into a large hydrogen sulfide production zone similar to the Baltic Sea. In the Gulf of Mexico, a similar dead zone emerges near the outlet of the Mississippi. And out in the Atlantic Ocean, mobile dead zones now swirl providing a roving surface hazard to both the deep open waters and to the coastal regions that now sit in the firing line.

In the Arctic, recently ice-freed waters are now the host of massive blue and green Algae blooms.

Barent Algae Bloom July 2015

(Large blue and green algae bloom covering the southern Barents Sea during late July of 2015. Large algae blooms are now a frequent feature of previously ice covered waters in a warming Arctic. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Ever since the mid 2000s a massive algae bloom like the one pictured above has dominated the Barents Sea during summer time. Often running as deep as 400 feet, this sprawling mat can rapidly deplete northern waters of vitalizing oxygen and result in mass fish kills. Waters around Greenland, in the East Siberian Sea, the Chukchi, and the Beaufort have also hosted large, and potentially ocean-health threatening algae blooms.

And, in the polynyas and open waters off a melting Antarctica, massive algae blooms are also starting to form. Some of the blooms are so dense they emit a nasty rotten-eggs smell — a sign that sulfide producing bacteria may already be active in some of these waters. Fed by iron from melting glaciers, these immense blooms represent rapid explosions of life that can equally rapidly deplete waters of nutrients and then oxygen as they die off.

The blooms and the related expanding, low oxygen dead zones now range the entire world ocean. And where we see the red, the neon green, the cloudy light blue what we see are the signs of another ocean extinction in the making. An extinction that is likely building faster than at any time in the geological past. But we may still be able to avoid another great dying. The amount of carbon we’ve emitted into the world’s airs is immense, but it is still but a fraction of the carbon explosion that resulted in the Permian die-off. It is still a tiny fraction of the carbon that remains in the ground. The carbon that could be burned but shouldn’t. And a rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning now should, hopefully, be enough to prevent another hothouse spurred great dying in the oceans and upon the lands.

As for continued burning of fossil fuels — that results in ever greater risk of unleashing the horrors of the ancient hothouse. A set of now stirring monsters that we should carefully allow to fall back into slumber — leaving them to rest in dreams of the great long ago where they belong.

Links:

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse: Why the Permian-Triassic Extinction is Relevant to Current Warming

Antarctic Glaciers are Loading the Southern Ocean Up With Iron (Not the Good News Some Are Making it Out to Be)

Large Algae Blooms off Antarctica

Under A Green Sky

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Canfield Oceans

Nature

K-T Extinction — Impact or Hothouse Caused?

Climate Change Happening Faster Than Scientists Predicted

How Global Warming Sets off Extreme Weather

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody

Pacific Algae Bloom is The Biggest Red Tide We’ve Ever Seen

Chesapeake Bay Dead Zones

The Atlantic Ocean’s Whirlpool Dead Zones

LANCE-MODIS

When the Great Ice Sheets Start Going Down — Approaching the Age of “Storms”

The great ice sheets are melting with increasing velocity. Melt ponds are forming over Greenland, then pounding heat down through the ice like the smoldering hammers of ancient Norse fire giants. Warming mid-depth ocean waters are eating away at the undersides of Antarctica’s great ice shelves. Pools of fresh water are expanding outward from the bleeding glaciers, flooding the surface zones of the world’s oceans. Sea level rise rates have jumped to 4.4 millimeters per year (see study here). And the North Atlantic Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is slowing down.

Ice mass loss all glaciers

(Accelerating ice mass loss from Antarctica, Greenland and other continental glaciers and ice caps [GICs]. Image source: Geophysical Research Letters.)

Keeping all this in mind, let’s talk a little bit about the ugly transition to phase 2 climate change. A transition it now appears we’re at the start of. The — you should have listened to Dr. James Hansen and read The Storms of My Grandchildren — phase of climate change. The awful, long, stormy period in which the great glaciers really start going down.

*    *    *    *    *

In an effort to organize how human-caused climate change may proceed, it helps to break the likely progression of human-caused climate change down into three basic phases. For this simplification we have phase 1 — polar amplification, phase 2 glacial melt and storms, and phase 3 — runaway hothouse and stratified/Canfield Oceans. For this article, we’ll focus mostly on phase 1 and 2.

Phase 1 — Polar Amplification

During the first phase, human greenhouse gas emissions gradually add heat to the atmosphere. This causes general warming that is most intense at the polar regions, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. Called Polar Amplification, this added heating at the poles occurs due to greenhouse gasses’ ability to increase the atmosphere’s heat trapping efficiency at night, when the sunlight angle is low, or during periods of dimmer light (cloudiness etc). In addition, snow and ice melt cause albedo loss at the poles and greenhouse gasses sequestered within frozen carbon stores may release during warming as ice thaws adding another kick to polar amplification (amplifying feedbacks). Due to lower volumes of continental ice, more low-albedo land mass, more vulnerable carbon stores, and closer proximity to human greenhouse gas emissions sources, the Northern Hemisphere polar zone is most vulnerable to increased rates of warming during phase 1 climate change.

Weather impacts during phase 1 include a slowing down of the jet stream due to loss of polar ice, a multiplication of slow moving weather systems, an increasing prevalence of drought and heavy rainfall events, and a slow ratcheting of the intensity of powerful storms. Phase 1 continues until ice sheets begin to become heavily involved and melt outflows greatly increase. At that point, we begin a transition to a more unstable period of human-caused climate change — phase 2.

Phase 2 — An Age of Storms

During phase 2, ever-increasing volumes of cold, fresh ice and water pulse out from the world’s glaciers. In essence, the great mountains of ice really get moving and there’s nothing left to stop them. The glacial heat content has reached a critical point and the glaciers start moving and crumbling on a massive scale. A seaward avalanche that has essentially become unstoppable due to basic inertia.

Due to highest levels of ice concentration, the regions seeing the greatest impact are areas adjacent to Greenland and Antarctica. Cold, fresh water and ice hitting these local ocean zones have numerous influences. The first is that the local fresh water acts as a lid on ocean-to-atmosphere heat transfer. As a result, atmospheric temperatures in the region near large glacial melts will tend to cool. Warm, saltier surface waters near the glacial outflows are pushed downward by the lighter, fresh water — heating the ocean bottom zone and continuing to melt the underbellies of sea facing glaciers. Ultimately, the meridional ocean circulations in the North Atlantic and in the Southern Ocean are cut off.

Deep water formation is driven toward the equator. This stops heat transport toward the poles in a number of regions resulting in equatorial heat amplification. Meanwhile, the impact of the fresh water ocean lid results in local atmospheric cooling near the glaciers — a counter-trend to a larger global warming.

Weather-wise, we see a reverse of the trends first apparent during phase 1. The cooling of surface zones near the great glaciers puts a damper of phase 1 polar amplification. Meanwhile, the southward progression of fresh surface waters shuts down the oceanic coveyors transporting heat into the polar zones. As a result we see heat building up through a kind of ocean heat transport train-wreck in low latitude regions near the equator. The combined equatorial heating and near glacier cooling increases temperature gradients and amplifies the storm track.

20121230_iceberg_cooling_effect_Hansen_Sato

(Model runs showing temperature anomalies under A1B [near RCP 6.0] scenario warming with 0.6 meter global sea level rise from glacial outflows by 2065 and 1.44 meter global sea level rise by 2080 vs only thermal expansion based sea level rise [right frame images]. Note that A1B implies about 550 ppm CO2 — a bad scenario but no-where near the worst case. Also note that these models do not include carbon store response feedbacks. Finally, the models were adjusted by adding fresh water outflows from glaciers, so this is not a prediction of rate of sea level rise, only a projection of atmospheric impacts under a given melt and ghg scenario. Image source: Greenland Melt Exponential?)

In the Northern Hemisphere, the North Atlantic sees the greatest counter-trend cooling influence in atmospheric regions due to glacial melt. Meanwhile, Arctic regions continue to see (somewhat slowed) warming conditions. The result is a shift of the center of cold air to an off-set zone more toward Greenland and a screaming storm track running oblong over the polar zone and centering over a trough in the North Atlantic. Amazing temperature differentials between the continents, the Polar zone, Greenland, the North Atlantic, the equatorial Atlantic and Africa result in the potential for continent-sized storms packing the strength of hurricanes according to a recent study by Hansen.

The storms would spin up as the unstable cold air over Greenland ravels and unravels in great frontal wings of cold air encountering the hot air roiling at the equator and building in sections of the Arctic and over the continents. Tropical storms forming adjacent to cold core storms would increase the potential for hybrid storm events. And extreme temperature gradients would provide high octane atmospheric fuel for baroclinic systems. Finally, the great melt pulses themselves would supply periods of high global thermal variance. The pre melt pulse times would see rapid warming, while the post melt pulse times would see cooling. This up-down would periodically load and then wring the global atmosphere of moisture, resulting in high risk for extreme deluge events.

Heating the Deep Ocean Sets Stage for Phase 3

Meanwhile, heat at the ocean surface is driven toward the deep ocean by the fresh water melt pulses issuing from the glaciers. So the melt outflows and storms of phase 2 climate change act as an amazing mechanism for atmosphere-to-ocean heat transfer. Which is really bad news for the health of the world ocean system.

This phase 2 climate change age of storms lasts so long as large glacial outflows still issue from Greenland (in the North) and Antarctica (in the South). Since even under the most rapid pace of human-caused warming it would take hundreds of years for the great ice sheets to go down, what we are looking at is a period of possibly centuries. Avoiding phase 2 climate change, on the other hand, involves avoiding rapid destablization of Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets. An issue we may have already pushed too hard to prevent at least some of these storm, ocean, and weather destabilization impacts.

As for phase 3 climate change — that’s a transition to a runaway hothouse and a stratified/Canfield Ocean state. And we really don’t want to see that either. But before we get there, it’s a transition to an age of glacial melt and tremendously potent storms.

Links:

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Why Greenland’s Huge Melt Lakes are Vanishing

Global Sea Level Rise, Ice Melt, El Nino

An Increase in the Rate of Sea Level Rise Since 2010

What’s Going on in the North Atlantic?

Geophysical Research Letters

Greenland Melt Exponential?

The Storms of My Grandchildren

Ocean Dead Zones Swirl Off Africa, Threatening Coastlines with Mass Fish Kills

The world ocean is now a region of expanding oxygen-deprived dead zones.

It’s an upshot of a human-warmed ocean system filled with high nutrient run-off from mass, industrialized farming, rising atmospheric nitrogen levels, and increasing dust from wildfires, dust storms, and industrial aerosol emissions. Warming seas hold less oxygen in solution. And the nutrient seeding feeds giant algae blooms that, when they die and decompose, further rob ocean waters of oxygen. Combined, the two are an extreme hazard to ocean health — symptoms of a dangerous transition to stratified, or worse, Canfield Ocean states.

Coastal Dead Zones -- No Fish Left

(Geographical extent of more than 405 coastal dead zones worldwide. New dead zones discovered by scientists are now traversing mid-ocean regions. Image source: No Fish Left.)

In total, more than 405 dead zones now occupy mostly coastal waters worldwide. Covering an area of 95,000 square miles and expanding, these anoxic regions threaten marine species directly through suffocation or indirectly through the growth of toxin-producing bacteria which thrive in low-oxygen environments.

Mobile, Anoxic Underwater Cyclones

Now, according to new research published in Biogeosciences, it appears that some of these dead zones have gone mobile.

The report finds zones of very low oxygen covering swirls of surface water 100-150 kilometers in diameter and stretching to about 100 meters in depth. The zones churn like whirlpools or eddies. Encapsulated in their own current of water with oxygen levels low enough to induce fish kills, these ‘dead pools’ have been discovered swirling off the coast of Africa in recent satellite photos.

The ‘dead pools’ form as strong ocean eddies break off from West African ocean currents. The eddies create mixing environments near the surface which fuels algae blooms (seen as the light blue coloration in the image below). Large algae blooms are trapped in the eddy and as the algae die, they rob the water column of oxygen. The flows of the eddy form as a kind of wall to mixing with higher oxygen surrounding waters. As a result, the oxygen readings within the dead pool plummets.

Dead Pool Eddy 2

(Newly discovered ocean dead pools like the one shown above are propagating off the coast of West Africa. These eddies are mobile dead zones of low oxygen water. A new phenomena, they represent a unique threat to ocean health in addition to the 405 other, mostly stationary, dead zones in the world’s coastal waters. Image source: Biogeosciences.)

According to lead-author Johannes Karstensen, a researcher at GEOMAR, the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, in Kiel, Germany:

“The fast rotation of the eddies makes it very difficult to exchange oxygen across the boundary between the rotating current and the surrounding ocean. Moreover, the circulation creates a very shallow layer – of a few tens of meters – on top of the swirling water that supports intense plant growth. From our measurements, we estimated that the oxygen consumption within the eddies is some five times larger than in normal ocean conditions.”

Researchers found levels in these swirls to be less than 0.3 millilitres of oxygen per litre of seawater or about 1/100th the oxygen content of surrounding ocean. These are readings low enough to produce mass fish kills and to support production of toxin-producing bacteria harmful to oxygen dependent life.

Azores Downrange of Dead Pools

The zones were observed moving through the Tropical North Atlantic west of Africa. They propagated toward the north and west, finally petering out about 100 kilometers north of the Azores. This puts that East Atlantic archipelago directly in the line of fire of these new, low-oxygen eddies. A cause for concern. If one of these eddies were to enter the Azores the result could be a massive fish die off around the island chain.

Karstensen notes:

“…it is not unlikely that an open-ocean dead zone will hit the islands at some point. This could cause the coast to be flooded with low-oxygen water, which may put severe stress on the coastal ecosystems and may even provoke fish kills and the die-off of other marine life.”

Observations of these dead pools seems to indicate they are a new event. A possible result of nutrient enrichment of the surface waters in West African currents due to increased run-off or surface water nitrogen and dust seeding. As extreme rainfall events related to climate change wash more sediment down rivers and into the oceans, as more nitrogen compounds and particulate matter hit the atmosphere due to fossil fuel emissions, wildfire burning, and dust storms, and as sea level rise starts to flood nutrient-rich low lying areas, it is possible that the Tropical Atlantic dead pools represent an emerging ocean state that will grow more prevalent as time moves forward.

(UPDATED — 2037 EST, 5 May, 2015)

Links:

Dead Zones Moving West

Dead Zones Found in Atlantic Open Waters

VIMS: Dead Zones

No Fish Left

Ocean Dead Zones

Through the Looking Glass of the Great Dying

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Hat Tip to Jeremy Beck

World Ocean Heartbeat Fading? ‘Nasty’ Signs North Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation is Weakening

Scientists call it Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). But we may as well think of it as the heartbeat of the world ocean system. And when that heartbeat begins to slow down, we’d best sit up and start paying attention:

(New video produced by climate hawk Peter Sinclair and featuring top scientists Stefan Rahmstorf, Michael Mann, and Jason Box, issues warnings about an observed disruption to ocean circulation due to water freshening in the North Atlantic. This is the kind of work I mentioned last week in my KPFA interview. The kind that should be showing on major network news every single night. Since that probably won’t happen, I urgently ask you to spread this video, together with its critical information, as far and as wide as possible.)

Global Warming Poses Risk to Ocean Circulation, Life Support

For nearly three decades now, prominent climate scientists have been warning policymakers that salt and heat driven circulation of the world ocean system (called thermohaline — thermo for heat and haline for salt) could be disrupted by cold water outflows from Greenland. There, in the North Atlantic, salty, dense, ocean water issuing from the tropics along the Gulf Stream begins to cool. The heavier water, burdened with salt, sinks to the bottom in the North Atlantic. This sinking, in turn, drives a massive ocean conveyer belt. It delivers colder, oxygenated water to the deep ocean. It dredges less oxygen rich bottom waters to the surface where they can be reinvigorated. And it drives this ocean revitalizing train of currents through every major corner of the world ocean.

A disruption of this ocean water mixing machine would ripple through the world oceans like a gunshot to a vital circulatory organ, reducing oxygen levels throughout the whole ocean system, and greatly reducing the oceans’ ability to support life. It would be a major shift toward a stratified, less life supporting ocean, and one step closer to the nightmare ocean state called a Canfield Ocean (named after its discoverer — Dr. Donald Canfield).

Warmer, salty water cooling and sinking in the North Atlantic is an essential cog in the wheel of this massive ocean water overturning machine. It has also been described (as Dr Box notes in the video above) as the Achilles Heel of global ocean circulation.

But I like to think of it more as the world ocean’s beating heart. The reason is that any disruption of the overturning process in the North Atlantic basically kills off a life-giving circulation to the entire world ocean system.

Cooling in Exactly the Wrong Place

AMOC Temperature Trend

(Linear temperature trend from 1900 through 2013 produced by Stefan Rahmstorf in his new study. Note the anomalous cool pool just south of Greenland. That’s exactly the kind of temperature signature you don’t want to see. One that is indicative of cold, fresh water outflows from Greenland interfering with North Atlantic and World Ocean Circulation. Also see: RealClimate.)

Now, a new 2015 report headed by Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf finds that the world ocean system is cooling in exactly the wrong place — the North Atlantic just south and east of Greenland. This cooling is an indicator that a high volume outflow of cold, fresh water is entering this region of ocean. A cold, fresh outflow that comes directly from the melting glaciers of Greenland itself. A cooling and freshening that creates a physical block to salt water down welling in the North Atlantic. The kind of block that can directly disrupt the Gulf Stream and the rest of ocean circulation on down the line.

Dr Rahmstorf explains the findings of his study in his notes at RealClimate:

The North Atlantic between Newfoundland and Ireland is… the only region of the world that has defied global warming and… cooled. Last winter [this region] was the coldest on record – while globally it was the hottest [such period] on record. Our recent study (Rahmstorf et al. 2015) attributes [ anomalous North Atlantic cold water] to a weakening of the Gulf Stream …, which is apparently unique in the last thousand years.

It happens to be just that area for which climate models predict a cooling when the Gulf Stream System weakens (experts speak of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation or AMOC, as part of the global thermohaline circulation). That this might happen as a result of global warming is discussed in the scientific community since the 1980s – since Wally Broecker’s classical Nature article “Unpleasant surprises in the greenhouse?” Meanwhile evidence is mounting that the long-feared circulation decline is already well underway. (emphasis and a little clarity added)

To Dr Rahmstorf’s point that the North Atlantic was experiencing a Gulf-Stream threatening record cold while the world was under a pall of record warmth, we need only look at NOAA’s Land-Ocean temperature anomalies map for the winter of 2014-2015 below:

NOAA land ocean temperatuer anomalies

(NOAA Land Ocean temperature anomalies map for 2014-2015 shows extraordinary record cold pool of water south of Greenland in a record warm world. The smoking gun for large glacial outflow and thermohaline disruption in the North Atlantic. Image source: NOAA via ClimateCrocks and MeltFactor.)

Other Concerns Regarding North Atlantic Cooling

Unfortunately, an expanding pool of cold, fresh water in the North Atlantic is not just a threat to ocean health. It also represents a zone of anomalous cold in a region surrounded by atmospheric and ocean warming. As such, it represents a zone of likely expanding atmospheric instability — one involved in the shift of the cold center of circulation from the polar zones and more toward Greenland and Canada. Parcel to the kinds of weather disruptions that have been described in the theories of Dr. Jennifer Francis and during some of the later works of Dr. James Hansen (alluded to in The Storms of My Grandchildren).

As such, cold water bleeding from the great glaciers of Greenland not only poses a threat to ocean circulation, it also poses a risk for generating significant disruptions to atmospheric winds and related weather as well. Ones that could set off increasingly intense storm events in the Northern Hemisphere similar to what was seen for the US Northeast this winter (but likely worsening with time) and the extraordinarily powerful barrage of storms hitting England during the winter of 2013-2014.

Dr. Hansen in his Greenland Ice Sheet Loss: Exponential? paper warned of the potential for continent-sized frontal storms packing the strength of hurricanes under some rapid Greenland melt scenarios by mid-century.

Hollywood dramatizations aside, this is more than enough real world weather and climate trouble to pose serious cause for concern. And as Dr. Rahmstorf, Peter Sinclair, Dr. Jason Box and Dr. Mann allude to the header video — the policy makers were warned well in advance.

Links:

A Nasty Surprise With the Greenhouse

What’s Going on With the North Atlantic?

Exceptional 20th Century Slowdown in North Atlantic Overturning Circulation

Unpleasant Surprises in the Greenhouse

NOAA

MeltFactor

Greenland Ice Sheet Loss: Exponential?

Linking Weird Weather to Rapid Warming in the Arctic

Canfield Ocean

Hat tip to Today’s Guest Is…

Through The Looking Glass of The Great Dying: New Study Finds Ocean Stratification Proceeded Rapidly Over Past 150 Years

During the terrible mass extinction event at the Permian-Triassic boundary about 250 million years ago nearly all life on Earth was snuffed out. The event, which geologists have dubbed “The Great Dying,” occurred during a period of rapid warming on the tail end of a long period of glaciation (see A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse: Why the Permian-Triassic Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming). According to reports by Dr. Peter Ward, a prominent geologist specializing in causes of previous mass extinctions, the Permian extinction was composed of three smaller extinction events occurring over the course of about 50,000 to 80,000 years which together wiped out 96% of all marine species and 70% of all land species. Ward’s book “Under a Green Sky,” in my view, together with Hansen’s seminal “Storms of My Grandchildren” provide an excellent if terrible rough allegory of the climate beast we seem to be in the process of awakening.

A2 model run

(NCAR A2 model run shows global surface temperatures near those last seen during the PETM and Permian/Triassic extinction events by 2090 under a middle-range fossil fuel emissions scenario. A2 does include some added emissions via amplifying feedbacks from massive polar methane or CO2 stores along with other Earth Systems feedbacks. It is worth nothing that the P/T extinction occurred at the end of a glacial period while the PETM did not and was notably less pronounced. It also worth noting that global average temperatures are currently about .2 C above those seen in the 1990s.)

As noted above, Ward’s work focused on causes and what he found at numerous dig sites around the world was evidence of a ‘Great Dying’ that began at the ocean floor, proceeded upward from the depths, and eventually came to transcend the ocean boundary and inflict a similar, if less pronounced, lethality upon terrestrial organisms. The mechanism Ward proposed for the worst extinction in Earth’s geological memory involved how oceans and, in particular, living creatures in the oceans, respond to rapid warming. Ward found that during periods of high heat called hothouse states, oceans first became anoxic and stratified and then, during the worst events, transitioned to a deadly primordial state called a Canfield Ocean.

A stratified ocean is one in which the layers become inverted and do not mix. Warm water is avected toward the ocean bottom and a cooler layer on top keeps that warm layer in place. The warmer water beneath is oxygen poor and this results in more anaerobic microbes living in the deep ocean. Overall, global ocean warming also contributes to an anoxic state. Many of these microbes produce toxins that are deadly to oxygen dependent organisms. As they multiplied, the combined low oxygen/high toxicity environment created a layer of death that slowly rose up through the world ocean system.

The primary lethal agent Ward proposed for this action was hydrogen sulfide gas. This deadly gas, which has an effect similar to that of cyanide gas, is produced in prodigious quantities by an anaerobic bacteria whose remnants lurk in the world’s deep oceans. In lower quantities they turn the water pink or purple, in greater quantities — black. Oxygen is toxic to these primordial bacteria. And so, in the mixed oceans of the Holocene all the way back to the PETM boundary layer, these little monsters were kept in check by a relatively high oxygen content. But start to shut down ocean mixing, start to make the oceans more stratified and less oxygen rich and you begin to let these dragons of our past out of their ancient cages. And once they get on the move, these creatures of Earth’s deep history can do extreme and severe harm.

Ward hypothesized that these ancient organisms and the gas they produced eventually came to fill the oceans and then spill out into the atmosphere.

An anoxic, stratified ocean full of anaerobic organisms and out-gassing hydrogen sulfide to the atmosphere is a primordial sea state known as a Canfield Ocean. And Ward found that such hot, toxic waters were the lethal agent that most likely snuffed out nearly all life 250 million years ago.

A Climate Hockey Stick for the World Ocean System: Oceans Show Marked and Rapid Stratification Over the Past 150 Years

Peter Ward’s tone was nothing if not fearful in his book ‘Under a Green Sky.’ He wrote with the wisdom of a man who has come face to face with terrible limits time and time again. He wrote with the wisdom of a man shocked by some of the hardest truths of our world. He also made a plea — could scientists and experts of different fields please work together to give humanity a better measure of the risks he saw to be plainly visible.

Chief among these risks, according to Ward, included a rapidly warming planet. Ward found that both extreme high heat conditions as well as a relatively rapid pace of warming, in geological terms, increased the speed of transition to stratified ocean and Canfield Ocean states. Ward acknowledged that high rates of water runoff from continents likely contributed to anoxia. Recent studies have also indicated that rapid glacial melt combined with rapid global heating may contribute to a an increasingly stratified and anoxic ocean system.

Now, a new study of deep ocean corals entitled Increasing subtropical North Pacific Ocean nitrogen fixation since the Little Ice Age and conducted by researchers at the University of Santa Cruz and published in Nature has discovered proxy evidence that ocean stratification over the past 150 years advanced at the most rapid pace in at least the last 12,000 years. The study analyzed the sediment composition of coral growth layers to determine changes in ocean states since the 1850s. As the corals sucked up the dead bodies of micro-organisms over the past 1,000 years, the researchers were able to analyze what was happening to the cyanobacteria at the base of the food web.

What they found was that the bacteria increased their rate of nitrogen fixation by about 17 to 27 percent over the past 150 year period. And that this pace of change was ten times more rapid than that observed at the end of the Pliestocene and beginning of the Holocene 12,000 years ago.

Nitrogen Proxy Records and Their Relationship to Climate Change

(The Ocean’s Hockey Stick? Nitrogen Proxy Levels and Their Relationship to Climate Change.)

Increasing nitrogen fixation is an indicator of ocean stratification because cyanobacteria species under stress evolve to fix higher amounts of nitrogen from the surface transfer boundary with the air if particulate nitrogen levels in their environment drop. In a healthy, mixed ocean environment, nitrogen from various sources (terrestrial, run-off, etc), is readily traded between ocean layers due to the mixing action of ocean currents. In cooler oceans, more nitrogen is also held in suspension. But as oceans become warmer and more stratified, a loss of mixing and solubility results in lower nitrogen levels.

The researchers believe that this increase in nitrogen fixation is a clear indication that the region of the Pacific they observed is rapidly becoming more stratified and that this rate of increase is probably an order of magnitude faster than what occurred during the last major transition at the end of the last ice age.

“In comparison to other transitions in the paleoceanographic record, it’s gigantic,” Lead author Sherwood noted. “It’s comparable to the change observed at the transition between the Pleistocene and Holocene Epochs, except that it happens an order of magnitude faster.”

A separate study analyzing the nitrogen content of sea bird bones also provided proxy indication of a shift among cyanobacteria toward greater rates of nitrogen fixation, providing some additional confirmation for the increased ocean stratification observation. (An excellent article providing a more in depth exploration of these studies is available here.)

These studies combine with numerous observations of declining ocean health, increasing ocean hypoxia and anoxia, and an increasing number of observed mechanisms that may result in a more and more stratified ocean state as human warming intensifies to increase concern that the worst fears of Dr. Peter Ward and colleagues may be in the process of realization. (See: Dead Dolphins,  Climate Change Devastating Ocean Fishermen, and Mass Starfish Die-off for more indicators of failing ocean health.)

Concerned Journalists and Terrified Ecologists

Put into various contexts, the current state of climate and environmental health does channel our worst fears that the Permian Extinction event may well be in for a human-caused repeat. The current estimated background extinction rate of 100-250 species per day is possibly the most rapid in all of geological history. The current CO2 level, near 400 parts per million, is higher than at any time during which human beings walked the Earth. The pace of greenhouse gas emissions is at least six times faster than at any time in the geological record. And the current, very large, forcing provided by humans does not yet include a probable powerful and unpredictable response from the Earth’s natural systems.

As Ecologist Guy McPherson notes — Nature Bats Last. And we should not be comforted by this notion. Because Nature carries the biggest stick of all. A consequence hanging over our heads that grows larger and more dangerous with each passing year during which our insults to her continue.

Among the pessimists regarding the end consequences of human caused climate change and related pollution, ecologists are the worst of the bunch. This is likely due to the fact that ecologists are very intimately involved in the study of how communities of organisms succeed or fail in natural settings. Among all groups of scientists, they are perhaps the ones most intimately familiar with the way in which all living things are connected to both one another and to the natural world. Ecologists know all too well that small shifts can mean huge changes to biodiversity, the rate of death among living beings, and the distribution of species in a given environment. But the changes humans inflict are not small in the least. They roughly ripple through the natural world in ways that ecologists know all too well have never before been seen.

Dr. McPherson is such an ecologist and one with such great conscience and concern that he, years ago, abandoned most of the luxuries of modern civilization to live in a fashion that produced the least harm possible. Not that this action has resulted in more optimism on his part. In fact, Guy is one of a growing group of people who believe that no action is likely to save humankind. That our insults to the natural world have already grown too great.

McPherson notes:

“We’ve never been here as a species and the implications are truly dire and profound for our species and the rest of the living planet.”

In this observation, Guy is probably right. But I sincerely hope that his and my own worst fears do not emerge.

It was Guy’s ongoing tracking of various dangerous alterations to world climate systems and assertion that human extinction may well be nigh that drew the attention of prominent journalist Dahr Jamail. Jamail recently penned the article: “The Great Dying Redux: Shocking Parallels Between Ancient Mass Extinction and Climate Change.

Reading professor emeritus Guy McPherson’s blog was enough to convince Mr. Jamail of the risk that current warming could result in an extinction event to rival that of the Great Dying so long ago. Mr. Jamail notes:

It is possible that, on top of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels that continue to enter the atmosphere in record amounts yearly, an increased release of methane could signal the beginning of the sort of process that led to the Great Dying. Some scientists fear that the situation is already so serious and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Worse yet, some are convinced that it could happen far more quickly than generally believed possible — even in the course of just the next few decades.

And so we come full circle. Rapid human warming leads to troubling ocean changes that hint at those feared to have resulted in mass extinctions during the Permian-Triassic boundary event. And the very rapid human warming puts at risk the catastrophically rapid release of Arctic methane which would certainly consign Earth to a rapid jump from a glacial to a hothouse state and potentially produce the kind of Canfield Oceans Dr. Ward fears. It is a deadly transition for which we have growing evidence with almost each passing day, one that McPherson and others fear could truly make an end to us and to so many other living creatures on this world.

So many scientists, so much valid reason to be dreadfully concerned, and yet we continue on the path toward a great burning never before seen in Earth’s history…

Links (Read them!):

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse: Why the Permian-Triassic Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming

Increasing subtropical North Pacific Ocean nitrogen fixation since the Little Ice Age

The Great Dying Redux: Shocking Parallels Between Ancient Mass Extinction and Climate Change.

Deep Sea Corals Record Dramatic Long-Term Shift in Pacific Ocean Ecosystem

Nature Bats Last

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Dead Dolphins

Mass Starfish Die-off

Climate Change Devastating Ocean Fishermen

NCAR A2 Model Run

Hat Tip to David Goldstein

Climate Change Alarm is Needed and Climate Scientists Aren’t Sounding it Loud Enough

Alarmist. It’s a term climate change deniers seem to bandy about often, these days, as if ‘alarm’ were some kind of bad word. As if alarm weren’t needed or necessary. As if climate change, a primary vehicle for a range of horrors ranging from mass extinctions to catastrophic Earth changes, were some kind of carnival ride or a happy walk in the park.

But what if alarm is entirely called for? What if, for example, you’re standing in or near a river and a massive glacial melt lake up-stream has suddenly released and an immense torrent is now rushing toward you (as happened to thousands in India this year). Would you want the person on the hill near shore who sees the onrushing water to say in a calm, steady voice:

“Hey, you might want to get out. That water could rise a little.”

Or, even worse, would you want them to say, as the deniers would:

“It’s all good. The water’s just fine for swimming.”

Is either of these responses appropriate?

How about just shouting:

“Megaflood on the way! Get the hell out!!”

The IPCC is version #1. The oil company dupes and lackeys are version #2. As for version #3 …

A Call For Climate Change Urgency

One fundamental point a rational observer of the ongoing catastrophe that is human-caused climate change should always keep in mind is that scientists are, by nature and as a group, very conservative. It’s one reason why science, in general, is not a very good indicator of alarm to an emerging crisis. Science is constantly checking itself, is rightfully uncertain about the nature of truth, is constantly challenging its own assumptions. This refinement is a needed part of the improvement of human knowledge. But this process, often, creates a marked underestimation of potentially large-scale events.

Take the cases of sea level rise, Arctic sea ice melt, human CO2 emissions, and ice sheet response over the last 30 years. The combined report of consensus science represented by the IPCC has consistently underestimated rates of loss or increase for all of the above. In short, the best description of past IPCC reports on climate change, and their related forecasts, could be that they were, overall, conservative, muted, and mild when compared to the changes that are being observed now.

The IPCC’s reports are so muted, in fact, that they tend to leave us very vulnerable to what can best be termed as catastrophic events that are ever-more likely as the vicious and violent pace of human greenhouse gas forcing continues to progress. In prognostication of these potential events, the IPCC is an abject failure. It does not take into account the very high likelihood that, if you push the world climate to warm faster than it ever has before, and if you hit temperature increases of 2, 4, 6 degrees Celsius within 30, 50, 100 years that set off Heinrich Events, large Earth system carbon responses (catastrophic CO2 and methane release), rapid sea level rise, and ocean anoxia (dead oceans) in the past, then you are likely to get at least some of these events coming into play over the next 100 years. Yet the IPCC does not issue a report on overall ocean anoxia, or the potential risk for catastrophic ice sheet collapse, or what might result from a massive methane and carbon release from a very rapidly thawing Arctic that is now liberating a massive carbon store to such violent processes as Arctic heatwaves, a raging pace of sea level rise, or a great and explosive outburst of wildfires.

Should the IPCC issue such reports, it might warrant the observation that it had sounded an alarm. But, then, it would be sounding a needed and necessary warning, one that was entirely outside the pejorative ‘Alarmist’ deniers so recklessly bandy at any hint of warning to an obvious and dangerous set of events. One entirely pertinent to the current age of rapid fossil fuel burning and rates of warming that are 30 times faster than at the end of the last ice age.

Sometimes, alarm is what is needed and absolutely called for.

In short, the scientists should be screaming at us to:

“Get the hell out!”

***

Related Reading:

NASA Scientist James Hansen:

“I suggest that a `scientific reticence’ is inhibiting the communication of a threat of a potentially large sea level rise. Delay is dangerous because of system inertias that could create a situation with future sea level changes out of our control. I argue for calling together a panel of scientific leaders to hear evidence and issue a prompt plain-written report on current understanding of the sea level change issue.”

Scientific Reticence and Sea Level Rise

(Hat tip to Sourabh)

Climate Monsters We Want to Keep in the Closet: Heinrich Events, Superstorms, and Warming the Deep Ocean

“Think of the climate change issue as a closet, and behind the door are lurking all kinds of monsters — and there’s a long list of them,” — Steve Pacala.

***

It has been said that Nature is a serial killer. Within her vast managerie of life, climate, and the physical world, there are many, many terrible processes that could mortally impact individuals, larger groups, entire species and even families of species. And if you were to look for the means by which Nature performs her worst violence, the mass extinction events, your eyes would almost immediately settle upon the uncomfortable issue of climate change, an issue all too relevant today.

Of twelve major mass extinction events identified in past geological epochs, ten were likely caused by climate change. Marked by layers of rocks almost entirely devoid of complex life, these periods in which Earth became little more than a tomb should serve as a stark warning against our own rapidly increasing insults to Earth’s climate. The very worst of these ‘tomb epochs,’ the Permain or ‘Great Dying’ in which 90 percent of all species went extinct was clearly caused by a series of worsening insults brought on by a terrible switch in climate brought on by a raging global warming nightmare. And though the Permian Extinction raged about 200 million years ago, it has some rather disturbing similarities to today. For one, it was an era in which a cold glacial period emerged into a far warmer period. And secondly, a large greenhouse gas emission source forced warming to drastically accelerate resulting in not one but three major extinction crises over the course of about 165,000 years. It was the worst of the worst of all tomb epochs and it was most likely set off by a massive chain of events brought on by very rapid warming.

Scattered across the wreckage of the Permian and these other tomb epochs are the foot prints of the three climate monsters from Pacala’s horde that we most definitely do not want to unleash. Monsters we are through our current actions and choices, even now, causing to stir.

Three to Keep Behind the Door

Human beings, through their carbon emissions, risk prodding the very worst monsters in Nature’s death brigade to awaken — the ones that set off previous mass extinction events through a combination of terrible weather, unleashing carbon stocks sequestered over millions of years, and, eventually, turning the ocean into an enormous killing machine. These three, worst of the worst, climate monsters which we most certainly want to keep behind Pacala’s door are: Heinrich Events, Rapid CO2 and Methane release, and Anoxic and Canfield Oceans. Though these three are identified here as separate catastrophic events, they are related in that they can set in motion a chain of self-reinforcing effects that may enhance the likelihood for the other events to occur. They also unleash a set of more minor but still terrible associated difficulties.

In this particular blog, I’ll explore the first and arguably mildest of these catastrophes — Heinrich Events.

Pulses of De-glaciation

As Earth moved through its far more milder, nature-caused, phases of glaciation and deglaciation, previous warm phases often resulted in sudden surges of ice burgs and melt flows from the Earth’s ice sheets. Large pulses during warm trends set off armadas of these maritime brutes which flooded the ocean, causing drastic consequences to weather and climate.

The ice bergs unleashed during these warming-induced pulse events were enormous floating collections of rock and ice. As they melted, the glaciers disgorged the rocks frozen in their bellies, leaving layers of pebbles littering the sea floor and creating a record of their passage. Hartmut Heinrich was the first to describe these events. So now they bear his name.

Greenland and West Antarctica: Gateways For the Heinrich Monsters

In the emergence from the last ice age, it is thought that sudden melt pulses from the vast but now entirely melted Laurentide ice sheet resulted in the majority of these events. Since only the ghost of this ice sheet remains in the form of a thin patina of frozen tundra over the Northern Hemisphere’s Arctic regions, there is no longer any risk for Heinrich melt and ice burg pulse events from this now ephemeral source.

But the great Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets remain. Greenland is a vast store of ice. Nearly two miles high at its center, it contains enough ice to raise the world’s sea levels by 23 feet. West Antarctica is yet one more great pile of ice. In total, if the two were to melt together, they could contribute as much as 75 feet of sea level rise.

But these melt events, as we see the in the geological past, don’t happen neatly. The great glaciers sit mostly still for long, boring periods and then they surge in brief, catastrophic instances unleashing massive flows of both water and ice bergs. Heinrich Events.

Alone or together, Greenland and Antarctica bear more than enough ice to set off this particularly nasty brand of climate induced catastrophe.

The Human Forcing is Far More Brutal

In the past, a slower build up of heat set off by the warm phase of gradual orbital cycles eventually passed tipping points that led to rapid ice sheet disintegration and related melt-pulse Heinrich Events. Today, the human greenhouse gas forcing is far, far more powerful. At the last ice age’s end, a combined forcing of about 100 parts per million of additional CO2 and the steady but ever so slight forcing caused by the warmer orbital cycle was enough to set off these powerful events. Today, CO2 has risen by 120 ppm and continues to rise by 2-3 parts per million each year even as other rising greenhouse gasses, primarily methane, add an additional 28% to this strong and growing forcing.

It could easily be argued that the human forcing surpassed that of a natural forcing powerful enough to end an ice age sometime last century. But the ice age is already done and so we head into mostly uncharted territory only vaguely hinted at in the deep geological past. The current pace and path of increased forcing makes a bad situation worse as a CO2 rise to at least 480 ppm is predicted by mid-century. Business as usual end century estimates come in at the catastrophic level of 800 ppm or more of atmospheric CO2 with an unknown additional amount of methane and related greenhouse gasses.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is Starting to Slip

Unfortunately, it seems we may have already begun to let one Heinrich monster off its leash. For reports coming in over the past decade show that the vast two mile high Greenland ice sheet is starting to slip.

Under the current and ever-rising insult of the human climate change forcing, the Greenland ice sheet is sagging and deforming, filling with melt ponds and flows that flush through to its base, and, most ominously, monstrously grinding toward the ocean at an ever increasing pace. Research conducted by Arctic scientists shows that the ice sheet’s speed is increasing by a rate of about 2-3 percent per year. This speed of increase results in the disgorging of vast volumes of ice burgs and melt waters into the North Atlantic. An average of about 500 cubic kilometers of ice bergs and melt waters are now flowing into the ocean from Greenland alone. But with the pace of ice sheet melt and movement picking up, we are, sadly, only at the beginning of what appears to be a very risky situation.

Flotillas of Icebergs Riding a Tsunami Like Melt Pulse

Let’s step back for a minute from this slow motion disaster that we’re both the cause of and captive audience to and consider, for a moment, the structure of Greenland’s ice and land mass. The Greenland coastline is little more than a honeycomb of semi-frozen channels both coming into contact with the larger water bodies of Baffin Bay and the North Atlantic and drilling deep into the interior of Greenland itself. The two mile high glacier slopes gradually down toward and into these hundreds of channel estuaries, creating a slope defined by tall ice sheets terminating in low, ocean-opening waterways.

Greenland -- where ice meets ocean

Greenland — where ice meets ocean.

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

In the above image, you can see just one section of these ice channels that encompass almost the entire coastline of Greenland. Note the dark ocean water coming into contact with the silver-white of Greenland ice. The small white flecks you can see in this Modis shot are nothing less than immense ice burgs riding the winds and tides out into the North Atlantic. If you accurately imagine the entire coast of Greenland perforated by such outlets, what you come to realize is that Greenland is nothing less than an enormous ice burg dispersal mechanism. One that, if it really cranks up, will disgorge vast flotillas of ice bergs riding out upon tsunami-like melt pulses in every direction.

Inherent to this potential is the fact that Greenland ice is continuously in motion. Pulled by gravity, the towering ice sheets constantly seek the sea. Slowly grinding away, the ice moves gradually, steadily until it, at last, finds water, there it explodes in a riotous calving of the immense and monstrous ice burgs. The more solid and cold Greenland becomes, the slower its ice moves toward the ocean. The ice sheet weight increases, depressing the entire island into the crustal plate and keeping more of its ice locked in the center. The ice forms more solid boundaries to other ice flows and the ice grinding slows as it thickens. But the more wet and warm the ice becomes, the opposite is true. Water flows through the ice sheet to lubricate its base, the large pools of water on top further heat and deform the ice, the crustal plates rebound, pushing the island higher and adding gravity as a more and more powerful force attracting ice to ocean, and increasingly large pulses of melt water flush out from the center of the glaciers, drawing both ice and water along in ever greater volumes toward the ocean.

In a Heinrich Event, the melt forces eventually reach a tipping point. The warmer water has greatly softened the ice sheet. Floods of water flow out beneath the ice. Ice ponds grow into great lakes that may spill out both over top of the ice and underneath it. Large ice dams may or may not start to form. All through this time ice motion and melt is accelerating. Finally, a major tipping point is reached and in a single large event or ongoing series of such events, a massive surge of water and ice flush outward as the ice sheet enters an entirely chaotic state. Tsunamis of melt water rush out bearing their vast flotillas of icebergs, greatly contributing to sea level rise. And that’s when the weather really starts to get nasty. In the case of Greenland, the firing line for such events is the entire North Atlantic and, ultimately the Northern Hemisphere. But the Southern Hemisphere has its own set of troubles to contemplate. For there resides the seemingly endless pile of ice that is Antarctica.

Storms of My Grandchildren

A long time ago, I read a book called “The Coming Global Superstorm.” The book trivialized the potential effects of Heinrich Events by lumping them into a myopic and artificial single instance that the authors referred to as a Superstorm. The book was also chock full of astrological New Age jargon and other unrelated philosophy that greatly discredited the authors’ notion of Superstorm. Even worse, Hollywood jumped onto the trivialization bandwagon by producing the entirely unrealistic movie “The Day After Tomorrow.”

About this New Age book and its related Hollywood film, I have but one thing to say — if only it were so easy. Both the book and the movie boil the risk of human caused global warming into a single, linear event, which ends in single results. Even worse, both the book and the movie produce the false impression that such storms will result in an ice age. Again, if only it were so easy.

If you want to learn about the potential involved in such events, you should become a student of climate scientist James Hansen. You could start by reading the excellent book “Storms of My Grandchildren” and you could continue by reading his papers pertaining to extreme weather caused by West Antarctic and Greenland Ice melt.

What Hansen describes in his later work is the potential for ‘continent sized frontal storms packing the punch of hurricanes’ to rip across vast swaths of the Northern Hemisphere in association with an extreme weather pattern set up by a Heinrich type event acting in combination with a human warming induced heat amplification of the tropics. In vast difference to the “Day After Tomorrow,” these storms are not single instances, but potentially re-occurring catastrophic weather hazards.

How bad could these storms get? As an example, the freak hybrid superstorm Sandy is but a prelude to the main events.

Sandy Arctic Arm

Sandy’s Arctic Arm

Yet Sandy’s somewhat unique hybrid structure and location may well provide us with hints as to the nature of future superstorm events. What we see in the above NOAA satellite shot is a storm that is linked both in the tropics and in the Arctic. The storm derives energy from a cold air mass over Greenland and pulls in another ‘arm’ of energy from the tropical Atlantic.

During the Heinrich event, the ice berg cooling effect mentioned by Hansen in his papers and the human caused heat amplification of the tropics will set up a far more disastrous atmospheric storm potential. And the raking effect of continent sized frontal storm systems would have even more damaging consequences to human infrastructure than the related pulse of sea level rise alone.

Ocean Circulation Change to Open the Door for the Hydrate Monster, Anoxic/Canfield Oceans?

Yet one more ominous result of Heinrich Events is a high-stress shock to ocean temperature and saline circulation systems. Such events are likely to shove the northern termination of larger ocean systems further toward the equator. The cold, fresh water pulses would result in less sinking of water at the poles. Related increased heat at the tropics would begin to set up a system where salty waters begin to sink there.

Even more ominously, a wedge of cold water at the surface spreading out from the poles would push hotter, saltier water toward the ocean bottom. Fresh water is less dense than salty water, so the fresh water pulses from glaciers and melting ice bergs will act as a wedge, driving the denser, warmer, saltier water toward the bottom The net effect of such changes would be a shallower and weaker ocean circulation system as more warm water is averted toward the ocean bottom near the equator and then spreads northward and as warmer surface waters toward the poles and temperature regions are driven toward the sea-bed.

Since vast stores of methane lay locked in hydrates on the sea bed, these stores are at risk of greater forcing and more rapid destabilization. To note, the end of the Permian, in which a partially glaciated world transitioned to a hot house, is estimated to have seen methane levels at around 11 parts per million — almost ten times the current level. Large melt pulses are, therefore, a potential mechanism for ocean bottom heating and increasing rates of methane release.

This event sets in place conditions that increase risk for the two other climate monsters — increasing CO2 and methane release from Earth Systems and the perhaps more ugly anoxic and Canfield Ocean states. And both we will visit in future blogs.

How Soon?

How soon could we see Heinrich type events, Hansen-style superstorms, and dangerous changes to ocean circulation? Hansen, in “Storms of My Grandchildren” indicates a risk for such events emerging by mid-century under business as usual fossil fuel emissions. Jason Box and others have shown an increasing speed and melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet occurring during the first and second decades of the 21rst Century. So it appears we are starting to ramp up to such events even now as an ominous ice sheet response begins to show on the climate radar. So the period of risk appears to be sometime between now (low) through 2070 (moderate to high depending on human CO2 forcing growth or mitigation).

That paleoclimate and modeling performed by Hansen show the potential for such powerful events should be cause for serious concern and reason for ever-greater urgency in reducing human greenhouse gas emissions and our related climate risk to the lowest levels possible. And, in the end, we almost certainly do not want to begin to bring forward conditions that will release the other two ‘monsters behind the door’ — rapid CO2 and methane response from Earth Systems and anoxic and Canfield Oceans.

Links:

Storms of My Grandchildren

Under a Green Sky

Arctic Heat: Wildfire Smoke Blankets Siberia, Alaska Shatters Temperature Records, Arctic Ocean Heat Sets off Large Algae Bloom

Siberian Wildfires July 31

Smoke from Siberian Wildfires now covers most of Arctic Russia. Image source: Lance-Modis.

There’s a lot of noise these days over the issue of global warming and human caused climate change. The static includes the intransigence of industry supported climate change deniers, a great confusion over climate context within some wings of the media, a number of increasingly personal attacks on the messengers — scientists, journalists, bloggers, and emerging threats experts — who communicate critical information related to climate change, and even a degree of professional disagreement within the sciences and among experts over key issues such as the potential rate of global methane release due to human warming.

(Read an excellent Guardian article about this debate here)

Despite all the vitriol, controversy and confusion, the signal coming from the Earth System couldn’t be clearer — the Arctic is showing every sign of rapid heat amplification and related emerging feedbacks and environmental changes.

The Arctic ring of fire

Over the continents circling the warming Arctic Ocean, a band from about 70 degrees north to about 55 degrees north, has increasingly erupted into heatwaves and massive wildfires. This year, huge fires blanketed both Canada and Russia, with a recent very large outbreak spreading over Siberia.

Over the past two weeks, numerous wildfires roared through Arctic tundra and boreal forests alike over a sprawling swath of northern Russia. These blazes rapidly multiplied to nearly 200 fires, covering most of Arctic Russia in a pallor of thick, soupy, smoke. The smog cloud blanketing Siberia now stretches nearly 3,000 miles in length and 1,500 miles in width, covering an immense slice of the Arctic and adjacent regions. The fires coincided with a large methane pulse that sent local readings to nearly 2,000 ppb, almost 200 ppb above the global average. Whether these higher methane levels were set off by a prolonged Arctic heatwave that has settled over Siberia since June or were tapped by the fires’ direct contact with thawing tundra remains unclear. But tundra melt and related carbon release, almost certainly set off by far above average temperatures for this Arctic region, clearly resulted in conditions that favored a heightened level of emission (You can track current global methane emissions through the excellent site: Methane Tracker.)

These massive blazes continued today with the most recent Modis shot showing a rash of red hotspots beneath a thickening ceiling of smoke:

Russia Fires July 31

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

Hat tip to the ever vigilant Colorado Bob for the new fire shot.

Arctic wildfires are an important and dangerous feedback to a warming polar climate. The fires produce soot that traps additional heat in the air while aloft and through reduction in the albedo of the surfaces it rains down upon. If the soot ends up on ice sheets, it can greatly amplify the summer sun, chewing large holes and accelerating melt (the Dark Snow Project is studying this highly worrisome dynamic). The fires also render carbon stocks locked in both the forest and the tundras through direct burning. As such, the fires result in a major extra CO2 emission source. The current fire in Siberia also appears to be exaggerating methane release from thawing tundra as large methane spikes appeared in the fire affected regions.

The result is that more heat is locked into an already vulnerable Arctic and global environment.

Alaska shatters temperature records

Meanwhile, across the Arctic, Fairbanks reported its 14th straight day of above 70 degree temperatures, shattering the previous record of 13 days running back in 2004. The Arctic location has also seen 80+ degree weather (Fahrenheit) for 29 days so far this summer and 85+ degree weather for 12 days this summer. The record for 80+ degree days is 30 during a summer and the previous record for 85 + degree days was 10 days. A ‘usual’ Alaskan summer only saw 11 80 degree days, with the current number for 2013 nearly tripling that mark.

So Fairbanks has shattered two summer high temperature duration records and is now closing in on a third. Since predictions call for high 70 to low 80 degree weather for at least the next few days, it appears likely that this final mark will fall as well. The Alaskan heat is expected to continue through at least this weekend after which temperatures are expected to fall into, the still above average, lower 70s.

Given these record hot conditions in Alaska, one has to wonder at the potential for fires to erupt in this region as well. An outbreak of large fires spread through the region in June. But compared to Canada and Russia, which have both seen major fire outbreaks, Alaska has been relatively quiet. Methane Tracker shows little in the way of 1950 ppb or higher readings over Alaska at the moment. But this is an uncertain indication to say the least.

The current Arctic Weather Map shows broad regions of warm to hot daytime conditions throughout much of the Arctic. Areas of highest temperatures are located in Alaska, Northwestern Canada, Siberia and Northern Europe. These Arctic heatwave conditions have persisted throughout the summer of 2013, drifting in a slow circle along with their related heat domes and high amplitude Jet Stream pulses.  So far, these conditions have shown little evidence of abating.

Alaska Canada Daytime Aug 1 Russia Europe Daytime August 1

The above images show respective daytime temperature forecasts provided by Arctic Weather Maps. Areas in red indicate temperatures ranging from 77 to 86 degrees. The first image shows daytime in Alaska and Canada for Thursday, August 1. The second image shows predicted daytime temperatures for Siberia and Europe for the same date.

Arctic Ocean heat anomaly soars

In addition to an immense rash of wildfires belching enormous plumes of smoke that now cover most of Northern Russia and record-smashing high temperature streaks in Alaska, we continue to see a rising heat temperature anomaly over a vast region of the Arctic Ocean. A broad stretch of sea area shows .5 to 1 degree Celsius above average sea surface temperatures. This region includes the Central Arctic Basin which has seen broad, anomalous areas of much thinner, more dispersed sea ice coverage. Isolated regions are showing temperatures in the range of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer than average with the hottest region over the Barents and the Kara Seas near Norway and northern Russia.

sst.daily.anom

(Image source: NOAA)

The region where the highest heat anomaly measures have appeared also shows a very large green algae bloom. This oil slick like region is clearly visible in a freakish neon off-set to the typically dark Arctic waters. Higher ocean heat content and added nutrients increasingly fuel these kinds of blooms which can lead to fish kills and ocean anoxia in the regions affected. This particular bloom is very large, stretching about 700 miles in length and 200 miles in width along a region near the northern coast of Scandinavia.

Algae Bloom North of Scandinavia

Very large algae bloom north of Scandinavia. Image source Lance Modis.

As the oceans warm due to human caused climate forcing, there is increasing risk that large algae blooms and increasing regions of ocean anoxia will continue to spread and grow through the world ocean system. In the more extreme case, the current mixed ocean environment can turn into a dangerous stratified anoxic ocean environment. Past instances of such events occurred during the Paleocene and during ages prior. Oceans moving toward a more anoxic state put severe stress on numerous creatures inhabiting various ocean levels and is yet one more stress to add to heat-caused coral bleaching and ocean acidification due to increasing CO2 dissolution.

Ocean mixing is driven by the massive ocean heat and salt conveyors known as the thermohaline circulation. Slowing and changing circulation patterns can result in switches from a mixed, oxygenated ocean environment, to a stratified, anoxic state. Currently, a number of the major ocean conveyors, including the Gulf Stream and the warm water current near Antarctica, have slowed somewhat due to added fresh water melting as a result of human caused climate change.

Movement toward a more anoxic ocean state is an added stress on the world climate system and another of the myriad impacts set off by human warming. Though a complete switch from a mixed ocean to an anoxic ocean is still far off, it is an important long-term risk to consider. Perhaps one of the absolute worst effects of an unabated burning of fossil fuels and related carbon emissions by humans would be the emergence of a terrible primordial ocean state called a Canfield Ocean. But this is another, rather unsavory topic, likely worth exploring in another blog (nod to prokaryotes who has been fearfully hinting about risks associated with this particularly nasty climate mechanism on internet boards and in blogs and comments for years).

In the meantime, it’s worth considering the clear and visible effects of Arctic amplification currently in train: massive Siberian wildfires along with immense smoke plumes and troubling methane pulses, an ongoing Arctic heat wave that continues to break temperature records, and very high Arctic ocean temperature anomalies that are setting off massive algae blooms north of the Arctic circle.

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