Hot March, Melting Sea Ice, Record High CO2, and a Weak El Nino 

Good afternoon everyone. It’s April 15 of 2019. And it’s high time I provided another update on the present global climate state.

(Indicators explained.)

Yes, I’ve been off this cart for a bit due to my personal climate action that I’m calling extreme clean. And I’ve got to say that this action is in solidarity with the tens of thousands of young people who continue to demonstrate for a more responsible political response to climate change around the world.

Action of all kinds is very important. But political action is where the rubber is really going to meet the solar and wind powered EV road of the future. It’s what’s going to help us navigate a necessarily fast clean energy transition away from the carbon spewing fuels of the present. And the fossil fueled politicians like Trump are going to have to be kicked out for that to happen.

(Human forced climate change loads the dice for stronger storms like Idai which devastated parts of Africa during March of 2019. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

At present, fossil fuel burning has really put us in a tough spot. That is the subject of today’s writing. Where we are today according to some major climate indicators — atmospheric CO2 (the primary greenhouse gas driving climate change), global surface temperature, Arctic sea ice, and the near term ENSO climate variability factor.

Atmospheric CO2 likely to hit between 413 and 415 ppm in May (monthly average)

For the first factor, atmospheric CO2 during recent days has risen to between 411 and 416 parts per million. This level is likely higher than at any time in at least the last 5 million years and is probably closer to ranges seen during the Middle Miocene around 15 million years ago. That’s pretty bad — implying about 2-3 C or more of global warming over the long term if those values aren’t somehow brought down.

(Present atmospheric CO2 levels are ranging between 411 and 416 parts per million on a daily basis at the Mauna Loa Observatory. These are the highest levels seen in at least 5 million years, possibly more. Image source: NOAA.)

Of course, due to the present pace of fossil fuel burning, atmospheric CO2 just keeps rising. Which is why a clean energy transition to get us to net zero and net negative carbon emissions is so, so important for our future.

CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas related to human activity. But according to agencies like NASA, it is the most important. Adding in other greenhouse gasses like Methane, NOx, and various other manufactured chemicals that trap heat, you end up with an atmospheric CO2 equivalent of approximately 497 ppm during 2019 (extrapolated from NOAA’s greenhouse gas index). This is a bit of a scary number for me as it implies that the top end indicator of all greenhouse gasses combined is about to move outside the Middle Miocene context soon.

Going back to the only slightly less scary CO2 figure, it appears likely that this primary greenhouse gas will top out at around 413 to 415 parts per million monthly average values during May of 2019. This indicator for annual peak values puts the present climate state increasingly out of the range of Pliocene past climates that many scientists are now researching as a corollary for present day climate impacts — at least on a greenhouse gas forcing basis.

March of 2019 was third hottest on record

It takes many decades and centuries for climates to balance out in response to a particular forcing. So present atmospheric warming driven by the greenhouse gasses mentioned above lag behind the initial global forcing. For this reason, on an annual basis, global temperatures are presently ranging between 1 and 1.2 degrees Celsius above 1880s averages as they continue to climb higher.

(The globe substantially heated up again during March — as seen in the above map provided by NASA. Image source: NASA GISS.)

These present departures roughly compare to temperatures during the Eemian climate epoch of about 120,000 years ago in which readings were 1 to 2 C warmer than 1880s averages. So we’re not yet in the Pliocene with regards to temperatures (2-3 C), but what we get long-term is probably the Miocene (3-4 C) if present greenhouse gas values remain stable. And we head for even more warming (4 C+) if we keep burning fossil fuels.

It’s in this rising temperature context that we are now experiencing more rapidly melting glaciers, ramping sea level rise, increasingly intense storms, wildfires and droughts, rising damage to corals, worsening heatwaves, more extinction pressure on plants and animals, and declining ocean health. It’s also worth pointing out that present temperatures are just a passing milestone on the way up if we keep burning fossil fuels and don’t learn how to pull down that excess atmospheric carbon.

(This graph of zonal temperature anomalies since 1880 is a visual representation of warming across the globe. These zones show various latitudes and their anomaly values vs mid 20th century averages over time. The long term warming trend is quite clear. Image source: NASA.)

According to NASA GISS, March of 2019 set its own benchmark as the third hottest such month on record. Temperatures for the month hit around 1.33 C above 1880s averages (1.11 C above NASA’s 20th Century baseline). This is pretty amazingly warm.

It was in this environment that the globe experienced a hyper-charged cyclone striking Africa, extensive damage due to flooding in the Central U.S., and recent very severe storms from the U.S. south through New England.

Arctic Sea Ice at Record Low for Recent Days

All this added heat has had its own impact on the Arctic where sea ice during recent days has plunged into new record low territory. According to information provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice yesterday measured just 13.518 million square kilometers. The lowest on record for today.

(Graph of Arctic sea ice measures for January through May of 2003 to present compared to the 1981 to 2010 average [gray line]. The orange line dipping below the pack is the measure for 2019. These are record lows for this time of year. Image source: NSIDC.)

That’s about 300,000 square kilometers below the previous record low set in 2017 and about 1.4 million square kilometers below the 1981 to 2010 average. A period in which major sea ice melt was already ongoing.

Sea ice melt doesn’t have a significant direct impact on sea level rise. You need land ice melt and ocean thermal expansion for that. But sea ice is a big ocean based heat reflector that helps to keep the Arctic environment stable and to prevent the world’s waters from sucking up an even greater amount of warming than they already do. That heat reflector is in decline and it’s one of the reasons why the Arctic is warming up at a faster rate than the rest of the globe.

(Early season sea ice melt is progressing through the Bering and Chukchi seas as overall Arctic sea ice extent hits record daily lows for this time of year. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Major media appears to have recently had a bit of an epiphany about sea ice as recent reports from sources such as PBS note startling losses for the Bering region during 2019. It’s worth noting that individual seas tend to experience higher rates of ice variance. But the trend for the overall Arctic, which is the combination of all its incorporated seas, is one of consistent decadal sea ice decline.

Weak El Nino Means Uncertain Challenge to 2016 Record

While the world is heating up overall and experiencing many of the changes noted above, a shorter term variability feature of global temperature is the ENSO cycle. This periodic warming and cooling of Pacific Ocean surface waters relative to the globe sets down the rough markers of 3-5 year global temperature variability. During the Pacific cool phase, or La Nina, the global surface tends to cool off a bit. During the Pacific warm phase or El Nino, the global surface tends to warm.

This is not to be confused with total global heat gain — which is still occuring on a practically constant basis as oceans warm and glaciers melt in addition to atmospheric warming. It’s just a major factor in what we tend to see over the shorter term at the Earth’s surface.

(Present warmer than normal sea surface temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific indicate a weak El Nino. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

For 2019, we are again tipping into the warmer side of this natural variability based trend. And combining that with the larger influence of human-forced warming, it appears that the dice are loaded for a challenge to the new record hot surface temperatures set in 2016.

But not so fast! 2019’s El Nino — or Pacific Ocean surface warming event — is, according to NOAA, likely to be rather weak. This compares to the Super El Nino event of 2016. So the swing toward warm side will tend to be relatively weaker. As a result, it’s less certain that 2019 will beat 2016 as hottest on record. And overall, it’s more likely that 2019 will place in the top 3 as 1st, 2nd or 3rd hottest (You may want to ask Dr Gavin Schmidt over at NASA GISS to see what he thinks. He’s been putting out some pretty accurate predictions over the past few years.).

So far, according to NASA GISS, December, January and February of climate year 2019 came in as 3rd hottest. With the weak El Nino ramping up, it does appear that March, April, May could heat up as well. We shall see!

Living in a rapidly warming world

Looking at all of these shorter term indicators, it’s easy to miss the bigger context. That being — we are living in a world in which atmospheric greenhouse gasses are rapidly increasing. These gasses, in turn, are causing the world to rapidly warm resulting in surprising changes and increasing damage. And it’s in this context that climate action on the part of individuals, businesses and governments becomes all the more necessary.

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Analysis of Present Surface Methane Hot Spots

A contextual analysis of present surface methane emission sources and rates of atmospheric accumulation.

Increasingly Out of the Human Context: Atmospheric CO2 Likely to Hit Monthly Peak Near 410 ppm in 2017

“The rate of CO2 growth over the last decade is 100 to 200 times faster than what the Earth experienced during the transition from the last ice age. This is a real shock to the atmosphere.” — Pieter Tans, lead scientist at NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network

*****

It wasn’t too long ago that we were talking about atmospheric CO2 crossing the key 400 parts per million threshold. That was 2014. But now, just three years later, atmospheric levels of this key heat-trapping gas are climbing to within striking distance of another, and still more dangerous, atmospheric milestone. 410 ppm.

That’s an increase in the peak atmospheric CO2 value of around 3 ppm per year or more. One that gibes with record annual rates of atmospheric accumulation of this heat trapping gas during 2015 and 2016. And as we approach a new high water mark for atmospheric carbon, we’ve left the 400 ppm level so far behind that it’s likely that we’ll never see even a single day where values at the Mauna Loa Observatory fall below that threshold.

Approaching Another Milestone for Key Heat-Trapping Gas

Instead, primarily through our rampant and incessant burning of fossil fuels, we are racing head-long into an ever-more uncertain climate future:

(The world hasn’t seen such high levels of atmospheric carbon in millions of years. And all that extra carbon is sucking a considerable amount of Earth-altering heat into its atmosphere and oceans. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Since late February, weekly and daily CO2 values have ranged between 405 and 409 parts per million. But as CO2 typically peaks during April and May before Northern Hemisphere vegetation begins to draw down carbon in the months of June through September, it appears that we are likely to see top monthly atmospheric CO2 values hit between 409 and 410 parts per million during 2017.

Out of Context Problem

Back in 2014, we were talking about how atmospheric CO2 levels hadn’t been so high in about 3 million years. But a near 410 ppm high water mark would push those comparative timeframes back to between 5 and 15 million years when the world was about 3-4 degrees Celsius hotter than today and atmospheric CO2 ranged from 400 to 500 parts per million (to this point it’s worth noting that atmospheric CO2 equivalent gasses like methane, when added to presently high CO2 levels, will produce a combined total forcing equal to around 493 ppm CO2e by end 2017).

Back then, ocean levels were meters to tens of meters higher than today, the glacial ice of Greenland and West Antarctica was gone or greatly reduced, and even East Antarctic Ice Sheets were smaller. It’s also worth noting that back then, the great apes had just begun to appear and that the first fully developed ancestors of modern humans were still far off.

(NASA provides a new 3-D visualization of carbon dioxide accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere. Video source: NASA and The Hindustan Times.)

Human beings, and even our furthest distant ancestors, have not experienced climates of the kind we are locking in now.

But as increasingly tough as our present climate situation may seem, there’s another wrinkle to the tale. For from 5-15 million years ago to now, billions of tons of carbon in the form of plant and animal remains has been sequestered in the world’s forests, peatlands, permafrost and oceans. And as the heat-trapping gasses that we have now placed into the atmosphere, primarily through fossil fuel burning, stresses those stores, we risk creating a further warming response coming from the Earth System. Such high atmospheric thresholds should, therefore, be viewed as in a range that produces considerable risk of crossing key climate tipping points and of locking in harmful Earth System changes for very long time periods. And we continue to add to that risk by burning more fossil fuels.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

NOAA ESRL

Following Carbon Dioxide Through the Atmosphere

Human Evolution

Climate Epochs: Miocene

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Hits Record Levels

NOAA– Atmospheric CO2 Increased by 2.77 Parts Per Million During 2016

According to NOAA, carbon dioxide — a key heat trapping gas — increased its atmospheric concentration by 2.77 parts per million during 2016. This was the third fastest rate of increase in the NOAA record following 2015 at a 3.03 ppm annual increase and 1998 at a 2.93 annual increase.

Earlier trends had indicated that 2016 might be on track to beat 2015 as a new record year (and a month by month comparison for the first 11 months of 2016 pointed toward a record rate of rise). These concerns, thankfully, did not materialize as atmospheric rates of accumulation slowed down during December of 2016 — which helped to push the overall year to year comparison lower (NOAA’s year-on-year rate of growth is based on a December to January comparison). Nonetheless, the high rate of atmospheric increase for 2016 remains a matter of concern.

co2-annual-rate-of-increase

(2015 saw a record annual rate of atmospheric CO2 increase at 3.03 parts per million. 2016’s increase at 2.77 parts per million was the 3rd fastest on record. Overall, the decade of 2011-2016 is presently showing about a 20 percent faster rate of accumulation than the decade of 2000 to 2010. This should moderate somewhat post El Nino. However, Earth System feedbacks threaten to hamper the environment’s ability to take down excess carbon as the world begins to approach 1.5 C warmer than 1880s averages. Image source: NOAA.)

Overall, the average annual rate of increase for the first six years of the decade beginning in 2011 was 2.42 parts per million. This rate is approximately 20 percent faster than during the decade of 2001 to 2010 (analysis based on this NOAA data) at around a 2.05 parts per million annual increase. Prior to the most recent decade, the 2000 to 2010 period showed the fastest rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation on record.

El Nino, through ocean warming and related land impacts such as increased droughts and wildfires, can reduce the rate of CO2 uptake by the Earth System — thus forcing a higher rate of increase due to the human emission. And the 2015 to 2016 period featured a strong El Nino. All things being equal, we should expect atmospheric rates of increase to moderate somewhat during 2017. Possibly dropping to slightly below 2 ppm in the best case.

atmospheric-co2-increase-the-keeling-curve

(Extremely rapid rates of atmospheric CO2 increase since the mid 20th Century have been driven by ramping rates of fossil fuel burning. Now we are at a point where the Earth System will have more and more difficulty taking in the carbon spewed out by smokestacks and tail pipes. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

However, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels at near record levels will continue to push a very high rate of atmospheric accumulation of this climate change driving heat-trapping gas. And the added insult due to global warming now ranging above 1 C hotter than 1880s for most years will tend to put a cap on how effective the Earth is at taking in the very large excess human emission.

By comparison, rates of CO2 increase during the last hothouse extinction event — the PETM — were about 10 to 20 times slower than they are today. And it took hundreds of years for atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to equal the same 125 parts per million increase we’ve now experienced in the 136 years since 1880. So the insult to the Earth System produced by fossil fuel burning is currently extraordinarily high and the rate of heat trapping gas accumulation is probably unprecedented for at least the last 66 million years.

(CO2 is the primary gas driving global warming. But it is not the only one. Add in methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gasses and you end up with a total forcing that’s equivalent to 490 parts per million CO2. Video source: Climate One.)

NOAA is now showing that global atmospheric CO2 averages are hitting near 402.5 parts per million. This level will likely increase to around 404 to 405 parts per million by the end of 2017. The forcing from this CO2 alone (not including methane and other greenhouse gasses which has pushed CO2 equivalent forcing to around 490 parts per million) is enough to push global temperatures to nearly 2 C warmer than 1880s averages this Century (prediction based on ECS model analysis). Longer term, if atmospheric CO2 concentrations remain so high, overall warming could hit 3 C to as much as 4 C hotter than 1880s values when adding in the long-term impacts of other greenhouse gas emissions (prediction based on a meta-analysis of paleoclimate temperature and atmospheric carbon proxies).

With global temperatures already driven to about 1.2 C hotter than 1880s during 2016, it’s not an understatement to say that a period of more dangerous and harmful climate change — forced upon us by the world’s extremely high rate of carbon emissions — is already upon us. And we can see that in the various severe weather and geophysical events that are currently ranging the globe. The urgency for cutting carbon emissions, therefore, could not be greater.

Links:

NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory

Ten Times Faster Than the PETM

The Keeling Curve

Climate One

Hat tip to Shawn Redmond

Hat tip to Suzanne

(UPDATED)

Global CO2 to Reach Extremely Dangerous Peak Near 402 PPM for 2014, Methane Levels Ramp Ominously Higher

During 2014, human CO2 forcing continued its long march toward ever-more dangerous and climate-damaging levels. By the peak month of May, global CO2 had ranged well above the 400 parts per million threshold, catapulting Earth at raging velocity toward climate and atmospheric states not seen in at least 3 million years.

According to May readings from the Mauna Loa Observatory, the more volatile hourly measures jumped as high as 404 parts per million while daily and weekly averages tended to settle between 401.4 and 402.3 parts per million. Given these trends, overall CO2 levels for May of 2014 are likely to peak at near or just below the astronomical 402 ppm threshold.

Atmospheric CO2 Late May 2014

(Atmospheric CO2 levels measured by the Mauna Loa Observatory over the past two years. Peak values for 2012 hit near 397 ppm, peak for 2013 hit near 400 ppm, and peak for 2014 is likely to hit near 402 ppm. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

CO2 levels near 400 parts per million are enough, according to our developed understanding of paleoclimates, to increase global temperatures by between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius, to melt Greenland, West Antarctica and a portion of East Antarctica, and to raise sea levels by 75 feet if sustained over a long term. According to recent glacial research, these very high levels, when combined with additional greenhouse gas forcing and concurrent ocean and atmospheric warming have already been enough to destabilize or push large portions of these major ice systems into irreversible collapse.

(A history of atmospheric carbon dioxide through early this year provided by CIRES and compared to the entire ice core record of the past 800,000 years. Video source: CIRES.)

36 Billion Tons of CO2 Emission per Year and Counting

Measured from peak to peak, the rate of atmospheric increase is likely near 2.5 to 3.0 parts per million per year over the two year period. Averages over the whole range of the past two years show increases on the order of 2.4 parts per million per year — a challenge to recent rates of increase near 2.2 parts per million a year since 2000.

Steadily ramping rates of atmospheric CO2 accumulation are driven by extreme global industrial, agricultural, and land-use emissions. According to the Global Carbon Project, 2013 saw total global CO2 emissions in the range of 36 billion metric tons. This emission was 2.1 percent higher than the 2012 level and about 60 percent higher than the 1990 level at around 22 billion metric tons of CO2. Such an extraordinary pace of emissions puts severe strain on both atmospheric carbon levels and on carbon sinks around the globe. The resulting risk of such a strong continued emission is that global sinks and stores may soon become sources (see methane monster below). An issue of amplifying feedbacks that grows ever more perilous with each passing year.

Rapidly Increasing CO2 Acting in Concert With Ramping Methane, other Greenhouse Gasses

Unfortunately, CO2 is not the only human emission forcing global temperatures rapidly higher. In addition, methane, nitrous oxide, and numerous other greenhouse gasses also make their way into the atmosphere each year through industrial sources. If we combine all these other greenhouse gasses, the total CO2 equivalent carbon emission is now at around 50 billion metric tons each year. A veritable mountain of greenhouse gasses dumped at a pace more than 150 times that of volcanic emissions each and every year.

Overall, the total greenhouse gas forcing from all these sources is now likely in the range of 481 parts per million of CO2 equivalent. This immense heat forcing, were it to remain in the atmosphere long-term, is enough to raise global temperatures by 3-4 C and to melt enough ice to raise sea levels by at least 120 feet. It is also enough, with only two more years of current emissions, to likely lock in an inevitable, irreversible and extraordinarily disruptive increase of 2 C in global temperatures for this century alone.

First Glimpses of the Methane Monster

The most potent and troubling of these additional greenhouse gasses is methane. Over the course of 20 years, methane is about 80 times as powerful a heat trapping gas as CO2 by volume. And though atmospheric methane levels are far less than comparable CO2 levels (at around 1.8 parts per million, or 1/3 the total atmospheric heat forcing of CO2), there is cause for serious concern.

For not only is the industrial emission of methane increasing, primarily through the use of very damaging hydraulic fracturing technologies (fracking), the global emission of methane from the Earth System also appears to be ramping higher. Over recent years, rapidly thawing permafrost and warming oceans both around the world and, particularly, in the Arctic show signs of venting an increasing volume of methane into the atmosphere from terrestrial sources. Though annual official tracking of total Arctic methane emissions at this point is practically non-existent, recent research allows for rational estimation.

Taking into account known emissions from permafrost and the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, and adding in expected emissions from the rest of the thawing Arctic, methane emissions for the entire region are likely around 40 teragrams per year, or about 7% of the global total. This emission is equivalent to that of a major industrial nation and initial indications are that it is growing.

Mauna Loa Methane 2007 to 2014

(Atmospheric methane increase since 2007 as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Note the more rapid pace of increase from 2013 through the first quarter of 2014. Image source: NOAA/ESRL.)

The result of combined increases in the human methane emission and in the Earth System emission has been enough to continue to push global levels higher with Mauna Loa readings breaching the 1840 part per billion average by early 2014. What is even more troubling is that the Earth System methane store, composed of both permafrost methane and methane hydrate at the bottom of the world ocean system, is immense.

In total, more than 3,000 gigatons of carbon in the form of methane may be at risk to eventually hit the atmosphere as the Earth continues to warm under the current human forcing. A very large store that could easily multiply the current rate of Earth System methane release many times over. One that represents a clear and present danger for a potentially very powerful amplifying heat feedback to an equally extraordinary initial human forcing.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

NOAA/ESRL

What Does a World at 400 PPM CO2 Look Like Long-term?

Grim News From NASA: West Antarctica’s Entire Flank is Collapsing Toward the Southern Ocean

Global Carbon Budget 2013

A Faustian Bargain on the Short Road to Hell: Living in a World at 480 CO2e

Far Worse Than Being Beaten With a Hockey Stick: Michael Mann and Our Terrifying Greenhouse Gas Overburden

Beneath the Cracking, Melting Ice, Arctic Methane Monster Continues its Ominous Rumblings

CIRES

 

 

 

On the Path to 400 PPM: Last Week Sees CO2 Just Shy of 398 PPM

co2_weekly_mlo

(Image source: NOAA)

According to reports from the Mauna Loa Observatory, worldwide CO2 averages for last week were 397.92 ppm. Daily measurements showed CO2 levels exceeding 398 ppm. And it appears likely that monthly CO2 averages for March will be in the range of 397.5 ppm. At this pace, it appears that worldwide CO2 will come very close to touching 400 ppm averages in May of this year and will certainly exceed the 400 ppm threshold by 2014.

Scientists have set the safe limit for worldwide CO2 levels at 350 ppm. We are currently far in excess of that number.

The last time CO2 was 400 ppm was between 2-3 million years ago. So a sustained CO2 of this level over long periods would continue to drive radical environmental changes. A world with average CO2 of 400 ppm, according to paleoclimate, eventually becomes 2-3 degrees hotter than today. Sea levels in such a world rise, over time, and eventually stabilize between 15 and 75 feet higher than today.

The average pace of CO2 increase over the past ten years is more than 2 ppm each year. This pace of increase is many times faster than any period in the geological record. At 400 ppm, worldwide CO2 will be about 125 ppm higher than in 1880. During the ice age, worldwide CO2 averaged around 190 ppm. The jump from 190 ppm to 275 ppm set off changes in Earth’s heat balance that increased global temperatures by more than 5 degrees Celsius, melted the great Laurentide ice sheet, and caused sea levels to rise by scores of feet.

Under business as usual fossil fuel burning, scientists expect world CO2 levels to reach between 600 and 850 ppm by the end of this century. Such high levels of CO2 have not been seen for 6 million years or more. Further, the massive forcing a jump to 600 to 850 ppm would induce would likely result in feedbacks that continue to push worldwide greenhouse gasses even higher. Many scientists believe that this would result in enough heat increases to make the world very hostile to life.

Links:

Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Too Hot For Life by 2300, That’s Where Current Emissions Path Leads

Burning One Third of Current Fossil Fuel Reserves is Enough to Wreck Civilization. So Why, Oh Why, are We Tapping Methane Hydrates?

We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be. –John Holdren, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

According to a recent report by Price Waterhouse Cooper, burning 1/3 of the remaining fossil fuel reserves is enough to push world CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm. This concentration would almost certainly bring world temperatures more than 2 degrees above the 20th century average — a level that scientists agree would result in powerful climate feedbacks and terrible impacts to human civilization, likely wrecking many of the world’s most powerful and diverse societies. This is the terrible outcome we see from burning just 1/3 of the world’s current fossil fuel reserves. Burning them all puts the world on the path to a devastating and unlivable 1000 ppm or more.

Yet world fossil fuel reserves is a moving number. Each year, new sources that were considered inaccessible are tapped. So, next year, new discoveries will add to the total. And the year following. And so on. Even worse, worldwide efforts by advanced societies to tap a massive fossil reserve of methane called hydrates is now underway. Methane hydrate is a frozen reserve of methane and water that lies locked hundreds or thousands of feet below permafrost or on or beneath ocean sea beds. Altogether, they represent a carbon store as much as two or three times the size of the world’s current accessible fossil fuel reserves.

Japan, Russia, and now the United States are experimenting with new technologies aimed at extracting these massive methane reserves. Recently, in Alaska, Conoco Philips, funded by Department of Energy grant money, partnered with Japanese hydrate extraction experts in an attempt to tap frozen methane beneath Alaska’s North Slope. In a process that involves injecting CO2 into underground formations to displace frozen methane, this partnership is attempting to prove viable a new extraction technology that may result in the additional burning of more than a trillion tons of fossil fuel.

The cost of this extraction is still prohibitively high. But, if tar sands, fracking and other unconventional extraction techniques are any guide, the oil industry will spare no expense to extract and burn as much of this fuel as possible. And, if current marketing and lobbying campaigns by the oil and gas companies are successful, then alternative energies will be squelched, necessitating the burning of this expensive and environmentally explosive fuel.

Though some CO2 may be sequestered in the extraction process, an additional volume of methane will be released as well. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right. But the real issue is the fact that burning this methane in addition to all the other conventional fossil fuels would create enough global warming to wreck human civilization many times over. This is an unconscionable result. Which begs the question: why are we trying to tap this methane? Why are we continuing to make our situation worse and worse when we should be deploying alternative energy technologies as fast as is humanly possible? We need to avoid 450 ppm CO2 like the plague and we need to rush back to 350 ppm CO2 as fast as possible.

We had a climate-change driven storm earlier this month. It was powerful and freakish. It flooded New York City’s subway system for the first time ever and left more than 40,000 Americans homeless. But Sandy will seem but a weak trifle compared to the impacts coming our way. So, why, oh why would we continue to make them worse?

Links:

http://www.pwc.com/en_GX/gx/low-carbon-economy-index/assets/pwc-low-carbon-economy-index-2012.pdf

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/11/11/1176411/adaptation-mitigation-misery/#comment-560691

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/methane-hydrate-alaska-north-slope-climate-change_n_2113828.html

Arctic Hottest in 1,800 Years, 2 to 2.5 Degrees Hotter Than Medieval Warm Period, Svalbard Study Shows

According to a recent study produced by Columbia University, and funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Keck Geology Consortium, the Arctic is now hotter than at any time during the last 1,800 years. The Medieval Warm Period, often cherry picked as a benchmark for global warming deniers, was 2 to 2.5 degrees Celsius cooler than the current high Arctic environment.

The study observed differences between the content of saturated and unsaturated fats in dead algae in lake sediments to determine temperatures through past ages. During cold periods, algae produce more unsaturated fats. During warm periods, the amount of saturated fats produced is greater. This provided researchers with a biological thermometer for past Arctic ages. You can view a very instructive video of how the differences in these fats is used as a thermometer here.

Earlier studies have shown that areas bordering the Arctic, such as southern Greenland and parts of Canada, were warmer than today. But the new data, coming from a Svalbard lake, show that the high Arctic was cooler. This broader picture shows that the Medieval Warm Period was more of a regional phenomena while, now, the entire Arctic is undergoing a massive heating not seen in ages.

This study is a major validation of others that have shown a regional warming during medieval times. One such study was the famous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph produced by Michael Mann.

1,800 Year Record Warming Put into Context

Natural cycles, often invoked by climate change deniers as a form of pseudo-intellectual argument, would result in the Arctic and the rest of the world cooling long-term. In fact, there is no natural force now acting on the Arctic that is capable of pushing its temperatures into a range not seen since 1,800 years ago. The Svalbard measurements now combine with a number of other sources, including Mann’s now-famous hockey stick graph, to provide solid evidence that the human forcing (greenhouse gas emissions) is pushing world temperatures unnaturally high.

(note that the Mann Graph now lags human-caused warming by about .1 degree Celsius, so the actual slope is even steeper than the one depicted)

As you can see in the graph, average world temperatures decline until major use of fossil fuels begins in the mid-19th century. At that point, temperatures rocket upward along a very steep slope. A very unnatural departure for the relatively stable Holocene epoch.

Response Times to Forcing Lag

What is most concerning is the fact that we are still in the early phases of Arctic and world warming. Because the areas of ice are so vast, because the ocean is so deep, because it takes lots of energy to move the atmosphere around and to heat it up, a huge amount of inertia exists. This inertia is fighting to keep world temperatures static. It is fighting to keep the glaciers and sea ice from melting. It is fighting to keep the weather systems in place.

But the vastly powerful human forcing of greenhouse gas emissions is moving these systems around like so many enormous toys. The fact that we are already seeing so much melt, that we are already seeing temperatures outside the range of nearly 2000 years is cause for serious, deep concern.

Geologists don’t have any kind of clear record for these kinds of changes ever moving along so fast. But they don’t have any kind of record for greenhouse gasses accumulating in the atmosphere at so fast a pace either. The most recent observable corollary occurred about 50 million years ago and happened at a speed 1/10th as fast as the human greenhouse gas accumulation. The related warming caused a mass extinction in the ocean and resulted in severe stresses to land animals whose end result was greatly reduced size and weight as animals concentrated in mountains and near less productive polar regions.

Inertia has already created a major overhang of climate impacts. At around 400 ppm CO2, the amount currently in the Earth’s atmosphere, Greenland and West Antarctica melt, contributing about 75 feet to sea level rise. The problem here is that the current forcing is likely enough to push another 100-200 ppm of CO2 out of the Earth’s oceans, forests, tundras and glaciers, lifting world CO2 into the range that could result in all the ice melting and another mass extinction in the oceans. That risk is current even if we stop producing CO2 today and will likely result in the need for CO2 capture from the atmosphere or possible, and very risky, applications of geo-engineering technologies. Continuing to burn fossil fuels at volumes great enough to increase CO2 concentrations by 2-3 ppm or more per year is nothing short of an exercise in madness and will likely result in a world with near 1000 ppm CO2 by the end of this century. And though a world at 600 ppm CO2 is tremendously difficult to live in, a world at 1000 ppm CO2 is a hellish nightmare.

Putting these things into context, even if we cease all fossil fuel emissions today, we are potentially on a path to conditions not seen in the last 10-30 million years. And, if we continue emitting fossil fuels in a business as usual manner, we are heading toward conditions not seen in the last 50 million years at least and perhaps never seen before.

As such, the current 1800 year warming happening in the Arctic is just another milestone along our current road. And that way, should we choose to continue, is little more than a short, hot road to hell.

Links:

Columbia Study

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