Hothouse 2090: Category 6 Hurricane A Grey Swansong For Tampa

Tampa. 2090. Late September.

The stiff wind running off the Gulf of Mexico felt like a blast furnace. Ocean surface temperatures near 100 degrees Fahrenheit; air temperatures of 113 F, high humidity, and a smell like rotten eggs added to the overall insufferability. Unpleasant was a better word from a better time. Mere unpleasantness had long since fallen away before the new deadly edge that Nature had adopted.

Tampa’s streets were packed with vehicles but featured only the rare transient foot and bike traffic. Just 15 minutes’ exposure to the brutal four p.m. heat and humidity could swiftly result in heat stroke as a body’s natural cooling systems were overwhelmed by conditions no human physiology could for long endure. The city had long since grown accustomed to the warnings. Anyone wanting to stay healthy remained indoors, huddling close to the blessed vents blasting machine-cooled, filtered air.

In the heat-scorched streets, elevated many times over to keep above the rising seas, a few diehards still roamed. They sported the latest in cooling accessories — thermal-bleeding fashions were all the rage and had been for at least three decades now. So too were the thin-film sulfur filtration masks, totem-like in their branding and individually styled in patterns of iridescent colors. These were the stylized provisional responses to the gigantic dead zones that regularly painted the Gulf’s waters purple-black with stinking, toxic-gas-spewing bacteria. But today, the waters were sickly green. The stink was merely unbearable and only somewhat unhealthy, thanks to the large and powerful storm now pushing in the bluer off-shore waters and flushing out some of the seaside dead zone.

RCP 8.5

(Under RCP 8.5 warming scenarios, the Earth is transformed into a hotter, more deadly place, capable of supporting storms of never-before-seen intensity. Image source: The European Environmental Agency.)

Great swells churned away – covered in gooey sludge. Some residents thought fondly of the December- to-February tourist season when temperatures fell, the waters cleared and, at times, swimming was safe. But such thoughts were quickly blasted away by the constant warnings now blaring through the local radio. Hot waves capped with frothy green foam were already roaring over the shoals of the old seaside districts and barrier islands before slamming into the defensive ring of sea walls. Ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica had long since forced a retreat from the bay and ocean, pushing an eight-foot rise in sea levels over the 90 years. The near-water residences, once premium real estate, had long since been relegated to tourist homes or the odd air and ocean monitoring station

Tampa Reeling in a Dangerous Climate Zone

Tampa had fared badly, but not so badly as Miami, or the huge chunk of South Florida now covered up by the Gulf and Atlantic Ocean. In the 2030s, large numbers of South Floridians and coastal residents began an exodus northbound and inland. Some stopped in Tampa, staking a claim on the increasingly-expensive higher elevations, but most just kept heading north — past drought-stricken Georgia, through the drying Mid-Atlantic states, and on north, even into Canada. But anywhere they went, there were problems. A big zone from the Mid-Atlantic on south and west was turning into desert. The Mississippi was becoming more and more an intermittent river –practically drying up most summers and then flooding like the dickens during February through April as gigantic storms cycle south out of the Arctic, driving massive swaths of hurricane-force winds before them. The West was even worse, with a large section of four states now experiencing temperatures that make early-century conditions at Death Valley seem tame.

It was tough to find a place of safety and security, much less comfort. Lives were shorter, harder than ever before. People scrambled from place to place. They hoarded food. Most were thin — Renaissance-era voluptuousness was making a comeback. Indoor and underground farming had exploded — saving the lives of millions in the parts of the world that adopted these methods — but the dead oceans, lost farmlands, and increasingly scarce fresh water sources resulted in a cascade of regional and global crises. Needless to say, there were less people. There was basically less of anything living anywhere. All the heating and burning and storming and putrefying had seen to that — the results of two centuries of fossil-fuel emissions that ebbed and flowed but never really stopped growing.

Tampa, like every other city still functioning, had seen her fair share of all this trouble. She was one of the lucky ones — still around, clinging to the higher elevations, still building up her sea walls, making and importing what food she could, finally casting off the corrupt fossil-fuel industries and enabling what economy that remained through all-renewable energy. You couldn’t call it sustainable — that ship had long since sailed. Some day, a big glacial outburst flood somewhere in Antarctica would push seas high enough to devour Tampa whole. Or some day, a giant city-killing storm could scour enough of Tampa from the face of the Earth that the resources and effort necessary to recover would simply become a mountain too high to climb.

Haiyan enhanced

(Under the hothouse-warming scenario that is RCP 8.5, hurricanes will have the potential to substantially exceed the strength of supertyphoons like Haiyan [enhanced satellite image above] which devastated the Philippines. Image source: NOAA.)

Category 6 Hurricane Raptor Sets Sights on Tampa

For Tampa, that day may well be the day after tomorrow, for monster storm Raptor now tore through the blue, green, and purple-black waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Gorging on sea-surface temperatures near 100 F, this enormous stack of lightning-wracked clouds reached 80,000 feet into the atmosphere. It ripped that hot air and moisture up from the surface, casting it in an enormous bellow toward space. In the wall of the resulting funnel, winds howled at 230 miles per hour. Minimum central pressures measured 835 millibars. Wave-height measures from some buoys — those whose sensors hadn’t been slammed into inoperability — were coming in at 100 feet.

A 20-mile-wide swath of these conditions formed an atmospheric axe along the right front quadrant of the storm as it turned toward Tampa. Crossing land, it would produce a 35-foot storm surge topped by 20- to 40-foot breaking waves. In areas not submerged by these churning, toxic waters, the winds would blow as strong as an EF 5 tornado — enough to strip the bark from trees. This combination of conditions would demolish any above-ground structures. The cone of destruction centering at the coast, then ripping 60 to 100 miles inland before the storm finally slaked its rage.

Taller Storms Climate Change

(Increasing global temperatures enlarges the zone in which storms can form, heightening cloud tops. Taller warm-air updrafts more heavily laden with moisture increases storm potential energy. In this way, climate change increases top potential storm intensity. Overshooting cloud top image provided by: Commons/NOAA.)

Similar nasty storms had helped to render the Persian Gulf region uninhabitable. Cairns, Australia had been ripped apart by such a beast five years earlier. The Phillipines, Taiwan, coastal China and Japan were visited ever more frequently by the monster category 4, 5, and 6 systems. And the thing barreling toward Tampa was among the strongest of a deadly new breed that meteorologists were now calling city killers.

The threat was not lost on residents. Those unresponsive to storms and extreme weather didn’t have a very high life expectancy. Roadways leading out of Tampa became packed with traffic. Inbound lanes were designated outbound. Trains, planes, hyperloops, and buses were all packed to the gills with those fleeing the path of Raptor. Lower populations after the migrations and mid-to-late Century crashes, in part, made the flight easier. As did the increased responsiveness. But the size of the storm swath, lower road and track resiliency due to the heat ahead of the storm, the more toxic air blowing off the ocean, and the increased population densities due to suburban abandonment created its own evacuation nightmares.

Higher populations of older persons suffering from increased rates of dementia and frailer organ systems due to toxin accumulation and disease proliferation were also less mobile. Moving this vulnerable group required a major effort on the part of Tampa volunteers and emergency responders. But after suffering decades of increased losses, lives and personal relationships were often considered all-the-more precious as people nostalgically clung to what connections remained or fought a crushing sense of fear and isolation by increasingly working to help others. The great ages of excess that preceded this period had left deep and enduring marks on the psyches of the people who’d survived through those times. And a quiet, defiant, never-again mentality had begun to emerge. In the face of such loss of beauty and safety, people were not only determined to live, they were determined to make the most of what meager lives remained to them by caring. By adding art and color to a world increasingly denuded of beauty. And by, most of all, attempting to preserve life.

The flight of Tampa’s populace from before the storm was, therefore, far more responsive, far more vigorous, than the responses of previous generations. And a vast majority heeded the warnings and left. As a result, the city became an empty shell with only about a hundred thousand die-hards and emergency personnel remaining.

With the big evacuation pulse now running inland and northbound, and with sections of Orlando evacuating while other portions hunkered down, the first outliers of Raptor began to encounter the coast. The green-white froth on the swells grew more vivid — almost looking neon in the light of dawn. Off-shore, an angry black stack of clouds thrown off from Raptor’s outer bands rushed toward shore. Gale-force gusts and a large accompanying swell pummeled Tampa’s seawalls and streets. The down-drafts and the first falling rain drove temperatures lower — into 90s (F). But the sensation was still one of oppressive heat due to the near 100 percent humidity.

The Storm Rushes In

Winds continued to rise and, over the next few hours, hot, driving rain steadily wrapped the Tampa region in a kind of stinking, hissing, steam. The continuously lifted sea walls and dikes never quite kept up with sea level rise. So even the early outliers of Raptor were enough to generate floods of putrid, green waters rushing through the lower-lying streets. Bridges and roads were quickly cut off and those remaining in town, and especially those on the newly dubbed Petersburg Island, were quickly cut off. Those poor souls remaining would have to face Raptor on their own and without the aid and comfort of an increasingly necessary emergency response force.

Current Tampa Bay Topographical Map

(Current Tampa Bay topographical map provided by the US Geological Survey. Under the 8 feet of sea level rise by 2090, most of the green sections would be below sea level. 8 feet of sea level rise plus 35 feet of storm surge plus 30-40 foot breaking waves would generate flooding in event some of the higher elevation areas [orange to brown]. Note that elevations in the map above are listed in meters. Image source: USGS.)

Raptor was moving rather swiftly and by early evening the storm’s eye wall was beginning to approach the coast. Off-shore, a great mound of water like a tsunami ran up from the waters of the shallow Gulf. Still taller waves rose atop it. Some of the rogue peaks stretched 150 feet above the base sea level. The net effect was one of an intense green-white mass taller than the tops of most buildings roaring in from the Ocean. The mass drowned St. Petersburg in a foundering break-water. It roared into Tampa Bay, and there it lifted the remaining ships and boats and hurled them bodily into buildings, across the shore line, and into rapidly flooding streets. Waters rushed into Tampa and on inland — in some places continuing for 10-20 miles before the great pulse of water was finally slaked by elevation.

Southwest winds rose up into a sound like a freight train. Debris was hurled into a great cloud over the flooded city. Everything from bits of sand and dirt, to paint chips, to flinders of bark from the few hardy trees remaining, to as large as vehicles and wall sections was lifted and hurled with lethal force. The churning vortex of 150 to 230 mph winds created a wall of moving air full of this shrapnel. Tampa was engulfed in a loud and angry blackness full of giant waves and flying teeth. In the above-water sections, it was impossible to see more than 10 feet outside clearly. And tens of thousands of structures were quickly ground down to their foundations by the combination of violent water and air.

These conditions covered a region stretching for 20 miles along the coast. With Raptor making landfall near Largo, this swath covered the mouth of Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg, Lealman, and Pinellas Park. With the storm running across the northern bay to make a second landfall about ten miles south and east of Safety Harbor, most of Tampa proper was affected by this zone. The raging storm surge, concentrated by the Bay and pulled along the arch of the storm’s vortex peaked to extreme heights where the bay narrowed into Tampa. And large sections of the nearby city simply drowned.

Then the storm passed inland, dumping torrential rain and cutting an 80 mile long, 20 mile wide swath of destruction through Central Florida. The wall of airborne shrapnel picked up more and more debris as it went. A few travelers on the road were forced to hunker down at a nearby recharging station’s convenience store — which subsequently collapsed. Their ordeal, recorded by portable devices which caught the hours-long images of flying cars, bits of transmission towers and other debris so damaged as to be rendered into an unrecognizable black grit across the sky, became a part of one more ‘new most violent’ storm record. A testimony to the worsening hazards and losses of the time.

As the next day dawned and rescue and disaster relief aircraft entered the storm zone, the epic destruction was more fully revealed. Observers from airplanes pointed out the swirling impressions upon the stripped land. One pilot noted that it looked like a thousand tornadoes had all gotten into a line 20 miles long and then run north and east inland. Another simply stated that it looked like the land had been pounded barren by the vast fists an angry god. Over a million structures had suffered at least moderate damage. Over 200,000 had been blown or knocked by waves down to their foundations. Despite the effective evacuation, the death count was tremendous. More than 35,000 in the Tampa region and points inland immediately lost their lives to the storm. Another 60,000 were estimated to have perished in the aftermath as a failure to restore power in time resulted in exposure to killing heat and near-shore airborne toxins. Considering comparable storm, fire or drought losses in three other US cities that year and the inevitable coming multi-meter sea level rise, government officials decided to add Tampa to the growing list of communities that would never be rebuilt.

Conditions in Context – Global Warming Increases the Top Potential Strength of the Most Powerful Storms

In 2016, Earth’s atmosphere isn’t yet capable of producing a storm like Raptor. But in a not-too-distant future, a 5-degree (Celsius) rise in global temperatures pushed on by 900 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 would result in heightened levels of heat and moisture fueling a great deal of instability. The Earth’s atmosphere would still be taking in huge amounts of heat at its top. The glaciers would likely be unzipping and sending out hordes of icebergs riding a pulse of cold surface water. As ever-more-dominant heat goes to war with dying cold, the amazing temperature differentials spawn equally terrible storms.

Seventy-four years from now, under business as usual warming scenarios, the tropics and subtropics are likely to be hundreds of miles to the north of their current geography. Rising troposphere heights will bring ever-taller thunderstorms. When these storms manage to organize into hurricanes, the results have the potential to be dramatically more powerful than today’s comparatively tame storms. Category 3, 4, and 5 storms would be more frequent. And a new category — 6 – may be needed for storms whose maximum sustained winds exceed a range near 200 miles per hour and whose minimum central pressure hits lower than around 880 mb (a range that starts out a bit more powerful, on balance, than the strongest storms that are capable of forming today).

Links/Statements/Attribution

The above scenario is a climate fiction portrayal of a potential category 6 hurricane impacting Tampa in the 2090s. The scenario incorporates recent scientific studies pointing toward projected increases in hurricane intensity due to human-forced warming of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere. In particular, the work of Dr. Jeff Masters on emerging Grey Swan hurricanes driven by climate change proved very helpful in providing a groundline basis for potential category 6 hurricane strength and impacts. And it is worth noting that Dr. Masters is highlighting scientific work showing that under business as usual human warming it is possible that storms of never-before-seen intensity will hit the Tampa region.

The storm in this scenario, Raptor, is nearly as strong as the storm produced by one of the climate models Dr. Masters references. This extremely powerful storm hit Tampa in a physical computer model assessing hurricane strength under business as usual warming. The modeled storm achieved 235 mph maximum sustained winds and an 830 mb minimum pressure. It’s worth noting that we have no record of a storm of this strength ever forming on Earth. But, under greenhouse gas loads and temperatures that continued fossil fuel burning will establish by the end of this century, the Earth atmosphere becomes capable of supporting such extreme events.

To this point, it is absolutely also worth referencing Dr. James Hansen’s seminal Storms of My Grandchildren while making the very clear statement that the atmospheric brew we are pumping out will make never before seen monster storms a terrible and dangerous aspect of the world our children and grandchildren will inherit and try to survive in.

Tampa Bay Florida LANCE MODIS

(Tampa, Florida, seen in the center of this July 2016 satellite image, is currently one of many cities facing serious threats posed by human-caused climate change. Whether Tampa or any of these other cities survive depends on how well human beings respond and on how much we lessen the coming damage by reducing fossil fuel emissions now. RCP 8.5 is a bad climate scenario. The only problem is that all we have to do to get there is simply continue to burn oil, gas, and coal. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

The scenario also takes into account various broader Earth System changes such as potential sea level rise due to melting glaciers, increased disruption of food and water supplies, loss of ocean health and increased anoxia and related water and local air toxicity (due to warming and increased nutrient run-off into the world ocean), model simulations and understandings of the increasing prevalence of extreme land and ocean surface heat and 2 meter humidity (wet bulb temperatures increasing into the lethal range of 35 C+), and expanding drought, disease and extreme weather zones.

This particular event and context follows closely to conditions projected under the IPCC’s business as usual fossil fuel emissions or RCP 8.5 warming scenario. For the purpose of this exercise, I have added climate conditions to the business as usual case that I see as plausible given that level of warming. Some of these additions are based on my own interpretation of scientific efforts that are currently not fully settled. However, I feel the overall portrayal is likely at least relatively accurate given various model projections and how the Earth System appears to have changed in response to past warming events.

It’s worth noting that RCP 8.5 does not assume zero renewable energy adoption. It simply assumes that fossil fuels will remain the dominant source of energy with consumption growing through the end of the 21st Century. As such it results in a catastrophic warming scenario over a less than one century time-frame. But such a warming would be achieved over longer time-frames so long as human carbon emissions are not rather swiftly brought to zero, Earth System feedbacks are strong enough, or elevated atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are not drawn down. Conditions similar to RCP 8.5 at 2100 could be achieved by approximately 500 ppm CO2 by around 2500. A reality that increases the necessary urgency of our current mitigation responses. Lower level warming and emissions scenarios are still dangerous, but do not result in the higher levels of harm evident in RCP 8.5.

Human impacts in the scenario such as loss of lives and lifespan reduction are based on my own understanding of how human beings are likely to adapt to such situations and how multiplied environmental stresses are likely to start to overwhelm human population growth in net by middle-to-end Century under the RCP 8.5 scenario. The writing above assumes that the civil system surrounding Tampa and this section of the United States remains at least partially intact due to cooperative effort on the part of individuals living in society at the time. Such a response is hopeful, but it is not guaranteed.

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Early Warning Signs for James Hansen’s Superstorms Visible — North Atlantic Cool Pool As Harbinger to “All Hell Breaking Loose”

Extreme weather. It’s something that’s tough to predict 2 weeks out, much less 2 decades. But for more than twenty years Dr James Hansen has been warning that the out-flush of cold water from glaciers in Greenland and Canada into the North Atlantic could set up a storm-producing weather pattern the likes of which human civilization has never seen. An atmospheric wrecking ball in the form of an intense cold-hot dipole that, once firmly established over Atlantic Ocean waters between North American and Europe, would carry on in brutally destructive fashion for decades and decades. In other words, as Dr. Hansen says in the below video, “all hell would break loose.”

His recent and, what might well be called, earth-shattering paper on the subject — Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms — takes a good, hard look at both the potential for exponentially ramping rates of ice melt and sea level rise over the coming decades and the impact those thousands of cubic kilometers of fresh water ramming out into the North Atlantic would have in producing a barrage of increasingly intense superstorms.

(Hansen addresses his concerns about the potential for increasingly severe storms and rapid sea level rise if human fossil fuel emissions do not stop soon in the above video.)

Early Evidence That All Hell is Starting to Break Loose

How could this happen? And what might it look like?

These are questions Hansen valiantly attempts to tackle. And according to him, in addition to a growing number of top climate researchers like Dr. Jason Box and Dr. Stephan Ramhstorf (please see Dr. Jason Box’s very salient take on the new Hansen study here), we may already be starting to witness signs of the wrenching oceanic and atmospheric shift that would produce these terrible weather systems.

For what we see now is the visible formation of a large cool pool in the North Atlantic. One that appears to be developing due to an increasingly rapid rate of Greenland melt. One that may be setting up atmospheric conditions for the age of storms that Hansen has feared could arise. An event resulting from a rampant human fossil fuel emission and a related very rapid injection of heat into the Earth System.

North Atlantic Cool Pool

(Composite global temperature anomaly data from NOAA for 2013 through 2015 provides evidence of the early start to the formation of a possible superstorm-producing North Atlantic cool pool. Image source: Climate Crocks.)

How might this cool pool become such a powerful storm generator? It could well be thought of as an ironic matter of atmospheric and ocean physics. Ironic in the sense that overall global heating produces a severe weather hazard in the form of a large area of cool ocean surface water.

Increased warming of the Earth results in more rapid warming at the poles, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. In turn, this polar amplification sets off a number of feedback loops in which ice in Greenland and West Antarctica begin to melt faster and faster. The ironic atmospheric relationship to large slabs of ice sliding off the great ice sheets and into the ocean begins to come into play. For a thin veil of fresh water from these increasingly massive volumes of melting ice begin to lock more and more heat into the local ocean system.

Over hundreds of thousands of square kilometers, the fresh water begins to cut off the ocean’s ability to ventilate heat into the airs above. As a result, the surface of the ocean and the local atmosphere cools. More heat is shoved into the deeper waters — where it can melt the sea facing glaciers ever more rapidly even as it gets to doing the dangerous work destabilizing carbon stores on the sea bed. Dangerous — not only for its potential to add more greenhouse gasses to the world atmosphere, but also for its ability to develop anoxic dead zones in the ocean depths and to expand those life-killing layers toward the sea surface.

Climate Change’s War Between Hot and Cold — Understanding the Warning Signs

In scientific terms, we call this a stratified ocean state. But in plainer words, we could think of it as a big mechanism for heat exchange and ocean and atmospheric chemistry change.

Where Hot and Cold Collide

(Anyone who knows anything about ocean and atmospheric physics should be concerned about this picture. Here we see the April 8, 2016 ocean surface temperature anomaly reanalysis provided by Earth Nullschool and developed from data collected by NCEP and the National Weather Service. Here we see a large swath of Gulf Stream waters ranging from 5-8 C above average temperatures coming into collision with waters in a North Atlantic cool pool ranging from 1-10 C below average. It is the increasing difference in temperature, or thermal gradient, between these two ocean zones that Hansen and others identify as having a high potential for very severe storm generation.)

Changing the ocean’s heat relationship with the atmosphere is bound to alter the weather. And Hansen’s paper points toward a serious risk that this fundamentally altered relationship will result in much more powerful storms. A cooler North Atlantic will collide with all kinds of expanding heat from various regions. A backed up Gulf Stream will warm up — it already has. The tropics will begin to heat up, increasing the temperature gradient between the lower Latitudes and the cool pool in the North Atlantic. Such conditions amp up the atmospheric storm potential by producing an abundance of what storms feed on — very extreme differences in temperatures, related strong winds and atmospheric vortexes, strong south to north and north to south air flows that link the tropics to the pole, and an ever-growing abundance of moisture bleeding off the record warm waters that come into increasing collision with the expanding pool of cold to the north. Such conditions risk the development of extraordinarily powerful storms in this region. Storms the likes of which our civilizations have never seen before. Storms that may leap the boundaries of their formation zones to have far broader impacts.

Hansen, in his paper found evidence that such conditions may well have existed during the last warm period between ice ages around 115,000 years ago. Back then, a huge flush of ice bergs running out from a melting Greenland during the peak period of warmth appears to have produced terrible storms in the North Atlantic. Storms powerful enough to pluck 2,000 ton boulders up out of the sea bed and hurl them 100 feet above sea level before depositing them onto the hills of places like Bermuda and the Bahama islands.

During that period, the rate of warming was slower. So the pace of melt was likely also slower than what we would see due to human warming. The atmospheric changes were thus milder than those we are likely to experience if human warming continues along its current path and sets the dramatic melt and related atmospheric wrenching into motion. Already, we see storms the likes of which history has never seen running into the UK and Ireland, aiming their increasingly powerful winds and rains at Western Europe. Already we see climate change enhanced superstorms. New forms of severe weather. Hellacious mergings of devastating hurricanes with extraordinary nor’easters.

But what we see now is nothing compared to what we will see if Hansen’s research is anywhere near the mark and if human fossil fuel burning continues unabated. What we risk, and what Hansen has warned us about in what he considers to be his most important work of science, is setting off a severe chain of events that includes rapid sea level rise and powerful, powerful storms. In addition, the ocean stratification that is the cause of all this atmospheric and oceanic trouble would set off further consequences not touched on in Hansen’s work — hitting ocean health hard and, likely, liberating more carbon stores from the Earth System to add to the troubles that humans (and particularly the fossil fuel special interests) are already rapidly bringing to the fore.

One final point — the Hansen paper has and will continue to generate a huge controversy in the science. But from the point of view of this threat analyst, there is a high potential for dangerous outcomes similar to those the Hansen paper warns of together with a number of additional troubles so long as the human-forced warming continues. And we already see visible evidence of those kinds of dangerous atmospheric and ocean changes starting to happen now.

Links:

Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, Superstorms

The Storms of My Grandchildren

Human Warming Pushing Seas to Exponentially Rise

Dr Jason Box’s Take on the New Hansen Study

Earth Nullschool

NCEP

National Weather Service

Hurricane Sandy — the Storm that Climate Change Wrought

 

Dr. James Hansen: “We Have a Global Emergency” Dangerous Heat to Render Parts of the World Practically Uninhabitable by 2100

There’s a tragic new danger lurking in the world. Something that’s arisen from a mass burning of fossil fuels on an epic scale that now pumps out more than 100 times the greenhouse gas emission from all the volcanoes in all the world combined. Something that’s been building heat in our atmosphere at unprecedented rates. Something that’s been increasingly setting off the strange and deadly Hothouse Mass Casualty Events (HMCE). Events that appear ready to hit the innocent, the poor, and the vulnerable among us the hardest.

Over the past few decades, HMCEs, have occurred with increasing frequency during periods of extreme heat and drought that exceeded the scope and intensity of past heatwaves. These events resulted both in mass human mortality and in medical infrastructure crippling waves of heat injuries. These new, deadly heatwaves occurred in a world that was about 0.6 to 0.8 C hotter than 1880s averages. But as of the past two years, the global heat factor has cranked still higher — hitting 0.9 to 1.1 C above 1880s levels during 2014 and 2015 — and further increasing the likelihood of these dangerous events.

And according to a new scientific report from Dr. James Hansen — these events are about to become an ever-more permanent part of the global landscape. In essence, if fossil fuel burning continues, the poorest parts of the world who have contributed the least to the climate change problem will experience HMCEs with such a high frequency that many of these regions are going to become practically uninhabitable by the end of this Century. It’s a level of unfair and unequal treatment that’s difficult to stomach. For those who continue to burn fossil fuels, who continue to push fossil fuel burning through lobbying, market dominance, and short-sighted government policies, and who plan to burn these harmful fuels on into the future now appear to be involved in a kind of combined act of inflicted human habitat destruction and possible genocide.

*****

On Wednesday, Dr. James Hansen, former head of GISS NASA, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on human-caused climate change, dropped another bombshell on an in-the-know scientific community that appears to be struggling to keep up with the velocity of what has now become a Global Warming Emergency. Hansen’s new report first takes a look at warming in retrospect — using historical temperature and extreme warming event data to show that the world has been radically altered by a rampant fossil fuel emission. Then, Hansen takes a look forward into what appears to be an increasingly hot and dangerous greenhouse gas warmed future.

TimeBombFig16

(Through late 2015, Hansen’s data showed that human fossil fuel emissions continued along a path just above IPCC worst case ranges, and flirting with the lower edge of absolute worst case ranges. Hansen here identifies these carbon emissions as a global warming ‘Time Bomb.’ Image source: Dr. James Hansen.)

No More Cool Summers For Some Parts of the World

The paper found that the frequency of extreme heating events increased over the globe, even as the likelihood of cool or cold weather fell off. Though every region showed an increase in warm or hot events and a drop off in cool or cold events, some regions experienced more warming than others.

For example, in the US, summers cooler than the 1951 to 1980 average now occur only 19 percent of the time. Meanwhile, the frequency of extreme heating events 3 standard deviations outside the mid 20th Century average increased by an order of magnitude to 7 percent. These are strong shifts toward hotter summers for the US. But they are somewhat minor in comparison to shifts occurring in other parts of the world.

Hansen notes that in the Middle East and Mediterranean, rates of summer warming have increased to the point that there are now no summers that are cooler than average even as the period of summer seasonality has grown “considerably longer.” This statement is worth thinking about for a bit — essentially what’s happened is cool summers below the mid 20th Century average have been basically wiped out in the Med and Middle East. Cool summers there are a thing of a much less dangerous and far more pleasant past.

And looking at Hansen’s graph below we find that the impact of warming in many highly populated regions of the world is already far greater than within the United States:

Shifts to Warm and Hot Summers

(Shift to hotter Summers and Winters is now producing a greatly increased frequency of extremely hot summers even as it is steadily eliminating the likelihood of cool summers. Image source: Regional Climate Change and National Responsibilities.)

As the world continues to heat up, there is rising risk to human beings over broad regions. This is due to the fact that a warming world increases the latent heat of the atmosphere. When Ocean surfaces warm to above 35 degrees Celsius, this results in an increase in the amount of warm moisture in suspension in the atmosphere. For human beings, it makes it more difficult for heat to transfer way from the skin through evaporative cooling. At a 35 degree C Wet Bulb reading, the human body’s ability to cool itself breaks down — resulting in high risk of heat stroke and death if exposure continues for 1-2 hours.

But these are the kinds of conditions we’ll be increasingly putting into effect if human fossil fuel burning continues. Hansen notes:

The tropics and the Middle East in summer are in danger of becoming practically uninhabitable by the end of the century if business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions continue, because wet bulb temperature could approach the level at which the human body is unable to cool itself under even well-ventilated outdoor conditions.  Lesser warming still makes life more difficult and reduces productivity in these regions, because temperatures are approaching the limit of human tolerance and both agricultural and construction work are mainly outdoor activities.

Health-Risks, Violence, Climate Inequality and Responsibility

In addition to increasing the likelihood of hothouse mass casualty events, severe heatwaves, and increasing drought prevalence, Hansen notes added impacts to human beings and human societies. As we’ve seen with the Zika virus, disease vectors spread into higher Latitudes as the world warms — increasing the range of harmful and deadly tropical illnesses. Furthermore, studies indicate that violence increases dramatically in hotter regions. With each standard deviation increase in temperature patterns, group on group conflict has been observed to increase by 14 percent. This would already have increased conflict in the Med and Middle East by nearly 30 percent. For many regions of the world, if fossil fuel burning continues, warming is expected to shift a further 3-7 standard deviations off baseline. If the violence study findings are correct, this could double instances of group on group conflict for some parts of the world.

Carbon emissions cumulative by country

(Unequal climate change contributions, unequal impacts. Image source: Regional Climate Change and National Responsibilities.)

One final assertion of Hansen’s paper is that warming impacts and contributions are unequal. People living in Asia and Africa are seeing disproportionate warming even as they have contributed very little to the problem. And many of the regions now experiencing above average rates of warming could be rendered practically uninhabitable by Century’s end. People in the United States, Canada, Australia, Russia, Japan, and Northern Europe, though also suffering warming impacts, have been among those contributing the most to the problem and seeing the lowest rates of change in the form of extreme heat related events (though those experiencing ever more frequent droughts in the US Southwest may beg to differ). The Middle East’s own moderate national emissions contribution to global warming (though a rather high export contribution in the form of oil and gas sales) is matched by an extreme commitment to dangerous heatwaves for the region. This distribution represents a highly unequal and unfair spread of climate impacts and climate change responsibility. Yet one more reason why the industrial nations of the world should be getting their act together for a concerted and rapid transition away from fossil fuel use.

It’s worth noting that the Hansen paper does not assess the impact of other climate change related events such as extreme rainfall or sea level rise on regions that have contributed the most to the problem. It’s likely that vulnerable cities would see a widely distributed impact from the kind of multi-meter sea level rise Hansen warns is possible rippling across the globe. Portions of the US East and Gulf Coasts, in particular, have an extraordinary vulnerability to this climate change related threat.

Links:

Regional Climate Change and National Responsibilities

Wet Bulb Temperatures

Wet Bulb Temperatures 35 C

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

 

Rapid Acceleration in Sea Level Rise — From 2009 Through October 2015, Global Oceans Have Risen by 5 Millimeters Per Year

The evidence that a human-forced warming of the globe is hitting a much higher gear in terms of both added heat and ramping impacts just keeps streaming on in. Today, an update in the satellite monitor tracking global sea level rise provides yet one more ominous marker. The world’s oceans are rising at an unprecedented rate not seen since the end of the last Ice Age. A rate that appears to be rapidly accelerating.

Greenland Melt Zachariae Isstrom

(Surface melt visible across the Zachariae Isstrom Glacier in Greenland on July 20th of 2015. Melt like that occurring on this glacier has become more and more widespread over Antarctica and Greenland. It’s an ongoing heat accumulation in the world’s great ice mountains that is contributing to increasing melt water outflows into the rising world ocean system. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

It’s a tough bit of evidence that the world is swiftly accumulating heat. For aside from atmospheric temperature readings, the rate of sea level rise is probably the best marker for how fast the world is warming. It’s a sign of heat build-up that’s thermally expanding the ocean. And, far more ominously, it’s a sign that the great glaciers of the world are starting to accumulate enough heat to go into a more and more widespread melt and destabilization.

Ocean Rise Begins with Ramp-up in CO2 Emissions

Ever since the Holocene climate era began about 10,000 years ago, ocean levels and shorelines have remained remarkably stable. At the close of the 19th Century, and in conjunction with a build-up of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere through the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, sea levels began a rise that would start to mark a departure from the stable coastlines human civilizations had enjoyed for so long.

hansen-sea-level-rise

(Global sea level rise has ramped higher and higher — an upward curve that follows increasing volumes of CO2 in the atmosphere and rising global temperatures. Image source: Dr. James Hansen.)

At first the rise in global waters, driven by a then slow accumulation of heat in the world ocean system, was slight and gradual. Beginning in 1870, and continuing on through 1925, sea levels across the world increased by about 0.8 millimeters per year. The increase was likely driven by heat accumulating in the atmosphere and then transferring to the surface waters of the oceans. From 1870 through 1925, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels had increased from around 280 parts per million to 305 parts per million — into a range about 25 parts per million above the typical interglacial peak CO2 level of the last 2 million years. A volume of heat trapping gasses that began to slowly upset the Holocene’s relative stability.

If scientists and researchers at the time were paying closer attention, they would have noted this mild but consistent increase in the height of global surface waters as the first hint that the human emission of greenhouse gasses was starting to alter the Earth environment. Sadly, it took many more decades to begin to understand the profound changes that were starting to take place.

The First Acceleration — 1925 to 1992

While climate science was still in its infancy during 1925, a human forced warming of the globe was starting to kick into higher gear. A signal of atmospheric warming since the 1880s was beginning to develop. Though unclear, it was becoming apparent that the airs of the world were building up heat. But the waters of the world were providing a strong signal that the Earth was accumulating that heat more and more rapidly.

Sea level rise, at that time driven by thermal expansion and by a later small but growing contribution from glacial melt, took its first leap higher. And from 1925 through 1992, the average rate of sea level rise more than doubled to 1.9 millimeters per year. It was a sign that the Earth was warming more and more rapidly and that the heat was showing up in still more thermal expansion of the world’s waters.

The Keeling Curve

(Globally, CO2 began to increase in the atmosphere starting with the widespread burning of coal in England during the 17th and 18th Century. As new fossil fuels like natural gas and oil were added to the mix and as fossil fuel based burning greatly expanded during the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries, concentrations of this key greenhouse gas sky-rocketed. By the decade of the 2010s, the rate of atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulation was about 6 times faster than at any time in the geological record. A human emission that, if it continues for just a blink in geological timescales, is the equivalent to multiple clathrate guns firing off at the same time. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

During the same period, atmospheric greenhouse gasses increased from 305 parts per million in 1925 to around 350 parts per million (entering the bottom range of the Pliocene 2-5 million years ago) by 1992. This jump by 45 parts per million in just 67 years pushed the Earth’s climate well outside the range of past interglacials — exceeding the previous peak of 280 parts per million CO2 by more than 70 parts per million overall. Atmospheric temperatures, by 1992, had also increased into a range about 0.5 C above 1880s values.

We had started to enter a period where the context of the human-driven warming (primarily enforced by a monopolization of energy markets by fossil fuels) was being pushed far outside the range of the Holocene and into time periods tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years in the geological past. The Earth System, in other words, was entering a period of increasingly dangerous imbalance.

The Second Acceleration 1992 to 2009

During the 17 years from 1992 through 2009, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose by 40 parts per million to about 390 parts per million in total. That’s a rate of accumulation nearly four times faster than the entire period from 1925 through 1992. An accumulation that by 2009 had pushed the world into a climate context more similar to the warmest periods of the Pliocene of 2-5 million years ago, than of the geological epoch in which human civilization emerged and thrived. For the Holocene was then starting to look like some fond memory fading off into an increasingly murky and smoke-filled far horizon.

Rate of ocean heat uptake has doubled since 1997

(The amount of heat contained in the world ocean system has doubled since 1997. This raging ocean heat uptake has been fueled by a heat accumulation at the top of the atmosphere that is now equivalent to lighting off 5 hiroshima type bombs on the surface of the Earth every single second of every single day. 90-95 percent of this heat goes into the world ocean system. Image source: Dr PJ Gleckler — Industrial Era Ocean Heat Uptake Doubles. See Also: Skeptical Science.)

Rates of sea level rise again increased — hitting a ramp up to around 3 millimeters per year. More ominously, scientific studies were beginning to indicate that the Greenland Ice Sheet and West Antarctica were starting to significantly contribute to the rising waters. The great glaciers were showing their first signs of a mass seaward movement called a Heinrich Event. And with the world hitting 0.8 degrees Celsius above 1880s temperature values and rising, such an event was starting to look more and more likely.

Sea Level Rise at 5 Millimeters Per Year Since 2009

Now, by early 2016, with the world at 1.1 C warmer than 1880s averages and with CO2 levels likely to peak at around 407 parts per million this year, it appears that rates of sea level rise have again jumped markedly higher. For according to satellite altimetry data from AVISO, global sea levels rose by 36 millimeters from the end of 2009 through October of 2015. That’s an annual rate of around 5 millimeters per year and one far above the longer term range of 3.1 mm per year established from 1992 through 2012.

Sea level rise AVISO

(Global sea level rise as measured by satellite altimetry hits a noticeably higher ramp from 2009 through late 2015. Image source: AVISO.)

We can clearly see the departure from the trend line starting post 2011 in the above graph. And if we were to cherry pick that particular departure zone, the rate from trough-to-peak would be 7 millimeters per year. However, since a La Nina occurred during 2011-2012 and a record strong El Nino is occurring now, that particular trend line is probably a bit exaggerated. The reason being that La Nina tends to dampen rates of sea level rise through variable cooling and El Nino tends to spike rates of sea level rise as world surface waters warm during such events.

However, even when correcting for La Nina and El Nino variation, it appears that sea level rise since 2009 is tracking in a range of 4 to 5 millimeters each year — which is yet another significant departure from the trend. A rate that, if it were to further solidify, would be 5 to 6 times faster than initial rates of sea level rise at the start of the 20th Century or two and a half times faster than the sea level rise rates from 1925 through 1992.

Open water and no snow in south Greenland on February 2, 2016

(Open water and no snow in Southern Greenland on February 2 of 2016. Zero sea ice and no snow in southern Greenland during Winter is a strong sign that the island is falling deeper and deeper into the grips of a severe warming event. Image source: Greenland Today.)

Spiking rates of heat accumulation and related thermal expansion of the world’s oceans is likely playing a part in the current increase. But, all-too-likely, the numerous destabilized glaciers now rushing seaward — which in total contain at least enough water to raise seas by 15-20 feet — are also starting to add greater and great contributions. And, unfortunately, with global temperatures now pushing into a very dangerous range between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius above 1880s averages, we are likely to see more and more of these glaciers go into a rapid seaward plunge. It looks like we’ve already locked in a ramping rate of sea level rise for decades to come and at least 15-20 feet long term. But that pales in comparison to what happens if we keep burning fossil fuels.

Links:

AVISO Sea Level Rise

Climate Monsters We Want to Keep in the Closet

Greenland Glacier Rapidly Losing Mass

Dr PJ Gleckler — Industrial Era Ocean Heat Uptake Doubles

Skeptical Science

Collapsing Greenland Glacier Could Raise Seas by 1/2 Meter

Dr. James Hansen

Contribution of the Cryosphere To Changes in Sea Level

The Keeling Curve

LANCE MODIS

Greenland Today

Hat Tip to Catherine Simpson

Hat Tip to Wili

 

Warning From Scientists — Halt Fossil Fuel Burning Fast or Age of Superstorms, 3-20 Foot Sea Level Rise is Coming Soon

First the good news. James Hansen, one of the world’s most recognized climate scientists, along with 13 of his well-decorated fellows believe that there’s a way out of this hothouse mess we’re brewing for ourselves. It’s a point that’s often missed in media reports on their most recent paper — Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms. A paper that focuses on just two of the very serious troubles we’ll be visiting on ourselves in short order if we don’t heed their advice.

The way out? Reduce global carbon emissions by 6% each year and manage the biosphere such that it draws carbon down to 350 ppm levels or below through the early 22nd Century. To Hansen and colleagues this involves a scaling carbon fee and dividend or a similarly ramping carbon tax to rapidly dis-incentivize carbon use on a global scale. Do that and we might be relatively safe. Safe, at least in the sense of not setting off a catastrophe never before seen on the face of the Earth. That’s pretty good news. Pretty good news when we consider that some of the best climate scientists in the world see an exit window to a hothouse nightmare we’re already starting to visit upon ourselves.

The bad news? According to Hansen and colleagues, even if we just continue to burn fossil fuels and dump carbon into the atmosphere at a ‘moderate’ pace some of the terrifically catastrophic impacts of human caused climate change are not too far off.

A Moderate Pace of Burning

The new Hansen paper takes a look into both our geological past and our climate future in an attempt to give us an idea what may be in store. In this scenario, model, and paleoclimate based study, Hansen and colleagues assume two things about global human civilization. The first assumption is that we don’t follow the worst case, business as usual carbon emissions policies that lead to around 1000 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere by 2100. It is instead assumed that some effort is given to reducing coal, oil, and gas consumption. That some renewable energy, increased efficiency and behavior changes replace a significant portion of future fossil fuel emissions. But the most effective solution — a complete transition away from fossil fuel burning over the next few decades — fails.

A1B1

(A1B is a ‘moderate’ emissions scenario that, according to model essays, is likely to see between 2.5 and 3.5 C warming by the end of this Century and around 700 ppm of CO2 accumulation. That is, without the kind of major ice sheet response indicated in the new Hansen study. Image source: Knutti and Sedlacek.)

As a result, we end up with around 700 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2100. In such a case we’ve followed what the IPCC community terms as the A1B or ‘moderate’ fossil fuel emissions scenario.

A Question of Melt Rate Doubling Time

It is in this context that the Hansen paper attempts to determine a key factor that will have wide-ranging impacts on ocean health, the continued existence and lifespan of coastal cities, and on the severity of the weather itself. That factor is captured by a single simple question — if we continue a moderate pace of fossil fuel burning, then how rapidly will ice sheet and ice shelf melt double?

To Hansen this is a critical question. One he has already done quite a bit of work to answer over recent years. And according to his findings it looks as if land ice melt rates for both Greenland and West Antarctica could now be doubling every 5-20 years. It’s a doubling rate that may find a historical allegory in the milder yet still intense glacial outflows of times long past. And it’s something that, according to Hansen, is being directly driven by an extreme pace of human-based greenhouse gas accumulation.

The Eemian — Significant Sea Level Rise and Terrible Storms Under Far Lower CO2 Forcing

To this point, Hansen’s new paper takes a dive into the paleoclimate study of an ice age interglacial that bears some stunning similarities to our own, human warmed, time period. He looks at the Eemian, a warm period that occurred 130,000 to 115,000 years ago. A period that featured temperatures in the range of 1-2 C above 1880s values (we’re in the process of hitting 1 C above 1880s values this year). A period in which CO2 levels were in the range of 285 parts per million (about 15 parts per million higher than the Holocene average before humans spiked that level to 400 parts per million during recent years). And a period that, according to Hansen’s broad study of past research, included numerous Heinrich type glacial outburst and melt events.

Back then, at 285 parts per million CO2 levels, seas were as much as 5-9 meters (16 to 30 feet) higher than they are today. The global climate, on the other hand, was much stormier. For two Heinrich type events that Hansen investigated were found to have dramatic impacts on severe storms in the North Atlantic during the Eemian. Hansen found large boulders propelled up onto the islands of Bermuda and the Bahamas by what appear to be powerful storm waves. Hansen also noted chevron shaped wave channels carved into the calcified sand beds in the Bahama Island Chain.

Heinrich Event

(Heinrich events included major glacial outflows like the one seen here at Jacobshavn, Greenland. Note the significant ice volume outflow through the channel at center frame. Also note the white dots in Baffin Bay indicating ice berg discharge. For reference, bottom edge of frame is about 100 miles. In past Heinrich Events outflows like the one seen above hit high gear as glaciers released armadas of ice bergs into the oceans which generated ocean and atmospheric changes. As the ice bergs melted, they deposited rocks on the sea bed. These piles of ice raft debris then became a signature geological feature of Heinrich events in the ancient past. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

It paints an overall picture of very stormy weather in the North Atlantic as a result of these Heinrich ice sheet melt episodes affecting Greenland and West Antarctica. These melt events drove fresh water out into the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean at the rate of about 0.5 to 1 meters of sea level rise per century. The expanding cold, fresh water along the surface zones in the upper latitude waters shut off heat exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere by generating a stratified ocean state. This fresh water wedge interrupted the plunging of heavier, salt-laden waters in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean. A loss of heat exchange that resulted in the cooling of airs directly over the fresh water outflow pools.

Meanwhile, since heavy, saltier waters were no long diving to the ocean bottom in these regions — broader ocean circulation was interrupted. As a result, heat from the equator was no longer traveling poleward. The equator warmed. The cold, fresh water outflow regions cooled. And this high temperature gradient subsequently became a powerful storm generator — providing extreme baroclinic potential energies for the storms that likely reshaped the ocean bottom and deposited massive boulders upon islands throughout the North Atlantic.

It’s worth noting that the 5-9 meter sea level rise during the Eemian occurred in the context of global temperatures that are now similar to our own (1-2 C above 1880s values). But it’s also worth considering that the underlying CO2 and greenhouse gas conditions for the current age are far, far worse. Peak global CO2 during the Eemian never hit higher that 285 parts per million. For the Anthropocene age we are now leaving the 400 parts per million CO2 level in the dust. Meanwhile, the pace at which we are warming is also more than 10 times faster than the pace of warming to peak Eemian heat values. And it’s these two factors — an extreme greenhouse gas overburden combined with a very rapid pace of warming that has Hansen and colleagues very concerned about our climate situation over the next 10-80 years.

Land Ice Below Sea Level — Amplifying Feedback For Melt

Turning to the current day, there’s a growing number of reasons why we should be concerned that rapid land ice melt, large fresh water outflow to oceans, and resulting superstorms could be in our future. First, we’ve learned that the topography of Greenland and Antarctica include numerous channels that tunnel deep into its great glaciers at depths well below sea level. When oceans warm, and they’re warming as you read this, the submerged, sea-facing slopes of glaciers are confronted with more and more heat gnawing away at their under-bellies. Just a 0.1 C increase in water temperature can melt away a meter of ice over the course of a year. Multiply that by glaciers with faces that are submerged hundreds of feet deep whose sea fronting cliffs extend for many miles and you can end up with quite a lot of melt due to very little warming. As more of the undersides of glaciers melt, more of the water tunnels inland and large masses of ice are rafted away from the central ice exposing still more of the land anchored ice to a warming ocean flood.

image

(Image from Hansen Paper shows how land ice melt generates ocean stratification which is an amplifying feedback that enables ocean bottom warming and more land ice melt. Note — AABW stands for Antarctic bottom water, NADW — North Atlantic down welling. Image source: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms)

As bad as this dynamic may sound, the process includes one more wrinkle that makes it even worse. As the undersides of ice shelves erode and more fresh water laden ice bergs are pulled out into the ocean, these ice bergs begin to melt en mass. This massive ice melt develops into an enormous and expanding pool of fresh water at the surface. And its this troublesome demon that traps heat in the deeper ocean levels. So, in other words, as the ice from the land glaciers floats away and melts it traps and focuses more heat at the base of these great glaciers. It’s an amplifying feedback. A very serious kind that doesn’t even require the human forced kick to create severe trouble. One that during the Eemian really wrecked the weather and caused massive surges in ocean height.

It’s a process that Hansen and his colleagues believe make both Greenland and West Antarctica very vulnerable. A process that could, when combined with the high velocity human heat forcing, produce melt rates that double every 20, 10 or even every 5 years. But of the two — Greenland or Antarctica — which is worst off?

Greenland topography

(Topographic map of Greenland sans its great ice sheet. Most of central Greenland’s mass is now below sea level. It’s a basin that now holds a miles high ice mountain. Various channels allow ocean water access to the central ice mass should the channel openings melt due to warming oceans. Such an invasion could set off a rapid sea level rise driven by Greenland melt. Image source: Livescience.)

Greenland, for its part, is little more than a great Archipelago held together by its stunning ice mass. Remove the ice and the interior of Greenland would flood, leaving a ring of islands as a final remnant. Though deep, most of these channels run up slope. And this feature, according to the Hansen study, may be one saving grace for potential Greenland ice melt pace. Up slope channels limit the impact of basal melt by serving to check rates of catastrophic destabilization. So though Greenland is certainly vulnerable to ice melt due to the fact that many channels cut hundreds of feet below sea level and into the island’s glacial heart, it is not as vulnerable as West Antarctica.

There, many channels cut deeper beneath the Antarctic ice mass. But not only are they below sea level by hundreds of feet as with Greenland, they slope down. They slope down and not for just a little ways under the ice sheet — some of these ocean heat skids extend in down-sloping fashion for hundreds of miles beneath the Antarctic ice. The result is a kind of skid, that once unlocked by initial melt, can continue to expose larger and large chunks of bottom ice to the warming ocean. Allowing, ultimately, the creation of new warming seas underneath the ice and floating it away in very rapid fashion.

In West Antarctica, ice shelves facing the Weddell and Ross seas both feature these dangerous retrograde slopes. In East Antarctica, the Totten Glacier is likewise vulnerable as are many other glaciers surrounding the vast periphery of Antarctica.

Retrograde slope Ross ice shelf

(Retrograde slopes behind ice sheet grounding lines are just one reason why Antarctic land ice is so unstable. Image source: Ice Sheet Mass Balance and Climate Change.)

Finally, in addition to being surrounded by the warming, deeper waters of the Southern Ocean, in addition to featuring dangerous retrograde slopes that channel warming sea water further and further inland and beneath the ice sheets, West Antarctica itself sits on a geological hot bed. Though not mentioned in the Hansen study, recent work also highlighted that West Antarctica rests atop a geologically active zone that had formed numerous sub-glacial lakes warmed by geological activity. This added geological heat makes West Antarctica that much less stable — an instability that when given the shove of human heated oceans is leading the Larsen B Ice Shelf to completely collapse by 2020. It makes Antarctic land ice that much more vulnerable to the added heat human beings are forcing into the oceans and opens up the ominous possibility that melt rate doubling times for West Antarctica could become quite extreme indeed.

Modeling Land Ice Melt’s Impact in the 21st Century — Facing A Coming Age of Superstorms

So what does all this mean? In the worst case (5-10 year melt rate doubling times), it’s possibly 3 meters of sea level rise by mid Century, perhaps 7 meters by end Century under business as usual fossil fuel emissions. Even in the more moderate cases (10-20 year melt rate doubling times), 1 meter of sea level rise by mid Century and 3 meters or more of sea level rise by end Century is not entirely out of the question, according to Hansen’s new research. These potentials are markedly different than the more conservative rates outlined by IPCC which is still calling for a less than 1 meter sea level rise under even the worst case human carbon emissions scenarios (1000 parts per million CO2, in the range of 1200 ppm CO2e).

So much fresh water hitting the oceans would cause a rapid stratification. A rapid loss of ocean to atmosphere heat exchange in the regions impacted. A train wreck of heat backing up at the equator. Such a train wreck would result in temperature extremes and gradient differences that would make the Eemian Heinrich events (mentioned above) seem moderate and slow by comparison.

Hansen has been working on global atmospheric models for tracking these events for a number of years now. And this new study is an improvement on his earlier, model-driven “Storms of My Grandchildren” work. Hansen’s new model runs are imperfect simulations of what may happen given large melt pulses from Greenland and Antarctica. The models, according to Hansen, mix the ocean water too much, reducing the overall impacts of stratification through the mechanism of the fresh water wedge. However, even with this imperfection, the temperature gradients displayed by these models are absolutely stunning. A clear warning to anyone who still wants to keep burning fossil fuels that they’re really grabbing the dragon by the tail.

image

(A mid range simulation including 10-20 year melt rate doubling times and 6 feet of sea level rise by 2080 — half Greenland, half Antarctica — shows enormous weather impacts in the form of a severe, superstorm generating, temperature gradient. Image source: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, Superstorms.)

In the above image we can see just one of these model runs. The model assumes a 10-20 year doubling time for rate of land ice melt. It contributes equal portions of melt from Greenland in the north and Antarctica in the south. Greenhouse gas accumulation is considered to be along the moderate case A1B track. By 2080 we have about six feet of sea level rise globally and about 600 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. The more rapid rate of melt has put a temporary damper on the rate of global atmospheric warming which has dipped to 1.11 C above 1880s values (just slightly higher than today). But much of this cooling is localized to the Southern Ocean and to an extreme cold pool in the North Atlantic between Northwestern Europe and Greenland.

There a massive outflow of fresh water has shut down the ocean’s ability to exchange heat with the atmosphere. AMOC has been vastly weakened. The Gulf Stream is backed up along the US East Coast and into the Gulf of Mexico. Heat is building in the Arctic opposite Greenland and all along the Equator. Temperature anomalies in the range of 17 degrees Celsius below average occur over the ocean fresh water pool. This drop is enough to generate year round winter like conditions in the cold pool region even as other sections of the atmosphere around it continue to warm or retain severe excess heat.

Energy imbalance at the top of the atmosphere rockets to between 2 and 4 Watts per meter squared. What this means is that, in failing to ventilate heat to the atmosphere in the North Atlantic and Southern Ocean, the world ocean system has continued to accumulate a massive amount of heat. Heat that is now going to work warming the ocean bottom and hitting the bases of the already rapidly melting land ice.

Sandy

(More superstorms in our future. If Hansen’s new research is correct storms like Sandy will grow both more powerful and more common as Greenland dumps ever increasing volumes of fresh water into the North Atlantic. Image Source: NASA.)

For the North Atlantic, it is the greatest of understatements to say that an area of perpetual winter surrounded by warming airs and sitting atop a warming deep ocean is a major storm generator. Summer time temperature deltas between the center of the cold pool will range from near zero C to 20s, 30s and 40s C over nearby ocean and continental land masses. It’s like taking the High Arctic and shifting it to Scotland while all the adjacent airs warm. Temperature gradient and baroclinic (pressure gradient) energy for storm generation will be on the order of something that modern humans have never experienced. The potential for superstorms in this model simulation will, notably be quite high.

Final Notes — Superstorm Conditions Could Emerge Sooner than Models Indicate

The point to consider here is that large scale land ice melt sets in place forces that result in a weather wip-lash of epic proportion. It’s been the heart of Hansen’s work for many decades and it’s an issue that we really need to consider as time goes forward. A dwindling time for response that may well be much shorter than even Hansen’s models indicate. First, ice sheet vulnerability may well be higher than IPCC officials imagine and we could well be on a slope of melt rate doublings in the range of 5-20 years now.

global sea level change

(Global sea level rise keeps hitting a steeper and steeper slope. Image source: Dr. James Hansen, Columbia University)

Second, Hansen’s models likely capture the atmospheric impact of such large-scale land ice melt later than would happen in the real world. This later capture is due to the fact that his low resolution models mix the ocean heat more with the atmosphere than would occur under the kinds of ocean stratification events that we are likely to see due to these doubling times. Third, and finally we return again to the paleoclimate time of the Eemian where there is ample evidence that a mere 0.5 to 1 meter per century rate of sea level rise due to melting Greenland and West Antarctic ice during that time set in place conditions to generate superstorms with high enough peak intensity to deposit massive boulders upon islands in the Atlantic and to carve the impression of gigantic, long-period waves into the sea bed.

Anyone reading this work and considering the notion that some of the greatest scientific minds this age has birthed could be right is immediately confronted with the realization that the gargantuan forces we are playing with are not to be trifled with. And yet, the trifling continues despite the wise and well considered scientific warning to relent.

Links:

Hansen Paper: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms

Dr. James Hansen, Columbia University, Former NASA GISS Lead Scientist

Knutti and Sedlacek: Robustness and Uncertainties in Climate Model Projections

The Eemian

LANCE MODIS

Livescience — Topographic Map of Greenland Sans Ice Sheet

Ice Sheet Mass Balance and Climate Change

NASA: 10,000 Year Old Ice Shelf to Collapse by 2020

IPCC Sea Level Change

NASA Earth Data

Storms of My Grandchildren

 

Accelerating Global Warming? NASA Shows February of 2015 was Second Hottest on Record

The Earth started out 2015 very hot. A record hot range that some researchers are now saying may be the beginning of a period of accelerated global warming.

***

For the global temperature measure, February of 2015 was another extraordinarily warm month. One more hot month in an unbroken chain stretching all the way back to the mid 1980s. The second hottest February in the whole of the NASA record ever since temperature monitoring began in 1880.

In total, NASA GISS shows February of 2015 topping out as the warmest February of the new millennium at 0.79 degrees Celsius above the 20th Century average. A reading 1.06 C above temperatures measured during 1880. Only February of 1998 was hotter (Of all of the super El Nino year of 1998, only February and June still hold records as hottest months in the NASA measure).

But perhaps most importantly, the average of 2015’s first two months is 0.77 C above the 20th Century. This is just behind 2007 (by just 0.02 C) as the hottest two-month start of any year during the past 135, and likely hotter than at any time during the Holocene and possibly in the past 120,000 years altogether.

Temperature Map February NASA

(Global temperature anomaly map. Image source: NASA.)

Global temperature anomaly analysis by NASA shows extraordinary warmth for much of the Northern Hemisphere. In particular, most of the land mass of Asia experienced far above average readings. Temperatures in this zone measured as high as 8.4 degrees Celsius above average for the entire month — yet one more extraordinary period of departure for a rapidly warming region.

The North American West Coast through to Alaska also showed much warmer than normal readings. A pattern coincident with both a vast pool of warm water in the Northeastern Pacific and a ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure (and coincident high amplitude wave in the Jet Stream) that has formed for seasonal periods over the region since the winter of 2012-2013.

Abnormal warmth was also pervasive through the tropics, the Arctic, Africa, Australia, sections of East and West Antarctica, and over most Oceanic zones. The only region experiencing colder than normal readings was the Eastern Half of North America. An area in the downward sloping trough of the prevalent Rossby Wave and associated hot-cold dipole pattern that has been so common for North America during recent winters.

Zonal Anomalies Feb 2015

(Temperature anomaly by Latitudinal Zone for February of 2015. Image source: NASA.)

NASA’s zonal anomalies measure shows very strong polar heat amplification, which is a tell-tale of the human greenhouse gas heat forcing, at the Arctic Circle line (66 North Latitude) and continuing on northward. Zonal anomalies peaked at around the 66 degrees North Latitude line in the range of 2.8 C above average for the entire month. Anomalies declined poleward but still maintained 1.5 to 2.5 C above average ratings.

Though somewhat cooler than the Northern Polar Region, the rest of the global also showed above average temperatures in almost all zones. 30-60 North showed readings ranging from 0.5 to 2.5 C above average, the tropics maintained about a +0.6 C above average range, 30-60 South ranged between 0 and 0.6 C above average with a dip in the heat sink and high wind region of the Southern Ocean. The Southern Polar Region showed the only zonal below average reading with -0.2 C between 85 and 90 South, but the entire region of 60-90 South ranged about 0.15 C hotter than average.

Conditions in Context

The main features of the current globally hot February are a weak El Nino in the Central Pacific (declared by NOAA in early March), a strong positive PDO pattern of very warm sea surface temperatures throughout the Pacific and an extreme polar amplification in the region of 60-90 North Latitude.

According to IPCC forecasts and Pacific Ocean warming impact studies, both the El Nino, which has tended to shift more toward the Central Pacific, and the amazing polar amplification are indications of what was expected in a world seeing a rapid accumulation of greenhouse gasses through the mechanism of human fossil fuel emission. The North American Rossby Wave pattern combined with extremely warm temperatures in the West and cold, stormy and snowy conditions in the East, was also predicted as a potential upshot of warmer than normal readings at the pole reducing temperature differentials from North to South and encouraging weakness and waviness in the Jet Stream (Francis). PDO intensification, contributing to a warm water pool off the North American West Coast and coincident mid Pacific El Nino may also have a teleconnection-type (Where large weather patterns reinforce and enhance the formation of other large weather patterns that may be hundreds or thousands of miles removed from the first. Some have poetically referred to teleconnection as an atmospheric dance.) influence with the ridging pattern in the west and the related troughing pattern in the east.

In global climate models, cool pools of water near Greenland and West Antarctica are also implicated in potential trough/Rossby Wave type patterns (severe frontal storms) which may also be influencing the extreme weather seen in the Northeastern US during February. These pools are associated with glacial melt and coincident fresh water outflow. In the North Atlantic, this has implications for global thermohaline circulation. A strong thermohaline circulation is essential for ocean mixing and related ocean health.

Overall, the global temperature disposition, extreme temperature anomaly, and related strange weather patterns are anything but a normal. They are instead indicative of the kinds of extraordinary climates and extreme weather both computer models and researchers have predicted as a direct result of human-caused warming.

Entering a Rapidly Warming World

entering a rapidly warming world

(Even with a rapid draw down in human emissions to RCP 4.5 levels, computer model essays show 40 year average rates of warming will likely accelerate over the next few decades. Image source: Near-Term Acceleration in the Rate of Temperature Change.)

To this point, it appears that some climate models are in agreement that the period of the next few decades are likely to see an accelerated warming trend. Decadal rates of warming, during this time, are expected to accelerate to between 0.2 and 0.25 C per ten years, even if human greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly drawn down. The result would be about 1.4 to 1.6 C worth of warming above 1880s levels by or before 2040. Without a rapid draw-down, and a continuation on the current catastrophic path of fossil fuel burning, recent model essays from Dr. Michael Mann indicate that humans could exceed the 2 C warming threshold by the mid 2030s.

Links:

Near-Term Acceleration in the Rate of Temperature Change

GISS Surface Temperature Analysis

Paleoclimate Implications For Human-Made Climate Change

Warming Arctic May be Causing Heatwaves Elsewhere in the World

The California Weather Blog

Increasing Intensity of El Nino in the Central Equatorial Pacific

Evidence Linking Arctic Amplification to Extreme Weather in the Mid-Latitudes

Greenland Melt — Exponential?

Far Worse than Being Beaten With a Hockey Stick

Earth Entering a New Period of Rapid Temperature Change

Hat tip to Bassman

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