Advertisements

Global Sea Ice Coverage Has Fallen Off a Cliff — Impacts Likely to Be Wide-Ranging

Frozen water.

It’s an important aspect of our world. One that is essential to maintaining a stable climate and, by extension, the health of modern civilizations. Today, due to a continued warming of the globe, every form of frozen water — be it frozen water locked in glaciers, snow, or sea ice — is under threat. And we are almost daily reminded of new losses coming from these needed collections of cold.

Recently, however, one of these subsets of global ice has taken a very serious blow. For this past year, as ocean and land surfaces warmed to above 1 C warmer than late 19th Century averages, has seen a precipitous fall in the coverage of global sea ice. And we are now in uncharted territory as the Earth’s sea ice extent, area, and volume have fallen to never before seen lows.

(Sea ice area [upper right], extent [upper left], and volume [lower graphs] have all seen very serious declines that have now lasted for a full year. Since reflective sea ice is an important regulator of global and regional climates, the impacts of such a considerable loss is likely to be both long-term and wide-ranging. Image source: Global Sea Ice.)

Total sea ice area and extent have now ranged between 2 and 3 million square kilometers below the 38 year average for about a year now. That’s a region of sea ice larger than Greenland which has been removed from the face of the Earth now for the better part of four seasons. Global sea ice volume losses are now in the range of 12,000 cubic kilometers — each cubic kilometer roughly equal to a moderate-sized mountain. These are very considerable losses. But perhaps more ominous than the losses themselves is the fact that they seem to be sticking around — locking in a permanent warming-related-change to the Earth System, its weather and environment.

To be clear, there are some things that sea ice loss does not directly impact. And the first of which is sea level rise. Because sea ice already floats on the surface of the ocean and because it already displaces water, melting sea ice does little to change the level of the ocean surface directly.

(A very informative video describing ice albedo feedback. We do not, however, support some of the video’s sponsors who, unfortunately, appear to be ubiquitous.)

That said, there are many things that sea ice loss does affect. And the first is global temperature balance. Sea ice serves as both a reflective shield that throws back the sun’s heat during summer and as an insulator that locks warmer ocean waters below during winter. Remove a significant portion of the global sea ice, as we have done, and you’ll end up with oceans that both draw in more heat during the warmer months and bleed out more stored ocean heat into the atmosphere during the winter.

Such heat will be both stored and delivered exactly where it can do the most harm — in the polar regions. And, as a result, recently ice-liberated oceans will warm more rapidly in areas that are directly adjacent or close to the very large glaciers covering Greenland and Antarctica. As such, though melting sea ice has no direct, immediate impact on sea level rise, it can create an added pressure for the loss of land-bound and sea-fronting glaciers that will raise ocean levels if they melt.

(Arctic sea ice loss feedbacks produce complex and far-reaching impacts to the entire Arctic system. Image source: National Science Foundation.)

Arctic regions also face considerable added heat pressure to permafrost, boreal forests, and other carbon stores as a result of Arctic Ocean albedo feedbacks due to sea ice loss. In addition, warm pools of ocean water in the far north will aid in further destabilizing already-altered weather patterns. So sea ice loss is likely to continue to result in a worsening of the Jet Stream excursions that have already contributed to extreme weather — particularly in the Northern Hemisphere.

But perhaps the most concerning impact of sea ice loss is an alteration to seasonal temperature exchange. More heat absorbed by oceans during summer and then ventilated back to the atmosphere during fall and winter will tend to result in a lag in global cooling into the fall season even as winter will tend to warm.

(A roll-back of sea ice results in much warmer temperatures over nearby permafrost zones. This week, 81.5 F [27.5 C] temperatures are predicted for parts of the Yamal Peninsula — a region that has recently drawn attention for its newly discovered methane blow-holes. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Such a lag enhanced by sea ice loss is arguably already in play in the Northern Hemisphere — where increasing rates of heat exchange between the tropics and middle latitudes and the pole have already been observed. However, if Southern Hemisphere sea ice remains reduced, a similar heat exchange and polar amplification pattern is likely to begin setting up there as well.

The upshot is that the observed considerable loss of global sea ice coverage is likely to produce harmful or disruptive feedbacks in the Earth’s climate system in the near term. Stresses to the other frozen systems of the world will tend to increase as a result. Extreme weather events are at risk of worsening. Rates of polar warming could escalate. And disruptions to traditional seasonality will tend to become more apparent.

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

Major Methane Spike April 25 2015

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

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

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

Daily Mean Values Pop as Well

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

Daily Methane Highest Mean 2015

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

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

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

Conditions in Context

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

Links:

NOAA OPSO

Methane Levels as High as 2845 Parts Per Billion

Big Arctic Warm-Up Predicted For This Week: Melt to Speed Up, Or Sea Ice to Show Resiliency Due to Variability, Strength of Negative Feedbacks?

Rate of Sea ice volume decline for all months

(Rate of Arctic sea ice volume decline with trend lines for all months in the PIOMAS measure. Updated through June of 2014. Image source: Wipneus.)

What it really all comes down to is heat energy balance. Beneath a warming, moistening Arctic atmosphere, sea ice loses resiliency due to slow attrition of the ice surface, due to loss of albedo as ice melts, and due to slower rates of refreeze during winter. Atop a warming Arctic Ocean, sea ice loses bottom resiliency, tends to be thinner and more broken, and shows greater vulnerability to anything that churns the ocean surface to mix it with the warming deeper layers — storms, strong winds, powerful high pressure systems.

It is this powerful set of dynamics under human caused climate change that has dragged the Arctic sea ice into what has been called a ‘Death Spiral.’ A seemingly inexorable plunge to zero or near zero ice coverage far sooner than was previously anticipated.

But in the backdrop of what are obviously massive Arctic sea ice declines and a trend line, that if followed, leads to near zero ice coverage sometime between next year and 2030, lurk a few little details throwing a bit of chaos into an otherwise clear and, rather chilling, picture of Arctic sea ice decline.

The Fresh Water Negative Feedback

One of these details involves the greatly increasing flow of fresh water into the Arctic Ocean. For as the Arctic heats, it moistens and rainfall rates over Arctic rivers increase. This results in much greater volumes of fresh river water flushing into the Arctic Ocean and freshening its surface. Another source of new fresh water flow for the Arctic is an increasing rate of Greenland melt outflow. The volumes, that in recent years, ranged from 300 to 600 cubic kilometers, can, year-on-year, add 1-2% to the total fresh water coverage in the Arctic Basin and North Atlantic. These combined flows mean that fresh water accumulates more rapidly at the surface, resulting in an overall increase in fresh water volume.

Change in salinity

(Change in Arctic Ocean Salinity between the mid 1990s and mid 2000s. Image source: Benjamin Rabe, Alfred Wegener Institute via Science Daily.)

Since 1990, we have observed just such an accumulation. For a recent study in 2011 showed that since 1992, Arctic Ocean surface fresh water content had increased by 20%. A remarkable increase due to the changing conditions that included greatly increased river outflows into the Arctic Ocean as well as a ramping ice melt from Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago Islands.

Fresh water is less dense than salt water and will tend to float at the surface. The physical properties of fresh water are such that it acts as a heat insulator, deflecting warmer, saltier ocean water toward the bottom. As such, it interrupts the heat flow from deeper, warmer Arctic Ocean waters to the sea surface and into the atmosphere.

As an added benefit to the ice, fresher water freezes at higher temperatures. So as the Arctic Ocean freshens, it creates a bit of wiggle room for the sea ice, giving it about a 0.5 to 1 C boost so it can sometimes even form during conditions that were warmer than those seen in the past.

In this manner, an expanding fresh water zone acts as a kind of last refuge for sea ice in a warming world. A zone in which sea ice may even periodically stage comebacks in the backdrop of rampant human warming. We may be seeing such a comeback in the Antarctic sea ice, which has shown anomalous growth and even contributed to an expanding cool atmospheric zone in the Southern Ocean, despite ongoing global warming. The freshwater and iceberg feeds from the vast Antarctic ice sheets have grown powerful indeed due to warm water rising up to melt the ice sheets from below, letting loose an expanding surface zone of ice and fresh water. This process will necessarily strengthen as more and more human heating hits the deep ocean and the submerged bases of ice sheets. An effect that will dramatically and dangerously reverberate through the ocean layers, setting the stage for a horrible stratification.

But today, we won’t talk about that. Today is for negative feedbacks due to fresh water flows from increasing polar precipitation and through ice sheet melt.

In the end, human warming dooms Arctic sea ice to an eventual final melt. But before that happens the increasing volume of fresh water from river flows and the potentially more powerful negative feedback coming from a growing ice and fresh water release from Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago will inevitably play their hands.

The Slower Than Terrible 2014 Melt Season

And so we arrive at the 2014 sea ice melt season for the Arctic. As with 2013, the melt got off to a relatively rapid start and then slowed through July as weather conditions grew less favorable for ice melt. Above freezing temperatures hit the ice above 80 degrees North about one week later than average, also providing some resiliency to the central ice — a condition that historically leads to higher end-season sea ice values in about 80 percent of the record.

The high pressure systems of early June gave way to weak storms and overall cloudy conditions. This shut down the cycle of strong melt, compaction, and transport of ice out of the Arctic that may have put 2014 on track for new records and another horrible slide down the Arctic sea ice death spiral. Instead, conditions set up for slower melt. Ice was retained and backed up through the Fram Strait, and the ice spread out, taking advantage of the thickened fresh water layer to slow its summer decline.

This is in marked contrast to the terrible 2007 and 2012 melt seasons which severely damaged the ice, making a total Arctic Basin ice melt all more likely in the near future. And it was also cutting against the 2010 to 2012 trend in which sea ice volume measures continued to plunge despite ambiguous numbers in sea ice area and extent (no new record lows) during 2010 and 2011. For this year, sea ice volume is now, merely, ‘only’ 4th lowest on record, according to the PIOMAS measure.

The fact that we are looking at a 4th lowest year as another bounce-back year is a clear indication of how terrible things became since 2010. And so far, this year’s melt has, like 2013, simply not been so terrible and terrifying. A wag back toward 2000s levels that is likely due to the inherent negative feedback of freshening surface water and to a swing in natural weather variability that, during any other year and in any other climate, would have pushed summer ice levels quite high indeed.

If the storms had been strong enough to draw a large enough pulse of warm water to the surface, the story might have been different. But, as it stands, this summer of weak Arctic weather hasn’t activated any major melt mechanism to push the ice into new record low territory. And so in many major monitors we are now above 2013 melt levels for this day.

Cryosphere Today shows sea ice area at 5.22 million square kilometers, above 2013 and just slightly above 2011 while ranging below 2008 for the date. Overall, the area measure is at 6th lowest on record for the date. Meanwhile, NSIDC shows sea ice extent at 7.74 million square kilometers or just above 2013 values for the same day but remaining below 2008 and 2009 by a substantial margin. Overall, also a sixth lowest value for the date:

Sea ice july 2014 v2

(NSIDC chart comparing sea ice melt years 2012 [dashed green line], 2008 [maroon line], the 1981 to 2010 average [solid line] and 2013 [pink line]. Image source NSIDC.)

So in the sea ice butcher board tally, with the negative feedback of fresh water floods and glacial melt moderately in play and with weather that is highly unfavorable for melt, we currently stand at 4th lowest in the volume record, 6th lowest in the extent record, and 6th lowest in the area record.

And now, things may just be about to get interesting…

Forecast Shows Arctic Heatwaves on the Way

GFS and ECMWF model runs show two warm ridges of high pressure developing over the Arctic this week. And the emergence of these warm and moist air flows into the Arctic may well have an impact by pushing the Arctic back toward melt-favorable conditions.

The first ridge is already expanding across the Canadian Archipelago. Yesterday it brought 80 degree temperatures to Victoria Island which still sits between wide channels clogged with sea ice. Smoke from wildfires is being entrained in this ridge and swept north and east over the remaining Archipelago sea ice and, today, the Greenland Ice Sheet.

While the smoke aerosol from fires blocks some of the incoming solar short wave radiation, it absorbs and re-radiates it as long-wave radiation. Many studies have shown this albedo-reducing darkening of the cloud layer by black and brown carbon aerosols has a net positive warming effect. In addition, the soot falls over both land and sea ice where it reduces reflectivity medium to long-term (Dark Snow).

Smoke streaming over Canadian Archipelago and Northwestern Greenland

(Smoke associated with record wildfires in the Northwest Territory streaming over the Canadian Archipelago, Northern Baffin Bay, and Northwestern Greenland beneath a dome of record heat. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The ridge is expected to expand east over the next few days until it finally settles in as a moderate-strength high pressure system over Greenland. There it is predicted to juxtapose a set of low pressure systems that will slowly slide south and east over Svalbard. The conjoined counterclockwise cyclonic wind pattern of the lows and the clockwise anti-cyclone of the high over Greenland in the models runs over the Fram Strait. And so, for at least 4-5 days, the models predict a situation where sea ice transport out of the Arctic may be enhanced.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Arctic, a series of high pressure systems are predicted to back up over the Pacific Ocean section of Irkutsk and Northeast Siberia. This ridge is expected to dominate coastal Siberia along the Laptev and East Siberian Seas. Temperatures along the coast are expected to reach 15-20 C above average, while temperatures over the waters are expected to rise to melt enhancing levels of 1 to 5 C.

Ahead of the ridge runs a warm frontal boundary that is heavily laden with moisture and storms. So a liquid and mixed precipitation band is likely to form over the East Siberian and Beaufort Sea ice as the ridge advances.

The ridge is projected to drive surface winds running from the south over the East Siberian Sea, across the polar region, and into the Greenland and Barents Seas. This cross-polar flow of warm, moist air will also enhance the potential for ice transport.

Melt Pattern

(Pattern more favorable for sea ice melt and transport emerging over the next seven days. This Climate Reanalyzer snapshot is at the 120 hour mark. Note Arctic positive temperature anomalies at +1.18 C. Will the pattern override potential negative feedbacks such as high fresh water content in the Arctic and unfavorable weather likely produced by the late emergence of temperatures above 0 C in the 80 North Latitude zone? Image source: University of Maine.)

Overall, it is a weather pattern that shows promise to increase melt, especially in the regions of the Canadian Archipelago and the East Siberia Sea, and to speed ice mobility and transport. Persistent lows near the central Arctic for the first half of this period and shifting toward Svalbard during the latter half will continue to disperse sea ice which may lend one potential ice resiliency feature to a pattern that is, otherwise, favorable for ice loss.

Negative Feedbacks and Weather Unfavorable For Melt

If the melt pattern described above comes to impact the ice and push greater rates of sea ice loss over the coming days and weeks, it’s likely that end season 2014 will end up with sea ice measures below those of 2013, but above the previous record lows seen during past years. This would likely put 2014 well within the range of the post 2007 era at 3rd to 5th lowest on record for most monitors. Not a new record year, but still well within the grips of the death spiral.

If, however, the weather predicted does not emerge or the sea ice retains resiliency through it, then 2014 stands a chance of pushing above final levels seen in 2013. In such an event, end season area and extent measures may challenge levels last seen during 2005 while sea ice volume maintains between 4th and 5th lowest.

If this happens, we may need to start asking this question:

Are negative feedbacks, in the form of greatly increased freshwater flows from rivers and glaciers, starting to pull the Arctic sea ice out of a high angle nose dive and are they beginning to soften the rate of decline? Or is this just a year when weather again wagged the dog as natural variability played a trump card for the summer of 2014 but further drives for new records will follow come 2015, 2016, or 2017?

In any case, near-term sea ice forecasts remain somewhat murky, as they should given the high instability of the current situation.

Links:

Science Daily

Now Melts the Arctic

The Arctic Ice Blog

NSIDC

LANCE-MODIS

University of Maine

PIOMAS

Cryosphere Today

Dark Snow

 

 

 

 

High Velocity Human Warming Coaxes Arctic Methane Monster’s Rapid Rise From Fens

Fens. A word that brings with it the mystic imagery of witch lights, Beowulfian countrysides, trolls, swamp gas, dragons. A sight of crumbling towers overlooking black waters. Now, it’s a word we can add to our already long list of amplifying Arctic feedbacks to human-caused warming. For the rapid formation of Arctic fens over the past decade has now been linked in a recent scientific study, at least in part, to a return to atmospheric methane increases since 2007.

Ribbed Fen

(A Ribbed Fen in Arctic Canada. Image source: The Government of Canada.)

The Role of Methane in Past Climate Change

Over the past 800,000 years, ice core records show atmospheric methane levels fluctuating between about 800 parts per billion during warm interglacial periods and about 400 parts per billion during the cold ice age periods. These fluctuations, in addition to atmospheric CO2 flux between 180 and 280 parts per million value were due to Earth Systems feedbacks driven by periods of increased solar heat forcing in the northern hemisphere polar region and back-swings due to periods of reduced solar heat forcing.

Apparently, added solar forcing at the poles during periodic changes in Earth’s orbit (called Milankovitch Cycles) resulted in a flood of greenhouse gasses from previously frozen lands and seas. This new flood amplified the small heat forcing applied by orbital changes to eventually break Earth out of cold ice age periods and push it back into warm interglacials.

Compared to current human warming, the pace of change at the time was slow, driving 4-6 degrees Celsius of global atmospheric heating over periods of around 8 to 20 thousand years. A small added amount of solar heat gradually leached out a significant volume of heat trapping gasses which, over the course of many centuries, undid the great grip of ice on our world.

Ice core record of Greenhouse Gas Flux

(Ice core record of greenhouse gas flux over the last 650,000 years. Methane flux is shown in the blue line that is second from the bottom. It is worth noting that current atmospheric methane values according to measures from the Mauna Loa Observatory are now in excess of 1840 parts per billion value. Temperature change is indicated in the lowest portion of the graph in the form of proxy measurements of atmospheric deuterium which provide a good correlation with surface temperature values. The gray shaded areas indicate the last 5 interglacial periods. Temperature year 0 is 1950. GHG year zero is 2006 in this graph. Image source: IPCC.)

By comparison, under business as usual human fossil fuel emissions combined with amplifying feedbacks from the Earth climate system (such as those seen in the fens now forming over thawing Arctic tundra), total warming could spike to an extraordinarily damaging level between 5 and 9 degrees Celsius just by the end of this century.

Methane — Comparatively Small Volume = Powerful Feedback

A combination of observation of past climates and tracking the ongoing alterations to our own world driven by human greenhouse gas emissions has given us an ever-clearer picture of how past climates might have changed. As Earth warmed, tundra thawed and ice sheets retreated releasing both CO2 and methane as ancient organic carbon stores, trapped in ice for thousands to millions of years, were partly liberated from the ice. In addition, warming seas likely liberated a portion of the sea bed methane store even as warming brought on a generally more active carbon cycle from the wider biosphere.

Overall, the added heat feedback from the increases in atmospheric methane to due these processes was about 50% that of the overall CO2 feedback, even though the volume of methane was about 200 times less. This disproportionately large share of heat forcing by volume is due to the fact that methane is about 80 times more efficient at trapping heat than CO2 over the course of 20 years.

A Problem of High Velocity Thaw

In the foreground of this comparatively rosy picture of gradual climate change driven by small changes in solar heat forcing setting off relatively more powerful amplifying greenhouse gas feedbacks, we run into a number of rather difficult problems.

The first is that the rate at which humans are adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere as an initial heat forcing is unprecedented in the geological record. Even the great tar basalts of the end Permian Extinction were no equal to the rate at which humans are now adding heat trapping gasses to the atmosphere. In just a short time, from 1880 to now, we’ve increased atmospheric CO2 by 120 parts per million to around 400 ppm and atmospheric methane by more than 1100 parts per billion to around 1840 parts per billion. The result is an atmospheric heat forcing not seen in at least the past 3 million years and possibly as far back as 10 million years (due to the radical increase in methane and other non CO2 heat trapping gasses).

This extraordinary pace of heat trapping gas increase has led to a very rapid pace of global atmospheric temperature increase of about .15 degrees Celsius per decade or about 30 times that of the end of the last ice age. As atmospheric heat increases are amplified at the poles and, in particular in the northern polar region, the areas with the greatest stores of previously frozen carbon are the ones seeing the fastest pace of warming. Siberia, for example, is warming at the rate of .4 C per decade. Overall, the Arctic has warmed by about 3 degrees Celsius since 1880 or nearly 4 times the pace of overall global warming.

arctic temperature increase since 1880 NASA

(Pace of Arctic warming since 1880 in degrees Fahrenheit based on reports from 137 Arctic observation stations over the period. Image source: Tamino. Data source: NOAA’s Global Historical Climatology Network.)

The result is that, over the past two decades, the Arctic has been warming at the pace of about .6 C (1 F)every ten years. And what we are seeing in conjunction with very rapid warming is an extraordinary high-velocity thaw. A thaw that is rapidly liberating stored organic carbon locked in tundra at a rate that may well have no rational geological corollary.

The Arctic Methane Monster and a Multiplication of Fens

So it is in this rather stark set of contexts that a study released in early May examining 71 wetlands around the globe found rapidly melting permafrost was resulting in the formation of an immense number of fens along the permafrost thaw boundary zone. Tundra melt in lowlands became both sources and traps for water. Such traps gained added water as atmospheric temperature increases held greater levels of humidity resulting in increased heavy rainfall events such as thunderstorms. These newly thawed and flooded fens, the study found, were emitting unexpectedly high volumes of methane gas.

From the methane standpoint, fens are a problem due to the fact that they are constantly wet. Whereas bogs may be wet, then dry, fens remain wet year-round. And since bacteria that break down the recently thawed organic carbon stores into methane thrive in a constantly wet environment the fens were found to be veritable methane factories. A powerful amplifying feedback loop that threatens to liberate a substantial portion of the approximately 1,500 gigatons of carbon stored in now melting tundra as the powerful heat trapper that is methane.

Mauna Loa Methane 1985 to 2014

(Mauna Loa methane levels 1985 to 2014. A return to rising atmospheric levels post 2007 is, in part, attributed to rapid tundra thaw and the formation of methane producing fens. Other significant new methane sources likely include sea bed methane from Arctic stores and rising human methane emissions due to expanding coal use and hydraulic fracturing. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

By comparison, drier environments would result in the release of stored carbon as CO2, which would still provide a strong heat feedback, but no-where near as powerful as the rapid environmental forcing from a substantial methane release.

Lead study author Merritt Turetsky noted:

“Methane emissions are one example of a positive feedback between ecosystems and the climate system. The permafrost carbon feedback is one of the important and likely consequences of climate change, and it is certain to trigger additional warming. Even if we ceased all human emissions, permafrost would continue to thaw and release carbon into the atmosphere. Instead of reducing emissions, we currently are on track with the most dire scenario considered by the IPCC. There is no way to capture emissions from thawing permafrost as this carbon is released from soils across large regions of land in very remote spaces.”

 

Links:

A Synthesis of Methane Emissions From 71 Wetlands

Arctic Methane Emissions Certain to Trigger Warming

The Government of Canada

IPCC

NOAA’s Global Historical Climatology Network

More Cold Cherries

NOAA ESRL

The Arctic Methane Monster’s Nasty Little Helpers: Study Finds Ancient, Methane Producing, Archaea Gorge on Tundra Melt

An emerging methane feedback in the Arctic. It’s something that, since last summer, I’ve been calling the Arctic Methane Monster. A beast of a thing composed of giant reserves of sea bed methane and an immense store of carbon locked away in Arctic tundra.

How dangerous and vicious the monster ends up being to a world set to rapidly warm by humans depends largely on three factors. First — how fast methane is released from warming stores in the sea bed. Second — how swiftly and to what degree the tundra carbon store is released as methane. Third — how large the stores of carbon and methane ultimately are.

permafrost_arctic-1024x557

(Thawing permafrost and organic carbon in Yedoma region of Russia. Image source: NASA.)

On the issue of the first and third questions, scientists are divided between those like Peter Wadhams, Natalia Shakhova and Igor Simeletov who believe that large methane pulses from a rapidly warming Arctic Ocean are now possible and warrant serious consideration and those like Gavin Schmidt and David Archer — both top scientists in their own right — who believe the model assessments showing a much slower release are at least some cause for comfort. Further complicating the issue is that estimates of sea-bed methane stores range widely with the East Siberian Arctic Shelf region alone asserted to contain anywhere between 250 and 1500 gigatons of methane (See Arctic Carbon Stores Assessment Here).

With such wide-ranging estimations and observations, it’s no wonder that a major scientific controversy has erupted over the issue of sea bed methane release. This back and forth comes in the foreground of observed large (but not catastrophic) sea-bed emissions and what appears to be a growing Arctic methane release. A controversy that, in itself, does little inspire confidence in a positive outcome.

But on the second point, an issue that some are now calling the compost bomb, most scientists are in agreement that the massive carbon store locked in the swiftly thawing tundra is a matter of serious and immediate concern.

Tundra Thaw by Human GHG Now Practically Inevitable

At issue here is the initial power of the human heat forcing and what consequences that forcing is likely to unlock. Consequences that are directly tied to the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit. A total forcing that is now likely equivalent to around 425 CO2e when taking into account the effect of human aerosols and an even more ominous 480 CO2e when and if those aerosols fall out (IPCC and MIT).

The first number, 425 CO2e, were it to remain stable over years, decades and centuries, is enough push global temperatures above the 1.5 C warming threshold that would thaw the northern hemisphere tundra. And within this tundra is locked a store of about 1,500 gigatons of carbon. A massive store that is set to eventually, thaw, decompose and release its carbon as either CO2 or methane over the long period of warmth that is to come.

Area of contiguous permafrost

(Northern Hemisphere Permafrost Zones. Image source: NASA.)

The immense size of this carbon store represents an extreme risk both for extending the period of human warming and for, potentially, generating a feedback in which natural warming adds to, rather than simply extends, human warming. By comparison, human fossil fuel emissions have already resulted in about 540 gigatons of carbon being released into the atmosphere. The tundra store alone represents nearly three times this amount. But the concern is not just the massive size of the tundra store now set to thaw, or the rate at which the tundra will, eventually, release its carbon to the atmosphere. The concern is also how much of the tundra store carbon is released as either methane or CO2.

Methane Provides a Strong Amplifying Feedback

Since methane’s radiative absorption is about 35 times that of CO2 by volume in the IPCC climate assessments (and its short term global warming potential is as much as 72 to 105 times that of a comparable amount of CO2) and since methane release sets off other feedbacks by turning into CO2 after it is oxidized and by increasing atmospheric water vapor, a strong greenhouse agent in its own right, a significant portion of tundra carbon being liberated as methane could result in a rather powerful heat amplification. In the worst case, such an amplification could set off conditions similar to those during which other mini-greenhouse gas runaways occurred — such as the Permian, Triassic and PETM events.

Which is why the release of a new paper should be cause for serious concern.

Ancient Archaea — The Arctic Methane Monster’s Nasty Little Helpers

This week, a paper published in Nature Communications described findings based on a study of thawing Swedish permafrost. The study investigated how microbes responded to thawing tundra in various mires throughout warming sections of Sweden. What they discovered was the increased prevalence of an ancient methane producing micro-organism.

Billions of years ago, methane producing cyanobacteria or archaea were prevalent in the world’s oceans. The methane they produced helped keep the Earth warm at a time when solar output was much less than it is today. Later, as oxygen producing plants emerged, the archaea, to which oxygen was a poison, retreated into the anoxic corners of the more modern world. Today, they live in the dark, in the mud, or in the depths of oceans. There, they continue to eek out an existence by turning hydrogen and carbon dioxide into methane.

A kind of archaea, the newly discovered organism, named methanoflorens stordalenmirensis, was found to be exploding through sections of rapidly melting Swedish tundra. In fact, it is so at home in regions of melting permafrost that it blooms in the same way algae blooms in the ocean. As a result, it comes to dominate the microbial environment, representing 90% of the methanogens and crowding out many of the other microbes.

Distribution of Methanogen

(Methanogen shows global distribution. Each dot indicates a location where methanoflorens stordalenmirensis was discovered. Image source: Nature.)

That these massive archaea blooms can effectively convert large portions of the newly liberated tundra carbon store into methane was not at all lost on researchers:

“Methanoflorens stordalenmirensis seems to be a indicator species for melting permafrost. It is rarely found where there is permafrost, but where the peat is warmer and the permafrost is melting we can see that it just grows and grows. It is possible that we can use it to measure the health of mires and their permafrost. The recently documented global distribution also shows, on a much larger scale, that this microbe spreads to new permafrost areas in time with them thawing out. This is not good news for a stable climate“, said study author Rhiannon Mondav.

So what we have here is a billions year old microbe that thrives in wet regions called mires where permafrost is melting, rapidly converts tundra carbon to methane, readily spreads to new zones where permafrost melt occurs, and explodes into algae like blooms to dominate these environments.

One could not ask for a set of more diabolic little helpers for the already very disturbing Arctic Methane Monster…

Implications Going Forward: Arctic Methane Emission Not Currently Catastrophic, But Likely to Continue to Grow

Recent research shows that the current methane emission from all natural sources north of 53 degrees north latitude is on the order of 81 trillion grams (TG) each year. A portion of this, about 17 TG, comes from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Other inputs are from sea bed sources, thawing tundra and existing wetlands in the region. Meanwhile, the global emission, including both human and natural sources is in the range of about 600 TG each year. Overall, this emission is enough to overwhelm current sinks by about 40 TG each year, which results in continuing increases of atmospheric methane.

Atmospheric Methane Mauna Loa

(Atmospheric methane levels since 1969, Mauna Loa, show levels rising by about 200 ppb over the 45 year period. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

As more and more of the tundra melts and as seabed methane continues to warm it is likely that total Arctic methane emissions will continue to rise, perhaps eventually rivaling or, in the worst case, exceeding the size of the human methane emission (350 TG). But, to do so, current Arctic and boreal emissions would have to more than quadruple — either through a slow increase (high likelihood) or through more catastrophic large pulse events (lower likelihood, but still enough for serious concern). By contrast, recent warm years have shown increases in the rate of methane flux/emission of around 5% with the average flux increase being around 2%.

It is worth noting that NOAA and a number of other agencies do track methane emissions in the Arctic but that a comprehensive tool set for accurately tracking the total emission does not appear to be currently available. Instead, various studies are conducted in an effort to capture total emissions levels. Monitoring does, however, track total atmospheric values.

Links:

Discovery of a Novel Methanogen Prevalent in Thawing Permafrost

Methane Producing Microbe Blooms in Permafrost Thaw

The Arctic Methane Monster

The Arctic Methane Monster Stirs

Living in a World at 480 CO2e

Caves Point to Thawing in Siberia

NSIDC: Climate and Frozen Ground

Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation

Is a Sleeping Giant Waking in the Arctic?

Radiative Forcing of Non CO2 Greenhouse Gasses

Carbon Tracker CH4

Sea Ice Loss, Human Warming Places Earth Under Ongoing Fire of Severe Weather Events Through Early 2014, Likelihood of Extremes For Some Regions Increases by 500%

Heat overburden at the roof of our world. It’s a dangerous signal that the first, worst effects of human-caused climate change are starting to ramp up. And it’s a signal we are receiving now. A strong message coinciding with a world-wide barrage of some of the worst January and February weather extremes ever experienced in human reckoning.

An Ongoing Arctic Heat Amplification

Ever since December, the Arctic has been experiencing what could well be called a heat wave during winter-time. Average temperatures have ranged between 2 and 7 degrees Celsius above normal winter time readings (1979-2000) over the entire Arctic basin. Local readings frequently exceed 20 degrees Celsius above average over large zones that shift and swell, circulating in a great cloud of abnormal warmth around the roof of the world.

Today is no different.

Global Temp amomaly March 4

(Global Temperature Anomaly on March 4, 2014 showing a warmer than normal world sitting beneath an ominously hot Arctic. Image source: University of Maine.)

Average temperatures for the entire Arctic are 4.16 degrees Celsius above the, already warmer than normal, 1979 to 2000 base line, putting these readings in a range about 6 degrees Celsius above Arctic temperatures during the 1880s. When compared to global average warming of about .8 C above 1880s norms, this is an extreme heat departure that places the Arctic region well out of balance with both its traditional climate and with global climate at large.

Local large hot zones with temperatures ranging between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius above average appear east of Svalbard, in the Arctic Ocean north of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, and over a broad swath of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. These zones of warmth are as odd as they are somewhat horrific, creating regions where temperatures are higher than they would otherwise be in April or, in some cases, late May.

Sea Ice Melt Over a Warming Arctic Ocean

This ongoing condition of extreme Arctic heat is a symptom of overall Arctic amplification set off by a number of strong feedbacks now underway. These include sea ice measures that are currently at or near record low values (February saw new record lows in both extent and area measures) as well as a large and growing local emission of greenhouse gasses from polar stores long locked away by the boreal cold. Arctic geography also contributes to the problem as a thinning layer of sea ice rests atop an ocean that is swiftly soaking up the heat resulting from human warming.

During winter time, the combination of thin sea ice, warm ocean, and higher concentrations of greenhouse gasses generates excess warmth over and near the Arctic Ocean basin. The warmer waters, having trapped solar heat all summer long, now vent the warmth into the polar atmosphere through the sparse, cracked, and greatly diminished sea ice. And while this increasing heat imbalance has been shown to be lengthening the melt season by 5 days per decade, it is also stretching its influence well into winter time as ocean heat now continually bleeds through a thinning and ever more perforated layer of sea ice.

Other effects include an overburden of greenhouse gasses trapping long wave radiation to a greater extent in the polar zone while the already warmer than usual condition creates weaknesses in the Jet Stream that generate large atmospheric waves. The south-north protrusions of these waves invade far into the Arctic Ocean basin over Svalbard and Alaska, transporting yet more heat into the Arctic from lower latitudes.

The net effect is the extraordinary Arctic warming we are now seeing.

Earth Under Continuous Fire of Extreme Weather

This rapidly increasing warmth at the Arctic pole generates a variety of weather instabilities that ripple on through the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the ongoing impacts of equatorial warming or such warming in concert with the far-flung effects of polar amplification and an increase in the hydrological cycle of about 6% are causing a number of extraordinary events over the Southern Hemisphere.

In short, the barrage of extreme weather is now entirely global in nature. A brutal if amazing phenomena directly associated with a human-heated climate system.

Extreme weather map

(Map of extreme weather events throughout the world from January 1 through February 14. Note that it is now difficult to find a region that is currently not experiencing exceptional weather. Image source: Japanese Meteorological Agency.)

Over the western US, Canada, and Alaska, a Jet Stream ridge that has persisted for a year has generated both abnormally warm conditions for this region, with Alaska experiencing its third hottest January on record, and an extreme drought for California that is among the worst in its history. This drought is now poised to push US food prices up by between 10-15 percent as California officials are forced to cut off water flows to farmers.

Only the most powerful of storm systems are able to penetrate the ridge. And the result, for the US West Coast, is a condition that either includes drought or heavy precipitation and flooding events. A condition that became plainly apparent as winter storm Titan dumped as much as 5 inches of rainfall over drought-stricken southern California, setting off landslides and flash floods that sent enormous waves of water and topsoil rushing down roads and gullies alike. And though the storms came, the drought still remains.

Added to the list of extremes for the Western US are a number of early starts and/or late ends to fire seasons with California, Arizona and New Mexico all experiencing wildfires during the period of December through February.

Moving east, we encounter the down-sloping trough that is the flip side of the ridge bringing warmth and drought to deluge conditions to the west. So, for the Eastern and Central United States, we see the transport of chill air down from the Arctic Ocean, over Canada and deep into a zone from The Dakotas to Texas to Maine. As a result, we have seen winter storm after winter storm surge down into these regions, dumping snow, ice, and heavy rain while occasionally coming into conflict with Gulf warmth and moisture to spark tornadoes and thunderstorms over snow-covered regions.

One cannot separate the warm air invasion over Alaska and the heat radiating out of the perforated sea ice from the numerous polar vortex collapse events that have led to this extreme winter weather over Central and Eastern parts of the US. And so, it is also impossible to ignore the warping and deleterious impacts of human-caused climate change on the world’s weather.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), in its latest extreme weather assessment notes:

In the winter a deep reservoir of cold air becomes established through the atmosphere over the Arctic because of the lack of sunlight. This is usually held over high latitudes by the Jet Stream, a fast moving band of air 10 km up in the atmosphere which drives weather. This year, a “kink” in the jet stream allowed the reservoir of cold air to move southwards across the USA. A blocking pattern meant it was locked into place, keeping severe weather systems over much of the Eastern United States extending down to northeast Mexico.

This ‘kink’ and related blocking pattern the WMO mentions is also the leading edge of the advance of cold Arctic air over the North Atlantic which combined with ocean heat and moisture to aim intense storms at Western Europe. In essence, a powerful planetary wave or Rossby Wave type feature:

Planetary Wave

(The Northern Hemisphere Jet Stream takes on Planetary Wave pattern with an extreme high amplitude ridge over the Western US, Canada, Alaska and the Beaufort Sea and a deep, cold trough digging into the Eastern US and spreading out over the North Atlantic on February 26th. Image source: University of Washington.)

For as we look yet further East we come to a North Atlantic Ocean that has been little more than the barrel of a gun firing a two and a half month long barrage of storms at England and Western Europe. For the Jet Stream, at this point, is intensified by Arctic air fleeing from a warming north coming into contact with the also warming waters of the North Atlantic. In this region, the planetary wave feature developed with severe and lasting consequences for England, France, Portugal and Venice.

The upshot was the wettest period in over 250 years for England as well as the windiest period since at least the 1960s. During February, two of these storms generated 80-100 mph winds and waves off Ireland and the UK that were the highest ever recorded for this region. Meanwhile, the powerful storm surges associated with these storms reshaped the English coastline, uncovered bombs dropped during World War II and unearthed the stumps of an ancient forest that spread from England to France before it was buried in the floods of glacial melt at the end of the last ice age. The battering continues through early March with England suffering losses in excess of 1 billion dollars.

The storms ripping across the Atlantic also resulted in the loss of over 21,000 sea birds and have heavily impacted France, Spain and Portugal with record rains, gales and tidal flooding. During early February, a series of gales also drove high tides along the coast of Italy and spurred flooding in Venice.

As storms slammed into coastal western Europe, strange fires were also burning along Arctic shores as a very dry and windy winter sparked blazes along the coastlines of Norway. These fires, some of the worst in Norway’s history, occurred during January and February, months that have never seen wildfires before. So the strange story of flood and fire that tends to come with climate change may seem yet more radical and extreme when we include what has happened over this section of Europe during 2014.

By the time we enter Eastern Europe, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Russia we again encounter an up-slope in the Jet Stream along with related periods of heat and drought. Record highs were set throughout a zone from Germany to Slovenia to Russia. Germany experienced January temperatures that were 2.8 degrees Celsius above the 20th Century average while Russia experienced heat anomalies approaching 10 degrees Celsius hotter than normal that persisted for up to a week in length. In Turkey, farmers frantically drilled into drying lake-beds for water as both warmer and drier than normal conditions combined with ground water depletion to generate severe agricultural stress.

But the strain for Israel, which experienced lowest ever winter rainfalls and one of the worst droughts in its history, was far worse. According to the Israeli Water Agency’s March 4 Statement, water supplies across the country were now at record low levels:

“Such low supply during this period has never before been documented and is unprecedented in Water Authority records,” the agency said. “The negative records broken in February are much more dramatic and significant than those of January.”

Drought-stressed Jordan has also been forced to ration water supplies, with rainfall levels now only 34 percent of that received during a typical January and February.

Abnormal warmth and drought also extended into China as most parts of the ancient empire received between 50-80 percent below average rainfall. Temperatures averaged over the entire country were the warmest seen since at least 1961. The warmth and dryness resulted in record low river and lake levels across the country with China’s largest lake turning into a sea of cracked mud and grasses.

In Singapore and nearby Malaysia, a two month-long heatwave is now among the worst ever recorded for this region. The situation has been worsened as nearby forest fires have combined with industrial pollution to produce a kind of all-encompassing smog. A nasty brew that cut visibility in the region to less than one kilometer.

Smoke Smog Singapore Maylaysia

(Smoke and smog from fires and industrial activity visible over Singapore and Malaysia. Image source: Lance-Modis.)

One would think that, with major heat anomalies occurring over the Arctic, the far removed Southern Hemisphere would be somehow insulated from impacts. But whether from far-reaching Arctic influence or simply from other factors related to human-caused climate change, austral regions were among the hardest hit by the, now global, spate of extreme weather events.

Australia’s record 2013 heatwave didn’t miss a beat as a hottest ever summer continued on through January and February. A period in the middle of January showed exceptionally severe high temperatures with World Meteorological Agency reports noting:

One of the most significant multi-day heatwaves on record affected southeast Australia over the period from 13 to 18 January 2014. The major area affected by the heatwave consisted of Victoria, Tasmania (particularly the western half), southern New South Wales away from the coast, and the southern half of South Australia. Over most parts of this region, it ranked alongside the heatwaves of January-February 2009, January 1939 and (from the limited information available) January 1908 as the most significant multi-day heatwaves on record.

A number of site records were set during the summer, including:

• Melbourne had seven 40ºC days; annual average is one day

• Adelaide had 11 days of 42ºC or above; annual average is one day

• Canberra had 19 days of 35ºC or above; annual average is 5.4 days

While Australia was sweltering under its hottest summer on record, south-central Brazil was suffering its worst-ever drought. By mid February, Brazil had been forced to ration water in over 140 of its cities. The result is that neighborhoods in some of Brazil’s largest cities only receive water once every three days. During this, extraordinarily intense, period of heat and dryness, untold damage was done to Brazil’s crops. But, by early March, a doubling of prices for coffee coming out of Brazil gave some scope to the damage. January was also Brazil’s hottest on record and the combination of extreme heat and dryness pushed the nation’s water reservoirs for southeastern and west-central regions to below 41 percent of capacity driving utility water storage levels to a critically low 19 percent.

In near mirror to the US weather flip-flop, northern Brazil experienced exceptionally heavy rainfall, apparently gaining back the lion’s share of moisture lost in the south and stalling a two year drought affecting north-eastern regions.

In combination, these crazy weather extremes are thought to have done nearly $5 billion in damages to Brazil’s crops so far this year, on top of $9 billion in losses last year. Losses run the gambit from coffee to beef, soy, citrus, and sugarcane. It is worth noting that Brazil is the largest producer of all these foodstuffs with the one exception being soy.

The same drought impacting Brazil also damaged crops in Paraguay and Argentina with soybeans among the hardest hit.

Given the ongoing extreme weather impacts, it is worth noting that world soybean prices are now up by more than 9 percent over the 2012-2013 period with almost all foodstuffs seeing price increases in the global marketplace. The UN FAO food index remained over 200 through late January, a dangerously high indicator that shows numerous countries having difficulty supplying affordable food to their populations.

Extremes Cover the Globe

The above list does little justice to the depth and scope of extremes experienced, merely serving to highlight some of the most notable or severe instances. In general, it could well be said that the world climate crisis is rapidly turning into a world severe weather crisis. January and February are usually rather calm months for the globe, weather-wise. So the fact that we are seeing record storms, rainfall, snowfall, floods, fires, droughts, winds, and heatwaves in every corner of the globe during what should be a relatively mild period is cause for serious concern.

And many scientists are taking notice. For example, Omar Baddour, Chief of the WMO’s data division observes an amazing ramping up of extreme weather events worldwide, citing preliminary model assessments in an interview with The Guardian, he notes:

“We need more time to assess whether this is unusual [on a global level] but if you look at the events in individual regions, like the heatwave in Australia or the cold in the US, it looks very unusual indeed. Next month we will publish a major report showing the likelihood of extreme heatwaves is increased 500% [with climate change].”

The shadow climate change casts has grown very long and there is little that has not now been touched by it. But, sadly and unfortunately, even under a regime of full mitigation and adaptation, the worst effects are yet to come. If we are wise, we will do our best to mitigate as much as we can and work together to adapt to the rest.

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Links:

The World Meteorological Organization

University of Maine

University of Washington

Japan Meteorological Agency

Lance-Modis

UK Endures Endless Barrage of Storms

Ice-free Season Getting Longer by Five Days Per Decade

Mangled Jet Stream Sparks Drought, Winter Wildfires in California

For Arizona and New Mexico, Climate Change and a Mangled Jet Stream Means Fire Season Now Starts in February

World Food Security in the Cross Hairs of Human-Caused Climate Change

Arctic Wildfires in Winter

California Storms Didn’t End Drought

The Biggest Disaster You’ve Never Heard of

Haze Shrouds Malaysia

Brazil Rations Water in Over 140 Cities

World Begins 2014 With Unusual Number of Extreme Weather Events

Brazil Loses Billions as Crops Reduced By Wacky Weather

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

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

A2 model run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nitrogen Proxy Records and Their Relationship to Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerned Journalists and Terrified Ecologists

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

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

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

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

McPherson notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links (Read them!):

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

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

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

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

Nature Bats Last

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Dead Dolphins

Mass Starfish Die-off

Climate Change Devastating Ocean Fishermen

NCAR A2 Model Run

Hat Tip to David Goldstein

Amplifying Feedbacks: Climate Model to Test Projections of Zero Sea Ice By Summer 2016, Stark Predictions by Wadhams, Duarte

Ever since 1995 and especially since 2007 Arctic sea ice area, volume and extent have been in rapid free-fall. By 2012 both sea ice area and extent had suffered losses greater than 55% when compared to end summer measures in 1979. Sea ice volume, meanwhile had shown a stunning loss of nearly 80% from 1979 volume observations. This staggering trend of losses means that any melt year comparable to 2007, 2010 (volume) or 2012 would result in the total or near total loss of all sea ice within the Arctic by end of summer.

The summer of 2013 was exceptional in that it was the first year that statistical averages indicated a potential for total summer sea ice loss. The risk at the time was considered to be low, only 10%. But the figure was historic in that, never before, had a statistical risk of total sea ice loss been identified. Following more typical trends, the 2013 melt season showed a bounce-back from 2012’s record melt year with levels roughly correlating with those seen in 2009. That said, even 2013’s pseudo-recovery did little to disturb an extraordinarily powerful melt trend:

Sea Ice Volume Exponential Trend Wipneus

(Sea Ice Volume Measurements For All Months as Observed By PIOMAS With Exponential Trend. Image source: Wipneus. Note that the exponential trend shows monthly volume measures for July, August, September and October reach zero sea ice volume all before 2019.)

Taken into context, the 2013 melt season was little more than a counter-trend year in a period of ongoing and apparently inexorable decline. In context to these massive losses, the heat forcing in the Arctic continues to grow with most regions showing at least a doubled rate of temperature increase when compared to the global norm. Total temperature change in the Arctic is now about 2 degrees Celsius hotter than the 1950 to 1980 global average. A recent study of the regions around Baffin Island showed temperatures are now hotter than at any time within at least the last 44,000 years and probably the last 120,000 years. And with temperatures rising by about .4 degrees Celsius each decade, the Arctic continues to rapidly transition toward ever more hot and unfamiliar territory.

A High Resolution Climate Model For An Arctic in Rapid Transition

These rapid and massive changes appear to have left conventional global climate models (GCMs) in the dust. Earlier global climate model runs of the Arctic assumed slow responses to temperature increases by the world’s ice sheets resulting in predictions for ice free Arctic Ocean conditions at much higher temperatures than those currently being observed. The result of these assumptions that Arctic sea ice generated high inertia and was more resilient to human caused climate change were predictions for ice free Arctic summers to hold off until at least 2100.

But, as we have seen in the above analysis, recent events have put the possibility for ice free Arctic conditions on a much shorter time-scale. And, until recently, only statistical analysis, exponential trends fitting, and direct observation were able to provide any direct guide that more closely fit the stark and ongoing changes in the Arctic. In a world where simulative models seemed to take precedence over even observed reality, the dearth of models describing what all could plainly see was a catastrophic and rapid melt trend cast doubt on the all-too-stark observations.

Now, a new tool to place these much more rapid than expected melt conditions into context appears to be coming together. The high resolution Regional Arctic Systems Model (RASM) constructed by US Navy Scientist Professor Wieslaw Maslowski finds its basis in a 2012 paper showing the potential for the Arctic to be ice free come 2016 +/- 3 years. This new model takes into account a more detailed summary of Arctic conditions including a more highly resolved interpretation of the impacts of warming-driven changes to:

“… sea ice deformation, ocean eddies, and associated ice-ocean boundary layer mixing, multiphase clouds as well as land-atmosphere-ice-ocean interactions.”

Dr. Maslowski notes that while no climate model simulation is perfectly accurate, the RASM simulation is likely to be much closer to what is actually happening in the Arctic environment. Maslowski notes:

“Given the estimated trend and the volume estimate for October–November of 2007 at less than 9,000 km3, one can project that at this rate it would take only 9 more years or until 2016 ± 3 years to reach a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer. Regardless of high uncertainty associated with such an estimate, it does provide a lower bound of the time range for projections of seasonal sea ice cover.”

It is important to note that RASM hasn’t yet run or provided projections. But the fact that it is taking into account the visibly rapid loss of sea ice as well as a more refined view of the Arctic environs means that such a tool could well generate more accurate measures or at least help explain the apparently very rapid melt trend. According to Maslowski:

“We do expect to compare sea ice volume results [from the RASM model] with our earlier model for the same period … possibly next year or so…”

Confirmation of the Most Pessimistic Predictions?

2012 and 2007 record minimum overlay

(2007 and 2012 record sea ice minimums — overlay. Image source: NSIDC)

Dr. Maslowki’s paper and RASM model runs may provide single source confirmation for some of the most pessimistic predictions by Arctic sea ice experts. Dr. Peter Wadhams, a world renown sea ice expert who has spent about 30 years monitoring the state of sea ice aboard British Navy submarines has projected that the Arctic could reach an ice-free state by the end of summer during 2015 or 2016.

Another climate expert, Dr. Carlos Duarte, head of the Ocean Institute at the University of Australia, has projected that the Arctic will reach an ice free state by 2015.

More moderate projections place total sea ice loss during summer at between 2025 and 2040.

IPCC Global Climate Model Sea Ice Melt Projections For Extent (Trend in Black)

(IPCC Global Climate Model Sea Ice Melt Projections. Figures are in Sea Ice Extent (not Volume as seen Above). It is worth noting that the Volume and Area melt trends are much more pronounced than the extent measure that fails to count holes in the ice (area) or add in the measure of ice thickness (volume). The above image, produced by Overland and Wang, also appears to be off the 2012 minimum extent measure by about 200,000 square kilometers.)

Meanwhile, global climate models (GCMs), provided above, continue to lag real time observation, and projections by noted experts. Even taking into account models that have gotten the current trend mostly correct show ice free conditions by around 2050 (mean). Meanwhile, the GCM overall mean continues to show near ice-free conditions by 2100.

These projections are questionable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that they only take into account the very low resolution of sea ice extent and not the higher resolution figures of sea ice area or volume. Sea ice area, for example, fell to a stunning record low of 2.1 million square kilometers during 2012, a total loss of about 3.6 million square kilometers since 1979 and a loss of about 1 million square kilometers off the previous record low (area) set in 2011. Such a low figure could already, arguably, be called ‘nearly ice free when compared to average area lows of nearly 6 million square kilometers during summers four decades ago.

sea ice area

(Sea Ice Area Measures Provided by NSIDC via Cryosphere Today. Note the extreme record low set in 2012, a measure well below comparable sea ice extent figures which fail to account for holes in the ice. See also: Arctic Ice Graphs.)

It is this lack of GCM resolution, combined with an ongoing trend of stunning losses that has resulted in serious changes in predictions by even somewhat conservative scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Professor Mark Serreze of Colorado’s branch of NSIDC, who is skeptical that ice free conditions could be reached as early as 2016, notes:

“I am on record stating that we may lose the summer ice cover as early as 2030, and I stand behind that statement. This is in itself much earlier than projections from nearly all climate model simulations. I would agree with Dr. Maslowski that the IPCC models have shortcomings.”

The question, then, is will higher resolution climate models like Maslowski’s RASM provide a better understanding of what appear to be chaotic, powerful and rapid changes to the Arctic environment well ahead of the previously predicted time-frame?

Loss of Summer Sea Ice to Unleash Amplifying Feedbacks

Because it covers such a large stretch of ocean with a white, reflective surface, sea ice is a primary governor of Arctic and global weather. It keeps the Arctic cool by insulating millions of square kilometers of dark Arctic Ocean waters from the near constant radiation of the polar summer sun.

As the sea ice retreats, more of this dark water becomes exposed to the sun’s rays. Because the ocean surface is dark, it traps most of this light. The result is far greater warming of the Arctic during the summer time.

The loss of sea ice and related ocean warming has a number of knock-on effects. The first is that increasing ocean heat delivers far more energy to the sea bed. In the case of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, the warming shallow sea is one filled with carbon deposits from a massive expanse of submerged tundra. An estimated 1500 gigatons of methane lay sequestered in thawing permafrost beneath this rapidly warming sea. According to Wadhams, loss of sea ice can add up to 7 degrees Celsius of additional warming to this vulnerable sea bed.

Current estimates provided by Dr. Natalia Shakhova show that around 17 megatons of methane are being released from the ESAS each year. This emission is more than twice that of the entire global ocean system and accounts for about 2.8 percent of the current global methane emission. Given the massive volume of methane stored in the ESAS and the rapid pace of sea ice loss and related ocean warming, this region of the world is more than capable of providing significant additional volumes of this potent greenhouse gas.

ESAS methane froth and sea ice

(A frothy mixture of methane and sea ice near the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Image source: Igor Semiletov, The University of Alaska)

Meanwhile, ship based observations show that methane levels at the surface of ESAS waters are a stunning 3800 ppb, about twice the global average:

“Ship-based observations show that methane concentrations in the air above the East Siberian Sea Shelf are nearly twice as high as the global average… Layers of sediment below the permafrost slowly emit methane gas, and this gas has been trapped for millennia beneath the permafrost. As sea levels rose at the end of the ice age, the shelf was once again covered by relatively warm ocean water, thawing the permafrost and releasing the trapped methane… In the short-term… methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of carbon dioxide. (NSIDC)”

More rapid Arctic Ocean warming during summer times also results in more rapid warming of nearby land masses. And recent years have seen a number of extraordinary Arctic heatwaves driving 80+ degree temperatures all the way to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Rapid warming of this region also results in a rapid thaw of massive volumes of permafrost. The permafrost stores organic material that breaks down into both CO2 and methane, providing additional emissions that enhance an already very rapid human warming. Current emissions from the Arctic tundra system are estimated to be around 17 megatons of methane and hundreds of megatons of CO2. Like the emissions coming from the ESAS, these emissions provide a significant added contributor to the human GHG forcing and will likely continue to provide increasing emissions as the sea ice retreats further.

In addition to the combined amplifying feedback of loss of sea ice albedo and amplifying greenhouse gas emissions from the Arctic, sea ice erosion has now also been shown to have profound effects on the circumpolar Jet Stream. Research by Dr. Jennifer Francis, Dr. Quihang Tang, a number of other scientists, and confirming analysis by Dr. Jeff Masters, has noted a weakening in the Jet Stream caused by a lowering of the temperature differential between the lower latitudes and the poles. The Jet is driven by such high temperature extremes between north and south. But as the higher latitudes warm faster than the temperate zones this temperature differential drops and the Jet Stream weakens. The end result is higher amplitude Jet Stream waves that tend to get stuck, resulting in more persistent, extreme weather. Dr Quihang, in a recent paper, notes:

“As the high latitudes warm faster than the mid-latitudes because of amplifying effects of melting ice, the west-to-east jet-stream wind is weakened. Consequently, the atmospheric circulation change tends to favour more persistent weather systems and a higher likelihood of summer weather extremes.”

The end result of these alterations brought on by a very rapid loss of Arctic sea ice are chaotic changes to the Arctic Ocean and surrounding lands along with a severe disruption to Northern Hemisphere weather patterns. These changes also combine in a self-reinforcing pattern to further amplify the pace of human caused warming both in the Arctic and around the globe. And should the summer Arctic sea ice completely melt in the time-frame of now to 2019 as Maslowski, Wadhams and Duarte have projected as a ‘most rapid’ estimate, then the already stark changes we are seeing will become much more extreme and pronounced.

Links:

The Future of Sea Ice

US Navy Predicts Summer Ice Free Arctic by 2016 (Note, the Guardian article appears to be somewhat misinformed, conflating a 2012 paper by Maslowski with RASM model runs.)

NSIDC

Extreme Summer Weather Linked To Vanishing Cryosphere

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Wipneus

Could Arctic Summers be Ice-Free Within Three Year’s Time?

When Will the Arctic Summer be Nearly Ice Free?

Arctic Sea Ice Graphs

Hat Tip to Aaron

(Updated December 17)

New Study Finds Arctic Experiencing Hottest Temps in Nearly 120,000 Years; Lead Author: All Baffin Ice Caps Set to ‘Eventually Disappear’

“All of Baffin Island is melting, and we expect all the ice caps to eventually disappear, even if there is no additional warming.” Gifford Miller, University of Colorado climate scientist and co-author of a recent scientific study entitled: Unprecedented recent summer warmth in Arctic Canada.

***

Baffin Island September, 2013

(Satellite shot of Baffin Island and surrounding Arctic environs in September of 2013. Image source: NASA)

Baffin Island is a frozen archipelago situated to the west of Greenland and to the north and east of Hudson Bay. Like Greenland, it straddles the 70th parallel as well as the Arctic Circle. And like Greenland it is showing increasing signs of unprecedented warmth and melting. Though Baffin does not boast the massive ice caps of Greenland, large glaciers still cover much of its lands and fjords. The remaining areas are littered with small brown and green grasses and shrubs struggling up from rocky outcrops or from wide ranges of the now thawing tundra.

Like so many other places in our world, Baffin Island is a place where the deep past is coming into collision with a rapid and radical transition. A transition caused by humans and their endlessly increasing use of carbon-based fuels.

Over the past 150 years humans have released enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to achieve a global concentration of this gas that, by spring of 2013, exceeded 400 parts per million. This unprecedented high level, a level nearly 50% higher than the global concentration 150 years ago, was last seen on the Earth around 3.6 million years ago. And if past climate states are any true guide, then the vast volumes of greenhouse gasses already released into the atmosphere by humans are enough to melt all the ice on Baffin and at least half the ice on Greenland. It is this understanding of the effects of greenhouse gasses on past climates and ice states that prompted Miller to claim we’ve already released enough CO2 to melt the remaining ice on an isle that has been locked in freezing conditions since the dawn of humankind.

A Message From Earth’s Thawing Tundra

On Baffin and all over the high Arctic, vast swaths of the world’s tundra are rapidly being liberated from an eons-old ice cap. Scientists Gifford H. Miller, Scott J. Lehman, Kurt A. Refsnider, John R. Southon, and Yafang Zhong journeyed to Baffin’s thawing ice with a key question in mind: ‘When was the last time this region of the far north thawed?’ They came armed with the latest scientific tools and measures — tools that provided radio-carbon dating to determine the age of the most recently thawed plants. What the study found was chilling. Many of the plants newly liberated by the thawing ice were at least 44,000 years old. Others were possibly as old as 120,000 years.

This new evidence shows that the heat wave the Arctic is now experiencing, a heat wave that has driven sea ice deeper and deeper into the high Arctic, a heat wave that is melting, on average, about 500 gigatons of ice from Greenland each year (and about 25 gigatons of ice from Baffin), a heat wave that is turning millions of square miles of tundra into a melting, carbon-rich soup is hotter than even the hottest period during the last 11,000 years. And it shows that the Arctic probably hasn’t experienced this much melting since the last inter-glacial period — the Eemian.

The more recent time marking a space from the end of the last ice age to the present day is known as the Holocene. It marks the most recent geological epoc. During the early and middle years of the Holocene, solar insolation — or the measured amount of radiation coming from the sun — was as much as 9% stronger. But, according to the recent paper, human greenhouse gas emissions have been enough to completely overwhelm even the peak Holocene heat effect of a 9% stronger Arctic sun experienced centuries and centuries ago:

“The key piece here is just how unprecedented the warming of Arctic Canada is,” Gifford Miller, a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in a joint statement from the school and the publisher of the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “This study really says the warming we are seeing is outside any kind of known natural variability, and it has to be due to increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.”

It’s amazing to think that humans have already set in effect levels of warmth unsurpassed in 44,000 years and, possibly, 120,000 years. This new information, in itself, is unprecedented. But don’t make the mistake of falling into the false and relative comfort of thinking we only need to worry about the climates of 120,000 years ago. We’re already passing that marker now. As mentioned above, we’ve already released enough greenhouse gasses to at least return Earth to climates not seen in 3.6 million years. In this respect, the Baffin Island study adds to research conducted at Lake El’gygytgyn showing that levels of CO2 comparable to those seen today resulted in Arctic temperatures 8 degrees Celsius hotter during the deep past.

Rapidly Changing Arctic to Liberate More Greenhouse Gasses

Sadly, it is Miller’s final statement, the one stating that all the ice on Baffin is bound to melt, no matter what, which bears the most weight in our current day. With coal plants still being constructed at a break-neck pace in India and China, and with human greenhouse gas emissions rising above 45 gigatons of CO2 equivalent each year, we would be lucky if the end level of melt only included the ice on Baffin combined with a large section of the ice over Greenland. Instead, we are rapidly forging along toward a CO2 level of 550 to 600 ppm which will almost certainly ensure a dangerous and rapid melting of all the remaining ice on Earth.

In addition, billions of tons of carbon in the form of methane and CO2 lay locked within the millions of square miles of thawing permafrost. Some of this methane and CO2 is already out-gassing, adding to the already dangerously high levels of human greenhouse gasses.

Over the past month, the Arctic saw major methane spikes in which atmospheric concentrations of this potent greenhouse gas reached nearly 2500 parts per billion, more than 650 parts per billion above the global average. And should the Arctic continue to warm we are more likely to see even larger spikes of both methane and CO2 further amplifying already unprecedented Arctic warmth.

Most likely, we are headed to at least the temperatures last seen during the Pliocene, in which global averages ranged 2-3 degrees Celsius hotter than the present and during which oceans were 25-75 feet higher. Unfortunately, these are the long-term consequences we have probably already locked in. But without rapid reductions in carbon emissions to near zero over the coming decades, we can expect far, far worse outcomes.

Links:

Unprecedented Recent Summer Warmth in Arctic Canada

Arctic Temperatures at 44,000 year High

NASA/Lance-Modis

The Eemian Interglacial

Latest Methane Data Provided by USGS and Methane Tracker

Accelerated Contributions of Canada’s Baffin and Byot Island Glaciers to Sea Level Rise Over The Past Half Century

The Arctic Methane Monster Stirs: NASA’s CARVE Finds Plumes as Large as 150 Kilometers Across Amidst Year of Troubling Spikes

Barrow Methane

(Barrow Methane Record 2009 to Present. Image source: NOAA)

In late June and early July, Barrow Alaska showed two methane readings in excess of 1975 parts per billion. Sadly, this most recent methane spike is likely not to be an outlier.

The Barrow spike came in conjunction with a number of other anomalously high methane readings in the Arctic region during 2013. Most notably, the Kara, Barents and Norwegian Seas all showed atmospheric methane levels spiking to as high as 1935 parts per billion during the first half of 2013.

Kara, Barent, Norwegian Methane

(Kara, Barents, Norwegian Methane. Image source: Dr. Yurganov)

Averages in this and other regions around the Arctic are at new record highs even as atmospheric methane levels continue inexorably upward. For reference, Mauna Loa shows average global atmospheric methane levels are now at around 1830 parts per billion. These levels were around 700 parts per billion at the start of the industrial revolution before they rocketed upward, roughly alongside increasing CO2 concentrations, as fossil fuel based industry saw its dramatic expansion over the past couple of centuries.

Now, human global warming is beginning to unlock a monstrous store of methane in the Arctic. A source that, in the worst case, could be many times the volume of the initial human emission. To this point, areas around the Arctic are now showing local methane levels above 1950 parts per billion with an ever-increasing frequency. The issue is of great concern to scientists, a number of which from NASA are now involved in an investigative study to unearth how large and damaging this methane beast is likely to become.  (You can keep account of these methane spike regions in real time using the Methane Tracker Google app linked here. )

CARVE Finds 150 Mile Wide Methane Plumes

A NASA program is now surveying Arctic methane releases to determine their level of amplifying feedback to human caused warming. Understanding the Arctic’s response to human warming is very important because vast stores of carbon many times the volume of human emissions over the past 200 years lay locked in both permafrost and in methane hydrates throughout the Arctic. As humans have caused the Earth to warm, sea ice and tundra melt have allowed organic carbon to decompose and bubble up in the form of methane and CO2 with ever greater force. Since a significant fraction of these Arctic carbon releases are in the form of methane, and because methane provides as much as 100 times the warming effect of CO2 by volume, even a small proportionate release of this vast carbon store could provide an extraordinarily powerful amplifying feedback to human caused climate change.

Recent studies have found that only a 1.5 degree Celsius global temperature increase puts these stores in jeopardy of large release. The amount of warming since the start of the Industrial Revolution is already at least .8 degrees Celsius (about 1/6th the difference between now and the last ice age, but on the side of hot). Perhaps more importantly, temperature forcing by human greenhouse gas emissions have done proportionately more work to melt ice and warm oceans than previously expected. As a result, the ice which locks in these vast carbon stores is disappearing at a rate far greater than most global models anticipated. This more rapid pace of thaw causes Earth Systems feedbacks to human warming to be an increasingly dire issue now.

As a result, we already have numerous instances of increased methane release around the Arctic. In 2011, a Russian expedition to the East Siberian Arctic shelf found vast plumes of methane 1 kilometer across rising up from the sea bed. All across the Arctic, researchers are finding methane bubbling up from tundra melt ponds. The concentrations of some of these melt ponds are so high that, in some cases, they burst into plumes of flame when lit.

Methane released from melt lake, Arctic

(Methane release from Arctic Melt ponds in high enough concentration to burn when lit. Image source: Sustainable Development Blog)

These methane sources also provide a serious fire hazard to the fragile Arctic environment, serving as fuel to massive tundra fires. Such fuel sources likely worsened a number of Arctic fires including this year’s Quebec inferno in which a single fire consumed 1,600,000 acres and sent plumes of smoke all the way across the Atlantic to Europe or last year’s Siberian fires that consumed millions of acres and whose smokes crossed the Pacific to fill valleys in Canada. The soot from these fires is yet one more amplifying feedback to climate change, as evidenced in a recent Los Alamos Laboratories study. Arctic fires, of late, have packed a punch far more powerful than even their southern brethren who’ve caused so much damage and loss to communities in recent years. The explosive nature of these tundra fires is plainly visible in this image of a massive Alaska blaze, larger than Rhode Island, provided below:

Massive tundra fires Alaska

(Image source: New Scientist)

Now, CARVE is finding its own evidence of massive Arctic methane emissions. Charles Miller, NASA’s principle investigator for the CARVE project, in a recent article, noted that the mission had discovered numerous atmospheric methane plumes in the Arctic. Some of these atmospheric plumes were of immense and troubling size, stretching as wide as 150 miles across.

Miller also notes:

“As temperatures warm, it’s thought that … organic materials could decompose more rapidly and give rise to gases such as carbon dioxide and methane,” Miller said. “The anticipated release of carbon should accelerate climate change…I think the experts all agree that that’s the case. The question that we’re grappling with is how much carbon might be vulnerable to release, and how fast might it be released.”

The CARVE mission is still in progress and end results are pending. But these initial reports from Miller and his team add to the disturbing evidence already arising from the Arctic. Evidence that became widely apparent in 2012 as Arctic methane release emerged as a powerful amplifying feedback to human-caused warming. In short, it appears that the Arctic methane response to human warming began sometime late last century and ramped up throughout the 2000s. Now, the Arctic appears to be providing an increasingly powerful amplifying feedback to human caused warming. It is a dangerous situation and one that should be abated as swiftly as possible through a prompt series of ongoing actions.

To these points, the following video, provided by NBC News gives excellent context.

As I’m unable to embed, the link to this video is provided here.

 

I would, however, like to add one caveat:

Global warming is not likely to unfold in a manner similar to the events depicted in the sci-fi movie “The Day After Tomorrow.” The pace of damage will be slower at first with weather worsening over time, sea level rise gradually worsening, and impacts to crops and agriculture increasing year by year, decade by decade. In this long ramping up period, there are increasing risks of single catastrophic events. But such events won’t have a neat finish. They will happen again and again, with risks and effects worsening as atmospheric heat energy increases. Perhaps, most importantly, humans will have to recover from these events in base conditions that are already difficult to manage.

As such, human climate change represents a long emergency of increasingly worsening base conditions even as the risk of increasingly damaging catastrophic events continues to rise over time. It is this ratcheting effect of climate change that makes it so deadly. The increasingly difficult base conditions make maintenance of human civilization far more difficult even as it reduces the chance that human systems will effectively recover from a number of devastating catastrophes that are surely in the pipe.

Once the climate juggernaut gets rolling it unleashes and multiplies a number of terribly monstrous and ever-worsening events. And it is for this critical reason that we need to get a handle on our carbon emissions as rapidly as possible.

Links:

NOAA

NASA’s CARVE Mission

Methane Tracker

Methane Forum Posts: Arctic Ice Blog

Vast Reservoirs of Arctic Carbon Could Effect Global Warming

A4R Methane Tracking

Sustainable Development Blog

The Methane Bomb, Clathrates, and Arctic Tundra. Life in a World at 1830 Parts Per Billion and Rising.

As the world hit a new and ominous CO2 record of 400 parts per million and rising, just one milestone on the road toward ever greater harm from damage via human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, another record was quietly reached. At the Mauna Loa Observatory, world-wide methane levels hit a new record average of 1830 parts per billion in April of 2013 even as they continued to ramp higher.

Methane 2003-2013

(Image source: NOAA ESRL)

The new record follows a short-term rise in atmospheric methane that began in 2007 and has continued to this day. It also caps a long-term rise in methane that began at the start of the industrial revolution and, through a long ramp-up, has resulted in atmospheric methane levels rising from about 750 parts per billion to the record high level of 1830 parts per billion today.

You can view this long-term rise in atmospheric methane in the second chart, provided by NASA, below. Note that atmospheric levels given are only updated through 2008, just at the start of the most recent jump in atmospheric methane concentrations:

greenhouse_gases_1750-2008

(Image source: NASA)

This ramping up of atmospheric methane that began in 1750 and has continued to this day has, so far, been mostly caused by humans. Primary sources for human methane emissions include landfills, coal mining, leaks from oil and gas infrastructure, and the digestive generation of methane in the guts of livestock animals such as cattle. An explosion in the volume of methane coming from these sources pushed world methane levels about 1080 parts per billion higher over the last 250 years.

This increase has had a powerful impact on global warming caused by humans. It is estimated that, at current concentrations, methane’s contribution to global warming is about 28% that of CO2. The reason for this, even though atmospheric levels for methane are more than 200 times lower than CO2, is that methane is at least 25 times as potent a heat absorber by volume (and as much as 105 times during the short term). What this means is that atmospheric methane increases are a huge contributor to climate change.

Now, I want to stop here before going any further. And the reason is that some oil industry cheer leaders have made the false argument that reducing human methane emissions is more important to mitigating the impact of climate change than reducing CO2 levels. The short answer to this false claim is that they’re both important and there’s no way to address human climate change without reducing both CO2 and methane emissions. And, since there’s at least 500 parts per million worth of CO2 in the remaining fossil fuel reserves, for us to maintain much hope of a livable future climate will necessitate that most of these fuels remain unburned or that the carbon from these fuels is captured and permanently sequestered.

Human-caused warming results in increasing methane release from Earth’s environment

Unfortunately, humans are no longer the only contributor to rising levels of atmospheric methane. New research being conducted by NSIDC, NASA, and a number of scientists around the world show that organic material stored in the world’s permafrost and methane clathrates at the bottom of the ocean are showing signs of stirring.

Permafrost is a region of frozen soil that dominates large sections of the Northern Hemisphere and the entire continent of Antarctica. This image, provided as part of NASA’s CARVE research project, shows the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost zones.

Northern Hemisphere Permafrost NASA CARVE

(Image source: NASA)

As humans have driven the climate to warm, larger and larger sections of the northern permafrost have been subject to thaw. As the permafrost thaws, it opens organic material, sequestered for tens of thousands of years, to decay. If the region where the permafrost melts is predominantly wet, the organic material breaks down into methane. If the region is primarily dry, carbon dioxide is produced.

The volume of organic material locked in permafrost is massive. In fact, NSIDC shows that there are about 1,400 gigatons of carbon locked up in the world’s permafrost. This is nearly twice the volume of all the carbon currently contained in the atmosphere. For even a small fraction of this carbon to be released via human warming would have dramatic consequences. And, since many regions in the Arctic are predominantly wet, a large portion of any future release is likely to be methane.

Already, research is beginning to indicate that carbon stores in the Arctic are being set free by human-caused warming. In NASA’s most recent press release describing its CARVE research mission, entitled “Is a Sleeping Giant Stirring in the Arctic,” NASA scientists were said to have found large methane emission sources comparable to major cities.

“Some of the methane and carbon dioxide concentrations we’ve measured have been large, and we’re seeing very different patterns from what models suggest,” Charles Miller, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said. “We saw large, regional-scale episodic bursts of higher-than-normal carbon dioxide and methane in interior Alaska and across the North Slope during the spring thaw, and they lasted until after the fall refreeze. To cite another example, in July 2012 we saw methane levels over swamps in the Innoko Wilderness that were 650 parts per billion higher than normal background levels. That’s similar to what you might find in a large city.”

If methane emissions from the Arctic permafrost via human-caused warming are beginning to rival those of major human sources, then we could be in for some rather serious trouble. CARVE’s mission is to find out if such a threat is emerging. Early observations are, as one NASA researcher put it, “both amazing and potentially troubling.”

The Clathrate Gun

Potentially even more troubling is the possibility that seabed methane stores locked in ice, known as clathrates, may also be starting to destabilize.

Worldwide, there is estimated to be between 1,600 and 2,000 gigatons of carbon locked in clathrates (or methane hydrates) on the bottom of the ocean. This is a massive store of carbon is at least two times the amount currently in the atmosphere. As with permafrost, if even a small amount of this methane reached the atmosphere, it would have powerful global warming impacts.

The problem is that human warming, via CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, is currently causing the world’s oceans to heat up. In fact, the oceans are accumulating heat faster than expected. You can see the pace of this increasing heat content in the graph below:

Trenberthstudy

(Image source: Trenberth study)

And since clathrates are ice structures that are only stable in a narrow range of temperatures, any warming of the oceans, especially the deep oceans where clathrates are primarily stored, results in risk that the clathrates will melt, releasing their methane.

Unfortunately, we have emerging evidence showing that sea-bed clathrates are starting to destabilize. One set of evidence, produced by Shakhova, began to emerge in 2007. Shakhova’s study: Methane Release and Coastal Environment in The East Siberian Arctic Shelf illustrated how sea-bed methane in the region of the East Siberian Sea was venting into the ocean and even up through the thawing permafrost. A later survey of sea-bed methane releases, also conducted by Shakhova, found stunning one kilometer wide plumes of methane bubbling up from the ocean in the region of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. In thhe report, published in The Independent, Igor Semiletov, Shakhova’s co-author, noted:

Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It’s amazing,” Dr Semiletov said.

“I was most impressed by the sheer scale and the high density of the plumes.  Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them,” he said.

Another study, this one conducted off the US East Coast, found that methane depositions on the Continental Shelf were also starting to destabilize. The study, published in Nature, showed that changes in the Gulf Stream and an unusual level of warming off the eastern seaboard of the United States was destabilizing a 10,000 square kilometer region rich in sea-bed methane. The study warned:

A changing Gulf Stream has the potential to thaw and convert hundreds of gigatonnes of frozen methane hydrate trapped below the sea floor into methane gas, increasing the risk of slope failure and methane release…

Evidence of Growing Trouble

Though not yet conclusive, the current permafrost studies by NASA and others combine with growing scientific evidence of sea-bed methane destabilization to provide a rather stark warning. Human warming via greenhouse gas emissions is beginning to push Earth to release some of her carbon stocks. These stocks, contained in tundra and sea-bed methane, are now showing signs of disturbance and are visibly starting to contribute to atmospheric carbon. It is worth noting that tipping points may be fast approaching and could run away from us rather rapidly.

As such, all efforts should be made to reduce worldwide human CO2 and methane emissions as rapidly as possible. Over the past 250 years, humans have contributed a large and growing forcing to the world’s climate. Now, emissions have grown to vast and dangerous levels even as Earth’s systems are reaching their carbon storage limits. Major feedbacks and threatening changes are likely in store if we don’t dramatically draw down emissions soon.

Evidence of methane coming from the Earth system should, therefore, serve as a warning, one we would well be wise to heed.

Links:

Recent Changes to the Gulf Stream Causing Widespread Gas Hydrate Destabilization

NOAA ESRL

NASA

Distinctive Climate Signals in Reanalysis of Global Ocean Heat Content

Vast Methane Plumes Seen In Arctic Ocean as Sea Ice Retreats

Human CO2 Emissions Continue to Play Russian Roulette With Clathrate Gun

PIOMAS Volume Melt Slowed in May, Too Soon to Implicate Negative Feedbacks.

A slowing in sea ice area and extent melt during May has born out in the PIOMAS volume numbers. According to the most recent PIOMAS update, pace of Arctic sea ice volume melt remained about level during mid-to-late May. In past record melt years, 2011 and 2012 volume melt picked up by the end of May.

2013’s end May melt, however, was more gradual:

PIOMASmay2013

(Image source: PIOMAS)

As a result, sea ice volume has edged away from record low territory and is currently the third lowest in the measure.  It’s a number still quite close to record lows, sitting about 900 cubic kilometers above 2012 values. But closer yet is 2010, the 4th lowest year, which was about 200 cubic kilometers above 2013 by end of May.

Overall, Arctic sea ice volume is a bit more substantial, but still low enough to be worthy of concern. The reason is that, as noted before, the disposition of Arctic sea ice this year is, overall, thin and spread out. PIOMAS shows overall ice thickness just slightly above record low values. While Arctic Ice Blog Neven’s crude ice thickness calculator that simply divides PIOMAS volume by Cryosphere Today area shows ice currently at its thinnest on record:

Neven Ice thickness

(Image source: Neven)

It is also worth pointing out that Greenland and the Central Arctic above the 80th parallel has been somewhat cooler than average this May, despite large regions of substantial warming present in other areas. Whether this trend persists and whether it has an impact on melt for 2013, will be more readily apparent as June progresses.

Emergence of negative feedbacks?

A prolonged slow-down in sea ice volume melt would also begin to beg the question: have negative feedbacks started to emerge in the Arctic? Large influxes of fresh water from Greenland have been flushing into the Arctic since the early 2000s. So one wonders if such high volumes of cold, fresh water could be involved in rejuvenating the Cold Arctic Halocline (CAH) layer while at the same time pumping colder water into the North Atlantic.

This layer of cold water is a key protector of the Arctic ice pack. Over the past few decades, the CAH has been undergoing dramatic retreat. Its retreat is a primary reason why the sea ice is so vulnerable to impacts from a warming ocean beneath. (A number of scientific papers have been written on this subject. The Response to Climate Change of the Cold Arctic Halocline, Shielding Sea Ice from the Warm Deep Water Below is just one example.)

In the Antarctic, scientific research has shown that glacial melt on the Antarctic continent has provided a cold layer of protective water which, in turn, has made the sea ice more resilient there. So if 2013 melt does slow and we get a trend of slower sea ice melt years to follow, it will be worth investigating if such a negative feedback is currently active in the Arctic.

Evidence of Negative Feedbacks in Paloeclimate

An increasing pace of northern hemisphere ice sheet melt has also been implicated in past climate swings. The Younger Dryas period occurring about 12,000 years ago was initiated by the breaking of an ice damn in the Laurentide ice sheet which covered a large portion of North America. This ice damn collapse flooded cold water into the North Atlantic which initiated major swings in climate — setting off a period of colder temperatures that lasted for about 1,000 years.

Geological observations of such a large infusion of cold, fresh water provides an example of how large volumes of melt water can act as a negative feedback and cool the climate. Present day Greenland melt is substantial, averaging about 500 cubic kilometers per year, though certainly not as substantial as what occurred during the Younger Dryas. Nonetheless, Greenland and Canadian Arctic Archipelago glacial melt is likely to have an impact on both sea ice and climate as melt rates increase.

This will be something worth looking at if volume melt continues to slow and cooler conditions begin to persistently crop up in the Arctic. At some point, human greenhouse gas forcing is likely to achieve such an event. When this happens, Arctic temperatures are expected to cool even as warming increases in the lower latitudes. The weather consequences for such an event are quite dramatic (a subject worth exploring in another blog).

All that said, the above is purely speculative and we would have to see a more consistent slow-down in volume melt as well as a regime of cooler Arctic temperatures to validate such an occurrence.

Not out of the Woods Yet

So it is worth emphasizing that we are not out of the woods yet. One month of slower than blindingly fast volume melt in the context of some of the thinnest ice on record does not a trend make.

More ice volume remains in areas outside the Central Arctic Basin and so will be more vulnerable to mid-to-late-season melt. In contrast, Central Arctic ice is much thinner than usual, also making it vulnerable. So volume numbers will be more telling once we start getting substantial melt in Hudson Bay, Baffin Bay, and the Kara Seas. Speculation for a major June melt, for various reasons, is running particularly high (An interesting and well-thought-out take is that of Chris Reynolds over at Dosbat.).

This fragile state makes end of June PIOMAS numbers an important indicator. If temperatures are cool, the edge ice stays more resilient, the central ice is able to hold together under the pounding of our Persistent Arctic Cyclone (PAC) of 2013, and the pace of overall melt remains slower as volume numbers remain somewhat higher by end of June, then it becomes a bit less likely we will see another record year in 2013. Were such an event to occur, we’d have to revise our end-of-year melt risk estimate downward.

We are still in record low territory. June is a volatile month. And we have the PAC of 2013 as well as the potential emergence of warmer waters from the depths to contend with. So June is likely to be a very, very interesting month.

Winter 2013 Shows Increasing Arctic Methane Feedback to Human Caused Warming

Methane-Jan21-31

(Image source: AQUA Satellite, NASA. Image produced by Dr. Leonid Yurganov)

Steadily increasing Arctic methane emissions over the past decade are a dangerous amplifying feedback to human caused climate change.

This emission is a direct result of a rapid heating of the Arctic caused by human global warming via the ever-increasing volume of CO2 emitted and stored in the Earth’s atmosphere. Since the year 2000, world CO2 levels have risen from about 365 ppm to 396.8 ppm today. This rapid increase in CO2 is driving enhanced heating of the Arctic environment on the order of about one degree Celsius per decade.

The extra heat in the Arctic does work melting glaciers, reducing sea ice, and rapidly reducing spring time snow cover. The result is a warming of the Arctic tundra and sea bed. As these areas warm, methane stored in the frozen permafrost and in methane hydrates on the sea bed are released.

Amplifying Methane Release Adds to Already Difficult CO2 Problem

Since the year 2000, we have seen growing levels of methane release throughout the Arctic. This methane provides an extra push to global warming by adding more heat-trapping gasses on top of already high and rising values of CO2. Over the course of a century, methane provides 20 times the amount of heat trapping by volume compared to CO2. But short-term warming caused by methane is even greater, about 100 times that of CO2. So increasing levels of Arctic methane as a feedback to human-caused warming further amplifies the overall problem of climate change.

The above series of images provides Arctic methane levels from January 21-31 of 2009 through January 21-31 of 2013. As you can see, over this period Arctic methane levels ramped steadily higher, increasing by about 10-20 ppb on average each year. This steady increase provides a substantial additional forcing to an Arctic that is already much warmer than in previous decades.

Increasing Arctic methane levels combine with sea ice melt and early snow melt to create a powerful amplifying feedback over much of the Arctic. And carbon stores in the Arctic are massive. The US National Snow and Ice Data Center estimates that there are 1400 gigatons of carbon locked in Arctic permafrost alone. This volume compares to the 880 gigatons of carbon already put into the atmosphere via human greenhouse gas emissions. Arctic methane hydrates compose at least another 1000 gigatons of carbon. So for even a fraction of this carbon to be released would result in a substantial addition to human-caused warming.

Human Forcing Just Keeps Rising

All these hundreds and thousands of gigatons of methane would have remained locked in frozen storage without the ever-increasing amounts of CO2 we keep dumping into the atmosphere. From February of 2012 to 2013, global CO2 levels increased by 3.2 parts per million, far higher than even for the already high average of 2.2 parts per million each year over the past five years. At 396.8 parts per million, CO2 is now providing a large amount of heat forcing to the atmosphere. And it is this rising level of heat trapping gasses that has set the Arctic environment in motion.

These increased feedbacks through human forcing make the challenge of dealing with human-caused climate change all the more difficult and urgent. From this point forward, the more we push the climate, the more it is likely to respond by contributing its own stores of carbon from sinks that are now in the process of turning into sources. A rapid transition away from the use of fossil fuels is, therefore, necessary to ensure an already difficult problem does not grow worse.

Links:

Top Scientists Speak Out on Growing Risk of Methane Emergency

http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/

http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/frozenground/methane.html

https://robertscribbler.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/satellite-data-compiled-by-university-of-maryland-shows-amplifying-arctic-methane-release/

Very Bad or Terrible? What a Reality-Based Climate Change Debate Would Look Like

We are already experiencing bad climate change impacts: sea ice melt, blocking patterns that bring one hundred year storms once or twice a year, expanding drought zones, acidifying oceans, tightening world food production, and devastating heat waves and fire seasons. Four hundred thousand people are dying each year as a result of climate change. More than 1.2 trillion dollars are lost.

That’s what’s happening now. Bad.

And things are bound to get worse. But if you were listening to climate change deniers, you’d still hear them whistling merrily past the graveyard. To them, climate change still isn’t real and certainly doesn’t require a response.

But if you take these people, who clearly are living in a world of someone else’s invention and not the real one, out of the equation, then what do you have?

Two sets of scientists. One set who’re saying things will likely continue to grow slowly worse until they become very bad or those pointing toward growing evidence that what human greenhouse gas emissions are causing is bound to be downright terrible. And both appear to be saying that carbon emissions should be reduced as rapidly and as soon as is reasonably possible.

These are the two rational sides of the climate debate. And, therefore, these are the definitions we should be arguing over:

1. Will climate change impacts be very bad or terrible?

2. How fast can we reduce worldwide carbon emissions?

3. How soon can we impose a carbon tax?

4. What actions should we take to begin adapting to the very bad or terrible changes in store?

That’s what a rational climate debate would look like. Not this, as weird as our carbon emissions make the weather, debate between rational scientists and quacks who can’t even stick their finger in the air to tell which way the wind is blowing. Between Congressmen like Inholfe, who’s turning oil company campaign contributions into a political war waged against the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon, and NASA Scientist James Hansen who, daily, works to create policies that will prevent a terrible global condition called “Venus Syndrome.”

Take a recent article in the New Scientist as an example. In the article, entitled Climate Change: It’s Even Worse Than We Thought New Scientist states:

Five years ago, the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change painted a gloomy picture of our planet’s future. As climate scientists gather evidence for the next report, due in 2014, Michael Le Page gives seven reasons why things are looking even grimmer.

These seven reasons include:

1. The Arctic is warming far faster than expected. Sea ice could be gone within the next decade, seventy years faster than IPCC 2007 predicted. Even worse, the Arctic is setting off a series of amplifying feedbacks that are bound to make the world hotter faster.

2. Scientists knew climate change would make the weather worse. But the weather is even worse than expected.

3. Some scientists had predicted that global warming would increase food production. Extreme droughts and severe weather are instead causing massive crop damages and an increasingly severe food crisis.

4. Greenland’s rapid loss of ice means we’re in for at least 1 meter of sea level rise by end of century. (For my part, I think this number is also still too conservative. I would put the number, more likely, at more than 3 meters by century’s end without rapid reductions in carbon emissions.)

5. Half of human CO2 emissions are absorbed by Earth’s carbon sinks. But this absorption is ending as the sinks are beginning to become sources. Most notably, the 2007 IPCC report did not include carbon contributions now emerging in larger and larger volumes from the Arctic permafrost and methane hydrates on sea beds throughout the world.

6. We could avoid climate disaster by very rapidly reducing carbon emissions to zero. Instead, we are increasing carbon emissions.

7. If the worst climate predictions are realized, vast sections of the globe will become too hot for human life.

(Hat tip to Joe Romm for his own excellent analysis of this article.)

These assertions come alongside a former UN climate chief’s statement that the most recent IPCC report (due by 2014) will scare the wits out of everyone and on the heels of a New York Times piece entitled “Is This The End?” which, in its first paragraph, quoted T.S. Eliot’s epic poem “The Wasteland” saying “Fear death by water.”

It seems there’s a growing awareness emerging among mainstream media sources that climate change is, indeed, a dire emergency we need to deal with now. Let’s hope the policy makers, who still have the ship pointed headlong toward disaster, are listening. Let’s hope the debate shifts to ‘how bad is the problem?’ ‘how swiftly can we respond?’ and away from this silly counterpoint between highly rational scientists and the professional deniers and opportunistic politicians puffed up on donations and funds proffered by fossil fuel special interests.

We really, really don’t have much time. And it will be absolutely necessary to make changes with all due urgency.

Links:

http://www.newscientist.com/special/worse-climate

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/opinion/sunday/is-this-the-end.html?hp

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/11/27/1241161/senator-inhofe-and-the-heartland-institute-roll-out-underwhelming-campaign-to-slash-the-epa/

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/11/26/1219981/new-scientist-7-reasons-climate-change-is-even-worse-than-we-thought/

Greenland Ice Sheet on Verge of Rapid Melt

Image

Greenland is beginning to succumb to amplifying climate feedbacks. In short, what this means, is rising seas and the loss of one of Earth’s key cooling mechanisms.

According to polar researchers, Greenland is poised to break melt records again this year and is fast approaching a dangerous ‘tipping point’ after which the ice sheet will go into rapid decline. These research findings not only show record melt, but also a rapid reduction in the reflectivity of the ice sheet. Loss of reflectivity is critical because the primary reason the ice sheet remains cool is due to its ability to reflect solar radiation. Now, a surface covered with melt lakes and soot is absorbing more of the sun’s light and heat, heralding the beginning of rapid melt.

The primary driver of the Greenland melt, however, is human greenhouse gas emissions. Just this year, some places in the Arctic measured CO2 at records of over 400 ppm. Average CO2 worldwide is currently near 397 ppm. This is well above the safe range recommended by scientists at 350 ppm.

In the geologic past, when CO2 has reached 400 ppm, sea levels have tended to rise anywhere from 15 to 75 feet. Substantial melt in Greenland could contribute massive volumes of water to the world’s oceans, speeding sea level rise as CO2 heats the world. Such an event would likely make current scientific estimates of 1-4 feet of sea level rise by the end of this century seem extremely conservative, especially considering the fact that the same scientists expect CO2 to measure between 600 and 900 ppm CO2 and up to 11 degrees Fahrenheit additional warming by the end of this century.

It is important to note that there is no record of CO2 rise occurring at such a rapid pace in all the Earth’s history. Similar increases in CO2 have tended to occur over the course of a thousand years or more. The current rapid increase in CO2 caused by human greenhouse gas emissions is an order of magnitude faster and, therefore, much more dangerous. Both the oceans and the climate system have little or no time to respond to this rapid forcing. With such an unprecedented increase of such powerful, heat-trapping, gasses we should expect rapid, violent, and unpredictable changes to the world’s climate, oceans, weather, and glaciers.

Image

Links: http://www.meltfactor.org/blog/?p=476

https://robertscribbler.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/arctic-sea-ice-melt-methane-release-shows-amplifying-feedbacks-from-human-caused-climate-change/

Please help support our continuing efforts.

Please help support our continuing efforts.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: