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

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

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

copernicus-observatory

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

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

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

Apparent Record Methane Spike in the Hourly Readings at Barrow

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

hourly-methane-spike

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

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

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

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

Conditions in Context

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

ch4-trend

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

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

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

Links:

NOAA ESRL

All About Frozen Ground

The Arctic Turns Ugly

Hydrate Catastrophe Unlikely

The Copernicus Observatory

Brian Brettschneider

Toward Improved Discussions: Methane

An Update on Fracking Emissions

Cosmos

Hat tip to Griffin

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Climate Change Denying Donald Trump Aims to Scrap Landmark Paris Treaty

“Earth’s 2015 surface temperatures were the warmest since modern record keeping began in 1880.” — NASA.

“America’s leadership in Paris has put the world on the path to a clean energy future that will create jobs and save lives.” — Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” — Donald Trump.

****

In late 2015, at the Paris Climate Summit (COP 21), the world made history by agreeing to rapid carbon emissions reductions in an effort to prevent catastrophic climate change. The Summit, which has earned criticism from climate activists claiming its resulting treaty doesn’t go far enough and attacks from a fossil fuel industry which would necessarily be phased out as the global community pushes for a transition to low and zero carbon energy sources, forged the strongest international climate treaty yet. As such, it represented a huge leap forward in global climate policy.

(“You’ve Been Trumped” Trailer highlights Trump’s bullying of the Scottish people and fighting to take down wind farms in his push to build a golf course in Scotland. See also — Injurious to the American People.)

As the treaty was being hammered out in Paris, COP 21 quickly became a central topic of debate in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Republicans, who have made a brand name out of pandering for fossil fuel corporate campaign dollars by making ever-more outrageous public professions of climate change denial, practically tripped over each other in their efforts to denounce the treaty.

Ted Cruz, the main contender to Trump, held what could best be described as a circus of climate change denial on the floor of Congress while the Paris Summit was unfolding. Chris Christie — who was still in the race at the time, but now appears to be Trump’s most likely VP candidate — blithely stated “There’s no climate crisis.” Not to be outdone, Trump coined a new conspiracy theory. Fanning both the flames of climate change denial and US workers’ fears of losing jobs to the Chinese he outrageously claimed “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” As if all the climate scientists in the world were somehow involved in some sort of secret deal with the Chinese to wreck US manufacturing. As if wind, solar and electric vehicles didn’t represent a massive new avenue for US manufacturing growth and a potential for jobs expansion not seen since the middle of the 20th Century.

Today, as the Presidential Primaries began to enter their final races, Trump apparently decided that his blanket assertion that climate scientists were involved in shady deals with the Chinese probably wasn’t going to cut it. Making a herculean effort to issue a more serious statement on Paris, Trump today claimed that he would seek to renegotiate the treaty or to withdraw from it altogether. Since the US has already committed to the treaty — pledging to reduce carbon emissions by between 26 and 28 percent through 2030 — Trump’s new claims could be taken only slightly more seriously than his earlier Chinese global conspiracy allegations. For even in the event that he is elected, he would have difficulty withdrawing as that process would take five years and much of the action had already been locked in.

NASA temperature graph

(As this NASA graphic shows, 2015 was the hottest year on record. If current trends hold, 2016 will be significantly hotter at near 1.3 C above the 1880-1899 preindustrial baseline. Donald Trump doesn’t believe the scientists at NASA are telling the truth. And he has pledged to attempt to withdraw or renegotiate a critical international agreement aimed at reducing the rate of future temperature increases. Image source: NASA.)

What we should seriously consider, however, is Trump’s potential to wreck a path of ongoing emissions reductions that has been carefully crafted over the past 8 years. Trump’s statements should instead be interpreted as a signaled intent to harm the spirit of global cooperation on carbon emissions reductions that the US — in its Paris leadership during late 2015 — engendered. Trump casts blame on the Chinese, makes false claims that US commitments already in place are hurtful to the US economy, and appears ready to open a war on ramping rates of renewable energy adoption in the US. Harmful words considering the fact that renewable energy now creates five times more jobs than coal and that hundreds of US cities rely on healthy oceans, stable coastlines and predictable growing seasons for their own economic well-being.

Regarding Trump’s statement, Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said today in the Guardian:

“This is another example of Trump’s dangerous lack of judgement and the very real impacts it could have for all of us. Trump now not only denies the science of climate change, but also the politics and economics of it. America’s leadership in Paris has put the world on the path to a clean energy future that will create jobs and save lives. Fortunately, Trump’s rhetoric is not going to stop the Paris agreement, nor should it given the benefits of action and the costs of ignorance.”

Trump’s words engender and epitomize what has been an ongoing effort by him, and his republican allies, to spread climate ignorance and to prevent helpful climate action. In essence, Trump is pledging to block what is now a building global effort to save lives and prevent harm. An effort that every person of conscience and right mind should now be undertaking.

Links:

Injurious to the American People

Cruz Takes a Stand Against Science

Chris Christie: There’s No Climate Change

Trump Paris Statement Shows that 2016 is Most Important Election Yet

NASA

Trump Wouldn’t be Able to Derail Paris Deal

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Caroline

Melt Expanding into East Antarctica as Nansen Ice Shelf Crack Produces 20 Kilometer Long Iceberg

Ever since 1999 a gigantic crack has been growing in the Nansen Ice Shelf in East Antarctica. By 2014, expansion of the crack accelerated. As of early 2016, the crevice had grown to 40 kilometers in length. Flooded by melt along the Ice Shelf’s warming surface and weakened by the heating of ocean waters from below, on April 7th, according to ESA reports, this East Antarctic Ice Shelf produced an immense 20 kilometer long iceberg. A towering block of ice covering an area larger than Manhattan floating on out toward the world’s shipping lanes.

Nansen Ice Shelf Fracture

(Surface melt water flooding into a great crack along the Nansen Ice Shelf. Large volumes of melt water flooding into ice shelf cracks forces them to widen even as they dive toward union with the warming waters below. Image source. ESA.)

The Nansen Ice Shelf, before this most recent very large iceberg calving event, was a 10 mile wide and 30 mile long ice shelf that buttressed the Presley and Reeve Glaciers of East Antarctica. It abuts the north side of the Drygalski Ice Tongue, and runs out from Mount Nansen just inland of the coast of Victoria Land, Antarctica. And it’s yet another large shelf of ice that appears to be facing severe weakening as global average temperatures are driven above 1 C warmer than those experienced during the late 19th Century by an ongoing and reckless fossil fuel emission.

Nansen occupies a region of the world that has come under increasingly intense observation due to a number of scientific studies highlighting its accelerating rates of melt and a related risk of rapidly rising global sea levels.  Human-forced heating of the world’s ocean has caused waters warm enough to accelerate glacial melt to encroach upon Antarctica from the Southern Ocean. These warmer waters are drawn along beneath the floating ice shelves as fresh melt water flooding out along the ocean surface generates a landward-moving bottom current. These warmer waters eventually push beneath the ice shelves — eating away at their undersides.

Nansen Ice Shelf Fracture

(Massive ice berg breaks away from the Nansen Ice Shelf on April 7th in this ESA satellite shot.)

In West Antarctica, glaciers are seen as especially vulnerable. One region containing the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers — alone capable of increasing global sea levels by 3-6 feet — is experiencing 3-4 meters of melt along the undersides of ice shelves each year. Meanwhile, the Pine Island Glacier’s grounding line — the point upon which the floating ice shelf is anchored — has retreated more than 31 kilometers further into Antarctica.

As ice shelves and glaciers melt from below, more of the glacial mass is floated away from the main ice mass. And since West Antarctica has a retrograde slope, more warm ocean water comes flooding in beneath the glaciers. As more ice calves off the glacial faces, ice fronts along the ocean become taller. The brittle ice cannot retain structural integrity for long and ever taller ice faces produce swifter and swifter rates of collapse into the ocean. On the surface, warmer conditions cause rivers of melt water to flow into cracks. The extreme weight of the water flooding these cracks serves as a kind of wedge — widening the cracks and shoving sea-facing sections along the cracks into the ocean.

Antarctic glacial melt

(Though the most rapid rates of glacial melt dominate the Antarctic Peninsula and the region near the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers, increasing rates of volume loss from Antarctic ice shelves have been creeping into a section of East Antarctica near the Nansen Ice Shelf along the coastline of the Ross Sea [just below where the abbreviation DRY for Drygalski Ice Tongue appears on the map]. With global average temperatures now exceeding 1 C above pre-industrial, we can expect melt and net volume loss to expand along the Antarctic coastline. Image source: Science.)

East Antarctica, a region occupied by Nansen, has been seen as less vulnerable to melt from human-forced warming than West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula. That said, increasing melt rates have progressed on into much of the Ross Sea coastal region. Though the current very large calving event at Nansen appears to have taken place within the expected time-frame (once every 30 years), a context of melt is beginning to encroach. For almost all glaciers along this section of East Antarctica show increasing rates of ice loss.

Links:

Nansen Gives Birth to Two Icebergs

Widespread, Rapid Grounding Line Retreat at Pine Island Glacier

Volume Loss From Antarctic Ice Shelves is Accelerating

The Nansen Ice Shelf

The Drygalski Ice Tongue

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

 

June Snow Melt Brings July Arctic Sea Ice Drop-off

It’s a pretty well established theory. If snow over the Northern Hemisphere land and sea ice masses substantially melts during May and June, it can tend to set up a general weather pattern that is conducive to large-scale reductions of the Arctic sea ice come July, August and September.

Arctic Sea Ice in ragged condition during mid July

(Arctic sea ice in very ragged condition by July 19, 2015. A situation born of a continuous Greenland and Central Arctic high pressure ridge setting up warm air build-ups and a sea ice-flushing dipole weather pattern. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Arctic High Pressure, Heat, Collapsing the Sea Ice

And, during June, we saw just this kind of trend emerge. Arctic heatwaves over both the Continental land masses and the Arctic sea ice resulted in a rapid melting of snow cover. Heatwaves fed by massive bulges in the Northern Hemisphere Jet Stream, particularly along the now-famous Ridiculously Resilient Ridge over what is today an amazing (horrific) hot zone of Northeastern Pacific surface waters. El Nino and Positive PDO played their role too, kicking up the hot zones and the ridge to ever greater intensity. An atmospheric and ocean synergy in a 1 C hotter than 1880s context that kept hurling more and more heat into the Arctic environs. Melting more snow and setting the stage for a potential sea ice massacre to come.

By early July there were indications that just such an event may be on the way. A ‘heat dome’ type high pressure system had become well established over the Greenland side of the High Arctic. And for the past three weeks now, this high has remained entrenched. A persistent weather pattern that has allowed more sunlight to hit the sea ice during periods of peak insolation, a pattern that compacts sea ice in the Central Arctic, a pattern that draws storms into the Siberian side of the Arctic to chew away at the ice edge, and a pattern, that overall, drives the ice inexorably toward its Atlantic Ocean flush valve in the Fram Strait.

Arctic Heat

(Hot to record hot conditions have remained in place over the Arctic Ocean throughout July. Image source: NSIDC)

All this extra heat, transport, compaction and storms chewing away at the sea ice edge has finally started to take a very serious toll. As of today, sea ice extent measures had dropped from 7th to 10th lowest on record to 6th to 7th lowest. Area has remained at 4th to 5th lowest on record for the date. Meanwhile volume in the DMI measure has dropped to 2nd lowest on record.

Most charts now are starting to show a steep ‘cliff’ type rate of decline indicative of rapid sea ice collapse. This is particularly true in NSIDC’s Charctic and Cryosphere Today’s sea ice graphs which now show both extent and area lines plunging at rates that will rapidly cross new thresholds if they continue over the coming days.

Sea Ice Concentration in a Rough State

But perhaps most disturbing of all are the indicators that are now showing up in nearly all of the visual concentration monitors. Uni Bremen sea ice concentration continues to look like a massacre on the Pacific side. NSIDC doesn’t appear to be much better. But Cryosphere Today takes the cake for an overall display of sea ice weakness that, on the 19th (updated as the CT measure used earlier ended up being a bit off), looked nearly as bad as on the same day during the record melt year of 2012:

2012 to 2015 Comparison

(Comparison of July 19, 2015 and July 19, 2012 shows 2015 looking nearly as bad as 2012 in the concentration measure. Image source: Cryosphere Today.)

Comparing the left frame image with the MODIS satellite shot at the top of this post, we find confirmation of an overall, very weak sea ice state. Concentration throughout the Arctic appears low. This is especially true on the Beaufort, Chukchi and East Siberian Sea side (see MODIS shot at bottom of post). But extensive weakness and low concentration appears to pervade the entire ice mass. Zooming in on the sea ice surface, we find that some of this low concentration is possible to confirm. The entire Arctic is now full of broken floes, polynya and melt ponds.

Though it is also possible that this extensive melt ponding (also a feature that weakens sea ice) may have kicked the Crysosphere Today concentration sensor a bit into the extreme scale (corrected during the past 24 hours), the 2012-to-2015 comparison above is still apples to apples. And what’s a bit disturbing about this comparison is the fact that much of the concentration in red (55 to 70 percent) in the 2012 measure completely melted out at the ocean surface by mid September of that year. More notably, perhaps, is the fact that the Cryosphere Today concentration measure is, at least in part, confirmed by the US Navy ARCc Concentration model which has now begun to pick up some of the earlier predicted rapid melt in the observational ensemble:

US Navy Concentration

US Navy Concentration Forecast

(Sea ice massacre starting to show up in the US Navy ARCc model daily observations [top frame] and continues to be predicted in the 30 day history and 7 day forecast [bottom frame]. Image source: US Navy.)

Above, we see very low sea ice concentration practically anywhere outside the 80 degree North Latitude line. Most notably, concentration is very thin and rapidly weakening in the Beaufort, Chukchi, East Siberian, and Laptev Seas. And the seven day forecast shows very rapid melt throughout all these regions with the low concentration bulge beginning to invade north of the 80 degree line on the Laptev and ESS side in particularly troubling fashion.

Forecast — Continued Rapid Melt, Some Records May be Threatened

So the question, going forward, is — what next? And it appears that the sea ice is being prepped for continued rapid to accelerating melt over at least the next 7-10 days. Seven day forecasts show the ridge remaining on the Greenland side of the Arctic throughout the period. A position that will continue the current melt, transport and ice weakening regime. Longer range, ten day, ECMWF forecasts find the high shifting more toward a strong ‘heat dome’ located in the Central Arctic with a somewhat weaker high remaining over Greenland — a minor variation of the current ice-weakening state that may slow down ice export but leave compaction, melt ponding, heat build-up, and ice edge weakening due to storms in tact.

Very weak sea ice

(Sea ice throughout the Beaufort, Chukchi, ESS and Laptev is very weak. Can it survive another 10 days of the Greenland/Central Arctic heat dome? Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Due to this weather forecast and due to some observations beginning to come in line with ARCc model runs, we cannot rule out a very rapid melt and recession of sea ice along a broad arc running all the way from the Canadian side to East-Central Siberia. The sea ice is visibly very weak there. Perhaps the weakest we’ve ever seen it for this time of year. Ice that will continue to be pulled poleward by the highs that are forecast to remain in place. Ice that will run into weakened, melt pond invaded ice — a paltry respite for its retreat. And ice that will continue to be harried by edge storms and an influx of much hotter than normal air and water from the Pacific Ocean side. It’s a rapid melt risk that calls into effect the potential that some old sea ice area, extent, and volume records may be challenged or broken — probably not 2012’s all time low marks, but more possibly 2011 or 2007.

It’s, overall, a very tenuous situation for sea ice, one that is continuing to be fed by a growing El Nino and still firmly entrenched RRR to the south. So the evolution of sea ice melt over the next few weeks will likely be a critical game-maker for the state of Arctic Sea ice melt and the overall story of Arctic Sea Ice decline in this sad age of human-forced climate change.

UPDATED JULY 21, 2015

Links:

LANCE-MODIS

NSIDC

US Navy

Cryosphere Today

Uni Bremen

June Arctic Heatwave Takes Down Northern Hemisphere Snow Cover

Halfway to 2 C

Arctic Heatwave Pummels Sea Ice in Early July

See Beaufort and Northwest Passage Melt Progress Over at The Arctic Sea Ice Blog

(Please support public, non-special interest based science like the work conducted by the national snow and sea ice monitors, NOAA and NASA. Without their ongoing work, this analysis and commentary would not be possible.)

Greenland Melt Extent Breaks 50% on July 4; 2 Standard Deviation Line Shattered Yet Again

These days — in the age of the fossil-fueled hothouse — it’s never good news when a high pressure system forms over Greenland during Summer.

Human dumping of carbon into the atmosphere has forced warming over the last remaining great Northern Hemisphere ice sheet at a rate of about 0.5 degrees Celsius each decade. A constant rain of soot from human industry and from increasingly prevalent and intense Arctic wildfires has painted the ice sheet dark, lowering its ability to reflect 24 hours of incoming radiation from the Summer sun. And the result is that each Summer, when the skies clear and high pressure systems form over the ailing Greenland ice, you end up getting these huge surface melt spikes.

Greenland smoke

(Smoke from record Alaskan and Canadian wildfire outbreaks traverses Greenland and enters the North Atlantic on July 2 of 2015. Arctic wildfires are intensified by human-caused warming both through the mechanism of added heat and through the reintroduction of long sequestered carbon fuels through permafrost melt which aids in the initiation, intensification and extension of Arctic wildfire burn periods. In essence soil carbon in the form of thawed permafrost and related methane adds to boreal forest, tundra and bog as burn risks. Soot from these fires can then precipitates onto land and sea ice, reducing its ability to reflect the 24 hour Summer Arctic sun. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Generally a big melt spike can be defined as anything greater than 35 percent of Greenland ice surface area. And we’ve had quite a few of these abnormal events in recent years. The worst of which happened in mid Summer of 2012.

During late June and early July of that year, an extreme high amplitude Jet Stream wave generated very warm surface temperatures over the Greenland Ice Sheet. A very warm fog settled over the ice, eating away at it. By July 8th, more than 90 percent of the surface was melting — an event that hasn’t happened in Greenland for more than 100 years. June, July and August of 2013 and 2014 saw similar, though somewhat less intense, Greenland melt spikes. During those years the ice sheet experienced multiple days in which melt covered between 35 and 45 percent of its surface. And though these instances were not as intense as the unprecedented 2012 melting, they did traverse well beyond the 1981 to 2010 average line (an average that itself includes a rapid warming trend) to, in cases, exceed the upper 2 standard deviation margin.

Melting on Greenland surface 2014

(Record Greenland surface melt during 2012 compared to still strong surface melt years of 2013 and 2014. Image source: NSIDC.)

After record 2012 melt, surface melt for Greenland has remained abnormally high — indicating an increased likelihood that more near 100 percent surface melt summer days may not be too far off in the future. The post 2012 environment for Greenland has thus been a period of continued and heightened surface melt. One that appears to be in the process of building up to another big pulse.

50 Percent Melt Threshold Exceeded During July of 2015

The summer of 2015 marks a continuation and intensification of this ominous surface melt trend. After getting off to about an average melt start during April and May, June saw surface warmth build over the Greenland Ice Sheet with melt extents jumping to between 30 and 40 percent of surface area by mid-to-late month. Further warming coincided with massive Alaskan and Canadian wildfires injecting soot plumes into regional airspace and the building of a substantial high pressure ridge over Greenland. These factors helped enable further atmospheric and ice warming — shoving surface melt above the 50 percent line by July 4th.

Greenland melt extent 2015

(Major Greenland melt spike indicated on July 1-5 in the NSIDC surface melt extent graph. Image source: NSIDC.)

This puts 2015 Greenland surface melt in a range well above 2013 and 2014, with the first week of July already exceeding 2012 melt for that period.

Over the next seven days, models predict a larger warming of the overall Arctic environment even as a high pressure system and associated ridge remains entrenched across Greenland. This predicted weather pattern will tend to lock in significantly warmer than 20th Century average temperatures. That said, forecast highs do not yet indicate a substantial risk for a repeat of 2012’s near 100 percent surface melt. However, projected high temperatures do show some potential that melt percentages are likely to continue to range between 40 and 60 percent surface melt over coming days with the highest risk for melt spikes occurring on July 6th, 7th and 8th.

It is worth noting that we are now in the midst of a substantial Greenland melt spike, one that we’ll continue to monitor over coming days for further developments.

Links:

LANCE MODIS

NSIDC

Dark Snow

GFS Forecast Summary

Record Alaskan Wildfire Outbreak

Hat Tip to Wili

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to DT Lange

The Keystone Pipeline, Arctic Methane Eruptions, and Why Human Fossil Fuel Burning Must Swiftly Halt

Human fossil fuel emissions heating the Earth’s airs, waters, and ice.

From historic droughts around the world and in places like California, Syria, Brazil and Iran to inexorably increasing glacial melt; from an expanding blight of fish killing and water poisoning algae blooms in lakes, rivers and oceans to a growing rash of global record rainfall events; and from record Arctic sea ice volume losses approaching 80 percent at the end of the summer of 2012 to a rapidly thawing permafrost zone explosively emitting an ever-increasing amount of methane and CO2, it’s already a disastrous train-wreck.

Since the 1880s, humans have emitted nearly 600 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. This vast emission has spiked atmospheric CO2 and CO2e (when all other heat trapping gasses are included) levels to above 400 parts per million and 481 parts per million respectively. According to climate sensitivity and paleoclimate science, these volumes are already enough to increase global temperatures by between 1.5 to 2 C this century and 3-4 C long term.

At the current carbon emissions rate of more than 10 billion tons each year and growing at around 2 percent, humans will have emitted a trillion tons of carbon by 2041. Under business as usual fossil fuel burning, more than 2.5 trillion tons of greenhouse gas trapping carbon will hit the atmosphere before the end of this century. It’s a terrible blow we will sorely want to avoid. And one we can only circumvent if we start working to radically curtail carbon emissions now.

Already, we can see instances of emissions-driven climate change and related harm. But what we see now is minor compared to what the future holds in store. We’ve warmed the Earth by more than 0.8 degrees Celsius since the 1880s, and if human emissions do not swiftly come to a halt, we could easily see warming of 4, 5, 7 C or more by the end of this century alone.

Probability of stabilizing below 2 C

(Probability of exceeding 2 C warming this Century [equilibrium climate sensitivity] given a certain level of human greenhouse gas forcing. Note that this study did not include feedbacks from Arctic carbon stores. Also note that current CO2 equivalent forcing without aerosols is around 481 CO2e and with the aerosol negative feedback is around 425 CO2e. Also note that equilibrium climate sensitivity is about half that implied by Earth Systems Sensitivity over the long term [many centuries]. For a final note, consider that the aerosol negative feedback is temporary. Image source: IPCC.)

What Does Warming Look Like If We Continue To Burn Fossil Fuels?

We talk about warming in terms of degrees Celsius and gigatons of carbon burned. But what does it all really mean?

Droughts rampaging through the lower to mid latitudes as the US, Southern Europe, India, the Middle East, Brazil, Australia, the Sahel and sections of China rapidly turn to desert. Stratified oceans turning into extinction engines for fish and marine life, fresh water poisoning due to toxic algae blooms, oceans emitting increasing volumes of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas into the air. Fires the likes of which we have never seen in the far north as the permafrost burns and methane leaks and explodes from the thawing earth. Floods raging from an atmosphere whose moisture cycling has increased by 30 percent or more. Sea level rise rapid enough to swallow cities and coastlines over the course of decades. Devastating storms emerging from the regions closest to large glacial melt events bordering Greenland and West Antarctica. And all around, more and more people migrating, trying to find a place that is not being gobbled up by desert, incessantly burning, ravaged by storms, flooded, or poisoned by toxic air and water.

Very Large Algae Bloom Barents

(Very large bloom of micro-organisms north of Scandinavia in Arctic waters on August 14, 2014. Arctic waters are rich in nutrients. As they warm and as the sea ice retreats, larger areas are freed for invasion by major blooms of algae and other microbes. Large enough blooms can rob the ocean of oxygen, produce harmful toxins, result in large fish kills, and in the end create dangerous bottom conditions favoring microbial hydrogen sulfide production. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

That’s the dark future we inch closer to with every 0.1 C degree of further warming, with each additional megaton of fossil fuel and industrial carbon hitting the atmosphere.

And it is in this context that we must judge our actions and those of our leaders in reducing or in failing to reduce a nightmare that now grows in intensity with each passing year. A nightmare we create and continue to contribute to each time we light a fossil fuel driven fire.

Quibbling over Keystone Carbon Emissions When Tar Sands is the Real Issue

50 billion tons. That’s the amount of extractable, burnable carbon that likely sits beneath what were once the green forests of Alberta and are now little more than a sprawling waste of smoking pits covering tens of square miles. It’s more than 8 percent of the carbon we’ve already dumped into the atmosphere and it’s a volume of carbon we simply cannot afford to burn.

1.7 million barrels of crude oil per day now comes out of a place that Tolkien would likely describe as a mechanized orc warren. Keystone would boost that total to 2.2 million barrels per day, enrich the pit owners, and lay the groundwork for an ever-more-rapid exploitation of this dangerous pile of atmospheric heat-venom.

This week, a recent study out of Stockholm’s Environment Institute found that the pipeline itself would result in at least 4 times the carbon emissions currently estimated by the US State Department. This, well-duh, assessment, came as pit mining cheerleaders such as the American Petroleum Institute and Canadian Industry groups marshaled yet another effort to ram the pipeline through and boost global carbon emissions all in one go.

IDL TIFF file

(Athabasca’s sprawling tar sands operation as seen from space in 2009. The brown ribbon cutting through center frame is the Athabasca river. Image source: NASA’s Earth Observatory.)

In the end, all fossil fuels are terrible, adding to the global nightmare described above. But tar sands are between 12 and 20 percent more carbon intensive than even regular oil, especially when burning of the, worse than coal, coke bi-product is taken into account.

Arctic Methane Explosions — A Result of Human Warming

On the other side of the Arctic from the smoking fossil fuel pits of Alberta, nature is in the process of excavating a new, and no less terrifying, kind of pit. For from the Siberian tundra this summer were discovered three gaping wounds in the earth. Black holes shaped by impressive charges of methane blasting up from beneath the thawing permafrost.

All around the holes were ejected material. A kind of reverse meteor strike or methane volcano in which frozen methane trapped in clathrate beneath the thawing permafrost warmed enough to destabilize. The thawed methane built up in pressure pockets 250 feet or more below ground. Eventually, the pressure became too great and the permafrost overburden erupted, ejecting both earth and methane into the air above.

Eyewitnesses described eruption scenes where the Earth at first began to smoke. The smoke continued to bleed from the ground. Then, there was a loud flash and bang. When the smoke cleared, the methane eruption craters were plainly visible — a rim of sloped and ejected earth surrounding a black, gun-barrel like structure tunneling deep into the ground.

Scientists investigating the sites of these explosions found methane readings of 9.8% at the bottoms of the holes. These are high enough levels to burn if exposed to an ignition source — an atmospheric reading 50,000 times the current and already highly elevated ‘normal’ level.

Russia Siberia Crater

(One of three freakish craters caused by eruptions of methane from Siberia’s thawing tundra. Image source: Moscow Times.)

The Arctic permafrost alone contains about 1.5 trillion tons of carbon. And when it thaws, a portion of that carbon is bound to be released. It will be broken down by microbes and turned into methane in wet soil. In drier soil, it will form a peat like underburden that will slowly release CO2 by decay or, in more violent instances, by burning in one of the ever more powerful wildfires raging through the Arctic during the increasingly hot summers.

Beneath the icy permafrost layer are pockets of frozen methane in the form of clathrates. These structures are not included in the 1.5 trillion ton carbon estimate for permafrost. They are an addition of likely billions more tons of carbon. And, this year, we can now see a physical mechanism for their continued release — warming and thaw of the permafrost overburden.

The Human-Arctic Feedback Link: Why We Absolutely Must Stop Burning Fossil Fuels, And Swiftly

It is estimated that 1.5-2 degrees Celsius worth of global warming (5-8 C Arctic warming) is enough to thaw all the permafrost and eventually release a substantial portion of the carbon stored in and beneath it. For the Arctic warms much faster than the globe as a whole. In tundra regions, rates of warming over the past three decades have been 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade or more. In the region where the methane craters were discovered, recent temperatures at 5 degrees Celsius above average, during summer heatwaves in 2013 and 2014, have been reported.

As a result of past and current human greenhouse gas emissions, we have already locked in a substantial and significant rate of Arctic carbon emission feedback. And the speed of the Arctic carbon store release will likely determine how rapidly and whether other global carbon stores also respond.

A 2011 survey of 41 Arctic researchers found that rapidly reducing human greenhouse emissions would limit the volume of carbon feedback from the Arctic to 10% of the annual current human emission (or about 1 billion tons of carbon per year) by the end of the 21rst Century, but continue that emission for centuries to come (current Arctic carbon emissions are likely in the range of 30 million tons of methane and 100 million tons of CO2 each year). This is bad news. For we have already burned enough fossil fuel to keep warming on the trajectory to hit 1.5 to 2.5 C this century and 3-5 C or somewhat more long term — a bad result, and one that would likely require extensive human deployment of atmospheric carbon capture technologies. But it is far better than the alternative.

For continued fossil fuel burning would be enough to force a release of Arctic carbon stores equal to 35% or more of the human annual emission, or about 3.5 to 4 gigatons of carbon each year. By itself, this emission would easily represent a mini-runaway pushing the business as usual burning level of 800 ppm CO2 and 1,000 ppm CO2e by end century to 1,400 ppm CO2 + over the course of centuries and likely resulting in 4-7 C + warming this century and 12-14 C + worth of warming long term. A hothouse extinction event to rival or potentially exceed the worst seen in the geological record.

We simply must stop fossil fuel burning as it risks triggering ever greater carbon releases from stores around the globe and especially in the Arctic. In this way, stopping fossil fuel burning or failing to stop that burning is directly related to the ferocity and intensity of the Earth systems response we set off. And halting the Keystone Pipeline is a good approach to curtailing future carbon emission increases. A good start to a long, hard road ahead.

Links:

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

Nature: Human Warming Pushing Entire Greenland Ice Sheet Into the Ocean

A Song of Flood and Fire

Toledo Algae Bloom Still Ongoing

2012’s Realization of the End of Arctic Sea Ice

The Arctic Methane Monster Exhales: Third Tundra Crater Found

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

How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?

IPCC 4th Assessment Report

LANCE-MODIS

Terrible Thunderstorms of Fire

How Global Warming Wrecks the Jet Stream, Amps up the Hydrological Cycle

Impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline on Global Markets and Climate Change

NASA’s Earth Observatory

Moscow Times

The Really Scarey Thing About Those Jaw-Dropping Siberian Craters

Methane Flammability

Methane and Frozen Ground

High Risk of Permafrost Thaw

 

 

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)

IEA’s Miami in Boston Comment Illustrates How Global Warming Presents an Out of Context Problem

Recently, the IEA, one of the world’s premier energy watch-dogs, warned that if the world didn’t work to vastly curtail greenhouse gas emissions soon, then global warming would lead to “Miami in Boston.”

It’s important to take a step back and think about this notion for a moment.

First, the IEA is looking at world energy consumption. They see coal use going up. They see natural gas use going up. They’re looking at the volumes of CO2 produced. They’re looking at trend lines. And what they’re seeing is 1000 ppm CO2 by the end of this century.

The IEA isn’t stupid. They know that basic atmospheric physics tells us that 1000 ppm CO2 means that the world will end up warming by about 11 degrees Fahrenheit. And doing a little simple math, you end up with Miami-like temperatures in Boston.

It’s a simple analogy and it gives people a small sliver of the problem we’re facing in a bite-size, easy to understand, way. But there is a real problem with this analogy. And it is simply this: if temperatures rise by 11 degrees before the end of this century it is highly doubtful that either Miami or Boston will still exist as anything but hazards for maritime navigation. Such a rapid rise in temperature means an equally rapid rise in sea level that would likely wipe both cities off the map.

And this is not to blame the IEA. Were the IEA to make a claim that it is likely that Boston and Miami wouldn’t remain as viable cities by the end of this century it would probably lose a good degree of credibility. The possibility of an 11 degree temperature rise is an incredible enough notion to tangle with in itself. And a typically conservative body like the IEA is having to do severe contortions just to publish a factual assessment of the impacts of human greenhouse gas emissions. And so we get the Miami/Boston comparison instead.

But this doesn’t detract from the fact that the IEA and most other international bodies, including the IPCC, are soft pedaling the issue of climate change. And they couldn’t really do otherwise. The issue, itself, is so large, powerful, and complex, the forces involved so vast, that it is difficult for governing bodies to create context for managing expectation. In short, our entire context, should we continue on this path, will change in radical and unpredictable ways. And human beings, in general, don’t really know how to cope with this kind of severe disorientation.

Miami in Boston is difficult enough. Miami and Boston both under water before the end of this century, though more factually correct, is much more difficult a notion to swallow. And so the terrible nature of a future where fossil fuel emissions continue is cloaked.

The IEA is making the correct assertions when it comes to policy. To a certain extent, they can see the writing on the wall. But based on their statements, I don’t really think they’ve come to grips with the true nature of the problem that is global warming. 11 degrees is an abstract measure on paper. But, in the real world, it means radical change. It means oceans of water vapor in the air. It means mountains of ice melted. It means vastly expanded seas. It means much of the United States is the Sahara Desert.

And 1000 parts per million CO2 brings with it its own horrors. Not the least of which is an acidified ocean that places many ocean species at extreme risk of extinction.

And all these changes don’t begin to take into account the risk of runaway Global Warming that Hansen and others have warned of.

No. I don’t think the IEA got the context right. But who can blame them. It’s a tough context to grapple with. And they’ve got that immense elephant of fossil fuel special interests sitting on their chests, keeping them from speaking loudly enough for the rest of us to hear. If there’s anything that’s been illustrated over the past four years, it’s the egregious level of influence these special interest groups exert on governments and policy-makers around the world, to the detriment of us all. But that’s also a context problem. A context problem for the fossil fuel interests who are either ignorant or callous to the terrible future they’re foisting on the rest of us.

All that said, if we’re going to start dealing with this problem, we’ll need to start being more honest about it. It is just as terrible a threat as global nuclear war, perhaps worse. That’s what we’re dealing with and we really need to start telling the truth. Miami in Boston doesn’t even begin to cut it.

Links:

http://www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/news/2012/july/name,28957,en.html

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