A Beautiful Machine to Change the World — Model 3 to Transform Global Automobile Markets, Open Pathway For Rapid Energy Transition

“The Tesla Model 3 is here, and it is the most important vehicle of the century. Yes, the hyperbole is necessary.” — Motor Trend

“The arrival of Tesla’s Model 3 signals a new chapter in automotive history, one that erases 100-plus years of the gas engine and replaces it with technology, design, and performance hot enough to make electric vehicles more than aspirational – to make [electric vehicles (EVs)] inspirational.” — Wired.

“[T]here isn’t anybody who’s going to sit in the driver’s seat of this car and not want it. The Model 3 stokes immediate desire, and the lust lingers. That truly changes everything.” — Business Insider.

(The Tesla Model 3 entered low rate initial production in July of 2017. There has likely never been a more anticipated, desired, or better reviewed automobile. Image source: Tesla. )

*****

More than half a million. 

That’s the number of pre-orders Tesla’s Model 3 has racked up since its 2016 product announcement and through its July 2017 launch. And it’s possible that there’s never been a car that’s so anticipated, so desired by the public. People are literally clamoring for this best-in-class, long-range, all-electric vehicle. Elon Musk is getting harassed on twitter by followers anxious to know when their Model 3 will be ready for purchase. And it’s questionable if Elon’s plan to go through ‘mass production hell’ to reach 500K per year annual production rates by end 2018 will ever come close to satiating demand for what is far more than just an amazing automobile (Tesla reports it is still accumulating reservations at a rate of 1,800 per day net, or more than 12,000 per week).

If we were to tap into what drives Model 3 customers, what fuels this particularly virulent brand of Tesla-mania, we’d probably find a dynamic combination of desire, aspiration, and fear. Desire for what is hands-down an absolutely awesome vehicle. Aspiration to contribute to a public good through a meaningful purchase. And a growing fear that we need to move very swiftly away from fossil fuels to confront the rising crisis that is human-caused climate change.

Beautiful Machines

The vehicle itself is just simply extraordinary. For 35,000 dollars you can get a car with a 220 mile all-electric range. For 44,000, the car’s renewable legs lengthen still further to 310 miles. This graceful beast can rocket from 0-60 in less than six seconds. And her interior is wrapped in the kind of bubble cockpit, due to glass roofing, that most fighter pilots would envy. She’s a vehicle that gives a nod to the simplicity of earlier times with her gadget-less dash board. Her liquid exterior a reflection-in-form of the plasma-producing energy of a futuristic, but quietly purring, all-electric drive train.

(Tesla’s beautiful machine launches. Top down view shows iconic glass roof. Image source: Tesla.)

Elon Musk has delivered to us the exact opposite of a clunky automobile made up of all the worst excesses of a stinking smokestack civilization. The Model 3 comes across as a bold and proud creature of air and light. A hopeful machine designed in the pursuit of a better future day, a better way forward.

Changing the World for the Better

And this is what brings us to the heart of the matter. The crux of the reason why hunger for the Model 3 is quite possibly without cure, without limit. People in advanced civilizations these days are tired of being the butt of blame. And they are more than a little worried about what may be coming down the Keystone XL pipeline of climate change. They don’t want to contribute to the great death and harm that is worsening climate disruption with their purchases. They no longer want to be consumers captive to the unforgiving, smog-belching yoke of fossil fuels. They want the vehicular equivalent of the paladin’s white horse. They want to buy into a liberation from an age of pain and heartbreak and endless bad choices with no visible way out. And with each Model 3 purchase — that’s exactly what they are doing.

(Tesla aims for 5,000 vehicle per week Model 3 production ramp by late fall. Image source: Tesla.)

For if Tesla is able to meet this visceral demand for a truly renewable vehicle, if the company is able to ramp up to 20,000 + vehicle per month production rates, it will, by itself, more than double the size of the U.S. Electrical vehicle market in just 1-2 years. The batteries the elegant Model 3 relies on will form a basis for extending the reach of already affordable wind and solar energy (as we are seeing this week in a new wind + battery deal off Massachusetts). And the seismic ground wave produced by the Model 3 will drive a major spike in demand for other, similar electrical vehicles from an expanding array of automakers.

The Model 3 is thus the tip of the spear for speeding an energy transition in the U.S. and in many other countries. And she couldn’t have come at a better time.

Something Rotten With The Climate — January 2015 Comes in As Second Hottest

Hot off the heels of a new global temperature record in 2014, January of 2015 hasn’t missed a beat. Global warmth still rages, as bestirred as a Shakespearean prince outraged at loss and betrayal of a once-constant and steady father.

The month, as many, many months preceding, continued to display a reckless accumulation of heat.

*   *   *   *

According to NASA GISS, January was 0.75 C above the global 20th Century average, or about 0.95 C above 1880s levels. This departure is somewhat above previous second hottest year place-holders — 2002 and 2003 — which both showed an angry 0.71 C rise. It is, however, behind the record-holding January of 2007 which at 0.93 C above the 20th Century average remains the hottest month in the total global surface temperature measure. The first of many to make attempts on the 1 C departure level.

January 2015

(Global Temperature anomaly map as provided by NASA GISS.)

Spatial assessment of hot and cold anomalies showed much of the world with hotter than normal temperatures. In the Northern Hemisphere, cooler temperatures were primarily confined to the Northeastern US, Eastern and Northeastern Canada, and a region through Baffin Bay, Eastern Hudson Bay, and the adjacent Canadian Archipelago. In Austral zones, the heat sink of the Southern Ocean continued to display resilience as near-Antarctic regions also showed slightly cooler than normal departures.

But these were the sole significant zones showing cooler than normal weather. In contrast, a broad belt ranging from the tropics through the sub-tropics showed +0.5 to 2 C temperature departures. But the Northern Hemisphere again showed the most significant heat with Northwestern North America, Asia and Europe all showing extreme temperature anomalies in the range of 2 C to 8.1 C above average.

Arctic amplification also reared over the Beaufort Sea and through the Northern Polar zone with heat anomalies in excess of 2 to 4 degrees C above average and with numerous days in which the entire Arctic displayed +3.5 C or higher departures.

zonal anomalies

(GISS zonal temperature anomalies.)

Zonal anomalies also revealed this trend with a region from 50 to 60 North Latitude showing temperature departures in the range of +2.8 C across the entire Latitudinal belt. Meanwhile, the region of 80 to 90 North was under nearly as strong a departure of +2.5 C above 20th Century averages for that zone. By contrast, the only zonal region with below average temperatures was beyond the 60 degrees South Latitude Line and averaged a rather minor departure of about -0.4 C.

Conditions in Context

The second hottest January on record comes after a Century-long warming trend in which temperaures have risen by an average of about 0.85 C above 1880s levels and about 1.1 C above a low point that occurred around 1910.

Land Ocean Temperature Index

(Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index — GISS/NASA.)

This warming is about a 20 times faster pace than at the end of the last ice age. During that time, it took 10,000 years for the Earth to warm by about 4 degrees Celsius. Over a single Century, we have achieved the equivalent to 1/5 post ice age warming on top of 1880 levels. It is also worth noting that recent record warm years in 2014, 2010, and 2005 occurred absent the kind of very strong El Nino that occurred in 1998. Most notably, for 2014, no El Nino was declared at all.

Which shows that for the climate, there is something indeed rotten in Denmark — and everywhere else for that matter.

Links:

NASA’s Global Surface Temperature Analysis

NOAA: First 10 Months of 2014 Were Hottest Recorded

First Ten Months of 2014

(As of mid-October, 2014 had edged out all other years as hottest in the global climate record. With two months still to go, 2014 poses a very strong challenge to previous years. Very warm temperatures continuing through mid November add further support for a potential record breaker for the twelve months ending in December. Image source: NOAA.)

Hot on the heels of NASA’s recent announcement that October of 2014 was tied for hottest on record in its global climate measure, NOAA today also made a two record-breaking announcements.

First, according to NOAA’s measure, global surface temperatures were 0.74 degrees Celsius above average for October. This makes the month the hottest in NOAA’s measure since record keeping began.

Second, as of the middle of October, global temperature averages for the year had edged out all the previous hottest years on record. This makes 2014 the hottest year on record so far with just two months left to go.

Hottest January through October on Record

The second announcement is a critical one. Crucial because it again brings light to the fact that the so-called global warming pause is little more an artifact of cherry picking and over-playing to the influences of decadal natural variability than it is any measure of challenge to an observed 136 year warming 15-20 times more rapid than the warm-up at the end of the last ice age.

Cause for serious concern as this year’s new and increasingly strong challenge to the 2010 record high is coming during a time in which El Nino has not yet developed.

For reference, almost all recent record warm years occurred during the massive ocean-to-atmosphere heat transfer event that is El Nino. Still not so for 2014. Perhaps even more importantly, the cherry of all cherries — the monster El Nino year of 1998 — is gradually getting edged out by ever wider high temperature margins.

Record Hot Year In the Forecast

Record Heat Predicted

(NOAA’s forecast model shows increasing likelihood that 2014 will be a new global high temperature record breaker. Image source: NOAA.)

NOAA forecast models show that it would take a rather substantial cool-down during November and December to keep 2014 off the record books. Any average at or above 0.65 C higher than the 20th Century would place 2014 as the new record holder. Temps at or near current measures showing 0.70 C or higher readings would cement a relatively significant departure of +0.03 to +0.04 C above 2010 and 0.05 to 0.06 C above 1998.

Such an event would be exceptionally significant when one considers that ENSO status has remained just to the warm side of neutral for most of the year.

 

Links:

NOAA’s National Climate Data Center

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center

 

Rains Failing Over India: Feeble 2014 Monsoon Heightens Concerns That Climate Change is Turning A Once-Green Land into Desert

El Nino has yet to be declared. Though signs of the Pacific Ocean warming event abound, they are still in the early stages. But for all the impact on the current Indian Monsoon — the rains this vast sub-continent depends on each year for a majority of its crops — the current pre-El Nino may as well be a monster event comparable to 1998.

For the rains that have come so far have been feeble. By June 18, precipitation totals were more than 50% below the typical amount by this time of year for northern and central India and 45% below average for the country as a whole. A stunted Monsoon that many are saying is about as weak as the devastatingly feeble 2009 summer rains. And with Pacific Ocean conditions continuing to trend toward El Nino, there is concern that this year’s already diminished rains will snuff out entirely by mid-to-late summer, leaving an already drought-wracked India with even less water than before.

Through June 25th, the trend of abnormally frail monsoonal rains continued unabated:

India Monsoon June 25, 2013India Monsoon June 25, 2014

(India cloud cover on June 25, 2013 [left frame] compared to India cloud cover on June 25 of 2014 [right frame]. Note the almost complete lack of storms over India for this year compared to 2013 when almost the entire country was blanketed by rains. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

India’s Rain Pattern Has Changed

It’s not just that 2014 is a bad year for India. It’s that the current weakened monsoon comes at the tail end of a long period in which the rains have increasingly failed. Where in the past it took a strong El Nino to stall the rains, ever-increasing human atmospheric and ocean warming have pushed the threshold for Monsoonal failure ever lower. Now even the hint of El Nino is enough to set off a dry spell. A growing trend of moisture loss that is bound to have more and more severe consequences.

A new study by Stanford University bears out these observations in stark detail. For the yearly monsoon that delivers fully 80 percent of India’s rains has fallen in intensity by more than 10% since 1951. And though a 10% loss may seem relatively minor, year on year, the effects are cumulative. Overall, the prevalence of dry years increased from 1981 to 2011 by 27% and the number of years experiencing 3 or more dry spells doubled.

Meanwhile, though a general drying trend has taken hold, rain that does occur happens in more intense bursts, with more rain falling over shorter periods. These newly intensified storms are more damaging to lands and homes, resulting in both increasing destruction of property while also greatly degrading the land through more intense erosion.

25 Percent of India’s Land is Turning to Desert

Loss of annual monsoonal rains is coming along with a dwindling of water flows from the melting Himalayan glaciers. These two climate change induced drying effects are already having stark impacts.

For according to the Indian Government’s Fifth National Report on Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought, a quarter of India’s land mass is now experiencing desertification even as 32 percent is suffering significant degradation due to heightening dryness and erosion. This amounts to more than 80 million hectares of land facing desertification while more than 100 million hectares are steadily degrading. The report also noted that areas vulnerable to drought had expanded to cover 68% of the Indian subcontinent.

From the report:

Desertification and loss of biological potential will restrict the transformation of dry lands into productive ecosystems. Climate change will further challenge the livelihood of those living in these sensitive ecosystems and may result in higher levels of resource scarcity.

Monsoonal Delay, Weakening Continues

India daily rainfall

(India daily rainfall as of June 26, 2014. Image source: India Monsoon.)

By today, June 26, the long disrupted and weakened monsoon continues to sputter. Moisture flow remains delayed by 1-2 weeks even as the overall volume of rainfall is greatly reduced. Though storms have exploded over some provinces, resulting in flash flooding, much of the country remained abnormally dry. Overall, preliminary negative rainfall departures remained at greater than 40% below average for most of the nation with only five provinces receiving normal rainfall and the remaining 31 receiving either deficient or scant totals.

 

Links:

LANCE-MODIS

National Drought Fears Loom as India Receives Deficient Rainfall

India’s Rain Pattern Has Changed: Researchers Warming of Future of Extreme Weather

A Quarter of India’s Land is Turning Into Desert

India Monsoon

Monsoon at Dead Halt

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

 

 

Human-Caused Climate Change and Desperately Drilling For Water: The Deepening Dust Bowlification of California

There is no relief for poor California.

To the west, a heat dome high pressure system sits its dry and desiccating watch, deflecting storm systems northward toward Canada, Alaska, and, recently, even the Arctic Ocean. It is a weather system that drinks deep of Northwestern Pacific waters heated to 2-4+ C above average by humankind’s extraordinary greenhouse gas overburden. A mountain of dense and far hotter than normal air that is shoving the storm-laden Jet Stream at a right angle away from the US west coast and on up into an Arctic Ocean unprepared for the delivery of such a high intensity heat and moisture flow.

image

(Not one, not two, but three high pressure centers stacking up on June 24, 2014 off the North American West Coast. The highs are indicated by the white, clockwise swirls on this GFS surface graphic. This triple barrel high pressure heat dome represents an impenetrable barrier to storms moving across the Pacific Ocean. You can see one of these storms, represented by the purple, counter-clockwise swirl approaching Alaska and the Aleutians. A second Pacific-originating storm is visible north of Barrow in the Beaufort Sea. Under a typical pattern, these storms would have funneled into the US west coast or skirted the Alaskan Coast before riding into Canada. Storms taking a sharp left turn through Alaska and the Bering Sea into the Arctic is an unprecedented and highly atypical weather pattern. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: NOAA/GFS.)

In the far north, today, at noon local time, in the Mackenzie Delta region of the extreme northwest section of Canada on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, temperatures rose to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, 2-3 degrees hotter than areas of South Dakota and Iowa hundreds of miles to the south. It is a temperature departure 20-25 degrees F above average for this time of year. Far to the south and east, yesterday saw a garden variety pop up thunderstorm turn into a record-shattering rain event for Savannah Georgia, one that dumped 4-10 inches of rain over the region, over-topped ponds, flooded streets, knocked out power and washed out rail lines. In some sections of the city, hourly rates of rainfall were on the order of 4-5 inches. One might expect such a rainfall rate from the most moisture dense and intense tropical storms or hurricanes. The Savannah event was a summer shower driven into a haywire extreme by a heat-facilitated over-loading of the atmosphere with moisture.

What do the west coast blocking pattern, the California Drought, the Mackenzie Delta Arctic heatwave and the Savannah summer shower turned monster storm have in common? Twelve words: hydrological cycle and jet stream patterns wrecked by human caused atmospheric warming.

Three Year Long Drought Intensifies

Californians, at this time, may well be hoping hard for a mutant summer shower like the one that hit Savannah yesterday. But they won’t be getting it anytime soon. The triple barrel high off the US west coast won’t move or let the rains in until something more powerful comes along to knock it out of the way. And the only hope for such an event might come in the form of a monster El Nino this winter. Then, Californians may beg for the rain to stop. But, for now, they’re digging in their heels to fight the most intense drought in at least a hundred years.

California Drought Map

(This week’s California Drought Map provided by the US Drought Monitor. Orange indicates severe drought, red indicates extreme drought, and that brick color spreading from the coast and into California’s Central Valley is what they call exceptional drought. Not a corner of the state is spared severe or higher drought levels, with fully 77% of the state suffering from extreme or exceptional drought.)

With no rain in sight, with the snows all gone from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east, and with both federal and state reservoirs under increasingly more stringent water restrictions, what it means for Californians is incessant drilling. So far this year an estimated 450 million dollars has been spent statewide to plunge ever-deeper wells into the state’s rapidly-dwindling underground aquifers. In regions where a 200 foot well was once considered deep, 600, 800 or even 1000 foot wells are now common.

In total, about 75% of California’s lost water supply has been replaced by what essentially amounts to mining ground water. But the drought mitigating flow can only last for so long. And if the rains don’t come, those sources will first dwindle and then dry up. So California’s agriculture and a decent chunk of its other industry may well be living on borrowed time facilitated by unsustainable drilling for water.

Communities local to the Central Valley region are already facing imminent loss of water supplies. Tom Vanhoff a Chowchilla local noted to CBS in a recent interview:

“I’m in a community out there with about 20 homes. We’re on one deep well ourselves and we lost it two years ago. We were at 200 feet and now we are down to 400 but all these new guys are going down to six, 800 and 1000 feet; it’s going to suck us dry here again pretty soon.”

So for Central Valley residents it’s literally a race to the bottom in the form of who can dig the deepest well the fastest.

Above ground, a once lush landscape is now parched and brittle. Most natives, even the octogenarians, have never seen it this dry. More and more, the productive Central Valley is being described as a dust bowl. In this case, Dust-Bowlification, a term Joe Romm of Climate Progress coined to describe the likely desertification of many regions as a result of human-caused warming, is hitting a tragically high gear for California.

Sierra Nevada No Snow

(Sierra Nevada Mountains in right center frame shows near zero snow cover on June 24 of 2014. Typically, California relies on snow melt to stave off water shortages through dry summers. This year, with drought conditions extending into a third year, snow melt had dwindled to a trickle by mid June. Sattelite Imagery provided by NASA LANCE MODIS.)

Global Warming to Raise Food Prices

For years, scientific models had shown that the US Southwest was vulnerable to increased drought under human-caused warming. Scientists warned that increased community resiliency combined with rapid reductions in global carbon emissions would be necessary to preserve the productiveness of regions vital to the nation.

California is one such region. Its economy, even outside the greater US, is the 8th richest in the world. It is also the US’s largest producer of vegetables, most fruits, and nuts. Other major agricultural production for the state includes meat, fish, and dairy.

Though much of the current drought’s impacts have been mitigated through unsustainable drilling for ground water, US meat and produce prices are expected to rise by another 3-6% due to impacts from the ongoing and intensifying California drought. But so far, major impacts due to large-scale reductions in total acres planted have been avoided. Without the drilling, overall repercussions would have been devastating, as planted areas rapidly dwindled in size. But with wells running dry, time appears to be running out.

Links:

California Drought: Snowmelt’s Path Shows Impacts From Sierra to Pacific

California Drought Poised to Drive up Food Prices as It Worsens

California Drought Turning Central Valley into Dust Bowl

All-Time 24 Hour June Precipitation Record Broken in Savannah Georgia

NOAA/GFS

US Drought Monitor

NASA LANCE MODIS/

Earth Nullschool

Dust-Bowlification

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

 

 

Nature: Human-Destabilized Antarctica Capable of Glacial Outbursts Contributing to Sea Level Rise of 14+ Feet Per Century

“Our new results suggest that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is more unstable than previously considered…” — Peter Clark, Paleoclimatologist at Oregon State University

*    *    *    *    *

Massive glacial destabilization and irreversible collapse caused by human warming. That’s what a flurry of recent studies issued by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory found is now happening to vast sections of Antarctica’s towering glaciers.

The NASA climate scientists found that rapid human warming of the deep ocean was resulting in hotter than usual water upwelling beneath the ocean-fronting glaciers of Antarctica. The warmer waters ate away at the great glaciers from underneath, making them less stable and propelling them with ever-higher velocity toward the world’s oceans. The studies, led by Eric Rignot, concluded that large sections of Antarctica were now destabilized and that six key glaciers representing what could well be termed the entire flank of West Antarctica were now locked in an unstoppable plunge into the ocean.

These glaciers in irreversible collapse combined with a growing number of destabilized and destabilizing glaciers all around Antarctica and northward to Greenland to represent an extreme risk for a much more rapid than expected sea level rise this century.

Now a new study published this week in the prestigious science journal Nature adds to what has become an extraordinary torrent of evidence for heightening risks to speeding human-spurred sea level rise.

Antarctica glacial velocity map

(Antarctica glacial velocity map composed by Eric Rignot in 2011. Blue = fast. Brown = slow. Note the numerous high-speed glacial flows plunging deep into Antarctica. By the 2010s, Antarctica was losing between 1,300 and 2,000 gigatons of ice each year. Image credit: Antarcticaglaciers.org.)

A Glimpse into Earth’s Past Provides Stark Evidence For a Human-Warmed Future

The study, entitled Millennial-Scale Variability in Antarctic Ice Sheet Discharge During the Last Deglaciation, and published in Nature, took a closer look at Antarctic ice sheet instability and its contribution to sea level rise during the end of the last ice age by taking sediment cores from iceberg rafted debris (IBRD) fields around the frozen continent. These fields contained minerals left by melting glaciers discharged into the Southern Ocean during the major glacial melt events at the end of the last ice age and provide a good proxy for the rate of glacial discharge from Antarctica.

Analysis of these sediment cores resulted in the finding that Antarctica experienced 8 separate large glacial outburst events during the end of the last ice age. These events began about 20,000 years ago and ended 9,000 years ago. This is directly counter to conventional thinking that had assumed Antarctic melt started late and ended early during the last glacial melt period. It also hints that the Antarctic ice sheet is far less stable that previously assumed, making it much more vulnerable to current, human-caused heat forcings.

Each large outburst event contributed significantly to global sea level rise. The largest and most violent event was found to have occurred around 14,900 years ago. Lasting 350 years, this single episode, known as meltwater pulse 1A, resulted in a 50 foot sea level rise, pushing global oceans higher by 14.2 feet per century. It was previously unknown that Antarctica contributed in any way to this rapid sea rise event. But large deposits of iceberg sediment during this time of surging oceans provides strong evidence that Antarctica was a major contributor.

Post-Glacial_Sea_Level

(Pace of post glacial sea level rise since the end of the last ice age. Note the steep rise in sea levels occurring in conjunction with meltwater pulse 1A, a pulse that scientists now know included a major contribution from Antarctic melt. Image source: Commons.)

Professor Clark of Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences who contributed to the paper noted:

“During that time, the sea level on a global basis rose about 50 feet in just 350 years – or about 20 times faster than sea level rise over the last century. We don’t yet know what triggered these eight episodes or pulses, but it appears that once the melting of the ice sheet began it was amplified by physical processes.”

Implications for Current-Day Human Warming

At first blush, the findings of this study may seem innocuous. But upon reflection, one quickly comes to the conclusion that they are rather stark.

In total, about 200 feet of potential sea level rise is currently locked in all of Antarctica’s ice. This compares to Greenland which, if it completely melted, would contribute about 24 feet to sea level rise. Until recently, it was assumed that this large store of ice in Antarctica was relatively stable and responded only slowly to climate perturbations.

The first challenge to the notion of Antarctic ice sheet stability came in 1968 when glaciologists began issuing warnings that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was unstable. But, until recent years, this instability lacked an observed physical mechanism to explain what appeared to be an ongoing and increasingly rapid glacial rush toward the sea. By the mid 2000s, scientific reports began to emerge showing that warm water upwelling along the coasts of Antarctica was eating away larger and larger chunks of the great glaciers’ bases and speeding their flow to the sea. This year, a flurry of reports sounded a death knell for entire sections of West Antarctic ice, locking in many feet of sea level rise with more likely to come.

Temperature increase over last 22,000 years

(Temperature and CO2 increase from 22,000 YBP through 6,000 YBP. Note that major glacial outburst events in Antarctica began after only .2 C of atmospheric warming and 10 ppm of CO2 increase around 20,000 years ago. Such a response shows a very high degree of glacial and Earth Systems climate sensitivity. Also note that total warming over a 12,000 year timeframe was 3.7 C. Warming of 4, 6 and even 9 C is possible by the end of this Century under BAU human greenhouse gas forcing. Image source: Nature via Skeptical Science.)

But until this recent Nature paper, such a rapid destabilization of Antarctica’s massive glaciers was without a paleoclimate context. For few studies had challenged an assumed but sparsely supported perception of past Antarctic ice sheet stability. To the contrary, the paper found an Antarctic ice sheet that was very sensitive to warming. The ice sheet issued its first major glacial outburst 20,000 years ago as the world showed its first hint of thaw from a great ice age. The giant glaciers continued their lashing out in 8 major events until warming stopped with the advent of the Holocene around 9,000 years ago. At that point, Earth’s climate had begun to settle into a new equilibrium and Antarctica quieted its grumbling.

Now that humans are warming the atmosphere and oceans at a pace at least 30 times that of the last ice age, we are discovering that Antarctica in the deep past showed a major destabilization response to even the slightest hint of warming.

A Warming Ocean is Likely Antarctica’s Soft Underbelly

Rapidly accumulating evidence that ocean warming is providing a powerful blow to the world’s glaciers combines with the recent study to provide a stark implication — any addition to atmospheric heat is rapidly transferred to the world’s oceans which, in turn, goes to work melting ocean-contacting glaciers. Furthermore, glacial destabilization is likely to remain in play so long as the global energy imbalance toward continued warming remains in force and destabilized glaciers haven’t yet hit the ocean. As such, we should consider that start time for glacial destabilization and increasing rates of sea level rise to be now and not in some distant, far off, future.

Glacial systems may well present considerable atmospheric inertia. But when presented with warming waters, the glaciers must yield. This makes sense as water’s heat capacity is four times greater than that of air. So the melting force of water just one degree C above freezing is about four times that of the same volume of air at the same temperature. Glaciers in constant contact with the potent heat capacity of warming oceans essentially don’t stand a chance. And with many of Antarctica’s glaciers directly in the firing line of waters warmed by human greenhouse gas forcing rising from the deep ocean, it would appear, at this time, that the great frozen continent may well have a very soft underbelly.

Antarctic Waterfall

(Waterfall spilling from the heart of a melting Antarctic glacier and into the Southern Ocean. Image source: Antarctica.gov.au)

Inertia Not So Strong as the Forcing; Stark Implications For Sea Level Rise

Since so much has happened over the past year, it is useful to put the current state of science into an overall context. In doing so we should consider these scientific findings:

  1. Large portions of Antarctica are already undergoing destabilization or irreversible collapse.
  2. In the deep past, Antarctica responded very rapidly to even a small global temperature change and remained unstable so long as warming continued.
  3. This rapid glacial response and destabilization was likely due to a broad basal exposure to warming oceans.
  4. The current pace of human warming is now 30 times faster than at the end of the last ice age.
  5. The deep ocean is accumulating heat faster than any other Earth System.
  6. At peak, the most violent glacial outburst flood events included glacial discharges from Antarctica and pushed sea levels higher by 14.2 feet each century during the end of the last ice age.
  7. Current human CO2 heat forcing at 400 ppm + is enough to raise sea levels by 75 feet according to paleoclimate estimates.
  8. Current human CO2e heat forcing at 481 ppm + is enough to raise sea levels by 120 feet according to paleoclimate estimates.

Considered together, these points would seem to indicate that glacial inertia to heat forcing is not so great as previously hoped. More likely, the energy balance of the Earth System more rapidly responds to total heat content, energy imbalance, and pace of heat accumulation than previous sensitivity estimates assumed. If this meta-analysis is true, and it seems to be based on a growing pile of evidence, sea level rise for the current century is likely to be far greater than previously anticipated by scientific assessments. The top range of a 3 foot sea level rise for this century under IPCC modeling is likely, given current realities, to instead be a low estimate. A more realistic range, given a greatly reduced true glacial inertia, is probably 3-9 feet through 2100 with higher outside potentials during large glacial outburst flood events.

Given changing ocean and atmospheric conditions together with the rising potential of large rainfalls over certain glacial zones during summer as the 21rst century progresses, climate analysts should consider such large glacial outburst floods to be a potential high risk event under current extreme human warming. It is also worth noting that these glacial systems have probably never experienced a set of forces so powerful or rapid as they are likely to face as the 21rst century progresses. Recent scientific assessments are essentially playing catch-up to these new and emerging realities.

Links:

Grim News From NASA: West Antarctic’s Entire Flank is Collapsing into the Southern Ocean

Millennial-Scale Variability in Antarctic Ice Sheet Discharge During the Last Deglaciation

Commons

Nature

Skeptical Science

Antarctica.gov.au

Antarctic Ice Sheet Unstable at End of Last Ice Age

Antarcticaglaciers.org

Potential For El Nino Spikes As Record Pacific Ocean Heat Content Continues to Emerge

Monster Kelvin Wave April 13

(Very powerful Kelvin Wave still moving eastward even as it begins to sink in off the coast of South America. Image source: NOAA.)

Likelihood for a significant El Nino later this year continued to increase as the most powerful Kelvin Wave on record continued its progress into the Eastern Equatorial Pacific. According NOAA’s recent April 13 assessment, the massive slug of anomalously hot Pacific subsurface waters continued to surge eastward, to deepen the 20 C isotherm and to spread out on or just below the surface.

NOAA’s most recent CPC report finds, in a bald refutation to assertions by climate change deniers, that:

A significant downwelling oceanic Kelvin wave that was initiated in January greatly increased the oceanic heat content to the largest March value in the historical record back to 1979 and produced large positive subsurface temperature anomalies across the central and eastern Pacific.

Extraordinary temperature departures in the range of 4-6 C above average stretched from a zone from 180 West Longitude to 80 West Longitude and ranged in depth from 30 to 70 meters. This very large zone of above average heat shattered global records even as it slid into position to begin re-delivering that excess to the atmosphere.

Perhaps more importantly, the nose of this wave of far warmer than normal water had begun to sag, pushing the 20 C isotherm deeper into the Eastern Pacific even as cooler water from the depths began to punch into the tail of the record hot Kelvin Wave, raising the 20 C isotherm in the Western Pacific. This downwelling force of a monster Kelvin wave appears to just now be initiating the start to a global weather-altering El Nino.

Hot Water Downwelling, Weakening Trade Winds

In the East, from 12 February to 13 April, the 20 C isotherm had plunged from about 25 meters below to around 100 meters of depth. During the same period, the isotherm from about 150 East Longitude to 170 West had risen from about 210 meters to 170 meters. At the subsurface, a continued rising of the isotherm in the West and its continued fall in the East would complete the transfer of warm waters across the Pacific and open the flood gates to the start of what could be an extraordinarily strong El Nino event as what is now a record Pacific Ocean heat content starts bleeding back to the atmosphere.

Pacific Isotherm Tilts East

(20 C isotherm continues to rise in the Western Pacific [left side of graph] even as it rises in the East [right side]. Image source: NOAA.)

On the surface, trade wind weakening and reversals continued with a significant, though milder than those seen in January and February, backflow emerging in early April east of the Solomon Islands and coinciding with rather weak trade winds across the Equatorial Pacific. Such conditions continued to provide surface impetus to transfer warm waters  across the Pacific even as record subsurface heat continued its transition eastward.

Chances for El Nino Rise

Accordingly, predictive forecasts both by NOAA and Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology are showing increasing potentials that El Nino will emerge. NOAA’s forecast now indicates that the chance for El Nino has jumped to over 50% by this summer and to 66% by the end of the year. Australia’s forecast is now showing a greater than 70% chance of El Nino over the same period.

In addition, El Nino type influences are already beginning to appear in world weather systems. A recent report by Dr. Simon Wang found that precursor El Nino conditions combined with effects related to climate change such as Arctic sea ice loss to spur and enhance epic drought conditions in California. Southeast Asia is already experiencing heat and dryness that is typically associated with a developing El Nino. Northern Brazil is also seeing increasing levels of heat and drought. To the North, Siberia is experiencing an extraordinary April onset to fire season while the northeastern US is somewhat cooler than average due to the persistent and anomalous strength of a dipole of warm temperature extremes in western North America and cool temperature extremes in eastern North America.

Many of these impacts, though expected in a normal El Nino year appear to be enhanced by effects related to human caused climate change such as sea ice loss and an amplification of the hydrological cycle increasing the frequency of extreme rainfall, drought and fire events (as in the California drought and the southeast Asian and Siberian fires).

NOAA El Nino Potentials

(El Nino model runs by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center show 66% potential for El Nino Development by November, December and January of 2014-2015. Image source: CPC/IRI.)

During a typical strong El Nino year, global weather disruptions can cause severe damage resulting in reductions to world GDP by as much as 5%. But with the added and enhanced severe weather effects due to climate change interacting with El Nino, overall impacts could be far more destructive. In addition, a release of what is currently record Pacific Ocean heat content into the atmosphere will likely set off new high temperature extremes, further pushing the global climate system toward the very dangerous 2 C warming threshold.

Links:

NOAA

CPC/IRI

Climate scientists find link between sea ice loss, emerging El Nino, and record California Drought

Small Army of Firefighters Battles Siberian Blazes in April

Monster El Nino Rising From the Depths

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

Arctic Heat Drives Sea Ice Back Into Record Low Territory At Top of Melt Season

record low sea ice cover March 10

(Record low sea ice cover on March 10, 2014 a time that typically features sea ice maximum. Note that all basins show sea ice area and extent below the, already lower than normal, 1979-2000 base-line. Image source: Climate Change Institute.)

Abnormal, warm southerly winds at the lower and upper levels. More large heat pulses driven by high amplitude Jet Stream waves. Tropical heat launching into the Arctic Stratosphere over the Himalayas. Warm water upwelling from the rapidly heating ocean depths.

All conditions that continue to place the Arctic sea ice under a state of constant siege — winter and summer. All again doing their dangerous work in pushing the now critically weakened ice, once more to record low levels.

Under this state of ongoing assault, regions near Svalbard fell into rapid retreat as floes fractured over warming waters in the Bering Sea and west of Greenland. The result is the lowest measure of winter time sea ice area ever seen in any record for this day since Arctic observation began. Yet one more passing milestone in the vicious and rapid progression of human-caused climate change.

2011 Records Fall

According to reports from NSIDC and Cryosphere Today, Arctic sea ice area dropped to a record low of 12.95 million square kilometers on March 10 of 2014. It is a measure more than 2 million square kilometers, or an area roughly the size of Greenland, smaller than that seen during the late 1970s and breaking the previous record low, set just three years ago, by 150,000 square kilometers. Sea ice extent, meanwhile, had fallen to 14.5 million square kilometers, a measure roughly tied with the previous record low set in 2011 and also about 2 million square kilometers below area values seen during the late 1970s.

It is worth noting that the trend lines for both sea ice extent and area are well below previous trends for record low years 2007 (green below) and 2012 (pink below).

Sea ice area march 10 CT

(March 10 Sea Ice Area showing record low for the day. Image source: Pogoda i Klimat. Data Source: Cryosphere Today.)

Melt Hot Spots: Ocean Zones Near Svalbard and Greenland

With the Aqua Satellite again cresting the Arctic, we can peer down through cloud and ice to see dark, open waters peeking through kilometer-wide cracks or dominating entire ocean zones during a very anemic peak freeze. With recent days bringing average Arctic temperatures in the range of 2.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius above normal and with local spikes in the +20 degrees C above normal range, areas of visible retreat and fragility abound.

These heat spikes combined with strong southerly winds near Svalbard to drive a rapid, far-north, retreat of ice floes on March 9-11 into zones that previously saw open ocean only during summer time. This far northward invasion of dark, open water is the primary culprit of the new record low:

Open Ocean North of Svalbard March 11

(Open ocean north and west of Svalbard on March 11, 2014. It is worth noting that Svalbard is about 600 miles from the North Pole. The Current sea ice edge, during a time when ice extent should be at its maximum, is now just 500 miles from the North Pole. Image source: Lance-Modis.)

A large region of northern Baffin Bay near Northwest Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago also showed extensive melt and open ocean zones during recent days.

Over past decade, this region has shown increasing susceptibility to warm ocean water upwelling near the Nares Strait with winter-time melting of northern extremities in Baffin Bay. But this year’s melt was particularly strong. An event that coincided with sea-bed earthquakes and anomalously high methane levels (1950 ppb+) in the region through mid-to-late February. It is possible that upwelling is both driven by warm water currents now filling up the Baffin deep water zone and by the somewhat energetic out-gassing of sea bed methane through faults and seeps.

It is worth noting that evidence of these seeps is based on satellite observation and very little in the way of comprehensive seabed methane assessment has been completed by the global scientific community, a gap in understanding that may well come back to haunt us as human-caused warming continues to put increased heat pressure on both deep and shallow ocean carbon stores.

Baffin Bay Nares Extensive cracked ice open water

(Fingerprints of warm water upwelling, sea-bed methane release? Extensive open water, cracked ice in North Baffin Bay, Nares Strait region during height of sea ice extent, 2014. Image source: Lance Modis.)

Heightened risk for record low year, total meltdown

The current record low status for end winter sea ice and the approach of El Nino, which tends to add heat to the European and Asian continents, results in an increased risk that new record lows for sea ice area, extent and volume may be reached by end of summer 2014. Both warm air and water flushing in from the continents have been implicated in large sea ice retreats during recent years and a rapid heating of the large land mass over Arctic Europe and Asia, along with a simultaneous warming of Alaska, should El Nino progress, may amplify both continental heat build up and heat transfer through river outflow into the Arctic Ocean Basin.

In addition, high temperature anomalies during late winter to early spring continue to suppress sea ice recovery late season. The result is that more open ocean is now available to absorb energy from the rising sun or to deliver that energy in the form of waves and currents to the greatly diminished ice pack. The one saving grace, if it can be viewed as such, is a minor, though likely temporary rebound in sea ice volume extending from late last year, likely bringing volume values into the range of 3rd or 4th lowest on record for March.

It is also worth considering that sea ice area trends show an ever-increasing possibility of a record melt year with melt rates similar to 2007, 2011 or 2012 enough to bring 2014 to new record lows.

sia_projections_from_current_date

(Sea ice area projections based on past trends. It is worth noting that the melt season has lengthened by nearly a month since 1979, the result being increasing volumes of ice lost from end of freeze to end of melt. Image source: Jim Pettit. Data Source: NSIDC.)

In any case, this combination of conditions generates a high risk of sea ice reaching new record lows in sea ice area, volume and/or extent come end of summer 2014 (60%). This prediction finds its basis in observed records of past melt seasons and in the fact that very few days remain for a potential late-season uptick in sea ice. If record low values hold and a late season rebound does not occur, it is worth considering this simple fact: each time sea ice reached a new record low maximum sea ice area since 2005,  a new record area melt was achieved by end of summer. That said, not achieving a record low maximum is no guarantee of safety, as 2012 so starkly proved.

It is also worth considering that sea ice may be very close to tipping points and once thinned beyond a certain threshold will be unable maintain integrity. In such an event, warm, dark, increasingly mobile ocean waters eventually overwhelm an ice pack fighting for survival. We may well have seen the beginning of such a consequence during 2012 when powerful and energetic storms that would usually result in sea ice retention only served to hasten record losses. A warning that there are fewer and fewer conditions favoring summer ice retention as the Arctic energy balance is ever more forcibly shoved toward melt.

Given these potentials — the high likelihood for record low area at maximum, the ever-lengthening melt season, and the increasing fragility of ice come end-summer — it is worth considering the unexpected worst case: total sea ice loss or near total ice loss (less than 1 million square kilometers area) by end of summer 2014. At this point, given record low area conditions late in the freeze season, we will assess a slight uptick of total ice loss risk over the previous year from 10 to 15 percent — a somewhat increased risk that sea ice values reach near ice free levels during a catastrophic melt this summer (15%).

If an observed start to the melt season begins early and if melt rates rapidly steepen, we will likely reassess both the likelihood of new records at minimum and a potential ice-free end summer state in the face of increased risks. At this point, both measures are low confidence estimates based on trends analysis, observation of current unprecedented Arctic warmth, and continued fragile ice state conditions.

UPDATE:

March 11 Arctic sea ice area values showed continued decline into record low territory. March 10 to 11 area losses, according to Cryosphere Today, extended an additional 70,000 square kilometers pushing the value down to 12.88 million square kilometers over the entire Arctic. This level is about 130,000 square kilometers below the previous record low value for today set in 2011 at 13.1 million square kilometers.

Abnormal atmospheric warmth over the regions most affected including north and east of Svalbard, Frans Joseph Land, the Kara Sea, a large region of Russia near Dickson, and in the region of the Nares Strait continued to provide melt pressure driving the most recent record low.

Links:

NSIDC

Climate Change Institute

Jim Pettit

Lance Modis

Cryosphere Today

Pogoda i Klimat

Arctic Ice Graphs

Climate Change Pushing World to Brink of Food Crisis as FAO Price Index Jumps to 208.1 in February

Food…

Along with water and energy, which are related to its production, it is one of the key commodities necessary to keep the world’s 7.1 billion people alive, healthy and happy. Its price and availability can determine the fate of nations and the stability of the world’s economic system. Rising prices mean risk of increasing poverty, risk of political instability and, in the worst instances, a creeping spread of hunger and malnutrition about the globe.

And ever since the year 2000 world food prices have been steadily and inexorably rising.

FAO index February 2014

(UN FAO Food Price Index through February of 2014. Image source: UN FAO.)

The UN FAO Index — An Indicator for Global Crisis

The United Nations provides a valuable index that comprehensively assesses the overall cost of food in both real and nominal terms. Managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the food price index has been tracking global indicators for this valuable commodity since 1961.

The FAO Index emerged in a world that hosted 3 billion people. A world that was just beginning to realize the strengths and limitations of its new, mechanized, fossil fuel-dependent, civilization. A world where new fossil water resources and slow to recharge groundwater were being tapped through drilling. A world where farming was expanding into even the most marginal and vulnerable of regions even as forests continued to be converted into farmland at a stunning rate.

From a period of the 1960s on into the first years of the 1970s, the nascent FAO price index recorded stable if moderately high global food prices. By the 1970s, food prices spiked along with the cost of energy during an oil crisis related to a Growth Shock as US and western energy production encountered a series of difficult to cross boundary limits.

The First Test — 1970s Energy and Climate Crisis

The FAO also emerged in a world where agriculture was heavily dependent on fossil material and energy inputs — for machinery, pesticides, and for fertilizer. This single commodity dependence meant that any spike in oil prices also had a deleterious effect on food access. And energy price spike after energy price spike occurred throughout the 1970s. A first warning that such a high level of reliance on just one commodity — oil — was a clear and critical weakness for the global economic and food distribution system.

At the same time, an intense drought swept over Africa. The rains that annually drenched the Sahel region faded and, then, for a period of about a decade, simply failed. The energy crisis combined with severe decadal climate shifts in Africa to further stress world food markets already reeling under oil price shocks. Higher prices, political instability and widespread hunger soon followed.

During this time, the link between human fossil fuel emissions and a potential to radically alter the climate in a way that was far more hostile to traditional agriculture was mostly unexplored. But despite this general lack of awareness, changes were already lining up that would have severe consequences for human agriculture within only a few decades. A then less visible, but no less important, weakness resulting from industrial agriculture’s, and much of modern civilization’s, reliance on oil, gas and coal. Fuels whose endlessly ramping use created long-term and ever increasing damage to environments in which human agriculture could be reasonably expected to exist.

Rise From Crisis Without Addressing Underlying Vulnerability

Political pressure was put on the Middle East to make energy more cheaply and readily available. Forests were cut down in South America to make room for more farmland. Saudi Arabia mined fossil water to farm its deserts. Meanwhile, the rains eventually returned to Africa and so prices again fell to far more affordable levels during the 1980s and 1990s. But the key weaknesses — reliance on fossil fuels for agriculture, an immense world population that jumped to 4, 5 and then 6 billion, a host of problems and vulnerabilities emerging from big industrial farms, and increasing agricultural vulnerability to water scarcity and related climate shifts were not addressed.

So as the world entered the first decade of the new millennium and signs of crisis began to again emerge, it found itself radically unprepared to deal with what was shaping up to be a more vicious repeat of the shocks experienced during the 1970s.

Energy Shocks, Extreme Weather, Consumption Changes, 7 Billion People

Entering the first decade of a new millennium, food prices were again on the rise. Oil shocks were starting to once more ramp up and strange changes to the world’s climate were starting to spur extreme drought and rainfall events that were outside of the typical context of human agriculture. Meanwhile, emerging economies in Asia such as India and China were beginning to demand more meat thereby putting additional stress on the world’s farmland — as meat-based agriculture is about 1/50 as efficient on a calorie comparison basis when compared to simply farming grains, legumes and vegetables.

By the middle of the decade, a series of crisis points had been reached. Worldwide demand for both food and energy was raging. Populations were nearing 7 billion souls. Oil price increases were leading more nations to use farmland for biofuels production creating a competition for land use between fuels and food. Australia was suffering its worst drought in 1,000 years and many other regions of the world were likewise sporadically hit. But the big, severe, widespread droughts would wait for next decade to emerge with even greater force and rapacity.

By 2007, world oil prices were screaming toward record levels and an already climate and demand stressed food market rapidly followed. By 2008, the FAO index had surged to a record level of 201. Such a large jump had numerous and far-reaching effects. Hunger again became an issue of serious concern in Africa and, sporadically, various countries began to see food riots as the distribution system painfully rebalanced to reflect new levels of increased demand and struggling output. Global economic recession immediately ensued and prices were drawn down through the economically vicious process of demand destruction.

Russian Wildfires 2010

(Satellite shot of smoke from massive wildfires raging across Russia during 2010. The largest smoke plume in this image is 3,000 kilometers in length, about the distance between Los Angeles and Chicago. Image source: Lance-Modis.)

As 2010 opened a new decade, a weak El Nino combined with human caused climate change to produce a powerful and persistent heat dome over Russia and the Ukraine. As spring continued into summer, the heat intensified and massive wildfires began to break out. A pallor of smoke covered millions of square miles as millions upon millions of acres burned. The fires and coincident droughts brought Russian, Eastern European and Ukrainian grain production to its knees. The situation was so severe that Russia cut off grain exports, keeping all its production to feed its own citizens.

The effect to global food markets was apocalyptic. Food prices surged through 2010 and by 2011 peaked at an FAO index value of 229.9, the highest level yet on record. High food prices swiftly rippled through a number of the world’s most vulnerable regions and food riots, which had been sporadic, became national phenomena. Hardest hit were teetering nations in the Middle East that lacked the economic muscle to provide their populations with adequate food supplies. Egypt, Libya and Syria faced outright civil war and/or regime change due, in large share, to social stresses sparked by food scarcity.

Rising Threats for the Current Day

The world’s primary response to this major price spike was to simply plant more land. But as this new rush occurred, extreme weather got a radical boost. Sea ice losses, by end of summer 2012, had totaled more than 50% in area and extent values since 1979 while volume measures had brutally fallen by over 80%. As a result, the Arctic had lost about 4% of its albedo and was undergoing a period of rapid heat amplification. These changes would result in more persistent and severe Jet Stream patterns that would deliver an increasingly extreme battery of droughts and deluges to the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, warming had now resulted in an amplification of the global hydrological cycle by 6%. This amplification meant drying of the land came on more rapidly, setting the stage for intense drought initiation even in regions that weren’t seeing more stuck weather patterns.

As 2013 rolled into 2014 drought was widespread and severe in large zones from California to Brazil and Argentina, to Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, to Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia, to China and Australia. Many of these droughts are among the worst and most widespread on record. Meanwhile, severe rainfall and wind events over Britain and Western Europe are also disrupting agriculture and causing direct damage or inundation of crops. And though the world was planting a massive number of acres during 2013-2014, the effects of these various and wide-ranging weather emergencies were again starting to take hold.

For by February of this year the world FAO index had risen to 208.1 — a level very close to 210 which is considered to be the point that high food prices begin to result in the potential for major social unrest worldwide.

High Risk Outlook for 2014

With so many regions experiencing drought, with human-caused climate change playing havoc with the world’s weather, and with the rising risk of a moderate-to-strong El Nino emerging in the Eastern Pacific, the world appears to be entering yet one more period of high risk for another major food shock. El Nino is traditionally known to produce drought in Australia and Southeast Asia. And while it is has not historically tended to coincide with drought in Russia and Eastern Europe, it does tend to shift weather patterns toward hot in those regions. With the hydrological cycle amped up by human-caused climate change and with ridges/blocking patterns more prevalent due to added atmospheric heat content and sea ice loss, it might be wise to consider the 2010 spate of extreme drought and fires in this region a potential risk as the year and a likely El Nino progresses.

Links:

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Lance-Modis

Growth Shock: Tragedy and Hope at the Limits of a Finite World

Is Meat Sustainable?

2010 Russian Wildfires

Russian Ban On Grain Exports Begins

Climate Change and Rising Food Prices Heightened Arab Spring

Arctic Albedo Falling at Twice Expected Rate

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

El Nino is Coming

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

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

On the highway to a smokestack hell, Faust met a devil who said to him:

“Give me all your tomorrows, all your children and all your children’s children, and I will make this one day, for you, a paradise.”

*    *    *    *    *

Understanding how much warming may be in store from all the CO2, methane, N2O and other greenhouse gasses humans have pumped into the atmosphere can be a bit problematic. First, definitions have tended to be confused due to the fact that equilibrium climate sensitivity measures (Charney) used to project warming for this century by the IPCC only take into account about half of long-term (slow feedback) warming should CO2 and other greenhouse gas levels remain high.

For example, equilibrium climate sensitivity measures show an effective rate of warming by about 3 degrees Celsius (C) for every doubling of CO2 from 1880 onward. By this measure, we get about 3 C worth of warming over this century once we hit 550 ppm CO2 and about 6 C worth of warming at levels around 1100 ppm. It is important to stress that these short term warming projections do not take into account long-term ‘slow’ feedbacks to a given rise of CO2 that are strong enough to double the ultimate temperature increase. This larger Earth Systems Sensitivity (ESS) measure is both observable in paleoclimate and in the various model runs that project a given level of atmospheric CO2 out through the centuries.

Fast Feedback vs Slow Feedback Climate Sensitivity

(Fast feedback equilibrium climate sensitivity over one century vs long term sensitivity over multiple centuries to a given greenhouse gas forcing. Note that approximately double the amount of warming occurs after ‘slow feedbacks’ like ice sheet response and environmental ghg emissions are taken into account. Image source: Leeds.)

So both paleoclimate and most model runs end up with a long term warming of about 6 C at 550 ppm CO2 and of about 12 C at 1100 ppm CO2.

It is here that we run into an additional difficulty. We don’t ultimately know how long, long-term will really be. We hope, and our climate models seem to support this hope, that such ‘long term’ warming from the so-called slow feedbacks like ice sheet albedo response and natural carbon emissions won’t appear in force this century. But given the stunning pace of human greenhouse gas build-up combined with a number of observed ‘slow feedback’ responses going on now, we don’t really know for certain. And there is some reason to believe that the ‘slow feedbacks’ might not be so slow after all.

In this context, the current level of CO2, at around 400 ppm, results in a warming this century of around 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius (if the slow feedbacks are as slow as expected) and a long-term warming of about 2-3 degrees Celsius. And it is at this point where an already complex dynamic begins to break down, taking on a number of, yet more complex, factors.

A Host of Extra Gasses No-One Really Talks About

At issue is the fact that humans have emitted a massive volume of additional greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. These gasses have grown in proportion and heating effect alongside the, admittedly larger and more significant, CO2 emission. And each has made their own additional contribution to human warming.

Some of these gasses, like methane, have been a typical part of natural atmospheres for millions of years. At times, methane concentrations are observed to have spiked to levels even higher than those seen today. But the periods during which such levels were apparent were also times of global crisis — the hothouse mass extinction events.

Methane Since 1984 MLO

(Atmospheric methane concentrations since 1984 as observed at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

But the other gasses: nitrous oxide, CFCs, HFCs, nitrogen triflouride, and a host of nearly 50 other industrial chemicals that contribute to warming were either never in the atmosphere before or were present at much lower levels than what is seen today. The result of this added pollution is yet more potential warming, in addition to a number of other difficult to deal with impacts. A pollution impact that is outside the context of past global crises and that puts current day greenhouse gas forcing at a critical and unstable level.

Methane levels alone have more than doubled since the start of the Industrial Revolution, rising from about 750 parts per billion to about 1835 parts per billion today. This value, depending on how it’s calculated over time, is equivalent to an additional CO2 forcing of between 22 and 110 parts per million. And though methane is the strongest non-CO2 warming agent, adding them all together can result in a value that is quite a bit higher than the base CO2 level would indicate.

Nitrous Oxide MLO

(Atmospheric nitrous oxide levels since 1997 as observed at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

In addition, on the negative side of the ledger, human fossil fuel burning (primarily coal) burning emits sulfur dioxide, other sulfates and various aerosols which, overall, create strong negative feedbacks in the climate system by reflecting incoming sunlight. The net result is a temporary suppression of a portion of human-caused warming. The reason this suppression is temporary is due to the fact that the sulfur dioxide and related sulfates rapidly wash out of the atmosphere. So if coal burning ceases, the reflective particles rapidly fall away and we readily come to witness the full strength of the human greenhouse gas emission.

Which brings us to the question — what is the full strength of the current human emission and how long will it last? There’s a term for this number: CO2e. In other words — the equivalent CO2 forcing of all greenhouse gasses added together.

Fortunately for our exploration, there’s been a bit of work done on just this subject. Last year, MIT’s Advanced Global Atmospheric Gasses Experiment issued a report describing model data that determined the current CO2 equivalent forcing from all of the more than 50 greenhouse contributing trace gasses in the atmosphere. And the results were somewhat disconcerting. As of June of 2013, that amount was equal to 478 parts per million CO2. Or a CO2e of 478 parts per million when all the other greenhouse gasses were added to the already high and rapidly rising levels of CO2. Adding in the current rate of CO2 rise, we end up with about 480 parts per million of CO2e from all greenhouse gasses by this year. So if we’re talking about the total burden of all greenhouse gasses and the one that will be with us through the long term, 480 is, unfortunately, the number we should be dealing with and not 400.

Aerosols and the Faustian Bargain

Unfortunately, to determine the current forcing one has to also take into account those pesky aerosols we mentioned above. And, luckily, we also have a reliable measure that provides the negative forcing or relative cooling effect of sulfur dioxide in the current atmosphere. As of 2013, the IPCC had found that sulfates and other effects due to aerosols provided a net negative forcing of about .8 Watts per meter squared or about 1/2 the positive forcing of CO2 which was, then, at around 390 ppmv (2011), about 1.68 Watts per meter squared. This approximate 1/2 value, when divided by the then observed rise in CO2 since 1880 gives us a rough equivalent negative forcing value of minus 55 parts per million CO2e.

ipcc_rad_forc_ar5

(IPCC AR5 Radiative Forcing Assessment. Image source: IPCC)

So subtracting out the net effect of sulfates and other aerosols brings us to a total net forcing from all factors related to human changes to the atmosphere of about 425 ppm CO2e. A rather disturbing final number both due to its departure over the current 400 ppm CO2 value and due to the fact that though most greenhouse gasses have atmospheric residence times of decades to centuries, the cooling sulfates would likely last for 1-2 years before falling out entirely. This means that once fossil emissions stop, we may as well just add +55 ppm CO2e to the current total.

This warmth masking factor of human coal emissions was described by James Hansen as a kind of Faustian bargain in which current burning of the dirty fuel provides temporary respite to warming at the cost of even more rapid future temperature increases. And it is just this devil’s deal in which we are now entangled.

425 CO2e: A Dangerous Interim

So it is likely that current atmospheric forcing, including all greenhouse gasses and all human sulfates, is probably at around 425 ppm CO2e. And since the residence times of these gasses are decades to millennium, while Earth Systems feedbacks appear to be enough to maintain high methane levels indefinitely, we should probably view this as an interim figure when considering how much short and long-term warming is likely locked in.

In the short term, using equilibrium climate sensitivity measures, we are likely to end up with between 1.2 and 1.8 C warming over the course of this century even if all greenhouse gas levels, along with sulfate levels, were to remain stable and if the slow feedbacks move along at the expected pace. Meanwhile, long-term warming of between 2.4 and 3.6 C would be expected if all atmospheric gas levels were to stabilize.

But unless an ongoing regime of sulfate aerosol spraying of the stratosphere were put into place, the sulfates would, predictably, fall out once human emissions stopped. And that rapidly brings us back to the 480 ppm CO2e number.

480 CO2e: What is Probably Locked in Long-Term

Looking at the more permanent 480 CO2e value, the fact begins to sink in that we are already well on the way to extreme climate difficulties. For 480 CO2e, without the reflective aerosols, means that the world probably ends up warming by between 1.8 and 2.3 C before the slow feedbacks kick in and between 3.5 and 4.5 C long-term. At these levels, major ice sheet destabilization and melt is eventually likely to result in between 50 and 140 feet of sea level rise with the only remaining glaciers in the end confined to central and eastern Antarctica.

The only saving grace to a cold turkey cessation of emissions now is that most of the worst amplifying feedbacks are likely to be kept in check and thus prevent rapidly accelerated warming and climate destabilization. The extra 1.7 to 2.2 C worth of long-term warming likely comes from a combination of albedo loss, permafrost thaw and related ghg release keeping currently high levels high long-term, and, perhaps, a methane belch in the 1-50 gigaton range that spikes atmospheric levels.

I say likely to be kept in check… but we have to also consider that there is a low, but not out of the question, risk of setting off a kind of mini-runaway that generates warming far beyond the expected range and pushes climates to a hothouse state not seen since the PETM or Permian extinction events. There is little evidence for such an event in response to current climate forcings in the models at this time, but we have a number of scientists, including Peter Wadhams, Natalia Shakhova, and Igor Simeletov, who have raised the possibility, based on their observations of Arctic sea ice and carbon stores, that just such an event could be in the offing. Unfortunately, without more in-depth research into the potential pace of release of current carbon stores (permafrost, forest, clathrate, ocean) we don’t have a scientific oracle that provides a comfortable certainty on this key issue.

It’s worth noting that this best possible future, where the risk of a mini-runaway in warming to PETM or Permian levels remains low, probably won’t happen as business as usual fossil fuel emissions continue unabated with no sign of being rationally held in check. Under the current regime, a CO2e of about 550 ppm, enough to warm the Earth between 5-6 C long term, is locked in within 25-30 years. A climate state that pushes the risk of a mini-runaway to moderate. Meanwhile, levels that would almost certainly set off a Permian or PETM type, anoxic ocean, extinction event, at around 800 ppm CO2e, become possible under BAU by 2060-2080.

The situation is, therefore, once again worse than expected…

Links:

400 PPM CO2? Add in Other Gasses and It’s 478 CO2e

Earth Systems Sensitivity

Leeds Climate Sensitivity

Jules Charney (bio)

NOAA ESRL

Radiative Forcing Links:

Real Climate: Radiative Forcing

The Advanced Global Atmospheric Gasses Experiment

NOAA: Radiative Forcing of Non-Greenhouse Gasses

IPCC: Initial Radiative Forcing Assessment

Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gasses: Scientific Understanding, Control and Implementation

CDIAC: Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations and Analysis

IPCC AR4 Appendix/Glossary

Nitrous Oxide and Climate Change

A Tale of Two Ice Caps: As Arctic Ocean Heads Toward Ice-Free Summers, New Study Shows Human Warming Takes Out 56% of Antarctic Sea Ice by 2050

Thus far, the Arctic has been ground zero for human-caused climate change. A combination of sea ice melt, albedo loss, a warming ocean that transports heat beneath a melting ice cap, regions of Jet Stream retreat into the far north, and an overburden of greenhouse gasses near the pole, among other factors, have all resulted in a very rapid pace of local warming.

Global temp anomaly

(Global surface temperature anomaly over the last month features a high degree of, very visible, Arctic heat amplification. Most global warming models show the Arctic warms rapidly first under human warming. Then, as second stage warming progresses, heat begins to spike over other regions of the globe. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

While global warming totals about .8 C above the 1880s average, about 1/6th the difference between now and another ice age, but on the side of hot, Arctic warming has pushed above 3.0 C during the same time period. And as the Arctic is warming four times as fast as the rest of the globe, many of human climate change’s most extreme impacts are now visible there.

The Arctic’s Massive and Dramatic Loss of Sea Ice

A primary measure of Arctic warming has been sea ice melt. And Arctic sea ice melt during the past few decades has been nothing if not dramatic. By end of summer 2012, a time when sea ice melt is most intense, area and extent totals had fallen more than 50% below their 1979 measurements. Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice volume, a measure of area + thickness, had fallen by as much as 80%. These losses are dramatic and raise the possibility for ice free summers, if the weather conditions line up, during a period between now and 2030.

arctic-death-spiral-1979-201302

(Arctic death spiral showing sea ice volume measurements for all months from 1979 through early 2013. Image source: Skeptical Science. Data source: PIOMAS.)

Thin Ice Over Warming Water

As hinted at above, the Arctic has a number of unique characteristics that make it vulnerable to rapid warming in the context of a more slowly warming globe. And chief among these is geography — warmer continents surrounding a mostly frozen ocean.

A lion’s share of the northern polar ice cap area is composed of sea ice. By area, even after the stunning losses seen since 1979, the sea ice cap composes about 10.5 million square kilometers on average. Greenland, in contrast, only boasts an ice sheet of around 2 million square kilometers. This large layer of ice provides an amazing amount of cooling just due to its white, reflective properties. In the past, this albedo has helped to maintain a zone of very cold air centered almost directly over the pole.

But this Arctic system of cold amplification and northern refrigeration has a major Achilles heel. For the sea ice sits upon an ocean that is much closer to the melting point of water than any frozen land mass. Furthermore, all ocean systems are connected and, to one degree or another, readily transport heat.

Melting Arctic Sea Ice

(Melting Arctic sea ice during summer. Image source: NASA.)

In the context of human-caused warming, the majority of northern polar ice area is little more than a relatively thin layer sitting atop an ocean that is rapidly collecting atmospheric heat. A context that can result in rather dramatic consequences. In short, what this means is that northern polar ice sheet inertia isn’t quite so strong as was previously hoped.

A warming ocean eats away at the bottom ice. And as the thin, frozen ice layer of white, reflective ice is, at first gradually, and then more rapidly, replaced by dark, absorptive ocean the Arctic refrigerator breaks down and, increasingly, turns into a heat amplifier. A quickening pace of albedo loss means an even more rapid pace of warming for the ocean waters below. As warmth concentrates, more feedbacks come into play. Greenhouse gasses like methane and CO2 become liberated from the ice and also go to work in setting off warming. These feedbacks work in concert and, for a time, the Arctic heat rapidly amplifies.

Arctic heat amplification is now plainly visible in winter months when heat absorbed by a mostly ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer radiates up through thin and crack-riddled ice. In this way, heat bubbling up through the ice displaces cold, Arctic air southward, sparking off severe weather. An ongoing event that was particularly extreme during the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 when Arctic air first fled south over Europe and then the central and eastern United States (see polar vortex collapse).

An extended period of heat amplification has been the story of Arctic warming ever since the world began to heat up during the 1880s. A more moderate spurt of sea ice loss coincided with the growing Arctic warmth from the 1920s to the 1950s before stalling in the 60s and 70s, only to resume with a vengeance during the 1980s. Today, the extreme of Arctic heat amplification results in a number of rather severe knock-on effects that threatens everything from even larger Arctic greenhouse gas releases (methane, CO2) and severe changes to the Jet Stream that may well wreck the periods of relatively stable weather human beings in the north have been used to for 10,000 years running.

Antarctic — Vast Continental Ice Sheets Surrounded By Oceans

Moving southward into the still frozen austral regions, we find a geography and related pace of climate change that is markedly different. Here the vast glaciers pile atop a Continent that has now been buried and frozen for millions and millions of years. The cold is locked into ice sheets that reach thousands of feet in height, cover an area of nearly 14 million square kilometers, and plunge deep into the long-frozen Earth. If the ice in the Arctic is merely a thin facade covering warmer oceans, the Antarctic ice is a thick fortress atop adamant and frozen earth.

The degree of inertia this represents for human-caused climate change is, therefore, much greater than what we see up north. And though the Antarctic fortress is far from impenetrable to the radically strong assaults of human warming, it will resist their insults for longer, giving way its great piles of ice in a more ablative fashion with, likely, even more stark and shocking results.

This densely frozen geography coming into conflict with human-caused warming has resulted in far-reaching, though less visible, impacts. Overall, largely due to the heat-insulation effect of Antarctica, southern hemisphere warming has progressed far more slowly than warming in the north. Here the battle is one of inches in which regions closer to the equator, such as Australia and the equatorial oceans, show the highest rates of warming. Meanwhile, Antarctica has remained, for the most part, a bastion of cold with increasingly intense wind fields isolating it from the more rapidly warming regions. In this case, and in contrast to the Northern Hemisphere Jet Stream, the upper level winds surrounding the South Pole have strengthened even as they have slowly receded.

Antarctica summer storms

(Antarctica surrounded by storms on March 2 of 2014 as a combination of austral summer and human warming shove the Southern Hemisphere Jet Stream toward the pole. Image source: Lance-Modis.)

Such a recession resulted in very hot, dry weather for southern Australia as equatorial heat shoved the strong winds and related storms ever southward. Meanwhile, increased rates of evaporation held in check the benefits of equatorial rain expansion into northern regions. Only the occasional challenge to this new, retreating Jet Stream, breaks the pattern of expanding drought in the south with extraordinary precipitation and storm events. And so Australia has suffered a series of worst droughts and fires on record interrupted by brief but very intense rain events over the past decade.

While the vast ice sheets of Antarctica have, so far, served as a buttress against atmospheric warming even as the Jet Stream retreated southward, heat in the ocean again went to work. Though mostly protected by vast and frozen continental lands to the west, the more northerly segment of East Antarctica featured large sections of submerged continents upon which rested immense, sea terminating ice sheets. Some of these great ice sheets had sections submerged hundreds of feet below sea level. And though the surface waters only gradually warmed, deeper down, the story was much different.

The endless calving of Antarctica’s glaciers sends off thousands of ice bergs from the shores of Antarctica each year. This massive calving cools the surface waters near Antarctica through both the melting of these frozen hills and mountains as well as the chilling effect they have on nearby air currents. As such, cold waters continually flow out from Antarctica. But even these waters have been impacted by human caused climate change, grudgingly increasing in temperature over the decades.

Pine Island Glacier Calves into Amundsen Sea

(Pine Island Glacier calves into the Amundsen Sea. A recent study found this large ice sheet was in the first stages of irreversible collapse. Image source: iSTAR-NERC.)

If the cold surface waters surrounding Antarctica have warmed only slowly, the story of the depths is somewhat different. Down-welling warmer and saltier waters contacting the Antarctic Circumpolar Current create a growing pool of warmth extending to the Antarctic Continental Shelf boundary. There, water circulation dynamics cause the warm water in the abyss to up-well even as it contacts the ocean terminating polar ice sheets.

The warm water thus eats away at the undersides of these ice sheets, causing increasing instability in some of the most vulnerable regions of West Antarctica. This heat transfer from the ocean depths has set off a significant erosion in a number of very large ice sheets and is now spurring the massive Pine Island Glacier (PIG) into an unstoppable rush to the sea.

Models Show Antarctic Sea Ice to Rapidly Decline through Mid Century

If Antarctic warming has been more subtle than the explosive heat amplification of northern regions, it is no less ominous. At the very least, it resulted in locking in 1-2 meters of sea level rise through irreversible ice sheet collapse spurred by warm water upwelling and now puts at risk many more meters of eventual increases to follow.

But, at the surface of the waters, despite a period of slowly rising warmth, the buffer zone of Antarctic sea ice has remained somewhat stable since 1979, even showing periods of moderate increase in overall area and extent. As described above, this is in marked contrast to a stunning collapse of Northern Hemisphere sea ice. A contrast that has served as foil for much debate over the ongoing impacts of human warming even as it was exploited as fodder by climate change deniers, when they weren’t out chasing the most recent snowstorm.

seaice.anomaly.antarctic

(Antarctic sea ice area anomaly since 1979 shows a slight increase in overall coverage, primarily due to a counter-trend increase in Ross Sea ice coverage. New studies show Antarctic sea ice is now set to rapidly decline. Image source: Cryosphere Today.)

Looking more closely, though, one finds that the current expansion of Antarctic sea ice may well be very precarious. For of the three embayments containing Antarctic sea ice only one — the Ross Sea — has shown sea ice growth in recent years. The other two have either remained stable or shown slow recession.

Polar researchers had attributed the moderate net expansion of southern sea ice to a combination of increasingly strong winds spreading out Ross ice flows during winter, a freshening of surface waters through the ongoing melt of Antarctica’s ice sheets that increases the melt temperature of ice and thus encourages its formation, and to changes to ocean currents and rates of precipitation. Now, a new study conducted by researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has found that this relative period of Ross sea ice stability and growth is about to end.

Warmth About to Crash Through Antarctica’s Gates

The various fragile conditions that have conspired to expand Ross Sea ice are now about to collapse under an onrush of increasing temperatures. For according to a new study entitled The Effects of Changing Winds and Temperatures on the Oceanography of the Ross Sea During the 21rst Century high resolution climate models show both increasing temperatures and rapidly melting ice in this critical and climatologically sensitive region under a regime of business as usual fossil fuel emissions.

According to the study’s authors:

We examined the effects of projected changes in atmospheric temperatures and winds on aspects of the ocean circulation likely important to primary production using a high-resolution sea ice–ocean–ice shelf model of the Ross Sea. The modeled summer sea ice concentrations decreased by 56% by 2050 and 78% by 2100.

In short, the bounding Jet Stream, the insulating continental Antarctic ice, and the cold surface waters surrounding the continent can’t keep out an ever increasing level of human-caused warming indefinitely. Over the coming decades this warmth will pulse higher in the region surrounding Antarctica with profound impacts to sea ice, resulting in a more than 50% reduction by 2050 and a 78% reduction by 2100.

The study also found that:

The ice-free season also grew much longer, with the mean day of retreat in 2100 occurring 11 days earlier and the advance occurring 16 days later than now.

In essence, the spring and summer melt season throughout the Antarctic region was shown to extend nearly one month longer than today’s period of melt and warmth. Such an expansion of heat intensity and duration will have profound impacts not only for sea ice, but for land ice and for life in the oceans as well.

Mixing Layers Reduced, Large Phytoplankton Blooms to Follow

Perhaps less visible but somewhat more ominous are ocean changes that are projected as Antarctic sea ice goes into rapid decline. Study authors found that ocean mixing over the region would fall by 12% by 2050 and a remarkable 44% by 2100. This dramatically increased stratification would, at first, result in very large blooms of phytoplankton as the surface waters see far more oxygen and the depths become ever-more deprived. This riot of microbial life may seem a positive development for the Ross Sea. But, if anything, it is a sign of oceanic productive zones moving southward to the polar region.

More ominous is the impact on krill and larger animals dependent on these small swimmers. Sea ice is critical to the survival of many krill species. And with its decline, these marine animals are likely to be negatively impacted.

According to lead author, Dr. Walker Smith:

our results suggest that phytoplankton production will increase and become more diatomaceous. Other components of the Ross Sea food web will likely be severely disrupted, creating significant but unpredictable impacts on the ocean’s most pristine ecosystem.

Links:

The Effects of Changing Winds and Temperatures on the Oceanography of the Ross Sea During the 21rst Century

The Storms of Arctic Warming

Arctic Sea Ice Melt, Methane Release Shows Amplifying Feedbacks to Human-Caused Climate Change

Arctic Heat Wave to Rip Polar Vortex in Half

Scientists: Ocean Warming, Upwelling to Make an End to Antarctica’s Vast Pine Island Glacier

NOAA ESRL

Lance-Modis

NASA

Cryosphere Today

Skeptical Science

PIOMAS

Mangled Jet Stream Sparks Drought, Winter Wildfires in Southern California — Colby Fire Explodes to Nearly 2000 Acres in One Day

Colby Fire Jan 16

(The Colby Fire as seen from satellite. Image source: NASA)

Major wildfires in winter? It may sound odd, but that’s what’s happening in a California suffering under a climate-change spurred drought that is currently its 9th worst on record.

Yesterday, beneath a dry dome of high pressure and spurred by Santa Ana winds, the Colby fire sparked in a populated suburb of Los Angeles amid a deepening California drought. Today, the fires exploded into a nearly 2,000 acre monstrosity. The blaze, fueled by 30 to 50 mph winds was proving difficult to contain as over 500 firefighters rushed to the scene in an effort to keep it from leaping down into nearby population centers. Mandatory evacuations were in place for hundreds of residents as the fire aggressively advanced toward homes and places of work.

Colby fire photo

(Colby Fire threatens local businesses. Image credit: Julie Palagyi)

Red flag warnings are now in place for many LA counties, which are expected to experience continued strong winds, above average temperatures, and single-digit humidity over the next 24 hours. Such conditions are conducive for the further spread of the Colby fire as well as for the sparking of additional blazes throughout the LA region.

Abnormally Warm, Abnormally Dry

Wildfires are rare in California this time of year. During winter, the region typically experiences wetter, rainier  and cooler conditions as storms flow in off the Pacific Ocean. But this year, a powerful blocking pattern has forced warmer, drier air over the region. It is the other side of the same blocking pattern that is flooding the Arctic with above average temperatures while disrupting the polar vortex and resulting in episodes of extreme weather over the eastern and central US.

Jet Stream Pattern 16 Jan

(Jet Stream Pattern for Thursday and Friday. Image source: University of Washington.)

Note the very high amplitude ridge pushing up from California all the way into central Alaska and the corresponding trough digging down into the eastern US and pushing all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. This image is just a snap shot of the same blocking pattern that has persisted since late March of last year, resulting in wet, stormy conditions for the Eastern US and dry, hot, drought and fire conditions for the western US.

Blocking patterns of this kind have occurred in the past. But it is extraordinarily rare for such events to persist for ten months running. It is also the kind of event that climate experts such as Dr. Jennifer Francis warn is currently caused by a massive loss of sea ice cover in the Arctic and will become more common as sea ice continues its warming-induced retreat resulting in further Jet Stream weakening, meandering and retrenchment.

Weather Pattern Part of Trend Produced by Human-Caused Climate Change

This fixed weather pattern led to very severe conditions in California for December that, according to Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground, resulted in a -4.67 reading on the Palmer drought severity index. This makes December of 2013 the 9th worst drought month on record for California (although anecdotal evidence coming in through January indicate that current conditions may be even worse). It is also worth noting that of the top ten worst drought months to occur since 1880 in California, five have now occurred since 1991 — a climate record that shows an increasing number of dry and record dry periods. Such increasingly extreme drying was predicted by numerous climate models for the US southwest as human warming continued to intensify and advance into the 21rst century.

Though such changes were anticipated by scientists, if not by politicians, business leaders, or the media, it was not clear that a strong fire hazard would emerge in even winter months. But this year has seen numerous intense west coast fires during winter time. Such new conditions are quite anomalous. And should the blocking pattern continue to persist, expect extreme heat, drought and fires to ramp up through spring and summer.

Links:

Plumes of Smoke Waft Through Colby Skies as Wildfire Rages

Historic Drought Intensifies in California

University of Washington

NASA

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)

A Requiem for Flooded Cities: Russian Flood Disaster Worsens, Amur River to Hit 30 Feet

Khabarovk Flooding

(Image source: RIA Novosti / Sergey Mamontov)

Earlier this month, Russia experienced a Song of Flood and Fire in which massive burning of Siberia’s tundra transitioned to the worst flood event in Russian history. Now, the still ongoing and worsening flood has become a haunting requiem for flooded cities as more than 100,000 homes have been devoured or damaged by the still-rising waters.

As of today, news reports indicate that flood waters have risen as high as 7.6 meters (about 24 feet) along the Amur River shattering a previous record of 6 meters and moving on toward a predicted high of an unprecedented 9 meters (30 feet). These record high water levels are the worst seen in the 120 years of record keeping along the Amur River, a rate of flooding and rainfall that numerous Russian scientists are now attributing to climate change.

The Amur floods come just one year after a record flash flood in Krymsk killed 171 people and resulted in 600 million dollars in damages. The current Amur floods are expected to reach nearly 1 billion dollars in losses, Russia’s most costly flood disaster in its history.

A brief break in the clouds over this heavily flooded region allowed for satellites to provide pictures of the heavily flooded Amur. What follows is nothing short of eye-opening as the Amur River appears to expand to the size of a large inland bay.

Here is a picture of the Amur River on July 11:

Amur River July 11

Amur River July 11

(Image source:  Lance-Modis)

This shot shows an approximately 500 mile length of the Amur River running along the border between Russia and China. In this shot, we see the river ranging between 1-3 miles in width. By August 21, the situation is remarkably transformed:

Amur River Flooding August 21

Amur River Flooding August 21

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

In the above image, the Amur and its tributaries have swollen to between 5 and 20 miles in width devouring both forest lands and cities alike. The August 21 image was taken at a time when the Amur levels were about 7 meters, at another half meter in height and with more flooding on the way, even this remarkable picture is just a prelude to end flood levels.

Damages from flooding have resulted in the losses of about half a million hectacres of crops in the region, pushing food prices, on average, about 10% higher. Hungry brown bears displaced by the flood waters are increasingly encroaching on villages and towns in the region with Russian officials resorting to airlifting bears away from an at-risk human population.

Russian officials seem both stunned and taken aback by the rapacity and violence of these floods.

“I’m not going to read letters and telegrams that are coming from citizens in my address. We’ll discuss those at a separate meeting,” Putin said Thursday. “But I want to turn your attention to the fact that not everything is as smooth as we’d like to think.”

An increasing number of Russian meteorologists and scientists are linking these events to climate change, all while they lament a general lack of Russian government response.

“It is quite possible that such showers are indeed consequences of global warming. How else to explain this constant change in the climate?” Svetlana Ageyeva, head of the meteorological center in the Khabarovsk region, told RIA Novosti. “I would not laugh at those who say such things.”

Russian government has deep ties to its petroleum industry and preference goes to oil producing entities with little thought to the consequences of climate change. Most scientists in Russia expect little or no response from government unless the situation there continues to grow worse to the point where it begins to affect the profitability of government entrenched businesses.

Large, wet weather systems continue to converge over the Amur region as the Jet Stream delivers a stream of storms from the west and as Arctic storm systems ride down from the north along a deep trough. These converging rivers of air and moisture brought powerful storms, once again, to the already battered region today.

Amur Rain August 29

Amur Rain August 29

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

A similar Jet Stream pattern and moisture delivery system has been in place since late July, when evaporation spilling off the top of the Ocean Heat Dome near Shanghai dumped even more water vapor into an already overwhelming convergent flow. Since that time, a trough plunging down from the Arctic and a Jet Stream rushing across the continent have continued to link up over Amur, delivering storm after storm after storm. This is the kind of fixed, global warming-induced, weather pattern Dr. Jennifer Francis alluded to in her recent work at Rutgers and in her even more recent briefings to the US Congress.

(Hat Tip to Colorado Bob)

Links:

Lance-Modis

RIA Novosti

Ecologists Link Far East Floods to Global Warming

Russia Experiences Great Burning: Satellite Shots Show ‘Sea of Smoke and Fire’ Blanketing Russia

I don’t know what’s more troubling — the vast size and extent of smoke and wildfires blanketing Siberia and Russia, or the almost complete silence from Russia and the mainstream media on what appears to be a massive, ongoing climate disaster (Note: NASA did provide an excellent press release via the Earth Observatory link here and below).

In 2010, Russia experienced a deadly heatwave that set off terrible wildfires that belched smoke over many of its more populous cities. These fires spread over a region closer to Europe and so they had great impacts on both property and lives. In 2012, Russia experienced a second spate of massive fires, but these raged over more remote sections of Siberia. At first, Russia was slow to respond. Then, it mobilized an army of firefighters — thousands and thousands — to fight scores of blazes raging across its large, remote Arctic regions. The smoke cloud from these fires was so large it eventually covered a section of the Northern Hemisphere from Siberia to the west coast of North America. Valleys in British Columbia filled with the stench of burning from fires thousands of miles away spurring phone calls from concerned Canadian locals to fire departments there.

Then comes 2013. From spring to summer, central Siberia sweltered under a near constant drought and intermittent heatwaves as a very high amplitude ridge in the Jet Stream enabled a powerful heat dome to form during June and then re-form during late July and early August. The late July heat surge appeared to be the final insult setting off an enormous rash of fires throughout central Siberia and Russia. By early August the number of fires raging out of control swelled to 170. Today, the number is probably closer to three hundred. Human-caused climate change is, yet again, scarring Russia with a terrible set of burn marks.

It is difficult to look at today’s Aqua satellite shot and not stand in fear and awe.

Great Burning in Russia, August 5, 2013.

Great Burning in Russia, August 5, 2013.

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

What we are looking at in this shot is the entirety of north-central Russia covered by a boiling cloud of smoke under which a massive field of fires burn. In the north, the large smoke cloud is now spilling out over the Kara Sea. In the south, we can see it just reaching northern Mongolia. In the east, a string of very large fires are roaring through tundra and boreal forest near western Kamchatka. And in the west, a broad tongue of smoke juts off the map and on toward Moscow whose skies are just starting to darken with smoke.

Though normally this massive swath of smoke would be driven eastward over Kamchatka and then into the Pacific Ocean, a combination of a very weak Jet Stream flow and powerful heat dome high pressure system is funneling this smoke westward in retrograde to the prevailing upper level wind flow. This anomalous pattern is similar to an upper level low that took a backward course over more than 3,000 miles of the US, marching all the way to the Pacific Ocean and into climate change weather weirdness history.  But, in this case, smoke from hundreds of wildfires is being driven backward against the prevailing wind flow for nearly 5,000 miles. In both the former and the latter cases, the typical Jet Stream pattern has been completely compromised as large backward eddies dominate major Northern Hemisphere regions for extended periods.

Closer in Modis shots with heat map imagery provide us with fire locations beneath the smoke dome (Hat tip to Colorado Bob for his sharp eye).

Russian Sea of Smoke and Fire West on August 4, 2013.

Russian Sea of Smoke and Fire West on August 4, 2013.

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

If you cut the ‘Great Burning’ image I posted above in half, this shot would represent its western portion. Each red dot in the image represents a single wildfire. Some, which you can identify by their smoke plumes, are readily visible. Others are entirely masked by the massive covering smoke cloud.

Great Burning Russia East

Russian Sea of Smoke and Fire East August 4, 2013

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

On the eastern side of this great burning area in Russia, we find new, very large fires raging over Arctic Siberia and spreading into Kamchatka. It is difficult to exaggerate the immense side of some of these burn zones with the largest measuring 250×250 miles at its widest points. In this image, the large scorch marks left over by some of these fires begin to become visible. But zooming in on today’s Modis image provides even more clairity:

70x30 mile scorch mark left by a single, still burning, Russian wildfire.

70×30 mile scorch mark left by a single, still burning, Russian wildfire.

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

In this shot, we find a massive 70X30 mile scorch mark scarring both tundra and boreal forest land in Arctic Siberia. Other, smaller scorch marks from past fires are also visible in this image. But this single, recent burn mark is just one of many that are now spreading out over similar regions of the Russian Arctic.

Unfortunately, heat and dry weather are expected to persist in this region for at least the next week. The forecast for Monday, August 12 calls for 77-86 degree or higher temperatures to remain in place over much of Arctic Russia with cooling confined to only the most northerly regions.

Large swath of 77-86 degree temperatures predicted to remain over Arctic Russia on Monday, August 12.

Large swath of 77-86 degree temperatures predicted to remain over Arctic Russia on Monday, August 12.

(Image source: Arctic Weather Maps)

UPDATE: FURTHER READING ON THIS EVENT FROM NASA

(Hat tip to Prokaryotes)

NASA provided an excellent report on this particular event four days ago that is well worth reading:

The summer of 2012 was the most severe wildfire season Russia had faced in a decade. 2013 might be headed in the same direction after an unusual heat wave brought a surge of fire activity in northern Siberia in July.

A persistent high-pressure weather pattern in the Russian Arctic—a blocking high—contributed to the heat wave, which saw temperatures reach 32° Celsius (90° Fahrenheit) in the northern city of Norilsk. For comparison, daily July highs in Norilsk average 16° Celsius (61° Fahrenheit). Blocking highs are so named because they block the jet stream from moving rain-bearing weather systems along their normal west-to-east path; this leads to “stuck” weather patterns with long periods of stable air and exceptional heat.

(Read more here)

 

Massive Wildfires Follow Record-Shattering Heat-Wave in Alaska

Alaskan Wildfires

(Large fires in Alaska. Image source: Lance-Modis)

A week after a record heatwave set off highest ever temperatures in Alaska, massive forest fires are blanketing vast areas of wilderness.

More than 80 fires are now raging across the state. The largest include the Lime Hills Fire at 154,000 acres and the Moore Creek Fire at 126,00o acres. In total, nearly 400,000 acres have burned so far this summer. For reference, an average full fire season in the US results in around 3 million acres burned. So the 400,000 acres for Alaska alone represents an abnormally large area burned, especially so early in the fire season and for a region at or above the Arctic Circle.

Like Colorado, where blazes resulted in record damage during June, the largest of the Alaskan fires, Lime Hills, currently threatens a local community. As of Tuesday, the fire had moved to within a half mile of the town which is located on the upper Stoney River just west of Fairbanks. About 70 firefighters are working to ensure no structures are taken by the blaze.

Though not as hot as last week, temperatures still remain in the range of record heat for interior Alaska with some regions Tuesday showing temperatures near 80 degrees (Fahrenheit). Daily record highs for this area range in the high 70s for this time of year. So record-breaking temperatures have become a day-to-day event for this Arctic region.

Fires in Alaska are a direct result of the extreme record high temperatures there. And these temperatures are also linked to a long-period warming trend caused by human-spurred global warming. Increasing heat, dryness and wildfires in vulnerable regions are just one result of the climate change caused by an excessive and continuous burning of fossil fuels. May of 2013 was the 3rd hottest on record, according to NOAA’s National Climate Data Center. Overall, temperatures are about .8 degrees Celsius above temperatures when climate records started in the 1880s. This difference is equivalent to that caused by the Little Ice Age, but on the side of hot.

Also in May, global atmospheric CO2 levels hit a record 400 parts per million. This level of Greenhouse gas is enough to raise Earth’s temperatures another 2-3 degrees Celsius long-term or about half the difference between now and the last Ice Age, but also on the side of hot. Long term results of 400 ppm CO2 also include a 75 foot rise in sea level. Unfortunately, due to a failure by the world’s leaders to enact appropriate CO2 reduction policies, CO2 levels are set to rise to around 550 parts per million by mid-century, enough to bake in a total temperature increase of around 7 degrees Celsius long-term. A virtual fire age.

Between now and then, and without proper policy measures aimed at reducing the damage, we can expect gradual but continually increasing global temperatures with increasing instances of extreme weather events.

The current Arctic heatwave is just one example of the strange climate we are creating. Let us hope that policy makers have gotten the message. We need to get to work before we set off even more dangerous events.

Links:

Crews Battle Wildfires Across Alaska

US Wildfire Data

Heat Wave Sends Temperatures in Alaska to 94 Degrees

Unprecedented West Fork Fires Explode to 60,000 Acres

What Does a World at 400 PPM CO2 Look Like?

Arctic Heatwave Sizzles Northeastern Europe With 92 Degree Temperatures, Mangled Jet Stream Hosts Record Canadian Floods, and the Persistent Arctic Cyclone is Coring Through the North Pole

It’s your typical abnormal summer day in the Arctic. The Arctic heatwave flares again, Canada tries to recover from violent record floods, and a Persistent Arctic Cyclone that began in late May is continuing to core a hole through the sea ice near the North Pole.

The Arctic Heatwave Moves to Eastern Europe

An Arctic heatwave that has skipped from Scandinavia to Alaska to Central Siberia, pushing temperatures in this polar region into the 80s and 90s (Fahrenheit), has now re-emerged to plague Eastern Europe. Temperatures in the middle 80s are once again emerging in Finland, an area that blazed with anomalous 80 degree temperatures in early June. But areas north of the Arctic Circle in nearby Russia are, this time, receiving the real baking. There, highs in the region of Archangel, near the Arctic Ocean, reached 92 degrees Fahrenheit. Out over the Kara Sea, just north of these record-hot conditions, an area still choked with sea ice experienced near 70 degree temperatures today.

Average temperatures for most of these regions range from the 40s to the 60s. So current conditions are about 20 to, in some cases, nearly 30 degrees above average.

Arctic Heatwave June 24

(Image source: Uni Koeln)

In the above weather map, provided by Uni Koeln, we can see today’s record high temperatures showing up in pink in the lower right-hand corner of the map. Note the instances of 32 and even 34 degree Celsius temperatures (which converts to 90 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit respectively).

We can also see that some of last week’s fires over Siberia, which I described here, have been put out by a massive rainstorm now dousing the region. The storm emerged as a trough surged down from the Arctic and over Siberia, setting off large storms.

Extreme Jet Stream Sets Off Floods in Canada, Forcing 100,000 to Evacuate

During the middle of last week, the convergence of two upper-level flows of the Jet Stream set off very unstable conditions over Alberta, Canada. A cut-off upper level low stalled, trapped beneath a long-period blocking pattern and dumped rain on Alberta and regions of Central Canada from Wednesday through Monday. Consistent moderate-to-heavy rainfall fell in some areas for up to 16 hours without stop. By the weekend, many places had set one day records as a swath of 2 to 7 inch rainfall blanketed a broad region. Many areas, including Calgary, received their highest rainfall totals ever recorded.

Contributing to the problem was hard, frozen ground and ongoing mountain melt filling up streams and rivers. This combination of impenetrable ground, snow melt, and ongoing, record rainfall resulted in massive floods that turned streams into torrents, roads into rapids, and stadiums into lakes. In total, more than 100,000 people were forced to abandon their homes.

This particular event is likely to see damages well in excess of 1 billion dollars and could rival the record 22 billion dollar floods that rocked Europe just last month. Jeff Masters, at WeatherUnderGround, speculates that the 2013 Canadian floods may be the most costly in that country’s history. Given the massive impact of this major flood, damage totals may exceed previous record flood impacts, at around 800 million, by well more than an order of magnitude.

Persistent Arctic Cyclone Cutting Through the Central Sea Ice

PAC 2013 June 24

(Image source: DMI)

Lastly, a Persistent Arctic Cyclone that began in late May, and has now composed numerous storms remaining in place over the Central Arctic for about a month, continues to cut a hole into the sea ice near the North Pole. The above image, provided by DMI, shows PAC composed of an old low near the Canadian Archipelago and a new, stronger low that just entered the Central Arctic.

Lowest pressures are now about 990 mb, which is somewhat stronger than the storm that lingered over the Arctic this weekend.

Impacts to central sea ice appear to be ongoing even as somewhat rapid edge melt continues. The latest model assessment and forecast from the US Navy shows a widening and thinning area of broken ice near the North Pole, one that displays much greater losses than those seen earlier in the month. A band of open or nearly open water has now emerged just on the Russian side of the 180 degree East line. As you can see, model forecasts show this area of open water continuing to widen over this coming week.

PAC2013modelforecastJul1

(Image source: US Navy)

Meanwhile, some of the thickest sea ice is also showing the corrosive impacts of these ongoing storms. In the image above, you can clearly see the invasion of ice thinner than 2 meters where 2.5, 3, and 3.5 meter ice previously dominated. In fact, in later sequences, it appears that a knife of much thinner ice begins to drive down through the relatively small pack of remaining thick ice.

The Central Arctic is extraordinarily cloudy today. So it is not possible to verify these Navy observations with visual shots. That said, the Navy projections have been both consistent and confirmed in the other monitors since early-to-mid June.

****

Any one of these extreme weather events — a heatwave in Arctic Europe, immense floods never before seen in Canada, and an anomalous storm coring through the thickest sea ice — would be evidence that human caused climate change has radically altered the weather. Instead, we have all three occurring over the span of as many days. It is a pace of extreme events that is both troubling and astounding. And each has been affected by the sea ice loss, ocean, ice sheet, and atmospheric warming, loss of summer snow cover, and extreme changes to the circum-polar Jet Stream brought about by human caused climate change.

We are in the age of extreme weather brought on by our fossil fuel use. If we are to have any hope of preventing the very worst impacts, we need to drastically begin reducing CO2 and related greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

Links:

Calgary Flood May be Most Expensive In Canadian History

Uni Koeln

DMI

US Navy

Heatwave Sends Temperatures in Alaska to 94 Degrees. Large Pulse of Warmth Envelopes Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian Seas.

Yesterday, temperatures in Prince William Sound hit upwards of 93 degrees. Communities there, including Valdez and Cordova, both set new record highs. Talkeetna hit 94 degrees, also an all-time record high for the date. Meanwhile, Seward hit a new record of 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures in the interior rose to between the mid 80s and lower 90s.

This pulse of heat was driven by a persistent bulge in the Jet Stream over the Pacific Ocean, the Western United States, and the Pacific Northwest that has been present since mid winter. The bulge has resulted in warmer than normal temperatures and drier conditions for much of the Western US while keeping temperatures warm for western Canada and Alaska. It is a blocking pattern implicated in the ongoing drought conditions in places from Colorado to Nevada and California. A pattern which sees 44% of the US still locked in drought.

Sunday and Monday, this blocking pattern enabled warm air to flood north into Alaska, setting off a record heatwave there. You may not think of 50 and 60 degree temperatures in Barrow, Alaska as a heatwave. But when average highs for June there are about 38 degrees, 50 and 60 degree weather is quite hot for this time of year.

Last Thursday saw temperatures in Barrow above 60 degrees. Today, so far, temperatures have risen to 52 degrees, though the high will probably not be reached for a few hours yet.

All this warmth is doing a number on sea ice in the region. As I posted yesterday, large, dark melt ponds and holes in the ice are now visible off Barrow. You can see them in the most recent Barrow Ice Cam shot below:

Barrow sea ice June 18

(Image source: Barrow Ice Cam)

Note the near-shore melt  as well as the large, dark holes forming and widening off-shore.

The pulse of warm air riding up into Alaska is common to a warmer air mass now pervading much of this region of the Arctic. As a result, above freezing temperatures have now invaded large sections of the Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian Seas. This warmer air is causing melt ponds to form over the region leaving their tell-tale bluish tint in the satellite pictures.

Melt Ponds Beaufort, Chukchi, East Siberia

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

In the above image you can see this bluish tint covering about half of the Arctic Ocean area represented in the picture. Also note the large and rapidly expanding area of open water north of the Bering Strait and the large and expanding cracks over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Ice of this color indicates a speckling of melt ponds and hints at the ongoing impacts of solar insolation on the sea ice. Warm conditions in this region have favored insolation for at least the past week. And persistent warmer, clearer weather is beginning to enable the sun to do some serious work on the sea ice.

Warmth is expected to continue for this area until at least next week. The latest long-range forecast from ECMWF shows above-freezing and even 50 degree temperatures plunging deep into this region of the Arctic all the way through late June.

Beaufort Warmth Late June

(Image source: ECMWF)

By June 28th we have 40 degree average temperatures extending far off-shore with above freezing temperatures covering much of this section of the Arctic. Melt in this region, therefore, is likely to be greatly enhanced as the sun is provided with an extended period during which to do its work.

Links:

Heatwave Sets Records Across Alaska

Barrow Ice Cam

Lance-Modis

ECMWF

Greenland Melt Exceeds Summer Maximum in Early June. “Storms of My Grandchildren” on the Horizon?

greenland_melt_area_plotJun11

(Image source: NSIDC)

According to reports from NSIDC, Greenland ice sheet melt had exceeded average summer maximum values by Tuesday, June 11th, about a month and a half earlier than normal.

On Tuesday, about 24% of the Greenland ice sheet had experienced melting. This value is about 1% higher than the usual summer maximum of 23% melt coverage.

2013’s early, widespread melt follows just one year after melt covered nearly all the Greenland ice sheet for days during July of 2012. 2012’s melt was the strongest for Greenland in at least 120 years. For 2013 melt values to approach or meet 2012 melt values would further reinforce a powerful increase in Greenland melt that has occurred since the 1990s. Since that time, the rate of Greenland melt has more than tripled.

June 2013 has established a trend of rapidly increasing melt that sets in place conditions for past record values to potentially be challenged. As such, it is well worth monitoring conditions as they develop.

greenland_melt_nomeltJun11

(Visual of Greenland melt coverage on June 12th. Image source: NSIDC)

Scientists now are at odds over how fast Greenland melt will increase. Some believe a linear increase in melt is most likely while others believe that exponential increases in Greenland ice sheet melt are not out of the question. Should the increasing pace of melt for Greenland continue, powerful changes in the weather, especially for Europe and North America are in store. This winter and spring’s extreme weather over much of Europe may just be a foretaste of what is to come.

Storms of My Grandchildren on the Horizon

Massive melt from Greenland by or before mid-century means large volumes of fresh water in the North Atlantic. These high volumes of fresh water could substantially slow or even halt the Gulf Stream. Present measures of Gulf Stream circulation already show the current slowing. If these trends continue, the replacement of this warm water stream with cold water from Greenland will radically alter northern hemisphere weather.

The Weather Channel provided a brief summary of some of the possible impacts of slowing Gulf Stream currents here.

Even worse, under human caused climate change, a cooling of the North Atlantic occurs at about the same time tropical and temperate region temperatures begin to rapidly rise. This creates a high gradient between cold air near Greenland and warm air directly to the south. The result, according to models, is powerful storms never seen before in human memory.

In “The Storms of My Grandchildren,” NASA scientist James Hansen warned of the potential for frontal storms large enough to span continents and packing the punch of hurricanes. Is is just these kinds of storms that rapid Greenland melt combined with intensified warming at the tropics could set off.

The conditions for these events appears to be ramping up now and could be present, in the worst case, by as soon as the 2030s. In the meantime, weather conditions are likely to continue to deteriorate as a combination of sea ice melt and Greenland ice sheet melt play havoc with traditional weather patterns.

Alterations to the Northern Hemisphere Jet Stream as demonstrated by the work of Dr. Jennifer Francis is one such change that is already present. And this alteration has already resulted in several instances of enhanced severe weather.

Meanwhile, in more southerly regions, we find that the seasons for tropical storm development are lengthening. Dr. Jeff Masters of WeatherUnderground made the following statement in reference to the early June formation of Tropical Storm Andrea:

Andrea’s formation in June continues a pattern of an unusually large number of early-season Atlantic named storms we’ve seen in recent years. Climatologically, June is the second quietest month of the Atlantic hurricane season, behind November. During the period 1870 – 2012, we averaged one named storm every two years in June, and 0.7 named storms per year during May and June. In the nineteen years since the current active hurricane period began in 1995, there have been fifteen June named storms (if we include 2013′s Tropical Storm Andrea.) June activity has nearly doubled since 1995, and May activity has more than doubled (there were seventeen May storms in the 75-year period 1870 – 1994, compared to 6 in the 19-year period 1995 – 2013.) Some of this difference can be attributed to observation gaps, due to the lack of satellite data before 1966.

So storminess increases at the tropics and storminess increases at the poles. When these two conditions meet, the potential exists for amazingly powerful and freakish storms similar to, but even worse, than Hurricane Sandy. It is the potential of global warming to set in place conditions where powerful storms can combine, persist, and expand over vast areas that is a threat we must consider as Greenland melt continues to increase, Arctic sea ice melt progresses, and warming in the tropics and temperate zones continues to expand.

Links:

NSIDC

The Weather Channel Observes Slowing Gulf Stream

The Storms of My Grandchildren

WeatherUnderground

Masters: Hurricane Season Getting Longer

%d bloggers like this: