More Signs of Gulf Stream Slowdown as Floods Devastate Cumbria, England

Back in 2009 heavy rains fell over the Northern UK. The rains, abnormally intense, pushed river levels to heights never before measured. A wall of water built-up. Surging over banks, it inundated the town of Carlisle, Cumbria, England — forcing many to flee to higher ground.

At the time, weather forecasters and climatologists wondered if there might have been a global warming link to the freak Cumbria floods. There was certainly risk. Risk that the North Atlantic would become a mess of storms as the Gulf Stream slowed down and cold air masses collided with warm — developing a raging storm track to the west of the UK. A climate situation with the potential to draw in never-before-seen rivers of moisture and set off flooding the likes of which the UK has never known. Flood defenses were shored up. New commitments were made to shift the country away from carbon emissions.

But in just six short years many of those commitments have lagged. Funding for flood defenses was cut by conservatives in the UK parliament even as similar funds for wind and solar energy were targeted in favor of fracking the countryside for natural gas. The usual litany of climate change denial spewed out of the regular conservative mouthpieces in the politics and the media. It was the height of hubris and mismanagement. And again we have a ‘never before seen’ rainstorm roaring up out of a greatly troubled North Atlantic.

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Sands Center Carlisle River Level

(On December 6 of 2015 river levels at Sands Centre in Carlisle hit 8 meters above the typical range. The previous record highest level for this river gauge was 4.5 meters — a level the new flood defense systems were designed to contain. But this week’s rainfall simply overwhelmed both flood defenses and previous expectations for the upper limits of extreme weather. Image source: Shoothill Gauge Map.)

On Saturday and Sunday of December 5th and 6th, 2015, Cumbria flooded again. An even higher flood surge than before overwhelmed the new defenses and forced residents to yet again flee. Then, just three days later on Wednesday more than two months worth of rain fell over the Cumbria region. The amount at 341 mm in just 24 hours was a new UK record and compares to average total rainfall for the month of December at 146 mm. The county was again overwhelmed by water. Human chains were formed to help bring those stranded to safety. After the waters began to subside — devastation. More than 6,000 homes were found to have been flooded with perhaps as many as 20,000 people displaced.

This was the flood UK parliamentarians swore they would fight to keep from happening again. The one conservative politicians said would never again happen in our lifetime. A flood that was worse than the terrible event of 2009 happening just six years after the first. And one that was almost certainly made worse by the dreadful alterations wrought by human forced climate change on the environment of the North Atlantic.

The Gulf Stream Slowdown and The Great New Storms of the North Atlantic

One doesn’t have to be a climatologist to see that sea surface temperature patterns in the North Atlantic are all topsy-turvy. The region of ocean to the west of the UK is cooler than normal. It’s a great cool pool once predicted by climate scientists and now made real by a human-forced warming of the world’s airs and waters. The result of an ever-increasing glacial melt outflow coming from Greenland.

image

(Temperature anomaly deltas in the region of the Gulf Stream are in the range of -5 C below average in the northern, Greenland melt-related, cool pool, and +9 C above average in a hot ribbon off the US East Coast. This overall new 14 C temperature variance from south to north is generating new atmospheric instabilities that intensify storm systems firing off in the North Atlantic. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Climate scientists have known for a long time that just such a cool pool of fresh glacial melt could play havok with weather across the North Atlantic and on to far-flung regions of the globe. And it’s just such a weather disruptor that we see developing there now. One that was originally dramatized in the film The Day After Tomorrow. But one that will all-too-likely represent centuries of catastrophic weather terminating in a new, much hotter, far more toxic, and far less life-sustaining world — rather than simply a week-long hemisphere-sized superstorm abruptly halted by a nonsensical new ice age (Please see World Ocean Heartbeat Fading).

To the south of our cool pool and on off the US East Coast we find that sea surface temperatures are screaming hot. Hot as in the range of 5-9 degrees Celsius (9-16 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal. Both the cool pool to the north and the hot pool to the south taken together are an ominous sign that the Gulf Stream is slowing down. The cool, fresh water outflow from glaciers near Greenland is interrupting a heat and salt driven over-turning there. The over-turning, which drives the Gulf Stream current, slows down. As a result, heat that would be transported northward instead backs up off the US East Coast.

What results is a kind of dipole temperature pattern that aids in storm generation over the North Atlantic. The cool pool tends to pull cold air southward from Greenland. The hot ribbon off the US East Coast tends to draw warm, moist, tropical air into collision with the trough zone south and east of Greenland. The result is a high potential for storm bombification in the region west of the UK. These storms, in turn, pull rivers of moisture up from the tropical airs to the south and over England, Ireland and Scotland. This confluence of weather sets off unprecedented storms and heavy rainfall for the UK.

Both the new North Atlantic sea surface temperature pattern and the resulting storms are not normal. They are an upshot of only recently emerging weather patterns resulting from a human-forced climate change. And, sadly, we can expect to see them continue to worsen. This year, in particular, could see some extraordinary trans-Atlantic storms as the El Nino-driven tendency for trough development and tropical air injection over the US East Coast comes into play. But overall, El Nino or no, the new dipole temperature anomaly pattern in the North Atlantic fed by Greenland melt and a related Gulf Stream slowdown will tend to keep pushing the region into a stormier and stormier pattern for the foreseeable future. The UK and its politicians should be made well aware of the consequences of their actions. Continuing to plan to burn fossil fuels is simply adding more fuel to an already raging climate fire.

Links:

The Story of the 2009 Cumbria Floods

More Rain and Flooding Expected in Northwest England

Toxic Interests: In Lead-up to Paris Summit, Conservatives Around the World are Fighting to Kill Renewable Energy

The Devastation in Cumbria

Shoothill Gauge Map

Earth Nullschool

World Ocean Heartbeat Fading

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

Hat Tip to Dr. James Hansen

Hat Tip to Neven, Jeremy, and Miles

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When the Great Ice Sheets Start Going Down — Approaching the Age of “Storms”

The great ice sheets are melting with increasing velocity. Melt ponds are forming over Greenland, then pounding heat down through the ice like the smoldering hammers of ancient Norse fire giants. Warming mid-depth ocean waters are eating away at the undersides of Antarctica’s great ice shelves. Pools of fresh water are expanding outward from the bleeding glaciers, flooding the surface zones of the world’s oceans. Sea level rise rates have jumped to 4.4 millimeters per year (see study here). And the North Atlantic Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is slowing down.

Ice mass loss all glaciers

(Accelerating ice mass loss from Antarctica, Greenland and other continental glaciers and ice caps [GICs]. Image source: Geophysical Research Letters.)

Keeping all this in mind, let’s talk a little bit about the ugly transition to phase 2 climate change. A transition it now appears we’re at the start of. The — you should have listened to Dr. James Hansen and read The Storms of My Grandchildren — phase of climate change. The awful, long, stormy period in which the great glaciers really start going down.

*    *    *    *    *

In an effort to organize how human-caused climate change may proceed, it helps to break the likely progression of human-caused climate change down into three basic phases. For this simplification we have phase 1 — polar amplification, phase 2 glacial melt and storms, and phase 3 — runaway hothouse and stratified/Canfield Oceans. For this article, we’ll focus mostly on phase 1 and 2.

Phase 1 — Polar Amplification

During the first phase, human greenhouse gas emissions gradually add heat to the atmosphere. This causes general warming that is most intense at the polar regions, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. Called Polar Amplification, this added heating at the poles occurs due to greenhouse gasses’ ability to increase the atmosphere’s heat trapping efficiency at night, when the sunlight angle is low, or during periods of dimmer light (cloudiness etc). In addition, snow and ice melt cause albedo loss at the poles and greenhouse gasses sequestered within frozen carbon stores may release during warming as ice thaws adding another kick to polar amplification (amplifying feedbacks). Due to lower volumes of continental ice, more low-albedo land mass, more vulnerable carbon stores, and closer proximity to human greenhouse gas emissions sources, the Northern Hemisphere polar zone is most vulnerable to increased rates of warming during phase 1 climate change.

Weather impacts during phase 1 include a slowing down of the jet stream due to loss of polar ice, a multiplication of slow moving weather systems, an increasing prevalence of drought and heavy rainfall events, and a slow ratcheting of the intensity of powerful storms. Phase 1 continues until ice sheets begin to become heavily involved and melt outflows greatly increase. At that point, we begin a transition to a more unstable period of human-caused climate change — phase 2.

Phase 2 — An Age of Storms

During phase 2, ever-increasing volumes of cold, fresh ice and water pulse out from the world’s glaciers. In essence, the great mountains of ice really get moving and there’s nothing left to stop them. The glacial heat content has reached a critical point and the glaciers start moving and crumbling on a massive scale. A seaward avalanche that has essentially become unstoppable due to basic inertia.

Due to highest levels of ice concentration, the regions seeing the greatest impact are areas adjacent to Greenland and Antarctica. Cold, fresh water and ice hitting these local ocean zones have numerous influences. The first is that the local fresh water acts as a lid on ocean-to-atmosphere heat transfer. As a result, atmospheric temperatures in the region near large glacial melts will tend to cool. Warm, saltier surface waters near the glacial outflows are pushed downward by the lighter, fresh water — heating the ocean bottom zone and continuing to melt the underbellies of sea facing glaciers. Ultimately, the meridional ocean circulations in the North Atlantic and in the Southern Ocean are cut off.

Deep water formation is driven toward the equator. This stops heat transport toward the poles in a number of regions resulting in equatorial heat amplification. Meanwhile, the impact of the fresh water ocean lid results in local atmospheric cooling near the glaciers — a counter-trend to a larger global warming.

Weather-wise, we see a reverse of the trends first apparent during phase 1. The cooling of surface zones near the great glaciers puts a damper of phase 1 polar amplification. Meanwhile, the southward progression of fresh surface waters shuts down the oceanic coveyors transporting heat into the polar zones. As a result we see heat building up through a kind of ocean heat transport train-wreck in low latitude regions near the equator. The combined equatorial heating and near glacier cooling increases temperature gradients and amplifies the storm track.

20121230_iceberg_cooling_effect_Hansen_Sato

(Model runs showing temperature anomalies under A1B [near RCP 6.0] scenario warming with 0.6 meter global sea level rise from glacial outflows by 2065 and 1.44 meter global sea level rise by 2080 vs only thermal expansion based sea level rise [right frame images]. Note that A1B implies about 550 ppm CO2 — a bad scenario but no-where near the worst case. Also note that these models do not include carbon store response feedbacks. Finally, the models were adjusted by adding fresh water outflows from glaciers, so this is not a prediction of rate of sea level rise, only a projection of atmospheric impacts under a given melt and ghg scenario. Image source: Greenland Melt Exponential?)

In the Northern Hemisphere, the North Atlantic sees the greatest counter-trend cooling influence in atmospheric regions due to glacial melt. Meanwhile, Arctic regions continue to see (somewhat slowed) warming conditions. The result is a shift of the center of cold air to an off-set zone more toward Greenland and a screaming storm track running oblong over the polar zone and centering over a trough in the North Atlantic. Amazing temperature differentials between the continents, the Polar zone, Greenland, the North Atlantic, the equatorial Atlantic and Africa result in the potential for continent-sized storms packing the strength of hurricanes according to a recent study by Hansen.

The storms would spin up as the unstable cold air over Greenland ravels and unravels in great frontal wings of cold air encountering the hot air roiling at the equator and building in sections of the Arctic and over the continents. Tropical storms forming adjacent to cold core storms would increase the potential for hybrid storm events. And extreme temperature gradients would provide high octane atmospheric fuel for baroclinic systems. Finally, the great melt pulses themselves would supply periods of high global thermal variance. The pre melt pulse times would see rapid warming, while the post melt pulse times would see cooling. This up-down would periodically load and then wring the global atmosphere of moisture, resulting in high risk for extreme deluge events.

Heating the Deep Ocean Sets Stage for Phase 3

Meanwhile, heat at the ocean surface is driven toward the deep ocean by the fresh water melt pulses issuing from the glaciers. So the melt outflows and storms of phase 2 climate change act as an amazing mechanism for atmosphere-to-ocean heat transfer. Which is really bad news for the health of the world ocean system.

This phase 2 climate change age of storms lasts so long as large glacial outflows still issue from Greenland (in the North) and Antarctica (in the South). Since even under the most rapid pace of human-caused warming it would take hundreds of years for the great ice sheets to go down, what we are looking at is a period of possibly centuries. Avoiding phase 2 climate change, on the other hand, involves avoiding rapid destablization of Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets. An issue we may have already pushed too hard to prevent at least some of these storm, ocean, and weather destabilization impacts.

As for phase 3 climate change — that’s a transition to a runaway hothouse and a stratified/Canfield Ocean state. And we really don’t want to see that either. But before we get there, it’s a transition to an age of glacial melt and tremendously potent storms.

Links:

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Why Greenland’s Huge Melt Lakes are Vanishing

Global Sea Level Rise, Ice Melt, El Nino

An Increase in the Rate of Sea Level Rise Since 2010

What’s Going on in the North Atlantic?

Geophysical Research Letters

Greenland Melt Exponential?

The Storms of My Grandchildren

A Fearful Glance at the Global Carbon Stores — Weekly CO2 Values Hit 404 Parts Per Million a Little Too Soon

mlo two years April 15

(Big jump in weekly CO2 averages during second week of April bring 2015 concentrations into the range of 404 parts per million a month earlier than expected. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Over the past decade, annual rates of atmospheric CO2 increase have remained in a range of around 2.2 parts per million (ppm) each year. It’s a geologically blinding pace of increase driven by a human carbon emission on the order of around 11 billion tons each and every year. Primarily driven by fossil fuel burning, this massive dumping of carbon into the atmosphere is steadily filling up a number of the world’s key carbon stores.

The oceans are brimming full with carbon — as we see in a rapidly rising rate of acidification.  The oceans are warming, steadily losing their ability to keep a higher fraction of greenhouse gasses stored in solution. The trees are lagging in their ability to draw carbon from the atmosphere — a symptom of a combined deforestation, wildfire proliferation, and endemic outbreaks of invasive species that prey on key trees. And the carbon store in the Arctic is showing signs that it may be actively venting higher volumes of greenhouse gasses back into the atmosphere and oceans.

As a leading indicator that some of these carbon stores are starting to fill up, or worse, dump a significant portion of their sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere, we would expect to see spiking levels of CO2 and CH4 in the global measures. Which is why when, starting on April 5 of 2015, Mauna Loa CO2 values shot up to around 404 to 405 parts per million in some of the hourly records, a few eyebrows were raised.

Implications of Hitting Expected Peak Values a Bit too Soon

Typically, atmospheric CO2 peaks around mid-May. And, for this year, following the 2.2 ppm increase trajectory, we would expect a May monthly value of around 404 parts per million. So readings in the range of 404 to 405 parts per million in early April are a significant jump well ahead of the expected marks. If this increase remained consistent and showed continued seasonal rise on through mid-May, it could skew April and May readings upward — well beyond a 2.2 ppm annual increase at peak.

mlo_one_month

(Consistently High CO2 values show up at the end of the monthly measure. Note the frequent hourly departures above 405 ppm. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Typically, the difference between April and May monthly values is in the range of 0.5 to 1 ppm CO2. So an April Average near 404 ppm could yield a May average of 404.5 to 405 ppm or a 2.7 to 3.2 ppm increase over 2014 peak values. A significant high departure that could be a leading indicator of a bad response from the global carbon stores. This possibility was raised as daily Mauna Loa CO2 values ranged from 403.2 ppm through 404.9 ppm from April 5 to 14 and as weekly values for April 8-14 hit 403.9 ppm.

Signal or Noise?

Of course, these admittedly worrisome spikes could well be noise in the overall carbon system. CO2 values have tended to vary more wildly in the Mauna Loa measure recently. And average rates of increase from peak to peak could still fall into the standard range.

It is also worth noting that any major disruption in the global carbon system as it relates to CO2 would also show up as a trailing indicator in the CO2 airborne fraction measure. A higher level of emitted CO2 would remain in the atmosphere as sinks began to fail and as stores became sources. Such a carbon sink failure would eventually show up as a higher airborne CO2 fraction.

Overall, the airborne fraction measure is an indicator of how much of the carbon human beings emit into the atmosphere is being taken up by the global environment:

CO2 Airborne Fraction

(Airborne CO2 fraction showing global carbon dioxide emissions [as gigatons of carbon without oxygen molecular weight added] since 1960 through 2012 and amount of emitted CO2 that has remained in the atmosphere. Image source: James Hansen and The University of Columbia.)

Currently, the amount of carbon from CO2 remaining in the atmosphere is in the range of 45% of the human emission — or around 5 gigatons.

If carbon sinks are retaining their ability to uptake CO2, then the fraction will remain relatively low. If carbon sinks are over-topping and bleeding substantial volumes of their carbon back into the atmosphere, then the airborne fraction measure will tend to rise as a trailing indicator.

During recent decades, the airborne fraction has actually fallen as emissions ramped up — probably due to a combined increase in ocean surface exposure to CO2 and to an initial bump in the rate of CO2 respiratory uptake by photosynthetic life. But considering the very high volume of carbon being dumped into the global system coordinate with a wide variety of stresses to carbon stores resulting from both added heat and chemistry changes, these carbon sinks are under ever-increasing stress. A number of scientific studies have indicated a likely rise in CO2 airborne fraction, under business as usual fossil fuel emissions, to as much as 80 percent through 2100 — with start of carbon store failures during the current decade.

If carbon stores do begin to fail, we would first see atmospheric spikes in the global CO2 and CH4 measures. Then, as a trailing indicator, the CO2 airborne fraction measure would begin to ramp up. In this context, weekly CO2 spikes at Mauna Loa are some cause for concern, but we can’t make any strong calls of a larger carbon system response without a more consistent spike and, eventually, a jump in the airborne fraction.

To this final point, I’ll leave you with the somewhat related Mauna Loa CH4 measure which has, lately, also been showing an increasing rate of accumulation for that greenhouse gas:

Mauna Loa Methane Measure 2004 to 2015

(Mauna Loa Methane measure shows ramping up of atmospheric CH4 readings at that station. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Links:

The Keeling Curve

Doubling Down on Our Faustian Bargain

Modeling The Atmospheric Airborne Fraction in a Simple Carbon Cycle Model

NOAA ESRL

Scientific Hat tip to Dr. James Hansen

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Kevin Jones

Dangerously Beyond 350: CO2 to Remain Above 400 PPM For Most of 2015

For 2015, CO2 levels will remain above the dangerous 400 parts per million level for almost 2/3 of the year. A perilous new record for a human-warmed world.

The last time global CO2 levels averaged above 400 parts per million was more than 3 million years ago during the Pliocene. A period that was just beginning to see the dawn of humankind (Australopithecus emerged about 2.5 million years ago). It was a world of 25-75 foot higher seas. A world where much of Greenland and West Antarctica was ice free. A world that took hundreds of thousands of years to settle into its climate patterns.

2014 Begins at 400 ppm +

(A bad start of 2015 — CO2 levels on January 1st exceeded 400 PPM. Most of the year will see levels in excess of this dangerously high atmospheric value. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

But the current human tool-using species that is now warming the Earth so drastically would have to wait for about 2.8 million more years and for far cooler climes to develop. And that species would set conditions for a rapid shift to climate states not seen for 3 million years in just decades through a hellish pace of fossil fuel burning.  For in just one century we’ve propelled ourselves back to that deep time. Back to a world climate state that is entirely alien to what we, and so many other animals, are accustomed to.

For this year, human fossil fuel emissions will push 2015 to reach or exceed those 400 ppm levels for around 7-8 months running. By 2016, it’s possible that 300 part per million levels — the ones that dominated our environment for most of the 20th Century — will be little more than a melancholy memory as humans face off against a series of increasingly dangerous  geophysical changes.

All set off by the inexorable burning of fossil fuels. A malpractice that simply must stop.

An All Too Steep Ramp-up Toward The Hothouse

Current human fossil fuel burning coupled with a few, still somewhat contained, environmental carbon feedbacks are enough to push an annual atmospheric CO2 increase of 2.2 parts per million each year. It’s a pace of initial greenhouse gas heat forcing never before seen in all of Earth’s geological past — even during the greatest global hothouse extinction events. The fruits of dumping 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each and every year.

petm_vs_modern_emissions

(Rate of carbon emission at more than 30 billion tons of CO2 each year vs the PETM [Note that WeatherUnderground has erroneously labeled CO2 as Carbon in the graph]– which was the most recent hothouse extinction 55 million years ago. It’s enough to push an atmospheric temperature rise on the scale of a mass extinction over the course of decades rather than millenia. It’s also worth noting that with CO2 emissions at 36 gigatons in 2013 [vs the above graph results from 2010] and CO2e emissions just shy of 50 gigatons this trajectory is even steeper than the graph depicts. Image source: WeatherUnderground.)

As a result, if current rates of burning continue or increase, we will see 450 parts per million levels well exceeded within about two decades. And that threshold will undeniably lock in at least 2 C worth of warming together with a growing carbon feedback from the Earth System itself.

484 PPM CO2e For 2015

But this drastic pace of atmospheric greenhouse gas additions doesn’t tell the whole story. For if you add up all the other gasses humans have dumped into the atmosphere, all the methane and HCFs, all the industrial chemicals, you end up with a CO2 equivalent number (CO2e) far greater than the present CO2 measure. And that CO2e measure is set to hit 484 parts per million this year (With a nearly 50 gigaton annual increase in CO2e gasses each year). A level that, if it correlates with past climates, will push warming by 1.9 C this century and 3.8 C after the entire Earth System responds. A level not seen in at least 13 million years.

A rather terrible situation to say the least. For at these levels, even the great ice sheets of Antarctica proper were much reduced and sea levels were 85-120 feet higher than they are today. And continuing to burn begs the very worst hothouse extinction consequences that come from wrecking the world’s oceans.

Very Hard Work to Get Back to 350 PPM

Near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century Dr. James Hansen, former head of GISS at NASA advised the world community that the likely safe level of global CO2 was below 350 parts per million. This assertion flew in the face of some in the international community who were pushing for an established ‘safe’ level of 450 parts per million and below. A level, of course, which would allow for the burning of quite a bit more of the world’s fossil fuel reserves.

But Hansen wouldn’t compromise. He felt it would be a betrayal to future generations. To his grandchildren. To all our grandchildren. So he set the safe limit at 350 parts per million with the caveat that we may need to reduce it further.

In 2008, during the year Hansen set the 350 parts per million level, CO2 levels peaked at around 386 parts per million. For 2015, just 7 years later, levels will peak at around 404 parts per million. A rampant increase directly in the wrong direction.

In order for rates of CO2 increase to begin to taper off, the world simply must stop burning so much in the way of fossil fuels. And even a full cessation of fossil fuel use would still result in some emissions unless both farming and construction were altered to reduce carbon emissions. Beyond this, atmospheric carbon capture through various methods to include fixing carbon capture and storage facilities to biomass generation and other land use and chemical based techniques are the most likely to be effective.

Such a transition and change is as difficult as it is necessary. For the world as we know it simply cannot continue along its current path. Hansen was right and we should have listened 7 years ago. We should have listened in 1988 at his first major climate hearing. But we didn’t. And so valuable time was wasted.

Let’s not make the same mistake in 2015.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

2015 Begins With CO2 Above the 400 PPM Mark

WeatherUnderground

2013 CO2 Emissions Will Set Record High

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

Scientific Hat Tip to Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Ralph Keeling

Mauna Loa Methane Measure Shows Rising Rates of Increase Through End 2014

Mauna Loa Methane early December

(Atmospheric methane levels as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Image source: NOAA/ESRL.)

Atmospheric methane levels as measured by the Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) showed a continued steepening rate of increase through late 2014 — featuring one rather troubling spike late last month.

The measure, which has been recording atmospheric methane levels since the middle of the 20th Century, continued to ramp higher with readings hitting an average of 1850 parts per billion by late November.

Notably, this increase is at a faster pace than yearly averages for all of the last decade.

In addition, a single spike to 1910 parts per billion took place last month. This large departure of 60 parts per billion above the average was somewhat unusual for the Mauna Loa measure. The collection site is rather far from human or Arctic emissions sources which makes it less likely to feature anomalous spikes due to local influences. This particular spike also represents the largest single departure from the base line measure since 1984 (when the ESRL record begins).

Overall drivers of the more recent increase in global methane levels beginning around 2007 come from an increase in human emissions (likely due to rising rates of fossil fuel exploitation — primarily through hydrofracking and coal mining) as well as what appears to also be an increase in Arctic emissions. Large methane sources in Siberia, over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, in the Laptev Sea, the Nares Strait, and west of Svalbard have been observed in both satellite monitors and through observations taken by scientists and researchers on the ground. Overall, a significant overburden of greenhouse gasses centers on the Arctic and appears to be enhanced by local carbon (methane and CO2) sources in the region.

More comprehensive measurements of methane releases over Alaska (according to NASA JPL), on the other hand, have not yet shown methane release departures above the global norm for land areas. But the observational record for Alaska composes just one year (2012), so there is no way to yet determine if permafrost carbon and methane releases from the tundra in that region increased to achieve their current rates. It is worth noting generally that the terrestrial zone for Alaska and its off shore region are not, as yet, major carbon release hot spots.

Global Warming Potential at Least 20 Times CO2

Methane (CH4) is an important greenhouse gas due to the fact that its global warming potential (GWP) over short periods is much higher when compared to a similar volume of CO2 (most measures consider the GWP of methane to be 20 times that of a similar volume of CO2). That said, methane’s residence time in the atmosphere is much shorter than CO2 and CO2 volumes are much larger. So CO2 is considered to be a more important gas when it comes to long term climate change. Nonetheless, CH4 increases since the start of the industrial revolution put it as the #2 gas now forcing the world to warm.

Very large outbursts of CH4 from the global carbon store (including terrestrial and ocean stores) during the Permian and PETM are hypothesized to have set off very rapid increases in global temperature. For some prominent researchers, this potential hazard is seen to be very low under current warming conditions. Others, however, seem very concerned that a rapid methane outburst under the very fast rate of human warming could be a tipping point we are fast approaching.

Observations in a Murky Scientific Context

It is important to note that the current profile of atmospheric methane increase does not yet look like one of catastrophic release. Instead, what we see is an overall ramping up of atmospheric levels.

The issue of catastrophic release potential — raised by Peter Wadhams, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, and Dr. Simeletov and Shakhova among others — is not one that is certain or settled in the science.

As an example, Dr. Shakhova identifies a substantial but non-catastrophic 17 megaton atmospheric release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (equal to about 8 percent of the human emission and a substantial increase from a previous estimate of 8 megatons per year in 2010) as currently ongoing. However, both Simeletov and Shakhova have been the object of criticism due to their identification of a risk of a 3.5 gigaton per year methane release should all the East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane hot spots become active. Such a release would, in one year, nearly double the amount of all methane currently in the atmosphere (5 gigatons).

Dr. Peter Wadhams, another Arctic expert, has also received criticism for his assessment that a 50 gigaton release from the large subsea Arctic methane stores could be possible as sea ice retreat spurs Arctic Ocean sea floors to warm.

Other scientists such as GISS lead Gavin Schmidt and prominent Earth Systems modeler David Archer have noted that such very large releases aren’t currently likely. They point to natural traps that tend to tamp down sea based release rates (sometimes stopping as much as 90 percent of a destabilized methane source from hitting the atmosphere). They also note that current warming has probably not yet exceeded levels seen during the Eemian (130,000 years ago) and no large methane releases were observed at that time from Arctic carbon stores like the ESAS. They tend to take the view that any increasing rate of release coming from Arctic methane stores in particular and Arctic carbon stores in general will be very slow — so slow as to not be a significant amplifier of human warming (less than 5 percent) this century.

In general, between these two rather extreme and increasingly polarized views on Arctic methane, there appears to be very little in the way of middle ground. Although, a loosely related survey of permafrost carbon experts found a consensus opinion that the total carbon emission (including CO2 and methane) from land based tundra alone would equal between 10 and 35 percent of the current annual human emission by the end of this Century. It’s worth noting that this survey assessment does not include potential releases from the submerged permafrost in the ESAS or releases from other global carbon stores as a result of human warming.

The current rapid pace of human-caused warming — heating some regions of the Arctic as fast as 0.5 to 1 C per decade — also caused some of Archer and Schmidt’s scientific forebears, particularly James Hansen, to be rather less dismissive of the potential for a significant release from global methane stores, especially those in the Arctic. In any case, current human greenhouse gas emissions of nearly 50 gigatons CO2e each year are now in the process of pushing global temperatures past Eemian thresholds. An excession likely to elevate Anthropocene temperatures beyond all Eemian estimates before the mid 2030s under current rates of global greenhouse gas emissions and expected increases in fossil fuel burning.

So it is in this murky scientific context that we must interpret risks involving a continuing and apparently ramping rate of atmospheric methane increase. And what we can say with certainty is that there is little evidence that we are now hitting an exponential rise in global atmospheric methane levels. But that there is some evidence that a risk for such an event is real and requires much more detailed research and public dissemination of information to put what are some very valid concerns to rest.

Links:

NOAA ESRL

Alaska Methane Survey by JPL

Growth Shock and How the Gods of Our Greed Continue to Fail Us

Number_of_Planet_Scenarios_2008

(Number of Planet Scenarios as Calculated by the World Foot Print Network. Note that according to current data, our pace of consumption currently overshoots Earth’s sustainable resource base by about 50% requiring about 1.5 Earths to meet our needs. By 2050, consumption will nearly demand the yearly productivity of three Earths. Overshoot causes irreparable harm to resources and ecosystems resulting in a collapse of the resource base. See image below.)

We are living in the age of limits, the age of consequences, the age when our quest for an endless expansion of the production of goods and services and the resulting endless concentration of wealth under pure capitalism has resulted in ever more intense degrees of Growth Shock even as it risks a devastating collapse of current day industrial civilizations.

It is a world where Western governments run by ultra-conservative political servants of the oil and gas industry engage in scientific book burning, as recently happened in Canada. A world where 85 people own more wealth than 3.5 billion of their fellow human beings. A world where it is possible for one individual to consume the same amount of resources as hundreds of thousands of his fellows.

In this world, hydrogen sulfide gas is building up in the deep ocean, a bleeding Earth is contributing its own increasing volumes of methane and CO2 to a human-caused global warming nightmare, a world where CO2 levels have passed 400 parts per million, a level not seen in 4.5 million years.

We live in a place where rock stars like Neil Young join with indigenous peoples and environmentalists in a rebellion against the fossil fuel giants who rule so much of our planet and who seek to enforce continued and increasing consumption of dirty, dangerous and depleting fossil fuels. A place where climate scientists are forced to become political activists, to risk prison sentences, to have any hope of keeping a shred of the bounty of Earth safe for their grandchildren. A world where bloggers and activists are increasingly threatened and imprisoned for expressing their previously inalienable right of free political speech.

We live in a world that is an ongoing and intensifying wreckage. A calamity caused by our worship of the failed gods of our greed, a disaster born of our turning away from our fellow man, of our loss of faith in our ability to work together through rational and representative governments, and of our dramatic failure to impose limits — both upon ourselves and upon the most criminally greedy among us.

We are living in the age of Growth Shock and on this unsustainable path the days of human civilization upon this Earth are numbered. There are no second or third Earths to which we can extend our madness that is an economic system designed to endlessly increase consumption of finite resources. There are no green fields of Mars or Venus for us to plunder. The worlds within our reach are barren and as far as even our great telescopic eyes can see across the vast expanse of space there is nothing, nothing even within an insurmountable gulf of light years, of which we could even have cause to dream of to slake our boundless want.

No. We are here. And of all the worlds within our reach fair Earth is Alone. And so we must set our task to live within our means here. To find ways to be happy that do not involve an attempt at endless, mad, and harmful expansion. That do not involve an attempt at burning all the fossil fuels and rapidly ruining our atmosphere and climate for ages and ages to come. Ours is the terrible and hopeful task of the Easter Islanders, of the residents of Tikopia — one group who succeeded in living happily and sustainably upon an island world of limited resources, and the other who desperately and miserably failed.

Our choices are as essential as they are dire and we are making them now, mostly for ill.

Environmentalists get it. Ecologists get it. Anthropologists get it. Druids get it. Scientists get it. Everyday people slaving away under minimum wage or worse get it. Those who live in the shanty towns get it. Those who live down wind of a coal plant get it. Those in West Virginia who had their water ruined get it. Those who live in fracking towns where their water is at risk or must be pumped in get it. Those in British Columbia protesting tar sands pipeline expansion get it. Some in the drying, burning west get it. Some in the storm-wracked east get it. The middle class of America who has been scape-goated and sacrificed on the alter of billionaire greed for the past 30 years should have gotten it by now. Muslims in the middle east who would have rather found water than oil get it. Christian monks who construct solar panel farms get it. South Pacific Islanders witnessing their nations being devoured by the waves get it. So many more who have been forgotten, abused, or who remain unnamed get it.

And now, an economic historian, who clearly gets it, has broken ranks from the mainstream to pen the extraordinarily brave and insightful work: Green Capitalism, the God that Failed. Consider:

We can’t shop our way to sustainability because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. In the final analysis, the only way to align production with society’s interests and the needs of the environment is to do so directly. The huge global problems we face require the visible hand of direct economic planning to reorganize the world economy to meet the needs of humans and the environment, to enforce limits on consumption and pollution, to fairly ration and distribute the goods and services we produce for the benefit of each and every person on the planet and to conserve resources so that future generations of humans and other life forms also can live their lives to the full. All this is inconceivable without the abolition of capitalist private property in the means of production and the institution of collective bottom-up democratic control over the economy and society. And it will be impossible to build functioning democracies unless we also abolish global economic inequality. This is the greatest moral imperative of our time, and it is essential to winning worldwide popular support for the profound changes we must make to prevent the collapse of civilization. A tall order to be sure. But we will need even taller waterproof boots if we don’t make this happen. If Paul Hawken, Lester Brown, Francis Cairncross and Paul Krugman have a better plan, where is it?

In the niddling little details, Richard Smith may be wrong. You can make steel without coal, for example (biomass can provide the coking carbon and electric furnaces can smelt the metal) and total renewable energy production worldwide is now 20% of overall demand (not .6 percent as stated in Smith’s report), plug in electric vehicles, especially when run by renewable power sources, do result in an overall lowering of fossil fuel emissions, and, yes, you can eventually weed out all the carbon-producing fossil fuel inputs from a manufacturing chain (just not all waste and pollution).

But all that over-pessimism aside, Smith is correct in the broad brush. Steel production is limited by its coal or biomass coking base and overall mineral and energy inputs. If you use coal, it is also limited by long-term damage to the climate and to water supplies. Manufacturing, no matter how efficient, will always produce some waste and consume some resources that are not recyclable.

Overshoot_2

(Classic ecological overshoot and degraded carrying capacity. Image source: The Elephant in the Room)

And, most importantly, any economic model requiring endless exponential growth in the consumption of labor and resources is eventually doomed to fail especially when it is primarily based, as it is today, on a set of finite materials (fossil fuels) that through their ever increasing use cause untold damage to the world in which we live. When such a model is also based on an endless funneling of wealth to the top of the economic spectrum it is socially horrific as well. A Godzilla Zombie of a thing.

To survive the age of Growth Shock will require not just a transition away from dirty, dangerous and depleting fuels. It will also require economic systems that do not demand more materials and resources than our single Earth can provide. And, in this, Mr Smith is absolutely correct. We need to reverse the trend that has so undermined both our faith in and the direct effectiveness of our systems of government. Corporatism, commercialism, and laissez faire neoliberal globalized capitalism all must vastly recede. The zero sum game must be put back into its box. Governments must be enabled to impose effective rules and constraints even as it is also enabled to redistribute wealth to its people. It must be enabled to gap fill for the industries it will most certainly have to shut down by providing alternate jobs programs and livelihoods for those who will inevitably be put out of work. It can no longer be the ineffective baby-sitter for anarchic corporations who do what they want, when they want, however they want. Either through active responsibility or passive turning away and collapse, those days are coming to an end. Lastly, the world’s civilizations must learn to work together effectively, acquiescing to rules and constraints that benefit all people.

These are tall orders. But if we wish to retain some shade of our current wealth and Earth’s current richness and beauty, if we wish to establish a powerful, capable, and effective world civilization, if we wish to pursue justice for all peoples and not just the wealthy, then we must pursue these goals with passion and ardor. For the path we are currently on has no viable future.

Despite ENSO on the Cool Side of Neutral, July 2013 was 6th Hottest on Record Globally

As a series of Arctic heatwaves baked large swaths of tundra to the point of wildfire eruption, the world entered its 341rst consecutive month of temperatures above the 20th Century average. According to reports from the National Climate Data Center, global average land and ocean temperatures were .61 degrees Celsius above 20th Century levels and about .81 degrees Celsius above the 1880s average. This temperature increase represents about 1/6th the difference between now and the last ice age, but on the side of hot.

July 2013, 6th Hottest Globally.

July 2013, 6th Hottest Globally.

(Image source: NCDC)

NCDC analysis showed a majority of land and ocean surfaces experiencing hotter than average to much hotter than average conditions with numerous locations experiencing record warmest conditions. Only small and isolated regions experienced cooler than average conditions, with no areas experiencing record cold.

The near-record global heat occurred despite ENSO conditions in the Pacific Ocean remaining on the cool side of neutral with near-average sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central equatorial Pacific and below-average sea surface temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific. The cool water upwelling that continues over the eastern equatorial Pacific tends to depress global atmospheric temperatures by transferring heat content from the atmosphere to the sub-surface ocean. Such trends tend to dominate during negative phases of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). These negative PDO periods are punctuated by numerous La Nina or cooler surface water conditions in the eastern equatorial Pacific. The Earth climate system has been in a negative PDO phase since the early 2000s, a phase which continues to this day. Despite the relative atmospheric cooling effects of this natural ocean circulation and temperature change, the decade of the 2000s was the hottest on record. Natural variability, which in this case would push for atmospheric cooling, had been overwhelmed by human-caused warming.

The dark side of a negative PDO is that it keeps the atmosphere relatively cooler at the expense of transferring more surface heat into the middle and deep oceans. Recent research conducted by Kevin Trenberth and others found just such a rapid heat transfer. The most ominous finding of the Trenberth study was that the deep ocean warmed the fastest over the most recent period of negative PDO, which showed that the ocean had a very effect means of rapidly transferring heat. A rapidly warming deep ocean is one more vulnerable to becoming stratified and anoxic — events that, in the past, have been implicated as causes for mass extinctions both in the ocean and on land.

We don’t currently know exactly when PDO will switch from a negative to a positive state. However, past PDO fluxes would indicate a switch is in the offing sometime during the next 2 to 17 years. Normal oscillations switch after remaining for periods of 15-30 years and the current negative phase has lasted for about 13 years. However, increasing atmospheric heat content may, ironically, drive the Pacific into an increasingly negative phase as it uptakes more and more of the atmospheric heat imbalance. Eventually, though, PDO will switch, dumping some of the excess heat back into the atmosphere. At that point, atmospheric warming rates will spike as more frequent La Ninas switch to more frequent El Ninos.

You can see the current state of ocean surface heat anomaly distribution with relatively cooler than average waters still dominating the region of the eastern equatorial Pacific in the map below:

Ocean Heat Anomaly for August 20, 2013

Ocean Heat Anomaly for August 20, 2013

(Image source: NOAA)

ENSO has remained neutral since 2012 and is predicted to remain so as summer proceeds into fall. With human atmospheric GHG levels continuing to rise and to push atmospheric forcing levels higher and with Earth Systems starting to contribute larger volumes of CO2 and methane, especially from Arctic environments, it is possible that ENSO neutral years over the coming decade may experience record warmth. In any case, the next El Nino year will almost certainly break global records.

It is important to note that changes in PDO are not a negative or positive feedback human warming of the climate system. PDO is simply an element of natural variability. Unfortunately, most feedbacks, including albedo loss and Earth carbon feedbacks, under human warming will be positive. That said, a single powerful negative feedback may be in the offing over the medium to long term. And this involves large fresh water and iceberg releases from Greenland and West Antarctica. Called the iceberg cooling effect, this feedback response may hold some degree of human warming and Earth Systems feedback warming in check at the cost of a very rapid and destructive ice sheet destabilization and sea level rise occurring in conjunction with related extreme weather events (see Hansen paper below).

Overall, 2013 is the 6th hottest year on record for the January to July period, according to NCDC, despite somewhat cooler eastern Pacific waters continuing to uptake excess heat and dump it into the middle and deep oceans during this time-frame. A combined warmth at or near record ranges and ocean uptaking record volumes of atmospheric heat is not an indication of cooling or a global warming pause, as some climate change deniers have alleged. To the contrary, it is an indication of a planet warming at break-neck rates and beginning a very dangerous trend toward a number of damaging Earth changes. Mitigation, in the form of rapid GHG reduction, is sorely needed if we are to have much hope of blunting the force of these emerging changes.

Links:

NCDC’s Global Analysis

NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory

The Total Measure of Human Warming: Heating Atmosphere, Warming Oceans, Melting Ice

James Hansen: Update of Greenland Ice Mass Loss — Exponential?

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse

 

 

Global Warming Rolls Climate Dice Yet Again: High Amplitude Jet Stream Wave Brings Late July Melt Surge to Greenland

The old cliche is that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. In weather and climate terms, natural variability makes it highly unlikely that record year will follow record year, even when a forcing, such as human global warming, tends to push in that direction.

In the context of Greenland, it was very unlikely that record melt on the order of around 700 gigatons of ice lost during 2012 would repeat in 2013.  That said, even in a year like 2013, where climate attempts a return to the average trend line, it’s entirely clear that conditions are anything but normal.

Throughout late June and much of July, a downward dip in the Jet Stream dominated weather patterns over Greenland. Cold, Arctic air was locked over the massive island, pushing melt rates closer to ‘normal’ for a summer season. The term to use is definitely ‘closer,’ because even during weather conditions that would normally bring colder than average conditions to Greenland, warmth and melt were still above average.

Global warming adds a roll

A metaphor we can use to describe this phenomena of implied variability in a warming system is James Hansen’s climate dice. Imagine that a basic roll of a d10 gives us a typical weather pattern for Greenland. 1 on the dice represents record cold, 10 record warmth, 2 and 3 are colder than average, with 2 being near record lows and 3 being closer to average, 4, 5, 6 and 7 are average, 8 and 9 are hotter than average, and 10 is record heat.

This set of weather and climate possibilities is a basic representation of ‘normal’ for Greenland. But when we add in human climate change and global warming, we are essentially adding a new player to the mix, with its own set of dice. In this case, let’s add a 1d3 to the global warming hand. Now, with the extra dice roll for global warming, the potential for extreme hot, melting years just got far, far more likely and we begin to experience never seen before heat and melt events. But we still end up with colder than average years and normal years, just less of them.

The situation is probably worse than the simulation described above because on the typical 1 to 10 scale we can label 2012 about a 13 (with freakish never seen before record heat and melt) and 2013 through about July 26th a 7.1 — slightly hotter than average with ever so slightly above average melt.

The problem is that June and July were average when they should have been cold. I say this because a high amplitude wave in the Jet Stream flowed down over Greenland, pushing relatively colder air over the sea ice and into the freezer that is still Greenland. Such conditions usually push for colder than average Greenland temperatures and lower than average melt. This period of what should have been colder than average conditions instead resulted only in an abatement of record melt and a return to slightly above average melt.

Mangled Jet Stream switches back to ‘hot’

But now, even this brief respite appears to have evaporated. Over the past couple of weeks, the deep, cooler trough over Greenland eroded, weakening as warmer air pushed into southern Greenland. Now, the trough has completely reversed — becoming a ridge and somewhat mimicking the freakish conditions that occurred during 2012. So slightly above average melt conditions are now starting to swing back toward record melt conditions for this time of year.

You can see the large, high amplitude bulge riding from south to north, carrying air from the south-eastern US all the way north to Baffin Bay and southwestern Greenland, in the Jet Stream map for July 30th below:

Greenland Jet

(Image source: California Regional Weather Service)

This sudden Jet Stream switch brings back a weather pattern that caused such major melt conditions during summer of 2012 and such warm winter conditions for Greenland as 2012 turned to 2013. And the results, as far as ice melt goes, have been almost immediate. Earlier melt peaks at around 34% of the ice sheet during July were obliterated in one fell switch of atmospheric air flow that, once again, drew warm, temperate air into the Arctic.

Over the past two days, this extra warmth has increased Greenland melt area to above 40%, peaking at near 45% just a couple of days ago. This peak, though not as anomalous as the 90% + melt coverage experienced during early July of 2012, is still about 80% higher than the average melt peak observed for the period of 1981-2010 and more than double the average for melt in late July. It also puts Greenland further into above average melt year territory, possibly shifting the 2013 score from 7.1 to around 8.5.

You can see the melt coverages graph, provided by NSIDC, for the current year below:

Greenland Melt 2013 Late July

(Image source: NSIDC)

The warm air pulse that drove these anomalously high late season melt rates in Greenland appears to have settled in for at least the time being. Temperatures along the Greenland coast range from the upper 30s to the lower 60s — quite warm for this time of year — while summit Greenland is experiencing warmer than average temperatures in the lower 20s (Fahrenheit).

Above average melt when it should have been cold

So what is freakish about 2013 when compared to 2012 is not that it matched a major melt event that will likely stand as a record for the next five years or so, but that in a year where weather conditions would have pushed Greenland to be mostly colder than normal, above average warmth and melt were still experienced. In this case, it becomes very clear that we are rolling with loaded climate dice or, as the illustration above shows, human global warming is adding its own wicked set of rolls.

Links:

California Regional Weather Service

NSIDC

James Hansen’s Climate Dice

Learn about Dark Snow

The Economist Continues its Wallow Through Climate Sensitivity Denial

Good News...

Delaying action on climate change is suicidal. Yet the Economist wants you to believe it’s not such a big deal.

(Image source: League of Conservation Voters)

In desperately scanning through the IPCC’s preliminary 4th assessment report for any shred of good news, perhaps in hopes of delaying a transition away from fossil fuels that needs to begin now and complete by 2030-40 if we’re to have much hope of ensuring a climate in which human civilization won’t face catastrophe, The Economist found a bright little cherry. It reproduced a preliminary graph from a non-physical sciences group showing lower than scientific consensus estimates for temperature increase through 2100 and conflated it with an entirely Economist-manufactured news item erroneously stating scientists are finding climate sensitivity is lower than previously expected (Hint: it’s not).

I’m not going to re-publish the graph, as it’s entirely misleading, but I will re-publish what The Economist says about it:

Still, over the past year, several other papers have suggested that views on climate sensitivity are changing. Both the 2007 IPCC report and a previous draft of the new assessment reflected earlier views on the matter by saying that the standard measure of climate sensitivity (the likely rise in equilibrium temperature in response to a doubling of CO2 concentration) was between 2°C and 4.5°C, with 3°C the most probable figure. In the new draft, the lower end of the range has been reduced to 1.5°C and the “most likely” figure has been scrapped. That seems to reflect a growing sense that climate sensitivity may have been overestimated in the past and that the science is too uncertain to justify a single estimate of future rises.

Note the Economist’s highly speculative use of the words ‘suggest’ and ‘seemed.’ And ‘scientists,’ in this case, apparently include only those on the low end of climate sensitivity estimates, rather than the more likely to be accurate consensus range. Research on the middle or high end, likewise, is completely ignored.

Quibbling Over Equilibrium Sensitivity

The Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS) The Economist refers to is how much Earth temperatures are expected to rise when one includes fast feedbacks such as atmospheric water vapor increase and the initial greenhouse gas forcing provided by CO2. Consensus science, despite The Economist misinforming us to the contrary, finds Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity to be about 3 degrees Celsius for each doubling of CO2. So we get around 3 degrees Celsius of rapid warming at 550 parts per million, according to mainstream science. The Economist’s misleading quibble is trying to suggest that this level is closer to 2 degrees Celsius or the ludicrously unsupportable 1.5 degrees Celsius. Measures that, even if it were true (it’s not), would buy us, at most, another decade or two of business as usual emissions.

As unfortunate as the Economist’s cherry picking has become, it doesn’t even melt the tip of the iceberg or permafrost, for that matter. Because if you include the ‘slow feedbacks’ that ECS leaves out you end up with double the amount of warming long-term. So 550 parts per million gets us to a scorching 6 degrees Celsius Earth Systems Sensitivity (ESS) once melting ice sheets, methane release, and permafrost thaw are included (consensus estimates, not what The Economist cherry picked). The Economist also seems to ignore the blatant fact that such feedbacks are emerging now. Amplifying methane release in the Arctic has been visible since the mid 2000s and Greenland and West Antarctic melt rates have been increasing at an exponential rate since about 1995.

Confirming these observations is a new paper showing Greenland ice sheet response is happening faster than scientists expected. With the Greenland ice sheet melting like butter now and not 100 years from now as IPCC originally expected, the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity measure and its inherent assumption that ice sheet and tundra response will be slow, seems to be shaping up as too conservative. Yet, The Economist remains enchanted with the notion of warping these already conservative estimates to pad its own, more comfortable, view of reality.

How’s the sand you’ve got your head buried in, Economist? Soft and white? Watch out, heads buried in the sand tend to bake these days.

What should be the news all responsible mags are reporting is that the ‘slow feedbacks’ aren’t really so slow after all. Under the very rapid pace of human forcing of at least 10 times anything we can find in the geological record Greenland melt, Antarctic melt, tundra melt and methane release are coming into play now. All taken together, they will more than double the human forcing. Terrifying news that should have all responsible persons and governments pushing for a rapid response, not grasping for the lowest hanging cherries in the science reports.

So the real measure we should be concerned about now is the one that includes all or most of the feedbacks — the Earth Systems Sensitivity (ESS) we noted above. The real total estimate of warming that is at least twice the academic ECS estimate The Economist so desperately tried to water down.

Yet the magazine behaves well contrary to prudent logic as it merrily runs with its false claim that climate scientists are saying ‘we’re sorry we scared you, climate sensitivity is less than we previously expected.’ Sad to say, The Economist is entirely involved in the now too common journalistic sin of climate science misinformation via massaged data.

Joe Romm notes:

The good news is that The Economist article might be less dreadful than it could have been. For instance, I didn’t find any typos…

The Economist seems blissfully unaware that while the Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation (!) and add up to 1.5°F to warming in 2100 by itself, “Participating modeling teams have completed their climate projections in support of the [IPCC’s] Fifth Assessment Report, but these projections do not include the permafrost carbon feedback.

The Economist also seems blissfully unaware of the fact that we are currently close to the 1000 ppm emissions pathway. And The Economist also seems blissfully unaware that stabilizing anywhere near 450 ppm atmospheric concentration of CO2 would require immediate and sustained action to replace the world’s fossil fuel system with one based on carbon-free energy — precisely the kind of aggressive action this piece seems designed to undercut.

For my part, I’d prefer more typos and less misleading information on the science.

Perhaps The Economist should take a look at the best of the best among climate scientists — notably James Hansen who warns that Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity is at least 3 degrees Celsius and that this estimate is probably conservative. Hansen finds that under business as usual greenhouse gas emissions we reach a scorching 7 degrees Celsius warming and very catastrophic 1,000 parts per million CO2 by the end of this century (if we somehow manage to hold industrial civilization together after we blow through 2, 4 and 6 degrees Celsius worth of warming, which is highly unlikely). The final warming in such a case, Hansen shows, would be between 10 and 14 degrees Celsius — enough to trap the climate in a PETM-type warming in less than one century, and blast humans with large areas of lethal 35 degree Celsius or greater wet bulb temperatures. A mass extinction event for us humans and all other life too.

Michael Mann, another top climate scientist The Economist ignores by sticking its fingers in its ears and chanting ‘nanananana’ notes:

Among other things, the author [of the Economist’s report] hopelessly confuses transient warming (the warming observed at any particularly time) with committed warming (the total warming that you’ve committed to, which includes warming in the pipeline due to historical carbon emissions). even in the best case scenario, business as usual fossil fuel burning will almost certainly commit us to more than 2C (3.6 F) warming, an amount of warming that scientists who study climate change impacts tell us will lead to truly dangerous and potentially irreversible climate change. the article does a disservice to Economist readers by obscuring this critical fact. Sadly, it is hardly the first time in recent history that the Economist has published flawed and misleading stories about climate change.

Mann shows that The Economist clearly misses some very basic principles of climate science by confusing projected warming at a particular point in time with final warming. And that’s a big problem. Because temperatures will continue to move higher for decades, even if we were to halt emissions immediately, which is clearly not in the Economist’s plans. The Economist’s plans, instead, seem to include locking in more dangerous exploitation of fossil fuels.

Since the Economist clearly can’t handle ECS, it should stick with Paleoclimate, which is much less murky. And by looking back into Earth’s geological history we find temperature increases at these ranges for these levels of carbon dioxide:

350-400 parts per million: 3 degrees (C) worth of temperature increase long-term (Greenland and West Antarctica melt).

400-450 parts per million: 4 degrees (C) worth of temperature increase long-term.

450-500 parts per million: 5 degrees (C) worth of temperature increase long-term.

500-600 parts per million: 6 degrees (C) worth of temperature increase long-term (No major glacial ice left).

600-700 parts per million: 7 degrees (C)…

700-800 parts per million: 8 degrees (C)…

800-1200 parts per million: 9-12 degrees (C)…

Add to these observed past warming levels the fact that the rate of forcing was much slower than the human rate of forcing. So if more forcing means more feedback, even the harsh Paleoclimate evidence is too conservative a measure. Hansen and others warn of ‘unexpected consequences’ from the rapid pace of human forcing. And it would ‘seem’ that one of these nasty surprises is an already observed faster than usual rate of ice sheet and methane response.

Climatologist Kevin Trenberth is another scientist The Economist seems to be happy to ignore. But, perhaps, they should listen and learn something. In a letter to Joe Romm, Kevin stated:

The Working Group III IPCC report [on mitigation which the Economist used in its most recent attempt to misinform on climate sensitivity] is no where near final, the final draft has not even been produced yet. Moreover WG III is not responsible for making any statements about climate sensitivity and have no business doing so. The IPCC parallel process hinders exchanges among WGs and the WG I results [on the physical science basis]may not be available to WG III, but will be in due course as there is some staggering of the reports. In the meantime, the Economist report is irresponsible.

So The Economist is, in essence, bending over backwards to manufacture its own data. And after past media mistreatment of the last IPCC report, should we be surprised?

To this point, I would add that the responsible action would be to err on the side of caution, not on the side of laissez faire. In markets, laissez faire often leads to monetary collapses the consequences of which are often recessions. In the case of climate change, laissez faire leads to your civilization, species and large swaths of the natural world in complete wreckage.

We know what the long-term consequences of a certain level of CO2 are. And we know that slow feedbacks might not be so slow under the fast forcing regime we’ve subjected the Earth’s climate to. We also know that we have very little wiggle room for human comfort and prospertity — at best 2 degrees Celsius of warming. So why would we want to, as The Economist does, downplay the problem and risk a dangerous delay of action?

With dangerous and difficult consequences emerging now, we would be insane to follow The Economist’s implicit and falsely comforting advice. Trenberth is right. The report is dreadfully irresponsible as it weakens the case for a necessary and urgently needed response to the harm that is surely coming.

James Hansen and the Three Categories of the Runaway Greenhouse: Earth Uninhabitable for Humans at ~5,000 Gigatons Fossil Fuel Burned

Runaway Global Warming

The Arctic’s Contribution to Runaway Global Warming (hypothetical worst-case runaway) . The above image provides a potential worst-case scenario for amplifying Arctic methane feedbacks to human-caused climate change. James Hansen’s research shows that a mini-runaway, pushing global temperatures to 10-12 degrees C above the Holocene, is all but certain under continuous, business as usual, fossil fuel burning through 2100. It is important to note that the current non CO2 forcing is equal to about 1/3 of the total CO2 forcing and that atmospheric methane releases are at 1/20th the level we would see during a runaway of the kind depicted in this image.

( Image source: Arctic News)

Forget for a moment that we can still emit about 530 gigatons of CO2 and still keep human warming in the ‘safe range’ of less than 2 degrees (Celsius) temperature increases this century. Forget for a moment how important to the sustenance of human civilization and the prevention of ever-worsening conditions this strict limit on carbon emissions is. Now think for a moment what will happen if Republicans in Congress and fellow conservatives aligned with fossil fuel companies across the country and around the world get their way.

In the past month, Republicans in the House of Representatives have pushed to increase US coal burning, approve the Tar Sands Keyston XL Pipeline, remove energy efficiency standards, and to slash US government (ARPA -E) R&D funding for new renewable energy technology by 80 percent. Fully 55% of all Republicans in the US Congress deny that human caused warming even exists. And the rest clearly are deluded enough to believe that it represents the climate version of a mild summer storm. Their legislative action over the past month, the past year, and for many years following that has been to enforce US dependence on oil, gas, and coal and to delay, diffuse and deny US access to new energy sources that may effectively serve as their replacements. And the millions of dollars in oil, gas and coal company largess they enjoy in the form of contributions is just the final proof that these members aren’t working for the best interests of the American people. They’re working for the international corporate state called Big Oil (BO).

So let’s consider for a moment what would happen if these BO lackeys in Congress were successful in their efforts to kill off alternative energy, to remove efficiency standards, and to shackle the US Energy future to Tar Sands, Coal, and Fracked Shale Oil and Gas.

What would happen?

It’s difficult to argue, given the current extreme and worsening state of the world’s climate, that blind Republican attempts to enforce dependence on BO would result in much in the way of US prosperity. It, essentially, would turn the entire North American Continent into a giant petro-state. It is possible that, for some years, the US will make some energy independence gains, possibly removing a larger fraction of imports from most states except Canada. But the loss of efficiency standards would do ongoing damage by increasing consumption of high-cost unconventional fuels, which would put a drag on the economy. The even greater drag would come from shackling US and North American economies to ever greater degrees to fuel sources, at best, that create a 6 to 1 energy return, where wind and solar could have supplied between 10 and 20 to 1 at ever-lower costs.

Worse still, is the fact that US and Canadian carbon emissions would go through the roof. Tar Sands, Coal, and Tight Shale Fracking are three horsemen of the apocalypse when it comes to climate change change (the fourth being fossil fuel company greed). Coal has always been the worst emitter. But both Tar Sands and Tight Shale Fracking are not far behind. The Republicans would have us depend on these, arguably vast, unconventional sources to the exclusion of all others. They wouldn’t care one whit about capturing the carbon (costs too much and reduces the energy return on already low energy fuels). And, adding yet one more insult, they allow BO to export the fracking and tar sands technologies to other countries consigning them and the world to similar fates.

Total carbon emissions in 2012 (including non CO2 sources) was 45 gigatons. But on the path Republicans set, this level of emission will look minor. Peak emissions would probably pair with peak human civilization at some time around 2050 near 80-90 gigatons per year. At this point, emissions are put in check by mother nature’s outrage at our insults. By 2050, the ‘burn everything’ strategy put in place by Republicans and enforced by conservatives around the world has resulted in near 600 ppm atmospheric CO2. Life in the oceans is in terminal collapse, major cities and island nations are being devoured by a combination of powerful storms and rising seas. The coastlines, for so long productive, have become unstable. And large regions of once fertile land are now being devoured by deserts. Water stress has caused entire countries to collapse. Mass migrations from both the coastlines and from desertified regions has already set in. Human population peaks at about this time near 10 billion.

But over the next 50 years humans maintain enough vestige of prior fossil-fuel based civilization to keep burning. They expend massive efforts to encircle coastal cities with walls. They try to farm indoors more and more. Miami is placed on giant oil platforms (we have more than enough in surplus) whose bases are driven into the limestone beneath the city. The New Orleans’ tidal wall is heightened to 30 feet. New York and the all important Wall Street is surrounded by increasingly high flood barricades. But the massive storms of this age are freakish, wrecking entire regions and knocking out power for weeks to months. Storms and heatwaves kill millions each year and millions more are rendered homeless. Entire countries collapse for want of food or under a tide of refugees they cannot support.

By 2100, CO2 is at 1000 ppm and global temperatures are 7 degrees (Celsius) hotter. Fossil fuel based industry has emitted about 5,000 gigatons of carbon, enough to set off the stages for a mini runaway global warming scenario (Category 1). Sea levels have risen 12 feet and Earth’s population has been reduced to 6 billion. 40% of ocean species are extinct and 10% of land species have suffered the same fate. Summer time results in the emergence of large heat death zones experiencing wet bulb temperatures in excess of 35 degrees Celsius (hot enough to kill most large mammals, including humans, through heat stress alone). Even if all emissions ceased, global temperatures would still rise to around 12-14 degrees Celsius hotter than the Holocene. There is almost no chance, in this case, for human civilization to survive such an insult for more than another 50-100 years. And the chances for humans, long term, are dire indeed.

But the world’s fossil fuel companies are still around, still clawing coal, fracked oil and gas, tar sands, oil shale, and methane hydrates  from the Earth with whatever new high tech process they’ve invented. These manage to survive for another 50 years or so selling off enough dirty fuels to set world CO2 levels to 1500 ppm. And that’s when game over really sets in for just about everything that can’t run to a high mountain range.

Fossil fuel based industry had managed to survive just long enough to emit more than 8,000 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. Just long enough to kill off the rest of us and themselves too.

Three Categories of Runaway Warming

The above scenario isn’t science fiction. According to some hard science done by the world’s top climate scientists, it is entirely likely if Republican burn, baby burn policy and the fossil fuel companies that push it survive in their current forms for much longer.

Hansen’s new paper is a more in depth study of Earth Systems Climate Sensitivity to a given level of CO2 forcing. The study looks, with greater detail, into both how much Earth will warm, long term, given a certain level of CO2 emission and how much of this emission is required to set off one of three categories of a runaway greenhouse.

In a less than ideal scenario, Hansen investigates what will happen if we burn all or nearly all the fossil fuels currently included in the unconventional reserves. All, or nearly all, according to Hansen represents between 5,000 to 10,000 gigatons of carbon equivalent fuels. Chillingly, if we tap the most extreme sources, such as methane hydrates, that number could rocket to 20,000 gigatons or more. So even Hansen’s study isn’t an extreme worst case.

Category 1: The Mini-Runaway

The Hansen paper finds that burning between 3,500 and 6,500 gigatons of carbon based fuels is enough to raise world CO2 levels to between 800 and 1200 parts per million. This level of CO2 would set up climate conditions similar to those experienced during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) in which temperatures were between 10 and 12 degrees Celsius hotter (average) than today.

Hansen finds that this level renders much of the Earth mostly uninhabitable for humans. Hansen notes:

Earth was 10-12 °C warmer than today in the early Eocene and at the peak of the PETM (Fig. 4). How did mammals survive that warmth? Some mammals have higher internal temperatures than humans and there is evidence of evolution of surface-area-to-mass ratio to aid heat dissipation, e.g., transient dwarfing of mammals (Alroy et al., 2000) and even soil fauna (Smith et al., 2004)during the PETM warming. However, human-made warming will occur in a few centuries, as opposed to several millennia in the PETM, thus providing little opportunity for evolutionary dwarfism to alleviate impacts of global warming. We conclude that the large climate change from burning all fossil fuels would threaten the biological health and survival of humanity, making policies that rely substantially on adaptation inadequate.

It is also worth noting that much of the world’s land masses would experience average summer temperatures above the mammal-killing level of 35 degrees Celsius (wet bulb) in a PETM-like world. The added heat of this regime would swiftly soften and obliterate any ice on the planet. But given the killing heat and a hydrological cycle driving droughts and rainfall events that are 80% more extreme, a rapid sea level rise of 200+ feet would likely come as a harsh afterthought. (To this point, it is worth mentioning that most planetary ice disappears when CO2 levels hit and maintain between 500 and 620 parts per million over a number of centuries).

Nearly all climate scientists agree that a return to PETM conditions and CO2 levels, especially on so short a time-scale would be a mass extinction event on the land and in the ocean. Which is why policies that extend the burning of fossil fuels combine the travesties of ecocide, genocide, and suicide in equal measures and to ever greater degrees as time moves forward.

Category 2: The Moist Stratosphere Runaway

If the fossil fuel companies manage to stick around long enough, they may be able to burn through between 8,000 and 15,000 gigatons of additional carbon-based fuels. Such an event would almost certainly spell the end for human beings and probably most of the complex life on Earth as well.

In such a situation, average global temperatures rise by between 15 and 20 degrees Celsius. A 15 degree Celsius temperature rise increases temperatures over land by around 20 degrees C. This puts Earth’s average land temperatures at around 35 degrees Celsius with average daily (wet bulb) highs in the range that is hot enough to kill humans. The entire Earth, in this case, is an enormous human killing field.

The only regions able to even marginally support human life or agriculture would be the high mountains. But even these regions would be under threat. Global heating of around 15 degrees Celsius or greater would pump ever greater levels of moisture into the stratosphere. The added H20 would substantially degrade stratospheric ozone. The added UV radiation would severely hamper both plant and animal life in the remaining habitable regions. Human food crops are highly sensitive to excess UV radiation. So it is seriously doubtful if humans could continue cultivation even on the Himalayan Plateau during a Category 2 Runaway.

Category 3: Evaporated Oceans, Baked Crusts

Thankfully, even the fossil fuel companies aren’t likely to bring about even the worst of the climate change nightmares — Earth transitioning to a state more like Venus. In order to do that, global heating would have to evaporate all of Earth’s oceans and then bake the remaining carbon out of the Earth’s crust. According to new models constructed by Hansen, such conditions would take between 100 million and one billion years to develop. Hansen’s models also show that climate sensitivity is not enough, at the higher CO2 levels, to finally set off the kind of runaway that would force such catastrophic events to occur.

That said, the first two categories of global warming runaway are well within the reach of current fossil fuel reserves. And the fact that all fossil fuel companies are doing everything they can to burn all the reserves on their books and to find ever greater quantities of these fuels is not at all comforting, especially when they have a number of hired trolls in Congress and elsewhere (Republicans) to do their dirty work for them…

Links:

New Hansen Paper on Climate Sensitivity, CO2 and Sea Level Rise

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

Greenland Glacial Melt Rapidly Increasing, So Why is Andrew Revkin Telling us No Policy Response Necessary?

In 1995, Greenland contributed no melt water to global sea level rise. By 2012, melt had increased rapidly to more than 7 mm. By comparison, Antarctica contributed about 4 mm by 2012. Ever since 2003, melt rate growth from Greenland has outpaced that of Antarctica.

In total, Greenland contains enough ice to increase world sea levels by about 6 meters or 20 feet. Quite a lot of water. By comparison, West Antarctica, which is most likely to melt alongside Greenland due to human-caused global warming, contains enough ice to raise sea levels by about 5 meters (16.5 feet). The last time greenhouse gasses were as high as they are today, both these ice stores melted. Along with thermal expansion of water and additional contributions from mountain glaciers and other parts of Antarctica, total sea level rise at around 400 ppm CO2 was about 75 feet.

As the globe warms due to human-caused climate change, we can expect increasing outflows of water from both Greenland and West Antarctica. To prevent such changes, at the very least, will require serious improvements to world energy and climate policy. And so monitoring ice melt in these regions cannot be entirely divorced from the need for such policy if we are to maintain a world with stable coastlines, a world in which states and nations aren’t at risk of being wiped off the face of the Earth by rising waters.

So one wonders why Andrew Revkin recently made this statement in his dotEarth blog:

“The dramatic surface melting [in Greenland], while important to track and understand has little policy significance.”

Revkin’s statement has to do with a recent ice core sample study which found that, during the Eemian, the last inter-glacial period, Greenland melted ‘only’ enough to increase sea levels by 1-2 meters. The study did not conclude, as Revkin did, that Greenland ice melt caused by increases in greenhouse gas emissions would follow the same pattern as it did in the Eemian. Nor did it recommend, as Revkin did, divorcing policy from observations of increasing Greenland ice melt.

Revkin’s argument and assertions aren’t new. In fact, James Hansen in his most recent paper on Greenland and West Antarctic ice melt cautions that melt in Greenland is not likely to follow the same pattern as the Eemian and that inland glaciers aren’t so buttressed from ocean influence as some suppose. Even more disturbing is the fact that some climate change deniers tend to use the Eemian to support some of their own, non-scientific, arguments.

Professor Richard Alley, whom Revkin interviewed in his blog, had his own response to this point by Revkin:

“We have high confidence that warming will shrink Greenland, by enough to matter a lot to coastal planners.”

In other words, Greenland melt has serious policy implications for coastal planners (and many more people, for that matter). A recent report found that Miami may well not be a viable city before the end of this century and, possibly, before it is even half over. Much of south Florida and many low-lying regions of the world are likely to suffer similar fates.

In general, it is not a good idea to suppose that current melt trends will mirror those of the Eemian. Nor that melt will be as gradual as some expect. Nor that we should not base policy decisions on an observable and increasing danger of damaging sea level rise.

Links:

http://www.meltfactor.org/blog/?p=811

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/11/30/1260591/science-stunner-greenland-ice-melt-up-nearly-five-fold-since-mid-1990s-antarticas-ice-loss-up-50-in-past-decade/

http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/24/eyes-turn-to-antarctica-as-study-shows-greenlands-ice-has-endured-warmer-climates/

Top Scientists Speak Out On Growing Risk of Methane Emergency

With the Arctic warming so rapidly, risk of a large methane release is a considerable and growing problem. Estimates are that more than 2,000 gigatons of the stuff lay trapped in northern hemisphere permafrost or locked in methane stores called clathrates on the bottom of the shallow Arctic Ocean. As human caused climate change drives rapid sea ice retreat, the ocean warms and mechanical action mixes the water, transporting more and more heat down to the seabed, destabilizing the frozen methane. As the snow line retreats in the warming climate, more permafrost is also laid bear, amplifying the release of land-based methane stores.

On the East Siberian Arctic shelf, a vulnerable region of the Arctic Ocean, perhaps 500 gigatons of methane and methane clathrate rest on or just beneath the sea bed. If just 1% of the  methane store in this single region were released, atmospheric methane would double.

Over the past few years, growing evidence has been accumulated that methane emissions from the Arctic permafrost and seabed are increasing. The East Siberian Arctic shelf produced vast methane emitting formations as large as 1 kilometer in diameter during 2011. Such releases are a potential sign of growing destabilization in the region. And since any major release of Arctic methane would provide a catastrophic amplifying feedback to human caused global warming, concern is growing that we are at increasing risk for just such an event.

In the above video, James Hansen, head of NASA’s GISS division, Natalia Shakhova, a scientist at the International Arctic Research Center, Peter Wadhams, a Professor at Cambridge and resident Arctic sea ice expert, and David Wasdell, a prominent environmentalist, discuss the dangers of Arctic methane release. Hansen and Wadhams are both very heavy hitters and bear listening to. Shakhova is doing cutting-edge research in the field and serves as a witness to the dangerous trend that is unfolding. And Wasdell rounds the discussion out by providing the ecological and climate context in which a large methane release may occur.

The problem is certainly very, very serious and we urgently need to reduce carbon emissions to reduce the risk of a large and catastrophic release.

To follow atmospheric methane, take a look at NOAA’s carbon gasses tracker at Barrow Alaska (CO2, methane, CFCs, etc):

http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/dv/iadv/graph.php?code=BRW&program=ccgg&type=ts

Links:

https://robertscribbler.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/human-co2-emissions-continue-to-play-russian-roulette-with-clathrate-gun-new-study-shows-east-coast-hydrates-destabilizing/

http://neven1.typepad.com/blog/

http://neven1.typepad.com/files/overshooting-limits-gwj.doc

The Greenland High, Blocking Patterns and Sandy’s Arctic Arm: How Climate Scientists, Journalists and Bloggers Warned Of New Potential For Extreme Storms Before Sandy

Over the coming weeks, you will hear any number of people trying to ‘normalize’ the unprecedented weather event that was Sandy. You will hear people trying to over-emphasize Sandy’s link to ‘natural climate variability.’ You will hear people claiming that extreme events like Sandy could have never been predicted. And you will hear people trying to take Sandy out of a context in which the US has just experienced its hottest year on record, is still experiencing one of its worst droughts on record, has just experienced its most extreme climate year ever, and during a year in which Arctic Sea Ice has melted to extreme record lows.

And you should be assured — people taking Sandy out of a context of an ongoing string of extreme climate impacts as well as making these other assertions are entirely and completely wrong. Further, it is important to note that we were warned about the increased possibility of extreme storms like Sandy in the weeks and months before Sandy formed.

(Looking at this GOES satellite picture, you can see the swirl of clouds that is Sandy just off the South Carolina coast. See that long arm of clouds stretching down from the Arctic and then feeding into Sandy? That’s Sandy’s Arctic Arm.)

A key ingredient that made Sandy so intense was not just the 5 degree Fahrenheit above average temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast. This five degree warming was fed by an increase of 1  degrees of average Ocean temperature warming over the past century, pushing the potential for extreme years higher. An overall warming directly fueled by human carbon emissions. These increased temperatures and related increases in water vapor fueled Sandy, making her larger and stronger. These were clear global warming impacts that enhanced Sandy’s size and strength. But the kicker, the added boost that made Sandy a monster storm, the influence that pulled Sandy into the East Coast at such a destructive angle. That influence came from the Arctic.

In the GOES image above, we can clearly see a long white arm of cloud stretching all the way down from the Arctic and into Sandy. This arm both greatly increased Sandy’s size and fed her strength through a mechanism called baroclinity. This mechanism fed Sandy’s strength not directly through heat energy alone, but through extreme differences in pressure and temperature. A hot core hurricane met up with a cold core Arctic front tapping the extreme cold air over Greenland. It was this combination of extremes that made Sandy far, far worse. It was this Arctic Arm that pulled Sandy into the East Coast at the most destructive angle possible.

Though scientists didn’t specifically call for the merging of a hybrid system like Sandy, what they did warn us about was how receding Arctic Sea Ice was making severe weather events far more likely. One researcher, Charles Green noted:

“What’s happening now is that we are changing the climate system, especially in the Arctic, and that’s increasing the odds for the negative AO conditions that favor cold air invasions and severe … weather outbreaks.”

Another scientist, Dr. Jennifer Francis also highlighted how Arctic Sea Ice decline would likely result in the kind of blocking patterns that had caused severe weather events in the past. “It’s probably going to be a very interesting winter,” climate scientist Jennifer Francis said in early September in a teleconference with reporters. Francis, a researcher at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, has argued that shrinking Arctic ice can be tied to such recent weather events as prolonged cold spells in Europe, heavy snows in the Northeastern U.S. and Alaska, and heat waves in Russia. Francis also noted:

“What we’re seeing is stark evidence that the gradual temperature increase is not the important story related to climate change; it’s the rapid regional changes and increased frequency of extreme weather that global warming is causing. As the Arctic warms at twice the global rate, we expect an increased probability of extreme weather events across the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, where billions of people live.”

In fact, it was Francis’s research that resulted in headlines like this one in the Los Angeles Times on September 13th: “Record loss of Arctic ice may trigger extreme weather” and this one in Climate Progress“How the Arctic Death Spiral Fuels a Wicked Backlash on Our Weather.” On this blog, I posted an article entitled “NOAA’s Global Warning: Arctic Tipping Point Reached, Extreme Weather, Rapid Melt, Ecological Damage to Follow.”

Unfortunately, like so many other global warming Cassandras, these warnings went unheeded. A Presidential campaign in which Mitt Romney bragged about denying climate change and de-funding FEMA made mockery of the science and the altogether salient warnings. Such blindness during a year of record drought and Arctic Sea Ice loss is as inexcusable as it is criminal. Such inexcusable piggishness culminated in a Presidential debate in which Romney goaded Obama into arguing over who could increase drilling and, thus, fossil fuel emissions, the most.

Then came Sandy and now all with eyes to see are able to bear witness to both the new potential for extreme weather and its Arctic Sea Ice melt enabler.

(A graphic of the Arctic blocking pattern that resulted in the Greenland High and Arctic air trough that both added strength to Sandy and helped pull her to shore. Image credit here.)

At issue is the way receding Arctic Sea Ice erodes the circumpolar Jet Stream. This happens as warm air is drawn up from the south, slowing that air current down. The result is that huge wave patterns begin to appear in the Jet Stream. These waves draw warmer air up from the tropics in the south and pull cold air down from the Arctic. The blocking pattern also results in a more frequent negative Arctic Oscillation during the fall and winter months. This negative Arctic Oscillation is associated with extreme winter storms in both the US and in Europe and has been implicated in a number of extreme weather disasters over the past decade and a half.

What happened this year is that withdrawing Arctic Sea Ice likely contributed to a very strong negative Arctic Oscillation occurring this fall. The result was a powerful blocking high pressure system over Greenland and an equally strong cold front pushing down from the Arctic. The fact that this happened at the same time Sandy was making her charge north is not simple coincidence. It is, in part, due to the loading of climate dice that resulted from these factors.

First, we had abnormal late-season heat in the Atlantic fueling a powerful late-season hurricane. Second, we had an abnormally strong blocking pattern establishing early during fall rather than winter. The conditions were set for two powerful storms, should they arise, to come together in a dramatic way. The hot Atlantic Ocean was bound to brew up at least a few more hurricanes. Chances were some of these storms would track close to the troughs pushed south by the blocking Greenland high pressure. The receding Arctic Sea Ice was causing more and more strong cold fronts to charge south. Chances were that one of these might intersect with one of the northward-bound tropical systems.

The deep dig of the charging cold fronts and the blocking high closing off any storm’s egress to the northeast made it increasingly likely that any merged hybrid would come ashore somewhere on the US East Coat. The chances for this set of conditions occurring without climate change eroding sea ice and heating the Atlantic are vanishingly small. But now, with the new conditions established, these events become more and more likely.

At issue here is the fact that these conditions are established now. So we can expect an increasing chance for powerful hybrid storms like Sandy resulting from Arctic and tropical storm mergers as time continues, as Arctic Sea Ice melt intensifies, and as the Atlantic Ocean continues to heat up.

Links:

http://articles.latimes.com/2012/sep/13/science/la-sci-sn-arctic-ice-melt-20120912

http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/June12/arcticWildcard.html

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/09/25/904311/how-the-arctic-death-spiral-fuels-a-wicked-backlash-on-our-weather/?mobile=nc

https://robertscribbler.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/noaas-global-warning-arctic-tipping-point-reached-extreme-weather-rapid-melt-ecological-damage-to-follow/

Rotten Sea Ice, “The Age of Consequences” and Our Planetary Emergency

“The scientific community realizes that we have a planetary emergency. It’s hard for the public to recognize this because they stick their head out the window and don’t see that much going on.” — NASA Scientist James Hansen.

 

Rotten Ice

So much has happened, so much keeps happening, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of all the accumulating impacts posed by human caused climate change.

Much focus has been placed upon the rapid melt of Arctic sea ice this year. And this visible sign of the damage caused by human greenhouse gas emissions is as good a place to plant our global warning flags as any. Overall losses for this year have been vast and dramatic, averaging at around 700,000 square kilometers between all the agencies reporting sea ice extent and area.

But even this amazing loss does not, entirely, put into context the current condition of Arctic sea ice. David Barber, a veteran Arctic researcher, recently characterized the state of Arctic sea ice by calling it ‘rotten.’ In Barber’s parlance, ‘rotten’ ice means ice flows that are broken and filled with holes or vast expanses of ice speckled with melt ponds that inevitably bore on down through the surface. Thin, fragile ice vulnerable to the action of waves and weather.

And this year, Barber is noting that the ice is rotten almost all the way to the North Pole.

“The multi-year ice, what’s left of it, is so heavily decayed that it’s really no longer a barrier to transportation,” Barber says, describing how melt ponds leave much of the ice looking like Swiss cheese.

“You could have taken a ship right across the North Pole this year,” he concludes.

Barber notes that we are heading to a seasonally ice free Arctic by around 2020, plus or minus five years. Barber goes on to point out that the last time the Arctic was seasonally ice free was millions of years ago and that the current pace of melt is unprecedented in the geological record.

“Now we are getting there in tens of years, not tens of thousands of years,” he says. “And we don’t know how the Earth is going to respond because we have never seen such a rapid change before.”

“The Age of Consequences”

But we are already starting to see Earth’s response. All over the globe, fires and droughts are multiplying, impacts to crops are intensifying, storms are growing stronger, more violent, damage from weather disasters is hitting new records. And the weather patterns themselves are changing.

This year, the jet stream has shifted into a new phase, nearly permanent for the past six months, in which warm air is dredged up out of the sub-tropics and dumped square over the vast ice sheets of Greenland. The result was the most rapid melt ever on record for this great frozen land. The same deviant jet resulted in the worst drought in the US in the last 55 years, a drought that continues to expand gobbling up more farmland. Hope for respite from this drought continues to diminish as the west and heartland revert to conditions of heating and drying.

As amateur Arctic observer and sea ice blogger Neven saliently noted in his devastating assessment of Arctic sea ice loss for 2012:

“But my bubble has burst. I’m already watching past the minimum. As the melting season ends, it feels as if things are only beginning. The age of consequences.”

Neven is right and not just for Arctic sea ice. We have entered the age of consequences in which worsening and far-range impacts from climate change will appear and intensify around the globe. And, given the speed and violence of the human forcing, the pace of change shows potential to exceed anything seen in the geological record.

Our Planetary Emergency

A few weeks ago, NASA scientist James Hansen began calling the current climate state a planetary emergency. This fact, now ever more visible, should be a clarion call to action. And the ever more seeming responsible and salient environmentalists are calling for cuts and curtailments to world carbon emissions.

The time for delay has long past and, even if we respond now, we should be hard put to it, very hard put to it, indeed, to push through this vast and growing crisis. We are likely currently on a very fast track toward a melting Greenland and West Antarctica. And under business as usual carbon emissions, nearly 1,000 ppm CO2 appears likely by the end of this century. Simply put, a human civilization of any rough allegory to our own cannot exist in such a world.

To call the current situation an emergency is a simple statement of fact. It is responsible to identify this emergency and to urgently call for response. It is time to turn away from the voices who have for so long been wrong and to listen instead to those who have an actual window on what is happening. On what is likely to happen. And on what will surely happen if we don’t work to curtail emissions now.

”Our society, our civilization and how we live our lives – it’s all predicated on a stable climate system,” says Barber, who notes that the planet has undergone abrupt climate change in the past and could do so again.

“The take-home message for people is we are running an experiment with Earth’s climate system,” says Barber.

And the experiment is now starting to go haywire.

Links:

http://neven1.typepad.com/blog/2012/09/asi-2012-update-11-end-or-beginning.html#more

http://www.vancouversun.com/touch/technology/story.html?id=7279382

 

Global Warming Drives Unprecedented Extreme Weather: Last 8 Months Worst Ever For US; World Outside Climate Range of Past 10,000 Years

According to a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the past 8 months have been the most extreme in US weather history.

The above chart shows past observations of extreme weather based on NOAA’s climate extremes index which tracks weather extremes from drought, precipitation, and temperature. And it indicates that this year has been the most extreme in the record by a substantial margin.

The fact that this new extreme weather record has been broken a full four months before the end of the year means that the index value for 2012 is likely to rise even higher before the end of this year.

Looking at weather trend information shown in the graph, it becomes clear that weather extremes have been steadily increasing since the 1970s with a big jump in the 2000s and a very sharp uptick at the beginning of this decade. Average weather for the past three years has now been twice as violent, according to the index, as any other three year period since record keeping began.

This sharp increase in extreme weather events comes as consensus builds among scientists that global warming is the primary driver of extreme weather. Just this year, the IPCC, NOAA, and NASA all established a strong link between extreme weather and global warming. In addition, a report in the Geophysical Research Letters shows how sea ice melt enables the formation of powerful blocking patterns that contribute to extreme weather events. Finally, the World Meteorological Organization came out with its strongest statement yet on global warming induced extreme events.

A recent interview with NASA scientist James Hansen on PBS provides a good basis for understanding why and how weather has gotten so extreme over recent years.

Hansen notes:

“In fact, [climate change] has now driven our climate outside the range that has existed the last 10,000 years…”

 

Historic US Drought Still Ongoing; Isaac Brings Little Relief

The most recent report from the US Drought Monitor shows Isaac had little overall impact on this year’s historic drought. Areas in Arkansas, Missouri, and Indiana did receive substantial rains and farmers in those regions are experiencing much-needed relief. This year’s rains, however, have come too late for many crops.

Though drought conditions improved in these regions, overall US drought conditions remained severe.

In total, the land area currently experiencing drought remained at 63% of the contiguous United States for this week. The amount of area experiencing severe to extreme drought fell only slightly from 23% the week before to 22%.

Hard hit areas in the US, Europe and Russia have resulted in rising food prices this summer. However, this week, food prices stabilized even as the United Nations urged action to prevent hunger. The UN went so far as to say the world is not currently in a food crisis, but that conditions were very fragile and any additional stresses may push food markets over the edge.

Isaac’s rains may have provided some relief to farmers in states affected, but it has done little to alleviate low water levels on the Mississippi. River traffic is still severely constrained and is likely to become even moreso if rain conditions upstream do not improve. Sections of the Mississippi have been sporadically shut down to traffic since last month while up-river sections have been impassible since June.

The most recent ‘Drought Outlook’ does show some reason for hope. A large section of the heartland is expected to improve as new weather patterns emerge. Lower temperatures will also aid in moisture retention. However, a large area west of the Mississippi is expected to see persistent or intensifying drought. Overall, this forecast shows that the very large swath of drought should shrink a bit through fall, but that no major abatement is likely through late November.

Warmer than usual winter temperatures for the US are also likely to enhance drought in the areas in which these conditions persist. A return to El Nino conditions and a change in the blocking pattern could spell an abatement of current US drought conditions. However, this year’s expected El Nino has been rather weak and slow to develop.

Many climate scientists, including James Hansen, have attributed the severity of this year’s drought to human caused global warming. So as the underlying conditions of human caused climate change intensify, it is likely that potentials for droughts and severe droughts will continue to rise for the US in coming years and decades.

Sea Ice Area: 15,000 Square Kilometers Away From New Record Low

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Today, sea ice area touched 2,920,000 square kilometers. According to reports from Cryosphere Today, this is only 15,000 square kilometers above the lowest levels ever recorded for the Arctic Ocean.

At the current rate of loss, sea ice area will reach a new record low tomorrow and, even were it to pause, will almost certainly reach a new low within the next few days.

Sea ice extent and volume are also approaching new all-time records and may break these within the coming days.

Meanwhile, NASA scientist James Hansen has been warning that the current sea ice melt could push the climate over new tipping points:

“Our greatest concern is that loss of Arctic sea ice creates a grave threat of passing two other tipping points — the potential instability of the Greenland ice sheet and methane hydrates,” Hansen said. “These latter two tipping points would have consequences that are practically irreversible on time scales of relevance to humanity.”

Hansen’s remarks echo a general concern about amplifying feedbacks due to climate change as well as the danger to the Greenland ice sheet posed by the loss of insulating Arctic sea ice.

Loss of sea ice is the most visible aspect of human-caused climate change. It serves as a ‘canary in the coal mine’ providing us with a warning of imminent danger to ourselves should it suffer harm. Scientists have been aware that climate change posed a danger to Arctic sea ice for a long time. However, the pace of ice sheet melt has far exceeded predictions. This is a sign that the world climate system is far more sensitive to the forcing caused by human global warming than meteorological and climate models would indicate. Another indication of this greater sensitivity is the increasing frequency of extreme weather events worldwide.

To continue the metaphor, though the canary isn’t dead yet, it’s currently flailing about on the bottom of its cage, gasping for breath. If we do not heed this warning sign, then we are as foolish as miners who decide to remain in a zone where the air is clearly becoming deadly.

Links:

http://www.ijis.iarc.uaf.edu/cgi-bin/seaice-monitor.cgi

http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/

http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-08-17/arctic-sea-ice-heads-for-record-low-as-melt-exceeds-forecasts

Tornadoes Not Normal. It’s Climate Change. Really.

“Storms. That is the one word that will best characterize twenty-first century climate…” NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen.

First Joplin. Now Maryville. How many towns have to be wiped off the map before we realize things are most certainly not normal?

Today a major tornado outbreak ripped through the heart of the US, causing massive damage and claiming many lives. In the bull’s eye lay the town of Maryville, which now no longer exists. Initial reports showed 9 killed, an unconfirmed number injuries, and many, many homes and buildings destroyed.

2012 has so far shown highly unusual outbreaks of tornadoes in both January and February. The March outbreak has been exceptionally strong. Now forecasters are warning that the height of the tornado season is still ahead and that it is likely more powerful storms are on the way.

Fuel for the storms is provided by the Gulf of Mexico which has reached and maintained record levels of warmth in recent years. Temperatures worldwide that are more than 1 degree Fahrenheit above the twentieth century average also increase the moisture and heat energy in the atmosphere. The changes in the world weather system are a direct result of human caused global warming.

Though scientists may argue if a specific storm was or was not caused by climate change, the new conditions result in increased chances for severe storms. Many climate scientists, including James Hansen, (quoted above) have made warnings to the effect that climate change and increased heat energy in the atmosphere would result in increasingly severe and deadly storms.

UPDATE: Weather Channel shows extreme weather and heat wave were likely impacted by climate change.

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