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Permafrost Thaw Feedback To Blow Carbon Budget ‘Faster Than We Would Expect’

“Permafrost carbon emissions are likely to be felt over decades to centuries as northern regions warm, making climate change happen faster than we would expect based on projected emissions from human activities alone.” — Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback

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Soil Organic Carbon Store

(Extent of Northern Hemisphere 1 meter soil organic carbon store in the now thawing and burning permafrost. At about 1,000 billion tons, it’s more than enough to put a hefty strain on the IPCC’s remaining 275 billion ton carbon budget. Image source: Stockholm University.)

For a moment, let’s consider some rather difficult to deal with numbers —

790 billion tons — that’s the so-called ‘carbon budget’ the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates we need to stay within to prevent 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming in just this Century (note that current stated fossil fuel reserves hold enough carbon to exceed this budget many times over). It’s the level IPCC says we need to stay below to prevent ‘bad outcomes.’ A rate of warming that does not including later temperature increases in following centuries — which would be about double the 21st Century’s amount if global greenhouse gas levels managed to plateau and the global carbon stores remained on good behavior.

515 billion tons — that’s the amount of carbon humans have already emitted into the atmosphere. It leaves us with less than 275 billion tons remaining.

About 24 years — that’s how long it will take for humans to burn enough fossil fuels and emit enough carbon (at current and projected rates) to use up that ‘carbon budget.’ A break-neck pace of burning and dumping of carbon that is now probably about six times faster than at any time in the geological record. Faster than the atmospheric carbon accumulation during the last hothouse extinction — the PETM. Faster than during the worst hothouse mass extinction of all — the Permian.

Hitting Carbon Limits

Sound like we’re up against some hard limits? Well, we are. Because the above basically implies that human emissions would need to start falling dramatically now and get to near zero by 2050 to meet IPCC’s goal. A limit that, by itself, may have built in too much slack and may not have taken into account other responses from the Earth climate system.

Now let’s consider these new numbers from a recent permafrost study released earlier this month in the context of IPCC’s ‘carbon budget…’

0.6 degrees Celsius — that’s the pace at which the Arctic is warming each and every decade. According to the new study:

This is causing normally frozen ground to thaw — exposing substantial quantities of organic carbon to decomposition by soil microbes. This permafrost carbon is the remnant of plants and animals accumulated in perennially frozen soil over thousands of years, and the permafrost region contains twice as much carbon as there is currently in the atmosphere.

This amounts to about 1400 billion tons and around 1,000 billion tons in the shallow carbon store alone. A massive fireplug of carbon stored in thawing (and burning) land-based permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere at a shallow depth of zero to 3 meters. The new study expects 40 to 170 billion tons of this carbon store to release over the next 85 years. A further 120 to 300 billion tons could hit the atmosphere by 2300 if the ongoing thaw in the north continues.

model estimates of potential carbon release from permafrost

(Model estimates of potential carbon release from permafrost. Note that Pg carbon is roughly equivalent to gigatons of carbon. Image source: Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback.)

So where does that leave our so-called carbon budget?

Averaging the report’s findings, we can add about 92 gigatons of baked-in feedback from the shallow permafrost zone alone and end up with 607 billion tons of carbon (human + expected permafrost). This leaves us with about 15 years before we are locked in to hit the ‘2 C limit’ of around 450 ppm CO2 by end Century (not considering a current 485 ppm CO2e level or end Century CO2e of 530 to 550 ppm when all other greenhouse gasses are added in).

In addition, the 120 to 300 billion additional tons from the shallow permafrost store expected to keep out-gassing through 2300 would ultimately result in a carbon pool that pushes atmospheric values up to 480-530 ppm CO2 (560 to 600 CO2e) and turns the ‘2 C limit’ into a 4-6 C (7.2 to 10.8 F) long term climate bake.

Carbon Debt With Compound Interest

Looking at the report’s numbers leaves us with the all-too-salient impression that we really don’t have a carbon budget at all. What we have is carbon bankruptcy. A carbon compounded debt shock enough to crack the whole of the Earth System carbon piggy bank and bleed out gigaton-sized carbon pennies for decades and centuries to come. And the new shallow permafrost carbon feedback estimate does not include the approximate 400 gigatons of carbon in the deep permafrost. Nor does it consider ocean carbon stores — which may provide their own carbon debt spiral. Nor does it include Antarctic carbon stores or a number of other possible stores that could be pushed out by heat stress.

Needless to say, some considered the news in the recent Nature Report ‘good.’ At least it didn’t identify a 50 gigaton methane release over one decade from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf as some other recent articles have considered. Some news reports even went so far as to call an approximate 92 gigaton release by 2100 (or a little more than 1 gigaton per year) from permafrost carbon ‘slow.’ The last hothouse extinction, the PETM, also saw similar ‘slow’ rates of release from the global carbon system. So, slow when compared to the raging 10 gigaton per year pace of current human emissions, but fast when compared to about practically anything else in geological history.

What the new report really means is that humans can’t afford to emit any more carbon. And what we need to be looking at now is a way to swiftly transition to a net carbon negative civilization — fast.

“This is not a minor feedback,” Kevin Schaefer, a prominent scientist from the National Snow and Ice Data Center said in a recent report on the new study’s findings. “… If you don’t account for it, you’ll overshoot this 2 degree target.”

Links:

Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback

Thawing Permafrost — The Arctic’s Giant Carbon Release

Earth’s Natural Fridge is Turning into a Greenhouse Gas Machine

Bacteria Warm up the Permafrost

Stockholm University

Permafrost Feedback Update — Good News or Bad?

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Unprecedented Early Start to ‘Perma-Burn’ Fire Season — Deadly Wildfires Rage Through Siberia on April 12

Permafrost. Ground frozen for millennia. An enormous deposit of organic carbon forming a thick, peat-like under-layer.

Forced to warm at an unprecedented rate through the massive burning of heat-trapping gasses by human beings, this layer is now rapidly thawing, providing an amazing source of heat and fuel for wildfire ignition.

Joe Romm over at Climate Progress has long called this region ‘Permamelt.’ But, with a doubling of the number of wildfires for the high Arctic and an extension of the permafrost fire season into early April this year, we may well consider this to be a zone of now, near permanent, burning — Permaburn.

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inside_burning_village_gv

(Massive outbreak of permafrost wildfires in Russia this week have left up to 34 villages in smoldering ruins. Image from Khakassia, Russia via The Siberian Times.)

For Khakassia, Russia the story this week has been one of unprecedented fire disaster.

Khakassia is located along a southern region of Siberia bordering northern Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It is an area that typically experiences cold temperatures — even in summer time. An area of frozen ground representing the southern boundary for Siberian permafrost. There, as with much of Siberia, temperatures have been forced to rapidly warm by human greenhouse gas emissions. And this added heat forcing has contributed to ever-more-powerful and extensive wildfires as the permafrost thawed — providing an ever-increasing volume of fuels for wildfires.

Last year, Siberian wildfires also came far too early — impacting a broad region near Lake Baikal, Russia during late April. But this year, the fires have come near the start of April. An extension of the burning season in Siberia inexorably toward the winter-spring boundary.

Khakassia Fires April 12 2015

(Extensive wildfires burn though Siberian Khakassia on April 12 of 2015. In the image, we can see down through a break in the cloud deck to view smoke plumes from scores of wildfires raging throughout the region. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 120 miles and the largest burn scars range from 3-5 miles across. As Siberian permafrost burn season progresses, we can expect fires that belch smoke plumes across the Northern Hemisphere emitting from burn scars as large as 30 miles or more across. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

This weekend, temperatures in Khakassia soared to 25 degrees Celsius — 15-20 degrees Celsius above average for daytime temperatures in this region even during recent warmer years (1979-2000). A near 80 degree Fahrenheit reading that would be warm in summertime — but one that cropped up in early April as a result of powerful and hot south to north air flows transporting heat across Asia and into the Arctic. These flows wound through Central Asia, warming Khakassia to record temperatures in their inexorable surge toward the pole.

The heat over Khakassia rapidly thawed surface vegetation, extending warmth deep into the thawing permafrost layer. The result was an outbreak of massive wildfires. Beginning this weekend the blazes have, so far, raged through 34 villages and been blamed for 1300 destroyed homes, the loss of nearly 4000 herd animals, 900 human injuries and 20 deaths. Such a fierce and destructive fire outbreak during summer would have been unprecedented. For this kind of event to occur in April, at the edge of Siberian winter, is nothing short of outlandishly strange.

Russian authorities have blamed the fires on a combination of hot weather and human burning. It is a tradition for Russian farmers to burn to clear fields during this time of year. And it is this practice that media is focusing on. However, traditional burning during spring did not historically result in the kinds of massive blazes that ripped through Khakassia earlier this week. Russian farmers, in this case, are unwittingly flinging matches into a tinderbed of rapidly thawing compost. A pile of warming and chemically volatile peat-like perma-burn that is providing more and more fuel for intense fires.

Links:

Siberian Wildfires — 17 Killed and Hundreds Injured as Blazes Sweep Through Siberia

Fire Death Toll Rises to 15 in Khakassia as Republic Mourns

Siberia Ravaged by Forest Fires

Permamelt — Climate Progress

When April is the New July — Siberia’s Epic Wildfires Come Far too Early

LANCE MODIS

Siberian Permafrost Methane Shows Growing Eruption: Number of Global Warming-Induced Craters Now Estimated at 20-30

Siberian Crater Locations

(Siberian methane crater locations. In total, 7 methane blow holes with features similar to the Yamal Crater have now been discovered. Unofficial reports from observers on the ground have local scientists placing the likely count now at between 20-30 original craters with many more secondary craters. Image source: The Daily Mail.)

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The ground smoked for hours. Then, with a great flash and an enormous boom, the land exploded. When the smoke cleared, all that was left was a great, black hole. Ejected earth lay scattered around it — sheer sides plunging into the permafrost like some gigantic, gaping gun barrel.

This was the scene last summer in Yamal, Siberia — a region of extreme northern Russia.

Mysterious Holes Emitting Methane Gas

Speculation about the cause of this mysterious hole became rampant. It looked like a sink hole, except for the ejected material surrounding it. Some said it was a pingo. But pingos weren’t known to form due to explosions.

Teams of scientists rapidly descended upon the hole. And there they found high readings of methane at the hole’s base — in the range of 10% concentration, which is a very explosive level for the gas. At the base of the hole they also found evidence of hydrate. A form of frozen water-methane that is quite unstable unless kept under high pressure and low temperature.

The initial conclusion of the Russian scientists was that relic hydrate sealed beneath the previously flooded Siberian permafrost had been destabilized. Eventually reaching an explosive concentration, it then erupted from the ground.

Discovery of this methane crater spurred a sweep of the area. Almost immediately, two other craters with similar features were discovered. And throughout fall and winter, both ground searches and satellite reconnaissance identified still more.

Methane blow hole lake surrounded by small craters

(Newly discovered methane blow-hole found by satellite observation. In the top frame we see tundra absent the newly formed hole. In the bottom frame, we find the hole forming a lake [B2] surrounded by 20 or more ‘baby craters.’ Image source: The Siberian Times.)

Now, according to recent reports in the Siberian Times, a total of seven craters with features similar to the Yamal eruption have been pinpointed by observers. Just one of these craters (shown above) hosted about 20 smaller ‘baby craters’ surrounding it. In this instance, a large methane store below the permafrost is thought to have explosively displaced a shot-gun pattern of frozen soil sections before filling with water.

Most of the craters, like the one above, were observed to rapidly fill with water even as they continued to emit methane. In many instances, the methane emission was visible as bubbles on the newly formed lake surface.

Bubbles from Methane Crater Lake

(Bubbles from suspected methane crater lake as seen by an observation aircraft. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

Additional reports from reindeer herders have led these same scientists to believe that in the range of 20-30 of these methane eruption holes are likely to exist in this region of Northwestern Siberia.

A Problem of Relic Hydrates Facing Rapid Warming

The fact that reindeer herders keep discovering new holes and that the first Yamal craters discovered earlier this year were recent events have led local scientists to believe that the eruptions are a new phenomena for Siberia. There, temperatures have warmed by a stunning 2 degrees Celsius within the mere span of 14 years. A very rapid rate of warming that is putting severe stress on the geophysical stability of this Arctic region.

Last night, as polar amplification again ramped up, we saw an example of this very rapid warming with locations in Yamal, Russia experiencing -3.1 C temperatures as of 1 AM Eastern Standard Time. A very warm measure for this region during winter time — representing an anomaly at least 20 degrees Celsius above average. For reference, North Texas, an area far south of the Arctic Circle, experienced similar readings (-3.4 C) at the same time:

imageimage

(Side-by-side frames showing 1 AM EST temperatures in Yamal Russia [left frame] and North Texas, US [right frame]. Location in the frames is indicated by the small green circle. Temperature, wind speed and direction, and grid location are given in the lower left hand corner. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: Global Forecast Systems Model.)

In other words, it was colder in North Texas last night than it was in Yamal, Siberia near the 70 degree North Latitude line beside the Arctic Ocean.

This extremely rapid warming is thought by Russian scientists to have destabilized zones of relic hydrate trapped beneath the permafrost. There, the methane gas bonded with water to form a kind of methane ice.

Sandwiched beneath frozen permafrost, the hydrate remains stable so long as temperatures and pressures are relatively constant. Any increase in warmth — either through geological processes working below the hydrate, or from changes at the surface causing permafrost to melt and warmer, liquid water to contact the hydrate — would result in increased hydrate instability.

Yamal Crater Wall

(The Yamal Crater as seen by Russian Scientists who investigated the scene last summer. The crater’s structure and surrounding ejecta was indicative of an explosive outburst. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

In some cases, the gas would very rapidly liberate from its frozen traps forming increasingly high pressure pockets beneath the permafrost. If these pockets reach 10 percent methane concentration, they become very explosive and can be ignited when in contact with a catalyst or ignition source. The result, either due to very high pressure or ignition, is plugs of permafrost exploding from the ground as the gas erupts to the surface.

Conditions in Context

It is important to note that the amount of methane liberated by these initial eruption events is likely rather small — when considered on the global scale. However, what we see in Siberia now may be part of a growing and ominous trend.

First, we do not know the size of the potential methane store that could be liberated in such an explosive fashion. And the question must be asked — if we are looking at such rapid warming of methane hydrates in shallow sea and former shallow sea regions, what scale eruptions could we potentially experience in the future? Could very large sections of hydrate go critical? Areas possibly covering hundreds or thousands of square meters or more?

The Russian scientists seem very concerned. And, ironically, it is for the future safety of their oil and gas infrastructure, which sits atop what is potentially a rapidly destabilizing zone. A zone that could see explosive eruptions of the ground beneath pipes, equipment and extraction fields. (One would think that the Russians would also begin questioning the continued exploration and production of oil and gas considering its contribution to the dangers they are now identifying. But that level of wisdom appears absent in the recent assessments.)

Second, it appears that these methane eruptions provide pathways for ongoing release. Not all of the gas in the relic hydrate is initially liberated. And the structures that remain apparently release methane gas for some time — as is evidenced by continued high methane concentrations found at crater sites and by observed emissions from crater lake surfaces.

In essence, if this is a growing trend, then it is a rather unsettling one. Especially when one considers that it is just a single instance of many possible amplifying carbon feedbacks set off by a very rapid human warming. Particularly, the explosive land and ocean floor-altering nature of this specific carbon feedback makes it especially troubling. For it encompasses the very nature of a catastrophic upheaval.

In the end, the question must be asked — is Siberia sitting atop a methane volcano that is being prodded to rapid wakening by high-velocity human warming?

Links:

Dozens of New Craters Suspected in Northern Russia

Are Siberia’s Mysterious Craters Caused by Climate Change?

Earth Nullschool

Global Forecast Systems Model

More Siberian Craters Prompt Urgent Call For Investigation

Hat Tip to James Cole

Hat Tip to Wili

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

2014 Hottest Year on Record Amidst Ocean Heat Spikes and Arctic Wildfires

According to Japan’s Meteorological Agency, 2014 set new inauspicious marks as the hottest year in the global climate record since measures began in 1891.

Temperatures rocketed to 0.27 C above the 1981-2010 average, 0.63 C above the 20th Century average and showed a severe pace of warming of 0.70 C per Century. By comparison, the end of the last ice age featured century scale warming at the rate of 0.04 to 0.05 C every 100 years. So the current rate of warming, according to the JMA measure, is 14-17 times faster. A rapid warm-up driving increasingly severe weather and geophysical changes.

2014 Hottest Year on Record

(JMA measure shows 2014 was hottest year on record. Image source JMA.)

NOAA is also expected to show 2014 as hottest year on record. NASA is likely to show 2014 as 1rst, 2nd or 3rd hottest.

2014, according to JMA, was the first record breaker since the super El Nino year of 1998 with 2014 beating out 1998 by 0.05 degrees C. However, the JMA measure also showed that all ten hottest years on record occurred since 1998. Perhaps more telling is the fact that the JMA measure reveals no hiatus in the pace of global atmospheric temperature increase with all years since 1998 at or above the trend line.

Ocean Heat but No El Nino

World ocean surface temperature spikes were the primary driver of the new global surface temperature record with NOAA’s measure showing a majority of months as hottest ever recorded for the world ocean. North Pacific and North Atlantic Ocean temperatures were particularly hot — with a West Coast heat pool driving ocean dead zone events and starfish die-offs alike. In this region and off the US East Coast, Ocean temperature anomalies regularly topped 4 degrees Celisus above average. An extraordinary degree of heat that, in some cases, saw tropical fish species heading into Arctic waters for solace from the record warmth.

Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly global August 29, 2014

(Extraordinary Sea Surface Temperature spikes occurred in late August and mid October, with most of 2014 showing extreme ocean heating. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

El Nino threatened throughout much of the year. But despite a warming near the Equatorial Pacific temperature thresholds failed to fully tip into El Nino. An ominous sign considering that El Nino is the hot phase of atmospheric and surface temperature variability — which may mean that the next El Nino will drive a global high temperature departure even more extreme than 2014’s record setting value.

Severe Weather, Climate Extremes During Hottest Year

2014 also featured some of the worst weather on record with the US experiencing extraordinary dipole anomalies coincident with polar vortex collapse events and severe Arctic warming. Across the Atlantic, the UK experienced both its stormiest winter on record and its hottest year on record. A year hotter than any since 1649 for that nation.

Throughout the world severe droughts ravaged wide regions with the US Southwest still in the grips of the worst multi-year drought in 1,200 years. This year’s California drought was the most recent iteration of this severe event featuring a ridiculously resilient high pressure ridge that has continued to rob California of much of its typical seasonal moisture.

Amazon drying and wildfires also made news this year amidst a severe drought gripping the Sao Paulo megalopolis in Southeastern Brazil. The ongoing drought has shut off monsoonal moisture, forced residents to ration water, and threatens to put city water officials in the position of turning to use of mud for municipal water supplies.

Glaciologists identified massive sections of Antarctic land ice that had reached the point of irreversible collapse. Many of these researchers pointed toward an expanding pool of warm bottom water undermining sea facing glaciers as the culprit for this increasingly rapid glacial melt. A set of circumstances that creates a higher risk of more rapidly rising seas.

To this point, the City of Miami began a combined program of installing pumps to rid streets of flooding at times of high tide and has assessed a property tax to begin its efforts to fight the surge of waters set off by human caused climate change. New studies also found high risk areas such as Hampton Roads in Virginia now featured tens of thousands of properties under such serious threat of flooding that only FEMA will provide them with insurance — a number that will continue to increase along with the sea levels (globally at 3.3 millimeters of increase per year but as high as 7-8 mm per year in some regions).

Ominous Signs the Permafrost is Starting to Disgorge its Carbon Store

Sections of Siberia and Canada experienced extraordinary warmth during winter and spring of 2014 — setting off severe early season wildfires that raged well into late summer. These megafires continue the trend of recent years in which massive blazes rip through the Siberian tundra region disgorging methane and CO2 laden smoke plumes that then encircle the Northern Hemisphere.

For the Northwest Territories of Canada, this past summer represented its worst fire year ever recorded with massive blazes forming towering pyrocumulus clouds over vast burning regions of Arctic permafrost. A fitting backdrop for the Mordor-like activities of Alberta tar sands extraction.

very-intense-fires-burning-in-yakutia

(Very intense wildfires, some the size of smalls states as seen above in the LANCE MODIS shot from July of 2014, raged through Siberian tundra this summer. For reference the bottom edge of frame is 120 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

In all, about 1,300 gigatons of carbon are stored in the now thawing permafrost, a region Joe Romm is calling the permamelt (perhaps permaburn is a better term). And a human enhanced warming of the Arctic appears to be speeding that carbon’s rate of release into the atmosphere. An impact that could further accelerate human-caused warming. An ignominious circumstance leading to more record warm years and related global climate extremes to come. One that adds urgency to the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuel burning and human activities that dump massive volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Links:

JMA Global Average Surface Temperatures Reach New Record in 2014

2014 Was The Hottest Year By Far

Met Office Confirms 2014 was Hottest Year on Record for UK

LANCE MODIS

2014’s Unprecedented Arctic Wildfires

The Climate Reanalyzer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probability of stabilizing below 2 C

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

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

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

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

Very Large Algae Bloom Barents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IDL TIFF file

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

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

Arctic Methane Explosions — A Result of Human Warming

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

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

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

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

Russia Siberia Crater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

A Song of Flood and Fire

Toledo Algae Bloom Still Ongoing

2012’s Realization of the End of Arctic Sea Ice

The Arctic Methane Monster Exhales: Third Tundra Crater Found

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

How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?

IPCC 4th Assessment Report

LANCE-MODIS

Terrible Thunderstorms of Fire

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

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

NASA’s Earth Observatory

Moscow Times

The Really Scarey Thing About Those Jaw-Dropping Siberian Craters

Methane Flammability

Methane and Frozen Ground

High Risk of Permafrost Thaw

 

 

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