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A Dangerous Dance of Frost and Flame: More Than 100 Wildfires Now Raging Along Siberian Melt-Freeze Line

Anomalous, global-warming-enhanced, fires continued to erupt across Eastern Russia this week, chasing a rapidly receding freeze line north and into zones still frozen, but starting to shake off ice cover far too soon for comfort.

According to reports from Radio Free Europe, more than 5,000 pieces of heavy equipment and many more firefighters are now battling blazes throughout Siberia this week. As of April 20th, more than 100 blazes were reported in numerous regions including: the Orenburg area around Lake Baikal, the Amur region, the Birobidzhan Autonomous Oblast, the Primorsky Krai, and the Far Eastern region of Russia.

Multiple Wildfires Raging in the Amur Region of Russia

(Multiple wildfires raging in the Amur region of Russia on April 23, 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The fires come as temperatures ranging from 5-18 C above average continued throughout a region that has experienced hotter than normal temperatures all winter and on into spring of 2014.

For example, the average April high temperature for the region of Lake Baikal is typically a frigid 28 F, while this week is expected to see highs in the lower to middle 40s. Further east, the temperature extremes are more radical. In Amur Blagoveshchensk, the average low is about 27 degrees F for this time of year, the average high, about 50. But today the low was 52 and the high is forecast to be 78 — 25 and 28 degrees above average respectively.

All across Eastern Russia, the story is the same: above average warmth, early thaw, summer-like temperatures in spring time. It has been this way day after day, month after month. Since 2010, the story has mostly been the same: early thaw, record or near record heat, amazing fire hazard. Even more concerning, the situation is steadily growing worse.

How Global Warming is Turning the Siberian Tundra into a Firetrap

Winters during cold regions are typically comparatively dry events. Though snows may pile up, the water content of the snows amount to much less moisture than it would seem. During spring, a gradual thaw ensures this moisture keeps the thin, top layer of soil above the permafrost (called the active layer) from drying out too rapidly. Typically only inches to a few feet in depth, this layer is far more susceptible to drying than a deeper layer with access to greater moisture sources at depth. But only frozen or melting permafrost currently rest below the active layer, creating a moisture barrier or worse — adding a potential fuel source for wildfires.

Eastern Russia in a Hot Zone

(Eastern Russia in a hot zone. Hot atmospheric ridge and coincident extreme temperature anomalies stretching from Southeast Asia, up through China and Eastern Russia and on up through the polar region. Information Source: NOAA Global Forecast Systems Model. Image source: University of Maine.)

In years of warmer than usual temperatures, as has happened more and more often under the current regime of human-caused warming, the thaw occurs rapidly and the active layer quickly dries out. This loss of moisture amplifies into a kind of tundra drought that can block atmospheric moisture flows and prevent rainfall, compounding the drying problem until the more energetic storms of summer arrive.

In addition, expanding zones of thawing permafrost provide two added fuel sources for wildfires. Tundra melt in high water content areas forms into wet thermokarsts, mires or melt ponds that vent methane gas in high enough concentration to burn. Tundra melt that rapidly dries after thaw forms into a peat-like basement layer that can burn and smolder for long periods once ignited.

On average, temperatures have been rising by about .4 C per decade throughout Siberia. So almost every spring now falls into what would typically be called a hot year. In addition, amplification of Jet Stream wave patterns deliver proportionately more heat to regions in the up-slope of these high amplitude atmospheric pulses, forming hot, high pressure ridges. And this year, the heat ridge has consistently formed over China, Mongolia and Eastern Siberia — the region of the current large fire outbreaks.

Russian wildfire burning on the shores of still frozen Lake Baikal April 23 2014

(Siberian wildfires burning on the shores of still-frozen Lake Baikal in southern Siberia on April 23, 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

As a result, what we are seeing is an extraordinary outbreak of intense wildfires directly adjacent to still melting snow and frozen lakes. A surreal event that reminds one of the ever-at-war frost and fire giants of ancient Viking legend. But these giants, the fire giants at least, are a direct result of an ongoing and ever increasing human-caused heating of our world.

Links:

Radio Free Europe

University of Maine

NOAA Global Forecast Systems Model

LANCE-MODIS

Melting Permafrost Switches to Nasty, High-Gear Methane Release

Blagoveshchensk Weather

Lake Baikal Weather

Earth Under Fire

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

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

***

Baffin Island September, 2013

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

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

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

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

A Message From Earth’s Thawing Tundra

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

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

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

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

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

Rapidly Changing Arctic to Liberate More Greenhouse Gasses

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

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

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

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

Links:

Unprecedented Recent Summer Warmth in Arctic Canada

Arctic Temperatures at 44,000 year High

NASA/Lance-Modis

The Eemian Interglacial

Latest Methane Data Provided by USGS and Methane Tracker

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

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

Barrow Methane

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

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

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

Kara, Barent, Norwegian Methane

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

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

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

CARVE Finds 150 Mile Wide Methane Plumes

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

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

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

Methane released from melt lake, Arctic

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

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

Massive tundra fires Alaska

(Image source: New Scientist)

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

Miller also notes:

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

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

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

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

 

I would, however, like to add one caveat:

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

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

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

Links:

NOAA

NASA’s CARVE Mission

Methane Tracker

Methane Forum Posts: Arctic Ice Blog

Vast Reservoirs of Arctic Carbon Could Effect Global Warming

A4R Methane Tracking

Sustainable Development Blog

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