The Growing Crisis in the Arctic
I am writing on behalf of AMEG, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, in regard to conflicting evidence you have received during your inquiry “Protecting the Arctic”.
The inquiry is both a highly commendable reaction to, and a highly authoritative confirmation of, the fact that for the last few decades the Arctic environment is being changed at a rate unprecedented in human history. The world’s scientific establishment is unequivocal that these changes to the Arctic environment, particularly the retreating sea ice, were initiated as a consequence of global greenhouse gas emissions arising from human activities. But, as the sea ice retreats, the open water absorbs more sunshine, warming the water and melting more ice in a vicious cycle known as “positive feedback”. Thus global warming from greenhouse gases is amplified in a process known as “Arctic amplification”. There is good evidence to suggest that the Arctic is currently warming several times faster than the average over the whole planet, see Appendix.
In the course of the EAC’s ongoing inquiry it has focused on the issue of the retreating sea ice because it is this feature of the changing environment that has attracted the interests of the oil, shipping and fishing industries and is also the critical disruptive element in the Arctic environment. AMEG representatives, Professor Peter Wadhams and I, have pointed out extreme dangers associated with the retreat, warranting the designation of a planetary emergency – a crisis of unprecedented magnitude to threaten all mankind – a matter of national and international security.
The EAC invited many organisations to give their evidence on how the near future of the Arctic would play out. AMEG provided compelling evidence that not only was the rate of reduction of sea ice extent and depth much higher than is currently being predicted by models (such as used by the Hadley Centre) but that the consequential release of entrapped methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, was also accelerating, risking catastrophic exacerbation of global warming in coming decades. However the chain reaction of Arctic warming and further methane release could be stifled if the Arctic were cooled quickly by measures including geoengineering.
In her evidence, Professor Julia Slingo of the Meteorological Office flatly contradicted the AMEG evidence, particularly the evidence of rapid sea ice retreat given by Professor Wadhams. Especially, Professor Slingo said she did not find the PIOMAS volume data credible, and she was expecting to see “better data” fitting the Hadley Centre models soon. We wish to point out that it is quite extraordinary that Professor Wadhams, an acknowledged expert on sea ice who has spent many years studying sea ice thickness, should have his evidence thus repudiated. However, the committee might bear in mind that the reputation of the Hadley Centre, part of the Met Office, is largely based on their modelling expertise; and their models are still predicting the sea ice demise many decades in the future. Thus Professor Slingo was in effect attempting to defend the Hadley Centre reputation.
What the committee may not know is that there was a whole assemblage of models used by the IPCC in 2007 for their AR4 report. Most of these models predicted the sea ice survival beyond the end of the century. None of the models showed the positive feedback from sea ice retreat that we refer to above. An excuse could be made that this feedback is difficult to quantify and to model, so was omitted on procedural grounds. However the resultant predictions bore no relation to reality. Even in the 1990s, the observations of sea ice extent were deviating from the most pessimistic of the models. Then in September 2007 the sea ice extent plummeted to a record low, about 40% below the level at start of satellite measurement. Nevertheless, IPCC, supported by models from the Hadley Centre, continued on the assumption that global warming predictions could be made for the whole century without taking into account possible sea ice disappearance and massive methane release. Even with the “wake-up call” of sea ice retreat in 2007, the Hadley Centre would not admit that their models were fundamentally flawed and they continue to ignore the evidence of sea ice volume, which is showing an exponential downward trend.
Note that in their written evidence to EAC, the Met Office says: “In September 2007, sea ice extent reached an all-time low, raising the question of whether the sea ice is likely to melt more quickly than has been projected. There is, however, no evidence to support claims that this represents an exponential acceleration in the decline.” They also assure the EAC to trust models giving 2040 as the earliest date for the Arctic to become ice-free during summer. However the PIOMAS volume data clearly shows acceleration in decline, a close fit to the exponential trend curve, and a likely date for an ice-free September around 2015. (Note that as the volume approaches zero, so must the extent, implying a collapse in extent before 2015.)
And they are even now ignoring the evidence of the growing methane emissions from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) where “vast plumes of methane bubbles, many over a kilometre across” have been reported arising from the seabed by the Russian scientists, Shakhova and Semiletov. In her oral evidence, Professor Slingo shows apparent ignorance of the Arctic methane situation, which may have misled the committee. She ignores the vast area of ESAS (over 2 million square kilometres) and claims that only a small fraction of methane from hydrates reaches the surface. That may be true for methane from the shelf margins at several hundred meters depth; but the shelf itself is mostly less than 40 metres deep, so the methane has little time to be oxidised and most of it reaches the surface. Furthermore she suggests only a small rise in temperature at the seabed, but in ESAS temperature rises of up to 6 degrees have been recorded. Far from the stratification of the water, which Professor Slingo suggests, there has been a growing turbulence as the sea ice cover is removed, resulting in this seabed warming.
This denial of the true situation might mislead the committee into thinking that there is no significant amount of methane entering the atmosphere, let alone a growth. But methane detection stations show recent spikes in methane levels which can only be easily explained by seabed origin. Furthermore satellite measurements have shown a growing anomaly of excess methane over the Arctic Ocean, again suggesting a seabed origin. All this evidence was available to the Met Office but they chose to ignore it.
Thus the Met Office (and Hadley Centre within it) is party to a complete denial of what is actually happening in the Arctic with accelerated warming, precipitous decline in sea ice and ominous rise in methane emissions.
Margaret Thatcher, in her opening of the Hadley Centre, 25th May 1990 said: “Today, with the publication of the Report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, we have an authoritative early warning system… [This] Report confirms that greenhouse gases are increasing substantially as a result of Man's activities; that this will warm the Earth's surface, with serious consequences for us all, and that these consequences are capable of prediction. We want to predict them more accurately and that is why we are opening this Centre today.”
We wish to hold the Met Office and its chief scientist to account for putting out scientifically unfounded and incorrect information to delude the government and public that no possible Arctic planetary emergency exists.
The importance of the sea ice for the planet is not in dispute; it provides a reflective mirror to reflect solar energy back into space, thus cooling the planet. James Lovelock has made his own estimate that loss of sea ice would be equivalent to the warming of all the CO2 that has accumulated in the atmosphere as a result of mankind’s emissions over the past century. In any event, recent research has confirmed that retreat of sea ice to date is a major cause of Arctic amplification. Therefore, if the Arctic Ocean were to become free of sea ice for several months of the year, as possible by 2020 according to the PIOMAS data, there would necessarily be a spurt in Arctic warming. This would be serious in terms of mounting disruption of the Northern Hemisphere climate system (see below). But it would also lead to an inevitable increase in the rate of methane release, risking the onset of an unstoppable methane feedback, whereby the methane causes further Arctic warming and in turn further methane emission in a positive feedback loop. A warning of the danger to all humanity from such methane feedback has been made by top scientists, such as US Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate, Steven Chu, and NASA climate scientist, Jim Hansen. The likelihood of runaway methane feedback as the sea ice disappears cannot be easily estimated from current evidence, but, even if small, it has to be considered seriously because of the extraordinary devastation were it to get going.
The current disruption of the Northern Hemisphere climate system, with an ever increasing incidence of severe heat waves on the one hand and severe flooding on the other, is likely due to the warming of the Arctic in relation to the tropics, thus reducing the temperature differential that has a stabilising effect on the jet stream and weather system patterns. There is evidence that the jet stream is now getting “stuck” such as to cause the unusual and unpredictable weather which is of considerable concern to farmers. Allowing the Arctic to continue warming is thus a very real danger to food security – which is a strong argument for cooling the Arctic, regardless of other considerations.
The evidence given by Professor Tim Lenton suggesting that the global warming produced by Arctic methane would only amount to 0.1 degree or less, by the end of the century, can be dismissed if you accept that the sea ice cover will be removed as quickly as the PIOMAS data suggests. Even climatologist Professor David Archer of the University of Chicago, who recently claimed that AMEG concerns on methane were “much ado about nothing”, admits that a release of only one fifth of the 50 Gt of methane, which researchers Shakhova and Semiletov say could be released “at any time”, would take global warming over the 2°C limit established by IPCC as “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system.
But Professors Slingo and Lenton are not alone in their misleading analysis of the situation. We are appalled that there appears to be no recognition within any part of the scientific establishment, whether Government Departments, Research Councils, Institutes or Universities, of the imminence of extremely dangerous developments that would flow from allowing the present incipient runaway situation to develop in the Arctic. This amounts to a collective denial of danger – a collective burial of heads in the sand.
Similarly there appears to be little or no willingness to consider possible actions that could be taken immediately and within the next few years, as necessary in view of the rapidity with which the position in the Arctic is deteriorating.
So, what is to be done? Clearly a major effort has to be made immediately to cool the Arctic otherwise the whole of humanity is put at risk. Even if you, as a committee, concluded that the danger is overstated by AMEG, we would argue that the effort is worthwhile as an insurance policy. Suppose that this effort is made and proves to have been unnecessary, what has been lost? The technology for cooling the Arctic will have been developed for use at a later date or for a different circumstance.
Contrast the anti-precautionary approach espoused by Professor Slingo, Professor Lenton and the people from the modelling community who submitted evidence against geoengineering just before our hearing. They would prefer to see nothing done immediately to cool the Arctic on the grounds that there is uncertainty in the situation, and it is not yet proven whether (i) the Arctic sea ice is disappearing as rapidly as AMEG warns, and (ii) the methane threat is as great as AMEG warns. This is extraordinary for people who one would expect to espouse a precautionary principle in government, as surely they would in any other situation where there is a risk to millions of lives. Unless these people can prove that there is no risk arising from collapse of sea ice and escalation of methane emissions, which clearly they cannot, the committee has a responsibility to advise government that measures to cool the Arctic need to be taken on a precautionary principle.
Governments are expected to protect their own citizens on this principle, even if the danger is not proven. We would like to quote Article 3, paragraph 3, from the UNFCCC Convention, article 3, paragraph 3:
"3. The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. To achieve this, such policies and measures should take into account different socio-economic contexts, be comprehensive, cover all relevant sources, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and adaptation, and comprise all economic sectors. Efforts to address climate change may be carried out cooperatively by interested Parties." (Our underlining)Note that AMEG considers that the cooling of the Arctic should be seen as one of many efforts to bring the atmosphere and oceans back towards their pre-industrial state, especially since such efforts reduce both immediate and longer-term risks arising from Arctic warming, sea ice retreat and methane release. AMEG is fully supportive of these efforts.
Why do these intelligent people from the modelling community seem to view all geoengineering as intrinsically dangerous? That may be the view in the media and among many environmentalists, but these scientists should be capable of a more rational assessment of each technique on its merits, on the limited scale as required for cooling the Arctic.
The candidate techniques AMEG proposes are all based on natural phenomena that can be observed. They can be switched off if and when any dangerous side-effects become apparent. There is nothing intrinsically dangerous about geoengineering – mankind has been doing it for millennia by altering the environment, albeit inadvertently.
Let’s look on the positive side. Cooling the Arctic and saving the sea ice has the obvious benefit of saving an entire ecosystem. Furthermore common sense suggests that geoengineering will tend to make things better because it is reversing the trends resulting from regional warming. One of the main effects of Arctic warming has been to cause disruption of regional weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, with more weather extremes and less long-term predictability of the weather. This has can only have had an adverse effect for farmers who rely on annual cycles like the monsoons. Thus cooling the Arctic should improve this situation. Yet Professor Slingo, in her oral evidence, states that, like the climate forcing from CO2 emissions, geoengineering will have "huge ramifications" implying that it is likely have serious side effects. Of course the very modelling that can be used to anticipate such side effects can also be used to avoid them, by adjusting the parameters of the techniques to be used (see note below). Thus modelling has an important part to play in the successful deployment of geoengineering.
Note: Each geoengineering technique has adjustable parameters, to allow the technique to be tailored to a particular situation. In the case of stratospheric aerosols, the height, latitude and time-of-year for the release of aerosol (or aerosol precursor) can be adjusted for maximum positive effect and minimum negative effect, using models to estimate these effects in advance. In the case of techniques to brighten or remove tropospheric clouds, more localised effects can be obtained; and parameters can be adjusted for different locations of deployment giving a great deal of flexibility as well as control.Now we have no option other than to employ our best technology and expertise to get out of the crisis situation we have got ourselves into.
We respectfully suggest that modellers should turn their attention to modelling the effects of different geoengineering techniques, showing how unwanted side-effects can be minimised and working out how best to use various techniques in combination. This would be a useful contribution to the enormous challenge now faced to cool the Arctic. They must stop lulling the climate change community, and hence governments, into a false sense of security with their obsolete models which don't take account of reality.
In the light of the above we are writing to plead that you immediately alert the Prime Minister and his cabinet to the above conclusions: how the deteriorating situation in the Arctic has extremely threatening implications for all mankind if measures are not immediately adopted to cool the Arctic in order to reverse the current trends of retreating sea ice, escalating methane release and disruption of Northern Hemisphere climate. We realise that, under normal circumstance, we should wait for your report; but this is no ordinary situation. The sooner measures to cool the Arctic can be taken, the better. This is a daunting challenge, perhaps the biggest ever faced by humanity, but it can be met if there is a determined and concerted effort over the coming weeks and months by top scientists, engineers and yes modellers, tasked specifically to deal with the problems in the Arctic.
Only a directive from the highest levels of government is capable of initiating the programme of action required. The UN and all world governments must be alerted to the perilous situation now exposed.
Traditionally governments have tended to react to events rather than forestall them. But in this case we risk sliding irreversibly into ultimate climate catastrophe. We are close to a point of no return. Not to act as quickly as possible to halt the slide would be an abject failure of the most primary responsibilities of government. And, because such a catastrophe would threaten the life of every person on the planet, not to act would also be suicidal.
We implore the committee to give its full and serious attention to the challenge that this inquiry has thrown up, a challenge that whilst embracing the Arctic environment in its essence goes far beyond that in its enormously far-reaching implications for the rest of the planet. The committee has a unique opportunity to change the course of history.
John Nissen, Chair of AMEG
29th June, 2012
Appendix – “Life in 2032”
One of the questions raised at our hearing on 21st February concerned what life would be like in 20 years’ time, i.e. by 2032. We have considered this in respect of different scenarios, depending on methane emissions. We estimate that the Arctic is warming at about 1 degree per decade, around five times faster than the rest of the planet, and this is mainly because of sea ice retreat and more open water to absorb solar energy. In 10 years, i.e. by 2022, PIOMAS volume data suggests that the Arctic Ocean will be essentially free of ice for 6 months of the year, and the Arctic will then be warming at about 4 degrees per decade. The Arctic temperature will be 5 or 6 degrees hotter than today. The disruptive effect on Northern Hemisphere weather systems will be traumatic, leading to severe food shortages for all and starvation for millions if not billions of people.
If in addition there were an early release of the 50 Gt of methane that Shakhova and Semiletov say could be released from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf “at any time” (due to seabed warming and the instability of methane-holding structures), then we could expect over 3 degrees of global warming by 2032, liable to start runaway methane feedback. Not only would we be facing world-wide starvation but probably global conflict as well.
On the other hand if geoengineering and other measures were successful in cooling the Arctic sufficiently to bring back the sea ice to its pre-2007 volume and extent, then growth of methane emissions into the atmosphere would almost certainly be curtailed and the dreaded methane feedback avoided. The weather systems in the Northern Hemisphere weather systems would be stabilised, allowing the world farming community to plan for providing a growing world population with food. The spread of insect-born disease would be slowed. Conflicts arising from degraded environments would be reduced. And we would have more time to solve the underlying problems to ultimately remove the requirement to use geoengineering technology.
Tolerability of life in 2032 will thus depend on whether governments act quickly in response to today’s rapidly deteriorating situation by taking measures to cool the Arctic.
Editor's note: Above is a copy of the 31st submission to the Protecting the Arctic inquiry of the U.K. Environmental Audit Committee. Submissions to date are listed below, with links to videos and submissions highlighted in yellow that are particularly relevant to points brought up by the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG).