Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Mechanism

What is the mechanism behind accelerated warming of the Arctic Ocean, huge abrupt methane eruptions from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean and skyrocketing temperatures?

1. Potential for Methane Release in Arctic

Vast amounts of methane are stored in hydrates under the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean. Furthermore, vast amounts of methane in the form of free gas are contained in sediments under the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean. Thirdly, vast amounts of carbon are frozen in the permafrost and much may enter the atmosphere in the form of methane as the permafrost continues to thaw.

Natalia Shakhova et al. in 2010 estimated the accumulated potential for the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) region alone (image on the right) as follows:
- organic carbon in permafrost of about 500 Gt
- about 1000 Gt in hydrate deposits
- about 700 Gt in free gas beneath the gas hydrate stability zone.

In early 2014, Sam Carana estimated annual methane emissions from hydrates and permafrost at 100 Tg (i.e. 0.1 Gt). This methane will contribute to further warming of the air over the Arctic and the North Atlantic, causing further extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and storms along the path of the Gulf Stream from the North Atlantic into the Arctic Ocean, in turn triggering further releases from hydrates at the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean and threatening to escalate into runaway global warming.

Such methane eruptions are caused by warming water of the Arctic Ocean, which in turn is due to emissions by people. Some elements of the mechanism causing methane to erupt from the seafloor are described in more detail below.

2. Ocean Heat
From: Ocean Temperature Rise continues
Above graph, based on NOAA data, shows a polynomial trendline pointing at an October Northern Hemisphere sea surface temperature anomaly rise of more than 5°C (9°F) by 2050, compared to the 20th century average, from an earlier post.

Waters at greater depth are also warming rapidly, as illustrated by the image on the right, from an earlier post, showing a rise in ocean heat up to 2000 m deep that has more than doubled over the past decade. Data from 2005 through to 2014 contain a polynomial trendline that points at a similar rise by 2017, followed by an even steeper rise.

The North Atlantic is warming rapidly, with sea surface temperature anomalies as high as a 12°C (21.6°F) recorded east of North America earlier this year, as illustrated by the image below.

A warmer North Atlantic is a major contributor to the rapidly warming waters of the Arctic Ocean, since the Gulf Stream keeps carrying warmer water into the Arctic Ocean all year long.

A further contributor is a warmer North Pacific.

Further contributions come from the combined impact of numerous feedbacks, in particular changing winds and currents, cryosphere changes and methane releases, as further described below.

From: Watch where the wind blows

3. Feedbacks: Changing Winds and Currents, Cryosphere Changes and Methane

- Changed Winds and Currents

Emissions by people are not only causing temperatures of the atmosphere and oceans to rise, they are also causing winds and ocean currents to change. Such changes can in turn result in heatwaves that are more intense and that persist for prolonged periods. Furthermore, strong northbound winds, combined with strong precipitation and waves can speed up the volume of warm water carried by Gulf Stream into the Arctic Ocean, as discussed in an earlier post

- Arctic Sea Ice

A warming atmosphere, warming oceans and decline of the Arctic snow and ice cover all go hand in hand. The IPCC concluded in AR5 that, for RCP8.5, the Arctic Ocean will likely be nearly ice-free in September before mid-century. Prof. Peter Wadhams warned, back in 2012, that the Arctic Ocean could be virtually ice-free within a few years. An exponential trendline based on sea ice volume observations shows that sea ice looks set to disappear in 2019, while disappearance in 2015 is within the margins of a 5% confidence interval, reflecting natural variability, as discussed at the FAQ page.

- Permafrost

Permafrost decline will cause Arctic temperatures to rise, due to albedo change and due to carbon that is contained in the permafrost and that can be expected to be released in the form of methane or carbon dioxide as the permafrost thaws. The image below pictures permafrost decline as foreseen by the IPCC in AR5. 

Obviously, rapid decline of the sea ice will come with albedo changes that will also make the permafrost decline more strongly than the IPCC foresees, while they will also cause even more extreme weather events. One of the dangers is that huge amounts of warmer water will flow from rivers into the Arctic Ocean, as discussed below.

- Warmer Water From Rivers

More sunlight getting absorbed in the Arctic will accelerate warming of the Arctic Ocean directly, while there will also be warmer water flowing into the Arctic Ocean from rivers in Siberia and North America, fueled by stronger and longer heatwaves, storms and wildfires. 

map from:
Above map shows that a number of large rivers in Siberia end up in the Arctic Ocean. Another large river is the Mackenzie River, which ends in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, where sea surface temperatures of about 20°C (68°F) were recorded in 2013, as the image below illustrates.

Another area of concern, also marked with a purple oval in the image below, is located in the north of Canada.

More extreme weather events include heat waves, storms, floods and wildfires, all of which can contribute to more rapid warming of the Arctic Ocean.

The combined effect of all the above will be that methane that is now contained in the form of free gas and hydrates in sediments under the Arctic Ocean, can be expected to be increasingly released as the Arctic Ocean warms further.

- Methane 

Of the vast amounts of methane stored in the Arctic, much of it is prone to be released with further temperature rises, as discussed in this earlier post and in this earlier post. Cracks in sediments used to be filled with ice. Warmer water is now melting the ice that used to sit in cracks. This ice has until now acted as a glue, holding the sediment together. Moreover, the ice in the cracks has until now acted as a barrier, a seal, that prevented the methane contained in those sediments from escaping. In a video interview with Nick Breeze, Natalia Shakhova mentions a sample of sediment taken from the ESAS seafloor in 2011 that turned out to be ice-free to a depth of 53 m at water temperatures varying from -0.6˚C to -1.3˚C. Back in 2008, Natalia Shakhova et al. considered release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time.

The image below, based on data from the IPCC and the World Metereological Organization (WMO), with an added observation from a NOAA MetOp satellite image, illustrates the recent rise of methane levels and the threat that methane levels will continue to rise rapidly.

When looked at from a longer range of years, above image fits in the black square on the image below.

The image below shows exponential rise based on data of East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) releases alone, as discussed in an earlier post.

Non-linear rise is supported by the fact that methane's lifetime increases as more methane enters the atmosphere. As the image below shows, peak methane levels have been very high recently.

All these feedbacks can interact and amplify each other in non-linear ways, resulting in rapid and intense temperature rises, as illustrated by the image below.

Diagram of Doom - for more background, see Feedbacks

4. Runaway Global Warming

The threat is that such rapid temperature rises will appear at first in hotspots over the Arctic and eventually around the globe, while also resulting in huge temperature swings that could result in depletion of supply of food and fresh water, as further illustrated by the above image, from an earlier post, and the image below, from another earlier post.

Rapidly rising temperatures will cause stronger evaporation of sea water. Since water vapor is one of the strongest greenhouse gases, this can further contribute to the non-linear temperature rises pictured above.

In conclusion, the situation is dire and calls for comprehensive and effective action, as discussed at the Climate Plan blog.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Multiple Benefits Of Ocean Tunnels

By Sam Carana and Patrick McNulty

Comprehensive climate action will do more than just cutting emissions, it will also take further action, as pictured in the image below.

Comprehensive and effective action is discussed at the Climate Plan blog
Taking a broad perspective makes it easier for proposed projects to be assessed on their benefits in a multitude of areas.

Ocean tunnels can capture vast amounts of energy from ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream and the Kuroshio Current. These locations are close to areas with high energy demand, such as the North American East Coast and the coast of East Asia, which can reduce the need for long distance transmission lines.

Ocean tunnels provide clean energy continuously, i.e. 24 hours a day, all year long. This makes that they can satisfy demand for electricity both at peak and off-peak usage times.

  • Their ability to supply large amounts of electricity at times of peak demand will benefit the necessary transition from polluting to clean ways of generating electricity.
  • Their ability to also supply large amounts of electricity at off-peak usage times will help to reduce the price of electricity at such times, thus opening up opportunities for a number of activities that can take place at off-peak hours and that require large amounts of energy.

    Such activities include large-scale grinding of olivine rock and transport of the resulting olivine sand, and large-scale production of hydrogen through electrolysis to power transport (box right). Electrolysis can also create oxygen-enriched water that can improve the quality of waters that are oxygen-depleted.  
Hydrogen to power Shipping

Ocean tunnels can make electricity cheap at off-peak times. This will reduce the cost of recharging batteries of electric vehicles at night.

It will also reduce the cost of producing hydrogen at off-peak hours. To power ships crossing the oceans, hydrogen looks more cost-effective, as such ships cannot return to base for a nighly battery recharge. Such ships have plenty of cargo space to carry hydrogen, even when the hydrogen is not highly compressed. Some of the world's largest ports are close to strong ocean currents.

Ocean tunnels can generate electricity in two ways, i.e. by capturing the kinetic energy contained in the flow of ocean currents, and by means of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) using temperature differences between cooler deeper parts of the ocean and warmer surface waters to run a heat engine to produce energy.

Besides generating energy, ocean tunnels can assist with further activities, which will increase the value of ocean tunnels in the fight against climate change. Such activities include the following:
  • By reaching deeper parts of the ocean, OTEC can pull up sunken nutrients and put them out at surface level to fertilize the waters there, while the colder water that is the output of OTEC will float down, taking along newly-grown plankton to the ocean depths before it can revert to CO2, as described in the earlier post Using the Oceans to Remove CO2 from the Atmosphere.
  • Ocean tunnels can be used to distribute olivine sand in the water. The force of the currents and the turbines will help the process of transforming olivine into bicarbonate. This can reduce carbon dioxide levels in the water by sequestering carbon, while also reducing ocean acidification. Olivine sand contains silicate and small amounts of iron, allowing diatoms to grow that will capture additional carbon dioxide, while also raising levels of free oxygen in the water. The latter will stimulate growth of microbes that break down methane in the water before it reaches the atmosphere. Further nutrients can be added, as also discussed in this earlier post
  • Ocean tunnels can also assist with albedo changes. Ocean tunnels can act as the infrastructure to create water microbubbles along their track. Increasing water albedo in this way can reduce solar energy absorption by as much as 100 W m − 2, potentially reducing equilibrium temperatures of standing water bodies by several Kelvins, as Russel Seitz wrote back in 2010. There may also be potential for ocean tunnels to be used to spray water vapor into the air with the aim of brightening clouds over areas where it counts most.
  • The turbines in tunnels will also reduce the flow of ocean currents somewhat, thus reducing the flow of warm water into the Arctic. Furthermore, tunnels can be shaped in ways to guide the flow of warm water away from the Arctic Ocean down a southwards course along the Canary Current along the coast of West Africa. thus diverting warm water that would otherwise end up in the Arctic Ocean. This could also reduce the chance of hurricanes hitting the east coast of North America, as Sandy did in 2012.
The Gulf Stream, carrying warm water all the way into the Arctic Ocean

The video below is narrated by Dave Borlace and describes Ocean Mechanical Thermal Energy Conversion, the method conceived and developed by Patrick McNulty to generate electricity while cooling the ocean surface in the path of ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Climate Changed

Our climate has changed, as illustrated by the image below (Forecast for Feb. 23, 2015, 1200 UTC, run on Feb. 16, 2015).

The left map shows temperatures of 40 degrees below zero moving down into North America from the Arctic, while temperatures in much of Alaska are above freezing point. The right map shows temperature anomalies over large parts of North America at both the top end (red) and the bottom end (purple) of the scale. Temperature anomaly forecasts for the week from Feb 19 to 26, 2015, feature in the video below.

Below is an update showing operational temperature anomalies recorded on February 23, 2015.

As parts of North America experienced record cold, part of Alaska was more than 20°C (36°F)
warmer than it used to be (compared to 1985-1996). And despite the cold weather in parts of Canada and Greenland, the Arctic as a whole is forecast to reach, on February 26, temperature anomalies as much as 3.32°C (6°F) above what temperatures used to be from 1979 to 2000 (Climate Reanalyzer forecast data).

What has caused our climate to change in this way? The image below shows that the jet stream, which once used to move over North America horizontally, has become more wavy, pushing warm air north on the left, while drawing cold air from the Arctic south on the right.

Importantly, while the jet stream is becoming more wavy or elongated vertically, the speed at which it crosses the oceans can increase dramatically. This can be the case where low temperatures over land and high sea surface temperatures combine to create huge temperature differences that drive up the jet stream's speed over oceans.

This is illustrated by the image below showing the Jet Stream reaching speeds as high as 410 km/h (or 255 mph) at the green circle near Greenland on January 9, 2015 (left), and speeds as high as 403 km/h (or 250 mph) at the green circle near Greenland on February 20, 2015 (right).

The reference map on the right shows the location of the continents for the same orthgraphic coordinates as the maps above and below.

Similarly, the Polar Vortex can reach high speeds, driving cold air downward over North America and driving warm air upward over Greenland and the North Atlantic.

The image below shows the Polar Vortex reaching speeds as high as 346 km/h (or 215 mph) at the green circle near Svalbard on January 18, 2015 (left), and speeds as high as 316 km/h (or 196.4 mph) at the green circle over the Arctic Ocean on February 9, 2015 (right).

Almost one year ago, the Polar Vortex also reached speeds as high as 410 km/h (or 255 mph), as discussed in an earlier post. Changes to the polar vortex and the jet stream are caused by emissions, and the situation looks set to deteriorate even further.

Above image illustrates that, on February 16, 2015, waves higher than 10 m (32.81 ft) were recorded off the east coast of North America and south of Iceland, while waves as high as 8.15 m (26.74 ft) were recorded in between Norway and Svalbard.

As above images also illustrate, changed wind patterns are carrying warm air high up into the Arctic.

The air that is moving north is much warmer than it used to be, as sea surface temperatures off the east coast of North America are much higher than they used to be (image left and as discussed in an earlier post).

Strong winds increase the volume of warm water that the Gulf Stream carries into the Arctic Ocean. They can also cause rain storms that can devastate Arctic ice and glaciers

Arctic sea ice currently has about the lowest extent for the time of the year since satellite measurements started in 1979.

The image below shows that, on February 17, 2015, Arctic sea ice had reached an extent of merely 14.406 million square kilometers.

click on image to enlarge
The Arctic sea-ice Monitor image below shows an extent of 13,774,725 km2 for February 18, 2015, with the red line illustrating the recent fall in extent even more dramatically.

Below is a 30-day animation showing sea ice thickness (in m) up to February 22, 2015 (and forecast up to March 2), from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

As the Arctic's snow and ice cover decline, more sunlight gets absorbed that previously was reflected back into space. All this adds up to a very dangerous situation, since huge amounts of methane are contained in sediments under the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean, and they can get destabilized as the water warms up.

In conclusion, feedbacks make that the Arctic is warming more rapidly than the rest of the globe and they threaten to trigger huge methane eruptions from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean.

Methane concentrations over the Arctic Ocean are very high at the moment. The image below shows the very high peak methane levels that have recently been recorded, against a background image showing high methane levels over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf on February 20, 2015.

The situation is dire and calls for comprehensive and effective action, as discussed at the Climate Plan blog.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Something had to give - Baffin Island hit by M4.6 earthquake

An earthquake with a magnitude of 4.6 on the Richter scale hit Baffin Island on February 12, 2015, at 02:11:40 (UTC). The image below, from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), shows the epicenter of the quake.

The earthquake occurred at a time when surface temperature anomalies over parts of North America and Greenland are at the bottom end of the scale, while surface temperature anomalies over parts of Siberia are at the top end of the scale, as illustrated by the image below.

The image below shows pressure differences reaching the top and bottom ends of the scale (left). At the same time, sea surface temperature anomalies around North America and Greenland are at the top end of the scale (right). It appears that something had to give. 

This earthquake is important, given that it hit an area without large faultlines (though earthquakes are common here, also see this discussion). The Baffin Island earthquake occurred in an area prone to glacial isostatic adjustment, as illustrated by the image below.

From "", (unfiltered version). Credit: A, G., J. Wahr, and S. Zhong (2013) "Computations
of the viscoelastic response of a 3-D compressible Earth to surface loading: an application to Glacial Isostatic
Adjustment in Antarctica and Canada", Geophys. J. Int., 192, 557–572, doi: 10.1093/gji/ggs030
Glacial isostatic adjustment as a phenomenon takes place over relatively long periods. An additional problem is extreme weather events influencing the occurence of earthquakes more immediately.

Here's an update on the situation. Five earthquakes occured on February 13, 2015, close together, including a magnitude 7.1 at the Northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge, south of Greenland:
- M5.3 Northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge 2015-02-13 18:48:16 UTC 10.0 km
- M4.9 Northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge 2015-02-13 18:58:06 UTC 10.0 km
- M7.1 Northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge 2015-02-13 18:59:12 UTC 13.8 km
- M4.7 Reykjanes Ridge 2015-02-13 21:25:18 UTC 10.0 km
- M5.2 Reykjanes Ridge 2015-02-13 19:33:10 UTC 14.2 km

This M7.1 is the largest earthquake to hit the area around Greenland in a decade or more. And it's not just this one that has recently hit the area. The image below shows the recent Baffin Island quake in yellow, and the earthquakes that occurred today at the Northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge in orange. Furthermore, there are recent quakes on Iceland in orange and yellow. There were also three large earthquakes in the Greenland Sea, the 4.6 one is highlighted in blue (otherwise it would have been hidden).

The image below gives an impression of extreme weather events on February 13-14, 2015. 

Boston has meanwhile run out of room to dump snow, while roofs have collapsed in Massachusetts under the weight of the snow. Lnks between extreme weather events and earthquakes have been discussed before. Extreme weather events look set to intensify as temperatures in the Arctic keep rising. This is very worrying, given the vulnerability of methane under the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean. Furthermore, there are also indications that methane could be released from Greenland due to sequences of strong compaction and expansion of the snow and ice cover, due to extreme weather events. 

High methane levels have recently been recorded in the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean, including over Baffin Bay.

Methane is present in sediments under the Arctic Ocean in the form of free gas and hydrates. Earthquakes can send out strong tremors through the sediment and shockwaves through the water, which can trigger further earthquakes, landslides and destabilization of methane hydrates.

As temperatures in the Arctic keep rising, the jet streams and polar vortex are changing their shape, in particular becoming more wavy, which can cause more extreme weather events such as the events described above.

The situation is dire and calls for comprehensive and effective action, as discussed at the Climate Plan blog

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Two degrees of warming closer than you may think

by David Spratt

It has taken a hundred years of human-caused greenhouse emissions to push the global temperature up almost one degree Celsius (1C°), so another degree is still some time away. Right? And there seems to have been a "pause" in warming over the last two decades, so getting to 2C° is going to take a good while, and we may have more time that we thought. Yes?

Wrong on both counts.

The world could be 2C° warmer in as little as two decades, according to the leading US climate scientist and "hockey stick" author, Dr Michael E. Mann. Writing in Scientific American in March 2014 (with the maths explained here), Mann says that new calculations "indicate that if the world continues to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, global warming will rise to 2C° by 2036" and to avoid that threshold "nations will have to keep carbon dioxide levels below 405 parts per million", a level we have just about reached already. Mann says the notion of a warming "pause" is false.

Global temperature over the last 1000 years: the "hockey stick"

Here's why 2C° could be just 20 years away.

Record heat

2014 was the hottest year in the instrumental record. The US government agencies NASA and NOAA announced the 2014 record on 16 January, noting that "the 10 warmest years in the instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, have now occurred since 2000".

NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) says that since 1880, "Earth’s average surface temperature has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8C°), a trend that is largely driven by the increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other human emissions into the planet’s atmosphere. The majority of that warming has occurred in the past three decades."

GISS Director Gavin Schmidt says that this is “the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades. While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases".

2014 was also Australia’s third-hottest year on record, according to the Bureau of Meteorology: "Overall, 2014 was Australia's third-warmest year on record: the annual national mean temperature was +0.91 °C above average… All States, except the Northern Territory, ranked in the four warmest years on record."

The 2014 record was achieved in neutral ENSO conditions

Fluctuations in the ENSO cycle affect global temperature, with El Niño conditions (a mobile blister of Pacific Ocean heat that affects wind patterns and currents and reduces rainfall in eastern Australia) correlating with warmer global temperatures. Former NASA climate science chief Dr James Hansen and colleagues note that the record global temperature in 2014 "was achieved with little assistance from the tropical ENSO cycle, confirms continuing global warming... and with the help of even a mild El Niño 2015 may be significantly warmer than 2014."

And El Niño conditions are likely to became more frequent with more warming. Last year, Wenju Cai, a climate researcher for Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), warned that the frequency of extreme El Niño events could double with climate change, in a paper that presented "evidence for a doubling in the occurrences in the future in response to greenhouse warming".

There is no "pause" in warming

In releasing the data on 2014's record warmth, NASA charted warming since 1970 and demonstrated that there has been no "pause" or slowing in warming, contrary to the million-times-repeated claims of the climate warming denial industry.

Joe Romm of Climate Progress says this chart (below) shows that: "The human-caused rise in surface air temperatures never paused, never even slowed significantly. And that means we are likely headed toward a period of rapid surface temperature warming. "

A year ago, Prof Matthew England of University of NSW suggested that temperatures were likely to rise quickly:
Scientists have long suspected that extra ocean heat uptake has slowed the rise of global average temperatures, but the mechanism behind the hiatus remained unclear…. But the heat uptake is by no means permanent: when the trade wind strength returns to normal –- as it inevitably will –- our research suggests heat will quickly accumulate in the atmosphere. So global [surface] temperatures look set to rise rapidly….
The oceans are warming very rapidly

Of all the additional heat trapped by higher levels of greenhouse gases, more than 90 per cent goes to warming the oceans, and thus ocean heat content (OHC) is by far the most significant and reliable indicator of global warming. By contrast only two per cent goes to warming the atmosphere, so small heat exchanges between oceans and the atmosphere (caused by changing sea surface, ocean circulation and wind conditions) can have a significant impact on atmospheric temperature, but not on ocean temperature.

The NOAA's State of the Climate for 2014 reports:
During 2014, the globally-averaged sea surface temperature was 1.03°F (0.57°C) above the 20th century average. This was the highest among all years in the 1880-2014 record, surpassing the previous records of 1998 and 2003 by 0.09°F (0.05°C).

The rate of OHC incease appears to be accelerating, with Romm noting that:
... ocean warming has sped up, and sea level rise has accelerated more than we thought, and Arctic sea ice has melted much faster than the models expected, as have the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.
And as Matthew England has told us, when the trade wind strength returns to normal, some ocean heat will quickly accumulate in the atmosphere.

You can check all the NOAA ocean heat content charts here.

Human greenhouse gas emissions are not slowing

Data from the Global Carbon Project shows annual carbon dioxide emissions are continuing to increase, and that the rate of increase since 2000 is at least double that of the 1990-99 decade. Emissions are projected to continue on the current growth path till 2020.

Fossil fuel emissions 1990-2014 and projected to 2019

To summarise the story so far: 2014 was a record hot year (without El Nino conditions); there has been no pause in warming; ocean heat content is rising at an increasing rate; global annual carbon dioxide emissions are continuing to grow; and more frequent El Nino conditions and a return to more normal trade wind strength will release some ocean heat to the atmosphere; so we are likely headed for a period of rapid surface temperature warming.

But there is more to the story.

A reservoir of heat already in the system

Increased levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases create an energy imbalance between incoming and outgoing radiation, which is resolved by elements of the earth system (land and oceans) absorbing the additional heat until the system reaches a new balance (equilibrium) at a higher temperature. But that process takes time, due to thermal inertia (as with an electric oven: once energy is applied, it takes time for all the structure to heat up and is not instantaneous). As a rule of thumb, about one-third of the heating potential of an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide will be felt straight away, another third take around 30 years, and the last third is not fully realised for a century.

Thus there is more warming to come for the carbon dioxide already emitted, amounting to about another 0.6°C of warming. And because the rate of emissions is increasing, that figure is also increasing.

From this we can conclude that around 1.5°C of warming is locked into the system for current CO2 levels, though very large-scale carbon drawdown could reduce levels slowly over decadal time frames.

As well as long-lived CO2, there are other greenhouse gases with shorter lifetimes, particularly methane (lifetime approx. 10 years) and nitrous oxide (lifetime approx. 100 years). Because emissions of these gases are also continuing unabated, they also contribute to warming temperatures on decadal time frames.

In fact, the current level of greenhouse gases if maintained is already more than enough to produce 2°C of warming over time: in 2008 two scientists, Ramanathan and Feng, in On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead found that if greenhouse gases were maintained at their 2005 levels, the inferred warming is 2.4˚C (range 1.4˚C to 4.3˚C).

The current level of greenhouse gases is around 400 parts per million (ppm) CO2, and 470 ppm CO2 equivalent (CO2e) when other greenhouse gases are included. The last time CO2 levels were as high as they are today, humans didn't exist, and over the last 20 million years such levels are associated with major climate transitions. Tripati, Roberts et al. found that, big changes in significant climate system elements such as ice sheets, sea levels and carbon stores are likely to occur for the current level of CO2:
During mid-Miocene climatic optimum [16-14 million years ago] CO2 levels were similar to today, but temperatures were ~3–6°C warmer and sea levels 25 to 40 metres higher than at present… When CO2 levels were last similar to modern values (greater than 350 ppmv to 400 pmv), there was little glacial ice on land, or sea ice in the Arctic, and a marine-based ice mass on Antarctica was not viable…
But the question remains as to how quickly this warming will occur, and for that we need to look at two further factors: climate sensitivity and the role of aerosols.

Climate sensitivity

The measure of how much warming occurs for an increase in greenhouse gases is known as climate sensitivity, and is expressed as the temperature rise resulting from a doubling of greenhouse gas levels.

As Michael E. Mann explains:
Although the earth has experienced exceptional warming over the past century, to estimate how much more will occur we need to know how temperature will respond to the ongoing human-caused rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide. Scientists call this responsiveness “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (ECS). ECS is a common measure of the heating effect of greenhouse gases. It represents the warming at the earth's surface that is expected after the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere doubles and the climate subsequently stabilizes (reaches equilibrium)… The more sensitive the atmosphere is to a rise in CO2, the higher the ECS, and the faster the temperature will rise. ECS is shorthand for the amount of warming expected, given a particular fossil-fuel emissions scenario.
As discussed previously here, some elements of the climate system respond quickly to temperature change, including the amount of water vapour in the air and hence level of cloud cover, sea-level changes due to ocean temperature change, and the extent of sea-ice that floats on the ocean in the polar regions. These changes amplify (increase) the temperature change and are known as short-term or “fast” feedbacks, and it is on this basis that (short-term) ECS is well established as being around 3°C for a doubling of greenhouse gas levels (see, for example, Climate sensitivity, sea level, and atmospheric carbon dioxide).

But there are also longer-term or “slow” feedbacks, which generally take much longer (centuries to thousands of years) to occur. These include changes in large, polar, land-based ice sheets, changes in the carbon cycle (changed efficiency of carbon sinks such as permafrost and methane clathrate stores, as well as biosphere stores such as peat lands and forests), and changes in vegetation coverage and reflectivity (albedo). When these are taken into account, the sensitivity is significantly higher at 4.5°C or more, dependent on the state of the poles and carbon stores. Importantly, the rate of change at present is so fast that some of these long-term feedbacks are being triggered now on short-term timeframes (see Carbon budgets, climate sensitivity and the myth of "burnable carbon").

Mann says uncertainty about ECS can arise from questions of the role of clouds and water vapour, with the most recent IPCC report simply giving a range of 1.5–4.5°C but no "best-fit" figure. Factors such as changing rates of heat flux between oceans and atmosphere (including the El Nino/La Nina cycle), and volcanic eruptions, can cloud the short-term picture, as has the focus on the non-existent "pause".

What would happen if ECS is a bit lower that the "best-fit" value of 3°C of warming for doubling of greenhouse gas levels? Mann explains:
I recently calculated hypothetical future temperatures by plugging different ECS values into a so-called energy balance model, which scientists use to investigate possible climate scenarios. The computer model determines how the average surface temperature responds to changing natural factors, such as volcanoes and the sun, and human factors—greenhouse gases, aerosol pollutants, and so on. (Although climate models have critics, they reflect our best ability to describe how the climate system works, based on physics, chemistry and biology. And they have a proved track record: for example, the actual warming in recent years was accurately predicted by the models decades ago.)

I then instructed the model to project forward under the assumption of business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions. I ran the model again and again, for ECS values ranging from the IPCC's lower bound (1.5°C) to its upper bound (4.5°C). The curves for an ECS of 2.5 degrees and 3°C fit the instrument readings most closely. The curves for a substantially lower ECS did not fit the recent instrumental record at all, reinforcing the notion that they are not realistic.

To my wonder, I found that for an ECS of 3°C, our planet would cross the dangerous warming threshold of 2°C in 2036, only 22 years from now. When I considered the lower ECS value of 2.5°C, the world would cross the threshold in 2046, just 10 years later.
This is charted as:

Michael E. Mann's graph of future temperature for different climate sensitivities. Click to enlarge.
Mann concludes that "even if we accept a lower ECS value, it hardly signals the end of global warming or even a pause. Instead it simply buys us a little bit of time—potentially valuable time—to prevent our planet from crossing the threshold."

As I have explained repeatedly, including in Dangerous climate warming: Myth and reality, 2°C is far from a safe level of warming. In fact, a strong case is made that climate change is already dangerous at less than 1°C of warming and, in James Hansen's analysis, “goals of limiting human made warming to 2°C and CO2 to 450 ppm are prescriptions for disaster” because significant tipping points – where significant elements of the climate system move from one discrete state to another – will be crossed.

Aerosol's Faustian bargain

Mann also indicated what level of CO2 would be consistent with 2°C of warming:
These findings have implications for what we all must do to prevent disaster. An ECS of 3°C means that if we are to limit global warming to below 2°C forever, we need to keep CO2 concentrations far below twice pre-industrial levels, closer to 450 ppm. Ironically, if the world burns significantly less coal, that would lessen CO2 emissions but also reduce aerosols in the atmosphere that block the sun (such as sulfate particulates), so we would have to limit CO2 to below roughly 405 ppm.
The aerosol question is central but often not well understood. Human activities also influence the greenhouse effect by releasing non-gaseous substances such as aerosols (small particles) into the atmosphere. Aerosols include black-carbon soot, organic carbon, sulphates, nitrates, as well as dust from smoke, manufacturing, windstorms, and other sources.

Aerosols have a net cooling effect because they reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground, and they increase cloud cover. This effect is popularly referred to as ‘global dimming’, because the overall aerosol impact is to reduce, or dim, the sun’s radiation, thus masking some of the effect of the increased greenhouse gas levels. This is of little comfort, however, because aerosols last only about ten days before being washed out of the atmosphere by rain; so we have to keep putting more and more into the air to maintain the temporary cooling effect.

Unfortunately, the principal source of aerosols is the burning of fossil fuels, which causes a rise in CO2 levels and global warming that lasts for many centuries. The dilemma is that if you cut the aerosols, the globe will experience a pulse of warming as their dimming effect is lost; but if you keep pouring aerosols together with CO2 into the air, you cook the planet even more in the long run. A Faustian bargain.

There has been an effort to reduce emissions from some aerosols because they cause acid rain and other forms of pollution. However, in the short term, this is warming the air as well as making it cleaner. As Mann notes above, likely reductions in coal burning in coming decades will reduce aerosol levels and boost warming

Some recent research suggest aerosol cooling is in the range of 0.5–1.2°C over the long run:
  • Leon Rotstayn in The Conversation explains that "results from CSIRO climate modelling suggest that the extra warming effect from a decline in aerosols could be about 1°C by the end of the century". 
  • Present-day aerosol cooling effect will be strongly reduced by 2030 as more stringent air pollution controls are implemented in Europe and worldwide, and as advanced environmental technologies come on stream. These actions are projected to increase the global temperature by 1°C and temperatures over Europe by up to 2–4°C, depending on the severity of the action. This is one of the main research outcomes of the European Integrated project on Aerosol Cloud Climate and Air Quality Interaction project. 
  • In 2011, NASA climate science chief James Hansen and co-authors warned that the cooling impact of aerosols appears to have been underestimated in many climate models and inferred that: "Aerosol climate forcing today is inferred to be −1.6±0.3Wm−2," which is equivalent to a cooling of about 1.2°C. In that case, they wrote, "humanity has made itself a Faustian bargain more dangerous than commonly supposed". 

Michael E. Mann's analysis is sobering, especially when aerosols are accounted for.

The world is already hitting 400 ppm CO2 (the daily average at the measuring station at Mauna Loa first exceeded 400 ppm on 10 May 2013 and currently rising at a rate of approximately 2 ppm/year and accelerating), so the message is very clear that today we have circumstances that can drive us to 2°C of warming, and that emissions from now on are adding to warming above 2°C and towards 3°C or more. This reinforces my conclusion last year that there is no carbon budget left for 2°C of warming, and claims to the contrary are a dangerous illusion.

Mann concludes in not dis-similar terms:
The conclusion that limiting CO2 below 450 ppm will prevent warming beyond 2°C is based on a conservative definition of climate sensitivity that considers only the so-called fast feedbacks in the climate system, such as changes in clouds, water vapor and melting sea ice. Some climate scientists, including James E. Hansen… say we must also consider slower feedbacks such as changes in the continental ice sheets. When these are taken into account, Hansen and others maintain, we need to get back down to the lower level of CO2 that existed during the mid-20th century — about 350 ppm. That would require widespread deployment of expensive “air capture” technology that actively removes CO2 from the atmosphere.

Furthermore, the notion that 2°C of warming is a “safe” limit is subjective. It is based on when most of the globe will be exposed to potentially irreversible climate changes. Yet destructive change has already arrived in some regions. In the Arctic, loss of sea ice and thawing permafrost are wreaking havoc on indigenous peoples and ecosystems. In low-lying island nations, land and freshwater are disappearing because of rising sea levels and erosion. For these regions, current warming, and the further warming (at least 0.5°C) guaranteed by CO2 already emitted, constitutes damaging climate change today.

[Originally posted at Climate Code Red

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Watch where the wind blows

The Arctic looks set to be pummeled by strong winds on February 5, 2015, as shown by the Climate Reanalyzer forecast below.

The video below, based on Climate Reanalyzer images, watch the situation unfold over a period of 9 days

Strong winds can increase the transport of warm water into the Arctic Ocean by the Gulf Stream. The video shows strong winds repeatedly developing off the North American east coast and moving along the path of the Gulf Stream, all the way into the Arctic Ocean, all in a matter of days.

Emissions are causing greater warming of the Gulf Stream and the Arctic. As a result, there is less temperature difference between the equator and the Arctic, slowing down the speed at which the jet streams circumnavigate the globe, while the jets can also become wavier, which in turn can cause extreme weather events.

In this case, what fuels these winds is the temperature difference between an area off the east coast of North America where temperatures are much higher than they used to be on the one hand, and an area in Siberia where temperatures are extremely low on the other hand. Wind flows from a warm area to a cold area, and the greater the temperature difference, the stronger the wind will blow.

The image below shows that, on February 3rd, 2015, a sea surface temperature of 21°C (69.8°F) was recorded off the east coast of North America (green circle), which constitutes a 12°C (21.6°F) anomaly. Anomalies as high as 12°C were also recorded on February 4, 2015.

click on image to enlarge
Changes to the jet streams can thus fuel strong winds, and such winds can bring warmer air into the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean. On February 5, 2015, surface temperatures over a large part of the Arctic Ocean were more than 20°C (36°F) warmer compared to what they were from 1985 to 1996.

Extreme weather events, as a result of changes to the jet streams and polar vortex, are depicted as feedback #19 in the diagram below, while storms that bring warmer air into the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean are depicted as feedback #5,

Besides increasing the transport of warm water into the Arctic Ocean and bringing warmer air into the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean, strong winds can also break up the sea ice by sheer brute force of the waves caused by the wind.

Waves as high as 10.61 m (34.81 ft) were recorded south of Greenland on February 4, 2015, while waves as high as 7.05 m (23.13 ft) were recorded on the edge of the Arctic sea ice (east of Svalbard) on February 5, 2015, as shown on the combination image below.

Waves that break up the sea ice into smaller pieces can speed up melting, especially in summer. More wind also means more water evaporation, and warmer air holds more water vapor, so this can result in huge rainstorms that can rapidly devastate the integrity of the ice. Strong winds thus constitute a feedback that can result in more open waters in the Arctic Ocean (feedback #6 on the diagram below).

Furthermore, strong winds can speed up the currents that will eventually move sea ice out of the Arctic Ocean into the Atlantic Ocean (feedback #7). Wavy waters catch more sunlight than still water (feedback #8). Decline of the Arctic snow and ice cover results in more sunlight being absorbed by the Arctic, thus further heating up the water of the Arctic ocean (feedback #1).

The dual image below, with images from Climate Reanalyzer, shows high sea surface temperatures around North America and at the edges of the Arctic sea ice. This contributes to surface temperatures that are 20°C (36 °F) higher than what they used to be in Eastern Siberia. At the same time, temperatures on land elsewhere in Siberia, on the North Pole and in parts of Canada and Greenland can go down to 40 degrees below zero.

Accelerated warming of the Arctic is changing the jet streams, in turn contributing to the likelyhood that such strong winds will hit the Arctic. The high temperature difference between the hot spot off the North American east coast and the cold spot over Siberia fuels such strong winds. The dual images below show the jet stream's elongated path over Greenland. Accordingly, temperature anomalies in Greenland are reaching the top end of the scale.

The big danger is that such strong winds will warm up the Arctic Ocean and cause huge amounts of methane to erupt from its seafloor.

The image below shows that methane levels as high as 2503 ppb were recorded on January 31, 2015.

Such methane eruptions constitute yet another feedback that further contributes to warming in the Arctic. For more feedbacks, see the image below.


The situation is dire and calls for comprehensive and effective action, as discussed at the Climate Plan blog.