Showing posts with label James Hansen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label James Hansen. Show all posts

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

Friday, August 16, 2013

Four Hiroshima bombs a second: how we imagine climate change

Hiroshima bomb - from: Wikipedia image
Where does the excess heat go that is trapped in our atmosphere by greenhouse gases every day?

The title of this post is a hat-tip to David Holmes, Monash University, Australia, who recently published an article with that title at The Conversation, discussing that the daily excess heat absorbed by Earth equals the heat released by well over four Hiroshima bombs every seconds.

It's actually well over four Hiroshima bombs every second, given that there are 86,400 seconds in a day and based on James Hansen calculations (at a Feb 29, 2013, TED presentation) that the current imbalance of 0.6 watts/square meter (which does not include the energy already used to cause the current warming of 0.8°C) was equivalent to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs every day, 365 days per year.

As illustrated by the graph below, most of this excess heat is absorbed by oceans and ice. Some of the heat is consumed by the process of melting ice into water, but most heat ends up warming up the oceans.
Graph by Sceptical Science
An earlier post (September 2012, added underneath) described the study by Nuccitelli et al. that measures heat going into the oceans in Joules and, as discussed above, measuring excess heat in terms of heat released by nuclear bombs might give more meaning to what is going on.

Where does the extra heat go? 

Global warming is causing Earth to heat up. As shown on the image below, by Nuccitelli et al., most heat goes into the oceans. A substantial amount of heat also goes into the melting of ice.

Warming of water in the Arctic Ocean

Global warming is heating up the oceans big time. As the image below shows, the global ocean heat content has been rising for many years.

White arrows mark ice drift directions. Red arrows mark 
the transport path of warm Atlantic water entering the 
Arctic where it submerges under the cold, ice-covered 
surface layer. Robert Spielhagen (IFM-GEOMAR, Kiel)
The Arctic is affected in particular by the Thermohaline Circulation.

Water flowing into the Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean is about 2°C warmer today than it has been for at least 2,000 years, according to a study published in Science. The current of warm water lies 50 metres below the surface, and can reach 6°C in summer — warm compared to Arctic surface waters, which can be -2°C.

At the same time, cold water and sea ice are driven out of the Arctic Ocean, along the edges of Greenland. The net result is a marked increase in the temperature of the water in the Arctic Ocean, especially the top layer of the water which causes the sea ice to melt.

The Arctic radiates comparatively less heat into space

Furthermore, cold layers of air close to the surface of the Arctic Ocean make it difficult for infrared radiation to go out to space, according to a study published in Science. These layers do warm up, but warming of these layers is directed downwards, thus amplifying warming in the Arctic.

Surface air temperatures in the Arctic are rising rapidly

Anomalies for surface air temperatures are higher in the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth. The increase in temperature anomalies appears to be an exponential rise. This is caused not only by the above-described points, but also by feedback effects as further described below.

How much will temperatures rise?
In the above graph, rising temperatures are compared to the global average for the period 1951-1980, which is typically used as a base period by NASA in temperature change analysis. The background behind this is that the U.S. National Weather Service uses a three-decade period to define "normal" or average temperature. The NASA Goddard Institude for Space Studies (GISS) analysis of temperature anomalies began around 1980, so the most recent 30 years at the time was 1951-1980.

The study 'Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide', by NASA scientists led by James Hansen, describes those early efforts and was published in Science back in 1981. The image below is from the paper, showing that much of the extra heat trapped by carbon dioxide released by people in the atmosphere ends up in oceans.

The paper discusses how many years it can take for oceans to warm up, and the role of feedbacks in that process. The paper notes that a surface albedo change over land areas of 5% (equivalent to a 1.5% global change), would affect global temperature by 1.3°C, adding that paleclimatic evidence suggests that surface warming at high latitudes will be two to five times the global mean warming, due to snow/ice albedo feedback and greater atmospheric stability, which magnifies the warming of near-surface layers.

Feedbacks further accelerate warming in the Arctic

Feedbacks are described in more detail in posts such as Diagram of Doom (image below) and Changes to Polar Vortex affect mile-deep ocean circulation patterns.

Diagram of Doom
One such feedback is albedo change — retreat of Arctic sea ice results in less sunlight being reflected back into space, as further discussed in Albedo Change in the Arctic. Loss of Arctic sea ice is effectively doubling mankind's contribution to global warming. Increased absorption of the sun's rays is the equivalent of about 20 years of additional CO2 being added by man, Professor Peter Wadhams said in a BBC article.

One of the most threatening feedbacks is release of methane that are held in the currently frozen seabed. As the seabed warms up, it starts to release methane in what can be rather abrupt ways. Due to methane's high global warming potential and low levels of hydroxyl in the Arctic, this threatens to further accelerate local warming and trigger further methane releases, in a vicious spiral of runaway global warming.

from: Methane Hydrates

This situation calls for comprehensive and effective action as discussed at the climateplan blog.


- Accelerated Warming in the Arctic 

- Arctic Ocean is turning red

- How much will temperatures rise?

- Methane Hydrates

Monday, July 29, 2013

CO2? Let Me Introduce You To My Little Friend: CH4 [Methane]!

by Nick Breeze

In the UK, if a person smells any gas in a building or outside, they are told to call an emergency number straight away so that an engineer can come and fix the leak and remove the danger. In the Arctic, atmospheric plumes of gas have been detected that are over 150kms across and likely to have disastrous consequences for our civilisation. We simply cannot ignore this problem; it underpins the fabric of all our lives. We must respond.

Last year I attended the EGU conference in Vienna to meet with Dr. Igor Semiletov and Dr. Natalia Shakhova and was extremely grateful to them for giving me time to discuss the issue of changing conditions in the Arctic. Increased temperatures from human caused greenhouse gas emissions are increasing the risk of methane release from thawing subsea permafrost. These two scientists make annual trips to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), in order to gain a better understanding of what is known to be the largest hydrocarbon store in the world. The methane is trapped in the frozen clathrate deposits that has been frozen for millions of years. In this stable condition we tend to consider the methane less of a risk, however, during the course of the last decade, things have started to change.

It is important to realise that methane (CH4) is approximately 20 x more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100yr timescale. Afterwhich it breaks down into CO2. Obviously with current atmospheric increases in emissions and the effects of warming already being felt, we do not have a 100yrs. In a shorter timescale of 20yrs, methane is estimated to be 100 x more potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Baring in mind that there is currently 5 gigatonnes of methane in the atmosphere and that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) is estimated to have between 100’s and 1000’s of gigatonnes trapped in the permafrost, if there is any destabilisation, supply of methane could rapidly move the world to a much hotter and dangerous state for humans and many other forms of life.

As a species humans add 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year in the form of emissions. Over the course of the last 200 years this has caused a global temperature rise of about 0.8 C. Although this seems tiny, we are only just starting to understand how sensitive the Earth is to changes in temperature. Add to this that the Arctic has been warming at around 8 times the speed of the mid latitudes and it’s not hard to see why the Arctic Sea Ice has gone into an accelerated melt.

NASA Image of Melting Arctic Sea Ice
It may seem obvious that if we heat the planet up then we will melt the ice. When joining the dots on the severity of what climate change really means, it is important to grasp “feedbacks”. These are the Earth’s response to changes within the climate system. A general rule of thumb is that “positive feedbacks” generally are bad for us and “negative feedbacks” are not. In the case of the Arctic, it is important to understand that there are multiple feedbacks [watch this comprehensive analysis by David Wasdell, Apollo-Gaia Director for more information] that come into play when the temperature changes. The Arctic sea ice is one that has caught the world’s attention because we are entering a phase where we no longer have a northern polar ice-cap. This is, in turn, setting off other positive feedbacks, one of these being the heating of the Arctic ocean as it absorbs sunlight and starts to thaw the subsea permafrost in the shallow seas of the ESAS. This is effectively removing the seal on a vast store of potent methane greenhouse gases that could take us from a steady increase in temperature to the awful sounding “runaway” global heating.

During the interview with Dr Shakhova, I was chilled when she showed me 2 charts, one with small insignificant plumes of methane from over ten years ago, contrasted with a chart from 2011 where the plumes of escaping gas from the permafrost were over a kilometre wide. Dr Shakhova also stated that in recent years all the conditions were changing making the risk of a game changing release of methane from the ESAS much more likely. Dr Shakhova even pointed out that it was likely “in decades”. Dr Semiletov went further to say “anytime!”.

Below are a few video clips from the interview in April 2012. I am very much looking forward to seeing the new work by Dr’s Semiletov and Shakhova et al that will be released shortly, giving us a far greater understanding, and up to date view, of the state of this all important region in the Arctic.

In the meantime, the methane issue has been the focus of NASA’s ‘Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment’ (CARVE) who have detected 150 kilometre plumes of atmospheric methane. This raises a few questions that are critical to our future civilisation:
  1. If the Arctic Sea Ice and permafrost are degrading at 0.8C, are the IPPCC agreed “targets” of 2C really safe? 
  2. Have we underestimated Earth’s sensitivity to temperature altogether and sailed blindly over into the wild waters of runaway climate catastrophe?
  3. How much longer can we continue to release carbon emissions into the atmosphere before we lose the gift of choice in the matter and the climate shifts to a hotter state increasing sea-levels significantly, and not favouring large-scale agriculture?
For a longtime the methane issue has remained outside the larger conversation of impacts of global warming, except by reference to far off future risks. There are a handful of scientists such as Professor Peter Wadhams, Head of the Polar Institute at Cambridge University, who, based on submarine observations of the Arctic sea ice’s collapse in volume, has been pointing out that a methane feedback may not be as far away as we think. Professor Wadhams has made these points in the face of angry cries of “Alarmist” from UK politicians with financial interests in the hydrocarbon industry.

The work of scientists including the Russians, Wadhams and NASA’s CARVE team now means we can no longer ignore the risk of methane as part of the Earth’s complex system of feedbacks to temperature change. It also is very likely that at 2C the world will not be the beautifully hospitable place that it has been for humans for so long. It is very likely that we are close to that “tipping point” of no return where global heating goes into a runaway phase and we lose our only life support system. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case but we have to acknowledge the risk if we are to react appropriately.

In order to answer the third question posited above, we have to comprehend the enormity of the task of transitioning away from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). To say it cannot be done is to kiss the world, as we know it, goodbye. It can be done but it will take the will of all of us together, starting with citizens around the world, to politicians and those in the hydrocarbon business themselves. Whilst in Vienna in 2012, I also interviewed Dr James Hansen, one of the most outspoken climate scientists alive today and former Head of The Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. You can watch a video clip at on what Hansen proposes as a way to curb emissions and start turning the tide on our collective response to global heating.

So how do we respond? It is clear that we need to make changes at a societal level. Never forget that each and everyone of us is a part of society and, as such, we have influence. The action we need to take is tied in with our attitude to the problems we face. The hydrocarbon industries lobby our governments and institutions to make sure their needs are not ignored. This is for one reason alone: profit. Societal reliance on this form of energy is no longer necessary. We should be transitioning away from hydrocarbon fuels. We can’t because these powerful companies are tucked tight inside the framework of our civilisation. There is no doubt that as such, we are entering a phase of willful self-destruction. The only thing that can stop it is us. A good example of this institutional integration is the Royal Geographic Society where Shell’s logos feature prominently and they even have their own page on the society’s web site aligning themselves with our respected institutions, paying lip service to our future concerns. This is disgusting. We should treat hydrocarbon companies as we did the tobacco industries once it was proven how harmful tobacco is to our health. These companies project the use of oil and gas way into the middle of the century. Don’t believe it. On this course, we will end up clinging to an inhospitable planet, barely recognisable as it is today. Take action.

The first and most effective thing you can do is contact your local elected representative and tell them straight. I sent the following email to my own Member of Parliament, Mary McCleod MP and waiting patiently for a reply. It is critical to remember that they have our future in their hands but we have their vote. Let’s use it!

Dear ____,

As a citizen concerned with the unnecessary proven damage being done to our environment, I am writing with the following conditions that will have to be met if you are to have my vote at the next election:
  1. Remove all links to hydrocarbon companies that currently exist within public institutions
  2. Ban hydrocarbon company advertising
  3. Introduce a fair tax on carbon that will level the playing field for renewable energy sources and force the hydrocarbon industries to clean up their act
  4. Implement a framework for a transition to renewable energy immediately
As you represent me on a local and national level I will be listening with interest to all representations you make to government on my behalf. I am also keen to hear your response and will be sharing it with friends and family.

Thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,


A note on climate fixes such as ‘Climate Engineering’ (aka geoengineering): I have not mentioned proposed climate engineering proposals in this post as we are currently working on an in depth look at several projects that are already in progress. Climate engineering raises many scientific, political and ethical issues and to many people the idea that man can engineer Earth’s climate is a crazy and hubristic fantasy. No matter what we think, it is important that we are all cognisant of the arguments being put forward. We will be interviewing leading commentators and authorities, not just from the climate and engineering backgrounds but also from ethical and philosophical disciplines to help form a view of this controversial subject. The worst case scenario is that we ignore the subject altogether and the decision to engineer climate falls into the hands of a foreign international power willing to gamble the fate of billions, or, a wealthy individual who can afford to take an equal gamble and become what Clive Hamilton has titled his recent book, an ‘Earthmaster’. Groups such as the Arctic Methane Emergency Group have been calling for climate engineering to be deployed immediately to cool the Arctic and prevent the runaway heating that climate scientists most fear. The argument for both sides is compelling and the more we shy away from zero carbon emissions the more climate engineering solutions start to look like a relatively cheap alternative. It is time for us all to be part of this critical discussion.

This post was originally posted at:

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


by Gary Houser

"Our greatest concern is that loss of Arctic sea ice creates a grave threat of passing two other tipping points -- the potential instability of the Greenland ice sheet and methane hydrates. These latter two tipping points would have consequences that are practically irreversible on time scales of relevance to humanity." [1]  ....."We are in a planetary emergency." [2] - World renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen
The scientific community must be commended for its efforts to convey to the world the reality of climate disruption caused by carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That world is now grappling with the politics of whether effective reductions can be achieved in time. But there appears to be a new danger emerging from the Arctic which threatens to accelerate such disruption beyond the reach of any meaningful control. Cutting edge researchers in the field are observing large plumes of methane rising from the shallow seabeds. [3] Others are discovering heightened levels through airborne measurement. [4]  According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, methane is a global warming gas no less than 72 times more powerful than CO2. [5]

In the course of working on a documentary [6] on this super greenhouse gas and the frightening prospect that such is beginning to thaw and release to the atmosphere in the Arctic, the author has encountered a highly disturbing "disconnect". On the one hand, there are highly eminent scientists - such as James Hansen - warning that the situation in the Arctic could well lead to the crossing of an "irreversible tipping point". On the other hand, such warning is not finding its way into the major scientific reports which government policy makers will use to chart their response. It cannot be found in either the draft of the new IPCC report or the draft of the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

As global climate disruption begins to enter the realm of "tipping points of no return", humanity is coming face to face with a moral crisis inextricably linked to the physical crisis. Scientists are first and foremost human beings. If information is discovered that points to a real possibility that a given situation can abruptly escalate into an existential threat to human survival, there is a profound moral responsibility to issue a loud and unambiguous warning.

There are now several indicators that the factors which could generate such a threat are indeed lining up in the Arctic - such as the ice collapse and the loss of solar reflectivity that will only accelerate further Arctic warming. At this time however, other than a handful of notable exceptions, the scientific community as a whole is utterly failing to issue such warning. This essay is an attempt to grapple with what might be the systemic reasons for such failure. Although the author is not a scientist and addresses the issue from outside that frame of reference, reasons are provided for why such may be an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

The climate science community around the world is performing a tremendous service to humanity. As climate disruption continues to escalate and the threat to our society becomes more grave, its members have worked long hours - in many cases on their own time - to gather the relevant data. As only one example. documentary-related exchanges between the author and scientists working in the Arctic make clear that much personal hardship and sacrifice are being endured in order to conduct such research.

It is well known that in preparation for their work, scientists are taught to exercise great caution in reporting their findings and never stray beyond that for which there is incontrovertible evidence. Even when it appears evidence is present, it is the time-honored tradition of science to still submit any conclusions drawn from such to their peers for review.

In almost every case, this strict methodology has well served the public interest. It has filtered out errors and made solid information available to the public and policy makers. But in the arena of global climate disruption, humanity is now facing something unique and quite un-paralleled by any other issue. There is a point in the process of climate de-stabilization where colossal natural forces can be unleashed which are capable of developing their own unstoppable momentum and spiralling well beyond the reach of human control. When such occurs - the already mentioned "irreversible tipping point".

Though a term used frequently in discussions on climate, its full meaning and magnitude have rarely been taken to heart. Far too often, it is simply another "buzzword" dropped into an article and treated only in the most superficial way. Indeed, such usage seems almost to "anesthetize" us to the horrific reality it points toward. In truth, the crossing of some kinds of tipping points can lead to the crushing of our entire civilization on no less of a scale than nuclear war. The devastation can be so sweeping that the concept of "adaptation" becomes meaningless. "Irreversible" refers to the brutal fact that once humanity allows this process to become triggered, there will be no chance to go back, no chance to learn from our mistakes and correct them.

Of the several tipping point scenarios which are possible, one considered especially frightening is the prospect of triggering an abrupt and large scale methane release in the shallow seabeds along Arctic coastlines. The entire climate debate has been dominated by a discussion of humanity's contribution to the problem - which has been the emission of carbon dioxide since the beginning of the industrial age. What science has discovered is that nature has its own vast storehouse of ancient carbon trapped in the ice of the polar regions.

The scenario of most concern to methane "specialists" is what's known as the "runaway feedback" reaction. As described by Dr. Ira Leifer of the Marine Science Institute at the Univ. of Calif.: "A runaway feedback effect would be where methane comes out of the ocean into the atmosphere leading to warming, leading to warmer oceans and more methane coming out, causing an accelerated rate of warming in what one could describe as a runaway train." [7]  A cycle would be initiated which feeds upon itself and therefore becomes unstoppable.

When one looks at the history of the most devastating "wipeouts" of life on earth - such mass extinction events as the PETM or the end-Permian - it is sobering to learn that large scale release of methane has been pointed to as a "probable cause". World-renowned climate science pioneer Dr. James Hansen relates methane to the PETM extinction event:
"There have been times in the earth's history when methane hydrates on the continental shelves melted and went into the atmosphere and caused global warming of six to nine degrees Celsius, which is 10 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit." [8]
The end-Permian extinction was the most colossal mass extinction event, wiping out over 90% of the life forms on earth. According to paleontologist Michael Benton - considered by some to have written the definitive book on this event (When Life Nearly Died):
"Normally, long-term global processes act to bring greenhouse gas levels down. This kind of negative feedback keeps the Earth in equilibrium. But what happens if the release of methane is so huge and fast that normal feedback processes are overwhelmed? Then you have a "runaway greenhouse"...... As temperatures rise, species start to go extinct. Plants and plankton die off and oxygen levels plummet. This is what seems to have happened 251 million years ago." [9]
While devastation on this level is inherently difficult to grasp, one attempt to convey such is provided in the documentary "Miracle Planet". [10] Though absolute certainty on causation may not be attainable, just the possibility that our society may be triggering a force with this kind of power is mind-boggling enough.

Could anything of this unspeakable magnitude be triggered by thawing methane in the Arctic? Again Ira Leifer: "The amount of methane that’s trapped under the permafrost and in hydrates in the Arctic areas is so large that if it was rapidly released it could radically change the atmosphere in a way that would be probably unstoppable and inimicable to human life." [11]  Hansen adds: "It is difficult to imagine how the methane clathrates could survive, once the ocean has had time to warm. In that event a PETM-like warming could be added on top of the fossil fuel warming." [12]  Dr. Hansen - along with Arctic ice and methane experts - address this issue in more depth in a documentary co-produced by the author. [13]

Methane plumes rising from the seafloor
In examining the key reports being made by the scientific community - such as drafts for the new IPCC document and the National Climate Assessment (of the U.S.), one might expect there to be dire warnings about a potential "point of no return" if these forces are unleashed. We do find a discussion of the various consequences of climate disruption that are hitting right now - Arctic and glacial melt, extreme weather, more powerful hurricanes and storms, increases in drought, food shortages, wildfires, and flooding. But where is the discussion of what these symptoms of disruption are leading to? One of the most frightening spectres looming over humanity - the tipping point of a methane "runaway" - is completely ignored.

How can this be possible? Several factors may be combining. As stated earlier, scientists are trained to only make statements based on "hard evidence". In the case of a potentially abrupt methane runaway, it is not possible to pinpoint a specific moment in time when such may be initiated. It cannot be stated with certainty whether this will happen in 2017, 2027, or 2037. Without this ability to pinpoint and quantify, the response of science has been to simply not address it.

Secondly, scientists are human. All of us have great difficulty in truly facing and absorbing the full implications of a complete collapse of human society and even a wiping out of most or all life on the planet. It is human to utilize methods of psychological denial to block out such a staggeringly horrific threat to our collective existence. In this instance, scientists are no different. Unless there is "absolute proof" staring us in the face, the overwhelming tendency is to push such thoughts out of our consciousness so we can "get on with our day".

A third factor is that the current methodology for the reporting of climate science is fundamentally flawed and dysfunctional in regard to the challenge at hand. The single most important such report is that issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is based on a consensus process and an intensively time-consuming level of peer review. Under normal circumstances, such would be seen as positives. But in a situation where humanity may come under severe threat in the very near term future, these reports are essentially looking backward at where science has been for the past 7 years rather than reporting the cutting edge trend lines. A glaring example is how the IPCC completely missed on predicting the speed at which the Arctic would melt.

The tremendous danger with this situation is that by the time any kind of "absolute proof" is gathered, it will very likely be too late to stop the conditions bringing on the dreaded runaway reaction. An unspeakably terrifying process will already have been set into motion and humanity at that point will be helpless to stop it. Temperatures on earth could eventually skyrocket to a level where mass famine is initiated.
What are the potential solutions to these terrible problems? One would be procedural. A special section of such reports should be dedicated to communicating the work of those scientists whose research is on the cutting edge of dealing with potentially huge climate impacts and yet still "in progress" in terms of gathering the relevant data. For example, even though the precise timing of a methane runaway cannot be predicted, there should be a report on the trend lines and the extent to which the conditions that could bring on a runaway are manifesting. If those conditions are lining up to a considerable extent, then an appropriate warning should be issued.

A second corrective step is more related to basic philosophy and morality. At the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, representatives of the world's nations agreed to apply the precautionary principle in determining whether an action should go forward to prevent irreversible damage to the environment. Principle #15 of the Rio Declaration [14] states that:
"In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."
In a further treatment of the meaning of the precautionary principle, it has been stated that there must be
"a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof of evidence of the need for the proposed action on the grounds that further delay will prove ultimately most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and unfair to future generations." [15]
A methane runaway in the Arctic more than meets the criteria of being a "threat" which can bring about "irreversible damage". Due to its potential to create an unstoppable wave of continually rising temperatures capable of initiating something as horrendous as a mass extinction event, its irreversible damage could be of the most frightening magnitude imaginable. If humanity failed to recognize this danger and allowed its occurrence, such would most certainly constitute an irreparable crime against future generations. The most fundamental tenet of human morality demands that in such a unique situation the scientific community act on the basis of the precautionary principle and issue the appropriate warning.

In his powerful book on the ethics of nuclear war, Jonathan Schell wrote: "To kill a human being is murder, but what crime is it to cancel the numberless multitude of unconceived people?" [16] In the words of the ecological ethicist David Orr: "Climate destabilization, like nuclear war, has the potential to destroy all human life on Earth and in effect 'murder the future'......... Willfully caused extinction is a crime that as yet has no name." [17]

Is it possible that the very pillar of science which has served our society so well - the uncompromising demand for incontrovertible "evidence" - has in this unprecedented current crisis become a dangerous obstruction? Is it possible that this requirement of absolute "proof" is creating a perceptual blindness that could pave the way for the most horrendous suffering in the history of civilization?

To the scientists who may read this essay, an appeal is made in the name of our collective humanity to truly confront and grapple with the meaning of the term "irreversible" and weigh the potentially horrific consequences of silence. It is no violation of scientific "objectivity" to look at trend lines and determine whether their continued trajectory might well carry our civilization over the cliff. And if this possibility is there, is there not a profound moral obligation under the precautionary principle to issue a loud and unambiguous warning to humanity?

Before arriving at an answer, the reader - and especially any member of the scientific community - is invited to view a powerful film that is simply entitled "HOME". [18] In this artistic masterpiece, images of life on earth convey beyond the reach of words the incredible magnificence of what will be lost if climate disruption is allowed to escalate into an unstoppable "wipe-out". It also describes the methane lurking in the Arctic as a "climatic time bomb". Please watch and please speak out before it is too late. As James Hansen says: "We are in a planetary emergency."


[1] Bloomberg, August 17, 2012
[2] AFP: 'Planetary emergency' due to Arctic melt, experts warn
[3] Vast methane 'plumes' seen in Arctic ocean as ... - The Independent
[4] Danger from the deep: New climate threat as methane rises from ...
[6] [Documentary co-produced by author]: Arctic News: Arctic methane: Why the sea ice matters
[7] Interview with Leifer for documentary
[8] Interview with Hansen
[9] Wipeout: the end-Permian mass extinction
[10] 6 minute clip from "Miracle Planet":
[11] Interview with Leifer for documentary
[12] Hansen's book: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate ...
[13] Same as link at #6
[14] Rio Declaration
[16] The Fate of the Earth - The New York Times
[17] Thinking About the Unthinkable by David Orr We ... - Moral Ground
[18] [Link to free full film]:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Remarks at the White House - by James Hansen

Remarks at the White House1

15 January 2013
James Hansen, screenshot

Let us return for a moment to election night 2008. As I sat in our farm house in Pennsylvania, watching Barack Obama's victory speech, I turned my head aside so my wife would not see the tears in my eyes. I suspect that millions cried. It was a great day for America.

We had great hopes for our new President. It is appropriate, it is right, in a period honoring Martin Luther King, to recall the hopes and dreams of that evening, and the hopes and dreams that we…will… never  -  give up.

We have a dream – that our President will understand the intergenerational injustice of human-made climate change – that he will recognize our duty to be caretakers of creation, of the land, of the life on our planet – and that he will give these matters the priority that our young people deserve.

We have a dream – that our President will understand the commonality of solutions for energy security, national security and climate stability – and that he will exercise hands-on leadership, taking the matter to the public, avoiding backroom crippling deals with special interests.

We have a dream – that the President will stand as firm as Abraham Lincoln when he faced the great moral issue of slavery – and, like Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill, he will speak with the public, enlisting their support and reassuring them.

It is not easy to find an Abraham Lincoln or a Winston Churchill. But we are here today looking to find that in you, Mr. President. And until you summon it within yourself, let me assure you that we will return, and our numbers will grow.

Mr. President, we will be here until the promise of a safe world for our children and grandchildren, and your children and grand children – is not a dream. We will be here until we are assured that the history books will rightfully record – that you were the person we were looking for  - the person who turned these dreams…into reality.

1 Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, Pray-in at NY Ave. Presbyterian Church and the White House
( on Martin Luther King's birthday.
"We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now…" Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Arctic methane: Why the sea ice matters

Arctic methane: Why the sea ice matters 
a new film by
Interviews with:
James Hansen - NASA
Natalia Shakhova - IARC
Peter Wadhams - Cambridge University, UK
David Wasdell - Apollo-Gaia Project

Arctic Methane: Why The Sea Ice Matters

James Hansen: If it begins to allow the Arctic Ocean to warm up and warm the ocean floor, then we'll begin to release methane [from] hydrates, and if we let that happen, that's a potential tipping points that we don't want to pass. There are now observations that methane is beginning to be released by both melting tundra on the land and bubbling up in the Arctic Ocean, indicating some warming of the Arctic Ocean.

Natalia Shakhova: The total amount of methane in the current atmosphere is about 5 Gt. The amount of carbon preserved in the form of methane in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is ~ from hundreds to thousands Gt. What divides this methane from the atmosphere is a very shallow water column and a weakening permafrost, which is losing its ability to serve as a seal. This area is very seismically and tectonically active and there was some investigation that the tectonic activity is increasing.

Peter Wadhams: At the rate we're going, it will bring us to an ice-free Arctic in about four years time. [The Arctic Ocean] now warms up to about 5 degrees [5°C or 41°F, i.e.] enough to start warming up the seabed. The seabed at the moment is frozen, but it's now starting to melt. That's allowing a lot of methane which is trapped under the permafrost to be released. That's a large boost to global warming, because methane is an extremely powerful climatically-active gas. 

David Wasdell: The warm water from the surface is now being mixed down to those areas that it never reached when the whole area was covered in sea ice. As soon as the area is open water, you have a process of heating that goes right down to those clathrate deposits on the seabed. The more the methane is released into the atmosphere, the faster the heating goes. It's probably the greatest threat we face, as a planet. We're already in a mass extinction event.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Saving the Arctic Ice (#2)

By Nathan Currier

Greenpeace, Greenwashing and Geoengineering

Nathan Currier, senior climate advisor for Public Policy Virginia

I've been discussing the Greenpeace "Save the Arctic" campaign in light of the reality there, where we will likely reach near-zero summer arctic sea ice in just the next few years. Before exploring, in the next post, direct climate interventions that could really help save the arctic, we now must look at all our other options -- just as, in a medical crisis, one eliminates other options before opting for surgery.

Of course, one option is to blithely say, "Look, the ice can come back later," and therefore do nothing to impede the arrival of an ice-free arctic ocean. At the recent Greenpeace New York meeting, this seemed to be the tacitly assumed option. Now, I am quite aware of modeling studies demonstrating sea ice loss itself to be readily reversible. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times asked James Hansen at the meeting about the Eemian interglacial (~130,000-115,000 yrs ago), its ice loss and recovery -- seemingly keen to highlight this comforting reversibility. But this reversibility depends on environmental conditions. One minor detail that wasn't mentioned was that CO2 was then around pre-industrial levels (280ppm), hardly soaring up around 400ppm as now, a level possibly not seen on Earth for 15 million years, so one should hardly expect the planet to give an Eemian-style response now, either in the long-term or next year (for a variety of reasons aside from CO2 levels, in fact).

What about green energy, solar panels and the like, the kinds of things proposed at the Greenpeace meeting? Anyone contemplating emissions strategy ought to keep the UNEP graph (Shindell et al, 2011) in my first post up on their walls: Even pretty large CO2 source reductions won't bring relief from warming until about 2040 (and could bring near-term warming). By that time, the increased insolation to the arctic ocean might have gone so far as to give an ice-free arctic for a considerably larger chunk of the year, with really drastic effects. Is that a plan for "saving" the arctic?

The only way through emissions to have an impact on what is going on there right now is through non-CO2 reductions like black carbon and methane. And aside from that, there's nothing left except direct intervention -- which could cover a wide variety of options, some of them being what I'll call "localized geoengineering," and will discuss next time.

Now, Hansen has been the primary advocate of the concept of using non-CO2 reductions to help bridge the time gap of getting reduced warming from CO2 reductions, so my one question for Hansen at the meeting was whether he thought that could still be used alone to confront the arctic crisis. Hansen's answer was frank and accurate. As Hansen said, and I hope Greenpeace, Bill McKibben and all the others present heard, "If you need a rescue package, to some degree it inherently is geoengineering."

He didn't say that non-CO2 reductions wouldn't still be helpful (they are 100 percent necessary right away, just as massive CO2 reductions to near-zero by mid-century are necessary), but he certainly didn't say that they could halt the loss of the sea ice now alone, either -- indeed, I believe that the numbers show that they can't. It has now become clear that emissions reductions alone can no longer save the arctic ice. This is a big deal, and it needs to sink in.

Greenpeace's campaign aims to make the arctic a sanctuary, by which they primarily mean keeping out the fossil industry. Hansen himself has many papers stating that easily recoverable fossil sources inevitably will get used. The arctic's resources are obviously getting more easily recoverable by the season. Keeping the fossil industry away without cooling it is probably impossible -- and, at a certain level, might even be destructive. What if Greenpeace succeeded, but the arctic were left to melt? Picture some natural disaster, akin to the Macando well disaster, but happening all on its own. No, I don't mean an oil spill -- I mean a bunch of methane bubbling up from the seabed and reaching the atmosphere in large ongoing belches. This kind of thing is likely to start at some point if we let the sea ice disappear, as Hansen himself discussed at the meeting -- and it won't stop like an oil spill, but rather will likely become an ongoing process. Then we will actually need the fossil industry's expertise to go in there and help trap as much as possible. Believe me, I am not saying this to invite the fossil industry in. I am saying this because we must somehow keep the arctic cool. Lastly, ships and refineries both emit black carbon, which has an extremely strong but complex to quantify effect on local warming, and ice and snow-covered places are the most vulnerable to its effects because it settles on them and changes their reflectivity. So, even without fossil extraction, just if arctic ship traffic picks up dramatically, this could greatly accelerate ice (and snow) losses, helping ensure that this theoretical reversibility remains just that, something we'll never see. I'm sure Greenpeace means well, but currently their campaign most resembles those full-page greenwashing fantasies from Shell and PB, "Creating Your Clean Energy Future," and so on. At present, it's a sham.

The unquestioned reliance upon ice loss reversibility at the Greenpeace meeting might have been correct from a purely physical viewpoint alone, but was highly pernicious all the same, because it masks that we are about to quietly walk through the most monumental climate threshold we have yet crossed, and will then almost certainly discover, for a whole array of reasons -- all those minor physical mechanisms I elaborated last time, or the issues regarding the fossil industry I have just mentioned -- that it's difficult to turn around. Folks, what I am trying to say is: You can't let this happen, and yet you definitely can no longer prevent this happening just through emissions alone. That means that some form of direct climate intervention will be necessary there.

The clincher is this: When Hansen mentioned at the meeting that we could reverse ice loss, he also added, "And the truth is, we have to do that."

That is, he said, in order to avoid other major tipping points that clearly aren't reversible (ice sheets, methane hydrates). So the only remaining question is precisely when it must be reversed. London-based group AMEG, of which I am a member, takes the position: right away. Think of what this all means: It's completely impossible to achieve that reversal through emissions for many decades, even in the most optimistic scenario for large-scale emissions reductions -- and it would be far too dangerous to leave this unattended for that amount of time. So you will end up needing geoengineering in any case, just to achieve the reversal. Now, if you will quickly need to undo something that's about to happen, and potentially you might have great trouble undoing it at all later -- and the means will need to be the same in each instance -- then, isn't it far, far better to prevent that thing from happening, rather than trying to reverse it later?

Bill McKibben spoke with mild resignation about losing the sea ice, as though it were a pity, adding that we might "learn from it." But he's been profoundly ill-advised on the science, I'm afraid. If we don't fight this, we'll be "learning" like players of Russian roulette learn. And each decade left untreated might be like adding a bullet to the round.

Instead, we urgently need for Bill to understand this situation, and to start a "" (a 1250ppb target for methane) right away to complement his (Hansen's CO2 ppm target), and get his people back in the streets. Greenpeace must meet again with those scientists -- many more of them -- but with "time translators" present, so that Director Naidoo understands why Jim Hansen calls geoengineering a rescue package.

Trying to save the arctic is currently the most vital thing in the world, the front lines of the climate war, so let's all applaud Greenpeace for taking up the cause. Now they just have to bite the bullet, and recognize it's a fantasy unless two things happen right away, together at once:

1. A number of complementary direct arctic interventions (I'll discuss these soon).

2. Complete restructuring of the programs designed to reduce non-CO2 emissions (a long list of acronym-laden things like the M2M, GMF, GMI, CCAC), so that they really work -- and make this a public rallying cry, a global "1250" movement to help save ourselves.

[First posted at the Huffington Post; posted with author's permission]

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tipping Points

The increasing melt may be a harbinger of greater changes such as the release of methane compounds from frozen soils that could exacerbate warming, and a thaw of the Greenland ice sheet, which would contribute to rising sea levels, NASA’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, said in an e-mail interview, reports Bloomberg.

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

Above image shows methane levels over a period of four years, from August 1, 2008, to August 1, 2012.

Above image shows methane levels over one years, from August 1, 2011, to August 1, 2012. This shows a marked increase in methane levels on the last of the four years further above.

Above image shows methane levels from August 1, 2012, to August 15, 2012. The image shows high levels of methane across the northern hemisphere. Note the high levels above Greenland.