Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Saving the Arctic Ice (#1)

By Nathan Currier

Greenpeace, Greenwashing and Geoengineering

Nathan Currier, senior climate advisor for Public Policy Virginia

There was much media attention a couple of weeks ago when this year's sea ice extent minimum broke all records: it was down almost 50 percent from the 1979-2000 average. Little attention, though, accompanied a possibly even more significant figure, released a few days ago: those who run the PIOMAS sea ice volume model at the Polar Research Centershowed the 2012 sea ice volume minimum was down almost 50 percent not from decades ago -- but from 2007! That's right: the volume of arctic sea ice this September minimum was probably about half of what it was, just back in 2007. This figure should deeply trouble any reasonable human being, as it strongly suggests reaching an ice-free arctic sea ice minimum within half a decade, and, since there is little dispute that some summer sea ice will persist to the north and west of Greenland for much longer, the first "near-ice-free" point will likely arrive in just the next few years, as sea ice expert Peter Wadhams has pointed out, and the London-based policy group and think tank Ameg has maintained.

How should we respond? Greenpeace recently started a "Save the Arctic" campaign. That's great -- but you can only save the arctic by saving its ice. And, unfortunately, it is now clear that this can no longer be achieved through emissions reductions alone. It's too late for that. Greenpeace held ameeting on the polar emergency in New York City, by chance on the same day the record extent minimum was called, and while on the surface it seemed pretty ordinary, it was at heart very odd. Nobody suggested any change of approach, any specific re-strategizing, to respond to the accelerating situation. The word emergency was a common currency passing all lips, but in fact it was unclear whether people were really speaking the same language, especially as concerns that most precious thing in emergencies -- time. And there seemed to be no translator in the room, saying "this is the timescale of this, that's the timescale of that."

The meeting's two scientists, Wieslaw Maslowski (on ice) and James Hansen (general climate), themselves focusing on somewhat different time scales, were followed by the 'social/political' panel discussing what we should do: the panel discussed green energy, solar power, how we shouldn't move towards nuclear, that kind of stuff. But Jim Hansen had said in answer to a question (mine), "We are going to lose that sea ice," and also said that to save it, "You could do some quick things." As I'll discuss in my next post, Hansen meant geoengineering. Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo later couldn't even remember the word -- geoengineering. But if he's going to save the arctic, I'm afraid he's going to need to know it.

A big issue in whether to consider something an important 'threshold' is its reversibility, and we will discuss the reversibility of this one further in the next episode. At the meeting, since Maslowski focused on sea ice modeling failures, and Hansen on the whole climate picture, many of the potential immediate physical impacts of allowing this coming ice loss remained poorly or not at all elaborated -- although they are important for Greenpeace, and everyone else, to understand, I feel. Hansen showed a slide of three major tipping points which he said place us in a climate 'emergency,' because one can lose control around tipping points. One was methane hydrate, for example. But what Hansen didn't show were what I might dub the 'minor tipping points,' far more immediate changes stemming from this coming loss, which could make it hard to turn around, and could lead us straight to those more major ones Hansen fears, in a slippery slope.

Keep in mind that what we're talking about here is losing almost as much summer ice cover in just the next few years as we have over the last few decades, and that these are all circularly interrelated reinforcing mechanisms. Sorry, if it seems a bit mind-numbing for some readers, but here's my list:

1. Greatly increased arctic water vapor, increasing arctic warming (water vapor is a potent greenhouse gas) but also fundamentally altering arctic hydrology and hence weather patterns.

2. Immediately and fundamentally altered arctic atmospheric chemistry, causing increased arctic methane lifetime, among other basic changes.

3. Certain increase in acceleration of arctic warming, from increased solar energy entering the arctic ocean (this engenders 1.) and the release of latent heat into the atmosphere during autumn's rapid re-freezing.

4. Consequent increased potential for large arctic storms like the Great Arctic Cyclone this summer.

5. Consequent increased deep convection events (mixing to bottom) of arctic ocean, particularly important over the shallow water of the shelves, where lower layers can now often be methane-saturated.

6. Consequently an increase of seabed methane emissions -- including from seabed permafrost, shallow methane hydrate, and from thawing of either or both of these and increased gas migration pathways allowing free gas from underneath the hydrates to outgas.

(For full PowerPoint PDF, scroll down to Topic/Title Methane Release from Eastern Siberian Shelf.)

7. This increase in seabed permafrost thawing leads to a subsequent increased risk that a random seismic event could suddenly release large amounts of methane from the above combination of thawing sources, or from other thawed arctic carbon stores (see PowerPoint above).

8. Increased risk of general degradation of shallow methane hydrates leading to slope failure and consequent methane release.

9. Certain increase in chronic emissions of methane (and CO2) from thawing land permafrost, peat, etc. with the general added warming mentioned above.

10. The increased arctic methane lifetime (2.) is indistinguishable from an increase in its arctic abundance.

11. Increasing continued rate of ice (and snow) loss as the ice-free-period subsequently lengthens, from all the above, particularly significant as the insolation increases earlier in the season to around the solstice in June (discussion here, scroll down to An Ice-free Solstice).

And here are some immediate potential global impacts to chew on:

12. Recent research suggests that ice (and snow cover) loss is at least one causative factor in recentextreme weather -- drought, flood, fires, etc. -- and if so this could quickly be amplified.

13. Consequently, recent global impacts on food security could increase proportionally.

14. Economic losses from each of those (12., 13) would probably increase proportionally, and potentially could amplify into global economic recession or even depression.

15. If there's large-scale (multi gigaton-scale) methane release soon, this would of course fundamentally alter the whole path of global warming (see my Twilight posts #1,#2), with vast consequences.

16. If the ice-free period expands significantly, altered arctic tropospheric oxidation could rapidly start to impact high latitude urban areas, making cities with large populations rapidly become more difficult to live in (good discussion here at GISS, where Hansen is himself director).

No one said a word at the Greenpeace meeting, seemingly dismissing it as a major threshold at all. No one ever said, "Let's fight this." But I am suggesting that you should see skull and crossbones hanging above this threshold crossing. Like playing around high voltage wires or train tracks, allowing this threshold to be crossed will add considerable risk. And I'm suggesting that it will be crossed in just the next few years, unless we do something about it.

As I'll discuss next time, it might prove much harder to reverse than many assume within the climate world. Therefore, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu said about allowing an eventual runaway arctic permafrost carbon feedback, we must all say loudly now about this initial step onto that vast and treacherous slippery slope: "We cannot go there!" And if we don't want to go there, there's now no longer any question -- geoengineering will have to be part of the remedy.

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How to avert an intensifying food crisis

As extreme weather intensifies, the food crisis intensifies. Storms and floods do damage to crops and cause erosion of fertile topsoil, in turn causing further crop loss. Similarly, heatwaves, storms and wildfires do damage to crops and cause topsoil to be blown away, thus also causing erosion and further crop loss. Furthermore, they cause soot, dust and volitale organic compounds to settle on snow and ice, causing albdeo loss and further decline of snow and ice cover.

Extreme weather intensifies as the Arctic warms and the polar vortex and jet stream weaken, which is fueled by accelerated warming in the Arctic. There are at least ten feedbacks that contribute to further acceleration of warming in the Arctic and without action the situation looks set to spiral away into runaway global warming, as illustrated by the image below.

Diagram of Doom, with Comprehensive Plan of Action added  (credit: Sam Carana, October 9, 2012)

To avert an intensifying global food crisis, a comprehensive plan of action is needed, as also indicated on the image. Such a plan should be comprehensive and consider action in the Arctic such as wetland management, ice thickening and methane management (methane removal through decomposition, capture and possibly extraction).

- Threat to global food supply makes comprehensive action imperative

- Comprensive Plan of Action

- Diagram of Doom

- Opening further Doorways to Doom

- Terraforming Earth

- Changes to Polar Vortex affect mile-deep ocean circulation patterns

- Arctic sea ice loss is effectively doubling mankind's contribution to global warming

Terraforming Earth


Terraforming is a fascinating idea. Creating Earth-like conditions on other planets or on the moon, or inside structures built in space, that has long been a popular theme in many science fiction stories. 

What are habitable conditions? Many will point at the presence of water and certain minerals. Many will also point at some things our own Earth has, such as an atmosphere that spreads the heat from sunlight around the world, and that has levels of greenhouse gases that keep temperatures within a range that supports life on our planet.

Habitability at risk

At present, changes are taking place in the world that indicate the opposite is happening here on Earth. The conditions that make Earth habitable are at risk in many ways. One threat is the rise in the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

A safe operating space for humanity is a landmark 2009 study that identifies nine essential areas where sustainability is stressed to the limits, in three cases beyond its limits. In the image below, these areas are pictured as wedges. The inner green shading represents the proposed safe operating space for nine planetary systems. The red wedges represent an estimate of the current position for each variable. The boundaries in three systems (rate of biodiversity loss, climate change and human interference with the nitrogen cycle), have already been exceeded.

 From: A safe operating space for humanity, Rockström et al, 2009.

How to reduce the risk

Global warming is caused by emissions such as from burning fuel. Such emissions are still rising. Such emissions must obviously be reduced dramatically, while additional measures are needed to avoid runaway global warming and to bring the atmosphere and oceans back their pre-industrial state as soon as possible.

The table below shows these nine areas in the column on the left, while examples of technologies that could be helpful in the respective area feature in the column on the right. 

1. Climate changeCDR: biochar, carbon air capture, enhanced weathering, algae bags, EVs, renewable energy, clean cooking & heating, LEDs, etc.
SRM: surface and cloud brightening, release of aerosols
AMM & AWIM: methane capture, release of oxygen and diatoms, wetland management, river diversion, enhanced methane decomposition
2. Ocean acidificationenhanced weathering
3. Stratospheric ozone depletionoxygen release
4. Nitrogen & Phosphorus cyclesalgae bags, biochar, enhanced weathering
5. Global freshwater usedesalination, biochar, enhanced weathering
6. Change in land usedesalination, biochar, enhanced weathering
7. Biodiversity lossdesalination, biochar, enhanced weathering
8. Atmospheric aerosol loadingbiochar, EVs, renewable energy, clean cooking & heating, LEDs, etc. 
9. Chemical pollutionrecycling, waste management (separation)

A Comprehensive Plan of Action

At present, governments support polluting products in all kinds of ways, while they use international agreements or the lack thereof as excuses to avoid making the necessary changes.

To facilitate the shift from polluting technologies to clean technologies, political change is imperative and governments around the world should commit to a comprehensive plan of action such as articulated here.

Reducing emissions is obviously an important part of such a plan. This can be effectively achieved by imposing fees on the sales of polluting products, while using the revenues to fund rebates on locally sold clean alternatives. Each nation can start implementing such policies without the need to wait for other nations to take similar action. Clean products are in many respects already economically competitive. Active support by government is the long-awaited signal for local industries to make the necessary investments and create many local clean jobs in the process, while this also supports people's health and has many further benefits.

Moreover, there is a risk of runaway global warming. This risk is unacceptably high and needs to be dramatically reduced as soon as possible, which makes that geo-engineering will have to be an indispensable part of the necessary plan of action. International agreement must be reached on this, not only to minimize possible negative side-effects, but also to ensure that such geo-engineering will not be used as a way for a nation to avoid taking the necessary action to reduce emissions domestically.

Terra is Latin for Earth and sounds sufficiently ancient to indicate that it refers to Earth like it used to be when it was a habitable planet. Indeed, we need a massive effort to restore Terra to the way it used to be. We need to terraform Earth itself.

The certain catastrophic effects of allowing the Arctic snow summer sea ice to melt away

Image by Peter Carter of the Climate Emergency Institute