Thursday, September 12, 2013

Methane reaches 2571 ppb

Methane as recorded by IASI* reached levels of up to 2571 parts per billion (ppb) on September 11, 2013.

The image below shows the peak levels that have been reached recently, as well as the highest mean methane level for each day.

Where did the methane come from?

IASI data do not identify locations, other than that all locations where methane is present in concentrations higher than 1950 ppb show up in yellow.

Yet, there are some ways to further examine where these high levels came from. To create the top image, only four layers were selected. The yellow spots on the image show locations where methane is present at the selected layers (695-766 mb) at concentrations of 1950 ppb and higher. At these relatively low altitudes, yellow spots will show up at fewer locations than at some of the higher altitudes, yet one can assume that the largest sources will be included among those showing up; and indeed, peak methane levels at these altitudes ranged from 2193 ppb to 2328 ppb, which are extremely high levels.

On the top image, there are several locations that look suspicious, including a large spot north of the New Siberian Islands, while the Kara Sea and the Barents Sea, and many locations around Greenland all feature suspicious yellow spots.

Most worrying are the numerous spots clustered off the coast of Norway, which show up quite prominently at many altitudes. The situation is reminiscent of the Storegga Slides, the underwater landslides that occurred at the edge of Norway's continental shelf thousands of years ago. The latest incident occurred some 8,000 years ago.

Seismic Activity

Earthquakes can cause tremors over long distances, especially along fault lines.

There has been some seismic activity close to Greenland that could have triggered one or more landslides off the cost of Norway, since the fault line points that way. An earthquake with a magnitude of 4.5 on the Richter scale occurred occured on September 1, 2013, 08:49:19 UTC, at a location 214km NE of Nord, Greenland, as illustrated by above image and the image below.

* IASI (Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer) is a hyperspectral infrared sounder residing on the European Space Agencys (ESA) MetOp series of polar orbiting satellites.

Temperature Rise

Surface Temperature Rise

How much have temperatures risen over the past 100 years or so? In the image below, Peter Carter points at the aerosols from volcanic eruptions and fossil fuel combustion that temporarily delay the full impact of global warming.

Temperature Rise hits Arctic most strongly

In above image, temperature anomalies are compared to a 3-decade base period from 1951 to 1980. To highlight the full wrath of global warming, it is more informative to compare anomalies with an earlier base period. Furthermore, a short running mean better shows how high peaks can reach.

NASA typically compares temperature change relative to 1951-1980, because the U.S. National Weather Service uses a three-decade period to define "normal" or average temperature. The NASA GISS analysis effort began around 1980, so the most recent 30 years at the time was 1951-1980.1

But as said, it is more informative to use a 30-year base period that starts earlier. To show Gobal & Arctic Temperature Change, James Hansen and Makiko Sato used a 1951-1980 base period next to a 1880-1920 base period. For this post, a 1883-1912 base period was selected to create the above image, and this same base period was selected to create the image below.

Above image shows that the Arctic is hit most strongly by the temperature rise. Note that the anomalies in above image are visualized by latitude, but are averaged by longitude globally, masking even higher anomalies that can be experienced at specific longitudes. At times, some areas in the Arctic do already experience anomalies of over 20°C, as shown in the animation below, based on NOAA data for the period December 7, 2011 - January 21, 2012.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Existential risks to our planetary life-support systems

By Andrew Glikson

Figure 1. The future of Earth’s living environment is a non-issue in the current
Australian election - NASA image: Earth rising over the Moon
“We’re simply talking about the very life support system of this planet.”– Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, chief climate advisor to the German Government
It is not news that we are over stretching our planetary support systems: we have known for some time. In a 2009 keynote paper in Nature titled “A safe operating space for humanity”, a group of 26 prominent scientists showed three of nine interlinked planetary boundaries – boundaries we must stay within to keep Earth safe – have already been overstepped (see figure 2. below).

Those boundaries include:
  • climate change
  • biodiversity loss
  • the biogeochemical cycles.

Kevin Trenberth, chief scientist of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, states:
“Some of the human-induced changes are occurring 100-times faster than they occur in nature … And this is one of the things that worries me more than climate change itself. It’s actually the rate of change that’s most worrying … Ecosystems are not prepared for this jolt … And neither are many human endeavours, built around assumptions about how hot it’s going to be, how much it’s going to rain on our croplands, and how high the seas will rise.”

Figure 2. Planetary boundaries - the colored star-like area represents the estimated current state and the corners of the red octagon circumscribed by the Earth are the estimated boundaries. Systems whose safe operating space could not yet be determined were left out. Image from: Wikipedia / A safe operating space for humanity, Rockström et al, 2009.

This observation is dramatically demonstrated by the current rise of atmospheric greenhouse gases: this is at an unprecedented rate of 2 to 3 parts per million per year (see figure 3. below). This renders our era – the Anthropocene – a major oxidation event.

Such a growth rate of atmospheric greenhouse gases is extremely rare in geological history. The only analogue is the excavation of billions of tons of carbon from carbonate and shale formation hit by asteroids, such as the K-T impact 65 million years ago and massive global volcanic eruptions.

The consequences for the biosphere – the sixth mass extinction of species – threatens to become a tragedy for human ideals and for nature.

What or who is responsible for the unfolding calamity?

As defined, the Anthropocene is a new geological era triggered by a species which has uniquely mastered ignition. We are using it to excavate and release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon accumulated in Earth’s crust over geological eras into atmosphere.

Once a species masters sources of energy larger by orders of magnitude than its own physiological process (for Homo Sapiens this has been fire, electricity and nuclear fission), the species can hardly be expected to have the wisdom and degree of responsibility to stop its inventions from getting out of control.

Figure 3. Estimates of fossil fuel resources and equivalent atmospheric CO2 levels, including (1) emissions to date;
(2) estimated reserves, and (3) recoverable resources (1 ppm CO2 ~ 2.12 GtC). 
Hansen, 2012, figure 1;
Unique among all species, humans adopted fire and combustion as their source of energy and power over nature. Over the last two million years, camped around fires, watching the flames, human imagination has grown to inquire, perceive future possibilities, develop fears, the craving for immortality, and the concept of gods. Fire has imparted a mythological quality to the human mind.

Once a stable climate was established in the Holocene (about 10,000 years ago), allowing cultivation and production of surplus food, this craving for omnipotence and omniscience was expressed by the building of monuments to immortality, the pyramids, as well as endless wars acquiring loot for this purpose.

Spiritual pantheism by pre-historic people such as the Australian Aboriginals has been transformed into admiration of sky gods and monotheism, then into crass materialism and the space cult.

But space exploration has taught us no other planet exists in the solar system on which the conditions exist for advanced life of the type hosted by Earth.

Since the greenhouse effect and its underlying laws of physics and chemistry were decoded in the 19th century, the question has arisen: to what extent will societies and their leaders accept the implications of the science for human industry and human future? Will the scientific method itself and the enlightenment form the basis of future decisions?

In 21st century Australia, the answer has been a resounding “no”.

Government and corporate decisions on climate change are being influenced by misrepresentations of the evidence. What began some 20 years ago as demonstration of solid empirical evidence has deteriorated to media-controlled debate replete with misunderstandings of the basic laws of physics, paleo-climate science, climate science, biological and ecological principles.

Figure 4. Relations between CO2 rise rates and mean global temperature rise rates during warming periods,
including the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, Oligocene, Miocene, late Pliocene, Eemian (glacial termination),
Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles, Medieval Warming Period, 1750-2012 and 1975-2012 periods.
A multitude of media outlets and hundreds of websites proliferate notions ignorant of peer-reviewed science. The lesson of numerous attempted debates with those who deny the reality of global warming, or attempt to attribute it to natural non-human factors, is that those entertaining these notions cannot be dissuaded by any amount of scientific evidence.

Climate change misconceptions include claims that:
  • temperature rise came before CO2 rise during the glacial terminations and that therefore the current rise of temperature is not the result of CO2 rise. However, the effects of CO2and temperature variations are intertwined. During the last ~400,000 years glacial eras were terminated by periods of intense solar activity, affecting decreased CO2 solubility in warming water and thereby a rise in CO2 levels of the atmosphere. By contrast climate developments since the 18th century, when there was negligible or no rise in solar energy hitting the earth, were triggered by the anthropogenic greenhouse effect of the release of 560 billion tonnes of carbon, consistent with the basic laws of physics.
  • global warming is a recovery from the Little Ice Age. However, the Little Ice Age was caused when sunspot activity nearly ceased between 1650 and 1700, depressing global temperatures by 0.2-0.3C relative to preceding periods. By contrast, global warming from about 1975 has tracked toward more than 1.5C over the continents relative to pre-industrial temperatures.
  • cosmic rays flux affects warming. However, a dominant solar effect on the climate since 1970 is ruled out by measurements of solar radiation. The incidence of cosmic rays, which oscillate reciprocally with the 11 years sunspot cycle, has been shown to have minor effects on cloud nucleation and has not varied significantly since the mid-20th century.
  • carbon dioxide is emitted mainly from volcanoes. However, according to the United States Geological Survey (2012), sub-aerial and sub-marine volcanism emits approximately 150–260 million tons of CO2 a year. Anthropogenic emissions total about 35 billion tons CO2 a year.
Meanwhile, the unthinkable consequences of 4 degrees Celsius and higher temperature rise on the terrestrial atmosphere-ocean system have already begun. We are seeing a series of extreme weather events, reflecting the rise in energy/temperature of the atmosphere-ocean system – the “new normal”.

Andrew Glikson
Does responsibility lie with vested interests and fossil fuel lobbies promoting carbon saturation of the atmosphere? Does it lie with media barons and their mouthpieces hijacking the information systems of democracies, or with cowardly political “leaders” – presiding over extensive demise of future generations? Or does responsibility lie with all of us, with the species?

Deceived by pseudoscientific misconceptions, Homo “sapiens” continues to march toward a cliff, taking much of nature with it.

Earlier published at The Conversation.

Monday, September 2, 2013

North Hole

Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies

A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas, in 1935. From: Wikipedia: Dust Bowl
During the 1930s, North America experienced a devastating drought affecting almost two-thirds of the United States as well as parts of Mexico and Canada. The period is referred to as the Dust Bowl, for its numerous dust storms.

Rapid creation of farms and use of gasoline tractors had caused erosion at massive scale.

Extensive deep plowing of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains in the preceding decade had removed the natural deep-rooted vegetation that previously kept the soil in place and trapped moisture even during periods of drought and high winds.

So, when the drought came, the dust storms emerged. But what caused the drought?

A 2004 study concludes that the drought was caused by anomalous sea surface temperatures (SST) during that decade and that interactions between the atmosphere and the land surface increased its severity (see image above right with SST anomalies).

Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies in the Arctic

As the above chart shows, SST anomalies in the days of the Dust Bowl were not greater than one degree Celsius. It is in this context that the current situation in the Arctic must be seen. This year, SST anomalies of 5 degrees Celsius or more are showing up in virtually all areas in the Arctic Ocean where the sea ice has disappeared; some areas are exposed to sea surface temperature anomalies higher than 8°C (14.4°F), as discussed in the post Arctic Ocean is turning red.

High SST anomalies can change weather patterns in many places, as discussed in an earlier post on changes to the Polar Jet Stream. The world is now stumbling from one extreme weather event into another, and things look set to get worse every year.

Feedbacks in many ways make things even worse in the Arctic, as described in the post Diagram of Doom. A recent paper by Feng et al. notes that river runoff has significantly increased across the Eurasian Arctic in recent decades, resulting in increased export of young surface carbon. In addition, the paper says, climate change-induced mobilization of old permafrost carbon is well underway in the Arctic. An earlier paper already warned about coastal erosion due to the permafrost melt. In conclusion, the Arctic is hit by climate change like no other place on Earth.

North Hole

As the ice thickness map below shows, holes have appeared in the sea ice in places that once were covered by thick multi-year sea ice.

One such hole, for its proximity to the North Pole, has been aptly named the "North Hole". On the sea ice concentration map below, this hole shows up as a blue spot (i.e. zero ice).

The "Methane Catastrophe"

Why do we care? For starters, methane appears to be rising up from these holes in the sea ice, forming a cloud of high methane concentrations over the Arctic Ocean.

Perhaps this is a good occasion to again look at the methane plume over one km in diameter that appeared in the Laptev Sea end September 2011. The image is part of a paper on the unfolding "Methane Catastrophe".

Back in 2008, Shakhova et al., in the study Anomalies of methane in the atmosphere over the East Siberian shelf: Is there any sign of methane leakage from shallow shelf hydrates? considered release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time.

For more on the methane threat, please read the post methane hydrates or view the FAQ page.


The threat of the "Methane Catastrophe" requires action to be taken urgently, such as discussed at the Climate Plan.


• Climate Plan

• On the Cause of the 1930s Dust Bowl - by Siegfried Schubert

• Anomalies of methane in the atmosphere over the East Siberian shelf: Is there any sign of methane leakage from shallow shelf hydrates? - by Natalia Shakhova et al.

• The degradation of submarine permafrost and the destruction of hydrates on the shelf of east arctic seas as a potential cause of the “Methane Catastrophe”: some results of integrated studies in 2011 - by V. I. Sergienko et al.

• Methane hydrates

• Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)