Updated frequently, and most recently 20 August 2014. ** Latest additions are flagged with two asterisks on each side. **
I’m often accused of cherry picking the information in this ever-growing essay. I plead guilty, and explain myself in this essay posted 30 January 2014. My critics tend to focus on me and my lack of standing in the scientific community, to which I respond with the words of John W. Farley: “The scientific case is not dependent on citation of authority, no matter how distinguished the authority may be. The case is dependent upon experimental evidence, logic, and reason.” In other words, stop targeting the messenger.
A German-language version of this essay, updated 26 June 2014, is available in pdf form here. A Russian version focused on self-reinforcing feedback loops, courtesy of Robin Westenra and colleagues, is here. A Polish version, updated often, is available here.
American actress Lily Tomlin is credited with the expression, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” With respect to climate science, my own efforts to stay abreast are blown away every week by new data, models, and assessments. It seems no matter how dire the situation becomes, it only gets worse when I check the latest reports.
The response of politicians, heads of non-governmental organizations, and corporate leaders remains the same. They’re mired in the dank Swamp of Nothingness. As Halldor Thorgeirsson, a senior director with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said on 17 September 2013: “We are failing as an international community. We are not on track.” These are the people who know about, and presumably could do something about, our ongoing race to disaster (if only to sound the alarm). Tomlin’s line is never more germane than when thinking about their pursuit of a buck at the expense of life on Earth.
Worse than the aforementioned trolls are the media. Fully captured by corporations and the corporate states, the media continue to dance around the issue of climate change. Occasionally a forthright piece is published, but it generally points in the wrong direction, such as suggesting climate scientists and activists be killed (e.g., James Delingpole’s 7 April 2013 hate-filled article in the Telegraph). Leading mainstream outlets routinely mislead the public.
Mainstream scientists minimize the message at every turn, with expected results. As we’ve known for years, scientists almost invariably underplay climate impacts (James Hansen referred to the phenomenon at “scientific reticence” in his 24 May 2007 paper about sea-level rise in Environmental Research Letters. And in some cases, scientists are aggressively muzzled by their governments. Even museums are not safe from misinformation about climate science to appease fossil-fuel philanthropists, as reported in the 17 June 2014 issue of AlterNet. I’m not implying conspiracy among scientists. Science selects for conservatism. Academia selects for extreme conservatism. These folks are loathe to risk drawing undue attention to themselves by pointing out there might be a threat to civilization. Never mind the near-term threat to our entire species (most couldn’t care less about other species). If the truth is dire, they can find another, not-so-dire version. The concept is supported by an article in the February 2013 issue of Global Environmental Change pointing out that climate-change scientists routinely underestimate impacts “by erring on the side of least drama” (also see overviews of this phenomenon from 21 May 2014 and from 15 July 2014, the latter from the U.S. National Research Council as reported by Truth-out). Even the often-conservative Robert Scribbler points out in his 18 July 2014 essay: “NASA’s CARVE study has been silent for a year, the University of Maryland has stopped putting out publicly available AIRS methane data measures, the NOAA ESRL methane flask measures, possibly due to lack of funding, haven’t updated since mid-May, and even Gavin Schmidt over at NASA GISS appears to have become somewhat mum on a subject that, of late, has generated so much uncomfortable controversy.” (Apocalypse 4 Real blog responded to Scribbler on 24 July 2014, and the response is linked here.) Almost everybody reading these words has a vested interest in not wanting to think about climate change, which helps explain why the climate-change deniers have won.
Beyond Linear Change
I’m often told Earth can’t possibly be responsive enough to climate change to make any difference to us. But, as the 27 May 2014 headline at Skeptical Science points out, “Rapid climate changes more deadly than asteroid impacts in Earth’s past.” That’s correct: climate change is more deadly than asteroids.
Ever late to the party, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admits global warming is irreversible without geoengineering in a report released 27 September 2013. On 22 April 2014, Truth-out correctly headlines their assessment, “Intergovernmental Climate Report Leaves Hopes Hanging on Fantasy Technology.” Time follows up two days later with a desperate headline, “NASA Chief: Humanity’s Future Depends On Mission To Mars” (first up: greenhouses on Mars). As pointed out in the 5 December 2013 issue of Earth System Dynamics, known strategies for geoengineering are unlikely to succeed (“climate geo-engineering cannot simply be used to undo global warming“). “Attempts to reverse the impacts of global warming by injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere could make matters worse,” according to research published in the 8 January 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters. In addition, as described in the December 2013 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, geoengineering may succeed in cooling the Earth, it would also disrupt precipitation patterns around the world. Furthermore, “risk of abrupt and dangerous warming is inherent to the large-scale implementation of SRM” (solar radiation management), as pointed out in the 17 February 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters. About a week later comes this line from research published in the 25 February 2014 issue of Nature Communication: “schemes to minimize the havoc caused by global warming by purposefully manipulating Earth’s climate are likely to either be relatively useless or actually make things worse.” Finally, in a blow to technocrats published online in the 25 June 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change, a large and distinguished group of international researchers concludes geo-engineering will not stop climate change. As it turns out, the public isn’t impressed, either: Research published in the 12 January 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change “reveals that the overall public evaluation of climate engineering is negative.” Despite pervasive American ignorance about science, the public correctly interprets geo-engineering in the same light as the scientists, and contrary to the techno-optimists.
The IPCC operates with a very conservative process and produces very conservative reports. And then governments of the world meddle with the reports to ensure Pollyanna outcomes, as reported by a participant in the process (also see Nafeez Ahmed’s 14 May 2014 report in the Guardian and the 3 July 2014 paper in National Geographic). According to David Wasdell’s May 2014 analysis, which includes a critique of the IPCC’s ongoing lunacy, “equilibrium temperature increase predicted as a result of current concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gasses is already over 5°C.” I see no way for humans to survive such a rise in global-average temperature.
Gradual change is not guaranteed, as pointed out by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in December 2013: “The history of climate on the planet — as read in archives such as tree rings, ocean sediments, and ice cores — is punctuated with large changes that occurred rapidly, over the course of decades to as little as a few years.” The December 2013 report echoes one from Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution more than a decade earlier. Writing for the 3 September 2012 issue of Global Policy, Michael Jennings concludes that “a suite of amplifying feedback mechanisms, such as massive methane leaks from the sub-sea Arctic Ocean, have engaged and are probably unstoppable.” During a follow-up interview with Alex Smith on Radio Ecoshock, Jennings admits that “Earth’s climate is already beyond the worst scenarios.” Truth-out piles on 18 March 2014: “‘climate change’” is not the most critical issue facing society today; abrupt climate change is.” Skeptical Science finally catches up to reality on 2 April 2014 with an essay titled, “Alarming new study makes today’s climate change more comparable to Earth’s worst mass extinction.” The conclusion from this conservative source: “Until recently the scale of the Permian Mass Extinction was seen as just too massive, its duration far too long, and dating too imprecise for a sensible comparison to be made with today’s climate change. No longer.” ** And, finally, the Brisbane Times catches up with abrupt climate change on 18 August 2014: “Let us be clear: if these methane escapes continue to grow, the risk is they could drive the planet into accelerated or ‘runaway’ global warming. The last time this happened, 50 million years ago, global temperatures rose by an estimated 9 or 10 degrees. In the present context, that would mean the end of the world’s food supply.” **
As reported by Robert Scribbler on 22 May 2014, “global sea surface temperature anomalies spiked to an amazing +1.25 degrees Celsius above the, already warmer than normal, 1979 to 2000 average. This departure is about 1.7 degrees C above 1880 levels — an extraordinary reading that signals the world may well be entering a rapid warming phase.”
Not to be outdone, now that abrupt climate change has entered the scientific lexicon, is dire news published in the 25 July 2014 issue of Science. “The study found that synchronization of the two regional systems began as climate was gradually warming. After synchronization, the researchers detected wild variability that amplified the changes and accelerated into an abrupt warming event of several degrees within a few decades.” Global-average temperature rising “several degrees within a few decades” seems problematic to me, and to anybody else with a biological bent. ** As reported eight days later in Nature Climate Change, rapid warming of the Atlantic Ocean, likely caused by global warming, has turbocharged Pacific Equatorial trade winds. Currently the winds are at a level never before seen on observed records, which extend back to the 1860s. When this phenomenon ceases, likely rapid changes will include a sudden acceleration of global average surface temperatures. **
If you’re too busy to read the evidence presented below, here’s the bottom line: On a planet 4 C hotter than baseline, all we can prepare for is human extinction (from Oliver Tickell’s 2008 synthesis in the Guardian). Tickell is taking a conservative approach, considering humans have not been present at 3.5 C above baseline (i.e., the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, commonly accepted as 1750). I cannot imagine a scenario involving a rapid rise in global-average temperature and also habitat for humans. Neither can Australian climate scientist Clive Hamilton, based on his 17 June 2014 response to Andrew Revkin’s fantasy-based hopium. According to the World Bank’s 2012 report, “Turn down the heat: why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided” and an informed assessment of “BP Energy Outlook 2030” put together by Barry Saxifrage for the Vancouver Observer, our path leads directly to the 4 C mark. The conservative International Energy Agency throws in the towel on avoiding 4 C in this video from June 2014 (check the 25-minute mark). The 19th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 19), held in November 2013 in Warsaw, Poland, was warned by professor of climatology Mark Maslin: “We are already planning for a 4°C world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that.” Adding to planetary misery is a paper in the 16 December 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluding that 4 C terminates the ability of Earth’s vegetation to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide.
I’m not sure what it means to plan for 4 C (aka extinction). I’m not impressed that civilized scientists claim to be planning for it, either. But I know we’re human animals, and I know animals require habitat to survive. When there is no ability to grow food or secure water, humans will exit the planetary stage.
According to Colin Goldblatt, author of a paper published online in the 28 July 2013 issue of Nature Geoscience, “The runaway greenhouse may be much easier to initiate than previously thought.” Furthermore, as pointed out in the 1 August 2013 issue of Science, in the near term Earth’s climate will change orders of magnitude faster than at any time during the last 65 million years. Tack on, without the large and growing number of self-reinforcing feedback loops we’ve triggered recently, the 5 C rise in global-average temperature 55 million years ago during a span of 13 years, and it looks like trouble ahead for the wise ape. This conclusion ignores the long-lasting, incredibly powerful greenhouse gas discovered 9 December 2013 by University of Toronto researchers: Perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA) is 7,100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and it persists hundreds of years in the atmosphere. It also ignores the irreversible nature of climate change: Earth’s atmosphere will harbor, at minimum, the current warming potential of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration for at least the next 1,000 years, as indicated in the 28 January 2009 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Finally, far too late, the New Yorker posits a relevant question on 5 November 2013: Is It Too Late to Prepare for Climate Change? Joining the too-little, too-late gang, the Geological Society of London points out on 10 December 2013 that Earth’s climate could be twice as sensitive to atmospheric carbon as previously believed. New Scientist piles on in March 2014, pointing out that planetary warming is far more sensitive to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration than indicated by past reports. As usual and expected, carbon dioxide emissions set a record again in 2013, the fifth-warming year on record and the second-warmest year without an El Nino. Another El Niño is on the way, as pointed out by Robert Scribbler on 6 March 2014: “Should the predicted El Nino emerge and be as strong as average model values indicate, global surface temperatures could rise by between .05 and .15 degrees Celsius …. This would be a substantial jump for a single year, resulting in yet one more large shift toward an ever more extreme climate.” Indeed, the upper end of the projected range takes us to 1 C warmer than baseline.
Is There a Way Out?
All of the above information fails to include the excellent work by Tim Garrett, which points out that only complete collapse avoids runaway greenhouse. Garrett reached the conclusion in a paper submitted in 2007 (personal communication) and published online by Climatic Change in November 2009 (outcry from civilized scientists delayed formal publication until February 2011). The paper remains largely ignored by the scientific community, having been cited fewer than thirty times since its publication.
According to Yvo de Boer, who was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2009, when attempts to reach a deal at a summit in Copenhagen crumbled with a rift between industrialized and developing nations, “the only way that a 2015 agreement can achieve a 2-degree goal is to shut down the whole global economy.” Politicians finally have caught up with Tim Garrett’s excellent paper in Climatic Change.
Writing for the Arctic News Group, John Davies concludes: “The world is probably at the start of a runaway Greenhouse Event which will end most human life on Earth before 2040.” He considers only atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, not the many self-reinforcing feedback loops described below. Writing on 28 November 2013 and tacking on only one feedback loop — methane release from the Arctic Ocean — Sam Carana expects global temperature anomalies up to 20 C 2050 (an anomaly is an aberration, or deviation from long-term average). Small wonder atmospheric methane can cause such global catastrophe considering its dramatic rise during the last few years, as elucidated by Carana on 5 December 2013 in the figure below.
On the topic of tipping points, we crossed the Rubicon in 2007 at about 0.76 C warming. At this point, according to David Spratt’s excellent September 2013 report, “Is Climate Already Dangerous?”, not only had Arctic sea-ice passed its tipping point, but the Greenland Ice Sheet was not far behind, as the Arctic moves to sea-ice-free conditions in summer (the U.S. Navy predicts an ice-free Arctic by summer 2016, a year later than expected by the United Kingdom Parliament, which points out that the six lowest September ice extents have occurred in the last six years, 2006-2012, and now we can add 2013 and 2014 to the list). Glaciologist Jason Box, an expert on Greenland ice, agrees. Box was quoted in a 5 December 2012 article in the Guardian: “In 2012 Greenland crossed a threshold where for the first time we saw complete surface melting at the highest elevations in what we used to call the dry snow zone. … As Greenland crosses the threshold and starts really melting in the upper elevations it really won’t recover from that unless the climate cools significantly for an extended period of time which doesn’t seem very likely.” (In January 2013, Box concluded we’ve locked in 69 feet — 21 meters — of sea-level rise.) Indeed, as stated that same year in the September issue of Global Policy, “because of increasing temperatures due to GHG emissions a suite of amplifying feedback mechanisms, such as massive methane leaks from the sub-sea Arctic Ocean, have engaged and are probably unstoppable.” By December 2013, the disappearance of Greenland’s ice had accelerated to five times the pace of a few years previously, and IPCC was acknowledging they’d been far too conservative with past estimates. Continued conservatism is buttressed by research reported in the 16 March 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change indicating melting of Greenland ice accounts for about one-sixth of recent sea-level rise and also by research published in the 18 May 2014 issue of Nature Geoscience indicating Greenland’s icy reaches are far more vulnerable to warm ocean waters from climate change than had been thought. Finally, a research paper published in the 13 June 2014 of Geophysical Research Letters points out that an ice-free Arctic is likely to cause rapid melting of Greenland ice.
Predicting Near-Term Human Extinction
If you think we’ll adapt, think again. The rate of evolution trails the rate of climate change by a factor of 10,000, according to a paper in the August 2013 issue of Ecology Letters. Even once-rich habitats in Antarctica are becoming biologically impoverished as icebergs, increasingly breaking free from the surrounding sea ice, scour the shallow-water rocks and boulders on which a diversity of creatures cling to life (according to research published in the 16 June 2014 issue of Current Biology). And it’s not as if extinction events haven’t happened on this planet, as explained in the BBC program, The Day the Earth Nearly Died.
The rate of climate change clearly has gone beyond linear, as indicated by the presence of the myriad self-reinforcing feedback loops described below, and now threatens our species with extinction in the near term. As Australian biologist Frank Fenner said in June 2010: “We’re going to become extinct,” the eminent scientist says. “Whatever we do now is too late.” Anthropologist Louise Leakey ponders our near-term demise in her 5 July 2013 assessment at Huffington Post and her father Richard joins the fray in this video from December 2013 (see particularly 1:02:18 – 1:02:56). Canadian wildlife biologist Neil Dawe joins the party of near-term extinction in an interview 29 August 2013 and musician-turned-activist Sir Bob Geldof joins the club in a Daily Star article from 6 October 2013. Health officials add their voices to the discussion about extinction in late March 2014, although they view 4 C as a problem to be dealt with later. Writing for Truth-Out, journalist John Feffer writes in his 27 April 2014 essay: “The planet and its hardier denizens may soldier on, but for us it will be game over.” American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky concludes we’re done in a 15 June 2014 interview with Chris Hedges at Truthdig, saying climate change “may doom us all, and not in the distant future.” Larry Schwartz, writing for AlterNet on 21 July 2014, concludes, “Many environmentalists think we have already passed the point of no return.” Johns Hopkins professor and fossil hunter Ken Rose agrees in an interview published 29 July 2014: “We’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction on Earth. It probably won’t take too long for humans to go extinct.” ** AT&T Project Manager Jennifer Hynes concludes near-term human extinction certain at the 1:20:30 mark of this comprehensive presentation about global methane release. ** In the face of near-term human extinction, most Americans view the threat as distant and irrelevant, as illustrated by a 22 April 2013 article in the Washington Post based on poll results that echo the long-held sentiment that elected officials should be focused on the industrial economy, not far-away minor nuisances such as climate change.
Supporters of carbon farming — the nonsensical notion that industrial civilization can be used to overcome a predicament created by industrial civilization — claim all we need to do is fill the desert with nonnative plants to the tune of an area three-quarters the size of the United States. And, they say, we’ll be able to lower atmospheric carbon dioxide by a whopping 17.5 ppm in only two decades. Well, how exciting. At that blistering pace, atmospheric carbon dioxide will be all the way back down to the reasonably safe level of 280 ppm in only 140 years, more than a century after humans are likely to become extinct from climate change. And, based on research published in the 2 May 2014 issue of Science, soil carbon storage has been over-estimated and is reduced as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration rises.
According to the plan presented in the 23 August 2013 issue of Scientific American, the nonnative plants, irrigated with increasingly rare fresh water pumped by increasingly rare fossil-fuel energy, will sequester carbon sufficient to overcome contemporary emissions. Never mind the emissions resulting from pumping the water, or the desirability of converting thriving deserts into monocultures, or the notion of maintaining industrial civilization at the expense of non-civilized humans and non-human species. Instead, ponder one simple thought: When the nonnative plants die, they will emit back into the atmosphere essentially all the carbon they sequestered. A tiny bit of the carbon will be stored in the soil. The rest goes into the atmosphere as a result of decomposition.
This essay brings attention to recent projections and self-reinforcing feedback loops (i.e., positive feedbacks). I presented much of this information at the Bluegrass Bioneers conference (Alex Smith at Radio Ecoshock evaluates my presentation here). More recently, I presented an updated version in a studio in Bolingbrook, Illinois. All information and sources are readily confirmed with an online search, and links to information about feedbacks can be found here.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (late 2007): >1.8 C by 2100 (up to 4.5 C, depending upon emissions scenarios)
Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (late 2008): ~2 C by 2100
Later in 2008, Hadley Center’s head of climate change predictions Dr. Vicky Pope calls for a worst-case outcome of more than 5 C by 2100. Joe Romm, writing for Grist, claims, “right now even Hadley [Centre] understands it [> 5 C] is better described as the ‘business-as-usual’ case.”
United Nations Environment Programme (mid 2009): 3.5 C by 2100
Global Carbon Project, Copenhagen Diagnosis (November 2009): 6 C, 7 C by 2100
United Nations Environment Programme (December 2010): up to 5 C by 2050
These assessments fail to account for significant self-reinforcing feedback loops (i.e., positive feedbacks, the term that implies the opposite of its meaning). The IPCC’s vaunted Fifth Assessment continues the trend as it, too, ignores important feedbacks (also listen here). As with prior reports, the Fifth Assessment “has been altered after the expert review stage, with changes added that downplay the economic impacts of a warming planet.” Consider, for example, the failure to mention Arctic ice in the Working Group Summary released 31 March 2014 (additional links here). The importance of Arctic ice in delaying catastrophic warming is enormous, as explained quite simply in 2007:
Anyone who does not know what Latent Heat is will have a false sense of security. It is not hard to understand if I do not use physics jargon. Place on a hot stove a pot of cold water containing 1 kg of ice cubes. Stir the ice water with a long thermometer and take temperature readings. My question is: When will the thermometer begin to show a rise in temperature? Answer: After all the ice has melted. In other words, all the heat from the stove would first all go into melting the ice, without raising the water temperature. The amount of heat entering a system without raising the temperature of the system is called Latent Heat. It takes 80 calories of heat to melt one gram of ice. So in this case, the first 80,000 calories of heat from the stove went into melting the 1 kg of ice first. Only when the ice is all gone will the water temperature rise, and it will do so until it reaches 100C, when the water will begin to boil. Once again, Latent Heat comes into play, and the water temperature will stabilize at the boiling point – until all the water have changed from liquid to vapour, at which point the temperature of the dry pot will rise to the temperature of the flame itself. So how does this apply to Earth’s climate? Consider the Arctic Ocean to be a gigantic pot of ice water, and the sun as the stove. For as long as there is still sea ice to melt, the Arctic Ocean will remain relatively cool, in spite of the ever increasing solar heat entering the Arctic ocean due to ever decreasing ice cover. When the sea ice is gone in the summer, as early as the latter part of this decade, the Arctic Ocean’s temperature will steeply rise, and when it does, so will the global mean temperature, and all hell will break lose.
On a positive note, major assessments fail to account for economic collapse. However, due to the four-decade lag between emissions and temperature rise, the inconvenient fact that the world has emitted more than twice the industrial carbon dioxide emissions since 1970 as we did from the start of the Industrial Revolution through 1970, and also due to the feedback loops described below, I strongly suspect it’s too late for economic collapse to extend the run of our species. Indeed, as pointed out by Bruce Melton at Truth-out in a 26 December 2013 piece featuring climate scientist Wallace Broeker: “today we are operating on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from the 1970s. In the last 29 years we have emitted as many greenhouse gases as we emitted in the previous 236 years. Because of the great cooling effect of the oceans, we have not yet begun to see the warming that this recent doubling of greenhouse gases will bring.” Greenhouse gas emissions continue to accelerate even as the world’s industrial economy slows to a halt: Emissions grew nearly twice as fast during the first decade of the new millennium as in the previous 30 years, as reported in the 11 April 2014 issue of The Guardian.
The 40-year has been evident since at least 1938, when Guy Callendar pointed out influence of rising carbon dioxide on temperature in a paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. The hand-drawn figure from the paper shown below clearly illustrates a rise in global-average temperature beginning about 1915, roughly 40 years after the consumption of fossil fuels increased substantially. Callendar’s work was used by J.S. Sawyer in a 1972 paper published in Nature to predict an “increase of 25% CO2 expected by the end of the century … [and] … an increase of 0.6°C in the world temperature” with stunning accuracy.
Broadening the Perspective
Astrophysicists have long believed Earth was near the center of the habitable zone for humans. Recent research published in the 10 March 2013 issue of Astrophysical Journal indicates Earth is on the inner edge of the habitable zone, and lies within 1% of inhabitability (1.5 million km, or 5 times the distance from Earth to Earth’s moon). A minor change in Earth’s atmosphere removes human habitat. Unfortunately, we’ve invoked major changes.
The northern hemisphere is particularly susceptible to accelerated warming, as explained in the 8 April 2013 issue of Journal of Climate. Two days later, a paper in Nature confirmed that summers in the northern hemisphere are hotter than they’ve been for 600 years. As pointed out by Sherwood and Huber in the 25 May 2012 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and then by James Hansen in his 15 April 2013 paper, humans cannot survive a wet-bulb temperature of 35 C (95 F).
As described by the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases in 1990, “Beyond 1 degree C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage” (link mirrored here). James Hansen and crew finally caught up to the dire nature of 1 C warming 23 years after the U.N. warning, 28 self-reinforcing feedback loops too late.
We’ve clearly triggered the types of positive feedbacks the United Nations warned about in 1990. Yet my colleagues and acquaintances think we can and will work our way out of this horrific mess with the tools of industrial civilization (which, got us into this mess, as pointed out by Tim Garrett) or permaculture (which is not to denigrate permaculture, the principles of which are implemented at the mud hut). Reforestation doesn’t come close to overcoming combustion of fossil fuels,str as pointed out in the 30 May 2013 issue of Nature Climate Change. Furthermore, forested ecosystems do not sequester additional carbon dioxide as it increases in the atmosphere, as disappointingly explained in the 6 August 2013 issue of New Phytologist. Adding egregious insult to spurting wound, the latest public-education initiative in the United States — the Next Generation Science Standards — buries the relationship between combustion of fossil fuels and planetary warming. The misadventures of the corporate government continue, even as collapse of ecosystems is fully under way. As pointed out in the April 2013 issue of PLoS ONE — too little, too late for many ecosystems — “catastrophic collapses can occur without prior warning.”
Some green-washing solutionistas take refuge in the nuclear solution. It’s astonishing what one can conclude when grid-tied electricity is a viewed as a natural right. James Hansen’s endorsement notwithstanding, nuclear power plants cause, rather than prevent, additional warming of Earth.
Let’s ignore the models for a moment and consider only the results of a single briefing to the United Nations Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen (COP15). Regulars in this space will recall COP15 as the climate-change meetings thrown under the bus by the Obama administration. The summary for that long-forgotten briefing contains this statement: “THE LONG-TERM SEA LEVEL THAT CORRESPONDS TO CURRENT CO2 CONCENTRATION IS ABOUT 23 METERS ABOVE TODAY’S LEVELS, AND THE TEMPERATURES WILL BE 6 DEGREES C OR MORE HIGHER. THESE ESTIMATES ARE BASED ON REAL LONG TERM CLIMATE RECORDS, NOT ON MODELS.”
In other words, near-term extinction of humans was already guaranteed, to the knowledge of Obama and his administration (i.e., the Central Intelligence Agency, which runs the United States and controls presidential power). Even before the dire feedbacks were reported by the scientific community, the administration abandoned climate change as a significant issue because it knew we were done as early as 2009. Rather than shoulder the unenviable task of truth-teller, Obama did as his imperial higher-ups demanded: He lied about collapse, and he lied about climate change. And he still does.
Ah, those were the good ol’ days, back when atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were well below 400 parts per million (ppm). We’ll blow through the 400 ppm mark soon, probably for the first time in 3.2 to 5 million years. And, as reported in the journal Global and Planetary Change in April 2013, every molecule of atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1980 comes from human emissions. Not to be outdone, methane levels reached an average mean of 1800 parts per billion (ppb) on the morning of 16 June 2013. Tacking on a few of the additional greenhouse gases contributing to climate change and taking a conservative approach jacks up the carbon dioxide equivalent to 480 ppm (and see here, from NOAA). Seeps are appearing in numerous locations off the eastern coast of the United States, leading to rapid destabilization of methane hydrates (according to the 25 October 2013 issue of Nature). On land, anthropogenic emissions of methane in the United States have been severely underestimated by the Environmental Protection (sic) Agency, according to a paper in the 25 November 2013 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This figure is 1100 ppb higher than pre-industrial peak levels. Methane release tracks closely with temperature rise throughout Earth history — specifically, Arctic methane release and rapid global temperature rise are interlinked — including a temperature rise up to about 1 C per year over a decade, according to data from ice cores. The tight linkage between Arctic warming and planetary warming was verified in an article in the 2 February 2014 issue Nature Geoscience, which found that the Arctic’s cap of cold, layered air plays a more important role in boosting polar warming than does its shrinking ice and snow cover. A layer of shallow, stagnant air acts like a lid, concentrating heat near the surface. Finally, adding fuel to the growing fire, a paper in the 27 March 2014 issue of Nature articulates the strong interconnection between methane release and temperature rise: “For each degree that Earth’s temperature rises, the amount of methane entering the atmosphere … will increase several times. As temperatures rise, the relative increase of methane emissions will outpace that of carbon dioxide.”
How long will the hangover persist, after we’re done with the fossil-fuel party? According to University of Chicago oceanographer David Archer: “The climatic impacts of releasing fossil fuel CO2 to the atmosphere will last longer than Stonehenge,” Archer writes in his January 2008 book The Long Thaw. “Longer than time capsules, longer than nuclear waste, far longer than the age of human civilization so far.”
Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops (also see analysis here)
1. About 250 plumes of methane hydrates are escaping from the shallow Arctic seabed, likely as a result of a regional 1 C rise in temperature, as reported in the 6 August 2009 issue of Geophysical Research Letters. Methane bubbling out the Arctic Ocean is further elucidated in Science in March 2010. As described in a subsequent paper in the June 2010 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a minor increase in temperature would cause the release of upwards of 16,000 metric tons of methane each year. Storms accelerate the release, according to research published in the 24 November 2013 issue of Nature Geoscience The latter paper also concludes the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is venting at least 17 teragrams of the methane into the atmosphere each year, up from 0.5 teragrams just 7 years earlier (a teragram is equal to 1 million tons). According to NASA’s CARVE project, these plumes were up to 150 kilometers across as of mid-July 2013. Global-average temperature is expected to rise by more than 4 C by 2030 and 10 C by 2040 based solely on methane release from the Arctic Ocean, according to Sam Carana’s research (see especially Image 24). Whereas Malcolm Light’s 9 February 2012 forecast of extinction of all life on Earth by the middle of this century appeared premature because his conclusion of exponential methane release during summer 2011 was based on data subsequently revised and smoothed by U.S. government agencies, subsequent information — most notably from NASA’s CARVE project — indicates the grave potential for catastrophic release of methane. (I doubt industrial civilization manages to kill all life on Earth, although that clearly is the goal.) Catastrophically rapid release of methane in the Arctic is further supported by Nafeez Ahmed’s thorough analysis in the 5 August 2013 issue of the Guardian as well as Natalia Shakhova’s 29 July 2013 interview with Nick Breeze (note the look of abject despair at the eight-minute mark). In early November 2013, methane levels well in excess of 2,600 ppb were recorded at multiple altitudes in the Arctic. Later that same month, Shakhova and colleagues published a paper in Nature Geoscience suggesting “significant quantities of methane are escaping the East Siberian Shelf” and indicating that a 50-billion-tonne “burst” of methane could warm Earth by 1.3 C. Such a burst of methane is “highly possible at any time.”
By 15 December 2013, methane bubbling up from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean had sufficient force to prevent sea ice from forming in the area. Nearly two years after his initial, oft-disparaged analysis, Malcolm Light concluded on 22 December 2013, “we have passed the methane hydrate tipping point and are now accelerating into extinction as the methane hydrate ‘Clathrate Gun’ has begun firing volleys of methane into the Arctic atmosphere.” According to Light’s analysis in late 2013, the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere will resemble that of Venus before 2100. Two weeks later, in an essay stressing near-term human extinction, Light concluded: “The Gulf Stream transport rate started the methane hydrate (clathrate) gun firing in the Arctic in 2007 when its energy/year exceeded 10 million times the amount of energy/year necessary to dissociate subsea Arctic methane hydrates.” The refereed journal literature, typically playing catch-up with reality, includes an article in the 3 February 2014 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface claiming, “Sustained submergence into the future should increase gas venting rate roughly exponentially as sediments continue to warm.” Not surprisingly, the clathrate gun began firing in 2007, the same year the extent of Arctic sea ice reached a tipping point. Further confirmation the clathrate gun had been fired came from Stockholm University’s Örjan Gustafsson, who reported from the Laptev Sea on 23 July 2014: “results of preliminary analyses of seawater samples pointed towards levels of dissolved methane 10-50 times higher than background levels.” Jason Box responds to the news in the conservative fashion I’ve come to expect from academic scientists on 27 July 2014: “What’s the take home message, if you ask me? Because elevated atmospheric carbon from fossil fuel burning is the trigger mechanism poking the climate dragon. The trajectory we’re on is to awaken a runaway climate heating that will ravage global agricultural systems leading to mass famine, conflict. Sea level rise will be a small problem by comparison.” Later, during an interview with Vice published 1 August 2014, Box loosened up a bit, saying, “Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked.” Trust me, Jason, we’re there.
** Simultaneous with the Laptev Sea mission, several large holes were discovered in Siberia. The reaction from an article published in the 31 July 2014 issue of Nature indicates atmospheric methane levels more than 50,000 times the usual. An article in the 4 August 2014 edition of Ecowatch ponders the holes: “If you have ever wondered whether you might see the end of the world as we know it in your lifetime, you probably should not read this story, nor study the graphs, nor look at the pictures of methane blowholes aka dragon burps.” **
The importance of methane cannot be overstated. Increasingly, evidence points to a methane burst underlying the Great Dying associated with the end-Permian extinction event, as pointed out in the 31 March 2014 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Malcolm Light reported on 14 July 2014: “There are such massive reserves of methane in the subsea Arctic methane hydrates, that if only a few percent of them are released, they will lead to a jump in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere of 10 degrees C and produce a ‘Permian’ style major extinction event which will kill us all.”
Discussion about methane release from the Arctic Ocean has been quite heated (pun intended). Paul Beckwith was criticized by the conservative website, Skeptical Science. His response from 9 August 2013 is here.
Robert Scribbler provides a terrifying summary 24 February 2014, and concludes, “two particularly large and troubling ocean to atmosphere methane outbursts were observed” in the Arctic Ocean. Such an event hasn’t occurred during the last 45 million years. Scribbler’s bottom line: “that time of dangerous and explosive reawakening, increasingly, seems to be now.”
2. Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011). Extent of Arctic sea ice passed a tipping point in 2007, according to research published in the February 2013 issue of The Cryosphere. On 6 October 2012, Truth-out cites Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University: “The Arctic may be ice-free in summer as soon as 2015. Such a massive loss would have a warming effect roughly equivalent to all human activity to date. In other words, a summer ice-free Arctic could double the rate of warming of the planet as a whole.” Subsequent melting of Arctic ice is reducing albedo, hence enhancing absorption of solar energy. “Averaged globally, this albedo change is equivalent to 25% of the direct forcing from CO2 during the past 30 years,” according to research published in the 17 February 2014 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Destabilization of the deep circulation in the Atlantic Ocean may be “spasmodic and abrupt rather than a more gradual increase” as earlier expected, according to a paper published in the 21 February 2014 issues of Science. Models continue to underestimate results relative to observations, as reported in the 10 March 2014 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
3. Siberian methane vents have increased in size from less than a meter across in the summer of 2010 to about a kilometer across in 2011 (Tellus, February 2011). According to a paper in the 12 April 2013 issue of Science, a major methane release is almost inevitable, which makes me wonder where the authors have been hiding. Almost inevitable, they report, regarding an ongoing event. Trees are tipping over and dying as permafrost thaws, thus illustrating how self-reinforcing feedback loops feed each other.
4. Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Communications, November 2011)
5. Invasion of tall shrubs warms the soil, hence destabilizes the permafrost (Environmental Research Letters, March 2012)
6. Greenland ice is darkening (The Cryosphere, June 2012). As reported in the 8 June 2014 issue of Nature Geoscience, “a decrease in the albedo of fresh snow by 0.01 leads to a surface mass loss of 27 Gt” annually. Any reduction in albedo is a disaster, says Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Oceans Physics Group at Cambridge University. As pointed out by Robert Scribbler on 1 August 2014, we’ve removed the plug and, like the water leaving a tub, acceleration is under way: “Extensive darkening of the ice sheet surface, especially near the ice sheet edge, is resulting in more solar energy being absorbed by the ice sheet. Recent studies have shown that edge melt results in rapid destabilization and speeds glacier flows due to the fact that edge ice traditionally acts like a wall holding the more central and denser ice pack back.”
7. Methane is being released from the Antarctic, too (Nature, August 2012). According to a paper in the 24 July 2013 issue of Scientific Reports, melt rate in the Antarctic has caught up to the Arctic and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing over 150 cubic kilometres of ice each year according to CryoSat observations published 11 December 2013, and Antarctica’s crumbling Larsen B Ice Shelf is poised to finish its collapse, according to Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The rate of loss during the period 2010-2013 was double that during the period 2005-2010, according to a paper in the 16 June 2014 issue of Geophysical Research Letters. Loss of Antarctic ice is accelerating even in areas long considered stable, as documented in the 24 July 2014 edition of Scientific Reports. Further confirmation of large methane releases is revealed by noctilucent clouds over the southern hemisphere from 21 November 2013 to 6 December 2013.
8. Forest and bog fires are growing (in Russia, initially, according to NASA in August 2012), a phenomenon consequently apparent throughout the northern hemisphere (Nature Communications, July 2013). The New York Times reports hotter, drier conditions leading to huge fires in western North America as the “new normal” in their 1 July 2013 issue. A paper in the 22 July 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates boreal forests are burning at a rate exceeding that of the last 10,000 years. Los Alamos National Laboratory catches on during same month. According to reports from Canada’s Interagency Fire Center, total acres burned to date in early summer 2014 are more than six times that of a typical year. This rate of burning is unprecedented not just for this century, but for any period in Canada’s basement forest record over the last 10,000 years. A comprehensive assessment of biomass burning, published in the 21 July 2014 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, explains most of the global-average increase in temperature and explains that biomass burning causes much more global warming per unit weight than other human-associated carbon sources. By early August 2014 tundra fires were burning just 70 miles south of Arctic Ocean waters and ** the fires were creating their own weather via pyrocumulus clouds. **
9. Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide (Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, October 2012)
11. Exposure to sunlight increases bacterial conversion of exposed soil carbon, thus accelerating thawing of the permafrost (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 2013). Subsequent carbon release “could be expected to more than double overall net C losses from tundra to the atmosphere,” as reported in the March 2014 issue of Ecology. Arctic permafrost houses about half the carbon stored in Earth’s soils, an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 petagrams of it, according to NASA. Peat chemistry changes as warming proceeds, which accelerates the process, as reported in the 7 April 2014 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
12. The microbes have joined the party, too, according to a paper in the 23 February 2013 issue of New Scientist
13. Summer ice melt in Antarctica is at its highest level in a thousand years: Summer ice in the Antarctic is melting 10 times quicker than it was 600 years ago, with the most rapid melt occurring in the last 50 years (Nature Geoscience, April 2013). According to a paper in the 4 March 2014 issue of Geophysical Research Letters — which assumes relatively little change in regional temperature during the coming decades — “modeled summer sea-ice concentrations decreased by 56% by 2050 and 78% by 2100″ (Robert Scribbler’s in-depth analysis is here). Citing forthcoming papers in Science and Geophysical Research Letters, the 12 May 2014 issue of the New York Times reported: “A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable. … The new finding appears to be the fulfillment of a prediction made in 1978 by an eminent glaciologist, John H. Mercer of the Ohio State University. He outlined the vulnerable nature of the West Antarctic ice sheet and warned that the rapid human-driven release of greenhouse gases posed ‘a threat of disaster.’” Although scientists have long expressed concern about the instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), a research paper published in the 28 August 2013 of Nature indicates the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) has undergone rapid changes in the past five decades. The latter is the world’s largest ice sheet and was previously thought to be at little risk from climate change. But it has undergone rapid changes in the past five decades, signaling a potential threat to global sea levels. The EAIS holds enough water to raise sea levels more than 50 meters. According to a paper in the July 2014 issue of the same journal, the southern hemisphere’s westerly winds have been strengthening and shifting poleward since the 1950s, thus quickening the melt rate to the point of — you guessed it — “results that shocked the researchers.”
14. Increased temperature and aridity in the southwestern interior of North America facilitates movement of dust from low-elevation deserts to high-elevation snowpack, thus accelerating snowmelt, as reported in the 17 May 2013 issue of Hydrology and Earth System Sciences.
15. Floods in Canada are sending pulses of silty water out through the Mackenzie Delta and into the Beaufort Sea, thus painting brown a wide section of the Arctic Ocean near the Mackenzie Delta brown (NASA, June 2013). Pictures of this phenomenon are shown on this NASA website.
16. Surface meltwater draining through cracks in an ice sheet can warm the sheet from the inside, softening the ice and letting it flow faster, according to a study accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface (July 2013). It appears a Heinrich Event has been triggered in Greenland. Consider the description of such an event as provided by Robert Scribbler on 8 August 2013:
In a Heinrich Event, the melt forces eventually reach a tipping point. The warmer water has greatly softened the ice sheet. Floods of water flow out beneath the ice. Ice ponds grow into great lakes that may spill out both over top of the ice and underneath it. Large ice damns (sic) may or may not start to form. All through this time ice motion and melt is accelerating. Finally, a major tipping point is reached and in a single large event or ongoing series of such events, a massive surge of water and ice flush outward as the ice sheet enters an entirely chaotic state. Tsunamis of melt water rush out bearing their vast floatillas (sic) of ice burgs (sic), greatly contributing to sea level rise. And that’s when the weather really starts to get nasty. In the case of Greenland, the firing line for such events is the entire North Atlantic and, ultimately the Northern Hemisphere.
17. Breakdown of the thermohaline conveyor belt is happening in the Antarctic as well as the Arctic, thus leading to melting of Antarctic permafrost (Scientific Reports, July 2013). In the past 60 years, the ocean surface offshore Antarctica became less salty as a result of melting glaciers and more precipitation, as reported in the 2 March 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change.
18. Loss of Arctic sea ice is reducing the temperature gradient between the poles and the equator, thus causing the jet stream to slow and meander (see particularly the work of Jennifer Francis). The most extreme “dipole” on record occurred during 2013-2014, as reported in the Geophysical Research Letters. One result is the creation of weather blocks such as the recent very high temperatures in Alaska. This so-called “polar vortex” became widely reported in the United States in 2013 and received the attention of the academic community when the 2013-2014 drought threatened crop production in California. Extreme weather events are occurring, as reported in the 22 June 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change. ** Also called Rossby Waves, these atmospheric events are on the rise, as reported in the 11 August 2014 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. **
As one result of the polar vortex, boreal peat dries and catches fire like a coal seam. The resulting soot enters the atmosphere to fall again, coating the ice surface elsewhere, thus reducing albedo and hastening the melting of ice. Each of these individual phenomena has been reported, albeit rarely, but to my knowledge the dots have not been connected beyond this space. The inability or unwillingness of the media to connect two dots is not surprising, and has been routinely reported (recently including here with respect to climate change and wildfires) (July 2013)
20. Extreme weather events drive climate change, as reported in the 15 August 2013 issue of Nature (Nature, August 2013). Details are elucidated via modeling in the 6 June 2014 issue of Global Biogeochemical Cycles.
21. Drought-induced mortality of trees contributes to increased decomposition of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and decreased sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Such mortality has been documented throughout the world since at least November 2000 in Nature, with recent summaries in the February 2013 issue of Nature for the tropics and in the August 2013 issue of Frontiers in Plant Science for temperate North America.
One extremely important example of this phenomenon is occurring in the Amazon, where drought in 2010 led to the release of more carbon than the United States that year (Science, February 2011). The calculation badly underestimates the carbon release. In addition, ongoing deforestation in the region is driving declines in precipitation at a rate much faster than long thought, as reported in the 19 July 2013 issue of Geophysical Research Letters. An overview of the phenomenon, focused on the Amazon, was provided by Climate News Network on 5 March 2014.
Tropical rain forests, long believed to represent the primary driver of atmospheric carbon dioxide, are on the verge of giving up that role. According to a 21 May 2014 paper published in Nature, “the higher turnover rates of carbon pools in semi-arid biomes are an increasingly important driver of global carbon cycle inter-annual variability,” indicating the emerging role of drylands in controlling environmental conditions.
22. Ocean acidification leads to release of less dimethyl sulphide (DMS) by plankton. DMS shields Earth from radiation. (Nature Climate Change, online 25 August 2013). Plankton form the base of the marine food web, and are on the verge of disappearing completely, according to a paper in the 18 October 2013 issue of Global Change Biology. As with carbon dioxide, ocean acidification is occurring rapidly, according to a paper in the 26 March 2014 issue of Global Biogeochemical Cycles. Acidification is proceeding at a pace unparalleled during the last 300 million years, according to research published in the 2 March 2012 issue of Science.
23. Jellyfish have assumed a primary role in the oceans of the world (26 September 2013 issue of the New York Times Review of Books, in a review of Lisa-ann Gershwin’s book, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean): “We are creating a world more like the late Precambrian than the late 1800s — a world where jellyfish ruled the seas and organisms with shells didn’t exist. We are creating a world where we humans may soon be unable to survive, or want to.” Jellyfish contribute to climate change via (1) release of carbon-rich feces and mucus used by bacteria for respiration, thereby converting bacteria into carbon dioxide factories and (2) consumption of vast numbers of copepods and other plankton.
24. Sea-level rise causes slope collapse, tsunamis, and release of methane, as reported in the September 2013 issue of Geology. In eastern Siberia, the speed of coastal erosion has nearly doubled during the last four decades as the permafrost melts.
26. Earthquakes trigger methane release, and consequent warming of the planet triggers earthquakes, as reported by Sam Carana at the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (October 2013)
27. Small ponds in the Canadian Arctic are releasing far more methane than expected based on their aerial cover (PLoS ONE, November 2013). This is the first of several freshwater ecosystems releasing methane into the atmosphere, as reviewed in the 19 March 2014 issue of Nature and subsequently described by a large-scale study in the 28 April 2014 issue of Global Change Biology.
28. Mixing of the jet stream is a catalyst, too. High methane releases follow fracturing of the jet stream, accounting for past global-average temperature rises up to 16 C in a decade or two (Paul Beckwith via video on 19 December 2013).
30. “Thawing permafrost promotes microbial degradation of cryo-sequestered and new carbon leading to the biogenic production of methane” (Nature Communications, February 2014)
31. Over the tropical West Pacific there is a natural, invisible hole extending over several thousand kilometers in a layer that prevents transport of most of the natural and man-made substances into the stratosphere by virtue of its chemical composition. Like in a giant elevator, many chemical compounds emitted at the ground pass thus unfiltered through this so-called “detergent layer” of the atmosphere. Global methane emissions from wetlands are currently about 165 teragrams (megatons metric) each year. This research estimates that annual emissions from these sources will increase by between 17 and 260 megatons annually. By comparison, the total annual methane emission from all sources (including the human addition) is about 600 megatons each year. (Nature Geoscience, February 2014)
32. Deep ocean currents apparently are slowing. According to one of the authors of the paper, “we’re likely going to see less uptake of human produced, or anthropogenic, heat and carbon dioxide by the ocean, making this a positive feedback loop for climate change.” Because this phenomenon contributed to cooling and sinking of the Weddell polynya: “it’s always possible that the giant polynya will manage to reappear in the next century. If it does, it will release decades-worth of heat and carbon from the deep ocean to the atmosphere in a pulse of warming.” (Nature Climate Change, February 2014; model results indicate “large spatial redistribution of ocean carbon,” as reported in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Climate)
34. Reductions in seasonal ice cover in the Arctic “result in larger waves, which in turn provide a mechanism to break up sea ice and accelerate ice retreat” (Geophysical Research Letters, 5 May 2014)
35. A huge hidden network of frozen methane and methane gas, along with dozens of spectacular flares firing up from the seabed, has been detected off the North Island of New Zealand (preliminary results reported in the 12 May 2014 issue of the New Zealand Herald). The first evidence of widespread active methane seepage in the Southern Ocean, off the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, was subsequently reported in the 1 October 2014 issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
36. As reported in the 8 June 2014 issue of Nature Geoscience, rising global temperatures could increase the amount of carbon dioxide naturally released by the world’s oceans, fueling further climate change
37. As global-average temperature increases, “the concentrations of water vapor in the troposphere will also increase in response to that warming. This moistening of the atmosphere, in turn, absorbs more heat and further raises the Earth’s temperature.” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 28 July 2014)
38. Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012
39. Supertankers are taking advantage of the slushy Arctic, demonstrating that every catastrophe represents a business opportunity, as pointed out by Professor of journalism Michael I. Niman and picked up by Truth-out (ArtVoice, September 2013)
As nearly as I can distinguish, only the latter two feedback processes are reversible at a temporal scale relevant to our species. Once you pull the tab on the can of beer, there’s no keeping the carbon dioxide from bubbling up and out. These feedbacks are not additive, they are multiplicative: They not only reinforce within a feedback, the feedbacks also reinforce among themselves (as realized even by Business Insider on 3 October 2013). Now that we’ve entered the era of expensive oil, I can’t imagine we’ll voluntarily terminate the process of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic (or anywhere else). Nor will we willingly forgo a few dollars by failing to take advantage of the long-sought Northwest Passage or make any attempt to slow economic growth.
Robin Westenra provides an assessment of these positive feedbacks at Seemorerocks on 14 July 2013. It’s worth a look.
See How Far We’ve Come
Never mind that American naturalist George Perkins Marsh predicted anthropogenic climate change as a result of burning fossil fuels in 1847. Never mind the warning issued by filmmaker Frank Capra in 1958 or the one issued by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich in his 1973 article in Le Monde: “the impact of industrially packaged quanta of energy on the social environment tends to be degrading, exhausting, and enslaving, and these effects come into play even before those which threaten the pollution of the physical environment and the extinction of the (human) race.” Never mind the warning and plug for geo-engineering issued by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee in 1965: “The climate changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings. The possibilities of deliberately bringing about countervailing climatic changes therefore need to be thoroughly explored.” Never mind the 1986 warning from NASA’s Robert Watson of “human misery in a few decades” and eventual human extinction as a result of climate change. Never mind that climate risks have been underestimated for the last 20 Years, or that the IPCC’s efforts have failed miserably (David Wasdell’s scathing indictment of the vaunted Fifth Assessment is archived here. After all, climate scientist Kevin Anderson tells us what I’ve known for years: politicians and the scientists writing official reports on climate change are lying, and we have less time than most people can imagine. (Consider the minor example of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “underestimating” by 100 to 1,000 times the methane release associated with hydro-fracturing to extract natural gas, as reported in the 14 April 2014 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) Never mind David Wasdell pointed out in 2008 that we must have a period of negative radiative forcing merely to end up with a stable, non-catastrophic climate system. Never mind that even the Atlantic is displaying “five charts about climate change that should have you very, very worried.” Never mind that atmospheric carbon dioxide is affecting satellites. Never mind that even the occasional economic analyst is telling climate scientists to be persuasive, be brave, and be arrested. Never mind that Peruvian ice requiring 1,600 years to accumulate has melted in the last 25 years, according to a paper in the 4 April 2013 issue of Science. And never mind that summer warming in the interior of large continents in the northern hemisphere has outstripped model predictions in racing to 6-7 C since the last Glacial Maximum, according to a paper that tallies temperature rise in China’s interior in the 15 May 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And finally, never mind that the IPCC’s projections have been revealed as too conservative time after time, including low-balling the impact of emissions, as pointed out in the 9 March 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change. On 24 March 2014, renowned climate scientist Michael Mann commented on climate change as reported in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment: “It’s not far-off in the future and it’s not exotic creatures — it’s us and now.” As the Fifth Assessment admits, climate change has already left its mark “on all continents and across the oceans.”
Never mind all that: Future temperatures likely will be at the higher end of the projected range because the forecasts are all too conservative and also because climate negotiations won’t avert catastrophe.
Through late March 2013, global oceans have risen approximately ten millimeters per year during the last two years. This rate of rise is over three times the rate of sea level rise during the time of satellite-based observations from 1993 to the present. Ocean temperatures are rising, and have been impacting global fisheries for four decades, according to the 16 May 2013 issue of Nature. According to the World Meteorological Organization’s July 2014 report, the world is nearly five times as prone to disaster as it was 40 years ago. The number and economic cost of weather-related disasters has increased during each of the last four decades.
Actually, catastrophe is already here, although it’s not widely distributed in the United States. Well, not yet, even though the continental U.S. experienced its highest temperature ever in 2012, shattering the 1998 record by a full degree Fahrenheit. But the east coast of North America experienced its hottest water temperatures all the way to the bottom of the ocean. The epic dust bowl of 2012 grew and grew and grew all summer long. As pointed out in the March 2004 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, disappearing sea ice is expectedly contributing to the drying of the western United States (more definitive research on the topic appeared in the December 2005 issue of Earth Interactions). Equally expectedly, the drought arrived 40 years early.
Even James Hansen and Makiko Sato are asking whether the loss of ice on Greenland has gone exponential (while ridiculously calling for a carbon tax to “fix” the “problem”), and the tentative answer is not promising, based on very recent data, including a nearly five-fold increase in melting of Greenland’s ice since the 1990s and a stunning melting of 98 percent of Greenland’s ice surface between 8 and 15 July 2012. The explanation for this astonishing event comes from a paper published in the 10 June 2014 issue of the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences: “[T]he same mechanism drove two widespread melt events that occurred over 100 years apart, in 1889 and 2012. We found that black carbon from forest fires and rising temperatures combined to cause both of these events.” Further elucidation is provided in the 14 June 2014 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. The mainstream media are finally taking notice, with the 18 July 2013 issue of Washington Post reporting the ninth highest April snow cover in the northern hemisphere giving way to the third lowest snow cover on record the following month (relevant records date to 1967, and the article is headlined, “Snow and Arctic sea ice extent plummet suddenly as globe bakes”).
On a particularly dire note for humanity,
climate change causes early death of 400,000 people each year causes early death of five million people each year. Adding to our misery are interactions between various aspects of environmental decay. For example, warming in the Arctic is causing the release of toxic chemicals long trapped in the region’s snow, ice, ocean and soil, according to research published in the 24 July 2011 issue of Nature Climate Change.
Greenhouse-gas emissions keep rising, and keep setting records. According to 10 June 2013 report by the International Energy Agency, the horrific trend continued in 2012, when carbon dioxide emissions set a record for the fifth consecutive year. The trend puts disaster in the cross-hairs, with the ever-conservative International Energy Agency claiming we’re headed for a temperature in excess of 5 C. The U.S. State of the Climate in 2013, published 17 July 2014 as a supplement to the July 2014 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, concludes:
Ocean surface continues to warm
Sea levels reach a record high
Glaciers retreat for the 24th consecutive year
Greenhouse gases continue to climb
The planet’s surface remains near its warmest
Warm days are up, cool nights are down
Completely contrary to the popular contrarian myth, global warming has accelerated, with more overall global warming in the 15 years up to March 2013 than the prior 15 years. ** Seventeen months later, Science finally catches up in their 22 August 2014 issue. ** This warming has resulted in about 90% of overall global warming going into heating the oceans, and the oceans have been warming dramatically, according to a paper published in the March 2013 issue of Geophysical Research Letters. A paper in the 20 March 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters points out that surface temperatures poorly measure global warming. Even Slate magazine figured it out by 5 November 2013, and The Guardian‘s headline from 13 November 2013 announces, “Global warming since 1997 more than twice as fast as previously estimated, new study shows.” About 30% of the ocean warming over the past decade has occurred in the deeper oceans below 700 meters, which is unprecedented over at least the past half century. According to a paper in the 1 November 2013 issue of Science, the rate of warming of the Pacific Ocean during the last 60 years is 15 times faster than at any time during the last 10,000 years. By the end of 2013, the fourth-hottest year on record, the deep oceans were warming particularly rapidly and NASA and NOAA reported no pause in the long-term warming trend. “In 2013 ocean warming rapidly escalated, rising to a rate in excess of 12 Hiroshima bombs per second — over three times the recent trend.” When the heat going into the ocean begins to influence land-surface temperatures, “rapid warming is expected,” according to a paper published 9 February 2014 in Nature Climate Change. According to James Wight, writing for Skeptical Science on 12 March 2014, “Earth is gaining heat faster than ever.”
Coincident with profound ocean warming, the death spiral of Arctic sea ice is well under way, as shown in the video below. As reported in the 22 February 2014 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, sea-surface temperatures have increased 0.5 to 1.5 C during the last decade. “The seven lowest September sea ice extents in the satellite record have all occurred in the past seven years.”
In the category of myth busting comes recent research published in the August 2013 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Contrary to the notion that changing solar radiation is responsible for rising global temperature, the amount of solar radiation passing through Earth’s atmosphere and reaching the ground globally peaked in the 1930s, substantially decreased from the 1940s to the 1970s, and changed little after that. Indeed, the current solar activity cycle is the weakest in a century. In addition, according to a paper in the 22 December 2013 issue of Nature GeoScience, climate change has not been strongly influenced by variations in heat from the sun.
Global loss of sea ice matches the trend in the Arctic. It’s down, down, and down some more, with the five lowest values on record all happening in the last seven years (through 2012). As reported in a June 2013 issue of Science, the Antarctic’s ice shelves are melting from below. When interviewed for the associated article in the 13 June 2013 issue of National Geographic, scientists expressed surprise at the rate of change. Color me shocked. Three months later, the 13 September 2013 issue of Science contains another surprise for mainstream scientists: The Pine Island Glacier is melting from below as a result of warming seawater. And four months after that dire assessment, the massive glacier was melting irreversibly, according to a paper in the 12 January 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change (Robert Scribbler provides an overview of the latter phenomenon).
Then See Where We’re Going
The climate situation is much worse than I’ve led you to believe, and is accelerating far more rapidly than accounted for by models. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges, in a press release dated 6 June 2013, potentially lethal heat waves on the near horizon. Piling on a month later, the World Meteorological Organization pointed out that Earth experienced unprecedented recorded climate extremes during the decade 2001-2010, contributing to more than a 2,000 percent increase in heat-related deaths.
Although climate change’s heat — not cold — is the real killer, according to research published in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Economic Literature, swings in temperature may be even more lethal than high temperatures. Specifically, research published in the 29 January 2014 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London indicates insects are particularly vulnerable to temperature swings.
Ice sheet loss continues to increase at both poles, and warming of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is twice the earlier scientific estimate. Arctic ice at all-time low, half that of 1980, and the Arctic lost enough sea ice to cover Canada and Alaska in 2012 alone. In short, summer ice in the Arctic is nearly gone. Furthermore, the Arctic could well be free of ice by summer 2015, an event that last occurred some three million years ago, before the genus Homo walked the planet. Among the consequences of declining Arctic ice is extremes in cold weather in northern continents (thus illustrating why “climate change” is a better term than “global warming”). In a turn surprising only to mainstream climate scientists, Greenland ice is melting rapidly.
The Eemian interglacial period that began some 125,000 years ago is often used as a model for contemporary climate change. However, as pointed out in the 5 June 2012 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, the Eemian differed in essential details from modern climatic conditions. The Eemian is a poor analog for contemporary climate change, notably with respect to the rapid, ongoing disappearance of summer ice in the Arctic.
Even the conservative International Energy Agency has thrown in the towel, concluding that “renewable” energy is not keeping up with the old, dirty standard sources. As a result, the International Energy Agency report dated 17 April 2013 indicates the development of low-carbon energy is progressing too slowly to limit global warming.
The Arctic isn’t Vegas — what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic — it’s the planet’s air conditioner. In fact, as pointed out 10 June 2013 by research scientist Charles Miller of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory: “Climate change is already happening in the Arctic, faster than its ecosystems can adapt. Looking at the Arctic is like looking at the canary in the coal mine for the entire Earth system.” In addition, “average summer temperatures in the Canadian Arctic are now at the highest they’ve been for approaching 50,000 years” (and perhaps up to 120,000 years) according to a paper published online 23 October 2013 in Geophysical Research Letters. On the topic of rapidity of change, a paper in the August 2013 issue of Ecology Letters points out that rates of projected climate change dramatically exceed past rates of climatic niche evolution among vertebrate species. In other words, vertebrates cannot evolve or adapt rapidly enough to keep up with ongoing and projected changes in climate.
How critical is Arctic ice? Whereas nearly 80 calories are required to melt a gram of ice at 0 C, adding 80 calories to the same gram of water at 0 C increases its temperature to 80 C. Anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions add more than 2.5 trillion calories to Earth’s surface every hour (ca. 3 watts per square meter, continuously).
Interactions among feedbacks are particularly obvious in the Arctic. For example, as reported in the 5 May 2014 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, “further reductions in seasonal ice cover in the future will result in larger waves, which in turn provide a mechanism to break up sea ice and accelerate ice retreat.”
Ocean acidification associated with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is proceeding at an unprecedented rate — the fastest in 300 million years — leading to great simplification of ecosystems, and capable of triggering mass extinction by itself. Already, half the Great Barrier Reef has died during the last three decades and the entire marine food web is threatened. As with many attributes, the Arctic Ocean leads the way in acidification. Similarly to the long lag in temperature relative to increase greenhouse gas emissions, changes in ocean acidity lag far behind alterations in atmospheric carbon dioxide, as reported in the 21 February 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters.
An increasing number of scientists agree that warming of 4 to 6 C causes a dead planet. And, they go on to say, we’ll be there much sooner than most people realize. Clive Hamilton concludes in his April 2013 book Earthmasters that “without [atmospheric sulphates associated with industrial activity] … Earth would be an extra 1.1 C warmer.” This estimate matches that of James Hansen and colleagues, who conclude 1.2 C cooling (plus or minus 0.2 C) as a result of atmospheric particulates (full paper in the 22 December 2011 issue of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics is here. Both estimates are conservative relative to a paper in the 27 May 2013 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, which reports ~1 C temperature rise resulting from a 35-80% reduction in anthropogenic aerosols. In other words, collapse takes us directly to 2 C within a matter of weeks. According to a paper in the 24 November 2013 issue of Nature Climate Change, warming of the planet will continue long after emissions cease. Several other academic scientists have concluded, in the refereed journal literature no less, that the 2 C mark — long a political target, not a scientific target except among misinformed scientists — is essentially impossible (for example, see the review paper by Mark New and colleagues published in the 29 November 2010 issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A and the following line from a paper in the 12 March 2014 edition of Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law: “countries are farther from meeting their targets and the global community is farther from reaching the goal of limiting warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels than emissions data suggest”). The German Institute for International and Security Affairs concluded 2 June 2013 that a 2 C rise in global-average temperature is no longer feasible (and Spiegel agrees, finally, in their 7 June 2013 issue), while the ultra-conservative International Energy Agency concludes that, “coal will nearly overtake oil as the dominant energy source by 2017 … without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.” At the 11:20 mark of this video, climate scientist Paul Beckwith indicates Earth could warm by 6 C within a decade. If you think his view is extreme, consider (1) the 5 C rise in global-average temperature 55 million years ago during a span of 13 years (reported in the 1 October 2013 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), and also (2) the reconstruction of regional and global temperature for the past 11,300 years published in Science in March 2013. One result is shown in the figure below.
It’s not merely scientists who know where we’re going. The Pentagon is bracing for public dissent over climate and energy shocks, as reported by Nafeez Ahmed in the 14 June 2013 issue of the Guardian. According to Ahmed’s article: “Top secret US National Security Agency (NSA) documents disclosed by the Guardian have shocked the world with revelations of a comprehensive US-based surveillance system with direct access to Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants. New Zealand court records suggest that data harvested by the NSA’s Prism system has been fed into the Five Eyes intelligence alliance whose members also include the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.” In short, the “Pentagon knows that environmental, economic and other crises could provoke widespread public anger toward government and corporations” and is planning accordingly. Such “activity is linked to the last decade of US defence planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis — or all three.” In their 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the U.S. military concludes: “Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating.” The global police state has arrived, and it’s accompanied by a subtle changes in Earth’s rotation that result from the melting of glaciers and ice sheets (i.e., climate change is causing Earth’s poles to shift).
<edited by support 12/23/13>