Archive for the ‘Permafrost’ Category

Quantum leap in Permafrost destructive power – and feedbacks are intent on unleashing it

August 18, 2009

The vast amount of carbon stored in the arctic and boreal regions of the world is more than double that previously estimated…

Reported in July of this year, by Science Daily – it’s a staggering amount:

“We now estimate the deposits contain over 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere”, said Dr. Charles Tarnocai, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, and lead author.

So the fact that the permafrost is now permamelt becomes a concern truly second to none. More worrying still is that the melting is not the product of a single amplifying feedback but, at a minimum, a tag team of three feedbacks each reinforcing each other while attacking from different angles: Land, Sea and Air. There is a comprehensive and devastating attack underway on the permafrost that would make General William Tecumseh Sherman proud.

From the Land:

A new article by Tracey Logan in New Scientist reports:

The fire that raged north of Alaska’s Brooks mountain range in 2007 left a 1000-square-kilometre scorched patch of earth – an area larger than the sum of all known fires on Alaska’s North Slope since 1950.

Now scientists studying the ecological impact of the fire report that the blaze dumped 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – about the amount that Barbados puts out in a year. What’s more, at next week’s meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Albuquerque, New Mexico, two teams will warn that as climate change takes hold tundra fires across the Arctic will become more frequent.

The concern is two-fold:
1. It transforms the tundra, traditionally a carbon sink, into an carbon emitter.
2. More importantly it radically increases the ground’s solar absorption.

Pristine tundra takes up about 30 to 70 grams of carbon per square metre during the summer months, whereas the severely burned site lost about 40 to 120 grams per square metre. The team also found that the most severely burned terrain absorbed 71 per cent more solar radiation than normal…

The really big problem: The burnt tundra – a newly minted solar heat collector – is sitting on the permafrost.

“Along with the melting ice in the permafrost, you’re also exposing more old carbon that was stored in that freezer [as organic material] and is being allowed to decompose and reintroduce itself to the atmosphere.”

Helping drive the Tundra fires is the air assault.

From the Air:

The average surface air temperature warming in the arctic has been many times greater than Earth’s average warming. The warming is concentrated where it can likely do the most damage.

The NOAA 2008 report card notes a shockingly number:

Autumn temperatures are at a record 5º C above normal, due to the major loss of sea ice in recent years which allows more solar heating of the ocean. Winter and springtime temperatures remain relatively warm over the entire Arctic, in contrast to the 20th century and consistent with an emerging global warming influence.

As the excerpt states the feedbacks are reinforcing each other. On to the the sea attack.

From the Sea:

Permafrost threatened by rapid melt of Arctic sea ice – reported the American Geophysical Union in 2008.

The team finds that, during episodes of rapid sea-ice loss, the rate of Arctic land warming is 3.5 times greater than the average 21st century warming rates predicted in global climate models. While this warming is largest over the ocean, the simulations suggest that it can penetrate as far as 1500 kilometers (about 900 miles) inland. The simulations also indicate that the warming acceleration during such events is especially pronounced in autumn. The decade during which a rapid sea-ice loss event occurs could see autumn temperatures warm by as much as 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) along the Arctic coasts of Russia, Alaska, and Canada.

What’s to worry about? It’s not like we’ve been losing all that much sea ice – NOT.

The rapidly melting Arctic permafrost is now our biggest existential threat – as it was the Soviet ICBMs raining down from the Arctic circle we so feared growing up. And while we and the Soviets were restrained by self-interest, the hard-charging feedbacks have no such restraints. We must restrain the feedbacks.

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Permafrost Melting = Too Much Methane

April 22, 2008

Methane: the other green house gas, is 20 to 25 times more potent than CO2 (depending on who you ask).

The good news was that over the last decade methane releases have been largely flat due to reductions in man-made emissions. Unfortunately the good news is old news. NOAA has just released a report today titled “Carbon Dioxide, Methane Rise Sharply in 2007”.

The NOAA report states:

Rapidly growing industrialization in Asia and rising wetland emissions in the Arctic and tropics are the most likely causes of the recent methane increase, said scientist Ed Dlugokencky from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory.

”We’re on the lookout for the first sign of a methane release from thawing Arctic permafrost,” said Dlugokencky. “It’s too soon to tell whether last year’s spike in emissions includes the start of such a trend.”

As I discussed previously in “The Awakening Great White Whale”, the arctic permafrost is the place to look for the most critical planetary tipping point.

Spiegel Online has a frightening confirmation of what we face with further warming in just the next few years.

What treachery lies in the permafrost?

In the permafrost bottom of the 200-meter-deep sea, enormous stores of gas hydrates lie dormant in mighty frozen layers of sediment. The carbon content of the ice-and-methane mixture here is estimated at 540 billion tons. “This submarine hydrate was considered stable until now,” says the Russian biogeochemist Natalia Shakhova, currently a guest scientist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks who is also a member of the Pacific Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok.

And so our permafrost is now permamelt:

The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become “a source of methane passing into the atmosphere.” The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere would increase twelvefold. “The result would be catastrophic global warming,” say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.

We warm the earth further at great peril:

Climate change could give an additional push to these trends. “If the Arctic Sea ice continues to recede and the shelf becomes ice-free for extended periods, then the water in these flat areas will get much warmer,” said Overduin. That could lead to a situation in which the temperature of the sea sediment rises above freezing, which would thaw the permafrost.

The $64,000 question is what’s the rate of acceleration of the permafrost melt?

“We don’t have any data on that — those are just suspicions,” the Canadian scientist said. Natalia Shakhova also passed on the question of whether to expect a gradual gas emission or an abrupt burst of large quantities of methane. “No one can say right now whether that will take years, decades or hundreds of years,” she said. But one cannot rule out sudden methane emissions. They could happen at “any time.”

One thing is clear, though: The thawing of the Arctic sea floor will create “new potential sources for methane … which no one had reckoned with until now,” said Laurence Smith, a professor for geography at the University of California in Los Angeles. Smith is researching North Pole frost zones and expects that a thawing of the permafrost will “supply fuel for methane engines.”

If we don’t slam on the CO2 brakes hard and now, this war for survival could be over before we’ve even started to fight.

The Awakening Great White Whale

April 1, 2008

While climate change is effecting every spot on the planet and the most visible effects are the crumbling ice shelves at both poles – perhaps the most important and critical early warning signs are the borreal forests and permafrost stretching like a collar around the top of the earth. There is new evidence of the borreal forests’ warming.

With the latest readings from NOAA (look particularly at the graph showing the biggest temperature rises over the Siberian forest.) it is another concrete Clarion call to action. It seems that the melting permafrost has likely got a one way ticket for the foreseeable future – that is until we can turn our CO2 spewing boat around.

Our future may be defined by the simple calculation of how fast the permafrost is going to melt – and like Hansen’s 350, another number may come to haunt us: 500.

That’s the over 500 billion metric tons of carbon that the permafrost is estimated to hold.

For comparison, we globally, currently emit about 7.4 billion tons of carbon each year – without including deforestation. (Take the 27,245,758,000 CO2 emissions number and divide by 3.67 to get carbon.)

To make matters worse the carbon is generally being released as methane, at an ever increasing rate.

While methane is over 21 times more potent than CO2, the good news is that methane dissipates 10 times faster as CO2. So the BIG question is how fast is the melting accelerating?

It could disastrously add the right push to make this climate crisis a perfect storm – and there’s only one boat. While the Olympics and election are sure to drown out important climate news keep your eyes out for reports on the permafrost melt this summer and what new projections foresee. If such a thing is possible, the data readings this summer could be our most important warning to date.

It’s the Planet Stupid!

March 15, 2008

Iraq, health care, the economy – all important issues.

And all are a diversion from the one true crisis we face. For if we don’t solve the global warming crisis all other important issues will cease to be, period.

An article by Joseph Romm, “Obama and Clinton plan to cool it” takes a look at Hillary and Barack and climate change.

Mr. Romm starts strong with a clear-eyed description of what’s at stake:

The gravest threat to the American way of life is posed by unrestricted greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Global warming threatens to put the Southwest into a permanent drought, raise sea levels by 6 or more inches a decade, generate hundreds of millions of environmental refugees at home and abroad, wipe out half the planet’s species, and increase average temperatures in the nation’s interior 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit. And these impacts would likely get steadily worse for hundreds of years or longer.

Unfortunately, Mr. Romm then goes on to talk about the crisis as if it’s about to happen rather than saying it’s happening.

Humanity’s great challenge is to stop the warming before we cross key thresholds or tipping points, in which amplifying feedbacks in the carbon cycle start to seriously kick in and overwhelm human efforts to reduce emissions. A typical feedback would be the melting of the permafrost or tundra, which currently has locked away some 1,000 gigatons of carbon — more carbon than the atmosphere is holding today.

If the permafrost stops being perma…

I feel compelled to impolitely clarify:
Tipping points are being crossed now.
The permafrost is melting now.
The acidification of the ocean is happening now.

We don’t have 40 years to reduce emissions 80% nor 100 years to get to zero – we must drop 90%, and damn fast. (We must really be shooting for zero in the very near term.)

Mr. Romm rightly notes that both Obama and Clinton have relatively strong and detailed positions (if inadequate) on global warming. While supporting McCain at this point is best described (by me, not Mr. Romm) as a suicide pact.

We know we must elect a Democrat – not for the healthcare plan, not the Iraq withdrawal timeline, not the economic packages – although all important – it is to save the planet we know for our children so that we might worry about these other things again. (Or I may qualify slightly and say these other issues are important now in as far as the help or hurt climate change. Climate change is the driver.)

We also know that the Democratic plans are inadequate. They can only be seen as a first baby step in an effort that must rapidly accelerate. Given this fact while trying to find some reason to pick Barack or Hillary on this issue, Mr. Romm’s article has a tantalizing description:

Obama said in early February he would start working on a global climate effort as soon as he becomes the Democratic nominee (which at the time he probably thought would have happened already): “I’ve been in conversations with former Vice President (Al) Gore repeatedly, and his recommendation, which I think is sound, is that you can’t wait until you are sworn into office to get started … I think we need to start reaching out to other countries ahead of time, not because I’m presumptuous, but because there’s such a sense of urgency about this.”

May I tip my hand here, and say that, while a narrow and fleeting look at the candidate regarding this issue, it’s stuff like this that gives me some confidence there’s “can do” substance backing up Obama’s rhetoric – and that perhaps he appreciates the climate crisis is much, much worse than most of us realize.

If we’re to take a serious shot at saving the planet we inhabit, it’ll take leadership that’s willing to leapfrog ahead and change the game.

And lastly (and not completely unrelated), may I suggest downloading the Checklist Toward Zero Carbon. While our leaders leapfrog, so must we.