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RealClimate Is Alarmed by Arctic Methane, Should You Be?

By Joe Romm

"RealClimate Is Alarmed by Arctic Methane, Should You Be?"

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RealClimate Commenter:  Methane alarmism will not be dissuaded by any reasonable means. But nice try David. ;)

Response [by geophysicist David Archer]: Well, to be honest, sometimes I do get spooked myself. There is a lot of carbon up there. David. PS: On further reflection, I don’t think I want to be fighting being alarmed about methane bubbles in the Arctic. I am alarmed too, but perhaps I’m alarmed for a longer time frame than some. David]

Whether or not you should be alarmed by Arctic methane depends on your definition of “alarmed.”  And it depends on how much you follow the other areas of climate science, many of which are, for me, considerably more “alarming” (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“):

mit-wheels.gif

Something truly alarming (via M.I.T.):  Inaction (our current “no policy” strategy) eliminates most of the uncertainty about whether or not future warming will be catastrophic.  Aggressive emissions reductions — fatally rejected by deniers, the breakthrough bunch, and the ignorati — dramatically improves humanity’s chances.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.   Concern about methane emissions has risen in recent years because methane levels have been risen in recent years after a decade of little growth and because there have been reports of massive methane plumes of the Arctic coast and because the carbon-rich permafrost is thawing.

Fortunately, the best NOAA analysis “suggests we have not yet activated strong climate feedbacks from permafrost and CH4 hydrates,” a finding Climate Progress first reported 3 years ago.

But much more rapid ice loss in the Arctic than expected, accompanied by rapid permafrost warming, has convinced leading experts now say that frozen carbon is likely to start being released at a large-scale in the next few decades –  some of it in the form of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 — causing 2.5 times the warming of deforestation.  That would complicate any efforts by humanity to reduce emissions and avert multiple, simultaneous catastrophes (see below).  This largely unmodeled amplifying carbon-cycle feedback is, obviously, worrisome and even alarming.

As an aside, the word “alarm” literally meant “a call to arms” — as in, there is imminent danger folks, saddle up.  So we have “alarm” defined as “a sudden fear caused by the realization of danger” or “a warning of existing or approaching danger.”

An another aside, the do-little crowd and their enablers/stenographers — you know who they are — have two big tricks to poo-pooh “alarmists.”  First, they attack alarmists as predicting “certain doom,” pointing out that the models are filled with uncertainty and predict a large range of impacts.  But they don’t tell you that their preferred course of action — doing very little — cuts out most of the uncertainty, sharply narrows the impact range, and thus dramatically increases the probability of the catastrophe (see MIT’s wheel of misfortune above).

Second, the snooze button pushers attack alarmists for supposedly saying we are experiencing a real-time catastrophe, but they are really hiding behind the lags in the energy and climate system.  The climate realists are alarmed not because the doom hits in the next few years, but because if we don’t act aggressively in the next few years, the “doom” becomes exceedingly difficult to avoid.

In short, the do-little crowd and their enablers/stenographers have won the day politically, which means the alarmists have “won the day” scientifically.  Put another way, anyone who isn’t alarmed right now, simply doesn’t know what they are talking about.  As but one piece of proof:  The historically staid and conservative International Energy Agency has joined the ranks of the “alarmists” — see IEA’s Bombshell Warning: We’re Headed Toward 11°F Global Warming and “Delaying Action Is a False Economy.”

The notion it’s alarmist to say that where we are headed is catastrophic is, well, just laughable … or cryable.  As the chief economist for the IEA said in November about the fact that the world is on pace for 6°C (11 F) warming “Even School Children Know This Will Have Catastrophic Implications for All of Us.”

Darn you alarmist school children!

So we should retire the term “alarmist” and its variations.  We are climate realists — or climate hawks, if you prefer.  The snooze button pushers, well, they are still asleep at the wheel, which I wish were a mixed metaphor, but I guess those warning in the ads for Ambien are right — those pill-popping politicians and pundits driving the national and global SUV are sound asleep but don’t know it.  And that’s not even counting the disinformers, who I guess in this extended metaphor are working desperately to unplug the alarm clock or encase it in tar sands.  I digress.

Recently, geophysicist David Archer, an expert on the carbon cycle and methane hydrates, wrote three pieces on Arctic methane for the must-read website RealClimate.  The first is titled, “Much ado about methane,” though it would have been better titled “Much ado about methane hydrates.”  The second is “An Arctic methane worst-case scenario.” The third post discusses a model he created that you can play around with if you want an even worse case or a better one.

I am generally a fan of analyzing worst-case scenarios for two reasons.  First, in real life, individuals base a considerable amount of their planning and spending on worst-case scenarios (fire burning down your house,  catastrophic  healthcare problem) and so do governments:  Just think about how much money and material and manpower the U.S. has devoted since 1945 over the possibility of a Russian nuclear attack or tank invasion of West Europe or the need to fight two wars  simultaneously, and so on.  Second, many of those pesky worst-case scenarios somehow seem to keep happening where humans are involved — Fukushima being a classic example — which isn’t a big surprise given that ignoring warnings, which are sometimes called alarms, pretty much guarantees things are going to be worse than folks thought.

So here is what Archer finds in his worst-case scenario — if “the Arctic started to degas methane 100 times faster than it is today”:

… methane is a reactive gas and its presence leads to other greenhouse forcings, like the water vapor it decomposes into. Hansen estimates the “efficacy” of methane radiative forcing to be 1.4 (Hansen et al, 2005Shindell et al, 2009), so that puts us to 4 or even 5 Watts/m2.

This is about twice the radiative forcing today from all anthropogenic greenhouse gases today, or (again according to Modtran) it would translate to an equivalent CO2 at today’s methane concentration of about 750 ppm. That seems significant, for sure.

Or, trying to “correct” for the different lifetimes of the gases using Global Warming Potentials, over a 100-year time horizon (which still way under-represents the lifetime of the CO2), you get that the methane would be equivalent to increasing CO2 to about 500 ppm, lower than 750 because the CO2forcing lasts longer than the methane, which the GWP calculation tries in its own myopic way to account for.

But the methane worst case does not suddenly spell the extinction of human life on Earth. It does not lead to a runaway greenhouse. The worst-case methane scenario stands comparable to what CO2 can do. What CO2 will do, under business-as-usual, not in a wild blow-the-doors-off unpleasant surprise, but just in the absence of any pleasant surprises (like emission controls). At worst comparable to CO2 except that CO2 lasts essentially forever.

Fair enough. Archer says in the comments of the second post:

On further reflection, I don’t think I want to be fighting being alarmed about methane bubbles in the Arctic. I am alarmed too, but perhaps I’m alarmed for a longer time frame than some.

The thing is, we don’t need no stinking methane bubbles to be alarmed hawks.  Business as usual is beyond catastrophic according to the recent scientific literature (see Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year — and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!)

I go through about 50 recent studies here.  They make clear the key impacts we face in the coming decades if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path:

  • Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land — some 10°F over much of the United States
  • Permanent Dust Bowl conditions over the U.S. Southwest and many other heavily populated and arable regions around the globe
  • Sea level rise of around 1 foot by 2050, then 4 to 6 feet (or more) by 2100, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
  • Massive species loss on land and sea — perhaps 50% or more of all biodiversity
  • Much more extreme weather
  • Food insecurity — the increasingly difficulty task of feeding 7 billion, then 8 billion, and then 9 billion people in a world with an ever-worsening climate.
  • Myriad direct health impacts

Remember, these will all be happening simultaneously and getting worse decade after decade.  Equally tragic, a 2009 NOAA-led study found the worst impacts would be largely irreversible for 1000 years.

The single biggest failure of messaging by climate scientists (until very recently) has been the failure to explain to the public, opinion makers, and the media that business-as-usual warming results in simultaneous, ever-worsening impacts that, individually, are each beyond catastrophic, but combined are unimaginablly horrific.

By virtue of their success in promoting doubt and inaction, the snooze button pushers have, tragically and ironically, turned the worst-case scenario into business as usual.

If “the extinction of human life on Earth” or “a runaway greenhouse” are your criteria for being alarmed, then, you need methane hydrates.

If desperately trying to feed 9 billion people by mid-century in a world with a ruined, yet ever-worsening climate is your criterion — as I argued it should be in my recent Nature piece — then CO2 is more than sufficient to wake anyone up, sadly.  Well, it’s sufficient to wake them up until they join the Obama administration — see Steven Chu on climate change (2/09): “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

Put another way, we’ve already got a 9-alarm fire we’re ignoring.  One more alarm won’t wake up the Ambien crowd.

For the record, the worst-case scenario without methane hydrates is, well, pretty friggin’ bad:

Finally, I do think most of the people looking at the emissions from a defrosting tundra along with the potential for methane hydrate releases are probably not looking at the current business-as-usual warming cases, since those were the IPCC’s worst-case scenarios just a few years ago.

But it’s pretty clear that on business as usual, the Arctic is going to get very, very, very warm this decade (see “M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F — with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F“).

And that it will ultimately get even warmer than that:

But, of course, modern civilization as we know it today can’t survive anywhere near such warming.  Surely humanity wouldn’t be so self-destructively unalarmed as to let this happen?

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71 Responses to RealClimate Is Alarmed by Arctic Methane, Should You Be?

  1. prokaryotes says:

    It would be nice if anyone could put the latest AIRS observation into prospective? How do you explain the pronunciation process within a relative short time (2010-2011)

    You can find them here at a related post..
    http://climateforce.net/2012/01/09/methane-release-and-runaway-climate-change/

    • prokaryotes says:

      Arctic Methane: AIRS videos

      There’s been a flurry of activity on the ‘net about methane and the Arctic recently. This seems to be related to the AGU poster by Semilitov & Shakhova and new research from them due for publication this year. The ever-excellent Realclimate have posted two articles by Dr David Archer, here and here. Neven’s Sea-Ice blog (also excellent) addresses the issue here.

      I’m busy reading up on the subject. In the meantime Dr Leonid Yurganov has been kind enough to give permission for me to put some of his satellite images into videos. The images are derived from NASA’s Atmospheric Infra-red Sounder (AIRS), info and data. Version 5 of the retrieval algorithm is used. The images are available here and Dr Yurganov’s email is ‘yurganov at umbc.edu’. Those interested may want to read Dr Yurganov’s presentation to a London symposium on Arctic methane (pdf – right click and ‘save as’), it’s informative and well worth spending time on. http://dosbat.blogspot.com/2012/01/arctic-methane-airs-videos.html#more

  2. prokaryotes says:

    The misfortune wheel is not incorporating methane forcing.

    “There’s no way the world can or should take these risks,” Prinn says. And the odds indicated by this modeling may actually understate the problem, because the model does not fully incorporate other positive feedbacks that can occur, for example, if increased temperatures caused a large-scale melting of permafrost in arctic regions and subsequent release of large quantities of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. Including that feedback “is just going to make it worse,” Prinn says. http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/roulette-0519.html

    ps. the link titled “M.I.T.”, under the misfortune wheel image is not correct.

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    RE the last sentence – I know in my bones that we are not self destructive but as I review the period from the early 1970s, when we were all buying our first solar hot water heaters and were convinced we would get on top of the problem, to now, the evidence is not looking good.

    We did not anticipate the huge misinformation campaign nor the ways in which various social maladaptions would aid and abet the production of denial. We have become dangerously dependent on ‘leadership’ and it is only now that populations are coming back to life.

    We are in a phase change and it is now a question of whether that change will reach fruition in time to avoid the worst of it. We are already paying dearly for the last 40 years of inertia and brinkmanship and even if my bones are correct, the cost is going to be unimaginably horrific, ME

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      You speak for yourself and rational, sane, humanity. Unfortunately, thanks to the triumph of the evil conjoined twins, capitalism and Rightwing ideology, two aspects of the realisation of human psychopathy in action, rationality, sanity and decency have been jettisoned for greed, dominance and indifference to the fate of others. The Rightwing omnicidaires are bragging, ever more openly and arrogantly, that they have ‘won’ and the ‘warmists’ are routed, and I don’t doubt that they are correct. The weight of money always prevails in capitalist societies.

  4. Solar Jim says:

    Thanks Joe for another outstanding post. Do you ever get the feeling that the reception of your and many others analyses, which are based on thousands of world scientists, is like talking to a wall. Or a bunch of primates with Federal Reserve Notes stuck in their ears?

    We have had two decades now of talk from the UN IPCC and global emissions are still increasing in annual quantities. Could their results be any more damning?

    Something has to break, and it may be the planet rather than economic policy, via automatic cascading biogeochemical feedbacks. Climate science is indicating we are on thresholds of numerous sensitive ecological conditions (tipping points). Yet, we consider tar sands and hydraulically fractured methane as “forms of energy.” Yes, for fossil fired fools and their “outgassing.”

  5. M Tucker says:

    Steven Chu on climate change (2/09): “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

    If Chu really believes this he should resign. Continuing to work for an administration that refuses to even talk about the problem should be unacceptable to him. Or maybe, like our dear leader, he is happy with business as usual; it does bring in a paycheck with a fancy Cadillac healthcare plan.

    • BWaterhouse says:

      Seriously? What do you expect the administration to do given the current Congress? And we really need Chu in the administration – who better to advise the President on the science? Let them get re-elected with a better Congress and then feel free to pressure for immediate action. But if Romney or another Rep. is elected we will lose the next four years for any action.

      • John McCormick says:

        BWaterhouse, you are entirely correct. We American voters have to (absoluely must in these remaining months) do our part and deliver a Congressional House and Senate of absolute climate hawks.

        All of us, please stop and look at the real world in the U.S. Todd Stern could have agreed to a 90% CO2 reduction agreement by year 2060 or 2160 or 3360 and the U.S. Senate would never touch that treaty nomination. It takes 3/4 of the Senate to agree to an international treaty.

        So, we stop whining and get out there and promote candidates who are more AGW hawk than me.

        Massively tough order but that is the name of the game.

        Wrong players..no treaty. That simple.

        Its like trying to swallow a bail of hay but that is the price for getting US agreement to an international climate treaty…3/4 of the 100 Senators must agree!!!!

      • Some European says:

        “What do you expect the administration to do given the current Congress?”
        I expect nothing less than multiple speeches like the ones we see in Hollywood end-of-the-world movies (Armageddon, 2012, Independence Day, …).

        “My fellow Americans. I’m deeply concerned about the gravest threat facing humanity today… But efforts are being blocked by Republicans in Congress who are receiving huge amounts of money from fossil fuel companies… They have set up a misinformation campaign…”

        Why not?
        Why not?
        He wouldn’t be lying. He wouldn’t lose votes. Besides, what are votes for when the fate of the human race is at stake?

        Why the hell, if he’s informed, did he not take a single occasion to make the most important speech of his life?

        Why didn’t he call out the betrayers, the paid psychopathic disinformers? Ever?

        WHYYYYYY????

        That’s why I will hate Obama for the rest of my life and will never recognize his Nobel Prize. (Unless he suddenly changes his snooze policy, that is.)

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          Obama acts as he does because, like all US politicians, he is an employee of the money power. The last President who got ideas above his station was JFK, and he pissed off so many powerful interests that they were lining up to get a piece of the Dallas action. Obama’s not suicidal, but he is a great confidence-trickster. The ‘nice tn’ as Berlusconi called it, helps, because no-one wants to look like they are picking on such an ‘historic figure’. Obama will now pretend to be Mr Hope, again, and, if re-elected, with no further term to secure, I expect the betrayals to be ever greater. The (Ig)Nobel Peace Prize, for a long time a sick joke, suits him down to the ground.

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Why am I still pessimistic:
    1)There is a whole lot of methane.
    2) The skies will clear, either we will get sensible, or we will just run out of fossil fuels. Currently our pollution is reflecting one and a bit watts per square meter. So when we stop polluting the problem actually gets worse. And it gets worse at the worst places and worst times.
    3) The biosphere will respond to the temperature increases. The loss of phytoplankton is already significant, The forests are already starting to burn and the tundra is drying.
    4)It does not stop in 2100.
    5) The climate is an incredibly complex system, complex systems can have rapidly cascading failure. There will be surprises.
    6) We are coming out of a very deep solar minimum and have a strong La Nina and yet we have near record heat. Have we changed from warming and cooling with a warming trend to warming and pausing? How soon to warming and faster warming.

    And that is just the climate bits.

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      Yes Rabid, that is only the climate bits. The other bits constitute the human response.

      When we decide to make a collective, positive, cooperative response to a threat, you see the best, most creative side of us. Have we left it too late? That is the question, ME

      • John McCormick says:

        ME, the question answers itself. There will come a time — and very soon — when there is a collective realization of that reality and it will drive those with resources and governance to launch into a survival mode.

        Haven’t the insurors already reached that point?

        • Paul Magnus says:

          The reality is it is inevitable now that lots of us are going to die. In fact we are already. What lies ahead is awful.

          Hopefully we come out intact keeping some of our enhanced ‘enlightenment’.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        It’s the ‘We’ versus ‘Them’ conundrum. In the end They will never, ever, give up their power and money without a fight to the end, because They hate Us for being different, for rejecting greed and dominance. That’s why I’m with Rabid-violence is their preference, and when you read the pathopsychological sewer of their utterances in web Comments pages, and the sheer viciousness, ever growing, of denialist ‘Opinion’ in the Murdoch sewer for one instance of many, you can see they are itching for a fight. A good, old, one-sided ‘turkey-shoot’-their preference.

  7. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Bravo, Mr. Romm. Bravo, Mr. Archer. Bravo for recognizing the likelihood that much of the add-on effect will likely show up more as carbon dioxide, and that will be more serious in the long term. Bravo for recognizing that this is not necessarily a worst-case scenario, because of the extraordinary rapidity of Arctic sea ice loss and the 2011-summer evidence of 1000-times-larger methane plumes from melted clathrates. Bravo for doing the math to put numbers on natural-source methane emission per-decade growth effects on global temperatures, in the ballpark of my totally unscientific SWAG. And finally, thank you for doing the research and putting it all together in a comprehensive picture.

    And now, having given you enough bravos for several encores, I would like to say thanks a pantload for at least partially confirming my fear that yet another positive-forcing shoe has begun to drop inexorably, with massive effect, as we and the rest of Earth’s species move towards, in your pithy phrase, hell and high water — but still, hopefully, not a toxic acid superheated atmosphere like Venus, unless … surely we wouldn’t be so stupid. Or have I said that before?

  8. Mike Roddy says:

    We know what we’re up against with the hillbillies running the oil companies, the banksters who fund them, and the 1% with big fossil portfolios who profit from it. If they were the only opposition, we could beat them, since they are rather obvious villains.

    People like Ted Nordhaus from The Breakthrough Institute, Roger Pielke Jr from the University of Colorado, and Andy Revkin of the New York Times blog are far more puzzling. While they are all liberal arts grads, they are not totally science illiterate, and the money trail, while there, is neither large nor obvious. Political affiliations are whatever “libertarian” means these days, but that can’t quite explain it either.

    This group, along with similar sellouts, have great influence, because they provide faux liberal and scientific cover for those whose character weaknesses prevent them from addressing global warming. Revkin, Pielke, and BTI are doing enormous damage by reassuring the soft middle of American public opinion.

    Revkin is the best of this little subgroup, and he still supports construction of the tar sands pipeline, and promotes natural gas (including fracking) as an important “bridge fuel”. That means that it’s OK to build gas plants now, and hope that the “bridge” in the form of clean energy is “ready” to replace them in 2060.

    The science clearly shows that that is way too late, of course, and that the positions of these men are just so much babble. Soft deniers must be exposed and defeated if we are going to move the dialogue where it needs to go.

    • Dorothy says:

      You’re so right about Nordhaus, Pielke and Revkin. There’s just no understanding them.

      On 12/12, Revkin wrote about Arctic Methane release, with input from various scientists. But the only person in his article to show real concern was the non-scientist film-maker Gary Houser, who is working on the film ‘Sleeping Giant of the Arctic’
      http://www.590films.org/methane.html.

      Nowhere does Revkin refer other scientists who see escaping methane as a potential catastrophe, notably Dr. Peter Wadhams of Cambridge and John Nissen, who presented at the recent AGU Conference:
      http://www.arctic-methane-emergency-group.org/#/dec-2011-agu/4558306797.

      If you check the link above you’ll see there are scientists recognize the vital importance of trying to save the Arctic sea ice and prevent dangerous methane release. Even if it means resorting to geo-engineering.

      Revkin is unwilling to face this the stark reality: The Arctic is rapidly losing its ice, and ice-free periods during the summer will begin in just a few years. Dr. Wadhams now estimats this may be by 2015.

      I posted an article about this on December 11th:
      http://westcoastclimateequity.org/2011/12/13/arctic-methane-emergency/

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      They’ve found a ‘market niche’. I bet they don’t work for nothing. Then you’d have to do a full psychological survey, and investigate all the resentments, slurs (real and imagined)that they have felt, the fears and hopes and the basic character formation that harks back to attachment, socialisation, self-actualisation etc. In other words, like the rest of us, they’d be complicated beasties. All this is pointless, of course, because they would deny all our conclusions. In matters of physics and chemistry, its concrete facts that count. Why a significant fraction of humanity set out to destroy the planet’s habitability for their own species is a question beyond satisfactory explanation.

  9. Raul M. says:

    Ghee, Joe
    so that is how you say the Arctic will melt by 2016.
    A huge area of ice. Being more close to 2016 these days. Sorry that you are right or way too close to being right anyway. My condolences.

    • prokaryotes says:

      “Just the melting of all the floating ice in the arctic ocean, will add as much heat to the earth, as all the Co-2 we put in the atmosphere to date.” Dr. James Lovelock http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-v5UGK9Ajc&feature=player_embedded#t=610s

      • prokaryotes says:

        Estimating the Global Radiative Impact of the Sea-Ice-Albedo Feedback in the Arctic

        a more realistic ice-free-summer scenario (no ice for one month, decreased ice at all other times of the year) results in
        a forcing of about 0.3 W m−2, similar to present-day anthropogenic forcing caused by halocarbons. The potential for changes in cloud cover as a result of the changes in sea ice makes the evaluation of the actual forcing that may be realized quite uncertain, since such changes could overwhelm the forcing caused by the sea-ice loss itself, if the cloudi- ness increases in the summertime. http://www.npolar.no/npcms/export/sites/np/en/people/stephen.hudson/Hudson11_AlbedoFeedback.pdf

        • Raul M. says:

          Prokaryotes,
          I’m sure you could have already guessed, but when we go beyond the natural laws and speak of exactly how and why- it gets way over my head. There does seem to be a large agreement of the exactly how and why- by scientists who study such (and looking at the volume of study) I’m guessing that it is years and years of study.
          So if it gets to exactly the wm(squared) forcing by which cluminitive and singular effects and affects, please allow me to bow out.

  10. The numbers in the geological record just aren’t there for a catastrophic methane outgassing on less than millennial time scales.

    We’ve enough to feel anxious over without getting antsy over methane.

    • prokaryotes says:

      But this time is different..

      The release of more than 370 billion tons of carbon (GtC) from buried early biospheres, adding more than one half of the original carbon inventory of the atmosphere (~590 GtC), as well as the depletion of vegetation, have triggered a fundamental shift in the state of the atmosphere. Raising atmospheric CO2 level at a rate of 2 ppm/year, a pace unprecedented in the geological record, with the exception of the effects of CO2 released from craters excavated by large asteroid impacts, the deleterious effects of pollution and deforestation have reached a geological dimension, tracking toward conditions which existed on Earth in the mid-Pliocene, about 2.8 million years ago. http://www.countercurrents.org/glikson220210.htm

  11. Lou Grinzo says:

    To answer the question in Joe’s title: Yes, you should be alarmed. Hell, you should be scared spitless.

    Looking at the big picture — which is the only way the world works — we have anthro forcings set to escalate like crazy thanks largely to China’s and India’s plans to build coal plants as fast as possible for the next 25 years, plus the US and other developed countries not doing nearly enough to reduce their emissions. And that new CO2 is essentially locked into place once emitted. As I say so often online, “Love is fleeting but CO2 is forever”.

    Now add in the various feedbacks — permafrost and hydrate emissions, albedo flip, drought strangling the Amazon rain forest, etc. — and the evil twin of climate change, ocean acidification.

    The result is a horrifying scenario that we can’t stop and can’t escape.

    I am increasingly convinced that given the pace at which we’re attacking this problem, we needed to get “really serious” about it roughly when Jimmy Carter gave his famous energy speech.

    Anyone here got a time machine Joe can use to go clue in President Carter? (Or did that already happen, which is why he gave that speech…?)

  12. Paul Magnus says:

    Looks like we’re about to self-exterminate… Is that alarmist?

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      It’s auto-genocide, but not by humanity as a whole, rather entirely caused by the political Right.

  13. Bluestocking says:

    This is just one of the reasons why I’m starting to think that not only will the human race not survive the 21st Century, perhaps it should not survive it. The so-called “wise man” (Homo sapiens sapiens) has proven time and time again that it is not nearly as wise as it claims to be. Every species on the planet has a shelf life, some longer than others (although we would probably be the first to bring about our own extinction) — maybe we’ve simply reached our expiration date. Maybe it’s time for Planet Earth to clear the decks and (with time and luck) make room for a saner and more rational species to evolve.

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      Blue, it isn’t our species, our human nature. The ancient cultures were wise and respected the Earth.

      It is only in the last 250 years that we have changed our design principle to that which induces competition and domination – over everything, each other and our home.

      It is that design principle that we desperately have to change back, to that which is actually natural for us and for all life. Can we make it back to cooperation with each other and the planet? There are good signs but the jury is still out. Stick around and do whatever you can, ME

      • Mark says:

        That is a common and naive assumption. Consider the eco collapse on Easter Island, and the small tribes swallowed up and sacrificed by the Aztecs who wanted everything to be THEIR way. Ecology teaches us that species compete – hard – to fill every available niche. So I have long thought the line of demarcation between homo sapiens (latin for “wise man”) and animal is not language, and not tool use, but the INTENTIONAL limiting of our own population. If we can stabilize population, then we can start talking about equitable resource use, and acceptable per capita emissions.

        • Merrelyn Emery says:

          Naive? Please do your homework.

          Have a look at the evidence for the sustainability of the ancient cultures. What did they leave you? A livable planet?

          What have you left for your kids?

          Quoting Easter Island is just cherry picking the data, ME

          • Raul M. says:

            It might be fair to point out they had not the modern capabilities so the choice was never theirs to make.

    • Some European says:

      The problem is that we’re hardy like cockroaches. First, 80% of species on Earth will have to go, before we do.
      If we do make it that far, it will take biodiversity anywhere between x00,000 and x,000,000 years to recover, based on numbers I’ve seen about previous mass extinctions.

      Also, the sun is now significantly brighter than during previous methane releases and the gun is fully loaded and we’re pushing the beast several orders of magnitude faster than natural events in the past. So, we have less margin to avoid the Venus syndrome.

      Plus! It’s nice to sit in your couch and melancholically ponder about how the Earth will keep orbiting with our without us. But there are actually people who are going to have to live through it. As far as I can imagine, going extinct isn’t a pleasant experience.

      Also, we wouldn’t be the first species to wipe out ourselves. But we would be the first to do so knowingly. (Paraphrasing ‘The Age of Stupid’).

      Of course, we can still avoid our own extinction. No question.
      It’s just that I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where the odds are above 10%…

  14. riverat says:

    I think the true alarmists in here are those who say “It’s going to cost trillions and trillions of dollars and destroy the economy and we’ll all be living in caves.”

  15. David B. Benson says:

    More atmospheric methane, less atmospheric hydroxyl radical.
    Less hydroxyl radical, more smog.

    • Artful Dodger says:

      … less hydroxy radical, longer residence time for atmospheric methane. The net result is that Arctic methane forcing creep up from 25 X which the MSM likes to quote, up towards 120 X which is the first year CO2 equivalent forcing.

      At some point, methane forcings increase faster than C02 concentration. At that point, we can halt all human C02 emissions and it won’t make a lick of spit.

      Beyond-catastrophic climate impacts will occur no matter how much we try to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. We will quickly BECOME fossils as events overtake humanities ability to respond.

      Do you hear that creaking noise? That is the Window Closing… Now who’s that banging at the damn door?

    • John McCormick says:

      David, you hit upon the other 800 pound gorilla in the methane time-bomb chaos awaiting us. OH radicals are vital to other parts of the atmosphere and without them…more chaos.

      Joe should do a post on OH radicals….soon,

      Thanks for your comment.

  16. J says:

    Wait a minute…if the newly added CO2 stays in the atmosphere forever, then we are stuck with this new extreme weather forever, right? If that’s correct, then am I right to conclude that no matter what we do the Arctic is already doomed because it’s not going to get any cooler any time soon, the permafrost will eventually melt and all of the worst case scenarios are going to happen so it’s just a matter of “when” not “if”. And if I’m right on those points and we continue business as usual, then we are only adding fuel to the fire and making everything a little more extreme just a little bit sooner, right? In other words, we are just speeding up our own doom. I’m not seeing any bright sides to this, even if we ceased all GHG’s immediately and indefinitely. We seem to be heating up just fine without adding methane to this equation. Where am I wrong on this?

    • David B. Benson says:

      CO2 does to stay in the atmosphere forever. Please read David Archer’s “The Long Thaw”.

      Of course, we could get busy and start removing atmospheric CO2 faster than we add it…

  17. mulp says:

    I’m 64 and about 15 years from the age my parents died. My dad before he died talked of all the changes he saw, like the beginning of commercial flight and landing on the moon, not to mention the US becoming a car culture.

    I’m thinking I’ll be able to reflect on seeing major US cities flooded by the rising sea from glaciers sliding into the seas.

    And then saying “I told you so”….

  18. prokaryotes says:

    I’m reading now…

    Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon to Climate Change: Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle

    Thawing permafrost and the resulting microbial decomposition of previously frozen organic carbon (C) is one of the most significant potential feedbacks from terrestrial ecosystems to the atmosphere in a changing climate. In this article we present an overview of the global permafrost C pool and of the processes that might transfer this C into the atmosphere, as well as the associated ecosystem changes that occur with thawing. We show that accounting for C stored deep in the permafrost more than doubles previous high-latitude inventory estimates, with this new estimate equivalent to twice the atmospheric C pool. The thawing of permafrost with warming occurs both gradually and catastrophically, exposing organic C to microbial decomposition. Other aspects of ecosystem dynamics can be altered by climate change along with thawing permafrost, such as growing season length, plant growth rates and species composition, and ecosystem energy exchange. However, these processes do not appear to be able to compensate for C release from thawing permafrost, making it likely that the net effect of widespread permafrost thawing will be a positive feedback to a warming climate.
    http://www.aibs.org/bioscience-press-releases/resources/Schuur.pdf

  19. Paul Magnus says:

    Will mother nature stop us before we trigger the methane bomb?

  20. Spike says:

    Methane is like a brief but torrid and ultimately unhappy flirtation with a bad bad girl climate wise. CO2 a long unhappy marriage with no possibility of divorce. That is the message I seemed to get from Pierrehumbert and others on Revkin’s effort to be soporific about reality. that seemed to be why they were pushing gas – nobody responded to my pointing out the NCAR study featured on here that showed it did diddly squat.

    The permafrost worries me more than the hydrates. When bacteria get going they will warm the soil further, the effect of drought followed by reflooding has recently been shown by UK scientists to dramatically increase methane production, and fires will alsio change things very rapidly as per the Alaskan one.

    Sterling article Joe.

  21. Raul M. says:

    close to the mids of January and a city in the country of Greenland says 42 degrees.

  22. Colorado Bob says:

    Well, this seems to be a question of how fast is the ship sinking ?

    What were the forecasts for this to begin to happen :

    Even though the ice came early to Hudson Bay, it took too long for that ice to stay — and experts say its slow formation sent some of Canada’s polar bears to the brink of starvation.

    Polar bears weren’t able to get onto the ice to hunt seals until early December this winter, which observers say is becoming the norm.

    “Those bears are all lining up along the coast line waiting for the ice to form,” said David Barber, who holds the Canada research chair in Arctic science at the University of Manitoba. “They’re basically all starving. They are really at their limit biologically.”

    http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/ice-posing-polar-problems-137076833.html

  23. O.A.Wehmanen says:

    1) If it gets hotter, I’ll just turn the air conditioner up. If we run out of food, I will notice it.

    2) Look at the archeology of Easter Island. They destroyed their environment. Are we smarter than they were?

    3) There seems to be a confusion about arctic methane.
    A-Methane Hydrate-Frozen methane-water complex, present in the permafrost, also in deep sea sediment, released with heating about like water ice.
    B- Methane released by bacterial action on peat. This is a long term, slow process that will release a lot of methane (and CO2)
    over a century.

    Both sources are important to the climate.

    4) We will not get to 9 billion. The human population will crash to a smaller population than we have now. It will not be pretty!

  24. prokaryotes says:

    Maybe we should start preparing for a worst case scenario, even if the chances of survival are slim. Preparing could mean to get together and planning to build for survival mode.

    • John McCormick says:

      Where are the big green voices on this blog, on this post, on anything save for their own PR.

      It is not “Maybe we should start preparing for a worst case scenario”. It is that we should be telling the world there is a worse case scenario in our future and damn it, we had better be preparing for it.

      Who are the big thinkers and planners we can trust with our survival.

      It doesn’t seem we can rely on the big green. They don’t have any ideas either.

      They appear to have become afflicted with a mental condition similar to writers block when it comes to climate chaos.

      • prokaryotes says:

        When you lose literally everything, many people have no more motivation to go on and survival instincts decrease substantial. Think about it. This becomes evident in the movie 2012 when many remain in prayer… i guess most people are likely to just remain at there present location. ANd then one day a shortage scenario overwhelms.

    • Raul M. says:

      How could survival be done without having a city worth stealing? I haven’t figured even the basics of that question yet.

      • Raul M. says:

        And scientists assure us there is still(4?) years left till we will be able to know mankind is done for.
        As the song sings play on, play on.
        Let every day count in your search for happiness.

    • I noticed that you mentioned a zipper type release in a comment you made on RealClimate. I think you said it was mentioned in a NASA article. Please, can you provide the link? Thanks!

  25. Gee, I am ever so glad to see that my home in eastern Brazil lies in a spot that is still somewhat greenish according to the graphic.

    Too bad there won’t be any rule of law down there when the going gets tough.

  26. vukcevic says:

    I looked into the 350 year long Central England Temperatures (the CET) which is directly affected by the Arctic jet-stream and it projects cooling back to the temperatures last seen in the 1970s, as shown here:
    http://www.vukcevic.talktalk.net/CET-NAP-SSN.htm

    In order to check validity of the above, I used data for the sub-Arctic atmospheric pressure to forecast Reykjavik (Iceland) temperature and that again suggest similar degree of cooling for the winter and a bit less for the summer months
    http://www.vukcevic.talktalk.net/RF.htm
    Conclusion is that even if there is unprecedented release of methane gas in the Arctic, a bit of extra GHG warming of the otherwise much harsher winters (as projected by two independent methods shown above) would be welcome by the population in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere,

  27. Susan Anderson says:

    Pondering all the terrific analysis of methane and its effects, my stubborn brain refusing to follow the more detailed scientific analysis, some thoughts linger.

    If the northern methane is relatively insignificant, what does that say about the rest of the methane, in the tropics, for example?

    The northern methane is said to be the product of some relatively ancient history. What is going on now? What about those pictures of bubbling bogs in northern Russia (BBC) and maps showing thousands of potholes about to join the throng. It seems we are going to face melting of permafrost at an accelerating rate no matter what. A few fires and highly combustible material? What about this is not worrying?

    Why is 10% insignificant? Where did I get that figure? If microbes digest some of it, do they heat and warm up the ocean? How much of it changes to CO2?

    There seems to be some shibuwichee by which the methane is being psychologically subtracted from CO2 instead of adding to it. Even if that added material is relatively small, it is still more, not less. Why are rational people buying this?

    While I am grateful for scientists for doing the heavy lifting of analysis, I don’t believe they are incapable of providing unequivocal lay information about probabilities. I admire scientists, but they need to include the rest of the population in their communications. I realize this adds a burden, but at this point I think it should be all hands on deck, and that means saying things that are not 100% certain more often, as Drs. Hansen and Romm do (and many others who post here, thank you all!).

    Obama appears to be getting poor advice. I hope we can get through to him, and get him reelected, no matter how compromised he is by his difficulties with stark reality and obstructionism. I heard he is reading 10 letters a day and am considering handwriting a letter as often as I can in hopes he will read at least one of them.

  28. prokaryotes says:

    The timing of the methane feedback is not important. It is the summer sea ice loss passing the point of no return leading to unstoppable catastrophic Arctic methane feedbacks sooner or later… which puts us in a state of planetary emergency today.  — John NIssen, AMEG Chairman

    Losing the Arctic summer sea ice will accelerate the already rapid rate of Arctic warming, which will increase the rate of methane being emitted by the warming Arctic.

    This emergency situation for survival
    must go straight to the top of the global climate change agenda.

    According to the WORLD METEOROLOGICAL ORGANIZATION, Geneva, 29 November 2011:  

    “The extent of Arctic sea ice in 2011 was the second lowest on record, and its volume was a new record low of 4200 cubic kilometres, surpassing the record of 4580 cubic kilometres set in 2010.

    “Arctic peatlands, thawing permafrost and venting East Siberian shelf methane hydrates are emitting more methane to the atmosphere.

    “Atmospheric methane, having increased two and a half times since industrialization, is on the increase again since 2007 and scientists say this increase is due to global warming feedback processes, mainly in the Arctic.” http://www.arctic-methane-emergency-group.org/

    Should you been alarmed?

    Yes, we should be alarmed, because we need to act now to prepare and lower impacts.

  29. wili says:

    Thanks for the great post.

    For now, I am just going to ask a question about the quote from the Royal Society study:

    “In such a 4°C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world.”

    Does this make the rather large and strange assumption that humans could somehow survive while natural systems all fail?

  30. Susan Anderson says:

    One more question: why do people emphasize area over volume on sea ice (yes, I know about albedo). The volume seems the more permanent measure, and it is falling fast, none of this secondmost stuff. I also know the measurements are hard come by and recent, but that does not diminish their importance.

    • prokaryotes says:

      Since thawing ice generally breaks up and scatters outward, and than on re-freeze and following next thaw cycle, the smaller ice melts more rapidly. So not the best indication. I think the reason is that more reliable observation are not yet sufficient to make a trend.

      Measurement of sea ice / Types of measurements

      Sea ice extent

      Sea Ice in the Arctic Ocean fluctuates with the seasons.
      Sea ice extent is the area of sea with a specified amount of ice, usually 15%. To satellite microwave sensors, surface melt appears to be open water rather than water on top of sea ice. So, while reliable for measuring area most of the year, the microwave sensors are prone to underestimating the actual ice concentration and area when the surface is melting.

      Sea ice area

      To estimate ice area, scientists calculate the percentage of sea ice in each pixel, multiply by the pixel area, and total the amounts. To estimate ice extent, scientists set a threshold percentage, and count every pixel meeting or exceeding that threshold as “ice-covered.” The National Snow and Ice Data Center, one of NASA’s Distributed Active Archive Centers, monitors sea ice extent using a threshold of 15 percent.

      Sea ice concentration

      Main article: Sea ice concentration
      Sea ice concentration is the percentage of an area that is covered with sea ice.

      Sea ice thickness

      Main article: Sea ice thickness
      Sea ice thickness increases over time, and increases when winds and currents push the ice together. The European Space Agency’s Cryosat-2 satellite was launched in April 2010 on a quest to map the thickness and shape of the Earth’s polar ice cover. It’s single instrument – a SAR/Interferometric Radar Altimeter is able to measure the difference between the height of the surface of sea ice and the water in open leads, the “freeboard” of the ice. Since 7/8ths of the ice is below the waterline, the computation of the thickness is fairly simple.

      Sea ice age

      The age of the ice is another key descriptor of the state of the sea ice cover, since older ice tends to be thicker and more resilient than younger ice. Sea ice rejects salt over time and becomes less salty resulting in a higher melting point. A simple two-stage approach classifies sea ice into first year and multiyear ice. First-year is ice that has not yet survived a summer melt season, while multi-year ice has survived at least one summer and can be several years old. See sea ice growth processes.

      Sea mass balance

      Measuring Sea Ice Mass Balance
      Sea mass balance is the balance of how much the ice grows in the winter and melts in the summer. For Arctic sea ice virtually all of the growth occurs on the bottom of the ice. Melting occurs on both the top and the bottom of the ice. In the vast majority of cases all of the snow melts during the summer, typically in just a couple of weeks. The mass balance is a powerful concept since it is the great integrator of the heat budget. If there is a net increase of heat, then the ice will thin. A net cooling will result in thicker ice.
      Making direct measurements of the mass balance is simple. An array of stakes and thickness gauges is used to measure ablation and accumulation of ice and snow at the top and bottom of the ice cover. In spite of the importance of mass balance measurements and the relatively simple equipment involved in making them, there are few observational results. This is due, in large part, to the expense involved in operating a long-term field camp to serve as the base for these studies.

      Sea ice volume

      Seasonal variation and long term decrease of Arctic sea ice volume as determined by measurement backed numerical modelling.

      There are no Arctic-wide or Antarctic-wide measurements of the volume of sea ice, but the volume of the Arctic sea ice is calculated using the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) developed at the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory/Polar Science Center. PIOMAS blends satellite-observed sea ice concentrations into model calculations to estimate sea ice thickness and volume. Comparison with submarine, mooring, and satellite observations help increase the confidence of the model results.

      Cryosat-2, launched in April 2010, has the ability to measure thickness across the entire Arctic Ocean Basin. This allows relatively simple calculation of the volume of the sea ice
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Measurement_of_sea_ice

      2008 article:
      As global temperatures climb, the extent of sea ice that persists in the Arctic until the end of summer has hit record lows. Between August and October 2007, for example, the area covered by sea ice shrank more than 30% below its average for that part of the year. At the same time, air temperatures in western Canada and Alaska jumped more than 2°C over the 1978-2006 average for late summer and early autumn. Researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), both in Boulder, Colorado, realized that they had seen a similar relationship between Arctic ice melt and land warming in their climate computer model. So atmospheric scientist David Lawrence of NCAR and co-author Andrew Slater of NSIDC plugged the data they had collected–from satellites and ground- and sea-based monitoring stations in the Arctic–into the simulation to see what a continuing pattern would produce.

      The simulation showed “that the rate of [air] warming increases substantially during rapid ice loss, especially during autumn,” Lawrence says. The surprise is not in the relationship, he adds, but in the size of the land area impacted by the sea-ice change. If the rate of summer sea-ice loss persists, it could boost the rate of warming across permafrost areas by up to 3.5 times, the team will report Friday in Geophysical Research Letters. Such an increase could be enough to turn concrete-hard ground into muck and begin to release billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide and methane–an even more potent greenhouse gas–that had been locked up in the soil for millennia. http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2008/06/10-02.html

      2010 an article from Stephen Leahy

      One local impact underway is a rapid warming of the coastal regions of the Arctic, where average temperatures are now three to five degrees C warmer than they were 30 years ago. If the global average temperature increases from the present 0.8 C to two degrees C, as seems likely, the entire Arctic region will warm at least four to six degrees and possibly eight degrees due to a series of processes and feedbacks called Arctic amplification.
      Arctic Ice in Death Spiral, Thaws Permafrost — Risks Climate Catastrophe
      http://stephenleahy.net/2010/09/23/arctic-ice-in-death-spiral-risks-climate-catastrophe/

  31. Raul M. says:

    If CH4 mixes in just one year in whole atmosphere and arctic sources are about 10 % of total sources; then, maps showing such would show much less concentrations in the Arctic because the other sources aren’t in the Arctic area and it would still be a year before full mixing at any time frame.
    Isn’t another view reasonable as the maps show much higher concentrations in the Arctic latitudes than the equator?