Thursday, 25 July 2013

Climate change update

Guy McPherson has updates his article on climate change to reflect the latest developments.


Climate-change summary and update

Guy McPherson


24 July, 2013

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. 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).


Even mainstream scientists minimize the message at every turn. As we’ve known for years,scientists almost invariably underplay climate impacts. I’m not implying conspiracy. 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 (they 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.”


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 1850). 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 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. Anthropologist Louise Leakey ponders our near-term demise in her 5 July 2013 assessment at Huffington Post. 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.


This essay brings attention to recent projections and 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 on the campus of the University of Massachusetts. All information and sources are readily confirmed with an online search, and links to information about feedbacks can be found here.


Large-scale assessments

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (late 2007): 1 C by 2100
Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (late 2008): 2 C by 2100
United Nations Environment Programme (mid 2009): 3.5 C by 2100
Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (October 2009): 4 C by 2060
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 will continue the trend as it, too, ignores important feedbacks. On a positive note, major assessments fail to account for economic collapse. However, due to the feedback loops presented below, I strongly suspect it’s too late for economic collapse to extend the run of our species.



Taking a broad view

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 points out 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). Planetary instruments indicate Earth has warmed about 1 C since the beginning of the industrial revolution. However, plants in the vicinity of Concord, Massachusetts — where the instrumental record indicates warming of about 1 C — indicate warming of 2.4 C since the 1840s.


Whether you believe the plants or the instruments is irrelevant at the point. 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 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, as pointed out in the 30 May 2013 issue of Nature Climate Change. 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.


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. A footnote on 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, Obama and others in his administration knew near-term extinction of humans was already guaranteed. Even before the dire feedbacks were reported by the scientific community, the Obama 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 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 2013every 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, and seeps are appearing in numerous locations off the eastern coast of the United States. This figure is 1100 ppb higher than pre-industrial peak levels. Methane release tracks closely with temperature rise throughout Earth history, including a temperature rise up to about 1 C per year over a decade, according to data from ice cores.




Positive feedbacks
Methane hydrates are bubbling out the Arctic Ocean (Science, March 2010). According to NASA’s CARVE project, these plumes were up to 150 kilometers across as of mid-July 2013. Whereas Malcolm Light’s 9 February 2012 forecast of extinction of all life on Earth by the middle of this century appears 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.

Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011). This breakdown of the thermohaline conveyor belt is happening in the Antarctic as well.

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)

Drought in the Amazon triggered the release of more carbon than the United States in 2010 (Science, February 2011)

Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Communications, November 2011)

Invasion of tall shrubs warms the soil, hence destabilizes the permafrost (Environmental Research Letters, March 2012)

Greenland ice is darkening (The Cryosphere, June 2012)


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.

Russian forest and bog fires are growing (NASA, 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.

Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide(Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, October 2012)

The Beaufort Gyre apparently has reversed course (U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, October 2012)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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. One result is the creation of weather blocks such as the recent very high temperatures in Alaska. As a resultboreal 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)

Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012


As nearly as I can distinguish, only the latter feedback process is 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. 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).


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 that climate risks have been underestimated for the last 20 Years, or that the IPCC’s efforts have failed miserably. 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. 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 warming in the interior of large continents in the northern hemisphere has outstripped model predictions in racing to 6-7 C already, 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.


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.


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 ofGeophysical 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 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.


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.


Completely contrary to the popular contrarian myth, global warming has accelerated, with more overall global warming in the past 15 years than the prior 15 years. This warming has resulted 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. 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. The death spiral of Arctic sea ice is well under way, as shown in the video below.






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.



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 acknowledgesin 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.


Ice sheet loss continues to increase at both poles, and warming of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is twice the earlier scientific estimateArctic 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. Indeed, Arctic ice could be gone in 2013, as predicted by climate scientist Paul Beckwith. 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.



Even the conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) has thrown in the towel, concluding that “renewable” energy is not keeping up with the old, dirty standard sources. As a result, the IEA 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.” 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).


Ocean acidification associated with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is proceeding at an unprecedented rate, 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 ocean acidification is hardly the only threat on the climate-change front. As one little-discussed example, atmospheric oxygen levels are dropping to levels considered dangerous for humans, particularly in cities.


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 by 2060. Several academic scientists have concluded, in the refereed journal literature no less, that the 2 C mark 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). 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 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.

Marcott et al temperature reconstruction wheelchair

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 theGuardian. 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.” The global police state has arrived.




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