Starving Sea Lion Pups and Liquified Starfish — How We’ve Turned the Eastern Pacific into A Death Trap for Marine Species

As of late January, the news reports were coming in hot and heavy. Baby sea lions were dying in droves. More than 15,000 of the pups were already lost due to starvation. And with each passing week, more than 100 of the emaciated, beleaguered, hopeless animals were washing up on California shores.

The pups staggered across beaches, wandered into vacant lots, or tottered, disoriented, along roadways. Refugees all to some unspeakable disaster. Orphans lost or abandoned by parents unable to provide them with even the most basic of sustenance.

Starving Sea Lion Pups

(Starving sea lion pups taken in by the Marine Mammal Center in San Francisco. Image source: WTSP.)

Marine rescue centers, volunteer centers, and even animal shelters were inundated by a flood of desperate, dying animals. Their organs were shutting down. They could barely breathe or walk. The future generation of the more than 300,000 sea lions living along the US West Coast taking a severe blow from a deadly killer lurking in West Coast waters.

By late February more than 1000 sea lion pups had flooded the California Marine Mammal Center. Hundreds more found their way into local and ad-hoc shelters. The number was so great that all support systems for the animals were overwhelmed. Persons finding and seeking help for the dying pups were, more often than not, turned away due to lack of support and rescue resources.

It was like the scene out of some heart-wrenching sci-fi disaster movie. And everyone kept asking the same question — what could cause this?

Mass Sea Lion Deaths for Three Years Running

This most recent spate of sea lion pup deaths and strandings comes after years of the same. News media currently reports the event in isolation — as if 2015 were the only year for such a thing to happen. But the truth is that this crisis has been ongoing now since at least 2013, with an earlier episode in 2009-2010 preceding the current chain of related events.

The 2013 event was so severe that in the end 70 percent of the 50,000 sea lion pups born that year had died. The 2014 event was rather less severe, accounting for ‘only’ twice the normal loss rate. But 2015 has so far been so deadly that even 2013’s staggering number of sea lion pup losses could be exceeded.

The multi-year event represents such a heavy blow to sea lions that marine organizations have declared the entire current young generation under threat of being wiped out.

Adult Sea Lions, Otters, Starfish, Birds and other Marine Creatures Involved

But the story doesn’t stop at young sea lion deaths alone. From May through August of last summer, reports were flooding in of mass adult sea lion, otter, and bird deaths due to what appeared to be exposure to some form of toxin.

The animals would wash up on the beach or drop out of the sky. They would show signs of convulsions. Autopsies of the deceased animals revealed shrunken hippocampus, brain and heart lesions.

The same marine mammal center that is now taking in over 1,000 baby sea lion pups this summer took in 751 adults suffering from these signs of toxic poisoning. Simply put, the adults died this past summer and now the pups are starving.

Further down the food chain, creatures living in bottom water zones were also suffering and dying. Fishermen off Oregon had to go further and further afield to fill nets. Near shore fishing lines came up empty except for crabs scurrying up the lines as if in an attempt to escape from danger below.

And in 2013, thousands upon thousands of starfish began to turn to white clumps. A freakish instance of mass star fish death that continued inexorably through 2015.

A Victim of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

(A victim of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. Image source: Crosscut.)

The star fish would succumb to a strange wasting illness. An illness that would ultimately waste whole swaths of multiple starfish species (20 separate starfish species and millions of animals are now thought to be involved). Entire regions saw their starfish populations dwindle to zero. As with the mass sea lion deaths, marine researchers were both stunned and befuddled.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that the various species deaths just keep on coming — with no apparent end in sight.

A Hothouse Serial Killer

Just off shore, a warm wind runs from south to north over the increasingly wasted waters. Warm airs born of warm waters, providing us with clues for the cause of this ongoing mass death event. For the seas off the US West Coast have reached record levels of warmth — a level of ocean surface heat that flared with the most recent El Nino in 2009 and 2010. A warming that has been building steadily ever since mortality events began their incessant march in 2013.

image

(Sea surface temperature anomaly map for February 27, 2015 depicting very large swath of much warmer than average sea surface temperatures running along the West Coast of North America through to the Bering Sea. Such widespread surface warming contributes to numerous detrimental changes to ocean health. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: Global Forecast System Model.)

Now a broad swath of surface water ranging from 2-5 C above average blankets an entire oceanic zone from Alaska to Mexico.

Such excess heat may seem innocuous at first blush. A little extra warm water may seem pleasant to the casual observer. But what seems pleasant actually conceals a deadly threat.

Warm surface waters spreading over the ocean can serve as a kind of lid. The warm water prevents cooler water from upwelling toward the surface, mixing nutrients and refreshing the water’s oxygen levels. This shut down of overturning is a dangerous oceanic condition called stratification. And it can level a severe blow to almost all creatures along the marine food chain. Plankton become less productive. Low oxygen zones expand, killing the slow-moving bottom creatures all while driving the mobile fish to more productive waters. In the warmer waters, toxic algae blooms become more prevalent. Harmful microbes, which are culled during influxes of cold water, thrive and multiply, posing a disease threat to all marine species. Finally, in the deeper reaches off the coasts of Washington and Oregon, the already oxygen-poor zones, zones rife with methane from hydrate venting, begin producing a deadly seep of hydrogen sulfide gas.

The living sea has now become a killer. And all it took was a little extra added heat to lock west coast waters in an expanding zone of warm water and low oxygen marine mortality.

Low Oxygen Ocean Zones

(The signature of ocean stratification expansion — low oxygen zones. Note the large and expanding region of low oxygen in the Eastern Pacific. For reference, high oxygen is shown in greens, blues and purples, low oxygen shown in oranges, reds and black. Image source: AMOP’s Study of Oxygen Minimum Zones. Image date: 2013.)

As a result we have the proliferation of the sea star wasting illness. An illness that would usually be contained by the seasonal influx of cooler waters. So too do we have instances of sea lion adults consuming fish, mullusks, and shellfish contaminated with domoic acid — a toxin produced by algae blooms in warm waters. And lastly, we have the overall stress on the food chain due to low oxygen and productivity which has driven sea lion food sources so far off shore that females are too exhausted after hunting to feed their pups.

More Dangers to Come

The recent mortality events mirror ocean warming episodes which caused similar die-offs at the end of glacial periods. Then, as now, warming robbed waters of oxygen and productive mixing, causing stress to numerous species.

However, the current pace of human warming is much more rapid than the warming periods that occurred at the ends of the ice ages. In addition, under business as usual human carbon emissions, the deadly, low-oxygen ocean zones are expected to expand, eventually covering the majority of the world ocean system. It’s a transition to a stratified ocean that will make the current west-coast die-off look like a minor prelude by comparison.

Hydrogen Sulfide Eruption off Namibian Coast

(Hydrogen sulfide eruption off Namibian coast on February 15, 2015. In Namibia, anoxic bottom waters host hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. Runoff rich with organic material feeds these bacteria as they produce more toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. During upwelling events, the hydrogen sulfide is brought to the surface where it is visible as a florescent green or black slick. Under stratified and Canfield Oceans, more and more regions are capable of supporting deadly hydrogen sulfide production. Currently, the Baltic Sea, Offshore Namibia, the Chesapeake Bay, and Offshore Oregon are known to host broad regions of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria in anoxic dead zones. Only in Nambia do these zones occasionally reach the surface waters, so far. Image source: Earth Observatory/NASA.)

Eventually, if CO2e levels exceed 800-1000 parts per million, a transition to an even more deadly state called a Canfield Ocean is increasingly likely. And a Canfield Ocean is a powerful killing machine. Implicated all the previous hothouse extinctions, this killer, during the Permian Extinction, was likely primarily responsible for the deaths of 95 percent of species in the ocean and 70 percent of species on land. For the oceans eventually filled up with deadly toxins (primarily in the form of hydrogen sulfide gas) which then vented into the atmosphere.

It’s a very deadly ocean state we want to avoid at all costs. And we should view these very troubling instances of ocean species mortality along the North American West Coast as a warning to stop warming to oceans as swiftly as possible.

Links:

 Here’s Why Hundreds of Sea Lion Pups are Washing Ashore in California

Researchers Find Warmer Waters Increase Sea Bed Methane Emissions

Surge in Marine Mammal Strandings on US West Coast

On California Coast, Biotoxins Cause of Deadly Sea Lion Siezures, Seafood Scare

Unprecedented Sea Lion Mortality Along California Coast Associated With Anomalous Ocean Conditions

Pelagic Zone: Commons

Global Warming May Boost Dead Zones in Oceans

Eastern Pacific Oxygen Minimum Research

Starving Sea Lion Pup Rescued on San Fransisco Boulevard

Sea Star Wasting Continues: Will King of the Rock Fall?

Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring: Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

When the Stars all Go Out Along the Coast

Hydrogen Sulfide Eruption: Namibia

Earth Nullschool

Global Forecast System Model

Hat Tips:

Colorado Bob

Lief Thurston

Bad Climate Outcomes — Atmospheric Warming to Ramp up as PDO Swings Strongly Positive?

Last year, quietly and without much fanfare from the mainstream press, the Pacific Ocean underwent a powerful shift. A shift from a state in which cooler surface waters absorbed atmospheric heat, to a phase in which surface water warming caused ocean heat to be transferred to the world’s already warming airs.

The shift was heralded by a powerful oceanic Kelvin Wave. One that brought warm water up from the depths and spread them across the Pacific Ocean surface. Ever since that time, warm Kelvin Waves have continued to refresh this surface water heat pool.

monster-el-nino

(Major Kelvin Wave that heralded a switch to strongly positive PDO values for the Pacific. Image source: NOAA/ESRL)

And so the Pacific Ocean surface warming continued throughout 2014.

By December, Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) values, a measure directly tied to this warming, hit a new all-time record level of +2.51. That’s the highest and hottest PDO value since record-keeping began in 1900. One that only backed off slightly into January at +2.45 in the preliminary measure.

It’s a major swing in Pacific Ocean surface temperatures to a phase where more heat is dumped into the atmosphere. One that is causing some scientists to warn that a new period of rapid atmospheric warming may just be getting started.

image

(Sea surface temperature anomaly map shows very warm surface waters dominate much of the equatorial, eastern and northern Pacific in a signature that is strongly characteristic of a powerfully positive PDO on Thursday, February 26 2015. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: Global Forecast Systems Model.)

PDO and The Multi-Decadal Heat Pump

Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is a periodic change in sea surface temperature states in the Pacific. One that is thought by many oceanic and atmospheric researchers to have a strong influence on global weather and temperature variability.

In the negative state, PDO tends to encourage La Nina events which also coincide with a downswing in global temperatures as the vast Pacific waters take in more heat. In the positive state, PDO tends to encourage El Nino events which result in the great ocean belching heat into the air on a grand scale — pushing atmospheric temperatures higher.

All things being equal, this natural variability would pan out — marking upswings and downswings in a global average. However, human fossil fuel burning and related greenhouse gas emissions have bent this curve upward by trapping more and more heat in the lower atmosphere. So the case is now that during positive PDO phases, in which more El Ninos occur, atmospheric warming has tended to ramp drastically higher. And, consequently, during negative PDO phases, atmospheric warming has tended to merely slow down even as oceanic warming sped up.

You can see this speeding up and slowing down in the below graphic provided  by Weather Underground:

PDO vs global temperature change Weather Underground

(Global temperature change since 1900 vs phases of positive PDO [1925 to 1945 and 1975 to 1998] and negative PDO [1945 to 1975 and 1998 to 2014]. Image source: Weather Underground. Data Source: NOAA.)

In the era during which global temperatures have been increasingly driven by human greenhouse gas emissions, four phases of PDO have been recorded. Two were positive, two were negative.

In the first positive PDO phase during 1925 through 1945, global average temperatures jumped upward by about 0.5 degrees F (+0.25 F per decade). This initial surge in atmospheric warming abated as global temperatures remained roughly steady during the negative PDO period of 1945 to 1975 (+/- 0 F per decade). But by 1975, PDO values were positive again and the period through 1998 showed a rapid warming of about 0.8 F over 23 years (+0.4 F per decade). After the super El Nino of 1998, PDO values again trended negative as atmospheric warming continued at a somewhat slower pace of about +0.15 F per decade.

Global Warming and Related Ills to Ramp Up?

This underlying trend should be cause for serious concern.

The first issue is that we see warming now during negative PDO decades where we only saw cooling or zero warming before. Given the present rate of warming in the range of +0.15 F per decade during periods in which the Pacific Ocean is taking on atmospheric heat, one could expect the next positive PDO phase to see decadal warming in the range of +0.55 F or higher (or by about 1 C in 20-30 years).

Such a rapid pace of warming could challenge the fabled 2 C ‘point of no return’ before 2050 (for reference, we are at about +0.85 C above 1880s values now). And it is for this reason that some scientists are now starting to sound alarm bells.

In the recent Weather Underground commentary penned by Jeff Masters, Kevin Trenberth, an NCAR scientist and one of the world’s foremost experts on ocean temperature dynamics, noted:

“I am inclined to think the hiatus [in global temperature increases] is over, mainly based on the PDO index change. If one takes the global mean temperature from 1970 on, everything fits a linear trend quite well except 1998.”

NOAA global surface temperature anomalies

(Global surface temperature anomalies. Image source: NOAA.)

Though Trenberth does not explicitly spell out the potential for an overall warming acceleration, he does point toward a return to the +0.29 F per decade trend line seen since 1970. Meanwhile, Matthew England of the University of South Wales warned in the same Weather Underground commentary that any post ‘hiatus’ warming would be likely to be very rapid.

Dr. Michael Mann, a climate scientist of considerable fame both due to his Hockey Stick tree ring study and due to his ongoing success fighting off smear campaigns launched by climate change deniers, recently put together climate model assessments that showed world temperatures exceeding the 2 C threshold by 2036 under business as usual greenhouse gas emissions. To reach such a high reading so soon would require in excess of 1 degree Fahrenheit warming over each of the next two decades. And such a rate of warming would be very rapid indeed, unprecedentedly rapid and well outside the linear trend line from 1970.

Michael Mann today made related comments at Realclimate on the more recent oscillations in Pacific Ocean sea surface temperature:

There is the possibility that internal, natural oscillations in temperature may have masked some surface warming in recent decades, much as an outbreak of Arctic air can mask the seasonal warming of spring during a late season cold snap. One could call it a global warming “speed bump”. In fact, I have… Given the pattern of past historical variation, this trend will likely reverse with internal variability, instead adding to anthropogenic warming in the coming decades. That is perhaps the most worrying implication of our study, for it implies that the “false pause” may simply have been a cause for false complacency, when it comes to averting dangerous climate change.

To these points, it is worth noting that any rate of warming above 0.3 F (0.2 C) per decade is extraordinary and terrifying. Such a rate is enough to achieve post ice age warming of 4 C in merely 2 centuries where it took 10,000 years to achieve such warming before. Warming at 0.4, 0.6 or 1 F per decade would be both drastic and devastating to current climates, geophysical stability, weather stability, glacial stability, water security, food security, and ocean health. In the current world, already warmed by about 0.85 C above 1880s levels any acceleration to current warming is a rather bad outcome on top of an already dangerous situation.

Links:

Are We Entering a New Period of Rapid Global Warming?

Climate Oscillations and the Global Warming Faux Pause

NOAA’s National Climate Data Center

NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Lab

Monster El Nino Emerging From the Depths?

Far Worse Than Being Beaten With a Hockey Stick: Michael Mann Climate Model Shows 2 C Warming by 2036

Global Warming Speed Bump? The Answer May be Blowing in the Wind.

Earth Nullschool

Global Forecast Systems Model

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Bassman

Solar in the Desert — PV to Bury Fossil Energy on Price Before 2025

DCIM101GOPRO

(Sunlight in the Desert. Dubai solar park produces electricity at 5.98 cents per kilowatt hour, displacing a portion of the UAE’s natural gas generation. By 2025, solar systems that are less expensive than even this cutting-edge power plant will become common. By 2050, large scale solar, according to Agora, will cost less than 2 cents US per kilowatt in sun-blessed areas. Image source: International Construction News.)

*   *   *   *

Anyone tracking energy markets knows there’s a disruptive and transformational shift in the wind (or should we say sun?). For as of this year, solar has become cost-competitive with many energy sources — often beating natural gas on combined levelized costs and even edging out coal in a growing number of markets.

Perhaps the watershed event for the global energy paradigm was the construction of a solar plant in Dubai, UAE that priced electricity for sale at 5.98 cents (U.S.) per kilowatt-hour. Even in the US, where grid electricity regularly goes for 9-12 cents per kilowatt-hour, this price would have been a steal.

But the construction of this plant in a region that has traditionally relied on, what used to be, less expensive diesel and natural gas generation sources could well be a sign of things to come. For though solar can compete head-to-head with oil and gas generation in the Middle East now, its ability to threaten traditional, dirty and dangerous energy sources appears to be just starting to ramp up.

Solar’s Rapid Fall to Least Expensive Energy Source

A new report from Berlin-based Agora Energiewende finds that by 2025 solar PV prices will fall by another 1/3, cementing it as the least expensive energy source on the planet. Further, the report found that prices for solar energy fall by fully 2/3 through 2050:

Solar to be least expensive power source

(Solar is at price parity in the European Market now and set to fall by another 1/3 through 2025 according to a report by Berlin-Based Agora Energiewende.)

In Europe, solar energy already costs less than traditional electricity at 8 cents (Euro average) per kilowatt hour. And at 5-9 cents, it is currently posing severe competition to energy sources like coal and natural gas (5-10 cents) and nuclear (11 cents). But by 2025, the price of solar is expected to fall to between 3.8 and 6.2 cents per kilowatt-hour (Euro), making it the least expensive power source by any measure. By 2050, solar energy for the European market is expected to fall even further, hitting levels between 1.8 and 4.2 cents per kilowatt hour — or 1/4 to 1/2 the cost of fossil and nuclear power sources.

These predictions are for a combined market taking into account the far less sunny European continent. In regions where solar energy is more abundant, the report notes that prices will fall to less than 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s 2 cents (US) for solar in places like Arizona and the Middle East come 2050.

IEA Shows Solar Ready For Battle Against Carbon-Emitting Industry

Already, solar energy adoption is beginning a rapid surge. As of this year, it is expected that 52 gigawatts of solar capacity will be built. But as prices keep falling this rate of build-out could easily double, then double again. By 2025, the IEA expects that solar PV alone could be installing 200 or more gigawatts each year. And by 2050 IEA expects combined solar PV and Solar Thermal Plants (STE) to exceed 30 percent of global energy production, becoming the world’s largest single power source.

Solar Parking Lot

(Parking lots and rooftops provide nearly unlimited opportunities for urban and suburban solar panel installation. Image source: Benchmark Solar)

Considering the severe challenges posed to the global climate system, to species, and to human civilizations by rampant carbon emissions now in excess of 11 gigatons each year (nearly 50 gigatons CO2e each year), the new and increased availability of solar energy couldn’t come soon enough. We now have both an undeniable imperative to prevent future harm coupled with increasingly powerful tools for bringing down world fossil fuel use and an egregious dumping of carbon into the atmosphere and oceans. But we must implement these tools — wind, solar, EVs, efficiency, biomass, geothermal, biogas, tidal and others — as swiftly as possible if we are to have much hope for avoiding the worst impacts of human-caused climate change.

Links:

Solar Energy Emerging as Cheapest Power Source

Solar at 2 Cents per Kwh

Solar Seen as Unbeatable

Dubai Solar Bid Awes Energy Market Players

Siberian Permafrost Methane Shows Growing Eruption: Number of Global Warming-Induced Craters Now Estimated at 20-30

Siberian Crater Locations

(Siberian methane crater locations. In total, 7 methane blow holes with features similar to the Yamal Crater have now been discovered. Unofficial reports from observers on the ground have local scientists placing the likely count now at between 20-30 original craters with many more secondary craters. Image source: The Daily Mail.)

*   *   *   *   *

The ground smoked for hours. Then, with a great flash and an enormous boom, the land exploded. When the smoke cleared, all that was left was a great, black hole. Ejected earth lay scattered around it — sheer sides plunging into the permafrost like some gigantic, gaping gun barrel.

This was the scene last summer in Yamal, Siberia — a region of extreme northern Russia.

Mysterious Holes Emitting Methane Gas

Speculation about the cause of this mysterious hole became rampant. It looked like a sink hole, except for the ejected material surrounding it. Some said it was a pingo. But pingos weren’t known to form due to explosions.

Teams of scientists rapidly descended upon the hole. And there they found high readings of methane at the hole’s base — in the range of 10% concentration, which is a very explosive level for the gas. At the base of the hole they also found evidence of hydrate. A form of frozen water-methane that is quite unstable unless kept under high pressure and low temperature.

The initial conclusion of the Russian scientists was that relic hydrate sealed beneath the previously flooded Siberian permafrost had been destabilized. Eventually reaching an explosive concentration, it then erupted from the ground.

Discovery of this methane crater spurred a sweep of the area. Almost immediately, two other craters with similar features were discovered. And throughout fall and winter, both ground searches and satellite reconnaissance identified still more.

Methane blow hole lake surrounded by small craters

(Newly discovered methane blow-hole found by satellite observation. In the top frame we see tundra absent the newly formed hole. In the bottom frame, we find the hole forming a lake [B2] surrounded by 20 or more ‘baby craters.’ Image source: The Siberian Times.)

Now, according to recent reports in the Siberian Times, a total of seven craters with features similar to the Yamal eruption have been pinpointed by observers. Just one of these craters (shown above) hosted about 20 smaller ‘baby craters’ surrounding it. In this instance, a large methane store below the permafrost is thought to have explosively displaced a shot-gun pattern of frozen soil sections before filling with water.

Most of the craters, like the one above, were observed to rapidly fill with water even as they continued to emit methane. In many instances, the methane emission was visible as bubbles on the newly formed lake surface.

Bubbles from Methane Crater Lake

(Bubbles from suspected methane crater lake as seen by an observation aircraft. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

Additional reports from reindeer herders have led these same scientists to believe that in the range of 20-30 of these methane eruption holes are likely to exist in this region of Northwestern Siberia.

A Problem of Relic Hydrates Facing Rapid Warming

The fact that reindeer herders keep discovering new holes and that the first Yamal craters discovered earlier this year were recent events have led local scientists to believe that the eruptions are a new phenomena for Siberia. There, temperatures have warmed by a stunning 2 degrees Celsius within the mere span of 14 years. A very rapid rate of warming that is putting severe stress on the geophysical stability of this Arctic region.

Last night, as polar amplification again ramped up, we saw an example of this very rapid warming with locations in Yamal, Russia experiencing -3.1 C temperatures as of 1 AM Eastern Standard Time. A very warm measure for this region during winter time — representing an anomaly at least 20 degrees Celsius above average. For reference, North Texas, an area far south of the Arctic Circle, experienced similar readings (-3.4 C) at the same time:

imageimage

(Side-by-side frames showing 1 AM EST temperatures in Yamal Russia [left frame] and North Texas, US [right frame]. Location in the frames is indicated by the small green circle. Temperature, wind speed and direction, and grid location are given in the lower left hand corner. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: Global Forecast Systems Model.)

In other words, it was colder in North Texas last night than it was in Yamal, Siberia near the 70 degree North Latitude line beside the Arctic Ocean.

This extremely rapid warming is thought by Russian scientists to have destabilized zones of relic hydrate trapped beneath the permafrost. There, the methane gas bonded with water to form a kind of methane ice.

Sandwiched beneath frozen permafrost, the hydrate remains stable so long as temperatures and pressures are relatively constant. Any increase in warmth — either through geological processes working below the hydrate, or from changes at the surface causing permafrost to melt and warmer, liquid water to contact the hydrate — would result in increased hydrate instability.

Yamal Crater Wall

(The Yamal Crater as seen by Russian Scientists who investigated the scene last summer. The crater’s structure and surrounding ejecta was indicative of an explosive outburst. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

In some cases, the gas would very rapidly liberate from its frozen traps forming increasingly high pressure pockets beneath the permafrost. If these pockets reach 10 percent methane concentration, they become very explosive and can be ignited when in contact with a catalyst or ignition source. The result, either due to very high pressure or ignition, is plugs of permafrost exploding from the ground as the gas erupts to the surface.

Conditions in Context

It is important to note that the amount of methane liberated by these initial eruption events is likely rather small — when considered on the global scale. However, what we see in Siberia now may be part of a growing and ominous trend.

First, we do not know the size of the potential methane store that could be liberated in such an explosive fashion. And the question must be asked — if we are looking at such rapid warming of methane hydrates in shallow sea and former shallow sea regions, what scale eruptions could we potentially experience in the future? Could very large sections of hydrate go critical? Areas possibly covering hundreds or thousands of square meters or more?

The Russian scientists seem very concerned. And, ironically, it is for the future safety of their oil and gas infrastructure, which sits atop what is potentially a rapidly destabilizing zone. A zone that could see explosive eruptions of the ground beneath pipes, equipment and extraction fields. (One would think that the Russians would also begin questioning the continued exploration and production of oil and gas considering its contribution to the dangers they are now identifying. But that level of wisdom appears absent in the recent assessments.)

Second, it appears that these methane eruptions provide pathways for ongoing release. Not all of the gas in the relic hydrate is initially liberated. And the structures that remain apparently release methane gas for some time — as is evidenced by continued high methane concentrations found at crater sites and by observed emissions from crater lake surfaces.

In essence, if this is a growing trend, then it is a rather unsettling one. Especially when one considers that it is just a single instance of many possible amplifying carbon feedbacks set off by a very rapid human warming. Particularly, the explosive land and ocean floor-altering nature of this specific carbon feedback makes it especially troubling. For it encompasses the very nature of a catastrophic upheaval.

In the end, the question must be asked — is Siberia sitting atop a methane volcano that is being prodded to rapid wakening by high-velocity human warming?

Links:

Dozens of New Craters Suspected in Northern Russia

Are Siberia’s Mysterious Craters Caused by Climate Change?

Earth Nullschool

Global Forecast Systems Model

More Siberian Craters Prompt Urgent Call For Investigation

Hat Tip to James Cole

Hat Tip to Wili

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Another Blow to Antarctic Glacial Stability as Larsen C Ice Shelf Cracks Up

Larsen C rift

(Northern edge of Larsen C Ice Shelf is at significant risk of breaking off as a massive rift continues to open within it. The above image shows the rate of rift propagation since November of 2010. Image source: Cryosphere Discussions.)

There’s a 30 kilometer long and hundreds foot deep crack running through West Antarctica’s massive Larsen C ice shelf.

It’s a rift that now stretches from the Weddell Sea — where winds and currents have driven human-warmed ocean waters to up-well along the ocean-contacting faces of the great Antarctic ice sheets — and deep into the interior of this 49,000 square kilometer and 600 to 700 foot tall block of ancient, floating ice.

Over the past few years this rift has been rapidly advancing at a rate of about 2.5 kilometers each year.  Given that the rift has already traversed more than half of the Larsen C ice shelf calving face, a very large break-up could now occur at almost any time.

Larsen C Destabilizing

This evolving situation now threatens to destabilize the entire Larsen C ice shelf — resulting in major losses to a very large block of ice that has been a permanent feature of the Antarctic coastline since at least the last interglacial period 150,000 years ago. Such rapidly evolving risk was the subject of a February 5 communication by a group of glaciologists warning that “significant threats” to “Larsen C ice sheet stability” now existed.

The report notes:

In a change from the usual pattern, a northwards-propagating rift from Gipps Ice Rise has recently penetrated through the suture zone and is now more than halfway towards calving off a large section of the ice shelf (Figs. 1 and 2). The rate of propagation of this rift accelerated during 2014. When the next major calving event occurs, the Larsen C Ice Shelf is likely to lose around 10 % of its area to reach a new minimum both in terms of direct observations, and possibly since the last interglacial period (Hodgson et al.2006)

Connecticut-Sized Break-up Possible

Large ice shelf break-ups have been occurring along the Antarctic Peninsula since the 1970s. As human warming advanced and the heat sink of the southern Ocean increased bottom water temperatures along the Antarctic perimeter, many of the far northern ice shelves and an increasing number of ice bodies closer to the Antarctic interior have lost significant portions of their mass.

Now, Larsen C is at risk of an even worse break-up. For the predicted 10% loss to Larsen C would equate to about 5,000 square kilometers — or an area roughly the size of Connecticut — floating off into the Southern Ocean:

Section of Larsen C vulnerable to break-up

(Larsen C Ice Shelf map with the new rift indicated in red and the potential calving face outlined in blue. Note the previous calving fronts in 1975 and 1988. Image source: Cryosphere Discussions)

It would be yet one more major ice loss for the region, and perhaps a new record loss for an area that has frequently seen Rhode Island sized chunks of ice (around 1,000 square kilometers) break off into the warming world’s seas.

The report goes into further detail about the importance and vulnerability of Larsen C, stating:

The Larsen C Ice Shelf is the most northerly of the remaining major Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves and is vulnerable to changes both to ocean and atmospheric forcing (Holland et al., 2015). It is the largest ice shelf in the region and its loss would lead to a significant drawdown of ice from the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet (APIS). There have been observations of widespread thinning (Shepherd et al., 2003; Pritchard et al., 2012; Holland et al., 2015), melt ponding in the northern inlets (Holland et al., 2011; Luckman et al., 2014), and a speed-up in ice flow (Khazendar et al., 2011), all processes which have been linked to former ice shelf collapses (e.g. van den Broeke, 2005).(Emphasis Added).

Conditions in Context

As mentioned above, during recent years we have seen numerous ice shelves and ice sheets begin to destabilize. In addition, two ice shelves — Larsen A and Larsen B have already completely disintegrated due to human-caused warming.

Larsen C may be most immediately at risk, but the leading edges of the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf, The Pine Island Glacier, The Ross Ice Shelf, and the Amery glacier have all shown rapid seaward acceleration. Further, various studies of these increasingly vulnerable ice shelves have shown substantial basal melt coincident with a floating of the ice sheets off grounding lines, leading to a retreat of the anchor points landward.

Major Antarctic Ice Shelves

(Antarctica’s major ice shelves. Image source: Commons.)

Sea-facing ice sheets and ice shelves serve to anchor the great interior glaciers of Antarctica. Loss or destabilization of these anchors would result in more and more rapid flow of land ice into the Southern Ocean. It is for this reason that the destabilization and shattering of ice shelves like Larsen C can have serious implications for the rate of sea level rise over the coming decades.

Overall, nearly 200 feet worth of sea level rise is locked in Antarctica’s glaciers and we are, through a heating of the world’s oceans, ice, and atmosphere, pushing these glaciers to melt and move in an ever-more dramatic and world-altering fashion.

Links:

Newly Developing Rift in Larsen C Ice Shelf Presents Significant Risk to Stability

Shrinking Ice Shelves and The Pine Island Glacier

Commons: The Larsen C Ice Shelf

Hat-tip to Colorado Bob

Wildfires Amidst Winter Snow on Russia’s Baltic Shores

firesandsnow
(The Aqua satellite captured this image on Feb. 17, 2015 of multiple hot spots scattered throughout the Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia landscape. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team. )

On Wednesday, NASA posted the above satellite shot indicating an outbreak of numerous wildfires along a Baltic Sea coastal lowland that is among a furthest western holdings of current day Russia.

The shot displayed a relatively significant outbreak of more than 20 hot spots in a temperate deciduous forest zone bordering the oxygen-starved Baltic Sea. NASA sensors pick up anomalous warm spots and link them to fires when smoke plumes are also present. For reference, the fire outbreak zone depicted above occurred in a region roughly 120 by 60 miles in size.

Temperatures in the region have ranged 3-5 C above normal — putting it around the freezing mark for most of the past week. The warmer than average weather hasn’t however, precluded snowfall, which has lent a thin covering to the area despite a relative dryness as storms have tended to track either north or south this year.

It is this dryness and a persistent wind off the Baltic which may have helped to ignite the recent outbreak of wildfires. NASA’s Rapid Response Team posted the shot, but they provide no details as to the cause of these wildfires. Winter fires are typically rare, but last year saw dry winds setting off blazes in Scandinavia, so this year may be showing an anomalous repeat.

This story will be monitored for further clarification as winter wildfires are an anomalous event that can often be linked to human-caused climate change.

Links:

LANCE-MODIS

Fires and Snow in Central Europe

Mangled Jet Stream + Global Warming + Hot Atlantic Water = Boston Buried Under 8 Feet of Snow

If you deny that warmer ocean temps -> greater snowfall w/ coastal winter storms, you are not a climate denier. You are a physics denier. — from the Twitter feed of Dr Michael E. Mann, Climate Scientist

*  *  *  *

Boston just experienced its snowiest month on record and, yes, it really is climate change, stupid. In essence, as Michael Mann notes above, it’s a matter of oceanic and atmospheric physics.

Consider the fact that the ocean surface is warming at an unprecedented rate. Consider also the fact that this observed warming is resulting in a number of powerful south to north flows of air over ocean regions and toward the polar zone.

Over the past month, these powerful warm air flows pushed strongly into both Alaska and Svalbard — causing 20-30 C above average temperatures in regions of the Arctic along the 70 to 80 degree north latitude lines. For Alaska, the warmth was so prevalent and intense that it forced the Iditerod sled dog race to be moved 300 miles north for want of snow and ice. On this past Sunday night in Svalbard, just above the 80 degree north latitude line, temperatures were a balmy 1.2 degrees Celsius. An extraordinary above freezing reading in a land where temperatures during this time of year are typically 20 to 30 degrees Celsius below that mark.

image

(Anomalous above freezing temperatures in the land of winter dark and chill. Also note the very powerful south to north air flows originating from the 30 degree north latitude line and terminating in the Arctic near 70 to 80 north. These flows exist in both the Pacific and the Atlantic — hugging the coastal zone and flowing strongly northward along a reoriented storm track. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data source: Global Forecast System Model.)

All this warm air moving north must have an impact. And that impact is to leave Greenland and the eastern North American Continent as the remaining refuge for cold Arctic air that would typically amass over a rather thick pack of sea ice. But that sanctuary for cold is increasingly frail and unstable. For the ice is thinner and itself rests upon waters that are warming. So the cold instead moves to land and to land ice — both bodies with physical properties better able to keep cold during the long winter dark.

So the cold flees its previous habitat in the far north near the pole and instead dives about 1,500 miles south over Greenland, Eastern Canada and the US. In the upper atmosphere, this pattern is reflected by a huge trough in the Jet Stream. One that has been repeatedly identified by the crackerjack research of Dr. Jennifer Francis.

image

(Very high amplitude Jet Stream wave pattern with strong ridge in the west, very deep trough digging through Eastern Canada and the Eastern US, an a return to the strong ridge pattern over the North Atlantic. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data source: Global Forecast System Model.)

Such a powerful hot-cold dipole in the atmosphere results in extraordinary atmospheric instability. The deep trough alone would be enough to send storm after storm hurtling toward the Northeast US. Storms born of a fury of Arctic cold coming into collision with oceanic moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.

It is a pattern that has been fixed in place for a month running. One that has delivered storm after powerful storm to the US northeast along a screaming storm track. And one that has slammed these storms into an unprecedented wall of warmth and moisture.

For not only have warm air flows invaded the Arctic resulting in a highly anomalous displacement of cold air southward for an extended period of time. But ocean warmth in a region of the Atlantic just off Boston has provided extraordinary fuel for these storms once they arrive.

For we have observed sea surface temperatures just off Boston in the range of 8-11 C above average for most of the months of January and February:

image

(Sea surface temperature anomaly map by Earth Nullschool. Note the highlighted region shows an extreme temperature departure of 11.1 degrees Celsius above average. Data Source: Global Forecast Systems Model.)

For reference, a sea surface temperature anomaly of 2 C or higher is considered to be a rather strong departure. The 11.1 C anomaly in the above image is, for lack of a better term, simply off the charts. In rough translation, this amounts to surface waters in the range of 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit only about 200 miles or so off the Massachusetts coastline. A coastline regularly seeing temperatures in the range of 0-28 degrees F. The result is a 40-70 degree temperature departure over a very short distance. By itself, this extreme temperature differential would be an amazing storm generator. But the differential alone only tells half the story.

The other half is a powerful explosion of moisture off this much warmer than normal water. A massive mushrooming of moisture just off the coast. And when this very heavy bank of moisture collides directly with displaced onrush of cold and dry air, the amount of snow that is squeezed out can be staggering.

Record-breaking staggering. 8 feet for Boston in one month staggering.

As Michael Mann so saliently noted, you’d have to be a physics denier to not understand the role of ocean warming in either the warm air invasion of the Arctic in the Oceanic zones, the related displacement of cold air over the eastern half of the North American continent, or the fueling of extraordinarily powerful winter storms along the Northeastern Coast of the US.

And to this point, I leave you with the equally salient thoughts of Bill Nye from his twitter feed:

Bill Nye

“Would this guy get fired, if mentioned, just mentioned a possible connection, to ?” — Bill Nye.

Links:

Michael Mann and Bill Nye Want You to Know Boston’s Epic Snowfall is Tied to Global Warming

Global Forecast Systems Model

Earth Nullschool

Bill Nye’s Twitter feed

Dr Michael E. Mann’s Twitter feed

Scientific hat-tip to Dr. Jennifer Francis

Hat tip to Eric Thurston

 

 

 

 

 

Something Rotten With The Climate — January 2015 Comes in As Second Hottest

Hot off the heels of a new global temperature record in 2014, January of 2015 hasn’t missed a beat. Global warmth still rages, as bestirred as a Shakespearean prince outraged at loss and betrayal of a once-constant and steady father.

The month, as many, many months preceding, continued to display a reckless accumulation of heat.

*   *   *   *

According to NASA GISS, January was 0.75 C above the global 20th Century average, or about 0.95 C above 1880s levels. This departure is somewhat above previous second hottest year place-holders — 2002 and 2003 — which both showed an angry 0.71 C rise. It is, however, behind the record-holding January of 2007 which at 0.93 C above the 20th Century average remains the hottest month in the total global surface temperature measure. The first of many to make attempts on the 1 C departure level.

January 2015

(Global Temperature anomaly map as provided by NASA GISS.)

Spatial assessment of hot and cold anomalies showed much of the world with hotter than normal temperatures. In the Northern Hemisphere, cooler temperatures were primarily confined to the Northeastern US, Eastern and Northeastern Canada, and a region through Baffin Bay, Eastern Hudson Bay, and the adjacent Canadian Archipelago. In Austral zones, the heat sink of the Southern Ocean continued to display resilience as near-Antarctic regions also showed slightly cooler than normal departures.

But these were the sole significant zones showing cooler than normal weather. In contrast, a broad belt ranging from the tropics through the sub-tropics showed +0.5 to 2 C temperature departures. But the Northern Hemisphere again showed the most significant heat with Northwestern North America, Asia and Europe all showing extreme temperature anomalies in the range of 2 C to 8.1 C above average.

Arctic amplification also reared over the Beaufort Sea and through the Northern Polar zone with heat anomalies in excess of 2 to 4 degrees C above average and with numerous days in which the entire Arctic displayed +3.5 C or higher departures.

zonal anomalies

(GISS zonal temperature anomalies.)

Zonal anomalies also revealed this trend with a region from 50 to 60 North Latitude showing temperature departures in the range of +2.8 C across the entire Latitudinal belt. Meanwhile, the region of 80 to 90 North was under nearly as strong a departure of +2.5 C above 20th Century averages for that zone. By contrast, the only zonal region with below average temperatures was beyond the 60 degrees South Latitude Line and averaged a rather minor departure of about -0.4 C.

Conditions in Context

The second hottest January on record comes after a Century-long warming trend in which temperaures have risen by an average of about 0.85 C above 1880s levels and about 1.1 C above a low point that occurred around 1910.

Land Ocean Temperature Index

(Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index — GISS/NASA.)

This warming is about a 20 times faster pace than at the end of the last ice age. During that time, it took 10,000 years for the Earth to warm by about 4 degrees Celsius. Over a single Century, we have achieved the equivalent to 1/5 post ice age warming on top of 1880 levels. It is also worth noting that recent record warm years in 2014, 2010, and 2005 occurred absent the kind of very strong El Nino that occurred in 1998. Most notably, for 2014, no El Nino was declared at all.

Which shows that for the climate, there is something indeed rotten in Denmark — and everywhere else for that matter.

Links:

NASA’s Global Surface Temperature Analysis

Denying The Neverending Heatwave: NASA, NOAA, JMA Show 2014 Broke New Records; But Will Republicans Ever Listen to Science?

If you are younger than 29 years old, you haven’t lived in a month that was cooler than the 20th century average. — Dr. Marshall Shepherd, former President of the American Meteorological Society

*   *   *   *   *

Strong global temperature records typically show up in all the major climate monitors. And, despite no El Nino providing an added kick to atmospheric heating, that’s exactly what happened in 2014.

Respectively Japan’s Meteorological Agency (JMA), NASA and NOAA all showed 2014 as the hottest year in the global climate record. And the departures were all quite strong with JMA showing +0.63 C, NASA showing +0.68 C, and NOAA showing +0.69 C above the 20th Century average — all measures that put the world now in the range of +0.9 C warming since the 1880s.

Not only was this year the hottest on record for the global climate. It was one in many progressively hotter years and decades. The result being that if you were born in 1986, you haven’t experienced one month that has been cooler than the 20th Century average.

Decadal and Yearly Warming NOAA

(Decadal and yearly warming since 1880 as recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s a brutal warming trend that has propelled us, in just 1 Century, into a time hotter than any in at least 5,000 years and probably 150,000 years. Continued warming at this pace will put us hotter than at any time in 1 million years before mid century and that is without any of the predicted acceleration due to amplifying feedbacks such as Arctic carbon release, loss of Arctic albedo due to snow and ice melt and greening, and loss of the oceans as a global carbon sink. Image source: NOAA and Climate Progress.)

It’s a set of validated evidence that is so obvious as to be incontrovertible.

And yet the climate games and silliness still occur with regularity in the public sphere. In the most recent republican witching hour congressional approval of the Keystone XL pipeline — a piece of infrastructure that will shackle the US to climate-wrecking carbon emissions for decades to come — Bernie Sanders submitted an amendment asking republicans to record their climate change denial for the public record. A denial a majority of republicans, including most major party heads, now attest to, despite what the science is obviously saying.

In an interview with the Guardian, Sanders noted:

“The bottom line is that I think as a nation that we walk down a very dangerous road when the majority party in the United States Congress is prepared to reject science. I think it is important for Republicans to tell their constituents, to tell the American people, and to tell the world whether they agree with the science or not.”

More notably, Senator Jim Inhofe, who currently sits as chairman of the environment and public works committee has publicly claimed that he believes climate change is a hoax. But what Inhofe doesn’t elaborate is why scientists who spend their lives in service to the public, and not to special interests, like the oil, gas and coal companies Inhofe often goes to bat for in Congress, would perpetrate such a hoax. Because if it is a hoax it is broad and all-encompassing — including every major atmospheric sciences body in the world today. In other words, if Inhofe believes NASA put a man on the moon, then why doesn’t he believe the same scientific body on the issue of climate change?

Climate Scientist Michael Mann gave his own very clear take of the new record today on Facebook. Mann noted that the current new record, especially when viewed in context of the fact that we currently see no El Nino but still hit annual heat records, can put to rest the recent false assertions that atmospheric warming has paused.

As ever, Mann provides a very clear assessment:

Based on the collective reports, it is therefore fair to declare 2014 the warmest year on record. This is significant for a number of reasons. Unlike past record years, 2014 broke the record without the “assist” of a large El Niño event. There was only the weakest semblance of an El Niño and tropical Pacific warmth contributed only moderately to the record 2014 global temperatures.

Viewed in context, the record temperatures underscore the undeniable fact that we are witnessing, before our eyes, the effects of human-caused climate change. It is exceptionally unlikely that we would be seeing a record year, during a record warm decade, during a multidecadal period of warmth that appears to be unrivaled over at least the past millennium, were it not for the rising levels of planet-warming gases produced by fossil fuel burning.

The record temperatures *should* put to rest the absurd notion of a “pause” (what I refer to as the “Faux Pause” in Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-will-cross-the-climate-danger-threshold-by-2036/) in global warming.

There is a solid body of research now showing that any apparent slow-down of warming during the past decade was likely due to natural short-term factors (like small changes in solar output and volcanic activity) and internal fluctuations related to e.g. the El Nino phenomenon. The record 2014 temperatures underscore the fact that global warming and associated climate changes continue unabated as we continue to raise the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Mann was joined by lead NASA GISS scientist Gavin Schmidt who pointed out the inexorable global warming of ‘decades and decades.’ Schmidt noted that individual years rankings can be slung about through the forces of chaotic weather. But the trend, Schmidt asserted, was undeniable.

Dr. Schmidt’s research has been critical in understanding the role of both CO2 as the primary governing gas impacting global heating as well as the amplifying heat of additional greenhouse gasses. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Dr. Schmidt provided critical evidence highlighting the atmospheric warming impact of methane, for example.

NASA and Dr Schmidt provide their own brief on the issue which can be viewed here:

Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers, who is now engaged in cutting edge research on the issue of changes in the Jet Stream due to polar amplification, joins the litany of influential scientists in speaking out on the new record. Of the impact of the 2014 high heat mark she plainly states: “Any wisps of doubt that human activities are at fault are now gone with the wind.”

NOAA’s own global analysis this year comes with a near-endless list of record flood and drought events ongoing throughout 2014. I highly suggest you read the report. The language is dry, but the list of record events is staggering, even to someone like myself who is treated to these events on a daily basis. They’re exactly the kind of outlier events that are the upshot of meridional patterns, polar amplification, and the meandering Jet Streams identified by Dr. Francis. A list of extreme instances that propelled 2014 into another record-breaking year for natural disasters, according to Munich Re:

Natural Disater List Munich Re

(List of natural disasters in number of instances per year as reported by Munich Re. Image source: Climate Progress.)

The evidence is there. All of it. For any thinking person. The public-serving, and often conservative in their assessments, scientists keep making their warnings again and again like a collective modern Jeremiah. And yet we have one political party whose leaders simply refuse to listen to either facts or even the most basic reason.

So in the face of such blantant and obvious denial of reality by the very people who are supposed to be responsibly leading our country, one must seriously consider the notion of running them out of office. Of stopping their legislative malpractice before it results in ever more serious trouble for us all. And not just for all the sakes of the scientists and those who believe them, but for the sake of the climate change deniers too.

Sea Level Rise, Persistent Drought Sets off Mass Migration and Famine in Pakistan

Both surface water and ground water have become unusable, with the once fertile Indus river basin turning into a desert, as sea water brings sand inland as far as 50 kilometers.World Bulletin in June of 2014

*   *   *   *

For the cities, towns and villages of Sindh Province along the Indus River in Southeast Pakistan, the seas are rising and the winter rains have failed. It is a place besieged on all sides by climate change. By forces that are killing its children due to malnutrition and turning tens of thousands of its populace into climate change refugees.

Coastal Villages in Pakistan Retreat Ahead of Rising Seas

(Coastal villages in Pakistan retreat ahead of rising seas. Image source: Ali Murtaza)

Climate Change, Loss of Trees, Loss of Children

A combination of rising temperatures and decimation of local forests due to gum extraction has exacerbated an extraordinary moisture deficit for an already arid region. In early spring of 2014, the impacts to crops resulted in scores of children dying due to malnutrition. By late fall, the famine had returned with increased intensity, resulting in the loss of nearly 300 children in less than three months. A tragic loss that may well have been avoided.

Increased aridity in the region can be blamed on a number of factors — all related to human-caused climate change. Gum extraction from Gugral trees has resulted in losses of up to 70 percent from local stands. The loss of these tens of thousands of trees has, in turn, resulted in less water retention kicking off increased aridity. Meanwhile, larger global climate change is resulting in higher temperatures over the region — increasing evaporation rates and further lowering soil moisture content. Glacier loss in the Himalayas has recently pushed a surge of added water down the Indus — which helped to boost development unsustainably. Now glacial outflows are at risk of dwindling, threatening the long-term future of the Indus itself. Finally, the increasing global heat is kicking off alterations in seasonal rain patterns — making the winter rains less reliable.

Sea Level Rise Ruins Coastal Crops, Sets off Mass Migration

The combined factors would be difficult enough for Sindh and its cities to manage. But a final factor appears to be delivering another disruptive coup de grace. As of mid 2014, environmental reports had indicated a mass migration away from Pakistani coastal regions.

Indus Delta

(Not a cloud above the once-fertile but now increasingly salt-ridden Indus Delta on 14 January 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Rising seas had resulted in increasing levels of salt water in near-coast aquifers and wetlands. The rising salt levels in soils made irrigation of coastal crops impossible in many regions. Within just a few years, the elevated seas had rendered 1 million hectares of land arid — making it impossible for farmers to grow crops or to raise animals.

According to a June 2014 report by World Bulletin:

Both surface water and ground water have become unusable, with the once fertile Indus river basin turning into a desert, as sea water brings sand inland as far as 50 kilometers.

In addition, saltwater invasions of the Indus river reduced fish stocks. This sudden loss of water useful to agriculture and precipitous fall in fish stocks suddenly put many farmers and fishermen out of work.

By mid 2014, more than 100,000 people had fled the coast. Now, these tens of thousands of jobless farmers and fishermen pack the streets of inland towns — seeking jobs and places to live that simply may not be available.

But what this litany of harsh statistics doesn’t tell is how many of the children lost came from families of those displaced by rising seas.

Sadly, this issue of river deltas losing fertility to the inexorably rising tide is not just a problem for Pakistan. Many of the worlds most productive agricultural zones lie in delta regions. At this point, all are under threat due to speeding sea level rise set off by rising rates of glacial melt. And as we have seen in Brazil, California and Pakistan this year other increasing atmospheric temperatures, climate induced weather pattern changes and deforestation (Brazil, Pakistan) also play a role.

Links:

Rising Seas Force 100,000 Pakistanis From Coastal Homes

Another Child Dies of Famine in Tharparkar Due to Malnutrition

Sindh Region of Pakistan

Famine Hits Thar

Thousands of Trees Lost in Thar

LANCE-MODIS

Glacial Melt Will Reduce Crucial Water Supplies

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Planet in Danger

At 40 Percent Generation, Renewables are Mothballing Coal Plants on the South Australian Grid

Rapid renewable energy adoption by homeowners and grid visionaries resulting in the mothballing of dirty and dangerous power sources. It’s the kind of action that’s absolutely necessary if we’re going to have a prayer in dealing with human-caused climate change. And South Australia is making impressive strides by doing just that.

*    *    *    *

Despite being afflicted with a backwards Federal Government that is radically opposed to the further expansion of renewable energy, Australia continued to make amazing gains in alternative energy adoption this year. Throughout the country, rooftop solar installations surged — spurred on by a combination of high electricity costs, plummeting panel prices, and a grid readily capable of handling renewable energy additions.

Both the upgraded grid and the incentives for home renewable energy use that started this trend can be attributed to earlier and wiser governments. And, as a result, Australia boasts a massive distributed solar capacity with one out of every five homes (19 percent) across the country featuring solar arrays.

South Australia — Smooth Grid Loading, 52 Percent Generation From Renewables on Boxing Day

In South Australia, the story is amplified. This region of Australia features the highest home owner adoption of solar energy in the country — with more than 23 percent of homes equipped to generate solar based electricity. In addition, the grid in South Australia is heavily supported by 1,500 megawatts of wind turbine generated power.

As the wind tends to peak at night and solar peaks at mid-day, South Australian grid operators show few strong peaks in demand. And this makes grid operation quite a bit easier and less taxing on personnel and equipment.

The typical mid-day peak is smoothed out by solar even as wind powers up through the night. The only peak in the system occurs at midnight — when water heaters are programmed to switch on and take advantage of supposedly cheapest times. However, ramping solar energy adoption has tipped this previously intelligent feature on its ear as cheapest times now come at noon with the surge in solar wattage.

As we can see from December 26 figures, grid loading is mostly smooth but for the anomalous midnight peak:

December 25-27 South Australia Grid Loading

(South Australia December 25-27 grid loading shows that renewables smooth out peak demand curves. Image source: Clean Technica)

On this day, solar energy’s contribution to grid generation surged to 30 percent even as wind dropped off in the heat of the day. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that fully 52 percent of this region’s electricity was generated by renewables — with the lesser portion being derived from coal, gas and imports.

This majority generation from wind and solar flies in the face of renewable energy detractors who have long stated that high loads from wind and solar energy would be too variable to be useful to grid integrators. But the net effect for South Australia is both abundance and smoothing:

Total Renewable Generation South Australia

(Renewable dominate power generation in South Australia. Image source: Clean Technica)

South Australia’s 1500 MW worth of wind and high solar rooftop penetration resulted in an average of 40 percent of electricity coming from renewables in 2014. A figure that is expected to surge above 50 percent well before 2025.

An upshot of this is that two coal fired plants have been mothballed. These plants will no longer crank out tons and tons of greenhouse gasses. They have been idled, set to pasture by far less harmful energy sources.

Meanwhile, Rob Stobbe, CEO of SA Power Networks notes that he sees no future for large conventional fossil fuel generators. Stobbe’s vision is instead for rooftop solar, storage and renewable-based micro grids served by an operator and integrator like SA Power Networks.

Links:

One out of Every Five Australian Homes Use Solar Energy

Rooftop Solar in South Australia Met 1/3 of Electricity Demand

Unsettling CO2 Spike: Hourly Levels Hit Near 404 PPM on January 13, 2015

CO2 Spike

Yesterday, at about the same time I was penning this article describing how CO2 levels were likely to exceed 400 PPM for most of 2015, a rather significant and abrupt CO2 spike was taking place at the Mauna Loa Observatory.

For on the evening of January 13, 2015, CO2 levels suddenly rocketed to nearly 404 parts per million.

The sudden upswing was certainly unexpected and rather significant — mimicking only the highest levels during 2014. These spikes came fully four months ahead of typical atmospheric CO2 peaks and seem rather ominous in the graph.

CO2 levels can be variable in the hourly measure. But this inflection was particularly strong — following a very high daily reading of 401.23 PPM on the 12th. Somewhat odd and rather early CO2 increases for 2015. A trend we will have to continue to watch.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

Dangerously Beyond 350: CO2 to Remain Above 400 PPM For Most of 2015

For 2015, CO2 levels will remain above the dangerous 400 parts per million level for almost 2/3 of the year. A perilous new record for a human-warmed world.

The last time global CO2 levels averaged above 400 parts per million was more than 3 million years ago during the Pliocene. A period that was just beginning to see the dawn of humankind (Australopithecus emerged about 2.5 million years ago). It was a world of 25-75 foot higher seas. A world where much of Greenland and West Antarctica was ice free. A world that took hundreds of thousands of years to settle into its climate patterns.

2014 Begins at 400 ppm +

(A bad start of 2015 — CO2 levels on January 1st exceeded 400 PPM. Most of the year will see levels in excess of this dangerously high atmospheric value. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

But the current human tool-using species that is now warming the Earth so drastically would have to wait for about 2.8 million more years and for far cooler climes to develop. And that species would set conditions for a rapid shift to climate states not seen for 3 million years in just decades through a hellish pace of fossil fuel burning.  For in just one century we’ve propelled ourselves back to that deep time. Back to a world climate state that is entirely alien to what we, and so many other animals, are accustomed to.

For this year, human fossil fuel emissions will push 2015 to reach or exceed those 400 ppm levels for around 7-8 months running. By 2016, it’s possible that 300 part per million levels — the ones that dominated our environment for most of the 20th Century — will be little more than a melancholy memory as humans face off against a series of increasingly dangerous  geophysical changes.

All set off by the inexorable burning of fossil fuels. A malpractice that simply must stop.

An All Too Steep Ramp-up Toward The Hothouse

Current human fossil fuel burning coupled with a few, still somewhat contained, environmental carbon feedbacks are enough to push an annual atmospheric CO2 increase of 2.2 parts per million each year. It’s a pace of initial greenhouse gas heat forcing never before seen in all of Earth’s geological past — even during the greatest global hothouse extinction events. The fruits of dumping 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each and every year.

petm_vs_modern_emissions

(Rate of carbon emission at more than 30 billion tons of CO2 each year vs the PETM [Note that WeatherUnderground has erroneously labeled CO2 as Carbon in the graph]– which was the most recent hothouse extinction 55 million years ago. It’s enough to push an atmospheric temperature rise on the scale of a mass extinction over the course of decades rather than millenia. It’s also worth noting that with CO2 emissions at 36 gigatons in 2013 [vs the above graph results from 2010] and CO2e emissions just shy of 50 gigatons this trajectory is even steeper than the graph depicts. Image source: WeatherUnderground.)

As a result, if current rates of burning continue or increase, we will see 450 parts per million levels well exceeded within about two decades. And that threshold will undeniably lock in at least 2 C worth of warming together with a growing carbon feedback from the Earth System itself.

484 PPM CO2e For 2015

But this drastic pace of atmospheric greenhouse gas additions doesn’t tell the whole story. For if you add up all the other gasses humans have dumped into the atmosphere, all the methane and HCFs, all the industrial chemicals, you end up with a CO2 equivalent number (CO2e) far greater than the present CO2 measure. And that CO2e measure is set to hit 484 parts per million this year (With a nearly 50 gigaton annual increase in CO2e gasses each year). A level that, if it correlates with past climates, will push warming by 1.9 C this century and 3.8 C after the entire Earth System responds. A level not seen in at least 13 million years.

A rather terrible situation to say the least. For at these levels, even the great ice sheets of Antarctica proper were much reduced and sea levels were 85-120 feet higher than they are today. And continuing to burn begs the very worst hothouse extinction consequences that come from wrecking the world’s oceans.

Very Hard Work to Get Back to 350 PPM

Near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century Dr. James Hansen, former head of GISS at NASA advised the world community that the likely safe level of global CO2 was below 350 parts per million. This assertion flew in the face of some in the international community who were pushing for an established ‘safe’ level of 450 parts per million and below. A level, of course, which would allow for the burning of quite a bit more of the world’s fossil fuel reserves.

But Hansen wouldn’t compromise. He felt it would be a betrayal to future generations. To his grandchildren. To all our grandchildren. So he set the safe limit at 350 parts per million with the caveat that we may need to reduce it further.

In 2008, during the year Hansen set the 350 parts per million level, CO2 levels peaked at around 386 parts per million. For 2015, just 7 years later, levels will peak at around 404 parts per million. A rampant increase directly in the wrong direction.

In order for rates of CO2 increase to begin to taper off, the world simply must stop burning so much in the way of fossil fuels. And even a full cessation of fossil fuel use would still result in some emissions unless both farming and construction were altered to reduce carbon emissions. Beyond this, atmospheric carbon capture through various methods to include fixing carbon capture and storage facilities to biomass generation and other land use and chemical based techniques are the most likely to be effective.

Such a transition and change is as difficult as it is necessary. For the world as we know it simply cannot continue along its current path. Hansen was right and we should have listened 7 years ago. We should have listened in 1988 at his first major climate hearing. But we didn’t. And so valuable time was wasted.

Let’s not make the same mistake in 2015.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

2015 Begins With CO2 Above the 400 PPM Mark

WeatherUnderground

2013 CO2 Emissions Will Set Record High

A Faustian Bargain on the Short Road to Hell: Living in a World at 480 PPM CO2e

Scientific Hat Tip to Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Ralph Keeling

Sao Paulo’s Reservoirs are Drying Out When they Should Be Filling Up

It’s the rainy season for Brazil. But, thus far, adequate rains have not come.

A persistent high pressure system has lingered over Brazil. A blocking high of the kind that has now become so common with global temperatures spiking to more than +0.8 C above 1880s averages — thickening heat domes and granting these powerful weather systems an ever greater inertia. A set of circumstances that has set off a plethora of very severe droughts ranging the globe since the early 2000s.

During early 2015, Brazil’s own persistent atmospheric block re-strengthened over an Amazon whose water re-circulating abilities have been crippled by a combined deforestation and ever more prevalent wildfires. Ever since late December, the high has warded off cold front after cold front. The result is a terrible extension of the worst drought to impact Brazil in at least 80 years.

Southeast Brazil Drought January 11

(No rain in sight in the NASA MODIS satellite shot for Southeast Brazil on January 11, 2015. During a typical day in January, the wettest month for Sao Paulo, the satellite map should be filled with clouds and storms. Not so for 2014 and 2015. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

During December, this dogged weather system kept rainfall totals below average — at about 80 percent typical amounts for that time of year. But by January, the high had strengthened and only very weak rains had fallen over Southeastern Brazil with most other areas remaining dry. Now, drought appears to be re-establishing a strong grip as weather forecasts call for the typically strong January rains to be cut in half.

The ongoing drought has had serious and widespread impacts throughout Brazil — curbing production of everything from soybeans and sugarcane to coffee and cattle. But the worst impact has been to the water supplies of one of Brazil’s most populous regions — the Sao Paulo megalopolis. There, an unofficial water rationing has been in place since early 2014. A rationing that has hit Sao Paulo’s least advantaged residents the hardest.

Key Reservoir Drying Out When it Should Be Filling Up

Over the past six years, water levels for the Cantareira reservoir have been in free-fall. By 2014, an 80 year drought pushed already falling water levels radically lower. As an emergency measure, officials added dead pool volume — a level usually below municipal water inlets — to the reservoirs stated reserves. This move coincided with shifting water levels lower.

But the action only bought time for the failing reservoir as month after month of drought continued.

Dead Pool Volume Included

(Water losses from the Cantareira Reservoir since 2009. What this ominous graphic shows is that rainy season failure was not isolated to last year’s epic drought. It is instead part of a six year event that may well represent an ominous trend. Image source: Brazil Water)

By austral spring of 2014 (October), the Sao Paulo water system was again under dire threat. Water levels at the Cantereira reservoir fell to below 6% percent before officials diverted water from other sources and allowed use of water below even already lowered levels. This new arrangement moved water inlets deeper into the drying reservoir. An action that essentially dropped Canteriera outlets to city water supplies into the mud.

These emergency actions by city and water planners added another few percent to the radically diminished water supply. Hopes remained that rains would return with the wet season starting in November and that levels would rise enough to make it through the next summer.

But with rains remaining weaker than normal throughout November and December, water levels kept falling when they should have been rising. By early January, reservoir levels had again fallen to below 7 percent.

On Monday January 5, 2015 the level of Sao Paulo’s Cantariera reservoir was at 6.9% capacity. Today, just one week later, the same reservoir measured 6.5%.

9 Million Facing Lack of Water, Millions More at Risk

In total the Cantareira reservoir serves 9 million residents in Sao Paulo. These are mostly middle and lower class neighborhoods. And if the current weather situation continues, that reservoir could be empty come the start of the dry season in April. Such a situation would force an even more extreme water rationing on a state that has now become famous for water scarcity.

Unfortunately, Cantareira isn’t the only Sao Paulo reservoir under threat. In total, 5 out of 6 reservoirs representing the lion’s share of all water for more than 20 million people are now at 39 percent capacity or below.

The Sistema Alto Tiete — a smaller reservoir serving about 4 million Sao Paulo residents — is not far behind Cantareira. For as of today volume in this reservoir stood at 11.3 percent capacity. A third and fourth reservoir system — Rio Claro and Sistema Alto Cotia — now stand at 27.5% and 30.% capacity respectively. Together these two systems serve another 2 million people. The Guarapiranga reservoir, at 39.2 percent capacity as of 1/12/2015, serves another 4 million people.

A final Sao Paulo reservoir — the Sistema Rio Grande — serves about 2 million residents and remains just above 70 percent capacity.

If current forecasts for January hold and February-March follow present trends, then all these reservoirs with the probable exception of Sistema Rio Grande will be under threat entering the fast approaching dry season. A situation that would put nearly 20 million residents under severe threat of losing municipal water services.

UPDATE:

In addition to Sao Paulo, recent reports show that 93 cities have rationed water services to ever-broadening populations. In total, more than 3.9 million people are estimated to have had their water rationed. In some cases, water has been cut off to broad areas for as long as five days.

This official water rationing began last year. But this year’s rationing is broader in scope with water cut offs, which were at first limited to isolated rural zones, now stretching into larger urban population centers.

As mentioned above with Sao Paulo, this water rationing is occurring during the rainy season when water supplies should be building. However, with rainfall totals for Brazil this summer far less than the historic average and with a continuation of the worst drought in more than 80 years, most reservoirs show dropping levels when they should be filling.

In total, what we see for Brazil is a sad example of what a combination of climate change and deforestation can do to a previously water rich region. Bad management in the face of this crisis and instances of climate change denial are exacerbating an already desperate situation there.

UPDATE:

The Cantareira reservoir fell to 6.4% capacity on 1/13/2015 — a 0.5% loss in just 8 days. System losses at this rate bring the reservoir to zero in about 100 days. However, the current capacity, due to very low level of water outlets  may not be fully useable. In addition, rainy ends in April at which point levels would be expected to drop more precipitously.

Links:

Brazil’s Water Supply, Crops Still at Risk

In Brazil, Two Car Washes Have Wildly Different Experiences of the Same Drought

Drought Menaces Brazil’s Coffee Crop

Drought Vamps Up Brazil’s Cattle Prices

LANCE-MODIS

Off-Season Drought Makes 93 Brazilian Cities Cut off Water

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to TodaysGuestIs

A Sao Paulo Resident Vents Frustrations Over Unfair Water Distribution and Mis-Managed Resources

Jet Stream Re-Mangled: Record Winds Rage Over Scotland As Polar Amplification Ramps Up Yet Again

Polar Amplification January 9

(Polar Amplification on Friday January 9, 2014 plainly visible in the GFS summary. Another warmer than average day for the Arctic in a warming world. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

For the Arctic, it’s another much warmer than normal day…

Temperature anomalies for the region spiked to 3.55 degrees Celsius above the, already hotter than normal, 1979-2000 average. And a swath of the Arctic Ocean stretching from Greenland to Siberia experienced extraordinary 15-22 C above average temperatures.

It’s another day of Arctic Amplification — the fourth in an ongoing progression this week. Another day of extreme dipole temperature anomalies. And another day of record-setting weather. All symptoms, plain as day, of a world undergoing a fit of rapid, human-induced heating.

Warmth in The High Arctic Drives the Cold Out

Last night, while studying Earth Nullschool, I found a temperature of 27 F near Zemlya — an Island in the Arctic Ocean off Siberia. The night before last, I captured these two pictures — one of a region a few hundred miles south of the North Pole and well north of Svalbard at 22 F and another of the surface temperature near Richmond, Virginia at 20 F.

imageimage

(Top frame temperature at 85.3 North, 39.2 East. Bottom frame temperature at 36.9 North and 77.3 West. In other words — it’s warmer up north than down south. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: NOAA, Global Forecast System Model.)

In other words, it was warmer just off Santa’s front porch than it was thousands of miles to the south in Richmond, VA.

In technical meteorological parlance there’s a term for such warm north, cold south temperature variations — dipole. In this case, it’s a cold North American Continent and a warm Atlantic Ocean pushing much higher than average temperatures far into the Arctic.

Jet Stream Re-Mangled — High Amplitude Jet Stream Waves

Such a warm airs surging north forcing cold airs south arrangement can result in some pretty extreme waviness in the Jet Stream. The kind of waviness that Dr. Jennifer Francis has warned is set off by just the kind of Arctic warming we witnessed this week.

And, as we can plainly see in the map below, we have an extraordinary meridional pattern in the Jet Stream occurring in perfect coordination with the current instance of polar heating:

image

(Last night’s extaordinarily high amplitude Jet Stream pattern. Note the greatly intensified storm track setting Scottland directly into its sights. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: NOAA, Global Forecast System Model and various.)

I suppose some may call this kind of instance circumstantial. But what a circumstance, especially when one considers the plainly obvious and visible mechanism of the current polar temperature spike, the subsequent southward displacement of warm air from the polar zone, and the related warm air invasion flooding up from the North Atlantic into the heat compromised polar core.

It’s as easy to see as 1,2,3.

This re-arranging of air masses has re-instated the kind of circulation pattern around Greenland we warned about during late November of 2014. A kind of off-center displacement of air masses that shoves cold toward hot and can result in some rather extreme weather.

Record-Setting Winds over Scotland Last Night

Dr. Francis has also mentioned this resulting heightened severe weather potential in her research. And she can count herself among such visionaries as Dr. James Hansen who warned of ramping storm intensity resulting from a combined polar amplification and melting and softening of the remaining great glaciers in Greenland and, later, Antarctica.

Unfortunately, the more recent polar amplification episode did set off a spate of rather extreme weather in Scotland. The North Atlantic storm track intensified as temperature differentials ramped up. On Tuesday, a 930 mb low bombed out between Greenland and Iceland. Fed by a massive meridional air-flow, this storm soon generated very strong winds raging across the North Atlantic.

By last night, these winds roared throughout Scotland, peaking at 113 miles per hour — a new all-time record for the Northern Isles since wind measures began in 1970.

In a return to the kind of extreme weather that battered the UK for much of the winter of 2013-2014, trees were torn down, power lines unmoored and roads and railways blocked. This, in turn, forced a wide-scale emergency response throughout Scotland after last night’s brutal battering by hurricane force winds. From the BBC:

The storm caused the suspension of all ScotRail trains, although some limited services are now running. More than 46,000 homes are currently without power as the Atlantic jet stream caused gusts of more 100mph (160km/h).

So the observational evidence is pretty clear. Here we have yet another instance where polar heating is driving some rather extreme Jet Stream changes coupled with related instances of record extreme weather. And as human-related warming continues to intensify, we are likely to see far worse instances than today’s minor episode.

Links:

Evidence for A Wavier Jet Stream in Response to Rapid Arctic Warming

Engineers Battle To Re-Open Scottish Rail After 110 mph Winds

Hurricane Force Gusts Cause Disruption to Travel and Power

Global Forecast System Model

NOAA’s National Climate Data Center

Climate Reanalyzer

Scientific Hat Tip to Dr. Jennifer Francis and James Hansen

Hat Tip to commenters JPL and DTLange

Denmark Kicking Fossil Fuels Addiction With Record 39 Percent (and Growing) Wind Generation

“We have set a one-of-a-kind world record. And it shows that we can reach our ultimate goal, namely to stop global warming.” — Denmark’s Climate and Energy Minister Rasmus Helveg Petersen.

*   *   *   *

Back in 1971, on the eve of the world’s first global oil shocks, the European country of Demark generated more than 80 percent of its electricity from crude. As the 70s progressed and the nation staggered under rising energy costs and failure to obtain supplies from this limited, exploited, and monopolized fuel source, Denmark began to embark on a campaign for energy independence that was then unprecedented. A campaign to rid itself of a destructive dependence on economically volatile, climatologically destructive, and easily manipulated fossil fuels.

Wind in the Distance

(Offshore wind turbines in the distance. Image source: Urland.)

At the time, Denmark began to turn back to its traditional use of wind — but as a direct source of electricity itself. The country, situated on a peninsula between the North and Baltic Seas is awash in breezes and the ever shifting flows of conflicting air masses. The idea, for Denmark, was to harness this energy as a means to break its dependence on foreign oil and, ultimately, remove fossil fuel use entirely.

At first, the going was slow. Wind energy facility construction moved gradually from test sites to small farms, to the first large utility scale ventures in the late 1980s. At this point, the nascent Vestas as well as the established Siemens had become primary producers of wind turbines on the global market. Steady growth through the year 2000 resulted in Denmark providing slightly more than 10 percent of its electricity from wind, solar and geothermal sources — with wind providing the bulk of this portion.

At this point, economies of scale began to kick in as wind power adoption in Denmark began to expand exponentially. Vestas and Siemens grew concordantly from niche energy players to primary contributors for a rapidly growing global electricity market. By the end of 2014, Denmark supplied more than 39 percent of its energy from wind alone.

The amount of oil used for electricity generation in Denmark now? Less than 3 percent. A staggering success that many, especially those supporting fossil fuel interests, never believed possible.

But despite these amazing achievements, Denmark is still shooting for more, with an ultimate goal of completely kicking a nasty and climatologically destructive fossil fuel habit. For Denmark is now within striking distance of achieving its goal of getting more than 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 and becoming completely fossil fuel free by or before 2050.

Global_Wind_Power_Cumulative_Capacity.svg

(Global wind energy capacity since 1996. As Denmark pursues independence from fossil fuels — spear-headed by a surge in wind generation — global installed wind capacity continues to increase along an exponential curve. Image source: Commons.)

As Denmark pushes toward and beyond the 50 percent renewables mark, challenges remain. Grid storage and smart grid type energy movement will become more and more important. But, fortunately for Denmark and a number of other rising renewables states (including Germany at 27 percent renewables and California at 23 percent renewables) distributed and centralized storage systems are becoming more accessible. Electric vehicles, with their large batteries which can be utilized for grid storage when plugged in at home or at a smart charging station, are becoming more accessible. In addition, the cost of battery storage for grid applications is rapidly falling in many regions with nearby Germany seeing a 25 percent fall in the cost of battery storage this year alone.

With wind and solar energy now increasingly beating out coal and natural gas generation costs on a cents per kilowatt/hr basis, it becomes easier for responsible-minded governments like Denmark to shift more support to smart grids and storage in order to continue to grow renewable based power systems.

Lastly, the advent of new very large battery factories like those being built by Tesla, Solar City and Byd are likely to continue to drive down battery costs over the next few years — making transition beyond the 30 and 50 percent renewable electric generation milestones much more directly accessible.

It’s a megatrend which, should it become widely adopted and promoted, has the potential to start bending down the fossil fuel emissions curve soon — potentially pushing it to zero by mid century. Something that’s an absolute necessity if we’re serious about dealing with the ramping calamity that is human caused climate change.

Links:

Denmark Sets World Record for Wind Power Production

Germany and Denmark Join UK in Smashing Wind Energy Records

Battery Storage Systems Prices Fall 25% in Germany

Commons

NASA: Melting, Darkening Arctic Ocean Turns Up Solar Heat by 5 Percent

Atop the world lies a thinning veil of ice. A gossamer lid covering a deep, dark Arctic Ocean. It is a reflector screen for incoming solar radiation during the months-long-day of Polar Summer. And a recent NASA study shows that this heat shield is starting to fail.

Ever since the late 1970s an Arctic warming at 2-3 times the rate of the rest of the globe has set off a 13.3 percent decline of sea ice at end summer during each and every following decade. And that cumulative loss is having an extraordinary impact. For the white, reflective ice cover by September has now, on average, fallen by nearly 50%. What remains is a thinner ice cover. One full of holes and interspersed with great and widening expanses of dark water.

Dark water and thinner, less contiguous, ice absorbs more of the sun’s heat. NASA notes that this added absorption can have far-flung impacts:

While sea ice is mostly white and reflects the sun’s rays, ocean water is dark and absorbs the sun’s energy at a higher rate. A decline in the region’s albedo – its reflectivity, in effect – has been a key concern among scientists since the summer Arctic sea ice cover began shrinking in recent decades. As more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the climate system, it enhances ongoing warming in the region, which is more pronounced than anywhere else on the planet.

For years, polar scientists have been warning of signs this powerful amplifying feedback was speeding an already drastic warming for the Arctic environment. Now, a 15 year satellite survey conducted by NASA provides direct evidence that this is indeed the case — with the Arctic now absorbing 5% more incoming solar energy than it did in the year 2000.

Arctic Sea Ice Changes

(Click Image to Enlarge. Left frame shows summer sea ice fraction change with measures in dark blue showing a greater than 50% loss on average. Right frame shows changes in absorbed solar radiation with most of the Arctic showing a 5 watt per meter squared or greater increase in solar radiation absorption and sections of the Beaufort Sea peaking at 50 watts per meter squared additional solar radiation absorption. Image source: NASA.)

Averaged over the Arctic, the failing summer sea ice and newly revealed dark waters absorb an extra 10 watts per meter squared of solar heat radiation. That extra heat is equivalent to having a 10 watt light bulb burning on every square meter of the Arctic Ocean surface throughout the entire polar summer. Twenty four hours per day, seven days a week for the seasonal period.

In some regions, like the Beaufort Sea near Northern Canada and Alaska, the extra heat absorption is as much as 50 watts per meter squared greater than year 2000 levels. An extraordinary increase in Arctic Ocean heat uptake and, perhaps, one of the chief reasons why higher Latitude ocean surface temperatures have tended to range so high in recent years.

It’s a massive realignment of the Earth’s radiative balance and one that has occurred in only a relatively short period.

NASA scientists are quick to caution that to fully take into account climate variability, the study will need to continue for another 15 years. But when taking into account the massive 35 year drop off in sea ice since 1979, it appears likely that radiative balance changes are even greater than the 15 year NASA study indicates.

September Arctic Sea Ice Loss 1979-2014

(NSIDC sea ice extent losses for Arctic since 1979 showing a 13.3% decadal rate of decline. Image source: NSIDC. Note NSIDC adds a linear trend line. However, historic rates likely show a more rapidly down curving melt progression — see image below.)

Overall, this loss of sea ice and related increased heat absorption has pushed melt season onset times a full week sooner than 1982 onsets 32 years ago. Earlier melt season starts lead to more heat absorption — a classic feedback cycle also recognized in the new NASA report.

In addition, the report links added Arctic Ocean summer heat absorption to loss of older, thicker ice observed throughout the Arctic region. Since 2000, more than 1.4 million square kilometers of 3 meter or thicker ice has melted out of the Arctic Ocean system. That ice has been replaced by coverages of less than 2 meters in thickness — another aspect of amplifying warming feedbacks at play in the Arctic.

Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland, notes:

Having younger and thus thinner ice during winter makes the system more vulnerable to ice loss during the summer melt season.

Whether these amplifying feedbacks will result in ice free summer conditions sooner rather than later is still a matter of some discussion among scientists. Following the 13.3 percent per decade trend puts us at ice free summers sometime around 2030-2035. But the large swings in annual variability could result in an earlier year in which ice free conditions occur. In addition, some scientists assert that amplifying heat feedbacks in the Arctic are enough to result in ice free summers as soon as 2017 to 2020.

To this point it may be worth considering that the 13.3 percent per decade rate may be steepening as is hinted at in the below long term graph:

2014_sea_ice_NSIDC_extended

(Long term melt trend compiled by Larry Hamilton. Image source: Here.)

Regardless of timing, the historic loss of Arctic sea ice is already resulting in dramatic impacts to the Earth’s radiative balance and to the distribution of global surface heat absorption. A circumstance that a number of studies have implicated in changing Jet Stream patterns and enhanced meridional (north to south and south to north) air flows.

Links:

Satellites Measure Increase of Sun’s Energy Absorbed in the Arctic

2014 Melt Season in Review

Arctic Melt Trends

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

2014 Hottest Year on Record Amidst Ocean Heat Spikes and Arctic Wildfires

According to Japan’s Meteorological Agency, 2014 set new inauspicious marks as the hottest year in the global climate record since measures began in 1891.

Temperatures rocketed to 0.27 C above the 1981-2010 average, 0.63 C above the 20th Century average and showed a severe pace of warming of 0.70 C per Century. By comparison, the end of the last ice age featured century scale warming at the rate of 0.04 to 0.05 C every 100 years. So the current rate of warming, according to the JMA measure, is 14-17 times faster. A rapid warm-up driving increasingly severe weather and geophysical changes.

2014 Hottest Year on Record

(JMA measure shows 2014 was hottest year on record. Image source JMA.)

NOAA is also expected to show 2014 as hottest year on record. NASA is likely to show 2014 as 1rst, 2nd or 3rd hottest.

2014, according to JMA, was the first record breaker since the super El Nino year of 1998 with 2014 beating out 1998 by 0.05 degrees C. However, the JMA measure also showed that all ten hottest years on record occurred since 1998. Perhaps more telling is the fact that the JMA measure reveals no hiatus in the pace of global atmospheric temperature increase with all years since 1998 at or above the trend line.

Ocean Heat but No El Nino

World ocean surface temperature spikes were the primary driver of the new global surface temperature record with NOAA’s measure showing a majority of months as hottest ever recorded for the world ocean. North Pacific and North Atlantic Ocean temperatures were particularly hot — with a West Coast heat pool driving ocean dead zone events and starfish die-offs alike. In this region and off the US East Coast, Ocean temperature anomalies regularly topped 4 degrees Celisus above average. An extraordinary degree of heat that, in some cases, saw tropical fish species heading into Arctic waters for solace from the record warmth.

Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly global August 29, 2014

(Extraordinary Sea Surface Temperature spikes occurred in late August and mid October, with most of 2014 showing extreme ocean heating. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

El Nino threatened throughout much of the year. But despite a warming near the Equatorial Pacific temperature thresholds failed to fully tip into El Nino. An ominous sign considering that El Nino is the hot phase of atmospheric and surface temperature variability — which may mean that the next El Nino will drive a global high temperature departure even more extreme than 2014’s record setting value.

Severe Weather, Climate Extremes During Hottest Year

2014 also featured some of the worst weather on record with the US experiencing extraordinary dipole anomalies coincident with polar vortex collapse events and severe Arctic warming. Across the Atlantic, the UK experienced both its stormiest winter on record and its hottest year on record. A year hotter than any since 1649 for that nation.

Throughout the world severe droughts ravaged wide regions with the US Southwest still in the grips of the worst multi-year drought in 1,200 years. This year’s California drought was the most recent iteration of this severe event featuring a ridiculously resilient high pressure ridge that has continued to rob California of much of its typical seasonal moisture.

Amazon drying and wildfires also made news this year amidst a severe drought gripping the Sao Paulo megalopolis in Southeastern Brazil. The ongoing drought has shut off monsoonal moisture, forced residents to ration water, and threatens to put city water officials in the position of turning to use of mud for municipal water supplies.

Glaciologists identified massive sections of Antarctic land ice that had reached the point of irreversible collapse. Many of these researchers pointed toward an expanding pool of warm bottom water undermining sea facing glaciers as the culprit for this increasingly rapid glacial melt. A set of circumstances that creates a higher risk of more rapidly rising seas.

To this point, the City of Miami began a combined program of installing pumps to rid streets of flooding at times of high tide and has assessed a property tax to begin its efforts to fight the surge of waters set off by human caused climate change. New studies also found high risk areas such as Hampton Roads in Virginia now featured tens of thousands of properties under such serious threat of flooding that only FEMA will provide them with insurance — a number that will continue to increase along with the sea levels (globally at 3.3 millimeters of increase per year but as high as 7-8 mm per year in some regions).

Ominous Signs the Permafrost is Starting to Disgorge its Carbon Store

Sections of Siberia and Canada experienced extraordinary warmth during winter and spring of 2014 — setting off severe early season wildfires that raged well into late summer. These megafires continue the trend of recent years in which massive blazes rip through the Siberian tundra region disgorging methane and CO2 laden smoke plumes that then encircle the Northern Hemisphere.

For the Northwest Territories of Canada, this past summer represented its worst fire year ever recorded with massive blazes forming towering pyrocumulus clouds over vast burning regions of Arctic permafrost. A fitting backdrop for the Mordor-like activities of Alberta tar sands extraction.

very-intense-fires-burning-in-yakutia

(Very intense wildfires, some the size of smalls states as seen above in the LANCE MODIS shot from July of 2014, raged through Siberian tundra this summer. For reference the bottom edge of frame is 120 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

In all, about 1,300 gigatons of carbon are stored in the now thawing permafrost, a region Joe Romm is calling the permamelt (perhaps permaburn is a better term). And a human enhanced warming of the Arctic appears to be speeding that carbon’s rate of release into the atmosphere. An impact that could further accelerate human-caused warming. An ignominious circumstance leading to more record warm years and related global climate extremes to come. One that adds urgency to the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuel burning and human activities that dump massive volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Links:

JMA Global Average Surface Temperatures Reach New Record in 2014

2014 Was The Hottest Year By Far

Met Office Confirms 2014 was Hottest Year on Record for UK

LANCE MODIS

2014’s Unprecedented Arctic Wildfires

The Climate Reanalyzer

World to Oil Producers — We Don’t Want Your Fracking Crude

World oil prices routed to 49 dollars per barrel today amidst weak global demand. It’s a sea change in the oil and energy markets that is now in the process of rattling many previously well established oil ventures to their foundations. A shot across the bow that may well signal the beginning of the end of crude due to a combination of expensive production, competition by renewables and efficiencies, and a widespread recognition of ramping hazards from human-caused climate change.

*    *    *    *    *

During the summer of 2014, amidst geopolitical crisis after geopolitical crisis in oil producing regions of the globe, world crude oil prices spiked to near 115 dollars per barrel. Ever since the mid 2000s, global producers had struggled to keep up with demand or to even keep crude + condensate production flat. But as of 2012, deregulated US fracking technology had ruptured large sections of the Dakotas, Texas and a strand from the Virginias through Pennsylvania.

US Fracking Ascendant

US oil production rose by 1 million barrels per day for three years running. By end 2014 US crude production had hit 9.13 million barrels per day. US liquids production, including 1 million barrels per day of biofuel, had spiked to 14.3 million barrels per day — making it the largest liquid fuels producer in the world.

But the US wasn’t the only region benefiting from gains. Russia and Iraq also saw oil production rise even as Saudi Arabia completed construction on a surge production capacity of 2 million barrels per day. And in the oil project pipeline more than 55 million barrels per day of new production was planned through the mid 2020s. All projects banking on continued oil price support in excess of 100 dollars per barrel.

Fracking Pads

(Fracking Pads stretch as far as the eye can see in North Dakota’s Bakken Formation. Image source: Greenpeace.)

It was an oil faerie tale come true. High prices and surging production combined to push oil asset valuations to levels never before seen. The oil majors, the world’s most profitable companies in the history of humankind, could rest safe in the assurance that this wealth and power base would continue to extend their reign for decades to come.

But, for the oil producers, the drilling and the service companies, and yes, even for the oil majors themselves, there happened to be more than one serpent in this otherwise rather lovely and gratuitous garden.

Declining Demand

From the control rooms of various corporate Death Stars, oil company executives must have felt quite comfortable with their positions. Even to those with fracking, tar sands, and deep offshore production exposure, 115 dollars per barrel was still quite profitable. And, conventional thinking was that the extra fire-water would, even at this price, support global economic growth which would, in turn, bring about more demand.

Past years experience supported this notion with demand rising by more than 1 million barrels per day each year even during times when the price of oil charged to $120 or higher. The 150 dollar price of economic harm set in 2008 was still a ways off and the forecasts called for demand to grow by 1.3 million barrels per day through 2015.

But demand did not perform as expected. Throughout the world economic weakness reigned. In Russia, sanctions imposed by the US bit deep into economic activity. In Europe, austerity measures resulted in stagnating growth. In China, an unwinding housing bubble did its own damage to demand for oil.

In addition, rapid and widespread increases in vehicle fuel efficiency were also drawing down marginal demand for oil. In the US, corporate average fuel efficiency was rising by 2-3 mpg per year. Worldwide, fuel efficiency standards were also rising. Furthermore, an entirely new animal began to appear on the international stage — the zero oil consuming electric vehicle.

By end 2014, more than 250,000 electric vehicles had been sold in the US with 600,000 EV sales worldwide. Compared to hundreds of millions of ICE vehicles roaming the world’s streets, this initial surge in EV adoption seemed small. Yet it was more than enough to instill a nagging worry among oil company supporters and investors. A worry reinforced by China’s late 2014 pledge to put 5 million EVs on its roads before 2020. So it seemed the tiny EV sprig could well grow into a tree that may later topple most of the oil demand base through the next couple of decades.

First Municipality-owned Solar Powered EV Charging Station in the USA

(Oil corporations’ worst nightmare. Solar charging station with EVs. Image source: Technology Tell.)

And oil companies didn’t need to look to just EVs to find instances of alternative technology drawing down oil demand. Throughout the world island and Middle Eastern nations, for so long dependent on oil-based electricity generation, began to adopt distributed solar systems that were far cheaper than their fossil fuel rivals. Though just 5 percent of global electricity demand still runs on oil, that 5 percent represents upward of 5 million barrels per day of global oil consumption. And eroding that demand in a marginal and sensitive market was beginning to show its impacts.

Throughout the latter half of 2014 demand faltered with growth forecasts winnowed down to 1.1 million, 900,000 and finally 700,000 barrels per day. A near halving of the previous forecast.

The Saudi Gambit

As demand expectations began to fall, so did prices. By September, oil was trading in the 90s and many around the world were looking to OPEC for support. The last time oil went into free-fall OPEC, lead by Saudi Arabia, cut production and prices rocketed back to 100 + dollars per barrel levels. However, this year Saudi Arabia was faced with an upstart US and a resurgent Russia and Iraq. Media outlets in the US were bragging about how North America had unseated the Sauds as the kings of oil production. But these outlets didn’t take into account the essential difference between the cost of North American oil production, which tends to run quite high, and the cost of Saudi production, which is still less than $20 per barrel.

Saudi Arabia must have seen this coming for quite some time as the Kingdom had banked more than 750 billion dollars in oil profits for a rainy day. By late fall, and sitting on this mountain of cash, Saudi Arabia made the then surprising decision to keep pumping oil and to urge its fellows in OPEC to do the same. And so, by November, OPEC’s 30 million barrels per day continued to be delivered.

Combined and surging US, Russian and Iraqi production formed a tsunami of ever cheaper oil competing for a host of unenthusiastic customers. Prices plunged to 65 dollars per barrel by mid December. By today, the price of a barrel in West Texas was 49 dollars, at Brent it was 53 dollars, in the geographically isolated and environmentalist blockaded regions near Alberta barrels traded for less than 37 dollars.

Extraordinarily High Price Production

If oil valuations, due to prices consumers appeared willing to pay, were high earlier this year, so were the costs of producing the new oil. Though there was quite a lot of new, unconventional oil out there to replace the slowly winnowing supplies of traditional fuel, that new oil was tough to reach. It required a great expense in broken and poisoned earth. In regions the size of a small country laid waste. Under skies that ever more frequently disgorged extreme droughts and deluges, after a proceeding series of years that have brought ever higher global temperatures, inexorably rising seas, and ever more rapid glacial melt, the environmental and human cost of extracting that unconventional fuel seemed very high indeed. A price that appeared to be rising to the point of an impending mass extinction event for the Earth due to a wrecked climate. A ghastly sacrifice in the name of oil profiteers. One that would include a growing number of human beings together with countless animal species.

Tar Pit #3

(Tar Sands’ hellish landscape of ruined Earth and toxic tailing ponds. Image source Occupy.)

In the North, in Canada, a vast strip mine wasteland reminiscent of Tolkien’s Mordor hosted colossal machinery devouring gigatons of earth and spitting out sun-blocking plumes of smoke, vomiting massive lakes of poisonous water (lethal to any poor bird who happened to land upon its surface and to fish and Canadians down-stream alike), and spitting out billions of tons of corrosive bitumen. In the US, fracking required the near-constant injection of water and chemicals into the earth, wrecking water sources and farmlands, to produce an equally caustic fracked crude. And far off shore, deep ocean drilling leveraged technology equivalent to lunar landers and the most advanced remote operated vehicles all launched from gigantic sea-based platforms.

The cost to continue to expand these ventures ranged between 50 and 110 dollars per barrel of oil extracted. An observation that shows more than a trillion dollars and 40 million barrels per day of planned oil developments through 2025 unprofitable at today’s price of 49 dollars per barrel. An observation that lead a recent Bloomberg analyst to appropriately term the projects ‘Zombies’ during a December assessment of a Goldman Sachs’ report on the matter:

Oil Zombies 70 dollars

(OMG, Zombies! Goldman Sachs’ report from December showing more than 1 trillion dollars of oil projects at risk under a $50 per barrel oil price regime. Image source: Goldman Sachs and Tom Randall at Bloomberg.)

Putting this investment at risk results in severe instability for global energy markets. The reason is that current oil field decline rates are so extreme that 9 million barrels per day of new production or enhanced recovery from existing wells must come on line every four years just to keep current production flat. Wholesale de-funding of these investments would lead to a rapid drop-off in global oil production in the coming years as rapidly depleting new sources such as fracking and faltering old wells fail en masse.

Notably, almost all new major oil projects are now on indefinite hold pending a return to higher prices. Prices that will almost certainly come at some point due to that raging depletion rate. But the question many are asking is will it come soon enough to prevent massive failures of numerous companies within the unconventional fuels industry?

Even the cost of just maintaining current unconventional production ranges from 35 to 95 dollars per barrel. Far more than the 10-20 dollars per barrel cost of extracting oil from a traditional pressurized oil well. And with current massive price falls to 49 dollars per barrel or less, many companies are now in jeopardy.

Of course, we should probably include trillions and trillions more at risk due to the fact that current oil producers simply must leave most of their caustic product in the ground in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. As a result, the entire oil industry is a zombie at this time.

We Don’t Want Your Fracking Crude!

Compounding the issue of high production cost is a stranding of assets caused by a little televised but widespread phenomena called Blockadia. Perhaps the most visible expression of Blockadia is the ongoing campaign against the Keystone Excel and Northern Gateway Pipelines that have left tar sands oil stranded and dependent upon rail transport in order to access international markets. Even tar sands truck routes and equipment deliveries have been hounded by rampant blockades.

The result is an isolation of Canada’s tar sands that has now driven local prices for a barrel of oil to less than 37 dollars. What this means for Alberta oil is very thin profit margins and no expansion of production whatsoever. If oil strikes below 35 dollars for any extended period, Alberta may be looking at shut-downs over the long haul.

For US fracking the story is similar. From outright bans to constant legal action on the part of communities and individuals, Blockadia has arisen both in the form of protests and in the form of litigation. Even Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO and funder of some of the most virulent climate change denier hacks in the media sphere, donated money to an anti-fracking campaign aimed at preventing the construction of wells near his multi-million dollar Texas home. Hypocritically, Exxon has funded polluting industries in many disadvantaged and poorer neighborhoods for decades — forcing those without enough monetary muscle to hire troll berserker lawyers to suffer pollution, poisoning and displacement. But turn the tables and Rex likes the fracking crude about as much as the rest of us.

In the end, we are all in what Naomi Klein has called ‘the sacrifice zone.’ A region where the externalities of fossil fuel use become visible and an increasingly violent impediment to daily life and well being. It is for this reason alone that so many pipelines and oil ventures are now under threat of blockade. People are fed up and everyone from moms to scientists to cowboys to Native Americans to activists are willing to put themselves on the line to prevent the worst outcomes of fossil fuel burning. People don’t like being sacrificed or having their children sacrificed for company profits which is the primary reason we don’t want your fracking crude.

Under Threat of Bankruptcy

Sauds’ price war, declining demand, the extraordinary cost of unconventional extraction, and Blockadia now combine to put many oil companies under severe threat. Today, the blood-letting pushed the Dow down by 331 points. Fracking suppliers like United Rentals, which specializes in pumps for hydraulic fracturing, lost 10 percent of its value in just one day. Noble Energy, Diamond Offshore, TransOcean, Anadarko Petroleum, Denbury Resources — all involved in costly unconventional oil extraction — all fell by between 7.8 and 9.5 percent. Baytec, a tar sands player, lost 12.5 percent. Continental Resources, with a large exposure to the US fracking effort, lost 10.7 percent of its valuation. Even energy giants like Chevron and ConocoPhilips fell by more than 4 percent in today’s bloodletting.

Though the US industry has been opaque with regards to risk, given the assessed high costs for both fracking and tar sands and the extremely rapid well depletion rates for fracking, current risks for all US unconventional players are very high. North Sea producers have been more clear in their risks, however, with reports last week identifying 1/3 of oil firms in the offshore region at risk of bankruptcy with oil prices in the range of 55 dollars per barrel.

Even more established companies like Exxon, a company some analysts suspect may be able to prey on weakness in the shale patch, will feel the pinch if oil prices trade in the range of 40-50 dollars per barrel for an extended period with company profits essentially wiped out below 40 dollars.

In short, what we see is that in an over-supplied market high cost producers are very vulnerable to price competition from lower cost producers and from alternatives that can now also increasingly replace base oil consumption outright.

Renewables in the Wings

For it’s not just Saudi Arabia that unconventional oil producers have to take seriously. They are also under existential threat from a combination of rising efficiencies and increasingly cheaper and easy to access renewable energy and electric vehicles.

After this current price fall takes down the marginal producers of fossil fuels that can’t cut it, prices will again rise. Meanwhile, economies of scale will continue to reduce solar panel prices, increase battery storage capacity and economics, and provide electric vehicles at lower costs and ever-greater capabilities.

Within 5-10 years the next price war on marginal oil may well be spear headed by renewables themselves. And that is a good thing, because in order to prevent the very worst impacts of human caused climate change that geological firewater needs to remain where it belongs — in the ground. In other words, there’s good reason not to want that fracking crude.

Links:

Dow Plunges Below 331, Oil Falls Below 50

Bankers See 1 Trillion of Zombie Investments Stranded in Oil Fields

Tar Sands– The Most Destructive Project on Earth

Why My Next Garage Will Be Solar

Market Data

This Changes Everything

Mauna Loa Methane Measure Shows Rising Rates of Increase Through End 2014

Mauna Loa Methane early December

(Atmospheric methane levels as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Image source: NOAA/ESRL.)

Atmospheric methane levels as measured by the Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) showed a continued steepening rate of increase through late 2014 — featuring one rather troubling spike late last month.

The measure, which has been recording atmospheric methane levels since the middle of the 20th Century, continued to ramp higher with readings hitting an average of 1850 parts per billion by late November.

Notably, this increase is at a faster pace than yearly averages for all of the last decade.

In addition, a single spike to 1910 parts per billion took place last month. This large departure of 60 parts per billion above the average was somewhat unusual for the Mauna Loa measure. The collection site is rather far from human or Arctic emissions sources which makes it less likely to feature anomalous spikes due to local influences. This particular spike also represents the largest single departure from the base line measure since 1984 (when the ESRL record begins).

Overall drivers of the more recent increase in global methane levels beginning around 2007 come from an increase in human emissions (likely due to rising rates of fossil fuel exploitation — primarily through hydrofracking and coal mining) as well as what appears to also be an increase in Arctic emissions. Large methane sources in Siberia, over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, in the Laptev Sea, the Nares Strait, and west of Svalbard have been observed in both satellite monitors and through observations taken by scientists and researchers on the ground. Overall, a significant overburden of greenhouse gasses centers on the Arctic and appears to be enhanced by local carbon (methane and CO2) sources in the region.

More comprehensive measurements of methane releases over Alaska (according to NASA JPL), on the other hand, have not yet shown methane release departures above the global norm for land areas. But the observational record for Alaska composes just one year (2012), so there is no way to yet determine if permafrost carbon and methane releases from the tundra in that region increased to achieve their current rates. It is worth noting generally that the terrestrial zone for Alaska and its off shore region are not, as yet, major carbon release hot spots.

Global Warming Potential at Least 20 Times CO2

Methane (CH4) is an important greenhouse gas due to the fact that its global warming potential (GWP) over short periods is much higher when compared to a similar volume of CO2 (most measures consider the GWP of methane to be 20 times that of a similar volume of CO2). That said, methane’s residence time in the atmosphere is much shorter than CO2 and CO2 volumes are much larger. So CO2 is considered to be a more important gas when it comes to long term climate change. Nonetheless, CH4 increases since the start of the industrial revolution put it as the #2 gas now forcing the world to warm.

Very large outbursts of CH4 from the global carbon store (including terrestrial and ocean stores) during the Permian and PETM are hypothesized to have set off very rapid increases in global temperature. For some prominent researchers, this potential hazard is seen to be very low under current warming conditions. Others, however, seem very concerned that a rapid methane outburst under the very fast rate of human warming could be a tipping point we are fast approaching.

Observations in a Murky Scientific Context

It is important to note that the current profile of atmospheric methane increase does not yet look like one of catastrophic release. Instead, what we see is an overall ramping up of atmospheric levels.

The issue of catastrophic release potential — raised by Peter Wadhams, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, and Dr. Simeletov and Shakhova among others — is not one that is certain or settled in the science.

As an example, Dr. Shakhova identifies a substantial but non-catastrophic 17 megaton atmospheric release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (equal to about 8 percent of the human emission and a substantial increase from a previous estimate of 8 megatons per year in 2010) as currently ongoing. However, both Simeletov and Shakhova have been the object of criticism due to their identification of a risk of a 3.5 gigaton per year methane release should all the East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane hot spots become active. Such a release would, in one year, nearly double the amount of all methane currently in the atmosphere (5 gigatons).

Dr. Peter Wadhams, another Arctic expert, has also received criticism for his assessment that a 50 gigaton release from the large subsea Arctic methane stores could be possible as sea ice retreat spurs Arctic Ocean sea floors to warm.

Other scientists such as GISS lead Gavin Schmidt and prominent Earth Systems modeler David Archer have noted that such very large releases aren’t currently likely. They point to natural traps that tend to tamp down sea based release rates (sometimes stopping as much as 90 percent of a destabilized methane source from hitting the atmosphere). They also note that current warming has probably not yet exceeded levels seen during the Eemian (130,000 years ago) and no large methane releases were observed at that time from Arctic carbon stores like the ESAS. They tend to take the view that any increasing rate of release coming from Arctic methane stores in particular and Arctic carbon stores in general will be very slow — so slow as to not be a significant amplifier of human warming (less than 5 percent) this century.

In general, between these two rather extreme and increasingly polarized views on Arctic methane, there appears to be very little in the way of middle ground. Although, a loosely related survey of permafrost carbon experts found a consensus opinion that the total carbon emission (including CO2 and methane) from land based tundra alone would equal between 10 and 35 percent of the current annual human emission by the end of this Century. It’s worth noting that this survey assessment does not include potential releases from the submerged permafrost in the ESAS or releases from other global carbon stores as a result of human warming.

The current rapid pace of human-caused warming — heating some regions of the Arctic as fast as 0.5 to 1 C per decade — also caused some of Archer and Schmidt’s scientific forebears, particularly James Hansen, to be rather less dismissive of the potential for a significant release from global methane stores, especially those in the Arctic. In any case, current human greenhouse gas emissions of nearly 50 gigatons CO2e each year are now in the process of pushing global temperatures past Eemian thresholds. An excession likely to elevate Anthropocene temperatures beyond all Eemian estimates before the mid 2030s under current rates of global greenhouse gas emissions and expected increases in fossil fuel burning.

So it is in this murky scientific context that we must interpret risks involving a continuing and apparently ramping rate of atmospheric methane increase. And what we can say with certainty is that there is little evidence that we are now hitting an exponential rise in global atmospheric methane levels. But that there is some evidence that a risk for such an event is real and requires much more detailed research and public dissemination of information to put what are some very valid concerns to rest.

Links:

NOAA ESRL

Alaska Methane Survey by JPL

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