Have we fired the Clathrate Gun?

29 12 2012

I haven’t finished it yet, but my daughter gave me a great book this Christmas, and I’m really enjoying it;  it’s called “Bullspotting”, by Loren Collins.  The internet can be a frustrating double edged sword.  Full of amazing information, and also full of utter bullshit……  telling them apart is sometimes easy, but also often a challenge.  The one issue that feeds such a dichotomy is Climate Change.  If Climate Change wasn’t so important, it wouldn’t matter, but forget the fiscal cliff and Peak Oil, they can be dealt with and they will be survived; whereas if the climate goes AWOL, you can kiss humanity goodbye.  One such dilemma I recently came across was when another blogger told me atmospheric methane concentration had stopped rising.  So I did my duty and investigated, and sure enough, Google turned up a whole heap of graphs that demonstrated this.  Trouble is, all those charts ended five years ago…… and five years can be a long time in Climate Science.

Yesterday, I posted an article here which I lifted from Xraymike’s blog, and have since “pulled” in the interest of fraternity in the blogosphere.  I know XRM from the good old days of the Chris Martenson website before it became Peak Prosperity, a place now full of people worrying about their gold and their guns.  I urge you all to read it if you missed it here.  Mike did a great job parsing through the information to turn it into a lucid argument.

I would prefer to not believe its contents mind you.  Raising the globe’s temperature by 6°C within fifty years is a truly gruesome thought, and the jury’s still out, because Mark Cochrane, a climate scientist who started the only thread worth reading on Peak Prosperity these days recently wrote this when asked about such a prospect:

“Getting 6 C by 2050 seems farfetched unless we intentionally trigger the so-called clathrate gun. Even then, I am not sure that it is likely to happen that quickly simply due to the thermal inertia of the oceans and glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. Roughly 90-95% of the incipient energy imbalance goes into warming or melting water. We’ve warmed by around 0.7C in the last 30 years or so. Getting an extra >5C in the next 40 years would require truly massive changes in greenhouse gases and Earth’s albedo. This certainly wouldn’t mean that all is well if we don’t manage this incredible feat of climate suicide in 40 odd years. We may get there yet around 2100.

Such rapid warming would lead to greatly accelerated mass loss from the icesheets in Greenland, Western Antarctica and increases from East Antarctica. Melting those giant ice blocks would be a giant heat sink that would attenuate the rise in temperature but it would do so at the cost of flooding the worlds oceans very quickly. In other words, although we might not warm so fast the cost would be rapid sea level rise of several meters this century, flooding coastlines and yielding terrible storms. As things stand, most estimates are for 1-5 meters, which will make many, many cities untenable.

Some recent food for thought on that score came out in the last week in Nature Geoscience showing much of the western Antarctic icesheet is warming twice as fast as predicted (see BBC article here, and Bromwich et al 2012 abstract here))”

“The map is just correlation coefficients but the warming has been 2.4C between 1958 and 2010. While Greenland gets much of the press, the Western Antarctic ice sheet may be more unstable because most of it is currently grounded below the waterline. Basically the ice is frozen to the ground or still too heavy to lift but once the water level gets higher, then much of the sheet could rapidly float (just like an ice cube in your glass) and collapse with an ultimate 5 m sea level implication. The big brother in East Antarctica only has 30% below water line but that is another 20-25 m of sea level. Ultimately, if we somehow manage to stay on the ‘business as usual’ emissions path then over the next few centuries we will have changed coastlines world wide with 10s of meters of sea level rise (See Hansen new pdf).

Lest you think he is just a harbinger of doom touting positive feedbacks, Hansen and Sato (2012) see exponential increases in the rate of ice melting/sea level rise with a 5-10 year doubling time, they ultimately believe that once we reach about 1 m of sea level increase that strong negative feedbacks from all of the melting icebergs will dampen the temperature rise and hence slow the exponential rate of increased melting. I can’t grab the figure from the pdf, but if you go to the Hansen and Sato pdf linked above and scroll down to Figure 9 you will see the future simulations with (left) and without (right) ice melt. As you can see the melting would lead to a much cooler North Atlantic and a moderate cooler Southern Ocean with an overall global amelioration of land temperature increases. If you think the ice will somehow hold off from melting, plan for a heck of a lot warmer near future.

Overall, if we manage to keep finding more and more fossil fuels to burn or accidentally release (melting permafrost etc) then we will have an atmosphere akin to what existed 32 million years ago before Antarctica froze up. It would take a while, hundreds to thousands of years, but we’d be putting an end to ice ages for the foreseeable future.”

Much of what Mark talks about is covered in XRM’s blog entry, which is why I copied it here to begin with.

So the key question now is, “have we triggered the so-called clathrate gun” ?

Someone who definitely thinks we have is Guy McPherson.  He recently pointed me to those hemp wearing hippies in the IEA, the energy agency for developed countries who said earlier this year that “without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.”  So there you have it…. even the Devil says so….!

Our only saviour might well be a physical phenomenon called “phase change”.  Get a saucepan full of cold water, and put it your stove with a thermometer in the water.  The heat from the stove will raise the water temperature to 100°C, but will then stop rising even though the stove is still on.  So where is all the heat going?  it’s actually being “used up” turning water into steam.  Phase Change.  Exactly the same thing that happens when you melt ice, another phase change.

I’m told it takes some 80 times more energy to melt ice than it does to raise it the last degree just before it melts.  And that is where all the heat we have now trapped beneath our blanket of CO2 and now growing levels of CH4 has been going; instead of raising air temperatures, it’s melting ice.  And all the deniers on the net will tell you it hasn’t warmed in 16 years…..  so the ice melted by magic.

Obviously, Hansen and Sato quoted above know about phase change, it’s physics 101.  Therefore there can only be one reason for a fast tracked 6°C temperature rise: we are trapping way more energy than we used to, and the methane timebomb has started ticking.  We have reached a tipping point, simultaneously, the ice is melting and the temperature is going up too.  The deniers must be silenced.  They are one hell of a dangerous group of people who think gambling with our kids’ future is OK.

As an aside, while the post I pulled last night was still up, Don, a frequent visitor here left this comment:

Hi Mike,
I came across a good article today that among other things gave some very good hints for how to achieve using less. Its a long read but has lots of excellent info, particularly with regard to political collapse and disintegration. The location is:

http://www.doingitourselves.org/sites/default/files/zine1v3.pdf

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5 responses

29 12 2012
Ben Pennings

The Guy McPherson stuff recently is bothering me, wondering whether I should change tac, and the IEA didn’t help! Thanks for the added info and thoughts.

29 12 2012
mikestasse

Hi Ben..
Keeps me awake at night too…. it’s stupid worrying about stuff you can’t do anything about, and I get really angry with all the deniers who seem to have such an inordinate amount of sway in the political scene. Worry and anger are not good for the soul, must find something else to dump my energy in!

29 12 2012
Ben Pennings

Not worrying hugely. But starting the Generation Alpha site/blog in the next couple of months and still working on the exact focus. Ultimately think will be like Jensen (but not s well written!) and just letting everything bleed out onto the page, then cleaning it up!

31 12 2012
Renee

Hi Mike, Just when I think I have my head around and made peace with global warming and all its implications and the unwillingness of the masses to even talk about it let alone act on it, I am slammed right back down again. I find myself almost constantly grieving, interspersed with moments of clarity and calmness, that my worry will not help or do any good. I do what I can but its disheartening much of the time. In Perth right now we are on about our 7th day (I’ve lost count) over 38 degrees, many of those days have been over 40, today tipped 41…this was unheard of in my childhood, 20 years ago you were unlucky if it hit 40 degrees a handful of times all Summer, now it hits 40 for days in a row, multiple times right up until March, its unbearable…and yet the elephant in the room remains unmentioned…thanks for continuing to put it out there for all to see.
Renee.

3 04 2013
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