Something in the air (methane mystery)

arcticmethane.jpgAtmospheric methane levels “shot up” in 2007, according to a paper in this week’s Geophysical Research Letters (MIT news release — Rigby, M., R. Prinn, et al (2008), Renewed growth of atmospheric methane, Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2008GL036037, in press. PDF here for AGU members.). This confirms NOAA’s announcement in April that methane levels were on the increase after a decade of stability, but adds a new twist to the data.

One surprising feature of this recent growth is that it occurred almost simultaneously at all measurement locations across the globe. However, the majority of methane emissions are in the Northern Hemisphere, and it takes more than one year for gases to be mixed from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere. Hence, theoretical analysis of the measurements shows that if an increase in emissions is solely responsible, these emissions must have risen by a similar amount in both hemispheres at the same time.

A rise in Northern Hemispheric emissions may be due to the very warm conditions that were observed over Siberia throughout 2007, potentially leading to increased bacterial emissions from wetland areas. However, a potential cause for an increase in Southern Hemispheric emissions is less clear.

A possible explanation might be a global reduction in the amount of hydroxyl free radical (OH) in the atmosphere. OH “mops up” methane (and other stuff), and is sometimes called the atmosphere’s cleaner or “detergent”. Unfortunately, measuring atmospheric OH is difficult.

“The key thing is to better determine the relative roles of increased methane emission versus any decrease in the rate of removal,” Prinn said. “Apparently we have a mix of the two, but we want to know how much of each” is responsible for the overall increase.It is too early to tell whether this increase represents a return to sustained methane growth, or the beginning of a relatively short-lived anomaly, according to Rigby and Prinn.

Any increase in atmospheric methane is not good news. A possible reduction in OH is also disturbing, because it might indicate that pollution (from all sources, methane, industry, coal burning etc) is beginning to overwhelm the atmosphere’s ability to cleanse itself. Both together would be very bad news indeed.

[Update: Comments from a CSIRO scientist and co-author here.]

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Touch of Gray

gray.jpgOur tame cranks, the NZ Climate “Science” Coalition are trumpeting Royal Society resignee Vincent Gray’s recent update of his seminal paper The Global Warming Scam [PDF], first published on the NZ CSC’s web site in April this year. History does not record if it was first rejected by Nature. In terms of the “science” it contains it’s nothing new. Gray makes muddled (and lengthy) assertions about the impossibility of determining the average temperature of the planet, gets worked up about measurements of CO2 (setting great store by the work of Beck), and is unpersuaded by climate modelling and the IPCC’s use of scenarios. On the positive side, it’s 37 pages long.

In one respect, however, Gray’s magnum opus is most revealing. He devotes a short introduction[2. p3, section 1.1] to the birth of the “scam”:

The global warming scam is the result of the widespread belief in a new religion, based on the deification of a nebulous entity, “The Environment”. “The Environment” is an extension of the concept of “Nature” which was held sacred by the Romantics, but it is a much more demanding deity, requiring constant and increasing sacrifices from humans.

That’s pretty standard stuff on the crank fringe, but Gray opens whole new avenues of thought with his next paragraph…

Continue reading “Touch of Gray”

First we take Manhattan

homer.jpg Steve Jobs, Apple’s iCEO, is said to possess a “reality distortion field” that allows him to make all Apple products sound great – even when they’re mundane. To quote Wikipedia: “RDF is the idea that Steve Jobs is able to convince people to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bluster, exaggeration, and marketing.” It’s a perfect description of The Heartland Institute’s approach to climate change in its announcement of a second International Conference on Climate Change. Helpfully sub-titled Global Warming Crisis: Cancelled (so that there can be no confusion about its main thrust), it’s to be held in New York next March. It promises to be a major paradigm shift in the climate debate[1. Not really, I’m being sarcastic.], according to bombastic Heartland boss Joseph Bast:

Last March we proved that the skeptics in the debate over global warming constitute the center or mainstream of the scientific community[2. Not really, he’s making that up.], while the alarmists are on the fringe,” said Heartland President Joseph Bast. “In the past six months, the science has grown even more convincing that global warming is not a crisis[3. No, it hasn’t – if anything it’s become more convincing that things are worse than we thought.].

There’s a bit more detail about Heartland’s take on the climate problem on the conference background page:

Until the debate over global warming was politicized in the 1990s, the scientific “consensus” was that the Modern Warming is moderate and natural[4. No, it wasn’t.]. Books and recent literature reviews suggest this is still the consensus[5. He’s making things up again], even though it contradicts the alarmists’ views.

And…

Distinguished scholars[6. Mostly “grumpy old deniers“.] from the U.S. and around the world have addressed these questions seriously and without institutional bias[7. But with lashings of political bias.]. Their findings[8. They made them up.] suggest the Modern Warming is moderate and partly or even mostly a natural recovery from the Little Ice Age; that the consequences of moderate warming are positive for humanity and wildlife[9. Only in La-la Land]; that predictions of future warming are wildly unreliable; that the costs of trying to “stop global warming” exceed hypothetical benefits by a factor of 10 or more[10. Only by applying La-la Economicsâ„¢]; and more.

The RDF is strong in this Bast. So strong, he could almost whisk his audience off to another planet – rather convenient, because many of the speakers seem (judging by some of their “work“) to be already there.

Where next for this conference, I wonder? Berlin?

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For the benefit of mankind

Last weekend I drew attention to Monbiot’s musings on financial and ecological crises. This weekend it’s ecological economist Herman Daly explaining in simple terms why economic growth has become uneconomic growth: we’re getting less wealth and more illth (hat tip: Things Break). That leads nicely to New Scientist’s special issue on The Folly of Growth – covered in detail at Things Break (follow the links there), and also under discussion at frogblog. There are limits to growth and we’re hitting them, but we lack the political and economic tools to deal with the problem. In that context, check out the recent PBS documentary Heat: it opens with an Indian scientist opining:

We are standing at the precipice of hell. If everybody else was to live as an American, we’re doomed.

See also: Nick “Report” Stern’s call for green solutions to the financial crisis. He can’t avoid the word growth, but at least he’s proposing less illth.

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Cloud nine (#2)

kanga.jpg Forty leading Australian scientists have issued an urgent call for action on climate change. Drafted by Barrie Pittock and Andrew Glickson, the statement says that there is a “window of opportunity to halt a climate crisis”, if Australia begins:

Urgently cutting carbon emissions.

Seizing the opportunity to fast-track utilisation of established and new clean energy technologies thus creating new business opportunities.

An urgent tree-planting campaign in Australia and its neighbors.

Attempts at CO2 capture through soil-carbon enrichment and preservation.

The statement has a list of nine suggested policies, including committing (and urging others to commit to) a peak greenhouse gas level of 450 ppm CO2e. Barry Brook at Brave New Climate, one of the signatories, suggests we may need to go further:

We need CO2-e to be 300-325 ppm, and >100% emissions reductions (with active geo-bio-sequestration) as soon as possible. Nothing less is going to pull out out of the sticky mire into which we are now rapidly sinking.

It would be useful if our science community could issue an equivalent statement in the run up to the election, to provide voters with guidance on what can and should be done here – and a yardstick against which to measure policy proposals (or the lack of them). Consider it the scientific equivalent of Treasury’s opening of the national books…

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