Arctic sea ice time bomb ticking: the bang’s gonna be huge

Arctic2013July14Reading this press release about a new paper in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology spoiled my day. It might not be obvious to a casual reader just glancing through the morning news — but a couple of paragraphs leapt out at me:

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations recently reached 400 parts per million for the first time since the Pliocene Epoch, three million years ago. During this era, Arctic surface temperatures were 15-20 degrees Celsius warmer than today’s surface temperatures.

Ballantyne’s findings suggest that much of the surface warming likely was due to ice-free conditions in the Arctic. That finding matches estimates of land temperatures in the Arctic during the same time. This suggests that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of 400 ppm may be sufficient to greatly reduce the spatial extent and seasonal persistence of Arctic sea ice.

In other words, losing Arctic sea ice brings huge warming to the lands around the Arctic Ocean. This is extremely bad news for a number of reasons:

  • We’re losing the Arctic sea ice well ahead of any schedule derived from model predictions. The sea ice summer minimum could drop below 1 million km2 within a decade. I have argued that it might be even sooner…
  • Arctic warming and sea ice losses are already impacting northern hemisphere weather patterns.
  • Once the summer sea ice has gone, it’s only a question of how long it will take for the winter ice to disappear. When I last looked at this issue, three years ago, I suggested this might happen much sooner than anyone expected — perhaps by the 2040s.
  • When I wrote that post, I suggested that — if we were unlucky — winter ice loss could be within the current climate commitment — that is, within the warming we would expect to see from current levels of greenhouse gases. Ballantyne et al’s new paper explicitly supports that view.
  • The consequences of warming of 10ºC to 20ºC on the lands around the Arctic Ocean are horrendous. Recent research suggests that total warming of as little as 1.5ºC could be enough to start major releases of methane as permafrost in Alaska, Canada and Siberia melts. There are also huge deposits of methane beneath the East Siberian Shelf (ESS) that are already beginning to discharge to the atmosphere as their permafrost cap begins to disintegrate under a warming ocean.
  • A persistent large scale release of methane would transform the global climate system and make efforts to contain warming by reducing anthropogenic emissions more or less futile. We would be heading far beyond 2ºC deep into the realms of catastrophe.
  • Just to complete my bad day, this Guardian report on a new paper modelling the economic costs of a 50 Gt methane release from the ESS suggests that the impact would generate an “extra $60 trillion (net present value) of mean climate change impacts” — comparable to total global GDP at present. World economy over, in other words.

This should be headline news. It should be plastered all over the front pages of newspapers and web sites around the world. TV pundits should be demanding action from the politicians who have put action on emissions reductions in the “too hard” basket. The evidence is beginning to suggest that Wally Broecker’s angry beast, fed up with being prodded with ever bigger sticks, is going to bite back hard — and bite back soon. Is there time to stop all this happening? Perhaps — but it will take a huge effort, a wartime response when the world is being led by billionaires, ideologues and their appeasers intent on denying reality. We’re sleepwalking to disaster. By the time we wake up, it will be too late.

[If we don’t do something it’s curtains]

25 thoughts on “Arctic sea ice time bomb ticking: the bang’s gonna be huge”

  1. Curtains indeed. And combined with the warming one must always also add the ocean chemistry experiment we are undertaking. The potentially catastrophic release of methane stores will end up as ocean acidifying CO2 in due course. The effect of our experiment with messing with the carbon cycle of planet earth will go well beyond the climate effects.
    The stability of our planetary chemistry – oceans and atmosphere – is a prerequisite of the stability of our ecosystems and therefore our own existence.

  2. Most climate change news is like a slow motion train wreck but the loss of Arctic sea ice is very close and has an immediate affect on highly populated areas. A straight foreword statistical graph shows that the ice will be down to 1 million square kilometres within five to ten years. The weather in Europe and the USA changes in the next season, So it is very quick.. Drought and flood will cause huge destruction to farming activities and its not going to be pretty.

  3. The problem is that few people, particularly Our Glorious Leaders up at Fort Fumble, realise just how fragile our civilization is. With the US economy teetering on collapse, which on the “they get a cold, we get pneumonia” basis will topple NZ’s and economies all round the world, I’m pessimistic that a coordinated response is possible.
    Pilkington’s interview with Broecker mentions a carbon capture mechanism, is that going to come to anything? Personally I think even beat-up Toyotas are waaay too OTT. We should be thinking Velomobiles*, perhaps solar assisted, perhaps 4-wheel for more passengers, but certainly accompanied by a radical rethink about every aspect of transport and modern life…. sheesh… where does one start?

    1. Thanks Neven – and for providing more context. For the record, I would tend to agree with Gavin Schmidt that the Wadhams et al scenario for the ESS is a bit extreme, but only in the sense of being set too early. If Ballantyne et al are right, and 400ppm commits us to a year-round ice free Arctic Ocean, then something like an ESS “burp” becomes more or less certain (IMHO).

      1. ….more or less certain….
        Globally we’ve had some wacky weather for the last decade or so, atmospheric rivers causing unusual flooding, heat waves blitzing records hither & yon, snow dumps, unusual storms, heat records 10x more frequent the cold records instead of 50-50. And all this through a period when a succession of La Ninas, weak El Ninos, economic depression and the odd volcanic eruption has flat-lined surface temperatures. God help us when the full-blown El Ninos resume.

  4. The forecast for an ice free Arctic may be optimistic using climate models but when you look at an empirical graph an ice free Arctic is imminent in under five years
    We will see how this year works out but it not looking good at the moment.
    I agree with Kiwiiano in that we may have an easier time in NZ regarding the weather but we are not immune economicaly and I believe the greatest short term threat is refugees and the mass movement of people..

  5. Kiwiiano

    “Personally I think even beat-up Toyotas are waaay too OTT. We should be thinking Velomobiles*, perhaps solar assisted, perhaps 4-wheel for more passengers, but certainly accompanied by a radical rethink about every aspect of transport and modern life…. sheesh… where does one start?”

    You can start with an old bike and $1700.

    Mine’s a converted yuba mundo with 85 litre carry bag – similar to this:

    Just needs solar panels for the complete solution.

    Evlab tells me 1 electric conversion happening every day now in the Wellington region alone.

    You buy the velomobile. There is only 1 in this city that I am aware of right now. People need to see more on their morning commute.

    1. The Yuba looks suitably functional, Tom. Not as weather protected as a velomobile but hey! we have a lot of lifestyle changes ahead of us. I’ve long lusted after an Aptera, but, sadly, they hit the wall a year or so ago.

      We do have a problem with electric (solar or otherwise) vehicles in New Zild. Our Glorious Leaders (in Their Infinite Wisdom) have seen fit to tax them at the same rate as diesels. Presumably to get their pound of flesh for Road Tax which they won’t get if you aren’t putting petrol into them. Not that they represent much wear & tear on the roads.

      Anyway, the solution if you are building an electric is to incorporate a small petrol motor/generator nominally to charge the batteries. Apparently it doesn’t matter how small it is or that you never quite get around to actually putting any petrol in it, just so long as it’s visible at WOF time to maintain the pretence. Note too that a 3-wheeler is regarded as a motorcycle, avoiding endless demands for collision protection, etc etc that destroy the fuel economy. Sorry it it’s all a bit off-topic…..

  6. The methane story is greatly exaggerated. I’m not saying this is good news, but it is not as bad as many are trying to make out.

    I do not understand the reason that with so much to worry about people look for even more to worry about than the evidence warrants.

    1. Hi Michael, good to see you here!

      The real point of this post is not the Wadhams scenario, but the Ballantyne et al finding that 400ppm commits us to a year-round ice-free Arctic Ocean, and huge increases in temperatures over all the areas – land and sea – where there’s permafrost to melt. That should be big news – and it’s rather a shame that we’re missing that by arguing about someone trying to delineate long tail risks…

  7. Nice try mtobis, but some commentary which is already obsolete doesn’t cut it. Try poking your nose in here to get the picture from Petert Wadhams who better understands the problem and has up to date data to back it up:

    The question is what should we do about it? If we do nothing then who should be held accountable when the s— hits the fan?

    1. Thanks Tony, I was going to point out the same.
      The prospect of non-linear responses to the vanishing ice of the arctic is serious. The risk of a development such as the Wadhams scenario seems significant. The Risk x Potential Impact is very high.

      1. To compare: What is the Risk = Probability x Potential Impact of a German nuclear power plant blowing up? Still it was to deemed to high for the people of Germany and they decided to opt out of nuclear energy.
        What is the Risk then of AGW triggering positive feedbacks that catapult the climate response to our ‘grand experiment’ with the Earth’s Carbon Cycle into overdrive? Surely the potential impact is several magnitudes above a nuclear power plant blowing up in Germany, when we consider the potential wipe out of entire ecosystems, the destabilization of the Ocean Chemistry and consequently its food chain, the chaos for a significant proportion of humanity to obtain water for irrigation and drinking and adequate food supplies and the drowning of significant proportions of the worlds most productive lands and most densely populated urban areas.
        Now the probability of that happening would need to be extremely small for the risk to be considered tolerable. But as we see, experts are at best divided and some hold that the scenario we talk about is quite possible within the time frame of even my life. So what is the probability? 1%? 10%? Should we tolerate an experiment with planet Earth with such dire consequences when the probability of catastrophe is comparable to that of dying in a Space Shuttle launch or even perhaps a magnitude above that?? Who in earnest could be in favor of ignoring this risk at the present time, when we perhaps still have the ability to significantly affect the magnitude of the risk?

        1. Well said Thomas.

          Just thought I would have a bit of a laugh and look at how our friends at WUWT are handling the methane burp. Note how they trumpet the Nature commentary by Ruppell CD. here, take particular note of the conclusions which are repeated verbatim from the Ruppel paper:

          Now take a look at the the conclusions in the actual paper:

          See the difference? WUWT decided that the second paragraph wasn’t important, but the 2nd paragraph just happened to be the one that many of us including Ruppel are worried about. We know deep ocean hydrates in the first paragraph are not a problem, but in shallow waters in the Arctic the high pressure is not there and if temperatures rise there is only a short run direct to the atmosphere.

          WUWT will resort to any low tactic to misinform its gullible readership.

          I note also that the NZ media have so far omitted the 60 trillion price tag of inaction. Was that US dollars? Obviously too busy to deal with such trivia. Meanwhile we have local and central government concerned only about sprawl and building more roads.

  8. The video WUWT doesn’t want you to see has just been posted on you tube:

    A ten year elapse webcam of the North Pole turning into a lake.. it doesn’t look so bad at he start – but wait until the end. Now try telling me or anyone else that sees this 2 minute clip that the Arctic is not warming at a dramatic rate.

    Hattip to Generation Zero and my daughter Cate for showing me this. 🙂

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