Arctic code red: uncharted territory

Nearly four years ago I reviewed Climate Code Red by Australians David Spratt and Philip Sutton. Even then the authors spoke of the recently released 2007 IPCC report as too conservative in its predictions. Here’s how I described their position:

The authors lament the limitations of the IPCC system, ascribing them partly to pressure from vested interests harboured by some countries, partly to the long process of gathering the information from published material and the early cut-off date for reports, and partly to scientists being uncomfortable with estimates based on known but presently unquantified mechanisms.  It adds up to a process so deficient as to be an unreliable and even misleading basis for policy-making.

They instanced particularly the diminishing Arctic sea ice and its amplifying consequences, the possibility of faster disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet, the vulnerability of the West Antarctic ice sheet and the likelihood of much higher sea rise than anticipated, as well as widespread species and eco-system destruction.

That was four years ago. In a recent striking article David Spratt reacts to the increased loss of Arctic summer sea ice by re-emphasising and extending the message that the science frame has changed considerably since the 2007 IPCC report. Climate changes and impacts are happening more quickly and at lower temperatures than expected, and he details some of them. He quotes Kim Holmen, Norwegian Polar Institute international director, saying that the big sea-ice melt of 2012 is “a greater change than we could even imagine 20 years ago, even 10 years ago”. It “has taken us by surprise and we must adjust our understanding of the system and we must adjust our science and we must adjust our feelings for the nature around us”.

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Government confirms NZ ETS to be watered down

I listened sadly on the news last night to the conviction with which the Climate Change Minister Tim Groser announced “This is not the time to put the foot on the accelerator”. Admittedly he followed immediately with “nor, as the climate change sceptics would have wanted us to do, to back the ETS truck up the drive”, but the unfortunate image remaining is of the ETS truck sitting idling at the foot of the drive waiting, or at best crawling at snail’s pace along the road.

Groser is not a climate change sceptic. He claims to fully accept the science. But he obviously does not accept the science when it says that it is already past time when we should have begun reducing emissions, and the window of opportunity is near closing. In other words this is the time to put the foot on the accelerator if we place any value on the human future, or have any care for those already enduring the adverse effects of warming.

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Clear and present danger: Lonnie Thompson on the message in the ice

Paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson, distinguished university professor in the School of Earth Sciences at The Ohio State University, is well known and widely respected for his decades of work on ice caps and glaciers, especially in tropical and sub-tropical regions. In the past Thompson has let his research data and conclusions speak for him but he has this week caused something of a stir by voicing in a journal for social scientists and behaviour experts his concern at the grave risks we run in ignoring the evidence of climate change. Climate Change: The Evidence and Our Options is the title of his paper (available here) and it’s published in a special climate-change edition of The Behavior Analyst.

One hopes the paper has many readers. Its eighteen pages, a model of clarity, are highly accessible for the lay person.

Thompson opens by acknowledging that climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group.

“We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees.”

Why then, he asks, are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? Because virtually all of them are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilisation.

“There’s a clear pattern in the scientific evidence documenting that the earth is warming, that warming is due largely to human activity, that warming is causing important changes in climate, and that rapid and potentially catastrophic changes in the near future are very possible. This pattern emerges not, as is so often suggested, simply from computer simulations, but from the weight and balance of the empirical evidence as well.”

He explains the evidence from diverse data sources that points to relative stability in temperatures over the past 1000 years until the late twentieth century. Acknowledging that regional, seasonal and altitudinal variability can nevertheless make it difficult to convince the public and even scientists in other fields that global warming is occurring, he adds from his own area of expertise the evidence of melting ice.

The retreat of mountain glaciers is an early warning of climate change. He details the ice fields on the highest crater of Kilimanjaro which have lost 85% of their coverage since 1812. The Quelccaya ice cap in Peru, the largest tropical ice field on Earth, has lost 25% of its cover since 1978. Ice fields in the Himalayas that have long shown traces of the radioactive bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s have since lost that signal as surface melting has removed the upper layers and thereby reduced the thickness of these glaciers. All of the glaciers in Alaska’s vast Brooks Range are retreating, as are 98 percent of those in southeastern Alaska.  And 99 percent of glaciers in the Alps, 100 percent of those in Peru and 92 percent in the Andes of Chile are likewise retreating. Some telling photographic sequences illustrate the findings. It’s a pattern repeated around the world. To glacier retreat Thompson adds the loss of polar ice and sees global warming as the only plausible explanation.

From there he moves to consideration of the natural forcers of climate change and the consensus among climatologists that the warming trend we have been experiencing for the past 100 years or so cannot be accounted for by any of the known natural forcers.

“The evidence is overwhelming that human activity is responsible for the rise in CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gas levels, and that the increase in these gases is fueling the rise in mean global temperature.”

The effects include sea level rise. He points out that if the Earth were to lose just 8% of its ice, the consequences for some coastal regions would be dramatic. The lower part of the Florida peninsula and much of Louisiana, including New Orleans, would be submerged, and low-lying cities, including London, New York, and Shanghai, would be endangered. Low-lying continental countries such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh are already battling flooding as never before and several small island states are facing imminent destruction. Other effects of warming Thompson touches on include the threats to glacier-fed fresh water sources on which populations in parts of the world depend and the increase in arid regions as the Hadley Cell expands.

Many of the models predicting future rises in temperature assume a linear rise in temperature. But in fact the rate of global temperature rise is accelerating, which is reflected in increases in the rate of ice melt, and in turn an increase in the rate of sea level rise.

“This [acceleration] means that our future may not be a steady, gradual change in the world’s climate, but an abrupt and devastating deterioration from which we cannot recover.”

At this point he discusses positive feedbacks, instancing forest fires, more dark areas opened through ice melt, and the release of CO2 and methane from melting tundra permafrost. He explains the possibility of tipping points as a result, with their ominous implications. But tipping points apart, if, as predicted, global temperature rises by another 3 degrees by the end of the century, the earth will be warmer than it has been in about 3 million years. Oceans were then about 25 metres higher than they are today.

What are our options for dealing with the crisis?  Not prevention, for global warming is already with us. We are left with three: mitigate, adapt, suffer. Mitigation is the best option, but so far the US and other large emitters have done little more than talk about its importance. Many Americans don’t even accept the reality of global warming. Disinformation campaigns have been amazingly successful. Unless appropriate steps are taken we will be left with only adaptation and suffering. And the longer the delay the more unpleasant the adaptation and the greater the suffering will be. Those with the fewest resources for adaptation will suffer most.

It’s a grim picture. The information is not new.  But it gains impetus when a leading scientist steps into the public arena and weaves his specialist contribution into the overall account in a way which leaves the reader with absolutely no doubt that the writer is convinced by the science and deeply alarmed at what it means for humanity. Like John Veron, whom I wrote about earlier this week, Thompson doesn’t allow scientific reticence to mute his message.

“Sooner or later, we will all deal with global warming. The only question is how much we will mitigate, adapt, and suffer.”

Down to the sea

An interview with climatologist Ellen Mosley-Thompson published yesterday in Yale Environment 360is a reminder that for those working with ice there’s not much doubt about where we’re heading. She spent six weeks of the summer on her ninth visit to Antarctica drilling ice cores on the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the fastest-warming places on earth. Its winter temperatures have increased by 6 degrees over the past 60 years and year-round temperatures by 2.8 degrees. As a result, sea ice now covers the western Antarctic Peninsula three months less a year than three decades ago, 90 percent of glaciers along the western Antarctic Peninsula are in retreat, and large floating ice shelves are crumbling.


Mosley-Thompson headed a team of six for the drilling, and they were part of a larger group attempting to understand the warming behind the break-up of the Larsen B ice shelf in 2002. Ecologists were looking at an ecosystem on the ocean bottom that until eight or nine years ago had been covered by ice for thousands of years and considering how it is adjusting to the new normal. Glaciologists were looking at how much more rapidly the glaciers are discharging into the ocean with the disappearance of the buttressing ice shelf. A marine group was looking at changes in marine geo-chemistry, collecting new cores in the area that was covered by ice to compare with the cores previously drilled in the ocean bottom along the outer margins of Larsen B when it was in place.

It’s an impressive range of investigation she describes. The ice drilling on the Bruce Plateau was able to get right down to bedrock at 455 metres, and the cores will be closely analyzed back in Ohio for the information they contain about past climate, perhaps to the last glacial period and beyond.

Mosley-Thompson is married to Lonnie Thompson, the highly respected glaciologist. While his wife has been working mostly in Greenland and Antarctica he has done more ice corings of low-latitude glaciers –- in the Andes, Africa, and the Himalayas –- than any other person alive. Yale Environment comments that their work, taken together, paints a sobering portrait of the rapid retreat of most of the world’s glaciers and ice caps in the face of the buildup of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

Here are some of the things Mosley-Thompson has to say in the interview about the overall global picture. In response to the interviewer’s observation that the deep Antarctic ice cores taken at Dome C years show that we have got more CO2 in our atmosphere than at any time in 800,000 years:

“Very clearly. If you look back over the eight glacial/interglacial cycles, you essentially see that CO2 never rises above 300 parts per million and we’re at about 389 now. Methane never rises above about 800 parts per billion, and I think we’re at about 1,700 parts per billion. So we’re clearly outside the range of natural variability. I personally think that graph simply showing the natural fluctuations in those two important greenhouse gases, over almost a million years of Earth history — and then you see the two dots [today] that are so much higher than anything that we see in that near-million history — tells us very clearly that we have a serious problem.”

What does the cumulative ice coring  work show about what we’re experiencing in the last century or so in terms of the warming of the planet?

“ Well, from the tropical work, the cores in the Andes and the Himalaya, the oxygen isotopic ratio in those cores, when you stack those cores together, show very clearly that the last 50 or 60 years have been the warmest in the last 2,000 years.”

The ice cores from the Andes do show a Medieval Warm Period signature and a very distinct Little Ice Age cool signature.  Not surprising, she says, because both those periods are expressed most strongly around the Atlantic Basin and the moisture that builds the glaciers in the Andes of Peru actually comes from the Atlantic.  But the cores from the Tibetan Himalaya show virtually no signature of these periods.

“so when we put these records together, the medieval warming is very modest and the Little Ice Age signature is strongly muted as well. And what really stands out when you put these all together and into the composite, is the last 60 years. The oxygen isotopic enrichment in the tops of the cores [indicating warming] is very striking.”

She notes that particularly in the case of the tropical ice fields the glaciers are retreating very rapidly:

“And, in fact, several of the ice fields, particularly one that we recently published the results [for] in the southwestern Himalaya, it has not gained mass or has no ice that was deposited after 1950. It’s like these glaciers are just literally being decapitated. And it’s very frightening.”

And what about the IPCC error on Himalayan melting?

“…when you look at the breadth of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, and how much information is in there, the fact that this must be the most egregious error, otherwise they would be making more of something else –  I think it’s astounding that the IPCC got as much right as they did because there was just tremendous potential for error.”

And if we don’t begin to rein in CO2 emissions, where is the cryosphere, the Earth’s ice zone, heading?

“To the oceans. Ultimately that’s where all water goes, to the lowest level.”

(The Village) Greenland Preservation Society

tintinmilou.jpeg The latest satellite data shows that this summer’s snowmelt in northern Greenland was “extreme”, according to Marco Tedesco, assistant professor of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at The City College of New York. From the press release:

“Having such extreme melting so far north, where it is usually colder than the southern regions is extremely interesting,” Professor Tedesco said. “In 2007, the record occurred in southern Greenland, mostly at high elevation areas where in 2008 extreme snowmelt occurred along the northern coast.”

Melting was most pronounced near Ellesmere Island, where ice sheet collapses were observed, and around the Petermann glacier, which is also shedding ice. Melting lasted 18 days longer than average in these areas, and the melt index (area times days) was three times higher than the 1979-2007 average for the region.

Underlining the dramatic changes being seen in the far north, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its second Arctic Report Card earlier this week…

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