It’s a gas, gas, gas

arcticmethane.jpg It’s not good news. The USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has produced its annual report on greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide concentration continues its accelerated growth. And there are signs that methane levels are beginning to rise, after a decade of remaining more or less static. The BBC reports:

NOAA figures show CO2 concentrations rising by 2.4 parts per million (ppm) from 2006 to 2007. By comparison, the average annual increase between 1979 and 2007 was 1.65ppm.

The methane rise is worrying because it’s a very powerful greenhouse gas (23 times as effective at trapping heat as CO2), and there are a number of positive feedbacks that could come into play as the planet warms. From the NOAA release:

Rapidly growing industrialization in Asia and rising wetland emissions in the Arctic and tropics are the most likely causes of the recent methane increase, said scientist Ed Dlugokencky from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. ”We’re on the lookout for the first sign of a methane release from thawing Arctic permafrost,” said Dlugokencky. “It’s too soon to tell whether last year’s spike in emissions includes the start of such a trend.”

Permafrost is one thing, methane hydrates are another. Sometimes called burning ice, methane hydrates (aka clathrates) are a mixture of ice and methane that exist in large quantities on the sea floor – and there are particularly large amounts in the shallow Arctic seas north of Russia and Siberia (more info at Climate Progress). At the recent European Geophysical Union conference in Vienna, a Russian scientist discussed the issue. From SpiegelOnline:

In the permafrost bottom of the 200-meter-deep sea [off the northern coast of Siberia], enormous stores of gas hydrates lie dormant in mighty frozen layers of sediment. The carbon content of the ice-and-methane mixture here is estimated at 540 billion tons. “This submarine hydrate was considered stable until now,” says the Russian biogeochemist Natalia Shakhova, currently a guest scientist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks who is also a member of the Pacific Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok.

The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become “a source of methane passing into the atmosphere.” The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere would increase twelvefold. “The result would be catastrophic global warming,” say the scientists.

The SpeigeOnline article is worth reading in full. Shakova’s observations of methane emissions hint at an explanation for the increase in global atmospheric methane. If that’s the case – and its too early to say for sure – then we may be seeing the beginnings of one of the most worrying of the positive carbon cycle feedbacks – one that could potentially make anything we do to cut CO2 emissions the equivalent of pissing in the wind.

[Hat tip for the Spiegel piece to No Right Turn – I’m frankly amazed the EGU paper hasn’t had much more coverage in the world’s media.]

[Update for the interested: The EGU abstract for Shakhova’s paper is here [PDF]. Here’s the last few words:

“…we consider release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time. That may cause ~ 12-times increase of modern atmospheric methane burden with consequent catastrophic greenhouse warming.”

“Abrupt release at any time”. That’s truly alarming.]

You know my name (look up the number)

homer.jpg Sometimes it can be difficult to know if someone is a genuine climate crank, sceptic, one of the GODs*, or just a fly-by-night, johnny-come-lately keen to ride on the soon-to-arrive ice age bandwagon. Well, here’s the good news. The International Climate Science Coalition has recently published several lists of people who are happy to endorse the Manhattan Declaration. That’s right, a list of all (or at least most) of the people who agree with this statement:

That there is no convincing evidence that CO2 emissions from modern industrial activity has in the past, is now, or will in the future cause catastrophic climate change.

No more worries, no need to agonise. If they’re on the list, they’re guaranteed to be grade A climate cranks. Please dissect at will. What a remarkable public gesture, no doubt funded by the Heartland Institute in the interest of a better tomorrow. Or possibly not.

* Grumpy old deniers (©R McKie 2008)

“The Arctic ice is back to normal.” Yeah, right. #2

This latest New Scientist video accompanies a news item headlined “North Pole could be ice free in 2008“, and shows multi-year ice moving out of the Arctic over winter.

“The set-up for this summer is disturbing,” says Mark Serreze, of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). A number of factors have this year led to most of the Arctic ice being thin and vulnerable as it enters its summer melting season.”

Also of interest in the video: look at the large cracks in the thicker ice north of Canada.

“The Arctic ice is back to normal.” Yeah, right.

This New Scientist video includes some rather spectacular images of a rapidly draining meltwater lake on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet. The three kilometre wide lake drained down through 1 km of ice in an hour and a half, at a rate similar to that of the water flowing over the Niagara Falls. Full story here, and more detail from NASA here. Meanwhile, RealClimate covers the factors driving the acceleration of Greenland’s outlet glaciers, the principle mechanism for getting large volumes of ice into the ocean. There’s some interesting stuff in the comments, too, particularly from a scientist (Tad Pfeiffer) working on establishing an upper limit to the contribution to global sea level rise likely from Greenland’s glaciers. Nature also has a very nice overview article on the state of research on the GIS, but unfortunately it’s hidden away behind a paywall.

Offshore in the high Canadian Arctic, Canadian Rangers have discovered large cracks are appearing in the Ward Hunt ice shelf, a large chunk of very old and thick ice on the northern coast of Ellesmere Island. The Arctic sea ice has now begun its spring melt back, and the National Snow & Ice Data Centre has posted a page to monitor this summer’s events. The time series graph of ice extent (here) compares current ice to last year’s record and the 79-2000 average. You can monitor ice area (a slightly different metric) at Cryosphere Today (here).

Down South, more results from the Andrill Project were presented at last week’s European Geophysical Union conference. Researchers now have a climate history for the continent stretching back 17 million years, and there are plans to drill a new core (starting in 2012) to take that back to 40 million years, when the continent started iceing up. Grab the Nature article before it disappears behind a paywall.

Tasman.jpgThis is the Tasman Glacier, near Mt Cook, from the lookout on the lateral moraine a couple of months ago (click for a larger version: pic ©GR). New fieldwork shows that the lake is now 7 km long, 2 km wide and – amazingly – 245 m deep. The results confirm that the presence of the lake effectively dooms the glacier to disappear – within 20 years, according to the research team from Massey University. Herald story here.

Take that, Nigel!

lawson.jpg Nigel(*) Lawson, flown over to NZ by the Business Roundtable last year to mislead us on climate change, has written a book which comprehensively debunks the whole climate alarmist bandwagon. Robin McKie in the Observer is suitably impressed:

What really grates is Lawson’s conviction that most of the world’s climatologists, meteorologists, atmospheric physicists, Arctic experts, and biologists, as well several Nobel Prize winners, are all stupid, misguided and wrong in thinking manmade global warming is real. By contrast, Lawson, ensconced in his Gascogny house, where, incidentally, he found conditions ‘perfectly tolerable’ during the 2005 French heatwave that killed 15,000 old people, is virtually the only one with the brains to work out the Truth.

It is breathtaking arrogance, to say the least, although Lawson is not alone in displaying it. Several other individuals, usually male, elderly, and right wing, still deny climate change is happening, mainly because they cannot stand the thought that greenies may be right and that we will have to curtail our use of big cars, international flights and other carbon-boosting luxuries. These Grumpy Old Deniers feel their lifestyles are threatened by greenies and so reject the entire concept of global warming. ‘With the collapse of Marxism, those who dislike capitalism have been obliged to find a new creed,’ says Lawson. ‘For many of them, green is the new red.’ In short, global warming is a commie plot.

Ring any bells? Don? Bob? Terry? Owen? Bryan? “Grumpy old deniers” has a certain ring to it, does it not?

But McKie’s only just hitting his stride.

If only it was. Then we could have a chance of dealing with it. In fact, the problem is far more pervasive and worrying. So perhaps Lord Lawson should turn his mighty brain to that issue, instead of writing piffle like this – then the Earth really might be saved.

McKie wins the 2008 Hot Topic prize for most heartfelt use of the word “piffle” in global media.

[Update 25/4: Not quite as scathing, but just as interesting, is the Guardian review by Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (a sort of heavyweight version of Business NZ). In Lawson’s heyday, the CBI regarded Thatcher as a bit wet – now they’re fully committed to action on climate change.]

* I know that’s not Nigel, but I prefer Nigella’s…