Treating a Fever

Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change

William Calvin, emeritus professor in medicine of the University of Washington in Seattle, has written many books for the lay reader in the course of his career, most of them concerned with the human brain. But for a quarter of a century he has been following climate science literature closely, talking with its practitioners and writing articles for the public. Now he has produced a book on the subject: Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change. He likens himself to a GP reporting on the results of the tests and analysis of the specialists and helping the patient understand the treatment options.

He is keen on analogy and quotes a memorable passage from poet Robert Frost on the metaphorical nature of thinking.  Overheated frogs, things going pop, slippery slopes, creeps and leaps, domino effects, feedback loops, vicious cycles are some of the metaphors pressed into service in the major concern of the book – how one thing leads to another in climate change.

The book does not attempt a systematic account of modern climate science, the broad findings of which are taken as fully established.  Rather it focuses on trying to explain what Calvin calls the principles of acceleration which are at work in climate change – the “how” of things, the underlying mechanisms. Feedback loops alter the normal cause and effect sequences, leading to reactions out of all proportion to the stimulus.  Neurophysiologists (Calvin’s profession) study nerve and muscle cells with positive feedback mechanisms that help things to happpen very quickly.  So climate change is often not, in the manner of a dimmer switch, proportional to the provocation. It is more like the ordinary switch where a little more pressure will bring sudden change. Gradual warming is an inadequate metaphor.  Surprises are involved.

In a chapter on drought he shows how feedbacks are naturally a part of the process – for example over a tropical forest about half the rainfall comes from what recently evaporated from the leaves upwind. No evaporation means less rain. Things get worse. Drought is part of the normal instability of climate, but in the US most models agree in predicting that the dryness of the 1930s Dust Bowl will return to the American Southwest by midcentury – and for a very long time. He has some vivid pictures of the dust storms of the 1930s.

Another chapter discusses the climate creep whereby higher global temperatures lead to a widening of the tropic’s Hadley Cell movement of air which means dryer air for a further degree or two of latitude in the areas where deserts already exist.  Major cities become vulnerable to spreading desertification — San Diego, Los Angeles, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Cape Town, Perth and Sydney. This isn’t just gradual warming for the places concerned, but a massive change.

In discussing ice he looks at the way it is not only melting but moving on Greenland, and points out that collapse, not melt, is the operative concept. We would have centuries up our sleeves if Greenland melted simply from surface run-off.  It is one of the seriously incomplete aspects of the IPCC report that its estimate of sea-level rise depended mostly on melt run-off and thermal expansion of the ocean.

These are but a few of the matters Calvin discusses in his explanations of why and how we’re in trouble. Along the way he offers a very good short explanation of climate models and also of the comprehensive processes by which IPCC reports are prepared. His chapters are short and nuggety, not attempting to be comprehensive, not always strong on continuity, but packed with suggestions for better understanding the phenomena of climate change. His early pre-college experience in journalism and photography is reflected in the many pictures, diagrams and maps which accompany his discussions. Quotations from a wide variety of scientists and writers stud the text and give a good sense of the large community of people working in the climate science field.

When he’s finished with explaining how things are going wrong he turns his attention to what we need to do to turn things around by no later than 2020, his latest date for stopping the growth in emissions.  In spite of his awareness of how rapidly things can worsen in climate terms he is an optimist.  He considers that, once we understand what’s what, progress in addressing it can be rapid.  When tempted by pessimism he recalls the progress he’s seen in medical science in his lifetime.  He also pins hope on religious leaders coming to see that climate change is a serious failure of stewardship and our present use of fossil fuel as a deeply immoral imposition on other people and unborn generations. Their arguments will trump the objections of the vested interests, just as they did when slavery was ended in the 19th century.  And the developed nations already have the technology to achieve within ten years a substantial reduction in their fossil fuel uses.  He allows for a wide range of possibilities here, but selects three as the most likely to produce rapid turnaround – energy efficiency, hot rock energy and nuclear generation. Hot rock energy, for those who haven’t encountered it, takes advantage of hot and dry granite below the sedimentary rocks. It can be drilled, and the further down the hotter it gets. Water is injected, returns as steam for a turbine, and is subsequently recirculated. In recommending nuclear power generation he refers to improvements in safety and efficiency since the industry first started, and also looks ahead to the fourth generation reactors which will increase efficiency enormously. Finally, along with carbon-free generation we also need continent-wide low-loss DC transmission lines.

Different writers have different proposals for the best technologies, and the array can appear bewildering.  But it also means that there are plenty of options and most of them can at least contribute towards the solution.  Calvin is mainly concerned that we act quickly, and he turns to analogy again, the same one that we now hear from many quarters – arming as for a great war, doing what must be done regardless of cost and convenience.


Appendix:  The passage Calvin quotes from Robert Frost is very striking.  Worth pondering:

[All] thinking is metaphorical, except mathematical thinking. What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weaknesses. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I don’t feel fine)

CTarctic110608.jpg For REM, it “starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane“, for us, it looks like diminishing Arctic sea ice is the sign. Over at Open Mind, the blogger formerly known as Tamino looks in some detail at the sea ice/rapid warming paper I linked to yesterday. His post makes for sober reading. David Lawrence and his team at NCAR and the NSIDC examined runs of the NCAR-based CCSM climate model that included episodes of rapid sea ice loss, and looked at what happened to climate of the Arctic during those periods. They found that the rate of warming increased 3.5 times faster than the average rate models project over the coming century. From the press release:

While this warming is largest over the ocean, the simulations suggest that it can penetrate as far as 900 miles inland. The simulations also indicate that the warming acceleration during such events is especially pronounced in autumn. The decade during which a rapid sea-ice loss event occurs could see autumn temperatures warm by as much as 9 degrees F (5 degrees C) along the Arctic coasts of Russia, Alaska, and Canada.

This is what it looks like in their nifty graphic:


This is what we saw last winter.


Looks as though the process the paper describes is already under way. Canada’s a bit cooler, but then it still has some ice left at the moment…

And the end of the world? Go and re-read my recent post on methane hydrates in the shallow seas north of Siberia. Consider what Lawrence et al have to say about permafrost. Then ponder the meaning of “positive feedbacks in the carbon cycle”. What’s happening up North could make any efforts to reduce global emissions irrelevant, or at best, mean that reaching a relatively low stabilisation target (450ppm?) suddenly a lot harder. Just to make things even harder, we have 30 years of warming to go, even if we could stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gases today.

I’m going to enlarge my veggie garden, and re-examine my thoughts on resilience as a response to climate change.

[Update: Joe Romm at Climate Progress has good coverage.]

[Update 2: Nature‘s In The Field blog reports reactions to the Lawrence et al paper from aboard a ship cruising the Arctic, and in passing confirms some of my thoughts…]

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.]

Winter wonderland

205188main_2007ice_anomaly.jpg Climate cranks are keen to paint the last northern hemisphere (boreal) winter as unusually cold – a clear sign, they say, that “global warming is over”, and that global cooling has begun. Every crank’s at it: Bob Carter at Muriel’s place, Gerrit van der Lingen in an article in a Christchurch magazine and Vincent Gray in a submission to the select committee looking into the Emissions Trading Bill. It’s nonsense. The winter was cooler than many recent ones – but still 16th warmest, according to NOAA. A strong La Niña is cooling the tropical Pacific, and dragging the global average down, the precise converse of the strong El Niño that made 1998 so hot. In other words it’s weather noise, not long term change, as Stu Ostro explains at the Weather Channel. However, the cranks are right about one thing: last winter was unusual, but not for the reasons they think. In this post, I want to explore some of the reasons why this winter was out of the ordinary, and why I think it may demonstrate that rapid climate change is happening now. It’s an expanded version of how I began my last two talks…

Continue reading “Winter wonderland”

Here come the warm jets

Hot Topic has devoted a lot of posts to events in the Arctic over the last northern hemisphere summer. The loss of sea ice was dramatic – there was 25% less ice in September than the previous record, set in 2005. The little graph to the left shows just far off the trend line last year’s September area really was. And as I posted yesterday, recent studies suggest that the Arctic is primed for more significant losses in the near future. If the reduction in summer sea ice continues, there are some pretty major implications for the climate of the northern hemisphere and for our modelling of the global climate, and it’s those things that I want to consider in this post. Please note: I am not a climate scientist, and there are a lot of ifs and handwaves in this argument, but bear with me…

Continue reading “Here come the warm jets”