The Flooded Earth

The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World without Ice Caps

Paleontologist Peter D Ward is scared and not afraid to admit it. He doesn’t mince matters in his latest book The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps. His own study of Earth’s geological past makes him well aware of what changes to the ice caps can mean for sea level and also of how closely past temperature rises and falls have been tied to levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. He is alarmed by the prospect for this century and also for the centuries ahead if we keep loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. Over coming centuries we can expect metres of sea level rise at a minimum, and much more if there is rapid disintegration of one or more ice sheets. His example of how rapid change can be is a rise which occurred during the most recent ice melt 14,000 to 16,000 years ago when the sea appears to have risen by nearly 50 feet over 300 years.

Scientific reticence is not for him. He discusses it at one point in the book. In relation to sea level rise he considers the fear of being wrong is inhibiting the sounding of the alarm that new discoveries call for. He refers to James Hansen on the question of caveats and caution. Hansen regards caveats as essential to science, but warns that there is a question of degree and “gradualism” as new evidence comes to light may not be appropriate when an issue is pressing. Ward welcomes the robustness of Hansen who says he expects more than 3 feet sea level rise by century’s end. Ward also notes climatologist Stephen Rahmstorf’s recent estimate, based on a new kind of model, of a minimum of 2 feet and a maximum of almost 5 feet this century. Ward doesn’t himself settle on a particular figure for this century, but has no doubt that the rise will continue so long as carbon dioxide levels are permitted to continue to rise, and that it will be very difficult for human society to cope with.

The book has many warnings to give about what rising sea levels will mean. They are pitched to the understanding of non-specialist readers and they bring into focus the work of a wide range of researchers in a variety of fields. One area of major concern is how even a modest increase in sea level will dramatically affect world agricultural yields. Some land will be drowned, but Ward draws particular attention to salt intrusion from the sea in agricultural areas near to oceans. A detailed examination of the Sacramento Delta region in California illustrates just one highly susceptible area. Ward considers the world overpopulated, and the prospect of feeding 9 billion or more people is certainly not enhanced by encroaching sea water.

It is estimated that even an 8-inch rise in the Bay of Bengal will displace 10 million Bangladeshis in an already heavily populated country.

The flooding of threatened countries and cities as sea level rise gathers pace is the focus of another chapter of serious warning. Bangladesh and Holland are two countries he discusses. It is estimated that even an 8-inch rise in the Bay of Bengal will displace 10 million Bangladeshis in an already heavily populated country. A 3-foot rise in sea level will put Holland on the ropes; a 16-foot rise will knock it out, flooding huge areas and displacing millions. Venice and New Orleans feature in his discussion of cities, but he points to myriad coastal cities which will face neighbourhood triage – deciding which areas to fight for and which to give up. If sea level rises much beyond 5 feet expensive infrastructure will be threatened and some enormous economic blows suffered. Airport runways in San Francisco, Honolulu, and Sydney will be the first to go. In many cases it will be more cost-effective to abandon coastal cities rather than try to protect them.

Ward frequently offers imaginary scenarios at various stages of the future, ranging from twenty years through to several hundred or even thousand years. They are not comforting, but they are all too possible if we refuse to take seriously the effects our fossil fuel habits are having on the global environment. His picture of what effect the Canadian operations to extract oil from tar sands will have had by 2030 if they continue is shocking – the desolate, devastated landscape, the health and environmental hazards visited on the First Peoples, the vast increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Another imaginary picture in 2045, with carbon dioxide levels at 450 ppm, portrays the last visit of tourist divers to Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea. The reef has changed tenants. Its once-numerous corals have been replaced by microbes that thrive in hot, acidic water. No longer a coral reef in the Coral Sea, it has become a bacterial reef in the Bacteria Sea. A more distant scenario is in 2400 on the Bangladesh-India border. Carbon dioxide levels are at 1200 ppm. More than half of Bangladesh is under water. He pictures a mass border breakthrough of a tide of humanity met by tactical nuclear weapons killing fifty thousand Bangladeshis instantly and many more in weeks to come.

One can hear the scoffing of denialists and delayers. But I found nothing alarmist in the scenarios.  What else do we think is going to happen as the seas continue an inexorable rise brought on by the gradual or more than gradual disintegration of the ice sheets? Ward knows what the ice sheets mean for sea level. He also knows what elevated carbon dioxide means for global temperature. Earth has been through this before. The difference this time is that it is our own doing and that it is happening to a planet heavily populated with human beings.

The book includes a chapter titled “Extinction?”. The question mark was a small relief. Here he discusses his concern at the eventual possibility of a slow changeover of the oceans through global warming from their current “mixed” states to a stratified state which in the past has always been a prelude to biotic catastrophe. The chapter recapitulates briefly the argument of his previous book Under a Green Sky, reviewed here, and emphasises the contributory role of sea level rise to the process of slowing oceanic currents and interrupting the mixing of oxygenated top waters with those below. In his view this is a point where we need to see a vital connection between ancient climates and impending climate change. He observes that the media have not allowed scientists to make this case, not because they disbelieved it but because the past scenarios were too horrifying for us to contemplate their happening again, and soon.

There’s an element of understandable desperation in Ward’s final chapter. It considers carbon sequestration possibilities through afforestation, charcoal burial, acceleration of natural weathering processes and other measures. Also, albeit with not much conviction and some trepidation, it canvasses major geo-engineering proposals to which we may be driven in extremity.

I found Ward’s book hard to put down. He draws out the implications of what we already know with clarity and force. That is a most valuable service. The more scientists will overcome their inclination to reticence and share their fears with the general population the better. Any risks in doing so pale beside the consequences of not doing so.  We must be faced with the full reality of what we are doing to the climate while we can still escape the more extreme consequences.

[Buy via Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK, with free shipping worldwide).]

106 thoughts on “The Flooded Earth”

  1. “Ward also notes climatologist Stephen Rahmstorf’s recent estimate, based on a new kind of model, of a minimum of 2 feet and a maximum of almost 5 feet this century.”
    What observation would falsify this prediction of 6-15 mm year?

        1. Steve, you’ve asked the same question so many times that answering it becomes boring. Go read the references that Bryan has provided, and educate yourself.

          1. These reference never provide a test of falsifiablity. Answer the question. How much longer can global sea level continue to rise at no more than the 2-3 mm/year that they have since the industrial revolution, before you admit that the predictions of authors such as this one which require imminent factors of increase in this rate, are fiction?

            1. How much longer can global sea level continue to rise at no more than the 2-3 mm/year that they have since the industrial revolution


              A new view on sea level rise –
              Stefan Rahmstorf

              “Over the course of the twentieth century, the rate of sea level rise has roughly tripled in response to 0.8 °C global warming”

              “Since the beginning of satellite measurements, sea level has risen about 80 per cent faster, at 3.4 millimetres per year, than the average IPCC model projection of 1.9 millimetres per year”

            2. SLR tripled?
              The following reconstruction
              shows how dishonest is this claim of SLR tripling over the 20th C. The slow rate arounf 1900 followed on from a rapid rise in the 2nd half of the 19th C. To ascribe the supposed acceleration in the 20th C to human causes is as empty as Robyn Malcolm’s booking sheet.
              And the only accurate handle we have on SLR, ie post 1979 shows no acceleration
              Your predictions of imminent catastrophic flooding require manyfold increases in SLR and for them to start yesterday.
              Evidence = 0

          2. “Here is the REAL threat to civilization as we know it…


            … in 15 years, robots such as this will have put most
            people (leading dreary work-a-day lives) out
            of work. If they are not already out of work……

            Then, the shit will hit the fan, because the dumb-arsed
            politicians are asleep.”

            From a socialist in Sweden.

            After “…. asleep” I would add “distracted from reality by the hansenites.”

            1. That “robot” is just a puppet. We are no were close to having robots capable of making complex decisions on their own… and my bet is it probably isn’t possible to replicate “consciousness” in a machine

            2. So you’re saying the reality politicians are being distracted from by the nasty Hansenites is that we’re all going to be replaced by robots? (I nearly wrote ‘killer robots’!)

              And you’re agreeing with the assessment of this Swedish ‘socialist’?


        2. Hey Steve, those catatrophists are at it again:

          Cryo-hydrologic warming: A potential mechanism for rapid thermal response of ice sheets

          “Cryo-Hydrologic (CH) warming is proposed as a potential mechanism for rapid thermal response of glaciers and ice sheets to climate warming.”

          We show that CH warming is already occurring along the west coast of Greenland. Increased temperatures resulting from CH warming will reduce ice viscosity and thus contribute to faster ice flow.

          1. The following reconstruction shows how dishonest is this claim of SLR tripling over the 20th C

            Dishonest???. That’s rather ironic don’t you think? (note this is a rhetorical question)

            You claim there has been no acceleration in sea level (what about the 20th time here you made the same repetitive claim?). And in support you link to a study that proves you are wrong.

            It’s not like that graph is that hard to figure out Steve, but anyway let’s look at that study you linked to:

            Recent global sea level acceleration started over 200 years ago?

            ” We provide observational evidence that sea level acceleration up to the present has been about 0.01 mm/yr 2 and appears to have started at the end of the 18th century. Sea level rose by 6 cm during the 19th century and 19 cm in the 20th century.”

            So are we to assume you now accept that the global sea level rise has indeed accelerated?.

            1. It’s not like that graph is that hard to figure out Steve

              I agree; to be unable to see an upwardly trending curve in that graph is a truly astonishing example of ideological myopia in action!

            2. Sea level acceleration
              And you are trying to say that this was caused by AGHG emissions still a century or more in the future?
              And you wonder why the punters aren’t buying this flannel anymore.

            3. it’s not just emissions – we have stuffed up the carbon balance by deforestation as well, and don’t forget the early but increasing use of coal

            4. sea level acceleration – appears to have started at the end of the 18th century

              Hey what a co-incidence!. Only 4 to 5 decades after the start of the Industrial Revolution!. Who would have thunk?.

            5. Increasing solar irradiance played a large part in the warming of the late C19/early C20.

              CO2 is not the only climate forcing. Wait, didn’t I just say that?

            6. yes ctg – i was just about to say that too! trees! r2 convert all that energy into chemical energy! cut them down – more heating.

            7. also carbon black – soot from those burn offs – opaque to solar radiation – there are many factors – but almost all the result of human activity.

            8. Macro: You are speculating. In your view: the world warmed, therefore it must have been because of people, ow lets find something that could have caused it. But that isn’t very scientific. If that was done by someone who was arguing against AGW you would point this out. Don’t hold double standards please.

            9. no more than you r2!
              you are not going to tell me that the current warming trend is not the result of human activity i hope. because that is clearly established. furthermore, there was increasing human activity from 1700 onwards following the ‘enlightenment’ and the carryover of scientific enquiry into new technologies and ways of behaviour. the expansion of ’empires’ and the commencement of colonisation. – america, india,and africa and the clearing of vast stretches of land for farms. of course speculative – but consistent with the facts would you not say?

      1. I see the abstract on that link has:
        “When applied to future warming scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”

        So there you go , garbage in equals garbage out. If you guys think an “estimate” is scientific proof then you are truly lost.

        1. Steve doesn’t properly examine his own links (astonishing!) It might be a good idea to try ‘read-ing’ along with all the ‘cutt-ing’ and ‘past-ing’!

          This is the final line of the conclusion of the paper that was the basis for the ‘refuting’ chart he linked to –

          However, oceanic thermal inertia and rising
          Greenland melt rates imply that even if projected temperatures
          rise more slowly than the IPCC scenarios suggest, sea
          level will very likely rise faster than the IPCC projections

          And note, David, that this is yet another instance of people doing their own research saying the IPCC is too conservative.

          1. Please learn some Calculus 101. What you need at the very least is not only an upward trending curve (ie positive 1st derivative) but an upwardly concave curve (ie positive 2nd derivative) where this ACCELERATION (not just rise) can only be explained by AGHGs. If there is a step change in the slope it is in the mid 19th century and therefore cannot be ascribed to anything except natural causes.

          2. They can throw any obligatory nods to catastrophism they want into their paper. Their data does not support this catastrophism.
            Everyone”s entitled to their own opinion. No-one’s entitled to their own facts.

        2. But shouldn’t historical estimates of atmospheric CO2 concentrations capture that?

          Not estimates R2, actual measurements of the Earth’s atmosphere, from the air trapped in the ice cores.

    1. Steve: “What observation would falsify this prediction of 6-15 mm year?”
      Well, measurements in the Falklands show the annual increase between 1842 and 1980 was 0.75mm/yr but since 1992 the rate has increased to 2.5mm/yr, or approx .218mm/yr. A quick back-of-a-fagpacket calculation suggests if that increase continues, by 2110 we’d be staring down the muzzle of 28mm/yr. Every year. And don’t forget that nearly every prediction by IPCC has turned out to be an underestimate.

      (I’m happy for anyone to shoot holes in my math, I don’t want to be flooded out, but I look at the plans to rebuild parts of ChCh after the quake and wonder if it could be a waste of time and money.)

      1. If you based your predictions on Wellington Cook Strait will be dry in a few centuries.

        If the Swedes base their predictions of the the Gulf of Bothnia they will be thinking about all the new farmland they are going to get.

      2. One point on the earth’s surface proves nothing.
        Besides it is is exponential function abuse. To mindlessly compound a apparent change in rate to some arbitrary rate in the future is a common trick of dodgy investments.

    2. “What observation would falsify this prediction of 6-15 mm year?”
      Since this is a prediction I suppose you would need a time machine to make immediate observations.

      1. Time travel has never been an impediment to deniers – look at how many of them think that the “hide the decline” comment, written in 1999, refers to the decline in temperatures in 2008.

        Little Stevie can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality, so it’s no wonder he can’t tell the difference between past, present and future either.

  2. “…a mass border breakthrough of a tide of humanity met by tactical nuclear weapons killing fifty thousand Bangladeshis instantly …”
    What is it with you warmists and your fantasies of blowing up people?

      1. They can’t stand to see their warnings laid bare, So it doesn’t matter how often you point out that SLR is accelerating, ol’ Stevie will insist that the current SLR rate is the same as it always has been. No amount of evidence will ever convince Steve that sea levels are going to rise.

      2. The topic of blowing up Bangladeshis was introduced in the OP, not by me. Why shouldn’t it be pointed out how it exemplifies the warmist viewpoint of the human race as vermin that needs culling?

        1. Because it exemplifies no such thing. Ward is pointing to the possibly horrifying consequences of sea level rise. You could hardly misrepresent him more.

          1. “Horrifying consequences”?? Millions are dying now due to the warmists’ energy restrictions and diversion of food to biofuel.
            And Bangladesh isn’t shrinking.
            According to Wiki, “East Pakistan” had an area of 144,000 km2, Bangladesh has 147,000 km2. Another warmist meme without connection to the real world.

    1. Thank you Le Chat Noir. I enjoyed the performance, off topic though it certainly was. In my own defence I might point out that I have pulled back some distance from the enthusiasm with which I welcomed Obama’s apparent determination to act on climate change. This post , for example. Joseph Romm seems to me to have similarly changed his perception, so I’m in good company. But I mustn’t pursue the matter on this thread. Some other time perhaps.

      1. The political “game” is all about “compromise” – and that will be the undoing of us all – because you can’t compromise with physical laws.

  3. If it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck and it swims like a duck its a bloody duck!
    Before the last ice age the earth had 300 ppm of CO2. the temperature was 5c warmer and the sea levels were 6 meters higher. We are now at 390 ppm of CO2 and its still business as usual.
    All we don’t know is how long it is going to take.
    There will be so many scientists at Pine Island this summer they will need parking attendants. Are they going for a picnic? .

  4. Aljazeera has been keeping tabs on the Greenland ice melt which seems to be picking up momentum, and possibly a wake up call for action.

    Odd that these features rarely make the New Zealand news, I assume because NZ news media discerns a sense of Kiwi viewer climate change fatigue. After all we have all been saturated with climate change in the news lets move on to the next thing “The Hobbit”. The fact that we haven’t yet resolved to do anything substantial about GHGs is irrelevant.

    1. That’s right. The whole world is getting sick to the back teeth of this shopworn moral panic. Meanwhile not a single economy on this side of the world is inflicting an ETS on its consumers, except hair-shirted Aotearoa, who thinks it should be a member of the EU and wants to be just as bankrupt.

    2. Tony, it’s really odd to notice the difference between the content of TVNZ7, with all it’s doco’s on the environment and global warming, and what passes for “information” on the main channels.

      When I initially began watching Aljazeera I didn’t really have high hopes (cultural bias perhaps), but damn, they are probably the best source of unbiased and informative news on the tube.

        1. DappledWater,

          Thank goodness I am not the only one who has noticed this. Basically if you want to find out what is happening in the real world watch Aljazeera. If you want a sanitised stream of trivia then watch the New Zealand based channels. Feeding people mind numbing information is a tried and trusted method of promoting public apathy.

  5. Five years ago sea level rise was not an issue. The elevation of Greenland and Antarctica is such that it was thought it could not melt. A bit of thermal expansion and that was about it. The IPCC report only went to 750mm max by the end of the century. Not much of a problem.
    Now we are looking at a rapid melt of the glacier tails that are in the water around Greenland and West Antarctica. So far only the ice already in the water has gone in volume but the glaciers are accelerating and soon will be putting new ice into the sea.
    Now that is something to worry about.
    At one meter sea level rise London, Holland and Florida are gone.
    Will we see it by mid century? The odds are shortening.

  6. Bob you are correct for the general populous sea level rise was not an issue. I attended a conference on the impact of ice sheets and glaciers on sea level rise in the early 1980’s. The focus was on large losses of ice from West Antarctica, much talk of Pine Island Glacier . At the time I was participating in a project on Jakobshavn Isbrae to help understand what would make other glaciers accelerate in Greenland. The conclusions of this work at the University of Maine led by Terry Hughes led to an understanding that both Pine Island Glacier and Greenland Outlet glaciers would accelerate with global warming and could do so in an unstable manner. When this could begin was not a topic examined, though we did not expect it so soon.

  7. Meanwhile, in the real world:

    New calculations show that the amount of melting inland ice in Greenland is 25-50% higher in 2010 than normally, reports professional journal Ingeniøren (The Engineer). The Danish research scientist Sebastian Mernild of Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US told national daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten that his calculations show that 540 cubic kilometres of inland ice, weighing approx. 500 gigatons, have melted this summer, which is 25-50% more than in a typical year.

    In Greenland, the warmth has meant accelerated flow of melt water from glaciers into the ocean, said Jason Box, a glaciologist at Ohio State University. As a result, he added, “sea level projections will need to be revised upward.“

      1. Higher – or in this case, lower – than the long term average, John. ‘Which is 25-50% more than in a typical year’. As it says in the quotation that you plainly got only one phrase into before the kneejerk ‘aha!’ reflex took over…

        Like Steve you need to add ‘read-ing’ to your ‘cutt-ing’ and ‘past-ing’ repertoire!

        And, to throw your own question back on you, if you have any viable, credible alternative definition of ‘normal’ for the state of ice in Greenland, what is it? Finding some source that waffles on about grape vintages during MWP or something that may have happened in the Cretaceous won’t count, you know.

        1. Higher – or in this case, lower – than the long term average, John. ‘Which is 25-50% more than in a typical year’.

          What is a typical year?

          Given that we known the MWP existed in Greenland, even if the MWP was not global, there is ample evidence that Greenland and arctic regions have undergone dramatic climatic change within the last 2000 years, in the absence of CO2 forcing.

          1. This persistent piece of denier reasoning I find intriguing; to paraphrase – ‘people have been getting squashed flat by large objects for 1000s of years before the internal combustion engine was invented therefore we should pay the road toll no heed’.

            Goes well with ‘scientists don’t know what they’re talking about and here’s my scientist to prove it’ and ‘no-one can really know anything with any certainty unless a statement happens to support my argument, in which case it’s a fact!’

            And again, John, you tell us – what is a ‘typical year’?

            1. There’s evidence now that fossil-fuel CO2 forcing is having a dramatic impact of Greenland and the arctic circle generally, and a global impact on climate that is far greater than anything seen in the last 2000 years – at least – but you’re going to cling to ‘but things have changed in the past and that wasn’t AGW!’ Which only leaves one asking ‘and?…’

              Anyway, I’ve answered your question – please answer mine; if you’re unhappy with the concept of a ‘typical’ year what’s your problem with it?

              Seems like a pretty commonsense statistical concept, really – the kind of abstraction well have to use to get through the day, every day. ‘Typically the weather in February is hot’ (remember this is an Antipodean blog) – one could always be very trying and challenge this, but one would probably be behaving as a pedantic dork!

              So, is this another tedious ‘aha!’ moment much beloved by people with top-pocket pen protectors, or do you seriously not believe that one can remark significant deviations from a long-term average?

              And on a similar note I don’t believe you got around to telling us what your idea of ‘normal’ for the region is, either, and why it’s more plausible than the views of those who are merely qualified.

              Savvy people who’ve studied the region all their lives are disturbed by what’s going on in the cryosphere – what do you know that they don’t?

            2. What is denier reasoning?

              All cats have four legs. My dog has four legs, therefore my dog is a cat.

  8. Here’s a funny – a BBC presenter was told that evidence of Viking farming settlements had been found under a Greenland glacier. Her response was –

    “What were the Vikings doing farming under a glacier?”

    I am not making this up!

      1. Of course these guys still haven’t woken up to the possibility that if the MWP was indeed so much warmer than conventionally accepted, that this would be evidence supporting a greater climate sensitivity, greater uncertainties than expected.

        It never seems to occur to them that their constant appeal to ‘greater uncertainties’, or ‘hardly understood’ is a sword that cuts both ways. All it does is broaden the range of probable outcomes… in BOTH directions.

        1. Of course these guys still haven’t woken up to the possibility that if the MWP was indeed so much warmer than conventionally accepted, that this would be evidence supporting a greater climate sensitivity

          Were CO2 levels higher than now during the MWP? I don’t think so.

          Maybe there was something else driving the climate…

          **shock horror**

          1. climate is complex. whether or not something else was “driving” the climate in your example does not preclude the possibility of CO2 concentrations driving climate change now.

            shock horror

            1. John, have you read any of the scientific literature on climate change at all?

              Of course CO2 is not the only climate forcing. No one has ever claimed it is. See AR4, WG1, FAQ 2.1, Fig 2 for example, which shows a wide variety of positive and negative forcings.

              So why do you think that a warm MWP means that the current warming can’t be due to CO2?

        2. Greater uncertainty doesn’t have to be homogeneous. It is quite possible that risk is all to one side. For example, if I buy a $10 lotto ticket perhaps my expected return is only $1 but the maximum downside risk is $1 (the lowest return is 0) and the upside risk is in the millions of dollars. I am not saying this is the case with climate projections (I don’t know) but your logic on uncertainty is a little flawed.

    1. I’m idly curious as to how did evidence of Viking settlements survive under a glacier? They’re usually noted for their ability to grind everything under them into terminal moraines.
      Unless they’re referring to a stationary ice field that has melted, revealing the underlying layers, which of course begs the question “what caused an ice field extant presumably since Medieval times to suddenly melt?” Just like most of the glaciers on the planet….

  9. I notice that the last time atmospheric CO2 was at 400ppm sea levels were about 75 to 120 ft higher than today:

    These researchers have no understanding. Sea level rise 15-20 million years ago was clearly due to natural causes and the raised atmospheric CO2 was just a coincidence. Lucky for these authors that I wasn’t reviewing the paper as I would have given them the correct interpretation of their data. I have no idea how a reputable journal Science could have accepted it, oh I forgot….. they’re all in it together.

    1. why weren’t you reviewing the paper?

      maybe because you’re just some conspiracy theorist on a blog and not a scientist with any credibility in the field of climate science, perhaps?

        1. Yeah real ironic!

          “Sea level rise 15-20 million years ago was clearly due to natural causes and the raised atmospheric CO2 was just a coincidence.”

          Presumably when you say ‘natural’ you mean non-human. Well this should be obvious as humans had not yet evolved at this time. So I don’t see why it is funny for someone to claim that the change in sea level 15-20 million years ago was due to natural causes.

          What caused the CO2 level to rise?

          1. The underlying assumption in all these arguments is that CO2 is the major driver of climate.

            However, as we have seen in several recent articles by Curry, Spencer etc, there is a lot of circular reasoning involved.

            1. it doesn’t rely on co2 being the major driver in climate at all. it just relies on it being the major forcing acting on the current warming trend

          2. What caused the CO2 level to rise?

            That’s a good question. The most common cause of raised CO2 in those days was volcanic activity. But here’s a better question, what subsequently caused the CO2 to subside? Probably a combination of the world’s oceans, forests and biodiversity that sequestered away all the extra carbon.

            Today the oceans are struggling to absorb the extra carbon, with acidification in many regions the notable side effect. Terrestrial life could indeed still soak up the extra atmospheric carbon in the atmosphere even today and put things right, but for just one species standing in the way….. We are, however, rapidly approaching a tipping point where there will be so much GHG that it will take many hundreds of thousands of years or more for the slow uptake mechanisms of the carbon cycle to take effect since you can only have so much carbon soaked up by biomass. There is an unproven option to grow biomass for fuel and the CO2 produced to be sequestered in deep saline aquifers, but this is both slow and costly and unproven. But if it does eventually prove successful then who should pay for it? Any geo-engineering prospect is going to come at a significant cost because there is no such thing as a free lunch. It should of course be paid for by polluters, which is probably why we won’t be seeing geo-engineering any time soon.

            1. So did the extra CO2 cause mass extinction through ocean acidification? Was there a mass extinction of terrestrial organisms?

              I don’t really feel like you have answered the first questions also (what caused the CO2 to rise). Your assumption may correct. But if it is not it begs the question – if rising temps cause CO2 to rise, and CO2 causes temps to rise, then there must be some kind of natural stabilising effect in order to avoid a run away greenhouse effect.

            2. So did the extra CO2 cause mass extinction through ocean acidification?

              Yes, in the Permian extinction a.k.a The Great Dying, the end of the Cretaceous and The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal maximum. Each time many marine organisms were extinguished.

              And yet those events are dwarfed by the current rate of change in ocean ph.

              Acidification in Deep Time

              “It is the rate of CO2 release that makes the current great experiment so geologically unusual, and quite probably unprecedented in Earth history.”

            3. The Miocene wasn’t associated with any known extinction event, but yes the Permian Triassic certainly was, the most dramatic in earth’s history. The P T extinction was initiated by the eruption of the Siberian traps. Interestingly though is the observation of a subsequent large carbon excursion from that period which was shown to be methane. As I understand it, the methane carbon isotopic signature was not the right sort to be of volcanic origin, but the sort that you would normally find to be derived from plants and/or animals, in other words most likely from terrestrial and/or oceanic reservoirs probably the result of decaying biomass. The big question is could this happen again? My feeling is that we shouldn’t be actively pursuing a policy of trying to find out.

              The carbon cycle is fairly straight forward, you have the atmosphere, and ocean/terrestrial reservoirs and slow accumulation into the earth’s crust. There is no law that says that Mother nature will always come to the rescue and buffer GHG emissions, earth has a limited capacity to do so in the short term. If the P T extinction is anything to go by, recovery could be painstakingly slow. Short on a geological time scale, but on a human life span time scale, ages. With a repeat of P T you would almost certainly see a big dip in the world’s stock markets.

            4. We only continue to use coal for energy because it is cheap, but if you factor in carbon sequestration it becomes very expensive which is why ‘the research is not complete’. Each ton of coal produces two tons of CO2 and a typical coal station burns 10,000 tons a day. How do you get rid of 20,000 tons of CO2?


            5. Not to mention umpteen tonnes of fly ash per day. Where do Huntly et al dump all their toxic waste?

  10. whether the reason in that paper is circular or not…I don’t know I haven’t read it, and I suspect neither have you…but whether it is or not has no bearing on this discussion. The amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is in the case of recent events, changing in response to warming caused by increases in CO2. this is all very clearly documented by the instrumental record.

    1. You posted a link to a blog written by someone who thinks “magic happened” is a scientific explanation for the emergence of life… you will have to forgive my scepticism

          1. His understanding of what constitutes a scientific argument certainly should be called in question.

            Why? Does it negate his argument ?

            Are all Christians not allowed to have opinions on climate science?

            Curry’s argument is similar, but she, of course is also invalid. She has dared to criticise the Hockey Team and is therefore a witch that should be burned at the stake.


            1. Come on John. Christians do have opinions on climate science. But only a minority of Christians buy the ID or YEC story.

              otoh, I’m not entirely convinced by David’s view. Some people are capable of extreme compartmentalisation. There are scientists of many religious faiths – and some of their religious views would seem, to a non-adherent, to run directly counter to the science they competently engage in. But somehow they manage.

    2. John D: How do you get rid of 20,000 tons of CO2?
      ……Plant trees. Isn’t that what the ETS is for?
      Except that the rate at which we are dumping fossil carbon back into the biosphere is VASTLY more than even the worst case scenarios from the past, certainly much, much faster than natural processes can sequester it, even without those processes be crippled by our excesses. For e.g. the PETM was probably caused by flood basalt eruptions under the proto-Atlantic Ocean that released huge quantities of CO2 & methane clathrates and caused a global 6°C rise with widespread extinctions. Over 2500Gt of carbon was released but the event was spread over 1000s of years while we are releasing around 30Gtpa or 30,000Gt/ millennium. It will take a lot of trees to soak that up.

      1. It will take a lot of trees to soak that up.

        How much is a “lot”?

        I seem to recall a recent post where we were suggesting planting 13% of NZ in trees.

      1. Curtsey. Gracious nods to the assembly of gentlemen.

        There are a couple of other women, but I presume their less frequent presence means they have real work to do rather than the luxury of semi-retirement I enjoy.

      1. Excellent!
        I’m greatly interested in the dynamics of the climate change debate and why it appears men grossly outnumber the women when it comes to involvement.
        Any insights?

  11. Steve Wrathall October 24, 2010 at 11:24 am

    The whole world sick to somewhat further down (or in) than the back teeth – and yep, including the aforesaid Steve-the-W-(onder)-rathall, would be entirely natural.. would it not!

    Not as likely, however, as temperature increases greater than aforesaid 0.8 degrees C, and atmospheric CO2s greater than aforesaid 300/400ppm. And yep, here in the southern hemi… hey guys you aint seen nothing yet..

    Now that “reconstructions” are okay why we can all happily contemplate SW’s positivism at say, +5 degrees C.. of course you wanna get there quicker so Fossil-energised-growth is the quickest known to man and plant…

    BTW: Swedes could just luv so much more land to farm but no way do we follow suit..

    which, perhaps explains why some noted farmers here have come out in favor of northerner land buyouts.. and, oh yes I’m sorry fonterra but SA is likely more in Steve’s wondrous future aetiology than solution.

    Not that he would have such a concern.. for him it’s all about we’ve been there before..

    And you aint.. see! Hence let it be termed Steve’s absolute— the absolute aint!

    1. Farmers are going to have an increasingly tough time as warming progresses. The reports from NOAA say that although precipitation is increasing so is evaporation and the balance is towards drying out. If the USA grain belt suffers in the same way as Russia’s, and its more question of when rather than if, it will be a disaster.
      Moving North might work, but its a big risk and it would be easier to stop burning coal and stay put.

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