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Lately, in a strong sign of enormous change brewing in the arctic, methane levels in the region have been spiking to unheard of levels.
The reason is that on the heels of a multi million year and still fast accumulating change upward in earth’s long term atmospheric energy recapture, things are happening below the water’s surface (and in the many fields of (traditionally) near perpetual frost covering much of the northern land of the globe), that are in turn starting to affect what’s happening above the surface.
This is especially true when it comes to the “second” most important greenhouse gas, methane; a gas we may be greatly underestimating in terms of net future impact. And for some pretty key reasons:
Namely, the fact of increasing release of methane from otherwise long frozen deposits that our geologically radical atmospheric alteration is increasingly setting in motion. And the way we currently measure this gas’s importance. That is, based upon current amounts; the fact that more than half of it largely disappears within 10 years; and the fact we can lessen our own emissions which have, at least historically, largely contributed to methane levels’ sudden modern rise.
This current method of assesment that hinges on the fact methane doesn’t last very long, brings up a fundamental problem in assessing methane’s future impact if levels of methane in fact stay high or go higher: That is, the methane gas breaking down is replenished by new methane; and thus future effect estimations based upon most of the current methane in the atmosphere breaking down won’t apply, and total future effect will be greatly underestimated.
Methane, or CH4, is a potent greenhouse gas – many, many times more effective at absorbing and re-radiating thermal radiation than its more popular cousin CO2.
In terms of earth’s accumulating net energy balance – the phenomenon a little misleadingly but very popularly called “climate change,” CH4 may be considered less critical than CO2. That is, if levels don’t continue to significantly rise.
But at about 1/250th of the current the atmospheric concentration, but perhaps as high as near 200 times the GWPe (or Global Warming Potential equivalent) of CO2 at any one point in time, methane still plays a huge role in the increase in thermal radiation energy recapture in our atmosphere, and the resulting long term earth impacts from it, that in essence constitute this infamous and often misunderstood climate change phenomenon.
Perhaps even more interestingly yet rarely noted, the total percentage increase in atmospheric methane over pre-industrial levels is also much higher than the total percentage increase in Carbon Dioxide from pre industrial levels. (Total concentration of atmospheric methane rose from roughly 750-800 ppb, to just above 1800 – an increase of around 100%- while concentrations of carbon dioxide rose from roughly 280 or 290 ppm to about 400 – an increase of around 40%.)
Thus the total net effect of modern industrial era increases of methane on earth’s climate shows as a much higher ratio to carbon dioxide than when just the relative total amount of each gas in the atmosphere – which includes all of the gas that reflects pre industrial levels as well, as normally done – is considered.
If the total energy recapturing effect of the increase in trailing methane levels over pre industrial times is considered in relation to the total energy recpaturing effect of the increase in trailing carbon dioxide levels over pre industrial times, the overall impact of each gas is closer than the wide disparity in importance normally attributed to each. (Methane increases are at about a 1:110 ratio to carbon dioxide increases over pre industrial times, and methane is potentially more than 110x as effective per unit of mass, as methane, at recapturing energy than carbon dioxide, although there are limitations concerning how much of this effect is realized at any point given a few considerations briefly referenced below.)
The effect of any unit mass of methane (that’s not replaced), over a longer period is far less, however. For instance, methane is estimated to have only have around 25 times the warming effect of CO2 over a 100 year period. (And about 85 times over a 20 year period.) This is because over a 100 year period methane only exists as methane for a small fraction of the time; and over a 20 year period it still exists as methane a minority of the time, with slightly more than half of it gone after just 10 years.
So since it breaks down somewhat quickly, if we’re trying to gauge the future effect of the gases in the atmosphere right now, it makes sense to use a long time period – such as “100 years,” the most common figure – to estimate methane’s potential future climate change impact; and thus project that impact as much lower than if we didn’t otherwise do this, since most of the gas won’t be methane during the great majority of the period.
But, if methane stays at current levels or goes higher, this doesn’t make any sense: The same amount of methane being projected out over 100 years on the far reduced basic, will instead continue to be in the atmosphere, and thus have an effect many times greater than will be yielded by using the far lower “warming potential” for each gram of methane that, essentially, is largely based upon most of it not existing during that time period.
Modern methane levels, just like carbon dioxide, have also essentially shot straight up in relation to the long term trailing geologic record. And there’s high risk of them not only staying high (making current assessments of methane’s future impact significantly underestimated), but climbing higher still – possibly even exploding higher over a relevant span of time in the near geologic future:
For – and well below the radar of most modern society – methane levels in the arctic have recently been spiking much, much, higher.
And this increasing signal of arctic change, may be starting to tell a rather remarkable story.
Methane, and the Constraint of our Imaginations
Below is an EPA graph that on the left shows methane levels up to the present, dating back about 800,000 years. The right blows up the last .00008 years of the left side of the chart, and shows methane levels from 1950 to 2013. As can be seen, prior to the industrial revolution and for going on at least near a million years, atmospheric methane levels were never above 800 ppb.
Yet notice on the left of the graph how at the very end of the 800,000 year period, the levels a) essentially shoot straight up, and b) geologically, shoot up by a whopping total amount.
That is, during our modern industrial age – barely a pinprick of even recent geologic time – methane levels have suddenly shot up to more than double the highest average atmospheric concentration earth has seen in close to a million years. (And, if we consider past levels in comparison to today’s, levels have very likely been lower for a lot longer, although harder to directly ascertain since the most reliable source of trailing geologic atmospheric data – ice core sampling from holes drilled “backward” in time down into layers of thick glacial ice – only goes back about 800,000 years.)
That is, methane levels have not just significantly increased, but have gone up by more than an additional 800 ppb increase alone. And lately in the arctic, methane levels have spiked an additional 800 ppb or more further above that.
Methane is nowhere near as long lasting as the other major long lived greenhouse gases. And it breaks down (largely into CO2) over several years. (It takes about 12 years for a quantity of methane to be reduced to around 37% of its original amount.)
Yet it’s an intensely more powerful thermal radiation reabsorbing and reradiating greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So the more of the original methane that still exists as such (or that’s simply replaced by new methane) at any one time, the higher its energy capture and re radiation potential (the “trapping” of heat energy that then in turn transfers large amounts back to the earth, ice sheets, oceans, and so on and so on), will be.
In fact, over a 20 year period, the global warming potential per unit mass of methane is, again, somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 or so times that of carbon dioxide. This means that over 20 years 1000 extra tonnes of methane added to the net amount in the atmosphere can have up to the same energy recapture effect as roughly 85,000 extra tonnes of carbon dioxide added to the net amount in the atmosphere.
It actually gets somewhat more complicated than this, as the more total greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, the more heat energy is trapped all around, including capture of already absorbed and re rediated energy that is re radiated downward (back toward earth) and then re captured and re radiated once again in all directions.
The impact of increased trapped radiation back upon earth’s systems from an increase in total greenhouse gas concentrations also have interacting effects that also impact total net long term energy retention. (For instance, a sufficient increase in trapped radiation will lessen total ice cover, grealy increasing solar absorption. This means more direct warming – heat energy retention – of the physical land, ice and in particular global ocean will occur, less sunlight will be reflected back upward as still short wavelength solar radiation (which essentially isn’t “trapped” or absorbed by greenhouse gases), and far more will ultimately be radiated in medium wavelength, as thermal radiation, and re captured by greenhouses instead.)
But this potentially non linear nature of total net greenhouse gas radiative forcing is also part of why just a few hundred ppm of CO2 and ppb of CH4, and small amounts of a few other lesser gases, are sufficient to keep earth at about 58 degrees on average world wide, instead of all but a lifeless frozen ball of ice averaging 0 degrees; but a doubling of these amounts wouldn’t jack up earth’s average temperature to 116 degrees, which would turn earth into a furnace. This is a gross oversimplification, but it helps show the complication.
(It also helps show how on the flip side, a fairly large increase in those concentrations will, among other things, ultimately likely raise the earth several degrees, depending on feedbacks and other effects, and far more relevantly presents a larger risk range of lower end effects to major if not radical climatic shifting. Although every single possible complication, and multiple invented ones, are grasped at to try and reinforce the archaic, and very much the opposite of Galileo, belief that man can’t much relevantly affect his own global environment here on earth.)
Methane also re radiates certain bands of thermal radiation wavelength, so as more and more methane is present, the increased recapture of energy already trapped by molecules, which would amplify far more quickly from major increases in methane than in the case of carbon dioxide since it’s such a far more potent energy capturing gas, as well as from the atttendant potential limitation of available energy at that wavelength, would tend to cause methane to have a somewhat lower total energy recapture impact than its total warming potential (potential per molecule to absorb and re radiate thermal radiation).
But the bigger point is that even in terms of assessing methane’s overall impact by using the far more finely honed but complex and inexact radiative forcing quotients than the simplistic story told here, higher ongoing amounts of methane in our atmosphere mean a very different and far more powerful story than the one currently told by estimates that are based on current atmospheric methane amounts and the fairly fast breakdown rate of that methane, that thus uses a far lower energy trapping quotient than is likely going to be realized in the atmosphere from total methane concentrations over time.
In other words, if we project the effect of 1800 ppm methane over 100 years, as is commonly done, and use the GWPe wherein most of that 1800 ppm is not methane for the great majority of the time period, the estimated future effect will only be a small fraction of what the real effect on total atmospheric thermal radiation recapture will in fact be if methane levels stay at 1800 (or go higher).: thus meaning for the entirety of that 100 years, it’s all methane. (The molecules being broken down thus being replaced so that the total concentration, and thus energy recapture potential and effect, stays far, far higher.)
For instance, if we use a 20 year GWP for estimating methane’s future global warming impact, the future impact will be considered far higher. Yet even over just a 20 year period a fairly high percentage of any methane originally released into the atmosphere has already broken down.
Knock the measuring period down to about 10 years, and the total heat energy re-capture (or “surface emitted thermal radiation absorption and re-radiation”), potential shoots up far far higher than 85 times the impact, gram for gram, than carbon dioxidem, even if all of it isn’t realized due to multiple capture of methane’s target wavelengths.
In short, when methane is looked at as methane – what it should be looked at in terms of assessing the impact of future atmospheric methane levels over time – the effect is far more profound than when looked at as only a short term gas projected out, based on today’s levels, and with the expectation that most of today’s methane won’t be methane for the great majority of the period:
Which, in turn, is great for assessing the impact of today’s methane levels alone. But it’s potentially the opposite for assessing the actual long term impact of total ongoing atmospheric methane levels and, though harder to project, what’s actually relevant here to gauge the impact of that methane: What methane will be over the next X years, not just what it is this moment.
And, again, as there is more carbon buried as methane in frozen but now beginning to thaw sea floor bottoms than already exists in the entire atmosphere (and many many hundreds of times more than exists as a carbon atom making up part of a molecule of methane), and likely a little over one and a half times that, give or take, on land based permafrost areas (which would emit as both carbon and methane), the issue is not just one of how much our farm raised ruminant animals chew cud, wetlands, landfills, gas leakage or fossil fuel extraction and transport, etc,; but at this point, more predominantly one of the ongoing march of increasing ocean temperatures and melting ice sheets, and the uncertain but potentially huge impact upon otherwise long frozen (i..e, sequestered) methane gas as well as additional carbon.
Thus, a big increase in methane’s concentrations over time is potentially far more significant – due to the shorter shrift than carbon dioxide that methane usually gets, due to its smaller concentrations, and far shorter realistic lifespan – than might at first appear.
In other words, the average concentration of the gas over trailing time is what ultimately mattered. (Whatever net effect it was; even if most of this energy recapture effect that, along with the geogolically relevant increases in long term greenhouse gases that produce it essentially define the climate change challenge, has, so far gone into changing earth’s future climate impacting systems, and accumulating surface land, ice and ocean energy.)
But what the gas will be in the future, not what today’s gas alone will do, is what matters for the future. And thus average levels of the gas in the future will matter far more than methane effects typically projected based upon today’s levels and methane’s high breakdown rate.
And this will be even more relevant – perhaps far more so – if there is ever a very large influx into the atmosphere over a shorter, or simply ongoing, period of time, and sufficient to have a fairly powerful short term amplifying heat recapture effect.**** [The reason for this seeming oversight is that climate change has been hard enough to illuminate to the public particularly in the face of sound bite news, and rampant information that as a matter of advocacy simply seeks to try and refute the issue, rather than – mistakes and all, in any random direction as part of the process of evaluating itself – simply try and objectively and dispassionately assess it, or just an extremely poor overall assessment of what risk ranges mean or the fact that that it’s risk ranges, not what will assuredly happen or that can somehow be exactly predicted (nearly impossible as that is) that is relevant to assessing this issue.]****
And, lo and behold — and barely touched on as we focus almost exclusively on air temperature and the enormously mistaken (if not flat out geo-physically ridiculous) “skeptic” idea that for climate change to be “real” or significant means we have to be able to (almost impossibly) predict the exact amount of short term average ambient air change in advance — there’s a fairly extensive risk of just such ongoing high, if not at some point significantly increasing, methane levels.
Given the enormous amounts of methane buried in shallow sea bed areas, as well as the enormous amounts of carbon buried in the northern hemisphere’s vast permafrost – much of which will be emitted as methane when and as our northern permafrost melts, and just as it is slowly starting to do – a large, ongoing and even crescendoing influx of methane over a fairly relevant period of geologic time, is a large possibility; while some ongoing and increasing total methane release from the impact of atmospheric change itself, rather than directly as a result of at this point controllable anthropogenic activities, is very likely.
And the large ongoing methane increase side of this equation is an even stronger possibility if, as many scientists project, there’s a short period of rapid geologic change as a result of the enormous and growing earth energy balance changes currently underway due to a massive and steady input of long lived heat energy trapping gaseous molecules into the atmosphere. Which input in turn – and in just a few hundred years, much of it just in the last 50 or so – has increased current concentrations of carbon dioxide alone to amounts likely not seen on earth in three million or more years.
And in an event of a rapid geologic climate shifting – which could happen at any time but becomes increasingly likely as our oceans continue to warm at a remarkably fast clip, and polar ice cap melt rates at both ends of the earth continue to accelerate – the rapid release of a lot of methane, with its powerful warming potential relative to carbon dioxide, would significantly amplify and extend any climate shifting process, perhaps even fundamentally re-write it.
This is something we’re not quite getting because our imaginations tend to be somewhat constrained by what we’re used to seeing, and we don’t quite integrate what a multi million year change to the long term molecular heat trapping property of the atmosphere, in a remarkably short geologic time period, really means in terms of earth’s shifting energy balance. (And as sites like this – now to nearly 300,000,000 page views, and overwhelming influence – and countless others seek to refute the very idea itself, to perpetuate an ideological, old school belief of non relevant atmospheric impact, under seeming guise of “reason”and an almost non stop onslaught of irrelevant, cherry picked, or issue misconstruing arguments and claims, all with enormous built in rhetoric.) To us it’s still sort of “abstract.”
Massive change, well after the cause – underlying energy shifts – in what we can later see, won’t be so abstract.
Sunday (July 5) Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Professors and sometimes Congressional climate “expert” Judith Curry published another piece on her popular and influential climate skeptic blog – one castigating Marcia McNutt, the editor of Science, for publishing an editorial therein on climate change that called for action.
The following is a response to Curry (which was also originally written as a comment to the piece itself, and edited a bit here for clarity):
You make a remarkable number of presumptions in your piece, and in so doing engage in far more manipulation and game playing than McNutt ever did. [Edit: This is a bad line. Curry is likely not trying to manipulate, although as with much rhetoric today the piece accomplishes exactly that. Game playing also implies intent, which is also likely absent.]
I don’t support the “debate is over” language here – it can convey something very different, and far too easily manipulated, from what it really means. But the debate to which she specifically refers is a false one in the first place.
That you don’t see that, and write any type of argument possible to perpetuate the belief or claim that long term climate isn’t being significantly altered by man, or that it’s not being impacted in such a way as to cause a relevant risk range of major climatic shifting, is part of what perpetuates the circular catch-22 of closed loop “logic” that goes on here. As is, similarly, the use of any argument or semantics possible to refute the fact that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists also recognize this.
4. Nor is that stifling “debate.” Just because you want to or have convinced yourself you believe something and others say there is a consensus (right or wrong) that contradicts it, is not stifling debate. But the claim asserting otherwise, let alone in the inflammatory and greatly science impugning manner in which it is often written and found here, is also part of the wordsmith, rhetorical, semantic if unrecognized “game playing” that goes on to play every card possible, even many imagined ones, to reinforce and perpetuate the same old notions.
5. Regarding those notions, it’s somewhat of a stretch, to borderline nonsensical, to think a multi million year increase to earth’s long term chemical atmospheric energy recapture wouldn’t ultimately significantly impact earth, and the overall trailing data and signs of effect (not just air temperature but the total picture) corroborates almost inescapable common sense on the issue even further. (Though even that is misrepresented and cherry picked apart by “skeptics” and this site, and such sense escapes.)
6. There is also no evidence to support such a notion: Aside from basic issue miscontruction, unrecognized broad brush and irrelevant philosophical semantics, or scientific tautology, there isn’t a single cohesive or rational theory why such a multi million year and ongoing long term atmospheric energy recapture shift wouldn’t ultimately significantly impact earth or, to hone it down further, present a relevant risk range of moderate (if highly unlikely), to severe alteration.
Let alone of course one that would simultaneously and rationally explain the highly “coincidental” pattern of just such signs of long term change as would be expected, though it’s obvious (or perhaps not) exactly what would happen can not be precisely predicted in advance. (Yet another concept falsely conflated with the idea that climate scientists are therefore “wrong” on the basic issue.) And let alone how those signs could be explained as bizarre “coincidence” at the very same time a thus multi million year shift in earth’s long term molecular energy capture would nevertheless not be affecting earth itself.
You falsely turn almost everything into something it is not. Sure there are issues with the editorial, but editors have the right to write editorials. Your conclusion that therefore papers that show climate change to be less or not real won’t be published (if one that doesn’t badly mangle the issue even exists), is specious.
“Debate over” or not – although it’s still not clear what debate ever existed, as the issue is the same as it has been for 30 years, just a lot more corroboration has rolled in, and emissions added – science thrives on challenge and contrary theories and illustration of basic mistake.
Such a paper, since they are rare on climate change (in fact, apart from making basic mistake themselves they practically don’t exist for the same reasons expressed above – i.e., there is nothing to support the ‘skeptic” position expressed here but misconstrued and cherry picked attacks upon climate science), could even get preferential treatment or a wider “berth” in the name of what science is. Even more so because if something suggested climate change to be less significant overall, that would be GOOD news.
You can guess otherwise, but you are basically saying that because she wrote what you think is a bad editorial Science is likely now jaded against actual relevant science in its papers. That’s a big leap, and a little spurious.
14. But what you do is far more, and it’s something you’re extremely good at. You twist all of this into something that it’s not; and in the process demolish any decent points to temper the way the challenge of climate change is communicated (indeed your hostility toward it and support of such hostility prompts such editorials, born of frustration, as McNutt’s), in the process.
15. You give credit to a highly hyperbolic, borderline libel, “Digging into Clay” and highly manipulative graphic – the irony of this being stated by a skeptic in reference to climate scientists rather than numerous leading skeptics is somewhat remarkable, but par for the course – and then come up with one that is even more misleading yourself: For it uses semantics again to twist what is really happening, and fit it into your own extreme formulation (for which your minions here and in our half anti science Congress are so grateful and look to you for guidance that you might never realize that despite some good work you’re egregiously, fundamentally wrong on this issue, and thus “let them down”), to continue to cling to heavily one sided beliefs and perceptions on this issue.
To wit, here’s what you suggest as Science and science’s plausible direction, fitting your own self-reinforcing formulation on climate change where dismissing disparaging or disagreeing with climate scientists is debate and all A okay. But where dismissing disparaging or disagreeing with climate change skeptics on the other hand is not, but is instead very different. (Also conveniently ignoring how some of your more hard core cohorts, and sometimes yourself through implication, call climate change redress a “threat to the world” and worse.):
“Appeal to authority
Absence of doubt
Intolerance of debate
Desire to convince others of the ideological ‘truth’
Willingness to punish those that don’t concur”
You undermine any legitimate such concerns by exaggerating and largely (and ironically) misapplying it. “They don’t like my point of view [let alone your pattern of fundamental construction errors] so science is bad and wants to quash views and punish people for views” and here’s a frustrated editorial by the editor of Science ineloquently expressing the basic consensus that keeps getting misrepresented by skeptics, “so I’ll use it as an excuse to bad mouth science, Science, and climate scientists again and re support the common meme that there’s real scientific debate among climate scientists as to whether our actions have altered (and will keep altering) the earth in a way that is and likely will increasingly impact climate and it’s being unfairly and anti scientifically quashed…
….Because that’s what we need to believe to continue being skeptics rather than just focusing on the merits of our arguments relative to the real science, and maybe getting some papers published in the (now of course, conveniently ideological) science magazines that show how the earth’s fairy Godmothers will micromanage basic physics so our Goldilocks climate under which we evolved – and despite a massive multi million year dump to earth’s basic insulation layer – stays “just right” for us humans and the things upon which we rely.”
19. You are using the “authority is not always right” canard to get around the relevant facts in instances where leading experts (in an overwhelming consensus despite your rhetoric and misrepresentation on that as well) are essentially right, when you don’t want to accept or understand why, or are clinging to things to render yourself incapable of seeing it.
20. There is plenty of doubt. The doubt is different from the mistakes, misrepresentations, and circular logic raised and used by skeptics, however, and involves the ongoing process of learning more and more fine detail about this issue and its accumulating effects and correcting, adjusting, learning process of science. You conflate the two because you don’t see these mistakes, misrepresentations and circular logic, as they support your “view.” (One which, to boot, “just happens” to be right in this instance and most climate scientists “wrong,” at least according to your logic. Which would be fine if your reasons why they were wrong didn’t themselves represent a cherry picking, semantic rhetoric, and basic issue misconstruing approach.)
And this leads to the third: “Intolerance of debate.” Skeptics can say anything they want, even (as leading magazine NRO did) call Michael Mann the science equivalent of child molestor (remarkable zealotry to even fathom by the way.) Yet pointing out the errors of skeptics, and or disagreeing, or even using rhetoric back, is suddenly being “intolerant of debate.”
22. It reminds one of Fox news – ironic since I understand you are not a big fan? – which alleges nearly anything it wants, then when anything is shown that disagrees or shows mistakes or takes a different perspective that is unflattering to Fox, it’s “quashing debate”: Debate suddenly meaning “support me, and don’t say things I don’t want to hear: yet not only don’t those rules, but no rules whatsoever apply to things we say, because ‘that’s different.'”
I grant you there’s a tendency on the part of some concerned with climate change to sometimes use a tenor of intolerance for skeptics, in large part because of much of this same inane and issue twisting rhetoric (and attacks upon everyone else while rhetorically turning even disagreement and argument into “quashing” discussion), and in part because they (sadly) can’t really believe that skeptics really “believe” what they say. It’s human nature. But it’s just these types of responses as your piece above, and the need to constantly twist the issue and impugn almost everyone not on your side (as I have been nearly every time I have responded here) that then produces exactly what you complain about.
I also agree mistakes are made by those concerned about the issue which shows an insensitivity, a lack of empathy, to those who really think climate change is overblown, and are inundated with so much self reinforcing misinformation and rhetoric (such as here, particularly in the comments, and elsewhere) in a largely self selected “news” world. But for the skeptic to understand that, the skeptic has to first understand the fundamental mistake and pattern of misinformation (or irrelevant information made through issue misconstruction and rhetoric to sound relevant) that so called and ironically labeled climate change skepticism requires, in which case one would no longer be a skeptic.
(The term “skeptic” by the way is more than a little ironic because skepticism is the opposite in this case, consisting instead of a belief — with no basis but to instead misconstrue and attack climate science and one-sidedly cherry pick things like this McNutt editorial — while it of course oddly labels the idea that a massive energy shift would affect what’s basically ultimately a long term cumulative expression of energy (climate) as itself a belief rather than scientific reason.)
But those are different issues, and a problem in climate change communication; they do not go to the heart of, or have anything to do with, the actual assessment of this geophysical issue and the risk ranges it presents and why. (Though they do keep people from being able to assess it better.) And they normally pale in comparison to the hostility and projection that emanates from the skepticism side of climate change, which to boot, has the basic underlying issue fundamentally wrong, and remains intransigent to (and in some cases seemingly incapable of) open-mindedly contemplating why.
27. I’m 100% with you on “intolerance for debate” being a bad thing. But I’m 0% with you on your unrecognized conflation of dismissing the relevancy of incorrect climate skeptic arguments (though I think they should be pointed out instead), pointing out mistakes, or offering frustrated views, with “intolerance for,” or “quashing of” debate – yet that is exactly what you do, do here, and do on every piece that raises or touches on this issue (and many of yours do).
28. Your 4th alleged sin was the desire to convince others of an ideological truth. Is that not what skeptics are doing on something which is not ideological, but science, or pure geophysical assessment, and logic? As well as on all of the underlying “ideas” driving most skepticism, such as the enormous (if not hysterical) presumption that producing the “good” of less pollution, ending reliance on foreign oil, and mitigation of long term geologically radical atmospheric alteration is somehow itself not of real value, unlike all the silly things we DO do that contribute to GDP, and even though the production of alternative energy and agricultural processes and practices is itself as valid a component of GDP, growth and jobs as anything else.
You also conflate the words of a few with what, to conveniently cling to “skepticism” you assign to anyone concerned about climate change, namely the imposition of some otherwise unrelated ideology, and then the expression of belief of that ideology. This is once again more of the semantic pattern of anything but an open objective look at the actual issue and not cherry picked items and rhetoric to reinforce the “skeptic” belief.
Your last is the creation of a red herring (if I am using that correctly) and then acting as if your conjecture is reality; a willingness to “punish.”
Some people utter some foolish statements on this, and I point it out when I see it. But it’s the exception not the rule. And most of even these are misrepresented or taken out of context (and again often highly cherry picked). While again, this is done to reinforce the self sealing nature of climate change “skepticism,” that: “see, if we don’t agree they want to punish us” in order to fit into the imaginary (but believed) meme that simple engagement back, even on a less hostile level than many skeptic sites and leaders engage, and so forth, is “quashing views,” and pointing out errors or dismissing rhetoric is “intolerance for debate.”
32. The irony is that to the extent this becomes more ideological on the skeptic side (to perpetuate the belief pretty much regardless of what points are made and even ongoing accumulation of corroborating data rolls in, the very things skeptics worry about only increase in likelihood – stupid rules out of panic at some point in the future, due to horribly misinformed, ideological and semantic game playing “assessment” earlier, as well as more and more dismissiveness of skeptics as people who “know full well they are wrong but are lying because they are selfish” (assessments I don’t generally agree with). Which in turn only further self seals in the tautological circle of logic and perception that, to cling to skepticism, is created and being perpetuated here in the name of ‘debate.’ But which is far from it.
33. It’s misinformation, it’s issue miscontruction, it’s demonizing, it’s castigation, its excessive rhetoric and semantic cherry picking, all because the “belief” that simply stopping dirty polluting fuels and using clean ones, etc., is some sort of bad thing, and thus that the main issue prompting it (aside from the pollution aspect) – so called “climate change” or the far more accurate “radical long term atmospheric alteration” therefore isn’t real, that big of a deal, or is fundamentally unclear. And thus refuse to see what is, and use every trick in the book (again, here’s a classic but typical one), to continue to believe what one has already been “convinced” of or wants to believe, as a way to avoid the real debate – and what should be being focused on: What does this risk range really present, and what are the best possible, most pro employment opportunity, choice, low mandate approaches to our need to collectively tackle this simple yet fairly gargantuan thing we’ve a bit improvidently done; namely, radically change the long term nature of the atmosphere (that we’re still massively adding to), through processes we’ve become a bit habituated to but that for the most part don’t make a lot of sense.
34. But skeptics think that these things “do make sense,” don’t want to “give them up” (even when totally market oriented such as through a C tax and minor regulation so through choice better mechanisms become more beneficial and shift our economy to a more sensible direction), and so therefore convince themselves that the otherwise completely unrelated geophysical reality, isn’t what almost every single climate scientist studying this (itself again misrepresented) says, the total picture of ongoing earth system changes strongly corroborates, and common sense suggests.
And rational discussion becomes lost. Often, under the believed guise of it.
Twenty some years of attempts to come up with any rational theory that would explain why major rises in long term molecular atmospheric energy recapture wouldn’t relevantly impact climate, have led to nothing but an enormous amass of misrepresentations, and a great deal of misinformation on the “climate change” issue.
It has also led to a host of super sounding theories that ultimately come down to nothing more than the assertion and belief that “it just won’t affect climate much.”
One of the mainstay arguments has been that “climate change has not been proven.”
This is like claiming that someone trying to leap from the top of a three story barn, onto a 4 foot deep bed of hay with 12 pitchforks pointed upward and hidden just below the top layer of straw, doesn’t present a major risk of injury because what will happen – or even that the move is dangerous – “can’t be proven.” But the exact effect we are having on the earth’s energy systems, and ultimately its climate, can’t be proven.
That is, our actions and their effects cover an exceedingly long time period; climate is inherently variable, and means a pattern of regional or global weather over very long periods of time – several decades; on top of the uncertainty of being able to determine what the present climate is, or, further complicating the picture, if it is changing without passing through exceeding large periods of time, there is also almost assuredly a significant lag between our actions and most of their effects; there is only one earth – one variable to measure over super long periods of time; and, most critically there are absolutely no controls (ways to replicate or remove added changes on otherwise identical systems, or planet earths).
Therefore we can have no way of knowing what the earth would be doing at any one moment, or what it would be doing climatically over long periods, in the absence of the powerful atmospheric changes we have wrought and that at a breathtakingly rapid geologic rat, we are continuing to add to.
So if a person doesn’t want to “believe” that our alteration of the long term chemical composition of the atmosphere is already impacting our climate, is likely to do so much more in the future, and presents a significant risk of major, and more rapid, climate “shifting,” that person can simply fall back on the idea that “it can’t be proven.”
This of course misconstrues issue: The greenhouse effect is proven science, and has been known for more than a century. The massive amount of increase to greenhouse gases is also somewhat incontrovertible. That these gases “trap” thermal radiation, and can’t be turned off, and that the recaptured energy (absorbed and re radiated in all directions, instead of being un-absorbed and continuing unabated upward through the atmosphere) has to go somewhere – do something – is also incontrovertibly known. And that climate is ultimately an expression of energy, and that by significantly increasing the long term molecular re-capture of energy, we are changing, increasing, earth’s net energy balance.
We would also expect to see signs of change in not just atmospheric temperatures – but as difficult as that is to prove with certainty, as distinguished from inherent, although at this point it would be statistically bizarre – randomness and “natural” (otherwise occurring) changes – changes in earth’s more basic systems as well – and specifically, the one’s that help shape and determine our longer term climate. And we have, in a fairly major, and increasing way.
In the absence of any evidence, or any knowledge, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense if an increase in long term atmospheric greenhouse gases – to levels not seen on earth in millions of years – didn’t significantly impact our climate; even if, given the inherent complex nature of climate and again, natural variability itself, if not in entirely predictable time paths and precise amounts.
Still, enough time has gone by, and more than enough change has been made to the atmosphere, that if we didn’t see what at least appeared to be some early “signs” of impact, we might wonder “hmmm, that’s odd, it would seem by this point we would see something that at least suggests some change.”
So although it does not “prove” or “disprove” climate change, lack of any corroborating sign as a practical matter would open up a lot of doubt, or wondering.
So naturally the pattern of climate change “skepticism” has sought to refute all signs of such corroboration, or present them as simple “bizarre” coincidences of a natural changing world.
Never mind the oddity that this would represent – earth changes “naturally and easily” but yet our own huge atmospheric shift that represents an enormous influx of recaptured atmospheric energy somehow would not impact it – weird enough on its own – yet at the same time that it’s not impacting it, and by even more remarkably bizarre coincidence, we would still be seeing fairly unusual indicias of change right along the lines of what we would expect to see from the change that we have made – ones that on their own would be extraordinarily statistically unlikely to have happened by sheer chance. (Let alone in combination with the fact that if they were to happen by chance it would also simultaneously mean our huge atmospheric energy shift was somehow, again at the very same time, and also bizarrely coincidentally, not relevantly impacting climate.)
It’s a bit preposterous. But nevertheless, that is in essence what skepticism is. (I suppose if the above paragraph could be expressed both as clearly and as accurately but a little more simply, I would both be a better writer, and climate change skepticism would be a little easier to point out in ways that might prompt even skeptics to marvel for a moment, before catching themselves, at the illogic of their own arguments, and there would be less of it. But the issue is complex, which is why it’s been fairly easy to promulgate skepticism, on what is otherwise, complex or not, a pretty lopsided set of circumstances.)
But rather than see the oddity of our huge atmospheric change not impacting climate, and not doing so, along side the very unusual indicia of exactly the type of (and statistically unlikely) change as we would expect, as somewhat preposterous, climate change “skeptics” would instead see the argument just offered as itself preposterous, illogical, or some such, and by the same mechanisms that – along with the massive amounts of misinformation that propels it – filter things to fit into and reinforce suck “skepticism,” rather than in fact be even the tiniest bit skeptical about it. (Climate change skepticism is remarkably non skeptical of most arguments and most individuals that seek to refute or disavow climate change.)
The basic human tendencies that make this so easy to do, which are greatly amplified when an issue is either political or is seen to have political ramifications and great interest or passion, is perfectly, if implicitly, explained in the second half of this reasonably short – and excellent – piece, by Craig Silverman.
“Proving” climate change seems somewhat akin to “proving” that if someone jumps off a 30 story building atop a city street with no safety net or other protection, they will die. We know it will be the case (or to analogize it to climate change, make it 7 stories, and thus “very likely to be the case”) but in one sense it really can’t be proven. Only deduced from what we do know.
In other words – although “proof” is a good tool to use in rhetoric if one wants to fall back on belief and desire and self convince of the exact opposite – it’s essentially irrelevant to what the issue really is, and the risk ranges that it presents and thus the issue of our best strategic response to it.
But again, in many respects the climate change issue is complex or can be construed as complex; there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding swirling around it; our media coverage, along with the perceptions of the majority of the population, are invariably affected in their understanding of the issue (and trust in climate scientist representation) by such misinformation, as well as its complexity; it is often communicated poorly and in a way that doesn’t really show people what the problem is rather than tell them that there is a problem, or show them the changes that are taking place as “proof” of the problem, when that still doesn’t really show or illuminate what the problem is; and it is sometimes a hard issue to both conceptualize along the many levels of risk range and probabilities that it does represent, while also boiling it down to its correct essence and what that represents, as opposed to what is often done instead:
First, the issue being only an “effect” rather than presenting a risk range of ultimate effects and impacts. And second, that the issue is one of rising ambient air temperatures, rather than the more fundamental and important changes that are taking place to the major earth systems that in fact help shape, and drive, future climate, and that are in fact starting, and in accelerating fashion, to reshape our earth’s surface in still somewhat abstract seeming, but rather significant ways.
So, for practical reasons, and in terms of helping to provide a better understanding of the basic reality of the issue – increase long term atmospheric greenhouse gases, it captures more energy and thus affects things, and we’ve increased long term atmospheric greenhouse ways in a way that is somewhat geologically radical, and have done so in an extremely short period of time – finding some sort of “proof” may be helpful on the issue.
Fine some sort of “proof” also provides a reasonable out for the less extreme climate change “skeptics,” as well as so called “lukewarmers.” (Kind of bogus and misleading term used for those who still badly misconstrue the climate change issue but know at least enough of the basics about it to recognize that the very notion that a multi million year shift in our atmosphere’s long term energy recapture wouldn’t affect climate is inane, or who may not be so inherently resistant to science reality when it goes against what they would like to believe but who have heard and been convinced by a great deal of misinformation on the topic that’s passed off as news and information, and who thus – widespread as this is – greatly misconstrue what the issue is, and what the actual known and relevant facts are.)
Not only is there nothing wrong with the concept of a reasonable “out” to help facilitate the advancement of views, it’s consistent with human nature.
Unfortunately, along with often dismissing or trivializing the real fears of both skeptics and many others who have conflicting feelings or understandings on the issue, rather than openly and honestly recognizing and addressing them, offering them an out, or even better, an “olive branch,” is something that many climate change advocates and leaders don’t seek to provide. And both of these tendencies are big errors in basic climate change communication and understanding advancement: something which itself has a long way to go before our overall societal assessment of the issue (and not the insular assessment of those in the know and who wrongly conflate that assessment with society’s in general) is anywhere close to reality on the issue.
I am sure many hard core climate change skeptics will seek mightily to “refute” any proof, and are probably working steadfastly right now on doing so; and am not sure that what has just been observed and measured actually does serve as “proof” (though again the very concept of “proof” is badly misplaced when it comes to assessing what this issue actually is, and understanding why, would do far more for understanding on the actual issue); but scientists have, for the first time, now directly measured the precise impact of the greenhouse affect and energy of, in this case temperature increases attributable directly to a rise in greenhouse gases.
In short, climate change, in some sense, has now been “proven.”
Flawed or not, it seems a fairly significant advancement, if not in our understanding of the issue, certainly in our assessment of it as – if not still complex, globally changing, long time frame and by definition imprecisely predictable – an absolute and definitive, rather than “very likely or we certainly think” phenomenon. (It essentially was before for basic conceptual reasons, more complex than but essentially similar to the case of jumping off a very tall building onto a bustling city street; but it couldn’t be measured as such, so was considered otherwise.)
And those who have been moved, even if falsely, in their belief about the issue by the so called absence of proof, can now, comfortably consistent with their own prior thought processes, become more realistic about the issue; and now contribute to the process of how best to solve this challenge, rather than instead constantly seek to refute and disavow it, as so much energy has previously, wastefully and counter productively gone into before.
(Last updated March 6, 2016)
Lately, methane levels in the arctic have been spiking to unheard of high levels. What does this mean?
We can tell from extensive ice core sampling that for at least the last 800,000 years, average ambient methane – or CH4 – levels apparently never rose above around 800 ppb (parts per billion), in the earth’s global atmosphere.
Yet in the modern industrial age – a pinprick of geologic time – average levels of this potent greenhouse gas have suddenly risen by an amount that’s more than double the highest concentrations recorded in at least 800,000 – i.e, not far from a million – years, and possibly longer.
Update: Lately methane has been spiking even higher still, and Winter 2016 saw the previous highs not just beaten, but shattered, as NOAA’s METOP orbiting polar satellites in late February recorded a spike to a whopping 3096 parts per billion:
Through a multitude of processes – enteric fermentation in ruminants (cows, camels, goats), landfills, energy production, etc., methane levels – from a geological perspective – have skyrocketed.
Pay close attention to the left side of the EPA chart below, and note how from a geologic perspective methane levels (as with CO2), have shot straight up – suddenly going frrom around 700 -750 ppb, to over 1800.
Given methane’s fairly rapid rate of breakdown, it leveled off near 1800 ppb in the atmosphere in the very early 2000s. (To keep levels high, let alone continue to increase it, requires a lot of ongoing net emissions, since methane’s half life is only around 6 to 9 years.) But since 2007, levels have been slightly increasing, and are currently a little over 1800 ppb. (As of Winter 2016, average ambient atmospheric methane levels are around 1830 ppb – which given methane’s fairly rapid breakdown, means large – even increasing total amounts – are still being emitted. And in the arctic and surrounding northern polar latitudes, it appears the surface of the earth’s methane potential is just starting to be scratched – see below .)
Methane – It’s History, and What’s Happened Now
About 2000 years ago – or 1/400th of an 800,000 year period – levels of this potent greenhouse gas were a little bit above 600 ppb, and, in part through human activity ( rice cultivation -which is a form of wetlands, which are otherwise large natural emitters of methane -increasing domestication of ruminant animals, etc.) that rate “crept up” to around 700 ppb around the year 1600. (Which is also roughly around the height of Western European deforestation, when all but an estimated 5-15% of Western Europe forests had been cleared.)
Total atmospheric methane then tailed off slightly, then started to creep up a little faster to right around the start of the industrial revolution, where it was nearing 800, which is slightly above its highest point for more than the last three quarter million years. (Graph by EPA):
Then, particularly as we moved into the 20th century, from a geologic perspective levels of this gas essentially started to shoot straight up, comprising a rise from around 700 – 800 ppb around the years 1800 – 1850 – and just about the highest methane had also ever been over the past 800,000 years – to a concentration a little over 1800 ppb today. With again, similar to the rapid rise in CO2 over what is also a mere geologic moment – the far more significant part of that rise occurring over an even shorter time period. .
In other words, until recently, as far as we can tell from ice core sampling, the earth over the past 800,000 years had not seen an ambient atmospheric methane concentration level above the high 700s.
Yet today ambient global methane levels stand at a little over 1800 ppb. And in the arctic this past October, methane levels shot up to an amount more than 800 ppb over that, as atmospheric concentrations of methane over the arctic region reached 2666 ppb.
Again, this also occurred this past spring (when they actually went up to 2845, almost 200 ppb higher than in the fall), and, although a little lower, in early fall of 2013 a well, when methane levels spiked to over 2500 ppb in the arctic.
Why is Methane Seemingly Starting to Move Upward Again, Particularly in the Arctic Region
Additional arctic methane spiking happens when northern permafrost areas start to slowly melt. While seemingly minor right now, the issue isn’t so minor, as permafrost covers about 24% of the northern hemisphere’s total land mass, and it’s slowly starting to change. (In fact, in one of the many indices of “hidden” changes beyond what we simply feel when we open a window, in many shallow frozen and partially frozen northern permafrost areas, the actual ground just below the permafrost has warmed more, sometimes considerably more, than the ambient air just above the surface of the frozen area. Which is kind of remarkable when you think about it, and bodes a lot more long term change than mere, “ephemeral” and always changing air temperatures.)
And, more fitting for a movie than a science piece, it also happens when shallow sea bed areas – essentially frozen solid for hundreds of thousands of years if not more – warm up and thaw sufficiently to release methane that’s otherwise tightly bound up in copious amounts in frozen clathrates along much of the upper ocean shelf sea bed floor, leading to the eruption of methane gas.
When methane bubbles up, it’s sexier, or eerier, than the simple emission of carbon dioxide into the air: It erupts out of the sea bed bottom and, lacking buoyancy, if enough of it displaces water on its way up, can literally cause a ship to sink straight down in what would appear to the outside world as an unsolved mystery.
This is interesting in small amounts (though not for any ship that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time).
But it’s also something that in large amounts will have a fantastic impact upon our world, due to the powerful heat energy absorbing properties of methane in comparison with the far weaker carbon dioxide molecule and – along the massive amount of carbon “stored” in the northern land permafrost – the huge quantities of methane on our sea bed floors that after long epochs of geologic time, and not at all “coincidentally,” are now suddenly starting to thaw.
How is this thawing happening?
While there is great variability from year to year, each year, on average, less and less arctic sea ice – which in the past has dwindled during late summers somewhat but for the most part essentially remained year round – exists by late summer in the northern polar arctic region.
In fact, over the past several decades, summer arctic sea ice extent has been decreasing by a little over 13% per decade.
This change is critical. Darker ocean water absorbs a much broader spectrum of incoming solar radiation – for the same reason that when you wear a dark shirt in the sunlight, you are warmer than when you wear a white shirt.
Reflected solar radiation doesn’t have nearly the same effect as absorbed solar radiation.
Solar radiation is mainly short wave radiation, and atmospheric greenhouse gases predominantly absorb and re-rediate medium to long wave length radiation. But when solar radiation is instead absorbed, that heat energy isn’t reflected back into the atmosphere (where in turn it is largely unmolested by the greenhouse gas molecules that otherwise keep our planet warm), but is transferred into the absorbing body. Yours and your clothes if you are wearing dark clothes, for instance. Or a dark macadam surface. Etc.
Additionally, when some of that heat is given off by the absorbing body or earth surface or water surface area, it is emitted as thermal radiation, not solar radiation.
Although warm matter can also convey heat via conduction, the passing of heat via molecules to cooler, neighboring molecules – though here directly to molecules of gas, not solids as is the normal definition of conduction – as well as by convection, which is the passing of molecular heat from or to a gas or liquid, and, via conduction to gases such as air, which then frequently results in air currents that then transfer that that heat outward – as for example you may feel when sitting near a fireplace.
Thermal radiation, on the other hand, is in the medium to long wave radiation form: This is the radiation wavelength range absorbed and re radiated by greenhouse gases. While again, the short wave solar radiation that is incoming from the sun, and then to some extent reflected back out by various surfaces, is essentially not absorbed and re radiated.
The measure of a surface’s reflectivity is its albedo. The albedo of open ocean water is low, and in high latitudes it’s as as low as 10%: Meaning that almost all of the incoming solar radiation is absorbed.
Contrast that with a nice solid layer of light colored and highly reflective sea ice sitting atop the arctic waters instead – where most of the incoming solar radiation is reflected.
Snow and sea ice have a very high albedo. This is in part why large northern, southern, and until recently mainly high mountainous but much smaller ice sheets, tend to perpetuate local climate conditions, and remain relatively stable.
Although even that is now changing with respect to the very large thick ice sheets that sit atop the land at both our northern and southern polar regions: Mainly Greenland in the north (the actual area surrounding the north pole itself is all ocean water), and Antarctica – a continent that actually sits atop the pole – in the south.
Both regions are experiencing a net loss of total glacial ice; and, far more tellingly, both are experiencing it an accelerating rate, with even East Antarctica – which until very recently was thought to be extremely stable – despite ongoing atmosphere and ocean changes – getting in on the act.
This increasing rate of acceleration is not just relevant in the Antarctic, where as noted above a part of the ice sheet is now considered on a pathway of unstoppable loss, but particularly in the smaller – and thus less stable – and not quite as “polar” Greenland area. (The north pole region is open water, which used to be mainly frozen year round, but while there is wild variation from year to year, long term that is changing, and also at a fairly rapid geological clip, and leaving more and move summer water open to absorb instead of reflect the summertime solar radiation, while the south pole region is covered by the frozen but now starting to in part thaw continent of Antarctica.)
Greenland likely melted less than a million years ago, and, with far more changes in energy input into our system than occurred less than a million years ago, is increasingly likely to again.
This is an area that contains enough ice to raise the world ocean not by the few feet that the IPCC – tending to leave out many considerations on which there is still a wide range of uncertainty – usually tosses out; but by over 20 feet. Greenland, like West Antarctica, is also starting to see ice sheet melt at an accelerating rate: So much so that rivers are now forming along its surface to speed away melting snow and ice, while also hastening and accelerating the melting process, since water itself – and moving water even more so – is a melting accelerant.
And while we conjecture, we really don’t know just how fast melt acceleration can or will occur with a globe that is accumulating net long term heat energy – and one that for very specific and still even rapidly increasing reasons – doing so at a geologically breakneck, and increasing, pace.
For instance, as the World Meteorological Organization pointed out in its last Statement on the Status of the Global Climate (emphasis added):
93 per cent of the excess heat trapped in the Earth system between 1971 and 2010 was taken up by the ocean. From around 1980 to 2000, the ocean gained about 50 zettajoules [10 to the 21st power] of heat. Between 2000 and 2013, it added about three times that amount.
In other words, in the thirteen years between 2000 and 2013, our ocean gained more than 3 times the energy that it did in the 20 years from 1980 to 2000.
There’s presently a sort of fiction in even some climate change concerned circles that this is “absorbed heat” that mitigates the effect of “climate change.” We’ll get into that in another post (as well as below when looking at methane clathrate eruptions):
But essentially the heat retained by the ocean is simply a reflection of excess atmospheric heat energy over the earth’s surface (mainly ocean, as water can absorb a great deal of heat, and do so more easily than land surfaces, which stay fairly insulated very close to the surface). This in turn becomes part of our climate system over time, and reflects a key part of what drives and directly affects what drives our climate.
For instance, extra heat is not “hidden” in oceans, it affects those oceans and how the oceans ultimately affect the world, through a multitude of processes.One of which is warming sea columns in shallower ocean areas, warming up long frozen sea bed floors containing large amount of previously well contained or “trapped” methane.
The insulating Process
The earth’s climate is driven by the stabilizing and moderating forces of it’s geo-physiology – its oceans ice caps and, secondarily, attendant global patterns of tendencies. (Such as ocean currents, etc. Also note that not only do the polar ice caps play a key role in moderating and generally stabilizing earth’s temperatures, but even relatively minor changes in them can have a very large impact upon climatic conditions.)
And it’s driven more directly and immediately, of course, by the source of almost all energy: The sun, and then the amount of solar radiation, transformed after absorption into thermal radiation upon release from any surface area of a warmed body, that is then re-absorbed and re-radiated by the total greenhouse gases in our lower atmosphere, at which is incoming, both originally, and then again prevented from rom esIncoming energy, in the meantime, is a combination of the sun, which of course is what it is; and less directly, the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases, which absorb and re radiate heat.
These infamous greenhouse gases (though the term is sometimes sloppily used synonymously with carbon dioxide) are already at massively high levels for our current epoch – already higher in the case of CO2 alone than in the past few million years. (That measurement also doesn’t even take into account large increases in methane, nitrous oxides, and fluorocarbons which when added in terms of each’s “global warming potential equivalent” or thermal radiation absorption and re-radiation properties relative to a unit of carbon dioxide, add considerably more to the total long term molecular atmospheric increase in re captured energy.)
And, through activities that we could curtail, alter, or transform (mainly multiple traditional agricultural and energy practices), these levels are still skyrocketing. That is, from a geologic perspective, as noted at the outset, they are essentially shooting straight up.
These greenhouses gases also include water vapor, the most important greenhouse gas at any one time, and one which we’re not affecting directly. But water vapor is not long lived, but ephemeral. Thus it’s not a driver of long term climate, but a response to it, and a part of weather itself. With a warming world, the atmosphere will likely lead to the evaporation of, and retain, more moisture.
Since it can hold more moisture, this might mean increased precipitation intensities and changing patterns, one of the most likely long term responses to our ongoing change – although exactly how precipitation patterns will change is unclear. (What is clear is that our current fauna and flora as well as river systems, and current anthropogenic agricultural areas and systems, evolved under the general global and regional patterns of the past few million and in particular past few hundred thousand years.)
If it means more precipitation overall, much of this could come in less frequent but much more intense precipitation events. Though more precipitation overall would be far more welcome than less overall in an otherwise still warming world, it would also likely mean an amplification of the ongoing “greenhouse” affect, since it would mean an increase in average total atmospheric water vapor levels.
While water vapor acts as an atmospheric reflective agent during the day – increasing earth’s overall albedo by reflecting a lot of sunlight right back up before it even penetrates through the atmosphere down to the ground, it also acts as a powerful greenhouse gas simply due to the massive concentrations relative to the other greenhouse gases, “trapping” in thermally radiated heat.
Both of these phenomenon – increased heat retention through energy re absorption and re-radiation (“re-capture”) , as well as increased solar radiation reflectivity – are at play during the day. At night, only the powerful greenhouse effect of increased water vapor is at play, leading to an overall further amplifying effect if water vapor levels are generally increased.
On the other hand – although so far the evidence doesn’t seem to support this being the case, but almost anything could change in terms of precipitation patterns as we move forward – if water vapor decreases despite a higher overall rate of evaporation due to warmer temperatures, this would heavily exacerbate what is likely to be one of the most fundamental problems caused by our change set of climatic conditions as it is: Drought.
Remember, even with increased precipitation, with more water vapor being held in the atmosphere, as well as shifting regional patterns, regions used to receiving rainfall could easily experience huge shifts and become regions that receive almost no rainfall at all (and vice versa) whereas many areas could receive the same or even more rainfall, but with precipitation events both far more intense, yet less frequent, etc, with thus far more of that precipitation lost to runoff under our current evolved world, including its rivers, topsoils, and root structures – as well as intensified flooding.
Drought and changing precipitation patterns, particularly for the poorer areas of the globe, is likely to be one of the most directly devastating affects of ongoing climate “change,” and while a lessening of some of the greenhouse effect from reduced water vapor would be welcome in that sense, a decrease in overall precipitation along with changed patterns, likely increases precipitation fall intensities, and overall warming would be a particularly negative, possibly – at least in terms of what we are used to (and have come to rely upon) right now – mind blowingly devastating development.
So while water vapor is a bit of wild card, it’s not really a good wild card in either direction. And there is a fundamental reason for this. We evolved, and the species we relied upon evolved, under the conditions of the past few million years. And those conditions are changing.
A Look At the Bigger Picture
While both polar glacial ice regions are decreasing in total ice mass, and far more notably, at an accelerating rate, the smaller, “less” stable Greenland ice sheets in particular are starting to show increasing signs of marked change. And in just the last five years – a remarkably short period of time – the extent of net melt loss from both polar regions together has doubled. In the apt words of Angelika Humbert from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, this is an “incredible” amount.
(Do a little math. While there is no reason to expect this (or, for that matter, not expect it), if that pattern were to continue – i.e. regardless of size just keep doubling the loss every five years – it wouldn’t be long before a good portion of Florida, and many other areas, would be completely underwater. In the U.S. for example, you might want to start investing in Arizona “beachfront” property, now.)
Greenland is also more conducive to easy climatic change than the vastly larger and colder antarctic region, as again even some 400,000 to 800,00 years ago, for a time it was not a large sheet of ice, but instead covered by fauna and flora; and the world’s oceans, correspondingly, were much higher.
Whatever happened less than a million years ago, also keep in mind that the level of energy alteration we are currently undergoing is already on a multi million year level scale, and it is also one that, simultaneously, is still increasing. Fast. And from a geologic perspective, extraordinarily fast.
This rate of change is something we tend to confuse with our own sense of time; thinking that effects upon this enormous, structured system would be near instantaneous, when they will shift and accelerate, even lurch, over longer and largely unpredictable periods of time, as the net energy balance of the earth lower atmosphere continues to grow, and as these underlying and normally stable structural ecological systems – such as our ocean, ice sheets, and others – start to change over time at an accelerating rate.
And they will do so in most cases, with some sort of positive feedback. Such as, for instance, in the case of warming shallow ocean region water columns, which are showing very early signs, again, of releasing long frozen solid methane clathrate deposits up into the surrounding ocean waters, where they bubble up, and release out into the air. Where, in turn, they add to the process of increasing net energy retention (prompting yet more melting, etc), even further.
(You might think it’s “odd” that things happen to be reinforcing, but this is because the two most critical elements in all of this often get completely overlooked. 1) This entire phenomenon represents what is in effect an external, or “forced” change in energy input – from something outside the natural system – namely, in this case our alteration of it. 2) It is geologically massive.)
In the arctic region where these methane spikes are seemingly becoming more prominent, the summer sea ice extent continues to decline, and there is a massive change in the surface albedo of these summer waters – that is, as the surface changes from the high reflectivity of an extensive ice coverage area, to the extremely low reflectivity of dark colored, high latitude open ocean.
And remember, this matters, since the ice depletion, of course, is occurring in summer when the north pole is angled toward the sun and receives its rays.
While at the same time, the 1% a year or so increase in southern polar sea ice extent, that is probably due largely to an increase in the Southern Annular Mode wind patterns pushing more of the ice northward and making room for growth, as well as concomitant near freezing upper surface water insulation from melting glacial run off is during the southern hemisphere winter months.
So with increasingly less arctic sea ice, the arctic ocean sometimes gets a lot warmer. And this in turn leads to some interesting things that sound like they are on the cutting edge of science fiction, but that are very real.
Namely, this eruption, or thawing, of methane clathrates that exist in large quantities amounts on sea bed floor areas, and that contain a massive amount of this long “contained” methane gas. (It is not that clathrates never released before. It is that the process has likely moved from a relative rarity in terms of occurrence and amount – and thus insignificant – to one that is increasingly significant, just as would be expected if shallow ocean bed areas – which generally tend to be very stable in temperature but are not that far below freezing temperature – were to warm.)
Current estimates of the amount of methane so “trapped,” most of it in shallower areas more susceptible to thawing, have come down; as it has been discovered that the far deeper ocean floor areas contain very little of it. (These far deeper areas are also far less susceptible to thawing anyway, and in fact some studies have suggested that some of the deeper ocean waters have not warmed at all, while other deep ocean parts have, but these areas are hard to gauge, since they’re not easily accessible.)
Yet the estimates still average out to more than the total amount of carbon (about 750-800 gigatonnes, or a little under 3000 gigatonnes of actual carbon dioxide) in our global entire atmosphere.
That’s a lot. But even more relevantly, methane gas is a much more potent absorbent of thermal radiation than carbon dioxide. This causes a lot of confusion and assumptions, since methane breaks down into carbon dioxide, with a half life typically of somewhere around 7 or 8 years.
This means that the longer the time frame, the lower the overall potency of methane in terms of its Global Warming Potential equivalent. (Or “GWPe” – simply a measure of the warming capacity of a particular gas, relative to the baseline warming potential of the most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide; which itself is very prevalent in the atmosphere but has a fairly weak warming affect per molecule, expressed as a GWP of “1.”)
Typically, methane is expressed in terms of a GWP over a term of 100 years, over which it has a value of about 23 or so.
That is, each unit of mass of methane, first as methane and then as breakdown products, including carbon dioxide, will have about 23 times the effect, in terms of total thermal radiation absorption and re radiation, as each unit of mass of carbon dioxide, over a 100 year period.
Over a shorter time period, which means that for a higher percentage of the total time any particular molecule of methane still exists as methane – where it’s vastly more effective at “trapping” heat than carbon dioxide – the GWP again is far higher.
But it’s not, as some articles may inadvertently lead you to believe, that methane is “23 times more effective at trapping heat.” (It actually a few hundred times more effective, but again, it doesn’t last very long).
It’s that over X period of time, a unit of methane will average out to have an effect that is about Y times as effective at trapping and re radiating thermal radiation energy, as the same unit mass of carbon dioxide.
But, just for example, over a century period a release of 10 gigatonnes of methane gas (a very large amount), would essentially have a similar effect, averaged out, of about or up to 230 or so gigatonnes of carbon dioxide over about a hundred years, and thereafter have around the same ongoing effect as carbon dioxide, since that is essentially what most of it will ultimately be. (A tonne is a metric ton, or about 2200 pounds. A gigatonne is one billion tonnes, or about 2,200,000,000,000 pounds.)
Notice also, though there’s little in the way of information that would tend to support or refute such an idea at his point, that if very large scale sea bottom warming were to occur over a short period of time, and thus massive amounts of methane released, the higher warming intensity of methane over a shorter term time scale would become more relevant – particularly if it was released in significant enough quantities to have a shorter term accelerating impact upon other climate driving conditions.
This same possibility also exists with respect to the vast northern permafrost; which when it melts will release some of its vast trapped carbon in the form of methane, and not just carbon dioxide, as well.
Enormous releases over, say, a 10 to 20 year period (or high enough sustained releases to keep the overall level much higher over a longer period) would make the relevance of methane’s higher GWP over that shorter period much more relevant, since the combined short term affect (or longer if suddenly much higher levels maintain through high sustained release), could quickly accelerate air temperature warming, and then further amplify ice melting rates. Over a 20 year period for instance, methane again has a much higher global warming potential equivalent (about 72 to 90.) than the 23 or so typically used for the gas, and based on a 100 year projection.
Thus an explosion into the air over say 20 years, of just a gigatonne of methane, would have up to the same short term affect of around 70 or more gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. 10 gigatonnes would have up to the effect of over 700 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide – near the total amount already in our atmosphere.
It’s not quite that simple, since the atmosphere is a balance, and some excess gas will be absorbed into the carbon cycle. But as methane and not carbon dioxide, and over a shorter time frame, this is less relevant – and huge influxes in particular in a short time also allow for less time and room for quick integration into the total global system, even as some of the methane starts to break down after several years; so a big spike in methane releases would have an extremely powerful and fairly rapid amplifying energy effect, on top of the level of permafrost melt or sea bottom floor melting that led to the release to begin with.
And it would be pretty wild, which we still don’t seem to be fully grasping.
Remember, aside from what are in the short term uncontrollable geologic emissions created by an increasingly altering climate, if we take steps to reduce methane emissions, we can reduce atmospheric levels of it pretty quickly, since it lasts as methane for only a short period of time.
And, barring an acceleration in “natural” (ir climate change induced) net methane releases, because of its fairly short half life it takes a continuation of very high emission levels just to maintain current high levels.
But levels of the gas aren’t going down.
And in the earlier 2000s, methane levels, albeit very high, seemed to stabilize and even slightly decrease, and since – despite if anything a likely cessation in total net emission increases, or possibly a small decrease – have been slightly increasing.
Once again, take a look at the EPA graph from above. And the more geological time oriented chart on the left:
Now in the context of some of this additional information, notice again and almost identical in general pattern to an 800,000 year graph of atmospheric CO2 – that until recently – just about the start of the industrial revolution or thereabouts – atmospheric methane levels stayed relatively stable over long periods of time, varying between 450 to 700 ppb for most of the time covering almost the last one million years. And never rising above about 780 ppb. (And then essentially, from a geological perspective, as with carbon dioxide, they have shot straight up.)
With current methane levels at a little over 1800 ppb, a spike in a portion of the arctic atmosphere to over 2600 ppb (and now over 2800 ppb) is significant.
But it is what is happening more directly in the arctic system itself that is even more significant, and also fairly interesting. And, as with almost all aspects of the phenomenon known as climate change, here is where again the issue of a warming globe – not just a warming atmosphere, but far more relevantly, a warming globe – becomes very relevant. As does the issue of an ongoing yearly average decrease in arctic sea ice extent; which, on average, is leaving less and less ice in the late summer and early autumn months to cover up the otherwise dark, solar radiation absorbing arctic ocean relevant.
Robert Scribbler explains:
Imagine, for a moment, the darkened and newly liberated ocean surface waters of the Kara, Laptev, and East Siberian Seas of the early 21st Century Anthropocene Summer.
Where white, reflective ice existed before, now only dark blue heat-absorbing ocean water remains. During summer time, these newly ice-free waters absorb a far greater portion of the sun’s energy as it contacts the ocean surface. This higher heat absorption rate is enough to push local sea surface temperature anomalies into the range of 4-7 C above average…
Some of the excess heat penetrates deep into the water column — telegraphing abnormal warmth to as far as 50 meters below the surface. The extra heat is enough to contact near-shore and shallow water deposits of frozen methane on the sea-bed. These deposits — weakened during the long warmth of the Holocene — are now delivered a dose of heat they haven’t experienced in hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of years. Some of these deposits weaken, releasing a portion of their methane stores into the surrounding oceans which, in turn, disgorges a fraction of this load into the atmosphere.
This, along with the melting ice both on land and on sea, in polar regions and in permafrost regions (which themselves hold nearly twice as much carbon as is currently found in the entire atmosphere – some of which, again, will also emit as methane as the permafrost melts) and the increasingly warming ocean – also again, at a startlingly fast rate – is one of the many important aspects of this complex, non linear, dynamic, and system shifting process of climate change that are largely being overlooked in the popular discussion and media, as the issue gets oversimplified by a near obsessive, and very misleading, focus on air temperatures.
Although we focus on air temperatures for a practical reason – we can relate directly to air temperatures, and we even, literally “feel” it – this only tells a small part, and often a very misleading part, of the relevant story.
The bigger story is one of great change, and it is being told not just in the atmospheric record that reflects our atmosphere’s now multi million year long term molecular heat energy re absorption property, but increasing, in the tell tale signs of a changing, if not slowly rumbling and even now occasionally erupting, earth.