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The Climate Change “Pause” is a Bad Fiction

Last Updated March 4, 2016

CLIMATE change is not air temperatures. Air temperature is one part of the pattern of increased total earth energy that constitutes climate change or “global warming.”

Air temperature is also a very variable part of the total global warming phenomenon. Other key earth systems that are directly affected by climate change – such as oceans, our near polar regions’ enormous ice sheets, and vast expanses of permafrost areas both at the bottom of the sea and atop the land – play a large role in how much air temperatures ultimately increase, and climate changes, and right now are more important than air temperature changes, though dwarfed in coverage and attention by the latter.

What mattters is the total heat accumulation of the earth – oceans, ice sheets, land surface, and permafrost areas, and our oceans can absorb an enormous amount of energy. As can ice sheets, as they slowly warm and start to turn some of their substance into water

So shorter term geologic changes in the general average rate of ambient global air temperature rise is not a “pause” in climate change or global warming, or anything of the sort. (Unless the otherwise misleading term “global warming” only and specifically refers to ambient air temperatures, and ignores the larger, far more complete, and far more important picture.)

It’s a change in ambient global surface air temperature rates; which were volatile (and unpredictable, particularly over shorter periods of time) both before anthropogenic climatec change, and even more so as a result of it.

But even the idea that more general ambient air temperatures have “paused” is itself largely fiction, as the temperature trend into the 21st century and right up to this very month continues, and is now increasing in rate again. As it had as well into the 90s, and as part of what climate change is – high and at least somewhat imperfectly predictable variability: Not this imagined phenomenon of low short term variability, and nice symetrical linear progression that superficial or incorrect analyses, soundbite news coverages, and most so called “skepticism,” implicitly frames it as.

That is, changes in the rate of temperature increase alone are as apt to be occurring as we march forward in time as not, and based upon what climate change is: Namely, a highly variable unpredictable and almost definitively non linear alteration of the climate, as total earth atmospheric net energy accumulates as a result of a geologically significant increase in long lived atmospheric thermal radiation (earth’s “insulation layer”) that’s now occurred in an incredibly short geologic period – an increase now that in the case of carbon dioxide alone has reached atmospheric concentrations that the earth hasn’t seen in millions of years. And not only is carbon dioxide not only not the only gas of concern, another may wind up being as, if not in some ways, more important in terms of the risk of potentially rapid and large shifts or lurches in climate that continue to grow.

Additionally, recent studies further suggest that the short term decrease in the rate of temperature increase alone – changes which, again, based upon what climate change is, are as apt to be occurring as we march forward in time as not – didn’t exist.

Yet adding to the confusion (and a story worthy of attention), even quasi “skeptic” sites – such as the one by this frequent U.S. congressional climate change testifier, scurried to denounce the aforereferenced study. And did so while, naturally, once again completely missing the big picture. (Notice, for example, notice, among other things, the long extensive cherry picking of an unnamed “international journalist” in order to reinforce pre existing, and fundamentally incorrect, framing of the issue.)

But the hiatus re-analysis – the fact that the slight short term average air temperature increase rate either slightly temporarily slowed or didn’t – wasn’t that relevant to the bigger issues we’re presented with.

(Update: Note that while all this misguided fuss about a “pause” was going on, 2014 set a record for the warmest air temperatures globally ever recorded. Only it didn’t last long, because 2015 shattered the mark, setting a new world record, air temperature wise, for the warmest year ever, and shattering the 2014 mark. Then for good measure, January 2016 didn’t just set the record for the hottest global January ever recorded, it also set the record for the highest deviation above the norm, or anomaly, for any month of the year, any year, ever recorded in mankind’s history.  Quite the “pause.” And now, from the first set of data in – tropospheric satellite data, February 2016 has not just, one month later, beaten the previous record set in January for the hottest anomaly above the “norm” once again, for any month ever recorded, it smashed it.

On the other hand, the above referenced study suggesting no substantive decrease in the overall rate of increase of globall air temperatures in the first 15 years of this century, does add clarifying information. And it helps refine our body of knowledge regarding the process of climate and, in particular, temperature modeling.

Temperature modeling itself is something, of course, which following the same pattern of both misunderstanding on the basic climate change issue, and widespread “advocacy” against the idea of anthropogenic climate change, is in turn then  itself often misunderstood, and even widely misconstrued to fit a pre determined conclusionm and erroneously used to try to refute climate change.

This process of misconstruing future temperature modeling, or projections, is itself, again, part of a broader pattern of trying to reinforce a belief or “view” by any argument possible, rather than the dispassionate, objective assessment it professes itself to be. (Here’s a good example, very similar to what runs rampant on countless “scientific” sites, to some extent among almost half of United States politicians and legislators, and of which there are probably, literally, many millions of similar examples just on twitter alone – itself a great venue for soundbite rhetoric:

Yet this pattern of trying to advocate or perpetuate a desired view by any argument, despite a fair amount of counter productive disbelief about this fact among many who are more accurately aware of the real climate change problem, not only professes itsejf to be objective, but in order to continue belief in its conclusions, also generally believes itself to be objective; and in many skeptic circles, the group – and, presumably, unlike climate scientists – practicing “real science.” By conflating the phenomenon of climate change with air temperature alone, it’s also a pattern which is often inadvertently, if mistakenly, reinforced. (Albeit less so lately now that global temperature records are sudddenly being set at a fairly rapid pace.)

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Related to this, and helping to drive some of the misunderstanding that leads to incorrect if believed analyses and rhetoric on the subject, there is essentially a false idea that climate change, even now in its earlier stages, is largely air temperature, and again not the far more important net accumulation of energy that’s slowly affecting earth’s basic energy systems – including of course the ones that drive and shape future climate. This is causing a lot of misunderstanding on what the issue really is, as well as misunderstanding of the fundamental – and, in terms of amount plus speed, geologically radical – long term atmospheric alteration driving it. And it’s leading many to wrongly assume climate change is a sort of quick response to increased greenhouse gases – i.e., they go up, and voila, climate is different.

That’s not what it is.

Increased long term greenhouses gases do immediately absorb and re radiate more thermal radiation emanating off of earth’s various surfaces. But most of that increase in energy retention then goes into slowly re shaping our net earth atmosphere’s energy balance; changing our oceans, and even large swaths of permafrost, hard land surface and subsurface temperatures, ice sheet temperatures, and even ice sheets themselves.

And this, along with the atmospheric change originally driving it, increases not just the amount of potential thermal radiation to be emitted from earth’s surfaces long into the future, but also rehapes the amount of energy even absorbed in the first place, as earth’s albedo – or reflectivity – slolwly changes. And, further amplifying an ongoing process of change until a new stases is reached, long stable stores of carbon also begin to change, and release in the form of additional greenhouse gases – and in a potentially very dramatic way, powerful signs of which we are already beginning to see.

This is a simplification, of course, as ice sheets take energy and translate it into melting ice sheets, and not atmospheric or even ocean warmth.

But these in turn don’t just affect a host of processes, but slowly break down the long term stability of the climate moderating caps, ice sheets, and average global sea ice formation averages and, along with other processes such as permafrost and glacial melt, decrease the amount of solar radiation simply reflected back into space. And which, down the road, will then instead be emitted as much longer wavelength thermal radiation which is then “trapped” by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – increases and all – whereas reflected sunlight isn’t.

Ocean currents change, unpredictably; precipitation patterns change, unpredictably, as total net energy increases, the total potential for both more powerful and intense weather events increases, and both more and more water vapor is potentially evaporated from slowly increasing temperatures, with a warmer atmosphere then capable of retaining far more moisture, leading to unpredictable yet in many regions, likely almost complete shifts in not just volatility and precipitation event intensities, but precipitation patterns and weather patterns.

And so on.

It’s not just air temperatures, but a host of more complex factors, as earth’s system adjusts to the large ongoing increase in trapped atmospheric energy in an ongoing process that will only “relatively” stabilize decades to possibly even centuries after atmospheric levels of long term greenhouse gases have themselves relatively stabilized.

Thus, the goal should be to lower total long term ambient greenhous gas levels at this point, as the world’s leading glaciologists, and countless other experts, strongly suggest. Unfortunately, right now we’re still increasing long term ambient greenhouse gase levels. And, again, as permafrost regions melt and release carbon, and possiblly to likely sea floor methane eruptions start to slowly snowball, we may start to get a significant amount of amplifying help as the future unfolds; not help in reducing long term atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, but in further adding to them.

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It Didn’t Take Chutzpah to Suggest “Stop Waffling” on Climate Change in 1988; Massive Economc Presumption Just Held us Back

(Updated and re-edited, 8-19-15)

The fundamental basis of what climate change is often seems to be missed.

It’s not that the earth is “definitely warming” due to human activities: although the overwhelming majority of climate scientists conclude that it is.

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The fundamental basis of climate change is that we’ve altered the long term energy re-capturing capacity of the atmosphere in geologically profound ways.

The signs of encroaching climatic pattern changes are simply corroboration of what many climate scientists, for very basic reasons, have long expected and predicted.  That includes these guys, who looking back even somewhow managed to get it down fairly precisely in terms of time frame as well – almost impossible to do. And one of those guys was James Hansen, who told Congress to “stop waffling” in 1988.)

And this fundamental, and so far ongoing rather than mitigated, change to our atmosphere is setting in motion major changes to the earth, and creating a risk range of additionally unpredictable, potentially radical and volatile climatic shifting.

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In 1988, Leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen (and others) told the U.S. Congress to act to move off of fossil fuels.

By 1988, we had already made severe changes to our earth’s ongoing and accumulating net energy balance – and the heart of what “climate change” really is. And even back then it was clear we, and certainly the world, wouldn’t just automatically cease all patterns adding to the net long term atmospheric levels of long lived “energy re absorbing” greenhouse gases that constituted the underlying problem in the first place.

But we at least needed to start the process of reversing the trend.

We didn’t. And the problem is now greatly amplified, will have greater long term impact, and presents a far higher risk range of radical unpredictable and potentially extremely dramatic long term changes if we only very slowly respond now.

Yet, reinforced by lots of misinformation, and constituting an overall change to a system that over days (weather) instead of decades (climate) naturally on its own appears to shift far more wildly, it’s one that’s easy to dismiss:

Namely, by rhetoric that sounds great but has nothing to do with what the issue really is; by misconstruing the basic issue; by cherry picking slivers of inconseqential and often even irrelevant data; or dismissal by saying that since we can’t be certain the worse case scenarios will come to pass – or that climate has “changed before,” the fact of change itself, as well as the risk, isn’t real or substantial.

And which, in turn, is about as off base as assessment can be. (Although it is driven by a fervent desire, in large part fueled by the same economic presumption that held us back in 1988 and discussed herein, among other things, to believe that the issue isn’t significant or real. And leading to a remarkable and still not properly illuminated widespread socio cultural phenomenon of advocacy driven climate change disavowal.)

And it’s as off base, if not even more so, than the constant claim that “if there is any change,” we’re not causing it; and our sudden multi million year spike in basic atmospheric long lived molecular energy recapture – which is then in turn increasing the total net energy in earth’s entire system, where most of is going into increasing ocean (warming) and ice sheet (warming and melting) energy, is some sort of wild coincidence.

And is so, even though total global air temperature change alone over the past 100-120 years is around a 1 in 100 to less than 1 in 1000 chance for any random 100-120 year period, and the chance of that occuring while massive shifts upward in total net ocean heat and glacial ice sheet accumulation occur, is even less. Let alone, perhaps even more importantly, that the odds of that happening at the same time the even more odd fact of a sudden multi million year shift upward in earth’s insulation layer, is somehow otherwise not affecting climate, is many, many, times lower still.

As a practical matter, some other factors further supporting sensible action, even loomed large back in 1988, just as they do today:

Fossil fuel dependence was considered a national security vulnerability. And relying on fossil fuels also required sending of considerable dollars overseas to acquire a natural resource – as even with excessive ongoing environmental degradation, it was clear the U.S. didn’t have nearly enough reserves to meet its energy demands on its own.

Fossil fuels were also finite. And, although technology and its implementation has since helped a little they’re also extremely polluting; representing countless unseen long term and highly comminged hidden “costs” or harms to our and the world’s long term health and quality of our environment.

There are even also large damages often associated with much fossil fuel extraction, particularly in the case of coal – which has destroyed, harmed, or greatly altered countless mountain tops, local communities, watersheds, and local ecosystems.

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And coal’s use has pumped considerable amounts of mercury in the air, likely putting nature past its naturally evolved threshold (organisms can self detoxify limited amounts of mercury, albeit it’s an exceedingly slow process), and contributing to the now counter productive and almost silly fact that one of nature’s healthiest foods – fish, filled with DHA, EPA, selenium, Vitamin D and protein – is as a result now often contaminated with this bio accumulating and infinitely lasting neurological toxin.

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All of this was completely known in 1988. As was the fact our atmosphere, in terms of its basic thermal radiation recapture property, was being fundamentally and significantly changed; that this change was long term; and, from a shorter “man-centric” time frame, somewhat irreversible – at least into the foreseen future.

The problem now, just as it was then, is that the atmosphere issue and attendant “alteration of climate” issue (or “warming” and “change”), was looked at as one of discreet units of definitive effect. Linear, and near immediate:  Atmospheric GGs go up, earth immediately warms.

That’s not how it works. At all. And believing otherwise defies basic geophysical reality, or at least understanding.

Nevertheless, a “skeptic” paper was actually recently published in a Chinese science journal, that formed a conclusion, then continued to make assumptions and disregard all other modeling knowledge, to fit that pre determined conclusion. And one of the assumptions, astoundingly, was not just that climate is “very stable” and completely contradicting the issue irrelevant skeptic argument that climate constantly changes. But that almost all climate change “effect” is instantaneous. (The paper, in science journal speak, is covered here, and it and its broader pattern, here.)

Climate change in effect presents not just an alteration, if a lagging one, to earth’s climate from what’s now a geologically radical level of long lived greenhouse gas molecule level shifting (effecting a change on the order now of several million years, and counting, in just a couple hundred years, with much of it occurring in the past 50). But also a high risk range of potentially almost incalculable changes.

And ultimately, despite massive presumption otherwise, it stems from a pattern of habit that in the long run may not have been any better than any other alternative pattern of habit; just easier. (Incidentally, tackling less easy things – which includes developing different habits or practices – is also part of what builds economies.)  And, at one point in time at least, now long past, was seemingly the only real practical one.

And it stems from a pattern of habit that in the long run may have been no better than other alternatives, even if it didn’t have have all the issues of pollution, environmental damage, potential security exposure, net dollar export, and the finite nature of the resources attached, as well.

This same  consideration – that is., it’s not clear there was some huge advantage from these specific habits and patterns regardless of all the harmful external effects as was (and is still) otherwise widely presumed – applies to the other major contributor to climate change as well. A contributor that, when its use of fossil fuels, direct and indirect are considered, is the main contributor to climate change: Namely, agriculture.

For instance, many of the same practices contributing to the atmospheric alteration problem, also resulted in degradation to and large scale erosion of the soil, less nutritionally rich foods (by some studies, depending on where and how grown), and extensive reliance upon heavy metal laced chemical macro nutrient fertilizer as well as and in some ways rather senseless life killing and similarly extensive herbicide and pesticide use. (Herbicides and pesticides are man concocted chemicals designed to kill life that we didn’t even evolve with, and it never made any sense to put them into our bodies.)

The other ongoing and counter productive impediment, still present today but less so, was – and still is -the mistaken presumption of inherent conflict between environmental “protection” and human growth or progress. That is, between the quality of our world and direct and indirect if often hidden long term impacts upon our own health and well being, and human growth and progress. When not harming the quality of our world or adding to negative impacts upon our overall health and well being, is part of human growth and progress.

Progress – including economic – means doing what improves our world, and improving our lot and our experience in it. And which provides, ideally meaningful, employment, in the process: Things which improving the quality of our world and impacts upon our long term health – rather than constantly harming them – accomplishes.

That is, improving long term health and environmental quality, not degrading it and creating increasing and needless counter productive harms, is as fundamentally a part of this creation of employment and betterment of our world as anything else. It is ultimately closer to the very opposite of some sort of inherent conflict to it, as was and often still is mistakenly assumed, even sometimes presumed as near gospel.

In short, the presumption has always been that our environment was a vast expanse to simply dump things into, and it would take care of itself – rather than a balanced system of which, as we grew, we were invariably becoming a bigger and more influential part.

Yet the view continues today, and is even frequently used as an “argument” (irrelevant as it is), as to why “climate change” is not real. To wit:

“Man is insignificant compared to the earth, and can’t really affect  it.”

Or variations therein.  A “speck”of existence.

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In relation to the relevant issues we face, such an expression is pure semantics, and meaningless. (Much like, if not even more so, the myth of the self regulating earth for man’s climatological benefit, as if the earth would target the climatic range that happens to suit us and that we evolved under, rather than simply respond to the laws of physics and the net energy inputs upon it.)

The  idea uses grand generalizations in place of simply what is, often serving unknowingly to reinforce a belief, rather than looking at something in a different or new light. Man is having the effect man is having. But seemingly philosophical (yet more rhetorical) generalizations about how man is “insigificant” in the sense of our physical impact, simply replaces the specifics of that physical impact one wants to disagree with, dismiss or trivialize, with the more meaningless general expression that therefore we simply “can’t” affect things.

Consider:

“She has cancer and in order to survive needs to change some habits.”

Thus:

“The human body is a wonderful organism capable of incredible feats of self regulatory homeostasis and protection and impugning this capacity by imagining it somehow isn’t or becomes ‘cancerous’ is to degrade the wonder of life itself.”

It’s nice rhetoric, but irrelevant to the fact that she has cancer.

Likewise, “man is insignificant in comparison to the earth,” whatever it philosophically means, isn’t relevant to the issue of our impact upon it, or whether that impact is productive or counter productive to what is in our best interests, or most practical for us to do based upon our various sensibilities and place here on the planet – with now the power to literally wipe out almost all of the other species if we so chose, or even all but literally blow the earth up.

But as rationalization for the continuation of some sort of ideology, believing environmental protection and health to be in direct conflict with economic growth, and wholly solved by the market (which is tautological because if so the ongoing constant harm and long term hidden health impacts – much of what is not discovered until years later and irreversible, or overly commingled with other impacts and nearly impossible to prove – wouldn’t exist and hence the constant desire to dismiss them as if they don’t, or don’t matter), the idea captures the majority sentiment of our earlier evolution as a society, and continues today.

And as adherence to an ideology, this semantic if here meaningless idea of man’s insignificance to earth still represents an inherent fall back position by which to automatically resist change – even if, apparently such change is market led based upon increased awarenessess and mechanisms (taxes, credits, regulations), for movement away from habits and old presumptions. (Though it’s not entirely clear because unfortunately in response to the antagonism often expressed by climate change skepticism toward environmental concern, less rather than more effort is put into trying to address inclusive fears and concerns in terms of practical solutions, further polarizing the problem.)

But we had it backward:

By 1988 the issue was clear. It made sense to move from fossil fuels, and improve agricultural practices anyway; for reasons of efficiency, health, pollution, environmental degradation, security and, yes, real long term, productive growth.

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Engaging in a radical experiment with the basic geological energy recapturing combination of the earth, with almost no controls, and in a way that by releasing long sequestered carbon built up over hundreds of millions of years we were rapidly peeling back millions of years of climatic and earth evolution, on top of that, only means it made even more sense.

Yet instead, we looked at the issue – much like in some respects we still do today – as some sort of sacrifice.

This is because the immediate tangible concept of paying “x”, for “y” fuel, is something graspable. But the commingled hidden effects imparted by the collective actions of billions of people are seeming abstractions; even if over the long term both very real, and far more fundamentally relevant than any short term and ultimately easily market adjustable “cost basis” for “x” versus “y” set of market and consumer decisions and adjustments.

It may have been prompted by Hansen’s early belief that climate change likely presented an even more serious risk range than some other scientists studying it believed. (Though even back in 1988 the general consensus was of our long term impact, with any relevant uncertainty among actual scientists studying the issue not so much in broader, conceptual risk range terms but in more definitive, concrete, are we effecting ambient air temperatures now type of terms.) But there was nothing unreasonable, or even chutzpah requiring, whatever Hansen’s motivations, for saying – much as many others believed (and president Lyndon Johnson even articulated back in the late 1960s) – that as we were in essence radically changing the atmosphere through practices that were otherwise polluting and environmentally degrading, and there were other energy sources and better ways to farm, it was time to “stop waffling” and address it.

We’d have a different and cleaner, more efficient and less polluting and health impacting economy today, and likely wouldn’t be in the process of melting our north and south polar ice caps and looking at nearly so large a long term risk range of potentially (from our standpoint, anyway) monumental sea level rise, not to mention a host of other major risk factors and impacts.

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Given the known parameters in 1988, such a view is also not hindsight. It was merely clouded at the time, as again still somewhat today, by the inherent and mistaken presumption that improving our world – not just our transitory things that we build to use, or even to keep us from having to ourselves move (thus requiring even more in health care “costs,” as well as fundamental losses in health and vigor), have fun with and or luxuriate in – isn’t similarly a part of our growth and economy, but is some sort of direct conflict to it.

This is a view still continued by some in politics, such as Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, son of President George Bush. And, brother of President George W Bush, who in 2006 ironically said we are “addicted to oil.” (But would the Bush Administration follow through?)

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And (though not nearly as radical as many of the other increasingly right wing GOP candidates, and therefore aware of the phenomenon of climate change itself), who essentially bases all of his statements about it – though as a gifted politican dresses it up in characterstically nice sounding language – in the context of climate change redress’s basic threat, rather than contributor to, the economy. Namely:

[The U.S. has a responsibility to adapt to] what the possibilities are without destroying our economy.

Not climate change’s basic threat to economy, as former superstar U.S. Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin, and George W Bush’s very own Henry Paulson, have very clearly articulated. Rather, climate change redress.

And that we should “invest” (taxpayers dollars – so no real choice or consumer market behavior enters into the equation – to feed industry), to find solutions “for the long haul.”

Sure, a long term solution. But also a long term quest (seemingly a step along the lines of Brother George’s ultimate “let’s study more” then do nothing approach, heavily influenced not by climate scientists, but this heavy fiction novelist), for such solution, when the solution and more is – cheaply, and dropping – staring down at us from the sky. And we not only have more than enough technology, we’re already building it now.

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The problem is, not even a microfraction of the benefit (in terms of the absence of pollution and climate changing effects that more traditional means create), is integrated into the price; as similarly not even a microfraction of the external harms, is built into the price of traditional or “old fashioned” energy practices; thus making the market still heavily imbalanced toward highly inefficient long term patterns, rather than efficient ones.

And the same problem – perhaps even more so because it’s more complex than simply switching a dirty polluting fuel with a clean increasing low cost virtually non polluting free energy source (sun) panel – exists with respect to agricultural practices.

Yet Jeb Bush wants to throw dollars at the problem and “study” for “solutions” to bail out industry, instead of carbon taxing to shift the markets to create business certainty and the ability to plan, innovate and respond (in part why no fewer than six major international energy companies went so far as to even ask for a carbon tax), and use the funds raised, to help those industries and employees transition in the shorter term.

Thus, more rhetoric like the “Addicted to Oil” Speech in 2006?  (Still, it’s a step up for him from this recent position – so Jeb, if the U.S. does wind up with more Bush presidents than sequels to the movie “Rocky,” I do volunteer to be an adviser in your administration. You could use a conceptual strategic, non ideological mind.)

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Thus the problem remains the same original impediment. “Let us not destroy our ecomomy.”

Improving our world through manufacture, sometimes for practices that are just dumb (let’s build a lot of escalators and use even more energy, so people stand around even more and move even less and then spend more energy driving to and using electric equipment o gyms or getting diabetes and lower quality of life and greatly increasr “also GDP contributing” health care costs, along with countless other examples), and sometimes not, but just, whatever they “are” to us, is all “contributing to GDP” – even when it takes great cost to do so.

But improving energy and agricultural practices, even through the production and development of new equipment, installations, grids, uses and jobs, is nevertheless destroying it because we see it as the “price” of energy, rather than simply another component of growth, and choice to be made to maximize buying power, consumer and business.

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“But we need energy to run business and heat (or cool) homes!”

But again, using processes that harm our interests rather than benefit them is a separate question. So gearing the market to do so – at the appropriate level of cost relative to other practices – is simply another part of growth; as is even the key component of “cost”- which, since each dollar of production also represented a dollar of cost, at heart makes up every last dollar of our GDP as well.

The only issue is whether the cost represents value or not. As we’ve seen in the escalator example, some may not; but if we want those things, fine.

When it comes to public environmental policy, the issue is: does a cleaner, healthier, less polluted, more environmentally stable world (or at this point at least having its increasing volatility and unstability range mitigated), represent value?

This is because making a cleaner world doesn’t detract from growth. In the short run it might create some economic substitutions as we adjust to newer production methodologies, practices and energy uses. But it simply becomes a component of growth.

And in the mid to long run, as we develop and learn cleaner, less damaging processes, that have become well integrated into our cost structure (something we could have done way back in 1988, and been far past it now), it comes with no additional cost – that is, either real cost or even cost simply representing a substitution of one production emphasis over another – just as many industrial “costs” are today (and which similarly represent expenditures and investment – that if unsupportable at the same rate of production will also shift from excess use at the increased cost level, over to more efficient processes).

While on the flip side, cleaner, less damaging processes, come with the constant, continued benefit of far less pollution, atmospheric alteration, and negative external – and thus uncontrollable (and thus the most personally restrictive, even freedom affecting) – health impacts experienced: The point of improvement, and in particular, improved processes that, beyond the material “flavor” of the moment, go to more core fundamentals – such as basic environmental quality or at the very least health, and, perhaps, say, the availability of basic land and coastline (as opposed to sea bottoms, etc).

That is, shifting to better practices – far from being the “harm” to economic processes that, from the perception of immediate short term “cost” but rather abstract and hard to comprehend, and often intensely hidden long term gain, it’s assumed to be – is ultimately a net good, with little to no bad.

Yet requiring the awareness and will to sensibly and fairly address it in the first place, and make the improvements, policies or market motivations that even the playing field somewhat between overly externally harmful and non harmful processes, so better decisions, accounting for a wider range of actual real costs, can be made. That is – simply by changing our structure and not – under the belief we have to harm our world to grow rather the fact that mitigating such harm is similarly part of growth – not continuing counter productive practices that we find rationalizations to cling to.

President Barack Obama delivers a health care address to a joint session of Congress at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., Sept. 9, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

But we didn’t in 1988. And looking back Hansen is said to have had chutzpah for making the common sense suggestion to the U.S. Congress to do something to move toward, require, inspire or (directly or through something like a carbon tax indirectly but far more efficiently), reward more productive long term practices that don’t continue to so radically alter the long term chemical composition of our atmosphere, with (from Hansen’s point of view), an almost assured range of likely negative changes, and a higher risk of major to radical ones.

Even if that process – being change to a huge, global system with enormous energy sinks (oceans) that in turn drive longer term processes, and that are starting to show their effect with increasing global temperatures now even as the oceans continue to warm- increasing melt, and acceleration of that melt, at both polar ice caps, and even warming ocean column induced sea bottom thawing leading to the increasing eruptions of a gas far more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping energy, and with potentially enormous consequences – from our perspective, seems “slow.”

In other words, due to this limited but popular and even sometimes near presumed gospel economic thinking – the age old presumption that our industry and progress comes with the cost of harming our world and our health to get it, and not that progress might also similarly, and in the long run even more importantly, actually also be the protection of our health from environmental impact, and the environmental protection and relative stability of that very world – we’ve done harm to the latter. And at likely no real benefit to us in the long term, and only illusory “we’re used to it so it seems right and a loss if we stop or change” gain, in the short term.

And that’s where the problem comes in, and where it came in in 1988: The inherent and inceasingly archaic presumption that markets, economy and growth – all of which are ultimately to provide employment, opportunity, and better our world – are inconsistent with protecting the environmental quality, implicit health effects from, and stability of that world; and therefore accomplishing the latter somehow doesn’t provide employment, opportunity, and the bettering of our world, but provides a “conflict” with economic growth which is nevertheless ultimately supposed to achieve the same end: Again, employment, opportunity, and the bettering of our world.

But protecting environmental quality does provide those things. Which is why the issue with environmental protection isn’t the illusionary “do we sacrifice harm to the economy or some sort of real cost to achieve it,” but rather choice, liberty and opportunity; and perhaps the inherent rights of present and future generations to cleaner air, healthier, more ecologically sound, environs, and – if the alternative of chaos is unnecessarily being caused by our inadvertent doing – to some relative climate stability.

And not, instead, the idea that:

“Environmental protection and common area – land, bio-accumulation toxic build up, water and air health affects – is the job of markets, not government.”

Why?

Because by virtue of the uniquely common nature of the environment – what, in essence it is – the environment, the one thing we must share, along with perhaps national defense, and justice, is not only the responsibility of government to at least somewhat oversee – it is precisely the job of even the most limited of government – as government is us, collectively. And our shared environment is about the most collective thing of all.

The issue is: “how.”

And the biggest impediment to this, as it was in 1988, and what causes us today to look back strangely at calls to tell Congress in 1988 to stop waffling over what was really a simple issue even then – carbon based and long evolutionarily accumulated fuels from deep in the ground are heavily polluting, finite, increase our international exposure, radically changing our long term atmosphere, thus “stop waffling” already over sensible moves to transition to more long term productive processes – is the idea of its inherent conflict with economy, rather than its ultimately integral part of it.

That was 1988. And the case, strong then, and despite rhetoric and much self reinforcing belief to the contrary, is now in the next century essentially overwhelming now; nearly thirty years, and much advancement, but perhaps not much more awareness,  later.

Is the Risk of Methane Being Greatly Under Underestimated?

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.

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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.

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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.

Sky Rocketing Arctic Methane Levels Help Tell Part of the Much Bigger Story of Major Change

(Last updated March 6, 2016)

Lately, methane levels in the arctic have been spiking to unheard of high levels. What does this mean?

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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.

And in the Arctic, where concentrations of late have been particularly high, last fall and again this past spring, methane levels have at times spiked an additional 800 ppb or more above that.

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:

metop-methane

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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):

GHGConc2000-large

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.

Update:  More information on methane, and why it’s future impact may be greatly underestimated, is found here.

What if Aliens Attacked us, Are we Prepared For It? More Australian Science Zaniness

Last updated 6-1-15

Australia is not a country well insulated from the physical phenomenon of climate change.

Even in the early stages of this non linear and even at this point still largely hidden phenomenon (that is, most excess energy is going into starting large scale polar ice sheet processes, and ocean warming, masking current “relevant” changes to us), Australia is one of the countries that’s been disproportionately affected:

For the continent down under, it’s been kind of a bad 2000s; and 2013 (until 2014), was Australia’s hottest ever, with continued precipitation problems. In 2014, the Australian heat continued and intensified.

But – even while more than 90% of the increase in energy now going into our earth/lower atmosphere system is minimizing any immediate observable changes by going into heating oceans and helping to melt our polar ice caps, among other things, and with Australian drought, river drying, and intense heatification aside – a few possible pertinent questions might be:

  1. What if aliens from another planet invaded us, and we’re not sufficiently prepared?
  2. Suppose instead those zany climate scientists are right, and increases to long term “heat trapping” atmospheric greenhouse concentrations to levels not seen on earth in at least several million years, leads to severe future climate shifting in response, as common sense would naturally suggest that it would, and the complete picture (and not climate select climate change skepticism cherry picking) mean’s we’re actually ignoring signs of such climate shifting at our (or our progeny’s) peril.

Somewhere in between these two “what ifs” – but much closer to one than the other – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s chief business adviser, Maurice Newman – who’s not a scientist, but  as a business adviser apparently knows a lot more about these complex issues of science than scientists – asked this question. And not at a wacky private dinner party either; but in an Oped published in one of Australia’s leading newspapers.

Newman asked, “what if” the recent warming of earth is due to an increase in solar radiation and we face a massive risk of major cooling. Okay so far, right? Hold on:

More relevantly, Newman also answered that we do face just such a threat. And he went further:

In an irony that future generations will hopefully (but not likely) find more amusing and enlightening than outrageous and saddening, Newman said cooling was a threat for which he asserted the world and its people are ill prepared:  A threat, he wrote for all of Australia and the world, that politicians are ignoring “nature’s signs” of, at “their, and our, peril.”

While the earth overheats on the tail end of a now multi million year increase to earth’s basic insulation layer, major signs of which we are largely ignoring, we ignore “nature’s signs of cooling” (again, for perspective), at our peril.

So, two things, among many others, we are ill prepared for: global cooling, and alien invasion.

The sun could be going into a lower phase. But it’s hard to prepare for major cooling when all science suggests the opposite; when the impact of atmospheric greenhouse gas changes dwarfs any impact of changes in solar radiation; and given that an extremely unusual and significantly long drop in solar radiation were to occur, it would be a very good thing, not a bad thing – in that it would help partially offset the accumulating and increasing impact of already geologically radical increases in long term atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

And it’s also hard to prepare for when the central fact that Newman bases his claim on, is wrongSolar radiation has slightly decreased the past few decades. And the globe, also contrary to Newman’s imagined science, has not cooled.

13 of the 14 warmest years in modern history have all occurred in the last 14. The last decade was the hottest on record. Permafrost (land, not air) temperatures have increased even more than the air above, as the earth itself is heating. Polar ice sheets are melting, and melting at an increasingly faster rate, with additional risk of further positive reinforcement from warmer water encroachment (video here).

More significantly, while with such record setting ambient air temperatures the world ocean should have cooled a little (by giving off more heat energy then they took in, to in turn keep air temperatures higher than the norm on average), the oceans have instead continued to warm, even doing so at an accelerating rate. And despite most excess energy going into future (warming) climate by melting ice and rapidly heating oceans, 2014, statistically was likely to have been the warmest year on record, surpassing 2010 and 2005.

Even as solar output has diminished.

But the data is secondary to the basic science that as business adviser, Maurice Newman must be more expert on than the scientists who professionally study this (and surely The Australian must be well aware of this also): Which is that greenhouse gases absorb and re radiate thermal energy that would otherwise waft into the upper atmosphere and beyond, thus “insulating” the earth, and over time, warming it – and that the increases to the levels of these gases, in a geologic sense, has already been massive.

Which, however, Newman also doesn’t “agree” with. Or accept.

Which seems a little like religion, veiled, as, “skeptical” science.

Speaking of which, Newman considers sensible measures to slow down our rapid continued increases to our atmosphere’s long term greenhouse gas concentrations, akin to:

Primitive civilisations offering up sacrifices to appease the gods.”

Let that sink in. Addressing out massive atmospheric alteration that we continue to add to at breakneck speed, and that nearly all atmospheric and climate scientists who study this say we need to, is like a primitive civilization offering up a sacrifice to the Gods.

Perhaps in an ultimate irony though it could be that radically changing the long term nature of our atmosphere to a level ultimately incompatible with the general climate we have come to know, love, and rely on –  then continuing to add to and amplify the same at geologically breakneck speed all while proclaiming and believing we’re not really changing anything until there is the proof of it having thus been wildly changed, after the fact – is the sacrifice to appease the Gods.

The fossil fuel Gods.

Gods based upon a belief system that our own destinies, industry, societal development, economy and growth is dependent upon purposefully engaging in practices that directly harm our world.

Fossil fuels that none other than former oilman George Bush, in his 2006 Presidential State of the Union Address, called an “addiction.”

Intergalactic Invasion

Clearly the question of whether or not we are prepared for alien invasion is not quite like the question of whether we’re “prepared” for global cooling. We could see the latter, if even for a shorter time, as major ocean circulation and other patterns shift and suddenly bring colder temperatures further south, plausibly creating increased surface snow and ice and lowering albedo. It could happen.

But it’s probably very unlikely.

And given the radical nature of our change to the atmosphere’s long term head trapping property, and the attendant, if early, signs of increasing earth/lower atmosphere energy (i.e., meaning subsequently more intense and hotter climate – since climate is ultimately an expression, if a volatile and shifting one, of long term energy), saying we’re ill prepared for global cooling, and have warning signs which we’re ignoring “at our peril,” given the very powerful data suggesting the opposite, is somewhat akin to saying we’re also not prepared for alien invasion.

Or at least it is when the same person making these claims is not a long term leading geologist holed up north studying the details in the ice (such as this guy who is among the many who say that climate change is going to be an enormous problem), but a political business adviser who simultaneously says that the extremely sensible idea of transforming off of fossil fuels that are radically altering the long term heat trapping chemical composition of the atmosphere, and which pollute otherwise anyway, which are finite, which have to be dug out of the ground, and are finite, and moving, building, investing in smarter energy sources, is “like a primitive civilisation offering up sacrifices to appease the Gods.”

More on Aliens, and a “word” from an actual scientist who Newman directly relied upon for his major Oped

This article/blog piece was written after coming across Newman’s Oped back in August, and kept as a draft. While researching to “finish” and post it the following day, I made the discovery that the alien analogy wasn’t quite so novel, as well as what the scientists who Newman referenced in his Oped had to say about it.(Which then led to something more akin to a long book chapter on irony and our belief system’s conflation with logic under the latter’s guise – and hence the post got shelved for awhile.)

As far as the original alien invasion title and satirical premise above goes, Professor Matthew England’s response to Newman’s claims, literally was:

Saying we aren’t prepared for global cooling is like saying we aren’t prepared for an alien invasion.

As for the scientist who Newman directly relied upon for his claim – the guy you would think would offer him support (say the scientist who served as adviser on the Dennis Quaid frozen world film “The Day After Tomorrow), he had this to say:

Frankly, scientifically ludicrous.

The scientist therein, Mike Lockwood of Reading University, was being a little bit nice. But then he’s a scientist. Professionally, they normally understate things. The idea Newman rested his oped upon is ludicrous.

But his clamor that we ignore the signs of cooling at our peril while action to temper our major atmospheric alteration is like a primitive civilization offering up sacrifices to the Gods, is massive misinformation reinforced zealotry – to find any argument possible to support a belief that we’re not significantly affecting our own future climate though the major long term chemical changes we’re unambiguously making to the atmosphere.

Just like this widespread pattern, although a very extreme example of it.

What Is Climate Change Anyway, and Why Is it Being Underestimated

(Last updated 8-15-15)

What is climate change?

This often misunderstood phrase refers not just to the idea of our climate “changing,” but more importantly to the phenomenon driving it, and the real problem itself: Namely, the fact that we’ve now altered the long term heat energy trapping property of our atmosphere to a degree not seen on earth in probably three million or more years (and likely a lot more, particularly when N2O, CH4, and CFCs are added to the mix); along with the fact that we continue to alter our atmosphere at geologically breakneck speed – remarkably adding to and compounding the challenge we already face.

The ultimate problem presented by climate change is also a matter of the ranges of risk of increasing radical future climatic shifting, in response to the ongoing, and cumulative effect of an already changed atmosphere and its accumulating impact upon the heat energy balance of the earth – and risk management. (A classic and insufficiently covered example of just such potentially compounding, and even strong feedback threshold approaching, effect, is here.)

These risks, along with the likely ranges of change, become increasingly amplified as we make more profound systemic changes to our earth/atmosphere system.

And effectively managing and assessing them means to not just focus on what will assuredly happen – as most of the focus has been disproportionately placed – but also on the ranges (plural) of possibilities, times their likely chances, in order to get a better feel for the threat, and make better overall strategic decisions in response.

We’re essentially not doing this. For example, while there’s likely to be some significant change anyway, if we don’t change there will almost assuredly be what we consider “radical” climatic shifts. (See below as to why this is likely.) And at the very least there will be a much higher risk range – both in terms of the level of effects, and the increase in probabilities of more dramatic ones.

And since our atmosphere is a balance, mitigating emissions can not only retard net long term atmospheric concentration growth, it can also help to reduce total concentrations to levels more in balance with at least the last few million years or less, and thus lower ongoing atmospheric thermal reabsorption cacpacity from what it is presently, to at least soften or flatten the overall cumulative effect as we go forward, and lower amplifying feedbacks. (Such as, again, this one, which may make controlling a greatly underestimated greenhouse gas, almost impossible.)

Ultimately, radical shifting, at least in terms of measurable costs, might amount to a few hundred trillion dollars. Or perhaps it might be a little less. (A few hundred trillion dollars may seem like a bit of a gargantuan number, and in part is just used here for an example. But also hold off evaluation of that number itself until you finish this piece.)

If the chances of severe shifting –  again just by way of example – are 60%, then, simplified, the “cost” is .6(200 trillion dollars) + .4(average of other “we get lucky” outcome costs – say 40 trillion)….or around 135-140 trillion.

Again, by today’s standards, that’s a huge number, but we don’t really know. Just for starters, and representing only a releative micro fraction of the problem, turning major parts of, say, FL, LA, NJ, RI & DE in the U.S. alone into sea bed, would be extraordinarily, almost unfathomably, “costly.” And it’s an almost assured (but again, small) part of the ultimate result of this ongoing accumulation of increased net energy, barring sensible remedial action. (Again, see below as to why.)

Just by way of example, Greenland melting, and doing so increasingly quickly, is geologically not a big deal, having probably melted in the last half a million years alone. Yet we’re still very constrained by our limited imagination – as well as the fact that we evolved in the world as it is and, for the most part, has been the past million or two years – as to what’s “geologically normal”; once again failing to grasp just what it means to change the long term energy trapping properties of the atmosphere to levels not seen on earth in many millions of years, and continue to skyrocket them upwards, and “think” it’s okay just because “oh, right now it’s only a little warmer outside,” and the north and south poles in this mere geologic flash of time are currently still essentially white.

In terms of trying to “assess” this, we can also variously change the range of numbers based upon the best approximations of various ranges and likelihoods of harm. And again, do so just to get an idea, approximation, or better concept, of some – and still not all – of the reasonable ranges of actual risks.

But instead we have silly and incredibly presumptive super long term macro economic projections by some economists: notably climate change “skeptics,” that make remarkably ridiculous presumptions about the rate and value of growth decades from now based upon perceived changes in energy sources, while putting these up against essentially trivialized future “climate change” earth system impacts, which in turn reflect an extremely poor, or simply terribly biased, comprehension of the relevant science. (Perhaps the most well known is Bjorn Lomborg, who irony of ironies is hailed as both a visionary, and practical thinker.)

But not only is this approach mistaken on both ends – presuming a rate of or even change in rate of growth over multiple decades from changing energy sources is so wildly presumptive as to be idiotic, although dressed up in numbers and nice economic jargon it sounds good – but given the value of avoiding cataclysmally negative change, there is also probably a valid premium cost for disaster or outright global catastrophe for some regions, and hence some additional value in avoiding or lowering any reasonable chance of that. (This is for the same basic reason, simplified, that we have most insurance in the first place, even though in pure dollars alone it almost never makes any economic sense to do.)

And, most relevantly of all, but seemingly the hardest to sensibly integrate into decision making, there are heavy intangible, non-measurable costs of trivial, non-sensible, or no action. These probably have no comparison in terms of pure economic growth, since these immeasurable – or really, non measurable – costs (including upon health) may affect basic human utility or “happiness,” whereas continued growth in GDP over time isn’t directly correlated with happiness and utility. (Otherwise, in comparison with only 50 years ago, we’d all be past bursting at the seems with overall utility and happiness in first world countries, and getting happier by the year as we “grow” and increase the speed at which our “widgets” and gadgets perform, as well as what they can do.)

So called practical visionaries like Lomborg miss this concept entirely – among others. And aside from making absurd economic assumptions well into the future, and then treating the projected results of economic “value” for decades hence as ludicrously precise and authoritative figures (which by giving them this patina of authority and seeming credibility makes them worse than no numbers at all), treat all of today’s dollars – discounted at a reasonable future rate – as equal arbiters of true human value over time. Which is about as visionary (or, when it comes to grand scale long term global thinking, ultimately practical) as tree moss.

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In terms of the earth’s increasing energy balance, much of the change occurring is also seemingly being masked because our earth system is a “relatively” stable system. That is, it is kept in check by massive ice sheets at both ends of the world, and relatively temperate oceans (see below), with the key being on the word “relatively.” It is also one currently in an ice age. This (along with what had been lower atmospheric greenhouse gas levels) has been keeping our world moderately temperate; and, by retaining an enormous amount of the world’s water locked up in massive, historically stable glaciers, keeping oceans from rising and turning a decent sized portion of all seven continents into sea bottom.

But largely hidden from our eyes – yet not those of scientists who intensely study this – our earth’s system is also starting to show early signs of major, and very significant changes, and, even more relevantly, accelerating changes.

For example: Most of the increases in absorbed atmospheric energy are going into heating our world ocean, not immediate air temperature increases. If this wasn’t the case, air temperature would be shooting up even faster than it is, and long term, that rate of surface air temperature increase is already significant.

Adding even further to the significance of the lagging, long term air temperature trend yet, a preliminary assessment shows that 2014 globally just became the hottest year on record. (And based upon 2014 monthly data, NASA, NOAA, and HadCRU temperature records – the three other major global temperature measuring systems – will likely back this up – NASA and NOAA already have officially. The 3 hottest years on record have now all occurred in the past 5 years, even with massive amounts of heat falling below the surface of the ocean, where it is severely changing the longer term, climate driving, energy balance of this earth.)

And that rate of ocean heat accumulation is accelerating.

Not only that, but the rate of change in major parts of the ocean not only may be faster than in the past ten thousand years, but appears to be several times faster for significant parts of the ocean than at any point in the past ten thousand years.

The first 2014 hottest year on record article just linked to above, incidentally, is typical, in that its statement that “climate scientists expect the Earth to get hotter over time so long as humans keeping adding greenhouse gases...” is likely very mistaken. It will probably get warmer either way, just a lot less if we stop now:

This is because the change in the heat “trapping” property of the atmosphere that has already taken place is slowly (or maybe, increasingly, not so slowly) changing fundamental earth systems that affect long term climate, and which even with a further unchanged atmosphere, will still continue to change these fundamental earth systems and alter the overall basic energy balance of the earth until a new stases is reached under the current general level (but already massively geologically raised) of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

But by sensibly acting (which so far we haven’t in the least), the overall ultimate level of climatic change may be a lot less. And the difference – between continuing to add a lot more to the net energy absorbing and re radiating property of the atmosphere, or instead transforming over to what some might reasonably suggest to be a much smarter way of doing things – may be between what will be a bit of an unwanted adventure (for some, while still a massive struggle and excessive hardship for much of the world’s poor and several disaffected regions and peoples); and what will largely define mankind’s future in a way that will be seen as the great modern event, and mistake, of mankind.

Sure, we have hatred and wars and religious extremism leading to terrorism. But nobody really has any clear answers for those problems yet.

Climate change on the other hand, even if it is a complex issue, does have a pretty straightforward answer: Stop altering the long term chemical composition of the atmosphere at this point; and if we’re worried about transitioning economic growth, put our minds and ingenuity and market genius into coming up with ways to do so in the best way possible.

But it is something we can shift by simply deciding to do it and realizing we don’t need fossil fuels to survive well. Particularly since there are many other ways to get energy. (Far more, and far more efficiently, when and if we change the market dynamics that heavily subsidizes fossil fuels – both directly, and far more indirectly by failing to account for any of the massive negative cumulative external effect through fossil fuels’ continued use. This massive albeit indirect subsidization causes their market integrated cost to be a small fraction of their “real” costs or harm, so in the long run the market is heavily balanced away from far more productive practices and processes, and and heavily towards far less ones.)

And it is something we can shift by simply deciding to do it, and realizing we don’t need fossil fuels to survive well, since there are other ways to get energy – particularly as almost all of these ways involve work, industry and innovation.

These are all things which are part of economic growth, and help build economic growth and an “economy” long term just as surely as would the few extra widgets which – not making any transition to smarter energies – we could expect over the short term but just at far far greater, if hidden, cumulative harm.

Of course climate change refuters argue otherwise. Although take very careful note of the fact that climate change refuters almost to a person argue passionately that continued use of fossil fuels are critical to the well being of mankind.

Notice this oddity – and let it sink in. That is, the scientific issue of whether or not the phenomenon known as climate change is real and significant is completely unrelated to the issue of whether fossil fuels are critical to the well being of mankind. One may believe the latter, but that logically has nothing to do with the former.

Yet, almost all climate change refuters – those who say climate change itself is not very relevant or not even real – believe it; suggesting that again, something beyond objective assessment, even though it is often done under the self reinforcing guise of objective assessment (and “better” science than the world’s leading climate scientists), is driving a great deal of climate change refutation.

This fealty to fossil fuels is also preventing us from assessing the issue in a practical matter, under the false guise of “practicality,” when assessment of the science – what we’re actually doing to our earth and what it means – requires a complete removal from the political ramifications of any conclusion. And which is what we should be debating and discussing.

And in that debate as well, it is key to consider that in the long run what matters is economic growth; not that we grow in the way we “were used to” or that necessarily despoils our land, air, and health just to accomplish it, and that building different energy systems and creating market motivation toward doing so and changing past patterns, is as valid a form of growth as any other kind.

If it is a form that is also consistent with persona choice, but that better protects the perhaps reasonably inalienable rights to clean air, water and a relatively stable climate for ourselves and in particular our progeny, and doesn’t slowly destroy the world we have built up and half or more of the earth’s species along with it, even better. (Note, it’s not that a radically changed climate is bad. It’s that a radical change combined with the geological speed of it – upon even an advanced species that evolved, and built under the prior set of conditions, precipitation patterns, and ocean levels – is bad for us and many species;  including many we rely upon, and others, simply because we’re the “smartest” of the species, that we should be protecting, not wiping out.)

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There are several more key changes as a result of this massive long term energy absorbing and re radiating property of our atmosphere, but the most interesting (and likely relevant) ones involves the beginning of change to the massive amount of ice on the globe – stabilizing temperatures, and affecting earth’s key albedo, as we’ll see below.

The ice sheets at each end of the earth are now melting, and the rate of Greenland’s melt is now five fold what it was in the 90s. This again, although Greenland is of course essentially still intact, is a massive rate of acceleration, over a very short geologic time frame. And very recent studies suggest that Greenland may be melting faster than previously thought possible. (Also, with rivers now racing through the still largely white and massive surface of Greenland, the pace is quickening still, as water – moving water even more – is by far the most effective ongoing accelerator of melt.)

Not only are glaciers now melting, but the melt rate in the relevant portion of the Antarctic – the South now – has also tripled in the past ten years. This is also a massive rate of acceleration. And the loss of a significant portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is now already considered likely irreversible.

Widespread methane leakage and eruption from the Atlantic sea bed floor is starting to appear, and along with beginning melt from warming permafrost areas, and warming arctic sea columns, methane eruptions are now starting to lead to tremendous regional spikes in atmospheric area methane levels.

But it’s also sometimes suggested that we can’t do anything about climate change now because it’s “too late.” This idea is often pushed by climate change refuters as another way to avoid dealing with the issue – even though it contradicts the main refuter claim that climate change isn’t a big deal in the first place. But the inherent contradiction is just another example of how almost any argument possible is used to try and refute what’s commonly called “climate change.”

But is there any merit to the idea that it’s too late to act?

Not at all.

While the signs of significant change are undoubtedly appearing, it is an enormous mistake of evaluation (or, more commonly, simply a claim by refuters as yet another argument to avoid redress on the issue), to think we can’t have much significant effect on a rapidly compounding problem specifically arising from actions and patterns that we in turn, specifically, engage in.

We can have an effect by definition. Also by definition, we can have a large effect – since it is we who are continuing to alter the long-term chemical composition of the atmosphere. And we – no one else – who are doing so at a remarkably rapid geological rate.

It’s easy and nice to wax philosophic, make excuses for inattention, or ignore that which seems abstract until it’s too late (and for which later generations curse the heck out of us.) And certainly what has already occurred can’t be changed, and so the focus needs to be on the future, not the past. But moving forward, we control our own future.

Even more important to consider – yet often misinterpreted by a couple of well meaning scientists who already fear the worst (keep in mind however that much of that fear is usually also based upon a belief that we stubbornly won’t change in time), and skeptics who will make any excuse imaginable to perpetuate the ingrained and wildly archaic attitude of the earth as “huge” and man as insignificant and so incapable of significantly impacting it – is that further changes to the long term composition of the atmosphere may matter as much, if not more, than changes that have already occurred.

Here’s why:

The changes that have already occurred will have a cumulative effect upon overall climate via two main mechanisms.

The first is through increased atmospheric energy (heat) capture, as more heat that is kept from retreating to the upper atmosphere and outer space, but retained by our earth atmospheric system – starting with the atmosphere itself – will warm the atmosphere and earth below it, more than the atmosphere and earth below it would have otherwise been warmed in the absence of this increased captured energy.

The second mechanism is the more important of the two, and is the one most often misunderstood (or similarly overlooked or incorrectly trivialized.) That mechanism is the less predictable but increasingly more important effect of this increase in the amount of captured atmospheric energy upon all the other main long term drivers of climate after the sun and total atmospheric recapture (or total “greenhouse” effect).

These most notably include the world ocean (or “oceans” in more common usage), and the massive, normally stabilizing ice sheets near both poles of the earth. (See links just above for evidence of change, and now accelerating change, in these areas.) It also include’s the earth itself – the land and its surface

In other words, in the long term, climate is not just driven by sunlight and the amount of atmospheric energy capture, but by the longer term structural conditions created on earth by those two phenomena in the first place.

This is why if there were no long term greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at all, the earth would be a ball of frozen rock hurtling through space with no or little life upon it, with an average temperature, instead of the current 59 degrees or so, of about zero degrees Fahrenheit. The cold would produce more ice, which would cause far less solar radiation to be absorbed by the earth’s surface in the first place, etc.

But the retained energy of the ocean (in the form of heat) over time interacts with atmospheric energy, and drives much of what produces that atmospheric energy. In fact, along with incoming solar radiation, and then absorption and re radiation by greenhouse molecules of thermally radiated heat from the earth’s surfaces (including ocean surfaces), it’s largely what produces almost all of it.

So if – as the long term composition of the molecules that capture radiated heat in the atmosphere rise – the oceans over time get warmer, the long term temperature and climate will be very different than if just the the long term composition of the molecules that capture radiated heat in the atmosphere itself rose.

This is why what is happening in our oceans is more important right now than short term air temperatures.

And those oceans are gaining energy at an alarming rate.

It is not that the oceans are super hot by geological standards: It is that they are both changing in the direction of gaining heat energy, and they are changing at a rate that as best as we can tell is near geologically radical, as well.

Yet most of the popular examination of this issue is incorrectly focused on air temperature as the arbiter of what kind of change has relevantly taken place, when it is only a small portion of it.

This mistake is made in part because we can easily relate to, measure, and “feel” air temperature, and it’s less conceptual, and more concrete seeming. And it’s made in part because of the massive misinformation and mis-focus with respect to the issue, because many have ventured in with or developed an often fervently held opinion on climate change despite little and often incorrect knowledge of the relevant facts, or an intensely widespread ideological drive to simply try to refute a notion: one that we don’t want to accept; one that’s abstract; one that’s long term; one that involves complex risk ranges, and ones that are largely in the future; and one that technically can’t be “proven” until well after the fact.

But an enormous driver of the amount of thermal radiation that occurs in the first place, is also not just sunlight, but the albedo of the earth. Sunlight is short wave radiation, essentially non-absorbable by greenhouse gases. If sunlight hits a light colored surface, most of it is reflected back outward in its same short wave form, and greenhouse gases don’t “trap” it. If sunlight hits a dark surface, instead of being reflected, most of it is instead absorbed.

This causes two key differences. Albedo loss increases the amount of energy retained by the earth (and then available for re absorption an re radiation by the atmosphere at some point, or at least effecting the balance of what energy is so available). And it tends to increase the retained energy of the surface with the lowered albedo, warming it, and over time potentially furthering the albedo lowering process, unless something is acting to counter act it.

Thus, ice tends to beget more ice, until a balance is reached in line with the general total heat energy being initially made available (the sun) and re-available (atmospheric capture of thermal radiation from the surface of the earth, via greenhouse gases).

So cutting back on albedo, which increases the effective amount of relevant solar radiation – solar radiation that’s actually absorbed as energy instead of being reflected right back in essentially non re-absorbable form – then increases the likelihood of even further ice decrease, until again an overall (relative) balance is reached.

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Again, one of the biggest mistakes made on the issue of climate change is to naively assume that it’s some sort of nearly contemporaneous process whereby more greenhouse molecules heat up the air and thus the “air,” and thus “the globe” as well, is warmer.  Or that the overall process can be modeled with pinpoint precision.

Most of that latter mistake – that to know the earth is changing we must somehow be able to model it all in advance with pinpoint short term, pathway and range precision is, again, due to massive misinformation on the climate change issue (and a lot of misleading rhetoric that leads to even further misunderstanding of the issue), as well as occasionally poor scientific explication, which presumes incorrectly that the basic idea of climate change is predicated upon, or even requires, “models,” as well as the even more heavily flawed idea that climate models make predictions, rather than projections, or that they “prove” climate change, rather than serve as tools to help us learn to better project possible ranges and further hone our broader understanding of the issue.

Yet far from being contemporaneous, there has to be a fairly significant lag between ultimate cause and effect, if any significant long term change is present.

Not that some effect won’t be initially present (as difficult as it is to sort out “change” from natural climate variation, which variation is itself intense, and only likely to be far more inherently intense within an increasingly changing climatic system); but that the real changes come from the underlying shifts that take place from a slowly accumulating buildup of energy.

We are starting to see the formation of this right now, as the oceans, for instance, gain heat at a remarkable rate, and glaciers all over the globe, including both polar “ice caps,” start to melt, and, in almost all cases now measured, accelerate in that melt. (Skeptics will ignore all of this, or point to tiny slivers of the entire picture to arrive at a different, and incomplete, picture of what is really going on, often without even being aware that they are doing so while convincing themselves and tens of millions, otherwise.)

Thus as ice melts, the process has to be jagged, non linear, and depending on the amount of input, likely greatly accelerating at some point, even with potentially large shifts over quick periods of time – we just won’t know that last part until (an if) after the fact. But ice melting begets more of the same process that led to ice melt in the first place.

If there wasn’t a massive structural change that had taken place, ice melt would sort of even out in some type of balance with incoming energy, perhaps with shifts even to massive glaciation (as we’ve seen in periods of glacial encroachment during the current, now about two and a half million year old, ice age, as changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun and the tilt of it’s axis and so forth change net sun input at repeated intervals of time).

But a massive structural change has taken place, and is continuing to take place in terms of the earth’s basic energy effecting systems. And this is largely what we miss the significance of, merely because we can’t immediately “see” any seemingly astounding effect. And the first part of that change is the change to the long term thermal radiation trapping property of our atmosphere, which has so far been geologically radical, and is becoming ever more so by the year.

That is, most studies put the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere above any level the earth has seen for the past 3 to 5.5 million or so years. One seminal study even put it at 10 to 15 million years. This doesn’t even take into account the addition of CFCs, which are wholly man made, and though sparse, extraordinarily potent (and extraordinarily long lasting) greenhouse gases; nor levels of nitrous oxide or methane, both of which are also well above any recent geological levels we’ve been able to figure out, and which in combination with the massive shift in carbon dioxide, likely put the total global warming potential equivalent (or GWPe) of the atmosphere above simply the 3 to 5.5 million year (or greater) change estimation measured by carbon dioxide changes alone.

What is also rather stunning is that in so far as we can go back and get somewhat reasonably accurate longer term atmospheric gas levels, mainly through ice core sampling, carbon dioxide levels were always far below where they are right now:

Of course, climate change “skeptics” argue (as they argue nearly anything and everything) that carbon dioxide “doesn’t matter.”

But you can just as easily say that “pigs fly.” Except the pigs fly statement is straightforward, and everyone has a basic enough grasp of pigs and the relevant science and empirical analysis to know this is simply not the case. Were it more complex, we could just as easily assert that pigs do fly, if we wanted it to be so.

Here: Take the mass times the acceleration of the mean body weight divided by the hypotenuse of the force squared times 1.6, throw in a few laws of science that sound great but that aren’t being correctly or relevantly applied… divide again by 7, multiply times pi, then take the cube root of half…. etc… etc… and we can see that in fact pigs are almost perfectly designed for flying, but mainly fly at night when we can’t see them do so.

Gobbledygook, sure. But I or someone (or minions of someones) solidly committed to the cause of pig flying belief could have worked on it around the globe to come up with far better rhetoric; limited only by the basic physical limitations and realities fairly well programmed into our evolutionary understanding of the basic differences between swine, and, say, birds, and thus easy empirical validation or falsification of the premise.

Plenty of similar theories abound on the Internet as to why carbon dioxide is similarly inconsequential, to the delight of those wanting to so believe.

But pigs flying is little more ludicrous than the notion that multi million year level changes in the amount of gas in the atmosphere responsible for absorbing and re radiating energy that would otherwise be lost to the upper atmosphere and outer space is irrelevant. Pigs flying is only far more ludicrous appearing, because of our basic knowledge and empirical observations, in contrast with the remarkably complex and geologically grandiose time scale of atmospheric energy retention and transfer, upon a wildly diverse, divergent, inherently wildly variable, global scale. (And those decades, if not more, stand in sharp contrast to the rather more immediately instantaneous nature of pigs flying or not flying.)

But again, the increase in absorbed energy from dramatic atmospheric increase in its long term molecular absorption and re radiation properties is altering the energy balance between land sea, below sea level, and air – and increasing the total net retained energy of the physical earth (and ocean) itself, which is what matters here.

Ice covered surfaces – whether land or sea – stay largely insulated, as most sunlight is reflected back outward.

Non ice or snow covered surfaces are not so insulated, and far more sunlight is absorbed by the surface and retained as heat energy. This either slowly increases the heat energy of that mass (be it land under permafrost areas, permafrost itself, glaciers, ice sheets, ocean water columns, or parts of the earth itself), or is released back as heat, including as thermal radiation – which, again unlike reflected sunlight, is then absorbed and re radiated in all direction by greenhouse gases, based upon the amount (and type) of greenhouse gases in the air to both in part warm the air, and further warm the land and sea below it, and so on.

This is part of why arctic sea ice matters so much. The north pole is open water, and it normally stays covered during the northern summer months when the sun’s rays are hitting it.

That is now changing as the total net amount of summer arctic sea ice melt has been rapidly decreasing. (Climate skeptics even repeatedly point to a very recent “increase” in total sea ice extent, coming off of a year – 2012 – that crushed the previous minimum sea ice extent record – 2007 – by nearly 20% and which was almost 50% below the 1979 to 2000 average – to argue that climate change is a “hoax,” and arctic sea ice is “increasing,” which in climate change variability terms is barely a baby step removed from arguing that the globe is getting hotter because Wednesday was much warmer than Tuesday in New Zealand.)

While data is more exact since 1978 when NASA launched the Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer (SMMR), here is the general trend in arctic sea ice: (Data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center)

Notice that the chart is not just measuring total change from year to year, but the difference in ice extent from the overall average from 1981 through 2010, which average includes a great deal of (downward) change already – and yet the second, or later, part of the graph continues to decline.

And this overall longer term pattern of arctic sea ice loss is now even starting to cause increased warming of shallow sea bed columns, leading to thawing of long frozen methane hydrates and – along with increasing if just beginning permafrost area releases – heavily spiking climate change compounding atmospheric increases in these areas.

Climate change skeptics also repeatedly argue that polar ice is “not decreasing,” and that climate change is not real, because antarctic winter sea ice extent is increasing.

This is sort of like arguing that your basement is not flooding if one room that normally has a foot of water in it is at 2 inches, and the other 3 rooms that normally have no water, are filled to near the ceiling.

While some areas of the sea surrounding Antarctica have seen large ice decreases, and other areas large increases (once again, indicating changing conditions), overall winter sea ice in the area (not summer sea ice as is being lost in the arctic, although that point is almost always overlooked as well), in the area is increasing at a slight rate.

We don’t yet know why for sure, as there are many things which we don’t yet know for sure (as skeptics once again take the ongoing process of science learning itself and conflate that with a false refutation of basic climate change). But this is likely due to a combination of conditions, all of which seem to be very strongly climatic change related, and which consist of fairly significant Southern Annular Mode wind intensity increases which push newly formed ice northward (away from the south pole and away from the Antarctic continent) allowing for more ice formation, as well as increasing surface water insulating glacial melt for underneath portions of the Antarctic ice sheet.

And the antarctic sea ice extent is also increasing at only about one-fifth to one-tenth of the rate that arctic sea ice is being lost. And, again, it’s increasing during the southern hemisphere’s winter months, when the sun’s rays aren’t present, or are just glancing off the horizon, and far weaker.

And both Greenland – northern polar area – and Antarctica – southern (and directly) polar land masses are experiencing net ice loss. (But some climate skeptics, practicing their own brand of what we’ll humorously call “science,” have found ways to in their own minds at least refute this as well.) And both northern and southern polar regions are now both experiencing accelerating net ice loss as well.

Why skeptics would focus on only one of four quarters of the total polar ice picture to argue that polar ice is increasing, rather than four quarters, again only has one plausible explanation. That is, there is no plausible scientific explanation as to why three quarters of the full polar ice picture would be ignored and one quarter (and a very misleading one quarter at that) – as if that presents the full picture – would be focused on to draw a conclusion as to whether our polar regions are melting or gaining ice or not, or whether climate change is “real.”

And that is the same explanation as always – the pattern of using any seemingly logical or valid argument possible to refute, “deny,” or not accept climate change, and the basic idea that mankind is now powerful enough to be inadvertently affecting our world also in powerful ways that we were perhaps not fully in tune with, and doing so through patterns that due to habituation, presumption, fear of near term and concrete change (the weather is always changing, so the abstract notion of “climate change” over a very long period of time is not really change in this sense), or a host of other reasons, we perhaps don’t want to change.

It may still be “relatively” slight right now, but ice is starting to melt, and it will keep melting until a new stases is reached – one where energy is in balance between the earth itself and the atmosphere, given the amount of sunlight reaching the earth, the amount of sunlight being reflected, and the amount of thermal radiation being absorbed.

The more the atmosphere changes, the more radical, and likely compounding, that stases will ultimately be. As ice melts, more heat energy is gained, since less sunlight is reflected. This begets more energy retention by the atmosphere, which is also occurring due to more greenhouse gases, etc.

Snow is fairly similar to ice in terms of having a high albedo. And about 24% of the total northern hemisphere land mass is permafrost – essentially permanently frozen ground, normally covered with snow or ice.

And while the signs are still early, our permafrost regions are also starting to melt.

Even more tellingly, in ground temperatures under many permafrost regions are increasing at a faster rate than the air temperature above them, indicating an increased likelihood of future, and accelerating melt.

This is key not just as an indication of a shifting earth energy balance, but also, again, because of this issue of albedo, plus here a second, similarly interesting issue.

That is, a change from snow and ice cover to open tundra represents a shift from most solar radiation being reflected back upward, to the majority of it being absorbed. (And, while still much higher than darker ground or open vegetative tundra, even slushy melting snow and ice has a significantly lower albedo than frozen snow.)

But in addition to the significant fact of massive upward energy shifts associated with any significant change in overall surface albedo, here there is a second self reinforcing, or amplifying mechanism to melting, or warming, permafrost, as well – one that again also kicks in far from linearly:

Namely, the northern permafrost also houses almost two times the amount of carbon currently found in our entire atmosphere. Some of this carbon will also be released in the form of CH4, or methane.

This is remarkably significant: Although it essentially ultimately breaks down into carbon dioxide (hence why methane’s global warming potential decreases over longer periods of time), over a 20 year period the GWPe or global warming potential equivalent of methane is about 83 to 86 times that of carbon dioxide. (GWPe is a measure of a gas or compound’s thermal radiation absorption and re-radiation properties in comparison to the fairly low, but still significant capacity of carbon dioxide, which is always measured as “1,” and used as a basis of standard comparison for all other gases and compounds.)

A molecule of methane only has about 36% of the mass of a molecule of carbon dioxide. While many articles on the subject of global warming, and even global warming potential are sloppy on the issue, GWP is measured per unit of mass, not molecule. So an identical mass of CH4 over a 20 year period absorbs and re radiates about 83 to 86 times more heat energy than an identical mass of CO2.

But the effect would only be about 36% of that amount per molecule (or per carbon atom) since a molecule of methane (one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms) has about 36% of the mass of a molecule of carbon dioxide (one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms). So the GWPe of methane on a molecule per molecule basis, in comparison to a molecule of carbon dioxide, would represent about 31 times the heat energy absorption and re-radiation of each molecule of carbon surrounded by two oxygen atoms (over a 20 year period.)

This is still an enormous difference: For each trapped carbon atom released as a molecule of methane, the total cumulative global warming potential effect in terms of the amount of heat energy absorbed and re radiated per molecule over a 20 year period, is still about three thousand percent greater than for each atom of carbon released as a molecule of carbon dioxide. That’s a lot.

So to try and help with visualizing the difference, even if probably an unrealistic scenario, imagine if suddenly the permafrost unexpectedly just melted like crazy and a little over one half of the total carbon stored therein was released. If it was all released as carbon, for a while anyway it would be like a (still incredible) deluge of carbon equal to nearly the total amount of carbon already currently in the atmosphere.

On the other hand, if it all released as methane, it would be like a (far more incredible) deluge of carbon equal to nearly thirty times the total amount currently in the atmosphere, or an effect 30 times greater.

In other words – in terms of adding energy to the total earth atmosphere energy balance – a release of one giga-tonne (a billion tonnes) of carbon as methane, over a 20 year period at any rate, would be equivalent to adding thirty giga-tonnes of carbon as carbon dioxide

Again, the above scenario is a little bit ridiculous. But it is helpful in grasping the magnitude of the difference between methane, or CH4, and carbon dioxide, or CO2:

Again, over time, CH4 breaks down into CO2. (Hence why if its GWPe is measured over 10 years, the number is much higher still. But if measured over 100 years, while still far higher than carbon dioxide, it’s well below 86: about 23 times more powerful per unit of mass, or about 8-9 times more powerful per molecule, since for most of that period the carbon will exist as carbon dioxide and not the far far more potent, but shorter lived, methane.)

Grasping the magnitude of this difference is also very important for getting a feel for the relevance of the permafrost issue, since while it is unknown exactly how much carbon would release as each gas, almost all estimates suggest a fair to very large amount of it would emit as methane. (And again, there is also an enormous amount of methane stored in sea bed floors, which, from essentially dormancy as best as we can tell, seem to be starting to erupt.)

So it’s significant. Which, if the permafrost starts to severely melt – particularly in combination with warming sea bed columns, is sort of like saying the planet Jupiter is “large.” In other words, hugely significant.

We just don’t know to what extent this will occur. But one thing is fairly certain:

The higher the overall heating of the earth – which comes directly from sunlight, which we don’t control, and which is what it is (and while it fluctuates, it is relatively stable, even if it has ironically been going down lately and still the globe continues to amass heat energy, and on an accelerating basis), and from the long lived greenhouse gases in the air, and all that they drive (including water vapor – itself a greenhouse gas on the one hand, but an albedo increasing blocker of sunlight, on the other -the albedo of ice versus melting ice versus open tundra, as well as ocean delivered heat, etc.), the more likely the permafrost is to shift increasingly rapidly into being non existent frost, with major consequences towards a (from our perspective) radically changing earth.

We may have already set some permafrost change into motion, depending on future mitigation strategies (aside from greenhouse gas emission curtailment). But the more set in motion, the more compounding the effect, particularly as permafrost starts to significantly melt, spewing out more heat absorbing carbon atoms, and greatly decreasing albedo and thus greatly upping the heat energy retention through solar absorption versus reflection, by the earth’s surface in the first place.

Since ice sheets are already starting to melt – even if the overwhelming majority of the northern and southern polar ice caps have essentially just begun to do so – and the ocean has warmed at a fairly remarkable geological rate, while atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are at multi million year level highs (let alone the more relevant – and yet avoidable – fact that in geologic terms, due to our unmitigated actions, they’re still skyrocketing straight upwards), it is likely there is a significant amount of future warming and some likely impact upon the permafrost regions already to be realized, even if atmospheric greenhouse gas levels stabilized (stopped going up) tomorrow.

But whatever future warming or change may already be in store (and which depending on what we learn as we go forward we may be able to mitigate a little bit depending on time frame and several other factors), that’s a huge difference from pouring extraordinary amounts of essentially very long lived gasoline on the seemingly slow brewing geologic fire, that continuing to add to total atmospheric greenhouse gas levels is in effect doing. All of which can be ceased as we grow in a way that’s actually in our interests, rather than against them, through sensible recognition of just what the issue is first and foremost, the abeyance of myopic fear that we need to engage in counterproductive practices to “grow,” and some proper motivation, incentive, and pulling together, on the issue.

But the first step, just because the house is seemingly slow burning or most of the burning is hidden deep within the rafters, is to stop pouring barrel fulls of gasoline upon the fire, which is what the silly arguments that “there’s no point in acting now,” essentially argue against stopping.

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The more basic reason that stopping or changing the actions now causing the problem may be even more important than what atmospheric change we’ve already effected, even with already high long lived greenhouse gas levels, is that despite some of what’s been written, the climate change phenomenon likely compounds in a non linear, unpredictable, and shifting way until a chain of events is set in motion that barring major earth re engineering (which could bring about even bigger problems, nobody knows, and may be too late at such point anyway) will continue until a radically new (for us and many present day species) underlying earth stases – and climate stabilizing – condition is reached.

Such as the full blown melt of permafrost regions sufficient to set out enough carbon, and sufficiently decrease albedo, to finish off the job; the warming of sea columns sufficient to melt most of the barely frozen methane clathrates among sea bed bottoms (all of which would emerge as methane, not carbon dioxide, and which – though estimates are a little more speculative – in total represents somewhere between 1 and 4 times the amount of carbon in the entire atmosphere, and which released as methane would be geologically sensational), or, also through ocean and ultimately some air warming and other changes (all amplified by some of these compounding effects and others), enough energy change is built in to set both ice caps on an irreversible course of near full melt, for example. That would means hundreds of feet of sea level rise, not dozens.

We may have already crossed  a threshold or two, but there are likely more, and ones that are more significant.

Also, pause for a moment if you were taken aback by the mention of dozens or hundreds of feet of sea level rise. Geologically, that’s not a big deal. We’ve just been constrained by our limited sense of the world and our own recent evolution and circumstances. While geologically, the change we’ve already wrought to the atmosphere is already significant, and we’re amplifying it at breakneck speed. But we have very little sense of that, at all. So it all seems abstract.

But it’s not. It’s just hard to fathom. It covers a complex risk range. And it’s subject to a remarkable level of misunderstanding and outright self reinforcing “denial” and accompanying misinformation on the topic, which even goes so far as to conflate every little mistake of science or “over estimate” (while ignoring all of the under estimates and, more importantly, the more important fact of the change in the first place), with “refutation” of climate science itself.

This is very easy to do, being as we’re a species that is extremely illogical, relative to our capacity to think we are being logical: Particularly climate change skeptics with some science background who are absolutely convinced they understand this topic better than the climate scientists who professionally study it, and who often turn to self reinforcing and highly popular misinformation sites, housed under the guise of science and a steadfast belief in the idea that mankind really can’t much affect the earth’s climate. (Which is about as sensible as the inability to see hundreds of years ago that the earth pretty much couldn’t just be flat, rather than round, appealing as the flat theory was at such time to the great majority who, with fervor and righteousness equal to climate change skeptics today, so tenaciously clung to it then.)

Hence part of why there is such massive misinformation on the topic, getting in the way of even the most basic understanding of it.

The sun and (very slowly cycling) earth orbital patterns control the initial energy input, the atmosphere controls the re absorption as well as all things that then indirectly affect that re absorption (albedo, water formation and evaporation, etc.), and at this point, we control the atmosphere. We can continue to add to it at breakneck speed and later ludicrously (from a scientific perspective anyway) leave memorandums to future generations that “we didn’t know”; continue to add to it; or stop adding to it.

Whatever we do, in terms of the future energy balance of the earth, and thus it’s (and our) ultimate climate, it matters a lot. This is something that rhetoric aside, can’t be avoided. We’re the ones changing the atmosphere.

The atmosphere plays a huge role in absorbing energy – in fact the entire role in absorbing energy.  And absorbed atmospheric energy ultimately plays a large role in shaping the energy balance, and climate of earth.

While a small change may be balanced out by stabilizing forces, a large change has to change those stabilizing forces, and that is what we are already slowly starting to see.

It’s just a question of how much.  Which is also up to us.

Major Methane Spikes From Warming Sea Beds Are Compounding a Vastly Underestimated Climate Change Challenge

This piece has been completely updated and revised, with major new sections of information added, and re-posted here.