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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.

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.

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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.

The Self Reinforcing Pattern of Climate Change Naysaying

Mankind can only understand what we’re ready to understand and accept what we’re ready to accept.”

The first half of this piece, describing many of the geologically significant and very rapid changes suddenly taking place – all in the direction of decades long leading climate scientist prediction – has been improved and updated, and is now found here.

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The global climate, and to a greater extent many regional climates, is starting to change. And it’s starting to change in a way that’s likely unprecedented in the last 11,000 years, or if not, represents an extremely unusual degree of upward global warming over any random 100 year period over the same time period.

This current measured change is also just in terms of just temperature change alone, which although most noticeable and most talked about, may be the the least significant of the major changes taking place right now, and which may be even more likely to be unprecedented to over the past 11,000 years, and even more important in terms of shaping our future climate. (For example, the speed of change to our oceans heat content, and possibly even the speed of change of polar ice cap melt and acceleration of that melt, as covered here.)

Yet despite this, there is a great deal of hype and rhetoric claiming that the earth’s climate is not really changing. Or that if it is changing, the change isn’t very notable or relevant.

There’s even more rhetoric (if that was even possible) to the effect that if the climate is changing and in a way that is relevant to us, that such change is just (bizarrely) “coincident” to our multi-million year increase in the concentration of long term “energy re capturing” greenhouse gas molecules, or to the fact that climate scientists have been predicting this for many years for very basic reasons, known for almost centuries.’

Of course when these claims are made, they do not state “bizarrely coincident,” but ignore that little detail, and instead simply proclaim that “climate changes, it’s changing now, since it changes and it’s changing now, we’re not causing the current change.” Which is not only illogical, it also wholly misconstrues what the climate change issue is:

In other words, we didn’t notice signs of an altering climate, and then try to figure out “why.” We discovered a massive geological (and ongoing) effect to the fundamental long term energy trapping nature of our climate; one that would change our climate. And then we’ve seen corroborative signs of just that, and in very broad based, global, accumulating, and even accelerating fashion.

So the whole “climate has changed before” is not only irrelevant, it misconstrues what the issue is, which is the expectation of change due to the geologically massive increase in long term molecular energy re-absorption and re-radiation.

But skeptic also seek not only to turn the actual issue upside down, but also refute such signs of change as well, by any argument possible, so long as it fits the conclusion that there has been “no” or “less” change, whether,

Even the seminal 11,000 year Marcott study just linked to – which doesn’t even account for the more important and even more unusual shift in our oceans and sudden start to and rapid acceleration in net ice cap melting, and net ice cap melting at the North Pole, and the South Pole both – but just air temperatures, has been repeatedly called almost every negative name under the sun by non scientists, and a rare few “pseudo” scientists who don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, what the authors actually did and did not do (see minute 3:00 to 4:30 specifically); and who in many cases don’t understand the actual paper.

The Marcott paper has even been turned into a sort of false scandal because the study not only tried to reconstruct the past 11,300 or so years, it compared the best (and only record) of the past 11,300 years – which involved said reconstruction – to the best record of the modern era (aka, the actual temperature record), rather than to a far less robust “reconstruction” of the modern era which would have made no sense.

Why would we compare our best reconstruction of the geologic past to our very worst, rather than our best, assessment of the very short recent geologic window in which we are currently in. But that is exactly what critics of the study in fact not just called for, but repeatedly labeled the study all but “fraudulent” for not doing – when to have done so would have made almost no sense.

In the interview with one of the study authors – Jeremy Shakun – also linked to just above – Shakun explains that it’s reasonably possible that a warming period of about the same or greater than the globe has experienced over the past 100 years could have occurred during some prior 100 year Holocene period; but that it is unlikely to have, or at the very least would have been very unusual, which is by far and away the more important point of the study. Namely, that the current 100 year warming has been extremely unusual. for any 100 year period of the past 11,000 years.

And the conclusion of the study itself (subscription required) actually noted:

Strategies to better resolve the full range of global temperature variability during the Holocene [the last 11,300 years], particularly with regard to decadal to centennial time scales, will require better chronologic constraints through increased dating control. [And, albeit to lesser degree] higher-resolution sampling and improvements in proxy calibration.

The study also never claims that the current period of warming is unprecedented, as much of the hype directed against it also erroneously claims. And it is most relevant for taking all of the available data and studies and coming up with an exhaustive and complete look at the entire Holocene – or since about the end of the last “glaciation encroachment” – to try and get a sense of just how the climate generally moved over that time, and also how the modern era might compare. And essentially it found that:

Our results indicate that global mean temperature for the decade 2000–2009 (34) has not yet exceeded the warmest temperatures of the early Holocene (5000 to 10,000 yr B.P.). These temperatures are, however, warmer than 82% of the Holocene distribution as represented by the Standard5×5 stack, or 72% after making plausible corrections for inherent smoothing of the high frequencies in the stack (6) (Fig. 3). In contrast, the decadal mean global temperature of the early 20th century (1900–1909) was cooler than >95% of the Holocene distribution under both the Standard5×5 and high-frequency corrected scenarios. Global temperature, therefore, has risen from near the coldest to the warmest levels of the Holocene within the past century, reversing the long-term cooling trend that began ~5000 yr B.P.

The paper is not claiming that the current temperature range of the 2000s is the warmest of the past 11,300 years. But that it is warmer than probably about three quarters to four fifths of it. And that combined with the fairly cold temperatures of the first decade of the 1900s -, which the paper approximates to be among the coldest temperatures of the Holocene – the shift has been unusual.

The 1900s came on the tail end of a shorter downward period in temperature, and since climate is temperature over several decades, the 1900s decade could just as much have been warmer than not. It’s also a little bit random, since the temperature of the first decade of the 1900s is somewhat arbitrary; though it is around the time that represents a general beginning of the more significant part of any longer term temperature rise, it trails mildly behind (as expected) the very beginning of industrial age alterations to the atmosphere, and it forms a clean century period to the last decade on record. (Chart by NASA):

In the meantime, extending the relevance of this chart further, and as secondary as air temperature is to the more important issue of ongoing ocean heat energy accumulation and accelerating polar ice cap melt, 2014 is on route to likely being the warmest year ever on record.

The Marcott paper is essentially notable for giving some sort of feel, however, flawed, for how the current change over the last century might stack up against the past 11,000 years – with some guesswork and possibility for error as, for the historical period of course, the authors used reconstructed data, which is imperfect: as are, to some degree anyway, interpretations drawn. And there really isn’t any degree of accuracy below a several hundred year period.

So as pointed out, although it is unlikely, there could have been shorter blips that evened out. (There are also widely circulated temperature charts that show one or two fairly radical short term blips. But these are taken solely from arctic ice core samples; and while they are significant, regional temperatures may have varied much more than global, and arctic and antarctic temperatures often moved in opposition, so taking just a one core sample as indicia of the temperature of the globe gives an idea, but can also be a little to very misleading.)

But as the video link above illustrates, though neither Shakun (nor the paper itself) dismiss the fact that shorter term blips could have occurred that represent a greater end over end 100 year temperature increase, Shakun was less concerned about that possibility in terms of present day relevance since we know there is a cause for the current change, we know what that cause is, that cause is not disappearing but growing as we continue to increase the overall level of long lived greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the current change is not likely to be a blip.

For what it is it’s an interesting study. But the rancor directed against it, for which just a few links were provided above, is extraordinary, and telling. In fact, google Marcott, and in just the first two pages or so of results you will find just as many, if not more, “articles” claiming it is a fraud or something close to it, than not.

Notably, search deeper, despite the massive avalanche of written articles and editorials and commentary calling the study a fraud or all but a fraud, you will still have trouble finding even one scholarly science magazine or journal published article refuting, or in terms of its relevance, correcting it  – and publishing articles to correct or refute prior studies and claims is what science is all about. Again, while a bit snarky, the link from above helps explain why.

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Although the climate of the globe is changing, and such change generally has been expected, there is a great amount of claim that the climate hasn’t changed, or that if it has, it is simply random, and thus what the earth would be doing even if we hadn’t increased the concentrations of long lived greenhouse gases to levels not seen on earth in millions of years.

Such assertions also mean by definition that said change, by similar remarkable coincidence, is not changing or affecting the climate; which in turn is thus proceeding along the general path it would have anyway had our atmosphere not been altered. (In scientific terms this is called a flight of fancy. In much of the media’s eye, and climate change refuters eyes – some of whom are scientists but very few of whom are actual climate scientists – it is called a “point of view.”)

And thus yielding two remarkable and independent coincidences at the same time – the climate is exhibiting unusual change over the past 100 years, and yet exactly what scientists believe would cause such change – an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to levels not seen on earth in millions of years, is, by even more remarkable coincidence, itself otherwise not altering the climate of the earth while that climate bizarrely just starts to shift on its own, anyway.

Yet both of these together have to be accurate to support the basic climate change refutation claim. And the chance would be the probability of each, multiplied together.

For instance – forget oceans radically heating, ice caps on both poles melting, and accelerating – imagine that there is a 1 in 10 chance of just the global air temperature heating as it has over the past 100 years, even though the seminal and only real study on the issue suggests that the chances are low that the earth as a whole increased this much in temperature in any single 100 year period over the last 11,000 years even once; and that there is a 1 in 20 chance that increasing the level of long lived greenhouse concentrations to levels not seen on earth in millions of years would itself somehow not really affect the climate.

Then the chances of this change we are seeing being simply, oddly “coincident to,” but essentially not caused by, our atmospheric alteration, would be .1 x .05 or .005, or .5% or 1 in 200. And that’s overstating it, because the numbers used here are high estimates.

Regardless of what the actual number is, take note of the fact that in a field of unknowns (which climate change refuters stipulate, since they use the same “unknown” argument to also simultaneously argue against climate change), the most basic argument for climate change refutation relies upon the choice of an outcome or interpretation which is very improbable, over the one that is very probable. (The opposite of Occam’s Razor, on speed.)

And thus relies upon the choice of an outcome over the one that actual scientists who study this issue themselves professionally, overwhelmingly support (once again hype to the contrary notwithstanding): Namely, the bizarre coincidence we are seeing is of course connected to the change we produced and that we overwhelmingly expect to have this type of general – climate affecting, and likely overall warming, if erratic – effect.

That is, we expected climate to change, and it has now started to.  And most of that change is affecting the things that will both affect future change and drive climate directly, and that are being all but ignored while we over-focus on the misleading picture of air temperature alone.

Yet there is a great deal of hype that this change also wasn’t expected. This is done by cherry picking and focusing in on specific predictions and numbers – which of course are often unexpected because we never could, and still can’t, predict exactly what level of change will occur or along what path.

Part of this in turn stems from the massive presumption that climate change is based upon models, and that these models have to predict it almost exactly for climate change to be real.

Both premises are mistaken, as models – while easy for scientists to problematically over rely upon in trying to make seemingly concrete representations to the public – are used to better understand the issue and help make general projections. Not to prove the issue or even establish its existence.

Some of this hype is also based on an artificially narrowed focus on a small percentage of scientists who weren’t really fully aware of the issue or originally didn’t expect it to be a problem – most of whom weren’t scientists who professionally studied the atmospheric change, climate, and the geologic record – and who know acknowledge, “I didn’t realize before that it was a problem”; any prediction that underestimated something as therefore a lack of expected change (while simultaneously focusing very publicly on any prediction that overestimated something as “proof,” however irrational to do, that climate change is not real – thus in tandem by arguing against climate change because some things, or the level of change involved, “were underestimated,” while other other things “were overestimated,” mistaking the basic process of science itself for an actual refutation of science – in this case climate change science); or again upon a very select cherry picked set of papers.

The most common of these go all the way back to the 70s when it became in vogue for a while to talk about long term global cooling – Time magazine even ran a cover story on the issue that decade.

This made sense at the time because absent our atmospheric alteration, the earth has been in an ice age. (Ice age refers to the entire period since large masses of ice formed at or near both poles of the globe, although we often call periods of glacial encroachment into previously unfrozen areas “ice ages” as well, and periods in between “interglacials.”)

Over a period of many hundreds of millions of years, or even longer, carbon dioxide levels have come down, as carbon has been slowly sequestered into the earth.

This of course is the nub of the problem, as we are reversing that process in what is in some sense a mere geologic instant. And then when the earth doesn’t respond “instantaneously” in geologic terms, we go, “oh, it must not be much of a problem, or we go “this change we are seeing would have occurred anyway.”

But the earth, regardless of the generally cooler period leading up to 1970s publicity on “cooling,” wasn’t in a longer term cooling phase anymore because of the radical, and rapid, reversal of this long slow downward carbon drift from atmospheric gas to in ground sequestration as solid carbon matter.

And back in the 1970s, when a good portion of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere right now hadn’t even been added – and detailed climate change science was somewhat in its relative infancy – scientific papers that concluded the earth was going to warm still outnumbered papers predicting longer term cooling, by about 500%.

Back in the 70s. Well before 40 some years of upward temperatures, declining arctic sea ice (with antarctic sea ice, albeit in wintertime not summertime, increasing about about one tenth the rate of arctic sea ice decline, and due to rapid geological changes in that area – namely increasing Southern Annular Mode Winds pushing ice northward to allow the formation of new ice, and cooling waters from ice sheets melt insulating the surface), increasing weather volatility and extremes, increasing permafrost surface temperatures,and melting and now accelerating melting at both polar ice caps. And well before another 40 years of massive additions to the atmospheric levels of long lived greenhouse gases. And after a few decades of mild overall cooling.

Even though though all that, the general concern, the far more popular (if not popularized) scientific concern, was a longer term trend of increased global warming and volatility, due to large increases to the concentrations of long term greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

Consider that fact the next time you hear (or consider making yourself) the argument that we don’t know what we’re talking about now because 40 years ago “global cooling was predicted!”  It’s irrelevant, and incorrect. As are most of the arguments made to “refute” the basic climate change idea. And thus consider thus the extent to which any argument will be made to support the idea that our real knowledge in the general idea of climate change is “all over the map,” and therefore, climate scientists (except the rare few who think climate change will somehow be mild, though no real cohesive theory that stands up to muster other than platitudes housed as science have ever been so advanced) “don’t know what they’re talking about. ”

These arguments just sound good, and appeal to those who want them to be appealing; or, frankly, maybe to some who aren’t as good at science as scientists who professionally pursue the issue at hand but who upon hearing some clever rhetoric or argument, often usually by another non scientist or scientist who similarly doesn’t professionally study or have intimate and accurate knowledge over the issue at hand, fancy themselves to be as good or better and as knowledgeable or better as climate scientists on the specific information that is relevant – and the knowledge to not only know more about the issue and know it better, but thus also know what it relevant better than climate scientists as well.

Again, a lot of this hype stems from the same hype hurled against general climate change concern to begin with; namely, we can’t predict the exact future, and the exact path of that future, so the claim that the climate will or is even likely to change is therefore wrong.

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As a result of this hype and a lot of the misinformation, as well as excessive fealty to fossil fuels and concern over the possible avenues of climate change redress, many members of Congress believe the science phenomenon of climate change as expressed by climate scientists – is not real. Yet again, they’re not scientists.

And most of those who are climate change “skeptics” outside of Congress, similarly, are either not scientists or not climate, atmospheric or geological scientists who professionally study the actual issue of climate change.

So what has happened is that an enormous majority of non scientists, and to a much more limited extent “scientists” in unrelated fields, nevertheless assert greater knowledge on the issue of climate science, than actual climate scientists who professionally study the issue.

And a big part of what is driving – or in the minds of climate change refuters, at least substantiating – this presumed expertise on the part of non scientists that nevertheless supersedes the knowledge of scientists who actually study the issue, is that having a scientific understanding of the reasons for likely future change is being falsely conflated with the ability to predict the exact amount of global temperature change that will be realized, or the precise range of specific change over an exact period of time.

For what climate change skeptics argue is that we must be able to accurately predict the specific path of all change in advance, in order for the idea that we face high risks of significant to major climate shifting to even have validity in the first place.

This confusion (or claim) has been driven by a lot of rhetoric on the issue, which, along with attempts to downplay the science of climate change as well as this claim itself, is in large part based upon a strong belief in things that have nothing to do with the science of the issue.

This has greatly denigrated basic climate change understanding. Yet it is scientifically specious (and in some ways scientifically ludicrous), to conflate our knowledge of a geologically radical and ongoing net addition of energy onto a dynamic, complex long term and non linearly changing global energy, or “climate” system, with the idea that we must therefore not only know that the system has to significantly change, but also know each detail about it in advance, as if we could predict or model it out as if writing a movie script after the fact.

Yet driven by massive often self reinforcing misinformation and a strong desire to refute the very idea of a significant climate shift threat rather than simply examine in dispassionate fashion, in one form or another, and dressed up in various rhetorical and ostensibly logical ways as attempts to “examine in dispassionate fashion,”this is exactly the argument that has served as the core basis for misnamed climate change “skepticism”; a movement that essentially tries to repudiate basic science, often, ironically, in the name of it.

And it is, again, in a nutshell, the idea that since we can’t predict it exactly, the risk itself must not significantly exist.

In most other contexts, this would be more easily seen for the irrational claim that it is. But given the massive,reinforcing and self perpetuating misinformation on the climate change issue, and the seeming non science related drive to “interpret” or view the issue in a certain way, it passes for serious anti climate change analysis and belief.

As does, similarly, the otherwise irrational notion that we are not affecting the climate now by our multi million year alteration in the level of long lived atmospheric greenhouse gases, simply because climate “can” and does otherwise change, even though it would be extremely unusual for it to have changed even in the degree we have so far seen, simply by coincidence.

And then if so, again, it would be even more unusual for earth’s climate to not otherwise have been significantly affected by the rapid atmospheric change we have occasioned, but yet again only at the very same (pin prick of geologic) time by this fluky bizarre “coincidence” that we are seeing be perfectly natural:

And thus, even more bizarrely –  and at the very same time as this “fluky” coincidence of a long attendant overall march upward in air temperatures while even more significantly the ocean gains increasingly in heat, and ice sheets at both ends of the earth start melting, and also at an accelerating rate – it would mean that a wild multi million year shift in the concentration of long lived atmospheric molecules that “re capture” heat energy would somehow be having almost no affect, despite basic physics.

In all probability, basic physics still applies. And, arguments by skeptics notwithstanding, an increase in the atmospheric concentration of long lived molecules that absorb and re radiate thermal radiation, to levels that have now not been experienced on earth in several million years, is going to slowly change the earth and lower atmospheric energy balance: as the earth itself – permafrost regions, the oceans, shallow sea bottom areas, other water bodies, the land under permafrost regions, ice sheets – increasingly warms, and slowly starts to add increasing amounts of net energy to the basic structural conditions that, along with the atmosphere itself, drive climate on earth.

Rhetoric can and has changed people’s perception of this, but it doesn’t change what is going on.  Somehow this gap between the rhetoric we are hearing, and what is really going on, needs to lessen.

Not Necessarily Just Change over Time, but Increasingly Volatile Weather, Precipitation, May be Most Problematic For Agriculture

Updated and edited 11-10-14
Climate has a lot to do with how plants grow. Naturally this is relevant to us because among other things plants represent our food supply, or the basis for it.

And as has been expected, that climate is starting to change. (Update: Claims that our changing climate just “coincidentally” reflects normal random movement and not our ongoing atmospheric heat energy absorption changes make no scientific sense on any level. A big part of the reason why, as well as the pattern that nonetheless perpetuates such claims, can now be found here.)

As the link just shared points out:

13 of the 14 warmest years on record have all been in the first 14 years of this decade…and 2014, according to NOAA, is on track to become the warmest year ever.

Despite this, most of the increased heat energy from a higher level of long lived atmospheric greenhouse gases is going into the world ocean, which has been gaining heat for decades; and at a rate many times faster than likely at any time in the past 10,000 years, and accelerating.

Net glacial ice sheet melt is now occurring at both poles, and at least one set of ice sheets in the more stable and larger Antarctic (worth about 10 plus feet of sea level rise on its own), is now facing likely irreversible melt. And ice sheet loss is not only occurring, but accelerating in both polar regions, particularly in Greenland, where the rate of acceleration is becoming near “remarkable.”

There has also been an increase in extreme weather, along with changes in precipitation intensity. While at the same time, much of what is written on the tie between our changing atmosphere and unusual extreme weather events cherry picks select data or mistakes basic statistics, and misconstrues the basic reality that everything that is a part of our climate is affected by our atmospheric shift, because our climate to some degree has already been affected by that atmospheric shift.

Yet we over focus on the almost silly question of whether “climate change” did or didn’t “cause” this event, when it caused all and none, simultaneously, as it’s now a part of our world, and all climate is a reflection of that world.

Similarly, isolating out whether a “particular” storm would have occurred, or would have occurred in the same way in the absence of our major atmospheric shift, is pointless. In some ways it is also theoretically near impossible to do. Yet drawing the conclusion of an overall total effect, and to some measure perhaps a range of extent – what matters – is far from impossible.

That is, we can know that we are affecting the movement of climate, and the reflection of weather thus within it, to an increasingly (and, albeit erratic, accelerating) degree, without being able to precisely write out the script in advance, as if climate did not still represent variable weather over many decades, and that weather was still largely unpredictable to at least some degree with it.

Yet there’s nevertheless extensive hype that the climate really isn’t much changing. Or that if it is, it’s simply random, and thus represents what the earth would be doing even if we hadn’t increased the concentrations of long lived greenhouse gases to levels not seen on earth in millions of years.

This of course would mean said geologically radical atmospheric change, by similar remarkable coincidence, is nevertheless not changing or affecting the climate – which is instead proceeding along the path it would have had our atmosphere not been altered. (In scientific terms this is called a flight of fancy. In much of the media’s eye, and climate change refuters eyes – some of whom are scientists but, notably, very few of whom are actual climate scientists – it is called a “point of view.”)

We expected climate to change, and it has now started to so change.

And most of that change is affecting the things that will both affect future change, and drive climate, and that are being all but ignored while we over-focus on the misleading picture of air temperature alone.

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We don’t know exactly what will change in terms of some specific functions of climate. But we have a pretty good general idea of some things that will or may change. While there are some things we don’t really have a good idea of the long term range of change on.

Such as precipitation patterns, which are ultimately a reflection of climate itself, and thus become part of it.

While we don’t really know, we expect overall precipitation patterns to change  for the basic reason that precipitation is ultimately the release of water molecules that are accumulated as a result of heat. More relevantly, as regional patterns over time are likely to vary wildly in response to what is in essence, again, a multi million year geologic shift in the net addition of energy to our earth lower atmosphere system (and one that is relatively “sudden” in geologic terms), precipitation patterns are much more likely to change within certain regions.

And the biggest problem climate change might pose for agriculture in some ways, could be a major change in our overall precipitation patterns; particularly on a regional basis.

This would include changes in various regions from dry to wet, and vice versa. And changes in the general intensity patterns and rate of precipitation.

With a generally warmer, changing atmosphere – that will both evaporate, and can hold, more moisture – there is a high chance of more intense precipitation events; with, in some areas, longer periods of no or minor precipitation in between more intense events.

The first effect, a general shifting of the overall precipitation level, will have major impacts on various regions, depending on the level of change, and those regions themselves:

Large scale agricultural production, or a society in particular, can’t always just “get up and move” to another region. So poor regions of the globe, for example, that depend upon local agricultural conditions and that have less access to water or funds for large scale irrigation, would be badly hurt by decreases in overall precipitation amounts.  And they would be potentially devastated by any major change into a far more arid regional climate from the one they have come to depend on.

The second effect – the potential increase in the intensity and variance in precipitation events – may not be as problematic in full for those areas that otherwise simply get hammered with a major change in the direction of hostile (generally, much more arid), growing conditions. But this effect will be more generally problematic across the board for at least two main reasons:

The first is that our current system of rivers and streams have either evolved, or been fine tuned, over the past few hundred thousand to few million years. (And in some cases less.) They are generally, although not perfectly, a reflection of broader longer term precipitation and evaporation patterns, not “random.” So the rivers or river and stream structure in one area wouldn’t necessarily be very adept at handling the precipitation patterns of another, for example.

Rivers also take a while to carve out from the land; they can’t be changed overnight. (And even less so with a lot of structures, other buildup and macadam, prevalent in a lot of areas.)

An increase in precipitation intensity also puts more runoff pressures on a region’s landscape. And thus, the greater the frequency and the greater amount of excess precipitation, the more common and more intense the flooding.

This effect has already been furthered by infrastructural buildup, which can sometimes narrow the effective area for natural water flow pathways in response to either ongoing intense, or changing, precipitation, and often removes trees and other natural features that help anchor the ground, control erosion, promote or allow for ground absorption, and lessen the negative effects of excess runoff.

But when it comes, again, to plants specifically, the potential increase in precipitation intensity presents an interesting future agricultural issue. For this reason: Plants generally evolved under present conditions.

It appears from fossil remains and other indicia that plants from some of the eras long long ago – when long lived atmospheric greenhouse gases were more prevalent, oceans much higher, and the globe generally warmer – and more humid, that plants were often larger.

While this may not represent all the species of such eras, it does at least make some sort of superficial common sense: A larger plant, particularly one with a strong and deeper root system, can in theory withstand the rigors and volatility of more varying, and potentially periodically intense, precipitation patterns.

This might be due to stronger anchoring, a deeper soil penetration for extra absorption capacity, and a larger upload and perhaps even storage capacity for employment during excess water availability, for example.

Think of an unwatered garden after a period of excessive drought. Many of the plants – particularly those most shallow rooted – will have perished; while nearby trees look perfectly fine.

If general precipitation patterns do accelerate in intensity – meaning higher chances of longer periods of little water, as well as of excess water in both short term intense precipitation events or multiple events over a short period of time – current crop structures might become increasingly pressured, as a higher and higher percentage of total precipitation becomes unavailable for plant growth, or in essence “wasted.”

This is already starting to happen in many areas, while many others – notably Australia, an area that leads even the U.S. in denying climate change, and already the driest continent on the planet – have been experiencing “unusual” levels of drought intensity.

Increasing intensity of events interspersed with larger variation in between significant precipitation events means there will be longer periods with insufficient or less than optimal available ground water, while there will be other periods of excess water that can’t be absorbed, and is lost due to extra runoff and even deeper ground absorption from excess water during long periods of intense precipitation.

But, plants, with human breeding assistance, can often change quickly. After all, as one example, a simple spindly wild mustard has, with much aid from the hand of man, been shaped into a family of some of the easiest growing and healthiest foods on the planet: One that includes cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, rapeseed (from which canola oil is derived), kale, collards, arugula, and turnips.

So perhaps we might pull off an assist toward development of longer or more extensive root systems, changed leaf water loss patterns, etc., as the needs of plants change in response to changing climate, and in particular, precipitation patterns.

But an increase in possible precipitation intensity and variance will still comprise at least part of the agricultural challenge in response to an increasingly shifting climate. Particularly for some areas of the globe, more than others, as the path of change won’t necessarily wait for our human assisted floral adaptation to it.

And, at least in the shorter term (what we’re concerned with in terms of human generational lifetimes), there may be some restrictions upon it relative to the level of change that can easily occur, given what has already been a multi million year shift (increase) in the concentration of long lived atmospheric greenhouse gases – which in turn have been radically increasing the net earth lower atmosphere energy balance. (Most of which has been going into starting and now accelerating the process of net glacial ice loss, increasing ocean heat energy, and permafrost softening and melt, all of which, to the popular and often the media eye, are largely masking the real issue of “climate change.” Here’s an interesting and it seems just now “surfacing” example.)

The increasing heat can also be problematic – a lot of plants simply stop growing past a certain temperature. But increased heat in other climates may extend growing seasons. And, in rare areas where (despite all the misinformed hype about how increased CO2 is great for plants!) CO2 is the limiting factor, increased CO2 can increase plant growth.

Much learning will likely be ongoing, as systems change, and out of necessity we struggle, experiment, and explore to adapt. (Scientifically intriguing for some wealthier areas of the globe, or, depending on how bad it might get, at least wealthier or “well off” peoples, on the one hand; very problematic to potentially devastating for poorer, less flexible, and regionally more vulnerable areas of the globe, on the other.)

But another area that in advance looks particularly problematic is that of increasing overall weather volatility.

Plants are geared to certain patterns in both light, and temperature. A changing climate is not going to change light patterns. That’s a function of the simple rotation of the earth and it’s slow undulating year long rock back and forth on its imaginary axis. (Of course if discovering that something we did was changing the rotation of the earth and its tilt on its axis and that meant it would affect the climate, climate change naysayers would find ways to refute that as well.)

But a changing climate is going to affect temperature. Increasingly, and, along the rocky way, probably – as was one of the earliest predictions, and already in these early days of “pre change,” statistically borne out – in a more volatile fashion.

This makes sense, as a normally relatively stable globe starts to respond to the increasing changes to its basic climate affecting structures (oceans, ice caps, sea ice, permafrost regions, and of course the more direct lower atmospheric absorption and re radiation of heat energy itself) in what is for all practical purpose a near geologic instant, until, voila, years, possibly centuries, down the line, when climate “relatively” re-stabilizes in response to the effected changes, long, long after the atmosphere’s levels of long lived greenhouse gases, from a geologic perspective, become at least relatively stable again.

That is, an increasingly changing system from a “relative” stases, to an ultimate new stases when it comes to what is ultimately an expression of it’s net energy – climate – is likely to be a lot more volatile, and overall, inherently changing and unpredictable, as well.

This can be kind of problematic for plants.

Think of a fruit orchard, for instance. Many fruits need a certain number of “cold days” to blossom and bear fruit. The number of days will likely continue to (increasingly) shift, and orchards might shift northward. But the increasing volatility also makes it more and more unpredictable, and subjects more and more areas to potentially insufficient cold days without moving to climes where the warmer period duration may not be sufficiently long.

Many fruit trees set their blossoms in response to a temperature change. And a late frost which kills the blossoms will prevent that tree tree from bearing any fruit at all, for that entire year.

For a homeowner enthralled with their side yard apple or apricot tree, this might range from a curiosity to a nuisance. But to an orchard owner who depends on the yearly crop, it can be a bit more.

And it adds even more to an already uncertain enterprise. Consider the following tale:

I was playing in a large, fairly publicized poker tournament some years back, and our mid level table became chatty.  One fellow was playing more like a “gambler,” than the calculating, aggressive, strategist that decent poker tournaments tend to present, and increasingly funnel as the tournament moves forward; and being extremely mirthful about it.

A few humorous but very friendly remarks were made, and this very pleasant fellow bellowed, “ah, heck, this don’t matter at all, what I do for a living is real gambling.” He sat on the word “real” for a long time, with just a hint of a much more serious tone than his statement, and most of our banter, had taken.

For an instant the hand was nearly forgotten as we all wildly conjectured. Even the dealer – consummate, almost machine like professionals in any well run, serious tournament – essentially stopped practically mid deal.

Well?

If you’re reading this article/post, you may have guessed the answer.

“I’m a farmer.  And that, I tell you, is all a gamble.”

We all laughed, enjoying the camaraderie and cultural insight while simultaneously participating in such an intensely competitive, focused, and “serious” event.  But I think we all got it.

I’ve grown a lot of plants in my time – even more since. And I really got it.

Farming is a gamble.

But there are a lot of “knowns”; or, at least relative knowns. What is becoming less known – and increasingly unpredictable – in addition to precipitation patterns in many areas, is the general nature of the season, and temperatures.

If you think being a business man or banker and not having a decent handle on what the general inflation level range might be for the next few years, try being a farmer – without much of a backup plan or lots of extra seasonal “room” – without much of a handle on just when temperatures might reasonably stay within the necessary growing range, for instance.

A lot can go wrong with extreme weather, from both the extreme nature of it, to the unpredictability, and being caught by surprise.  In hot weather, for instance extreme humid can cause pollen to become so sticky it’s doesn’t fall, while long periods of dryness can cause it to be so dry it doesn’t stick to the female part of the flower. In both cases the plant won’t set, or will set, less fruit. (Fruit incidentally refers to most things we also commonly think of as vegetables, such as cucumbers, squashes, tomatoes, corn, etc.)

Extreme heat with drought can rapidly kill plants. Premature cold spells (for example, in more northern climes that have had to shift what is grown toward warmer weather crops, as the seasons have changed) can kill plants well before they’ve realized their full yield. And late cold spells can kill them even before they start yielding at all.

Fires are also problematic, as drier conditions and hotter conditions in many regions overall is leading both a larger risk, and larger number of, fires; including many that are intense.

Many plants – tomatoes for instance – won’t set fruit if the nighttime temperatures go too high.  One of the most “certain” early predictions of the phenomenon referred to as climate change – and one of the most consistent patterns to have emerged – is the increasing overall gap between day and nighttime temperatures.

Several reasons account for this. One of the more intriguing is the general increase in overall evaporative and moisture retention capacity when the atmosphere is warmer. This can (and so far studies seem to suggest that in a mild positive to positive feedback loop it is), lead to overall increased water vapor from generally increasing temperatures.

Water vapor has both a cooling and a heating effect during the day.  The extremely short lived water vapor molecule is a reflection of climate itself and not a driver of it (despite one odd published “theory” – that itself winds up yielding a fairly interesting climate change information story – to the contrary). But it is at any one point in time an important greenhouse gas; in fact the predominant one, because there is a lot of it in the air.

During the day water vapor molecules act as greenhouse gases. And as with all atmospheric greenhouse gases, they absorb and re-radiate heat energy in the mid to longer wave length spectrum – which is to say almost no solar radiation (either incoming, or reflected off of the earth’s surface), but most thermal radiation (heat energy emitted by a body, such as the earth itself, or structures upon it).

But water vapor also acts as an atmospheric reflector of incoming solar radiation, increasing the overall albedo – or sunlight reflecting capacity – of the earth/atmosphere, and causing a higher percentage of sunlight to never reach the lower atmosphere/surface of the earth (where some is then in turn absorbed as heat energy) to begin with.

At night only one of these two phenomena occur. There is no incoming solar radiation, so the reflectivity question isn’t an issue.

But the re-capture of thermal radiation still is. This is energy emitted in wavelength form, and, specifically, the type of energy that is absorbed and re radiated in all directions by greenhouse gases – without which the earth would be a large almost lifeless ball of ice floating through space.

If water vapor levels are higher, more thermal radiation will be “trapped.” Particularly at night.

Regardless, the gap in day and night time temperatures, in many regions across the globe, has considerably narrowed, which as it continues, will also continue to have more and more intense consequences for at least some of the plants upon which we rely.

The list goes on. But this is a start. We probably “aint seen nuthin’ yet,” for very fundamental scientific reasons (along with a lot geologic and modern era data), that are largely being mangled, overlooked, confused or turned into something they are not, while the entire climate change issue is as well.

But while agriculture, including its extensive use of and indirect reliance upon fossil fuels, and large impact upon the landscape, is the rarely talked about main contributor to the phenomenon known too popularly as climate change (the issue is really the multi million year – or geologically radical – alteration in our atmosphere’s long term heat “trapping” quotient), the dance the world is going to have with this mainstay of existence – providing enough food – is probably going to be an increasingly interesting one.

And by “interesting,” for many poorer areas and peoples of the world, this means “bad.

Potentially, extremely bad.

This is also ironic, because some groups that have not necessarily been outspoken advocates for the poor, when it comes to climate change, have suddenly become the “Mother Teresa,” of indigent poor advocacy, on the ill conceived and highly ironic assertion that addressing climate change (not climate change itself, rendering informed scientists/anthropologists extremely frustrated in the process) will harm the poor.

But what is really going to harm the poor in particular is the radical alteration of our atmosphere – again, reflecting a change that has now taken us back to levels not seen in millions of years,and a large portion of which has occurred in just the last 50 or so years alone; and which is right now still occurring at geologically breakneck speed.

It’s just a question of how much we mitigate it, and how sensibly, and quickly, we do so. Both in terms of the U.S. leading the way – which will increase our moral ability as the world’s bully pulpit and most powerful (and somewhat feared) nation to encourage change, desire to do so by our show of faith, and an increasing return by other countries knowing that more and more of their own effort and the efforts of others is contributing – and elsewhere.

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.