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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.

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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.