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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.

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.

Deep Into the Abyss of Climate Change, and a Case of Australian Media Coverage

Global climate is about changing the energy balance of the entire globe – with the climate of the globe, as well as the various regions of the globe, shifting in response. But while what is evolving in terms of beginning regional changes is hard to tell, so far Australia has not been the benefactor of good climate news.

While an unusually dry continent to begin with, Australia experienced a particularly long period of drought into the 2000s (predominantly 2002-2007), that all but dried up several key river beds. The drought also hit Australian farmers particularly hard, leading to an astonishing 4.5 billion dollars by the Australian government in direct relief.

The desiccated period was officially declared over in 2012, but yet, drought returned again in 2013. And over the past few decades, the continent has experienced a significant decline in precipitation – at least some of which, according to a recent study published in the Journal Nature Geoscience, is due to man influenced increases in long term atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.  And according to a recent study published in the world’s leading science magazine, such extreme effects are likely to increase dramatically in Australia as a result of the phenomenon commonly referred to as Climate Change.

What about plain, pure atmospheric heat?

Globally, the year 2013 was one of the warmest on record, according to all three of the major global temperature sets. (NASA’s Goddard, the Climatic Research Unit, or CRU of the University of East Anglia, and NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, though naturally, finding those alone inconvenient, the highly self reinforcing if not self sealing Climate Change Nay-saying Site WUWT adds a 4th – the University of Alabama at Huntsville, led by Roy Spencer, who sees his job as a climate scientist as one to not just necessarily study climate science, but to “minimize the role of government.”)

A composite of all three major temperature sets, according to the World Meteorological Organization, rendered 2013 the sixth hottest on record, and shows that 13 of the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century; meaning every single year since the new millennium began has seen a year warmer overall than all those that occurred prior to 2000, save for one, 1998, just two years before the start of the new millennium.

Yet 2013 saw the U.S. have it’s “42nd” warmest year in modern record.  Being as no year has been below the average globally for over 30 years now, the 42nd warmest means that 2013 in the U.S. was relatively cool.

Not so in Australia, which also saw it’s hottest year on record – it’s hottest year ever in modern times – last year, in 2013.

There’s also some hot air coming out of some Australian newspapers. Or at least an air of inaccuracy. Here, regarding the oceans; the key long term driver of climate.

And not just by a random reporter, but by the Environmental Editor of The Australian.

Ocean temperature are tricky. We can get a pretty good feel for surface temperatures – after all, monitoring surface temperatures around the world isn’t too difficult.

Drop down a little bit, and getting temperature measurements becomes harder. Drop down some more, and it becomes trickier still.

Drop down into the super deep, also known as “The Abyss,” and getting almost any kind of information is exceedingly difficult.

Two leading oceanographers, Carl Wunsch from Harvard University, and Patrick Heimbach of M.I.T.recently tried to wrangle with the problem of the “super deep.” They suggested that while parts of the ocean’s Abyss had been warming – mainly in the high southern latitudes and Western basis of the Atlantic – it has been cooling elsewhere.

Are Wunsch and Heimbach Correct?

Who knows. Probably not even they do; but they almost undoubtedly have a far better feel for the issue than we do. (Though the last time I went spear fishing in the abyss, over 12,000 feet (more than two miles) below the ocean’s surface, now that I think about it, it was colder than normal. Even with my very thick 1 millimeter neoprene t-shirt, I started to get a tad chilly after a few hours battling submarine sharks one handed. And it was, what do you know, in the Eastern, not Western, basis of the Atlantic. So maybe Wunsch and Heimbach are right!)

Yet what did The Australian, and it’s environmental editor, take from this?: “The deep oceans are cooling” (subscription required).

What is simply less than optimal (aka, “bad”) journalism, and what is hard bias on a subject where bias and confusing information has taken over, and subverted the central key facts and issues?

It’s difficult to say, as it’s tough being a journalist these days. For one thing, it’s an important job. Yet there is a citizen army of online opinion makers, as well as far better organized advocacy or pseudo news organizations, all just minutes away from starting a website and being able to create, spin, and re report news, and provide constant yet unfiltered, unaccountable, competition; and a corporate environment that naturally must be sensitive to this. And there is a near constant drum beat of press castigation by those who, mangled as the press sometimes does get things in the name of “false balance,” still don’t like what the press has to say.

Yet despite some popular perception these days – perception largely created by anti science and anti science attacks by Climate Change Naysayers and fossil fuel lobbyist groups – scientists in general, when it comes to science matters, tend to under rather than over state.  It’s the nature of science.

So when scientists write “cherry picks statements” and “misses some key points,” that’s generally the polite and understated way of suggesting that somebody either completely misinterpreted a study and wrote about it accordingly, or simply deceived (themselves) and readers.

Yet in a letter to the editor of The Australian (found halfway down the page), “cherry picking and missing some key points” is precisely what Wunsch asserts about The Australian article.

Their assessment is that parts of the Abyss are cooling.  Some parts are warming. Not most of the deep ocean; but the parts of the ocean even deeper down than that, several thousand meters down and beyond.

The ocean abyss, or abyssopelagic zone, is the hardest part of the ocean to assess.  The surface of the ocean (and the most directly relevant, since it has direct interaction with the atmosphere) is the easiest part to assess. The “deep” ocean refers to the bulk of the ocean, from several hundred to a few thousand meters down, a vast waterland that is far harder to asses than the upper layer of the ocean. d is far harder to assess, and we don’t know exactly what is going on there. Below that even lies “the Abyss.”

Oceans are complex, and, huge.  The world’s ocean (commonly divided into five separate parts), contains over 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of water. Dive down just 8 feet to the deep end of a swimming pool in the summertime, and it’s going to be noticeably cooler than just a few feet up closer to the surface. Trillions of those swimming pools full of water could fit into the world ocean. Yet dive down from the surface of the ocean several meters, and it still gets cooler.

Now imagine diving down a few hundred meters. Or even a few thousand. Meters, straight down. (A mile straight down would be about 1610 meters.)

The abyss lies well below that.  Technically, at 4000 meters  – about two and a half miles – down. The deep ocean refers to the mesopelagic and bathypelagic zones, from between 200 to 4000 meters down, though usually from a bout 1000 meters down (and frequently also includes the deep, deep ocean, or abyss).

Over time, just as in a swimming pool, but by more complex and far slower processes – processes, that Wunsch suggests, are different (or more prevalent) in various areas of the globe – lower and upper ocean layers do intermingle. Ultimately if the upper oceans warm, lower ocean areas will likely warm also.  If just a little bit, and if still remaining, very, very cold.

What is happening in the few hundred to few thousand yards meters below the surface? This is a massive amount of water, and there has been some surmising that these areas might be starting to warm also, reflecting increased heat affects – slow and imprecise as this might be – from mixing above.

It seems to make little sense that as the oceans are being affected, the water just below the upper layer would not, if far more slowly, be so affected as well.  Yet this seems to have persisted in assumption.

The standard assumption has been that, while heat is transferred rapidly into a relatively thin, well – mixed surface layer of the ocean (averaging about 70 m in depth), the transfer into the deeper waters is so slow that the atmospheric temperature reaches effective equilibrium with the mixed layer in a decade or so…It seems to us quite possible that the capacity of the deeper oceans to absorb heat has been seriously underestimated, especially that of the intermediate waters of the subtropical gyres lying below the mixed layer and above the main thermo­cline. If this is so, warming will proceed at a slower rate until these inter­mediate waters are brought to a temperature at which they can no longer absorb heat.

Also found more directly here, the foregoing is from an ad hoc study group at the request of the National Academy of Sciences, published in 1979 (and as aptly noted here by the website SkepticalScience.com.)

The idea that warming “will proceed at a slower rate until these intermediate waters are brought to a temperature at which they can no longer absorb heat” seems reasonable, if slightly contrived, in that if upper waters continue to warm relative to intermediate warmers, then intermediate waters can continue to absorb heat.

But the main point seems well taken:  Upper level absorption of atmospheric heat energy probably can’t tell the entire story, because over time some of that upper level absorption will be absorbed by waters below.

Thus the “transfer” or energy from atmosphere to ocean is ongoing, and fluid (no pun intended), rather than a start and stop process of “mixing until the atmosphere and upper ocean are are in balance,”when the upper level atmospheric mixing is ongoing and increasing –  as the atmosphere itself is re radiating back downward (and in all directions), increasing amounts of heat energy as it is.

This would likely not lead to any short term stases or “complete upper layer mixing” as if it was wholly separate from the rest of the ocean, but an ongoing increase in upper ocean heat, which at the same time is nevertheless very likely not capturing all of the energy being lost back to the earth below it rather than lost to the upper atmosphere and space above due to increasing amounts of absorbed and re radiated thermal radiation via geologically high, and still rapidly increasing, concentrations of long lived greenhouse gases in our atmospheric; because some of that upper ocean heat, in turn, is probably invariably being absorbed by the deeper ocean waters below the upper layer. (And in turn, leading to likely even more deeply entrenched longer term effects.)

Either way, maybe we’re still a little behind the times on the ocean.

And maybe the view that, in a world of wild climate variability,  and long term earth system integration of increased re-radiated short term atmospheric energy from higher collective levels of long term greenhouse gases than have likely been seen on earth in several million years,  we could somehow model a nearly precise pathway of the rate of change, or that increases in temperatures should somehow be progressive on a mind bogglingly short term geologic scale, is misplaced.

Perhaps over a quintillion (specifically, about 1.75 x 10 to the eighteenth power) cubic yards of water, which can hold an incredible amount of energy relative to the atmosphere, and which adjust very slowly – and which to us still remain, somewhat of an “abyss” – are part of the reason why.

As a side note, one way to use the increased net energy being retained by our earth atmosphere system as a result of radically increased concentrations of long lived greenhouse gases (ironically caused in large part by our own use of energy, via the burning of fossil fuels) and “free two birds with one stone,” so to speak, if ever technologically feasible, would be to transfer some of that vast energy out of the oceans in usable form; thus both reducing the impact of our increased atmospheric heat re radiation, and generating energy at the same time.(Rather than generating energy in a way that simply continues to impact atmospheric greenhouse gas buildup, but in a much lesser way, this would offset some of the impact of the atmospheric build up – in essence, be equivalent to “greenhouse gas negative” – while producing net energy at the same time.)

In other words, utilizing a process that both produces usable energy, while at the same time simultaneously reducing the long term phenomenon of Climate Change. Or, looked at another way, reducing the long term phenomenon of Climate Change by a process that as a byproduct, creates not yet another pollutant, but pure, usable, energy itself, instead. (Another, simpler if far more minimal way to do this is to plant a tree or trees with broad upper level limbs on a home’s southern exposure. The tree(s) will take carbon dioxide out of the air while shielding the home from higher angle summer sunlight and thus reduce the need for energy for air conditioning, while allowing some lower angle winter sunlight to reach part of the side and roof of the home, helping to warm it slightly on sunny winter days. Another way would be to paint all roofs in southern high sunshine areas white: While also very minor, the increased albedo from the roof would reflect more solar radiation back out in the atmosphere in relatively short wavelength form where it is essentially not absorbed and re radiated by greenhouse gas molecules, while simultaneously lessening solar absorption by the building, and reducing the need for air conditioning energy for the same temperature level.)

The problem is, we don’t really necessarily know how to extract energy from ocean heat build up on a feasible scale, though Lockheed Martin, among others, is trying, and showing some promise.

Perhaps if the fossil fuel industry took its hundreds of millions of dollar directed toward anti climate change information and advocacy, and directed it into such novel ideas as this instead, we’d be farther along.  At least our level of understanding of the issue of climate change, and thus our assessment of of it, would be better.  And we’d be more focused on solutions and non ideology driven assessment, rather than on zealous advocacy.

Or perhaps if we moved out of this false land of terribly inefficient “cheap” (but highly damaging) energy to that something at least somewhat more closely resembling the real cost of all forms of energy and related processes, we might be able to as well.

And without listening to international anti visionaries such as Bjorn Lomborg, who in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee Environment and Public Works on July 29, 2014, among other times, argued that the affects of climate change won’t really cost much over the long run, and that we can’t use clean energy to help reduce additions to the problem because it is not cheap enough, without seemingly realizing that market needs, not idealism, drive most development and efficiencies (and cost reductions), or realizing that “cheaper,” macro-economically, over time is an entirely relative term. And that the increasingly accumulating build up of heat energy over time, which is likely to radically shift future climate, is not so relative.