On the Edge of Permafrost Crash

November 29, 2012

Uh oh.

Sydney Morning Herald:

THE world is on the cusp of a “tipping point” into dangerous climate change, according to new data gathered by scientists measuring methane leaking from the Arctic permafrost and a report presented to the United Nations on Tuesday.

“The permafrost carbon feedback is irreversible on human time scales,” says the report, Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost. “Overall, these observations indicate that large-scale thawing of permafrost may already have started.”

While countries the size of Australia tally up their greenhouse emissions in hundreds of millions of tonnes, the Arctic’s stores are measured in tens of billions.

The report estimates the greenhouse gases leaking from the thawing Arctic will eventually add more to emissions than last year’s combined carbon output of the US and Europe – a statistic which means present global plans to hold climate change to an average 2degree temperature rise this century are now likely to be much more difficult.

Until very recently permafrost was thought to have been melting too slowly to make a meaningful difference to temperatures this century, so it was left out of the Kyoto Protocol, and ignored by many climate change models.

“Permafrost emissions could ultimately account for up to 39 per cent of total emissions,” said the report’s lead author, Kevin Schaefer, of the University of Colorado, who presented it at climate negotiations in Doha, Qatar. “This must be factored in to treaty negotiations expected to replace the Kyoto Protocol.”

The rate of melt was “deeply concerning”, said Andy Pitman, the director of Australia’s Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, an adviser to the Climate Commission, and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reports.

“It had been assumed that on the timescale of the 21st century, that the effects of methane release would be relatively small compared to other effects – that’s why it has been largely left out of the climate models,” Professor Pitman said.

“I think it’s fair to say that until recently climate scientists underrated the rate at which permafrost melt could release methane. I think we’ve been shown to be over-conservative. It’s happening faster than we had thought … This is not good news.”

The report presented to the UN said a tipping point could still be averted if the world moved to cut emissions from fossil fuels fast.




25 Responses to “On the Edge of Permafrost Crash”

  1. Looks increasingly likely the only way to save humanity as we know it is finding a way to scrub and sequester CO2 and methane from the air and plant a shit-ton of trees.

    • williamburr2012 Says:

      DON’T FORGET! AE – Alternative Energy from Renewable Resources;like, Wind, Solar, Tidal, and Geo-thermal Heat, has Proven to be Reliable, Affordable, and above all Sustainable. In Australia, Solar Generated Electricity is the Cheapest on the Grid, and getting cheaper as Further Efficiencies and Economies of Scale come Online. Total World Solar Capacity has grown from 5 Tw/hr to 55 Tw/hr in 5 Years. We can’t Sustain our Growth, or even our Current Consumption, if Our Primary Energy source continues to be Fossil Fuel. Carbon Capture is Possible, but Expensive, and therefor an Economic Liability. Fossil Fuel is Not Renewable. Biological Fuel is a Better Source because it is Renewable and Sustainable. A Diverse Energy Portfolio would Include: Solar, Wind, Geo-thermal, Tidal, Wave, and Run-of-the-River Hydro, as well as Petroleum, and other Sources soon to be Possible. Alternative Energy Projects are Small, Low Tech, Low Cost, and can be Built by Entrepreneurs. Local and State Governments can Identify Local Opportunities to Develop Sustainable Power. Start Small and add on as Required. Every Point on the Electric grid could be both Consumer and Producer of Power. If Your House is Generating Surplus Power, Your Meter runs Backwards, the Grid pays You. IMAGINE! then VOTE GREEN! It Works! GreenmanPA.

    • Biochar will help; both to enrich the soil and to sequester carbon.


  2. Wes Says:

    Once again we find that not only have the scientists NOT been exaggerating the dangers of warming, their cautious conservatism has significantly underestimated the danger we are in. We have warmed less than 0.9 deg C so far and things are starting to fall apart. And Obama’s response is to open the rest of the Gulf to drilling.
    We truly need a WWII kind of all-out effort, but we need a leader who can make the case for that. Right now that leader is missing in action, and I’m not sure that he ever was that leader. Where’s FDR when we need him?

    • williamburr2012 Says:

      QUITE RIGHT! It boils down to Leadership, and the lack of it in Politics. Look to Grassroots Local Citizenship Initiatives to Break Up the Logjam in Politics and Bureaucracy. Don’t Vote for Plutocrats, Vote for someone like yourself. Experience doesn’t matter, Character Does! VOTE GREEN! It Works! GreenmanPA.

    • otter17 Says:

      Help out some of the movements to get money out of politics with an amendment. Move to Amend and Wolf PAC could use volunteers. Check out their websites. Also, sign the petitions. I think Bernie Sanders has an election reform petition as well.

      This is critical for American government in other ways, too.

      Anyway, what I am getting at is we can see quite a bit of denial melt away in government if we can accomplish this. Even if Obama can take a big lead, there would be a substantial amount of anti-science blowback and watering down.

  3. jimbills Says:

    None of the models have factored in the net effect of the tipping points, as they’re still a bit hazy (and scientists are by nature very conservative in their estimates).

    The doomsday scenario is that we hit a major tipping point, which tips another, which tips another, which tips another, and then you have a sudden acceleration of warming (this is what Guy McPherson and others think will definitely happen). Man’s CO2 emissions would be the catalyst in that scenario, but in the end the deniers would be right in that most of the warming could be attributed to “natural” causes.

    It’d be small comfort, however.

    • otter17 Says:

      While we can see a sensitivity to CO2 in the past, for sure, we don’t know whether we definitely will experience the scenario Guy McPherson explains. Still, we don’t know what this step impulse of CO2 is capable of.

      Nevertheless, we gotta do the best we can with the situation we have.

    • Sorry, I’m late, but …, permafrost is my main field.

      “… deniers would be right in that most of the warming could be attributed to “natural” causes.”

      Perhaps because “deniers” know that:

      Firstly – permafrost as the source, adds to the atmosphere the C from identical isotopic composition as the anthropogenic emissions: “The 13C/12C isotope ratio of the permafrost reservoir is similar to that of soil, vegetation, and marine biota. Unlike these reservoirs, however, permafrost carbon is depleted in radiocarbon (14C).” (Zimov, 2005 – http://forms.mbl.edu/sjp/pdf/readings/zimov_permafrost2005.pdf)

      Secondly – formerly permafrost thawing (the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century) similarly, and even faster than today. Fedotov (2012 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921818112001798):

      “We defined three periods of increased permafrost thawing during the last 170 years. The first maximum of permafrost melting occurred from 1870 to 1880, the second episode was from 1900 to 1930 and the third began between 1960 and 1965. During these periods, the maxima of permafrost melting occurred with a specific time lag following.”

      Fig.: http://www.skepticalscience.com/pics/1_Fig.2loss-of-permafrost.png – 1910- 1950 – is the period when around 3 km2 millions permafrost was thawed (the last half century is only around 1-1.5 millions km2). To sum up, in the last century melted over 4 (up to 4.5) millions km2 of permafrost.

      Zimov 2005.: “About 4 m of yedoma-like soils accumulated across 3 million km2 … … initially had a carbon concentration similar to the average for yedoma (2.6% C) and decreased to the carbon concentration of the current soils (0.15% C), it would have released about 500 Gt of permafrost carbon …”

      In the permafrost is currently probably 2167 Pg (= Gt) C (http://www.greencarcongress.com/2011/08/koven-20110823.html) – around 3 times more than previously estimated (it is 1/4 – 1/5 of fossil fuel reservoirs). It is easy and fast C “fleeing” into the atmosphere (Zimov, 2005: “Permafrost is a globally significant carbon reservoir … With warming, its spatial extent declines, causing RAPID carbon loss …).

      If you accept as base to only those proposed by Zimov (2005): “… about 500 Gt of permafrost carbon to 3 km2 milons … “, we have, already, a natural source CO2 increasing at a pace (and size) as our CO2 added is the atmosphere during the 150 years from the combustion of fossil fuel + cement – is circa 350 Pg C; with the change in land use =500 Pg C.

      If we multiply “basic” data of Zimov (2005) x 2 or 3 (Schuur 2008 to 1672 GtC or Koven 2011 to 2167 GtC – present – the latest estimates, of soil C content in: remainder of permafrost, petland, soil, etc.; in high latitude NH) and x 4-4.5/3 (for the conversion with 3 on 4 – 4.5 millions km2) in the course of the twentieth century, we obtain an increase a natural source (as a thawing permafrost effect), perhaps even many times larger than the increase our all anthropogenic sources of the twentieth century.

  4. Sure, i threw the matches into the dry grass but the resulting forest fire was a completely natural process!

  5. williamburr2012 Says:

    We Don’t Have to Go Down this Path. Alternative Energy is Proven Reliable and Sustainable. The Future is Green. VOTE GREEN! It Works! GreenmanPA.

  6. The more I think about this the more I realize that we probably will not do what’s right.

    I can’t help but think that this maybe nature’s way of correcting things. Even if we stopped all extra CO2 output today we’re still going to hit the 2 degree warmer mark.

    At the rate we’re going (which there really is no end in sight) 3 to 4 degrees is a guaranteed. And if we hit that we can expect to see ecosystem collapses, civil unrest, and wars over resources.

    I love the work that people like Peter do, but it’s really a huge uphill battle. And there is still a significant chunk of the population that thinks this isn’t really happening or that we’re not the cause.

    I feel a bit more pessimistic.

    • andrewfez Says:

      Well at least war over resources could lead to a nuclear exchange and a nuclear winter, which might buy a few years of coolness. There’s a silver lining on every dust cloud in the stratosphere.

      • andrewfez Says:

        That’s a statement of pessimism, not an actual ‘solution’, by the way. Nuclear winter would probably destroy what would be left of our crops, through lack of sun and lack of non-radioactive water, etc…

  7. […] Uh oh. Sydney Morning Herald: THE world is on the cusp of a “tipping point” into dangerous climate change, according to new data gathered by scientists measuring methane leaking from th…  […]

  8. otter17 Says:

    As the article says:
    The permafrost feedback is irreversible on human time scales.

    But to add…

    The fossil fuel release of CO2 is irreversible on human time scales, too.

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