New Video: Permafrost – the Tipping Time Bomb

February 28, 2013

New for the Yale Forum.

I spent some time trying to figure out how to translate the impact of my interview with Charles Miller of NASA JPL.

Dr Miller is lead scientist of NASA’s CARVE mission, (covered below in a Weather Channel spot, encouraging sign of better coverage for climate issues in that venue)..

CARVE stands for Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment, and it consists of an ongoing series of flights over permafrost regions in the remote Alaskan arctic, to measure at low altitude, and high resolution the offgassing of CO2 and methane from decaying permafrost.

When I spoke to him at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in December, what was most striking were the even, calm, measured tones of his responses in discussing some of the most intense and alarming information imaginable about a critical climate feedback.

The story came together with last week’s publication of new data that helps zero in on exactly at what temperature regions of continuous permafrost will begin to break down.

Scientific American:

Geoscientist Anton Vaks of the University of Oxford led an international team of experts—including the Arabica Caving Club in Irkutsk—in sampling the spindly cave growths known as stalagmites and stalactites across Siberia and down into the Gobi Desert of China. Taking samples of such speleothems from six caves, the researchers then reconstructed the last roughly 500,000 years of climate via the decay of radioactive particles in the stone. When the ground is frozen above a cave no water seeps into it, making such formations “relicts from warmer periods before permafrost formed,” the researchers wrote in a study published online in Science on 21 February.

The details of the study reveal that conditions were warm enough even in Siberia for these mineral deposits to form roughly 400,000 years ago, when the global average temperature was 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than present. It also suggests that there was no permafrost in the Lena River region at that time, because enough water seeped into the northernmost cave to enable roughly eight centimeters of growth in the formations.

I spoke to Dr. Vaks by Skype, and included a brief clip from that in the video above. I’ll be editing, cleaning up and posting the extended interview soon.

For now, check out the video above. I apologize in advance if you don’t sleep well tonight.

41 Responses to “New Video: Permafrost – the Tipping Time Bomb”


  1. I slept well and will sleep well, nothing to worry your little selves there, just a weather channel looking for custom.


  2. ‘no warming in 16 years, it’s not happening, co2 is good- it’s plant food, a warmer arctic will mean more plants, it’s not melting, it was a big storm- blah blah blah’

    I can hear it all now.

    But seriously how worried should we be?

  3. Bruce Miller Says:

    Why Fracking? Why not methane capture? China may get first dibs on this using a Canadian Steam extraction technology and Clean Thorium Heat technologies. Methane stores very esily in standard “propane” tanks! Can so be transported too! Watch now as Quebec uses hydro electric power to rlease methane, store it for more efficient energy transfer to Southern markets! most Northern Canadian lakes suffer huge methane bubbles under the ice. Canadians are about to pump it to shore to store in standard “Propane Tanks” for on demand uses. Another “energy” point: Canadian air is colder, thus denser, thus contains more capturable energy than in the South! Wind Turbines just might catch on in the Northlands!


  4. There is a lot of implication that the feedback could be large here, and Chu says as much, but there is no sign of any actual estimate of when and how much. Scientists are always motivated to overplay the importance of their work to the public.

    I would like to hear a worst case estimate of the actual numbers so we can put this into perspective. My understanding has been that at the global level this feedback is NOT considered a major risk. The recent New Scientist and Ars Technica articles say as much.

    Have you gone too far with this one? I’m a bit concerned.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I’m not sure we know what the worst case is. There have been some very ominous suggestions from the U of Alaska group about methane clathrates, which are not treated here.
      On the plus side, during the Interglacial 400,000 years ago, which Vaks studied, a fair amount of continuous permafrost did melt, but then refroze when the next glacial came. Of course that was after pretty substantial Greenland and WAIS melt, and a sea level rise that most people would consider pretty extreme.
      Worth noting that the forcing being applied currently is much greater than in previous epochs, probably outside of the occasional asteroid strike – so there may be effects that will be unique this time around.


      • The clathrate thing is a very different issue and has a rather long time scale.

        And I’m not saying we should be complacent about sea level rise!

        I’m saying that without comparing the permafrost carbon inventory to the fossil fuel inventory you run the risk of inadvertently overstating the global risk of the permafrost melt. It is a very serious issue on the ground, of course, but the implication that there is strong global coupling has a very “spinny” feel to me.

        I think Chu is just a spin victim himself here, and I am concerned that the other scientists may be being less than entirely ingenuous. I’d love to be wrong on this. If I’m right it’s pretty discouraging.

        • greenman3610 Says:

          no doubt I also hope the worst fears will be unjustified.
          I also hope that nuclear weapons will never again be used in war. I don’t think we always need to assume that any such use would inevitably go to a worst case scenario, but I do think we need always to keep that worst case in mind, because the consequences are potentially so devastating and irrevocable.


  5. You lot just dont get it. This entire site is a joke, a sick joke. It runs like this, lets make up the scarriest story we can and then watch and laugh as the comments come in and everyone get into a real panic. None of it is true it just there to distract you from what’s really going on in the country.

    If you believe that the government would pay for someone to fly around the artic in an old plane collecting air in glass jars you would believe anything.

    • rabiddoomsayer Says:

      If only that were true. Truth is we do not know just how worried to be. The problem is somewhere between making a bad problem somewhat worse and catastrophic.

      What we do know is that climate modellers have not taken any sort of methane response into account. Where the melting permafrost has been considered, it has been considered as a carbon dioxide feedback. Mainly because we do not know just how much will be methane.

      As more data comes in, the odds of catastrophe look higher. The rate of methane release is critical and at this stage unknown. If it all happens to fast the the hydroxide radicals, (or to be even more precise the HONOs) will be swamped and the methane will stay in the atmosphere much longer.

      Hopefully they are correct when they say it is not an all or nothing scenario.


      • You have identified only one variable not modelled in climate simulations. There are so many more I would never ever take model output as more than a wild guess and certainly not something to base policy on.

        You can always go down the want if and perhaps route and create potential disasters out of anything. Wake up and start to think that may be that is what someone wants you to think for their own ends, whether it has any connection to reality or not. You are being manipulated!

        My advice, as always, stop worrying, have some belief in mankind to survive as we have for millions of years. Just live as good a life as you can and treat your fellow man with the respect you would wish to receive.

        • rabiddoomsayer Says:

          On the contrary, climate scientists have not overestimated one bad trend, where they have got it wrong it has been worse sooner than expected. The scientists are very sure it will at at least as bad as they predict, and not at all sure that it will not be worse.

          The loss of phytoplankton has climate implications that have not been taken into account. Tree dying world wide and releasing the stored carbon has not been taken into account. Wildfires depositing soot onto Greenland and reducing it’s albedo has not been taken into account.

          The possibility that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current could be perturbed has not been taken into account. If it is, then the rate of sea level rise will be very much greater than expected.

          Consider that the Milankovitch cycles are by nature so incredibly gentle and yet that has been enough to throw us into and out of glacial cycles. What we have done is not at all gentle. Also consider that we have changed atmospheric composition faster than the lead up to any extinction cycle, save when an asteroid destroyed the dinosaurs.


          • My issues with your rant are the following;

            1) Not all trends are bad, but you exclusively look at the ones that may turn out that way

            2) You only listen to scientists that follow your pre-conceived ideas

            3) If everything was as unstable as you infer we would not be here now.

            The very fact that we are here to debate these issue is testiment to the fact that we are blessed with a world that is by it nature self correcting. So looking always for the worse outcome will more often than not give you the wrong outcome. Have you no faith in mankind?

        • rayduray Says:

          OFF TOPIC

          Edwin,

          You wrote: “My advice, as always, stop worrying, have some belief in mankind to survive as we have for millions of years.”

          I appreciate the glib way you’ve come among the great unwashed here and tried to straighten us up with the real story.

          However, I feel compelled somehow to point out to you that perhaps you’d be considered somewhat less of a laughingstock if you had some basic understanding of science.

          For instance, you claim that humanity has survived for millions of years. That would be news to 100% of all legitimate scientists in this area of expertise.

          Let’s review sixth grade level understandings of the origins of our species, shall we:

          “Anatomically modern humans evolved from archaic Homo sapiens in the Middle Paleolithic, about 200,000 years ago.”

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_sapiens_sapiens

          Although now extinct, Homo sapiens neanderthalis has left a slight genetic marker in modern humans. To quote Wikipedia again: “The first humans with proto-Neanderthal traits are believed to have existed in Europe as early as 600,000–350,000 years ago”

          The closest I can come to agreeing with your timeline might be discussed here:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo

          So what’s the score? Here’s the identified species we know of:

          Homo sapiens
          Homo gautengensis
          Homo habilis
          Homo erectus
          Homo antecessor
          Homo ergaster
          Homo heidelbergensis
          Homo neanderthalensis
          Homo floresiensis

          All but Homo Sapiens are extinct. Not as you said, “surviv(ing) as we have for millions of years.”


          • rayduray:

            Without know me personally you have no idea of my scientific credentials, however I doubt if yours could be any better. So less of the personal comments please.

            As to how long we have been here depends on your species classification criteria (an artificial construct). Ignoring the idea we sponateously appeared around 6000BC we are the product of an evolutionary journey that goes back around 4.6 Million years (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_evolutionary_history_of_life). Though it is not my normal practise to quote wikipedia as it is not that reliable on many matters.

          • rayduray Says:

            Edwin,

            Perhaps you’d care to share your scientific background with the board? Anyone citing Roger Pielke, Jr. clearly has done some reading. Finding such a weirdo takes effort, though such obscurantist research exposes the person making such a citation as having very little interest in honesty.

            ***
            Re: “we are the product of an evolutionary journey that goes back around 4.6 Million years”

            And in your cockamamie big bang theory (pun intended). at 4.6 Million years ago there was some sort of Immaculate Conception?

            No, Edwin, evolution may experience punctuated equalibrium as theorized by Steven J. Gould et al. But as Dr. Brian Cox points out in BBC’s great new series “Wonders of Life”, (Episode 3), there is DNA from the earliest cyanobacteria lifeforms which existed 3,500 Million years ago that are still observable in human DNA.

            So let’s try to elevate this discussion to an adult level. Shall we?

            ***
            Re: “Ignoring the idea we sponateously appeared around 6000BC”

            Why ignore it? This is an idiotic concept that deserves full-voiced ridicule until it is stamped out as ridiculous religious-cum-superstitious claptrap.


          • The reference to Million was a typo, if you had read the reference it reads:

            The basic timeline of a 4.6 billion year old Earth, with approximate dates:

            3.6 billion years of simple cells (prokaryotes),
            3.4 billion years of stromatolites demonstrating photosynthesis,
            2 billion years of complex cells (eukaryotes),
            1 billion years of multicellular life,
            600 million years of simple animals,
            570 million years of arthropods (ancestors of insects, arachnids and crustaceans),
            550 million years of complex animals,
            500 million years of fish and proto-amphibians,
            475 million years of land plants,
            400 million years of insects and seeds,
            360 million years of amphibians,
            300 million years of reptiles,
            200 million years of mammals,
            150 million years of birds,
            130 million years of flowers,
            65 million years since the dinosaurs died out,
            2.5 million years since the appearance of the genus Homo,
            200,000 years of anatomically modern humans,
            25,000 years since the disappearance of Neanderthal traits from the fossil record.
            13,000 years since the disappearance of Homo floresiensis from the fossil record.

            So 3.6 Billion is fine by me. If you had read the reference you would have realised the typo immediately.

            As to ‘stamping out’ ideas, a little totalitarian don’t you think espeically when the idea referenced, though not one I personally hold with, is held sincerely by many millions of people world wide.

            As for Prof. Robert Pielke Jr., as I have relatives still in Colorado and having lived there myself knowing his work is not difficult, no more so than the other referenced experts the U.K.’s Met Office, NASA’s Jim Hansen, and the IPCC’s Rajendra Pachauri. Are all these to be classified as “weirdo” as well or are we cherry picking our experts to suit our case?

            As to my own expertise I am from an age and background that does not believe that one trumpets ones status as a justification for what you say. In brief I have Masters degree from one of the world’s top 5 universities, that degree is in a scientific discipline and I have worked all my life using and extending my scientific knowledge for the benefit of mankind. And what is your background that gives you such a perfect view of climate science?

          • rayduray Says:

            Re: “As to ‘stamping out’ ideas, a little totalitarian don’t you think espeically when the idea referenced, though not one I personally hold with, is held sincerely by many millions of people world wide.”

            Not in the least. I don’t find having a superstitious and deluded group of people being told they are fools to be in any way anything but a kindness to them. Would you prefer children to become senescent nonagenarians still believing in the tooth fairy? Or how about elves?

            Some superstitions are an expression of sheer stupidity. The Usher Cronology is, as we both agree, sheer sophistry and pure stupidity on the part of the gullible.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ussher_chronology

            Isn’t it kinder to de-mythologize humanity than to allow them to wallow in a condition where they are prey to every con-man and -woman?

            How about the Millerite Great Disappointment? Aimee Semple MacPherson? Jim & Tammy Baker, Jimmie Swaggert and all the other active Christian charlatans who are enriching themselves off the stupidity of humanity? It is totalitarian to hope frauds are exposed? I don’t think I care to live in your sort of world.

  6. rayduray Says:

    OFF TOPIC

    Edwin,

    You wrote: “My advice, as always, stop worrying, have some belief in mankind to survive as we have for millions of years.”

    I appreciate the glib way you’ve come among the great unwashed here and tried to straighten us up with the real story.

    However, I feel compelled somehow to point out to you that perhaps you’d be considered somewhat less of a laughingstock if you had some basic understanding of science.

    For instance, you claim that humanity has survived for millions of years. That would be news to 100% of all legitimate scientists in this area of expertise.

    Let’s review sixth grade level understandings of the origins of our species, shall we:

    “Anatomically modern humans evolved from archaic Homo sapiens in the Middle Paleolithic, about 200,000 years ago.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_sapiens_sapiens

    Although now extinct, Homo sapiens neanderthalis has left a slight genetic marker in modern humans. To quote Wikipedia again: “The first humans with proto-Neanderthal traits are believed to have existed in Europe as early as 600,000–350,000 years ago”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthals

    The closest I can come to agreeing with your timeline might be discussed here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo

    So what’s the score? Here’s the identified species we know of:

    Homo sapiens
    Homo gautengensis
    Homo habilis
    Homo erectus
    Homo antecessor
    Homo ergaster
    Homo heidelbergensis
    Homo neanderthalensis
    Homo floresiensis

    All but Homo Sapiens are extinct. Not as you said, “surviv(ing) as we have for millions of years.”

  7. rayduray Says:

    Oh dear. Just as I predicted, it would appear that Barack Obama’s rhetoric on climate is simply not being matched by his action.

    http://tinyurl.com/d4joe3e

    The Guardian’s articulate and honest Suzanne Goldenberg again offers us the reality we cannot hope for from 1600 Pennsylvania any longer.

    QUOTE:


    It’s been 114 days since Barack Obama promised on the night of his re-election to protect future generations from – in his words – “the destructive power of a warming planet”. It’s been 38 days since he renewed and expanded on that promise on inauguration day, 16 days since he told Congress straight up in his State of the Union address: act on climate change or I will.

    But when it comes to spelling out the actions Obama intends to take on climate change, exactly how he intends to use his executive power, it’s been a very slow reveal.

    The White House energy and climate change adviser, Heather Zichal, failed during a talk at a Washington thinktank this week to provide specifics on the kinds of actions – or the time frame – Obama has in mind for dealing with what he has repeatedly described as an urgent problem.


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