Climate Chaos: Arctic Warming, Positive Feedback, Tipping Points

Climate Chaos: Arctic Warming, Positive Feedback, Tipping Points

Below three condensed articles from the last six years I have gathered on arctic warming. These facts and connections are seldom mentioned by the powers that be and their media, preferring to concentrate instead on things like ice-free shipping routes, more mineral and oil exploration and the plight of polar bears. Because of the scientific uncertainties, and political pressures, even the IPCC tends to leave them out of their emissions scenarios.

Please draw your own conclusions as to the urgency of the need to pull the emergency brakes on all carbon emissions (and the social revolution needed in all countries to do so). One would hope that the global Occupy movements might soon begin to link their social and economic concerns with such survival issues. After tipping points, climate chaos or runaway global warming would mean not only the collapse of economies but also the deaths of billions.


Ian Sample, ‘Warming hits ‘tipping point’ (in: The Guardian Weekly 19-25/8/2005, p. 1)

A vast expanse of Siberia is undergoing an unprecedented thaw that could dramatically increase the rate of global warming, climate scientists warned last week.

An area of permafrost spanning a million square kilometres – the size of France and Germany combined – has started to melt for the first time since it formed 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. The area, which covers the entire sub-Arctic region of western Siberia is the world’s largest frozen peat bog and scientists fear that as it thaws, it will release billions of tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.

It is a scenario scientists have feared since first identifying ‘tipping points’… […] Climate scientists reacted with alarm to the finding, and warned that predictions of future global temperatures would have to be revised upwards.

West Siberian peat bog could hold some 70 billion tonnes of methane, a quarter of all the methane stored in the ground around the world.


Fred Pearce, ‘Meltdown’ (in: New Scientist 28/3/2009, pp. 32-36):

“I am shocked, truly shocked,” says Katey Walter, an ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “I was in Siberia a few weeks ago [in 2009], and I am now just back in from the field in Alaska. The permafrost is melting fast all over the Arctic, lakes are forming everywhere and methane is bubbling up out of them.” […] “Lakes in Siberia are five times bigger than when I measured them in 2006. It’s unprecedented.”

Discussions about the consequences of the vanishing ice usually focus on the opening up of new frontiers for shipping and mineral exploration, or on the plight of polar bears, which rely on sea ice for hunting. The bigger picture has got much less attention: a warmer Arctic will change the entire planet, and some of the potential consequences are nothing short of catastrophic.

Changes in ocean currents, for instance, could disrupt the Asian monsoon, and nearly two billion people rely on those rains to grow their food. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it is also possible that POSITIVE FEEDBACK from the release of methane from melting permafrost could lead to RUNAWAY WARMING.

The danger is that if too much methane is released, the world will get hotter NO MATTER HOW DRASTICALLY WE SLASH our greenhouse gas emissions. […] after remaining static for the past decade, methane levels have begun to rise again, and the source could be Arctic permafrost.

Edward Schuur of the University of Florida estimates that 100 billion tonnes of this carbon [locked away in the permafrost] could be released by thawing this century, based on standard scenarios. If that all emerged in the form of methane, it would have a warming effect equivalent to 270 years of carbon dioxide emissions at current levels.

Put together, the latest research paints a disturbing picture. Since existing models do not include feedback effects such as the heat generated by decomposition [of organic matter in thawing permafrost], the permafrost could melt far faster than generally thought.

While shrinking sea ice in 2007 may have attracted all the headlines, some researchers say what is really scaring them is a simultaneous jump in methane levels.
Most worrying of all is the risk of a runaway greenhouse effect. The carbon stored in the far north has the potential to raise global temperatures by 10 degrees C or more. If global warming leads to the release of more greenhouse gases, these releases will cause yet more warming and still more carbon will escape to the atmosphere. Eventually the feedback process would continue even if we cut our greenhouse emissions to zero. At that point climate change would be out of control. […]

Nobody can be sure how likely all this is. Indeed, the scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who compile its reports cannot even reach agreement on how to quantify the probabilities of such events. As a result, the ‘scary scenarios’ were barely mentioned in the last report.


Steve Connor, ‘Shock as Retreat of Arctic Sea Ice Releases Deadly Greenhouse Gas’ (in: The Independent/UK 14/12/2011)

In late summer [2011], the Russian research vessel Academician Lavrentiev conducted an extensive survey of about 10,000 square miles of sea off the East Siberian coast. Scientists deployed four highly sensitive instruments, both seismic and acoustic, to monitor the “fountains” or plumes of methane bubbles rising to the sea surface from beneath the seabed

“Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It’s amazing,” Dr Semiletov said. “I was most impressed by the sheer scale and high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them.”

“In a very small area, less than 10,000 square miles, we have counted more than 100 fountains, or torch-like structures, bubbling through the water column and injected directly into the atmosphere from the seabed,” Dr Semiletov said. “We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before. Some plumes were a kilometre or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal.”


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on January 9, 2012.

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