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Arctic Sea Ice - Methane Release - Planetary Emergency
Governments must get a grip on a situation which IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has ignored. A strategy of mitigation and adaptation is doomed to fail. It will be impossible to adapt to the worst consequences of global warming, as IPCC suggests.
The Arctic must be cooled, ASAP, to prevent the sea ice disappearing with disastrous global consequences. Rapid warming in the Arctic, as sea ice retreats, has already disrupted the jet stream. The resulting escalation in weather extremes is causing a food crisis which must be addressed before the existing conflicts in Asia and Africa spread more widely.
Dangerous global warming and ocean acidification must be prevented by reducing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, especially by improved agricultural practice, thereby addressing the food crisis at the same time.
This is an unprecedented opportunity for international collaboration for common purpose.
1. The Arctic is rapidly heading for meltdown. As snow and sea ice retreat, exposing land and sea with lower albedo (i.e. less reflectiveness), more solar energy is absorbed, thus leading to further melting and retreat in a vicious cycle. This cycle has been self-sustaining for many years – we are well past the tipping point. There is no sign of any natural process to break the cycle.
2. As the extent of snow and sea ice has been plummeting, even while global warming has stalled, Arctic albedo loss has rapidly overtaken CO2 as the main driver of climate change in the Northern Hemisphere, as witness the escalation of weather extremes. The Arctic has warmed well above global average, resulting in a reduction of the temperature gradient between tropics and pole, this in turn reducing the strength of the polar jet stream, with increased meandering and a tendency to get stuck in blocking patterns. This explains the recent escalation of weather extremes in the form of long periods of weather of one kind such as the months of high rain the UK has experienced this past winter 2013-14, and the protracted extreme cold in the US over the same period, crop failures and an upward trend in the world food price index.
3. While land and subsea permafrost thaws ever faster, methane could become the dominant climate forcing agent. Emissions threaten to break through the gigaton-per-year level within twenty years. AMEG has been continuing its research into the situation. A recent paper, co-authored by Peter Wadhams, a founder member of AMEG, has used the Stern Review economic model to show that the economic cost of a 50 megaton release of methane from the Arctic Ocean seabed will cost $60 trillion. Research in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf has suggested that such a vast release of methane was possible, and continued exponential increase of methane could, within 20 years, reach a level where methane dominated over CO2 in global warming. Some researchers warn of a 50 gigaton burst being possible “at any time”.
4. Therefore, urgent and strenuous efforts are needed ASAP to cool the Arctic, halt snow and sea ice decline, and suppress methane.
5. Techniques exist for cooling on the necessary scale. Both the brightening of low-level clouds and the production of a reflective haze in the stratosphere are techniques based on natural phenomena which have been studied extensively. Various methane suppression techniques have been proposed. However, all these techniques require technology development and testing before deployment.
6. Ocean acidification threatens to devastate the marine food chain. Atmospheric CO2 must be reduced to a safe level within twenty years or less.
7. Therefore, CO2 must be removed from the atmosphere faster than it is put in. The rate of removal should be increased until it is around double the rate of emissions and the CO2 level has fallen sufficiently to avoid dangerous ocean acidification. Funds could be raised by having a levy on carbon taken out of the ground, specifically to fund the return of carbon to the ground.
8. CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere utilising the photosynthesis of plants and certain algae to produce biomass. The carbon of this biomass must then be kept from returning to the atmosphere, e.g. by pyrolytic conversion to biochar. This process of capture and sequestration has to be massively scaled in order for the CO2 removal rate to exceed CO2 emission rate.
9. The profound economic, social, security and political impacts of the abrupt climate change, being witnessed as an escalation of climate extremes and crop failures, must be addressed. The underlying price of food as indicated by the food price index is already above the crisis level, leading to the food riots we have observed in several countries where income is insufficient to buy daily needs.
These are unprecedented opportunities for international collaboration in the interests of every country, every section of the community, rich and poor alike. The necessary actions of cooling the Arctic, suppressing methane and CO2 removal present enormous engineering and logistical challenges. The objectives should be achievable without any revolution or radical change in the way we live. In fact the solutions to the challenges are not only affordable but can be of great economic benefit in the long run.
There is no excuse for procrastination. We must see action now
Current situation and gross omissions from IPCC
The IPCC WG1, WG2 and WG3 assessment reports (AR5) make no mention of the downward trend in sea ice volume, and rely on models which fail to properly capture the processes of warming and melting. Furthermore they fail to mention the strong evidence that Arctic warming is already a driver of climate change in the Northern Hemisphere, compounding the effects of global warming.
Arctic warming and sea ice retreat is already having a serious impact on climate change across the Northern Hemisphere, which is affecting food production, food prices and food security. The latest WG2 report claims that the Arctic sea ice will be subject to ‘very high risks with an additional warming of 2 degrees C’. In fact, the September sea ice volume is already down 75% with a trend to zero by September 2016, suggests that the Arctic is heading for complete meltdown, which would be a planetary catastrophe. The loss of Arctic ecosystems and the climate implications of ice disappearance are in fact acute risks NOW as both ice and ice-dependent species are set to disappear within a matter of years.
These are catastrophic omissions. AR5 is supposed to provide the best analysis of the state of the planet and its future climate, on which governments can base policy for protection of citizens. These omissions are leading governments into a false sense of security about the future of our planet.
The only clear policy deduction from AR5 concerns the reduction of CO2 emissions by keeping within a carbon budget. Reductions alone have no chance of preventing catastrophes arising from Arctic meltdown. Intervention to cool the Arctic is an absolute requirement to prevent such catastrophes. There is no realistic alternative.
The concept of a carbon budget, espoused in AR5, hides the short-term consequences of various powerful feedback processes which get zero or scant attention in AR5. In particular, snow and sea ice albedo feedback seems to be totally ignored in the budget. And the mounting concentration of methane in the atmosphere is ignored. The real truth is that the carbon budget has already been spent. WG3’s limit of 450 ppm for CO2 equivalent has already been passed, even without taking into account albedo loss.
Governments must also address ocean acidification, whose threat has also been ignored in AR5. There is no alternative but to start a major campaign for CO2 removal (CDR). The latest WG3 assessment report suggests CDR as a possibility for offsetting emissions, but only in so far as for keeping within their carbon budgets of 450ppm CO2e and above, which would have catastrophic consequences for humanity, even without all the other overlooked positive feedbacks described above. CDR must be adopted, being the only possibility in order to stop the existing contribution to global warming of CO2 and ocean acidification.
Meanwhile there is the threat of Arctic methane emissions to burst above the gigaton level, totally ignored in AR5. And the AR5 projections of sea level rise are hopelessly optimistic if the sea ice disappears as rapidly as the trend indicates.
Arctic Methane: Why The Sea Ice Matters
Methane Hydrates: Hazard or Resource
Paul Beckwith at Ecoshock
Saving the Arctic Ice
Nathan Currier describes responses to the emergency in the Arctic in the post Saving the Arctic Ice: Greenpeace, Greenwashing and Geoengineering (#1), concluding that geoengineering will have to be part of the action.
AMEG issues policy brief
AMEG issues policy brief, urging immediate government action.