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Arctic Sea Ice - Methane Release - Planetary Emergency
Submission by the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) to the Environment Audit Committee’s Inquiry on Arctic Sustainability
Dear EAC members,
AMEG submitted evidence to the EAC five years ago, in early 2012. Since then the Arctic situation has deteriorated markedly, much as we had predicted. But we now have a much clearer understanding of how the Arctic is getting locked into a low albedo state and the implications, particularly the effect of weather extremes on food security and the effect of sea-level rise on low-lying cities and conurbations, thanks a great deal to the work of Sir David King (currently the UK’s Special Representative for Climate Change). We now have a much clearer idea of what needs to be done and can be done to cool the Arctic and save the sea ice. But most importantly we now recognise the exciting possibility of reversing climate change and restoring the Earth System to a sustainable state for the benefit of future generations.
In our submission, we have assumed that the EAC is capable of digesting and appreciating our scientific and technical points. The EAC contains talented people with diverse backgrounds and expertise, some of whom may find our submission baffling. Whereas you (the EAC) are used to considering the geo-political dimension of problems, we have gone into the scientific dimension of the Arctic situation and proposed an engineering solution. We have given relatively little consideration to geo-political dimension.
Therefore, given the shorter time for the EAC to deliberate on evidence due to the snap General Election, the gravity of the situation as we see it, and the huge change in policy we are proposing, we suggest making a more thorough presentation of our case to you after June 8th in a setting where you feel free to ask detailed questions having studied our written submission.
You should then be able to fulfil your duty of environment audit seriously: to grapple with the reality of an existential threat and recommend action to stave it off. As far as we know, you are the only committee in the world tasked to consider such threats and capable of responding without political bias.
With “business as usual” (BAU) the world is heading for the dangerous global warming of 2°C by 2040, even without the Arctic contribution of heat and methane. With the Arctic in the process of switching to a seasonally sea-ice-free state within a decade, and with the risk of the Arctic getting locked irreversibly into this state, the urgency for action to save the sea ice could not be greater. If we consider food security alone, the Arctic with its perennial sea ice has been crucial for world agriculture to be viable for at least two reasons:
- It has kept the jet air streams (see “Introduction” below) within the behaviour range which makes agriculture viable; whereas with BAU, the jet air streams will very likely be well out of this range by 2025 if not sooner.
- It has kept gigatons of methane from entering the atmosphere and causing a runaway warming that would make agriculture unviable; whereas with BAU, such devastating methane releases could, quite conceivably, happen within a decade or two.
So, therefore, if we don't restore the ice, we are making an incredibly reckless and immoral gamble regarding the viability of world agriculture, and, by extension, the viability of our civilization.
Our account of climate change and the Arctic is based on an understanding of how the Earth System operates and the essential role of the Arctic in controlling climate. Hopefully our account can bring people with hitherto different views on climate change together, unified in agreement on the action we propose to cool the Arctic and save the sea ice. This action has the potential to reverse climate change if executed with great urgency and in parallel with concerted action to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There could be huge benefits in food production and food security, with reduced costs from weather extremes.
We reject the view that the Earth System is intrinsically stable and would return to the old norm if CO2 emissions were halted. The Arctic is a crucial component of the Earth System and the part which can change most rapidly because it contains a switch mechanism*. We have learnt that, within just a few decades, the Arctic can switch from a state where there is perennial sea ice to a state where the sea ice is seasonal, with no sea ice for part of the year. Effectively, mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions have been sufficient to operate the switch, and the switchover to seasonal ice will soon be complete. Nevertheless our group (AMEG) has studied the forces at play, and we believe that the switchover can be reversed by suitable intervention. We have two key messages for the committee: that completion of the switchover would be catastrophic and that rapid intervention is essential to prevent a complete switchover.
*The sea ice provides feedback. This feedback acts like the spring of an old-fashioned mechanical light switch. When the switch lever is operated, at first the springs act against the movement, but at a critical point (the tipping point) the springs start reinforce the movement and then the operation is completed very quickly. So it is with the Arctic. The main feedback is provided by the sea ice. As it retreats, sunshine is absorbed by the open water, heating the water to a considerable depth because of its transparency and releasing the heat to melt the sea ice from below in a positive (mutually reinforcing) feedback. But the open water also allows heat from the surface to radiate into space, which cools the water, encouraging ice to form in a negative (stabilising) feedback.
A complete rethink is required on government policy towards the Arctic and towards climate change generally. Over the past thirty years, rapid warming in the Arctic has been the main driver of climate change in the Northern Hemisphere, through a disruption of weather patterns. This disruption will get worse as warm water from the Atlantic penetrates further and further across the Arctic Ocean, melting the sea ice as it goes. Current policy for renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions comes too late to save the sea ice. To prevent dangerous climate change, the Arctic has to be refrozen such as to restore the reflective power of snow and sea ice. Recent climate change can potentially be reversed with prompt intervention on a large scale. This has to be a priority for the international community. We recommend that the UK government takes a lead in initiating and coordinating the international response as a matter of policy.
The rapid warming and melting in the Arctic has other adverse repercussions: on sea level rise as the Greenland Ice Sheet melts; on methane as permafrost thaws; and on global warming as the extra heat absorbed by the Arctic contributes to global warming. These repercussions add urgency for cooling the Arctic but also for reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The accepted wisdom is that climate change is a direct result of carbon emissions and the greenhouse warming they cause. Thus it is conventionally argued that reducing emissions to zero would halt global warming and climate change. Indeed climate change is often equated with CO2 emissions. But this is a gross oversimplification as it ignores two problems. It ignores the legacy CO2 in the atmosphere which has a lifetime of many decades and will continue warming the planet long after CO2 emissions cease. And it ignores what is happening in the Arctic which we’ll discuss first.
The Arctic is having a huge effect on climate change through a complex interaction between various processes which is important to understand. The rapid warming of the Arctic over the past thirty years has reduced the temperature gradient between Arctic and tropics. This gradient helps to keep the bands of weather systems in place. (There are three bands in the Northern Hemisphere, each with prevailing winds: easterlies in the subtropics; westerlies at mid-latitude; and easterlies in the Arctic and sub-Arctic.) The boundaries between these bands are marked by jet streams, which form patterns called Rossby waves which progress eastwards round the planet. As the gradient is reduced the waves meander more to north and south. They also tend to get stuck. The combination of meandering and stickiness has led to an increase in weather extremes over the past thirty years.
The jet stream tendency to get stuck is made worse by global warming, such as to make the extreme weather longer lasting. Global warming tends also to make extreme droughts and floods more intense by providing increased heat and humidity in the atmosphere. Thus the climate change we have been seeing recently is due to a combination of global warming and even more rapid warming in the Arctic, with the recent El Niño making matters worse.
The legacy CO2 problem means that, to reduce CO2 climate forcing, CO2 has to be removed from the atmosphere faster than it is being added through the burning of fossil fuels. The Arctic problem concerns rapid warming of the region causing melting of snow and sea ice which in turn causes warming in a mutually reinforcing feedback loop or ‘vicious cycle’: as the highly reflective snow and sea ice melt, they expose less reflective land and sea surfaces which absorb extra heat tending to cause further melt. This submission is focussed on the Arctic problem.
The Arctic has long been known as a key component of the Earth System for controlling temperature and climate, which have oscillated dramatically over the past few million years. But for the past few thousand years there has been a balance of albedo (snow and ice reflectivity) between the north and south Polar Regions, which has kept a symmetric arrangement of weather patterns in place, ensuring a constant climate for everywhere on the planet. Ice sheets have remained stable, so that the sea level has also remained constant. However within the last three decades, this balance has been upset by rapid Arctic warming, with potentially dire consequences for the constancy of climate and sea level on which our modern civilisation depends. Rapid Arctic warming was almost certainly triggered by the global warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (though a reduction in the cooling effect of SO2 emissions may also have had a role).
Recent research on past Earth System behaviour, backed by good observational evidence, suggests that the Arctic is now in the process of switching from a high albedo state, with the Arctic’s ocean covered with sea ice throughout the year, to a low albedo state, with the ocean losing almost all of its ice by the end of each summer and with much reduced snow on land.
Since a completion of this switching process is liable to lock the Arctic into a permanently low albedo state with potentially catastrophic repercussions on climate and sea level, discussed below, everything possible has to be done to prevent completion. The international community must pull together to solve this problem, while there is chance of success. It will involve large-scale interventions, hitherto considered unnecessary and risky by environmentalists, oblivious to the extremely dangerous situation which calls for the most drastic of actions. We urge the committee to regard this situation as representing the true reality for the purpose of this inquiry; even if absolute certainty about the danger has not been established. It is necessary to act on the precautionary principle if there is any doubt about the magnitude about this danger.
The UK can take a lead in promoting the necessary measures and interventions to cool the Arctic and save the sea ice. These interventions will help to reduce the number and/or severity of weather extremes, thereby reducing damage from storms, floods, heatwaves, and droughts in the medium term, or great importance to the UK’s economy. In the longer term, the Arctic albedo should be restored and greenhouse levels brought down to near pre-industrial levels, so that climate is restored to the old norm for everywhere on the planet. This is the ultimate sustainable future for the Arctic, to which all governments must aspire, including our own. The government’s environment policy framework should be redrafted to reflect this.
However there is much positive benefit from an international collaboration to save the sea ice and reduce the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is an unprecedented opportunity for countries to work together to restore climate, increase food production and reduce conflict in the world. The UK could take a leading role.
The call for evidence
The call of evidence asks for answers to a number of points. These two in particular are addressed in our submission:
- Has the UK’s policy framework on the Arctic helped it achieve its vision of ensuing ‘policies are developed on the basis of sound science with full regard to the environment, and where only responsible development takes place’? Is the framework still fit for purpose in light of environmental and geopolitical changes?
- What are the most significant environmental changes taking place in the Arctic, what is changing and what does it mean for the Arctic and the UK?
Previous warnings ignored
Unfortunately the government chose to largely ignore key points of evidence about the rapidity of sea ice retreat and attendant consequences provided by Peter Wadhams and AMEG for the predecessor committee, meeting in spring 2012. Instead they chose to act on the basis that the sea ice would last this century, following the projections of climate models provided by the Met Office Hadley Centre. These models have been thoroughly discredited since the projections diverge from observed trends far more than could be allowed by natural variability. The dramatic record retreat of sea ice in September 2012 apparently came as a complete surprise to the Met Office, despite the minimum volume being precisely on the data point predicted according to an exponential downward trend. Most climate scientists now accept that the Arctic Ocean could be seasonally “free” of sea ice (i.e. with extent less than one million square kilometres at the end of summer) within a decade or two.
The government also chose to ignore the mounting emissions of methane gas from the Arctic seabed, preferring to believe models suggesting that such emissions could not possibly grow to dangerous levels. Unfortunately the models were based on unsound assumptions about the source of the methane. Recent research suggests that Arctic methane emissions could rise to the gigaton level, at which methane starts to dominate over CO2 as the main greenhouse gas climate forcing agent.
Thus the government rejected our urgent calls for intervention to save the situation. Instead the government proposed that the Met Office should be responsible for overseeing intervention, when the Met Office had just claimed that intervention was not needed! Far from adopting the precautionary principle, the government chose to believe the comforting view that all was well in the Arctic, and that it was ripe for exploitation.
Changes in the Arctic and their impact
We are glad that the committee recognise that a new look is required at the policy framework, in the light of recent scientific evidence, because there is much new evidence to support our assertion that the Arctic is in a process of dangerous and potentially irreversible meltdown – a switch to a low albedo state. The Arctic continues to warm much faster than the global average of 0.2C per decade. The El Niño caused a surge in global warming but an even greater surge in Arctic warming. Huge changes are in progress, as warm water from the Atlantic is flowing further and further into the Arctic Ocean, reaching as far as Novaya Zemlya. Svalbard has been free of sea ice this winter, which is unprecedented. Storm systems have reached to central Arctic, breaking up the sea ice and mixing the low salinity water on the surface with higher salinity water below. All this suggests that the Arctic is rapidly heading for a low albedo state. Once the Arctic Ocean has an anticlockwise gyre of surface water, in place of a clockwise gyre of sea ice, the switch to low albedo state will be complete. In the past, air has descended at the poles producing a prevailing north-easterly wind at high latitudes. Now air will rise over the ocean, being warmer than surrounding land masses. Air will probably be sucked in between Greenland and Norway, as we have seen with storm tracks and a meandering jet stream. A new pattern of air circulation could be established for the Northern Hemisphere, affecting climate as far as the tropics or even into the Southern Hemisphere, as the thermal balance between hemispheres is upset. Longer spells of stuck weather can be expected. In particular floods could be even worse for the UK, with a meandering jet stream picking up moisture from tropical oceans and dumping it consistently in the same region, as happened recently. The cost of flood damage, and the cost of building ever greater defences against floods, has escalated in the UK as in the US and elsewhere. The problem for London, with rising flood risk from the extreme rain, storm surge and higher sea level (see below), is humongous.
Meanwhile other processes are at work in the Arctic as it continues warming. The Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) is melting ever faster. It is showing alarming signs of disintegration with an increase in icequakes and a huge crack in the ice opening up inland from the west coast. Recent evidence suggests that past disintegration of the GIS, at the end of the Eemian, caused mega-tsunamis, as huge blocks of ice slammed into the sea. This is a potential hazard for the UK, especially nuclear power stations in the Bristol Channel where tsunami waves would be amplified. There is strong evidence that a tsunami struck the Bristol Channel in 1607, and yet there appear to be no plans in case a tsunami struck again.
The GIS meltwater is increasing to the point of causing a cold anomaly in the North Atlantic. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) has been thoroughly disrupted, both as a result of a combination of increased meltwater and a loss of the subduction vortexes in the Greenland Sea as sea ice has retreated. A profound weakening of AMOC has huge implications for warming of the Southern Ocean and discharge of Antarctic glaciers, some of which are beyond their tipping point. Thus one way or other, the continued warming of the Arctic is liable to produce massive sea level rise – perhaps as much as the half metre per decade (as recorded for the huge meltwater pulses which occurred following the last glacial maximum). Such sea level rise would be devastating for low-lying cities such as London. Sir David King has calculated that a rise of 0.3 to 0.4 metres would be devastating for many major cities around the world. On current trends, sea level could rise 0.5 metres by 2040 or 2050.
Then there is the methane to be considered. Emissions from thawing land permafrost are growing remorselessly but we are even more concerned about emissions from subsea permafrost. There are more than two millions square kilometres of subsea permafrost where former frozen land has been inundated as sea levels rose following the last glacial maximum, some 20,000 years ago. Methane emissions from the Arctic Ocean’s continental shelf off Siberia have grown alarmingly since our 2011 report to the EAC, as observed by the Russian scientists, Shakhova and Semiletov. Where formerly they were seeing plumes of bubbles of a few metres diameter, they are now seeing plumes a kilometre across and more. This has happened as the temperature at the seabed has risen by as much as 7C. So it can be assumed that the permafrost beneath the seabed is being thawed from above by warm seawater and from below by geothermal heat. Any methane hydrate caged by permafrost is liable to disassociate, releasing methane gas. The permafrost is become perforated in many places. Any methane gas beneath the permafrost is liable to escape through perforations in the permafrost. Thus the methane may be coming from hydrate in the permafrost or from methane trapped beneath the permafrost or both. In any case, the situation is serious because of the hundreds if not thousands of gigatons of methane stored in permafrost and beneath it. Because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, a release of a tiny fraction (just one gigaton per annum) from the vast store of methane could double the rate of global warming from 0.2C per decade to 0.4C per decade. Such an outburst is thus a huge risk to humanity.
The Arctic which we love for its beauty and wild life is melting away in front of our eyes. And nothing is being done about it! Does it really matter?
The loss of an entire ecosystem is one thing; the effect on the rest of the planet is another. The Arctic snow and ice acts as a giant mirror to reflect sunshine back into space and keep the Arctic frozen. This has huge benefits for the rest of the planet:
- the Arctic cools water from the Atlantic and circulates it round the whole planet;
- the Arctic keeps the Greenland Ice Sheet frozen, thus preventing 7 metres of sea level rise if it all melted;
- the Arctic keeps an ice and permafrost lid on vast quantities of the natural gas, methane, thus preventing this potent greenhouse gas from causing a catastrophic surge in global warming;
- above all, the Arctic keeps weather systems in place such that climates around the world stay constant.
The Arctic has provided these benefits for thousands of years, but we do not expect it to continue. Changes are already happening as the Arctic warms much faster than the rest of the planet. For example, floods, droughts and other weather extremes are becoming more common. The whole situation will get worse as time goes on.
However the rot can be stopped if we act now. We must refreeze the Arctic, starting with the sea ice. Here are some techniques which could be used:
- water flowing into the Arctic can be cooled using a marine cloud brightening technique: spray devices produce a mist of fine seawater droplets; these evaporate producing microscopic particles which are wafted into clouds by natural air circulation; the particles act as cloud condensation nuclei which have the effect of brightening the top of the cloud and cooling the water beneath; the cooled water flows into the Arctic;
- sea ice can be thickened so it doesn't melt away in summer: the use of “ice shields” has been proposed;
- snow can be created to reflect more sunshine back into space: the seeding of clouds to produce snow has been proposed.
An urgent task is to develop these techniques and prepare for large-scale deployment. Modelling, trialling, evaluation and monitoring will play essential roles in successful deployment of selected technologies.
Other restorative action is needed, because the rest of the planet is also warming and our oceans are dying. Again there are several techniques available. One possibility is to restore life in the oceans, using plant-like algae and nutrients. This will remove CO2 from the air which has been causing the planet to warm.
Conventional wisdom says that climate change is all about reducing our carbon emissions, but this is only half the story! We need restorative action as well to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere, to actively suppress methane emissions and, even more urgently, to refreeze the Arctic.
Full climate restoration for the safety and wellbeing of future generations will require a significant international response to reduce climate forcing from all major sources. We recommend that the total climate forcing should be halved by 2030: restoring Arctic albedo, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and suppressing methane emissions. At the same time, the fertility of soils and oceans needs to be maintained or increased to feed a growing population. This is a huge challenge but also a huge opportunity for investment. It is suggested that the government might lean on the fossil fuel industry to provide much of the required funding. They also have considerable engineering expertise to offer.
Note that international collaboration with the UK in climate restoration should be considered a force for good, since everyone benefits. As the old norms are restored, crop yields will grow and the conflict arising from famine should subside, e.g. in NE Africa and the Middle East. Thus there will be a peace dividend from climate restoration, which could be a point of pride for the UK, assuming we participate.
A new policy framework for the Arctic
Our society has become very dependent both on a stable climate for crop production and on a stable sea level for maintaining fertile estuarine land and huge low-lying conurbations. The effects of climate system disruption and multiple bread-basket failure would be amplified by socio-political feedbacks to aggravate the situation, making widespread famine and mass migration (or attempted migration) almost inevitable. The cost of defending against sea level rise of half a metre or more would be prohibitive.
The risks from Arctic meltdown are so high that this meltdown must be prevented on any reasonable precautionary principle. As a matter of risk management, the banking and insurance industries should join with government to ensure there is funding to make climate restoration a profitable and successful business.
A significant pro-active response is demanded from the international community. What should the UK do in these demanding circumstances, when the US can no longer be relied upon to take climate change seriously? Fortunately the UK has considerable scientific credibility in these matters. It also has outstanding technical and engineering expertise. The following actions are proposed, with as much as possible in parallel:
- a climate restoration plan should be quickly agreed by a multi-disciplinary group of experts, recognising the enormity of the crisis facing us all;
- relevant processes and timescales should be quantified, to add detail to the plan;
- the crisis should be acknowledged by government, preferably in a joint statement with a number of other governments to underpin credibility and demonstrate a collaborative spirit;
- a programme of public education should be initiated, to explain the situation and what is being done about it;
- restoration of the Arctic and its albedo should be made a top priority for research, development, modelling and monitoring;
- there should be a cessation of all exploitation of the Arctic which might jeopardise restoration;
- there should be support for fast-track pilot projects to demonstrate appropriate technology;
- business should be informed of investment opportunities;
- funding avenues should be found, especially through the fossil fuel industry, for developing new technologies and for scaling up production and deployment of selected technologies, as necessary to ensure success through the profit motive.
A key factor in climate restoration is how much cooling power will be required to reverse the warming effect of processes in progress, especially the albedo loss due to retreat of snow and ice. It is estimated that current albedo loss is equivalent to a globally averaged 0.5 watts per square metre, which, multiplied by the area of the planet, gives a current heating power of 0.25 petawatts focussed in the Arctic. But if the sea ice disappears during summer, this could quadruple to 1 petawatt. However this albedo loss will be mostly offset by increased cooling from thermal radiation, as open water radiates more effectively than sea ice. The offset value is unknown, and must be an important consideration for research as it is critical for quantifying intervention parameters.
Chair Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG)
Submitted on behalf of AMEG, 2017-04-24
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.