Our Perfect Storm

Aug 30, 2015

How a host of positive feedback loops and other human factors are locking us in to abrupt climate change and a dramatic sea level rise. Worse still it may already be too late to do much of anything about it. How the IPCC has been way too conservative in their assessments.

The mantra for the last several years from many in the scientific community and activist has been we must act to limit global warming to 2 degrees C. Climate change meetings later this year will try to reach agreements on modest cuts to carbon output from the world's nation states. These agreements will mostly be ignored or broken.

It will not be because of bad faith particularly, it will be mostly because of lack of seriousness about the nature of the existential threat Climate Change represents. That, and the built in inertia of trying to switch from reliance in fossil fuels to renewable energy, and the entrenched opposition to it. I think we need a world wide Moon Shot like program to make a meaningful move away from fossil fuels in anything like 30 years, or one mortgage cycle. The prognosis is not good when we have well over 140 nation states all with their own separate agendas. Since the Kyoto Accords in the late 1990's carbon emissions have only risen, not declined.

The threats of Climate Change seem so far off with all the talk focused on modest sea level rises of a meter or so, and temperature rises of only a few degrees C by the year 2100. The problem is that the IPCC in it's efforts to not only reach a consensus document, but to appear reasonable, conscientiously underplays the more dramatic predictions. They do not take into account the self reinforcing feedback loops, or the fact that theses changes to our environment are not linear, but rather are doubling every several years. For example sea level rise is now at a little over 3.5 mm per year, but by the year 2022 it could well be at a rate of 7 mm per year. Then in seven more years at 14 mm per year, and so forth. Like the famous chess board story where the request to the King was for 1 grain of rice on the first square and 2 on the second we could be headed towards some very dramatic sea level rise within the life time of many of you reading this now.

Paul Beckwith a climatologist from Canada thinks that seven (7) meters of sea level rise is certainly possible by the year 2070 ( not one meter by 2100). The reason for these dramatic predictions is the triggering of these self reinforcing feedback loops I spoke of earlier.

The .85 degree warming we have experienced so far has had far more serious consequences then has been predicted so far. One of these loops is the dramatic decline of sea ice in the Arctic. Sea ice in the Arctic has declined in extent and thickness so much since the 1970's that it has lost 80% of it's volume and set to disappear completely by the end of the September melt season within the next few years. The US Navy predicts this by 2018 at the least. Once sea ice is gone in September for a week or two, within several more years it could be gone entirely for whole of the Arctic summer. The reason for this is that the loss of the ice cover removes a surface which reflects more than 90 percent of the Sun's energy, and changes it into a surface (open water) which absorbs energy. While it takes 144 Btu's to melt 1 lb of ice only take 1 Btu to heat 1 lb of water 1 degree F. This warmer ocean water is what has been accelerating the increasing thinness of the sea ice in the first place.

A warming Arctic ocean has now be releasing Methane from their icy cages on the Siberian continental shelves increasingly for for the last several years. Increasing air temperatures have been melting the permafrost and releasing Methane there also. There is enough Methane in the Arctic to dwarf all of our CO2 emissions so far because molecule per molecule it is a much more potent green house warming gas over the short term of 100 years. It looks likes we are due for at least a 50 gigaton burst that is worth at least a 0.6 C increase in addition to the .85 warming we have already experienced.

But wait there is more bad news, I am am not done yet. The oceans have been taking up 90 percent of the extra energy or greenhouse gases have been keeping in the atmosphere so far. Also the ocean takes up CO2 which is responsible for this increase in the acid PH levels of the ocean you may have been hearing about. However a warmer ocean has less ability to absorb CO2.

Then there is the 40 year time lag in the sensible effects of the CO2 we do emit. In other words the warming we are seeing now is the result of CO2 emitted to atmosphere in 1975, the amount we have released since then has yet to take effect. Add all this in and we are locked into more than 2 C of warming already.

Add the 0.6 C from the Methane that is now bubbling up in the Arctic Ocean and from the permafrost and we are are in for some serious warming beyond the much vaunted 2 C of warming considered "Safe". There is a great deal of evidence in the geological and the ice records that tell us the Earth's Climate is not linear in its response to forcing. It appears as if our climate is more like a drunken man who while sitting down can be rather quiet. He may sway around a little but he will be okay until you force him to get up and move, and if you do that he may stagger off in some pretty unpredictable directions.

It seems there may not be stable states for the Earth's climate above 2 degrees C of warming at all, but rather that it is either below 2 degrees C or it may lurch on up to 8 degrees C or more. It is all these self reinforcing feedback loops that are responsible for this.

I have one more tasty morsel for you via Beckwith. During the Eemian period some 120,000 years ago there is evidence found in the geological strata in Jamaica of persistent wave trains of 30 meter high (read 90 feet here) waves coming in from the NE. This was with only 2 degrees C of warming then. As you can imagine, surface container cargo ship traffic would be impossible under such conditions. Even submarine shipping would be problematic.

We are headed for a dramatically different planet within the lifetime of my children and grandchildren. Our ability as a species to grow food out in the open in uncontrolled environments is likely to be severely compromised. In short habitat for humans may disappear. Could there still be humans on such a nightmarish planet? It is possible, but we would be here only in much reduced numbers, read thousands here instead of billions. I for one would not want to be here then, when going out on the the surface would require a environmental suit.

What can we do you may ask that will make any difference? We could start now reducing our fossil fuel consumption by from 5 to 7 percent a year every year until we get it down to a minor level. Even if the whole world did this in unison, it still would not be enough. Geo engineering may be the only thing that could really save us, and it is looking impossible from the here and now. To make any difference we would need to remove at least ten (10) GigaTons of warming gases from the atmosphere every year. It would have to be removed in a carbon neutral manner and sequestered.

To give you some idea what a daunting task this is, there is not anything we currently mine, drill for, or process in those quantities now. Who would pay to do this for something once you get, you just hide it away? I think this should be the new job of the fossil fuel extraction industries. They after all are the only ones setting on the large piles of cash needed to even set up the infrastructure to even attempt it. Then all we have to do is figure out how to do it, and currently no one knows how.

Our electric grid is entirely convertible over to renewable energy. What transport that can not be run on electric drive could be run on fuels made using only renewable generated electricity. Without population control all efforts will be futile no matter what we do. We only need new models for everything we do! New economic models, new energy paradigms, new governance models, no problem right? I don't see how we get there from the world I know, but I am pessimistic by nature possibly. For now however I will leave you with a catchy bumper sticker saying "WE ARE THE ASTEROID". Good luck and pleasant dreams friends on EV World.

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