May 16, 2013

Nature Always Sides With The Hidden Flaw

Here at Waldenswimmer, we face Near Term Extinction so you don't have to.  No need to thank us; it's the way we roll.

Our hysterical story so far: it would appear there has been a slight omission from mainstream reporting in the United States; to wit, the climate change story has entered a new phase of seriousness which we might term the "Arctic Methane Problem."

As with all previous iterations of the climate change story, in America the Arctic methane angle must first travel through predictable rites of passage before it can engage the general public interest.  The first phase, of course, is Denial/Minimization. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times predictably fulfilled this function in late 2011 with a post on his Dot Earth blog entitled, in effect, "Apocalypse Not." Essentially, this writer and singer-songwriter (meaning: he has scientific credentials similar to my own) talked to a couple of scientists who assured him that methane emissions from the Arctic have been occurring for thousands of years, this is nothing new, let it go, etc.

As a note in passing:  there is something very adult-sounding about dismissing disaster scenarios, such as runaway greenhouse.   Yet I still wonder: is attitude exactly what is called for under these circumstances?  Granted, methane releases are commonplace all over the world.  It's the byproduct of anaerobic breakdown of organic matter by microbes. The frozen methane was nestled deep in the sediment of the Siberian Arctic Ice Shelf, was covered by mud, by 150 feet of water slightly above the freezing point, and then, at the surface up above, by a thick layer of Arctic ice. They've been there since the days the Arctic shelf was well above sea level, when the climate was much colder.

Think of all we had to do to wake those microbes up.  Warm the air with CO2, which melted the ice, which allowed sunlight on the dark water, which transmitted heat down to the Arctic shelf, which freed the methane to bubble to the surface at long last.1

Ira Leifer, University of California:   "The amount of methane that’s trapped under the permafrost and in hydrates in the Arctic areas is so large that if it was rapidly released it could radically change the atmosphere in a way that would be probably unstoppable and inimicable to human life." [11]  James Hansen adds: "It is difficult to imagine how the methane clathrates could survive, once the ocean has had time to warm. In that event a PETM-like warming could be added on top of the fossil fuel warming."

How did the Arctic Methane Problem sneak onto center stage without anybody (in America) noticing?

Well, a few notes from a personal perspective.  I can recall, a little over a year ago, the proceedings of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.  The convention received a pretty good write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle, since this area is not much under the influence of the Three Stooges of Climate Denial, Joe, Dana and Jimmy (Joe Barton of Texas, Dana Rohrabacher of Newport Beach and James Inhofe of Exxon Oklahoma).   A particularly interesting story concerned the voyage of Dr. Igor Semilitov, a Russian atmospheric scientist and veteran of many Siberian Arctic cruises. As Dr. Semilitov reported at the convention: 

"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."
I had no context for such a report at the time.  Methane seemed like yet another technical sideshow to the main story line concerning atmospheric CO2.   Yet nature does indeed side with the hidden flaw. The flaw was this: inhibited as we have always been by the leadership such as that provided by George W. Bush ("the science isn't settled"), by the Three Stooges of Denial, and by the general indifference of Barack Obama, we have operated on the principle that so long as we got around to dealing with carbon dioxide levels by 2050 or so, by which date Barack Obama pledged a country which he will no longer lead to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (and probably to a definite closing date for Guantanamo at about the same time), all would be well, and any more urgent schedule was motivated by hysteria.  This was the operating principle.  Thus, we would go on dealing with the "recession," and with "energy independence" and the rest of it, and we could deal with global warming when the time was right.

Or so we thought.  In retrospect, that was a pretty simplistic and unrealistic view of a highly complex climate system, with many inputs, many feedback loops, and many unknowns.  I'm struck by the willingness of the Russian scientist to speculate a little bit, guessing that if he saw 100 methane plumes, there must be thousands more he didn't see.  That does make sense, but American scientists have been so intimidated by Denialism, by the fear of saying anything that hasn't already been proven true, that they would regard even such a logical induction as the daydreaming of a Greenpeace hippie.

So in September of this year, while the Russians are sailing around again checking for methane plumes, here in America we'll be continuing our argument about whether it's AGW, or just a natural cycle, that has led to a North Pole without a cube of ice.

No comments:

Post a Comment