May 15, 2013

We're At About 99 Monkeys

I was feeling satirical, looking around on the Web for stuff on Joe Barton, the Republican from Texas who persecuted those three climate scientists during the Bush Administration over the "hockey stick."  Some statistician with no climate science training wrote to Barton and said their analysis was full of holes, so Barton put out a request to see everything all three of these guys had ever done - all their research, all their papers, all their funding, all their notes, all their methods, etc.  Fortunately, a lot of people went to bat for them and called Barton off before he could do too much damage.  As a result, the blog (which is on my blog) was founded by Raymond Bradley and Michael Mann, who were the two main authors of the "hockey stick" analysis that was a part of the IPCC report way back in the early 1990's.  Barton, of course, like James Inhofe of Oklahoma, is on the payroll of Big Oil & Gas, and it was always Bush's idea of a sick joke to put people with no training in charge of the major "environmental" and energy committees, especially if they were openly hostile to AGW theories.

So as a man with a Kindle (and a PaperWhite at that), I got Bradley's book, "Global Warming & Political Intimidation," and began reading. Bradley goes very deeply into the methods used by climate scientists to determine temperature patterns in the days before thermometers and regular record keeping.  It's very, very complicated, involving "proxy" data sets like ice cores, corals, lake sediment, and tree rings, and then correlating these proxies on a worldwide basis to build a picture of past climate.  Fortunately, Michael Mann, a good Berkeley undergrad, Yale PhD in physics, applied math, and geology, knew how to do it, and his methods have held up well since their original publication in Nature.  But I got to thinking: how much more difficult is it to do this kind of work in this country with these Congressional morons looking over your shoulder trying to find the slightest hesitation or expression of doubt?  And how much does that chill the necessary research?  And did, in fact, the influence of people like Joe Barton, James Inhofe and Dana Rohrabacher doom the human race to near term extinction?

Hear me out on this one.  As a result of this official Denialism, what I most feared back in 2000, when Bush was elected, may in fact be coming to toxic fruition.  We could not afford those eight years (nor five more of Obama's go-along complacency), and disaster may lie in the not too distant future.  I started reading around on the Web, following Bradley's leads, and a major omission from American reporting began to take shape.  Russian and European scientists talk about it all the time, and it's on the news over there, but in America we have what you might think of as "Al Gore-ism," where nothing is ever said that might sound "hopeless." Our attitude about global warming is equivalent to the Victorian attitude about sex: it's okay, as long as you don't do it in the street and frighten the horses.

What I'm referring to is the problem with methane release in the Arctic Circle and in Siberia.  This has been given a once over lightly approach by the IPCC, and is essentially never mentioned in America's popular discourse.  A curious omission, since the survivability of Homo sapiens may be at stake.  For example, methane plumes from the Siberian permafrost were, up until about two years ago, about a meter across.  They were everywhere, and Russians for fun would dig holes in an ice-covered lake and then set fire to the escaping gas.  These methane plumes are now a kilometer across.  Methane is bubbling up out of the shallow waters (in general, less than 50 meters deep) of the East Siberian Ice Shelf, out of the permafrost (which is thawing) and from the shallow waters of the Arctic Ocean north of Canada. They were held in check for millions of years in the form of methane clathrates (a frozen state), and buried in the sediments beneath the permafrost and in the ice shelves.  With the Arctic warming, the ocean is transmitting heat to the submerged stores and the warmer climate in general in Siberia is thawing the permafrost.

The quantities are enormous.  CH4 has a life in the atmosphere of only 12 years, versus CO2, which is essentially permanent once it's up there.  Methane breaks down into CO2 and water vapor (mainly), so it winds up greatly adding to CO2 concentrations.  But it's what it does in the short run that may make all the difference.  In the short run it has a heat-trapping capacity which is 100 times that of CO2.  Ice core studies from the Younger Dryas demonstrate that the order of events, as the climate emerges from an ice age, is that CO2 concentrations rise first, and this sets up the warming which begins freeing up methane from exactly the places it's coming now.  When this process starts, it has the capacity to raise global temperature by 1 degree C per year. This is rapid transition, "non-linear" change, or runaway greenhouse, take your pick.  The correlation between massive methane release during such transitions and temperature rise is much more closely related than the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature increase, at least according to the studies of some researchers who have looked at such historical data (or who have dared to look).

For what amount to political reasons, the conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has chosen to "lengthen out" the effect of methane over a 100-year scale, so that its heat trapping qualities can be correlated to CO2, which is usually measured over such a period.  Over 100 years, methane is about 22 or 23 times more powerful, but methane's far more powerful short-term effects have been given short shrift.

As Steven Chu said, once he quit working for Obama and could speak his mind again, we are right now on the verge of beginning the runaway phase of global warming.  CO2 is like kindling - it sets the stage, but as long as you only focus on CO2, you can get the idea that we need to do something now to avoid a problem in 2100 or so.  This may be tragically wrong.  The original Kyoto Protocol (and the Club of Rome) were right to sound the alarm when they did.  With complete cessation of fossil fuel burning by 1990, we might have headed this catastrophe off.  But we had guys like Barton, Inhofe and Rohrabacher giving our scientists a hard time, and making them pull their punches, so the worst CO2 emitter on Earth could carry on with business as usual.

Poke around on the Net and see what I mean.  Look at the website of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group. They want to create clouds above the Arctic for a massive albedo effect as a desperate measure to keep the water up there cold enough to hold the methane in check. Go to YouTube and key in "methane plumes in Siberia."  It's horrifying, the scariest stuff I've ever read.

The problem always was that it took the latest science too long to become established.  The usual process of research, writing, submitting, peer review, revision, resubmission, etc, and then eventual inclusion in an IPCC compendium meant that it could take 5 years for the latest research to see the light of day.  The atmosphere of Denialism made scientists leery of ever saying what they really thought about what they were finding out. It made the process much more conservative than it should have been, and it means the IPCC reports were always consistently underestimating the real scope of the problem.  And now we have methane plumes a kilometer across belching CH4 into the atmosphere, with gigatons to follow.

My desire to be satirical about this went right out of me.  I don't know what to think now. This all has the quality of a bad dream.

The suspicion is that there may be no Arctic sea ice at the end of this summer.  All that dark water, absorbing heat, thawing methane, trapping heat, leading to more thawing, in a death cycle of feedback loops. My fearless prediction is that in about a year, the problem of methane release will break through to general American consciousness, and then, for a while, we won't be talking about gun control or Kim Kardashian's butt implants. And when the problem becomes that obvious, I would advise Joe, Jim & Dana to maintain a very low profile.  Probably on a private island.

No comments:

Post a Comment