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Field Notes from a Catastrophe- Man, Nature, and Climate Change
Elisabeth Kolbert

With Speed and Violence- Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change
Fred Pearce

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// Case Focus //

Arctic Warming Speeding Up; Large-Scale Methane Releases Detected
Updated 2/22/09

Video by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

(Editor's note 2/22/09: Video updates to this story at the bottom of the article.)

Nov. 21, 2008   Last month in the Links and Resources page, we highlighted new evidence that the arctic is warming at a faster pace than the rest of the planet, and that several feedback loops may have already begun to accelerate the warming rate. As the EU Observer reports, 'the situation at the top of the world has taken a sharp turn for the worse just in the last few weeks'.
In this extensive four-part series, the EU Observer covers the latest developments in the arctic, and goes on to profile the coming rush for newly unfrozen resources. I'll quote liberally from the series, which is online here.

"... In late September, Swedish and Russian scientists found the first evidence that millions of tons of methane - a gas that is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - is bubbling up from beneath the Siberian Arctic seabed.

"...The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is greater than the world's remaining global stores of coal and it is now rising up from the bottom of the ocean through "methane chimneys" discovered by scientists aboard the research ship Jacob Smirnitskyi.

"Days later, British scientists aboard the James Clark Ross found hundreds of plumes of methane burping up from the Arctic seabed to the west of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

"NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen, says that the release of methane clathrates from permafrost regions and beneath the seabed will unleash powerful feedback forces that could produce runaway climate change that cannot be controlled - the so-called methane time bomb - a prediction of radical environmental transformation far worse than the worst-case scenarios theorised by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"Then on 28 October, the European Space Agency reported that Arctic sea ice was thinning at a record rate, with the thickness of sea ice in large parts of the Arctic having declined by as much as 19 percent last winter compared to the previous five winters.

"...Recent months [have seen] both a cascade of truly alarming news on how fast the Arctic is changing and pronouncements from the European Union and other circumpolar powers on plans for exploitation of newly accessible resources...

"Last year saw a record low extent of Arctic sea ice cover - 4.3 million square kilometres - more than 40 percent below averages in the 1980s and more than 20 percent below the previous record low in 2005. But more important than the extent is the volume of the ice. Most of the older thicker ice is not surviving from one summer to the next. As of 2007, most of the ice was three or four-year-old ice. As of 2008, most ice is just one year old.

"The massive ice loss and thinning is forcing scientists to quickly ratchet lower even their worst expectations - the 2007 melting came some 30 years ahead of model predictions.

"In 2004, it was predicted that the ice would have melted sufficiently to allow commercial traffic in the Arctic Ocean by 2090. In 2007, it was predicted that commercial traffic would be able to cross by 2040. As of 2008, the predictions are for some time in the next five years, with the first start-up possibly in 2009. Models now predict an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer some time between 2013 and 2040.

"The last time the Arctic Ocean was ice-free in the summer was over a million years ago.

"Kit Kovacs, the Biodiversity Research Programme leader at the institute says: 'The changes are happening so rapidly that scientists are having trouble processing it all. From initial tests to publishing papers takes at a minimum months or a couple of years, but change is happening much faster than that... The biodiversity loss is just as profound as if there were a loss of the Amazon rainforest within the space of five years.'

Video by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Oil and Gas Bonanza?

(And here comes what could quite possibly become a further feedback loop, an anthropogenic loop; with increased arctic warming, new reserves of fossil fuel come online, and are burned at an increasing, rather than decreasing rate... -Ed)

"What looks like the end for the polar bear, however, looks like Christmas for resource companies and European energy security concerns.

"Johan Petter Barlindhaug, the chair of North Energy, a northern-Norway-based oil-and-gas start-up currently exploring energy sources on the Norwegian continental shelf, says the melting Arctic could offer northern peoples, who have historically lived in a very much underdeveloped region, a chance to have similar standards of living as those who live in the cities and towns further south.

"Climate change poses lots of threats, but it also opens up a range of possibilities," he says.

"Oil companies like North Energy and Norwegian energy giant Statoil Hydro believe the Arctic holds as much as 25 percent of the worlds undiscovered oil and gas deposits - as much as the combined reserves of Canada and Saudi Arabia.

"Russia's Gazprom already has approximately 34 trillion cubic metres (113 trillion cubic feet) of gas under development in the Barents Sea and Moscow is claiming territory in the Arctic that contains an estimated 586 billion barrels of oil.

"Mineral resources may also abound, particularly coal, iron, lead, copper, nickel, zinc and sulphides, as well as precious minerals such as gold and diamonds. Recent diamond discoveries in the Canadian Arctic have made the country, which previously didn't produce any of the stones, the third biggest exporter of diamonds in the world."

EU Observer's complete four-part series "Europe's Arctic Adventure - The new cold rush for resources" is online here.

Video by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson


Geophysical Research Letters: Methane Rising Fast
"A global study in Geophysical Research Letters found the first increase in methane levels this century by about 28 million tonnes since mid-2006 was in part due to release of gas in and near the Arctic. CSIRO senior climate scientist Paul Fraser said the data was in line with predictions that rapid melting of Arctic ice would create natural wetlands, one of the most common methane emitters. "This is not good news for global warming," he said.
Over the past decade, methane emitted from wetlands, rice fields, cattle, bushfires and coalmines had been largely offset by absorption of the gas by dry soil and through atmospheric oxidation, Dr Fraser said.
"Over the past year, the total sources have overwhelmed the total sinks and methane has started to rise," he said.
Methane is estimated to be responsible for about 20% of global warming since the Industrial Revolution."
"If the Siberian (submarine) permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes, the methane content of the planet's atmosphere would increase twelve fold. The result would be catastrophic global warming."
"A Storehouse of Greenhouse Gases Is Opening in Siberia," der Spiegel, 17 April '08 (ref) (ref)

Also by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson: Lost Africa: The Eyes Of Origin
Cyril and Marie: recent press

You can track the arctic ice loss at the Sea Ice News and Analysis website, and watch Arctic ice melting in Google Earth at the Google Earth Blog.

Updates February/April 2009

Antarctic, April 7: Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Brink of Collapse (story, video)

Polar Meltdown Triggers International Arctic Landgrab
April Scientific American, Earth 3.0: "...Nations scramble to claim their share of the petroleum riches trapped deep within the Arctic seabed as global warming loosens that ocean's icy grip on its bounty..." (read article)

Methane Bubbling Up Under The Ice

Above: Methane releases from thawing permafrost building up under the ice.

Below: As the outer shell of glaciers and terrestrial ice caps melt, the meltwater can rush into newly opened "moulins' - all the way to the underside of the ice, lubricating it from the bottom, speeding up it's movement to the sea, and/or it's potential breakup. Below we can see vast quantities of meltwater rushing down a moulin... (story)

New Links

Giant mass of Antarctic ice 'set for collapse'
A mass of Antarctic ice larger in area than Connecticut is in "imminent" danger of breaking up, according to scientists from the European Space Agency..." (story)

Methane Bubbling Up Under The Ice

Scientists capture dramatic footage of Arctic glaciers melting in hours

Save The Polar Bear! website

European Space Agency mapping polar ice thickness with satellite radar (ASAR) story

High-latitude autumn spike in methane produced by freezing wetlands story

Arctic Heats Up More Than Other Places: High Sea Level Rise Predicted story

Pollution Causing Arctic Ice To Darken And Melt Rapidly story

Ice melting across globe at accelerating rate, NASA says report

Point of No Return for the Arctic Climate? story

Report: Arctic warming pattern 'highly unusual'
A major U.S. government report on Arctic climate has concluded that the recent rapid warming of polar temperatures and shrinking of multi-year Arctic sea ice are "highly unusual compared to events from previous thousands of years." story

Podcast: How Abrupt Can Climate Change Be?
USGS Associate Program Coordinator for the Office of Global Change John McGeehin discusses a new report on the potential for abrupt climate changes from global warming during this century. get podcast

Climate scientists: it's time for 'Plan B'
Levels of CO2 have continued to increase during the past decade since the treaty was agreed and they are now rising faster than even the worst-case scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body. In the meantime the natural absorption of CO2 by the world's forests and oceans has decreased significantly. story

Scientists plan emergency summit on climate change
"Climate experts from across the world will gather in Copenhagen next month to agree a stark message to policy makers, which they hope will break the political deadlock on efforts to curb rising temperatures. The meeting follows "disturbing" studies that suggest global warming could strike harder and faster than expected..." story

James Hansen's PowerPoint presentation on climate change, San Francisco 12/08
view here (click frame to advance)

Brown Clouds Melting Glaciers, Darkening Cities Across Asia
"A three-kilometre thick cloud of brown soot and other pollutants hanging over Asia is darkening cities, killing thousands and damaging crops but may be holding off the worst effects of global warming, the UN said..." story

Giant mass of Antarctic ice 'set for collapse'
A mass of Antarctic ice larger in area than Connecticut is in "imminent" danger of breaking up, according to scientists from the European Space Agency..." (story)

Listen to a USGS podcast: the latest findings on potentially abrupt climate change: (mp3 podcast)
- view more climate change reports (pdf) from USGCRP
- International Polar Year: State of Polar Research (report PDF)

Related links and resources

The Future Of The Poles
A Scientific American online In-Depth Report. Both the North and South poles are undergoing unprecedented changes as a result of man-made climate change. What does this mean for the region's wildlife and natural resources as countries compete for the region? (SciAm)

Arctic ice thickness 'plummets'
By Mark Kinver, BBC
The data proves that overall volume of sea ice is decreasing, say researchers. The thickness of Arctic sea ice "plummeted" last winter, thinning by as much as one-fifth in some regions, satellite data has revealed. (ref)

Fears mount as Arctic melt prompts historic methane rise

Carbon Dioxide Levels Already In Danger Zone, Revised Theory Shows
The authors, who include two Yale scientists, assert that to maintain a planet similar to that on which civilization developed, an optimum CO2 level would be less than 350 ppm a dramatic change from most previous studies, which suggested a danger level for CO2 is likely to be 450 ppm or higher. Atmospheric CO2 is currently 385 parts per million (ppm) and is increasing by about 2 ppm each year

Scientists Confirm Global Warming at North and South Poles

Alaska permafrost study reveals larger global warming problem
University of Alaska professor Chien-Lu Ping and a team of researchers have ... concluded frozen Arctic soil contains nearly twice as much organic material and greenhouse gases as previously thought. (ref)

Alaska has massive amount of ice-trapped gas
"Alaska has enough natural gas trapped in ice formations beneath permanently frozen subsoil and offshore to heat more than 100 million homes for a decade, a U.S. report estimated. Hydrates, crystalline structures consisting of gas and water locked below the permafrost, contain 85.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the Interior Departments U.S. Geological Survey said in a report released today. The hydrates have more potential for energy than all other fossil fuels combined, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said in a news conference. This is a huge resource for energy, and one cannot overstate that."

Warmer Antarctica Shows Climate Changing on Every Continent
It's official: The South Pole is also succumbing to human-induced climate change (SCi Am)

EcoTV Climate Change

Ecoversity TV:
Climate Change / Arctic Warming

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