Thursday, March 02, 2017

Massive Permafrost Thaw Documented in Canada, Huge Carbon Release May Be Coming


"So far, so good," though I think they forgot that the ball is going to get larger.

by Gaius Publius

Scheduling note: My comments appear regularly here on Monday and Thursday.

Quick and dirty (very dirty).

I've written many times that things are happening on the climate front much more quickly than anyone anticipates. (Just one example: "The Greenland Ice Sheet Is Melting 600% Faster Than Any Model Predicted," but there are dozens of other pieces that could be cited.)

I've called this tendency to under-anticipate the pace of climate change "being wrong to the slow side." We have a strong (and encouraged) tendency to believe that the relentless march out of the climate range that nurtured human civilization will happen slowly, incrementally, gradually — yet we consistently find out, again and again, in instance after instance, that these changes can also occur in unanticipated leaps and collapses as well.

These leaps and collapses are going to become more frequent, as the pace of change accelerates and larger and more significant elements of the climate system destabilize. Leave a glass of ice sitting at room temperature, and the ice will melt slowly at first, but that melt-rate will inevitably accelerate. Same with a destabilized, out-of-equilibrium climate system.

You could call the accelerating pace of climate change a kind of Snowball Effect — a mirror of what happens when a snowball starts rolling down a hill. After a period of slow and gradual movement, it picks up both speed and momentum (added mass) until it becomes a large, destructive force.

This is another of those stories of rapid change. Via Inside Climate News:
Massive Permafrost Thaw Documented in Canada, Portends Huge Carbon Release

Study shows 52,000 square miles in rapid decline, with sediment and carbon threatening the surrounding environment and potentially accelerating global warming.

Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. A new study that analyzed nearly a half-million square miles in northwest Canada found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth—an expanse the size of Alabama.

According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can choke off life downstream, all the way to where the rivers discharge into the Pacific Ocean.

Similar large-scale landscape changes are evident across the Arctic including in Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia, the researchers wrote in a paper published in the journal Geology in early February. The study didn't address the issue of greenhouse gas releases from thawing permafrost. But its findings could help quantify the immense global scale of the thawing, which will contribute to more accurate estimates of carbon emissions.
Arctic permafrost, as the name implies, is soil that has remained frozen — both on land and underwater — since before the last ice age. That soil is now thawing at an accelerating rate. This releases both methane locked into the soil, and CO2.

About Arctic methane:
Large quantities of methane are stored in the Arctic in natural gas deposits, permafrost, and as undersea clathrates. Permafrost and clathrates degrade on warming, thus large releases of methane from these sources may arise as a result of global warming.[3][4] Other sources of methane include submarine taliks, river transport, ice complex retreat, submarine permafrost and decaying gas hydrate deposits.[5]
But thawing permafrost also releases CO2 itself:
As the permafrost thaws, microbes wake up and begin digesting the newly available remains of ancient plants and animals stored as carbon in the soil. This digestion produces either carbon dioxide or methane, depending on soil conditions. Scientists want to understand the ratio of carbon dioxide to methane gas released by this process because it affects the strength of the permafrost carbon feedback loop: greenhouse gases released due to thawing permafrost cause temperatures to rise, leading to even more thawing and carbon release. 
How much carbon (in aggregated methane and CO2 form) are we talking about?
[T]he Arctic permafrost is like a vast underground storage tank of carbon, holding almost twice as much as the atmosphere. At that scale, small changes in how the carbon is released will have big effects. [emphasis mine]
There's twice as much carbon in the permafrost as there is in the air today. Let that sink in. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is 400 ppm (parts per million by volume). Pre-Industrial atmospheric CO2 was 280 ppm. There's enough carbon in the permafrost to more than double today's 400 ppm number before natural processes start to remove it — and that net-removal of CO2 assumes that humans stop adding their own, something we show no sign of doing.

As the report cited at the top noted, scientists haven't quantified the amount of carbon release yet; they've simply documented the accelerated thawing. Later studies will do that.

Your takeaway, though, is simple — the snowball is picking up speed. Is it an emergency yet? Time, perhaps, to act?

(Update: The sudden-change stories just keep coming in. As I write, a science station on the Antarctic peninsula has just recorded a record-breaking high of 63.5° Fahrenheit, or 17.5 degrees Celsius. Ninety percent of the earth's fresh water is locked up as ice in Antarctica, the melt of which would raise sea levels a stunning 200 feet.)


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At 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok. the snowball effect analogy is more or less synonymous with resonance.

The system has been resonant for at least 3 years now. And the last measurement I saw from Mauna Loa was 402 ppm average. The AVERAGE measurement from Mauna Loa oscillates but the trend is for the average to increase 1 - 3 ppm per year.

At somewhere around 380ppm, the system became resonant.

All a long way to say there really is no remedy. The belligerence of americans to science in general notwithstanding, there really isn't anything that humankind can do to undo this. Nothing. It shall progress given time. The rate at which changes happen will depend on the increase in ppm... which looks like it will be constantly accelerating.

I'm not sure why science won't just say this... maybe they are so cowed by the constant attacks from grotesquely stupid americans or maybe they just don't want to be the bearers of such grim news. Whatever. The truth is the truth.

About the only thing millenials can do at this point is to prevent their children from suffering horribly from the effects of this... by NOT having children.

The rest of us are stuck on the airplane all the way to the scene of the crash. My favorite part of this analogy probably won't hold, but it's nice to think that the first ones to be killed in the crash will be those in first class.

At 9:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

GP, keep 'em coming. There is a remarkable paucity of coverage of this topic, even among the left blogosphere. Even though the us is now a full-blown fascist kakistocracy (considering how bleeping dumb americans tend to be, this is SAYING something), this is the ONLY relevant story today.

Yet everyone is groaning about herr drumpf and his misfit band of Nazi wannabees... and which kardashian's tits are dating what athlete.

Before the kardashians' tits are dragging on the ground, the seas will be 10m higher and farming/fishing worldwide will collapse. Not that the media will cover that.

At 4:02 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

you forgot the intense heating of the atmosphere caused by the giant compost pile, figure the effects of 140 degrees + on the atmosphere, and the incredible moisture buildup, i hope they are happy, gibbon's decline, etc., it was recorded by caesar that prior to the cutting of the hardwood forest, and draining the swamps that it was too cold to grow grapes north of sicily, and he tells of the caribou in germany, this is the first known record, it as all planned, they say you can trace rome's expansion by the amount of lead in the soil, they ran on lead, burned forests of hardwoods, the beech tree decline was it's suerior charcoal, it was the primary food of the great flocks of birds, by 1850 there were shortages of hardwoods because of the railroads, that's why they switched to coal.

At 12:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying what good weather remains, and hope that when the end comes it's quick and relatively painless. I'll be thinking of Kurt Vonnegut's observation that our human epitaph should be "We didn't like it here".

At 6:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“New research describes how scientists have used the world’s largest array of seismic sensors to map a deep-Earth area of melting carbon covering 1.8 million square kilometers. Situated under the Western US, 350km beneath Earth’s surface, the discovered melting region challenges accepted understanding of how much carbon Earth contains – much more than previously understood.

It would be impossible for us to drill far enough down to physically ’see’ the Earth’s mantle, so using this massive group of sensors we have to paint a picture of it using mathematical equations to interpret what is beneath us,” said Dr Sash Hier-Majumder of Royal Holloway.

He continued, “Under the western US is a huge underground partially-molten reservoir of liquid carbonate. It is a result of one of the tectonic plates of the Pacific Ocean forced underneath the western USA, undergoing partial melting thanks to gasses like CO2 and H2O contained in the minerals dissolved in it.”

As a result of this study, scientists now understand the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s upper mantle may be up to 100 trillion metric tons. In comparison, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates the global carbon emission in 2011 was nearly 10 billion metric tons – a tiny amount in comparison. The deep carbon reservoir discovered by Dr. Hier-Majumder will eventually make its way to the surface through volcanic eruptions, and contribute to climate change albeit very slowly.

“We might not think of the deep structure of the Earth as linked to climate change above us, but this discovery not only has implications for subterranean mapping but also for our future atmosphere,” concluded Dr Hier-Majumder,"For example, releasing only 1% of this CO2 into the atmosphere will be the equivalent of burning 2.3 trillion barrels of oil. The existence of such deep reservoirs show how important is the role of deep Earth in the global carbon cycle.”

We know so little but act so certain. It’s a human trait. Maybe there is a catastrophe ahead. Maybe the earth operates different than we currently know. Scientists did not know there is 10,000 times 2011 total emissions down in the mantle until now. We did not even know that much existed. One thing I know as a humble man is that I am likely wrong a lot and I doubt a professional writer living on the US west coast has all the answers. Remember Hawking has refuted his own black hole theory.

At 8:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

US'/Canadian Tar$and$' swinging higher Isn't HELLPING !


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