World Bank Wants off the Highway to Hell: Part Two

‘Given that it remains uncertain whether adaptation and further progress toward development goals will be possible at this level of climate change, the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur’ World Bank report

WHO: The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, commissioned by the World Bank

WHAT: A report looking at the impacts of 4oC of global warming and the risk to human systems

WHEN: November 2012

WHERE: The World Bank’s website

TITLE: Turn down the heat: Why a 4oC warmer world must be avoided

This is part two; part one is here.

What does a 4oC world look like?

It looks like a place where climate change has undermined economic growth through natural disaster after natural disaster which eventually overwhelms emergency response capabilities.

It looks like a world where all of the gains towards to the Millennium Development Goals of eradicating poverty and hunger have been wiped out by the negative impacts of climate change, and extreme heat stress has caused a 60% or more reduction in crop yield.

It looks like a world where even wealthy industrialised countries are no longer able to adapt to or meet development goals because of climate change and where entire coastal cities have been abandoned because the cost of fortifying them against rising sea levels was too great.

New York City in a 4oC world?
(Photo from New York Times Sunday Review Nov. 25th 2012 via ClimateProgress)

How could this happen? How could the change from 2oC to 4oC be the difference between continuing economic growth in a green economy and abandoned flooded cities?

Non-linear and cascading impacts.

Cast your minds back with me to high school math where you learned about exponential graphs. The ones that were y=x2 and you had to solve for x in your exams and it hurt your brain? This is non-linear and what is likely to happen with the planet. Take the oceans for example. While we still have sea ice in the Arctic, the warming from the oceans sucking up almost half of our carbon emissions every year is still relatively slow. However, once the ice melts and it’s all open water for the first time, that’s when warming gets going and it will likely ramp up like an exponential graph.

In fact, if you really feel like nerding it up, you can simulate sea ice at home and watch the tipping point happen. Put ice and water into a pot and once it’s cold (1-2oC) turn the heat on high and take the temperature every 30 seconds until the ice is all gone and the water is getting hotter (15-20oC or longer if you want). Graph the results and find your tipping point. Science!

Simulating Arctic ice melt: science! (photo: ©Adam Hart-Davis)

The final chapter in the World Bank report looks at the potential implications for a 4oC world in terms of risk management. If it’s going to cost a certain number of trillion dollars to prepare for 2oC, should we just double the amount and prepare for 4oC? They think that may not be enough since ‘lurking in the tails of the probability distributions are likely to be many unpleasant surprises’.

The report points out that since cascading effects are very difficult to predict, that most of the predictions I covered in part one are based on linear models and likely to be conservative estimates of what will happen with 4oC warming. They are also sector based and don’t take into account what happens when impacts team up and work together.

Going back to the oceans again, what will the cumulative impacts be of all the effects that have been studied separately? What happens when coral reefs collapse, marine production reduces from rising temperatures and acidification, low-lying coastal areas are inundated from sea level rise, and human economic and social impacts are all lumped together at the same time?

The report states that there is a high level of concern that all of those effects all happening together at once hasn’t really been studied or quantified beyond ‘horrifying’.

From what we know now from all of the leading research, this is a list of potential tipping points from the report:

This may be the coral reef tipping point which will create larger storm surges for coastal areas that were previously protected. It also means an economically significant loss of tourism dollars for places like the Great Barrier Reef.
This could also be the tipping point for the Greenland Ice Sheet which has been melting faster than expected (was previously predicted for 4.6oC). There is approximately 6-7m of sea level rise in this ice sheet, so New York City may need to move inland.

This could be the tipping point for the Amazon Rainforest, where large parts of the rainforest die off from lack of water and release more carbon into the atmosphere, further fuelling climate change in a positive feedback loop that it will be almost impossible to recover from.
This could also be the point for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet which has 3m of additional sea level rise stored in it. New York City will need to keep moving.

This is the probable tipping point for world agriculture as crops start dying from heat stress. The IPCC assessment predicts that crop yields will decrease between 63-82%. Keep in mind that this goes hand in hand with a population increase to 9 billion people.
This is also the point at which the accumulated stresses from 2oC and 3oC overwhelms emergency and health services and all of the gains made to alleviate poverty are also overwhelmed by the negative consequences from climate change.

Once the World Bank has laid out for us exactly how horrible it could possibly get in a way we can’t easily predict, plan for, adapt to safely or afford, this is the very simple conclusion they have that we should all be able to agree with:

‘Given that it remains uncertain whether adaptation and further progress toward development goals will be possible at this level of climate change, the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.’

Getting off the Highway to Hell

Climate change is kicking in faster that expected, and the global threshold of 2oC is now considered the line between dangerous and extremely dangerous climate change. What will it take to avoid this highway to hell?

WHO: Kevin Anderson, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, University of Manchester, UK  and School of Environmental Sciences and School of Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
Alice Bows, Sustainable Consumption Institute, School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester, UK

WHAT: Some carbon budgetary truths for the world – how much do we have left to burn and when do we have to stop it by?

WHEN: 13 January 2011

WHERE: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A vol. 369, no. 1934

TITLE: Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world

Have you ever seen one of those reality TV shows where a person who is hopeless with money is given some budgeting ‘real talk’ and taught to live within their means? This paper is going to do that for your carbon budgets.

Humans love to procrastinate – we’re great at it. And despite all the new semester resolutions of keeping on top of the work this time, it inevitably leads to last minute late night exam cramming. However, it looks like climate change doesn’t have this problem. Currently, the arctic ‘death spiral’ is decades ahead of melting from climate change schedule, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is already 50% bleached and dead and the drought predictions for the south west of the USA are also ahead of schedule.

This means that the globally declared point that we shall not pass for global warming of 2oC has now been upgraded from the line between acceptable and dangerous climate change to the border between dangerous and extremely dangerous climate change. Congratulations on the promotion 2oC?

So now that procrastinating past 2oC is looking like a dangerous decision, what do we need to do about it?

These researchers looked at the Copenhagen Accord from the 2009 UNFCCC negotiations (remember the non-binding one?) and it states that we must act to prevent going above 2oC of global warming on the basis of science and equity. Since it’s the cumulative emissions that are really going to bite us, the researchers decided to work from the end point of preventing 2oC in different scenarios and then worked the carbon budgets backwards to see if we have a chance of meeting the 2oC goal and how we could do it.

The UN separates the UNFCCC agreement into two groups: Annex 1 countries (which is the developed world) and non-Annex 1 countries (the developing world). Keeping with the ideal of equity, the scenarios in this paper allow for emissions to grow in the developing world longer than they can grow in the first world. However, the paper did point out that if developing nations grow into developed fossil fuel economies, their emissions will outstrip world emissions from the industrial revolution to the 1950s, so mitigation in the developing world is going to be increasingly important really fast.

The paper does three scenarios and then tweaks each one. The first scenario only counts CO2 emissions which allows it to be more accurate, but doesn’t include other greenhouse gases. The second scenario includes all six main greenhouse gases which makes it less accurate (more variables) but also more realistic. The third scenario looks at what is currently considered ‘politically possible’ in terms of emissions reductions. It gets long, so I’ll provide a handy summary table too!

Interestingly, the Bill McKibben budget of 565 Gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon (2055 Gt of CO2) from his Rolling Stone article is not considered here, because the chance of blowing past the 2oC limit is too high.

Here’s how they worked out:

CO2 only with a small budget
If we have a carbon budget of 1321 Gt CO2 and emissions from the developing world grow at less than 3% per year until 2015, and reduces by 6% per year after 2020, and the first world reduces their emissions from now by 11% per year, we have a 36% of still causing extremely dangerous climate change.

If we do the above but the developing world’s emissions grow until 2025, they’ve spent the whole carbon budget at once and we blow past 2oC. But if the developing world’s emissions grow at less than 1% until 2025 and they reduce their emissions by 7-8% per year while the first world reduces by 11% per year from now, then there’s a 37% chance of causing extremely dangerous climate change. The researchers described this one as ‘plausible but highly unlikely’.

CO2 with a small budget scenarios with a 36% chance (a), blowing the budget (b) and a 37% chance (c). Blue line is first world emissions, red line is developing world emissions, dotted line is global emissions including deforestation (from paper)

CO2 only with a bigger budget
So what happens if we’re a bit more realistic and increase the burnable budget a bit? If we have a carbon budget of 1578 Gt CO2 and emissions from the developing world grow by 4% per year until 2015, first world emissions don’t grow and global emissions reduce by 5-6% per year from 2015, we have a 50% chance of causing extremely dangerous climate change.

If there is a 5 year delay and emissions in the developing world grow by 4% per year until 2020, and then reduce by 7-8% per year after that while the first world reduces by 7-8% per year from 2010 (yes, from two years ago), then the 5 year delay bumps us up to a 52% chance of causing extremely dangerous climate change, even with the faster reductions. Given we needed to start two years ago, that one’s out too.

If the developing world misses the 7-8% per year reduction targets above and only reduce emissions by 4-5% per year, they spend all the carbon budget and we either blow past 2oC or first world emissions fall immediately to zero in 2015. Also not workable then.

CO2 with a bigger budget with a 50% chance (a), with a 52% chance (b) and blowing the budget (c) (from paper)

Counting all the gases with a small budget
If we include all the other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide (which means we start talking CO2 equivalent because otherwise it’s really unwieldy to count), we can also count emissions for food production for the 9 billion people we’re going to have on the planet by 2050, which will be around 6 Gt Co2e per year (animals fart methane and crops need nitrogen among other things) and further reduces the carbon budget.

If the budget is 1376 Gt CO2e and the developing world’s emissions grow at less than 3% per year until 2015, emissions in the first world need to drop to zero in 2015. So that budget is bust too.

All GHGs with a small budget which goes bust

Counting all the gases with a bigger budget
If the budget is 2202 Gt CO2e and the developing world increases emissions by less than 3% per year until 2015 and then decreases by 6% per year and the first world reduces emissions by 3% per year until 2020 and then 6% per year after that, we have a 39% chance of causing extremely dangerous climate change.

If the developing world grows at 3% per year until 2020 and then reduces emissions by 6% per year, the first world needs to reduce emissions by 10% per year from 2010. So that budget is also bust.

If the developing world only grows at 1% per year until 2025 and reduces by 4-5% per year, the first world’s emissions need to be flat to 2014 and reduce by 6% per year after that. If we could do that we would have a 38% chance of causing extremely dangerous climate change.

All GHGs with a bigger budget 39% chance left, busting budget middle, 38% chance right (from paper)

But here’s the problem; currently what is considered politically and economically possible for reducing carbon emissions is reductions of 3% per year. Which blows all of these budgets.

If we only counted the CO2,had a budget of 2741 GtCO2 (which is higher than any of the budgets above) and reduced our emissions by 3% per year from 2015 in the first world and 2030 in the developing world, we have an 88% chance of causing extremely dangerous climate change.

The politically feasible options counting CO2 left and all GHGs right, both with 88% chances of blowing 2oC (from paper)

If we counted all the gases and had a larger budget of 3662 Gt CO2e with reductions of 3% per year as above, we get the same result. This means that business as usual is actually business on the way to 4oC of global warming, which has been described by the one of the authors of this paper Kevin Anderson as

incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable i.e.  4°C would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level’

Scenarios in table form for quick reference (click for bigger version)

Basically, what we’re currently doing is going to fail spectacularly in the near future. And since physics doesn’t negotiate we can’t get an extension on this one. If we are to make any of the carbon budgets above, society needs to be reducing carbon emissions at a much higher rate than we currently are.

I’d like to finish with the conclusion from the paper, because I think their version of climate tough love is excellent:

This paper is not intended as a message of futility, but rather a bare and perhaps brutal assessment of where our ‘rose-tinted’ and well intentioned (though ultimately ineffective) approach to climate change has brought us. Real hope and opportunity, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a raw and dispassionate assessment of the scale of the challenge faced by the global community. This paper is intended as a small contribution to such a vision and future of hope.

How Does Your Wind Farm Grow?

Calculating what the global saturation point for wind energy would be and if we can generate enough wind power to power half the globe.

WHO: Mark Z. Jacobson (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, CA)
Cristina L. Archer (College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, University of Delaware, Newark, DE)

WHAT: Predicting the effectiveness of scaling up wind power to provide half the world’s power requirements by 2030.

WHEN:  September 25 2012 PNAS, Vol 109, No. 39

WHERE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

TITLE: Saturation wind power potential and its implications for wind energy

I learnt about a new law today; Betz’s Law. Betz was a guy who decided to calculate exactly how much energy could be extracted from the wind by a turbine at any given time mathematically (as you do). He worked out that no turbine can take any more than 59.3% of the energy from the wind. To be able to conceptualise this, you have to think about wind like a physicist. The first law of thermodynamics states that you can’t create or destroy energy; you can only convert it to different forms. Therefore, all wind is just energy in a certain form, and in any system there is a point where the transformation is most efficient and beyond there it takes a lot of effort to get any more energy from the system.

There’s a really cool project being done in the US, where a website has taken data from the National Digital Forecast Database and created a visual representation of what wind would look like if you could see it move. It’s strikingly beautiful, and looks a lot like a Van Gogh painting.

Wind Map by Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg of

The question this paper looks at is: since there is a limit to the amount of energy you can take from a turbine, what is the maximum wind power that can be extracted from a geographical area? They called it the ‘Saturation Wind Power Potential’.

They came up with some interesting findings, as well as probably having a lot of fun along the way because they used 3D Models to do it (I’m telling you, my chemistry molecular model kit was much more like playing with Lego than actual ‘science’). They got into the detail and calculated the potential wind power at 10m off the ground, 100m off the ground (the standard height of a wind turbine) and 10km off the ground in the jet stream.

They then looked at whether it would be possible to scale up wind power globally to meet 50% of the world’s power needs by 2030. Actually measuring the wind power potential for more than 1 Terrawatt (TW) of energy is not possible as there isn’t enough wind power installed yet. But they did mathematically work out that we would need 4million 5 Megawatt (MW) turbines to supply half of the world’s electricity needs in 2030 (5.75TW).

They did four simulations with different turbine densities, because how close together wind turbines are affects their ability to produce power. Put them too close together and they start stealing their neighbour’s wind power. Overall, up to 715TW, the increased number of turbines increases the amount of power in a linear straight line. Once you get above that it slows down and flattens out – once again you need to put much more effort in to get power out.

Predicted wind power saturation potential (from paper)
Grey line – global wind power potential, black line – wind power potential on land only

The saturation point, where no matter how many more turbines you add, they’ll just be stealing energy from each other and not adding anything to the total, was 2,870TW of power globally. Interestingly, they found the wind power available in the jet stream (10km above the ground) was 150% greater than the wind power available 100m above the ground.

There were also some big changes to the results depending on the density. If we placed 4million 5MW turbines and packed them in at 11.3 Watts per m2 (W/m2), they would be too close together and the collected power wouldn’t match the target for half the world’s power by 2030. If you spread them out to 5.6W/m2 the output is still too low. However, once you’ve got them spaced at 2.9W/m2, they produce enough power to meet the required demand.

4million turbines meet demand when they’re 2.9W/m2 apart or further (from paper)

So it turns out wind turbines don’t like it when you cramp their style. But, you can pack them in a bit tighter, only if you then have enough space between your wind farm and your neighbour’s wind farm. It’s a bit like playing wind farm Tetris.

What does this mean though? It means that we can ramp up world wind power production to levels that will meet half our power needs in 2030, which can be integrated with hydro, solar and other renewables with smart grids to power our cities and lifestyles without burning fossil fuels. But it also means we need to think about where we are putting wind farms and how much space they need to be as efficient as possible. We need that renewable energy, so we can’t cramp the wind turbines’ style!

Busting our Carbon Budget: Siberian Permafrost

Siberian permafrost is releasing ancient carbon much faster than previously thought

WHO: J. E. Vonk, L. Sánchez-García, B. E. van Dongen, V. Alling, A. Andersson, Ö. Gustafsson (Department of Applied Environmental Science (ITM) and the Bert Bolin Centre for Climate Research, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden)
D. Kosmach, A. Charkin, O. V. Dudarev (Pacific Oceanological Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladivostok, Russia)
I. P. Semiletov, N. Shakhova (Pacific Oceanological Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladivostok, Russia and International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska)
P. Roos (Risø National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy, Roskilde, Denmark)
T. I. Eglinton (Geological Institute, ETH-Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland)

WHAT: Measuring and calculating the carbon released from thawing and eroding permafrost in far northern Russia

WHEN: 6 September 2012

WHERE: Nature, Vol 489, 137-140

TITLE: Activation of old carbon by erosion of coastal and subsea permafrost in Arctic Siberia (subs req.)

Those of you who read the recent Bill McKibben article in Rolling Stone magazine about the planet’s atmospheric carbon budget will know ~565 Gigatonnes is the amount of carbon pollution that humans can still burn and hope to avoid catastrophic climate change. Beyond that, we’re playing Russian roulette with extra bullets loaded.

Why am I talking about Rolling Stone when this paper is talking about Siberia? Well, the researchers for this paper went to far northern Russia to work out how much coastal Siberian permafrost is being eroded away, releasing the carbon into the atmosphere and spending our ever shrinking carbon budget.

Muostakh Island (point A, Google maps)

The Arctic permafrost in Siberia holds ~1,000 Gigatonnes of carbon frozen on land, ~400 Gigatonnes of coastal carbon and ~1,400 Gigatonnes of sub-sea carbon. So if this permafrost starts thawing and releasing carbon at a great rate, we humans have totally bust our carbon budget and the future is looking pretty horrifying; much like the greenhouse extinction from last week’s post.

So is it thawing out? And how fast?

The Island of Muostakh in the north of Russia has been eroding at a rate of up to 20m per year, and this is where the researchers went to try and measure the amount of carbon that is being released into the atmosphere.

Eroding cliffs on Muostakh Island (from paper)

They used a dual carbon-isotope mixing model solved with a Monte Carlo simulation strategy, which is sadly not a really tasty sounding desert, but a way of working out which carbon isotopes are from plankton, topsoil or old carbon which is the stuff they’re interested in (they used 13C and 14C isotopes for those playing at home).

Through the isotope analysis they found a coastal permafrost carbon release of 22 Megatonnes (.022 Gigatonnes) of carbon per year from erosion. Additionally they estimate that 66% of the old carbon that is washed into the ocean degrades downstream and is released into the atmosphere instead of sinking to the sea floor. Previous research had thought that carbon from coastal erosion washed into the ocean without releasing into the atmosphere.

Once you combine the carbon eroded with the 66% downstream degradation, the total atmospheric release is 44 Megatonnes (.044 Gigatonnes) of carbon per year which is much larger than the previously estimated 4 Megatonnes of carbon per year. This large difference may be because of methods used in previous research, unaccounted for changes in coastal elevation (the higher the cliff, the harder for the waves to reach it) or not counting the sub-sea degradation.

Either way, the idea that we may be under-counting the amount of carbon released from thawing and eroding Siberian permafrost has some serious implications for all of us. We are currently polluting the atmosphere with carbon at a rate of 31.6 Gigatonnes per year and rising. As we continue to burn carbon, the permafrost in Siberia will thaw and erode faster, increasing from the current rate of .044 Gigatonnes per year.

We are quickly running out of time and atmospheric space to stop runaway climate change. If even half the sub-sea permafrost is released as atmospheric carbon, we’ve surpassed 565 Gigatonnes. Hopefully the increased and continued thawing of the Siberian permafrost isn’t the bit that busts our carbon budget.

Climate Change Book Review: Under a Green Sky

Ever seen a greenhouse extinction? It looks like this.

WHO: Peter D. Ward (Earth and Space Sciences, College of the Environment, University of Washington, WA)

WHAT: Under a Green Sky: Global Warming the Mass Extinctions of the Past and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future

WHERE: Your local bookstore, your local library, etc.

WHEN: Published 2007

I’m taking a moment away from research papers to talk about a book I just finished reading (yes, I read climate change non-fiction as well as climate change research papers – I am that nerdy). Now, when someone says Palaeontologist, not only do I struggle to type it, I also don’t immediately think ‘great writing style’ – no offence to all the budding Palaeontologist/authors out there!

So the fact that Peter Ward has a really evocative style of writing that was able to transport me to the various digs and periods of ancient history that he studies, was one of the reasons I wanted to write about this book. Additionally, he paints a vivid picture of what our future could be like with catastrophic climate change.

I know that most communications people will tell me that we can’t be too doom and gloom, that we have to keep the really ugly truth of what we’re doing to our atmosphere and planet under wraps because people will be frozen with fear and overwhelmed by the problem. Some days I agree with them, but on other days I think it’s really important to look down the long term road to remind ourselves why it’s so important to act on climate change now.

Dr. Ward is an expert in mass extinctions. He has spent much of his career looking at Ammonite fossils to see where in the fossil record mass extinctions occurred and why. Through his studies, he’s discovered that many mass extinctions were greenhouse extinctions.

So what does greenhouse extinction look like? It looks like this:

Buse Lake, Barnhartvale, BC (photo: Norm Dougan)

See the water? It’s purple. It’s purple because there is no longer any oxygen in the water in this lake near Kamloops BC. The bacteria in this lake ‘eat’ hydrogen sulphide, which smells like rotten eggs and allows the bacteria to take over when there is no oxygen in the water. No animals can live in this water – we need oxygen to survive.

So what does a lake in BC have to do with climate change? Climate change caused by human pollution is creating a warmer world and a warmer world means a world with less oxygenated water. I think Dr. Ward put it best in this description of what the earth would have looked like at the end of the Triassic period (p. 138, metric conversions mine):

‘No wind in the 120-degree [48.8c] morning heat, and no trees for shade. There is some vegetation, but it is low, stunted, parched. Of other life, there seems little. A scorpion, a spider, winged flies, and among the roots of the desert vegetation we see the burrows of some sort of small animals – the first mammals, perhaps. The largest creatures anywhere in the landscape are slim, bipedal dinosaurs, of a man’s height at most, but they are almost vanishingly rare, and scrawny, obviously starving. The land is a desert in its heat and aridity, but a duneless desert, for there is no wind to build the iconic structure of our Sarahas and Kalaharis. The land is hot barrenness.

Yet as sepulchral as the land is, it is the sea itself that is most frightening. Waves slowly lap on the quiet shore, slow-motion waves with the consistency of gelatine. Most of the shoreline is encrusted with rotting organic matter, silk-like swaths of bacterial slick now putrefying under the blazing sun, while in the nearby shallows mounds of similar mats can be seen growing up toward the sea’s surface; they are stromatolites. When animals finally appeared, the stromatolites largely disappeared, eaten out of existence by the new, multiplying, and mobile herbivores. But now these bacterial mats are back, outgrowing the few animal mouths that might still graze on them.

Finally we look out on the surface of the great sea itself, and as far as the eye can see there is a mirrored flatness, an ocean without whitecaps. Yet that is not the biggest surprise. From shore to the horizon, there is but an unending purple colour – a vast, flat, oily purple, not looking at all like water, not looking anything of our world. No fish break its surface, no birds or any other kind of flying creatures dip down looking for food. The purple colour comes from vast concentrations of floating bacteria, for the oceans of Earth have all become covered with a hundred-foot-thick [30m] veneer of purple and green bacterial soup.

At last there is motion on the sea, yet it is not life, but anti-life. Not far from the fetid shore, a large bubble of gas belches from the viscous, oil slick-like surface, and then several more of varying sizes bubble up and noisily pop. The gas emanating from the bubbles is not air, or even methane, the gas that bubbles up from the bottom of swamps – it is hydrogen sulphide, produced by green sulphur bacteria growing amid their purple cousins. There is one final surprise. We look upward, to the sky. High, vastly high overhead there are thin clouds, clouds existing at an altitude far in excess of the highest clouds found on our Earth. They exist in a place that changes the very colour of the sky itself: We are under a pale green sky, and it has the smell of death and poison. We have gone to the Nevada of 200 million years ago only to arrive under the transparent atmospheric glass of a greenhouse extinction event, and it is poison, heat, and mass extinction that are found in this greenhouse.’

Are you terrified now? Because this is what our future with runaway climate change could look like. The past that he describes could be the future we are unwittingly creating. The planet will be fine – the planet has gone through this before. But the humans might not be.

It’s Getting Hot in Here: A Brief History of Antarctic Warming

The melting and re-freezing of Antarctic ice sheets has always happened on a millennium time-scale. This time, we’re doing it in decades…

WHO: Robert Mulvaney, Richard C. A. Hindmarsh, Louise Fleet, Jack Triest, Louise C. Sime, Susan Foord (British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environment Research Council, Cambridge, UK)
Nerilie J. Abram (British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environment Research Council, Cambridge, UK and Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia)
Carol Arrowsmith (NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, Keyworth, UK)
Olivier Alemany (Laboratoire de Glaciologie et Geophysique de l’Environnement (LGGE), Grenoble, France)

WHAT: Taking a giant (363.9m) ice core sample in Antarctica to look at climate history

WHEN: 6 September 2012

WHERE: Nature 489, September 2012

TITLE: Recent Antarctic Peninsula warming relative to Holocene climate and ice-shelf history (subs. required)

There’s been a lot of press recently about the Arctic Death Spiral which is of great concern to the stability of our climate, and means the poor southern cousin of the Arctic – the Antarctic doesn’t get much of a look in. No Santa, not as much media, what’s even happening with those penguins down south?

Penguin! (KK Condon, flickr)

Well, it’s melting too, which is unsurprising given that the whole planet is heating up, but this group of British, Australian and French researchers have put together a short (~50,000 years) history of ice melt and temperature changes from their ice core. (How did the researchers know I did history AND science?!)

They drilled an ice core on James Ross Island that is 363.9m long (which gives a bit of perspective as to how much ice is in the Antarctic if it’s 363.9m deep!) and looked at the ratio of isotopes to work out what the climate and temperature was like. Isotopes are elements that are the same but have a different weight because of an extra neutron (the bits in an atom that have a neutral charge). Different isotopes occur naturally at different amounts – for instance, Carbon with a weight of 12 is the most common on earth and Carbon 13 (one neutron heavier) is found 1% of the time. This research looked at Hydrogen vs Deuterium isotopes.

James Ross Island, Antarctica (from paper)

Different isotope ratios can tell us what was and is going on in the atmosphere and 363.9m of ice core can tell us approx. 50,000 worth of history (the paper uses BP = before present. For some strange reason ‘present’ time is 1950, but then I guess BC and AD are just as arbitrary).

50,000 years BP was the last glacial interval before the Holocene, the current geological period we live in (although there’s an argument that we’re now living in the Anthropocene), all of which is in the ice core. There was a glacial maximum (26,000 – 20,000 years BP) which was 6.1C colder on James Ross Island than present and an early climactic optimum (warmest part) of the Holocene which was 1.3C warmer than present. Marine sediment samples show the ocean was 3.5C warmer.

Sustained warming on James Ross Island started occurring around 600 BP (1450AD for us) with a rate of .22C of warming per century. This cranked up with rapid warming between 1518 – 1621 and 1671 – 1777 of more than 1.25C.

The warming over the past 100 years has been the fastest warming seen in 2000 years, but it’s not yet out of the range of normal warming and cooling patterns for the Antarctic. However, the most recent phase of warming started in the 1920s (so will be more influenced by industrial and human pollution than the earlier warming) and it’s going at a rate of 2.6C per century. Which is double the rate of the natural warming above.

What does faster warming mean for Antarctic ice sheets? The rapid warming means the ice becomes unstable, and the researchers say that continued warming at the pace currently being observed could lead to an ice sheet collapsing. Additionally, if the warming continues, it will start melting the southern ice sheets that were stable in the earlier Holocene warm period.

So why should we, sitting at our computers a long way from the Antarctic care about melting ice sheets? Well other than the huge inconvenience that’s going to be for a whole range of cute animals like penguins whales and seals, melting ice sheets on land cause sea level to rise. The melting of the Arctic is certainly of concern for Northern Hemisphere weather patterns, but the melting of floating ice, doesn’t change sea level.

The melting of ice that is on an island does raise the sea level. And the melting of the entire Antarctic ice sheet would contribute an extra 60m to sea level. Which is horrifying, and a really good reason to care about the speed of melting in Antarctica. That kind of rise puts my hometown of Melbourne totally underwater (elevation 31m). It puts half of Vancouver underwater (elevation 0 – 152m) and all of London as well (elevation 24m).

Now, obviously the total melting of the Antarctic ice sheet is going to take a long time given how large it is. However, it’s really difficult to stop once started. And given that I keep talking about how climate change is going to be non-linear and unpredictable when feedbacks unexpectedly kick in from tipping points, I’d argue we shouldn’t be playing Russian roulette with this one and we should stop burning carbon instead.

[EDITED 21 Sept. to reflect the note from the lead author of the paper that an ice sheet is on land and an ice shelf is floating in water – AH]

Getting into gear: required rates of climate action

“The decarbonisation of global energy sources is the only available means of effective mitigation of global CO2 emissions while still allowing society to grow as it has done historically.”

WHO:  A. J. Jarvis, D. T. Leedal, C. N. Hewitt (Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University)

WHAT:  Finding a mathematical relationship between social actions for carbon emissions mitigation and global temperature change

WHEN: September 2012

WHERE: Nature Climate Change, Vol. 2, September 2012

TITLE: Climate–society feedbacks and the avoidance of dangerous climate change (subs. required)

We all get the idea that the actions of people and society as a whole (particularly in the first world) are causing climate change. Or at least we should get that by now. Humans are burning the fossil fuels which are polluting our atmosphere. It’s pretty tightly linked. But these researchers weren’t just content with sitting back and assuming everybody got that link. So they went about proving it mathematically. Yay for maths nerds!

The researchers figured that since global temperature changes are linked with increased CO2 emissions, then you should be able to work out how much effect social actions to prevent global warming have on global temperature changes. And if you can measure those effects, then it can create positive feedbacks to keep us all going in the same way getting on the scales and seeing a smaller number can keep you motivated to keep doing the hard yards in the gym.

For those that have a thing for algebra, it looks like this:

Global anthropogenic CO2 emissions, U (1015 g C yr-1) from fossil fuel and land-use change
lnU = α(t-t1); (α =0.0179±0.0006 yr-1; t1 = AD 1883±1.7)
Global primary energy use, E (1018 J yr-1)
lnE = η(t-t1); (η=0.0238±0.0008 yr-1; t1 = AD 1775±3.5)
Carbon intensity of global primary energy, c = U/E, (g C 106 J-1)
lnc = (α – η)(t-t1)

Energy use and carbon emissions increase, carbon intensity goes down as energy mix changes (from paper)

There’s a positive feedback loop that’s been happening since the Industrial Revolution where greater energy use leads to more human industrial growth, which leads to greater energy use etc and on. Averaged out, it was calculated to be ≈2.4% per year.

The good news is the mitigation rate (the rate that carbon emissions are decreasing from social actions) from changing the mix of energy use in the world and ramping up renewables has increased from ≈3% per year in 1990 to ≈15% per year in 2010 making our growing pollution a little bit less carbon intensive. And modest levels of feedback can make larger impacts in terms of mitigating climate change.

The bad news is, in the scheme of things we’re currently doing squat. We’re getting into the gym and looking at the scheduled hill-climb program and skipping it to just saunter on the treadmill and not break a sweat. In order to meet the targets notionally set in the UNFCCC Durban negotiations in 2011, we’re going to have to be 50 times more effective in how we’re reducing our carbon consumption. Yeah that’s right, I said fifty.

Even worse – while small changes have large effects to begin with, their effectiveness tapers off really quickly. Think about it – the first time you try and run 3km it feels like a marathon. After a few weeks of training, it’s your warm up. And so far, the researchers have found that the climate-society feedbacks have been too weak to change business as usual pollution growth.

So what’s the point? Were they just getting funky with their algebra to make us feel bad about doing nothing? No – there’s a useful application for the relationship between social action and climate mitigation.

Climate change is a moving target. You can never quite be sure exactly how it’s going to play out – it’s non-linear (unpredictable), and the consequences change depending on what we do about it. Which means the more we wake up to the realities of climate change and start actually getting our asses in gear, the more information we’ll need to be able to make policy and business decisions on what to do next.

If you can utilise the climate-society feedback link, then you can analyse how effective the action has been and where the next target should be as it changes – it’s climate change real time tracking in the same way I know I need to pick up the pace in the gym if my last km was slower.

Pick up the pace people- London 2012 Olympic Women’s Marathon (photo: Amy Huva 2012)

As the researchers say in the quote from the top of the blog “the decarbonisation of global energy sources is the only available means of effective mitigation of global CO2 emissions while still allowing society to grow as it has done historically.”

Our choices are – ignore it and hope the reality never hits you (which it will anyway), or get into gear and onto that treadmill. I know which one I’m choosing.