Wednesday, February 15, 2012

ARCTIC EMERGENCY Global Threat Maybe we need a big burst of methane to get real climate action. Recent Russian expeditions to the Eastern Siberian coast find plumes of methane into the atmosphere. Is it worse than our own oil and coal pollution? I ask three top climate scientists: oceanographer Carlos Duarte, ice expert Peter Wadhams, and carbon-meister David Archer.


Are you feeling lucky, Pilgrim? There is a growing wave of unease, even panic. Our fossil fuel civilization may be accelerating straight off the cliff of mass extinction.

Will the rapid rise in Arctic temperatures, and the disappearance of summer sea ice, trigger a runaway climate change, and a mass extinction event?

You would think a possibility so huge would fill television news and newspapers. What are political candidates saying, or business leaders? Everyone must be talking about the chance we could be killed off within a generation or two. No, the silence is deafening.

Right now, this debate is sealed off into a strong debate among scientists, and a small group of journalists and concerned citizens. You'll have to go to blogs like or climateprogress to find the discussion. Or listen to Radio Ecoshock.

What is the problem? New science shows seven of thirteen major feed-back mechanisms - the forces that create climate tipping points, are found in the Arctic. We'll talk to the lead author of that paper, award-winning scientist Carlos Duarte.

One of those frightening developments is the discovery by a joint Russian American research expedition that large plumes of methane are escaping into the atmosphere from the Arctic sea bed along Eastern Siberia. Scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov suggest a burst of 50 Gigatonnes of methane could result from an "abrupt release at any time". This would multiply current methane levels by about 12 times with "consequent catastrophic greenhouse warming".

See this article from The Independent.

As a result, a combination of scientists, journalists and other concerned people has formed the Arctic Methane Emergency Group. They call for an immediate war-scale geoengineering effort to save the last of the Arctic summer sea ice cover, so save our climate. In this program, I interview one of the world's top ice experts, Dr. Peter Wadhams of Cambridge. He warns the Arctic Sea could become virtually ice-free in September as early as 2015, just three years from now.

We may already be seeing the destabilizing results of this loss of the Arctic climate regulator in the mild almost snowless winter in North America, while Arctic cold pushed deep into Europe and even North Africa in the late winter of 2012. If you are wondering what the heck is happening with that wild weather in Eastern Europe, keep reading, and listen to the broadcast. More below and in this news article, again from the UK's Independent.

Dr. David Archer thinks the warnings of catastrophe from Arctic melting methane are either over-blown, or miss the real and known threat. You know, the threat you and I create every day, as we participate in ever-increasing emissions of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels. Don't miss our new interview with David Archer, a famous climate expert - and his dark dare about a methane burst.

I'm Alex Smith. The risk is huge. The outcome could determine the lives of my children and grandchildren. I've lost sleep already, and I fail to cover important angles in this program.

This story is so big, it will take many programs, over many months or years, to cover it. As long as I am able, I will keep trying. I hope you will too.

We'll start out with an overview of the Arctic tipping points, with Dr. Carlos Duarte.


In 2012, the winter weather in America was unusually mild. Winter festivals and outdoor skating were cancelled, while New Yorkers played tennis in the park. At the same time, after a warmer than usual winter, Eastern Europe suddenly plunged into cold that killed dozens of people. Something seems different.

Our guest, Professor Carlos Duarte, may shed some light on this. His new paper, published in the journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, warns about developing tipping points in the Arctic.

Professor Duarte is Director of the Oceans Institute at The University of Western Australia, and he is a Research Professor with the Spanish National Research Council. Last year he won the prestigious Prix d'Excellence awarded by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. And he's deeply worried.

I began by asking: how does a Professor in Australia, and the Mediterranean, come to study the Arctic?

Duarte considers himself a global scientist, studying global systems. And that fits with being an oceanographer - the seas are really one big connected water system. Carlos has just returned last year from an around-the world research voyage. He's led 7 expeditions to Antarctica, and finished 9 expeditions to the Arctic.

He and a team of other scientists have just published two papers. "Tipping Points in the Marine Arctic Ecosystem" was published in the journal AMBIO. "Abrupt Climate Change in the Arctic" is in Nature Climate Change.

Duarte considers a tipping point, or "tipping elements in the Earth's system" to be a mechanism that not only changes the climate, but continues to change it through a positive feedback mechanism. In a most alarming development, these scientists determined that 7 out of 13 possible tipping points (known so far) are in the Arctic, and most of them are operating already. That is why, although most of us live in cities far south and distant, we must pay very close attention to what Arctic scientists say is happening there.

What tipping points? In our interview Carlos Duarte talks about these:

(1) the Arctic has warmed 3 times faster than the rest of the planet, rising 3 degrees on average since 1980.

(2) warmer Atlantic currents are penetrating deeper into the Arctic. I do not know if that is because of sea ice retreat, changes in salinity, or changes in wind patterns.

(3) the albedo (reflective power of white ice) has changed drastically in the summer and early fall, due to record sea ice loss. That means more of the Sun's energy is entering and warming the ocean. It doesn't matter that the sea ice refreezes in the winter, since there is really no Sun shining in the Arctic at that time.

(4) fresh water discharge into the Arctic Ocean is up by 30%. That comes not just from melted sea ice, but from more glacier melt in places like Greenland. This freshwater has a huge impact on the ocean, and could change major currents that determine the climate of Europe (although that has not happened yet, we think).

(5) the melting of the Greenland ice cap is itself another major tipping point. Eventually, that will change sea levels all over the world.

(6) methane hydrates are beginning to release methane gas from shallow sea beds in the Arctic, not just in Eastern Siberia but also off the coast of Norway. More methane means more heating means more methane releases. You see how that works.

(7) the die back of the boreal forest means less carbon is absorbed into that sink, and more carbon released.

(8) peat, that matted compressed vegetation frozen over long ages, is drying out, and burning, along with the Boreal forests, to release more carbon, to cause more heating, to cause more fires...

Professor Duarte brings up the case of the 2010 fires in Russia as an example. That involved both the burning of forests, and peat, in a record heat wave that released a lot more carbon.

I asked his opinion about worries methane hydrates will release a kind of greenhouse bomb in the coming years. His team evaluated the various risks of sudden climate change, and concluded a chronic release of methane is more likely than a sudden burst. We'll hear more about that later in our interview with Dr. David Archer.

We also talked about the impact of these rapid changes on the people who live in the Arctic, the Inuit. Their winter transport routes over the ice are no longer safe. They have to go further to hunt. Some buildings and infrastructure are tipping over or sinking as the permafrost melts. And their cultural knowledge is damaged or lost.

When I asked about plant changes, Duarte the oceanographer told me about the incursion of algae and sea grasses into the Arctic where they were never found before. This will impact large ecosystems. Increased algae growth, Duarte says, could change that part of the ocean from a heat sink into a heat source.

We agreed there is an urgent need for more monitoring of changes in the Arctic.

Note that Canada took back it's only Arctic science research ship and leased it out to the oil companies for more exploration! Don't expect Canada to help, or even care about these major changes, partly driven by Canadian Tar Sands expansion.

As a web source to follow up, Carlos Duarte recommended the charts and real-time data from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.


This is Radio Ecoshock. We are kicking off a serious look into the biggest problems humanity has ever faced. Will we lose the climate we depend on? If so, how much time remains to save ourselves? The big developments may not be happening in cities with news media, but in the hostile far reaches of the Arctic tundra, and the Polar Sea.

In 2007, the summer sea ice melted back so far, scientists were shocked and worried as never before. Next we talk with a life-long expert on sea ice, Dr. Peter Wadhams of Cambridge.


The Independent newspaper in Britain is one of several suggesting the cold and snow that crippled parts of Eastern Europe could result from the loss of sea ice.

And what a winter storm it was! Fifteen feet of snow in Romania. Hundreds dead in the Ukraine and across Eastern Europe. Snow even on the Black Sea, in Turkey, in Southern Italy and North Africa. All at the same time North American news media reported on a mild almost snowless winter - “the winter that never was".

Our radio guest is one of the leading scientists in the Arctic, and especially in Arctic Ice research. In the UK, Peter Wadhams is Professor of Ocean Physics, and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge. He is President, IAPSO the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Ocean, Commission on Sea Ice, and a member of too many Arctic study projects to mention.

While cautioning that a single weather event can never conclusively be attributed to climate change, Professor Wadhams said colder winters in Europe had been predicted by
climatologists, as the summer sea ice retreats. For example, this year there is less sea ice coverage in the Barents sea, just north of Europe, than normal. The open water releases the relatively warmer air. That rises, creating a high pressure zone. The Arctic High can drive Arctic winds further south, taking cold, and all the extra precipitation from a warming atmosphere, with it. If cold enough, the extreme precipitation event arrives as snow. Lots of it.

The Potsdam Institute in Germany was just one of several institutions who predicted colder winters for Europe as the world warmed in general. And there are others. As the Independent newspaper says: "Studies by scientists at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research have confirmed a link between the loss of Arctic sea ice and the development of high-pressure zones in the polar region, which influence wind patterns at lower latitudes further south."

There have been some thought-provoking articles on this, like this article from Joe Romm's authoritative blog "Climate Progress" (now at

It is counter-intuitive, but the mechanics of how that works are well known. But we still have a lot of research to do, and perhaps still more surprises to come, as one of the Earth's climate regulators - the Arctic ice system - is broken down by global warming.

In any event, Wadhams says, we can expect more extreme events as the world's climate is destabilized by our greenhouse gas emissions.

The other surprise is: the ice isn't just melting back horizontally in summer. It is retreating VERTICALLY as well. Tests by submarines and satellites, going back decades, show the Arctic ice simply isn't as thick as it used to be. Few of us see that in charts, but scientists do.

Wadhams tells us Arctic ice is only half as thick as it was 30 years ago!

When we combine this general thinning with the retreat in area - Wadhams predicts the Arctic will become more or less ice free by 2015 - just three years from now. That is stunning and dangerous news! Keep in mind, this comes from one of the most experienced Arctic ice scientists in the world, head of the Polar research unit at Cambridge University. Hardly a prediction from a fringe figure.

I can't emphasize this enough: one of the regulators of the world's climate, the Arctic summer sea ice, may be gone in 3 years. We don't know what the full impact will be.

Wadhams thinks that due to the thinning of ice, year-round, it is unlikely we can recover or rebuilt the Arctic ice without serious geoengineering.

He's hesitant to say that. Wadhams points out our industrial adventures and interventions into Nature are what caused this problem in the first place. Still with the sea ice - AND signs of methane coming from the sea bed - we may now have no other choice than to try and cool the planet, while we find an alternative way to run our civilization.

The shallow sea beds, which are found not just in Eastern Siberia, but also off Norway's Arctic coast, and in both Canada and Alaska - have warmed up by as much as 5 degrees at the bottom. That is enough to melt the permafrost cap, that was keeping down methane ice structures below. While we need more research to know the extent, the Russian American expedition appears to show large methane plumes are already rising out of the sea and into the atmosphere.

If a lot comes out at once, Wadhams says, the Earth would experience a rather sudden temperature rise, with all sorts of weather instability, no doubt.

Wadhams tells us:

"The situation is so bad, and so little is being done... I mean the obvious way to counter global warming is to release less carbon dioxide and reduce our fossil fuel usage, but nobody in practice is prepared to that. We won't do it until we are forced to by the oil running out.

So, if we're not going to take the steps that we need to take to save ourselves, by reducing our carbon dioxide production - then one has to consider maybe a techno-fix might be the thing to try.

These ideas about geoengineering to try to reduce the radiative forcing that is warming us, by things like changing the colors of clouds by brightening them up, - they sound a bit science-fiction like, but it could be that those are the things we'll have to try in order to stop global warming from getting out of hand."

Wadhams also warns policy makers should not be depending upon the advice or reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC. Their latest report is from 2007, using data from 2006 or earlier. We have learned so much, and seen so much change since then, that the IPCC report is too far out of date. And due to the system of consolidating older published reports, the IPCC will always be behind both the cutting edge of science and current events. With so much at stake, government will have to go for the
latest science to make decisions.

Wadhams gives the example of what he calls "the methane catastrophe" as an example of new developments that government simply aren't reacting to.

I agree. The public hardly knows about this developing threat.


Dr. Peter Wadhams adds to the calls for immediate action to save the remains of Arctic Ice. He supports a demand for immediate action raised by the Arctic Methane Emergency Group.

I spoke with that group's founder John Nissen, a Cambridge educated scientist who chose a career in computer software instead. Now retired, Nissen tried to alert authorities, like America's John Holdren, to new warnings coming from Arctic specialists, like the Russian team of Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov. They found large plumes of methane gas, the same powerful greenhouse gas which some scientists believe caused past mass extinction events.

Nissen, and his Emergency Group members are concerned a sudden burst of methane, up to 50 gigatonnes, could trigger a runaway greenhouse event, something humans could not stop, and perhaps could not survive. I will not have time in this program to do justice to this argument. Find links to a key article by film-maker Gary Houser, a member of the group, below.

We'll also have more on the Arctic methane threat in coming Radio Ecoshock programs.


But one of the most respected scientists in the field, Dr. David Archer of the University of Chicago, says it is not time to panic yet. The real threat, the real fright, Archer says, is not in far-away Siberia, but right here at home, parked in your garage, and build into everything you buy. It's the carbon stupid.

Archer is less worried about methane hydrates, also called "clathrates" causing a runaway greenhouse effect.

"I don't see the potential for a runaway greenhouse effect involving methane.

But I do see the possibility that methane in ocean hydrates and carbon that's frozen into permafrost soils, could eventually release carbon to the atmosphere that would add to the cumulative effect from all the CO2 that we've been releasing.

So the methane wouldn't have much effect on climate in the next decades, but hundreds of years from now the carbon from methane and from permafrost soils could sort of be like 'matching funds'. We put in so much carbon from fossil fuels, and then the Earth throws in an amount that matches what we do, or something like that.

David Archer is an acknowledged expert on long-term carbon, and on methane. He is currently doing research on the amounts of methane locked up in ocean clathrates. So why isn't he as concerned as some other scientists about the discovery of methane rising out of the East Siberian sea beds?

That is a powerful question, and I refer you to David Archer's articles, like this, and this, in the respected science blog

And maybe this analysis by Joe Romm.

I'll just say that for methane to enter the ice crystal form requires some serious pressure. It happens in deep oceans, which can't have warmed too much, or deep in the sea bed (hundreds of meters down) - and probably that hasn't melted much yet either.

In fact, Archer says, we don’t' know enough about this yet to be sure that the methane found off the Siberian coast is new (as opposed to part of a thousands year long warming trend) - or that it has been triggered by human-induced climate change.

In any event, Archer, like Carlos Duarte, thinks methane will be a smaller long term problem - chronic rather than catastrophic. In the interview, we discuss the difference, and what it would take to create a catastrophic methane release.

[Archer interview]

As I said, not everyone agrees with David Archer. This is a hot debate among scientists, right now. Some journalists and citizen activist are leaping into the discussion as well. See this closely reasoned rebuttal to David Archer's article, by Gary Houser.

Houser has interviewed the Russian scientists, and many others, for an upcoming documentary film he is making. I'm hoping PBS or the BBC will pick that film up when it's completed. We'll see. Does anyone care about a threat big enough to burn out the world's crops, and kill billions of people? Maybe that isn't "popular".

Everyone agrees, the big changes in the Arctic, from sea ice melt, through melting Greenland, drying Tundra peat and fires - not to mention thawing permafrost - its one big dangerous mess in the Arctic. But so far, it's still smaller than the big dangerous mess of a civilization intent on transferring all the stored fossil sunlight back into our atmosphere, with oil, gas,
coal, deforestation, and agriculture.

Naturally you want me to give you a conclusion. But both sides have convinced me! I can panic with nothing real to worry about. Or I can not worry about my growing sense of panic. Pretty lame choices.

The Russian scientists, including Natalia Shakhova told the world press that an earthquake could release up to 50 gigatonnes of methane in a single burst, from all the bubbles accumulated under the Siberian sea bed. That could create heat waves for a decade or more, around the world, and devastation to the world's crops. Imagine the social and political consequences.

The origins of the 50 gigatonne methane calculation can be found in this scientific paper.

"Anomalies of methane in the atmosphere over the East Siberian shelf: Is there any sign of methane leakage from shallow shelf hydrates?"

[N. Shakhova (1,2), I. Semiletov (1,2), A. Salyuk (2), D. Kosmach (2)
(1) International Arctic Research Center of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA
(2) V.I. Il’ichov Pacific Oceanological Institute, Far-eastern Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladivostok, Russia]

Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 10, EGU2008-A-01526, 2008

Oh, and before I forget, David Archer is also offering a free university-style climate course online! Yep, you can sign up for "Open Climate Science 101", learn the science, and if you complete successfully, get a certificate from Archer. It's a great opportunity to educate yourself in the world's most important topic.

He's also got some helpful online video lectures, but for some reason I couldn't get them to work in my browser when I visited. Maybe you can.

As I stewed about this, David Archer came back with another bit of audio he'd recorded in his office. It's an awful bet. Here is Archer's point about worst-case scenarios and being right or wrong.


"The most catastrophic proposal that I've heard comes from Shakhova who says that there are 50 gigatonnes of methane gas as bubbles underneath the sediments on the Arctic Siberian shelf, which could all come out all at once.

I don't know if I believe that the slow warming that is happening there could trigger all that to come out all at once. You would need some sort of a trigger, like, I don't know, some sort of huge earthquake or something. But if it did come out all at once, there's an interactive model that I published on my web page, that you can play with, and see what happens.

If you put in 50 gigatonnes of methane, all coming out in a year, you can compare the climate forcing, the radiative forcing energy imbalance, cause by that methane - you can compare that against the radiative forcing caused by fossil fuel CO2. And what you'd find is that the forcing from the methane after a big burp like that would be much bigger than the forcing is today from fossil fuel CO2.

But it would go away in a couple of decades. And by the end of the century, the forcing from fossil fuel CO2 will be higher even than the methane spike was, even at it's worst.

So, it almost seems to me like it would be a change for humanity to sort of try it before we buy it for keeps with CO2. It might not even be such a bad thing at that

So there you have it. Maybe a good burst of methane, and a climate shock, is what we need to bring humanity to our senses, to make us finally get out of denial and act.

It's a horrible thought, but nothing else has worked so far.

You can post your thoughts in comments to this blog, or write me at this address: radio /at/

Visit our web site, and subscribe to our podcast, if you want to hear the next installments on this mega-story of the planet's future.

Next week, I'm off to the annual conference of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, to record as much as I can for you.

Thank you for listening - and caring about your world.


Timothy said...

This weather quirks is something that ice hockey skates enthusiasts should be aware of. No one is really sure what will happen even with a mild weather change.

Gabriel James said...

It's important enough that people are informed that as part of our daily survival, we as the stewards of nature should take good care of our environment. It's hard to regret it later on, when time comes we can no longer any inch of it.