Wednesday 27 February 2013

The methane tipping point

The tragic failure of the scientific community to issue adequate warning re: the Arctic tipping point emergency

by Gary Houser

Arctic News,
29 January, 2013

    • "Our greatest concern is that loss of Arctic sea ice creates a grave threat of passing two other tipping points -- the potential instability of the Greenland ice sheet and methane hydrates. These latter two tipping points would have consequences that are practically irreversible on time scales of relevance to humanity." [1]  ....."We are in a planetary emergency." [2] - World renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen

      The scientific community must be commended for its efforts to convey to the world the reality of climate disruption caused by carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That world is now grappling with the politics of whether effective reductions can be achieved in time. But there appears to be a new danger emerging from the Arctic which threatens to accelerate such disruption beyond the reach of any meaningful control. Cutting edge researchers in the field are observing large plumes of methane rising from the shallow seabeds. [3] Others are discovering heightened levels through airborne measurement. [4]  According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, methane is a global warming gas no less than 72 times more powerful than CO2. [5]

      In the course of working on a documentary [6] on this super greenhouse gas and the frightening prospect that such is beginning to thaw and release to the atmosphere in the Arctic, the author has encountered a highly disturbing "disconnect". On the one hand, there are highly eminent scientists - such as James Hansen - warning that the situation in the Arctic could well lead to the crossing of an "irreversible tipping point". On the other hand, such warning is not finding its way into the major scientific reports which government policy makers will use to chart their response. It cannot be found in either the draft of the new IPCC report or the draft of the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

      As global climate disruption begins to enter the realm of "tipping points of no return", humanity is coming face to face with a moral crisis inextricably linked to the physical crisis. Scientists are first and foremost human beings. If information is discovered that points to a real possibility that a given situation can abruptly escalate into an existential threat to human survival, there is a profound moral responsibility to issue a loud and unambiguous warning.

      There are now several indicators that the factors which could generate such a threat are indeed lining up in the Arctic - such as the ice collapse and the loss of solar reflectivity that will only accelerate further Arctic warming. At this time however, other than a handful of notable exceptions, the scientific community as a whole is utterly failing to issue such warning. This essay is an attempt to grapple with what might be the systemic reasons for such failure. Although the author is not a scientist and addresses the issue from outside that frame of reference, reasons are provided for why such may be an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

      The climate science community around the world is performing a tremendous service to humanity. As climate disruption continues to escalate and the threat to our society becomes more grave, its members have worked long hours - in many cases on their own time - to gather the relevant data. As only one example. documentary-related exchanges between the author and scientists working in the Arctic make clear that much personal hardship and sacrifice are being endured in order to conduct such research.

      It is well known that in preparation for their work, scientists are taught to exercise great caution in reporting their findings and never stray beyond that for which there is incontrovertible evidence. Even when it appears evidence is present, it is the time-honored tradition of science to still submit any conclusions drawn from such to their peers for review.

      In almost every case, this strict methodology has well served the public interest. It has filtered out errors and made solid information available to the public and policy makers. But in the arena of global climate disruption, humanity is now facing something unique and quite un-paralleled by any other issue. There is a point in the process of climate de-stabilization where colossal natural forces can be unleashed which are capable of developing their own unstoppable momentum and spiralling well beyond the reach of human control. When such occurs - the already mentioned "irreversible tipping point".

      Though a term used frequently in discussions on climate, its full meaning and magnitude have rarely been taken to heart. Far too often, it is simply another "buzzword" dropped into an article and treated only in the most superficial way. Indeed, such usage seems almost to "anesthetize" us to the horrific reality it points toward. In truth, the crossing of some kinds of tipping points can lead to the crushing of our entire civilization on no less of a scale than nuclear war. The devastation can be so sweeping that the concept of "adaptation" becomes meaningless. "Irreversible" refers to the brutal fact that once humanity allows this process to become triggered, there will be no chance to go back, no chance to learn from our mistakes and correct them. 

      Of the several tipping point scenarios which are possible, one considered especially frightening is the prospect of triggering an abrupt and large scale methane release in the shallow seabeds along Arctic coastlines. The entire climate debate has been dominated by a discussion of humanity's contribution to the problem - which has been the emission of carbon dioxide since the beginning of the industrial age. What science has discovered is that nature has its own vast storehouse of ancient carbon trapped in the ice of the polar regions.

      The scenario of most concern to methane "specialists" is what's known as the "runaway feedback" reaction. As described by Dr. Ira Leifer of the Marine Science Institute at the Univ. of Calif.: "A runaway feedback effect would be where methane comes out of the ocean into the atmosphere leading to warming, leading to warmer oceans and more methane coming out, causing an accelerated rate of warming in what one could describe as a runaway train." [7]  A cycle would be initiated which feeds upon itself and therefore becomes unstoppable.

      When one looks at the history of the most devastating "wipeouts" of life on earth - such mass extinction events as the PETM or the end-Permian - it is sobering to learn that large scale release of methane has been pointed to as a "probable cause". World-renowned climate science pioneer Dr. James Hansen relates methane to the PETM extinction event:

      "There have been times in the earth's history when methane hydrates on the continental shelves melted and went into the atmosphere and caused global warming of six to nine degrees Celsius, which is 10 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit." [8]

      The end-Permian extinction was the most colossal mass extinction event, wiping out over 90% of the life forms on earth. According to paleontologist Michael Benton - considered by some to have written the definitive book on this event (When Life Nearly Died):

      "Normally, long-term global processes act to bring greenhouse gas levels down. This kind of negative feedback keeps the Earth in equilibrium. But what happens if the release of methane is so huge and fast that normal feedback processes are overwhelmed? Then you have a "runaway greenhouse"...... As temperatures rise, species start to go extinct. Plants and plankton die off and oxygen levels plummet. This is what seems to have happened 251 million years ago." [9]

      While devastation on this level is inherently difficult to grasp, one attempt to convey such is provided in the documentary "Miracle Planet". [10] Though absolute certainty on causation may not be attainable, just the possibility that our society may be triggering a force with this kind of power is mind-boggling enough.

      Could anything of this unspeakable magnitude be triggered by thawing methane in the Arctic? Again Ira Leifer: "The amount of methane that’s trapped under the permafrost and in hydrates in the Arctic areas is so large that if it was rapidly released it could radically change the atmosphere in a way that would be probably unstoppable and inimicable to human life." [11]  Hansen adds: "It is difficult to imagine how the methane clathrates could survive, once the ocean has had time to warm. In that event a PETM-like warming could be added on top of the fossil fuel warming." [12]  Dr. Hansen - along with Arctic ice and methane experts - address this issue in more depth in a documentary co-produced by the author. [13] 

      Methane plumes rising from the seafloor

      In examining the key reports being made by the scientific community - such as drafts for the new IPCC document and the National Climate Assessment (of the U.S.), one might expect there to be dire warnings about a potential "point of no return" if these forces are unleashed. We do find a discussion of the various consequences of climate disruption that are hitting right now - Arctic and glacial melt, extreme weather, more powerful hurricanes and storms, increases in drought, food shortages, wildfires, and flooding. But where is the discussion of what these symptoms of disruption are leading to? One of the most frightening spectres looming over humanity - the tipping point of a methane "runaway" - is completely ignored.

      How can this be possible? Several factors may be combining. As stated earlier, scientists are trained to only make statements based on "hard evidence". In the case of a potentially abrupt methane runaway, it is not possible to pinpoint a specific moment in time when such may be initiated. It cannot be stated with certainty whether this will happen in 2017, 2027, or 2037. Without this ability to pinpoint and quantify, the response of science has been to simply not address it.

      Secondly, scientists are human. All of us have great difficulty in truly facing and absorbing the full implications of a complete collapse of human society and even a wiping out of most or all life on the planet. It is human to utilize methods of psychological denial to block out such a staggeringly horrific threat to our collective existence. In this instance, scientists are no different. Unless there is "absolute proof" staring us in the face, the overwhelming tendency is to push such thoughts out of our consciousness so we can "get on with our day".

      A third factor is that the current methodology for the reporting of climate science is fundamentally flawed and dysfunctional in regard to the challenge at hand. The single most important such report is that issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is based on a consensus process and an intensively time-consuming level of peer review. Under normal circumstances, such would be seen as positives. But in a situation where humanity may come under severe threat in the very near term future, these reports are essentially looking backward at where science has been for the past 7 years rather than reporting the cutting edge trend lines. A glaring example is how the IPCC completely missed on predicting the speed at which the Arctic would melt.

      The tremendous danger with this situation is that by the time any kind of "absolute proof" is gathered, it will very likely be too late to stop the conditions bringing on the dreaded runaway reaction. An unspeakably terrifying process will already have been set into motion and humanity at that point will be helpless to stop it. Temperatures on earth could eventually skyrocket to a level where mass famine is initiated. 

      What are the potential solutions to these terrible problems? One would be procedural. A special section of such reports should be dedicated to communicating the work of those scientists whose research is on the cutting edge of dealing with potentially huge climate impacts and yet still "in progress" in terms of gathering the relevant data. For example, even though the precise timing of a methane runaway cannot be predicted, there should be a report on the trend lines and the extent to which the conditions that could bring on a runaway are manifesting. If those conditions are lining up to a considerable extent, then an appropriate warning should be issued.

      A second corrective step is more related to basic philosophy and morality. At the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, representatives of the world's nations agreed to apply the precautionary principle in determining whether an action should go forward to prevent irreversible damage to the environment. Principle #15 of the Rio Declaration [14] states that: 

      "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

      In a further treatment of the meaning of the precautionary principle, it has been stated that there must be

      "a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof of evidence of the need for the proposed action on the grounds that further delay will prove ultimately most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and unfair to future generations." [15]

      A methane runaway in the Arctic more than meets the criteria of being a "threat" which can bring about "irreversible damage". Due to its potential to create an unstoppable wave of continually rising temperatures capable of initiating something as horrendous as a mass extinction event, its irreversible damage could be of the most frightening magnitude imaginable. If humanity failed to recognize this danger and allowed its occurrence, such would most certainly constitute an irreparable crime against future generations. The most fundamental tenet of human morality demands that in such a unique situation the scientific community act on the basis of the precautionary principle and issue the appropriate warning. 

      In his powerful book on the ethics of nuclear war, Jonathan Schell wrote: 
      "To kill a human being is murder, but what crime is it to cancel the numberless multitude of unconceived people?" [16] In the words of the ecological ethicist David Orr: "Climate destabilization, like nuclear war, has the potential to destroy all human life on Earth and in effect 'murder the future'......... Willfully caused extinction is a crime that as yet has no name." [17] 

      Is it possible that the very pillar of science which has served our society so well - the uncompromising demand for incontrovertible "evidence" - has in this unprecedented current crisis become a dangerous obstruction? Is it possible that this requirement of absolute "proof" is creating a perceptual blindness that could pave the way for the most horrendous suffering in the history of civilization?

      To the scientists who may read this essay, an appeal is made in the name of our collective humanity to truly confront and grapple with the meaning of the term "irreversible" and weigh the potentially horrific consequences of silence. It is no violation of scientific "objectivity" to look at trend lines and determine whether their continued trajectory might well carry our civilization over the cliff. And if this possibility is there, is there not a profound moral obligation under the precautionary principle to issue a loud and unambiguous warning to humanity?

      Before arriving at an answer, the reader - and especially any member of the scientific community - is invited to view a powerful film that is simply entitled "HOME". 
      [18] In this artistic masterpiece, images of life on earth convey beyond the reach of words the incredible magnificence of what will be lost if climate disruption is allowed to escalate into an unstoppable "wipe-out". It also describes the methane lurking in the Arctic as a "climatic time bomb". Please watch and please speak out before it is too late. As James Hansen says: "We are in a planetary emergency." 


      Bloomberg, August 17, 2012
      AFP: 'Planetary emergency' due to Arctic melt, experts warn
      Vast methane 'plumes' seen in Arctic ocean as ... - The Independent
      Danger from the deep: New climate threat as methane rises from ...
      [6] [Documentary co-produced by author]: 
      Arctic News: Arctic methane: Why the sea ice matters
      [7] Interview with Leifer for documentary
      [8] Interview with Hansen
      Wipeout: the end-Permian mass extinction
      [10] 6 minute clip from "Miracle Planet":
      [11] Interview with Leifer for documentary
      [12] Hansen's book: 
      Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate ...
      [13] Same as link at #6
      Rio Declaration
      The Fate of the Earth - The New York Times
      Thinking About the Unthinkable by David Orr We ... - Moral Ground
      [18] [Link to free full film]:

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