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Currently albedo driven positive feedback is underway in the Arctic. The sea ice and land based snowpack are melting earlier and more than ever before (in human history) and the region is warming rapidly, especially in the winter when the extra heat accumulated into the ocean during the summer is releasing back to the atmosphere. We have already got a little taste of the sort of changes we can expect as the thermal gradient driving the jet stream has weakened imposing a significant increase in extreme weather on mid latitudes as more blocking patterns form.
Because of the long polar night the heat is released from the system and able to escape back out to space. Since the sea ice plays an insulating role on the ocean during the winter ice growth during the winter is paradoxically increasing as these changes occur but since the ice growth is from a lower base and more heat must be released back from the ocean to cool down this cannot compensate for the net loss of ice volume. It is our belief however that the Arctic will settle down into a new equilibrium regime where the sea ice is seasonal – forming during the winter and entirely melting during the summer.
We are currently predicting total ice loss in either 2014 or 2015 during the summer. We believe that in approximately five more years after this point the ice will be close to the equilibrium and that the ice free period will have extended out however many months into the summer season it is likely to. The substantially lower insolation in other seasons will put a brake on this process within a few years (quite possibly less than five) and the rate of change in the Arctic will start to slow – concluding the first abrupt climate shift we are going to experience.
At this point we will have an Arctic that is a lot warmer in the winter than usual, and a little warmer in the summer. We anticipate the effects upon the jet stream will be substantially worse than they are now but in essence simply more of the same.
If this was where all the changes stopped there might be a light at the end of the tunnel and the hope of adaptation to the new conditions for a significant portion of humanity. Unfortunately, we believe there are more rapid changes coming in the pipeline and after this time the focus of these changes will cease to be in the Arctic.
Atmospheric and thermohaline circulation play an important role in moving heat polewards. As the Arctic warms these processes slow (or theoretically stop, but we are not predicting this in the near future). This means that less heat is transported to the Arctic to be radiated back into space during the polar night. Although this helps ensure that the Arctic can form an equilibrium with a seasonal ice regime there is another important consequence.
Quite simply, less of the heat that was moving to the Arctic will be going there. Inasmuch as the Arctic changes are proceeding relatively abruptly this should also be expected to manifest relatively abruptly. Mid and low latitude regions will experience a certain amount of rapid warming. Although this warming will likely be relatively mild compared to the Arctic these regions contain tipping points relevant to both natural and manmade ecosystems (agriculture) that will cause great harm. For example the amount of additional warming required to destroy the Amazon rainforest (potentially rapidly adding over 100ppm to atmospheric carbon dioxide) is quite small. Likewise the American midwest – a key agricultural region – is likely to abruptly revert to desert. These are just two examples of the rapid and permanent changes in the rest of the world that we believe are likely to occur abruptly as the Arctic starts to settle.
It is also important to note that there will be a second stage of activity within the Arctic. Although there is almost certainly no scope for a true methane catastrophe in the near future it is likely that the normal cycle of increased atmospheric methane following removal of ice will occur as land permafrost melts and subsea permafrost weakens and releases both the accumulated methane free gas reservoir (currently contained under high pressure by the once frozen seabed) and decomposes methane clathrates over shallow continental shelves. An abrupt and large release of methane has the scope to deliver a substantial warming pulse of relatively short duration that is highly likely to substantially exascerbate problems in the rest of the system. This has the potential to substantially raise atmospheric carbon dioxide still further.
It is our assessment that human civilisation will be unable to maintain coherence beyond the start of this process. A fuller analysis of this will be done seperately.
There is some possibility that the conditions to create a full methane catastrophe are met later this century or within the next few centuries. At this point it depends mostly upon what happens with natural feedbacks within the earth system – manmade emissions have started the snowball rolling down the hill, but we can do little or nothing to stop further snow being collected if things proceed as far as have outlined above.
6-7C of warming above the baseline would be required to create the key factor to drive a true methane catastrophe that would release methane from clathrate reservoirs globally, even from relatively deeper water. It would take centuries to millennia to occur as it takes a long time for the ocean to absorb heat and warm up but the consequences would be devastating. The only regions in the planet that might still be theoretically capable of supporting human life would be the exteme polar regions in this scenario.
Proper planning for our children and their children requires us to look not just at the next few years – as extreme weather increases and civilisation starts to crumble – but at the indefinite future of our species.
Originally reported in this news article – Professor Carlos Duarte (a prestigious polar ice scientist who is on record saying that we are already at a point of dangerous climate change and must act) visited the White House for a meeting with a collection of various “important people”.
Cue a little flurry of news articles picking up the story, followed by this single article after the meeting:
So was the meeting fiction or did it happen? I can only suggest a glance at this to help make the case:
A tweet by none other than Carlos Duarte, mentioning the meeting at the White House (with a handy photograph). So why is there now a media silence on this issue? Why was the last article written one rubbishing the idea?
I can only note the similar situation that happened with the Russian methane scientists – Igor Semiletov and Natalia Shakhova. Several years ago they were on record saying that we have an extremely concerning and dangerous situation in the Arctic. Methane emission sites had been found with a diameter of the order of 1km and they assessed that it was entirely possible we would see release of up to 50 gigatonnes of methane on decadal timescales (conservative scientist speak for “potentially rather soon”).
A scientific paper was published (look at the title and abstract at least):
Some time later (and I won’t quote every article I dug up on this, though I would note it only barely reached the media at all and it was ridiculously hard to find anything out about this) they went went on record with a rather abrupt change of tone.
You will find them saying that they don’t know if climate change was the cause of the methane release here. Given that the ESAS is subject to warmer river run off due to warming on land, and is shallow water where wind driven mixing easily transports heat to the bottom sediment (now extensively melted) – where previously sea ice would have generally covered the water all year round and now no longer does – it seems unlikely that climate change is not an important driver here. That is not to say that it is technically incorrect for them to say this – only to say that there was an abrupt change in how they expressed their findings followed by two years (and counting) of silence on what might well be one of the most important questions hanging over our existence today (a methane catastrophe is an extinction grade threat, no question about it).
So why are these questions only barely (if at all) making it into the media? Why are the scientists changing their statements abruptly?
I can only suggest there is a policy being enforced by the powers that be to suppress the truth. They don’t want to alarm the population about the immediacy and severity of the situation because they don’t have any answers. If the powers that be (corporations and governments) had answers – they would be shouting from the rooftops about it, of that I am quite sure.
The first priority of government in a crisis is to ensure continuity of government. That is not the same thing as ensuring the lives of their citizens.
If you follow the government like a good sheep, expect to be sacrificed to the wolf – the shepherd comes first.
Today we live in a world where we must be willing to break the rules and to understand we should not be bound by the dictat of those powers that have led us to this coming future.
I cast my words into a void knowing very few or none will hear them – but at least I try.
We stand at the brink of dystopia, but I want to share my ideas about the world that might have been. It is a common myth and slander upon environmentalists that they want people to go back to living in caves enjoying only a primitive lifestyle vulnerable to whatever misfortunes might befall them.
In this fantasy world – which might easily have been the real world of today had my ancestors been possessed of greater vision and ambition – people enjoy all the benefits of a technologically advanced civilisation. How is this possible? Well – the simplest way to make it possible is to find solutions to problems that are not inherently destructive, particularly to the future.
Let us therefore take a selection of key problems and explain how we solved them in our fantasy world using only existing and historic technology (with references at the end to support my arguments):
Please bear with me. I don’t mean what most people think of as a bicycle. I mean fully faired recumbents capable of substantially greater speed with protection from the elements. At the cutting edge of existing technologies (developed by amateurs without much funding) I am aware of human powered bicycles moving people at over 80mph.
I would like to emphasise that the principles of aerodynamics and laminar airflow universally apply to all vehicles moving against wind resistance, not just bicycles. If a bicycle can move at 80+mph under human power – any other source of similar power could do the same (even a very small petrol/gas engine).
Did I mention the health benefits of cycling?
2. Solar powered cars
So it’s too far to cycle even on your 40-50mph (more realistic for longer journeys by people of moderate fitness) recumbent bicycle. Now society has done the sensible thing of letting people telecommute as much as practical and made sure people are able to live close to their workplace but you might want to visit relatives who live hundreds of miles away off the beaten trails of public transport. Perhaps you could rent a solar powered car for this sort of journey. Speeds of 100mph are possible with only a few horsepower and good battery range for cloudy days, although a practical family version might perform less impressively.
3. Flywheel powered cars
Ah. Yes, another issue with the bicycles. They might work less well for families with shopping to move around. That’s OK though – we can all use electric cars.
Um… actually, no, we can’t. Batteries typically have limited lifespans and involve seriously toxic materials in their manufacture – or materials that are very limited. If the world all drove lithium battery powered cars within only ten years we would deplete the global lithium supply.
Flywheels are a good solution. Energy density isn’t super at current levels of development (can be comparable with lead acid batteries) but they can be recharged very quickly indeed. For shorter journeys or trips in areas with the population density required to support recharging stations there is no real reason they shouldn’t work just fine. They are used today for niche applications but you will find the technology is not especially new and has been used for vehicles before in very limited applications.
Long Distance Transportation
1. High speed (and regular) railways
We actually have some of these. Most countries serious underutilise this idea though. Obviously they must be driven by clean energy – but for moving goods and mass long distance or moving fast (hundreds of miles an hour) these are it.
You can’t build a railway through an ocean, I hear you say? Quite right. I suppose we need another solution for hauling mass and people over oceans. Airships are far more energy efficient than anything else flying as no energy is expended keeping them up. An airship circumnavigated the world before any aeroplane and they were used to make Atlantic crossings in respectable times with technology nearly a century old now.
I’m afraid we can’t use helium – it isn’t common enough, but hydrogen ought to work just fine with a little technological effort. We’re happy driving around at 90mph next to fragile metal containers filled with highly flammable gasoline after all.
I’d like to think we could power them with solar energy but nobody has bothered to do it yet and I’m trying not to speculate on things we don’t have or haven’t done.
3. Supersonic passenger liners
But I have to get thousands of miles in only a few hours for this very important meeting, I hear you say? Fine – supersonic passenger liners burning biofuels could do the trick for the very few people rich or important enough to afford it. But frankly biofuels are not a scalable solution and I don’t want to devote mental effort to the class most responsible for destroying my future. I do appreciate that total equality cannot happen or work – more on this in my next point.
There, now that we’ve assuaged the “needs” of the westernised cultures, let’s consider the basic problem of a growing population that is unsustainable and generally eroding the habitat it depends upon.
The key here is to simply avoid the problem. Easy as that?
Actually it almost is that easy. It just requires people to give a shit about each other a bit more and cooperate to eliminate poverty and achieve more equitable distribution. I’m not talking Communism – just basic human decency. Poor people almost universally tend to have far more children and family sizes tend to shrink dramatically as standard of living and life prospects for children (and parents) improve. I include access to contraceptive choices as part of quality of living.
So instead of exploiting each other into the dust and letting a few rich parasites suck all the wealth and power to themselves so they can get ever more of it – we need a basic social conscience and a recognition that people have a right to a minimum standard of living worldwide – and that this benefits us all. We can still have incentives to work and innovate and some people with greater affluence than others.
Back to your caves, rich western trolls.
1. Wind power
Used successfully for centuries. Practically free, plentiful – and like railways we are actually using some of it. Flywheel power stations could buffer wind output significantly.
2. Solar power
The wind doesn’t blow with the regular consistency that we would like. Yes, it’s true. So we need more choices.
Enter solar. No – not those stupid photovoltaic panels that are so popular and fashionable (though they may serve for niche applications – like the cars).
Concentrating solar thermal power is available using relatively simple and plentiful materials and techniques. It is suited for industrial scale power (though we haven’t built any truly massive plants as yet) and can operate even when the sun doesn’t shine. How?
You collect energy from the sun using lots of mirrors in sunny parts of the world and store the heat into a large reservoir of molten salt (potassium nitrate works well). The larger this reservoir the more efficient the storage as heat loss is a function of surface area and heat storage a function of volume. By storing the heat you can run day and night, survive days of cloudy weather, and even control precisely the rate at which you draw energy out of the heat store. What’s not to like?
3. Fusion power
If it ever works. If people could act responsibly with unlimited energy. Still, scientists need hobbies…
Some resources are required for the operation of a technologically advanced civilisation. Metals – for example. These are finite (or more precisely formed only very slowly over geological timescales) so how do we solve this problem?
I’m sorry but again the answer is boring and simple. The good old reduce, reuse and recycle – with a few other twists.
We have predicated a civilisation on the idea that it is good to consume as much as possible as fast as possible – with no thought of future generations. This is idiotic. We need things that can last a long time – and be repaired easily – and recycled only when they are beyond repair or use.
If I buy a tin opener from the supermarket today, it will be a little flimsy thing that is likely to break within months to a year. My mother has a nice solid metal one that is around a century old and continues to be used very regularly. There is no reason it couldn’t work just fine for another century or more.
While at times of technological progress some things may go obsolete quickly this is no excuse for discarding these principles. Do you care so little about your children and their children that you would take all these things today and leave them with nothing but problems tomorrow?
I often say that we must break out of the prisons of our minds – the little boxes into which we comfortably reside, ordained for us by society and our peers. I hope that I have addressed many of the common problems often seen as insurmountable in this article.
I know it seems almost certain that we are headed for a dystopia in which only the strong and ruthless are likely to survive and prosper. However, these ideas are still important as an explanation of what the CCG vision is and even if mankind must first fall before it can rise I maintain we can ultimately achieve a good destiny as a species, even against all the odds. If we cannot avoid our fall we must learn and do things right afterwards. I want some of those individuals capable of surviving the coming storm to also carry enough compassion and wisdom to understand that this is about a lot more than just themselves or even their children – but about the future of all people for the rest of our history.
Even if it takes ten thousand years, this is the end to which I work. As an individual I feel as though I face the storm almost entirely alone and know that the probability of my survival and success is very small. This is why I cast words and ideas out into the world in the hope that some may find fertile ground.
I would close with a little anecdote about a conversation I had with my mother late last year. I mentioned a possible settlement site for the Deus Juvat project (which I run), and I observed that I expected that in a hundred years this site might well be quite pleasant as it would likely be colonised by trees (and other things). My mother said to me: “What use would that be to you? You wouldn’t live to see it.”
I had to explain the single most important solution to our problems to my mother – that we care about people to come in the future. If the people of the past had thought this way, we would not have these problems today.
One of the dominant ideas supported by the long term linear view of climate change – the nice gentle shifts envisaged by the IPCC reports – is that there will be plenty of time to adapt and that our agricultural regions will gradually move towards the polar regions.
Unfortunately, this viewpoint is scientifically out of date and neglects a lot of complicating factors in agriculture.
The reason the viewpoint is scientifically out of date is that an emerging area in climate science is studying the link between climate change and changing weather. It turns out that we can’t expect nice gentle changes (and this has been known to paleoclimatologists for a lot longer than modellers) but there is a much higher than originally expected risk of sudden and abrupt transitions in how the earth system operates.
We are already seeing the fingerprint of climate change in an increasing incidence of extreme weather – some of it driven by the rapid (abrupt, even) loss of albedo from the Arctic as sea ice and land based snowpack melt faster and sooner than usual. This reduces the thermal gradient bewteen the polar and adjacent regions of the planet – altering the behaviour of the jet stream. In most seasons of the year the movement of the weather systems is slowed, the track of the jet stream tends to be amplified and there is a significantly higher chance of blocking events forming which reinforce the weather and give rise to more extreme events.
This is because many extreme types of weather become self reinforcing through simple persistence. A few days of heavy rain may just be a normal event – but continue the same rain for a few weeks and the ground becomes saturated and flooding becomes much more of a problem than would be implied simply by the extension in rainfall duration.
Likewise warm and dry conditions can lead to dramatic heatwaves if they persist for longer as evaporation dries out the soil. This evaporation absorbs energy and in doing so acts to limit temperature rise. Once the amount of moisture available to absorb thermal energy in this way is too low – the temperature is free to soar.
Evidence is also mounting that other types of extreme weather are increasing although the drivers behind this are not well understood in all cases. It should also be noted that it takes time and effort to identify clear signals in extreme weather as by definition we are looking for extreme events. One recent study that effectively did this with respect to heatwaves over the surface of the planet was done by Hansen – concluding that the incidence of extreme heat had risen (already – in the present day) from <1% of the surface of the planet to around 10% – a very significant change.
Extreme weather is therefore the first and most currently obvious problem facing farmers. There are several key facets to this problem. The first is that a food crop is vulnerable through the entire growing season to extreme weather and only one extreme event can be enough to devastate the yield of the crop. Too much or too little heat or moisture at the wrong times – or simply a late frost following a mild start to spring – can cause very extensive loss of yield..
Additionally it becomes ever harder for farmers to plan their crop as the certainty over the conditions they expect diminishes. This statistically reduces yield as more farmers are likely to plant the wrong crops for the conditions they face.
The idea of adapation is often raised with respect to agriculture. This idea is flawed for several reasons. One reason is that we have had ten thousand years to evolve our food crops to our current ecosystem. It simply isn’t as easy as people think to grow crops in other regions.
Some crops are dependent on day length to drive their activity – clearly moving such a plant too far from it’s natural habitat to try to find the right climatic conditions in other respects will impair or inhibit it’s performance. Some crops depend upon particular insect pollinators or other elements of the ecosystem that are much harder to transplant arbitarily. Different types of soil favour different crops – and many other specific factors that affect viability at any given location.
As local ecosystems are thrown out of balance there is a very high risk of invasive pests and diseases proliferating. The rise of the pine beetle is one example of this – but other pests such as locusts will find themselves able to enter new habitats where previously they would not have survived.
It also seems likely that the logistics of agriculture will become virtually impossible – both for the practice of and for adaptation. Once the rate of change becomes too high and existing agricultural practises start to experience widespread failure the loss of social cohesion and the rise of conflict and famine will create a situation where it becomes almost impossible to either practice agriculture or to source alternate seeds to try in the new conditions being experienced.
As we enter a period of increasingly abrupt climate change this becomes an ever more probable issue.
Finally – when the dust settles and the climate starts to settle down – however many decades (or centuries) into the future – it is likely that the earth system will be very different to what we are familiar with now. Even now we are receiving a glimpse into new conditions where we don’t have any direct analog for what we are used to (and our crops are also used to). We see this in the quantity of records being broken by extreme events. In the course of the next few years we are likely to see – for what is most likely the first time in our evolutionary history – an ice free Arctic during the summer.
Over the next few years after that the albedo driven positive feedback all but ensures that the ice free period will be spanning a significant portion of the year. Therefore it is not very far into the future when we can no longer presume upon the earth system – and agriculture – operating as we have known it for the last ten thousand years. This is a very fundamental change and perhaps difficult for most people to intellectually comprehend.
For our work in the Civilisation Continuity Group this represents a very serious challenge – especially as we look into the longer term future. Agriculture is the basis of our civilisation – without it the number of people the land can support is necessarily low and it is unlikely for those people to form substantial settlements – another key foundation for an advanced civilisation as nomads must carry their whole world with them as they move and this is a limiting factor.
It is therefore necessary that some agricultural technology be preserved by some people somewhere for our species to have a chance at an ultimately better future again.
Prudence dictactes that we should not underestimate the difficulties of even this apparently simple task in the future that rushes towards us.
There doesn’t seem to be many of us considering the “what if” question – “what if we fail to stop abrupt climate change?”. Discussion of the science and the implications – and the possible actions as a result appear to be something that very few people wish to engage with.
It is the same way I suppose with climate change in general. Most people don’t want to hear too much about it. Only a few people seem prepared to act about the issue. Everyone wants someone else to solve the problem and leave them alone.
We have the same problem – except far worse. I guess climate change is OK to talk about when you’re pretending it will mostly just affect far off poor people in other countries, or your grandchildren however many decades down the line. I guess it’s easier not to dwell on the implications of the ultimate consequences that climate change poses us with – regardless of whether you look at relatively tame and historically inaccurate (and very much inaccurate in terms of under-predicting the rate and severity of changes) IPCC forecasts – or the cutting edge of climate science as it chases the lessons the earth system hands out.
It doesn’t appear to remain OK once the problems appear to be likely to become very large in the lifetime of the person who one is speaking to – and when one hopes they would consider doing something about it. There is a tendency to cling (at best) to the notion that offsetting emissions, driving a little less or using energy efficient light bulbs is the extent of the contribution an individual can be expected to make.
Of course we wholeheartedly support these actions – but a step change is required. It isn’t a step change we are asking people to make for our sake.
We are asking you to consider your own future – and that of your children or grandchildren if you are old enough to have either.
Decades of warnings have been ignored, and tomorrow is turning into today. The dawn does not look like we can expect nice weather.
Over to you…