“We’re in a planetary emergency” thanks to Arctic ice melt and Greenland permafrost

UPDATE: A complete list of climate series pieces is available here:
The Climate series: a reference post.
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This is an Arctic ice story with a twist. It takes you under the ice to the Greenland permafrost, and brings a second greenhouse gas — methane — into the spotlight. (Chris’s earlier ice story is here.)

Thanks to Raw Story (via Twitter friend MiroCollas) and Agence France Presse for this article. A few snippets will do make my point; the whole is strongly recommended however.

First, on the scale of the problem (my emphasis throughout):

Experts warned of a “planetary emergency” due to the unforeseen global consequences of Arctic ice melt, including methane gas released from permafrost regions currently under ice.

Columbia University and the environmental activist group Greenpeace held separate events Wednesday to discuss US government data showing that the Arctic sea ice has shrunk to its smallest surface area since record-keeping began in 1979. …

“If this trend continues we will not have sea ice by the end of this decade,” said [oceanographer Wieslaw] Maslowski. …

“We are in a planetary emergency,” said [NASA climate expert James] Hansen, decrying “the gap between what is understood by scientific community and what is known by the public.”

What’s the scale and timeline for that “planetary emergency”?

If nothing changes, my personal estimate says we’ll know by roughly 2022 if James Hansen’s “mass extinction” event is inevitable. Hansen is the man quoted above; the reasoning behind my estimate is here.

The current “in the pipeline” number is 1½°C (see below for explanation). When 3°C — 5½°F — is in the pipeline, it’s “game over” according to Hansen.

Next, a definition — why gases like carbon are called “greenhouse gases” in the first place, for those who’ve forgotten:

Scientists say the earth’s climate has been warming because carbon dioxide and other human-produced gases hinder the planet’s reflection of the sun’s heat back into space, creating a greenhouse effect.

Then another reminder that getting to a certain temperature globally has consequences that push the thermometer to a higher leveling-off point. In other words, even if we stop right now, there’s a certain amount of global warming yet to come, as a consequence of what we’ve already done to the ecosystem.

I’ve been calling that “in the pipeline” — as in, “we have .8°C warming now, and another .8°C is in the pipeline, inevitable.” The following illustrates this perfectly:

Another result is the likely release of large amounts of methane — a greenhouse gas — trapped in the permafrost under Greenland’s ice cap, the remains of the region’s organic plant and animal life that were trapped in sediment and later covered by ice sheets in the last Ice Age.

And finally, hello methane, and a fact you may want to stash away:

Methane is 25 times more efficient at trapping solar heat than carbon dioxide, and the released gases could in turn add to global warming, which in turn would free up more locked-up carbon.

And that’s your global climate report for today. Still to come — a review of our five-pronged approach to a solution and a preliminary to-do list.

It’s not over; just urgent, which is the reason I’m writing about it.

GP

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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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