Global warming is being seriouslyunderestimated

27 February 2007

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Southeast Asia — One of the hardest tasks we face in life is to be thebearer of seriously bad news … I now have to bring the worst of news …that civilisation is in grave danger.” James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia.

A number of simply gigantic reserves of greenhouse gasses that nature hasstored for our benefit are now beginning to flood back into the atmosphere.

In addition to what nature gives back to us, our own greenhouse pollution hasalmost doubled since 2001. There are a number of major natural sources, besidesour own. We are beginning to have some idea of the total on the planet, but thespeed at which these ancient stores will be released is still completelyuncertain.

Scientists have made estimates, and we will list them here. However, thoughwe don’t know exactly when, it is absolutely certain that much of thismaterial will be released during this century.

The totals are given at the end of this article, but first we need to “warmyou up” a little. We need to discuss Siberia and Alaska, the Amazon, Indonesiaand the deep oceans before we get to the totals.

The numbers given in journals can be very confusing. People use many units indescribing these things: we shall use billion metric tonnes for mass [Bts] andCO2-e for the carbon dioxide equivalent of all greenhouse gasses combined,including methane, and fluorocarbons with increasingly powerful impacts.Water vapour in the stratosphere is not included, though the amount has beengradually increasing.

Changing personal behaviour does matter: political action will matter more !

The frozen bogs of Siberia are melting

There are two gigantic stores of carbon held in arctic soils, in thepermafrost and in largely organic material called Yedoma. Together they haveheld 950 Bts of carbon and methane for tens of thousands of years. If convertedinto gas it would equal 3,500 Bts of CO2-e. Humans at this moment emit merely 1¼%of that in a year. [Katey Walter et al, Nature 443, 71-75, 7 September 2006]

Because southern Siberia is heating faster than any other part of the planet- some 4 degrees C last year – the arctic and sub-arctic ecosystems have onlyrecently turned into a source of greenhouse gasses instead of continuing to be astore.

As every increase in greenhouse gas leads to further burping, the summer of2006 saw an area larger than France and Germany combined beginning to “boil”furiously [Freeman, Nature, 2006, 430, 195].

The year before, Walter found that the amount being released was 3.8 milliontons, or five times the previous estimate. As a tonne of methane warms theplanet’s atmosphere 21 times as much as the same amount of CO2, this isequivalent to 80 million tons of CO2-e emitted in 2005. And this was from onepart of Siberia only.

We would expect that last year’s boiling would have increased that figure,and the promised “super-summer” this year will extract even more. We shouldtherefore expect that the higher the temperature gets, the more permafrost willmelt, the more it will become a vicious heating cycle.

Before Katie Walter’s report, Lord Stern estimated that quite soon methaneemissions could be 10 Bts of CO2-e a year. That is a tremendous amount of globalwarming when it is believed that even a couple of billion tons of methane a yearwould be catastrophic. [Strern, The Economics of Climate Change, 2006]

Some 55 million years ago 1,000 Bts of methane were suddenly and mysteriouslyreleased from frozen stores on the seabed. This caused global temperatures tosoar 10 degrees C, causing an immediate mass extinction of species.

“The great party of the twentieth century is coming to an end.”
James Lovelock.

But massive and immediate action by governments can save our Earth !

The Amazon rainforest and El Nino

Though last year’s El Nino was not as strong as in 1997 and 1998, itscombination with the steady increase of temperatures is likely to make 2007 theworld’s hottest year ever recorded [Britain’s Meteorological Office]. Lastyear the average temperature in Britain was higher than at any time sincerecords began in 1659.

It is significant that even a moderate warming event today is enough to pushthe global temperatures over the top.

The signs are all around us: Little winter snow in the Alps, continuingdroughts in Africa and Australia, glaciers melting faster than at any time inthe past 5,000 years, disappearing Arctic sea ice while Greenland slides intothe sea.

In the Amazon the higher temperatures are forcing the trees to get bigger,and they are being fertilised by excess atmospheric CO2. The whole forest couldbe absorbing 2 billion tons of carbon per year, which is added on to the 430 Btsof CO2-e that is already stored there. This is not entirely a good thing.

The greatest danger to the Amazon during the coming northern summer is that astrong El Nino denies rain to the forest. It is already suffering from atwo-year drought when rivers dried up and wildfires burned large areas.Experiments showed that the Amazon cannot withstand more than two consecutiveyears of drought without breaking down, because the trees can no longer putwater vapour into the air. It has just experienced its second year, and if thatcontinues this year an unstoppable cycle will have begun.

The crucial factor determining the development of a rain forest is the lengthof the wet season. In the Amazon it lasts 8 months, and during the rest of theyear remains wet enough to prevent fire. But the nearby savannah has a shorterwet season and catches fire every five years or so, destroying most of thevegetation and preventing the savannah recreating itself as a rainforest.

If this year’s dry season becomes longer then the forest would start to dryout, collapse and burn. It would not then be able to re-establish itself andwould turn into savannah. It has been estimated that burning could release up to30 Bts of CO2-e in a matter of weeks. [Woods Hole Research Center, Frank Merryet al, Science 21 March 2003, 299, 1843]
The Amazon is already in a vulnerable state. Seventeen percent has already beencleared for soya bean production. Models show that when more than 30 percent islost, its rain-making system could destabilise and the land will irreversiblyturn into savannah.

To this must be added logging and other deforestation everywhere. Thiscontributes about 7.5 Bts per year – a figure that would be readily doubledwhen the Amazon forest falls over. And these higher emissions would thencontinue to heat us up every year.

“The saddest thing is that Gaia will lose more than we do. Not only willwildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but the planet will lose a preciousresource: human civilisation. We are, through our intelligence and communication,the nervous system of the planet.”
James Lovelock.

Transform our thinking and agendas – politically put the Earth first !

Increasing emissions from South-East Asia

Monsoon rains will diminish as global temperatures continue to rise. Not onlywas 2006 one of Indonesia’s driest on record, a climate model indicates therewill be prolonged and severe droughts in the future. [Nerilie Abram et al,Nature 445, 299-302, 18 January 2007]
That would devastate the country’s tropical agriculture and spark morehaze-producing wildfires each year. Fires in South-east Asia peat lands weresome of the worst in the late 90s and 2002. In each year over 1.5 to 2.2 millionhectares of peatland burned in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The emissions werebetween 3 and 9.4 Bts of CO2-e each year.

This shows what a huge impact comes from fires of all sorts.
In addition land clearing causes the oxidation of peatland top soil. This thenemits about 65 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year. Currently, millions ofhectares of peatlands are drained and are decomposing in Indonesia and Malaysia.Together these have produced annual emissions of 2 Bts tonnes CO2-e, most of itfrom fires [Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics].
This is more than all the emissions from India or Russia, and almost three timesthe German emissions. If peatland emissions are included in the national audit,Indonesia is the third-largest greenhouse polluter in the world.

“Unless we now start preparing our survival kit we will soon be justanother species eking out an existence in the few remaining habitable regions.”James Lovelock.

 When everyone gets active politically, politicians will changetheir priorities !

Carbon held in the oceans

Most studies suggest that oceanic gas hydrates hold about 10,000 Bts.Considering that our atmosphere contains about 700 Bts of carbon, evenrelatively small emissions from the seas would have a major impact ontemperatures. [Nisbet, Nature,  347 23, September 1990].  

This carbon pool is extremely sensitive to small changes in deep-oceantemperature and sea levels. Thus, in the past, gas hydrates may havedestabilized, releasing methane into the atmosphere through gas bubbles risingrapidly through the water column or gas hydrates floating to the surface. Afraction of those hydrates are located in shallow water, where the heat fromglobal warming will be felt soonest.

In 2005, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found clearevidence the top half-mile of the ocean has warmed dramatically in the pastforty years. A more recent study by the National Centre for Atmospheric Researchfound ocean temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic more than one degree Cabove normal; this turned out to be the predominant catalyst for the monstrous2005 hurricane season – Katerina was the most violent ever recorded.

Phytoplankton is the basis of the entire marine food chain. It absorbs CO2.But the warming ocean restricts rising nutrients, and this has reduced planktonactivity up to 30%. This means that the amount of CO2 being absorbed decreases.Meantime most fish stocks are declining, mainly from acidification caused bycarbon. Therefore the overall ability of marine life to sequester carbon isreduced.  Acid is accumulating 100 times faster than at any time formillions of years.

Arctic ice-melt and the now rapid collapse of the Greenland glaciers are allcontributing to the heating of the oceans. The July issue of the Journal ofClimate reported trials on eleven computer models of the complex climate-carboncycle. All agreed that as the world heats, the oceans and the land become netcarbon producers.
Guy Kirk of the National Soil Resources Institute found that the soil of Britainis releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere than a quarter of a century agobecause increasing temperatures are speeding up the rate of organic decay. Heestimates that Britain’s soil has been releasing 13 million tons of CO2 a year.

If we multiply this by the total world agricultural land area less a factorfor being conservative, and jump this process forward a few years, we estimatethat quite soon the earth’s soils will be releasing 13 Bts a year, or onethird of all our human emissions.

“Mankind has declared war on Gaia.” James Lovelock

The sleeping US giant is waking up ! When she does, successwill be possible !

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without words
And never stops at all.”
Emily Dickinson

Possible world emissions by 2010 – in only 4 years

Chinese coal power stations are being erected at one per week. China’semissions will increase from 4.9 Bts in 2000 to 7.5 Bts or more in 2010. Chinawill then be the largest greenhouse emitter in the world.

On present rate of global pollution, plus China, world emissions willincrease from 42 Bts in 2000 to well over 48 Bts in 2010 – mainly from energyproduction. [Strern, The Economics of Climate Change, 2006]
This is well known. But in addition we have to include the triggering pointsthat have the potential to release enormous quantities of emissions into theatmosphere.  These include:

·         Siberian permafrostmethane burping estimate – 10 Bts a year, or greater.

·         Soils returning CO2 ratherthan being a sink – 13 Bts a year.

·         Burning the Amazon couldrelease billions of tons of CO2-e in a matter of weeks. Assuming one third ofthe Amazon forest dries out and begins to burn – 10 Bts.

·         Current logging andburning in Indonesian peatlands – 7.5 Bts at least. One large fire coulddouble that.

·         Allowing for higher oceantemperatures, 2010 could see a huge level of methane emissions from thedepths. 

Together these could easily double human greenhouse emissions over the nextfew years.

This means that a 5 degree global temperature rise is possible – with allits awesome consequences.

Since current emissions of 42 Bts per year CO2-e have already increased theaverage world temperature by 0.78 degrees C and the oceans by 0.45 degrees, adoubling of that rate over just a few years would have the most profound impact.[US national Climate Data Center]
Another way of putting it, for every ten Bts of CO2-e released, the number ofparticles per million [ppm] in the atmosphere increase by 0.5ppm. When we addtogether all the potential emissions from soils and permafrost, forest fires andlogging we have to realistically expect an increase of up to 90 Bts, maybe assoon as 2010. This would increase the particles in the atmosphere by 9 times 0.5times 3 years: so releasing even a conservative 70 Bts extra over the next 3years would shoot us up from 425 ppm (includes methane etc) to almost 440ppm.

Whether this happens in three years or twenty, we are headed for over 600 ppmin the atmosphere and straight into an unstoppable 5 degree average globaltemperature rise. [IPCC report March 2006] Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia willhave arrived in earnest.

And this does not take into account the flywheel effect of CO2 emitted butnot yet in a position to affect global heating, an delay that would in time adda further 70 ppm. And on top of that the aerosol haze layer that shields theearth would disappear in a few days adding a further degree or two.

This level of warming would literally burn-up whole agricultural regions intodust, causing famine, anarchy, diseases, and war on a colossal global scale.Billions of people could die.

I write this not to scare you, but to WAKE YOU UP ! Stop waiting for theothers !

“If you want to know the past, examine how you are today.
If you want to know the future, examine your present actions”
The Buddha

The BuddhaAll this is possible. Not necessarily in four years, butcertainly during the next few decades we will be in the midst of an unstoppablewarming sprint in which all the dire outcomes described on the www.planetextinction.comsite will be ours to share with our children.

The BuddhaThis is serious – and urgent. Either we act now to prevent even thepossibility of this happening, or we abandon the society and culture thatnurtures us, and the hopes of our children whom we hoped to nurture.

“We should not let our fears stop us from pursuing our hopes or our dreams.”John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

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