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Arctic warning: As the system changes, we must adjust our science

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Climate Code Red

The Arctic sea-ice big melt of 2012 “has taken us by surprise and we must adjust our understanding of the system and we must adjust our science and we must adjust our feelings for the nature around us”, according to Kim Holmen, Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) international director.

From Svalbard (halfway between mainland Norway and Greenland), the BBC’s David Shukman reported on September 7 that Holmen had described the current melt rate “a greater change than we could even imagine 20 years ago, even 10 years ago”.

As detailed last week, the thin crust of sea-ice which floats on the north polar sea is now only half of the average minimum summer extent of the 1980, and just one-quarter of the volume twenty years ago.

Yet the IPCC 2007 report suggested sea-ice would last all, if not most, of this century: “in some projections using SRES scenarios, Arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century”. One modelling image in the IPCC report (below)shows sea-ice still existent in period 2080-2100. This has proven to be dramatically conservative.

“As a scientist, I know that this is unprecedented in at least as much as 1,500 years. It is truly amazing – it is a huge dramatic change in the system”, says the NPI’s Dr Edmond Hansen. It is “not some short-lived phenomenon – this is an ongoing trend. You lose more and more ice and it is accelerating – you can just look at the graphs, the observations, and you can see what’s happening.”

And the trend is clear. Cambridge Professor and Arctic expert Peter Wadhams predicts Arctic summer sea ice “all gone by 2015”, except perhaps for a small multi-year remnant. Other Arctic specialists are now saying we will see an ice-free Arctic in summer within a decade or so.

Clearly the IPPC 2007 report is no longer scientifically adequate on the Arctic – and much else – and Holmen’s call to “adjust our understanding of the system and… adjust our science” is timely. The nub of the problem is that climate policy-making in Australia, and internationally, is stuck in the IPCC 2007 frame and is thereby disconnected from what is occurring on the ground, in the seas and at the poles. For that reason it can only fail.

The IPCC 2007 report dramatically underestimated sea-level rises to 2100, as being in the range of 0.18–0.59 metre this century, “excluding future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow”. Because ice sheet melting and carbon-cycle feedbacks such as permafrost are non-linear or difficult to model, the IPCC report projections “do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedbacks nor the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, therefore the upper values of the ranges are not to be considered upper bounds for sea level rise.” The use of paleo-climate (climate history) data as a guide to future sea levels, as advocated by researchers such as James Hansen of NASA, was excluded.

Four of six emissions IPCC scenarios found the “best estimate” of warming to 2100 to be at or below 2.8°C, whilst the trigger for substantial Greenland ice mass loss was put at at 2.7°C with a range of 1.9-4.6°C, “if global average warming were sustained for millennia” (my emphasis).

Put this IPCC 2007 picture together, and the science frame we get is:

  • Arctic sea-ice unlikely to be lost until the end of the century, or later.
  • No clear evidence as to whether polar ice sheet melting would accelerate, and in any case the trigger point for Greenland was close to 3°C (implicitly perhaps a century away).
  • Hence low estimates given for sea-level rises, based on a linear pattern of polar melt.  Dynamic and accelerating melting was noted as a possibility but not quantified, effectively rendering it as a footnote.
  • The language of “tipping points” was not deployed, and the strong implicit message – for the Arctic, Greenland and sea-levels – was that tipping points were not likely in next few decades, and some would play out on millennia time scales.
  • With the world aspiring to hold warming to 2°C, there is time enough to stop really bad things happening.
  • So even for the developed, high-polluting (Annex 1) countries, warming could be held to 2°C so long as they reduced emissions by 80 per cent by 2050; for other countries the target was as vague as “substantial deviation from baseline”. Still polluting in 2050 was OK, because the very bad things weren’t going to happen till well after that.

Contrast this to what we now know and observe, and “adjust our science” – as Holmen put it –  to a post-IPCC-2007 science frame:

  • Climate changes and impacts happening more quickly and at lower temperatures than expected, such as Arctic sea-ice which is in a “death spiral” and likely to be gone in summer within a few years.
  • The tipping point for Greenland has been revised down to 1.6ºC (uncertainty range of 0.8-3.2ºC) above pre-industrial, just as regional temperatures are increasing up to four times faster than the global average, and the increased heat trapped in the Arctic by the loss of reflective sea-ice ensures an acceleration in Greenland melt rate.
  • Significant tipping points have been already crossed and others are imminent, with particular concern for coral reef systems and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, to name but two.
  • The revision of sea-level rise of up to 2 metres by 2100; but the Australian government is stuck on 1.1 metre and state governments are back-pedalling on an 0.8 metre standard because of effect on some coastal property values. IMHO even 2 metres is too conservative, for the reasons articulated by James Hansen.
  • Establishment of “safe boundaries” approach to the planetary system at less than 350 parts per million (ppm) atmospheric carbon dioxide, compared to today’s level which is nudging 400 ppm.
  • Advocacy of the 350 target, but even this is too high since 350 ppm at equilibrium is warming of 1°C, and we can now observe at just 0.8°C warming that significant tipping points have been crossed or are at hand.
  • Carbon cycle feedbacks now being unleashed. In a paper just published, Vonk et al show activation of old carbon by erosion of coastal and sub-sea permafrost in Arctic Siberia is ten times larger than previously estimated. Another research paper published last Sunday by MacDougall et al. shows a “significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback”. Co-author Andrew Weaver explains in the Huffington Post:

“Instrumental records have clearly revealed that the world is about 0.8°C warmer than it was during pre-industrial times. Numerous studies have also indicated that as a consequence of existing levels of greenhouse gases, we have a commitment to an additional future global warming of between 0.6 and 0.7°C. Our analysis points out that the permafrost carbon feedback adds to this another 0.4 to 0.8°C warming. Taken together, the planet is committed to between 1.8 and 2.3°C of future global warming — even if emissions reductions programs start to get implemented.’

  • The application of carbon budget approach developed by Potsdam Institute shows that even for a 2°C target a delay in reaching peak emissions till 2020 then requires a  maximum emissions reduction rate of nine per cent per year.
  • But establishment of the 350 benchmark shows a need for emission levels to fall of a cliff and establishes need for large-scale drawdown of atmospheric carbon.

Are some in our science community concerned that educating politicians and the public about this post-IPCC-2007 frame is politically counter-productive because it paints the current climate legislation as puny and largely irrelevant to the urgency of the problem at hand? A forthcoming Climate Commission statement on the latest Arctic developments is expected to present the full range of peer-reviewed research and expert elicitations. It is hoped that the wider implications for policy-makers of an ice-free Arctic in a decade will be explored.

This is essential because there is no indication that either of the major parties have a clue about this post-IPCC science frame. Nor are there many signs of the major environment and climate advocacy groups incorporating this understanding into their public communications.  Most of their campaigning is stuck in the IPCC 2007 frame.

Is this another form of climate science denial? Not the denial of the Murdoch press and the Moncktons and Plimers, but the denial of those who for the sake of political convenience live in a bubble of outmoded policy frames that have been superseded by the pace of events in the real, physical world.

This article was originally published by Climate Code Red – climatecodered.org. Reproduced with permission.

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  • http://www.communityrenewal.ca Michael Lewis

    David – Kudos to you for this article. It is a brief and brilliant summary. I will put it out there as widely as I can. I too, though not a scientist, am needing to readjust my thinking. In a book I just finished “The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady State Economy” I worry that the incredibly robust innovations for transition that we document as clearly possible, are becoming more and more improbable.

    How we manage what Al Gore calls the balance between the ‘despair budget’ and the ‘hope budget’ is becoming even more of a challenge, to say the least.

    Thankyou David and thank you RenewEnergy. What a great service. Greetings from Canada – over and up to down under. Michael Lewis

    • http://climatecodered.org David Spratt

      Michael, the failure of most environment and climate advocacy organisations to base their campaigning on current science seems a global phenomenon, particularly in the rich, developed nations. I believe they must be confronted with this post-IPCC-2007 analysis and asked how it will change their campaigning. For the most part, the paths they are now on can only deliver failure, not hope based on a safe climate strategy. You have a task in Canada just as much as we do in Australia! David

  • http://www.in-syncminerals.com Terry Wall

    It is exactly this sort of article that is needed to “shock” some of our leaders to pull their heads out of the sand.

    Bearing in mind that 75 percent of the world is ocean, which in terms of temperature influence is one massive flywheel. It will take at least as long to slow as it did to speed up. How much of a reduction in CO2 will be required to tip it back; 200 ppm? A lot!

    Only one thing that can achieve this sort of reversal: Massive areas of tree planting in the over grazed and depleted organic matter soils. Warmer sea temperatures will increase the rainfall in countries like Australia. This would be a great place to start.

    • http://www.communityrenewal.ca Michael Lewis

      I am afraid the science does not support more rainfall in Australia. If you like I will send you the latest graphic representation from climate scientists that show why.

    • http://climatecodered.org David Spratt

      Terry, in general the climate model projections show lower rainfall for southern and south-western Australia, and possibly more in the northern half as tropical systems reach down further. What they also show is more extreme patterns of dryness and heavy rain events. As Prof. David Karoly of Melbourne University puts it: “Australia has been known for more than 100 years as a land of droughts and flooding rains, but what climate change means is Australia becomes a land of more droughts and worse flooding rains”.
      http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/all-the-wrong-stars-aligned-for-perfect-storms-20110111-19mrr.html#ixzz26EO6r3mi

  • http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/ Gail Zawacki

    Thank you so much for your regular briefings from Climate Code Red, one of the most sensible and realistic sources of climate information.

    You ask “Is this another form of climate science denial?” To which I would say absolutely yes and it’s been going on for a long time. Delusional hope affects even scientists and sadly, many large green organizations are corrupted by corporate donations.

    The fact is that tipping points have been irrevocably crossed and were some time ago. As if that weren’t bad enough, the only way – and there is a tremendous reluctance to face it – to make the drastic reductions in CO2 that would be required would necessitate fuel rationing, for starters, and a complete upheaval of the ideology that clings to perpetual growth – of our population and our individual consumption.

    As it become increasingly clear that we are approaching bottleneck, the human species in all its splendid perversity is doubling down on wastefulness and greed.

    Another form of rampant denial is that, in parallel with the death of coral reefs, the forests all over the world are dying. To the extent it is acknowledged, generally insects, disease and fungus are blamed – or else drought from climate change. All of these influences however are piling on top of the inexorably increasing level of persistent, background tropospheric ozone, which is toxic to vegetation. The immunity of trees to biotic attacks is compromised, and as their root systems shrivel when more energy is allocated to repairing the damage to foliage that absorbs air pollution, they are more vulnerable to drought.

    This is actually quite obvious and yet climate scientists have yet to factor in this critical loss of a major carbon sink into their models and predictions. It’s unfortunate, because ozone would dissipate rather quickly if we stopped emitting the precursors through burning fuel – but then perhaps that is why no one wants to admit it’s such a huge problem for plantlife. Fundamentally, industrial civilization would have to cease operations if we are to save the trees.

    Oh, and annual crops are significantly diminished in yield and quality, as well. Imagine what that is doing to the source of food for wild animals.

    It’s also quite important because, like ocean acidification, no geongineering scheme to block or reflect sunlight will solve these existential threats.

    There are many links to scientific research supporting this information in a book available as a free download (or in print from Amazon) if anyone is interested, here:

    http://www.deadtrees-dyingforests.com/pillage-plunder-pollute-llc/

  • Jackie MacDonald

    I just sent this article and a link to Environmental Health News (http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/) to 3 Canadian news sites with a complaint that the climate should be covered as much as the middle east. I am not optimistic that they will do as I suggest but one has to keep trying.