Uh, oh: Loss of control ahead …

In the technical summary from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory based at the California Institute of Technology titled “Far northern permafrost may unleash Carbon within decades”,

An excerpt:

Permafrost in the coldest northern Arctic — formerly thought to be at least temporarily shielded from global warming by its extreme environment — will thaw enough to become a permanent source of carbon to the atmosphere in this century, with the peak transition occurring in 40 to 60 years, according to a new NASA-led study.

The study calculated that as thawing continues, by the year 2300, total carbon emissions from this region will be 10 times as much as all human-produced fossil fuel emissions in 2016.

This paper, one of a long series of studies of the permafrost, including field assays of emissions using NASA and other aircraft, is titled:

N. C. Parazoo, C. D. Koven, D. M. Lawrence, V. Romanovsky, C. E. Miller, “Detecting the permafrost carbon feedback: talik formation and increased cold-season respiration as precursors to sink-to-source transitions”, The Cryosphere, 12, 123-144, 2018.

It is the first definitive example of a long held fear apparent to anyone familiar with climate science and who thinks deeply about it. While initial forcings off the climate optimum within which civilization has developed are caused completely and entirely by human emissions and actions, the effects of such emissions are, increasingly, amplified by natural forcings. The most direct one is from water vapor which, due to the Clausius-Clapeyron relation, and the fact that water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas, means, roughly, that for each part of warming due to CO2 emissions there’s a comparable part due to water vapor, resulting in a doubling of effect. As warming progresses, there are stores of organic and other Carbon which are frozen out of circulation and microbial activity because of temperature, principally in polar regions. As the Earth warms — and noting that polar regions, percentage-wise, warm more than temperate or tropical ones — these stores are challenged and, eventually, begin to ferment once more. This results in additional emissions of greenhouse gases, CO2 but sometimes CH4.

The implication of all this is that while, at present, we control nearly all of emissions and could, in principle, reverse them by our choice of energy and other deliberate designs, in time, an increasing fraction of emissions will come from natural sources, temperature dependent, over which we have no control whatsoever. Accordingly, if, someday, humanity wished to contain climate change by reducing emissions, while they could zero their own contributions, as time goes, there is no capability of zeroing these natural ones, because they respond to increased temperatures, and that is all. Even Solar Radiation Management, which, in my opinion, is a really bad idea, basically, in its designs, maintains temperatures at whatever they are, preventing increases. It does not cool Earth’s surface.

What’s worse is that even if humanity decided, because of the consequences, to try to scrub atmosphere of emissions, this project is only reasonable, if astronomically expensive, if human emissions are nearly zeroed. It is not possible to keep up with human emissions as they are at present. Human emissions cannot be zero because of those inherent in agriculture and food production, even if these were managed with vehicles and processes which themselves were zero emitting. Accordingly, to the degree to which natural sources increase and dominate, they might, at some point, render any project for direct capture of CO2 futile, closing the door on our climate fate, even if we wanted to spend huge amounts of financial and human capital to make it happen. This is well beyond the ability of any market incentives or technology or engineering to contain.

Researchers Ben Jones, left, Laurence Plug and Guido Grosse pierce and ignite bubbles of methane gas that are frozen near the surface of a tundra lake on Alaska’s Seward Penisula. Methane has 72 times the heating effect of carbon dioxide (CO2), and its emission from arctic lakes was a major contributor to a period of global warming more than 11,000 years ago Nowhere is the evidence of a heating planet more dramatic than in the polar regions. Over the past 50 years, the arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the globe. (Photo by Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Thus, humanity could, in these circumstance, lose control. Certainly, such natural sources of emissions will make it increasingly more expensive to manage the effects of our emissions. At some point, we tip into a world which is hurling itself headlong into a climate destiny we cannot even imagine.

This is another, perhaps dominant reasons why keeping mean surface temperature changes to but +2 Celsius is so important.

We’re failing to do that.

About hypergeometric

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This entry was posted in Anthropocene, bridge to nowhere, carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide capture, civilization, clear air capture of carbon dioxide, climate, climate change, climate disruption, climate economics, Cult of Carbon, destructive economic development, ecological services, environment, fermentation, fossil fuels, geoengineering, global blinding, Global Carbon Project, global warming, greenhouse gases, Humans have a lot to answer for, Hyper Anthropocene, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, liberal climate deniers, permafrost, wishful environmentalism, zero carbon. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Uh, oh: Loss of control ahead …

  1. Pingback: and Then There’s Physics does “Talking solutions and motivating action” | Hypergeometric

  2. Greg Robie says:

    I was also concerned by this, but found the editor’s and/or author’s headline troublesome; suggested intentional distraction regarding current and increasing emissions in the Arctic, particularly methane. The research I did on the author did not turn up any pattern, and I was aware that it has been assumed the plant species shifts and boreal forest expansion would become a new carbon sink, so this is a locked in “future” risk; a justified headline in its own right. Even so, its specificity is disingenuous. And I recall a scientifically meaningless two year study by Dlugokencky in 2009 that averaged away an increase in Arctic methane measured at Svalbard, and identified and quantified by Bloom et al (2010) from satellite data. The timing of the meaningless Dlugokencky ‘nothing-to-see-here’ study coincided with Obama’s and Clinton’s derailing of the second commitment period for a binding climate treaty. FWIW, it took me ~6 months to ‘pry’ a copy the report from the communication officer!

    [Who’s communications officer?Moderator]

    BTW, I note elsewhere the assertion that Obama’s assenting to the non-binding Paris Accord is a ratification of it by the United States. Is that intentional?

    [Commented edited to clean up the links which otherwise drift off into the right margin. Also, generally speaking, this is a technical blog. I allowed your comment, this time, but speculation about conspiratorial politics is generally not accepted. I allowed this because of the references it contained, and because you did not know this before. If it were submitted again with your having knowledge of this policy, I’d send it back to you for an edit before posting.Moderator]

  3. Greg Robie says:

    It was NOAA’s communication officer at the time.

    And a question, to the degree game theory is integral to climate policy negotiation among nation states today, how do you accommodate any discussion of its dynamics?

    • Why would you contact a NOAA communications officer? What do they have to do with Science?

      I don’t think game theory is in the least bit relevant because I don’t see how a one dimensional utility can represent the current situation. Indeed, one dimensional measures are vastly overrated, and the only reason why technical types like them is that they have a total ordering that comes with them. Unfortunately, real descriptions of real problems are never that neat.

      Besides, you’re discussing CH4. The principal emission from the far north tundra cited before is not CH4, it’s CO2 from fermentation of previously frozen organics.

  4. Greg Robie says:

    The paper about the two year study concerning atmospheric methane sources was being promoted in what I was reading at the time. I was also aware of the Svalbard measurements. If I recall correctly, I was instructed, when requesting the paper of Ed, to direct my request to the communication officer. I did … repeatedly (but politely and patiently). FWIW, I do have the email communication, and I could check the details with a bit of rummaging.

    You are correct about game theory relative to the social agenda we might share. But that agenda is not what is trusted to keep the economic meme’s status quo ‘going’, i.e., not continuing its collapse. The political agenda relative to the latter does find game theory relevant. Can I prove this? Of course not.

    I know the study this bog entry addresses is limited to the Arctic and atmospheric CO2. I felt I said so explicitly. Aerobic fermentation happens in former permafrost soils. Anaerobic decomposers also busy themselves in former permafrost soils that are unfriendly to aerobic decomposers. And the same soil can seasonally shift whom it favors. It is the very complexity, as you reference, that got my attention concerning the limited reporting about this study. This focused study, as reported on by Carol, and titled by her or her editor, narrows comprehension concerning the comprehensiveness and immediacy of the matter that is reported on. In about a decade CH4 is CO2. In the meantime the infrared frequencies methane absorbs constitutes (to me) a terrifying CO2e.

    I’m struggling to get the intent of our interchanges so far. If we are in some kind of imagined competition regarding intellectual prowess-ness, I’m not interested. The questions I raised in your ATTP post on this blog apply to me as well.

    • There is no intent in our exchanges. You posted something at my blog. I needed to respond or edit in order to clarify and keep the discussion where I want it.

  5. Greg Robie says:

    From the little I have read and explored, I am impressed with all that appears to be here AND that it is as you want it. Such is no small accomplishment. May your efforts garner the traffic they merit.

    • Greg,

      You are very kind.


      However, I really don’t care very much now little or much traffic I get. I don’t depend upon it to fund the site. It is, of course, nice to reach more people, but, then, I’m not going to change what I do or write to achieve that.


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