Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Archive for the ‘Antarctica’ Category

The Antarctic Ocean needs your help

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I must admit that I thought the Antarctic Treaty System protected the species living in the Great Southern Ocean – by virtue of the 1982 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCMLR).  However, it would seem that, in the same way that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has not eliminated trade in ivory (etc), it may be that the CCMLR is failing to protect endangered species in the Antarctic.  The key to this paradox may therefore be in the word “Conservation”.  If so, what the Antarctic Ocean would need is an equivalent to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991).  However, looking at that Protocol it already appears to include the entire Southern Ocean above a Latitude of 60 Degrees South.  If so, then you might conclude that 1991 Protocol is not working or not being enforced effectively. Sadly, it would appear to be more sinister than that.

Some of the parties to the existing CCMLR are clearly trying to subvert it!

Following receipt of an email from Leonardo diCaprio (writing on behalf of Avaaz) – appended below – I have retrieved the information below from the website of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, which provides some useful background…

Antarcticocean.org logo

The oceans around Antarctica are some of the most precious in the world. They’re one of the last places on Earth still relatively untouched by human activity.

1.  This beautiful, icy ocean environment is home to almost 10,000 species, many of which can be found nowhere else on the planet.
2.  Adelié and emperor penguins, Antarctic petrels and minke whales, Ross Sea killer whales, colossal squid and Weddell seals all thrive in this inhospitable climate.
3.  While many other marine ecosystems in other parts of the world have been devastated by development, pollution, mining, oil drilling and overfishing, Antarctica’s Ross Sea remains the most intact marine ecosystem on the planet.
4.  About 70% of our earth’s surface is ocean, yet less than 1% of it is fully protected from human development.
5.  85% of the world’s fisheries are classified as over exploited, fully exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, so commercial fishing vessels are moving to remote waters such as Antarctica’s in search of fish (according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation).
6.  Antarctica’s species are now under increasing pressure from commercial fishing for the slow-growing and long-lived Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish, (also known in parts of the world as the Chilean sea bass). These toothfish have become an expensive delicacy, sold in high-end restaurants as well as speciality seafood markets, primarily in the United States, Japan and Europe.
7.  Fishing by illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) vessels, often using “flags of convenience” is on the rise. In some parts of the Southern Ocean, unsustainable fishing methods such as deep sea gillnets are in use in some areas. These gillnets can reach more than 100 kilometres in length and are a threat to almost all marine life, including marine mammals and non-targeted fish species such as rays.
8.  Then there’s krill – an essential part of the food chain that supports the region’s whales, penguins, seals, fish and birdlife. Growing demand for krill as a health supplement and as food for fish farms has put it at risk. Climate change has already been linked to a significant decline in krill numbers – up to 80% in one region around the Scotia Sea (Atkinson et al 2004).
9.  Poor management and the large-scale removal of toothfish and species like krill would threaten the very balance of Antarctica’s unique and fragile ocean ecosystems.
10.  In 1991, the international community made a courageous decision to protect the Antarctic region as a natural reserve for peace and science. This included a ban on mining but this protection does not extend to Antarctica’s magnificent marine environment, leaving it at risk.

———–
leonardo di caprio
I shall leave it to Leonardo diCaprio to explain the whole story:

Dear friends,

I’m writing to ask for your help. Within days, governments could begin turning wide stretches of the Antarctic ocean into the world’s largest marine sanctuary, saving the habitat of whales, penguins, and thousands of other polar species from industrial fishing fleets.  But they won’t act unless we speak out now.

Most countries support the sanctuary, but Russia, South Korea and a few others are threatening to vote it down so they can plunder these seas now that others have been fished to death. This week, a small group of negotiators will meet behind closed doors to make a decision. A massive people-powered surge could break open the talks, isolate those attempting to block the sanctuary, and secure a deal to protect over 6 million square kilometers of the precious Antarctic ocean.

The whales and penguins can’t speak for themselves, so it’s up to us to defend them. Let’s change negotiators’ minds with a massive wave of public pressure – Avaaz will surround the meeting with hard-hitting ads, and together we’ll deliver our message to delegates via a deafening cry on social networks. Sign this urgent petition and share it with everyone you know:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_southern_ocean_5/?bSkdncb&v=18906

More than 10,000 species call these remote Antarctic waters their home, including blue whales, leopard seals, and emperor penguins, and many are found nowhere else on Earth. Climate change has already taken a cruel toll on their fragile habitat, but they will come under further threat from the industrial fishing fleet’s mile-long nets cast over these precious waters. Only a marine sanctuary will increase their odds for survival.

The 25-member governing body that regulates the Antarctic oceans has already committed to creating these marine protected areas. But the two plans being negotiated — one to protect part of the fragile Ross Sea and one for East Antarctica — are at risk of dilution or delay. Shockingly, the talks have been off the media’s radar and countries like Russia and South Korea are betting their opposition will go unnoticed, but if we cast a public spotlight on the talks we can force them to back off, and encourage champions like the US and EU to push for even stronger protections.

The future of the Southern ocean is in our hands. Let’s unleash a massive surge of global pressure and ensure governments don’t put profits before our planet. Please sign and share this petition with everyone you know:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_southern_ocean_5/?bSkdncb&v=18906

The Avaaz community has come together time and time again to protect our oceans. We’ve already helped win two of the largest marine reserves in the world. But the threats to our oceans continue, and one by one species are coming closer to the brink. Join me in saving the Antarctic ocean before it’s too late.

With hope,

Leonardo DiCaprio, with the Avaaz team.

Written by Martin Lack

22 October 2012 at 00:02

Is there an up-side to an ice-free Antarctica?

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I have come the very long way around to being concerned about anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). As a teenager I became interested in geography, then geomorphology, and finally geology. Having tried my hand at that for a few years, I went into hydrogeology; but the goal of helping poor people somehow escaped me. Now, however, I believe I have found my niche.

This is because if we don’t try to stop it, ACD will impact (actually it is already impacting) people in poor countries the hardest: As Adam Corner pointed out in the New Scientist magazine a year ago people in poor countries have no time for climate change scepticism. It is therefore the asymmetric nature of our ACD problem that drives me: Those who bear the greatest responsibility for having caused the problem are not the first to suffer; whereas those who bear the least responsibility for it (so far) are those that will suffer the longest and the greatest. Therefore, despite the fact that we are in the middle of a global debt crisis, investment in ACD mitigation must be seen as just that; an investment. However, enough context; what about Antarctica…?

I am grateful to Paul Handover – over at the excellent, multi-faceted and excessively popular Learning from Dogs blog – for prompting the train of thought that has led to this post. A few days ago, Paul posted an item about a new mining proposal at Pebble Bay in Alaska, which somehow got be thinking about mining in wilderness areas in general; and Antarctica in particular.

This is an important issue to me because, as much as I enjoyed my experience working at the Mt Whaleback iron ore mine in Newman WA (1986-89), it left me feeling deeply conflicted about the way we humans are raping and pillaging the planet. However, it was not until last year that I read E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered;(1973) and was literally bowled over by this quote: “we have mistaken nature’s capital for a source of income”.

Former mining consultant, Jared Diamond (i.e. the author of Collapse: How Societies choose to fail or succeed), is similarly conflicted and, although he has done a great deal to encourage mining companies to embrace environmental responsibility, he ultimately concedes that mining companies are not charities and, in many cases began working sites decades ago when legal requirements for site reclamation and/or restoration did not exist. Therefore they did not plan for it; and thus they will often do just about anything to abdicate responsibility for it.

Clearly then, it would be best if all mining were to stop in wilderness areas (especially highly polluting practices such as the cyanide heap leaching process used to extract minute amounts of gold from very poor quality ores. Not only is this highly polluting of the environment, the ore grade is so low that enormous volumes of material have to be dug up to extract enough gold for even one ingot.

Unfortunately, all mining is not going to stop today, tomorrow, or ever. One good thing though, the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) should prevent it being raped for the mineral resources that undoubtedly lie beneath the ice cap. I say“undoubtedly” because Antarctica was once geologically contiguous with Australia, South Africa and South America. Therefore, it will have all the same mineral deposits (see my blog back in October)… For those that are not familiar with it, the ATS was a product of the Cold War and suspended all sovereignty claims to the continent. As such, it’s primary objectives were to keep Antarctica as a demilitarised area and a nuclear-free zone. Then, one-by-one a series of protocols were added to the ATS to protect various species; the environment was very much an after-thought. Then, in 1989, after 18 years of negotiation the Parties to the ATS very nearly ratified the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctica Mineral Resources (CRAMRA) but fortunately did not (because it would not have banned anything): CRAMRA was torn-up and replaced a few years later with the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was ratified instead. However, even this only guarantees Antarctica will not be touched for about 35 more years (and it could be torn up at any time if any party chooses to dissent from the moratorium).

Given Hillary Clinton’s willingness to indulge in deeply disingenuous stunts as she did in Greenland last summer; trying to dress-up raping and pillaging the Arctic as conservation (almost as hypocritical as Richard Lindzen – apparently), the time for America to agree not to trash the wilderness in its own backyard is now. Rather than allowing Environmental Protection legislation to be weakened, rolled-back, or repealed; we need to demand that it maintained where it is now strong; strengthened in countries where it is now deficient; and enacted where it is now absent (i.e. in the Arctic). Although I have not done much with it (I have been focussing on this blog), it was thanks to Hillary Clinton’s antics in Greenland – and inspired by Greenpeace – that I set up my Stop Oil Exploration in the Arctic page on Facebook. I also blogged about this back in October too.

So what should be done:
1. All mining in the High Arctic and/or wilderness areas should be banned.
2. The ATS needs to be strengthened to ensure Antarctica is never exploited.
(Well, at least until all the ice is gone and the penguins are dead.)
3. Failing to recycle metals should be made a criminal offence!

I know this sounds extreme – and plays into the hands of those who claim environmentalists just want to oppress people but – what is the alternative? I’ll tell you what the alternative is… we continue to rape the planet; treat the environment with contempt; and pursue perpetual growth as if it is – or ever could be – the answer to all our problems. This is an insane fantasy! Indeed, as I suggested to readers of the Geological Society’s monthly Geoscientist magazine recently – growth is our ultimate problem!

However, for the record, in addition to being a Conservative voter, I am not anti progress (N.B. you may need to read to the end of this linked-artcle (i.e. one of my earliest on here) to see the relevance but I believe it will be worth it – especially if you think you are a “sceptic”!), but I am anti-mining in pristine wilderness and/or in a reckless fashion; unless all necessary safeguards are placed on operators (i.e. Bonds designed to provide funding for clean-up if mining company goes bankrupt). With regard to existing mines, some way must be found to stop companies filing for bankruptcy protection in order to walk away and let the Government pick up the bill (i.e. because the costs were unexpected). For new mines, clean-up costs should be factored-in at the start; if the mine can’t make a profit after allowing for them then it should not be started. It really do think it is as simple as that.

Written by Martin Lack

9 March 2012 at 00:02

PIG produces calf the size of NYC

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Pine Island Glacier - National Geographic

Pine Island Glacier - National Geographic

Explanatory notes:
PIG = Pine Island Glacier.
Calf = Piece broken off.
NYC = New York City.

If it were not for Peter Sinclair and Climate Denial Crock of the Week, I might never have heard of the PIG, nor understand why it is considered to be ‘the canary in the coal mine’ for warming in the Antarctic. I would never have heard of John Mercer; who was one of the first people to warn (in the late 1970s) that, once ice shelf fragmentation became obvious, we would know we were in serious trouble.
That time has now come.

Peter’s first post on this subject was very fortuitous in that linking to it fitted nicely into my critique of Richard Lindzen as a former apologist for the Tobacco industry turned climate change denier, which itself arose out of my learning of James Hansen’s characterisation of Lindzen as behaving like a lawyer who only puts forward information and argument favourable to his client; and as someone who does not seek truth because a lawyer merely seeks a win for his client. No prizes for guessing who his “client” is…

However, rather than re-posting Peter’s most recent item about the PIG, I will merely insert links to all of the above-referenced items in chronological order, in the hope those unfamiliar with it, will investigate the whole story (each will open in a new window):
- New crack in the PIG (3 Nov 2011).
- Is Richard Lindzen the devil’s advocate? (4 Nov 2011).
- “Changes in the Ice” – Pine Island Glacier’s crack heard round the world (7 Feb 2012).

For those short of time, here is a summary:

Antarctica - Real Climate

Antarctica - Real Climate

Glaciers always create more icebergs in summer (i.e. now in Antarctica). However, the PIG is generally accepted to be the most susceptible to calving and, in this case, the size of the piece that has now broken away is unprecedented. Its effect is similar to that of someone taking the hand brake off in your car parked on a steep hill while you are standing in front of it: Without the ice shelf to hold it back; the glacier behind it will now flow downhill faster… It’s yet another example of an insidious positive feedback mechanism.

Are we up that smelly creek without a viable means of propulsion? Not necessarily, I think. However, the solution lies with all of us; as we cannot leave it to our politicians to do the right thing because, quite simply, they never will. More on this tomorrow.

Fables about biodiversity (etc)?

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Continuing my review of Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s Betrayal of Science and Reason (1996), we come to Chapter 7 – regarding (what they called) the “brownlash’s” dismissal of concerns over biodiversity; threatened and endangered species; and species going extinct. Being Americans, the Ehrlichs discuss this matter with repeated reference to the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, as I pointed out a few days ago, the US having been the model for nearly all modern environmental legislation, the ESA has been replicated (in all but name) in many other developed countries around the world.

As the Ehrlichs point out, the ESA “lends itself to a simplistic us-versus-them mentality. After all, what’s more important – the economic wellbeing of people or the existence of a single species of owl, or snail, or butterfly?” (p.107). However, as the Ehrlich’s also point out, the ESA protects entire habitats that are known to contain endangered species. Unfortunately, for those inclined to object to the ESA, they will object either way; whether protection is demanded upon the basis of a single species or an entire ecosystem. After all, if nature has no intrinsic value, why should we not destroy it if it gets in the way of progress, right?

Wrong. Such anthropocentric thinking is what caused the Easter Islanders to become extinct. Even if you dispute the fact that nature has intrinsic value (i.e. that which it would have even if we were not here to observe it), you cannot (or should not) dispute the fact that it has inherent value; not just instrumental value. That is to say, humanity should (but often fails to) recognise that, even if we are not actually using nature’s resources (i.e. depleting them), they are performing useful (if not essential) functions. The technical term for these are ecosystem services; the most obvious of which is photosynthesis. However, healthy, photosynthesising plants don’t support themselves; they are dependent upon entire ecosystems that include bacteria, fungi, insects – indeed an entire food web – to ensure that the building blocks of life and nutrients (i.e. carbon, nitrogen, etc) are continually recycled. (If viewing this before 14 December 2011 – do watch the BBC’s After Life programme showing time lapse video of decaying food.)

One of the most astonishing assertions of the brownlash is that we should not be concerned about habitat destruction because “[o]nly a small portion of the Earth has been altered significantly by men and women” (Gregg Easterbrook, 1995). Is this guy for real? Surely, by 1995, only a small portion of the Earth had not been significantly altered by humanity? Today, arguably, even the Arctic and Antarctica, and the entire Oceans are being altered by human activity; there is literally no part of the planet that we are not affecting. Yet again, based on current patterns of resource consumption, derogation and pollution – including the ongoing impacts of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels not seen for 35 million years – this is clear evidence of human overpopulation.

Another common brownlash argument points to the fact that we do not even know how many species there are on Earth, so how can we know how many we have lost and/or whether their loss is significant? However, once again, this argument ignores the concept of ecosystem services. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that by rapidly destroying entire habitats, we do not allow time for populations of species to migrate or adapt. Therefore, even if we are not actually there to witness the last individuals expire; we can be fairly certain that habitat elimination will lead to species extinction.

However, I think the most compelling argument put forward for the retention, if not strengthening, of the ESA – rather than any brownlash appeal for it to be weakened, regularly over-ridden, got-around, or repealed – is that put forward by Edward O Wilson, who once famously described insects and other invertebrates as “the little things that run the world“. Because they thought Wilson’s words were so important, the Ehrlichs quoted them at length but, in essence, his point was that “we need invertebrates but they don’t need us” (quoted on p.121).

In our arrogance, we humans like to think of ourselves as the masters of our environment. Sitting as we do at the top of the evolutionary tree or – for those of an ascientific persuasion – the top of the food chain, we like to think of ourselves as the supreme being on our planet. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that we are in fact the least important species on it. If we were not here, because none of them are dependent upon us for anything, the rest of the lifeforms on Earth (apart from a few domesticated pets) would probably not even notice if we disappeared. In fact, some species might even be better off. Actually, that is a bit unfair. As with any predator, our sudden removal would cause an imbalance – leading to a sudden explosion in the numbers of those species on which we rely heavily for food. That would probably not end well.

However, the reality of the situation is much worse. Humans are not going to disappear, not without a long fight at very least. Unfortunately, our current activity is stressing ecosystems all around the planet and it is far more likely that we will – unless we radically change our collective behaviour – continue to inflict great stress on those ecosystems and, thereby, continue to cause species to go extinct. In doing so we are – almost literally – playing with fire; because we do not know exactly where nature’s breaking point is. At what point will ecosystems fail?

I tell you something; this is a game I don’t want to play anymore… What about you?

Is Richard Lindzen the devil’s advocate?

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As I said yesterday, this is a sort of addendum to my review of James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren, arising out of Hansen’s characterisation of Lindzen as behaving like a lawyer – putting forward only information and argument favourable to his “client” (page 12); and as someone that does not seek truth because “a lawyer [merely] seeks a win for his client” (page 56).

A brief Google search reveals that Lindzen has repeatedly threatened with litigation anyone who asserts that he denies that smoking causes lung cancer but, here again, he is just being disingenuous, playing with words, and trying to re-write history. The plain facts of this matter are that he was for many years periodically paid large sums of money by Phillip Morris to defend their product against claims that smoking was detrimental to the health of those that smoke and/or others present when they do so.

In so doing, he was a member of the same ideologically-driven bunch of scientists with neo-Conservative tendencies that decided, by 1992 at the very latest, that environmentalism was and is the enemy. These are the people that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway identify as “Merchants of Doubt”; some of whom I have called “the four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse (i.e. Jastrow, Nierenberg, Seitz, and Singer). Although 3 out of 4 of these horsemen may now be dead, many more have saddled-up and taken their place… Therefore, it was not for nothing that the German Environment Minister at the 1992 Rio Summit went on the record as saying, “I am afraid that conservatives in the United States are picking ‘ecologism’ as their new enemy” (Luke (2000) – reference details [and link] appended below).

Not only was it a tobacco company executive who, in order to maintain sales and profits, once infamously decided “doubt is our product”, it was a tobacco industry lobby group (The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition [TASSC]) that also brought into common parlance the terms “sound science” and “junk science” in an attempt to deny the seriously detrimental health effects of long-term cigarette smoking (see Ong and Glantz (2001) – reference details [and link] appended below). So it is that these mischievous right-wing ideologues have repeatedly sided with special interests groups (i.e. business leaders – be that in the pesticide, tobacco, or energy industries) in a series of campaigns that have – make no mistake – been against the public interest.

One final point I believe worthy of note is this: Richard Lindzen has a long association with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is also famous for having been the home of the team of researchers whom The Club of Rome, from 1972 onwards, got to do the work for their Limits to Growth reports. In this respect, it should be noted that the former was a group of very wealthy people who were concerned about the profligate and reckless consumption-obsessed society they saw around them 40 years ago (and which is still with us today). Therefore, MIT should be commended for the complete absence of political interference in the research and publications of those that work within it. This stands in stark contrast to the record of shocking – and utterly hypocritical – political interference in the work of NASA during the tenure of George W Bush (see yesterday’s post). One must hope that this has now stopped.

Unfortunately, political interference in science may have stopped but, with people like Richard Lindzen still around, supposedly-scientific interference in politics certainly has not yet been stopped. Furthermore, Hansen has demonstrated just how damaging this ideologically-driven and politically-prejudiced interference has been, and how far back it can be traced: He cites the case of John Mercer who, in the late 1970s, warned that burning fossil fuels may lead to the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Forget “may lead to…” – it is now happening (e.g. see this Climate Denial Crock of the Week item about the Pine Island Glacier)!… But people like Mercer and Hansen are rare, thus Hansen laments the general scientific reticence to speak plainly, forcibly and repeatedly; and to refuse to accept political interference, posturing and prevarication. On the contrary, Hansen asserts that scientists have generally been more concerned about being accused of “crying wolf” than of being guilty of “fiddling while Rome burns” (page 87-8).

Well, given that Rome is well-and-truly burning, or the ship is well-and-truly sinking (or whatever other metaphor you prefer to invoke), one is left hoping that real, objective, climate scientists – as opposed to those like Lindzen that are prisoners of neo-Conservative, anti-environmental prejudice – will find their voice and win the attention of the public and politicians alike. This is because I think Hansen is right to conclude that we are all in breach of Article 2 of the UNFCCC, because “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” is already underway and, as yet, we are doing nothing effective to stop it.

——————–

References:
Luke, T (2000), ‘A rough road out of Rio: The right-wing reaction in the United States against Global Environmentalism’, in Low, N. et al. (eds.) Consuming cities: The urban environment in the global economy after the Rio declaration, New York: Routledge (pp.54-69). [Available for free download here]

Ong, E. & Glantz, S. (2001), ‘Constructing “Sound Science” and “Good Epidemiology”: Tobacco, Lawyers, and Public Relations Firms’, American Journal of Public Health, Volume 91(11), pp.1749-1757. [Available for free download here]

Hansen – where the IPCC went wrong

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I could have just called this post “Climate science in a nutshell – Part 3” but that would have been to display a singular lack of imagination (no pun intended); and may not have grabbed your attention. So, yes, I am continuing my review of Storms of my Grandchildren. Hansen says in the Introduction to the book, his intention was to summarise events since his sixtieth birthday in 2001 and, the further you get into the book, the more obvious it becomes that he has spent much of his time since then telling anybody that would listen (and many would not) that the IPCC were seriously underestimating the risks posed by climate change. This has now become a well-established fact that will hopefully be addressed in the forthcoming Assessment Report 5. However, when Hansen started saying this in 2003, it was almost revolutionary…

First of all a brief journey back in time: In Chapter 4, Henson goes on a brief detour to explain why it is that we still don’t have the data to accurately quantify exactly how much pollution in the atmosphere is slowing down the warming that would otherwise be taking place; and why this is now so regrettable. The answers being that special interest groups interfered with decision making 20 years ago to prevent investment in the necessary satellite construction and deployment; and if we understood this “global dimming” effect better we would also have a better idea of how bad things could get (if and when developing countries clean-up their act).

James Hutton is one of the most famous figures in the history of geology who first devised the Principle of Uniformitarianism (which Chrales Lyell later popularised by saying “the the present is the key to the past). This contends that, for example, by watching the way water can cut a channel through moist sand on a beach when the tide goes out, we can understand how the Grand Canyon was formed; and that the only difference (in this instance) is the time taken to achieve the end result. Hansen’s insight has been to invert this Principle and to realise that the past is the key to the present; in that we can deduce what will now happen by understanding what happened in the past; and why (Chapter 5).
Figure 1 from Hansen et al (2008)
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the time-series data from the ice core record (reproduced here for convenience) is what Hansen calls the “saw-toothed climate response”: Whereas ice age conditions have generally taken tens of thousands of years to develop; the Earth has typically emerged from them at least ten times faster. This Hansen attributes to the fact that ice melts much faster than it can accumulate (which is dependent on it snowing first). Furthermore, although the pattern of the last 1 million years has been for the Earth to go in and out of ice ages, it has been much warmer in the more distant past. For example, Antarctica first became glaciated when the temperature was 4 Celsius warmer than pre-Industrial times; 35 million years ago when atmospheric CO2 was at 450ppm and falling. This is why Hansen went on record a few years ago saying that humanity needed to avoid allowing such conditions to re-establish themselves because the melting of ice sheets would then be inevitable.

However, what has irritated Hansen for much of the last 10 years is the fact that the IPCC predictions of sea level change in 2001 and 2007 have ignored the melting of ice caps. Furthermore, Hansen is convinced that this is the reason why climate change effects (melting glaciers, permafrost, sea ice, and ice caps in Greenland and West Antarctica) are now accelerating faster than the IPCC predicted: Basically, the IPCC did not allow for amplifying feedback mechanisms. Quite why, I still don’t understand (hopefully I will by the time I finish the book), but I suspect it was because they were relying on climate modelling too much; and not looking out the window enough.

The next factor in the equation (to determine how bad things could get and how quickly they could get there) is the inertia in the climate system: Despite the fact that the Earth can warm-up much quicker than it cools-down (and ice core data do show that air temperatures can change dramatically within just a few years), the oceans take decades to change their overall temperature because of their volume. Although the recent warming (and acidification) of the oceans cannot now be seriously questioned, those that would deny that we have a problem and/or are the cause of the problem will no doubt continue to do so (just as they continue to dispute the veracity of land-based temperature increases). However, what should be remembered is this: Despite all of their limitations, computer modelling did predict the warming of the oceans and the consequential increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms, droughts, wildfires, floods, blizzards, etc. Therefore, whilst it may be impossible to prove that any individual extreme weather event is a direct consequence of climate change, in aggregate, it is surely as plain as the nose on your face that this is exactly what we were told would happen. The big question is, what’s next?

Please come back tomorrow to find out! :-)

Climate science in a nutshell – Part 1

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James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren has been affectionately described as having “a rambling quality that’s sometimes evident in Hansen’s speeches”. However, the same reviewer also noted that “the book does get to a focused and well-supported conclusion: that business as usual will bring climate catastrophe, and our time to act is running short”.

Based on over 20 years of professional hydrogeological work experience, I believe that probabilistic computer models are useful, as does James Hansen. Undoubtedly, he would be very quick to point out, as does Clive Hamilton, that the only uncertainty in model predictions arises out of uncertainty in emissions forecasts; and not out of any uncertainty regarding climate sensitivity to changes in atmospheric CO2. Despite all this, the most remarkable and challenging thing about Hansen’s book is its focus on what we can learn from studying changes to the Earth’s climate over geological timescales (i.e. palaeoclimatology). It is therefore clear that Hansen sees this, rather than climate modelling, as the best available evidence of the need for urgent recognition of – and response to – the fact that human activity is endangering all life on Earth.

In pages 36 to 51 of Storms of my Grandchildren, Hansen provides an introduction to what we can learn from palaeoclimatology. However, one basic fact is not clearly stated, which is a shame. This fact, however, is clearly stated in the first episode of David Attenborough’s new BBC series, Frozen Planet: Most people are probably familiar with the fact that warm air holds more moisture than cold air, but how many are aware that water at 30 Celsius can only hold half as much dissolved CO2 as it can at 10 Celsius? Furthermore, how many could say why this is so fundamentally important to climate science?

In this post and those that follow it this week, I intend to unpack all this sort of stuff; and demonstrate why the time is well overdue for climate sceptics to stop denying that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is happening, significant and bad; and why it is therefore a problem that we simply must try and mitigate. However, for now, let us just focus on this issue of CO2 solubility in water, which is a key to understanding the palaeoclimatic record (e.g. as revealed from studying ice core data from holes drilled through the Antarctic ice cap).

Although Antarctica was first glaciated (i.e. covered in ice) 35 million years ago, the current ice cap (over 4 kilometres thick in places) only provides a record of several 100 thousand years but, believe me, this is enough for us to understand how planet Earth works. From this data, we know that there have been 8 ice ages in the last 750,000 years, and we know that they were all caused by regular wobbles in the angle of the Earth’s axis of rotation and less-regular variations in the non-circularity (i.e. eccentricity) of its orbit. We also know that changes in the CO2 content of the atmosphere, which match those in the Earth’s temperature exactly, happened several hundred years later in each and every case. This is because of the way in which the Earth regulates its temperature (ensuring an energy balance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing infra-red radiation) using the solubility of CO2 in water:

Put very simply, when the oceans cool down (during the onset of an ice age), they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and, because it has been removed from the atmosphere, more heat is lost to space. Thus the Earth stays cold until the natural forcing induces warming (e.g. axis of rotation becomes less vertical again). Then, as the oceans warm up they release CO2 into the atmosphere, trapping more heat in, keeping the planet warm. Thus, both glacial and interglacial periods represent times of energy balance; whereas periods of transition represent times of energy imbalance that are eliminated by atmospheric CO2 changes.

The next step in understanding palaeoclimatic changes is to differentiate between forcings (that bring about change) and feedbacks (that amplify or accelerate any change). It is the existence of amplifying feedback mechanisms that make artificial changes to the atmospheric CO2 concentration so dangerous. However, quite how dangerous, we can only discover by looking in detail at changes that have occurred over the last 400,000 years. This, then, is what I will do tomorrow.

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