Seas rising much faster, super storms in the coming decades, doubling and re-doubling of polar ice melt – new Hansen paper. We talk with co-author Isabella Velicogna, and with Ottawa climate scientist Paul Beckwith. Also: the Canadian super fire at Fort McMurray: can the tar sands burn? Radio Ecoshock 160511
It’s about 90 degrees, or 29 Celsius, outside my door, in the early Canadian spring. Crazy weather, the same super heat that set northern Alberta on fire. We’ll talk about the the climate connection, and ask the question: “can the tar sands burn?” – later in this program.
First, though it seems less exciting, we’re going to begin a series about the most important scientific paper of this new century. Dr. James Hansen led a team of international scientists who completely revise the science of climate change. Seas rising much faster, super storms in the coming decades, doubling and re-doubling of polar ice melt. It’s a climate thriller, and we all get to live in the new disturbed world. I’m Alex. Welcome to Radio Ecoshock.
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Angels arrested photo courtesy of fossilfreemu.org – at a Blockade of the coal facility at Newcastle Harbour, Australia May 8, 2016.
PAUL BECKWITH ON THE PAPER BY HANSEN ET AL
The scientist who warned the U.S. Congress about dangerous climate change in 1988 is back. Dr. James Hansen, who recently retired as head of NASA’s Goddard Institute, says we’re going to be hit much sooner and harder than we’ve been told by mainstream science. Hansen says the two degree Centigrade upper limit to human-induced global warming, as agreed at the Paris climate summit in December 2015 – is not just unsafe. It is plainly very dangerous for humans and all life as we know it.
James Hansen and more than a dozen other world scientists published a monumental 66 page scientific paper in March. The full title is: “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 o C global warming could be dangerous“. Find the abstract (very informative) here, or read the full text version here.
A transcript of Hansen’s “Video Abstract” can be found here at Columbia University,
The public has hardly heard the news, and there’s a lot to hear.
I’ve called up a regular Radio Ecoshock correspondent to help us sort out what this new Hansen paper says. Paul Beckwith teaches climate science at the University of Ottawa. He has two Masters degrees and is developing his PhD thesis on abrupt climate change.
So James Hansen, perhaps the world’s foremost climate scientist, leads this new and shocking intrepretation of recent science – and the political and public reaction is… crickets basically. Why is it taking so long for people to get this?
The paper covers so much – polar ice melt, sea level, super storms, ocean mixing. It’s so long, that few people have read it all. Maybe this master paper is a response by Dr. Hansen and his co-authors to the obvious short-comings of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s like an alternative climate report.
I come away with one big place to start: it’s not global heating like one or two degrees, but the big changes in the ocean we don’t hear about. Jim Hansen suggests we worry less about the temperature outside, and more about the ocean energy imbalance. I hope to have more on that in a coming show.
There’s a pattern at both Poles where the surface water may actually be getting cooler, and it’s warmer down below. Paul explains that stratification, and how the warmer water can get under the grounding lip of glaciers, moving more ice toward the sea. The new Hansen paper suggests that warmer water at the ice grounding lines matters more in Antarctica, and less on Greenland.
The more conventional modelling scientists are still suggesting 1 to 2 meters of sea level rise by the end of this century. This new paper finds there could be 1 meter of sea level rise by 2050, and several meters by 2100. That means the end of many major coastal cities around the world. Paul Beckwith goes further. If we just compute the doubling time of ice melt, he says that adds up to 7 meters of sea level rise by 2070. Beckwith has a video on You tube where he explains how that could be possible. Watch that original video here, and his update here.
THE COMING SUPER STORMS
Let’s get to one of James Hansen’s favorite topics, the coming super storms. To understand this, we have to go back about 130,00 years. That’s a time when, Hansen says, differences in ocean temperatures led to the formation of giant waves that swept boulders weighing over a thousand tons high up on Caribbean islands. The paper features photos of these sea-tossed rocks. Some other scientists disagree that these storms will happen. I’ll cover that in a coming show.
Right in this new paper, the authors say that what happened in the Eemian period, 130,00 years ago, may not be a good predictor for what is coming for us. But that isn’t a good reason to calm down and worry less. At one point in the Eemian, it was only about 1 degree C warmer than today (a level we are approaching rapidly) – and yet sea levels were tens of meters higher than now.
Paul finds two things missing in this paper by Hansen. First: there is no mention of disturbance of the Jet Stream, and all the changes that makes to our weather, seen even now. The link to melting of Arctic sea ice is not part of the calculations. Second, and this is close to Paul Beckwith and the AMEG group (Arctic Methane Emergency Group) -Hansen doesn’t factor in methane coming up in the Arctic, as a jolt to warming, and a positive feedback.
A SUMMARY OF PAUL BECKWITH’S 9 PART REVIEW OF THE HANSEN-LED PAPER
If you are looking for my interview with Hansen co-author Isabella Velicogna, please scroll down a few pages in this blog. My review of the Fort McMurray fires, asking what happens if they burn the tar sands operations – follows that.
Paul did a 9-part series of You tube videos on this paper. Here are my notes on that 9-part Beckwith series, with Paul’s text and links to each.
Published on Jul 23, 2015
“My first of a series of videos examine highlights of Hansen et al., a landmark 66 page paper with 16 authors titled “Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms: Evidence from Paleoclimate Data, Climate Modeling, and Modern Observations that 2 oC Global Warming is Highly Dangerous“
A previous warm period about 130,00 years ago, is the Eemian – sea level 5-9 meters higher than today, and enormous storms, not seen in the Holocene. Temp was up to 1 deg higher – may have been less “we’re almost there”. But our drivers and rates of change are higher than ever seen in paleologic record.
Key finding is non-linear ice sheet disintegration is happening now. (Paul has looked at doubling period and asks if there could be 7 meter sea level rise by 2070).
The ocean is warming, especially 1-2 kilometers down. In the Arctic and Antarctic this is the grounding level of massive ice shelves. When ice shelves go, it’s like removing a cork, which will speed up movement of ice sheets toward the sea.
The vertical ventilation in Antarctica is reducing – ocean stratification.
Another key finding is that increased ice melting decreases the surface temp of ocean. Which could explain the cold blob south of Greenland. That can create a pressure difference (baroclinicity) that can lead to extremely high winds, and thus changes to ocean circulation pattern. The high winds can generate high waves over very large distances. Geologic evidence shows them rolling from southeast to southwest, arriving in the Bahamas, 30 meters high, 20 meters in Bermuda. (30 meters is about 100 feet). These waves are big enough to sink ships, possibly ending ship traffic at that time and place.
Another key finding, during late Eemian sea level rose 2-3 meters in a few decades. It’s an “enormous catastrophic rise” Paul says.
Another key: in ocean circulation over 500 to a thousands years or more, these natural time frames no longer apply to rates of change today.
In summary 2 degrees C warming is highly dangerous.
BECKWITH VIDEO TWO ON THE HANSEN PAPER
Published on Jul 23, 2015
“In the classic movie “A Christmas Carol” miser Scrooge was visited by 3 ghosts, of past, present and future. Humanity is Scrooge, and Paleoclimate is the past ghost, while extreme weather events increasing in frequency, severity and duration, extensive fires, methane emissions and ocean acidification are the parent ghost. The ghost of the future that will be if we continue our present fossil fuel combustion pathway is very dire…“
If the oceans become more stratified, with less circulation, then the “sink” ability of the ocean to capture our excess CO2 is reduced.
BECKWITH VIDEO THREE ON THE HANSEN PAPER
Published on Jul 23, 2015
“In the last warm interval on Earth (called the Eemian), global temperatures were likely only +0.2 or +0.3 degrees Celsius warmer than today (+1 degrees maximum), and sea level was +5 to +9 meters higher. Are we rapidly heading there NOW?“
BECKWITH VIDEO FOUR ON THE HANSEN PAPER
Published on Jul 23, 2015
“Near the end of the previous warm period (Late-Eemian) when the sea level was +5 to +9 meters higher than today, persistent long period long wavelength waves 30 meters high battered the Bahamas coastline. Will we see these massive storm generated waves soon? No ship could survive this…“
Published on Jul 24, 2015
“North Atlantic Ocean sediment cores from the sea floor provide age information on ocean temperature, ocean circulation and ice sheet destabilization inferred from ice rafted debris (IRD – rocks carried by icebergs then dropped to sea floor when ice melts). Following Hansen et al. I discuss the AMOC (Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) and the SMOC (Southern Meridional Overturning Circulation) changes and connections.“
Published on Jul 24, 2015
“I discuss Hansen et al. climate modelling methods and results. Main results show that ice cap melt on Greenland and/or Antarctica injects fresh water into oceans near respective continents causing rapid sea level rise and shuts down AMOC and/or SMOC leading to enormous global climate disruption, including massive storms.”
At 10:30 minutes, Beckwith discusses how changing ocean currents can affect storms in the North Atlantic. Winds from N.E. to S.W. can create super storms. If you increase winds speed 10 or 20 percent it can increase storm power up to twice. “Enormous waves across the North Atlantic would eliminate ship traffic” because no ship is built to withstand 30 meter waves (100 feet high).
It sounds like terrible news for the Caribbean, but what does it mean for Europe? or North America?
Published on Jul 24, 2015
“Earth system Energy Imbalance causes warming when more heat is trapped than released. Forcing from orbital changes, albedo changes and greenhouse gas changes are discussed per Hansen et al. The vital role of the Southern Oceans on CO2 and temperature, as well as subsurface ocean temperature and ice sheet destabilization leading to rapid non-linear sea level rise is also discussed.”
The Southern Ocean is the “gateway to the global deep ocean”. It also controls S. Ant meltwater rate and global sea level rise.
Published on Jul 24, 2015
“Modern data on ocean circulation changes in AMOC-Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, and SMOC-Southern MOC are examined. Abrupt changes are occurring today.”
Circulation has already changed since the 1980’s. Talks about the “Polynyas” which create pools that raise the heat. They have become more rare in Antarctica, saying that heat is staying in the deeper ocean.
Ice core data from Antarctic from ocean sediments show 8 episodes of very large ice flux – largest 14,600 years ago, meltwater pulse 1a – 1-3 meters sea level rise per century for several centuries. We have less ice to start with now, but the forcing is much more rapid.
Seasonal sea ice is growing in Antarctica.
At 8:20 minutes Paul discusses the problem of “doubling rate” vs. a linear projection as the reason why IPCC projections are always so low, compared to reality.
He describes the regions of Antarctic most at risk.
Published on Jul 24, 2015
“With BAU (Business As Usual) humanity faces a very abrupt future of misery; including rapid 5 to 9 meter sea level rise taking out coastal cities around the planet. I analyze findings from the landmark Hansen et al. paper titled “Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms: Evidence from Paleoclimate Data, Climate Modeling, and Modern Observations that 2 degree Celsius Global Warming is Highly Dangerous“.
Paul begins by discussing at what point global warming really began – 8,000 years ago, the 1960’s or what?
Rapid sea level rise may begin sooner than predicted by mainstream climate science so far. This could be do to changes in ocean circulation, and warming waters reaching the grounding lines for ice shelves in Arctic and Antarctica, leading to non-linear increase in melting and sea level rise, impossible to avoid on our current path.
Greenland, Hansen says, does not slope toward the sea, and so may not melt as fast as Antarctica. Paul disagrees, partly due to loss of sea ice, and so no latent heat/cooling, leading to non-linear melting.
With more melting, stronger winds, and long wave trains, we can expect huge waves on top of higher sea level, as happened before.
6:20 “in real life things are happening faster than in the models“
The 2 degree “safe” guard-rail is not safe at all. It leads to sea level rise of several meters, changes in ocean circulation, slow-down of AMOC etc.
Global temperature change is not the best metric. “It gives a false sense of security”, because it hides heat going into the ocean. What is key is the energy imbalance. Hansen says CO2 needs to be reduced to 350 ppm, not just a slash in emissions. Various methods are possible.
According to Hansen we have to reduce emissions by about 6% a year, to reach 350 ppm by 2100. Paul calls it a “landmark paper”.
That video series by Paul Beckwith operates like a mini-course in climate change. Of course, Paul has created several videos to teach climate change to all of us. Find his series at paulbeckwith.net, or by searching You tube for “Beckwith”.
On radio, we discussed what might be the biggest scientific paper of this decade, if not this century. It’s from a team of scientists led by the famous Dr. James Hansen. The title is “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 ?C global warming could be dangerous”. I’ll be doing more interviews and analysis as we go along. Dr. Hansen agreed to do an interview for Radio Ecoshock, but at this writing, he has not shown up yet.
HANSEN CO-AUTHOR AND ICE EXPERT ISABELLA VELICOGNA
Yes, Isabella Velicogna is a co-author on the new paper led by James Hansen. She’s also a power researcher in her own right. Educated in Italy, Isabella has a collection of roles with NASA’S Jet Propulsion Lab, the CIRES Institute at the University of Colorado – and she’s an Associate Professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine.
On Radio Ecoshock, you’ve heard me talk about the pair of satellites called GRACE. These twins in space can measure changes of gravity in land, sub-surface waters, and ice at the poles. Isabella Velicogna can use that information to “study the mass balance of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets and glaciers worldwide, in response to climate warming.”
That’s just part of her expertise, including research on the high Arctic water cycle, and projections of sea level rise due to climate change. All this fits perfectly into the new publication that is rocking the science world. It’s a long paper with a long title: “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 oC global warming could be dangerous”.
Dr. Isabella Velicogna
I ask many questions about the process of ice melt in Antarctica, rather than the more popularly reported loss of ice in the Arctic. That is because several scientists have told me what happens in Antarctica will determine the long time geography and fate of the world. There is so much ice there, just one glacier like the Totten glacier can raise global mean sea level by over one meter. NASA has already said the melting of the Totten glacier is “unstoppable”.
Isabella explains the total ice loss at the South Pole, and the most at-risk areas. Frankly, I got yet another education just talking with her. You can too.
COULD THE TAR SANDS OPERATIONS CATCH FIRE, EXPLODE, OR BURN FOR YEARS?
In the Radio show, I do an off-the-cuff talk with Paul Beckwith on the climate ties to the Fort McMurray fires. I took some heat myself for posting a You tube video, in the early days of the fire, suggesting the tar sands themselves make super fires more dangerous. That’s just scientific fact, but some posters called me bad names.
Here is a list of the best articles about the fires, in my opinion:
I’ll be having meteorologist Jeff Masters on in a future show, helping me to imagine what the Hansen-type superstorms could look like.
BREAKING NEWS!!!! (irony alert)
Bloomberg reports smoke from the fire complex has reached the tar sands operations of SunCor, just north of Fort McMurray. Already the size of Luxembourg, the fire is expected to double in size in 24 hours. It may burn for months, since only prolonged rain can stop it. The Canadian Bank of Montreal has revised Canada’s economic prospects downward, as more tar sands production facilities close. Millions of barrels of oil per day have stopped flowing. As a world-class superfire, this will be Canada’s most expensive natural disaster, with expected costs over 7 billion dollars U.S. and counting.
That sounds exciting doesn’t it? I said we must avoid seeing the climate crisis as entertainment. The news knows how to show us striking video, with music that makes us feel part of great events. They know we will flock to the news coverage, and then see their advertising, to buy more products that are part of the problem. It’s our human nature to be fascinated with catastrophe, and so climate disaster sells. Even greens become glued to extreme weather porn generated by an unstable atmosphere.
We are also drawn to something new. Here is a new question for you: can the tar sands operations burn, and what happens if they do?
Robert Scribbler writes: “Smoke plume analysis indicates that the northern extent of this monstrous fire is just 3 miles to the south of the nearest tar sands facility.”
Now the big blotches of tar sands production lands have been mostly deforested, which is part of their massive environmental damage. So there are fewer trees to burn there. But my question is: can the tar sands lands themselves burn? The industry says the bitumen is too dispersed in sand to burn. But I wonder if anyone knows what happens when such super-heated fire storms arrive. Dr. Michael Flannigan of the University of Alberta told us such hot fires can burn several feet into the ground. What happens when that arrives in the pits of exposed bitumen? No one really knows.
Plus the tar sands operations have gigantic tailings and wastewater ponds which are loaded with various types of petrochemicals. They have storage tanks full of flammable stuff.
Along those lines, I heard a television interview with a fire chief who worried that a gas storage plant near the fire could explode. If it did, he said, the blast zone would be 14 kilometers, or 8 and a half miles wide. Emergency workers are justifiably terrified it could blow, and this is just one of a thousand reasons why the people evacuated from Fort McMurray won’t be going home any time soon. That was at the Nexen site, north east of Fort McMurray.
The Canadian magazine “Macleans” asked this question. In their article “Could the oil sands catch fire” they write:
“A 2004 article in the U.S. National Fire Protection Association Journal offered a list of the potential fire risks faced by Suncor Energy, one of the oil sands’ biggest producers. It included: ‘hydrocarbon spill and pressure fires; storage tank fires; vapour cloud explosions; flammable gas fires; runaway exothermic reactions; and coke and sulfur fires.’”
The article quotes Chelsie Klassen, from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers saying the toxic tailings ponds are not flammable. I’m not so sure. Maybe we’ll find out.
What about the giant extraction and processing facilities? Presumably there are pits the size of cities where the tarry bitumen has been exposed by skimming off up to 75 feet of the soil. If those catch fire, is it possible that like peat fires, they could burn for years? Just consider the amount of carbon this would add to the atmosphere, and the lasting smoke which would pour across Western Canada for how long… years? A decade? Is it possible? We don’t know, this situation has never happened before. I hope we don’t find out, but we might experience a new kind of fire event in Canada, a kind of fire Fukushima.
Beyond strip-mining bitumen, the other type of extraction, called “in situ”, involves sinking pipes and literally melting the ground below, to make the sticky tar more mobile, so it can be pumped to the surface. That requires unbelievable amounts of natural gas, which has often been fracked in Northern Alberta and British Columbia. That fracking, and the transmission of gas releases very potent methane in amounts that can be measured by airplanes or even satellites. So there’s lots of greenhouse gases before the extraction process even begins.
Then the gas is burned, with more emissions. There must be gigantic gas storage facilities and feeder pipelines all through that area just north of Fort McMurray. We are talking about land the size of smaller European countries. If the fire reaches all that, the explosions and greenhouse emissions would be off the charts, things not seen before on this planet. What if the tar sands operations catch fire and blow? Maybe it didn’t happen, this time. It’s a huge risk.
WHAT IT TAKES TO CONVERT GOO TO OIL
Tonight while walking, I met a local citizen who told me the tar sands are a clean source of fuel, because Canada has regulations, while there are no environmental regulations in Middle Eastern countries. He obviously doesn’t know the highly polluting energy train required to get sticky bitumen out of the ground, whether you mine it or melt it. Even then, it isn’t oil. It’s a kind of pre-oil.
That bitumen has to be treated with hydrogen, at very high temperatures, blast furnace temperatures, again using tremendous energy with tremendous emissions, to get a heavy prequel to oil. Transport that oil prequel, using more energy, to specialized refineries that can deal with heavy oil, which is again a more intensive process with more emissions, and you get products like diesel fuel.
That’s all there is to it, compared to light oil that can be easily pumped out of the ground in the Middle East, or from the sea-bed off Norway. That is why oil from wells requires about 1 barrel of oil to produce up to100 barrels of oil, while the tar sands require the equivalent of about 1 barrel of oil to produce at best about 5 barrels of fuel. The ratio is so low, that if all we had was tar sands oil, civilization as we know it would collapse. There isn’t enough return on energy investment to have all the energy left over that we depend on.
That is why the tar sands oil is among the dirtiest energy sources, from an emissions perspective, of any fuel in the world. Even most Canadians don’t know this. The people whose paychecks depend directly on the Alberta energy industry don’t want to know. In fact, many react with surprising anger when you tell them. And they can say with a straight face that black is white, that tar sands oil is cleaner than oil from Venezuela or Norway.
As American author Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
THEY ALWAYS SAY “WE WILL REBUILD” – EVEN WHEN WE SHOULDN’T
Here the Fort McMurray tragedy becomes another repetition of classic human error. After evey disaster, every politician, local to national, promises “we will rebuild”. That’s what they said after Hurricane Sandy, or Hurricane Katrina. That’s what they always say.
Fort McMurray was already entering a stage of collapse when the fire hit. Rebuilding everything is the bridge to nowhere.
Look, I have family who evacuated from Fort McMurray, with nothing but their car, their kids and their dog. The harsh truth is that many, many people in Fort McMurray were one credit card payment away from utter bankruptcy. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost as expensive oil was crushed by cheap Middle Eastern oil, and cheap fracking oil.
The sad truth is that most Canadians, who used to be great savers, instead became addicted to debt. They built mini-mansions in the northern wilderness at inflated prices. They bought monster pickup trucks for $70,000 dollars, on 8 year payment schemes. They bought off-road vehicles, boats, clothes, the lot, mostly on credit. Because a person with a high school education could make over $100,000 a year, Fort McMurray became a party that could never end. Drug use and drug crime was phenomenal for the size of the city. It was all ripe for a fall, and it fell.
Countless evacuees are showing up on the news with absolutely nothing, after ten years or more working in the gold mine that was the tar sands. They were on the edge of bankruptcy, with no savings. And now they are climate evacuees who don’t know they are climate evacuees. The heart-ache is just beginning. The bill to the taxpayer is just beginning. This will take years to sort out, and some people will never recover. The people of Fort McMurray will fade out of the headlines, perhaps pushed out by the next extreme weather event, or giant storm. But the blow to Alberta and Canada will go on and on.
It’s come to the point where trees are now a threat to any city. My own home could be next, or yours. There is practically nowhere that cannot burn out of control. Ask people in Australia, California, or the Himalayas, Indonesia, almost anywhere. I’m sure some cities will try to cut down the forest around them, maybe even limit tree planting within city limits. That just releases more carbon, and reduces the ability of trees to absorb carbon dioxide.
As Paul Beckwith says, we have entered the age of the climate casino. You could be the next climate evacuee. No city is safe, from some sort of climate extreme. Nobody is immune.
THE ONLY SOLUTION
The only solution is to recognize reality and tackle the root of the problem. That means converting away from the fossil fuel-based civilization. That process begins with closing down the worst and most polluting forms of fossil fuels. At the top of that list are two fuels: coal and tar sands.
Coal in Western countries is going bankrupt. It still fuels most of India, China, and much of the developing world. The tar sands could shut down tomorrow, and the oil glut would still continue. We don’t need them. Canada must stop promising to rebuild that deadly infrastructure, stop subsidizing the dirtiest oil, and adopt a plan to close down these facilities entirely within five years, if not immediately. That’s what it takes.
The alternative is to keep on suffering, if we can keep on at all.
I’m Alex Smith. This is Radio Ecoshock, for the world.