Scientist Paul Beckwith speaks out on Arctic methane and abrupt climate change – and ways to stave it off. Scientist Douglas McCauley, University of California: industrializing the ocean could lead to mass extinction of marine animals. Radio Ecoshock 150128

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It’s a long blog this week. There are so many big stories to cover. You may have to take it in pieces. Anyone who followed all the links, and watched the videos on offer, would likely get the equivalent of a week or two of a college course on climate change.

If you came for the big story on extinction in the oceans, scroll down a couple of page/screens to my interview with Dr. Douglas McCauley.


According to one climate scientist, “We are at the extreme weather stage and rapidly heading into the red zone.” That is when “all hell breaks loose”. Who else says so? Your insurance company. Both Lloyd’s of London and Zurich Insurance in Switzerland just warned of extreme weather events coming this year of 2015.

The climate scientist is Paul Beckwith from the University of Ottawa. He has two Masters Degrees, and is working on his PHD in climate science. Paul lives out the late Steven Schneider‘s call for scientists that communicate. I follow Paul’s Tweets, Facebook page, and You tube videos to see what’s new and what’s hot.

Paul is this week’s feature guest on Radio Ecoshock.

We’ve tons to talk about, after the hottest year on record, climate talks in Lima, Peru – Paul was there – and still more alarming news coming out of the Arctic.


Before we get to that important stuff, I ask for Paul’s help in a little fact-checking. A couple of people seem to have misunderstandings about the possible 50 gigaton burst of methane suggested by Dr. Natalia Shahkova from the University of Alaska, and her Russian colleagues.

One You tube speaker says this 50 gig burst has already begun. As Paul tells us, that is not correct. Yes methane emissions from the Arctic are increasing due to melting of frozen methane (“clathrates”) on the sea bed, and from melting permafrost. But the increased methane is in the order of millions of tons, not billions of tons (also known as gigatons.)

Another scientist on You tube says the Shakhova’s 50 gigaton release could happen “any day now”. Yes, that’s technically true. But the eruption depends on more than just melting sea ice. It also requires some sort of undersea event, whether an earthquake, or a land-slide under the sea, for example. That would release the methane held many meters below the sediment.

I give the example of Vancouver, where seismologists say an earthquake is over-due, based on past records. They’ve been saying it could happen any time for the past 35 years or more. The great West Coast quake could happen tomorrow, or it could happen 200 years from now, or 500 years.

I’m not a scientist, but I think I heard the last major release of methane from under the sea is thought to be over 8,000 years ago. [See more on this from P. Beckwith below.] So don’t sell your house and move to Alaska or the Yukon based solely on fear of a methane burst.

That doesn’t mean I’m saying it won’t happen, or that I’m not seriously concerned about rising methane levels in the Arctic. It is a mega-threat, as some Arctic scientists say. There will come a point, and we don’t yet know when, that methane from the Arctic could overwhelm our own carbon dioxide emissions. We may already have crossed an unseen tipping point where this is unstoppable.

I’ll have more about unseen tipping points in my coming interview with Dr. James White. Meanwhile, Paul Beckwith and other scientists in the Arctic Methane Emergency Group say we should try extreme means to restore the reflective cover of white ice on the top of the world. Paul says we could cool ocean currents going in the Arctic, while mimicking the impact of volcanoes, which can cool the Earth, or parts of it, for a few years.

One final fact check, before we head off into the real science. One scientist who needs to check his facts says in a You tube video that the British Parliament predicted all the Arctic sea ice could be gone by 2015. I thought this was really a presentation made by John Nissan of AMEG, and that the Parliamentary Committee rejected his prediction. Certainly the whole UK Parliament never met and agreed on a 2015 date for the disappearance of Arctic sea ice.

Anyway, Paul writes:

The undersea landslide idea that Shakhova is talking about is well covered in th[is] book by [James] Kennett: “Methane hydrates in Quaternary Climate change: The Clathrate Gun Hypothesis” [published in 2003].

[online book listing here. See also this free online paper by Kennett “Role of Methane Hydrates in Climate Change: Compellling evidence and debate.”]

Beckwith continues:

In particular, there were 3 “Storegga Slides” (see it in Wikipedia) that were amongst the largest known landslides. The latest was around 8200 years ago, and they may have released large amounts of methane.

Interestingly, rapid sea level change either up or down can trigger landslides. Down, since the pressure on the seafloor decreases that could trigger a methane release and cause a landslide, and up, since glaciated continents rebound from rapid ice loss.

Here is a key passage from Natalia Shakova, taken an interview by John Mason, in the Sceptical Science blog:

John Mason, Skeptical Science:

With respect to future events, in your EGU 2008 abstract it is stated that “we consider release of up to 50Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time”. This represents a colossal quantity of gas. How quickly could such a release occur and what would be the most likely mechanism?


There could be several different triggers for massive releases: a seismic or tectonic event, endogenous seismicity caused by sediments subsiding pursuant to hydrate decay, or sediment sliding on the shelf break; the shelf slope is very steep, and the sedimentation rates are among the highest in the ESAS.”

In our interview, Paul Beckwith also references an influential paper by another member of the AMEG group, Dr. Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Institute at Cambridge. Here is the listing for the paper “Climate science: Vast cost of Arctic change” in the Journal Nature. Below the title are a number of blog articles you can use to follow up.

This article from the University of Cambridge hits the bleak note: “Cost of Arctic methane release could ‘size of the global economy’ warn experts.

The UK newspaper the Guardian has a good article on it too. “Ice-free Arctic in two years heralds methane catastrophe – scientist.”

Do keep in mind that there is a whole school of scientists, including NASA’s Gavin Schmidt and David Archer from the University of Chicago who either disagree that Arctic methane is a threat, or disagree that it warrants our attention. They suggest we keep our focus on man-made carbon dioxide, which we can control, and which will determine the fate of the earth for tens of thousands of years. Find my interview with Dr. David Archer on Arctic methane here.


Some new science out bears on what we’ve been talking about. Sub-sea permafrost is melting in the Kara Sea, unexpectedly releasing methane in shallow seas. This isn’t the East Siberian shelf other scientists studied. How could those frozen balls of methane, the clathrates exist in such shallow water in the Kara Sea? Paul explains this well.

People who want to follow up on this story can search for the paper title: “Offshore permafrost decay and massive seabed methane escape in water depths less than 20 meters at the South Kara Sea shelf” The lead author is Alexey Portnov.

Here is a good article about this Portnov paper.

The full paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, is available free here

Paul Beckwith adds this comment on the Kara Sea research:

The Kara Sea info adds more support to what I have said in the past to David Archer, and goes against the mainstream view that it will take 100’s of years for heat to move downward in the permafrost to cause significant thawing.”

Speaking of scary, Paul pointed me to a press release from NASA about increased solar radiation in the Arctic. We talk about that. Since 1970, the amount of heat being absorbed from the sun, in the Arctic with less sea ice cover, has gone up almost 5%. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a huge bump in solar heating of the Earth, because we are talking about a gigantic area. Read about it from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science here.


Here is a link to Paul’s video on abrupt climate change.

The cats in this video seem distracting but (a) you can’t get anything to go viral on the Net these days without cats and (b) I think it’s symbolic of how distracted we all are as we discuss these amazing threats. Even while you watch, you may also be thinking of your job, a TV series you like, the next Facebook post, and some trip you’d like to take. And oh yeah, the climate may shift so Montreal Canada feels like Miami, and crops don’t grow any more.

In our interview, Beckwith says:

“…and the probability is very high, and increasing all the time, that we will have an abrupt change. I think it’s going on myself, and that’s the hypothesis of my whole research.”

We talk about abrupt climate changes that have happened in the past. In times 40,000 to 70,000 years ago, the Greenland ice cores show a warming of 5 to 6 degrees C within one decade. (Imagine that today!). It has gone as high as 16 degree C change in one decade or two. (Unimaginable.)

The planet is capable of very large, rapid swings in temperature. We’ve changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and CO2 and temperature and things, they are increasing at least an order of magnitude, at least 10 or maybe 20 times faster than anything in the geological record.

I think there’s no question that we will have abrupt warming again on this planet. The only question is ‘what is the time scale?’ Is it going to be 10 years? Is it going to be a hundred years? Is it going to be a thousand years?

The system does change quickly. It goes from one state to another state. I mean it’s not a linear thing. There’s so many non-linear feed-backs at play that the system is quite capable of switching and switching very quickly.”

I strongly suggest you listen to the interview.

Download/listen to this 33 minute interview with Paul Beckwith in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


The world’s biggest insurance companies agree. Check out this report from Lloyd’s.

“Risks to the environment outnumbered economic threats in the report this year, with experts negatively assessing the preparations in place to cope with extreme weather and climate change.”

That report was prepared for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland January 2015.

And then we have Zurich, another of the world’s biggest insurance companies. Here are the five biggest risks rated by impact, according to a new report from Zurich:

1. Water crisis

2. Spread of infectious diseases

3. Weapons of mass destruction

4. Interstate conflict

5. Failure of climate change adaption.

I would say four out of the top five risks in terms of impact are climate-related. See if you can pick which ones. Strangely, Zurich lists biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse at only number 10 in terms of impacts!!! If we experience “ecosystem collapse” it’s all over, in my opinion.

Zurich also predicts extreme weather events are likely to occur this year.

Regarding an abrupt climate change, whether stimulated by methane or not, it’s a doubled-edged sword. If we could experience just a little abrupt warming, and then plateau for a while, maybe humanity would be forced to act. On the other hand, if we just slowly and gradually warm, we may experience the boiling frog phenomenon, where we go over the climate cliff bit by bit, decade by decade, without reacting.


During our Radio Ecoshock interview, Paul recommends You tube videos of scientist Eric Rignot talking about the rapid and unexpected melting of ice on Greenland (which will eventually flood our coastal cities). Here are the links:

ERIC RIGNOT You tube videos at the AGU, on Greenland melting:

Part 1 (4 min)

Part 2 (2 min)

Part 3 (4 min)


We also discuss the results, or lack of them, at the recent Climate Conference in Lima Peru. Paul was there, giving a series of press conferences. Here are the links to several of those You tube videos.


COP20: Global Arctic Methane Emergency #1 (12-4-2014 in Lima Peru)


COP20: Global Arctic Methane Emergency #2 (12-5-2014 in Lima Peru) (Paul Beckwith briefing)


COP20: Global Arctic Methane Emergency #3 (12-6-2014 in Lima Peru)

Paul’s presentation (in the 2nd Press Briefing) is the best, but I also highly recommend this briefing by Stuart Scott on “Ecology Vs. Economy in the Age of Climate Change“.

Paul and I get into some wild discussions about science and climate change, as we always do. This is one of my favorite interviews. I hope you think so too.


We all fear there is something terribly wrong at sea. Call it extinction, or call it something else, stories of dwindling ocean life are daily washing ashore. A new paper published in the journal “Science” says we are at a cross-roads for marine life. The lead author, and our second guest this week, is Dr. Douglas J. McCauley, head of the McCauley Lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

For once this was a science story that did get out to the world. The New York Times and the BBC covered the new science on mass extinction in the ocean. But did they get it right?

The paper is “Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean.” It was published in the journal “Science” on January 16th, 2015.

First of all, note the term “defaunation” rather than extinction. Basically defaunation means removing animals (the paper is about animals, not plants) from their essential services in the ocean. For example, suppose there are still sharks hiding out in some faraway reef (so they are not extinct) – but not enough sharks left to clean up weakness in the food system.

McCauley gives the example of garbage workers. Suppose there are only 100 left in the world. Technically, they are not “extinct”. But mountains of garbage pile up everywhere, because there aren’t anywhere near enough workers to carry out their function.

This defaunation is happening at sea. It’s very hard to say for sure that a species is extinct, everywhere in the hard-to-reach ocean. But we can say they are not where we expect them to be, doing the things we expect them to do.


That’s point one. The second warning, and this is really new from the paper by McCauley and his colleagues at Stanford and Rugers. Their overview of a huge collection of papers on threats to sea life finds that we are on the verge of industrialization of the ocean.

There are under-sea mines, and many more planned. Mass feeding lots, similar to cattle feed lots, already exist for Tuna. We plan to harvest tidal energy with underwater propellers looking like undersea wind mills. Some countries cramped for land have already built things like airports (Japan) into the sea. We are stripping away protective mangrove swamps to build suburbs in Asia.

The fishing industry is already heavily industrialized. Masses of trawlers are essentially bull-dozing the bottom of the sea flat. It’s wrecked the Baltic and parts of the North Sea. Chinese fisheries are flattening all around that country. The Canadian Grand Banks were wiped clean of cod with trawling. That’s an industrial fishery. Add in the ability to use sonar, and even satellite guidance, to find fish at any depth.

So McCauley and his co-authors discovered that we are at a knowable point in the history of marine life. Essentially, we are about 200 years behind where humans are on land with the industrial revolution that began in the late 1700’s. We know what happened, and is still happening to the species on land as we industrialize.

Image courtesy of University of California

About 500 land animals have gone extinct in the last 100 years or so. Marine scientists think only about 15 animals have gone extinct in the ocean, although, as I said above, it’s harder to tell.

I ask McCauley point blank if we are entering the 6th Great Extinction in the sea. The answer is “not yet”. But we are headed there.

Creating giant marine parks (sea animals need more space than land animals) is one solution. We’ve begun to do that, but not yet on a scale to prevent more extinctions.

Marine protected areas also face the challenge of climate change. As ocean waters warm (and that’s where most of our excess heating is going) – some marine species can move toward the poles to find cooler water. Sadly, they can’t take the estuaries, shallow seas or other breeding places with them. We just don’t know what will happen with the hotter seas.

There are other very desperate reasons to hope, not mentioned in this paper. For example, the large scale industrialization of the ocean may not happen. Maybe we run out of fossil fuels, or this civilization has to retreat, due to economic or climatic failures.

We also talk about another study about mass die-offs just came out in mid-January, led by scientists at the University of California Berkeley, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy. They found increasing mass-die offs in the past 75 years. Fish and marine invertebrates are among the hardest hit.

And then we have another study released last November, this time led by scientists from the Smithsonian Institute. They warn dead zones are increasing, and will greatly expand as the climate warms. Are these dead zones tiny, or are they signficant in the big picture of threats to ocean life?

The paper by McCauley et. al. doesn’t attempt to catalog every threat to sea life. I’m alarmed by the huge masses of plastic particles in the sea, and by radiation leaking out of Fukushima, but those aren’t in this work. Instead, the point of this new science is to ask “where are we” on the timeline of industrialization and extinction, when it comes to marine animals.

The answer seems to be that we are on a precipice. The optimists (including McCauley) say we can see what happened on land, and so wisely avoid the same slaughter of species in the oceans. The pessimists will say we will fall off the cliff, because we are too blind to change. Is the ocean cup of life half empty, or half full?


I got a message from our friend Albert Bates, at the Farm. They still need another half dozen students to pull off the planned permaculture workshop in Belize. Personally, I think the carbon from flying to Central America might overcome the carbon saved by permculture. But maybe not. This is not just any course. It features biochar, and knowledge from Latin America, plus Mr. Bates himself. Albert is at the center of a flurry of activity teaching how to restore carbon to the soil.

If those who attend eventually become soil-masters and permaculture leaders themselves, then the carbon savings could snowball. It’s your call, if you want to get the in-depth grip on permaculture and soil/climate management.

Albert writes:

“We offset everyone’s air travel with the trees we will plant and biochar we will make in Belize, no worries. My guarantee.”

Here is the blurb, with some powerful guests:


“come to Belize…

Travel far south; to the back of beyond; to a remote valley accessible only by dugout canoe. Study permaculture surrounded by a lush, productive forest of edibles, medicinals and tropical hardwoods. Eat organic food, sleep in dorms powered by renewable energy, bathe in a sparkling pure river….



Permaculture Design Certificate Course Dates Feb 21 to Mar 6 2015 Place: Maya Mountain Research Farm San Pedro Columbia, Belize

To register, please see or contact Christopher at info(a)


There you go, my first classified ad in the Radio Ecoshock blog. Now Albert owes us, perhaps he’ll show up as a guest after the course. We have lots to talk about, especially if restoring carbon to the soil is basically humanity’s greatest hope.

Next week we’ll talk more science, about abrupt climate change, and those invisible tipping points.

Thanks for all your encouraging emails and tips! Feedback from listeners enriches my life, and this program. Find a handy “Contact Me” form at my web site,

I’m Alex Smith. Thanks for listening, and for caring about our world.