SUMMARY: Abrupt warming in Arctic could lead to catastrophic consequences says top scientist Dr. Peter Gleick, ICCI Director Pam Pearson, and the founder of Paleoceanography, Dr. James Kennett. Three must-listen interviews.

What is happening in the Arctic now is unprecedented & possibly catastrophic.”

That’s the Tweet heard around the world at the end of February. It was picked up by the Independent newspaper in the UK, and many other places in the alternative and climate-savy media. Robert Hunziker did a strong piece about it in CounterPunch called “The Arctic Turns Ugly”.

The Tweeter is a world-known scientist. Dr. Peter Gleick is a member of the US National Academy of Science, he’s a MacArthur Fellow, and President of the Pacific Institute. He was a guest on Radio Ecoshock in March 2014 (find the blog and links for that audio here).

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

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Why is it warming so much – is it just “El Nino” or is it really climate change? Generally, scientists say El Nino affects the Pacific, but not the Arctic. Most of the strange warming in the Arctic this past winter (with record low sea ice) is due to our heating the atmosphere, and not El Nino.

I ask Peter Gleick, why he is alarmed about this, and is that concern shared by other scientists?

Dr. Peter Gleick

The United Kingdom has practically been buried by storm after record-breaking storm this winter. Peter Gleick thinks abnormal weather is directly connected to big changes in the Arctic. That’s the new understanding, led by scientists like Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University. The Jet Stream has been altered by the fact that there is less temperature difference between the poles and the equatorial zones. The oceans are hotter. The land is hotter, and in some places drier. All these things change the weather.

I worry an abrupt shift in climate could happen, and the corporate media would still bury us in Donald Trump and the Kardashians. Do you think climate silence is a conspiracy by a few major media corporations – or is it possible that all of us are so addicted to fossil fuels, we really don’t want to know?

To be honest, I can barely bring myself to read the latest news. Maybe the problems in the Arctic are just too big to comprehend, or just too scary to face? Is it worthwhile to keep fighting, if all we can do is slow down the loss – and the damage, for the next generation?

There is, says Gleick, a big difference between a civilization facing severe challenges as the Earth warms, and a planet where climate changes so far and so fast that civilization cannot cope or adapt. We’ll have to make major efforts to adapt to what we have already done. We can’t continue to make it worse. So “yes” it is worth keeping up the fight.

Let’s say Greenland ice loss doubles or triples, and the Arctic sea ice disappears for most of the year. Gleick agrees nobody knows what would happen. When we change the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we are running a giant experiment on the Earth. It’s already out of control.

Gleick is a senior scientist, recognized around the world. When he suggests a “catastrophe” might be developing, is that language too extreme? He tells us that again, no one can say for sure, but our current path is taking us to climate changes so extreme it could easily become a catatastrophe.

Find out more about Dr. Peter Gleick, at the Pacific Institute. The web site is Peter is author of many scientific papers and nine books, many of them reporting on world freshwater resources.

Download or listen to this 13 minute Radio Ecoshock interview with Peter Gleick in CD Quality or Lo-Fi.

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A surprising amount of Planet Earth is frozen. It’s been that way for millions of years, all during our life and evolution. Last December, the world’s leading experts on this frozen land and sea – warned Earth is heading into irreversible loss in the cryosphere. Nothing short of an ice age can avoid incredible changes that will re-arrange sea levels, cities, and life as we know it. Practically nobody heard them.

Scientists and civil servants who know this danger gathered into a largely volunteer group called the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, known as ICCI. They’ve issued a report called “Thresholds and Closing Windows, Risks of Irreversible Cryosphere Climate Change“. We are joined by one of the co-ordinators of that report, Pam Pearson, the Director of ICCI. In fact, she founded this network of ice science specialists just as the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks failed.

Pam Pearson

Get an overview and link to download report “Thresholds and Closing Windows” here.

Here is what the ICCI says in a summary about this report:

Policy makers and the general public alike now largely accept that the Arctic, Antarctica and many mountain regions already have warmed two-three times faster than the rest of the planet. What is less understood, outside the scientific community, is that the very nature of the cryosphere – regions of snow and ice – carries dynamics that once triggered, in some cases cannot be reversed, even with a return to lower temperatures or CO2 levels.

The Cryosphere breaks down into 4 important components, all acting differently on different time scales:

1. Ice sheets (polar land-based ice)

2. Mountain glaciers (retreating everywhere around the world)

3. Permafrost (up to 20% of the Earth’s land mass is “permanently” frozen, except it’s not. It’s thawing.)

4. Arctic and Antarctic sea ice (floating on ice surface, does not add to rising seas, but does increase warming when melting back and exposing darker ocean water to sunlight.)

The report also covers Polar Ocean acidification.

I think the first thing to grasp is that politics and propaganda can’t change a simple fact of physics: once the temperature goes over 0 degrees C, or 32 Fahrenheit, water changes state from ice or snow to a liquid. We can’t talk our way out of that. The report says:

Cryosphere climate change is not like air or water pollution, where the impacts remain local and when addressed, allow ecosystems largely to recover. Cryosphere climate change, driven by the physical laws of water’s response to the freezing point, is different. Slow to manifest itself, once triggered it inevitably forces the Earth’s climate system into a new state, one that most scientists believe has not existed for 35–50 million years.

The Arctic has been unbelievably hot this past winter. It rained in the dark of December, and I just read the Arctic February was more like the temperature expected in June.

But the ice-world is not just thawing at the Poles. I remember years ago the famous nature TV star Steve Irwin lamenting that tropical glaciers were disappearing. Now this report says that even if the Paris climate deal is carried out, we can still expect: “Complete loss of most mountain glaciers.”


The Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, DID say that many aspects of climate change are “largely irreversible on human time scales.” But they buried that on page one thousand and thirty three of a fat report that hardly anyone reads!

About two dozen scientists published an open letter in the Guardian newspaper last December, urging more action to protect the cryosphere, at the Paris climate talks.

I found it fascinating that this ICCI report devoted a chapter to acidification of the polar seas. We know oceans become more acidic due to a chemical reaction with the carbon dioxide we keep adding to the atmosphere. But I haven’t seen much about this at the Poles. It’s happening even worse there, as colder water can absorb more carbon, which becomes carbolic acid. Northern fisheries and all marine life are threatened by this change.


I’ve done several shows on thawing permafrost. Scientists in Canada, Scandinavia, Russia and Alaska are most interested, but so are the people who live in those lands full-time. Is there a tipping point where once permafrost starts to go, it can fuel it’s own further thawing? Apparently so.

The ICCI report says of permafrost thaw: “any carbon release [is] not reversible even with [a] new Ice Age, except on geologic time scales.” I found that in a couple of places in the report. Even a new Ice Age may not be able to return Earth to the state known for millions of years! Most scientists say that the next possible date for an ice age, based on the tilt of the Earth’s axis, – that ice age will not happen due to the warming gases we have already added to the atmosphere. So count that out.

You can find out more about melting permafrost as a driver to global climate change here.


One thing I found missing in this report is the threat of melting of frozen methane on the sea-bed, known as clathrates. Other scientists see clathrates as a likely driver in past extinction events. Why isn’t it in this ICCI report? Pam tells us the science about clathrate melting is not yet sure. Some scientists say that for now, the methane released in Arctic waters is likely to be absorbed in the water column, before it reaches the surface and the atmosphere. Others, like Dr. Shahkova, say their research shows methane is already being released in the Arctic, more and more.

The authors of the ICCI report already had four irreversible certainties to report. They didn’t want to add the clathrate problem until more finished science is in. Some of their scientists disagreed. It’s not settled. See what our next guest, Dr. James Kennett has to say!


Here is one more paragraph from the stunning introduction to this report “Thresholds and Closing Windows”:

Adaptation to the levels of projected climate-related disruption, particularly sea-level rise that cannot be halted and accelerates over the centuries, simply will not be possible without massive migration and other changes to human centers of population and infrastructure, that will carry enormous economic and not least, historic and cultural costs.

Basically: humans will have to leave their coastal cities behind, and the some of the most fertile near-ocean river estuaries that now support many millions of people.

According to this ICCI report: “The only way fully to avoid these risks is never to let temperatures rise into these risk zones at all.” After the climate is broken, and the cryosphere starts it’s unstoppable melt, there is no way to “fix” it.

Find out more about the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative at

Download or listen to this 27 minute Radio Ecoshock interview with Pam Pearson in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

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Just 10 years ago, scientists told me melting the world’s ice system would take thousands of years. Since then, with the shocking ice loss at both poles, we’re not so sure. Abrupt climate change is possible. We’re about to explore what can happen within one lifetime – that has already happened in the ancient past.

To find the clues, we dig into the sea bed with a founding expert in the field. Our guest is recognized as the father of that science, called Paleoceanography. He started publishing in the 1960’s. He wrote the standard college textbook “Marine Geology”, and founded a journal on this subject.

Dr. James Kennett

Dr. James Kennett is Emeritus Professor of Marine Geology and Paleocoeanography, in the Earth Science Department of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

For me, the startling results of this study, published October 2015 in the Journal Paleoceanography, is what could happen in just 50 years, easily within a single lifetime.

The paper name sounds very technical, but don’t let that scare you off this interview. Kennett explains things very clearly, and it’s one of the most important interviews I’ve done recently. The title is: “Abrupt termination of Marine Isotope Stage 16 (Termination VII) at 631.5?ka in Santa Barbara Basin, California“.

You can read about this Santa Barbara Basin research in this helpful AGU article by Julie Cohen.

We learn in this paper that about 630,000 years ago, there was a relatively rapid shift out of a cold glacier period, to an interglacial period that was a lot warmer. The whole process took about 700 years – BUT it started with an abrupt temperature rise in only 50 years! Kennett tells Julie Cohen:

Of the 13 degree Fahrenheit total change, a shift of 7 to 9 degrees occurred almost immediately right at the beginning.


What do catastrophic events in Yellowstone Park have to do with all this? Well first of all, Kennett has studied and written papers on the Yellowstone Caldera, the giant hole in the ground blown out in an ancient explosion. He told science journalist Julie Cohen:

Our tests showed that this particular ash was ejected from the Yellowstone volcanic caldera in Wyoming, which has exactly the same fingerprint. This huge caldera formed about 630,000 years ago, with most of the enormous volume of ash blown to the east. However, this eruption was so explosive that the ash reached the Santa Barbara Basin, forming a layer one to two inches thick. The discovery of this ash helped with dating the core.

Kennett tells Radio Ecoshock listeners there were in fact two gigantic blasts at Yellowstone, about 200 years apart. The first was followed by a cloud that rolled around the Northern Hemisphere, blocking out the summer sun, and creating an instant cooling, similar to a “nuclear winter”. The second created an even longer constant winter.


Some of our listeners are deeply worried about much more global warming methane being released in our current climate shift. This paper talks about: “repeated discharges of methane from methane hydrates associated with both ocean warming and low sea level.” Did that methane erupt from the West Coast of North America, or from the Arctic? Kennett says more methane has been measured all down the Canadian and American West Coast in recent years, bubbling up from the sea floor. Hotter oceans are already starting the first signs of clathrate melting. It’s happening off the U.S. East Coast too.

This seasoned scientist is deeply concerned about the potential super warming effect of methane releases, as the oceans warm. He’s not shy to tell us that, and you should listen. Dr. Kennett suggests that melting clathrates likely triggered the rapid 50 year warming found about 630,000 years ago. But we do not know for certain yet.

This paper did not speculate on a comparison of this 50-year shift a few hundred thousand years ago, and human-induced warming today. But personally, I wonder if we will see a similar deglaciation within a single human lifetime. Have we already entered this process?

I wonder what climate modellers like David Archer will think, after his book “The Long Thaw”. Is there disagreement about how fast deglaciation can take place? Yes and no, says Kennett. Everyone who studies ice knows it can take hundreds to thousands of years for a giant glacier like the one covering Greenland to melt. On the other hand, he tells us, there is a big scientific consensus that quite rapid temperature changes have taken place many times in the past. It’s both.

After the call, Jim told me that their research team wants to return to the Santa Barbara Basin to drill even deeper cores. These would tell us a lot about the history of Earth’s climate and life, including methane releases, going back 1.2 million years. However, there is a lot of oil and gas drilling in that same basin, plus a very environmentally concerned community in California. So far, the scientists have not received permission to go back and open up this critical chapter in Earth’s records.

Dr. James Kennett has published hundreds of papers, starting in 1962 right up to the present.

Download or listen to this 21 minute interview with Dr. James Kennett in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

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Here is a You tube video on abrupt climate change: “Expecting the Unexpected” with senior scientists like Richard Alley warning us all.


Here’s an important article in the UK Guardian newspaper “Earth now warming 50X faster than coming out of last ice age“.

That article says:

What humans are in the process of doing to the climate makes the transition out of the last ice age look like a casual stroll through the park. We’re already warming the Earth about 20 times faster than during the ice age transition, and over the next century that rate could increase to 50 times faster or more. We’re in the process of destabilizing the global climate far more quickly than happens even in some of the most severe natural climate change events.

This paper, led by R.E. Kopp, is covered here in the Real Climate blog here.

The full citiation for the new science is:

R.E. Kopp, A.C. Kemp, K. Bittermann, B.P. Horton, J.P. Donnelly, W.R. Gehrels, C.C. Hay, J.X. Mitrovica, E.D. Morrow, and S. Rahmstorf, “Temperature-driven global sea-level variability in the Common Era”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pp. 201517056, 2016.

The actual paper abstract is here.

That was one fully loaded Ecoshock show. I hope you found it useful. You can download all our past programs as free .mp3 files from our web site at You can also listen to our more recent programs, for free, using the player at our soundcloud page.

Alex Smith, your host and producer at Radio Ecoshock.