Incredible heat records, Biblical downpours not reported. Canadian climate scientist Paul Beckwith & Alex get it on the record. Plus some new science from Norway. Bright young mind Pavel Serov on Arctic sea-bed methane risks & rewards. When the glaciers melted before, methane blew up from the sea floor, leaving craters we see today. Could it happen again? Why are China and Japan trying to tap those reserves anyway? Radio Ecoshock
Paul Beckwith is from the University of Ottawa. He’s a regular contributor to Radio Ecoshock – and each time it’s very popular!
Pavel Serov is with CAGE, the Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate at the University of Tromso in Norway. He’s just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) “Postglacial response of Arctic Ocean gas hydrates to climatic amelioration.” Their are a lot of warnings about frozen methane (“clathrates”) holding more greenhouse gases than may exist in the atmosphere already. As the climate shift warms the seas, will they be liberated, and how fast?
PAUL BECKWITH ON PLANETARY CLIMATE STRESS POINTS
Terrorism, elections and Trump – does anyone remember the real narrative of this century? You know, the minor detail that a shift in climate will disrupt everything and everyone?
Let’s talk about some of the disturbing signs from around the world that suggest the big change is already underway. We are joined by our regular Radio Ecoshock guest Paul H. Beckwith. Paul teaches climate science at the University of Ottawa and lectures at Carleton University as well.
Paul Beckwith, photo courtesy of Nick Breeze
With his hundreds of climate tutorials on You tube and many media interviews, Paul is definitely an out-there scientist. He tells us why he just went storm-chasing in the United States, in Tornado Alley. I’ve noticed a LOT of storm news every night on the major networks. It’s just a regular feature now on tornadoes, floods, big hail – the works. It this the new normal?
Bangladesh has just come through another major Typhoon. It’s not that unusual, but they do keep coming. But the U.S. East Coast has almost forgotten big hurricanes in the last couple of years. Is the science settled on whether we will see more storms, or more violent storms, as the world climate heats up? Paul gives us an update on that.
It’s not just hurricanes or typhoons. In the last couple of years we’ve learned the term “Derecho” – after a big wind storm ripped through the Eastern U.S. States. And while Paul was away storm-chasing, at least 10 people were killed in Moscow by a very strange storm that toppled trees across the city. I ask Has the nature of storms changed, and how is climate involved?
BEAT THE EXTREME HEAT – IF YOU CAN
From the term global warming, we expect to experience more extreme heat events. This past month is loaded with them, in many parts of the world. The killer was on May 28th in the Pakistani city of Turbat. It was the hottest day recorded in Pakistani history, and that’s saying something. It was 53.5 degrees C, or 128 degrees Fahrenheit, in the shade. That would be hard to take, don’t you think?
But Iran managed to top even that. On June 3rd, in Iran’s Eastern Sistan region, the temperature reached an astounding 56 degrees C, or 132 degrees Fahrenheit. Demand for electricity broke the power and water systems, removing people’s last ways to cope. If that is happening now, how does it look for 2050, if we keep polluting as usual?
Then we have this news story also from late May, headlined “‘Panic’ in Bangladesh factories as workers collapse in heatwave“. Hundreds of workers fell sick and were taken to hospitals. The factories that make clothes for us shut down. As warming ramps up, heat will have it’s economic costs too. Maybe that’s why so many big American companies warned Trump not to withdraw from the Paris agreement?
The wave of heat extended to Vietnam in early June. A headline reads: “Families scramble for relief as summer heat scorches Hanoi. Many have fled to the countryside as the capital city is set to become a frying pan this weekend.” Paul how will major cities deal with dangerous and unbearable heat, if the grid goes down from super demand? The large extent of this Asian heatwave, arriving even before summer, – is this a sign of things to come?
Meanwhile, in Europe it’s been a mixed bag. At the end of May, the media reported 300 fire hydrants were damaged across France, as locals tried to beat record high temperatures there. But Reddit users in Finland complained of cold weather. It was a cold wet spring here on the West Coast. Why are these heat patterns so variable, and why do they stick around so long? Paul explains.
In North America, Paul tells us there is an Omega shape dominating weather. It’s like an upturned loop, where the West Coast and East Coast were cooler, while the interior of the continent sizzled even into the North. Around the Tar Sands, the forests near Fort McMurray, the city evacuated and previously partly burned over, were again at danger levels, early in June.
That pattern shifted briefly so that Newark New Jersey hit 99 degrees F. (37 degrees C) in early June! That didn’t last long, before the temperatures dropped 25 degrees cooler. Weird, weird, weird.
THE ARCTIC ICE CONTINUES ITS DEATH SPIRAL
NASA just announced a new way Greenland is melting. Here is the introductory paragraph from the NASA press release:
“A new NASA study finds that during Greenland’s hottest summers on record, 2010 and 2012, the ice in Rink Glacier on the island’s west coast didn’t just melt faster than usual, it slid through the glacier’s interior in a gigantic wave, like a warmed freezer pop sliding out of its plastic casing. The wave persisted for four months, with ice from upstream continuing to move down to replace the missing mass, for at least four more months.”
That doesn’t sound good. That NASA paper was published May 26, 2017 in Geophysical Research Letters, under the title “Mass transport waves amplified by intense Greenland melt and detected in solid Earth deformation.”
Meanwhile, at the other Pole, the big crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf has gotten bigger and changed course.
HYDROLOGIC CYCLE – ITS THE WATER
About ten years ago a prominent scientist told me “Alex, it’s not just the warming. Watch out for big changes to the hydrological cycle.” Recent news, seldom reported in the West, talks about 200 dead after heavy monsoon rains, floods and mudslides in Sri Lanka. Incredibly, they got 12 months worth of rain in just 24 hours, following a period of drought.
The TV footage just came into the BBC of the many deaths (at least 133 people) in Bangladesh due to mudslides and flooding after still more heavy rains, just a week after Tropical Cyclone Mora landed there. It is disaster after disaster for some of the poorest people in the world. Welcome to the new climate world.
I’ve just interviewed the French scientist Gilles Ramstein. He has a new paper out in PNAS explaining how a speed-up of Greenland ice melting will devastate agriculture in the band of North Africa called the Sahel. Their paper actually says a food failure by the end of the century could spur tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions of Africans to emigrate. We’ve just seen a big surge of African migrants to Europe, challenging politics and society there. Hundreds of millions is unimaginable. On our current course, we are heading toward the unimaginable human migration. Hear my interview with Gilles Ramstein next week.
We know that all kinds of species, from fish to birds to plants, are starting to migrate toward the poles. It looks like humans are starting that journey as well. Not all of them will make it. Assume on our current climate path, that millions of people will no longer be able to tolerate the climate in their own countries. They have to abandon their homes. Eventually, they will learn that Western countries really caused the climate shift, with our fossil fuel burning. Isn’t it possible some of the evicted will seek revenge? Isn’t it possible we will see “climate terrorism”?
PEAK CO2 AND BEYOND
We’ve hit another awful record. This past May, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere peaked at 409.65 parts per million, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was just a few years ago climate activists feared hitting 400 parts per million in the atmosphere. And that’s just carbon dioxide, never mind the other powerful greenhouse gases being added daily. How far do you see the carbon saturation going, and how fast?
Every day, the climate crisis is hitting around the world, but it’s barely reported as such. Sure, extreme weather porn is popular with the news media, but they hardly ever mention climate change is the driver. And they never insult their advertisers by making the final connection to our consumption and polluting lives. We thought with extreme weather everyone would clue in. Or does the public already know, but don’t want to hear about it?
Paul Beckwith, is an uncommon climate scientist. He expanded his university classroom to the whole world through YouTube, and his Facebook page is a lively feed that I often visit. Or maybe the best way in is through Paul’s web site at paulbeckwith.net
WHEN ICE MELTS, METHANE CAN EXPLODE FROM THE SEA FLOOR – NEW SCIENCE WITH PAVEL SEROV
In the last few years, the public was captivated by the sudden appearance of large craters in Siberia. Scientists suggested these were mounds called “Pingos” containing methane, which then erupted, or blew up.
Now there is a flurry of new science finding the sea around the Arctic is pockmarked with big craters, as large as half a mile, or .8 kilometers across. There are also undersea mounds which contain methane. Are they a danger to shipping? Can they be drilled and captured as an energy source? As the climate warms the seas, will these undersea Pingos blow out a new wave of methane to warm the planet even more?
I have a lot of questions. Fortunately, we have as our guest one of the bright young minds in the field. Pavel Serov was educated at the Faculty of Geology at Saint-Petersburg State University in Russia. He is currently working at the Norwegian research institute called CAGE. That is the Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate at the University of Tromso in Norway.
Even as he studied, in 2015 Pavel Serov already published an important paper on sub sea methane activities in the South Kara Sea. That was in the Journal of Geophysical Research. Now he has a new paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
FOUR MOTIVES FOR THIS RESEARCH
Looking at new papers about undersea mounds containing methane, and the hundreds of craters, I see four interlocking motives for the drive to study this phenomenon. I run each by Pavel for his comments.
1. The first is a quest for pure science. We want to know what we don’t know, and we want to complete a geologic history. That’s certainly a major driver for Pavel Serov.
2. A second motive has been suggested, namely the need to predict the risk of energy exploration in the Arctic, and perhaps even the safety of ships crossing the Arctic as an alternative route to and from Asia. Can eruptions from undersea mounds be a danger to ships? Although at least one Russian energy exploration ship has been caught in a methane uprising, it did not sink.
3. A third possibility is a desire to find more energy resources. Both China and Japan have already mounted extensive sea-going tests to see if they can tap into undersea methane.
4. The fourth motivation is to assess the risk of more methane reaching the atmosphere which could increase global warming. For all of us, and the folks at the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, this is huge. Our first guest, Paul Beckwith, is a member of AMEG.
THE 2015 STUDY with PAVEL SEROV
We build from an earlier study, his 2015 paper titled “Methane release from pingo-like features across the South Kara Sea shelf, an area of thawing offshore permafrost”. You can read that paper here.
Reading through this, and other research, it’s stunning to realize what was once land is now the seabed. That’s because there were four giant ice sheets that soaked up so much water, sea levels dropped up to 120 meters (almost 400 feet) below the current level. Sea levels now cannot rise so much, because we only have two huge ice pools, Greenland and Antarctica. In former times, North America and Europe were also covered with a mile of ice or more.
In any event, land that had once been covered in vegetation, turned to permafrost, and as our current warmer period developed, slipped under rising seas. There are relatively shallow seas along Eastern Siberia, for example. A permafrost mantle is thawing there, which could release methane from below.
What is the source of the methane in the mounds – does it come from geologic processes or as a byproduct of microbial life? Pavel tells us this methane is coming as a biproduct of microbe digestion. Serov and his colleagues found mounds on the sea floor of the South Kara Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean off Siberia. They drilled into two mounds (using ocean drill ships) and found different amounts of methane in them. One contained far more concentrated methane.
This paper goes against the conventional wisdom about the origins of this methane. It was thought to be ancient, but now scientists find the methane is more recent.
THE NEW SCIENCE
Now we turn to Serov’s newest work as lead-author, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy. The title is “Postglacial response of Arctic Ocean gas hydrates to climatic amelioration“. That sounds like the climate motivation is strong here.
Serov’s research shows large amounts of methane were released after several deglaciation periods, including the Heinrich Event which unleashed an armada of ice-bergs into the Atlantic ocean. Could a very rapid melt in Greenland now stimulate an undersea release of methane, including explosions? Serov thinks that is less likely now, but not impossible. It is less likely, because Heinrich Events, where countless ice bergs are released from fast Arctic melting, are not likely now. That is because we don’t have the two continents covered with ice, just Greenland really. Serov doesn’t expect the right conditions to arrive at exploding undersea Pingos. Or at least that’s my understanding of what he said. Please listen for yourself!
In an email, Pavel wrote that release of more seabed methane is not triggered by surface warming, which I assume includes the abnormally hot, low-ice summers of recent years. The real trigger is less visible: a change in ocean circulation along the bottom. If those waters become warmer, the methane-laden mounds can begin to thaw and be released. At the depth studied in this latest paper (more than 380 meters, or 1200 feet deep) Serov thinks life-forms in the water column will manage to capture the methane, before it can reach the atmosphere. Some carbon dioxide will be given off. But Serov wonders if there is a limit to how much methane the ocean can absorb.
Another CAGE scientist, Karin Andreassen, has just published a new paper in the journal Science, on June 2nd. She and her colleagues found the northern ocean (or at least the area they studied) is pock-marked with craters. Both Andreassen and Serov think these craters are the remains of exploded Pingo-like features, like the craters found in Siberia on land recently. The two papers are halves of the same research, in a way. Find Andreassen’s paper here.
The new paper by Pavel Serov, just out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is titled “Postglacial response of Arctic Ocean gas hydrates to climatic amelioration.” It is by a group of scientists from Norwegian universities, and from the Centre of Glaciology in Wales UK. Our guest Pavel Serov is the lead author.
IS THERE AN ARCTIC METHANE WORRY?
It may sound like Pavel Serov is not concerned about methane coming from the Arctic sea floor. He says methane that may blow out from the deep mounds he is studying, some 380 meters or 1200 feet deep, should be absorbed by the microbiotic life in the water column, although the oceans may have a limit to how much methane it can process. At that depth, hotter surface waters have no real impact. Only a change in circulation at the ocean bottom affects these clathrates.
But that is in the deeper waters around the Norwegian Arctic. It’s a different story in the shallow sea beds in Eastern Siberia. Surface heating can affect the permanent frozen sea bed, which acts as a cap to methane below. There, bubbles of methane are measured arriving at the surface and going into the atmosphere. Scientists are still trying to determine how much.
Almost separate from all this, is the theory raised by Natalia Shakhova from the University of Alaska, and Igor Semiletov from Tomsk in Russia. They suggest that an undersea landslide could release a “burp” of methane up to 50 gigatons [sorry, I said “megatons” in the program, but it’s gigatons] – almost like a methane bomb. That alone could push up Arctic temperatures, and possibly global temperatures, for a period up to about 10 years. Such an event would stimulate other feedbacks, like melting permafrost, which could continue for centuries. Here is a good article about all that, loaded with links, by our Radio Ecoshock guest Dar Jamail.
But our guest Pavel Serov says, this is still a theory of a major methane burst is still under investigation. Others say it is like waiting for an earthquake. It may happen, but when – in the next ten years, or the next 300 years.
Out of all this, there is a pretty clear picture that in past deglaciation events, large amounts of methane were released from a frozen state in the sea. These releases added warming, and may have created an abrupt shift of climate. Some scientists suggest that melting clathrates alone brought about catastrophic climate change and a new age.
For now, it’s still difficult though to know how much methane will emerge from the sea bed in our lifetimes and how fast. Scientists at the Norwegian institute CAGE, Russian institutes, the Chinese and the Japanese, are all working to find those answers. I’ll continue to report on this issue as it develops.
A NOTE FROM ALEX: EXCITING POLITICAL NEWS AND VIOLENCE MAY DISTRACT US FROM CLIMATE CHANGE (BUT IT WILL STILL HAPPEN!)
The world audience seems mesmerized by an American President breaking things. But most countries seem on the verge of collapse, with political turmoil if not outright civil war. The stock and banking scene is surreal.
Perhaps you are sailing through life, never been better, but I’m sure you sense the great dis-ease. Or maybe you are already busy cleaning up after the latest weather disaster. We are just entering shift-time, when the weather gets wilder, new bugs and bacteria appear, while old species fade away. In society and on the planet generally, everything is moving away from the center, and toward the Poles.
It’s hard to get the news and science of climate change out through that state of crisis, but with your help, I’m going to try. Radio Ecoshock is dedicated to bringing you the hard truth from around the world. All our past programs, with many of the world’s top scientists and authors, are available free from our web site, ecoshock.org. Please help spread the word.
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Even if money is tight for you, I encourage you to use your internet connections to spread these great interviews around. Eventually, if we reach enough ears, or even the right ears, we may be able to make a difference.
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening again this week.