Climate can flip to a new state, quickly. Is strangely rising methane a signal of a “termination event”? Dr. Euan Nisbet, Royal Halloway, University of London with worrying new science. We explore abrupt climate shifts with Prof. Niklas Boers, Technical University of Munich and PIK. He tells us about global reorganization of atmospheric circulation in the past – glimpses of our future – or now?
“The air is getting hotter. There’s a rumbling in the skies.
I’ve been wading through the high muddy water, With the heat rising in my eyes.”
– Bob Dylan
[ Bob Dylan – Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Official Audio)]
Lately, it seems like we going to a hotter place. Methane the super-warming gas is spiking at a new steep level. Worse, that could be a signal that “a large-scale reorganization of the natural climate and biosphere is under way” scientists say.
EUAN NISBET: TERMINATION EVENTS?
We are living through early-stage climate destabilization. By changing the atmosphere, we are entering unknown possibilities. Among them: a rapid warming (over decades, not millennia) developed repeatedly even in the last million years. They were accompanied (or partly caused by) increasing levels of methane in the atmosphere. That steep methane rise is happening now. Is it a signal?
Business and politicians make long-term maps of gradual climate warming. The UK just made their route longer. Earth is not like that. Earth doesn’t care about politics or statements, and plays by it’s own rules.
Euan Nisbet is Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London. Among other things, Dr. Nisbet has been relentlessly tracking atmospheric methane the old school way. He analyzes flasks of air collected from around the world. For me, Nibet’s work is a gold standard for methane, and he returns to Radio Ecoshock with big worries.
THE MAD MARCH OF METHANE
According to the International Energy Agency, “Methane is responsible for around 30% of the current rise in global temperature”. This new paper led by Nisbet says “The rapid growth in the atmospheric methane burden that began in late 2006 is very different from methane’s past observational record.” Euan talks to us about the general history of methane in the atmosphere since the 1970’s, and the new growth of this super warming gas.
Methane levels in the atmosphere were rising until the late 1990’s. Then it appeared to plateau, which Nisbet describes as a balance between emissions and processes that destroy methane, generally within ten years of it’s release. Around 2007, that balance was broken and the rate of addition of methane to the air was worrying. In 2015, that pace increased even more. By 2020, graphs of methane growth in the atmosphere were running even steeper. Something is happening to generate more methane than Earth’s processes can destroy.
It turns out, as we discussed in an earlier Ecoshock interview, methane molecules come in two major flavors. Methane from biological sources (like swamps or permafrost thaw) contains a lot of the isotope Carbon12. This is the most abundant form of carbon on Earth. But fossil fuels, being stored for many millions of years away from solar rays or chemicals in the atmosphere, contain more carbon13. So analysis can determine where the methane came from.
Nisbet and his colleagues analyze air samples carefully captured in flasks from stations around the world. They find the source of extra and increasing methane is not from fossil fuels. Obviously, leaking natural gas facilities and fracking DO add methane to the atmosphere. But that load formed part of the relatively stable baseline before. The increase shows more Carbon12, and less Carbon13. So we know.
Adding in a lot of other work, including mapping wind currents, these scientists pinpoint to major sources, and a new entry. The largest single source seems to be a vast network of meandering rivers and swamps in East Africa. Tropical swamps in South America are next.
We might expect thawing permafrost to be a major contributor. More methane is coming out of the Arctic, but so far Nisbet and colleagues suggest Arctic swamps, and likely increasing beaver ponds. The beaver may be increasing in Alaska, the Northwest Territories of Canada, and across the sub-Arctic, as Arctic warming extends the growing season?
I ask Dr. Nisbet about the long-held fear of methane bubbling from the shallow Arctic seas. He tells us he was among the first to raise this concern. It is a real threat, still to be watched he says. But, for now, their analysis does not show sea bed methane as a cause of the worrying increase of methane into the atmosphere. Yet.
THE TERMINATION EVENT
I am not a scientist, so this is not an expert summary by any means. But if a “termination event” is signaled by methane, and if such a rapid warming is possible from our current high temperatures, it is hard to imagine how this civilization, and maybe our species, could survive it.
Those are huge “ifs”. And please understand, “termination event” in science is not the Apocalypse or the “termination” of anything in particular, other than a fast transition to a different climate.
One of the greats of science, the late Dr. Wallace (“Wally”) Broecker began looking into this question in the late 1990’s, and published a major paper on it in 2003: “The role of ocean-atmosphere reorganizations in glacial cycles”.
The Abstract from that Broecker and Denton paper says:
“A case is made that glacial-to-interglacial transitions involve major reorganizations of the ocean-atmosphere system. Such reorganizations constitute jumps between stable modes of operation which cause changes in the greenhouse gas content and albedo of the atmosphere.
Only in this way can the rapidity of glacial terminations, the hemispheric synchroneity and symmetry of mountain glaciation, and the large polar air temperature and dustiness variations be accounted for.”
Here is the problem:
1. analysis of gases in bubbles from ice cores can also indicate temperature in that past time, but indirectly. Scientific American, for example, says:
“Temperature… is not measured directly, but is instead inferred from the isotopic composition of the water molecules released by melting the ice cores.”
2. As you know, over the past hundreds of thousands of years, Earth has switched back and forth from ice ages to “interglacial” warm periods like today.
3. When the Russians and others retrieved ice cores from the deep and abiding glaciers of Antarctica, they found sudden shifts of temperature. There is no other explanation. Inside a few decades, temperatures could rise 5 degrees C, or 10 degrees C. These periods of rapid climate warming developed at the end of an ice age, so they are called “termination” events.
4. Termination events were accompanied by (or partly caused by) a serous spike of methane into the atmosphere.
The Nisbet-led paper (2023) says:
“During Termination IA [the closest to us at about 11,000 years ago] ending the Younger Dryas, methane rose abruptly by ~250 ppb, with essentially synchronous high-latitude and low-latitude climate change… [with] …methane growth rates as high as 6 ppb/yr...”
“ppb” means parts per billion of methane in the atmosphere. It sounds low, but this haze of methane around the world is enough to keep some energy radiating from the Earth’s surface from bouncing back into space. The result is a warmer atmosphere. About a third of the warming we are experiencing, as we go through an all-time record hot year, is due to methane in the atmosphere.
Termination 1A was just before human agriculture and the first cities. As we gamble on disruption, we may not know a termination-like shift is happening until we try to live through it.
These periods of rapid warming were always from a very cold time to warmer climates. For example, the City of London was in a frigid ice state but then relatively rapidly warming to the point where it was colonized by hippopotami, usually considered a tropical animal. That is a startling change, especially when climate models cannot reproduce these shifts.
As Euan Nisbet writes in this great article in The Conversation:
“For example, around 131,000 years ago during Termination II, the British climate suddenly flipped from glaciers in the Cotswolds to hippopotami wallowing in what is now Trafalgar Square.”
THE BIG MAYBE
We have no idea (as far as I know) IF a similar warming can launch from an already warm period today. It would be good to know. But at the very least, this new research suggests:
1. Earth’s climate is much less stable than models and most science assumed (and told us about).
2. An abrupt warming is accompanied by methane – so the sudden growth of methane in the last decade, and even in the last three years, is a serious concern.
We could be facing a rapid shift that is NOWHERE in plans by the IPCC, the International Energy Agency, and all the officials who make climate pledges. Everyone assumes a gradual increase of warming with polar glaciers acting like brakes on a speeding car. Past reality suggests otherwise. You and I need to learn more about this situation. Please listen to Euan Nisbet, who is clear and understandable.
Another indicator of widespread global “reorganization” of the climate system involves a change of state to the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) – also called “the Gulf Stream” by some. That North Atlantic water pump can change from strong or “on” (as now) to weak or “off” (although it may not totally turn off). Increasing science in recent years documents a slow-down in the AMOC. It may be shifting to a different state. Euan Nisbet discusses this in our interview, and there is more detail in the July paper.
THE END OF THE HOLOCENE?
The new paper is: “Atmospheric Methane: Comparison Between Methane’s Record in 2006–2022 and During Glacial Terminations.” It was published by the AGU, with Open Access. Check it out for yourself, graphs and all. That paper concludes:
“...it is plausible that the multiplicity of recent events, their abruptness, and their power are circumstantial signs a major reorganization of the global climate system has already begun. Like the heat of the oceans, the biogenic methane signal may be a telling summation, a bellwether that signals the onset of permanent global change, the end of the Holocene.”
I put more key information about this methane surge at the bottom of this blog, after our next guest.
NIKLAS BOERS – ABRUPT WARMING UP TO 15 C, 60 F.
It is obvious to everyone now: Earth’s climate is not stable. Research confirms in the past, temperatures heated up more than 15 degrees C, a whopping 60 degrees Fahrenheit – not in a million years or a thousand, but in a few decades. Right now Earth is warming rapidly. We need to understand how abrupt climate shifts happen.
New science can help. Our guest is Dr. Niklas Boers. Niklas, I’m just going to read your titles from the PIK web site, and you can update if needed. Niklas Boers is Professor of Earth System Modeling, Technical University of Munich, and Leader of the Future Lab ‘Artificial Intelligence in the Anthropocene‘ at PIK. He is also associate coordinator of the Horizon 2020 project ‘Tipping Points in the Earth System’ (TiPES). Boers’ research has a wide reach: extreme events, past climates, tipping points, yes, – but also Artificial Intelligence.
Niklas is co-author of the PNAS paper “Global reorganization of atmospheric circulation during Dansgaard–Oeschger cycles.” The Lead Author is Jens Fohlmeister. These “D-O” events” (named after two scientists) are abrupt climate changes that have happened at least 25 times during the last glacial period.
Given our short 10,000 year social memory, we think Earth’s climate has a normal. At the very least, this paper shows how unstable climate is on this planet. A temperature jump in Greenland of 16.5 C, 61 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, in say 30 years, – it is difficult to imagine. But it leads to at least two pressing questions asked of Niklas in this interview. First, his team finds this abrupt heating was centered in the North Atlantic – but was it global warming?
Second: As I understand it, these abrupt warming events always began during an ice age – called a stadial – changing to a warmer state, like today. Do we have any evidence to suggest a burst of more heat can develop – fairly quickly – in a world already hot? Does cold to hot look like hot to hotter?
THE EXTREME RAIN CONNECTION
My previous two Ecoshock interviews investigated extreme rainfall events, with at least a dozen of them in the first two weeks of September, strung around the northern Hemisphere. There must be some connection. In 2019 in Nature Niklas Boers and co-authors published about a “global pattern of extreme-rainfall teleconnections”. Are these startling downpours and floods spread across different continents linked in some way?
The new paper Niklas co-authored on past abrupt warming says:
“…signals and model results indicate consistent large-scale changes in precipitation amount, moisture source, or seasonality of precipitation associated with the DO transitions, in agreement with northward shifts of the Hadley circulation.”
Again we see the importance of precipitation changes as the world heats up . Perhaps we are being introduced to a time of powerful rains alternating with flash drought. Is the Hadley circulation shifting northward now, as humans accelerate global warming?
ALEX’S FURTHER NOTES ON RISING METHANE
A new paper (March 20, 2023) puts a spotlight on the recent intensification of wetland methane feedback. It is “Recent intensification of wetland methane feedback” by Zhen Zhang et al.
They explore the complex relationship between climate change and increasing wetland methane production. It is not just the heat! In fact the major driving factor may be changes to precipitation that happen as Earth warms.
THEY DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW IF THE SURGE IS DUE TO MORE HEAT OR MORE PRECIPITATION – BOTH COMING FROM CLIMATE CHANGE..
Zhang et al say: “Our results suggest the probable emergence of a strong positive wetland CH4 feedback under current climate-change-driven warming and changes in precipitation. With the uncertainty in climate datasets, it is unclear whether rising temperature or strengthened precipitation plays a more prominent role in the rise of wetland CH4.” [CH4 = methane]
A BIAS IN NORTHERN HEMISPHERE SCIENCE IS OVERLOOKING METHANE SOURCES, ESPECIALLY IN AFRICA AND SOUTH AMERICA…
The authors want more monitors, especially in remote tropical bogs. In a personal example (from Alex): when I search for methane climate and bog – about 90% of responding articles are about bogs (mainly peat bogs) in the Northern Hemisphere, even though they represent the minority of methane escalation. Northern scientists tend to study their environment more intensively. It is a bias in science which can hurt our ultimate survival, because southern lands and southern oceans may determine the future.
EVEN IF HUMAN METHANE EMISSIONS DECLINE 30 TO 60%, “this projected increase of wetland emissions could offset 25–40% of the reduction” – Zhang
THIS WETLAND METHANE BURST IS NOT INCLUDED IN IPCC MODELS OR REPORTS…
The IPCC only considers the future of human sources of methane (like the natural gas industry, landfills, manure handling etc. – not expansion of biological methane.
SEE ALSO: EXCEPTIONAL SURGE OF METHANE FROM WETLANDS THIS YEAR!
CLIMATE MODELLING 20 March 2023
‘Exceptional’ surge in methane emissions from wetlands worries scientists
BIOLOGICAL METHANE IS A POSITIVE FEEDBACK LOOP: the organisms that eat/oxidize methane (“methanotrophs”) cannot keep up with increased methane production as the peat bogs get warmer and wetter. Note: “Whereas 98% of the produced methane is retained at 5°C, this drops to approximately 50% at 25°C.” Warming breeds more methane which breeds more heat.
METHANOGENS INCREASE WITH WARMING..
Methanogens have a direct impact on the climate by releasing methane, the global warming potential of which is ~30 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. The reverse is also true. Rising global temperatures also increase the activity and abundance of methanogens in different environmental conditions. This creates a positive feedback loop, the end result of which negatively impacts all lifeforms on the planet.
A YOU TUBE VIDEO ON TERMINATION
Here is a decent video explanation of this new science and Termination on YouTube by Anton Petrov
We tackle the ghost in climate change studies and policies: air pollution has been cooling the planet while killing millions of people around the world. Now the public demands their basic right to breathe healthy air again. But is it too late – because an abrupt climate “reorganization” is already underway? Is the choice between smog or roasting amid floods and fires? We have an aerosol expert on next week, with a lot of under-reported news in the air.
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