THE COMING GREENHOUSE WORLD
“Look. I’m going to do my best to end up in a kind of hopeful optimistic place. But – I am by nature, by sort of profession, I am kind of a professional bummer-outer of people. So we’re going to have to deal with that for a little while. Because there’s no use not. We need to figure out just where we are, in order to figure out where we need to go.”
Yes, it's ugly being Green these days. That was Bill McKibben, opening a speech in Colorado, touring with his new book "Eaarth", the post-Copenhagen capitulation to a new and damaged planet. Download the whole speech as an mp3 ( 1 hour 12 MB) from our Climate 2010 page.
I'm Alex Smith. This is Radio Ecoshock, where reality becomes the new horror genre.
Not the oil blowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Not the BP dispersants, the largest chemical experiment on the ocean, ever. Not even the phony permits, non-existent backup plans, the cover-up.
The real unreported tragedy: nobody gets this story. Humans now know they are shifting the climate toward a Greenhouse world. According to NASA, we just had the hottest January to April global temperatures ever recorded. Over 255 National Academy of Science members just put out a strong warning, that the press didn't bother to print.
And yet the Green champions in the Senate still brought out a bill calling for more offshore drilling! The Canadian government still approves even deeper wells on the East Coast, drilling now as you hear this, with even less hope of recovery from an accident. And they want to do it in the Arctic, on the West Coast.
The shame, we say, is that we didn't get a chance to burn all that oil, to send the carbon into the atmosphere, where some will fall back into the ocean anyway, into the Gulf of Mexico, and all oceans, turning them acidic, killing off life at the basis of the food chain.
Nobody wants to say, if we cared for our children and grandchildren at all, if we cared about the world, we would stop all oil exploration, anywhere, today. Call it off. The atmosphere can't take another drop hauled out from under the sea, from under the land, from the Tar.
We will all drive away from this accident, as though the Greenhouse world isn't coming, arriving slow and almost unstoppable, visible and denied.
Do you think I'm being too bleak, just another climate alarmist? Professor George Martin Kennedy, from the University of California, Riverside made a speech April 8th, 2010. It's called "What Awaits Us In the Greenhouse World." Watch the whole hour long video, with the link in my May 20th Ecoshock blog.
Snatching out a clip or two, listen how rapid climate change can be.
[Kennedy clip 1]
"Now what we're seeing here, in this stable period we call the Holocene, is where human history has evolved. But the preceding 110,000 years is characterized by very rapid temperature changes.
These are significant changes, these aren't just small. It's the difference between having a glacier on your doorstep, and the difference of having a very hot Maryland summer. It's really quite, quite different. ....
... This shift from full glacial conditions, absolute ice age, to the warm Holocene, occurred over three cycles - three years. This is less than ten years in change. So we know the Earth system can change like that.
Now what happens to initiate this change? Is wasn't one of those nice linear ball goes up, ball goes down. What happened here was there was a massive ice water release in the North Atlantic, and it utterly changed the circulation pattern of the North Atlantic Ocean. It shut down the Gulf Stream, and it entirely froze much of Europe, in this very cold climate.
Now, why that matters is it tells us that the Earth system actually functions rapidly, and it can function with triggers of passed thresholds."
The forces that created a hothouse world for the dinosaurs, are nothing compared to our industrial emissions.
[Kennedy clip 2]
"The next question you might ask is: 'Well that was geologic time, ten thousand years is a long time, or twelve thousand years ago even.' Statistically I'm pretty sound here.... But the one thing that people who study systems, particularly tipping points and thresholds will tell you, is that in a strongly forced system, a tipping point is most likely. And, by common sense argument, we are in a period of Earth's history with the strongest, strongest pressure on the climate system that the Earth has ever seen.
Now that argument is really straightforward. There has never been a time in Earth's history when a systematic mechanism has mined reduced carbon - what I mean there is hydrocarbons and coal - oxidized them, and put them in the atmosphere. No other animal, no other process - there is no other mechanism that you can identify, that I'm aware of, that could do what we have done.
We have taken Earth's thermostat, and we have jammed a blow-torch against it in a sense...boy that sounds dramatic. But the point is, we are really forcing that thermostat...Every barrel of hydrocarbon we produce, we are putting that CO2 into the atmosphere, and that is the temperature controller. And there is not another time in Earth's history where this could have happened.
So, you get great Hollywood movies out of this. But this is not what I'm worried about. I am not worried about a giant Tsunami coming into New York. In fact it would be kind of cool, [laughter] but this is not going to happen. This is not climate change, this is a weather event.
And frustratingly, the confusion of the press, of weather, with climate, is really annoying. Because weather is dramatic and it's extreme, and Hark Angels are incredibly destructive and newsworthy things. But what we're talking about here is insidious, subtle, scary, nasty averages - that change fundamental components of the climate system, in ways that we can't see it, until it's too late."
Finally, Professor Kennedy's big worry, the clathrate catastrophe. The public barely learned about the frozen gobs of methane, called clathrates, lurking at the sea bed - as they clogged the ill-fated fix-it dome lowered by BP over the Gulf oil leak. Scientists suspect the seas are warming, and some already found evidence of melting methane, in the seas off Siberia.
[Kennedy clip 3]
"So if you imagine there's twice as much methane, and it's twenty to sixty times more efficient [at holding in heat-making radiation] - that's concerning. But it's more concerning when you consider it's unstable. It's ice. It melts with two degrees of temperature change.
It's melted in the past, and changed the climate, and caused extinction events. And we are looking at temperature changes about on that order. The question is: is this a mechanism that is going to become one of those feed-backs, or tipping points, in the near future. Because if it is, our climate will abruptly change to a completely uninhabitable greenhouse world, for us. And it will do it very, very quickly.
And it does it by this. We warm some parts of the ocean. That methane is melted. It is released to the atmosphere. That methane works to warm the atmosphere, more methane is melted. That methane goes into the atmosphere and contributes to the warming and melts more methane, further and at higher latitudes.
What we're describing is a positive feed-back in which all of the methane zippers open, and melts catastrophically across the planet.
Now has this happened in the past? Is it an entire hypothetical? Well the work we do in my lab, is to go back into ancient events, and identify causes of abrupt climate change. What we're doing here in South Australia is we're looking at one of these events, in which the coldest period in Earth's history transitioned to one of the warmest periods in Earth's history, over a very short amount of time, taking thousands of years.
This period of climate change, we have to go back almost 600 million years to see. But it looks almost identical, in rates of change, as our present position. And the driver for this is almost certainly methane clathrate melting. This is a case where we can confirm that this mechanism had a catastrophic effect.
This is the scariest piece of science I'll ever see in my life. This came out last summer. It came out from a research group in Britain, and it comes from a cruise off Salvard [?] where the researchers on this cruise, on this vessel, recorded a series of enormous methane venting chambers, or bursts, across the sea floor.
What this suggests is that the high latitude areas are starting to see the first release of this methane. We've been seeing it in permafrost. But now, if it really is the ocean, that's it's beginning to warm, and release methane - that's a very scary scenario for our future.
There is no backing off of this. There is no remediation. There is nothing that governmentally we can do as a civilization, if this is actually occurring. What we need to know if this really is occurring, and if it really does pose an immanent threat."
That was Professor George Kennedy from his speech "What Awaits Us In the Greenhouse World." Go ahead and Google that. Watch it yourself.
March 4, 2010
It gets worse. Dr. James Hansen of NASA says there may be no limit to the heating brought about by our sudden release of gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is not impossible to blow off the normal atmosphere, taking us into the super-heated state of Venus, or maybe eventually, if the oceans boil away, the killing cold of Mars.
Or this one. From our first Radio Ecoshock special on Greenhouse worlds ( 1 hour 14 MB), broadcast January 4th, 2008 here is a clip from Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, speaking at a meeting for financial movers and shakers.
"What's going on now, definitely, is that the greenhouse gases are building up due to human activity, not due to these biological changes. And there is nothing to reverse that, except us reversing emissions. Nor do we know of any limit in the climate system that would stop the warming. There could be one...maybe when we get to four or five degrees warming, there is something that happens, that we don't know about. There's a lot that we don't know. But, you know, we can't make policy based on a hope."
How darkly ironic, that our best weak hope comes from the man who sees catastrophe coming, but a warming limited by Nature itself, by the living reactions of Gaia. That would be Britain’s James Lovelock. Is it possible? What could stop the roaring train of greenhouse warming?
In this program, you'll hear from a Gaian scientist, and veteran journalist, Dr. Melanie Lenart. Her new book is "Life in the Hothouse - How A Living Planet Survives Climate Change."
I'll also review another excellent source, a book from Open University called "The Cretaceous World." We have a lot to learn from the times of the dinosaurs, when carbon levels soared, along with the temperature. The mass of life, including forests, moved toward the ice-free poles. That may be the future, unless we undergo a revolution, very soon. Starting with a movement to leave the coal and oil in the ground, where it cannot damage the sea, the sky, and all future generations. My extended review if reprinted below.
Meanwhile, let us see how the Earth balances itself, in the coming greenhouse world.
You can download the 42 minute (10 MB) Melainie Lenart interview as a separate piece here.
"Life in the Hothouse - How A Living Planet Survives Climate Change." That is the title of a new book by Melanie Lenart, from the University of Arizona.
The resulting book holds a lot of new facts and ideas for me. Reading "Life in the Hothouse" was an education, even as it stimulated a lot of questions. For example, I was taken back to a radio conversation in Australia, where Gaia inventor James Lovelock, suggested the climate would not runaway, into a boiling disaster like the planet Venus. Natural systems would limit the warming, as they had many times in the past.
"One of the first things I noticed in your book: yes, you are a scientist with a PhD in Natural Resources and Global Change. But your work is stuffed with quotes from conferences, from discussions with scientists, from letters and emails. I thought, this person has operated like a journalist as much as a scientist - and indeed you are a science writer as well."
This is one of those books which are really a testament to a life's work.
We talk about hurricanes - how they can be engines used by the Earth to cool the tropics by transferring heat to higher latitudes, closer to the Poles. There may be no net cooling, but the heat is better distributed by storms, Lenart points out.
We also talk about extreme weather events, especially extreme rainfall like the recent record-breaking flooding of Nashville, USA.
Lenart disputes the models showing a die-off of the Amazon. She shows how forests can modify the warming of the planet, being fed by more carbon dioxide. It looks like a reaction from the plant world could conceivably slow down warming, or set some upper limits for now. We also examine the role and reaction of the soil, where bulk of land-based carbon is stored.
Our guest was Melanie Lenart, a scientist from the University of Arizona, and author of the intriguing new book "Life in the Hothouse - How A Living Planet Survives Climate Change." To find Melanie's web page, just Google "Lenart", and "Arizona". You can download our interview, as a free mp3 from our Climate 2010 page, at ecoshock.org.
"The Cretaceous World" book review.
We continue to add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, despite obvious signs of a coming climate shift, toward a "greenhouse world". Earth has experienced this many times before. In fact, scientific study tells us a hotter ice-free climate is more normal than the few times of frozen poles and glaciers. Never mind that mammals such as ourselves, and our entire civilization, survive best in a cooler state. Or evidence that rapid climatic shifts lead to mass extinctions.
So what will the greenhouse world, the likely future, be like?
One model comes from the times of the dinosaurs, the Cretaceous Age, running roughly 144 million to 65 million years ago. We can peer into that distant time, with the aid of a spectacular teaching aid developed by the Open University in Britain. It's a text book for undergraduate studies called "The Cretaceous World", published jointly by Open University and Cambridge Press. The first edition came out in 2002, and it was updated with new science in 2006.
As a radio reviewer, I am lucky enough to get many new books for free. But despite my limited budget, I plunked down $65 for this lavishly illustrated textbook. It's been worth every penny, as I came upon clear illustrations of how our carbon system works, and how the present world developed. Is the Cretaceous a model of the future greenhouse world we are creating by burning fossil fuels, while damaging carbon reservoirs in the soil, forests, and oceans?
Yes - and no. First of all, the lands of the dinosaurs was very different from the present. For one thing, there was a lot less of it. We learn "The Cretaceous oceans covered between 10% and 45% of the present land surface."
The fact that there is such a wide range in this guestimate of how much the oceans over-ran the land, requires an entire chapter of the book. Can't scientists just dig or drill down through the rock layers, like an ice core, and determine how high was the ancient sea level? Many problems arise - and sink, because the continents themselves are not fixed, as we experience them, but float on the liquid core of the Earth. They move around greatly during the Cretaceous, starting out almost as one great land mass called Pangea, separating into two, and then falling into many segments. Some land rises, while other parts of the Sea floor fall back into the magma, melting.
Scientists think sea level was at least 200 feet higher than at present. It was a hot sea, often 85 degrees Fahrenheit or more.
There was much more rain, especially at high latitudes.
We do know the land of the dinosaurs was flatter, with fewer big mountain chains. Mountains like the Rockies and the Himalayas are relative new-comers, the latter rising as the floating continent of India slowly crashed into Asia.
And there was a major change in plant types. The flowering plants began their near domination of the world during the Cretaceous.
All these factors, and more, change the ocean currents, and the climate system.
Still, we know the Earth during the Cretaceous was at least 10 degrees Celsius warmer than today, that's at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, as a global average! There was no ice at either pole. Scientists are still debating whether it was a totally ice-free world. Temperatures were so hot, that the regions around the equator often dried out into scrub and deserts, while most of the plant mass grew in higher latitudes. Instead of a barren tundra in northern Alaska, even at 85 degrees Latitude North, there were wet polar forests. We have found intact fossilized tree stumps in the high Arctic, preserved since Cretaceous times.
Crocodile bones have been found at Canada's arctic Ellesmere Island.
The Sun did not cause this extra heat - in fact, the Sun was less bright than it is today. The heat coming from the Sun was trapped by an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. CO2 has been estimated from three to six times higher than our current levels. That means anywhere from 900 parts per million, up to 1800 parts per million.
I have talked with serious climate scientists who think CO2 levels of 600 parts per million are unavoidable by the end of this century. And then natural climate feed-backs, like the release of frozen methane, could take us up to Cretaceous levels, with corresponding rising temperatures. In a hurry.
So why were CO2 levels so high 80 or 90 million years ago? Nobody thinks the dinosaurs were driving cars. Scientists find a complex number of drivers, including:
the positions of the continents, higher river runoff, lack of high mountain ranges, the appearance of flowering plants, and the evolution of plankton capable of living in deep water.
All of these changed the carbon cycle, slowly adding CO2 to the atmosphere faster than it could be removed. Geophysical changes, like volcanic activist and changes in the Sea floor pushed that carbon cycle even harder.
Eventually, through the weathering of rocks, especially in the newly raised mountain ranges, and through the sequestration of carbon by land and marine organisms, the carbon dioxide levels began to decline in the atmosphere. Negative feed-back loops, like increasing ice, brought us to a cycle of ice ages punctuated by slightly warmer times, like our recent ten thousand year run where humans flourished.
Now humans are disturbing natural carbon cycles, and hauling up vast amounts of stored carbon to be burned as fossil fuels. If we cannot change this pattern very quickly, we risk heading back into the hothouse world which has been more normal for the planet.
As the world gets hotter, author Dr. Robert Spicer warns "polar warming leads to the extinction of organisms adapted to cold and the polar light regime, as they have nowhere else to go." Conversely, later in the heat cycle, species that evolve in the warmed polar regions can later migrate South, if the planet cools. To me, it seems unlikely the human species will last long enough to see that return to a cooler world. We are creatures of Earth's Ice Age, just as the Dinosaurs were part of the Cretaceous hothouse Earth.
Dr. Spicer, along with editor Peter Skelton, plays a leading role in both the book "The Cretaceous World" - and in research of land-based life in that period. Among many tools, Spicer has helped develop the analysis of fossilized leaves to determine the state of past atmospheres, and climates. I was fortunate enough to interview this member of the Royal Society for Radio Ecoshock at the beginning of 2008. I've reposted that half hour interview (7 MB) on Greenhouse worlds, on the climate 2010 page of ecoshock.org. "Bob" Spicer was generous with his time.
We spent half the interview discussing the ways the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had underestimated the grave risk of climate change, in it's 2007 report. For the rest, we talked about scientific study of past greenhouse worlds, with this deep time specialist.
You'll get an approachable learning guide from his chapters in the book "The Cretaceous World". Find a link to the Cambridge publishing web site, with samples from the book, and other resources, in my Radio Ecoshock blog for May 20th, 2010 - or go to cambridge.org and search for the book title.
Can anyone read "The Cretaceous World"? I would say anyone with at least high school science should be able to understand this text. The many graphs and illustrations are particularly helpful. The whole thing is written as a text for university undergraduates. But it teaches anyone the basics of how the Earth has formed in the last 200 million years - and more importantly perhaps for the future, how the carbon cycle really works.
Given the recent interest in volcanic interruption of air travel, and the unspoken hopes of many that a major volcanic eruption may at least temporarily save us from the worst of global heating - the big chapter on volcanoes is really useful. I suppose I am not giving away the ending, by saying volcanoes may cool the world for a year, or even perhaps several years - but in the longer run they add to greenhouse gases, and so to global warming. Sorry, there is no eruption waiting to save us from ourselves.
As you have heard, there were major differences in the way the continents, the seas, and the plants were organized in the Cretaceous period. But scientists have found that the basic ways that carbon cycles between the air, the soil, the oceans, and the atmosphere have remained the same. As James Lovelock has warned us, if we reproduce an atmosphere with higher greenhouse gases, we can expect a world unsuitable for most current living species, including ourselves, except for pockets of new life around the Arctic Circle.
Given our unprecedented interference in the atmosphere, I join Lovelock in expecting a great migration Northwards, with one or two generations. For many species of plants and animals, that journey has already begun.