Summary: Whatever problems we have, let’s not overlook America’s institutional strengths. The mills of journalism and science still run, too slowly but surely. Here we see them working in the vital area of climate change.
- Hot news about a coming catastrophe
- Better news coverage
- Scientists debate the issues
- Failed Forecasts
- Updates — more signs of change
- Key points about global warming!
- For More Information
(1) Hot news about a coming catastrophe
“Climate science: Vast costs of Arctic change“, Gail Whiteman, Chris Hope & Peter Wadhams, Nature, 25 July 2013 — Excerpt:
We calculate that the costs of a melting Arctic will be huge, because the region is pivotal to the functioning of Earth systems such as oceans and the climate. The release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia, alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action — a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion). The total cost of Arctic change will be much higher.
This sparked the usual run of alarmist news articles, failing to report the other side of the debate among climate scientists — or even that there is a debate. Such as “Rapid Arctic thawing could be economic timebomb, scientists say“, John Vidal, The Guardian, 24 July 2013 — “Methane released by a thinning permafrost may trigger catastrophic climate change and cost the world $60tn.”
(2) Better news coverage of climate science
However some journalists have reported that there is another side to the debate, a late but welcome realization by journalists of their responsibility — and of the balanced reporting required for survival as a business. They now report voices among climate scientists that until recently have been filtered out — or smeared.
(a) “Ice-free Arctic in two years heralds methane catastrophe“, Nafeez Ahmed, The Guardian, 24 July 2013 — “Professor Peter Wadhams, co-author of new Nature paper on costs of Arctic warming, explains the danger of inaction”. Excerpt:
Not everyone agrees that the paper’s scenario of a catastrophic and imminent methane release is plausible. NASA’s Gavin Schmidt has previously argued that the danger of such a methane release is low, whereas scientists like Prof Tim Lenton from Exeter University who specialises in climate tipping points, says the process would take thousands if not tens of thousands of years, let alone a decade.
… A new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) projects that the Arctic will be ice free in September by around 2054-58.
(b) “Methane mischief: misleading commentary published in Nature“, Jason Samenow, Washington Post’s climate blog, 25 July 2013 –Opening:
A catastrophic release of the potent greenhouse gas methane in the Arctic could cause a sudden warming with massive economic consequences says a commentary published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature Wednesday. Yet most everything known and published about methane indicates this scenario is very unlikely. This piece should never have been published without discussing this critical point.
(c) “Arctic Methane Credibility Bomb“, Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times’ climate blog, 25 July 2013 — Provides quotes from climate scientist Gavin Schmidt (NASA) criticising the analysis and conclusions in the Nature Comment. Also links to the Carbon Brief article (see below) quoting climate scientists.
These news stories (especially in the NYT and Carbon Brief) report another encouraging development: more climate scientists publicly speaking out against what they consider unwarranted alarmism. The “climategate” emails showed them critiquing each others work, but did not speak to the public about such concerns. That’s changed, providing important new dimensions to the debate about public policy in this vital area.
(3) Scientists debate the issues
For more information, here are links to public statements and peer-reviewed articles about the odds and possible effects of methane released to the atmosphere.
(a) “Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf“, Natalia Shakhova et al, Science, 5 March 2010 — Careful analysis, warning that this needs to be studied.
(b) “How Stable Is the Methane Cycle?“, Martin Heimann, Science, 5 March 2010 — “Ship and satellite data help to elucidate how methane emissions from sources such as wetlands may change in a warming climate” Subscription only.
(c) “Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change“, Carolyn D. Ruppel (U.S. Geological Survey), Nature, 2011 — Conclusion:
Catastrophic, widespread dissociation of methane gas hydrates will not be triggered by continued climate warming at contemporary rates (0.2ºC per decade; IPCC 2007) over timescales of a few hundred years. Most of Earth’s gas hydrates occur at low saturations and in sediments at such great depths below the seafloor or onshore permafrost that they will barely be affected by warming over even 103 yr. Even when CH4 is liberated from gas hydrates, oxidative and physical processes may greatly reduce the amount that reaches the atmosphere as CH4.
The CO2 produced by oxidation of CH4 released from dissociating gas hydrates will likely have a greater impact on the Earth system (e.g., on ocean chemistry and atmospheric CO2 concentrations; Archer et al. 2009) than will the CH4 that remains after passing through various sinks.
… Proof is still lacking that gas hydrate dissociation currently contributes to seepage from upper continental slopes or to elevated seawater CH4 concentrations on circum-Arctic Ocean shelves. An even greater challenge for the future is determining the contribution of global gas hydrate dissociation to contemporary and future atmospheric CH4 concentrations.
(d) Judith Curry (Prof Climate Science, GA Institute Technology), at her website, 25 July 2013:
The plausibility of Wadhams’ scenario rests on two assumptions:
- the ‘spiral of death’ loss of arctic sea ice
- connection of the sea ice loss to a massive release of methane hydrates into the atmosphere on the time scale of a decade
Each of these assumptions is highly implausible, based upon my understanding; the combination of these two assumptions into a single scenario seems impossible to me.
(e) “How likely is a huge Arctic methane pulse? We find disagreement among scientists“, The Carbon Brief, 24 July 2013 — Excerpts:
“It’s not a given all the methane will end up in the atmosphere. Some could be oxidised [broken down] in the water by bacteria, and some could remain in the sediments on the seafloor.”
Professor David Archer from the University of Chicago, who researches ocean sediments and methane:
“No one has proposed any mechanism for releasing methane that wouldn’t take centuries, not just a few years.”
Dr Julian Merton, Professor of Permafrost Science at the University of Sussex:
“Permafrost hundreds of metres thick simply doesn’t warm or thaw much in ten years on account of its thermal inertia.”
(f) “A response to Methane Mischief: Misleading Commentary Published In Nature“, Cambridge website, 26 July 2013 — “Professor Peter Wadhams responds to some of the comments that were made.” Opening:
The 25 July post by Jason Samenow on the global economic impacts of methane emissions in the East Siberian Sea portrays the findings of our research as misleading, a statement with which I strongly disagree. Our work is based on a prediction of the magnitude and timing of methane emissions from the thawing of Arctic offshore permafrost by a scientist who has done extensive field work on this part of the ocean bed and is a globally recognized expert. We calculated the financial implications of these emissions for the world economy over a century and also considered the effect of the emissions on increasing overall global warming, obtaining a 0.6C figure by 2040.
We rightly consider these to be substantial figures, which deserve wide circulation among climate scientists, and Nature and its referees agreed with us.
(4) False forecasts
A signature trait of mass movements in the past generation has been indifference to failed predictions. Like believers in the End Times, being wrong does not diminish their confidence. This was IMO a factor wrecking the Peak Oil Movement, and might do the same to the Apocalyptic Climate Change believers.
It’s now been 25 years since James Hansen’s supporters kicked off the climate alarmism movement by turning off the air conditioning on a hot summer day in June 1988. The failed predictions are starting to accumulate. Forecasting is normal science at work; even failed forecasts advance our knowledge. But laypeople regard cutting edge science as gospel when it suits their political needs; refusal to respond to — or even admit — failed forecasts show that they use science but do not respect it.
Scientists in the US have presented one of the most dramatic forecasts yet for the disappearance of Arctic sea ice. Their latest modelling studies indicate northern polar waters could be ice-free in summers within just 5-6 years. Professor Wieslaw Maslowski told an American Geophysical Union meeting that previous projections had underestimated the processes now driving ice loss.
… Professor Peter Wadhams from Cambridge University, UK, is an expert on Arctic ice. He has used sonar data collected by Royal Navy submarines to show that the volume loss is outstripping even area withdrawal, which is in agreement with the model result of Professor Maslowski.
“Some models have not been taking proper account of the physical processes that go on,” he commented. The ice is thinning faster than it is shrinking; and some modellers have been assuming the ice was a rather thick slab. Wieslaw’s model is more efficient because it works with data and it takes account of processes that happen internally in the ice.”
(5) Updates: More signs of change in the news media
(a) An extraordinarily balanced article by the Guardian: “Are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method?“, Warren Pearce, Political Science blog of The Guardian, 30 July 2013 — “As part of our series on science and the green movement, Warren Pearce looks at how science is used by their opponents.” Pearce is a Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham in the Making Science Public programme. Look at the comments! The switch in perspective appears to have been too fast for some of their audience, who do not like balance in their news.
(b) “A Closer Look at That ‘North Pole Lake’“, Andrew Revkin, New York Times Dot Earth Blog, 27 July 2013 — About the “North Pole lake” hysteria. For a clearer explanation go to the source: the North Pole Environmental Observatory (who runs the cameras) has posted “The NPEO Web Cameras and Summer Melt Ponds” to debund the propaganda.
(c) “Greenland may not have reached highest recorded summer temperature in late July“, weather blog of the Washington Post, 12 August 2013 — Opening:
On August 1, I reported Greenland had logged its warmest summer temperature on record on July 30. A news release from the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) served as the basis for the report.
Anthony Watts, who runs the blog WattsUpWithThat, penned a post over the weekend arguing the reading was invalid for this reason and offers some plausible reasons as to why the temperature reading may have been artificially warm.
The DMI now says the record may not be legitimate, because artificial heat sources near the observing station may have contaminated the temperature sensor.
(6) Some of the key things to remember about global warming!
While cheering for their faction of scientists, laypeople often lose sight of the big picture — the key elements for making public policy about this important issue.
- The work of the IPCC and the major science institutes are the best guides for information about these issues.
- The major global temperature measurement systems tell — broadly speaking — the same story since the 1970s: two decades of cooling, two of warming, followed by a pause.
- This is consistent with the larger firm conclusions of climate scientists: two centuries of warming, coming in pulses (ie, waves), with anthropogenic factors becoming the largest (not the only) driver since roughly 1950.
- There is a debate about the attribution (causes) of past warming — which probably varied over time — between natural drivers (eg, rebound from the Little Ice Age, solar influences) and anthropogenic drivers (eg, CO2, aerosols, land use changes). Other that that stated in #3, the IPCC’s reports make few claims about attribution of climate activity, as this remains actively debated in the literature.
- There is an even larger debate about climate forecasts, both the extent of future CO2 emissions and the net effects of the various natural and anthropogenic drivers.
For the past five years my recommendations have been the same:
- More funding for climate sciences. Many key aspects (eg, global temperature data collection and analysis) are grossly underfunded.
- Wider involvement of relevant experts in this debate. For example, geologists, statisticians and software engineers have been largely excluded — although their fields of knowledge are deeply involved.
(7) For More Information
This is a follow-up post to Good news about climate change! (one aspect of the good news is that journalists are reporting the good news).
Other posts about climate change:
- Still good news: global temperatures remain stable, at least for now., 14 October 2012
- When did we start global warming? See the surprising answer (it’s not what you’ve been told)., 18 October 2012
- The IPCC sees the pause in global warming!, 18 December 2012
- Lessons about global warming from Alaska, 9 January 2013
- Secrets about global warming that you must not know, least they ruin the narrative, 22 January 2013
- Lessons about America to be learned from the Climate Wars, 28 June 2013
- Good news about climate change!, 15 July 2013
- Watch our world warm! How warm was June? What’s the trend?, 22 July 2013