10 April 2012

Triggering permafrost meltdown is closer than we think

  • Current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are probably sufficient to trigger large-scale permafrost carbon feedbacks and global warming that human effort would be unable to contain.
  • The time to slash emissions was a long time ago but now is still much, much better than later, which may, as new studies suggests, simply become too late.
Thawing permafrost
Two future climate impacts above all others will overwhelm human efforts to mitigate global warming should temperatures and carbon dioxide levels reach critical levels, which in the latter case we are already close to achieving.
       The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today — and were sustained at those levels — global temperatures were 3 to 6 degrees Celsius higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 25 to 40 metres higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland.
     One impact is ocean acidification (increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide is well-mixed with the ocean, to form carbonic acid and thus increasing water acidity) and rising ocean temperatures.  Given that carbon dioxide emissions over the next two decades are being determined (more than we would wish!) by existing energy infrastructure, we are not far from disaster:
The second overwhelming impact would be the large-scale release of permafrost carbon. It is estimated that the amount of carbon stored in the polar north as soil permafrost or on the ocean bed as methane clathrates is around 1,670 billion tonnes, three times greater than the current quantity of atmospheric carbon.  Losing even a third of the Arctic carbon stores would double atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and usher in warming of 4 degrees Celsius or more.
     So the big question is how far we are from triggering large-scale permafrost release.
PIOMAS yearly minimum Arctic ice volume
(click to enlarge)
  • The first point to note is that the Arctic has already proved to be more sensitive to global warming that expected. It is now acknowledged that the Arctic has passed the tipping point for sea-ice-free summers. The lack of summer sea-ice will increase Arctic warming (already double the global average) as heat-reflecting ice is replaced by dark, heat-absorbing open seas. There may well be a summer sea-ice-free Arctic by around 2015 (see chart).
  • Those circumstances will increase the rate of melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which is already accelerating. And now the tipping point for Greenland's ice sheet (eventual sea level rise of 7 metres) has been revised down from around 3 degrees C to just 1.6C (uncertainty range of 0.8C-3.2C). At the current temperature rise of 0.8C we may have already reached Greenland's tipping point, and with temperature rises in the pipeline (global emissions still rising, no reasonable agreement to reduce them), we are very likely to hit 1.6C in two to three decades. 
  • Global average temperatures have warmed just less than 1ºC since the Industrial Revolution, but average temperatures in Siberia, Alaska and western Canada are now 3ºC to 4ºC warmer than 50 years ago. In parts of northern Canada, Greenland and the surrounding ocean during the 2010-2011 northern winter, temperatures were more than 6 degrees Celsius warmer than the baseline temperature average for the period of 1951-1980, and 7 to 9 degrees Celsius above average over the Chukchi Sea. So by mid-century the regional increase increase could easily be 4ºC to 6ºC.
  • Predictions in 2011 suggested that as soon as 2020 carbon emissions from melting permafrost could be close to a billion tonnes a year. Researchers said that this positive permafrost carbon feedback will “will change the Arctic from a carbon sink to a source after the mid-2020s and is strong enough to cancel 42–88% of the total global land sink.”
  • Work by Celia Bitz, Philippe Ciais and others suggests that the tipping point for the large-scale loss of permafrost carbon is around 8–10C regional temperature increase. As temperatures rise, it is projected that Arctic amplification (the multiple by with the Arctic warms compared to the global average) would be approximately times three, so around a 3C increase in global temperature is probably more than enough to detonate the permafrost timebomb. This feedback in the carbon cycle would drive temperatures significantly higher. Caias told the March 2009 Copenhagen science conference that: “A global average increase in air temperatures of 2C and a few unusually hot years could see permafrost soil temperatures reach the 8C threshold for releasing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane”.
And now former UN climate chief Yves de Boer thinks that limiting warming to "two degrees is out of reach", which makes Caias's statement more than ominous.  Of course, permafrost tipping points is not the only reason to view 2 degrees Celsius as a crazy outcome and to be avoided at all costs. NASA climate chief James Hansen concludes that at the current temperature, no “cushion” is left to avoid dangerous climate change, and that the Australian government target goals  “… of limiting human-made warming to 2 degrees Celsius and CO2 to 450 ppm are prescriptions for disaster”.
 On 19 March this year, a study published in Geology found that temperatures were 2 degrees warmer climate in late Pliocene (3–4 million years ago) and this meant 12-32 meters higher sea levels. Yet at that time CO2 levels were around 365–410 parts per million, similar to today's level of 390 parts per million, and Arctic temperatures were 11 to 16°C warmer. Other studies over this period estimated global temperature to be 3 to 4°C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures.  
     The take-home message is that current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are probably sufficient to trigger large-scale permafrost carbon feedbacks and global warming that human effort would be unable to contain.

In the Pliocene 3 million years ago conditions were 11-16 degrees Celsius warmer, at atmospheric carbon dioxide levels similar to today.
And now comes a new study which shows a sudden and extreme global warming events 55 million years ago known as the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) is characterized by a massive input of Antarctic permafrost carbon, ocean acidification and an increase in global temperature of about 2 degrees Celsius within a few thousand years.  The study's author, Rob DeConto, says the implications of the study appear dire for the long-term future as polar permafrost carbon deposits have begun to thaw due to burning fossil-fuels:
Similar dynamics are at play today. Global warming is degrading permafrost in the north polar regions, thawing frozen organic matter, which will decay to release CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. This will only exacerbate future warming in a positive feedback loop.
Here's more on the new study from Joe Romm's Climate Progress:

Nature Bombshell: ‘Past Extreme Warming Events Linked To Massive Carbon Release From Thawing Permafrost’

So begins an article in the journal Nature that offers an unsettling explanation for one of the great climate mysteries: What caused the PETM?     The article’s title gives away the answer: “Past extreme warming events linked to massive carbon release from thawing permafrost” (subs. req’d).
     The lead author, climate scientist Rob DeConto, explains in a news release:
The standard hypothesis has been that the source of carbon was in the ocean, in the form of frozen methane gas in ocean-floor sediments,” DeConto says. “We are instead ascribing the carbon source to the continents, in polar latitudes where permafrost can store massive amounts of carbon that can be released as CO2 when the permafrost thaws.
     The new view is supported by calculations estimating interactions of variables such as greenhouse gas levels, changes in the Earth’s tilt and orbit, ancient distributions of vegetation, and carbon stored in rocks and in frozen soil.
     While the amounts of carbon involved in the ancient soil-thaw scenarios was likely much greater than today, implications of the study appear dire for the long-term future as polar permafrost carbon deposits have begun to thaw due to burning fossil-fuels, DeConto adds. “Similar dynamics are at play today. Global warming is degrading permafrost in the north polar regions, thawing frozen organic matter, which will decay to release CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. This will only exacerbate future warming in a positive feedback loop.”
Indeed, the recent scientific literature suggests that the permafrost is poised to be a major amplifying feedback if we are self-destructive enough to ignore yet another dire warning and stay anywhere near our current path of unrestricted carbon pollution:
A 2010 study found our oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred.
     In short, whatever we do, we don’t want to duplicate the conditions of the PETM.  But, tragically, we are. Indeed, a 2011 study that found humans are releasing carbon to the atmosphere 10 times faster now than during the PETM.  “Rather than the 20,000 years of the PETM which is long enough for ecological systems to adapt, carbon is now being released into the atmosphere at a rate 10 times faster,” one of the authors of that study explained. “It is possible that this is faster than ecosystems can adapt.”
     Here’s more on this important new study:

[DeConto] and colleagues at Yale, the University of Colorado, Penn State, the University of Urbino, Italy, and the University of Sheffield, U.K., designed an accurate model―elusive up to now―to satisfactorily account for the source, magnitude and timing of carbon release at the PETM and subsequent very warm periods, which now appear to have been triggered by changes in the Earth’s orbit.
Earth’s atmospheric temperature is a result of energy input from the sun minus what escapes back to space. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs and traps heat that would otherwise return to space. The PETM was accompanied by a massive carbon input to the atmosphere, with ocean acidification, and was characterized by a global temperature rise of about 5 degrees C in a few thousand years, the researchers point out. Until now, it has been difficult to account for the massive amounts of carbon required to cause such dramatic global warming events.
To build the new model, DeConto’s team used a new, high-precision geologic record from rocks in central Italy to show that the PETM and other hyperthermals occurred during periods when Earth’s orbit around the sun was both highly eccentric (non-circular) and oblique (tilted). Orbit affects the amount, location and seasonality of solar radiation received on Earth, which in turn affects the seasons, particularly in polar latitudes, where permafrost and stored carbon can accumulate.
They then simulated climate-ecosystem-soil interactions, accounting for gradually rising greenhouse gases and polar temperatures plus the combined effects of changes in Earth orbit. Their results show that the magnitude and timing of the PETM and subsequent hyperthermals can be explained by the orbitally triggered decomposition of soil organic carbon in the circum-Arctic and Antarctica.
This massive carbon reservoir at the poles “had the potential to repeatedly release thousands of petagrams of carbon to the atmosphere-ocean system once a long-term warming threshold was reached just prior to the PETM,” DeConto and colleagues say. Until now, Antarctica, which today is covered by kilometers of ice, has not been appreciated as an important player in such global carbon dynamics.
In the past, “Antarctica and high elevations of the circum-Arctic were suitable locations for massive carbon storage,” they add. “During long-term warming, these environments eventually reached a climatic threshold,” with permafrost thaw and the sudden release of stored soil carbon triggered during the Earth’s highly eccentric orbits coupled with high tilt….
Overall, they conclude, “an orbital-permafrost soil carbon mechanism provides a unifying model accounting for the salient features of the hyperthermals that other previously proposed mechanisms fail to explain.” Further, if the analysis is correct and past extreme warm events can be attributed to permafrost loss, it implies that thawing of permafrost in similar environments observed today “will provide a substantial positive feedback to future warming.”
The time to slash emissions was a long time ago but now is still much, much better than later, which may, as this study suggests, simply become too late.


  1. Thanks for the great work you're doing!

    I'm a newbie here, so please excuse me if I've missed this, but it seems to me that every time we talk Arctic warming, permafrost melt, loss of summer Arctic sea ice, etc., we should almost in the same breath mention loss of food security, crop losses in the northern hemisphere due to losing the "air conditioning" effect of the Arctic during our summer growing season, crop failures, food shortages, famines and starvation.

    It was Winston Churchill who said, "If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack."

    I find that most people still don't correlate global warming, climate disruption and ocean acidification with the food they and their children eat. They don't understand that the vast majority of us evolved into an agriculture-dependent species over the last 10,000 years - and that our agriculture depends on a stable climate.

    1. I have been saying for several years that the first global warming issue we need to look at is food security. As we saw this past summer, drought and high temps in the American plains states ends grain production, our primary food. This is happening while global population is reaching for 8 billion. This is a recipe for global disastar.

  2. A great analysis of the interconnected crises (climate, energy, economy, food, systematic violence) is The Crisis of Civilization by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, available as a documentary ( youtube - watch?v=pMgOTQ7D_lk ) and book.

    Also when it comes to methane hydrates in the seafloor the studies by Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov should be mentioned. The official results from their and their team's study trip last autumn should come out this month.

    Also, lets talk about solutions! Equality, sustainability, how to get there? I think the greatest potential lies in forestry and food production (continuous cover, permaculture), housing (passive) and cutting the crap production and consumption that doesn't make anyone happy. Less enthusiastic about massive alternative infrastructure projects. Check Gaia Foundation's Pandora's Box report or Sharon Astyk's A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change.

    People are ranting about superfoods while forest gardens are the best way to produce food climate-wise while producing ONLY superfoods! Eco-luxury!!!

  3. Could you publish a sea level height curve by year so I know when to sell my house and move inland? I'll need to sell long in advance of much raising so as to get a good price.

  4. Sea level rise is not an issues Anon. It is higher storm surges that will get you.

    What is required?