Dangerous Releases of Methane Gas
Science stunner: Vast East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane stores are destabilizing and venting
NSF issues world a wake-up call: "Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”
March 4, 2010
Methane release from the not-so-perma-frost is the most dangerous amplifying feedback in the entire carbon cycle. Research published in Friday’s journal Science finds a key “lid” on “the large sub-sea permafrost carbon reservoir” near Eastern Siberia “is clearly perforated, and sedimentary CH4 [methane] is escaping to the atmosphere.”
Scientists learned last year that the permamelt contains a staggering “1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere,” much of which would be released as methane. Methane is is 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, but 72 times as potent over 20 years!
The carbon is locked in a freezer in the part of the planet warming up the fastest (see “Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss“). Half the land-based permafrost would vanish by mid-century on our current emissions path (see “Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return” and below). No climate model currently incorporates the amplifying feedback from methane released by a defrosting tundra.
The new Science study, led by University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Centre and the Russian Academy of Sciences, is “Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf” (subs. req’d). The must-read National Science Foundation press release (click here), warns “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.” The NSF is normally a very staid organization. If they are worried, everybody should be.
It is increasingly clear that if the world strays significantly
above 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide for any
length of time, we will find it unimaginably difficult to stop short
of 800 to 1000 ppm.
The lead author, Natalia Shakhova, explains the new findings in this video: http://www.youtube.com/v/eD8hU-lbqpE&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xcfcfcf&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&fs=1
A lead researcher of that work said, “Our
survey was designed to work out how much methane might be released by
future ocean warming;we
did not expect to discover such strong evidence that this process has
And we also know that a key trigger for accelerated
warming in the Arctic region is the loss of sea ice.
In other words, a continuation of the recent trend in sea ice loss may triple Arctic warming, causing large emissions in carbon dioxide and methane from the tundra this century.
Oh, and the Arctic warming could lead to another feedback according to a 2008 Science article: “Continuation of current trends in shrub and tree expansion could further amplify this atmospheric heating 2-7 times.” The point is that if you convert a white landscape to a boreal forest, the surface suddenly starts collecting a lot more solar energy (see “Tundra 3: Forests and fires foster feedbacks“).
That trend is occurring now, as seen in these two photos from a recent ScienceNews article, “Boreal forests shift north.”
“Upper photo taken in 1962 shows tundra-dominated mountain slope in Siberian Urals. A 2004 photo of the same site, below, shows conifers were setting up dense stand of forest.”
Another major study warns that the warming-driven northward march of vegetation poses yet another threat to the tundra: “Greater fire activity will likely accompany temperature-related increases in shrub-dominated tundra predicted for the 21st century and beyond.” The concern is not so much the direct emissions from burning tundra, but the albedo change.
And all that warming would cause massive melting of the tundra and faster emissions release. That must be avoided at all cost, since the tundra feedback, coupled with the climate-carbon-cycle feedbacks that the IPCC models, could easily take us to the unmitigated catastrophe of 1000 ppm.
The good news is that a 2009 NOAA-led study found “Near-zero CH4 growth in the Arctic during 2008 suggests we have not yet activated strong climate feedbacks from permafrost and CH4 hydrates” (see “Is it just too damn late?“)
The bad news is we clearly are on very thin ice. Literally.
Lawrence revised and updated his 2005 analysis of tundra loss under different emissions scenarios (after some scientists criticized the original work) in this 2008 study, “Sensitivity of a model projection of near-surface permafrost degradation to soil column depth and representation of soil organic matter” (subs. req’d). The updated analysis still found: “the warming is enough to drive near-surface permafrost extent sharply down by 2100.”
I had asked Lawrence if it was still reasonable to keep using this figure in my presentation, since it is so much easier to understand than the figures in his new paper.
He said, “Using the old figure is still fine as long as one mentions the caveats that permafrost is probably degrading a bit too rapidly in the original.
So I will certainly use that caveat, though, of course, I will also caveat the caveat by saying the slightly slower rate of permafrost degradation does not include Lawrence’s new analysis on the accelerated warming of the permafrost due to sea ice loss (or, for that matter, the accelerated warming of the permafrost due to faster shrub encroachment).
Note that the “B1″ scenario stabilizes CO2 concentrations in the air at 550 ppm — and the near-surface permafrost permafrost (down to 11 feet) plummets from over 4 million square miles today to 1.5 million. If concentrations hit 850 ppm in 2100 (A2), permafrost would shrink to just 800,000 square miles.
And while these projections were done with one of the world’s most sophisticated climate system models, the calculations do not include the feedback effect of the released carbon from the permafrost. That is to say, the CO2 concentrations in the model rise only as a result of direct emissions from humans, with no extra emissions counted from soils or tundra. Thus they are conservative numbers–or overestimates–of how much CO2 concentrations have to rise to trigger irreversible melting.
In short, the would-be point of atmospheric stabilization, 550 ppm isn’t stable at all — it is past the point of no return. We must stay well below 450 ppm to save the tundra and hence the climate. The new research underscores that conclusion, especially since the planet will keep warming (slowly) for decades even once we slash emissions to near zero.
And that means we must begin a staggering amount of clean energy deployment as soon as possible (see “How the world can (and will) stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution“).
Wake up media and politicians who are being duped by the anti-science disinformers into thinking there is any serious doubt about the catastrophe we face on our current path of unrestricted emissions!
PARIS, Feb 2, 2010 (IPS) - The Amazon jungle "is very close to a tipping point," and if destruction continues, it could shrink to one third of its original size in just 65 years, warns Thomas Lovejoy, world-renowned tropical biologist. Climate change, deforestation and fire are the drivers of this potential Amazonian apocalypse, according to Lovejoy, biodiversity chair at the Washington DC-based Heinz Centre for Science, Economics and the Environment, and chief biodiversity adviser to the president of the World Bank.
Lovejoy laid out the scenario for participants at the Biodiversity Science Policy Conference in Paris last week, sponsored by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and marking the beginning of the U.N.'s International Year of Biodiversity. "The World Bank released a study that finally put the impacts of climate change, deforestation and fires together. The tipping point for the Amazon is 20 percent deforestation," and that is "a scary result," Lovejoy told Tierramérica in an interview.
The study, "Assessment of the Risk of Amazon Dieback," released Jan. 22, drew on the expertise of several international research institutions, including Japan's Meteorological Research Institute, Britain's Exeter University, Brazil's Centre for Weather Forecasting and Climate Change (CPET/INPE), Germany's Potsdam Institute and Earth3000.
The results and analysis were reviewed by an international blue-ribbon panel of scientists. Lovejoy, head of the committee responsible for this major scientific investigation, said the Amazon has already lost 17 to 18 percent of its forests. Furthermore, "it has a remarkable hydrogeological system where the forest generates at least half of its own rainfall."
This literally means the rainforest makes its own rain, but it also brings rainfall to many areas outside of the Amazon, including the central-western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso and northern Argentina, he said. What the study shows for the first time is the combination of global warming on a path to reach two degrees Celsius, deforestation of roughly 20 percent of the original forest, and forest fires that undermine the Amazon's unique hydrogeological system.
The Amazonian south and southeast will receive much less rainfall. Less moisture means those areas will be more prone to fires, which not only destroy the forest but also further dry out the surrounding forest - all of which reduces the Amazon's ability to produce rain. The process becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
"The forest eventually converts to cerrado (the Brazilian savanna) after a lot of fire, human misery, loss of biodiversity and emission of carbon into the atmosphere," said Lovejoy. The Earth's average temperature has already warmed 0.8 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial era. At the 15th Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Copenhagen in December, virtually all countries agreed that the warming must not surpass two degrees.
The report's conclusion: "For the Amazon as a whole, the remaining tropical forest will shrink to about three-quarters of its original area by 2025 and further to about only one-third of its original extension by 2075 as a result of these combined impacts of climate change, deforestation, and fire." "The good news is that deforested areas can be reforested and provide a safety margin," said Lovejoy, maintaining some optimism.
New Fuel for Jets: Algae
Algae to solve the Pentagon's jet fuel problem
By Suzanne Goldenberg
The brains trust of the Pentagon says it is just months away from producing a jet fuel from algae for the same cost as its fossil-fuel equivalent.
The claim, which comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) that helped to develop the internet and satellite navigation systems, has taken industry insiders by surprise. A cheap, low-carbon fuel would not only help the US military, the nation's single largest consumer of energy, to wean itself off its oil addiction, but would also hold the promise of low-carbon driving and flying for all.
Darpa's research projects have already extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon. It is now on track to begin large-scale refining of that oil into jet fuel, at a cost of less than $3 a gallon, according to Barbara McQuiston, special assistant for energy at Darpa. That could turn a promising technology into a market-ready one. Researchers have cracked the problem of turning pond scum and seaweed into fuel, but finding a cost-effective method of mass production could be a game-changer. "Everyone is well aware that a lot of things were started in the military," McQuiston said.
The work is part of a broader Pentagon effort to reduce the military's thirst for oil, which runs at between 60 and 75 million barrels of oil a year. Much of that is used to keep the US Air Force in flight. Commercial airlines such as Continental and Virgin Atlantic have also been looking at the viability of an algae-based jet fuel, as has the Chinese government.
"Darpa has achieved the base goal to date," she said. "Oil from algae is projected at $2 per gallon, headed towards $1 per gallon."
McQuiston said a larger-scale refining operation, producing 50 million gallons a year, would come on line in 2011 and she was hopeful the costs would drop still further ensuring that the algae-based fuel would be competitive with fossil fuels. She said the projects, run by private firms SAIC and General Atomics, expected to yield 1,000 gallons of oil per acre from the algal farm.
McQuiston's projections took several industry insiders by surprise. "It's a little farther out in time," said Mary Rosenthal, director of the Algal Biomass Association. "I am not saying it is going to happen in the next three months, but it could happen in the next two years."
But the possibilities have set off a scramble to discover the cheapest way of mass-producing an algae-based fuel. Even Exxon which once notoriously dismissed biofuels as moonshine invested $600m in research last July.
Unlike corn-based ethanol, algal farms do not threaten food supplies. Some strains are being grown on household waste and in brackish water. Algae draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when growing; when the derived fuel is burned, the same CO2 is released, making the fuel theoretically zero-carbon, although processing and transporting the fuel requires some energy.
The industry received a further boost earlier this month, when the Environmental Protection Agency declared that algae-based diesel reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% compared with conventional diesel. The Obama administration had earlier awarded $80m in research grants to a new generation of algae and biomass fuels.
For Darpa, the support for algae is part of a broader mission for the US military to obtain half of its fuel from renewable energy sources by 2016. That time line meant that the Pentagon needed to develop technologies to make its hardware "fuel agnostic", capable that is of running on any energy source including methane and propane.
The US Air Force wants its entire fleet of jet fighters and transport aircraft to test-fly a 50-50 blend of petroleum-based fuel and other sources including algae by next year.
The switch is partly driven by cost, but military commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq are also anxious to create a lighter, more fuel-efficient force that is less dependent on supply convoys, which are vulnerable to attack from insurgents. Give the military the capability of creating jet fuel in the field, and you would eliminate that danger, McQuiston said. "In Afghanistan, if you could be able to create jet fuel from indigenous sources and rely on that, you'd not only be able to source energy for the military, but you'd also be able to leave an infrastructure that would be more sustainable."
McQuiston said the agency was also looking at how to make dramatic improvements in the photo-voltaic cells that collect solar energy. She said making PV 50% more efficient would create a future when even the smallest devices, such as mobile phones, would be powered by their own solar cells..