Sunday, April 27, 2008

Gas Hydrate Warning

The methane hydrate feedback has long been the most fearsome and worrisome of all possible climate feedbacks. Since the average person can't yet fully comprehend the ordinary climate change we are expecting, the IPCC BAU or similar, and its causes and intricacies, talking to climate beginners or skeptics from a cold start about hydrates is not advisable. Like moving from an explanation of how to put air in the tires to a full-on discussion of the tolerances required for a bearing rebuild; the shift in topic is slight, but the shift in assumed knowledge needed to understand the material is huge. You pretty much need at least a week of basic climate teaching before you can begin to discuss the most worrisome feedbacks.

So far our journalist friends seem to help rather than hinder. Below is a fairly poorly worded, poorly imagined article from Germany's Der Speigel, in which the author manages to "balance" discussion of a methane hydrate emissions crisis with notions of how we might use them for fuel in the same breath. That anyone in today's world can imagine using methane hydrates as a fossil fuel astounds and terrifies me.

(This journalistic "balance", and it's equivocating political equivalent, is beginning to physically nauseate me. It's "balancing" the discussion of placement of deck chairs on the Titanic, and increasingly incoherent and cognitively dissonant. I can imagine a day when what is left of civilization puts journalists like this one, and the editors, and the politicians, on trial for their irresponsibility and fecklessness.)

It's because climate change, particularly drastic feedbacks, is is so hard to explain, and because we are so actively delaying political climate action, filibustering even a minor deck-chair shuffle, that as early as several years ago I began to play out the resultant civil emergencies in my head, so I might have an idea of what would be needed.

Now we do have quite a bit of experience with civil emergencies in this country, and perhaps yet more in my home country, the UK. Although few climate scientists and mitigation folks have studied civil emergency management, and few politicians and ordinary climate activists have enough grasp of 20th century history to have an understanding of what to do in the event of something like a runaway climate warming feedback crisis occurring in the context of a heavily populated industrial civilization, there is a historical record of events of similar magnitude in terms of civil disruption, a record that runs the length of the 20th century, and includes things like the 1940s food crisis resulting in the UK from the Battle of the Atlantic, the concurrent 1940s Blitz in Britain and the equivalent response to the heavy British and American bombing of Germany, and the civil restoration of Germany and Europe in general after WW2 and accompanied effort to feed, house and resettle displaced persons and survivors of death camps. Possibly useful for examples of what not to do if you intend to keep democracy, there's also the immediate post war eastern European and Soviet experience and the Cultural Revolution in China. If you need to see what happens when modern vehicles, cell phones and computers still work, for the most part, you might study hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the San Diego wildfires, the 2007 UK flooding, the current food riots in Haiti, and so on. There are many, many other examples, and, partly because of climate change, our knowledge is growing yearly, and even weekly with this new food crisis.

(This history is particularly on my mind right now because my RAFMRS colleague "Heavy" Whalley, senior team leader at the Lockerbie disaster, is visiting here at Unity College with us as "Rescue Expert in Residence" for a few more days, and due to talk in Tim's Introduction to Criminal Justice class on the subject of Lockerbie tomorrow. Heavy received several medals and commendations for the work he did in the aftermath of that disaster, and his cool thinking on how to structure the response in that burning hell-hole was crucial to managing the disaster, and by extension to reestablishing civil order and stability.)

How to begin applying this kind of knowledge?

Well for starters, we have to be capable of imagining the scale and direction of trends likely to result in civil emergencies, so we need some basic climate science and some ecological and geophysical modeling. The following is informal, based on the intuitive models I carry around with me. But it might be formalized easily enough.

We can currently envisage two possible emergencies, a runaway warming feedback, or a runaway cooling feedback. Right now, based on the emerging data from scientific study of specific feedback loops like the undersea methane hydrates (below) or the arctic albedo feedback, a runaway warming feedback seems most likely, perhaps an order or so of magnitude more likely than a cooling feedback.

A runaway warming feedback sufficient to create civil emergency might occur over a timescale of a couple of years, some tens of years, or even a couple hundred years and still be rapid enough as to overwhelm ordinary provision for food, housing and shelter. The most obvious drivers of emergency and instability are food system failure and destruction of housing. Any underlying rapid warming trend will also be accompanied by more extreme weather, possibly more extreme than anything we've seen yet. Wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, if we start to warm by say, a degree Celsius a decade, or two, all these may double, triple, or more, in intensity and frequency primarily because of the extra heat or climate "forcing" building up on the surface of the planet and in the lower atmosphere and oceans, but also because of the increased heat differential as the new heat will not be spread evenly across the planet surface. High heat differentials and resultant high pressure differentials drive extreme weather. Another, secondary driver of emergency conditions is civil unrest which can result from either of the above, or from political unrest unrelated or only somewhat related to climate.

Crop failure is already occurring patchily around the world from drought and other strange weather, particularly important being the failure of Australia's wheat harvest last year. Crop failure, with high fuel prices impacting food systems, has been one cause of the food crisis in the developing world. If transport systems remain intact, crop failure is a temporary regional phenomenon alleviated by food aid. If they don't, it may produce chronic, long-term starvation.

Housing destruction may become driven by rising sea level, but is already driven by floods, storms and wildfires, and of course we already have experience with these in the USA, the UK, as well as countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia (after the tsunami) and elsewhere recently.

Civil unrest calls for a policing or a military response in which force is used or threatened to prevent populations from fighting among themselves for food or housing resources that remain. It is also possible to envision a crisis so widespread that civil unrest takes on the likeness of a war or civil war between populations excluded from resources, but that are armed, and those who still have resources. One such situation smolders currently in Haiti.

Society can respond to all of the above using ordinary market or social provision if the scale and pace of events does not out-pace markets and social aid. The nature, form and actual development of a climate emergency, as such, is related to the capabilities and resilience of ordinary provision for housing and food and policing, whether through markets or government "social" provision. So in the aftermath of Katrina, the civil emergency in which extraordinary government response was needed was a few months long, after which insurance companies began, belatedly to make payment, and construction companies, commercial food systems, and other more regularized social housing and feeding were established or reestablished, and, essentially, civilization was slowly restored. The skills that were in immediate demand after Katrina: emergency public health care, emergency medicine, rescue, civil emergency organization, emergency pollutant assessment and control, helicopter piloting and related ground support operations, civil emergency feeding, emergency policing against looters and criminal gangs, and more; and those in demand during the rebuilding phase: demolition, construction, plumbing and electrical, non-profit management, government grant and loan operations, civic planning, and so on, both were and will in the future be different from the skill sets in demand for basic climate mitigation.

Civic organization in an emergency is not helped by counting carbon emissions and changing light bulbs. But the skill of leadership is common to both climate mitigation and climate emergency response.

There are also geographic and ecological concerns to consider in any climate emergency because food system and housing failure will occur patchily. Some current food supply and housing resources may prove ecologically resilient. Others will not. Fast action on the part of a government, such as moving, say, agricultural equipment and fertilizer and seed from one area to another so that crops can be grown according to some emergency plan, may proved crucial. Planning out contingencies for such events might be helpful. A general preemptive policy of adding to food stock storage and supporting resilient agriculture and resilient housing before a crisis hits could literally save civilization.

What would be resilient agriculture? We don't really know, since we don't know which ecological regions areas might still be productive in the event of a runaway climate warming, but we obviously must begin to imagine it. In Britain during WW2, resilience was sought and found using small scale decentralized production, adding gardens and livestock to small patches of useful land. Labor was usefully added to agriculture without taking troops from fighting, using programs like the Women's Land Army. All these and other related policies enabled land that had been pasture since enclosure to be plowed up once more for arable crops. The scale and intensity of of agriculture was increased everywhere. In any future climate emergency, agricultural mobility might be key; in WW2 Britain, the ecosystem at least was stable. In the future, we may find we can have ecologically productive homesteads and farms on northern and high altitude land currently under-utilized, such as that which surrounds us here in Maine. A government program to purchase by eminent domain and distribute such land to qualified farmers and homesteaders might also be key, as might the training of such people. Shared equipment for clearing and planting, shared seed stock and breeding stock resources, imaginative use of animals and crops such as using sheep and goats to help clear land for future arable production, or using cover crops to sponsor nitrogen production without fossil fuels, all these might prove helpful. Finally, a few thousand tonnes of concentrated fertilizer and a few tonnes of seed stored in decentralized government buildings in each ecoregion would save, literally, millions.

Resilient housing might prove to be that housing that can either survive the crisis and still be useful, based on location or physical resilience. It might also be prefabricated emergency housing, or housing that can be moved relatively easily from one place to another, or housing that people can build for themselves with or without government help. People may also need to be physically moved, as after Katrina, to safer yet distant places where they may be temporarily or permanently rehoused. And as the immediate crisis after an extreme weather event winds down, emergency feeding and social welfare/job schemes that allow householders to work on their own homes and those of their neighbors might prove useful. Retraining may be needed.

Homesteading or smallholding, the production of food, fuel and shelter for one's own consumption and/or for a small commercial surplus, should not be overlooked in all this. A homesteader family who can produce enough or some for their own needs and help their neighbors, is likely at least to not need as much in the way of government care as a displaced urban family with effectively no practical skills. Neither should the Town Meeting system of government practiced here in New England be overlooked. Doughty homesteading and farming communities have run their own governments in my county of Maine for nearly two centuries, with very little help from state and federal government, and more than a little hindrance. In any future climate emergency, the wisest authority may be the one that realizes when they have insufficient wisdom to have authority.

(Would that were so now, and we might escape the emergency in the first place.)

Resilient police and military forces, and health care services, controlled by resilient democratic government structures, will be key to surviving such a crisis with some semblance of civilization intact. Again, decentralization and scale are important, because opportunities for safe food and housing provision will be patchy and ecologically scattered. If sea level began to rise by a foot or two or three per year, for instance, moving people and housing and farming to higher and more northerly ground while maintaining social order, would be driven by consideration of where that higher ground and northern land suitable for housing and agriculture was, who was in charge of it, and what islands and peninsulae might result after Greenland and Antarctica are done melting or partially melting. Canada will be a very popular country. And state legislatures and state governors, congressmen and women, Presidents and their staffs, government agency heads, all, unfortunately, will need to be protected. Plans for succession should be in place. Communications must be sufficiently resilient to survive repeated extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

(Whether our government officials will actually deserve such protection after letting such events occur is a purely moral question. As an expedient, for once, I would say, we shouldn't "throw the bums out." We will need every scrap of government we can get, and we may not have time for politics in any case. The UK national government headed by Winston Churchill suspended elections for the duration of WW2.)

In general, in any ecological crisis driven by warming, north is obviously better than south and higher better than lower. The US and the UK are both lucky to have large areas of relatively unpopulated higher land in their respective norths. The Highlands of Scotland, Maine, Montana's great plains, places I've spent my own life in the wilderness, these may be the refuges we will seek. There's no surprise that my farm is at 500 feet. And I've always wanted to live on an island.

Gallows humor aside, I don't want to have to imagine these things but I think we must. I'm not a ghoul who likes to imagine death and destruction in his spare time, nor am I a conspiracy theorist nut-job who keeps several years of food supply in his basement. But I am an Englishman whose grandfathers and grandmothers fed their families with Victory Gardens, rabbit hutches, and chicken coops during WW2, whose father was bombed out of his house, all of whose male relatives over 50 have served in the armed forces, and who has himself been on the scene of dozens of aircraft crashes and served at several civilian emergencies, responded to hundreds of casualties in first aid situations, and who, with his wife, produces food, fuel and shelter on a small but hopefully resilient farm in Maine. My wife Aimee, on the other hand, comes from the German-American Peace Church tradition, and raises and puts up food almost instinctively, while giving it away with even less thought.

Actually, with that kind of history, we really can't help but think this stuff through.

A Storehouse of Greenhouse Gases Is Opening in Siberia

By Volker Mrasek

Researchers have found alarming evidence that the frozen Arctic floor has started to thaw and release long-stored methane gas. The results could be a catastrophic warming of the earth, since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But can the methane also be used as fuel?

The Lena River flowing through Russian Siberia and empties into the Arctic Ocean. This satellite image shows the river delta, where methane concentrations are unexpectedly high.

It's always been a disturbing what-if scenario for climate researchers: Gas hydrates stored in the Arctic ocean floor -- hard clumps of ice and methane, conserved by freezing temperatures and high pressure -- could grow unstable and release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas, more worrisome than carbon dioxide, the result would be a drastic acceleration of global warming. Until now this idea was mostly academic; scientists had warned that such a thing could happen. Now it seems more likely that it will.

Russian polar scientists have strong evidence that the first stages of melting are underway. They've studied largest shelf sea in the world, off the coast of Siberia, where the Asian continental shelf stretches across an underwater area six times the size of Germany, before falling off gently into the Arctic Ocean. The scientists are presenting their data from this remote, thinly-investigated region at the annual conference of the European Geosciences Union this week in Vienna.

In the permafrost bottom of the 200-meter-deep sea, enormous stores of gas hydrates lie dormant in mighty frozen layers of sediment. The carbon content of the ice-and-methane mixture here is estimated at 540 billion tons. "This submarine hydrate was considered stable until now," says the Russian biogeochemist Natalia Shakhova, currently a guest scientist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks who is also a member of the Pacific Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok.

The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become "a source of methane passing into the atmosphere." The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet's atmosphere would increase twelvefold. "The result would be catastrophic global warming," say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.

Shakhova and her colleagues gathered evidence for the loss of rigor in the frozen sea floor in a measuring campaign during the Siberian summer. The seawater proved to be "highly oversaturated with solute methane," reports Shakhova. In the air over the sea, greenhouse-gas content was measured in some places at five times normal values. "In helicopter flights over the delta of the Lena River, higher methane concentrations have been measured at altitudes as high as 1,800 meters," she says.

The methane climate bomb is also ticking on land: A few years ago researchers noticed higher concentrations of methane in northern Siberia. The Siberian permafrost is known as one of the tipping points for the earth's climate, since the potent greenhouse gas develops wherever microorganisms decompose the huge masses of organic material from warmer eras that has been frozen here for thousands of years.

"A Wake-Up Call for Science"

Data from offshore drilling in the region, studied by experts at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), also suggest that the situation has grown critical. AWI's results show that permafrost in the flat shelf is perilously close to thawing. Three to 12 kilometers from the coast, the temperature of sea sediment was -1 to -1.5 degrees Celsius, just below freezing. Permafrost on land, though, was as cold as -12.4 degrees Celsius. "That's a drastic difference and the best proof of a critical thermal status of the submarine permafrost," said Shakhova.

Paul Overduin, a geophysicist at AWI, agreed. "She's right," he said. "Changes are far more likely to occur on the sea shelf than on land."

Climate change could give an additional push to these trends. "If the Arctic Sea ice continues to recede and the shelf becomes ice-free for extended periods, then the water in these flat areas will get much warmer," said Overduin. That could lead to a situation in which the temperature of the sea sediment rises above freezing, which would thaw the permafrost.

"We don't have any data on that -- those are just suspicions," the Canadian scientist said. Natalia Shakhova also passed on the question of whether to expect a gradual gas emission or an abrupt burst of large quantities of methane. "No one can say right now whether that will take years, decades or hundreds of years," she said. But one cannot rule out sudden methane emissions. They could happen at "any time."

One thing is clear, though: The thawing of the Arctic sea floor will create "new potential sources for methane ... which no one had reckoned with until now," said Laurence Smith, a professor for geography at the University of California in Los Angeles. Smith is researching North Pole frost zones and expects that a thawing of the permafrost will "supply fuel for methane engines."

The first methane rocket thruster was tested by the US's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2007, and methane from manure has been collected as "biogas" to heat and power homes in experimental German towns.

In any case, the team taking part in the Siberian study installed a number of probes in the Laptev Sea, a central part of the broad Siberian shelf sea. These probes are measuring the temperature on the upper edge of the submarine permafrost. Overduin wants to pull up the probes in August. Then, for the first time, scientists will have access to a full year's worth of data on the conditions of the sea floor.

For her part, Shakhova thinks researchers should be doing a lot more. She says too little is known about the fragile shelf sediment and the methane it stores, which could be explosive for the environment. "Actually," she says, "this is a wake-up call for science."

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