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Arctic Ocean

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The Danish Santa

Saint Nicholas (also known as Santa Claus, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas) has had to put up with a lot over the years. After the latest blow, he may not show up at all next week.

First they decided that he had to reside at the North Pole, where the temperature often falls to 50 degrees below zero and there are several months of complete darkness each year just when the work-load peaks. The south coast of what is now Turkey, where St. Nick originally lived and worked, was much nicer.

Then in a series of ads in the 1930s the Coca-Cola Company crystallised his image as a fat old man wearing clothes that are frankly a fashion disaster. And now, as a final indignity, they are trying to make him a Danish citizen.

On Monday, Denmark submitted documents claiming the North Pole as Danish territory (since the Danish kingdom includes Greenland). It was a “historic and important milestone” for Denmark, said Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard. It was also provocative and pointless, but he forgot to mention that.

The Danish government does not actually want or need the North Pole, and does not imagine that it would derive any practical benefit from “owning” it. It is just responding to the equally baseless Canadian declaration last December that the North Pole is sovereign Canadian territory, or at least that the seabed 4,000 metres beneath it is.

The way that claim came about is quite instructive. Canada has a huge archipelago of Arctic islands, and for years Canadian government scientists have been gathering evidence to support a Canadian claim to exclusive economic rights over the seabed of the Arctic Ocean adjacent to those islands. All five countries that border the Arctic Ocean have been preparing similar claims to the seabed off their own coasts.

Until last December, Canada made no claim to the North Pole. It was only days before the country was due to submit its final claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government finally woke up.

The claim wasn’t in the original submission because Canada has no real case in international law. Even if the Commission ends up accepting the contention by Russia, Canada and Denmark (on behalf of its Greenland territory) that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge extends their respective bits of the continental shelf into the central Arctic Ocean, the principle of “equidistance” would give the North Pole itself to the Danes or the Russians.

For the past nine years Prime Minister Harper has travelled to the Canadian Arctic every summer to give the Canadian media a “photo op”. He promises new ice-breakers and an Arctic naval base, he stands on a submarine as fighters fly overhead, he sits in the cockpit of a Canadian F-18, he shoots a rifle in a military exercise – every year a new image of him personally defending Canadian sovereignty from some unspecified threat.

There is no threat to Canadian territory, of course, and even in terms of seabed rights Canada’s only serious dispute is with the United States (over a bit of seabed north of the Yukon-Alaska border in the Beaufort Sea). But Harper’s pose as the staunch defender of Canadian “rights” serves his conservative, nationalist agenda and plays well with the Canadian media.

So when Harper’s minions belatedly realised that the government’s scientists and civil servants had not included the North Pole in Canada’s claim to the Commission, Harper slammed the brakes on and demanded that they rewrite it. He will have been told by the experts that Canada has no legal case – but he also knows that by the time that becomes clear to the public, many years from now, he will no longer be in office.

Canada didn’t submit its final claim last December after all. The poor boffins in Ottawa are struggling to reformulate it to include the North Pole, while Harper trumpets his determination to protect Canadian “rights”. And the Danes, who were previously willing to let sleeping dogs lie, have now responded by making their own rather more plausible claim.

The Russians may be next. President Vladimir Putin also likes to be photographed in the Arctic, surrounded by military kit and bravely defending Russian sovereignty. It’s getting ridiculous – but might it also be getting out of hand?

Probably not. There has been much loose talk about allegedly huge reserves of oil and gas under the Arctic seabed, but not much actual drilling is likely to happen in the challenging conditions of the Arctic Ocean when the oil price is below $80 per barrel. (It’s currently in the mid-$50s, and will probably be down there for a long time.)

There’s really nothing else up there that’s worth fighting over.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (*The claim…Russians”; and “There…media”)

It’s the Feedbacks, Stupid

26 September 2013

It’s the Feedbacks, Stupid

By Gwynne Dyer

Campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” to focus the attention of campaign workers on the one key issue that would get Bill Clinton elected president in the 1992 US election. Alas, the authors of the Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published on Friday, have no such sage to guide them. They’ll have to make do with me.

The 800-odd authors of the report are selected by their fellow scientists in the various disciplines relevant to climate change as the acknowledged leaders in their field of study. Their job was to review all 14,000 scientific papers on climate change published in the past five years. And they are doing this work at the behest of the world’s governments, not as some random pressure group; it is the InterGOVERNMENTAL Panel on Climate Change.

Scientists are very cautious people. They won’t go one millimetre beyond what the evidence makes indisputable, knowing that they will be attacked by rival scientists if they do. They are much more comfortable talking about probabilities rather than certainties. They are, in other words, a nightmare for journalists who have to transmit their findings to the world.

Of the nearly one hundred scientists I have interviewed on climate change over the past five years, not one doubted that global warming is a big and frightening problem. Indeed, there was often an undercurrent of panic in their remarks. But when it comes to writing official reports, they retreat into science-speak.

So the Second Assessment of the IPCC, published in 1995, said that it was more than 50 percent likely that human emissions of greenhouse gases were contributing to global warming. The Third Assessment, in 2001, raised the likelihood to 66 percent. The Fourth, in 2007, upped the ante to 90 percent, and the Fifth, this week, says 95 percent.

But how do you make a headline out of that? How much warming? How fast? And with what effects on human beings? The latest report will run, in its final version, to three thousand pages, and the answers are buried among the statistics. What would Jim (Carville) do? He’d say: it’s the feedbacks, stupid.

Without the feedbacks, we could go on burning fossil fuels and cutting down the forests, and the average global temperature would creep up gradually, but so slowly that most of the inhabited parts of the planet would stay livable for a long time. But if we trigger the feedbacks, the whole thing goes runaway.

The feedbacks are natural sources of warming that we activate by raising the average global temperature just a modest amount with our own greenhouse gas emissions. The consensus number used to be plus 2 degrees Celsius, but some scientists now argue that the real threshold may be as low as +1.5 degrees C. There are three main feedbacks.

As the highly reflective ice and snow that covers most of the polar regions melts, the rate at which the sun’s heat is absorbed goes up steeply over a large part of the planet. We are creating a new warming engine that will shift the planet’s heat balance, and once it has started we can’t turn it off again.

There is reason to believe that it’s already too late to avoid this one. The protective covering of floating ice that has shielded the Arctic Ocean from solar heating for so long is now going fast, and we will probably see an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the August-September period as early as the 2020s. Mercifully, this is the smallest of the three major feedbacks in terms of its impact – but it triggers a bigger one.

The warmer air and water in the Arctic then starts to melt the permanently frozen ground and coastal seabed (permafrost) that extends over more than ten million square km. (3 million sq. mi.) of territory, a considerably larger area than Australia. This melting releases a huge amount of methane that has been locked into the ground for millions of years. Methane is a far more effective warming agent than carbon dioxide, and so we spin closer to runaway.

Finally the oceans, as they warm, release some of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide they absorbed in the past, simply because warmer water can contain less dissolved gas. Most of the excess heat in the Earth system has been going into the oceans in the past few decades, which is why the rise in land temperatures seems to have slowed down. But that is no real consolation: it just means that the biggest feedback is also being activated.

Those are the killer feedbacks. Earth has lurched suddenly into a climate 5-6 degrees C higher than now a number of times in the past. The original warming usually came from massive, long-lasting volcanic eruptions that put a large amount of CO2 into the atmosphere – but in every case it was feedbacks like these that carried the planet up into a temperature regime where there was a massive dieback of animals and plants.

We are the volcanoes now. Our own emissions would take a long time to get us up to really high average temperatures worldwide, but all we have to do is pull the trigger on the feedbacks. The rest is automatic.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 4 and 10. (“The 800…change”; “Of the…speak”; and “There is…one”)

Arctic Sea Ice and Climate

3 September 2012

Arctic Sea Ice and Climate: the “Unknown Unknown”

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s no surprise that we will have a record minimum of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean at the end of this summer melt season. It’s already down to around 4 million square kilometres, with a least another week of melting to go, but this is what you might call a “known unknown.” Scientists knew we were losing the ice-cover fast; they just didn’t know how fast.

I’m no fan of Don Rumsfeld, who helped to lead the United States into the disastrous invasion of Iraq when he was George W. Bush’s defence secretary, but I never had a problem with the distinction he made between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” when discussing the intelligence data. He was brutally mocked in the media for using such jargon, but there really is a difference.

A “known unknown,” in the case of the Arctic Ocean, is how long it will be before the entire sea is ice-free at the end of each summer. The last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2007, talked about that happening some time in the second half of this century, but it couldn’t be more specific.

The IPCC usually underestimates the rate of climatic change, but even the pessimists didn’t think we’d get there before the 2030s. I did encounter one maverick at the National Ice and Snow Data Centre who thought it might happen in this decade, but nobody actually knew. A “known unknown,” in other words.

There were also some assumptions about what would happen next in the Arctic. At first the ice would return each winter, although it would be thinner and less extensive than before, but as time passed the ice-free period would get longer.

A frozen ocean reflects sunlight back into space, but open water absorbs it and turns it into heat, so the ocean itself would now be getting warmer. The warmer water would inhibit the growth of ice even in winter, and eventually the Arctic Ocean would be ice-free all year round – but nobody knew when this would happen.

As for the impact that an ice-free Arctic Ocean might have on climates elsewhere, it would obviously accelerate the global warming trend, but beyond that there wasn’t much to go on. This was the territory of the “unknown unknowns”: big things might happen to the complex atmospheric system of the planet when a major chunk of it suddenly changes, but nobody knew what.

Now we begin to see the consequences. The polar jet stream, an air current that circles the globe in the higher northern latitudes and separates cold, wet weather to the north from warmer, drier weather to the south, is changing its behaviour.

In a paper in Geophysical Letters last March entitled “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes,” Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered a hypothesis that may explain why world grain prices have risen 30 percent in the past four months (and are still going up).

First, a warmer Arctic reduces the temperature gradient between the temperate and polar zones. That, in turn, slows the wind speeds in the zone between the two and increases the “wave amplitude” of the jet stream. The jet stream flows around the planet in great swooping curves, like a river crossing a flat plain, and those curves – Rossby waves, in scientific language – are getting bigger and slower.

The bigger amplitude means the Rossby waves reach farther down into the temperate zone than they used to, and the slower winds means that the waves take more time to track across any given territory. The weather north of the jet stream is wet and cold (even warmer Arctic air is still pretty cold), and to the south it is dry and warm – and now many temperate regions of the planet are stuck in one kind of weather or the other for much longer periods.

This is a recipe for extreme weather. In the old days the Rossby waves went past fast, bringing the alternation of rainy and sunny weather that characterised the mid-latitude climate. Now they hang around much longer and generate more extreme weather events: droughts and heat-waves, or prolonged rain and flooding, or blizzards and long, hard freezes.

The temperate zone has been seeing a lot of that sort of thing in the past couple of years – much more than usual. It’s cutting deeply into food production in the major breadbaskets of the planet, like the US Midwest and southern Russia, which is why food prices are going up so fast. And this was an “unknown unknown”: nobody saw it coming.

All the scenarios that the military of various countries were working with assumed that climate change would hit food production very hard in the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world, and that is still true. But the scenarios also assumed that the temperate regions of the planet would still be able to feed themselves well (and even have a surplus left over to export) for many decades to come.

If Francis and Vavrus are right, that may not be the case. It’s a most unwelcome surprise – and it may be the first of many.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 11. (“There were…happen”; and “The bigger…periods”)



Time for Geoengineering?

26 September 2008

Time for Geoengineering?

By Gwynne Dyer

Scientists have their own way of putting things. This is how Dr Oerjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University announced the approach of a climate apocalypse in an e-mail sent last week from the Russian research ship “Jakob Smirnitskyi” in the Arctic Ocean.

“We had a hectic finishing of the sampling programme yesterday and this past night. An extensive area of intense methane release was found. At earlier sites we had found elevated levels of dissolved methane. Yesterday, for the first time, we documented a field where the release was so intense that the methane did not have time to dissolve into the seawater but was rising as methane bubbles to the sea surface.”

Gustafsson’s preliminary report, published in “The Independent” of 23 September, is a development far more frightening than the current financial crisis, although it will get only one-thousandth of the coverage. The worst that the financial crisis can bring is some years of recession. The worst that massive methane releases in the Arctic can bring us is runaway, irreversible global warming.

Molecule for molecule, methane gas is twenty time more potent than carbon dioxide as a warming agent. However, since methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long — around 12 years, on average, compared to a hundred years for CO2 — and human activities do not produce all that much of it, concerns about climate change have mostly been focussed on carbon dioxide. The one big worry was that warmer temperatures might cause massive releases of methane from natural sources.

There are thousands of megatonnes of methane stored underground in the Arctic region, trapped there by the permafrost (permanently frozen ground) that covers much of northern Russia, Alaska and Canada and extends far out under the seabed of the Arctic Ocean. If the permafrost melts and methane escapes into the atmosphere on a large scale, it would cause a rapid rise in temperature — which would melt more permafrost, releasing more methane, which would cause more warming, and so on.

Climate scientists call this a feedback mechanism. So long as it is our emissions that are causing the warming, we can stop it if we reduce the emissions fast enough. Once feedbacks like methane release start to drive the warming, it’s out of our hands: we might even cut our emissions to zero, only to find that the temperature is still rising.

Fear of this runaway feedback is why most climate scientists (and the European Union) have set a rise of 2 degrees C (3.5 degrees F) in the average global temperature as the limit which we must never exceed. Somewhere between 2 and 3 degrees C (3.5 and 5.2 degrees F), they fear, massive feedbacks like methane release would kick in and take the situation out of our hands.

Unfortunately, the heating is much more intense in the Arctic region. The average global temperate has only risen 0.6 degree C (1.1 degree F) so far, but the average temperature in the Arctic is up by 4 degrees C (7 degrees F). So the permafrost is starting to melt, and the trapped methane is escaping.

That is what the research ship “Jakob Smirnitskyi” has just found: areas of the Arctic Ocean off the Russian coast where “chimneys” of methane gas are bubbling to the surface. What this may mean is that we have no time left if we hope to avoid runaway global warming — and yet it will obviously take many years to get our own greenhouse gas emissions down. So what can we do?

There is a way to cheat, for a while. Several techniques have been proposed for holding the global temperature down temporarily in order to avoid running into the feedbacks. They do not release us from the duty of getting our emissions down, but they could win us some time to work on that task without running into disaster.

The leading candidate, suggested by Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in 2006, is to inject sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere in order to reflect some incoming sunlight. (This mimics the action of large volcanic eruptions, which also lower the global temperature temporarily by putting huge amounts of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere.)

Another, less intrusive approach, proposed by John Latham of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado and Prof. Stephen Salter of Edinburgh University, is to launch fleets of unmanned, wind-powered vessels, controlled by satellite, that would spray seawater up into low-lying marine clouds in order to increase the amount of sunlight that they reflect. The great attraction of this technique is that if there are unwelcome side-effects, you can turn it off right away.

These techniques are known as “geo-engineering,” and discussing them has been taboo in most scientific circles because of the “moral hazard”: the fear that if the public knows you can hold the global temperature down by direct intervention, people will not do the harder job of cutting their emissions. But if large-scale methane releases are getting underway, the time for such subtle calculations is past.

Starting now, we need a crash programme to investigate the feasibility of these and other techniques for geo-engineering the climate. Once the thawing starts, it is hard to stop, and we may need them very soon.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“Climate…rising”; and “These techniques…past”)