Stormy Weather – and Worse

A quiet Friday night here in Hollywood – the cloud deck slid in late in the afternoon and by midnight it should be raining, and it seems it will rain all day Saturday and into Sunday morning. But the clouds should part for the Oscars down the street on Sunday afternoon – so the people and press covering the event, starting late in the morning, should see the Southern California everyone expects. And when everyone sits down at five in the afternoon and the event itself starts, when the networks break for commercials there should be nifty long shots of the sun setting over the Pacific. Cool – it’s almost as if it had been planned and blocked out on a storyboard and handed it to the cinematographer so he could get his crew to get it right. It is classic – the dark clouds part and that long-deserving but humble journeyman actor finally wins the Oscar. It’s a Hollywood thing – corny but effective.

But it’s not supposed to rain out here. It never does – there’s a song about that. Some years we may get all of seven inches of rain all year – that’s what Manhattan or Boston might get in a long bad weekend. But this year we’re getting a lot of rain, and the hills, stripped by the wildfires, are collapsing and sliding away here and there. It happens – now and then that patch of the Pacific heats up in December (called the El Niño for the Christ Child) and the jet stream gets diverted and loops south and carries all the crappy weather Seattle was supposed to get down this way. That’s okay – we’re in a record-setting hundred year drought and every little bit helps, even it drives the Oscar people nuts. And then the storms move east – and the rest of the country gets hammered by storms that should have slid by to the north but didn’t this time. This year it was record blizzards.

There was a lot of talk that all the nasty weather disproved global warming, and a senator called for Al Gore to be stripped of his Nobel Prize – but the nasty weather didn’t prove much of anything. Things are more unstable than usual, probably caused by global warming. We’ve had one of the warmest Januarys ever capping off the warmest decade on record. And the temperature readings are what they are, even if you want to argue whether this was caused by human activity, or by normal cyclical activity and not anything humans have done, burning all that fossil fuel and ridding the world of its forests, or by God’s will, or by chance. The earth heated up. One might expect chaos, and weather is not climate. Sometimes the sun shines in Seattle. And sometimes it rains on the Oscars. Odd things happen when things shift like this.

But at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum points out that there is more bad news on climate change:

One of the most dangerous aspects of global warming is the existence of positive feedback loops. It’s the same thing that causes a high-pitched screech when you set up speakers right behind a microphone: you speak into the mike, your voice is amplified by the speakers, your amplified voice is fed back into the mike, back into the speakers, etc. It gets louder with each loop, until eventually the whole system goes haywire.

The same kinds of feedback loops are present in the climate, and one of the worst is the melting of the permafrost. Permafrost locks up huge amounts of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, and the danger is that as the globe warms, the permafrost will melt and release its methane. This will cause the globe to warm even more, which will melt the permafrost even more, and the loop will continue explosively until the permafrost is gone and tremendous amounts of methane have been released.

Well, it’s starting to happen.

And he cites Julia Whitty summarizing a new research report:

Arctic seabed stores of methane are now destabilizing and venting vast stores of frozen methane – a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The paper, in the prestigious journal Science, reports the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf – long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane – is instead perforated and leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Melting of even a fraction of the clathrates stored in that shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.

And if this continues there might soon be no way to stop it, or maybe it’s too late already. At Joe Romm offers a warning:

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. And if that happens, warming of 5°C or more is inevitable, a catastrophe almost beyond imagining.


But the Republican Party continues to believe that if they just deny it’s happening, then it’s not happening. And since they, along with a small cadre of “centrist” Democrats, control the U.S. Senate, we remain unable to take even modest steps to address this. I’ll probably be dead before the suffering starts in earnest, but lots of you have kids and grandkids who won’t be. Even some of you Republicans. Just food for thought.

And at Andrew Leonard says get ready for the methane apocalypse – some scientists believe that previous episodes of rapid temperature rises in the earth’s climate were caused by abrupt releases of methane gas into the atmosphere, and if they were anywhere near right, we’re screwed.

Leonard notes that Salon published a story on this a year ago exploring the possibility that such a scenario could happen again:

The doomsday scenario goes something like this: If global temperatures keep rising, some methane hydrates will melt, sending methane gas bubbling up through the ocean and into the atmosphere. Like any good greenhouse gas, the methane will trap heat close to Earth’s surface, causing temperatures to climb even higher. Hotter temperatures will melt more hydrates, and on and on. In other words, methane hydrates could trigger the mother of all feedback loops. The story, says David Archer, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, “has a great apocalyptic side to it.”

And it has come to this, according to a paper just published in Science:

A section of the Arctic Ocean seafloor that holds vast stores of frozen methane is showing signs of instability and widespread venting of the powerful greenhouse gas, according to the findings of an international research team led by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov.

The research results, published in the March 5 edition of the journal Science, show that the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.

And Matthew Yglesias comments:

It’s a good thing this is all part of some giant conspiracy, because if I thought scientists at the University of Alaska were undertaking good-faith scientific research I’d be really worried …

Well, it’s only the end of the world as we know it. But on the other hand, it could be part of some giant conspiracy, as everything is these days, and Yglesias notes that climate science deniers are now teaming up with creationists “to mount a broad political front against accurate understanding of the world.”

That’s in this New York Times item from Leslie Kaufman – critics of the teaching of evolution in the any classroom anywhere have decided that they can gain ground by linking that issue to global warming – dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools. It’s only fair:

In Kentucky, a bill recently introduced in the Legislature would encourage teachers to discuss “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.”

The bill, which has yet to be voted on, is patterned on even more aggressive efforts in other states to fuse such issues. In Louisiana, a law passed in 2008 says the state board of education may assist teachers in promoting “critical thinking” on all of those subjects.

Last year, the Texas Board of Education adopted language requiring that teachers present all sides of the evidence on evolution and global warming.

Oklahoma introduced a bill with similar goals in 2009, although it was not enacted.

Something is going on here, and it seems to be tactical:

The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general.

Yet they are also capitalizing on rising public resistance in some quarters to accepting the science of global warming, particularly among political conservatives who oppose efforts to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases.

So in South Dakota you get the resolution calling for the “balanced teaching of global warming in public schools” – just passed the Legislature – “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life.” What’s the problem?

And Kaufman adds this detail:

The measure made no mention of evolution, but opponents of efforts to dilute the teaching of evolution noted that the language was similar to that of bills in other states that had included both. The vote split almost entirely along partisan lines in both houses, with Republican voting for it and Democrats voting against.

Of course for mainstream scientists, there is no credible challenge to evolutionary theory, not that it matters much:

They oppose the teaching of alternative views like intelligent design, the proposition that life is so complex that it must be the design of an intelligent being. And there is wide agreement among scientists that global warming is occurring and that human activities are probably driving it. Yet many conservative evangelical Christians assert that both are examples of scientists’ overstepping their bounds.

And this seems to be about science itself:

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist who directs the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University and has spoken against efforts to water down the teaching of evolution to school boards in Texas and Ohio, described the move toward climate-change skepticism as a predictable offshoot of creationism.

“Wherever there is a battle over evolution now,” he said, “there is a secondary battle to diminish other hot-button issues like Big Bang and, increasingly, climate change. It is all about casting doubt on the veracity of science – to say it is just one view of the world, just another story, no better or more valid than fundamentalism.”

And there is that survey published in October 2009 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press – white evangelical Protestants were among those least likely to believe that there was “solid evidence” that the Earth was warming because of human activity. They don’t buy it. Science is the devil, or something, and there is the ego factor:

The Rev. Jim Ball, senior director for climate programs at the Evangelical Environmental Network, a group with members who accept the science of global warming, said that many of the deniers feel that “it is hubris to think that human beings could disrupt something that God created.”

“This group already feels like scientists are attacking their faith and calling them idiots,” he said, “so they are likely to be skeptical” about global warming.

And there is anger still at the man who ran against God’s candidate, George Bush:

State Representative Don Kopp, a Republican who was the main sponsor of the South Dakota resolution, said he acted in part because “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary film on global warming starring Al Gore, was being shown in some public schools without a counterweight.

The flat-earth critics of climate change deserve to be heard, and, really, if you can get folks to accept that notion, then the creationists may be able get the equal number of pages in the biology textbooks, to balance Darwin and offer God-made-it-so as an alternative explanation for the existence of this body part or that that hasn’t been fully explained yet. That hasn’t worked before, but you can use the notion that the earth may be warming, or not, but the idea that man caused that warming, if there really is any, is just a theory, as a backdoor to say evolution is just a theory too. There’s always an alternative explanation, and the schools should teach that too. Some do hold that God created the earth and all that is in it on the night preceding 23 October 4004 BC – and they have their evidence too, in the Bible. Hey, were you there? It could be so.

But as for climate change, God may not be an issue, as Joe Romm explains here – scientists learned last year that the permafrost stuff contains 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere – and much of that would be released as methane. Methane is twenty-five times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a hundred-year time horizon, but seventy-two times as potent over twenty years. And it gets worse – half of the land-based permafrost would vanish by mid-century on our current emissions path, and oh, by the way, no climate model currently “incorporates the amplifying feedback from methane released by a defrosting tundra” – no one thought that would happen.

And there’s the National Science Foundation press release about the East Siberian Arctic Shelf – “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.” Romm notes that the NSF is normally a very staid organization – “If they are worried, everybody should be.”

And the NSF adds detail:

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf, in addition to holding large stores of frozen methane, is more of a concern because it is so shallow. In deep water, methane gas oxidizes into carbon dioxide before it reaches the surface. In the shallows of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, methane simply doesn’t have enough time to oxidize, which means more of it escapes into the atmosphere. That, combined with the sheer amount of methane in the region, could add a previously uncalculated variable to climate models.

And Romm notes that a key trigger for accelerated warming in the Arctic region is the loss of sea ice, which means more land, which gets covered with vegetation, which is dark, reflects nthong and is nice and warm and – “Continuation of current trends in shrub and tree expansion could further amplify this atmospheric heating 2-7 times.” Oh great – “The point is that if you convert a white landscape to a boreal forest, the surface suddenly starts collecting a lot more solar energy.”

We’re screwed. It seems rain at the Oscars is the least of our problems.

But you won’t see much about this in the press. We’re concerned with other things.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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