Sunday, September 23, 2012

AMEG Policy Brief

(Issued Sept.17, 2012)

The Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) is an independent climate policy group ( website ) giving advice to governments concerning the unfolding crisis in the Arctic arising from the precipitous decline in Arctic sea ice. AMEG comprises scientists, engineers, environmentalists, economists and communicators, who have cumulative expertise to judge the situation and recommend appropriate responses. They are particularly concerned with Arctic warming, associated ice losses and possibilities for consequent releases of methane on a large scale which has the potential to send global warming spiralling out of control. The group has become increasingly concerned about the effect of rapid Arctic warming on jet stream behaviour, which is producing increasingly frequent and severe climate extremes in the Northern Hemisphere. These extreme weather events are already causing decreases in global food production and rising grain prices with more declines expected. These trends can be expected to lead at some point to widespread famine.

AMEG is determined to bring the difficult truth to governments, having noted the difficult position of climate scientists who are often harassed if they bring this terrible news to the public. We will also provide frank assessments about all possible measures to deal with the rapidly growing problems.

Growing crisis in the Arctic requires rapid intervention

This year’s record minimum Arctic sea ice extent (some 22% below the 2007 and 2011 minimum extents) strongly suggests that a final collapse in the sea ice is underway and closely following an exponential downward trend in sea ice volume [1]. AMEG has repeatedly warned that this would happen and raised the issue in their submission to the UK Environment Audit Committee (EAC) hearing on "Protecting the Arctic," on Hansard record [2]. The complete collapse of sea ice (where practically none is left (<10%) for at least one day of the year) is now likely by 2016. The extreme danger lies in the repercussions of this sea ice loss, especially those resulting from seabed methane emissions and from altered jet stream behaviour – the latter already being experienced with extremes of drought and floods in many regions of the northern hemisphere. It should be noted that we cannot be certain that we would not start to experience significant problems with agricultural productivity even before we reach this point.

AMEG is confident that the crisis can still be averted successfully provided that immediate action is taken to cool the Arctic. This will inevitably involve a degree of intervention known as geoengineering as we have no other options to achieve the necessary rate and intensity of cooling required to stabilise the sea ice and buy time. AMEG therefore calls for urgent further research into technologies to help cool the Arctic and for tests and preparations to start without delay in order to be ready for rapid deployment of some of the more effective (and safe) techniques that are currently available for regional cooling of the Arctic. We must avert further collapse of sea ice and subsequent climate catastrophe. AMEG warns there is a real risk of further (and theoretically even nearly total) ice collapse by summer 2013.

AMEG stresses that to effectively reduce the threat of catastrophic climate change governments around the world must commit to a comprehensive plan of action and that geoengineering methods to cool the Arctic are now required on at least a temporary basis. AMEG repeats that it is also imperative for governments to act to immediately start reducing emissions dramatically.

Repeated warnings about sea ice collapse by AMEG sea-ice expert Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University have not been reflected in most discussions of the topic because most models have projected a much less rapid retreat as has been apparent through the World Climate Research Programme Coupled Model Intercomparison Project. The Phase 3 models (CMIP3) used for the IPCC AR4 drastically under-projected losses of ice and even the current Phase 5 (CMIP5) ones (which will be fundamental to the upcoming IPCC AR5) have not been able to replicate what is unfolding right now. It is therefore extremely unwise to rely upon such model predictions in light of empirical observations demonstrating that the rate of change is far worse than such models predict.

However, the collapse was predictable simply from observed trends of sea ice volume: the Arctic has been warming and sea ice has retreated, leaving more open water in summer and further thinning of the ice year on year. In summer, the minimum extent and thickness (and hence volume) of the sea ice is getting ever smaller. Exponential volume trends indicate zero ice by September 2016 or earlier, by which time the extent must necessarily also have collapsed. It would most likely be too late by this time to attempt intervention to cool the system due to the significantly greater amounts of heat absorbed by open water than by reflective ice.

With arctic methane emissions the focus of the climate community had mostly been on land-based permafrost emissions as it was assumed that sea-based emissions could not be activated much until far greater amounts of warming had time to penetrate the deeper ocean. However AMEG has been advised by Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov – Russian scientists who are the principal researchers around the East Siberian Arctic Shelf – that escalating emissions from the seabed there pose a threat of abrupt global climate change as the protective and insulating cover of the sea ice disappears [3]. There is so much methane stored under the seabed in this region that less than a one percent release of the potent greenhouse gas in that region alone, e.g. as a result of a large earthquake or rapid seabed heating (as caused by warmer river run off from warming land) could cause a substantial spike in the rate of global warming, considerably altering the path of global climate for the worse.

There are ominous signs of an escalation of seabed emissions with enormous plumes of methane bubbles rising from the shallow bed of the Laptev Sea reaching the surface. There have been recordings of extremely high rates of ebullition via sonar, recordings of extremely elevated atmospheric levels ( >300% background levels) from a ship traversing the Siberian coast and increasingly high atmospheric in situ readings at the Barrow monitoring station. Both satellite and dedicated aircraft measurements have indicated growing atmospheric methane levels over much of the Arctic Ocean.

AMEG has recently warned of increased climate extremes and a global food crisis that could deepen as the Arctic warms. This year’s severe drought in the US is not an isolated event; much of the world has been afflicted by extreme weather in one form or another, with floods and droughts impacting agriculture. Such extremes have been on the increase. Recent research by scientists such as Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University [4], shows convincing evidence that this increase is partly due to dramatic warming of the Arctic and changing polar jet stream behaviour. Food prices have already been persistently high for several years despite adverse economic circumstances, and adverse weather conditions is an identified factor behind this.

Droughts and floods have been gradually increasing in intensity for a number of years as predicted by the IPCC AR4 report (2007) on climate change. However the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet, weakening and at times slowing the jet stream, increasing the frequency and duration of warm/dry spells and cool/wet spells, and this is making matters worse (and faster) than predicted. This year we have seen widespread crop failures and a rise in food prices, with a Global Hunger Alert by the World Bank [5]. Unless emergency measures are immediately taken to cool the Arctic and restore the sea ice one can expect an ever-worsening food crisis in years to come, with the prospect of famine on a vast scale and associated conflict and social breakdown.

There are other serious longer term repercussions of sea ice disappearance and Arctic warming such as accelerated disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which would cause very serious sea level rise. AMEG has chosen to focus on methane escalation and disruption of agriculture as they can be seen to be occurring already with potentially apocalyptic results if Arctic warming continues unabated.

AMEG’s conclusion is that there is now a planetary emergency. Only by grasping the nettle and intervening with great determination, as in a war effort, is there a chance of remedying the situation before it is too late. International collaboration to fight this common "enemy" of Arctic meltdown must bring all nations together, in the cause of our very survival.

[1] PIOMAS sea ice volume
Note that reading for August 2012 is spot on the exponential trend line.

[2] Hansard on Environment Audit Committee evidence

[3] ESAS threat
Shakhova, N. and I. Semiletov (2012). Methane release from the East-Siberian Arctic Shelf and its connection with permafrost and hydrate destabilization: First results and potential future development. Geophys. Res., Vol. 14, EGU2012-3877-1.

[4] Dr Francis et al. on link of Arctic Amplification to extreme weather events

[5] Global hunger alert

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