Tag Archives: permafrost thaw

Siberian Permafrost Thaw and Risk Revisited (and Corrected)

Two weeks ago, I posted on a new paper by Dr Anton Vaks and colleagues looking at permafrost thaw in the context of overall climate risk. In that post, I talked about a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in global mean temperature from today setting off significant permafrost thaw and carbon release.

After exchanging e-mails with Anton Vaks, the lead author of the report, I found that the correct number is a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels. Given that we have already warmed by about 0.7 to 0.8 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels as of now, that puts the tipping point only around 0.8 degrees Celsius further away.

This is an important, and a very negative, correction—and it has massive risk implications. At the end of the post, I will explain why much of the media and blogosphere interpreted the paper incorrectly (including myself), but first I will look at the more important question of what a lower hurdle for permafrost thaw means.

Let’s start by reporting the relevant passages of the paper itself (note that the paper is behind a paywall):

We reconstruct the history of Siberian permafrost (and the aridity of the Gobi Desert) during the last ~500 kyr using U-Th dating of speleothems in six caves along a north- south transect in northern Asia from Eastern Siberia at 60.2°N to the Gobi Desert at 42.5°N.

Speleothems are mineral deposits formed when water seeps into a cave from surrounding bedrock and earth. If the surrounding bedrock and earth is frozen, you get no water seepage and no speleothem formation. So when an interglacial period reaches a sufficiently warm level, permafrost melts and speleothems form. U-Th dating refers to uranium-thorium dating that is accurate up to around 500,000 years.

The interglacials for the last 800,000 years can be seen in the following chart (not take from the paper, source here, click for larger image):

Interglacials jpeg

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Permafrost, Chimpanzees, the Savanna and Risk

In my  weekend links, I highlighted a new study published in Science. It is behind a pay wall, but has been well covered by Climate Central and Climate Progress. The study provides us with a good excuse to revisit the whole topic of climate risk.

The paper in question is an empirical study of past permafrost thaw at different temperatures. To summarise the conclusion, stalactite and stalagmite growth in Siberian caves suggests that significant permafrost thaw took place 400,000 years ago when the global mean temperature was around 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than it is today. This level of specificity is new, and is important for not being model based. Incidentally, we have an accurate temperature record going back around 800,000 years through the study of ice cores.

When such studies come through, I think it always useful to place them within a risk component analysis framework. As a reminder, risk is best defined as probability times effect—or  more specifically probability times net harmful effect. It is also worth recalling that we should not get sidetracked by the accusation that such studies lack certainty. The human condition is one of decision-making under uncertainty. As individuals, the only real certainty we have in our lives is death.

Keeping these points in mind, climate change can be viewed as a chain of risk components, each of which has its own probability distribution. We move from emissions, through atmospheric concentrations (the study of the airborne fraction that I blogged about here), to climate sensitivity, until finally we arrive at the net harmful effects on both individuals and societies.

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