Tag Archives: Real Climate

Chart of the Day, 17 February 2015: How Scary Is Methane?

A doomer commentary on methane has been doing the rounds on social media. Pictures of  methane bubbles certainly look scary, but the overall atmospheric concentration of methane has been showing only a mild rise. From the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE) data series:

AGAVE CH4 jpeg

Moreover, the current climb is far slower than that seen in the 1980s. From a paper by Kirschke et al (click for larger image).

Methane jpeg

Although methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas (about 20 times as powerful as CO2), it presently makes up a little under 2 parts per million (ppm) of the atmosphere compared to around 400 ppm for CO2.

Critically, methane’s atmospheric life is short, about 12 years, after which it converts into CO2 (and thus becomes 20 times less potent). For this reason, it doesn’t accumulate easily. Keeping this in mind, a post by David Archer on the Real Climate blog looked at chronic versus catastrophic methane releases (click for larger image).

Chronic versus catastrophic methane release jpeg

So, in order to recreate a disaster movie scenario, we either need to see a massive and sustained release of methane or a ginormous spike in methane emissions. Where would this come from? The candidates are generally given as methane hydrates or other sources of trapped methane at high northern latitudes. But to see how realistic such places are as a source, we need to see where the methane is coming from at present (source here; click for larger image).

Methane Sources and Sinks jpeg

As you can see, anthrogenic sources such as wet-field rice cultivation, fossil fuel extraction and animal-rearing over-shadow other sources such as hydrates. Indeed, to get hydrates to become the principal driver of atmospheric methane concentrations we would need to see a 10 to 100-fold rise, and this would then need to be sustained for a long period of time.

According to scientists such as David Archer and Gavin Schmidt, such emission scenarios don’t look plausible (for more detail see here). In short, they see little evidence of a methane bomb ready to explode.

Simplistically, the difference between methane and CO2 is that the latter stays up in the atmosphere once put there while the former doesn’t. In sum, CO2 provides plenty of disaster movie material; we don’t have to look further afield to scare ourselves senseless.

Chart of the Day, 4 Feb 2015: Finding the Missing Heat and What It Means for Risk

The climate change debate generally focuses on the atmosphere–or rather two metres of the atmosphere through which we wander. Accordingly, the flagship statistic for climate change is the global mean temperature anomaly (latest update on this by me here). This is understandable: we are not fish.

Nonetheless, global warming refers to the globe, of which the atmosphere is a little piece. So we always have to remind ourselves of what warming goes where. From The Carbon Brief:

Where Is the Heat Going jpeg

Consequently, if the rate of transfer of heat into the ocean fluctuates (which it does), this will have a significant impact on atmospheric temperature. The largest short-term source of heat transfer volatility between atmosphere and ocean is the ENSO cycle, with El Ninos being associated with hot atmospheric years and La Ninas with cool ones.

Once we strip this factor out (plus the smaller impacts from the solar cycle and volcanic activity), then the upward march in atmospheric surface temperatures becomes a lot smoother. That is the difference between the orange and red lines in the chart below from a Real Climate blog post by Stefan Rahmstorf.

Temperature Anomaly without ENSO jpeg

Nonetheless, while we have had a broad-brush understanding of the atmosphere-ocean interface for quite some time, the granular detail on what energy is going where is only just emerging. The establishment of the ARGO network of temperature-measuring buoys is the game changer here (Carbon Brief; click for larger image).

ARGO jpeg

The data only goes back to 2006, but nevertheless this has been sufficient to give us a better picture of where the energy sinks exist. From a new paper in Nature Climate Change by Roemmich et al we see this (click for larger image):

Trends in Ocean Heat Content jpeg

Andrew Revkin also covers this story in his New York Times Dot Earth blog and relays an e-mail correspondence with climate scientist Yair Resenthal:

In an email chat, Yair Rosenthal of Rutgers University and Braddock Linsley of Columbia University, whose related work was explored here in 2013, said the Argo analysis appeared to support their view that giant subtropical gyres are the place where heat carried on currents from the tropics descends into the deeper ocean.

Linlsey said: “I think the Argo data point to the central gyre regions as key to the ocean-atmosphere heat exchange story.”

Rosenthal noted that this heat-banking process could buy humanity time, providing what he has called “a thermal buffer for global climate change,” particularly because the deeper ocean layers are still relatively cool (compared to much of the Holocene period since the end of the last ice age).

The critical point here from a risk perspective is that the heat-banking process “could” buy humanity time. The problem with this is that it also possibly “could not”.

We are at a stage where we are learning of the existence of the giant subtropical gyres but we know little about how they function or evolve through time. If these gyres have been responsible for an increase in heat transfer to the deep ocean over the last decade or so, it is quite possible that they could be responsible for a decrease in heat transfer at some future time. At this stage, we just don’t know.

We may have graduated from the stage when we were dealing with an ‘unknown unknown’ to a ‘known unknown’ but this hasn’t made much of an impact on how we can assess risk. In short, we are still learning about the probability distribution associated with warming outcomes. Yet within that distribution, a far-from-negligible chance of 4 degrees Celsius plus of temperature rise by end-century exists. Further, we know that a 4 degree rise would be catastrophic.

The good news is that the probability distribution of warming outcomes we are dealing with–unlike those for volcanoes or tsunamis–is one where we control one of the key variables: the trend in emissions. The bad news is that we aren’t controlling that variable.

Risk, Sensitivity and Sifting the Studies

Global warming? How bad could it get? Of course, with all of us being knowledgable about risk, we understand that this is really a question of probability multiplied by effect (that, in turn, means probable-but-quite-bad stuff happening all the way through to possible-but-bloody-awful stuff happening).

But lets chunk that up into three manageable variables: 1) how much CO2 we are throwing up into the atmosphere, 2) how much warming that CO2 is creating, and 3) how much damage the warming is causing.

This gives anyone of a “skeptical” disposition  three lines of attack: 1) dispute the trajectory of fossil fuel emissions, 2) uncover academic papers that suggest a low climate temperature sensitivity to CO2 or 3) welcome the warmer world as being beneficial to mankind.

Out of the primeval swamp that is the blogosphere, a Darwinian struggle has led to two sites emerging triumphant (one on either side of the Atlantic) as the alpha male climate “skeptic” clearing houses. From the U.S., we have Watts Up With That, and from the U.K. Bishop’s Hill. If you read any article bashing climate change, it is a good bet that the columnist or journalist sourced it from one of these two.

Not surprising, therefore, that both blogs have jumped on an as-yet-unpublished study by Norwegian researchers stating that climate sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 is as low as 1.9 °C (see here and here).

As a non-scientist but a student of risk, I suggest a three-step approach to any claim that here is little or no risk from climate change, and I use the Norwegian study as an example of this process. Continue reading