Thursday, December 8, 2011

Permafrost Cliff Hanger

Greetings cliff dwellers

       A major question of our time is a fairly simple one.  Will humans burn everything, destroy life on earth and create Venus like planet?    Or will the world economy crash, sending us into a less energy intensive economic system narrowly avoiding a climate train wreck?
   (Sadly I no longer give much thought to questions like : Will we come to our senses?   Will we come up with technical solution?)
        Last weeks interview with Robert Rapier had lifted my spirits a little as I realized that essentially nothing is being done about peak oil. At one time I had assumed that by this time, we would be seeing coal to liquid plants popping up all  over the country side.   But other than the modest output from Canadian tar sands, there is very little activity in this area   Why isn't this happening?    One theory is that these plants are subject to the same law of receding horizons that plague bio fuel plants.  Thus, although the price for the end product is rising, so is the cost of the input.    Another theory is that the price is too variable for long term investors who fear the economy will decline just as their plant is built.   (for an interesting discussion on this and other questions see  )

         So, given that alternatives are not coming on line, what happens?   Under this optimistic scenario,  the price of oil rises, but no alternatives appear.   The economy slows,  and goes through an undulating decline as available oil declines.   Carbon emissions are reduced.  We avoid the tipping points.    (Note:  in 2009 CO2 emissions dropped by 3%)   All that we need is a string of 2009s.  

      (Viewed from this perverse perspective, one might be tempted to think that anything which would nudge the economic juggernaut off its present course as having a good side.   Economic chaos in Europe?    Bursting real estate bubble in China?  Bombing Iranian nuclear plants?       One gets into sticky moral ground here - lesser of two evils stuff.)

      On the other hand, suppose the economic crash comes too late, or the decline is too gradual?   Then possibly we pass some trigger point where the feedbacks take over.   Perhaps the boreal forest starts to burn, perhaps the permafrost becomes "permamelt".  

     I'm on the edge of my chair.  

Nature Bombshell: Climate Experts Warn Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation!

Joe Romm, ThinkProgress
Back in February, a major study found that thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100. That study, by NOAA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center, conservatively assumed all of the carbon would be released as CO2 and none as the far more potent greenhouse gas, methane (CH4).
But that is unlikely, as this video of University of Alaska, Fairbanks, assistant professor Katey Walter Anthony, suggests: ...
A new article in Nature, “Climate change: High risk of permafrost thaw” (subs. req’d) concludes:
Arctic temperatures are rising fast, and permafrost is thawing…. Our collective estimate is that carbon will be released more quickly than models suggest, and at levels that are cause for serious concern.
We calculate that permafrost thaw will release the same order of magnitude of carbon as deforestation if current rates of deforestation continue. But because these emissions include significant quantities of methane, the overall effect on climate could be 2.5 times larger.
The permafrost permamelt contains a staggering amount of carbon, which is starting to escape:
Recent years have brought reports from the far north of tundra fires1, the release of ancient carbon2, CH4 bubbling out of lakes3 and gigantic stores of frozen soil carbon4. The latest estimate is that some 18.8 million square kilometres of northern soils hold about 1,700 billion tonnes of organic carbon4 — the remains of plants and animals that have been accumulating in the soil over thousands of years. That is about four times more than all the carbon emitted by human activity in modern times and twice as much as is present in the atmosphere now.
As the article explains (see below), much of that carbon would be released as methane.
(1 December 2011)


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