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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ken Levenson: Amplifying Feedbacks – A Climate Change Arms Race

Amplifying Feedbacks – A Climate Change Arms Race

by Ken Levenson, Checklist Toward Zero Carbon, August 9, 2009

It turns out we haven’t been playing with fire in regards to climate change, or even atom bombs…we’re playing with a hydrogen bomb stockpile. Because as we’re about to get serious about climate change, Earth is set to be still far less forgiving:

The vast amount of carbon stored in the arctic and boreal regions of the world is more than double that previously estimated…

So notes Super-size Deposits Of Frozen Carbon In Arctic Could Worsen Climate Change in Science Daily last month.

“We now estimate the deposits contain over 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere”, said Dr. Charles Tarnocai, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, and lead author.

And so it’s the amplifying natural feedbacks that will do us in. Our global overdose on carbon has ignited a fuse…and at the end of the fuse is something uncomprehendingly bad. One can only conclude that the U.S. security analysis reported by John Broder in today’s NY Times is implicitly optimistic. Joe Romm rightly enlarges the perspective to note that while global security risks will multiply, military power will be the least significant asset, referencing The Real Roots of Darfur.

Not just the security risks, but life in general, will be unimaginably awful if the amplifying feedbacks are allowed to accelerate unabated. With permafrost we have 1.5 trillion tons of carbon sitting there, and as reported by the University of Alaska last December:

The new data indicates the underwater permafrost is thawing and therefore releasing methane. Permafrost can affect methane release in two ways. Both underwater and on land, it contains frozen organic material such as dead plants and animals. When permafrost thaws, that organic material decomposes, releasing gases like methane and carbon dioxide. In addition, methane, either in gas form or in ice-like methane hydrates, is trapped underneath the permafrost. When the permafrost thaws, the trapped methane can seep out through the thawed soil. Methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is thought to be an important factor in global climate change.

Throw in Permafrost threatened by rapid melt of Arctic sea ice:

The team finds that, during episodes of rapid sea-ice loss, the rate of Arctic land warming is 3.5 times greater than the average 21st century warming rates predicted in global climate models. While this warming is largest over the ocean, the simulations suggest that it can penetrate as far as 1500 kilometers (about 900 miles) inland. The simulations also indicate that the warming acceleration during such events is especially pronounced in autumn. The decade during which a rapid sea-ice loss event occurs could see autumn temperatures warm by as much as 5 °C (9 °F) along the Arctic coasts of Russia, Alaska, and Canada.

So we have faster melting than thought possible of soil containing twice as much carbon than previously thought. It’s now an acceleration of existential danger exceeding even nuclear holocaust. It’s a game changer.

While permafrost melt is the granddaddy of feedbacks, other amplifying feedbacks in Earth’s arsenal include: Polar Ice Sheet Melt and Polar Amplification Deforestation Desertification Deglaciation Ocean Saturation Wetlands Destruction

Perhaps we could have the military conduct a strategic review to recommend how best to avoid these catastrophic feedbacks? I bet the Pentagon would argue for something much stronger than Waxman-Markey. As they surely understand, this arms race with Earth cannot be negotiated away.

In the meantime do what you can to reduce your footprint: Checklist Toward Zero Carbon. Download it. Edit it. Make it your own. Pass it out.


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