The coming great cook-out? Part 1 of 4

From Don Sanderson

3/19/09 Ukiah, North California

That global warming is occurring has become obvious here in Northern California. As I am writing this paragraph, it is now the second week in December, we still have tomatoes and peppers ripening in our garden. Last year, some made it until Thanksgiving, a November first here in the experience of a 90 year old friend and native.

We are now entering a citrus climate, so what’s not to love? Avocados next? Mangos? Beginning last winter and continuing though this fall, except for a brief rainy spell, we have had a high pressure system above more typical of summer. When we have had frosts, the cold hasn’t come from the north, but from loss of ground heat to the empty sky typical of a desert. We now have had rainfall amounts characteristic of areas several hundred miles south and water shortages are becoming critical. The creek in front of our home, which typically still has had pools into July, emptied in May last year and early April this – fifteen years ago it was nearly perennial and hosted successfully spawning steelhead. Fires that burned all over the area early in the summer are forcing winemakers to filter the smoke chemicals out of their wine.

Funny, though I point out to others that these are likely effects of global warming and may be expected to get worse, it doesn’t appear to be changing anyone’s behavior. From discussions, many seem to feel that ‘they’ will fix it, whoever ‘they’ are. Besides, some of my friends are reading that some ‘authorities’ are saying that this will only increase land for agriculture in the north – if climate change is indeed happening, which these persons doubt.

A mid-January, 2009, addendum: we finally had a frost in mid-December followed by a couple inches of rain; the creek remains dry and warm sunny days are predicted for a week or more into the future. In late January, 2009, still no more rain, local lakes are at record lows, and we are reading the news of terrible droughts in Argentina and Australia. Perth is in danger of becoming uninhabitable.

Early March, 2009, addendum: we’ve had maybe 7 or 8 inches of light rain since the middle of February and the creek is running, though I can now step across at some places without getting wet; will that get us through the summer? It was just reported that Lake Mendocino’s water level is now at 55 percent, whereas it was at 96 percent at this time last year, so let’s not hold our breaths. I learned a week ago or so that the Colorado Plateau drought, which is now more than 11 years old, is threatening the water supplies of Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, San Diego, and so on. It appears we should be expecting this situation of confront us soon. Meanwhile, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and the forecast is more of the same – well, maybe a sprinkle.

A story you all should know: About 55.5 million years ago, Greenland separated from Europe, which caused an eruption of basalt–like flows in the resulting rift. It is conjectured that these reacted with carbon-rich sedimentary rocks. Whatever the detailed causes may have been, around 1,500 to 2,000 gigatons of carbon were released into the combined ocean/atmosphere system over the course of 1,000 years. The planet then heated up in one of the most rapid and extreme global warming events recorded in geologic history, currently identified as the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum” or (PETM). Average global temperatures increased by ~6 °C in the space of 20,000 years, with much larger increases in the higher latitudes, even though the sun was 0.5 percent less bright than now; not only did the surface of the Antarctic Ocean heat up about 10°C, but that the entire depth of the ocean warmed and its chemistry changed disastrously, becoming very acidic; one study recently reported that maximum sea surface temperatures near the North Pole increased from -18 °C to over 23 °C – needless to say, there was no sea ice.

Methane hydrate, which collects in cold ocean bottom water under great pressures and is widely distributed and plentiful in sediments on the outer edges of continental margins in these cooler times until now that has remained since our recent Ice Age and before, are thought to have become unfrozen in those warm Paleocene-Eocene seas; methane was released so rapidly that its oxidation used up all the oxygen at depth in the water column. 30 to 40 percent of deep sea foraminifera suddenly went extinct and their calcium-rich shells dissolved. Subsequent thaws added the greenhouse gas methane to the atmosphere. Some conclude this methane release may have continued for 10,000 years. The warming of the oceans greatly increased atmospheric water vapor, which is itself a greenhouse gas, but much was circulated toward arctic latitudes; desertification became common at middle and lower latitudes. There was a massive turnover of mammals; most of the primitive mammals that had developed since the end of the Cretaceous were suddenly replaced by the ancestors of the surviving modern mammal groups, all of them in small versions more adapted to heat. Plant life in the far north was characteristically tropical – dawn redwoods grew as far as 80°N; likely much of Antarctica, which was still connected to South America, was probably forested, but if so remaining fossils are deeply buried in ice. The PETM lasted for from 170,000 to 200,000 years. Ancient history?

The atmosphere, not including the ocean, is currently holding around 800 gigatons of carbon, up from 600 gigatons before the industrial revolution. About 2.33 gigatons (2.71 gigatons less 0.38 gigatons of sinks) of additional carbon are produced each year (here CO2 is measured in carbon equivalent terms, not counting the oxygen), an estimated 1.54 gigatons of this are added to the atmosphere annually; the remainder are absorbed by the ocean, though there is some contention here: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their reports hypothesize that there are natural sources, as yet unidentified, of the same magnitude as human emissions and that there are, as yet, undetected sinks that can account for the observed net concentration of atmospheric carbon. Others contend that the IPCC is wildly guessing and so giving governments and industry wiggle room.

How many years of wild living ahead before we get to the PETM’s 1,500 gigatons combined atmosphere and ocean carbon, if we haven’t reached it already? I could find no estimates of how much carbon is currently stored within the ocean, which is a wild card here. You may be able to do better. Indeed, the situation is much more complex. We humans not only are emitting carbon, we are also discharging nitrous oxides, which are also potent greenhouse gasses, into the atmosphere especially as a result of intensive farming operations. Meanwhile, the ocean is heating up, so producing ever more water vapor, which is also a greenhouse gas. The ocean in nearly full of absorbable carbon, so less and less such is being removed from the atmosphere by that means. Along the way, the ocean is becoming more acid, which is killing small photosynthesizing phytoplankton in arctic waters that have been major recyclers of the planet’s carbon dioxide. Increasing desertification and deforestation are also removing carbon dioxide capturing plants. The increasing warmth is also resulting in the emission of methane from melting arctic tundra peat bogs and the floor of the Arctic Ocean, of which I’ll tell yon more shortly; methane is initially 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide until it breaks down into carbon dioxide and water, thus adding not only warmth but carbon to the atmosphere. Thus, not only are we increasingly releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but we have triggered several positive or reinforcing feedback loops; i.e. the faster a process goes, the faster it accelerates. The warning atmosphere and ocean are resulting in the deaths of lifeforms that recycle carbon dioxide, thus adding carbon to the atmosphere, so further warming it and the ocean. Similarly, this warming is causing release of carbon monoxide that increasing the warming even further. If you fail to understand the central importance of these feedback relationships, please note that nuclear explosions are examples of uncontrolled positive feedbacks..

I learned about the material in the above paragraphs only after much of this essay was written. The first much earlier slap that focused my attention on these issues was an article by Seth Borenstein and Dan Joling of the Associated Press published August 28, 2008 entitled “Arctic sea ice drops to 2nd lowest level on record.” “We could very well be in that quick slide downward in terms of passing a tipping point,” senior scientist Mark Serreze at the data center in Boulder, Colo. is quoted as saying. “It’s tipping now. We’re seeing it happen now”. “It also means that climate warming is also coming larger and faster than the models are predicting and nobody’s really taken into account that change yet,” he added. Serreze, among five climate scientists specializing in global warming issues, four of them specialists on the Arctic, told The Associated Press that it is fair to call what is happening in the Arctic a “tipping point”. I found the article several pages back in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s front section in November. Nowhere was there any discussion in that paper that would explain  what “tipping point” might mean. From the small sample I collected, this seems to have been the rule for almost all of the mainline media. Subsequently, I have learned that the Public Interest Research Center reports climate scientists are now predicting the end of late-summer polar ice within no more than seven years, not the end of century the IPCC predicted in 2006.

The 2008-9 summer in the Antarctic has provided much more information as to what is happening there. David Hik, executive director of the Canadian secretariat of the International Polar Year, reported that The Pine Island Glacier, the biggest in West Antarctica, has sped 40 percent faster toward the sea since the 1970s and Smith Glacier is moving 83 percent quicker than 15 years ago. These numbers are much bigger than expected prior to this study. Hik reportedly said “we thought lots of things were unlikely even two years ago.” International Polar Year (IPY) drew in 50,000 researchers from 63 countries. The project spanned two years, ending March, 2009, to incorporate a full year each of the Arctic in the north and the Antarctic in the south. The “titanic” east Antarctic plateau has received much less attention, but a joint U.S.-Norwegian IPY team that recently traversed the South Pole found that it is also warming, though not as dramatically as in the west. It has the theoretical potential to add some 200 feet (60 meters) to sea levels in centuries to come, scientists say. Others have estimated that Greenland would add 50 feet. IPY scientists just reported in Science that Antarctic seas are, and have been for fifty years, warming 5 times as fast as the world’s oceanic average.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat did better in late January: it put the report of an article in the Proceedings the National Academy of Science on the front page under the headline “Report: Warming Can’t Be Reversed.” Lead author NOAA’s Susan Solomon is quoted, “People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide, the climate would go back to normal in 100 years. That is not true.” Because of heat absorbed by the ocean to this point, warming will arguably continue to at least the year 3000.

Worldwide man-made temperatures rose 3 percent in 2007, according to a report by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press, Sept. 26, 2008. Under the IPCC’s 2006 conservative projections, this could presage average global temperature increases of from 4 degrees to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, rather than the range between 3.2 and 7.8 degrees they predicted; if you recall the PETM figures, these are stunning, frightening, numbers, yet likely outdated by the recent methane discoveries in the Arctic. Gregg Marland of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is quoted as saying he had expected temperatures to drop as a result of the economic downturn. “If we’re going to do something, it’s going to be different than what we’re doing,” Marland concludes. Julia Whitty, writes in Mother Jones, Nov./Dec. 2008, that NASA’s James Hansen, who has been following global warming since 1981, “this spring, delivered an urgent warning that we must trim atmospheric CO2 concentrations from 385 parts per million to 350 ppm—right now.” If this happens, it will likely be done for us by events beyond our control, such as an extended and massive world-wide recession, not by any of our considered acts. Do you have any idea what an average 11 degree increase portends? Can you guess?

At nearly the same time, as reported by Steve Connor, The Independent UK. September 24, 2008, I learned that Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University in Sweden, on board the Russian research ship Jacob Smirnitskyi that is cruising the Russian Arctic, has been describing by email exchange far more dangerous events. Connor,  who calls this a a Global Warming Timebomb, writes, “Scientists aboard a research ship that has sailed the entire length of Russia’s northern coast have discovered intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100 times background levels – over several areas covering thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf. In the past few days, the researchers have seen areas of sea foaming with gas bubbling up through ‘methane chimneys’ rising from the sea floor. They believe that the sub-sea layer of permafrost, which has acted like a ‘lid’ to prevent the gas from escaping, has melted away to allow methane to rise from underground deposits formed before the last ice age.” “Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback where more atmospheric methane causes higher temperatures, leading to further permafrost melting and the release of yet more methane,” he adds. “The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is calculated to be greater than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal reserves so there is intense interest in the stability of these deposits as the region warms at a faster rate than other places on earth.”

Similar giant methane reservoirs exist under the artic mainland landmass and the deep oceans over all the world. George Monbiot, on the AlterNet on December 3, 2008 in an article entitled Total Decarbonization: Our Last Shot to Prevent Runaway Climate Change, warns. “As the ice disappears, the region becomes darker, which means that it absorbs more heat. A recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters [reports] that the extra warming caused by disappearing sea ice penetrates 1500km inland, covering almost the entire region of continuous permafrost. Arctic permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the entire global atmosphere. It remains safe for as long as the ground stays frozen. But the melting has begun. Methane gushers are now gassing out of some places with such force that they keep the water open in Arctic lakes, through the winter. The effects of melting permafrost are not incorporated into any global climate models.” In this regard, it must be noted that the IPCC’s projections assumed that ‘green’ technical fixes will moderate greenhouse gas release, but it escapes me how anyone is going to put this methane back in the bottle. Be very scared – but, please, don’t turn away.
In contrast to the above, news sources prominently feature Gulf hurricanes in great human interest detail and weather reports tell us how cold it is somewhere or another, both with lots of pictures. Far more vitally, one notable recent observation found that ocean winds are increasing all over the world. Because of the increasing energy stored in the atmosphere, global warming weather effects are likely to be vastly more catastrophic all over the world, including increasing storm occurrences of ever greater violence as we also recently learned. Yet, unlike from storms, we individually, communally, and as a species have at most a slim chance of escaping a burning world as long as we remain blasé about it. Neither will much of the Earth’s plant and animal life, because ecosystems travel too slowly to move north in time. If past extinctions are indications, the Earth may take more than a ten million years to recover its present biological diversity. But, this never makes the headlines. As it is, no past great extinction has happened as quickly as this is, not even the one that destroyed the dinosaurs.

Clearly, we must radically cut back consumption now, which I assert is only possible by being ever mindful, by being a lifestyle warrior. Economist E.F. Schumacher insisted far back in the early seventies, as Thoreau did much earlier, we must greatly simplify, return to those archaic wild times, if anything, anyone, is to be left, which most of us consider a terribly frightening prospect. The contrary head-in-the-sand argument appears to be, “Whatever I personally do will have so little consequence, I needn’t cut back too far. Only a bit here and there.” In straight line cause and effect terms, that may well seem to be true for most individuals. But, this isn’t a cause and effect world; rather, it is a tightly linked associational web extending throughout the universe rife with feedbacks. As chaos theorists assure us, a butterfly’s wing flap may trigger the emergence of a hurricane somewhere far away sometime later; your personal behavior may be the speck of sand that initiates the tipping of a great avalanche or prevents it.

George Monbiot, in his HEAT: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, has cogently argued that consumption reductions in the developed world must be in excess of 8o percent soon for human survivability to have a chance – in order for reductions to be equable, he projects the North American percentage to be 94 percent. The only organized effort of which I’m aware that attempts to reduce personal carbon footprints is that of the Carbon-Rationing Action Groups mostly in Great Britain. With a lot of effort, member individuals have been able to make reductions of on the average 30 percent. Part of the reason they haven’t done better, I conclude, is that most are urban and must rely on commercial sources for their food. Marlene and I have done better simply because we personally raise or gather much of our food and purchase the rest from local growers – grocery stores have become nearly anathema. Ah, but, I see almost no one among my acquaintances willing to make anything close to these percentages, if any, unless forced to by economic exigencies, an even deeper Great Depression II.
A postscript: I don’t like to leave the story here. In the essay or journal I’m writing, I attempt to uncover why it is that we, even the most environmental informed of us, appear to find it impossible to respond. My time on the Ukiah Natural Foods Co-op  board motivated me to dig further. In spite of general awareness of global warming, of the coming economic difficulties, and my urging that the so-called cooperative focus on local self-reliance, the board voted to expand the store so that it could offer more of that processed and packaged stuff, originating from mostly undeterminable sources, that “people have been asking for”, all surely with high carbon emission overheads. That behavior astonished me and led me to conclude even the most liberal and environmentally involved of us would likely act the same way. Now our leader Obama can’t wait to get the economy growing again and everyone is hoping he succeeds. He and many others believe that green technology will save us without endangering our lifestyles, though there is no solid evidence this is so and most of the touted technologies are fluff that can’t withstand serious investigation. Anyhow, if we had such energy sources, wouldn’t we only use it to manufacture more ‘stuff.’ My bottom line guess: if Obama saves the economy, we’re cooked. We may be anyway, since we may have passed the tipping point.

I feel I’m beginning to understand the underlying reasons for this lifestyle mindset and how difficult it will be to overcome our drives to shop for and collect stuff, as I hope to explain in the completed essay in the by and by. There, I also intend to finish with pointers to what I conclude is a direction of escape – if there is time. But, all this is for later. At the moment, insights and understandings are flooding over me, material with which I worked and that I taught long ago but clearly didn’t fully grasp, to the extent it is hard to keep my head above. And, the garden is calling.
See also:

What’s clear from Copenhagen is that policymakers have fallen behind the scientists: global warming is already catastrophic
Go to Time to change ‘climate change’ George Monbiot in The Guardian→