It’s the wee hours of the morning and I’m awake in part due to trying to shake off the paranoia associated with the hydroxychloroquinine they give me for Lyme disease. That’s as much apology as you’ll get from me for what I’m about to say.
If you came to DailyKos seeking HOPE you should probably pass this diary by, because I’ll say some things that A Siegel talked around a few days ago.
So, let’s have an honest discussion about our exhumed carbon addiction and the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum.
Plot spoiler: If you like Nicholas Cage and you’ve not yet seen Knowing I suggest you hit eject now. Disaster movies, and Knowing is a cracking good one, have a serious effect on our ability to deal with what happens in the real world. I’ll spoil the ending to that movie before I finish my thoughts here.
The Earth breathes. There’s more land in the northern hemisphere than the southern, so carbon dioxide levels dip noticeably from April to October. On a longer scale carbon dioxide moves from 180ppm to 280ppm in hundred thousand year long cycles. The key point here isn’t perfect duration cycles, it’s the shape and duration. Carbon dioxide and temperature spike, then there’s a declining curve until the next event. Those declines are stately affairs – the Earth can uptake about 1ppm CO2 every thousand years
Here’s the current information on atmospheric carbon dioxide. We’ve been tracking it on Mauna Loa for quite a while now as a way to monitor potential volcano activity and this long term record has become invaluable for climate scientists. This graph clearly shows the annual ‘breathing’ and we’re also 100ppm outside the historic norm.
Now the nice graph above came from the Vostok Ice Core data but be assured there are others that reach back nearly twice as far as the Vostok’s 450,000 years. The rule seems to hold – 1ppm CO2 uptake per each thousand years.
So humans have, in the last two centuries, pushed up carbon dioxide concentrations 100ppm. That normally takes 20,000 years to happen based on the Vostok graph and it takes nearly 100,000 years to clear. Worse yet, we’ve pushed it 100ppm outside what’s been the normal range for the last 800,000 years and quite likely for the entire Holocene – the last 1.8 million years.
Modern humans have been around 200,000 years and we nearly went extinct 150,00 years ago. Genetic drift indicates there were fewer than 2,000 individuals came through this time. Notice what happened 150,000 years ago – a major climate change.
We learned to use fossil carbon for energy on a large scale at the very peak of normal atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations two hundred years ago. We’re outside the bounds of what our ancestors experienced during our first near extinction and we’re very likely on a toboggan ride towards reproducing what happened at the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum.
Today we’re, climatically speaking, down in the fuzz on the left hand side. See that spike at 55 MYA labeled ‘petm’? This event, ten thousand years long, saw global temperature rise 13F. Humans in the last century alone have pushed temperatures 1F higher.
The transition from Paleocene to Eocene was so dramatic due to a large outgassing of methane clathrates. This ‘methane ice’ exists in cold, deep waters all over the globe and humans have recently begun trying to exploit it as a another fossil carbon source. Methane has the same amount of carbon in it as carbon dioxide, but it’s twenty times more powerful in terms of heat retention.
So here we are, currently kicking out about four gigatons more carbon annually due to fossil fuel usage than the Earth can uptake on its own, that’s double the estimated output of the clathrate outgassing event behind the PETM, and we’ve not yet triggered the conditions that’ll cause major clathrate outgassing.
We are, however, causing a melting of the Siberian permafrost. As the frozen peat bogs melt they decay, exhaling massive amounts of methane. We’re talking terrain that was solid when GWB took office and today its all marshland, thanks to the 5.5F temperature rise in western Siberia in the last forty years.
Sooner or later our ‘normal’ carbon emissions, the increase in carbon expected as we exhaust oil and gas which will lead to more coal use, the outgassing from the Siberian tundra, and an ice free Arctic ocean are all going to combine and we’ll get clathrates breaking down. Whether this comes before it’s obvious to everyone that it’s too late, or after it’s obvious to everyone that it’s too late, the problem is this: even as we speak it’s probably already too late.
If you’re reading this you’re on the internet and likely living in a developed country. You’re used to going out, getting in a car and going where you want when you want. Unlike our ancestors who had to work at a fire or wait for the sunrise, you can simply flip a switch and illuminate your surroundings. And every major shift from personal relations through planet wrecking disaster is distilled down into a 120 minutes plus or minus a bit and you, as the viewer, are privy to all of the information via the omniscient eye of the camera, and foreshadowing tuned to a level appropriate for inattentive teenagers is liberally sprinkled into the tale.
Subsisting on a steady diet of this we aren’t ready to cope with things that take a while, have multiple, interlocking inputs, that don’t have tidy endings, that don’t have tidy, straight forward causes, and that lack dramatic events indicating progress along a story arc. We started out poorly equipped to grasp long term systemic change and our media, both entertainment and informational, do a poor job of educating us.
Perhaps that’s for the best. We’ve had a spate of ‘death by rock’ movies the last decade; everyone is aware a large asteroid got the dinosaurs and one could come along and do for us next. Films like The Day After Tomorrow have broke us in to the idea the climate might be the end of us, but all do us a disservice. An asteroid strike is naturally a quick thing, offering no chance for drama but a scramble to coax an unlikely space ship out in time to destroy the nemesis. For the sake of the big screen format climate disasters that ought to be told as multi-generational sagas like Roots are folded, spindled, and mutilated into two hour long toboggan rides from sunny day to absolute catastrophe.
Knowing is an excellent way to spend 121 minutes, but it’s got everything not to love for someone contemplating the very real possibility that our species has already passed some sort of collective event horizon. The protagonist scientist, played by Nicholas Cage, is caring for his son and mourning the loss of his wife, when strange things begin to happen. A fifty year old time capsule from his son’s school yields a cryptic set of numbers that he promptly maps to disasters around the world, the last of which has a body count of ‘EE’. Late in the movie we learn that stands for "Everyone Else", rather than the 33 he assumed it meant. Long story short, the whole Earth gets done up like a grapefruit in a microwave, but Cage’s son and a handful of others are spirited away by space aliens to start anew on another world. Thrills, chills, and a sad, yet hopeful and emotionally pleasing end are delivered.
I don’t think tottering from a seemingly normal climate at my birth (1967) to an irreversible charge towards the equivalent of the PETM by my death (not later than about 2025, or so says my nephrologists) makes for a good disaster movie, although it will be the end of all we know. A happy outcome here is a few million breeding pairs of humans left in the wilds of northern Canada once the dust, both forest fire induced and radioactive, settles.
George Monbiot is right: energy issues alone will be enough to get us fighting like cats in a sack and we’re going to have much, much, MUCH worse trouble than high prices for oil products that aren’t always available.
As this is DailyKos, I’m supposed to pull out some Hope here at the end, but I don’t have any of the brand most people prefer. I work on things that I think will benefit the United States, I tune my strategy not to some feel good, happy global village, but instead to a world where there is an energy/food bi-lateral trade and our ability to export virtual water in the form of grain gives us some of the leverage we formerly had due to being at first an oil exporter and later the guarantor of global security for the oil trade. I see the pictures of the hungry people in news stories here and I have to avert my eyes; I think they’re already dead and they’ve just not got the memo yet.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so – more likely I’m just a little head of the curve in voicing these things.
And here's that fellow from 350.org agreeing with my sentiments. Shot this myself back in April of '09 thanks to Kossack gmoke's weekly list of Harvard/MIT events.
OK, to be clear on this, if you don't want this to come to pass please understand that the National Renewable Ammonia Architecture is a silver BB that can be deployed against climate change. I think it's a darned good one because renewable ammonia is the foundation of food production, it's a good liquid fuel, and it can be used as a catalyst to facilitate biological sequestration of carbon dioxide. I think we can even co-opt the military industrial complex to work on it if we play our cards right.
I did a nice three part series called Futurescapes that explains how this might play out.
Futurescape 3/Dirigible Woods