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Global Warming Is Being
Seriously Underestimated

By John James

03 February, 2007

“One of the hardest tasks we face in life is to be the bearer of seriously bad news … I now have to bring the worst of news … that civilisation is in grave danger.”

James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia.

A number of simply gigantic reserves of greenhouse gasses that nature has stored for our benefit are now beginning to flood back into the atmosphere, as described in www.planetextinction.com.

In addition to what nature gives back to us, our own greenhouse pollution has almost doubled since 2001. There are a number of major natural sources, besides our own. We are beginning to have some idea of the total on the planet, but the speed at which these ancient stores will be released is still completely uncertain.

Scientists have made estimates, and we will list them here. However, though we don't know exactly when, it is absolutely certain that much of this material will be released during this century.

The totals are given at the end of this article, but first we need to “warm you up” a little. We need to discuss Siberia and Alaska, the Amazon, Indonesia and the deep oceans before we get to the totals.

The numbers given in journals can be very confusing. People use many units in describing these things: we shall use billion metric tonnes for mass [Bts] and CO2-e for the carbon dioxide equivalent of all greenhouse gasses combined, including methane, and fluorocarbons with increasingly powerful impacts. Water vapour in the stratosphere is not included, though the amount has been gradually increasing.

Changing personal behaviour does matter: political action will matter more !

The frozen bogs of Siberia are melting

There are two gigantic stores of carbon held in arctic soils, in the permafrost and in largely organic material called Yedoma. Together they have held 950 Bts of carbon and methane for tens of thousands of years. If converted into gas it would equal 3,500 Bts of CO2-e. Humans at this moment emit merely 1¼% of that in a year. [Katey Walter et al, Nature 443, 71-75, 7 September 2006]

Because southern Siberia is heating faster than any other part of the planet - some 4 degrees C last year - the arctic and sub-arctic ecosystems have only recently turned into a source of greenhouse gasses instead of continuing to be a store.

As every increase in greenhouse gas leads to further burping, the summer of 2006 saw an area larger than France and Germany combined beginning to "boil" furiously [Freeman, Nature, 2006, 430, 195].

The year before, Walter found that the amount being released was 3.8 million tons, or five times the previous estimate. As a tonne of methane warms the planet's atmosphere 21 times as much as the same amount of CO2, this is equivalent to 80 million tons of CO2-e emitted in 2005. And this was from one part of Siberia only.

We would expect that last year’s boiling would have increased that figure, and the promised “super-summer” this year will extract even more. We should therefore expect that the higher the temperature gets, the more permafrost will melt, the more it will become a vicious heating cycle.

Before Katie Walter's report, Lord Stern estimated that quite soon methane emissions could be 10 Bts of CO2-e a year. That is a tremendous amount of global warming when it is believed that even a couple of billion tons of methane a year would be catastrophic. [Strern, The Economics of Climate Change, 2006]

Some 55 million years ago 1,000 Bts of methane were suddenly and mysteriously released from frozen stores on the seabed. This caused global temperatures to soar 10 degrees C, causing an immediate mass extinction of species.

“The great party of the twentieth century is coming to an end.”James Lovelock.

But massive and immediate action by governments can save our Earth !

The Amazon rainforest and El Nino

Though last year's El Nino was not as strong as in 1997 and 1998, its combination with the steady increase of temperatures is likely to make 2007 the world's hottest year ever recorded [Britain's Meteorological Office]. Last year the average temperature in Britain was higher than at any time since records began in 1659.

It is significant that even a moderate warming event today is enough to push the global temperatures over the top.

The signs are all around us: Little winter snow in the Alps, continuing droughts in Africa and Australia, glaciers melting faster than at any time in the past 5,000 years, disappearing Arctic sea ice while Greenland slides into the sea.

In the Amazon the higher temperatures are forcing the trees to get bigger, and they are being fertilised by excess atmospheric CO2. The whole forest could be absorbing 2 billion tons of carbon per year, which is added on to the 430 Bts of CO2-e that is already stored there. This is not entirely a good thing.

The greatest danger to the Amazon during the coming northern summer is that a strong El Nino denies rain to the forest. It is already suffering from a two-year drought when rivers dried up and wildfires burned large areas. Experiments showed that the Amazon cannot withstand more than two consecutive years of drought without breaking down, because the trees can no longer put water vapour into the air. It has just experienced its second year, and if that continues this year an unstoppable cycle will have begun.

The crucial factor determining the development of a rain forest is the length of the wet season. In the Amazon it lasts 8 months, and during the rest of the year remains wet enough to prevent fire. But the nearby savannah has a shorter wet season and catches fire every five years or so, destroying most of the vegetation and preventing the savannah recreating itself as a rainforest.

If this year's dry season becomes longer then the forest would start to dry out, collapse and burn. It would not then be able to re-establish itself and would turn into savannah. It has been estimated that burning could release up to 30 Bts of CO2-e in a matter of weeks. [Woods Hole Research Center, Frank Merry et al, Science 21 March 2003, 299, 1843]

The Amazon is already in a vulnerable state. Seventeen percent has already been cleared for soya bean production. Models show that when more than 30 percent is lost, its rain-making system could destabilise and the land will irreversibly turn into savannah.

To this must be added logging and other deforestation everywhere. This contributes about 7.5 Bts per year – a figure that would be readily doubled when the Amazon forest falls over. And these higher emissions would then continue to heat us up every year.

“The saddest thing is that Gaia will lose more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but the planet will lose a precious resource: human civilisation. We are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet.”
James Lovelock.

Transform our thinking and agendas - politically put the Earth first !

Increasing emissions from South-East Asia

Monsoon rains will diminish as global temperatures continue to rise. Not only was 2006 one of Indonesia’s driest on record, a climate model indicates there will be prolonged and severe droughts in the future. [Nerilie Abram et al, Nature 445, 299-302, 18 January 2007]

That would devastate the country's tropical agriculture and spark more haze-producing wildfires each year. Fires in South-east Asia peat lands were some of the worst in the late 90s and 2002. In each year over 1.5 to 2.2 million hectares of peatland burned in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The emissions were between 3 and 9.4 Bts of CO2-e each year.

This shows what a huge impact comes from fires of all sorts.

In addition land clearing causes the oxidation of peatland top soil. This then emits about 65 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year. Currently, millions of hectares of peatlands are drained and are decomposing in Indonesia and Malaysia. Together these have produced annual emissions of 2 Bts tonnes CO2-e, most of it from fires [Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics].

This is more than all the emissions from India or Russia, and almost three times the German emissions. If peatland emissions are included in the national audit, Indonesia is the third-largest greenhouse polluter in the world.

“Unless we now start preparing our survival kit we will soon be just another species eking out an existence in the few remaining habitable regions.” James Lovelock.

When everyone gets active politically, politicians will change their priorities !

Carbon held in the oceans

Most studies suggest that oceanic gas hydrates hold about 10,000 Bts. Considering that our atmosphere contains about 700 Bts of carbon, even relatively small emissions from the seas would have a major impact on temperatures. [Nisbet, Nature, 347 23, September 1990].

This carbon pool is extremely sensitive to small changes in deep-ocean temperature and sea levels. Thus, in the past, gas hydrates may have destabilized, releasing methane into the atmosphere through gas bubbles rising rapidly through the water column or gas hydrates floating to the surface. A fraction of those hydrates are located in shallow water, where the heat from global warming will be felt soonest.

In 2005, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found clear evidence the top half-mile of the ocean has warmed dramatically in the past forty years. A more recent study by the National Centre for Atmospheric Research found ocean temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic more than one degree C above normal; this turned out to be the predominant catalyst for the monstrous 2005 hurricane season – Katerina was the most violent ever recorded.

Phytoplankton is the basis of the entire marine food chain. It absorbs CO2. But the warming ocean restricts rising nutrients, and this has reduced plankton activity up to 30%. This means that the amount of CO2 being absorbed decreases. Meantime most fish stocks are declining, mainly from acidification caused by carbon. Therefore the overall ability of marine life to sequester carbon is reduced. Acid is accumulating 100 times faster than at any time for millions of years.

Arctic ice-melt and the now rapid collapse of the Greenland glaciers are all contributing to the heating of the oceans. The July issue of the Journal of Climate reported trials on eleven computer models of the complex climate-carbon cycle. All agreed that as the world heats, the oceans and the land become net carbon producers.

Guy Kirk of the National Soil Resources Institute found that the soil of Britain is releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere than a quarter of a century ago because increasing temperatures are speeding up the rate of organic decay. He estimates that Britain's soil has been releasing 13 million tons of CO2 a year.

If we multiply this by the total world agricultural land area less a factor for being conservative, and jump this process forward a few years, we estimate that quite soon the earth’s soils will be releasing 13 Bts a year, or one third of all our human emissions.

“Mankind has declared war on Gaia.” James Lovelock

The sleeping US giant is waking up ! When she does, success will be possible !

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without words
And never stops at all.”

Emily Dickinson

Possible world emissions by 2010 – in only 4 years

Chinese coal power stations are being erected at one per week. China’s emissions will increase from 4.9 Bts in 2000 to 7.5 Bts or more in 2010. China will then be the largest greenhouse emitter in the world.

On present rate of global pollution, plus China, world emissions will increase from 42 Bts in 2000 to well over 48 Bts in 2010 – mainly from energy production. [Strern, The Economics of Climate Change, 2006]

This is well known. But in addition we have to include the triggering points that have the potential to release enormous quantities of emissions into the atmosphere. These include:

· Siberian permafrost methane burping estimate – 10 Bts a year, or greater.

· Soils returning CO2 rather than being a sink - 13 Bts a year.

· Burning the Amazon could release billions of tons of CO2-e in a matter of weeks. Assuming one third of the Amazon forest dries out and begins to burn – 10 Bts.

· Current logging and burning in Indonesian peatlands – 7.5 Bts at least. One large fire could double that.

· Allowing for higher ocean temperatures, 2010 could see a huge level of methane emissions from the depths.

Together these could easily double human greenhouse emissions over the next few years.
This means that a 5 degree global temperature rise is possible – with all its awesome consequences.

Since current emissions of 42 Bts per year CO2-e have already increased the average world temperature by 0.78 degrees C and the oceans by 0.45 degrees, a doubling of that rate over just a few years would have the most profound impact. [US national Climate Data Center]

Another way of putting it, for every ten Bts of CO2-e released, the number of particles per million [ppm] in the atmosphere increase by 30. Releasing even a conservative 70 Bts extra over the next 3 years would shoot us up from 425 ppm (includes methane etc) to well over 600 ppm.

Whether this happens in three years or twenty, we are headed for over 600 ppm in the atmosphere and straight into an unstoppable 5 degree average global temperature rise. [IPCC report March 2006] Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia will have arrived in earnest.

And this does not take into account the flywheel effect of CO2 emitted but not yet in a position to affect global heating, an delay that would in time add a further 70 ppm. And on top of that the aerosol haze layer that shields the earth would disappear in a few days adding a further degree or two.

This level of warming would literally burn-up whole agricultural regions into dust, causing famine, anarchy, diseases, and war on a colossal global scale. Billions of people could die.

I write this not to scare you, but to WAKE YOU UP ! Stop waiting for the others !

“If you want to know the past, examine how you are today.
If you want to know the future, examine your present actions”

The Buddha

All this is possible. Not necessarily in four years, but certainly during the next few decades we will be in the midst of an unstoppable warming sprint in which all the dire outcomes described on the www.planetextinction.com site will be ours to share with our children.

This is serious – and urgent. Either we act now to prevent even the possibility of this happening, or we abandon the society and culture that nurtures us, and the hopes of our children whom we hoped to nurture.

“We should not let our fears stop us from pursuing our hopes or our dreams.” John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Personal web page www.johnjames.com.au
Therapy web page www.cruciblecentre.com
Crisis Coalition web page www.planetextinction.com

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