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Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable

Filed under: — david @ 1 February 2009 - (Italian) (Finnish) (Chinese (simplified)) (Español)

Susan Solomon, ozone hole luminary and chair of the Nobel Prize winning IPCC, and her colleagues, have just published a paper entitled “Irreversible climate change because of carbon dioxide emissions” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We at realclimate have been getting a lot of calls from journalists about this paper, and some of them seem to have gone all doomsday on us. Dennis Avery and Fred Singer used the word Unstoppable as a battle flag a few years ago, over the argument that the observed warming is natural and therefore there is nothing that humanity can do to alter its course. So in terms of its intended rhetorical association, Unstoppable = Burn Baby Burn. But let’s not confuse Irreversible with Unstoppable. One means no turning back, while the other means no slowing down. They are very different words. Despair not!

Solomon et al point out that continued, unabated CO2 emissions to the atmosphere would have climatic consequences that would persist for a thousand years, which they define operationally as “forever”, as in the sense of “Irreversible”. It is not really news scientifically that atmospheric CO2 concentration stays higher than natural for thousands of years after emission of new CO2 to the carbon cycle from fossil fuels. The atmospheric CO2 concentration has a sharp peak toward the end of the fossil fuel era, then after humankind has gone carbon neutral (imagine!) the CO2 concentration starts to subside, quickly at first but after a few centuries settling in a “long tail” which persists for hundreds of thousands of years.

The long tail was first predicted by a carbon cycle model in 1992 by Walker and Kasting. My very first post on realclimate was called “How long will global warming last?”, all about the long tail. Here’s a review paper from Climatic Change of carbon cycle models in the literature, which all show the long tail. A number of us “long tailers” got together (electronically) to do a Long Tail Model Intercomparison Project, LTMIP, just like the big guys PMIP and OCMIP (preliminary results of LTMIP to be appearing soon in Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences). I even wrote you guys a book on the topic.

The actual carbon-containing molecules from the fossil fuel spread out into the other carbon reservoirs in the fast parts of the carbon cycle, dissolving in the oceans and getting snapped up by photosynthetic land plants. The spreading of the carbon is analogous to water poured into one part of a lake, it quickly spreads out into the rest of the lake, rather than remaining in a pile where you poured it, and the lake level rises a bit everywhere. In the carbon cycle, translated out of this tortured analogy, the atmospheric carbon dioxide content rises along with the contents of the other carbon reservoirs.

Ultimately the airborne fraction of a CO2 release is determined largely by the buffer chemistry of the ocean, and you can get a pretty good answer with a simple calculation based on a well-mixed ocean, ignoring all the complicated stuff like temperature differences, circulation, and biology. The ocean decides that the airborne fraction of a CO2 release, after it spreads out into the other fast parts of the carbon cycle, will be in the neighborhood of 10-30%. The only long-term way to accelerate the CO2 drawdown in the long tail would be to actively remove CO2 from the air, which I personally believe will ultimately be necessary. But the buffering effect of the ocean would work against us here, releasing CO2 to compensate for our efforts.

As a result of the long tail, any climate impact from more CO2 in the air will be essentially irreversible. Then the question is, what are the climate impacts of CO2? It gets warmer, that’s pretty clear, and sea level rises. Sea level rise is a profound consequence of the long tail of global warming because the response in the past, over geologic time scales, is tens of meters per °C change in global mean temperature, about 100 times stronger than the IPCC forecast for 2100 (about 0.2 meters per °C). The third impact which gains immortality from the long tail is precipitation. Here the conventional story has been that climate models are not very consistent in the regional precipitation changes they predict in response to rising CO2. Apparently this is changing with the AR4 suite of model runs, as Solomon et al demonstrated in their Figure 3. Also, there is a consistent picture of drought impact with warming in some places, for example the American Southwest, both over the past few decades and in medieval time. The specifics of a global warming drought forecast are beginning to come into focus.

Perhaps the despair we heard in our interviewers’ questions arose from the observation in the paper that the temperature will continue to rise, even if CO2 emissions are stopped today. But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there’s no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.

Walker JCG, Kasting JF. 1992. Effects of fuel and forest conservation on future levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. (Glob. Planet. Change Sect.) 97:151–89

210 Responses to “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable”

  1. 101
    Chris Dudley says:

    I found the section on policy implications in the Solomon er al. paper disappointing because it failed to reference Hansen et al.’s Phil Trans paper which had broached the subject of actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

    Here, David also raises this possibility and a necessary eventuality but makes the further point that absorption of CO2 into the ocean means desorption if we manage to reduce the atmospheric load. I think this is an important point, but I also think that we must consider how quickly the desorption would happen. It takes quite a while for the thermal expansion of the oceans to happen because the mixing time-scale must be completed to warm the ocean depths. Similarly, a portion of the CO2 that enters the oceans will be entrained in this mixing and thus will not be available for re-equilibrating with a, say, 280 ppm atmosphere for some time. The leak back time should be longer the uptake time we are experiencing now just because circulating currents make the CO2 so unavailable. Thus, we may be able to hold the atmospheric concentration at 280 ppm with little effort in any one century (other than this one) though we may need to focus on the effort for tens of centuries.

    The Monaco Declaration on Ocean Acidification:

    indicates that at 450 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration, shells of polar dwelling shellfish will begin to dissolve. Thus the oceans set an independent limit on how high we can allow the pollution load to go.

    I would say that David’s necessary eventuality may actually be a current requirement: we may need to both cut emissions now and begin to draw carbon from the atmosphere now. Hansen’s idea of going a little too far and then drawing back might not work.

    It seems to me that it would be very good to quantify the time scales involved in ocean loads of carbon. Work similar to that of Solomon et al. which considers emissions and reduction scenarios that include attempting to peg the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere at 280 ppm after say 2060 should be undertaken so that all policy options can be considered.

  2. 102
    gerda says:

    excellent book david, thanks. i just finished it, and will be lending it to several non scientist friends, as it is jargon free and very accessible.

    [Response: Thanks, you make my day. David]

  3. 103
    John Mashey says:

    re: #102 gerda
    (and anyone else who’s read this or other good books)

    *Please*, think about sticking at least a short review on Amazon as well. Many people do actually read these before purchasing.

    “The Long Thaw” has 3 reviews (Amazon US).

    Svensmark’s “The Chilling Stars, 2nd Ed” has 4.

    Avery/Singer “Unstoppable Global Warming…” has 176.

    A/S has been out longer, but really, surely RC readers can do better.

  4. 104
    Jim Eager says:

    Re Jonas @50, who is confused about CO2 and it’s warming effect noted in Antartic ice core samples.

    Jonas, to dispel the confusion that Lansner & Watts deliberately seek to sow in that link, all you need to do is understand that CO2 can be either an amplifying feedback or a direct forcing, depending on the circumstances.

    What the ice cores show is that at the end of a glaciation CO2 does not drive the initial warming. That would be the increase in solar insolation due to changes in the wobble of Earth’s axis and the shape of its orbit. (Look up Milankovic Cycles) As a result of that initial forcing, the warming ocean and thawing permafrost emit CO2 into the atmosphere, where, as a greenhouse gas it then amplifies the initial warming. This not news.

    If, however, you change the circumstance by skipping the initial increase in solar insolation and just add more CO2 directly to the atmosphere, the greenhouse warming that it will induce will be a direct forcing, as opposed to a follow-on feedback.

    Which is exactly what we are presently doing by burning fossil-carbon fuels and injecting huge amounts of CO2 directly into the atmosphere.

    Fortunately, CO2 and other greenhouse gases do not often act as a direct climate forcing naturally, but it has happened in Earth’s history. Look up the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), or the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, and you will see that it has not been a good thing when it has.

    Now I have a question for you, Jonas:
    Why would anyone trust someone who deliberately tries to sow confusion about this relatively simple concept?

  5. 105
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Is Lovelock a biologist?

    Ask any biologist. Lovelock does biology. E.g.

    JE Lovelock – Nature, 1961 –
    … Affinity of Organic Compounds for Free Electrons with Thermal Energy: Its Possible Significance in Biology. Cited by 41

    Life detection by atmospheric analysis
    DR Hitchcock, JE Lovelock – Icarus, 1967 – Elsevier
    … the ratio of atmospheric mass to surface area is 30 times less for Mars than for … Cited by 39

    Thermodynamics and the Recognition of Alien Biospheres [and Discussion]
    JE Lovelock, IR Kaplan – Proceedings Royal Society of London. Series B, 1975 –
    Cited by 40

  6. 106
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Mankind is not doomed. A few of us can always eat cockroaches, drink rain water, and spend our evenings reciting poetry by the light of a campfire. However, AGW is likely to change sea levels fast enough to damage our industrial infrastructure. Given the inertia of human societies as evidenced by my SUV driving neighbors, with perfectly green lawns in a drought stricken California, we are not likely to act in time to save the Arctic sea ice (with its associated walrus, seals, polar bears, puffins, and Arctic cod).

    As Gavin has posted, even seasonal loss of Arctic sea ice results in large amounts of additional heat in the Arctic as a result of changes in albedo. If that heat is transferred to permafrost, we have sea level rise. If that heat is transferred to the Greenland Ice sheet, then sea level goes up. If that heat is transferred to terrestrial glaciers then sea level goes up. What limits transfer of heat from the surface of the Arctic Ocean to all this widely distributed ice? How long would it take a seasonally ice free Arctic Ocean (with less snow cover in Siberia, Alaska, & Canada) to absorb enough additional heat to melt ice equivalent to a total of 1 ft of sea level rise? I expect the process could be instantaneous in geologic terms and unpleasantly rapid in human terms.

    California lost a bridge to an earthquake in 1989, and set about to construct a new bridge. It is under construction now, but not complete. That is how long it takes to build infrastructure. That is one bridge. Twenty years to plan and build one bridge with our other entire infrastructure intact. Imagine how long it would take if subways, railroads, highways, refineries, cities, airports, and sewage treatment facilities were being flooded at the same time. Each project would want the limited capital, engineering resources, steel, concrete, and construction labor. Delay would feed back on scarcity.

    If we are going to save our civilization and technology, we need to have serious mitigation planned and constructed before there is significant sea level rise. We need a last date certain for when there will be less than a foot (???) of sea level rise, and we need to break ground on major sea level mitigation construction a decade earlier, that means we need to start planning and financing twenty years earlier. For such wide spread infrastructure rebuilding, 50 years of planning and financing is likely necessary. Consider how long it took for use just to move from analogue to digital TV transmission or moving people away from Three Gorges Dam. Fifty years is not an unreasonable planning and financing period for the dislocation of billions of people.

    Are we certain that 1 foot of sea level rise is more than 60 years (50 years of planning, 10 years of construction) in the future? If not, then we are already running late.

    The problem with all the geo-engineering concepts is that we do not have time. If we accept the IPCC projections of 2 feet of sea level rise by 2100, then we need to instantly: 1) stop emitting CO2; and, 2) start planning and preparing to protect/move/replace our infrastructure and cities from sea level rise. Unfortunately, mitigating effects on our cities and infrastructure is likely to emit a good deal of CO2. I do not see that we have the resources to mitigate cities and infrastructure and geo-engineer in the time we have until significant sea level rise given the enormous resources required for each activity.

    In the long run, I am not worried. Sea level rise will shut down our CO2 emitting industrial infrastructure and stop anthropogenic CO2 emissions long before peak coal, and likely before we run out of oil. One way or another we will abruptly stop emitting CO2.

  7. 107
    Craig Allen says:

    Brian Allen #66:

    I’ll see your you Mitchigen 6th lowest temperature on record and raise you a Melburnian record three days in a row above 43 degrees celcius.


    Weather – it’s messy.

  8. 108
    john sarette says:

    I do remember hearing a Science Friday piece on C02 removal. The scientist/entrepreneur asserted that he had designed a device which removed c02 as air passed through its limbs. He envisioned “farms” of them in windy places. The figure of $100 per ton of c02 removed sounds about right. The problem was: Who would pay him to do it? And there is the crux of the problem. The no tax is a good tax political parties are invested in stopping the discussion before the cost is added to the cost of c02 emitting fuels and devices.
    Keep up the good work. I may not be a scientist but I learned enough rigor from studying statistics for the social sciences that I can tell political blather from honest discussion and actual facts. I always appreciate both the post and the discussion.

  9. 109
    Chris Dudley says:

    John Sarette (#108),

    You are probably thinking of this interview with Klaus Lackner:

    They have a small working prototype now.

  10. 110
    Mark says:

    Thanks Hank. though the last paper could be written by ANYONE, not just biologists.

  11. 111
    Gaia says:

    Back to the irreversible vs. unstoppable point: surely something must be stopped before it can be reversed? And since the parameters governing feedback mechanisms are not known well enough to be modelled with certainty, is it not the case that irreversible climate change may be just a few ppm of carbon away – if not already upon us? According to Jim Hansen’s Goldilocks Earth theory, we would then be veering towards irreversible Venus-like conditions. I don’t think that portraying the very real risk of irreversible climate change will lead people to despondency, while there is still the possibility that slashing emissions and (better still) removing carbon from the system via geoengineering initiatives could delay the onset of a life-depleting apocalypse for generations to come.

  12. 112
    Nick Gotts says:

    Craig Allen@107,
    No, that’s not in the US of A, so it doesn’t count ;-)

  13. 113
    pete best says:

    Re# 111, This thread exists sho it stops people from desparing and thinking that something can be done. Scientists can be terrible communicators and often say the wrong thing which is picked up by the media and as hype sells, so does doom.

    Everything has to be in extremes in the media and science should never communicate it as such either.

    It is all reversible but not for 1000 years which is essentially irreversible in the language of this paper. People seem to hang on peoples words. Maybe all scientists should learn something from the social sciences and learn some psychology or sociology in order to understand the media a little better.

    Journalists are like children in many ways, they love a story projected out of kilter with what the author is saying. They over state everything and try to dramatise things as much as possible thinking that the public can understand it. The media is the language of the common people and hence a minefield for science and often for musicans, politicians, actors and others too.

  14. 114
    Florifulgurator says:

    Re 98.:

    ScienceDaily (Jan. 29, 2009)
    Making bales with 30 percent of global crop residues – the stalks and such left after harvesting – and then sinking the bales into the deep ocean could reduce the build up of global carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by up to 15 percent a year, according to just published calculations.

    I’m sorry, this is an extremely stupid idea. A Homo S “Sapiens” classic. The crop resides not only contain carbon, but also nutrients. They need to be returned to the fields, pyrolized or not. So, that idea would exacerbate one of the most serious problems this century: Soil exhaustion. Industrial agriculture doesn’t yet care, for they still got artificial and mined fertilizer. The recent fertilizer price shocks were indicating the beginning of the end of that.

    With biochar you can build up good soil (demonstrated at least in the tropics, cf. “terra preta”). It’s not only a way to fixate carbon, but also to repair soil devastated by the fossilo-chemo “green revolution”. The next revolution in agriculture is black, it looks.

  15. 115
    anon says:

    The points made are important, but the title is rhetorically clumsy. I don’t know what the right soundbite is, but this argument needs a clear and compelling one.

  16. 116
    Hank Roberts says:

    Let me make the point explicit: There is no license or a degree or credential required to do biology. Good work gets published. That belies the “founder” notion so common outside science about how science works. Look at the work and what it leads to.

    Lovelock gets challenged because he’s another “founder” on whose work much later work is built. And (gasp) doesn’t fit in a narrow category. The category doesn’t suffice. No problem. See the work.

    RJ Charlson, JE Lovelock, MO Andreae, SG Warren – Nature, 1987 – NATURE VOL. 326 16 APRIL 1987
    REVIEW ARTICLE Oceanic phytoplankton, atmospheric sulphur, cloud albedo and climate
    Robert J. Charlson, James E. Lovelock, Meinrat О. Andreae & Stephen G. Warren … Cited by 1240

    Atmospheric dimethyl sulphide and the natural sulphur cycle
    JE Lovelock, RJ Maggs, RA Rasmussen – Nature, 1972 –
    ALL models of natural processes for the transfer of sulphur on a global scale require some volatile or gaseous sulphur compound to complete the cycle by providing a vehicle for the transfer of sulphur from the sea … Cited by 234

    Halogenated hydrocarbons in and over the Atlantic
    JE Lovelock, RJ Maggs, RJ Wade – Nature, 1973 –
    DURING the past few decades the production of the chlorofluorocarbons, the propellant solvents for aerosol dispensers, has grown exponentially…. Cited by 181

    Mark, when someone shouts that “ANYBODY” could have written a published paper — ask him why he’s shouting not publishing.

    Often you’ll hear a complaint that the author was coloring outside the lines. Point being, that’s allowed — for those good enough to do it in publishable work. Being cited is the measure of the work.

  17. 117
    Pat Neuman says:

    … “absorption of CO2 into the ocean means desorption if we manage to reduce the atmospheric load” (#101) …

    and some wishful thinkers might say we could remove CO2 from the oceans and thus reduce the load to the atmospheric.

  18. 118
    Brian Dodge says:

    Re Ike solem 2 February 2009 at 4:14 PM and Florifulgurator 3 February 2009 at 8:21 AM

    Ocean crop residues carbon sequestration.

    It would seem to me you might get more bang for the buck by separating the nutrients from the cellulose fraction of crop residues, burning the cellulose fraction for power, and capturing the CO2 for sequestration. This would recycle the fixed nitrogen which would otherwise be lost in combustion, reduce the P & K content of the ash (a problem when using biomass in place of coal in a power plant) and offset fossil fuels. Unfortunately, CCS hasn’t been demonstrated yet. Plus, I don’t know what the cost of separating the cellulose from the other stuff would be, although this would be decreased by the value of the N, P, K, & etc fraction as nutrient/fertilizer.

  19. 119
    Chris Dudley says:

    Pat Neuman (#117),

    I linked to the Monaco Declaration in my post. This declaration states that fertilizing the oceans would have mixed results on acidification. Given that acidification is coming close now to causing great harm, possibly closer than increased temperatures, ocean fertilization schemes would seem to be risky.

    The US navy is interested in removing CO2 from the ocean directly to use in synthetic fuel production. This is unlikely to have any bulk effect but there are proposals for floating solar power islands in regions that do not suffer from tropical storms which might produce fuel from CO2 in the ocean. This might have larger application than just navy needs.

    It seems to me that learning much more about biochar as quickly as we can is our best bet.

  20. 120

    The accumulated tonnage emitted from all our carbon fires to date can be removed from the atmosphere. Let’s do this slowly enough that the ocean doesn’t start to fizz in its rush to keep up.

    (How fire can be domesticated

  21. 121
    Mark says:

    re 116.

    Still doesn’t make his biology apparent in the third paper you originally showed.

    The reason I ask is that there is a lot of “not carbon” in char.

    What is it and how much is needed.

    E.g. how much nitrogen, et al.

    Given how the dustbowl happened because people didn’t think to put back into the ground what they took out as corn, I think that figuring char to be “the saviour” is uncertain at best.

    Oh, and how much water would be needed for these trees to be burned? Are groundwater tables able to cope with the massive production-line growth of trees?

    It all smacks to me of David Bellamy’s biology expertise.

    But the above questions is why I asked if Lovelock was a biologist. One could assume he’d done those figurings (rather like the IPCC has to put up with the “Hockey stick” being originally a good question, though it was ultimately merely procedural nicety). So Lovelock may well have thought of it, but can he approach this query like climatologists did to the hockey stick.

  22. 122
    d. beck says:

    Thanks to you guys for this wonderful site.

    I need to go off topic for a minute. As I was just reading this article :

    World’s Glaciers Shrink for 18th Year in Alps, Andes (Update2)

    they stated that the ice has “melted the snow, revealing darker ice underneath which heats up faster than whiter surfaces.”

    It seems likely that as the surface ice melts, each year’s layer reveals – or better said – adds to the particulates of the upper year’s layers, and so becomes another type of positive feedback.

    I have been reading everything I can find of on-the-ground research for four years now, and I haven’t seen this documented. But it is probably old news to you guys. Am I wrong?

  23. 123
    Bill DeMott says:

    What are the latest estimates and projections on carbon release from peat-rich soils in the tundra(mainly Canada, Siberia and Alaska)? Some of my readings have suggested that melting of the permafrost could lead to a strong positive feedback to CO2 (and methane) release. If natural release becomes a signicant part of the earth’s carbon budget, this would seem to make the situation more “irreversible.”

  24. 124
    PHE says:

    Thanks for the Dad’s Army clip. I grew up watching them. Love it. Almost as entertaining as Alastair MacDonald.

  25. 125
    Hank Roberts says:

    > the above questions is why I asked
    > if Lovelock was a biologist.

    Not arguing tdefinitions. See the work. You decide.

  26. 126
    Adam Gallon says:

    A quick session with Google givs the following mean residual times for atmospheric CO2.
    7 years
    100 Years
    6 Years
    6 Years
    Rather a wide spread, one thinks.
    [edit OT]

    [Response: Ahh… the wisdom of google. Except that your search is confusing two very different concepts. One is the residence time for a single molecule of CO2 in the atmosphere (a few years) with the perturbation timescale (which is how long concentrations stay elevated) and which is much longer. The reason why there is a difference is because the cycling of CO2 into the biosphere and upper ocean is very rapid and so those pools are effectively part of the atmospheric reservoir. If you were correct, CO2 would barely have risen in the last 100 years. – gavin]

  27. 127

    Why is this true?

    [Response: In principle, yes. In practice: the German Advisory Council on Global Change made an estimate of the global potential for this in its recent report on bioenergy (page 136, so far only available in German). At best you can reduce the atmospheric CO2 concentration by 9 to 18 ppm over a century in this way. So, I wouldn’t count on it. It is far easier to avoid CO2 emissions than to get the CO2 back out of the air. -stefan]

    I’ve been wracking my brain for 2 days and I can’t figure out the mechanism by which this wouldn’t work, especially if a random molecule of CO2 only hangs around for 6 or 7 years.

    We have mechanisms for extracting CO2 from the air that are very efficient — plants. And we have mechanisms for converting that removed CO2 into a solid form for sequestration — heating in an oxygen-poor environment and converting to charcoal or “biochar”.

    I understand a lot of things that are said here, but this ain’t one of them.

  28. 128
    MarkB says:

    Brian Allen (#66),

    This map of January global weather (TLT measurements) might clear some things up. Select “Anomaly”.

    I can’t tell for certain, but it looks like an unusually cold area of purple is right around Michigan. Compare and contrast to the rest of the globe. January brought cold anomalies to most of the eastern U.S. and western Europe. It brought warm anomalies most other places, including very mild weather from the Rockies on west. The recent incredible southern Australia heat wave is reflected here as well.

    Be wary of various blogs and media outlets using cold local weather as evidence against global warming. The last month or two has certainly provided them with some key populated areas to select from, though.

  29. 129
    Hank Roberts says:

    > if a random molecule of CO2 only hangs around for 6 or 7 years.
    Wrong. See Gavin’s inline note. Or search for “biogeochemical cycling” +”carbon dioxide” and read more. Or read earlier threads here, by searching in the box at the top of the page. This is explained frequently.

    E.g.: “atmospheric CO2 is rapidly cycled all the time through the biosphere and ocean surface waters. These fluxes are many times the secular rate, but they very nearly cancel long term. This is why you see short term variations in atmospheric CO2 (the seasonal “ripple” on the Keeling curve, e.g., and ENSO-related fluctuations), and also in the d13C. The long-term trend in both is robust.”

    Quote from:
    Comment by Martin Vermeer — 10 juin 2008 @ 1:15 AM

  30. 130
    dhogaza says:

    it looks like an unusually cold area of purple is right around Michigan. Compare and contrast to the rest of the globe. January brought cold anomalies to most of the eastern U.S. and western Europe. It brought warm anomalies most other places, including very mild weather from the Rockies on west.

    For part of this month, the jetstream was running north-south offshore of the west coast of the US, dragging warm air with it, then continuing far north and looping east then south, dragging arctic air with it over the midwest and eastern US. I’ve been ill and not paying too much attention, but it was quite stable in this configuration for several days or perhaps a week, maybe a bit more.

    It is this which has “disproved global warming!” and “proved global cooling”. Cold air being pushed almost due south by the jet stream which was aimed right at the midwest.

  31. 131
    Chris Dudley says:


    The carbon is caught, yes, but then it is released again. The
    seasonal cycling of carbon is about 5 times the amount of annual growth of carbon in the atmosphere, so there is a lot of cycling.

    The German report estimates 1 to 3 GtC of biomass available every year. One estimate for the US is 1 Gt of biomass available every year so in the whole world we might get at 6 Gt. Most of that mass is carbon.

    This would raise the high estimate in the German report to 36 ppm/century reduction assuming the carbon capture efficiency they have of about 50%. If we grab all the carbon then we are up to 70 ppm/century. That is a respectable clip especially since the concentration will be falling “on its own” in any case once emissions stop. But, this is also pretty intrusive on the biosphere, constantly cutting and cutting to harvest the biomass. Road-less and environmentally sensitive areas were excluded in the US study but still this is a lot of activity.

    There are more options. Restoring shellfish populations in estuaries can be a help. We could try seeding coral and protecting reef which should tend to grow with sea level rise if it is not harmed by other problems such as warming or acidification. Growing new forests could make some difference too. And, there is artificial capture of carbon from the atmosphere, though turning it to a solid may take some effort.

  32. 132
    Douglas Wise says:

    Ike Solem (#98) states that proposals to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentration by means of ocean iron fertilisation are ludicrous. Instead, he suggests that baling and sinking biomass in the oceans is a sensible approach (which Florifulgurator later – #114 – brands as absurd, giving compelling reasons).

    A problem for a lay reader to this site is to assess the expertise of those who comment on the threads. Ike Solem writes as if he is an authority but his didactic statements are rarely qualified. Had he suggested that ocean fertilisation could have potential downsides, few would have disagreed. Instead, his dismissal of the option is apparently absolute. It would be helpful if he could let us know why we should set great store on his views and dismiss those of others who have no doubt given equal thought to the subject and arrived at different conclusions.

    [Response: On ocean fertilization, I agree with Ike, it wouldn’t work. At least in models, where you can fertilize to your heart’s content with no logistic issues like darkness, sea ice, and deep surface mixing which makes the water column on average too dark for phytoplankton growth. Fertilize to the maximum extent possible, adding iron until the nitrate and phosphate are used up, and after 100 years the CO2 drawdown will be pretty unimpressive, 10 ppm or something like that. Do it for 500 years and maybe you’ll get somewhere. The topic is scary because it’s ripe for abuse, if people start selling carbon offsets for fertilizing the ocean. David]

  33. 133

    I forget the post about power grids and the like — it was way up there.

    Sooner or later there has to be a BIG FAT piece of wire (they actually tend to come in threes) that is capable of moving large amounts of power over vast distances.

    Distributed generation works well, so long as there is a way to distribute that generation from places that are producing power to places which are not, and the only effective and efficient way to do that is with transmission lines that are capable of moving gigawatts, not just the megawatts (or kilowatts) that can come from distributed generation.

    The only way to avoid large transmission lines is to have just about everyone capable of being self-sustaining, and that is not a practical solution. Houston, TX, which has a 2,600MW reactor and who knows how many coal and natural gas generators, is currently importing about 1,400MW (real time loads — it changes during the day). That much additional distributed generation would have to come from somewhere in Harris County, and there isn’t enough Harris County for solar or wave power, and wind is straight out as they have lousey wind. So, even if the surrounding counties were able to send Houston power, they aren’t going to do it on 7,200V distribution lines from thousands of small-scale distributed generators (and I’m one — got my “Distributed Renewable Generation” interconnect agreement somewhere around the house).

    The biggest obstacle to renewable energy isn’t the cost or the technology — it’s the conspiracy theorists on the political front, and the rules that force utilities to buy the cheapest power, even if it’s just $0.001 cheaper, available. Austin, TX is building a 30MW solar farm and the price increase on the average $98 a month bill is $0.60 as a result. That’s less than one percent, or about two months worth of price increase due to fuel.

  34. 134
    Anne van der Bom says:

    4 February 2009 at 8:16 AM FurryCatHerder,

    But it’s only 30MW. That’s a drip in the ocean. Try multiplying that by 100. Then you’re getting somewhere. That’s a $60 increase. Not so negligable anymore.

  35. 135
    SecularAnimist says:

    FurryCatHerder wrote: “The only way to avoid large transmission lines is to have just about everyone capable of being self-sustaining, and that is not a practical solution.”

    Put another way, we can reduce the number of large transmission lines that are needed, to the extent that more people can become self-sustaining.

    For example, a November 2008 report (PDF) from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that “at least half of the fifty states could meet all their internal energy needs from renewable energy generated inside their borders, and the vast majority could meet a significant percentage.”

    ILSR has proposed a “five step program” towards a “democratic energy system”, wherein step 5 is to “upgrade the existing grid system rather than build a new network of extra high voltage transmission lines.”

    ILSR argues that “Sufficient capacity is available on existing subtransmission and distribution lines to interconnect potentially hundreds of thousands of additional MW of distributed renewable power. Building a new transmission network would enable new coal-fired power plants and undermine an effective working relationship with local and state governments by generating widespread popular opposition. Focus on upgrading the existing grid into a network that can integrate hundreds of thousands of new small power plants and create a more intimate relationship between energy consumers and producers.”

  36. 136

    A little off the main topic, but concerned with the “irreversible” rubric, is a heating up of the ocean acidification issue due to the issuance of the Monaco Declaration.

    I’m already skirmishing on newsblogs about it, with one of our denialists saying (in effect) “Uh–it must be ammonia. Jeez, you guys always vilify CO2. Ammonia, yeah, that’s it!” Can Watts be far behind?

  37. 137
    Pat Neuman says:

    Re MarkB in #128,

    Climate change disinformation is not only happening at blogs and media outlets but it’s also happening at NOAA NWS offices (link below).

    Even with Obama in the Whitehouse it’s likely that a U.S. climate change disinformation policy will continue – and won’t be helped with Obama’s newest pick to head DOC.

  38. 138
    Dan says:

    re: 137. I strongly disagree, especially with Stephen Chu as Energy Secretary (superb science credentials) and Lisa Jackson as head of EPA. And Gregg will not be a “no-man” for Obama re: climate change. As for the link, that discussion of January’s *weather* has nothing to do with global warming; it simply states the facts about what January was like in comparison to the normals. Some months are colder, some are warmer. A local, short term, monthly pattern is irrelevant.

  39. 139
    Mike G says:

    Ike (#98),
    I fail to follow your logic of how the baling of biomass and sinking it to to bottom of the ocean is less ludicrous than growing the biomass on site and letting it sink (the premise of iron fertilization).

    First, lets be clear that anoxic dead zones are the result of large amounts of biomass being consumed by bacteria in a relatively concentrated area. Any biomass will work. It doesn’t have to be phytoplankton. Bales of terrestrial biomass will do the trick too.

    Also, open-ocean phytoplankton blooms and inshore blooms have very different ecological effects. In relatively shallow continental shelf waters like the GoM the dead phyto settles to the bottom fairly quickly before much decomposition can occur. You end up with high rates of decomp concentrated near the bottom. With deepwater blooms it takes literally weeks for the dead matter to settle to the bottom. Decomposition is spread out vertically over the mile or so of the water column and by the time the particles reach the bottom there is very little left to decompose. Even in deep water, sunken bales of biomass would be more like the former than the latter. They don’t simply disappear or become immune to bacterial action because they’re in deep water.

    In any event, iron fertilization experiments have been limited in size thus far, as we really don’t have the current ability to even come close to the scale of natural blooms. Even if we could, these natural blooms do not apparently cause oxygen issues so it’s unlikely that a similarly sized “man-made” bloom would either.

    While I’m not in favor of either method, at least without further research, with regard to concerns over anoxia, iron fertilization seems like the less ludicrous of the two options.

  40. 140
    Pat Neuman says:

    A “no-man” for Obama to head DOC is a bad thing. NOAA and NOAA NWS are under the DOC umbrella. NWS has weather and Climate Prediction Centers (CPC) offices in the U.S. with responsibility in public education and prediction.

    As for the link, the NWS Grand Rapids MI office highlighted the cold weather in January 2009 without addressing the fact that warming trends exist in the records (mean temperatures, last 100 year or more). NWS continues to mislead the public on climate change, highlighting cold periods while downplaying warm periods.

    We know that winters in the upper Midwest have been trending to warmer, based on over 100 years of temperature records and extensive hydrologic (streamflow, snowmelt runoff), not merely a short term pattern.

  41. 141
    Chris Dudley says:

    Kevin (#136),

    Uuhhm. Did you let them know that ammonia is a base? Maybe I shouldn’t ask?

  42. 142
    Dan says:

    re: 140. Yes, a climate “no-man” to head DOC would be a bad thing. But that is not what I wrote. I wrote: “And Gregg will *not* be a “no-man” for Obama re: climate change.” (emphasis added this time). Please be careful. And my points re: Chu and Jackson remain valid.

    I fail to see what NWS Grand Rapids did as misleading at all in this case. They correctly reported the January averages with respect to the normals. Whether they were above or below normal is not the issue since one month at one location or region does not matter in the global spatial or temporal scale. Now if NWS Grand Rapids had said something foolishly and fundamentally wrong such as “This points to global cooling” or “This brings into question global warming” or some other such scientific nonsense, that would be noteworthy and definitely, inexcusably wrong. For that matter, is the NOAA/DOA’s jointly-issued “Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin” also part of some misleading cover-up since they only show weekly, monthly, or seasonal temperature averages or departures from normal? Of course not.

  43. 143
    MarkB says:

    Re: #137, #140

    At first glance, there seems to be a case here. Note the contrast between your climate report and the one for Denver. Grand Rapids, MI was about -5.6 degrees F below normal. The summary is:

    “The average temperature of 17.5 degrees ranks as the 13th coldest January on record, with records going back to 1894. The monthly snowfall of 29.9 inches ranks as the 16th snowiest January on record. The high temperature for the month was only 36 degrees and 28 out of the 31 days had high temperatures at or below freezing. There were seven days with low temperatures of zero or lower. The lowest temperature of the month was 8 below zero on both the 15th and 17th.”

    Contrast this to Denver, CO, which was 5.7 F above normal. This seems to be downplayed in the climate report in comparison to the similarly cold anomaly in the southwest Michigan report.

    WARM 40.3 DEGREES.”

    However, I still tend to agree with Dan in #138. There may be elements within the NOAA that spin a bit, but saying it’s reflective of the NOAA as a whole seems to be a stretch. Then again, I haven’t looked closely enough to ascertain a consistent pattern. Notifying the NOAA of perceived bias might help.

  44. 144
    Paul says:

    I read RC occasionally but have not posted before. I’m a biologist and teach at a comprehensive university. This question came up in a recent discussion that relates to our ability to detect changes in climate. To paraphrase, the global economic downturn over the past year must be seen as a great boon to environmentalists and climate scientists because it slowed economic growth and presumably emissions faster and at a larger scale than any new policies could have. How will this period be reflected in the climate record (any predictions)? If it is too short to cause any demonstrable change, how many years of similar economic conditions would be needed to start having a significant effect on global climate change?

    [Response: There are a number of long timescales involved. Even though emission growth may slow this year, we are still putting near record amounts of CO2 (and particularly in Asia, other pollutants like aerosols) into the atmosphere. Thus CO2 concentrations will still grow (emissions would have to fall ~60-70% to prevent that). Thus radiative forcing will continue to rise (possibly at a slightly lower rate than otherwise). The planet takes time to respond to the forcings and so any dip now will take a while (decade or two) to show up. – gavin]

  45. 145
    gerda says:

    David; my pleasure. [curtsies, trips over beard]
    the book’s going over to my mechanic first, i tried him out on milankovitch cycles when he said ‘but its been much warmer in the past’ and he didn’t glaze over, so i reckon he is ready for it. then to my bessie mate, she will love that pic of you on the back cover ;-)

    John Mashey 103

    “*Please*, think about sticking at least a short review on Amazon as well. Many people do actually read these before purchasing.

    “The Long Thaw” has 3 reviews (Amazon US).

    Svensmark’s “The Chilling Stars, 2nd Ed” has 4.

    Avery/Singer “Unstoppable Global Warming…” has 176.

    A/S has been out longer, but really, surely RC readers can do better.”

    oh, ok! i’ll get on it tomorrow. i thought about doing that days ago but put it off. and off. no deadline :-)

  46. 146
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist (135), ILSR’s assertion flies in the face of current power transmission limitations. Basically the current backbone transmission facilities can carry very litle (relatively) more electricity without facing the possibility of major disruptions. Though I see they use the terms “distribution” and “subtransmission” networks; that then might be correct, though it seems misleading since most people would not read the precise technical differences into the words.

  47. 147
    Rod B says:

    MarkB (143), et al: I’ll stick with Dan’s assessment. I don’t see anything in your post that would clearly point to some nefarious reporting. They’re simply reporting the weather facts and comparing today’s weather to previous weather – what most listeners to the weather are interested in.

  48. 148
    John Mashey says:

    re: #130
    Yes, with the result that:

    a) There was the least snow I’ve seen in the Okanagan, B.C. area for years, and at Big White, the temperature was actually above freezing for many days in January. Amazing.

    b) Around here [SF Bay Area], there have been cyclists all over the place in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, not really typical for January. Awful … because:

    c) The snowpack issues already have officials warning people to prepare for water rationing [unless some truly incredible snow dumps hit in next month.]

    d) People here would love to have had some of the that mid-West precipitation and cooler temperatures here instead.

  49. 149
    Hank Roberts says:

    > SF Bay Area
    Here’s a nice clear day view; click the false color JPEG and you can see where the snow is and isn’t.

  50. 150
    Pat Neuman says:

    Re 142, 143 (Dan and MarkB) – Is NWS educating the public on irreversible vs unstoppable climate change?

    Why does much of the general public continue to doubt that climate change is happening?

    Much of the failure lies in our federal agencies, especially those agencies responsible for weather and climate education (particularly NWS).

    It’s clear to me that NOAA NWS has been grossly negligent in climate change education to the public – for many years. Telling an incomplete story is misleading to the public. NWS has the data to do a much better job in informing the public about climate change trends in their data.

    For example, climate and hydrologic data indicate rising temperature trends at Upper Midwest NOAA NWS climate stations. February temperatures have showed the sharpest increases (5-10 Deg F). The reason that February temperatures are rising more rapidly than temperatures in other months is likely due to the earlier and earlier snowmelt runoff in the West, Midwest and southern Canada (see link). Why is this even news to much of the public? Because NOAA NWS has not been doing their job. It’s not enough for NWS to summarise monthly temperatures by making comparsions to historical data without telling the public that there’s warming trends evident in the data records.

    February temperature data and snowmelt runoff plots, showing climate warming trends in the Upper Midwest, are at: