by Danny Richter
VATICAN CITY—Great talks today! The sting of disappointment at not being able to have lunch and dinner with the participants has subsided. What hasn’t subsided are the periodical moments where I realize that I am sitting here in a room with 4 Nobel Laureates (not counting those who were involved with the IPCC, and shared in the Peace Prize for it), and two people whose books I’ve not only read, but which have proved useful in shaping the way I approach the world. It is an amazing honor.
It was raining as we walked to the Vatican, and I was thankful for having thought to bring my rain jacket to Italy at all. No umbrella, but it was a light rain.
The talks this morning were fascinating. Part of that may be because several of the presentations had to do with my bailiwick, oceanography, and indeed, many of the presenters had some association with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where I earned my Ph.D. Walter Munk, Nancy Knowlton, and Marcia McNutt all had some sort of association at some point, but they by no means had a monopoly on the interesting presentations. I’ll highlight three of these talks below.
First, Dr. Schellnhuber gave a really amazing, dynamic talk. Fairly early into his 20 minutes, he showed a fascinating video, “The C-Story of Human Civilization” in which the cumulative history of carbon (C) emissions was shown graphically on a heat map. It was fascinating to see Britain be the only country with any color for so long, and then to see first individual points, and then entire countries pop onto the screen with a dull blue color, moving progressively to red. You could track the progress of the industrial age while at the same time getting a vivid understanding of nations’ relative contributions to this global problem. The color scheme was on a log scale, so areas with red represented a much, much higher contribution of GHGs than cooler colors.
The day before, we had heard from Dr. Dasgupta about the need to decouple gross domestic product (GDP) and employment, and today Dr. Schellnhuber implied the need to decouple CO2 emissions and GDP by highlighting that the two have gone hand-in-hand through history. A tricky relationship for those who care both about poverty and the environment the poor must live in, on which they are much more dependent than the rich.
He also highlighted that an increase in Arctic warming leads to a weaker jet stream, to the splitting of the jet stream, and more persistent Rossby Waves down into warmer latitudes as a result (Rossby waves exist in the atmosphere and ocean, are extremely large-scale, and persist for a long time). In summary, this means that the US can expect more harsh winters like this past year. As Charlie Kennel said in a comment later, the warming of the Arctic has created a quasi-metastable state in which risks are increasing, but temp is stable. That is, even though atmospheric temperatures are staying relatively stable, the ocean has continued to absorb heat. This warmer ocean is interacting with the atmospheric weather patterns (such as the jet stream) to continue destabilizing the climate. Increased atmospheric temperatures are not the only problem with greenhouse gases trapping more energy!
Perhaps the most fascinating part of his discussion was a prediction involving El Niño. He claimed that he and other researchers had identified a marker in the ocean-climate system that enabled them to predict as far as a year out when the next El Niño would arrive. He then proceeded to predict with 70% likelihood that there would be an El Niño event this year. Because of the nature of El Niño and the teleconnections it triggers around the world (teleconnections is the word describing climatic connections across the globe; e.g. warming in the Western Pacific (i.e. El Niño) affects the monsoon in India; on the other side of the world), he predicted that 2014 would set new records as the warmest year ever recorded. This would end the so-called “hiatus” in warming, and be remarkable if his predication is correct.
Some other terrifying points in his presentation included stating that just a 1.6o C rise over pre-industrial temperatures would trigger irreversible ice loss in Greenland, that evidence suggests methane release caused the end-Permian (i.e. the largest mass-extinction in Earth’s history, in which 90% of species went extinct), and the recent discovery of the Wilkes Ice Plug is holding back a whole heckuva lot (“heckuva” is a technical term, if you were wondering) of ice in Antarctica, meaning the ice on this continent may not be as stable as we had supposed and hoped.
All things considered, it was a fascinating talk, and just as important (if not more important), it was well-delivered. There is a remarkable range of quality in the presentations here; from extremely well delivered, dynamic, and engaging (this was a good example), to people dryly reading the reports they had prepared and distributed before this conference.
The next talk I’ll highlight was Janice Pearlman’s talk on megacities. A megacity she defines as a city with more than 10 million people, and there are 21 of them around the world. Megacities can come into being remarkably quickly (she highlighted Shanghai), and the largest cities in the world are increasingly in the generally poorer south of the globe, as opposed to the wealthier north.
Most of the rapid influx of people to these megacities are living in homes they build themselves on vacant, usually undesirable land (such as a swamp). This “informal population” in cities, without title to land or access to basic infrastructure, accounts for a startling 1 billion people today (1/7 of world population!).
Despite the potential these realities pose for dehumanizing such people, entrenching poverty, and denying them services, there is clearly a great deal of hope for cities. By 2020, 60% of the global population will live in cities, and 75% of global GDP will be generated by cities, though they will occupy “only” 2.7% of the Earth’s land. While these people will still have to be fed, and this has an environmental impact, city-dwellers generally have a substantially lower impact on the environment than those who live rurally or, worst of all, in suburbs. So, the move towards cities is a trend that is good for our prospects of environmental sustainability.
Dr. Pearlman proceeded to share a great deal of data on tracking intergenerational movements out of such marginal living conditions. The data were generally positive, but not entirely. I could not follow in my notes quickly enough, but my take-away was that by the time the original dwellers of favelas in Rio de Janeiro (where she did a career’s worth of research) had grand children, only about 30% of the grandchildren were still in the favelas, while 50% had fully integrated into mainstream society. A couple other interesting tidbits from the talk: ¼ of population of Rio de Janeiro live in the favelas, or 1.5-2 million people. This is a larger population than a great many countries!
The last talk I’ll highlight was by Dr. Wadhams. Like Schellnhuber’s talk, it also included a prediction: that summer sea ice would be gone in the Arctic in September 2015. This was based partly on a new ability to monitor not just the aerial extent of sea ice, but the volume of ice that exists at the pole. The volume is a much more important thing to track, and if you do, the “rebound” in sea ice after 2012 disappears. i.e. there was actually less volume of sea ice in the summer of 2013, even though there was a greater surface coverage of the sea ice visible from above. This reflects the loss of multi-year ice floes, which tend to be thicker and less likely to melt.
The talk highlighted some other very interesting topics related to sea ice. First, it highlighted how the models used by the IPCC for estimating sea ice loss are wrong in the Arctic, and have been for some time. The IPCC finessed this in the most recent report by only running their forward-looking models from 2005 (instead of from 2013, when the latest report was released), after which year you can see that the actual data (which they do display) doesn’t fit any of the 4 scenarios discussed from the models. The real data are outside the error bars presented, indicating that Arctic sea ice is melting much faster than the model they are using predicts. So, the IPCC prediction on when there will be no summer sea ice in the Arctic are far, far too conservative, as they fail to account for the last 8 years of real data, which shows sea ice retreat outside even the error bars of their multi-model mean! If you want to see what I’m talking about, I’ve included the pertinent figure from the IPCC report. It is figure 12.28, the pertinent graph is graph b, and this can be found on page 1088 of the report.
When asked why this was so, and what specifically was wrong with the model, Dr. Wadhams explained that there has been a lot of money invested in the current model being used, and thus there is a reluctance to replace it even though it is pretty clearly misleading us as to how soon sea ice will be gone in the summer. As for what they’re missing, he said the micro-scale processes that you could not understand unless you have actually been on the ice were missing. If true, this is extremely disappointing.
He also showed very disturbing evidence for methane leaking at elevated rates from the Arctic. I had previously been told that the observed released methane had been going on for quite some time (millenia), but that we haven’t been able to monitor it. Similarly, I had been told we aren’t able to assess whether the methane is actually making it to the surface; it is conceivable that bacteria in sediments or the water might consume it before it got into the atmosphere. But, Dr. Wadhams stated that successive cruises in successive years are picking up more bubbles (which can be “seen” using sonar), and atmospheric measurements are picking up more methane over the Arctic than before. He furthermore showed actual pictures of actual bubbles pooling under sea ice. So, clearly, methane is not being consumed before it reaches the surface.
Why is this going on? Part of the explanation has to do with the lack of ice. The water overlying the submerged tundra that makes up the shallow continental shelves in the Arctic is no longer covered by ice and shielded by its albedo, so it is exposed to the polar sun for 24 hours a day, and warms up to as much as 7o C. This melts the tundra, and decompression releases the clathrates (frozen water with methane gas trapped inside).
Ultimately, ice loss reduction in albedo = ¼ of GHG forcing over last 20 years, and add another ¼ if you add in albedo loss from Arctic snow loss. In sum, the loss of albedo in the Arctic has added an extra 50% to the warming caused by GHGs alone.
All this uplifting conversation prompted Dr. Wadhams to make an interesting suggestion: we should be encouraging oil companies to go into the Arctic to take advantage of the gas that is leaking anyway, burn it for energy, and thus prevent the methane leaking directly into the atmosphere without our extracting some energy from it first. This is a proposal I found myself actually sympathetic to, provided that the oil companies would not be capturing methane that would not have been released. I’m not sure how you would guarantee that, but I find it hard to argue that oil companies should not be allowed to reduce by a factor of 86 the warming we’d be getting from all that methane leaking without getting a little energy out of the deal too.
The day ended after an exhausting 11 hours. Matt, Emily and I joined 3 of our fellow observers for a nice Italian dinner afterwards, and a couple bottles of wine (again). It was, as last night, wonderful to chat with such thoughtful and accomplished people in a relaxed and exotic setting. The following day, the 4th, is a Sunday, so there will be no meetings.