Melting permafrost 'may speed global warming'

Nov 27, 2012 by Faisal Baatout
A polar bear near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Melting permafrost is emerging as a new factor in climate change, allowing long-frozen carbon to be released into the air and accelerating global warming, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said on Tuesday (UNEP)

Climate talks got down to the nitty-gritty in Doha on Tuesday as developing countries and the European Union (EU) staked out rival positions on the fate of the Kyoto Protocol.

Separately, the UN's Environment Programme (UNEP) urged negotiators to heed the risk from melting permafrost, which could spew billions of tonnes of greenhouses gases into the air and accelerate at a stroke.

Pressing on the key issue at the 12-day annual parlay which began on Monday, poorer countries called on the EU to shore up the , a beleaguered and contested treaty on climate change.

"Together we face a man-made disaster of epic proportions," said Marlene Moses of the Pacific island of Nauru, heading the Association of Small (AOSIS) which are vulnerable to rising seas.

"The Kyoto Protocol must not be an exercise in creative accounting or a public relations exercise," Moses said.

"Commitments must be real, and must deliver effective (carbon) emissions reductions."

The talks are taking place under the (UNFCCC), an arena set up 20 years ago at the Earth Summit.

A melting iceberg in in Kongsfjord, Norway. Climate talks got down to the nitty-gritty in Doha on Tuesday as developing countries and the European Union (EU) staked out rival positions on the fate of the Kyoto Protocol.

Heading the agenda in Qatar is the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the world's sole binding pact for curbing carbon emissions.

The protocol, whose first commitment period runs out on December 31, currently commits about 40 rich nations and the EU to an average five percent from 1990 levels.

Developing countries say Kyoto is vital for meeting the UN's target of pegging global warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a goal that on current trends will be dramatically missed.

Critics, though, say Kyoto is ineffective, as China and the US, the world's No. 1 and 2 carbon emitters, are not included in the binding targets.

Securing a second round of Kyoto pledges would clear a major hurdle towards a wider, that would be sealed in 2015 and take effect in 2020.

A close up of the Sindipumba Glaciar on the north side of Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador, 2004. Climate talks got down to the nitty-gritty in Doha as developing countries and the European Union (EU) staked out rival positions on the fate of the Kyoto Protocol.

But delegation statements on Tuesday highlighted differences over how long the next commitment period should last and how big the carbon cuts should be.

Moses said the post-2012 commitment period should run for five years and rich parties should present "ambitious targets that are consistent with the challenge."

The five-year timescale was also backed by the bloc of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), comprising the poorest economies.

"The Kyoto Protocol remains the cornerstone of the international climate regime," said China, speaking for the so-called BASIC group, which also includes Brazil, India and South Africa.

"We urge developed country parties to Kyoto Protocol to raise their level of ambition in Doha, consistent with what is required by the science and their historical responsibility."

But the EU stood by an eight-year commitment period and—in a veiled appeal to the emerging giants to do more—said the period should be seen "as a floor, not as a ceiling."

Exhaust rises from cooling towers at the Neurath lignit coal-fired power station in Grevenbroich, Germany. Climate talks got down to the nitty-gritty in Doha as developing countries and the European Union (EU) staked out rival positions on the fate of the Kyoto Protocol.

The 27-nation EU has unilaterally promised to scale back emissions by 20 percent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, and extend this to 30 percent if other major polluters follow suit.

No-one, though, has taken up the offer.

Along with the EU, Australia and some small Kyoto parties have said they would take on commitments in a second period, but New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Russia will not.

The United States, historically the world's biggest carbon emitter, signed Kyoto as a framework agreement in 1997, but refused to ratify it after its rulebook had been agreed.

Meanwhile, a report by UNEP warned that had to factor in the threat from melting permafrost, where vast quantities of carbon gases, from vegetation that died millions of years ago, are locked up in ice.

"Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long," warned UNEP excutive director Achim Steiner.

Warming permafrost could emit 43-135 billion tonnes of carbon by 2100 and 246-415 billion tonnes by 2200, the study said.

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LariAnn
2.4 / 5 (10) Nov 27, 2012
IMHO, at this point, from a practical and economic standpoint, I feel that the horse is out of the barn and gone down the road, so to speak. Hence, countries should focus their resources on adapting to climate change, not stopping or reversing it. Reduction of pollution (including greenhouse gases) is well and good and should be pursued, but not in such a way that it cripples the emergence of developing countries and hamstrings the advancement of developed countries. Let's deal with what is going on right now and not try to reverse something we are likely to be powerless to reverse.
antialias_physorg
4.5 / 5 (15) Nov 27, 2012
Hence, countries should focus their resources on adapting to climate change, not stopping or reversing it.

How exactly are you going to adapt the food chain we are completely dependent on?
If ocean water warms up then its oxygen carrying capacity goes down. This can create large dead zones which may lead to the oceans essentially breaking away as a food source. We can't compensate for that.

With rising temperatures you have melting glaciers. When they are gone you will have water shortages. You can't adapt agriculture indefinitely to a scarcity of water (and soil erosion to an increase in average wind strength due to more energy in the atmosphere). We can't compensate for that.

We're not talking about "putting up more ACs to make life more comfortable" type of adaptation. We're talking GLOBAL adaptation of EVERY aspect of life - not just human life.

And we're not capable of that by a long shot (but we ARE capable of changing our pollution habits quite easily by comparison)
LariAnn
2.4 / 5 (11) Nov 27, 2012
@antialias_physorg,
First, if warm ocean water results in dead zones, why are the tropical waters not entirely dead already? IMHO, we're talking about a redistribution of existing adaptable life forms, not an elimination of them. As I understand dead zones, they are, ultimately, caused by fertilizer runoff carried by freshwater rivers into the ocean, not by warming water particularly. If overall production of food species drops, for whatever reason, in addition to reducing runoff pollution, should we not scale back on human reproduction?

While melting glaciers (and ice sheets, for that matter) are a genuine concern, their melting doesn't mean their water is "lost". By the time the glaciers are gone, I would really expect that humanity would have developed advanced technology for cost-effective large-scale desalinization of ocean water. Scientific resources should be focused on that goal RIGHT NOW. With that, there won't be any water shortages.
(continued)
LariAnn
2.8 / 5 (11) Nov 27, 2012
Future human cities may well be located near such desalinization facilities, much as historical centers were situated near rivers, lakes or other sources of fresh water.

Finally, even if humanity could stop all pollution and greenhouse gas emission right now, instantly, we would still be looking at increasing temperatures and some of the problems you pointed out. So adaptation will be required no matter what, and that is what I meant by the horse being out of the barn and down the road already. I do not think "geoengineering" should be attempted as it, if successful, may yield unexpected detrimental results and be just as likely to throw us into a premature ice age, which we would be even less able to adapt to than a warming world.
antialias_physorg
4.6 / 5 (10) Nov 27, 2012
First, if warm ocean water results in dead zones, why are the tropical waters not entirely dead already?

Because (like with all biological systems) this is not a linear effect. Organisms can adapt to some change. But at some point adaptation reaches a limit and then stuff breaks down

From here:
http://www.swissi...32061254

"Currently around 15 per cent of oceans are considered oxygen-depleted or anoxic 'dead zones'"

I would really expect that humanity would have developed advanced technology for cost-effective large-scale desalinization of ocean water.

And this will help wildlife (and especially river wildlife) exactly how?

I still think you're missing the big picture. Keeping tapwater (or even irrigation water) running is not enough for long term survival. Stop focussing on humans and see that we are part of (and dependent on) a large(!) ecosystem
antialias_physorg
4.7 / 5 (12) Nov 27, 2012
Future human cities may well be located near such desalinization facilities

Desalination on large scales is incredibly costly (and the produced water is low quality). This is much more expensive than changing our habits now.

I love technology.
But blind faith in technologies we do not have and may not have the time to deploy on the immense scales needed is not a sane strategy.

Then again think on who will be able to afford these - and who won't. Then think of what those who won't be able to will do then? Die quietly? No. They will fight to survive - and if that means waging war with those who have the stuff then that's how it will be. Because if they will die anyway they will certainly die fighting (wouldn't you?).

I agree that we will need to adapt also. But shifting focus from prevention to adaptation is a sure fire recipe for human extinction.
LariAnn
1.9 / 5 (9) Nov 27, 2012
With rising temperatures you have melting glaciers. When they are gone you will have water shortages. You can't adapt agriculture indefinitely to a scarcity of water (and soil erosion to an increase in average wind strength due to more energy in the atmosphere). We can't compensate for that.

My comment about desalinization was in response to your statements above, not to any reference concerning wildlife. While it is true that CURRENT desalinization processes are not cheap, I never stated or implied that the solution relies upon CURRENT state of the art.

As I implied previously, it is too late to "prevent" anything - all we can do is to, perhaps, stabilize the rate of change that is already in process. To do even this will require a virtual global dictatorship that forces everyone to behave as the dictator decides. That will result in a global fight to survive - without tyranny - while climate change concerns again are again relegated to the back burner. (continued)
LariAnn
2.7 / 5 (7) Nov 27, 2012
So if that scenario appeals to you more than adaptation and a collective realization that humans have to cut back on reproduction, then go for it. BTW, if natural adaptation has limits that rapid or catastrophic change will overtake (which I agree with), then for evolution to have worked as taught would have required the old "steady-state" or uniformitarian belief which has been proven false already, most notably in the case of the dinosaurs, but also in the case of other mass extinctions.

Other than forced compliance under threat of severe penalty, the only other way for humanity at large to change their ways is a global change in consciousness, which is, unfortunately, as unlikely as the success of a global dictatorship. So what are we left with?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (9) Nov 27, 2012
I never stated or implied that the solution relies upon CURRENT state of the art.

I understood that. I said that putting your chips on a state of the art that is not developed yet is foolish - because you have no guarantee that it will be developed. Development (and deployment) takes time.

As I implied previously, it is too late to "prevent" anything

I agree. But we have the power to roll things back a bit. Keep the damage within manageable proportions and not add more to it.

It's very much like a budget. If you continually add to the damage (even a little) and 'adjust' by borrowing (in your words: adaptation) then at some point you need to invest ever more in covering the interest (adapting). Beyond a certain point the interest is more than you earn: Then you go bankrupt.

Economy-wise that isn't good (but not life threatening). Ecology-wise it's game over for humanity.

And when those are the options then color me crazy: I'd rather survive than have more toys.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (9) Nov 27, 2012
To do even this will require a virtual global dictatorship

I don't think so. A number of countries are already taking steps on their own without drastic, dictatorial measures. Some countries even see a chance/growth markets in the technologies needed for the changeover (e.g. China or Germany).
Change is always an opportunity for those who see the market.

and a collective realization that humans have to cut back on

Now THAT would take dictatorial measures. Putting a bit of a tax on luxuries is one thing. Telling people that they may not have children is quite something else.

I'm not arguing for steady state. There's no reason why we can't change/develop stuff within an environment that doesn't threaten our survival.

Creating (and playing against) such an environment WILLINGLY, however, seems ultimately crazy to me.
MikPetter
5 / 5 (8) Nov 27, 2012
It is a false choice to say we can either adapt OR reduce C02 pollution. We have do both because change is happening and we have to adapt but if we don't reduce emissions things can get significantly worse and exceed our adaptation capacity.
Maggnus
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 27, 2012
I agree with Lariann to a point, in that we are definitely too late to stop a significant, possibly disastrous rise in temperature. That is not to say we shouldn't try to stop further aggravating the situation, but I think our main focus has to now shift from trying to prevent warming to looking for ways to adapt to what's coming.

And while I agree with Mike, I don't think either lariann or AP were suggesting an either/or choice.
Howhot
5 / 5 (6) Nov 27, 2012
It is a false choice to say we can either adapt OR reduce C02 pollution.


Let me add the most pessimistic option; accept CO2 until we burn off all fossil fuels. That seems to be the majority opinion among the enviromental nay sayers.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Nov 28, 2012
And while I agree with Mike, I don't think either lariann or AP were suggesting an either/or choice.

To a point. If you keep shooting yourself in the foot it is better to focus on stop shooting than to try and evolve a better leg.

When you've stopped perforating your limb you can sit back and evolve a better leg at your leisure.
Bog_Mire
4 / 5 (2) Nov 28, 2012
ap's comment: "Then again think on who will be able to afford these - and who won't. Then think of what those who won't be able to will do then?" sums up the big picture problem with global warming Vs humanity nicely - it is easy to imagine localised solutions to GW from the confines of your decadent spoilt 1st world western democracies. When the already impoverished billions find their lands drowning, their agrizones vanishing their ecologies ruined their marine hunting grounds destroyed do you seriously believe they will roll over, accept their fate and die a quiet death? Take your blinkers off and imagine life outside of your comfort zones for a minute. This is the real and immediate threat - not the actual temperature rising gloabally over thousands of years to come.

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