Shell swims against oil price tide

Shell swims against oil price tide

As the giant Shell oil company begins highly controversial exploration drilling in the Arctic, the price of crude continues to slide.

LONDON, 30 August, 2015 – It’s a gamble – some would say a giant gamble. Before even one litre of oil has been found, the Anglo-Dutch Shell group is believed to have spent more than US$7 billion – just making preparations for its latest Arctic venture.

Shell is betting on finding the oil industry’s Holy Grail: according to 2008 estimates by the US Geological Survey, the Arctic contains more than 20% of the world’s remaining hydrocarbon resources – including at least 90 billion barrels of oil.

If Shell does strike oil in big quantities maybe its gamble will pay off – and its anxious shareholders can look forward to handsome payouts.

But the whole venture is a high-risk business. The decision by the US administration to allow Shell to start drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska, is highly controversial.

Environmentalists and scientists say any further exploitation of fossil fuels must be halted in order to limit the rise in average global temperatures to within 2°C of pre-industrial levels and avert serious climate change.

Possible catastrophe

Drilling conditions in the Arctic can be treacherous: in 2012 a Shell rig which had been drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska ran aground in a storm and had to scrapped. Any oil spill in the ecologically rich waters of the Arctic could be catastrophic.

Hillary Clinton, President Obama’s former secretary of state and now a presidential contender, criticises Washington for allowing Shell to drill.

“The Arctic is a unique treasure”, she says. “Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.”

Shell says its operations meet the highest standards. “We owe it to the Arctic, its inhabitants, and the world to work with great care as we search for oil and gas resources and develop those at the request of governments across the region”, the company says.

The financial rationale of Shell’s move is also being questioned. Drilling in the Arctic is an expensive business and involves complex logistical challenges.

Stubbornly low

Analysts say so-called unconventional oil – crude recovered from difficult environments such as the Arctic – needs to command a price of between US$70 and US$100 a barrel to make its recovery economical.

At present, though oil demand is strong, there are deep uncertainties about future economic growth, particularly in China. Oil is staying stubbornly below US$50 per barrel. The big oil producers such as Saudi Arabia have not, as in the past, lowered output in order to shore up prices.

A tentative agreement between western nations and Iran on nuclear issues is likely to mean new supplies of Iranian crude hitting the international market, putting further downward pressure on prices. Despite continue bombing and communal strife, Iraq is gearing up its oil production.

One of the major factors influencing the downward movement of oil prices over recent years has been the development of the US fracking industry, with vast amounts of oil and gas recovered from shale deposits deep underground.

Perhaps Shell – and big producer countries like Saudi Arabia – foresee an end to the fracking boom.

Fracking slows

As recovery from shale deposits becomes more difficult and prices remain low, fracking is not enjoying the explosive growth it saw a few years ago.

Some drilling sites in the US states of Texas and North Dakota are being abandoned. Several of the smaller fracking companies – which borrowed large amounts during the good times to finance their operations – have gone bust.

But there is still a global glut of oil: the International Energy Agency says there is unlikely to be a rebound in oil prices any time soon.

The drilling season in the Arctic is brief: the days shorten quickly and the ice begins to form. Shell – and its shareholders – will be hoping for quick returns.

International negotiators preparing for the climate summit in Paris later this year are calling for urgent action to head off global warming. There are many who hope Shell’s exploration activities will not succeed – and that the Arctic hydrocarbons stay where they are, thousands of feet below the seabed. – Climate News Network

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Arctic’s melting ice shrinks shipping routes

Arctic’s melting ice shrinks shipping routes

The opening up of waters north of Siberia as Arctic ice melts will change world trade patterns by cutting a third off distances between north-west Europe and the Far East.

LONDON, 4 August, 2015 – The disappearing Arctic ice cap will boost trade between north-west Europe and countries such as China, Japan and South Korea by making the sea routes far shorter, according to economic analysts.

The new sea route will alter world trade, making northern countries richer, but causing serious problems for Egypt, which will lose a large chunk of revenue currently gained from ships coming through the Suez Canal.

One advantage to the environment − according to a discussion paper from the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis − is that ships will burn far less fossil fuel to reach their destination.

However, this gain will be offset when the volume of trade increases because of the shorter sea route, making climate change slightly worse.

Open all year

The northern sea route is already open in the summer months, but the paper predicts that it will be available all year round by 2030, or possibly sooner. It says that Arctic ice is melting faster than predicted by scientists.

To police the new route, the Russian government has already formed a federal state institution and is building 10 “relief ports” along the Siberian coastline for ships that might need repairs or supplies. China has signed a free trade agreement with Iceland in anticipation of regularly using the route.

The paper estimates that trade between north-west Europe and China, Japan and Korea will increase by 10% as a result of the opening of the route, but that this will happen gradually.

The northern route will become one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, increasing the economic and political importance of the Arctic

Since 90% of world trade by volume is carried by ship, the distance between ports is a vital consideration. The northern route reduces the distance from Japan to north European countries by 37%, from South Korea by 31%, China 23%, and Taiwan 17%.

The advantage of shorter distances applies only to countries in northern East Asia. For countries south of the equator, such as Singapore and Indonesia, the southern route via Suez is still shorter.

Similarly, southern European countries do not gain because they remain roughly the same distance away from their trading partners whichever route they use.

The countries in Europe that will gain most from the new sea route are those with access to ports on the North Sea and the Baltic. These include Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, the UK and Norway.

Drop in trade

Some countries in eastern and southern Europe would experience a drop in trade because of the comparatively longer distances their exports and imports would need to travel, according to the report. These include Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Slovenia.

The report says that roughly 8% of world trade goes through the Suez Canal, and that two-thirds of this volume will go via the shorter Arctic route. The northern route will become one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, increasing the economic and political importance of the Arctic.

At the same time, it will put huge economic pressure on Egypt and Singapore, who rely heavily on shipping using the southern route.

Over time, the opening of the Arctic route will have knock-on effects on jobs and prosperity in all the countries concerned, but it is predicted that this will be a gradual rather than sudden process. – Climate News Network

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Half of climate safety level has gone

Half of climate safety level has gone

Global temperatures have risen by 1°C in the past 150 years, and one scientist says doubling that level could unleash catastrophic sea level rise this century.

LONDON, 2 August, 2015 – The world is now halfway towards the internationally-agreed safety limit of a maximum 2°C rise in global average temperatures, researchers say.

That limit seeks to prevent the global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels exceeding 2°C above the pre-industrial global temperature. The UN’s Paris climate summit later this year aims to ensure that it is not breached.

It appears that the human race has taken roughly 250 years to stoke global warming by 1°C. On present trends, we look likely to add the next 1°C far more quickly – across much of the world, many climate scientists believe, by the middle of this century.

The research is published in the journal New Scientist, which commissioned it. As so often with climate projections, it needs qualifying and teasing apart.

Some scientists, for example, warn that there’s uncertainty about just what the pre-industrial global temperature was. The New Scientist research is careful to be specific: it says global surface temperature is now passing 1°C of warming relative to the second half of the 19th century.

Farewell, hiatus

And one of the four main trackers of temperature thinks that milestone will be passed only if there is a strong El Niño, the cyclic Pacific weather phenomenon that periodically brings widespread chaos in its wake.

However, the research looks likely finally to lay to rest the argument that global warming is slowing and stuttering to a virtual halt, the so-called hiatus theory. Kevin Trenberth, of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, told New Scientist: There’s a good chance the hiatus is over.”

The hottest year since records began was by a very small margin – 2014, and this year’s El Niño could mean a temperature rise of 0.1°C this year, an increase which usually takes about a decade to develop. Dr Trenberth thinks 2015 is likely also to be a record-breaker. 

Between 1984 and 1998 the Earth warmed at 0.26°C a decade, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  says the rate then fell back until 2012 to about 0.04°C, for a number of reasons, including a less active Sun, more cooling aerosols from volcanoes and Asian factories, and more heat being absorbed by the oceans. The New Scientist findings suggest that warming may soon revert to the higher rate. 

From a quite different source comes a warning not only that temperatures may soon start a marked rise, but that sea level may also accelerate far faster than most scientists think likely.

It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable”

The prospect it holds out is at odds with most mainstream climate science, and might well be discounted as alarmist and fanciful. But the lead author of the discussion paper in which it appears is the highly respected James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

He and his colleagues say the ice melting around Greenland and Antarctica will cause sea level rises much faster than mainstream predictions suggest, by several metres this century. This will add to a process which they say has already begun, accelerating the melting of the undersides of Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves.

Another consequence, they think, will be the shutting down of ocean currents which carry heat from the tropics to the polar regions, leaving the tropics to warm fast and the high latitudes to cool. This temperature difference, they say, will spawn superstorms unlike any seen so far.

All this, Professor Hansen and his colleagues say, could happen with a 2°C temperature rise, with devastating consequences: It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilisation.”

Professor Hansen may of course be wrong, but it would be short-sighted to assume that he is. He has a strong record of ultimately being proved right. Climate News Network

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Melting sea ice means shortage of bear necessities

Melting sea ice means shortage of bear necessities

Researchers explode theory that polar bears can use hibernation techniques to last without food as climate change reduces their summertime hunting habitat.

LONDON, 20 July, 2015 – Global warming is likely to leave the polar bear high and dry and very hungry as increasing loss of sea ice reduces the hunting grounds of the Arctic’s top predator.

Researchers have established that while Ursus maritimus can survive for months without eating during winter hibernation, in the summertime it is not much better at going without food than any other mammal.

The polar bear is capable of shutting its own metabolism down to astonishingly low levels during hibernation and, until now, zoologists have surmised that the bear could minimise energy losses by entering a hibernation-like state when deprived of food.

But John Whiteman, a doctoral student in ecology, zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming, and colleagues report in Science journal that that theory is wrong. Once they are up and hunting, bears need food.

Energy expenditure

“We report gradual, moderate declines in activity and body temperature of both shore and ice bears in summer, resembling energy expenditures typical of fasting, non-hibernating mammals,” they write.

As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere creep up, as a consequence of the human combustion of fossil fuels, so Arctic temperatures have on average risen.

The loss of sea ice in the Arctic has, over the last decade, happened even faster than climate scientists predicted, which creates problems for bears that need to hunt and gorge on high-calorie diets in preparation for the winter.

The polar bear hunts on the ice, and its preferred diet is the blubber-rich flesh of seals and small whales. On shore, it must forage for scraps, berries and small mammals while waiting for the seas to freeze again.

“Polar bears appear unable to meaningfully prolong their reliance on stored energy”

But Arctic summers have stayed milder for longer, and the areas of summer sea ice have steadily dwindled. So the bears have spent increasing periods without their preferred diet.

The orthodoxy had been that bears, while waiting for the first freeze, had been able to enter a state called “walking hibernation”. Whiteman and his fellow researchers took a closer look.

With help from government agencies, a US coastguard icebreaker, helicopter pilots and a large number of other people, they captured two dozen polar bears, fitted satellite collars, and implanted little devices that recorded body temperature and tracked their movements on shore and on ice in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska and Canada, between 2008 and 2010.

Core temperature

They found that the bears could do something physiologically clever to keep warm while swimming – they could temporarily cool their outermost skin layers to insulate their inner selves and keep their core body temperatures at a healthy level, and one bear was reported to have survived a nine-day swim from shore to ice.

But they also found that the bears were not much better than other mammals at walking around on dry land, looking for food that wasn’t there.

“We found that polar bears appear unable to meaningfully prolong their reliance on stored energy, confirming their vulnerability to lost hunting opportunities on the sea ice − even as they surprised us by also exhibiting an unusual ability to minimise heat loss while swimming in Arctic waters,” Whiteman says.

The evidence, however, suggested that “walking hibernation” didn’t actually exist. The researchers conclude that the bears “are unlikely to avoid deleterious loss in body condition, and ultimately survival, that are expected with continuous ice loss and lengthening of the ice-melt period”. – Climate News Network

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Global warming threatens colder climate for Europe

Global warming threatens colder climate for Europe

New evidence that increased melting of sea ice as the Earth warms could weaken the Gulf Stream and reduce temperatures in western Europe.

LONDON, 3 July, 2015 – Scientists have yet again warned that weakening ocean circulation in the North Atlantic could deliver a climate paradox − a colder Europe as a consequence of global warming.

A study published in Nature Climate Change found that as sea ice off Iceland and Greenland retreats, the flow of cold, dense water to the bottom of the North Atlantic ocean could be reduced, and therefore weaken the warming effects of the Gulf Stream.

The great submarine current − sometimes called the Atlantic Conveyor − flows south to surface in the tropics as the Gulf Stream, which then flows north again to deliver tropic warmth to European coasts.

However, a slowdown in the natural overturning of the ocean could weaken the Gulf Stream, which in turn could cool the atmosphere over the British Isles and western Europe.

“A warm western Europe requires a cold North Atlantic, and the warming that the North Atlantic is now experiencing has the potential to result in a cooling over Western Europe,” says Kent Moore, a professor of physics at the University of Toronto Mississauga, Canada.

Calamitous change

Such a possible collapse of a natural oceanic system is predicated as one of the irreversible tipping points that could result in calamitous climate change.

Scientists have twice warned in the past six months that such change could be irreversible, unless governments jointly decide to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels by switching to renewable sources of energy.

Another research group reported in March this year on how the changing salinity of the northern ocean waters − because of the increasing flow of meltwater from land-borne glaciers − threatened a weakening of the Atlantic Conveyor.

“The heat exchange is weaker – it’s like turning down the stove 20%”

In the latest study, Professor Moore and colleagues from Norway, the US and the UK looked not at changes in ocean salinity, but at the exchange of heat between sea and air.

Climate is driven by contrasts, and the flow of heat between water and wind in winter has weakened by around 20% since 1979. The Arctic is the fastest-warming region of the planet, and changes in the polar climate can have dramatic consequences for the temperate zones.

Prof Moore and his colleagues looked at wintertime data from the Iceland and Greenland Seas between 1958 and 2014, then used computer simulations to model potential changes to the Conveyor − more formally known to oceanographers and climate scientists as the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation.

Cold and salty

The warm current loses its heat to the atmosphere as it moves north, and water that is both cold and salty is denser and more likely to descend.

The most effective place for such a process to happen is at the edge of the sea ice. If the sea ice retreats, then so does the region of maximum heat exchange. For the past 10,000 years or so, this heat exchange has happened at the ideal spot for surface waters to sink. Any change might not be for the better.

The Gulf Stream is the agency that makes Britain, for example, about 5°C warmer than Labrador in Canada, on the same latitude. A British government chief scientific adviser once calculated that the Gulf Stream delivered the warmth of 27,000 power stations. So if it weakens, Europe could start to feel the chill.

“The heat exchange is weaker – it’s like turning down the stove 20%,” Prof Moore says. “We believe the weakening will continue and eventually cause changes in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation and the Gulf Stream, which can impact the climate of Europe.” – Climate News Network

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Greenhouse gas-guzzlers spurn extra carbon dioxide

Greenhouse gas-guzzlers spurn extra carbon dioxide

Minutely small marine plants called diatoms mitigate climate change by consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. But they may reject the rising levels of the greenhouse gas.

LONDON, 1 July, 2015 – Diatoms – those tiny ocean-dwelling photosynthesisers that produce a fifth of the planet’s oxygen each year – may not gulp down more carbon dioxide more enthusiastically as greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere continue to rise.

Instead, they may switch off and use the gas more efficiently. If so, the consequences for the rest of the planet could be uncomfortable.

Climate scientists who try to model the machinery of the atmosphere have always banked on a “fertilisation effect” from at least some of the extra CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by the human burning of fossil fuels and the clearance of the forests. They may no longer be able to do so.

The discovery – reported in Nature Climate Change – is based on laboratory experiments with one single-celled phytoplankton species called Thalassiosira pseudonana and meticulous study of its genetic mechanisms.

Rising concentrations

It may not be a sure guide to what actually happens in the crowded, complex world of climate change later this century. But all phytoplankton are survivors of the same evolutionary history, and many of them are known to be equipped with carbon-concentrating mechanisms to make the most of the available carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So what happens to one could be true for all.

Gwenn Hennon, an oceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle, US, and colleagues decided to work out what happened to their laboratory diatoms in atmospheres in which carbon dioxide levels continued to rise to 800 parts per million later this century.

Right now, the concentration is almost 400 parts per million, but for most of human history until the invention of the internal combustion engine, and the exploitation of fossil fuels, it has been around 280 parts per million. A third of the emissions from factory chimneys and motor exhausts is absorbed by living things in the oceans, starting with diatoms and other phytoplankton.

The Seattle team found that while many photosynthesisers do grow faster with more CO2, the oceanic diatoms did not: they responded vigorously at first, but as long as there was a normal supply of other nutrients, over 15 generations, they slowed down.

Slow response

“There are certain genes that respond right away to a change in CO2, but the change in the metabolism doesn’t actually happen until you give the diatoms some time to acclimate,” said Hennon, a doctoral student. “Instead of using that energy from the CO2 to grow faster, they just stopped harvesting as much energy from light through photosynthesis and carried out less respiration.”

Studies like this are an illustration of the intricacy and complexity of climate science. How the living world responds to greater human emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is key to all models of future climates, but researchers in general have expected the plant world to respond by consuming more, and slowing the rate of change overall.

There is some evidence that this is happening. Half of all the anthropogenic or human-made CO2 has been gulped down in the form of more lusty growth by vegetation, but this “negative feedback” effect has been countered by other factors: more greenery in the Arctic, for instance, could accelerate global warming, and anyway, as plants grow more vigorously, so do plant predators.

And increasingly, climate scientists have begun to realise that although the responses of the forests and arid lands  are vital factors, the big players could be the creatures hardly anyone ever sees: the fungi and tiny fauna in the soil  beneath the trees, and of course the phytoplankton in the oceans.

Oxygen creators

The Seattle calculation is that the evolutionary history of the diatoms explains the carbon-concentrating mechanisms in their genetic inheritance. Microbes are life’s foundation, and single-celled creatures evolved over three billion years when CO2 levels in the atmosphere were at colossal concentrations.

The diatoms and their ancestors were the creatures that created the oxygen atmosphere in which all other complex living things evolved. An enzyme evolved to help the first microbes cope with high levels of CO2, and has survived for billions of years.

“There hasn’t been another enzyme to replace it since, so plants and algae that photosynthesise have an enzyme that functions better at a higher CO2 level than we currently have,” Hennon said.

“When the CO2 remains high for a long time, however, the diatoms make a more radical metabolic shift. They decrease photosynthesis and respiration to balance the cell’s energy budget. In other words, the diatoms use less energy to grow at the same rate.” – Climate News Network

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Alaska’s glaciers melt faster as climate change speeds up

Alaska's glaciers melt faster as climate change speeds up

Climate change rather than natural causes is the main cause of Alaska’s glacier loss, which is set to speed up, US scientists say.

LONDON, 30 June, 2015 – The glaciers of Alaska are melting and retreating: the chief cause is climate change and the loss of ice is unlikely to slow, according to a new study by US scientists.

They calculate that the frozen rivers of the Pacific coast of America’s northernmost state are melting fast enough to cover the whole of Alaska with 30 cms of water every seven years.

Since Alaska is enormous – it covers 1.5 million square kilometres and is the size of California, Texas and Montana put together – this adds up to a significant contribution to sea level rise.

“The Alaska region has long been considered a primary player in the global sea level budget, but the exact details of the drivers and mechanisms of Alaska glacier change have been stubbornly elusive,” said Chris Larsen, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and lead author of a study in Geophysical Research Letters.

Taxonomy of change

Scientists from the University of Alaska and the US Geological Survey analysed studies of 116 glaciers in the Alaska region over a 19-year-period to estimate the rate at which ice melted and icebergs calved.

They used airborne lidar remote sensing technology and other techniques, historical data and a global glacier inventory to establish a kind of taxonomy of glacier change.

The Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound had retreated more than 19 kilometres because of iceberg calving and had thinned by 450 meters in height since 1980. But, unexpectedly, tidewater glaciers – those that end in the ocean – seemed to make comparatively little contribution to sea level rise.

“Instead we show that glaciers ending on land are losing mass exceptionally fast, overshadowing mass changes due to iceberg calving, and making climate-related melting the primary control on mountain glacier mass loss,” Dr Larsen said.

Big contributor

He and his colleagues calculated that Alaska is losing ice at the rate of 75 billion metric tons a year. Such research is just one more piece of careful cross-checking in the great mosaic of climate research: another systematic confirmation that overall, glaciers are not losing ice in response to some natural cycle of change of the kind that occasionally confuses the picture for climate science.

The agency at work is largely global warming as a response to the steady rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide as a consequence of the burning of fossil fuels.

Mountain glaciers represent only 1% of the total ice on the planet: the other 99% is found in Greenland – which is melting fast – and in the great frozen continent of Antarctica, where ice mass is being lost at an increasing rate.

But although the mountains of the temperate and tropic zones bear only a tiny percentage of the planet’s ice, their melting accounts for almost a third of the sea level rise currently measured by oceanographers, and this melting will go on to become a big contributor to the sea levels later this century.

“Alaska will continue to be a major driver of sea level change in the upcoming decades”

Across the border in Canada, glaciologists have warned that the country will lose a huge volume of flowing ice, and while one team has confirmed that air pollution rather than global warming long ago began to strip Europe’s Alps of their glaciers, in general mountain peaks are warming faster than the valleys and plains below them.

Geophysicists and glaciologists have established that the glaciers of the tropical Andes are at risk, and in the Himalayan mountain chain glaciers seem to be in inexorable retreat with consequences that could be devastating for the many millions in the Indian subcontinent and in China who rely on seasonal meltwater for agriculture.

Glaciers are by definition hard to study – they are high, cold and in dangerous terrain – and such research is inevitably incomplete: the scientists for instance excluded glaciers smaller than three square kilometres. But together these small patches of flowing ice account for 16% of Alaska’s glaciated landscape. The 116 glaciers in the survey together added up to only 41% of the state’s glaciated area.

But the pattern established by the Fairbanks team suggests that melting will accelerate with climate change. “Rates of loss from Alaska are unlikely to decline, since surface melt is the predominant driver, and summer temperatures are expected to increase,” said Dr Larsen.

“There is a lot of momentum in the system, and Alaska will continue to be a major driver of sea level change in the upcoming decades.” – Climate News Network

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Earth has warmed as usual, with no slowdown

Earth has warmed as usual, with no slowdown

US scientists re-examine the collection of data which seemed to show global warming slowing since 1998 and say temperatures have continued to rise steadily.

LONDON, 7 June, 2015 − Forget about the so-called “hiatus” in global warming. The planet’s average temperatures are notching up as swiftly now as they did 20 or 30 years ago.

A team of US researchers has looked again not just at the data for the last 60 years but at how it has been collected, and done the sums again. They conclude, in the journal Science,  that the “estimate for the rate of warming during the first 15 years of the 21st century is at least as great as the last half of the 20th century. These results do not support the notion of a ‘slowdown’ in the increase of global surface temperature rise.”

But first, the story-so-far. Climate sceptics have repeatedly claimed that global warming has slowed or stopped. This was not the case: 13 of the hottest years ever recorded have all occurred in the last 14 years, and 2014 was the hottest of them all.

But when climate scientists looked at a graph of the rise of temperatures in the last 60 years, they saw – or thought they saw – a distinct drop in the rate of increase in global average temperatures in the last 15 years.

This apparent dip became the subject of a whole series of studies. Researchers had never expected the rise to follow a straight line – all sorts of natural climate cycles would naturally affect annual records – but the rate of increase was slower, and more sustained in its slowness, than anyone could explain, especially as there had been no drop in the greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming.

Data anomalies

Some proposed that the expected extra heat in the atmosphere had been drawn down into the great oceans and others that an unnoticed increase in volcanic activity had helped screen the sunlight and cool the atmosphere unexpectedly. Yet another group looked not at average temperature patterns but the change in the frequency of heat waves and saw a different kind of rise.

Yet another group wondered if the problem might be only apparent: more complete data from many more parts of the world might combine to tell a different story. Thomas Karl and colleagues at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in the US made this their starting point.

They looked again at how the data had been collected, and the gaps that might have appeared. Sea surface temperatures, for instance, were at different periods collected by bucket from a ship’s deck, by readings aboard surface drifting and moored buoys or by engine-intake thermometers in ships’ engine rooms, and there could be subtle differences not accounted for.

There were very few readings from the Arctic, yet the Arctic is by far the fastest-warming region of the planet, and the pattern of land-based temperature readings, too, repaid re-examination.

By the time the NOAA team had finished, the recalibrated figures told a different story. Between 1998 and 2012, the world warmed at the rate of 0.086°C per decade, more than twice the rate of 0.039°C per decade measured by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“We need to look really carefully at data quality and issues of instrument change”

The new figure is much closer to the rate estimated for the decades 1950 to 1999, at 0.113°C per decade. And the new analysis lifts the rate of warming from 2000 to 2014 to 0.116°C per decade, which if anything is an acceleration, not a slowdown.

British climate scientists have welcomed the finding: it is however the finding of just one group and, like all such research, will be accepted more readily if it can be separately replicated.

“This study makes the important point that we need to look really carefully at data quality and issues of instrument change,” said Piers Forster, professor of climate change at the University of Leeds, UK.

”Yet there are several legitimate judgment calls made when combining datasets to make a global mean-time series. I still don’t think this study will be the last word on this complex subject.”

But Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, UK, called the study careful and persuasive, and said: “I think it shows clearly that the so-called ‘hiatus’ does not exist and that global warming has continued over the past few years at the same rate as in earlier years.” − Climate News Network

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Permafrost thaw’s runaway effect on carbon release

Permafrost thaw’s runaway effect on carbon release

Arctic warming is causing organic carbon deep-frozen in the soil for millennia to be released rapidly into the air as CO2, with potentially catastrophic impacts on climate.

LONDON, 14 May, 2015 − An international team of scientists has settled one puzzle of the Arctic permafrost and confirmed one long-standing fear: the vast amounts of carbon now preserved in the frozen soils could one day all get back into the atmosphere.

Since the Arctic is the fastest-warming place on the planet, such a release of greenhouse gas could only accelerate global warming and precipitate catastrophic climate change.

That the circumpolar regions of the northern hemisphere hold vast amounts of deep-frozen carbon is not in question.

The latest estimate is 1,700 billion tonnes, which is twice the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and perhaps 10 times the quantity put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Hazard underlined

In recent weeks, researchers have already underlined the potential hazard. But the big question has been that if some of the trapped carbon must be escaping now, where is it going?

Researchers have checked the mouths of the Arctic rivers for the telltale evidence of ancient dissolved organic carbon – partly-rotted vegetable matter deep-frozen more than 20,000 years ago − and found surprisingly little.

Now Robert Spencer, an oceanographer at Florida State University, and colleagues from the US, UK, Russia, Switzerland and Germany report in Geophysical Research Letters that the answer lies in the soil − and in the headwater streams of the terrestrial Arctic regions.

Instead of flowing down towards the sea, the thawing peat and ancient leaf litter of the warming permafrost is being metabolised by microbes and released swiftly into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

“We found that decomposition converted 60% of the carbon in the thawed permafrost to carbon dioxide in two weeks”

The scientists conclude that the microbes, once they get a chance to work at all, act so fast that half of all the soil carbon they can get at is turned into carbon dioxide within a week. It gets into the atmosphere before it has much chance to flow downstream with the soil meltwater.

The researchers centred their study on Duvanny Yar in Siberia, where the Kolyma River sluices through a bank of permafrost to expose the frozen organic carbon.

They worked at 19 different sites − including places where the permafrost was more than 30 metres deep − and they found tributary streams made entirely of thawed permafrost.

Measurement of the carbon concentration confirmed that it was indeed ancient. The researchers analysed its form in the meltwater, then they bottled it with a selection of local microbes, and waited.

Used by microbes

“We found that decomposition converted 60% of the carbon in the thawed permafrost to carbon dioxide in two weeks,” says Aron Stubbins, assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. “This shows that permafrost carbon is definitely in a form that can be used by the microbes.”

The finding raises a new – and not yet considered – aspect of the carbon cycle jigsaw puzzle, because what happens to atmospheric and soil carbon is a huge element in all climate simulations.

At he moment, permafrost carbon is not a big factor in projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Dr Spencer says: “When you have a huge frozen store of carbon and it’s thawing, we have some big questions. The primary question is, when it thaws, what happens to it?

“Our research shows that this ancient carbon is rapidly utilised by microbes and transferred to the atmosphere, leading to further warming in the region, and therefore more thawing. So we get into a runaway effect.” – Climate News Network

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Plant growth may speed up Arctic warming

Plant growth may speed up Arctic warming

Arctic plants may absorb more greenhouse gases as the region warms – but scientists say this could intensify the warming rather than moderate it.

LONDON, 10 May, 2015 – Green may not automatically mean innocent or planet-friendly after all. Korean and German scientists have identified a mechanism that could encourage plants to take up more carbon dioxide – and at the same time amplify Arctic warming by 20%. This counter-intuitive finding is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Jong-Yeon Park of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and colleagues have been looking at the role of phytoplankton, those tiny marine plants that flourish around land masses, exploit the nutrients that flow from rivers and turn the blue ocean sea-green. Like any grass or shrub or tree, they exploit sunlight and employ photosynthesis to soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide.

So as the Arctic Ocean warms, because of increasing emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, the ice melts, the blue sea water absorbs more sunlight, and the green things get a chance to grow and soak up some of that greenhouse gas as organic carbon in plant tissues. This is what engineers call negative feedback.

But it may not work like that. The scientists matched up a model of the climate system with a model of the ecosystem and did all the sums again. And they found that instead of reducing warming, an explosion of phytoplankton growth could actually amplify it.

More warming

If the seas warmed and the ice melted, then the overall albedo – the reflectivity of the Arctic – would be changed. More high energy solar radiation would get into the sea, and the phytoplankton harvest would be greater and go on for longer.

But more phytoplankton would mean more biological activity, which would directly warm the surface layer of the ocean, “triggering additional positive feedbacks in the Arctic, and consequently warming the Arctic further,” the authors warn.

“We believe that, given the inseparable connection of the Arctic and global climate, the positive feedback in Arctic warming triggered by phytoplankton and their biological heating is a crucial factor that must be taken into consideration when projecting future climate changes,” said Jong-Seong Kug, a professor at Pohang University of Science and Technology in Korea.

Science like this is a reminder that the climate system is a subtle and complex machine driven by sunlight, atmosphere, water – and carbon. A British team has warned that rainforests could in fact be emitting much more carbon than climate modellers have accounted for. That’s because they haven’t allowed for all of the dead wood.

“A large proportion of forests worldwide are less of a sink and more of a source”

Marion Pfeifer of Imperial College and colleagues report in Environmental Research Letters  that they surveyed a large area of forest in Malaysian Borneo to make their calculations.

Pristine, untouched forest is rare. Most forests provide an income for someone, and increasingly parts of the great forests are exploited by loggers and planters. In untouched forests, dead wood makes up less than 20% of the biomass. Dr Pfeifer and her colleagues found that in partially-logged forests, the dead wood could account for 64% of the biomass.

Details such as this could send climate modellers back to the drawing board. That is because the great riddle of climate science is: where does all the carbon go? The assumption has been that forests are “sinks” that collect atmospheric carbon. But that depends on the forest.

“I was surprised by how much of the biomass dead wood accounted for in badly-logged forests. That such logged forests are not properly accounted for in carbon calculations is a significant factor. It means that a large proportion of forests worldwide are less of a sink and more of a source, especially immediately following logging, as carbon dioxide is released from dead wood during decomposition,” Dr Pfeifer said.

“Selectively-logged tropical forests now make up about 30% of rainforests worldwide. That means such global calculations are wrong at least 30% of the time.” – Climate News Network

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