Sunday 9 December 2012

Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Probably the best analogue for the current Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). How good an analogue is it, and are we really at risk of re-running it? I think we are going to re-run the PETM, not in the sense that we are likely to achieve the same absolute temperatures, although that may be possible, but in the sense that a temperature increase of at least 3degC is achievable from our fossil fuel emissions alone and this will be amplified by methane and carbon dioxide emissions from the Arctic region causing a d13C drop as seen in the PETM. Talk of lowering to 350pm or keeping temperature below 2degC is idle fantasy.

The Paleocene, before the PETM, was warmer than now, it's been hard to pin down by how much. Robert Rhode has produced this useful graphic, which suggests temperatures were of the order of 4 degC higher than preindustrial, however the PETM itself seems to have involved a temperature increase of about 6degC, the temperature rise in that graphic is much less. The PETM was a minor extinction event, there were no large losses of species on land, and the ocean extinction was restricted to bottom dwellers in the deeps of the oceans in certain regions, probably due to anoxia, which was likely due to changes in ocean overturning circulation. However with regards land species, during the PETM, mammals radiated profusely which indicates environmental stress, changes in the environment driving evolution to suit new niches and niches made available by the decline or movement of other species.

At the time of the PETM the Arctic was temperate, with temperatures not falling below zero, even during the winter. This presents the equable climates problem, in that models are not able to reproduce conditions; they produce tropics that are too hot, or poles that are too cold. Abbot & Tzipperman propose a cloud radiative feedback, with carbon dioxide levels and ocean/atmospheric heat flux keeping a blanket of cloud over the Arctic throughout the winter. The cloud backradiates infra-red radiation to the surface, keeping the region warm. In their 2007 paper they find that atmospheric heat transport of 140W/m^2 plus doubled CO2 could keep the Arctic ice free during the winter, for comparison, current atmospheric heat transport is of the order of 100W/m^2 at 80degN. Given what appears to be the unfolding of a rapid transition of the Arctic to a seasonally sea ice free state, finding of possible bifurcations (tipping points) in the transition to a perennially sea ice free state (Eisenman 2011), and the increasing evidence that methane hydrates in the Arctic are thawing, plus the near certainty that they will more actively do so in the decades to come: The prospect of substantial emissions of methane from the Arctic is a very real prospect. So the question posed is can we avoid a re-run of the PETM?

The following graphic is taken from this article. It's worth noting that it states 25 petagrams are being emitted each year, that's 25 gigatons (Gt the unit I'll use in this post). However from the CDIAC data used in the following paragraph, actual emissions from fossil fuels in 2008 were 8.75 Gt carbon, or 32.1 Gt CO2. This shows visually what Skeptical Science have noted, based on Cui et al, 2011, that current emissions dwarf the PETM's rate of emission, ref.

Fig 2. Comparison of current emissions and PETM emissions.

Using data from CDIAC: Total human emissions from fossil fuels are 346.8Gt carbon up to 2008, of this about 50% is from coal, 35% from oil. Gas totals 12%, but by 2008 was contributing 18%. Peak Oil is about now, but we may face a long plateau due to non-conventional fossil oil production because of the high price making previously uneconomic sources feasible. So we're about half the way through Oil. Gas is decades off peaking, we can conservatively double that. Coal again can be at least doubled. So the bare minimum, using the most pessimistic assumptions about fossil fuel availability, that we can emit from fossil fuels is about 693.6Gt, given the uncertainties I'll round that to 700Gt. If we take preindustrial to be 260ppm, then a doubling is 520ppm, coincidentally our bare minimum emissions should be able to double CO2 levels because the current ~390ppm is halfway to 520ppm from 260ppm. Assuming a 3degC climate sensitivity if we burn this minimum amount of fossil fuels we'll commit ourselves to well over 2 degrees warming from pre-industrial, the equilibrium warming takes centuries to manifest itself. However that still saves us from a re-run of the PETM, right? Because even if we double our minimum 700Gt fossil fuels to give a total of 1400Gt, that still only takes us under one third of the way to equivalent PETM emissions.

Well before we look at the issue of methane emissions it's as well to look more closely at the 5000Gt target for total emissions during the PETM. The source of the 5000Gt seems to be a 2006 paper from Higgins & Schrag. They examine the PETM using data available at the time, they discount methane hydrates as a major player and focus instead on thermogenic methane and CO2 emissions from vulcanism due to the seperation of Greenland from Europe. These sources have a lower d13C isotopic signature, the d13C signature is a measure of the ratio of carbon 12 and carbon 13 isotopes relative to a standard. The lower the d13C signature the more depleted in 13C, as a heavier isotope 13C is energetically less favoured in chemical processes, hence it is depleted in certain biological processes. Because the carbon released during the metamorphosis of rocks surrounding the volcanic activity would have been less 13C depleted than an equivalent methane source, more of it would be needed to explain the excursion in d13C observed during the PETM, hence the 5000Gt. Whereas Higgins & Schrag note that Dickens had previously found that only 1000 to 2000Gt of methane would be needed to reproduce the PETM d13C excursion.

Fig 1. The PETM d13C excursion, from figure 1 of Higgins & Schrag 2006.

So why do Higgins & Schrag find that oceanic clathrate methane was probably not a serious player in the PETM?

The first issue has been subsequently addressed in later work: Archer & Buffet previously estimated low clathrate inventories in the Eocene, due to the warmth of the oceans. However last year Gu et al published a study in which they found that because of the warmth of the oceans, biological activity, from carbon deposition on the ocean floor to methanogenic bacteria, was enhanced. So whereas now methanogenesis is found in cold deeps, during the Palaeocene it was theoretically capable of sustaining large deposits of clathrates, possibly larger than today, in warmer seas.

The second issue is large changes in the Calcite Compensation Depth (CCD). The CCD is the depth below which the disolution of calcite exceeds the deposition of calcite through the ocean column, this leads to a deficit of calcite at depth. During the PETM in the South Atlantic the CCD rose by 2000m in less than 10k years. Higgins & Schrag take this as indicative of a massive influx of CO2, due to an equally massive release of CO2. However a different interpretation may be offered by Sexton et al in their 2011 paper.

Sexton et al examine warming events, hyperthemals, during the Eocene. The PETM was a hyperthermal but was substantially different from the Eocene hyperthermals that they examined; the recovery from the PETM took over 100k years, whereas the other Eocene hyperthemals were up to around 40k years in duration. This suggests that whereas the PETM involved an external source of carbon, such as methane hydrates, these shorter events did not involve such a source. Sexton et al propose that the hyperthermals involved movement of carbon between the atmosphere/land/ocean reservoirs, hence whereas an external perturbation would need to be removed by geological timescale processes such as weathering, the carbon in the hyperthermals could move back from atmosphere to ocean/land, a much quicker process. Crucially this process resulted in substantial changes in the CCD, with dissolution intensity being found to be greatest in the South Atlantic. Sexton et al propose that changes in meridional overturning were probably responsible.

So it seems that the main objections of Higgins and Schraggs that lead to them placing methane clathrates aside to examine the greater implied emissions of volcanic activity have since been re-examined. Unfortunately that puts methane clathrates back 'on the table'. Furthermore it reduces the total carbon burden required to re-run the PETM, emissions may have been of the order of 2000Gt, rather than 5000Gt. So the low-end estimate of 700Gt becomes a more feasible initiator for a total 2000Gt emission. It's worth noting that the fossil fuel emissions don't take into account natural processes coming into play and emitting CO2 or methane into the atmosphere, or changing the amount sequestered in the deep ocean.

Archer 2006 finds that for ocean sediment methane at present:
The data seem strong enough to say that the Kvenvolden/MacDonald “consensus” value of 10,000 Gton is probably too high. The very high 78,000 Gton estimate from Klauda and Sandler is inexplicable. A potential range of hydrate inventories must span about 500-3000 Gton C, with the inclusion of bubble methane adding perhaps a similar amount.
But this is just ocean methane hydrates. Lawrence et al find that during Rapid Ice Loss Events warming extends over the areas covered by land permafrost. Weather variability means that the Siberian pattern in NCEP/NCAR hasn't manifested itself as shown below, but the Canadian pattern is strong.

Fig 2. Figure 1c of Lawrence et al 2008, showing October/November/December warming in models during and outside of Rapid Ice Loss Events.

I think we are seeing the start of a process that, in terms of human timescales, will continue indefinitely. The millennia to come will see vast stores of frozen carbon in the Arctic melting and being release as carbon dioxide and methane.

But will what we face be as bad as the PETM? We're starting from lower baseline temperatures, and we probably haven't enough fossil fuels to get atmospheric CO2 up to near 2000ppm, so on the face of it, it seems it won't be as bad. The oceans are certainly colder, for example in the tropics at Demerara ridge temperatures were around 13degC at 3000m depth, equivalent temperatures are today around 5degC. However contrary to this, I think a re-run of the PETM in terms of species loss, and equivalent human impacts is the best scenario we can hope for. The reality will probably be much worse.

In opening this post I mentioned that the PETM was a minor extinction event, around 40% of benthic (deep ocean floor) foraminifera were lost. It's worth comparing that with the current situation, since the 1950s about 40% of phytoplankton have been lost from the non-coastal regions of almost all the oceans (Boyce et al, 2010), as all readers of this blog will know, phytoplankton are a major base of the ocean food chain. Then we have the effect of overfishing.

Then on land we're already seeing Hansen's Climate Dice come into play, I've blogged on it here, some 10% of the globe are now covered by 3 standard deviation warming events. We're seeing mid latitude effects from Arctic amplification that may be involved in floods, persistent weather patterns, and extreme winters. Tamino has done an excellent job of cataloguing weather disaster increases, wildfires, heatwaves, that's not to mention other bloggers and scientists doing sterling work cataloguing what's going on. These changes are happening after only around 0.8degC of AGW, with the last decade seeing surface warming abate due to the effects of the El Nino, sulphate pollution, and low solar output, e.g. Foster & Rahmstorf 2011 & Kaufman et al 2011. What will happen by the middle of this century? How much acceleration of warming, and further global weirding will the coming decades bring?

As the first graphic of this post shows, the pace of change we are forcing is far greater than in the PETM. With the impacts above intensifying, human agriculture covering 40% of land, and increasingly impinging on what wilderness that is still out there, we will probably see a greater mass extinction then during the PETM. We're giving natural systems neither the space nor time to adapt. Furthermore the super-interglacial warming we are prompting is driving the planet from a glacial/interglacial ecosystem, evolved over the last several million years, to a much warmer state, whereas the PETM was a warm event from an already warm baseline.

I still remain unconvinced by the claims of some that within decades we'll see a catastrophic methane blow out, it's un-necessary to reiterate my reasoning which is provided here, and here. The issue is not the amount of free gaseous methane that is available for a Hollywood disaster movie style blow out, but the amount of fossil clathrates stored during the Quarternary, this has the potential as it melts in the super-interglacial warmth of the anthropocene to massively amplify our emissions. And as Sexton et al find, if we warm the oceans enough they may add to the effective emissions as the overturning circulation reduces, causing abyssal anoxia and reducing sequestration of carbon into the abyssal deeps. But the PETM shows that this is a slow process when measured in terms of a human lifetime. Both the clathrate containing sediments and the oceans have large thermal mass and take a long time to respond to warming.

The current events in the Arctic region presage the awakening of a slow, cumbrous, but inexorable beast that will be with us for longer than human history, gradually adding to the damage we have done, warming the climate well beyond 3 degrees. The idea of stopping at 350ppm, or 2 degrees, of staying in safe levels of AGW will be totally out of our hands within a matter of decades. Indeed in view of what is practically achievable, given the time needed to shift from fossil fuels, time to develop and roll out alternatives, the problem that as the rich move off fossil fuels the price will drop, and the poor will take up the slack in consumption: It is already too late in terms of the "art of the possible". The notion of reducing to 350ppm, or limiting to 2 degrees is as dead as the broader aim of avoiding dangerous climate change.

How much further we drive the process depends on how much of the available fossil fuels we burn. But we are already at the stage where, barring a miracle, we are committed to dangerous climate change. As I fully expect us to burn all the fossil fuels economically and technically available, I expect that the best outcome is a re-run of the PETM.

The good news? We haven't anywhere near enough fossil fuels to re run the End Permian extinction event. That we cannot do so due to circumstance rather than due to intelligent choice is not something humanity can feel justly proud of.

Abbot & Tziperman, 2007, "Sea ice, high-latitude convection, and equable climates." PDF

Archer, 2006, "Destabilisation of Methane Hydrates: A Risk Assessment." PDF

Boyce et al, 2010, "Global phytoplankton decline over the past century." PDF

Cui et al, 2011, "Slow release of fossil carbon during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum" PDF

Eisenman, 2012, "Factors controlling the bifurcation structure of sea ice retreat" PDF.

Foster & Rahmstorf, 2011, "Global temperature evolution 1979–2010" PDF

Gu et al, 2011, "Abundant Early Palaeogene marine gas hydrates despite warm deep-ocean temperatures." PDF

Higgins & Schrag, 2006, "Beyond methane: Towards a theory for the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum" PDF

Kaufman et al, 2011, "Reconciling anthropogenic climate change with observed temperature 1998–2008" PDF

Lawrence et al, 2008, "Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss." PDF

Sexton et al, 2011, "Eocene global warming events driven by ventilation of oceanic dissolved organic carbon." PDF


TheTracker said...

This is one of the best "where we are" posts I've ever seen. So many great quotes. I'll probably be gushing about it over my way before long.

Very, very well done.

Chris Reynolds said...

Thanks Tracker.

Sorry to give such a negative opinion, but as you well know the situation tends to that.

Anonymous said...

"The idea of stopping at 350ppm, or 2 degrees, of staying in safe levels of AGW will be totally out of our hands within a matter of decades."

Something very wrong with your numbers. I'll quote:

The 2ºC "target" is a politically (not scientifically) set target from the European Union (EU) that goes back to the mid 1990s.

Since then, although the weight of scientific evidence has increasingly shown that a globally averaged 2ºC temperature increase will be disastrous for humanity and much of life on Earth, the figure has stuck.

A safe limit was established at +1ºC even before 1990 (Villach Conference, 1987). The Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change conference in Exeter (2005) arrived at a limit of 1ºC (although acknowledging that dangerous climate change for developing countries is below 1ºC).

Many papers have been published over the years saying that 2ºC is too dangerous, and the precautionary weight of evidence is 1ºC to 1.5ºC. (These figures are now superseded by actual changes in the Arctic.)

The EU now acknowledges that a 2ºC global warming is not safe.

"[...] overall global annual mean surface temperature increase should not exceed 2°C above pre-industrial levels in order to limit high risks, including irreversible impacts of climate change; RECOGNISES that 2°C would already imply significant impacts on ecosystems and water resources. [...]" (2610th Council Meeting, Luxembourg, 14 October 2004)

At a 2005 meeting in Buenos Aires, the European Union addressed the question of what is dangerous climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They came to the conclusion that dangerous global warming lies between 1.0ºC to 1.5ºC, thereby giving a safe limit of 1ºC.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has published a danger level of 1.5ºC based on 2007 IPCC data.

But these new figures have not been noticed, and the 2 degree target remains virtually the only limit cited in mass media and many scientific media.

The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster. -- James Hansen

Two degrees of warming will lead to an ice-free Arctic and sea-level rise in the tens of meters, Hansen told LiveScience.

An "ice-free" Arctic means total collapse of the Earth systems. Yet 2ºC is still the "target" for negotiations. Clearly, this makes no sense at all, but was simply chosen as being politically expedient.

And this:

Between 1990 and 2011, global emissions of carbon dioxide have increased by 54 percent, and this is expected to jump to 58 percent based on projections for 2012. Humans will have released some 35.6 gigatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in this year alone, with an average increase of 3.1 percent per year. That number was slightly lower in 2012, measuring 2.6 percent, though that was mainly due to the economic crisis, the paper says.

According to the quotations above, there is zero possibility (or safety) in 2C. And 35.6 gigatons of greenhouse gases were released this year alone.

Chris Reynolds said...

I don't see any of that as being a problem with my numbers, it's more a problem with the politics. Yet in the public consciousness I still see dropping atmospheric levels to 350ppm or sticking to no more than 2degC as goals. What I'm arguing is it is too late to avoid dangerous climate change.

"An "ice-free" Arctic means total collapse of the Earth systems."

It didn't happen during the Holocene Optimum, some 5000 years ago, nor was there a massive outgassing of methane. The situation is serious, it doesn't need overstating.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with the Tracker on the quality of this post, thank you very much, this will take me a long time to read and digest fully.

two extremely minor editorial thingies to point out, right in the beginning,

"... analogue for the current Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (AGW)..." I guess you want the abbreviation PETM in there;

Fifth paragraph, " ... because of the high price making previously uneconomic sources unfeasible. ..." That should probably be "feasible".

dont get me wrong, I know very well how this happens, I never noted all the typos in my last submission until after it was finally out, could have eaten my hat. This does in no way mean anything bad, only I first have to work through all the pdf´s behind it (for that another big thank you to you!!) Good to see you posting.

TheTracker said...

"It didn't happen during the Holocene Optimum, some 5000 years ago, nor was there a massive outgassing of methane."

It'd like to understand this period a lot better than I do. Can you recommend anything to read about it?

Terry said...


Very nice synopsis - I still have to wade through all the links.

I wonder if you've taken into account the length of time that the ESAS has been inundated when comparing where we're heading to the HTM.
I'm not entirely convinced that the Arctic as a whole during the HTM was much warmer than what we're now experiencing. I know the CAA had warmer periods as did Greenland but my recollection is that when one area was very warm other areas were relatively cooler.

If you have any links indicating Arctic wide temps during HTM I'd appreciate it


Chris Reynolds said...


No need to apologise for spotting mistakes, and thanks for spotting them.


I'll try to post tonight, but am not quite happy with it right now. I've had a post on hold since before I was ill about Arctic temperatures from a certain lake that escaped the glaciations, I can't recall the name right now - you'll see why when I post. I've expanded the post to cover other work.

The short answer - during HTM about 1 to 2 degC above 20th century temperatures, we'll soon be past that, in Autumn we already probably are. But there were also Arctic super interglacials that were up to 5 degC warmer than preindustrial in the Arctic.

My point is that at such times there was no methane cataclysm, no massive and persistent d13C excursion. What d13C excursions there have been were shortlived, using Sexton's reasoning they were probably from shifts of carbon around the earth, not injections of extraneous carbon, such as from methane hydrate.

Oceanic methane hydrate, and land permafrost melt, will have played a role in the super interglacials. But it didn't cause a global cataclysm demanding more meddling in the climate (geo-engineering).

I intend to post against geo-engineering in due course. I think it's foolish and dangerous.

remig said...

Actually the PETM may have been somewhat of a dud in NOT triggering a far more disastrous event, global ocean anoxia. Anoxia events result eventually in mass eruptions of hydrogen sulfide and are thought to be the cause of major extinctions. CO2 is thought to cause anoxia events when carbonate compensation is overwhelmed. The peculiar arrangements of continents around the Arctic at the time may have allowed the Azolla event to follow the PETM and clear the CO2 before an anoxia event could trigger. Unfortunately, those arrangements no longer hold.

Chris Reynolds said...


The anoxia that occurred during the PETM was in certain ocean basins and restricted to the deep ocean. Hence the losses of benthic foraminifera.

For casual readers:
During the PETM the Arctic was almost a closed ocean.
Given that Azolla is a freshwater plant, the closed nature of the ocean allowed freshwater input to create a freshwater cap on which the Azolla could grow, this growth is hypothesised to have reduced atmospheric CO2, the plants consumed CO2, lived and died, and sequestered carbon on the ocean bottom.

That's an interesting point that hadn't occurred to me. The Azolla hypothesis suggests that the impacts of the PETM were limited by Azolla. So an event possibly closer to the Great Dying (End Permian) could have occurred without rapid draw down.

I'm not persuaded right now. After the PETM CO2 levels were over 3000ppm. I seriously doubt we have enough carbon to hit such levels. So the absolute warming would be less, and ocean stratification (leading to anoxia) would be less - as that process is linked to temperature and buoyancy of water. Although... with colder oceans at depth, perhaps less of an absolute warming would be needed to make a warm cap over the ocean and shut down vertical mixing/ventilation of the oceans. Were that to happen, that alone would lead to an effective increase in CO2 as sequestration in the deeps would cease.

I need to think about your point. Thanks.

Chris Reynolds said...

There's a good Wikipedia page here: