A greenhouse bomb primed to explode

If the predicted methane “pulse” comes to pass we will have a whole new climate ball-game.

A crater left by an exploding methane bubble in northwest Siberia. Photo Siberian Times

A crater left by an exploding methane bubble in northwest Siberia. Photo Siberian Times

The name Siberia is said to derive from a Tartar phrase meaning “sleeping land”. That sleeping land is now waking up.

The mean temperature across the vast Siberian plains is around freezing point, and for much of the year rivers, lakes and the ground around them are frozen. But for the past 50 years the tundra’s surface temperature has steadily risen, with some startling results.

One highly-visible change in eastern Siberia is the Batagaika crater, a land slump about 85 metres deep and 1 km long. It is now expanding outward by 30 metres a year, releasing large volumes of methane, which as a greenhouse gas is many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In northwest Siberia another warming phenomenon is exercising the minds of local and Moscow-based scientists: circular bulges in the tundra surface which move when people step on them. The experience has been called “trembling tundra”.

Scientists calculate there are 7000 such bulges across north-coastal Siberia, the Russian news agency Tass reported this month. When gas pressure below reaches a certain point the bulges can explode. Some of the more spectacular bangs have left a circular crater hundreds of metres across.

Methane explosions are a threat to communities and infrastructure. The Siberian Times newspaper reported last week that local authorities and scientists are trying to map developing bubbles to minimise potential damage. But the bigger danger is the methane released to the air above.

The bubbles are a result of recent record-breaking Arctic warmth, softening the ground over a huge expanse of northern Siberia and progressively releasing methane gas that has been held in the ground by permafrost for tens of thousands of years.

Recent analysis of the gas in bubbles on Bely Island, in the Arctic Ocean off the Yamal Peninsula, found methane concentrations to be 1000 times higher than in the surface air.

In the North American Arctic, methane is escaping from wide expanses of land once considered permanently frozen, now turned into impassable bogs.

Latest global emissions data reported in the annual World Meteorological Organization climate report released last week show atmospheric methane increasing 44 per cent faster than carbon dioxide. It is now more than 2.5 times its pre-industrial level.

From the Batagaika crater, Bely Island bubbles, North American bogs, and countless other locations around the Arctic rim, land-based methane is being released at a rate unknown in all of human existence. But a bigger methane shock is in store, from ocean waters just to the north.

The Arctic is warming at twice the global average, America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports. This northern winter has seen record low ice cover.

Science has long warned that global climate would be massively threatened if a warming Arctic Ocean released solid methane trapped in huge quantities in frozen sediment. The Arctic Ocean is warmer now than it’s been for tens of thousands of years.

Just this month, NOAA satellite data showed a strong rise in methane levels over a broad area above the shallow waters of the East Siberian continental shelf, indicating that melting of this solid methane (methane clathrate) is already under way.

A 2010 Russian research paper warned of a significant risk that within years as much as 50 billion tonnes of methane could be released in a single large pulse from East Siberian waters. That much methane would cause an immediate global temperature rise of 0.6C, pushing post-industrial warming past the “safe” limit of 1.5C acknowledged in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Science remains divided on the plausibility of this scenario, but it has attracted support from established Arctic specialists outside Russia, including Cambridge (UK) ocean physicist Peter Wadhams.

Our failure to curb carbon dioxide emissions has already left us in deep trouble. It’s hard to imagine where we’ll be if the projected methane spike comes to pass.

A decade ago cutting emissions was the only realistic policy option, and the desperate, vastly more expensive last resort of removing carbon dioxide from the air never got a look in. Now it’s back on the table.

Posted in Antarctic, Arctic, atmospheric science, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate sensitivity, climate system, economic activity, economic threat from climate, ice, marine sciences, science, temperature | Leave a comment

Climate-energy policy: time for a reboot

With a climate emergency on our hands, it’s past time the parties got their acts together.

Matthew Groom and Will Hodgman: Business as usual is no longer an option for the Hodgman government. PHOTO ABC

Matthew Groom and Will Hodgman: Business as usual is no longer an option for the Hodgman government. PHOTO ABC

Rebecca White’s rise to Labor leadership opens up the prospect of a much-needed policy makeover for Tasmania. There’s no better place to start than climate change and energy.

When Matthew Groom took charge of energy, transport and environment portfolios three years ago, there was reason to expect that climate issues spreading across more than one of these related policy fields would be managed as a single entity.

But this hasn’t happened. Groom’s 2015 energy strategy failed to address some key considerations, including the vexed issues of unchecked emissions from transport and proper reward for rooftop solar’s contribution to the state grid.

There have been moments of illumination including Groom’s support for pumping water back into hydro storage. He rightly asserts Tasmania’s big advantage over states like South Australia, whose clean-energy options don’t include hydro.

But if he believes so strongly in this, why has his government not taken every opportunity to speak up for that essential support for pumped hydro – greatly enhanced wind and solar generation?

The most spectacular climate-energy misalignment was during last year’s big dry, when with dam storages at record lows our clean hydro energy was supplemented by multiple diesel generators – an irony explored in depth in Michael Meyer’s online documentary Diesel Coffee.

The question to ask about the government’s climate change strategy is… what strategy? A draft appeared in 2015 prior to a scheduled launch last September, but since then all we’ve had is silence.

There’s some indication that Tasmania will get its “final” climate strategy as soon as this month, but again this is rich with irony. In late 2013, just before it lost office, the Labor-Green government released another “final” Tasmanian climate strategy.

That strategy was shelved when the government changed so that Matthew Groom could consider a new one. But that was three long years ago.

Precious lost time triggered a plea last week from Climate Tasmania, a voluntary group of experienced specialists offering independent advice on climate change to Tasmanian government, private and community interests. [Disclosure: I am a member of this group.]

An open letter from Climate Tasmania convener and climate scientist Melanie Fitzpatrick, published in Saturday’s Mercury, called for parties to cooperate on climate policy. The letter, to premier Will Hodgman, then-opposition leader Bryan Green and Greens Leader Cassy O’Connor, was copied to all members of the Tasmanian parliament.

It drew attention to the wide spectrum of national interests groups calling for a united front on energy and climate policy, and to the recent warning from Australia’s financial regulator (APRA) that climate change poses a material risk to the nation’s financial system.

It pointed out that since Paul Lennon’s pioneering 2008 climate legislation, each change of government had seen previous climate strategies and their proposed measures shelved.

“Adversarial political processes” were failing to deal with the landmark issue of climate change, the letter said. It urged leaders to come together “for the sake of our communities, our businesses, our future prosperity, the protection of our natural assets and our progeny”.

Last week the Hodgman government laughed off the challenge presented by Labor’s leadership change, but it knows that if it’s to win a second term it will have to ditch whatever election strategy it had envisaged in favour of a whole new approach.

I have previously argued for competition between parties as the best path to strong emissions and energy measures, but instead we’ve had what seems to be a conspiracy never to mention climate.

Time is our enemy. We don’t have the luxury of abandoning established measures and plans whenever there’s an election. All parties must acknowledge that they must secure an underlying agreement across parliament on the need to act on transport emissions and renewable energy.

Party leaders all say they favour robust climate and energy policies, so what’s to stop them agreeing on sensible baseline positions? With that in place we might begin to see some genuine progress.

Posted in bureaucracy, cars, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, economic restructuring, electricity networks, energy, future climate, hydro, leadership, renewable energy, road freight, solar, Tasmanian politics, transport, wind | Leave a comment

On life, death and what comes after

Australians have much to be thankful for, not least their secular society

The power of the Church is not what it was. PHOTO Daniel Limpi / EyeEm

We need to banish the fears and insecurities on which religion was founded. IMAGE Daniel Limpi / EyeEm

During his address to the US congress a fortnight ago, Donald Trump looked up to the public gallery and said to a young woman, “Ryan is looking down right now. You know that. And he’s very happy…”

The audience responded with a standing ovation as the young woman, whose husband Ryan was killed in Yemen six weeks ago, stood with her hands together, weeping. It was, as media reported, a powerful and dramatic moment.

It’s possible that Carryn Owens believes her fallen husband is now in heaven. But the power and drama of that moment was something much closer to home: the profound grief in the face of the stricken widow.

The unexpected death of a loved one can be a shattering experience. Our hearts tell us that we have to focus on those left behind, and many would see the idea of heaven as comforting, part of a time-honoured routine to help the healing process.

But think about it: fully-formed adults speak without a hint of irony of the deceased in some form ascending to a place science has never identified, where people enjoy a perfect existence for eternity, looking down on us. Taken out of its religious context it seems utterly crazy.

There’s a history to this. For a long time we knew nothing about what was beyond the horizon, below the sea’s surface, under the ground or up in the sky. We filled the gaps with stories, which came to be accepted as truth. Many of these stories still carry great power.

In stages, science came up with its own startling stories: a Big Bang, a spherical Earth in a solar system, drifting continents, evolving species. One by one, the creation stories ceased to be accepted as fact, and for most Australians today they can fairly be called popular myth.

I was brought up to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. I became quite attached to Jesus the man, whose life and teachings struck me as a fine example for any young person to follow, and I found much to like in the humanity and good works of countless believers.

I can still find things to like about the traditional English liturgy, drilled into my brain through constant childhood repetition, and freely admit I get great reward from religious music, architecture, history and culture. I would never deny religion’s intrinsic wonder and power.

But I came to reject the divinity of Jesus, along with the notion of an afterlife. Death to me is the lights going out, the natural and permanent end of my consciousness. With no afterlife, my body will be buried or burned, and that will be it.

In Australia we tend not to talk about any of the above. We wear our beliefs lightly (like we wear our monarchy) which is why we’ve grown into a pluralistic, liberal society. Ironically that has made us a highly desirable destination for many people of religion.

It pays to lighten up. God is not always about love, and history is riddled with deadly squabbles over whose god is right. Devout Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe their way is the only true way. That implies that the others are wrong, which is no way to build social trust and cohesion.

Many religious people consider atheism an affront to their belief and even to them personally. They say the absence of faith in God is the ultimate emptiness, without structure or meaning.

I don’t know what the faithful mean by “meaning”, but if I’ve been living without it, that’s okay. I’m happy with my lot. My life in Tasmania is rich beyond measure, for which every day I give thanks to whoever might be listening.

I don’t claim to know the true way, or seek to draw anyone away from their faith. But religion is just one of many social bonds; in fact it has turned out many times to be a divisive force.

Whatever our belief, we 21st century Australians should banish the fears and insecurities on which religion was founded and cherish our hard-won secularism. Life is for the living. Let’s live it.

Posted in human behaviour, psychology, religion, science, social and personal issues, social mindsets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment