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Unqualified Opinion (2) : Richard A. Kerr

Over at Science Mag, Richard A. Kerr is trying to tell us not to panic, everything’s going to be OK, really, with a “more balanced message”. The net effect on me, personally, is to be exceptionally, yet rationally, very concerned indeed :-

“Science 6 August 2010: Vol. 329. no. 5992, pp. 620 – 621 : DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5992.620 : NEWS FOCUS : CLIMATE CHANGE: ‘Arctic Armageddon’ Needs More Science, Less Hype : Richard A. Kerr : Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas 25 times [23 times, Richard] more potent than carbon dioxide, and the ongoing global warming driven by carbon dioxide will inevitably force it out of its frozen reservoirs and into the atmosphere to amplify the warming. Such an amplifying feedback may have operated in the past, with devastating effects. If the modern version is anything like past episodes, two scientists warned earlier this year, it could mean that “far from the Arctic, crops could fail and nations crumble.” Yet, with bubbles of methane streaming from the warming Arctic sea floor and deteriorating permafrost, many scientists are trying to send a more balanced message. The threat of global warming amplifying itself by triggering massive methane releases is real and may already be under way, providing plenty of fodder for scary headlines. But what researchers understand about the threat points to a less malevolent, more protracted process.”

Deliberately toning down a warning is something that piques my propaganda radar. This is a prime case of “hiding the incline”…

I checked the transcript of the podcast, and got more of the same pacification :-;329/5992/697-b/DC1

Host — Stewart Wills

“In the discussion of climate change positive feedbacks, one frequently mentioned threat is the possibility that, as the planet warms, huge amounts of methane currently locked up in icy polar reservoirs could be released, pushing global warming into overdrive. In a News Focus in this week’s Science, however, news writer Richard Kerr suggests that the threat, while real, doesn’t necessarily foreshadow a catastrophe.”

Interviewee – Richard Kerr

“There’s been a lot of excitement in recent months about the prospects for methane oozing out of the Arctic and into the atmosphere and stoking global warming, even more than our burning of fossil fuels has done already. And that is a bit off base, doesn’t have quite the thrust that climate scientists would like to give it. There’s a problem, methane from the Arctic is going to be amplifying global warming, but there’s no catastrophe in the offing.”

Interviewer – Stewart Wills

“Well, people talk a lot about these various positive feedbacks and, you know, tipping points in global warming. Why don’t you walk us through how this one is actually supposed to work? Where is this methane coming from and why has it been a worry?”

Interviewee – Richard Kerr

“There’s a lot of methane out there. Scientists don’t have a real good handle on how much, but there’s a lot of methane frozen in the ice beneath the sea floor, not just in the Arctic but all around the world. This is so called methane hydrates – they form naturally from bacterial methane. It’s down there and it’s stable, as is, but the world is warming. And as the ocean warms, it’s going to warm the methane hydrates, and then they can basically melt, releasing their methane. And that can eventually work its way up through the sediments, through the ocean, and into the atmosphere. The other semi-stable reservoir of methane is actually in the form of organic matter frozen in the permafrost on the land. When the permafrost thaws, which some of it is in the Arctic under the warmer regime we’re seeing these days, bacteria, again, can convert the organic matter to methane, methane bubbles often through some of these lakes that form as permafrost thaws. And that can go rather directly into the atmosphere.”

Interviewer – Stewart Wills

“And I guess the “kicker” from some people’s point of view is that methane “packs a bit more of a wallop” as a greenhouse gas than others.”

Interviewee – Richard Kerr

“Yes, methane is about 25 times [23, actually !] more powerful, as a greenhouse gas, than carbon dioxide.”

Interviewer – Stewart Wills

“So, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Have these methane leaks actually been observed?”

Interviewee – Richard Kerr

“Well, they’re going on, and they’re happening because parts of the world are warming. And maybe that warming is global warming, greenhouse warming. One case in point is just west of the archipelago of Svalbard that’s, oh, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, up in the Arctic. And scientists have seen, through the wonders of sonar, methane bubbles coming up from the sea floor reaching, or almost reaching the surface, and that methane’s coming from hydrates beneath the sea floor. Of course there’s any number of reports less quantified of methane bubbling up in Arctic lakes that have formed because the permafrost has thawed.”

Interviewer – Stewart Wills

“So, these things seem to be happening, but I guess the big question is how much is this actually going to affect an already warming climate? The sense I have from your article is that this is a somewhat overblown fear.”

Interviewee – Richard Kerr

“Somewhat. The headlines have often mentioned looming catastrophes – Armageddon in the Arctic – and that’s perhaps only to be expected. The amounts of methane are so large that it does bring to mind the potential catastrophe. But, from what scientists know at this point, there are a lot of steps in the process between unleashing the methane and triggering warming that are innately slow, and speed is all-important. The methane, even when it makes it into the atmosphere, only survives about 10 years. So, if you’re not driving it out at a terrific rate, natural processes are going to take care of that methane, convert it into carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. But, it tends to take the catastrophic aspects out of the picture. Fairly crude modeling, but the best that can be done, suggests that there will be amplification of greenhouse warming, but it’s going to be a long-term problem. And, you know, to scientists, geologists, we’re talking many centuries, millennia that methane converted to carbon dioxide will still be warming the world 1,000 years from now or perhaps even 10,000.”

Interviewer – Stewart Wills

“So, you mentioned the importance of the rate of these processes and alluded to some of the process being quite slow. What are some of the rate-limiting factors, if you will?”

Interviewee – Richard Kerr

“Well, the warming due to carbon dioxide greenhouse has to get from the atmosphere into the ocean, fairly deeply into the ocean. That heat has to penetrate the sediments, then that penetrating heat has to melt the hydrate, and as you know from ice melting in your iced tea, it takes a good bit of heat to do that. Then, the methane gas has to make its way out of the sediment, not well understood how that works, but apparently does happen. In the case of hydrates in the sea floor it has to get through the seawater itself, where the methane can be oxidized to CO2. Most of the same rate-limiting steps apply to permafrost, as well.”

Interviewer – Stewart Wills

“So, we’re not talking about a big burst of methane, just kind of a burble of it over — over time.”

Interviewee – Richard Kerr

“Right. Scientists have identified a very strange, abrupt – by their standards – warming about 55 million years ago that may have been caused by a relatively sudden release of methane from methane hydrates. But, even then we’re talking about abruptness on the order of a thousand years or ten thousand years, not in the next decade.” [But this kind of perturbation of the Climate could cause a similar sudden methane eruption in a thousand years or so…or a couple of hundred…or less ? Why this focus on the very short-term “decade” ? Most of us will still be alive in several decades time. What will be happening then ?]

Interviewer – Stewart Wills

“Okay. So, we have a situation where there’s clearly an effect that methane is going to have, but it’s not going to be this sort of catastrophic story. I mean I think I know the answer to this, but why do you suppose, given that we already have so much to worry about on CO2-driven warming that this methane threat has gotten so much attention?

Interviewee – Richard Kerr

“Well, it’s a natural for we in the media, to look for novel aspects of the climate change problem, aspects that have some drama attached to them. And frankly, scientists involved in this process of communicating with the public through the media haven’t always been as cautious and attentive to the potential problems as they might have been.”

Interviewer – Stewart Wills

“Dick Kerr, thanks very much.”

Interviewee – Richard Kerr

“My pleasure, Stewart.”

Host — Stewart Wills

“Richard Kerr writes about the truth and hype of Arctic methane in this week’s Science.”

Somebody going to the trouble of explaining, at length, and in great detail, that there is a real problem, but that it’s not really a big problem, now that worries me a lot. Especially somebody who’s not doing research currently in this field…Now, why would they take the energy to do that, then ?

A little background on Richard A. Kerr :-

“Richard A. Kerr : Science Magazine : Richard A. Kerr has covered the Earth and planetary sciences (and a bit of paleontology) since 1977 at Science. He went there from the University of Rhode Island a week after successfully defending his dissertation on the humics in seawater. The frustrations of trying to understand such gunk were enough to drive him into journalism, where the breadth of an education in oceanography has served him well. : Posted: March 31, 2004”

Does a postgraduate degree in oceanography entitle Richard A. Kerr to pronounce on oceanic methane eruptions ? Is he in possession of the most recent data and does he know what it implies ? Why no reference to other thinkers, some researchers, some papers ?

Is this just opinion masquerading as science ?

“FRIDAY, JULY 24, 2009 : Richard A. Kerr, Science, 325 (24 July 2009), Clouds Appear to Be Big, Bad Player in Global Warming : Science, Vol. 325, No. 5939, 376 (24 July 2009); DOI:10.1126/science.325_376 : NEWS OF THE WEEK : CLIMATE CHANGE: CLOUDS APPEAR TO BE BIG, BAD PLAYER IN GLOBAL WARMING : Richard A. Kerr : The first reliable analysis of cloud behavior over past decades suggests – but falls short of proving – that clouds are strongly amplifying global warming. If that’s true, then almost all climate models have got it wrong…One interpretation, the researchers say, is that the warming ocean was transferring heat to the overlying atmosphere, thinning out the low-lying clouds to let in more sunlight that further warmed the ocean. That’s a positive or amplifying feedback. During a cooling event in the late 1990s, both data sets recorded just the opposite changes – exactly what would happen if the same amplifying process were operating in reverse…”

3 replies on “Unqualified Opinion (2) : Richard A. Kerr”

Richard Kerr’s report in Science this week (13Aug2010 p780) on the sobering task of scaling up alternative energy solutions is the kind of practical look at the problem we needed 40 years ago, when many of these same fundamental problems were noticed. People interested in “solutions” then proposed lots of things that didn’t work and the people interested in “problems” were never heard from…. There are still (at least) two “bottom line” issues that the new more serious conversation is not addressing.

When you consider that the energy intensity of money declines at a fraction of the GDP growth rate you realize that is bad math for renewables or any other energy source. Study it a little and you find there is then no physically possible energy source to meet the demand. On the back of an envelope you can estimate the area of solar panels one would need in the future, given that an economy is a thermodynamic system. In ~250 years we’d need to cover every square inch of the planet with them.

If that doesn’t help point to the need to rethink the questions being asked, then the other one will. That’s that the exact same kind of cognitive error in projecting limitless economic growth is repeated in how our culture thinks about reduce our energy needs. We develop a cultural model that is inconsistent with what is happening around us. Our reliance on efficiency and conservation cut energy use has the problem that throughout the economic growth period the exact opposite is what has been happening. Businesses and individuals select energy uses to do more efficiently for the purpose of expanding their total uses of resources, for growth.

I sure am glad a few more people interested in the problem are turning up, because we clearly need to rethink. I have three good 2010 papers on “the math & systems science” you’d use on my publications page. The one on “The curious case of Stimulus as Constraint” on how our reducing energy keeps speeding it up may be of most interest.


Just a note : from my point of view, the purchasing value of money is based on the free availability of cheap energy. Since we are now experiencing Peak Oil, and soon Peaks in Natural Gas, Coal and Uranium, Rare Earth Elements and so on, my projection is that the global economy will implode under its own weight as energy becomes increasingly more expensive…unless the energy companies accept takeover by the governments in order to keep energy prices stable.

That’s a possible future – re-nationalisation of energy ownership. Do you really want your government to own and control your energy supply ? Do you think that would be efficient ? And would it solve Global Warming ?

The key thing is for energy companies to start using Renewable technologies – personally I don’t much mind how that happens or how it is financed – (although I think Carbon Taxation will place the cost burden unfairly on consumers, and Carbon Trading won’t be effective in incentivising large enough changes) – only that Greenhouse Gas emissions are reduced to near zero.

Growth in the economies cannot continue with depletion in energy supplies arriving and natural resources being affected by Climate Change. (Haven’t the Climate Change deniers heard that their food and water are under threat ?)

We certainly need a re-think about how we use energy as industrialised societies – and that starts with the profligate waste imposed on us by an economic system biased in favour of using hydrocarbon fuel and coal-generated electricity to do all our production.

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