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Context of 'June 16, 2006: Study Suggests Melting of Siberian Permafrost Could Release Far More Carbon than Previously Thought'

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Thomas Knutson, a research meteorologist with the NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, NJ, prepares a one-page summary for a press release on his soon-to-be published paper in the Journal of Climate (see September 28, 2004). His article, co-authored with hurricane expert Robert Tuleya, suggests that an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may increase the intensity of hurricanes. The press release is not approved. [Maassarani, 3/27/2007, pp. 28 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Thomas Knutson

Timeline Tags: Global Warming

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), an international study four years in the making, warns that the Arctic is warming “at almost twice the rate as that of the rest of the world.” According to the study’s overview report, presented at a conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, the melting of sea ice and glaciers are a clear sign that the climate is undergoing drastic, possibly irreversible, changes. The study predicts that all ocean ice could disappear some time between 2060 and 2100. As more and more ice melts, temperatures are expected to increase at a quicker pace because of a positive feedback loop: higher temperatures melt more ice, exposing more ground which, unlike ice, absorbs the sun’s heat, thus increasing the temperature even more. The Arctic’s melting “will drastically shrink marine habitat for polar bears, ice-inhabiting seals, and some seabirds, pushing some species toward extinction,” the study’s 139-page overview report says. Another potential impact of the melting ice would be the release of carbon-rich methane gas currently locked in the permafrost. Scientists are also worried that the fresh water pouring off the melting glaciers will disrupt the North Atlantic Ocean conveyor current which brings the warmer Gulf waters to the Northern Atlantic keeping the region warmer than it would be otherwise. The report was commissioned by the Arctic Council, an international forum made of the eight countries that border the region: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US. Six circumpolar indigenous peoples’ organisations are also represented in the council. Arctic warming is changing the ecology of the region in a way that is threatening the livelihoods of circumpolar groups like the Inuit and Athabaskans. The study’s findings—based on the work of more than 300 scientists and five different computer models—are contained in a 1,200-plus- page, fully referenced scientific report that underwent a rigorous peer-review process prior to publication. [Arctic Council, 11/2004; BBC, 11/2/2004; Independent, 11/11/2004; Reuters, 11/8/2005; One World, 11/9/2005] The study was actually completed months before its release on November 8, but was delayed by the Bush administration until after the elections, according to Gordon McBean, an ACIA participant from the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at the University of Western Ontario. [Inter Press Service, 9/10/2005]

Entity Tags: Arctic Council

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Global Warming

A team of Russian and American scientists conclude in a study published in the journal Science that the melting of Siberia’s carbon-rich permafrost could result in the release of about 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the next 100 years. That would almost double the atmosphere’s current load of the greenhouse gas which currently stands at about 700 billion tons. When permafrost melts, it makes organic material available to microbes which convert much of the carbon in it into carbon dioxide. This process results in what is known as a “positive feedback” loop whereby the increased presence of greenhouse gases leads to more warming and consequently to the melting of more carbon-rich permafrost. Leading climate models do not factor in the melting of Siberia’s permafrost, which covers some 400,000 square miles, when trying to make predictions about climate change. Previous estimates of the amount of carbon contained in the permafrost have put the value much lower. “We have known [about] the permafrost in Siberia before,” explains atmospheric scientist Bala Govindasamy, “Previous estimates for global permafrost [are] between 200 and 400 [billion tons]. This study has found higher carbon content in the Siberian permafrost and estimates that the total global amount could be about 1,000 [billion tons].” This report “makes it kind of scary—it means there’s a form of climate risk that we really haven’t got a good handle on,” notes Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford. Another scientist, paleoclimatologist David Anderson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climate Prediction Center, tells the San Francisco Chronicle that carbon dioxide released from Siberia “could raise temperatures dramatically beyond the current projections. Second, it could raise the rate at which temperatures rise.” [Los Angeles Times, 6/16/2006; San Francisco Chronicle, 6/16/2006; Zimov, Schuur, and Chapin, 6/16/2006]

Timeline Tags: Global Warming

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues a summary of its fourth report concluding for the first time that global warming is “unequivocal.” The authors of the report also conclude that there is a 90 percent likelihood that greenhouse gases produced as a result of human activities have been the main cause of global warming since 1950. In its last report (see January 22, 2001), the panel made the same assessment, but with a confidence level of only 66 to 90 percent. The 20-page summary, meant for policymakers, will be followed by four technical reports that will be completed and published later in the year. The panel’s conclusions are based on “a three-year review of hundreds of studies of past climate shifts; observations of retreating ice, warming and rising seas, and other changes around the planet; and a greatly expanded suite of supercomputer simulations used to test how the earth will respond to a growing blanket of gases that hold heat in the atmosphere,” the New York Times reports.
Partial list of conclusions -
bullet Global temperatures will increase 3.5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit if carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere attain levels twice that of 1750, before the Industrial Revolution.
bullet Concentrations of carbon dioxide have reached a level not seen during the last 650,000 years, and the rate of increase is beginning to accelerate.
bullet Even a moderate warming of the global climate would likely result in significant stress to ecosystems and change longstanding climate patterns that influence water supplies and agricultural production.
bullet Sea levels will likely rise between 7 and 23 inches by 2100 and continue rising for at least the next 1,000 years.
bullet “It is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent.”
bullet The panel expects that precipitation will increase at higher latitudes, while rainfall will likely decrease at lower latitudes. Semi-arid subtropical regions could see 20 percent less rain.
bullet Oceans will absorb billions of tons of carbon dioxide which will form carbonic acid, thus lowering the pH of seawater and harming certain kinds of marine life such as corals and plankton.
bullet If the level of greenhouse gases continues to grow, average temperatures by the end of the century could reach temperature not seen since 125,000 years ago when ocean levels were 12 to 20 feet higher than they are now. Much of that extra water is currently locked in the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, which are beginning to melt. While there is evidence that the glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic could flow seaward far more quickly than current estimates predict, the climate change panel did not include this in its assessment because it is forbidden by its charter to engage in speculation. According to Michel Jarraud, the secretary general of the United Nations World Meteorological Organization, “the speed with which melting ice sheets are raising sea levels is uncertain, but the report makes clear that sea levels will rise inexorably over the coming centuries. It is a question of when and how much, and not if.”
bullet The harmful consequences of global warming can be lessened if governments take prompt action.
Responses -
bullet Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, which administers the panel along with the World Meteorological Organization, says: “In our daily lives we all respond urgently to dangers that are much less likely than climate change to affect the future of our children. Feb. 2 will be remembered as the date when uncertainty was removed as to whether humans had anything to do with climate change on this planet. The evidence is on the table.”
bullet John P. Holdren, an energy and climate expert at Harvard, who is the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says the report “powerfully underscores the need for a massive effort to slow the pace of global climatic disruption before intolerable consequences become inevitable.… Since 2001, there has been a torrent of new scientific evidence on the magnitude, human origins and growing impacts of the climatic changes that are under way. In overwhelming proportions, this evidence has been in the direction of showing faster change, more danger and greater confidence about the dominant role of fossil-fuel burning and tropical deforestation in causing the changes that are being observed.”
bullet Richard B. Alley, one of the lead authors and a professor at Pennsylvania State University, says: “Policy makers paid us to do good science, and now we have very high scientific confidence in this work—this is real, this is real, this is real. The ball’s back in your court.” [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2/2/2007 pdf file; New York Times, 2/3/2007; Independent, 2/3/2007]

Entity Tags: Michel Jarraud, John P. Holdren, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Achim Steiner, Richard B. Alley

Timeline Tags: Global Warming

Some skeptics of global warming embrace a recent scientific study showing that ocean bacteria, not greenhouse gases and fossil fuels, are the primary cause of global warming. Unfortunately for the skeptics, the study is a hoax. The faux study, published in the “Journal of Geoclimatic Studies,” is laden with pseudo-scientific jargon “proving” that bacteria in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans emit at least 300 times more carbon dioxide than industrial activity, and apparently fools skeptics. A British scientist e-mails the report to 2,000 colleagues before realizing it was a spoof. A US scientist calls the report a “blockbuster.” [Reuters, 11/8/2007] The conclusion of the “study” is especially interesting to those who dispute global warming. The authors write, “[W]e recognize that in [overturning man-made climate change] we lay our careers on the line. As we have found in seeking to broach this issue gently with colleagues, and in attempting to publish these findings in other peer-reviewed journals, the ‘consensus’ on climate change is enforced not by fact but by fear. We have been warned, collectively and individually, that in bringing our findings to public attention we are not only likely to be deprived of all future sources of funding, but that we also jeopardize the funding of the departments for which we work.” [Note: The site hosting the spoof study has disappeared from the Web, but remains for now in Google’s cache.] [Institute of Geoclimatic Studies, 11/3/2007; Grist Magazine, 11/9/2007]
Rush Limbaugh Taken In - Talk show host Rush Limbaugh tells his listeners of the study, apparently misunderstanding a warning from global warming skeptic Dr. Roy Spencer. While Spencer tells Limbaugh that the study is a spoof, Limbaugh tells listeners that the study proves global warming itself is a hoax. Spencer will apologize to Limbaugh for “not being clear.” [WeatherQuestions (.com), 11/11/2007] (Spencer is a scientific adviser for the “Interfaith Stewardship Alliance,” a “coalition of religious leaders, clergy, theologians, scientists, academics, and other policy experts committed to bringing a proper and balanced Biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development.” [Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, 2005] Conservative blogger and global warming nonbeliever Neil Craig writes: “This could not be more damaging to man-made global warming theory.… I somehow doubt if this is going to be on the BBC news.”
Hoax Exposed and Revealed - But real scientists quickly knock the study down. Deliang Chen, professor of meteorology at Sweden’s Gothenburg University, says, “The whole story is a hoax.” Two of the report’s supposed authors claim to be on the Gothenburg staff, but Chen says they are not students or faculty at his school. [Reuters, 11/8/2007] The research center cited by the article does not exist. Nor does the “Journal of Geoclimatic Studies,” which supposedly published the study. [WeatherQuestions (.com), 11/11/2007] The actual author of the spoof uses the pseudonym “Dr. Mark Cox” in an interview for Nature magazine’s blog, “The Great Beyond.” “Cox” says he wrote the spoof “to expose the credulity and scientific illiteracy of many of the people who call themselves climate skeptics. While dismissive of the work of the great majority of climate scientists, they will believe almost anything if it lends support to their position. Their approach to climate science is the opposite of skepticism.” He says the science proving global warming “could scarcely be clearer.” To a question asking what he would say to those taken in by his hoax, he replies, “More fool you.” [Nature, 11/9/2007]

Entity Tags: David Roberts, Deliang Chen, Rush Limbaugh, Gothenburg University, Neil Craig, Roy W. Spencer, Mark Cox, Nature

Timeline Tags: Global Warming

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