Saturday, December 17, 2011

NYTimes: As Permafrost Thaws, Scientists Study the Risks

The Times hit it out of the park with this one. They covered the major points of the science, sketched how our understanding has changed, and provided real numbers for the estimated impact:

For now, scientists have many more questions than answers. Preliminary computer analyses, made only recently, suggest that the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions could eventually become an annual source of carbon equal to 15 percent or so of today’s yearly emissions from human activities.

But those calculations were deliberately cautious. A recent survey drew on the expertise of 41 permafrost scientists to offer more informal projections. They estimated that if human fossil-fuel burning remained high and the planet warmed sharply, the gases from permafrost could eventually equal 35 percent of today’s annual human emissions.

The experts also said that if humanity began getting its own emissions under control soon, the greenhouse gases emerging from permafrost could be kept to a much lower level, perhaps equivalent to 10 percent of today’s human emissions.
It sounds like a little thing, but I can't tell you how main mainstream news stories:

1) Avoid using numbers completely.
2) Take the first number they are told and put it in the article, not caring whether the number means anything (here they convert it to a % of human emissions, perfect).
3) Stick to one central number, assuming people will be hopelessly confused by the reality of different estimates.

The author gets to the point of what the numbers mean, too:

Even at the low end, these numbers mean that the long-running international negotiations over greenhouse gases are likely to become more difficult, with less room for countries to continue burning large amounts of fossil fuels. 
The whole article does a great job. Good numbers with appropriate caveats:

Scientists need better inventories of the ancient carbon. The best estimate so far was published in 2009 by a Canadian scientist, Charles Tarnocai, and some colleagues. They calculated that there was about 1.7 trillion tons of carbon in soils of the northern regions, about 88 percent of it locked in permafrost. That is about two and a half times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. 
Followed by context:
Philippe Ciais, a leading French scientist, wrote at the time that he was “stunned” by the estimate, a large upward revision from previous calculations.
“If, in a warmer world, bacteria decompose organic soil matter faster, releasing carbon dioxide,” Dr. Ciais wrote, “this will set up a positive feedback loop, speeding up global warming.”

 It may be small of me, but I like a little action in my science stories. It reminds us of the absurdity of the denialist portrait of the rent-seeking elitist ivory-tower scientist, running computer simulations from a desk and collecting grant money:

One recent day, in 11-degree weather, Dr. Walter Anthony and an assistant, Amy Strohm, dragged equipment onto two frozen thermokarst lakes near Fairbanks. The fall had been unusually warm and the ice was thin, emitting thunderous cracks — but it held. In spots, methane bubbled so vigorously it had prevented the water from freezing. Dr. Walter Anthony, six months pregnant, bent over one plume to retrieve samples.

“This is thinner ice than we like,” she said. “Don’t tell my mother-in-law! My own mother doesn’t know.”
Well, they know now. And it's for the good of the public; they need to know what scientists really do.

They don't shy away from explaining how unusual these emissions are:
Dr. Walter Anthony had already run chemical tests on the methane from one of the lakes, dating the carbon molecules within the gas to 30,000 years ago. She has found carbon that old emerging at numerous spots around Fairbanks, and carbon as old as 43,000 years emerging from lakes in Siberia.
“These grasses were food for mammoths during the end of the last ice age,” Dr. Walter Anthony said. “It was in the freezer for 30,000 to 40,000 years, and now the freezer door is open.”

And they talk about the danger of fire:
One day in 2007, on the plain in northern Alaska, a lightning strike set the tundra on fire.
Historically, tundra, a landscape of lichens, mosses and delicate plants, was too damp to burn. But the climate in the area is warming and drying, and fires in both the tundra and forest regions of Alaska are increasing.
The Anaktuvuk River fire burned about 400 square miles of tundra, and work on lake sediments showed that no fire of that scale had occurred in the region in at least 5,000 years.
Are they going to leave it there? No, they are going to give you context for the effect of this fire:
Scientists have calculated that the fire and its aftermath sent a huge pulse of carbon into the air — as much as would be emitted in two years by a city the size of Miami.
As well as what the fire means in the broader context of the permafrost:
Scientists say the fire thawed the upper layer of permafrost and set off what they fear will be permanent shifts in the landscape.
Up to now, the Arctic has been absorbing carbon, on balance, and was once expected to keep doing so throughout this century. But recent analyses suggest that the permafrost thaw could turn the Arctic into a net source of carbon, possibly within a decade or two, and those studies did not account for fire.
“I maintain that the fastest way you’re going to lose permafrost and release permafrost carbon to the atmosphere is increasing fire frequency,” said Michelle C. Mack, a University of Florida scientist who is studying the Anaktuvuk fire. “It’s a rapid and catastrophic way you could completely change everything.”

Almost everyone agrees that the legacy media in general and science journalism in particular are on the rocks these days, but Justin Gillis seems not to have gotten the memo. This article is going to win some awards.


  1. thanks for pointing me to the article!

    The "Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change" that's mentioned in the article is of course the Idso's shed.


  2. Gillis has been doing some excellent reporting on climate related issues. Check out some of his other articles at the times...

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