Friday, December 30, 2011

Curry, Burgess-Jackson & Pangloss (2011)

Judith Curry has a post up that -- well, let's let Dr. Keith Burgess-Jackson, her ostensible inspiration, speak for himself:
What we should do about global warming (again, assuming it exists) depends on the consequences of global warming. Few if any changes have only good consequences or only bad consequences. Almost always, there are both good and bad consequences. Whether we should do something to stop the change, therefore, depends on which type of consequence—good or bad—predominates. How often have you heard a dispassionate discussion of the good consequences of climate change? All you hear, day after day, is a depressing litany of bad consequences. This alone shows that global warmists are biased. They want intervention to stop climate change, so they mention only the bad consequences of climate change. A rational person with no ideological axe to grind would attend to good consequences as well as to bad consequences.
I cannot believe I am about to have this conversation with a scientist who studies hurricanes, but this is totally ridiculous. "Almost always, there are both good and bad consequences"? A professional philosopher said this? It sounds like a fortune cookie. But fine, OK, let's dance. A recent study reported that one out of five American women has been molested or raped. Dr. Burgess-Jackson will now enumerate for us all the positive consequences of that.


[Still waiting . . . millions of rape victims are eager to hear the optimistic corrective . . .]

Well, maybe he'll get back to us. In the meantime he doubles down:
I wish scientists would inform the public [of all] the consequences of global warming, so that the public can decide for itself whether to expend its scarce resources in preventing it. That scientists have not done this is the best evidence yet that they are advocates rather than, as they purport to be, disinterested observers. Is it any wonder that they are not trusted? Do you trust people who are hell-bent on selling you something to the point where they omit relevant information? In law, this is called fraud.
For the love of God, who is this idiot? And why is Judith Curry giving him a platform (no disclaimer this time -- I checked)?

Second question: According the the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 700,000 children were abused or neglected in the United States last year. Positive consequences of that: Go.

I'm sure Dr. Keith Burgess-Jackson will consult his colleagues, possibly including Dr Pangloss, and formulate a response. Forget for a moment that scientists (and economists) talk about positive elements of global warming all the time. They make effort to quantify the CO2 fertilization effect, which should (in contrast to worsening heat waves, droughts, or floods) help certain crops. They estimate reduced deaths from hypothermia. They predicted and have since observed the opening of the Northwest Passage, a very convenient shipping lane. I am sure a professor of philosophy knows what a straw man argument is, and would mark down a student's paper if it made so blatant a use of that fallacy.

But, again, leaving that aside, the argument is still senseless. Why might there be little discussion in the popular press, or in informal conversations, of benefits from climate change? Is bias the parsimonious explanation? Of course not. Let's go back to the hurricanes; in particular, Katrina. It had positive and negative consequences, according to Dr. Curry's new friend. Reporting only on the negative consequences should make you suspect bias. So, when the ninth district was under water, did you see a lot of reporters camped out three hundred miles away, looking for a farmer that might say "Well, it's a terrible human tragedy and a catastrophic failure of civil society, but we really needed the rain."

We all remember the scenes from along the coast, where dozens of homes -- entire settlements, in some cases -- were wiped from the face of the earth. When watching that, did you ever see them cut to a yachting race in New England, where they praised the stiff winds moving upwards from the South? In other words, there are lots of social, pragmatic, and commonsensical reasons why in the face of overwhelming disaster, one might not seek out and highlight tiny areas of positive benefit. Reasons like: it's insensitive, it's orders of magnitude less significant, it's just basically kind of stupid. None of which have anything to do with bias; none of which should make you think that maybe hurricanes are really a wonderful blessing to humanity slandered by scientists and the news media.

Another reason, and this is certainly relevant to climate change, is that those minor benefits may prove, in time, to be illusory. Because we do not live in our own hermetically sealed universes of benefit and harm. Maybe Garrison got some rain it needed from Katrina; it also got tens of thousands of refugees. Maybe my hypothetical yachts got a nice stiff breeze; but their owners also got a nice fat tax bill (or a nice fat slice of federal debt). We are more isolated from the harms in other countries, but not completely. It is folly to think that a hundred million people could starve in a nuke-armed India and that Canada would be above it all, grooving on a longer growing season. Good luck with that.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Revkin vs Revkin: the final battle

Andrew Revkin has completed his methane trilogy. The final installment, "More Views on Climate Risk and Arctic Methane," like part two "Leaders of Arctic Methane Project Clarify Climate Concerns" could be taken as a debunking of his original post on the subject ("Methane Time Bomb in Arctic Seas – Apocalypse Not"). But I prefer to think of it as journalism (very good journalism, when all is said and done) in real time.

 Revkin begins his journey with the piece in the Independent, which he (correctly) recognizes as overhyped. He thinks he already knows this is rubbish, based upon his reporting in 2010:

This all builds on what I was told in 2010, when I last visited the question of methane releases from Arctic seas. . . .  I urge you to read, and pass around, the 2010 post — “The Heat Over Bubbling Arctic Methane.”
He talks to a couple of scientists, and gets a couple of quotes bolstering his view that nothing can have changed:

To review, the authors confirm “drastic bottom layer heating over the coastal zone” that they attribute to warming of the Arctic atmosphere, but conclude that “recent climate change cannot produce an immediate response in sub-sea permafrost.” That’s the understatement of the year considering their conclusion that even under sustained heating, the brunt of the sub-sea methane won’t be affected in this millennium.
We of course do not need the brunt of it, but only, say 2% of it, to radically transform the world(1). No matter. Onward to the "publish" button!

Yet, he cannot have been without the nagging feeling that he forgot something. Something kind of important. Something like talking to the scientists being debunked. But they were on vacation! (2)

So, to his credit, he does a follow-up to that post when Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov check in. And Revkin is no Michael Bay; his sequels are all better than the original. In part two, we find that these researchers were not panicky about methane plumes, as the Independent made them sound, be had real and legitimate concerns about the accuracy of the models Revkin spent his first post praising:

Yes, modeling is important. However, we know that modeling results cannot prove or disprove real observations because modeling always assumes significant simplification and should be validated with observational data, not vice versa. Much of our work includes this field validation. Last spring, we extracted a 53-meter long core sample from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, to validate our conclusions about the current state of subsea permafrost. We found that the temperatures of the sediments were from 1.2 to 0.6 degrees below zero, Celsius, yet they were completely thawed. The model in the Dmitrenko paper [link] assumed a thaw point of zero degrees. Our observations show that the cornerstone assumption taken in their modeling was wrong.
The obvious thing to do after this bombshell was to talk to even more scientists, which Revkin has now done. While none of them look like retreating to a compound in the Rockies just yet, no one appears quite as sanguine as the December 14 Revkin of "Apocalypse Not":

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert: But the clathrate release problem is in a rather different category from the runaway greenhouse issue. It has to be seen as just one of the many fast or slow carbon catastrophes possibly awaiting us, in a system we are just groping to understand. The models of destabilization are largely based on variants of diffusive heat transport, but the state of understanding of slope avalanches and other more exotic release mechanisms is rather poor — and even if it turns out that rapid methane degassing isn’t in the cards, you still do have to worry about those several trillion metric tons of near-surface carbon and how secure they are. It’s like worrying about the state of security of Soviet nuclear warheads, but where you have no idea what kind of terrorists there might be out there and what their capabilities are — and on what time scales they operate.

Edward Brook: One problem with this discussion is that there is no definition of “time bomb” so people get confused. It seems quite likely that continued global warming will increase the emissions of methane from permafrost deposits and marine hydrates. Some of that will get in to the atmosphere, though … some will also be consumed in the water column and in soils. This “chronic” source may increase over time, and affect climate, but for the reasons you discussed it is likely to be slow, and not a catastrophic risk. [So we can't say there's nothing to worry about for a millennium?] Of course it is still important
He goes on to quote a few other scientists to the effect that yes, methyl hydrates may contribute to climate change as a feedback, but no, massive near-instantaneous releases don't seem very likely. Which is comforting, of course, but only up to a point. Besides the fact that they could be wrong (and we know that climate science is not at its best when predicting when stuff is gonna melt) even if they are spot on, how gradual are we talking? Suppose a linear release over a thousands years -- 0.1% per year. That's 1.7 Gt of methane -- roughly half the amount of methane in the atmosphere today. Even if half of it were oxidized in the water column, you would still double the amount of methane in the atmosphere in four years and increase it by a factor of ten in fairly short order. Sweet dreams.

I can't judge Andrew Revkin harshly in this. It's impossible for me to dislike the man (how could I -- he left a comment on my blog!) The worst thing you can say about him is, he's a blogger. He's quick off the draw. Sometimes he'll print first and collect more facts afterwards. He has hobbyhorses and is the more likely to launch into debate to defend positions he's staked out before. But he will keep eleborating, keep talking to people, and correct his original views where they were excessive or misinformed (though you still need to change the date of publication (Oct 19, not Dec 6) in your original post, Andy!) What can I say to that, without being a hypocrite? Let he who has never done a quick edit after reading comments, cast the first stone.


1) 2% of 1700Gt = 34Gt, increasing the existing methane burden in the atmosphere by a factor of tem, with a change in forcing of about +4W/m^2. Given that such a release over a short time period would overwhelm the supply of reactive species to break it down, despite methane's normally short life in the atmosphere, you'd probably be looking at a good 30 years of that before it even began to wane.

2) If I had ever made that excuse to an editor of mine, they would have fried me in extra virgin olive oil and served me with a light white sauce. Especially if I included nothing in the piece to the effect that "I tried to contact these people, but I couldn't reach them."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Minor myths: Do some economists think global warming will be beneficial?

The cost of climate change. Interactive version here.

Several times recently, I've read or had it put to me that we don't know if global warming is going to be harmful or costly, and, specifically, that some economists think it may produce a net benefit.

To investigate this claim, I went to Google Scholar with the search terms "cost climate change." I ignored any article that wasn't about the cost of climate change, and also ignored any article not either written by a trained economist or published in their literature. I took only articles from 2009 onwards, picking up where this interesting study left off (Tol looks at 211 estimates of the cost of climate change, finding eight negative estimates (out of 211) from the work of just three authors, including Tol himself. He concludes -- and, as background, he is unquestionably the most respected and accomplished of the "skeptical" economists -- "Firstly, greenhouse gas emission reduction today is justified. Even the most conservative assumption lead to positive estimates of the social cost of carbon (cf. Table 1) and the Pigou tax is thus greater than zero.")

So onwards towards the present:
1. I quickly found out Martin L. Weitzman is not sanguine:
It is difficult to imagine what +10C–20°C might mean for life on Earth, but such high temperatures have not been seen for hundreds of millions of years and such a rate of change over a few centuries would be unprecedented even on a timescale of billions of years. Global average warming of 10°C–20°C masks tremendous local and seasonal variation, which can be expected to produce temperature increases greater than this at particular times in particular places. Because these hypothetical temperature changes would be geologically instantaneous, they would effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it. At a mini- mum such temperatures would trigger mass species extinctions and biosphere ecosystem disintegration matching or exceeding the immense planetary die-offs associated in Earth’s history with a handful of previous geoenvironmental mega-catastrophes. There exist some truly terrifying consequences of mean temperature increases +10°C–20°C, such as disintegration of Greenland’s and at least the western part of the Antarctic’s ice sheets with dramatic raising of sea level by perhaps thirty meters or so, critically important changes in ocean heat transport systems associated with thermohaline circulations, complete disruption of weather, moisture and precipitation patterns at every planetary scale, highly consequential geographic changes in freshwater availability, and regional desertification.
All of the above-mentioned horrifying examples of climate- change mega-disasters are incontrovertibly possible on a timescale of centuries.
Geez, Martin, thanks for the pep talk.

2. Burniaux et al, writing for the OCED, are less terrified but equally convinced:
The benefits of mitigation policies are difficult to quantify and fully monetise. Nevertheless, OECD analysis finds that when non-market impacts and risks of inaction are factored in, ambitious mitigation action is found to be economically rational – i.e. to result in net benefits – at the global level. This is the case even though the analysis does not factor in the co-benefits from mitigation action (e.g. in terms of human health, energy security or biodiversity), which previous OECD analysis estimated to be large (Burniaux et al. 2008).
 3. I found Richard Tol had done another meta-analysis:
I review the literature on the economic impacts of climate change, an externality that is unprecedentedly large, complex, and uncertain. Only 14 estimates of the total damage cost of climate change have been published, a research effort that is in sharp contrast to the urgency of the public debate and the proposed expenditure on greenhouse gas emission reduction. These estimates show that climate change initially improves economic welfare. However, these benefits are sunk. Impacts would be predominantly negative later in the century. Global average impacts would be comparable to the welfare loss of a few percent of income, but substantially higher in poor countries. Still, the impact of climate change over a century is comparable to economic growth over a few years. There are over 200 estimates of the marginal damage cost of carbon dioxide emissions. The uncertainty about the social cost of carbon is large and right-skewed. For a standard discount rate, the expected value is $50/tC, which is much lower than the price of carbon in the European Union but much higher than the price of carbon elsewhere. Current estimates of the damage costs of climate change are incomplete, with positive and negative biases. Most important among the missing impacts are the indirect effects of climate change on economic development; large-scale biodiversity loss; low-probability, high-impact scenarios; the impact of climate change on violent conflict; and the impacts of climate change beyond 2100. From a welfare perspective, the impact of climate change is problematic because population is endogenous, and because policy analyses should separate impatience, risk aversion, and inequity aversion between and within countries.
4. Bollen et al revisit a longtime hobbyhorse of IT, the additional benefits to human health and welfare of cutting fossil fuel burning, a major cause of asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. They think the air pollution benefits may be the larger benefit! But, again, there's no suggestion than global warming isn't a significantly costly event:
We attempt to cover at least part of the existing gap in the literature by assessing how costs and benefits of technologies and strategies that jointly tackle these two environmental problems can best be balanced. By using specific technological options that cut down local air pollution, e.g. related to particulate emissions, one may concurrently reduce CO2 emissions and thus contribute to diminishing global climate change. Inversely, some of the long-term climate change strategies simultaneously improve the quality of air in the short run. We have extended the well-established MERGE model by including emissions of particulate matter, and show that integrated environmental policies generate net global welfare benefits. We also demonstrate that the discounted benefits of local air pollution reduction significantly outweigh those of global climate change mitigation, at least by a factor of 2, but in most cases of our sensitivity analysis much more. Still, we do not argue to only restrict energy policy today to what should be our first priority, local air pollution control, and wait with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, we propose to design policies that simultaneously address these issues, as their combination creates an additional climate change bonus. As such, climate change mitigation proves an ancillary benefit of air pollution reduction, rather than the other way around.
5. Hill et al, who are primarily concerned with analyzing the utility of biofuels, cleverly use estimates of the cost of CCS (carbon capture and storage) to set an upper limit on carbon costs:
We generate a monetary cost for GHG emissions based on independent estimates of carbon mitigation costs, carbon market prices, and the social cost of carbon. Carbon mitigation (capture and storage) costs for an integrated gasification combined-cycle electricity generating plant are $92–$147 Mg−1 C (18); we use the midpoint of this range, $120 Mg−1 C. This estimate is in the range of recent prices on the European carbon market [€23–28 Mg−1 CO2, or U.S. $133–$162 Mg−1 C at an exchange rate of $1.58 €−1 in July 2008, and €18–23 Mg−1 CO2, or U.S. $88–$112 Mg−1 C at an exchange rate of $1.33 €−1 in October 2008] (molecular weight ratio of CO2:C = 44:12). It is also within the range of estimates for the “social cost of carbon,” which represents the expected future damages from enhanced climate change (e.g., damages from sea level rise, increased storm intensity, and crop losses from more intensive drought). The mean estimate of the social cost of carbon from peer-reviewed studies was $43 Mg−1 C (19), although there was large variation in the estimates from below $0 to >$300 Mg−1 C. The large variation in estimates occurs largely because of disagreement on how to weigh future costs and benefits relative to the present (“discounting”) and how to weigh costs and benefits accruing to poor and rich countries (“equity weights”). In addition, there are large uncertainties about climate forcing impacts and future human adaptability.
 6. Anthoff, Hepburn, and Tol (him again!) find that equity-weighting increases the estimated damages of climate change. What is equity weighting? I have no idea (the downside of wading through the economists' literature). My usual approach is useless -- there's no Wikipedia page. At any rate, they use a damages estimate that is positive, based on Tol's earlier work.
Climate change will give rise to different impacts in different countries, and different countries have different levels of development. Equity-weighted estimates of the (marginal) impact of greenhouse gas emissions reflect these differences. This paper analyses the impact of equity weighting on the marginal damage cost of carbon dioxide emissions, and reaches four main conclusions. First, equity-weighted estimates are substantially higher than estimates without equity-weights; equity-weights may even change the sign of the social cost estimates. Second, estimates differ by two orders of magnitude depending on the region to which the equity weights are normalised. Third, equity-weighted estimates are sensitive to the resolution of the impact estimates. Depending on the assumed intra-regional income distribution, estimates may be more than twice as high if national rather than regional impacts are aggregated. Fourth, variations in the assumed inequality aversion have different impacts in different scenarios, not only because different scenarios have different emissions and hence warming, but also because different scenarios have different income differences, different growth rates, and different vulnerabilities.
 7. Ackerman et al feel existing estimates of the economic damages of climate change systematically underestimate the problem:
The integrated assessment models (IAMs) that economists use to analyze the expected costs and benefits of climate policies frequently suggest that the “optimal” policy is to go slowly and to do relatively little in the near term to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We trace this finding to the contestable assumptions and limitations of IAMs. . . . A better approach to climate policy, drawing on recent research on the economics of uncertainty, would reframe the problem as buying insurance against catastrophic, low-probability events. Policy decisions should be based on a judgment concerning the maximum tolerable increase in temperature and/or carbon dioxide levels given the state of scientific understanding. The appropriate role for economists would then be to determine the least-cost global strategy to achieve that target. While this remains a demanding and complex problem, it is far more tractable and epistemically defensible than the cost-benefit comparisons attempted by most IAMs. 
8. Anthoff and Tol are back, "Discounting for Climate Change":
. . . However, if we probabilistically constrain the parameters to values that are implied by observed behaviour, we find that the expected social cost of carbon, corrected for uncertainty and inequity, is approximate 60 US dollar per metric tonne of carbon (or roughly $17 per tonne of CO2) under the assumption that catastrophic risk is zero. 
. . . the problem with that being that catastrophic risk isn't zero. In any case, again the cost is positive.

9.Heltberg et al don't give us a number, but they don't give any hint they think climate change will be of net benefit in "Addressing human vulnerability to climate change: Toward a ‘no-regrets’ approach":

Recent evidence and predictions indicate that climate changes are accelerating and will lead to wide-ranging shifts in climate variables. There will be changes in the mean and variance of rainfall and temperature, extreme weather events, food and agriculture production and prices, water availability and access, nutrition and health status. The most adverse impacts are predicted in the developing world because of geographic exposure, reliance on climate sensitive sectors, low incomes, and weak adaptive capacity. Socio-economic impacts, though generally not well- understood, are likely to be profound and will impact humans through a variety of direct and indirect pathways (IPCC, 2007; Cline, 2007; Stern, 2007). The indirect risks are often hard to predict (they are the consequences of consequences) but could have the worst impacts.
 10. Jamet and Corfee-Morlot (love those French names) round out our top ten with a nice review: "Assessing the Impacts of Climate Change":

On the whole, estimates of the global impact of climate change have not changed much over the last 10 years according to the IPCC (Figure 3). However, the Stern review estimates are much larger than in other studies. As already mentioned, this is mainly due to a low discount rate, and to a lesser extent to new information regarding the impacts (Nordhaus, 2007a; Dasgupta, 2007). Nevertheless, use of a low discount rate may involuntarily yield more plausible estimates than those in the rest of the literature (Weitzman, 2007). This is in part because there are large uncertainties on the impacts of climate change, which are explained in more detail in the following section.

So what have we learned from this exercise? For my part I am reminded again that it is much easier to be a liar than to defend the truth. It's easy for a denier to causally toss off the assertion that some economists think climate change will be of net benefit. Maybe they are thinking of Lomborg (who supports a carbon tax, and anyhow is not actually an economist) or Tol (who is also on record supporting a carbon tax.) Maybe they are just repeating something they've heard; maybe they think it sounds plausible and no one is likely to check. But in any case the misinformation is the work of a moment; fact-checking it takes weary hours.

At any rate: economists more or less universally believe that the impact of global warming will be a net negative. They differ as to the magnitude of the damages expected, but for the most part they are in broad agreement with the climate scientists that global warming on a business as usual pathway will be expensive and destructive in the best case and utterly catastrophic at the worst.

Let me count the ways

How can we as a society slow climate change?

Right now the discourse about solutions is limited by the problem that many of the stakeholders have refused to come to the table, instead denying the problem exists, or prioritizing other concerns.

Someone like me, designing a program more or less in a vacuum, is free to come up with what they view as a simple and an optimal approach. But when the action really starts, the program will likely not be optimal, and not be simple. That's OK: slowing climate change is a matter of survival, and like fighting a war, we do not need to find the optimal solution, just a solution that works.

It's easy to lose sight of that, I think. Creating a low-emissions society is likely to be an expensive and difficult undertaking, and when arguing for our own favorite approach, it is easy to slip into the mentality that says if this is not done in the best way (my way) that failure is assured.

+80m sea level -- not soon, but soon to be inevitable
If we embark on a messy, complicated, in some measures unrealistic approach; an approach that pampers some stakeholders and imposes an unfair burden on others, that will be inefficient, and in some measure unjust, but nowhere near as bad as doing nothing.

Progressives, environmentalists, conservatives, and libertarians are likely to have different opinions as to the best approach. We should celebrate the day when everyone is arguing about how to fight climate change, rather than arguing about whether it is happening. The wider the array of options, the more likely any given faction can find an approach they like. So what are some of the options?
From Nordhaus et al (2010)

Carbon taxes (higher or lower), cap and trade (fixed allowances versus falling quotas vs buy-back), regulation (industries must cut emissions by 5% per year, figuring out how themselves; energy efficient technologies mandated; high mileage standards for cars), direct intervention (by, for example, mass producing the new AP1000 reactor like Liberty ships, by the thousands. Or, for the more ambitious, we could quickly finalize and mass produce something such as a thorium-based molten salt reactor.) There is carbon sequestration, via tree planting or no-till agriculture or subterranean injection or transferring the carbon to the deep sea.

There are various methods of geoengineering: aerosol injection, painting roofs white, shooting a saltwater spray upwards to generate more reflective clouds.

We can subsidize research and development into low-carbon energy sources; we can undertake a variety of methods to improve energy efficiency (upgrading to a national HVDC grid, for example, or changing building regulations, or reducing traffic congestion with smart highways, or improving our rail networks.)

In terms of reaching an international accord, we can proceed with multilateral negotiations, like the ones that produced the Kyoto Protocol, or we could pursue a more muscular approach, like the recent EU ruling on commercial airline emissions; identify large countries ready to move forward and pressure others to cooperate with trade carrots and sticks.

I could go on. Some of these methods are better than the others; most would not work singly, meaning we need some combination of approaches. Geoengineering, for example, is not (in my opinion) practical by itself, chiefly because you would have to continue it for hundreds or thousands of years, and any interruption, such as an international conflict, could lead to extremely rapid warming. We might, however, decide to gradually reduce our emissions over the next century, using geoengineering for a couple of centuries to avoid tipping points, and ramping up carbon sequestration to have CO2 back at a reasonable level by then.

We have to do something, and soon. The harmful effects of global warming continue to arrive ahead of schedule (h/t Steve Bloom.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Semiletov and Shakhova report

The methane researchers who disturbed our rest and inspired immediate, pre-communication debunking by Andrew Revkin, Semiletov and Shakhova, now explain their concerns to him based on the recent findings:
We would first note that we have never stated that the reason for the currently observed methane emissions were due to recent climate change. In fact, we explained in detail the mechanism of subsea permafrost destabilization as a result of inundation with seawater thousands of years ago. We have been working in this scientific field and this region for a decade. We understand its complexity more than anyone.  And like most scientists in our field, we have to deal with slowly improving understanding of ongoing processes that often incorporates different points of views expressed by different groups of researchers.
Yes, modeling is important. However, we know that modeling results cannot prove or disprove real observations because modeling always assumes significant simplification and should be validated with observational data, not vice versa. Much of our work includes this field validation. Last spring, we extracted a 53-meter long core sample from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, to validate our conclusions about the current state of subsea permafrost. We found that the temperatures of the sediments were from 1.2 to 0.6 degrees below zero, Celsius, yet they were completely thawed. The model in the Dmitrenko paper [link] assumed a thaw point of zero degrees. Our observations show that the cornerstone assumption taken in their modeling was wrong. The rate at which the subsea permafrost is currently degrading largely depends on what state it was in when recent climate change appeared. It makes sense that modeling on an incorrect assumption about thaw point could create inaccurate results.
Observations are at the core of our work now. It is no surprise to us that others monitoring global methane have not found a signal from the Siberian Arctic or increase in global emissions. [This refers to the work of Ed Dlugokencky and others; see his comments in my Dot Earth post.] The number of stations monitoring atmospheric methane concentrations worldwide is very few. In the Arctic there are only three such stations — Barrow, Alert, Zeppelin — and all are far away from the Siberian Arctic. We are doing our multi-year observations, including year-round monitoring, in proximity to the source. In addition to measuring the amount of methane emitted from the area, we are trying to find out whether there is anything specific about those emissions that could distinguish them from other sources. It is incorrect to say that anyone is able to trace that signal yet.
All models must be validated by observations. New data obtained in our 2011 cruise and other unpublished data give us a clue to reevaluate if the scale of methane releases from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf seabed is assessed correctly (papers are now in preparation). This is how science works: step by step, from hypothesis based on limited data and logic to expanded observations in order to gain more facts that could equally prove or disprove the hypothesis. We would urge people to consider this process, not jump to conclusions and be open to the idea that new observations may significantly change what we understand about our world.
So what is the news here? The different thaw point result will need to be replicated. How far down the melt goes should be directly measured in as many locations as possible. Meanwhile, it should be trivial to do model runs at different thaw points and see what effect that might have.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Steven Mosher explained

Why is he the way he is? Now it's a little clearer:

That's right. He's performed deconstructions. You sit with that, four eyes, with your "science" and your "data." You ponder it.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Alaska methane levels spike

Let's hope the data at the far right (which is preliminary and unconfirmed) represents a measurement artifact and not the postscript to Ed Dlugokencky recent reassurances:
[B]ased on what we see in the atmosphere, there is no evidence of substantial increases in methane emissions from the Arctic in the past 20 years.
This came up at Neven's, whereupon it was pointed out that CO2 is spiking too:

Which could indicate the sensors are off. On the other hand, we would expect a significant fraction of any undersea methane release to be oxidized to CO2, and melting permafrost also releases both gases . . . so I don't know that the presence of a similar anomalous spike in the CO2 measurements really helps us decide if the methane spike is real. Only time will tell, I suppose . . . updates as I find them.


Cold Bay shows a spike for CO2:

But nothing out of the ordinary for methane:

While NOAA's interactive map is incredibly helpful, what one would not give for a few Siberian sites.

A Christmas Carol guide to denial

It's global cooling! Or not.
It hasn't changed much:

'I wish to be left alone,' said Scrooge. 'Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.'
   'Many can't go there; and many would rather die.'
   'If they would rather die,' said Scrooge, 'they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides-excuse me-I don't know that.'
   'But you might know it,' observed the gentleman.
Choosing not to know -- choosing not to see. Deliberate ignorance in the face of unwelcome insight. And if someone pushes that insight upon you, what then?

[1]"Deny it!' cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city.[2] 'Slander those who tell it ye! [3] Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And abide the end!' 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Making sense of methane

I'm traveling today, but here are a few review articles about methane which are free online:

"Atmospheric Methane: Trends and Impacts"
"As discussed earlier, increasing water vapor from methane could be leading to an increased amount of polar stratospheric clouds. Ramanathan (1988) notes that both water and ice clouds, when formed at cold lower stratospheric temperatures, are extremely efficient in enhancing the atmospheric greenhouse effect. He also notes that there is a distinct possibility that large increases in future methane may lead to a surface warming that increases nonlinearly with the methane concentration."
"Archer: Destabilization of Methane Hydrates: A Risk Analysis"
"Methane is less concentrated than CO2, and its absorption bands less saturated, so a single molecule of additional methane has a larger impact on the radiation balance than a molecule of CO2, by about a factor of 24 [Wuebbles and Hayhoe, 2002]. The radiative impact of CH4 follows the concentration to roughly the 1/3 power, while the CO2 impact follows the log of the concentration. To get an idea of the scale, we note that a doubling of methane from present-day concentration would be equivalent to 60 ppm increase in CO2 from present-day, and 10 times present methane would be equivalent to about a doubling of CO2." 

"Strong atmospheric chemistry feedback to climate warming from Arctic methane emissions"
"The indirect contribution to RF of additional methane emission is particularly important. It is shown that if global methane emissions were to increase by factors of 2.5 and 5.2 above current emissions, the indirect contributions to RF would be about 250% and 400%, respectively, of the RF that can be attributed to directly emitted methane alone. Assuming several hypothetical scenarios of CH4 release associated with permafrost thaw, shallow marine hydrate degassing, and submarine landslides, we find a strong positive feedback on RF through atmospheric chemistry. In particular, the impact of CH4 is enhanced through increase of its lifetime, and of atmospheric abundances of ozone, stratospheric water vapor, and CO2 as a result of atmospheric chemical processes."

. . . so make sense of it your own damn self! Kidding. Here are a some things I gleaned:

* The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is uniquely vulnerable, and this vulnerable formation has its own vulnerable sub-sections. So a leak, while serious, would not necessarily imply a planetary disaster.

* Doubling methane would increase forcing by about 0.4 - 0.6 W/m^2 (that is a harder number to find then you might think.) The calculation is complicated, because the effect of methane on water vapor, ozone, and reactive O2 species effects both the warming caused by the methane and the lifespan of the methane in the atmosphere.

* The impact of an event similar to the Storegga landslide I found helpfully described as "similar in magnitude and duration but opposite in sign to a large volcanic eruption." The largest known "mud volcanoes" have similar potential.

Overall, this is a complex but not unapproachable subject. Worriers like me will find plenty to worry about, but there are also good reasons why oceanic methane release is not the thing keeping methane scientists up at night. And the science and research is really cool.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Justin Gillis on methyl hydrates

Justin Gillis' dead eyes will burn into you until he gets to the truth.

Man, I should buy a lottery ticket.

While we were working our way through the very excited British accounts of the methyl hydrate threat, and the very phlegmatic (but not entirely convincing) response of Andy Revkin, Justin Gillis came out with a fantastic article on permafrost that is already getting rave reviews. And I thought "I wish Justin Gillis would take on this methane thing."

And in less than a day, Justin Gillis took on the methane thing: "Arctic Methane: Is Catastrophe Imminent?" And Gills' sources, like Revkin's are not overly impressed with the threat of massive methane release:

While examples can already be found of warmer ocean currents that are apparently destabilizing such deposits—for example, at this site off Spitsbergen, an island in the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic—the scientists explained that a pervasive ocean warming sufficient to destabilize a lot of methane hydrates would almost certainly take thousands of years.
And even if that happened, many scientists say that the methane released would largely be consumed in the sea (by bacteria that specialize in eating methane) and would not reach the atmosphere. That is what seems to be happening off Svalbard.
“I think it’s just dead wrong to talk about ‘Arctic Armageddon,’ ” said William S. Reeburgh, an emeritus scientist at the University of California, Irvine, who spent decades studying such matters and says the likely consumption of methane within the ocean should not be underestimated. “Most of this methane is never going to see the atmosphere.”
Nobody regards the case as closed, and more research is necessary, but most of the methane deposits lining the margins of continents would seem to be fairly low on the list of scientific concerns about global warming.
 But the Arctic is, perhaps, something of an exception:

The methane hydrate deposits in the Arctic Ocean may represent a somewhat greater hazard because the Arctic is warming so rapidly. Considerable attention was devoted to a paper published last year that found methane bubbling out across large areas of ocean above the East Siberian Shelf, which has some of the Arctic’s largest methane hydrate deposits.
But that paper did not prove that the methane release was new, much less that it was increasing. Subsequent work by others has in fact suggested that these particular deposits have probably been unstable and slowly breaking down since the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago.
Moreover, the zone from which the methane is escaping appears to represent only a fraction of the total methane beneath the Arctic Ocean. Most methane hydrate is far enough below the sea floor that sediments serve as an insulating layer, limiting how fast heat can spread downward. Again, the most careful calculations seem to put any significant methane release at hundreds or even thousands of years in the future.
As I hope to describe in more detail later this week, methane measurements in the atmosphere are consistent with the picture I just outlined. They do not support the idea that any big new releases of methane are occurring in the Arctic yet, at least not on a sufficient scale to have an overall impact on the planet’s methane burden. So if a methane “time bomb” actually exists in the ocean, as some news stories would have you believe, it seems fairly clear that it hasn’t gone off yet.
Still, there’s no question that some scientists are worried about this issue — less by what we know than what we don’t. Carolyn Ruppel, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey, is leading some of the efforts to get better information and especially to map areas off northern Alaska that may contain deposits of methane hydrate. “We need a baseline” against which future changes can be judged, she said.
None of these reassurances are entirely satisfying as regards the recent observations, but until we have some clear numbers on those observations and preferably confirmation from another team at the Shelf, or detect a change in the atmospheric burden of methane, it's hard to judge how, if at all, the new observations are going to change how we see the situation under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

We await developments (I do feel somewhat better). Meanwhile, a couple of good sources:

Neven's post and thread are superb, as usual.
The Columbia Journalism Review went over the major articles in this mini-methane-stampede.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is the debate about climate science really about values?

Pielke Jr thinks so:

As I argued in my first essay in this roundtable, the justification of political actions in terms of science is a common feature of our politics, expressly because science is held in such high regard. Everyone (many scientists included) seems to think that by invoking the scientific correctness of his or her positions, he or she can reach a moral high ground that will trump the arguments presented by opponents (who, typically, also appeal to science). Science is thus viewed as a way to circumvent political discourse over values and interests.

For instance, we began this exchange with an invitation to respond to a question motivated by the statements made by Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, who expressed skepticism about the science of climate change. While we've been having this discussion, the Obama administration has decided to overrule the recommendation of an FDA science advisory committee on the safety of an over-the-counter contraceptive for girls under age 17. 

While many observers cast both examples as anti-science, neither has anything to do with being anti-science and everything to do with politics and values.
While I think Dr Pielke has half a point here, he is holding it upside down. The story of how politicians and voters end up butting heads over science may sometimes have to do with ill-judged appeals to scientific legitimacy, but more often they have to do with the rigid rationality of science bringing to the fore the irrational contradictions between our stated goals and values and our feelings (including our desires, gut instincts, prejudices). Science is attacked not in defense of our values, but rather to defend ourselves from our values when they conflict with our impulses. Science is collateral damage in an assault on our own values and interests.

Suppose you are a man of a certain age ordering breakfast in a restaurant. You want this:

But you know your doctor wants you to order this:

You enjoy being alive and being able to climb a flight of stairs or two without feeling like the air is being squeezed out of your chest. Therefore you and your doctor are not having a conflict about values, or about interests. The second breakfast is the right thing to do. But you want plate number one. And that is where the anti-science rationalizations suddenly become useful.

Doctors don't know everything. They keep changing their minds about what is healthy [but not about whether you should eat 3,000 calories for breakfast]. My father ate whatever he wanted, and he lived to be 80! [Diabetic, blind, and in a nursing home after three heart attacks.] I reject the tyranny of health nuts! Give me plate one!

The debate about emergency contraception is the same thing. It's not (mostly) about values. As a society, most of us agree that kids should have ready access to contraception. But Plan B does not feel like contraception. Even when we know the facts, a pill you take after sex to prevent pregnancy feels like an abortifactant. People who have no problem with kids having access to condoms don't want them to have easy access to Plan B. Because of how it feels.

Climate denial is the same thing all over again. It's not a debate about values. No one's values are served by endangering human civilization or by bringing about the extinction of 40%-70% of all extant species. Conservative, liberal, religious, atheist; that possibility should be equally offensive to everybody. Nobody will argue openly for hurting the poor so the rich can freely pollute, or impoverishing the world of our children so that we can continue to waste.

The things that climate science in combination with what their own values imply -- that's what deniers are running from, because their feelings bring them in conflict with their values. That is also the problem in engaging the broader waffling public. To act we have to think about the long term (hard). We need to spend some money and energy now for benefits that are mostly in the future (hard). Conservatives need to accept that in this area, governments will need to be active in preventing a tragedy of commons (hard).

Conflicts over values can be hashed out directly. People bring science into it mostly, I think, when the hard clear light of scientific reason shows them something their values and interests tell them they should do -- but they still don't want to. Rather than control their feelings and impulses to bring them into line with their interests, or modify their values, they attack the messenger. When they do they use whatever materials are at hand, drifting around in the zeitgeist.

For an American, that means populism, anti-elitism, anti-secularism. Scientists are attacked as leftist with an agenda, ivory-tower dons who have lost touch with reality, parasites subsisting off of tax dollars, distracted professors without common sense. None of these tropes are new; they have been around for decades, some of them for centuries. They can come tinged with anti-Semitism. But at the deepest level, science is not the true target of these attacks -- their purpose is to help people close the gap between what they know they should do (based on their own values and interests) and what they want to do (based on their feelings and desires).

Monday, December 19, 2011

Semiletov v Dmitrenko: The tale of the tape

Thanks to Mr. Revkin's intrepid reporting, we now know that there is a bit of a schism afflicting researchers looking at methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). After reporting on the permafrost model presented by Dmitrenko at the recent AGU meeting (a model that suggests methane releases in the Arctic are not going to markedly accelerate with climate change), Revkin relates:
Semiletov is finally in touch with me (he'd gone on vacation right after AGU) and you'll hear more on his work soon. He's very critical of Dmitrenko. This kind of back-and-forthing is the process of science in action.
And indeed it is. And both of these authors have many peer-reviewed climate studies to their name. They are both respectable professionals, and only time will tell who has a better sense of what is happening on the ESAS. I was interested, though, in how they compared to one another in terms of their stature in this field, so I did a little research.

There is no completely reliable and objective way to gauge the impact of a particular researcher in their field, but a commonly used rule of thumb is to look at the number of times their publications have been cited. Once a scientist crosses the great divide of peer-reviewed publication that separates him or her from a Monckton or a Glenn Beck, the next test of relevance is whether or not their work is useful to others in the field; whether it is considered to be work that needs to be addressed or built upon. Science that doesn't stand the test of time gets superseded or just ignored.

Citations, then, are a way to assess, within the scientific community, what Samuel Johnson called the only objective measure of greatness "length and duration of esteem."

One quick example of how this works. Steig (2009) analyzed temperature trends in Antarctica. A "skeptic," Ryan O'Donnell, with assistance from Steig, turned his critique of Steig (2009) into something that successfully navigated peer review -- O'Donnell (2010). Climate Audit then triumphantly proclaimed "O'Donnell et al 2010 Refutes Steig et al 2009." Watts gloated similarly.

With both publications in print for more than a year, let's see how they're doing:

Improved methods for PCA-based reconstructions: case study using the Steig et al. 2009 Antarctic temperature reconstruction (O'Donnell et al, 2010). Cited by 2.
"Warming of the Antarctic ice-sheet surface since the 1957 International Geophysical Year" (Steig et al, 2009). Cited by 163.
 So that's basically how it works. Better science tends to get more citations. So with that in mind, I searched Google Scholar for "Semiletov and methane," and "Dimitrenko and methane," and took the first five articles I could find:

Dimitrenko and methane
IA Dmitrenko, SA Kirillov, LB Tremblay… - Journal of Geophysical …, 2011 - 

None yet.

IA Dmitrenko, SA Kirillov, LB Tremblay… - Journal of Geophysical …, 2010 -

Cited by 8.

…, JA Hoelemann, I Dmitrenko… - SPECIAL PAPERS- …, 2007 -

Cited by 2.

C Schultz - Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 2011 -

This is a summary of the first paper. I did it again! But there's nothing else to plug in here. No citations.

J Hoelemann, M Makhotin, C Wegner, I Dmitrenko… - 2008 -


Dmitrenko has a total of ten citations for these papers. I felt a little bad about this, so I looked into the matter some more, and found, based on his publications listed at the International Arctic Research Center, that he is more of a water-and-wind guy, and less of a permafrost-and-methane guy (nothing wrong with that). So I tried again with the publications listed here:

Dmitrenko, I, Kirillov S, Eicken H, Markova N. 2005. Wind-driven summer surface hydrography of the eastern Siberian Shelf. Geophysical Research Letters. 32:L14613.

Cited by 13.

Dmitrenko, I, Holemann J, Kirillov S, Berezovskaya S, Ivanova D, Eicken H, Kassens H. 2006. Sea ice impact on the periodical shallow water dynamics in the Laptev Sea (Siberian Arctic). Proceedings of the 16th IAHR International Symposium on Ice at Dunedin, New Zealand. :375-381.

Cited by 2.

Dmitrenko, I, Kirillov S, Ivanov VV, Woodgate R. 2008. Mesoscale Atlantic water eddy off the Laptev Sea continental slope carries the signature of upstream interaction. Journal of Geophysical Research. 113:C07005.

Cited by 5.

Dmitrenko, I, Tyshko K, Kirillov S, Hölemann J, Eicken H, Kassens H. 2005. Impact of flaw polynas on the hydrography of the Laptev Sea. Global and Planetary Change. 48:9-27.

Could not find with Google Scholar.

Dmitrenko, I, Polyakov IV, Kirillov S, Timokhov L, Simmons HL, Ivanov VV, Walsh D. 2006. Seasonal Variability of Atlantic Water on the Continental Slope of the Laptev Sea during 2002-2004. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 244:735-743.

Cited by 11.

A total of 31 citations, or an average of six per publication (possibly depressed a bit by my inability to find citations for the fourth paper.)

Semiletov and methane
SA Zimov, YV Voropaev, IP Semiletov, SP Davidov… - Science, 1997 - 

Cited by 116. 

[PDF] from Shakhova, I Semiletov, A Salyuk, V Yusupov… - Science, 2010 -

Cited by 55.

N Shakhova, I Semiletov… - Geophysical Research Letters, 2005 -

Cited by 36.

…, I Semiletov - Journal of Marine Systems, 2007 - Elsevier

Cited by 19.

N Shakhova, I Semiletov, A Salyuk… - Geophysical Research …, 2008 -

Cited by 11.

Total citations: 227.

Semiletov's least cited paper is cited almost as many times (11) as Dmitrenko's most cited (13). He has more than seven times as many citations. Also, interestingly, he's clearly something of a specialist in this area; finding five papers about Arctic methane by Semiletov was no trouble at all. Dmitrenko has expertise in the relevant fields of hydrology and the Arctic, but he seems to be something of a methane newbie; only the first paper, which Revkin references, from October 2011, is about methane emissions.

Dmitrenko is a serious scientist; his work should be and will be judged on its merits. Nothing against him. But taking a quick look at their respective records, Dmitrenko is a strange choice for a debunker of Semiletov's concerns. First, basic weight-class stuff:

1. Dmitrenko's top papers have been cited a few dozen times; Semiletov has hundreds of citations.

On methane:

2. Semiletov has been studying methane emissions from waterlogged permafrost for at least 15 years; Dmitrenko published his first paper on the subject three months ago.

On the type of studies:

3. Dmitrenko's is a permafrost modelling study; Semiletov recently returned with direct observations from the ESAS.

Final verdict: ADVANTAGE SEMILETOV for greater experience, and longer record, more respect from peers, and recent direct observations of the phenomenon in question. I award bonus points because the established methane researcher, with a longer record and more citations, would be the one we would expect would be downplaying recent changes and be disposed to assert continuity in the face of excitable newcomers to the field. If the old man is worried, well, it puts me in mind of the old joke shirt:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Open letter to Andrew Revkin

Mr. Revkin, thanks for dropping by.

I appreciate your correction on the two sources you cited, the summary by the AGU and the paper itself. I’m sure you can understand how two pieces with different titles, different authors, and different dates of publication would appear to be different papers. I’ll correct the original post.

You may wish to correct this part of your post: “A paper published in Dec. 6. . . .” The summary was posted Dec 6; the paper was published Oct 19.

As to not being a “middleman” and avoiding “whiplash” -- I don’t entirely understand you here. You thought Semiletov et al were important enough to swiftly reply to the Independent piece, but not enough to speak with any of them or get an account of their findings? When you chose to write on Semiletov and the story in the Independent, you decided to get into a back-and-forth discussion. You then omitted Semiletov, leaving us with the -and-forth. I really don’t think that’s how you improve things.

I would be happier if instead of highlighting a paper published two months ago, you had been able to quote Dmitrenko as saying “Yeah, that Semiletov guy is a nut and his data on the ESAS are not to be trusted.” Then you’re telling one side of the story, but at least you’re telling the story. You didn’t do that; you brought out a modeling study from October.

Not that I don’t think you should remind us what the modeling is saying right now, but really. This expedition and the observations that led up to it are news. If they aren’t news, you should ignore them. If they are news, you can’t pull a book off the shelf and say you’ve explained the observations. It’s as if someone reported a mass revolt sweeping Jordan (surprising, unexpected, unlikely) and you replied by quoting a political science professor’s book from 2010 to the effect that popular revolutions were impossible in the Arab world.

Moreover, there is nothing like a consensus among scientists that we don’t need to worry about this issue or that the methane we’re seeing is just a 8,000-year dribbling out. Under the header "'Arctic Armageddon' Needs More Science, Less Hype" Richard Kerr wrote for the Journal Science that:

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.

Both sentences are part of the state of the science; but you appear to have chosen to only relate the latter part of the warning. I like everything you said about the modeling and Dmitrenko's team, but I think you needed to say more.

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.

Andrew Revkin on methane, ctd

Revkin responded to my criticism in a comment exchange at Quark Soup:

Andy Revkin said...
I sent several emails to Semiletov and others in his group since the AGU presentation. Happy to post when and if there's input from them on the points made by other scientists gauging the long-term risk question. Witnessing a lot of emissions now is important information, and monitoring is essential in such regions. But drawing conclusions about overall risk from this is not possible unless setting those observations against both basic understanding of sub-sea permafrost response to ocean warming and what can be learned by looking back 8,000 years ago etc.
This is a reasonable explanation of why Semiletov et al are not quoted in the article. It is common and uncontroversial to run without an important source when you have made a good faith effort to contact them and haven't been able to.

What confuses me, still, is why he didn't just say that. "I tried to contact Semiletov and others from his group, but no one replied." In addition to being basic good journalism, such a sentence to frame what Revkin is doing in the piece a lot more clearly. If I were his editor, I might suggest a revision, something (preserving Revkin's editorial intent) along the lines of:

There was a story in the Independent last week that tried to get us riled up about the possibility of rapid methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). This story was ostensibly based on a recent expedition to the Shelf by Russian scientists, who were quoted in the article as finding "We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before. Some plumes were a kilometre or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal."

While the Independent made this sound terrifying, they ran a very similar story in 2008, right down to the "intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100 times background levels." Semiletov and his team have not returned emails, and Semiletov's AGU talk is not available online. So the actual results of the trip are not yet available. But there is some important context to the story that the Independent didn't provide:

* Permafrost scientists think that the methane emissions seen from the ESAS over the last few years can be explained by their permafrost models and are part of an 8,000 year process that is not directly linked to global warming.

* They think the bulk of the permafrost is safe for the next thousand years.

Both of these studies are based on modelling and the emissions of prior years, so it's possible Semiletov's team has found something that will challenge those models. Until he publishes his results, or at the very least, starts returning my emails, the state of the science today is still that a rapid, massive release of methane sufficient to accelerate global warming is thought to be unlikely.
That's how I would have written it, not that the highly accomplished Andrew Revkin (no sarc, he's done a lot of great climate writing) needs my imput.

Meanwhile, we need to hear from Semiletov and colleagues. Did anyone hear their talk?