Steady Sea Level Rise Acceleration

A few hundred billion tons of glacial ice is melting every year due to the effects of climate change. This threatens to lead to a sea level rise that may create a future migration crisis far worse than any others in the recent era.

Global sea level rise is not cruising along at a steady 3 mm per year, it’s accelerating a little every year, like a driver merging onto a highway, according to a powerful new assessment led by CIRES Fellow Steve Nerem. He and his colleagues harnessed 25 years of satellite data to calculate that the rate is increasing by about 0.08 mm/year every year — which could mean an annual rate of sea level rise of 10 mm/year, or even more, by 2100.

“This acceleration, driven mainly by accelerated melting in Greenland and Antarctica, has the potential to double the total sea level rise by 2100 as compared to projections that assume a constant rate — to more than 60 cm instead of about 30.” said Nerem, who is also a professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “And this is almost certainly a conservative estimate,” he added. “Our extrapolation assumes that sea level continues to change in the future as it has over the last 25 years. Given the large changes we are seeing in the ice sheets today, that’s not likely.”

If the oceans continue to change at this pace, sea level will rise 65cm (26 inches) by 2100 — enough to cause significant problems for coastal cities, according to the new assessment by Nerem and several colleagues from CU Boulder, the University of South Florida, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Old Dominion University, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The team, driven to understand and better predict Earth’s response to a warming world, published their work today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere increase the temperature of air and water, which causes sea level to rise in two ways. First, warmer water expands, and this “thermal expansion” of the oceans has contributed about half of the 7 cm of global mean sea level rise we’ve seen over the last 25 years, Nerem said. Second, melting land ice flows into the ocean, also increasing sea level across the globe.

Another Avenue for Converting Methane

The capture and conversion of greenhouse gases are important in the existential fight against climate change.

USC scientists have unlocked a new, more efficient pathway for converting methane — a potent gas contributing to climate change — directly into basic chemicals for manufacturing plastics, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

In research published on Dec. 4 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, chemists at USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute say they have found a way to help to utilize this abundant and dangerous greenhouse gas, which is generally burnt or flared to produce energy.

Among common greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide is often cited as the largest culprit for trapping heat on earth, contributing to climate change. However, it is not the most potent.

That distinction belongs to methane. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane traps heat and warms the planet 86 times more than carbon dioxide over a 20-year horizon.

[…]

Global methane emissions have surged since 2007 and output is particularly bad in the United States. According to a recent Harvard University study, the United States could be solely responsible for as much as 60 percent of the global growth in human-caused atmospheric methane emissions during this century.
Contributing to the global surge is the increased supply of livestock and rice fields in countries like India and China, the two leaders in total methane output, according to the World Bank.

[…]

While being the most potent of our popular greenhouse gases, and even after the largest methane leak in U.S. history at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility a few years ago, there are no signs that methane’s abundant production will slow down anytime soon.

Shale fracking and other resource extraction techniques are increasing natural gas reserves, and the Loker scientists believe methane may soon become the most popular of all raw materials for producing petrochemical products.

Immense Amount of Mercury Found in the Northern Permafrost, Posing Threats to Human Health

There’s a potent chance that this revelation will return in the coverage of a significant news story in the future. Mercury isn’t the only danger hidden in the permafrost, of course, as greenhouse gases such as methane are also found there too. And as methane traps about 86 times more heat than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide does, that makes its potential of escalating climate change worrisome.

Mercury though is yet another confirmation that climate change is a truly serious problem that must be addressed. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to find other worrying threats waiting to be melted in the permafrost either.

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Researchers have discovered permafrost in the northern hemisphere stores massive amounts of natural mercury, a finding with significant implications for human health and ecosystems worldwide.

In a new study, scientists measured mercury concentrations in permafrost cores from Alaska and estimated how much mercury has been trapped in permafrost north of the equator since the last Ice Age.

The study reveals northern permafrost soils are the largest reservoir of mercury on the planet, storing nearly twice as much mercury as all other soils, the ocean and the atmosphere combined.

The new study was published today in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

“This discovery is a game-changer,” said Paul Schuster, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado and lead author of the new study. “We’ve quantified a pool of mercury that had not been done previously, and the results have profound implications for better understanding the global mercury cycle.”

Warmer air temperatures due to climate change could thaw much of the existing permafrost layer in the northern hemisphere. This thawing permafrost could release a large amount of mercury that could potentially affect ecosystems around the world. Mercury accumulates in aquatic and terrestrial food chains, and has harmful neurological and reproductive effects on animals.

“There would be no environmental problem if everything remained frozen, but we know the Earth is getting warmer,” Schuster said. “Although measurement of the rate of permafrost thaw was not part of this study, the thawing permafrost provides a potential for mercury to be released — that’s just physics.”

The new findings have major implications for understanding how Earth stores mercury and for human and environmental health, according to James Shanley, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Montpelier, Vermont, who was not involved with the new research.

“This study is very novel and makes a big discovery in an area that was previously somewhat ignored,” Shanley said. “It shows permafrost represents a huge source of mercury, and if it thaws due to climate change the mercury could be released and could significantly add to the global mercury burden.”

[…]

The study found approximately 793 gigagrams, or more than 15 million gallons, of mercury is frozen in northern permafrost soil. That is roughly 10 times the amount of all human-caused mercury emissions over the last 30 years, based on emissions estimates from 2016.

The study also found all frozen and unfrozen soil in northern permafrost regions contains a combined 1,656 gigagrams of mercury, making it the largest known reservoir of mercury on the planet. This pool houses nearly twice as much mercury as soils outside of the northern permafrost region, the ocean and the atmosphere combined.

The effects of the released mercury

Scientists are still unsure how much of the stored mercury would affect ecosystems if the permafrost were to thaw. One major question revolves around how much of the mercury would leach out of the soil into surrounding waterways, according to Steve Sebestyen, a research hydrologist at the USDA Forest Service in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, who was not involved with the new research.

If the mercury is transported across waterways, it could be taken up by microorganisms and transformed into methylmercury, he said. This form of mercury is a dangerous toxin that causes neurological effects in animals ranging from motor impairment to birth defects.

“There’s a significant social and human health aspect to this study,” Sebestyen said. “The consequences of this mercury being released into the environment are potentially huge because mercury has health effects on organisms and can travel up the food chain, adversely affecting native and other communities.”

[…]

The release of mercury could also have far-reaching global consequences, according to Shanley. Mercury released into the atmosphere can travel large distances and could affect communities and ecosystems thousands of miles away from the release site, he said.

Schuster believes his team’s research gives policymakers and scientists new numbers to work with and calibrate their models as they begin to study this new phenomenon in more detail. He intends to release another study modeling the release of mercury from permafrost due to climate change, and said this work changes scientists’ perspective of the global mercury cycle.

“24 percent of all the soil above the equator is permafrost, and it has this huge pool of locked-up mercury,” he said. “What happens if the permafrost thaws? How far will the mercury travel up the food chain? These are big-picture questions that we need to answer.”

Important: Doomsday Clock Now Only 2 Minutes to Midnight

The Doomsday Clock measures the probability of widespread human catastrophe, with the closeness to midnight representing the likelihood of that. Midnight on the Doomsday Clock represents at least a very large portion of humanity — and quite possibly all of it — being finished, destroyed beyond reasonable recovery, resulting in many millions of lost lives and massive damage. Originally designed to measure the dangerousness of nuclear weapons in 1947, the Doomsday Clock now also accounts for the threat of climate change as an existential threat to human survival. The closest to midnight the clock has ever been previously was in 1953, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union detonated thermonuclear weapons, and now the Doomsday Clock is at the same ominous level of closeness — only 2 minutes to midnight.

In response to rising nuclear tensions and concerns about inadequate action to address the climate crisis, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced Thursday the hands of the Doomsday Clock have been moved and it is now just two minutes midnight, a signal to the world that international scientists and policy experts are increasingly worried about the likeliness of global catastrophe.

“In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II,” said a statement from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The Bulletin was established decades ago by creators of the atomic bomb and aims to keep the world informed “about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences.”

“North Korea’s nuclear weapons program appeared to make remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks for itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions on both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation,” the statement continued. “On the climate change front, the danger may seem less immediate, but avoiding catastrophic temperature increases in the long run requires urgent attention now.”

Renewables Set to Strongly Outcompete Fossil Fuels in the Years Ahead

By several important metrics, renewables are already much less costly than fossil fuels. Fossil fuels contribute to an estimated $4.6 trillion in annual pollution costs and another report states that $5 trillion — 6.5 percent of world GDP — is spent on annual fossil fuel subsidies. Also, if the world keeps burning high levels of fossil fuels for decades, there probably won’t be much of a civilization remaining, and that’s the biggest, priciest cost of all.

A new report showing that renewable prices may soon out-compete fossil fuels offers just the latest evidence to bolster demands that oil, gas, and coal to be left “in the ground.”

The cost analysis from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) for delivering electricity was presented Saturday at the opening of the organization’s Eighth Assembly in Abu Dhabi.

Prices are already falling for renewable power generation, the publication notes, and says that wind and solar power will be on par with—or even cheaper than—the cost of fossil fuel-generated electricity by 2020.

Among the “remarkable” price reductions has been for utility-scale solar PV which have dropped 73 percent since 2010, the report says.

New York City is Suing Oil Companies and Divesting $5 Billion from Fossil Fuels

It’s major news for the financial capital of the world to be suing a large part of one of the richest, most toxic industries in history. Climate change is truly among the defining issues of these times. With all that being said, the New York Times had this story on page 23 of their paper today, disappointingly enough. The valuable parts of the alternative media have thankfully been covering this story though.

New York City is seeking to lead the assault on both climate change and the Trump administration with a plan to divest $5bn from fossil fuels and sue the world’s most powerful oil companies over their contribution to dangerous global warming.

City officials have set a goal of divesting New York’s $189bn pension funds from fossil fuel companies within five years in what they say would be “among the most significant divestment efforts in the world to date”. Currently, New York City’s five pension funds have about $5bn in fossil fuel investments. New York state has already announced it is exploring how to divest from fossil fuels.

“New York City is standing up for future generations by becoming the first major US city to divest our pension funds from fossil fuels,” said Bill de Blasio, New York’s mayor.

“At the same time, we’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits. As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”

De Blasio said that the city is taking the five fossil fuel firms – BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell – to federal court due to their contribution to climate change.

Court documents state that New York has suffered from flooding and erosion due to climate change and because of looming future threats it is seeking to “shift the costs of protecting the city from climate change impacts back on to the companies that have done nearly all they could to create this existential threat”.

The court filing claims that just 100 fossil fuel producers are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution, with the five targeted companies the largest contributors.

The case will also point to evidence that firms such as Exxon knew of the impact of climate change for decades, only to downplay and even deny this in public. New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, is investigating Exxon over this alleged deception.

New York was badly rattled by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and faces costs escalating into the tens of billions of dollars in order to protect low-lying areas such as lower Manhattan and the area around JFK airport from being inundated by further severe storms fueled by rising sea levels and atmospheric warming. De Blasio’s office said climate change is “perhaps the toughest challenge New York City will face in the coming decades”.

The legal action and the divestment draw perhaps the starkest dividing line yet between New York and the Trump administration on climate change. Under Trump, the federal government has attempted the withdraw the US from the Paris climate accords, tear up Barack Obama’s signature climate policies and open up vast areas of America’s land and waters to coal, oil and gas interests.

De Blasio and the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, have come under pressure for several years from activists to rid New York’s pension funds of any link to fossil fuels, with some environmentalists claiming the city has been too slow to use its clout to tackle climate change.

Possible Biological Solution to Carbon Capture/Recycling

Carbon capture remains an important goal for fighting off climate change.

Scientists at the University of Dundee have discovered that E. coli bacteria could hold the key to an efficient method of capturing and storing or recycling carbon dioxide.

Cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to slow down and even reverse global warming has been posited as humankind’s greatest challenge. It is a goal that is subject to considerable political and societal hurdles, but it also remains a technological challenge.

New ways of capturing and storing CO2 will be needed. Now, normally harmless gut bacteria have been shown to have the ability to play a crucial role.

Professor Frank Sargent and colleagues at the University of Dundee’s School of Life Sciences, working with local industry partners Sasol UK and Ingenza Ltd, have developed a process that enables the E. coli bacterium to act as a very efficient carbon capture device.

Professor Sargent said, “Reducing carbon dioxide emissions will require a basket of different solutions and nature offers some exciting options. Microscopic, single-celled bacteria are used to living in extreme environments and often perform chemical reactions that plants and animals cannot do.

“For example, the E. coli bacterium can grow in the complete absence of oxygen. When it does this it makes a special metal-containing enzyme, called ‘FHL’, which can interconvert gaseous carbon dioxide with liquid formic acid. This could provide an opportunity to capture carbon dioxide into a manageable product that is easily stored, controlled or even used to make other things. The trouble is, the normal conversion process is slow and sometime unreliable.

“What we have done is develop a process that enables the E. coli bacterium to operate as a very efficient biological carbon capture device. When the bacteria containing the FHL enzyme are placed under pressurised carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas mixtures — up to 10 atmospheres of pressure — then 100 per cent conversion of the carbon dioxide to formic acid is observed. The reaction happens quickly, over a few hours, and at ambient temperatures.

“This could be an important breakthrough in biotechnology. It should be possible to optimise the system still further and finally develop a `microbial cell factory’ that could be used to mop up carbon dioxide from many different types of industry.

“Not all bacteria are bad. Some might even save the planet.”

Not only capturing carbon dioxide but storing or recycling it is a major issue. There are millions of tonnes of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere every year. For the UK alone, the net emission of C02 in 2015 was 404 million tonnes. There is a significant question of where can we put it all even if we capture it, with current suggestions including pumping it underground in to empty oil and gas fields.

“The E. coli solution we have found isn’t only attractive as a carbon capture technology, it converts it into a liquid that is stable and comparatively easily stored,” said Professor Sargent.

“Formic acid also has industrial uses, from a preservative and antibacterial agent in livestock feed, a coagulant in the production of rubber, and, in salt form, a de-icer for airport runways. It could also be potentially recycled into biological processes that produce CO2, forming a virtuous loop.”