Transcript: The Most Disturbing Climate Change Events We've Seen Yet - Dr. Charles Miller - 3 August '16
Thom Hartmann: For tonight's Green Report we head to Siberia, which is now the scene of one the most disturbing climate change-related events we've seen yet. Over the past few weeks, 71 people have been hospitalized and one child has died following an outbreak of anthrax in Western Siberia above the Arctic circle.
Scientists now believe that outbreak began when a massive heat wave melted away layers of permafrost and exposed the bodies of anthrax-infected reindeer who had died more than 70 years ago.
The anthrax spores attached to those dead reindeer bodies then escaped and spread into the surrounding environment, killing thousands of reindeer - contemporary reindeer - and sickening scores of people in the process.
Authorities are still trying to quell the outbreak as of this broadcast.
As bizarre as this story sounds, it's just one example of a larger pattern - one that we should pay much closer attention to.
All over the Arctic right now, scientists are seeing climate change take effect at a rapidly accelerating speed. Ice sheets are melting, sea levels are rising, and dangerous precedents are being set for the future of our planet.
Joining me now for more on the situation up in the Arctic is Dr. Charles Miller, Principal Investigator with the Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment and Deputy Science Lead at Carbon Cycle Science Group at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Dr. Charles Miller - welcome back.
Charles Miller: Thank you very much for having me again.
Thom Hartmann: Great to have you with us. Since 2012, you’ve been running an experiment with NASA to monitor carbon cycling in the Arctic. What prompted that experiment and what have you learned so far?
Charles Miller: There were two main reasons that we chose the Arctic as our area of exploration for this experiment.
Firstly is that the Arctic is a unique laboratory for us to run these experiments in. It is a place where the ecosystems are highly adapted to the very, very cold, brutal conditions that persist for most of the year and then they have a very rapid growing season that takes place in 90 to 100 days, and so because of this they are also extremely sensitive to any changes in those conditions.
And finally, because of the way that the Earth system operates, climate change is happening faster and to a larger extent in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world. So we have this wonderful kind of canary in the coal mine situation where we can look to the Arctic to understand climate change in the entire Earth's system and see it there first.
The other reason that we were interested in going to the Arctic is because of these very cold wet conditions. There's very little opportunity for microbes in the soils to decompose any of the organic matter that accumulates there from dying animals and/or vegetation and therefore historically the artic has acted as a large sink or reservoir accumulating massive amounts of carbon. In fact, it is thought that there are some 1,500 billion metric tons of carbon currently sequestered in the soils, permafrost and peat lands of the northern high latitudes.
Thom Hartmann: So, wow, what would feasibly happen if that carbon is released over any period of time? The next few decades, the next century, or longer. And what is the form of that carbon? And, just for clarification, how do we define permafrost?
Charles Miller: Sure. OK. So, first of all, we define permafrost as soil that remains frozen continuously year round for more than two years in a row. Typically in permafrost areas there's a small surface layer, maybe 10 to 30, 40 centimeters deep in some areas that seasonally thaws and refreezes, but immediately under that there is this solid permafrost which is harder than concrete. And in fact, much of the human infrastructure in the northern high latitudes has been built on this permafrost base. And one of the things that we're seeing now as a manifestation of climate change and warming up there is that permafrost is beginning to thaw, it's losing its structural rigidity, and buildings and other structures like roads that have been built on this permafrost and have been stable for many decades are suddenly falling in. We're seeing the surface collapse in many places and you're seeing a lot of infrastructure damage. That's one thing.
To put the amount of carbon in context for you that we believe is stored in these permafrost soils in the northern high latitudes, I said before that there's about 1,500 billion metric tons that's thought to be stored there. The amount of carbon that has been released from human activities and fossil fuel combustion since the beginning of the industrial era is thought to be in the neighborhood of 350 billion metric tons. So, if something like 10 or 20% of the permafrost carbon were to be thawed and become vulnerable to release into the atmosphere as either carbon dioxide or methane from this climate change, then we would see a natural feedback to the Earth's climate system that would be almost as strong and
probably take about the same amount of time as the 150 years that we've seen for the release of the fossil fuel-related emissions.
Thom Hartmann: What would be the consequence of that?
Charles Miller: That is one of the things that we're trying to understand with the CARVE experiment. What are the sensitivities of these northern high latitude ecosystems to climate change and how does it affect the carbon cycling. Whether we're seeing more or less of these gasses being released and what we're seeing in terms of changes in the overall amounts of fractions.
What we've seen from our studies so far with the CARVE experiment is that using our data from Alaska combined with data that has been acquired over the last 30 or so years from some of the longer term measurement sites, we're seeing no evidence for changes in long term emissions of methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas, but we do see indications that there have been substantial changes in the amount of carbon dioxide being released.
In fact, we think that now instead of storing carbon that Alaska as a whole is actually releasing net amounts of carbon into the atmosphere every year. We don't have evidence yet that it is this very old carbon that might have been stored for thousands or tens of thousands of years in the permafrost, but it looks like it is more recent carbon that may have been stored for a few hundreds of years in the nearer surface layers.
Thom Hartmann: Is, how are these changes in the Arctic affecting the planet overall?
Charles Miller: That's another very good question. So what I said earlier is we have the Arctic acting as a potential bellwether for climate change that might be going on elsewhere in the world. Large changes are being observed in the extent of sea ice over the Arctic ocean. It's actually melting back much more as we progress into the future and there might in fact be in the next decade or two a situation where we have ice-free Arctic ocean in the summer, as opposed to an Arctic that has previously been covered by ice year round.
This freeing up of more open water area for longer periods of time during the summer is increasing the amount of water in that it is driven into the atmosphere from evaporation in the Arctic. And that's having large impacts in precipitation, either as rain or snow in not only the Arctic but into the lower latitudes as well. And it's thought that these combined changes in the length of the growing season, the amount of ice and the amount of water vapor are actually making changes in the patterns of the jet stream so that the recent periods of intense cold and snow, for instance, that have been experienced in the eastern portion of the United States and Canada over the last several years are thought to be driven by changes that are actually taking place in the Arctic.
Thom Hartmann: Is that water vapor in the atmosphere (a) also a greenhouse gas, or functionally a greenhouse gas, and (b) might that account for why we're seeing so many thousand year and hundred year weather events? We just down the road here in Maryland a week or two ago we had a thousand year massive flood took out a small town, basically, simply because of a massive thunderstorm that dropped so much water out of the sky, people had never seen anything like it. Is that tied to this sort of thing? Or could that be?
Charles Miller: These changes that we've seen with more extreme weather events happening in the Arctic, in the mid latitudes, and even in the tropics are just the kind of manifestations that are expected based on global climate models that try to help us understand and project how change might be seen across the world. The drivers away from our past stable state where weather was well understood, it had its typical seasonal patterns, etcetera, and we had relatively fewer occurrences of either major flooding or large scale blizzards or large numbers of other kinds of intense and extreme activity, those conditions seem to be changing now and as the Earth system and climate become less stable in the Arctic and elsewhere, we're seeing more of these events taking place and more extreme events taking place.
One of the things that we've been studying in the northern high latitudes in Alaska and in the Northwest Territories is the fact that in 2014 in Northwest Territories in Canada and in 2015 in Alaska we had record or near record fire here and the amount and area that has been burned in those two years is nearly unprecedented. And we're seeing a change actually in the overall fire regime of the Arctic which is remaking the landscape and is another manifestation we believe of climate impacts in that part of the world.
Thom Hartmann: In the minute and a half or so that we have left, did I understand you to say that when you said 1500 billion tons of carbon up there, that you were talking about the land masses, the permafrost and those kind of things? Does that include any methane that may be at the bottom of the Arctic Sea, the Arctic Ocean?
Charles Miller: No, that actually includes only what we would call soil organic matter that has been frozen and is trapped in the peat and the permafrost.
Thom Hartmann: Do we have any sense of how much might be in the ocean, or is that not an issue?
Charles Miller: There are thought to be vast amounts of methane hydrates and other such components stored not only in the subsurface of the oceans but also beneath the land. And in fact, there is a good deal of energy exploration that's looking at this unconventional capacity. And there I think you're talking about tens of thousands of billions of metric tons of methane potential.
Thom Hartmann: Wow. Tens of thousands of billions of tons in the context of we've burned, what did you say, 300 billion tons since 1850, roughly?
Charles Miller: Approximately 350 billion metric tons, yes, and that burning of the fossil fuels combined with other human activities is thought by the IPCC to have been extremely likely to be the dominant cause of the warming and the other changes that we've been seeing since the mid 20th century.
Thom Hartmann: Remarkable. Dr Charles Miller, thank you so much for dropping by tonight.
Charles Miller: Thank you very much.
Transcribed by Sue Nethercott.