Year 4, Month 3, Day 24: Happy Birthday, Everybody.

The University World News (an international online bulletin for higher education) sounds the tocsin:

An international team of researchers has issued a stark warning about the perils the world faces in the near future because of mounting evidence confirming the carbon dioxide effects of a 5º C increase in the temperature of the Arctic Ocean.

Rapid melting of ice in Greenland and the Arctic Ocean last year showed catastrophic acceleration in 2012, qualifying the effects in the Arctic as “dangerous climate change” under the UN Climate Convention.

The researchers, from Australia, Norway, Spain and Sweden, conducted a series of eight cruises between July 2007 and July 2012 to assess the annual metabolic balance of Arctic plankton communities. This determines their role as carbon dioxide (CO2) sinks or sources and was resolved for the first time.

The five-year-long research revealed that the two-week spring algal bloom occurring each April, as the Arctic emerges from its winter darkness and the sea-ice starts to thin, is so productive it can fuel the food web for the entire year and remove significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere annually.

But experiments involving temperature manipulations conducted in the Svalbard Islands, about 650 kilometres north of mainland Europe, indicated that the plankton community switches from acting as a sink to becoming a source of atmospheric CO2 as seawater temperatures exceed 5º C.

When people call me an “alarmist,” my response is, “the situation is fuckin’ alarming.” If you’re not an alarmist, you’re a fucking idiot. There. I said it. March 12:

When we look at the predictions of climate scientists about the impact of climate change, it’s vitally important to take those forecasts with a great many grains of salt. Remember that these authorities, for all their scientific credentials and expertise, are wrong more often than not.

They were wrong about the rate of planetary warming, about the extent of ice melt, about species extinction and the loss of biodiversity. They were wrong about the likely dates of glacier loss, about the probability of droughts, about the interaction of the various climate forcers.

So if the world’s most-informed climatologists get it wrong so often, why should we be concerned about climate change? The answer is a simple one: because scientific writing is required to avoid extreme language (a phrase like “statistically significant” is a scientist’s way of shouting), so climatologists’ public statements have consistently underestimated climate change’s speed and severity. The fact that predictions have regularly fallen short of reality isn’t a failure of science, but a wake-up call to the governments of the world: there is no time to waste.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 3, Day 15: The Doctor Has No Face

The Washington Post covers some of the problems with natural gas:

Two guys in a black Pontiac Vibe cruise the streets of Washington’s residential neighborhoods. The only sign of what they are up to is a gray plastic tube hanging out of the trunk. And the fact that they get out of the car frequently to place a black box on manhole covers and study its readings.

Measuring how much methane gas is leaking from pipes under the District could help answer a key policy question. As natural gas production expands in the United States, do its benefits for the climate far outweigh its dangers?

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is about 25 times more powerful as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, the largest human contributor to climate change; the atmospheric concentration of methane has doubled since the start of the Industrial Revolution. While it largely dissipates in a few decades and there is far less of it in the atmosphere than CO2, it continues to drive global warming. Depending on how much leaks out in the journey from wellhead to homes and factories, some experts say, it could be enough to offset the advantages natural gas has over coal.

More fun with heroin. March 6:

Natural gas advocates tout it as a “climate-friendly” substitute for dirty fossil fuels, and at first blush this seems a valid assertion. But energy and environmental policy shouldn’t be based on first impressions; more careful studies of natural gas reveal multiple mutually-reinforcing problems with the ostensibly clean energy source.

Leaks are inevitable, and — given that methane is an exponentially more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 — not easily dismissed. And the extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) turns out to have devastating local and regional effects on water supplies, agriculture, and environmental quality.

In late 19th century America, morphine addiction was a serious problem, until the fortunate introduction of a “non-addictive” cure for the condition: diacetylmorphine — marketed under the trade name, “Heroin.” To substitute one fossil fuel for another is at best a stopgap strategy to avoid a cold-turkey withdrawal from our civilization’s oil and coal addiction.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 2, Day 24: Things Would Be Very Different If They Were Not As They Are

The UK Guardian reports on a scientist who’s not on my gift list this year:

America will only achieve the ambitious climate change goals outlined by President Barack Obama last week by encouraging wide-scale fracking for natural gas over the next few years. That is the advice of one of the nation’s senior scientists, Professor William Press, a member of the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Fracking – known officially as hydraulic fracturing – involves pumping high-pressure water through underground rocks to release natural gas trapped deep underground. It is believed that there are vast reserves of these subterranean gas fields across the US.

Thousands of wells have already been drilled in Texas, leading to a substantial rise in the use of natural gas in the US and a major decline in the burning of coal, a far more serious cause of carbon pollution. However, fracking is also controversial. Environmentalists say it can lead to the contamination of underground water reservoirs and the pollution of the surface with chemicals used to help to release subterranean gas stores. They also point out that burning natural gas releases carbon dioxide.

The concluding analogy leapt to my mind as I sat down to write. February 16:

Backers of natural gas as a tool in the fight against climate change have adopted an extractive technique that is wasteful, resource intensive, and environmentally hazardous. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has in only a few years’ time accumulated a troubling history of communities and ecosystems destroyed. A study released in Scientific American in early 2012 confirmed that hydrofracturing releases significant quantities of methane, and families living near fracking sites discover that their tap water is foul-smelling, discolored, and highly flammable, all strong indicators what was touted as a climate-friendly and ecologically benign process is anything but.

In 1895, morphine addiction was a serious social and medical problem, and the Bayer pharmaceutical company introduced a new drug as a “non-addictive” substitute — diacetylmorphine, marketed under the trade name of “Heroin.” Let’s remember how well that worked out for everybody before we unquestioningly accept the claims of William Press and other natural gas advocates.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 1, Day 14: Something Is Happening, But You Don’t Know What It Is.

The Albany Times-Union, on New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s approach to climate change:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has placed himself in the vanguard of public officials pledging action on climate change. He repeatedly has recognized that climate change is real and that New York is vulnerable to the extreme weather events that accompany our rapidly warming climate.

The governor has reignited a public debate on climate change, flatly stating that our nation had become distracted by an argument over the causes while failing to address the “inarguable effects” of our warming climate.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, after viewing the devastation and the damage that had been wrought, Cuomo laid down his marker when he said, “We need to act, not simply react.”

Color me skeptical. Sent January 9:

Governor Cuomo’s going to face some hard choices if his actions are to match his rhetoric on climate change. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, he noted that “Mother Nature is telling us something,” but she’s not the only one trying to attract his attention. Natural gas companies are heavily invested in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and the question of whether to allow this risky technology in New York is going to cross Mr. Cuomo’s desk very soon. But when it comes to the greenhouse emissions that are driving climate change, research has shown that natural gas extraction and processing emit significant quantities of methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. Given that fossil-fuel corporations have also invested very heavily in our country’s politicians, should we be surprised if the Governor responds to their messages rather than those of our endangered environment, or those of the ordinary citizens of New York?

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 1, Day 2: I Know You Are, But What Am I?

USA Today, on the thawing Antarctic:

Western Antarctica has warmed unexpectedly fast over the last five decades, weather records confirm, adding to sea-level rise concerns in a warming world.

Temperatures in West Antarctica have increased at a rate nearly twiceas large as the global average, a 4.3 degree Fahrenheit increase since 1958, conclude meteorologists in the journal, Nature Geoscience, out Sunday.The finding adds Western Antarctica to the list of hot spots most affected by global warming, the century-long increase in global average temperatures largely driven by greenhouse gas emissions from burning oil, gas and coal.

“The magnitude of the increase is substantial,” says polar meteorologist David Bromwich of Ohio State University, who led the study. “One of the most surprising aspects of this warming (increase) is how much is going on in the summer, that’s the time we would get any melting.” Bromwich had expected increases in rates of warming to be fairly uniform across the seasons, instead.

Fuck. Sent December 27:

As the most rapidly warming place on Earth, the Southern polar regions are going to be the focus of intense scientific scrutiny in the years to come. The vast quantities of ice now starting to melt in Antarctica’s Western territories will raise sea levels far beyond the earlier predictions of climate scientists, lending further urgency to the struggle to contain global climate change within manageable bounds. But the prospect of massive ice melt is not the most alarming aspect of this rapidly transforming region.

Scientists confirm that at least four billion tonnes of methane are currently frozen beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. A greenhouse gas twenty-five times as powerful as carbon dioxide, methane is already entering the atmosphere above the Arctic, and bringing with it the potential to destabilize our already traumatized climate and impact all Earthly life in devastating ways. If Antarctic methane melts, humanity’s in very deep trouble.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 6, Day 1: Anybody In Here?

This is really really really scary:

Methane gas trapped for millennia under the Artic surface has begun to bubble up into the atmosphere, acccording to scientists.

Thousands of sites where methane has been trapped by ice have begun to emit the ancient gas as the ice melts and researchers believe it could have a significant impact on climate change.

Methane, the second most important greenhouse gas after CO2, has been found to be seeping from a number of spots in Alaska and Greenland, perhaps from natural gas or coal deposits underneath the lakes, whereas others are emitting much younger gas, presumably formed through decay of plant material in the lakes.

Scientists said that if the same thing happened in other areas, for example, in northern West Siberia, which is rich in natural gas and partially underlain by thin permafrost predicted to degrade substantially by 2100, “a very strong increase in methane carbon cycling will result, with potential implications for climate warming feedbacks”, according to the BBC.

Thanks to PZ Myers for the debunking of the dinosaur fart report. Sent May 22:

A major obstacle to public understanding of science is the difference between the way scientists communicate and the way science journalists communicate. An excellent example of this disconnect can be found in the treatment of two stories about methane.

When a recent scholarly paper suggested that dinosaurs may have contributed statistically significant amounts of methane to the atmosphere during the Mesozoic Era, media outlets seized the opportunity to conflate global warming with fart jokes (while getting the facts of the story wrong).

On the other hand, when researchers say that “very strong” Arctic methane releases have “potential implications for climate warming feedbacks”, this terrifying clause is buried in the last paragraph of a blandly written report. The results of those “climate warming feedbacks” will quite likely be catastrophic; responsible journalists should feel an obligation to pass on a warning to their readers.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 1, Day 18: Life Is Hard, But….

The State Journal (“West Virginia’s Only Business Newspaper”) notes some relatively simple things we can do to help out:

While working through the expensive problem of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to slow climate change, why not go ahead and tackle emissions of methane and soot — two easier problems that will pay for themselves and then some?

The suggestion, from an international team of 13 researchers lead by a NASA scientist, comes this week in “Simultaneously Mitigating Near-Term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security” in the journal Science.

The researchers identified 14 measures they say could reduce warming by 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. It’s a significant part of the 3.6 degrees’ warming that climate negotiators meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 targeted as a goal to stay below.

Measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions seem mainly to be expensive and controversial up front and to yield climate benefits only in the very long run.

But the measures proposed by these researchers for reducing methane and soot cost little and yield a range of substantial benefits in a shorter time frame.

The problem? Aw, hell. You and I both know what the problem is. People with no brains can’t recognize “no-brainers,” can they? Sent January 13:

The menu of things that can be done easily to address the burgeoning climate crisis is actually pretty substantial. Reducing atmospheric methane and soot should be a no-brainer, since such an approach not only makes sense as a strategy for reducing global warming, but offers both economic and public health benefits to the country as a whole.

Unfortunately, as long as one half of our government is controlled by people who reject science when it conflicts with either their electoral prospects or their profit margins, even such a straightforward proposal will be hindered and hamstrung by unnecessary political posturing. What was once a rational voice for business interests in American government has now become an ideologically fixated bloc incapable of adopting even the most obviously sensible policy initiatives. When GOP climate-change denialists pander to extremist elements within their own constituencies, they wind up damaging the communities they purport to serve.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 2, Day 27: Some Days These Letters Are No Damned Fun At All

I’ve never written to the National Geographic before. Strange, since that magazine was an important part of my childhood and the general growth of my environmental awareness. They ran an article on the Zwiers study which triggered this letter. In addition, I mention the NSIDC report on melting permafrost, which you should not read if you want a good night’s sleep; this is about as bad a piece of news as we’ve had in quite a while, which is really saying something.

Mailed Feb. 18:

The Zwiers study confirms the link between global warming and extreme weather events worldwide, but this is unlikely to change many minds among the climate-change deniers, who are now so ideologically wedded to their position that no amount of evidence will suffice. Especially in light of the recent reports from the National Ice and Snow Data Center indicating rapid and irreversible melting of a majority of the Earth’s permafrost (with consequent release of massive amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere), such a failure of understanding is a tragedy. The next centuries will witness unimaginable disruption of ecosystems, agriculture, and infrastructure; to deny reality at this moment is to lose our last chance of mitigating some of the damage before it overwhelms us. Once, our nation honored scientific achievement and inquiry. Now, it seems, we enshrine delusion and magical thinking, to the detriment of the lives of future generations.

Warren Senders

Month 3, Day 22: More Fart Jokes, Please.

I’m listening to health-care debate, so I’ve only got a small fraction of a brain. Here’s the latest terrifying news: more on polar methane. I really wish I could remain ignorant of all this.

Dear Senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham,

I write to urge you to include language in your proposed climate legislation that specifically addresses the problem of polar methane release. A recent study reported in Science News* indicates that microbes living under ice sheets in the polar regions may be churning out huge amounts of this powerful greenhouse gas. If this wasn’t bad enough, we already know that methane is already entering the atmosphere as the permafrost cap that’s been keeping it underground melts, due to increased atmospheric temperatures.

Climatologists’ projections of global warming haven’t yet taken this methane into account, which means that even the worst of the worst-case estimates are undoubtedly too optimistic. We need a world-wide Manhattan Project, bringing together the top scientific minds of the planet to address these multiple interlocked problems.

Rather than allowing that methane to enter the atmosphere and trigger incalculable damage to planetary ecosystems, we need to solve the problem of harvesting and collecting it for use as fuel. While burning methane also releases CO2 (which means that it is unsuitable as a long-term fuel source) this approach is vastly preferable to allowing it to trigger a greenhouse tipping point that would lead us much closer to the Venusian worst-case scenario outlined by Dr. James Hansen.

Any proposed climate legislation needs to acknowledge the magnitude of this problem, and outline steps to engaging the world’s scientific expertise and imagination on methods of ameliorating it.

There is no time to lose.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders

* – (

Month 3, Day 8: When the Methane Hits The Fan…

Stickin’ with the North Pole farts for the time being. I’m on my way out to a gig, so my brain is pretty close to empty. When I’m tired and distracted I write workmanlike letters that address the issues without rhetorical flourishes. This is one of them.

Dear Representatives Waxman and Markey,

I write to urge you to initiate action on the extremely troubling news of Arctic methane release. According to a recently-published article in the journal Science, billions of tons of methane under the sub-sea permafrost in the Arctic ocean is now entering the atmosphere. This is certain to accelerate the greenhouse effect even further, since methane is 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in trapping heat,

Climatologists’ prediction models haven’t yet been revised to account for the new data, but it’s pretty clear (unless you’re a FOX News commentator, a Republican, or George Will) that our current “worst-case” scenarios are hopelessly optimistic.

While this news is sure to trigger a round of fart jokes from Sean Hannity and his colleagues, it is a sad fact that while some of us strive to ensure humanity a safe and sustainable future, our corporate sector is heavily invested in denying the nature of the threat. With the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United opening up the floodgates to corporate influence in elections, we can look forward to thinly disguised climate denialism saturating our airwaves in the months leading up to November’s election.

Will the American public fall for it? Will our nation’s citizens believe it when they’re told that “Carbon Dioxide is life,” or “Methane is good for you?” Given the precipitous decline in scientific literacy in our country over the past several decades, I think it’s all too likely that this latest news won’t be treated with the respect it deserves.

I urge the two of you to initiate action in the House of Representatives. A sub-committee needs to study the problem and make recommendations for legislative action. America has to lead the world in addressing these crises.

There is no time to waste; no time to lose.

Yours sincerely,

Warren Senders