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Published on Wednesday, January 11, 2006 by Knight Ridder
Rapidly Shrinking Arctic Ice Could Spell Trouble for the Rest of the World
by Robert S. Boyd

WASHINGTON — Alarmed by an accelerating loss of ice in the Arctic Ocean, scientists are striving to understand why the speedup is happening and what it means for humankind.

If present trends continue, as seems likely, the sea surrounding the North Pole will be completely free of ice in the summertime within the lifetime of a child born today.   The loss could point the way to radical changes in the Earth's climate and weather systems.

Bright white ice reflects sunlight from the Earth’s surface.

In contrast, open water is very dark, and absorbs sunlight.

As sea ice melts more water is exposed, which tends to increase warming.

(Photograph courtesy NOAA Photo Library)
Bright white ice reflects sunlight from the Earth’s surface.

In contrast, open water is very dark, and absorbs sunlight.

As sea ice melts more water is exposed, which tends to increase warming.

(Photograph courtesy NOAA Photo Library)

Some researchers, such as Ron Lindsay, an Arctic scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, fear that the polar region already may have passed a "tipping point" from which it can't recover in the foreseeable future.

Others, such as Jonathan Overpeck, the director of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona in Tucson, think the Arctic ice pack is nearing a point of no return but hasn't reached it yet.

The National Science Foundation, a congressionally chartered agency, last month announced an urgent research program to determine what "these changes mean for both the Arctic and the Earth."

"The pace of Arctic change has accelerated," the foundation declared.   "Because of the Arctic's pivotal role in the Earth's climate, it is critical — perhaps urgent — that we understand this system in light of abundant evidence that a set of linked and pervasive changes are under way."

The concern has heightened because last summer brought a record low in the size of the northern ice pack.

"The degree of retreat was greater than ever before," said Ted Scambos, chief scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.   Previous lows were set in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

Since 1980, satellite observations taken each September, the warmest month of the year in the Arctic, show that the ice cover has been shrinking by an average of almost 8 percent a year.   During that time, the polar ocean lost 540,000 square miles of ice — an area twice the size of Texas, Scambos said.

As a result, ships were able to sail freely, without the usual aid of an icebreaker, across the northern rim of Siberia last summer.   Polar bears and Inuit natives found it harder to hunt and fish on the dwindling ice.

In addition to covering a smaller area of the ocean, the remaining ice is getting thinner.   Submarine measurements indicate that the central ice pack thinned by 40 percent from the 1960s to the 1990s, Lindsay reported in the November issue of the Journal of Climate.

Scientists say the great Arctic thaw will have effects all over the world, not just in the frozen north.   It will magnify the global warming trend that's been recorded for the last quarter-century.   It'll reshape the Earth's weather systems in unknown ways.   It could alter the pattern of ocean circulation, drastically changing Europe's climate.

"Loss of ice on land is also taking place at an accelerating rate, and this means sea levels will rise globally," Lindsay said.   "Places like New Orleans will become even less viable."

There are two main reasons for the loss of Arctic sea ice, one external and one internal.

The external cause is the rise in the Earth's temperature, aggravated by increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases, which trap the sun's heat.

Since 1978, the Arctic atmosphere has warmed seven times faster than the average warming trend in the southern two-thirds of the globe, John Christy, the director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, reported last week.

Satellite data show that average temperatures over the Arctic spiked upward by 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 27 years, Christy said, while inching up by less than three-tenths of a degree in southern climes.

"I believe the retreat of sea ice in the Arctic is very likely a manifestation of human-caused global warming," Overpeck said.   "Global temperature increases are accelerating, and so is sea-ice retreat.   Humans are almost certainly the cause of the change in the Arctic."

The internal cause for the loss of sea ice may be even more alarming.   Scientists say the polar ice pack will continue to be in trouble whether or not global temperatures continue to rise.

"Even if temperatures and conditions went flat from this point forward, we anticipate that Arctic ice would eventually disappear," Scambos said.

The reason is that ice and snow, like any light-colored surface, reflect heat from the sun.   As the ice shrinks, it leaves more open, darker water to absorb the sun's heat.   More open water slows the formation of fresh ice in the fall and leads to a still earlier, more extensive melt the following summer.

"One of the big factors is the increasing melt in summer and the increasing amount of heat absorbed by the ice-free portions of the Arctic Ocean," Lindsay said.   It's a "self-reinforcing feedback process."

Last year's record ice loss "provides further evidence that the system is on a track to this new state," said Jennifer Francis, an Arctic expert at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University in Highlands, N.J.

The worrisome feedback process is almost certain to continue.

"A large group of Arctic system and climate specialists could not find any natural mechanism that could slow the change," Overpeck said.   "To hope for salvation from Mother Nature is to hope on long odds."

"This is a new world for the Arctic," Scambos said.

© 2006 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources

Common Dreams © 1997-2005

Global Warming 'Past the Point of No Return'
by Steve Connor, Science Editor
Friday, September 16, 2005

A record loss of sea ice in the Arctic this summer has convinced scientists that the northern hemisphere may have crossed a critical threshold beyond which the climate may never recover.   Scientists fear that the Arctic has now entered an irreversible phase of warming which will accelerate the loss of the polar sea ice that has helped to keep the climate stable for thousands of years.

Arctic  Photo: Independent

They believe global warming is melting Arctic ice so rapidly that the region is beginning to absorb more heat from the sun, causing the ice to melt still further and so reinforcing a vicious cycle of melting and heating.

The greatest fear is that the Arctic has reached a "tipping point" beyond which nothing can reverse the continual loss of sea ice and with it the massive land glaciers of Greenland, which will raise sea levels dramatically.

Satellites monitoring the Arctic have found that the extent of the sea ice this August has reached its lowest monthly point on record, dipping an unprecedented 18.2 per cent below the long-term average.

Experts believe that such a loss of Arctic sea ice in summer has not occurred in hundreds and possibly thousands of years.   It is the fourth year in a row that the sea ice in August has fallen below the monthly downward trend — a clear sign that melting has accelerated.

Scientists are now preparing to report a record loss of Arctic sea ice for September, when the surface area covered by the ice traditionally reaches its minimum extent at the end of the summer melting period.

Sea ice naturally melts in summer and reforms in winter but for the first time on record this annual rebound did not occur last winter when the ice of the Arctic failed to recover significantly.

Arctic specialists at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre at Colorado University, who have documented the gradual loss of polar sea ice since 1978, believe that a more dramatic melt began about four years ago.

In September 2002 the sea ice coverage of the Arctic reached its lowest level in recorded history.   Such lows have normally been followed the next year by a rebound to more normal levels, but this did not occur in the summers of either 2003 or 2004.   This summer has been even worse.   The surface area covered by sea ice was at a record monthly minimum for each of the summer months — June, July and now August.

Scientists analysing the latest satellite data for September — the traditional minimum extent for each summer — are preparing to announce a significant shift in the stability of the Arctic sea ice, the northern hemisphere's major "heat sink" that moderates climatic extremes.

"The changes we've seen in the Arctic over the past few decades are nothing short of remarkable," said Mark Serreze, one of the scientists at the Snow and Ice Data Centre who monitor Arctic sea ice.

Scientists at the data centre are bracing themselves for the 2005 annual minimum, which is expected to be reached in mid-September, when another record loss is forecast.   A major announcement is scheduled for 20 September.   "It looks like we're going to exceed it or be real close one way or the other.   It is probably going to be at least as comparable to September 2002," Dr Serreze said.

"This will be four Septembers in a row that we've seen a downward trend.   The feeling is we are reaching a tipping point or threshold beyond which sea ice will not recover."

The extent of the sea ice in September is the most valuable indicator of its health.   This year's record melt means that more of the long-term ice formed over many winters — so called multi-year ice — has disappeared than at any time in recorded history.

Sea ice floats on the surface of the Arctic Ocean and its neighbouring seas and normally covers an area of some 7 million square kilometres (2.4 million square miles) during September — about the size of Australia.   However, in September 2002, this dwindled to about 2 million square miles — 16 per cent below average.

Sea ice data for August closely mirrors that for September and last month's record low — 18.2 per cent below the monthly average — strongly suggests that this September will see the smallest coverage of Arctic sea ice ever recorded.

As more and more sea ice is lost during the summer, greater expanses of open ocean are exposed to the sun which increases the rate at which heat is absorbed in the Arctic region, Dr Serreze said.

Sea ice reflects up to 80 per cent of sunlight hitting it but this "albedo effect" is mostly lost when the sea is uncovered.   "We've exposed all this dark ocean to the sun's heat so that the overall heat content increases," he explained.

Current computer models suggest that the Arctic will be entirely ice-free during summer by the year 2070 but some scientists now believe that even this dire prediction may be over-optimistic, said Professor Peter Wadhams, an Arctic ice specialist at Cambridge University.

"When the ice becomes so thin it breaks up mechanically rather than thermodynamically.   So these predictions may well be on the over-optimistic side," he said.

As the sea ice melts, and more of the sun's energy is absorbed by the exposed ocean, a positive feedback is created leading to the loss of yet more ice, Professor Wadhams said.

"If anything we may be underestimating the dangers.   The computer models may not take into account collaborative positive feedback," he said.

Sea ice keeps a cap on frigid water, keeping it cold and protecting it from heating up.   Losing the sea ice of the Arctic is likely to have major repercussions for the climate, he said.   "There could be dramatic changes to the climate of the northern region due to the creation of a vast expanse of open water where there was once effectively land," Professor Wadhams said.   "You're essentially changing land into ocean and the creation of a huge area of open ocean where there was once land will have a very big impact on other climate parameters," he said.

©2005 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.  All rights reserved

Published on Sunday, January 23, 2005 by the lndependent/UK
Global Warming Approaching Point of No Return, Warns Leading Climate Expert
by Geoffrey Lean

Global warning has already hit the danger point that international attempts to curb it are designed to avoid, according to the world's top climate watchdog.

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the official
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told an international conference attended by 114 governments in Mauritius this month that he personally believes that the world has "already reached the level of dangerous concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere" and called for immediate and "very deep" cuts in the pollution if humanity is to "survive".

His comments rocked the Bush administration — which immediately tried to slap him down — not least because it put him in his post after Exxon, the major oil company most opposed to international action on global warming, complained that his predecessor was too "aggressive" on the issue.

A memorandum from Exxon to the White House in early 2001 specifically asked it to get the previous chairman, Dr Robert Watson, the chief scientist of the World Bank, "replaced at the request of the US".  The Bush administration then lobbied other countries in favor of Dr Pachauri — whom the former vice-president Al Gore called the "let's drag our feet" candidate, and got him elected to replace Dr Watson, a British-born naturalized American, who had repeatedly called for urgent action.

But this month, at a conference of Small Island Developing States on the Indian Ocean island, the new chairman, a former head of India's Tata Energy Research Institute, himself issued what top United Nations officials described as a "very courageous" challenge.

He told delegates: "Climate change is for real.  We have just a small window of opportunity and it is closing rather rapidly.  There is not a moment to lose."

Afterwards he told The Independent on Sunday that widespread dying of coral reefs, and rapid melting of ice in the Arctic, had driven him to the conclusion that the danger point the IPCC had been set up to avoid had already been reached.

Reefs throughout the world are perishing as the seas warm up: as water temperatures rise, they lose their colors and turn a ghostly white.  Partly as a result, up to a quarter of the world's corals have been destroyed.

And in November, a multi-year study by 300 scientists concluded that the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the world and that its ice-cap had shrunk by up to 20 per cent in the past three decades.

The ice is also 40 per cent thinner than it was in the 1970s and is expected to disappear altogether by 2070.  And while Dr Pachauri was speaking parts of the Arctic were having a January "heatwave", with temperatures eight to nine degrees centigrade higher than normal.

He also cited alarming measurements, first reported in The Independent on Sunday, showing that levels of carbon dioxide (the main cause of global warming) have leapt abruptly over the past two years, suggesting that climate change may be accelerating out of control.

He added that, because of inertia built into the Earth's natural systems, the world was now only experiencing the result of pollution emitted in the 1960s, and much greater effects would occur as the increased pollution of later decades worked its way through.  He concluded: "We are risking the ability of the human race to survive."

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.

Published on Monday, January 24, 2005 by the Independent/UK
Climate Change: Countdown to Global Catastrophe
Report warns point of no return may be reached in 10 years, leading to droughts, agricultural failure and water shortages
by Michael McCarthy

The global warming danger threshold for the world is clearly marked for the first time in an international report to be published tomorrow — and the bad news is, the world has nearly reached it already.

The countdown to climate-change catastrophe is spelt out by a task force of senior politicians, business leaders and academics from around the world — and it is remarkably brief.  In as little as 10 years, or even less, their report indicates, the point of no return with global warming may have been reached.

All on the same planet.  Global warming is reaching the point-of-no-return, with widespread drought, crop failure and water shortages the likely result, according to a new international report.  (AFP/NASA/File)

The report, Meeting The Climate Challenge,is aimed at policymakers in every country, from national leaders down.  It has been timed to coincide with Tony Blair's promised efforts to advance climate change policy in 2005 as chairman of both the G8 group of rich countries and the European Union.

And it breaks new ground by putting a figure — for the first time in such a high-level document — on the danger point of global warming, that is, the temperature rise beyond which the world would be irretrievably committed to disastrous changes.  These could include widespread agricultural failure, water shortages and major droughts, increased disease, sea-level rise and the death of forests — with the added possibility of abrupt catastrophic events such as "runaway" global warming, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or the switching-off of the Gulf Stream.

The report says this point will be two degrees centigrade above the average world temperature prevailing in 1750 before the industrial revolution, when human activities — mainly the production of waste gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), which retain the sun's heat in the atmosphere — first started to affect the climate.  But it points out that global average temperature has already risen by 0.8 degrees since then, with more rises already in the pipeline — so the world has little more than a single degree of temperature latitude before the crucial point is reached.

More ominously still, it assesses the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after which the two-degree rise will become inevitable, and says it will be 400 parts per million by volume (ppm) of CO2.

The current level is 379ppm, and rising by more than 2ppm annually — so it is likely that the vital 400ppm threshold will be crossed in just 10 years' time, or even less (although the two-degree temperature rise might take longer to come into effect).

"There is an ecological timebomb ticking away," said Stephen Byers, the former transport secretary, who co-chaired the task force that produced the report with the US Republican senator Olympia Snowe.  It was assembled by the Institute for Public Policy Research in the UK, the Center for American Progress in the US, and The Australia Institute.  The group's chief scientific adviser is Dr Rakendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The report urges all the G8 countries to agree to generate a quarter of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, and to double their research spending on low-carbon energy technologies by 2010.  It also calls on the G8 to form a climate group with leading developing nations such as India and China, which have big and growing CO2 emissions.

"What this underscores is that it's what we invest in now and in the next 20 years that will deliver a stable climate, not what we do in the middle of the century or later," said Tom Burke, a former government adviser on green issues who now advises business.

The report starkly spells out the likely consequences of exceeding the threshold.  "Beyond the 2 degrees C level, the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow significantly," it says.

"It is likely, for example, that average-temperature increases larger than this will entail substantial agricultural losses, greatly increased numbers of people at risk of water shortages, and widespread adverse health impacts.  [They] could also imperil a very high proportion of the world's coral reefs and cause irreversible damage to important terrestrial ecosystems, including the Amazon rainforest."

It goes on: "Above the 2 degrees level, the risks of abrupt, accelerated, or runaway climate change also increase.  The possibilities include reaching climatic tipping points leading, for example, to the loss of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets (which, between them, could raise sea level more than 10 meters over the space of a few centuries), the shutdown of the thermohaline ocean circulation (and, with it, the Gulf Stream), and the transformation of the planet's forests and soils from a net sink of carbon to a net source of carbon."

Copyright © 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.

Common Dreams © 1997-2005

By now everyone, especially those who follow the resource sector, have heard the Peak Oil story.  Matt Simmons deserves a lot of credit for the publicity he has generated on this subject, and his book Twilight in the Desert provides a detailed and fascinating account of the situation and how it may unfold.

Peak Oil

Peak Oil is a topic that has been covered extensively by Resource Investor.  Tim Wood interviewed Matt Simmons in a popular story a couple of months ago, and the outlook of various other industry figures has been aired in these pages.


Recently, RI highlighted the fact that after a more than 80% upward move in the past 12 months, the TSX Energy Index is beginning to pull back, possibly foreshadowing a correction (probably temporary) in the price of black gold.  Despite the decline, awareness of the issue and investor enthusiasm towards the sector is robust, and everyone remains in agreement that the problem is not going away.

Naysaying the Alternatives

Indeed, believers in the Peak Oil thesis — and their ranks are swelling — have dismissed ideas about how hydrogen and other such sources of alternative energy like biofuels can offset the impact of Hubbard’s Peak.  There has also been very little enthusiasm or hope for massive international projects like ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.

Question Period

Simmons, like it or not, has a legion of doomsaying followers, and recently the Washington Post hosted an interesting and informative online forum which allowed readers to put questions to this well-recognized proponent of the thesis.  RI has picked out a couple of the more interesting exchanges.

Suwanee, Ga.: Some analysts think the world will reach its Hubbert's Peak in the next year.  What is your opinion of when this will occur?”

“Matthew Simmons: The biggest worry I have as a result of doing the research on Saudi Arabia's oil is that there is a real risk that they have already exceeded sustainable peak oil production and the longer they produce at current rates the higher the risk that they could start into a production collapse.  If that turns out to be true than the odds are 95% that the world has then exceeded sustained peak oil production.  What the people that get into the peak oil debate often don't think about is that peak oil is not the maximum amount of oil you could produce in a single day, it's realistically the amount you could produce per day for at least a half decade.  Therefore it could already be happening.  And we'll never know that until we get better data.”

“Saint John, Canada: Given that there is a well understood technology for synthesizing other fossil fuels into oil (mostly coal) do you believe it will be possible to offset the production declines from conventional oil wells by increased coal liquefaction?  How environmentally destructive is that process?”

“Matthew Simmons: I don't understand the environmental impact of coal gasification.  Almost every single aspect of using unconventional oil, whether it's coal or Canadian tar sands or oil shales are all incredibly energy intensive, so they use a lot of energy to convert them into usable energy, and they don't come out of the ground at high amounts.  So it becomes a daunting task to begin offsetting oil coming out of a highly pressurized oil field, which can come out at a rate of 5-10,000 barrels per day per well with unconventional oil sources, which are energy intensive and come out in small amounts.”

“Detroit, Mich.: In the short run, which country do you expect can best make up any shortfall of oil production by Saudi Arabia?”

“Matthew Simmons: If things really went well, Libya.  Libya's new opening up could potentially add 2-3 million barrels a day, but it would take at least 5-10 years for that to happen.  Algeria could add possibly a million barrels, with everything going right.  Some think the UAE could maybe add 500,000 barrels a day, some say Kuwait could add 500,000.  But these are all best case scenario estimates and they all assume that the current production bases in each of these countries stays flat.”

“Boston, Mass.: If Saudi oil production is in decline, won't that make the competition for the remaining world oil supplies between China and the U.S., in particular, and China/India and U.S./Europe, in general, all the more intense?”

“Matthew Simmons: Absolutely, which is why we need a global economic cooperative framework for how we allocate oil use and in this framework we need to give India and China, for instance, an incremental use of another 50% more oil while we go on a diet to have any sense of equality.  If we don't do this than we will basically end up playing musical chairs, and musical chairs can get violent very fast.”


The crux of the argument seems to lie in Simmons’ response to the question from Saint John’s Newfoundland, Canada.  All of the new production that can be brought on from alternative energy sources like the tar sands require large amounts of existing energy for extraction and processing.

In this sense, despite a growing belief that Alberta’s oil sands could host larger reserves than those of Saudia Arabia, it is sort of a pyrrhic victory to bring on production from Fort McMurray fueled by endless gas reserves, which will probably eventually come from the north once the politicians and interest groups can be satisfied that they all have a slice.

As a contrarian it becomes difficult to believe that oil prices will remain at these prices or go very much higher for the time being.  Don Coxe’s rule of Pg. 16 — that you never make or lose serious money on a front-page story is sure to come into effect sooner than later.

It seems, however, that we would need something major to bring down the price — either an outbreak of the Avian flu, or a worldwide recession would do the trick for instance.  The potential for an Avian flu pandemic was the subject of a report last week by BMO Nesbitt Burns, and was reported on by RI. Reasons for a worldwide slowdown or recession of course are plentiful and numerous.

Both of those situations require a watching brief, but in the meantime the Peak Oil constituency is not going away and for good reason.

Arctic warming at twice global rate

02 November 2004 news service
Shaoni Bhattacharya

Global warming in the Arctic is happening now, warns the most comprehensive scientific report to date. The reports concludes that the northern ice cap is warming at twice the global rate and that this will lead to serious consequences for the planet.

These include substantial rises in sea level and an intensification of global warming via a positive feedback mechanism, although there may also be benefits. The four-year scientific assessment was conducted by an international team of 300 researchers for the Arctic Council, which is comprised of the eight nations — including the US — with Arctic territories.

“The projections for the future show a two to three times higher warming rate than for the rest of the world,” says Pål Prestrud, vice-chairman of the steering committee for the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) report. “That will have consequences for the physical, ecological and human systems.”

“The big melt has begun,” says Jennifer Morgan, climate change director of the campaign group WWF. “Industrialised countries are carrying out an uncontrolled experiment to study the effects of climate change and the Arctic is their first guinea pig. This is unethical and wrong. They must cut emissions of CO2 now.”

Summer melt

The Arctic will lose 50% to 60% of its ice distribution by 2100, according to the average of five climate models run by the scientists. One of the five models predicts that by 2070, the Artic will be so warm it will no longer have any ice in the summer.

Prestrud told New Scientist that the report draws on models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its predictions. It has based the Arctic projections on the IPCC’s “middle scenario”, where global warming gas emissions are double their pre-industrial level. In this scenario, sea level will rise between 10 and 90 centimetres in this century, he says.

The Arctic had been predicted to be hit first by global warming, principally because warming at the northern pole is enhanced by positive feedback.

Snow and ice reflect 80% to 90% of solar radiation back into space. But when these white surfaces disappear, more solar radiation is absorbed by the underlying land or sea as heat. This heat, in turn, melts more snow and ice.

Another reason for the Arctic’s sensitivity is that the air there is extremely dry compared to air at lower latitudes, says Prestrud. This means that less energy is used up in evaporating water, leaving more as heat.

Value judgment

A warmer Arctic may have many consequences. “It’s a value judgment. For the oil industry it will be an advantage if the ice disappears, increasing access to oil and gas reserves,” notes Prestrud. He says that about 25% of the Earth’s remaining reserves are in the Arctic.

“But for the Inuit wanting to live life on the ice, he will of course not like disappearing ice,” he says.

The melting ice and the thawing of tundra could have a big impact on wildlife. Prestrud predicts that when the ice melts, symbolic species such as the polar bear, as well as thousands of others, may become endangered. “Polar bears are walking on thin ice,” agrees Samantha Smith, director of WWF's Arctic programme.

The ACIA report will be released officially on 9 November at a scientific symposium in Reykjavik, Iceland. On 24 November, the science report, an overview, and a policy report – handed over from the scientists to Arctic Council ambassadors in 2003 – will be discussed at a ministerial meeting of the council.

© 2005 Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Editorial: Oil's peak/The end may be nearer, it seems
August 27, 2005
Until recently, opinion on the future of world oil supplies was dominated by two views.  One group of experts held that production would decline fairly soon, within a couple of decades at most.  Another group argued that the crude would keep flowing for generations, thanks to ever-advancing detection and drilling technologies.

Either way, the scenario was for a gradual and orderly transition to fuels of the future.  Now a third perspective is gaining both popular attention and professional respect — the notion that oil's decline will be sharp and uncontrolled, following a peak that may be more or less at hand.

This "peak oil" theory is neither new — some geologists think the world has already passed the high point of recoverable reserves — nor universally accepted.  But it is gaining ground as world demand surges, especially in China and India, and as the most important supplier shows signs of strain.

Pretty much everything about Saudi Arabia's oil reserves and production rates is a state secret.  This leaves its customers to rely on promises and assurances that can't be checked, from officials whose self-interest can't be ignored.

But one American petroleum expert and industry consultant, Matthew Simmons, sifted through a couple of hundred obscure engineering papers and found clear signs of trouble at Ghawar, the biggest oil field in Saudi Arabia and, so far, the world.

Simmons thinks the Saudis are about to hit their peak production, if they haven't already.  This is horrible news for a global oil economy that is relying on Saudi promises to boost production from 10 million barrels a day currently to 12.5 million by 2009 and then 15 million within several years.  And, as an article by Peter Maass in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine noted, Simmons is not alone in challenging those pledges — even some in Saudi Arabia have their doubts.

A recently retired top manager in the Saudi oil enterprise told Maass that 15 million barrels a day might not be sustainable, and that U.S. government forecasts of 22.5 million barrels by 2025 can't possibly be met.  Anyway, the Saudi said, the problem isn't how slowly his countrymen boost production, it's how quickly consumption is growing.  The global appetite has been swelling by at least 2 billion barrels a year, a pace that would require bringing two new Saudi Arabias on line every decade.

Back in Washington, a study commissioned by the U.S. government's National Energy Technology Laboratory found no reason to "expect that exploration success will dramatically improve in the future."  The world is moving into an era in which, experts found, new reserves are more than offset by growing demand — "one of a number of trends that suggest the world is fast approaching the inevitable peaking of conventional world oil production."

What would that peak be like?  Obviously it would be catastrophic if the flow of petroleum products came to a sudden halt, or even if supplies remained steady but prices climbed to double or triple today's levels.  Economies would stagger; some would collapse.  Famines and mass migrations would ensue.  Wars have been fought over much less.

Because it's the nature of oil fields to go into steep declines after reaching their peak, this clearly is not a problem that can be solved — or perhaps even postponed — by drilling new wells.  Sooner or later, the United States and every other industrial nation will have to make the switch from oil to renewable alternatives.  The advantage will belong to those who act soonest to develop the fuels and technologies of the future.

Just now, the sky-high gas prices are making biofuels more competitive.  But even if they were to recede tomorrow to the levels of the early 1990s, there would still be cause for the U.S. government, U.S. companies and U.S. citizens to invest far more aggressively in the necessities of a post-petroleum era — which may be arriving sooner than we like to think.

Kyoto Can't Save Us
By Mark Hertsgaard, AlterNet. Posted February 15, 2005.

At the core of the global warming dilemma is a fact neither side of the debate likes to talk about: it is already too late to prevent global warming and the climate change it triggers.

Environmentalists won't say this for fear of sounding alarmist or defeatist. Politicians won't say it because then they'd have to do something about it. But the world's top climate scientists have been sending this message, with increasing urgency, for years now.

Since 1988, the UNEP-associated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprised of more than 2,000 scientific and technical experts from around the world, has conducted the most extensive peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

In its 2001 report, the IPCC announced that human-caused global warming had already begun, and much sooner than expected. What's more, it is bound to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets better.

Last month, the IPCC's chairman, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, upped the ante. Though Pachauri was installed after the Bush administration forced out his predecessor, Dr. Robert Watson, for pushing too hard for action, the accumulation of evidence led Pachauri to embrace apocalyptic language: 'We are risking the ability of the human race to survive,' he said.

Until now, most public discussion about global warming has focused on how to prevent it – for example, by implementing the Kyoto Protocol, which comes into force internationally (but without U.S. participation) on Feb. 16.

But prevention is no longer a sufficient option. No matter how many 'green' cars and solar panels Kyoto eventually calls into existence, the hard fact is that a certain amount of global warming is inevitable.

The world community therefore must make a strategic shift: it must expand its response to global warming to emphasize not only long-term but also short-term protection. Rising sea levels and more weather-related disasters will be a fact of life on this planet for decades to come, and we have to get ready for them.

Among the steps needed to defend ourselves, we must act quickly to fortify emergency response capabilities worldwide, to shield or relocate vulnerable coastal communities and to prepare for increased migration flows by environmental refugees.

We must also play offense. We must retroactively shrink the amount of warming facing us by redoubling efforts to remove existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and 'sequester' them where they are no longer dangerous. One way is to plant trees, which absorb carbon dioxide via photosynthesis.

But researchers are exploring many other methods as well, some of them supported by the Bush administration. For instance, Norway is burying carbon dioxide in old oil wells beneath the North Sea.

The problem with the Kyoto protocol is not that the 5 percent greenhouse gas emission reductions it mandates don't go far enough, though they don't – the IPCC urges 50 to 70 percent reductions. The problem is that Kyoto governs only future emissions. No matter how well the protocol works, it will have no effect on past emissions, and it is these past emissions that have made global warming unavoidable.

Contrary to the impression left by some news reports, global warming is not like a light switch that can be turned off if we simply stop burning so much oil, coal and gas. There is a lag effect of approximately 50 to 100 years. That's how long carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere after it is emitted from auto tailpipes, home furnaces and industrial smokestacks. So even if humanity stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the earth would continue warming for decades.

So far, the greenhouse gases released during two-plus centuries of industrialization have increased global temperatures by about one degree Fahrenheit and raised sea levels by 4 to 7 inches. They have also given rise to the larger phenomenon of climate change.

The IPCC scientists predict that because of global warming the future will bring more and deadlier extreme weather of all kinds – more hurricanes, tornadoes, downpours, heat waves, droughts and blizzards – and all that comes in their wake: more flooding, landslides, power outages, crop failures, property damage, disease, hunger, poverty and loss of life.

In California, torrential rains induced a mudslide on Jan. 11 that killed ten people, buried children alive and crushed dozens of houses. In 2003, a record summer heat wave left 35,000 – mainly elderly people – dead across Western Europe.

And this is just the beginning. Scientists are careful to say that no single weather event can be definitively linked to global warming. But the trend is unmistakable to the insurance companies that end up paying the bill. 'Man-made climate change will bring us increasingly extreme natural events and consequently increasingly large catastrophe losses,' an official of Munich Re, the world's large reinsurance company in the field of natural disaster mitigation, said recently. Swiss Re expects losses to reach $150 billion a year within this decade.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair regards climate change as 'the single biggest long-term problem' of any kind facing his country. His government's top scientist, Sir David King, goes further, calling climate change 'the biggest danger humanity has faced in 5,000 years of civilization.'

Though the Bush White House continues to downplay the urgency of global warming, some parts of the Bush administration have recognized the gravity of the situation. A report released last April by the Pentagon's internal think-tank, the Office of Net Assessments, said that, by 2020, climate change could unleash a series of interlocking catastrophes. This could include mega-droughts, mass starvation and even nuclear war, as countries like China and India battle over river valleys and other sources of scarce food and water.

All of this underlines the urgency of revising the world's response to climate change. To be sure, it remains essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by strengthening the Kyoto Protocol and augmenting it with other measures; otherwise, the amount of future warming civilization eventually will have to endure will prove too great to survive. But in the meantime, it is imperative to prepare against the climate change already on its way.

The need for such a two-track strategy of prevention and protection is gaining acceptance from most of the world's governments. In Britain, the Department of the Environment promises to publish its strategy for adapting to global warming by the end of the year.

At the most recent international meeting on global warming, held in Buenos Aires last December, a majority of the delegates supported the establishment of a fund to aid countries already suffering from the early effects of global warming. A leading candidate for such aid is Tuvalu. A Pacific atoll whose highest point is twelve feet above sea level, Tuvalu was largely submerged last year by ten foot tall 'king tides.' But the United States opposed the adaptation assistance, arguing that there is no "certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming ... ."

Preparing to live through the global climate change now bearing down on our civilization will be an enormous undertaking. It will require immense financial resources, technical expertise and organizational skill. But perhaps what's needed most of all, especially in the United States, is fresh thinking and political leadership – an acceptance that climate change is inescapable and requires immediate counter-measures.

The unspeakable death and destruction wrought by the Indian Ocean tsunami showed what can happen when people are unprepared for disaster. But there is no reason global warming should take us by surprise. Our civilization's early warning system – the scientists of the IPCC – have been telling us for years that great danger is approaching.

The question is whether we will act quickly and decisively enough to protect ourselves against the coming storm. Or will we simply stand and face our fate – naked, proud and unafraid?

Mark Hertsgaard is a correspondent for The Nation and the national satellite channel Link TV, as well as the author, most recently, of The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World and Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future.

Copyright © 2005 Mark Hertsgaard, distributed by Agence Global

© 2005 Independent Media Institute.   All rights reserved.

Is It Warm in Here?   We Could Be Ignoring the Biggest Story in Our History
January 18, 2006

One of the puzzles if you're in the news business is figuring out what's "news."

The fate of your local football team certainly fits the definition.   So does a plane crash or a brutal murder.   But how about changes in the migratory patterns of butterflies?

Scientists believe that new habitats for butterflies are early effects of global climate change — but that isn't news, by most people's measure.

At least not in the United States

Neither is declining rainfall in the Amazon, or thinner ice in the Arctic.

We can't see these changes in our personal lives, and in that sense, they are abstractions.

So they don't grab us the way a plane crash would — even though they may be harbingers of a catastrophe that could, quite literally, alter the fundamentals of life on the planet.

And because they're not "news," the environmental changes don't prompt action, at least not in the United States.

Changes in Amazon

What got me thinking about the recondite life rhythms of the planet, and not the 24-hour news cycle, was a recent conversation with a scientist named Thomas E. Lovejoy, who heads the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment.

When I first met Lovejoy nearly 20 years ago, he was trying to get journalists like me to pay attention to the changes in the climate and biological diversity of the Amazon.

He is still trying, but he's beginning to wonder if it's too late.

Lovejoy fears that changes in the Amazon's ecosystem may be irreversible.

Scientists reported last month that there is an Amazonian drought apparently caused by new patterns in Atlantic currents that, in turn, are similar to projected climate change.

With less rainfall, the tropical forests are beginning to dry out.

They burn more easily, and, in the continuous feedback loops of their ecosystem, these drier forests return less moisture to the atmosphere, which means even less rain.

When the forest trees are deprived of rain, their mortality can increase by a factor of six, and similar devastation affects other species, too.

"When do you wreck it as a system?" Lovejoy wonders.   "It's like going up to the edge of a cliff, not really knowing where it is.   Common sense says you shouldn't discover where the edge is by passing over it, but that's what we're doing with deforestation and climate change."

Once boundless wilderness

Lovejoy first went to the Amazon 40 years ago as a young scientist of 23.

It was a boundless wilderness, the size of the continental United States, but at that time it had just 2 million people and one main road.

He has returned more than a hundred times, assembling over the years a mental time-lapse photograph of how this forest primeval has been affected by man.

The population has increased tenfold, and the wilderness is now laced with roads, new settlements and economic progress.

The forest itself, impossibly rich and lush when Lovejoy first saw it, is changing.

For Lovejoy, who co-edited a pioneering 1992 book, "Global Warming and Biological Diversity," there is a deep sense of frustration.

Non-news of climate change

A crisis he and other scientists first sensed more than two decades ago is drifting toward us in what seems like slow motion, but fast enough that it may be impossible to mitigate the damage.

The best reporting of the non-news of climate change has come from Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker.

Her three-part series last spring lucidly explained the harbingers of potential disaster:
A shrinking of Arctic sea ice by 250 million acres since 1979.

A thawing of the permafrost for what appears to be the first time in 120,000 years

A steady warming of Earth's surface temperature; changes in rainfall patterns that could presage severe droughts of the sort that destroyed ancient civilizations.

This month she published a new piece, "Butterfly Lessons," that looked at how these delicate creatures are moving into new habitats as the planet warms.

Her real point was that all life, from microorganisms to human beings, will have to adapt, and in ways that could be dangerous and destabilizing.

So many of the things that pass for news don't matter in any ultimate sense.

Society destroying itself

But if people such as Lovejoy and Kolbert are right, we are all but ignoring the biggest story in the history of humankind.

Kolbert concluded her series last year with this shattering thought: "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

She's right.

The failure of the United States to get serious about climate change is unforgivable, a human folly beyond imagining.

David Ignatius

'Glacial earthquakes' warn of global warming
By Steve Connor, Science Editor
Published: 24 March 2006

Dramatic new evidence has emerged of the speed of climate change in the polar regions which scientists fear is causing huge volumes of ice to melt far faster than predicted.

Scientists have recorded a significant and unexpected increase in the number of "glacial earthquakes" caused by the sudden movement of Manhattan-sized blocks of ice in Greenland.

A second study has found that higher temperatures caused by global warming could melt the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets much sooner than previously thought, with a corresponding rise in sea levels.

Both studies — along with a series of findings from other scientists over the past year — point to a disturbing change in the polar climate which is causing the disappearance of glaciers, ice sheets and floating sea ice.

The rise in the number of glacial earthquakes over the past four years lends further weight to the idea that Greenland's glaciers and its ice sheet are beginning to move and melt on a scale not seen for perhaps thousands of years.

The annual number of glacial earthquakes recorded in Greenland between 1993 and 2002 was between six and 15.   In 2003 seismologists recorded 20 glacial earthquakes.   In 2004 they monitored 24 and for the first 10 months of 2005 they recorded 32.

The latest seismic study, published today in the journal Science, found that in a single area of north-western Greenland scientists recorded just one quake between 1993 and 1999.   But they monitored more than two dozen quakes between 2000 and 2005.

"People often think of glaciers as inert and slow-moving, but in fact they can also move rather quickly," said Goran Ekstrom, professor of geology and geophysics at Harvard University, who led the study.

"Some of Greenland's glaciers — as large as Manhattan and as tall as the Empire State Building — can move 10 metres in less than a minute, a jolt that is sufficient to generate moderate seismic waves," Professor Ekstrom said.

Average temperatures in the Arctic have risen far faster than in other parts of the world over the past few decades, resulting in the rapid acceleration in polar melting.

As the glacial meltwater seeps down it lubricates the bases of the "outlet" glaciers of the Greenland ice sheet, causing them to slip down surrounding valleys towards the sea, explained Meredith Nettles of Columbia University.

"Our results suggest that these major outlet glaciers can respond to changes in climate conditions much more quickly than we had thought," Dr Nettles said.

"Greenland's glaciers deliver large quantities of freshwater to the oceans, so the implications for climate change are serious.

"We believe that further warming of the climate is likely to accelerate the behaviour we've documented," she said.

The seismologists also found that the glacial earthquakes of Greenland occurred mainly during the summer months, indicating that the movements were indeed associated with rapidly melting ice — normal "tectonic" earthquakes show no such seasonality.

Of the 136 glacial quakes analysed by the scientists, more than a third occurred during July and August.

©2006 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.  All rights reserved


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