Monday, September 7, 2009

Interpreting the Arctic

To paraphrase Nietzsche (who was referring to the French Revolution): Never has one text been subject to so many interpretations. At its simplest, this means every interpreter has his/her bias, and especially in the case of a large event, with large political significance, it may be impossible to read any account without a bias. At its most extreme, Nietzsche's words are sometimes taken to represent the founding of the "post-modern" idea that there are no facts (a word which itself means "something made"), or there is no reality--there is only a text to be interpreted.

Canada's Arctic seems to have become such a text.

The Toronto Star says the methane beneath the surface in the Arctic may be a huge problem whether or not global warming is taking place; or it may be a manageable problem until global warming kicks in, at which point it becomes a huge problem; or (buried in the article) it may be a manageable problem in any case.

The consequence of all that seeping methane has become one of the big questions in climate science.

But one thing is certain: The fact it hasn't been factored into previous global warming predictions means forecasts even as recent as the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change are too conservative.

Last week, a World Wildlife Fund report called methane the globe's single biggest climate threat.

OK: So things are even worse than even the extreme alarmists have been saying, right?

Not necessarily.

Methane escapes from underground into the atmosphere as the earth around it warms up. Some of that is from recent climate change but some of the deepest warming is in response to events that happened up to 12,000 years ago.

"Is our recent warming affecting it more or less?" asks Dallimore. "That's a very reasonable question to ask."

But if that's still an open question, can we question the credibility of the WWF?

Scientists also don't know how much of the methane is coming from deep deposits and how much is from relatively shallow beds.

"There's a building international awareness that this is a gap in our knowledge that should be addressed," says Dallimore, back from his research season in the far north Mackenzie Delta. "The challenge is to quantify what portion of that large reservoir of methane is presently stable or not."

Some researchers suggest the methane seeps have been releasing gas for centuries, if not millennia, and are creating concern simply because they've been discovered. But others point to signs that methane releases may be increasing.

Whoa Nelly. It might be a large problem, totally unrelated to human activities. It might not be a large problem at all. There might not be a current increase in the problem. It seems that almost nothing is actually known is that methane sometimes bubbles to the surface in the Arctic. So the whole story is dog bites man rather than man bites dog? And we find this out several paragraphs in?

And here's a concluding part to the article which I can now find in the Metro version of the article, but not on the Star's website:

Many suggest that methane could be a climate "tipping point." Seeping methane will add to global warming, which will lead to ever larger and increasingly catastrophic amounts of the gas in the atmosphere.

Weaver says sudden, large releases are very unlikely.

"The catastrophic effect is not there," he says.

But methane is going to be a factor in future climate change.

"We know that it's a positive feedback," says Weaver.

More and more scientists are beginning to study methane deposits, Dallimore says. New tools, such as devices that can measure methane seepage from the air, are sharpening knowledge of what's going on under the countless lakes of the tundra and vast sweeps of Arctic ocean.

"It's all connected and it's building up greenhouse gas concentrations by natural sources," says Dallimore.

"The question is how much?"

Andrew Weaver, "a Canadian researcher and one of the IPCC authors," says "the catastrophic effect is not there." That's certainly not the impression you get from most of the article. And why did the Star not include this quote?

This helps prepare for more from Anthony Watts. First, "Arctic Temperature Reporting Needs a Reality Check." And then, Arctic ice at its lowest this year will not be as low as 2007, and probably not as low as 2008 either.

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