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Looking back over an action-packed odyssey

Justin Rowlatt | 17:51 UK time, Wednesday, 24 June 2009


You want an idea of the scale of the challenge global warming presents? A friend who works for Operation Noah put it like this: invisible gases produced by everything man does are allegedly affecting people on the other side world in ways that have not yet become clear. The problem is that by the time they do become clear it will be too late.

And, of course, what makes it even more difficult it that lots of people say this is all nonsense.

This blog, indeed the entire Ethical Man Reborn in the USA project, has been about exploring how one country, the United States, is trying to rise to this challenge.

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We've covered some amazing stories on this journey - forget the pig swill (which was featured on Have I Got News for You!), the billion dollar car, the wind turbines, the Hollywood stars - because what our journey was really all about was the issues.

We explored the psychological and technological hurdles to change we face.

We asked how might we begin to change the behaviour of a whole society.

We found one answer in Muskegon, Michigan, where our journey began. We asked Muskegonites what would make them use less fossil fuels. The answer they gave? Cash!

Indeed, President Barack Obama came to the same conclusion just as we were leaving for Washington DC.

The idea is to set a carbon price - to charge polluters to emit carbon dioxide. Now carbon pricing may excite economists, but are voters going to support it?

There is no question that a lot of Americans are sceptical. One congressman described the carbon pricing mechanism proposed by Mr Obama to me as "anti-American".

Attitudes like that may explain why we saw the Obama administration wooing an army of eco-activists to lobby for legislation.

But, as we travelled round the country we found a surprising range of people, from environmentalists to industrialists, who do support the idea. They included big companies as well garage inventors.

At one point I became convinced that I was watching a historic change, nothing less than a revolution in attitudes to climate change.

But I'd only been back in Britain for a couple of weeks when that optimism dissolved.

I would like you to go back and read some of our blog entries, if you haven't already, and tell me what you think. Because this is a crucial time for the US and the world. There are a selection of photos from journey here too.

What the US does on the climate will be crucial in determining whether a global treaty to limit emissions can be concluded as planned at Copenhagen in December.

In the meantime you can sign up to my Twitter feed here and I'll keep you posted about all my ethical activities and any interesting environmental developments I spot.

For those of you on Spotify, we have made a playlist of all the great music that's been featured in the Ethical Man: Reborn in the USA series. Everything from Gwen Stefani to Wynton Marsalis and Simian Mobile Disco.

And by the way, there will be one last Ethical adventure from America. It includes a genuine television first - footage of an Amish man yodelling with a horse! We'll post up a trail as soon as we can.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I still cannot believe that you (and many others at the BBC) still believe this nonsense about CO2 being 'harmful' 'a pollutant' etc. Are there no real scientists there rather than politicised lemmings? Our rainforests thrive on the stuff as do all our other oxygen producing (= life giving) plants. Look at the problems now caused by cultivating crops for bio-diesel when forests and other natural vegetation should have been left alone to do what it does best. The BBC certainly does not provide a balanced output on this topic and as such has plummeted in my estimation. Forget about your nasty carbon footprint - large or small - PLEASE!!

  • Comment number 2.

    Dear Justin
    I take it you have seen the film 'who killed the electric car', the story of GM creation and destruction of a potentially world changing gas free vehicle - back in 1996 I think. You can find it on the 'Democracy Now' website - a great independant US news chanel. Newsnight viewers will appreciate it.
    Thanks for the road trip and your enthusiasm.
    Yours sincerely
    Oliver

  • Comment number 3.

    The language of this post is certainly full of hype. The fact that gasses we emit on one side of the planet affect people on the other side of the planet isn't in much doubt, the fact that by the time we understand what effect they have it's 'too late' is serious bull****. Humans have been cultivating rice for thousands of years, and this rice cultivation is responsible for elevated levels of methane in the atmosphere, and certainly no one knew the effect of this until researchers started to ask in the last few decades. Are you really going to assert that now that we know that rice cultivation causes global warming, it's 'too late'?
    There is a suspicion that an volcanic eruption between Java and Sumatra (the ancestor of Krakatoa) in 545 A.D. wiped out a good chunk of humanity, and effectively destroyed Classical civilization (i.e., the Roman Empire and contemporary civilizations). Events of this nature are more likely to impact human affairs than global warming. Earth has been warmer and cooler than it is now in various geological epochs. Life thrived in both situations.
    There is another serious underestimation of the resolve of Americans in particular and humanity in general to address renewable energy issues. "Major polluters" including China, the United States, and most of the countries of Western Europe are pouring money into wind turbines, solar panels, and other alternative energy sources. Texas has more than 8GW of wind turbines, and about 8 million households. A typical Texas residential power bill is about $100 per month, which is about 1MWH (mega watt-hour). Dividing this down, a Texas home uses about 1.25Kw continuously, and dividing 8 billion watts by 8 million households yields about 1Kw apiece. Therefore, in theory, every home in Texas could, under certain circumstances, be running entirely on wind power. This doesn't allow for transmission losses, commercial use, or street lighting, but the point is that the 'carbon footprint' is already pretty significantly reduced.
    Every day, a body of researchers show up at their various jobs to drive another chink into the renewable energy question. Some of this is turbine engineering, some of it is solar power efficiency, some of it is battery technology, some of it is making biofuels from cellulose. There isn't going to be anyone 'thunderclap' event. It is simply chipping away at the problem day by day. Many of the advances are truly impressive, but largly unrecognized.
    Next time you start wandering around the US, look more carefully. Otherwise this show is just another 'Yes Minister'.

  • Comment number 4.

    Justin,

    I think there is a very important point in climate change, or green living is you like, that you have not even touched on. And probably for good reason.

    First is personal responsibility. It is up to each person to lower their carbon usage. And not just for a year. It seems you spent your time in America looking for a silver bullet for carbon replacement, while overlooking conservation completely. Maybe you should have spent you time looking for a masked man, riding a white horse and his Native American side kick. There isn't a replacement for carbon at this time, given the amounts of energy we use today. So to lower CO2 output and make our fossil fuels last longer, we need to conserve, along with the necessary switch to renewables. But is up to every planet dweller to lower their usage.

    Second, it must not be a one time or one year shot at reducing/conserving. You did it for a year and quit, for which you have forever lost my respect. What would have happened if Churchill said, 'well we tried to defeat the Germans for a year and it didn't work. Oh well. Zieg heil'. Tenacity and discipline is needed to continually reduce our use of carbon and CO2 emissions. There is no silver bullet or masked man to make it all better.

    So if you want your info-tainment to really make a point, show us what continued diligence at carbon reduction can do, You touched at it in your second interview with Daryl Hanna. Off the grid for 18 years and petrol free for 10. That equates to a much smaller carbon footprint. I personally have gone from 35 tons/year to 6 tons/year. It took 7 years to accomplish. And I am not stopping there. I am hoping to be down to 5 tons/year within a year.

    So Justin if you truly want to 'Save the World' you need to get back on the carbon reduction horse and show us what can be done in the long haul. There is no quick fix.

    p.s thanks for the candy bars, and pizza and beer.

  • Comment number 5.

    Justin Rowlatt.

    having seen two of your films, and read the above, I'll go with Gustave Flaubert:

    "Earth has its boundaries, but human stupidity is limitless".

  • Comment number 6.


    '... to be honest, I have had enough... I know it's a cop out'.

    Ain't flying great (well, in most ways) when others pay (especially if it's for the family, too... ask the DG). There's also the small matter of 'Doing this 6500 mile trip around America without flying': http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ethicalman/2009/04/the_first_ethical_man_film.html

    So, basically, it has all just been a bit of show for a show that has green more as a theme. With quite a lot of flying when required... or it suits.

    Hmn. Inspiring.

    But I have enjoyed the bits without the agenda bolted on, especially anything that reduces practically, improves efficiencies and minimises waste. These, and those who create them, are who I hold out real hope for.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi Justin !

    Let me describe my own journey from faith to skepticism. The whole global warming idea seemed plausible. Temperatures had risen. I'm quite spartan by nature and heavily influenced by the wartime childhoods of my parents, so the ideas of reducing waste and recycling materials appealed. Waste not - want not.

    But I also have a scientific training. So statements like "the science is settled" started to jar. Bogus graphs and made-up simulations really grated. In none of my science training had "peer review" appeared. We did experiments. Measured results.

    The idea of "proof by committee" really kicked the legs from under it.
    Now we even have proof by repetition.

    And the BBC is complicit in all this. Every day we have these garbage reports:

    If A happens than B and C might happen. And if B and C happen then D might happen - then we're really in the doo-doo. Non-stop.

    This is not reporting - its propaganda.

    And its not just me. More and more people are twigging. Following their own route from belief to unbelief to negative belief.

  • Comment number 8.

    And talk about framing. Just look at your first sentence:

    "You want an idea of the scale of the challenge global warming presents?"

    Did you know that global temperatures have flatlined since 2003 ? Global warming is on holiday.

  • Comment number 9.

    The real issue is with the vested commercial interest and their relationship to congress (that group who reside in Washington D.C.and are for hire on legislative issues). Coal, gas/oil and power generation companies control congress and to move in a different direction will take the incentive you mention "cash." If environmentalist are willing to pony up for congressional candidates they too can buy some votes. It's the American Way. Nothing happens in Washington "because it is the right thing to do." Like the recent financial collaspe, a crisis will have to occur before congress will do anything. They like to rescue us from their mistakes.

  • Comment number 10.

    It is easy to save the world from greenhouse warming!

    All it takes is an international agreement that at least a certain small percentage of each nation's tax revenue should come from a tax on greenhouse gas emissions.

    There is then no need for complicated cap and trade schemes and no payments from one nation to another. The participant nations can decide by how much to cut other taxes or whether to use the diminishing carbon tax as a way of gradual tax cutting, all by themselves.

    The technologies to solve the problem either already exist or are in advanced stages of development. The greenhouse gas tax will provide the incentive and the market will do the rest.


  • Comment number 11.

    I wish to reply to the comment that says:

    8. At 11:47am on 26 Jun 2009, Jack_Hughes_NZ wrote:

    And talk about framing. Just look at your first sentence:
    "You want an idea of the scale of the challenge global warming presents?"
    Did you know that global temperatures have flatlined since 2003 ? Global warming is on holiday.

    There is an explanation for this and it involves some high school level science.
    The average energy radiated by Earth into space is about 235 watts per square meter and the average absorbed sunlight is about 236 watts per square meter. More precisely, the difference is about 0.6 to 0.7 watts per square meter of excess of warming over cooling.

    Now where does this heat energy go? It is the immense heat capacity of sea water that absorbs it. Water has by far the highest heat capacity compared to other substances on the Earth's surface and currents can bring the heat downwards. A simple calculation that assumes that sea water mixes down to 200 meters and below that stays quiet shows that the surface temperature will increase at a rate of about 1 degree Celsius in 30 years. This is so slow that random changes can produce cooling is some years.

    One can say that the water in the oceans has an immense heat inertia. It is as though a loaded supertanker is pulled by a tug and it churns and churns but the large ship does not seem to move. Actually the momentum is transferred to the big ship and it will start moving, but it takes time.

  • Comment number 12.

    A possible 'Ethical Woman' candidate for when Newsnight turns green again for a while?:

    Next time, Jacko, try to die in London

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/mediamonkeyblog/2009/jul/02/michael-jackson-emily-maitlis

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi skamble ! Thanks for your posting.

    Just trying to understand your hypothesis. Pleased let me know if this is or isn't a correct summary of your idea:

    1. There is a heat imbalance - more arriving than leaving.
    2. Before 2003 this raised the earth's temperature.
    3. Since 2003 it has not raised the temperature because it's hiding in the sea.
    4. Some years it hides so well that temperatures go down.

    Have I got the idea ?

  • Comment number 14.

    I wonder how this fits in with the Argo project to measure ocean temperatures:

    Josh Willis of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has reported that the Argo system has shown no ocean warming since it started in 2003. "There has been a very slight cooling, but not anything really significant," Willis has stated.

  • Comment number 15.

    Hi Jack,

    I found an article that seems to answer these questions. Here is the name of the file, and a Google search produced only one result for it:

    FCXNL-09A02a-1661562-1-Obs_for_OHC_WhitePaper_v3.doc

    On page 13 of this document there is a graph that shows the total heat content of oceans as a function of time, in years. To translate this to watts per square meter one would need to measure the slope and divide by the number of seconds in a year and the number of square meters either in the Earth's surface or in the surface of the oceans, depending on how the number is presented.

    What is important in this graph is that it shows both a growing overall trend and also a strong variability between years. I have not pulled out my calculator yet and would like to do this calculation.

    The article also mentions the Argo project.

    I am curious to see how many watts per square meter will come out of this calculation. Will get back later,

  • Comment number 16.

    Jack,

    I just found one more graph of the total heat content of oceans, this time from NOAA, the US National Oceans and Atmosphere Administration. This time it is a direct link:

    http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/OC5/3M_HEAT_CONTENT/

    Now all it would take is ruler, pencil and calculator to translate the total huge number of joules into more readily understandable watts per square meter.

  • Comment number 17.

    Hey but I believe there is no point in trying to put blame on others... But I believe its the time for action... we are seeing nowadays lots of deforestation...We need to replace it by growing more tress. but the question here is where do we grow them.. I believe we build bridges for smooth transport of vehicles... similarly we can build bridges and grow trees on them... we have built oil platforms on seas ..similarly why don we grow huge platforms and grow trees on them.. i don know whether this is practical or not.. just a thought...

  • Comment number 18.

    Followed your second link and the graph looks odd.

    How was the heat content -5 x 10^22 Joules (minus five times ten to the 22) in the seventies and again in the eighties ?

    When I last studied thermodynamics we never saw 'heat content' go negative like this.

  • Comment number 19.

    Skamble,

    Your analogy with a loaded supertanker could lead you to wrong conclusions. When you stop applying heat to the ocean it stops getting hotter. It does not get any hotter when you stop heating it.

    Think of a huge tank of water. It will heat up slowly - and cool down slowly. But it does not get any hotter without any heat input.

  • Comment number 20.

    Jack,

    The comparison between force-inertia and heating-heat capacity is made so often that the difference between heating and cooling is called forcing. Precisely, climate forcing is ISR-OLR, where ISR stands for incoming shortwave radiation, shortwave being mostly visible light, and OLR stands for outgoing longwave radiation, longwave meaning infrared.

    The reason the same heat content appears in different years is that over that period the net forcing was zero, meaning there was as much cooling as heating. One can see there were also periods of net cooling, meaning the forcing was negative over that period. It means that the cooling trend experienced over these years was stronger than the overall heating trend.

    Last time I checked it the reason for such large variations in heat forcing was the subject of intense ongoing research, and the main suspect was the ionosphere. This makes sense because it alone is capable of rapid changes depending on charged particles coming from the Sun, and these changes affect how transparent is the ionosphere in the infrared.

    If you are interested there are research articles online, some of them answer the following question: water vapor is also a greenhouse gas, and warmer temperature results in increased water vapor pressure, meaning more water vapor in the atmosphere, causing more greenhouse effect, making even more water vapor in the atmosphere... In short, this is called water vapor runaway. There were calculations that found the reason
    why this is impossible on Earth, unless the amount of sunlight reaching Earth increases by 10%, which will not happen in the next 100 million years, so we do not have to worry about it.

    Another interesting discovery was the short-term thermostat whose reaction time is measured in hours, related to clouds, and the so called weathering thermostat, whose reaction time is thousands of years.

    Lots of these articles will come up if you do a search with terms like
    ISR, OLR, and SST which stands for sea surface temperature.

  • Comment number 21.

    Hi skamble,

    Let's just stick with your second graph until we understand it.

    The y-axis is labelled Heat Content (10^22 Joules).

    The line starts below zero and stays below zero until about 1985.

    Can you explain how the global ocean heat content was below zero ?

  • Comment number 22.

    Hi Jack,

    The zero is just an arbitrarily chosen number - for example, the NOAA scientists could say, let us call the oceans heat content in 1980 zero.

    The changes to the heat content appears in 10^22 Joules units, but the total heat energy of the water in the oceans would be far larger than this and compared to it the changes would be tiny, so the graph would look like a flat line. A change of just a few degrees is important for people but the calculation of total heat energy involves degrees Kelvin,
    where zero is at -273 Celsius. There is also energy involved in phase changes which makes it even more complicated. So it makes sense to use a scale for a graph where changes become visible.

    Right now my computer and printer are not together because of a move. Once they are reconnected I'll print out the graph and do the promised calculation. Marking points on a computer screen is not a good idea.

  • Comment number 23.

    skamble - what you write may or may not be true - but it does not say any of that on the graph.

    If it shows changes compared to an arbitrary baseline - then why does it not say this ? Or why not just put different numbers on the scale ? Most graphs of say currency movements do not go right down to zero.

    It also does not say if it's a flow or a stock. Compare it to a bank statement - is it the balance at any point in time or is it the spending in a period ?

    It's really hard to make any sense of this graph. You are trying to make sense by inventing some ideas that are just not written on the graph.

    It looks to me like it's only been chosen because it heads upwards in a suitably scary way.

  • Comment number 24.

    Jack,

    I did the calculation using the period from the middle of 1979 to roughly the middle of 2009, where the graph ends, and got +0.35 watt per square meter of the ocean surface. The ocean heat content reflects not all but most of the Earth's radiative balance.

    Now I realize that not everyone took science at school, and physics and math are not everyone's favorite subjects. Unfortunately, these are required to understand a discussion about the heat energy coming to and from the Earth, because, since the space is empty, this heat energy can only be carried by radiation.

    This graph was chosen to be mentioned on the BBC Ethical Man blog by me,
    but I am very far from being its inventor. It is not any theory but measurements carried out by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is a branch of the US Department of Commerce.
    Now since the Obama administration is very new, most of the work was actually carried out under the Bush administration. Implying that the Bush administration chose an environmentally scary graph is much like saying they were green leftist tree huggers, which is quite the opposite of what most people think of George W. Bush and his administration.

    In short, the Earth's radiative balance is a topic that belongs to science, not politics. This makes it harder to understand, but also free
    of bias, because in empty space there are no politics at all.

    Once satellites would be able to measure incoming and outgoing radiation precisely enough, the difference would be easy to calculate. Right now the ocean heat content is the most precise tool available.

  • Comment number 25.

    Hi skamble and thanks for taking the time to reply.

    Don't worry about maths or physics boring some people. I covered both in my engineering degree.

    Now you have a hunch that the graph shows a change in energy content from some baseline and you've done a calculation about this. But the label on the Y-axis does not say this. It says Heat Content (10^22 Joules).

    If it really shows Change in heat content it could easily have said that.

    This graph is important. Mainly because it shows that the authors will publish something that does not make sense. It very clearly shows the Global Ocean Heat Content (the title and the Y-axis) starting below zero. This is not possible.

  • Comment number 26.

    Their manuscript contains similar graphs. All of them start with a negative heat content.

    This undermines their efforts. It also blows a big hole in the peer review process if wrongly-labelled graphs get through and get published.

    Can we at least agree that the black (yearly average) line on the graph shows a global ocean heat content for 1970 of -5 x 10^22 Joules ?

    Does anyone know what this means ? Was the heat content really -5 x 10^22 J in 1970 ? As in below zero heat content ?

  • Comment number 27.

    Hi Jack,

    You are right, the graph only shows the changes in the oceans heat content but does not say anything about the absolute number, and the authors also neglected to point it out.

    What would this absolute number be is also not immediately clear. One can say let's put the zero at the melting point when the water is liquid but a bit colder and it would freeze. The problem is the melting point depends on salinity and it differs from place to place.

    Of course one can say, let us start counting from the absolute zero. Then the heat content would be an immense number that includes the energy needed to heat the ice by 273 degrees and then melt it.

    The NODC (National Oceanographic Data Center) should have pointed it out on their website.

  • Comment number 28.

    Thanks for your diligence.

    I think we both agree that the ocean heat content is the most important place to look if you want to measure global warming or cooling. Not the only place, but the most important.

    The difficulty lies in measuring / estimating this. There are huge areas of the ocean with no historical data and no modern snapshot data at all because ships never go there. I guess this is one of the main drivers behind the ARGO project.

    This only came fully onstream in 2003 and as mentioned previously they report a modest but not significant cooling since then.

    It's also hard to get any trends because there are so many other trends as well - shipping routes have changed over the last 30 years, design of ships has changed, measurement techniques have changed. So you end up in the same mess as the surface temperatures - where any trend is similar size and direction to measurement errors.

    Have a look at the Surface Stations project run by a retired TV weather man. His volunteers visit and photograph weather stations in the US and sometimes elsewhere.

    They have found weather stations next to barbecues, in the middle of car-parks, next to A/C heat outlets, temperature sensors lying on the ground, next to airport runways where jets turn and rev their engines. And these are some of the best in the world.

    There are also more subtle errors - like min/max temperatures used to be recorded at 7am but over the years most stations have drifted later in the day and base min/max on the afternoon. Before, a low min could be carried over 2 days. Now a high max can be carried over 2 days.

    Then a recent station was formerly measured by a trained meteorologist. When he retired his wife started doing the readings at weekends. When he died she carried on solo for 10 years. She was shorter than he was and never trained about avoiding parallax errors.

  • Comment number 29.

    " This only came fully onstream in 2003 and as mentioned previously they report a modest but not significant cooling since then"

    Uh, you can't see any trend in that short a time.

    A trend requires more than 3 points.

    And look where Jack has previously said "It's cooling" and the result of looking at his data:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/climatechange/2009/07/is_the_climate_warming_or_cool.html

  • Comment number 30.

    PS have a look here and see if you can see any places where the annual temperature was down for a few years:

    http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/Fig.A2.lrg.gif

    Despite appearing ~1890, 1900, 1910, ... each "cooling" (as per Jack's definition) has left us higher now than before.

    Despite this "cooling event" (by Jack's light) we are still hotter than any year even a local peak one before 1998.

  • Comment number 31.

    "When he died she carried on solo for 10 years. She was shorter than he was and never trained about avoiding parallax errors."

    This happens sooo often, doesn't it...

  • Comment number 32.

  • Comment number 33.

    Hi,

    I redid the calculation using the NOAA ocean heat content graph at:

    http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/OC5/3M_HEAT_CONTENT/

    for the last ten years only and got +0.63 watts per square meter of ocean surface.

    The website of the ARGO project says the deployment of floats began in 2000 and was complete by 2007. There are problems with pressure sensors
    which likely provide readings of depth and it was not clear to me if the data was affected. The NOAA website mentions the use of the ARGO data.

    It seems to me that since the change being measured is only about 1/30 of degree Celsius a year, any comparison with weather in the ordinary sense is misleading. The usual changes of temperature between summer and winter
    are often 40 degrees or more, and even the day-night difference is huge compared with the tiny signal that is measured through the ocean heat content. Luckily the heat capacity of the atmosphere is small compared with that of the ocean and these huge changes of temperature affect the total heat content very little.

    What I am trying to say by all this is that relying on common sense is completely misleading when dealing with a question that can only be answered with scientific measurements and calculations. It turns out the probes have to go down up to 2 kilometers and measure the temperature with great precision to get even an approximate answer.

  • Comment number 34.

    Let us admit and acknowledge the truth of the seriously alarming issue of the global warming,which need immediate attention. If not, we are heading nowhere.

    I am more incline of tackling the issue, than go round the bush and keep on talking about the issue. Let us be more transparent and committed to tackle the issue for saving this planet, rather than on personal agenda. please do correct me if I am wrong. Otherwise, the issue will remain unresolved. If we don't care, who will then care for us.

    Just use our five senses to judge whether it is a real issue or not. Do not put our ancestors efforts into waste, for keep on ignoring such critical issue which is long overdue.

    Thanks for raising this issue again in your papers.
    The signs are sufficient clear to suggest the seriousness of the issue and we, human being being the smartest creation on the planet should take a wise and bold steps to rectify it without delays.

    We may making use of other noble institution to take the lead and act as the driving force to push the agenda ahead. Let us push through the United Nation and give the necessary mandate and power to carry the tasks.

  • Comment number 35.

    I would like to re-post a comment that I put earlier in the "Are we all doomed?" blog.

    The reason is that I posted it there too late, and it did not attract much attention. This comment deals with the worst possible case of greenhouse effect, and here it is:

    Are we all doomed?

    There is only one scenario of climate change that is a cause for concern about more than a major inconvenience for people. It is the possibility (or impossibility?) of water temperatures at large depths rising by two or three degrees and causing the escape of methane stored as methane hydrates in such a way that it takes place not over several centuries, but over several decades.

    The half-life of the molecule of methane in the atmosphere is about 10 years. If the speed of the release is comparable to this, then one has to take into account that methane absorbs the infrared 60 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

    The quantities of methane stored at large depths as methane hydrate ice are immense but they are spread over very large areas. This makes it not likely that it will all escape at the same time.

    But if methane will escape over a short period of time, as a result of some downward warm current causing the methane hydrates to bubble out,
    this may push the atmosphere into a state that was never experienced before.

  • Comment number 36.

    No we are not doomed.

    Some view the earth's climates as a horribly unstable booby-trapped system that's going to bite us just as soon as it gets the chance.

    This is moving away from science and into the realms of psychology.



  • Comment number 37.

    There is a whole genre of stories following this pattern:

    If X happens then Y could happen, leading to Z ...

    There is also a whole industry of people who make a living from these scare stories - eg Al Gore and G Monbiot and the 4th floor at BBC house.

    Add in a slew of amateurs who like to sit with the cool kids.

    The trick is to just ignore these people. Remember that just because Z would be horrible it does not mean that Y or X are actually going to happen. Read the small print: there are always give-away words like "if" "might" "could" - a mixture of future and conditional tenses.

 

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