Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Seascape With Methane Plumes

In the wake of last week’s post, I’d meant to plunge straight into the next part of this sequence of posts and talk about the unraveling of American politics. Still, it’s worth remembering that the twilight of America’s global empire is merely an incident in the greater trajectory of the end of the industrial age, and part of that greater trajectory may just have come into sight over the last week.

Some background might be in order. For several years now, it has been possible for ships to sail from the northern Atlantic to the northern Pacific via the Arctic Ocean in late summer and early autumn. In the great days of European maritime exploration, any number of expeditions wrecked themselves in Arctic ice in futile attempts to find the fabled Northwest Passage; now, for the first time in recorded history, it’s a routine trip for a freighter, and as often as not the route is blue water all the way without an ice floe in sight. (Somehow global warming denialists never get around to talking about this.) Last autumn, though, crew members aboard several ships reported seeing, for the first time, patches of sea that appeared to be bubbling, and initial tests indicated that the bubbles were methane.  This was a source of some concern, since methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, there’s a great deal of it trapped in formerly frozen sediments in the Arctic, and the risk of massive methane releases from the polar regions has played a substantial role in the last decade or so of discussions of the risks of global warming.

Word of the bubbling ocean up north got briefly into the media, and provoked a fascinating response. The New York Times, for example, published a story that mentioned the reports,and then insisted in strident terms that reputable scientists had proven that the methane plumes were perfectly normal, part of the Arctic Ocean’s slow response to the warming that followed the end of the last ice age. This same “nothing to see here, move along” attitude duly appeared elsewhere in the  media. What makes this fascinating is that the New York Times, not that many years earlier, carried bucketloads of stories about the threat of climate change, including stories that warned about the risk that the thawing out of the Arctic might release plumes of methane into the atmosphere.

Weirdly, this same reversal seems to have guided the response – or more precisely the nonresponse – of the climate change activist community to these same reports.  It might seem reasonable to expect that global warming activists would have leapt on these initial reports as ammunition for their cause; when initial estimates suggested that global warming would melt the glaciers of the Himalayas and deprive India of much of its water supply, certainly, a great deal was made of those claims. Still, that’s not what happened. Instead, a great many people who a few years ago were busily talking about the terrible risk of methane releases from the Arctic suddenly found something else to discuss once those methane releases stopped being a purely theoretical possibility.

Fast forward to this spring. After yet another unseasonably warm Arctic winter, Russian scientists are busy studying the methane releases reported last fall, and initial reports – well, let’s understate things considerably and call them “rather troubling.” Areas of open water up to a kilometer across are fizzing with methane, a condition that one experienced Arctic researcher, Dr. Igor Semiletov, described as completely unprecedented. Another team of researchers, flying a plane with methane sensors over the disintegrating ice cap, has tracked plumes of methane rising into the atmosphere wherever the ice is broken. The amounts detected, they comment, are significant enough to affect global climate.

Is this unsettling news being splashed around by the same mainstream media that, only a few years ago, were somberly warning about the risks of global climate change, and trumpeted from the rooftops by climate change activists as proof that their warnings were justified? Not that I’ve heard. In fact, according to recent media reports, James Lovelock – creator of the Gaia hypothesis and author of books painting worst-case global warming scenarios in spectacularly lurid terms – has just announced that, well, actually, he overstated things dramatically, so did other climate activists such as Al Gore, and global warming actually won’t be as bad as all that.

In order to make sense of this curious reversal, it’s going to be necessary to take a hard look at some of the less creditable dimensions of the climate change movement. I should say first that as far as I can tell, the great majority of ordinary people who got involved in the climate change movement were guided by the most sincere and sensible motives. Dumping billions of tons of fossil carbon into the atmosphere was a dumb idea all along; pretending that all that carbon could be dumped there without disrupting the subtle and complex balance of the world’s climate was even dumber; and the response to those paired stupidities included a great deal that was praiseworthy.

Equally, as far as I can tell, the great majority of scientists whose efforts have helped to prove the reality of anthropogenic climate change have produced honest and competent research, and even the minority that hasn’t met this standard rarely managed to rise, or rather sink, to the levels of cherrypicking, obfuscation, and outright fiction routinely found in climate change denialist literature. That being said, there’s more going on in the world of climate change activism than the honest concern of citizens and the honest labor of researchers, and it’s past time to examine the reasons why the climate change movement got so large and accomplished so little. In the process, we’ll be touching on issues that bear directly on the broader theme I’ve been developing in the last few months, because the rise and fall of climate change activism over the last decade or so has an uncomfortably great deal to do with the mechanisms of empire and the balance of power in a strained and fraying global political system.

Until the end of the 1990s, climate change was simply one more captive issue in the internal politics of industrial nations. The political role of captive issues, and the captive constituencies that correspond to them, is too rarely discussed these days. In the United States, for example, environmental protection is one of the captive issues of the Democratic Party; that party mouths slogans about the environment, and even though those slogans are rarely if ever followed up by concrete policies, environmentalists are expected to vote Democratic, since the Republicans are supposed to be so much worse, and willingly play the part of bogeyman.  The Republican party, in turn, works the same good cop-bad cop routine on its own captive constituencies, such as gun owners and Christian fundamentalists, and count on the Democrats to act out the bogeyman’s role in turn. It’s an ingenious system for neutralizing potential protest, and it plays a major role in maintaining business as usual in the world’s democratic societies.

After the year 2000, though, global climate change got coopted on a grander scale, as the rise of a handful of nonwestern nations to great power status put growing pressure on the United States and its allies. China is the most widely recognized of these, but India and Brazil are also emerging powers; meanwhile Russia, which was briefly subjected to an Anglo-American wealth pump after the collapse of Communism and nearly got bled dry, managed to extract itself in the late 1990s and has been clawing its way back to great power status since then.  Faced with these rising or resurgent powers – the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations, as they were called – the United States and its inner circle of allies have tried a number of gambits to keep them in their former places.

Historically speaking, war is the usual method for settling such issues, but that isn’t a useful option this time around.  Even if nuclear weapons weren’t an issue, and of course they are, I suspect too many people in the Pentagon still remember what happened the last time the US military went head to head with the People’s Liberation Army. (Readers who have no idea what I’m talking about will want to read up on the Korean War.) That left trade policy as the next logical line of defense, and so the late 1990s saw a series of attempts by the US and its allies to use global free trade treaties to put the rest of the world at a permanent economic disadvantage. That effort ran into solid resistance at the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial talks in Seattle, and collapsed completely four years later.

Those of my readers who remember how the WTO talks at Cancun in 2003 crashed and burned may have experienced deja vu when the climate talks at Copenhagen in 2009 did exactly the same thing. The resemblance is not accidental. In the years leading up to the Copenhagen climate talks, the US and its allies argued that it was necessary to replace the Kyoto protocols of 1997 – which mostly restricted carbon emissions from the industrial nations – with a new set that would apply to industrializing countries as well. This was fair enough in the abstract, but the devil was in the details: in this case, the quotas that would place China, India, and other industrializing nations at a permanent disadvantage, and grandfather in the much higher per capita carbon emissions of the United States, Europe and Japan.

Environmental rhetoric has been used for such purposes often enough in the past. One of my college ecology textbooks, copyright 1981, mentions ruefully that attempts to pressure Third World nations into enacting strict environmental protections had come to be recognized by those nations as simply one more round of attempts to keep them in a state of permanent economic dependence. While there was more going on than this – the environmental movement in general, like the climate change activist movement in particular, has always included a large number of idealists with the purest of motives – it’s a safe bet that the Third World nations were broadly correct in their assessment, as none of the industrial nations that exerted the pressure ever proposed, let’s say, to forbid their own nationals from exporting environmentally destructive products to the Third World.

The stakes at Copenhagen, in other words, were rather different from those discussed in the media, and the outcome could have been predicted from the debacle six years earlier at Cancun. When it became clear to the major players that the United States and its allies were not going to get what they wanted, the entire process fell apart, leaving China to seize the initiative and offer a face-saving compromise that committed neither bloc to any limits that matter.  Afterwards, since climate change had failed to keep the BRIC nations at bay, the US dropped the issue like a hot rock; the financial hangover of the housing bubble made climate change lose its appeal to the Democratic Party; and activists suddenly discovered that what they thought was a rising groundswell of support was simply the result of being temporarily funded and used for somebody else’s political advantage.

Claims that large-scale methane releases from the warming Arctic would send the planet’s climate spinning out of control played a significant role in both the domestic and the international rhetoric of climate change during the time the movement was coopted, and got dropped along with the movement once it was no longer useful. The same claims, though, also played a broader role in mobilizing citizen activism and scientific concern, and the reasons why nobody outside the corridors of power is talking about the methane plumes deserves some attention as well.

What’s at work here is the basic structure of contemporary activism itself.  Pick nearly any issue that inspires activism nowadays, and you’ll find that it fits into a strict and stereotyped narrative. It centers on something bad that’s going to get much worse if nothing is done, and the “much worse” generally ends up described in ever more luridly apocalyptic terms as the movement proceeds.  Victory for the movement, in turn, is defined for all practical purposes as preventing the worst case scenarios the movement itself offers up; high-level abstractions such as “peace” and “justice” get a lot of play, but it’s very rare for there to be any kind of meaningful vision of a goal to be sought, much less a pragmatic plan for getting there.  Opposing the bad, for all practical purposes, replaces seeking the good.

Those of my readers who followed the discussion of the tactics of magic in last autumn’s Archdruid Report will doubtless be able to think of several good reasons why this approach is problematic, but there’s another dimension to the problem.  In contemporary activism, the worst case scenarios that play so large a part in the rhetoric are there to pressure people into supporting the movement. In climate change activism, certainly, that was the case. 

Read James Lovelock’s more recent and strident books, or any of the good-sized bookshelf of parallel literature, and you’ll find the claim that failing to support the climate change movement amounts to dooming the planet to a hothouse future in which, by 2100, the sole surviving human beings are a few “breeding pairs” – that’s Lovelock’s phrase – huddled around the tropical shores of the Arctic Ocean, with catastrophic methane releases from the Arctic regions among the driving forces behind that lurid scenario. It’s a compelling image, but once methane plumes actually start boiling up through the waters of the Arctic Ocean, you’ve just lost your rationale for further activism – or, really, for anything else short of jumping off the nearest bridge.

That’s the dilemma in which the news from the Arctic has landed climate activists. Having by and large bought into the idea that once the methane starts rising, it’s all over, they have very few options left. It’s a self-created dilemma, though, because methane releases aren’t a new thing in the planet’s history. If it’s true that, as George Santayana said, those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, it’s equally true that those who forget their paleoecology are condemned not to notice that they’re repeating it – and in this case, as in many others, a good basic knowledge of what happened the last time large scale methane releases coincided with a period of planetary warming.

That wasn’t that long ago, as it happened. The end of the last ice age saw sharp increases in methane concentrations in the atmosphere, the rapid melting of continental glaciers, and a steep rise in global temperature that peaked around 6,000 years ago at levels considerably higher than they are today. A controversial theory, the “clathrate gun” hypothesis, argues that the warming was triggered by massive methane releases from the oceans.  Whether or not that was the major factor, ice cores from Greenland document rising levels of methane in the air around the same time as the stunningly sudden global warming – an increase of more than 15°F in global average temperatures in less than a decade – that triggered the final collapse of the great ice sheets.

The first point to grasp from this is that methane releases aren’t the end of the world. Our ancestors got through the last rounds of it without any sign of massive dieoff, and it’s been argued that the nearly worldwide legends of a great flood may embody a dim folk memory of the vast postglacial floods that took place as the ice melted and the seas rose. For that matter, during most of Earth’s history, the planet has been much hotter than it is now; only a few tens of millions of years ago – yes, that’s practically an eyeblink in deep time – crocodiles sunned themselves on the subtropical shores of Canada’s north coast, at a time when Canada was nearly as close to the North Pole as it is today.  Thus Lovelock’s extreme scenario deserves the label of “alarmist” that he himself put on it in the interview cited above.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that a methane spike in the Arctic can simply be ignored. Since the dim folk memories that might be embodied in flood legends are the only records we’ve got for the human experience of abrupt global warming, we simply don’t know how fast the temperature shift might affect, for example, the already unstable Greenland ice sheet, which contains enough water to raise sea level worldwide by around 30 feet.  Some theoretical models argue that Greenland’s ice will melt slowly, while others argue that water pooling beneath the ice could cause huge sections of it to slide off into the sea in short order, filling the North Atlantic first with icebergs, then with meltwater. Which model is correct?  Only Gaia knows, and she ain’t telling.

Equally, we don’t know whether the melting of the Greenland ice sheet will make nearby continental shelves unstable, as it did the last time around, and reproduce the same set of conditions that caused gargantuan tsunamis at the end of the last ice age. There’s abundant evidence for these; one of them, according to recent research, flooded the North Sea and carved the English Channel in a single day around 8000 years ago; we don’t know how soon those might become a factor around the Atlantic basin, or even if they will. It’s unsettling to realize that we may have no way of finding out until the first one hits.

All that’s certain at this point is that something potentially very troubling is happening in Arctic waters,  and the possibility that it might have destructive consequences on a local, regional, or continental scale can’t be ruled out. Panic is the least useful response I can think of, so I’ll say this very quietly: if the news from Arctic waters in the months and years to come suggests that things are moving in the wrong direction, and those of my readers who live close to the shores of the northern Atlantic basin happen to have the opportunity to move inland or to higher ground, it might not be unreasonable to do so.

On a different topic, the folks at Scarlet Imprint tell me that they’ve still got a few remaining unsold copies of the handbound deluxe "Black Gold" edition of my book The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil. I know it’s a chunk of money, but there’s something to be said for a book crafted to standards high enough that it’ll still be readable long after industrial civilization has faded into memory. If that interests you, might be worth considering.

End of the World of the Week #19

Nostradamus, who’s featured in the last two weekly Ends of the World here, has also had a remarkable track record for inspiring false prophecies in others – and I’m not just thinking of the cheap  tabloids that trot out newly manufactured prophecies with his name on them every few months. Many Nostradamus researchers have embarrassed themselves once they moved from trying to force-fit quatrains onto the past, and attempted to use the French prophet’s writings to anticipate the future.

One example is Henry C. Roberts, whose The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus saw print in 1994. After careful study of the quatrains, Roberts came to believe that Nostradamus had infallibly predicted a dramatic event in the near future: the election of Edward Kennedy as president of the United States. (You’ll find this prediction on pages 210 and 218 of Roberts’ book.)  Any chance Roberts might have had at a reputation for infallibility went away when Kennedy died in 2009, having never gotten closer to the White House than a failed 1980 run for the Democratic nomination.

Oddly enough, a failed Nostradamus prophecy concerning Edward Kennedy also featured in pop musician Al Stewart’s 1973 piece Nostradamus:

In the new lands of America three brothers now shall come to power
Two alone are born to rule but all must die before their hour

It’s not hard to figure out who’s being discussed, but Edward Kennedy died at the age of 77.

—story from Apocalypse Not


barath said...
JMG, I'm not sure Lovelock is a climate scientist, or really even a climate activist, so I'm not sure he's a good example to use here. Grist put Lovelock's recent comments into context quite nicely: James Lovelock urges world to pay attention to James Lovelock.

A brief excerpt: That was in the 1970s. Since then, he’s mainly written books about it. Early this century, [Lovelock] apparently got tired of being out of the public eye. In 2004, he made a big fuss scolding enviros that they would have to accept nuclear power. In 2006, he warned that “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.” In 2008, he said “democracy must be put on hold” in order to respond to climate change. In 2009, he reiterated that “the climate war could kill nearly all of us and leave the few survivors living a Stone Age existence.”

If we were to instead look at what someone like James Hansen, who's pretty universally recognized as a top climate scientist, has been saying and writing for decades, it's remarkably consistent (and a recent look back at his quite sophisticated climate model from a seminal Science paper from 1981 showed if anything Hansen has erred on the conservative side in his projections). (Of course there are people out there espousing pretty much every possible view, so picking Hansen could be seen as cherry picking as well; in any case, he's quite in line with most climate scientists and activists.)

4/25/12, 10:01 PM said...
As much as I look forward to your take on American politics, this was a great detour. I actually hadn't heard some of those recent reports on bubbling seas, so that's some sobering information to have delivered this fine evening.

After an initial . . . romance, I suppose you might say, with the apocalyptic global warming scenarios, I came around to the conclusion that such scenarios just seemed unlikely. It seemed like there would be a bit more resiliency built into the global ecosystem, though not the sort of resiliency that leads denialists to claim we can dump as much pollution into the air as we want and the earth will suck it up just fine, no problem, with nary a blip.

No, the arguments that struck me were variations of the one made by Bill McKibben in Eaarth in which he noted that we have a massive amount of infrastructure--physical and otherwise--tied to aspects of this planet that are at extreme risk of change and upheaval due to climate change. That promises to create quite a bit of havoc and pain in the years ahead, I imagine.

Of course, massive tsunamis along the eastern seaboard would do much the same.

All of this is another reason to shift to localized economies and away from global supply chains that are intensely vulnerable to disasters. I just keep coming back to the idea that the future is very much not going to be like the present and immediate past, and the general failure of much of the populace to grasp this is going to lead to a lot of unnecessary pain as the future continues to make its differences obvious.


4/25/12, 10:02 PM

godozo said...
I've always felt that this latest batch of global warming would lead to a sudden cool-down as the Greenland Ice Sheet slipped into the ocean and cut off the Gulf Stream from the Arctic Ocean and Northern Europe. After a couple years of the Arctic Ocean being cut off from its warming pump, the freezing starts again in vengeance, with Northern Europe and the Tar Sands of Canada invaded by ice.

And with that, our last holdouts against Hubbert's peak fall...the dropoff goes from hill to cliff.

4/25/12, 10:03 PM

Bruce The Druid said...
A very neat summation of American Politics (two parties working together to neutralize protest). Its amazing though, to listen to people still caught up in that duality.

I remember reading Lovelock's original book that launched the Gaia Hypothesis. Reading the notes carefully, Lovelock discloses funding for the book came from Shell. Interesting. Well, it made sense when you read his final conclusion, that all this pollution doesn't matter because the earth is a self-correcting system. So then we can pump all the oil we want, and burn all the hydrocarbons we want, because "Gaia" will correct the imbalance.

I suppose Lovelock has been trying to make up for his original sin!

4/25/12, 10:13 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Barath, Lovelock to my mind is very much a climate activist, and he's also one of the public faces of the movement. The fact that he's also good at self-promotion puts him in the same category with quite a few people on the top end of the activist scene. As for Hansen, do you happen to know if he's said anything about the Arctic methane releases? I'd be very interested to hear his comments, if so.

Joel, exactly! As I commented in another context, if we do get the global warming that seems to be headed our way, the planet will be fine -- she's been through this many times before -- and so will our species, though the postwarming population will of necessity be a good deal smaller. It's industrial civilization that will be crushed, with the inevitability of a boot descending on an eggshell.

Godozo, two comments. First, have you checked that hypothesis against the evidence from paleoclimatology, which tells us quite a bit about the consequences of ice sheets melting and breaking up? Second, do you ever wonder why it is that so many people are so fixated on finding some mechanism, however far-fetched, that will allow them to imagine the end of the industrial age as a sudden cliff, rather than the long ragged decline that's ended nearly every other civilization in history?

Bruce, interesting. As I recall, that wasn't the conclusion that Lovelock drew from his research -- in fact, he was claiming in the early 1980s that the Earth was doomed to perish in the near future because the sun's heat is increasing over time (all stars do that); he had to backtrack some years later when it turned out that he'd ignored a major heat compensation mechanism in the atmosphere.

4/25/12, 10:28 PM

Thijs Goverde said...
Oh dear.
I hadn´t heard about the methane releases, but I've been expecting them.
This is not good, especially not for my part of the world. Fortunately, I live in one of the few parts of the Netherlands that's more than 10 meters above sea level. I doubt that will be enough, but my True Love and me are economically bound to the Dutch language (she's a psychologist).
Well... cross fingers, knock on wood and more usefully: seek the highest ground in The Netherlands (a solid 20 meters).

4/25/12, 10:52 PM

barath said...
JMG, Maybe it's a British / US split (re: Lovelock)? I try to follow what the (US) climate activist scene is up to and only hear about Lovelock every couple of years when he makes a big pronouncement (vs. people like Bill McKibben who are active and rooted in the latest science).

Anyway, about Hansen---I don't know about his take on recent methane emissions. Real Climate did have a nice back of the envelope post recently that used a bit of Hansen's work, among others, to estimate a sort of worst-case scenario of arctic methane release, and found that the science indicates it would be on the order of current emissions (that is, it'd only make current warming a small constant multiple worse). That's still very bad, but nothing like the fast catastrophe Lovelock was peddling.

4/25/12, 10:55 PM

GreenEngineer said...
methane releases aren’t the end of the world. Our ancestors got through the last rounds of it without any sign of massive dieoff

That's all well and good, but what was the global population at the time? A few million humans? With a lot more empty space, and no major industrial civilization or infrastructure, we were in a much better position to deal with sudden changes in climate.

Aside from the direct threat to infrastructure, it's the complexity of our civilization and its high degree of fabricatory depth that is really the problem. I'm pretty sure that enough hard, sharp shocks to the system can set off cascade failure, even if the actual infrastructure loss is only, say, 10-20%.

But human survival was never really at issue (Lovelock's silliness notwithstanding). Humans as a species are too flexible and adaptable to be entirely wiped out by any plausible climate shift. What we are at dire risk of losing is the technological infrastructure that provides us with things like hot showers, cold beer, artificial lights, and antibiotics.

4/25/12, 11:09 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Thijs, ten whole meters above sea level? I presume that's in the Dutch Alps. ;-) Seriously, though, I'd be worried if I were in your part of the world. If ice sheet melting picks up, that's going to be a massive challenge for any land close to sea level.

Barath, I'm familiar with that scenario, but one of the constants in this research is that gradualist scenarios don't hold up well. Do you recall when everyone reputable claimed that the end of the last ice age was very slow and gradual, with sea level rise at a pace that would hardly be noticed? Now they're finding solid evidence of bursts of meters-per-decade eustatic rise driven by the sudden collapse of large sections of ice sheets. The "clathrate gun" hypothesis, whether or not it works as a cause of the end of ice ages, provides a similarly sudden -- and quite plausible -- means for large amounts of methane to get into the atmosphere at once. That being the case, I don't think it's safe to count on gradual climate change as a done deal; the risks of underestimating the possible rate of change, it seems to me, are substantially greater than those of overestimating it.

4/25/12, 11:17 PM

Janne said...
Hansen and methane clathrates: "An important lesson comes from the "Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum" (PETM), a sudden 8-degree temperature spike 55 Mya. Hansen convincingly locates the cause. Rising ocean temperatures caused deposits of "methane ice" (a frozen mix of methane and water that gathers on the ocean floor) to melt and release large amounts of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) into the water, and the methane bubbled up to the atmosphere. Once methane release began it necessarily continued until essentially all the methane ice was melted, because the initial release warmed the atmosphere further, which caused further releases, and so forth in a vicious circle.

The planet has generally cooled during the last 50 My, and new methane ices have had ample opportunity to spread over the ocean floor. CO2 and temperatures are again increasing. We're putting ourselves in danger of another PETM-like event. But unlike 55 Mya, Greenland and West Antarctica today hold huge ice sheets that would eventually melt under a massive methane release, causing catastrophic ocean rise."

4/25/12, 11:22 PM

MawKernewek said...
Hi John,

Anthropogenic climate change makes for a far more controversial topic!

For the record I'm not and have never been an activist. Activists are always subsumed by the system, only a dunderhead would believe otherwise. It is far more subversive to plant and grow your own produce and build the resiliency of your systems whilst operating both within the system but also being apart from it when you so choose.

As for Sir James Lovelock, I must confess to reading some of his works and also commenting about them here on this very website. His writing scared me a bit, although the plug for nuclear power kind of lost me a bit. To his credit, he did comment that he'd be happy to live next to a reactor, although I'm unsure that he has actually done so. I would have had a bit more respect for his works if he'd been more honest and stated that nuclear was the only alternative that offered base load power, despite the costs and negative returns.

On the other hand, he may just have a very big ego and like saying controversial things to get the public’s attention!

Dr Tim Flannery's summation of the climate science to date, "The weather makers", troubled me far more because as an ecologist and palaeontologist he covers history and the ecology ie. the big picture.

Still, the conclusion that I've come to after all this reading is that the Earth is a closed loop and whilst we are without doubt causing damage, over the long term it is probably self-correcting. Peak resources will serve to put the brakes on a lot of the more extreme predictions anyway and few people tend to consider this aspect.

Too many people consider that the environment is in a fixed state, but my readings in both history and ecology plus experience here shows me that nothing is further from the truth and that it is in constant flux.

Last weekend, I camped in a remote spot up in the alpine area with some friends. What was really interesting is that on the drive in to the camping spot by the river, you could see the different environments change from one fold in the mountains to another. There was even remnant rainforest in gullies waiting for the absence of fire and thus their time in the sun to come again. Interesting stuff for a plant geek such as myself.

Your description of the rise and trajectory of activism in relation to the environmental movement sounds an awful lot like religion to me?

4/26/12, 3:10 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
haha! I'm back!

PS: As an interesting anecdote: Having a soft and easy going face I am often accosted by people collecting for groups such as Greenpeace or the Wilderness Society. No disrespect to either group as they do good. Still, my favourite line from these collectors is, "don't you care about the environment?". It's like a red flag to a bull! So, I start telling them something about my life and then, not being all about me, I turn it on them and ask them, "so what are you doing for the environment?". 99 times out of 100, it is a very hard question for them to answer. I understand they are paid and they have quotas, but seriously go hassle someone else...

PPS: I watched a lecture yesterday by a mechanical engineer who had many interesting insights to offer regarding peak oil. Well worth the time. However, the lecturer focused on peak oil as if it were merely a transport problem. It is very hard to find people that have a big picture viewpoint on the world. What was really spooky for me though is that the lecturer voiced something that I'd previously thought and not said aloud. It was the observation that, "we'd be considered mad by the rest of society if we didn't take advantage of the energy available to us". I live my life within self-imposed limits and I've often seen strange reactions from others to my personal choices and have wondered about it for quite some time. There's the answer.

PPPS: The tomato crop has revealed itself to be much greater than previously calculated! I'm now measuring about 40kg (88 pounds) and have been furiously making tomato chutney to preserve it for the forthcoming winter. I hope you Northern people are getting through the Spring garden lean time with at least some produce? Jerusalem Artichokes are meant to punch above their weight during this time.

Oh yeah, PPPPS (hope this is not too many PS's): A resilient system is not necessarily an efficient one. Among the chooks here is a breed called the silky. During Autumn most chooks stop laying whilst they regrow their feathers for the winter after the summer moult, not so the silky! They are the only egg producing chooks at this time of the year. Go the silky

Whatever, more digression. hehe! I'm still accumulating herb books and plants and it is truly mind boggling the uses these plants can be put to. As a gardener though you really have to have a wide variety of books because most of the new-ish books are no more than introductions to the subject. It is the books dating back from the 1970's that are the most all inclusive, but even these have gaps where the other books fortunately overlap. It saddens me how much lore has been lost.



4/26/12, 3:16 AM

Kurt Cagle said...
Clathrate release has always been the most disturbing scenarios to come from global climate change rrsearch, but it also highlights the nonlinear nature of climate. Like most nonlinear systems (such as any stock exchange) such systems tend to stay seemingly stable for well beyond people's expectations, then can go asymptotic over night. Most people are linearists - while they can recognize that a danger exists, the longer the dire warnings go on with no overt changes the more likely they will be dismissed.

Fukushima is illustrative here. Tsunamis are nothing new to Japan or anywhere in the pacific basin - Oregon still bears the scars of the last tsunami there in the 1700s. However if we have spiked the planets natural geochemical cycles then what will be the far more likely consequence will be extreme weather, vulcanism and earthquakes, tsunamis and so on, at a time when societal infrastructure has peaked this cycle and is in decay.
The attendant collapse of the petroleum economy will be the natural effect, part of the feedback loop that has been built into anthropocentric climate change since the advent of agriculture. Flooding by itself will not be the major problem ... by the time it does, petrocivilization will have long since fallen apart. Without that civilization, and with attendant reglaciation if current astrophysical models are correct, the heat and chemical pumps stop, and the planet returns to its long term cooling trend.

4/26/12, 4:21 AM

RPC said...
"Our ancestors got through the last rounds of it without any sign of massive dieoff..." There weren't 7 billion of us back then. I wonder - how much sea rise is needed for the Qattar Depression/Dead Sea/ Salton Sea to fill? Those will be some spectacular events!

4/26/12, 4:48 AM

barath said...
JMG, Very true; I think there are a number of possible non-linear warming / sea level rise scenarios. I guess the issue here is that we're changing the climate faster than the world's climate scientists can figure out exactly what we're doing to it. And because good science is often conservative and cautious until the data comes in and hypotheses are tested, it's always possible that a trigger for a fast climate shift can happen before we've fully understood it.

4/26/12, 5:48 AM

Mister Roboto said...
This methane-release is definitely something about which to be concerned in regards to climate-change, but it's also worth noting that atmospheric methane, while a much more potent greenhouse-gas than CO2, breaks down into more basic components in a relatively short span of time. Though I have no knowledge of whether or not one of those components is C02.

Also, South Africa joined the BRIC club, making it into BRICS. I wonder if they'll call it BRICAS should Argentina join (keeping in mind the potentially naughty way to prounounce the proposed acronym)? :-D

4/26/12, 5:59 AM

Jim R said...
Always interesting to watch humanity respond ... "I don't believe in Global Warming" is a popular meme.

Even though the world has millions of pious practitioners and followers of variously impossible belief systems, it is still remarkable that the bloviations of a radio talk host are taken more seriously than someone who has been probing the methane seeps of the arctic for perhaps a couple of decades:

Katey Walter Anthony...

4/26/12, 6:00 AM

barath said...
Here's Hansen talking about clathrates (briefly, at the end of the video). His primary concern, understandably, seems to be runaway warming (caused either by gradual processes or clathrates) where natural warming processes overwhelm industrial emissions.

4/26/12, 6:14 AM

adamatari said...
Personally, I always thought the Global Warming movement was a diversion tactic - a way to talk about the environment that took other environmental concerns, like general pollution, destruction of habitat, and reduction and extinction of species, out of the limelight. I have no doubt that some were sincere, and no doubt that global warming is a major threat... but it always seemed insincere to me.

If there is one thing I've come to see, it's that environmentalism was a failed movement, and precisely because a truly serious environmentalism asks too much of a rethink of industrial civilization. I can only hope that natural systems are more resilient than we realize. Of course, in enough time it will all wash out anyway, as life adapts... but I hate to admit that everything will only get worse for a long time.

4/26/12, 6:14 AM

Maria said...
Excellent essay! Thanks for the warning about moving away from the coast. On stormy days I can hear the Atlantic from my yard.

Thank you, also, for the reminder that "what you contemplate, you imitate." There is some family drama going on at the moment and I needed to be shaken by the shoulders and told "if you keep obsessing about the crazy people you are going to start acting crazy yourself." I know that wasn't your intention, but that was the effect and I am grateful for it.

4/26/12, 6:19 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
First about Atlantic tsunamis. That linked article on the Channel-opening "tsunami" seems to suffer from a bit of sloppy terminology and hyperbole. This is alas almost universal in science articles in the mainstream press. Though they use the term "tsunami," what they describe sounds more like an ice dam collapse, such as what happened in the inland Pacific Northwest rearranging the landscape there. It's not a trivial distinction, not just because the causal mechanism is entirely different. A tsunami is a wave, not a bulk-flow of water from one spot to another. They can clearly do major damage, but their power to do earthmoving on a sub-continental scale is limited. The ice dam collapses, on the other hand, create massive, sustained one-way flows of unimaginable amounts of water, and they can indeed carry entire islands and mountains with them as they go. But even if you stick with their "tsunami" terminology, a 10m tsunami is hardly unprecedented. The recent Japanese tsunami approached this, and 10m waves have occurred many times in the last few centuries around the Pacific Rim. Some of them have had "run-up"heights where they hit mountainsides of hundreds of meters. Now, nothing like this has ever been documented in the historical record for the Atlantic, of course. Although... I have lost the link, but something like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mentions an enormous sea wave washing across parts of Britain in the middle ages, but it was unclear whether this was a tsunami or just a storm surge.

Do you have any general references about post-glacial Atlantic tsunamis? I'd be curious to read more. Certainly there must have been lots of isostatic rebound seismic activity (since it is still happening today and cracked the Washington Monument just last year), but I'd be very interested to see what is known about visible traces of them left on the present-day landscape.

4/26/12, 6:30 AM

Stu from Rutherford said...
Thanks for this essay. I do not see it as a detour from your overarching topic. I had not heard about the plumes and will now search for more info.
I've been alarmed for 10 years about the total absence of a discussion on adjustments to climate change. Obviously, the "design" of our food supply chains is going to get us into more trouble than is necessary, as is industrial monocropping. Perhaps this is also in the nature of activism? ("We should all go down with our boots on"?)
Your observations about the manipulation of the movement by Western nations was welcome.

4/26/12, 6:36 AM

Mary said...
I'd read about the arctic methane fountains a couple months ago. As I recall, the scientists extrapolated what they found to potentially thousands of them. I figured it's runaway climate change by now, so there really is nothing we can do that will mitigate the situ.

In other interesting news that someone or other with extra time may want to look into is the ongoing catastrophe in Fukushima. A scarier situation, I think, than even climate change. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide comes to mind...


4/26/12, 6:48 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Second, about the methane and other arctic happenings. The problem with interpreting the seemingly bizarre things going on in the Arctic in recent years is the relatively short historical record. When you only have 20 or 30 years of good data, it is impossible to know how extreme an extreme event really is. And of course the popular media do their usual hyperbole to give the impression that the entire arctic ocean is ice-free and bubbling like a giant vat of seltzer water (with drowned polar bears floating around in the froth). Some of the recent happenings agree with a priori predictions of the effects of greenhouse warming -- reduced pack ice, stronger warming at the pole than the mid-latitudes, methane releases, etc. Although so far these things are not so pronounced around the south pole. But some of the things that seem to be following from this were not predicted, such as the setting up of unusually persistent blocking patterns in the northern hemisphere that lock huge areas into alternating regions of freakishly warm and freakishly cold, for month after month after month. So it is (a) hard to interpret exactly how far beyond the range of natural variation we might be, and (b) what the heck the extended consequences of this strangeness might be.

I know we have been around about this one before, but I will repeat that I don't think you will find that there is a consensus among all the various global proxy datasets that there was ever a concerted planet-wide warming of 15 degrees in a short time. There were jumps like this regionally, apparently. And if it hits your region, that is plenty disruptive.

Finally, one thing about using paleoclimate as an analogy for anthropogenic climate change. A big difference is that the ultimate forces that drove changes in paleoclimate were gradual, even if their effects sometimes consisted of dramatic and rapid shifts between different quasi-stable steady states for the climate system. With the anthropogenic effects, however, the forces driving the change are not slow and gradual, but are themselves rapid. If you push slowly on a leaning dower it will eventually reach the point where it will suddenly topple to the ground. But if you explode a bomb next to it it will fly apart into a million pieces and scatter itself over a wide area.

4/26/12, 6:51 AM

Don Plummer said...
Fascinating and disturbing report about the methane bubbles. It's too bad we don't have any way to capture that methane for natural gas; if we could, perhaps we could stop these foolish and destructive fracking operations.

Regarding the giant tsunamis you speak of, I saw a report several years ago on TV (one of the rare times I've watched) that a giant flood or tsunami in the Mediterranean basin several thousand years ago breached the Dardanelles/Bosporus passage and quickly filled the basin to the east that is now the Black Sea, a basin which before that had been dry land and held a human civilization of some kind. I don't remember the details, but some explorations of the Black Sea bottom uncovered evidence of human habitation.

The report speculated that this rapid filling of the Black Sea basin with seawater from the west, obliterating everyone and everything in that basin, may well have been the specific origin of the Noah tale. A huge wall of water descending into the basin from the west could easily have been the inspiration for the biblical description of "the fountains of the great deep [being] broken up."

4/26/12, 6:56 AM

Adrian Skilling said...
I'd read about the methane releases and was seriously shocked. I thought game over, and I was shocked by the eerie silence in mainstream media and climate activists (which now makes more sense).

The speed of temperature rise at the end of the ice age was quite something. I'm quite happy that the Biosphere will survive this but surely was a lot less troublesome humans. The devastation of a possible Japanese-style tsunami x10-100 fold is beyond my imagination.

In the UK climate I would hope we could sufficient crops (different ones) with a 6C rise - clearly post ice-age humans did eat, but loss of infrastructure, loss of habitability of large parts of the World will still affect us massively. Pause for serious contemplation...

4/26/12, 7:26 AM

lamentforthetirnanog said...
Most activism these days seem to be more about dealing with white, middle-class guilt than enacting actual change. Magical thinking of the worst kind.
Wendell Berry's essay, "In Distrust of Movements" should be required reading for every activist. In it her rightly points out that the problem with all of these "movements" is that they always fail to be radical enough, and treat the symptoms rather than the causes.
Part of the hyperbole surrounding catastrophic climate change has a lot to do with the relatively soft, pampered lives most of us live in the West. While I certainly don't want to imply that everything will turn out fine, I also would not underestimate the human capacity for suffering and adaptability. My own grandfather marched shoeless across the mountains of Albania in the winter of 1915-16, and today millions of people around the world live such an existence that we could hardly imagine surviving in their shoes. Because of this I take statements that we will be reduced to a few breeding pairs with a large grain of salt.

4/26/12, 7:31 AM

pasttense said...
Joel writes:
"All of this is another reason to shift to localized economies and away from global supply chains that are intensely vulnerable to disasters."

If you look at history you will find it is the localized economies that have been intensely vulnerable to disasters. If you have massive local crop failures because of drought, flood, war... and that is your only source of food, a lot of people will die. Conversely if you have global supply chains you can buy the food internationally.

4/26/12, 8:14 AM

Richard Larson said...
Some of this attention shifting may be the result of how those in the media figure they, or more rather their advertising clients, can make a buck at it.

There is nothing but losses in the methane story.

4/26/12, 8:17 AM

hereward said...
And that in the same month that saw the loss of communication with the satellite Envisat and its atmospheric chemistry instrument Sciamachy devoted to detecting trace gases such as methane. It's gotta be either a conspiracy or space aliens again.

Thijs is doing well at 10m, I live all of a foot above sea level and land behind the house (with 120,000 inhabitants) is around fifteen feet below. Time to move to Switzerland, methinks.

4/26/12, 8:25 AM

John Michael Greer said...
GreenEngineer, er, you do know that this blog is about the end of industrial civilization? Of course our current technological structures will go under in a future of abrupt global climate change, and yes, a lot of people will die this time around. My point was simply that the planet and our species will make it.

Janne, Hansen's talking about the "clathrate gun" hypothesis I've mentioned, and yes, it's a plausible cause for the PETM.

MawKernewek, thanks for the link!

Cherokee, I get the same sort of backpedaling from professional environmental activists when I mention that I don't own or drive a car, and ask them why they aren't on bicycles or on foot.

Kurt, the question of just how fast flooding will happen is by no means settled, nor is it certain just how fast industrial society will fall apart. Too much certainty too early is not an advantage.

RPC, your homework is to figure out how much sea level rise would be needed to fill each of those.

Barath, that's true. One consequence is that meaningful contingency planning often needs to go past the current scientific consensus and embrace possible black swan events -- as von Neumann pointed out in his book on game theory, the consistently successful strategy is the one in which you systematically eliminate as many negative outcomes as possible, within the limits of your resources, and then win by not losing.

Mister R., methane in the atmosphere oxidizes into water and CO2, which is some improvement -- CO2 isn't as strong a greenhouse gas as methane -- but it's still a problem. As for the acronym, maybe Switzerland can be induced to join and make your suggested pronunciation unavoidable!

Jim, I think it was Upton Sinclair who said, "You can't make a man understand something if his job depends on not understanding it." Most jobs in today's world depend on not understanding nature.

Barath, thanks for the link.

4/26/12, 8:47 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Adamatari, I'm not arguing.

Maria, glad the reminder was of use! One thing about magic -- once you understand it, it's hard to miss how pervasive its effects can be.

Bill, ice dams produce some pretty spectacular floods, too -- I spent a lot of time growing up crossing the drainage channels of Glacial Lake Missoula -- but this was a bona fide tsunami; look up the Storegga Slide sometime. The bibliography of my book on the Atlantis legend has references to the research on very large tsunamis, and might be worth a look. The giant wave legend, btw, is from the Irish Book of Invasions, and yes, it's been proposed that this is a surviving memory of a very large tsunami that went right over Ireland.

Stu, excellent! You get today's gold star. It's precisely the lack of discussion of how to adapt -- to climate change, or what have you -- that's the great blank spot in current discussions, and that's because most of the people in the discussions are still trying to use the threat of an ugly future to bully people into joining a movement.

Mary, it'll be interesting to see if anything actually gets done to move all those fuel rods someplace (temporarily) safer, or if they're just going to sit there until the statistically inevitable accident causes another, even larger disaster.

Bill, the oxygen-isotope data from the Greenland ice cores, last I checked, was generally held to be a fairly reliable proxy for global average temperature, and one that -- unlike most others -- can be measured in decade-or-less increments. That's the basis for the claim I've offered. Mind you, if it's just Greenland that jumps 15 degrees in less than a decade, that's bad enough, since that much heating would probably be enough to push the Greenland ice cap into rapid collapse. As far as whether non-anthropogenic climate forcing factors are always gradual, well, let's just say I'm unconvinced; the deep causes may be gradual, but there are plenty of nonlinear effects in nature.

Don, there's a book on that theory -- quite plausible, though it wasn't a tsunami that did it, simply a matter of rising sea levels filling the Mediterranean to the point that sea water could flow through what's now the Bosporus.

Adrian, of course Britain can still grow food in a warmer climate -- it's been semitropical at various points in the last ten million years, you know. It's getting there that's the hard part.

Lament, that's an excellent point. Human beings are potentially very tough -- we evolved out of earlier hominids in the middle of the last ice age, for heaven's sake, going mano a mano with cave bears and woolly mammoths. It's only those of us who live privileged lives in the industrial nations -- yes, that means everybody reading this -- who've been pampered enough to go slack.

Richard, that's doubtless part of it.

Hereward, Switzerland may not be necessary, but a good couple of hundred feet above sea level probably wouldn't hurt.

4/26/12, 9:22 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Thanks for the refs, it looks like what the article somewhat overstates is the magnitude of the excavation of the Channel. It sounds like it was already almost submerged from sea level rise, and the tsunami pushed it that last little bit over (rather than scouring out the whole thing in one fell swoop. Continuing sea level rise then finished the job, leading to the English Channel as we now know it.

This is the other event I was thinking of:

A widespread flood was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have occurred in western Britain, from the coast of Cumbria around to Kent, on 28 September 1014. This has been attributed to a tsunami, possibly caused by a comet impact. William of Malmesbury stated that "A tidal wave... grew to an astonishing size such as the memory of man cannot parallel, so as to submerge villages many miles inland and overwhelm and drown their inhabitants." The event was also mentioned in Welsh bardic chronicles. (

One thing about potential global climate impact of things like the arctic methane releases -- first they have to notably affect the global atmospheric methane concentration. Methane is oxidized in the atmosphere, and biologically in soils. Methane concentrations did begin to increase again in 2007 after having been flat for about 8 years. So far they have not begun to increase at an accelerating rate, which you would expect to see if there were going to be a "run-away" effect. Stay tuned...

4/26/12, 10:01 AM said...
Lament: I love that Berry essay. I agree it should be required reading. But then, I think most of his essays should be.

Pasttense: That's a fair point. But I'm of the mind that the global supply chains we so extensively rely on these days aren't going to function very well in the future. I would put more trust in a largely local economy--even though, yes, it's vulnerable to local disaster--than a global economy that's ceaselessly malfunctioning under the strains of infrastructure-collapse related to climate change, peak everything and various environmental disasters. And considering a good many of us are massively dependent on those vulnerable global supply chains, it might make sense to start building back up local economies that are a bit more flexible in their own ways.


4/26/12, 10:13 AM

Jason Heppenstall said...
As someone who used to take all of Lovelock's (and McKibben et al's) dire warnings to heart, it comes as something of a relief to read your post this week. Although I'm certainly in agreement about the adaptability of planet Earth to cope with such climate swings, I can't help feeling that we're in for a hell of a ride. I guess as soon as the methane starts bubbling it's more or less academic arguing about whether we caused it or not. One thing's for certain - we can't stop it.

Still, every silver lining is attached to a cloud, and I only had to read on to the bottom to encounter your warning about north Atlantic tsunamis. As someone who is writing this on ground 1 metre above sea level, next to a beach and not all that far from Greenland, I'd be lying if I said the thought of a huge all-consuming tidal wave hasn't been on my mind all day. If you could recommend any further reading on the subject I'd be very grateful. Thanks.

@Chris - funny you should mention the books. I was clearing out my dad's house last week (long story) and came across several such tomes from the 1940s onwards. I've kept them, of course, although others thought they were fit for the trash.

4/26/12, 10:32 AM

Jim R said...
Bill Pulliam,
Interesting analogy. If you talk about putting energy into a system, and it's so many joules, and it's all just a boring accounting exercise. But there are some clear qualitative differences between putting the energy in over a time interval and putting it in all at once.
On the time scale of climate change, we are detonating a bomb. Applying forcing factors over such a short time (couple centuries) is likely to have effects almost as dramatic as a meteor strike.

4/26/12, 10:45 AM

sgage said...
There seems to be a fashionable backlash against activists these days. But were it not for the work of activists, you would not have heard about most of this stuff we're trying to adapt to/mitigate/etc.

4/26/12, 10:47 AM

barath said...

I think you'll find that many of the more thoughtful writers and scientists are actually talking about adapting to climate change and limits to growth because they recognize that at this point a significant amount of change is baked into the climate system and will continue for many decades no matter what. In particular, Bill McKibben's excellent book Eaarth that I mentioned above and this lecture by Dennis Meadows highlight the need for resilience and adaptation rather than averting what's headed our way. There were also some good talks on adaptation at the 4 degrees climate conference, which took severe climate change as its premise and then asked "what now?"

The thing is, these messages aren't being picked up by the media, perhaps because the message is hard for people to accept (since it absolutely means an end to the way things work today).

4/26/12, 10:59 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, I hadn't heard of the bit from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle -- fascinating. Thank you! As for methane issues, I'm less worried about the runaway effect theory, and more about the short-term effects of a sudden injection of lots of methane into the atmosphere above the Arctic. As I recall, gases tend to pool over the poles -- thus the problem with CFCs and the polar ozone layers -- and though methane does photodissociate, if it's being added in enough volume it's going to have an impact over the short and middle term.

Just for one scenario, imagine a decade-long series of massive methane burps from the Arctic ocean and melting permafrost, putting the equivalent of a nice warm blanket temporarily over the North Pole. This gives the Arctic ten years or so of very warm summers and, more to the point, unusually mild winters. It's a transient and self-limiting phenomenon, but if it's intense enough it could tip the Greenland ice cap into full-scale collapse, complete with jokulhlaups, icebergs filling the North Atlantic, and meter-a-decade sea level increases.

Not the end of the world by a long shot, but a body blow to western Europe and the United States. That's the sort of thing that concerns me -- not the much-ballyhooed global consequences, but the sudden, transient, but (for those caught in them) catastropic events on the local and regional scale that tend to accompany the slow global changes!

4/26/12, 11:06 AM

MawKernewek said...
@Bill Pulliam

It may well have been an undersea landslide, I'm pretty sure there are some of those documented to have happened in the past in the continental shelf around the British Isles

4/26/12, 11:14 AM

João Carlos said...

it is interesting you wrote about the menace that the ice cover's melt at Greenland and that it can move the plate tectonics. But there is a menace that problably will happens before it...

It is ironic that Alfred Wegener died looking for proofs for Continental Drift at Greenland, because the proofs he need were at other island, Iceland.

My advice: look at Iceland.

Volcanoes. Under ice. Thousands of meters of ice. What happens to champagne when you remove the bung?

Maybe we are lucky and Gaia have a control mechanism that stop global warming. Some big volcanoes eruptions and we can be bought to a new Ice Age... wait... maybe that is not so lucky, at least not for YOU that live at north hemisphere...

João Carlos

4/26/12, 11:20 AM

sgage said...

"Not the end of the world by a long shot,"

The thing is, "the end of the world" means, for different people and in different contexts: a severe global economic depression, the gradual (catabolic) breakdown of industrial civilization, the starving to death of billions, the destruction of civilization altogether, the extinction of humanity, the extirpation of all life on Earth, and on and on.

These various meanings seem to become particularly confused and conflated in climate change discussions.

(man, the captchas are getting harder and harder for me to decrypt. And I am NOT a robot. Let's try "izicsx povark" and hope for the best...)

4/26/12, 11:25 AM

Twilight said...
So much of human population is clustered around the edge of the sea, including most of the industrial infrastructure and its toxins. Included in that of course are so many nuclear power plants and their huge stockpiles of nuclear waste. If the seas should rise rapidly in the span of a few decades, the effects of even the initial stages of that would be incredibly disruptive and make it very unlikely that any organized withdrawal of such poisons would occur. I think it likely the seas would simply take all those poisons, making the coastlines toxic for very a long time. We even get to see a trial run of the effect of huge amounts being dumped into the ocean from Fukushima. It is hard for me to imagine a faster way to drive rapid population reduction, with all the horrors that implies, than rapid sea level rise - people can move a long way in a couple of decades, but that would be overwhelming.

4/26/12, 12:25 PM

Matt and Jess said...
Gosh darn it, we were so close to making a decision about finishing college in Maine, and now this. There's nothing I'm more afraid of than dying underwater in a viscious tsunami. On the other hand I like that you consider moving to be a viable solution to some problems. I've presented that idea to a few people and it's, in my experience, widely considered extremist, but then everyone I know believes we'll all be saved by safe nuclear energy or hydrogen or what have you. We could potentially to choose to live further inland and only visit Portland for school but now I'm all nervewracked thinking about my husband getting caught in a tsunami at school. shoot...

On another note my library was just able to acquire a copy of Apocalypse Not and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I remember sitting through sermons on Revelation when I was younger. I heard it explained a few times that Revelation is a dual description of both the Roman Empire as well as the future rule of the Antichrist and endtimes and all that. That Rome foreshadowed it or whatever. Anyway thanks for writing such interesting books, I'm loving all of them and the very fair hand you give to such a wide variety of subjects.

4/26/12, 12:51 PM

Glenn said...

Minor point. The generally accepted figure by most climate scientists is a 7 meter (23 ft) sea level rise when Greenland melts off, and another 7 meters when the West Antarctic ice sheet collapses. Why should 2 meters make a difference to me? Aside from being a 30% difference, I'm 1.8 meters tall...

We live 38 meters above sea level, and about half a KM from the sea; the natural angle of repose of the beach and one's distance from it are as important as altitude in these cases. And we're counting on losing our well and having to switch entirely to rainwater. We already have 3,400 gallons of catchment tankage, and plans for more.

I suspect the reason the Antarctic seems to be responding slower than the Arctic is altitude. Ice sheets keep collapsing into the sea, but the increased precipitation engendered by weather change is falling as snow due to Antarctica being composed of high plateau and mountains for the most part. When overall climate gets warm enough for it to fall as rain, look out.

Readers here might be interested in the blogs of Professor Cliff Mass His remarks on the 22nd "Extreme Silliness" points out some of the foolishness engaged in by global warming advocates, and the head in the sand attitudes of global warming deniers; both due to the lag between CO2 changes and temperature change. Since he is an actual climate scientist, and actually does crunch the numbers, I have great respect for his conclusions.

Marrowstone Island

4/26/12, 12:57 PM

GreenEngineer said...
JMG- yes, yes, of course I'm aware of the purpose of this blog. But not all collapse is the same.

(This discussion begs the question of what you mean by a "massive dieoff". To my mind, that suggests 50-90% population loss in a generation or two.)

We both agree that human extinction is not in the cards, but I think of a catabolic decay/collapse cycle as being rather different from a catastrophic and rapid collapse of industrial civilization.

A catabolic collapse scenario is likely to be punctuated but relatively gradual overall. It is something that an individual can reasonably try to plan/adapt for (i.e. green wizardry). It might even make sense to have kids if you're prepared to train them to deal with the world they are inheriting.
On the other hand, this same potential for adaptation to catabolic collapse also means that many of our institutions may survive, including those which are used to concentrate wealth to the elite. A catabolic collapse scenario has a high probability of leading to a century or three of industrial feudalism (with much lower per-capita footprint for most of the population) before it finally runs entirely out of steam.

By contrast, the potential widespread sharp impacts associated with climate change (or anything else, but climate change seems the likely candidate) could readily disrupt the industrial system in ways that it cannot adapt to, leading to a much further, faster fall and a lot more collateral damage along the way. It's this possibility which I see being discounted by any line of reasoning that says "humans have lived through this before". It's true, as far as it goes, but it neglects the fact that we have historically had both far more flexible social forms (if only because there were many small "civilizations" which were largely disconnected) and a lot more breathing room.

It's hard for me to see an effective strategy for individual adaptation in that context, other than the stereotypical survivalist stockpiling ammo in his mountain hideout. On the other hand, the catastrophic nature of this scenario means that it's likely to erase most of our social institutions, including those which create a monied elite. In the long run, the catastrophic collapse might actually be preferable (if you assume that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is better than being a feudal peasant, which I do) but the short term will be much uglier.

4/26/12, 1:18 PM

magicalthyme said...
JMG, I don't believe they can move the fuel rods. It's so hot even the robots can't operate. They can't get them close enough to see exactly what is going on inside. Apparently reactor 4 structure is near collapse.

4/26/12, 4:01 PM

DeAnander said...
Gawd. I've been fretting -- on the back burner, at odd moments -- about those methane bubbles for a few months now, ever since reading the first coverage somewhere or other (possibly TOD). Not much to say about that other than Yikes.

But when people talk about the End of the World I often feel compelled to point out to them that the world has ended before, many times, for lots of people. For example, most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas: how did it feel to be Haida or Salish (or any of the S American nations) and in one generation to watch 90 percent of your people die from mysterious never-seen-before diseases? to see your territory taken over by hostile, arrogant strangers -- in some cases to have your kids taken from you and brainwashed, your language banned, your cultural practises made illegal, your sacred objects confiscated... If that isn't the End of the World (for the people experiencing it) I dunno what is.

I think some of us privileged anglo industrial core dwellers imagine dramatic EOTW scenarios (like the extinction of all humanity, or the end of all life on earth etc) precisely because we can't wrap our heads around the end of *our* world, our little technobubble, our systems of commerce, our domination of the rest of humanity, our amazingly convenient and comfortable (and yet simultaneously alienating and pathogenic) lifestyle. Rather than admit that *our* cultural world must and will end -- that it's not only possible but inevitable for humanity to live in very different ways from Our Way -- we imagine the whole planet going Boom.

The survival of a species (ours for example) is a very different matter from the survival of individuals. Until you get down to a gene pool too small to maintain healthy variety, the fate of individuals is more or less irrelevant to the fate of the species. Having become as numerous as prey species like krill (despite being a top predator), we imagine that losing, say, 50 percent of our numbers would be The End. In reality, humans could probably lose 90 percent of our numbers in the more populated areas and it would not be The End of the species by a long shot -- hardly "a few breeding pairs" as Lovelock dramatically suggests. But it would be The End Of The World in terms of our culture, cultural continuity, our quotidian expectations and patterns; and it would involve immense suffering, grief, loss, immeasurable pain. I suspect that, as well as commensalist solidarity and beneficial relocalisation, there would be opportunistic predation, all kinds of abuses and injustices. [There's a rather good book, "The Great Bay", which speculates about a several-century period of rising sea levels in central California, the quick and then slow powerdown, and the balkanisation of local cultures across a wide spectrum from brutally authoritarian to creatively communitarian.]

So yeah, the End of Our World could mean a world of pain. OTOH (and here I revert to my earlier theme) the "successful" history of empire, industry, capitalism, expansion of the Anglosphere etc, that "great achievement" at whose pinnacle we now stand, *has* involved immense, immeasurable suffering, grief, loss, and pain. Whether the end of that system would mean *more* suffering (if some divine accountant were able to tot up all the readings of some kind of universal dolorimeter) in toto, or less than the establishment and perpetuation of BAU... who knows?

All we can do is try to act with integrity and affection today, I guess. Speaking of Berry, his recent NEH lecture is a wowser.

4/26/12, 5:43 PM

Thomas Daulton said...
Hi JMG and all,

A diversion about energy vs. peak oil vs. global warming is basically never out of place in a discussion about America. IMHO, Energy consumption has been pretty much the defining characteristic of the USA for many decades, as far as I can remember, and the US capitalistic / technological / energy system is basically leading the way for most other countries, in terms of planetary consequences.

In a closely related tangent, I just ran across two L.A. Times articles where the rush to build large desert solar energy complexes on the part of the Obama Administration is described with words like "frantic", a "bulldozer", and "on steroids".

The articles sensationalistically explain that the Administration wants to build these plants in order to "save the world" from global warming, but I trust most readers here will recognize that as obvious PR spin. If anything, I would suggest the Obama administration has its eye much more on protecting the energy-intensive American lifestyle in the face of clear indications of Peak Oil, than any altruistic concern about the environment. If they really wanted to "save the world", then Conservation along the Archdruid's "LESS" model, would enter the picture somewhere. It never, ever does.

It's a clear example of our discussion in this thread, about how large-scale environmentalism can be used as an excuse to bulldoze over local control and traditional respect for the environment -- hoping nobody notices that corporate coffers are still enriched, and the word "CONSERVATION" just never enters the discourse. The first article explicitly connects large-scale donations with the "co-option" of big environmental organizations.

I read JMG's column today and I really wanted to write a defense of the environmental movement. 30 years ago, when I first got interested in environmentalism, these movement organizations were much more devoted to conservation on the personal level. At that time, funny co-incidence, it was perfectly logical to be an environmentalist and a political conservative (I'm liberal, I'm just sayin', a lot of conservatives _used_ to be conservationists.) Unfortunately I think the Druid's above critique of environmental movements really hits the nail on the head, at least with respect to the past 30 years.

The psychosis of Consumerism has infected the environmental movement so deeply that today, most environmentalists reflexively assume that in economic terms, we can purchase and grow our way into sustainability and conservation. The denouement may be slow in coming, but it is on its way, I'm fairly sure.

4/26/12, 5:54 PM

Thomas Daulton said...
P.S. as an engineer who works on the coast, I can answer Glenn's [sarcastic?] comment that he doesn't care about a 2-meter sea level rise because he's about 2 meters tall. The problem with sea level rise is that larger waves can travel through deeper water without breaking, ergo the destructive energy of storm-driven waves can assault structures farther inland and/or with more force. A wave breaks (and loses much of its destructive energy), generally speaking, in water that's about 7/8 as deep as the wave is tall. So an 8 foot wave breaks in 7 feet of water, which is significantly offshore, and people build coastal infrastructure at a certain shoreline location, because they're accustomed to the waves breaking offshore. Now consider that many beaches have a gentle slope of about 1 vertical to 50 horizontal. So if the sea level rises 7 feet, that 8-foot wave is going to be breaking right where the dry coastline begins, right on top of coastal structures instead of far offshore. Alternately you could say that with a 1:50 beach slope, given a 7 foot sea level rise, a wave will break 350 feet further inland than it would normally do, attacking structures and infrastructures that today are considered dry. (1:50 is a rule-of-thumb average, but even in the case where the coastline is walled by rock bluffs, those bluffs are going to collapse much sooner if assaulted by large in-shore waves due to rising seas.) The monetary cost of damage to a country from rising sea levels resembles nothing less than damage from a war. That kind of monetary damage creates refugees, topples governments etc., like a war, but because it's happening in slow motion, we just don't see the urgency.

4/26/12, 5:57 PM

Jonathan Byron said...
Hmm...quietly suggesting that if the news on methane pans out, your readers on north Atlantic shores should think about moving to higher ground? Really?

1)The rise in ocean levels will be global. The people of Florida and Bangladesh will be at the same disadvantage with respect to sea level (or maybe at a greater disadvantage due to topography and economics).

2)Many circum-Arctic locations will actually benefit from warmer temperatures - though the grain belts of world probably will not. Apples and rye are being grown in Iceland, a place once too cold to for such plants to reliably bear a crop. Unfortunately, losses from existing agricultural regions will probably exceed any gains from the Icelands of the world.

3) The IPCC predictions and other models are certainly not perfectly prescient, but at this point are probably the best estimates (in spite of being somewhat conservative) ... 0.5 to 2 meters over the next 100 years is likely unless some sort of non-linear acceleration occurs that is much worse than the models anticipated. Sure, such things are possible. But it is unlikely that anyone has to move any time 'soon' due to rising water levels, finding a place to park our bodies at night are the least of our concerns.

(Of course, by the time that people generally accept that sea level rise is a reality, it will be difficult to sell a low lying property.)

4/26/12, 6:38 PM

Matt and Jess said...
Jonathan Byron, my take on his suggestion to move from the north Atlantic wasn't about global sea rise so much as it was the danger of one of those massive tsunamis that could happen in that area

4/26/12, 8:34 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Jason, I'd encourage you to get just about anything you can on the end of the last ice age, provided that it was published within the last ten years. The mechanics of ice sheet collapse are pretty much the same now as they were then.

Sgage, I don't get my information from activists -- scientific research is a good deal more useful to me. I have been very troubled by the ways that activism has mutated since the 1980s, and so have a lot of other people; it might be worth considering the resulting critiques, and taking them seriously, rather than dismissing them as a matter of fashion.

Joao, er, that's an interesting hypothesis. Would you care to suggest some research that backs up the claim that glacial melting is associated with increased vulcanism?

Sgage, one of the things I've been trying to do in this blog is to inject some clarity into a subject massively muddied by phrases like "the end of the world." Can't we just try saying "a fairly big disaster, and a lot of people will probably die" instead?

Twilight, and of course the more loudly people insist it can't happen, the worse the difficulties become.

Jess, you're leaving out the first part of my advice: don't panic, wait and see if the methane situation worsens before taking action. While you do that, Matt can certainly get his training.

Glenn, I've seen figures between 20 and 30 feet for the Greenland ice sheet, but I won't argue; 23 feet is enough to cause a real mess.

GreenEngineer, seems to me that you're reading quite a bit into my comment that wasn't there; the point made by "our species has been here before" is simply that human beings, and a fortiriori the planet, can be expected to get through the same process this time, too. As for your feudal peasant/hunter-gatherer theory, well, I've already explained in quite a bit of detail that I think both sides of that very common trope are inaccurate and improbable -- you can find the arguments in my book The Ecotechnic Future, if you're interested. A burst of global warming and the collapse of an ice sheet or two define one of the many kinds of discontinuities I've been predicting along the curve of catabolic collapse; if you will, they're not bugs, they're features.

Thyme, in that case it's quite probable that a couple of hundred square miles of northeastern Japan are going to become uninhabitable in the fairly near future. There will be zones like that all over the formerly industrial world a few centuries from now.

4/26/12, 8:49 PM

John Michael Greer said...
DeAnander, I think I'm going to take that next-to-last sentence of yours -- "All we can do is try to act with integrity and affection today, I guess" -- and have some capable blacksmith put it on the business end of a branding iron, so I can brutally burn it into the backside of a great many people whose fixation on global issues never quite gets down to the point of influencing how they live their lives. Thank you.

Thomas, no argument there. The corruption of the environmental movement is one of the saddest stories of the last three decades. I hope it can be reversed, if only by the emergence of a new movement focused on people changing their own lives. We'll see.

Jonathan, you might want to reread my comment about postglacial tsunamis -- which tend to be very much a local phenomenon in the vicinity of collapsing ice sheets -- and then reread your own quite accurate comment about property values in low-lying areas. Doing so might give you a little more insight into why I made the suggestion I did.

4/26/12, 9:05 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Poet (offlist), you know, you could simply have said "I disagree with you" and left out the insults and insinuations; most readers of this blog seem to manage that without any great effort. Since you didn't, you'll have to find some other place to vent, because you've been banned from this blog. Now go away.

4/26/12, 9:08 PM

GingerSnap said...
Hi JMG, Got to love the simplicity of climate change movement. The rhetoric revolves around the measurement of the amount of CO2 ppm like a speed cop on the side of the road believing that all the ills/accidents are the result of 'speeding'. Just because it can be given a number of measure does not make it more important.
Our destruction of our environment is far more critical to our long-term survival as we wipe out forests, over fish, pollute drinking water, turn soil into a lifeless petrie dish, etc.
The earth will go through ups and downs in term of temperature with or without us. She is not the one at risk, we are.

4/26/12, 10:26 PM

Dwig said...
In comment of 4/25/12 10:28 PM: "... so many people are so fixated on finding some mechanism, however far-fetched, that will allow them to imagine the end of the industrial age as a sudden cliff, rather than the long ragged decline that's ended nearly every other civilization in history"

In comment of 4/25/12 11:17 PM: "one of the constants in this research is that gradualist scenarios don't hold up well" and "... the risks of underestimating the possible rate of change, it seems to me, are substantially greater than those of overestimating it" (referring specifically to climate change)

In comment of 4/26/12 8:47 AM: "Of course our current technological structures will go under in a future of abrupt global climate change..." and "... nor is it certain just how fast industrial society will fall apart."

JMG, I find a bit of cognitive dissonance in these quotes. You've consistently appeared to be pretty confident in anticipating (I won't say predicting) a "Long Descent", but in the following comments describe quite plausible mechanisms for sharp, relatively sudden changes, from which "our current technological structures will go under ".

In these comments you were generally speaking of climate change, but I think GreenEngineer's comment about the susceptibility of "the complexity of our civilization and its high degree of fabricatory depth" to "cascade failure" fits here as well. Any complex dynamic system can "go nonlinear" quickly, as you and others have pointed out here, and there are many possible scenarios, drawn out or sudden, by which a system can shed complexity.

As I read it, though, you bring them together nicely in the comment of 4/26/12 11:06 AM: "That's the sort of thing that concerns me -- not the much-ballyhooed global consequences, but the sudden, transient, but (for those caught in them) catastrophic events on the local and regional scale that tend to accompany the slow global changes!"

I think this is something that tends to get lost in the climate discussion, although it's come up often in these comments: it's not the "slow, even burn" that gets you, it's the "restless energy" that can show up anytime and anywhere. For example, I can imagine that JMG's decade-long scenario of an arctic "methane blanket" could wind up having dire consequences in, say, the Himalayas, the Sahara, the Australian Outback, and the Great Lakes before it fades out. (While perhaps leaving, say, Western Europe and Central Africa relatively untouched.)

4/26/12, 10:56 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

I'd like to be a fly on the wall during those chance meetings with the environmentalists!

All this talk of 10m swells etc...

The channel between Australia and the big island of Tasmania (Bass Strait) which is a shallow and submerged land bridge also happens to be one of the worst / roughest streches of water in the world. Check this out:

18.4m wave recorded off the coast of Tasmania

Actually, for much the same reasons, the channel between the north and south island of New Zealand is also pretty bad. I remember being on the Picton ferry and seeing the front of the ferry constantly submerged only to be thrown back up skywards and then back down again... It didn't help that they'd lost a ferry either on that stretch of water...

Pah, 10m is nothing!

Humans are incredibly adaptable which is why I don't worry. The only thing to remember is for the readers here to get in touch with your country and listen and learn from it. We have access now to so many plants of such a wide variety that it is shameful not to take advantage of them.



4/27/12, 2:20 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

Your mention of game theory in one of your replies reminded me of the all time classic Australian winter olympian gold medalist:

Steven Bradbury

It is well worth the read and proves your point about being the last one left standing. There are youtube videos showing the event too. I too subscribe to this theory.



4/27/12, 2:27 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

I commented a couple of weeks ago about prices for imported manufactured goods dropping like a lead balloon here as product is being dumped on this country to keep manufacturing outputs up in China. Well, I just purchased a couple of extra solar panels to get through winter without having to use the generator for only AU$1.10/watt and $0.10 of it was Goods and Services Tax.

That is so cheap that it is just wrong. The panels themselves are really complex bits of kit and they can't be that cheap to produce. Surely it must be below cost?

I know someone who buys competing businesses and then dismantles them just to increase their own market share and domination. Perhaps this is the case?



4/27/12, 2:42 AM

Jonathan Byron said...
Certainly post-glacial tsunamis have happened before; certainly they will happen again. But what is risk of them occurring in our life time due to ice melt? I don't believe it is any greater than the risk of a tsunami from an asteroid or ordinary seismic activity. The potential consequences of a sudden collapse of the Canary Islands has been put forth in a number of papers as a very scary mega-tsunami that could wipe out much of the eastern US.

I believe such high magnitude/low risk events are far less of a danger than other more mundane forms of disruption that may be triggered by things like a failure of the monsoons, long-term droughts in central North America, weather weirding, etc etc. Yes, it is worth thinking about isostatic rebound, but that is far more likely after a thick layer of ice is melted away - something that will probably take hundreds of years to occur.

On a somewhat related note, have you seen the National Geographic special that put Atlantis exactly where the ancients put it (just outside the Straits of Gibraltar, in southern coastal Spain? They claimed to have found some (limited) evidence of a tsunami there ... interesting but not conclusive.

4/27/12, 4:44 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Jason,

Well done. I hope the books prove to be of great value.

Hi Thomas,

I think Glenn was just being humorous. Incidentally, I'm 700m above sea level so there is a bit of fat there.

Hi GreenEngineer,

How did you know I was up here with a box of ammo and a fully fueled chainsaw? Seriously, a mountainous area can't support a huge population because the soils are simply wrong for this purpose. The soils in a forest are fungal dominated and as such they favour the growth of trees and the forest understorey. There's plenty of fuel in the trees themselves, but there's not really that much to eat. To grow vegetables in this sort of environment you have to encourage a more bacterial dominated soil and hopefully get a balance between the two. This can be done, even by a subsistence farmer, but you have to know what you are doing and it involves risk. Most survivalists seem to base their futures on canned produce and this just seems sort of stupid and short term.

Hi Dwig,

As the oceans to the north of the continent are warming, the Australian outback is getting progressively wetter. It wasn't that many millenia ago that 1/3rd of the continent was covered in rainforest. Strangely enough, some parts of the country are drying though and the SW corner of the country is one such. However, I think there is a fair case to point the finger at deforestation and denuding of the landscape by agriculture in that fragile part of the country.



4/27/12, 5:34 AM

RPC said...
DeAnander: Bravo. I occasionally follow Nathan Lewis' blog; he had a line a few years back that has stuck with me: "If the World As You Know It doesn't end at least a half-dozen times in your lifetime, you don't get out enough."

JMG, regarding my homework assignment, it looks like the Salton Sea will fill (from the Gulf of California) at about 9m rise. It will take 50-60m to fill the Qattara depression, and it will fill from the west, not the north. The Dead Sea will also need 50-60m rise to fill, from Haifa and past Nazareth. (I thought it would fill from the Gulf of Aqaba - shows you what I know!)

4/27/12, 6:35 AM

Óskar said...
Joao's comment about glacial melting causing some kind of volcanic "release" in Iceland is not entirely fantasy, though I find it overly dramatic. When glacial retreat is discussed here in Iceland, it has occasionally been mentioned that the thinning of the ice caps would lead to a reduction of pressure on the underlying volcanic systems, which in turn might tip them over to an eruption - if the pressure levels were already high and eruptions imminent.

It is overly dramatic because a) volcanic eruptions in Iceland happen anyway and b) so what? The largest ones can have temporary, hemisphere-wide ill effects (e.g. 1783 Laki eruption) but threats are mostly local in nature. Icelanders are quite calm overall about their volcanoes because most of our settlements are at a safe distance (as a result of hard-learnt adaptation over the past 1100 years). Besides, without ice caps there's no threat of massive meltwater floods, rendering the volcanoes a lot less disruptive locally.

However.... the sort of iceshelf displacement being discussed here would constitute a devastating threat. Two thirds of the population live in Reykjavík, a coastal city on the west (Greenland-facing) coast. I do expect that buildup of ice dams and the possibility of this kind of disaster would be taken seriously here, but even with the population safely evacuated we'd be looking at a loss of perhaps 60-80% of the country's housing. The only saving grace is that most of the energy infrastructure would be left intact. But Iceland would certainly face a massive property loss, and that's in the best-case scenario of proper anticipation and evacuation-measures.

4/27/12, 6:36 AM

EchosRevenge said...
If you ever get that branding iron made, get several. I know I want one, and I'd bet several others do, too.

4/27/12, 6:39 AM

DeAnander said...
@jmg, bouquet appreciated :-) but the hard part comes when we try to figure out what "integrity" and "affection" really mean... I mean, some people think driving their kids 4 blocks to and from school in the SUV is demonstrating affection and integrity (keeping them safe, caring, being a good responsible parent); probably a handful of lab geeks inside Monsanto really do believe that their skills are being used "to feed the world" rather than to cement a global monopoly. a lot of the worst things are done with the best intentions, which is a separate and in some ways more difficult problem from the other big issue (the cold-hearted profit-seeking mercantile cockroaches deliberately nibbling away at the biosphere from all sides, and how to stop 'em).

so it seems to me we're engaged in a struggle over the very meaning of words like "integrity" and "affection", trying to create an "integrity" which implies the integrity of place and biome and community, not just something as individualistic as "keeping one's word."

anyway, must run, I have stewardship of my own to engage in today (volunteer work for the local food co-op, land care etc): the global perspective for me is what lends the sense of urgency and duty to this apparently ineffectual local responsibilities. like the old Hallmark-card platitude about the starfish and the little kid on the beach... I may not be able to bring down Monsanto personally, but I can keep the local food co-op going and do what I can to encourage it ("us"!) to purchase from local producers.

4/27/12, 10:01 AM

Michael Tweiten said...
I had an ecology professor in college (Tim Allen) who specialized in complexity studies. He liked to talk about (and knew personally) Tainter's work with the Anazazi and the Roman Empire as examples of complex systems. He was also British living in America and liked to say "I've already had one empire collapse out from under me!"

He also liked to say with reference to American Empire "climate change may be our barbarians."

"Barbarians" represent profitless conflicts or activities that increase the marginal costs of complexity until the system collapses to less complex state. With this post you seem well positioned to comment on this idea or perhaps an alternative. Is climate change really American Empire's tragic flaw or is it our reliance on technological innovation itself?

Or what else?

4/27/12, 10:26 AM

Justin Patrick Moore said...
Author Dale Pendell wrote a really excellent "deep future" history novel called THE GREAT BAY. It's focused on California, around the San Francisco Bay...told in increments of time 10, 20 years, than 50, than 100, than 200, effectively doubling in each section of the book until he has covered more than 10,000 years it shows the swelling of the San Francisco Bay and the covering of the cities in the Bay Area.

It was a fascinating future history and on a time scale I could see as being real, with regards to how water levels will rise. He also throws in some truly insightful speculation as regards human society, and the wider ecosystem. I highly recommend the book to readers of this blog.

Great post JMG.

I won't be protesting climate change. But I will be doing things to prepare myself and my family for the many challenges in a time when the American empire, and indeed industrial civilization itself is in the process of collapse.

4/27/12, 11:45 AM

Raymond Wharton said...
I was discussing your post with a friend of mine today, and we agreed that there is a sense in which the climate change denier is "more rational" than the environmentalist who is shopping for a house over looking the sea, to give a concise example.

Climate change and catabolic collapse, like a horseshoe, works whether you believe in it or not. But who is crazier, the person who has the general impression that there are people out there trying to trick him, and figures that climate change scientists are as likely as anyone to be doing the tricking, therefore disbelieving the scientific results or the man who believes that the world is coming up on a catastrophe that will cause the end of a certain way of life, and yet clings to that way of life as a matter of course?

But it is hard to know what to do, other then to cling on to what we have. The alternatives are simply not a part of the general discussion except for a few parts of the internet and a couple of non main stream movements. My own response to the likelihood of fundamental changes in the 21st century (which I hope to live to see the lion's share of) has taken 4 years of thinking and development before really coming into focus, and to a large extent it remains "level up skills that are surefire useful in both best case and worse case situations, pick a place to live that is out of history's way, and play it by ear".

On another note, the tactics of environmental activism, namely the threats for if the movement fail, are cut from the whole cloth of the ol' fire and brimstone trick.

4/27/12, 2:50 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Snap, exactly.

Dwig, understood; what I'm trying to suggest is inherently complex, and thus hard to follow in a collective conversation that's overrun with appealingly simple narratives. The overall trajectory is long slow decline, but closer in, on a decade-by-decade scale, it's a matter of sudden local, regional, or global crises followed by periods of relative stability or even partial recovery. The collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, if that happens, would be one such crisis.

As for the breakdown of the current industrial system, that's simply another such crisis -- and would be followed by herculean efforts to get some kind of less vulnerable industrial system up and running again in some countries. Odds are that at least some of those efforts would succeed -- that's one of the mechanisms by which what I've called "scarcity industrialism" may replace our current system of abundance industrialism. So it all does fit together.

Cherokee, AU$1.10 a watt is pretty good! Congrats; of course the economic divergences that make that possible won't last, but you might as well snap 'em up while you have the chance.

Jonathan, the occurrence of postglacial tsunamis isn't random; they follow the rapid melting of large ice sheets. We're discussing a mechanism that could cause the rapid melting of a large ice sheet -- and no, as I mentioned in my post, it needn't take hundreds of years; there are models of ice sheet collapse (involving meltwater as a lubricant between ice and the underlying rock) that could remove most of Greenland's ice in a decade or two. Are those models accurate? Nobody knows, but there have been very sudden eustatic sea level surges in the geological past, so the possibility can't be rejected out of hand. As for Atlantis, yes, that's one of the theories that gets trotted out every decade or so; not surprising that NatGeo got around to it again.

RPC, thank you!

Oskar, thanks for the reality check. I hope people in Iceland are keeping a very close eye on the methane plumes and the polar climate generally; you folks are right up there on the front lines.

Revenge, I think there'd be a brisk business in them!

DeAnander, no argument; I wish it were easier.

Michael, excellent. I see the post-Roman barbarians more as the clean-up crew that comes in after the party is well and truly over, and hauls away the trash. Still, Tainter's model fits the US empire tolerably well; we'll be exploring the likely options for imperial collapse in the posts to come.

Justin, thank you -- I'll check that one out when I have the chance.

Raymond, excellent! That last remark gets you today's gold star. Not many people realize that American left-wing activism has its historic roots solidly in the Protestant Christian evangelical tradition -- it was only in the 20th century that the churches swung to the right, a shift that left all sides doing their level best not to talk about their history. As a result, Jonathan Edwards "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" rhetoric gets rehashed by every single activist movement in contemporary American life, normally by people who have no clue who they're quoting.

4/27/12, 3:49 PM

MawKernewek said...

I think the reason Antarctica isn't melting as quickly as the Arctic is that it is surrounded by a circumpolar current, which keeps warmer water from approaching its shores, which keeps the continent cold.

4/27/12, 4:51 PM

Jim R said...
This discussion has so many ideas regarding the future, and so much depends on relative time scales of these events. Until about five years ago, I was willing to discount Global Warming altogether, because the scientists making predictions would always start out "by the year 2100...", and by 2100 I will not be around to care.

And as Bill P has pointed out, the same puff of gas could be released in a microsecond as a destructive explosion, or it could be released over a few seconds and it's just a puff of gas.

Also interestingly, geologists' thinking about the Grand Canyon has recently changed -- common knowledge used to be that it was formed by gradual erosion over hundreds of millenia. Now it's suggested that the Canyon was formed in one, or several, of those natural-dam catastrophes. And it's an interesting story about the English Channel.

JMG, as for João's theory, I have seen a hypothesis (can't remember where it was from) that we would see increased tectonic activity as a result of changes in the weight distribution when big ice sheets melt. But because a volcano affects the climate for around two years, and methane lasts around ten years, while CO2 lasts a century, I don't expect the volcanoes to offset much of the heat load.

The final negative feedback effect, which will definitely cause the Earth to stop short of becoming another Venus, is an increase in cloud cover. As the tropical oceans warm up, more water will evaporate increasing Earth's albedo. Of course that also means hurricanes. I don't know what it will do for life, but the P-Tr event, 250 mya, was one of the planet's biggest mass extinctions.

4/27/12, 4:59 PM

Candace said...

I thought this was an interesting intersection between the current discussion of tsumami's and apocalypse not.

I was trying to figure out if a tsunami could reach the great lakes. Didn't find the answer here but it seemed an intersting take on Cayce's prophesys in this context, at least for those of us who are always looking for the worst case scenario. ;)

(No need to put thecomment through if you feel it's likely to be a distraction.)


4/27/12, 5:39 PM

DeAnander said...
"pick a place to live that is out of history's way" -- yup, I hope I've done that :-)

4/27/12, 7:52 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Jim, the Permian-Triassic event was the biggest of all mass extinctions, but it was spread out over quite a long time and seems to have had a bunch of causes -- the slot machine simply came up with a whole row of lemons all at once. As for the Grand Canyon, can you point me to a source for the claim that it was the result of a single major flood? I hadn't heard that, and would like to know more.

Candace, Lake Ontario is the lowest of the Great Lakes, and is at 243 feet above sea level. The rest of them are right around 600 feet above sea level. What that means is that a complete collapse and melting of the Greenland ice sheet will fall more than 200 feet short of reaching Lake Ontario, and even if every ice sheet on the planet melts -- and I know of no mechanism for that to happen in our lifetimes -- Lake Ontario will become an arm of the sea, but the other lakes will still be high above salt water, since there's only enough water in all the ice sheets on earth to raise sea level about 300 feet. So, no, I don't think Cayce's prophecy is going to come true that way, or, if I may be frank, any other, either. (He also predicted, remember, that Atlantis would surface in 1968 or 1969...)

DeAnander, it's a worthwhile strategy.

4/27/12, 9:40 PM

Ric said...
JMG: As for the Grand Canyon, can you point me to a source for the claim that it was the result of a single major flood? I hadn't heard that, and would like to know more.

Genesis chapters 6 through 8.

(Sorry; couldn't resist having been raised a fundamentalist evangelical. You don't have to publish this. :-)

4/27/12, 10:45 PM said...

Not sure you saw this or not, and it's not exactly relevant to this week's post, but I think it's relevant to your argument of catabolic collapse.

AT&T and Verizon are lobbying to end their "provider of last resort" obligation, which requires that they provide landline telephone service to pretty much any address. Basically, they want to stop providing that service to unprofitable rural areas. Apparently Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin are already on board and it sounds like they're lobbying like mad in the other states.

I figured we were heading in this direction, but I didn't necessarily expect it to be happening already. Obviously this would hit a lot of rural areas hard, but I wonder if it wouldn't eventually go beyond that. As the telecoms focus on cell phones and many people drop their land lines, you have to wonder if they might eventually find maintenance of the physical network even in more populated areas less than profitable, and look to shut down service.

The fact that they seem so intent on shutting down this rule would seem to indicate that it's costing them a chunk of money. Just seems like one more sign that resources are getting tighter.


4/27/12, 11:06 PM

Thomas Daulton said...
Hi Chris ("Cherokee Organics"),

Yeah, I figured Glenn was being flippant. Maybe I'm on a hair trigger because I deal with climate change 'skeptics' all the time, while sea level rise is a huge, major consideration at my job. I just wish I could make the connection clear to people: sea level rise is real, it's happening right now, it's causing monetary damage, and when your country is spending tens or hundreds of millions of dollars (especially piecemeal at the local level) on the apparently innocuous and "natural" damage resulting from sea level rise, your country cannot spend that money employing people, safeguarding its food supply, improving its education, transportation or infrastructure, etc.

Sea Level Rise may not be the apocalyptic end of the world just yet... wait a century or two for that, Kevin Costner... but it is part of a self-inflicted death of a thousand cuts which is exactly what JMG refers to as a 'catabolic collapse'. When you work in coastal engineering, you can just see it happening in front of your eyes, but few others have the patience to notice it.

4/28/12, 12:21 AM

Zach said...

That was a nice analysis of the weaknesses of the environmental movement.

While I haven't been inspired to comment yet, I am appreciating this series on Empire. It is both educational and thought-provoking. Well done, and thank you.

As for the rapidity of climate change, and the potential for catastrophic events... I am hearing echoes of the old 19th-century debate between geologic gradualism and catastrophism here. It seems to me we've had a long period of frank bias in favor of gradualism, so as to not give aid and comfort to Those People™ (you know, those awful fundamentalists who believe in a young Earth and a literal Flood). Now that a young Earth and Flood-based geology is so thoroughly discredited and marginalized as a scientific explanation (unlike in the 19th C), perhaps it's now "safe" to consider mega-floods?

Wondering if it's just me or if anyone else detects a whiff of this dynamic?


4/28/12, 4:03 AM

commongroundgarden said...
As you so rightly say, JMG, activists’ focus on negativity tends to undermines what are often worthy causes. Modern day activists (be it environmental, socio-political, humanitarian, etc.) all crave attention in order to compete with other causes, and this often leads them to make exaggerated – often ridiculous – disaster predictions to the media, as in: “If something is not done about (insert problem here) then in two weeks/months/years/decades we will see catastrophic (insert disaster here) and millions will (insert consequences here)!!! (insert sound of violins here).” More often than not, these disasters do not occur in the time they predict. Based on the predictions of some environmental activists of the late 80s, both the ozone layer and Amazon rainforest would have already disappeared a decade ago and humanity would now be hiding in the shade and gasping for air. That is not to say that the activists concerns aren’t genuine and based on fact, but just that by only announcing the worst case scenario they make a lot of noise in the short term but rapidly lose their credibility, as their repeated disaster predictions end up sounding like they are just firing blanks, or crying wolf.

4/28/12, 6:12 AM

Myriad said...
I also would be very interested in scientific hypotheses of rapid formation of the Grand Canyon from natural dam releases. The only rapid Grand Canyon formation theories I've ever seen have involved an ark.

At least Al Stewart got one of his Nostradamus prophecies right: "A great wall that divides a city, at this time is cast aside." (As long as we don't ask, at what time?) I still love the song; one has to appreciate the guitar work despite the prophecies. Or better still, appreciate the prophecies too (both the writing and the interpreting, as forms of creative expression), without expecting reality to oblige them.

Less expectation, more appreciation... hmm, one could do worse for basing a system of magic on. (Which reminds me, I still have to order my copy of your new book Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth.)

4/28/12, 7:26 AM

Candace said...

Thanks for the reality check. I'll shelve my hopes for beach-front property in Iowa. ;)


4/28/12, 9:28 AM

DeAnander said...
some interesting stuff here about outburst floods which apparently happened more than I had realised. One of the wonderful thing about a "dead" science like paleohydrology (or whatever they call it) is that while its target (the distant past) is fixed and distant (and therefore seems like it should be stable, dry, and even a bit boring), the field of study itself is lively, contentious, and sometimes quickly evolving!

And now for the disturbing language in the fine print :-) "There is also a strong possibility that a global climatic change in recent geological time brought about some large deluge. Evidence is mounting from ice-cores in Greenland that the switch from a glacial to an inter-glacial period can occur over just a few months, rather than over the centuries that earlier research suggested."


the captcha just gets more and more cranky...

4/28/12, 9:55 AM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

@Adamatari--environmentalism is a failed movement in the same sense that people who sheltered Jews and got them out of Europe failed to prevent the Final Solution. It doesn't make what they did worthless.

I live in a bedroom community twenty miles from San Francisco and within walking distance of recent mountain lion sightings. The front page story in the paper yesterday was about how sheep ranchers in my county are protecting their herds from coyotes (and within the next decade, wolves) with guard dogs instead of poisoning and trapping predators.

Local environmentalists have protected grazing lands and protected and restored many square miles of contiguous wildlife habitat from development during decades when the urban population has multiplied and land prices have gone up a thousand percent.

4/28/12, 11:14 AM

Glenn said...
MawKernewek said:

"@Glenn I think the reason Antarctica isn't melting as quickly as the Arctic is that it is surrounded by a circumpolar current, which keeps warmer water from approaching its shores, which keeps the continent cold."

I don't follow your logic. The Arctic is surrounded by land, and gets no warm currents. "Warmer" Pacific water comes in through the Bering Straits; but they are both shallow and narrow, the flow rate is not large. Antarctica has been losing ice sheets due to collapse at a greater than historical rate for the last 50 years. So far, snow accumulation inland seems to be keeping the overall ice mass more or less in equilibrium though. There is also the feature that Southern winters are more severe, because earth's orbit is closer during the south's winter, and the north's summer. That should mean a similar feedback during Southern summers, but so far the summer collapses and calving have not greatly exceeded the winter build up at higher elevations. At both poles the primary heat sources seem to be air and sunlight/albedo changes.

I've only been to Antarctica once, that was January - February 2003 to break out McMurdo when one of the other icebreakers broke down. What I've sketched out above was the prevailing view among our embarked scientists at the time. In the intervening 9 years I have not kept up on all the literature; homesteading takes a good deal of our time. Especially the part about a day job to buy materials with.

Marrowstone Island

4/28/12, 12:29 PM

Glenn said...
Thomas Daulton,

I was being flippant, but too subtle. I meant the opposite of what you interpreted. What I was trying to say was that since the difference between the two numbers exceeded my personal height, I took it to be a "significant figure", to use scientific jargon.

I was trying to be humourous and the joke fell quite flat.

I am by no means a denier of global climate change or sea level rise. My final tour in the Coast Guard was on the icebreaker HEALY, carrying scientists to the Arctic and Antarctic. When someone who's been going to sea since the G.O. physical year tells me his personal lifetime observations, I pay attention. I got to talk with quite a few of those men and women in three years of polar voyages. And their stories were quite consistant in the nature of anthropogenic climate change. BTW, we haven't really seen an identifiable weather change yet; but we have seen thermal oceanic expansion and a consistant pattern of Arctic sea ice loss. Weather changes? Coming up.

Readers of this blog might appreciate professor Cliff Mass and his writings at His blog on the 22nd concerning the exagerations of the current climate change movement, and the head in the sand logical faults of climate change deniers; both for failure to consider the lag between CO2 cause and climate effect is worth reading. Since he is a real Climate Scientist, and actually backs up his conclusions with logic and numbers, I have a great deal of respect for him.

I agree with your wave analysis 100%. I used to run surfboats in the Coast Guard, and spent a patrol reading an excellent book on wave theory one month in the Bering Sea about 25 years ago. Hence my remark about angle of repose and distance from the shore being as important as altitude.

I tried to post this yesterday, but blogger seems to have eaten it.

Marrowstone Island

4/28/12, 1:22 PM

Jim R said...
OK, I have searched my all-encompassing knowledge base (Wikipedia), and have come up with a page on Grand Canyon Geology. Also read articles on Scandium, Gypsum, Anhydrite, Iodine, and Monsanto vs. Schmeiser. And a few other articles. Then viewed some porn. The Internet has made my adult ADD much much worse.

JMG, one of those P-Tr lemons is thought to be a clathrate release. The others range from a meteor impact to continental drift, so there's a largish diversity of time scales there. It's hard to tell the difference between a day and a hundred thousand years, that far in the past. It's also hard to say how or whether those events are inter-related ... opinions vary.

Fast-forwarding to the Grand Canyon, I believe that I was remembering a TV show, perhaps on PBS. The geologist/guide pointed to some house-sized boulders and noted that we have never seen enough flow to move them (in the last couple hundred years). Therefore, the boulders must have been moved in a lahar or similar event. The Colorado isn't flowing now, thanks to a temporary piece of concrete blocking its path, but on a geological scale it probably won't matter.

According to the Wikipedia page, there may have been thirteen different volcanic dam events in its history. It would seem that the Canyon's history, as much of history generally, has been one of extreme boredom punctuated by terrifying catastrophe. And ice is not the only thing Nature makes dams out of. The other thing I learned is that the Canyon shows maybe 1.5 billion years' worth of sedimentary history in its walls, and that its geology, and that of similar canyons scattered around the planet, is extremely complex and interesting.

4/28/12, 3:33 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Ric, funny. Brings to mind images of angels burying all those dinosaur bones in the post-deluge mud, to test the faith of the righteous.

Joel, I hadn't seen that. Thanks!

Zach, you nailed that one in the bulls-eye. Gradualism was a crucial insight back in the day, but it's too often been used to brush aside evidence for actual, non-Biblical catastrophes, of the sort that any planet can expect from time to time.

Garden, and of course if you point out these failed predictions to them, you'll get flat denials that they were ever made. My library, just to note one relevant example, contains half a dozen books on the earth sciences written in the 1980s, all of them by qualified scientists or respected science writers, that insist that we're on the way to a new ice age -- but those predictions have been airbrushed out of scientific history like members of Stalin's Politburo. It's frankly rather eerie -- and I suspect that Lovelock is going to be erased from the history of the climate change movement in exactly the same way over the next few months, for exactly the same reasons.

Myriad, I love the song too! I've been a Stewart fan since way back.

Candace, glad to be helpful. Iowa's not a bad place to be, btw; lots of farmland, well above sea level, and a lot of pleasant small towns that may do very well in the difficult years to come.

DeAnander, yep. Climate change in the past seems to have happened very fast; I expect that the IPCC predictions are going to turn out to be way too cautious.

Jim, fascinating! Okay, I can probably track something down using those boulders as a clue. A series of good-sized volcanic dams would certainly do the job -- get a few hundred cubic miles of water backed up behind the dam, and then it breaks and digs the bed of the Colorado down a few hundred feet; rinse and repeat and you've got a Grand Canyon.

4/28/12, 8:33 PM

The Croatoan 117 said...
I appreciate this weeks discussion regarding modern activism. I am a former member of the left and activist circles. It's not that my views changed, simply my views regarding the left and activism in general. I am certainly a much more jaded individual than I once was. Besides, the left effectively disowned me when I chose the military as my career(2000-present), especially after I willingly stayed in after Bush was elected. I was often asked how I could serve under such a tyrant (or whatever moniker was thrust on him). I always responded, "Which is worse, a military made up of many different political groups, or one of all one political ideology." Very often that argument fell on deaf ears. I have always found it darkly amusing to see anti-war stickers on gas guzzling vintage cars. It seems the car, the stickers, etc. are more about portraying some image than an actual sincere belief. I have had, a few times, anti-war types stop me, when I'm in uniform, and try to explain the whole "blood for oil" argument to me. I often feel that they are simply doing it for some personal rush instead of genuine sincerity. I don't discredit that Iraq was largely (perhaps, completely) about oil, but after several years spent in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan I feel that I get that concept quite vividly and don't need it explained to me.
Thanks for the discussion on The Great Lakes. I'm moving to upstate NY, near Lake Ontario, this summer. When I initially read this post I was curious what the effects would be on Lake Ontario.

4/28/12, 10:19 PM

Diane said...
JMG "It might seem reasonable to expect that global warming activists would have leapt on these initial reports as ammunition for their cause; when initial estimates suggested that global warming would melt the glaciers of the Himalayas and deprive India of much of its water supply, certainly, a great deal was made of those claims".

what I see as happening is that by the late 80's early 90's there was a convergence of goals between climate scientists and western imperialist policy makers. scientists on the one hand were becoming increasingly alarmed by the ominous signs of carbon excess, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, the western powers were becoming increasingly alarmed by the rate of industrialization of both China and India. So consciously or unconsciously deals were done, the scientists would produce hard data that could be used by the politicians to reign in the growth of these two potential competitors, the rest of course is history.Part of the problem from then on, was that politicians tend to need outlandish claims to overcome human beings, natural attitude 'if its not broke....' inertia, so scientists were prodded to provide data that would justify radical action. Hence we got the world is going to explode, heat waves, no rain, the glaciers will all melt by friday, sort of propaganda. One can have some sympathy with the skeptics :-)

Now of course that temporary convergence, is fraying at the edges, and climate scientists, along with all scientists are being coerced to provide happy days are here again scenarios, a bit of tweaking here and there and everything will be hunky dory. I feel that this is a great testing time for science generally, it has gone along with the collective ego flattering, of course Science is God, and will now be called upon to show that it actually is, which will probably be fun to watch :-)

4/28/12, 11:20 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

Thanks. Over the past few days I put up those solar panels in a very sunny spot. ie. less shaded over winter than the main roof of the house. In their first day today, they produced 33% of the power in the house, yet make up only 25% of the total installed panel capacity.

I've set a rather ambitious goal to get through winter without resorting to the use of the generator. I don't know how it will go, but I'm optimistic and also a little bit nervous being in unchartered territory. No one really knows with these sorts of things how they'll go in the real world until they are tested and found wanting. People advocating large scale solar power really should be required to live with it for a while or just keep quiet.

For 9 months of the year, I'm 100% self-sufficient with electricity albeit with a very low daily requirement - even during the worst weather.

However, during winter I’ve found that for those 3 months I had to use a small petrol powered generator which used 3 litres of fuel per day. Some may say, that's not much, but 3 litres x 90 days = 270 litres x AU$1.60 per litre = $432 for the 90 days - or about the same price as two new solar panels which incidentally, should get at least 50 years use (well, hopefully) whereas the fuel is a use once option.

On a completely different note. At a country market today, I purchased a new herb - Herb Robert - and found a reference to it in my books that surprised and delighted me:

"It is probable that the plant was commonly associated with magic and goblins in earlier times, a fact reflected in the range of names it has been given in various European countries..." From the 1979 book - Encyclopaedia of Herbs and Herbalism – Orbis publishing.

Magic and Goblins. Cool!

Hi Thomas,

No stress, I just figured you were labouring under a misapprehension. Too often humour is lost in translation on the Internet. I like reading every word where I can in order to divine further meaning from peoples writing. It is amazing what peoples writing style tells you about that person. Anyway, you've obviously led an interesting an adventurous life. Nice work, I respect people who can live a different life and have a bit of adventure too. We are all a long time dead!



4/29/12, 4:24 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
The link that DeAnander posted on outburst floods has more info about the English Channel. Apparently there are two processes that seem to have gotten conflated here. First was a (series of?) glacial dam outburst(s) (or overtopping of the isthmus) that did the major earthmoving, rerouting the Rhine and replacing the Isthmus of Dover with the English Channel, this was 100,000s of years ago. Then much more recently was the post-glacial tsunami that helped reisolate Britain as sea level rose after the last glacial max, moving a lot less material but coming right at a critical time.

4/29/12, 6:19 AM

Unknown said...
JMG not specifically on this week’s topic but I thought you would be interested in headlines on the engineering front. This month’s issue of the ASME journal “Mechanical Engineering” had a cover picture and article subtitle “Running On Empty” with reference to an article on Energy Return on Investment. The Article “Bang for the Buck” was by Frank Kreith professor emeritus of engineering at UofC in Boulder. It was a well done article that clearly objected to corn based ethanol and nuclear power based on energy returned. Not that this is mainstream media but it is an important constituency.
For those readers on the US West coast I just finished a great read on one of my favorite subjects the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The book “Cascadia’s Fault” by Jerry Thompson is a good read. For me it was a good reminder of a natural event that we are due for that would put the US West Coast economy in a quagmire for several decades. The sort of natural event that could easily be a major tipping point for our current unstable economic situation.
Tom A

I could not tell if this went the first time?

4/29/12, 8:12 AM

Unknown said...
ug(Deborah Bender)

@commongroundgarden--true enough, but the reason that the worst predictions about the ozone layer didn't come true is that the environmental movement succeeded in fixing the problem before it became catastrophic.

1. Scientists identified a problem (polar ozone layers getting thinner).
2. Scientists determined the cause (release of freon and other industrial gases into the atmosphere).
3. Environmentalists proposed legislation (banning the sale and use of some of these gases, replacement with other gases that don't attack the ozone layer, and regulations to recycle existing stocks rather than venting them to the air.)
4. Legislation was passed.
5. Legislation was enforced and complied with throughout the world.
6. Ozone layer thinning halted and is beginning to reverse.

This has been one of a handful of clear cut environmental victories in my lifetime. From reading how it came about, it's easy to identify some of the reasons why this campaign was successful and others have been less successful.

4/29/12, 10:08 AM

Glenn said...

Orbit vs Seasons,

Strike my last and reverse it. In the current orbital cycle the Earth is _further_ from the sun during the Southern Winter and Northern Summer and _closer_ to the sun during the Northern Winter and Southern Summer. The effect is to moderate our seasonal differences and exagerate the differences in the Southern Hemisphere. Sheesh, and I proof read that post 3 times.

Marrowstone Island

4/29/12, 10:54 AM

pamouna said...
Cherokee Organics
I can highly recommend a book from 1997: "Plants for a future" (Edible & useful plants for a healthier world)by Ken Fern and the corresponding website:
with an incredible database of 7000 plants. He´s experimenting in Cornwall, UK but you might get some good ideas...

4/29/12, 1:33 PM

pansceptic said...
commongroundgarden, I would like to add to Thomas Dalton's observation that sea level rise can be discerned in the relative eyeblink (in geologic time) of a human lifespan. In Miami we are experiencing a problem with saltwater intrusion into goundwater that is the source of fresh water for Miami and the Florida Keys. If the sea level continues to rise (as it almost surely will), Miami will die of thirst some time before the waves consume the city (I write this sitting eight feet above mean high tide).

Further, while the environmental movement may be guilty of hyperbole in pursuit of converts and money, some of their predictions that were considered strident in the 70's have already come to pass. For example, when I was a youth, environmentalist claims that AGW would lead to collapse of antarctic ice shelves was dismissed as alarmist claptrap. Yet I recall that when the Larsen B ice shelf finally did collapse, it was met in the media by the same defening silence that JMG is noting for the methane releases in the arctic.

Continuing that subject, maybe five years ago Russian scientists reported finding similar methane "boils" in lakes in Siberia. They showed that these were due to decomposition of organic material in bogs that had been frozen for centuries, but were now warm enough to be microbially decomposed. I saw nothing of this in the mainstream media, but rather reports in scientific publications.

Regarding tsunamis on the US East coast, I recall reading reports of sediment analysis from New England ponds and bogs that turned up ocean beach debris miles inland. These indicate that sizeable tsunamis have struck the New England area in the post-glacial period.

BTW, I plan to be out of Miami in about two years...

4/29/12, 2:17 PM

MawKernewek said...
There have been weather consequences of climate change, loss of arctic sea ice leading to changes in atmospheric circulation, which had the paradoxical effect of cooler winters in europe in 2009-10 and 2010-11:

@Glenn: there is a stronger connection between the North Atlantic and Arctic - how does this play out in ocean currents?

Also, I assume summer temperatures are key as far as ice sheet shrinkage goes, a warmer winter temperature, if still below zero is surely irrelevant for melting. The key variable in winter would be snowfall, and how that balances vs. summer melt.

4/29/12, 3:52 PM

Ozark Chinquapin said...
I believe the environmental movement with the ozone layer crisis, but not with climate change, is largely because of one crucial difference between the two issues. The ozone crisis was one which a techno-fix worked, and no significant lifestyle changes needed to be made. CFCs were simply replaced with other chemicals. There is no comparable techno-fix for CO2 emissions that would make a meaningful difference in future climate change. Living with less energy is a much tougher sell than swapping out one set of chemicals for another.

4/29/12, 6:12 PM

Kurt Cagle said...

From my previous post (written on a phone, which prevented me from writing at length), I agree with you that the coastal flooding will be an issue, probably within the next 35-50 years. My primary comment was that by the time that the flooding reaches a stage where humankind is effectively pushed back from their existing cities the other effects of GCC will have already done massive amounts of damage to the societal infrastructure. The unusual March heat, 110 tornados in one storm in April, the likelihood of seismic activity as heat pump cycles quicken, effectively moving more water faster against the continental shelves, all of that is going to impact the highly interconnected society that we have negatively, unpredictably, and generally disastrously.

What's more, each such disaster weakens the overall infrastructure just that much faster. Before rising waters affect cities they will affect wetlands, destroying ecosystems that are already perilously on the edge and eliminating the buffers that these provide. Chain reactions happen as system redundancy disappears. By 2035, more energy will be spent just trying to stay in one place than will be spent in establishing a new infrastructure to deal with the problems, and that is even before the rise in sea levels itself becomes sufficient that it significantly impacts the United States and Europe. By then of course, I expect that the economic infrastructure will have collapsed completely, possibly to the extent of the United States itself dissolving into its regional nations (just as the EU is on the verge of doing now).

So, not disagreeing with you about the significance of the danger posed by methane sublimation, just that I believe that the precursor events to flooding will bring much of society to its knees even before the flooding itself occurs.

4/29/12, 8:46 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
The apparent upswing in tornados in the US in recent years is caused by increasing quantities of people and buildings within tornado prone zones, and by increasing numbers of video cameras capturing every storm and these videos being distributed over increasing numbers of media outlets with increasing speed. Statistically, there has not been a meaningful change in the base frequency of strong, potentially destructive tornadoes. More smaller tornadoes are being counted because a larger percentage of them are getting detected, not necessarily because there are more. 95% of tornadoes are NOT capable of extensive damage to life and property; many of these were overlooked in past decades, but they do now get counted in those totals. This same effect applies to most extreme events, natural and unnatural - perceptions will not necessarily reflect reality, and global media bring far more events to an individual's awareness regardless of whether or not more events are actually occurring.

4/29/12, 10:58 PM

afterthegoldrush said...
Another fascinating post and discussion, though thought I might go slightly off-topic (for this post at least, but on topic in the wider scheme) briefly.

With regard to our discussion about the decline of empires and the shenanigans that goes on, I wondered if ADR readers had caught this news piece in the Guardian a few weeks ago?

Britain destroys colonial files

Referring to a major and systematic destruction of 'sensitive' records prior to our generous return of colonies back to their own people. I particularly like:

"it is permissible, as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast"

That is some serious avoidance!

George Monbiot also does a good job of debating this further here though it's not for the squeamish (some of it is seriously grim). This highlights the dangers to the current imperial decline of the US and how is it going to 'hide' its excesses. Still, given that there's been hardly any furore in the British press about it - maybe the US will do much the same, and find some deep, current-free water!

4/29/12, 11:13 PM

Fran said...

Off topic, but kind of on topic for the series: This discussion on the periodicity of wars may be of interest to you


4/30/12, 6:18 AM

Flagg707 said...
FYI for those of you scoring at home, here is the National Snow and Ice Data Center link to the Arctic Sea Ice coverage graph showing current year, average and the low year of 2007 for reference:

4/30/12, 7:14 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
Wonderful post. Sorry I haven't been commenting lately; life gets so busy in Spring! Anyway, a post at Cassandra's Legacay on this topic:

Methane and the disturbed Carbon Cycle
A look at recent studies in climate science
Guest Post by Philip Harris

4/30/12, 7:24 AM

Ceworthe said...
For what it's worth, the former Tadadaho (spiritual leader/chief) of the Haudenosaunee (commonly known as Iroquois) from the 1980's, Leon Shenandoah (now deceased) was sure that the rate of climate change would happen much faster than anyone had ever thought.

captcha-ealfun sularies- anglo-Saxon pay for elves? ;-)

4/30/12, 7:34 AM

Glenn said...

@Glenn: there is a stronger connection between the North Atlantic and Arctic - how does this play out in ocean currents?

That's where the cold water that boosts the Gulf Stream leaves the Arctic. My take on the differences in GW effect between Arctic and Antarctic hinge on geography. The Arctic is an ocean surrouned by low land. The albedo of the tundra when the snow melts off is higher than that of water, but still lower than ice, so it's easier for the sun to warm the Arctic. The Antarctic is a high land surrounded by sea ice. Even in summer the sea ice doesn't completely go away yet. This keeps the albedo high, and the altitude ensures that all the precip. on the continent falls as snow. According to Wikipedia, the ice shelf collapses are being caused by a warm current; though the high altitude snow accumulation is preventing rapid loss.

While not a lot of flow goes through the Bering Straits (and the North end of the Bering Sea is pretty shallow), what does come in is "warm" in that it is above freezing. The usual dynamic is this water comes in, freezes and forms sea ice. As it ages the salt leaches out and settles to the bottom as superchilled brine. Since the Bering is shallower than the Denmark Straits, the resulting bottom flow goes into the North Atlantic. As it falls off the continental shelf it gives a boost to the otherwise wind driven North Atlantic drift, boosting it to become the gulf Stream.

The complete loss of summer ice will eliminate this source of cold saline water, as no multi-year ice will be there to leach out. This should reduce the Gulf Stream to something more like the Kurishio in the N. Pacific, and N.E. North America, and especially Europe will get much colder. This has happened before when freshwater glacial lakes have spilled down what it now the St. Lawrence and diluted the N. Atlantic. The world still warms, but Europe freezes.

While I think, like Bill Pullian, that most of what we've seen in weather has been the result of more people living in disaster areas due to rising population; there have been other GW effects that haven't changed the weather in terms of storm intensity or frequency _yet_. Though we may look back in a century and say, well it started then, but the noise to signal ratio was too high to see. One change is sea ice loss, which is quite visible in the last 50 years. Now, before anyone goes off about weather variability, it is worth noting that 50 years is precisely the time period that Climate Scientists use to differentiate between variable weather and climate change. So I'd say the sea ice is a good signal.


4/30/12, 10:07 AM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

@Ozark Chinquapin--I agree with you.

A contributing factor was that the science reporting on the ozone layer crisis reported a simple relationship between one cause and one effect, relatively linear and already underway. It was easy for the public to understand.

The same single cause/technofix dynamic applies to the substitution of other pesticides for DDT. In that instance I suspect (though I haven't seen reports) that cutting back on DDT use increased the incidence of malaria worldwide.

4/30/12, 12:21 PM

earthpeace girl said...
Another excellent post. Thanks for the "heads up" about the methane. I would assume boats are having a hard time floating over that area as well.

I'm not surprised about the whole political co-opting of the enviro and climate change movement. But, beggars (enviros or women) can't be choosy with who they align themselves with (Dems) to get some paltry work done (clean air act, Roe V Wade). For us libs who embrace our 2nd amendment rights it's annoying to hear Repubs dismiss the rest of our rights...
I can imagine there are many Republican citizens who also embrace clean air and water and their women's rights... Time to get the PEOPLE to act together.

One of the things that strikes me is the lack of memory in people of even recent events, more recent than 6000 years ago,

(BTW,many of the flood myths came out of seasonal floods, like in Mesopotamia and the Nile area, where even the religions of the area were influenced by the types of flooding that took place. Mesopotamia had unpredictable, destructive floods, and their afterlife myths are dark and terrifying. Whereas the Nile flooding was predictable and lifebringing, and their after life myths are literally heavenly.)

for example most people often forget the 1800's where the flu took out something like 80% of Europe.
The current infrastructure that we enjoy thanks to industrialization and its infrastructure, is a two edged sword in light of disease that could bloom with higher temperatures. Infrastructure speeds transportation, thereby both increasing contagiousness and allowing for medicines to get to where they are needed; that is, if they are available.
Recent scarcity of medicines such as antibiotics, antivirals and cancer drugs may be another sign of our industrialized world grinding to a slow halt. It dovetails nicely with the gradual rise in price of gasoline (in the USA).
To me, this slowness of the descent of, as you correctly describe it, the US oil Empire, and indeed of the industrial oil age, may be even too slow to perceive. I would think, to most people too drunk on reality TV, beer and chips, or too exhausted from their slave jobs, are unable to even notice it's happening. They might not even care if they knew.

Again, as you said, people would be fine if they knew how to do things that our grandparents knew how to do. But most don't in the West and they don't want to start digging in the garden or tearing out the electrical from their homes to install wood stoves or root cellars. They certainly don't want to be told they won't be able to drive to work in a handful of years... or in a handful of months!

I've been working hard to make some of these transformations and joined a Transition Movement hub near me.
But it's really hard to convince people the future might be different, though not horrible if only we are better prepared and trained for it.

It could be a nightmare, and it could be kinda awesome...It depends on us... Not even Gaia knows which one we will choose. To be safe, I already moved to high ground and planted an orchard on my 1/4 acre. :)


4/30/12, 1:34 PM

Glenn said...
By a coincidence, saw an article from Christian Science Moniter on line today. Recent satellite study seems to show the Western Antarctic ice sheets being melted from below by warm ocean currents. Study was 2005 - 2010, but now the satellite is inoperable and there won't be a replacement until 2016.


4/30/12, 2:54 PM

John R said...
Re: different responses to ozone and climate change

There was a political dimension at work with ozone as well. Specifically, by the time international action was being proposed Dupont had already developed alternatives to CFCs and lobbied the US government to push for strong international action. No doubt there were other factors at work as well, but I suspect there would have been much more obfustication if action had been seen as disadvantageous to US industry.

This does not invalidate the points made by other commentators, but it does highlight the importance of the political/economic dimension for a complete understanding.

Re: noticeable impacts of global weirding

Last year sea levels fell by several millimeters. Climate skeptics have been quick to jump on this statistic, but satellite measurements have confirmed it was the result of massive flooding in the US, Australia, Pakistan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and Southern China (and possibly elsewhere), which transferred enormous amounts of water from the sea to the land. This was partly due to the ENSO cycle, but global warming seems to be exacerbating the extreme ends of the cycle, resulting in warmer ocean water and greater precipitation. Still I don’t remember anyone predicting that the extra precipitation would result in lower sea levels, so this shows the difficulty in predicting the behavior of complex nonlinear systems, and the folly of focusing on only one variable at a time. (Hopefully some of that water will find its way into badly depleted aquifers, but I expect most of it will eventually find its way back to the sea, possibly resulting in a bigger-than-usual increase for 2012.)

Last year, I got a sneak preview of what 1.5m (5ft) of sea level rises might look like. A massive polar low (about 870 hPa, if I recall correctly) moved below Tasmania, producing excellent surf and devastating coastal erosion. Most of the damage was done by the storm surge, which resulted in a low tide water level that was higher than the biggest king tides. A lot of houses in my parents’ suburb lost their backyards or worse. Of course, there will still be storm surges even after sea levels rise, and it is this double whammy that will do the most damage.

4/30/12, 7:31 PM

Leo said...
just a datapoint on peakoil going mainstream.
my year 12 (year before Uni in victoria) chemistry textbook mentioned peak oil as the reason to start using biofuels in the biofuel chapter and we're learning what they are and how their made (chemistry side)

4/30/12, 9:04 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Pamouna,

Thankyou very much for the book tip. It sounds like an excellent resource backed up by real world experience.



5/1/12, 1:32 AM

Thomas Daulton said...
Hey thanks to Glenn, Chris, and John R. for the conversation. John R. sure ain't kiddin' about the difficulty of predicting complex nonlinear systems. When we talk about Sea Level Rise, we really should be careful to discuss _where_ we are measuring it! Just as John R. points out, I have seen papers that indicate the sea level is falling in various regions of the world, although taken together in the aggregate, the _average_ sea level is rising due to thermal expansion and meltwater.
Just for everyone's aedification, when we measure sea level rise at a particular location, first we have to decide if the land is moving up or down due to plate tectonics etc. If the land is rising faster than the sea level, there is a net sea level "fall" of course. Then again due to amphydromic effects... (in English that's kinda the wave caused by swirling water around in a bucket)... because of the lunar and solar tides, and the rotation of the Earth, and the shape of the ocean basins, there are a few places around the world where the sea level is still consistently falling, because the mass of water due to Sea Level Rise is basically sloshing around to some other part of the bucket.
It's hellishly complicated, and as many have pointed out, in complicated situations the cavemen with easy polemics ("Drill Baby Drill!" vs. "Florida will be under water!!") tend to carry public debate.

5/2/12, 2:21 PM

Edward said...
With respect to the ongoing issue of profanity in posts, I'll offer one of my favorite sayings:

"Profanity is for people with a limited vocabulary."

5/28/12, 5:49 AM

revert2mean said...
Greer, you said: "if the news from Arctic waters in the months and years to come suggests that things are moving in the wrong direction, and those of my readers who live close to the shores of the northern Atlantic basin happen to have the opportunity to move inland or to higher ground, it might not be unreasonable to do so"

You may need to update this:

1/16/15, 5:53 PM