climate change greenland ice thaw permafrost
(Image: Getty)

The Western mood on the climate-biosphere crisis took a decidedly dark turn over the past couple of weeks.

You could feel it spreading across the world. Hell, you could feel it uncurling in yourself; a black pillar of smoke. After a brief flurry of hope in the wake of the global school students strike, perhaps a last flourish of the idea that we — the West, the lucky ones, or some of us anyway — might be able to get out of this without it transforming us, without it ramming into us, we got the bad news.

It was tangled up together with op-eds, striking pictures, meta-commentaries, but at the core there were two intertwined stories: the possible fast and early melting of the permafrost, and the early and rapid onset of the summer thaw of Greenland ice. Both stories began bubbling through the media about three weeks ago, and their propagation and reception indicate the paradoxes of our current position in the crisis: accepting that humanity is in a very difficult situation can overshoot into apocalyptic “inevitabilism”, whose function appears to be to relieve people of the burden of having to fight for what will inevitably be a damaged, degraded and fallen planet.

Nevertheless, the raw material was compelling enough. In April, the Atmospheric Chemistry department at Harvard announced findings that the permafrost of northern Canada was releasing gases at twelve times the rate previously assumed to be the case. Permafrost, as everyone knows by now, traps gases in ice frozen for up to thousands of years. That it would begin to thaw once the earth’s temperature rose has always been known, but this was assumed to be decades away. That it may be releasing material at such a rate suggests that a major feedback loop of possible runaway heating up has begun much earlier than thought.

This is particularly concerning because the permafrost contains methane — up to twenty times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas — and nitrous oxide, which is three hundred times more potent, and one capable of turning into an ozone-depleting agent when warmed by the sun at higher altitudes. Global warming above 1.5 degrees is regarded as the key threshold event beyond which the permafrost begins to melt at a rapid clip — hence its importance in current planning. The atmospheric sampling measurement was matched weeks later by a lab-based test of permafrost cultures, which also found substantial nitrous oxide release.

There weren’t a lot of pictures capable of illustrating permafrost release. Not so with Greenland ice, an amount of which melts every summer, usually as a series of rapid melts and then lulls, appearing as spikes and troughs on a graph. Before 1988, the melt area in a single spike hadn’t risen above 400,000 square kilometres per incident. Between 1989 and 1995, these spikes rose to 500,000 square kilometres each. And after 1995, they tend to range between 700,000 and 900,000 square kilometres per incident, of which there tend to be about three (and many smaller peaks).

What’s happened this year is that a 700,000 sq km melt peak has occurred earlier than ever previously measured, with a near-vertical rise to the peak in the first week of June, before the northern summer has really got going. This was the source for that range of stories with the husky dogs running through water, the melt of the outer parts of the top layer of the ice sheet which lies across Greenland. But ah, even here, one has to be careful, for recording of ice-sheet melts only began in the late 1970s. That said, joining ice core sample data to instrumental data shows actual and projected warming unlike anything occurring over the past 12,000 years.

What’s interesting, in starting to wrap one’s head around the detail of the debate, is the way in which climate denialist pushback against the Greenland data occurred. At denialist clearing house Watts Up With That, much attention was given to the “huskies running through water” photo, even though little had been made of the phenomenon in the articles.

The short run of data was taken as invalidating any notion of directionality, or a sudden threshold cross in 1995, when the melting area suddenly jumped. That’s only effective by applying a sort of isolating empiricisim to the data, ignoring its corroboration of warming measured from other sources. It’s one of the reflex gestures of scepticism/denialism, which is rhetorically effective only because it runs counter to the way that science actually works, in steering rational action.

Thus anyone wants to rationally assess these findings is caught in the middle. It’s clear that the finding of an early-activated feedback loop in permafrost warming can be used to summon up the thought of an imminent spiral out of control. And that the Greenland ice melt ramifies such. And that escalation is to be avoided.

But the simple fact remains — and is a key to a spreading melancholia — that, as across the world the (utterly inadequate) Paris accord fall apart, system escalation is taking off much earlier than expected. And that is sufficient to conclude that if we get out of this, it wont be in one piece.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey