20th March 2016
An interview with climate scientist Paul Beckwith
Following the recent news that Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent on record, we interviewed climate scientist Paul Beckwith, an expert on this subject and a member of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG).
Future Timeline: Hi Paul. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. First of all, could you tell us a bit about your background, how long you've been involved in climate science, and what areas of climatology you specialise in?
Paul Beckwith: Hello, and thank you. It is my pleasure to have this interview with you.
I am an Engineer with a Bachelor of Engineering Degree in Engineering Physics (often called Engineering Science) from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. I finished at the top of my class and received many scholarships and awards during my studies. My CV can be found on my website PaulBeckwith.net under the About Me section.
I am a Physicist with a Master of Science Degree in Laser Physics. My research area was blowing molecules apart with high-powered CO2 lasers and measuring the chunks flying off with low-power tunable diode lasers. This involved the science of molecular spectroscopy in the infrared region. I worked in industry for many years, as a Product Line Manager for optical switching devices in high speed fibre optic communication systems, on high-powered excimer laser research and tunable laser research, and also on software quality assurance for various tech companies.
I have been interested in climate science my entire life. I decided to formally study it after becoming concerned with the lack of urgency by the public, scientists (literally everybody) about six years ago or so.
I am a part time professor in the Laboratory for Paleoclimatology in the Geography Department at the University of Ottawa. I have taught many courses including climatology, meteorology, oceanography and the geography of environmental issues. My research work in my PhD program is abrupt climate system change in the past and present, to determine what will happen in the near future. I am very active on educating the public about the grave dangers that we face from abrupt climate change, using primarily videos and blogs and public talks. My research is self-funded, apart from my teaching, and I greatly welcome financial contributions at the Please Donate button on the main task bar on my website.
Future Timeline: It's clear that the Arctic is melting rapidly and this trend is likely to continue. When do you predict the Arctic will start to have ice-free conditions? At what point during the year will it disappear, and how long for? How will these conditions develop in future decades, and could we reach a point where the Arctic is free of ice all year round?
Paul Beckwith: I think that the Arctic will start to have ice-free conditions at the end of the melt season (Septembers) as early as 2020 or before (possibly even the summer of 2016). It is hard to predict a single year, since the loss of Arctic sea ice greatly depends on local Arctic wind and ocean conditions in the summer melt season. These local conditions determine how much ice is lost to export via the Fram Strait and Nares Strait, which makes a huge difference to ice loss amounts during the Northern summer period. When there is less than 1 million square km of sea ice left, we have essentially a "blue-ocean" event in the Arctic.
For the sake of argument, let us pick September 2020 for the first "blue-ocean" event in the Arctic. This would occur for about a month – call it the month of September. Within two or three years, it is highly likely that the duration of this "blue-ocean" state would be three months or so, thus occurring for August, September and October in 2023. Within an additional few years, say by 2025, it is highly likely that the "blue-ocean" event would be extended for another few additional months, and we'd have ice-free conditions from July through to and including November; namely for five months of the year. Then, within a decade or two from the initial 2020 event we can expect to have an ice-free "blue-ocean" Arctic year round; that would be some year between 2030 and 2040.
Of course, if the first "blue-ocean" event occurred in 2016, this timeline would be advanced accordingly.
Future Timeline: In recent years, there's been a lot of talk about methane eruptions in the Arctic and Siberia. How serious is this, in terms of its potential for adding to global warming? Can you give us some idea of the timescales involved? What's the level of certainty about these future effects?
Paul Beckwith: Once the Arctic is essentially ice-free for ever-increasing durations in the summer months, and then over the entire year, there are two enormous feedback risks that we face. Methane and Greenland.
Methane is the mother of all risks. The Russians have measured large increases in emissions from the continental shelf seabed in the Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). Over the timespan of a few years they observed that methane bubbled up in vast numbers of plumes that increased in size from tens of metres in diameter to hundreds and even thousands of metre diameter plumes in the shallow regions of ESAS. Global atmospheric levels of methane are rapidly rising, and although they average about 1900 ppb or so there have been readings over 3100 ppb in the atmosphere over the Arctic. Since the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of methane versus carbon dioxide is 34x, 86x and close to 200x on timescales of 100 years, 20 years and a few years, respectively, a large burst of methane can virtually warm the planet many degrees almost overnight.
Recently, we have passed about 405 ppm of CO2, with a record rise of 3.09 ppm in 2015 alone. When accounting for methane and other greenhouse gases and putting them into CO2-equivalent numbers, we are at about 490 ppm CO2 equivalent. We are literally playing with fire, and the outcome will not be pretty.
Greenland ice melt is the next enormous feedback risk. When we lose snow and ice in the Arctic – and the cascading feedbacks like albedo destruction kick in – and the methane comes out, then the enormous warming over Greenland and in the water around and under the Greenland ice will viciously destroy the ice there and greatly accelerate sea level rise. I refer people to my video from several years ago on the great risk of realising 7 metres of global sea level rise by 2070 from Greenland and Antarctica melt.
The level of certainty over these future effects is close to 100% if we continue to be stupid and do nothing. If we are smart, we need to have a Manhattan–Marshall Plan-like emergency status to a) Zero emissions as soon as possible, i.e. by 2030; b) Cool the Arctic to keep the methane in place and restore jet stream stability, and c) Remove CO2 from the atmosphere/ocean system and remove methane from the atmosphere. There is no other choice. I use the metaphor of a three legged bar stool with legs a), b) and c) as above.
Future Timeline: What new satellites, monitoring stations, and other science projects are being planned for the future (if any)? How will these improve our knowledge of the Arctic and the various climatic processes in the region?
Paul Beckwith: NASA, the ESA and the Russians and Chinese are always launching new satellites with better high tech sensors to gather more information on the changes in the Earth System. We need to have a massive increase in scientific study in the Arctic to better quantify what is happening there. However, we know enough to see that if we do not deploy the three-legged barstool approach immediately, then our chances of halting the ongoing abrupt climate change will vanish, and emissions from the Earth System will dwarf all cumulative anthropogenic emissions throughout human history. We need the US military budget of $700 to $800 billion dollars per year to be applied to saving human civilisation from abrupt climate change.
Future Timeline: What can be done to save the Arctic and reverse the melting trend? How long would it take to restore the ice cover to, say, mid-20th century levels? Is this even possible with current technology?
Paul Beckwith: We must cool the Arctic as soon as possible using Solar Radiation Management (SRM) technologies. We can deploy very quickly if we treat this Arctic temperature amplification as an existential threat to humanity and put billions of dollars into deployment. It will take many years – perhaps a decade to restore the ice cover, but we must start now. If we wait until we have "blue-ocean" events before we deploy, then our ability to restore the ice will be much harder and perhaps even futile. Deployment is possible with current technology. I am specifically referring to Marine Cloud Brightening (MCB) methods. I am working today with people on these technologies.
Future Timeline: How does the melting in the Arctic compare to its southern polar opposite, the Antarctic?
Paul Beckwith: The Arctic is rapidly losing snow cover (mostly in the spring months) and sea ice cover, and thus the average albedo (reflectivity) of the region is rapidly decreasing. This is feeding back into additional Arctic Temperature Amplification and further darkening and warming, until we have no snow and ice in the region. These vicious feedback cycles have not kicked in to the same extent in the Antarctic. The ice cap there is losing ice causing a rise in sea level mostly from the warming of the seawater undercutting the ice on land that is grounded below sea level. However, since the Arctic is warming so fast due to increased solar radiation absorption (from darkening) there is less heat transported there via the atmosphere and oceans. Thus, jet streams and ocean currents are slowing. Thus, more heat is moving from the equator to the southern hemisphere, making it to Australian latitudes and increasing the temperature gradient to Antarctica and thus increasing the speed of the jet streams there.
Future Timeline: Finally, what's your message to climate change deniers who reject the science and believe the whole thing is a giant hoax?
Paul Beckwith: Climate change deniers cannot be tolerated by society any longer. They are threatening the future of everybody on our planet.