Tuesday, June 06, 2006

How Warm Was My Arctic?

Of the big energy-related news items last week, the US overture to participate directly in talks with Iran over its nuclear program deservedly got top billing. Another item might claim comparable long-term significance, though: evidence that the Arctic Ocean was much warmer 55 million years ago than scientists previously suspected--up to 18 degrees F warmer. This has implications for our understanding of climate feedback mechanisms, especially at the extremes. The simultaneous indication that conditions then might have been right to deposit enormous quantities of oil under the Arctic seabed will be a lot less welcome in quarters where the temperature finding is viewed with alarm, and vice versa.

One of the major uncertainties in the analysis of climate change relates to the degree of response by the climate to the inputs that influence it, including our greenhouse gas emissions. Over how broad a range of greenhouse gas concentrations is that response proportional, and at what point do the "reinforcing loops"--mechanisms such as methane emissions from melting Siberian permafrost, which results from past warming but could accelerate future warming--kick in and lead to disproportionate responses? The evidence of past conditions falling well outside the bounds of what climate models would predict ought to ring alarm bells.

While some will see this as invalidating--or at least undermining--existing models, it at least suggests that the models haven't nailed down these reinforcing loops fully. I.e., future warming might be much greater--or much less--than the couple of degrees predicted by the end of the century. In layman's terms, the scale of climate risk just got bigger.

The other part of this finding, the possibility of large oil reserves under the Arctic, could raise quite a ruckus. One of the researchers commented about the negative reaction among his colleagues, because of the large source of atmospheric carbon these potential oil reserves represent. The presence of valuable resources under the Arctic could also put more urgency into the resolution of conflicting sovereignty claims. It might take decades to produce any oil found in the deep Arctic Ocean, but a review of the rapid development of deepwater drilling technology favors an optimistic outlook. For those who think that running out of oil is our best insurance against climate change, this won't be good news.

It will take some time for climatologists and geologists to digest the findings of this report and subject it to the usual peer review. If it proves out, then climate change should be viewed as even more serious than we suspected, requiring more emphasis on both mitigation and adaptation. At the same time, finding another North Sea or Gulf of Mexico under a warming Arctic could change the global oil balance, pushing Peak Oil out another decade.

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