vast-costs Says Aunty. And the Graun says “Arctic thawing could cost the world $60tn, scientists say”. $60tn is a big number. But lets not trouble ourselves with the popular press: lets go straight to the source, which is Nature (“Vast costs of Arctic change”, by Gail Whiteman, Chris Hope and Peter Wadhams). Is that an impeccable source? Weeell, not quite. Nature whores after big-impact studies in a rather regrettable way, and more importantly this is but a “Comment” not (as far as I can tell) a proper peer-reviewed article.

You’d certainly hope it wasn’t peer reviewed, because some of it is dodgy, most obviously the opening paragraph:

Unlike the loss of sea ice, the vulnerability of polar bears and the rising human population, the economic impacts of a warming Arctic are being ignored.

But lets skip over that (and that Wadhams has form with AMEG), and proceed to the meat of the comment, which proves to be remarkably brief: all they’ve done is plug in a 50 GT methane “burp” into an integrated assessment model and read off the predicted damages. This is something that anyone could do, with no special insight required.

The first Key Point is: is 50 Gt believable? Wiki tells me that annual methane emissions from natural+anthro is about 600 Tg, which is 0.6 Gt by my calculation; so WHW’s 50 Gt is close to 100 years emissions. So its a large number. I’ll come back to that, because I’ve realised I want to pause to put $60 tn in context, which is the second Key Point. As the article says:

This will lead to an extra $60 trillion (net present value) of mean climate-change impacts for the scenario with no mitigation, or 15% of the mean total predicted cost of climate change impacts (about $400 trillion).

So yes its a big number but its “only” a 15% increase on what you’d get anyway. Also, I think (though I’m open to correction on this) that “net present value” means all future impacts, back-calculated to today using discount rates. As the comment puts it, that can be compared to “the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion)”. Or put another way, all future impacts of this methane release can be paid for by a single year’s economic output. Which discount rates? Probably Stern-style very low ones, guessing from the Graun stating that WHW are “using the Stern review”. And my recollection is that while the Stern-type numbers are indeed very large, the damages (from GW, and out to 2100 at least) are smaller than the benefits (that we get, economically, from emitting the CO2; I don’t mean that the benefits of GW outweigh its costs). So given the vast uncertainties in the Stern-style process (you can certainly change Stern’s numbers by more than 15% just by tweaking his discount rates a bit) I don’t think an extra 15% is news, ter be ‘onest.

Now, how about that 50 Gt. Wiki tells me that there are 1,400 Gt potentially going; so 50 is only a small fraction of that. Lets have the whole para, since its quite informative:

Current methane release has previously been estimated at 0.5 Mt per year.[12] Shakhova et al. (2008) estimate that not less than 1,400 Gt of Carbon is presently locked up as methane and methane hydrates under the Arctic submarine permafrost, and 5-10% of that area is subject to puncturing by open taliks. They conclude that “release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage [is] highly possible for abrupt release at any time”. That would increase the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere by a factor of twelve.[13]

13 is only an abstract, ending:

The total value of ESS [East Siberian Shelf] carbon pool is, thus, not less than 1,400 Gt of carbon. Since the area of geological disjunctives (fault zones, tectonically and seismically active areas) within the Siberian Arctic shelf composes not less than 1-2% of the total area and area of open taliks (area of melt through permafrost), acting as a pathway for methane escape within the Siberian Arctic shelf reaches up to 5-10% of the total area, we consider release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time. That may cause ∼12-times increase of modern atmospheric methane burden with consequent catastrophic greenhouse warming

But read that again carefully, noting fault zones, tectonically and seismically active areas. They aren’t (as I read it) saying that the 50 Gt will or might be released due to human activity; they’re saying that geologic events, and leaks through existing holes in the permafrost, might lead to this release. At least I think that’s what they’re saying. In which case its an odd calculation, because they appear to be assuming that all the faults will become active at once. Aren’t they? And my reading of it completely decouples it from GW. So I don’t understand.

WHW don’t ref that abstract, of course. Instead they ref Predicted methane emission on the East Siberian shelf by the same lead author (Shakhova), but this time in a proper journal. Or… is it? the journal is “Doklady Earth Science” which is a journal of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It contains English translations of papers published in Doklady Akademii Nauk (Proceedings of the Russian Academy of Sciences). Is it any good? I don’t know. I can only preview the first two pages of the paper and it looks suspiciously to me as though they are rather more assuming their emission rates than predicting them. Anyone who has access to the full journal, do let me know.

Conclusion: meh.

[Update: more unravelling: mt and Nisbet et al.. And Notz et al. (Nature 500, 529 (29 August 2013) doi:10.1038/500529b) think its nonsense too.]

Refs

* It looks like the Graun has a rather worse take available, which mixes in implausibly early sea ice collapse: “Ice-free Arctic in two years heralds methane catastrophe – scientist”. Gavin isn’t impressed (detail) though as far as I can see, he’s only unimpressed by the sea ice collapse bit. Elsetweet, Gavin also says “nowhere is the v. low plausibility of emission pulse discussed” but since twitter is a pile of dingo’s kidneys I can’t work out how to link to it.
* Good heavens, this is unprecedented. one of the comments at the Graun is sane.
* Ruppel, C. D. (2011) Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):29
* A couple of posts on SS by Andy Skuce.
* Methane mischief: misleading commentary published in Nature by Jason Samenow, WaPo; Wadhams replies but continues to not-impress. As Gavin says, “Eemian”.
* Toward Improved Discussions of Methane & Climate
* Nafeez for the Record at P3
* Arctic and American Methane in Context – RC

Comments

  1. #2 Kevin O'Neill
    2013/07/25

    WC says: “Or put another way, all future impacts of this methane release can be paid for by a single year’s economic output.”

    Or put another way – all future impacts of this methane release can be paid for by foregoing all healthcare for everyone on the planet for the next ten years.

    [I knew I shouldn't have tried to say that... I'm not trying to say its cheap. I am trying to say its not catastrophically expensive, measured in those terms -W]

  2. #3 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/07/25

    but Kevin, “… all future impacts of this methane release” would include some additional “healthcare for everyone on the planet” over the baseline, no? So you can’t trade the one for the other.

  3. #4 SCM
    2013/07/25

    “And my recollection is that while the Stern-type numbers are indeed very large, the damages (from GW, and out to 2100 at least) are smaller than the benefits (that we get, economically, from emitting the CO2″
    Are you saying that the benefits of burning fossil fuels are greater than the costs from global warming and therefore we shouldn’t do anything about it?

    [I'm not saying that from my own personal opinion. I'm saying that's what the Stern-type numbers come up with. I don't have the figures to hand, but (very roughly) Stern predicts say 10% GDP loss by 2100 from GW *but* that's on top of a 5x GDP growth by then - which is at least part fueled by fossil fuels. So (very crudely, and measuring only economically) you could compare a no-GW-no-costs-no-benefits "GDP stays constant" with a GW-costs-and-benefits "GDP * 5 - 10%" so to speak -W]

  4. #5 Martin Vermeer
    2013/07/25

    > Good heavens, this is unprecedented. one of the comments at the Graun is sane.

    Given the total number of comments under a typical G article, this was bound to happen some time

  5. #6 Martin Vermeer
    2013/07/25

    Vinny Burgoo #1, thanks, that’s actually a very nice interview. At least he is not afraid of holding unpopular opinions

  6. #7 OPatrick
    2013/07/25

    “Good heavens, this is unprecedented. one of the comments at the Graun is sane.”

    You are perhaps unfamiliar with this commenter, but no doubt you are familiar with his mode of commenting. Wadhams may be someone who genuinely earns the label of alarmist and there are good reasons to be sceptical of his viewpoint, however that is not what the comment you highlight is doing. This commenter exploits any opportunity to highlight the supposed unreasonableness of the ‘alarmist’ side of the debate, but is willing to use sources of his own which he would rightly tear apart were they used by anyone arguing for stronger action on the issue,such as an egregiously biased poll showing strong support for the Keystone pipeline. Even the comment you pick out is not a reasonable one – the examples given of ‘alarmist’ predictions are not linked to their sources and are almost certainly misrepresented. The comment is not a sceptical one, it is manipulative and it doesn’t need genuinely sceptical people to help it in its purpose.

  7. #8 Kevin O'Neill
    2013/07/25

    Hank – the comment was just a poke in the ribs to say – let’s not undersell the costs and I think WC understood it that way.

    The hypothetical ‘no healthcare for 10 years’ would be a far greater unnatural disaster than the hypothetical 50Gt methane release (IMHO). Spend a minute or two trying to calculate all the ramifications. It would take a novel-length SF story to cover them all.

  8. #9 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/07/25

    > novel-length SF story

    It’s been written:

    “No one except possibly the late John Brunner, in his brilliant novel “The Sheep Look Up,” has ever described anything in science fiction that is remotely like the reality … as we know it.” — William Gibson in a 2007 interview [Wikipedia]

  9. #10 Adam
    2013/07/25

    “https://twitter.com/ClimateOfGavin/status/360063559545266176″

    It’s a short conversation: https://twitter.com/ClimateOfGavin/status/360063559545266176

  10. #11 Adam
    2013/07/25

    Also:

    “Shakhova et al (2010) paper is also just a what-if sensitivity study.”

    https://twitter.com/ClimateOfGavin/status/360352151354089472

  11. #12 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/07/25

    Thanks for the pointer to twitter, Adam, those are helpful.

  12. #13 Adam
    2013/07/25

    Hank, there’s been a few things seen via there that have almost made me sign up. Almost.

  13. #14 Susan Anderson
    2013/07/25

    first link “aunty” seems broken. .Thanks again for the clarity and quality of your common sense, words and attracted audience.

    [Oops, I carelessly linked to the headline not the URL. Fixed -W]

  14. #15 Adam
    2013/07/25

    Obviously this would have been better said via another medium than twitter, but 1-16:

    https://twitter.com/ClimateOfGavin

    (It’ll scroll off, so don’t dawdle).

  15. #16 dorlomin
    2013/07/25

    Well thats interesting. My comment at the Guardian got deleted immediately after linking to this post.

    And I have been called denier twice today for casting doubts on this report.

  16. #17 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/07/25

    > comment at the Guardian got
    > deleted immediately after linking

    Hm. Who guards the Guardian?

  17. #18 OPatrick
    2013/07/25

    “My comment at the Guardian got deleted immediately after linking to this post.”

    That’s disturbing. Was there anything else in the comment which could have been objected to?

  18. #19 Andy Skuce
    2013/07/25

    As far as I know, no gas hydrates have actually been sampled on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. The shallowest hydrates reported anywhere in the Arctic in a reliable publication are at 119 metres depth in the Mackenzie Delta (Dallimore and Collett, Geology, 1995). Even this finding was not absolutely definitive. More commonly, hydrates are found below permafrost at depths of a few hundred metres, consistent with their well-known P/T stability range.

    Despite this, many people in blogland assume that hydrates have been proven to exist at very shallow depths on the ESAS. They haven’t been. If I’m wrong, someone please point me to the paper. To be sure, methane is seeping out of the seabed on the ESAS, but this seems to be from below the thick permafrost there.See here:
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/crycapfour.html

    Hydrates may well be present there below and within submarine permafrost, at depths greater than 100 metres, but to warm up those hydrates significantly to the point where they are unstable (due to changes in sea water temperatures) will take centuries or even millennia, due to the low thermal conductivities of the overlying rocks (see Dmitrenko et al JGR, 2011). Warming up frozen rock is even slower because of the energy needed to melt ice.

    Although the Whiteman et al paper is an interesting. what-if exercise, it was irresponsible of them not to indicate that this was not a physically reasonable, imminent or likely scenario. It would have been better if they had modelled instead the economic consequences of the much more likely and imminent release of CO2 from onshore melting permafrost as modelled by MacDougall et al, (Nature Geoscience, 2012) that I blogged about here.

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Macdougall.html

  19. #20 David Miller
    2013/07/26

    Look at that article again. It cites seismically active sites and active faults to be only 1-2% of the area of interest.

    It goes on to add:

    and area of open taliks (area of melt through permafrost), acting as a pathway for methane escape within the Siberian Arctic shelf reaches up to 5-10% of the total area,

    I would not ever regard areas of melt through permafrost as non-anthropogenic. Indeed, it is exactly global warming that is responsible for permafrost melting, even submarine permafrost melting.

    I agree that 50 GT is a completely made-up number. Estimates of clathrate methane vary widely; some are much higher than 1400 GT. It’s probably worth keeping in mind, also, that our current rate of methane breakdown depends on the presence of OH radicals in the atmosphere. I’ll need a lot of convincing to believe that the rate of decay won’t slow down as methane levels rise. IE, 12x the atmospheric level will persist much longer than our current 1x.

    My take away on it is that clathrates constitute a tipping point. If they start melting in a serious way then we humans are just along for the ride. Reducing our CO2 output to zero won’t have a significant effect.

  20. #21 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/07/26

    Anybody want to try to straighten this guy out?
    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2013/07/price-tag-global-warming-just-went-60-trillion/67605/#disqus_thread

    I can’t stand the Disqus comment system, over there.

  21. #22 tim B
    USA
    2013/07/26

    Please tell me that this research wasn’t funded. On the other hand, natural gas oil rigs would do well to point at potential new “cleaner than coal” sources that have the added benefit of fighting a $60T environmental disaster

  22. #23 deconvoluter
    2013/07/26

    Re #7 ,

    @OPatrick. I agree; sanity and sincerity are quite different.

    The comment at 2.49PM

    Its about Murry Salby, Matt Ridley,Patrick Michaels and Andrew Neil*
    The commentator dismisses criticisms of their junk as ‘point scoring’. Why? Conclusion: the ‘sane comment’ was an example of concerned trolling.
    ————-
    * Neil was not just being devil’s advocate. As shown by his comments elsewhere, he believes his colleagues (see RC link to-day).

  23. #24 dorlomin
    2013/07/26

    “That’s disturbing. Was there anything else in the comment which could have been objected to?” Not really just a bland comment about someone ‘pouring cold water’ on this stuff, but the Guardian moderators are always a bit twitchy and I have been through over ten user names to get round bannings.

  24. #25 Adam
    2013/07/26

    Re my post #15 above, someone has collated the tweets on Neven’s forum:

    https://forum.arctic-sea-ice.net/index.php/topic,459.msg10704.html#msg10704

  25. #26 deconvoluter
    2013/07/26

    @Dorlomin

    I have also suffered from (a) the vanishing comment (b) the explicitly moderated comment, where a record is displayed.

    In neither case do I have the least idea of the reason. It might be worth your while to try again, perhaps at a different time of the day.

  26. #27 OPatrick
    2013/07/26

    @Dorlomin – I don’t know how these things work, but presumably there is some automatic system for detecting inappropriate links, and if so presumably it picks up on certain key words. I wonder if it found and disapproved of the use of “whores”. Probably not.

  27. #28 Gingerbaker
    2013/07/26

    Net present cost of adaptation is $1240 trillion by 2100 here:

    http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/11501IIED.pdf

  28. #29 angech
    2013/07/27

    Consensus let’s see

    That’s 10 days from now. The forecast will change.

    An interesting quote from Neven on the weather for future reference

    Posted by: Neven | July 24, 2013

  29. #30 Ned
    2013/07/29

    Gingerbaker writes: Net present cost of adaptation is $1240 trillion by 2100 here

    Is that based on Table 8.1? If so, my reading of it is different. It looks like the impacts without adaptation are (claimed to be) $1240 trillion, the impacts with adaptation are $890 trillion, and the cost of adaptation is $6 trillion.

    So adaptation is a bargain, reducing impacts by almost $60 for every $1 spent on adaptation.

    Or so they claim. No idea whether it’s reasonable. But they’re not saying that we’re going to spend $1240 trillion on adaptation.

  30. #31 Michael Tobis
    ATX
    2013/07/29

    In Paul Baer’s words “The crucial questions are about our ethical obligations to those distant in time and space, and about our ideas and ideals for the world we want for our descendants and for the rest of our own lives. An analysis of Stern’s approach can show that its conclusions aren’t compelling, but the positive case for a truly precautionary policy must stand on other grounds. Developing these arguments is truly an urgent matter.”

    The problem with the Whiteman paper is that it accepts the traditional econometric approach on its own terms, and then apparently casts about for a catastrophe big enough to make the result come out the “right” way.

    As such it gets “the right answer” by compounding the mistake of overvaluing small-signal economic truisms with the mistake of presuming an entirely implausible catastrophe.

    Getting the “right answer” (that we should indeed be worried) in this doubly wrong way is not going to help us find a workable path out of our predicament, because being worried is only the first of many steps. Once we accept that we are right to be worried, there are many more decisions to be made, and if we are worried about the wrong things we will not make good decisions.

    In any case, the analysis isn’t even valid on its own terms. To really weigh the cost of sea ice retreat in these terms requires discounting the cataclysm in proportion to its likelihood.

    Finally, as William points out, these numbers aren’t all that horrifying anyway in a global, century scale context. This shows that there is something deeply wrong with the economists’ toolkit, because really, if the Wadhams nightmare seriously were out there, surely it should not be a marginal call whether we want to avoid it.

    I would like to know if this article was peer reviewed. I have seen a suggestion that Wadhams scenario has “passed peer review at Nature” which seems pretty excessive to me.

    Whiteman is not an advance of human knowledge; it’s a further decline of the journal system. It’s not just a disaster for Nature, though. The cost is not just scientific confusion. It’s also reinforcement of a sterile approach to global governance.

  31. [...] 2013/07/24: Stoat: Arctic methane ‘time bomb’ could have huge economic costs? [...]

  32. #33 John Irving
    2013/07/30

    Based on this video featuring Dr. Shakhova discussing methane hydrates, recorded at the European Geophysical Union in Vienna, 2012, she does not seem to be suggesting that the primary mechanism of concern is tectonic activity (at all) William. Also, she is suggesting that the reservoirs of methane hydrates on the East Siberian Arctic shelf (mean depth of 50m) are quite significant.

    [I was reading from the 2008 abstract. She may well have changed her views since (I think I've made it moderately clear that I suspect she is looking for a large number, and adjusting her causes to find it). The abstract is free-to-view: see what you think its saying -W]

  33. #34 John Irving
    2013/07/30

    Based on this video featuring Dr. Shakhova discussing methane hydrates, recorded at the European Geophysical Union in Vienna, 2012, she does not seem to be suggesting that the primary mechanism of concern is tectonic activity (at all) William. Also, she is suggesting that the reservoirs of methane hydrates on the East Siberian Arctic shelf (mean depth of 50m) are quite significant.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=kx1Jxk6kjbQ#at=311

  34. #35 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/07/31

    > reservoirs of methane hydrates
    True, sort of, but it “reservoir” sounds liquid, doesn’t it?
    > on the East Siberian Arctic shelf
    For values of “on” equal to “under” but not to “on”
    > (mean depth of 50m)
    Do you think that’s the mean depth of the methane hydrates?

  35. #36 Adam
    2013/08/01

    Chris Colose has written a good article on this at SKS:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/toward-improved-discussions-methane.html

    [Thanks. That looks useful -W]

  36. #37 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/08/05

    The Guardian’s really trying to build this story by Nafeez Ahmed up, but he seems to have misread the cites, so far, those I’ve checked. Smells like CO2Science, sorta.

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/aug/05/7-facts-need-to-know-arctic-methane-time-bomb

    This is that author’s blog: http://www.nafeezahmed.com/

    [The Graun, and NA, are out of their depth. Going through:

    1. ...posited by four Arctic specialists...: he can't tell the difference between really credible people (Gavin, etc) and dodgy Russians. Then he tries to invoke the Met Office "with a 40 Gt carbon release from the Siberian Yedoma region possible over four decades" but actually the paper only says " Dutta et al. [2006] calculate that 40 Gt C could be released this way over 4 decades if 10% of the Siberian yedoma thaws. This is dependent on the high lability of carbon in yedoma and decomposition leading to bacterial respiratory warming accelerating the thawing process. It further assumes a rate of thaw at the high order of magnitude simulated by Lawrence and Slater [2005], which has been questioned as being too high.” So on that latter point, he is misrepresenting the report.

    2. Is unquantified. 3. is similar, meh.

    4. Does http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/webdata/iadv/ccgg/graphs/ccgg.BRW.ch4.1.none.discrete.all.png look worryong to you? Why is there no room for a picture in NA’s article?

    5. Fold into 6: Meh, its at least attempting to address the issue, but its not good enough.

    7. Whistling in the dark. If a huge Eemian release left no traces, who cares about it? -W]

  37. #38 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/08/06

    Well, he’s posted a response in the open thread at RC.
    Still no shallow clathrate observations, still “could be” stuff.

    (I speculate in the same thread yesterday that any such observations would be commercial secrets held by those gearing up to drill.)

    Given that he reads criticism and responds, I withdraw “smells like CO2Science” as a criticism.

  38. #39 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/08/12

    So I tried my usual aiming for a fifth-grade reading level, necessarily wrong but hoping to be useful. Lambaste it please?
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/08/unforced-variations-august-2013/comment-page-5/#comment-403752

    [Looks sane, though I'm no expert in this area. Presumably the same guy as on wiki -W]

  39. #40 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/08/12

    His response is, well, inarguable.

  40. #41 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/08/13

    Yeh, same guy.
    He didn’t mean, whatever, he says: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/08/unforced-variations-august-2013/comment-page-6/#comment-403837

    [Gavin can be harsh -W]

  41. #42 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/08/14

    I wonder if the “shallow hydrates” claim could be eliminated completely — and some other driver could be imagined that would pull water from the seabed down through deep sediments that could be warmed up that way, and warmed much faster than by heat diffusion. Thinking of how an aquarium under-gravel filter moves water, driven by rising bubbles in a single location that carry water up with them, so water elsewhere gets sucked down through the gravel at the bottom of the aquarium. Just trying out the tinfoil hat.

    The other notion from the 2007 Shakhova paper was a mention of “unknown” forms of hydrate in shallow sediments, but I can’t find anything describing such, er, known unknown forms of hydrate.

    Well, I floated those notions over at RC, hoping there’s some science hidden somewhere in the accumulating stuff.

  42. #43 Hank Roberts
    hankroberts.wordpress.com
    2013/08/15