Professor Peter Wadhams has spent the last 40 years working on sea-ice research, polar oceanography and how the changes in Arctic and Antarctic ice are affecting climate. He has particularly warned about the impacts of the retreat and loss of Arctic sea-ice and the threat from an Arctic methane breakout to give a substantial acceleration to global warming.
In this May 2015 interview with Judy Sole, founder of the Green Party of South Africa, he outlines the reduction of Arctic sea ice, the loss of most of the multi-year ice, where he thinks more research should be devoted and what we should do for a best chance of survival for our children.
Wadhams is professor of Ocean Physics, and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge. He is also president of the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans Commission on Sea Ice and Coordinator for the International Programme for Antarctic Buoys.
He is one of the few scientists who has been prepared to publicly speak out on major climate risks associated with loss of sea-ice and the dangers in massive methane release from methane hydrates contained in the shallow continental shelves of the Arctic, and what this means for human survival. His warnings, along with those of James Hansen and Kevin Anderson should not be ignored.
The Arctic has changed completely in 30 years
"The landscape of the Arctic Ocean has changed completely over the last 30 years."
His repeated voyages to the Arctic has given him a deep perspective and knowledge of sea-ice changes that few other scientists can match.
"The volume of ice in the summer is now only a quarter of what it was in the 1980s and if that downward trend continues, there is no reason why it shouldn't do, then the summer volume will go to zero in just a couple of years time, possibly even this year." he said.
Wadhams argues that Arctic and global climate change are linked very strongly because of the rapid warming in the Arctic, much faster than any other part of the planet, with Arctic changes driving changes occurring elsewhere on the planet.
"Those changes are going to be the ones having a bigger effect on mankind. For instance, the disappearance of ice in the Arctic is leading to warmer air masses moving over Greenland in the summer that is causing the Greenland ice sheet to melt faster and that's causing global sea level rise to accelerate.
"Instead of getting less than a metre of sea level rise this century, which is what is predicted by the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the accelerated melt of the Greenland ice sheet could give us a couple of metres or more this century.
"In fact some glaciologists are talking about four or five metres. That might be extreme, but it is very likely to be more sea level rise than so far has been predicted. That means we have been very complacent about sea level rise and we ought to be realizing that many coastal regions, for instance the coast of Bangladesh which is very vulnerable, Eastern China, and a lot of cities like Miami, will have to be abandoned and that will have an enormous impact on the global economy and the lives of people."
He then adds that the reduction in sea-ice will cause the albedo of the Arctic to reduce, absorbing more warmth and further accelerating global warming. "This attempt to pretend that we can keep global warming below 2 degrees, which was already a pretence, is even more ridiculus. It is certaibnly going to get to 4 or 5 degrees by the end of this century, which will then have quite catastrophic impacts on agricultural production, for instance, and being able to support the population we have now, let alone an increase in population."
Risks with increasing Arctic methane release
He is also highly concerned about whether there will be a massive methane outbreak, particularly from the continental shelves of Siberia. Such a precipitious outbreak might produce 0.6 of a degree of extra warming for the planet in a few years, he warned. "It is an extra boost to global warming we could do without, but which we are quite likely to be subjected to." he said.
He argues that the probability of a massive methane release is about 50 percent. "It is a high catastrophe, high probability risk.", he says. And yet our global political processes have done little to more accurately assess or mitigate this risk.
"To slow the release of methane and prevent a methane bomb we need to bring back Arctic sea-ice, and to do that we need to cool the planet."
Australian climate scientist Andrew Glikson has also written at The Conversation on Methane and the risk of runaway global warming. But other scientists have also indicated the strong risks of Arctic Methane Feedback amplifying warming
Wadhams would like to see more research into documenting the rates of methane release, plus investigation into methods of tapping this methane through horizontal drilling and fracking technologies to prevent it being emitted to the atmosphere are important.
"The only way I can think of is the method the oil industry has come up with which is a modification of the fracking method to have offshore wells along the Arctic coastline in shallow water, to drill down and have a network of horizontal wells creating cavities to try and suck in the methane and then pump it out through the well without it breaking through the seabed and rising to the atmosphere."
He says that there has been no research on the feasability of methane mining to prevent natural high volume atmospheric release. "Otherwise we have really had it." he says.
But there has been research for a couple of decades into two different methods for methane gas production. Japan has a Methane Hydrate R&D Program which aims to establish the methane hydrate development technologies and transfer them to private oil entities. Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) has confirmed a successful Gas Production from Methane Hydrate Layers in 2012. In 2014 JOGMEC entered into a 5 year agreement for a Methane Hydrate Onshore Production Test in Alaska.
Wadhams is suggesting mining of methane hydrates to prevent a methane outbreak, but there are several reasons Why we aren’t mining methane hydrates now. Or perhaps ever argues Alice Friedemann at www.energyskeptic.com.
Of course Russian mining giant Gazprom and Shell Oil are already doing oil exploration work in the Arctic, despite scientific research saying we cannot afford to exploit any Arctic oil resources found.
"On earth we should be making one of our highest scientific priorities studying and trying to do something about the possibility of a methane outbreak from the Arctic." said Wadhams. "Unfortunately we are not."
IPCC criticized as complacent over Arctic methane risk
He highlighted that the IPCC has failed to quantify and properly assess the risk of a methane outbreak from melting permafrost and undersea methane hydrates.
"Because that is scarcely mentioned by the IPCC in it's assessment because I think it is being criminally complacent in not wanting to stress or talk about the possibility of some major catastrophes.
"They were once a body that warned the world about climate change, but now they are a body that is trying to say 'Well, it's bad, but not that bad. Just reduce your carbon emssions and everything will be okay.' But it won't. These things have come along, there is enormous evidence that this is happening, and we should be really worried about it."
According to earth and paleo-climate scientist Andrew Glikson, there are at least three factors underestimated in IPCC reports, including: Continental ice sheet collapse dynamics; intensification of fires, cf. Amazon, Russia, Australia, southwest US and California, and thirdly increased release of methane from permafrost, bogs, lakes and shallow seas. "The scientists are aware of these factors, which however are underestimated in the Executive Summaries." he said.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) have done some related work publishing a report on Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost in November 2012 which highlighted that methane and CO2 in thawing Arctic permafrost was a climate tipping point. New research published in 2013 from work in Siberia identified that a threshold temperature of just 1.5 degrees celsius might trigger a permafrost tipping point. But we are already heading past 2 degrees even with the most optimistic emissions reduction plans.
Conspiracy of Complacency
Wadhams highlighted the incredible inertia and complacency we have seen in the political reponse to acting on climate change since the late 1980's when it first became widely acknowledge from the science and in the media and public domain as an important problem.
"There is a conspiracy of complacency throughout the world in which they [politicians] still imagine that if we do a few minor things, a few minor adjustments and reduce our carbon emissions then all will be well. But it won't. Because we have already got too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We are already going to have more than 2 degrees warming even if we don't emit anymore because of the existing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere." said Wadhams.
"We have to not only stop emitting [CO2] or reduce our emissions, but find ways to take it out of the atmosphere. That is a technology that hasn't been developed. It would be a massive research program to develop, but we should be doing it. A bit like the Manhattan Project. We should be doing it from the point of view of our own survival. That is the sort of thing the present generation should be concentrating all our attention on.
"If we can do that, then all our children have got a future."
"When you put together all the changes that are going on you see how they are ramping up to become a major change. As they go on, they tend to accelerate. Everything is increasing exponentially.
"My fear is that no-one will do anything because of cowardice and inertia and all the normal human attributes. They say 'Well let's wait until it hits us and then we'll act', but by the time it really hits us, by the time weather changes have made it impossible to feed everybody in the world, for instance, and we have worldwide famine, those sort of changes at that scale have happenned then it's too late to do anything. We will by then have too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to prevent a runaway global climate catastrophe. My fear is that our own inertia will lead us to not take action until it is actually too late to save ourselves."
What are the important priorities?
Asked what he would do if he had the power of setting global policy, Wadhams put forward that most scientific research is in military and weapons development and that this research should be immediately switched to carbon negative technologies.
"About 90 percent of research funds are currently spent on military research - take all the scientists in the world and all the funds presently spent on military research and switch to studying first of all: how do we take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Because that is the only way to save ourselves is to bring the CO2 level down, and we can only do that through some drastic method of actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere. We can't do it by messing around with reducing our emissions, we can't even do it by stopping our emissions cause things have gone too far.
"So I would order the world's scientists to make that the biggest research program in the world: forget military research, forget NASA and so on. And along with that do things that can protect us in the shorter term against specific nasty things which are coming along but generally disregarded like a methane outbreak or weather changes that will cut back on food production. Find ways to evolve our methods of food production, the species that we grow, so that we can adapt to the impacts that are bound to happen. Make climate change research the main thrust of the entire world effort, and do it urgently."
Prospects if we take drastic action
Judy Sole asked about what our prospects are if drastic action is ramped up quickly. The UN Paris Climate conference is occurring in December with a strong push for an agreement. More than likely it will be less than is required, but it might provide a step for further review and increase in action.
Sole asked "If we took drastic action, say before the end of this year, what do you estimate our chances of reversing this situation?"
Wadhams replied: "If it is really drastic, then I think we can. We won't be able to avoid 2 degrees of warming, but maybe we can stop it if we develop CO2 removal. We can stop it before it gets to say 3 or 4 degrees, so we can gradually bring things under control, or at least reduce the rate of warming to a point where it is possible to adapt to it. At the moment it is accelerating to the point where we can't adapt. If we take really serious action, and it has to be really serious now, we can survive."
And there you have it. If we take strong action starting from this year, then we may survive, according to Peter Wadhams, who has spent his life researching polar sea-ice and oceanography.
Watch the whole interview between Judy Sole and Peter Wadhams on youtube. (33:13)