West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Peter Sinclair has a new video of the possible collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, or – more correctly I think – the early stages of a marine ice sheet instability. I include the video below and it’s well worth watching. If you want to know more, I also recommend Bethan Davies’s post.

I’m very obviously not an expert on ice sheet instabilities, but this whole topic has lead to the standard claims of alarmism : “It’s going to take centuries, why is everyone claiming it’s collapsing? It’s alarmist!” The fundamental issue here – as I understand it – is that we may have crossed the point where it is possible to stop this from happening. The process may initiate a positive feedback loop that is irreversible. It’s quite possible – given the timescale – that we can easily cope with the subsequent rise in sea level. That’s not really the point, though : we’ve potentially influenced our climate in a way that is irreversible. I also don’t think that we should gloss over the significance of the possibility that we’ve crossed a tipping point.

Anyway, I suggest watching the video and deciding for yourselves.

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70 Responses to West Antarctic Ice Sheet

  1. Rachel M says:

    The possibility of 1m of sea level rise every 20 years is rather alarming!

  2. I had to look that up 🙂 . You’re referring to this being called “Meltwater Pulse 2B”. Meltwater Pulse 1A was 14000 years ago and was something like 20m in less than 500 years. I agree. Something like that would qualify as alarming.

  3. Rachel M says:

    That’s right. James Hansen says this at about 4:15 in the video.

  4. I clearly wasn’t concentrating properly at that point 🙂

  5. Rachel M says:

    Ah, young people today just can’t concentrate for more than four minutes 😉

  6. Steve Bloom says:

    How do we expect the public and policymakers to respond to the reflexive use of conditional terms for passed tipping points? At what point in the process would we abandon their use?

    Also, note that Bethan’s post oddly (and very confusingly) ignored the Rignot et al. paper co-released with Joughin et al. in favor of a related but slightly earlier paper by Rignot’s group.

  7. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the literature to have noticed. I also see – in the comments – that Mauri Pelto was also critical of Bethan’s reference list. I, however, think one should be careful of being too critical of blog posts 🙂

  8. John Mashey says:

    I recommend Brian Fagan’s The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels. Brian is a Brit anthropologist/archaeologist long based in US, who has written many books on intersections of climate and human life. I’ve heard him talk at AGU, and then just recently locally on this one, recommended. I like his work because he puts the texture of real life atop statistics and graphs. For the Brits here: the description of life in “Doggerland” was especially interesting, and unsurprisingly, he has much to say of the Dutch, as a good example of people who think about water long-term, which is the crucial need.

    Long-term investments in Miami might not be a food idea, especially given the limestone.

  9. John Mashey says:

    Oops, “might not be a GOOD idea 🙂

  10. Steve Bloom says:

    It’s important since as you will have noticed in the video the strongest (very strong indeed) statements were being made by Rignot about the more recent paper. Bethan’s neglect of it could not have been accidental.

    That said, public reticence is quite understandable for someone at Bethan’s career stage.

    Mauri was just being critical about some missing historical references.

    It’s quite possible – given the timescale – that we can easily cope with the subsequent rise in sea level.

    Ah, is there some lower limit in which we can place some confidence? If so I missed it. Rignot appears to have as well.

    Does appropriate scientific reticence involve assigning low likelihoods of occurrence to Known unknowns and unknown unknowns? That strikes me as an excellent way to wake up one fine morning to find the fangs of Wally’s ornery beast sunk firmly into our collective behind.

  11. Steve Bloom says:

    Think floating restaurants, John! 🙂

  12. Steve,
    I should maybe have left out the words quite and easily.

  13. Steve Bloom says:

    I was more concerned about the assumption of a long timescale. If long enough, then quite and easily may be fair terms to use. If not…

    Would “it’s possible – even given a very short timescale – that we can cope with the subsequent rise in sea level” be a statement you could support?

  14. Steve,
    I see. Yes, fair point. If we’re talking of the kind of timescale that Rachel highlighted, then I wouldn’t support that statement. I can’t see how 1m every few decades would be something we could easily adapt to.

  15. Steve Bloom says:

    Anyway, I repeated my query to Bethan as to why she didn’t even mention the newer paper. We’ll see if she answers this time.

  16. Hans Erren says:

    [This comment has been removed by the moderator – OT]

  17. Skylanetc says:

    Anyone taking comfort from the “200 years” period until we get 4 m of SLR from Thwaites and Pine Island glacier fields should remember that there’s lot more ice than that in poised to slide into the world ocean.

    The collapse of the part of the WAIS covered by the recent Rignot, et al. Paper must be regarded in the context of the entire cryosphere. It is only the first of possibly several major glacial systems in Antarctica and Greenland that could become catastrophically unstable this century. Sell the beach property, folks, before the deniers catch on to what’s happening.

  18. Steve Bloom says:

    Just to note, I may be reacting a little strongly here since I’m still in recovery from this.

  19. Steve Bloom says:

    [Mod: this refers to an earlier comment that has been removed]

    To be clear, Skylantec, that 200 years is based on the present rate. As the process is accelerating, it will be less time than that. The problem is that at present there seems to be no means of establishing a limit. At the same time, if Joughin et al. are correct, at some point in the process there will be a shift to very rapid collapse.

  20. AnOilMan says:

    [This comment has been removed by the moderator because it refers to an earlier comment that has been removed]

  21. [This comment has been removed by the moderator because it refers to an earlier comment that has been removed]

  22. AnOilMan says:

    [No cheering! But thanks. :-)]

  23. Mike Fayette says:

    So exactly what is the message here from this video and the dangers that it refers to?

    There are a lot of weasel words in the video and the responses….. Is manmade CO2 the cause of this potential problem? Is it linked to higher atmospheric temperatures in the Antarctic that we have caused by burning fossil fuels? Or higher water temperatures that is melting the over-hanging ice shelf from underneath?

    Anybody got any data here?

    I concede that the Antarctic shelves may be crumbing into the seas in the next 200 years or so. I also concede that this might be not-so-nice for low-lying areas costal areas around the globe.

    So – to solve this potential problem,, what is the advice? Do we build dikes or do we slash the use of carbon energy? Which tactic is more likely to “solve” this future crisis?

  24. Steve Bloom says:

    Change is good.

  25. Steve Bloom says:

    For those who haven’t seen it, here’s Rignot’s Observer commentary from a couple weeks ago. He concludes:

    Unabated climate warming of several degrees over the next century is likely to speed up the collapse of West Antarctica, but it could also trigger irreversible retreat of marine-based sectors of East Antarctica. Whether we should do something about it is simply a matter of common sense. And the time to act is now; Antarctica is not waiting for us.

    Absolutely the perfect note to strike IMO.

  26. Hans Erren says:

    [This comment has been removed by the moderator]

  27. Mike F.,

    There are a lot of weasel words in the video and the responses

    What do you mean by “weasel words”? Expressing uncertainty? Also, how does saying this actually help the dialogue?

    Is manmade CO2 the cause of this potential problem? Is it linked to higher atmospheric temperatures in the Antarctic that we have caused by burning fossil fuels? Or higher water temperatures that is melting the over-hanging ice shelf from underneath?

    Let’s think about this a little. Anthropogenic influences are causing the energy in the climate system to increase. We’re starting to see ice mass loss in the Antarctic and an increase in the rate of grounding line recession which could lead to the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Has it been definitively attributed to anthropogenic influences? I don’t know for certain. Is it likely that some natural influence is coincidentally acting to do these things at the same time as anthropogenic influences are increasing the energy in the climate system (energy which can melt ice). I would say that that is unlikely. So, yes, I would argue that this is an anthropogenic effect.

    So – to solve this potential problem,, what is the advice? Do we build dikes or do we slash the use of carbon energy? Which tactic is more likely to “solve” this future crisis?

    Personally, I don’t think the fundamental issue here is how we solve this crisis. The fundamental point is that we may have passed a tipping point. It’s not the only one. Do we really want to carry on regardless and just hope that we won’t cross another tipping point?

  28. Andrew Dodds says:

    There does seem to have been a mismatch for years between what we see in models of ice sheets and the paleo evidence for sea level rises; the standard example being the Pliocene, which with very similar continents to today manages something like 20m higher sea level at perhaps 2K warmer than preindustrial.

    Which strongly suggests that both the WAIS and GIS are/were only marginally stable at preindustrial temperatures and it’s near-certain that they’ll go in a 500ppm CO2 world. The big question has always been one of ‘how fast’? Which we are now looking to determine by experiment, it appears..

  29. izen says:

    @-ATTP
    “Personally, I don’t think the fundamental issue here is how we solve this crisis. The fundamental point is that we may have passed a tipping point. ”

    Agree strongly.
    The significant implication of the finding that the WAIS is irreversibly set on course for a fast collapse with consequent sea level rise is that this is no longer sovlable or can be mitigated. We have no choice left but to adapt.

    It should give a sense of perspective to the recent obsessive examination of ECS and TCR. Disputes over its probability distribution or possible lower bound look less relevant when it becomes apparent that whatever the values, present changes have guaranteed that most of the coastal cities will need to be extensively rebuilt over the next few centuries to survive.

    That is not an impossible rate of infrastructure renewal, we lose a lot of history, but we will all have to go Dutch at best. At worst, the massive loss of agricultural land and the failure of the infrastructure in less well managed and poorer societies will feed migration and conflict. Keeping out the sea may be the lessor task compared to keeping out the flood of refugees from failed adaptation. Perhaps this is too ‘alarmist’. But however uncertain the effects of sea level rise from the collapse of the WAIS, there is now the ineluctable certainty they will occur whatever the precise value of climate sensitivity or changes in emissions policy that may be established.

    @- “Do we really want to carry on regardless and just hope that we won’t cross another tipping point?”

    I think the strong implication of this finding is worse than that. It indicates that it is very likely that if present changes have already triggered the certain collapse of the WAIS, then there are other crossed tipping points. That there are other major alterations in our climate, oceans and ecology that are now unavoidable. We just haven’t developed sufficient research knowledge to detect or accurately predict them yet.

  30. izen says:

    An afterthought; the energetic controversy over the precise value of ECS has also been accompanied by recent dispute over the economic impacts of rising temperature.

    Some authorities have claimed that clever models computationally conjoined indicate some positive effect for a further small rise in temperatures, or at least, not much negative effect until they exceed ~2degC.
    One wonders if these predictions fully included the impact of a guaranteed couple of metres sea level rise with the PRESENT temperature rise~0.8degC even if the time scale is uncertain.

  31. Andrew,
    Thanks, an interesting comment. From what you know, how much can one infer from basic physics? I just looked up the total ice mass on the planet. It seems to be a few x 1019 kg. If we sustain a 1 Wm-2 energy imbalance, then even a small fraction of this excess energy could melt a reasonable fraction of this ice within centuries. Are there any such arguments one can make using this kind of simple estimate, or is the system just too complex for such basic calculations.

    Izen,
    Yes, I agree. The current economic arguments appear to be illustrations of tipping points themselves “Let’s wait, Let’s wait, Let’s wait, Let’s wait; Oh, too late!”.

  32. izen says:

    @- “If we sustain a 1 Wm-2 energy imbalance, then even a small fraction of this excess energy could melt a reasonable fraction of this ice within centuries. Are there any such arguments one can make using this kind of simple estimate, or is the system just too complex for such basic calculations.”

    It is too complex for such basic calculations [grin].

    A bit of kitchen science may indicate why.
    prevailing opinion has been that major melt of the land ice is limited by the rate at which you can transfer thermal energy from the air to the ice surface. Given the poor thermal interface, the low thermal capacity of the atmosphere and the low thermal conductivity of ice this places a strong constraint on the maximum rate that the ice can melt.

    However as anyone faced with an old refrigerator that has not been defrosted will know, just opening the door and letting warm air get at the mass of ice that has encased the icebox is a very slow way of melting the accumulated ice.

    If you can fill the drip tray or a bowl with warm water so it bathes the underside of the ice that will melt away the ice MUCH faster.

    http://trs-new.jpl.nasa.gov/dspace/bitstream/2014/8560/1/02-1084.pdf?origin=publication_detail

    The warm water beside the ice also warms the cold dry air so that warm moist air rises and then condenses out on the ice surface transferring the thermal energy of a vapour-liquid phase change directly on the ice surface. a much more efficient transfer of energy than dry air.
    Although if it is too cold the water vapour freezes out before reaching the ice and adds to it. The balance between the two effects may be another tipping point….

    http://nsidc.org/greenland-today/

    If the icebox of your ‘fridge is particularly choked with old ice and you are impatient, then you may resort to chipping at the ice, trying to break it up into smaller chunks so that the warm water energy transfer has a larger surface area to act on. A process duplicated in nature by consequences of the above effects.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1029/2012GL052413/

    As any ‘fridge defrosting expert will tell you, all these methods will speed up the process, but how much faster than just leaving the door open they might be (which may be insufficient to significantly reduce the ice alone), is far too contingent to project. I think all science can do in this field is point out that the gremlins and uncertainty monster all in the nasty fat tails.

  33. izen says:

    Oops, must proof read as well as spellcheck…
    I think all science can do in this field is point out that the gremlins and uncertainty monster all HAVE nasty fat tails.

  34. John Mashey says:

    For what it’s worth, a few years ago, I asked the recently-retired US Chief of Naval Operations what his list of biggest climate-related worries was. Anyone (who hasn’t seen me describe this before) want to guess what they were? Hint: #1, 3, 4 are related to sea level rise, with 3 &4 directly and #1 both directly and for other climate-related side-effects.
    #2 was the opening of the Arctic Ocean and not being ready for the geopolitical issues there.

  35. afeman says:

    I think I remember #1, which was unexpected, not to say a surprise. Was #3 or #4 Norfolk?

  36. John Mashey says:

    #4 was Norfolk + San Diego, ie Navy’s 2 biggest US bases.
    #3 was the Pacific Island bases

    I was slightly surprised at that ordering, but he said the task force report argued that both were important, but there was more time for dealing with #4. (Ie they are often rewnewing infrastructure, and those are in handier places. Some if the islands will be gone.)

    But #1 shows the sort if thing pragmatic senior military people worry about.

  37. AnOilMan says:

    John, I’m more concerned about my parent’s beach front condos in Hawaii.

    Can anyone imagine the solutions to this? Can you see the tourism ads for Hawaii? “Come see the great wall of Hawaii!” (The surfers will be extremely put out.)

    Since we are on the subject of Antarctica I thought this might be a good time to share some data on sea ice growth… (At current ish temperatures, sea ice grows when waves are small, and shrinks when waves are large.)
    http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2014/05/shrinking-waves-may-save-antarctic-sea-ice

  38. John Mashey says:

    Well, beaches everywhere are going away…
    #1 was something that surprised me, but made sense:
    He worried about fact that Karachi, PK was at sea level…

  39. BBD says:

    All those nuclear missiles getting wet…

  40. John Mashey says:

    I don’t think the missiles are much danger of getting wet, given their locations. but indeed:
    a) 180M people in area about TX + 10%, Karachi #1 @ 9M.
    b) Floods
    c)Droughts and consider the source and route of the Indus River..
    d) Local politics “has been less than stable.
    e) Not exactly on good terms with nearby India
    f) and yes, nuclear missiles

  41. BBD says:

    John

    Couldn’t agree more. Some years ago I read this. It’s all in there.

  42. Steve Bloom says:

    Here’s a science update on another tipping point on the way.

  43. BBD says:

    More joy. Thanks Steve.

  44. John Mashey says:

    Here is the Admiral (Ret) Gary Roughead @ Hoover , and in conversation, 2012 2nd down on left. For some demographics that otherwise reject this stuff, retired CNO’s are harder to ignore. Anyway, that’s how really senior military folks think, and he has some good stories.

    The 2014 event is herte, coming up soon.

  45. Steve Bloom says:

    Yes, enough of this tedious crossed climate tipping point stuff. Instead let’s get back to the academic squabbling that really matters! 😦

    “I, however, think one should be careful of being too critical of blog posts :-)” Unless the subject matter involves said squabbles, of course.

    Seriously, what is it about that STS conference or Tol’s capering that’s of more interest than understanding the ice sheet literature well enough to say something substantive about this latest research?

  46. Steve Bloom says:

    How Grammatical Choice Shapes Media Representations of Climate (Un)certainty

    Although mass media continue to play a key role in translating scientific uncertainty for public discourse, communicators of climate science are becoming increasingly aware of their own role in shaping scientific messages in the news. As an example of how future media research can provide relevant feedback to climate communicators, the present study examines the ways in which grammatical and word choices represent and construct uncertainty in news reporting about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Qualifying and hedging language and other “epistemic markers” are analyzed in four newspapers during 2001 and 2007: the New York Times and Wall Street Journal from the USA and El País and El Mundo from Spain. Though the US newspapers contained a higher density of epistemic markers and used more ambiguous grammatical constructs of uncertainty than the Spanish newspapers, all four media sources chose similar words when questioning the certainty around climate change. Moreover, the density of epistemic markers in each newspaper either remained the same or increased with time, despite ever-growing scientific agreement that human activities modify global climate. While the US newspapers increasingly adopted IPCC language to describe climate uncertainties, they also exhibited an emerging tendency to construct uncertainty by highlighting differences between IPCC reports or between scientific predictions and observations. The analysis thus helps identify articulations of uncertainty that will shape future media portrayals of climate science across varying cultural and national contexts.

    Full text is free.

    Interesting. So is reticence helping?

    Nothing yet from Bethan as to what she thinks of the Rignot et al. paper.

  47. Seriously, what is it about that STS conference or Tol’s capering that’s of more interest than understanding the ice sheet literature well enough to say something substantive about this latest research?

    Bashing people leads almost always to more comments.

  48. BBD says:

    Steve Bloom

    Have you seen this (Ferrari et al. 2014)? Very interesting (press release), especially in the light of Weber et al (2014) which I *think* you recently referenced on another thread (WTF is happening to my memory? It used to work. My mind is going, Dave, I can feel it…)

  49. Patrick says:

    Why is the fact that we may have irreversibly changed the climate necessarily a bad thing? And what do you really mean by irreversible? Because it isn’t really irreversible is it? I mean, most likely there will be another ice age at some point if the last 1 million years is any guide.

    If we clear a field of trees to build a hospital this is in some sense irreversible. So should we stop building hospitals? The question is: is this change going to be good or bad? Can we adapt? A 1-2m sea level rise within 1000 years is obviously adaptable and we would be crazy to worry about it when the world is full of so many pressing problems right now.

  50. Patrick,

    Why is the fact that we may have irreversibly changed the climate necessarily a bad thing?

    Hmmm, that’s partly a judgement thing but consider that if we have started the collapse of the WAIS then we’re likely to have many metres of sea level rise, although this may take centuries. There are numerous very populous cities that will be severely affected by this. It will take a long time and it’s certainly something to which we can adapt, but bear in mind that some of these cities will have been around for a long time. Not clear how this could be perceived as a good thing.

    And what do you really mean by irreversible? Because it isn’t really irreversible is it? I mean, most likely there will be another ice age at some point if the last 1 million years is any guide.

    Well, because what’s important for us is the impact in the next few centuries. So, yes, it’s quite likely that the planet will undergo another ice age in the distant future, but we’re considering here timescales here that are relevant for us, not the planet specifically. If all that matters to you is whether or not the planet will be habitable, then climate change probably doesn’t much of a risk. On the other hand, if how we can exist on this planet is important to you, then there is evidence that it is.

    A 1-2m sea level rise within 1000 years is obviously adaptable and we would be crazy to worry about it when the world is full of so many pressing problems right now.

    Ahh, the standard “there are other more pressing problems”. I think you will find many who would – rightly in my view – argue both that action to minimise the risk to climate change can help to solve some of these other problems and that not acting could exacerbate these others problems. They’re not completely independent issues.

  51. Patrick says:

    “I think you will find many who would – rightly in my view – argue both that action to minimise the risk to climate change can help to solve some of these other problems and that not acting could exacerbate these others problems” – that depends on the action. If you are referring to forcing people to pay more for energy – or not even have access to cheap fossil fuels – then this will make many current problems much worse. Paying a little more for electricity might not seem like much but it can be the difference between life and death for someone in a developing country. This is where I am horrified – that we could seriously tell poor people in China and India that they should not have access to all the comforts of modernity because of fear of potential problems 100s of years in the future. We are trading real problems today that we know about for hypothetical ones. Imagine being alive in 1914 and using the best modern science to determine what problems people in 2000 will be facing. Impossible. Yet this is what the IPCC is trying to do. The limitations of our knowledge of the future must be recognized.

  52. Patrick,
    I think you should probably look at the cost of fossil fuels compared to other sources and how it has changed with time. The possibility that fossil fuels will still be cheap in twenty years time, seems remote. The chance that all alternatives will still be expensive is also remote (solar panels, for example, have reduced in price dramatically). Also, many of the areas that you mention will likely be severely affected by climate change. So, this isn’t just a comparison between the cost of different energy sources, but also a comparison between the cost of energy and the cost of various policy options. If we do nothing, maybe we can keep some energy sources cheap, but the subsequent costs due to climate change might have made it better to have switched to a different source. Why do think so many support a carbon tax? It’s intended to incorporate the cost of continuing to use fossil fuels.

    Something that always confuses me about the type of argument you make, is that fossil fuels are unlikely to remain cheap and were clearly cheaper in the past than they will be in the future. If so, why haven’t all these regions that you care about so much been able to take advantage of fossil fuels in the past (when it was cheaper) but will suddenly be able to do so in the future? You’re not – I imagine – arguing that we should actively help, you’re arguing that keeping fossil fuels cheap for the rest of us will somehow help those who currently don’t have access – in other words “if I have to pay more for energy, it will harm the poor in another part of the world”.

  53. AnOilMan says:

    Patrick it is nonsensical to do something without any regard to the potential damage it may cause. At this point we are geo engineering the planet, I’d argue that we need to exactly what we are doing before we do it.

    Irreparable harm is the permanent loss of life, food production, and jobs. In my opinion it seems mighty selfish to intentionally inflict that kind of harm on others.

    In any case there are many examples you can look up. North America East coast lost it’s fishing industries due to over fishing. But after they stopped fishing, the fish never came back. That’s called an ecosystem collapse. That’s a lot of welfare checks don’t you think? How about bankruptcy? Wanna loose everything you own Patrick? I don’t, and I wouldn’t wish it on you.

  54. Rachel M says:

    This is where I am horrified – that we could seriously tell poor people in China and India that they should not have access to all the comforts of modernity because of fear of potential problems 100s of years in the future.

    I’ll tell you what I think would be more fair, Patrick. We calculate our carbon budget – the amount of carbon we can still emit to stay within 2 degrees of warming – and divvy this up on a per capita basis taking into account our past emissions. So countries who have emitted a larger portion of the total budget already will get much less of the remaining budget. This is called the equal per capita cumulative emissions approach and people who are concerned about China and India missing out on modern comforts, as you seem to be, can argue for this approach which seeks equality over time.

  55. AnOilMan says:

    China’s not poor either… Hans Rosling would call you out on that one.

  56. JasonB says:

    If someone was genuinely concerned that paying a little bit more for fossil fuels could be “the difference between life and death for someone in a developing country”, one would expect them to advocate caps or carbon taxes in rich countries to reduce their fossil fuel consumption so that more fossil fuels were available at lower prices for those in developing countries.

    Just sayin’…

  57. Andrew Dodds says:

    Patrick –

    First, 2m in 1000 years is a better-than-best-possible case scenario. Probability wise it’s on a par with claiming that the WAIS will totally collapse in the next couple of decades. Assuming a doubling of CO2, the range is perhaps 6-25 meters.

    But that’s a side issue. The big one is energy costs; here there is a simple argument. For all fossil fuels, the cost of electricity generated or transport undertaken is proportional to the cost of the fuel itself, and always will be; it is the nature of the technology. But for ‘technology driven’ energy sources – Wind, PV, ‘Other solar’, and (to annoy people) nuclear reactors utilizing fuel breeding – the cost is a function of technology. And as long as we invest in improving the technology, it becomes cheaper over time. So; although it’s still cheapest to burn coal and dump the pollution into the atmosphere, it won’t be forever, or even for long. Add a ‘no dumping’ constraint and coal is uncompetitive even now.

    Indeed.. to take this further, supposing we overcome our current problems, let’s look 50 of 100 years in the future. Do you think we’ll still be burning coal and oil? Do you think that digging stuff up and burning it represents the ultimate technological peak for a civilization, and when the expedition from Gliese 581 finally arrives, it’ll be on a coal fired starship?

  58. verytallguy says:

    ATTP,

    The possibility that fossil fuels will still be cheap in twenty years time, seems remote. The chance that all alternatives will still be expensive is also remote (solar panels, for example, have reduced in price dramatically).

    If this were true, why would we need to do anything to drive mitigation? It would happen by itself.

  59. JasonB says:

    VTG:

    If this were true, why would we need to do anything to drive mitigation? It would happen by itself.

    Only if the decline in consumption due to increasing costs just happened to match the required decline purely by luck. The evidence suggests this will not be not the case over the next few decades, and certainly isn’t the case now.

    From memory, we need to leave something like 80% of the currently known fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to stay below 2C.

    Instead of choosing not to exploit those reserves, the higher prices are actually driving efforts to exploit unconventional sources, not only greatly expanding reserves but also having an even worse impact due to very bad EROEI (~5-6 for Canadian tar sands).

  60. verytallguy says:

    JasonB

    I agree with you – I just think it’s inconsistent with ATTPs views on costs of alternatives vs fossil fuels.

    There are also fundamental limitations of renewables, notably the lack of energy density for transport fuels and the storage issue. Also, current infrastructure is designed around the availablity of fossil fuels, particularly for grids and transport, which raises barriers to alternative fuels.

    All of which suggests, to me at least, that fossil fuels, unless externalities are incorporated into their cost to consumers, will remain cheap for the forseeable.

  61. vtg,
    Yes, my comment need some qualifications. Firstly I think it is possible that we could end up changing our energy sources just because alternatives become more cost effective. One issue with this, though, would be that there’s no obvious reason why the timescale over which we do that would be the optimal one for avoiding the negative impacts of climate change. The other issue, as I see it, is that even a more pro-active approach would probably lead to a reduction in the cost of alternatives sooner than if we simply did nothing and hoped that it would happen. What I should have said is something more like “given the right investment we could see a reduction in the cost of renewables so that they become more competitive within the next few decades. The introduction of a carbon tax might help to incentivise such a change by properly reflecting the externalities associated with the use of fossil fuels.”

    So, I agree that without including externalities may well mean that fossil fuels remain the cheapest energy source for the foreseeable future. Having said that, I was mainly responding to Patrick’s use of the phrase “cheap fossil fuels”. Irrespective of the development of renewables, it seems unlikely that fossil fuels will remain cheap relative to today.

  62. Pingback: Another Week in the Ecological Crisis, June 8, 2014 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  63. AnOilMan says:

    New feedback found for Greenland;
    http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ngeo2180.html

    The snow is getting darker. Currently this increases melting by 10%, assuming it remains linear.

  64. Pingback: Another Week in the Ecological Crisis, June 8, 2014 [A Few Things Ill Considered] | Gaia Gazette

  65. JasonB says:

    VTG:

    I agree with you – I just think it’s inconsistent with ATTPs views on costs of alternatives vs fossil fuels.

    As ATTP has already explained, there’s no reason to expect the decline due to increasing scarcity (and therefore rising costs) to happen to match the optimal decline in use when taking into account environmental considerations.

    There are also fundamental limitations of renewables, notably the lack of energy density for transport fuels and the storage issue. Also, current infrastructure is designed around the availablity of fossil fuels, particularly for grids and transport, which raises barriers to alternative fuels.

    All of which suggests, to me at least, that fossil fuels, unless externalities are incorporated into their cost to consumers, will remain cheap for the forseeable.

    I think you have the logic backwards.

    The cost of fossil fuels is a function of supply vs demand. Supply is finite, and extraction is increasingly costly and difficult. Discoveries have been declining for decades, and existing reserves are becoming depleted. In other words, we can’t expect a big increase in supply.

    Therefore the main driver of price is demand. If demand outstrips supply, price goes up; if demand drops, price goes down.

    If you were correct about those fundamental limitations of renewables (I don’t happen to agree but this comment is too long already), then it will be harder to move away from fossil fuels to renewables; that, in turn, will mean that demand for fossil fuels will remain higher for longer than it would have if switching to renewables was easy. As a consequence, fossil fuels will be more expensive than they would be if there were no barriers to adopting renewables.

    In other words, the best thing for cheap fossil fuels going forward is large-scale adoption of renewables, which gets back to the point I made earlier about the supposed concern for those facing a life-and-death situation in developing countries.

    Speaking of developing countries and renewables, China added 16 GW of wind capacity last year, accounting for 45% of total new wind power installations worldwide, with a current nameplate capacity of 92 GW. They’ve been building it so quickly that the grid is struggling to keep up.

    China also added 12 GW of solar. The incentives for adding solar were a feed-in-tariff of $0.14-$0.16 per kWh generated for utility-scale plants and $0.10-$0.12 per kWh for distributed projects. Evidently that made them cost-effective. Where I live, distribution costs account for about half of the $0.25+ retail price of electricity; rooftop solar gets to compete against retail prices (even without a feed-in-tariff every kWh of solar electricity you use is a kWh you don’t have to pay for; however here the FIT is $0.07/kWh) so at current prices it’s already competitive, and one of the sexiest transport options on the market today would have to be a Tesla Model S P85+ charged by rooftop PV.

  66. verytallguy says:

    Hi JasonB,

    Interesting perspective, thank you and there is much I agree on.

    I’ll offer you an alternative– some of which is UK specific.

    Firstly a general point that commodity prices are extremely difficult to predict, and markets can behave in seemingly paradoxical ways (bubbles and Jevons for example). I wouldn’t place any bets on future prices.

    Secondly that our use of fossil fuels is locked in, particularly in transport, but also with sunk capital in electricity generation and distribution. The price we are prepared to pay for liquid fuels is very, very much higher than current costs. Just for example, UK gasoline prices are taxed such that they are now more than double that in the US yet still only form a small fraction of the total cost of driving. http://www.bloomberg.com/visual-data/gas-prices/ Likewise fuels costs are still only a small percentage of even airlines costs – I’ve seen 21% quoted. This gives a very wide scope for continued demand even with very substantial cost increases – eg to drive my family anywhere is always much cheaper than public transport. The price of petrol could treble and this would still be true.

    Thirdly that there is already more than enough coal to fry us discovered, and that converting that to liquid for transport will be hugely cheaper than any potential alternative, even at very high EROI. Electric cars face fundamental physical limits on range and performance based on battery energy intensity. There is no alternative to liquid jet fuel.

    Fourthly that governments are responding to higher prices not by investing in renewables but by actively encouraging fossil fuel exploration and discovery – subsidies for fracking and North Sea extraction here in the UK. Also we are very innovative at discovering and extracting fossil fuels (fracking, in situ coal gasification etc)

    Fifthly that mass adoption of renewables would require industrialisation of the landscape – onshore wind is far and away the most cost effective in the UK but faces widespread opposition on aesthetic and nuisance grounds.

    Sixthly that nuclear energy faces widespread understandable resistance following Chernobyl and now Fukushima, plus high costs. See Germany.

    “Without Hot Air” is a very useful, albeit UK specific fact based guide to a sustainable future.

    All of which adds up to a potential for a spiral into chasing more and more inefficient (and therefore high carbon) fossil fuels to sustain a current economic model until an uncontrollable crash becomes inevitable.

    Where I think we would agree on is that active governmental action to ensure we follow a path to a low carbon future is essential

    For me, what that action needs to be will change over time as we understand how all this plays out. It could be that relatively little needs to be done if renewable rapidly become cheaper and fossil fuels become more expensive – your scenario. Equally, it could be that considerable action on taxation, subsidy and regulation will be necessary – which I think is the case.

  67. JasonB says:

    VTG:

    I don’t have time to go into much detail at the moment, but there’s been talk here of the electricity grids going into a “death spiral” driven by the price competitiveness of rooftop PV.

    The problem is that distribution costs are actually fixed but generally charged to consumers based on consumption. In Australia the decline in electricity consumption over the past 15 years or so has meant that the fixed costs are being amortised over fewer and fewer kWh and the retail price of electricity has shot through the roof, further encouraging rooftop PV and further reducing the kWh that the fixed costs can be amortised over. At a certain point it no longer matters how cheap the electricity generation is (although for fossil fuels that has been rising as well), it will be swamped by distribution costs.

    One solution that has been mooted is to charge everyone a fixed connection fee regardless of how much electricity they actually use (effectively forcing PV owners to pay for the grid storage they would otherwise be getting for free) but then, at a certain point, disconnecting from the grid and buying your own UPS charged by PV becomes price-competitive.

    (In the 70s I lived in a remote location that used banks of car batteries for power and we periodically charged them using a diesel generator; now it would actually be cheaper to charge them with PV.)

    BTW, I like “Without Hot Air” as well, but it is important to realise just how UK-specific it is. China, the US, and India, for example, have much more land and sun, and geographic distribution is very helpful for them as well (particularly the US and China, where most people live on the east coast with deserts in the west, allowing solar to keep producing electricity for hours after the sun sets in the main population centres). It may simply not be possible for a small, densely populated country at a relatively high latitude like the UK to be completely self-sufficient energy-wise, but that doesn’t mean that other countries cannot (and it’s not self-sufficient now).

    I agree that renewables should be supported, for many reasons. As I already said, it would be a massive co-incidence if the natural decline in fossil fuel consumption just happened to match the optimal path. I think a price on carbon (either a carbon tax or ETS) is a good option, and if it happens to internalise the true costs of burning fossil fuels then it will remove the market distortions caused by those costs not being reflected in the price. But I don’t think the barriers to switching are as big as some would like us to believe (and, in fact, the utilities here are upset that the rate of switching has been higher than they expected and are asking for government intervention!), and I don’t think it will be all that bad (e.g. the Tesla).

    Just on that point:

    Electric cars face fundamental physical limits on range and performance based on battery energy intensity.

    The aforementioned Tesla goes from 0-100 km/h in 4.2 seconds and has a range of over 400 km on the 85 kWh battery; the vast majority of people don’t drive that far during a single day and it can be recharged in your own garage overnight. (Also, thanks to regenerative braking, it’s actually pretty efficient in city traffic, unlike conventional vehicles. In fact, my ICE cars only get 400 km range on city driving now!) For people taking a long trip, Tesla is peppering the countryside with supercharging stations that can give a 50% recharge in about 20 minutes and a full recharge in about 90. For free. Absolutely no fuel cost to take a trip.

    Even if AGW wasn’t a problem I’d still want one.

    Sure, they’re expensive (unless compared to the competitors in their target market), but the business strategy of Tesla has been to start with the niche, high-end models first (the roadster), then gradually work their way down so that by the time they’ve got to the mass-produced consumer models, the R&D has been amortised, the charging network installed, and their Gigafactories for battery production are up and running.

    There is no alternative to liquid jet fuel.

    True, but there’s nothing that says it has to be fossil fuel. The aviation industry is moving towards biofuel, which is probably the only application of biofuel that I would say actually makes sense. (The EROEI is very bad so it’s better not to use it unless you absolutely have to.) There have already been jets flown with biofuel.

  68. Thomas Fox says:

    Biofuel is not the answer it takes up food producing land and worst still if C02 is reduced to stop warming then the crops will produce less . It could become an expensive conterproductive idea ?

  69. JasonB says:

    Biofuel’s needn’t take up food producing land (e.g. algae) and don’t need to be made with food crops. (Used cooking oil seems popular, although I don’t know if that can scale up.)

    I have quite a bit of experience with electric UAVs powered by LiPo batteries and while they are fine for our needs, the energy density of batteries is going to prevent them from being an option for commercial flights for some time to come. Liquid fuels, whether created from organic sources or synthetically, will probably remain the main option for a while yet. (That’s not to say electric motors aren’t highly desirable. No need to adjust fuel mixture with altitude, no problem with running out of oxygen at altitude, very reliable and simple to maintain, fantastic power:weight ratios, etc.)

    There is an electric Cessna 172 developed by a company in Colorado called “Beyond Aviation” but I suspect the endurance is not enough to be useful.

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