Blog Archive

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Warming Ocean May Be Triggering Mega Methane Leaks Off Northwest Coast

by KUOW, December 9, 2014

Sonar image of bubbles rising from the seafloor off the Washington coast. The base of the column is one-third of a mile (515 meters) deep and the top of the plume is at 1/10 of a mile (180 meters) deep. | credit: Brendan Philip / UW 
SEATTLE — As the waters of the Pacific warm, methane that was trapped in crystalline form beneath the seabed is being released. And fast.
New modeling suggests that 4 million tons of this potent greenhouse gas have escaped since 1970 from the ocean depths off Washington’s coast.
“We calculate that methane equivalent in volume to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is released every year off the Washington coast,” said Evan Solomon, a University of Washington assistant professor of oceanography and co-author of the new paper, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The modeling does not indicate whether the rate of release has changed as temperatures warm, but it does strengthen the connection between ocean temperature and methane behavior.
Solomon and his colleagues first learned about the methane leaks when fishermen started sending them photographs of bubbles coming up out of the deep.
“They’re really low quality phone shots of their fish finders, but every single location they gave us was 100 percent accurate,” Solomon said.
On a cruise this past summer, Solomon and his colleagues gathered core samples from the ocean floor, about one-third of a mile deep, at the spots where the fishermen reported seeing bubbles.
And sure enough, mixed in among the sediment, were crystalized methane deposits.
“It looks like slushy ice,” Solomon said. But it certainly behaves differently. “If you took it from the sediment and lit a match or put a lighter on it, it will go into flames because of all the gas.”
Methane can exist in a gas, liquid and crystalline form. The crystalline version, or methane hydrate, occurs at cold temperatures and under pressure - conditions that can be found at certain depths of the ocean. But as deep sea waters warm, scientists believe those crystals will dissolve, releasing the methane in bubbles that can change ocean chemistry and contribute to atmospheric change once they escape at the sea’s surface.
“It’s a way to contribute to ocean acidification if you have a lot of this gas coming out and being oxidized in the water column,” Solomon said.
The methane release isn’t just happening in Washington waters, Solomon says. More sampling needs to be done but the same conditions for methane hydrate release exist from Northern California to Alaska. “So it’s not a Washington central thing,” says Solomon, who is looking forward to further study of this issue. “It should be happening off of Oregon, off of British Columbia as well.”
Other research has found similar patterns of methane release in the Atlantic and off the coast of Alaska.
“It’s a hot topic,” Solomon said. 

Pacific Seafloor Methane is Escaping at Alarming Rates

by Brian Stallard, Nature World News, December 9, 2014

You've likely heard about our ocean's methane plumes - dangerous greenhouse gases being slowly released from their icy seafloor prisons. Now a new study of the seafloor off the West Coast of the United States has revealed that these gaseous "leaks" are already escalating to a full blown jail break, with methane escaping at 500 times its average rate of natural release. (Photo : Pixabay)
You've likely heard about our ocean's methane plumes - dangerous greenhouse gases being slowly released from their icy seafloor prisons. Now a new study of the seafloor off the West Coast of the United States has revealed that these gaseous "leaks" are already escalating to a full blown jail break, with methane escaping at 500 times its average rate of natural release.
The study, recently published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), details how waters off the coast of Washington are gradually warming at a depth of 500 meters, about a third of a mile down.
That just so happens to be the same depth at which methane transforms from a solid into a gas, helping to facilitate the release of the most powerful of greenhouse gases - capable of trapping heat in our atmospheres with 20 times the efficiency of carbon dioxide.
It should be noted that methane is naturally released by the ocean all the time, either from natural seafloor vents or in a simple cycle of freezing and melting, as part of the Earth's greater carbon cycle.
However, experts have recently expressed concern that methane (CH4) is seeing more release than ocean carbon sinks can make up for. This may be due to uncharacteristic warming of the sea - an argued consequence of climate change and human influence. These warm currents could be melting through frozen water on the ocean floor, collapsing pockets of gas called "methane hydrates." (Scroll to read on...)
Sonar image of bubbles rising from the seafloor off the Washington coast. The base of the column is 1/3 of a mile (515 meters) deep and the top of the plume is at 1/10 of a mile (180 meters) depth.
(Photo : B. Philip / Univ. of Washington) Sonar image of bubbles rising from the seafloor off the Washington coast. The base of the column is 1/3 of a mile (515 meters) deep and the top of the plume is at 1/10 of a mile (180 meters) depth.
"If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we're f'd," Jason Box, a widely published climatologist, tweeted back in August, when it was first revealed that this could be occurring in the East Siberian Arctic Ocean.
Box, like many experts, is most concerned about the concentration of these releases, as they can speed up climate change well beyond standard projections.
"Methane hydrates are a very large and fragile reservoir of carbon that can be released if temperatures change," Evan Solomon, co-author of the GRL study, explained in a recent statement. "I was skeptical at first, but when we looked at the amounts, it's significant."
How significant? Try some four million metric tons of methane since the 1970s. That's more than 40 times the carbon equivalent of all the methane released in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
"We calculate that methane equivalent in volume to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is released every year off the Washington coast," said Solomon.
The researcher and his colleagues say they are still shocked at these results, because the great majority of these kinds of methane releases were expected to occur in the Arctic. However, other recent studies have found that there are more than 500 active methane vents along the US East Coast as well, spiking carbon release from the Atlantic Ocean by 90 metric tons annually.
Still, that's a drop in the bucket compared to the West Coast's releases. (Scroll to read on....)
The yellow dots show all the ocean temperature measurements off the Washington coast from 1970 to 2013. The green triangles are places where scientists and fishermen have seen columns of bubbles. The stars are where the UW researchers took more measurements to check whether the plumes are due to warming water.
(Photo : U. Miller / Univ. of Washington) The yellow dots show all the ocean temperature measurements off the Washington coast from 1970 to 2013. The green triangles are places where scientists and fishermen have seen columns of bubbles. The stars are where the UW researchers took more measurements to check whether the plumes are due to warming water.
So how was this all determined? Co-author Una Miller first collected thousands of historic temperature measurements in a region off the Washington coast as part of a separate research project. Once she realized what she was seeing, she took her work to Solomon and his colleagues.
"Even though the data was raw and pretty messy, we could see a trend," Miller said. "It just popped out."
"We began the collaboration when we realized this [ocean warming] is also [at] the most sensitive depth for methane hydrate deposits," added co-author Susan Hautala.
She believes ocean currents could also be warming intermediate-depth waters spanning from Northern California to Alaska, where frozen methane deposits are also known to exist.
The researchers are quick to add that while this paints a bleak picture for the future of climate change mitigation, they still don't know where any of this released methane gas will end up. The majority of it could be consumed by bacteria in seafloor sediments or in the water, effectively halting its release into the atmosphere. However, a consequence of this, one we are likely already seeing, would be increased ocean acidification.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

John Abraham: Cutting carbon pollution is the key to curbing global warming

by John Abraham, "Climate Consensus - The 97%," The Guardian, December 5, 2014

CFRMWH Emissions from the Bluescope steel works at Port Kembla, Wollongong, Australia.  If we cut carbon pollution, we can also reduce emissions of other cogenerated contributors to global warming.

 CFRMWH Emissions from the Bluescope steel works at Port Kembla, Wollongong, Australia. If we cut carbon pollution, we can also reduce emissions of other cogenerated contributors to global warming. Photograph: Ashley Cooper pics / Alamy/Alamy
Not all greenhouse gases are created equal. If we want to limit the temperature rise of the Earth, we really need to focus on the long-lasting greenhouse gases. They’re the ones that matter, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Joeri Rogelj and his colleagues.
Most of us already know this, but not all greenhouse gases are created equal. There are some greenhouse gases that, when emitted, only stay in the atmosphere for a short time. There are other greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) that stay aloft for decades to centuries. Finally, there are some that stay airborne for an intermediate duration. It has often been stated that we can “buy time” by focusing on short-lived greenhouse gases. Reducing things like black carbon or methane can give us some extra years to get our act together on carbon dioxide. 
But this suggestion is challenged in the PNAS paper. There are two major issues that suggest we really need to focus on the long-lived gases. First, since short-lived gases only stay airborne for a brief period, any emissions that we make now will not impact the temperatures we can expect say in 2100. Reducing our emissions of short lived gases will affect the rate of temperature increase in the next few years, but will have very little impact on the maximum temperature that will be obtained. In fact, the present study is clear in stating,
Maximum temperature increases (peak warming) is to first order determined by the cumulative emissions of the long-lived greenhouse gases until the peak and by the annual emissions of the short-lived greenhouse gases at the time of the peak
This doesn’t mean that reducing short-lived greenhouse gases isn’t important. In fact, the short-lived gases become more important if we have already reduced carbon dioxide. As stated in the paper,
Methane mitigation measures in the latter half of the century become important if carbon dioxide emissions have already been curbed, and warming thus peaks before 2100. Early action on methane is less important for limiting warming to below 2C. 
Part of the paper’s conclusions are based on simple calculations with a climate model. But another part of the study is based on the interdependence of these greenhouse gases. The gases are interdependent because they may be cogenerated – they may be emitted from the same source. 
Take black carbon, for instance. Black carbon and carbon dioxide are often emitted together. So, reductions in carbon dioxide will also reduce the emitted black carbon. The opposite is not necessarily true, as black carbon can be reduced by cleaning exhaust gases of cars or switching to clean cook stoves, without fundamentally affecting the amount of carbon dioxide emissions. Methane and carbon dioxide are also more weakly linked so that reductions in one do not imply strong reductions in the other.
So, if humans were somehow to get onto a low temperature trajectory, one that limits temperature increases to 2°C or so, it means that we would have to nearly eliminate carbon dioxide emissions. Since one third to half of black carbon is strongly linked as cogenerated with carbon dioxide, it means that much less black carbon would be emitted as well. It is these links, understanding how greenhouse gases work together and are cogenerated, which makes this paper so interesting.
In the abstract, the authors warn,
Our results reinforce that short-lived climate forcer (reduction) measures are to be considered complementary rather than a substitute for early and stringent carbon dioxide mitigation. Near-term short-lived climate forcer (reduction) measures do not allow for more time for carbon dioxide mitigation.
The lead author confirmed to me,
Integrated approaches to find solutions to problems such as climate change, air pollution, and energy policy are critical. The physics of the Earth system indicate that stabilizing climate at any temperature means that, at some point, global CO2 emissions have to become zero. Near-term action to reduce short-lived climate forcers, like black carbon or methane, could help reduce warming in the coming decades and also provides possibly very important other societal benefits, such as cleaner air. However, it will not buy us time for delaying the reductions in carbon dioxide emissions which are required to stabilize the climate at safe levels.
Our study shows the importance of integrated approaches to such complex problems. By taking into account the linkages between sources of short-lived climate forcers and climate forcers, we find that the long-term climate benefits of controlling these air pollutants and short-lived gases in scenarios that stabilize climate change – at 2, 2.5, or 3°C – might have been overestimated in earlier studies. 

While reducing short-lived climate forcers can be a valid objective in its own right, for example, for their clear public health benefits, it is important that the expectations of what this will bring for climate stabilization and for reducing climate change over the coming decades are not overly optimistic. 
It is important to note, however, that there are reasons to reduce short-lived greenhouse gases like black carbon. In particular, there are human health benefits associated with respiratory illnesses that can be reduced.

So now what? An open letter to the environmental community after the midterm elections

by Stephen Mulkey, Unity College Sustainability Monitor, November 5, 2014

To my environmentally minded friends: Clearly we are in deep trouble and truly meaningful legislative progress in the near term is no longer a reasonable expectation. Expecting progress on climate change and sustainability from Congress is off the table, now and possibly for the extended future. Compromise and wonky engagement continue to fail. With Obama we elected Miles Davis, but we got Kenny G.
When I arrived at Unity College in July of 2011, I found an institution in financial trouble and inwardly focused. Cost cutting was the only financial strategy, and this is a formula for extinction. The College had experienced two years of significant declines in enrollment and went on to experience a third. Faculty and staff salaries were in the basement and the physical plant was far from adequate for an institution of higher learning.
We have turned the corner on all of these shortcomings and our enrollment is surging. Why? I believe that it is because we embraced extreme change and chose to speak with integrity, honesty, and courage. These fundamental spiritual principles, most importantly honesty, have carried us to a new future. Put simply, the College had everything to gain and little to lose by facing our situation honestly and acting decisively.
Standing on the ethical high ground has served us well. We have not sugar coated our message and we have not flinched in the face of withering criticism. We are not wonky. We speak with conviction and clarity, and we now stride the national stage. We are the first college in the nation to divest from fossil fuels and we are the first to adopt sustainability science as a framework for all of our academic programming. This is built on transdisciplinary programming, a powerful new pedagogy that is necessary to train the next generation of sustainability leaders.  Our national brand is growing and we are making our message felt by institutions and constituents far beyond Maine.
From this experience, I recommend ten things for the activist community:
(1) Base everything we do on the ethical imperative of sustainability. Occupy the ethical high ground.  Stop compromising and seeking the middle ground on the foundational issues related to sustainability. These are extreme times and we need strong, courageous, decisive action that will be viewed as extreme by those supporting the status quo. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than establishing a sustainable future for our children. The status quo of business as usual is simply unacceptable. We have everything to gain, and little to lose.
(2) Go on the offensive and adopt a compelling and positive vision that extends well beyond five years and the election and funding cycle. Become strategic rather than disorganized and tactical. Stop seeing our mission as holding the line, or preventing more damage by the opposition. Instead, leapfrog the minor environmental arguments and aggressively propose explicit, major, positive change.  Give people a hopeful, positive vision.  Integrate environmental goals with economic populism that serves the working class and poor.  Do not waste your time with organizations that support the status quo. Any institutional strategic plan should lay the groundwork for radical change beyond its five year lifespan, and should not be viewed as an end in itself.  Demand change that will serve our children and our grandchildren. Policy and conservation initiatives must have 2100 as their target.
(3) Merge financially and politically with your allies and don’t sweat the small stuff. Adopt the 80% rule. If you agree with 80% of your allies’ message and mission, then ignore the remainder and join them. Progressives must stop the tyranny of democracy and agree to disagree while taking action. In Maine and in much of the environmental community there are far too many NGOs with overlapping missions and philanthropic needs. This is simply ridiculous. Executive directors need to share authority or step down.
(4) Understand and embrace cultural cognition. Get expert marketing and messaging management from professionals who passionately share our vision of the future. The messenger matters as much as the message.  If you haven’t noticed, the Republican party does this very well.
(5) Focus on adaptation as well as mitigation, and quit having the absurd academic argument about one diluting the other. We need both. Now. Proactive adaptation is far less expensive than reactive adaptation. Mitigation is usually less expensive than any form of adaptation.
(6) Become aggressive and direct about seeking funds from the 1%. Organize and seek them out, and do not compromise your message. Educate them. Become insistent and persistent about seeking resources from those with the means to truly make a difference. Most will reject us. All we need is a few with significant wealth who are willing to contribute to a sustainable future.
(7) Focus on sophisticated resource management rather than pure conservation and preservation. Preserving nature as it is, or was, is increasingly not a realistic goal. We should seek to manage ecosystems for form and function, while restoring nature when possible and appropriate. Learn when it is time to give up your sacred cows in the conservation movement. Shed a tear and move on.
(8) Take direction from those who can lead. Your voice is important and you can make it heard. Then step off your soapbox and become a worker among workers. We need your hands, as well as your passions.  None of us have the truth in a corner, but some are able to lead.  Follow them.
(9) Long term extreme change must include a new economy that is not diversified on fossil fuels and is not driven by a mandate for continuous growth. Many in the opposition will interpret this as an assault on the primacy of capitalism. They are correct. Unregulated and unrestrained capitalism is not consistent with the future of civilization. Have the courage to say so and demand a better way.
(10) Have faith and take care of yourself and those that you love. Whenever I am asked where one should go to escape climate change, I give the same answer that Bill McKibben does: Anyplace there is a strong community. Build strong communities.

Robert Schribbler: Warm Water Rising From the Depths: Much of Antarctica Now Under Threat of Melt

by Robert Schribbler, Robert Schribbler's blog, December 5, 2014

Antarctica. A seemingly impregnable fortress of cold. Ice mountains rising 2,100 meters high. Circumpolar winds raging out from this mass of chill frost walling the warm air out. And a curtain of sea ice insulating the surface air and mainland ice sheets from an increasingly warm world. A world that is now on track to experience one of its hottest years on record.
Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, may well seem impregnable to this warming. But like any other fortress, it has its vulnerable spots. In this case, a weak underbelly. For in study after study, we keep finding evidence that warm waters are rising up from the abyss surrounding the chill and frozen continent. And the impact and risk to Antarctica’s glacial ice mountains is significant and growing.
Rapid Break-up of Ice From Filchner Ronne Ice Shelf in Jan 2010
(Collapse of ice structure at the leading edge of the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf adjacent to a rapidly warming Weddell Sea during January of 2010. A new study has found warm water upwelling from the Circumpolar Deep Water is rapidly approaching this massive ice shelf. Loss of Filchner-Ronne and its inland buttressed glaciers would result in 10 feet of sea level rise. Image source: Commons.)
For a study this week confirmed that Antarctica is now seeing a yearly loss of ice equal to one half the volume of Mt Everest every single year. A rate of loss triple that seen just ten years ago. An acceleration that, should it continue, means a much more immediate threat to coastal regions from sea level rise than current IPCC projections now estimate.
Shoaling of the Circumpolar Deep Water
The source of this warm water comes from a deep-running current that encircles all of Antarctica. Called the Circumpolar Deep Water, this current runs along the outside margin of the continental shelf. Lately, the current has been both warming and rising up the boundaries of the continental zone. And this combined action is rapidly bringing Antarctica’s great ice sheets under increasing threat of more rapid melt.
According to a new study led by Sunke Schmidtko, this deep water current has been warming at a rate of 0.1 degrees Celsius per decade since 1975. Even before this period of more rapid deep water warming, the current was already warmer than the continental shelf waters near Antarctica’s great glaciers. With the added warming, the Circumpolar Deep Water boasts temperatures in the range of 33 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit — enough heat to melt any glacier it contacts quite rapidly.
Out in the deep ocean waters beyond the continental shelf zone surrounding Antarctica, the now warmer waters of this current can do little to effect the great ice sheets. Here Sunke’s study identifies the crux of the problem — the waters of the Circumpolar Deep Water are surging up over the continental shelf margins to contact Antarctica’s sea fronting glaciers and ice shelves with increasing frequency.
In some cases, these warm waters have risen by more than 300 feet up the continental shelf margins and come into direct contact with Antarctic ice — causing it to rapidly melt. This process is most visible in the Amundsen Sea where an entire flank of West Antarctica is now found to be undergoing irreversible collapse. The great Pine Island Glacier, the Thwaites Glacier and many of its tributaries altogether composing enough ice to raise sea levels by 4 feet are now at the start of their last days. All due to an encroachment of warm water rising up from the abyss.
Rivers of Ice Antarctica
(Antarctic rivers of ice. Rising and warming waters from the Circumpolar Deep Water along continental margins have been increasingly coming into contact with ice shelf and glacier fronts that float upon or face the surrounding seas. The result has been much higher volumes of melt water contributions than expected from Antarctica. Image source: University of California.)
But the warm water rise is not just isolated to the Amundsen Sea. For Sunke also found that the warm water margin in the Weddell Sea on the opposite flank of West Antarctica was also rapidly on the rise. From 1980 to 2010, this warm water zone had risen from a depth of about 2100 feet to less than 1100 feet. A rapid advance toward another massive concentration of West Antarctic ice.
The impacts of a continued rise of this kind can best be described as chilling.
Sunke notes in an interview with National Geographic:
If this shoaling rate continues, there is a very high likelihood that the warm water will reach the Filchner Ronne Ice Shelf, with consequences which are huge.
Filchner Ronne, like the great Pine Island Glacier, has been calving larger and larger ice bergs during recent years. Should warm waters also destabilize this vast ice shelf another 1.5 feet of sea level rise would be locked in due to its direct loss. Including the massive inland glaciers that Filchner Ronne buttresses against a seaward surge, much larger than the ones near the Amundsen sea, would add a total of 10 feet worth of additional sea level rise.
Together, these destabilized zones would unleash much of West Antartica and some of Central Antartica, resulting in as much as 14 feet of sea level rise over a 100 to 200 year timeframe. This does not include Greenland, which is also undergoing rapid destabilization, nor does it include East Antarctica — which may also soon come under threat due to the encroachment of warm waters rising from the depths.
Are IPCC Projected Rates of Sea Level Rise Too Conservative?
The destabilization of glaciers along the Amundsen sea, the imminent threat to the Filchner Ronne Ice Shelf, and the less immediate but still troubling threat to East Antarctica’s glaciers, together with a rapidly destabilizing Greenland Ice Sheet, calls into question whether current IPCC predictions for sea level rise before 2100 are still valid.
IPCC projects a rise in seas of 1-3 feet by the end of this Century. But much of that rise is projected to come from thermal expansion of the world’s oceans — not from ice sheet melt in Antarctica and Greenland. Current rates of sea level rise of 3.3 milimeters each year would be enough to hit 1 foot of sea level rise by the end of this Century. However, just adding in the melting of the Filchner Ronne — a single large ice shelf — over the same period would add 4.4 milimeters a year. Add in a two century loss of the Amundsen glaciers — Pine Island and Thwaites — and we easily exceed the three foot mark by 2100.
Notably, this does not include the also increasingly rapid loss of ice coming from Greenland, the potential for mid century additions from East Antarctica, or lesser but still important additions from the world’s other melting glaciers.
Such more rapid losses to ice sheets may well reflect the realities of previous climates. At current CO2e levels of 481 ppm (400 ppm CO2 + methane and other human greenhouse gas additions) global sea levels were as much as 75-120 feet higher than they are today. Predicted greenhouse gas levels of 550 to 600 ppm CO2e by the middle of this century (Breaking 550 ppm CO2 alone by 2050 to 2060) are enough to set in place conditions that would eventually melt all the ice on Earth and raise sea levels by more than 200 feet. For there was no time in the past 55 million years when large ice sheets existed under atmospheric CO2 concentrations exceeding 550 parts per million.
Glaciologist Eric Rignot has been warning for years that the IPCC sea level rise estimates may well be too conservative. And it seems that recent trends may well bear his warnings out. If so, the consequences to millions of people living along the world’s coastlines are stark and significant. For the world, it appears we face the increasing likelihood of a near-term inland mass-migration of people and property. A stunning set of losses and tragedy starting now and ongoing through many decades and centuries to come.

Arctic Methane Emergency presentations in Peru

Both presentations are well worth watching

MUST READ: No climate-change deniers to be found in the reinsurance business

by Eric Rugely, The Globe and Mail, December xx, 2014

The Bavarian city of Passau, about 200 kilometres east of Munich, has been called Germany’s Venice. It floats like a battleship, with church towers as funnels, at the confluence of one mighty river, the Danube, and two lesser ones, the Inn and the Ilz. The city is famous for its baroque and Gothic architecture; its star attraction, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, is home to Europe’s biggest pipe organ.

It is also famous for its floods.

They happen every few decades or so, turning public squares and narrow, cobblestone streets into canals. So the rains that began at the end of May seemed routine, certainly no equal to Passau’s worst flood in memory, dating to 1954, when the Danube swelled to a depth of 12.2 metres.

But the rains proved incessant and Passau’s three rivers kept rising mercilessly. By the morning of Sunday, June 2, it was obvious that the city of 50,000 was in trouble; anyone with a street-level shop, restaurant or office scrambled back to the old town to do what they could to minimize the inevitable damage.

Martin Kronawitter bolted to the Passau offices of Caritas, a Catholic aid agency, at 9 that morning. The agency is housed in a century-old, three-storey building that faces the Danube. When Kronawitter arrived, the water had already risen over the river embankment and had flowed into the parking lot and two-lane road that separates Caritas from the embankment. Wearing boots, Kronawitter sloshed his way to the front door. The 44-year-old caregiver’s mission was to retrieve paperwork and the keys of the patients whom its staff treats in their homes. “On the Saturday, it was raining but everything looked as usual,” he says. “But on Sunday morning, the river came up very, very fast.”

Kronawitter shifted records from the lower to the upper floor. The water kept rising. By the early afternoon, the main floor was submerged and he realized that leaving by the front door would be suicidal. “So I hopped out the back window,” he says. “We’ve never seen water so high.”

Over the next few days, Passau was a crisis zone. Plying what used to be streets in their inflatable boats, soldiers rescued residents from upper floors. Drinking water and electricity were cut off. Debris floated everywhere and light poles were submerged. When the water receded, the streets were buried in mud. Wrecked furniture, yanked out of shops and offices, made the city look like a war zone. The Caritas building was inaccessible for five days.

The Danube peaked at 12.8 metres, making it worse than not just the 1954 inundation, but the worst flood since 1501.

Passau was just one of many cities in Germany and Eastern Europe to get hit with record or near-record flooding that month. Munich Re, the German giant of reinsurance—the business of insuring the policies of insurers—put the damage from the June floods at €12 billion. It was estimated that insurance covered only about €3 billion of that amount, meaning a lot of people were out a lot of money. Munich Re’s primary insurance arm, ERGO, alone paid €83 million in claims to German flood victims—twice as much as for the last big flood, which was in 2002.

Less than three weeks after the European inundation, Calgary and other parts of Alberta got hit with the worst floods in the province’s history. About 100,000 people were displaced and five were killed. Damages were estimated to be as high as $6 billion (Canadian), of which $1.7 billion was insured, making it either Canada’s costliest or second-costliest natural disaster—the final claims tally was still being calculated in the early autumn. The Alberta floods were brutally expensive for homeowners because “overland” flood insurance is not available in Canada, though some relief came from the federal government’s Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements.

In September, three months after the German floods, the Caritas building in Passau, which is owned by the Catholic church, was still a wreck, the ground floor and walls all but destroyed. “They want to tear down the building,” Kronawitter says. “The damage is greater than the value of the building.”
In the aftermath of the German and Canadian floods, the victims, the insurers, the media, the politicians and the scientists were all asking the same questions: What caused them? Was it the relentless buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide? Could “extreme” weather events become the new normal or were they once-a-millennium acts of god?

In Munich Re’s offices, there wasn’t much debate as the claims cheques flew out the door: The higher frequency of extreme weather events is influenced by climate change; and recent climate change is largely due to burning hydrocarbons. “I’m quite convinced that most climate change is caused by human activity,” says Peter Höppe, head of geo-risks research at Munich Re.

His statement is not remarkable, even though the big American insurers don’t like to put the words “climate change” and “anthropogenic” in the same sentence. What is remarkable is that Munich Re first warned about global warming way back in 1973, when it noticed that flood damage was increasing. It was the first big company to do so—two decades before the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit triggered a planetary anxiety attack by publicizing the concepts of “global warming” and “climate change.”

Munich Re, Swiss Re and the other reinsurers, along with the Lloyd’s of London insurance market (unrelated to the bank of the same name), stand out from the rest of the business world by being on the same page as scientists on climate change. What’s more, while most of the planet has its head in the sand about the reality and requirements of global warming, the reinsurance industry has already moved on to mastering the math on other catastrophes.
Like any industry, the reinsurers and insurers stay in business by not losing money year after year. To accomplish that, they have to turn ever-greater portions of “unexpected” losses stemming from the weather into “expected” losses, which requires that they become adept at risk modelling.

Reinsurers and insurers lose money when they misjudge risks that come back to bite them. To reduce their own risk profiles, the insurers have to become expert at matching the premiums to the estimated risk. Charging too little for, say, flood risk in a region that is becoming flood-prone is bad business. Equally, charging too much for premiums on natural catastrophes that are not on the rise, like earthquakes, is bad business because it scares away potential insurance buyers.

Just as recognizing the trend lines on climate change is good business for the reinsurers, the oil companies’ skepticism was designed to prevent or dilute regulations that would hurt their business. The reinsurers had no such axe to grind. The question: Will they be right on emerging risks, such as genetically modified crops and Arctic shipwrecks?

Munich Re—Münchener Rückversicherungs-Gesellschaft AG, to use its proper name—is one of the world’s biggest reinsurers. In 2012, it wrote €52 billion in insurance and reinsurance and earned €3.2 billion. It has 45,000 employees and a market value of €27 billion as of early November, putting it neck and neck with rival Swiss Re. There are no Canadian players of this scale in the business. The American biggie, General Re, is privately held. Like Munich Re, it’s an investment held by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Höppe, 59, is “Prof. Dr. Dr.” on his business card—he has doctorates in both meteorology and human biology. His endless CV, which includes advisory positions at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and the OECD’s advisory board on the “financial management of large-scale catastrophes,” underlines his stature as one of the world’s top climate-change specialists. His main areas of research have been the effects of atmospheric processes (heat, cold, ultraviolet radiation, air pressure) and pollutants (ozone, soot) on we poor humans.
Höppe is compact, intense and enthusiastic. A bit rumpled, like a scientist from Central Casting, he loves to back up his statements with official sources, jumping up every few minutes during an interview to retrieve documents. The 1973 document he prints out for me is a source of pride within the company, which bills itself as “the first alerter to global warming.” The warning notes “the rising temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere [as a result of which glaciers and the polar caps recede, surfaces of lakes are reduced and ocean temperatures rise].” It points to the “rise of the CO2 content of the air, causing a change in the absorption of solar energy.”

The warning ends with a pledge: “We wish to enlarge on this complex of problems in greater detail, especially as—as far as we know—its conceivable impact on the long-range risk trend has hardly been examined to date.”

The pledge was fulfilled. Munich Re has been examining climate change since then, compiling the world’s most extensive database on natural disasters, covering some 33,000 events and drawing on research by its own staff and more than 200 other sources. “There hasn’t been any industry or company that has addressed climate change this early,” Höppe says.

How did Munich Re and the other reinsurers get it right so early? The answer, in a word, is fear—fear of losses that could destroy their business. No industry has more incentive to know the effects of climate change than the reinsurance and insurance industries.

Worldwide, the insurers pay weather-related claims of about $50 billion (U.S.) a year, a figure that has more than doubled every decade since the 1980s, adjusted for inflation. In 2012, the 10 costliest natural catastrophes, from Hurricane Sandy to floods in Pakistan, caused $131 billion (U.S.) in damages, of which about $56 billion (U.S.) was insured, Munich Re says.

Canada fits the global trend. The Co-operators Group, an insurance co-operative with more than $34 billion of assets under administration, says the costs of natural disasters have doubled every five to seven years for the last 50 years. The Co-operators General Insurance Co. unit lost $5.9 million in the second quarter of this year thanks to being under water $77 million on policies affected by the Alberta floods. The figure would have been higher if it had not collected reinsurance from the big reinsurers.

If the reinsurers had not adjusted their premiums to reflect the greater frequency, intensity and cleanup costs of weather-related disasters, they probably would have declared bankruptcy years ago. But they have become so good at forecasting that, as a group, they manage to pump out profits even in years when claims go sky-high. In 2011, the costliest year ever for loss claims thanks to floods in Thailand and the earthquake that caused the Fukushima disaster, the 40 largest reinsurers made pretax profits of $5.4 billion (U.S.), according to Standard & Poor’s. (Low interest rates also put pressure on reinsurers’ profits, because their investment portfolios are weighted toward bonds.)

“They have been leaders on climate change for a long time,” says Gordon McBean, co-director of the Centre for Environment and Sustainability at Western University and president-elect of the International Council for Science. “We should give them credit because they raised the awareness of climate change for governments.”
As for said governments, it’s not like they haven’t had sufficient warning about climate change.

According to McBean, the first inkling of what would later become known as the “greenhouse effect” came in 1824, when a French mathematician, Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, wrote a paper positing that the atmosphere blocks outgoing radiation from Earth and radiates a portion of it back. In the late 19th century, a Swedish Nobel laureate, Svante Arrhenius, developed the first theoretical model on how atmospheric CO2 affects our planet’s temperatures.

In the late 1950s, the International Council of Scientific Unions (which now is known as the International Council for Science) initiated the first global measurements of atmospheric CO2 and stratospheric ozone. At the same time, a seminal paper from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography came out with a stark warning: “Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment,” said the report, which added that “we are returning to the atmosphere and oceans the concentrated organic carbon stored in sedimentary rock over hundreds of millions of years.”

The 1960s saw the first computer modelling of the consequences of treating the atmosphere as a CO2 dump. The pioneer was the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1967, its scientists Suki Manabe and Richard Wetherald reached a stunning conclusion that still shapes climate change policy and debate: “A doubling of the CO2 content in the atmosphere has the effect of raising the temperature of the atmosphere [whose relative humidity is fixed] by about two degrees C.”

It took about a decade for the scientific agenda to seep into the policy agenda. The first World Climate Conference was held in 1979, in Geneva, leading to the birth of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. The 1980s and 1990s saw a seemingly endless string of conferences whose reports built the case for anthropogenic climate change, while also inspiring an onslaught of skepticism from the oil and coal industries and climate-change deniers, whose ferocious foot-dragging continues largely unabated today.

One of the key gatherings was held in 1988 in Canada, which hosted the Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security. Opened by then-prime ministers Brian Mulroney of Canada and Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, the conference summary contained an attention-grabber: “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.”

The IPCC reports have followed a similar, if somewhat less histrionic, trajectory. The second report, in 1995, meekly noted, “The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.” The latest one, from September, concluded that it was “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

In other words, all those years of conferences still haven’t taken the ball down the field from where Munich Re put it decades ago.

“It was just a gut feeling that things had changed,” Höppe says, noting that insurance losses at the time were rising. “The weather extremes showed some strange patterns and we wanted to learn more about this. Was this a natural fluctuation or a long-term trend that we had to consider in our risk models?”

In 1974, Munich Re recruited its first meteorologist. Over the years, it has hired a small army of natural scientists specializing in geology, geophysics, meteorology, hydrology and geography. The team now numbers 35 scientists. By the early 1990s, with more than a decade of data in its computers, Munich Re spotted unmistakable patterns and trends “that are only explainable by changes in the atmosphere due to the emissions of greenhouse gases,” Höppe says.

The reinsurers’ anxiety levels went through the roof when, in early 2002, the Western Antarctic’s Larsen B ice shelf, measuring more than 3,000 square kilometres, collapsed, disintegrating an estimated 500 billion tonnes of ice. While that particular area had always been one of global warming’s “hot spots”—it had been warming by about 0.5 degrees Celsius every decade since the 1940s—the speed and size of the breakup alarmed scientists. “It was an extraordinary event,” remembers Lord Julian Hunt, 72, who was director-general of Britain’s Meteorological Office from 1992 to 1997 and now teaches climate modelling at University College London. “It broke away within one month. It had been stable for 12,000 years.”

While the Larsen B disintegration did not raise sea levels directly, since the shelf was already floating, Hunt says that if the massive Western Antarctic ice sheet slid into the sea, it would raise sea levels by two to three metres, inundating vast numbers of coastal cities. “The reinsurance industry is very concerned about rising sea levels,” Hunt says. “The Western Antarctic ice sheet is what they really worry about, and it’s moving.”

During the database’s early years, Munich Re’s scientists did not know whether the changing climate was due to natural oscillations or human activity, though they certainly had their suspicions. That changed in the mid-1990s, when Höppe’s predecessor, Gerhard Berz, who was the first head of geo-risk research at Munich Re, began talking openly about anthropogenic climate change. Höppe too is utterly convinced that humans are to blame, as are the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists. Even some oil companies have come out of the closet to take the anthropogenic view.

The trend lines in Munich Re’s charts are compelling. They show that the insured and uninsured losses from natural catastrophes have been on the upswing since work on the company’s database began in earnest in 1980. Since 1995, there have been eight years when the total losses have exceeded $150 billion (U.S.) (in 2012 dollars) and four years when they exceeded $200 billion (U.S.). In record-setting 2011, the year of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the total shot above $400 billion (U.S.). Between 1980 and 1994, the annual losses were consistently below $150 billion (U.S.).

That said, anthropogenic climate change doesn’t explain everything. Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, argues that there is no meaningful trend in insured losses from extreme weather events. “The accumulation of wealth in disaster-prone areas is and will always remain by far the most important driver of future economic disaster damage,” he wrote in his blog, quoting a scientific paper. [Pielke, Jr., is an infamous obfuscater.]

Indeed, building in low-lying coastal and riverine areas is asking for trouble. More construction, more economic losses, end of story. (Lloyd’s notes that more than three billion people live within 200 kilometres of a coastline, a number that is likely to double by 2025.) “In the last 20 years, losses have gone up, but GDP and population have gone up too,” says Paul Kovacs, executive director for Western University’s Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.

Munich Re does not dispute that losses increase as coastal areas get built up. But it does note that in the long run, the frequency of weather-related catastrophes rises in step with global warming, and is thus linked with CO2 concentrations—they hit 400 parts per million at a Hawaiian measuring station last spring, probably the highest level since the Pliocene Epoch, between 2.6 million and 5.3 million years ago.

The number of meteorological events (storms, hurricanes), hydrological events (floods) and climatological events (extreme temperatures, drought, forest fires) has infrequently dipped under 600 per year since 1996, and has climbed above 800 five times since 2006. During most of the 1980s and 1990s, the frequency ranged from 200 to 600 events per year. 
Meanwhile, the number of non-weather disasters—earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions—has not spiked since 1980; in fact, the trend has inclined slightly downward since 2000. “This is why we now believe it to be anthropogenic global warming,” Höppe says. “But actually, to be honest, it doesn’t make any difference to our assumptions, or pricing, whether it’s anthropogenic or natural.”

Munich Re has no evidence to suggest the upward trend in weather-related disasters will reverse any time soon. For those in risky places, premiums will rise.

Insurance companies don’t worry about climate change alone. They also worry about getting the premiums right for future, or “emerging,” risks. The asbestos debacle still haunts them. The industry totally misjudged the long-term risks of asbestosis, the lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos fibres, which continues to kill thousands each year. What they did not know was that asbestosis often appears decades after exposure to asbestos. Thousands of Lloyd’s “names”—the individual investors who had underwritten asbestos-related policies—went bankrupt in the 1990s, almost destroying the world’s premier insurance market.

The new beasts that the industry must reckon with would include the risks—from building collapses to epidemics—associated with the new breed of densely packed megacities, some of which are on track to have 20 million people (Karachi, for example) or almost 30 million (Delhi, Shanghai) by 2025. They would also include the risks of genetically modified foods, cyberattacks and shipping disasters, from the not-so-frozen Arctic to the dangerously narrow Bosporus. Some of these risks, and others, such as an earthquake and tsunami of the ferocity that hit Japan in 2011, had never been adequately modelled. That meant that estimating their risks, and therefore potential losses, were shots in the dark.

At the Lloyd’s insurance market, which celebrates its 325th anniversary this year, the worrier-in-chief is Trevor Maynard, head of exposure management and reinsurance. He is 42, with snowy-white hair, a mathematician and actuary by training and obsessive about judging risks even in his quotidian life. In a recent Financial Times article, he said he goes to the airport a couple of hours before most people would “as a rational response to risk,” such as a taxi breakdown.

It is hard to say when Lloyd’s figured out that climate change posed serious risks, because Lloyd’s is more concept than company. It’s a market composed, at last count, of 87 syndicates whose thousands of investors underwrite policies for everything from kidnappings to offshore oil rigs. But there is no doubt the market’s supervisors believe that the climate is changing. Lloyd’s thinks the IPCC reports should be taken seriously and that surging CO2 concentrations could create epic disasters.

Maynard is the author of the British reinsurer’s own seminal climate risk report, published in 2006, “Climate Change: Adapt or Bust.” It too opened with a grabber: “Fact: If the sea level were to rise just four metres due to climate change, almost every coastal city in the world would be inundated.”

He wrote the succinct, punchy report not just to highlight property risk from floods, but to encourage insurers to think about climate change’s ripple effects, such as desperate people killing one another, even if the report does not quantify those risks. The world got a taste of post-catastrophe social mayhem in September, when the Mexican resort of Acapulco and other nearby areas suffered some of their worst storms and flooding in decades, stranding tens of thousands of people and claiming 130 lives. After the storms, looting broke out. The military was called out to stop the ransacking.

“We thought about terrorism, impact on economic assets, how equity prices might fall and corporate bond spreads might widen, and food security,” Maynard says. “Imagine that climate-change increases lead to reductions in food yields. That would stress the food chain, and stressed communities will do whatever they need to to feed themselves. Well before those extremes, like war, are reached, you get pockets of terrorism coming up.”

Identifying the next asbestos—whose claims are projected to ultimately cost the insurance industry more than $200 billion (U.S.)—is what Lloyd’s in general and Maynard in particular look out for. One of the big emerging risks is wreck removal. It’s an “emerging” risk because ships are reaching absurd dimensions to meet the demands of the market and investor returns.

Lloyd’s says six wrecks in the last decade have cost more than $100 million (U.S.) each to remove. Salvaging the wreck of the Costa Concordia, which smashed into a reef off the Tuscan island of Giglio in January, 2012, killing 32, is expected to cost $800 million (U.S.)—a record. The Costa Concordia, while enormous, is half the size of the 225,000-tonne Oasis of the Seas and her near-identical twin, Allure of the Seas, the largest cruise ships in service. Imagine the costs were they to go down—or if the same fate met ships plying the newly navigable Northwest Passage.

Maynard identifies “synthetic biology” as another looming risk, one with a potential connection to climate change. Consider, he says, a world with nine billion people (the projected population by 2050, or earlier) and falling crop yields, due to higher temperatures, more drought and irrigation-water shortages. A new green revolution would be needed. Enter genetically modified crops designed to be salt-, heat- or drought-resistant. 

“The effects of the large-scale use of technologies that you might rush out to meet a global food shortage on ecosystems are unknown,” he says. As is a lot about the natural world, much as we humans think we know better. The question is, when will the rest of us recognize, as the reinsurers have, what’s known?