The melting Arctic - John Nissen's emergency call to action

| 15th December 2015
John Nissen speaking at AMEG's COP20 press conference. Photo: still from video on .
John Nissen speaking at AMEG's COP20 press conference. Photo: still from video on .
The Earth faces an imminent crisis caused by runaway Arctic warming. So says climate campaigner John Nissen, who travelled to COP20 in Lima to impress the dangers on delegates - and urge them to emergency action to cool the Arctic before it's too late. Tomás d'Ornellas, editor of, met him there ...
The loss of Arctic ecosystems and the climate implications of ice disappearance are acute risks NOW as both ice and ice-dependent species are set to disappear within a matter of years.

John Nissen, founder of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG), was in Lima warning COP20 delegates of the acceleration in Arctic warming and sea ice decline.

The problem, he told a press conference he convened to "to tell the truth" about the world's fast changing climate, is that the Arctic is in the grip of a vicious cycle - with substantial ice loss in Greenland, warming ocean, disruption of jet stream behaviour, and  rapid emissions of methane from the Arctic seabed, permafrost and tundra.

"The tipping point for the Arctic sea ice has already passed, the meltdown is accelerating and could become unstoppable as early as September 2015", proclaimed Nissen, who has been investigating geo-engineering since 2008.

"The abrupt climate changes the world has been observing recently are due to Arctic warming which is happening now and is about to get far worse. The Arctic has been warming much faster than the rest of the planet. If the Arctic continues to warm things will get worse and worse. That's happening now and we've got to stop it."

Global climate skating on ever-thinner ice

Nissen points to a remarkable decline in sea ice thickness as proof of this. "The Arctic has started a vicious cycle of  warming and melting. It's the start of a whole meltdown of the Arctic ice cap. It has to be stopped", he says.

As a result of the warming going on, there is "rapid emission of methane, substantial loss in green land, with exponential rise in sea levels and disruption of jet stream behavior with abrupt climate change."

"As the sea ice retreats open water is exposed sunshine penetrates through fresh water into the water below", explains Nissen. "The heat is stored through the Arctic winter, then the next year this heat melts the ice a bit faster . This explains why we have a vicious spiral of melting and warming."

Arctic sea ice could be gone as early as September 2015, he predicts, bringing about what he calls a "blue ocean event". And he believes it's imperative to stop that happening - otherwise the world is at risk of spinning itself into a whole new climate dynamic:

"The public is not being told the truth about Arctic meltdown and governments are doing nothing to stop Arctic meltdown. We need action. We need the setting up of an international task force to ensure that the Arctic is cooled as quickly and as safely as possible."

An 'exponential decline' in sea ice - covered up by the IPCC

According to the WMO, Arctic sea-ice extent reached its annual minimum extent on 17 September 2014, at just a patch above 5 million - the sixth lowest on record, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The loss of Arctic ecosystems and the climate implications of ice disappearance are acute risks NOW as both ice and ice-dependent species are set to disappear within a matter of years.

"There is quite a lot of natural variation from year to year", he says. "But the downward trend is clear - an exponential decline. It is what you expect from positive feedback, and exponential decline is a better fit to the data than a linear decline."

And he insists that his conclusions are firmly founded on peer-reviewed science, specifically observations of sea ice thickness confirmed by Cryosat-2, together with satellite imagery. Worse, he alleges, the IPCC has tampered with the raw data in order to downplay the dangers the world faces.

"Nothing personal. The models do not capture what is happening, and so the IPCC has all sorts of misleading projections.  Moreover the information on the sea ice in AR5 has been tampered with. It is a scandal, as I explain in the AMEG Call to Action."

Taking a look at the Call to Action, I read: "The latest WG2 report claims that the Arctic sea ice will be subject to 'very high risks with an additional warming of 2 degrees C'.

"In fact, the September sea ice volume is already down 75% with a trend to zero by September 2016, suggests that the Arctic is heading for complete meltdown, which would be a planetary catastrophe.

"The loss of Arctic ecosystems and the climate implications of ice disappearance are in fact acute risks NOW as both ice and ice-dependent species are set to disappear within a matter of years."

Methane eruptions from the warming seabeds

A major part of the 'vicious cycle' comes as eruptions of methane from the Arctic seabed, destablised by rising temperatures. What is taking place, says Nissen, is the conversion of tens of thousands of years of frozen methane from decomposing organic matter into gaseous form.

And he insists there is nothing anectodal about reports of vast plumes of methane is not anecdotal. "Natalia Shakhova and her associates have been studying the East Siberian Arctic Shelf and have seen these plumes grow from being a few metres across one year to being over a kilometre across a few years later. 

"Their estimates of total quantity suggest an exponential increase, with a doubling period of a few years. This is very alarming, because there is so much methane storied under the seabed."

Methane eating bacteria, known as 'methanotrophs', are digesting much of the methane that's arising from melting permafrost and lakes in the Arctic, he acknowledges, and the same applies to deep water marine deposits.

"The methanotrophs can deal with methane before it reaches the surface in deep water, but not in the shallow water of ESAS." And with methane a powerful greenhouse gas - 86 times stronger than CO2 over 20 years - that threatens to create a "truly planetary climate emergency".

The solution: we must cool the Arctic down - quickly

So can we still tackle this alarming problem? "Yes, we can if we act quickly", says Nissen, by a large and determined programme of Arctic cooling. Moreover this cooling is "feasible and surprisingly cheap".

He proposes two methods for cooling the Arctic: stratospheric aerosols, replicating the cooling effect of big volcanic eruptions; and cloud brightening, as devised by Professor Stephen Salter - the proverbial inventor of the 'Salter's Duck' wave power device - now at the University of Edinburgh.

"The cloud brightening works by spraying a fine mist of seawater into the atmosphere", he explains. "Microscopic salt crystals are wafted into the sky. These crystals then act to brighten the clouds - and make them more reflective. So when you brighten the cloud a surface underneath the cloud is darkened and cooled.

"Cloud brightening can be done from ships, and can be done in different locations, at different times, and at different strengths, to optimise positive effect." Importantly, he adds, "it can also be turned off quickly if any adverse effects are being noticed.

"Professor Salter reckons that with 200 ships he could produce enough cooling power to counter the warming effect." Moreover the ships could be powered entirely by wind, and be controlled remotely via satellite as a fleet of semi-autonomous 'marine drones'. And the whole show could be up and running within 18 months.

Artificial volcanoes

Nissen's other preferred method - the stratospheric sulfur aerosols - could be done even faster. "Actually sulfur dioxide is a fantastic coolant. You put it up in the atmosphere and it has a very dramatic cooling effect."

Indeed SO2, a common pollutant from coal-brning power stations and the heavy 'bunker oil' used to power large ships, is already cooling the planet by reflecting sunshine back into space.

"If it weren't for SO2, I calculated earlier today, we would be having about 2.4 degrees of global warming. The SO2 which we've emitted  offsets the CO2. That's called global dimming. They think that up to three quarters of the carbon dioxide is offset by the sulfur dioxide.

"We know quite a lot about sulfur dioxide, because volcanoes put it up. And the big ones like Pinatubo in 1991 put it up in the stratosphere, and then the sulfur dioxide actually percolates towards the North Pole, and the effect of Pinatubo was half a degree globally, but it was actually one degree of cooling in the Arctic in the summer.

"It had a warming effect in the winter, because there is no sunshine, and it has the blanket effect in the winter, but in the summer it has a cooling effect. Not many people know that."

The SO2 needs to be injected to the stratosphere in mid to high latitudes, he says but not quite in the Arctic. "There's a very fortunate quirk of nature, that nearly all the surface water north of 50 degrees or so is going into the Arctic.

"Ten percent of the world's fresh water flows into the Arctic Ocean, so if you cool that you're cooling the whole area. The idea is to cool water that is flowing into the Arctic - water that has been warming due to global warming. So we will be restoring surface temperatures to what they used to be.

"If we actually bring down the temperature in the Arctic, rather than just halt its warming, then we might actually expect less of the weather extremes and weird weather that we have been having as a result of Arctic warming."

Doable? Affordable? Legal?

"These methods - the cloud brightening and the stratospheric aerosol - are methods we developed to deal with the doubling or, even worse, more than doubling of CO2", Nissen assures me. "And they can scale up. That's the big thing really, that you could scale them up."

And Nissen insists it's affordable too. "The cost is small compared to the effect of the doubling of CO2. The stratospheric method had an estimate from one of the engineers, Ken Caldera, and he estimated five billion dollars a year. That's the kind of running cost to get this kind of cooling effect."

"Professor Stephen Salter from the University of Edinburgh made an estimate that came way under one billion dollars a year. He's talking about a few hundred million dollars a year for these ships."

And is it legal to intervene in the planetary climate in this way? "In theory any country could legitimately carry out actions to cool the Arctic, because it is in the interest of their citizens, as per Article 3 on the UNFCCC treaty.

"In practice there will be international agreement, once it is realized what a tragedy we could all be facing, if no action is taken ... This could be the greatest collaborative venture ever, with everyone working for the same result. It could be a turning point in history - let's make it happen!"



Tomás d'Ornellas is editor of He interviewed John Nissen at COP20 in Lima.

Video: AMEG press conference at COP20.







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