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By Charles Rhodes, P. Eng., Ph.D.

About 56 million years ago, at the commencement of the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), there was large scale combustion of nearly all the biomass and exposed fossil fuels on Earth's surface which triggered both atmospheric thermal runaway and warm state trapping. The corresponding increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration and consequent melting of ice raised Earth's average surface temperature by about 17 degrees C for about 200,000 years. The result was a global extinction of all large animals and complete melting of the polar ice caps.

For the last two centuries mankind has used combustion of fossil fuels as a prime energy source. This combustion converts fossil carbon into atmospheric CO2. The consequent increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration from the pre-industrial revolution norm of 280 ppmv to the present 400 ppmv has been about 43%. However, most of the fossil CO2 produced by man kind has been absorbed by the oceans via conversion of insoluble marine metal carbonate rock (limestone) into water soluble metal and bicarbonate ions.

The atmospheric methane (CH4) concentration today is 2.5 times higher than before the industrial revolution. Methane spontaneously oxidizes to form more atmospheric CO2. If the present trends continue the atmospheric CO2 concentration will approximately double during this century.

Historically the solar power absorbed by the Earth and the infrared power emitted by the Earth were in approximate balance. The injection of transient CO2 into the atmosphere by combustion of fossil fuels reduces infrared radiation emission by the Earth and hence causes net heat accumulation which in turn causes gradual ocean warming.

As the average ocean temperature rises CO2 comes out of ocean solution which increases the atmospheric CO2 concentration. As a consequence Earth's surface temperature rises.

As Earth's surface and cloud temperatures rise past 273.15 K there is a step decrease in the planetary albedo which causes about a 14 degrees K (14 degrees C) step increase in the steady state atmospheric emission temperature as viewed from outer space. The corresponding 17 degree C step increase in Earth surface temperature at sea level heats the oceans causing additional release of dissolved CO2.

The flux of CO2 into the atmosphere from the oceans due to ocean warming adds to the flux of CO2 into the atmosphere due to combustion of fossil fuels, resulting in a rapid increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration and hence further ocean warming. This positive feedback driven ocean warming and consequent ocean CO2 emission process continues until new steady state conditions are reached.

The 17 degree C increase in average Earth surface temperature is beyond the adaption capability of most plants and large animal species and hence will cause a major life form extinction. It is of paramount importance that man kind do all necessary to prevent this extinction. Preventing this extinction requires an immediate major reduction in world fossil fuel consumption, particularly by the industrialized countries.

Major energy infrastructure is often financed over a 60 year period and is relied upon for funding pensions and life insurance. Quite apart from the disruption to the transportation, heating, chemical and metal industries consider what will happen to life insurance and old age retirement funding as fossil fuel production is forced to cease. The financial reality is that smooth closure of fossil fuel production is at least a 60 year process. However, an equally blunt reality is that if fossil fuel consumption continues within 15 years Earth will be on the threshold of thermal runaway. At that point concerns about pensions and life insurance will be academic.

In late 2016 we are at a sustained nonequilibrium atmospheric CO2 concentration of over 400 ppmv. The exponential decay time constant of the non-equilibrium portion of the CO2 concentration is over 40 years. Based on experimental data we can reasonably project thermal runaway commencing at an atmospheric CO2 concentration of about 433 ppmv.

Since 1959 the rate of rise of the atmospheric CO2 concentration has almost tripled. In 2013 the atmospheric CO2 concentration rose at about 2.66 ppmv per year. Over the next 15 years the atmospheric CO2 concentration could easily rise at an average of 2 ppmv / year. Hence the atmospheric CO2 concentration will likely reach 433 ppmv, the calculated onset of thermal runaway.

Practical experience has demonstrated that it is unrealistic to assume no increase in fossil fuel consumption by persons in the third world. Third world people have the same aspirations as ourselves and are demanding their share of energy related benefits now. Hence we must be realistic regarding future fossil fuel consumption projections. In order to have any hope of preventing thermal runaway developed nations must immediately cease consumption of fossil fuels. For Ontario to meet this requirement at the projected rate of population increase the installed nuclear power capacity must be increased about 6 fold over a 50 year period.

No other course of action is sustainable. Wind energy is environmentally more desirable, but due to the geography of Ontario it is simply not affordable. The advocates of wind power failed to properly consider the costs of storing wind energy and transmitting wind energy from remote northern generation sites to southern load centers.

At the present time there is nothing in Canadian federal or provincial government policies that addresses the thermal runaway problem. If this matter is not promptly addressed the atmospheric CO2 concentration will rise out of control and there will be a global extinction due to thermal runaway.

Injection of sufficient non-equilibrium CO2 into the Earth's atmosphere via combustion of fossil fuels will trigger a transition from the atmospheric "cool" state to the "warm" state.

As the ocean temperature rises a portion of the dissolved bicarbonate (HCO3)- ions in the oceans will combine with dissolved metal ions and liberate CO2 gas. This CO2 gas emission by the ocean will accelerate the transition from the "cool" state to the "warm" state.

The consequent reduction in infrared energy emission by the Earth will cause heat retention that will completely melt all land borne glaciers, including the Greenland and Antarctic glaciers. As a result of both glacier melting and thermal expansion of the oceans the average sea level will rise about 80 m.

The present densely populated coastal and river delta areas of the Earth will be inundated by the oceans. During the summer months those land areas not inundated will have insufficient fresh water for intense agriculture. The combination of drought, starvation and high temperatures will drive all large animal species, including humans, into extinction.

While the Earth is in the "warm" state ice cannot form, so ice ages cannot occur.

If humans are so foolish as to continue to burn fossil fuels while the Earth is in its "warm" state the quantity of carbon in the ocean-atmosphere pool will gradually increase until after several centuries the Earth is trapped in the warm state. Meanwhile the polar ice caps will melt raising the sea level about 80 m.

The time frame for recovery from warm state trapping via natural processes that remove the excess carbon from the ocean-atmosphere pool and store it in fossil fuels and metal carbonate rocks, is several hundred thousand years.

An early sign of atmospheric warming is melting of mountain snow/ice packs that in the past were relied upon by farmers to provide fresh water for aquifer recharging and for agricultural irrigation during the summer months.

An early sign of ocean warming is melting of the polar floating ice pack.

Addition of CO2 to the atmosphere reduces radiative energy transfer through the Earth's atmosphere from low altitudes to higher altitudes. Instead energy transfer from low altitudes to high altitudes increasingly occurs via atmospheric convection, which produces more violent hurricanes, tornados and similar storms. In recent years violent storm damage has systematically increased.

Most humans have little awareness of average sea level. Most ocean front properties routinely experience a daily sea level change of about 5 m due to normal tides caused by the Earth-Moon gravitational interaction. Ocean front land owners have no easy way of precisely monitoring the average ocean level. Their prime concern is the position of the extreme high tide mark.

Random co-incidence of a normal high tide, a sun-moon-Earth alignment, a low atmospheric pressure due to a local storm center and an on-shore wind causes an extreme high tide. Such an extreme high tide can cause immense property damage in low elevation areas. An example was the extreme high tide that occurred during the landfall of "Super Storm Sandy" in 2012, which caused flood related damage in the US states of New York and New Jersey in excess of $70 billion. Another example was hurricane Katrina in 2005 during which an extreme high tide caused property damage in New Orleans and along the adjacent Gulf Coast in excess of $100 billion.

In recent years sudden extreme rainfall has caused billions of dollars of damage in the Canadian cities of Calgary and Toronto.

Extraordinarily dry conditions caused billions of dollars in fire damage at Fort McMurray in Alberta.

As the atmospheric CO2 concentration increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will increase gradually rendering existing coastal areas uninhabitable. During the summer months continental interior areas that previously relied on snowpack fed rivers will have insufficient fresh water for intense agriculture and for fire control. The resulting combination of loss of arable land, drought, starvation, high temperatures and fires will drive many life forms into extinction.

The time remaining until thermal runaway is triggered is barely sufficient for building one generation of nuclear reactors. There is almost no public comprehension of this reality.

Due to mankind's present dependence on fossil fuels, absent immediate world wide implementation of an effective fossil carbon tax, it will likely be impossible to prevent thermal runaway from occurring. The problem is aggravated by fossil fuel producers and their lackeys who are encouraging continued large scale use of fossil fuels under the guise of balancing solar and wind generation. The present low price of natural gas in North America in combination no effective fossil carbon tax is financially preventing conversion from fossil fuels to nuclear power and renewable energy.

This web page last updated October 31, 2016.

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