Call it global warming 2.0. By any name, the recent discovery by Russian researchers – that rapidly melting Arctic sea ice is freeing massive amounts of methane, or CH4 – is the sort of news the planet doesn’t need.
Not after a summer that saw climate change rear its ugly head from droughts and fires all across the southern U.S. (notably Mexico and Texas) to flooding in Italy and Thailand. And that was just November!
Why is methane such bad news? It is a greenhouse gas, or GHG, like carbon dioxide, but traps 20 times as much heat in the atmosphere. It is this heat that is gradually causing Earth’s atmospheric temperature to rise, and scientists now believe that the rise – and the potential for catastrophic climate change – can’t be contained anywhere near the magic bullet of 2 degrees. In fact, many climate scientists like NASA’s James Hansen, now believe that even 2 degrees is too much, given the tendency of natural systems to enter “feedback loops” that exacerbate even minor changes.
And, while I agree with the New York Times that we are nearing a tipping point, climactically speaking, I don’t agree with the concept that the problem remains carbon dioxide (CO2) – a problem highlighted by the release of methane.
The problem is methane, and scientists agree that – if we continue burning coal, oil and gas like there’s no tomorrow – there might literally not be a tomorrow. At least not one that we older people will recognize from our childhoods on planet Earth.
In fact, say these scientists, the fear is that – once Arctic thawing passes a certain warming threshold (think of ice cubes in a glass, which seem to melt slowly until they are suddenly hollow, and then altogether absent) – it may already be too late, since the Arctic appears to be no more than 15 years from widespread melting.
The Russian scientists have admitted alarm. Watching plumes of methane rise from the Arctic seabed – a rise facilitated by an absence of ice – these visitors to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia admit they have never seen releases of the same scale and force as are occuring now.
Lead Scientist Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Research Center (University of Alaska at Fairbanks) was reportedly most impressed by the large number of plumes; 100 in a relatively small area, which could easily translate to thousands across the Arctic Ocean.
Estimates suggest that there are hundreds of millions of tons of methane gas lurking beneath the Arctic permafrost, which covers not only the mainland but stretches into the seabed along the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. In fact, these estimates suggest that there is more methane locked up beneath the Arctic than all the carbon present in global coal fields.
Atmospheric methane has already risen, in the past 200 years, from a meager 0.7 parts per million (ppm), to 1.9 ppm in the Arctic, where releases are suspected to be greatest, according to findings released at the December 5-9 meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, which was attended by more than 21,000 scientists from around the world.
This level of atmospheric methane, notes climate scientist Natalia Shakhova, “has never happened in the history of the planet”, a statement confirmed from both ice cores and sediments from the Cretaceous, one of the warmest periods in Earth’s history.
If, as scientists predict – and oil speculators fervently hope – the Arctic were to become ice-free in summer, it would mean not only massive exploitation of one of the last truly accessible oil fields in the world, but a methane release that could lead to “rapid and severe” climate change – a change that Durban failed to slow.