Arctic Methane Warnings: Too Dire to Think About?

Sometimes, the news is so bad that we just refuse to think about it.

Isn’t that true? Few of us are really willing to seriously contemplate our own death, for example. Fewer yet will meditate on the possibility of standing before divine justice. Anything else will do for distraction: the royal baby, Congress threatening to shut down the government, or even the prospects of a postseason without the Yankees.

So I don’t expect that many readers will have latched on to the recent article in the research journal Nature, sounding the alarm about methane gas bubbling out of the Earth’s melting Arctic permafrost. And that’s a pity, because the consequences could well be at our doorstep within twenty years’ time.

[Author’s note: This article has been qualified and revised by a subsequent post. Please find it here.]

In a nutshell, here’s the story. The Arctic holds unimaginable quantities of methane gas – the result of countless centuries of dead plant residues preserved by the northern cold – all trapped under the permafrost and ice sheets. As the Arctic has warmed and the permafrost has melted in recent decades, more and more methane has escaped its ancient prison, bubbling up through warming lakes and melting ice floes.

Methane fire warms researcher on frozen lake. Courtesy K. Walter Anthony, NASA

Methane fire warms researcher on frozen lake. Courtesy K. Walter Anthony, NASA

Researchers have long known that frozen methane deposits were the potential Doomsday Machine of a warming planet. The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is greater than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal reserves. But there’s one major difference: you have to dig up and burn the coal; the methane just seeps into the atmosphere on its own, once the surface thaws.  The warmer it gets, the faster the methane is released, speeding further warming and yet faster methane releases.

But, until now, no one has attempted to put a price tag on near-term methane releases, which are increasingly evident in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada. The costs – from rising sea levels, to intensified storm activity, to disruptions in rainfall and water supplies, to crop failures and rising food prices, to human migration and resource conflicts – have only been speculated. But this week, researchers writing in Nature have come up with a price tag from the projected “methane pulse” in store with a business-as-usual approach to climate change: 60 trillion dollars. 

“We calculate that the costs of a melting Arctic will be huge,” wrote the report’s authors, “because the region is pivotal to the functioning of Earth systems such as oceans and the climate. The release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia, alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action — a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion). The total cost of Arctic change will be much higher.”

You caught the number, right? Sixty TRILLION dollars. For debt hawks, that’s about four times the U.S. national debt. That doesn’t count methane releases from Canada and Alaska, or all the other climate-change costs unrelated to an impending methane “burp.” (I wouldn’t recommend asking about the total climate-change cost. I’m pretty sure you don’t really want to hear that number.) Oh, and it doesn’t count the effects on the Earth’s oceans from a related increase in acidification from the bubbling methane. But even so, it’s about $9,000 for every man, woman and child living on Earth. Maybe we can just call that our little contribution to assure that the profits of BP and ExxonMobil are not interrupted?

And if you can imagine anything worse, the researchers in Nature report that the bulk of the impact will fall on those who can least afford it.

“Much of the cost will be borne by developing countries, which will face extreme weather, poorer health and lower agricultural production as Arctic warming affects climate,” wrote the researchers. Eighty percent of the cost will fall on the poorer economies of Asia, Africa and South America, according to the study. For those regions, that amounts to three years’ worth of income for every single person, all lost due the effects of a methane pulse from the melting Arctic permafrost in Siberia. Not three years’ worth of savings, or taxes. Three years’ worth of eating, drinking, rent payments, and everything else.

This is terrible! But maybe it’s just alarmism. Maybe this is just modeling; maybe this is just a theory. Are you beginning to feeling better? Well, please, not so fast.

To be sure, scientists create models to forecast future events – like the projected track of hurricanes, or the extent of the next flu season. But models are based on the known impacts of variable inputs. And what is known is considerable. The greenhouse effect from methane is well understood: it’s 25-28 times stronger than CO2. The growth in global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is no longer disputed. The pace of melting of the permafrost is well documented. Methane releases are being measured across the Arctic. And the retreat of glaciers is no theory, nor is the decline of sea ice cover.

So, while the science needs further data collection and refinement, we cannot afford to hope that the essential conclusions are in serious doubt. Specific projections will be raised or lowered. Timelines will move forward or backward. But melting permafrost and related methane releases will dial up the Earth’s thermostat, and people everywhere will pay.

But maybe they’ll pay way out there in the future? Maybe, like Judah’s King Hezekiah, we can take some small comfort that the judgment will fall only on our children, and that “there will be peace and security in my lifetime” (Isaiah 39)?

Setting aside what our kids might think of this, the Nature research should give us pause. The projected methane pulse will bring forward by 15 to 35 years the average date by which the global mean temperature rise exceeds 2°C above pre-industrial levels — to 2035 for the business-as-usual scenario, according to the researchers.

2035. That’s 22 years from now. If I’m spared, I’ll be 80. My youngest granddaughter will be 23. Other grandkids, yet unborn, will be in their teens. And if this research holds, every one of them will be forking over their share of the cost of climate chaos from methane releases.

How old will you be in 2035? How about your kids? What will you tell them about what you did back in 2013: when this study and a thousand others were published; when serious scientific debate about climate had already been put to rest; but when the majority in Congress still denied that human-caused climate change even existed?

Maybe you’ll tell them that you studied scripture and prayed; that you learned the scientific facts that threatened their futures; that you considered the issues of justice inherent in our ethic of unlimited, costless greenhouse-gas pollution. And maybe all that will have driven you to action. There are hundreds of ways to act. I suggest that you start by clicking here, and considering how to become part of God’s answer to the groaning of an injured planet.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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