How Civilization Will Collapse

Okay, the title is a bit provocative. It calls to mind a movie from a few years back: “The Day After Tomorrow.” You remember? It was an environmental thriller depicting a cataclysm where climate warming stopped the global “ocean conveyor belt,” a climate-stabilizing current that connects the world’s oceans. Almost overnight, all of Europe and the U.S. simultaneously flood and freeze, arguably eclipsing Noah’s flood in its devastating impact. It’s quite a story. Civilization — we are left to surmise — teeters on the precipice.

The scientific premise of the film was arguably sound. The main problem was, you had to compress events potentially occurring over centuries into a few short hours in order to make it much fun to watch. Since then, I’ve mostly steered clear of warnings about end-of-the-world scenarios, like the runaway collapse of ice sheets or jamming the gears of the ocean conveyor.

Oh yes: and one more – the Global Burp. That’s another civilization-terminator, in which enormous methane deposits are released from Arctic seas and tundra by warming conditions, bubbling or belching to the surface and choking the atmosphere with methane – a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2.

Here’s why the “burp” scenario gives researchers apocalyptic nightmares. Today, there are about 5 gigatons (billion tons) of methane in Earth’s atmosphere. But under the Arctic water and tundra, there are thousands of gigatons of methane hydrates, trapped by little more than the icy water and frozen soils. That’s maybe 100 times more than everything in the air today. And the ice which holds it below the surface is melting fast, as the Arctic heats 3-4 times faster than the rest of the warming world. Release just 1% of those methane hydrates, and you’ve doubled the atmospheric methane.

But as I said, we’ve stayed away from doomsday scenarios, like the Global Burp.

But last week, the news featured this incredible image from the tundra of an uninhabited Siberian peninsula:

Image source: Moscow Times

Image source: Moscow Times

Initially, some thought that it might be the work of a meteorite. Others suspected human mischief. Whatever, it is more than 200 feet across, freshly created, and deeper than the eye can see. And scientists have now measured methane concentrations in its depths thousands of times greater than background levels. So the prevailing theory today is that these are burp craters – the result of explosions from methane destabilized under the warming tundra, to the point that they are ejected in a massive Burp. Some researchers are calling it “Dragon’s Breath.”

This hypothesis is bolstered by atmospheric methane readings in the Arctic recently, that have measured huge methane concentrations in short bursts, only to return to more normal readings. Here’s a chart highlighting the last three years of methane readings in Siberia, with one notable outlier:

Methane readings from Siberian greenhouse gas sampling station

Methane readings from Siberian greenhouse gas sampling station over last three years

What’s worse, multiple Dragon’s Breath craters have been discovered. And it’s notable that a longer time series gathered in Canada shows many instances of crazy methane readings. Here’s a look:

Could each of these methane spikes be linked to the craters?

Could each of these methane spikes be linked to the craters?

If the Dragon’s Breath craters are what they seem to be, then it’s time to remove the Global Burp from the “unmentionable” file. Its arrival would suggest that the distant apocalyptic event is now upon us. Why? Because Arctic methane release is one of those feedback loops that only builds on itself. Melting Arctic tundra (or sea ice) releases methane hydrates, which add to greenhouse gas concentrations, which melt more of the Arctic, which releases more methane, and so on…. And like a microphone placed in front of a loudspeaker, the runaway effect of the feedback loop can be terrifying.

So click on this short video, and let’s consider whether it’s possible that our climate-warming carbon binge has awakened the dragon – the one that we hoped would long remain fast asleep beneath the Arctic tundra. 

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