2014 Will be Remembered for … Dragon’s Breath?

Quick! Pick one.  The worst thing to happen on earth in 2014 was:

  1. ISIS overwhelmed Iraqi and Syrian forces and unleashed unspeakable violence on innocent victims.
  2. Russian President Putin launched an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, reigniting the Cold War.
  3. Atmospheric CO2 passed 400 parts per million, thawing the Arctic and releasing “Dragon’s Breath” blow holes of methane into the atmosphere.

Okay. It’s not fair asking you to rank horrors. ISIS is obscene. Putin’s grab for Ukrainian territory recalls fascist conduct prior to the worst war the world has ever known.  But a century from now, few people will likely remember them. What they will remember, however, is the generation that fundamentally destabilized the planet onto which they were born (see option “3”). And likely as not, 2014 is the year that will show up in the history books, if there are any more history books.

Why 2014? Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 5th set of reports on behalf of the global climate science community, warning that the world needed to adhere to a strict carbon budget, which has already been more than half spent, if we want to avoid planetary calamity. And runaway atmospheric carbon concentrations also broke through the 400 ppm threshold, disrupting the Earth’s thermal equilibrium enjoyed for millions of years (at around 280 ppm), while many politicians and oil companies took all measures to prevent us from doing anything to stop the rise.

Image source: Moscow Times

A methane blow hole in eastern Siberia

But then in the early summer, we discovered the first of a series of ominous signs in the Arctic tundra of eastern Siberia. Cavernous, seemingly bottomless craters began to appear in the deserted northern landscape, looking like the stuff of sci-fi movies. In the end, they turned out to be what many have been predicting: Enormous releases of heat-trapping methane sealed for eons beneath the frozen tundra and Arctic sea ice, now melted due to global warming.

We wrote about these “dragon’s breath” holes when they first made the news, and warned that this could be the beginning of something very serious. Since then, we found a remarkable video by some prominent scientists, addressing the trends in Arctic melting and the threat of catastrophic methane release upon the global climate system. Its nineteen-odd minutes is definitely worth watching, and you don’t have to be a climate geek to understand it.

The commentators are Dr. Peter Wadhams, Head of Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University; Dr. Natalia Shakhova, head of the Russian & US Methane Study at the International Arctic Research Centre; Rev. David Wasdell, Director of the Apollo-Gaia Project; and Dr. James Hansen, Head Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute. Take a moment and listen to what these brilliant folks are desperate for you to understand.

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NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies Dr James Hansen

Hansen: If we burn all of the fossil fuels, then we certainly will cause all the methane hydrates eventually to come out (of the Arctic) and cause several degrees more warming. It’s not clear that civilization can survive that extreme climate change. (16:50)

I think that the concept of adapting to climate change is dangerous. Because there is the potential for climate change that humanity cannot adapt to. If the ice sheets become unstable and sea levels go up multiple meters, well, you’re going to put all of the cities on coasts all around the world under water, and you will destroy all of that heritage. (16:00)


Wasdell: The danger of moving into a runaway climate change scenario is now clear, and beginning to be quantified for the first time in the last few months. It’s probably the greatest threat that we face as a planet. The rate of change that we’re generating in the current situation is between 200 and 300 time faster than that experienced in any of the extinction events, apart from the asteroidal impact (linked to the extinction of the dinosaurs).

It takes about 10,000 years to change the concentration of CO2 by about 100 parts per million. We’re doing it in 30 years. So the rate of change in the climate is phenomenal compared to previous extinction events. We’re already in a mass extinction event.  It isn’t something that’s going to happen. We’ve lost about 40 percent of the phytoplankton in the ocean, which is the base of the food chain, simply because of acidification and temperature change in the climate. (12:00)


Wadhams: You tend to think you’re going to gain from global warming: you can grow more crops further north. And that’s true, but the instability means that at critical times, these crops are going to be affected by frosts, floods or rains. The estimates are that you won’t gain much from the warming in the Northern Hemisphere, and you lose a lot from all the warming in the tropical regions. It’s going to be very difficult to see how to support even the present world population. (14:00)


Shakhova: The amount of carbon preserved in the methane of the Arctic Shelf is from hundreds to thousands of gigatons. The release of only one percent of that amount would double the atmospheric methane. To destabilize one percent of this carbon pool – it’s not much effort needed, considering the state of the permafrost. The weakening permafrost is losing its ability to serve as a seal.

We do not like what we see there. Absolutely DO NOT LIKE. (14:00)

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