Tag Archives: Arctic methane release

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.” Continue reading

Arctic Methane Alarms: A Closer Look at the Debate

Every creation-care advocate knows that climate denial is rampant in the anti-scientific atmosphere that currently shrouds much of American evangelicalism. With so much nonsense circulating among us, it’s painful to admit our own mistakes. We’ve been called alarmists (or worse) so often that it’s particularly awkward coming clean when it’s possibly true.

But whatever the consequences, here goes. Several days ago, I wrote a piece about Arctic methane release, based on an article found in the science journal Nature. The gist of the story was that recent research had calculated a $60 trillion price tag on the effect of a major methane “burp” likely to be released from melting ice and permafrost in or near eastern Siberia. The burp would do most harm to poor people in poor countries, and would accelerate the threshold for global warming of 2 degrees Celsius to 2035, only 22 years from now.

This would be very bad news – perhaps apocalyptic bad new – and we said so.

NASA's Gavin Schmidt questioned methane projections

NASA’s Gavin Schmidt questioned methane projections

But what the Nature article didn’t say is that many respected researchers regard this scenario, in this timeframe, to be unlikely. Not that the Arctic isn’t melting; not that the methane deposits under the permafrost aren’t absolutely enormous; not that the methane released won’t create a huge positive feedback loop capable of driving sudden, catastrophic climate change. Just this: that few researchers view Nature’s timeframe to be realistic.

I picked up the Nature story, and reported to you the worrisome conclusion: that as early as 22 years from now, you are likely to be dealing with a world whose methane-heated climate is completely unrecognizable by – and possibly inhospitable to – the creatures that currently thrive on Earth, including humankind. In so doing, I relied on the prestige of Nature, without much further inquiry.  Continue reading

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.  Continue reading