Tag Archives: methane

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