November 15th, 2013 by Don Lieber
As reported in the blog Arctic News, “huge amounts of methane are now escaping from the seabed of the Arctic Ocean, penetrating the sea ice, and entering the atmosphere, in a process that appears to be accelerating, resulting in levels as high as 2662 ppb (at 14384 feet altitude) on November 9, 2013.” Experts generally agree that this amount is roughly twice the globally ‘safe’ level.
Another study group, the Alamo Project, said, “Greenhouse gases are escaping the permafrost and entering the atmosphere at an increasing rate — up to 50 billion tons each year of methane, for example — due to a global thawing trend. This is particularly troublesome because methane heats the atmosphere with 25 times the efficiency of carbon dioxide. The release of all this stored carbon could change climate in the Arctic in ways researchers have yet to fully understand.”
Methane is one of most potent greenhouse gasses on earth — it is called “the canary in the coal mine” of climate change. It traps more heat in the atmosphere, more rapidly, than carbon. Since 1750 (the dawn of the coal-burning industrial revolution), atmospheric methane has increased by 150%. The recent increase, however, has reached levels not seen on earth in almost 500,00o years according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The current rate of methane emissions are a sign that dangerous “climate feedback loops” are underway.
Huge amounts of methane lay trapped under the frozen waters of the Arctic — perfectly safe while they lay dormant and frozen. The dramatically warming Arctic ocean, however, has begun to “thaw” the methane gas, which then rises through the ocean and is released into the atmosphere. The Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) explains this in terms of “climate change feedback” loops — a cascade of events which compound each other. (For examples of many of the other climate change feedback loops now occurring, see this excellent overview by University of Arizona professor Guy McPherson.)
One of the principal players in climate change feedback loops is Arctic sea ice. Scientists have become increasingly alarmed at the rate of sea ice melting. Last year, Arctic sea-ice melted down to the lowest level ever recorded. (Attributable, mostly, to human initiated greenhouse gas emissions). Scientists predicted, at the time, that the Arctic could become entirely ice free as early as 2020 — with dramatic implications for climate change.”We are on the edge of one of the most significant moments in environmental history as sea ice heads towards a new record low,” said John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, at the time. “The loss of sea ice will be devastating, raising global temperatures that will impact on our ability to grow food and causing extreme weather around the world.”
This month’s readings, however, are even more worrisome. The recent AMEG report suggests that the current “catastrophic” explosion of methane emissions will further increase the climate feedbacks so dramatically that Arctic sea ice may, indeed, “disappear completely” as early as September 2014.
Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics at the University of Cambridge, put the importance of arctic sea ice in perspective:
The present thinning and retreat of Arctic sea ice is one of the most serious geophysical consequences of global warming and is causing a major change to the face of our planet. The scientific community has drawn attention to the risk of dangerous climate change if the world does not reduce emissions of carbon dioxide – a worthy and critical objective. However, I wish to point toward a much more immediate problem that does not seem to be recognised among the climate change community at large: This is the problem of rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice, and likely consequence of catastrophic methane feedback.
In summary: Rapidly warming temperatures have accelerated the melt of sea ice and permafrost, which in turn has now begun to cause the release of huge amounts of methane — which will cause even greater atmospheric warming.
And what’s the industry’s response to a melting arctic and the dramatic implications this holds for climate change? Always ready for opportunity, Shell last week announced new plans to drill for oil in the newly navigable Arctic waters north of Alaska.
Keep up to date with all the most interesting green news on the planet by subscribing to our (free) Planetsave newsletter.