By Frank Thomas
In the 1970s, permafrost Arctic sea ice at its lowest point covered about half of the Arctic ocean surface. But it has been on an alarming declining trend over recent decades, now covering at its lowest point 25% of the Arctic ocean surface – or half of its previous area and thickness.
This rapid warming of the Arctic region creates a near term world threat of a major sub-sea methane release that could intensify global warming to irreversible levels along with high fossil fuel C02 emissions.
We do know the frozen Arctic tundra holds vast amounts of methane sufficient to eliminate most life on earth. We do know that methane deposits are seeping into the atmosphere as a result of the Arctic’s thawing permafrost. Organic matter frozen in the permafrost contains huge amounts of carbon and methane. When thawed it decays and releases C02 and CH4.
We do know that ice reflects the sun’s rays while oceans absorb the sun’s energies. So less and less Arctic sea ice cover only warms the Arctic region faster and faster. This process is magnified by expanding greenhouse gas emissions that warm up the Atlantic and Pacific ocean currents – thus a vicious circle leading to less sea ice growth during winter and more sea ice meltdown in summer.
In the words of Prof. Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, a leading world Arctic region expert, “The fall-off in sea ice volume is so fast that it is going to bring us to Zero (cover) quickly.
When? … 2015 is a very serious prediction, and I think I am pretty much persuaded that that’s when it will happen.” Prof. Wadhams is joined in this prognosis by scientists of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) in an updated Sept. 2012 report, “Declaration of an Emergency.” Following are some key conclusions from AMEG’s report:
“There now exists an extremely high international security risk of acute climate disruption followed by runaway global warming. The collapse of the Arctic sea ice will change the reflective qualities of the Arctic from 90% reflection of the sun’s rays to a 90% absorber. A vicious cycle of Arctic warming started 20-30 years ago, when currents from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, warmed by expansion of greenhouse gas concentrations, transported their “extra heat” into the Arctic – initiating an accelerating decline in sea ice and increase in Arctic temperatures.
The “extra heat” has gone into the shallow seas over the continental shelf, warming them all the way to the seabed – with the potential of causing widespread destabilization of frozen methane hydrates and free gas in the permafrost cap, greatly enhancing global warming. Incidental reports of increasing marine methane emissions are ominous signs that this sub-sea permafrost warming process has already started. In addition, there is the possibility of methane — held as hydrates or under thawing permafrost — being suddenly released in very large quantities due to a disturbance, such as an earthquake.
The quantities of methane in the continental shelf are so vast (trillions of tons of frozen hydrates) that the release of just 1% could lead to the release of the remaining methane (locked in the sub-sea permafrost) in an unstoppable chain reaction. Global warming would spiral upward beyond 2 degree Celsius.”
Because of how methane reacts chemically in the atmosphere, it is 20-25 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than C02 over a 100 year time span, but 72 times more potent over the first 20 years. That’s what make it such a very dangerous gas when emitted into the atmosphere by the melting of Arctic ice crystals and organic matter at the ocean bottom or by hydro-fracking of oil and gas fields now going full steam ahead in the U.S.
Fracking a well can usually only recover 20% of the gas. That means 80% of the gas – including methane – has been released and not recovered. That’s why U.S. regulations on fracking operations must be tough and strictly enforced. On the positive side, methane stays in the atmosphere 10-12 years and has a half life of 7 years. So, if no more methane were added, then every 7 years the amount of methane would drop by 50%.
What Must Be Done About Arctic Methane?
AMEG and Prof. Wadhams, among other scientists, are advocating an immediate emergency cooperative geo-engineering effort to cool the Arctic air in subsequent summers until the sea ice has regained and methane has stopped releasing. This includes artificially clouding the Arctic region, perhaps also exploiting the cooling effect of reflective sulfate aerosols, to reflect the sun’s rays in the warm months from spring to fall. This is viewed by these researchers as an immediate emergency action that should be put in motion NOW.
This is because we do know that methane deposits – of extraordinary amounts sufficient to eliminate living matter on earth – are seeping into the atmosphere as the result of the Arctic’s thawing permafrost. As noted, research indicates that Arctic sea ice is on a melting trend to Zero by the end of 2015!
Over the last 30 years, the Arctic sea ice has shrunk in half. The only way to avoid an ever worsening crisis, particularly in food security, is to cool the Arctic . This has to be done FAST to avoid a much a more serious collapse of sea ice in 2014-15.
Sea ice reflects the sun’s heat. The huge loss of sea ice has resulted in increased melting of the Arctic’s sea ice (and Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets) causing more heat to be absorbed from sun exposure, causing more melting, resulting in another feedback loop.
Warmer temperatures also mean longer Arctic growing seasons where the Arctic acts as a carbon sink. But, there is a “tipping point” where constant warming up of the earth and rapid loss of sun reflecting powers of sea ice makes the Arctic a carbon dioxide and methane source – releasing much more greenhouse gases than the region can possibly absorb.
Arctic research scientists believe that point has arrived. Arctic warming is increasing at a faster rate causing more and more Arctic permafrost thawing and the resultant increased C02 and very toxic CH4 emissions. Little wonder AMEG, Prof. Wadhams, and other Arctic scientists, are loudly warning that methane release into the Arctic atmosphere is a global Ticking Time Bomb!
While methane release from coal mining and oil/gas exploitation, agriculture, livestock, transportation, decomposing garbage landfills, etc., is significant, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the potential methane release from the Arctic.
One trillion tons of Arctic methane released into the atmosphere will eradicate life on earth.
Methane concentration is now about 1,800 ppb (parts per billion) and rising, contributing 15% to the earth’s warming. The C02 equivalent is 385 ppm (parts per million vs. 348 ppm in 1992), contributing 75% to the earth’s warming. But, in the first 20 years, not to be forgotten is the fact that one molecule of CH4 contributes 72 times more to global warming than one molecule of C02.
Of course, the only final way to avert an emission disaster in the Arctic and reduce the overall impact of global warming is to give fossil fuels a step-by-step early retirement.
This means for the industrialized nations a 25%-40% reduction in C02 equivalent emissions by 2020 based upon 1990 levels. Europe has already achieved a 20% emission reduction back to 1990 C02 levels and an exceptionally low C02 emissions per capita of 7.5 tons versus 17.3 tons for the U.S. in 2011.
Stated another way, to avoid highly dangerous climate consequences, the concentration of heat trapping gases, largely from fossil fuels, must be kept stabilized at an atmospheric concentration of 450 ppm C02 equivalent (vs.385 ppm today) by 2050 to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050. CO2 equivalent includes CO2, methane and nitrogen – all greenhouse gasses.
This in turn requires that global cumulative emissions must be reduced at least 40% below the amount accumulated by the year 2000 of 2,800 gigatons (Gt) C02 equivalent to 1,700 Gt C02 equivalent for the period 2000-2050.
It means the U.S. needs to reduce its extremely high greenhouse gas emissions at least 80% below 2000 levels by 2050. This obviously demands a rapid shift away from fossil fuels and related greenhouse gas emissions over the next 40 years. (Sources: “How to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change,” by Union of Concerned Scientists, Sept. 2007; “Trends In Global C02 Emissions” – 2012 Report by European Joint Research Center of European Commission and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency).
This world goal of a 40% reduction in cumulative emissions to 1,700 gigatons of greenhouse trapping gases in the atmosphere by 2050 is ominously overwhelming – especially when one considers China and India’s 4.5 billion population base.
In an unbelievably short time and at only the beginning stage of industrializing, China has already reached (mainly from dirty coal) the same C02 emissions per capita as Germany today … with an average Chinese and Indian household purchasing power of one-8th and one-16th, respectively, of that of the average European or American household! China and India are adding one coal powered power plant each week!
Talk about future clean energy needs to avoid a 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) Sahara Earth average temperature by 2050 … assuming we survive the methane threat before then!
Historical data shows conclusively that global surface temperatures over last decades are higher than at any time over the past 400 years. In the Northern Hemisphere alone, the recent rise in temperatures is the highest seen in the last 1,000 years! All this points to the absolute necessity of aggressively transforming to all-out integrated green energy policy actions – bottom up and top down – that drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels the next 40 years.
But this post is all about an immediate NOW priority for global leaders to face directly the Ticking Time Bomb of a near term potentially explosive, highly toxic methane release in the Arctic region of unimaginable scale!