Major Global Warming Tipping Point Vastly Closer than Anticipated

Sharon April 17th, 2008

Wow, I thought I’d posted my quotient of hideous news for the day.  And then I spotted this over at The Automatic Earth

“It’s always been a disturbing what-if scenario for climate researchers: Gas hydrates stored in the Arctic ocean floor — hard clumps of ice and methane, conserved by freezing temperatures and high pressure — could grow unstable and release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas, more worrisome than carbon dioxide, the result would be a drastic acceleration of global warming. Until now this idea was mostly academic; scientists had warned that such a thing could happen. Now it seems more likely that it will.”

And for good measure:

“The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become “a source of methane passing into the atmosphere.” The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere would increase twelvefold. “The result would be catastrophic global warming,” say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.”

An older report on the potential problem reports:

“But calculations by Dr Sitch and his colleagues show that even if methane seeped from the permafrost over the next 100 years, it would add around 700m tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year, roughly the same amount that is released annually from the world’s wetlands and agriculture.

It would effectively double atmospheric levels of the gas, leading to a 10% to 25% increase in global warming, he said.”

There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that the release couldn’t take place quite rapidly - over years or decades.  BTW, the last time the methane was released, half the life on earth died.

Of course, the odds can’t be more than 50-50 that’ll happen this time, so why worry?

 Sharon

20 Responses to “Major Global Warming Tipping Point Vastly Closer than Anticipated”

  1. Greenpaon 17 Apr 2008 at 1:02 pm

    ” BTW, the last time the methane was released, half the life on earth died.”

    LOL!! Little Sharon Sunshine strikes again!

    Boy, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel to be predicting doom these days, hardly even fun any more. :-)

    My own great worry about the melting of the Arctic is… The Blob. “Indescribable! Indestructible! Nothing Can Stop It!” Steve McQueen plays a teenager, battling dimwitted cops and adults AND The Blob. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051418/

    The movie ends with the US Army flying the temporarily frozen Blob up to the North Pole… which had open water last year! Already too late!

    Chances are, The Blob is down there EATING the methane hydrates, as fast as it can go, right now. And THEN…

    Actually… hey, there’s a GREAT sequel movie right there… anybody know any producers?

    Cheer up. We’re all in this together. :-)

  2. Leila in PAon 17 Apr 2008 at 1:10 pm

    I remember reading about the methane in the permafrost on bbcnews about 2 years ago. It’s scary that it’s only just now sinking into the scientist mindset. Today on bbcnews there is an article predicting the sea levels will rise by 1.5m by the end of the century. That’s enough to cover the entire country of Bangladesh. If you think food shortages are bad now, what will they be like when acres of farmland are undersea or flooded?

  3. Sharonon 17 Apr 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Actually, Greenpa, I was being cheerful. The last time *all* the
    methane hydrates were released 95% of the life on earth died.
    So this was me in cheerful mode.

    I love the idea of a sequel to The Blob!

    Sharon

  4. Mickon 17 Apr 2008 at 2:00 pm

    This effect must have happened during previous warmings after ice ages. Were there catastrophic consequences in these past thawings?

  5. Aleciaon 17 Apr 2008 at 2:11 pm

    I saw that today too. It’s a happy happy day in sunshine fantasy land, isn’t it?

    :(

  6. Alanon 17 Apr 2008 at 3:47 pm

    To add a little fillip of extra dread: the world’s oil companies are champing at the bit to start drilling for oil and gas in the newly ice-free Arctic.

    Some peak oil deniers are using the new availability of drilling sites in the Arctic as another reason why we don’t need to worry about petroleum supplies for a long time.

    Soon they will start punching holes in those underground caches of frozen methane and introducing who knows what chemicals and fracturing techniques to make the methane available to pump out.

  7. Jameyon 17 Apr 2008 at 10:04 pm

    @Mick
    It seems like the melting of methane hydrate has occurred before, but mostly in extreme events - it is called “The Clathrate Gun Hypothesis” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clathrate_Gun_Hypothesis
    The big fear here is that any quick melting of a greenhouse gas that is 20x as powerful as C02 is going to be a serious tipping point that no adaptation strategy will work with. It would make Lovelock’s “Revenge of Gaia” look tame.

    It appears (http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=227) that there have been low level meltings that caused underwater landslides off the coast of Norway with every interglacial period (enough to tsunami England the last time 8600 years ago).

    This time the warming is faster in the polar seas, that is the key. Slower warming gives the ocean layers time to mix. Faster warming causes more turbulence and quicker melting. Runaway melting just accelerates the process.

    Great books on this - “With Speed and Violence” and “Under a Green Sky”. The Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago is termed the “Big Fart”. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor :D

    Kitties and puppies!

  8. Greenpaon 18 Apr 2008 at 8:50 am

    Sorry, got movies on the brain, I guess. There was ONE valid point in “The Day After Tomorrow”, which, of course, we have all seen. And, as far as I can tell, NOBODY got it.

    A lot of the movie was potboiler plot and “oooo” special effects; and burning books instead of oak tables and shelves.

    The one necessary “impossible” assumption was that shifting weather had caused an unprecedented event (or at least unknown to humans) ; the formation of atmospheric vortices that pulled huge amounts of extremely high altitude air down to sea-level. The air is colder than liquid nitrogen- and everything freezes.

    No, I DON’T think that is likely to happen. The completely valid point is: WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN. It’s entirely possible that events which are totally unforeseen could hit us.

    We’re off the edge of the world here. The potential for the methyl hydrates to suddenly shift equilibrium… is real. But similar to unforeseen possibilities- very little we can do about it.

    Always look on the bright side of life. Ta dum, ta dump ta dump ta dum.

    :-/

  9. Veritason 18 Apr 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Sharon,

    What’s the evidence for a huge methane release that killed 95% of life on Earth?

    In regard to the Arctic, take a look at the polar icecap satellite imagery at http://igloo.atmos.uiuc.edu/cgi-bin/test/print.sh?fm=04&fd=17&fy=1990&sm=04&sd=17&sy=2008
    It’ fascinating! They’ve also got stuff on the Antarctic icecap.

    Alan touched on a great way to save us from the great methane death pulse - just drill it and use it. Wow, just think, energy companies saving the world!!

  10. joeon 18 Apr 2008 at 3:15 pm

    hi nice post, i enjoyed it

  11. Hank Robertson 18 Apr 2008 at 6:15 pm

    Anyone have a better link to the source of the story?
    I got only this far.

    http://meetings.copernicus.org/egu2008/press_room_sessions.html

  12. […] Casaubon?s Book » Blog Archive » Major Global Warming Tipping Point Vastly Closer than A… - […]

  13. Anna Hayneson 19 Apr 2008 at 6:23 pm

    Sharon, I’m really glad to see you alerting your readers to this. Any chance you could also give them a heads-up about Bill McKibben’s 350.org campaign? (we need a mass movement here, and to get it, we need awareness and group actions)

  14. Daharjaon 21 Apr 2008 at 11:25 pm

    I sure wish Gandhi was here right now. He’d know what to do. Or Jesus. Or maybe Buddha. Heck, I’d settle for one of the lesser prophets. Or a minor deity.

    As none of the above are likely to make an appearance anytime soon, despite the apocalyptic Signs Of Doom (including The Blob released from its Arctic prison on stage right), it looks like its up to us to come up with solutions.

    Any ideas, guys?

  15. Sharonon 22 Apr 2008 at 8:40 am

    Veritas- the Permian extinction. And there is the danger that using methane hydrates will accellerate their release - we just don’t know.

    Daharja, I’m not holding my breath. But I do hope our Gandhi is out there.

    Sharon

  16. Henry Warwickon 22 Apr 2008 at 2:57 pm

    The truly sad part of a clathrate meltdown is that it will happen so slowly, no one at any given time will notice. Environmental Amnesia sets in - things change slowly and over the decades we stop noticing. So, it’s not like “one afternoon all the clathrates melted, the world turned into an oven the next afternoon and then we all died” kind of thing. It’s going to take many generations for that to play out, and that’s what makes it such a nasty nasty thing.

    Example: Methane is something like 20x more effective than CO2 in trapping heat. So, let’s say in the next 50 years, we melt off 5% of the clathrates. That would result in a doubling of the heat over the CO2 we’ve pumped. But again: it would take another generation to notice - so you’re looking at basically everyone alive now not living long enough to see the effects, and even when the effects come on, they happen slowly enough that people only notice it through old memory “I remember when those mountains had snow on them!”

    To quote Marker, Forgetting isn’t the opposite of memory, it’s the lining. It’s always “right there”. So too is our amnesia. Economics is a good model in this regard. I’m 49, and I remember my dad working in a factory and we owned a house and we bought a car and we had a TV and a stereo and we went on vacations, and we had 6 kids and lived on food stamps and it was pretty hellish, but we survived on what he made, as my mom was busy chasing kids all day.

    Today, that’s really not possible at all. Wages stagnated decades ago, and the “single income” family is a thing of the past. We vaguely remember things being different, but our lived present experience shouts over our previous experiences which shrink from the noise, and sink farther into the pocket of memory, and eventually fade into the lining of forgetfulness.

    We very well may be looking at another Permian extinction - the problem is: no one alive will ever find out, and I would submit our kids won’t live long enough to find out either, even thought it may well be a plain as fact scientific certainty.

    best,

    HW

  17. Pangolinon 24 Apr 2008 at 12:08 am

    Our real hope lies in the idea that maybe things will get bad enough for us to do something useful before they get much worse. Massive carbon capture and sequestration IS possible but it would require mass action on a scale not seen since the Yellow Emperor of China decide he needed a really big wall.

    If we started on a course of harvesting and converting biomass to charcoal and then burying it AND planting orchards on top we could sequester all that extra carbon. There are also other odd little tricks that could be utilized based upon things like the fact that tea plantations increase cloud formation and rainfall due to very particular dust.

    This kind of thing would have to be a global co-operative effort and literally involve a fat percentage of the worlds population. Of course with the improved crop yields that biochar agriculture is showing feeding those workers won’t be too hard.

    The trick is that we have to get a kick in the rear strong enough to worry the powers that be but not so strong that it renders governments moot or ineffective.

    Playing dice with the biosphere is no fun.

  18. Jimon 03 May 2008 at 2:06 am

    I don’t think Ghandi would know what to do.

  19. Jimon 03 May 2008 at 2:53 am

    I need to brush up on my spelling, but I do have a serious comment to make. Gandhi always appealed to the people on the ground. It might sound obvious but the only way to get anywhere near a solution would be to get the buy-in of everyone. People however need an incentive or “carrot” to be persuaded to help each other (world wars are good for this but bad for many other reasons). They won’t accept orders and who can blame them? What juicier carrot is there than the chance to save or acquire wealth? It might be possible (I am trying to prove it) to give everyone the ability to grow their own energy in the form of hydrogen without consuming fossil fuels. If the means of accomplishing it is cheap you might even be able to start an energy revolution. The seeds of competition are strong; I think it might work. But I would say that wouldn’t I?

  20. John Rosengartenon 27 Aug 2008 at 4:12 pm

    Nice article on this here.

    http://www.commondreams.org/views04/1215-24.htm

    At to the question of when/how often has this happened before, they think twice, and neither was a part of the ice-age cycles.

    They think they were caused by volcanoes increasing the average temperature by ten degrees F. which started the cascade disaster of melting calrathes releasing 900 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere.

    Even the optimist scientists are predicting we hit that level by 2100.
    However, that’s assuming rates predicted a few years ago, and does not weigh the CO2 increases that are going to come out of India and China next year when a hundred new coal-fired power plants are expected to come on-line.

    Buy land on high ground, my friends! The oceans are going to “overtop” a lot more than New Orleans’ levees, and long before 2100!

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