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Methane Seeps, Tipping Points Feared as Congress Sleepwalks

Dangerous Methane Seeping from Siberian Seabeds

Gary Houser

"Methane is leaking from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf into the
atmosphere  at an alarming rate...  Release of even a
fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger
abrupt climate warming."
 
- National Science
Foundation
press release (March 4, 2010)   

As the U.S. Senate finally prepares to bring climate-related
legislation to the floor, it has become painfully obvious that the most
crucial ingredient in any such debate - a true sense of urgency
- is completely absent. Despite the fact that all future life on the
planet hangs in the balance and a point of irreversible runaway
warming is being rapidly approached, the Senate is proceeding as if it
is sleepwalking in a stupor. It has allowed the fossil fuel industry to
sabotage all effort at meaningful carbon emission reductions, and will
only be considering legislation that is woefully inadequate to prevent
catastrophe.
 
   

Those who follow this issue likely have familiarity with the
concept of "tipping points". This innocuous-sounding phrase does not do
justice to its vast meaning. It refers to the crossing of a line whereby
tremendous natural forces are unleashed and an unstoppable rush of
interlocking climate disruptions wreak havoc on the earth and its
fragile web of life-supporting ecosystems. Once set in motion, it cannot
be predicted how far the devastation would extend. Geological records
have linked a severe climate shift with the "Great Extinction" event
which wiped out a ghastly 90% of all life forms on the planet.   

Serving as a direct counterpoint to this disastrous
"disconnect" from reality in the Senate is the stunning news that these
tipping points may be much closer than previously imagined. Ignored by
mainstream media, recent scientific findings have the potential to turn
the world as we know it upside down. Situated off the Siberian coast -
in an area containing more carbon than that known to exist in all the
world's oil, coal, and natural gas reserves - is the climate threat of
all climate threats. Some call it the "Arctic super carbon pool". Others
call it a "methane time bomb". The reason for this ominous latter
description is the quite real threat of an unstoppable chain
reaction which could release much or all of this tremendous stockpile.
This is a nightmare scenario feared by many tracking the evolution of
the climate emergency.

Methane is a
particularly powerful greenhouse gas, at least 25 times more potent
than carbon dioxide. Once the methane - currently in frozen form -
begins to thaw and release gas, it either oxidizes in the water or
travels to the surface and enters the atmosphere. If the latter occurs,
it can act as a strong warming agent and therefore cause even more of
the frozen methane to thaw and release gas. The scientific term for this
self-perpetuating cycle is "reinforcing feedback".

The
"conventional wisdom" was that this thawing and venting of methane would
not manifest for at least 100 years. But as the case has been with much
such "wisdom" these days, scientists have encountered great difficulty
in accurately predicting the full consequences of the unprecedented
alterations being imposed on the planet by greenhouse gases. The reality
of climate disruption has continued to outpace the projections. Recent
studies of the Siberian methane
show that a very serious amount is already venting to the atmosphere.

In their report (summarized in Chapter 6),  researchers Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov describe that
methane is now being released across a full 50% of a quite sizable
study area in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.
  Based on 5100
seawater samples taken from 1080 different locations, they report that
80% of the bottom water and 50% of the surface water is
"super-saturated" with methane. Adding to the seriousness is the fact
that this methane is not oxidizing in the water. Due to the shallow
depths of these seabeds, the methane is traveling directly to the
surface and venting into the atmosphere.

Methane is a volatile gas that rapidly expands in volume as it
releases. Referring to the giant stockpile in this arctic shelf, 
Shakhova and Semiletov warn that it is "highly possible for abrupt
release at any time. That may cause
a 12 time increase of modern atmospheric methane burden with
consequent catastrophic greenhouse warming.
"  As if this
information is not unsettling enough, one then encounters the following
staggering fact. This entire scenario is being played out in the most
rapidly warming geographic location on the planet: "The Arctic is
warming more quickly than the rest of the world, and this warming is
most pronounced in the arctic shelf."        

Given the potential
for such a catastrophic event and with so many factors lining up that
could indeed release the trigger, one would expect the collective
scientific community to issue a
grave warning to the world. If ever there was a time to exercise the
precautionary principle, it would be now. Stunningly, the scientific
community is failing to do so.
Instead, in a classic exhibition of
ivory tower disconnectedness - perhaps in combination with a hesitancy
brought on by the aggressive attacks of deniers - it is calling for more
definitive "proof" that the thawing of methane is directly related to
human-generated warming and not being caused by other natural sources.

 The stupendously dangerous flaw in this reaction is that by the time
such proof is "definitively gathered", it could well be too late to stop
the runaway chain reaction. In a situation where we may already be too
late, it is the height of irresponsibility to argue for even more delay.
If a blind person appears to be walking toward a cliff and is only
three steps away, does a responsible observer guide that person away
from the edge or stand
back and wait for more proof? In this case, the blind person is all of
humanity. The world needs every precious moment it can find to move back
from the precipice.

Because of time consumed to document and
verify, IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports and
projections have been lagging at least two or three years behind what is
actually happening in real life. With the thawing of sea-based methane
already having been miscalculated, this looming threat that a "methane
time bomb" is on the verge of being activated (if indeed it has not
already occurred) is only beginning to be addressed by climate modelling
and  IPCC studies. 

The scientific community must immediately
ramp up its effort and mobilize whatever resources are needed to either
confirm or disprove that this activation is occurring. Even as such
effort proceeds, however, it has an immediate and
transcendent moral responsibility to issue a strong warning to both
policy makers and the public about what is at risk. Testimony to
Congress by the National Academy of Sciences that climate disruption is
real and human-caused is valuable, but in the current context too
measured and mild.  It does not convey that humanity is truly perched on
a precipice overlooking an abyss. It does not begin to do
justice to the monumental urgency of the crisis we are in, how humanity
is on the verge of unleashing a beast it will not be able to control. 

 Why are there so few climate scientists willing to stand beside Jim
Hansen and truly speak from their consciences about the disaster that is
unfolding? Some say that policy must be left to the policy makers. But
it is now obvious that legislation being discussed in Congress is
completely out of touch with the scientific reality. The two primary
bills -
Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Lieberman - were already allowing the industry
to stonewall (pdf) actual carbon emission reductions for 15 to 20 years. Now the Senate is capitulating even further. Such a delay would all
but guarantee the crossing of tipping points.

We have
reached physical limits that cannot be "negotiated" away. Those who have
lost their way in the "inside-the-beltway world" of political
horse-trading must be brought to recognize this reality before it is too
late. This indictment applies not only to the politicians but also the
large, well-funded so-called "environmental" groups like EDF and NRDC
that have been seduced into the gospel of endless compromise. The
passage of such weak and inadequate legislation would constitute a massive triple
failure of
the scientific community, the mainstream environmental groups, and
Congress.

 
   

If the scientific community was to empower itself at this time
of global emergency and somehow find the much stronger and louder voice
that is needed, there is a hope that at least a few members of the
Senate might actually become emboldened to regain their own
courage and stand up to the monied interests that have hijacked this
legislation. Such legislation could yet become transformed into a saving
grace for humanity rather than an unspeakably tragic abdication of
moral responsibility.     

The "motherlode" of earth's stockpile
of carbon exists on the shallow seabeds off the Siberian coast, for all
practical purposes a veritable doomsday beast ready to rise in
retribution for humanity's abuse of the earth and its Faustian bargain
with the dark gods of oil and coal. Extremely volatile, it is the same
gas believed to have entered both the oil rig in the Gulf and coal mine
in West
Virginia causing destructive explosions. Some might interpret this as a
warning to humanity.  

Methane has been found to be thawing
and releasing to the surface in 50 percent of a large study area. In a
location that is "warming more quickly than the rest of the world", the
release of only one half of one percent of this stockpile has been
determined to be capable of causing "abrupt climate change". If this
most feared "feedback" of all - the one which humanity would likely be
helpless to stop once activated - has not already started, then it
certainly appears that all the factors necessary to trigger it are
lining up.
  

One day, the public release of these findings
may hold great significance. It might be seen as the time when at least
a handful of scientists tried to warn about the coming disaster. This
time might be celebrated as the beginning of the great "wake-up" in
which the scientific community spoke out in a unified and bold voice,
both policy makers and mainstream enviros re-discovered their backbone,
and the cataclysm was avoided. But based on current reality, it may well
turn into a time for lamentation. Those clinging for survival in a
world ravaged by climate catastrophe may look back with anger and an
acute sense of betrayal about the passivity and the silence of those who
could have made a difference and mourn the indefensible failure to act
while there was still time.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Gary Houser

Gary Houser

Gary Houser is a long-time public interest writer, currently a documentary producer working on climate tipping points, and a founding member of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group. Email: mountainmist8 [at] yahoo.com

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