"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.
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
the scientific community, the mainstream environmental groups, and
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
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.