Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Sleeping Giant Wakening?

Arctic permafrost known as yedoma is beginning to release its rich store of ice-age organic carbon as the ground thaws. Photo courtesy Katey Walter.

Climate Feedback (the climate change blog) calls climate change a sleeping giant. Let’s see why.

December’s AGU (American Geophysical Union) conference –the latest and largest gathering of earth and space scientists –gave the lion’s share of attention to a threat that could prove to be worse than carbon dioxide. Scientists were discussing methane – a greenhouse gas with a warming potential 25 times that of CO2.

Unfortunately, even though atmospheric concentrations have increased 150% since the Industrial Revolution; there is also an enormous amount warehoused in the earth’s permafrost. As you will remember from my blog “The World’s First Climate Change Refugees” October 1, 2008, the permafrost in the Arctic is melting. It is melting so fast that entire indigenous villages have to be relocated to prevent the inhabitants from literally being sucked into the ocean.

While the permafrost remains frozen, the methane remains trapped. As the permafrost melts, the methane is released which accelerates warming which melts more permafrost which releases more methane…it’s a perpetual motion monster.

Methane levels spiked in 2007 after remaining stable for decades causing some scientists, such as Matthew Rigby of MIT, to now speculate that “we can’t rule out” we are seeing the beginning of permafrost melting. I think Matthew and the few others that think this way have a true gift for stating the obvious. **Link, link**.

Geochemist James White, University of Colorado at Boulder, says that a couple more years of methane increase would make a "strong statement that we're beginning to see permafrost degradation resulting in methane increases." I beg to differ; but, the videos at the bottom of this blog make a strong statement to me now.

This came to light when two separate groups of researchers noticed significant rises in their methane measurements when compared with previous years at the same sites. They also noticed large rings of gas trapped in the ice or plumes bubbling to the ocean surface over hundreds of square kilometers.

James White, geochemist at the University of Colorado, says: “If there’s a ticking bomb in the room, you’d like to know the possibility of it going off. The fact that it’s there at all is unnerving.”

Some creative approaches are being tried in the effort to control and/or contain this problem. One that intrigues me is re-wilding parts of Siberia with large animals that will literally stomp the permafrost into staying intact. Brute force – works sometimes. Another thought being considered is using the natural methane leaks to provide a source of power to remote villages.

Please continue on to watch the videos. They are excellent and well worth the time (despite the name of the second video).

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