The annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union or, as I like to call it, the Doomsday Society, has just concluded. The topics of the moment were ice, as in melting, and methane, as in releasing lots of. And the methane they're talking about isn't the stuff coming out the back of the front of farm animals. It's the methane that's been trapped in the permafrost, both in the frozen tundra as well as underwater (did you all know there was undersea permafrost?). Turns out there's a lot it - as much as there is carbon in the atmosphere right now. Which would be fine and dandy, if only the permafrost weren't melting. Melting permafrost is, as Joe Romm observes, a tragically under-reported story. That's surprising since, via Romm:
Now, I wouldn't run for the hills just yet. But I will say this. Whenever scientists talk about something triggering the climate "tipping point" aka "point of no return" aka "the human race's terrible, horrible, no good, really bad day," they invariably talk about a catastrophic release of all that methane.
- Siberian tundra contains probably the world's largest amount of carbon locked away in the permafrost.
- As it defrosts, much of the tundra's carbon would be released as methane, which is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
- "The year 2007 was the warmest on record for the Arctic," according to NOAA.
- NOAA reported that methane levels rose in 2007 for the first time since 1998 (see here).
- Scientific analysis suggests the rise in 2007 methane levels came from Arctic wetlands (see here).
- The tundra feedback, coupled with the climate-carbon-cycle feedbacks, could easily take us to the unmitigated catastrophe of 1,000 ppm.
Thanks to the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event (aka "the Great Dying") when, as
So forgive me a brief quake in the boots when a scientist studying underwater permafrost talks about "large clouds of methane bubbles observed in the water column over hundreds of square kilometers" - bigger than they've yet seen. This melting permafrost might explain why those methane levels rose. Combine that with the 2 trillion tons of ice lost in the Arctic since 2003 and you get some seriously bad climate mojo.
You know what? I'm scaring myself. I think I'll wrap up there. Perhaps I'll spend the holidays in the hills.
Photo by Ludovic Hirlimann used under CC license