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This is how the world ends

Not with a financial collapse. Not with death by insurance company. Those are all just human disasters. We hear them loud and clear, but they drown out the faint thrumming which is the hoofbeats of all four horsemen of the Apocalypse. They’re coming up way too fast for us. This is the worst news out there:

BBC | Methane seeps from Arctic sea bed

Scientists … have evidence that the powerful greenhouse gas methane is escaping from the Arctic sea bed. …

As temperatures rise, the sea bed grows warmer and frozen water crystals in the sediment break down, allowing methane trapped inside them to escape.

The research team found that more than 250 plumes of methane bubbles are rising from the sea bed off Norway. …

Writing in Geophysical Research Letters, the team says the methane was rising from an area of sea bed off West Spitsbergen, from depths between 150 and 400m.

The gas is normally trapped as “methane hydrate” in sediment under the ocean floor.

“Methane hydrate” is an ice-like substance composed of water and methane which is stable under conditions of high pressure and low temperature.

As temperatures rise, the hydrate breaks down. So this new evidence shows that methane is stable at water depths greater than 400m off Spitsbergen.

However data collected over 30 years shows it was then stable at water depths as shallow as 360m.

Ocean has warmed

Temperature records show that this area of the ocean has warmed by 1C during the same period. …

Their most significant finding is that climate change means the gas is being released from more and deeper areas of the Arctic ocean. …

The team found that most of the methane is being dissolved into the seawater and did not detect evidence of the gas breaking the surface of the ocean and getting into the atmosphere.

They stress that this does not mean that the gas does not enter the atmosphere. They point out that the methane seeps are unpredictable and erratic in quantity, size and duration. …

Most of the methane reacts with the oxygen in the water to form carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas. In sea water, this forms carbonic acid which adds to ocean acidification, with consequent problems for biodiversity.

Graham Westbrook, lead author and professor of geophysics at the University of Birmingham said: “If this process becomes widespread along Arctic continental margins, tens of megatonnes of methane a year – equivalent to 5-10% of the total amount released globally by natural sources, could be released into the ocean.”

Can you say “feedback loop”? Or, to be more precise, “vicious circle”? This is what everyone who understands the situation has been dreading.

At some point — you never know when until it happens — it won’t just be us belching out greenhouse gases. So far, if we’d only stopped belching, that would have been the end of it. The greenhouse gases would have gradually been recycled out of the atmosphere and the climate could have returned to normal.

But the next phase is that the whole planet starts emitting extra CO2 and extra methane because it’s warmer. That makes it even warmer. That makes the planet emit even more greenhouse gases.

At that point we can stop our own idiocy cold … and it won’t make much difference. When the permafrost in the Arctic tundras melts, it releases greenhouse gases. When the ocean warms, it releases greenhouse gases. Molecule per molecule, methane is about eight times stronger as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The best we can hope at that point is most of it will turn into CO2 in the ocean, and acidify that instead.

The grim news is that we’ve reached that point. The permafrost is melting (pdf). The shallower methane hydrates are bubbling up. Ocean circulation rates are changing. (There is variation.)

I’m beginning to think the saddest words a human being can say are, “I do not envy the young.”

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32 Responses

  1. jay-sus!

  2. Yes, that really does worry me.

    I saw a program on the BBC about a year or two ago, about the thawing tundra in Russia producing methane, young Russian scientists were very worried.

    I have never owned a car, and hate the critters.

    The stimulus bill should have been geared to improving public transport-but of course Obama only pretended to be an environmentalist…

  3. I’ve been dreading such news. This is the turning point — for the worst.

  4. And you thought Bush was joking when he wanted to shift NASA funding to Mars???

    The uber rich are probably making their private corporate space shuttle reservations while the rest of us try to change hearts and minds

    • With the added benefit, I guess — I hadn’t thought of this before — that global warming would be a Good Thing on Mars.

  5. Meanwhile the fanatical ones will be screaming that there is no such things as global warming.

    I believe that there are huge bogs melting in the Russian Tundra which are releasing methane as well.

    Then there is that huge ocean current which could stop.

    I’m glad I don’t have children — the future looks very bleak for the next generations.

    One of the major problems of this planet is over population — these populations numbers are not sustainable.

    The super rich who are stockpiling even more loot seem to think that they can place a dome over themselves and be protected (bioshpere — remember that?).

  6. I saw a program on the BBC about a year or two ago, about the thawing tundra in Russia producing methane, young Russian scientists were very worried.
    The thawing of the perma-frost is accelerating and the reality of how fast always exceeds the most pessimistic predictions. The most recent “doom and gloom” global warming predictions don’t yet factor in the Arctic melt and the new Chinese coal burning power plants. (The Chinese are building one a week for at least the next ten years.)

    Quixote is right. When it was CO2 and warming, it was a closed loop. As the climate got warmer, there will be a failure of food production to meet population demands. With the massive reduction of human population, CO2 production goes down. With the beginning of the massive release of Methane, the warming loop is open-ended.

  7. Now the strife in the Middle East and Central Asia is finally starting to make sense to me. The ruling elites must figure that a regional nuclear war there could create a nuclear winter, thereby saving (the rest of) the world. Of course, they’ll have to rebuild the Ozone layer afterward, but that’s a comparatively minor concern.

    And here I thought that they didn’t care about us.

  8. With the documentation of accelerating Methane release, the concept of sudden climate change, within the lifetime of people living today, may no longer be science fiction.
    “The excess methane has been detected in localized hotspots in the outfall of the Lena River and the border between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea. Some melting may be the result of geological heating, but more thawing is believed to be due to the greatly increased volumes of meltwater being discharged from the Siberian rivers flowing north.[14] Current methane release has previously been estimated at 0.5 Mt per year.[15] Shakhova et al. (2008) estimate that not less than 1,400 Gt of Carbon is presently locked up as methane and methane hydrates under the Arctic submarine permafrost, and 5-10% of that area is subject to puncturing by open taliks. They conclude that “release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage [is] highly possible for abrupt release at any time”. That would increase the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere by a factor of twelve,[16][17] equivalent in greenhouse effect to a doubling in the current level of CO2.

    In 2008 the United States Department of Energy National Laboratory system[18] and the United States Geological Survey’s Climate Change Science Program both identified potential clathrate destabilization in the Arctic as one of four most serious scenarios for abrupt climate change, which have been singled out for priority research. The USCCSP released a report in late December 2008 estimating the gravity of this risk.[19]


  9. The current climate change and Polar melting models still use a linear progression of CO2, warming, ice melting and sea level changes. The introduction of Methane release in the “mix” make warming and melting non-linear. Again the current “doom and gloom” predictions are still talking about 7-9″ increase in sea levels by the end of the Century. This is mostly related to the heated and expanded Oceans. Also the “linear” model call for a predictable melting of the ice over thousands of years.

    Current observations of both the Arctic and Antarctic are now suggesting a non-linear and accelerating melting. Also there is evidence that portions of Greenland and West Antarctic Ice may “slip” into the Ocean causing sudden rise in sea levels. If the entire Greenland Ice Sheet slipped, sea level would rise ~23 feet. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet slips, sea levels rise ~15 feet. Fortunately, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet hasn’t been affected by warming. If it slipped, sea levels would increase by 200 feet.

  10. So what happens when we go methane? Do we just get a bad headache and die? Do we have to choke and gasp while struggling for good old 0x2? Will we run out of water before we run out of Oxy?

    This places a whole new urgency on getting all those cows to quit farting.

    • I’m not sure of the numbers, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that if ALL of the methane on the ocean floor were to bubble into the atmosphere, it would be enough to asphyxiate us. That, however, isn’t going to happen unless conditions get so hostile to life we wouldn’t be there to notice.

      The methane is bubbling up from the relatively shallow edges, and the news here is that it’s able to come from deeper and deeper layers (where there’s more of it). 400m is still way above the thousands of meters deep at the ocean floor.

  11. Sheesh, quixote, you had to go and harsh my mellow. I kid. Just a little gallows humor! You know that I agree with you that we are well and truly f*cked. The naysayers and obstructionists are bad but they are no worse than the rest of us who are lazy and complacent. Who wants to spend money on abatement if we can just fool ourselves instead? Why care about spending if there will be no life otherwise is the reality.

  12. And in the vein of “feedback loop” now the Obama media is manufacturing reality to fit the sellout

    • Interesting, especially considering in July that the NBC/WSJ polling reported that 76% wanted a public option.

      Click to access 090617_NBC-WSJ_poll_Full.pdf

      (see 34b)

    • correction: it’s 34a, not 34b

      NBC/WSJ polling is trickery. They have that one poll in July that shows that 76% think having the choice between a public option and private plans is important.

      Then they have that other poll from July that says 46% back a public option and 44% oppose.

      Now 47% oppose, and only 43% back it.

      So what about the 30-33% who thought having a public option as a choice was important? They don’t think it is important now? NBC/WSJ need to ask the question they asked in July about whether people think having the choice between a public option and private plans is important to them! When it’s phrased that way I think people become more open to the public option because it is posed as a CHOICE.

      • They changed the wording between June and July. Added that that the government plan would be designed to compete with the private for=profit insurers. I’ll try to find the link. My memor is not exact.

    • Ack, I kept saying the 76% poll was in July but I meant June. I wish there was an edit button on here.

  13. Well SOD I was only a little bit joking—the reality is as you comment here; vast quantities of animals that eat grasses in confined feed lots do add measurably to the methane in the atmosphere. I don’t think the confinement makes much difference—it’s the number of all the cows.

  14. Someone joked above about cows farting, but one important step one can take is to stop eating meat. Cows and other animals raised for food contribute greatly to the methane levels. Plus, the energy expended to raise and slaughter the animal is greater than the energy the food creates.

    There are other sources of food that are more environmentally friendly and still provide us with the nutrients.

    Veggies = yum.


    • Wholeheartedly agree, Sod. Everyone should watch one of those undercover slaughterhouse films-they would never eat meat again. I really get annoyed with those “I love steak so too bad for the environment” people-I hope they choke on methane first so I can watch. Maybe that’s a bit harsh but you get the idea. lol.

  15. All the news about climate this year seems to be that it’s worse than predicted, and scarier and scarier, and yet there seem to be more skeptics all the time. I have little hope left for the world as we know it. I just hope something better is created from the ashes.

    I read that the methane comes from cows burping, not farting.

  16. Sorry, Deni, but it may take millions of years for life to re-evolve on the planet after we’re all wiped out by global warming. I feel so sad for my kids, and grandkids.

    And the animals humans eat and mistreat — it’s horrific.

    Here we have a perfectly good planet with wonderful sentient beings on it, and the human race has blown it away. I’d like to think there’s hope but the methane bubbles will probably do us in.

    • Admittedly, if we generate a runaway greenhouse effect, it really could be the end of all things. But that outcome really does have a *very* low probability. Much less than 1%, I think.

      The likely scenario, according to people who’ve done a lot of data and math, is that the worst effects will be in the global South, with excess deaths of near-two billion people. (I wonder what that will do for the outpouring of “illegal” aliens?) The industrialized countries are likely to suffer 20% or more drops in their economic output, equivalent to a Really Great Depression. That wouldn’t be pretty, but they don’t expect the same scale of collapse as the poor countries.

      It’d be a very different society, and technology may well take several steps backward, but how awful it is depends on whether social justice gets even worse or whether it gets better.

      I mean, imagine life at the level of medieval technology, but with social justice. Resources fairly shared. No pollution. Education and health care to the extent possible for all. Some kinds of poverty are worse than others.

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