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The Edge of Climate Change

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Giant Methane Plumes Could Fast-Track Planetary Warming

December 25th 2011

Environment Topics - Siberian Glacier

Recent discoveries have confirmed scientists’ longstanding fears that global warming would catalyze the release of millions of tons of potential greenhouse gas emissions locked up in ice and permafrost in the great white north.

Layer after layer of plant debris that has not yet decomposed lies trapped in arctic and subarctic permafrost. As global temperatures rise and this perennial ice begins to melt, previously frozen organic matter will thaw out and decompose, releasing huge quantities of greenhouse gases into our already saturated atmosphere.

This may not seem like such an earth-shattering phenomenon, but scientists are deeply troubled since there’s a strong chance that methane (CH4) will be released—as it is in anaerobic wetland conditions—which does not bode well for planetary warming since it is 21 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide (CO2).

Nearly a quarter of the northern hemisphere is underlain by permafrost that contains twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere, according an article in The New York Times. This amounts to nearly 2 trillion tons of carbon in soils of the northern regions, 88 percent of which is “locked in permafrost,” according to Canadian scientist Charles Tarnocai and colleagues.

The New York Times reports:

For now, scientists have many more questions than answers. Preliminary computer analyses, made only recently, suggest that the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions could eventually become an annual source of carbon equal to 15 percent or so of today’s yearly emissions from human activities.

But those calculations were deliberately cautious. A recent survey drew on the expertise of 41 permafrost scientists to offer more informal projections. They estimated that if human fossil-fuel burning remained high and the planet warmed sharply, the gases from permafrost could eventually equal 35 percent of today’s annual human emissions.

Meanwhile, Yahoo news reports that Russian scientists have discovered “hundreds of plumes of methane gas, some 1,000 meters in diameter, bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean.” Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences told the UK Independent that thousands more of these giant gurgling methane pots could be lurking in the ice between the Russian mainland and the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Having more heat-trapping greenhouse gases in our atmosphere will exacerbate many of the climate change problems we are already beginning to face, include rising temperatures, biodiversity loss, drought and famine, water scarcity, and an upsurge in the expense and intensity of certain natural disasters.

But here’s the good news: if we can scale back human-caused carbon emissions and therefore reduce the rate at which the planet is heating up, most researchers believe we can slow down the rate at which this methane will be released into the atmosphere.

Tafline Laylin writes for Green Prophet, from where this article is adapted.


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