Wyrd - OE: that which has become; fate-shaping; destiny-unfolding

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Of monsters, methane and the burdensome sea

It's the ultimate tipping point - the so-called Methane Burp. Gigatons (Gt) of methane are released into the atmosphere by some sudden phase change in the earth's climate system.
Plumes of methane in Arctic Ocean (Westbrook et al, 2009)

With its vastly greater global warming potential - up to 100 times more powerful than CO2, over short timescales - a sudden pulse of methane would accelerate human-caused global warming. It could even cause a cascade of other knock-on effects (Amazon deforestation, collapse of the ice-sheets) so creating a runaway greenhouse effect.

It's that sort of a scenario - with 50Gt of methane gushing from a source in the Arctic over 10-20 years - that was recently modeled by economists in Nature. They put a $60 trillion price tag for the global economy from the consequences of ratcheting upwards man-made climate change. A scary monster, made even more real by describing it in the language our leaders understand most - hard cash.

But the Methane Burp is also complete fantasy - at least according to some recent detractors. Many climate scientists believe the methane locked up in frozen soils, or the curious, icy 'methane-hydrates' under the sea-floor, are a real threat - but only as a slow-burn cooker for the globe's climate. As the planet warms, the natural emissions from these sources will increase, they believe. But not at a rate that will be catastrophic. They struggle to see how anything like as large as 50,000 million tonnes of methane can erupt so quickly from Arctic permafrost, or sub-sea methane hydrates. Such sources have been thought to have been stable in the recent geological past.