The northern polar regions are considered by many to be the main battle grounds when it comes to Climate Change. The slow melting of the planet’s ice caps are rapidly melting, which in turn leads to increasing sea levels, and an increase in the amount of solar radiation our oceans absorb. However, according to a new theory, the disappearance of the ice sheet might also release a “time bomb” of greenhouse gas.
The theory appeared in recent paper submitted to the journal Nature. which argued that warming temperatures could release 50 billion tons of methane currently frozen in the Arctic seabed. Because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, such a huge release could drastically speed up the rate at which the sea ice retreats, the amount of solar energy that the ocean absorbs, and exacerbate the ongoing melt.
It could also mean global temperatures rising more quickly, moving the world’s climate past generally-agreed-upon “tipping point” limits. Using the same methodology as the Stern Review, a landmark study from 2006. the papers authors – Gail Whiteman, Peter Wadhams, and Chris Hope of Cambridge University – put a price tag on the potential damage:
The release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia, alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action–a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion). The total cost of Arctic change will be much higher.
Using various scenarios, they say the methane could take from 10 to 50 years to emerge. But they’re clear about who’ll be hit hardest:
The economic consequences will be distributed around the globe, but the modeling shows that about 80% of them will occur in the poorer economies of Africa, Asia and South America. The extra methane magnifies flooding of low-lying areas, extreme heat stress, droughts and storms.
This is certainly consistent with existing Climate Change scenarios that predict the presence of severe drought in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and East Asia – the most populous regions of the Earth accounting for roughly 3 billion people.
However, there are those who dispute this theory beyond the usual crop of Climate Change deniers. According to these dissenting views, the methane is unlikely to escape to the atmosphere as quickly as the paper predicts, and that some of it could be broken down in the ocean.
But Nafeez Ahmed, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development, says these skeptics are relying on outdated models. The reality on the ground, as captured by scientists with the International Arctic Research Center, is that temperatures are rising faster than elsewhere and that current ice melt is consistent with the methane effect.
To make matters worse, even if the methane emerges slowly, it would still be catastrophic. The research performed by Whiteman, Wadham, and Hope shows that the effects will be the same, regardless of whether or the methane is released over a 50 year period or a 10 year period. The key is mitigating factors, which call for immediate and ongoing intervention to ensure that worst doesn’t happen.
Bad news indeed, and it further demonstrates the dangers of what is referred to as a the “feedback mechanism” of Climate Change. As things get worse, we can expect the rate at which they get worse to increase at every step. And considering the likely social, political and economic impact of these changes, the ramifications of these new predictions are dire indeed.