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Let Us Now Sing About the Warmed Earth

Posted on Jul 29, 2013
Subhankar Banerjee

By Subhankar Banerjee, ClimateStoryTellers

This piece first appeared at ClimateStoryTellers.

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On July 25 the journal Nature published an article about the “Economic time bomb” that is slowly being detonated by Arctic warming. Gail Whiteman of Erasmus University in the Netherlands, and Chris Hope and Peter Wadhams of the University of Cambridge suggest—based on economic modeling that the “release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea” would come with an “average global price tag of $60 trillion.” The news should have sent a shock wave through the media. But instead, predictably, the public were encouraged to celebrate—again and again, and again—the birth of the royal son.

My first encounter with methane release in the Arctic was in early August 2006. It was a grey, cold day along the Beaufort Sea coast in Alaska. Iñupiaq conservationist Robert Thompson and I were walking along the northwest corner of Barter Island when we came across a rather ghastly scene: an exposed coffin with human bones scattered around it. The permafrost (frozen soil) had melted away and exposed the coffin. Robert speculated that a grizzly bear broke open the coffin and scattered the human remains. What we didn’t see, however, is the methane that was released from thawing of the permafrost.

Permafrost melted away and exposed the coffin, Barter Island, Alaska. Photo by Subhankar Banerjee, August 2006.

Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas that causes global warming and is more than twenty times more potent than CO2. Large amount of methane is stored in the Arctic—both terrestrial and subsea. It is released in two ways: when permafrost on land thaws from warming, the soil decomposes and gradually releases methane. In the seabed, methane is stored as a methane gas or hydrate, and is released when the subsea permafrost thaws from warming. The methane release from the seabed can be larger and more abrupt than through decomposition of the terrestrial permafrost.

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In 2007, the extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean hit a record low—30 percent below average. This event spurred a study by scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSID) in Boulder, Colorado. The team used climate models to understand if the “unusually low sea–ice extent and warm land temperatures were related.” In 2008 they published results from their study in Geophysical Research Letters. They found:

The rate of climate warming over northern Alaska, Canada, and Russia could more than triple during periods of rapid sea ice loss … The findings raise concerns about the thawing of permafrost …  and the potential consequences for sensitive ecosystems, human infrastructure, and the release of additional greenhouse gases [CO2 and CH4].

This was alarming news because Arctic permafrost holds “30 percent or more of all the carbon stored in soils worldwide.” In reality, the Arctic sea ice is continuing to retreat at a rapid pace. The August–September sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean had set a new record low last year: 18 per cent below the previous record of 2007.

As permafrost thaws, ponds connect with the groundwater system, which lead to drying of streams, lakes and wetlands. Permafrost thawing also accelerates rates of contaminant transfer that have toxic effects on aquatic plants, fish and other animals, and also increases transfer of pollutants to marine areas. This affects not only wildlife, but also indigenous peoples who depend on fish and other animals for subsistence resources.

The NCAR–NSID team found that the terrestrial permafrost was indeed melting in the real world: “Recent warming has degraded large sections of permafrost, with pockets of soil collapsing as the ice within it melts. The results include buckled highways, destabilized houses, and “drunken forests” of trees that lean at wild angles.”

Drunken Forest of larch trees, upper Kolyma River valley, Yakutia, Siberia, Photo by Subhankar Banerjee, November 2007.

In November 2007, Robert Thompson and I had seen large areas of “drunken forests” in Eastern Siberia, not far from where Stalin’s Gulag camps were, along the Kolyma River valley.

About the subsea methane release in the Arctic, I’m aware of only two studies: the decade–long and ongoing Shakhova–Semiletov climate science study in Eastern Siberia, and the Whiteman–Hope–Wadhams economic modeling that was published last week. Soon I’ll talk about both studies, but first a short journey through dystopia in a climate ravaged Earth.

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