Thus Spake Zuska

The Permafrost Is Releasing Methane Now?

I read this article in the LA Times about Russians racing to claim the seabed under the Arctic ice as their territory, other nations fussing that it’s really theirs, and everybody ignoring that the only way they can even have this argument is because the damn ice is melting away. Only it’s even worse than I realized. Because it isn’t just the ice melting away.

Now the permafrost is thawing on land and along the seabeds. If it occurs in the presence of oxygen on land, the decomposing of organic matter leads to the production of CO2. If the permafrost thaws along lake shelves, in the absence of oxygen, the decomposing matter releases methane. Methane is the most potent of the greenhouse gases, with a greenhouse effect 23 times that of CO2.

Katey Walter of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks wrote in the journal Nature last year, and in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in May, that the melting of the permafrost and subsequent release of methane is a “ticking time bomb.”

Walter and her researchers warned of a tipping point sometime within this century, when the release of methane could create an uncontrollable feedback effect, dramatically warming the atmosphere, which would in turn warm the land, lakes and seabed, further melting the permafrost and releasing more methane. Once that threshold is reached, there will be nothing humans can do. Scientists suspect that similar events have occurred in the ancient past, between glacial periods…A global tragedy of monumental proportions is unfolding at the top of the world, and the human race is all but oblivious to what’s happening.

Well, I’m not oblivious anymore, but I am whimpering and wanting to curl up in the fetal position under my blanket. I know I’m supposed to react to news about climate change and global warming with a positive, can-do attitude and go out there and reduce my carbon footprint and lobby for better energy policy and long for the day when Dubya is just a bad memory and we can get down to some serious work on saving the earth, but every freaking day I read some horrifying thing like this on the internet or in my local paper, and frankly, I’m feeling a little bit hopeless.

Cheerful thoughts, anyone?


  1. #1 Max Kaehn
    August 9, 2007

    If we render the Earth uninhabitable, a wiser species might figure out our mistakes from archaeological records and not make them for itself.

  2. #2 Addy N.
    August 9, 2007

    Yeah- it’s pretty much bad news all around when you talk about global warming & climate change. The only people claiming that there is an “up side” are all on Fox News.

  3. #3 carey
    August 9, 2007

    Unfortunately, the public does not want to waste time actually learning any facts about the problem, and there are many factions happy to dissemble, so the wakeup call will probably be sometime mid-century when killer droughts hit a large part of Africa and Asia.
    It is especially galling watching the energy lobbyists actively search out misinformation in order to maximize short term profits. And we need to remember that some fundamentalists actively seek the end of days.

  4. #4 bigTom
    August 9, 2007

    At least as of a year ago the claim was that the flux of permafrost methane was pretty small. Also I recall the climatologists claimed there is no evidence that the rapid warming at the end of the ice age set up a catastrophic feedback loop. Here’s to hoping that this holds up this time as well ;->

    As long as the methane oxidizes, you get the 23x reduction. Of perhaps greater concern is the vast amount of peat in permafrost soils. If this stuff melts then dries up it is vulnerable to fire.

  5. #5 Ian
    August 10, 2007

    “Also I recall the climatologists claimed there is no evidence that the rapid warming at the end of the ice age set up a catastrophic feedback loop.”

    I’ve heard that too, but unfortunately, this isn’t a rapid warming at the end of an ice age, it’s rapid warming at the end of a cool period. I’d be more impressed if researchers were doing parallel comparisons instead of meaningless ones!

  6. #6 Daryl
    August 10, 2007

    Not to worry, the temperature increase to release the permafrost methane is estimated at a sustained mean increase of 5C. So you got a minute or two.

  7. #7 llewelly
    August 12, 2007

    No matter how bad global warming gets, more greenhouse gases will cause faster warming, and higher temperatures at any eventual stabilization. So – permafrost releasing methane or no, reducing emissions is still better than not.

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