More frightened.

This is a few days old, I was too dismayed to bear posting about it. But it has gotten remarkbly little attention.

The world’s largest frozen peat bog is melting, which could speed the rate of global warming, New Scientist reports.

The huge expanse of western Siberia is thawing for the first time since its formation, 11,000 years ago.

The area, which is the size of France and Germany combined, could release billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

This could potentially act as a tipping point, causing global warming to snowball, scientists fear.

“This is a big deal because you can’t put the permafrost back once it’s gone. The causal effect is human activity and it will ramp up temperatures even more than our emissions are doing.”

The intergovernmental panel on climate change speculated in 2001 that global temperatures would rise between 1.4C and 5.8C between 1990 and 2100.

However these estimates only considered global warming sparked by known greenhouse gas emissions.

“These positive feedbacks with landmasses weren’t known about then,” Dr Viner said. “They had no idea how much they would add to global warming.”

Back in June, I wrote on some related frightening news. I’ll point again to this six years old Atlantic article, which is dated, and by a layman, but I think very informative, a good primer.

This New Yorker series (1, 2, 3) was quite gloomy and unsettling, but is already dated; things are looking bleaker now.

18 thoughts on “More frightened.

  1. This is, indeed, huge news, if confirmed (New Scientist rocks, but the story is based on a presentation from the researchers, not a peer-reviewed/confirmed report).

    There is a possible way of mitigating the worst of the problem, but it’s going to be controversial: genetic modification of existing methane-eating bacteria to (a) eat more methane and (b) live in Siberia.

    I cover the details and the underlying questions here:

  2. I’ve heard about the melting of the permafrost before, years back. At that point they weren’t really sure how and when it was going to happen. Now they are sure its going to happen.

    Pity there isn’t a way to collect/mine/harvest that methane (yet). Would be a collective win for everyone involved.

  3. This is big news, because the amount of methane involved (70 billion tonnes) is some 15 times the amount of methane currently in the atmosphere. However, methane has a fairly short residence time in the atmosphere (around a decade) so the real question is, how fast will this happen.

    70 billions tonnes of methane added to the atmosphere in less than a decade would likely be enough to produce the global warming nightmare scenario: some 10 C average temperature rise, melting polar caps, widespread drought and famine, catastrophic storms, for some 20 years or so.

    70 billion tonnes of methane added to the atmosphere over a century is well within the uncertainties in IPCC’s anthropogenic methane production model, and makes a noticeable but small difference.

    So the question we really want to know the answer to is, how fast is the atmospheric methane concentration rising? The data I’ve seen are interesting: while atmospheric methane increased rapidly throughout the 20th century, the rate of increase slowed during the 1990s, and in the period 1999-2002, it appears to have levelled off. I haven’t seen any peer-reviewed work on more recent measurements, but we can say that if methane outgassing from high-latitude wetlands is significantly effecting the global methane balance, it has only begun to do so very recently.

  4. Just send a few ten or hundred million Chinese out there to dig it all up and convert it to energy.

    Problem solved.

  5. Here is something I’ve never understood. Doesn’t the existance of a frozen peat bog in Siberia strongly argue for the fact that the world used to be much warmer?

  6. Why is this hard to understand, Sebastian? Because it contradicts intelligent design, Noah’s ark, and the theory of your beloved president that the earth is 6000 years old?

  7. Here is something I’ve never understood. Doesn’t the existance of a frozen peat bog in Siberia strongly argue for the fact that the world used to be much warmer

    Yes, of course. We are living in an ice age. An interglacial to be precise.

    That doesn’t mean that all interglacials are equally warm, nor that the arrangement of climate zones is unchanging. Fundamentally speaking the fact that Antarctica is on the south pole and full of ice and the north arctic ocean almost closed cannot change for several million years, but there is a lot of variation still possible. This planet cannot return to a pantropical state.

  8. Sebastian,

    I?m not an expert but from the reading I?ve done, I?d say that, yes, earth was sometimes warmer during earlier periods.
    (Including that – depending on the period in question – the continents were in a different position too.)

    Problem is:
    – transition from one “stabile” climate state to
    another one involves a highly unpredictable
    “transition period”. Something which is probably
    pretty disturbing regarding the current
    population levels on earth. During the last ice
    age the human population numbered what?
    Less than 100 million?
    The human population now is around 6 billion.
    (Unless you don?t have a problem with the
    probable death of millions of people due to lack
    of food, due to natural disasters etc. .)

    – A generally warmer earth climate doesn?t predict
    anything for a SPECIAL region on earth.
    Meaning that while average earth temperatures
    might rise, they might drop too in SPECIFIC
    Like melting Greenland ice might disturb the
    gulf stream. While that might not disturb you,
    it upsets us wimpy Europeans somewhat. 🙂
    So we might face either a Sahara desert in Italy
    and Spain or – maybe – face a new little ice-age
    in Europe.

    The point is that we don?t know what will happen!
    And since we – the population in Western countries like the USA and Europe – are right now pretty comfortable in our own countries, it might be a bad idea to upset that balance.

  9. The point is that we don?t know what will happen!
    And since we – the population in Western countries like the USA and Europe – are right now pretty comfortable in our own countries, it might be a bad idea to upset that balance.

    You are asking the impossible.
    Either globale warming is not real. Then the discussion is moot.
    Or it is not anthropogenic. Then the world will become warmer.
    Or it is real and anthropogenic. Then we have a problem. And a choice. We can either let it become warmer. Or we can cut CO2 generation drastically. You are kidding yourself if you assume that that would not involve drastic change in everyday life. We are talking about abolishing the motor car as a common household good. That is a reversal of much of the 20th century.

  10. “Either globale warming is not real.”

    Oh, I think global warming is real alright, it is just that the consequences of it don’t seem very clear.

    “Like melting Greenland ice might disturb the gulf stream.”

    I think this is the point. We don’t understand the mechanisms sufficiently to be able to forsee very clearly, so I think moving on these grounds right now might be a bad idea. A lot will also depend on time scales – eg Siberia right now is warming a lot more than other places, so you could think that this would be a better – if somewhat inhospitable – place to be, but thirty or forty years from now this trend might reverse. It’s all very complicated, basically it seems to be to do with dynamic systems and shocks, with global warming acting as a shock.

    A very interesting read on the joint topic of evolution and abrupt climatic change can be found in “A Brain For All Seasons” by fellow bonobo lover William H Calvin, the complete text of the book can be found online here , while a useful summary of the arguments for the cooling threat from oceanographer Robert B. Gagosian is located here.

  11. so I think moving on these grounds right now might be a bad idea

    You cannot help but move.
    Any level of carbon dioxide emission will have consequences. There’s no reason to think that the climate would stay as it is without emissions. In the long run, for an unknown quantity of long, this is certainly false.
    No policy is a policy, too.

  12. “You cannot help but move……No policy is a policy, too”

    I think you misunderstood me. I meant moving home, country, geographical time zone, whatever , since it isn’t clear whether you should go North young man, or south :).

    Of course I think we need policy changes, although I’m not very optimistic we will get them quick enough.

  13. The last time there was a major change in temperature global sealevels increased 40 meters in a few hunderd years. If this happens again than cities like Istanbul, Lagos, London and Tokyo will have to be moved which would cost an unbelieveable amount of money

  14. sealevels increased 40 meters

    That is physically impossible today. The very worst case would be Greenland free of ice, which would mean between 5 and 10 meters. Realistically we’d stay below 5 meters. Bad, but not impossibly so.

  15. Oliver, you’re forgetting Antarctic ice, and it’s a little bit greater that Greenland internal ice.


  16. It cannot melt, at least most of it.
    Antarctica still is on the South Pole and the circumpolar current will keep warmer water from getting there. It has been being covered with ice for longer than the current ice age.
    In fact, the ice sheet may grow due to increased snowfall.

  17. Another difference is that ten thousand years ago was that the Sahara was a really nice place to be in. Akin to the drier parts of the american grain belt

Comments are closed.