For the second day in a row, we have some really disturbing news coming out of the Far North regarding the pace at which climate change is hurtling forward. (The first was this Western Exposure post.)
Charles J. Hanley of the Associated Press reports that in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the permafrost is melting and the Earth is burping out huge slugs of methane, one of the most potent of the greenhouse gases.
This methane has the potential to drive extremely rapid warming. It’s known as a feedback loop: As more methane escapes, it traps more heat in the atmosphere, which in turn melts more permafrost, and so on.
It’s not that the earth has never gotten as hot as it apparently is about to get — there were once balmy beaches and tropical vegetation in Alaska, for instance.
But the pace at which this warming is occurring is giving scientists serious pause, Hanley reports:
Researchers say air temperatures here in northwest Canada, in Siberia and elsewhere in the Arctic have risen more than 4.5 degrees Farenheit since 1970 — much faster than the global average…
In 2007, air monitors detected a rise in methane concentrations in the atmosphere, apparently from far northern sources. Russian researchers in Siberia expressed alarm, warning of a potential surge in the powerful greenhouse gas, additional warming of several degrees, and unpredictable consequences for Earth’s climate.
The prospects are alarming enough thath Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in July told fellow climate scientists they should examine what “abrupt, irreversible climate change” from thawing permafrost might mean.
We should note that not all climate scientists — and by that we mean those publishing with some regularity in the peer-reviwed literature — believe the melting permafrost will move as quickly as others fear.
Nevertheless, it seems like something we need to get a handle on fast — at least enough to figure out whether the feedback loop has started to work yet, or not.
Hanley ends his piece by interviewing Canadian permafrost expert Chris Burn. Yes, that’s really his name. Burn’s take:
If we lost just 1 percent of the carbon in permafrost today, we’d be close to a year’s contributions from industrial sources, I don’t think policymakers have woken up to this. It’s not in their risk assessments…
I think we are playing with fire.