Then There’s This
Permafrost further complicates a hot-and-sticky climate situation.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Climate Change: Read More
As the earth gets warmer, the upper circle of the planet has slowly started bubbling, unleashing gases that if you’re not worried about, you should be.
The Arctic permafrost – the layer of ancient organic matter like dead plants and animals sitting frozen atop the earth’s crust – encircles a vast northern region from Siberia to Alaska to Canada, and is believed to hold twice as much carbon dioxide as is currently in the earth’s atmosphere.
Organic matter that has been frozen since the last Ice Age, at least 12,000 years, is heating up. And in the southern parts of the permafrost, it’s starting to thaw.
Complicating matters: As the permafrost thaws, it typically off-gases as methane, which is almost 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2.
This is where the term “positive feedback loop” enters the equation: If the greenhouse gas levels are above a certain point in the atmosphere, they will keep the earth warm enough to continue melting the permafrost, which will then off-gas enough methane to perpetuate global warming despite reductions in carbon emissions by humans.
The accepted line that has been drawn to stave off this cataclysmic loop is 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere, which was introduced by NASA scientist James Hansen in 2007. (It has since inspired climate change organizations such as Bill McKibben’s 350.org.) The earth’s atmosphere is currently above 390 ppm and rising, and despite the Kyoto Protocol and ongoing political talk over the last decade about reducing emissions, results have been elusive.
While it’s easy to blame the fossil-fuel industry – they’ve certainly lobbied against alternative energies – it’s also important to put in perspective just how much energy we consume. According to a recent article in The New Yorker (“The Climate Fixers,” May 14), humans now consume 3 cubic miles of oil every year – a trillion gallons of gas. To replace even one of those miles with carbon-neutral energy would require weekly construction of new atomic plants for 50 years, or thousands upon thousands of windmills.
There is a burgeoning branch of science, geoengineering, that seeks a solution amid the realities of our trajectory. Whether it’s altering the weather by injecting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere (mimicking the effects of a 1991 volcanic eruption in the Phillipines that reduced the sunlight reaching the earth by over 10 percent), constructing carbon sinks, or stirring up the ocean to absorb more carbon, geoengineers are attempting to address a problem that most of us would rather ignore.
Any solutions, at this point, are complex and messy, and attempting to engineer the weather could indeed be catastrophic.
Nonetheless, the most certain path to disaster is the one we are currently taking: doing nothing.