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Published on Thursday, December 16, 2004 by Baltimore Sun (Common Dreams)

                        Methane Burps: Ticking Time Bomb

By John Atcheson

The Arctic Council's recent report on the effects 
of global warming in the far north paints a grim 
picture: global floods, extinction of polar bears 
and other marine mammals, collapsed fisheries. 
But it ignored a ticking time bomb buried in the 
Arctic tundra.

There are enormous quantities of naturally 
occurring greenhouse gasses trapped in ice-like 
structures in the cold northern muds and at the 
bottom of the seas. These ices, called 
clathrates, contain 3,000 times as much methane 
as is in the atmosphere. Methane is more than 20 
times as strong a greenhouse gas as carbon 

Now here's the scary part. A temperature increase 
of merely a few degrees would cause these gases 
to volatilize and "burp" into the atmosphere, 
which would further raise temperatures, which 
would release yet more methane, heating the Earth 
and seas further, and so on. There's 400 gigatons 
of methane locked in the frozen arctic tundra - 
enough to start this chain reaction - and the 
kind of warming the Arctic Council predicts is 
sufficient to melt the clathrates and release 
these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Once triggered, this cycle could result in 
runaway global warming the likes of which even 
the most pessimistic doomsayers aren't talking 

An apocalyptic fantasy concocted by hysterical 
environmentalists? Unfortunately, no. Strong 
geologic evidence suggests something similar has 
happened at least twice before.

The most recent of these catastrophes occurred 
about 55 million years ago in what geologists 
call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), 
when methane burps caused rapid warming and 
massive die-offs, disrupting the climate for more 
than 100,000 years.

The granddaddy of these catastrophes occurred 251 
million years ago, at the end of the Permian 
period, when a series of methane burps came close 
to wiping out all life on Earth.

More than 94 percent of the marine species 
present in the fossil record disappeared suddenly 
as oxygen levels plummeted and life teetered on 
the verge of extinction. Over the ensuing 500,000 
years, a few species struggled to gain a foothold 
in the hostile environment. It took 20 million to 
30 million years for even rudimentary coral reefs 
to re-establish themselves and for forests to 
regrow. In some areas, it took more than 100 
million years for ecosystems to reach their 
former healthy diversity.

Geologist Michael J. Benton lays out the 
scientific evidence for this epochal tragedy in a 
recent book, When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest 
Mass Extinction of All Time. As with the PETM, 
greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide from 
increased volcanic activity, warmed the earth and 
seas enough to release massive amounts of methane 
from these sensitive clathrates, setting off a 
runaway greenhouse effect.

The cause of all this havoc?

In both cases, a temperature increase of about 
10.8 degrees Fahrenheit, about the upper range 
for the average global increase today's models 
predict can be expected from burning fossil fuels 
by 2100. But these models could be the tail 
wagging the dog since they don't add in the 
effect of burps from warming gas hydrates. Worse, 
as the Arctic Council found, the highest 
temperature increases from human greenhouse gas 
emissions will occur in the arctic regions - an 
area rich in these unstable clathrates.

If we trigger this runaway release of methane, 
there's no turning back. No do-overs. Once it 
starts, it's likely to play out all the way.

Humans appear to be capable of emitting carbon 
dioxide in quantities comparable to the volcanic 
activity that started these chain reactions. 
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, burning 
fossil fuels releases more than 150 times the 
amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes - 
the equivalent of nearly 17,000 additional 
volcanoes the size of Hawaii's Kilauea.

And that is the time bomb the Arctic Council ignored.

How likely is it that humans will cause methane 
burps by burning fossil fuels? No one knows. But 
it is somewhere between possible and likely at 
this point, and it becomes more likely with each 
passing year that we fail to act.

So forget rising sea levels, melting ice caps, 
more intense storms, more floods, destruction of 
habitats and the extinction of polar bears. 
Forget warnings that global warming might turn 
some of the world's major agricultural areas into 
deserts and increase the range of tropical 
diseases, even though this is the stuff we're 
pretty sure will happen.

Instead, let's just get with the Bush 
administration's policy of pre-emption. We can't 
afford to have the first sign of a failed energy 
policy be the mass extinction of life on Earth. 
We have to act now.

John Atcheson, a geologist, has held a variety of 
policy positions in several federal government 

   2004 Baltimore Sun
  Article found at :

  Original article :


                    U.S. Waters Down Global Commitment
                   To Curb Greenhouse Gases

   By Larry Rohter
   The New York Times
   Sunday 19 December 2004

   BUENOS AIRES - Two weeks of negotiations at a 
United Nations conference here on climate change 
ended early Saturday with a weak pledge to start 
limited, informal talks on ways to slow down 
global warming, after the United States blocked 
efforts to begin more substantive discussions.

   The main focus was to discuss the Kyoto 
Protocol on global warming, which goes into force 
on Feb. 16 and will require industrial nations to 
make substantial cuts in their emissions of 
so-called greenhouse gases. But another goal had 
been to draw the United States, which withdrew 
from the accord in 2001, back into discussions 
about ways to mitigate climate change after 2012, 
when the Kyoto agreement expires.

   Governments that are already committed to 
reducing emissions under the Kyoto plan used 
diplomatic language to express their 
disappointment at the American position. 
Environmental groups, however, were more critical 
of what they characterized as obstructionism.

   "This is a new low for the United States, not 
just to pull out, but to block other countries 
from moving ahead on their own path," said Jeff 
Fiedler, an observer representing the 
Washington-based Natural Resources Defense 
Council. "It's almost spiteful to say, 'You can't 
move ahead without us.' If you're not going to 
lead, then get out of the way."

   Because the United States rejects the Kyoto 
accord, it cannot take part except as an observer 
in talks on global warming held under that 
format. It has, however, signed a broader 1992 
convention on climate change that is based on 
purely voluntary measures, and the European Union 
and others had hoped to organize seminars within 
that framework.

   But the United States maintains it is too early 
to take even that step, and initially insisted 
that "there shall be no written or oral report" 
from any seminars. In the end, all that could be 
achieved was an agreement to hold a single 
workshop next year to "exchange information" on 
climate change.

   "We are very flexible, but not at all costs," 
said Pieter van Geel, state secretary of the 
environment for the Netherlands and president of 
the European Union delegation. "It must be a 
meaningful seminar" with "a report somewhere," he 
added. "These are very modest things when you 
start a discussion."

   Delegations and observer groups also criticized 
what they described as an effort led by Saudi 
Arabia and supported by the United States to 
hamper approval of so-called adaptation 
assistance. That term refers to payments that 
richer countries would make, mostly to poor, 
low-lying island countries to help them cope with 
the impacts of climate change.

    The group that would receive the aid includes 
Pacific Ocean states like Tuvalu, Kiribati, the 
Marshall Islands and Micronesia, and Caribbean 
nations like the Bahamas and Barbados. At a news 
conference here on Thursday, their 
representatives said rising sea levels, 
accelerated land erosion and more intense storms 
were already affecting their economic development.

   But the issue was complicated by Saudi Arabia's 
insistence that the aid include compensation to 
oil-producing countries for any fall in revenues 
that may result from the reduction in the use of 
carbon fuels. The European Union, which had 
announced its intention to provide $400 million a 
year to an assistance fund, strongly opposed any 
such provision.

   Harlan Watson, a senior member of the American 
delegation, would not specifically discuss the 
American position other than to say there are 
"always tos and fros in any negotiation." He 
described the results as "the most comprehensive 
adaptation package that has ever been completed," 
and "something that satisfied all parties."

   The United States also stood virtually alone in 
challenging the scientific assumptions underlying 
the Kyoto Protocol. "Science tells us that we 
cannot say with any certainty what constitutes a 
dangerous level of warming, and therefore what 
level must be avoided," Paula Dobriansky, under 
secretary of state for global affairs and the 
leader of the American delegation, said in her 
remarks to the conference.

   At a side meeting organized by insurance 
companies, however, concerns were expressed about 
rapidly rising payments resulting from more 
severe and frequent hurricanes, heat waves and 
flooding. Representatives of major European 
reinsurance companies described 2004 as "the 
costliest year for the insurance industry 
worldwide" and warned that worse is likely to 

   Thomas Loster, a climate expert at the Munich 
Re insurance group, estimated that the cost of 
disasters will rise to as much as $95 billion 
annually, compared to an average of $70 billion 
over the past decade. Experts here acknowledge 
that extreme weather patterns have always 
existed, but maintain that their frequency and 
intensity has been increasing because of global 

   "There is more and more evidence building up 
that indicates that whatever is going on is not 
natural and is no longer within the realm of 
variability," said Alden Meyer, policy director 
of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Enough 
research has been done, especially in the Arctic, 
he added, to establish that "we are starting to 
see the impact of human interference" and "a 
clear pattern of human-induced climate change."

   Those sharply different perceptions led to a 
clash even over what language should be used in 
discussing disaster relief. Bush administration 
emissaries opposed the use of the phrase "climate 
change," employed since the days of the first 
Bush administration, in favor of "climate 
variability," a much more nebulous term.

 : t r u t h o u t 2004
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