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
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 : http://www.energybulletin.net/newswire.php?id=3647
Original article : http://www.commondreams.org/views04/1215-24.htm
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
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
"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
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