A massive, unexpected thaw that covers an area of Siberia the size of France and Germany combined is now releasing billions of tons of the super global warming gas methane into the atmosphere. This will cause the kind of methane spike that preceded the last period of extreme warming 15,000 years ago, which was followed by a violent change to a much different climate. This is poised to happen again.
Methane is 20 times as good at holding heat close to the earth as carbon dioxide, and the greatest ‘methane sink’ in the world is the Siberian permafrost. For years, scientists have warned that, if it melts suddenly, there will be a climate catastrophe. Such a melting process is taking place now, and if it extends into the autumn and is repeated with greater intensity in coming summers, the effects will be severe in just a very few years.
Unfortunately, the fact that Siberia is outgassing massive quantities of methane at this time means that the atmosphere is going to heat up much faster than climate scientists anticipated, and it is likely that future summer melts will be more intense, and will extend into the permafrost beneath the American arctic. Environmental scientists have long dreaded the day whenArctic permafrost would begin to melt seriously, and thatday is now at hand. From geologic records, we know that thelast great ice age began with a huge release of methane, butno one knows where all that methane came from. It could havecome from the ocean floor or from a peat bog just like this one.
Climate scientist Stephen Sitch says that western Siberia is heating up faster than anywhere else in the world. US climatologist Larry Smith warns that the Siberian peat bog could release 70 billion tons of methane, which is one-fourth of all the methane stored in the ground around the world. Smith has thought the Siberian permafrost would thawgradually, so it will not release its methane into the atmosphere in a single burst. However, a great deal of methane was released into the atmosphere all at once in the distant past, so it could happen again, and the unprecedented situation that ishappening now is an indication that the melt will be fastand extensive.
Climatologist David Viner says that even if the methane gradually seeped out of the permafrost over the next 100 years, it would still lead to a 10 to 25% increase in global warming. 700 billion tons is about the same amount that is now released annually from agriculture around the world, so the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere would double.
Siberia’s peat bogs formed around 11,000 years ago, when the last ice age ended. They?ve been generating methane from rotting vegetation ever since, but it’s been harmlessly trapped beneath the frozen permafrost?until now. Climate researcher Karen Frey says if the bogs dry out as they get warmer, the methane will oxidize and be generated into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. But if the bogs remain wet, the methane itself will be released straight into the atmosphere. While both CO2 and methane are greenhouse gasses, methane is 20 better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide?which is much worse for the future of the Earth.
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