This weekend, hundreds of thousands of people will take to the streets for the People’s Climate March, part of the biggest global protest ever to highlight the issue of climate change.

The march will take place in New York on September 21st, ahead of a major United Nations summit that is bringing together government leaders from around the globe to discuss this global emergency. Satellite marches will also take place in a variety of other locations around the world (see http://peoplesclimate.org/global/ for more details).

The march intends to try and shake the world into the realisation that the effects of climate change are very real, very serious, and already affecting us in a multitude of different ways. The latest scientific research studies are indicating that impending climactic disaster is a very clear and present danger, and the precarious structure that holds together our so-called advanced societies could soon be washed away – literally and metaphorically – by a torrent of global warming-related extreme weather events.

The worst case scenarios could get even worse: most previous models designed to predict the unraveling denouement of global warming have failed to take into consideration the growing threat to our environment posed by the release of large quantities of methane gases into the atmosphere. Huge quantities of methane are reported to be erupting from the seafloor of the East Siberian Sea and entering the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean. This phenomenon is becoming known as "the arctic methane bomb," and is said to be one of the most lethal dangers facing our planet today.

NASA has labeled the issue as a "sleeping giant," stating that Arctic permafrost soils contain more accumulated carbon than all the human fossil-fuel emissions since 1850 combined.

The situation has prompted one scientist to speak in very plain – and profane – terms. Jason Box PhD, a climate expert and author of the ice and climate blog "Meltfactor" has been quoted as saying: “Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we’re f****d.”

Carbon is locked up under the Arctic in methane, and but methane itself is an even more significant player in the carbon cycle, being twenty times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. Previously, scientists believed that leaking methane from under the sea bed would dissolve before they reach the surface of the ocean and be consumed by microorganisms, but, explained Box, what alarmed him was that ”the methane bubbles were reaching the surface. That was something new in my survey of methane bubbles,” he said. “If the plumes are making it to the surface, that’s a brand new source of heat-trapping gases that we need to worry about.

Box is incredibly concerned about the potential for this methane monster to heat up our planet to unforeseen levels.

“The Arctic is our most immediate carbon concern,” he said. “We’re on a trajectory to an unmanageable heating scenario, and we need to get off it.”

So what are the effects of this ticking methane time bomb likely to be?

In his book " Defining National Security: The Non-Military Aspects," Joseph J. Romm suggests that a sudden release of methane from the arctic tundra could lead to "a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions." Romm, an American author, blogger, physicist and climate expert, explains that, in addition to global warming and extreme weather events, some of the more lateral effects that climate change could pose include a threat to national security.

For those who still maintain that the climate change issue is an over-blown media hype, think again: the Pentagon is taking this threat very seriously indeed.

“For DoD, this is a mission reality, not a political debate,” said Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman. “The scientific forecast is for more Arctic ice melt, more sea-level rise, more intense storms, more flooding from storm surge, and more drought.

U.S. security experts are already aware that many conflicts across the globe were sparked by adverse weather conditions such as droughts or flooding. Consequently they are attempting to predict future changes and the impact they may have in different areas:

“Those changes shape the future operating environment, help us predict missions we’ll have to undertake, and create challenges and constraints on how we operate on our bases,” Wright said. “We’re taking sensible measured steps to mitigate the mission risk posed by climate change.”

Attempting to mitigate future security issues caused by climate change is a prudent precaution, but this does not solve the issue of climate change itself. Having identified methane as one of the most significant players in the global warming issue, do scientists know how its role will play out?

Though it is known to be a potent greenhouse gas, scientists admit that their knowledge regarding methane’s movements through the carbon cycle is still incomplete. Carbon exists in the atmosphere in two forms: carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CO4). Methane is a is a colorless, odorless gas that is widely distributed in nature. Methane levels have been steadily rising and are now more than twice what they were in the early 1800s.
Around half of the world’s methane is produced from wetlands, rivers and streams, gas hydrates on the ocean floor, and permafrost. It is also produced by cattle and other creatures in gas that forms as part of their natural digestive process; such digestive gas from termites, surprisingly, is the second largest source of global natural methane emissions. Bacteria feeding on organic matter in woodland environments is also considered to be a major methane producer, though generally forests are considered to be integral to rebalancing the earth’s atmosphere and deforestation has contributed vastly to the greenhouse gas burden in our atmosphere.

Forests are natural regulators of carbon dioxide, as they absorb the greenhouse gas, but diseased trees are also known to give off significant amounts of methane. The role of forests in the carbon cycle is currently the focus of a NASA space project, that is building a laser-based device to be based on the International Space Station, with a mission to create a 3-D map of the Earth’s forests.

The new system is called the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation lidar (GEDI),and is being built as part of a project that intends to ascertain the full extent forests’ role in the carbon cycle. The GEDI is one of two new devices being built as part of the Earth Venture Instrument program, which will help scientists to build up a complete picture of how trees and forests affect the carbon cycle, including how much carbon trees store, and what the carbon release — and environmental impact — is when forests are destroyed, releasing more carbon into our atmosphere.
The laser-based system is equipped with a trio of Goddard-developed lasers which will scan all land 50 degrees north and south of the Equator — covering most tropical and temperate forests, and emit quick pulses of light that can penetrate the dense canopy, without causing harm. The results will be reflected back to a detector in space.

While this amazing technology may help to ascertain both the positive and negative impacts of the world’s forests on global warming, the release of methane from beneath the Arctic is still most pressing issue facing our environment.

But is there anything that can be done to prevent the methane situation from worsening?

The Arctic News website details a comprehensive action plan to combat these effects, known as The Climate Plan. Good management of preventable methane wastes from cattle and wetlands form part of the plan. Methane is a highly combustible gas that can be utilised as fuel, and in China it is being used to fuel taxis and other vehicles. In fact, methane is a very clean source of energy which does not produce soot or lead or acid rain, and which has the highest energy content of all fossil fuels. So why don’t we turn the pollution into a solution?

China is already looking into the use of methane as part of its long-term energy plans, but is intending to utilise the methane produced in its coal beds. Harnessing methane from beneath the Arctic may not be so easy, but Japan has been successful at extracting natural gas from frozen methane hydrate off its central coast, in a world first. Other countries including Canada, the US and China have also been looking into ways of exploiting methane hydrate deposits, but this and all other related solutions will require swift and radical thinking by the world’s governments.

Let us hope that the upcoming summit recognises this need for prompt action, while we still have time to act.

Unknown Country recognised the methane issue years ago – read our archive of related stories here.