This is a journal entry I hoped I would never have to write. For most of my career, I have been fighting to prevent this, to slow it down or at least to plan for it.
What is happening is that methane hydrates are melting in the Arctic Ocean and along the US Atlantic seaboard. The methane they are releasing is adding to that already pouring out of tundra in Siberia, Alaska and Canada.
While methane releases have been taking place for the past 10 years, there is no precedent for what is happening now, and it isn’t reflected in global warming models. If the melt of methane hydrates commences an exponential expansion, which is what previous interglacial climaxes suggest will happen, we are could be dealing within less than a generation with a situation that will not be survivable for civilization, and possibly even not for our species.
The reason for this is that the temperature spike that is going to take place will profoundly disrupt things like rainfall, growing seasons, and even the viability of the human body. Summer temperatures across southern China, central and southern India, the middle section of the United States, southern Europe and North Africa could reach into the 130s Fahrenheit. (Many other areas would also be affected, and there would be no part of the globe without very substantial temperature increases.)
This is not a livable temperature for human beings, not for long, and there is not a single global warming model that predicts this.
However, if a methane spike takes place, it will happen.
Now that it has started, the methane release will not stop. How fast it will build is anybody’s guess, but it will build.
It’s a great tragedy that the debate about this was between the left, which took the position that pollution was entirely the problem and the right, which claimed that there was no problem.
Sadly, the reality, which is that carbon dioxide emissions generated by human activity was dangerously speeding up a natural process, was never part of the debate at all.
The result of this is that we have wasted too much time, and now it’s too late. Whatever cards nature deals us, those are the cards we are going to have to play. Unfortunately, those are going to be some very ugly cards indeed.
The most immediate problem in the Americas is likely to be drought. The eastern Pacific has warmed to record levels, and unless tropical rains roll over the US southwest, it’s likely that the drought presently taking place there will not be relieved this winter. In that case, areas of California and Arizona are going to be without water. Should the drought continue for another year, which is far from impossible, it will become the greatest environmental catastrophe in American history.
Indeed, drought is going to be a problem in much of the world, as increasing temperatures intensify evaporation. For example, it’s likely that the drought in the western US will extend into the Midwest next year, resulting in crop disruptions that could become extensive and, ultimately, catastrophic.
The reason for all this is that methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, 130 times more efficient at retaining heat than carbon dioxide. However, unlike carbon dioxide, methane dissipates in a relatively short period of time, with the result that, forty or so years after the last of the outgassing, the methane will be gone. But the outgassing, once started–as it has–enforces a warmer and warmer arctic regime, which causes more and more outgassing. Because the tonnage of trapped hydrates is so enormous, this can continue for thousands of years.
Should there be any human life left when the process completes and the next ice age begins, it will be far, far less than it is now, with the result that it will not contribute any warming effect. When the methane dissipates, all of that retained heat will be released into space and there will come a year in which the snow cover in northern latitudes survives the summer. From then on, a substantial ice cover will begin to grow until it becomes a new glacier.
By that time, this civilization will be a distant memory, a legend, no doubt, of a golden age in which the future will find difficult to believe.
How I wish that it had been different. I feel that I could have done so much more, but I simply could not break through into the center of the debate, which was where I needed to be.
Now, planning no longer matters. It might help a little to reduce our CO2 emissions, but I would be surprised if it mattered all that much.
What we have done is to hasten the end of the interglacial during which our whole history has unfolded. Instead of planning for the inevitable, we have made it worse.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare has Puck say of the young Athenians, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
Oh, Puck, you were wiser than ever you dreamed.