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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Cooking with gas -- Or: The Apocalypse Fart

The death of Robin Williams has caused some people to take another look at a riff he did more than a decade ago...
And they say there is no global warming, but right now the North Pole is a pool. There’s things just floating away...

It is beyond global warming at this point. It is cooking.
Williams may have been engaging in comic overstatement when he said those words, but now we have evidence that we are indeed cooking -- cooking with gas. This story about the Siberian mystery crater has received far too little attention. The worst-case scenario theory of the crater's formation turns out to be the likeliest.
There’s now a substantiated theory about what created the crater. And the news isn’t so good.

It may be methane gas, released by the thawing of frozen ground. According to a recent Nature article, “air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179% methane.”

The scientist said the methane release may be related to Yamal’s unusually hot summers in 2012 and 2013, which were warmer by an average of 5 degrees Celsius. “As temperatures rose, the researchers suggest, permafrost thawed and collapsed, releasing methane that had been trapped in the icy ground,” the report stated.
That crater isn't the only one. If a substantial number of craters appear in the permafrost, an unthinkable amount of methane would be released into the atmosphere.
“Pound for pound, the comparative impact of [methane gas] on climate change is over 20 times greater than [carbon dioxide] over a 100-year period,” reported the Environmental Protection Agency.

As the Associated Press put it in 2010, the melting of Siberia’s permafrost is “a climate time bomb waiting to explode if released into the atmosphere.”
Of course, the release of arctic methane has been a massive worry for some time now. A piece published in the Alaska Dispatch News raises further alarms...
In 2013, a paper published in the journal Nature put a price tag on the possibility of the Arctic’s methane being released. The experts suggest it could trigger costs of $60 trillion. Normally, as soon as money is involved, public interest tends to rise. The report should really have brought the subject of “Arctic methane hydrates” out of the science corner onto the economic and political agenda. Which is, of course, where it has to be, if there is any chance of limiting the Arctic thaw by halting global warming.
On the other hand:
There are scientists who insist that such a scenario is not likely. Let me refer you here to a detailed analysis of the scientific literature on the subject published in 2013 by Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development, in EarthInsight hosted by the Guardian. He points out that none of the scientists who reject the plausibility of the scenario are experts in the Arctic, and specifically the Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf. On the other hand, there is an emerging consensus among Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf specialists based on continuing fieldwork, he writes, “highlighting a real danger of unprecedented quantities of methane venting due to thawing permafrost."
Here's Nafeez. He says that environmental collapse stems from income inequality. Obviously, this guy's a damned socialist pinko with an Ay-rab name, so screw him. As any Fox News watcher can tell you, Total World Death is preferable to even the slightest hint of socialism.

Nevertheless, this methane thing could turn out to be bad for business:
They also said it could be devastating if deep craters emerge below bridges and buildings in the Arctic region or closer to the now abundant natural gas pipelines in the regions.

The scientists also said that the scariest issue about methane is its cyclical damage. Methane is 20 times more effective on global warming than carbon dioxide.
Ah, hell, don't fret. I'm sure that former jailbird Jay Lehr of the Heartland Institute -- or some other well-recompensed talking head -- will find some way to explain away these concerns. That's what Heartland is in business to provide: Better science through payola.

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. But what if they're both wrong? What if the Earth farts us to death?
Methane slowly degrades in the atmosphere leaving carbon dioxide as an end product. It may have twenty times more impact as a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a hundred year period, but its impact in the first ten years is much much greater. This is important since we're talking about a self perpetuating feedback loop where methane release accelerates heating which in turn accelerates more methane release.

The arctic methane emissions aren't only from the permafrost. There is an immense amount of methane ice (methane hydrate, or clathrate) frozen within the arctic seabed. Research expeditions to the arctic ocean have found a radically increasing amount of methane bubbling up out of arctic waters. As the surface sea ice melts, the sun's rays increasingly heat the darker arctic waters in another accelerating feedback loop.

Worried about their careers and trying not to sound too alarmist, researchers tend towards conservative predictions. But the reality has been that things are changing much faster than the projections. We're passing tipping points now. And still those who've been suckered by the fossil fuel industry sponsored propaganda will come on and comment that this has all been a hoax. What a shame. And it was such a nice planet too.
I'm not sure how the release of arctic methane translates to a potential cost of $60 trillion. If all that methane is released, all the money in the world isn't going to stop the climate disaster and mass extinctions that will ensue. If we spent $60 trillion now to try to slow carbon emissions, we might make a dent. But I doubt it.
There's one thing we could do to reduce carbon emissions literally overnight: Turn off the street lights. Let cars navigate the roads by their headlights; let pedestrians carry their own lights, let homeowners install motion-activated security lights in their yards. This business of lighting up the world like twilight all night just because people are afraid of the dark is silly.
Another thing to reduce emissions pronto: smart traffic lights. How many times have I seen fifteen cars sitting with their engines idling at the red light while the green light waits for three cars 150 yards down the road.

I don't know how the lights decide now, but I suspect that they are on a timer-based system with variable timing for different times of day.

The operational principle should be to keep the traffic moving, the least braking and idling for the greatest number. Sophisticated sensors could greatly increase the efficiency of traffic control.
I was just reading about this on another blog. The situation is looking more and more grim, and as the other guy said here, it's as much the methane in the sea as on the land that should worry us. These guys usually have the up-to-date arctic climate news, it can be sensationalist but the science seems pretty solid. I also take issue with their constant advocacy of geo-engineering. There are lot of other options we should focus in before we pull that trigger.
So maybe the world ends not with a bang or a wimper but with a "Pfffffft" ?
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