In recent years, atmospheric methane levels have reached an all-time high. A greenhouse gas that is a leading contributor to global warming, methane is far more destructive than carbon dioxide. In his report for Truthout, Dahr Jamail quoted Paul Beckwith, a professor of climatology and meteorology at the University of Ottawa: “Our climate system is in early stages of abrupt climate change that, unchecked, will lead to a temperature rise of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius within a decade or two.” Such changes would have “unprecedented effects” for life on Earth.
The melting of arctic ice releases previously trapped methane into the atmosphere. “What happens in the Arctic,” Beckwith observed, “does not stay in the Arctic.” The loss of arctic ice affects the Earth as a whole. For example, as the temperature difference between the Arctic and the equator decreases, the jet stream increases. This in turn speeds the melting of arctic ice.
Leonid Yurganov, a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland, stated that “increased methane would influence air temperature near the surface. This would accelerate the Arctic warming and change the climate everywhere in the world.”
The East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) is one area of particular concern. Some million square kilometers in size, the ESAS releases seventeen million tons of methane into the atmosphere each year, according to a recent study. Natalia Shakhova, a researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center, reported that ESAS emissions “are prone to be non-gradual (massive, abrupt).”
A 2013 study, published in Nature, reported that a fifty-gigaton “burp” of methane is “highly possible at any time.” As Jamail clarified, “That would be the equivalent of at least 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide,” noting that, since 1850, humans have released a total of approximately 1,475 gigatons in carbon dioxide. A massive, sudden change in methane levels could, in turn, lead to temperature increases of four to six degrees Celsius in just one or two decades—a rapid rate of climate change to which human agriculture, and ecosystems more generally, could not readily adapt.
In April 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry became chair of the eight-nation Arctic Council. On this occasion, he spoke about methane emissions, saying, “These pollutants are a threat to everybody.” Kerry’s remarks and the Council’s meeting received coverage in corporate outlets such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times’ coverage did not elaborate at all on methane threats, much less raise scientists’ concerns about the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, but it did focus on the Arctic Council’s biennial gathering as another arena in which Western nations saber-rattled with Russia over the Ukraine. The Los Angeles Times’ coverage also emphasized Russia–US relations: for example, it reported that “the Kremlin has underscored its role in the Arctic with massive military exercises, including a readiness drill last month that sent 40,000 troops, 50 warships and more than 100 combat aircraft into and over the Barents Sea.” The only quoted source to mention methane in the Los Angeles Times’ coverage was Whit Sheard of the Ocean Conservancy, who represents a consortium of environmental groups at the council. Sheard said, “Considering the challenges facing the Arctic, it’s easy to dwell on the negative. But I think today’s proceedings give us some optimism that these incredibly complex issues can be resolved.” However, noting that some 30 percent of the world’s untapped natural gas rests beneath the Arctic seafloor, the Los Angeles Times reported that opportunities to access these resources has “set off a scramble among energy giants of the council member states, as well as other countries that claim a share of the region’s bounty or an existential stake in how the demands of development and environmental protection are managed.”
Dahr Jamail, “The Methane Monster Roars,” Truthout, January 13, 2015, http://truth-out.org/news/item/28490-the-methane-monster-roars.
Student Researcher: Michael Brannon (Sonoma State University)
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