Methane and the Global Impacts of Arctic Warming

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In recent years methane levels have reached an all time high. A greenhouse gas that is one leading contributor to global warming, methane is far more destructive than carbon dioxide. In his report for Truthout, Dahr Jamail quotes 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 affects” for life on Earth.

The melting of arctic ice releases previously trapped methane into the atmosphere. “What happens in the Arctic,” Beckwith observes, “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, states 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 Artcic Shelf (ESAS) is one area of particular concern. Some million square kilometers in size, the ESAS release 17 million tons of methane into the atmosphere each year, according to a recent study. Natalia Shakhova, a researcher with the University Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center, reports that the ESAS emissions “are prone to be non-gradual (massive, abrupt).” A 2013 study, published in Nature, reported that a 50-gigaton “burp” of methane is “highly possible at any time.” As Jamail clarifies, “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, abrupt change in methane levels could, in turn, lead to temperature increases of four to six degrees Celsius in just one or two decades—a rate of abrupt climate change to which human agriculture, and ecosystems more generally, could not readily adapt.

Source: 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)

Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)