Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Melting Permafrost and Catastrophic Methane Release

It’s only four days till the start of the most famous sled-dog race in the world. At the starting gate in Anchorage, Alaska, the weather today is 35o Fahrenheit, and partly cloudy. I suspect the conditions will be okay for this year’s Iditarod, but weather has been all the talk leading up to the race.

“It’s raining and not snowing,” said musher Luan Marques during a recent training ride, maneuvering the dogs to avoid puddles on the trail. “That’s not good.”

A number of qualifying races have been canceled because of warm conditions and lack of snow. In Minnesota, the 400-mile John Beargrease sled-dog race has been postponed by two months. Three major Alaskan races have been canceled. And a fourth had to cut its trail by 25 miles for lack of snow.  Much of the Iditarod is run on frozen rivers, so warming is a serious matter to mushers and their dogs.

Iditarod sled dogs
But, of all the alarming effects of a warming climate, why on earth would we worry about a dog race in Alaska? There are lots of places where you can’t sled. So what if Alaska becomes more like the rest of them?

In fact, the Arctic is warming rapidly. Over the last 100 years, the Earth has warmed by 1.4oF, but the Arctic has warmed by 4-5oF just since the 1950s. The effects are visible everywhere. Coastal villages are eroding into the ocean as sea ice yields to waves, and frozen shores thaw. Summer Arctic sea-ice cover breaks record lows year by year, and last year it fell precipitously. In 2012, the Greenland ice sheet melted faster than any prior year on record, and its glaciers are accelerating toward the seas. Northern boreal forests are increasingly filled with “drunken trees” tilting at crazy angles, as once-firm permafrost soils thaw and subside.

All these are interesting curiosities, perhaps. But where’s the danger to me, to my children, and to the world? The danger, it turns out, is lurking beneath the ground, clawing at its icy dungeon, waiting for some primeval spring to release its fury on the world. Like some sci-fi alien, it’s been locked away for eons, but is now edging its way toward the surface.

"Drunken trees" in the thawing north
We’re talking about massive quantities of carbon, buried for millennia under the permafrost, but increasingly free to escape into the atmosphere. Here are the facts:

About 25% of the entire land surface in the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost. And it contains massive amounts of carbon – dead mosses, lichens, leaves and such – built up over eons but never decomposing due to the frozen soil.  It contains about twice as much carbon as does Earth’s entire atmosphere. But it’s melting rapidly.

As permafrost thaws, microbes begin to break down this ancient plant matter. In the process, much of the carbon gets released into the atmosphere as CO2. With atmospheric CO2 concentrations at the highest levels in the last 800,000 years, that’s alarming. But it’s not nearly the worst part. As some permafrost melts, it creates swamp-like flooded zones, where microbes break down carbon with little or no oxygen. That creates little CO2, but lots of methane. And methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, 25 times more powerful than CO2. Tiny amounts of methane do enormous damage to global climate systems. In northern lakes and swamps today, you can see gases bubbling to the surface from carbon-rich lake bottoms – carbon in the form of methane escaping from eons of frozen captivity beneath the tundra.

One of the scariest parts of our global permafrost drama is that there are so many uncertainties. No one is certain how much of the permafrost will thaw; or how much of its carbon will be released; or how quickly the release will happen; or how much of it will be released in the form of earth-cooking methane. We laymen may be tempted to take this uncertainty as a comfort, but the opposite is true: What we don’t know can hurt us.

In the absence of hard data, the Permafrost Carbon Research Network – an association of 41 international scientists who publish research on various aspects of the permafrost – have pooled their best assessments of the prospects for earth-warming gases from the melting permafrost.  These are estimates, but they come from some of the most authoritative researchers in the field. The results are alarming:

If the earth warms at the low end of scientific projections, these researchers tell us that enough carbon will escape the permafrost by the end of the century to equal the emissions from another 25 years’ worth of fossil fuel burning at current levels. And if the earth warms at the high end of the projected range? Then add the equivalent of another 41 years’ worth of human carbon emissions. In effect, if humanity weaned itself completely off of oil, coal and gas by the end of the century, there would be additional CO2 in the atmosphere from the melted permafrost equal to another 41 years of our current carbon binge.

These are estimates. But let’s not imagine that uncertainty here is a reason for comfort. Melting permafrost is a classic example of a positive feedback loop that can cause runaway changes: More warming leads to more permafrost melting, leading to faster plant decomposition, which leads to more methane or CO2 emissions and still further warming, and so on….  Runaway changes have the potential to usher in major global extinction events, and to potentially threaten virtually every species on earth.

I don’t know of a single Christian thinker who believes that God’s plan for creation involves the extinction of mankind. Most of us agree that the Creator is the sovereign ruler of the world, and that he uses all things to accomplish his purposes. But we also affirm that the creation bears the curse of human sin and failed stewardship. And undoubtedly, these failures have resulted in the loss of many of God’s species, and misery for millions of people.

This year, our climate impact has been harmful to mushers, sled dogs and their hardy northern followers. But unless we act quickly to curb the burning of fossil fuels, I doubt that anyone can be confident about the future for thousands of species and billions of people.

Please join me in praying for – and working for – prompt climate action in our country and God’s entire world.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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