Methane time bomb ticks under melting Arctic ice

Global warming releasing large amounts of dangerous greenhouse gas from permafrost

By Moushumi Sharma
Published: Tuesday 15 July 2014


Scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks International Arctic Research Centre have sounded alarm at the increasing rate at which the Arctic ice is melting. They predict that at the current rate, Arctic ice would be gone by 2030. But this is not the lone source of concern. Scientists have discovered that methane is leaking from the Arctic sea floor twice as fast as was previously thought, reports a news portal.

Researchers estimate there are 1,000 giga tonnes of methane embedded under the Arctic ice sheet. Consequences of the permafrost melting could be disastrous as it will release methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Scientists fear that if the release of this gas occurs fast enough, it could produce a mass extinction of species worldwide, including humans.

This fear is reflected by Thom Hartmann, American author and former psychotherapist, in a news website. “If there is a ‘ticking time bomb’ on our planet that could lead to a global warming so rapid and sudden that we would have no way of dealing with it, it’s methane. Right now, estimates suggest there’s over 1,000 giga tonnes of carbon in methane form trapped just under the Arctic ice. And if it stays trapped under the ice, we might have a chance,” he writes.

Global warming is the culprit
But Arctic ice is melting at unprecedented rates, thanks to global warming. And once the methane is released, there is no reversing it. Scientists have been warning about the dangers of melting Arctic permafrost for years, because it contains massive amounts of carbon and methane gases. “As all that sea ice melts, the Arctic ice, which once reflected sunlight and prevented global warming, becomes a very blue ocean that absorbs heat and causes even more melting. This means that more and more methane is being released into the atmosphere much faster than expected, speeding up the process of global warming and climate change,” Hartmann explains. 

Researchers have found that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is releasing at least 17 million tonnes of methane into the atmosphere each year. They say that melting of Arctic ice and permafrost is happening 20 years sooner than “13 of the most accurate models” predicted.

“Permafrost is one of the keys to the planet’s future because it contains large stores of frozen organic matter that, if thawed and released into the atmosphere, would amplify current global warming and propel us to a warmer world,” the news portal quotes Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and UNEP executive director.

Stop fossil fuel extraction
Hartmann believes it is not possible to directly stop Arctic sea ice from melting and releasing methane into the atmosphere. What is possible is stopping the source of that melting in the first place: fossil fuel extraction.

“Every day, the fossil fuel industry extracts more and more fossil fuels from the ground, releasing tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We need to keep the remaining methane right where it is, buried deep under a thick sheet of ice,” he writes. 

He proposes carbon tax to check the mindless extraction of fossil fuel. “Putting a price on the amount of carbon that the fossil fuel industry takes out of the ground would encourage less fossil fuel extraction, and more reliance on clean and green energy,” Hartmann says.


Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :
Related Stories

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.