Winter 2013 Shows Increasing Arctic Methane Feedback to Human Caused Warming


(Image source: AQUA Satellite, NASA. Image produced by Dr. Leonid Yurganov)

Steadily increasing Arctic methane emissions over the past decade are a dangerous amplifying feedback to human caused climate change.

This emission is a direct result of a rapid heating of the Arctic caused by human global warming via the ever-increasing volume of CO2 emitted and stored in the Earth’s atmosphere. Since the year 2000, world CO2 levels have risen from about 365 ppm to 396.8 ppm today. This rapid increase in CO2 is driving enhanced heating of the Arctic environment on the order of about one degree Celsius per decade.

The extra heat in the Arctic does work melting glaciers, reducing sea ice, and rapidly reducing spring time snow cover. The result is a warming of the Arctic tundra and sea bed. As these areas warm, methane stored in the frozen permafrost and in methane hydrates on the sea bed are released.

Amplifying Methane Release Adds to Already Difficult CO2 Problem

Since the year 2000, we have seen growing levels of methane release throughout the Arctic. This methane provides an extra push to global warming by adding more heat-trapping gasses on top of already high and rising values of CO2. Over the course of a century, methane provides 20 times the amount of heat trapping by volume compared to CO2. But short-term warming caused by methane is even greater, about 100 times that of CO2. So increasing levels of Arctic methane as a feedback to human-caused warming further amplifies the overall problem of climate change.

The above series of images provides Arctic methane levels from January 21-31 of 2009 through January 21-31 of 2013. As you can see, over this period Arctic methane levels ramped steadily higher, increasing by about 10-20 ppb on average each year. This steady increase provides a substantial additional forcing to an Arctic that is already much warmer than in previous decades.

Increasing Arctic methane levels combine with sea ice melt and early snow melt to create a powerful amplifying feedback over much of the Arctic. And carbon stores in the Arctic are massive. The US National Snow and Ice Data Center estimates that there are 1400 gigatons of carbon locked in Arctic permafrost alone. This volume compares to the 880 gigatons of carbon already put into the atmosphere via human greenhouse gas emissions. Arctic methane hydrates compose at least another 1000 gigatons of carbon. So for even a fraction of this carbon to be released would result in a substantial addition to human-caused warming.

Human Forcing Just Keeps Rising

All these hundreds and thousands of gigatons of methane would have remained locked in frozen storage without the ever-increasing amounts of CO2 we keep dumping into the atmosphere. From February of 2012 to 2013, global CO2 levels increased by 3.2 parts per million, far higher than even for the already high average of 2.2 parts per million each year over the past five years. At 396.8 parts per million, CO2 is now providing a large amount of heat forcing to the atmosphere. And it is this rising level of heat trapping gasses that has set the Arctic environment in motion.

These increased feedbacks through human forcing make the challenge of dealing with human-caused climate change all the more difficult and urgent. From this point forward, the more we push the climate, the more it is likely to respond by contributing its own stores of carbon from sinks that are now in the process of turning into sources. A rapid transition away from the use of fossil fuels is, therefore, necessary to ensure an already difficult problem does not grow worse.


Top Scientists Speak Out on Growing Risk of Methane Emergency Leads Wave of Fossil Fuel Divestment


In a Rolling Stone interview this past summer, Bill McKibben, head of and related tar sands protests, called for investors to dump holdings in oil, gas, and coal companies as a means to fight climate change. McKibben’s call for this divestment mirrors similar action during the latter 20th century against South Africa’s Apartheid government via its state issued bonds and corporate backers.

Now, divestment of fossil fuel company stocks is again being spear-headed by major universities, cities, religious groups, and individuals. In total, over 210 university campuses now host divestment groups — and the number continues to grow. Even major cities have pitched in with the mayor of Seattle ordering the city trust to dump fossil fuel company holdings.

Spurring this large and growing divestment movement are two numbers: 565 gigatons and 2,795 gigatons. 565 gigatons represents the amount of carbon we can dump into our atmosphere without pushing human caused global warming above the catastrophic level of 2 degrees Celsius. 2,795 gigatons is the total amount of carbon that would end up in the atmosphere if fossil fuel companies managed to sell all the oil, coal, and natural gas on their books. Carbon pollution they are doing their best to foist upon a world increasingly damaged by an angry climate.

Making matters worse is the fact that fossil fuel companies are increasing the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere at a break-neck rate. Last year alone, 34 gigatons were dumped into Earth’s already riled climate. At the current rate of emission, enough carbon will be emitted to pre-set a 2 degree increase by 2029. But since emission rates continue to increase, that date will likely be closer to 2025. And since the world’s policy-makers are failing to act, divestment activists are attempting to pull the rug out from under fossil fuel industries by denying them public funds via the world’s investment markets.

Now anyone — an individual, an investment firm, any institution or municipality with a trust or an endowment — can take part in the campaign to reclaim a healthy climate by pulling investment funds out of fossil fuel industries. And, so far, the response has been massive — far more rapid than the response to Apartheid. Let’s hope that these direct actions on the part of responsible individuals begins to roll back the tide of increasing fossil fuel exploitation and carbon emission. For my part, I hope you express your right to divest as well.


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