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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Climate Change and Arctic Methane

Arctic Ocean Latitude 71 degrees North
April 15, 2010, Image Credit: NASA/JPL

I recently noticed a fascinating article in the Edmonton Journal written by Margaret Munro of the Postmedia News entitled "Scientists eager to drill in Arctic Waters for answers about methane".  The article goes on to outline a project being undertaken by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program for the expressed purpose of gathering a deeper understanding of the ramifications of methane coming out from the permafrost under the Arctic.  

Glaciologists, geologists, and environmental researchers of different disciplines have been pondering very large questions related to the planetary environment and what the potential impacts could be to humans.  Of particular interest recently, the impact of methane hydrates coming out from the permafrost beneath the Arctic.  Since methane is probably 20 to 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, there are considerable ramifications associated with this research.  Methane has a short half life compared to CO2, so it dissipates faster, this offsets the sheer quantities that could be released into the atmosphere.  With estimates of methane hydrates being discussed in vast numbers, understanding the risk imposed by climate change in the Arctic is not a subject to be taken lightly.  

Image Courtesy of:
Gordon Groat
Ph.D.(abd), M.Sc. (hon), M.A., B.G.S. (IPE), A.A.Sc.
Taken from CO2 and Climate Change
According to Gregory Ryskin, associate professor of chemical engineering at Northwestern University, "explosive clouds of methane gas, initially trapped in stagnant bodies of water and suddenly released, could have killed off the majority of marine life and land animals and plants at the end of the Permian era" — long before dinosaurs lived and died. Ryskin believes that methane may have been the driving force in previous catastrophic changes of the earth's climate, where 95 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species were lost in - geologically speaking - the blink of an eye.

The most troubling estimates suggest that once triggered, this cycle could result in runaway global warming, sometimes referred to as a tipping point.   While our scientific evidence is still limited in scope, it is important to consider what we know from looking back in time.  It seems prudent to be cognizant of strong geologic evidence that suggests something similar has happened at least twice before.  The most recent of these catastrophes occurred about 55 million years ago in what geologists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), when methane burps caused rapid warming and massive die-offs, disrupting the climate for more than 100,000 years.  The granddaddy of these catastrophes occurred 251 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, when a series of methane burps came close to wiping out all life on Earth.  More than 94 percent of the marine species present in the fossil record disappeared suddenly as oxygen levels plummeted and life teetered on the verge of extinction. Over the ensuing 500,000 years, a few species struggled to gain a foothold in the hostile environment. It took 20 million to 30 million years for even rudimentary coral reefs to re-establish themselves and for forests to re-grow. In some areas, it took more than 100 million years for ecosystems to reach their former healthy diversity.

Earth image courtesy of:
Climate change... if it is anything, it is definitely controversial.  It is also a scientific field that is relatively new and requires additional investment to produce the scope of data required to properly evaluate the impact of methane release.  It should also be noted that methane emissions from tropical areas far surpass, in scale, the emissions of the Arctic.  Nevertheless, methane release due to climate change in the Arctic is worthy of scientific investigation.  The science is not settled on this matter, but it is of considerable importance.  

At the very least, it seems logical to establish baseline measurements of methane in the Arctic simply because the vast potential amounts of methane warrant our investigation for the purpose of understanding changing levels of methane.  This is required in order to reduce the chance of misinterpreting changes in methane levels as climate change continues.

To further understanding of the ramifications of global climate change impacts due to methane release from the Arctic, there is a need to establish increased scientific monitoring and research in the subject.  Rising surface temperatures should motivate the international scientific community to consider these questions.  Appropriate considerations imply the need for deployment of scientific measuring instrumentation, improved international collaboration, and the integration of traditional indigenous knowledge.  

One particularly revealing comment made by an indigenous elder of the Arctic was "in our generational memory, we have never seen the ice melt so much, we have never seen so much open water".  This prompted the interviewing scientist to ask if that meant one generation or two perhaps.  The question was not easily understood by the elder.  After some more questions, the elder replied that by generational, they meant thousands of years.  This underscores the the critical fundamental knowledge carried by the indigenous people of the Arctic.  There are literally thousands of expressions to describe different ice conditions, many of them not easily translatable into English, at least not to their satisfaction.  Thankfully, as research in the Arctic moves forward, more and more participation and collaboration is taking place with indigenous peoples.

This raises the question of what to do with the research.  It's critical to place the best science we possibly can gather into the hands of decision makers.  The policy makers and governments that have jurisdiction in many areas of the Arctic reside thousands of miles away from the Arctic.  This poses a fundamental problem that can possibly be overcome by hybridizing the structure of decision making in the Arctic.  

By leveraging the model of the Arctic Council, where indigenous people have a seat and a full voice at the decision making table, the outcomes can be tailored to the decision making requirements of the region.  Of course, full diplomatic, governmental, and organizational representation is advantageous for everybody, but there may also be room for an international body where all interested scientists and people who wish to share in a democratic and open manner can come together to form the best decisions possible.

When considering methane, or any other scientific endeavor in the Arctic, it is important for us to remember that the great frontier left in the World today is the Arctic.  This means our investment, our intentions, and our results will be measured in the centuries to come.  Given the enormous impact of climate change upon the entire planet, and given the rate of climate change is highly accelerated in the Arctic, it might just stand to reason that the most important decisions we make in Canada and the rest of the Circumpolar nations will be among some of the most important decisions that will be taken in the 21st century.

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