Methane, the primary component of natural gas, exists in great quantities as methane hydrate trapped as slush in the permafrost both on land and under the Arctic sea. For at least 20 years climate scientists have known that global warming could accelerate the thawing of the permafrost, amplifying and accelerating the warming trend caused by humans and natural events.Though it eventually breaks down, during its life cycle in the upper atmosphere methane is 84 times as damaging as carbon dioxide as a contributor to warming. Both gasses act like an atmospheric blanket that lets sunlight in, but keeps the heat from radiating back into space, but methane is 20 time as potent in causing the planet to heat up. Methane eventually breaks down but carbon dioxide persists until plants convert it to carbon and oxygen.
Methane instability is almost universally recognized as an important risk factor to life as we know it on earth. Some scientists estimate Arctic releases will add about 34% to the methane humans cause to be released this century. But recently there has been disturbing evidence suggesting that the models are underestimating the rate of release of Arctic methane as global warming happens. In 2011 two Russian scientists observed huge plumes of methane bubbles erupting from the Arctic sea. Subsequent investigation points to shifts in warmer ocean currents thawing and releasing ancient stores of methane hydrate.
The word “instability” refers to the prospect of starting a warming chain reaction where the thawing of methane hydrate alone is sufficient to sustain global warming without human input. That’s the methane precipice – irreversable thawing of frozen methane. Some refer to this as a feedback loop – the more methane, the faster the thaw, which in turn releases more methane, which in turn … We’ve built a house of cards and we are racing to quantify just how far we can push warming before it tips and methane instability brings us crashing down.
The on-the-surface observations are corroborated by NASA satellite technology that maps methane release, and also by aircraft air sampling that detects higher than normal local concentrations of methane in the air. None of this converging evidence is encouraging, and much of the research has only been published in the last couple of years. It’s my personal take that models as recent as 2007 are underestimating the thaw. When the newest information is processed we’ll know better, but will we act?
At the same time, it’s becoming clear that we have been underestimating the amount of methane that the gas and oil industry leaks into the air. As I write this, aircraft monitoring projects are scanning Pennsylvania. Similar projects have already documented that releases in Texas are 50% higher than previously believed. In the fog of our collective ignorance and denial, we are running full speed toward the methane precipice, heedless of the danger.
Sea rise that inundates coastal areas all over the globe is one of several long range consequences. Me – I’m 75 and I’ll be long dead before it happens. But my grandchildren will experience the effects, and their kids will be living in a very different world where the shape of the continents has changed and inland weather is markedly different. Many creatures will not adapt. It’s not a happy trend to contemplate unless we get smarter very fast.
Market forces have combined with political opportunism to bury good sense. We subsidize fossil fuels to a greater degree than we do sustainable energy, tilting the playing field in the wrong direction. Unbridled development of shale gas and oil is creating oversupply and driving down prices. Consequently sustainable non-carbon energy is the high priced alternative … in the short term.
Given the consequences of using it, fossil energy is far too cheap for our own good. A gradual increase in fossil fuel cost would shift the market to support and foster better renewable, non polluting, safe energy. The needed renewable technology has been feasible since 2007 and its cost has been steadily dropping. These days renewable energy is the noble thing to do, but taking the long view, it is also the frugal thing to do. The price we pay at the pump does not include the costs of climate change. We are wantonly squandering the heritage of future generations while dancing on the edge of an abyss. There is no “free ride.”
A few far-sighted leaders are embracing the need to make adjustments. These would take the form of correcting the artificially low price of non-renewable energy. The strategy is actually rather simple: end subsidies and assess fees for the environmental costs that don’t presently get priced in to what we pay for fossil energy. One such strategy is CCL’s Carbon Fee and Dividend – legislation that would add an annual escalating fee to fossil fuels and return the money to families. It’s not unlike the petroleum fees Alaska distributes to state residents. The eventual negative effects on the fossil fuel sector would be more than offset by the positive stimulus of the dividends paid. Economic modeling shows middle and low income families coming out money ahead and a net growth in jobs.
Such re-balancing of the energy playing field harnesses market forces to make innovation and investment in clean energy increasingly attractive, driving down the cost of renewable sources relative to fossil fuels. The point here is to recognize that there are practical strategies available that we should be doing now. Concern about the methane precipice should motivate us even if high-minded environmental stewardship doesn’t.