The Arctic is more affected by the climate crisis than temperate zones and indeed some scientists expect its ocean to be entirely free of summer sea ice by 2015. (Others don’t expect this until 2040-60.) There are already visible geographic changes in the high north, where the soil and permafrost hold nearly twice as much carbon as the earth’s atmosphere. Normally the soil is permanently frozen, but lately it has been thawing, partly as a result of wildfires ignited by the more frequent warm weather lightning bolts.
New lakes are forming and organic matter is rotting and emitting its carbon. Where the ground melts it sometimes collapses, forming huge gullies called thermo-karsts that release even more methane, a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, though it stays in the atmosphere only decades, not thousands of years.
Because methane speeds up the melting, which releases more methane, a runaway process can begin that no one knows how to stop. The question is: When will that “tipping point” be reached?
In addition to the concern about permafrost, there are newly urgent questions about methane emissions from the sea. Methane clathrates are frozen methane gas and water crystals buried below the seabed, notably the Arctic Ocean.
Last December two scientists who work in an international monitoring station in Alaska reported their preliminary research findings at a conference of geophysicists. Having monitored the shallow Arctic waters of the East Siberian Shelf for years, they were astonished at the amount of methane being emitted on their latest trip. Dr. Igor Semiletov said,
“Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of meters in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 meters in diameter. It’s amazing. I was most impressed by the sheer scale and high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them.”
The worry about the effects of global warming is that huge stores of methane might be released in a short period of time in what has been called a “giant burp.”
Semilitov’s research partner, Dr. Natalia Shakova, declined to guess at the probability of such an event. In earlier geological periods there have been great “die-offs” of species because of increased methane in the atmosphere. During the Permian extinction event 250 million years ago, about 96% of all marine species became extinct. However, it probably took place over tens of thousands of years.
Although some scientists are alarmed by these changes, the majority seem not to be. For example, Andrew Revkin, a leading New York Times science journalist, queried a number of climatologists about the story and reports that they mostly consider the current events to be part of a long-standing process. Clathrates will probably take centuries to melt in large amounts, even if the sea warms more quickly. Some scientists also say that Arctic is emitting less methane than wetlands in temperate zones.
All agree, however, that there is an immediate need to increase scientific investigation of methane and clath-rates. If the timeline for catastrophe proves to be short, the only remaining options will be some form of geo-engineering.
On December 29, 2011, the Yekaterinburg, a Russian nuclear-powered submarine carrying nuclear weapons, caught fire while docked some 1500 km north of Moscow. The fire continued for a day and a night, until firemen partially sank the submarine to extinguish it.
At the time, Russian officials reassured the public that the weapons had been unloaded before the fire started. In February, Vlast magazine quoted other sources saying that the vessel actually had still been carrying 16 R-20 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each armed with four nuclear warheads. “K-84 was in dock with rockets and torpedoes on board,” the magazine said, adding that it also was carrying mines and two nuclear reactors. If one of the torpedoes had exploded it could have threatened the nuclear missiles.