The species that smelt it, dealt it

Posted on Friday, September 22nd, 2006 at 11:38 am by JTE

In other words, we humans are now discovering massive emissions of methane from under Siberian lakes, emissions resulting from the global warming we’ve caused.

I first read of the permafrost-methane issue in Stephen Harding’s new, and totally awesome, Animate Earth. I’m not just plugging this because it’s the latest of Chelsea Green’s terrific books. I’m plugging it because Harding writes well and explains stuff well, and his book is a great introduction to Gaia theory. Objectively speaking, I am a huge fan of this book and hope that all of you will read it. (Btw, Harding will be at Bioneers by the Bay. Will you?)

Study Says Methane a New Climate Threat
Sep 06 8:06 PM US/Eastern

By SETH BORENSTEIN
AP Science Writer

WASHINGTON

Global warming gases trapped in the soil are bubbling out of the thawing permafrost in amounts far higher than previously thought and may trigger what researchers warn is a climate time bomb.

Methane _ a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide _ is being released from the permafrost at a rate five times faster than thought, according to a study being published Thursday in the journal Nature. The findings are based on new, more accurate measuring techniques.

“The effects can be huge,” said lead author Katey Walter of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks said. “It’s coming out a lot and there’s a lot more to come out.”

Scientists worry about a global warming vicious cycle that was not part of their already gloomy climate forecast: Warming already under way thaws permafrost, soil that has been continuously frozen for thousands of years. Thawed permafrost releases methane and carbon dioxide. Those gases reach the atmosphere and help trap heat on Earth in the greenhouse effect. The trapped heat thaws more permafrost and so on.

“The higher the temperature gets, the more permafrost we melt, the more tendency it is to become a more vicious cycle,” said Chris Field, director of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who was not part of the study. “That’s the thing that is scary about this whole thing. There are lots of mechanisms that tend to be self- perpetuating and relatively few that tend to shut it off.”

Some scientists say this vicious cycle is already under way, but others disagree.

Scientists aren’t quite sure whether methane or carbon dioxide is worse. Methane is far more powerful in trapping heat, but only lasts about a decade before it dissipates into carbon dioxide and other chemicals. Carbon dioxide traps heat for about a century.

What I don’t understand is how there could be any debate over the relative badness of methane and CO2. If methane acts like a worse greenhouse gas while existing as methane, and then decays into CO2, then how could CO2 be worse overall? CO2 is as bad as itself. Methane adds a decade of super-badness to the century of CO2′s badness. 10+100 is more than 100, especially when really what they’re saying is that it is (10X23)+100. Not that any of this really matters in a philosophical sense, but the supposed debate strikes me as odd.

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