Recent reports of enhanced methane (CH4) leaks off the eastern Siberian coast (about 100 times the background level of about 1780 parts per billion CH4) and off Svalbard, Norway have been overshadowed in the media by the collapse of the global credit bubble.

At the root of both is a common thread, deregulation, including open-ended permits to pollute the atmosphere and the oceans, little-regulated financial systems and economic globalisation, representing failure by governments to protect the life and welfare of their hapless populations.

For some time now climate scientists warned that melting of subpolar permafrost and warming of the Arctic Sea (up to four degrees C during 2005–2008 relative to 1951–1980) are likely to result in the dissociation of methane hydrates and the release of this powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere (methane: X62 times the infrared warming effect of CO2 over 20 years and X21 times over 100 years).

The amount of carbon stored in Arctic sediments and permafrost is estimated as 500–2500 Gigaton Carbon (GtC), as compared with the world’s total fossil fuel reserves estimated as 5000 GtC. Compare with the 700 GtC of the atmosphere, which regulates CO2 levels in the range of 180–300 parts per million and land temperatures in a range of about – 50 to + 50 degrees C, which allowed the evolution of warm-blooded mammals.

The continuing use of the atmosphere as an open sewer for industrial pollution has already added some 305 GtC to the atmosphere together with land clearing and animal-emitted methane. This raised CO2 levels to 387 ppm CO2 to date, leading toward conditions which existed on Earth about 3 million years (Ma) ago (mid-Pliocene), when CO2 levels rose to about 400 ppm, temperatures to about 2–3 degrees C and sea levels by about 25 +/- 12 metres.

There is little evidence for a extinction at 3 Ma. However, by crossing above a CO2 level of 400 ppm the atmosphere is moving into uncharted territory. At this stage enhanced methane leaks threaten climate events such as the massive methane release and fauna extinction 55 million years ago, marked by rise of CO2 to near-1000 ppm.

There is little evidence in Garnaut’s Final Report that this possibility was taken seriously into account. Nor do the consequences of metres-scale sea level rise for a civilization hinged along deltas, low river valleys and coastlines, appear to prevent governments and business from “business-as-usual” behavior. The $700 billion donated by the US Congress to save corrupt financial dealers could have been better spent on the planet.

Peter Fray

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