Arctic methane sets global warming alarm bells ringing
Research published this week which identifies thousands of sites in the Arctic where methane gas is being released into the atmosphere could have serious ramifications for global warming.
Methane is twenty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and it's estimated that there's billions of cubic metres of natural methane gas trapped underneath huge areas of perma-frost in Siberia, and under the frozen wastes of the Arctic.
The Arctic has warmed more quickly than any other area of the planet, and has led to year on year decreases in the extent and thickness of ice cover since satellite measurements began in 1979.
As the ice has melted, naturally formed methane gas which would otherwise be trapped under the ice is bubbling to the surface, according to the research in the journal Nature Geoscience.
The research is very important in that such 'feedback mechanisms' - whereby initial warming caused by carbon dioxide leads to more warming by, in this case, natural methane gas - has been widely predicted by scientists, and could lead to an acceleration of warming in the coming decades.
Simple physics shows that an approximate doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause an approximate 1 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures, which in itself would be manageable.
This is a point which most scientists - on both sides of the global warming debate - agree on.
After that, most climate scientists believe that the real danger is that feedback mechanisms kick in, leading to further warming, an example of which is methane gas release.
Another example is evaporation from the oceans, releasing water vapour, itself the most powerful greenhouse gas of all, which would also lead to more warming.
Climate sceptics though argue that not all feedback mechanisms will be positive, in other words, they may not lead to further warming, and cause cooling.
An example of a negative feedback would be that evaporation from the oceans, forming increased levels of water vapour (or higher humidity), would cause more cloud development.
And a cloudier planet would reflect sunlight back out into space and cause the planet on average to cool, according to climate sceptics.
It's still early days and work is on-going into the vital area of climate feedback mechanisms.
But this research does give an ominous first glimpse of what may lie in store in the coming decades should global temperatures rise, because of possible future warming caused by man-made carbon dioxide.
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