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Planet Earth Under Threat

Eden to Hell and back Again

  • Julian Hector
  • 18 Oct 06, 10:19 AM

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There are vast amounts of frozen methane sitting beneath the seabed. Methane is 60X as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide and there is twice as much methane ready to blow as all the carbon dioxide contained in the global reservoir of crude oil and coal. How are we supposed to think about this planetary bomb shell?

We have just made a delightful series called Gardens of Faith. These are simple programmes where faith leaders talk about the value of a garden and how the design of the garden symbolises the faith. We covered Islam, Sikhs, Hindu, Buddhist and Judaism. They are all interesting and different.

The Jews, of course, believe the first wilderness was a garden, the garden of Eden. In it was everything for Adam and Eve. And Jews today believe they have a responsibility to Eden in their working and everyday lives. Like the Jews, the Sikhs aren't especially into gardens but believe there is a responsibility towards the natural world where there is solice and of course a relationship. The living world supports humanity.

We've just interviewed University of California Sandra Barbara marine geologist Jim Kennett. He spoke of an enormous reservoir of Methane gas on the seabed that could thaw and let rip into the atmosphere causing a step-change (i.e. rapid) increase in global warming. He says this has happened before (more than once) and he can see the evidence of global climate change in the past simultaneously in both the sea bed off Santa Barbara (N Pacific) and in the ice cores of the Greenland ice sheet. In the past when there have been mass warming events he proposes the liberation of frozen methane as the mechanism. He says the methane in the seabed is unstable and warming can stimuate it's release. More directly, he says human induced climate change could trigger this methane eruption putting global warming into a step-change trajectory. Not all agree the methane is unstable. Jim Kennett says you can see pot marks on the seabed where this has happened in the past - And other geologists tell us there is further evidence in the geological record. Methane eruption has been suggested as a mechanism for the extinction of the dinosaurs 65M years ago.

So here we have another reason to worry about the future. This mechanism seems to have planetary cycles attached to it - when it happened before we weren't around. What with the liberation of carbon dioxide from a thawing Arctic Tundra and the awesome shadow of a mega methane eruption you can't help but think, is there any point in going on?

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Who do we turn to to ease our worried and over heated heads? These concepts are vast and their implications for the human race horrific.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told colleagues of mine in an interview "....that we have to look at our humanity freshly, we're no longer brains on stalks, we're part of a system and answerable to other parts of that system..".

Clare Short, who was the UK Secreatary of State for International Development until 2003 said .."we have to cease finding the meaning of life out of more and more goods and wealth.....we're trashing the planet...And it's making us unhappy"

It made me laugh in an interview with the venerable E. O. Wilson, when I met him at his beloved Waldon Pond Nature Reserve - we were lisening to bull frogs calling. He imitated their call in a hilarious way - And also referred to them as "moaning like the condemned in hell" !

All faith leaders seem to value the relationship we have for the natural world and their religions offer different versions of caring for our environment. Archbishop Rowan Williams has stated that climate change is a moral issue, implying there is a right and wrong in our role in its causation. Clare Short seems to have resonance with the idea we just want everything and we're levelling the Earth to the ground doing so.

That acoustic image of moaning like the condemned in hell looks like a reality if you believe only a small proportion of the scientists and analysists in the field of climate change.

The Earth has come back from Hell many times before - but we weren't part of the picture then. Today we are. We're intelligent and technologically competant (as Jim Lovelock says) - Perhaps those who can tap into what it means to be human are the ones to lean on as the concepts and messages of the future get so big, unweildy and hideous.

"Think about our humanity freshly" has as much resonance as "moaning like the condemned in hell".

Surely, no competition.

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What interests me also in this context is the increasing human activity with respect to the oceans, both for scientific and other purposes (including sub-sea warfare). This will cause a rapid development in marine technology as commercial entities spot new ranges of opportunity. This is already happening in a military context. Perhaps the potential danger here lies in a limited understanding by those concerned of the implications of their work upon both the oceanic environment and supported biology, as well as the globally interconnected environmental cycles. Having caused much damage to terrestrial environments, if we repeat the mistake in the oceans, we could cause some REAL trouble. What can we do, I wonder, to raise awareness and encourage intelligent international dialogue?

Kind regards,

JA

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  • 2.
  • At 04:33 PM on 29 Oct 2006,
  • will law wrote:

Pessimism is my considered view of the likelihood of redemption from this catastrophe in waiting.
It is clear to me that the philosophy of the most powerful on Earth is that monetary considerations are preeminent. This perverse evolutionary twist (that those most able to prevent warming are those most intent upon activities which enhance it) will be our downfall. My advice is to get used to the idea of our extinction and accept that our mania for cash and comfort and luxury has evolved quicker than our egalitarianism. I won't winge about global warming. China builds a coal fired power station every week.Its development will make our industrial revolution look puny. Face it guys, it's over and no rich idiot will change his rich idiot ways ....not even for his rich idiot children. Sad but true. It is an amusing fact that human beings seem to think their extinction will be some sort of tragedy but in the scheme of the cosmos it is totally insignificant. We deserve what we get. Well, most of us do.

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  • 3.
  • At 05:05 PM on 30 Oct 2006,
  • Ralph wrote:

I read about this subsea methane some years back. Surely someone has done the neccessary research by now to work out if it is (or isn't) unstable to the temperature (and to a lesser extent pressure) changes likely to be caused by Global Warming (and sea level rise)? If not, shame on us (too busy looking for asteroids that might hit us, developing nuclear weapons and fighting idiotic wars in Iraq)

If this is a real problem, particularly if we are going to continue to burn hydrocarbons anyway(my line is we should not) then we should at least consider burning methane that will be released anyway (and do more damage that way than burnt). Combined with carbon capture this could mitigate the positive feedback described (though it could never stop the warming in the system anyway)

I'm not claiming any of this would be easy (by definition deep parts of the ocean are involved, and the technology does not exist yet and may never). But when the alternative is waiting for it to be too late...

I joked on another forum that a giant tarpaulin (on the surface) and a large underwater hairdryer attached to a submarine would do the trick (but it was a joke)

BTW - where does the 60X factor come from? I have seen various factors bandied around for this. A sensible factor covers not only the absolute "greenhouse" factor (how well the gas reflects heat radiation) but also the lifetime of the gas in the atmosphere (compared with CO2). Does "X60" account for both factors?

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  • 4.
  • At 10:28 PM on 30 Oct 2006,
  • duncan deffley wrote:

The Stern report has just been published and is a typical economists paper with its attempt to show assumed climate effects in terms of economic output ?

I am not complaining since despite the arbitrary nature of his calculations the spirit of his analysis seems not unreasonable ?

Unfortunately there are 2 problems the first is that his blind acceptance of the climate scientists assumptions is easily targeted by the opposition or am I wrong ? The second is that in the real world as opposed to the world of paper reports noone believes a significant proportion of the world of human production can be diverted away from carbon dioxide emissions ?

What do I believe well if a country or several countries put the reduction of emmisions on a war footing they might force the pace and encourage the rest ?

I do not believe that there are any countries that would do this ? So I am totally without hope ?

Tell me I am wrong I wish ?

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  • 5.
  • At 06:42 AM on 31 Oct 2006,
  • JC wrote:

We are basically waiting for critical mass, after +5C the methane releases from the oceans, causing another +5C. Needless to say, uncomfortable... And if the global warming, Nuclear war (Wait and watch N Korea) or the Avian Flu Pandemic (It just mutated again, to go around the current vaccine) don't get us, you still have millions of people Waiting for the End of the World in the form of revelations, or ragnarok, Call it what you will. At some level, everyone knows the ship is sinking, be it by iceberg, water log, or canon fire. The Hopeful are looking for the godly life rift, or to die before it takes them under.

There is hope, Not necessarily for human kind, but for the world itself, hopefully she can regenerate after we've been bleached off the globe.

~jc

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  • 6.
  • At 12:06 PM on 31 Oct 2006,
  • Chris Reed wrote:

The issue of the "Methane Clathrates" on the sea bed is primarily a long term one, as JC indicates, it's thought likely to be something that will occur with greater increases in temperature than we will see this century. And you need to bear in mind that as the clathrates are on the sea bed, any surface warming would have to be conveyed to the deeps by oceanic overturning currents. That takes a lot of time and removes a lot of sensible surface energy to warm the deep-cold water.

I'm more concerned about the rate of ice melt, in terms of ice-albedo feedback. And the melt of permafrost in terms of methane.

JC is also correct in that the Earth has been through much worse. We need not fear for the planet, it's our civilisation we should be worried about.

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If you want an authoritative view on methane clathrates this is a great start:
http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/10/rasslin-swamp-gas/

It needs to be remembered that the huge difference between CO2 and methane is that the later is not stable in our atmosphere, it doesn't much matter that it is 60 (or whatever) times more effective as a greenhouse gas, it disappears before having a significant effect. By comparison, CO2 is stable and so the same mass of CO2 has much greater effect.

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  • 8.
  • At 04:03 PM on 06 Dec 2006,
  • DanDale wrote:

Can we please have some HARD facts! I cannot find anywhere how much CO2 is produced by Energy production or Transport or even agriculture or even Nature in the form of volcanoes etc.
Is Methane x2 x10 or x60 more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas??? Is an Oxfam goat more detrimental to the planet than a 4x4?? without FACTS we just do not know. I have searched the internet without success for some of these answers.
I understand these problems are extremely complicated, but starting with the big numbers and applying pressure there we can reduce the rate of warming.
However I believe warming is irreversable and London will be a tropical swamp in 100years whatever we try. We will adapt, and other species will too... many many will be lost.

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  • 9.
  • At 08:40 PM on 06 Dec 2006,
  • P. Cox wrote:

All governments should accept as a priority, good health care, free family planning, and equal rights for women. They should then re-define economic growth for sustainable growth and plan for a stable/reduced population.

The first three of these will stabalise the population, as can be demonstrated by advanced western societies. The last of thses will focus governments, and hopefully business into seeing sustainability as something good, proffitable and a stable or ruduced population not to be feared. A campaign against ageism would be no bad thing either. I know of many retired people going crazy stuck at home. The opportunities for older people are just not out there.

Until there is a sea change in attitudes and oppinions we will remain on the road to ruin.

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P.Cox - you make a number of v. pertinent points, which have been discussed to a small extent on the different strands of this website. A couple of key questions include:
a)How do we encourage a process to get businesses to build 'sustainability' into their corporate objectives?
and
b)What processes are required to stabilise / reduce the population in an acceptable fashion (before it is done for us anyway)?

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  • 11.
  • At 12:42 AM on 13 Dec 2006,
  • simon willace wrote:

Levels of co2 have increased four fold since 1990.
Looking at world behaviour over the last fifteen years I see no change that would convince me that there are any serious efforts to reduce the pollution back to below 1990 levels. I also wonder if pre 1990 levels were low enough for the time frame to matter. I believe not.
Roads are still being planned and built, and still big engine cars and SUV’s are available while motor racing in all its forms tour the world. Cheap flights are expected to grow as new airports encourage short flights while trains busses and coaches travel empty. Most Home can now get a cheap air conditioner, ducted Chinese made and disposable with all the other consumables. In the throwaway age nothing has changed except an increased level of co2.
Methane is around 20 times a more powerful GHG than co2 and the majority comes from natural sources, assisted by human action.
All animals even us create it but huge reserves of this gas await the right temperatures to release in huge amounts from the oceans or the permafrost of the arctic.
The idea that it will happen all at once in the distant future is wrong and a little stupid. Methane hydrate exists at depths of 500 meters to 5ooo meters; therefore a slight increase in sea temperature will tip the balance and thaw enough to raise the temperature 1 degree more triggering a domino effect which will see the release of deep sea reserves well within a decade.
Reducing CO2 through any Kyoto agreement will not slow the process down, as methane is already bubbling up from permafrost lakes and oceans in huge volumes. Such schemes that offer only off set programs that encourage tree planting will fuel the forest fires that now release trapped carbon.

WE have now passed tipping point, its time to ignore the danger and enjoy the next 5 years. Lovelock says we had better adapt, but I see no biosphere being built, perhaps we need to design a life raft??

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