Thursday, December 11, 2014

Global Warming, What Hope Do We Have?

I have been writing and telling people for some time now about the dire consequences of doing nothing about global warming.  I have started a novel, the last chapter of which was going to be hopeful that humanity would survive, albeit bereft of civilization, reduced to something like North America three hundred years ago, tribal groups surrounding the Arctic Circle.

In the past year or so, I've been driven to greater positive thoughts.  While it remains true that the American politicians like Oklahoma Senator Inhofe corrupted by oil money continue to prevent any serious actions preventing global warming, there are many other people acting to make a difference in small ways, inventing, developing, distributing, and putting into action alternative energies.  And other people gathering together to talk about what needs to be done.  People are demonstrating.  The United Nations is acting. Local groups around the world are meeting to confront the challenges of global warming in their parts of the world.  Extreme events are coming to people's attention, and calls for help are emerging.  The voices of those being affected by global warming are starting to drown out the deniers.

So we are beginning to do something about global warming.  And the organization with the responsibility to monitor what is happening is saying that we might be all right if we can bring the CO2 emissions down to zero about 2040, that civilization would survive in some form.  And we can see all about us, people beginning to respond and hopefully bring the governments behind them to make this happen.

So my depression about the future of the planet was beginning to lighten.  Maybe we'll get through this.  My grandchildren will have a world where their talents will be appreciated and useful, and where they can live a full life.

And then the other day (Dec 9, 2014) scientists at the University of Washington presented their findings.

But let me explain something first about methane.

Methane is a greenhouse gas more shortlived but more powerful than CO2.   A previous extinction event, the PETM, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, was almost certainly due to a huge infusion of oceanic methane into the atmosphere over a very short period of time.  The result was the largest loss of sealife in the history of our planet, and global warming bringing 70 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to the North Pole.  It took 200,000 years for the planet to return to normal.

But even worse was the Permian-Triassic extinction event called the "great dying" occurred where "57% of all families, 83% of all genera and 90% to 96% of all species(53% of marine families, 84% of marine genera, about 96% of all marine species and an estimated 70% of land species, including insects)." became extinct.  There are various explanations for this event, but one of them is an oceanic bolus of methane:
Methane clathrates (in which water molecules are the cage) form on continental shelves. These clathrates are likely to break up rapidly and release the methane if the temperature rises quickly or the pressure on them drops quickly—for example in response to sudden global warming or a sudden drop in sea level or even earthquakes. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so a methane eruption ("clathrate gun") could cause rapid global warming or make it much more severe if the eruption was itself caused by global warming.
It has been suggested that "clathrate gun" methane eruptions were involved in the end-Permian extinction ("the Great Dying") and in the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, which was associated with one of the smaller mass extinctions.
And  why am I bringing all this up?  Because researchers at the University of Washington have found that
Warmer Pacific Ocean could release millions of tons of seafloor methane
Off the West Coast of the United States, methane gas is trapped in frozen layers below the seafloor. New research from the University of Washington shows that water at intermediate depths is warming enough to cause these carbon deposits to melt, releasing methane into the sediments and surrounding water.
Researchers found that water off the coast of Washington is gradually warming at a depth of 500 meters, about a third of a mile down. That is the same depth where methane transforms from a solid to a gas. The research suggests that ocean warming could be triggering the release of a powerful greenhouse gas.
 It is possible that it is too late to do anything about global warming.  We could end CO2 emissions today, but for naught if millions of tons of methane find their way into the atmosphere. There is a real possibility that not just the end of civilization, but the end of the human race is at hand.  To decide this, it is imperative that more research be conducted to see how close a million ton release of methane is.