The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] was created in established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization [WMO] to evaluate the impacts of global warming triggered by the rise of greenhouse gases.
To assess likely impacts, the IPCC uses scenarios based on Representative Concentration Pathways [RCPs], RCP8.5 as the worst case alternative, leading to a global temperature rise of 2.6 to 4.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
While the RCP 8.5 scenario remains controversial, the fact remains that it could be worse, given that we still don’t understand the complex feedback loops arising from interactions of a complex of systems we are only beginning to discern – as with the spiking methane emissions triggered by polar warming.
From today’s Guardian comes word of a stunning find off the Siberian coast:
Scientists have found evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean – known as the “sleeping giants of the carbon cycle” – have started to be released over a large area of the continental slope off the East Siberian coast, the Guardian can reveal.
High levels of the potent greenhouse gas have been detected down to a depth of 350 metres in the Laptev Sea near Russia, prompting concern among researchers that a new climate feedback loop may have been triggered that could accelerate the pace of global heating.
The slope sediments in the Arctic contain a huge quantity of frozen methane and other gases – known as hydrates. Methane has a warming effect 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide over 20 years. The United States Geological Survey has previously listed Arctic hydrate destabilisation as one of four most serious scenarios for abrupt climate change.
The report concludes on an ominous note:
Temperatures in Siberia were 5C higher than average from January to June this year, an anomaly that was made at least 600 times more likely by human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. Last winter’s sea ice melted unusually early. This winter’s freeze has yet to begin, already a later start than at any time on record.
From the 14 October edition of the Washington Post, published before today’s news, comes another startling fact:
The worldwide number of methane hot spots has soared 32 percent so far this year despite the economic slowdown, according to satellite imagery analyzed by a private data firm.
Comparing the first eight months of 2019 to the same period in 2020, the Paris-based firm Kayrros said methane leaks from oil and gas industry hot spots climbed even higher in Algeria, Russia and Turkmenistan, growing by more than 40 percent. The largest contributors to rising methane releases were the United States, Russia, Algeria, Turkmenistan, Iran and Iraq, Kayrros said.
And Reuters adds another ominous note:
There is more than three times as much carbon frozen in permafrost as in all of the forests on the planet, including the Amazon, scientists say.
So why worry about methane?
From a 14 October Deutsche Welle interview with Stanford University Environmental Sciences professor Rob Jackson:
“Well, since industrial activity began, methane has contributed about a quarter of all the warming that we’ve seen and it’s far more potent, molecule for molecule or kilogram for kilogram than carbon dioxide is on a 20-year time frame. It’s 80 or 90 times more potent. And even over a century, it’s about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. So CO2 is still the dominant greenhouse gas we look at. But methane is second and provides a lot of opportunities to make a difference right now because it’s so powerful.”
Another significant source of methane is fracking, the hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits to extract oil and natural gas [i.e., methane].
A 2015 report by Robert W. Howarth of Cronell University’s Department of Ecology and Environmental Biology made this observation:
We concluded that 3.8% [±2.2%] of the total lifetime production of methane from a conventional gas well is emitted into the atmosphere, considering the full life cycle from well to final consumer.11 The data available for estimating emissions from shale gas were more scarce and more poorly documented at that time, but we estimated that the full life cycle emissions of shale gas were ∼1.5-fold higher than that of conventional natural gas, or 5.8% [±2.2%].
On 13 August. The Trump administration reduced or eliminated most regulations on emissions releases from fracking, and Joe Biden says he’ll continue to allow the controversial technique – already tied to earthquakes and environmental and health problems.
Mapping out an alarming future
If there’s one single factor most responsible for the rapid rise of autocratic movements in the last few decades, it would have to be immigration.
The rising numbers of refugees streaming into Europe and the U.S. have given rise to virulent racist and ultra-nationalist movements headed by headed by authoritarians who seize of immigrants as scapegoats for seething resentments fueled by rising economic inequality caused by the plague of neoliberalism.
A May report, Future of the human climate niche, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and written by an international, interdisciplinary academic team reveals that many regions already accounting for large numbers of refugees will bear the brunt of climate change.
Consider this map from their report:
The accompanying text:
Projected geographical shift of the human temperature niche. [Top] Geographical position of the human temperature niche projected on the current situation [A] and the RCP8.5 projected 2070 climate [B]. Those maps represent relative human distributions [summed to unity] for the imaginary situation that humans would be distributed over temperatures following the stylized double Gaussian model fitted to the modern data [the blue dashed curve in Fig. 2A]. [C] Difference between the maps, visualizing potential source [orange] and sink [green] areas for the coming decades if humans were to be relocated in a way that would maintain this historically stable distribution with respect to temperature. The dashed line in A and B indicates the 5% percentile of the probability distribution.
While RCP8.5 remains controversial, in light of the rapid rise in methane emissions from the warming poles and and still-unknown by inevitable synergetic feedback loops and failure of governments to take action, we suspect the reality may prove even worse.