The Dreaded Methane Veil

A veil of methane originating in the Arctic is heading southward, slowly spreading all across the Northern Hemisphere.

As it happens, with 2014 the “hottest year ever,” the Arctic heats up evermore. It is especially vulnerable to the effects of heat-trapping green house gas (GHG) carbon dioxide (CO2). In turn, the warming Arctic is stirring up humanity’s biggest nightmare, methane (CH4).

Stuart Scott, Deputy Director General of IESCO and founder of the United Planet Faith & Science Initiative offers visualization of the dreaded methane veil in a new video, Rethinking Economics in the Age of Climate Change. The video was presented at COP20 in Lima on December 11, 2014. An image of the methane veil can be seen at the 14:45 minute mark of the 30-minute video. All of the quotes in this article are from the video.

In that regard, “pre-industrial methane levels” in the atmosphere were 720 ppb (parts per billion). One hundred fifty years later, on January 19, 2014, CH4 over the Arctic was recorded at 2,362 ppb. By all appearances, the increase in CH4 is coincident with the era of industrialization. Worldwide GDP and CH4 now slope upwards in parallel.

“The gun is currently going off,” says Stuart Scott, who intimates methane ‘shooting’ into the atmosphere. His metaphor is perfectly descriptive because, like a gun, methane is a killer if too much is released into Earth’s atmosphere; thus, the methane veil is chillingly foreboding. It challenges human survival.

Along those same lines, Ira Leifer, Ph.D., atmospheric science at the Marine Sciences Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, is studying the methane complexity: “Some scientists are indicating we should make plans to adapt to a 4C hotter world. While prudent, one wonders what portion of the population could adapt to such a world. My view is that it’s just a few thousand people seeking refuge in the Arctic or Antarctica.”

Alarmingly, the methane complexity is happening now, not in the distant future. According to Peter Wadhams, professor of Ocean Physics, University of Cambridge: “The last 2-3 years there’s been a joint Russian-Alaskan expedition going out into the Siberian Sea and observing this, and they are seeing great plumes of methane bubbling up all over the East Siberian Sea. The whole zone of millions of square miles is now releasing all of its methane cover.”

One of the observers, Dr. Natalia Shakhova, who leads the Russia-U.S. Methane Study at the International Arctic Research Center, at the University Alaska Fairbanks and the Pacific Oceanological Institute, Far Eastern Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, claims that only a tiny percentage of the vast amounts of methane buried in Arctic ice is necessary to double current atmospheric CH4. Worse yet, she suspects an outburst of 50 gigatons could happen at any time. In an interview, Shakova says, “We do not like what we see… absolutely do not like it.”

Hence, the question: Could civilization withstand a 50-gigaton release? Professor Wadhams’ response is discomforting: “No, I don’t think it can.”

Furthermore, says Professor Wadhams: “If you look at the existing predictions of global warming rates — What’s kind of eerie is the fact that the ‘business as usual’ projections, even the cautious ones produced by the IPCC, are still giving us about 4C of warming by the end of the century, and with 2C level beyond which nasty things happen, that will be reached by mid century… 4C (7.2F), what that would do to food production — to die off of forest — to acceleration of warming — to various feedbacks that kick in, the general conclusion is pretty dire… if you get to 4C of warming, then collapse of civilization is what’s going to happen because the world won’t be able to sustain anywhere near its present population. So, there will be chaos, warfare… The eerie thing is: That’s predicted by the IPCC report… but nowhere do they state that 4C is a ‘catastrophe’… and now with this Arctic methane, you’re simply adding another element… Arctic methane brings forward the date which catastrophic global warming is achieved, it might be another 20 years.”

Indeed, CH4 is the ugly stepsister of CO2. By all accounts, during its initial few years, CH4 is 100 times more powerful per molecule than is CO2 at entrapping heat within Earth’s atmosphere.

The methane predicament stems from a rapidly melting Arctic (>50% loss of mass so far), losing its protective icy cover, no longer sealing-in gigatons upon gigatons of trapped methane. The more the Arctic melts, the more methane released. It’s a vicious self-fulfilling tragic storyline.

In like fashion, the more humans drive fossil fuel-cars and produce fossil fuel-electricity, the more CO2 spews into the atmosphere, the more the Arctic heats up, and more ice melts, and more methane erupts. It’s a deathly cycle.

Thus, burning fossil fuels, i.e., oil, gas, and coal, is a double-whammy, e.g., too much CO2 brings on too much CH4. It is much, much, much worse than most people realize, certainly way worse than characterized by the Republican Party “global warming deniers” in Congress who claim “humans aren’t the cause,” or “it’s a hoax.”

Really, a hoax?

Just look at the proof, CH4 increasing from 720 ppb to 2,362 ppb, up three-fold since the start of the industrial revolution, powered by fossil fuels. Who uses fossil fuels?

And temperatures, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency (“JMA”), the past year 2014 was the “hottest year ever recorded,” similar to CO2 at all-time record levels of 396 ppm in 2014 (new records are part of the current interglacial, the Holocene).

Every year, the (1) Japanese Meteorological Agency, (2) NASA, the (3) Hadley Centre in the UK and the (4) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. report the prior year’s temperatures for the planet. JMA reports first, which brings to mind: Is record-breaking CO2 combined with record-breaking temperatures merely a hoax?

Like the film Thelma & Louise (MGM, 1991) driving their 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible over the edge of the Grand Canyon to witlessly escape time in jail, modern society is witlessly burning fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) that emit global warming’s feedstock CO2, thereby enhancing Arctic warmth, which, in turn, releases way too much deadly methane. The cliff is dead ahead!

Postscript: “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse.”1

  1. Herman E. Daly, Ph.D., founder of Ecological Economics, a life-sustainable theory of economics. []
Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.