Aside from polar bears and penguins, should we be paying more attention to what is going on in the Arctic, especially in relation to climate change?
There is near-consensus in the scientific community that human activity is responsible for climate change, rising temperatures, erratic weather, and retreating Arctic ice being just a few symptoms. According to some researchers, however, it may already be too late to do anything about it, even if every single person on the planet stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, the problem is not just limited to humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions, but the effect that these emissions have had on climate change is creating a positive feedback loop, or spiral effect, that could lead to runaway global warming.
The positive feedback loop has to do with sequestered carbon in the ocean floor and permafrost, in the form of methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas about twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. For millennia, these CH4 deposits have been safely tucked away, unable to gasify because of the cold temperatures where they are located. Under “normal” conditions, these CH4 deposits would be no more a threat than a standing tree. Unfortunately, the carbon dioxide that we have pumped into the atmosphere, some 350 billion metric tons (385 trillion tons) since the Industrial Revolution, is warming things up around the world, even in the Arctic. Indeed, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, now over 400 ppm (parts per million), is higher than in the last 800,000 years! Previously-trapped CH4 is starting to gasify, is surfacing, and poses an even greater threat to the climate than our own carbon-intense activities.
The problem is that, even if we stopped carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow morning, say midnight GMT on September 23, 2014, methane emissions are already accumulating and generating their own greenhouse effect, warming the atmosphere ever so slightly. In turn, warmer atmosphere and ocean currents will release more methane, leading to further temperature increases. Worst-case scenario states that we could be seeing the beginning of a runaway climate change event. Given that past mass-extinction events were associated with massive methane emissions and global warming upwards of 6 °C, curbing carbon dioxide emissions is the most-important consideration we have as a species. Secondary to this, learning how to survive in a new world, much more than abandoning the coastlines.
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