Cost of Arctic Methane Release Could Be 'Size of Global Economy', E...

Economists have finally put a number to what methane hydrate release just from the East Siberian Sea will cost us. Burning fossil fuel. We can't afford it!

Researchers have warned of an "economic time-bomb" in the Arctic, following a ground-breaking analysis of the likely cost of methane emissions in the region.

Economic modelling shows that the methane emissions caused by shrinking sea ice from just one area of the Arctic could come with a global price tag of 60 trillion dollars -- the size of the world economy in 2012.

Writing in a Comment piece in the journal, Nature, academics argue that a significant release of methane from thawing permafrost in the Arctic could have dire implications for the world's economy. The researchers, from Cambridge and Rotterdam, have for the first time calculated the potential economic impact of a scenario some scientists consider increasingly likely -- that methane from the East Siberian Sea will be emitted as a result of the thaw.

This constitutes just a fraction of the vast reservoirs of methane in the Arctic, but scientists believe that the release of even a small proportion of these reserves could trigger possibly catastrophic climate change. According to the new assessment, the emission of methane below the East Siberian Sea alone would also have a mean global impact of 60 trillion dollars.

"The global impact of a warming Arctic is an economic time-bomb,"...

"The imminent disappearance of the summer sea ice in the Arctic will have enormous implications for both the acceleration of climate change, and the release of methane from off-shore waters which are now able to warm up in the summer. This massive methane boost will have major implications for global economies and societies." [emphasis mine]

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Most discussion about the economic implications of a warming Arctic focuses on benefits to the region, with increased oil-and-gas drilling and the opening up of new shipping routes that could attract investments of hundreds of billions of dollars. However, the effects of melting permafrost on the climate and oceans will be felt globally, the authors argue.

... the authors calculate the global consequences of the release of 50 gigatonnes of methane over a decade from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea. "The methane release would bring forward the date at which the global mean temperature rise exceeds 2 degrees C by between 15 and 35 years," said Chris Hope.

If other impacts such as ocean acidification are factored in, the cost would be much higher.

The research also explored the impact of a number of later, longer-lasting or smaller pulses of methane, and the authors write that, in all these cases, the economic cost for physical changes to the Arctic is "steep."

They argue that economic discussions today are missing the big picture on Arctic change. [emphasis mine]

Tags: , , Arctic, Methane, Release, catastrophe", economic, global

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Replies to This Discussion

Here are some responses from Professor Wadhams on this research, which has been challenged by a couple of other climate scientists.

Ice-free Arctic in two years heralds methane catastrophe – scientist

Not everyone agrees that the paper's scenario of a catastrophic and imminent methane release is plausible. NASA's Gavin Schmidt has previously argued that the danger of such a methane release is low, whereas scientists like Prof Tim Lenton from Exeter University who specialises in climate tipping points, says the process would take thousands if not tens of thousands of years, let alone a decade.

I interviewed Prof Wadhams. Here's what he had to say: ...

Why do the climate models not match empirical observations - and why is your estimate of the Arctic sea ice disappearance so different from most model projections?

The modellers did not pay sufficient regard to observations, especially of ice thickness. They considered certain physical processes in the model, then when the rate of retreat greatly outstripped the predictions of the model, they ignored the observations and stuck with the model.

Then there are a number of key processes that can only be represented if the model has a very fine grid scale, such effects as the break-up of ice due to waves generated in the large areas of open water that we now have in summer; or the additional weakening of the ice by meltwater pools that melt their way right through the ice sheet. A modeller who represents all these fine scale processes is Wiselaw Maslowsky (Monterey) and his models agree with my empirical predictions.

We are already in a 2C world in terms of the heating potential of carbon dioxide that we have already put into the atmosphere. The heating will reach 2C before 2050 and will then go on to 3-4C globally by the end of the century. Even a 2C world involves the probable loss of Arctic sea ice for much of the year (and 4C for most of it), which will ensure maximum methane release from the exposed shallow seas of the continental shelves.

Our own model shows that the methane release from the ice retreat will add about 0.6C to global warming by 2040.

Some people say that a catastrophic methane release over 10 years - your worst-case scenario - is a very low probability event and we don't really need to worry about it. What's your response to that?

Those who understand Arctic seabed geology and the oceanography of water column warming from ice retreat do not say that this is a low probability event. I think one should trust those who know about a subject rather than those who don't. As far as I'm concerned, the experts in this area are the people who have been actively working on the seabed conditions in the East Siberian Sea in summer during the past few summers where the ice cover has disappeared and the water has warmed. The rapid disappearance of offshore permafrost through water heating is a unique phenomenon,... [bold in this paragraph mine]


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