At the UN, pressure is mounting for a breakthrough during "Climate Week," an intense period of pre-Copenhagen meetings which kicks off in Washington on Thursday and Friday with a ministerial-level gathering of the world's 17 largest carbon polluters.
Next Tuesday, UN chief Ban Ki-moon will host a climate summit in New York, followed by a two-day G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 24-25. Representative of 100 countries will try to break the months long deadlock between rich and developing nations over how to divvy up the task of slashing greenhouse gases.
Meanwhile the question of who should pay most for climate change and when they should begin is becoming urgent.
Air temperatures in the Arctic (including northwest Canada, Siberia, Alaska and Greenland) have risen much faster than the global average. Since 1970, Pan-Arctic temperatures, they say, have increased more than 2.5 C (4.5 F). This summer the thaw reached deep into the Arctic's frozen soil at a rate of 4 centimeters (1.5 inches) a year.
Permafrost, the soil of the North's tundra remains frozen year-round and covers nearly 20% of all land. In the Arctic, it reaches depths between 160 to 2,000 feet. Entombed in that freezer is carbon -- plant and animal matter from past ages of the earth. Estimates of how much is out there are vague. There could be anywhere between 7.5 to 400 giga-tons of carbon in the permafrost.
As the Arctic soil thaws, this ancient vegetation is finally attacked by microbes and decomposes producing either carbon dioxide or --in water-- methane, which is commonly known as 'natural' (or C4) gas. Both carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases, but methane is many times more powerful in warming the atmosphere and there is much more methane than carbon trapped beneath the frozen surface of the Arctic.
Estimates are vague, but there could be anywhere between 500 to 10,000 giga-tons of methane hydrate throughout the Arctic. The danger is so severe that last week a World Wildlife Fund report named methane the globe's single biggest climate threat: (Report available for free download here: http://www.panda.org/wwf_news/press_releases/?173241/Warming-Arctics-global-impacts-outstrip-predictions )
Last year, University of Florida scientists calculated that the top 10 feet of permafrost contain more carbon than is currently in earth's entire atmosphere. But by 2007, air monitors had already detected an abrupt rise in atmospheric methane, Apparently the source is earth's warming polar regions.
Siberian researchers record that methane emissions from northern Siberia increased by 58 per cent between 1974 and 2000. Some methane bubbles are as large as 30cm across and they keep coming. The Siberians are seriously worried about a potential global surge of methane because it is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Its complex molecule retains and traps atmospheric heat much more efficiently than CO
The Siberians believe this will create warming of several additional degrees, and therefore have unpredictable -- but very negative -- consequences for Earth's climate.
The truly bad news is methane was not factored into previous global warming predictions even those as recent as the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. "It (Methane) was not considered in any of the predictions at all," says Andrew Weaver*, a Canadian researcher and one of the Nobel winning IPCC report's authors.
In short, global warming is now happening much faster than anyone expected. The revised prediction for end of year-round Arctic sea ice is now 2013, considerably sooner than the original estimate of 2050 a few years ago.
In the lakes of Canada's Mackenzie River Basin and in the Atlantic's North Sea off West Spitsbergen, submarine methane is ordinarily trapped as an ice-like substance -- methane hydrate -- made of water and methane. Methane hydrate is stable and dormant under conditions of high pressure and low temperature. But as water temperatures rise in the north, the hydrate breaks down. The most recent evidence shows that methane in the North Sea is now only stable at water depths greater than 400m. 30 years ago it was stable at 360m.
So pure methane gas is now bubbling up from underwater vents across our polar regions and escaping into the atmosphere where it adds to global-warming. A joint English and German research team** cleverly used modified fish-finding equipment to track the methane seeping from the ocean floor near Spitsbergen. Their sonar device found 250 methane seeps from depths as shallow as 150 meters.
I write about the human migrations that will result from future environmental collapse of our continent in my forthcoming book, North American Ark, but most people, I believe, already share a vague sense of some overwhelming danger that hovers slightly beyond the horizon. Here then, is our most immediate world threatening danger. In sufficient amounts, pure methane escaping from the Arctic seabed would spell a climate catastrophe, a tipping point that would radically alter earth's climate in a very short space of time.
The Copenhagen meetings in December 2009 may be humanity's last chance to ameliorate climate change. Let's all hope things go well for Ban Ki Moon in New York next Tuesday.
*Andrew Weaver, a Guggenheim Fellow, is the author of Keeping Our Cool: Canada In a Warming World (Penguin, 2008)
** The British/German team's research can be found in the current issue of Geophysical Research Letters