There Is A Monster Under The Arctic
Under the frigid wasteland, a deadly force lies dormant, until we wake it.
I will start this article off with a warning. If you have any fears for the future, you might want to put this down. The Boogyman under the arctic is a real monster waiting to be released. It will kill millions, terrify those that survive and tear this world apart. So, grab a blanket to hide under or a couch to hide behind and prepare for dread as we dive deep under the arctic ice in search of a terrifying titan.
Our hidden monster is made of something that seems somewhat harmless at first, methane. That's right, this global destructive force is made of fart. Mind you my Dad has some pretty catastrophic farts… But he isn’t the monster here. No, we are talking about Fire Ice, also known as methane hydrate, and huge bubbles of methane gas trapped under arctic permafrost. Fire Ice — WikiCCFire ice is as awesome and as terrifying as it sounds. It is basically water ice with methane trapped within the ice, not as bubbles, but molecules of methane within the ice molecule's latticework. You can actually set fire to this stuff! As for the methane bubbles trapped under permafrost, these huge pockets can form under tundra or frozen lakes. It has also been known for these to spontaneously combust every now and then.
But, both the methane hydrate and the trapped methane bubbles come from the same two places. Either from decomposing organisms or leaking out of volcanic fissures. And there is a lot of it around the planet!
One deposit, known as the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), has 1,400 billion tonnes of frozen methane! Now that is a large number and has very little context, so lets put it into perspective. In 2014 humans released 9.8 billion tonnes of CO². Trapped in the ESAS is nearly 143 times that amount of methane. But methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas. Some estimates put it as high as 86 times worse! But lower estimates put it at 25 times worse.
So, trapped in this single deposit is enough methane to cause the equivalent of 12,298 years of (2014) human pollution. But for now it lies dormant, frozen in permafrost and buried under the sea, waiting for something to awaken it. And we are waking it!
It has long been speculated how stable these deposits are. It is tough to melt deep permafrost, and methane hydrate can withstand surprisingly large temperature variations, so for a while, scientists thought they were metastable and could survive a sensible amount of global warming. But, recent arctic methane emissions, a closer look at these deposits and a look at historical emissions have shown that this is false. It will only take a global temperature rise of 1.5⁰C to thaw out the entire of the ESAS.
It takes the slightest of sounds to wake a dragon, and right now we are sending a marching band, complete with a dancing ensemble and a cheering crowd right through its’ lair!
The reason it takes such a little nudge is the same reason these deposits are so dangerous. They cause a global warming feedback loop. As methane is such a strong greenhouse gas, when a small amount thaws out it dramatically increases the temperature, causing more to be released, this causes the temperature to rise further, causing more to be released. It keeps on going like this until the methane deposit runs out.
To make matters worse, our best plan at stopping climate change, the Paris Agreement wants to stop it at 2⁰C. Which means that even if the Paris Agreement meets its goal, it can’t stop the runaway global warming caused by these deposits. Even out best efforts to keep this monster asleep won’t work. It is stirring from its’ millennia-long slumber. It is so hard to predict just how huge this warming will be. Climate is an incredibly complex system with endless variables, so we don’t have any way of predicting what would happen if this huge release takes place. All we know is that is will be catastrophic, just not how catastrophic!
But this has happened in the past, a sudden warming event known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). 55 million years ago the globe warmed by 5⁰C to 8⁰C over about 100,000 years because of methane release.
But, our problem is that we have more methane deposits now and we humans are also adding to global warming, so it won’t take thousands of years for the earth to heat up, it may only take a hundred, or even less! So, let's use the PETM as a blueprint and say the Earth will heat up by 5⁰C (conservative) over the next hundred or so years. What would happen?
Now is when you should grab that blanket or cower behind the sofa. In short, you wouldn’t recognise the planet, some scientists have even called this level of warming ‘the sixth circle of hell’.
There would be no ice sheets at the poles, which means no global ocean currents. This would kill of a vast number of whales, seals, sharks and well basically most fish. Our oceans today depend on the circulation of nutrients from these currents driven by the ice sheets. With them vanishing so quickly, the ocean will become barren. It goes without saying the humans who depend on the sea for their food will go hungry too. All this melting ice will also push sea levels up. London, New York, Miami (along with most of Florida), Seattle, Antwerp, Buenos Aires, Dubai, Durban, Hamburg, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Osaka, Rio De Janeiro and Vancouver will all be fully submerged by the sea, to name a few. Millions, if not Billions of humans and other land-dwelling animals will be displaced and crammed onto less and less land. Deserts will now become so hot and dry that even the species evolved to live their will struggle. But that isn’t the biggest problem, all the rainforests will have dried up and burnt down in enormous wildfires! (Warming the planet even more). Where our most fertile farmland lies today, like mainland Europe or Middle America, will become a drought riddled desert. Again, the lack of food will mean that millions, if not billions of humans will starve.
This intense heat means that tropical environments migrate nearer the poles. Expect palm trees and tropical landscape over Britain and northern Europe. But these environments will struggle to migrate quick enough, only the fastest growing and hardiest creatures and plants can make the trip. This would mean a far less biodiverse tropical landscape than we know today. To make matters worse, the weather will be extreme. Hurricanes the size we have never seen before; droughts that last for years even in the newfound tropics near the poles; heatwaves of biblical proportions and floods that would make Noah think again. If a species survives this changing environment, it might not survive the new terrible weather. Such conditions have happened before, one such occasion is known as the Great Dying where 83% of all species were wiped out. This event was caused by global warming of around 10⁰C, which is far more than our hypothetical here. But remember that at our rise of 5⁰C we would still see a positive feedback loop of methane and carbon release. So, after several tens of thousands of years, it isn’t impossible for the Earth to warm by the same amount. We will have sparked this change, and it could get just as bad as the worst extinction event in Earth’s history.
So, our world is under threat from this sleeping monster, and we are waking it up. Not only do we need to curtail our own emissions but somehow find a way to stop this beast from rearing it’s ugly head. Otherwise, this beautiful planet will be destroyed. We will see the effects of this monster in our lifetime, and our children and grandchildren will have to fight this head-on, as it gets worse and worse. Sadly, there is no happy ending with this story. We are headed to the sixth circle of hell and doing very little to stop it.
I did warn you this would terrify you to your bones. Sleep well, if you can.
Predict where the future is written