Those of us attempting to communicate the risks associated with climate change often lament the lack of “serious” media coverage.
While climate change is frequently mentioned in the op-ed sections of Australia’s papers (and if a News Limited publication the stance is invariably skeptical) it is rare to see climate change make front page news.
Which is why I was impressed to see The Age today – the headline, At the edge of disaster, says it all:
THE world is on the cusp of a “tipping point” into dangerous climate change, according to new data gathered by scientists measuring methane leaking from the Arctic permafrost and a report presented to the United Nations on Tuesday.
Journalist Ben Cubby should be congratulated on his story, especially getting it onto page one at time when every other paper is pursuing the faux-scandal that is the Gillard-AWU affair.
The story is about one of the more worrying climate related tipping points; the release of the vast stores of methane under the Arctic permafrost.
Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon, and has been of concern for several years now as this 2009 New Scientist article alludes:
I AM shocked, truly shocked,” says Katey Walter, an ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “I was in Siberia a few weeks ago, and I am now just back in from the field in Alaska. The permafrost is melting fast all over the Arctic, lakes are forming everywhere and methane is bubbling up out of them.”
Back in 2006, in a paper in Nature, Walter warned that as the permafrost in Siberia melted, growing methane emissions could accelerate climate change. But even she was not expecting such a rapid change. “Lakes in Siberia are five times bigger than when I measured them in 2006. It’s unprecedented. This is a global event now, and the inertia for more permafrost melt is increasing.”
What does this mean?
Simply put – it may imply warming is happening faster than anyone anticipated:
Now it appears that the assessment was too optimistic. The latest data from across the globe show that the planet is changing faster than expected. More sea ice around the Arctic Ocean is disappearing than had been forecast. Regions of permafrost across Alaska and Siberia are spewing out more methane, the potent greenhouse gas, than models had predicted.
Ice shelves in West Antarctica are breaking up more quickly than once thought possible, and the glaciers they held back on adjacent land are sliding faster into the sea.
Extreme weather events, such as floods and the heat wave that gripped much of the U.S. in the summer of 2012 are on the rise, too. The conclusion? “As scientists, we cannot say that if we stay below two degrees of warming everything will be fine,” says Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor of physics of the oceans at the University of Potsdam in Germany.
In my mind this is one of the most worrying tipping points (search WtD blog for “clathrate gun hypothesis”).
For some time it has been one of the things that terrify – yes terrify – me:
So let me state this: it is now pointless wrangling over the question of whether or not to attribute individual events to climate change.
Reality makes that debate redundant.
We’re here: we’ve arrived at the point in history when our species has engineered a new climate. The point we knew was coming - that was inevitable – if we did nothing.