The methane bubbles were reaching the surface

This is alarming.

This week, scientists made a disturbing discovery in the Arctic Ocean: They saw “vast methane plumes escaping from the seafloor,” as the Stockholm University put it in a release disclosing the observations. The plume of methane—a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat more powerfully than carbon dioxide, the chief driver of climate change—was unsettling to the scientists.

But it was even more unnerving to Dr. Jason Box, a widely published climatologist who had been following the expedition.

Dr. Jason Box’s view of the consequences “if even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere” is that we’re fucked. He’s an expert on the subject, and that’s his view of it. He tweeted that view of it.

I called the scientist at his office in Copenhagen, and he talked frankly and emphatically about the new threat, and about the specter of climate change in general. He also swore like a sailor, which I’ve often wondered how climatologists refrain from doing, given the urgency of the problem—it’s certainly an entirely accurate way to communicate the climate plight.

First of all, I asked Box if he stood by that tweet. He did. He’d revise it a bit, to include surface carbon—methane locked in the permafrost that’s also beginning to leak out—because if we loose enough of either, we’re in trouble.

“Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked,” he told me. What alarmed him was that “the methane bubbles were reaching the surface. That was something new in my survey of methane bubbles,” he said.

Hotter faster. Not good.

It’s especially worrying because the Arctic is warming faster than nearly anywhere else on Earth. Now, along with melting sea ice and thawing permafrost, we have to add to our list of ‘feedback loop’ concerns that warming Arctic oceans may be releasing fonts of methane. That is, the warmer the ocean gets, the more methane gets spewed out of those stores on the continental shelf, and the warmer the ocean gets, ad infinitum.

Ad infinitum doesn’t work for us. We didn’t evolve in ad infinitum. Not at all at all. We evolved in a particular climate, which is apparently being boiled away like water in a hot skillet. Humans won’t do well in a hot skillet.

“We’re on a trajectory to an unmanageable heating scenario, and we need to get off it,” he said. “We’re fucked at a certain point, right? It just becomes unmanageable. The climate dragon is being poked, and eventually the dragon becomes pissed off enough to trash the place.”

It was refreshing to hear a climatologist pull no punches, while still eloquently and accurately summarizing the science—even though an increasing number are becoming proactive, like the paleoclimatologist Dr. Michael Mann, and top climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, climate scientists are still learning how to engage the public in a manner that’s forceful and compelling. Like Dr. Hansen, Box has a deeply personal reason to sound the alarm.

“I may escape a lot of this,” he said, “but my daughter might not. She’s 3 years old.” Climate change may not destabilize the globe in our lifetime, or even his daughter’s—but the fact that feedback loops like methane release could rapidly accelerate the warming means that there’s a chance rapid climate transformation—and the social and economic catastrophes that would likely accompany it—could strike sooner.

Not good.


  1. quixote says

    We already have that Antarctic ice sheet on an unstoppable slide into the ocean. And it’s big enough to raise sea levels six or seven feet all by itself. That’s one feedback loop we’ve lost any control over. The methane one is even scarier, though. Everyone who knows anything about it has been bracing for this awful news.

  2. Omar Puhleez says

    This simply cannot be true. Human-induced climate change is just not happening/
    Because if it was, it would be bad for established business. End of story.

  3. Reality_based_community says

    OP- It’s not bad for established business. Haven’t you read “How to Destroy the Planet for Fun and Profit?”

  4. John Morales says

    Such angst!

    (And yet, life goes on. So: eat, drink and be merry… for tomorrow you die)

  5. Reality_based_community says

    John, one can’t discern from you comment whether you believe any “angst” is merited with respect to climate change. But I take it that you don’t believe it is. Is that a fair interpretation?

  6. John Morales says

    RBC @7, if we’re already fucked, then there’s nothing to be done about it, is there?

    (One pointless platitude deserves another)

  7. John Morales says

    RBC, do you seriously opine that the deed is done (i.e. doom is ineluctable), or do you perhaps hold a slim hope for species survival, so that you were just being hyperbolic?

    (If the former, then is despair really the best reaction?
    If the latter, then why the hyperbole?)

  8. Reality_based_community says

    John, it’s an informal use of language. We are fucked…the question is how badly (there are gradations). I see nothing on the horizon that will restrain the addiction to fossil fuel. Do you? Any protocols in place? Any political institutions likely to act? Or do you even want to discuss this, as opposed to playing word games? If the phrase “we are fucked” contains too little nuance for your taste, then feel free to provide me with another kind of phraseology.

  9. Reality_based_community says

    As for the F-bomb, sometimes it’s appropriate. cf:

    “Professor Jason Box of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland tweeted “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked.”

  10. John Morales says

    RBC @11, there you go. So: you are endorsing the OP and no more.

    (You know, you could have written “we’re not totally fucked” to start with, and not only avoided my snark but contributed something 😉 )

  11. John Morales says

    PS RBC,

    I see nothing on the horizon that will restrain the addiction to fossil fuel. Do you?

    Yeah, I do: dramatic, incontrovertible and unavoidable effects that motivate even current doubters despite their predilections and comfort by virtue of necessity.

    Obviously, we’re not there yet.

    (But all that is moot if the tipping point is past, and your quibbling about your usage being colloquial doesn’t obscure that you were trying to be dramatic at the cost of being accurate)

  12. Reality_based_community says

    John, I’m not sure what “points” you are trying to win here. I’ll stand by my statement. We are fucked, it’s only a question of how much. Crop failure, mass famine, hellish heatwaves, drought, floods, other extreme weather events, etc? We are already experiencing those things. The collapse of civilization fucked? The end of the species fucked? I’m not sure yet. But it is dire…hence my “hyperbolic” statement, which can only appear hyperbolic to one who doesn’t consider any of those things of any great import.

  13. Reality_based_community says

    I see nothing on the horizon that will restrain the addiction to fossil fuel. Do you?

    Yeah, I do: dramatic, incontrovertible and unavoidable effects that motivate even current doubters despite their predilections and comfort by virtue of necessity.

    You are more optimistic than I. I hope you are right. I don’t see it. And I think that you misdiagnose the problem. It’s not current doubters in the realm of public opinion, which has minimal if any impact on policy. Driving this lunacy are the ruling classes,or elites, or THE MAN(tm) (call such forces what you will according to your ideological bent), but there is profit to be made by burning every drop of oil and ounce of coal in the ground. I have no doubt that such people fully understand exactly what they are doing and understand the science. As I said, I don’t see the slightest policy shift coming from the US, Australia, Canada, China, etc…That’s not a counsel for defeatism, but just to understand the reality of the situation. All of my political activism, energy and money these days pretty much is devoted exclusively to environmental causes. If we FUBAR (<—-slang expression employed in a hypothetical) the habitability of the planet, nothing else really matters much, eh?

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