Andreas Späth

That's one expensive Slush Puppie!

2013-07-29 15:00

Andreas Späth

We're turning the world's polar regions into mush. And it'll cost us billions and billions.

I've written about the melting Arctic and thawing permafrost before. Now new studies are actually starting to put a price tag on the consequences and the results are rather frightening.

[A quick aside in case you've been confused by recent news reports: yes, global warming has slowed down during the last few years as the deep oceans have absorbed more heat than previously expected, but it certainly hasn’t stopped and the upward trend continues. The Guardian's Fiona Harvey explains the situation succinctly.]

There is general scientific agreement that rising global temperatures will lead to widespread melting of permafrost, the frozen soils and sediments that cover about 25% of the northern hemisphere's land surface, although there is still debate about the severity of the process. The concern is that the thawing will expose vast quantities of organic matter to the atmosphere and result in a massive release of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2.

Last Wednesday, a new academic paper reported that permafrost is also increasingly melting in Antarctica, where scientists have thought it to be relatively stable until now.

While most of the southern continent is covered by ice and snow, permafrost is plentiful in its ice-free regions. A group of American researchers showed that in the Garwood Valley of Southern Victoria Land, permafrost is thawing about ten times faster than at any other time during the last 10 000 years or so. It's just another harbinger of things to come.

There clearly is some controversy over the impact melting permafrost will have. A study published earlier in the month argued that the resulting increase in atmospheric methane will only lead to a small amount of additional warming - no more than 0.1oC by 2100. But now a new analysis estimates that methane emissions from permafrost will cost the global economy between $37 and $60 trillion.

Yes, that’s trillions - thousands of billions! To put it in context, in 2012, humanity’s entire economy weighed in at around $70 trillion. Clearly what’s at stake is not a trivial amount.

The model the researchers used focused particularly on the 50 billion tons of methane estimated to be trapped in underwater permafrost on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, which is believed to behave somewhat differently from permafrost on land. As the cover of Arctic sea ice melts and water temperatures rise, the seafloor beneath warms, thawing the permafrost and allowing the methane to bubble to the surface.

The authors of the study believe that the extra methane will bring forward the time when global mean temperatures will exceed 2oC above pre-industrial levels by 15 to 35 years and describe the situation as an "economic time bomb".

Of most concern for us here at the southern tip of Africa, thousands of kilometres from where it will all happen, is that their model predicts that some 80% of the economic impact will hit the world’s poorer countries in Africa, Asia and South America - that’s us!

The predicament is pretty simple: "It will be difficult - perhaps impossible - to avoid large methane releases in the East Siberian Sea without major reductions in global emissions of CO2".

And the money equation isn't especially complicated either: it's short-term financial gains for the economic elite of some of the countries in the northern hemisphere through new access to previously frozen shipping lanes, fishing grounds and oil and gas fields versus trillions of dollars of worldwide damage that will disproportionately impact on the global poor.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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