Sunday, May 29 , 2016, 9:14 pm | Overcast 59º

Letter to the Editor: Death by Gas — The Sentence for Us All?

By William Smithers |

Human beings have never existed on a planet whose atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide has reached 400 parts per million. In just a few years, we'll be there.

The warming of the Earth, air and sea caused by this accumulation has destroyed Arctic ice at a pace that will, by 2018 — and for the first time in at least 3 million years — result in an ice-free Arctic summer, according to professor Peter Wadhams, a leading Arctic expert at Cambridge University.

More than 10 years ago, climate scientists of the International Panel on Climate Change told us that merely to maintain the then-existing level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would require us to reduce fossil fuel use by 60 to 80 percent. Instead, we've steadily increased our production and consumption of same.

Though carbon dioxide has been the principal villain in most discussions of the planet's warming, there is another actor waiting for an even more prominent role, one known to be 25 to 30 times more potent as a stimulus to rising temperatures.

Methane is a product of the decay of organic matter in an oxygen-deprived environment. Immense stores of this gas — far exceeding the volumes of CO2 now present in the Earth's atmosphere — have accumulated over vast eons of time, buried in the top 10 feet of soil under previously ice-covered land and in the top 10 feet of seabed under seas currently or previously ice-bound.

As Earth, air and water warm — as the ice and frozen soil that have trapped these vast quantities of methane melt and thaw — this destructive gas is freed to join carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“We are now seeing great plumes of methane bubbling up in the Siberian Sea … millions of square miles where methane cover is being released," Wadham says.

“The amount of methane annually escaping from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is equal to that escaping from the entire World Ocean,” said Natalia Shakhova, a researcher at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center.

Studies/reports published in various scientific journals indicate that on the ESAS twice the amount of methane is vaulting into the atmosphere than had previously been estimated, and in the United States methane emissions from oil and agricultural operations may be 50 percent to 150 percent more than had once been believed.

UCSB's Ira Leifer, an atmospheric and marine scientist, and one of the authors of a recent Arctic Methane Study, has said “... the Permian mass extinction that occurred 250 million years ago is related to methane and thought to be the key to what caused the extinction of most species on the planet.”

They call this “The Great Dying.” It took 80,000 years. But get this: Today between 150 and 200 species are going extinct daily, a rate 1,000 times greater than “normal.” My arithmetic tells me 80,000 divided by 1,000 equals 80!

We all know that early projections of the IPCC as to the possible effects of climate change have been exceeded regarding their extent, intensity and rate of acceleration. Any sensible person knows that a “worst-case scenario” is not unimaginable just because it seems at the far end of possibility.

So what is possible for us humans if the endless pouring into the air of carbon dioxide is enhanced by huge injections of even more virulent methane?

Climate scientist James Hansen, notable as one of the first to warn of global warming, has said, “There are potential irreversible effects of melting the Arctic sea ice. If it begins to allow the Arctic Ocean to warm up, and warm the ocean floor, then we'll begin to release methane hydrates. … If we let that happen, that is a potential tipping point. … If … the methane hydrates … come out and cause several degrees more warming … it's not clear that civilization could survive the extreme climate change.”

And as we've seen, this process is already under way.

There seems no reasonable expectation now that we can stop the Earth's average temperature from increasing 3.5 to 5 degrees Celsius within the next 20 to 30 years, according to University of Arizona professor Guy McPherson.

“This guarantees a positive feedback [multiplying of effect] … leading to 4.5 to 6 or more degrees above 'norm' and that is lethal to life," he said. "Humans have to eat and plants can't adapt fast enough … so we'll die.”

The upshot then is that though humans might, improbably, adapt to that escalating heat, plants cannot. And scientific reports show that even now the oceans have lost 40 percent of their phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic food chain, due to climate-related acidification and atmospheric temperature variations.

In other words, as we look to a future that may include an irreversible heat wave, what will there be for us to eat? Consider, too, that rainfall patterns, necessary for plant growth, are now moving ever northward.

“One wonders what portion of the living population now could adapt to such a world," Leifer said, "and my view is that it's just a few thousand people [seeking refuge] in the Arctic or Antarctica.”

So, we are then left to ask: Do we see any government — any — that appears to recognize this potential catastrophe and seems willing to sacrifice economic profits for the massive effort needed to deal with it? I see none.

Perhaps it's relevant that, according to a March 2013 Gallup poll, most Americans don’t think “global warming will pose a serious threat to you or your way of life during your lifetime." (Offspring were not mentioned.) And perhaps some — you? — have been persuaded by conservative groups that have spent up to $1 billion a year to deny science and oppose action on climate change, largely underwritten by billionaires often working through secretive funding networks.

To all these, and in the face of scientists' warnings that we as a species may well, indirectly, die by gas, I can only say: Because of age, I will probably not know the critical hour. May you, your children and grandchildren rest in peace.

— William Smithers is a Santa Barbara resident.

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