A Student Writes….Global Extinction Within One Lifetime?

The sun shines across the Arctic expanse.
Scientists still disagree on how long it could take for the Arctic to become ice-free.
Environmental chemistry student Michael Brown evaluates how seriously recent claims that global extinction could occur within out lifetime should be taken
A fast solution today may turn out to be a big problem for tomorrow.

It is now widely accepted that human-induced climate change is a potentially dangerous issue. In a year (2012) when 15,000 temperature records were set in March alone and many freak weather patterns continued to cause drought and flooding across the globe, the danger seems increasingly real and undeniable.

The latest addition to these concerns is the release of methane gas from the Arctic permafrost. Recently it was announced that the Russian research vessel Academician Lavrentiev had made discoveries of hundreds of methane gas eruptions in a 10,000 square mile area of the Arctic Ocean. Russian researcher Dr Igor Semiletov stated:  “These are methane fields on a scale not seen before. We found more than 100 fountains, some more than a kilometre across. The emissions went directly into the atmosphere.”

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is estimated to be about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). A sudden release of this methane along with additional CO2 stored in the permafrost could lead to rapid local temperature increases over a relatively short time period.

Many scientists concede that while specifics are known about green house gases on a molecular scale, the wider effects of these gases in the atmosphere are still very difficult to predict. However, one group known as the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) appears to disagree. One of their recent reports runs with the rather staggering headline “Global extinction within one human lifetime”.

Malcolm Light; inventor, retired professor and the name behind this report,  believes he has accurately calculated methane gas warming potentials. He says: “This process of methane release will accelerate exponentially, release huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere and lead to the demise of all life on earth before the middle of this century.”

Light’s report implies a correlation between recent methane levels and those known to have existed during the Permian period. Some scientists have theorised the rise in methane levels during this time could have played a role in the mass extinction of up to 90% of all species of life on Earth. Other evidence has produced alternative theories for the extinction including persistent volcanic activity from the ocean floors, which caused environmental stress.

With no evidence of peer-review for Light’s report, I decided to ask members of the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences (where I am currently studying) to comment.

Professor Corinne Le Quéré, Director of the Tyndall Centre, disagrees with Light’s report stating that it uses a “very narrow perspective” of the overall methane picture, adding further that the recent unusual methane activity in the Arctic ice and oceans has “never been measured before.”

“We don’t know whether these spikes are natural or not. In the Arctic there are storms, changes in ice coverage and fluctuations in weather systems so before you can make this kind of extrapolation you have to look in terms of time and space, and consider other sources of methane production also.”

There are six main causes for methane output into the atmosphere: Fossil fuels, wetlands, livestock, biomass burning, rice production and landfill emissions. Corinne was able to show using recent data that 3 out of the 6 main outputs of methane have all shown increases from 2010.

Dr Andrew Manning is lead researcher of the Carbon Related Atmospheric Measurement (CRAM) laboratory at UEA. He had this to say: “Some of AMEG’s claims, and certainly their more extreme claims regarding such things as an ice-free Arctic in a few years, are in strong disagreement with current understanding of ice dynamics experts. Much of the science they give is valid, it is the timescales that they have wrong.”

Even though AMEG’s claims are met here with a very high level of scepticism, they have nonetheless been granted an audience with the House of Commons on more than one occasion. In February of this year (2012) Tim Lenton, former Professor of Environmental Sciences at UEA, debated against the claim of an ice-free Arctic within a few years. The transcript of this debate (now available freely online) shows Lenton sharing Manning’s timescale concerns, stating that: “I personally think it highly unlikely that we would lose the ice in the next few summers. My best guess is sometime in the 2030s, maybe 2040s roughly, there will be an ice-free summer.”

The Arctic Methane Emergency Group’s website makes it clear that the reduction in Arctic ice and the release of subsequent green house gases they contain should be approached as a matter of international security. Whatever the timescale involved there is a consensus in the scientific community that the retreat in Arctic ice is, at the very least, undesirable in terms of the changes that would follow. However after such recent events as the ‘Climategate’ incident, the last thing climate science needs is to be treated with hostility over data that could be considered misleading.

AMEG needs to acknowledge that making such extreme claims of global extinction on such little evidence is likely damaging to its own credibility. It is easy to imagine these claims of mass extinction being quoted on every climate denier’s blog as evidence for scientists’ lies and - frustratingly - adding more bewilderment to the already confused public opinion on climate change.

Having said this it is encouraging to see a group of scientists and engineers willing to treat the warming of our planet with such urgency and to voice the urgency of these to the House of Commons.

Among AMEG’s engineers is Stephen Salter, Professor of Engineering Design at Edinburgh University. Salter has been working on geo-engineering projects that could offer real solutions to the warming of the Arctic and which may prove to be valuable even if the problem does not appear imminent.

However such immediate, short-term solutions must be approached with caution. One thing we have surely learned as a species is that most human activities rarely adhere to the balance of nature’s own incredibly complex systems. The effects of geo-engineering are largely unknown and as such, consent from the global scientific community should be sought before implementing such processes. A fast solution today may turn out to be a big problem for tomorrow.

With increasingly erratic weather conditions causing real economic damage, our financially unstable societies may do well to adopt the urgent attitude of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group. If our financial problems seem fraught with difficulties now, it is hard to imagine the difficulties future governments will face if the Arctic ice retreat is as destabilising to the environment as some scientists now suggest. Whatever the facts turn out to be, perhaps it is in the best interests of the global community to treat the Arctic ice as if it only has a few years left - even if this is an unlikely reality.

Michael Brown is an environmental chemistry undergraduate at the University of East Anglia.

Submissions for A Student Writes should be comment based, on a specialist field of study and sent to Ecologist.editorial@resurgence .org, marked as 'A Student Writes' in the subject heading.

A fast solution today may turn out to be a big problem for tomorrow.

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