Biology: Global warming, melting permafrost a vicious cycle that’s getting worse – The Columbus Dispatch
A recent article by Lisa Friedman, a New York Times climate reporter, in that paper’s business section caught my attention.
It concerned drilling for oil in the arctic National Petroleum Reserve and included this statement: “In a paradox worthy of Kafka, ConocoPhillips plans to install ‘chillers’ into the permafrost — which is thawing fast because of climate change — to keep it solid enough to drill for oil, the burning of which will continue to worsen ice melt.”
Kafka? Sure. But there’s a Faustian bargain there, too. The fires of hell, if not arctic wildfires, like the severe ones that occurred last summer, await.
The arctic is warming twice as fast as any other region. We expect the region to warm by 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in less than 40 years. That means those fires could become functionally eternal.
As the arctic lands warm, previously frozen soil and the plant matter it contains begins to thaw. Thawed plant matter decomposes releasing greenhouse gases. Think of the last time your freezer failed. Eat the shrimp; throw out the defrosted broccoli.
In waterlogged soils and resulting ponds and lakes, bacteria decompose thawing plant matter in the absence of oxygen releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
We can control greenhouse gase emissions from mining and burning fossil fuels if we elect to. But we cannot control emissions of greenhouse gases from natural systems like previously frozen permafrost thawing in response to global warming we have caused.
By the end of the century, 2.5 million square miles of arctic permafrost will have thawed at current rates. That’s more than 55 Ohios. At some point in that process, we lose any ability to control these major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Thawing will occur no matter what we do.
A report last week from the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that point is now. The IEA advises governments of its 30 member countries, including the United States.
To avoid that tipping point and runaway greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost and ever-more severe forest fires, we must stop all new fossil fueled projects this year.
A report in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change provides perspective on the risks of increased global warming already upon us. The authors estimate that more than a third of all recent, warm-season, heat-related deaths at 732 locations in 43 countries around the world occurred from human-caused warming.
Poorer countries, in Central and South America for instance, had higher rates of deaths from human-caused warming.
It’s tempting to believe that we can cool our way through more severe heat waves with air conditioning. But a study in May 18 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology dims such hopes. It found that power failures lasting more than an hour and affecting more than 50,000 people in the United States increased by 60% since 2015.
What will this mean for Ohio? Increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from direct (burning fossil fuels) and indirect (increased melting of permafrost) human activities are increasing the rate, intensity, and length of summer heat waves. Power outages will continue to increase as well.
We need to plan for this.
Steve Rissing is professor emeritus in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University.