Way back in the neoproterozoic era, a monster rose from the ocean floor and saved our distant ancestors from a freezing planet. That monster is stirring again. This time, though, if we wake it, we will not be so lucky. His hot breath will raise our only planet’s average temperature by…who knows?
Back then, a sudden release of methane from the sea floor heated our planet by thirteen degrees Fahrenheit in a relatively short period of time and melted the glaciers and frozen oceans that threatened to overtake the Earth. Today, a thirteen-degree rise in temperature would put us off the charts of predictable climate change and into the territory of Lovelock’s vision of a few humans left on a planet where only the circumpolar regions are habitable.
Have you heard of “snowball earth“? It’s a state our only planet has slipped into from time to time. The most recent occurrence was about six hundred and thirty five million years ago, so there are no eyewitness accounts (Hey, nothing alive at the time had eyes!) and the geological evidence is a bit sketchy, but something started a runaway cooling phase–perhaps a meteor collision or volcanic eruption that shielded us from the sun. In any case, the evidence points to very low CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and glaciation, permafrost and frozen oceans down to about 30 degrees–the latitude of New Orleans and Lhasa in the north, and of Capetown in the south– although, of course, the continents we are familiar with did not exist at the time.
The snowball effect was…snowballing, threatening to turn the whole planet into an iceball, when the clathrates rose and saved us. Perhaps turning so much of the world’s water into ice and lowering the pressure on the ocean floor was the trigger. Perhaps it was a geological event, like the collision of India with Asia, giving rise to the Himalayas, which was happening at that time, and would have created massive earthquakes. But something turned the clathrates loose, and they rose into the atmosphere and warmed the planet. Relatively quickly, over about a thousand years, the ice melted and our planet warmed, and the sponges (who were the highest form of life at the time) began to evolve into jellyfish, and thus on to the dinosaurs and, ultimately (at least so far) us. And all because of the clathrates. The methane clathrates.
They came to our rescue again at the end of the age of dinosaurs, and also during the last ice age, which ultimately drew enough water out of the oceans to set them free and warm the planet. This time, however, the planet is already warm. We do not need to be turning loose the methane clathrates.
Methane clathrates are not the kids you went to school with who used to sit in the back of the room and pass gas all the time. That’s methane classmates. They have nothing to do with Klaatu, the extraterrestrial hero of the 1951 movie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” but, like monstrous Cthulhu, the clathrates sleep under the ocean, and we do well to dread their awakening.
Methane clathrates are a form of methane gas that has been turned into a solid by the combination of cold temperature and high pressure that exists hundreds of feet under cold oceans. Climate change is warming the oceans. So far, it is only taking its toll on the corals, but we do not know where the tipping point for clathrate release lies. It’s not an easy subject to research, and we really need to know, because once the methane clathrates rise into the atmosphere, all bets about human survival, let alone civilization, are off. And, ominously, methane releases from under the thawing tundra are on the rise.
Meanwhile, we have a social and economic structure that is completely tied to activities that will keep heating the planet and pushing us towards this suicidal methane release. Too many of us don’t want to stop burning fossil fuels. We have to have our jet flights, our coal powered factories and generating stations, our private, gas-powered cars, our plastics, our fertilizers. We want to keep on doing what we have always done, with no understanding that we must give up a great deal of what we have, materially speaking, in order to keep any of it, because if we try to cling to all of it, we will lose it all, and take most of the rest of the life on the planet with us. Greed and avarice will not send us to hell. They will bring hell to us. We really don’t want to turn loose the monster from the deep.