9 10 2008

There was a a big flurry of polar exploration this summer, because for the first time in a hundred and twenty-five thousand years, it was possible to sail all the way around the Arctic Ocean.  Shipping companies loved it, but the scientific community said it indicates that our planet’s Arctic ice cap is “entering a death spiral,” as the darker seas absorb more heat and the ice melts even faster.

This is not just bad news for polar bears and Inuit.  The warming ocean has triggered methane releases from the ocean floor.  Ships sailing north of Siberia reported methane levels one hundred times normal background, with methane bubbling up over tens of thousands of square kilometers.

What we  don’t know is whether the current methane leakage is going to remain constant or whether it’s the trickle before the dam breaks.  The methane on the ocean floor is held in place by a layer of permafrost, and scientists think the methane is currently bubbling to the surface through “small holes.”  The coming winter may refreeze the ocean floor permafrost, but even if it does, the ice in this summer’s holes will be weaker ice, just as much of the ice that reformed on the Arctic Ocean last winter after 2007’s record meltoff is weaker than the cover that it replaced, which in many cases was thousands of years old.

If the “dam breaks” we will have a massive release of methane, which is likely to raise the planet’s average temperature by ten degrees or more, well past the point where much of it will be habitable by humans or anything else too big to stay under a rock during the day.  You think the current drought and heat wave in the Sahara-Sahel-Darfur-Somalia area is bad?  You think there’s refugees and fallout and blowback?  Wait till the Himalayas melt off and Asia goes dry! You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Meanwhile, Al Gore has called for civil disobedience to prevent new coal plants from being built, and Greenpeace protestors in England have been acquitted of all charges in closing down a coal plant in England on the grounds that

they were acting to safeguard property elsewhere around the world “in immediate need of protection” from the impacts of climate change driven in part by emissions from coal burning. (New York Times)

Meanwhile, both Obama and McCain continue to endorse the chimera called “clean coal,” conveniently ignoring a number of inconvenient truths:  number one, that there is no functional technology for purifying or sequestering coal emissions; number two, that much coal is mined by an extremely destructive process called mountaintop removal, aka strip mining, number three, that China is now importing coal from the US, and, due to our bad balance of payments and how much we owe the Chinese, we are not in a good position to say “no” to them; and, finally, that the Chinese are building coal plants at a tremendous clip, one that could offset every conservation move made in the West.

In short, it’s looking more and more like mankind is hitting an evolutionary dead end:  we are clever enough to screw things up really badly, but not wise enough to change our destructive behavior.  It may be time to find or dig a nice, deep cave and figure out how to build one of those stillsuits they had in Dune.  Spice, anyone?

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Unsustainable

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