Arctic Methane Emergency Group
Emergency intervention to stabilize Arctic sea ice and thereby Arctic methane is today a matter of our survival
I write to you on behalf of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, which includes among its founding members Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics, Cambridge; Stephen Salter, Emeritus Professor of Engineering Design, Edinburgh; and Brian Orr, former Principal Science Officer at the UK DoE (as was). The Group has received support and advice from many pre-eminent climate science colleagues around the world. The purpose of this letter is to respectfully bring to your attention new evidence of the rapidly deepening climate change crisis in the Arctic. We appeal to you to support our call to put the imminent loss of Arctic summer sea ice and escalation of Arctic methane emissions at the top of the climate change agenda and to support emergency measures to cool the Arctic.
Professor Peter Wadhams, on behalf of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, spoke about this critical issue at the December 2011 American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in San Francisco, USA. Key elements of his talk have been widely reported, following an article in the UK's Independent newspaper.
The substance of our concerns – and the basis for these media reports – is outlined in our 16-page document entitled Arctic Methane Alert. To summarise:
The loss of Arctic summer sea ice and increased warming of the Arctic seas threaten methane hydrate instability and a massive catastrophic release of methane into the atmosphere, as noted in IPCC AR4.
• Research published by N. Shakhova* shows that methane is already venting into the atmosphere from seabed methane hydrates on the East Siberian Arctic shelf, or ESAS (the world's largest continental shelf), which, if allowed to escalate, would likely lead to abrupt and catastrophic global warming.
• The latest research expedition to the region (September/October 2011), according to Professor I. Semiletov, witnessed methane plumes on a "fantastic scale," "some one kilometer in diameter," "far greater" than previous observations, which were officially reported in 2010 to equal methane emissions from all the other oceans put together.
• The loss of Arctic summer sea ice and subsequent increased Arctic surface warming will inevitably increase the rate of methane emissions already being released from Arctic wetlands and thawing permafrost.
• The latest available data indicates there is a 5-10% possibility of the Arctic being ice free in September by 2013, more likely 2015, and with 95% confidence by 2018. This, according to the recognised world authorities on Arctic sea ice, Prof. Wadhams and Dr. Wieslaw Maslowski, is the point of no return for summer sea ice. Once past this point, it could prove impossible to reverse the retreat by any kind of intervention. The data indicate the Arctic could be ice free for six months of the year by 2020 (PIOMAS 2011).
It is on the basis of this latest and best information that we are calling for urgent and immediate action to arrest the escalating decline of Arctic sea ice.
Action is demanded by the precautionary principle and under the terms of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which states: "The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimise the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures."
The conditions that have long been recognised as potentially causing vast quantities of methane to be released in the Arctic are clearly developing. The calamitous impacts of inaction are well-known – runaway climate change. As US Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate, Steven Chu, said when addressing the consequences of an Arctic meltdown, "A runaway effect… We cannot go there." The only way to prevent this critical situation from developing into a global catastrophe is through international recognition of the issue, and collaboration on the immediate and urgent intensification of scientific inquiry and the emergency scale development of countermeasures such as geoengineering to cool the Arctic.
As you are a guardian of the global community, we are counting on your support.
Chair, Arctic Methane Emergency Group
* "Remobilization to the atmosphere of only a small fraction of the methane held in East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) sediments could trigger abrupt climate warming….Our concern is that the subsea permafrost has been showing signs of deabilization already. If it further destabilizes, the methane emissions may not be teragrams, it would be significantly larger. The release to the atmosphere of only one percent of the methane assumed to be stored in shallow hydrate deposits might alter the current atmospheric burden of methane up to 3 to 4 times."
— N. Shakhova, Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, Science, 5 March 2010