Dragon breath and the age of consequences


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One use of the f-word has flown under the radar in the last few weeks of frantic electioneering, but it’s arguably the most important. We ignore it at our peril.

At the end of last month, ice and climate scientist Dr Jason Box tweeted:

If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.

He was blogging about the finding by a Swedish research team on an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean that bubbles of methane were rising to the sea surface, causing local atmospheric methane levels to soar. Dragon breath blowing around the Arctic. Asked to expand a little by Motherboard senior editor Brian Merchant, he was less coy than on Twitter:

“Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked,” he told me. What alarmed him was that ”the methane bubbles were reaching the surface. That was something new in my survey of methane bubbles,” he said.
“We’re on a trajectory to an unmanageable heating scenario, and we need to get off it,” he said. “We’re fucked at a certain point, right? It just becomes unmanageable. The climate dragon is being poked, and eventually the dragon becomes pissed off enough to trash the place.”

You might think Dr Box is an outlier, a scaremonger amongst climate scientists. He isn’t. Take the time (only half a hour) to view this video — Arctic Emergency: Scientists Speak — by Max Wilbert. A collection of senior Arctic scientists point to the warming that’s already speeding ahead unchecked in the Arctic, and to the risks of sudden massive methane release from the vast stores in permafrost on land and under the shallow — and rapidly warming — seas over the East Siberian Shelf. There’s as much carbon locked into the frozen land and seabed as in all the earth’s land vegetation.

The big danger is that if warming proceeds — and remember, the Arctic is already warming far faster than the mid latitudes and tropics — the permafrost and seabed methane will melt and make attempts to control atmospheric greenhouse gas levels far more difficult. It’s conceivable that the methane release could be large enough to swamp any emissions cuts we manage. The anthropocene would be over before it started, the reins of planetary control ripped from our hands by a fast feedback we only saw coming when it was too late to do anything about it. As Dr Box puts it:

The trajectory we’re on is to awaken a runaway climate heating that will ravage global agricultural systems leading to mass famine, conflict. Sea level rise will be a small problem by comparison.

While our politicians gurn for the cameras, while the ACT Party dines out on its climate denial, the National Party pays lip service to emissions cuts while presiding over steep rises, and Winston Peters can’t even be bothered to have a policy, the planet gets on with the business of warming fast. The hubris of politicians who think they are better judges of climate risk than earth scientists is being found out on the grandest possible scale.

Meanwhile, Dr Box believes that there are things we can all do to reduce the risk of a methane catastrophe. We have to cut emissions, hard and fast:

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This should start with limiting the burning of fossil fuels from conventional sources; chiefly coal, followed by tar sands [block the pipeline]; reduce fossil fuel use elsewhere for example in liquid transportation fuels; engage in a massive reforestation program to have side benefits of sustainable timber, reduced desertification, animal habitat, aquaculture; and redirect fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy subsidies.

The news from the north means that cosy assumptions that we have decades to act are dangerously misguided. We can’t afford to wait for the great juggernaut of international cooperation to creak into action.

This is an all hands on deck moment, says Dr Box.

We’re in the age of consequences.

Would somebody please tell our politicians?


  1. There is no votes in telling people they have to stop living with two cars ,trips over seas and the consumer throw away world we live in .

    • As much as I’m a fan of democracy, it’s an inadequate system for a matter of this magnitude, nature and urgency.
      Not a choice to be made lightly – but the alternative is infinitely worse.

  2. There’s as much carbon locked into the frozen land and seabed as in all the earth’s land vegetation.

    A bit of an understatement there Gareth

    We put the equivalent of something like 400 years worth of plants etc through our exhaust pipes each year, in the past 5 years we have put the equivalent of what that has grown on the planet since Christ through our energy use into the environment, 3 cubic Km in oil per year alone.
    But the greens have the answer – Kiwi Saver – happy happy joy joy
    Latest info here
    Dr Natalia Shakhova Interview: Part 1- Methane Hydrates & Stability of East Siberian Arctic Shelf https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQDVr1eMLK8&list=UUOfWROvWestkWbBhZTk147w

  3. The politicians except for the Greens and some others on the left don’t give a flying fuck about catastrophic climate change. Their attitude is “So what, I’ll be dead by then”.
    Unfortunately many mainstream New Zealanders also think the same.
    Tragic but true.
    I dread to think about what sort of world our grandkids will inherit.

    • Sorry Glenn, but even the Greens can’t get their heads around this stuff, if they had then they wouldn’t lock their young members/voters into a planet fucking growth based savings scam, that will have next to no show of paying out in less than 5 years……… and I maybe overstating the time ‘we’ have left.

      For me Kiwi Saver is the smoking gun, a bit like the plane that flew into the Pentagon, if the greens can keep promoting KS then they are NOT an environmental party.

  4. The planet has experienced many climate changes in the past. This just happens to be one we are alive in the middle of.

  5. Am having lots of problems posting this ???
    maybe its to long will split it and see if that works???

    There is also something like 11-17% leakage of gas/methane from the US fracking network, that includes the municipal gas supply.
    Coal, oil, natural gas, and methane were all ‘created’ during different periods of global warming, It took millions of years to create EACH ‘fossil fuel’ and every time these events happened the earth became so toxic most life died off, we have managed to dig up millions of years worth of CO2 sequestration, and put it back into the environment in just 300 years.
    Even Hanson has said once the Catherate gun goes off we are heading for Venus, and it has been firing for a few years now.

    Published in the Kapiti News July 9

    Generally the information coming out of the IPCC is at best 5 years behind the current thinking, plus they are under political pressure not to frighten the masses, so tend to understate most of their predictions.

    We are currently over 400 parts per million CO2: the last time the environment had this much CO2 floating around it the Earth was 5 degrees Celsius above what it is now, and the oceans were about 26 meters above what they are now. The Earth is still catching up with the effect of past emissions.

    Needless to say, human habitat can not change fast enough to accommodate a 5 degree temperature rise, in what will be an extremely short time, approximately 30 – 40 years, which is the time lag that the melting ice and warming deep seas are giving us.

    The current global climate instability is due to the CO2 emissions from decades ago.
    Then there is methane. The amount of methane – CH4 – and its forcing factor compared to CO2 are rarely taken into account, when in fact methane is way worse than CO2; it is somewhere in the region of 200 – 300 times stronger a greenhouse gas than CO2. And there is something like 10 – 1,000 times more CH4 trapped in the Tundra and under the sea which is below the fast melting Arctic ice than man has injected into the environment as CO2 in the past 200 years. So the current amount of methane in the environment is equivalent to about 400 ppm CO2, giving us in excess of 800 parts per million CO2/CO2e, We are on the cusp of something that may not have occurred in more than 3 billion years.

  6. “Would somebody please tell our politicians?”

    There’s none so deaf as those who don’t want to hear….

  7. We read these news, yet people continue to do as they have done always, jump into their cars every morning and drive to work, school or wherever, and later in the day back home, perhaps also to the supermarket and so, to do shopping.

    The government plans and builds more highways, and only invests marginally in public transport, and car sales and registrations have increased substantially recently.

    So where do we start?

    Will the voters, doing the above, vote a government in, that will stop them driving around in private motor vehicles, burning fossil fuels, and using products made from petroleum and so forth?

    The challenge seems huge, and tomorrow we will have more of the same, as if nothing serious is happening.

    Better wake up, dear people, and change your ways, first of all the government.

  8. Hey don’t worry – the next ice age will be along in about another thousand years or so; or is that 20,000 years? Not sure, but who cares, we will all be dead by then! Not our problem, someone else’s problem. Now for more important matters – how are my stocks on the NZSE doing?

  9. The munting of the zephyrometer yesterday was a welcome signal that the climate isn’t changing. Regular damage from bolt lightning in Wellington has been BAU forever.

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