Not to be outdone by the state of our national politics, the state of the planet got markedly more dire this week, with some extremely bad climate crisis news. Per The Guardian, scientists studying the Arctic Ocean may have found evidence that frozen methane deposits, terrifyingly called the “sleeping giants of the carbon cycle,” have started to be released into the atmosphere, a possible new and irreversible global-warming tipping point.
The deposits in the Arctic, trapped under sea ice, are called “sleeping giants” because they contain huge amounts of frozen methane, an incredibly potent gas: Methane warms the atmosphere at a rate 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Researchers have long warned that rising temperatures in the Arctic seas driven by warm Atlantic currents, a phenomenon called “Atlantification” that’s caused by “human-induced climate disruption,” would catastrophically affect methane deposits by destabilizing their containment. According to the United States Geological Survey, “Arctic hydrate destabilization” is one of the four most serious scenarios for abrupt climate change, because it could trigger a feedback loop in which warming would rapidly accelerate. What has remained in question is, if it happens, when the damage would be significant enough that methane deposits would start to be released into the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the answer is beginning to take shape. Researchers have detected high levels of the potent greenhouse gas down to a depth of 350 meters in the Laptev Sea, near Russia. Methane levels at the surface were four to eight times what would normally be expected, they report. If confirmed, the discovery would mark the third methane emissions source in the region.
“At this moment, there is unlikely to be any major impact on global warming, but the point is that this process has now been triggered. This East Siberian slope methane hydrate system has been perturbed and the process will be ongoing,” one researcher said. With all of the noise of the 2020 election, you’d be forgiven if you found it hard to pay attention to anything else. But it seems like everyone should be shouting from the rooftops about the “sleeping giants” of the sea poised to spiral the climate crisis totally out of control.