Runaway Global Warming—
A Climate Catastrophe in the Making

What is runaway global warming, or "runaway heating"?

Runaway global warming is the accelerating (and soon to be unstoppable) chain reaction caused by release of the Arctic's vast stores of the very potent greenhouse gas (GHG), methane. The Arctic methane is released as the result of global warming heating the Arctic. That is called a positive carbon feedback.

This is as close as we've come to a literal End of the World Doomsday scenario. It is the single most catastrophically dangerous effect of global warming to all life on Earth.

The Arctic is already warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Regions in Siberia (where most of the carbon is) are warming even faster.

The Methane Time Bomb

Arctic scientists discover new global warming threat as melting permafrost releases millions of tons of a gas 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

Preliminary findings suggest that massive deposits of subsea methane are bubbling to the surface as the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats.

The first evidence that millions of tons of a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere from beneath the Arctic seabed has been discovered by scientists....

The Independent, September 23, 2008

It's what was most dreaded at the start of global warming environmental awareness campaigning in the early 90s, when it was first called runaway global warming due to the Arctic "methane bomb."

New research has confirmed the worst fears about the Arctic and refers to methane hydrate, which is the methane time bomb.

methane hydrate plumes

Here is yet another study report confirming that Natasha Shakova was right three years ago when she said her research off Siberia showed that methane hydrates had destabilized and were emitting to the atmosphere.

She says runaway global warming can happen "any time." The Russian scientists have been much more responsible in pointing out the catastrophic danger of methane carbon feedback.

David Archer) said in a 1992 paper that global warming (ocean warming) would destabilize Arctic subsea coastal methane hydrates, but have always said that virtually all the methane would dissolve in the ocean water and would barely be emitted to the atmosphere.

Archer proposes a a chronic release of methane hydrates lasting 100,000 years! That would mean 100,000 years of global warming and ocean acidification.

But now we know (see news item, below) that the hydrates emit into the atmosphere in large amounts at just today's warming of 0.8° C. If the hydrates break up, they will float to the surface in solid form and from there emit all their methane into the atmosphere.

Warming ocean contributes to global warming

The warming of an Arctic current over the last 30 years has triggered the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from methane hydrate stored in the sediment beneath the seabed.

Scientists at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Birmingham, Royal Holloway London and IFM-Geomar in Germany have found that more than 250 plumes of bubbles of methane gas are rising from the seabed of the West Spitsbergen continental margin in the Arctic, in a depth range of 150 to 400 metres.

Methane released from gas hydrate in submarine sediments has been identified in the past as an agent of climate change. The likelihood of methane being released in this way has been widely predicted.

The data were collected from the royal research ship RRS James Clark Ross, as part of the Natural Environment Research Council's International Polar Year Initiative. The bubble plumes were detected using sonar and then sampled with a water-bottle sampling system over a range of depths.

The results indicate that the warming of the northward-flowing West Spitsbergen current by 1° C over the last thirty years has caused the release of methane by breaking down methane hydrate in the sediment beneath the seabed.

Professor Tim Minshull, Head of the University of Southampton's School of Ocean and Earth Science based at that the National Oceanography Centre, says: "Our survey was designed to work out how much methane might be released by future ocean warming; we did not expect to discover such strong evidence that this process has already started."

Methane hydrate is an ice-like substance composed of water and methane which is stable in conditions of high pressure and low temperature. At present, methane hydrate is stable at water depths greater than 400 metres in the ocean off Spitsbergen. However, thirty years ago it was stable at water depths as shallow as 360 metres.

This is the first time that such behaviour in response to climate change has been observed in the modern period.

While most of the methane currently released from the seabed is dissolved in the seawater before it reaches the atmosphere, methane seeps are episodic and unpredictable and periods of more vigorous outflow of methane into the atmosphere are possible. Furthermore, methane dissolved in the seawater contributes to ocean acididfication.

Graham Westbrook, Professor of Geophysics at the University of Birmingham, warns: "If this process becomes widespread along Arctic continental margins, tens of megatonnes of methane per year - equivalent to 5-10% of the total amount released globally by natural sources, could be released into the ocean."

The team is carrying out further investigations of the plumes; in particular they are keen to observe the behaviour of these gas seeps over time.

More information: Westbrook, G. K. et al. Escape of methane gas from the seabed along the West Spitsbergen continental margin. Geophysical Research Letters doi:10.1029/2009GL039191, 2009

Source: National Oceanography Centre, Southampton UK

It is now clear that the Arctic permafrost holds many more times the amount of carbon than had been estimated and so would release enormous amounts of methane with rapid thawing.

There is no question about this being the greatest single threat to humanity because it results in the release of huge amounts of additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, driving all climate change impacts harder and faster.

All the evidence indicates that humanity would not be able to survive runaway global heating, nor would most of the rest of life on Earth.

Runaway heating is an Arctic-driven global warming process due to the release of its vast frozen stores of methane.

World powers have delayed any action on global warming for so long that today all the factors for runaway global warming are in place and already happening in the Arctic.

James Hansen, NASA's top world climate expert, has been warning about this for years, and so has the world's leading physicist, Stephen Hawking.

James Hansen has been warning that there is a threshold of GHG concentrations at which the planet moves totally beyond our control to mitigate global climate change. This has to be avoided at any and all costs.

The trouble for the future of humanity and life on Earth is that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is ignoring runaway heating, even though it is definitely known that runaway heating is by far the greatest global warming danger.

This danger was ignored by the 2009 UN Copenhagen Climate Conference negotiations, which were based on fatally false and faulty climate science.

Runaway global warming has always been the most feared complication of global warming. This vicious circle of feedbacks throws even more GHGs into the atmosphere, leading to an irreversible acceleration of global heating.

And the planet would go on heating for thousands of years, like a pot of water that continues to heat after the burner has been turned off.

It won't end until long after all the frozen stores of carbon have thawed and been released, and planet Earth settles into an entirely new, super "hothouse" state. Very little life would be able to survive such a superheated planet.

With new evidence from the planet's distant past, scientists now think that the worst mass extinction events of the past have been due to similar runaway heating from the release of the planet's stores of methane. Specifically, the evidence linking methane hydrate emissions in the final Permian extinction event has been mounting over the past few years.

The climate change scientists seldom use the descriptive term runaway. They call it abrupt irreversible global climate change. But runaway is a perfect description.

The IPCC 2007 assessment does not mention methane hydrates, and the IPCC excludes all carbon feedbacks in its estimates of global temperature increases and impacts. The final IPCC report (the Synthesis Summary) is the only one to mention abrupt and irreversible impacts, but even then carbon feedbacks are not mentioned....

Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change.

We know from the shocking latest ice core studies that "abrupt" means a 6° C switch in temperature within a decade. Abrupt irreversible or runaway global warming always should have been the top focus of the scientists and the IPCC assessments, but that single sentence above is the only attention it has received from the IPCC.

The Five Stages of Runaway Heating

Runaway heating may be considered to occur in five stages. However, it is now becoming clear that the stages happen in such fast succession that they practically happen all together.

Arctic global climate feedback loops

  1. Rapid Arctic warming from global warming

    As predicted by computer models, the Arctic is warming faster than other regions. It is warming twice as fast as the global average, and some regions of Siberia are warming three times as fast. Arctic Siberia has by far the largest store of frozen methane. This increased thawing and melting means greater and faster release of greenhouse gases.

  2. Arctic Ocean summer melt

    The continuous Arctic Ocean ice in the Northern Hemisphere summertime is the cooling and climate-moderating "air conditioner" of the entire hemisphere. The Arctic Ocean summer ice also has a cooling effect on the planet due to the vast expanse of white ice and snow reflecting away about 90% of the heat energy of the sun (albedo).

    The summertime Arctic Ocean is now in a self-accelerating meltdown, losing ice three times as fast as scientists had estimated just a few years ago. Instead of taking until the end of the century to melt under continued global warming, it will be gone before 2030, and possibly in just a few years.

    Current Computer Models Are Not Reliable

    The Arctic is melting three times faster than the computer models had predicted. This rapid loss of the Arctic ice will soon be having an effect on the whole planet. As it will increase the rate of global warming, it makes all global climate change predictions out of date and unreliable.

    Incredibly, the climate change scientists have had little to say about this effect on the planet. Their support of the 2007 IPCC assessment as the sole basis for policy and the international negotiations has not been changed by the rapid and unpredicted course of Arctic events.

  3. Loss of the Arctic Ocean ice's albedo effect

    As the ice disappears, the cooling region (caused by the albedo effect (reflection of light from white surfaces, which reduces the amount of heat radiated into the atmosphere) is replaced by the dark open ocean (and exposed land) that absorbs heat.

    This sudden change of climate could be catastrophic for agriculture in the Northern Hemisphere. It will boost the global warming of the planet—in the order of another 1° C.

    The switch from albedo cooling to exposed ocean warming will boost the global warming of the planet. There no published estimate of the additional global warming from the loss of Arctic albedo. Prof. Peter Wadhams thinks the increase will be 20%, or in the order of another 1° C by 2100.

    albedo of Arctic ice has a cooling effect

  4. Methane Release From Thawing Permafrost

    Published research over the past three years shows that thawing Arctic permafrost is emitting methane, causing a global warming of 0.78° C.

    carbon feedbacks from Arctic thawing and melting

    The loss of Arctic Ocean ice, leading to a sudden and large increase in the rate of Arctic warming (already the highest on the planet), will accelerate the thawing of the permafrost. Thawing permafrost releases CO2 and methane, which increase atmospheric global warming, which then increases thawing of the permafrost, and on it goes in a perpetual loop, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane from the once-frozen soils. (The permafrost releases methane in a wet situation which is what will occur by its melting.)

    Research by Katey Walter has shown that Arctic thaw lakes (seasonal permafrost) are emitting large amounts of methane—5 to 6 times the estimate in a normal situation—at today's global warming of 0.78° C.

    The amount of carbon stored in permafrost soils is at least 2 to 3 times the total amount of atmospheric carbon. It is "at least" that because over the last few years several different kinds of studies have found that the amount of permafrost carbon is far more than originally estimated.

    The amount of carbon stored in the Arctic coastline as methane hydrates is at least 50% of the total amount of atmospheric carbon. At the end of this runaway heating, atmospheric carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, will be 3.5 to 4.5 times as high as it is now.

    Unfortunately, methane has 100 times the heat storage of carbon dioxide during its 12 year lifetime in the atmosphere. And when it finally breaks down, it turns into carbon dioxide and water vapor, two other effective warming gases. This makes methane the perfect greenhouse gas for triggering and driving runaway global heating.

    (Methane is the gas in natural gas, which many are promoting as a way to reduce greenhouse gases. It is also released by wetlands, and by cattle and other livestock due to their digestive systems and the often unsuitable foods that we feed them.)

  5. Methane Hydrates

    The largest single store, or sink, of greenhouse gases on the planet is methane locked under pressure in ice. This is called methane hydrate.

    Scientists have agreed for 15 years that the melting Arctic coastlines and warmed Arctic ocean will unlock the methane and release it into the atmosphere. It's already occurring in Siberia, with high methane levels reported in coastal ocean water and the air above it—at today's global warming of 0.78° C.

The current global warming target of 2° C would allow runaway global heating to be more than firmly established.

The European Voice, a weekly newspaper, reported on June 9, 2009, that Mr. Stavros Dimas, the European Union commissioner for environment has said the world may need to pledge to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5° Celsius to prevent runaway climate change.

This is a big improvement on 2° C. It is also the average figure from the published science on the matter of dangerous global warming. But at double today's level of warming, it just cannot prevent runaway heating.

The only way to slow the release of methane is to immediately stop pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The green Zero Carbon buttons on the left offer information about how to slow, stop and reverse global warming, so that we can (if we're lucky, and determined) avoid runaway heating.