KSJ Tracker July 25, 2013

Nature commentary says Siberia seafloor gas to be $60 trillion hit. Some outlets say that's nuts; most buy it.

NSF image

$60 trillion US is a lot of coin - roughly the yearly output of today's entire global economy. But what if it were spread out over half a century? That's two percent. A lot, but that just means that we reach an $XX-trillion dollar economy in, say, 2070 rather than 2068, something like that. On the other hand, what if this looming economic pinch is just a small part of a larger problem? Chaos and widespread societal collapse and mass death is what.

    And is the underlying geophysics behind such a forecast of worse times remotely plausible anyway?  I'm all for scaring the world's nations into doing the right thing re climate, but the fright should be rooted in things pretty much demonstrably true.

   The News: A lot of reporters and columnists and bloggers and others chewed over a remarkable commentary in this week's Nature (see Grist below.) Three authors, British and Dutch, looked at scientific studies of vast shoals of methane clathrates now encased in ice-like formations on the continental shelf off East Siberia. Rising temperatures could make them unstable. Maybe they bubble off their methane in a few years, maybe many decades, maybe centuries, nobody really knows. But they assumed it would be quick. They then used economic models of damage due to climate warming, factored in the amount by which the estimated methane deposits would add to the already potent anthropogenic and extra forcing on climate, and came up with $60 trillion as a first-approximation price tag for doing nothing to slow down the warming.

   I'll get to a roundup in a moment. Several stories attempt to debunk the study  Some say its scientific, not just economic, foundation is nuts.

Quick Tangent: Why do we say "debunk," sort of like to degunk a greasy engine by, um, degreasing it? If one exposes something's bunkum - a word taken from the N. Carolina county Buncombe that a prattling Congressman represented in the early 1800s - should the English-speaking world not have agreed to say it has been bunked, embunked, rebunked, or something like that? Now ... back to the subject.

Most reports take it more or less at face value, both geologically and face as in bills with presidents on them.

 As a number, 60 trillion merely makes a mind reel but not necessarily to learn a thing. For instance, the paper does not, after all, declare that this methane bomb is in itself comparable in threat to that from the CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases we already are emitting and will continue to emit. But think:  if this potential monster methane burp adds just, say, 10 percent to atmospheric forcing, that means global warming is a $600 trillion problem already! THAT and not just this increment should be part of the news. Global warming just got a price tag! Plus, as already mentioned and on the other hand, if the damage is spread out over decades maybe it would hardly be distinguishable above the noise in standard economic measures. Methane after all has an atmospheric residency half-life of only about a decade.

One thing's for sure and most media reflect it: Money is not the measure of all things, but letting the Arctic's continental shelves de-gas their hydrate clathrate stuff in a hurry is not good for us or anything on the planet except a few zillion methanotrophs.

One of the toughest debunker stories not arising from the usual denialist clan declares the commentary should never have gotten past the editors at  Nature:

  • Washington Post/Capital Weather Gang - Jason Samenow: Methane mischief: misleading commentary published in Nature; Samenow calls a few people about, and riffles through,  some of the literature on the Nature piece's exhibit A: That a far less icy Arctic Ocean would warm the deeper water during summer and destabilize methane hydrate deposits in a heavily-studies part of the Arctic continental shelf, in the East Siberian Sea off Russia. It is loaded with methane encased in an ice-like matrix, or hydrate. He reports that experts have already looked at scenarios by which the methane would come out in a burst lasting just a decade or so, as the new commentary says is easily possible. The wide consensus however, Samenow reports, is fat chance of that. He cites the esteemed Gavin Schmidt of the RealClimate website (and NASA's Goddard Inst. for Space Studies) as among the scoffers.

A few others along the same general lines:

  • The Carbon Brief (blog) Freya Roberts: How likely is a huge Arctic methane pulse? We find disagreement among scientists ; This blog is a UK-based operation staffed by people in the scientific mainstream. Its conclusions are couched in more temperate terms than in Samenow's piece but have the same gist: few if any authorities see a significant chance of a runaway release like the one the commentary supposes.
  • NYTimes/Dot Earth - Andrew Revkin: Arctic Methane Credibility  Bomb; An ode to Samenow's piece above, with additional supporting material and other enhancement.
  • Register (UK) Lewis Page: DON'T PANIC: "$60 Trillion' Arctic METHANE SCARE is already DISPROVEN ; The tech-news agency The Register, and Page, tilt to the contrarian side of climate discussion. So, he was primed to look for holes in the Nature commentary. But one should need to be tilted to look for another side to the one spoon-fed to reporters, even on climate stories where 'false balance' worries might be making many journalists complacent. Page did find some reasons to skewer the Nature piece, but missed the best one: that even among climate scientists fully on board with alarm as a good response to global warming, to imagine a methane time bomb going off almost instantaneously is too much.

In light of these persuasive pieces one has to conclude that the vast majority of reporters who took this news on failed to take their responsibilities seriously. One of those duties is to do as much independent checking as time permits. Most of them, it appears, vegged out, screwed up, or otherwise goofed off. Reading a press release and listening to a briefing does not often qualify as good journalism. It is akin to taking dictation - but with enough rewrite to make it look like effort and perhaps even diligence occurred. The study needn't have had mud thrown on it, but other voices are available and should have been given a forum. Ditto some praise of Nature for running a piece that so intimately tied scientific conclusions to economic and hence policy implications - flawed or not. Most coverage was from the UK. US media largely took a pass.

Other Stories:

   Grist for the Mill: Nature comment "Vast costs of Arctic change"; U. of Cambridge and Erasmus University (Netherlands) Press Release ;


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