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Another Voice: Rapid loss of permafrost accelerates global warming

By Frank J. Dinan

It is getting warm fast in Alaska and Siberia. According to the National Geographic Society, the ice pack covering the Arctic Ocean has declined in area by 36 percent from 1979 to 2016 as global climate change occurs in that once always frigid area.

So, the permafrost that covers so much of Alaska’s surface is melting. The term permafrost is a conjunction of the words permanent and frost, but we are finding out that permafrost is anything but permanent.

As the Arctic’s warming climate softens and melts the permafrost, its surfaces are being transformed. Alaska’s roads, buildings, airport runways and people’s homes are being disrupted as its once rigid permafrost surface grows softer and more porous.

Buried both in Alaska’s permafrost and below the Arctic Ocean is an enormous amount of a chemical called methane hydrate. Methane hydrate consists of methane gas locked in a cage of ice. Methane is 85 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming gas. Over time, released methane is slowly converted into carbon dioxide, which then lasts indefinitely. After 100 years, the effect of the combination of methane and the carbon dioxide it has generated remains 36 times greater than that of carbon dioxide alone.

As global warming progresses, the once tightly bound methane gas escapes from its cage of ice into the atmosphere. But this is only half of the story; the escape of methane increases the entire Arctic atmosphere’s ability to capture and retain heat, and this increases the Arctic’s temperature and therefore its ability to release methane gas even more rapidly. This positive feedback loop is so powerful that some are predicting that if we do nothing, the summer polar ice cap may disappear by 2040.

The processes that result in methane’s release are of natural origin and contrast to the human-generated release of carbon dioxide.

We have little control over the natural release of methane, but we can decrease our release of carbon dioxide if we choose to do so.

Switching to clean energy sources (solar and wind) is an obvious step, but there are other startling developments taking place to help us reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

In Iceland a Swiss company, Climeworks, is now capturing carbon dioxide directly from air and pumping it into the magma layer below the earth’s surface. There it reacts to form carbonate rocks that permanently lock it away.

The reaction occurs far more rapidly than anyone anticipated. This process can potentially be applied to stationary electrical generation and industrial exhaust systems worldwide. In the United States, these two sources alone account for a combined 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

The question should not be: Can we afford to do this? It should instead be: How can we not afford to do this?

Frank J. Dinan, of the Town of Tonawanda, is an emeritus professor in the Chemistry/Biochemistry Department of Canisius College.

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