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Don Paul: Climate change is bad enough without all the hype

Don Paul

Hype is in the air. (Note I didn’t say “overhype.” To me, that’s redundant, since hype already means something is being exaggerated.) Our mean warming climate is already causing problems with rising sea levels, increased coastal flooding, more excessive precipitation events in already wet regions, more spread of weather-sensitive tropical diseases … and the list goes on, as most of you know. The problems associated with this climate change will most definitely worsen during this century and beyond.

The biggest question is the degree of worsening, dependent on how much warming and how rapidly the warming occurs, with end effects ranging from very bad all the way up to disastrous. The latter – disastrous – comes into play if warming reaches worst-case modeled scenarios by late this century. Some of the warming already is ahead of climate model schedule, particularly in the all-important oceans.

So the news is bad enough without hype. Dr. Phil Plait, astronomer and science communicator, writes a terrific column called “Bad Astronomy” on the SyFyWire site. He readily acknowledges he is no climate scientist. But his latest column brings to bear how his suspicions were raised about a calamitous theory making the rounds on YouTube and social media concerning the development of “methane bombs.” Plait knows enough about chemistry and methane to have been alarmed yet skeptical when the headlines first crossed his path. After all, methane has a greenhouse effect 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide. It isn’t nearly as big a contributor in volume as CO2, but human-related activity is causing methane release into the atmosphere to increase.

What are methane bombs supposed to be? As Plait explains, “This whole thing centers on methane hydrates. It’s an interesting bit of chemistry, where, under enough pressure, water molecules combine with methane to form a weird structure that acts like a cage surrounding methane molecules, trapping them inside. It forms if you have methane under cold water at depths of about 500 meters or so.”

The theory is these methane-rich pockets, with continued ocean warming, could start surging out huge volumes of methane far beyond the more gradual emissions now in place. Were that to happen, owing to the extreme potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, runaway warming would develop in short order. Such drastic releases of methane, in theory, would produce disastrous warming much beyond and much faster than even the worst-case modeled scenarios. It would be an awful process, because the additional methane bursts would produce more warming followed by more methane releases due to the warming … and so on, in a feedback mechanism. There are a number of conspiracy theorists who believe the scientific community is hiding this news from us, to avoid panic.

Plait, however, examined evidence supplied by experts in this chemistry, which counters a good deal of the fear associated with these supposed “bombs.” Carolyn Ruppel, of the US Geological Survey, was one of several scientists who explained the breakdown of the methane hydrates is actually what is called an endothermic reaction. That is, the process absorbs heat from the hydrates' surroundings, cooling the area, and slowing the process down. Basically, Plait and Ruppel say if we slow the rate of general climate warming down, the sudden release of these clusters of methane hydrates becomes a good deal less likely.

Ruppel, along with the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, atmospheric physicists and chemists and oceanographers agree the big picture still involves controlling CO2 emissions by reducing combustion of fossil fuels: Plait sums it up: “If we can slow that down, then the waters in the arctic won’t warm as much, and there won’t be much release of the methane in the first place.”

In the meantime, exaggerating fears attached to the already bad news about a warming climate is likely to lead to deniers, some politicians and other interests to dig in their heels. When the science becomes slovenly, as perpetrated by some media, social media and more extreme advocates, inaction becomes more likely as a reaction. I’ve been fortunate to befriend renowned climate scientist Michael Mann, distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State. View this video of his warnings on the dangers of exaggeration and bad science:

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