The Clathrate Gun Hypothesis for Runaway Global Warming
New information reveals a mechanism which, once under way, would proceed on its own momentum until the ice of Antarctica and Greenland would melt. This extra dimension of global warming pertains to methane clathrates. It is a solid crystalline form of methane stable only at pressures several thousand feet deep in the ocean and at water temperatures slightly above freezing. At lesser pressure or higher temperature the solid melts, releasing water and gaseous methane which bubbles to the surface and enters the atmosphere. I was fascinated when I first read about methane clathrates years ago.
More recently, I read that there had been enough core drilling throughout the ocean floor to estimate the amount of methane thus sequestered. It totaled more than all the known conventional natural gas reserves. Quickly I recognized that this meant that a little global warming would soon start to warm the oceans enough for the clathrates on the verge of temperature and pressure stability to start melting. The resulting methane, a strong greenhouse gas, would trigger runaway global warming. Runaway in this context means that the warming process would reinforce itself—increasing methane in the atmosphere much faster than its destruction, increasing warming of the air, increasing ocean temperature, and placing increasing volumes of methane clathrates into the zone of instability and melting.
The new geological evidence shows that rapid deglaciation after ancient glacial periods was accelerated by this methane mechanism, but at those times more ice was sitting on land--enough, when melted, to raise sea level about 500 feet, and enough to stop the process. If we speed up global warming through emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels until the methane clathrate mechanism is triggered, the rise in sea level of only 100 to 150 feet from the only glaciers currently available might not be enough to stop the new methane release. Runaway global warming could continue after all of Greenland’s and Antarctica’s was melted compounding the problem compared to the end of a normal glacial period.
Even prior to discovery of the new information, Germany commissioned a group of about 25 prominent citizens, half industrialists and half scientists, to reach a consensus about global warming. The Bundestag has accepted this report and has committed their nation to carbon dioxide reductions of 40% from 1990 levels in 2020 and 80% in 2040. This is why they are the world leaders in manufacturing of wind turbines for generating electricity. Germany is also manufacturing about one square kilometer of photovoltaic panels per year. Several multinational companies--British Petroleum is an early example—have reached the same conclusion and have announced that they plan to be leaders in the development of the required new technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel use.
When these possibilities were merely the inchoate concerns of an amateur in geochemistry and atmospheric science, I did not talk much about them for fear of being labeled more eccentric than I deserve. Now this new information puts my evolving concerns about runaway global warming in the perspective of an emerging public debate.
“Methane Hydrates in Quaternary Climate Change, the clathrate gun hypothesis” by James P. Kennett was reviewed in the February 14, 2003, issue of Science. This book describes the mechanism, discussed above, that occurred to me when I first read about these sea floor methane deposits in the early 1990s. The book cites evidence for methane’s effects in terminating several very ancient glaciations. Meanwhile, Jeff Severinghaus, Associate Professor of Environmental Geochemistry at USCD Scripps (who happens to be my college roommate’s son tested ice cores from Greenland in the winter of 2005-6 for carbon 14 and showed that methane was not present in excess at the end of the Pleistocene (most recent) glaciation proving that the most recent glaciation was not terminated by this mechanism—the methane found was from terrestrial sources 10,000 or 12,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating is not applicable for times prior to about 40,000 years before the present because of its half-life of only 4300 years.
My hope is that these issues about tipping points being brought to the forefront will help to inform public policy in time to make a difference.
John A. Frantz, M.D, March 7, 2008
(An earlier version of this was printed in The Capital Times, Madison WI, on June 12, 2003)
Market researchers and many other specialists study human psychology in order to get along with or otherwise manipulate us. Do we need to study computer “psychology” in order to get along better with our computers? This concept first came to my attention when the computer put a red line under précis, which I had just typed. It then scratched its head and took the red line away, paused again (more scratching?) and put the acute accent on the e. To confirm this phenomenon I typed fiancée with the same result. All this happened a year or so ago. This time the accents appeared promptly without the red line step. So now does computer psychology include the learning curve of computers, or was the learning that of a human programmer? I shall probably never find out for sure.
A couple of weeks ago I sent myself an e-mail from Baltimore of an article I had just composed on my son-in-law’s computer. Today when I had returned long enough to open my e-mail in order to revise the article, my computer must have thought that I was in the process of plagiarizing someone else’s work. It was stubbornly choosy about what it would let me do to my own work. After cutting and pasting, rebooting several times and with some fallow intervals, my computer finally let me have my own article. I would like to know how computers show contrition, so I can forgive it. Didn’t it realize that I could have simply retyped the article (if I didn’t happen to be lazy) and it wouldn’t have had to know about my “plagiarism”?
It seems inevitable that I will have many more extemporaneous opportunities to study computer psychology. If I ever decide to make a systematic study of this branch of psychology, shall I title my thesis The Artificial Psychology of Artificial Intelligence?