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Methane hydrates: the next communication bomb in the climate change debate

Methane released from ice is a spectacular and dangerous phenomenon. It is not so just because methane can catch fire, but because, on a large scale, the release it could generate a rapid and devastating global warming. We cannot say much about the time scale of such an event and not even if it could take place at all, but the perception of the possible danger ahead could be a true communication bomb in the climate debate. (the video shows Katey Walter from University of Alaska at Fairbanks experimenting with this methane trapped in ice)

As greenhouse gas, methane is more powerful than carbon dioxide, but there is a much more important difference between these two gases. Carbon dioxide emissions are something that we create and that we can control, at least in principle. If we stop burning fossil fuels, then we stop generating CO2. But, with methane, it is another matter. We have no direct control on the huge amounts of methane buried in ice in the permafrost and at the bottom of oceans in the form of "hydrates" or "clathrates."

Methane hydrates are a true climate bomb that could go off by itself as the result of a relatively small trigger in the form of a global warming. Sufficient warming would cause the decomposition of some hydrates to release methane to the atmosphere. This methane would create more warming and that would generate more decomposition of the hydrates. The process would go on by itself at increasing rates until the reservoirs run out of methane. That means pumping in the atmosphere truly a lot of methane. There are different estimates of the amount stored in hydrates, but it is surely large - most likely larger than the total amount of carbon present today in the atmosphere as CO2. The effects of the rapid release of so much methane would be devastating: an abrupt climate change that could bring a true planetary catastrophe. It is a scenario aptly called the "clathrate gun" and the target is us.

Now, there are plenty of uncertainties about this scenario, and we cannot say much about its timescale or even whether it would happen at all. But uncertainty is something that may make the scenario even more worrisome. People are scared of things they don't completely understand and that they know they can't control. That's surely the case of methane hydrates. We don't know how likely the worst scenarios are, we only know that methane is being released from hydrates right now and that the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is going up. We can't say if that's the start of the clathrate gun going off, but it is enough to be scared. I don't know about you, but I can tell you that I am scared.

The timescale of the clathrate gun may be long enough that we don't have to be worried in the short term. But another explosion seems to be going off much faster, this one in the media.

The trend has started with scientific papers. Before 1999, there was not a single paper on the subject in the "sciencedirect" database. In 2011, 49 papers were published and the trend may be exponential. On the Web, Google Trends still doesn't generate a significant increase in the number of searches for terms such as "hydrate" or "clathrate". But we find about 40,000 pages dealing with the combination "climate change", "methane release" and hydrates. Even the mainstream press is starting to report about the subject. So far, the problem of methane hydrates has been largely absent from the debate on climate change. But that may be rapidly changing.

The methane release scenario has all the characteristics needed to catch the public's attention. It is spectacular, gigantic, biblical, and also rapid. It even has an evil sounding name: the "clathrate gun." It is nothing like the tame scenarios of the IPCC that plod on, slowly, up to the end of the 21st century. The IPCC scenario are not meant to be scary: nobody cares about slowly boiling frogs. But do you remember the 2004 movie "The day after tomorrow"? What scares us, mostly, are sudden catastrophic events. Now, think of a blockbuster movie from Hollywood about the clathrate gun. We would see giant hurricanes, biblical droughts, deadly heat waves, devastating floods..... No matter how the story is told, it is a true communication bomb.

Before continuing, let me hasten with a disclaimer. Let me state that I am NOT saying that we (scientists, activists, journalists or whoever) should exaggerate the dangers ahead in order to scare people with the methane story. Absolutely NOT - on the contrary, my point is that a scared public is NOT a good thing for reasons that I will explain in a moment. Let me also state that this post is NOT meant to claim that the clathrate gun is going off, it is meant to discuss how the public would react to the perception that it may be going off. This said, let me go on.

So, let's assume that the clathrate story becomes widely known, how's the public going to react? According to James Schlesinger, "People have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic". The clathrate communication bomb may well lead to a paradigm shift about climate and push the public opinion all of a sudden to the other side of the Goldilock dilemma: from complacency to panic.

Some people could see that as a welcome event: we would finally see an effort to do something to avoid climate change. But it is not obvious at all that this outcome would be positive. Things done in haste are not necessarily done well. Likely, we would see a frantic effort to "do something," no matter what, no matter how. If the past experience with the energy crisis is a guide, the chances to pick up the best solutions are small (see, for instance, the hype on biofuels). It is probable that we would seek for miracle solutions in large scale geoengineering. Carbon sequestration, sulphate particles in the upper atmosphere, mirrors in space, painting roofs white, what you have.

Would those actions work? Perhaps yes, but we would be moving into a totally uncharted territory. We don't know which could be the best solutions and we can't be sure of the side effects of most of them. Then, wouldn't the energy needed for geoengineering lead to more fossil fuels being consumed and, consequently, more greenhouse gases produced? And, then, suppose that geoengineering works in cooling the planet, wouldn't people revert to complacency and declare that the clathrate gun was a hoax from the beginning? As we move into the future, the problems we have created seem to become bigger just as it becomes evident that we, as a species, are just not equipped with the tools needed to solve them.

Things would have been much simpler if we had been able to find an agreement to tackle the climate problem at its roots, reducing greenhouse emissions. That would have provided a clear target to achieve and little room for wild swings in public perception. But it may well be too late for a strategy based on gradual changes. Things keep changing, and the only sure thing is that we can't stay idle in front of changes. So, get ready for the next big change: the clathrate communication bomb going off!

Some recent articles and posts about methane release from hydrates. This list is not meant to be complete or representative, it is here just to give some idea of how the debate is heating up (a very appropriate metaphor, in this case)

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. His most recent book is "The Limits to Growth Revisited" (Springer 2011).

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