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Melting Arctic sea, a ticking economic time bomb?

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Tracking Methane From the Arctic Ocean (Image courtesy: NASA)

Tracking Methane From the Arctic Ocean (Image courtesy: NASA)

The cost of climate change, caused by melting of the Arctic Shelf, could be to the tune of 60 trillion US dollars, equivalent to the 2012 global economy, a research study reveals. Researchers Gail Whiteman of Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Chris Hope and Peter Wadhams of University of Cambridge warn “the cost of a melting Arctic will be huge, because the region is pivotal to the functioning of earth systems such as oceans and the climate.”

The study released on July 24, 2013 warns “The release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia, alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action – a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion). The total cost of Arctic change will be much higher.”

The researchers warned, “as the amount of Arctic sea ice declines at an unprecedented rate, the thawing of offshore permafrost releases methane. A 50-gigatonne (Gt) reservoir of methane, stored in the form of hydrates, exist on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. It is likely to be emitted as the seabed warms, either steadily over 50 years or suddenly. Higher methane concentrations in the atmosphere will accelerate global warming and hasten local changes in the Arctic, speeding up sea-ice retreat, reducing the reflection of solar energy and accelerating the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The ramifications will be felt far from the poles.’

Methane is about 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and therefore, large-scale releases of it threaten to dramatically increase the speed and severity of global warming.  Methane emerging in a sudden burst could linger for longer in the atmosphere and trigger more rapid temperature changes than if the gas were released gradually.

Arctic Sea Ice (Image Courtesy: NASA)

Arctic Sea Ice (Image Courtesy: NASA)

According to the researchers, developing countries will have to bear much of the cost of Arctic warming as they will face extreme weather, poorer health and lower farm output.  Though the economic consequences will be distributed around the globe, poorer economies of Africa, Asia and South America will be the worst sufferers. The extra methane magnifies flooding of small-island states and low-lying cities like New York by rising seas. Europe and the United States could witness extreme winter and spring weather, as this year’s protracted cold spell in Europe.

The study highlights urgent need for global action to curb climate change. The researchers feel, world leaders should consider the economic time bomb beyond short term gains from shipping and extraction. This region, which experienced a heightened level of interest during the Cold War, is now receiving more serious global attention. The environment and ecosystems in the Arctic are both remarkable and vulnerable; however, it is the inanimate components that attract the global powers.

Arctic sea ice has plunged to the lowest level since satellite records began in the 1970s, to less than 3.5 million square kilometers. It is considered to be home to 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil.  Rising demand for hydrocarbons and minerals are pushing suppliers towards new extraction locations, as they are commercially viable. Besides hydrocarbons and minerals, fisheries and shipping and tourism could generate an investment of US $ 100 billion or more in the region over the next decade.

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