mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Is the Arctic Melt Going to Cost Us Dearly?


The melting Arctic could release vast reserves of methane into the atmosphere, ultimately costing the world’s economy $60 trillion, according to a new study. Released last week in the journal Nature, the study’s authors paint a grim portrait of a world in which melting Arctic ice leads to permafrost thawing in Russia, exposing mass quantities of the extremely potent greenhouse gas methane to the atmospheric mix.

The scientists behind the paper weren’t satisfied with just predicting the amount of methane that could be released; they modeled the methane’s potential financial impact. The FT reports:

[T]he group felt it was important to assess the possible economic impact of such changes, said Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at Cambridge who believes the Arctic sea ice could completely vanish in summers as early as 2015. […]

The researchers assessed the impact of higher methane emissions with a newer version of the economic model used in the UK government’s 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change, which concluded the benefits of curbing global warming early far outweigh the potential costs of not acting.

Depending on how much methane was emitted, they calculated its potential cost was likely to be $60tn, with 80 per cent of the damage occurring in developing countries least able to curb the impact of more floods, droughts and storms.

We’ve written about the melting of the Arctic before, pointing out that the warmer northern ocean would provide new access to vast stores of oil and gas, and offer up new, more direct international shipping lanes. But this new paper suggests that the financial costs are likely to “outstrip any benefits by three or more orders of magnitude.”

That’s a bold claim, especially considering recent failures of climate models in predicting surface temperatures. These failures point to the enormous difficulty of understanding our climate and how sensitive it is to greenhouse gases. The authors of this new paper appear unfazed by these modeling shortfalls and are confidently predicting catastrophe.

There are a lot of variables at play here: the relationship between warmer Arctic waters and permafrost, the rate of permafrost thawing, the amount of methane trapped underneath, and methane’s effect on climate. The $60 trillion figure is a worst case number apparently calculated to inflame the usual panics. What we really need is more research and less sensationalizing.

(Incidentally, when burned, methane produces less greenhouse gas than both oil and coal, not to mention energy. Japan is already working on tapping in to this resource. Perhaps new techniques could be applied to northern Russia as well—though we would be surprised if this were a solution to the basic problem the Arctic methane study points to.)

It’s important for greens to remember that the more important the issue, the more necessary it is to approach it with a cool head. Running with scary headline numbers and working up a quick mass panic that then fizzles into apathy and demobilization once the full truth comes out is how global greens have handled things up to this point. That’s not a good plan if you want to get anything done.

This is potentially an important story, but we would encourage our readers to be skeptical about definitive predictions. Greens are very good at making dire predictions that don’t come true — otherwise we’d all be starving and shivering in the dark in a world of peak oil and population bombs. But the impact of human activity on world systems large and small is a real concern; we’ll be keeping an eye on this issue as it unfolds.

[Image of iceberg off the coast of Greenland courtesy of Wikimedia]

Features Icon
show comments
  • John Stephens

    Clearly MASSIVE expansions of government power and spending are in order! Can’t these people find some new excuse for pillaging the taxpayers? Their lack of imagination is becoming an embarrassment.

    • Andrew Allison

      The real embarrassment is the relentless hyping of the excuse du jour for the failure of increased CO2 to bring an end to life as we know it, or even to increase global temperature for the past 16 years. Given the collapse of the “settled science”, unproven hypotheses such as this (along with ocean warming, aerosols, etc.) should, as Prof. Mead points out, be treated with skepticism. There has yet to be a climate model which actually models climate.

  • Corlyss

    Remind me again why we should believe ANY of these predictions?

    • klem

      Can’t anymore, since none have been correct so far.

  • Anthony

    “What we really need is more research and less sensationalizing” as well as less partisanship… This is an important story and healthy skepticism is in line with science tenets.

  • Mark Michael

    Dr. Judith Curry posted about this study on her website. See:

    DR. JUDITH CURRY’S QUOTE – last paragraphs of the post:

    Melting of the Arctic Sea Ice

    Climate Dialogue has an excellent post on Melting of the Arctic Sea Ice, which includes essays by myself, Walt Meiers and Ron Lindsay, as well as an extended summary by the moderators. If you haven’t visited this discussion, I encourage you to do so. I was the nominal skeptic in the bunch, but the disagreement among us wasn’t all that large. None of the three subscribed to the ‘spiral of death’ scenerio whereby an ice free arctic is plausibly ice free within a few years.

    With regards to climate models, there is a new paper by Jiping Liu in PNAS that infers from CMIP5 climate model simulations that the Arctic will be ice free in September by around 2054-58. Liu et al. selected the climate model runs that agreed most closely with the observed sea ice decline. So even the climate models with a CO2 sensitivity that is arguably too high don’t predict an imminent ice free Arctic.

    Methane hydrates and contemporary climate change

    Given the dire consequences of a major methane gas release triggered by ongoing warming the latest science now says that such a release of methane will not happen for several hundred years. Nature has a paper by Carolyn Ruppel entitled Methane hydrates and contemporary climate change. From the conclusion:

    Catastrophic, widespread dissociation of methane gas hydrates will not be triggered by continued climate warming at contemporary rates (0.2ºC per decade; IPCC 2007) over timescales of a few hundred years. Most of Earth’s gas hydrates occur at low saturations and in sediments at such great depths below the seafloor or onshore permafrost that they will barely be affected by warming over even 1000 yr. Even when CH4 is liberated from gas hydrates, oxidative and physical processes may greatly reduce the amount that reaches the atmosphere as CH4.

    JC comment: The plausibility of Wadhams’ scenario rests on two assumptions:

    the ‘spiral of death’ loss of arctic sea ice

    connection of the sea ice loss to a massive release of methane hydrates into the atmosphere on the time scale of a decade

    Each of these assumptions is highly implausible, based upon my understanding; the combination of these two assumptions into a single scenario seems impossible to me.

  • Max Segal

    If, as these authors claim, the pace of arctic melting is going to increase dramatically over the next couple of decades, then we should
    expect the costs *and* the benefits to increase as well.

    The worst thing about these scientists’ study isn’t even their $60 trillion estimate of the costs, but their non-existent estimate of the benefits of arctic melting. On the last page of the study, the authors throw in this gem of a disclaimer:

    “To find out the actual cost, better models are needed to incorporate feedbacks that are not included in [the study] such as […] estimates of the economic costs and benefits of shipping.”

    The disclaimer itself is a half-truth; in fact, they never use their climate model to calculate *any* of the benefits that would accrue from accelerated arctic melting, not just those related to shipping.

    It is intellectually dishonest (and more than a little unethical, given the public’s blind faith in scientists) to claim that “costs will outstrip any benefits by three or more orders of magnitude,” when you have not, as a matter of fact, conducted a cost-benefit

    • klem

      Exactly, its not the cost of something that is important, its the net. We hear claims that green projects will create 1000’s of jobs, but they never say how many jobs it will kill. Its the net that counts.
      The melting arctic might correctly cost $60 trillion but if it generates $61 trillion in new business then we have a net benefit. They never mention the net, though the net is really the only number that counts.

  • Kavanna

    The right answer is already there: the Arctic melting is regional — not “global” warming — and mainly due to soot from east Asia. The soot lows the albedo (reflectivity) of the ice, which then absorbs more sunlight.

    The solution is implied in the answer and requires no apocalyptic scenarios.

    • klem

      You know what’s weird, when snow has been piled up at the far end of parking lots. Every year I watch it and observe the same thing; The dirtiest blackest pile of snow is the one which melts last. This is not supposed to happen.

  • lukelea

    See Lubos Motl for the “science” behind this article:

  • محترف الالعاب
  • محترف الالعاب
  • محترف الالعاب

    يمكنك تحميل لعبة سبونج بوب لعبة مميزة حقا

    كما يمكنك تحميل العاب سيارات

    ربما يروق لك تحميل العاب بنات

    وزيارة تحميل لعبة زوما

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service