Dmitry Yumashev and a team of researchers at Lancaster University have studied the effects of melting ice sheets in the Arctic and concluded that an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide and methane from melting permafrost, coupled with added absorption of heat from the sun due to a lack of sea ice reflecting sunlight away from the surface of the Earth, will lead to an increase in the cost of global warming by a staggering $70 trillion. That is ten times the amount of economic benefit that might be derived by easier access to mineral resources in the Arctic and lower shipping costs across the top of the world.
The study, entitled “Climate policy implications of nonlinear decline of Arctic land permafrost and other cryosphere elements,” was published on April 23 in the journal Nature Communications. In the introduction, Yumashev et al. say,
“The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the global average, manifested by a decrease in sea ice, snow and glaciers and permafrost degradation relative to their benchmark average states for the period between 1979 and 2005. These changes can accelerate global warming further through a variety of climatic feedbacks.
“Carbon from thawing permafrost released into the atmosphere results in the permafrost carbon feedback (PCF). Decreasing sea ice and land snow covers increase solar absorption in high latitudes, causing the surface albedo feedback (SAF). Both feedbacks amplify the anthropogenic signal.”
Study Is First Of Its Kind
The authors tell The Guardian their study is the first to calculate the economic impact of permafrost melt and reduced albedo — a measure of how much light that hits a surface is reflected without being absorbed — based on the most advanced computer models of what is likely to happen in the Arctic as temperatures rise. It shows how destabilized natural systems will worsen the problem caused by man-made emissions, making it more difficult and expensive to solve.
Here is a look at their methodology. They took what is known about current stocks of frozen organic matter in the ground up to 3 meters deep at multiple points across the Arctic. That data was run through the world’s most advanced simulation software in the US and at the UK Met Office to predict how much gas will be released at different levels of warming. They then applied previous economic impact models to assess the likely costs.
A Lack Of Urgency Persists
“It’s disheartening that we have this in front of us,” says Yumashev. “Even at 1.5 C to 2 C, there are impacts and costs due to thawing permafrost. But they are considerably lower for these scenarios compared to business as usual. We have the technology and policy instruments to limit the warming but we are not moving fast enough.” That lack of urgency is precisely what the Extinction Rebellion protesters, Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders are talking about.
If any good news can be found in this study, it is that the effects from melting permafrost and lack of sea ice are predicted to be somewhat lower than previous projections. “We still have a time bomb, but it may not be as large as previously believed,” says Yumashev. That’s no reason to be complacent, however. Even at the low end, the damages are huge, the study has a considerable degree of uncertainty, and the costs of several other potential tipping points have yet to be calculated.
Donald Trump, history’s greatest narcissist, says he’s not going to spend trillions of dollars to guard against the effects of something that is the product of junk science — as if he would spend one penny of his wealth to help anyone but himself. But if these researchers are correct, the economic toll of climate change will ultimately total in the hundreds of trillions of dollars. An ounce of prevention today could save untold amounts of money in the future, not mention the possible reduction in human suffering and loss of life that will flow from a dramatically warmer planet.
The studies continue to pile up, but most countries are still pursuing a business as usual path, risking the very existence of the human race and every living thing on Earth to preserve the hegemony of fossil fuel companies. If there is any record of humanity’s all too brief time on Earth left after we die off, perhaps whatever species comes to inhabit the Earth in a few million years from now will shrug and look to William Shakespeare to explain the insanity that lead to our demise. “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” wrote the bard.
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