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Special report: The cost of climate change

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At the AGU conference held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco this week, Professor Peter Wadhams laid out some startling figures on what the future cost of climate change is going to be for society. In his session : "The cost to society of a methane outbreak from the East Siberian shelf", Wadhams used graphs and charts to drive home his message.

In short, climate change is going to cost us dearly.

A brief synopsis by this Examiner so you can understand how and why climate change will cost us:

  • Our world is warming (yes it is) Most scientists agree that humans have added/and or caused this (some people still debate this but regardless of who or what caused it, the world is warming)
  • Because of that warming, the Arctic ice is melting at breakneck speed, something we have not seen during the history of mankind.
  • Various factors have now come into play to affect the jet stream and new "feedback" processes have now begun, altering weather patterns.
  • Warmer temperatures = more extreme weather disasters, failed crops and economic loss, and worst of all: loss of life (examples: Super-storm Sandy, Typhoon Yolanda, the record drought in the U.S.)
  • Factor in now that beneath that warming Arctic is methane locked in frozen hydrates under the sea. Methane, also a powerful greenhouse gas, has the capacity to warm the atmosphere up to 20-100 times faster then even carbon dioxide (a large release can also happen abruptly - think "Dinosaur extinction")
  • Now imagine that that methane is coming out in record amounts in the Arctic Ocean (East Siberia) because of the warming waters (which it is) and you now have a warming world on steroids....and a lot of uncertainties. And that, unfortunately, is exactly where we find ourselves right now in the history of mankind.

OK, so now that you have the basic 101 on why climate change is already costing us, we go onto Wadhams session:

Professor Wadhams, "We know that the Arctic is warming much faster then any other part of the world."

Professor Peter Wadhams would know. He is not only the professor of Ocean Physics, and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics for the University of Cambridge, but he was also part of the latest working group on the IPCC report that was released this year (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) The professor has also studied in the field for many years, and been on over 40 polar expeditions.

He is also the president of the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans Commission on Sea Ice and Coordinator for the International Programme for Antarctic Buoys.

Wadhams goes on to talk, using charts on the overhead which show the trending loss of Arctic sea ice, where tons of all that frozen methane lays locked in frozen hydrates. Field observers in the Arctic believe that out of a reservoir of some 720 Gt of methane, it is possible that 50 Gt could be emitted rapidly, within a few years. Calculated in a paper in "Nature" what the impact of such an emission of methane (occurring over 10 years) would be, they also find an additional warming of the climate of some 0.6 C by 2040.

Referencing Andy Lee Robinson's "Arctic Death Spiral" graph, Wadhams goes on to say, "We know that that trend is likely to continue, possibly get even stronger, so there's not any likelihood that most people can see that the summer sea ice will come back again, and especially this is true if you consider feeding the effects of thinning of the ice which we've been measuring with submarines over the years. And then you add in the thinning effect to the retreat effect and we get a retreat of ice bonding which is more than a linear retreat, which leads us to this famous "Death Spiral."

Speaking about the shallow shelves off of Northern Siberia and ice that has detached from the Siberian coastline, citing Igor Semiletov's and Natalia Shakhova's work on methane, Wadhams said we can see that, "The surface water temperatures in the summer months in the areas that have become ice free have shot up. In 2007 we were getting 5 degrees but we've seen 7 degrees from satellite imagery."

Considering that Professor Wadhams is best known for his work on sea ice and has physically been on Polar expeditions, the man now has my full attention. Now that we know where we stand on the state of the Arctic, we go on to find out just how much all that methane being released into the atmosphere is going to cost us:

A jaw dropping 60 TRILLION DOLLARS.

Yes, you heard that right, 60 TRILLION DOLLARS. And a main point that Wadhams made was that that number will still be high even if the changes are slower versus an abrupt release. Either way, society is going to pay the price.

To put 60 Trillion dollars in perspective, here is some insight into what makes a trillion:

How Big is a Trillion?

  • In the U.S., one trillion is written as the number "1" followed by 12 zeros (1,000,000,000,000). One year of clock time = (60sec/min) x (60 min/hr) x (24 hr/da) x (365.25 da) = 3.16 x 107 seconds
  • One trillion seconds of ordinary clock time = ( 1012 sec)/( 3.16 x 107 sec/yr) = 31,546 years!
  • Six trillion seconds equals 189,276 years. Now, as an aside, along with the nearly six trillion miles in the light-year, you might be interested to know that there are nearly five trillion dollars in the current U.S. national debt. Is it any wonder that our politicians in Washington are concerned?

These numbers that Wadham pointed out were not new, but in his latest session he described in detail the cost breakdown over time in his economic model over a century's time span (using the Stern Review PAGE09 model) Because his results have aroused controversy, and to assist in further discussions of their implications, further analyses were carried out as follows (from the session abstract):

1. We have considered smaller and larger emissions, and have considered the overall costs for emissions occurring more slowly over a longer period, and/or beginning at a later date. We find that costs are approximately proportional to volume of emission, and are actually increased if the emission date is delayed until later in the century.

2. A further field operation is being carried out in summer 2013, and we will carry out, in time for the AGU meeting, a further model calculation based on the latest opinions of Semiletov and Shakhova regarding the way in which the East Siberian Sea emission field is developing.

The results of that 2013 summer expedition confirmed that not only was methane being released but it was twice the amount what they expected to see: "The seafloor off the coast of Northern Siberia is releasing more than twice the amount of methane as previously estimated", published in the Nov. 24 edition of the journal Nature Geoscience. Also, the research team estimated that, "The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is venting at least 17 teragrams of the methane into the atmosphere each year. A teragram is equal to 1 million tons."

To put Professor Wadhams 60 Trillion dollar price tag for climate change into context, the gross domestic product (GDP) for the entire world is 70 trillion dollars. Last year it is also estimated that American taxpayers through the federal government paid $100 billion in 2012 for the cost of climate change - more than the cost of education or transportation (And that doesn't include what state and local governments, insurers, or private citizens paid.)

And the cost of disasters related fueled by climate change? For recent disaster Typhoon Yolanda, risk modeling specialists such as AIR Worldwide have forecast the total economic loss at anywhere between $6.5 billion and $15 billion dollars. Over 4,000 died in the Typhoon and an estimated 4.4 million were displaced in the Philippines. That does not even include all the other extreme disasters that countries worldwide are still trying to recover from.

So our future could cost us 60 Trillion dollars - but more importantly than money - how many lives is climate change going to cost us?

Sources:

(1) www.grc.nasa.gov

(2) AGU abstract central

(3) Alaska Native News

(4) TakePart

(5) Science Daily

(6) GmaNetwork

To be part of a vital group working on the issue of climate change and the effects methane gas will have on the planet, join the Arctic Methane Emergency Group on Facebook and Citizens Concerned about Climate Change.

You can follow Dorsi Diaz on Twitter here and also here at HubPages where she publishes articles about climate change, art education and photography. Her business website is www.DorsiDiaz.com

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