It isn't exactly new that there was a theoretical possibility that by artificially raising temperatures as a result of greenhouse gases emitted by cars, industry, agriculture and the military, that carbon trapped in the earth's permafrost could be released. This enormous well of carbon - whether in the form of methane or CO2, whether in Canada's vast tundra or the frozen bogs of Siberia - would potentially generate a self-reinforcing cycle, where climate change releases frozen greenhouse gases, which causes more climate change, which releases more greenhouse gases. Well, evidence of this theoretical process is now emerging.
"Reporting to the European Geophysical Union last year, the scientists, affiliated with the University of Alaska and the Russian Academy of Sciences, cited "extreme" saturation of methane in surface waters and in the air above. They said up to 10 percent of the undersea permafrost area had melted, and it was "highly possible" that this would open the way to abrupt release of an estimated 50 billion tons of methane.
"Depending on how much dissolved in the sea, that might multiply methane in the atmosphere several-fold, boosting temperatures enough to cause "catastrophic greenhouse warming," as the Russians called it. It would be self-perpetuating, melting more permafrost, emitting more methane."
Of course, even saying that this was a theoretical possibility is unfair given that many commentators, including the inestimable George Monbiot, have been warning of this possibility for years and years - but neither governments nor most of the media have been listening. In an article at the end of 2008, Monbiot noted in relation to melting sea ice that:
"As the ice disappears, the region becomes darker, which means that it absorbs more heat. A recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the extra warming caused by disappearing sea ice penetrates 1500km inland, covering almost the entire region of continuous permafrost. Arctic permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the entire global atmosphere. It remains safe for as long as the ground stays frozen. But the melting has begun. Methane gushers are now gassing out of some places with such force that they keep the water open in Arctic lakes, through the winter."
The disappearing ice isn't just a slow melt, like an ice cube in your vodka-tonic. These are massive shelves that are breaking off. Earlier this year the ice bridge that connected the Wilkins Ice Shelf - a hunk of ice half the size of Scotland - collapses, severing the shelf from an Antarctic island. This follows on from the collapse of the Larsen A & B ice shelves in the last decade and a half. Larsen B had been stable for 12,000 years and was the size of Rhode Island.
But it's not just in areas of deep freeze that carbon is being released from the soil. In all northern regions, with the rise in temperature - even if only by a degree - there is an increased process of carbon release from the soil taking place.
"Two weeks ago (Sept, 2005), scientists at Cranfield University discovered that the soils in the UK have been losing the carbon they contain: as temperatures rise, the decomposition of organic matter accelarates, which causes more warming, which causes more decomposition. Already the soil in this country has released enough carbon dioxide to counteract the emissions cuts we have made since 1990."
What is clear is that the measures proposed and funded by governments and industry - cap & trade, biofuels - are the equivalent of snake oil. They will do nothing and, in the case of biofuel, will contribute to the problem. Radical reductions in carbon emissions are necessary. We need to rethink everything from the private automobile to the suburban model of development to how we fuel industry. It may already be too late to save the ice caps and may even be beyond the tipping point at which a cascade effect will develop with increasing velocity that will flood coastal cities and stop the ocean current that warms northern Europe.