By R.W. Sandford

At the same time that Canada’s Environment Minister was in Durban, South Africa demonstrating to the world that we were no longer worthy of respect or trust as a nation in matters related to addressing the global climate problem, further evidence of the tragedy of the Harper Government’s climate policy was bubbling to the surface at the annual American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

It appears that at the San Francisco meeting an internationally respected Russian researcher announced the discovery of something that rather undermined our Environment Minister’s assessment of the seriousness of the climate change threat. In an exclusive interview with Steve Connor at The Independent, Dr. Igor Semiletov, of the Far Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, announced that in the 20 years he had been conducting research in the Arctic he has never before witnessed so much methane being released from Arctic seafloors.

Though it does not reside in the atmosphere as long, methane is some 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. One of the great fears of our age is that warming conditions in the Arctic will result in the release of the hundreds of millions of tonnes of methane presently frozen in permafrost or held in place on sea-floors by the cold temperature of Arctic seawater. The concern among scientists is that with the rapid disappearance of the Arctic sea-ice in summer, and rising temperatures across the north, which are already melting the Siberian permafrost, large volumes of trapped methane may be suddenly released into the atmosphere triggering other feedbacks that could in tandem generate runaway temperatures that could alter the fundamental conditions to which life on Earth has adapted.

The thresholds at which such changes might occur are among the most troubling unknowns in climate science. In this context Dr. Semiletov’s observations of dramatic and unprecedented plumes of methane bubbling to the surface in the Arctic can hardly been seen as good news.

Dr. Semiletov’s team published a study in 2010 estimating that the methane emissions from his region in Russia were about eight million tonnes a year, but outcomes of the latest research suggest that this work underestimated the on-going effects of warming. In the late summer of 2011 the Russian research vessel Academician Lavrentiev conducted an extensive survey of some 16,000 square kilometres of sea off the East Siberian coast. Scientists deployed highly sensitive seismic and acoustic instruments to monitor the “fountains” or plumes of methane bubbles rising to the sea surface from beneath the seabed. In a very small area, Semiletov and his team counted more than 100 fountains, or torch-like structures, bubbling through the water column and injecting methane directly into the atmosphere from the seabed. “We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before.” Dr. Semiletov explained. “Some plumes were a kilometre or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal.”

“Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It’s amazing,” Dr Semiletov said. “I was most impressed by the sheer scale and high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them.”

While Minister Kent may not think that what happens in the Russian Arctic is relevant in Canada the fact is that we have our own Arctic. It is not just Russian permafrost that is melting. A study conducted in the Northwest Territories by Dr. Bill Quinton and his colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier University estimated that permafrost covered 70% of the study area in 1947; 55% in 1970; 53% in 1977; 49% in 2000 and 43% in 2008. At the rate of thaw that occurred between 1947 and 2000, Quinton and his team estimated that permafrost would persist in the study area for 90 years. However at the accelerated thaw rate measured between 2000 and 2008, the data suggests permafrost at the study site may be gone by 2040, or in only about thirty years. And as this permafrost thaws, methane is released.

When Minister Kent attends his next global climate conference, he may wish to pay attention the boiling cauldron of methane we are creating in our own Arctic and what that cauldron might mean to our future and to the future of our planet. While the Minister never stops comforting us with misleading public relations deceits about how little Canada’s greenhouse emissions are compared to the rest of the world, he may wish to note that neither he nor anyone else will be able to hide the impacts of runaway climate change or magically reduce their effects to 2% of our country or its economy.

We are playing with fire here. We shouldn’t have to leave it to boiling ocean cauldrons to tell us that. That is what we count on Environment Ministers to do for us, and for the world. If they won’t play that role, then we don’t need them.

Bob Sandford is the Director of the Western Watersheds Research Collaborative and the author of “Restoring the Flow: Confronting the World’s Water Woes” and “Ethical Water: Learning to Value What Matters Most”, both published by Rocky Mountain Books.