Friday, December 19, 2014

A place called "the end of the world"

From climate change to "the war on water," we're not taking the environment seriously.

A place called "the end of the world"

There's a place in remote Russian Siberia that's called the Yamal Peninsula, which translates into English as "the end of the world."

The name isn't supposed to be ironic:

Russian scientists have determined that a massive crater discovered in a remote part of Siberia was probably caused by thawing permafrost. The crater is in the Yamal Peninsula, which means “end of the world.” It caught hold of the media spotlight in mid-July when it was spotted by oil and gas workers flying over the area. At roughly 200 feet wide and seemingly bottomless, speculation abounded about the cause with the Siberian Times reporting that, “theories range from meteorites, stray missiles, a man-made prank, and aliens, to an explosive cocktail of methane or shale gas suddenly exploding.”

Since this first discovery, two other smaller craters have been spotted in the surrounding regions, fueling even more armchair conjecture. Russian scientists sent to the site are now providing first-hand data showing that unusually high concentrations of methane of up to 9.6 percent were present at the bottom of the first large crater shortly after it was discovered on July 16.

What does that mean, exactly?

A study from earlier this year found that melting permafrost soil, which typically remains frozen all year, is thawing and decomposing at an accelerating rate. This is releasing more methane into the atmosphere, causing the greenhouse effect to increase global temperatures and creating a positive feedback loop in which more permafrost melts. 

“The world is getting warmer, and the additional release of gas would only add to our problems,” said Jeff Chanton, the John Widmer Winchester Professor of Oceanography at Florida State and researcher on the study. According to Chanton, if the permafrost completely melts, there would be five times the current amount of carbon equivalent in the atmosphere.

You have't heard a lot about this in the media, and despite our known liberal bias (oh wait, that's "reality" I'm thinking of) you probably won't. For one thing, the climate thing is breaking down so that while the world continues to record the hottest months on record, what cool air there is has settled over the parts of the United States where most of the American media is based. So Matt Drudge is having a field day! Also, the slow strangulation of Planet Earth from global-warming-induced methane isn't nearly as scary as that one dude in New York who might have ebola -- at least to 99 percent of the public (I guess this is the rare case where I'm in "the 1 Percent").

Climate change may be the biggest environmental threat -- in the long run -- that we prefer to keep a blind eye to, but it's hardly the only one. Ten years ago, the mantra -- adopted even by George W. Bush, of all people -- is that we're addicted to oil. That's still true, but now there's a new corollary -- we're killing our water. Look at the drought that's currently plaguing in the American West -- and yet we're encouraging fracking operations that steal literally billions of gallons of water our of productive use.

What happened in Toledo, Ohio, this weekend should have been a wake-up call. The presence of a toxic algae bloom contaminating the water supply of a mid-sized American city happened because -- after cleaning up the Great Lakes once, a generation ago -- society got lax all over again. Too much runoff -- especially from fertilizers and other farming activities -- are strangling Lake Erie...again. And even a near-crisis this week probably won't inspire the pro-business pols of the Buckeye State to do anything from a regulatory standpoint.

We can all laugh about "the war on whites." But the "war on water" is real, my friend. Let's take it seriously.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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