I often mention Wrangel Island, the last redoubt of the mammoths, and tonight I found another interesting article about a different location in the Arctic – Ellef Ringnes Island. Roughly 1,400 miles apart, this Canadian island holds fossils from the Cretaceous, the geological period ended by the Chicxulub Asteroid.
The only sign of human activity is a rough half mile runway, the remains of an Arctic weather station effort operated during the Cold War.
But there are much older things to be found here …
There are 130 fossil methane seeps scattered over 10,000 square kilometers, a legacy of a rapid release of methane about 110 million years ago. The formations are carbonates from the shells of animals that grew there, which are more durable than the shale that makes up the rest of the area.
Preserved evidence of methane outgassing at the same time over an area this size, combined with knowledge of the overall size of this shale layer, provides some sense of the scope of the sudden injection of a greenhouse gas 20x as potent as carbon dioxide. There are multiple instances where sudden releases have changed Earth’s climate dramatically in a geological blink of an eye, most notably the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maxium 55 million years ago.
This ancient event matters because it’s further proof that large areas can suddenly produce lasting flows of methane. Scientists have been fretting over methane hydrates and the Atlantification of the Arctic could create conditions for another massive outgassing. Signs of this already exist on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Similar events have started in the Pacific and there are 500 methane plumes on the U.S. east coast. The East Siberian Shelf’s outgassing has been a concern for a while now.
It’s been a long time since a single species changed the atmospheric and oceanic chemistry to the point that it passed into history. The Great Oxygenation Event is clearest. Vascular plants and bacteria that couldn’t attack lignin are defining characteristics of the Carboniferous period. Other dramatic changes are attributed to large volcanic provinces and impact events.
What is happening now seems like it will be the beginning of something as disruptive as the PETM. The Quarternary had consistent 180ppm – 280ppm CO2, and now we’re at 400+ ppm and no way to predict how far that is going to go.
We’ve had four hundred generations in villages and just two to start considering what the climate change our species has induced is going to mean. I am in no way certain that Dark Mountain‘s ideas, the Eight Principles of Uncivilization, are going to work. I have spent a decade, one fifth of my life, pondering this progression, trying various ways to resist what I have come to accept is an unstoppable set of causes and conditions.
I shouldn’t be awake at 2:22 AM, but once I start down rabbit holes like this, I have a hard time finding my way back to the surface.