Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” This article was previously published.
Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
RALEIGH – If we sit here together and think about the things that could destroy human civilization, there are several possibilities that come immediately to mind:
- Nuclear Armageddon (especially the nuclear winter that could follow the detonation of multiple nuclear warheads)
- Asteroid Strike (by a large asteroid, say one mile in diameter or greater)
- Supervolcano eruption (wherein the eruption pushes so much hydrogen sulfide and ash into the atmosphere that it has a severe winterizing effect)
We’ve all heard of these three threats. They all “make sense.” They also happen quickly. One minute the planet is fine, and then a few minutes later it’s a complete disaster.
There is one threat you may not have heard of. It is far more subtle. It is also slower acting, meaning it would unfold over the course of years. But it has the potential to be just as catastrophic. This threat is called Melting Permafrost. This video can help you understand why melting Permafrost is such an enormous problem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpqZTqIKMxs
Why is Melting Permafrost such a huge problem?
In the northern regions of planet Earth, there are millions of acres where the ground has been permanently frozen, sometimes for hundreds or thousands of years. These Permafrost regions contain many gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane that have all been nicely locked away and kept out of the atmosphere.
When Permafrost melts, all of this locked up carbon dioxide and methane gets released into the atmosphere. The huge problem with melting Permafrost is that it has the potential to create an unstoppable feedback loop that goes like this:
- Global warming, which is caused by rising carbon dioxide and methane concentrations in the atmosphere, melts some Permafrost.
- The melting Permafrost releases more carbon dioxide and methane that has been locked up in the Permafrost.
- These Permafrost emissions cause more global warming.
- Which melts more Permafrost… and the cycle repeats.
As more and more Permafrost melts, the planet gets hotter and hotter. Eventually civilization collapses from all the side effects of the Permafrost-caused global heating:
- Crop failures and subsequent starvation
- Regions of the planet becoming uninhabitable due to the heat
- Glacial and ice sheet melting and subsequent sea level rise
- Ocean warming and marine die offs
- Collapse of the AMOC
- Blue ocean event in the Arctic (which causes even more heating)
- Severe weather events like more powerful hurricanes
- And so on…
This video reiterates the point and shows other effects of melting permafrost: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaiXYQJUwQw
What can humanity do to prevent the Permafrost catastrophe?
The Permafrost has already started to melt, as demonstrated in the prior two videos. A catastrophe will occur if this melting process accelerates to the point where it becomes unstoppable – where melting Permafrost is adding significantly to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the feedback loop becomes unstoppable. At that point, the planet starts heating up uncontrollably and catastrophically.
So the question becomes: Will humanity do anything to stop the Permafrost from melting? Will humanity take actual, concrete steps to stop global warming and/or to cool the planet? Or will humanity continue to sit on its hands and watch the Permafrost catastrophe unfold before our eyes? Humanity has three options:
- Stop burning all fossil fuels and end all the methane emissions into the atmosphere.
- Start extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a massive scale. Humanity has added approximately 1.6 trillion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. We need to extract at least half of it back out of the atmosphere.
- Use geoengineering techniques to artificially cool the planet.
These articles can help understand what is possible:
- Doomsday or fossil fuels? Mankind has a choice to make – https://wraltechwire.com/2023/03/10/doomsday-or-fossil-fuels-mankind-has-a-choice-to-make-says-author-marshall-brain/
- Geoengineering could be key to combating climate change – check out these ideas – https://wraltechwire.com/2022/05/27/geoengineering-could-be-key-to-combating-climate-change-check-out-these-ideas/
- Doomsday, climate change and cattle: The case for banning beef worldwide – https://wraltechwire.com/2022/06/03/doomsday-climate-change-and-cattle-the-case-for-banning-beef-worldwide/
- Why we’re facing Doomsday: ‘Even when something must obviously happen, people often refuse to do it’ – https://wraltechwire.com/2023/02/05/why-were-facing-doomsday-even-when-something-must-obviously-happen-people-often-refuse-to-do-it/
- Doomsday: How one new law could quickly eliminate humanity’s carbon dioxide problem – https://wraltechwire.com/2022/07/01/doomsday-how-one-new-law-could-quickly-eliminate-humanitys-carbon-dioxide-problem/
This video can help you to understand how Permafrost works at a deeper level: https://youtu.be/lxixy1u8GjY?t=45
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpqZTqIKMxs – Is PERMAFROST the Climate Tipping Point of No Return?
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaiXYQJUwQw – What happens when the permafrost thaws?
- https://youtu.be/lxixy1u8GjY?t=40 – Permafrost – what is it?