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Arctic ice melt could cost an extra $60 trillion, say researchers

Methane gas released from the melting Arctic ice could accelerate global warming and tack on an extra $60 trillion to the cost the world is expected to incur from climate change.

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The team found that methane release from just the melting permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea would accelerate the rise in temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels to 2030. That increase in temperatures would cost the world some $60 trillion – a sum almost as large as the size of the entire global economy last year, totaled at about $70 trillion. It is also an added cost of about 15 percent to the already $450 million in damages that the Stern model had found in 2006.

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“Without question there are some gains for some industries and some countries – but that doesn’t take into account climate change’s negative impact throughout the entire world,” said Whiteman.

That $60 trillion sum is a mean number based on the estimated – but still unknown – amount of methane in the Arctic. That puts the lower and upper boundaries of the total cost at $10 trillion and $220 trillion. The model was also based on a 10-year burst of methane beginning in 2015, but when and over what length of time methane seepage might occur is still unknown.

The developing world will be saddled with about 80 percent of the cost: Countries there are poorly insulated from the toll that climate change can take on public health, agriculture, and infrastructure, and would end up footing the bill, Whiteman said.

“Those places are climate vulnerable and will pick up the price tag,” she said.

Researchers also modeled the damage at a lower rate of greenhouse-gas emissions, with a 50 percent chance of keeping global temperatures below the expected 3.6-degree increase from preindustrial levels. Under that model, the temperature increase and its attached price tag would come at 2040, buying five years' time.

“It's a when, not an if,” said Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge and a coauthor on the study, noting that preventing methane leakage would mean lowering CO2 levels to a point that would freeze the melted ice again. “We don’t have a good way of stopping this process. All we can do is find ways to minimize the impact on human life.”

Still, the situation is not hopeless, the authors said. Abating global warming buys time for intensive geo-engineering research into strategies for dealing with methane release, noted Dr. Wadhams.

"It's too expensive not to do anything about global warming," he said.

In collaboration with other researchers, the team is next planning to model the broader effects of melting in the entire Arctic. Those effects include ocean acidification, as well as altered ocean and atmospheric circulation. The future model will also deepen an understanding of how methane gas will affect the world, pinpointing the regions and countries that will bear the brunt of its costs and the specific tolls that it will take on those economies. 

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