But there is an even more dangerous aspect to the unfolding drama in the Arctic. While governments and oil giants are hoping the melting ice will allow them access to the world's last treasure trove of oil and gas, climatologists are deeply worried about something else buried under the ice that, if unearthed, could wreak havoc on the biosphere, with dire consequences for human life.
Much of the Siberian sub-Arctic region, an area the size of France and Germany combined, is a vast, frozen peat bog. Before the most recent Ice Age, the area was mostly grassland, teeming with wildlife. The coming of the glaciers entombed the organic matter below the permafrost, where it has remained ever since. Although the surface of Siberia is largely barren, there is as much organic matter buried underneath the permafrost as there is in all of the world's tropical rain forests.
Now the permafrost is thawing on land and along the seabeds. If it occurs in the presence of oxygen on land, the decomposing of organic matter leads to the production of CO2. If the permafrost thaws along lake shelves, in the absence of oxygen, the decomposing matter releases methane. Methane is the most potent of the greenhouse gases, with a greenhouse effect 23 times that of CO2.
Oil and global warming are inextricably linked in what can only be considered a dance of death as our industrial society inches closer and closer to the tipping point where warming processes can't possibly be reversed.