New Research Finds Melting Arctic May Cost Global Economy $60 Trillion


(Source: AP Photo/John McConnico)

(Source: AP Photo/John McConnico)

The rapidly melting Arctic is not only a looming climate catastrophe, but new research shows it could be an economic disaster, as well.

In findings published in the journal Nature, economists and polar scientists from the University of Cambridge and Erasmus University Rotterdam found that the ripple effects of climate change in the Arctic — unlocking frozen reserves of methane that speed global warming and cause destructive and costly climactic changes across the planet — could deal a severe blow to the global economy.

The release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia, alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action — a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion). The total cost of Arctic change will be much higher.

While much has been made of the coming economic boom that will result from an increasingly ice-free Arctic — shipping lanes, fisheries, and fossil fuel reserves that previously were inaccessible — little research has been done on the potential economic damage these unprecedented changes may incur.

“People are calculating possible economic benefits in the billions of dollars and we’re talking about possible costs and damage and extra impacts in the order of tens of trillions of dollars,” said Chris Hope, professor at Cambridge’s Judge Business School and report author, in an interview with Financial Times.

The Arctic is melting at an alarming rate — about twice as fast as the rest of the globe — and the impacts thus far have been devastating. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2012 Arctic Report Card documented a very grim year for the region and found “strong evidence of widespread, sustained change driving Arctic environmental system into new state,” including record-low sea ice extent, record ice sheet surface melting in Greenland, record-high permafrost temperature, and record-low snow extent.

The researchers from Cambridge and Erasmus explain that as the sea ice melts at an unprecedented rate, the thawing permafrost releases large stores of methane. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas and, as is the case with the Arctic’s multiple positive feedback loops, increased concentrations of methane in the atmosphere will accelerate global warming — continuing the destructive cycle.

What do all of these unprecedented changes mean? Many experts now say that if recent trends continue and Arctic sea ice continues its ‘death spiral,’ we will see a “near ice-free Arctic in summer” within a decade. That may well usher in a permanent change toward extreme, prolonged weather events “such as drought, flooding, cold spells and heat waves.”

These extreme events come with a huge price tag. If nothing is done to mitigate the effects of climate change, the researchers estimate that just one giant ‘methane pulse’ will lead to an extra $60 trillion of mean climate change impacts, or 15 percent of the total predicted cost of climate change impacts (about $400 trillion). While this number alone is extraordinary, they emphasize “The full impacts of a warming Arctic, including, for example, ocean acidification and altered ocean and atmospheric circulation, will be much greater than our cost estimate for methane release alone.”

As former NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco bluntly stated, “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” The region plays a major role in regulating Earth’s systems, such as climate and oceans, and it’s becoming increasingly clear to scientists that climate change in the Arctic will have profound effects on the entire planet. What needs greater attention, researchers say, is the economic toll this will take. Gail Whiteman, another of the report’s authors, told the Guardian, “Neither the World Economic Forum nor the International Monetary Fund currently recognise the economic danger of Arctic change. [They must] pay much more attention to this invisible time-bomb.”

48 Responses to New Research Finds Melting Arctic May Cost Global Economy $60 Trillion

  1. Leif says:

    60 trillion $$$ and for what? Triage. The Green Awakening Economy could indeed slow, and perhaps even at this late date, stop Global Warming for far less $$$ and humanity might just be able to retain a planet with functioning life support systems. Go Green. Resistance is fatal to Earth’s Life support systems. Stop profits from the exploitation and pollution of the commons.

  2. fj says:

    Probably a lot more than 60 $ trillion.

  3. Will Fox says:

    This was briefly the main headline on the BBC News website, but has now – oddly – been relegated to a minor story. Clearly, a honeymoon suspect facing extradition is more important than the end of civilization.

  4. Zimzone says:

    The North Pole has become the North Pool.

    Yet capitalism sees this as another ‘opportunity’ to enrich somebody rather than correct a plant’s pending death.

  5. Zimzone says:

    plant = planet

    (Although both are affected.)

  6. Endofmore says:

    If we reach a ‘cost’ of $60 trillion, the global economy as we know it will cease to exist, along with our commercial infrastructure

  7. Solar Jim says:

    This post title lacks context, namely time. After reading the source we can see that the time period is stated as: through the year 2200. Despite what we may think of economic forecasts more than a century out (gads!), it is clear that this is not annual cost.

    Thanks very much to the authors for attempting to bring an existential global threat down to the pathetic level that world capitalism seems to insist on for public policy choice, namely money.

  8. Matthew Tanner says:

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that once the ice is gone, your glass of Scotch starts to really warm up.

  9. Gingerbaker says:

    I really like that analogy!

  10. rollin says:

    Anybody for albedo changes? The polar ice sheets control about 5% of the albedo of the earth. Once the summer arctic ice is gone there will be an additional 2.0 watts/meter-squared of heat absorbance in the earth’s bucket. Since it only takes about 0.5 watt/m2 to melt off an ice age or conversely start one, the loss of summer arctic ice will add more than another degree Centigrade to our system average.
    Once the methane (which converts to CO2 so never really leaves) is added, we are in the frying pan.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That’s the Blair Broadcasting Corruption to the life. One phone call from a ‘senior chap’ would be enough to do it.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The sixty trillion is nonsense. What-per year? Or over what period? It is just another silly effort to put a dollar price on human existence, ie it is simply a manifestation of market moral insanity. Unchecked global climate destabilisation will bring near term extinction for our species, and the cost of that, its holy Market Price, is infinite.

  13. Merrelyn Emery says:

    First sentence: not only climate catastrophe…also economic. When oh when are we going to rid our minds of this stupid dualism. The so-called ‘economy’ is a function of the health of the planet, not a separate entity, ME

  14. It takes between 500 megatons and 1 gigaton per year of Arctic methane emission to set up a runaway global warming scenario. Some scientists warn that these events could begin once the Arctic starts seeing ice free summers. Though most scientists still believe the methane amplification coming from the Arctic will be much milder, even if the risk for such an occurred was 10% we should be working as hard as we can now to mitigate risks by rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuel and carbon emissions. Should such an unlikely but extraordinarily terrible even arise, we should also have in place some kind of methane emergency protocol that researches and delivers effective responses to the problem.

    Those 50 gigatons of methane on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf are in very shallow water. More ominously, some 2,500 gigatons of carbon are in seabed and tundra formations throughout the Arctic environment. Even a small percent of this emitting as methane could be enough to set off a runaway.

    It’s a set of circumstances that is well worth looking at and devoting far more resources to. Most importantly, the problem of human carbon emissions that are adding to our risks should be directly and rapidly addressed.

  15. Timeslayer says:

    Good point Merrelyn, and well said.


  16. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Will – sadly the BBC has become a national disgrace.

    Better accounts are available in the Guardian, particularly an interview by Nafeez Ahmed with a delightfully blunt Professor Wadhams.

    – NA: “Our global emissions trajectory is already on track to breach 2C in coming decades. What does a 2C world imply for the Arctic melt and the potential for methane release?”

    – PW: “We are already in a 2C world in terms of the heating potential of carbon dioxide that we have already put into the atmosphere. The heating will reach 2C before 2050 and will then go on to 3-4C globally by the end of the century. Even a 2C world involves the probable loss of Arctic sea ice for much of the year (and 4C for most of it), which will ensure maximum methane release from the exposed shallow seas of the continental shelves.”

    If anyone still has any delusions that we can resolve this accelerating catastrophe merely by a binding global treaty of Emissions Control with its ~30yr timelag on effects and its closure of the cooling Fossil Sulphate Parasol,
    rather than by a treaty encompassing the trident strategy of Carbon Recovery + Emissions Control + Albedo Restoration,
    then they really need to think again.



  17. BobbyL says:

    Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar ocean physics group at Cambridge University, predicts the Arctic could be ice-free by September 2015. He is quoted as saying “Given present trends in extent and thickness, the ice in September will be gone in a very short while, perhaps by 2015. In subsequent years, the ice-free window will widen, to 2-3 months, then 4-5 months etc, and the trends suggest that within 20 years time we may have six ice-free months per year.”

  18. Once we reach the state of affairs that this $60 trillion tries to represent, money as we understand it will have lost all meaning.

  19. Paul Klinkman says:

    For about one billion dollars per year, my heat transfer device could restore the Arctic to its original temperature. This is a payoff to the world of far more than 100000% on principal. Do you think Congress is so dumb as melted permafrost to turn down such an offer?

  20. In ”A Change in the Weather”, the summer ice cap first disappears in 2018. Two things fueled that intuition. I’d always noticed that an ice cube in a glass of soda (or Scotch) seems to melt very slowly until it reaches a certain point, then the mass loss accelerates rapidly.

    And I grew up in Maine, so have seen the ice go out on a lake. The entire mass disappears in just a few days, or sometimes just one day, because it melts from the bottom up. Why shouldn’t the same thing happen with the ice cap, once it reaches a certain thinness?

  21. Solar Jim says:

    Money already has no meaning, except as a socially agreed upon tradable symbol of political power; a number that is minted (by treasuries and handed out by “central banks” for subsidizing the rich).

  22. Solar Jim says:

    Then put the glass in a gas chamber. A global gas chamber.

  23. Solar Jim says:

    Nice to have something delusional around here, since we’re talkin’ $60 trillion or so.

  24. Spike says:

    A paper I recently came across argues that the true radiative forcing impact of methane released in the Arctic could be 250% to 400% of the radiative forcing due to methane alone due to other effects on atmospheric chemistry:

  25. fj says:

    The fossil fuel industry is forcing us to live in a house of cards which will topple at any moment.

    The President must this grave threat.

  26. fj says:

    The President must stop this grave threat.

  27. irrefudiate says:

    In a world of “crisis management” where nothing is done until something is totally broken, the environment is not broken enough yet. What has to break to receive due diligence is debatable. Maybe the cost of rebuilding cities after disasters or the closing of ports and evacuation of coastal towns. Whatever it is will probably be ‘solved’ by a quick-fix solution, a technological patch.
    Actually, the planet may not be able to sustain 7 billion humans.

  28. Mark Belgium says:

    Exactly my thoughts Merrelyn.

  29. GreenHearted says:

    Agreed. Risk = probability x magnitude. The probability in this situation is rising, and the magnitude would be unimaginable.

  30. GreenHearted says:

    MM, everyone’s just trying whatever they can to get this into whatever heads it needs getting into. This is one of *those* efforts – not a silly one if it reaches the intended ears. Money talks for many people (especially the ecologically illiterate).

  31. Mark Belgium says:

    It’s like your little daughter has a live threatening disease and you ask yourself does my budget allows treatment. Of course you would sell your house to save her live! Climate change is life threatening for our children en grandchildren…and most of us don’t even consider treatment. Mad world.

  32. Robert in New Orleans says:

    At what point does frog realize that your Scotch is too warm to reside in and jump out?

  33. Solar Jim says:

    Actually, my read is that your “true radiative forcing” is “indirect.” Meaning that the direct RF (100 times CO2) must be added to indirect.

    This would be somewhat analogous to the difference between stability and falling, once abundant methane outgassing is underway. The process may overwhelm the hydroxyl radical OH which converts it to CO2, normally after a decade or so (as I understand it).

  34. Solar Jim says:

    A rather poor analogy. You can pick up cards. An extinction event is something else.

  35. David says:

    And at the other end of the world ?

    Coastal Antarctic Permafrost Melting Faster Than Expected: Arctic-Like Melt Rates Appearing in Coastal Antarctica.

  36. Christopher S. Johnson says:

    OK, let’s deal with this morning’s fallout and criticism from NASA and NOAA and put it in proper context, shall we? And perhaps the original pot needs an update. Here is how I updated mine on FB this morning.
    UPDATE :The problem is real, but may move slower than a single decade, and is more likely to be spread out over many decades, according to NASA and NOAA. The authors disagree. Both agree its a large factor, in general, that will happen.

    Here is a great collection of critiques of the Nature article. The sources are good and some of the top climate scientists.

    But let’s not misunderstand the criticism either. Watch out for misinformation on that.

    It’s not that methane WONT leak in very large quantities and create a worsening of global warming, costing trillions of dollars. It’s that, so far, the research says it will happen over many decades, not one. That’s the difference!

    The authors disagree with the climate scientists and say, ““Those who understand Arctic seabed geology and the oceanography of water column warming from ice retreat do not say that this is a low probability event,”

    As a lay person, for right now, the rational conclusion for this hour is that **it is indeed a slow-motion huge and dangerous problem, with an outside minor chance of running into a faster tipping point.**

  37. Jay Alt says:

    In the comment section look for Nathan1250, who posts a reply to the criticisms of the article. He forwards the response of Nature co-author, Dr Peter Waldham, head of the Polar Physics Unit in Cambridge. Waldtham points out that those who think the odds of a large CH4 pulse are low (like G Schmitt) are using outdated information. The melting of sea ice ledges is allowing the shallow seas to warm by sunlight, up to 7C. He describes a previously unrecognized, unanticipated mechanism by which the sea bed is warming. This is a potential tipping point and should be treated as such.

  38. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Christopher – I’m not clear what you mean by “an outside minor chance of running into a faster tipping point.”

    With the seven major interactive feedbacks now accelerating at varying rates
    (i.e. Water Vapour, Albedo Loss, Microbial Peat Bog Decay, Permafrost Melt, Forest Combustion, Soil Desiccation, and Methyl Clathrates Collapse)
    and with the earliest of these, Water Vapour, having begun to rise in response to anthro-warming in the C19th,
    the idea of feedbacks’ activation forming a ‘tipping point’ is patently wrong.

    If we fail to adopt the necessary control measures in the form of Albedo Restoration techniques, then it is plainly only a matter of time before the feedback interactions run far beyond any possibility of control. Yet to describe the point where they did so as a ‘tipping point’ seems inane; terminal biospheric dieback would be more apt.

    With regard to the ongoing attempt by media interests and some scientist to downplay the ESAS CH4 threat, it is good to see this advance from the ridicule endured by Semiletov, Shakhova and others when they made effectively the same prognosis some years back.

    In response to your comment above, I would point out that Wadhams did not forecast a 50Gt CH4 output in 10 years; his prognosis for that output was between 10 and 50 years, starting after the first total loss of summer sea ice in the next few years.

    While I see the goal of translating the impacts of that output into economic terms for govts. to consider, I suspect that a more direct metric could get a wider audience and a much more potent impact. Supposing the output were spread over 50 years – at the high end of Wadhams’ schedule and the low end of his naysayers’ “many decades,” then we’d see just 1.0Gt CH4 /yr emitted. As you’ll know, over the critical 20yr time horizon this equates to 105Gts CO2e as an annual output.

    This could be presented as the equivalent of a roughly four-fold increase of global anthro-CO2 emissions continuing for 50 years, but there is a better option.

    If this moderate prognosis of 105Gts /yr CO2e output is divided by current national outputs,
    then with China’s ~10.0Gts CO2 /yr it represents just over 10 new China’s-worth of annual outputs,
    and with the US ~5.80Gts CO2 /yr it represents just over 18 new America’s-worth of annual outputs.

    From this perspective I’d have to differ with your assessments that:
    this is a “slow motion” problem – compared with all other known climate dynamics it is appallingly fast, even under the moderate prognosis above –
    and that:
    it poses “an outside minor chance of running into a faster tipping point” – given that unless we rapidly establish the supervised RD&D of Albedo Restoration we ARE committed to losing the Arctic sea-ice in summer, and we WILL see the start of giga-scale CH4 outputs from the ESAS clathrate stocks, whose impact would predictably push the seven interactive mega-feedbacks beyond the possibility of control. This is not “an outside chance”; this is what we are committed to if we fail to deploy Albedo Restoration.

    I suggest that it is those scientists who persist in expressing denial of the seriousness of Wadhams’ findings that are providing fuel for the deniers.



  39. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Not agreed –
    “Most importantly, the problem of human carbon emissions that are adding to our risks should be directly and rapidly addressed.”

    With respect, your proposal of unchanged priorities in response to this news of the ESAS CH4 feedback seems irrational.

    If a scenario of a 50yr output of 50Gts is proposed as the slow end of Wadhams’ prognosis and the fast end of that of his critics, then we’re facing 1.0Gt CH4 /yr. On the crucial 20yr time horizon that is 105Gts CO2e each year, which is roughly 18 new America’s-worth of CO2 output.

    This is a moderate account of what we are committed to if we fail to rapidly establish the well-supervised RD&D of the necessary Albedo Restoration, since no rate of emissions control can achieve global cooling within a relevant timescale.

    If scientists and politicians had acknowledged 20 years ago that 4 mega-feedbacks were already active and accelerating (i.e. Water Vapour, Albedo Loss, Microbial Peat Bog Decay and Permafrost Melt) and that another 2 showed signs of doing so (Forest Combustion and Soil Desiccation) and one more (Methyl Clathrates Collapse) was quite predictable,
    – then they might well have acknowledged that both Albedo Restoration and Carbon Recovery were essential components of a commensurate climate treaty, and our present position would be very different.

    Instead, these issues have been kept off the public radar, perhaps with the same White House office that told the green NGOs not to discuss climate change (for fear of hindering emissions control) telling them not to discuss Geo-E as anything but a deception (for fear of hindering emissions control) – regardless of the fact that there is now no prospect of resolving AGW without the use of Geo-E.

    From this perspective, striving for renewable energy supply as a token of emissions control is simply not the priority. Only a global treaty on Emissions Control can end the routine of fossil fuels locally displaced by renewables being bought and burnt elsewhere,
    and to be commensurate with the scope of the AGW problem any treaty has to include both Albedo Restoration and Carbon Recovery alongside Emissions Control. Nothing less has any chance of resolving the problem.

    Accounting any one of these three as “the most important” is to downgrade effort for the other two and to miss the point that all three are requisite. Campaigning for this ‘trident’ strategy is surely now the most important priority.



  40. David B. Benson says:

    Based on paleoclimate data, this ain’t gonna happen. Didn’t happen during the Eemian Interglacial, for example.

  41. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    David, as a layman I’ve observed the persistent ‘stability bias’ across the scientific community over the last few decades being shown up by repeated examples of changes occuring decades and in some cases centuries ahead of the consensus expectation. Having the most advanced warming, and the most advanced albedo loss feedback warming, the Arctic is naturally the main focus of those surprises.

    With the head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge (with its long tradition of world class excellence in physics research) having not desk top but massive field research experience,
    and with his findings on a highly contentious issue being approved as plausible by the stringent review process imposed by the journal Nature,
    it seems entirely plausible that the rate of ESS clathrates’ collapse will be yet another ‘surprise’ for the scientific community.

    With regard to the Emian interglacial, given that the present threat is entirely rate-related, (i.e. 50Gts CH4 over say 50yrs is catastrophic while over 5,000 years it would be of near insignificant impact) I wonder if you can describe the fastest rate of warming per millenium during that period ?



  42. Christopher S. Johnson says:

    Yes, I included a statement from the author along that line. Nevertheless, when both NOAA and NASA bring up large contradictory statements regarding the amount of time, it’s worth paying attention to or giving a moment to consider. These ain’t hacks.

  43. Christopher S. Johnson says:

    LEWIS SAID: “his prognosis for that output was between 10 and 50 years, starting after the first total loss of summer sea ice in the next few years.”

    The Nature story, and financial impact, was emphasizing the ten year time period. Don’t look at me. I’m merely saying that NASA and NOAA are no slouches on this, and indeed it’s the position of James Hansen as well. and that their comments should be included in an update in the original post of this story at Climate Progress.

  44. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Fair enough GreenHearted. All grist to the mill, I suppose. However, I do believe that putting a dollar value on everything, even human existence, is a mistake, because it plays into the ‘Market’ mode of seeing reality, ie that everything has its price, whereby it becomes a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.

  45. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Irrefudiable logic. The Bosses clearly see no need for several billion ‘useless eaters’, and are taking steps to ensure their near term disappearance. How they imagine that they can ride out the storm is a bit of a mystery.

  46. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    They are organisations controlled by Rightwing regimes and subjected to intense pressure from even more Rightwing politicians, overwhelmingly powerful corporate interests and a villainous Rightwing MSM. They and numerous other establishment scientific bodies, the IPCC perhaps the worst, have radically underestimated the pace of change in numerous parameters of climate destabilisation for decades, and I’ll bet that Wadhams et al are nearer the money, most unfortunately.

  47. fj says:

    We will not go extinct immediately.

    There will be environmental collapses and more economic collapses and it will not be pretty.

    And, unless poor people first gets the highest priority it will be collapse of the global rule of law.

    It will not be pretty.