I scare myself

by Gareth on August 24, 2008

arcticmethane.jpg More news from the Arctic. While the German research vessel Polarstern is cruising through the Northwest Passage, the Russian Yakov Smirnitsky is touring the Siberian seas measuring methane – and the news from scientists on board is not good. Igor Semiletov of the Pacific Oceanology Institute of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences told the Itar-Tass news agency (via Bernama):

“Yet another POI expedition is currently at work in the Arctic, along with ours. The expedition members are exploring the Lena River mouth, where we discovered abnormally high concentrations of methane last year. POI researchers have already carried out 47 studies and confirmed as follows: the concentration of methane in water and the atmosphere increases at a rapid pace, which is indicative of the break-up of permafrost on the shelf of Arctic seas.”

Refer to my last post on the subject and the comments here for some discussion of what that might mean. It’s not good news.

[Update 28/7: I love the internet. This morning I stumbled on a link to a Swedish team working on the Yakov Smirnitsky. Their blog is well worth a visit, if only for the amusing Google translations of the Swedish originals... Hat tip to a commenter at Eli's warren.]

[Update 31/7: Magnus at Eli's place links to a news item on the Swedish team's gas measurements - Google translation here...

This year's Swedish-Russian expedition has found three new areas in western and eastern Laptev Sea where the concentration of methane is clearly increased, both in water and in the air. In addition, the scientists could measure up significantly elevated in the vicinity of Lenaflodens outflow, which Semiletov past have made similar observations.

The news gets worse.]

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Sonny Whitelaw August 25, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Methane (CH4) as a GGH has been of some interest to me for some time, and I was curious to see how the IPCC 4th Assessment Report (AR4) dealt with it. In short, they largely disregard methane as a major issue (p3), for several reasons, not the last of which is that at the time of writing, methane concentrations in the atmosphere were stable. ‘Methane concentrations are not currently increasing in the atmosphere because growth rates decreased over the last two decades’ (pp140-142 & p214). The AR4 state that 60% of atmospheric methane is produced from direct anthropogenic sources, primarily agricultural, while natural sources account for 40% (p541), primarily from wetlands (pp2 & 135). And yet, according to their own statements elsewhere in the same report, the pre-industrial atmospheric concentration of methane (CH4) was 715ppb (p3) while in 2005 it was 1774.62ppb (p140), which far exceeds the natural range 320-790ppb for the past 650,00 years.

[Before I continue, I’m going to insert refs into this post, to pre-empt any argument from gainsayers that I pulled this stuff out of nowhere, or at least, nowhere credible.]

So, back to the IPCC. It seems to have been a case of ignoring the problem because at the time of their writing, CH4 was stable. In fairness, they cite possibly reasons for this stability such as Hansen’s economic incentives [1] and refer to models that predict ranges of concentrations by 2030 from an increase from nil (i.e. remains constant) to 2200ppb (p796). Additionally, while CH4 trapped in subsea permafrost may be added to the atmosphere, ‘available observations do not permit an assessment of changes that might have occurred’ (p372).

What I find interesting is that issue of methane as an ugly and very alarming wildcard predates the IPCC report. For example, Severinghaus’ work on abrupt Holocene climate change [2] MacDonald’s work on clathrates and hydrates [3], and Nisbet and Piper’s work on submarine landslides ‘burbing’ gigatonnes of methane[4]. Others have also been looking at this, and the mounting evidence is as alarming as it is compelling [5] : Methane releases of 2000 to 4000GtC are expected from clathrates and hydrates in response to ~2000GtC of anthropogenic carbon release. This is 10 to 20 times the natural methane flux during deglaciation), but was again ignored by the IPCC in 2007.

Moving beyond AR4, which was released in 2007, Lynas’ 2007 book on the Permian-Triassic extinction event makes compelling reading [7], as does Sluijs et al. [8] who evidence that the abrupt injection of methane hydrates into the atmosphere caused a massive temperature spike at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary: ‘13C-depleted carbon by triggering the disassociation of submarine methane hydrates’ during the Eocene warming’ (p1218). While Beget and Addison [9] and Archer [10] follow up Nisbet and Piper’s earlier work, suggesting that massive underwater landslides may have been triggered by isostatic rebound or thermal expansion of the ocean during prior warming. Archer estimates that the Storegga underwater landslides in the Norwegian continental margin could have instantly released over five gigatonnes of methane, and that there is evidence to suggest similar events happened elsewhere in the world, Hawaii and the Canary Islands, for example.

The UNEP Year Book 2008 [11] referred to methane hydrates as a global warming ‘wildcard’ (p37), stating, ‘The balance of evidence suggests that Arctic feedbacks that amplify warming, globally and regionally, will dominate during the next 50 to 100 years,’ (p38). Further, ‘this important source of atmospheric methane is not currently considered in modelled projections’.

Maybe it’s about time someone started modelling projections, because there have been some even more alarming suggestions that a sudden belch of methane, if ignited, could set off an explosion significantly greater than several large nukes.
Wouldn’t that be just fabulous with Russia once more rattling the nuclear sabre? How hard would it be to assume a massive methane explosion is an attack and in a knee jerk reaction, retaliate? (see the news story 10 days ago: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=5585656)

[1] Hansen, J., M Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling, V. Masson-Delmotte, M. Pagani, M. Raymo, D. L. Royer and J. C. Zachos 2008, Target Amospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?, Cornell University.
[2] Severinghaus, J. and E. Brook 1999, Abrupt Climate Change at the End of the Last Glacial Period Inferred from Trapped Air in Polar Ice, Science, 286: 930.
[3] MacDonald, G. J. 1990, Roles of methane clathrates in past and future climates, Climatic Change, 16: 247-281.
[4] Nisbet, E. G. and D. J. W. Piper 1998, Giant submarine landslides, Nature, 392: 329-330.
[5] Svensen, H., S. Planke, A. Malthe-Sørenssen, B. Jamtveit, R. Myklebust, T. Rasmussen Eidem and S. S. Rey 2004, Release of methane from a volcanic basin as a mechanism for initial Eocene global warming. Global change: hydrocarbon-driven warming, Nature, 3(429): 542-5.
[6] Archer, D. and B. Buffett 2005, Time-dependent response of the global ocean clathrate reservoir to climatic and anthropogenic forcing, Geochemical and Geophysical Geosystems, 6: Q03002
[7] Lynas, M. 2007a, Six degrees: our future on a hotter planet, Fourth Estate, London.
[8] Sluijs, A., H. Brinkhuis, S. Schouten, S. M. Bohaty, C. M. John, J. C. Zachos, G. J. Reichart, J. S. Sinninghe Damste, E. M. Crouch and G. R. Dickens 2007, Environmental precursors to rapid light carbon injection at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary, Nature, 20(450):1218-21.
[9] Beget JE and Addison JA 2007, ‘Methane gas release from the Storegga submarine landslide linked to early-Holocene climate change: a speculative hypothesis’, The Holocene, Fairbanks, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 291-295.
[10] Archer, D. 2007, Methane hydrates and anthropogenic climate change. Biosciences Discussions, 4: 993–1057.
[11] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 2008, – An overview of our changing environment, United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya,

HarryTheHat August 26, 2008 at 7:54 am

Ah, bless you all. The Arctic and melting of the Permafrost is the only game in town for you people at the moment, isn’t it? I mean, you can’t talk about HadCRUt, or the lower troposphere, or the fact that the stratosphere hasn’t cooled since 1993, or any Antarctic melt, or any net warming this century, nor city-destroying hurricanes, nor increased sea levels, nor sea surface temperatures. Ah. Do you realise how funny it is for us sceptics watching all of you trying to focus on one subject? And in just a week or two you won’t even have that!

Next catastrophe theory please. We seem to have run out! Bless your little cotton socks. Oh, you’re going to need them, by the way.

Cheers,
Harry
The knee-jerk dissenter

Sonny Whitelaw August 26, 2008 at 10:50 am

Oh, I don’t know about it being the only game in town. Ocean acidification, pine beetle infestations, and the changing ecologies of mosquitoes also are of great interest to me. As for Antarctica, my primary school-aged son came home last night and explained to me the mechanisms by which global warming is changing it from an arid desert to a not-so arid desert. I guess primary school geography and science is outside the realm of sceptics.

Gareth August 26, 2008 at 11:35 am

…alarming suggestions that a sudden belch of methane, if ignited, could set off an explosion significantly greater than several large nukes.

Might be the only way to get rid of the stuff before it does too much damage. At what concentration does methane become flammable?

malcolm August 26, 2008 at 1:58 pm

You could sell tickets to that.

Tushara August 26, 2008 at 4:09 pm

“At what concentration does methane become flammable”

Flash point: Flammable Gas
Auto-ignition temperature: 537°C
Explosive limits, vol% in air: 5-15

HarryTheHat August 26, 2008 at 8:00 pm

Sonny. Thanks for that. Obviously primary school geography and science is outside your ‘realm’ too if, as you say, he had to explain it! Don’t load that other gun Sonny, you might shoot yourself in the other foot too!

Cheers.
PS I’ll grant you acidification (although it is debatable), but as for mosquito (malaria?) that’s been rubbished by a top expert some time back. I argued this on a blog almost two years ago. Although malaria has taken hold in east Africa (if memory serves), it cannot be anything to do with climate change there as temps have not followed global – there has been no rise at all. The expert explained that colonies move all the time, regardless of temps, (always have) and that it has everything to do with water, not temps. On the blog at the time, all the worriers moved onto the latest realclimate scare. Like I said, next catastrophe theory please.

Steve Bloom August 27, 2008 at 7:07 am

Sonny, satellite observations can easily distingush between a nuclear explosion and a methane one, as can ground observations. There’s still a potential surprise factor, but fortunately the methane explosions wouldn’t be happening in an area that would make sense to anyone as the opening shot in an attack.

CobblyWorlds August 27, 2008 at 8:35 am

Gareth,
It’s not just you who’s scared, my hopes that 2007 was a blip are fading fast.

Sonny,
I agree with Gareth, no chance of a methane explosion being misinterpreted as nuclear (no X-ray pulse and hence no EMP for a start). Indeed read the articles I link to below, Canada’s military weren’t fast to investigate a recent explosion in the Arctic.

As an aside re methane explosions:

A while ago there were reports of a large explosion in the Canadian Archipelago. At the time I didn’t think it worth mentioning to anyone, indeed I’d virtually forgotten it, especially as investigation found nothing. e.g. Calgary Herald, initial story, follow up.

The incident happened 31 July, although Lancaster sound had been ice-free for a while the coast and inlets were just losing their ice cover in the preceding week.

From my Arctic bathymetry map the sea in Lancaster Sound is of the order of ~500m deep and around ~300m deep in the eastern channel between Bylot Island and Borden Peninsula, down to ~500m on the western channel adjacent to the peninsula. So there’s sea deep enough for stable clathrates in the area, which would be crucial if suggesting a methane release of sufficient size for a large explosion. As far as I can see from a quick trawl of Google – if there’s a lack of oxygen, burning methane would produce black smoke. Then again as I understand the prevailing current would be from Baffin Bay up Lancaster sound, so it could be some rafted debris like a gas cannister.

I still barely consider it worth repeating here, it’s one of those “could be, but we’ll never know” incidents as far as I can see. Although of course there were anyone up there with a submersible, they could check the seabed around the area of the explosion for signs of sediment outgassing.

Gareth August 27, 2008 at 9:52 am

The point that I was hinting at was that if we are confronted with large releases of methane from the sea floor, it might be better to “flare” the gas (as in the picture at the top of the post) to prevent some of the warming it would cause. But based on Tush’s figures, there would have to be a lot of gas in the air. From memory, the Shakova paper refers to 8ppm being measured – which is way above “normal”, but nowhere near 5 percent.

Still, it might bring tourism opportunities, and a new meaning to “northern lights”…

Steve Bloom August 27, 2008 at 10:25 am

Worse and worse:

Fresh findings that the Arctic land permafrost carbon reservoir is likely about double previous estimates.

This article is of great interest. I wonder how many more scientists would speak in these terms if they were asked?

Steve Bloom August 27, 2008 at 11:07 am

Ah, it turns out that the second article is over a year old (and refers to summer 2006). It’s still worth a read, though. Probably I should look to see what the quoted scientists have published since then.

Gareth August 27, 2008 at 11:16 am

Yes, Steve, I had to check the date after reading it – but it’s a sobering report.

Tushara August 27, 2008 at 11:22 am

I obtained the info from an International Chemical Safety Card. I think you have to remember that before methane becomes mixed into air, and therefore being a small component of air, a bubble of gas may form a large component and become flammable.

Sonny Whitelaw August 27, 2008 at 11:22 am

Cobblyworlds, I totally agree with you over the theory that no one should mistake a large blast as a pre-emptive nuke. It’s the size of the blast that has been compared to a nuke, not the nature of the explosion. The papers I cited make excellent reading on the subject.

Steve, I really, really wish you were right in your statement: “but fortunately the methane explosions wouldn’t be happening in an area that would make sense to anyone as the opening shot in an attack.”
With several governments flexing their muscles over who gets what slice of the Arctic pie, a large explosion, not necessarily a nuke sized event, while everyone’s jostling for who gets to drill where, wouldn’t help.

Harry, I totally agree with you. I absolutely need to listen to my 12 year old son when he tells me what he’s learned at school that day. It’s not relevant that I have a degree in geography and understand what he’s telling me; it’s relevant that I listen to his fascination of the world and enjoy his desire to share that with me.

Gareth, I’ve seen (relatively small) methane explosions at the leading edge of lava flows. The vulcanologist with me at the time explained that lightning stikes (induced by eruptions) also readily explode methane pockets. My old geomorphology professor used to talk about submarine explosions and ‘burning’ ocean, when pockets of methane were released during drilling. The Japanese are considering drilling for methane as an energy source (http://www.jdc.co.jp/methanehydrates.html). Shawn Linmark (University of Rhode Island) presents an excellent overview of the risks, with some background on the Storegga slide and 5 gigatonne methane ‘burp’ in a IMb Powerpoint Presentation that can be downloaded from http://www.oce.uri.edu/oce582/presentations/Shawn%20Lindmark-Storegga%20Slide%20Stability%20and%20Methane%20Hydrates.ppt.

cindy August 27, 2008 at 7:58 pm

NSIDC have updated site again in the last 24 hours: it’s now the second lowest melt on record. Erk.

Gareth August 27, 2008 at 9:08 pm

Cindy’s referring to the NSIDC’s sea ice news latest update. Also worth looking at the IJIS chart, and a chart mash-up by Barry Brooks here. Prof Brooks’ blog is well worth a regular visit.

Sonny August 29, 2008 at 10:30 am

Seems the Canadians also are jumping on the methane clathrates energy bandwagon with the latest paper from the American Chemical Society, ‘Gas hydrates on the front burner: Flammable ice could create a bridge to a sustainable energy future’.
[ASAP Environ. Sci. Technol., ASAP Article, 10.1021/es802250e]

There’s a direct (no firewall) web link, here:
http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/sample.cgi/esthag/asap/html/es802250e.html

HarryTheHat August 31, 2008 at 9:33 pm

I have looked at the recording station data for areas in Siberia close to the Arctic – and there is NO warming. This is rather typical http://www.john-daly.com/stations/dikson.gif Do you all believe in Arctic air-warming without actually checking? I really don’t know how to put this any other way, it appears quite clear that the Arctic is getting warmer Atlantic waters that is causing melt (as has happened many times before) and there is clearly something going on with weather patterns – as the UK has received another rotten summer, just like last year (actually no summer). Is it coincidence that two years of Arctic ice melt happens at the same time as no UK summer?

So, warmer waters, and no recording stations showing warming that would cause anything near permafrost melting. Do you people simply worry about anything and everything?

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