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Methane Melt: The Most Important Story You Don't Follow
Alex Steffen, 5 Mar 10

We've written before about the danger that climate change will lead to the thawing and release of methane frozen on the ocean floor, and indeed the worrisome news that some scientists were observing patches of Arctic sea foaming with gas bubbles from "methane chimneys" rising from the sea floor.

Now, researchers in Alaska have found a similar process underway:

Natalia Shakhova, a scientist at the university and a leader of the study, said it was too soon to say whether the findings suggest that a dangerous release of methane looms. In a telephone news conference, she said researchers were only beginning to track the movement of this methane into the atmosphere as the undersea permafrost that traps it degrades.

But climate experts familiar with the new research reported in Friday’s issue of the journal Science that even though it does not suggest imminent climate catastrophe, it is important because of methane’s role as a greenhouse gas. Although carbon dioxide is far more abundant and persistent in the atmosphere, ton for ton atmospheric methane traps at least 25 times as much heat.

Until recently, undersea permafrost has been little studied, but work so far shows it is already sending surprising amounts of methane into the atmosphere, Dr. Shakhova and other researchers are finding.

Last year, scientists from Britain and Germany reported that they had detected plumes of methane rising from the Arctic seabed in the West Spitsbergen area, north of Scandinavia. At the time, they said they had begun their work hoping to gain data to predict future emissions and had not expected to find evidence that the process was under way.

It is “indispensable” to keep track of methane in the region, Martin Heimann of the Max Planck Institute in Germany said in a commentary accompanying the Science report. So far, Dr. Heimann wrote, methane contributions from Arctic permafrost have been “negligible.” He added: “But will this persist into the future under sustained warming trends? We do not know.”

In an e-mail message, Euan G. Nisbet of the University of London, an expert on atmospheric methane, said the situation “needs to be watched carefully.”

Atmospheric concentrations of methane have more than doubled since pre-industrial times, Dr. Heimann wrote. Most of it comes from human activities including energy production, cattle raising and the cultivation of rice. But about 40 percent is natural, including the decomposition of organic materials in wetlands and frozen wetlands like permafrost.

Dr. Shakhova said that permafrost in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, peat land that flooded as sea levels rose after the last ice age, is degrading in part because runoff from rivers that feed the Arctic Ocean is warmer than in the past.

She estimated that annual methane emissions from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf total about seven teragrams. (A teragram is 1.1 million tons.) By some estimates, global methane emissions total about 500 teragrams a year.

Dr. Shakhova said that undersea methane ordinarily undergoes oxidation as it rises to the surface, where it is released as carbon dioxide. But because water over the shelf is at most about 50 meters deep, she said, the gas bubbles to the surface there as methane. As a result, she said, atmospheric levels of methane over the Arctic are 1.85 parts per million, almost three times as high as the global average of 0.6 or 0.7 parts per million. Concentrations over the shelf are 2 parts per million or higher.

A huge release of one-frozen methane is (potentially) almost the definition of a feedback loop, perhaps even a tipping point into runaway climate change.

Luckily, we're not there yet. Scientists have been very clear to say that while these field observations are surprising and disturbing, they do not yet indicate a catastrophe. We need to wait for more data to figure out if it's time to panic yet.

In the meantime, we need to focus even more strongly one four solution spaces:

1) Getting to a zero net emissions economy as quickly as possible. It's very clear now that we can do this at a net gain for society, with more (and more wide-spread) prosperity for most people, and that it's largely the opposition of entrenched interests that's preventing us from making huge strides forward: this needs to change.

2) Implementing climate-adaptive ecological restoration, safeguarding ecosystem services and researching soil carbon sequestration and other practices that have multiple benefits while pulling greenhouse gasses from the air. We need to be helping the planet's natural systems heal towards resilience as much as we possibly can.

3) Engaging in a stronger and more realistic debate about geoengineering, its limits and its politics, especially since news of potential tipping points always accelerates calls for geoengineering research, even deployment. Geoengineering's main use in the climate debate at the moment is as a propaganda tool by those seeking to stall action on emissions reduction; that doesn't mean that we don't need to discuss what mega-scale answers might be possible should we find tipping points sliding past more quickly than we feared.

4) Building psychological resilience in the face of huge and alarming planetary changes. News like this is disturbing. We need to find ways, as a culture, as communities and as individuals, to understand disturbing changes without losing our balance. Psychologically wrecked people are no good to themselves, others or the planet. We need to promote the capacity to be healthy and happy despite monumental challenges.

We'll be returning to all these ideas again in the near future.

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First, I so appreciate your work, and esp. the even tone of your writing. My suspicion is that this is really a problem that we should consider seriously now. Scientists can probably predict what if scenarios, and if the methane comes up, we in trouble.

I heard Heinberg speak last week in Portland, Oregon. Post-Carbon Institute. I appreciate their work, too. OK, back to The Long Emergency, and happy while the ship goes down week.

Posted by: Albert Kaufman on 5 Mar 10

The same issue of Science also has an interesting study on the behavioural reasons why people don't pursue energy efficiency -- even when it is clearly in their economic self interest to do so. This is another facet of your "solution space 1"

Past studies show that $520 billion invested in efficiency could cut U.S. energy demand by 23% and save $1.2 trillion by 2020.

Beginning with those numbers,it's hard to understand why we haven't done more. The authors point out that we clearly aren't the "rational actors" that we like to think we are.

I think their argument that we need more attention to the behavioural side of how we use energy really persuasive. We need to get better at simultaneously dealing with both the cultural and technological.


Posted by: Alex Aylett on 5 Mar 10


If the greenhouse shit hits the fan in an undeniable fashion, the skeptic crowd will claim that it was the methane all along. And suggest the solution is to conquer Canada.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 5 Mar 10

Judging from the sheer mass of vitriolic anti-science and anti-environmental sentiment I find on many sites, it seems that there is a concerted and orchestrated effort out there to derail action on any of the four solutions mentioned. Hopefully, all I am seeing is just the last gasp of a very vocal minority. Unfortunately this is also what I thought about Rush Limbaugh several years ago. I greatly fear that this planet is in for a serious world of hurt. This pessimistic environmental scientist believes that it is entirely possible that the tipping point has already been reached.

Posted by: cjcold on 7 Mar 10

Not to pile on the bad news, but a recent news article revealed a higher degree of methane gas being released in areas where permafrost was disappearing. That would be Siberia and Alaska.

Posted by: Jim Bird on 9 Mar 10

"But about 40 percent is natural, including the decomposition of organic materials in wetlands and frozen wetlands like permafrost."

40 percent of what?

Posted by: Alexander Kurz on 9 Mar 10

I suggest interested readers check and search for methane. Joe Romm is a Ph.D. in physics from a journalism family and provides the most comprehensive website for climate change science that non-techies can understand. His focus is purely on the politics, science and anti-polemics, thereby complementing Alex's site quite nicely. Methane is a serious long term issue that is hiding under the covers. The more everyone understands what is possible to understand, the better. Even googling methane and climate change will yield some interesting results. One of the earlier comments by a climate scientist said we may have already reached the tipping point. James Hansen of NASA thinks this could be the case, as reported by Alex on several occasions. One answer at a practical level is to focus on "resilient sustainability" for cities and communities.

See google docs folder link for 3 articles and 3 strategy maps that include an introductory discussion of how to strategically move toward reslient sustainabilty [RS]. RS is the combination of 3 content domains: strategy execution, sustainability & resilience.
irv beiman, ph.d.

Posted by: Irv Beiman on 10 Mar 10

whoops, that previous link only included the most recent article. the article set can be reached at:
irv beiman

Posted by: Irv Beiman on 10 Mar 10

I was thinking about some local uses for Carbon Offsetting funds, namely bikes... time to redouble the effort! -emett

Posted by: Emett Stasiuk on 10 Mar 10

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