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Game over? Or overtime?

Methane Hydrate Gas Crystal

As we reported two years ago, an international group of scientists, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group has been sailing into the Arctic waters around Norway and Russia to take samples of methane bubbling from ocean clathrates — frozen methane deposits on the sea floor. Some of their findings, very preliminary, are now making their way into the blogosphere, but like many, we await peer-review published articles or discussion in the next IPCC report — AR5 — due in 2014, before we draw hard conclusions.

The preliminary reports, if they can be believed, are frightening.

One report last February was titled, “Global Extinction within one Human Lifetime as a Result of a Spreading Atmospheric Arctic Methane Heat wave and Surface Firestorm.” Its author, Malcolm Light, predicted, “This process of methane release will accelerate exponentially, release huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere and lead to the demise of all life on earth before the middle of this century.”

Light wrote:

“The warning about extinction is stark. It is remarkable that global scientists had not anticipated a giant buildup of methane in the atmosphere when it had been so clearly predicted 10 to 20 years ago and has been shown to be critically linked to extinction events in the geological record (Kennett et al. 2003). Furthermore all the experiments should have already been done to determine which geoengineering methods were the most effective in oxidising/destroying the methane in the atmosphere in case it should ever build up to a concentration where it posed a threat to humanity. Those methods need to be applied immediately if there is any faint hope of  reducing the catastrophic heating effects of the fast building atmospheric methane concentration.”

Light’s proposed geoengineering solution is to piggyback on the Air Force’s HAARP high energy communications network to broadcast a 13.56 MHZ pulse to transform methane in the stratosphere and troposphere to nanodiamonds and hydrogen. Other geoengineering proposals include genetically engineered methanotrophic bacteria that eat methane in soil and air and iron-based catalysts that can oxidize high concentrations of methane in ocean water and raindrops.

All of this seems a bit frantic and desperate, enough to push the skeptical scientist in us to ask, “Are we really there yet?”

Some arctic sea regions as large as one kilometer in diameter are indeed “frothing” from massive gas releases from previously frozen CH4 deposits. Beginning in 2010, Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences said his research team discovered more than 100 plumes, and estimates there are “thousands” over a wider area, extending from Russian mainland to East Siberian Arctic Shelf. 

“Earlier we found torch-like structures, but only tens of meters in diameter. This is the first time we found continuous, powerful, impressive seeps more than 1,000 meters in diameter. It’s amazing.  We carried out checks at 115 stationary points and discovered methane of a fantastic scale—on a scale not seen before,” Semiletov said.

In our March 2010 post, “Various Bubblings,”  we wrote:

Of course, as we have noted here before, warmer oceans, methane from permafrost and clathrate bubblings are all tipping points that accelerate climate change and are multiplicative - 2 or 3 orders of magnitude times anthropogenic emissions, once their threshold is crossed. Earth, meet Venus. The toxic gas fireballs rolling across Kansas, destroying and poisoning everything in their path, are described in Peter Ward’s book, Under a Green Sky. As Wallace Broecker says, “The climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks.”

Atmospheric CH4 concentrations have risen more in the past 4 years than in the previous 20. Methane has a much shorter lifespan in the atmosphere than CO2, but it is 50 to 70 times (in the short term 100x) more potent as greenhouse gas. It doesn’t go away when it decays, either. It oxidizes into CO2.

The last IPCC assessment (AR4) concluded that the risk of a melting clathrate event triggering a sudden shift to a much warmer planet is minimal. A sustained increase in sea temperature will warm its way through the sediment eventually, and cause even the deepest, most marginal clathrates to start to break down, but it will typically take of the order of a thousand years or more for the temperature signal to get through.

One exception, however, may be in clathrates associated with the Arctic Ocean, where water is shallower and clathrate ice crystals are stabilized by lower temperatures rather than higher pressures. Recent research carried out in 2008 in the Siberian Arctic has shown millions of tons of methane being released, apparently through perforations in the seabed permafrost.

Shakhova et al. (2008) estimate that not less than 1,400 Gt of carbon is presently locked up as methane and methane hydrates under the Arctic submarine permafrost, and 5–10% of that area is subject to thawing. They conclude that “release of up to 50 GtC of predicted amount of hydrate storage [is] highly possible for abrupt release at any time.” That would increase the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere by a factor of twelve, equivalent in greenhouse effect to a doubling in the current level of CO2.

Another wild card in the clathrate deck is whether a near-term effect would be global cooling, not warming. Sudden concentrations of flammable methane could bring about explosions and fireballs that would produce lots of smoke and dust, which would lead to global dimming, comparable to nuclear winter. The evolution of dust and smoke, if it caused global cooling, would likely only last a short time before the particulates washed out of the atmosphere. Elevated temperature forcing from levels of methane and the derivative carbon dioxide would then take over. The greatest consequence, apart from incineration of coastal cities, would be an alternating series of extra cold and extra warm years, arguably more devastating to crop production than a trend in one direction or the other.

Professor Gregory Ryskin, in a paper published in Geology in 2003, concluded:

The consequences of a methane-driven oceanic eruption for marine and terrestrial life are likely to be catastrophic. Figuratively speaking, the erupting region “boils over,” ejecting a large amount of methane and other gases (e.g., CO2, H2S) into the atmosphere, and flooding large areas of land. Whereas pure methane is lighter than air, methane loaded with water droplets is much heavier, and thus spreads over the land, mixing with air in the process (and losing water as rain). The air-methane mixture is explosive at methane concentrations between 5% and 15%; as such mixtures form in different locations near the ground and are ignited by lightning, explosions and conflagrations destroy most of the terrestrial life, and also produce great amounts of smoke and of carbon dioxide. Firestorms carry smoke and dust into the upper atmosphere, where they may remain for several years; the resulting darkness and global cooling may provide an additional kill mechanism. Conversely, carbon dioxide and the remaining methane create the greenhouse effect, which may lead to global warming. The outcome of the competition between the cooling and the warming tendencies is difficult to predict.

Another significant contributor to atmospheric methane is fracking — the explosive fracturing of geological formations to release oil and natural gas (see illustration). While difficult to quantify, we can expect a significant bump from this source for at least the next few decades, just from wells already completed. And once the bottle is uncorked, you can’t put another cork back in. U.S. shale gas production is projected by EIA to increase over the 2012–2035 period by 3 million barrels of oil equivalent (Mboe) per day (it currently contributes 700,000 boe/d, and a recent Harvard study projects the 2020 shale gas potential contribution to be 49 Mboe/d). The USGS estimates that the Green River Formation alone holds 3 trillion boe, “around half of which is deemed recoverable.” Which is not to say that which is not deemed recoverable won’t also find its way to the atmosphere. Then add European fracking, Asian fracking, and Middle Eastern fracking, and what do we get?

We’re fracked.

A recent item from New Scientist highlighted the clathrate issue but unfortunately provided more smoke than light. The August 17 report described research led by Graham Westbrook of the University of Birmingham and Tim Minshull of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2009GL039191). Their team sailed into the west of the Svalbard archipelago, which lies north of Norway, where they found CH4 plumes being heated by the West Spitsbergen current, which has warmed 1 °C over the past 30 years. The methane being released from hydrates in the 600 km2 area added up to 27 kilotons/year, which suggests that the entire hydrate deposit around Svalbard could be releasing 20 megatonnes a year. Globally, extrapolating to all shallow, cold ocean areas, that translates to around 0.5-0.6 GtC/yr, or about 10% of fossil fuel emissions.

Said New Scientist, “Methane hydrate could be used as a new, somewhat greener fossil fuel, but extracting the methane without releasing any into the atmosphere remains a challenge.”


The pity is, no one is even trying to extract fossil energy without releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or offsetting them with net sequestration reverses like carbon farming. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are climate deniers. Ryan has accused scientists of engaging in conspiracy to “intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change.” He has implied that snow invalidates global warming. When he wasn’t busy sponsoring the Akin plan to distinguish “legitimate rape,” he voted to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from limiting greenhouse pollution, to eliminate White House climate advisers, to block the U.S. Department of Agriculture from preparing for climate disasters like the drought devastating his home state, and to eliminate the Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E).

Barack Obama offers no better choice. He wants to expand fracking and build a pipeline to carry the gooey tar sands through nine states, even though a spill into the Kalamazoo River has yet to be cleaned because no-one knows how to remove tar from a river.

So what are we left with? Jill Stein, MD, Green Party candidate. She hasn’t got a chance, but she does have a microphone. She was arrested at a sit-in in Philadelphia earlier this month when she protested Fannie Mae housing foreclosures. The Green Party’s platform is more forward-looking if a bit naïve:

  • Strong International Climate Treaty
  • Economic Policy for a Safer Climate
  • Repay Our Climate Debt
  • More Efficiency and Conservation
  • Clean, Green Energy and Jobs
  • Clean, Green Agriculture
  • Encourage Conservation and a Significant Decrease in our Energy Consumption
  • Institute National Energy Efficiency Standards
  • Move Decisively to an Energy System Based on Solar, Wind, Geothermal, Marine, and other Cleaner Renewable Energy Sources
  • End the Use of Dirty and Dangerous Energy Sources
  • Plan for Decentralized, Bio-Regional Electricity Generation and Distribution
  • De-Carbonize and Re-Localize the Food System
  • Electrify the Transportation System
  • Transition to Non-nuclear Energy Future
  • Contrast that with the Republican platform:

    We strongly oppose all efforts of the extreme environmental groups that stymie legitimate business interests. We strongly oppose those efforts that attempt to use the environmental causes to purposefully disrupt and stop those interests within the oil and gas industry. We strongly support the immediate repeal of the Endangered Species Act. We believe the Environmental Protection Agency should be abolished. We encourage a comprehensive energy policy that allows more development of domestic energy sources and reduces our need for foreign energy. Energy policy should be cooperative, economically viable without taxpayer funded subsidies, and environmentally safe, but not restricted by overzealous environmental activism. We support immediate removal of government barriers to free market solutions to production and distribution of energy including restrictions on:

    • drilling and production operations on public and private lands and waters
    • refineries
    • electric power generation and distribution
    • federal gas mileage standards (CAFÉ standards) and fuel blends

    We support the elimination of the Department of Energy. We support the immediate approval and construction of the Keystone XL and other pipelines that will reduce our reliance on imported oil and natural gas from unstable or unfriendly countries. We support land drilling and production operations including hydraulic fracturing. We support the repeal of legislation mandating ethanol as fuel additives and/or primary fuel.

    We have not provided the Democratic Party’s Platform because, although it has not been adopted yet, would essentially do the same as the Republican’s while trying to look and sound just like the Green’s. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At least the Green Party wears its own wool.

    So, given a choice between tweedledum and tweedledumber, we choose neither. We plan to vote Green.

    What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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