Welcome to the new version of European Tribune. It's just a new layout, so everything should work as before - please report bugs here.

Threat of Methane from Thawing Permafrost

by ARGeezer Thu Dec 3rd, 2009 at 09:54:05 PM EST

With the Copenhagen Climate Conference rapidly approaching and with the emphasis on CO2 emissions, it seems timely to review the potential impact of the other major greenhouse gas, methane.

Katey Walter Anthony, an aquatic ecologist and a biogeochemist with a list of academic publications going back to 2005, is a research professor working with the Water and Environmental Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She studies the permafrost in Alaska, Canada and Russia. She is also involved in "Outreach & Education" appearing on programs and in articles on NPR, the BBC, National Geographic, Nature and Scientific American.

I encountered her in the December 2009 issue of Scientific American, to which, unfortunately, I do not have on line access. From the various descriptions of her work and activities it seems that the lady is fearless. May she remain so. This diary is comprised of quotes and summaries of various of these above links and other articles.  

Key points:

  •  Methane has more than 20 times the potency of CO2 as a greenhouse gas.
  •  Close to a trillion tons of carbon are currently stored in the top several tens of meters of the 20% of the earth's surface that is permafrost.
  •  As permafrost thaws microbes decompose organic remains producing methane that can be released into the atmosphere.
  •  One third to one half of permafrost is now within 1 to 1.5C of thawing.
  •  At currently predicted rates of thaw 20 to 40% more methane will be released into the atmosphere than from all other natural and man-made sources.
  •  This could produce a further 0.32C increase of the earth's mean annual temperature compared with current projections.
  •  More than one trillion tons of methane hydrates are estimated to lie at depths of hundreds of meters below the ground or sea floor. 10% of that released into the atmosphere would be twice the estimated 50 billion tons of methane that is estimated to potentially be released by permafrost thaw. There is no evidence that hydrates are being released at present.
 


Russian scientists were the first to investigate the phenomenon of methane bubbling out of lakes in Siberia in the summer. US scientist Katey Walter performed the research for her PhD in Siberia beginning in 2000 studying these emissions. She has systematic measured the methane emissions of numerous lakes and is involved in several collaborations to estimate positive and negative feedback loops and to provide maps based on remote sensing to estimate methane and carbon dioxide emissions in permafrost regions from 21,000 years ago to the present.

Laurance Plug of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and a post-doc, Mark Kessler are developing two computer models, one will simulate the dynamics for a single lake and the other is a landscape model that will simulate the dynamics of a lake basin. These models will have to be validated against current and historical data from cores going back 15,000 years in Siberia and Alaska.

The final step will be to integrate these models into the Hadley Center Coupled Model that describes the circulation of the oceans and the atmosphere and that is a major model used in IPPC assessment reports. At present she is concerned that the effects of Arctic methane release are not well covered in this model. She has also a co-author of "Global Methane Emissions From Wetlands, Rice Paddies, and Lakes", EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, 90 (5): 37-44. by Zhuang, Q., J. M. Melack, S. Zimov, K. M. Walter, C. L. Butenhoff, and M. A. K. Khalil, 2009,   "Emerging Challenges. Methane from the Arctic: Global warming wildcard. United Nations Environmental Program, An overview of our changing environment" Melillo, J. F.S., R. Corell, K.M. Walter, Chapin, III, D. McGuire, , UNEP Year Book 2008, Editor Paul Harrison, Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA), Nairobi, Kenya, and "Potential use of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) for estimating methane ebullition from arctic lakes" Walter, K. M., Duguay, C., Jeffries, M., Engram, M., and Chapin III, F. S., 2008, , Journal of the American Water Research Association, 44(2):305-315.http://www.alaska.edu//uaf/cem/ine/walter/publications_docs/Walter_JAWRA2008.pdf among others.

From a biographic sketch on National Geographic's web site Dr. Katey Walter Anthony explains the significance of streams of bubbles emerging from Arctic lakes:

"The bubbles are methane, a strong greenhouse gas that's 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide," Walter Anthony explains. It's being released at an accelerating rate from thawing permafrost, frozen soil that holds vast amounts of carbon. When the Earth's rising temperatures cause it to suddenly thaw, lakes form. "All that carbon was locked up safely in the permafrost freezer for tens of thousands of years," Walter Anthony says. "Now the freezer door is opening, releasing the carbon into Arctic lake bottoms. Microbes digest it, convert it to methane, and the lakes essentially burp out methane."

Scientists estimate that permafrost holds up to 950 billion tons of carbon. As it thaws, 50 billion tons of methane could enter the atmosphere from Siberian lakes alone. "That's ten times more methane than the atmosphere holds right now," Walter Anthony notes. "Since methane traps heat so efficiently, temperatures will rise higher, faster." In the atmosphere methane spreads rapidly too, circling the globe in just one year.

An interview with Walter Anthony that demonstrates some research methods:

Walter Anthony has also been known to employ simpler means of verifying the presence of methane below frozen lakes. Here is an example of what happens:

Some of her "Outreach & Education" efforts will undoubtedly be criticized by those "doubting" climate change and global warming. But I think they are important to raise public awareness of the issue.

Display:
The scary thing is that all these trends are self reinforcing - the more the earth warms the more carbon is released to air and the more the earth warms even more.  Perhaps the biblical prophesies of a hell on earth are not too far off after all!  Ironically, creationism and climate change denial seems to go hand in hand. I'm not quite sure how that works...

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Dec 4th, 2009 at 09:01:03 AM EST
Frank Schnittger:
The scary thing is that all these trends are self reinforcing
That's what an instability looks like...

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Dec 4th, 2009 at 09:04:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
creationism and climate change denial seems to go hand in hand. I'm not quite sure how that works...

Le'me explain: "If you are not sure how that works it must be because you are a Godless Heathen. Any fool believer understands that God's Providence protects us unless we really piss Him off, in which case it is "The fire next time!" The believers are doing all they can to appease God, but unbelievers like you will doom us all!"

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Dec 4th, 2009 at 11:05:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But if you are a believer, then despoiling His creation is sure to piss Him off, and the promised reward of hell fire is then but a natural consequence of global warming.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Dec 4th, 2009 at 12:31:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not if global warming is all a plot by devil worshipers to keep God's Chosen from enjoying the fruits of the Dominion God gave Adam over the animals and plants of the earth. There are differences amongst the faithful on this subject. Stewards vs. Dominionists. The latter tend to be more fundamentalist.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Dec 4th, 2009 at 02:29:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
God is a very SPECIAL landlord.  He WANTS the tenants to trash the property when they move out.  

The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Fri Dec 4th, 2009 at 04:37:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
He WANTS the tenants to trash the property when they move out.

"move out"?  To where?  Die off?  More likely, just not soon enough to save a bunch of other species.

The good news ... it's only a life sentence. You eventually leave this planet of idiots.

by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Sun Jan 3rd, 2010 at 01:24:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thought you were going to write something like: Repent, hell fire is upon us and here's the research to prove it.  We'll either die in a methane fire storm or simply from heat exhaustion.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Dec 6th, 2009 at 05:36:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Tutoring Chem 1A yesterday.  My student's textbook featured methane hydrate on the front and back covers.  On the back it states that according to current estimates there is TWICE the amount of carbon in the form of methane hydrate at the oceans bottom, as there is in the COMBINED estimated reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas.  Of course the textbook takes the optimistic view ... "Is methane hydrate our next abundant fuel source?", not "Wait till you see the warming once this stuff cuts loose."

The good news ... it's only a life sentence. You eventually leave this planet of idiots.
by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Sun Dec 6th, 2009 at 07:12:53 AM EST
Any event or development that resulted in the release of large amounts of methane from hydrate beds could certainly impact climate change. This could have been a factor in the K-T extinctions, especially were it to have been the result of multiple impacts in various parts of the globe. Once the dust settled there would be a significant greenhouse effect from newly liberated methane hydrates.

The Maastrichtian sea-level regression could also have contributed to or increased the vulnerability of methane hydrate beds to disruption by impact events. But I don't know the evidence for the time-line of the creation of such beds.

The potential for extracting natural gas from such beds has not been lost on the relevant parties, including the USGS.  While this could extend forward in time the availability of natural gas as a fuel, even if no methane is lost to the atmosphere in the process, it still gets turned into CO2 when burned.  

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Dec 6th, 2009 at 02:44:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
People need to start thinking and planning for a 3 to 5 temperature increase, for their own personal survival/comfort, if nothing else.  The political and economic leaders aren't showing any interest in actually dealing with the situation and, at some point, it's going to be too late.  Once the world shifts into a new and warmer climate regime it will be impossible to shift back.    

Climate shift, when it happens, happens fast - as little as 10 years.  

So ...

Buy your warm, sunny, beachfront property in Norway NOW and avoid the rush!  :-)

Skepticism is the first step on the road to truth. -- Denis Diderot

by ATinNM on Sun Dec 6th, 2009 at 03:03:34 PM EST
Beachfront, but the house a bit up on a hill or slope to deal with rising sea levels.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!
by A swedish kind of death on Sun Dec 6th, 2009 at 03:49:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Buying a house on a hill or slope isn't, methinks, much of a problem along the Norwegian seacoast.  :-)

(Pining for the fjords we are, we are.)

Skepticism is the first step on the road to truth. -- Denis Diderot

by ATinNM on Sun Dec 6th, 2009 at 03:58:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've been going to climate events at MIT for at least twenty years now.  These days, I almost always ask about methane because, otherwise, it won't come up.

At the recent geo-engineering conference, I raised the issue and learned that there is maybe one guy, Andrew Lockley, seems to be working on geo-engineering for methane.

Today, I went to a panel discussion on carbon capture and sequestration and, again, asked about methane and the other greenhouse gases.  Some of the panelists tried to dismiss the issue but Ruben Juanes, who works on the issue, stood up for me and said that it is indeed a concern and needs further research.

Solar IS Civil Defense

by gmoke on Wed Dec 9th, 2009 at 10:34:50 PM EST
Katey Walter Anthony wrote, in one or another of the cited articles, that the best thing we could do to avoid catastrophic methane release is to reduce CO2 emissions, and she is almost certainly right. But few in the Climate Science field seem to want to deal with methane in public.  Perhaps they fear that the extent of the threat will dispirit all attempts to stop the process. Perhaps they feel they have enough on their plate already. Perhaps it is Not Invented Here syndrome. I don't know. But at least several collaborative efforts including her are underway to add this information to the Hadley Center Coupled Model. Once that is done the impact of methane release should start showing up in IPCC projections.  

I also am glad she can and will both do groundbreaking empirical science and speak publicly about the matter in popular science fora such as National Geographic and on Discover. I think earth science teachers in the 8th grade should be bringing this problem, along with CO2, to the attention of 13 year olds and hope local TV meteorologists start to bring the subject up as part of covering the weather. Greater concern is in order.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Dec 11th, 2009 at 03:27:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]


Display:
Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]

Top Diaries