Climate news: Arctic seafloor methane release is double previous estimates, and why that matters

One of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that Obama’s EPA Clean Power Plan doesn’t count is methane from leaks, for example, fracking leaks, fuel line leaks, transportation leaks, and so on. Yet methane (CH4) is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases known, though very short-lived (most atmospheric methane disappears in about 12 years, becoming CO2 and water vapor).

And one of the cornerstones of the idea that mankind still has a “carbon budget” — that we can still release even more CO2 and other greenhouse gases like methane, though a “limited” amount — is the idea that we can do a good job of modeling climate-changing feedbacks. We can do a good job of modeling some feedbacks, but we’re very bad at modeling others, and some feedbacks have so much randomness about them that modeling them becomes next to impossible.

For an example of seemingly good models that have gotten things drastically wrong, take a look at what 13 Arctic-ice models said about the ice melt rate (loss of ice is a feedback, since it’s cause by warming, and then feeds more warming back to the system):

Loss of summer Arctic sea ice (from the Copenhagen Consensus)

Loss of summer Arctic sea ice, modeled vs. observed (source here; adapted from Fig. 1 here)


All of the fuzzy lines are predictions of various models using the assumptions of that model. The heavy black line is the mean of those models. The red line is observed loss. Note that today, we’re about at the place the IPCC models had us reaching 90 years from now. The observations peak at about 9 million square kilometers, and we’re now at about 3 million. When we reach 1 million square kilometers, the Arctic will be considered “ice free.” Not long after that, summer ice will go to actual zero. With increased warming, winter ice will go to zero also.

See why I’m always saying we’re “wrong to the slow side”? If you think a climate event will happen in some number of years, cut it in half, at least, and maybe in half again.

For an example of a process that’s almost impossible to model, consider the disappearance of Antarctic ice shelves. They don’t go gradually; they hang around, then go suddenly and in big chunks, as they have recently. We’ve crossed the point of no return on large parts of the Western Antarctic shelf. No one saw that coming when it did, and there was no way to model it. That system is just too complex, with too many unknowns.

Frozen methane is one of the largest unknowns in climate prediction

Which brings us back to methane — in particular, frozen methane. By most accounts, there’s more than 1,000 GtC — a thousand billion (“giga”) tons of carbon — locked into the tundra and the peat bogs, and frozen at the bottom of the ocean in the Arctic region. As noted, methane is a short-lived but powerful GHG. “Greenhouse warming potential” (GWP) is a comparison of the warming effect of a substance relative to CO2 (which is assigned a GWP of 1). Here’s what methane’s GWP looks like over time:

How methane compares to CO2 as a warming agent over time. Blue line — IPCC from 2007.

How atmospheric methane compares to CO2 as a warming agent over time. Blue line source: IPCC, 2007.

The small dot at 20 years on the blue line says that in the first 20 years, atmospheric methane has 72 times the warming effect as CO2. The IPCC wrote that in 2007 in the report called AR4. Assessment Report 5 (AR5), out last year, increased that number from 72 to about 85. The IPCC has moved that number up in every report since 1995.

Now note the blue line to the left of that dot, in the less-than-20-year part of the chart, as it climbs toward 100. In the first five years, the effect of methane is over 100 times that of CO2, and again, that was the number as calculated in 2007. It’s larger by more recent calculations.

I said at the start of this piece that there’s more than 1,000 GtC in methane form — remember, methane contains the carbon molecule — stored in the Arctic. That’s conservative; the number is much higher.

(A note about units used to measure carbon: You’ll see Pg, petagrams, sometimes used as a unit of weight, for example, at the previous link. A “petagram” (Pg) has the same weight exactly as a “gigaton” (Gt). I’m going to translate everything to tons of carbon (tC) for this piece, no matter where the original measurement appears.)

Whatever the number, the methane’s been down there for millions of years, and if it stays down there, we’re in good shape. (Just like coal — most of it was formed several hundreds of millions of years ago, and until recently, it just sat under the earth doing no harm at all. The steam engine changed all that, got us to dig it back up and put it back in the air.)

The key questions about methane are — how fast is it leaking back into the atmosphere, and will that rate be stable? The answer to the first question is, by many accounts, not fast. In 2007, methane release from the vast, shallow East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) — one of several sources of methane — was put at 0.5 MtC per year. That’s half a megaton (a half-million tons) of carbon. Compare that to today’s rate of carbon emissions in CO2 form — 10 GtC per year.

A gigaton is 1,000 megatons, so quite a difference in scale. Methane may be 100 times more potent than CO2 as a GHG in its first few years (before it decays). But by weight, CH4 emissions are measured in the millions of tons of carbon, not the billions of tons. (Yet note that low number of 0.5 MtC for East Siberian releases — it’s been revised considerably upward. Read on.)

Will things stay like this, with methane emissions at a crawl? In a runaway warming scenario, there is certainly a point where all that methane will go into the air. Are we near that point? No one knows, though the consensus is that we’re not — at least not yet.

Arctic methane is leaking twice as fast as previously thought

Which brings us to the news and back to the uncertainties. That consensus I just mentioned — that we’re not near a “runaway methane” scenario — hides a sharp divide in the scientific community. There is a small group of researchers who think we could be near a methane tipping point.

In that group is the Russian research team of Natalia Shakhova and her husband Igor Semiletov, researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) International Arctic Research Center. Here’s what they found recently (my emphasis):

Arctic seafloor methane releases double previous estimates

The seafloor off the coast of Northern Siberia is releasing more than twice the amount of methane as previously estimated, according to new research results published in the Nov. 24 [2013] edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is venting at least 17 teragrams of the methane [17 Mt or million tons] into the atmosphere each year. A teragram is equal to 1 million tons.

“It is now on par with the methane being released from the arctic tundra, which is considered to be one of the major sources of methane in the Northern Hemisphere,” said Natalia Shakhova, one of the paper’s lead authors and a scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Increased methane releases in this area are a possible new climate-change-driven factor that will strengthen over time.”

… On land, methane is released when previously frozen organic material decomposes. In the seabed, methane can be stored as a pre-formed gas or as methane hydrates. As long as the subsea permafrost remains frozen, it forms a cap, effectively trapping the methane beneath. However, as the permafrost thaws, it develops holes, which allow the methane to escape. These releases can be larger and more abrupt than those that result from decomposition.

The findings are the latest in an ongoing international research project led by Shakhova and Igor Semiletov, both researchers at the UAF International Arctic Research Center. Their twice-yearly arctic expeditions have revealed that the subsea permafrost in the area has thawed much more extensively than previously thought, in part due to warming water near the bottom of the ocean. The warming has created conditions that allow the subsea methane to escape in much greater amounts than their earlier models estimated. Frequent storms in the area hasten its release into the atmosphere, much in the same way stirring a soda releases the carbonation more quickly.

Yes, I too caught the point about earlier models being wrong in the last paragraph above. Shades of Arctic sea ice models? I guess only time will tell.

But 17 megatons of methane is a sharp upward estimate from the 0.5 megatons just seven years earlier. Has methane emission changed, or is the measurement more precise?

Probably both. To a large degree emissions have changed, since Shakhova and Semiletov have been taking measurements by expedition for quite some time. In fact, I wrote about one of their previous discoveries — that they found kilometer-wide plumes of methane rising through the Arctic ocean — two years ago (my emphasis):

“Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures more than 1,000 metres [one kilometer] in diameter. It’s amazing,” Dr Semiletov said.

“I was most impressed by the sheer scale and the high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them,” he said.

A kilometer is over half a mile. Imagine how tall a half-mile wide undersea plume of methane gas is. The researchers found over 100 in a relatively small area and have extrapolated to thousands. 

The data isn’t in on the risk from methane

I want to close with these two points.

1. I mentioned at the start of this piece that some models were right, some very wrong, and some nearly impossible to construct. The behavior of the sequestered (captured, stored) methane, especially in the north latitudes, is in the third group — it’s very hard to model and extrapolate from. Many scientists, including many I respect, who have been in the forefront of the “zero carbon” bandwagon, don’t see an immediate danger from Arctic methane.

Eventually, yes, but immediately, no. If we let the system run out of control — by not reigning in the men and women determined to profit from carbon — we’ll cook the joint. But if we do stop the warming, stop the emissions we ourselves are causing, and do it fast enough, there’s a large contingent of scientists who say, we’ll probably avoid a massive methane release, for all sorts of reasons that, if listed, would make you think you’re back in chemistry class.

But science keeps finding things; that’s its beauty. As we learn more about methane and how it acts, and as we measure its emissions in the field, we could all get a surprise, like the Arctic ice surprise in the first chart above. That surprise has catastrophe written all over it.

2. The mythical “carbon budget” that supposedly allows us to emit an IPCC-blessed “limited” amount more of the various GHGs and still “stay safe,” that budget depends in part on the absence of a methane emissions feedback loop.

The IPCC calculates that, to have a ⅔ (66%) chance of staying below a “safe” 2°C of warming since pre-industrial times, we can emit no more than about 250 GtC (per their recent AR5). There are a lot of questionable assumptions built into that “budget”:

▪ That a ⅔ chance of not-death is a good enough chance.
▪ That “2°C warming is safe” isn’t just a guess that got frozen into wisdom.
▪ That Exxon, the Saudis and the Kochs somehow deserve any of the loot they have yet to monetize from carbon.

I’ll deal with each of those assumptions later, in a piece I’m preparing. But the biggest assumption of all is — they absolutely have to be right about methane. The people worried about methane say we could see on the order of 30 GtC, as methane, emitted in the next few decades.

That number is still within the reputed “budget” … until you consider the enhanced GWP of methane. Multiplied by 85 (the GWP of methane in the first 20 years), 30 Gt of atmospheric methane has the same warming effect as more than 250 GtC in CO2 form. Oops. No budget left.

Now consider that a mass release of methane could cause heating that causes … another mass release of methane, and so on. No one knows how these things might be connected. Do you feel lucky?

I’ll be writing a lot more about this mythical carbon budget. The money that can be made from future emissions is the one thing holding up all negotiations. The carbon-heavy countries and carbon-rich companies want the “budget” to exist and be large. The heavy carbon users — like India, China and the like — also want it to exist and be large. They think they can “win the century” by burning it. (Hint: No one will win the century if they burn it. Human civilization will begin its collapse.)

Do you want it to exist at all, this monetizable “carbon budget,” if it means only ⅔ chance that your grandchildren will not be hunter-gatherers? Do you want to make David Koch, worth over $50 billion at last count, even richer, with a rapid future loss of civilization as a downside? After all, David Koch will be dead by then, and we’ll be living in the world we let him leave to us. Something to think about.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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40 Responses to “Climate news: Arctic seafloor methane release is double previous estimates, and why that matters”

  1. Mike says:

    Couldn’t have said it any better!

  2. cybervigilante says:

    I save cans but noticed most cans of food are full of water. Tuna is half water (I call it tuna soup). This means the cans are often twice as big as they need to be – but they pack them with more and more water since it’s cheap. If they’d stop trying to trick us with bigger water-filled cans, they save a Lot more aluminum than we ever will.

  3. cybervigilante says:

    The climate deniers have begun to sing that tune. At first there was No global warming. But as evidence of it becomes obvious to a five year old, their new tune is a) it’s not man made, the sun did it, and b) we can’t do anything about it except look for profitable opportunities – like investing in ice cube machines.

    To which I would reply, if your house is burning, you don’t throw gas on the fire. You try to do something about it.

  4. JOE BLOW says:

    The propaganda machine has the masses thinking Global warming (climate change) is still in debate, …
    YOUR CHILDREN, NIECES etc… will ask you years from now: YOU KNEW WHAT WAS GOING ON< WHAT DID YOU DO TO STOP IT? -did you go out & buy a Prius and pat yourself on the back, or did you wake up the masses who are in a slumber?
    OCCUPY did wake people up-and showed that coming together in person, leaving your home and Television ….IS HOW NARRATIVES ARE GOING TO BE SHATTERED, a new mass awakening needs to happen ,,, and happen soon.

  5. occamskiss says:

    Sufficient rebuttal to my assessment.

  6. PeteWa says:

    I’m counting from the turn of the industrial revolution until the end.

  7. Michael Stone says:

    The article reads methane only last about 12 years in the atmosphere. If that is so, why is CH4 still 30 times more potent than CO2 after 100 years in the atmosphere?

  8. occamskiss says:

    Raging optimist.

  9. Robert Schreib says:

    Dear Sirs, To fight global warming, have the United Nations create ‘The Global 50/50 Lottery’, the world’s first honest global lottery, to raise the massive funds needed to buy clean electricity generating wind, solar, ocean and water systems, to replace the electricity from our coal burning electric power plants, that are emitting the carbon dioxide that is causing global warming. Remember, human greed is like a force of nature that can move mountains. If we can exploit it to fight global warming, we just might beat it!

  10. lee young says:

    Once it start’s to rain fire down on earth than man will start to believe, but it will be too late.

  11. Hmmm… I think I can work with the meth/methane problem idea… see what comes to mind.

  12. coloradobob1 says:

    University of Sunderland press release –

    Whaling logbooks could hold key to retreating Arctic ice fronts

  13. eggroll_jr says:

    I like the idea, but having been around permafrost areas in northern Siberia, it doesn’t smell like much. Moreover, methane per se is odorless. Bacteria have played a huge role in sequestration of methane in the atmosphere, which had concentrations a thousand times higher 3.5 billion years ago. They also gave us the great oxygenation event 2.1 billion years ago. Ironically, bacteria also produce methane, so we talk of abiotic (planetary outgassing) and biotic (bacteria-produced) methane. Same molecule, same problems when it gets loose.

    Methane release – not cool.
    Elsa was wrong. (“Let it go” reference)
    Survival is not mandatory, but it’s a great option.
    Silent and deadly. Keep CH4 where it belongs.
    Failed to prepare or prepared to fail? CH4 doesn’t care, it’s just a molecule.
    We all have a meth problem.

  14. pvequalkt says:

    true… but sadly and ominously, she is actually southern white mainstream and everywhere else she’s not THAT far away from what passes for “center”… in America.
    among “humanity”, americans are ultra-extreme in many ways. proudly and relentlessly ignorant is but one.

  15. pvequalkt says:

    Scientists have been warning about methane, mostly wrt permafrost impermanence, for over a decade. They couldn’t buy an audience… and never thought of “sponsoring” DWTS or RHo? or Idol to get their message out to the intellectual pygmies that elect our government.
    RELIABLE studies on the rate of leakage of methane from all manner of extraction show it is far worse than the industries claim bwo their own funded “studies”. Think tobacco and cancer studies of the ’50s through the ’80s. You can figure their lies by looking at pics of the open flames over oil wells and landfills that burn off the excess methane. Few such places bother to even burn it. They just let if waft.
    The point about parity is salient. However there still are and will ever be “excuses”. Those are the federal reserve notes poured onto pols by extraction interests.
    It is notable, still, that one can say that the death of human society is ok… so long as it costs less than saving it. Typical American attitude… if the cure is too ‘spensive (especially if the sick person is not white/rich/male/celebrity), it’s ok to let them die.

  16. eggroll_jr says:

    This was a good post.

  17. Still trying to find a decent slogan about methane… any ideas?

  18. tripleseon says:

    Henry . I
    agree that Wendy `s posting is astonishing… on saturday I got themselves a
    Dodge from making $6698 this past four weeks and-just over, 10-k lass month .
    with-out a doubt this is my favourite-job I have ever had . I actually
    started three months/ago and almost straight away startad making at least
    $85… p/h . read review

    ✒✒✒ ✒✒✒ ✒✒✒ ✒


  19. Indigo says:

    It occurs to me that although man-enabled, this approaching catastrophe is at the level of a natural disaster ( an “act of god” as some would say) and no more stoppable than a tornado, an earthquake, a mud slide, or a sink hole.

  20. pvequalkt says:

    Still fighting the good fight. Well done.
    I’m really astonished that ANY of this has gotten any traction. I mean, I learned about the methane hydrates and early PPMs of C(O2) back in the ’90s. Nobody back then gave a shit. There were the Y2K and tech bubbles to be exploited (by) and OJ and the whole celebrity fucking society after burners had been lit… Who could POSSIBLY give a fuck about the death of humanity in 50 years. really.
    I think Moyers did a piece on it about 10 years ago. Until then, it was mythical… like the Abrahamic gawds… only less plausible.
    In all honesty, GP, it’s about a decade too late anyway. But there is zero chance humans will ever stop burning shit for power. It’s just too profitable and too easy… and changing.. so that humanity can exist for longer… is just too hard to be worth it. I mean, there’s ANOTHER talent show coming on soon… gotta concentrate on that you know…
    The only rational strategy for all altruists is to simply not procreate… you don’t want your progeny to suffer the inevitable famines, wars, diseases and so on that SHALL occur within their lifetimes. If you DO procreate, you doom your progeny to a miserable existence. But it’s ok… the kardashiwhores are on pretty much 24 x 7… so much celebrity fucking to do.

  21. BeccaM says:

    Aye, she is a prime example of the worst of humanity…

  22. BeccaM says:

    I hope he’s wrong, too, Bill. Where we are now, in New Mexico — and throughout the southwest — everybody is saying we’d welcome a Godzilla-level El Nino. But at this point we’ll take anything.

    On one positive note though, in May and June we had several pulses of unseasonably early stormy weather.

  23. lynchie says:

    Too true.
    Like our business models being short term, none have 5 year or 10 year plans perhaps because of technological changes but it is all for the here and now. My father in law was born in 1893 in the Ukraine and came to Canada to a farmstead with his parents. When I married his daughter we travelled every year to the family farm in Saskatchewan. This man had seen invention of the airplane, diesel locomotive, jet plane, rocket, two World wars, Vietnam, television, etc. On one trip the U.S. had landed on the moon I stood in the yard and said to him “Isn’t it amazing that man is up there walking on the moon”. He said no that’s not true, if they were up there they would fall off. I guess my point is as much as we think we have seen and done there some things we don’t accept.
    I am amazed that the majority of my neighbors think Climate Change is all lies. Watch this video of the new Sarah Palin running for senate in Louisiana.

    I couldn’t watch the whole thing but indeed she personifies the worst of what humanity is/

  24. PeteWa says:

    few hundred in our case.

  25. Bill_Perdue says:

    California used to be Eden. It was both beautiful and bountiful. Now it’s in great trouble. “Drought-weary California, heading into a long, hot summer of water shortages and extreme fire risk, received some potentially good news Thursday: Federal scientists announced there is now a 4-in-5 chance of El Niño conditions developing by the end of the year. … “There are all kinds of El Niños: small, medium, large and Godzilla,” said Bill Patzert, a research scientist and oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “I don’t see the Godzilla,” he said. “But I’ll give it another couple of months. This still could be El Fizzle. I don’t want to recommend that you invest any of your retirement in the umbrella market yet.”

    I hope he’s wrong.

  26. BeccaM says:

    Sometimes I think we’re answering the Fermi Paradox with our own example: Civilizations that go technological and expand rapidly — burning hot, as it were — and are of the type able and willing to spew EM signals in all directions, are also the ones most likely to make themselves extinct within a few thousand years max due to an inability to think long-term.

  27. BeccaM says:

    My wife and I used to live in what’s now one of the worst drought areas, the Santa Cruz mountains. The house had a 300′ well. At times now, I find myself wondering if the people to whom we sold the place in 2006 still have water…

  28. Naja pallida says:

    It’s not that they don’t care, I mean after all, that’s profit just evaporating away. If they could capture it all, they definitely would. It’s that they simply don’t have the technological capability to do so. The fracking industry is very much based on a wild west, or gold rush-type, technological mindset. Use whatever works to get as much of the gas as you can out of the ground, as fast as possible, because it could all end tomorrow. The collateral damage doesn’t matter as long as the profit keeps flowing.

  29. Colin says:

    They really don’t care Sis. They keep telling us to recycle right? That’s kind of like the old duck and cover.

  30. lynchie says:

    O’Highness does not want to tally up the methane leaks from fracking. It might interfere with a directorship here or there. This is a great report but like a lot of articles it only matters to those of us who care for ourselves and each other. The politicians and the 1% (that includes you Cheney) are only thinking in the here and now. How much money can I squirrel away and then bring out to roll naked in. They give no thought to the future, no thought to others and frankly don’t care what we think. There is enough evidence this whole climate change thing is real, just look around at the changes we see every day, but it is not as important as getting a few more sheckles.
    The world is old, millions of years, while us humans are a few thousands. The world will survive without us just fine. Saw a documentary on what happens if we all cease and the cities and the country all go back to primal state. Roads fall apart, buildings fall down, dams collapse and the world motors on, just not without us. We fucked this up because we are preoccupied with building larger, acquiring more, pulling out ALL the natural resources regardless of impact. So in our little 15 minutes of fame (6 or 8 thousand years) we are like a blink of an eye as far as the cosmos goes. We are like a flea on a dogs back, scratched and then finally shook off to die off, no damage done except to ourselves.

  31. Bill_Perdue says:

    Oops, the map

  32. Bill_Perdue says:

    Obama appears to be a dunce when it comes to fighting the Arab Spring, which will soon be the Arab Summer. All he’s done has convinced millions that the US is their enemy. And of course the GOP are dunces as well.

    As you can see from the map below climate change has a big impact on the region but other factors include the push of the Saudi’s and the Emirates to establish a caliphate in the region to get their petro products to Turkey and on to Europe, busting the GAZPROM monopoly and of blocking shiite advances out of Iran and their new ally, shiite Iraq.

    In the zionist colony in Palestine things will continue to get worse for Palestinians as the zionists continue to deny them adequate nutrition, medical care, wages and weapons with which to defend themselves.

  33. MyrddinWilt says:

    The GOP does not understand that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are largely driven by climate change.

    Oh and their favorite US state, Israel is going to be in dire straits as well.

  34. Bill_Perdue says:

    Those California maps are from the USDA Drought Monitering service. Here are the maps for this month

  35. Bill_Perdue says:

    Terrific report. Thanks.

    Global warming and climate change are going to kill more and more people and as desertification increases in places like the Sahel, the ever changing and southward moving transition belt between the Sahara and the savanna regions to the south and in major food producing areas like California malnutrition and starvation will increase.

    In this country Obama is leading the charge to allow rich polluters to damage the climate.

  36. BeccaM says:

    And guess what’s happening with the fracking boom going on in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world? The drillers aren’t taking that much care to ensure a significant portion of the methane doesn’t just leak right into the atmosphere.

  37. UncleBucky says:

    Scary, but an amazing summary. I did not sign on for this kind of thing after I left the assembly line in the early 50s.

  38. Dave of the Jungle says:

    Fine work, GP.

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