Is Climate Change Awakening a Methane Monster?

July 28, 2014

Posts will be thinning out in coming days. I’ll be flying tomorrow to meet Dr. Jason Box, Dark Snow Project Chief Scientist, in Copenhagen. From there, we’ll hop to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and up to the ice sheet for the following 2 weeks or so.  I’ll be checking in and posting till we jump to the ice.

Dr Box just sent me his latest blog post, something he had to look into that’s been keeping him awake nights.  The methane studies covered in the video above relate mainly to methane from thawing permafrost on land. Dr. Box’s piece below looks into some more recent developments in the study of undersea methane deposits – the sleeping dragon of climate change.  Note this is territory fraught with controversy, as the data from these remote areas is thin. But the stakes are very, very high.

Dr. Jason Box’s Meltfactor blog:

Using a vast and credible set of climate data and physics, James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren makes the case that humans are on track to allow oceanic and atmospheric heating to reach a level triggering the release of vast additional carbon stores locked in shallow sea gas hydrates and/or from the ground in the Arctic.

In my professional opinion as a climatologist with more than 70 externally reviewed scientific publications, after 12 years of university education focused on atmospheric and oceanic science, and followed by 10 years of university lecturing, eventually tenured, on micro and mesoscale meteorology and instrumentation, Hansen’s warnings should be met with an aggressive atmospheric decarbonization program.  We have been too long now on a trajectory pointed at an unmanageable climate calamity. If we don’t get atmospheric carbon down, we will probably trigger the release of these vast carbon stores, dooming our kids’ futures to a hothouse Earth. That’s a tough statement to read when your worry budget is already full.

December 2013, I found myself in a packed room at the world’s largest science meeting [the AGU fall meeting]. The session: “Cutting-Edge Challenges in Climate”. Invited speaker Dr. Lori Bruhwiler presented ”Arctic Permafrost and Carbon Climate Feedbacks” – a cautious, objective, and science only survey of the problem and what data we have. Also invited, Dr. Peter Wadhams pitched ”The cost to society of a methane outbreak from the East Siberian shelf”, completely off the fence, citing costs to humanity measured in trillions of $. The take home from the session was well paraphrased by Bruhwiler, citing a sparse observational network, concluding ‘we just can’t say much yet’.
That was then…


Clearly, considering the vastness of the Arctic, the network of ground-based observing stations does appear sparse, with a solitary station representing Siberia, at Tiksi, you’re left thinking that governments should do more to keep their finger on this pulse. On the pulse side, however, the measurements happening at Tiksi [and other sites in the network such as Alert and Pt. Barrow northern Alaska], I can tell you, are really high end; with BSRN radiometers, eddy covariance gas fluxes, gas flask sampling, etc., impressive and not inexpensive.

What do these data tell us? Well, unfortunately, the Tiksi record is too short to deduce a trend. A longer set of methane concentrations data from Alert, far northern Canada, adds 8% increase in methane concentrations to the more than 250% increase due to human activity since industrialism began ~1750. Green symbols on the charts indicate extreme positive outliers. A reasonable hypothesis for the outliers marked below by me with dragon breath? would be: extreme outlying positive anomalies represent high methane concentration plumes emanating from tundra and/or oceanic sources. Another reasonable hypothesis would be: extreme outlying positive anomalies represent observational errors. What NOAA states:  the outliers “are thought to be not indicative of background conditions, and represent poorly mixed air masses influenced by local or regional anthropogenic sources or strong local biospheric sources or sinks. ”

same spikes evident in Barrow data. here, I don’t bother to overlay the dragon breath?s.

For the moment, let’s leave the outliers question open and move on to an argument I’ve got that the measurements are not near enough the centers of gas release action to get at the awakening dragon question. We’d like a sampling station right over the shallow, methane-charged, and now mostly ice free [in summer] Laptev and East Siberian Seas. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.

Before talking about measurements over the centers of action… We do have satellite data from the Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer (IASI) on board the Eumetsat Polar System (EPS) Metop-A Satellite. And as I know from installing/maintaing Arctic ground measurements and publishing articles assessing the quality of satellite-derived retrievals from the Arctic, most recently here, validation studies are needed. So, it’s good to find Xiong et al. (2013) who, using “596 methane vertical profiles from aircraft measurements by the HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observations (HIPPO) program” find the very unsurprising “retrieval error is larger in the high northern latitude regions“. They find that the remotely sensed quantities are accurate and have a small (less than 2%) low bias. Yet, their assessment is for the part of the atmosphere well above the surface. Comparisons between IASI retrievals with near-surface direct measurements would establish the uncertainties we would be faced with and build the case for using the IASI retrievals to represent wide areas not benefiting from direct sampling. More digging yielded some accuracy findings for IASI from Yurganov et al. (AGU poster 2012)

  • IASI data can be used as qualitative indicator of the Arctic Ocean methane emission.
  • Current methane growth in the Arctic, including 2012, is gradual.
  • Methane emission from the Arctic shelf has a maximum in September-October. [when sea ice minimum occurs]
  • Top-down emission estimates are difficult and may be very uncertain ( e. g., ± 100%)
  • If a sudden venting (bubbling) of methane would happen due to intense hydrates destruction, IASI would be able to detect it near real-time

Now, one Sam Carana leads a group who have been blogging up a storm about methane estimates from the IASI sensor. Their messaging is alarming, connecting dots between methane maps they generate using IASI data and a number of rapidly changing Arctic climate elements: declining sea ice area, duration, volume; increasing air and sea surface temperature, wildfire.

My understanding was that the methane bubbles can’t or don’t make it to the surface, instead are converted to much less potent carbon dioxide before reaching the surface. THEN, here’s what we hear from 4 days ago from a Swedish team now surveying the Laptev sea with a very high end icebreaker, named for the main Norse god.

The team states “At several places, the methane “bubbles“ even rose to the ocean surface. What’s more, results of preliminary analyses of seawater samples pointed towards levels of dissolved methane 10-50 times higher than background levels.

And it’s not just the Swedes who are on this question. NASA is too.

What’s the take home message, if you ask me? Because elevated atmospheric carbon from fossil fuel burning is the trigger mechanism. We simply MUST lower atmospheric carbon emissions. This should start with limiting the burning of fossil fuels from conventional sources; chiefly coal, followed by tar sands [block the pipeline]; reduce fossil fuel use elsewhere for example in liquid transportation fuels; engage in a massive reforestation program to have side benefits of sustainable timber, reduced desertification, animal habitat, aquaculture; and redirect fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy subsidies. This is an all hands on deck moment. We’re in the age of consequences.

There are still questions, of course, but the cautionary principle makes clear we have to keep this dragon in the ground.




27 Responses to “Is Climate Change Awakening a Methane Monster?”

  1. I suspect that increasing monitoring will show these outliers to be indicative of the reality on the ground. Thus the precautionary principle must apply.

    From where I stand in Germany I see no indication of the desire to really address climate change, but instead it’s business as usual.

    Good luck on your journey. Seeing is believing as they say. It’s a pity we cannot see the methane. If it were the colour of fire, I suspect people would be panicking right now.

  2. MorinMoss Says:

    I disagree with Ben Abbott and while I don’t normally jump on the apocalyptic bandwagon, this has me very worried if Anton Vaks is right – I sincerely hope he’s wrong.

    I have no confidence in our ability to rein in our emissions to the point where we can stave off a permafrost methane bomb if we’re already at the 1/2way mark

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Ben Abbott appears to be a bit of a bright-sider and/or overly cautious about methane release. Vaks’ arguments are more realistic, albeit somewhat gloomy. I think we need to err on the side of caution and get moving very soon, and agree with you—-we don’t appear to want to bite the bullet, and we are headed for hard times—-Gilding’s Great Disruption is approaching—-will the Great Awakening occur in time?

      The paucity of observation stations around the Arctic brings me back to an old dead horse I must beat. Why is NASA talking about manned space missions and going to Mars when we have so much “inner space” left unexplored on Earth? (And has anyone seen the Elon Musk interview in which he damages his credibility by talking about going to Mars?)

  3. Here is a thought. We are discouraging coal use in the US via the EPA, and courts have ruled on cross border pollution between states. Since pollution knows know boundaries, but the source of the pollution comes from within those boundaries, its time to start pushing for legislation that bans shipping the dirty coal out of the country to be burnt elsewhere. If this happened, it would be a radical turnabout for a presidency raised in a coal area like Illinois, and one that embraced the “Clean Coal” mantra. The most radical, but sensible thing to do, is to ban coal altogether. Really. Keep it in the ground, means keep it in the ground. If we recognize that it matters this much to our future, it cannot be a BAU, laissez faire approach. Its more than just coal using the atmosphere as a gutter. Its coal destroying the human race. Its now become something more than just how much. Its become a line in the sand. Some Communities have already caught the miscreants trying to send the dirty stuff elsewhere, whether it be tar sands, crude oil, or coal and banned the use of their areas as a port. That battle, with the pipeline, and others, continues. A start in the battle would be to demand that the Obama administration tabulate how much coal is exported. Awareness is the first step.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        And that one mine will allow Australia to increase its yearly coal exports by around 20%. And its output equals over 1/2 of total U.S. exports. Will someone tell us again how we’re winning the global war against coal?

      • Yup. Same thing in Australia. Ban coal. Maybe we need to make it a national and international law. UN. We banned fluorocarbons. We need to challenge the status quo boldly. And combat it on all levels. The stupidest thine about Australian coal mines is that They are opening just as south Australia’s coal power plants are shutting down. How to get China to stop buying Australian coal. First step? Get rid of Abbott.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          We are in total agreement. I have never been able to understand how a country like Australia that is full of interesting, attractive, and seemingly smart people can be so stupid when it comes to politics and climate change.

          But wait a minute!

          They can say the same about us! And the same holds true for the U.K.and Canada! NZ seems to be doing better, though. If that’s true, how did NZ escape the curse that seems to afflict the main English-speaking countries? Contrary to E-Pot’s xenophobia, maybe we need MORE immigrants in all these countries to dilute the inherited craziness of George III?

    • dumboldguy Says:

      A couple of good links that make clear the utter futility of attempting to deal with coal in any timely and realistic way. You are right that we simply must keep it in the ground, but these links and everything else you can find on the subject says that will not happen any time soon. That’s why I’ve been screaming COAL in so many comments on so many threads on Crock.

      We DO tabulate how much coal is exported and imported around the world, and “awareness” is not the problem. The problem is capitalism, BAU, and the need for the greedy to extract every last bit of profit from coal and fossil fuels, with the collusion of governments that speak out of both sides of their mouths. Even if the U.S. was to stop exporting coal tomorrow, it would hardly make a difference—-the U.S. supplies only about 1/10 of the world’s coal exports.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Here’s one set of recent figures. Note that the greater portion of the coal we exported in 2012 was not used to generate electricity. I suspect that more of the coal we now export (and plan to export in the future) will be.

        Top Coal Exporters (2012e)

        Total Steam Coking

        Indonesia 383Mt 380Mt 3Mt
        Australia 301Mt 159Mt 142Mt
        Russia 134Mt 116Mt 18Mt
        USA 1 114Mt 51Mt 63Mt
        Colombia 82Mt 82Mt 0Mt
        So. Africa 74Mt 74Mt 0Mt
        Canada 35Mt 4Mt 31Mt

        The figures on who imports coal are also interesting. Most of what we export goes to Europe, and note that Germany is importing a lot. Your links discuss that in some detail.

        Top Coal Importers (2012e)

        Total Steam Coking

        PR China 289Mt 218Mt 71Mt
        Japan 184Mt 132Mt 52Mt
        India 160Mt 123Mt 37Mt
        So. Korea 125Mt 94Mt 31Mt
        Taiwan 64Mt 56Mt 8Mt
        Germany 45Mt 36Mt 9Mt
        UK 45Mt 40Mt 5Mt

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Aaaaah! What I copied in a nice tabular form was converted to straight text. Thank you, WordPress! It’s not too hard to decipher, fortunately—-the three numbers run together after each country are the Total followed by the amount of Steam coal and Coking coal. The first number is the sum of the last two.

      • ubrew12 Says:

        “the need for the greedy to extract every last bit of profit from coal and fossil fuels, with the collusion of governments”
        There was a recent ferry disaster in S Korea, which ended up killing hundreds of high school students. What I found fascinating was the back-story. It was the story of an evangelical minister who convinced his flock to send him their savings, which he then invested in himself. He became a billionaire, who bought entire ancient hilltop villages in France. The sort of person who could purchase time at the Louvre for displaying his nature photographs. And all the time he was, as owner of the ferry system, sending twice as much cargo on his Ferries as they were designed to hold, and taking water out of ballast to keep them from sinking too low in the water. And its also the story of paid-off government ‘regulators’, who looked the other way as his Ferries wobbled their way around the country, always just a nudge away from tipping over.

        Its a perfect metaphor for what is happening with the global energy system, right down to who will pay, ultimately, for its failure (children). The billionaire ministers rotted body was eventually found in a field, surrounded by liquor bottles. But that is short-shrift for what came of greed.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          More than a metaphor, it’s a PARABLE.

          • rayduray Says:

            Parable, eh? 🙂

            How about a simile? Er, a skunk…

            in the middle…..

            of the road. RIP, dead Korean skunk!

          • dumboldguy Says:

            LOL—–good banjo, needs more cowbell.

            And it’s a bum rap to lay on skunks just because they get a bit stinky when you bother them. The ones that visit my neighborhood coexist nicely with us. Some of my less bright Repugnant neighbors even feed them, although they would let a poor kid starve to death in a heartbeat because he’s a “moocher”.

            This Korean “skunk” is more akin to the maggots living in what is bulldozed into piles in feedlots, and he should burn in hell (if there is one) rather than RIP.

            (And what kind of a skunk was that in there with stripes around its tail?)

    • “No one knows exactly how much pollution the U.S. is sending abroad, or its overall effect on global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because no one, including the Obama administration, has calculated it.
      Despite requests from Oregon’s Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber to evaluate the full environmental consequences of the export terminal proposed here, including the emissions released in Asia from U.S. coal, the Obama administration has decided to analyze only the carbon released in the U.S.”

      Read the article. Thats what its talking about. Its about a request to evaluate the full environmental consequences of an export terminal. Extending that out, have the EPA do an assessment of the full consequences of exporting the coal. It needs to be spelled out for the wheels to turn.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        “No one knows”? Says who? Some AP reporter? I HAVE “read the articles” (and many more), and as I said, both links are interesting and thought-provoking, but they are not scientifically definitive by any means. We DO have lots of figures floating around to peruse—-I gave some here. Of course, some of those come from the IEA, so they may not meet the standard of being perfectly “accurate, precise, and professionally peer-reviewed” that you use to justify your motivated reasoning about where Germany is headed.

        The significance of the “article” is that it also also focuses on the politics of the issue, and a bit on the implied but unsaid greed and stupidity of the humans behind the export of fossil fuel. You want to know how much carbon pollution we’re exporting? Easy answer. A lot. And too much. And we don’t need to know exactly how much, although we CAN tally it fairly closely. And yes, we should be talking more about that in this country. Unfortunately, too many of us are wrapped up in the arcane details of grids, renewables, and meaningless dissections of GERMANY.

        Take a look at the coal export figures I cited. With the other 6 major exporters shipping 1,000+ million tons, what difference does it make to look in detail at the U.S.’s contribution, much of which is metallurgical coal anyway? How will that help us control or influence what the others do?

        Look at the countries who are burning ~850 million tons of that coal. Our old friends CHINA and INDIA, as well as a bunch of other Asian countries, and very interestingly Germany and the U.K. burned a bunch also, and to generate electricity. How do we influence or control what they do? Ship them “clean” natural gas to replace the “dirty” coal?

        The wheels of globalization, capitalism, corporate greed, government collusion cum footdragging, denialism, and bright-sidedness ARE turning—-but the “vehicle” is going nowhere.

      • An average third grader could figure it out. But it takes a decree and a study for government to figure it out. At least I think that’s the gist of it. And I think it sounds pretty governmental and legal with requests from a governor and all. CCers are a little more advanced than that, shall we put it mildly?

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Yep, but the Repugnants, the plutocrats, and the corporate oligarchs are not as “advanced” as the average third grader. In fact, they are regressing to the days of the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons. Truth sets us free, and the only truth they’re interested in is that which makes them richer. That’s one of the reasons they want to shrink government and drown it in a bathtub—-good governments ask questions, seek truth, and work for the greater good—-that’s bad for the bottom line.

  4. Gentlemen, gentlemen; the truth regarding methane is much more scary than the propaganda, BUT, if you know what is really happening – you can prevent / avoid catastrophe – read and inform the people regarding genetically manipulation of bacteria that produces CH4:

    • jsam Says:

      That’s a very good Poe. It’s just a bit too obviously silly to be a great Poe. But not bad.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Bwahahahahahah! LMAO! Stephan outdoes his atmospheric physics with this bit! He is now throwing cowpuckey against the wall to entertain us (or burying it, as the case may be). If you are not a professional comedy writer, Stephan, you ought to be. Keep it coming—-you ARE funny!

  5. […] Dr Box just sent me his latest blog post, something he had to look into that’s been keeping him awake nights. The methane studies covered in the video above relate mainly to methane from thawing permafrost on land. Dr. Box’s piece below looks into some more recent developments in the study of undersea methane deposits – the sleeping dragon of climate change. Note this is territory fraught with controversy, as the data from these remote areas is thin. But the stakes are very, very high.  […]

  6. climatebob Says:

    I was checking the worlds big consumers of coal with figures from the IEA and found that China and Germany are huge in this area. The clue is in Germany who, as we all know are huge in natural energy. Germany and China are using massive amounts of coal to make steel and manufacture cars and other products which they export to other countries. Should we insist on the CO2 content of a product being exported with the product. We in New Zealand produce a huge amount of methane from our dairy cattle and are stuck with the emissions when we export the dairy products. Take a close look at your own country and have a good think about the whole package..

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Considering that NZ lies in the “roaring forties”, those methane emissions from your cattle probably don’t hang around long before they get blown off towards S. America. In fact, the air quality should be quite good in NZ, considering that you have little land mass upwind. Is that true?

      • climatebob Says:

        A bit late but yes we have very clean air. I might see a con-trail once a week and no smoke chimneys at all. The only problem is that there is very little ozone down here and the sun will burn the skin in half an hour.

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