“Methane Bomb” Row Continues

February 11, 2019

I posted a clip from my interview with Mike Mann over the weekend, in regard to the “methane bomb” madness – Mike agrees with mainstream science that this particular doomsday scenario is overblown – a lot of folks mad at me on the twitter machine.

But it’s not like this is a new idea.  Gavin Schmidt holds Jim Hansen’s old job at NASA – and it’s Gavin’s objections that gelled the issue for me several years ago.
Nutshell: there have been warm periods in the recent past, long ones – where the methane hydrates did not come out, so it’s a high bar to prove they will be forced out under current conditions.  For example, the last interglacial, known as the Eemian, about 120,000 years ago – got warm enough to raise sea levels 15 or 20 feet above todays (now, that’s a problem..) – but no “methane bomb”.

NBC News (2015):

A scientific controversy has erupted over claims that methane trapped beneath the Arctic Ocean could suddenly escape, releasing huge quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas, in coming decades, with a huge cost to the global economy.

The issue being debated is this: Could the Arctic seafloor really expel 50 billion tons of methane in the next few decades? In a commentary published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, researchers predicted that the rapid shrinking of Arctic sea icewould warm the Arctic Ocean, thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea and releasing methane gas trapped in the sediments. The big methane belch would come with a $60 trillion price tag, due to intensified global warming from the added methane in the atmosphere, the authors said.

But climate scientists and experts on methane hydrates, the compound that contains the methane, quickly shot down the methane-release scenario.

“The paper says that their scenario is ‘likely.’ I strongly disagree,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

An unlikely scenario
One line of evidence Schmidt cites comes from ice core records, which include two warm Arctic periods that occurred 8,000 and 125,000 years ago, he said. There is strong evidence that summer sea ice was reduced during these periods, and so the methane-release mechanism (reduced sea ice causes sea floor warming and hydrate melting) could have happened then, too. But there’s no methane pulse in ice cores from either warm period, Schmidt said. “It might be a small thing that we can’t detect, but if it was large enough to have a big climate impact, we would see it,” Schmidt told LiveScience.

David Archer, a climate scientist at the University of Chicago, said no one has yet proposed a mechanism to quickly release large quantities of methane gas from seafloor sediments into the atmosphere. “It has to be released within a few years to have much impact on climate, but the mechanisms for release operate on time scales of centuries and longer,” Archer said in an email interview.

Methane has a lifetime of about 10 years in the atmosphere before it starts breaking down into other compounds. [What are Greenhouse Gases?]

Jason Samenow in the Washington Post (2013):

And, here’s the kicker: Nature, the same organization which published Wednesday’s commentary, published a scientific review of methane hydrates and climate change by Carolyn Ruppel in 2011 which suggests the scenario in said commentary is virtually impossible. The review states:

Catastrophic, widespread dissociation of methane gas hydrates will not be triggered by continued climate warming at contemporary rates (0.2ºC per decade; IPCC 2007) over timescales of a few hundred years. Most of Earth’s gas hydrates occur at low saturations and in sediments at such great depths below the seafloor or onshore permafrost that they will barely be affected by warming over even [1,000] yr.

I emailed NOAA methane expert Ed Dlugokencky and asked him if he could reconcile what the climate science literature says about methane versus the assumptions guiding Wednesday’s Nature commentary. His response:

“…our lab measures CH4 [methane] in air samples collected from sites around the world, including the Arctic. So far, we do not detect a permanent increase in CH4 emissions from natural Arctic CH4 sources (wetlands in permafrost regions and ocean hydrates) from our data, despite Arctic warming over the past couple decades. I tend to agree with the conclusions of Carolyn Ruppel [see above] and USCCSP SAP 3.4 Chapter 5 [the abrupt climate change report mentioned above] that increases in emissions as large as those suggested in the Nature article are unlikely.”

Climate scientist Gavin Schmidt took to Twitter to criticize the commentary. Here are a couple of his tweets:


And this morning, I see a pointer to a new Nature paper that has relevance:


Natural methane emissions are noticeably influenced by warming of cold arctic ecosystems and permafrost. An evaluation specifically of Arctic natural methane emissions in relation to our ability to mitigate anthropogenic methane emissions is needed. Here we use empirical scenarios of increases in natural emissions together with maximum technically feasible reductions in anthropogenic emissions to evaluate their potential influence on future atmospheric methane concentrations and associated radiative forcing (RF). The largest amplification of natural emissions yields up to 42% higher atmospheric methane concentrations by the year 2100 compared with no change in natural emissions. The most likely scenarios are lower than this, while anthropogenic emission reductions may have a much greater yielding effect, with the potential of halving atmospheric methane concentrations by 2100 compared to when anthropogenic emissions continue to increase as in a business-as-usual case. In a broader perspective, it is shown that man-made emissions can be reduced sufficiently to limit methane-caused climate warming by 2100 even in the case of an uncontrolled natural Arctic methane emission feedback, but this requires a committed, global effort towards maximum feasible reductions.

17 Responses to ““Methane Bomb” Row Continues”

  1. jimbills Says:

    This is the third or fourth post on this, so it must be weighing on your mind. Here are my two cents:

    I watched the video. There wasn’t anything there to get up in arms about, although it’s another in a long line of examples of climate change activists being worried about the public becoming too scared, and thereby fatalistic.

    On the methane ‘bomb’, it worthwhile to note that while an actual bomb-level release of methane is generally considered highly unlikely at this point in time, the likelihood of some amount of methane release from the arctic adding yet another positive feedback to total warming is highly likely. It is also not impossible that significantly large amounts of methane could be triggered at some point in the coming hundreds of years:

    Many (probably most) people have the psychological need for certainty in their lives. You can see that directly in the young lady’s video clip from a few posts ago. The methane bomb people have the same need. They need to know what’s going to happen so they can create order from chaos. Even if it’s really, really bad news – it’s a comfort to believe one ‘knows’. In the individual, this becomes a sort of doctrine.

    You’re going to get pushback from such people when you go after those doctrines.

    But, here’s the real problem as I see it. The sum of humanity is doing very little to actively combat climate change and other major environmental crises, there are warning signs coming from the science at a nearly daily pace, humans are psychologically ill-equipped to prioritize long-term threats over short-term gains, and it’s questionable that our systems of economics and governance can even handle these problems effectively.

    In short, there are pretty darn good reasons to be fatalistic about all this.

    The only hope, as I see it, is if humans become so concerned about these issues that it overwhelms the short-term needs. That’s a really, really difficult thing to achieve, though. The vast majority don’t really care enough as it is. Much was made of Trump not mentioning climate change in the State of the Union, but the Grammy’s were last night, and I’m not seeing any reports of even one person raising the issue themselves. In a sort of bizarre twist, here’s a headline from today – ‘US briefing: Grammys, insect extinction and new shutdown threat’:

    When climate change activists worry about how we can’t scare the public, I despair more than ever about our fate as a species. The public needs to be scared. Certainly, being comforted that things aren’t all that bad, a message we also get bombarded with on a near-daily basis, isn’t doing much. I’m not saying that the science should be bent to unreasonably or unjustly favor alarmism, I’m saying that messages from climate change activists about how things aren’t that bad aren’t exactly helpful towards convincing the general public of the urgent need for action.

    • jimbills Says:

      Something that would be more helpful, though, are discussing things like the Green New Deal, which hasn’t been mentioned here recently, even though it’s significant news this week, even though the right is freaking out about it, and even though the public is woefully uninformed about it:

    • J4Zonian Says:

      There are no reasons to be fatalistic about this. As far as we know we can still save at least some of what we love, and what better reason to act? No one knows what humans are psychologically equipped to do as a species; to generalize from a position of never having studied it is especially foolish–another reach for comforting certainty.

      The vast majority of humanity can do nothing about our ecological crisis; they don’t have the resources to either cause the problem or fix it. The rich for the most part will refuse to do anything but cause it and prevent others from fixing it while blaming others for everything. It’s up to those of us in the middle to compel the changes we need.

      When people can’t tolerate uncertainty it’s because they don’t have the resources. The best and probably the only way to move them from the ends to the middle is to provide them with those resources or remind them they have them or can find them themselves. Education is one but on the net it’s generally only accepted by those who already have it. (aka DK Syndrome). A sense of connection to humans and the rest of nature, and friends, nature and other beings to connect to, embeddedness in time, place, ecology and history are among the many resources we might be able to help provide. It’s much harder on the net than in person so anything we can do locally is important.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      Your comment is entirely lacking in estimates of quantities.

      • jimbills Says:

        That’s a good way to rationalize disregarding it then.

        I’m not going to say something like, “67% of Americans say so and so according to this study”, or “there’s a 35% likelihood that 2.4 gigatons of methane will be released from permafrost melt by February 3, 2063” – especially when one of my points is that humans have difficulty accepting anything less than certainty. We crave certainty, when the science on this stuff is often vague probabilities.

        This lack of certainty, however, works against widespread action to fight climate change. There is the strong impetus to believe we shouldn’t accept economic or governmental changes now because it’s not absolutely certain we’ll have major effects at some certain date (and those who especially don’t want those changes will find every last straw to argue that point), or at least enough future harm to justify those changes. The rabiddoomsayer comment below is essentially correct – by the time we do know for sure, it will be too late.

        The Green New Deal is about to get humiliated in Congress, and the nation hasn’t even seriously discussed it.

  2. John Says:

    Reblogged this on jpratt27 and commented:
    That’s reassuring but no reason to slow efforts to reduce emissions.

  3. rabiddoomsayer Says:

    At 400ppm plus, we are so far out of the box that we were in for the last million years that, I am not comforted by no methane bomb in the Eemian. The more we warm I suspect the greater the chance of the “methane bomb”.

    There must be some possibility that it is now inevitable, but keep on with BAU it will become certainly become inevitable. By the time we know for sure, it will be too late.

    “However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbours, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in a war simply on her account”. Neville Chamberlain

    Time for some Churchills in the climate debate, no more Chaimberlains no more we are already dead. If it takes panic for the people to realise there is a major problem then let there be panic.

    “Victory at all costs, Victory in spite of all terror, victory no matter how long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival” Winston Churchill. That is where we are at.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      “… not comforted by no methane bomb in the Eemian. The more we warm…”. Absolutely & obviously. There’s 0.85 * 0.9 * 75% = +0.57 degrees GMST “baked in” (“climate lag” (oceans), “in the pipe line”) over the next 100 years (then +0.19 degrees to follow over centuries, totalling the 0.8 degrees warming difference of land vis a vis oceans in a recent release) right now from the IPCC forcings table combined net (which includes “global dimming”) and I understand that Eemian Optimum GMST was ~0.5 degrees higher than present so uncharted territory for a few million years is committed to be entered over this century so it’s the 11th hour now. Dr. Dorthe Dahl-Jensen is confident that Greenland ice sheet (GIS) was 5-8 degrees warmer than now but I haven’t studied enough to estimate the GIS surface warming with the +0.57 degrees GMST that’s “in the pipe line” over the next 100 years.

      None of that helps per se with assessing the apparently-baseless claims of some persons about some undefinedly rapid & undefined quantity of CH4 release. Would need to know quantity, depths & regions to estimate the release rate from thermal conductivities & capacities. I gave up trying 4 years ago because I couldn’t find enough reliable data.

  4. J4Zonian Says:

    Dear Michael Mann,

    Of course there are people who want to cling to the methane bomb (or ride it out the bomb bay doors). There are 2 refuges from uncertainty for those who don’t have the inner or outer resources to tolerate it–denial and despair. Many people flip back and forth between the 2, and the frustration stretched out as far into the future as we can see by fossil fuel and right wing lunatics seems designed to force people to split, like so many right wing strategies are designed to do. (The Lesser Evil Gambit, eg).

    And of course Mann unmentions McPherson, queen of the Despairiorati. I’ve been arguing with these unfortunate, pathetic individuals* (technical term, from the Disagreement and Statistical Madlibs of the AFeeA: Nuss Kisten or nutcases) for a decade now and have actually convinced one MBomber by sympathizing with him and referring him to the almost equally dire but more scientific Kevin Anderson. The other 200+ I failed with, I’m pretty sure. That was before I stopped trying to convince and instead just talk past trolls’ heads to whoever’s listening.

    I think the only way to keep people in that center is to create a better center, to furnish it with activist activity and many things to read and do. Certainly (or rather, uncertainly, since we don’t know what’s going to happen) we need them there, because the only way to treat dangerous uncertainty is to act as if the worst is going to happen unless we prevent it–while carefully monitoring to avoid traumatizing anyone. It’s akin to the therapeutic “optimal frustration”. And to Hell with the lazy, the petrified, the pseudo-indifferent, the disdainful, the nay-saying, the arrogant, the pollyannish, the collapsed, and the haughty. Those of us with our wits intact have to work enough to make up for them.

    *and once argued with either McPherson himself or a troll thefting his identity. I suspect the latter is more likely.

  5. redskylite Says:

    Of interest just released today by the British Antarctic Survey, a press release on results published this week (Monday 11 February) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), around the period (the Eemian interglacial) mentioned by Gavin Schmidt.

    Arctic sea ice loss in the past linked to abrupt climate events’, when Greenland temperatures rose by as much as 16 degrees Celsius, in less than a decade, during Dansgaard-Oeschger events.

    There is much research published and ongoing on methane’s contribution and activities at this time and still much much more to learn.

    So let’s hope “we” can get it together and work to prevent future abrupt changes (16 degrees in less than 10 years) with so many unknowns lurking. Listen to the experts and stop burning fossils. Then and only then we can relax a little.


  6. Leonid Yurganov Says:

    I see that a discussion on “methane bomb” is shifting gradually from military terms to scientific. Tons of words are still about what may happen in the future. To my mind the future ( THE future) definitely will happen, but it is unpredictable. I agree with Dr. Mann and Dr. Ruppel, as well as with many others who are skeptical about a catastrophic surge of methane from the Arctic. But our skepticism is just feeling: the future … (see above). There may be processes that we are not aware on. I respect an opinion of Ed Dlugokencky. Meanwhile I am very surprised that ESRL is absolutely blind to obvious high spikes of methane at all Arctic coastal stations that start with October-November and lack of such variations in summer. It is a clear sign of a strong emission in winter time. Is this extra methane in winter going from the snow-covered land? It is highly unlikely. Satellites see anomalies of methane between November and January over Barents and Kara seas, but Ed and others do not trust these data. We are talking now about present emissions, but not about the future. The anomalies of 20-50 ppb on a monthly basis in winter may increase air temperature right now and this warming may progress. A warm spot over the Barents sea (where ~1/2 of all Arctic sea methane coming from) may influence the air circulation and the weather in the whole hemisphere. Summing up, a regional impact of the Arctic methane is an actual problem, a catastrophe in the future is 50/50.

  7. Ian R Orchard Says:

    One thought: it may be a small difference but as sea levels rise due to land melt water, so do the sea floor pressures tending to keep the clathrates stable.

  8. redskylite Says:

    Hearty congratulations to Warren Washington & Michael Mann on their Awards for the 2019 Tyler Prize For Environmental Achievement. They have both earnt it the hard way, with dedication and hard work.

    Warren Washington & Michael Mann Awarded 2019 Tyler Prize For Environmental Achievement


  9. redskylite Says:

    Buried methane is a fascinating topic and I can understand the controversy that Peter has stirred.

    I do not like the resigned “we are all doomed” brigade voices either, but greatly prefer them to the blank (brain dead) denial that refuses to accept the official met charts and all the evidence of change.

    However I can easily see daily, monthly, annual CO2 atmospheric data (via Scripps or NOAA sites) and although the readings are steadily rising at around 2-3 ppm annually, it is reassuring to see that it is a fairly steady increase (so far). It is very difficult to get regular atmospheric methane readings from anywhere, unless I’m looking in the wrong place.

    Also Shakova, Semiletov and others who warn of methane gun dangers, are hard working, respectable scientists and are worth paying attention to. They seem to be held is disregard quite unfairly.

    We are not in the Eemian, we are artificially altering the climate and maybe altering the rules,so we cannot be so confident learning from past history.

    The Siberian Times is not the greatest scientific source maybe – but this media gem that exists in Putin’s world gives some truly thought provoking reading.

    Arctic methane gas emission ‘significantly increased since 2014’ – major new research

    The team are examining how the ice plug that has hitherto prevented the exit of huge reserves of gas hydrates has today ‘sprung a leak’. This shows in taliks – unfrozen surface surrounded by permafrost – through which powerful emissions of methane reach the atmosphere.

    Scientists are eager to determine the quantity of methane buried in those vast areas of the Siberian Arctic shelf and the impact it can have on the sensitive polar climate system.

    Five years ago the professor has claimed: ‘We found more than 100 fountains, some more than a kilometre across….These are methane fields on a scale not seen before. The emissions went directly into the atmosphere… Earlier we found torch or fountain-like structures like this…

    ‘This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It’s amazing. Over a relatively small area, we found more than 100, but over a wider area, there should be thousands of them.’

    In 2013, his research partner Natalia Shakhova, a scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, reported in journal Nature Geoscience, that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf was venting at least 17 teragrams of the methane 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,’ she said. ‘Increased methane releases in this area are a possible new climate-change-driven factor that will strengthen over time.’


  10. […] di cui preoccuparsi. Ma non è affatto detto che dobbiamo morire tutti a breve scadenza: su questo vi potete leggere un post recente di Peter Sinclair. In sostanza, i climatologi pensano che ci sia ancora tempo per fermarsi ben prima che la bomba […]

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