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  1. Very interesting. Really puts a perspective on it. I am curious as to what additional slower “earth-system” feedbacks might be indicated by the release of the methane…i.e. what kind of biological changes might occur to arctic regions by the melting of permafrost and release of methane that will add a longer-term feedback response that needs to accounted for before any sort of new equalibrium would be reached.

    Comment by R. Gates — 7 Jan 2012 @ 9:29 AM

  2. Thanks for addressing this, David. The point that tends to get overlooked here is that substantive but incremental forcing increases can lead to nasty but as yet unknown surprises. We have seen some already, in the rapid disappearance of Arctic summer ice, the accelerating glacier melts in Greenland, and heat waves and forest fires in North America and Asia. These events were not predicted to occur in the context of our current 1C warming. IPCC and mainstream climate science have been shown by events to be far too cautious.

    Everyone here should read Nassim Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness, a brilliant book showing that humans do not prepare well for unusual future hazards. There are many trite descriptions of ways to correct this- “err on the side of caution”, etc- but these strategies are nowhere near manifested in current energy policy. According to Taleb, small probability disasters (his example was trading “blowups”) are near inevitable in the long term.
    In the case of global warming, it is clear that GHG’s could have terrifying consequences.

    Our emissions policies should be driven by the worst case, since the worst case is truly catastrophic to life on earth. Your elaboration of our future confused me- if worst case methane bursts are roughly equivalent to CO2 emissions, and therefore somewhat manageable, this represents an outlier opinion. Storms of my Grandchildren lays this out in detail.

    Comment by Mike Roddy — 7 Jan 2012 @ 10:22 AM

  3. But the methane worst case does not suddenly spell the extinction of human life on Earth

    OK, the rich will survive but some of the poor are already dying.

    The worst-case methane scenario stands comparable to what CO2 can do. What CO2 will do, under business-as-usual, not in a wild blow-the-doors-off unpleasant surprise,

    Will it stimulate other surprises?

    except that CO2 lasts essentially forever



    Spike on the Climate Progress open thread has just pointed to :
    New materials remove CO2 from smokestacks, tailpipes and even the air

    Comment by Geoff Beacon — 7 Jan 2012 @ 10:40 AM

  4. Apologies if I am obtusely missing this in the article, but it would seem to me that the scenario of interest is:

    1. Warming driven by direct anthropogenic GHG emissions causes “natural” methane and carbon emissions, e.g. from thawing permafrost

    2. Those “natural” emissions reach levels which are sufficient to sustain global warming at something like the current (and already dangerous) rates, even if all direct anthropogenic GHG emissions stop

    I would just add that the bottom line of ALL these speculative looks at the various potential “nasty surprises” that may be in store, is to simply reinforce the urgency of rapidly phasing out ALL anthropogenic GHG emissions as quickly as possible. There is, after all, little else that we can do about the problem anyway.

    If your doctor tells you that you need to quit smoking because if you keep smoking you WILL develop emphysema and cancer, does it really make a difference if he adds that you also MIGHT suddenly drop dead from a heart attack?

    Comment by SecularAnimist — 7 Jan 2012 @ 10:54 AM

  5. NASA warns that there may be a tipping point beyond which an accelerating positive feedback loop scenario might come into play. Under this scenario, most of the clathrate deposits in the arctic (both tundra and shallow continental shelf deposits) could be released into the atmosphere in a fairly short period of time (less than a century), implying a rate of outgassing that makes 100 times present estimated levels a vast underforecast. *That* is the worst case scenario, not an arbitrary 100 times present estimated outgassing rates.

    Is there a tipping point? What is it? Nobody knows. We’re flying blind. That notion ought to give us pause.

    [Response: ‘NASA’ does not make agency statements on scientific issues. Perhaps some NASA scientists have said such a thing, or perhaps they are researching it, but whether it is credible or not has very little to do with it being ‘NASA’. Please provide cites and references for claims like this, especially on a thread that is precisely about exploring the quantitative consequences of this outgassing. – gavin]

    Comment by Urgelt — 7 Jan 2012 @ 10:55 AM

  6. Perhaps transient local warming from methane in the Arctic is a greater threat than the quasi-steady state global effect, accelerating local ice loss and changing ocean and land albedo.

    [Response:But the mixing time for the atmosphere is short, about a year for exchange between the hemispheres and much shorter for mixing along latitude circles, shorter than the thermal equilibration time from rising greenhouse gases. So in general the Earth warms and cools as a whole from GHG concentrations. David]

    Comment by Jim Galasyn — 7 Jan 2012 @ 11:38 AM

  7. Thanks for another thoughtful article on the important subject of Arctic methane feedback. I would like clarification on a couple points.

    Is this article specifically and exclusively about methane from land source?

    Are there other feedbacks that should be considered? One reason I am concerned about even a brief but large increase in methane emissions is that they could push other feedbacks past tipping points. Is this a reasonable concern in this context?

    Again, thanks for a non-dismissive, thoughtful article on this important issue.

    [Response:Shakhova and colleagues are talking about emission from the continental shelf off Siberia, a marine source. David]

    Comment by wili — 7 Jan 2012 @ 11:51 AM

  8. It is OK, economic depression will do it for us (CO2 emissions reduction)…

    Comment by Alexander Ač — 7 Jan 2012 @ 12:00 PM

  9. Eli thinks you are double counting a bit. The water vapor part is only important for strat methane decomposition for example and not all the methane is going to make it there. More important is if it would saturate OH, which would produce a very smoggy world

    Comment by Eli Rabett — 7 Jan 2012 @ 12:32 PM

  10. Find Out For Yourself!
    Do a google search using the words “methane arctic ozone”
    Make a new tab to google the words “methane nitrous oxides arctic ozone”
    Make another new tab and google “igor arctic torches”
    After another tab google “howarth fracking methane”
    This should keep you busy for quite a while before you realize that carbon credit trading schemes have nothing to do with what we are facing. But, if you are a glutton for punishment you can also google “earthquakes global warming”
    If you really are a masochist, google “anaerobic bacteria arctic methane”
    By now you should realize we are too stupid to live.

    Comment by Robert Callaghan — 7 Jan 2012 @ 1:44 PM

  11. Didn’t Pink Floyd write a song about this?

    I think they did…

    Comment by Andrew Newb — 7 Jan 2012 @ 1:59 PM

  12. Thanks for this post. This discussion is vitally important for those of us who are trying to greatly expand the number of people who have a sound understanding of the processes that make up what we lay people refer to as “global warming.” My assumption is that if we have more citizens with a better understanding, then we will be able to build more support for really effective measures to address the situation.

    In that spirit, I hope you will take the issues raised so far in these comments very seriously and address them in detail.

    Comment by John Atkeison — 7 Jan 2012 @ 3:09 PM

  13. I expect Monckton & Plimer will invoke Titan’s arctic methane lakes in comparison, and declare its still cold outside, with no kind of atmosphere.

    Comment by Russell — 7 Jan 2012 @ 3:47 PM

  14. I believe that we are already seeing higher temperature anomalies, compared to the rest of the globe, in the northern latitudes just from increased in CO2.

    I think some of the fear arises from the perception that the positive feedbacks, once started, would take on a life of their own – so to speak – and would not lend themselves to being easily controlled by human countermeasures. The much feared “tipping point”.

    It’s my understanding that is what is meant by “runaway”, not runaway global warming – per se – but runaway feedbacks that result in methane released from the arctic on a scale a full order of magnitude greater than what is proposed by this post.

    Either way, the apparent conclusion that a methane worst case would “only” be twice as bad as business-as-usual CO2 forcing is, to my mind, bad enough.

    Comment by Jerry McManus — 7 Jan 2012 @ 4:01 PM

  15. #9 Eli Rabett,

    “More important is if it would saturate OH, which would produce a very smoggy world.”

    Preindustrial CH4 was around 0.7ppm, current around 1.75ppm, Dr Archer’s suggested increase by a factor of 10 would be 17.5ppm. That’s a 25 fold increase of CH4 from pre-industrial. From table 1 of Schmidt & Shindell 2003 and assoc text: Current CH4 levels imply a 20% decline in OH radicals from pre-industrial, Archer’s metaphorical 10 fold increase of atmospheric CH4 (25 X pre-industrial) would imply* a decline in OH radicals of around 70%.

    Schmidt & Shindell, 2003, Atmospheric composition, radiative forcing, and climate change as a consequence of a massive methane release from gas hydrates.

    *Using scatter plot with trend line in Excel.

    Comment by Chris R — 7 Jan 2012 @ 4:07 PM

  16. According to this 2007 “science” article we are possibly dead now.

    [Response: There is never a shortage of people saying stupid things, but this is not a ‘science’ article, nor is it a statement related to anything a scientist actually said. – gavin]

    Comment by Steinar Midtskogen — 7 Jan 2012 @ 4:13 PM

  17. Why 100 and not 1000? Will not the release become worse with increasing temperature? For the peak concentration isn’t the rate more important than the final amount? How are these bounded to give “worst case scenario”

    Comment by DrTskoul — 7 Jan 2012 @ 4:48 PM

  18. Thank you for this methane summary. This is such a dramatically emerging issue and we look to RealClimate for the scientifically level-headed blogging analysis.

    Some agreement with #2 Mike Roddy commenting on the unforeseen aspects of climate change. Just yesterday I was honored to attend a Univ Washington seminar given by respected researcher Prof Robert Charlson in which he outlined the historical basis for forced climate change. It was more of a history of science lecture — fascinating to note how swiftly climate research has grown. In a relaxed moment he tossed out the statement ”Who knew the Arctic was going to melt so fast?” My notes are weak here, but he seemed to talk about radical rises in radiative forcing without addressing methane alone. Isn’t 4 or 5 Watts/m2 just from methane quite disturbing?

    Comment by Richard Pauli — 7 Jan 2012 @ 5:18 PM

  19. [Response: There is never a shortage of people saying stupid things, but this is not a ‘science’ article, nor is it a statement related to anything a scientist actually said. – gavin]

    Gavin, to keep silly irrelevent references and ad hominum attacks, may I suggest this link:

    The blog is a non scientific blog, but the flow chart shows the best way to handle ‘scientific’ discussions…I think…but what do I know, I have never been ‘peer reviewed’…


    Comment by Andrew Newb — 7 Jan 2012 @ 5:40 PM

  20. It’s good that we’re trying to use realistic numbers and avoid ‘alarmism’, but I’m mindful of the fact that Arctic methane is just one part of just one positive feedback mechanism. David has higlighted the fact that there are other, larger sources of methane, and of course we know that there are other albedo and carbon cycle feedbacks etc. How far do we have to go before the combined effect of all feedbacks is greater than any mitigation measures we could realistically achieve?

    Comment by Icarus — 7 Jan 2012 @ 5:59 PM

  21. As a non-scientist, it is reassuring that releases of Arctic methane should not force an apocalyptic runaway warming event, although the effects will still have very nasty consequences for our presently comfortable climate. 500ppm – 750ppm still seems like a recipe for societal collapse, even if it pushes back the threat of species extinction. What would be a ‘best case’ scenario for our way of life at 500ppm for a few centuries?

    [reCaptcha: ‘unqualified initabl’ – how appropriate]

    Comment by Doug H — 7 Jan 2012 @ 7:12 PM

  22. why pick 100x as the worst case, why not 1,000x? Genuine question, I have no feel for what might be possible.

    [Response:The number was my own pick, as I wrote, of a blow-the-doors-off worst case. Perhaps I lack imagination, maybe it could be worse. But 200 Gton is a lot of carbon. Shakhova et al are claiming 50 Gton C. They argue that a release of that size could come out instantaneously, and if it did, I agree with them, the climate impacts would be immense. I’d written in the previous post that Arctic methane fluxes would have to increase 10 or 100 times before they would start to become significant. The calculation in the second post bore it out, that a factor of 100 would be needed to reach the climate impact of the CO2. But I don’t have a strong reason to draw the limit precisely there. In that sense, in retrospect, describing it as a “worst case” was probably sloppy. Worst I can imagine, and if anyone has a reason to think it could be higher I’d be interested, astonished actually, to hear. David]

    Comment by Phil — 7 Jan 2012 @ 7:20 PM

  23. Why do you use numbers from a 2007 paper that has been invalidated by more recent studies.

    “Northern soils sequester an estimated 1,672 Pg
    (1 Pg = 1e+15 g) of organic C, 88% of which is stored in
    perennially frozen ground.”

    “This yields an estimated ∼1,600 Pg C
    within gas hydrates associated with subsea permafrost on the
    Arctic Ocean continental shelves.”

    Strong atmospheric chemistry feedback to climate warming
    from Arctic methane emissions
    Ivar S. A. Isaksen et all

    Is not 200Gt a rather conservative worst case, when there are 3,200 Gt of vulnerable carbon in the arctic that we already know about?

    [Response: The Isaksen et al paper is interesting, but their definitions of direct and indirect forcings are a little non-standard and make for a confusing comparison. For instance, they estimate the forcing for 7xCH4 as 0.9 (direct) + 1.7 (indirect) and 1.5 W/m2 (indirect via stratH2O, O3, CO2). The standard IPCC TAR calculation (as done above), gives 2.1 W/m2, and the estimated efficacy of 1.4, implies a total forcing of 2.9 W/m2 (compared to the total 4.1 W/m2). So their estimates are larger (which needs to be understood), but the differences are not going to make a big difference in David’s conclusions. – gavin]

    Comment by Vergent — 7 Jan 2012 @ 7:38 PM

  24. All the discussion on climate reminds me of a person who has a bullet speeding toward him. He engages in arcane discussion about the type of bullet (hollow point or normal?), its speed measured in nano seconds, the metal composition of the bullet, air density’s ability to slow or speed the bullet, etc.

    What is the point of all the wonderful, scientific point-making? Within certain parameters we know the important facts – the bullet is coming to hit us. Maybe some would say details such as those we discuss might suggest how to mitigate the threat, or accommodate to it. But we also know that is unlikely based on the nature of the threat. Emission control could logically said to be dead. And what kind of adaptation does one do for loss of most agriculture?

    Man and his governments are just waiting to see what happens. That’s the reality. So, the only logical alternative for discussion is survival – is it possible? If yes, how and what should we be doing to accomplish survival for at least some humans?

    Comment by William P — 7 Jan 2012 @ 8:03 PM

  25. Does the response at 7 mean that this article is only about land based release of methane? It seems to me that for a title of “An Arctic methane worst-case scenario” the marine based methane must also be considered. The marine methane is also in the Arctic. As pointed out at 23, this doubles the carbon sequestered. It is possible for the sea to warm faster than the land since heat comes into the Arctic from the Atlantic.

    What is An Arctic methane worst-case scenario that includes the marine methane?

    [Response:Guess I was thinking that 100* Walter would be enough to cover both domains. I think land warms up faster than sea, though, because of the lower heat capacity. David]

    Comment by michael sweet — 7 Jan 2012 @ 8:50 PM

  26. I really thought all 24 comments were excellent.I am not reassurred.I’ve posted a few times here on the RealClimate comment areas about the threat of methane melting from the ocean floor in the Arctic.I still believe that the potential feedback mechanisms will be worse than described here in the article by Gavin.I am a layman only,Harvard,1982,Boston College Law School, 1987.I read online within the past two weeks that Russian scientists were up in the northern oceans somewhere and they saw tons of hot spots of methane bubbling out from the ocean surface.I think it was in ScienceDaily.The question posed by these scientists was “is this outgassing a normal melting of methane that has been going on for many thousands of years,or,is it an upward tick of significance?”You know what?I still firmly believe that the Earth will stabilise at 1000ppm by the year 2150, and I firmly believe that methane outgassing from both the Arctic seabed and frozen terrestial permafrost will have a huge impact on this number, helping it to rise to 1000 ppm by the year 2150.
    Mark J. Fiore
    Harvard, 1982
    Boston College Law School 1987.
    PS, even if Gavin is correct in his conclusion it is still pretty bad news given the numbers he has come up with.And, I believe that his numbers are very conservative…Gavin, please d’ont ask me to support this as you know I’m just a guy who reads a lot on the internet and posts his gut feelings only.

    Comment by Mark J. Fiore — 7 Jan 2012 @ 9:12 PM

  27. CH4 is a sideshow. CO2 is still the big tent.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 7 Jan 2012 @ 10:14 PM

  28. Thank you for your detailed response to 23 above. But it did not address the issue. The issue is the amount of vulnerable carbon. The known stores of carbon in the permafrost have gone up from “950 Gt of C (Zimov et al. 2006)” Walter et al (2007) to “Northern soils sequester an estimated 1,672 Pg
    (1 Pg = 1e+15 g) of organic C, 88% of which is stored in
    perennially frozen ground [Tarnocai et al., 2009]”. The known stores of hydrate on the Arctic Continental shelves has gone up from:

    “Total amounts of hydrate methane in permafrost soils
    are very poorly known, with estimates ranging from 7.5
    to 400 Gton C (estimates compiled by Gornitz and Fung

    D. Archer, “Methane hydrate stability and anthropogenic climate change”

    cited by you in “Much ado about methane”

    “The ESAS contains an estimated 1400 GT ”

    “” Stubbs, C et all 2010

    Why do you base your arguments on outdated data? Does it improve with age?

    [Response: Updating data is of course fine – but don’t dismiss the substantial uncertainties in any of those numbers. However, and more to the point, what conclusion given above would vary as a function of this adjustment? – gavin]

    Comment by Vergent — 7 Jan 2012 @ 10:41 PM

  29. For Mark Fiore — if you do this Google search: methane laptev

    you’ll find the methane bubbling story asked about here since 2008, and perhaps earlier.

    There have been yearly expeditions.

    The same press release seems to be repeated year after year, so it’s hard to tell what’s news. The AGU heard something about it. A few more searches will find the frequent repeats, no need to repeat it again here.

    We’re all waiting to see the journal article.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 7 Jan 2012 @ 11:48 PM

  30. I find it encouraging to see so many comments mentioning possible very nasty surprises ahead. I’ll throw some numbers into the mix here to show that we do indeed have a black swan in the making.

    Ted Shuur ( is one of the leading researchers on carbon in permafrost. He estimates that there are about 1,000 Pg (1 trillion tons) of carbon in the top 3 meters of the continuous Arctic permafrost. Back in 2005, using the NCAR CCSM3 model, Lawrence & Slater (GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 32, L24401, 5 PP., 2005) estimated that about 90% of the continuous permafrost down to the model’s depth of 3.43 meters would thaw this century.

    This was before we saw the disappearance of so much Arctic sea ice that has dramatically increased the thermal energy in the Arctic Ocean. Simulations executed by the NCAR suggest that the warming can penetrate as far as 900 miles inland (over the permafrost). By the way, much of the continuous permafrost is ice-laden (Shuur). It is difficult to say how long the soil would remain wet.

    So we have about 900 billion tons of carbon going into the atmosphere this century. I haven’t seen any mention of this anywhere but perhaps others have. Early on much of it will be in the form of methane. The IPCC dictum to use 25 as the Global Warming Potential for CH4 is ridiculous. Its perturbation lifetime is 12 years so let’s look at what it does early on. A few years ago when I first realized the potential scenario in the Arctic, I asked Dan Lashof, an environmentalist at NRDC who is also a mathematician and was involved with establishing the first round of GWPs in the early ’90s, how strong is CH4 compared to CO2 during CH4’s lifetime? He came up with a number of 100 times stronger when a batch is first emitted. We know that it diminishes to 72 after 20 years. We didn’t graph it but it’s clear that CH4 will be seriously radiating back onto the permafrost at that level before it spreads to lower latitudes. Add to this the thermal energy from the Arctic waters and you have a dangerous concoction.

    Richard Alley found in ice core samples 23 abrupt climate changes over the past 100,000 years (Two Mile Time Machine). The temperature increased 14 to 18 degrees F each time and while many took 10 to 20 years, even more took only 3 years. Even though conditions were different then, we know that abrupt climate change in the Arctic can happen. How long will it be before methane emissions reach a critical mass and, with help from the thermal energy of the Arctic Ocean, create a cascade of rapidly thawing permafrost and rising temperature? Ten years from now? Twenty years?

    David’s worst case scenario is paltry compared to what I believe is a very rational scenario that I’ve presented. I can take it further looking at how the abrupt change in the Arctic would affect global climate. With so much more methane in the atmosphere, OH would be diminished, adding to methane’s lifetime. And when the methane is broken down eventually by OH, we have CO2 with its long life and the more immediate effects of the added water vapor.

    CO2e could be far above 1,000 ppm by the end of the century but by 2050 or even 2030 it could already be untenable. People want to think that somehow we can turn this around but it may already be out of our control. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see anyone putting two and two together. We hear “Ah! There’s always the tundra!” as if that is enough said about this threat. I’m glad to see this discussion started.

    I have a lot more written material on the permafrost and I’ve thought about publishing an article on it. Maybe the time has come.

    Comment by Alan D. Roth — 8 Jan 2012 @ 12:28 AM

  31. ‘Polar Cities’ dubbed ‘Noah’s Arks’ for Humankind in Face of Global Warming and Methane Worst Scenario

    Comment by Danile Halevi Bloom — 8 Jan 2012 @ 12:29 AM

  32. Thanks fo this, in addition some sort of description of the atmospheric fate of methane would be nice, i.e. how is the lifetime of the methane calculated, the chemical decomposition of it, and how well-mixed it really is?

    Comment by jyyh — 8 Jan 2012 @ 12:37 AM

  33. Ray – in accepting the proposal that “CO2 is still the big tent” you appear to overlook some differences between anthro- and feedback GHGs.

    One such is the fact that we can, and at some point will, cease emitting anthro-GHGs, but, short of some undefined negative feedback gaining momentum or some other unpublicised auto-limiter, once the feedback CO2e outputs exceed the natural carbon sinks’ capacity of ~43% of anthro CO2, then regardless of our emissions cuts, their interactive mutual acceleration could only be halted by geo-engineering via albedo restoration and sufficient carbon recovery to restore the pre-industrial atmospheric forcing, or by the eventual depletion of all vulnerable carbon banks and ice-masses.

    Feedback permafrost methane is thus far from a sideshow; it is an additional major threat alongside anthro-CO2 that undermines the possibility of mitigating AGW by even a radically swift end to anthro emissions.

    It might be that serious authorities such as Hansen and the head of the UNFCCC secretariat are wrong to declare that goal of a 2.0C ceiling of warming poses unacceptably dangerous climate destabilization, but it seems widely accepted that a peak of 450ppmv CO2 would allow a near-even chance of staying below 2.0C and thereby avoiding the feedbacks taking off with catastrophic effects. Given that this 2.0C goal calculation apparently excludes the ~doubling of warming due to the predictable loss of the ‘sulphate parasol’, and excludes all carbon feedback outputs, it is hard to see how an additional forcing from feedback permafrost methane “comparable to what CO2 can do” can be viewed as anything but calamitous.

    Sideshow it ain’t.



    Comment by Lewis — 8 Jan 2012 @ 12:50 AM

  34. Many answers will be found here:

    “The GOSIC Portal provides convenient, central, one-stop access to data and information identified by the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and the Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS) and their partner programs ….”

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 8 Jan 2012 @ 1:06 AM

  35. Alan, thank you for this. David’s work in these two articles are dangerously conservative. I had e-mail conversations with an ice scientist at NASA back in ’07 or ’08 who said all of this wouldn’t even begin for centuries. He was wrong, and I told him so. I pointed out the systemic pressures and it got me nowhere. The clathrates simply could not melt that fast. But they are. And so David is also incorrect. Can’t prove it, but I do guarantee it, as I have since I began posting here on RC.

    A key component I’ve not seen mentioned enough is the runoff from rivers directly into the Arctic basin. Those waters are heavier than the salty water of the ocean. They should be assumed to flow along the sea floor to some extent… and we don’t need much extent for that for it to begin to warm clathrates, do we?

    And did anyone notice in the defense posted today or yesterday of the findings fom this summer that the cores they drew were **not frozen?**

    We can keep wishing that the science were neat and tidy, that we are not in a new paradigm of humanity, that the planet cannot possibly do what it is, in fact, doing… or we can realize none of this matters. Risk assessment and the precuationary principle say act, act decades ago, act quickly, act organically, act globally, and change *everything.*

    If you love your children.

    And it doesn’t matter if I am wrong: it is still the correct thing to do according to the risk assessment.

    How long we have to see the science so consistently badly underestimate the change before we get error bars to the bad side that reflect the true worst case scenarios, i do not know…. but I pray, figuratively, that it is not long.

    Worst case scenario? How about some real numbers:

    1. Thermokarst laeks increased 300% from the early 2000’s to 2007. What are the odds that has slowed? A not-even-quite-worst-case-scenario would say they will continue to triple decade by decade.

    2. Clathrates? Let us assume the differences between two years ago and this year are consistent and confirmed: That means we went from an amount equal to total oceanic emissions to magnitudes more (tens of meters across to a kilometer across) in just two years. Let’s call it, oh, a doubling only, and call it a decadal doubling, not just two years. One number I found was 7 million tons just from the Siberian shelf/yr a few years ago.

    7×2 =14 x 2 = 21 x 2 = 42 x 2 = 84 x 2 = 168 x 2 = 336 x 2 = 672 x 2 = 1344 x 2 = 2688 x 2 = 5376

    And that’s a fairly good scenario. As Alan points out, the very fast feedback from the full effect of new methane emissions will create larger effects than the averaged numbers indicate, partly because that effect is primarily in the Arctic before mixing has diluted it.

    Not happy.

    Comment by ccpo — 8 Jan 2012 @ 1:49 AM

  36. Gavin, thanks for taking the time to do this. Thought experiments are always better when properly quantified. Your disclaimer in the first paragraph is very clear, so the context of calling this 100x increase “worst case” should be clear, though perhaps it would be better if you changed the wording given that it’s causing some confusion.

    [Response: This is David’s post, not mine. – gavin]

    “CO2 lasts essentially forever”. I think I know what you mean here but in the context of the previous Much Ado about Methane article with discussion of the difference between atmospheric lifetime of a CO2 molecule vs. lifetime of an increase in concentration, this could also be put more clearly. What I think you mean is that if we get CO2 levels high enough to cause a serious problem, we can’t just stop emitting and hope the concentration will drop in time to make a difference, whereas with methane, it decays fast enough that we need to worry more about the decay products than about methane itself.

    Geoff Beacon #3: the link you point to describes a material that could absorb emissions from a smoke stack, not from the atmosphere. You are still left with the very large elephant of where you store the emissions you’ve captured. Worldwide CO2 emissions amounts to cubic kilometres every year, even if you compress down to a liquid. Even storing 10% is a huge problem, and isn’t helped by capturing the emissions more efficiently. Designing a sufficiently efficient way of storing electricity to make intermittent renewables viable is a much more tractable engineering problem, unless you are in the business of selling coal and don’t know how to do anything else.

    PS: I distinctly recall being able to use sub tags before to spell CO2 correctly in comments. Do I misremember or has this gone away?

    Comment by Philip Machanick — 8 Jan 2012 @ 1:52 AM

  37. [Response: Updating data is of course fine – but don’t dismiss the substantial uncertainties in any of those numbers. However, and more to the point, what conclusion given above would vary as a function of this adjustment? – gavin]

    The scale of the “worst case scenario” is understated by a factor of eight. But why do you insist on arguing from 2007 data???

    Comment by Vergent — 8 Jan 2012 @ 3:35 AM

  38. Thank you for answering the worries of the doomsayers. For so long we keep hearing how we are just as wrong as the deniers, but you put so much more effort into repeatedly whacking down their bull.

    I still see the Milankovitch cycles as incredibly gentle and the rate of our changes as massive in comparison. I still see us in for a torrid time, not altogether due to climate change, but perhaps even more how nations respond. But that is not an issue for climate science.

    Methane is one of the big issues, and knowing is is unlikely to be as bad as I thought is reassuring.

    Comment by Tony O'Brien — 8 Jan 2012 @ 5:27 AM

  39. #3–Geoff, your link is busted.

    Comment by Kevin McKinney — 8 Jan 2012 @ 8:14 AM

  40. So how would this compare with the PETM and what was going on then to cause the effect it did?

    [Response:The PETM was thousands of Gton C from whatever source supplied it, more like our fossil fuel trajectory than like the 100 Gton methane case I explored here. The PETM was also a slower release, taking 10,000 years they say from sediment core chronology. David]

    Comment by Peter H — 8 Jan 2012 @ 8:43 AM

  41. “small source today relative to tropical wetlands”

    I don’t get this part (which was also mentioned in your previous entry). How is this a meaningful comparison? Isn’t the methane from the tropical wetlands part of a natural cycle (thus net zero), while the thawed permafrost is a net positive source of methane?

    [Response:A small new source is swamped by larger already existing sources, so the relative change in the atmospheric concentration is relatively small. Double the small source, the atmospheric concentration doesn’t double, that was my point. David]

    Comment by Anonymous Coward — 8 Jan 2012 @ 9:30 AM

  42. Wait a minute..It is exactly the same thing that denialists say about CO2. Anthro- sourses are small compared to the total natural CO2 fluxes.

    [Response:Our rate of mining CO2 from the Earth and putting it in the atmosphere is small compared to the back-and-forth rates of photosynthesis and dissolution/exsolution from the ocean. But our from-the-Earth fluxes are large compared with natural from-the-Earth fluxes from volcanoes, or back into the Earth from chemical weathering forming CaCO3 in sediments. So the CO2 line is fallacious. And for methane, what I wrote was that the Arctic is small compared with low-latitude natural + anthropogenic sources. The anthropogenic sources are now equal to the natural sources, they are not small at all. Just to be clear on that. David]

    Comment by DrTskoul — 8 Jan 2012 @ 9:46 AM

  43. An interesting calculation for which thanks. I note your point that most of the natural methane release comes from the tropics, so a 100 x increase in Arctic emissions would lead to only a x10 increase in natural methane releases overall. But this assumes does it not that a temperature increase that produces this amplification of Arctic methane release has no effect on the rest of the globe, which it surely would do. Would not the increase in temperatures elsewhere on Earth, perhaps coupled with higher rainfall, lead to an increase in temperate and tropical emissions? Add in the increase in anthropogenic emissions from fracking and the dash for gas, where do we get to then?

    Comment by Spike — 8 Jan 2012 @ 10:22 AM

  44. David,

    Thank you for the clarification. Agreed.

    Comment by DrTskoul — 8 Jan 2012 @ 10:39 AM

  45. CCPO, you forgot to say “Oogabooga”. Ferchrissake. You say the models didn’t predict an observation so they’re wrong about everything? Extrapolating the trend from two cherrypicked years is invalid, and you know it. The fact of the matter is that CH4 releases are still small and have a small effect on warming. It is unlikely that we will see catastrophic release for the simple reason that no such release is evident in the paleoclimate record. What is more, the short lifetime of CH4 + the moderating effect of the oceans and slower feedbacks means that we won’t see a huge spike in warming all at once.

    CO2 remains by far the bigger threat. It contributes and will continue to account for the majority of the warming both now and in the future. Don’t get distracted by sideshows.

    What is more, if there is something vital missing from the models, they will eventually catch up, and we will have more realistic forecasts. If that happens, and the models say we have a problem, then I’ll worry. Until then, you are just jumping at shadows.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 8 Jan 2012 @ 10:44 AM

  46. I intended only to cite NASA as a source for worst-case scenarios, not to attribute to NASA any “official” pronouncements, which as we all know would have to pass muster at the political appointee level and rarely do.

    Here is an example – only an example – of the scientific discussion about the potential for massive release of clathrate-stored methane:

    The study was peer-reviewed and was published in Nature in 2008.

    No-one at NASA or any other reputable climatological source that I know about is saying that a massive release of clathrate-stored methane into the atmosphere is a serious risk we’ll face any time soon. But as your article purports to establish the “worst-case scenario” and evaluate its effects, I think it’s a bit strange not to consider “worse” worse-case scenarios being openly discussed in the scientific community than the one you advanced.

    Comment by Urgelt — 8 Jan 2012 @ 11:21 AM

  47. Ray, when the facts themselves are so scary, why bother with ooga-booga? What you forgot to say is, “Uh-oh.”

    I note you did not bother trying to debunk those very, very modest numbers. I’ll remind you James Hansen, et al., have posited a potential decadal doubling in melt rates for the Greenland ice sheet. But, in your estimation, that can’t possibly happen in the more biologically and physically complex clathrates and permafost?

    As for the models, they speak for themselves, as you well know. If they were leading the measurments I’m sure we’d all be shocked, happily so, but still shocked – that would be true prediction, wouldn’t it?

    If the models underestimating change by decades and even centuries is not badly underestimating, what is? Is there a better definition of the phrase? This is not a criticism, though you seem to have taken it so. It’s a recognition of their limits as a tool, nothing more. but the dike doesn’t really hold back the waters, the people who built it do. The science isn’t what will save us from our self-inflicted future, it will be the scientists. This is ultimately a human process and at some point we have to act as humans regardless of the various labels each of us carries.

    We will solve our problems by pretending they do not exist or pretending our tools do things they do not. The scientists are getting better at this so the science and the models are, too. But all three are still playing catch up to Mother Nature.

    And do bear in mind, any prescience I have or have not displayed, will or will not display, would not exist without the science produced by the gentlemen here and many others. I offer no disrespect, only one perspective.

    Now, about those numbers.

    Comment by ccpo — 8 Jan 2012 @ 12:04 PM

  48. Very interesting article and got me thinking.

    I remember in science class we wanted to see how much sugar we could dissolve into a glass of water and at some point the water becomes saturated and sugar no longer dissolves in the water.

    One tipping point might be if the shallow regions of the oceans become saturated with CO2 and stop dissolving CO2 into it. I’m not sure if this has ever been suggested as a possibility or not, just applying an old science class lesson to an earth system.

    [Response:It happens, but not all of a sudden like the sugar does. As you dissolve more CO2 into seawater, the carbonate ion concentration decreases. Carbonate ion is what buffers the CO2 by reaction CO3(2-) + CO2 + H2O -> 2 HCO3(-). As you lose carbonate ion (as the ocean is acidified), the water’s capacity to absorb more CO2 decreases. David]

    Comment by Paul — 8 Jan 2012 @ 12:14 PM

  49. Re inline response in #6
    Then there is a problem with our global methane monitoring system because it shows higher concentrations of methane in north. e.g.

    Comment by Aaron Lewis — 8 Jan 2012 @ 12:29 PM

  50. David is looking at Arctic methane pushing atmospheric GHG concentrations to an equivalent of 750 ppmv of CO2. To which we must add the additional anthropogenic emissions of CO2 over the next few years, which will bring us to a total CO2 equivalent of 850 ppmv (David’s estimate plus Hanson’s estimate of near term anthropogenic CO2 emissions.)

    Even a brief interlude of such warming would give ice sheet collapse a big push, and provide enough heat to liberate carbon feedback from other sources. (Which might occur after peak anthropogenic CO2 emissions.) It would make a mess of agriculture and coastal infrastructure. I do not see that this post provides any comfort what so ever.

    More over, given the changes in Arctic sea ice over the last 50 years, it is likely that less rejected cold brine from sea ice formation is finding its way to the sea floor, and thus permafrost under the various Arctic seas is being exposed to much warmer temperatures. Even a very brief interlude of higher GHG concentrations will give this a big push.

    We have seen lakes on top of Greenland form moulins and fall through kilometers of ice in a matter of hours. The drainage of lakes through permafrost shows the same physics applies to permafrost. The same physics should also apply under the sea. At some temperature, we must expect sea water to penetrate the permafrost under it and displace all of the free methane currently trapped under the permafrost. The formation of undersea thermokarst results in more rapid release of free methane from formations capped by permafrost than the progressive and uniform melting model.

    We can expect significant and rapid Arctic carbon feed back. and thus we should pare back our CO2 emissions, and prepare a planning case for significant releases of Arctic carbon.

    Comment by Aaron Lewis — 8 Jan 2012 @ 12:41 PM

  51. Methane alarmism will not be dissuaded by any reasonable means. But nice try David. ;)

    [Response:Well, to be honest, sometimes I do get spooked myself. There is a lot of carbon up there. David. PS: On further reflection, I don’t think I want to be fighting being alarmed about methane bubbles in the Arctic. I am alarmed too, but perhaps I’m alarmed for a longer time frame than some. David]

    Comment by Pete Dunkelberg — 8 Jan 2012 @ 1:14 PM

  52. CCPO, your extrapolations from science that don’t agree with what the experts who actually work in this area are saying are just hysterical noise. Much ado indeed. Steve

    Comment by Steve Fish — 8 Jan 2012 @ 1:19 PM

  53. #41 Anonymous Coward (for the first time, we have two ACs in the same thread!),
    Methane emissions can have two effects which should not be confused:

    1 – they can increase the amount of atmospheric methane (short-term effect)
    Methane form rice paddies does this.
    Methane from permafrost does this. It is currently ot a large source compared to livestock, rice paddies and so on.

    2 – they can increase the amount of carbon in the system (long-term effect)
    Methane from rice paddies doesn’t do this. It is carbon neutral.
    Methane from permafrost does this. This carbon has been out of the system for a long time. It is currently not a large source compared to the burning of coal and other fossil fuels.

    Comment by Anonymous Coward — 8 Jan 2012 @ 1:29 PM

  54. “…The PETM was also a slower release, taking 10,000 years they say from sediment core chronology. David”

    David, I havent been keeping up with all the PETM research, but I do recall that individual plankton recovered from Bass River, New Jersey show a single step CIE. Due to the high sedimentation rate of coastal fluvial systems, Bass River sediments are consistent with a much shorter duration of organic carbon release during the PETM (estimated as less than 500 years). From Zachos (2007),

    Does this conclusion hold in the PETM community? Or does the community just ignore the Bass River record entirely because plankton abundance and/or sedimentation could have been temporarily and drastically disrupted at this site in response to the environmental effects of the PETM?

    [Response:My recollection is that Zachos had the same observation from ODP cores, that surface-dwelling forams were either isotopically heavy or light, never transitional, but bottom-dwellers could be found with transitional isotopic composition. It does sound to me a lot like an instantaneous atmospheric release, with the benthic forams recording the transition due to slow ocean overturning. But Jim feels that the intense dissolution right at that time could have erased the transitional plankters, caused by the CO2 and evident in a low- or no-CaCO3 layer in the cores. David]

    Comment by Adam H — 8 Jan 2012 @ 2:04 PM

  55. > Urgelt says: …
    > purports to establish the “worst-case scenario”

    Ah, Urgelt — you’re missing the point spelled out for you:

    “The worst-case methane scenario stands comparable to …. What CO2 will do, under business-as-usual….”

    Get it?

    The change you’re worrying about is already happening from CO2, and CO2’s effect will last much, much longer.

    Yes, there might be a brief span (geologically) of a methane spike.

    You know what the PETM looks like?
    On the paleo charts it’s a very narrow high spike.

    Well, compare the PETM to Business As Usual:


    “Most ecosystems were able to adapt—tropical mammals migrated to North America and Europe, and sea life swam poleward to cool down. But the rate of warming during the PETM pales in comparison to what we’re now experiencing. … at a rate that is too fast for ecosystems to adapt …”

    And yes, we know the rates of change, and of adaptation.
    Or at least the scientists do.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 8 Jan 2012 @ 2:29 PM

  56. I’m with cccp.

    Just a few short years ago, it was received wisdom that the subsea permafrost would stay frozen for some decades.

    A few short years ago, people were doing calculations showing just how slow Greenland was going to melt, using mostly glacial outflow.

    There is a tremendous amount of ocean heat transport from both the Pacific and the Atlantic going on in the Arctic.

    The ESAS is very shallow and is exposed for most of the year to the sun, and also to raging storms that stir it up to depth.

    Frankly, with what we know, it would be amazing if it didn’t cause a huge problem.

    Comment by Tenney Naumer — 8 Jan 2012 @ 4:45 PM

  57. The catastrophe buffs are out in force on these threads. I for one appreciate RealClimate’s reality checks on runaway warming fears.

    Comment by CM — 8 Jan 2012 @ 5:35 PM

  58. Mr. Aaron Lewis writes on the 8th of January, 2012 at 12:41 PM:

    “…we must expect sea water to penetrate the permafrost under it and displace all of the free methane currently trapped under the permafrost. The formation of undersea thermokarst results in more rapid release of free methane from formations capped by permafrost than the progressive and uniform melting model.”

    This is something that I am also thinking about. In this context i wonder if the simple models described in

    can be improved by adding in thermokarst mechanisms. Much more heat can be injected by moving bulk water than in a diffusive process. Thermokarst collapse would also lead to isolated blocks of permafrost with larger surface area to volume ratio, which would be more easily melted.


    Comment by sidd — 8 Jan 2012 @ 5:42 PM

  59. #51 re. Davids response:

    It’s a bit of a high-wire act. We need to not be alarmist about the potential of this alarm, but realize that it is something to be alarmed about if we let this ‘little’ global warming thing go too far… on top of the other reasonably alarming things that are already going on, such as hitting thermal limits for crops, etc.

    Too many uncertainties around what we will or won’t do on mitigation at this time, as well as when and how much methane will release…

    So, yes, there is risk, and the risk has alarming components to it. Best to exercise the precautionary principle and not to play with fire too close to the methane bubbles :)

    Comment by John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation) — 8 Jan 2012 @ 5:58 PM

  60. Dr. Fuller puts it neatly in perspective:

    Comment by Gail — 8 Jan 2012 @ 6:13 PM

  61. ccpo,

    Well, about those numbers – and the physics, and the logic – of your #35:

    > 14 x 2 = 21

    You clearly err on the side of caution in your arithmetic. Not so in your arbitrary assumption of exponential growth.

    > the runoff from rivers directly into the Arctic basin. Those waters are heavier than the salty
    > water of the ocean.

    Or maybe the other way around.

    > Can’t prove it, but I do guarantee it, as I have since I began posting here on RC.

    Indeed. Offbeat attitude to take on a science blog, don’t you think?

    Comment by CM — 8 Jan 2012 @ 6:14 PM

  62. Alan D. Roth @30 — The Greenland ice core proxies reflect the temperature in the vicinity of Greenland. The temperature changes you mention are not global temperature changes.

    Comment by David B. Benson — 8 Jan 2012 @ 6:36 PM

  63. I find it difficult to take this article seriously when its sole aim appears to be showing that rising CH4 emissions are not a problem now and are unlikely to be for a millennia. This task is made easier by not quantifying the likely magnitude of CH4 deposits in the Arctic, not specifying CH4 sources (hydrates, sedimentary gas, yedoma and resumption of biota decay), and not examining the differing vulnerability of those deposits to global warming in general and Arctic amplification in particular. Should one expect a more rigorous approach from a scientist?

    Alan Roth @ 30 makes some valid points particularly in relation to the GWP of methane (CH4) which most peer-reviewed papers state as 20-25 over a 100 year time line. This ignores the fact that CH4 is normally resident in the atmosphere for 8-12 years only and during that period has GWP of ~80. It is true that a large emission of CH4 over a short period, say 5 gigatonnes over 12 months, could take 20 years to oxidise to CO2 but even over this period, CH4 has GWP of ~70.

    To persist with citing GWP over a century is misleading and results in the warming effects of CH4 emissions being understated. To contend that rapidly rising temperature in the Arctic – both atmospheric and seabed – do not currently pose a serious risk of increased CH4 emissions this century is equally misleading. To not refute but simply to ignore the findings of scientists undertaking field-work over, on and under the continental shelf, even when peer-reviewed and published, seems an odd way of conducting scientific inquiry which purports to reach sound conclusions.

    Comment by Mike Pope — 8 Jan 2012 @ 7:13 PM

  64. ccpo,
    Numbers? Hell, number! Singular as in not plural!

    Again, you know better than to get excited over a single measurement. It tells us nothing. It is an interesting event, something to research, and perhaps to give us a better understanding of the carbon cycle in the Arctic. What is more, the numbers themselves are not yet even scary. Ask yourself: how would you respond to a denialist crowing about a single dropoff in CH4 or CO2? What matters are trends. A single observation doesn’t give you a trend.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 8 Jan 2012 @ 8:25 PM

  65. Philip Machanick #36

    the link you point to describes a material that could absorb emissions from a smoke stack, not from the atmosphere.

    New materials remove CO2 from smokestacks, tailpipes and even the air. The headline does say “even the air” but we need not use new inventions fueling power stations with biomass and using CCS could work now.

    I was once on a focus group run by Simon Schackley, now of the UK Biochar Research Centre. Over a series of Monday evenings, I became convinced that CO2 storage in underground geological structures was sound if porous rock capped with clay was used. There are some very large suitable structures off the coast of the UK.

    I think any techniques to take CO2 from the air are just a matter of the price we put on CO2 extraction. To stop dangerous climate change it may be necessary to have a high tax on carbon. In the UK, if we were to count the £0.80p per litre tax on liquid transport fuel as a tax on carbon dioxide it would be about £300 per tonne.

    This tax is clearly insufficient to suppress enough CO2 from transport so perhaps we should aim higher. I suggest two figures £500 and £1000 per tonne of CO2 as reference. (It may also be interesting to contemplate a lower figure, say £200 per tonne, and argue that much of the current tax on transport fuel is to cover externalities such as noise, congestion, ill health and death.)

    I think that these prices would enable substantial extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere and I would expect the market to respond to this challenge within a small number of years.

    Comment by Geoff Beacon — 8 Jan 2012 @ 10:01 PM

  66. CM,

    Since you made it personal, let me follow suit: This alarmist has been right for the last five years. Just sayin’.

    And, please, can we show a little respect for each other? Alarmist, as used here is no better than denialist. While the latter is well deserved, the latter will only be known in time, and thus far, at least in my case, is completely inaccurate. Or hould I call everyone else underestimatists?


    Thanks for the math note. LOL… One should never edit their own work.

    Finally, my little series there is fully justified, but not an assumption, just an example that the worst case is not even approached by David’s piece. The justifications are simple: we have examples, though very short term, of orders of magnitude faster destabilization than mere doublings in the Arctic already. We also have an assessment from Hansens, et al., that Greenland melt may average out to a doubling every decade. Given the nature of Arctic Amplification, why would we expect that to be less in a further north and more complex system? That seems like a rather risky bet.

    Ray! I’m a systems guy! I design systems to be massively integrated and based in natural systems using natural patterns. Asking me to look at a destabilizing, massively complex system and assume it’s going to do *less* than expected? Not bloody likely. The fact I’ve been saying for so long the system was going to destabilize much faster than most of you were willing to state is a direct result of me seeing this entire system as one.

    That one measurement is not a single measurement for me, it’s a part of a *really obvious* pattern, nested patterns, even.

    Don’t mean to imply anyone else *isn’t* a systems thinker, btw.

    Comment by ccpo — 8 Jan 2012 @ 10:18 PM

  67. >> “The worst-case methane scenario stands comparable
    >> to …. What CO2 will do, under business-as-usual….”

    > not a problem now and … unlikely to be for a millennia


    Comment by Hank Roberts — 8 Jan 2012 @ 10:28 PM

  68. I find it amazing that the methane alarmists in this thread are saying that methane’s GWP understates the importance of methane.
    They may be misleading a good many readers.

    Are you aware that CH4 concentrations have increased about 1 ppm in the last 200 years?
    Do you understand what forcing that would imply if methane was such a powerful greenhouse gas?
    The reason the post-industrial CH4 forcing is not in the same league as the post-industrial CO2 forcing is that GWP exagerates the impact of methane realtive to carbon dioxide by a factor of 2.75.
    When CH4 turns into CO2, the forcing caused by that carbon atom is divided by about 25, not >70!

    Comment by Anonymous Coward — 8 Jan 2012 @ 11:46 PM

  69. David B. Benson @63. I mentioned @30 that the abrupt change is specific to the Arctic but that there will be global consequences. If the top 3+ meters of the permafrost are to thaw this century under a scenario that was developed before the unexpected extensive melting of sea ice, the 900 billion tons of carbon that were to come from this thawing would likely move into the atmosphere over a shorter span of time. To the extent the carbon emissions are largely methane, at least early on, the threat is enormous, dwarfing CO2 emissions. That is with methane’s GWP of 100 at the time of emission diminishing to 72 20 years later. All projections must be judged by probability and I give it a relatively high probability. But others may say that the devil is in the details and there are many.

    For example, how good is the estimate of carbon abundance to 3 meters depth? How good is the CCSM3 model or other models to estimate thaw rate? How much will sulfate-reducing bacteria lower the methane emission rate? How long will soils remain hydrated enough to produce methane over CO2? How long will methane emissions remain in the Arctic to radiate back onto the permafrost? Are there any unseen precursors to OH that would come into play to remove more of the methane? Can the increased thermal energy content of Arctic waters move over the permafrost enough to seriously increase methane emissions? These are all relative unknowns that need further study. But would they significantly reduce the probability that methane emissions from the permafrost will greatly increase global temperature sooner than later?

    There are likely to be some factors that will reduce this threat while others will increase it. Then there would be the positive feedback such as warming the Arctic waters enough to destabilize clathrate reserves. One might expect some clathrate release in the Arctic, perhaps not enough to greatly affect global warming by itself, but add this to the increased thermal energy and methane radiation already on the increase in the Arctic and the combination increases risk.

    Enough for now. I look forward to further comments.

    Comment by Alan D. Roth — 9 Jan 2012 @ 1:40 AM

  70. ccpo #35:

    A key component I’ve not seen mentioned enough is the runoff from rivers directly into the Arctic basin. Those waters are heavier than the salty water of the ocean. They should be assumed to flow along the sea floor to some extent… and we don’t need much extent for that for it to begin to warm clathrates, do we?

    What makes river water “heavier” than salty sea water? Salt water has higher density than fresh. You may want to review some of the basics at WikiPedia.

    When correcting people better informed than yourself you need to check every detail (sorry, Gavin :).

    Comment by Philip Machanick — 9 Jan 2012 @ 1:41 AM

  71. Eh, this really seems like a glass half full / half empty scenario.

    Optimist: “The worst case scenario for methane is the same as our CO2 emissions, but methane emissions haven’t taken off yet and are currently 100x lower than the worst case scenario. Since CO2 is the major current forcing, CO2 is the real worry.”

    Pessimist: “The worst case scenario for methane is the same as our CO2 emissions, except that once the emissions really get started it will be impossible to stop them. By the time we notice any increase in methane production, it will already be too late. Since CO2 emissions are in principle controllable while methane emissions are not, methane is the real worry.”

    … aren’t we allowed to be worried about both?

    Comment by Peter Ellis — 9 Jan 2012 @ 3:29 AM

  72. Anonymous Coward #68

    Are you aware that CH4 concentrations have increased about 1 ppm in the last 200 years?

    Are you aware that CH4 concentrations have tripled in the last 200 years?

    Shindell et. al. put the 70 up to 105 for other reasons.

    Time to give up beef and lamb.

    Comment by Geoff Beacon — 9 Jan 2012 @ 4:25 AM

  73. Isn’t “runaway” usually used to describe when feedbacks and forcings are no longer controllable by reducing emissions: the handbrake no longer works, so to speak?

    Comment by J Bowers — 9 Jan 2012 @ 6:20 AM

  74. Current Arctic warming is largely driven by massive changes in heat exchange processes, from a once very short summer weather period to much longer ones in less than ones lifetime. It is this process change which I observe, and also the dimming of winter overall strength, once seen by strong refraction events. More frequent incursions of warmer low pressure Cyclones from the South bring heat which destroys surface boundary layers and changes twilight brightness. All of which has a severe influence on permafrost, once reinforced by colder winters having effectively an insulating steady surface air layer , now much weakened, allowing apparently lower spring and fall sun rays to have greater impact. The only limitation factor is the long night, which instantly cools the atmosphere. The limit of outgassing is thus left to how open the Arctic Ocean is, open water essentially represents summer, even in darkness, since the surface of the sea is much warmer than the long night lower atmosphere. If coastal Arctic open water lasts all year, I am sure that all estimates are off. Winter defined by sea ice has to be watched closely. The bubbling now seen may spread wider as summer weather wins the Arctic.

    Comment by wayne davidson — 9 Jan 2012 @ 7:23 AM

  75. >What makes river water “heavier” than salty sea water?

    Silt, sand or any dense material. Fast running river water may sink a good distance before the solid material separates out.

    Comment by Pete Dunkelberg — 9 Jan 2012 @ 8:09 AM

  76. #71–“… aren’t we allowed to be worried about both?”

    And, since worry by itself accomplishes exactly nothing, aren’t the policy actions mostly the same–ie., mitigating all anthropogenic GHG emissions, beginning with the most amenable and working toward the more obdurate?

    Comment by Kevin McKinney — 9 Jan 2012 @ 8:14 AM

  77. wayne @74 brings up excellent points.

    The loss of ice cover not only means that more open water will be around to directly warm the air into the Arctic night, but that more water vapor will be around to hold heat in. It is not only how much heat there is, but how long it lasts.

    Does anyone know if the models consider that, as the Arctic becomes more and more ice free, we are getting a entire new ocean as a source for the strong GHG water vapor? That would seem to be a pretty powerful feedback in that region, but perhaps I am overlooking something?

    Comment by wili — 9 Jan 2012 @ 9:15 AM

  78. re: 51 “…perhaps I’m alarmed for a longer time frame than some.”

    This is at the core of what make AGW so dismal. Normal (!) AGW due to CO2 is like imagining turning around an oil tanker by throwing feathers at it. If we don’t change our behavior, in 50 years we’ll be on a planet inhospitable to modern civilization. And then [in a stage whisper] we might be wiping out 80% of what’s left 1000 years from now due to CH4. The stakes are so high. The consequences so far removed. You’d feel goofy believing it if it weren’t for the math and visible edges starting to fray.

    Comment by Jeffrey Davis — 9 Jan 2012 @ 9:18 AM

  79. If the number of lakes or their bubbling intensity suddenly increased by a factor of much more than 100, and it persisted this way for much more than 100 years.will it suddenly spell the extinction of human life on Earth?

    [Response: No. It would certainly be extremely disruptive and I wouldn’t like to imagine how it would all play out, but extinction is really high bar to reach (really, nowhere on Earth could support humans?), and it does very little good to frame things as if that was the issue. – gavin]

    Comment by imigyjunia — 9 Jan 2012 @ 10:57 AM

  80. Another article on the issue here

    Comment by Spike — 9 Jan 2012 @ 11:14 AM

  81. Alan D. Roth:

    I agree with a good deal of what you say. However, it’s important to look at things as objectively as possible.
    There may well be 900 GT carbon locked in permafrost.

    Thawing of said permafrost doesn’t mean it’s all going to be released to the atmosphere. For example, there are huge peat reserves in Indonesia which is a long way from freezing. Some portion will be released; some as methane. That’s reason enough to keep it frozen as far as I’m concerned.

    Comment by David Miller — 9 Jan 2012 @ 11:25 AM

  82. Peter Ellis wrote: “… aren’t we allowed to be worried about both?”

    Sure, and we are allowed to worry about ocean acidification and deforestation too.

    More to the point, what are we going to DO about any of these things?

    And the answer is the same for all of them, and very well known.

    Comment by SecularAnimist — 9 Jan 2012 @ 11:59 AM

  83. Apologies if this abstract has been posted here before:

    “Near-bottom water warming in the Laptev Sea in response to atmospheric and sea-ice conditions in 2007”

    Jens A. Hölemann,1 Sergey Kirillov,2 Torben Klagge,3 Andrey Novikhin,2 Heidemarie Kassens,3 & Leonid Timokhov2

    “In this paper we present new data from ship-based measurements and two-year observations from moorings in the Laptev Sea along with Russian historical data. The observations from the Laptev Sea in 2007 indicate that the bottom water temperatures on the mid-shelf increased by more than 3�C compared to the long-term mean as a consequence of the unusually high summertime surface water temperatures. Such a distinct increase in near-bottom temperatures has not been observed before…Strong polynya activity during March to May 2007 caused more summertime open water and therefore warmer sea surface temperatures in the Laptev Sea. During the ice-free period in August and September 2007, the prevailing cyclonic atmospheric circulation deflected the freshwater plume of the River Lena to the east, which increased the salinity on the mid-shelf north of the Lena Delta. The resulting weaker density stratification allowed more vertical mixing of the water column during storms in late September and early October, leading to the observed warming of the near-bottom layer in the still ice-free Laptev Sea… Warmer water temperatures near the seabed may also impact the stability of the shelf’s submarine permafrost.”

    So there are direct measurements that the bottom of the Arctic Ocean is getting significantly warmer. If I understand correctly, most of the top of the methane hydrate level is right at the edge of destabilization. ANY increase in temp should be able to destabilize it. I would think that 3 degrees would be more than enough, especially after a few years of that heat radiating through any sediment that is between the water and the hydrate or permafrost.

    The mechanisms for a whole lot of subsea permafrost and hydrate destabilizing surely seem to be in place, and any pools of free methane beneath that would likewise likely rapidly degas.

    As Shakhova said back in 2010, sudden release of as much as 50Gt of methane from these sources is possible at any time.

    All of this is reason for everyone and his brother, aunt and sister to greatly reduce their own GHG emissions, and to scream bloody murder till every corporation, institution and governmental body they have any influence over to immediately institute policies to rapidly bring down GHG emissions and look at reliable ways of drawing down atmospheric CO2 levels directly (especially replanting grasslands in the north, tree planting toward the equator where albedo change is not an issue).

    Comment by wili — 9 Jan 2012 @ 12:00 PM

  84. A 2 degree C increase in global temperature from the mid-20th century average is considered dangerous warming by many of our governments. It’s been estimated by the same that an average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 450ppm would produce such an increase. Any additional, unplanned, positive temperature forcing from methane is unwelcome.

    A 2 degree C increase will result in perhaps the extinction of a third of our planet’s species of fish, animals and plants, the future loss of coastal environments dependent on a stable sea level such as the vast marshes along the micro-tidal Gulf of Mexico coastline and many of world’s river deltas, the loss of temperate forest cover as is already occurring, the reduction in seasonal snow and ice cover, the warming of ocean water above that favorable for many marine environments, and the increase in the number of summer days when it is too hot for normal outdoor activity in the earth’s warmer climates.

    It’s a matter of opinion of course, shaped by each of our’s particular life style and place of residence; but for me, the world is already heading to global disaster. In regards to this methane kerfuffle, any increase in global temperature forcing is a disaster for me.

    For me at least, the environmental changes my children and children’s children will face will be dramatic and for the worse. Many of the things that I love and my children love such as the natural barrier island beaches, the tidal cypress swamps, and the pine forests, all within a half hour drive from our home, will without a doubt be gone by 2100. Human development including the disruption of normal coastal geomorphic forces by coastal infrastructure assure that any change in global temperature and consequent sea level, will be a disaster to these environments. Playing outside is already something few kids do here in the summer (Houston) when the afternoon temperature and humidity combine for a heat index over 105F. Though it doesn’t stop us from venturing out in the morning and evenings. But what about when summer heat indices reach 115F? And don’t cool down below 100F? And what about the poor folks in Houston and the rest of the SE U.S. that don’t have airconditioning? For that matter, what about the folks cutting cane in El Salvador who are already dying at the ripe age of 30 from heat stress?

    I’d like to see more discussion of the biological, ecological and lifestyle ramifications of anthropogenic gobal warming discussed at this web site. There have been some excellent summaries of likely future enviroments posted to the GISS web page discussing forest changes changes in afternoon heat indices, etc. This could provide fodder for the team’s posts.

    Comment by Andy — 9 Jan 2012 @ 1:14 PM

  85. @ 76: “And, since worry by itself accomplishes exactly nothing, aren’t the policy actions mostly the same–ie., mitigating all anthropogenic GHG emissions, beginning with the most amenable and working toward the more obdurate?”

    @ 82: “And the answer is the same for all of them, and very well known.”
    Is it really?

    “mitigate” is a vague general word for many.

    In plain English, stop burning carbon. Leave it in the ground.

    “… the more obdurate.” like transportation. So Subsidize more rail transport from street cars to high speed long distance rail. Subsidize rooftop solar instead of petroleum. Then make car buyers aware of the lifetime cost of the fuel.

    Comment by Pete Dunkelberg — 9 Jan 2012 @ 2:32 PM

  86. Bangalore: not quite flat, and just a thin solar edge in the boondocks.

    Comment by Pete Dunkelberg — 9 Jan 2012 @ 3:40 PM

  87. Meanwhile back on the CO2 farm, the 4, 5, or 6C warming we could face in 100 to 200 years, from what I understand, is enough to go on to pretty much destroy most life on earth, though I’m not sure if the time for this to cause tremendous damage and kill off more than half of life is short (a few hundred years) or longer (1000s or 10,000s of years). Does anyone have an idea?

    When would be the soonest, say, some 70 or 80% of life on earth could die, or perhaps all of life. I know there’s a lot more life than, say, during the end-Permian, and it is much more resilient now than. (see )

    [Response:These are not even remotely answerable in any meaningful way.–Jim]

    Another dangerous thing about methane. Apparently in warmer, superanoxic conditions some sea bacteria turn CH4 into H2S (hydrogen sulfide) which kills life, and is thought to have nearly done in what meager life remained during the end-Permian 251 mya after serious 6-8C warming over 10000s of years did a nasty job on life.

    So just because CH4 doesn’t all go into the atmosphere or doesn’t seem to be the light-sleeping irracible dragon we made it out to be (which we are compulsively poking with our CO2 emission-caused warming), doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.


    Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water ….

    Comment by Lynn Vincentnathan — 9 Jan 2012 @ 4:18 PM

  88. Shakhova and Semiletov have identified CH4 sources on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) as comprising hydrates (1,000 Gtonnes), gas (700 Gtonnes) and permafrost (500 Gtonnes). On-shore Siberian CH4 sources comprise permafrost including yedoma (1,000 Gtonnes) and resumption of biota decay (700 Gtonnes), mostly within the top 5 metres of land covered by continuous permafrost.

    All near-surface deposits of Siberian CH4, estimated as ~4,000 Gtonnes, are susceptible to warming. Offshore deposits are subject to the effects of ocean warming (3°C in the last 3 decades) all year and a seasonally warming atmosphere. On-shore deposits are affected by atmospheric warming amplified to 2 or 3 times average global warming. It is reasonable to conclude that off-shore deposits are more vulnerable to destabilisation in the short term (within the next 30-50 years) than those on-shore. However modeling by Lawrence at al (2005) shows that by 2100 the top 3 metres of permafrost will be lost and this will have significant effects on CH4 emissions over the next century.

    Shakhova points out and Archer clearly recognises that only a small fraction of these vulnerable deposits, around 1% or 2%, have to vent to the atmosphere this century to cause abrupt, irreversible climate change. Knowing that total anthropogenic GHG emissions are unlikely to be curbed for at least a decade; knowing that Arctic amplification is continuing (some argue accelerating) and causing increased destabilization of Siberian CH4 deposits; can we assert, as the article appear to, that this poses no threat? Schuur and Abbott (2011) make just such a claim. Shakhova and Sermiletov (2010) warn that venting of 50 Gtonnes CH4 could occur at any time.

    Who are we to believe? Those who are engaged in cutting edge field-work or those who hold more sanguine, possibly less informed views?

    Comment by Mike Pope — 9 Jan 2012 @ 6:53 PM

  89. David Miller @81. I think you are right that some carbon in the permafrost will remain. I appreciate your comment. I’ll provide some more information about the permafrost process.

    I mentioned that the 90% estimate is based on the top 3.34 meters of the permafrost while there is still much below that. A process called cryoturbation occurs with repeated thawing and freezing causing movement of the carbon deep into the soil. Permafrost carbon can be found many hundreds of meters below the surface. While some areas may not lose their carbon to a depth of even 3 meters this century, other areas may lose their carbon at much greater depths well before the end of the century.

    I had thought that permafrost starts thawing at the surface and then the warmer temperatures slowly work their way down with lower levels not experiencing a rise in temperature until late in the process. The IPCC FAR WG I Report provides considerable information about temperature rises at low depths. In the Canadian High Arctic, there was warming of permafrost at depths of 15 to 30 meters since the mid-1990s. The increase was about 1 degree Celsius at depths of between 1.6 and 3.2 meters from the 1960s to the 1990s in East Siberia. and from 0.3oC to 0.7oC at a 10-meter depth in northern West Siberia. In northern European Russia from 1973 through 1992 there was an increase of 1.2oC to 2.8oC at a depth of 6 meters. It was also reported that in Central Mongolia at depths from 10 to 90 meters, there was a temperature increase of 0.05oC to 0.15oC per decade over 30 years. In Svalbad, Norway, the permafrost at 20 meters depth has warmed at a decadal rate of about 0.5oC. [citations for all of the above can be found at page 371]

    At a June 2006 Symposium, Dr. Katey Walter said, “The rapid thaw of permafrost can release this carbon nearly instantaneously, raising atmospheric carbon concentrations.” She went on to say that significant permafrost thaw is likely by 2100 and perhaps most of it will thaw by then.

    Studies of current permafrost have led to conclusions about what might have happened as the last glacial period ended and the glaciers receded from a 3-million square kilometer area in Europe and south of West Siberia. The soils may have similarly held organic matter and experienced a carbon loss from the permafrost which would have contributed to past changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Permafrost soil which is rich in carbon holds on average about 2.6% carbon per square meter. In this post-glacial region, the carbon depth was estimated to be about 4 meters. This would yield an average of about 30 kg of carbon per square meter. It is therefore estimated that about 500 billion tons of carbon were emitted into the atmosphere at the end of the last glacial period. The current soils in that region now have about 0.15% carbon compared to the earlier 2.6%. (Zimov, Permafrost and the Global Carbon Budget) There was no mention of how much time this would have taken.

    I think that we have still a lot to learn before we can speak with more certainty. But it’s a game of probability and the situation in the continuous permafrost area raises great concern.

    Comment by Alan D. Roth — 9 Jan 2012 @ 6:56 PM

  90. Our emissions policies should be driven by the worst case, since the worst case is truly catastrophic to life on earth. Your elaboration of our future confused me- if worst case methane bursts are roughly equivalent to CO2 emissions.

    Comment by ledaladdin — 9 Jan 2012 @ 9:41 PM

  91. There are a few interesting points made by this blog post.

    1) The idea that melting stuff can increase GH emissions. That must have happened before. Imagine a huge methane reserve pimple spurting into the atmosphere like a super volcano.
    2) The abstract fun associated with this idea. Honestly, it reminds me of the partisan ideas of W. E. over at Why should it be fun? It’s horrifying.

    Comment by Ed Barbar — 9 Jan 2012 @ 11:51 PM

  92. It’s quite a relief to know that massive releases of methane won’t “abruptly” kill off humanity. That the disruptions of just about every aspect of climate and weather could drag on for a long period would would make the experience much more … interesting.

    Not a word in the piece about surprises – the unexpected things nobody thought about, or properly factored into the bigger picture. In times past I was impressed by the “mousetrap” scenarios. Push something to the breaking point – like the catch on the rodent trap – and something gives way.

    Lately my earthquake insurance has taken a big jump. Considering how I’m on the most distant fringes of the New Madrid fault, I wondered what Big Insurance knew that I didn’t. Well, it turns out if you ‘lubricate’ an underground fault it’ll be more likely to break loose. Fracking anybody? And who expected the most inert of chemicals (according to my sixties-era high school science books) – the CFCs – would eat the ozone layer?

    But we can relax. Only the Business As Usual scenario with regulation CO2 is worrisome. Methane is NOT something which ought to cause us any concern. Just relax about that one.

    Except for the numbers of intelligent remarks in the comments here, I’d be taking down the link to this site about now.

    Comment by Zachary Smith — 10 Jan 2012 @ 12:14 AM

  93. > pimple … spurting … supervolcano

    That’s a slow process — fast in _geologic_ time.

    Look again at the rates of change involved:
    Compare the PETM to Business As Usual:

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 10 Jan 2012 @ 1:07 AM

  94. So, wait — what _could_ make methane a lot worse?

    Well, admittedly, the PETM was a natural rate of change.
    Any methane spike from human warming _will_ happen a lot faster as the warming’s a lot faster, won’t it?

    What else is different? Well, there’s — fertilizer, vast amounts of nitrogen at an equally high rate of change. Like sulfate and CO2, nitrogen and methane may mask one another’s effects at least for a while or until one gets limited.

    “the oxidative capacity of the atmosphere has remained constant, a bit of a shock as with the increasing injection of methane and various dirties …”

    We got a bit surprised finding that removing sulfates removed a negative forcing on warming.

    What happens if we clean up our nitrogen pollution problem — due both to agricultural overuse getting into the air, and to internal combustion engines burning nitrogen. Do we then see a lot more methane accumulating?

    Sign me puzzled.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 10 Jan 2012 @ 1:20 AM

  95. More work on explaining methane genesis, also explains better the PETM event.

    Inland waters take in organic carbon and emit methane

    Extreme organic carbon burial fuels intense methane bubbling in a temperate reservoir – Sobek et al. (2012)
    Abstract: “Organic carbon (OC) burial and greenhouse gas emission of inland waters plays an increasingly evident role in the carbon balance of the continents, and particularly young reservoirs in the tropics emit methane (CH4) at high rates. Here we show that an old, temperate reservoir acts simultaneously as a strong OC sink and CH4 source, because the high sedimentation rate supplies reactive organic matter to deep, anoxic sediment strata, fuelling methanogenesis and gas bubble emission (ebullition) of CH4 from the sediment. Damming of the river has resulted in the build-up of highly methanogenic sediments under a shallow water column, facilitating the transformation of fixed CO2 to atmospheric CH4. Similar high OC burial and CH4 ebullition is expected in other reservoirs and natural river deltas.”


    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 1:53 AM

  96. The sudden release of large amounts of natural gas from methane clathrate deposits in runaway climate change could be a cause of past, future, and present climate changes. The release of this trapped methane is a potential major outcome of a rise in temperature; it is thought that this is a main factor in the global warming of 6°C that happened during the end-Permian extinction as methane is much more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (despite its atmospheric lifetime of around 12 years, it has a global warming potential of 72 over 20 years and 25 over 100 years). The theory also predicts this will greatly affect available oxygen content of the atmosphere. Source Clathrate Gun Hypothesis

    THis explains the die off of land fauna and flora

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 2:07 AM

  97. Focusing on the Permian-Triassic boundary, Gregory Ryskin [1] explores the possibility that mass extinction can be caused by an extremely fast, explosive release of dissolved methane (and other dissolved gases such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide) that accumulated in the oceanic water masses prone to stagnation and anoxia (e.g., in silled basins).

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 2:11 AM

  98. I’ve been reading Real Climate since it’s inception and find the current thread to be the most interesting yet. As a layman, I often struggle and sometimes fail to keep up. Thanks for exploring these issues in this public forum.

    Comment by Brill Papdish — 10 Jan 2012 @ 6:15 AM

  99. ah Proc, forget the “fast, explosive” pimple-popping notion.
    Seriously, if you want to rely on Wikipedia, read the first page you cited:

    “… “clathrate gun” … abrupt runaway warming in a timescale less than a human lifetime …. is now thought unlikely.[3][4]
    … there is stronger evidence …., over timescales of tens of thousands of years ….”

    Again, what the original post says is the key.

    Methane thawing is slow compared to human fossil fuel use.

    Fire burns faster than ice melts.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 10 Jan 2012 @ 9:39 AM

  100. At this level of emissions, the chance of radiatively important mesospheric clouds forming would increase. Hansen et al. considered increased stratospheric water vapor as an indirect forcing from methane, but they do not consider the broadband infrared properties of ice crystals in the Efficacy paper. There is also feedback to stratospheric ozone abundance owing to solid phase chemistry on the crystal surface. There may be more to consider under such a high emissions scenario.

    Comment by Chris Dudley — 10 Jan 2012 @ 10:04 AM

  101. #99 Hank Roberts, first of my pseudonym is not “Proc”. secondly and most important you seem to be to quick with your downcasting of the Clathrate Gun, because the science you referring to, is not related to any mass extinction event.

    ” might be responsible for warming events in and at the end of the last ice age.[2] This is now thought unlikely.[3][4]”

    Also when we assessing todays methane potential, most people are not aware that the hydrates are much more than during the PETM

    “the global ocean bottom temperatures were ~6 degree C higher than today which induces much smaller volume of sediment hosting gas hydrate than today, global hydrate amount before PETM was thought much less than present-day estimates. ”–Eocene_Thermal_Maximum

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 10:15 AM

  102. Chris (#15) those are global numbers. They are going to be MUCH higher in the Arctic with a diffusion time of months to years. It’s gonna get smoggy.

    Anyone interested in the methane degradation mechanism could look here. More details on one of the steps here

    Comment by Eli Rabett — 10 Jan 2012 @ 10:22 AM

  103. Alan D Roth in #89:

    At a June 2006 Symposium, Dr. Katey Walter said, “The rapid thaw of permafrost can release this carbon nearly instantaneously, raising atmospheric carbon concentrations.”

    Does anyone have a proposed mechanism why thaw == release?

    I see active biological systems with high carbon content through all sorts of temperate environments, and the carbon isn’t all released. I see inactive biological systems – large peat reserves, for example – where the carbon is contained.

    Is the difference that much of the carbon in permafrost is easily decomposed biologically? Like a big compost pile that was never warm enough to compost?

    Comment by David Miller — 10 Jan 2012 @ 10:45 AM

  104. A question about hydrate numbers:

    When estimates such as this quoted in #88
    Shakhova and Semiletov have identified CH4 sources on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) as comprising hydrates (1,000 Gtonnes), gas (700 Gtonnes) and permafrost (500 Gtonnes). On-shore Siberian CH4 sources comprise permafrost including yedoma (1,000 Gtonnes) and resumption of biota decay (700 Gtonnes), mostly within the top 5 metres of land covered by continuous permafrost.

    is it safe to assume they’re talking about the amount of methane, not the amount of hydrate?

    Just wanted to make sure.


    [Response:Sounds like mass of CH4, not to be confused with mass of CO2. No one talks about mass of hydrate (CH4 + ~12 H2O or whatever) that I’ve heard. Actually the fraction of the water cages that are filled is not 100%, so the stoiciometry (chemical ratio of methane to water) is not a simple thing. David]

    Comment by David Miller — 10 Jan 2012 @ 10:56 AM

  105. Increasing atmospheric methane by a factor of 10 will increase the water input to the stratosphere from methane oxidation by a similar factor. What effect would this have on the ozone layer, and what would be the forcing from high altitude clouds (if any form)?

    [Response: For moderate increases, you’d get a decrease in ozone, but for really big perturbations, there are a lot of factors that could come into play – dynamics, PSCs, strat-trop exchange, and it would get more complicated than I think anyone has really modelled – maybe in some of the P-T event work perhaps. – gavin]

    Comment by Paul — 10 Jan 2012 @ 11:32 AM

  106. A major feedback potential, unrecognized large scale source for methanogenesis becomes evident with pronounced SLR.

    We need to quantify the land mass which is affected from SLR and we have to start analyzing how much extra methane will be created from the flooded land mass. When SLR floods low lying land mass, the organic matter within these areas will start to create methane from accelerated composting. This in itself is a powerful feedback on the carbon cycle, from global warming induced SLR.

    [Response: Yes…. but we had 120m of sea level rise in the deglaciation (including over these Arctic shelves), and there is no trace of corresponding methane spikes in response in the high resolution Greenland ice core records. That implies that this isn’t likely to be a big source. – gavin]

    [Response: You might first want to come up with an explanation of how the methanogens needed to create this supposed methane and “powerful feedback” can survive in the highy oxygenated and saline waters of the very shallow ocean.–Jim]

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 11:32 AM

  107. On heaviness of water… yeah, brain infarction. See post lower that made a couple good points, however. Also, I don’t believe I was correcting anyone, but was raising a point. Also, the heat and energy of the runoff is still an issue, even if buoyancy is not. This has been noted in recent work, I believe, and is not just my imagination.

    Steve: Assertion is not evidence. Assertions (mine) supported by subsequent observations (lots of things happening faster than anticipated) are the opposite of what you state. Now, can we stop talking about me? I find the topic boring. Much more interesting is why the reports starting with responses to IPCC IV in 2006, bolstered strongly by Walter, et al., in particular, and pretty much all the science since, led me to claim that the Arctic would be melting out much faster than expected, and in time frames of, well, what we are seeing, and why I have been accurate.

    Last winter I predicted 2011 would be as wacky weather wise as the previous year had been, if not more so, even though 2011 was largly expected to be cooler…and was. I’d forgotten it as it had been in conversation and postings on Facebook, e.g., but a friend reminded me of that. It’s system dynamics. I’ve not looked at stuff this year, but Hansen’s guess that this year will be warmer than any other is not reassuring. If accurate, more energy means more wackiness, generally, so… but the sea ice and such play a role, so we’ll see what we see.

    It’s a serious question that goes beyond just science vs. policy. This is about accuracy. I have agreed with those scientists who are apparently “alarmists.” We have been correct, not once, but consistently. Is there something we can learn from this?

    We have tipping points to avoid, so figuring out how some figure things out before others using the same info might be useful. The recent Schneider video showed him pointed out tipping points happen 50 years (I don’t think he meant literally that all tipping points manifest 50 years after being passed) before the effects fully manifest. We’re obviously hitting them a lot faster than we expected.

    Perhaps we should worry less about sarcastic shouts of “Ooga-booga!” and more about just how it is we CAN figure these things out and do something about this. Demonizing me isn’t going slow the melt any.

    It’s melting. It’s melting quickly. I expect an 8o% ice free Arctic Ocean before 2020, and likely well before then. I think the recent findings will hold, they will be found to increase exponentially, and likely on a parabolic curve. I say this because logic says so: the evidence rates of change are on a parabolic curve in the short term, and the clathrates are very close to being a binary tipping point: there is either enough cold and pressure to keep them frozen or there isn’t, for the most part. They are very sensitive to conditions. All our assumptions about how quickly they *will* destabilize is based on past conditions that do not match current conditions. Never in human history, and according to the science, not really even in Earth’s history, have so many different systems – all of them! – been so badly degraded so quickly and all at the same time.

    This time really is different. I encourage all to trust their numbers, but also their logic and intuition. It’s worked for me. You can disparage me for being right and arrogant or right, but a stopped clock, but you can’t deny I’ve been right. Maybe I won’t be from here on out, but that’s a wager I’ll take. It’s nothing but systems and not having a previous bias: I didn’t know the slightest thing about ice dynamics in 2006 and 2007, and it didn’t matter. I believed the science and something told me to pay attention to certain data points. I’m far better educated now, and still far, far less educated than most here, but those same data points, and new ones all the time, are not changing my mind, but are reinforcing it.

    Do with all this what you will.

    I’m busy with solutions these days, primarily in the form of Occupy activism and trying to encourage regenerative principles of social design be incorporated into that, and my personal situation is beyond tenuous, so am not sure I’ll bother with enough research to make any specific predictions this year, but the basics are more than enough for massive policy and social changes, so maybe it doesn’t matter.


    Comment by ccpo/killian — 10 Jan 2012 @ 11:40 AM

  108. > carbon in permafrost is easily decomposed biologically?
    > Like a big compost pile that was never warm enough to compost?

    I think that’s right. And it’s been submerged and frozen.
    Thawed and drained, it starts changing.

    Lots at:

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 10 Jan 2012 @ 12:36 PM

  109. #106 and inline–

    At the risk of displaying my folly once again–hey, at least it’s folly in good faith–I’d think that 120 meters of sea water ought to stabilize a lot of clathrate via increased pressure, if I’ve understood this correctly so far. (And presuming, of course, that the SLR preceded most clathrate loss, which might be questionable.)

    [Response:Sea level does have an effect, but I think temperature effects are generally larger. At least, when they analysed the factors that might have caused the Storegga landslide off Norway, that’s what they found (Meinert, Marine and Petroleum Geology 22 (2005) 233–244). David]

    Comment by Kevin McKinney — 10 Jan 2012 @ 12:53 PM

  110. [Response: Yes…. but we had 120m of sea level rise in the deglaciation (including over these Arctic shelves), and there is no trace of corresponding methane spikes in response in the high resolution Greenland ice core records. That implies that this isn’t likely to be a big source. – gavin]

    But doesn’t the data suggest that parts of today’s methane sinks are formed from SLR – within a relative short geological time – during deglaciation, in areas which are prone to cyclic glaciation/deglaciation patterns. And then the CPZ permafrost has been untouched since quiet some time (unaffected by the deglaciation ), therefor the MG potential for an increase in SLR must be attributed to different sources with different factors, not just on last deglaciation.

    I assume that during the glaciation process, organic material was ice-caged and with the deglaciation sunk to the bottom sediments, where it begun to form the basis for methane sources.

    On the bottom line, we have to prepare for more methane release than previously thought.

    Anomalously high concentrations (up to 154 nM or 4400% supersaturation) of dissolved methane in the bottom layer of shelf water suggest that the bottom layer is somehow affected by near-bottom sources. Considering the possible formation mechanisms of such plumes, their studies indicated thermoabrasion and the effects of shallow gas or gas hydrates release.
    Research in 2008 in the Siberian Arctic has shown clathrate-derived methane being released through perforations in the seabed permafrost.

    Sedimentary deposits follow cyclic patterns. Prevailing theories hold that this cyclicity primarily represents the response of depositional processes to the rise and fall of sea level. The rock record indicates that in earlier eras, sea level was both much lower than today and much higher than today. Such anomalies often appear worldwide. For instance, during the depths of the last ice age 18,000 years ago when hundreds of thousands of cubic miles of ice were stacked up on the continents as glaciers, sea level was 120 metres (390 ft) lower, locations that today support coral reefs were left high and dry, and coastlines were miles farther outward.

    At mean annual soil surface temperatures below −5 °C (23 °F) the influence of aspect can never be sufficient to thaw permafrost and a zone of continuous permafrost (abbreviated to CPZ) forms. There are also “fossil” cold anomalies in the Geothermal gradient in areas where deep permafrost developed during the Pleistocene that still persists down to several hundred metres

    [Response: Hold up a little here. You are arguing that we need to be prepared for a much greater flux of methane from these sources than we have been discussing. Yet, for all of the mechanisms you mention (SLR, permafrost melt, Arctic warming), we have had prior changes that are much larger (and for SLR, much faster) during the deglaciation and early Holocene that were demonstrably unaccompanied by any large methane pulses such as David’s ‘worst case’. Changes in methane from LGM to pre-industrial was about 0.4 ppm, of which some may have come from these sources (though most is associated with boreal and tropical wetlands) – it simply makes no sense to argue that this lack of methane spikes means that we assuredly have much larger changes to come. – gavin]

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 1:33 PM

  111. [Response: You might first want to come up with an explanation of how the methanogens needed to create this supposed methane and “powerful feedback” can survive in the highy oxygenated and saline waters of the very shallow ocean.–Jim]

    With SLR, from coastal or water way erosion, or newly created flood-zones, we get more sedimentation rates and “anoxic conditions”.

    Flooded soils occur with complete water saturation of soil pores, and generally result in anoxic conditions of the soil environment. Flooded soil environments may include such ecosystem as: rice paddies; wetlands (swamps, marshes, and bogs); compacted soils; and post-rain soils (Scow, 2008). Additionally, similar redox conditions (where oxygen is lacking) can also be found within soil aggregates and along pollutant plumes, and thus many of the concepts discussed in this section may be applied to those environments.
    Oxygen is only sparingly soluble in water and diffuses much more slowly through water than through air (Schlesinger, 1997). What little oxygen that is present in saturated soils in the form of dissolved O2 is quickly consumed through metabolic processes. Oxygen is used as terminal electron acceptor via respiration by roots, soil microbes, and soil organisms (Sylvia, 2005), and is lost from the soil system in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2). Heterotrophic respiration may completely deplete oxygen in flooded soils; and these effects may be observed within only a few millimeters of the soil surface (Schlesinger, 1997).
    Due to the deficiency of oxygen in flooded soils, those organisms inhabiting flooded soils must be able to survive with little to no oxygen. Although energy yields are much greater with oxygen than with any other terminal electron acceptor (see #Electron tower theory, section 2.1.1), under anoxic conditions anaerobic and facultative microbes can use alternative electron acceptors such as nitrate, ferric iron (Fe III), manganese (IV) oxide, sulfate, and carbon dioxide to produce energy and build biomass.
    Microbial transformations of elements in anaerobic soils play a large role in biogeochemical cycling of nutrients and in greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in the oxidation state of terminal electron acceptors may result in nutrient loss from the system via volatilization or leaching. Anaerobic microbial processes including denitrification, methanogenesis, and methanotrophy are responsible for releasing greenhouse gases (N2O, CH4, CO2) into the atmosphere (Schlesinger, 1997).

    Organic carbon (OC) burial and greenhouse gas emission of inland waters plays an increasingly evident role in the carbon balance of the continents, and particularly young reservoirs in the tropics emit methane (CH4) at high rates. Here we show that an old, temperate reservoir acts simultaneously as a strong OC sink and CH4 source, because the high sedimentation rate supplies reactive organic matter to deep, anoxic sediment strata, fuelling methanogenesis and gas bubble emission (ebullition) of CH4 from the sediment.

    Carbon isotopic composition, methanogenic pathway and fraction of CH4 oxidized in rice field flooded all year round

    Also related

    Anaerobic oxidation of methane: an underappreciated aspect of
    methane cycling in peatland ecosystems?
    AOM might be a significant and underappreciated constraint on the global CH4 cycle

    [Response: Well, cutting and pasting of blocks of text from various places isn’t a very good way to answer a question, as I’ve told you before. But let’s address this anyhow. Your text is mundane and deals exclusively with the issues of inundation and carbon supply in freshwater systems. That’s clearly not relevant since your initial assertion was about sea level rising to produce more methane. This is a completely different process than your text discusses, with respect to (at the least) salinity, dynamics of inundation, and temperature. You are simply arguing that tidal salt water process will produce the same results as freshwater inundation w.r.t. methane.–Jim]

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 1:46 PM

  112. Has there been any clear answer to what causes pingoes? The old answer was ice lenses forming; recently they have been attributed to methane, e.g.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 10 Jan 2012 @ 1:47 PM

  113. uh, oh; some new ones have been found in shallow oxygenated oceans:
    “This study provides evidence for the existence of a novel microbial diversity and diverse aerobic methanotrophs that appear to constitute marine specialized lineages.”

    [Response:Those are methanotrophs (consumers), not methanogens (producers).–Jim]

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 10 Jan 2012 @ 1:50 PM

  114. “When suboxic waters (oxygen essentially absent) occur at depths of less than 300 feet, the combination of high respiration rates, and the peculiarities of a process called denitrification can cause N2O production rates to be 10,000 times higher than the average for the open ocean.”

    All points to anoxic condition, as a major greenhouse gas driver and pathway for novel bacteria following/during or at start, the event of large methane excursions.

    Some specialties about biomagnetic magnetite ( organisms which produce ferromagnetic mineral magnetite )are a specific occurrence during the PETM.

    Research has also found that the magnetite is produced by the cells of the organism when needed. Forms of advanced physical intelligence can directly tap into this information if they have a crystalline network within their brain cavity.

    Scientists are now asking the fundamental question: What is magnetite doing in the human brain? In magnetite-containing bacteria, the answer is simple: Magnetite crystals turn the bacteria into swimming needles that orient with respect to the earth’s magnetic fields.

    The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which occurred 55.5 Ma, was caused by a massive release of carbon, as indicated by an 3% negative carbon isotope xcursion recorded in the marine, atmospheric, and terrestrial reservoirs. One suggested source for the carbon, a cometary impactor, is based on the sudden
    appearance and high concentration of single-domain (SD) magnetite in Paleocene-Eocene (P-E) boundary cores from the North Atlantic continental margin. We evaluate the potential sources of SD magnetite at the P-E boundary by presenting new magnetic hysteresis, low-temperature magnetic remanence, and transmission electron microscopy data from the North Atlantic coastal ocean. Our results show a similar increase in SD material but demonstrate that the magnetic material has a biogenic origin. These findings indicate that the high concentrations of SD magnetite immediately above the P-E boundary are the result of unusual accumulations and/or preservation of magnetotactic bacteria. Such bacteria typically occupy the oxic-anoxic transition zone near the sediment-water interface or in the water column. The high abundances of SD magnetite in sediments from across the shelf may be an artifact of nonsteady state redox conditions and exceptional preservation of SD magnetite. It may also indicate that the oxic-anoxic redox boundary shifted into the water column. The latter explanation implies transient eutrophy of the coastal ocean in this region, most likely due to seasonally enhanced runoff, and increased stratification and nutrient loading

    [Response:Completely incoherent. Further such pure copy/pasting without explanation will be deleted.–Jim]

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 2:08 PM

  115. 1. Here a -bolic, there a -bolic, everywhere a parabolic…

    I spoke to Josh Willis, Oceanographer with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Lab – Josh is one of best known young ocean scientists on the planet. He pointed me to the recent Kemp et al study of tidal marshes on the US East coast, which has produced a long record of sea level over the last 2,000 years, complete with a very Hockey-stickish uptick during the last 200 or so.

    Jason Box of the Byrd Polar Center at Ohio State was there, presenting evidence of acceleration in Greenland ice loss over the last 200 years.

    His bottom line – “If we talk 10 years from now, my expectation is that Greenland will be losing roughly double what it is now.”

    This is a system response, so in a sense, if any part of the system is in a parabolic increase in activity/breakdown/what have you, the whole system is. Parabolic changes in one part are bound to drive at least some parabolic changes in other parts. And, put simply, regardless of anyone’s knowledge of science or anything else, this is quite simply how complex systems behave when they are changing states, i.e., breaking down. Expect parabolic curves all over the place. To not to is to deny simple facts of life.

    from here:

    via Tenney:

    2. Re: [Response: Yes…. but we had 120m of sea level rise in the deglaciation (including over these Arctic shelves), and there is no trace of corresponding methane spikes in response in the high resolution Greenland ice core records. That implies that this isn’t likely to be a big source. – gavin]

    and 109 above:

    It’s my understanding that rise created/sequestered the hydrates when it covered the permafrost (apparently, iirc, fairly recent finding show a lot of the methane is from the previous interglacial?). Thus, a query: the SLR covered the permafrost/clathrates, but there was something like a 10C (or was it F? Lordy, I have no head for details… which is why I loved science but didn’t pursue it at uni) rise in a decade at the end of the younger Dryas, so could it be while the vast majority of the permafrost was cold enough and covered quickly enough by a cold enough ocean to remain frozen, or perhaps re-freeze, is it not possible some percentage of the shallowest deposits did, in fact, make it into the atmosphere?

    Comment by ccpo/killian — 10 Jan 2012 @ 2:18 PM

  116. [edit copy/pasted material removed]
    Source Microbewiki @ Kenyon.Edu

    [Response:Just link to it and be done with it. And anyway the point is…?–Jim]

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 2:37 PM

  117. Would there be some way to capture and use all this methane? I realize it’s like trying to catch water vapor evaporating off the ocean but, still, natural gas is one hell of an energy source and anything that could be done would lessen the hit to the atmosphere (or at least get some useful work out of it first)

    [Response:The source is pretty dispersed. Think thousands of miles of swampy tundra. David]

    Comment by floundericious — 10 Jan 2012 @ 3:09 PM

  118. […You are simply arguing that tidal salt water process will produce the same results as freshwater inundation w.r.t. methane.–Jim]

    Yes but not only from this events, i’m not saying my input in conclusive yet. There is also more MG from precipitation uptake – which affect inland water.

    [Response: Not conclusive?? The discussion here is whether it’s even within the realm of reasonable possibility.–Jim]

    This study is about this very implication, on point.

    Accelerated microbial organic matter mineralization following salt-water intrusion into tidal freshwater marsh soils

    The impact of salt-water intrusion on microbial organic carbon (C) mineralization in tidal freshwater marsh (TFM) soils was investigated in a year-long laboratory experiment in which intact soils were exposed to a simulated tidal cycle of freshwater or dilute salt-water. Gas fluxes [carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4)], rates of microbial processes (sulfate reduction and methanogenesis), and porewater and solid phase biogeochemistry were measured throughout the experiment. Flux rates of CO2 and, surprisingly, CH4 increased significantly following salt-water intrusion, and remained elevated relative to freshwater cores for 6 and 5 months, respectively.

    [Response: This is the only thing you’ve come up with that has any relevance to your original claim. It’s interesting, but as a one year lab experiment the relevance of its results are impossible to determine.]

    Methanogenic community composition and anaerobic carbon turnover in
    submarine permafrost sediments of the Siberian Laptev Sea.

    The Siberian Laptev Sea shelf contains submarine permafrost, which was formed by flooding of terrestrial permafrost with ocean water during the Holocene sea level rise. This flooding resulted in a warming of the permafrost to temperatures close below 0 degrees C. The impact of these environmental changes on methanogenic communities and carbon dynamics in the permafrost was studied in a submarine permafrost core of the Siberian Laptev Sea shelf. Total organic carbon (TOC) content varied between 0.03% and 8.7% with highest values between 53 and 62 m depth below sea floor. In the same depth, maximum methane concentrations (284 nmol CH(4) g(-1)) and lowest carbon isotope values of methane (-72.2 per thousand VPDB) were measured, latter indicating microbial formation of methane under in situ conditions. The archaeal community structure was assessed by a nested polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification for DGGE, followed by sequencing of reamplified bands. Submarine permafrost samples showed a different archaeal community than the nearby terrestrial permafrost. Samples with high methane concentrations were dominated by sequences affiliated rather to the methylotrophic genera Methanosarcina and Methanococcoides as well as to uncultured archaea. The presented results give the first insights into the archaeal community in submarine permafrost and the first evidence for their activity at in situ conditions.

    [Response:Yes, so methane is produced in situ in undersea permafrost; we knew that already. Are you implying that this is evidence that these archaea are also going to produce large amounts of methane in the intertidal zone? Because if you are, you’re wrong–Jim]

    .. it is proposed that the dominant methanogen type in wetlands is primarily influenced by available DOC (dissolved organic carbon) concentration

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 3:14 PM

  119. [Response:Just link to it and be done with it. And anyway the point is…?–Jim]

    Jim, you could have left the topic headline at least, which is about methanogenesis. My point to post it was because the article is good written and covers current research, which in turn affects the current discussion. Because other carbon sources are mentioned, which this article is not considering.

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 3:18 PM

  120. [Response:Completely incoherent. Further such pure copy/pasting without explanation will be deleted.–Jim]

    Jim, you might want to read the post again, it is not pure copy/past.
    Since i posted evidence to show a strong link to methanogenesis from salt water intrusion. I wonder what your point is?

    [Response:Not that I can see you didn’t. How much time do you think I have to wade through your posts and figure out what you’re trying to say–even one time? Make a coherent argument based on some definite study of the literature, don’t just shotgun up a bunch of copy/paste and links and expect people to follow your arguments, much less buy into them–Jim]

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 3:26 PM

  121. [edit – please just focus on substance]

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 6:14 PM

  122. The Runaway Greenhouse Effect – James Hansen

    Comment by prokaryotes — 10 Jan 2012 @ 11:27 PM

  123. Ah, yes… Hansen’s assertion that a H2O runaway greenhouse could happen on Earth without changes in the Sun.
    This isn’t what was meant by “runaway” in David’s post in case anyone’s wondering.

    RC commenters can get quite irrational when this theory of Hansen’s is brought up. Denying that Hansen is saying what he’s saying is a favorite. Unfortunately, I have never seen any comments from RC’s staff openly supporting or opposing Hansen’s assertion.

    Nor have I ever seen any explanation of how Hansen overturned conventional climatology on this issue.
    According to Ray Pierrehumbert for instance, the Earth is in theory already too hot for non-condensible GHGs to affect the onset of a runaway H2O greenhouse (a snowballed Earth might have needed a kickstart but we have open oceans and a large H2O feedback).

    Comment by Anonymous Coward — 11 Jan 2012 @ 12:35 AM

  124. This blog seems to have drifted a little off the original topic, but there are some great posts #50 and #35. It seems to me that David’s argument is only as sound as his assumptions. OK you have plucked a sudden 100 fold methane rise. Sure it might start at 100 fold, but what law of physics says it will stay constant at 100 fold over 100 years. Second, why not ask the following question? if we assume that a warming Arctic was sufficient to destabilise 0.1% of the hydrates in shallow waters, what exactly is going to prevent the other 99.9% from destabilising and quickly? There you don’t have the luxury of high pressure in deep ocean reservoirs, you are dependent on icy temperatures.

    Comment by Tony — 11 Jan 2012 @ 2:14 AM

  125. It is also very useful to look at past warming events when considering near-future potential of thermokarst lake emissions. Thermokarst lakes have been identified to have contributed to the warming at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition: Thermokarst Lakes as a Source of Atmospheric CH4 During the Last Deglaciation (Walter et al. 2007, Science;
    “…Based on high rates of CH4 bubbling from contemporary arctic thermokarst lakes, high CH4 production potentials of organic matter from Pleistocene-aged frozen sediments, and estimates of the changing extent of these deposits as thermokarst lakes developed during deglaciation, we find that CH4 bubbling from newly forming thermokarst lakes comprised 33 to 87% of the high-latitude increase in atmospheric methane concentration and, in turn, contributed to the climate warming at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition…”

    [Response:Thanks for raising this point. I’m no expert but this indeed seems to me a real concern–how hydrological changes and thermokarst dynamics will go exactly, and their relations to peat formation, freeze/thaw processes, fire dynamics and consequent C sink/source dynamics. I’ll add this great overview article to the reading list–Jim]

    Comment by GG — 11 Jan 2012 @ 2:36 AM

  126. David,103
    It’s a time dynamics issue. Low accumulation rates in the arctic/boreal over a long period of time, but even lower decomposition rates. In temperate environments the sink vs source dynamic is much more tightly coupled–if you stopped the C inputs you’d rapidly see a drop in the system C. As for the compost analogy, not necessarily; there will always be faster and slower cycling components in any system (cellulose vs lignin vs humus for example). There is for example, a lot of lignin and humus at depth in peatlands, highly resistant to decomposition.

    Comment by Jim — 11 Jan 2012 @ 8:02 AM

  127. Geoff Beacon #65: it doesn’t matter how the carbon price is if there are no alternatives. Relying on price alone will have the effect that the market will price the increase into lifestyle and live with it. The real purpose of a high carbon price is to provide a leg-up for those alternatives but I am not convinced that that can happen unless you also provide start-up subsidies including replanning urban architectures to make cars less desirable as the default mode of transport. I don’t think any carbon price is high enough to make burying CO_2 on a nontrivial scale a good idea. While releasing a gas from a smokestack results in relatively rapid mixing, a slow leak from underground can result in a high enough build-up before the CO_2 dissipates to reach toxic levels. This has happened before from natural sources. With the volumes you need to bury to make a real difference, this is potentially a more risky technology than nuclear (which is only likely to render a large area uninhabitable relatively slowly; a big CO_2 leak in a populated area could kill in large numbers).

    For anyone wanting to quantify energy options, I suggest taking a look at David Mackay’s calculator. It relates specifically to the UK but you can parameterise it and quantifying is a big plus vs. the gut feel approach that dominates the debate.

    Comment by Philip Machanick — 11 Jan 2012 @ 11:17 AM

  128. David’s explanation might be considered by some to be a reality check on alarmisme, but it is a reality I do’t much care for. The big ‘if’ is mitigation of CO2 emissions and you know there won’t be soon unless a desaster happens sooner.

    Comment by Sascha Tavere — 11 Jan 2012 @ 12:16 PM

  129. Back in the late 80s I had no idea about positive feedbacks (such as albedo reduction and carbon release from melting permafrost & hydrates); I only had knowledge that our human GHG emissions, mostly CO2, may be causing warming, which could be causing more extreme droughts in Africa, floods in Europe, etc. I saw it as a slow linear issue, and that was enough to get me really worked up and start reducing my GHG emissions to the best of my ability, and try to get others on the bandwagon — which turned out to be like hitting my head against a brick wall of resistance.

    Years later when I found out about these positive feedbacks that could make the situation much worse, I still met with resistance re getting others on the bandwagon to reduce GHGs…..and by that time I had found out I was saving money without lowering living standards, but even adding that in I met with resistance.

    So I’m waiting for people (individuals, households, businesses, governments at all levels) to get on the bandwagon enough to make a difference. Maybe it will be like a revitalization (social) movement, like that mouse-trap analogy. But maybe it will be too late by then.

    What I’m focused on now, which I don’t think people have the answer to, is when will we pass that tipping point at which even if we reduce our GHG emissions drastically, nature will just take over and keep emitting CO2 and CH4 (whether that will have a short term really bad impact or a very long term impact after it degrades to CO2)? My reason for reducing GHGs was concern for other people — so I’m just as concerned about people 100,000 years from now as people today.

    Does anyone have any idea? I keep hearing, “in 10 or 15 years we will pass the tipping point of no return” (of going into climate hysteresis), but I heard that 10-15 years ago.

    Comment by Lynn Vincentnathan — 11 Jan 2012 @ 12:49 PM

  130. Part of my problem in evaluating climate science is that I’m not a climate scientist. Even more problematical is the fact I’m not even a generic ‘scientist’ – just an educated layman. So like 99% of the rest of Americans in my situation, I’m forced to take a lot of the things believe I know on trust. In particular, trust in the dumbed-down reports on the work of the “real scientists” I get via the various media outlets.

    In the case of the methane issues connected with climate change, I thought I had a grip on the problem. Methane is a damned high-power greenhouse gas, there are gigatons of the stuff lurking on land and in the ocean, and the stuff has been implicated in past die-offs.

    All of a sudden I’m being told not to worry my head about methane.

    After spending some hours cruising around on the internet tubes looking for methane articles I can understand, I discovered opinions about the topic weren’t set in stone. Certainly there was agreement. An example was an article which favorably cited Dr. Archer’s work.

    “However, unless a plausible mechanism for large-scale abrupt methane release is found, a qualitative change in the global reservoir of marine methane hydrates is extremely unlikely to occur within this millennium.”

    A problem a thousand years down the road can’t be something anybody needs to lose sleep over!

    A site I found taking the opposite view was the “Arctic Methane Emergency Group”. Late last year they published a brochure aimed at the lay public and politicians.

    The first page of their report has a scary quote from James Hansen about the dangers posed by the frozen Arctic methane masses. The last page has a similar one by Steven Chu about those same permafrost stores.

    Research of Hansen’s statement turned up a remark by another climate scientist who said in effect that he loved Hansen to death, but that he (Hansen) was flat wrong about the methane. Let’s assume both Hansen and Chu are wrong. Hansen is coming up on 71 years, and may be losing it. Chu is now a politician, and everybody knows what THAT means. For the purposes of discussion I’m going to tag those fellows who belong to the Emergency Group as amateur & deluded cranks. I found scary statements attributed to Kevin Schaefer and Micha Ruhl, but couldn’t get access to their actual papers, so forget them as well.

    Dr. Archer may be totally and completely right about the extremely low risks associated with methane. On the flip side, he might not be. But one other thing I discovered on my searching was that the cement-headed Deniers have already seized on his work.

    “More on the methane chlatrate scare stories proliferated by resident charlatan watermelons.”

    The Denier was linking to a NYT story which approvingly quoted Dr. Archer.

    For the deniers, it’s this way: if Hansen and Chu and the others are wrong about methane, what else are they wrong about? EVERYTHING! BWHAA HAHA!

    So I’m left with asking if the other Real Climate contributors (there are 8 more by my count) could chime in with their opinions of the hazards (or lack thereof) associated with the Earth’s dormant methane reserves. Since I don’t exactly relish the prospect of being grouped (algore’s cow farts, zachary’s earth farts) with the Obama “birthers” or the 9/11 “truthers”, I do hope to see what they have to say about Dr. David Archer’s views.

    [Response:Clearly, the enormous amount of methane in sea floor sediments could spell disaster if a lot of it made its way free. I try to learn as much as I can about it but like everyone else interested, I’m busy with my own work and there’s only so much time to give to it. So it’s not just the public that depends on what the specialists in that area say, it’s other scientists as well. Science is nothing if not a huge interdependency network of people depending on what other people conclude. Anyway, my attention re the carbon cycle is on other things, like ecosystem productivity changes and fire dynamics, and the issues that GG raised above regarding permafrost and thermokarst, or aerobic respiration in organic (peat) soils. These carbon pools are also enormous, and they are far more labile than clathrates.–Jim]

    Comment by Zachary Smith — 11 Jan 2012 @ 6:04 PM

  131. Zach wrote:

    “All of a sudden I’m being told not to worry my head about methane”

    I believe the original full dismissive phrase is–“Don’t worry your pretty little head about a thing.” (Usually with a Southern lilt).

    And that is exactly the impression I get from the head posts and many of the comments on this thread, even though David Archer has said elsewhere:

    “The worst case scenario is that global warming triggers a decade long release of hundreds of gigatonnes of methane, the equivalent of ten times the current amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We’d be talking about mass extinction.”

    So should we be worried or not?

    [Response:Be very worried about CO2, and methane is frosting on the cake. David]

    Comment by wili — 11 Jan 2012 @ 10:14 PM

  132. Lynn Vincentnathan @129 — The last time there was a gargantuan release of CO2 was during the middle Pliocene
    likely due to some volcano eruptions. Such could happen again but anthropogeneis relases do not incfrease the likelihood.

    Comment by David B. Benson — 12 Jan 2012 @ 1:30 AM

  133. Zachary Smith #130: there is some chance that methane could be a worse problem than most climate scientists accept but the most likely cause of a massive venting of methane is a big increase in temperatures caused by CO2. So while I think it’s great that some people are actively researching this problem, it still points to fixing the CO2 problem. Then we don’t have to worry about whether the small minority predicting disaster are right.

    As a small plus, we also won’t have to worry about peak oil, peak coal, massive environmental destruction from coal mines and oil spills, and massive pollution from tar sands. Or: what if we create a better world for nothing?

    Comment by Philip Machanick — 12 Jan 2012 @ 7:52 AM

  134. Zachary Smith @ 130 – It’s good that you are trying to figure it all out, but as I think you will agree you are really floundering at the moment. It seems that you are trying to learn science from the press and also in part from denier blogs, and then settle things for yourself by throwing labels at people. Note that denialism is a known, described thing, not mere name-calling. The professional climate deniers are not part of the scientific discussion but they are a major problem for all of us as citizens and human beings.

    The experts are the scientists who are researching and publishing in the field. (For now just get passed the complication that some bad papers get published.) The RC blog is provided by a whole team of serious experts. Learn from them.

    [Response:My impression was that he does want to learn, and I don’t blame him for feeling confused about what’s going to happen and wanting to get some more viewpoints. It’s an important question and there’s enormous uncertainty in this stuff and in what will happen. This of course does not justify the dimissiveness or distortion of what’s known. I think what is really pointed up here is that we need a whole lot more scientists actively engaged in educating the public, and a whole lot more of the public engaged in doing their best to educate themselves and asking legitimate questions (as most RC readers do). We all basically struggle with the same discomfort about not being sure about things, we’re just discomforted at different levels of knowledge.–Jim]

    What is the scientific bottom line for citizens? Total emissions. Climate disruption will be proportional to total emissions – not too non-linearly we hope but anyway proportional to total emissions. We know what to do – deploy non carbon energy as fast as possible. We can but we don’t, due to $political$ pressures.

    What about methane, and what is RC trying to tell you? Atmospheric concentrations of many things including methane are measured at many places, notably Mauna Loa. Methane concentration has increased enough to be a contribution to global warming. Where does the increase come from? Edible farm animals especially in Brazil and Australia for export, US refuse dumps, rice paddies, new water reservoirs and so forth. So far as I know (some please correct me if needed) these sources account for the increase in methane in the air without even counting any methane from the arctic. The concern with the Arctic as a CO2 and methane source is that there is a lot there that might somehow get into the air. Getting overly excited about this is a distraction from the real bottom line, total emissions.

    To minimize the damage, we must minimize total emissions. This requires that we Stop burning carbon and Leave it in the ground. Yes, actually leave it there unconsumed. Whatever is left in the ground will not contribute to fossil fuel profits. This, not science, is what the big fight is about.

    Comment by Pete Dunkelberg — 12 Jan 2012 @ 2:05 PM

  135. #134–“Yes, actually leave it there unconsumed.”

    Well, it is a good feedstock for all kinds of useful organic chemistry. I suppose this could be made carbon neutral with suitable energy sourcing and pollution controls.

    Either way, we’ve got to stop burning the stuff, though.

    Comment by Kevin McKinney — 12 Jan 2012 @ 3:19 PM

  136. #135 Kevin McKinney – “Well, it is a good feedstock for all kinds of useful organic chemistry. I suppose this could be made carbon neutral with suitable energy sourcing and pollution controls.

    Either way, we’ve got to stop burning the stuff, though.”

    You sure about that?. You take carbon out of the lithosphere and turn it into medicines, various other products. Wouldn’t a lot of them eventually be oxidized and cause the same atmospheric CO2 and acidification problems? Wouldn’t it still be a net new slug into the atmospheric, ocean and land sinks, and a disruption to the natural carbon cycle?

    Asking a question… I realize that this is at the margins…

    Comment by rustneversleeps — 12 Jan 2012 @ 7:13 PM

  137. Zachary@130, Well, the quotes you give contain the answers. Methane has a finite lifetime in the atmosphere, therefore, things depend as much on the time profile of release as on the amount released. There is no evidence in support of any sort of runaway release. The paleoclimate record just doesn’t have anything that looks like that. I think one thing you can take away is that if we start getting large releases of carbon from the permafrost and oceans, it will not matter whether it is CH4 or CO2 or CH4 turning into CO2. That means the planet is starting to become a source rather than a sink of carbon–and that would be bad.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 12 Jan 2012 @ 8:29 PM

  138. RE #132, and “Lynn Vincentnathan @129 — The last time there was a gargantuan release of CO2 was during the middle Pliocene
    likely due to some volcano eruptions. Such could happen again but anthropogeneis relases do not incfrease the likelihood.”

    I’m not referring to sudden and huge increases in GHGs, just the build up as it is now occurring. At some point this linear build-up and linear increase in temps may trigger the steady linear continuing build up of GHGs from nature (from melting permafrost, etc) even if we reduce our human GHG emissions drastically. Also there is a great lag time between GHG build up and warming (Ramanathan and Feng* suggest there could be an addition warming of 2.4C from the GHGs in the atmosphere now, even if human emissions are halted and nature does not release further GHGs).

    Now these linear events — increasing GHGs and increasing temps — could trigger really bad and drastic responses in other systems (such as life systems). Perhaps catastrophe theory in mathematics could help here (but I’m thinking that might be difficult or impossible, since things like that may be difficult to quantify….like the sudden collapse of ice sheets). Mark Lynas has a good book 6 DEGREES which sort of lays it out about how this linear increase in temps has somewhat of a exponentially bad affect on other earth & life systems….at least until life flatlines.

    So I was referring to just the mundane build up of GHGs, within David’s parameters. Which could put us at tipping points that may be upon us soon that have long (some very long) lag times to completely play out….many decades, even centuries and millennia.

    It’s like we’re shooting bullets into the atmosphere in our current time frame which over decades, centuries, and millennia will go on having really bad repercussions for life on earth. That’s plenty bad enough without huge and sudden GHG releases.
    *Ramanathan, V., and Y. Feng. 2008. “On Avoiding Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference with the Climate System: Formidable Challenges Ahead.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105.38: 14245-14250.

    Comment by Lynn Vincentnathan — 12 Jan 2012 @ 9:52 PM

  139. Despite all the warning signs, most Republicans and GOP presidential candidates have their heads planted firmly in the sand. I suspect that if they were around at the start of WWII they would be saying things like invasion in Pearl Harbor, what invasion? Or, yes we will some day need to deal with the threat of the Japanese war machine, but now is not a good time, the American economy is not ready for it.

    It seems to me that if the good people of America sit back and do nothing, climate change will show little mercy, just like the Japanese war machine. The American war effort was the result of a massive upswelling of unselfish people doing their duty, putting their lives at risk for the greater good. Whatever happened to that spirit of human endeavour? Dealing with climate change is nothing like the sacrifices that were made during the war, and yet there is massive apathy and a loud, devious and obnoxious crowd that take every opportunity to thwart any action. Shame on them, future generations will look back and say what an evil bunch of losers.

    Comment by Tony — 13 Jan 2012 @ 4:16 AM

  140. #136–No, I’m not sure that all possible products you could make from fossil carbon are safe in the sense that they won’t ever result in release to the atmosphere. But the probable quantities aren’t likely to be significant.

    For instance, at one point it occurred to me that in effect we are sequestering considerable quantities of carbon now by making things out of highly stable plastics, then burying the plastic in landfills. But running numbers, I found that though discarded plastic is “considerable” enough as waste issue, it’s much, much too small an amount to affect our carbon flux to the atmosphere noticeably. I doubt that would be likely to change, were we to continue industrial applications of fossil carbon, but discontinue its use as fuel.

    But as you say, it’s rather “in the margins”–not to say hypothetical, at this point.

    Comment by Kevin McKinney — 13 Jan 2012 @ 6:32 AM

  141. Is the scientific definition of abrupt climate change—and, on the part of the professional scientists, a discipline to be exact in the use of language—the elephant-in-the-room that is trampling around in these threads; even the muse for them? For me, what David has demonstrated in these threads is that long before abrupt climate change is technically effected, privileged humanity will have gotten all of humanity further into another—and for credit-based capitalism’s social order (disorder!), its final—”fine fix.” And like Hardy we will blame the consequences of our bumbling and dithering on Laurel . . . but this time such won’t be funny.

    What I have valued in these threads I have tried to leverage in comments I submitted to New York State as it considers permitting fracking. Did I overstate anything?

    “This past fall, ship-based research over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf identified an exponential increase in methane hydrates out gassing to the atmosphere from the substrate of the ocean. These observations are so much larger than has been observed in previous studies during this past decade, and characterized by the research scientists as “shocking.” Igor P Semiletov, the lead scientist, even before this research trip’s findings, issued a call for an international engagement in expanded study, both in scope and time for the ESAS ( The purpose of this work includes to best assess the risks this change in the rate of out gassing of a potent greenhouse gas represents within the dynamics of climate change at this time of general social, economic, and political inaction relative to tipping points. When tipping points are passed, such radically redefines the current concept of “mitigation” relative to government’s responsibility to protect its citizens from threats. The controversy over what these observations can mean are captured in current posts and comments at the RealClimate blog associated with Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, though these particular posts author is University of Chicago’s processor, David Archer, also of New York’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (;; ).

    “In view of this unfolding change, and the potential risk it poses to humanity, any further extraction of sequester carbon is environmentally and economically counterproductive. It is carbon sequestering that will best mitigate the impact of a new anthropogenicly created natural source of atmospheric carbon in the Arctic, just as a radical reduction in the combustion of fossil carbon is also a rational way to mitigate the existing anthropogenic carbon dioxide increases in our atmosphere. On both counts, the interests of New York State are best served by a finding that the environmental consequences of natural gas extraction by high-volume hydraulic fracturing cannot be mitigated so as to make a permit issue appropriate in New York State. At a bear minimum, a delay in the permitting process is called for until the risks associate with sequestered Arctic carbon reentering the active carbon cycle is clarified and resolved.”

    Philip Machanick, #127, credit is the elixir-of-life for globalized capitalism. Peak oil is also peak credit—especially for the good ol’ US of A. The irrational “success” of a paper-based economy has only been perceived as successful with oil providing “cheap” and abundant energy. And, for the US, its success is fundamentally affected with its version of fiat currencies being the means for buying OPEC oil (since around 1970, such has been OPEC’s policy). Peak credit is the beginning of a death-of-god social dynamic for the US that will be unlike anything us privileged can imagine. Greed as “good” will be revealed to be a bankrupt concept. Whether an awareness of what peak credit means happens in conjunction with an awareness of climate change tipping points being passed, or before (ibid with peak oil), is, in my crystal ball, an unknown at this point. Regardless, the perfect storm has been crafted by our systemic irresponsibility that is enshrined through our limited liability laws, which, in turn, have empowered the financial markets. Unlike Hollywood, there is no happy ending to this story (should you discount that it is the arrival of justice, and a good thing).

    Denial withstanding, the economic assumptions on which a “greening” of capitalism is predicated imploded in late 2007 (and as far as I have been able to read and understand, the economic assumptions the Congressional Budget Office and McKinsey Group’s optimistic analyses of ACES and CEJAP are predicated on, predate the second half of 2007—the beginning of the Great Unraveling. And, as far as I can determine, these assumptoins never been revisited). Consequently, any assertion of what will economically happen is like what has happened in the past is akin to what denialist are engaged in concerning anthropogenic climate change: conflating weather with climate; nit-picking inconsequential details; irrelevantly reframing discussions. Peak credit is a tipping point. And just like abrupt climate change, it is a paradigm shift.

    Avarice has been, non-rationally, trusted. By this definition—i.e. this non-rational trust—and to the degree it is descriptive, capitalism is, functionally, our shared religion. Ignoring the constraints of our Constitution, it has been functionally established as a state religion. As a consequence, the state will collapse with this “religion.” Without an ever increasing supply of energy as amazing as fossil carbon, and for which our currency is in demand, nothing less radical is, rationally, our common future.

    This doesn’t mean non-rationality will be abandoned. Socio-psychoimmunoneuroendocrinology (SPINE—& a term for a field of science I believe I’ve coined and yet hope for), predicts that changing what is trusted (particularly what effects oxytocin), can only be changed when what has been trusted to do so (simplistically, effect oxytocin) is proven, experientially, to be untrustworthy . . . or when a competing religious orientation for effecting it is voluntarily chosen. In my opinion it is highly probable that the need for such a new and rational religion had to gain social merit back at the start of FDR’s administration for the physical science’s climate tipping points to be socially avoided. The relatively new Federal Reserve had been party to the Crash of ’29, and rather than blowing an economic bubble based on consumer credit (made possible by fossil carbon, antibiotics, and the perceived lessons of the “Great War”) the trend toward unsustainable urbanization and industrialization might not have been—pun intended—credit worthy.

    But that was not the choice that was made. Therefore, as things get worse, I expect that the Federal Reserve will get its wish for a central-bank-only currency from Congress as a means for the financial elite to get one last hurrah out of the failed and flash-frozen-in-its-collapse global capitalism. Such a currency will make it possible to affect—with adequate military mussel and a complacent (actually terrorized) populous—a relatively orderly bankrupting of nations: rationally, our future; our chosen perfect storm.

    Setting economics aside and returning to the science behind these threads and their comments, whether it is the CO2 in the atmosphere that comes from the combustion of fossil carbon or what comes from permafrost carbon and/or methane sources in the Arctic, which effects the feared tip—if such has not already occurred—is rather academic. Aren’t David’s posts and arguments—though well intended—examples of this. Aren’t the preponderance of the commenters here at RC also exemplifying similar behavior? If society is organized such that the precautionary principle is not of dominate social value, what is—if not a shared non-rational trust in greed?

    What Martin Manning launched in Wellington—an interdisciplinary research institute—includes social psychologists. Is such is a step one that is toward being more realistic as scientists? I wonder if the institute also includes journalists, economists, and theologians. It should if the research is to be real. If so, such inclusion would be exceptional. How many variables can the modern scientific mind embrace within its construct of what research constitutes and still feel that sound science is being affected? At what point in the “complexifying” of the research is a tipping point reached for that mindset and the research results believed to be unscientific? Is it before the curtain is pulled back on what is religiously trusted and reveals hidden moral hypocrisy?

    Framed on my wall is the winning poster from 1992 contest sponsored by New York State’s MLK Commission. It includes a quote of Alice Walker’s: “But if by some miracle and all our struggle, the earth is spared, only justice to every living thing will save humankind. 1992 was Rio. It saw the birth of the Agenda 2000 . . . only we in the US never had the conversation that it called for. We chose, instead, to have distracting “theological” arguments about the physical sciences of anthropogenic climate change, while, unabated, capitalism’s systemic injustice ravaged the planet. Again, and IMHO (not so humble), once an interdisciplinary approach is embraced for climate research, the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 marks a key economic tipping point regarding catastrophic climate change. A short-term sense of comfort and well being that was born of unsustainable consumerism, facilitated by consumer credit, and guaranteed by the same indebted consumer, functioning as a Ponzi scheme was masked by motivated reasoning, childish immaturity, and a pandering (for profit) mainstream media . . . and no ones hands are clean.

    Comment by Greg Robie — 13 Jan 2012 @ 9:31 AM

  142. Tony,
    I draw comfort in knowing that if there is sand where their heads are planted, it must be quite uncomfortable.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 13 Jan 2012 @ 9:32 AM

  143. > a gargantuan release of CO2

    Measuring by volume, rate of change, or trajectory continuing?
    What fraction of gargantuan would you say are we doing now?

    We’re definitely causing a great extinction; that’s the line to watch.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 13 Jan 2012 @ 10:51 AM

  144. Better understanding of our current situation, according to the draft paper by Shakhova and Semiletov (look up chapter V)

    Arctic continental shelf could contain around 1300 Gt of carbon, of which 800 Gt is CH4, some of which could be available for sudden release under the appropriate conditions. A release of only 1% of this reservoir would more than triple the atmospheric mixing ratio of CH4, potentially triggering abrupt climate change.

    Comment by prokaryotes — 14 Jan 2012 @ 10:44 PM

  145. Prok, what page of that chapter did you find this info on? It looks to me as if S & S are contributors but not the main authors of that chapter. Am I missing something?

    Comment by wili — 15 Jan 2012 @ 6:05 PM

  146. To #141

    “Setting economics aside and returning to the science behind these threads and their comments, whether it is the CO2 in the atmosphere that comes from the combustion of fossil carbon or what comes from permafrost carbon and/or methane sources in the Arctic, which effects the feared tip—if such has not already occurred—is rather academic. Aren’t David’s posts and arguments—though well intended—examples of this. Aren’t the preponderance of the commenters here at RC also exemplifying similar behavior? If society is organized such that the precautionary principle is not of dominate social value, what is—if not a shared non-rational trust in greed?”

    In my opinion virtually every part of this verges on nonsense. I understand Dr. Archer doubts methane can precipitate a runaway greenhouse, and more likely than not he is correct in this. In my first post here I misunderstood how narrowly he’d framed the issue about the dangers associated with methane. But to my way of thinking it matters a whole lot whether or not a deadly menace to me will happen in 3 years vs 300 years. I’d compare it to being in a canoe which is 3 minutes from going over the big waterfall and another situation where I’m 300 minutes away from the same fate – it makes a difference! As for the final remark about the “precautionary principle”, it isn’t just the ‘good ol’ US of A’ which is in denial. Politicians everywhere are subject to being bribed, veering into irrational thinking, or both.

    I’ve just run into a scholarly article about Corporate Psychopaths –

    Not that such personalities have to be in a corporation; the really big chunks float to the top in all kinds of places besides septic tanks. There are simply too many billionaire psychopaths running around these days who have found that buying every feature of state and national governments is not only ‘doable’, but actually quite inexpensive relative to the resources available to them.

    BillyBob – like you and I – doesn’t know much actual climate science. But he’s vastly more susceptible to propaganda and gullible enough to heartily endorse all kinds of notions which are directly against his own self interest because 1) the presentation is very slick and 2) the propaganda bombards him from all directions.

    “What Martin Manning launched in Wellington—an interdisciplinary research institute—includes social psychologists. Is such is a step one that is toward being more realistic as scientists? I wonder if the institute also includes journalists, economists, and theologians. It should if the research is to be real. If so, such inclusion would be exceptional. How many variables can the modern scientific mind embrace within its construct of what research constitutes and still feel that sound science is being affected? At what point in the “complexifying” of the research is a tipping point reached for that mindset and the research results believed to be unscientific? Is it before the curtain is pulled back on what is religiously trusted and reveals hidden moral hypocrisy?”

    All I can get out of this is that Climate Science research is too complicated, and ought to be be somehow simplified. Surely you don’t believe that!

    Earlier I spoke of my misreading Dr. Archer’s thread-starting post. My fault entirely, of course. That methane may not trigger a runaway greenhouse is quite different from claiming it won’t have any earth-shaking effects.

    An 1815 eruption of the Tamboro volcano had worldwide effects. In parts of the US 1816 was a “year without a summer”. In his book The Last Great Subsistence Crisis of the Western World author John Post described the worldwide ripples from this single event.

    Humanity’s food crops are sensitive to changes in the weather. Too hot/too cold, too wet/too dry – they don’t like this! Harvests are reduced, or missing altogether on account of the rusts, the blights, the droughts, and the excess rains.

    People don’t suffer quietly unless they have to. Back in 1816 there weren’t any atomic bombs. No biological weapons. No easy ways to make your neighbors suffer in your stead.

    I’ve only been really hungry once in my life; it when I had a routine colonoscopy. I was briefly miserable, but had that raging hunger continued my rationality would have been seriously affected. I fear such morality as I possess would have been altered as well, for starvation alters the brain’s chemistry.

    The drastic climate variations from increasing warming are going to be bad enough. A few methane burps could push everything past the breaking point. By “breaking point” I refer to when relatively and stable human societies go berserk.

    So far as I can tell our wealthiest citizens aren’t getting involved in the climate debate very much. Some them are, of course, as ignorant as BillyBob, but IMO most have calculated they’re immune. They’ll fortify their gated communities or build their Far North bunkers and hunker down. That such strategies will almost certainly fail is something they won’t find out until it’s too late.

    The extremely wealthy – tip of the needle of the top 1% – may have another strategy. When I read of the billionaires building their own space programs I wonder if they don’t plan to evacuate to a new Rich People refuge they’ll build on the moon or L5.

    For whatever reasons, almost none of them are showing up on record as giving a solitary damn about the fate of the Earth and the 99.9% who’ll go down when the ecosystems begin to fail and chaos begins.

    You don’t need a ‘runaway’ greenhouse for the virtual extinction of humanity.

    Comment by Zachary Smith — 15 Jan 2012 @ 6:11 PM

  147. The question has been raised: which should we be more concerned about, CO2 or CH4 emissions?

    Answer: Our immediate concern should be over CO2 emissions, for two reasons.

    First, emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have increased because of human activity. Their on-going emission are therefore within human control. We can reduce them by curbing the burning of fossil fuels and obtaining our energy needs from renewable sources. Or we can increase them – as we are presently doing – in the belief that short term profit and economic growth is more important than longer term effects on temperature and environment. The choice is ours.

    Second, we know that the anthropogenic global warming has initiated slow feedbacks and that those feedbacks, once initiated, may be slowed but can not be stopped by human activity. They are beyond our control, though they can be speeded-up by continuing release of CO2. Among the more dangerous slow feedbacks initiated by human release of CO2 are:
    release of methane, contributing to faster global warming,
    loss of land based ice causing sea level rise,
    rising sea level causing coastal inundation,
    loss of albedo causing ocean warming,
    ocean warming causing release of CO2,
    ocean acidification causing loss of marine species.

    Methane release from Arctic deposits is dangerous per-se. Those deposits are huge, most are highly vulnerable to rising temperature and the most rapid rise in temperature is occurring in the Arctic. Release of less than 2% of their estimated content would cause abrupt irreversible climate change, greatly exacerbating the effects of anthropogenic global warming noted above.

    Methane released into the atmosphere has the potential to be catastrophic if large quantities enter the atmosphere over a short period. The potential for this to occur exists and some scientists assert that this is a very real possibility. Others deny this claiming that CH4 will oxidise to CO2 before entering the atmosphere, that permafrost preventing release of CH4 is unlikely degrade for a millennia or that a mechanism for massive CH4 release has not been described so it can’t happen.

    In summary: We should be more concerned about what we can and should control – CO2 emissions. That does not mean that we should ignore the very real dangers of unleashing slow feedbacks over which we have no control but which might be slowed.

    Comment by Mike Pope — 16 Jan 2012 @ 9:36 PM

  148. Mike – twice you mention that the feedbacks might be slowed, but you don’t describe any mechanism for this outcome. Clearly, ending anthro-GHG outputs tomorrow could mean that after the timelagged warming of the last ~37 years’ outputs is completed by around 2050, there would be no further additional anthro-warming – just a very long decline of CO2 with its very gradual timelagged reduction of global temperature, but, only if we were very lucky.

    If we weren’t very lucky, then warming from the anthro-GHG outputs to date,
    compounded by a doubling of warming due to the loss of the sulphate parasol,
    compounded by the warming from at least seven interactive feedbacks now accelerating,
    compounded by the net decline of natural carbon sinks,
    would in combination have advanced the feedbacks’ outputs beyond the capacity of those natural carbon sinks (whose av. intake is 43% of current annual anthro-CO2, or ~22% of annual anthro-CO2e).
    At that point, despite our having ended anthro-GHG outputs on 20/2/12, the feedbacks outputs would continue to increase atmospheric GHG stocks, and would thereby become self-fuelling.

    I see no prospect in either sequence of events of the feedbacks being ‘slowed’. Given that warming is on a rising curve at best to a plateau, and feedbacks are by their nature self-amplifying, why do you think they would be slowed ? Perhaps you meant that ending anthro-GHG outputs might allow a slower rate of their acceleration?

    Academia seems to be fixing the term ‘Runaway Greenhouse’ to mean the experience of the Venus syndrome (which of course no scientist would be alive to observe, making it an ideal ivory tower debating issue). I never liked the term, so academia is welcome to it. I thus suggest that we will face a “Habitable Climate AWOL” problem if we fail to control the warming sufficiently to decelerate the feedbacks while that is still possible.

    Ending anthro-GHG outputs (99% by 2050) is patently necessary but demonstrably insufficient for this task. Cleansing the atmosphere to advance the eventual restoration of the pre-industrial forcing is again necessary but, since we lack any Carbon Recovery technology (ancient or modern) able to achieve it within a relevant timescale, it is again insufficient. The sufficient complement to these two actions is an effective and readily controllable form of Albedo Restoration, that is missioned, researched, trialled, mandated, deployed and operated under the stringent supervision of a UN scientific commission, which is itself accountable to the General Assembly.

    The fact that this demonstrably requisite three-part strategy is now considered utter heresy by so many who’ve done so little to critique or try to end the nationalistic “brinkmanship of inaction” that is blocking the global climate treaty,
    is one of the more depressing aspects of having campaigned specifically for that treaty over the last 18 years.


    Lewis Cleverdon

    Comment by Lewis — 19 Jan 2012 @ 2:15 AM

  149. @Lewis, 148

    > since we lack any Carbon Recovery technology (ancient or modern)


    I know it’s not a particularly high tech solution, but compensating countries to restore and tend the Amazon and other decimated forests can’t be a bad thing, and we get our oxygen back.

    It would be wonderful to have a machine running on renewable energy that could make gasoline from atmospheric CO2, or extract surplus CO3- from seawater and rebind with hydrogen, but the energy and scale required to supply a billion cars at the rate they consume is just mindblowing. – video is a bit cringeworthy

    I’m afraid that we’re stuck with the CO2 for a while but I think the only chance we have of ameliorating AGW is a for massive programme of tree planting.

    Comment by Andy Lee Robinson — 19 Jan 2012 @ 7:08 PM

  150. @ Lewis – 148

    I agree with your analysis

    Bad wording on my part. I should have referred to slowing the rate of acceleration of slow feedbacks. As for Venusian “runaway” global warming – I don’t think so.
    As far as I am aware average global temperature has never exceeded 25C except for very brief periods such as the PETM

    Comment by Mike Pope — 20 Jan 2012 @ 8:15 PM

  151. Andy – Agreed.
    As a response to the ‘worst-case’ present trajectory towards the feedbacks exceeding the sinks, forestry offers by far the best chance of a serious scale of Carbon Recovery, not least because of the incentives provided by its highly relevant product options.

    It could of course be done terribly badly, as a mere greenwash for BAU, with old forest clearances, land seizures and farmland conversion for foreign-owned exotic monoculture plantations, that earn ‘carbon credits’ for sale as a tax write-off to corporations with a PR problem. Given the limited suitable non-farmland available – last year’s WRI/WFN report identified 1.6GHa.s globally – and given the urgency of the climate and food-security problems, we simply cannot afford that ‘market-led’ outcome. For this reason the Carbon Recovery mode of geo-engineering clearly needs the formal UN supervision (noted previously) just as much as the more controversial Albedo Resoration mode.

    If a global afforestation program is done well, using mixed native species on appropriate land, with local rights of usage of thinnings and eventual annual growth increments, it would offer benign effects beyond the increase in terrestrial carbon sinks including the buffering of old-forest enclaves and biodiversity gains. One especially significant outcome could be the program’s function as a means by which all nations can verifyably recover their extant ‘carbon debt’ over an agreed period. (Reliable output records extend at least as far back as 1950). This undertaking could have a seminal effect on the climate treaty negotiations by helping to resolve the critically obstructive issue of ‘historical emissions’.

    Yet if the afforestation program were done really well it could produce far more than firewood, building poles and eventual lumber supplies, and it could sequester far more carbon too. The ancient and ongoing sylviculture of ‘coppice forestry,’ where deciduous trees are harvested young and regrown from the stump on a cycle of from 7 to ~28 years, offers gains including the growth of a very large root-ball supporting vigorous growth (about 20% better than cohort forestry), exceptional biodiversity (the highest of any European ecosystem), relatively low deadwood volumes minimizing fire-risk, better drought resistance, etc. The annual harvest averaging perhaps 10Ts dry wood /hectare globally could at optimum be converted to charcoal for use in farmland as both fertility enhancement and soil moisture regulator, in a modern version of the ancient ‘terra preta’ tradition. (This ‘Biochar’ option is showing results such that trials and operational usage are already under way in over twenty countries). With a moderately efficient charcoal retort converting ~35% by weight, 1.6GHa.s of coppice forestry should eventually yield perhaps 5.6GtC /yr, sequestering about 2.67ppmv of CO2. The inclusion of waste biomass from agriculture and conventional forestry could raise this amount substantially.

    A further aspect of the charcoal production is that around 28% of the feedstock’s energy content is provided as a crude syngas, which is readily convertable to methanol. (This will require modular ‘village scale’ plant to be developed rather than the present giant facilities that would require untenable feedstock transport). By my calculation 1.6GHa.s of coppice forestry could provide around 15Mbls/day of petrol-equivalent methanol. This is by no means the resolution of peak oil, but for those countries where liquid fuels are becoming unaffordable, this home production of charcoal and methanol may be the difference between utter collapse and a viable subsistence economy, not least by providing widespread full-term rural employment to help end the ruinous urban drift.

    The main limitation of such a forestry program is the lead-time it requires. Even with the incentives of improved farm yields and liquid fuel supplies, and with a Churchillian quality of program leadership, I doubt we’d see 1.6GHa.s planted in much less than 20 years, followed by say another 15 years to mature to full operation. This implies that substantial carbon sequestration and global farm yeilds support could start in the 2040s. While this cannot reliably control the present trajectory /worst-case scenario of the interactive feedbacks’ outputs exceeding the carbon sinks, it would certainly help to shorten the period that GHG pollution provides its destabilizing unnatural forcing of global temperature, and could thereby shorten the period for which Albedo Restoration would be required.


    Lewis Cleverdon

    Comment by Lewis — 21 Jan 2012 @ 1:19 AM

  152. “As far as I am aware average global temperature has never exceeded 25C except for very brief periods such as the PETM”

    And that is a guarantee that it could never happen in the future? Has this much carbon ever been spewed into the atmosphere at this furious rate before? Has the sun ever been this bright before? This is not your grandfather’s planet, much less the same planet as the PETM. I certainly hope we don’t get anywhere close to venusian runaway, but I don’t see how we can be 100% certain that it is an impossibility.

    Comment by wili — 21 Jan 2012 @ 6:47 AM

  153. #151–Lewis, I really like what you say here. Can you point to some sources for further study? Are there folks trying to make this happen?

    #152–wili, I think the best arguments against a Venusian-style runaway have been made here by Chris Colose and Ray Pierrehumbert, who have explained in detail why they believe it impossible. I won’t try to recap, as I am quite sure that if I do so off the top of my head, I will get it wrong!

    My take on it from a practical point of view is that it matters comparatively little, since the probable consequences of even 6 C are more than sufficiently severe to warrant putting a very high priority indeed on mitigating emissions. It’s like falling from 1000 meters, rather than ‘only’ 100–the former may be more spectacular, but it won’t kill you any more thoroughly.

    And in the ‘debate’, focus on the extreme but unlikely eventuality may even prove counterproductive, by ‘contaminating’ sound arguments with connotations of “pulp fiction” extremism. That’s not to say that any discussion of the topic should be embargoed, but I do think that over-focus on it is unlikely to be helpful.

    Comment by Kevin McKinney — 21 Jan 2012 @ 8:55 AM

  154. > coppice forestry
    Plenty there going back decades. These programs are happening in China as well as the US, to my personal knowledge, and probably many other places.

    > wili … don’t see how we can be 100% certain
    That’s good. You’ve understood science can’t give you 100% certainty.
    That’s progress. Now, work with what IS possible from science.
    Nothing in life but religion and mathematics offers 100% certainties.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 21 Jan 2012 @ 12:00 PM

  155. Going back to methane worst case scenarios, I have posted 21 images of the Laptev Sea (Jan. 1-21, 2012) that come from the Danish Technical University website where images from satellites are updated daily. I am not sure, but these false-color images are from microwave sensors. I do not have scale although I have requested one.

    The black blobs (or “cornflakes” as termed by the MIT modelers in 2009) appear to be under the ice, because that area is covered with ice.

    Orange appears to be above the ice.

    Comment by Tenney Naumer — 21 Jan 2012 @ 6:02 PM

  156. #151–Lewis, I really like what you say here. Can you point to some sources for further study? Are there folks trying to make this happen?

    Comment by Kevin McKinney — 21 Jan 2012 @ 8:55 AM

    Coppice forestry, agro-forestry, reforestation, food forests/edible forest gardens…. these ways and more. None of this is new.





    Definitions: Farming

    (Note: Permaculture is a toolbox everything else above fits into.)

    Comment by ccpo — 21 Jan 2012 @ 6:19 PM

  157. Sorry, it is an unsophisticated blog. You will need to hit the page down key several times in order to arrive at the images.

    Comment by Tenney Naumer — 21 Jan 2012 @ 8:00 PM

  158. Permafrost aerial mapping:

    “Here, we present the results of a pioneering ∼1,800 line-kilometer airborne electromagnetic survey that shows sediments deposited over the past ∼4 million years and the configuration of permafrost to depths of ∼100 meters in the Yukon Flats area near Fort Yukon, Alaska. The Yukon Flats is near the boundary between continuous permafrost to the north and discontinuous permafrost to the south, making it an important location for examining permafrost dynamics. Our results not only provide a detailed snapshot of the present-day configuration of permafrost, but they also expose previously unseen details about potential surface – groundwater connections and the thermal legacy of surface water features that has been recorded in the permafrost over the past ∼1,000 years….”

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 21 Jan 2012 @ 10:36 PM

  159. Good work, hank. You can cut and paste others’ research. That’s progress. Now perhaps you can [edit: easy] stop demeaning earnest posters with your superior snide asides and deal with the actual threat at hand.

    Comment by wili — 21 Jan 2012 @ 11:56 PM

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