Arctic Methane on the Move?

Methane is like the radical wing of the carbon cycle, in today’s atmosphere a stronger greenhouse gas per molecule than CO2, and an atmospheric concentration that can change more quickly than CO2 can. There has been a lot of press coverage of a new paper in Science this week called “Extensive methane venting to the atmosphere from sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf”, which comes on the heels of a handful of interrelated methane papers in the last year or so. Is now the time to get frightened?

No. CO2 is plenty to be frightened of, while methane is frosting on the cake. Imagine you are in a Toyota on the highway at 60 miles per hour approaching stopped traffic, and you find that the brake pedal is broken. This is CO2. Then you figure out that the accelerator has also jammed, so that by the time you hit the truck in front of you, you will be going 90 miles per hour instead of 60. This is methane. Is now the time to get worried? No, you should already have been worried by the broken brake pedal. Methane sells newspapers, but it’s not the big story, nor does it look to be a game changer to the big story, which is CO2.

[Note: Edited Toyota velocities to reflect relative radiative forcings of anthropogenic CO2 and methane. David]

For some background on methane hydrates we can refer you here. This weeks’ Science paper is by Shakhova et al, a follow on to a 2005 GRL paper. The observation in 2005 was elevated concentrations of methane in ocean waters on the Siberian shelf, presumably driven by outgassing from the sediments and driving excess methane to the atmosphere. The new paper adds observations of methane spikes in the air over the water, confirming the methane’s escape from the water column, instead of it being oxidized to CO2 in the water, for example. The new data enable the methane flux from this region to the atmosphere to be quantified, and they find that this region rivals the methane flux from the whole rest of the ocean.

What’s missing from these studies themselves is evidence that the Siberian shelf degassing is new, a climate feedback, rather than simply nature-as-usual, driven by the retreat of submerged permafrost left over from the last ice age. However, other recent papers speak to this question.

Westbrook et al 2009, published stunning sonar images of bubble plumes rising from sediments off Spitzbergen, Norway. The bubbles are rising from a line on the sea floor that corresponds to the boundary of methane hydrate stability, a boundary that would retreat in a warming water column. A modeling study by Reagan and Moridis 2009 supports the idea that the observed bubbles could be in response to observed warming of the water column driven by anthropogenic warming.

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