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Arctic Methane on the Move?

Filed under: — david @ 6 March 2010 - (Italian)

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.

Another recent paper, from Dlugokencky et al. 2009, describes an uptick in the methane concentration in the air in 2007, and tries to figure out where it’s coming from. The atmospheric methane concentration rose from the preanthropogenic until about the year 1993, at which point it rather abruptly plateaued. Methane is a transient gas in the atmosphere, so it ought to plateau if the emission flux is steady, but the shape of the concentration curve suggested some sudden decrease in the emission rate, stemming from the collapse of economic activity in the former Soviet bloc, or by drying of wetlands, or any of several other proposed and unresolved explanations. (Maybe the legislature in South Dakota should pass a law that methane is driven by astrology!) A previous uptick in the methane concentration in 1998 could be explained in terms of the effect of El Niño on wetlands, but the uptick in 2007 is not so simple to explain. The concentration held steady in 2008, meaning at least that interannual variability is important in the methane cycle, and making it hard to say if the long-term average emission rate is rising in a way that would be consistent with a new carbon feedback.

Anyway, so far it is at most a very small feedback. The Siberian Margin might rival the whole rest of the world ocean as a methane source, but the ocean source overall is much smaller than the land source. Most of the methane in the atmosphere comes from wetlands, natural and artificial associated with rice agriculture. The ocean is small potatoes, and there is enough uncertainty in the methane budget to accommodate adjustments in the sources without too much overturning of apple carts.

Could this be the first modest sprout of what will grow into a huge carbon feedback in the future? It is possible, but two things should be kept in mind. One is that there’s no reason to fixate on methane in particular. Methane is a transient gas in the atmosphere, while CO2 essentially accumulates in the atmosphere / ocean carbon cycle, so in the end the climate forcing from the accumulating CO2 that methane oxidizes into may be as important as the transient concentration of methane itself. The other thing to remember is that there’s no reason to fixate on methane hydrates in particular, as opposed to the carbon stored in peats in Arctic permafrosts for example. Peats take time to degrade but hydrate also takes time to melt, limited by heat transport. They don’t generally explode instantaneously.

For methane to be a game-changer in the future of Earth’s climate, it would have to degas to the atmosphere catastrophically, on a time scale that is faster than the decadal lifetime of methane in the air. So far no one has seen or proposed a mechanism to make that happen.


Dlugokencky et al., Observational constraints on recent increases in the atmospheric CH4 burden. GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 36, L18803, doi:10.1029/2009GL039780, 2009

Reagan, M. and G. Moridis, Large-scale simulation of methane hydrate dissociation along the West Spitsbergen Margin, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 36, L23612, doi:10.1029/2009GL041332, 2009

Shakhova et al., Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, Science 237: 1246-1250, 2010

Shakhova et al., The distribution of methane on the Siberian Arctic shelves: Implications for the marine methane cycle, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 32, L09601, doi:10.1029/2005GL022751, 2005

Westbrook, G., et al, Escape of methane gas from the seabed along the West Spitsbergen continental margin, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 36, L15608, doi:10.1029/2009GL039191, 2009

234 Responses to “Arctic Methane on the Move?”

  1. 51
    ccpo says:

    Aaron Lewis says:
    6 March 2010 at 2:18 PM

    Ice and clathrates have sharp melting points…. (and other good points)

    Excellently said. This is a Seven Generations issue, not a one year wonder. Unfortunately, RC has a real blind spot when it comes to methane and rapid climate change. Yet risk analysis tells us we must prepare for the worst in this case because it equals the end of what we think of as civilization.

    The cavalier attitude towards this here at RC, both by staff and readers, is astounding. Just in the last weeks there was a paper on lake sediments that found a very large change in climate in months. Months.

    So, when we have learned over the last few years that methane is bubbling up all over the Arctic Ocean, that thermokarst lakes are tripling in size and number, that the melt of the sea ice is reflected as much as 1000 km (or was it miles?) inland, we are all just supposed to chill out?

    Let’s add to this that there is more than double the atmospheric carbon stored up in the permafrost. What’s that, then, essentially 600ppm? Ten percent of that takes us to 460 ppm. What of the sea bed methane? The paper under discussion says (rather, an article discussing it) a “fraction” of this out-gassing would cause large climate changes, right? I also know from e-mail exchanges with a scientist who has published on this issue that the temperature range for unstable clathrates is within 1 – 3 degrees for seabed methane. Unfortunately, pressure is also part of the equation, so those clathrates in Siberia are most likely near their critical threshold due to the shallow water column. And methane is rising in the atmosphere.

    Did I mention about tipping points and how a recent paper said it’s virtually impossible to know you’ve hit them until, well, you’ve hit them. (Of course, anyone who knows even a tiny bit about chaos and/or bifurcations knows this.)

    Might I suggest you could be watching the turning point and telling everyone in the theater there is no fire?

    Yeah, nothing to see here folks! Move along! Moooove along!


  2. 52
    Tim Jones says:

    Seems there ought to be a way to extract CH4 from the clathrates so conveniently showing us where the deposits are. Why isn’t anyone thinking about this? I think flaring gas is horribly wasteful, but it sure beats all the methane being released as a much more powerful ghg than the CO2 it’s burned into. Why don’t we place buoys with methane detectors over hot spots and flare the stuff off as it comes up?

    Can you imagine hydrocarbon extraction as a socially and environmentally responsible investment opportunity?

  3. 53
    Ron says:

    I join with those who welcomed this as a well balanced and readable summary of some current issues. (Do I detect in these comments, perhaps, a hint that this has not always been the case at realclimate.)

    I have always felt the role of methane has been oversold. It operates over a narrow band of wavelength which it shares with nitrous oxide.

    Can someone explain why we hear next to nothing on ozone as a greenhouse gas. Its absorbtion spectrum occurs near the peak of long-wave emission spectrum.

    Like Ron Taylor, I also have just read The Climate Crisis but my impression was much more negative.

  4. 54
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    Can you confirm this figure that gets bandied about…up till 400kyrs ago Ch4 levels in the atmosphere has been between 0.4 – 0.8ppm. Now today apparently it stands at 1.85ppm.
    Are these figures accurate?

    [Response: Yes. – gavin]

  5. 55
    Robert says:

    @Andy”I get reamed sometimes for making points like those in this important methane update (pushing back against some of the overheated coverage elsewhere), so this is very welcome.”

    I think part of the problem is that you work at the most prestigious and widely read newspaper in the world, with an audience that mostly does not spend as much time reading the climate blogs as you and I do. Hence, what for you is “pushing back” at overheated coverage may operate functionally rather like the high school quarterback punching a third-grader in the face. As soon as you weigh in, your counterpoint is for many people the point, and unless you present the other side of the argument effectively, your readers may be coming away with a very different idea of the conversation.

    It’d be a difficult fishbowl to work in. I think you do an excellent job.

  6. 56
    Gilles says:

    “Unfortunately, pressure is also part of the equation, so those clathrates in Siberia are most likely near their critical threshold due to the shallow water column. And methane is rising in the atmosphere.”
    It’s not enough to say that “methane is rising”. How much is the methane of Siberia contributing to the rise, and how much does it contribute to the rise of overall forcing ? the divergence can occur only if we reach the level of retroaction loop ( ∆T/∆CH4 ) x (∆CH4 /∆T) > 1 , where the first factor measures the contribution of methane to average temperature and the second the influence of temperature on methane release. . Who is aware of a serious scientific study showing we could be any close to this thereshold ?

  7. 57
    prokaryote says:


    Polar terrestrial ecosystems, permafrost, and extreme warm paleoclimate dynamics
    Here we use results from a GCM to show that Antarctica was a suitable location for massive carbon sequestration in peat and permafrost-dominated environments during the Palaeocene leading up the PETM event. Levels of assumed atmospheric CO2 and CH4 concentrations around the time of the event are shown to cross the threshold for melting vast areas of frozen soil on an unglaciated Antarctic continent, which had a subaerial surface area ~25% larger than today. This previously underappreciated potential source of carbon would have been large enough to account for a significant fraction of the total warming at the PETM once a warming threshold was reached, whereby permafrost began to melt and methane and relict soil carbon were suddenly released. If this mechanism did play a role in abrupt and extreme global warming events such as the PETM, it implies serious consequences for the thawing of similar environments in the modern boreal high latitudes.

    Massive Methane Hydrate in Sediments to Cause the Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum

    The role of methane during the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum
    Moreover, proxies indicate a high background atmospheric methane concentration as well as enhanced methane production at the surface during the PETM. Modeling work has shown that an enhanced concentration of atmospheric methane can reproduce PETM latitudinal temperature profiles without invoking exceptional increases in the concentration of carbon dioxide.

    If methane is oxidized in the oceans, this should cause an oxygen deficiency in the deep oceans and we should be able to track the release of carbon along the path of ocean circulation. Depletion of bottom-water oxygen should be widespread in the reservoir where methane oxidation occurred. Modeled sediment records from GENIE will be compared to observations from geochemical proxies of bottom-water oxygen. Redox sensitive trace metal enrichment factors in marine sediments indicate reducing conditions prior, during, and in the recovery of the PETM at intermediate depth sites in the Atlantic and Southern Ocean while the Pacific sites remain oxygenated.

    Relative humidity across the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum via combined hydrogen-oxygen isotope paleohygrometry
    Results of the combined hydrogen-oxygen isotope paleohygrometer indicate a general rise in relative humidity during the first half of the PETM followed by a decline during the second half of the event. The rise is punctuated by at least one small drop in relative humidity. Other proxies for available soil moisture (soil weathering indices) and mean annual precipitation (leaf physiognomy) suggest an initial drying at the onset of the PETM followed by subsequent periods of wetter and dryer conditions in the southeastern Bighorn Basin. In contrast, the isotope results presented here suggest that the onset of the PETM was marked by an increase in relative humidity. This discrepancy might indicate increased seasonality during the PETM. Leaf wax hydrogen isotope values are likely biased to record primarily the growing season, which may have become more humid, while soil and plant proxies could reflect an overall decrease in available moisture as a result of increased seasonality of precipitation.

    On the PETM and ETM2 global warming events: New evidence for a tectonic-magmatic trigger mechanism

    Magnetofossils as Biomarkers of Environmental Change

    Methane release from the terrestrial ecosystems of greenhouse climates: Challenges and potential
    Recent circulation and geochemical modelling suggests that atmospheric methane could have been an important driver of global temperatures during past greenhouse climates. Such conclusions are largely based on our understanding of modern wetland biogeochemistry, including the impact of hydrology, temperature and primary photosynthetic production on rates of methanogenesis

    Such values suggest that after the change in hydrology, a significant proportion of the hopanes, perhaps >50%, derived directly from methanotrophic bacteria, in marked contrast to Holocene peats.
    The Sun is gradually becoming more luminous (about 10% every 1 billion years), and its surface temperature is slowly rising. The Sun used to be fainter in the past, which is possibly the reason life on Earth has only existed for about 1 billion years on land. The increase in solar temperatures is such that already in about a billion years, the surface of the Earth will become too hot for liquid water to exist, ending all terrestrial life.

    Earth’s orbit is currently in a phase where the amount of sunlight falling at 65°N is changing very little.

    Despite the fact that the sun put out 0.5% less energy than today (equivalent to a global temperature that would be 0.5°C cooler), there was no polar ice cap or Greenland Ice Sheet.

  8. 58
    Bruce Tabor says:

    Interesting, thanks David.
    Is it possible to provide a link to a larger version of the figure?
    I find the text almost impossible to read – and the figure difficult to interpret – at its current size.

    here is the jpg, unscaled for the page.]

  9. 59
    Garrett says:


    Every methane molecule eventually becomes a CO2 molecule. And they be a crapload of CO2/CH4 in the permafrost (soon to become water).

    c.f. –

  10. 60
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    Thought I’d share with you some recent records that have been broken weather wise here in Queensland Australia. As of from last week the central west of queensland is underwater roughly the size of the state of victoria. It has caused numerous water height records in many towns to be smashed by metres causing hundreds of millions of dollars damage. The weather systems that usually pass through the area now seem to get blocked and intense lows stay over a region for days at a time.
    Yesterday down south- Melbourne had a once in a century hailstorm that caused tens of millions of dollars damage. Hail the size of tennis balls and the city’s monthly quota of rain falling in just an hour caused wide spead flash flooding as the city’s drainage failed to cope.
    Just last year in SE queensland we had the warmest night on record.
    I have lost count of the number of extreme weather events that have ocurred last year up till now, we’re getting rather blaz’e..Oh yeah..another record..what’s new!
    The Australian climate seems to be getting much more extreme in the last few years.
    i.e. when it rains it doesn’t muck simply dumps down harder and more intense than I have even seen in my 43yo life. I accept that this is the result of a hastening and intensifing hydrologic cycle but I didn’t expect the rate of change that’s evident in many parts of the world.
    If methane in the cream on the cake then I think we all better do some pretty robust dieting dont you think!

  11. 61
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    With the upmost respect to the climate scientists in RC. We are in uncharted waters here. No one can difinatively state that this or that will or will not happen this decade/lifetime/century…we simply do not know!
    We have 6.5 Billion little GG producing factories on this smallish planet. The faster the population rises the more nett increase there is in CO2/CH4. Compare our population now how what is was at the beginning of the industrial revolution. We now have myriads of complex industrail chemical compounds doing the rounds of the atmosphere. incl. hydro flouro carbons..probably just as deady if not more than CFC’s. We have considerably less rainforests and dense forests now than 200years ago. We have a staggering increase in the amount of cattle/pigs/sheep to feed the swarming masses..all these produce a very large ‘nett’ increase in CO2. I haven’t even begun with the burning of fossil fuels and industrisal emmissions yet..but you get the picture.
    WE are out of balance with the timeless cycles of nature in a gigantuan way!.

    [Response: The methane cycle could blow up in some unforseen way, it’s true. The CO2 cycle is certainly blowing up in a totally obvious way. David]

  12. 62

    #13 Mike:

    Sea ice extent is on a downward trend despite an increase since the record low in 2007. More importantly, sea ice thickness has been steadily decreasing. I use just this example in my blog post called
    Chopping Down the Cherry Tree. Please check that post out so that you do not fall into your own trap again.

    #53 Ron:

    RC threads have consistently been posted as informative pieces with no intent to alarm. My comments and those of others are more for the readers who come here having heard otherwise, especially now that scientist hunting season has begun.

  13. 63
    Geoff Beacon says:

    12 SecularAnimist wrote:

    David wrote: “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.”

    What additional science is needed in order to definitively determine whether this — and other such methane emissions that are being observed — are, in fact, new and caused by AGW, and are therefore actual AGW feedbacks; and if so, whether and how rapidly they are increasing?

    [Response: They need to figure out where the methane is coming from and why. Then wait and see how it changes with time. David]

    My guess is that some of the scientists, possibly even David, know more about the causes of the recent rise in methane – not necessarily from the causes he mentions. I bet there will be papers somewhere dragging through peer-review. The delays incurred in writing papers, compounded by the desire for papers to be watertight may be deemed good “scientific” practice but it makes it hard for those of us that care to warn policymakers – they are also frightened to be wrong. But my main criticism of David’s piece is that it can be read as don’t worry about the methane.

    Methane and the other short-lived species of climate change are important because concentrating on them for climate mitigation them has a much quicker effect and we just do not know the “unknown unknowns” of climate an we don’t know the known unknowns well enough. David’s piece may correctly point out that the Arctic methane time-bomb is not likely to explode soon (and may not be likely at all?) but he admits there is still plenty to worry about.

    My message would be “Concentrate on emissions that will slow climate change more quickly, such as methane.” For CO2 we do need to cut emissions but since there is too much in the atmosphere already we need to actively extract it. The CO2 tanker is harder to turn round than speedboat of the methane and other short lived species.

    Having read Unger et. al. “Attribution of climate forcing to economic sectors” (, I will start flying even though I was a founder of – but beef and lamb are definitely off my menu. I may become a vegetarian again.

  14. 64
    Dexter says:

    G’day, seeing as how methane has risen it’s head recently I have been trying to find out how it acts as a GHG without success. Having a chemistry background, I understand how CO2 works but I’ve gotten confused by an article on Rabbitt’s blogsite that talked about GHG’s needing a dipole moment and as far as I know, methane doesn’t have one. It does, however absorb in the IR so how does that work? What am I missing here?
    Cheers, Dexter.

    [Response: Any molecule with more than two atoms will have asymmetrical vibrational modes that create transient dipole moments. David]

  15. 65
    Snowfire says:


    CO2 has asymmetric stretch modes which are IR-active and cause absorption between 4 and 5 microns. You are correct in pointing out that the symmetric stretch mode would be only Raman-active because no change in dipole moment occurs; but that is by the by. Longer wavelength absorptions are due to bending and coupled modes.

    CH4 has numerous asymmetric bending and stretching modes and some torsional modes as well, so there is no shortage of ways to absorb IR.

  16. 66
    Tom Huntington says:

    Very interesting article, thank you for putting methane fluxes in perspective relative to the carbon dioxide problem.

    Speaking of methane hydrates . . . . more potentially bad news. China is apparently going after vast, recently discovered (September 2009), reserves (strangely characterized as “combustible ice”) in Qinghai Province:

    The Xinhua News Agency says there are 90 years worth of China’s energy needs in these reserves. Our problem is that these “fossil” energy reserves are too “easy” to get at compared with cleaner alternatives – and there are too many of them in countries that are rapidly developing. Realistically, might the extraction and combustion of methane hydrates be more of a “game changer” than the gradual increase in the release of methane from these deposits that is (or might be) occurring due to climate change?

  17. 67
    mike roddy says:

    “For methane to be a game-changer in the future of earth’s climate, it would have to degas to the atmosphere catastrophically, on a timescale that is faster than the decadal lifetime of methane in the air. So far no one has proposed a mechanism to make that happen.”

    Yes they have. It’s called higher temperatures in the Arctic, the factor that according to both Shakova’s and Walter’s measurements has accelerated methane releases. The reason is CO2 driven warming causing melting of permafrost on land, and perforation of ocean permafrost due to higher temperatures in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

    [Response: But it takes a very long time to melt permafrost or warm up the deep ocean where the hydrates are, let alone the deep sediment column. No one has figured out how it could explode on a time scale of a few years. David]

    Your Toyota with the brake problem and the stuck accelerator is an irrelevant analogy. Of course the increased CO2 is where we should focus, since methane is a feedback, and a potential endgame. Unfortunately, thanks to the oil and coal companies, we are doing little about slowing CO2, in case you haven’t noticed.

    I think that you and a few other climate scientists have been intimidated by the deniers, for two reasons: Solid research, including the recent paper from Shakova and NSF, is criticized polemically, not with better data or hyphotheses.

    [Response: I didn’t criticize anything or anyone. I merely pointed out where the questions are. ]

    The second reason is more telling: you seem to have forgotten that any reasonable planning must include plausible catastrophe scenarios. I personally know scientists who predict something approaching ruin, based on their understanding of the data. Apparently, many scientists seem to have collectively decided that the Venus scenario is taboo, since if it doesn’t happen (after we’re all dead anyway) they might look foolish for predicting it.

    As I told Revkin, you all need to study Wietzman’s paper, game theory, quantum theory, and why planners in any field assign high values- and aggressive countermeasures- to the ruin scenario. Even if this probability is less than 10%- though my reading of the evidence points a whole lot higher than that.

    I don’t know why some of you seem to now be afraid to even mention possible apocalyptic paths. Are you afraid of being mocked by Anthony Watts or Glen Beck?

  18. 68
    Ron Taylor says:

    David, I hope that at some point you will respond to Ron’s criticism of your book on his website (comment 53). I don’t agree with him, especially re Fig 3.1, but would rather hear your take. It’s OT here, I guess, but I think it is important.

    [Response: I don’t think I like being called a politically motivated “warmist”. I think I’m by nature a pretty honest person, and I certainly wouldn’t gain anything in reputation (and what else does a scientist have?) by biasing the science in one direction or another. I think Ron on comment #53 can write his own damn book, if he’s so much better than we are, since you asked. David]

  19. 69
    Yoron says:

    Don’t agree, we have a lot of methane getting released now, and the atmospheric concentration is constantly raising. If Earth is a unstable system, that means non linear, we can get a tipping from it. Then it won’t matter a bit that it’s a more ‘transient gas’, or however you now want to express it. That it also oxidize into CO2 under its cycle is just a ‘icing on the cake’. We need some real research done in the arctic, tundra etc, and also a better model of how much methane that really is released.

  20. 70
    prokaryote says:

    Tom Huntington,

    “Russia is creating a new high-tech industry. We develop methane, which is the enemy of coal miners, into a business that can be efficiently used to satisfy growing global demand for energy resources.”

    Unconventional gas deposits such as shale gas, coal-bed methane and tight gas helped make the U.S. the world’s biggest producer of the fuel and could reduce Europe’s reliance on pipeline supplies from Russia and Norway. Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc are among companies that plan to explore unconventional sources in Europe.

    Ice on fire: The next fossil fuel
    DEEP in the Arctic Circle, in the Messoyakha gas field of western Siberia, lies a mystery. Back in 1970, Russian engineers began pumping natural gas from beneath the permafrost and piping it east across the tundra to the Norilsk metal smelter, the biggest industrial enterprise in the Arctic.

    By the late 70s, they were on the brink of winding down the operation. According to their surveys, they had sapped nearly all the methane from the deposit. But despite their estimates, the gas just kept on coming. The field continues to power Norilsk today.

    Where is this methane coming from? The Soviet geologists initially thought it was leaking from another deposit hidden beneath the first. But their experiments revealed the opposite – the mystery methane is seeping into the well from the icy permafrost above.

  21. 71

    The great unknown would be Arctic ocean water temperature at the interface between arctic ocean bottom with frozen methane hydrates. I have heard also from a direct source, under water camera man, that its bubbling greater than before near the Mackensy delta, but what would be the theoretical temperature increase to make it outgas a whole lot more? Arctic sea water surface temps are increasing, but there is a huge difference between the bottom and the top.

  22. 72

    * “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 metaphor is perfect for climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, overpopulation and the crumbling of infrastructure which represents the accelerating trends leading to the collapse and cessation of technological civilization.

    It is also am excellent metaphor for the capitalist ponzi scheme which is forced to generate ever greater bubbles in order to propel the economy forward along an irrational, unsustainable, doomed to collapse path.

    Ironically, I was thinking of using just such a metaphor in order to write a “Letter to the Editor” to the local newspaper, deciding against it though since there is a certain futility to all efforts at warning humankind about the consequences of our present lifestyle and the tragic end which humankind has chosen for itself.

    Instead, I watched a glorious sunrise this morning and spent time with the shore birds. This world is too beautiful to leave in human hands. That much is certain. A planet such as the Earth should never have fallen into human hands.

    [Response: Great choice. But write the letter anyway.–Jim]

  23. 73
    Robert says:

    “OK, so damage probably doesn’t scale linearly with velocity.”

    Lethality varies with delta V^4. So 90mph –> 0mph is five times more likely to kill you than 60mph –> 0mph. (Changing the example from 60mph to 70mph makes the crash four times more lethal instead of five times more lethal.See the DOT report here:

    I get what you’re saying, but your analogy makes the opposite point: when you are headed for a high-speed collision, even a slight acceleration is quite dangerous and worrisome.

  24. 74
    Ken W says:

    Mike Strong (13) wrote:
    “We are shivering all this winter, all over the northern hemisphere with the blizzards, the record snow, record cold, snow in ALL fifty states for the first time that we know of…oh geez!”

    Really? That’s strange, because I live in Washington state at latitude 48.11 (I think that meets the criteria for northern hemisphere) and we’ve just enjoyed the warmest January-February on record. I’ve been running outside in shorts and tee-shirt most days and I do NOT run in the snow. Maybe you should recheck your information sources, because you are clearly mistaken.

  25. 75
    Dennis Denuto says:


    Thank you. From someone with both a great interest in the topic and the poor owner of a Toyota.

    What is missing here is a mention of the link (if any), between this observed methane and that one particular source, clathrates. At first, this seems to be a post about a paper about methane, but paragraph 3 has an incongruous link to methane hydrates. What would you say about this link? Is it important to find out the source of the methane?

    Perhaps one way to tell would be to see via modeling how a recent atmospheric-warming-driven temperature pulse would compare to a post-glacial/sea-level rise/shelf inundation pulse. And then whether one or both of those are sufficient to have perturbed T at the top of the clathrate stability zone in this area?

    [Response: That’s kind of where the Westbrook and Reagan papers fit in, but I agree it’s not at all clear how much methane is coming from hydrates. David]

  26. 76
    Hank Roberts says:

    Florida was the holdout, on that one day, and they got a sprinkling.

    Snow falls at high elevations in Hawaii routinely. Volcanic peaks, duh. The total snow documented in Hawaii was “about the size of a kitchen table”

    Mike Strong: this does not mean what you are thinking it means.
    Look at the temperature in the Arctic
    (don’t believe the story you find at WTF)
    and ask why the cold air went south.

  27. 77
    dhogaza says:

    Ken W says:

    Really? That’s strange, because I live in Washington state at latitude 48.11 (I think that meets the criteria for northern hemisphere) and we’ve just enjoyed the warmest January-February on record. I’ve been running outside in shorts and tee-shirt most days and I do NOT run in the snow. Maybe you should recheck your information sources, because you are clearly mistaken.

    I live in Portland, OR and of course it’s been the same here.

    It’s coming to an end, though, we’re going to have a week of colder weather. Never mind that it won’t be *exceptionally* cold for this time of year, but I expect a week full of denialbot screaming “look how cold it is in the PNW!”, ignoring the exceptionally warm winter we’ve had overall.

    Wanna bet Watts posts on it?

  28. 78
    prokaryote says:

    Wayne Davidson,
    what would be the theoretical temperature increase to make it outgas a whole lot more? Arctic sea water surface temps are increasing, but there is a huge difference between the bottom and the top.

    Gas hydrates, El Niño, and global change: A case study

    December 8, 1997

    SAN FRANCISCO, CA —On the seafloor off Northern California researchers have found evidence that deposits of methane hydrate—the ice-like, solid form of the greenhouse gas, methane—are poised in a delicate balance that could shift with even small increases in ocean temperatures, possibly unleashing a cascade of environmental effects.

    Peter Brewer and colleagues from MBARI, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Pacific Marine Environmental Lab, and Stanford University used MBARI’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) last August to investigate a site about 25 km (15 miles) off shore, where other scientists had earlier documented the presence of gas hydrate. The MBARI researchers found the site, located at a depth of 521 meters (1,700 feet) in the Eel River Basin, populated with vesicomyid clams and bacterial mats—all of which depend on methane and hydrogen sulfide vented from beneath the seafloor. They also saw extensive slabs of calcium carbonate, formed by bacterial action on methane. However, while the team observed, via an underwater video camera, a methane seep pumping out about 200 liters of gas per minute (STP), they found no solid gas hydrate either at the seafloor or in cores of sediments the ROV extracted at the site.

    Temperature readings and other measurements made in the water surrounding the site indicated that conditions had changed there since the methane hydrate was discovered in 1987. Many gases react with water and convert to solid hydrates, but only at precise combinations of pressure and temperature. “This year,” Brewer said, “with the northward transport of enormous volumes of warm water due to El Niño, the water temperature at the depths where hydrates would occur is about a degree warmer than it was in 1987.” The temperature increase depresses the threshold at which hydrate converts to gas and vice versa; thus Brewer and his team found bubbling gas at 521 meters, instead of solid hydrate.

    >>> Read the complete article on Ice on Fire.

    Exploitation of clathrate reserves might exacerbate this problem, but it could also have far more immediate adverse effects. Clathrates exist in a delicate balance, and the worry is that as gas is extracted its pressure will break up neighbouring clathrate crystals. The result could be an uncontrollable chain reaction – a “methane burp” that could cascade through undersea reserves, triggering landslips and even tsunamis.

  29. 79
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Should we be worried about the methane issue? Of course we should have already been plenty worried about CO2 and should have since 1990 reduced our GHG emissions by at least 50%, just based on the CO2 worry.

    But since most people have not been worried over the past 20 years, this is as good a time as ever to start worrying and take action.

    There is also the issue of maybe a crash at 60 mph doesn’t kill the person, but at 90 mph it does. There are straws that break the camel’s back. We should worry about the total load, and also those straws.

    For instance, with only the CO2 and methane lagging well behind, perhaps just perhaps we could have avoided the venus syndrom and runaway warming ending all life on planet earth, and only faced maybe 75% extinction of life on earth. Perhaps the sooner than expected methane outgassing is the straw that breaks that limping, half-dead camels back for us, and kills it completely. Time will tell…..

    So for those not as yet worried, this is the time to jump on the bandwagon and mitigate like heck. Just try it. You’ll like it.

    [Response: Hey Lynn, the last iteration of your screenplay that you showed me had just these same methane plumes in the Arctic, as your harbingers of climate doom and intrigue. Can’t wait for the rest of your scenario to play out! David]

  30. 80
  31. 81
    SecularAnimist says:

    With regard to your analogy … I see a better analogy as the Toyota hurtling not towards stopped traffic, but towards the edge of a cliff, for two reasons.

    First, the cliff analogy includes the phenomenon of overshoot.

    We aren’t going to come to an abrupt halt when we hit some “wall” — we will go shooting off the precipice, and our momentum will keep us going for a while, like the Coyote with his legs frantically windmilling in the air for a moment before the plunge, in the old Roadrunner cartoons. Those who prefer not to look out the windows of the Toyota can imagine, for a while, that we are still merrily sailing along. And in fact, we may very well be in overshoot, right now.

    Second, once we have overshot the precipice, what happens to us when we drop?

    Well, it depends on the terrain below. It may be a relatively gentle slope to the bottom, perhaps cushioned by vegetation and branches to break our fall, and we will tumble down to the bottom, where we will emerge from our wrecked Toyota, bruised and battered but still able to limp away from the crash.

    Or, the cliff may be a thousand-foot sheer drop. And we don’t know for sure which one it will be, because we can’t see over the cliff.

    And of course, if you go over the cliff and it IS a thousand-foot sheer drop, then it makes little difference whether you were going 70 or 90 MPH when you went over the edge, does it?

  32. 82
    Jacob Mack says:

    Hank # 49 good link. I always enjoy reading Rabbet’s site. He is one of the few on the web with solid knowledge of P-Chem.

    I still think we should be concered about methane as a long term detriment to climate through its conversions.

  33. 83
    Jacob Mack says:

    Similar to Rabbet’s post with some details on isotopic detection and more references:

  34. 84
    Sean says:

    Oh my, why would you encourage David Matthews to write their letter to the editor?

    [Response: As an antidote to a sense of hopelessness, which grows like cancer, among others.–Jim]

    What on earth does resource depletion, peak oil, overpopulation and crumbling infrastructure have to do with what this website is supposed to be about? Pretty off topic I would say (although entirely your prerogative). Just because we’re addicted to oil, people are having babies and pipelines are corroding doesn’t convince anyone (save for greenpeace) that AGW is happening.
    Matthews post is quite typical of those that despise the capitalistic ‘ponzi scheme’.The irony is that capitalism is the tool that will get us out this mess.

    [Response: Adjusting the earth’s atmospheric composition so that it’s radiative flux is minimally disruptive for human society and the natural world is what will get us out of this mess. How that is best done is a complex, but separate, question.–Jim]

    One wonders if he’d have the luxury of spending time with the shore birds in the morning if he didn’t live in a world built by capitalistic forces.
    An individual who has lost hope in humanity, or probably never had hope to begin with is not the best spokesman for the AGW cause.
    My hope is that none of you on Real Climate share this person’s perception of reality.

  35. 85
    Ghonadz says:

    I don’t understand something, David. If CO2 is driving temperatures up in an accelerating curve and if increased temperatures are melting the permafrost and warming the oceans and if melting permafrost and warmer oceans lead to more methane release and if more methane in the atmosphere increases the greenhouse effect and further raises temperature, how is this not a positive feedback loop with catastrophic consequences? Won’t warmer temperatures release more methane further raising temperatures and releasing even greater amounts of methane in an accelerating feedback loop? You say that the methane is ‘transient’ but doesn’t it decay into CO2 among other things? Isn’t there more fossil carbon in these methane hydrates and locked under the permafrost than in all of the other fossil fuels both already burned and still in the ground? Isn’t the mechanism whereby this methane gets released in vast quantities simply the increasing temperatures of the atmosphere and ocean, particularly in the polar regions? Please help me understand this better.

    [Response: You understand things fine I think. But the positive feedback with methane is iffy and speculative. What if it doesn’t turn out to be important? Don’t want people to then think, ok, everything is fine. The accelerator pedal suddenly starts working again, great, but the brake pedal is still broken. My concern for future climate would not go away in that case. David]

  36. 86
    wili says:

    Prokaryote quoted at #78–“Clathrates exist in a delicate balance, and the worry is that as gas is extracted its pressure will break up neighbouring clathrate crystals. The result could be an uncontrollable chain reaction – a “methane burp” that could cascade through undersea reserves, triggering landslips and even tsunamis.”

    This is what I have read, too, about possible triggers for large-scale, sudden releases of methane hydrate. I believe there was at least one well documented instance in the North Atlantic. If anyone can track it down, that might be illuminating.

    I would like to add to CCCP’s (and others’) point (#51) about the generally much warmer Arctic sea surface temperatures, that with rapidly falling sea ice cover, there is much more wave activity from wind hitting now-open ocean. This increases the amount of surface to bottom interaction, especially in the vast areas off northern Asia where the continental shelf is just a few meters below the surface.

    I don’t see how anyone can so glibly dismiss the possibility of catastrophic release.

    Of course, even if this weren’t a factor, David has kindly pointed out in his response to #46 that sea ice and ocean current changes are more likely to be the immediate cause of rapid, catastrophic global climate change, and these. Fortunately there has been no evidence of rapid changes in sea ice or ocean currents in the last few years…or, wait…oops.

    I think the thoughtful hosts of this excellent site are bending over backward to defuse alarm about this because, 1) indeed not completely certain how it will play out and may well end up being just a bit player in the big scheme of things; but also 2) it is something that, once started, no one can really do anything about, and that could lead to counterproductive despair and resignation (I must admit to feeling some of that upon hearing about this paper, even though I had heard a lot about the research leading up to it, and earlier papers saying similar things–somehow seeing it in “Science” gives it a whole new level of psychological reality); and perhaps 3) here was a chance for them to sound distinctly non-alarmist, in the face of what might be viewed as alarm in MSM and in other blogs.

    While I am sympathetic to both motivations, I think we are best served by the clearest understanding of the potential gravity of all risks. If a situation is alarming, why shouldn’t we be alarmed, even if other parts of the big picture remain equally or even more dangerous and alarming?

    [Response: But it takes centuries for warmth to get down where the hydrates are, so the methane would come out in small burps, essentially like an ongoing chronic emission, rather than all at once. Even a giant landslide wouldn’t release enough methane to really affect the climate in a catastrophic way. Don’t mean to be glib, just sayin’. David]

  37. 87
    Hank Roberts says:

    > I still think we should be concered about methane
    As are we all.

    The air temperatures have been _cold_ over on the Siberian side recently.
    But I don’t know if sea water, especially bottom water, temps. are related to the local air temp or if that water comes in from elsewhere. Anyone got a circulation map? If we could check the temps. of the water that _will_ be passing over that shallow methane source maybe we could predict the future emission rate. (Anyone have ocean temps handy, or a reference on how long it takes a change in sea-bottom water temp. to propagate down into the sediment where the methane comes up?)

    I suspect the people with expertise in drilling for natural gas must have a lot of information on this sort of thing that they aren’t mining-so-to-speak for climate papers, just because they’ve been collecting information for a long while all over the area. Proprietary — but perhaps they could edit out the locations and publish something in the way of forecasting where there will be warmth reaching the mud enough to release the gas.

    Anybody got 20,000 square kilometers of polyethylene sheeting handy that could be sunk over the area to collect bubbles?

    Oh, wait, there are fisheries there too, what’s left of them. Dang.

    And so it goes:

  38. 88
    ccpo says:

    Methane is a transient gas in the atmosphere, while CO2 essentially accumulates in the atmosphere / ocean carbon cycle, so in the end the climate forcing from the accumulating CO2 that methane oxidizes into may be as important as the transient concentration of methane itself.

    What else did you think we were worried about?


    [Response: Climate forcing from methane itself as a greenhouse gas, duh. David]

    Comment by ccpo — 6 March 2010 @ 11:19 PM


    While the short term potential damage from methane is a real concern, and might be particularly for very short terms by warming ice in those areas where the emissions just above and below the water line (possibly?), we all pretty much know the long term effects are the thing.

    Context is everything. The context make it clear the concern is long term.


  39. 89
    Jimbo says:

    From Co2 to methane, then what?

    Water Vapour, 40,000 parts per million.
    CO2, 360 parts per million
    Methane, 1.7 parts per million

  40. 90
    ccpo says:

    “Unfortunately, pressure is also part of the equation, so those clathrates in Siberia are most likely near their critical threshold due to the shallow water column. And methane is rising in the atmosphere.”
    It’s not enough to say that “methane is rising”. How much is the methane of Siberia contributing to the rise, and how much does it contribute to the rise of overall forcing ? the divergence can occur only if we reach the level of retroaction loop ( ∆T/∆CH4 ) x (∆CH4 /∆T) > 1 , where the first factor measures the contribution of methane to average temperature and the second the influence of temperature on methane release. . Who is aware of a serious scientific study showing we could be any close to this thereshold ?

    Comment by Gilles — 7 March 2010 @ 3:24 AM

    In terms of scientific understanding, you are correct. In terms of “knowing” and policy, I disagree.

    Perfect example? As I have said before, when Katey Walter first published on the thermokarst lakes, which was after we learned of the renewed rise in atmospheric methane, I told all and sundry they should expect that rise to continue and for more methane coming from the seabed and land to be found. Heck, there was even some question as to whether the seabed emissions found in the last couple years were hydrates. I knew they were. Not scientific, but it didn’t need to be.

    It was easy to predict the continued rise and that we would find more and more because…. wait for it… the earth and it’s air and seas are all warming. Massive surprise, I’m sure.

    The point I am making is that the Ivory Tower is a great place for scientists to study in, but a poor place for them to be influencing policy and public perception. Throughout history great advances have come from great leaps of intuitive knowledge. Somehow in this era we have chosen to pretend science can only, should only, advance by knowledge alone and leave intuition and insight out of the equation.

    This way of thinking is a death knell wrt climate. By the time anything gets proven climate is another two steps ahead.

    I said two years ago methane was a serious problem and that downplaying it could prove our undoing. Now, everything I feared is confirmed and the scale can, and will, only get bigger. This is a promise. Is it scientific? No. But it is fully logical within the context of warming –> methane –> warming –> methane… Speed of change is the only issue. Given possible speed of large changes in climate is now down to months, downplaying methane as a factor is akin to bringing a stick to a sword fight; you might turn out alright, but the odds are very, very long.


  41. 91
    Jimbo says:

    For those who want to spend trillions shaving a small percentage of a trace gas called Co2 from the atmosphere then please see what a trillion dollars looks like.

  42. 92
    ccpo says:

    As I told Revkin, you all need to study Wietzman’s paper, game theory, quantum theory, and why planners in any field assign high values- and aggressive countermeasures- to the ruin scenario. Even if this probability is less than 10%- though my reading of the evidence points a whole lot higher than that.

    I don’t know why some of you seem to now be afraid to even mention possible apocalyptic paths. Are you afraid of being mocked by Anthony Watts or Glen Beck?

    Comment by mike roddy — 7 March 2010 @ 10:35 AM

    Very nicely stated (the whole comment.) I did not see this when I responded. Since mine is not up yet, perhaps the staff noticed.

    Still: EXACTLY the way we need to be thinking. The science is not the solution, it’s the data. The solution lies in risk management. So, RC dudes, please don’t minimize the threats. That’s not your job. That’s ours to decide. That is, the body politic.

    [Response: Oh is that a fact? David’s one of the world’s leading researchers on the carbon cycle, but discussing the relevance of this paper’s implications (and others’, recently) is not his job eh? OK then.–Jim]

    Unless, of course, you want to go all Hansen on us and roll up your sleeves and really get into the fight. If so, the point is all the more important: the public must come to understand risk assessment and why we must act.

    Put another way, if you’re not ringing the alarm, your kind of part of the problem.

    [Response: Try to get something straight. The assignment of scientists is not to ring bells, nor is it necessarily to refrain therefrom. The job of scientists is to give the best possible description of what is happening and why, especially in an issue as contentious as this, where everybody and their brother has their own axe to grind. This should be obvious–Jim]


  43. 93
    Greg Robie says:


    I think your acceleration analogy conflated the two climate forcings of carbon dioxide and methane in a way that misleads and confuses. Anthropogenic carbon dioxide is a forcing that, ostensibly, humanity both creates and can control the creation of. Arctic methane, on the other hand, once that fuse to the methane time bomb is lit, has a mind of its own (dictated by methanogenesis in wetland, and, in terrestrial and subsea permafrost—by the destabilization or thawing of methane hydrates). As such, wouldn’t the methane time bomb, once detonated, be like a another truck ramming the car in the rear and accelerate it into the stopped truck, even if the car’s engine is turned off? . . . Or, like this analogy:

  44. 94
    Mark A. York says:

    Like Lynn, I have what I call the methane time bomb in my latest novel. It’s just one symptom with CO2 the main culprit. I show methane releases as a mainland issue rather than offshore. There’s plenty to worry about indeed.

  45. 95
    Dennis Denuto says:


    Thanks for the response… actually, the Westbrook and Reagan papers deal with the Svalbard setting, which is more or less typical oceanic (albeit high latitude) gas hydrates. It is not of the (relic) permafrost-associated, submerged shelf type, with all those attendant issues of entrained organic matter, lithology, etc. etc. So those have had only the ocean-bottom warming perturbation, not the potentially more “severe” thermal perturbation associated with the post-glacial shelf transgression, so it is perhaps not such a great analogue?

    [Response: Katey Walter in Fairbanks has published observations of methane coming out of permafrost in rings around lakes, from the boundary of the “thaw bulb” around the lake, and she thinks that the methane in the Siberian shelf could be from the same mechanism. But it’s not clear whether the methane comes from hydrates or peat, nor is it obvious to me why it would matter which the source is. David]

  46. 96
    Thomas says:

    Lawrence @60 does have an interesting point, about slow moving storms -and new ones following the same track. This was certainly happening over North America this winter, especially over the eastern seaboard. Maybe we could have a future post about the distribution of extreme weather events. The standard explanation for the apparent increase in extreme precipiation events, that we have roughly 4% more water vapour in the atmosphere, doesn’t expalin the fact that the high precipitation event tail seems to be increasing. So there must(may) be something going on that favors atmospheric circulation patterns that either/or slow storm systems or allow trains of similar storms to hit the ame area. That this could be a result of warming is not at all intuitive!

  47. 97
    KLR says:

    I was just reading about Messoyakha, the gas field mentioned by prokaryote in #78. It’s an anomaly and has a low production volume in any case. No economical method of extracting hydrate has ever been developed, and likely never will, with onshore unconventional sources of natural gas dominating new resource extraction.

    Peak oil researcher Jean Laherrère published an excellent piece for on hydrates. He mentions Milkov’s study Global estimates of hydrate-bound gas in marine sediments: how much is really out there?, which shows that estimates have decreased by an order of magnitude since the 1970s; yet these earlier figures are still bandied about all too often.

    What is the state of the science with regard to methane paleoclimate proxies? Has recent work increased the resolution for pre-Pleistocene measurements?

    [Response: Milkov’s estimates are an order of magnitude lower, but maybe he’s wrong, explaining the ongoing bandiment. The uncertainty hasn’t really diminished much over the years; everyone agrees on the area of the sea floor containing hydrate, because you can see bubbles seismically, but the uncertainty is the amount of methane per square meter. David]

  48. 98
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #79, Hi David. I had to give up screenwriting for now & concentrate on academic pubs — my recent one “Food Rights & Climate Change.” I’m also developing an interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Program at my U.

    However, there was a pretty good UK miniseries, BURN UP! (see ), that had a scene in it where they are out on Arctic ice, they drill a hole down to the ocean, then light a match above it, and it flares way up. I don’t know if this is realistic or not.

    [Response: Check this out. From Katey Walter. Don’t forget to say “whoa!”. David]

    I did write another, better one in which a guy time travels from the future dying world to our time. I called it HYSTERESIS, but after reading Hansen’s 2008 Bjerknes Lecture, I think I’ll call it, THE VENUS SYNDROME. But no time now to fix it up…

  49. 99

    In one of the peak oil books I recall reading how big oil gave up on mining methane hydrates (aka clathrates) and one of the reasons for abonding the project is the high risk for ships above the area. If the methane broke free quickly, it would reduce the buoyancy of a ship potentially causing it to sink abruptly. The Bermuda Triangle’s reputation for losing ships is thought by some to be related to this effect, but more it’s more likely that this reputation is a myth (and anyway the accompanying probably bogus reputation for losing an unusually high number of aircraft in the area couldn’t have the same cause).

    As to whether using methane as a fuel is somehow good, it’s a lower-pollution option than most other fossil fuels and if it is going to be vented anyway it’s better if we burn it usefully. But if it is contained somewhere like under permafrost or in the oceans, it would be far better to leave it where it is (especially considering what it takes to cause it to vent out).

    [Response: Hydrate methane is now considered mineable in the right conditions. They destabilize it by injecting warm water or chemicals. Mostly this is from gas reservoirs on land. This may supply ~10% of methane production in the next decade or so. See Gas Hydrate Resource: Smaller But Sooner , By: Kerr, Richard A., Normile, Dennis, Science, 0036-
    8075, February 13, 2004, Vol. 303, Issue 5660. David]

  50. 100
    Walt says:


    [Response: Not. This was written by David. Attention to detail appears not to be your strength]

    Good post. You need to do more of this. Present the science and drop the agenda.

    [Response: Clarifying the science is the agenda.–Jim]

    We would all be better off. Maybe you are heeding Judith Curry?

    [Response: Hardly. –Jim]

    I hope so.