An Arctic methane worst-case scenario

Let’s suppose that the Arctic started to degas methane 100 times faster than it is today. I just made that number up trying to come up with a blow-the-doors-off surprise, something like the ozone hole. We ran the numbers to get an idea of how the climate impact of an Arctic Methane Nasty Surprise would stack up to that from Business-as-Usual rising CO2

Walter et al (2007) says that Arctic lakes are 10% of natural global emissions, or about 5% of total emissions. I believe that was considered to be remarkably high at the time but let’s take it as a given, and representing the Arctic as a whole. If the number of lakes or their bubbling intensity suddenly increased by a factor of 100, and it persisted this way for 100 years, it would come to about 200 Gton of carbon emission, which is on the same scale as our entire fossil fuel emission so far (300 Gton C), or roughly the amount of traditional reserves of natural gas (although I’m not sure where estimates are since fracking) or petroleum. It would be a whopper of a surprise.

Scaling Walter’s Arctic lake emission rates up by a factor of 100 would increase the overall emission rate, natural and anthropogenic, by about a factor of 5 from where it is today. The weak leverage is because the high latitudes are a small source today relative to tropical wetlands and anthropogenic sources, so they have to grow a lot before they make much difference to the sum of all sources.

The steady-state methane concentration in the air scales nearly linearly with the emission rate. Actually, the concentration goes up somewhat faster than a constant times the emission rate, because the lifetime in the atmosphere gets longer (IPCC TAR). Let’s err on the side of flamboyance (great word in this context) and say the concentration of methane in the air goes up by a factor of 10 for the duration of the extra methane emission (meaning that the lifetime doubles).

Using the modtran model on line I get a radiative forcing from 10 * atmospheric methane of 3.4 Watts/m2 (the difference in the instantaneous IR flux out, labeled Iout, between cases with and without 10x methane). Using the TAR estimates of radiative forcing gives 2.7 Watts/m2.

But methane is a reactive gas and its presence leads to other greenhouse forcings, like the water vapor it decomposes into. Hansen estimates the “efficacy” of methane radiative forcing to be 1.4 (Hansen et al, 2005, Shindell et al, 2009), so that puts us to 4 or even 5 Watts/m2.

This is about twice the radiative forcing today from all anthropogenic greenhouse gases today, or (again according to Modtran) it would translate to an equivalent CO2 at today’s methane concentration of about 750 ppm. That seems significant, for sure.

Or, trying to “correct” for the different lifetimes of the gases using Global Warming Potentials, over a 100-year time horizon (which still way under-represents the lifetime of the CO2), you get that the methane would be equivalent to increasing CO2 to about 500 ppm, lower than 750 because the CO2 forcing lasts longer than the methane, which the GWP calculation tries in its own myopic way to account for.

But the methane worst case does not suddenly spell the extinction of human life on Earth. It does not lead to a runaway greenhouse. 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, but just in the absence of any pleasant surprises (like emission controls). At worst comparable to CO2 except that CO2 lasts essentially forever.


  1. K.M. Walter, L.C. Smith, and F. Stuart Chapin, "Methane bubbling from northern lakes: present and future contributions to the global methane budget", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, vol. 365, pp. 1657-1676, 2007.
  2. J. Hansen, "Efficacy of climate forcings", J. Geophys. Res., vol. 110, 2005.
  3. D.T. Shindell, G. Faluvegi, D.M. Koch, G.A. Schmidt, N. Unger, and S.E. Bauer, "Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions", Science, vol. 326, pp. 716-718, 2009.

159 comments on this post.
  1. prokaryotes:

    #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

  2. Eli Rabett:

    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

  3. David Miller:

    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?

  4. David Miller:

    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]

  5. Paul:

    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]

  6. prokaryotes:

    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]

  7. ccpo/killian:

    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.


  8. Hank Roberts:

    > 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:

  9. Kevin McKinney:

    #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]

  10. prokaryotes:

    [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]

  11. prokaryotes:

    [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]

  12. Hank Roberts:

    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.

  13. Hank Roberts:

    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]

  14. prokaryotes:

    “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]

  15. ccpo/killian:

    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?

  16. prokaryotes:

    [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]

  17. floundericious:

    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]

  18. prokaryotes:

    […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

  19. prokaryotes:

    [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.

  20. prokaryotes:

    [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]

  21. prokaryotes:

    [edit – please just focus on substance]

  22. prokaryotes:

    The Runaway Greenhouse Effect – James Hansen

  23. Anonymous Coward:

    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).

  24. Tony:

    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.

  25. GG:

    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]

  26. Jim:

    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.

  27. Philip Machanick:

    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.

  28. Sascha Tavere:

    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.

  29. Lynn Vincentnathan:

    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.

  30. Zachary Smith:

    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]

  31. wili:

    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]

  32. David B. Benson:

    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.

  33. Philip Machanick:

    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?

  34. Pete Dunkelberg:

    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.

  35. Kevin McKinney:

    #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.

  36. rustneversleeps:

    #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…

  37. Ray Ladbury:

    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.

  38. Lynn Vincentnathan:

    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.

  39. Tony:

    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.

  40. Kevin McKinney:

    #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.

  41. Greg Robie:

    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.

  42. Ray Ladbury:

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

  43. Hank Roberts:

    > 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.

  44. prokaryotes:

    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.

  45. wili:

    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?

  46. Zachary Smith:

    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.

  47. Mike Pope:

    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.

  48. Lewis:

    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

  49. Andy Lee Robinson:

    @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.

  50. Mike Pope:

    @ 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