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An online model of methane in the atmosphere

Filed under: — david @ 11 January 2012

I’ve put together an easy-to-play-with online model of methane in the atmosphere. I’m going to use it for teaching along with the rest of the Understanding the Forecast webmodels, but it was designed to be relevant to the issue of abrupt new methane burps as we’ve been ruminating about lately on Realclimate.

The model runs in three stages: a pre-anthropogenic steady state which ends in the model year
-50, addition of a new chronic source for 50 years (from human activity),then a spike beginning at model year 0 (supposed to be today) and running for 100 years into the model future. Here are results from the “worst case scenario” in the last post (whether you believe it is the true worst case or not): 200 Gton C over 100 years.


Looks like we got the factor of 10 methane increase about right.


Source and sink of methane in the model.

The lifetime of methane in the atmosphere, used to calculate the methane sink in any time step, is parameterized as a function of concentration following Schmidt and Shindell (2003).


The atmospheric lifetime of methane, used to calculate the sink flux.

The radiative forcing is parameterized from output from the NCAR model, scaled by an efficacy factor of 1.4 from Hansen et al, (2005). The radiative forcing is compared with Business-as-usual CO2 radiative forcing with the model year 0 corresponding roughly to year 2010, and with CO2 rising at 0.65% per year. The methane radiative forcing before year 0 is not time-realistic because the real human sources did not switch on instantaneously 50 years ago, but you can compare the future evolution of radiative forcing from CO2 and methane, from year 0 onwards.


The radiative forcings of CO2 and methane compared. The scenario is more-or-less comparable to 750 ppm CO2, as we thought.


The CO2 concentration used to generate the last figure.

Timing is everything

Four simulations with the same amount of carbon released as methane in the “spike”, on different time scales for the release.


10 Gton C release in 1 year — the spike.


Same spike but not as sharp: 10 Gton over 20 years.


Same 10 Gton but spread over 50 years.


100 years.

Enjoy. Go and get your swamp gas on, and give the poor model planet your worst. Bwahahahahaha!


References

  1. G.A. Schmidt, and D.T. Shindell, "Atmospheric composition, radiative forcing, and climate change as a consequence of a massive methane release from gas hydrates", Paleoceanography, vol. 18, pp. n/a-n/a, 2003. http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2002PA000757
  2. J. Hansen, "Efficacy of climate forcings", J. Geophys. Res., vol. 110, 2005. http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2005JD005776

332 Responses to “An online model of methane in the atmosphere”

  1. 251
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Ray:

    Leland, the problem with renewables is not that they cannot generate energy. They can. The problem is that they cannot with current technology be integrated into a robust energy infrastructure capable of supporting a complex, global civiliztion.

    Wrong.

    Solar, for example, turns out to be a pretty good match to the daily demand curve, especially in areas which use a lot of air conditioning.

    The more intermittent sources you add together, the less intermittent the whole becomes.

    Most fossil fuel fired power plants could easily integrate a solar thermal trough retrofit, reducing emissions and fuel consumption.

    Thank you for your efforts to protect the global economy, but really, the global economy is in no danger- except from climate change itself, IMO. We’re already paying more for food, for example.

    It’s energy, Ray. Conservation of energy says that energy can be changed from one form into another.

  2. 252
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Energy’s great, Leland. We need usable energy. Learn the difference. You know, Leland, we have something in common–neither of us has the foggiest idea what you are talking about.

  3. 253
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Ray-

    Perhaps more to the point:

    SEGS Solar Thermal Plants

    As an example of cost, in 2002, one of the 30 MW Kramer Junction sites required $90 million to construct, and its operation and maintenance cost is about $3 million per year (4.6 cents per kilowatt hour).[3]

    These early solar thermal power plants built in the 1980s have now paid off their loans, and are now producing electricity in the 3-5 cents per kilowatt hour range. Likely, with technological advances, this could be improved on.

    Oh, Lord, please save us from the terrible scourge of solar energy. :)

  4. 254
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “There is also a limit to how much renewable energy we can accommodate on the current grid–and we don’t have the technology for a new grid yet.”

    Again, with all due respect, this statement does not accurately reflect the reality. I would commend to your attention the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory:

    NREL is a leading expert in grid integration analysis of renewables, and collaborates closely with the power industry to share such transformative information. NREL has helped educate the power industry about the viability of significant penetration of renewable energy on the grid, while helping overcome and better understand operational, reliability, and economic concerns.

    For example (emphasis added):

    The Western Wind and Solar Integration Study examines the benefits and challenges of integrating up to 35% wind and solar energy penetration into the grid by 2017. The study finds that these targets are technically feasible and do not necessitate extensive additional infrastructure, but do require key changes to current operational practice.

    Though wind and solar output vary over time and cannot be perfectly forecast, the technical analysis performed in this study shows that it is operationally possible to accommodate 30% wind and 5% solar energy penetration. The study also finds that a 27% wind and solar energy penetration across the Western Interconnection decreases fuel and emissions costs by 40% and carbon emissions by 25%–45%, depending on the future price of natural gas.

    So it is “technically feasible” for wind and solar to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation by 25% to 45% in five years — without “extensive additional infrastructure”. That’s huge.

    I would add that distributed, end-user solar photovoltaics can have an even greater impact than this type of analysis suggests. Why? Because there is no need for the utility to “integrate” them, as there is with utility scale solar. As far as the utility is concerned, distributed solar simply looks like a reduction in peak demand.

    Now, recognizing and appreciating the moderators’ indulgence of this off-topic digression, I will let it go at that.

  5. 255
    CM says:

    Lewis,

    > whatever feedback outputs we generate are surely inevitably in addition to
    > our anthro-GHG outputs

    Surely. The question mark was over whether anything like David’s worst-case methane scenario would happen, not over whether our emissions would continue (nor, alas, over whether we are on the BAU track). And I was questioning Leland’s specific criticisms of the OP, not advocating that we ignore methane and other carbon feedbacks, in the Arctic or elsewhere.

  6. 256
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Leland, so when will you take me for a spin in your solar car?

    Is it really so hard to understand that energy sources do not equal an energy infrastructure?

  7. 257
    Ray Ladbury says:

    SA, our disagreement is evidently over what constitutes “significant”. Decreasing fossil fuel emissions by even 45% ain’t gonna cut it.

  8. 258
    Hank Roberts says:

    Science. 2008 Apr 11;320(5873):195.
    Amplification of Cretaceous warmth by biological cloud feedbacks.
    Kump LR, Pollard D.
    Source

    Department of Geosciences and Earth System Science Center, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA. lkump@psu.edu
    Abstract

    The extreme warmth of particular intervals of geologic history cannot be simulated with climate models, which are constrained by the geologic proxy record to relatively modest increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Recent recognition that biological productivity controls the abundance of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) in the unpolluted atmosphere provides a solution to this problem. Our climate simulations show that reduced biological productivity (low CCN abundance) provides a substantial amplification of CO2-induced warming by reducing cloud lifetimes and reflectivity. If the stress of elevated temperatures did indeed suppress marine and terrestrial ecosystems during these times, this long-standing climate enigma may be solved.

    PMID:
    18403703
    [PubMed]

  9. 259
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Ray-

    Leland, so when will you take me for a spin in your solar car?

    Is it really so hard to understand that energy sources do not equal an energy infrastructure?

    Not a problem. A plug in Prius, with solar cells on the roof to recharge it- no problem.

    I don’t have one, to be honest. Nor do I yet have solar cells on my roof. But I do intend to make that transition ASAP.

    I often ride the bus to work, by the way. But natural gas powered buses, with only a few percent methane leakage, are probably worse than diesel buses.

    Electric buses, on the other hand, powered by renewable energy sources, are quite achievable:

    Proterra Electric Buses

  10. 260
    Leland Palmer says:

    #244–Some of those measures seem practical and useful; others, such as the ‘underwater cables,’ not so much–to me at least. But I think the idea that “methane catastrophism is highly motivational” is flawed. You are not convincing folks in large numbers here, on a ‘friendly forum.’ Why would you expect a better result in a wider context already sensitized to ‘alarmism?’

    Personally, I think that we’ll do better with claims that are highly supportable.

    About the underwater electrical cables:

    World’s Longest Underwater Electric Cable to Connect Iceland and Europe

    The one from Iceland to Europe just being studied, so far. But there are other shorter ones.

    Reliable submarine power cables

    ABB is one of the world’s most experienced submarine cable manufacturers, with well over a century’s experience of cable manufacturing and installation. We offer complete cable systems for all types of applications, from medium voltage distribution to high voltage AC and DC transmission.

  11. 261
    RichardC says:

    Moderators, this should probably be on unforced variations. Feel free to move it there. Thanks.

    254 SA says, “So it is “technically feasible” for wind and solar to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation by 25% to 45% in five years — without “extensive additional infrastructure”. That’s huge.

    I would add that distributed, end-user solar photovoltaics can have an even greater impact than this type of analysis suggests. Why? Because there is no need for the utility to “integrate” them, as there is with utility scale solar.”

    First, I think distributed PV is as hard to integrate since it is net change in demand that matters to the utility, and users will be using the grid as storage for their PV systems. Sunny day? The utility will have to cope with not just their own excess PV but also users’. Cloudy day? Gotta make up for everybody’s as well. Some of this will be handled by users, but really, what’s the difference between a user sticking a battery in their basement and a utility putting one in a box at the subdivision entrance or at a power plant? (plug-in hybrid cars will help – sometimes your Volt will leave your garage fully discharged BECAUSE it was plugged in, but again, no difference whether the PV is utility or user owned.)

    This isn’t robust, just a blog post. I assume I’ve made errors. Corrections?:

    IEA/OCED says the USA has 3,101TWh/year of fossil fuel electric generation. (2008). That means we need to add 775TWh/yr in five years to hit your benchmark of 25%. irecusa.org says we installed 435 mw PV in 2010 and 80mw CSP in 1991 (best year so far). Planned wind construction for 2012 is 8,300 mw. Add the three together for a total of 8815 mw. Assuming a capacity factor of .3 and we will install 2645 mw/hr, or 23 TWh/yr in 2012. If we ramped up installation of solar and wind by 300%/yr (linear) we’d build 23 + 92 + 161 + 230 + 299 = 805 TWh/yr. That’s enough, but it neglects wasted energy when the wind blows too hard (HUGE issue for 25% penetration, especially with no transmission backbone), and neglects the energy required for all that construction, not just of turbines and cells, but also turbine and cell-building factories, mines, smelters, roads, etc, plus all the things every one of the workers involved buys for their personal lives, plus the multipliers through the economy.

    Your source also says, “Additional transmission will be needed to deliver wind power to market,” by the way. Oops.

    So, NO time for approving projects (right-of-way can take years), NO time for training the people who will do all this work, NO time for environmental impact studies, NO time to find, analyse, and purchase property, NO time to build up cement production, steel production, etc. Then, at the end of five years we will have factories and installers in place able to build 300TWh/yr per year of wind and solar. Since we’ll have run out of “integration room”, the whole shebang will have to be dismantled. We don’t want that, so we’ll have to build a transmission backbone and smart grid and replace all our appliances for smart ones. Even then, we’ll get to 45% in 2 more years. Then we’ll definitely have to toss out most of our construction capacity. Lots of folks out of work, lots of useless factories, lots of waste.

    The cost? Assuming $2/w for construction/installation and $20/w for construction of the factories that construct the cells and turbines, and we get $617 billion for construction and $2.1 trillion for construction of construction capability. Double that for roads, transmission lines, stuff, and declining quality of sites (they’re taking the best ones now for sure!), and the cost is about $5 trillion, or about 7% of GNP for 5 years.

    Technically possible? I doubt it. Extremely foolish? Certainly. The maximum construction capacity for renewables we should build is total desired capacity / 20 so that we’ll end up with an industry sized to replace itself as it wears out. Assuming a 10 year ramp-up, 30 years is the time it will take us to get to 45% market penetration, and getting past that is going to take serious storage capacity.

    The results? Assuming 0% energy growth, we’ll still be spewing 55% of 2011 carbon for electricity in 7 years. Electricity represents 1/3 of emissions, so we’ve dropped GHG emissions by 15%.

    Assuming this ratio hold true for all efforts, it takes 7% of GNP for a year to drop GHG emissions 1%. Getting to 80% reduction by 2050 means we’ll have to spend perhaps 10% of our GNP for 39 years (GNP will increase). So, to achieve our stated goal we must make an effort equivalent to what you are proposing, but for 39 years. This fits well with the 30 year logical build-up period I mentioned above, and also fits the size of the US military. So yes, if we declare war on AGW and use perhaps 90% of our military budget and personnel to fight that war (instead of Iraq et al), then we can do what we’ve supposedly committed to do by 2050.

    Now all we have to do is convince the Republicans that destitute muslims half the world away aren’t a greater threat than AGW. That’s probably harder than actually doing the 80% reduction by 2050.

  12. 262

    #260–Sigh. OK, I was unclear–I wasn’t questioning the technical feasibility of underwater electrical cables, nor their economic feasibility for that matter–IIRC, they are proving quite useful in getting some offshore wind-generated power ashore.

    I was using that phrase as a shorthand for this proposal:

    We develop technology to capture methane from methane plumes in the ocean, burn it via oxyfuel combustion to generate electricity, and deep inject the resulting CO2 into fractured basalt layers under the ocean floor. So maybe the first thing to do is start building underwater electrical cables, running from methane emitting regions to connect with onshore electrical grids.

    Which strikes me as perhaps not impossible, but certainly apt to soak up way more time and money than the results are likely to warrant. (YMMV.) And I sure wouldn’t start by building the cables. . .

  13. 263
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Leland, you seem to have zero understanding of how difficult what you are proposing would be. Do the math. How much lithium would be required for everyone in the US to have a plug-in Prius? How much additional electrical generation would be required to power the beasties? How much would it cost to put in charging stations–literally everywhere?

    Now look at the global population and extrapolate the results. There is a reason why this is hard.

  14. 264
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Jim-

    Maybe we genetically engineer trees to be able to utilize methane and metabolize it.

    [Response:Good luck with that.–Jim]

    Well, I’m just a lowly analytical chemist, not a genetic engineer. Let me run it past my friend Gary.

    This did pop up on Google, though:


    Methylobacterium populi sp. nov., a novel aerobic, pink-pigmented, facultatively methylotrophic, methane-utilizing bacterium isolated from poplar trees (Populus deltoides×nigra DN34)

    So, it’s a bacterium that lives in poplar trees, which utilizes methane. It is of course a long way from a bacterium with an appropriate metabolic pathway to a practical and effective system, complete with acceptable environmental impacts. But, who knows what it might turn into, if someone were to actually work on methane metabolizing trees or plants (or bacteria which have a symbiotic relationship with such trees or plants)?

    We cannot depend on every idea to work. We have to have lots of ideas, and just blame the bad ones on any convenient dog, or something. :)

    Science consists of ideas as well as facts and theories, though, don’t you think?

    It’s interesting, the totally non-creative culture which has grown up on this site.

  15. 265
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “SA, our disagreement is evidently over what constitutes ‘significant’. Decreasing fossil fuel emissions by even 45% ain’t gonna cut it.”

    In fact, what the NREL says is even less “significant” — they are talking about reducing only the emissions from electricity generation by 45 percent, not all emissions.

    We have to start somewhere. When I read that it could be possible to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation by 45 percent in five years, with mainstream, mature, mass-produced technology that is already at hand — my reaction is not to think of reasons why it can’t work, my reaction is “let’s get on with it!”

    And again, with respect, I would suggest that if the NREL says that integrating “significant” amounts of wind and solar into the grid can be done much more quickly and easily and less expensively than you seem to believe, that you look into what they are saying.

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “How much lithium would be required for everyone in the US to have a plug-in Prius? How much additional electrical generation would be required to power the beasties? How much would it cost to put in charging stations–literally everywhere?”

    Ray, again with sincere respect, you sound as though you are unaware that some of the largest corporations in the world are investing many millions of dollars in exactly these areas: advanced battery technologies and charging networks for example. And perhaps unaware that US government studies have shown that existing generation capacity is sufficient to charge up to 85 percent of the US passenger car fleet if they were converted to electric cars.

    All of these questions have been looked into. The work to address them is proceeding rapidly. This is not vaporware from some science fiction scenario, this is today’s technology.

    There is plenty to by cynical and pessimistic about — particularly the entrenched economic and political power of those who want to continue to amass wealth and power from “business as usual” and their dominance of the public discourse.

    But there is no reason to be cynical or pessimistic about the capacity of the renewable energy, efficiency and other technologies that we have at hand NOW to make very “significant” reductions in GHG emissions very quickly — IF we choose to apply them. On the contrary, it’s one of the few things that gives any reason for optimism.

  16. 266
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Kevin-

    [Kevin]I was using that phrase as a shorthand for this proposal:

    [LP]We develop technology to capture methane from methane plumes in the ocean, burn it via oxyfuel combustion to generate electricity, and deep inject the resulting CO2 into fractured basalt layers under the ocean floor. So maybe the first thing to do is start building underwater electrical cables, running from methane emitting regions to connect with onshore electrical grids.

    [Kevin]Which strikes me as perhaps not impossible, but certainly apt to soak up way more time and money than the results are likely to warrant. (YMMV.) And I sure wouldn’t start by building the cables. . .

    Yes, good idea, right? :)

    We’ll soon have tens of billions of dollars worth of methane, an energy source, bubbling up in plumes in the ocean. This idea is a carbon neutral way to dispose of at least some of it, and make money at the same time. Profitable stuff has a way of multiplying, don’t you think?

    There are patents for devices for methane capture from ocean plumes, available on Google patents, by the way. None of them tested, though.

    I’d rather that we had been prudent, and avoided the warming oceans and subsequent methane plumes. But it might be possible to do profitable remediation, at this point. Profitable remediation would be good, don’t you think?

  17. 267
    SecularAnimist says:

    RichardC, all I can say about your comment (currently #261) is that it is full of assumptions which appear to be based on an almost complete lack of knowledge of what is actually going on with renewable energy technologies today.

  18. 268
    wili says:

    I had thought that energy discussions were verboten on this site, but since they seem not to be, I’ll pitch in.

    What always becomes stunningly clear to me when these conversations come up (but apparently to few others, so perhaps I’m missing something?), is that we need to drastically reduce our energy use.

    IIRC, Europeans use about half the energy Americans use with no great loss of quality of life, and some may say their QOL is even higher than ours.

    Latin Americans get by with half of that, and in many of those countries the happiness index shows higher satisfaction than for the US.

    So, in theory, we could cut our energy use to a quarter of current use without negatively affecting how happy and satisfied people are with their lives.

    But if we are seeing this as the existential threat it is, we should be looking at making cuts that are actually sacrifices and that make us occasionally less comfortable than we might otherwise like to be. Such sacrifices should be able to bring us down to another halving or quartering of energy use, that is to around 5-15% of current use rates.

    At this point we are in the range of what can be supplied with a reasonable increase in existing renewables, especially with some management of demand so that some energy-requiring activities are simply avoided when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing in the general area.

    IIRC, again, domestic petrol use in Great Britain dropped by 95% during WWII. Can’t we make something close to that kind of sacrifice to have a chance of preserving a habitable planet for our grandkids?

  19. 269
    Hank Roberts says:

    > totally non-creative culture

    You’ve confused science with wishful thinking.

    It’s a very common problem; statistics was invented to distinguish between facts and wishes — by doing the math.

    If you’d show some numbers instead of waving hands and wishing, you’d get a lot of creative responses.

    Look at http://www.azimuthproject.org/azimuth/show/HomePage for examples.

  20. 270
    flxible says:

    SA – While I agree with and admire your always cogent and incisive comments, the primary thing you [and Ray] avoid is the fact that the average working stiff simply cannot afford to switch to electric transport. I can keep my travel minimal to save a buck or 2 on fuel, but there is no conceivable way I can purchase a $40,000 electric or hybrid car and the charging arrangements needed to replace perfectly functional ancient ICE vehicles, even if the bankrupt govt co-signed for a loan. I note that over a year ago General Electric announced it would start switching their multi-thousand fleet of vehicles to electric in order to support growth of the supply industries it’s part of . . . still waiting for them to start on that plan. If a company like that can’t do it …. there’s plenty of reason to be pessimistic about our ability to choose change.

  21. 271

    #266–Yes, Leland, your vaporware is lovely. But it’s still vaporware. That’s why I wouldn’t start with the cables, I’d start by designing and testing some of that collection gear you refer to.

    If I had any of the necessary skills and money, that is–but I think I do better writing my articles.

  22. 272
    Anonymous Coward says:

    #268 wili,

    “I had thought that energy discussions were verboten on this site”
    I thought that only nuke energy was taboo.

    “Latin Americans get by with half of that, and in many of those countries the happiness index shows higher satisfaction than for the US.”
    Life expectancy is less subjective.
    Countries with substantially higher life expectancy than the US but much lower emissions per capita include France with 35% of US CO2 emissions as well as Israel or Sweden with 30%.
    If you’re OK with slightly higher life expectancies than the US, Costa Rica has only 10% of US emissions. But many of these small countries are special case with a lot of their income coming from tourism, expats or something.
    You have to settle for substantially lower life expectancies like those in Vietnam (life expectancy in the USA is about halfway between Vietnam and Israel) to find larger countries with very low emissions. Most Latin American countries don’t fare so well.
    None of this means that US emissions could easily be brought in line with those leaders without a massive growth in renewable or taboo energy, electric vheicles and so on. It would at best take decades to fix excessive urban sprawl for instance.

    “So, in theory, we could cut our energy use to a quarter of current use without negatively affecting how happy and satisfied people are with their lives.”
    In theory, yeah. The trouble is that your “we” is an abstraction that can therefore not cut anything. In contrast, Lincoln’s Republican party was a real “we” that could bring about social change.
    It’s a problem with most comments on RC about the issue. Some kind of benign yet powerful “we” is usually assumed while the motivations of the cliques which actually devise and implement public policies are ignored.

  23. 273
    SecularAnimist says:

    flxible:

    Yes, electrifying ground transport to reduce tailpipe GHG emissions does present challenges beyond those of reducing the GHG emissions from electricity generation.

    Yes, the cost of being an “early adopter” of any new technology — such as electric cars — is quite high.

    Consider that the original 1981 IBM PC — with an 8-bit 8Mhz CPU, 64 Kilobytes of RAM, a 360 Kilobyte floppy drive, no hard drive, no network capability, and a monochrome text display — cost over $7000 in today’s dollars.

    Consider that today’s electric cars benefit from none of the economies of scale that will bring down prices as production increases — especially given the extreme inherent simplicity of electric drive vehicles compared to internal combustion vehicles, and especially if the industry adopts standardized interfaces and form factors that will spur third-party development of interchangeable components (which played a huge role in driving down the cost of personal computers).

    Consider that today, IBM is developing lithium-air batteries that will cost significantly less and have many times the energy density of today’s lithium-ion batteries, enabling electric cars to have a range of 500 miles per charge. And IBM expects these batteries to go into commercial production in less than 10 years.

    Perhaps in 10 years, “IBM PC” will stand for “IBM Personal Car”.

  24. 274
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Leland: “It’s interesting, the totally non-creative culture which has grown up on this site.”

    Yes, shame on us for allowing little things like facts inhibit our unfettered creativity! Show us, Leland. Deliver us from the reality-based community!

  25. 275
    RichardC says:

    267 SA said, “RichardC, all I can say about your comment (currently #261) is that it is full of assumptions which appear to be based on an almost complete lack of knowledge of what is actually going on with renewable energy technologies today.”

    OK. We agree I’m ignorant. That’s why most of us are here, to find those who can answer questions and correct misconceptions. Hopefully someone will help. My post was:

    I think distributed PV is as hard to integrate since it is net change in demand that matters to the utility, and users will be using the grid as storage for their PV systems. {ignorant and erroneous logic}

    This isn’t robust, just a blog post. I assume I’ve made errors. Corrections?:

    {more ignorant and erroneous logic}

    {inappropriate political snipe. My contribution to the political tone. Oops.}

  26. 276
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Ray-

    Interesting quote from Semiletov, which I missed back in December:

    Independent Interview with Semiletov in December, 2011

    Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences tells the UK’s Independent that the plumes of methane, a gas 20 times as harmful as carbon dioxide, have shocked scientists who have been studying the region for decades. “Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of meters in diameter,” he said. “This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It’s amazing.”

    Semiletov said that while his research team has discovered more than 100 plumes, they estimate there to be “thousands” over the wider area, extending from the Russian mainland to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.
    “In a very small area, less than 10,000 square miles, we have counted more than 100 fountains, or torch-like structures, bubbling through the water column and injected directly into the atmosphere from the seabed,”

    Semiletov said. “We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale — I think on a scale not seen before. Some plumes were a kilometer or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere — the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal.”

    [edit – repeating yourself over and again is not interesting.]

  27. 277
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Ray-

    Leland, you seem to have zero understanding of how difficult what you are proposing would be. Do the math. How much lithium would be required for everyone in the US to have a plug-in Prius? How much additional electrical generation would be required to power the beasties? How much would it cost to put in charging stations–literally everywhere?

    Now look at the global population and extrapolate the results. There is a reason why this is hard.

    Yes, but if there is a lithium shortage, the price of lithium will rise, and this will stimulate the search for alternatives and better technological use of existing supplies, right?

    We can’t really expect the market to respond to a potential shortage before it arises, right?

    Have past technological revolutions had to solve supply problems before they arose?

    We just went through a period in which we spent three trillion dollars on an aggressive invasion of the Middle East, and another few trillion to bail out Wall Street. So, we apparently have money to spend- if our financial and political elites want to spend it.

    Then, of course, their are nickel metal hydride batteries, the patent rights to which are owned by Chevron- which refuses to produce large format nickel metal hydride batteries in United States. You’ve seen the film Who Killed The Electic Car, about he GM Impulse electric car? Perhaps there should be an eminent domain law for technology?

    We have an immensely diverse and powerful technology, Ray, and an economic market which serves to minimize the impact of shortages and dislocations. Past technological revolutions have not had to solve shortages before they happened, and expecting this one to do so is not reasonable.

  28. 278
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Leland, Are you familiar with the periodic table? I suggest you study it. I don’t think you are going to come up with a substitute for lithium.

    While you are at it, maybe you could crack a couple of other books and try to learn how the world actually works. Here’s a hint: It isn’t simple.

  29. 279

    #272–Perhaps better on “Unforced Variations,” but in response to AC. This was recently published on CO2 and life expectancy:

    http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/2012/January/carbon-emissions-research

    AC’s source, perhaps? Anyway, abstract here:

    http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate1371.html

    This tool is interesting for various comparisons. Here is Norway (a northerly oil-producing nation which nevertheless has a carbon footprint much lower than the US) v. USA:

    http://www.nationmaster.com/compare/Norway/United-States/Environment

    And life expectancy: Norway 80.2, USA 78.37

    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/hea_lif_exp_at_bir_tot_pop-life-expectancy-birth-total-population

  30. 280
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Ray-

    Leland, Are you familiar with the periodic table? I suggest you study it. I don’t think you are going to come up with a substitute for lithium.

    While you are at it, maybe you could crack a couple of other books and try to learn how the world actually works. Here’s a hint: It isn’t simple.

    Oh, thank you, Ray. I have the Periodic Table pretty much memorized, being an analytical chemist. But thank you anyway. :)

    Seriously, though, I wasn’t talking just about a substitute for lithium. I was talking about the ability of a robust technology and a market economy to solve a problem, in some way, if the demand for it is there.

    Take the large format nickel metal hydride batteries, for example, invented by Stanford Ovshinsky, now apparently being suppressed by Chevron. No conflict of interest there, of course.

    Those would be likely be good enough for plug in hybrids, although the range would be reduced. They are used in the conventional Toyota Prius. Funny about the Prius, wasn’t it, Ray? The Japanese could do it, and sell millions of them to Americans, but somehow we just can’t do it, here in this country.

    There are lots of alternative battery technologies, Ray. Lithium ion batteries are just the front runner, right now. There are also design options like removable rechargeable battery packs to assist in overcoming the shortcomings of batteries, and so on.

    Finally, if batteries just can’t be made to work, there is carbon fiber flywheel energy storage technology.

    Nobody said anything about it being simple. But in a crash program, similar to the Apollo space program, many things would be possible and could be accomplished.

  31. 281
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Ah, I understand. Leland is a “magic of the marketplace” cornucopian. I find it interesting that while you admit that Li-ion is the current energy-stroage best choice, you don’t seem to have any understanding–even curiosity–as to why. All I can say Leland is that if you actually do the math, it doesn’t work out.

  32. 282
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Ray,
    let’s start converting gas stations to power stations ASAP. Let there be more electric mopeds, bike lanes and bike racks for parking. Transportation infrastructure must change. Battery technology will improve, and the parts of the world without our addictions will make good use of public transportation. Whether we have passed peak oil of merely peak affordable oil, oil’s continued cheap and easy flow is not something to bank on.

    Surely you agree that “We have to leave oil before it leaves us.”

  33. 283
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    This discussion has drifted from its original topic, but I think all agree that transportation infrastructure will change and that working now to make the best of it beats just waiting for the end of affordable oil. So that leaves speculating on the details of the coming change. There is a new open thread for your thoughts. Could all agree to take what is off topic here over there?

  34. 284
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray and Leland, I mentioned above IBM’s project to develop lithium air batteries that will give electric cars a range of 500 miles per charge. IBM aims to have a “full-scale prototype” by 2013 and commercial production by 2020. If you are interested to know more, here are the links to IBM’s “Battery500 Project” page and an article in New Scientist:

    http://www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/us/en/smart_grid/article/battery500.html

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328466.200-air-battery-to-let-electric-cars-outlast-gas-guzzlers.html

    I prefer to focus on today’s mature technologies which can be, and already are being, deployed at scale NOW. And the batteries in today’s first generation of electric cars — e.g. the Leaf and the Volt — are plenty good. But there are technologies approaching commercial production, in batteries and particularly in PV, that could be complete game-changers.

  35. 285
    Hank Roberts says:

    “… you want him to be Edison, but there’s a risk he’ll end up being Buckminster Fuller.”
    http://www.strategy-business.com/article/11111?pg=all

    Point is you can’t _model_ this stuff until it’s known.

    Modeling hypotheticals is marketing, which is noise.

  36. 286
    John says:

    Ray, Not to mention to 600 million cars on the planet that must be changed and just under 52 million cars are manufactured worldwide each year

    Here is a sobering site of the realtime magnitude of the numbers – http://www.worldometers.info/
    Actually, you might need a stiff drink after seeing some of these numbers. Not sure how accurate these type of sites are, but they do give some sense of scale.

  37. 287
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Pete Dunkelberg,
    I’ve been advocating development of alternatives to oil since I was in high school in the 70s. Not only do we have to worry about depletion, price shocks, supply disruptions and greenhouse gasses when we use petroleum as a fuel, there is also no good substitute for it when it comes to feedstock for many organic chemicals or for increasing yields in agriculture. The problem is that not only do we have to develop viable alternatives AND deploy them without disrupting a complex global economy, we first have to awaken the power brokers from their cornucopian fantasy that the market will always provide.

    As it stands now, there are no viable plans or alternatives, nor are resources anywhere near adequate to develop them. We are still living in the age of the market mystics who don’t want to know how markets work for fear it might damage their faith.

  38. 288
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi All-

    OK, striving to avoid repetition:

    The Palaeocene–Eocene carbon isotope excursion: constraints from individual shell planktonic foraminifer records

    The Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) is characterized by a global
    negative carbon isotope excursion (CIE) and widespread dissolution of seafloor carbonate sediments. The latter feature supports the hypothesis that the PETM and CIE were caused by the rapid release of a large mass (greater than 2000 Gt C) of 12C-enriched carbon…

    Fast rates would be consistent with a catastrophic event, e.g. massive methane hydrate dissociation, whereas slower rates might implicate other processes…

    Analyses of individual mixed-layer planktonic shells from cores spanning the boundary generally yield pre-excursion or excursion carbon isotope values, but no transitional values suggesting that the d13C of the
    atmospheric and surface ocean carbon pools changed very rapidly on geologic
    time-scales (less than 500 years).

    So, that’s two trillion tons of carbon – or more – these guys are talking about being released by the PETM event- in less than 500 years.

  39. 289
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “As it stands now, there are no viable plans or alternatives …”

    Again, with all due respect, that is simply not true.

    There are multiple “viable plans and alternatives” that can be rapidly implemented IF we choose to do so.

    Take a look at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire for one example:

    Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era offers actionable solutions for four energy-intensive sectors of the economy: transportation, buildings, industry, and electricity.

    Built on Rocky Mountain Institute’s 30 years of research and work in the field, Reinventing Fire maps pathways for running a 158%-bigger U.S. economy in 2050 but needing no oil, no coal, and no nuclear energy.

    Should we have started 30 years ago, when RMI founder Amory Lovins wrote Soft Energy Paths? Absolutely.

    Are we going to suffer because we failed to do so? Unfortunately yes.

    Will we choose now to finally implement the solutions at hand? I don’t know. There are powerful and wealthy forces working very hard to delay and obstruct those solutions.

    Is it helpful to deny that solutions exist? I don’t think so.

    Having said that, I’m with Pete Dunkelberg — let’s move this off-topic discussion to the February open thread and leave this one to the methane.

  40. 290
    Kate says:

    Ray Ladbury,
    I’m admittedly ignorant on this stuff, but isn’t the idea about capturing CO2 from the air that you would store it in solid form, and be able to use it for the stuff oil is being used for now? So we theoretically have a replacement for oil that wouldn’t be intensely difficult to get, should we feel so inclined?

  41. 291
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Ray,
    OK,fine, you must have been in school at the time of the oil embargo. I dearly wish more people had learned from it. But you never quite seem to be in favor any particular action – or maybe I just can’t interpret your “development”. If I may ask, are you in favor of “deploy, deploy, deploy” current alternative energy, while continuing R&D of course? Or do you favor waiting for new technology?

  42. 292
    Hank Roberts says:

    > capturing CO2 from the air …
    > store it in solid form
    No easily available solid form for carbon dioxide

    > use it for the stuff oil is being used for now?

    Coal (carbon) and oil (carbon+hydrogen) are burned, producing heat, carbon dioxide, and for hydrocarbon fuels, hydrogen oxide (water).

    From carbon dioxide, you’d have to remove oxygen to make something that can again be burned.

    Hydrogen oxide — water — can be split back into hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen saved and burned later.

    Doing that consumes energy. Finding cheap efficient ways to do those things is a challenge.

    Catalysts are chemicals that make chemical reactions happen, repeatedly, without being used up. Finding catalysts to make fuel out of CO2 and water is a challenge.

    One idea is to react carbon dioxide to produce methanol (“wood alcohol”) and then have an energy system that uses methanol as a fuel.

    That’s not available yet. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol_economy and
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090416102247.htm

  43. 293
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Leland, the fact that they are “talking about” a catastrophic event does not mean said event actually occurred.

  44. 294
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Ray-

    Leland, the fact that they are “talking about” a catastrophic event does not mean said event actually occurred.

    I assume you are not questioning the existence of the PETM, but just the methane catastrophe explanation for the PETM.

    There are those pesky C12/C13 isotope ratios, Ray, showing major excursions during several of these events. All of the evidence is consistent with a major methane release (at least a couple of trillion tons of carbon) coming from a highly enriched source of C12. There was, for example, widespread dissolution of carbonate sediments at the same time, consistent with ocean acidification.

    In the paper quoted, they can actually measure the isotope ratios of individual sea creatures. I have seen other papers which simultaneously measure the C12/C13 and the O16/O18 ratios, too, showing a very consistent picture of both warming and the spread of the C12 enriched carbon, starting at the surface of the ocean (shallow water sea creatures) and subsequently spreading to deeper layers.

    It’s a very consistent picture, Ray- far too consistent to bet the farm against, IMO.

    Doing a little math- David is talking about 200 billion tons of carbon over a hundred years, as a worst case scenario. These guys are talking about ten or more times as much. I’ve seen modeling papers on the End Permian and on similar events during the Jurassic, which talk about five or six trillion tons of carbon from methane hydrates- not just to talk, but because that is the amount of carbon from methane hydrates necessary to fit the hard data of the carbon isotope excursions. Other sources of carbon tend to be worse- it takes more carbon to explain the carbon isotope excursions, when they do the math.

  45. 295
    RichardC says:

    282 Pete siad, “let’s start converting gas stations to power stations ASAP. Let there be more electric mopeds, bike lanes and bike racks for parking. Transportation infrastructure must change. Battery technology will improve,”

    As you say, battery technology will improve. There will be improvements in density, but the big deal is charge/discharge rates. I see claims around 80% recharge in one minute at 90+% efficiency and a huge lifetime. That represents a large cable, so the winning design for a filling station will surely be robotic. So where do people spend one minute in a defined spot? The drive thru. “Would you like to top your battery with that, sir?” Drive thrus might be easier to convert than gas stations because there would be much less strain on the local grid.

    While you’re changing infrastructure, what about networked driverless vehicles? The efficiency gains would be huge. No traffic lights needed except for pedestrians. Cars go through in both directions at speed only feet from colliding, with bicycles given greater leeway, of course. Lots less concrete needed because of super densities. Commutes and trips get faster, and there would be very few accidents too. Too bad the system would be an easy terrorist target.

  46. 296
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Leland, I know of at least 3 or 4 competing explanations for the PETM that also explain the isotopic signature (e.g. volcanic eruptions causing massive coal/peat fires). I tend to go with the experts on this–they say the cause is yet to be determined, and certainly, since clathrate formation is not rare, you would have to explain why the PETM seems to have been a unique occurrence. Why shold a clathrate gun be a one-shot?

  47. 297
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Ray-

    Leland, I know of at least 3 or 4 competing explanations for the PETM that also explain the isotopic signature (e.g. volcanic eruptions causing massive coal/peat fires). I tend to go with the experts on this–they say the cause is yet to be determined, and certainly, since clathrate formation is not rare, you would have to explain why the PETM seems to have been a unique occurrence. Why shold a clathrate gun be a one-shot?

    No, Ray, the PETM does not seem to be a one-shot. The methane catastrophe explanation, when ocean and atmospheric chemistry effects of methane are taken into account, is in fact a generally applicable theory, capable of explaining several past mass extinctions. These include a really huge event which appears to have ended the snowball earth state of the climate back in the Precambrian, the End Permian, a couple of events in the Jurassic, and the PETM.

    I’ve worked in labs most of my life, Ray. I do analytical chemistry method development, and one of the things I’ve learned is that a method developer has to be able to recognize a positive result. When your hypotheses start to make good predictions, you need to pay attention.

    In this case, the key is explaining the isotope ratio excursions, and explaining how geologically instantaneous events can cause massive carbon and simultaneous massive oxygen isotope ratio excursions. The oxygen isotope ratio excursions show sudden warming, and the carbon isotope ratio excursions show massive release of carbon from a once living source.

    In this case, though, the experts pretty much agree that the methane catastrophe theory is the lead theory. There are a few outliers, but most academic experts go with the clathrate gun hypothesis, or some modified version of it. A coal fire a continent wide, releasing a couple of trillion tons of carbon geologically instantaneously, does not seem likely to me. With methane hydrates, though, the snarl of potentially reinforcing positive feedback loops combined with the reducing effects of methane provide an easy explanation for the suddenness of some of these events.

    Go read the paper about the PETM, Ray. The isotope data from the individual microfossils, combined with the known habits of the individual sea creatures, paint a chilling and utterly convincing scenario- C12 enriched carbon spreading through the active carbon cycle, at the surface of the ocean first, then later to deeper layers of the ocean. Simultaneous warming is shown by the O16/018 oxygen isotope ratios.

    The clathrate gun hypothesis predicts methane plumes shooting directly into the atmosphere. Semilitov’s results show widespread and impressive plumes of methane, “up to a kilometer wide” bubbling up through the ocean directly into the atmosphere. This is a prediction of the clathrate gun hypothesis- coming true before our eyes.

  48. 298
    Hank Roberts says:

    Leland, please, read something instead of repeating the alarm without citing sources. You’re far beyond what the science has been able to tell us yet.
    http://www.uta.edu/faculty/awinguth/PETM-Home.html

  49. 299
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    @ 297: “Go read the paper about the PETM, Ray.”

    I strongly suspect Ray’s read a few, probably including Wrestling with the PETM (aptly retitled ;)).

    RichardC @ 295, I’m glad we agree on doing good things. Why don’t quite feasible good things happen?

    Public transportation? Bike lanes to help kids get to school?
    Ex-ter-min-ate! says the Dalek.

    Solar potential spurned.

    Let’s just do it.

    Big Carbon attacks Mike Mann again.

    For any here who have not been getting your daily Romm, it is like this every day. If you don’t check Climate Progress every day you have no idea how numerous and relentless the attacks are on all that is good and decent and feasible.

  50. 300
    Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Pete (#299)

    Your “Wrestling with the PETM” link is a great paper, IMO. But it strongly defends the methane catastrophe theory:

    Down the Rabbit Hole: toward appropriate discussion of methane release from gas hydrate systems during the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum and other past hyperthermal events

    Enormous amounts of 13C-depleted carbon rapidly entered the exogenic carbon cycle during the onset of the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), as attested to by a prominent negative carbon isotope (δ13C) excursion and deep-sea carbonate dissolution. A widely cited explanation for this carbon input has been thermal dissociation of gas hydrate on continental slopes, followed by release of CH4 from the seafloor and its subsequent oxidation to CO2 in the ocean or atmosphere. Increasingly, papers have argued against this mechanism, but without fully considering existing ideas and available data. Moreover, other explanations have been presented as plausible alternatives, even though they conflict with geological observations, they raise major conceptual problems, or both.

    Yes, alternative explanations to the methane catastrophe explanation conflict with geological observations, have major conceptual problems, or both.

    The authors think that David Archer’s estimate of the total size of the methane hydrate reservoir is too small:

    The total mass of carbon stored as CH4 in present-day marine gas hydrates has been estimated numerous times using different approaches as reviewed in several papers (Dickens, 2001b; Milkov, 2004; Archer, 2007). Prior to 2001, several estimates converged on 10 000 Gt, and this “consensus mass” (Kvenvolden, 1993) was often cited in the literature. However, the convergence of estimates was fortuitous because different authors arrived at nearly the same mass but with widely varying assumptions; an appropriate range across the studies was 5000–20 000 Gt (Dickens, 2001b). In the last ten years, estimates have ranged from 500-2500 Gt (Milkov,2004), ∼700–1200 Gt (Archer et al., 2009), and 4–995 Gt
    (Burwicz et al., 2011) to 74 400 Gt (Klauda and Sandler, 2005). The latter is almost assuredly too high (Archer, 2007).The others are probably too low.

    Yes, the new estimates of total mass of gas hydrates seem low, to me, too.

    Here’s a link to the Milkov paper:

    Global estimates of hydrate-bound gas in marine sediments:how much is really out there?

    Readers might take note of his employer, at the time the paper was written. Personally, I’m quite sure that being employed by British Petroleum had absolutely no impact on his estimate.


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