Has runaway climate change begun?

The UK’s Independent reported today some pretty shocking news in “Exclusive: The methane time bomb“:

The first evidence that millions of tons of a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere from beneath the Arctic seabed has been discovered by scientists.

The Independent has been passed details of preliminary findings suggesting that massive deposits of sub-sea methane are bubbling to the surface as the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats.

Assuming these findings are published in a peer-reviewed publication, as is planned, they should be taken quite seriously for four reasons. First, many fear that a huge methane release is what happened during the Permian-Triassic extinction event and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Second, releasing even a small fraction of the sub-sea methane would make a stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions at non-catastrophic concentrations all but impossible.

Third, as NOAA reported earlier this year, levels of methane rose sharply last year for the first time since 1998:


Fourth, the findings are apparently based on very new and credible in situ measurements:

Scientists aboard a research ship that has sailed the entire length of Russia’s northern coast have discovered intense concentrations of methane — sometimes at up to 100 times background levels — over several areas covering thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf.

In the past few days, the researchers have seen areas of sea foaming with gas bubbling up through “methane chimneys” rising from the sea floor. They believe that the sub-sea layer of permafrost, which has acted like a “lid” to prevent the gas from escaping, has melted away to allow methane to rise from underground deposits formed before the last ice age.

They have warned that this is likely to be linked with the rapid warming that the region has experienced in recent years….

Since 1994, Igor Semiletov of the Far-Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences “has led about 10 expeditions in the Laptev Sea but during the 1990s he did not detect any elevated levels of methane. However, since 2003 he reported a rising number of methane “hotspots,” which have now been confirmed using more sensitive instruments.” Why now?

Dr Semiletov has suggested several possible reasons why methane is now being released from the Arctic, including the rising volume of relatively warmer water being discharged from Siberia’s rivers due to the melting of the permafrost on the land.

The Arctic region as a whole has seen a 4C rise in average temperatures over recent decades and a dramatic decline in the area of the Arctic Ocean covered by summer sea ice. Many scientists fear that the loss of sea ice could accelerate the warming trend because open ocean soaks up more heat from the sun than the reflective surface of an ice-covered sea.

The article notes that the “preliminary findings of the International Siberian Shelf Study 2008” are “being prepared for publication by the American Geophysical Union.” Until that happens, it will be difficult to know what to make of all this. You can read what some other scientists say about these preliminary reports here. Stay tuned.

The time to act is yesterday.

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42 Responses to Has runaway climate change begun?

  1. David B. Benson says:

    Grow lots and lots of biomass; char it. Deeply bury the biohar.

  2. Bob Wallace says:

    OK, that’s scary….

    Remember that there is also data on methane releases observed from Arctic freshwater lakes.

    And the methane trapped in now-melting permafrost “dry lands”?

  3. Rick C says:

    I wonder if sequestering CO2 through bio-char will be enough to offset the methane releases.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Rick C — Yes, biochar sequextration would more than offset the excess methane; it is only a matter of sufficient quantity.

  5. Jen says:

    Seriously? Char biomass to offset millions of tons of methane? ha ha. Maybe if you started like 10 years ago.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Jen — Sequester billions of tonnes of biochar each year.

    Think big.

  7. Eric says:

    I can’t decide if this is more or less unpleasant than thinking about Sarah Palin. They sort of go hand in hand.

  8. paulm says:

    “God here. Please form an orderly queue!”

    Think I’ll go ahead and book that flight to Hawaii now for the holiday I decided against to help curtail my CO2 foot print!

  9. JCH says:

    Time to kill most of the cows.

  10. rpauli says:

    The Professional Denier’s script
    Purpose to delay all organized reaction that could limit carbon fuel consumption.

    For optimal delay – prolong time between each statement, begin:

    “There is no such thing as global warming”

    “OK there is some warming
    But the science is still not sure about it

    “OK most ALL Scientists agree that there is warming
    But some scientists do not agree.

    “OK I clearly you don’t need to be a scientist to see warming
    But it is not warming everywhere – the oceans are still cool

    “OK I see the oceans are warming most everywhere
    But Antarctic ice is increasing

    “OK I see the Artic ice is melting, and Greenland ice cap too.
    But that is natural cyclical change

    “OK I see that there is no cycle changes except our recent industrial age
    But global warming is not really caused by humans

    “OK I see the warming may be greatly enhanced by humans
    But we cannot possibly do anything about it.

    “OK maybe we should try to do something about it.
    But it won’t be a problem for another century

    “OK maybe it is smarter to face the problem sooner rather than later,
    But we should not be overly concerned or act with too much haste

    “OK maybe runaway climate change has begun
    But we should not be too anxious or overly worried

    “OK we should be worried
    But we should certainly not be alarmist

    “OK maybe we should sound the alarm,
    but we should not panic.

    ( “OK can we have our paycheck now?
    that should delay things for a few decades)

    R Pauli 9-08

  11. TomG says:

    “Has runaway climate change begun?”
    In a word….yes.

  12. albert says:

    Oh sh@#.

  13. Wonhyo says:

    I’ve been thinking about the difference between JR’s CO2 concentration goal of 450 ppm vs. Bill McKibbon’s goal of 350 ppm. (We’re currently at 380 ppm.)

    With JR’s 450 ppm goal, casual observers get the impression that we can afford to cut our emissions 80% over a 40 year period, as the official scientific consensus (the IPCC report) recommends. The problem is, we are inherently procrastinators. We see that the limit is 450, but we’re only at 380, and we have 40 years to solve the problem, so we put it off. Most of us have (what we perceive to be) more urgent matters to worry about.

    With Bill McKibbon’s recommendation of 350 ppm and our current state at 380 ppm, along with reports like rising Artic methane levels, the informed reader starts to think that maybe 40 years is too late. Maybe we need to be cutting CO2 emissions 80% in 4 years (yes, that’s a single-digit 4). And even then, we may not be able to stop the feedback loops within our lifetimes.

    The question is, will humankind be rational and responsible enough to make a concerted, Hail Mary effort to save the climate? Or will we all rush to enjoy the last remaining comforts of life in a moderate climate?

    This reminds me of a passage in Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” where he asks (paraphrasing), “What was the guy thinking when he chopped down the very last tree on Christmas Island”? When I see Republicans talking about getting oil from the Arctic, I start to understand what that guy with the axe on Christmas Island was thinking.

    I hope we can take away the axe (or the drill) before our last tree (or drop of oil) gets chopped.

    [JR: You’ll be glad to know that 450 ppm requires action every bit as urgent as 350 ppm, and that the two are equally unlikely to be achieved. I have explained that 350 ppm this century is essentially impossible, but we might be able to get back to it sometime in the next century. To get 450 ppm, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak in the next decade. And that very short-term goal is well understood and well articulated by all 450 ppm advocates. To push 350 ppm by 2100 is to essentially disempower anybody who understands energy or politics.]

  14. Man… I saw an AP report about the Russian scientific expedition about two or three weeks ago when they announced that they were finding elevated levels of methane release everywhere they were looking, and I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    It’s hard not be crushed by this news. Nothing less than a war effort is going to turn this around.

    And @Wonhyo… In Collapse, Diamond was actually writing about Easter Island, so you were only off by about three or four months. :-)

  15. Dano says:

    Well, Arctic temps began increasing years ago, freshwater flows to the Arctic Ocean began increasing several years ago, permafrost melting began affecting Siberian and Alaskan infrastructure ~ a decade ago.

    So the resultant increase in CH4 shouldn’t be a surprise at all. The only issue was when would it be detectable.

    Now the issue is how to shut up the denialist fringe after decision-makers are briefed on the implications.

    At any rate, all this is foreseeable. Can we act? My glass is half-full, but with tainted groundwater from big ag (or FDA-approved perchlorate).



  16. David B. Benson says:

    Joe — I disagree that getting to 350 ppm this century is ‘essentially impossible’. Around 1–2% of the world’s gross product for the rest of the century should be more than enough.

    That’s about $1 trillion per year. Doesn’t sound likely to be forthcoming.

  17. Wonhyo says:

    Joe, David B. – The point of my earlier comment is NOT to debate 350 ppm vs. 450 ppm. As Joe says, even 450 ppm will require peak CO2 emission within a decade. Joe has essentially given up on 350 ppm this century because it may be physically impossible (because of feedback effects) and/or because it is politically impossible.

    The goal of stabilization at 450 ppm seems to be for the benefit of our great-grandchildren. Even if we are on track for stabilization at 450 ppm, we will be suffering from the climate change that’s already in the queue.

    My worry is that the guy who chopped down the last tree on Easter Island didn’t have children, so he had little incentive to worry three generations into the future. He might have been thinking, “I might as well enjoy the heat from this tree myself”. When the rest of the (non-ClimateProgress reading) population realizes what CP readers already know, what is their reaction going to be? Will they (or at least the childless among them) rush to chop down the last tree and pump out the last drop of oil for themselves?

    Climate Progress has done a great job of raising awareness of the energy and climate change issue. Perhaps it is time for a sister blog, “Climate Preparedness”, to discuss in concrete terms what we can do to prepare for the climate change that is already in the pipeline. Climate Progress is helping its readers acknowledge climate change. We need a blog to help readers prepare for it.

  18. Earl Killian says:

    I think the article just published in PNAS yesterday just made the argument for 350ppm sooner rather than later ten times stronger. Worse, it suggests we may need to do geoengineering, something that we’ve been trying to avoid if at all possible. Without geoengineering, how can we shut down coal without frying ourselves within a decade?

  19. Earl Killian says:

    Wonhyo wrote, “I might as well enjoy the heat from this tree myself”.

    This is OT, and I’m no expert, but I believe they were chopping down trees for rollers so they could move the moai (giant carved figures) from the quarry to the coast. (Maybe they burned them when they would no longer serve as rollers?)

    The reason for this comment is then to ask what quixotic parallel there might be in our civilization that we should abandon?

  20. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — IEA wrote that in 2005 CE, the world produced 5.9 billion tonnes of coal, two-thirds for electric power generation.

    Assume, for easier figuring, 6 billion tonnes of coal and the coal averages 60% carbon; that’s 3.6 billion tonnes of carbon. That is equivalent to 10.8 billion tonnes of wood (dry weight). Torrified wood can then replace all the steam coal and be sequestered to compensate for the about 0.6 billion tonnes of coking coal.

    Assuming (optimistically), 3 tonnes (dry weight) of wood per acre per year, the world then needs 3.6 billion acres (1.46 billion ha) of tree farms to replace/offset burning coal.

    For perspective, the world’s round wood (cut) production is about 3.4 billion tonnes per year:

    However, for torrification any woody palnt material will do; bushes, shrubs, forestry wastes, etc. So it appears that this replace is just barely possible, taking into account that many regions could use solar & wind instead.

  21. David B. Benson says:

    Appendix: the 1.46 billion ha of tree farms occupies 14.6 million km^2 of the world’s 56 million km^2 of forested lands:

    Not only is that a high percentage (26%), but looking at the map in the link, the optimistic assumption of 3 tonnes per acre per year of net production may well be (way) too high. :-)

  22. David B. Benson says:

    Oops, I meant :-(

  23. David B. Benson says:

    At least the British are trying to do the right thing:

    ” Coal power plants ‘must be clean'”:

  24. Matt says:

    :Echoes Albert:

    Oh s&*^…

  25. Earl Killian says:

    David Benson, “clean coal” is an oxymoron. Even if you capture most of the CO2, coal will still be an environmental nightmare.

    I suspect there is also an issue with soil depletion if you were to harvest wood at the level you are talking about. One must be careful to not do what you suggest above (e.g. when you write “any woody plant material will do”). For a better example of what to do, in the Woodburner’s Encyclopedia (a 1942 book!), Jay W Shelton writes,

    One suggested scheme is to have a 1000 megawatt plant in the center of a roughly 30 ×… 30 mile forested area. This is enough land to supply a generating plant indefinitely. New growth would replenish the harvested trees. … The wood ashes contain most of the nutrients which would have been released if the tree had rotted on the forest floor, the major exception being nitrogen. A significant part of a tree’s nitrogen is in its leaves and twigs, and this is one reason for attempting to leave them in the forest. Thus spreading the ashes back into the forest almost completes the nutrient cycle.

    However, this is only part of the problem. Greenhouse pollution is not only CO2, but also black carbon (which is why I’ve stopped using “GHG” in favor of “GP”), and so one would need to scrub out such GP.

    Did you see the suggestion in the PNAS article cited above?:

    “Regional ABC-chemical-transport model simulations (18) suggest that replacement of solid fuel (fire wood, dung, coal, and crop residues) cooking with sootless cooking fuels will reduce the black carbon levels over the South Asian region by >60%.”

  26. llewelly says:

    IEA wrote that in 2005 CE, the world produced 5.9 billion tonnes of coal, two-thirds for electric power generation.

    OT: What was the rest used for? Steel? Heat?

  27. Wonhyo says:

    I just read the article that Earl K. linked earlier: “On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead”. The article says we already have 1.4 to 4.3 C of warming in the pipeline if we keep the GHG concentration at 2005 levels, which is about 375 ppm of CO2. This is greater than the 1 to 3 C range of warming that is predicted to cause “dangerous anthropogenic interference (DAI)”.

    Question: If human GHG *emissions* peak within a decade, then decline 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, will this be sufficient reduction in *emissions* to cap GHG *concentrations* at 2005 levels? I know that GHG concentration is already slightly above 2005 levels, since it’s now 2008. If we allow GHG *emissions* to continue rising for 5 years I don’t see how the *concentration* will drop to 2005 levels before 2013. Assuming a linear ramp up and a linear ramp down, we will achieve 2005 concentrations by 2021.

    But is a linear down slope in concentration after 2013 even realistic? The IPCC report is calling for 80% reduction in *emissions* by 2050. In the meantime, feedback effects are starting to kick in. The article cites “the high probability that the DAI threshold is already in our rearview mirror”.

    After reading this article, I reiterate my earlier call for 80% emission reductions in 4 years (not 40) with a target GHG concentration of 350 ppm by the end of the century (which I’m not sure is possible). I also reiterate my call for a Climate Preparations blog.

  28. Earl Killian says:

    Wonhyo asked, “Assuming a linear ramp up and a linear ramp down, we will achieve 2005 concentrations by 2021.

    Greenhouse pollution accumulates. 45% of new emissions go into the ocean, making it more acidic. 55% goes into the atmosphere, where it says for a long time. The IPCC uses a complicated function for this (the Bern model), but to simplify, you could think of CO2 has a lifetime of 100-1000 years in the atmosphere. It doesn’t go away quickly. The only way to decrease CO2 levels are (1) wait a long time, or (2) actively remove it from the atmosphere.

    So if we cut emissions to zero, CO2 levels would level off. You wouldn’t notice much of a decrease by 2021.

    This is why it is so important to stop emissions as soon as possible.

  29. Hmpf says:

    Okay, I feel like a broken record, because this is the thing I seem to keep posting to every other climate-related website, but: How. Do. We. Get. The. Word. Out? How do we move people, and governments, to decisive and *fast* action?

    Because whenever I talk to people about this, reactions range from cyncially-amused disbelief to fatalism, so apparently either people just don’t believe that things can really be as bad as all that, or people do believe that but think that everything is lost already and they therefore don’t have to do anything. And the political sphere, as we all know, is twiddling its metaphorical thumbs.

    How do we inspire people to act?

    (I’m going to post this to the comments sections for this bit of news at grist and worldchanging, too, because I’m really curious/desperate for replies.)

  30. Wonhyo says:

    I respect JR for pushing politically feasible emissions reduction goals, but somebody has to discuss the possibility of more aggressive action. Without taking anything away from JR’s goals, I would like to present the possibility of doing even more, even sooner….

    I think we could easily cut vehicle CO2 emissions by 80% within 4 years, and 95% within 15 years. If everyone committed to a 4-person carpool, that by itself would cut vehicle emissions by 75%, with immediate results, and no new technology investment. In addition, if all new cars have the 45 mpg efficiency of the Prius and the fleet turnover period is 15 years, vehicle emissions will be cut 88% below 2008 levels by 2023, again with no new tech investment (although it may be hard to ramp up battery production quickly enough). In addition, if half of new cars are electrics charged by renewable energy (solar, wind), I think we could hit 95% reductions in 15 years. This brings us back to the battery issue, but if we diversify the battery technology that we deploy, to include lead-acid batteries, I think we could solve the battery supply issue as well.

    I realize the “easily” adverb applies to technical feasibility and not to political or cultural feasibility. If you consider the consequences, it might be easier to do what’s described above, than to endure the consequences of allowing GHG concentrations to rise even faster.

  31. Hmpf says:

    BTW, I’d really like to see Real Climate’s take on this.

  32. David B. Benson says:

    llewelly — About 0.6 billion tonnes for coking coal (steel). The rest? Dunno, but I guess mostly building heat and some process heat.

    Earl Killian — Thanks for the quote. Yes, by all means leave needles and leaves in the woods and reeturn the wood ash there.

    While it would be nice not to have to burn biomass, fossil or new, we’ll be dooing at least some of it essentially forever. I’m just attempting to obtain some estimates for the magnitude of the problem of replacing coal. I’ve started with the assumption that all coal reactors will continue to be used until unserviceable.

  33. paulm says:

    Bring on the depression…we need it.

  34. David B. Benson says:

    “If biochar is used for the production of energy rather than as a soil amendment, it can be directly substituted for any application that uses coal. pyrolysis also may be the most cost-effective way of producing electrical energy from biomaterial.”


    and like torrefied wood is a superior fuel compared to fossil coal.

  35. Hank Roberts says:

    A plea, Joe:

    I wish you’d retitle this. Say “dangerous” or “disastrous” or “egregiously inconvenient” or “goddamm ugly” but not “runaway.”

    Runaway means won’t come back.
    It’s the wrong word if you try to keep to the scientific sources.

    We’re talking about an excursion.
    An excursion in hell, yes.
    For several human lifetimes, yes.
    But not a runaway. Not to Mars-like, and not to Venus-like, endpoints.
    It’s an excursion, dammit.
    Earth abides.


    [Response: We are a long way from any ‘runaway‘ effects, and yes, the planet (as a whole) will recover, though the timescales to fully remove all the excess carbon we are injecting are longer than you or I are likely to care about. -gavin]
    — 2 October 2007
    5 July 2006 Runaway tipping points of no return
    Gavin’s several-paragraph introduction there sums it up well.

    “… People often conclude that the existence of positive feedbacks must imply ‘runaway’ effects …. You can think of the Earth’s climate (unlike Venus’) as having an ‘r’ less than one, i.e. no ‘runaway’ effects ….”

    Yes, some people use “runaway” for anything beyond inconvenience in their own immediate future. But look who they are — mostly people who are “skeptics” trying to make the problem look exaggerated so they can then shrug it off.

  36. Hank Roberts says:

    PS, here’s the cite for my latter claim.

    I at first thought I was seeing a headline from The Onion
    “Runaway Climate Captured?”

    But alas, it’s a different kind of joke — it’s a Milloy:,2933,295361,00.html

    This is why ‘runaway’ is just the wrong word.

    Lightning, lightning bug. You know your Twain.

  37. Hank Roberts says:

    And don’t forget last year’s relevant bit of hopeful news: remember peat moss?

    “Although the melting of underlying permafrost will release huge amounts of the greenhouse gases blamed for fuelling global warming, researchers who sampled three sites in boreal Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have discovered that the warmer, softer, wetter soil that results also promotes the growth of new mosses that capture and store about as much carbon from the atmosphere as the thawed ground releases.”

    Yes, we have committed to have an excursion.
    Yes, it will be very, very inconvenient.
    No, Earth’s climate is not going to run away.

  38. Joe says:

    If the sub-sea and tundra methane goes, we’re all gonna need to runaway, I’m afraid.

  39. Susana says:

    The best thing for the Earth at the moment would be a huge economic depression. Money is our god and the only way to prevent continued rape of the planet is a loss of money for investment or “economic-so called-growth” .

    Maybe that can slow down our consumption.

    I’m not in the half full category at present.

  40. Dave Hume says:

    When does the abnormal concentration of greenhouse gases repel solar energy as opposed to capturing it ?

    Does the tipping point introduce an Ice Age?

    If so how long do we have to buy some artic gear to ensure our survival ?

  41. shop says:

    David Benson, “clean coal” is an oxymoron. Even if you capture most of the CO2, coal will still be an environmental nightmare.

    I suspect there is also an issue with soil depletion if you were to harvest wood at the level you are talking about. One must be careful to not do what you suggest above (e.g. when you write “any woody plant material will do”). For a better example of what to do, in the Woodburner’s Encyclopedia (a 1942 book!), Jay W Shelton writes,