Arctic Research Center: The underwater permafrost is thawing and releasing methane

University of Alaska, Fairbanks scientists reported the alarming news at the AGU meeting:

A team led by International Arctic Research Center scientist Igor Semiletov has found data to suggest that the carbon pool beneath the Arctic Ocean is leaking.

The results of more than 1,000 measurements of dissolved methane in the surface water from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf this summer as part of the International Siberian Shelf Study show an increased level of methane in the area. Geophysical measurements showed methane bubbles coming out of chimneys on the seafloor.

“The concentrations of the methane were the highest ever measured in the summertime in the Arctic Ocean,” Semiletov said. “We have found methane bubble clouds above the gas-charged sediment and above the chimneys going through the sediment.”

We first heard about this research when Semiletov talked to the UK’s Guardian in September (see “Has runaway climate change begun?“) These observations are extremely worrisome 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: “Semiletov said this year’s expeditions used both chemical and geophysical measurement techniques, a first in the area.”

The new data indicates the underwater permafrost is thawing and therefore releasing methane. Permafrost can affect methane release in two ways. Both underwater and on land, it contains frozen organic material such as dead plants and animals. When permafrost thaws, that organic material decomposes, releasing gases like methane and carbon dioxide. In addition, methane, either in gas form or in ice-like methane hydrates, is trapped underneath the permafrost. When the permafrost thaws, the trapped methane can seep out through the thawed soil. Methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is thought to be an important factor in global climate change.

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a relatively shallow continental shelf that stretches more than 900 miles into the Arctic Ocean from Siberia. The area is a year-round source of methane to the globe’s atmosphere. However, until recently, scientists believed that much of the area’s carbon pool was safely insulated by underwater permafrost, which is, on average, 11 degrees Celcius warmer than surface permafrost.

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.

This, of course, would be an amplifying feedback of the very worst kind.

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.

And, in fact, the NSIDC reported at the AGU that the early autumn Arctic was warming up thanks to the open ocean (see NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did”)

The time to act is January 20, 2009.

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22 Responses to Arctic Research Center: The underwater permafrost is thawing and releasing methane

  1. Bob Wallace says:

    This goes along with Walker et al., 2006, who found increasing methane releases from Siberian lakes.

    But it’s really cold in Michigan….

  2. Stuart says:

    Joe, I love your blog and all the hard work you put into it.

    But if the methane hydrates let go, it’s game over.

    Please tell me I’m wrong


  3. “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today.”

  4. hapa says:

    when i first started writing about this it was about 2 years ago, in reaction to monbiot’s “heat” research, which i explored at my own pace with anxious interest. at that time i was so stressed out i needed some way to quickly sum up the scenarios i was seeing without making myself sick from worry, and for some reason, thinking of a 5-point scale (unrelated to terror colors), what came to mind was the middle of the alphabet song, LMNOP.

    Lucky, Mild, Navigable, Overwhelming, Painful.

    “lucky” being your real estate bonanzas, crop jackpots, or even the rapture, anything deus ex machina; “mild” being your corrupt ignoramus POV; “navigable” is my sincere wish; “overwhelming” being your failed-state scenarios, very disruptive, faster than adjustments; “painful” starting somewhere shy of lovelock. i guess those are where things sit.

    anyhow if i wrote this here before i apologize but it really helped me get a handle.

  5. hapa says:

    BTW my own version of wedges was assuming with hard work we could pull the situation back one letter. like global temp, it’s averages, but as with the bank fiasco, “decoupling” is also BS in relation to ecology.

  6. Stuart says:

    Thanks hapa,

    I have been overwhelmed with the amount of data coming out this week, and part of me just wants to either drink myself into oblivion or become a hermit. But I will not give up yet, and maybe we can at least slow it down.

    May our great-great grandchildren forgive us…

  7. Stuart says:

    one other thing-

    Jimmy Carter was right! Take that Church of St. Ronnie.

  8. jorleh says:

    If so, and I agree, we must study the situation with big money, next summer. This would be most crucial task for humankind if only partially true, and I think it is 100 % true.

  9. This may shift my weight from “mitigation” to “adaptation.” Maybe the whole “mitigation” camp is in deadly denial. If the Titanic is sinking, get a life raft for cryin’ out loud.

  10. edz says:

    very nice and informative site.. keep it up..

  11. David Lewis says:

    Well, the plan for this eventuality is geoengineering. You fill up the stratosphere with sulphur compounds, kill this age of life in the oceans, stabilize the planetary temperature, change the color of the sky, wait for the sh*t to hit the fan that you haven’t thought of, and see if after that civilization could be talked into doing something about stabilizing the composition of the atmosphere and returning it to what the science indicates is reasonable. People who reject geoengineering out of hand saying its preposterous might consider what they would do if the methane was really coming out of the clathrates. Are we supposed to just all throw in the towel and jump off a cliff?

    Gwynne Dyer is a military analyst who got up to speed on climate and wrote “Climate Wars”. Its an interesting read. His mind drifted right to geoengineering after he considered how likely it really was that civilization would wake up and control emissions. He was an instructor at the British equivalent of West Point, i.e. Sandhurst. He’s a columnist now. He’s in touch with military people all over the planet, and he’s finding that they are waking up about climate as well. He looks at some of the likely predictions and says, hmm, this will lead to war, that will lead to war, this other thing will lead to war. Its always happened before.

  12. DavidONE says:

    > …increasing methane releases from Siberian lakes.

    There’s vivid demonstration of that in the BBC documentary ‘Earth: The Climate Wars’ when Iain Stewart pokes a hole in the ice of a lake and then ignites the escaping gas. The documentary is *very* much worth 3 hours of anyone’s time:

    There’s also torrents available for those who want to burn to DVD (I’ll assume no one is going to quibble over copyright laws given the subject).

  13. Bob Wright says:

    Is this why CO2 increases always seem to lag natural temperature increases on the hockey stick? The earth warms due to orbital or other anomolies, then the CH4/CO2 feedback kicks in. Of course, we’ve turmed it around this time, putting enough GHG in the environment to start GW.

    Are Gwynne Dyer and these military guys ready for world-wide martial law. Shutting down all but agricultural, food processing and emergency GHG emisions? Putting everyone on rations? Everyone living in dormitories? Protecting endangered speicies from becoming “bush meat”?Artificial aerosols? Adding pulverized CaCO3 to the oceans? They’re going to be busy even without war.

  14. john says:


    Geoengineering is not the answer; at least not geoengineering that amounts to a giant SPF 12000 blanket of some kind –for starters an acidified ocean may be worse than a warmer world.

    If the methane clathrates and the methane from perma-frost has begun to enter the atmosphere, then we need to deal directly with that, not treat symptoms.

    We also need to keep moving toward a clean energy infrastructure, because it is our only hope of being able to deal with the run-away warming methane releases would create.

    In 2001 I tried to get modelers at NOAA and at Scripps to take a look at the implications of methane from arctic warming — but they were either not interested, or fearful of reprisals from the Bush administration. When I placed and op-ed on the issue in the Baltimore Sun in 2004, I got a lot of criticism from scientists about being alarmist.

    My point in raising it then was not to encourage despair but rather to stimulate action.

    We have no choice but to act as if we can avoid this, whether that’s true or not. At the very least, we will buy ourselves some time.

  15. hapa says:


  16. Dorothy says:

    John, when you write that we have to “deal directly” with methane clathrates and melting permafrost, what are your ideas? Can you think of a way of cooling Siberia down fast enough?

    We may need to build solar powered “giant vacuum cleaners” in the World’s desert belt to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Klaus Lackner is now building a prototype in Tucson (he calls it a “scrubber), but there is no public funding as far as I know. This process is referred to in “Fixing Climate,” by Wallace Broeker and Robert Kunzig. Also, the Guardian published a story on this on Sept 15 referring to Lackner, “Rollback Time for Safeguard Climate, Expert Warns” –

    Does anyone have more information on CO2 Scrubbers? We at West Coast Climate Equity would certainly like to hear from you.

  17. Bob Wallace says:


    Here’s an idea. But first I want to make a point.

    Notice I did not put an adjective before “idea”. I didn’t call it “great”, “stupid”, or put any other sort of spin on it. I think at this point we should put ideas into only two categories, those not yet well-considered and those well thought out.

    Once give ideas some quality time the bad ones will die a natural death.

    Dismissing an idea too quickly, well think of all the things like a spinning planet and moving continents that sounded really weird when first suggested….

    This guy suggests spraying large amounts of sea water into the lower atmosphere, from 20 to 200 feet into the air.

    “First, the sprayed droplets would transform to water vapor, a change that absorbs thermal energy near ground level; then the rising vapor would condense into sunlight-reflecting clouds and cooling rain, releasing much of the stored energy into space in the form of infrared radiation.”

    Now I can see a problem with the idea. It would likely cause a period of “global dimming” during which food production (as it is normally done) would decline. We saw that in the dimming period post WW II and around here in NoCA we saw it last summer as we spent months with a high smoke cover from the 2,000+ plus fires we suffered.

    So, what to do if the basic physics works?

    Well, we could put on a global push to grow extra food for a year or two and warehouse it for a ‘year of cooling’.

    And we could prepare our farmers with crops that would grow in their fields under conditions of milder sunlight.

    Last summer my cukes and zukes produced almost nothing. No jars of pickles in my pantry.

    Same was true in my neighbor’s gardens. But we got lots and lots of “spring” tomatoes and green leafy stuff. I grew lettuce all through the summer.

    We ate. We just ate differently.

  18. mitchell porter says:

    Bob Wright: “Is this why CO2 increases always seem to lag natural temperature increases on the hockey stick? The earth warms due to orbital or other anomolies, then the CH4/CO2 feedback kicks in. Of course, we’ve turmed it around this time, putting enough GHG in the environment to start GW.”

    The ice-age cycle, at least, appears to go like that: orbital forcing initiates a change, GHG release or uptake amplifies it. But what are the sinks and sources? Hansen et al 2007 (“Climate change and trace gases”) just says “the ocean, soils, and biosphere”. I don’t think there is a more detailed understanding, at least not a consensual one. So it’s also unclear to me whether Arctic methane release is normally part of that cycle, or whether it presages a return to a hotter regime, such as no ice-caps at all. Under ordinary circumstances, at this point in the cycle, we should have more than 50000 years of slow cooling ahead of us, with the associated GHG drawdown. But we used the opportunity provided by the Holocene Optimum to grow numerous and dig up all the fossil carbon. It would be apt if we also headed back into the climatic regime which last existed when that much carbon was in the air.

  19. Bob Wallace says:

    The Great Post-Columbus New World Die-off Mitigation

    Interesting thing from Science Daily today….

    “In recent years, there has been growing evidence for the hypothesis that the effect of the pandemics in the Americas wasn’t confined to killing indigenous peoples. Global climate appears to have been altered as well.

    Stanford University researchers have conducted a comprehensive analysis of data detailing the amount of charcoal contained in soils and lake sediments at the sites of both pre-Columbian population centers in the Americas and in sparsely populated surrounding regions.

    They concluded that reforestation of agricultural lands—abandoned as the population collapsed—pulled so much carbon out of the atmosphere that it helped trigger a period of global cooling, at its most intense from approximately 1500 to 1750, known as the Little Ice Age.”

  20. john says:


    What I meant by “dealing directly” with the methane problem is to act to forestall the proximate cause — human emissions of GHG. If and (probably when) that does not work, we may turn to geoengineering, but even then, we CANNOT try techniques which simply shade the earth or increase albedo effect.

    There’s three reasons I oppose geoengineering until and unless we’ve done everything we can on mitigation.

    First, adaptive responses absent mitigation efforts amounts to little more than trying to run up the down escalator. It’s possible, but stupid.

    Second, GHG emissions are not simply a warming problem, they pose a serious geochemical problem that is fully as hazardous as warming. For example, if we shade the earth, but continue to emit carbon, we will acidify the oceans, shut down calcification, and turn them into sterile wastelands covering 70% of our planet’s surface. Humanity will suffer from this in ways too horrible to contemplate.

    Finally, there are those who will hold forth the promise of geoengineering as yet another reason to do nothing.

    If, ultimately, we do need to do some form of geoengineering, it must deal with the problem of too much GHG in the atmosphere by removing it — any attempts to simply reduce the radiative forcing by blocking the sun amounts to a one-dimensional solution to a multi-dimensional problem. The only thing I’ve seen which is both remotely possible and which deals with the root problem — that is the excess carbon — is using weatherization of certain common minerals (olivine is one) to directly remove carbon from the atmosphere.

    But again, this is a last resort and cutting GHG is necessary in any case.


  21. “geoengineering” is like saying we have to genetically re-engineer human lung tissue to resist the effects of smoking 5 packs of cigarettes a day.

  22. Scott says:

    What if God said….
    ” This is just the way it is and there’s nothing you can do
    about it” What has man ever done that has ultimately succeeded?
    Sort of like building a statue: even it slowly erodes over time.

    Come on! Go attain your knowledge and speak your opinion….
    But it boils down to nothing more than an argument.