Carbon Time Bomb in the Arctic: New York Times Print Edition Gets the Story Right

Projected carbon emission (in billions of tons of carbon a year) from thawing permafrost.  From a 2011 NOAA/NSIDC study with moderate warming and other conservative assumptions.

The good news:  The best NOAA analysis “suggests we have not yet activated strong climate feedbacks from permafrost and CH4 hydrates.” Climate Progress first reported that finding 2 years ago.  The lead author of that work confirms to CP it still remains true — despite the fact that methane levels have been rising for the past 5 years after a decade of little growth.

The bad news:  Leading experts at NOAA, the National Snow and Ice Data Center and around the world now expect the permafrost to become a major source of atmospheric carbon in the next few decades (see “NSIDC/NOAA: Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100″ and “Nature:  Climate Experts Warn Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation!“)

NY Times science reporter Justin Gillis has just published an excellent overview article, “As Permafrost Thaws, Scientists Study the Risks.”  The piece makes clear we may be near a tipping point, citing University of Alaska scientist Vladimir Romanovsky:

In northern Alaska, Dr. Romanovsky said, permafrost is warming rapidly but is still quite cold. In the central part of the state, much of it is hovering just below the freezing point and may be no more than a decade or two from widespread thawing.

That thawing is of great concern because the permafrost contains a staggering amount of carbon, as Nature reported:

The latest estimate is that some 18.8 million square kilometres of northern soils hold about 1,700 billion tonnes of organic carbon4 — the remains of plants and animals that have been accumulating in the soil over thousands of years. That is about four times more than all the carbon emitted by human activity in modern times and twice as much as is present in the atmosphere now.

The permafrost carbon thus represents a dangerous amplifying feedback or vicious cycle whereby warming leads to accelerated emissions, which leads to further warming.  And that could lead to a point of no return, as Gillis reports:

In the minds of most experts, the chief worry is not that the carbon in the permafrost will break down quickly — typical estimates say that will take more than a century, perhaps several — but that once the decomposition starts, it will be impossible to stop….

That’s especially true since sea ice loss in the Arctic is happening faster than every major climate model projected — and accelerated Arctic warming and permafrost loss was linked to ice loss in a 2008 study by leading tundra experts, “Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss“:

We find that simulated western Arctic land warming trends during rapid sea ice loss are 3.5 times greater than secular 21st century climate-change trends. The accelerated warming signal penetrates up to 1500 km inland and is apparent throughout most of the year, peaking in autumn. Idealized experiments using the Community Land Model, with improved permafrost dynamics, indicate that an accelerated warming period substantially increases ground heat accumulation. Enhanced heat accumulation leads to rapid degradation of warm permafrost and may increase the vulnerability of colder permafrost to degradation under continued warming. Taken together, these results imply a link between rapid sea ice loss and permafrost health.

And, of course, recent analysis suggests that our current “no policy” approach to climate will lead to staggering Arctic warming this century (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F — with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F).

So by any objective measure, the recent science and observations of the permafrost are increasingly worrisome.

While the NY Times‘ Gillis gets this right in the print edition, NYT blogger Andy Revkin asserts in a post published 3 days earlier focused on sea-based methane hydrates, “There’s an entirely different set of questions, also with relatively reassuring answers, about the vast amounts of methane locked in permafrost on land.”  Not!

The NYT would seem to be schizophrenic on this crucial topic, but Gillis clearly has the story right and it isn’t reassuring at all.

Indeed, Gillis adds some new reporting that is very un-reassuring:

A troubling trend has emerged recently: Wildfires are increasing across much of the north, and early research suggests that extensive burning could lead to a more rapid thaw of permafrost.

Let’s look at the highlights of the important Gillis piece before returning to the sea-based issue:

Preliminary computer analyses, made only recently, suggest that the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions could eventually become an annual source of carbon equal to 15 percent or so of today’s yearly emissions from human activities.But those calculations were deliberately cautious. A recent survey drew on the expertise of 41 permafrost scientists to offer more informal projections. They estimated that if human fossil-fuel burning remained high and the planet warmed sharply, the gases from permafrost could eventually equal 35 percent of today’s annual human emissions.

The experts also said that if humanity began getting its own emissions under control soon, the greenhouse gases emerging from permafrost could be kept to a much lower level, perhaps equivalent to 10 percent of today’s human emissions.

Even at the low end, these numbers mean that the long-running international negotiations over greenhouse gases are likely to become more difficult, with less room for countries to continue burning large amounts of fossil fuels.

In the minds of most experts, the chief worry is not that the carbon in the permafrost will break down quickly — typical estimates say that will take more than a century, perhaps several — but that once the decomposition starts, it will be impossible to stop.

“Even if it’s 5 or 10 percent of today’s emissions, it’s exceptionally worrying, and 30 percent is humongous,” said Josep G. Canadell, a scientist in Australia who runs a global program to monitor greenhouse gases. “It will be a chronic source of emissions that will last hundreds of years.”

Are you relatively reassured yet?

The article has a nice graphic (click to enlarge).

When the Tundra Burns

Gillis has some important reporting on a related amplifying feedback

One day in 2007, on the plain in northern Alaska, a lightning strike set the tundra on fire.

Historically, tundra, a landscape of lichens, mosses and delicate plants, was too damp to burn. But the climate in the area is warming and drying, and fires in both the tundra and forest regions of Alaska are increasing.

The Anaktuvuk River fire burned about 400 square miles of tundra, and work on lake sediments showed that no fire of that scale had occurred in the region in at least 5,000 years.

Scientists have calculated that the fire and its aftermath sent a huge pulse of carbon into the air — as much as would be emitted in two years by a city the size of Miami. Scientists say the fire thawed the upper layer of permafrost and set off what they fear will be permanent shifts in the landscape.

Up to now, the Arctic has been absorbing carbon, on balance, and was once expected to keep doing so throughout this century. But recent analyses suggest that the permafrost thaw could turn the Arctic into a net source of carbon, possibly within a decade or two, and those studies did not account for fire.

I maintain that the fastest way you’re going to lose permafrost and release permafrost carbon to the atmosphere is increasing fire frequency,” said Michelle C. Mack, a University of Florida scientist who is studying the Anaktuvuk fire. “It’s a rapid and catastrophic way you could completely change everything.”

Gillis points outs:

The essential question scientists need to answer is whether the many factors they do not yet understand could speed the release of carbon from permafrost — or, possibly, slow it more than they expect.

For instance, nutrients released from thawing permafrost could spur denser plant growth in the Arctic, and the plants would take up some carbon dioxide. Conversely, should fires like the one at Anaktuvuk River race across warming northern landscapes, immense amounts of organic material in vegetation, soils, peat deposits and thawed permafrost could burn.

I’ve written about the peat issue recently (see “Stunning Peatlands Amplifying Feedback — Drying Wetlands and Intensifying Wildfires Boost Carbon Release Ninefold: “Drying of northern wetlands has led to much more severe peatland wildfires and nine times as much carbon released into the atmosphere, according to new research“).

I would add that denser plant growth in the Arctic might not actually be such a good thing — because of reduced snow cover and albedo (reflectivity).  According to a 2008 Science article:  “Continuation of current trends in shrub and tree expansion could further amplify [Arctic] atmospheric heating 2-7 times.”  The point is that if you convert a white landscape to a boreal forest, the surface suddenly starts collecting a lot more solar energy (see “Tundra 3: Forests and fires foster feedbacks“).

The point is that if you convert a white landscape to a boreal forest, the surface suddenly starts collecting a lot more solar energy.

And then we have the study, “Frequent Fires in Ancient Shrub Tundra: Implications of Paleorecords for Arctic Environmental Change,” which finds:

greater fire activity will likely accompany temperature-related increases in shrub-dominated tundra predicted for the 21st century and beyond. Increased tundra burning will have broad impacts on physical and biological systems as well as on land-atmosphere interactions in the Arctic, including the potential to release stored organic carbon to the atmosphere.

The concern is not so much the direct emissions from burning tundra. As the article concludes:  “studies of modern tundra fires suggest the possibility for both short- and long-term impacts from increased summer soil temperatures and moisture levels from altered surface albedo and roughness, and the release soil carbon through increased permafrost thaw depths and the consumption of the organic layer.”

Gillis ends his piece:

Edward A. G. Schuur, a University of Florida researcher who has done extensive field work in Alaska, is worried by the changes he already sees, including the discovery that carbon buried since before the dawn of civilization is now escaping.

“To me, it’s a spine-tingling feeling, if it’s really old carbon that hasn’t been in the air for a long time, and now it’s entering the air,” Dr. Schuur said. “That’s the fingerprint of a major disruption, and we aren’t going to be able to turn it off someday.”

There is nothing reassuring in the least about recent permafrost research and observation.

Methane Emissions

It is widely believe that some of the carbon locked away in the tundra will be released as methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.  Gillis notes:

If a substantial amount of the carbon should enter the atmosphere, it would intensify the planetary warming. An especially worrisome possibility is that a significant proportion will emerge not as carbon dioxide, the gas that usually forms when organic material breaks down, but as methane, produced when the breakdown occurs in lakes or wetlands. Methane is especially potent at trapping the sun’s heat, and the potential for large new methane emissions in the Arctic is one of the biggest wild cards in climate science.

Methane is 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, but 72 times to 100 times as potent over 20 years!  The new Nature study found:

Across all the warming scenarios, we project that most of the released carbon will be in the form of CO2, with only about 2.7% in the form of CH4. However, because CH4 has a higher global-warming potential, almost half the effect of future permafrost-zone carbon emissions on climate forcing is likely to be from CH4. That is roughly consistent with the tens of billions of tonnes of CH4 thought to have come from oxygen-limited environments in northern ecosystems after the end of the last glacial period.

And because of the much higher warming impact of methane over shorter time frames, even this low percentage level of methane means that over a 20 year period, the warming from CH4 will actually be higher than that of CO2.

Because methane is so potent and because of the recent literature on the Arctic warming and tundra melt, many have wondered whether the Arctic is responsible for the recent  resurgence in global methane levels.  Here is the latest data from The NOAA Annual Greenhouse Gas Index:

As you can see, methane levels  are on the march again after almost a decade.

Back in 2009, I wrote about a NOAA-led study, Dlugokencky et al., “Observational constraints on recent increases in the atmospheric CH4 burden” (subs. req’d, NOAA online news story here), which found:

The most likely drivers of the CH4 anomalies observed during 2007 and 2008 are anomalously high temperatures in the Arctic and greater than average precipitation in the tropics. Near-zero CH4 growth in the Arctic during 2008 suggests we have not yet activated strong climate feedbacks from permafrost and CH4 hydrates.

But then we seemed to get some reports that suggested that Arctic methane hydrates could be a source of the continuing surge (see my March 2010 post here).  The lead author of an NSF-funded study said on the Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf said, “Our concern is that the subsea permafrost has been showing signs of destabilization already.  If it further destabilizes, the methane emissions may not be teragrams, it would be significantly larger.”  The NSF warned, ““Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”

And then this month, we had the UK’s Independent writing a story on the work of Russian scientist Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbank, “Shock As Retreat of Arctic Sea Ice Releases Deadly Methane Gas Levels.”

But Dlugokencky emails that his work through 2010 confirms:

There is no evidence from our atmospheric measurements that there has been a significant increase in emissions during the past 20 years from natural methane sources in the Arctic so far.

And, as Revkin notes, a new study finds, “Siberian shelf methane emissions not tied to modern warming” (subs. req’d).  That study suggests the offshore methane hydrates are unlikely to be a big contributor to methane emissions this century.

I tend to think all bets are off after 2100 if we are idiotic enough  to stay on our current emissions path (see Science stunner — On our current emissions path, CO2 levels in 2100 will hit levels last seen when the Earth was 29°F (16°C) hotter).

I wanted to probe further, so I interviewed Stephen Wofsy of Harvard University.  He has been flying on NSF’s research plane HIAPER (for High Performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research) as part of the HIPPO (for HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observations) pollution mapping program.

Science News had written this back in September:

Something too new to fully understand (although a report on it is being prepared for publication), Wofsy says, is a finding of notable concentrations of methane in the Arctic’s atmosphere that trace back to the sea.

“Oceanographers have known for some time that there is production of methane in surface waters of the Arctic,” he says, but “it’s never been observed in the atmosphere.” Those oceanographic data, he says, suggest a source for this methane other than sediments or the melting of icy gas hydrates.

The phenomenon also appears very widespread. “We observed that the ocean surface releases methane to the atmosphere all over the whole of the Arctic Ocean,” Wofsy says.

Climate scientists have been concerned about whether the Arctic Ocean’s loss of summer ice cover might lead, through some feedback mechanisms, to boosting the release of methane. Concludes Wofsy: Thanks to HIPPO, “This hypothesized feedback has been observed for the first time.” And there are hints, he adds, that methane’s source may be something other than melting of gas hydrates.

Tantalizing, no?

According to Wofsy, HIPPO saw significant methane fluxes over the Arctic ocean away from the shore — but this “wasn’t seen where the ice is solid.”  He thinks it is probably due to micro-organisims munching anaerobically.  And he thinks that the retreat of the ice increases the productivity of the micro-organisims and allows more of the methane to escape.

He doesn’t think this will “blow the world up,” but he does think it is a significant effect and could increase as the ice retreats.  He’ll be describing his findings in more detail in a forthcoming Journal article.


The key conclusion remains unchanged from my October 2009 post, “Is it just too damn late?”  We have not crossed a tipping point or point of no return with methane releases in the Arctic.  It’s not too late to avert the worst impacts of human-caused global warming.

But what we now know that wasn’t so clear back then is that the best science and the leading scientists say we are likely to see large releases of carbon from the permafrost this century —  particularly if we don’t  aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions starting ASAP.

The stunning conclusion of the NOAA/NSIDC paper was:

The thaw and release of carbon currently frozen in permafrost will increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations and amplify surface warming to initiate a positive permafrost carbon feedback (PCF) on climate…. [Our] estimate may be low because it does not account for amplified surface warming due to the PCF itself….

We predict that the PCF will change the arctic from a carbon sink to a source after the mid-2020s and is strong enough to cancel 42-88% of the total global land sink. The thaw and decay of permafrost carbon is irreversible and accounting for the PCF will require larger reductions in fossil fuel emissions to reach a target atmospheric CO2 concentration.

The Nature article concludes:

Our group’s estimate for carbon release under the lowest warming scenario, although still quite sizeable, is about one-third of that predicted under the strongest warming scenario.

… our survey outlines the additional risk to society caused by thawing of the frozen north, and underscores the urgent need to reduce atmospheric emissions from fossil-fuel use and deforestation. This will help to keep permafrost carbon frozen in the ground.

The only thing recent research on the Arctic reassures us about is the urgent need to cut emissions sharply and quickly.

This post has been updated (to replace “algae” with “micro-organisms”).

85 Responses to Carbon Time Bomb in the Arctic: New York Times Print Edition Gets the Story Right

  1. Jeff H says:

    Roosevelt Island, Science School, and Sea Level

    May I ask:

    What is the elevation (above sea level) of the specific plot of land on Roosevelt Island upon which the new “science school” will be built by Cornell University (just announced).

    It has been awhile since I’ve been near Roosevelt Island, but it occurs to me that the location might be somewhat ironic, for a science school, if it’s not very far above sea level and if we don’t start paying more attention to science in relation to the reality of climate change, and addressing it.

    Be Well (and beware of building new institutions at or near sea level),


  2. Andy says:

    Still doesn’t give us (blog audience) an answer about the validity of Similetov’s claim that he observed large methane plumes gassing directly into the atmosphere from Russian waters late during this summer’s field season. Wofsy’s and Similetov’s time and aerial extent of their observations may not have overlapped. As for Dlugoklencky’s 2010 work, Similetov explicitly stated that he didn’t observe these plumes in 2010 while in the same area. Maybe you could ask Wofsy about the time and extent of his nearshore Laptev Sea methane observations?

  3. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Please note that for the last few days Neven’s blog has been discussing a preliminary discussion by a Russian team of a summer 2011 survey in the Siberian sea which found methane emissions far greater than expected — “funnels thousands of meters wide rather than tens of meters as before.” In other words, as far as I can tell, methane is being emitted from there far faster than your discussion seems to suggest. The discussion has also featured measurements of atmospheric methane at Point Barrow and Mauna Loa, both of which show a rapid rise in methane concentrations in the atmosphere starting in 2006 after a “leveling off” period in the early 2000s, of which part at least is ascribed to increases in methane emissions from clathrates/permafrost/peat bogs.

    I would suggest that therefore your article understates the degree to which methane/related carbon emissions are no longer avoidable.

  4. B Waterhouse says:

    Revkin’s got a new column criticizing IPPC’s Pachauri for a harmless joke about sending denialists into space and then scolding him for the temerity of actually advocating policies to reducec GHG emissions. Broke my head vice.

  5. Peter Mizla says:

    Something of interest from climate code red
    Professor Kevin Anderson

    Revkin never ceases to amaze me- but then neither does the NYT as it continues to blow the story of the century (along with with the rest of the Media)

  6. catch22 says:

    Another serious issue not to my recollection discussed in the NYT article is methane hydrates on the Arctic Ocean seabed. The following article discusses some fairly scary observations from a Russian scientist (Igor Semiletov) of jets of methane 1000 metres in diameter coming from the sea floor off the Russian coast. I think these are recent observations so I don’t think this has been published yet in peer reviewed journals, but Similetov is a real scientist who has published recently in Sciencemag and Geophysical Research Letters.

    When I hear real scientists talk about disturbing observations like this, I have learned to listen.

  7. prokaryotes says:

    Great news that the NYT is getting better and the facts correct!

    THIS IS UTMOST IMPORTANCE to prevent, for the survival of the species!

    The good news: The best NOAA analysis “suggests we have not yet activated strong climate feedbacks from permafrost and CH4 hydrates.” Climate Progress first reported that finding 2 years ago. The lead author of that work confirms to CP it still remains true — despite the fact that methane levels have been rising for the past 5 years after a decade of little growth.
    The bad news: Leading experts at NOAA, the National Snow and Ice Data Center and around the world now expect the permafrost to become a major source of atmospheric carbon in the next few decades (see “NSIDC/NOAA: Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100″ and “Nature: Climate Experts Warn Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation!“)

  8. prokaryotes says:

    Revkin is a concern troll.

  9. Dr Thomas Pringle says:

    Wofsy is dead wrong about methanogenic algae –they don’t exist. The only genomes that contain the obligatory enzymes are Archael — and there only within a very narrow group of them

  10. Solar Jim says:

    Thanks for this (existential) post Joe.

    RE: Nature report, “Across all the warming scenarios, we project that most of the released carbon will be in the form of CO2, with only about 2.7% in the form of CH4.”

    I respectfully disagree. Since seabed and permafrost carbon will likely originate from wet environments, it would seem this estimate is too low by a factor of ten or so. If something like one quarter (or more) of 1.7 trillion tons of carbon were released as methane, then the time point effect is something approaching 1.7/4 x 100 carbonic acid gas radiative forcing. This is about 400 billion tons CO2 equivalent (spread over time), which is on the order of ten times current annual human emissions. A key point is it is a response by the planet and not by humans.

    Or if the NOAA estimate “releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100″ were carbon in methane then we would be in the trillions of tons CO2 equivalent radiative forcing, spread over time.

    Further, even though these calculations are mixing apples and oranges, methane then degrades to carbonic acid gas (CO2) for very prolonged global heating. Finally, that carbon that is sequestered by nature never really goes “away.” It is now being moved via oxidation (through mankind’s ignition) from lithosphere to biosphere, which can release it again through climate change.

    Perhaps we really should stop defining buried, fossil carbon materials as “money making energy.” Anyone for restructuring the “modern” economic paradigm yet? Say by making the global fossil subsidies instead into an equivalent size tax (and dividend)? Or should we continue to create “unsustainable” public debt of actual and existential kinds?

  11. Joe Romm says:

    I have no reply from Similetov. But your statement of his work is not quite what the reports say. He didn’t see these before, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. There is just no observation of soaring methane in the Arctic yet.

  12. squidboy6 says:

    You may be confusing apples and oranges there – carbon dioxide converts to carbonic acid (it’s a two way conversion driven by several factors so it can go back to carbon dioxide) but methane has to be fully oxidized first before the conversion can occur.

  13. EDpeak says:

    “100 billion tons of carbon by 2100”

    Can JR and others clarify this? I believe we have:

    1 ppm by volume of atmosphere CO2 = 2.13 Gt C

    so 100 Gt/ (1ppm/2.13 Gt) would give rise to 47ppm. But is that correctly the ‘full story’?

    It’s not 100Gt of carbon but rather of carbon equivalent..methane feedbacks and warming could release much more, I believe our understanding of the feedbacks is not so precise that we have small uncertainty; rather, one cannot rule out that accelerating positive feedbacks of warming in higher latitudes release more co2 and more methane, leading to more release, etc, with more than 47ppm added.

    If I’m wrong and we’re “fairly sure” it wont’ add more than 47ppm then it’s big enough to be a concern, but not a game changer in the context of the wide “866ppm” above and other such projections, if it makes thing worse by “only” (note the quotes) 47ppm. The concern is it could be even more than that…

    The skeptics think that not knowing where the various cliffs are, is reason not to be so worried. The lack of precise knowledge about the exact location of the cliffs is in fact a reason to stop walking towards the series of ever larger cliffs, turn around, and walk back..!

    We also aren’t going to be very successful unless we attack this on many levels, including, yes, Occupy type actions, non-violent civil disobedience, plus legislative/lawsuit work to end the private money in elections..

    ..but crucially and often forgotten, the need to move to a Steady State economy away from the current models which depend on never-ending exponential growth forever and ever for the economy, a suicidal model we have both in USA and China and elsewhere..

  14. Solar Jim says:

    Agreed that methane oxidizes to carbon dioxide (otherwise known as carbonic acid gas). The two primary products of hydrocarbon combustion are water vapor and carbon dioxide. Combined, these become carbonic acid, whether in rain or ocean waters (and oceans are increasing in acidity). Clearly, a perverse outcome of entrenched “energy economics,” i.e. nation-state fossil subsidies.

  15. Joe Romm says:

    100 GT would be a lower estimate to me, given the conservative assumptions. Also, seems likely a few percent at least will be CH4. Then we have the peatlands and the tropical wetlands and the Amazon and the others forests. 50 ppm here and 50 ppm there and soon you are talking real feedbacks

  16. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Makes the Durban timetable look even more ludicrous. But hopfully the unfolding methane story may give them more of a sense of urgency and ‘ambition’, ME

  17. Sasparilla says:

    Very good observation prokaryotes, that pretty much nails Revkin’s actions over the years.

  18. While working to think through various induced emissions contributions, it might be useful to think about “destablization wedges”.

    Just to help visualize that it’s not just this additional 47ppm or whatever… it’s this or that growing feedback contribution to carbon equivalents in the atmosphere, along with all the other.

    Even better it to have good model-based simulations of these effects. There appears to be a gap, though, between solid observations of accelerated climate change, and reporting of global climate modeling results that take them into account.

    Leaving many of us in a position of trying to think things through like this in the meantime…

  19. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent article Joe, thank you.

    Seems as though we are getting to witness the wakening of permafrost emissions, small and seasonal at this point (hopefully) – wish we could get another decade pass on atmospheric methane level increases.

    Revkin…what to say. He’s so damaging because of his position, as prokaryotes pointed out, he acts as a concern troll (that description nails what he’s done over the years).

  20. This will be the subject of the conversation at 8:30AM Central, Tuesday, December 21, on Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Public Radio Station WOJB 88.9FM and with host Eric Schubring and NOAA Methane Researcher Lori Buhmiler. Join the conversation at 800-776-3689.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Concern troll’ seems like a dissembler, an Iago, a provocateur. The police in the UK were recently sprung having had infiltrators and provocateur-spies inside the Green movement for years. This is as old as the Bosses and their ‘divide and rule’ tactics. It spreads confusion and promotes division.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The NYT doesn’t care if it ‘blows’ the story of the century (of all time, I’d say). It’s job is brainwashing, its product propaganda and its raison d’etre service to power. In that it is a stonking great success.

  23. B Waterhouse says:

    In response to criticism in his blog, Revkin now claims that the IPPC has found that it is necessary to reduce emissions to avoid warming but that the IPPC has not found we SHOULD reduce emissions to avoid warming. I need to order a truck load of head vices or, better yet, just stop reading him.

  24. superf88 says:

    What a great question! Guessing they’ve thought of this though ;-)

  25. Philip Clark says:

    I don’t think the acceleration of ppm CO and CH4 is anything we can control or diminish in meaningful quantities at present or in the forseeable future. It may be time to consider rash palliatives, such as orbiting polar sunscreens while we seek better ways of controlling the sources.

  26. I think that we will observe our passing through tipping points via the rear view mirror. And that scares me.

  27. Bunch says:

    Amazing conjecture. When CO2 was over 600PPM, Antartica froze over. Why do you guys keep up the propaganda. The earth will warm and cool and has since time began. It is a naturally occurring process. Remember, matter is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes form. We do not creat carbon, we change the form. Humans add nothing, we just use what is already here. The only way to stop humans from changing this is to do away with humans, which is obviously not an option. So, adapt and shut the f….. Up……..

  28. John Mason says:


    Not quite right there. When CO2 FELL to ~600-700ppm from 1000-1200ppm then the first glaciers on Antarctica formed.

    Now how does that enlighten you?

    Cheers – John

  29. Tom L says:

    Have another cigarette Bunch. Don’t let all that silly medical nonsense sway you. Your lungs will adapt.

  30. Paul magnus says:

    We are fracked. If you consider the rate at which we are injecting ghg currently the pulse is highly likely to trigger a methane burp.

  31. wili says:

    “There is just no observation of soaring methane in the Arctic yet.”

    Switch parameter to ‘methane’ and hit submit.

    Looks like an instrumental measure of soaring methane levels to me.

    And hasn’t Semiletov been doing studies up there for a couple decades? Of course, he could have missed something, before, but I don’t get the impression that these were in some location where he had never looked.

    Do you have contact with any of the others that went on the expedition this fall? Are any of them more available? I haven’t seen a list of names, but I would imagine that Joye and Leifer might have been along.

  32. Colorado Bob says:

    Bunch –
    Plunge in CO2 put the freeze on Antarctica

    Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels plunged by 40% before and during the formation of the Antarctic ice sheet 34 million years ago, according to a new study. The finding helps solve a long-standing scientific puzzle and confirms the power of CO2 to dramatically alter global climate.

    The study by an international team, published in the journal Science, is the first multidisciplinary research of its kind to show that CO2 was tracking global cooling at that time. It confirms that significant falls in the greenhouse gas result in global cooling, just as rises result in global warming.

    Previous studies had suggested that atmospheric CO2 over the Southern Ocean was climbing during the Eocene to Oligocene climate transition, when ice first formed over Antarctica. This presented a conundrum, suggesting the climate was warming at the same time as Antarctica was freezing.

    But when the vastly different ancient Southern Ocean currents and temperatures of that period were factored in, it quickly became apparent that Antarctica’s big freeze followed a fall in CO2 levels.

  33. Colorado Bob says:

    RE The change in the albedo, it’s under way :

    More Shrubbery in a Warming World

    ScienceDaily (Dec. 8, 2011) — Scientists have used satellite data from NASA-built Landsat missions to confirm that more than 20 years of warming temperatures in northern Quebec, Canada, have resulted in an increase in the amount and extent of shrubs and grasses.

  34. Nice vapid hand-waving there, bunch. Do you get paid extra for cramming so many fallacious denialist memes into one comment?

    Either adapt by actually learning something for yourself about the science (rather than taking anyone’s word on it, including mine) or take the circus act elsewhere. If you wish to open your mind to the disinformation the dissemblers have poured into it, go to Skeptical Science, where every one of the memes you present are fully and completely refuted, complete with links to the peer-reviewed, published science (i.e., the original sources).

    Or keep on posting silly stuff like you did. Your call.

  35. John Hartz says:

    Mother Nature always bats last and she always bats 1.000.

  36. Colorado Bob says:

    I was following the The Anaktuvuk River fire back in 2007 , ……. This was going on at the same time :

    From their camp on Melville Island last July, where they recorded air temperatures over 20ºC (in an area with July temperatures that average 5ºC), the team watched in amazement as water from melting permafrost a metre below ground lubricated the topsoil, causing it to slide down slopes, clearing everything in its path and thrusting up ridges at the valley bottom “that piled up like a rug,” says Dr. Lamoureux, an expert in hydro-climatic variability and landscape processes. “The landscape was being torn to pieces, literally before our eyes. A major river was dammed by a slide along a 200-metre length of the channel. River flow will be changed for years, if not decades to come.”

    As the rapid rise on the West coast of Greenland this past summer shows.
    “Gradual” isn’t being used to describe any of the changes being observed so far. Why anyone believes that “Gradual” will be used in the future, is beyond me.
    Nothing in the Arctic is happening slowly.

  37. Colorado Bob says:

    “the team watched in amazement as water from melting permafrost a metre below ground lubricated the topsoil, causing it to slide down slopes, clearing everything in its path and thrusting up ridges at the valley bottom “that piled up like a rug,” says Dr. Lamoureux,”

  38. Colorado Bob says:

    One year later –

    Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island in Nunavut. The Auyuittuq – which means The Land that Never Melts –

    Pauline Scott, a spokeswoman for Parks Canada, told the BBC News website that after two weeks of record-breaking hot weather in June the ice had “melted at a phenomenal rate – we’ve never seen this kind of phenomenon in almost 40 years since the park was first opened”.

    Speaking from Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut, Ms Scott said that due to the massive amount of melting ice “huge portions of what was formerly a 96km trail in the park have completely gone”.

  39. Georgia Ken says:

    John Mason: Well almost right. Here are two quotes from Pearson et al.: ” During maximum ice-sheet growth, pCO2 was between 450 and 1,500 p.p.m.v., with a central estimate of 760 p.p.m.v.” “We also find a sharp pCO2 atm increase after maximum ice growth as the global carbon cycle adjusted to the presence of a large ice cap.”

  40. Peter Anderson says:

    The story references the rather critical fact that methane’s short term Global Warming Potential is 105 times CO2, but fails to work that key value through when quantifying the implications of methane blasts from the Arctic permafrost and seabed.

    By molecular weight, methane, which has increased its concentration in the atmosphere nearly threefold in industrial times, exhibits 33× more warming power than carbon dioxide, according to the latest 2009 data from NASA, which is 57% greater than that incorrectly used by EPA. For another, methane’s residence time in the atmosphere is approximately 12 years, compared to CO2’s previously considered 50-200 years, thereby concentrating its impact in the near term, during which its warming impact is 105× greater than CO2’s over the next two decades when we confront critical and irreversible tipping points, which is the value most appropriate to assess immediate impacts.

    Methane’s short run potency increases respectively from one-half of a percent of the unweighted GHGs, to 8% on a long term equivalent basis, to 28% of the short term equivalent of the combined warming potential.

    For this reason, even relatively minor releases of methane can be portentous when contemplating its potential to trigger tipping points. Moreover, because there may be, through at least the rest of this century, several successive methane blasts of the sort discussed in the Times piece, the 20-year methane GWP multiplier can best be considered in this context as extending for at least another 50 years if not more. This is 400% greater than the commonly used value of 21 times, and the implications flow out of the 4 fold difference.

  41. wili says:

    Thanks for that link:

    It is well worth a watch and listen.

    Policy makers seem to be pretty far off from understanding the truly brutal reality we now face. And as Anderson admits (I think it was at ` minute 43), even this grim picture is assuming no ‘discontinuities’ like the one we may be in the midst of with reported large increases in methane release from the Arctic Ocean.

  42. Turboblocke says:

    UK Parliamentary and Scientific Committee Special Paper
    It has been reported in the December 2011 meeting of the American Geophysical Union that the rate of escape of methane from the East Siberian Shelf (in the Arctic Ocean) has increased dramatically within the last two years. If substantiated, this would add greatly to the greenhouse effect and thus to global warming. It is part of a positive feedback process related to break-up of the Arctic sea ice, and appears to be happening several decades before it was expected to start. An ad hoc emergency group has been formed, to lobby for urgent national and international action, to confirm the science and to develop potential geo-engineering countermeasures. They have prepared a briefing document which may be downloaded from here…

  43. Jon Flatley says:

    I’m not disagreeing with the worrisome tone of the article, I’ve read about the concerns of extra methane release from melting of permafrost and the possible release from methane hydrates. And I know methane is 25 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2. However keep in mind that the lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is usually around 10 years as compared with a 100 years for carbon dioxide. I guess once the melting begins in earnest there will be an endless supply being released all the time, so maybe not that important of a consideration in this case?

  44. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    I seem to recall something about new much better equipment. So they are saying it could have been there before but we didn’t know it.

    Still once they re examine the old data, sort of a calibration if you will, a more complete picture will emerge.

    Lets also see how the 2012 methane figures look. No change, a spike, or sustained higher figures.

  45. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    When you consider the massive changes from the ever so gentle Malinkovic cycles; When you consider that we have changed climate forcing an order of magnitude faster than anything in the paleo climatic record, one begins to supect that the climates response could be greater and faster than we imagine.

    To make matters worse, global dimming is masking much of the heating that would occur from what we have already put up. When stop so much polluting, the skies will clear adding one to two watts per square meter.

    Looking at the supply price graphs for oil, peak oil has been upon us for half a decade. Coal reserves are not all they appear either, peak coal may be closer than thought.
    Neither oil or coal will run out soon, but instead of more and more we will be getting less and less.

    If we do not leave fossil fuels, fossil fuels will leave us. Currently we have the resources for a almost painless massive investment in renewables. In twenty years the required invesment in renewables will be painfull. In forty years it may not even be possible.

  46. Belgrave says:

    I’m as concerned as anybody about increased methane emissions, but I’ve just looked at the Barrow data and really it seems to me a bit premature to assume that it’s showing a spike in methane levels. The 2 points are preliminary, they’re only 4.8% higher than a similar peak in 1996 and they’re only present in flask samples. In situ data shows no increase beyond the existing trend. Wofsy’s work looks more interesting and I await reports from his and Semiletov’s groups with interest (and forboding). Everything else seems to be progressing faster than the models predict so I’d be surprised if methane destabilisation and release isn’t too.

  47. John Mason says:

    Ken – things have now moved on a fair bit!

    Cheers – John

  48. Richard Miller says:

    I have watched this presentation by Kevin Anderson and read his published papers on emissions scenarios. The most recent paper was from the 4 Degrees and Beyond Conference in the UK that Joe featured here. The presentation you link to is a summary of that paper. I find his emission scenarios the most comprehensive and the most helpful representation of where we are.

    I wonder what Joe thinks.

  49. Tony says:

    I understand that the Texas drought may have killed an estimated 500 million trees. That is all extra carbon that will eventually be released into the atmosphere. If we are seeing these events already what do we expect will happen when the extra CO2/methane reaches the atmosphere?

    I also disagree that algae can metabolise anaerobically to produce methane. Even if there were another organism that could do it, at relatively low temperatures, you wouldn’t get the rapid plumes of methane gas hitting the surface and certainly not 1000 meters wide.

    Surely another concern is that the Arctic is melting faster than IPCC models would have predicted, outside their margin of error for worst case scenario. This must surely mean that all bets are off regarding long term modelling for the region Every tipping point that gets passed means that new models need to be developed which is not really accurate modelling at all.

    Lastly, as to offshore methane hydrates being unlikely to be a big contributor to methane emissions this century, what is the evidence for that? There is a bucketload of methane under the perforated sea floor in shallow waters without the high pressure of deep sea reservoirs to keep them from destabilizing. Are they not critically dependent on icy temperatures?

  50. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Bad move, Bob. Creatures like whatsisname are there to be ignored. Rational explanation is wasted, facts and evidence are beyond his understanding. He’s a loyal Dunning-Kruger stormtrooper in the Holy War against the evil Green, watermelon, alarmist, warmist conspiracy to take away his SUV, plasma TV and (I’ll bet)guns. Most blogs I go to, for a squizz, are infested with this type, growing more lunatic and deranged as the news becomes ever grimmer. Don’t feed the trolls-it’s a waste of time and only encourages them.

  51. harvey says:

    Russian research on permafrost…

  52. Georgia Ken says:

    John… Lee Kump: Nature
    As in the earliest Oligocene, the [late Eocene] isotopic data seem to require the presence of ice sheets on Antarctica at least as thick as those today, and substantial ice sheets in North America (most likely Greenland.

    Moved on… to where?

  53. Georgia Ken says:

    Carbon and hydrogen isotopic data from permafrost confirm that the methane is of microbial origin, i.e. methanogens. This means that two mol organic carbon are required for one mol CH4 plus one mol of CO2. The methane is in the hydrates. Does anyone know where the equimolar CO2 went… and when?

  54. Raul M. says:

    Thinking that the dissolved methane in the seawater still comes to the atmosphere, as mention of it does not mention any reaction changes other than dissolving into the seawater?

  55. climatehawk1 says:

    Wayne, the article Joe mentions from the UK newspaper The Independent on the work of Igor Semiletov and his team (“Shock as Retreat of Arctic Sea Ice …”) is about the research you are referring to.

  56. climatehawk1 says:

    I think responding as Bob did is a good idea, because it helps to educate other readers and let them know where the answer can be found. Best if it is not done with a dig at the troll, just the facts.

  57. climatehawk1 says:

    Thanks for this info, seems that some scientists are not reassured by Semiletov’s findings.

  58. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You’re probably correct, but I’ve seen so many places where this type swarm in, and soon infest the space with their imbecilities, ignorance and lies. The MSM sites preference them, as they represent the Right in all its glory, and pretty soon all but the stoutest hearted rationalist find something more useful to do, that arguing with human bricks.

  59. Michael c Weir says:

    Take a look at these pictures There is one picture from december 21, 2009. All the rest are recent. Both the southern and northern hemisphere are warmer, and the immediate trend is for both hemispheres to warm up.

  60. Jim Mooney says:

    “There’s no global warming – rightwing radio hateheads tell me so”

    I was just listening to a radio hatehead last night foaming at the mouth, about how all these global warming people are “nuts.”

    Hard science can’t compete with radio hateheads. They have a bigger audience and will continue to spout their lies until we are under water.

  61. John Mason says:

    Anderson et al 2011 PNAS is the most recent summary I have:

    Anderson, J.B., Warny, S., Askin, R.A., Wellner, J.S., Bohaty, S.M., Kirshner, A.E., Livsey, D.N., Simms, A.R., Smith, T.R., Ehrmann, W., Lawver, L.A., Barbeau, D., Wise, S.W., Kulhanek, D.K., Weaver, F.M., & Majewski, W. (2011): Progressive Cenozoic cooling and the demise of Antarctica’s last refugium. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 28, 108:11356–11360.

    Cheers – John

  62. Raul M. says:

    Sorry, of course Earth is getting warmer.

  63. Bhaskar says:

    Algae does not produce Methane.
    Methanogens produce methane, these grow in Anaerobic conditions.

    If there were to be a good amount of useful Algae the dissolved oxygen
    level would be high and aerobic conditions would prevail. Methane is
    not generated in aerobic water.

    We are advocating the use of Diatom Algae to increase Dissolved Oxygen
    level to reduce production of Methane and perhaps to oxidise methane
    already produced.

    Methanotroph bacteria consume methane, these grow in aerobic
    If anaerobic conditions are changed to aerobic, production of methane
    would be reduced and existing methane would be consumed.

    Diatoms require sunlight for photosynthesis.
    When the Arctic was covered by ice there was not enough sunlight for
    them to grow, hence the nutrients available were consumed by
    methanogens to produce methane, this sedimented and is being released
    when the ice melts.

    However, since the ice is melting more sunlight is available to the
    depths of the ocean, hence more Diatoms can grow using the nutrients
    Nitrogen is the energy pathway for Diatoms (for Photosynthesis) and
    for Methanogens, so they compete for N.
    Right now Methanogens are winning, we would like Diatoms to win.

  64. John McCormick says:

    Rabid, your comment is the most concise statement I have read regarding the absolute urgency of responding to AGW.

    Yes, the Milankovic cycle is a perfect analogy to use. And the hidden heat due to dimming is also another reason for panic attacks.

    Clearly, what you and I know already is going to happen soon. How soon? How severe? We’ll just have to see.

    I hear friends talking about bail out plans. Maybe for them over 50 that is a solution. My newborn nephew doesn’t stand a chance to get through the future we have written for him.

  65. Artful Dodger says:

    The best evidence for the source of Arctic methane emissions comes from Carbon Isotope ratios. A recent paper shows how this works:

    Fisher (2011), “Arctic methane sources: Isotopic evidence for atmospheric inputs

    Key Points
    Isotopic measurements have been used to identify major sources of Arctic methane
    In late summer biogenic methane sources dominate the bulk Arctic source mix
    Seabed emissions near Spitsbergen have not been detected reaching the atmosphere

    So, watch the mixing ratios of fossil Carbon in Arctic methane emissions… This will be the harbinger as the Kraken awakes.

  66. FedUpWithDenial says:

    You could try a larger size head vise, or even use multiple head vises, but against a global-warming lukewarmer/confusionist/counterfactualist like Revkin I’m not sure it would do much good. Though not a denier as such, he is a very subtle master of the dark art of misreporting and misanalysis. He has the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he touches turns to fool’s gold. It is impossible to believe that he has ever seriously studied the science. He seems to have a big worry about global warming, but when you seek the basis of his concern, you realize that what really bothers him is not global warming as such but the possibility that someone – somewhere, somehow, somewhen – might actually manage to do something about global warming! :: (What??? Someone control CO2? IMPOSSIBLE!!!) :: I try to avoid his Dot Earth blog entirely, except when I’m in the mood to see whether, in his latest excursion into the realm of the counterfactual, he might possibly have managed to outdo himself and carry his misreporting to a new and higher level. In his recent mis-blog on warming-driven Arctic methane destabilization (Apocalypse NOT!) he just about succeeded.

  67. wili says:

    “Everything else seems to be progressing faster than the models predict so I’d be surprised if methane destabilisation and release isn’t too.”

    That is my thought, too.

    Under other circumstances, I, too, would assume that such anomalous data points were erroneous. But the timing seems ominous. I have also seen instances on that site in the past where even higher increases were blocked by the scale of the graph–they were literally off the charts. So it is not impossible that there are data points above and beyond what we see; again, literally off the charts.

    If there were an earth-annihilating meteor headed this way, I would have to assume that everyone one and his brother would be absolutely fixated on the news and latest developments. But concern about this thing, potentially every bit as dangerous, is confined to a blog here and there. It reinforces the sense I have that I am living on a different planet than most others.

  68. wili says:

    The Spitzbergen situation, where the ocean is very deep, is very different from that of the vast (200 million k^2, iirc) East Siberian Arctic Shelf where the average depth is 50 meters.

    But the HIPPO data mentioned in the article indicates that methane is now coming from all over the Arctic Ocean. But the Dlugokencky says no big increase in atmospheric methane has been detected in the Arctic.

    Does anyone else see a disconnect here?

    Is there some ‘miracle sink’ gobbling up all this methane?

  69. Wayne Kernochan says:

    @climatehawk: My bad for not picking up the reference. However, on review, my concern is for Joe’s interpretation of it. What he seems to hear is: “a related scientist says that this anecdotal evidence isn’t showing up in the atmosphere yet.” What I hear is, “In 2010 there was no clear sign of increased atmospheric methane from “natural sources” in the Arctic seas. In 2011, for the first time, scientists found consistently in a sample Arctic-sea area methane natural-source emissions 10,000 times (1000/10, squared) as great as ever seen before.”

    As Rachel Maddow would say, please talk me down. So far, I haven’t heard anything that indicates a 10,000-fold increase in natural-source arctic-sea emissions won’t lead to a huge ongoing step-up in atmospheric methane.

  70. Joe Romm says:

    no. HIPPO data says arctic methane is from surface over deep ocean, not coastal.

  71. David Jefferson says:

    I’m a designer that has been working with others to educate the public on ways that they can work towards energy independence and a more sustainable economy. It’s been a rewarding experience, but recently I’ve learned that maybe my sights were set a bit low, and that stories like these point to a more alarming future.

    Slowly approaching thirty, I’m starting to get the impression from these reports that life as I get older will become far more difficult than I could have ever imagined, despite working to play a positive part. Would it be wise to consider changing locals and becoming more independent than I already am, or are things bleak no matter what? I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, but I’ve always tried to plan for the future, and this increasingly bleak picture has me losing sleep.

  72. Tony says:

    Seems to me that James Hansen and others may have underestimated the threat of thawing seabed clathrates:

  73. Joe Romm says:

    Where do you live?

  74. David Jefferson says:

    Just outside of Boston. I thought up North might be a nice place to relocate and divide my time between my current activity with non-profits and being more self-sustainable. People in my family tend to live very long, and with everything I keep reading, it seems like that could be more of a curse than a blessing as the years go on.

  75. Wayne Kernochan says:

    To be fair, over the last two years at least Joe has been the commentator who has underestimated the clathrate threat the least. On the contrary, he has consistently kept in mind the potential threat of all three (methane clathrates, methane from permafrost, methane from peat bogs/wetlands) and pointed to evidence that releases from all three are beginning to occur.

    And, to quote Dorothy Dunnett, “I am not saying this for the pay he is giving me, for you would quarter yourself did you try to find it on a white sheet at the noon-day.”

  76. FedUpWithDenial says:

    Pringle is correct; there are no methanogenic algae. All methanogens are within the evolutionarily ancient Archaea domain, possibly the oldest form of terrestrial life and thought to constitute about 20% of Earth’s biomass. The Wikipedia article on the subject states, “Initially, archaea were seen as extremophiles that lived in harsh environments, such as hot springs and salt lakes, but they have since been found in a broad range of habitats, including soils, oceans, marshlands and the human colon. Archaea are particularly numerous in the oceans, and the archaea in plankton may be one of the most abundant groups of organisms on the planet. Archaea are now recognized as a major part of Earth’s life and may play roles in both the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle.” They are found in polar seas in great numbers. SEE:

    Wofsky (or somebody) has evidently confused phytoplankton (microscopic algae which float freely in the ocean surface layer) with bacterioplankton (microscopic free-floaters of the archaeal and bacterial domains). (The other class of surface-dwelling [planktonic] organisms is the zooplankton.) Archaea also exist in large numbers on the ocean bottom and within sediments, including the deepest layers. It is here that the methanogens are found.

    Archaea classified as plankton, being restricted to the ocean surface layer, do not include methanogens, for whom oxygen is toxic. Methanogens exist only in anoxic environments. If the newly-discovered methane in the Arctic atmosphere above the open ocean is of recent biological (as opposed to fossil) origin, it is coming from somewhere other than the ocean surface layer. It ultimately must be coming from the relatively oxygen-poor bottom waters or, more likely, from the sediments beneath.

    Possibly, rising temperatures have speeded up microbial metabolism on the ocean bottom or within the sediments, causing the resident methanogens to produce more methane as organic matter decays.

    But enough warming to produce that result would also be enough to begin destabilizing the long-ago-formed methane hydrates. In that case, it makes more sense to see the unexpected methane in the atmosphere over the ocean as due to widespread destabilization of methane hydrates secondary to recent major Arctic Ocean warming.

    Either way, the effect is the same, and it really shouldn’t be unexpected.

    It appears, then, that the entire Arctic Ocean basin (excluding the portions still covered by sea ice) has now become a methane source.

    More likely, the whole ocean bottom within the Arctic Circle is now outgassing methane to some extent, since the entire Arctic Ocean has warmed dramatically in recent decades, even under the ice.

    It’s just one of those things that happens to the earth on its way back to the ice-free state. The planet is waking from its million-year slumber of the ice ages, and earthlings aren’t going to like the result.

    Any comments?

  77. FedUpWithDenial says:

    Since we’re dealing here with something that (as Science News, following Wofsy, points out) is “too new to fully understand,” everything hinges upon the finality of the oceanographic finding that surface waters of the Arctic are producing methane. Is this firmly nailed down? As Science News worded it, “[The] oceanographic data, [Wofsy] says, SUGGEST a source for this methane other than sediments or the melting of icy gas hydrates.” Again: “…there are HINTS … that [the] methane’s source may be something other than melting of gas hydrates.” One wonders what these “hints” and “suggestions” are.

    In my first reply to Dr. Thomas Pringle’s comment (#8), I noted (i) the correctness of his observation that there are no methanogenic algae; and (ii) that virtually all methanogens which do exist require anoxic conditions in order to survive, all but closing the door to the possibility of organisms producing methane in Arctic surface waters by “munching anaerobically,” as the current post put it. Oxygen is a metabolic poison to that process—when O2 or associated oxygen free radicals are present, it’s a no-go.

    I did point out, however, that methanogens in oxygen-poor bottom waters and in sediments (where they usually dwell) could be a source of newly-produced methane.

    There nevertheless remain a couple of exotic ways in which methane might be produced in Arctic surface waters. The first is through an inefficient, low-yield process whereby high-energy ultraviolet (UV) radiation splits organic molecules to form CH4. This is not a likely explanation of the observations, even with increased incoming UV radiation due to stratospheric ozone depletion in the high Arctic.

    The second is just this side of science fiction, but could actually work. At least one species of methanogen (of which there are an indefinitely large number) possesses the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD), conferring some tolerance to the presence of oxygen and its reactive free radicals; this is Methanosarcina barkeri. If M. barkeri or some similar methanogen is present in abundance in Arctic surface waters, it just might fill the bill. SEE:

    Finally, the question: is there some distinctive marker, such as an isotopic fingerprint, which would reliably distinguish between methane produced anaerobically from recently formed organic matter (whose carbon would have been drawn down from the atmosphere in the fairly recent past) and fossilized carbon that had been buried in sediments (whether as decaying plant matter or as gas hydrates) for a geologic time span? It seems that the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 would provide such a marker. Methane newly produced in surface waters or even on the Arctic seafloor (where recently-formed organic matter steadily accumulates) should be relatively rich in C-14, whereas methane escaping from long-buried clathrate beds should be almost devoid of the isotope.

    Does Climate Progress know the answer to this question—or could CP refer it to Wofsy to give us some insight into this mystery?

  78. wili says:

    Good points.

    Keep in mind, also, that very large and fast releases could reduce the levels of hydroxyl (OH) necessary for the first step in the process of oxidizing methane to CO2.

    Note also that Hansen sees Arctic methane hydrate already ‘starting to bubble up’ as a grave threat and a reason to start reducing levels of atmospheric GHGs immediately.

  79. Joe Romm says:

    Wofsy will publish shortly.

    But I already explained what Wofsy said — the methane fluxes are away from the coast, over the deep ocean, so they are not from the methane hydrates.

  80. climatehawk1 says:

    Sorry, as my handle indicates, I am not the guy to talk you down. Semiletov’s report sounds pretty apocalyptic to me. I’m glad Joe is less alarmed.

  81. FedUpWithDenial says:

    Sorry for the confusion. I’d correctly understood that the methane fluxes detected by HIPPO were coming from all over the Arctic Ocean except for the ice-covered areas, but had mistakenly assumed that gas hydrates were everywhere present to some extent on the seafloor within the Arctic circle, even far away from the coasts. Now, looking at a map of gas hydrate occurrence, I realize that the seafloor deposits are entirely restricted to shallower seas around continental margins.

    Quite a mystery here – it will be fascinating to see what the explanation is after Wofsy publishes. To judge from the attention the HIPPO finding is getting in the comment section, I think a lot of CP readers would appreciate a future post on the topic. Some kind of microbial metabolism may be going on that we haven’t seen before – very significant.

  82. FedUpWithDenial says:

    This is potentially a potent feedback of Arctic warming. Enhanced concentrations of methane in the high-latitude atmosphere should trap significant heat that would otherwise escape to space. The gas has a strong absorption peak in the critical 8-10 micrometer wavelength band – the so-called clear-sky “window” of the terrestrial radiation spectrum where CO2 and H2O vapor are inactive. This, of course, is the source of methane’s great power as a greenhouse gas.

    To make matters worse, methane is a precursor of tropospheric ozone, which also has a strong (but non-overlapping) absorption peak in this critical wavelength band. Perhaps worst of all, stratospheric ozone depletion in the high Arctic means more UV-B radiation reaching the lower atmosphere during the spring and summer months to interact with methane and produce tropospheric ozone in relatively high abundance.

    The combination of higher than normal amounts of both gases adds up to double trouble and may be expected to cause significant darkening of the clear-sky “window” over the Arctic region.

    Complete closure of the “window,” of course, would be a disaster for the earth climatically, since the cloudless blue sky would then be about as opaque to outgoing infrared radiation as if the entire planet were cloud-covered – while the input of solar radiation would be unimpeded.

    This is pretty basic stuff, nothing new in itself, but enhanced concentrations of CH4 and tropospheric O3 in the Arctic atmosphere are new and should together add up to a significant fraction of a watt per square meter of forcing with a consequent substantial impact on the long-term heat balance of the Arctic region, accelerating the warm-up that is now in progress.

  83. FedUpWithDenial says:

    No expert here, but the CO2 you’re talking about would have to either (i) escape to the atmosphere at or soon after the time of production, (ii) remain in the ground as bubbles trapped in ice, or (iii) react chemically with minerals in the earth’s crust to form bicarbonates and/or carbonates. Major warming and thawing of the permafrost should lead to release of both methane and CO2 to the atmosphere, as well as production of additional methane and CO2 as long-buried organic matter is subjected to accelerated decay through microbial metabolism, especially anaerobic metabolism by methanogens.

  84. Joe Romm says:

    No clear evidence of this yet. Well worth spending $$$ on to closely monitor. Doesn’t much change the urgent need to stay below 450 ppm.