Methane has long been considered a harbinger of climate catastrophe. According to NASA, “what we know for sure is that a lot more methane (CH4) has made its way into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.” Human activity has increased the amount of methane, similarly to carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. We know this because methane concentrations in the atmosphere have gone up ~150% since the preindustrial age.
According to data released by the EPA, atmospheric methane (CH4) concentrations in parts per billion (ppb) remained between 400–800 ppb in the years 600,000 BC to 1900 AD, and since 1900 AD have risen to levels between 1600–1800 ppb. Global averaged monthly mean atmospheric methane is currently at ~1860 ppb CH4, increases between 8.8 ± 2.6 through 2017 compare to an average annual increase of 5.7 ± 1.1 ppb between 2007 and 2013. 1860 ppb clearly surpasses the recommended limit of approximately 1250 ppb (Hansen et al). Why aren’t we hearing more about this?
Methane is known to have a greater greenhouse gas (GHG) warming factor than CO2, a potential of 34 times that of CO2 over 100 years according to the latest IPCC Assessment Report. Just to put this into perspective over several time frames the IPCC AR5, widely cited as an authority on this matter, reports that the 100-year global warming potential (GWP) of methane is 34, the 20-year GWP is 86, the 10-year is 99, and the 5-year GWP was found to be 115. Even more recent research has upped the GWP of methane somewhat additionally, by around 25%.
Even more troubling is that recently, researchers everywhere are finding that methane readings globally are spiking. Many experts are noting a surging trend and recently, shocking data has emerged showing global atmospheric methane readings literally going off the charts (video). But is this because of anthropogenic, natural or Arctic methane sources? There are many questions surrounding the methane mystery. Let’s take a closer look.
“Welcome to the baffling world of methane studies, where there’s a vast amount at stake for the planet but, often, little clarity about the questions that matter most.”- Washington Post, February 2020.
Methane by the Numbers
To briefly summarize from methane by the numbers, according to Dean et al. , “anthropogenic sources are slightly larger emitters of methane to the atmosphere compared to natural sources.” But these anthropogenic sources aren’t getting much attention. In fact, the methane threat from anthropocentric sources has been significantly downplayed by mainstream reports. Even those who are concerned about methane emissions seem to focus solely on natural sources (i.e. the Arctic). Methane emissions from human activities are almost never mentioned by mainstream reporters or environmentalists, even though methane emission levels have reached emergency status. Most people seem to be completely unaware that we are in a methane emergency. In short, we know about CO2, but not CH4.
Methane is a hard-hitting greenhouse gas. Anthropogenic sources of methane, from fossil fuel mining, rice agriculture, raising livestock (cattle and sheep), and municipal landfills are a huge concern and responsible for some 60% or more of this problem. IEA’s methane tracker confirms that the top anthropogenic emitter of methane is agriculture, read animal farming, with the fossil fuel industry a close second.
Now scientists say we’ve dramatically underestimated how much human activities are playing a part here. “What we’ve previously categorized as natural methane emission must be anthropogenic sources, the most likely being fossil fuel use and extraction,” Hmiel said. Further, University of Rochester professor and study co-author Vasilii Petrenko noted that the difference is “a factor of ten,” at least, between prior estimates of geological, fossil methane sources, such as underwater seeps, and the very low volume of these emissions that their study suggests.
However, those sounding the alarm bells about methane often focus, almost obsessively, on Arctic methane fears. But the Arctic’s contribution to the global methane budget is estimated to be a fractional .0003 GTC/yr or .03% of the total global methane budget according to some estimates by experts like Dr. David Archer. Still, “scientists have long feared that thawing Arctic sediments and soils could release huge amounts of methane, but so far there’s no evidence of that,” says Ed Dlugokencky, an atmospheric chemist at the NOAA.
Among natural sources, which account for less than 40% of the overall methane emissions (see Methane in 5 Pie Charts), wetlands are the top culprit. But the concern continues to center around the Arctic sources. The fears emerge because of the incalculably massive quantity of stored Arctic methane hydrates (video), which if released, do threaten to double atmospheric methane and other greenhouse gas concentrations, including CO2, in short order.
Additionally, recent methane readings in the Arctic have been alarming for the past couple years at least and elevated since 2007. Scientists are seeing never before recorded measurements and seas boiling. NASA flights recently detected millions of Arctic Methane Hotspots. Yet, another study suggests higher levels of naturally occurring fossil methane, argues Stefan Schwietzke, a researcher with the Environmental Defense Fund. He cited a recent study finding emissions of 3 million tons per year just from one sector of the Arctic ocean.
The methane story unfolding now is complex, full of contradictions, and potentially lethal. Experts are working to understand it, but more research is needed to determine how to handle this emergency situation being caused by human activities. There is also the formidable question of the risk of firing the infamous clathrate gun, which will be discussed below.
“Scientists in Siberia have discovered an area of sea that is “boiling” with methane, with bubbles that can be scooped from the water with buckets. Researchers on an expedition to the East Siberian Sea said the “methane fountain” was unlike anything they had seen before, with concentrations of the gas in the region to be six to seven times higher than the global average.” – Newsweek, October 2019
Excessive Methane Readings Reported in the Arctic
Around 1250 ppb (parts per billion by volume) is the energy or ‘heat balance’ for methane. This approximation was established by Dr. James Hansen, Former Director of the NASA Goddard Instituted for Space Studies. We are currently at about 1860+ ppb for CH4. At atmospheric concentrations over 1250 ppb, this powerful greenhouse gas contributes to excessive heating of the Earth. This figure was stated in Dr. Hansen’s book, ‘Storms of My Grandchildren.’ Recent methane readings in the Arctic have been extremely high. Many researchers are monitoring this situation daily with some shock.
The latest methane readings reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Arctic have been in the red zone and higher. Trends in methane can be found on the NOAA trends tracking ESRL page. The following chart from NOAA shows a lot of red. The pink coding in the Arctic indicates the extreme high end. Methane readings are typically noted by researchers in the troposphere, where weather happens, is at approximately 450-500 millibars. Readings are now well above vanguard numbers for methane to date:
Recent Methane Spikes Reported
According to Randall Gates, Science Communicator, “I’ve been commenting about the unusual spike in methane at Barrow since last summer when I first began noting it. It has now showed up on flask and in-situ data for over 6 months. Dozens of readings spanning months well above 2000 ppb. Industrial? Oil & Gas operations? Other?”
The methane signal that has been visible since last summer is visible from Copernicus CAMS and has been very consistent throughout the winter months. The link shows methane concentration at 500pa (about 5,500 metres (18,000 feet) to 11,000 metres (35,000 feet) above the ground. It turns out that oil and gas leaks are a big part of this problem. Again, fossils fuels are to blame.
In fact, recent studies show that anthropogenic and industrial methane have been severely underestimated. They found that methane emissions from natural phenomena were far smaller than estimates used to calculate global emissions. That means fossil-fuel emissions from human activity — namely the production and burning of fossil fuels — were underestimated by 25 to 40 percent, the researchers said.
The Warming is Feeding the Warming
In an interview, Dr. Euan Nisbet said that “methane is growing fastest over the Arctic and then over the tropics.” High methane readings in the Arctic, he explained, are largely due to the Siberian gas fields. The bulk of the rise in the last 10 years in the tropics is primarily from burning fossil fuels. This is in turn heating bogs and wetlands which are already a major source of methane. Dr. Nisbet said this is how the “warming is feeding the warming”. This is becoming a common phrase among researchers.
The current research is pointing to man-made methane as the clear culprit underlying these impacts. Anthropogenic sources are exacerbating and speeding the natural response from the Arctic. In short, the current methane emergency is caused by human activities. This emergency is because of us, and it is up to us to curtail it. We can no longer stop it. But there is still some evidence that we might mitigate some of the worst outcomes if we cut emissions fast according to experts like Michael Mann, PhD. This discussion will unfold below as we take a look at the real methane issues versus the irrational fears.
On The Methane Monster
“Even though a couple of Russian scientists have pushed this fear of a methane ‘burp’ – is it a distraction from that country’s massive methane emissions from natural gas production and pipelines?” Or our own? The real methane we have to fear is coming from the oil and gas industry, says Michael Dyonisius, lead author or co-author in both those new studies.” – Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock
Arctic Methane: A Catastrophe in the Making
There’s tons of this potent greenhouse gas locked up in icy crystals worldwide in the Earth’s cryosphere — more than the total remaining fossil fuels. When it comes to the crystal form, known as methyl hydrate, the perceived threat is so great, that there’s a collection of scientists that have formed the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG).
Arctic methane release from natural souces, to be distinguished from industrial sources, is the release of methane from seas and soils in permafrost regions of the Arctic. There are also many miles of wetlands in the Arctic. Methane release from these areas is typically considered long-term natural process, but it is heavily perturbed by man-made global warming and polar amplification. This results in staggering negative effects and dangerous feedbacks that researchers postulate could result in lethal releases over time and quite possibly a much feared runaway event could be triggered.
For this reason alone, many notable climate scientists and climate justice workers have said that it’s time to declare a methane emergency. Other researchers have postulated a time bomb scenario, or abrupt release from Arctic hydrates. This has made methane a dramatic and controversial topic of late. There are many factors involved. The Arctic methane cycle is often misunderstood. In the following video lecture with Dr. David Archer, climate scientist and methane hydrate expert, a full lecture on this topic is provided:
Methane Ice Quick Facts
Methane hydrate or “methane ice,” is the most common type of gas hydrate. Hydrates sequester vast amounts of carbon in the global system. These mysterious gas hydrates (video) are frozen highly concentrated form of methane trapped in clathrates. Different estimates put the total amount of clathrates in the Arctic at anywhere from 5,000 to up to 10,000 GTC, more recent reports have put this estimate at just 1800 GTC (video), but no one knows for sure how much there is. According to Rupple et al, “an estimated 99 percent of gas hydrates are in ocean sediment and the remaining 1 percent in permafrost areas.”
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) summarizes this issue as follows suggesting further study is needed before we jump to any conclusions:
“there are two potential sources of methane in the Arctic. The first source of methane is called methyl clathrate. (,,,). We’re not sure how much methane is trapped in methyl clathrates, or how much is in danger of escaping. (…) The other major source of methane in the Arctic is the organic matter frozen in permafrost. This is why permafrost carbon is important to climate study.”
We do know that gas hydrate is condensed within cage-like molecules. For every 1m3 of hydrate there are 180m3 of trapped compressed methane inside of it. Warming a small volume of gas hydrate could thus liberate large volumes of gas. This means a relatively small amount, packs a big punch.
Hydrates are widespread in the sediments of the marine shelves, permafrost areas, and locations where ocean and atmospheric warming can disrupt hydrate stability and drive abrupt releases. In very cold regions like the Arctic, clathrates even occur on the shallow continental shelves or on the land in permafrost, the deep-frozen Arctic soil that does not even thaw in the summer.
Additionally, remember that it’s not just CH4, but also even more CO2 and other greenhouse gases, that get released when these ancient stores of carbon are provoked from their slumber in the cryosphere. Methane ice is stable at very low temperatures under moderate to high pressure conditions in the stability zones. What causes release, or as it’s more technically known, the dissociation of methane hydrates is still poorly understood. This is a science in its infancy.
For even more details on the fundamentals of methane hydrates, check out the Clathrate Primer on SW’s Methane 101 Wiki >>
The question is could these vast stores of methyl hydrates currently locked up in the Arctic inventory be triggered to dissociate prematurely due to human activity and, if so, when and how much? This is a mystery many researchers are trying to unravel. In a warming world, the heat threat to these frozen assets is significant. Furthermore, the frightening potential for a large, abrupt release from sequestered clathrates from marine sediment or permafrost or both due to rising sea and air temperatures is taking science to task.
Subsea and Terrestrial Permafrost Methane
Methane release from beneath lowland permafrost represents an important uncertainty in the Arctic greenhouse gas budget. Permafrost thaw shows signs of abrupt, irreversible climate change degradation greater than previously expected, according to a University of Colorado study released in February 2020. Permafrost is defined as ground, including rock or (cryotic) soil, at or below the freezing point of water 0 °C (32 °F) for two or more years. Many permafrost areas have been frozen since the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, and some has been around for more than a million years. These areas trap vast stores of carbon in layers of frozen organic soil up to a mile thick.
By some estimates, even though permafrost located below the Arctic tundra and shallow subsea shelves store a smaller portion of the methane in the Arctic at about 1%, compared to the 99% found in marine sediments, shallow subsea and surface exposed Arctic permafrost is estimated to contain enough carbon and other greenhouse gases to nearly double the amount of CO2 currently in the Earth’s atmosphere.
By 2200, it is estimated that about two-thirds of the Earth’s permafrost will have melted, releasing an estimated 190 billion tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the air, according to Dr. Kevin Schaefer at NSIDC. Further, he says “all our emission reduction strategies are designed to hit a target atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration corresponding to a target climate. If we do not account for carbon released from thawing permafrost, we will overshoot this target concentration and end up with a warmer climate than we want.”
Additionally, the authors of this study found that if humans continue on the current path of energy use, the permafrost could release as much as 92 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by the end of this century. That represents nearly 18% of what the world has emitted since the start of the Industrial Revolution—or more than one third of what can be safely burned and still keep global warming within 2°C, the commonly cited safety threshold.
There are many interesting mechanisms that act as conduits of methane escape from permafrost into the atmosphere including ebullition lakes, thaw lakes, thaw ponds, seeps, slumps, thermal erosion, pingos, polynyas, and more. Further according to Katey Walter, Scientist at the University of Alaska, “one molecule of methane is like 25 molecules of carbon dioxide, so it’s a really strong greenhouse gas, contributing to climate warming and making the warming that’s already happening worse. If we can slow down climate warming it will slow down permafrost thaw, which will cause less of a temperature increase. If we speed up climate warming and permafrost flash thaws, we will have a huge pulse of greenhouse gases, especially methane, going into the atmosphere that will cause a really abrupt warming.” In the following video, Katey Walter introduces this very real threat:
Walters goes on to say that “the mechanism of abrupt thaw and thermokarst lake formation matters a lot for the permafrost-carbon feedback this century. We don’t have to wait 200 or 300 years to get these large releases of permafrost carbon. Within my lifetime, my children’s lifetime, it should be ramping up. It’s already happening but it’s not happening at a really fast rate right now, but within a few decades, it should peak.”
Permafrost (video) is already expressing its stress in measurable data. NASA-funded research has discovered that Arctic permafrost’s expected gradual thawing and the associated release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere may actually be sped up by instances of a relatively little known process called abrupt thawing. Additionally, the rate of permafrost thawing has not been adequately incorporated into existing climate models. Arctic permafrost is thawing fast. That affects us all.
Abrupt thawing takes place under a certain type of Arctic lake, known as a thermokarst or thaw lake that forms as permafrost melts creating seeps and bubbling ebullition lakes where greenhouse gases can escape. Having surveyed Arctic regions using airplanes and field expeditions, more than 150,000 seeps have been identified by scientists.
NASA researchers used measurements from 11 thermokarst lakes and computer models to show that abrupt thawing will result in more than double previous estimates of the warming from the thawing permafrost. They found methane bubbling at 72 locations within these lakes, measuring the amount of gas being released by the permafrost beneath the water.
Further, Ted Schuur, a permafrost expert at Northern Arizona University has said that “a rapid meltdown would be disastrous because it could release a lot of CO2—in addition to methane, a powerful short-lived climate pollutant—to the atmosphere, where it would cause additional warming. (…) This rate of warming suggests substantial change underway.” In this study Schuur estimates 5-15% of the Arctic methane budget may be susceptible to release by 2100.
In the following video Paul Beckwith, Climate Systems Scientist, provides a video lecture on a chapter from the book A Farewell to Ice by Peter Wadhams, polar expert, titled Arctic Methane: A Catastrophe in the Making:
Beckwith (video), who provides many educational lectures on methane, says that “since 2005, the oceans over the shallow continental shelves in the Russian Arctic (ESAS, Laptev) were ice covered, keeping the ocean shelves near freezing temperatures under the polar surface waters (at depths of ~150m or less). Since 2005, the ice cap cover has gone. The water has warmed as high as 17°C there in summer up from freezing at 0°C, heating the sea-floor, perforating the permafrost cap, and thawing methane hydrates. Ebullition (bubbling methane) is rising up the water into the atmosphere in ever increasing amounts.” The more permafrost melts, the more methane is released.
The ESAS and other continental shelves are at shallow depths (less than 50-100 M). Most of the methane already being released is escaping into the atmosphere from subsea permafrost located on these shelves rather than being absorbed into water. The existence of such shallow methane hydrates in permafrost was confirmed here at depths as small as 20m according to this Nature study. How much is there is still in question. According to this same study, “a challenge for assessing the impact of contemporary climate change on methane hydrates is continued uncertainty about the size of the global gas hydrate inventory and the portion of the inventory that is susceptible to climate warming.”
Additionally, hydrates are not ubiquitous throughout permafrost areas and much more study is needed to determine how much is there and where it is located. But there is no question the quantities here are enormous. This study by Streletskaya et al attempts to estimate the amount of methane in various types of permafrost and ground ice and has reported methane concentrations of up to 8.5 million ppb in permafrost on Yamal Peninsula alone. The study states that “the mean isotopic composition of methane is −68.6‰ in permafrost.” Much more research is needed to determine how much methane is located in Arctic region in total.
In any case, what is clear is that these shallow and terrestrial gas hydrate sources are degrading as ocean and air temperatures warm faster than expected. According to Streletskaya et al “permafrost degradation due to climate change will be exacerbated along the coasts where declining sea ice is likely to result in accelerated rates of coastal erosion, especially in areas with presence of massive tabular ground ice (MTGI), further releasing the methane which is not yet accounted for in the models.”
Arctic permafrost is showing dangerous signs of degradation and thaw. Recently the seed vault library in Svalbard was flooded for the first time after permafrost melted. No one ever thought this could happen. Never-before-thought-possible climate catastrophes are playing out right in front of us. These bizarre phenomena one after another provide the evidence unfolding before our eyes; yet we as a global society remain dangerously mired in political inaction, cognitive dissonance, and confirmation bias.
Methane in Marine Sediments: The Monster
Here is where the plot thickens. According to Robert Scribbler:
“There’s no avoiding it — climate change is a controversial subject; a threat that should unify us all, but, due to reticence, denial, fear, and a basic lack of understanding, is instead often quite divisive. But among the subjects that stand out as real fodder for acidic controversy, the issue of methane feedbacks from the global climate system — the oceans, thawing permafrost, and especially the Arctic — is one of the worst. There’s a noted tendency to either downplay or overplay risks. Though this polarization is likely fed by the general mysteriousness and complexity of the subject, its potential existential nature also feeds into the heat that methane feedback-related discussions tend to draw.”
Most are probably aware that controversial ideas emerging about Arctic methane have resulted in a fractious debate. Known popularly as the clathrate gun hypothesis (CGT), the time bomb (video), or the methane monster, these notions propose a massive abrupt methane pulse that would result in a nearly immediate extinction of many, if not all species, much like what happened to the dinosaurs.
Today it is assumed that in the worst case, with a steadily warming ocean, around 85% of the methane trapped in the deep sea floor (the other 99%) could be released into the water column. In some locations, researchers claim that a temperature increase of only 1°C would be sufficient to release large amounts of methane from hydrates all at once. Let’s examine these doomsday scenarios and if there are any antecedents in the paleorecord.
Methane Monster Theories
The clathrate gun hypothesis (a.k.a. the methane time bomb theory) is the popular name for this often vaguely used and loosely defined (video) subject in the news media. It refers to the theory that increases in sea temperatures or drops in sea levels can trigger a strong positive feedback effect on climate: first, warming causes a sudden release of methane from methane clathrate compounds buried in seabeds and seabed permafrost; second, because methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas, temperatures rise further, and the cycle repeats. This runaway process, once started, could be as irreversible as the firing of a gun or the sudden explosion of a bomb going off that would literally be a shot heard around the world.
These theories claim that if these hydrate sources thaw abruptly all at once due to warming, unstoppable feedbacks would be set in motion, methane would be released in enormous quantities immediately raising temperatures, and what pseudoscience dubs near term human extinction would result. Some claim a 50 gigaton methane bomb could burst from the ocean floor all at once anytime now. They argue that this would not be survivable by humans and that we would perish in as little as a few short weeks time.
These researchers point to the theory that Methane Hydrate: Killer Cause of Earth’s Greatest Mass Extinction,” which highlights the fact that the most significant variable in the Permian Mass Extinction event, which occurred 250 million years ago and annihilated 90 percent of all the species on the planet, was likely methane hydrate. Debate over the plausibility of a catastrophic release of methane in coming decades due to thawing Arctic permafrost escalated after a paper warned that exactly this scenario could trigger costs equivalent to the annual GDP of the global economy.
The methane bomb scenario got a further boost into the public eye after being featured in a hotly debated New York magazine article on climate change, which argued that without sharp cuts in planet-warming carbon emissions, parts of the Earth “will likely become close to uninhabitable” by the end of this century.
As many climate scientists, like Paul Beckwith, are fond of saying “what happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic.” This is an interconnected and complex system that science is constantly attempting to play catch up with and with data constantly emerging and reshaping our knowledge of what we’re actually seeing.
For example, some have claimed that we are seeing signs of the beginnings of catastrophe and that phenomena like giant gas blow out craters they are witnessing are proof enough that we’re already moving temperature harder and faster than ever before. However, new data (video) is now emerging that says that this is not unexpected or in any way new for this area. We simply cannot jump to conclusions on these matters.
A 2018 published review concluded that the clathrate gun hypothesis remains controversial, but that a better understanding is vital. Actual measurements of methane in the atmosphere don’t show any such sudden, accelerating spike, and climate scientists don’t believe anything like this “clathrate gun” scenario is underway, though they cannot rule out the possibility. Paul Beckwith asks “will the clathrate gun fire only blanks” in the following video lecture discussing the USGS paper on this matter:
According to the Guardian, “scientists of different persuasions remain fundamentally divided over whether such extreme and abrupt scenarios are at all plausible. Carolyn Rupple of the US Geological Survey (USGS) Gas Hydrates Project told NBC News the scenario is ‘nearly impossible’ citing laws of thermodynamics. Ed Dlugokencky, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA), said there has been ‘no detectable change in Arctic methane emissions over the past two decades.’ NASA’s Gavin Schmidt said that ice core records from previously warm Arctic periods show no indication of such a scenario having ever occurred. Methane hydrate expert Professor David Archer reiterated that the mechanisms for release operate on time scales of centuries and longer. These arguments were finally distilled in a lengthy, seemingly compelling essay posted on Skeptical Science, concluding with utter finality:
“There is no evidence that methane will run out of control and initiate any sudden, catastrophic effects. Nonetheless, the Arctic is a region that is quite dynamic and is changing rapidly. The high latitudes are currently a CO2 sink and CH4 source in the modern atmosphere, and it’s not implausible that the effectiveness of the sink could diminish (or reverse) or that the methane source could enhance in the future, since we expect a transition to a warmer, wetter climate with an extended thawing season.”
So who’s right? Are these claims of a potentially catastrophic methane release in a time bomb or clathrate gun plausible at all? This is a matter of scientific debate and will remain so for some time to come as this issue unfolds. Most scientists that shy away from theories of a methane bomb (video), like Dr. David Archer, methane hydrate expert and Jim White, climatologist, also note that these processes can and do occur. They simply do not rule out the possibility. They just contend that it will happen more slowly and over longer periods of time (like thousands of years) than those using the threat of impending mega-disaster to tell an unnatural and premature tale of extinction within the next decade.
Ruppel et al state that “over thousands of years, warming could cause gas hydrates at the top of the stability zone, about 625 feet (190 meters) below the Earth’s surface, to begin to dissociate.” Professor Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University, suggested a major methane pulse is possible. However, he said this would be “maybe not apocalyptic, but catastrophic” (video) and because it can take decades to happen it’s easy for people to forget about it.
According to the USGS study, described by Paul Beckwith in the video above, it must be noted that more recently the time bomb theory is increasingly being reported by researchers to be ‘unlikely’ especially when it comes to the deep marine sediment based clathrates. Dr. Caroline Ruppel, USGS Scientist, explains trapped methyl hydrate clathrates in the ocean sediments do not readily dissociate due to the endothermic nature of the thermodynamics involved, which is why we still haven’t managed to harness them for fuel. This is a bit difficult for non-scientists to grasp. This resource summarizes it for lay persons.
Additionally, rising seas due to warming add pressure to the equation, ironically keeping the sequestered methane from releasing. In the following video series Dr. Ruppel, methane hydrate expert and methane sleuth, explains these processes in detail:
Ruppel illuminates these issues and explains that biogeochemical sinks and physical processes prevent much of the methane dissociating in deep sea sediments from reaching the sea-air interface and being injected into the atmosphere. She explains that more than 95% or more of the world’s methane hydrates exist in deep-ocean settings where it is unlikely water would ever heat up enough to significantly destabilize them. And hydrates in subsea or onshore permafrost are mostly buried under 200 meters of sediment, also unlikely to escape. Ruppel says “there’s been a lot of acrimony” over how much methane from hydrates would interact with the air.
“The bottom line is in reality, the anthropogenic CO2 emissions are far, far more important in the atmosphere than methane, even though the methane is a very potent greenhouse gas.” – Carolyn Ruppel, USGS
In summary, what Ruppel et al conclude is that despite the dramatic concern over the threat of a sudden destabilization of methane clathrates locked up in the deep sea floor, this realistically represents an extremely small and unlikely threat from a scientific perspective. There are many uncertainties. Synthesis of recent data indicates that the fate of methane in sub‐seafloor Arctic Ocean reservoirs in a warming world is far from certain. This is all the more reason to concentrate on reducing methane and other GHG emissions from anthropogenic sources.
Additionally, scientists must continue to closely monitor and study the situation with the shallow subsea permafrost (~100m or less) located on the ice sheet continental shelves and tundra or land based permafrost, as discussed by Katey Walters among others. Subsea and terrestrial permafrost is already in distress.
Nonlinear and Abrupt Change in the Deep Past
We are left with many uncomfortable unknowns in this matter. The fact is we just don’t know how the climate system that impacts these clathrates will respond if all the Arctic ice melts as it has in the deep past. Scientists are now observing more and more nonlinear and abrupt accelerations never before thought possible. Real scientists discuss probabilities, and avoid making predictions. They often look to the paleoclimate record for answers to establish precedence.
Paleoclimate researchers have pointed out that there is no precedent in the paleoclimate record that shows that anything precisely like this has ever happened before. Yet, according to this article, “paleoclimate records will not necessarily capture a large, abrupt methane pulse.”
Others postulate that methane hydrate was the killer that caused the Great Dying, or the Permian mass extinction due to massive Siberian trap volcanism and the emission of greenhouse gases 252 mya. This could have melted vast amounts of methane that had been trapped in the permafrost and sea floor, causing temperatures to soar even further to levels “lethal to most life on land and in the oceans”.
“Based on measurements of gases trapped in biogenic and abiogenic calcite, the release of methane (of ∼3–14% of total C stored) from permafrost and shelf sediment methane hydrate is deemed the ultimate source and cause for the dramatic life-changing global warming (GMAT > 34 °C) and oceanic negative-carbon isotope excursion observed at the end Permian.”
During the Cretaceous Era, which ended 69 mya, CO2 levels were 1700 ppm. Tropical conditions extended as far north as what is now New York. There was no ice at the poles. It is postulated that Cretaceous CO2 related climate warming led to a significant methane release from the seafloor, indicating potential for similar destabilization of gas hydrates. Mass brittle star skeletons were found and preserved intact most probably because of increased methane seepage, killing the individuals and inducing rapid cementation.
Researchers similarly found that although the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 55 mya, when the Earth was more than 8 °C hotter, could have caused rapid methane hydrate breakdown in deep-sea sediments, methane release from the sediments into the ocean would have taken hundreds to thousands of years. In the simulations, most of the methane remained trapped in sediment pores.
Additionally, researchers theorize that during the Eemian the Arctic ice did likely melt in the summers, but they theorize that deep sea clathrates stayed in place. However, other researchers contend that Arctic conditions during the Eemian interglacial, lasting from 130,000 to 115,000 years ago, are a terrible analogy for today’s Arctic. According to Professor Paul Beckwith of the University of Ottawa Laboratory for Paleoclimatology and Climatology, this can be explained by a number of factors that don’t necessarily relate in any way to today’s conditions.
Dr. Ira Leifer, CEO of Bubbleology Research International and methane specialist at the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studies the bubble mechanism for methane transport in the water column and discusses how gas bubble releasing seep sites are relevant methane sources in aquatic systems. He says “the potential for disaster is enormous (…) In the past when volcanic eruptions altered the Earth’s temperature, 97% of the Earth’s species went extinct, ushering in a new era.”
At the end of the day, scientists say that it very hard to predict what these hydrates will do in response to the global warming of the modern era. Additionally, abrupt and nonlinear change is always possible and, by nature, unpredictable. We simply cannot rule it out. This doesn’t mean we should be obsessively wringing our hands at the futility of it all, rather we should be doing all we can to stay calm and mitigate any situation which could increase the likelihood of such events.
Climate Destabilization Unlikely to Cause Methane ‘Burp’
Several studies coming out in February 2020 concur that this fear over the methane monster is unwarranted. We need to be more concerned about the permafrost and the shallow continental shelves which are already showing major signs of stress not the stuff greater than 500 meters down under the stability zone say scientists. We also need to be concerned ore about methane as a result of industrial activities.
‘The study of methane emissions from a period in Earth’s history partly analogous to the warming of Earth today. Their research, published in Science, indicates that even if methane is released from these large natural stores in response to warming, very little actually reaches the atmosphere. “One of our take-home points is that we need to be more concerned about the anthropogenic emissions—those originating from human activities—than the natural feedbacks”. – Phys.org
Fact-Check: is an Arctic “Methane Bomb” about to go off?
According to Climate Tipping Points with Dr. David McKay at Stockholm University, “more methane – a potent greenhouse gas – is likely to be emitted from Arctic permafrost than the IPCC originally anticipated, but modern models have started to catch up and quantify them better. Permafrost emissions are likely to drive ~0.1-0.3°C of extra warming by 2100 under low emission scenarios and up to ~0.5°C under high emission scenarios. But there’s no evidence for massive releases of pure methane over only a few years either now or in the past. Similarly, while evidence has emerged of greater than anticipated methane emissions from subsea Arctic permafrost in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, there’s scant direct evidence of a huge reservoir of metastable methane hydrates just below the surface that could suddenly leak and trigger extreme warming. ”
The Real Catastrophe
Let’s get some perspective from the data. To review, about 60% of total global methane emissions are estimated to be caused by human activity and about 40% by natural processes. Natural sources of methane are dominated by wetlands emissions. Contributing approximately 200 Tg/yr of methane to the atmosphere per year; wetlands are the largest natural source of atmospheric methane in the world, and therefore remain a major area of concern with respect to climate change, though also often overlooked.
Conversely, the Arctic area is only responsible for a very small fraction of the global natural methane budget – less than 1%. “The importance of Arctic methane hydrates to global warming in five pie charts” shows how much Arctic methane contributes to overall warming warming compared to other sources.
Even though this area is responsible for the smallest fraction of the total Arctic Methane budget, we must remember that the melting permafrost has the potential to unleash vast stores of methane gas that could double GHG concentrations abruptly in ways no one yet understands or can fully predict.
Additionally, man-made methane is a threat multiplier for Arctic sources. According Rupple et al, rising atmospheric CH4 concentrations lead to more rapid depletion of the hydroxyl radicals (OH) needed for oxidation, longer CH4 residence times, and thus increased CH4-induced warming (Lelieveld et al. 1998). Also, let’s not forget that in just a couple decades, methane warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2, according to the IPCC. This means anthropogenic methane is already a primary factor in warming.
Human activity is fast becoming deadly to the cryosphere. Methane release in the Arctic from thawing terrestrial permafrost in the tundra and from methane clathrates on shallow continental shelves remains a huge and ever increasing risk the warmer we make it. The question remains whether this will play out over decades or in an instant pulse — something science cannot tell us anymore than it can predict the future.
For now, we have to accept that the jury is still out on these much sought time frames and maintain our objectivity. Ultimately, the real threat on all sides is from anthropogenic sources of methane emitted by industry, in the burning of fossil fuels. Human activity is already responsible for 60% or more of the problem. In short, the problem is us. James Hansen, PhD explains this succinctly in the following video:
We know that methane is a powerful climate forcing agent. It represents a very real threat and one that could massively destabilize our planetary boundaries. If we address the human causes now, there is a slim chance that we could turn the situation around, but we only have a short window to act and as many reports are suggesting we are learning that the situation is much worse than we thought. The data modelling is simply all too often outpaced by complex, real-time events unfolding faster than humans can understand.
We also know that climate has become disrupted. The IPCC concurs with the overwhelming scientific consensus that the Earth is undergoing adverse global climate change and that anthropogenic contributions are the most significantly identifiable problem. Methane levels are rapidly increasing globally. Man-made methane climate forcing remains a primary threat as with carbon dioxide and other GHGs.
Still methane is often dangerously discounted in climate change discussions and in left out of climate models because as mentioned above, it leaves the atmosphere about a decade after its release, as opposed to carbon dioxide that can last for hundreds, even thousands, of years. But we cannot forget that in the short term, methane can trap up to 100 times the heat that carbon dioxide does and we need to add this to our calculations.
Paul Beckwith, Climate Systems Scientist says “the global warming potential of methane is enormous.” The methane problem is one that cannot be ignored. It’s the job of science to speculate and observe. But it’s the job of policy makers and people to do the right thing and act on best practices and evidence-based research overwhelmingly pointing to a looming crisis.
As a global species, we must do all we can to save the cryosphere from the heat engine that is civilization. This means focusing on halting man-made GHG and methane emissions — something we can still control, says James Hansen. Even though a time bomb may yet be unlikely, the warming that people are causing is wreaking havoc with the jet streams, causing extreme weather and will soon lead to an Arctic Blue Ocean Event — something that has never happened before while modern humans were on the planet.
The Hidden Dangers of Climate Lag
As if the threat of a methane monster isn’t enough, we’ve got plenty of real-time drama unfolding right now. According to David Wasdell of the Apollo-Gaia Project (video), “we are already warming the global climate system by two to three hundred times faster than it has ever warmed in the paleoclimate record.” There are numerous issues at stake. We have entered unprecedented and uncharted territory.
This study underscored that the oceans have already absorbed 93 percent of all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere and that planetary warming is already far more advanced than had previously been grasped. If the oceans had not absorbed that heat, global atmospheric temperatures would be 97 degrees Fahrenheit (97°F) hotter than they are today. Today’s carbon dioxide levels at 410 parts per million (ppm) are already in accordance of what historically brought about a steady state temperature of 7°C higher and sea levels 23 meters higher than they are today.
Due to climate lag or climate inertia we are already facing innumerable disasters even if we stop emissions today. However, we rarely consider this issue in policy making with its tendency toward short term solutions, and an even shorter term memory. Barring unforeseen forces, a consensus of scientific research tells us that a minimum of three degrees Celsius (3°C) warming is already baked into the system under current global climate pledges.
The Politics of Predicament and The End of Ice
Eminent climate scientists, like Michael Mann and James Hansen, say that we can still prevent some of the worst impacts of human-caused climate change from playing out if we do the right things now, i.e. stop burning fossil fuels, etc. Many other researchers say that while there is still ice on the poles we might still have a small chance of aiding the biosphere in recovery and regeneration if we stop now. Raising awareness and educating about the scale and impact of methane and other GHG emissions is essential to developing effective policy that will mitigate this disaster already underway.
We know what we need to do, the problem is we just aren’t doing it. This is a daunting set of circumstances, and study after study, we aren’t acting on what we know. Unfortunately some of our most powerful world leaders are still absurdly denying this situation, clearly putting profit over planet while just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions and are not only getting away with it, but also getting tax breaks (video) and subsidies for it. “This is criminal negligence” says Ralph Nader, who recently sat down with Dahr Jamail to discuss the politics of predicament and his new book The End of Ice.
According to this article, “… denial campaigns carried out by coal and oil lobbies that benefit financially from inaction on climate change have played successfully to people’s natural desire to deny catastrophic, evidence-based projections. But doom and gloom predictions from environmentalists have also been complicit in people’s feelings of denial. Generating panic about disastrous outcomes often arouses fear and anxiety—core emotions that feed denial.”
There’s been a bevy of recent articles, spurred on by 2018 IPCC statements suggesting that that failure to realistically convey the threats that climate change poses has resulted in policy failures. Also, some are noting a new platform for denialism. The champagne bottle analogy often cited by catastrophists  to say that the cork is already off the methane bottle and can’t be put back, and further to claim it is too late to do anything about this, is erroneous and premature. It is dangerously fomenting inaction that also ironically feeds a neoliberal agenda of business as usual, now a crime against humanity and the biosphere.
“Avoid fear in all its forms of expression; it is responsible for the greater part of human suffering. The only thing to fear is fear.” – Henry David Thoreau
We must remember that fear does not motivate, it paralyzes according to Paul Hawken (video). FDR once said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and this meant that fear scrambles our ability to see clearly and make good choices. On the other hand, complacency is a problem. However, education overcomes. Through objective, sound, and sustainable education on these matters, people are beginning to see the inter-relationship of climate crisis, social justice, and all life to their everyday lives and to a multiplicity of policy and economic issues. Educators must raise awareness, tell it like it is, and ignite action that impacts policy makers. If policy makers ignore them, reform or revolution (video) will become increasingly necessary to stop ecocide.
Getting Theoretical to Solve The Problem
According to ArsTechnica, Japan, Korea, India Germany and China and others have attempted to extract methane hydrate from the seafloor, but these gas hydrates are not so easy to crack. Many scientists, like geochemist Miriam Kastner, believe that using this stored methane as a form of energy could be a better option if we could unlock these hydrates to use for fuel. Methane sequestration has been discussed as a potential way to offset climate change. This is a very new area of research. Critics are already claiming it will be too little, too late. Also, it is much harder to sequester methane than carbon dioxide.
Other researchers are evaluating the hydroxyl radical (OH), a major methane sink. They claim that the most likely explanation for the renewed growth in atmospheric methane involves a decrease in hydroxyl (OH), the main sink for atmospheric methane, that is partially offset by a decrease in methane emissions.
There are many questions that are as yet unanswerable in this debate. Some scientists are asking even more ridiculously speculative and desperate questions as well, like could bringing back mammoths stop the climate crisis? Ironically, many agree that this could actually work to reproduce the environment of many thousands of years ago and halt the progression of permafrost thaw. Others are saying that because we have so perturbed the planetary system already that we have disrupted the Quaternary dynamics.
Additionally, there are many other new findings emerging constantly that make the big picture here even more difficult to ascertain. For example, one study suggests that melting methane in the Arctic is actually absorbing 230 times more greenhouse gas than it releases, adding even more contention to this already difficult problem, through methane eating bacteria. However, they do not thrive when there’s less snow cover as has been the case recently.
- Arctic Methane Emissions
- Rewilding the Arctic Could Stop Permafrost Thaw
- Permafrost is Thawing So Fast, It’s Gouging Holes in the Arctic
- Permafrost and Neoliberalism Hit a Grim Threshold
- Defusing The Methane Time Bomb | Scientific American
- Mann & Hansen on the Methane Time Bomb
- Methane Emissions Underestimated | Science Daily
- Methane Releases Much Larger/Faster | NSD
- Methane Levels May See ‘Runaway’ Rise | Independent
- Methane Video Lectures | Paul Beckwith
- Some Methane Emissions Could Slow Warming | Grist
- Urgent Need to Reduce Methane Emissions | EDF
- What Scientists Know About the Methane Bomb | Seeker
- Seven Facts You Need to Know About the Arctic Methane Timebomb | The Guardian
- Methane Increase over the Barents and Kara Seas After the Autumn Pycnocline Breakdown: Satellite Observations
Methane needs further research on many fronts. In the meantime, scientists at Yale Climate Connections are asking that we begin to distinguish between the larger real-world methane threat already underway, and a theoretical methane monster. Climate models project a temperature increase of around 4ºC by 2100 if we fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including methane — and that alone should present us with enough of a deeply troubling scenario to act now.
Despite the controversy over when or even if a methane monster might be unleashed, right now we know for certain that man-made emissions are contributing to warming that threatens to destabilize many environments, especially the Arctic. We can control man-made emissions. We just lack the political will to do so. However, if we do not curtail our emissions we may lose control of the natural world and once we do, there will be no turning back.
What happened to the dinosaurs, can happen to us. We have entered a danger zone never before encountered by modern man. Most researchers agree that we must declare a methane emergency as well as a climate emergency now. It’s time to bring scientists, policy makers, and people together to focus on translating research into action.
Unfortunately, we are currently locked in a deadly stalemate as world leaders have never declared that climate change is even happening let alone that it is an emergency – which is why those seeking climate justice, such as eXtinction Rebellion, are demanding that elite powers tell citizens the truth about the disastrous situation we are facing. As a global species we are playing with fire while we lose the ancient ice that is our planetary cooling mechanism. If we continue on this path, the current indisputable evidence puts us on a fast track to a hellish, Venus-like greenhouse Earth.
Visit the SW Blog Arctic Runaway Event for more on this topic>>
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- Harris, William (2019). Fire and ice: the chemistry of methane hydrate. Retrieved from https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-tech/energy-production/frozen-fuel1.htm
- IPCC (2013). Climate change 2013: The physical science basis. Retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1
- Leifer, Ira (2013). Methane emissions higher than thought across much of U.S. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130515165021.htm
- NASA (2019). A global view of methane. Retrieved from https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/87681/a-global-view-of-methane
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- Nature (2018). Trajectories of the Earth system in the Anthropocene. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/115/33/8252
- Nature (2017). Enhanced CO2 uptake at a shallow Arctic Ocean seep field overwhelms the positive warming potential of emitted methane. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/05/02/1618926114
- Nature (2013). Eemian interglacial reconstructed from a Greenland folded ice core. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/nature11789
- NOAA (2016). The NOAA annual greenhouse gas index. Retrieved from http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi
- Phys.org (2017). Study finds hydrate gun hypothesis unlikely. Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2017-08-hydrate-gun-hypothesis.html
- Reviews of Geophysiscs (2017). Methane feedbacks to the global climate System in a warmer world. Retrieved from https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/2017RG000559
- Schuur, Ted (2019). Permafrost is warming around the globe study shows. Retrieved from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/16012019/permafrost-thaw-climate-change-temperature-data-arctic-antarctica-mountains-study
- Scribbler, Robert (2018). Analysis of present surface temperature hot spots. Retrieved from https://robertscribbler.com/tag/methane/
- Streletskaya et al (2018). Methane content in ground ice and sediments of the Kara Sea Coast. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3263/8/12/434/htm?fbclid=IwAR2Pc_A01J1iEdsg6_pTbhAooY1IkkFsnH0JxoD8qey6Lh8czrU9CoYcCIc
- UC – Santa Barbara (2013). Methane emissions higher than thought across much of U.S. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130515165021.htm
- Walter, Katey (2018). Arctic cauldron. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/arctic-lakes-are-bubbling-and-hissing-with-dangerous-greenhouse-gases/
- Yale Climate Connections (2019). Methane hydrates: why scientists worry less than you might think. Retrieved from https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/02/methane-hydrates-what-you-need-to-know/?fbclid=IwAR2oV-Fh6STDzCfqmQg6-gbCarUZUKPU7HqOP-hdW9f8-UCJcneKODkIXwY
- 8:00 pm Feb. 7, 2020 – Shani Cairns – (Updated several content sections and updated methane charts from NOAA).
- 9:30 pm Oct. 14, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Updated several content sections and added latest news on boiling East Siberian seas).
- 7:00 pm Mar. 9, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Updated several content sections to address questions, added more on clarification on paleoclimate record and quote from Dr. Ira Leifer).
- 12:10 am Mar. 9, 2019 – Charles Gregoire – (Slowly proof-read the whole document and edited).
- 10:00 am Feb. 24, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Updated and refined all content sections to address further review questions, added more on clarification and content introducing paleoclimate record, methane sequestration, climate lag, and more).
- 12:00 pm Feb. 23, 2019 – Charles Gregoire – (Performed an editorial review with a list of comments provided to Shani. Also provided an initial outline in the form of suggested questions that the post should attempt to answer).
- 2:15 pm Feb. 16, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Added Methane page and introductory overview of questions to address and introductory content beginning to answer these questions).
 Usage of the Term Gloom-and-Doomers
Doomers, sometimes called gloom-and-doomers, and catastrophists are trending terms in climate science. They are used here in a descriptive and not a pejorative sense, to refer to those who see no way out of the current predicament and have begun to argue that any action to remediate the situation is already futile as we are headed for inevitable catastrophe. In other words, they are spreading the word that it is too late and that near-term extinction is inevitable within the next decade or sooner.
Many in the climate research community have been suffering with increased depression and anxiety due to the sheer mass of negative, extremely dire data they are confronted with on a daily basis. However, this psychological impact should be distinguished from this term doomer as a separate issue altogether not addressed in this article.
In popular culture some are now distinguishing between a near-term human extinction (NTHE) doomer and a gloomer as well. It is worth noting that scientists commonly refer to immediate, unpredictable changes as “abrupt,” so this term, NTHE, is not academically preferred terminology and has begun to also signal fake news and science reports.
Further this work intends to sort out the complexities and much misinterpreted unknowns for which there is no conclusion possible despite many who propose to have all the answers, to highlight the potential solutions never addressed by these many new and diverse types of deniers, and finally to highlight that controversy is often used for the purposes of those with another agenda.
Jumping to premature conclusions serves no purpose. Further it generates confusion, confirmation bias, and dissonance (video). It could also result in the possible disastrous effect of crying wolf in a time when scientists need to be entrusted with the highest level of integrity and objectivity on reporting out on these matters. There is no place in real science for reactionary responses.