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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:
Visit the SW Blog Arctic Runaway Event for more on this topic>>
- AMAP (2015). AMAP Assessment 2015: Methane as an Arctic climate forcer. Retrieved from https://www.amap.no/documents/doc/amap-assessment-2015-methane-as-an-arctic-climate-forcer/1285
- Archer, David (2014) The story of methane in our climate, in five pie charts. Retrieved from http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2014/09/the-story-of-methane-in-our-climate-in-five-pie-charts/
- Doomsday Debunked (2019). Clathrate gun hypothesis. Retrieved from https://doomsdaydebunked.miraheze.org/wiki/Clathrate_gun_hypothesis
- EPA (2016). Climate change indicators: climate forcing. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-climate-forcing
- Guardian (2013). 7 facts you need to know about arctic methane. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/aug/05/7-facts-need-to-know-arctic-methane-time-bomb
- Geophysical Research Letters (2019). Very strong atmospheric methane growth in the four years 2014‐2017. Retrieved from https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2018GB006009
- Geophysical Research Letters (2016). The interaction of climate change and methane hydrates. Retrieved from https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2016RG000534
- 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
- National Geographic (2012). Antarctica methane. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/08/120831-antarctica-methane-global-warming-science-environment/
- 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 – S. Cairns – (Updated several content sections and updated methane charts from NOAA).
- 9:30 pm Oct. 14, 2019 – S. Cairns – (Updated several content sections and added latest news on boiling East Siberian seas).
- 7:00 pm Mar. 9, 2019 – S. 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 fixed typos).
- 10:00 am Feb. 24, 2019 – S. 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 – S. 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.
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.
Note: This page is in a draft stage as with all wiki pages, it is a work in progress. It aims to introduce the topic of the methane emergency.