Monday, April 1, 2013

Methane hydrates

1. Methane venting at poles

Image 1. (above) shows high levels of methane over the poles. Peak levels of over 2000 ppb over Antarctica have been recorded repeatedly over the past few months, which is extraordinary, the more so since the photochemical sink for methane is typically strongest during summer, while average levels of methane over Antarctica have historically been the lowest on Earth (image 2. below).

The above image 1. also shows high levels of methane over the Arctic; very high methane levels are now commonly recorded in the Arctic. The animation below, from the Arctic-news blog, shows methane levels at various altitudes on January 23, 2013, ranging up to 2241 ppb at 742 mb.

Image 3.  Methane at up to 2241 ppb on January 23, 2013 - this is a 2.42 MB animation that may take some time to fully load
Note that such high levels of methane occur in the Arctic during the northern winter, when lack of sunshine in the Arctic and low water temperatures make it unlikely that the methane was generated by biological processes. This indicates that the methane instead originated from hydrates and free gas in sediments underneath the sea.

Image 4. IASI methane levels March 1-10, 2013, by Leonid Yurganov, against NSIDC sea ice
concentration map March 12, 2013. Note: this is a 3.09 file that may take some time to fully load.
Image 4., from the Arctic-news blog, shows that methane emissions in the Arctic line up very closely with the contours of sea ice and land, which makes it unlikely that the methane originated from leaking natural gas pipes or industrial activity on land.

In conclusion, at both poles methane levels can be very high, i.e. higher than elsewhere on Earth, and this methane likely originated from hydrates that have become destabilized by temperature rises.

2. How much methane is there?

Image 5. by Jemma L. Wadham
An estimated 21,000 petagrams (1Pg equals 1015g) of organic carbon are buried beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet, estimates a research team led by Jemma Wadham. The potential amount of methane hydrate and free methane gas beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet could be up to 400 billion tonnes (that is, 400 Pg of carbon, or 400 Gt, see table below).

Image 5. on the right shows the ice margin of an Antarctic glacier, depicting frozen lake sediments in the foreground. When ice sheets form, they overrun organic matter such as that found in lakes, tundra and ocean sediments, which is then cycled to methane under the anoxic conditions beneath the ice sheet. The methane could be released to the atmosphere if the ice sheet shrinks and exposes these old sedimentary basins.
Image 6. Conversion table
Image 7. The East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS)
In the Arctic, the amounts of methane are equally vast. Shakhova et al. (2010) estimate the accumulated methane potential for the Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS, image 7. on the right) alone as follows:
  • organic carbon in permafrost of about 500 Gt
  • about 1000 Gt in hydrate deposits
  • about 700 Gt in free gas beneath the gas hydrate stability zone.
Shakhova et al. (2008) consider release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time.

By comparison, the total amount of methane currently in the atmosphere is about 5 Gt.

3. Methane's potency as a greenhouse gas

Releases of methane into the atmosphere are very worrying, given methane's high potency as a greenhouse gas.
Image 8. IPCC and Methane's GWP (global warming potential)

Figures in above table are for the current methane burden, i.e. about 5 Gt. IPCC figures for methane's lifetime (12 years) reflect the time it takes for a perturbation of methane to be reduced to 37% of its initial amount. The IPCC gives a figure of 8.4 years as the time it takes for half a perturbation to be broken down.

Methane's global warming potential (GWP) will rise in case of large releases, since methane's lifetime will be extended as the burden rises, due to hydroxyl depletion. This is a feedback effect that the IPCC estimates will amplify the climate forcing of an addition of methane to the current atmosphere by lengthening the perturbation lifetime relative to the global atmospheric lifetime of methane by a factor of 1.4.

A 2009 NASA article discussing the work by Drew Shindell mentions that, over the years, increases in global methane emissions have caused a 26% decrease in hydroxyl.

Image 9. Methane's Global Warming Potential
The IPCC did upgrade methane's GWP several times, as illustrated in image 8. above.

In its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4, 2007), the IPCC gave methane a GWP of 25 as much as carbon dioxide over 100 years, and 72 as much as carbon dioxide over 20 years.

A 2009 study by Drew Shindell et al. points out that the above IPCC figures do not include direct+indirect radiative effects of aerosol responses to methane releases that increase methane's GWP to 105 over 20 years when included.

In the context of tipping points, which is most appropriate regarding methane releases in the Arctic, it makes sense to focus on a short time horizon, i.e. as short as a few years, rather than decades.

As image 9. (left) shows, based on the figures by Shindell et al. and using a horizon of 10 years, methane's GWP is more than 130 times that of carbon dioxide.

In image 9., the blue line is based on IPCC AR4 figures. The red line is based on figures from the study by Shindell et al., which also concludes that methane's GWP would likely be further increased when including ecosystem responses.

The danger is that a large abrupt methane release in the Arctic will trigger further local releases. This danger is particularly high the first few years after the methane enters the atmosphere, due to methane's high initial warming potential, as further discussed in the next two chapters.

Meanwhile, the IPCC has further upgraded methane's lifetime and GWP, as illustrated by the image below.

Image added October 2013, based on screenshot of IPCC document with text added by Sam Carana
It's also worth noting that the IPCC now gives methane a Radiative Forcing of 0.97 W/m2 (up from 48 W/m2 in 2007), as discussed at the methane hydrates myths page.

4. Methane's Local Warming Potential

Methane releases from hydrates at the poles differ in a number of ways from the methane that is typically released elsewhere around the globe:
Image 10. Methane's Local Warming Potential
  • Abrupt release of methane from hydrates will initially be highly concentrated in one location.

    Other types of methane releases (e.g. from wetlands, livestock, bio-waste and burning of fuel) occur spread out over the world throughout the year, i.e. such releases are pretty much global and continuous to start with and can be more easily broken down by hydroxyl that is continuously produced around the world.

    By contrast, much of the methane from an abrupt release in the Arctic Ocean will initially remain concentrated over the Arctic Ocean, which covers only 2.8% of the Earth's surface. While the methane will eventually spread around the world, this will take time. The Jet Stream acts as a barrier, preventing air from flowing out of the Arctic and preventing air from elsewhere to enter the Arctic. Nesbit mentions that a major methane release in the high Arctic would take 15-40 years to spread to the South Pole.

    Given the lack of hydroxyl in the Arctic atmosphere (see below), it may well be possible that some 20% of the methane from an abrupt release over the Arctic Ocean still remains there after 5 years. Using a GWP for methane of 130 times that of carbon dioxide over a period of ten years would already lift methane's LWP (local warming potential) over the Arctic to (130*100:2.8:5=) 929 over 10 ten years. For a shorter period, the Arctic LWP will be even higher. In conclusion, local concentration alone makes that a methane cloud still hanging over the Arctic five years after its release will have a huge LWP, i.e. well over 1000 times the potency locally that the same mass of carbon dioxide has globally.

  • Additionally, high temperature anomalies make that methane releases at the poles will be felt more severely than elsewhere on Earth. These high temperature anomalies are the result of feedbacks such as albedo changes caused by melting. Image 11. below, from Skeptical Science, pictures the loss of ice mass on Antarctica.
    Image 11. Estimates of Total Antarctic Land Ice Changes. Adapted from The Copenhagen Diagnosis. (CH= Chen et al. 2006, WH= Wingham et al. 2006, R= Rignot et al. 2008b, CZ= Cazenave et al. 2009 and V=Velicogna 2009)
    Image 12. below, from the Arctic-news blog, shows the three areas where albedo change will be felt most in the Arctic, i.e. sea ice loss, decline of albedo in Greenland and more early and extensive retreat of snow and ice cover in other areas in the Arctic.

    Image 12. Big changes in Arctic within years
    Images 13. and 14. below show that ice in the Arctic can cool areas by more than 30 Watts per square meter, and in summer by up to 70 Watts per square meter.
    Image 13. 
    Image 14.
    Albedo change due to decline of snow and ice in the Arctic is one out of many feedbacks that, in a vicious cycle, further accelerate local warming. For more on these feedbacks, see the posts Diagram of Doom and Further feedbacks of sea ice decline in the Arctic.

  • High levels of insolation in summer. The amount of solar radiation received by the Arctic at the June Solstice is higher than anywhere else on Earth, as illustrated by image 15. below. Similarly, solar radiation in Antarctica at the December solstice is the highest on Earth.
    Image 15.  Insolation on the Northern Hemisphere

  • As mentioned above, low levels of hydroxyl will lift methane's LWP at the poles. Methane is typically broken down by hydroxyl in the atmosphere. Very little hydroxyl is present in the atmosphere over the poles, as illustrated by image 16. This makes that, in case of large abrupt methane release at the poles, the little hydroxyl that is there will soon be depleted, and the methane will hang around for much longer locally than elsewhere on Earth.

    Image 16. Global hydroxyl levels at day and night. Credit: Taraborelli et al. (2011)
The above points make it likely that methane from a large abrupt release at the poles will hang around long enough locally to trap huge amounts of heat from summer sunshine, in an ecosystem that is already at the edge. The danger is that this heat will penetrate deep into the permafrost and trigger further releases of methane from the huge quantities of methane that are present in the form of free gas and hydrates.

5. Situation particularly dangerous in the Arctic

As described in the previous chapter, the local warming potential (LWP) of methane is very high in the Arctic. This LWP is further augmented by a number of circumstances that are particular for the situation in the Arctic today:
  • Soot. The Arctic is experiencing a huge increase in the amount of sunlight that is absorbed in summer, as a result of soot deposited on snow and ice. Soot is particularly prevalent on the Northern Hemisphere.

  • Rivers. A number of large rivers end up in the Arctic Ocean; they can carry warm water in summer, substantially contributing to warming up of coastal waters in the Arctic.

  • Albedo. The rapid decline of Arctic sea ice and show cover in the Arctic result in ever more sunlight being absorbed in the Arctic, rather than being reflected back into space, as before.
  • Greenhouse gases. Levels of carbon dioxide and methane are higher at high latitudes than elsewhere on Earth.
  • Wildfires. Rising temperatures make the forests, tundras and peatlands in the Arctic more prone to wildfires that, apart from adding further soot, also add further pollutants in the atmosphere such as methane and carbon monoxide that take hydroxyl out of the air, thus extending methane's lifetime.
  • Image 17. Shallow waters in the Arctic Ocean
  • Shallow waters. As described in the previous chapters, the danger is that large abrupt release of methane will trigger subsequent releases, and this danger is particularly high in shallow seas that are so prominent in the Arctic (light blue areas on image 17 on the right).

    Being shallow makes waters prone to warm up quickly during summer peaks, allowing heat to penetrate the seabed.

    Methane rising through shallow waters will also enter the atmosphere more quickly. Elsewhere in the world, releases from hydrates underneath the seafloor will largely be oxidized by methanotroph bacteria in the water. In shallow waters, however, methane released from the seabed will quickly pass through the water column. Large abrupt releases will also quickly deplete the oxygen in the water, making it harder for bacteria to break down the methane.

    Additionally, the relatively low water temperatures and long sea currents in the Arctic Ocean are not very friendly toward methanotroph bacteria that would otherwise break down methane in the water, compared to elsewhere on Earth. In the Arctic, much of the methane that is abruptly released from the seabed is therefore prone to enter the atmosphere without being broken down by microbes in the water.

    Image 18. Shallow waters of the East Siberian Arctic
    Shelf (ESAS)
    Being shallow, these waters can easily warm up all the way to the bottom in summer. Sea ice shrinkage increases the potential for storms and deepening of the wind-wave-mixing layer down the seafloor. (18)

    Shakova and Semiletov warn, in a 2010 presentation, that some 75% of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS, rectangle on image left) is shallower than 50 m.

    As the Arctic ice-cap shrinks, there will be more open water, which not only absorbs more heat, but which also results in more potential for storms to cause damage to the seafloor in coastal areas such as the ESAS, where the water is on average only 45m deep.

    By how much will the sea warm up during such extreme local warming events?

    Image 19. Warming of coastal waters
    Image 19. on the right, produced with NOAA data, shows mean coastal sea surface temperatures of over 10°C (50°F) in some areas in the Arctic on August 22, 2007.

    In shallow waters, heat can more easily reach the bottom of the sea. In 2007, strong polynya activity caused more summertime open water in the Laptev Sea, in turn causing more vertical mixing of the water column during storms in late 2007, according to one study, and bottom water temperatures on the mid-shelf increased by more than 3°C (5.4°F) compared to the long-term mean.

    Another study finds that drastic sea ice shrinkage causes increase in storm activities and deepening of the wind-wave-mixing layer down to depth ~50 m (164 ft) that enhance methane release from the water column to the atmosphere. Indeed, the danger is that heat will warm up sediments under the sea, containing methane in hydrates and as free gas, causing large amounts of this methane to escape rather abruptly into the atmosphere.

    Image 20. Pingos and conduits. Hovland et al. (2006)
    Image 20. on the right, from a study by Hovland et al., shows that hydrates can exist at the end of conduits in the sediment, formed when methane did escape from such hydrates in the past. Heat can travel down such conduits relatively fast, warming up the hydrates and destabilizing them in the process, which can result in huge abrupt releases of methane.

    Heat can penetrate cracks and conduits in the seafloor, destabilizing methane held in hydrates and in the form of free gas in the sediments.

    As said, when methane does escape from the seafloor, it can easily rise through shallow waters without getting oxidized by methanotroph bacteria. As the methane causes further warming in the atmosphere, this will contribute to the danger of even further methane escaping, further accelerating local warming, in a vicious cycle that can lead to catastrophic conditions well beyond the Arctic.
Further reasons why the situation is particularly threatening in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) are described at Arctic Methane FAQ.

6. Changes in the Arctic

In summary, the danger is that large abrupt release of methane will contribute to high sea surface temperature in summer, mixed down to the seafloor during storms, to penetrate cracks and conduits in the permafrost, destabilizing the methane held in sediments and triggering subsequent methane releases, and this danger is particularly high in the shallow seas of the Arctic.
Image 21. For more details on feedbacks, see extended version of this image and discussion at

Above image 21. illustrates how this dangerous situation has developed in the Arctic, and what can be expected in future without action. The image pictures three kinds of warming (red lines) and their main causes:
  1. Emissions by people cause global warming, with temperatures rising around the globe, including the Arctic. High levels of greenhouse gases in the Arctic, combined with the impact of aerosols such as soot, and rivers that end in shallow waters in the Arctic combine to cause high summer temperature peaks in the Arctic. In other words, global warming is amplified in the Arctic.

  2. Accelerating Arctic warming is caused by at least ten feedback effects. Melting of snow and ice causes albedo changes, i.e. less sunlight gets reflected back into space and instead gets absorbed, causing further warming. Additionally, soot, dust and volatile organic compounds settle down on snow and ice, causing further albedo change.

    Three of these feedbacks are pictured as gold lines:
    • Fires feedback: Accelerated warming in the Arctic is changing the Jet Stream, contributing to increased frequency and intensity of droughts and heatwaves.
    • Albedo feedback: Accelerated warming in the Arctic also speeds up the decline of ice and snow cover, further accelerating albedo change.
    • Methane feedback: Methane releases in the Arctic further add to the acceleration of warming in the Arctic, further contributing to weaken Arctic methane stores, in a vicious cycle that threatens to escalate into runaway global warming.

  3. Runaway warming. Accelerating warming further weakens the capability of the seabed to hold the methane that is contained in the form of hydrates and free gas in sediments under the sea, in a vicious cycle that threatens to lead to runaway warming.
7. Runaway warming

What would the impact be of abrupt release of 1Gt of methane in the Arctic, compared to the total global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel burning, cement manufacture, and gas flaring? Image 22. below gives a rather conservative impact, showing a rapid decline toward a small residual impact as carbon dioxide.

Image 22. Abrupt release of 1 Gt of methane
Above graph does not yet include the indirect effect of triggering further releases. This is especially a threat in the Arctic, given the large presence of methane in sediments, the accelerated warming already occurring in the Arctic, the little oxidation that takes place in the Arctic atmosphere, and the time it will take for abruptly released methane to spread away from the Arctic.

The additional warming that this will cause in the Arctic will make that the decline of sea ice and snow cover will take place even more dramatically than is already the case now. There will be a huge warming impact, due to the albedo change caused by decline of snow and ice combined with the warming impact of methane. This threatens to trigger further releases of methane in the Arctic, with their joint impact accumulating as illustrated in the image below.

Image 23. The accumulating impact of methane releases in the Arctic
For more details on above two graphs, also see the page How much time is there left to act?

Dramatic warming will first strike in the Arctic, but will soon spread, threatening to cause heatwaves and firestorms across North America and Siberia, adding additional soot and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere globally, as forests, peat bogs and tundras at higher latitudes burn, threatening to escalate in runaway global warming.

8. Temperature rise

Image 24. shows how global warming (blue line) is projected to eventuate based on NASA global temperature anomalies. Note that the rise is projected to be much steeper in the Arctic (latitudes 64 North to 90  North, pink line).

Image 24. Global warming, accelerated warming in the Arctic, and runaway global warming
If runway warming will eventuate as described in the previous chapters, the world as a whole will gradually catch up with such a steep rise in a matter of years (white line). The rise in global temperatures will be particularly steep as forests and biomass contained in soils will ignite during heatwaves and cause huge amounts of soot, carbon dioxide, methane and further emissions to enter the atmosphere.

9. Destruction and Extinction

In the above projection, runaway global warming will catch up with Arctic warming by 2039, resulting in a global temperature increase of 10 degrees Celsius and rising. The heatwaves that will come with such a temperature rise will in itself be enough to cause crop losses at massive scale. Additionally, heatwaves at high latitudes will cause wildfires, e.g. in Siberia, which has a very high soil carbon content (see image below).

Image 25. Organic soil carbon content
The heatwaves in Russia provide a gloomy preview of what could happen as temperatures rise at high latitudes. Firestorms in the peat-lands, tundras and forests in Siberia could release huge amounts of emissions, including soot, much of which could settle on the Himalayan plateau, darkening the ice and snow and resulting in more local heat absorption. Rapid melt of glaciers will cause flooding at first, followed by dramatic decreases in the flow of river water that up to a billion people now depend on for water supply and irrigation. 

Image 26. Warming and feedbacks leading to destruction and extinction at massive scale 
Taking no action risks extinction for many species, including humans, possibly within one human generation. With so much at stake, the cost of taking action is dwarfed by the price paid when no action is taken. The longer the delay in action, the larger the risk becomes and the more difficult, expensive and risky it will become to take measures to try and reduce the danger.

10. Ways to avoid catastrophe

It takes a comprehensive climate plan to combine the policies that jointly work most effectively to avoid the catastrophic climate change that has been pictured in the previous chapters.

Such a comprehensive climate plan needs to combine emission reduction policies with policies that can remove pollutants such as carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere and oceans. Furthermore, solar radiation management methods to to be prepared to rapidly cool the Arctic.

A comprehensive climate plan will operate along several lines of action simultaneously.

Image 27. Energy feebates
The first line of action of most climate plans is to cut emissions. Two types of feebates, working separately, yet complimentary, can cut emissions most effectively and can be implemented locally in a budget-neutral way, without requiring complicated international agreements:
  1. energy feebates (pictured above) in sectors such as electricity, heating and transport
  2. feebates in sectors such as agriculture, land use, waste management and construction (pictured below).
Image 28. Feebates in sectors such as agriculture, land use and construction
Pictured on the left are feebates that impose fees on sales of Portland cement, nitrogen fertilizers and livestock products. This will make further cuts in emissions.

The revenues are then used to fund rebates on clean construction and on soil supplements containing biochar and olive sand, which will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in buildings, soil, river banks, roads and pavement.

Working separately, yet complimentary, energy feebates and feebates in agriculture and other sectors can dramatically bring down carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and oceans; as a result, atmospheric carbon dioxide could be brought back to pre-industral levels of around 280ppm by the end of the century.

Image 29. Getting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back to 280ppm.
For further discussion, also see Towards a Sustainable Economy
These two feebates will be effective on two lines of action, i.e. on cutting emissions and on reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and oceans.

Even with these measures, temperatures will keep rising for some time, as excess ocean heat will get transferred to the atmosphere over the years and as aerosols (particularly sulfur) fall away that are currently emitted when fuel is burned and that mask the full wrath of global warming.

Continued warming comes with numerous feedbacks. Combined, these feedbacks threaten to trigger runaway global warming, i.e. warming that will cause mass death, destruction and extinction.

Image 30. Green lines of action that each need to be implemented, i.e. no line of action should not wait for another, nor should action on one line be used as an excuse to delay action on another line. Where lines of action are grouped together in three parts, numbers merely show relationships with the kinds of warming pictured at the top of the image.
This means that, in addition to the first two lines of action, further lines of action will be necessary, i.e. Solar radiation management, and Methane management and further action. Further action includes regulatory measures such as ending commercial flights over the Arctic and support for pyrolysis to avoid burning of biomass. Adaptation efforts will also be included in further action.

The image below pictures several methods of Arctic methane management that should get high priority, given the threat of hydrate destabilization in the Arctic.
Image 31. Arctic Methane Management
Some aspects of climate change are hard to tackle locally. This is particularly the case for the situation in the Arctic which does require specific action, while many countries may feel that the region is too remote from their geographic responsibility.

In this case, it makes sense to add fees, e.g., on commercial international flights (in addition to fees that may already have been imposed locally, such as on jetfuel), and to use the reveneus to fund action such as the vessels proposed by Stephen Salter and John Latham, in order to provide much-needed cooling in the Arctic locally during the northern summer.

Fees imposed on commercial international flights could fund solar radiation management, while the two types of feebates described further above will also be most effective in further lines of action, i.e. in Arctic methane management and further action.

Image 32. below pictures feebates that in many cases can be implemented locally on a budget-neutral basis.

Image 32. Feebates (yellow lines)
For further discussion of feebates, see this post at the Feebates blog.

Text References

1. Potential methane reservoirs beneath Antarctica
Press release University of Bristol (2012)

2. Potential methane reservoirs beneath Antarctica
J. L.Wadham, S. Arndt, S. Tulaczyk, M. Stibal, M. Tranter, J. Telling, G. P. Lis, E. Lawson, A. Ridgwell, A. Dubnick, M. J. Sharp, A. M. Anesio & C. Butler (2012)
3. Methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf and the Potential for Abrupt Climate Change
Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov (2010)
Presentation at SymposiumNovember 30, 2010

4. On carbon transport and fate in the East Siberian Arctic land–shelf–atmosphere system
Semiletov et al. (2012)

5. Anomalies of methane in the atmosphere over the East Siberian shelf: Is there any sign of methane leakage from shallow shelf hydrates?
Shakhova, Semiletov, Salyuk and Kosmach (2008)
EGU General Assembly 2008

6. Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis, Table 2.14
IPCC, Climate Change 2007

7. Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions
Drew Shindell et al. (2009)

8. Poster at AGU 2011
Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG), artwork by Sam Carana (2011)

9. Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis, FAQ 10.3
IPCC, Climate Change 2007

10. Working Group I: The Scientific Basis, 4.1.1 Sources of Greenhouse Gases
IPCC, TAR (2001)

11. Atmospheric Chemistry and Greenhouse Gases, Executive Summary
IPCC, TAR, 04 (2001)

12. Interactions with Aerosols Boost Warming Potential of Some Gases
NASA (2009)

13. Reactive greenhouse gas scenarios: Systematic exploration of uncertainties and the role of atmospheric chemistry
Prather et al. (2012)

14. Hydroxyl radical buffered by isoprene oxidation over tropical forests
Taraborelli et al (2012)

15. Have sudden large releases of methane from geological reservoirs occurred since the Last Glacial Maximum, and could such releases occur again?
Euan G. Nisbet (2002)

16. How much time is there left to act?
Sam Carana (2012)

17. First drilling subsea permafrost in the southeastern Laptev Sea, the East Siberian Arctic Shelf: results and challenges
Semiletov et al., Geophysical Research Abstracts (2012)

18. Submarine pingoes: Indicators of shallow gas hydrates in a pockmark at Nyegga, Norwegian Sea.
Hovland et al., Marine Geology 228 (2006) 15–23

Images references

1. Methane levels, March 19, 2013.
adapted by Sam Carana from NOAA, 2013

2. Global distribution of atmospheric methane
adapted by Sam Carana from NOAA, May 2006

3. Methane at up to 2241 ppb at 742 mb on January 23, 2013
from: Dramatic increase in methane in the Arctic in January 2013, by Sam Carana

4. IASI methane levels March 1-10, 2013, by Leonid Yurganov, against NSIDC sea ice concentration map March 12, 2013
from: Record methane in the Arctic early March 2013, by Sam Carana

5. Antarctic glacier, by Jemma Wadham
Potential methane reservoirs beneath Antarctica
Press release University of Bristol (2012)

6. Conversion table - units of measurement 
Sam Carana (2012)

7. Arctic Ocean with predicted deposits of CH4 hydrates shown in blue
On carbon transport and fate in the East Siberian Arctic land–shelf–atmosphere system
Semiletov et al. (2012)

8. IPCC has upgraded methane's GWP (global warming potential) several times over the years
from: Video and poster - methane in the Arctic, by Sam Carana (2012)

9. Methane's Global Warming Potential (GWP)
from: Video and poster - methane in the Arctic, by Sam Carana (2012)

10. Methane's Local Warming Potential (LWP)
Sam Carana (2013)

11. Estimates of Total Antarctic Land Ice Changes
from: Is Antarctica losing or gaining ice?

12. Big changes in Arctic within years

13. M. G. Flanner et al. (2011), Radiative forcing and albedo feedback from the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere between 1979 and 2008.

14. M. G. Flanner et al. (2011), Radiative forcing and albedo feedback from the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere between 1979 and 2008.

15. Insolation on the Northern Hemisphere
from: Pidwirny, M. (2006). "Earth-Sun Relationships and Insolation". Fundamentals of Physical Geography, 2nd Edition.

16. Global hydroxyl levels day and night
From: Taraborelli et al (2012), Hydroxyl radical buffered by isoprene oxidation over tropical forests

17. Shallow waters in the Arctic Ocean
Image adapted by Sam Carana from NOAA image

18. Shallow waters of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS)
On carbon transport and fate in the East Siberian Arctic land–shelf–atmosphere system
Semiletov et al. (2012)

19. Warming of coastal waters - Mean SST on August 22. 2007, in degrees Celsius
Produced by Sam Carana from:

20. Submarine pingoes: Indicators of shallow gas hydrates in a pockmark at Nyegga, Norwegian Sea.
Hovland et al., Marine Geology 228 (2006) 15–23

21. Three kinds of warming and feedbacks
Sam Carana (2012)

22. Abrupt release of 1Gt of methane
Sam Carana (2012), How much time is there left to act

23. The accumulating impact of methane releases in the Arctic
Sam Carana (2012), How much time is there left to act

24. Global warming, accelerated warming in the Arctic, and runaway global warming
Sam Carana (2013) - see also: How much will temperatures rise?

25. Organic soil carbon content
from: EUR 21855 EN - soil organic carbon European Commission (2011)

26. Warming and feedbacks leading to destruction and extinction at massive scale
Sam Carana (2013) - see also: An Effective and Comprehensive Climate Plan

27. Energy feebates
Towards a sustainable economy, by Sam Carana (2011)

28. Feebates in sectors such as agriculture, land use and construction
Towards a sustainable economy, by Sam Carana (2011)

29. Getting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back to 280ppm
Towards a sustainable economy, by Sam Carana (2011)

30. Diagram of Doom and 3-part action plan
Sam Carana (2013)

31. Arctic Methane Management
Sam Carana (2012)

32. Feebates
Towards a sustainable economy, by Sam Carana (2011)


  1. great post
    Alexei turchin

    1. An important added factor to rate of increase of methane to sky from decay of methane hydrate water ice crystal holding methane 170 to 1 by volume on release is the effect of raised carbon dioxide on ice strength in general. How raised carbon dioxide levels would affect bond

    2. Good points, Dale. The effect of higher CO2 levels on ice was also discussed at the post Glaciers cracking in the presence of carbon dioxide

  2. Excellent article.

    I think they are going a different route to hinder warming in the short term.

    Noticing the recent flurry of activity to capture a small asteroid for 'mining', id say we are testing some technology for the purpose of capturing a larger asteroid to be used as a dust umbrella.

  3. Excellent article.

    I like the presentation on methane removal, however I also think there will simply be too much too fast for us to capture enough to reverse the trend.

    I think that the powers that be are going a much more large scale geo-engineering route to reduce radiative forcing. The recent spike in money and endeavour towards capturing a small asteroid for 'mining', is a technology test for the capture of a larger asteroid to be used in the creation of an orbiting dust layer.

  4. Great work!

    One quite important thing, though, is that as far as i know the author here underestimates the scale of so-far unrealized warming already present within Earth near-surface layer.

    As far as i know, thermal inertia of the world ocean, which is said to be ~20...35 years (sources vary) for reaching near-equilibrium wthin changed radiation forcing conditions, has more than +0.5 celcius to give; in some 30 years, it'll be about +1.2 degrees celcius out of thermal inertia alone.

    Furthermore, the author seem to underestimate the scale and importance of so-called global dimming - i.e. aerosols which reduce amount of sunlight reaching Earth surface. Most of those aerosols are man-made, and apparently, some are exactly on purpose of reducing insolation (such as alluminium oxide and some silver-based non-organic substance being intentionally sprayed at some ~11-13 kilometers layers of the athmosphere in significant amount seem to be happening on a significant scale lately). There are no precise and detailed estimates i know about, but average global seem to be some 8% or more reduction of sunlight amount annually. Assuming that sooner or later at least half of those particulates would stop to be emitted by mankind, and assuming it takes less than 5 years for more than 90% of those particulates to drop down to surface, i'd say we talk about some +2...+5 degrees celcius average global temperature increase from this, which i expect to likely happen in 2030s (considering major economic, technological, social and climate factors).

    The total of some +3...+6.5 additional warming is what i expect to happen by 2040 because of the above; even well before 2040, all the feedbacks mentioned by the author will activate and thus increase the warming to much higher values.

    Me, personally, i am very sure that the only realistic way to prevent run-away global warming (and thus to prevent the end of modern technological civilization at very least) - would be to use much more powerful and urgent actions on top of ones proposed by the author. Catching some large asteroid and making a dust belt on some high orbit around Earth is indeed one of such methods; the other would be inducing some mild nuclear winter, globally - and/or provoking volcano eruption just slightly less in magnitude than super-volcano event. And honestly, that's it; i can't think of anything else which would work in a matter of just several years (NOT decades!) to give large enough cooling effect to counter both thermal inertia and aerosols' removal from the athmopshere. However, i doubt we DO want to actually prevent the warming - read on to see why.

  5. It is likely some large efforts to reduce CO2/CH4 concentrations will be made during next few years and decades, however it is even more likely that large further increases in CO2 concentrations and other pollutants will be made by other parties, - and i don't blame them, because many of them will have a very simple choice of either doing all the pollution, - or simply die. Not exaggeration. More than half of current Earth population depend on internal combustion engines to GROW THEIR FOOD, etc... And their kids stop crying of hunger when they eat some bread - no matter what CO2 cost of the bread is.

    Sadly, it's not just that poor will be the most affected and the first to perish - but it is also that billions of poor people are ones who will keep pulling human species towards its ixtinction. And nope, we can't blame them. They want to survive THERE and NOW, - and this is exactly the thing which in the end will doom us all, i believe. Because the asteroid thing, even nuclear winter / volcano things - those all are but buying some extra time, may be decades, may be even centuries; while rising CO2 content of the athmosphere is to stay for millenia, and the more of it is up here in the air, the deadlier inevitable run-away warming will be. In this sense, perhaps it is better to NOT delay the runaway warming; if we'd allow it to go unchecked now, without building some artificially compensating mechanisms, - then perhaps some species, including humans, would survive anthropogenic thermal maximum and will adapt to live in a changed (hotter) world; the probability of this happening is decreasing the longer we delay the inevitable (by artificial aerosols spred by jet exhaust, etc).

    One more, perhaps even stronger, argument to allow global warming to run unchecked - is the fact that it is likely that anthropogenic thermal maximum of 21st/22nd century will indeed destroy modern technological civilization. Since it is this very civilization functioning of which have now led to the extinction of (already) hundreds of thousands (if not above a million) of species, and to the threat of homo sapiens existance as well, - i fail to see how and why should we try to save it. Granted, many good things are created by it; however if it leads to human exinction, what good all those things will then be? So, gentlemen, think yourself: do we actually want to HALT global warming, or do we actually want to HELP it happen rather sooner than later?

    I hope we'll do the right thing. I hope that through unevitable die-off of majority of current human population, homo sapiens will manage to survive and learn how to live WITHOUT destroying his own life support systems (i.e. the Nature). I hope, by 2040, to see MORE than 6 degrees celcius global average warming - for as shown above, this, despite being so devastating, is the best chance we humans have to survive on this little planet.

    1. Earth is on the edge of runaway warming, so we have to use the best technologies available to avoid runaway warming; as you say, warming could increase significantly, even if we tried to stop all human emissions, so let's embrace a comprehensive and effective climate plan.

  6. The high methane anomaly April 1st in Antarctic looks ominous indeed. It's over region away from West Antarctic Ice Shield and means methane clathrate melt off.
    Water has huge capacity of latent heat and clathrate ice holds vast gas volumes.
    Even UN Secretary Ban is concerned that threat of runaway is real.. But the speed of the change happening is beyond frightening. We need to act and make all effort to try and avert what's coming. There won't be any hiding from this extinction event that's underway.
    Could have, should have, would have won't matter. And justice won't have meaning..
    The snap to extinction with runaway will put Earth outside habitable zone where life that likes liquid water can exist. Lag time and human frailty means strong universal implementation of plan of actions are needed immediately.

  7. Just a question. I'm not sure what this really means and I have no scientific knowledge to interpret the data.

    I just checked on NOAA, and the levels of methane seem to be much higher right now than on April 1st. and they seem to be spreading over a larger area and be more concentrated (at least, the yellow is definitely more solid, less dotted):
    April 15th:
    April 14th:

    Now, the methane release seem to cover somewhere between the Dronning Maud Land to Kemp Land on the coast, and go maybe 500 to 800 kilometers inland? (I really can't tell)

    Now, if you look at the elevation of that area here:

    the area of the methane release seems to be from sea level to 1000 feet elevation:

    So my question is. What does it mean? I would have never expected such a huge methane release at such a high elevation over such a huge area. Or it means that methane is being released at sea level from huge plumes as the ice melts and then it spreads over higher elevations? I don't know, but it seems to me that if methane is being released hundreds of kilometers inland at high elevations it won't be as "seasonal" as if it was coming from deiced land in the coast...

    1. Yes, Omar, it's very worrying, the more so since methane levels are typically lower on the Southern Hemisphere than they are on the Northern Hemisphere. On most days since I added above post, peak methane levels in Antarctica have been even higher than the 2207 ppb on the post's image. I'm working on a further post on this.

  8. Hi Sam. I'm sure you've read this but just in case I wanted to share it with you:

    The answer to my question seems to be that yes, the methane is coming from methane clathrates melting under sea and spreading inland.

    1. The methane doesn't seem to be drifting from hydrate melting off coast but rather the stuff mentioned is of Continental origin as seen in animation of methane levels per alt gain. It is now shown to have reached almost 2.25 Parts per Million after this article was published. This is a huge increase above historic world levels persistent for large part for at least the last 400,000 years. Historically methane doesn't go very much over 715 parts per billion or .75 part per mil.
      The stuff is light and rises compared to air and the altitude measured is nearly into stratosphere, into which above 30 kilometers to about 40 it is stable. Nothing there to break it down or keep it from increasing rapidly.
      It is spreading around Earth and casting heat down upon us big time.
      The situation is land release of Methane breaching deep thick ice sheet on Antarctic continent making chances Earth stays habitable doubtful at near and long term particularly with our resistance to do the change that can at least bring or try to bring the full weight of human industrial capacity and enterprise, large and small to the fore to interdict and force the totality of world enterprise to take on the goal of keeping Earth. The leaders we have don't get it we need to build in margin for error.. Earth is in hope mankind will be kind enough to rally for life.

  9. Good writing, I have a feeling the summer of 2014 will be the season even Republicans accept runaway global warming. If not this summer, then for sure 2015 as we see mind-boggling heat record set across the globe.

  10. We are approaching the 1 year anniversary on this article and approximately 154 years since the first publication showing the affects of CO2 emissions and global warming. Last weeks Gallop Poll showed that 37% of Americans do not believe that mankind is responsible for climate change. Obviously our education system is lacking in it's effort to increase intelligence.

    The solutions presented in this article are insightful and potentially workable to prevent the mass extinction of most life on this planet. Unfortunately with the insatiable consumer mentality, corporate greed, political corruption and misinformation perpetuated by most news agencies, we would be hard pressed to implement these solutions by 2100.

    The impending crisis created by humans has not occurred on this planet since the end of the Permian Era 252 million years ago when 97% of ALL life on earth was destroyed, (ironically enough due to massive methane venting). The one thing that will make this extinction event even more dangerous is the ultimate abandonment and/or destruction of our Nuclear Power Plants and Weapon Systems. What will happen to the stored fuel rods when the cooling systems start shutting down? What will happen to our Nuclear and Chemical Stockpiles as their storage facilities degrade? We certainly will exceed the Permian Extinction Event and probably destroy 100% of all life on earth.

    A strange paradox that such a unique, beautiful and sacred planet could spawn a creature with so little respect for everything, such disregard for it's own existence, so arrogant in itself to bring about the total destruction of billions of years of evolution and at the dawn of it's destruction deny it's complicity.

    God have mercy on our souls and forgive FOX News, "They know not what they have done."