Monday, July 29, 2013

CO2? Let Me Introduce You To My Little Friend: CH4 [Methane]!

by Nick Breeze

In the UK, if a person smells any gas in a building or outside, they are told to call an emergency number straight away so that an engineer can come and fix the leak and remove the danger. In the Arctic, atmospheric plumes of gas have been detected that are over 150kms across and likely to have disastrous consequences for our civilisation. We simply cannot ignore this problem; it underpins the fabric of all our lives. We must respond.

Last year I attended the EGU conference in Vienna to meet with Dr. Igor Semiletov and Dr. Natalia Shakhova and was extremely grateful to them for giving me time to discuss the issue of changing conditions in the Arctic. Increased temperatures from human caused greenhouse gas emissions are increasing the risk of methane release from thawing subsea permafrost. These two scientists make annual trips to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), in order to gain a better understanding of what is known to be the largest hydrocarbon store in the world. The methane is trapped in the frozen clathrate deposits that has been frozen for millions of years. In this stable condition we tend to consider the methane less of a risk, however, during the course of the last decade, things have started to change.

It is important to realise that methane (CH4) is approximately 20 x more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100yr timescale. Afterwhich it breaks down into CO2. Obviously with current atmospheric increases in emissions and the effects of warming already being felt, we do not have a 100yrs. In a shorter timescale of 20yrs, methane is estimated to be 100 x more potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Baring in mind that there is currently 5 gigatonnes of methane in the atmosphere and that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) is estimated to have between 100’s and 1000’s of gigatonnes trapped in the permafrost, if there is any destabilisation, supply of methane could rapidly move the world to a much hotter and dangerous state for humans and many other forms of life.

As a species humans add 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year in the form of emissions. Over the course of the last 200 years this has caused a global temperature rise of about 0.8 C. Although this seems tiny, we are only just starting to understand how sensitive the Earth is to changes in temperature. Add to this that the Arctic has been warming at around 8 times the speed of the mid latitudes and it’s not hard to see why the Arctic Sea Ice has gone into an accelerated melt.

NASA Image of Melting Arctic Sea Ice
It may seem obvious that if we heat the planet up then we will melt the ice. When joining the dots on the severity of what climate change really means, it is important to grasp “feedbacks”. These are the Earth’s response to changes within the climate system. A general rule of thumb is that “positive feedbacks” generally are bad for us and “negative feedbacks” are not. In the case of the Arctic, it is important to understand that there are multiple feedbacks [watch this comprehensive analysis by David Wasdell, Apollo-Gaia Director for more information] that come into play when the temperature changes. The Arctic sea ice is one that has caught the world’s attention because we are entering a phase where we no longer have a northern polar ice-cap. This is, in turn, setting off other positive feedbacks, one of these being the heating of the Arctic ocean as it absorbs sunlight and starts to thaw the subsea permafrost in the shallow seas of the ESAS. This is effectively removing the seal on a vast store of potent methane greenhouse gases that could take us from a steady increase in temperature to the awful sounding “runaway” global heating.

During the interview with Dr Shakhova, I was chilled when she showed me 2 charts, one with small insignificant plumes of methane from over ten years ago, contrasted with a chart from 2011 where the plumes of escaping gas from the permafrost were over a kilometre wide. Dr Shakhova also stated that in recent years all the conditions were changing making the risk of a game changing release of methane from the ESAS much more likely. Dr Shakhova even pointed out that it was likely “in decades”. Dr Semiletov went further to say “anytime!”.

Below are a few video clips from the interview in April 2012. I am very much looking forward to seeing the new work by Dr’s Semiletov and Shakhova et al that will be released shortly, giving us a far greater understanding, and up to date view, of the state of this all important region in the Arctic.

In the meantime, the methane issue has been the focus of NASA’s ‘Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment’ (CARVE) who have detected 150 kilometre plumes of atmospheric methane. This raises a few questions that are critical to our future civilisation:
  1. If the Arctic Sea Ice and permafrost are degrading at 0.8C, are the IPPCC agreed “targets” of 2C really safe? 
  2. Have we underestimated Earth’s sensitivity to temperature altogether and sailed blindly over into the wild waters of runaway climate catastrophe?
  3. How much longer can we continue to release carbon emissions into the atmosphere before we lose the gift of choice in the matter and the climate shifts to a hotter state increasing sea-levels significantly, and not favouring large-scale agriculture?
For a longtime the methane issue has remained outside the larger conversation of impacts of global warming, except by reference to far off future risks. There are a handful of scientists such as Professor Peter Wadhams, Head of the Polar Institute at Cambridge University, who, based on submarine observations of the Arctic sea ice’s collapse in volume, has been pointing out that a methane feedback may not be as far away as we think. Professor Wadhams has made these points in the face of angry cries of “Alarmist” from UK politicians with financial interests in the hydrocarbon industry.

The work of scientists including the Russians, Wadhams and NASA’s CARVE team now means we can no longer ignore the risk of methane as part of the Earth’s complex system of feedbacks to temperature change. It also is very likely that at 2C the world will not be the beautifully hospitable place that it has been for humans for so long. It is very likely that we are close to that “tipping point” of no return where global heating goes into a runaway phase and we lose our only life support system. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case but we have to acknowledge the risk if we are to react appropriately.

In order to answer the third question posited above, we have to comprehend the enormity of the task of transitioning away from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). To say it cannot be done is to kiss the world, as we know it, goodbye. It can be done but it will take the will of all of us together, starting with citizens around the world, to politicians and those in the hydrocarbon business themselves. Whilst in Vienna in 2012, I also interviewed Dr James Hansen, one of the most outspoken climate scientists alive today and former Head of The Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. You can watch a video clip at on what Hansen proposes as a way to curb emissions and start turning the tide on our collective response to global heating.

So how do we respond? It is clear that we need to make changes at a societal level. Never forget that each and everyone of us is a part of society and, as such, we have influence. The action we need to take is tied in with our attitude to the problems we face. The hydrocarbon industries lobby our governments and institutions to make sure their needs are not ignored. This is for one reason alone: profit. Societal reliance on this form of energy is no longer necessary. We should be transitioning away from hydrocarbon fuels. We can’t because these powerful companies are tucked tight inside the framework of our civilisation. There is no doubt that as such, we are entering a phase of willful self-destruction. The only thing that can stop it is us. A good example of this institutional integration is the Royal Geographic Society where Shell’s logos feature prominently and they even have their own page on the society’s web site aligning themselves with our respected institutions, paying lip service to our future concerns. This is disgusting. We should treat hydrocarbon companies as we did the tobacco industries once it was proven how harmful tobacco is to our health. These companies project the use of oil and gas way into the middle of the century. Don’t believe it. On this course, we will end up clinging to an inhospitable planet, barely recognisable as it is today. Take action.

The first and most effective thing you can do is contact your local elected representative and tell them straight. I sent the following email to my own Member of Parliament, Mary McCleod MP and waiting patiently for a reply. It is critical to remember that they have our future in their hands but we have their vote. Let’s use it!

Dear ____,

As a citizen concerned with the unnecessary proven damage being done to our environment, I am writing with the following conditions that will have to be met if you are to have my vote at the next election:
  1. Remove all links to hydrocarbon companies that currently exist within public institutions
  2. Ban hydrocarbon company advertising
  3. Introduce a fair tax on carbon that will level the playing field for renewable energy sources and force the hydrocarbon industries to clean up their act
  4. Implement a framework for a transition to renewable energy immediately
As you represent me on a local and national level I will be listening with interest to all representations you make to government on my behalf. I am also keen to hear your response and will be sharing it with friends and family.

Thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,


A note on climate fixes such as ‘Climate Engineering’ (aka geoengineering): I have not mentioned proposed climate engineering proposals in this post as we are currently working on an in depth look at several projects that are already in progress. Climate engineering raises many scientific, political and ethical issues and to many people the idea that man can engineer Earth’s climate is a crazy and hubristic fantasy. No matter what we think, it is important that we are all cognisant of the arguments being put forward. We will be interviewing leading commentators and authorities, not just from the climate and engineering backgrounds but also from ethical and philosophical disciplines to help form a view of this controversial subject. The worst case scenario is that we ignore the subject altogether and the decision to engineer climate falls into the hands of a foreign international power willing to gamble the fate of billions, or, a wealthy individual who can afford to take an equal gamble and become what Clive Hamilton has titled his recent book, an ‘Earthmaster’. Groups such as the Arctic Methane Emergency Group have been calling for climate engineering to be deployed immediately to cool the Arctic and prevent the runaway heating that climate scientists most fear. The argument for both sides is compelling and the more we shy away from zero carbon emissions the more climate engineering solutions start to look like a relatively cheap alternative. It is time for us all to be part of this critical discussion.

This post was originally posted at:

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Arctic Cyclone July 2013

A cyclone is raging over Arctic.

Above satellite image is from with further images added in the video below (July 25-27, 2013). To see the video in a larger size, go to

Below, a Naval Research Laboratory animation showing ice speed and drift over 30 days.

The impact of the cyclone is also clearly visible on the Naval Research Laboratory ice concentration animation below.


- The Great Arctic Flush - by Paul Beckwith

Friday, July 26, 2013

Methane and the risk of runaway global warming

By Andrew Glikson

A satellite picture reveals permafrost melting around Liverpool Bay in Canada’s northwest territories. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Research was published this week showing the financial cost of methane being released from Earth’s permafrosts. But the risks go beyond financial – Earth’s history shows that releasing these stores could set off a series of events with calamitous consequences.

The sediments and bottom water beneath the world’s shallow oceans and lakes contain vast amounts of greenhouse gases: methane hydrates and methane clathrates (see Figure 1). In particular methane is concentrated in Arctic permafrost where the accumulation of organic matter in frozen soils covers about 24% of northern hemisphere continents (see Figure 2a) and is estimated to contain more than 900 billion tons of carbon.

Methane, a greenhouse gas more than 30 times more potent than CO2, is released from previously frozen soils when organic matter thaws and decomposes under anaerobic conditions (that is, without oxygen present).

Most of the current permafrost formed during or since the last ice age and can extend down to depths of more than 700 meters in parts of northern Siberia and Canada. Thawing of part of the permafrost has not yet been accounted for in climate projections.

The Siberian permafrost is in particular danger. A large region called the Yedoma could undergo runaway decomposition once it starts to melt. This is because elevated temperatures cause microbes in the soil to decompose, which causes heat, which creates a self-amplifying process.

Figure 1: Global distribution of methane hydrate deposits on the ocean floor. Naval Research Laboratory

Palaeoclimate studies of stalagmite cave deposits across Siberia indicate they grew faster during the warm periods 424,000 and 374,000 years ago, due to permafrost melt. At that time, mean global temperatures rose by approximately 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. Thus Vaks et al state: “Growth at that time indicates that global climates only slightly warmer than today are sufficient to thaw extensive regions of permafrost.”

Evidence of melting of permafrost has also been reported from the dry valleys of Antarctica, where development of thermokarst (small surface hummocks formed as ice-rich permafrost thaws) has been reported, reaching a rate about 10 times that of the last ~10,000 years.

The mean temperature of the continents has already increased by about 1.5C. With sulphur aerosols masking some of the warming, the real figure may be closer to 2C.

Figure 2a: Vulnerable carbon sinks. CSIRO Global Carbon Project

Figure 2b: Global average abundances of
dioxide and methane 1978-2011
Arctic air temperatures are expected to increase at roughly twice the global rate. A global temperature increase of 3C means a 6C rise in the Arctic, resulting in an irreversible loss of anywhere between 30 to 85% of near-surface permafrost. According to the United Nations, warming permafrost could emit 43 to 135 billion ton CO2 (GtCO2) equivalent by 2100, and 246 to 415 GtCO2 by 2200.
The geologically unprecedented rate of CO2 rise (~2.75 ppm/year during June 2012-2013) may result in faster permafrost collapse.

Already measurements along the Siberian shelf uncover enhanced methane release. In 2010 a Russian marine survey conducted more than 5000 observations of dissolved methane showing that more than 80% of East Siberian shelf bottom waters and more than 50% of surface waters are supersaturated with methane. Atmospheric methane levels (during glacial periods: 300–400 parts per billion; during interglacial periods: 600–700 ppb) have recently reached 1850 ppb – the highest in 400,000 years (see Figure 2b).

Hansen et al estimate that the rise of CO2 forcing between 1750 and 2007 has already committed the atmosphere to between +2 and +3 degrees Celsius, currently mitigated in part by sulphur aerosols.

Figure 3: Change in average annual land surface temperature since 1750. Berkeley Temperatures
Hansen refers to the “Venus Syndrome”, drawing an analogy between the enrichment of Venus’ atmosphere in CO2 (its atmosphere is 96.5% CO2 and its surface temperature is 462C) and potential terrestrial runaway greenhouse effects. This needs to be placed in context.

On Earth, weathering processes and oceans draw down the bulk of atmospheric CO2 to be deposited as carbonates. It’s therefore impossible for Earth to develop Venus-like conditions. But the onset of a hyperthermal – a huge release of carbon such as happened during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago, with an attendant mass extinction of species – is possible.

Figure 4. Estimates of fossil fuel resources and equivalent atmospheric CO2 levels, including (1) emissions to date; (2) estimated reserves, and (3) recoverable resources (1 ppm CO2 ~ 2.12 GtC). Hansen, 2012, figure 1;

Extraction and combustion of the current fossil fuel reserves (more than 20,000 billion tonnes of carbon – Figure 4) would inevitably lead to a hyperthermal commensurate with or exceeding the PETM. If that happens, CO2 would rise to above 500ppm (see figure 4), temperature would rise by about 5C (figure 5) and the polar ice sheets would melt – it’s a future we could face if emissions continue to accelerate.

Figure 5: Growth in CO2 and CO2 equivalent (CO2+CH4) during the Pleistocene and the Holocene. IPCC AR4

Not that the above features too much in the Australian elections, where the reality of climate change has been replaced with pseudoscience notions, including by some who have not consulted basic climate science text books, and by hip-pocket-nerve terms such as “carbon tax”, “emission trading scheme” or “direct action”. The proposed 5% reduction in emissions relative to the year 2000 represent no more than climate window dressing.

Nor are coal exports mentioned too often, despite current exports and planned future exports, which represent carbon emissions tracking toward an order of magnitude higher than local emissions.

According to Dr Adam Lucas of the Science and Technology Studies Program at University of Wollongong, Australia (with ~0.3% of the global population) currently contributes domestic emissions of about 1.8% of global emissions. The total domestic and overseas consumption of Australian coal is responsible for more than 2% of global emissions. Plans to triple or even quadruple coal export volumes over the next 10 years would raise Australia’s total contribution to global GHG emissions to toward 9% to 11% by 2020 – an order of magnitude commensurate with that of Middle East oil.

Which places the “Great moral challenge of our generation” in perspective.

Andrew Glikson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation
This article was earlier published at The Conversation.

Warm water keeps flowing into the Kara Sea

The image below, from, shows methane levels at 1950 and higher in yellow, for the period of July 17 to July 23, 2013.

[ click on image to enlarge ]
The temperature map below, for July 26, 2013, from Wunderground, shows that high temperatures are still prominent in Russia, at much the same location where most of the methane in above image shows up.

High temperatures warm up the water flowing into the Kara Sea, as shown on the image below for July 26, 2013, from the Danish Meteorological Institute.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Arctic Methane Release: "Economic Time Bomb"

On March 19, 2013, a number of experts came together for an workshop, as part of a
Peter Wadhams Sc.D., Prof. of Ocean
Physics and head of the Polar Ocean
Physics group, Cambridge University.
study examining the impact of a 50-Gt release of methane from the melting permafrost at the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) over different time periods, ranging from one to five decades.

Back in 2008, a study by Natalia Shakhova et al. considered release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time.

In order to estimate the cost of such a release, this new study used a more recent version of the model used in the renowned Stern Report. Findings of the study are published in the journal Nature. The conclusion is that such a release from the ESAS alone comes - in the absence of mitigating action - with a price tag of $60 trillion. By comparison, the size of the world economy in 2012 was about $70 trillion.

Such a methane pulse will "bring forward 15–35 years the average date at which the global mean temperature rise exceeds 2°C above pre-industrial levels", says the paper.

"The economic consequences will be distributed around the globe, but the modelling shows that about 80% of them will occur in the poorer economies of Africa, Asia and South America. The extra methane magnifies flooding of low-lying areas, extreme heat stress, droughts and storms."

"The total cost of Arctic change will be much higher," says the paper. To find out the actual cost, more feedbacks should be incorporated in the model, such as linking the extent of Arctic ice to increases in Arctic mean temperature. The full impacts of a warming Arctic include, for example, ocean acidification and altered ocean and atmospheric circulation. "Midlatitude economies such as those in Europe and the United States could be threatened, for example, by a suggested link between sea-ice retreat and the strength and position of the jet stream, bringing extreme winter and spring weather. Unusual positioning of the jet stream over the Atlantic is thought to have caused this year’s protracted cold spell in Europe."

Experts attending the workshop include: 
Peter Wadhams, Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Univeristy of Cambridge.
Chris Hope,  reader in policy modelling at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, and creator of the PAGE-models used for the Stern-report 
Carl Koopmans, Professor of Infrastructure and Economics, VU University, Amsterdam 
Henri de Groot, professor in Regional Economic Dynamics, VU University, Amsterdam 
Marcel Canoy, Professor at the School of Economics and Management, University of Tilburg
Gail Whiteman, Professor of sustainability, management and climate change at the Department of Business-Society Management, Erasmus University, Rotterdam 

Comments & Responses

Meanwhile [July 27, ed.], the piece in Nature has received wide news coverage, including a critique by Jason Samenow in the Washington Post. Peter Wadhams responds to some of the comments as follows:
Peter Wadhams: The 25 July post by Jason Samenow on the global economic impacts of methane emissions in the East Siberian Sea portrays the findings of our research as misleading, a statement with which I strongly disagree. Our work is based on a prediction of the magnitude and timing of methane emissions from the thawing of Arctic offshore permafrost by a scientist who has done extensive field work on this part of the ocean bed and is a globally recognized expert. We calculated the financial implications of these emissions for the world economy over a century and also considered the effect of the emissions on increasing overall global warming, obtaining a 0.6C figure by 2040. We rightly consider these to be substantial figures, which deserve wide circulation among climate scientists, and Nature and its referees agreed with us.

In our analysis we showed that the overall cost of a given volume of methane release is relatively insensitive to the rate of release or, within limits, its timing, BUT that the cost is roughly proportional to the overall volume of release. Thus, even if you worked with a different projection by a lesser qualified scientist than Shakhova, and revised down the figure and scale of the 60 trillion dollars accordingly, I suspect the cost will still be substantial – and that is one clear finding: The planetary cost of Arctic warming far outstrips any possible benefits to shipping or natural resource exploration.

In support of its skepticism about methane emissions the article quoted authors who wrote before the enormous retreat of summer Arctic sea ice and its oceanographic effects became so evident. The mechanism which is causing the observed mass of rising methane plumes in the East Siberian Sea is itself unprecedented and the scientists who dismissed the idea of extensive methane release in earlier research were simply not aware of the new mechanism that is causing it.

What is happening is that the summer sea ice now retreats so far, and for so long each summer, that there is a substantial ice-free season over the Siberian shelf, sufficient for solar irradiance to warm the surface water by a significant amount – up to 7C according to satellite data. That warming extends the 50 m or so to the seabed because we are dealing with only a polar surface water layer here (over the shelves the Arctic Ocean structure is one-layer rather than three layers) and the surface warming is mixed down by wave-induced mixing because the extensive open water permits large fetches. So long as some ice persisted on the shelf, the water mass was held to about 0C in summer because any further heat content in the water column was used for melting the ice underside. But once the ice disappears, as it has done, the temperature of the water can rise significantly, and the heat content reaching the seabed can melt the frozen sediments at a rate that was never before possible.

The 2008 US Climate Change Science Program report needs to be seen in this context. Equally, David Archer’s 2010 comment that “so far no one has seen or proposed a mechanism to make that (a catastrophic methane release) happen” was not informed by the Semiletov/Shakhova field experiments and the mechanism described above. Carolyn Rupple’s review of 2011 equally does not reflect awareness of this new mechanism.

Therefore I robustly defend our research and commentary, and hope that rather than dismiss the substantial risk such a methane release poses, the response might be to support more intensive research on this problem.
This is what Nathan Currier said in a comment at the Washington Post:
Nathan Currier: Earlier this year, a small piece of rock exploded over Russia, breaking some windows and causing minor injuries, yet shortly thereafter, a congressional panel was convened here in Washington, DC on the risks of significant asteroid impacts, and the panel, after being told they were about 1/20,000 for the year, was also told by the experts that billions will need to be spent to prevent a “possible catastrophe”. John Holdren, President Obama’s chief science advisor, commented, "The odds of a near-Earth object strike causing massive casualties and destruction of infrastructure are very small, but the potential consequences of such an event are so large it makes sense to takes the risk seriously." Holdren was right: in assessing a risk, it is a product of the probability and the magnitude that counts in the end. 
Nothing we do alters the risk of asteroid impacts, but our activities are profoundly altering the risks of unleashing powerful arctic carbon feedbacks. Like night and day with warming, where we don’t tend to notice that nighttime temperatures are increasing more rapidly than daytime ones, the scientific community’s assessments of risks tend to focus on those things which, by being more continuous, can have the daylight of quantitative analysis shone upon them more easily. But there is no question that the risks in the arctic that are rising most rapidly are the “nighttime” ones of abrupt changes. That is because there is already a 100% chance of increases in chronic emissions. Somewhat like larger and larger rocks hitting the earth, the risks of larger and larger methane pulses are certainly progressively smaller, but the important point here is that if we were to say conjecturally that in 1970 the risks of a 50Gt release might have been like the “city-killer” asteroid at 1/20,000, these risks now might have decreased by an order of magnitude. It is still not likely to happen now, with, let us speculate, a 1/2,000 risk, but because of the magnitude, as Holdren says, you should take this very seriously. Far more seriously, I might add, than a meteor striking the earth. Meanwhile, the leaked draft of the IPCC AR5 suggests that all arctic carbon feedbacks will be largely ignored in the report, even those that are more or less certain.

I would add that articles like this, characterizing the Nature commentary as “mischief” and “hype,” contribute to climate illiteracy in their own way, full of mischief without coming from a denialist perspective. There are too many errors here to elaborate them all. First, it makes a complete red herring of methane hydrate, quoting Ruppel on hydrate stability, etc. Let it be noted: 50Gt of methane is only about 2% of estimated Eastern Siberian Shelf (ESS) total carbon, and would only be 7% of the free gas reservoir that lies under the hydrate layer. There are many possible gas migration pathways for methane excursions, from pingo-like structures, fissures, the taliks appearing more and more throughout the permafrost layer, slope failure, sediment or mudslides around the Lena delta, an endogenous seismic event along the Gakkel ridge, etc. Thus, hydrate is really not even needed for a methane catastrophe scenario at the ESS. None of the quotes, moreover, about hydrate distinguish between the exceptional situation at the ESS of very shallow waters and the hydrates elsewhere around the world, which are indeed mostly quite secure.

Despite this, Hansen considers methane hydrate one of the three main coming tipping points in the climate system. The article quotes David Archer, a clear outlier on this issue, in that he doesn’t even believe the PETM warming (55 million years ago) was caused by methane hydrate release, which is the dominant paleoclimate theory, based on isotopic evidence. Meanwhile, it also quotes a paper claiming that there is no evidence for any major hydrate release at all over the last 100,000 years, clearly not something that Archer would agree with, as he himself has written an authoritative paper on the methane hydrate release of the Storrega landslide event (~8000 years ago).

At the group 1250 (, we are focusing now on precisely the opposite, the subtler changes in surface-produced methane that are likely with further loss of sea ice, but it is shocking to see a response like this one to an issue of obvious importance.

To close, no one doubts that a 50Gt release of methane is “unlikely” right now if you consider 1/2,000, let’s say, unlikely. But as the thermal signal of anthropogenic warming propagates into the sediment below such shallow waters as at the ESS, and given that the ocean currents are not the same now as they have been during the paleoclimatic past, such that paleoclimate cannot ultimately be used to constrain and quantify the actual risk, it is clear that the risks, unlike those of asteroids, are growing.

But that was clearly NOT the point of the Nature commentary. The point of the commentary was to note that the impact would be very, very big. So, to go back to Holdren, it should be taken very seriously.
Also noteworthy is what Nathan Currier said in response to comments by Gavin Schmidt, quoted in the New York Times:
Gavin Schmidt: Threshold releases even 1/10 as large as postulated would be clear in ice cores. There is nothing there. In more recent past, there have been a number of times when Arctic (not necessarily globe) has been significantly warmer than today. Most recently, Early Holocene, which had significantly less summer sea ice than even 2012. Earlier, Eemian 125kyrs ago was significantly warmer.
Nathan Currier: I find Gavin Schmidt’s points here very thin. Let’s review them:

First, clearly no one is suggesting that during the 800,000 year period covered by ice cores there has been any such release. Further, David Archer, quoted in Revkin’s piece and a leading authority on such issues, has specifically discussed the possibility in a peer-reviewed paper (Archer, 2007) of fern diffusion allowing a Gt-scale release to escape detection in ice cores.

The problem with this argument, made repeatedly when this same issue erupted over a year ago, is that it is looking weaker than it did just a year ago: for example, we are learning that certain key ocean currents were significantly different during the Eemian than they are today – see And what counts in this argument is what the sea bottom conditions are, of course, not just the surface conditions. Schmidt is right that at times it was much warmer than today in the arctic, possibly 8C warmer, as we have seen from the Lake E work, but he forgets himself, and points to the early Holocene, although the area in question was a frozen piece of land at that time, not an underwater shelf, so that is purely irrelevant, as it took almost 4,000 years before the area in question became inundated.

But risks are growing significantly in the arctic by the year, and a 5Gt release, which would double the atmospheric burden, would result from less than 1% - about .7% - of estimated ESAS free gas below the hydrate layer being released, without any hydrate needing to be involved, which some kind of endogenous seismic event could conceivably set off, perhaps a sediment pile mud slide around the Lena mouth, for example. The point of the paper, lost in all of this, was just to say, this would cost us about $6 trillion.

The worst moment of Schmidt’s points, one which really merits censure, is to refer to all the research being done in the area (he clearly means Shakhova and Semiletov here) as “one off surveys.” Note that he isn’t even asking for better research to be done there, either. I personally find that quite unfortunate, even a bit embarrassing for someone who has built up a sterling reputation.

He (Schmidt) is certainly right that there is no recent example of CH4 being higher than the pre-industrial baseline, and that includes the “super-interglacials” from Lake E bores, but it is incredibly unwise to jump to the claim from that that we are not near dramatic releases without offering any evidence at all.

It is far better to go by the best peer-reviewed research about contemporary conditions on the ground than to speculate about the few generalities we can draw from the sketch of climates past we have put together for the last few million years, as valuable as that sketch is. There was at no time during that period anything like the 400ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere now, nor the many other GHGs levels we have boosted, nor the things that have no natural analogue like the CFCs, nor is there any analogue for the rate of change we have experienced, and so the sea level’s relationship to the atmospheric conditions has no analogue either, and we are also learning at the same time just how sensitive and variable key arctic ocean currents might be in this region.

All that said, Schmidt acknowledges that “potential for Arctic CH4 to have threshold behavior is real,” and I should also acknowledge that I agree that the 50Gt scenario is not likely at this time.
Let's also add a quote from an earlier post:
Sam Carana: Analysis of sediment cores collected in 2009 from under ice-covered Lake El'gygytgyn in the northeast Russian Arctic suggest that, last time the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about as high as it is today (roughly 3.5 to 2 million years ago), regional precipitation was three times higher and summer temperatures were about 15 to 16°C (59 to 61°F), or about 8°C (14.4°F) warmer than today.

As temperatures rose back in history, it is likely that a lot of methane will have vented from hydrates in the Arctic, yet without causing runaway warming. Why not? The rise in temperature then is likely to have taken place slowly over many years. While on occasion this may have caused large abrupt releases of methane, the additional methane from such releases could each time be broken down within decades, also because global methane levels in the atmosphere were much lower than today.

In conclusion, the situation today is much more threatening, particularly in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), as further described in other posts at the methane hydrates blog.
Also note the comments by Veli Albert Kallio, in an earlier post:
Albert Kallio: The problem with ice cores is that if there is too sudden methane surge, then the climate warms very rapidly. This then results the glacier surfaces melting away and the ice core begins to loose regressively surface data if there is too much methane in the air.

Because of this, there has been previous occurrences of high methane, and these were instrumental to bring the ice ages ice sheets to end (Euan Nisbet's Royal Society paper). The key to this is to look at some key anomalies and devise the right experiments to test the hypothesis for methane eruptions as the period to ice ages.

Thus, the current methane melting and 1800 ppm rise is nothing new except that there are no huge Pleistocene glaciers to cool the Arctic Ocean if methane goes to overdrive this time. In fact methane may have been many times higher than that but all surface ice kept melting away and staying regressive until cold water and ice from destabilised ice sheets stopped the supply of methane (it decays fast if supply is cut and temperatures fall back rapidly when seas rose).

The Laurentide Ice Sheet alone was equivalent of 25 Greenland Ice Sheets and the Weischelian and other sheets on top of that. So, the glaciers do not act the same way as fireman to extinguish methane. Runaway global warming is now possibility if the Arctic loses its methane holding capability due to warming.
Let's conclude the debate on the following note:
Sam Carana: Uncertainty does NOT constitute a valid argument to dismiss warnings about large abrupt methane releases in the Arctic. Instead, uncertainty calls for further research and for comprehensive and effective action, especially since so much is at stake and the dangers are getting larger each time the necessary action is delayed. 


- Vast costs of Arctic change, in Nature, vol 499, pp 401-403, July 25, 2013
by Gail Whiteman, Chris Hope and Peter Wadhams

- Ecorys studies economic valuation of climatic change impacts in the Arctic region

- Arctic time-bomb warning
in: Cambridge News, by Jennie Baker

- Anomalies of methane in the atmosphere over the East Siberian shelf: Is there any sign of methane leakage from shallow shelf hydrates?
N. Shakhova, I. Semiletov, A. Salyuk, D. Kosmach

- Arctic methane release is an 'economic time bomb' - study
by Nafeez Ahmed

- Ice-free Arctic in two years heralds methane catastrophe – scientist

Monday, July 22, 2013

Open Water at North Pole

Images from the North Pole Environmental Observatory are now showing large areas with open water at the North Pole. The image below is from Webcam 2, dated July 22, 2013.

[ click on image to enlarge ]
Furthermore, the number of spots with methane readings of over 1950 ppb appears to be rising. See related posts below to compare. Particularly worrying are the large number of spots over the Kara Sea. Also note the spot over Greenland in the top-left corner of the image below.

[ click on image to enlarge ]
The webcam shows water at the North Pole. Clearly, there still is some ice underneath the water, as is evident from the stakes that have been put into the ice to indicate the depth of surface water.

Surface water can build up as a result of melting as well as due to rain.

As the image on the right shows, the ice is getting very thin. In between the North Pole and Siberia, a wide corridor has developed where the ice is between zero and one meters thick.

Surface water could extend over this corridor, all the way to edge of the ice, in which case it effectively becomes part of open water.

The presence of water in areas close to the North Pole has been discussed in a number of earlier posts, such as this one.

The image below, from the Danish Meteorological Institute, gives some idea of the extent of the sea surface temperature anomalies that have been particularly prominent in the Kara Sea for some time.

Meanwhile, more water has appeared around Webcam2. Below are four later images, the top two images captured on July 24, 2013, the third one captured on July 25, 2013, while the bottom one was captured on July 26, 2013.

Note that the buoy associated with Webcam2, while originally positioned at the North Pole, has meanwhile moved away substantially from that location, as indicated by the image below, from

Ice thickness image run July 26, valid July 27, 2013
for scale, see image further above. Buoy data up to July 28, 2013, buoy position: 84.87 N, 4.29 W.

On the animation above right, the track is shown against a sea ice thickness map, showing sea ice at webcam2's current position that is two meters thick.

So, while satellite images may indicate that the sea ice is still several meters thick in many locations, huge amounts of surface water may be present on top. The albedo of water is far lower than ice, so less sunlight is reflected back into space and a lot more heat is absorbed by the water, further accelerating the sea ice melt. This spells bad news for the remaining sea ice, since the melting season still has quite a bit of time to go.

Let's end with a video uploaded at youtube by covering the period from April 16 to July 25, 2013.

Related posts

Open Water In Areas Around North Pole (posted June 22, 2013)
Watching methane over Arctic Ocean (posted July 20, 2013)
Heat, Fires and Methane (posted July 20, 2013)
High methane readings over Kara Sea (posted July 18, 2013)
Methanetracker (posted July 9, 2013)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Great Arctic Flush

By Paul Beckwith

A massive cyclone is forecast to develop in the Arctic, as shown on the image below, from the Naval Research Laboratory.

Within 2 weeks the Arctic Ocean will be completely transformed. The cyclone that appears 6 days out on both the US and European ten day forecasts will massacre the sea ice in what I call "The Great Arctic flush".

The image below is a forecast for Arctic sea ice speed and drift on July 27, 2013. More images, including animations, on Arctic sea ice can be viewed at 

Last August, a massive cyclone formed over the Arctic Ocean and destroyed 800,000 square km of ice in about a week. The predicted cyclone looks to be as strong as the one in early August, 2012. Problem is, the ice is much weaker, thinner and fractured this year; including all the ice just north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago that is 4 or 5 meters thick; this ice is mobile, broken, fractured ice piled up into ridges; it is not multiyear ice (MYI) at all.

Above image, from the Naval Research Laboratory is a prediction of ice speed and drift a week from now, showing the motion of the ice, the darker and redder the faster, the ice is being set in motion by the cyclone above. Since the Coriolis force flings things to the right, the ice is all sent to the outside of the rotation, into the warmer surrounding water as well as the Atlantic Ocean. The storm surge of a foot or two over the entire basin (highest near the cyclone eye) will draw in warm water from the Pacific via the Bering Strait and from the Atlantic via the Fram Strait. It will also mix the fresh water on the surface from melting ice with warmer saltier water from below. It will also generate lots of churning and grinding of the ice and waves several meters high. Warm and smoky air that is filled with ash and black carbon from burning fires in the far north will drop the albedo of the ice and increase the solar absorption. 

When I forecast zero sea ice at the end of the melt season this summer, I fully expected at least one or more of these massive cyclonic storms. Last year it occurred in early August, and lasted for about 8 days. In the rest of the melt season last year no other huge cyclone developed, although several small ones did. Perhaps the cyclone disturbed the ocean conditions enough to prevent subsequent ones occurring. We shall see this year...

edited screenshot from animation at

Paul Beckwith is a part-time professor with the laboratory for paleoclimatology and climatology, department of geography, University of Ottawa. He teaches second year climatology/meteorology. His PhD research topic is “Abrupt climate change in the past and present.” He holds an M.Sc. in laser physics and a B.Eng. in engineering physics and reached the rank of chess master in a previous life.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Watching methane over Arctic Ocean

Above image, from, shows high temperatures close to the Kara Sea, where methane readings over 1950 have been recorded for some time now (see earlier posts here and here).

The image below, from Foreca and kindly provided by Albert Kallio, shows that temperatures on parts of Kara Sea and surrounding coast hit 40 degrees Celsius (or 100°F) on July 20, 2013.

The image below, also from Foreca, shows the situation on July 21, 2013, at 1:00 pm.

The NOAA image below shows sea surface temperature anomalies for July 18, 2013.

The animation below shows methane readings for July 19, 2013. High readings over the Kara Sea persist, not surprisingly, while there's a worrying spot of methane over the East Siberian Sea and there are a number of high readings showing up over Greenland. The animation below is a 3.1 MB file, so it may take some time for it to fully load.

Heat, Fires and Methane

Here are two more images looking at links between high temperatures, fires and methane.

[ click on image to enlarge ]

In conclusion, rising temperatures increase the risk of fire and of methane releases. Let's act on global warming, preferably with a comprehensive and effective plan as at

Friday, July 19, 2013

Arctic Ocean Events - Videos by Paul Beckwith

by Paul Beckwith

Massive Arctic cyclone effect on sea ice in August 2012
Part 1: August 1st to 16th, 2012

Arctic sea ice motion (speed and direction) is compared to sea ice thickness from August 1st to August 16th, 2012. Sea ice motion is then compared to meteorology (500 mb pressure heights and 200 mb vector winds).

Massive Arctic cyclone effect on sea ice in August 2012
Part 2: August 1st to 16th, 2012

Northern hemisphere meteorology (500mb pressure heights) and Arctic sea ice concentration compared to SST (sea surface temperatures) are examined from August 1st to August 16th, 2012 encompassing the mass persistent cyclone.

Massive Arctic cyclone effect on sea ice in August 2012
Part 3: August 1st to 16th, 2012

Arctic basin SSS (sea surface salinity) is compared to SSH (sea surface height) during the period August 1st to August 16th, 2012 which encompassed a massive persistent cyclone. Detailed meteorology is also examined (tropopause temperature + pressure, surface precipitable water + pressure). Also examined is ocean profile salinity and temperature from an ice tethered buoy.

Massive Arctic cyclone effect on sea ice in August 2012
Part 4:  August 1st to 16th, 2012

The jet streams in the Arctic ocean basin are shown (200mb vector winds) from NOAA/ESRL daily data, as well as from 4 times daily data from SFSU. The data is given from August 1st to August 16th, 2012 which encompasses the massive Arctic cyclone.


Arctic sea ice thickness + motion
May 14th to June 10th, 2013

Arctic sea ice data from May 14 to June 10, 2013
Left pane shows Arctic sea ice thickness; right pane shows sea ice motion (direction and speed).

Arctic sea ice thickness + motion
July 1st to 17th 2013

Arctic sea ice data from July 1st to July 17th, 2013. Left pane shows the Arctic sea ice thickness; right pane shows sea ice motion (direction and speed).

Sea ice concentration, temperature, salinity, and height;
July 1st to 18th, 2013

Arctic ocean data from US Navy for
1) sea ice concentration,
2) sea surface temperature (SST),
3) sea surface salinity (SSS), and
4) sea surface height (SSH)

Jet streams
July 1st to July 17th 2013

Northern hemisphere (NH) jet streams are shown from two sources:
1) NOAA/ESRL data collected daily, and
2) SFSU data collect every 6 hours. Data is given for the time period from July 1st to July 17th, 2013.

July 1st to 18th 2013

The following meteorology plots are shown for time period July 1st to July 18th, 2013 over the Arctic Ocean between 60 degrees N and 90 degrees N:
1) 500mb pressure levels,
2) 200mb vector winds (jet streams),
3) precipitable water, and
4) tropopause temperatures.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

High methane readings over Kara Sea

Arctic sea ice extent 2013 (brown line on NSIDC-image below) is more and more following the same path it did last year (dashed line), when extent reached a record minimum, and in 2007 (blue line), the previous record minimum.

Even more worryingly, sea ice is very thin, as the Naval Research Laboratory animation below shows; large areas with a thickness of 1 meter to zero persist close to the North Pole, as discussed in an earlier post; the image below, from the North Pole Environmental Observatory shows lots of water and that it's raining at the North Pole.

The above animation also shows the retreat of sea ice from the Kara Sea, north of Siberia, over the past 30 days.

As can be expected, high sea surface temperature anomalies show up in areas where the sea ice has retreated, as shown by the DMI image below.

Most worryingly, high methane readings appear over the Kara Sea, as shown on the image below.

[ click on image to enlarge ]

Monday, July 15, 2013

Comprehensive and Effective Climate Plan

President Obama's Climate Action Plan doesn't look much like a shift to genuinely clean energy. As discussed in a recent post by Peter Carter, the President's Plan sadly supports fossil fuel in many ways.

The plan supports natural gas very prominently. Indeed, how clean is natural gas? Years ago, a Cornell University study (image below) concluded that emissions caused by natural gas can be even worse than coal and diesel oil, especially when looked at over a relatively short period.

At the time, I wrote that this kind of support for natural gas - as if that was supposedly "clean energy" - would only perpetuate the government's support for fuel, while doing little or nothing to help genuinely clean energy. Moreover, continued support for fossil fuel comes at the expensive of growth in genuinely clean energy that we need instead.

EIA figures also show that, over the period from 1990 to 2010, the average amount of carbon dioxide produced in the United States for each unit of energy generated has remained much the same as the world average, while the situation in China has grown even worse.

IEA figures further show that the world's energy-related carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise rapidly and that they, for the period 1900 - 2012, add up to a staggering amount of 1257 Gt.

As the image below shows, from a recent IEA report, the carbon intensity of global energy has hardly improved over the decades.

The colored lines on the right correspond with scenarios in which global temperatures are projected to increase by, respectively, 6 degrees Celsius, 4 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius.

What are the chances that it will be possible to avoid the worst-case scenario?  The IEA elaborates that an extension of current trends would result in an average global temperature rise of at least 6 degrees Celsius in the long term. To have an 80% chance of limiting the average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions need to be cut by more than half in 2050 compared with 2009. They would need to continue to fall thereafter.

While the IEA adds that the goal of limiting the average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius can only be achieved if greenhouse gas emissions in non-energy sectors are also reduced, the IEA does not elaborate on what further action will be needed and whether emission reductions alone will suffice to avoid climate catastrophe.

[click to enlarge]
As said, the world's cumulative energy-related carbon dioxide emissions add up, for the period 1900 - 2012, to a staggering amount of 1257 Gt. As the graph on the right shows, methane's global warming potential for the first decade since its release into the atmosphere will be more than 130 times as much as carbon dioxide.

Abrupt release of just 10 Gt of methane will - during the first decade since entering into the atmosphere - have a stronger greenhouse effect globally than all cumulative energy-related carbon dioxide emissions from 1900 to 2012.

Note that above calculation applies to methane as it's typically released at present, i.e. gradually and spread out over the world, mostly originating from cattle, wetlands, biowaste, energy, forest fires, etc. Things will be much worse in case of abrupt release of methane from the Arctic seabed, when much of the methane will initially remain concentrated in the Arctic, where hydroxyl levels are also very low.

After 5 years, a methane cloud 20% the size of its original abrupt release of methane in the Arctic will still have more than 1000 times the warming potency locally that the same mass of carbon dioxide has globally.

Look at it this way; an abrupt release in the Arctic Ocean will initially remain concentrated locally. The Arctic Ocean covers 2.8% of the Earth's surface, while there's currently about 0.14 Gt of methane in the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean. Abrupt release of 1 Gt methane from the Arctic seabed will thus initially multiply methane levels in the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean by 8, trapping much more heat from sunlight, especially during the June solstice when solar radiation received by the Arctic is higher than anywhere else on Earth.

This comes on top of warming that is already accelerated in the Arctic. Albedo changes alone could cause more warming than all emissions by people globally, according to calculations by Prof. Peter Wadhams, who also describes things in the video below.

The resulting temperature rises in the Arctic threaten to trigger further methane releases from the seabed and wildfires on land in the Arctic, further driving up temperatures in an exponential spiral of runaway global warming.

In conclusion, we need a climate plan that will genuinely produce the necessary action, i.e. a comprehensive and effective climate plan as articulated at