Posts Tagged ‘methane’

Permafrost Melting = Too Much Methane

April 22, 2008

Methane: the other green house gas, is 20 to 25 times more potent than CO2 (depending on who you ask).

The good news was that over the last decade methane releases have been largely flat due to reductions in man-made emissions. Unfortunately the good news is old news. NOAA has just released a report today titled “Carbon Dioxide, Methane Rise Sharply in 2007”.

The NOAA report states:

Rapidly growing industrialization in Asia and rising wetland emissions in the Arctic and tropics are the most likely causes of the recent methane increase, said scientist Ed Dlugokencky from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory.

”We’re on the lookout for the first sign of a methane release from thawing Arctic permafrost,” said Dlugokencky. “It’s too soon to tell whether last year’s spike in emissions includes the start of such a trend.”

As I discussed previously in “The Awakening Great White Whale”, the arctic permafrost is the place to look for the most critical planetary tipping point.

Spiegel Online has a frightening confirmation of what we face with further warming in just the next few years.

What treachery lies in the permafrost?

In the permafrost bottom of the 200-meter-deep sea, enormous stores of gas hydrates lie dormant in mighty frozen layers of sediment. The carbon content of the ice-and-methane mixture here is estimated at 540 billion tons. “This submarine hydrate was considered stable until now,” says the Russian biogeochemist Natalia Shakhova, currently a guest scientist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks who is also a member of the Pacific Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok.

And so our permafrost is now permamelt:

The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become “a source of methane passing into the atmosphere.” The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere would increase twelvefold. “The result would be catastrophic global warming,” say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.

We warm the earth further at great peril:

Climate change could give an additional push to these trends. “If the Arctic Sea ice continues to recede and the shelf becomes ice-free for extended periods, then the water in these flat areas will get much warmer,” said Overduin. That could lead to a situation in which the temperature of the sea sediment rises above freezing, which would thaw the permafrost.

The $64,000 question is what’s the rate of acceleration of the permafrost melt?

“We don’t have any data on that — those are just suspicions,” the Canadian scientist said. Natalia Shakhova also passed on the question of whether to expect a gradual gas emission or an abrupt burst of large quantities of methane. “No one can say right now whether that will take years, decades or hundreds of years,” she said. But one cannot rule out sudden methane emissions. They could happen at “any time.”

One thing is clear, though: The thawing of the Arctic sea floor will create “new potential sources for methane … which no one had reckoned with until now,” said Laurence Smith, a professor for geography at the University of California in Los Angeles. Smith is researching North Pole frost zones and expects that a thawing of the permafrost will “supply fuel for methane engines.”

If we don’t slam on the CO2 brakes hard and now, this war for survival could be over before we’ve even started to fight.