Methane Outbreak Alert!

A cadre of the world’s top climate scientists have seen enough evidence of prospective runaway climate change that they are now sounding the alarm, putting the world on notice that an extinction event may be in the cards. The principal actor in this macabre tragedy: Methane.

The following is a quote from the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (“AMEG”), which is the organization created by these high level climate scientists.

An Assessment by AMEG:

Could the World be in Imminent Danger and Nobody is Telling?

Uniquely and fearlessly AMEG has studied key non-linear trends in the Earth-human System and reached the stunning conclusion that the planet stands at the edge of abrupt and catastrophic climate change as a result of an unprecedented rate of change in the Arctic.

Methane (CH4) is over twenty times more powerful, over a 100-year period, per molecule, than is carbon dioxide (CO2). Or, put another way, methane is more effectual than carbon dioxide at absorbing infrared radiation emitted from the earth’s surface and preventing it from escaping into space. Methane, during its first few years upon entering the atmosphere, is 100 times as powerful as an equal weight of CO2.

As it happens, it appears excessive levels of methane are just now starting to seriously impact the Earth’s atmosphere… in a big way!

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, as of February 2013, methane levels in the atmosphere are measured at 1,874 ppb (parts per billion.) This level, in an historical context, is more than twice as high as any time since 400,000 years before the industrial revolution. In the past, methane has ranged between 300-400 ppb during glacial periods and 600-700 ppb during warm interglacial periods.

Newly Identified Sources of Methane Emissions in Deep Arctic Seas

In 2012, expeditionary teams in the Arctic were shocked, and dismayed, to find methane bubbling up from deep ocean sites. “Previous observations have pointed to large methane plumes being released from the seabed in the relatively shallow sea off the northern coast of Siberia, but the latest findings were made far away from land in the deep, open ocean where the surface is usually capped by ice.”1

Physicist Eric Kort (Ph.D., Applied Physics, Harvard University) of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Pasadena, California was surprised to see methane levels rise so convincingly each time their research aircraft flew over cracks in the sea ice. These methane measurements come from Hiaper Pole-to-Pole Observations, which uses aircraft loaded with scientific instruments flying long distances at varying altitudes. The study, covering numerous flights into the Arctic at different times of the year, was published in Nature Geoscience. The study covered an area about 950 miles north of the coast of Alaska and 350 miles south of the North Pole.

Moreover, as if discovering methane emissions from the deep seas of the Arctic isn’t already of major concern, a recent study discovered immense amounts of methane locked under Antarctic ice: “They… calculated that the potential amount of methane hydrate and free methane gas beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet could be up to 4 billion metric tons, a similar order of magnitude to some estimates made for Arctic permafrost. The predicted shallow depth of these potential reserves also makes them more susceptible to climate forcing than other methane hydrate reserves on Earth.”2

The Arctic is in Meltdown: At the same time, Methane Gushes into the Atmosphere

According to the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG), the “Arctic is in meltdown.” As such, AMEG has declared: “An extremely high international security risk of acute climate disruption followed by runaway global warming.”

Likewise, Russian scientists have spotted methane plumes/bubbles that are more than a kilometer in diameter coming to surface along the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, which is the largest continental shelf in the world. Seventy-five percent (75%) of the sea over the shelf is shallow water, less than 50 metres deep, and consequently more immediately exposed to warming trends.

“The scale and volume of the methane release has astonished the head of the Russian research team who has been surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years.”3

“We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before. Some of the plumes were a kilometer or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal,” says Dr. Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who led the 8th joint US-Russia cruise of the East Siberian Arctic seas.3

Regarding the amounts of methane released into the atmosphere, according to Dr. Natalia Shakhova of the International Arctic Research Centre: “The concentration of atmospheric methane increased unto three times in the past two centuries… That’s a huge increase, between two and three times, and this has never happened in the history of the planet.”3

The cause of this emerging outbreak of methane, as explained by AMEG, is a horrendous cycle that started 20-30 years ago when Atlantic and Pacific Ocean currents, warmed by greenhouse gases, flowed into the Arctic Ocean. This extra heat into the Arctic Ocean causes declines in the sea ice, and it increases temperatures. As it happens, the extra heat travels into shallow seas along the continental shelf and, over time, the warming also spreads to the deep seabed, destabilizing methane hydrates and free gas trapped over millennia in the permafrost cap. As follows, methane that has been trapped for millions upon millions of years is released into the atmosphere.

The quantities of methane in the continental shelf are so huge and overwhelming that only 1% or 2% of the methane released could lead to an unstoppable chain reaction of runaway overheating of the planet. This is why some of the world’s most renowned climate scientists formed AMEG, because they were prompted by indisputable signals of the beginning stages of massive releases of methane, thus, threatening an extinction event on planet Earth.

Historical Methane Mass Extinction Event: “The Great Dying”

Approximately two hundred million years ago methane was involved in a mass extinction event, referred to as “The Great Dying.” The outcome was the extinction of over half of all life forms. Some studies suggests a volcanic eruption started the warming cycle, triggering positive feedback by causing underwater permafrost to melt and release methane gas to the atmosphere (similar to today, except humans are the trigger rather than a volcano) which further amplified warming even more, releasing more methane, and the feedback grew, and grew, until conditions became so inhospitable that mass extinction occurred.4

Arctic Methane Emergency Group

According to an Arctic Methane Emergency Group Press Release d/d November 11, 2012: “Abrupt climate change is upon us… Food prices will go through the roof. The government’s climate change policy is in tatters. The government should have acted years ago. Now it may be too late… There has been an elephant in the room, and it has been totally ignored. It’s all about Arctic sea ice….”

AMEG recently completed a new film: Arctic Methane – Why the Sea Ice Matters.5 The following excerpts are taken from this film:

Peter Wadhams, President of the International Association on Sea Ice and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group/Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, says: “It is quite urgent that we recognize what is going on… the ice has been getting thinner over the last 40 years since I have been measuring it, and it has lost about one-half of its thickness… five years ago the shrinkage started to accelerate. Now, melting in summer is greater than freezing in winter.”

James Hansen, adjunct professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University and former Head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies claims the melting ice could lead to the point where ocean floor warming triggers massive release of methane hydrate, i.e., methane molecules trapped in ice crystals, which would become a “tipping point.” As well, methane is already being released from thawing tundra on land, and it is bubbling up in the Arctic Ocean, which is clear evidence of the warming of the Arctic Ocean waters. Thus and so, there is evidence that the warming ocean floor is already beginning to release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere, with dire consequences to follow.

According to David Wasdell, International Coordinator, Meridian Programme: “A runaway climate change is now clear and beginning to be quantified for the first time… the greatest threat we face as a planet… The rate of change we’re generating in the current situation is between 200-300 times faster than that experience of any extinction event apart from the asteroidal impact. If you look at the general background change, for instance, it takes about 10,000 years to change the concentration of carbon dioxide by 100 ppm — we’re doing it in 30 years at this year’s rate… so, the rate of change in the climate is phenomenal compared to previous extinction events.”

Wasdell continues, “We’re already in a mass extinction event. We’re losing species and losing populations, partly by climate change and partly by habitat change, partly by overexploitation of habitat like fisheries… We’ve lost about 40% of the phytoplankton in the oceans which is the basis of the food chain.”

Imagine 40% of land crops disappearing, the world would be in a state of chaos involving hordes of desperate people invading other countries for their food and water. In contrast, what can marine life do upon losing 40% of its primary food source as a result of human-induced climate change?

Jet Stream Impact Threatens World Food Supply

The warming Arctic impacts the entire Northern Hemisphere in a negative fashion, threatening humankind’s food supply. As the Arctic warms, the jet streams change, and the jet streams drive weather systems, most prominently in the Northern Hemisphere. As a result of the warming Arctic, the jet streams become wavier and slower, causing freakish weather all across the Northern Hemisphere.

As an example: A couple of years ago the jet streams were locked and the trough of the wave was over Pakistan; the crest was over Russia. The jet stream did not move for 35 days. The trough was low pressure with lots of rain, and as a result, Pakistan flooded, beyond one month. At the time, worldwide television networks sent broadcasts of groups of Pakistanis huddled together on small landmasses surrounded by water. Simultaneously, Moscow was under a high-pressure ridge, experiencing a powerful 35-day heat wave. An estimated 50,000 Russians, over and above the normal mortality rate, died (not mentioned on TV), and the country lost 40% of its wheat crop. Russia halted wheat exports.

In 2012 the United States’ drought was the worst since 1950. Syria, part of the Fertile Crescent breadbasket of the Middle East, had a 6-year drought only recently, and India has had two droughts the past four years. And, the list does not end here….

Radical Climate Change in Arctic

According to AMEG, here’s how climate change in the Arctic has changed weather patterns: Over the past three decades, snow cover has been reduced by 17-18% per decade and sea ice is declining fast because of human-induced global warming. Consequently, the albedo effect is collapsing in the Arctic. Albedo is the reflection of Sun’s radiation off the white ice and white snow surfaces. Unfortunately, when the albedo effect collapses, the dark sea and dark land mass absorb most of the Sun’s radiation. A collapsing albedo effect is ominously apocalyptic for the Arctic, and for the world. And, disturbingly, Arctic albedo is already in the collapsing stage. This will inevitably lead to ever more methane emissions and a vicious cycle of feedbacks leading to an extinction event, probably unstoppable.

According to physicist Paul Beckwith, University of Ottawa, since 2007, there has been a sharp increase in methane release, and he says methane is the key now to a ‘tipping point’ in the climate. He believes it is entirely possible that before 2020 the Arctic will be clear of sea ice with open waters three months of the year, as a minimum, and without sea ice, and with the loss of the reflective albedo, all the feedbacks will kick into gear. This will, in turn, trigger runaway warming of the planet and fractured weather patterns like extra-prolonged droughts or sudden, torrential rains as the entire world begins to sizzle!


Beckwith believes geo-engineering is the only salvation for the Arctic. This involves injecting sulfur dioxide into the Arctic atmosphere, which acts like a large erupting volcano, blocking out sunlight, allowing the Arctic to cool. Be that as it may, there are serious scientists and legal scholars, e.g., experts at both Harvard and UCLA, who question the value of geo-engineering without first taking the time to establishing very tight international protocols. On the other hand, and controversially, some scientists fear potential consequences of a ‘Frankenstein atmosphere’ once humans begin tampering with nature.

The problem: There are no good solutions absent question marks.

In that respect, this begs the question of why the governments of the world have not been, as rapidly as humanly possible, promoting renewables as a replacement for fossil fuels. Renewable energy technology is proven, and for the uninitiated, renewables have been around for decades. And, renewables are climate friendly.

At the end of the day, runaway climate change may be the result of the greatest failure of political leadership in recorded history… assuming recordkeeping is still maintained within the context of an extinction event.

All of which goes to prove, humans and asteroids are on the same level.

Postscript: A quote from Astronaut Ulf Merbold (71), Federal Republic of Germany, who participated in three space flights for a total of 49 days, 21 hours, and 38 minutes:

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.

  1. Steve Connor, Danger from the Deep: New Climate Threat as Methane Rises from Cracks in Arctic Ice, The Independent (UK), April 23, 2012. []
  2. EcoAlert: New Climate-Change Threat? Immense Amounts of Methane Locked Under Antarctic Ice, The Daily Galaxy (University of California/Santa Cruz), Aug. 29, 2012. []
  3. Steve Connor, Vast Methane ‘Plumes’ Seen in Arctic Ocean as Sea Ice Retreats, The Independent (UK), Dec. 13, 2011. [] [] []
  4. George Papadakis, UK, Methane Gas Hydrates: A Potential Threat to Climate Stability, Climate Emergency Institute, Dec. 22, 2011. []
  5. Envisionation, Producer: Nick Breeze, Spring 2012. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.