Disturbing New Evidence of Methane Outbreak

How real, and imminent, is the danger of runaway global warming?

“Without stopping it, sooner, or later, one way or another, the loss of Arctic summer sea ice would lead to runaway global warming,” says Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG).

For runaway global warming to develop into an unstoppable worldwide disaster, first off a tipping point must occur. A tipping point is when there is no turning back, similar to the Titanic hitting the iceberg one hundred years ago.

The Tipping Point

As for the risk of a climatic tipping point event within current lifetimes, first-rate advice comes from Peter Wadhams (Professor of Ocean Physics and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group, Dept. of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge).

Here’s why Prof Wadhams’ advice is so keenly followed: Over the past 40 years, Dr. Wadhams has led 40 research trips to the poles, including 7 trips on nuclear submarines, conducting sonar readings (to accurately measure ice thickness), in order to study, analyze, and interpret the behaviour of sea ice. As such, he doesn’t rely upon scientific models; rather, he believes in “boots-on-the-ground” as the most thorough way to understand what is happening in nature.

Here is what Prof Wadhams says about a climatic tipping point, as expressed in the Abstract version of the article “Arctic Ice Cover, Ice Thickness and Tipping Points,”1: “We show results from some recent work from submarines, and speculate that the trend towards retreat and thinning will inevitably lead to an eventual loss of all ice in summer, which can be described as a ‘tipping point’ in that the former situation, of an Arctic covered with mainly multi-year ice, cannot be retrieved.”

In other words, Prof Wadhams’ tipping point appears to be when the Arctic is ice free, which he believes will occur around the year 2015. This, in turn, implies a runaway heating up of Earth over an indeterminate period of time because of positive feedback between an ice-less Arctic, thawing permafrost and melting hydrates (methane locked in ice) emitting increasingly massive quantities of methane into the atmosphere, or to put it another way, runaway global warming.

But, nobody can possibly know the timing of the sequence of events leading up to runaway global warming, nor, for sure, whether it will happen as expected; it could be better, or it could be worse than expectations. But, whichever result, it’s not good.

The Tipping Point Controversy

Though, there are respectable scientists at odds with Prof Wadhams, for example: A new paper, “Reducing Spread in Climate Model Projections of a September Ice-Free Arctic,”2 claims that the Arctic will be ice-free in September by around 2054-58, which is certainly a long way off from Prof Wadhams’ 2015 deadline.

In response to the PNAS paper, Prof Wadhams claims their projection departs significantly from his empirical observations of the rapid loss of Arctic summer sea ice, and here is how they differ: They use “scientific models,” i.e. computers; he uses “empirical evidence,” or boots-on-the-ground.

Along those lines, Prof Wadhams says, “The modelers did not pay sufficient regard to observation, especially of ice thickness… A very great physicist, Richard Feynmann, said that when a model comes up against measurements that contradict it, it is the measurements that must be preferred and the model must be abandoned or changed.”3

If Prof Wadhams is correct, the earthly consequences, over an indeterminate period of time, will most likely be:

  1. Sea levels will rise – probably a lot… for example, one-day Miami will be under water.
  2. Atmospheric jet stream displacement, because of a rapidly warming Arctic, will force ultra extreme weather events (this is already happening), especially in the Northern Hemisphere.
  3. Resulting in – catastrophic flooding, e.g. Central Europe 2013
  4. And, resulting in – severe droughts, e.g., China (2011- worst in 50 years & 2013), U.S. (2012- worst in 50 years), Russia (2010- worst in 50 years & 2012), Syria (2006-11- worst in history of Fertile Crescent), and on and on.
  5. Which equate to- decreased food production
  6. Leading to food riots, leading to political turmoil, leading to war

And, sooner or later, it is highly probable the geopolitical scene will witness hordes of people assembled in caravans (like the dystopian film Mad Max, Warner Bros. 1979) combing the planet in search of food and water and/or warlike behavior similar to the Huns, a nomadic people who ravaged and plundered Roman provinces in the 3rd & 4th centuries.

As such, personal wealth will be meaningless in this dystopian world overshadowed by hordes of desperate people as they crush totalitarian, and democratic, governments around the world, similar to how the almighty Roman army fell in the 3rd and 4th centuries to the hordes of Vandals and Huns in province after province after province.

Barrow, Alaska Observatory – Monitoring Methane

Barrow, Alaska is the furthest northern point in North America; it’s where the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea meet, and it is at Point Barrow, the Barrow, Alaska Observatory (“BRW”), est. in 1973, where scientists at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Earth System Research Laboratory, Global Monitoring Division keep a watchful eye on methane levels in the atmosphere. This is one of five methane-monitoring locations around the world.

According to R. Gates,4 “What’s worrisome to those who follow methane is the return to higher growth rates over the past few years… This is significant because it shows the underlying long-term growth rate. If you compare this year’s low point to last year’s, you get a sense of the upward turn in the atmospheric methane concentrations. The bottom line is: The trends should be of great concern.”

Methane (“CH4”) is already at unprecedented levels, since 646,000 BC:

Ice core records show global atmospheric conditions going back millions of years, but just since 646,000 BC global atmospheric concentrations of methane appear relatively subdued, and the atmospheric level varied within a couple hundred points of 500ppb.

Conversely, it has only taken a couple hundred years to break that 646,000-year trend. Nowadays, the CH4 level is at least 3xs higher @ 1750-1800ppb.5

Repercussions of Elevated Levels of Methane

Large releases of methane have occurred many times in the past and did not result in runaway global warming. Here is why: (a) in the past the trend was very gradual, over hundreds-to-thousands of years, allowing for a natural breakdown of the CH4 over time; whereas, as of today, we’ve already made a 3-fold move in only 200 years, and emissions are only now starting to increase in a serious way; as well, in the past, (b) when high CH4 levels trapped a lot of heat, the heat was counter-balanced by large buffers of ice that consumed the heat to prevent runaway temperature rises.6

Withal, conditions today are different because there are no huge Pleistocene glaciers to cool the Arctic Ocean if methane goes into overdrive this time around. In the Pleistocene Era, the Laurentide Ice Sheet alone was equivalent of twenty-five (25) Greenland ice sheets. This buffer to unchecked runaway global warming no longer exists.6

Therefore, as of today, Mother Earth has set the stage for runaway global warming without the checks-and-balances previously provided by nature.

Current Levels of Methane

Some of the world’s most accomplished climate scientists, similar to Prof Wadhams, have spent considerable time studying methane emissions with boots-on-the-ground in the Arctic.

Science (the world’s leading journal of original scientific research) carries an article by scientists7 that describes the methane situation: Current average methane concentrations in the Arctic are, “… the highest in 400,000 years… on par with previous estimates of methane venting from the entire World Ocean,” which is an incredible statement!

The previous statement is startling enough that it deserves to be repeated in a new context, as follows: Regarding recent observations of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf by Russian scientists, where, until now, it was thought the permafrost was cold enough to remain frozen, the recent observations found the methane venting into the atmosphere from this one region comparable to the amount of methane coming out of the entire world’s oceans.

Furthermore, in a recent live interview, Dr. Natalia Shakhova, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Arctic methane release, ended by saying, “We do not like what we see. We do not like it at all.”

“There are three huge reservoirs of Arctic methane till recently safely controlled by the Arctic freezing cold environment. They are now all releasing additional methane to the atmosphere as the Arctic rapidly warms.”8

And furthermore, “The most catastrophically dangerous methane source is Arctic sea floor methane hydrate… The largest source is the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), the largest continental shelf in the world… All the evidence indicates that an abrupt massive release of methane gas from Arctic hydrates could happen which most likely would be catastrophe to the global climate and our planet.”8

The Risks

According to the article “Methane, Good Gas, Bad Gas”9: “Burn natural gas and it warms your house. But let it leak, from fracked wells or the melting Arctic, and it warms the whole planet.”

“Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, so the climatic implications of adding more of it to the atmosphere are grave. A massive methane release could also affect the atmosphere’s ability to cleanse itself,” according to Arlene Fiore, a physical scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There is absolutely no doubt that Arctic sea ice is getting thinner, melting, and rupturing. For example, the largest single block of ice in the Arctic, the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, which has been around for over 3,000 years started cracking in the year 2000. Within two years it had split all the way through and is now broken into pieces.

The biggest worry, according to Dr. Ronald Prinn, TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science/MIT, in a lecture series entitled: “Arctic Warming: Risks for Methane Emissions (Aug. 2012)”: “… the polar regions, which are warming much faster than expected… if the ice goes, expect massive sea level rise.”10

In like manner, the most recent Arctic News is not comforting.11:

1) The Siberian permafrost is in particular danger. A large region called the Yedoma could undergo runaway decomposition once it starts to melt.
2) Global climates only slightly warmer than today are sufficient to thaw extensive regions of permafrost.
3) Evidence of melting of permafrost has also been reported form the dry valleys of Antarctica… reaching a rate about 10 times that of the last ~ 10,000 years.
4) Already, measurements along the Siberian shelf have discovered enhanced methane release… a Russian marine survey conducted more than 5,000 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.

The Russian research vessel Academician Lavrentiev, surveying 10,000 square miles of sea off the coast of eastern Siberia, made a terrifying discovery of “fountains” of methane one-half mile across erupting from Arctic sea ice, coming to surface like a boiling pot of water on a stovetop. The research team located more than 100 fountains, and they believe there could be thousands. These are methane fields on a scale never before seen by scientists. The resulting problem is multi-fold, in part, because methane releases from the seas can be larger, and much more abrupt, than land-based releases.

A Problem – Understanding and Believing

One major problem with trying to understand the potential of a methane outbreak is the false sense of security that “this really can’t happen.”

Yet, what if these scientists have got it right?

Then, what?

The future grows dim.

As a matter of assurance of survival, why not give the scientists the benefit of doubt and do what they suggest, which is remove CO2 emissions as much as possible by getting off fossil fuels?

As it goes, a worldwide conversion from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable sources of energy like solar and wind and tides and geothermal and biofuels would likely prompt an economic renaissance, with full employment, equivalent to the impressive secular economic growth cycle prompted by the invention of the Ford Model T.

And, such a worldwide conversion to renewable energy would rescue civilization, as we know it. In that event, the world’s ruling order of unparalleled wealth won’t have to worry about massive invasions by hordes of desperate people, similar to what the Roman Governors of the Provinces of the Empire experienced in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

Post Script:
On a positive note, a student movement at more than 300 university and college campuses is encouraging endowments to divest holdings of fossil fuel companies. As for one example, Divest Harvard says: “By sponsoring climate change through our investments, our university is threatening our generation’s future.”12

  1. AMBIO (Publisher: Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences), February 2012, Volume 41, Issue 1 []
  2. By Professor Jiping Liu, Dept. of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, UAlbany, Spring-2013, Phys.org in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences []
  3. Ice-free Arctic in two Years Heralds Methane Catastrophe – Scientist by Nafeez Ahmed, The Guardian, July 24, 2013. []
  4. Arctic Atmospheric Methane Trends, 2013, Arctic Sea Ice Blog, July 2013. []
  5. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. []
  6. Source: “Mean Methane Levels Reach 1800 ppb,” Arctic News, June 28, 2013. [] []
  7. “Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf,” Natalia Shakhova (International Arctic Research Centre, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK), Igor Semiletov (Russian Academy of Sciences, Far Eastern Branch, Pacific Oceanological Institute, Vladivostok, Russia), et al, Science, 327(5970), March 5, 2010. []
  8. Arctic Methane, Arctic Methane Emergency Group. [] []
  9. Marianne Lavelle, National Geographic, December 2012 []
  10. Source: Global Warming Puts the Arctic on Thin Ice,” Natural Resources Defense Council, Aug. 2012. []
  11. Andrew Glikson (Honorary Professor, Geothermal Energy Centre of Excellence, The University of Queensland), “Methane and the Risk of Runaway Global Warming,” Arctic News, July 26, 2013. []
  12. Randall Smith, A New Divestment Focus on Campus: Fossil Fuels, New York Times, Sept. 6, 2013. []

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: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.