The Rumbling Methane Enigma

Photograph Source: Nixette – CC BY-SA 4.0

The northern continental shelves of Russia, inclusive of the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea (ESAS) are some of the least researched yet most controversial subjects in climate science today. It’s the one region that has the biggest potential to trigger runaway global warming because of sizeable subsea methane deposits, thereby taking civilization down to its knees. But, that prospect is also extremely controversial within the scientific community.

Scientific opinion runs the gamut: (1) high risk- methane bursts will bury civilization with runaway global warming – a dreadful, deadly risk (2) not to worry, it’s low risk because almost all of the massive deposits of undersea methane will stay put (3) not to worry, low risk because any methane seepage via undersea permafrost is oxidized and dissolves within the seawater and not a threat to runaway global warming.

By and large, climate scientists dismiss the ESAS and some go so far as to vilify published research. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) dismisses its near-term/intermediate-term risks. The reasons are manifold (more on that later).

Unfortunately, recent events in the high Arctic lean towards option number one as the more likely outcome. In that regard, I recently met with Dr. Peter Wadhams, world-renowned Arctic expert, to discuss the issue (more on that follows).

As it happens, only recently, inordinately high levels of methane emissions have been reported, to wit:

(1) Methane Observation – October 2019 -“This is the most powerful seep I have ever been able to observe… No one has ever recorded anything similar.” (Source: Research Vessel Encounters Giant Methane Seep in Arctic Waters, The Maritime Executive, Oct. 10, 2019) The quote is from Igor Semiletov, professor Tomsk Polytechnic University on the research vessel Academic M.A. Lavrentyev on a 40-day Arctic mission.

(2) Methane Observation – December 2019 – Three months later at COP25 in Madrid, Dr. Peter Carter, an IPCC expert reviewer, in an interview d/d December 10th, 2019, referenced an ongoing eruption of methane above Barrow, Alaska, saying: “We’ve never seen anything like it. And, it has stayed at elevated levels to the present week. Looking at the 2.2 million year ice core, the maximum methane concentration ever was 800 ppb. In Barrow, Alaska it is 2,050 ppb and staying there. It’s been up there for 4 months.”

A note about the Barrow observation – Dr. Peter Carter believes the origin may be permafrost decay from land. However, according to Dr. Wadhams, he’s not so sure of Carter’s explanation and even though the waters offshore Barrow are not known to contain subsea methane, it is theorized the 4-month extremely high CH4 reading may have originated at ESAS and drifted, a theory with forceful negative ramifications.

The Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory was established in 1973 by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Earth System Research Laboratory to track hourly methane readings.

According to initial reports by NOAA re the sharp uptick in CH4 readings to 2050 ppb: “To spot methane levels breaking the 2000ppb mark so sharply in this fragile region is unprecedented.” (Source: Arctic Methane Levels Reach New Heights, The Institution of Engineering and Technology, September 16, 2019)

(3) Methane Observation – Dahr Jamail’s book The End of Ice (The New Press, 2019) relates an ominous story of methane bubbling at Barents Sea. In Barrow, Alaska, he met Ira Leifer, a scientist who studies the shallow seas of the Arctic and works with NASA on methane data. Leifer discovered wicked SOS signals coming from a 620 square mile area of the Barents Sea jam-packed with methane bubbles at the rate of 60 million plumes, which is almost impossible to fathom as the normal background rate should be thousands, not 60 million.

The question arises: Are the three aforementioned sightings related, and if so, what are the consequences for the climate system and impact on society at large?

First and foremost, did NOAA/Barrow send notifications of the excessively high readings to the White House and members of Congress? After all, the danger of a major burst of methane out of the shallow-waters (40m-100m) within Russia’s continental shelves exceeds the risks of a North Korean missile attack.

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) alone is the size of Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan combined and jammed full of methane trapped beneath underwater permafrost that is rapidly thinning. (N. Shakhova)

“Pre-formed gas preserved in the ESAS suggests a potential for possible massive/abrupt release of CH4, whether from destabilizing hydrates or from free gas accumulations beneath permafrost; such a release requires only a trigger.” (Source: Natalia Shakhova, et al, Understanding the Permafrost-Hydrate System and Associated Methane Releases in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, Geosciences, June 5, 2019)

For additional perspective, according to Dr. Semiletov: “Emissions of methane from the East Siberian Shelf – which is the widest and most shallow shelf of the World Ocean – exceed the average estimate emissions of all the world’s oceans… We have reason to believe that such emissions may change the climate. This is due to the fact that the reserves of methane under the submarine permafrost exceed the methane content in the atmosphere is many thousands of times.” (Source: Arctic Methane Gas Emissions ‘Significantly Increased Since 2014’ – Major New Research, The Siberian Times, October 4, 2016)

For more perspective on the issue, I traveled to a site at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California to meet with Dr. Peter Wadhams.

During the interview, he repeatedly referenced his most recent book, A Farewell to Ice (Oxford University Press, also available in paperback via Penguin Books) to access a chart or check a calculation or a graph or map. I soon came to realize that A Farewell to Ice is an extraordinarily important accumulation of decades of solid scholarly work, an opus magnum on polar ice, indeed, an indispensible handbook for a proper understanding of one of the planet’s most extreme and dangerously vulnerable ecosystems.

Professor Peter Wadhams is the world’s most renowned polar ice scientist with 46 years of research on sea ice and ocean processes in the Arctic and the Antarctic. Since 2015, he serves as Professor Emeritus of Ocean Physics, Cambridge University. His biography is filled with distinguished international recognition, appointments to prestigious organizations, awards, and publications befitting a leading world scholar.

I met with him to gain a better understanding of what’s happening, especially as regards the ESAS. Reading his book, it becomes very clear that climate change is tethered to what happens in the Arctic. It is literally ground zero for the impact of global warming because, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Its impact is felt throughout the hemisphere and around the world.

When the subject of methane and the Siberian continental shelves came up, I recalled his cautionary statement in A Farewell to Ice:

“We must remember— many scientists, alas, forget—that it is only since 2005 that substantial summer open water has existed on Arctic shelves, so we are in an entirely new situation with a new melt phenomenon taking place.” (Wadhams, pg. 123)

In other words the prospects of a major ESAS methane eruption have sharply escalated over only the past 15 years with the loss of ice due to global warming. Yet, it is one of the least understood and least researched climate systems in the world. As mentioned previously, the IPCC gives it no consideration and most scientists downplay the risks.

According to Dr. Wadhams, the reasons it is under-researched include the fact that it is in Russian territorial waters, which serves to inhibit Western influence. Another factor that works against acceptance by the scientific community is due to native biases towards Russian researchers, namely Natalia Shakova, one of the foremost prominent researchers of ESAS.

Wadhams puts to rest the common criticism by many in the scientific community that say not to worry about ESAS starting a bout of dangerous runaway global warming (RGW) because subsea methane deposits oxidize and dissolve in the seawater as released and never make it into the upper atmosphere, to wit: “The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is exceptionally shallow — more than 75 per cent of its entire area of 2.1 million square kilometres is shallower than 40 metres — so most of the methane gas avoids oxidation in the water column and is released into the atmosphere.” (Wadhams, pg. 123)

With ESAS getting more and more active as of recent, it is important to evaluate the risks of further breakout. For example, Wadhams says that Natalia Shakova, the leading expert on ESAS, believes it contains up to 700 GT of CH4. The risk is rapid release, a big burp of 8% of the deposit or 50GT, which, in turn, would crank up worldwide temperatures by 0.6°C over two years. This would have an extremely negative impact on the overall global climate system with unknown but likely horrific results as temps crank up to, or beyond, the IPCC danger zone of 2°C much sooner than anybody expects. Wadhams believes this is society’s biggest climate threat because at 2°C above pre-industrial crop yields start going down, very rapidly. An ESAS big burp would do the job.

The risk of an ESAS methane big burp alone should be enough of a threat to motivate global governments to call an emergency meeting at the UN to do whatever it takes to halt excessive greenhouse gas emissions on a worldwide basis as soon as possible.

Alas, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), reality dictates otherwise, as all of the major players in the global oil patch plan on cranking up production by 120% by 2030, and coal production is projected to grow by leaps and bounds in China and India, as well as several developing countries over the upcoming decade.

The sorrowful reality is the world continues headstrong in the opposite direction of CO2 mitigation.

The following is but one example among many of impending climate disaster, almost assured, due to human shortsightedness: SUVs spewed 700 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere from 2010 to 2018, nearly half as much as the power industry, surpassing emissions by heavy industry such as iron and steel production and far outstripping CO2 from trucks, aviation or shipping. (Source: International Energy Agency- relevant article: “Urban SUVs Driving Huge Growth in CO2 Emissions: IEA, Phys.org, October 16, 2019)

“In 2010, 18 percent of all car sales in the world were SUVs. In 2018, more than 40% of all cars sold in the world are SUVs,” Ibid. The SUV fad is contagious and spreading like wildfire throughout the world marketplace. The problem: Sport-utility vehicles (gas guzzlers) aka: SUVs are the second-biggest contributor of growth of CO2 emissions in the world.

Even worse yet, the IEA report states: “If SUV demand continues at current rates, they will add nearly two million (2,000,000) barrels to global daily oil demand by 2040, offsetting the savings from nearly 150 million electric cars,” Ibid.

No wonder major producers intend to increase oil production by 120%. The demand is there.

Ouch! That adds considerably more certainty and a much higher probability to the “Big Burp Event.” We just don’t know the exact timing, yet.

Postscript: “First, the probability of this pulse happening is high, at least 50 percent according to the analysis of sediment composition by those best placed to know what is going on, Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov. Moreover, if it happens, the detrimental effects are gigantic… the risk of an Arctic seabed methane pulse is one of the greatest immediate risks facing the human race… Why then are we doing nothing about it? Why is this risks ignored by climate scientists, and scarcely mentioned in the latest IPCC assessment? It seems to be not just climate change deniers who wish to conceal the Arctic methane threat, but also many Arctic scientists, including so-called ‘methane experts.” (Wadhams, pg. 127-28)

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

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