Triggers to Release the Methane Monster: Sea Ice Retreat, Ocean Warming and Anoxia, Fires, Sea Level Rise and The Fresh Water Wedge

Perhaps the most hotly debated topic among climate scientists, when they are not facing off with the ignorance of underhanded climate change deniers, is the potential rate of Earth Systems response to human caused climate change. In general, the low hanging fruit of climate research is a more easy to puzzle out pace of likely warming due to the direct forcing of human greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions and the more rapid climate feedback coming from increasing water vapor due to increased evaporation. But higher up the tree hang the critical fruits of pace of albedo change and pace of carbon response as the Earth System warms. Understanding these two will provide a much greater clarity to the question of a long term rate of warming given a doubling of atmospheric CO2.

Paleoclimate, Paleoclimate, and Paleoclimate

Perhaps the best way to test the accuracy of our long-term Earth Systems global warming and climate models is to use temperature proxy data from past ages in Earth’s history. And, based on these proxy measures, we find that the long term warming from each doubling of CO2 is at least 6 degrees Celsius. Though the proxies are not perfect, they are in general agreement on a range of potentials averaging near this figure. And these measurements can provide some confidence that the total long-term warming from a doubling of CO2 is at least twice that caused by a CO2 increase and the related water vapor rise alone.

More accurate measures closer to the current day are even less reassuring. Looking at the ice-age and interglacial transitions over the last 500,000 years, we find that a very small forcing provided by orbital changes, resulting in a global increase in solar insolation of about .5 Watts per meter squared combined with changes in the angle at which sunlight hits the Earth (Milankovitch Cycles), is enough to, over the long term, increase CO2 levels by 100 ppm (from 180 to about 280), increase methane levels by about 300 parts per billion (ppb) and (here’s the stunning kicker) raise world temperatures by a whopping 5 degrees Celsius globally and 13 degrees Celsius at the poles.

Changes in Temperature and Methane Concentration

Changes in Temperature and Methane Concentration

(Image source: NASA)

A Human Forcing Six Times Greater Than That Which Ended the Last Ice Age

It should be a serious concern to climate scientists that the initial forcing of just .5 Watts per meter squared resulted in a relatively moderate 100 ppm CO2 and 300 ppb methane response which then combined to force temperatures radically higher. By comparison, the current human emission of 120 ppm CO2 and 1100 ppb CH4 (methane) and rising, combine with other human greenhouse gasses such as Nitrous Oxide, Tropospheric Ozone (human emission), Clorofluorocarbons and Halons to provide an initial forcing of fully 3 Watts per meter squared or about 6 times the total forcing that resulted in the last ice age’s end and ultimately set in place feedbacks that pushed global temperatures 5 degrees hotter (Data source: Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations).

Earth’s Own Carbon Stocks are Vast

So why was so small an initial solar forcing enough to end an ice age and, ultimately warm the poles by 13 degrees (C) and the globe by 5 degrees C and what does this mean when the human forcing is now at least six times greater?

In short, the Earth holds vast stores of carbon in the form of CO2 in its oceans, organic carbon in its tundra and frozen beneath land ice, and in very large stores of methane hydrates on the sea bed. Any forcing that is large or occurs over a very long period of time will act continuously on these sources, pushing more and more of the carbon out until all of the stores newly exposed to that forcing are emitted, the feedback warming kicks in, Earth albedo changes as ice sheets respond (also a source of additional heat), and Earth gradually reaches a new energy equilibrium state.

In the current day, melting tundra (both land and ocean) in the Northern Hemisphere holds about 1,500 gigatons of carbon (NSIDC), the oceans contain between 2,000 and 14,000 gigatons of methane hydrate (USGS), and these same oceans hold about 1,000 gigatons of carbon (CO2) in solution near the surface and 38,000 gigatons of carbon near the sea floor (University of New Hampshire: Global Carbon Pools/Fluxes).

USGS Methane Hydrate

USGS Methane Hydrate

Melting tundra releases its carbon stores as CO2 in an aerobic/oxygen environment and as methane in an anaerobic and anoxic environment. Thawing methane hydrates release methane into the oceans of which some enters the atmosphere. And warming oceans eventually are unable to uptake a rising level of atmospheric CO2 and, in extreme cases, begin emitting CO2 back into the atmosphere.

When compared to the gentle, though long term, nudge to the Earth’s carbon stocks generated by orbital changes and a slight increase in solar insolation that ended the last ice age, the human forcing equates to a very great and rude shove. And if that much more gentle nudge was enough to liberate 100 ppm and 300 ppb of methane from the Earth system into the Earth’s atmosphere, then how much will the now much faster and harsher human forcing put at risk of liberation?

Methane Release Sources in the Arctic

That human greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly warming the Earth at a rate of about .2 degrees Celsius per decade and that carbon emissions from the Earth environment are likely to increasingly result from this rapid and rising rate of warming is a given. At issue is how fast and powerful an Earth systems response will be. And one critical issue in understanding the speed of this potential response is rate of methane release (CO2 release is another issue that will be explored in another blog).

Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. Over twenty years time, it estimated to produce about 105 times the forcing of a similar volume of CO2 (this value is estimated to be about 25 times a similar volume of CO2 over 100 years time). So large pulses of this gas could result in a doubling or more of the total greenhouse gas forcing already acting on the Earth system. Such catastrophic releases are hypothesized to have acted during other periods of rapid warming such as during the PETM and Permian hyperthermals.

The above, admittedly lengthy preamble, is needed to give context to this specific issue: potentially large methane releases as a result of Arctic warming and a number of related release mechanisms that may increasingly come into play. However, before we drill down to mechanisms, let’s look at the disposition of potential Arctic methane sources to give us a basis for our degree of concern.

Thawing Arctic Permafrost, as mentioned above, provides a source of 1,500 gigatons of carbon, some of which will be released as methane as it melts to liberate its carbon stores to surface, subterranean, and subsea environments. Some of this permafrost is land-based, some of it is submerged, as on the East Siberian Arctic shelf. As the permafrost thaws, decay and release of this carbon into the atmosphere is likely to gradually build, providing a growing pool of both methane and carbon emissions. That said, a climate change establishes a number of environmental mechanisms created that are likely to result in greater and greater volumes of this store being released over time. These mechanisms may push methane in a slow and gradual way. But, as we proceed down the dangerous path of rapid human-caused warming, there is increasing danger of large, sudden releases.

In addition, the same expanding set of environmental changes could result in a higher percentage of this vast store being emitted as methane.

Stable Sea Bed Clathrates represent an unknown portion that is likely a majority of the estimated 500-2,000 gigatons of methane hydrates in the Arctic environment. These clathrates compose methane locked in ice lattice structures that occur around 200 meters below the sea bed. Release of these clathrates requires a heat forcing to not only penetrate into the ocean waters, but for it to also reach the clathrates below hundreds of feet of rock and mud. Once the clathrates are disassociated, they must travel through cracks in the rocks and mud, and then through the water column to reach the ocean surface and the atmosphere. On the way, some of the liberated methane dissolves in sea water and another portion is taken in by methane eating organisms. If the pulse is strong enough, the ocean water saturated enough, and the methane eating organisms sparse enough, a greater portion of this released methane will reach the surface.

Ice Age Relics are clathrates that have formed as shallow as 20 meters beneath the sea floor. They are thought to have formed under the glacial cold that encased the Arctic over the last 2 million years and that occurred with particular intensity over the last 800,000 years. These ice age depositions are particularly vulnerable to more rapid release and their expansion during the last glacial period results in a set of carbon stocks that are very vulnerable to rapid emission. In this case, we find yet one more reason why a rapid rise out of a period of glaciation is a rather dangerous climate circumstance. The deposition of carbon stores are placed in regions more vulnerable to thaw and release once warming is underway.

In sum, these three represent a majority of potential methane release sources.

Rumors of Fire: The East Siberian Arctic Shelf Emission

(Please ignore the cheesy intro music and proceed on to the interview)

During the 1990s, researchers noticed a methane overburden in atmospheric regions around the Arctic Circle. This overburden was seen as an indication that large local methane emissions were occurring in the Arctic. Subsequent research found methane emissions from thawing Arctic tundra, from melt lakes and from peat bogs. In addition a large emission source was identified in the Arctic Ocean.

As of 2010, reports were coming in from the Arctic that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf was emitting more methane than the entire Earth ocean system combined. By 2011, an expedition to the Arctic found methane emission sources more than 1 kilometer across over the same region of submerged permafrost. By 2012, expeditions could no longer be conducted on the ice surface in the region of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf due to the fact that the sea ice there had become too thin and unstable to support research equipment.

Dr. Natalia Shakhova and Dr. Igor Similetov found that the permafrost cap over the shallow East Siberian Arctic Shelf seabed had become perforated. The cap locks a very large volume of methane, estimated to be about 500 gigatons, under constant cold and pressure. As the cap perforates, the cold and pressure release and increasing volumes of methane shoot up from the sea bed saturating the water with methane with some of the methane releasing to the surface.

Shakhova and Similetov warn that 1 percent or more of this methane could release over the course of decades as the sea ice continues to erode in the region of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf and the undersea permafrost continues to perforate. Just a 1 percent release would be enough to double the amount of methane in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a .5 watt per meter squared forcing from an ESAS release alone. The researchers also identify the potential for a much larger, 50 gigaton release, which would more than double the current human GHG forcing over the course of just a few decades.

Such a large potential release was the subject of a much-debated Nature article by Peter Wadhams (read more here). And it was this article that raised the question of potential mechanisms that could result in such large releases of methane from the Arctic in the coming years.

The Arctic Under Heat: Ever More Powerful Mechanisms For Release

In examining potential release methane release mechanisms we will start with those currently acting on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf and work our way outward to the greater Arctic environment. It is worth noting that a paper by Carolyn Ruppel recently refuted Shakhova and Similetov’s findings, but that the Ruppel paper did not study the region of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf in question, only a related area of the Beaufort Sea which has not been found to currently show large, powerful, or widespread methane hydrate release.

East Siberian Sea

East Siberian Sea

(Image source: Commons)

Taking the Ice Lid off of a Shallow Sea. In the case of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, rapidly warming air and ocean combine with rapidly retreating sea ice to create what seems to be a powerful and concerning release mechanism. The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a 2 million square kilometer region that composes some of the Arctic’s densest carbon stores. It represents about 1/5 the Arctic Ocean area and is thought to contain about 500 gigatons of shallow sea bed methane hydrates. Over the past few decades, this region has warmed very rapidly, at the rate of about .5 degrees Celsius every ten years. This warming, at about 2.5 times the global rate, has resulted in a very rapid weakening and retreat of sea ice from the surface waters of a shallow sea that is, on average, about 50 meters deep. In recent years, summer sea ice has almost completely retreated from the ESAS, leaving a dark ocean surface to absorb sunlight and to rapidly warm. Measurements from the region show that water temperatures have increased by as much as 7 degrees Celsius above average once the sea ice pulls away. With the ice now gone, surface winds provide great mobility and mixing of the water column, this results in much of the surface water heating being transported down to the seabed. It also draws methane rich waters up from below where they can contact the air and release some of the water-stored methane.

Shakhova and Simeletov have observed perforations of the subsea permafrost releasing large volumes of methane from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf since 2008 and, as noted above, many of the hydrates stored beneath this permafrost cap are far shallower than is typical for a normal ocean seabed due to the fact that they are ice age relics. This combination of mechanisms provides the greatest current risk for rapid methane release. However, a number of other mechanisms are increasingly coming into play that may add to the, already concerning set of risks for rapid ESAS methane release.

Melting Tundra, Hot Lakes and Arctic Wildfires. NSIDC has identified about 1,500 gigatons of organic carbon locked in tundra systems throughout the Arctic. As the Arctic is forced to rapidly warm, larger and larger portions of this vast carbon store begin to thaw. Once the tundra melts, this carbon is subject to breakdown and action by microbes. This process of decay releases CO2 in dry environments and methane in wet, anoxic environments. Much of the tundra melt is subterranean. As such, this tundra melt is locked away in moist pockets that have little access to airflow. These pockets are at risk of being broken down into methane by anaerobic microbes. In some sections, tundra collapses and fills with water to form melt lakes. These lakes contact the anaerobic melt regions and create their own anaerobic bottom systems for carbon breakdown and release. Many of these lakes are so hot with methane that they provide emissions with high enough concentration to burn.

As the Arctic experiences more and more heatwaves, a far greater expanse of this extreme northern region is subject to wildfires. These fires are increasingly found to have burned deep into the soil. Reports from the Arctic find that fires have incinerated as many as 50% of the stumps of trees in a wildfire zone and consumed the carbon rich soil to a layer as deep as 3 feet below the surface. The action of wildfires further breaks open the soil and tundra cap providing passages to release any methane stored in anaerobic pockets beneath.

With these tundra regions composing so large a volume of carbon and with these areas being subject to increasingly rapid melting and increasingly energetic wildfires, larger and larger methane releases are entirely likely.

Ocean Warming, Anoxia, and the Fresh Water Wedge. As the years and decades progress and Arctic sea ice becomes more scarce, there is an increasing risk of large freshwater melt pulses from Greenland to combine with a warming Arctic Ocean to further amplify methane release. With the increasing removal of sea ice, Arctic Ocean temperatures surge, spreading a wider and wider area of heat forcing deeper and deeper into the water column and, eventually, into the seabed itself.

Some of this warming is visible in climate models projecting temperature and precipitation change throughout the Arctic over coming decades:

Projected temperature and precipitation change above the Arctic Circle.

Projected temperature and precipitation change above the Arctic Circle.

(Image source: Climate State)

A warmer Arctic Ocean is a less oxygen rich environment. The heat reduces the oxygen in solution, creating more anaerobic environments for organic carbon to break down as methane. Warmth also creates a greater sea-bed forcing for spontaneous and long-term release of methane hydrates.

As the seas surrounding Greenland warm and the Greenland environment takes in more of this latent heat, Greenland melt rates will continue to increase. The large fresh water pulses from Greenland will push the Gulf Stream further and further south, reducing the mixing of seawater in and near the Arctic, further reducing oxygen levels. These pulses will also act as a wedge, forcing warmer, saltier waters to dive down toward the ocean bottom as a fresh water cap expands from the Arctic Ocean southward (see Does Fresh Water Runoff Change Ocean Circulation to Unlock Deepwater Hydrates?). This mechanism will create a cool surface, hot depths ocean environment for the Arctic Ocean and northern latitude regions surrounding it.  Additional fresh water is likely to come from the continents as rates of precipitation increase, further adding to the fresh water cap and the creation of a growing region of stratified ocean with cooler, fresh water at the surface and a growing pool of warmer water below.

Unfortunately, large freshwater additions from melting snowcover and increasingly severe rainfall events, like the massive Yakutia floods have already resulted in changes to Arctic Ocean circulation, creating a large freshwater cap near the Beaufort and resulting in the risk of fresh water pulses entering the Pacific Ocean. A NASA animation shows how these changes are already ongoing:

And we have also noticed a great increase in ocean bottom heat content concentrated near the polar regions.

Thus we have three factors acting in concert to increase methane release. First, sea ice retreats to warm the Arctic Ocean. Second, increasing freshwater inflows divert the warmer waters toward the ocean bottom. Third, the warmer waters are less oxygen rich, creating more anoxic environments for anaerobic bacteria to break down organic carbon from thawing permafrost into methane. These anaerobes will receive plenty of nutrients from the waters washing off of glaciers and continents and will likely create great blooms over large areas as seas continue to warm. These combined forcing mechanisms will likely destabilize the weakest methane hydrate reserves first even as the anaerobes go to work on the newly liberated organic carbon.

Sea Level Rise Floods Large Regions of Tundra. A final mechanism for methane release is the rise of a less oxygenated Arctic Ocean to flood large sections of coastal tundra in Siberia, putting it under water and in an oxygen poor environment in which anaerobic bacteria can act to convert organic carbon into methane. A wide swath of coastal Siberia is low lying and, in some cases, is vulnerable to sea level rise for tens or even hundreds of kilometers inland. Over the years, larger sections of this region will be claimed by the sea, adding their carbon stores to an oxygen poor ocean bottom region.

Together, a rapidly destabilizing ESAS, a rapidly retreating ice sheet, increasing Arctic Ocean anoxia, increasing fresh water runoff into the Arctic Ocean, numerous anoxic environments within tundra thaw regions, increasingly energetic wildfires, expanding regions of stratified waters with hot ocean bottoms and cooler ocean surfaces, and seas rising to flood areas of thawing tundra provide sufficient and numerous mechanisms to be seriously concerned about Arctic methane release as an amplifier and potential multiplier to human caused warming.


Milankovitch Cycles

NASA: Changes in Methane Concentration

CDAIC: Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations

NSIDC: It’s All About Frozen Ground

USGS: Methane Hydrates

University of New Hampshire: Global Carbon Pools/Fluxes

Nature: The Vast Costs of Arctic Change

Does Fresh Water Runoff Change Ocean Circulation to Unlock Deepwater Hydrates?

A Looming Climate Shift: Will Ocean Heat Come Back to Haunt US?

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  1. Reblogged this on abraveheart1.

  2. Reblogged this on Climate Force.

  3. james cole

     /  August 16, 2013

    This subject gets heated debate, I think because of how serious it is. Most if not all who discuss this topic make sure to assure us that no matter what the outcome, it is going to be long, slow and far, far out into the future. Such that one can read the debate, and feel secure.

    • I’m not comfortable with making that reassurance as it could very well prove false. I also think that the less comfortable we are with climate change now, the more likely we are to make changes and prevent the worst consequences. It’s realistic to include a likelihood for large ESAS release over the coming decades. Simeletov, who’s doing most of the research on the ground in this region is very concerned. In the case of volcanos, I tend to listen to the scientists directly on the mountain. And, in the case of the Arctic, I believe we need to give the risks Shakhova and Simeletov raise a fair reckoning. In this case, I find false or unproven comforts very disturbing.

  4. A very interesting report on the occurrence of methane and its relation to global warming. Well written, except for the apparent omission of extensive deposits of clathrates in the Gulf of Mexico, on and within the upper thousand feet of the bottom sediments. These deposits are said to become unstable at approximately 4 degrees C, evolving their hydrocarbon contents upward through the water column, some of which will make it into the atmosphere. Oil and gas companies are already looking at methods of clathrate-gas production. The Japanese have done it.

    • Clathrate gas production, at this point, is like loading up fire suppression aircraft with napalm and dumping it on an already out of control wildfire.

      Though the article includes an Arctic focus, there are clearly other sources of methane destabilization including the continental shelf off the east coast, containing 13 gt of methane now destabilizing, large deposites near Svalbard identified by White as destabilizing, and, as you astutely mention GOM deposites.

  5. lewiscleverdon

     /  August 17, 2013

    Thanks for this broad overview – the likes of which are all too rarely available on the web. A couple of points that may warrant greater emphasis as contributors to the rate of CO2e output rise, concern forests and rainfall.

    While you remark the rise of boreal and tundra fire, and the depth of dry peat that can be burnt off, these are of potentially immense CO2 outputs in coming years, as well as of a cocktail of high-grade GHGs. For instance, where fires burn unusually hot, there is a NOx output on a large scale with a CO2e of around 300 (IIRC), which is in turn a major precursor of Ozone which is both directly toxic to terrestrial life and of course is also a potent GHG.

    Beside the fires’ direct heat pulse into underlying peat and permafrost, and the burn scars’ greater insolation for some years after, there seem to be a growing range of direct drivers of permafrost melt and of the proportion of its carbon emitted as methane. The greatest of these would appear to be the poleward migration of rainfall, that not only delivers water at summer air temperatures into the peat but also increases the area of melt-pools, land-slip dam lakes and floodwaters, all of which are both raising insolation and providing the anaerobic environment for methanogen bacteria to predominate.

    With the attenuation of the NH Jetstream, we have the ideal mechanism for alternating extremes of drought and high rainfall across the vast boreal and tundra areas, thus multiplying these drivers of total CO2e output. No doubt somewhere in your impressively prolific archive there is already an article on Algui Dai’s report on the PDSI and the migration of rainfall and its consequences, but perhaps it is time for an update covering the updated version and its implications ?

    I share your unease over the false comforts offered by the optimism bias of the Archer-Schmidt orthodoxy and their adherents. With Archer having declared a maximum of 2.7% of permafrost carbon being emitted as methane (conveniently below the 3% threshold that would double CO2e output) in remarks on the recent NSIDC study, his credibility is in tatters after the recent reports of the Yedoma Permafrost already emitting around 20% of its carbon as methane. I note that the establishment has yet to acknowledge this empirical refutation of the optimism bias, but it doesn’t surprise me as I don’t share the tribal adulation of scientists now common across those concerned by AGW, since by my guess for every climate scientist there are likely 50 more scientists employed to apply their knowledge to raising fossil fuel outputs. And climate scientists are plainly not proof against commercial or political corruption – as various already notorious individuals demonstrate.

    Yet the core of the false comfort provided to the public is not simply the fact of downplaying the seven interactive mega-feedbacks already accelerating, but of pushing the delusion that a strategy of emissions-control alone would be effective in avoiding catastrophic outcomes. The latter is of course readily rebutted:- with a best-case of near-zero CO2 output by 2050, we should then have at least 30yrs of timelagged warming, plus the inevitable warming from the loss of the fossil sulphate parasol, continuing to accelerate the mega feedbacks into the 2080s. Given the interactive feedbacks’ observed acceleration under present warming of just 0.8C, it is simply implausible to propose that they would not run beyond the possibility of control under continuous intensifying warming until the 2080s.

    The establishment is of course careful to avoid stating that implausible proposal, and instead deflects all possible debate it can into the diversion of the tribal circus of denial, and the dead end of contested renewables’ deployment with their nullifying “fossil savings bought-and-burnt-elsewhere” syndrome.

    From this perspective, I wonder whether you might be open to persuasion one day to extending the scope of your excellent articles on current impacts and their science, to also making forays into the fraught issue of just what is needed politically and technically for the commensurate mitigation of AGW ?



    • Thanks for the very thoughtful and helpful comment.

      At this point, an Aglui update would certainly be helpful, especially given the context (massive Yakutia floods). I’ll put it on the plate.

      As for tackling AGW, I’m working on an emergency response article that ATTEMPTS to set the table for, what I believe, will probably be an extraordinarily tough fight — first politically, and then, if we manage to make it so far, at a globally coordinated level.

      GHG (all together including CO2, methane, CFC, Halons, ozone –all) mitigation is essential — taking you the lion’s share of the distance. That said, large Earth systems feedbacks cannot be ruled out. So, at the very least, we may need to prepare a range of GEO E options starting with, but not limited to, the non FF maintenance of the sulfate parasol. Other albedo increase response along with atmospheric and ocean CCS, though expensive, may also be needed. My opinion is we also need long term economic systems change, change in diets and food choice/access, direct changes to farming and land management, active effort to support and shore up Earth life systems, and long term population restraint. Needless to say, there’s no way we can get there without radical and rapid GHG emissions reductions. GEO E and behavior change without that is like running the pumps without plugging the hole. Direct replacement of FFs with renewables is, therefore, essential (no off-sets or trade offs).

      • lewiscleverdon

         /  August 18, 2013

        Robert – many thanks for your response, which is most heartening.

        I’d been wondering when the primary argument for Albedo Restoration Geo-E – that of replacing the fossil sulphate parasol – would first get stated. Kudos for doing so. Yet the primary threat justifying Albedo Restoration is in my view neither that loss nor the feedbacks, but the looming threat of intensifying global crop failures by the 2020s whose worst consequence would be a geopolitical destabilization that negates the operation of a global climate treaty.

        The most recent report on crop failure I’ve seen (autumn 2012) was solely on Asia and was led by an IPCC lead-author: “Near future projections of the impact of drought in Asia” and can be seen in the reports section at :

        “Research released today shows that within the next 10 years large parts of Asia [particularly China, India, Pakistan and Turkey] can expect increased risk of more severe droughts, which will impact regional and possibly even global food security.

        On average, across Asia, droughts lasting longer than three months will be more than twice as severe in terms of their soil moisture deficit compared to the 1990-2005 period. This is cause for concern as China and India have the world’s largest populations and are Asia’s largest food producers.

        Dr Lawrence Jackson, a co-author of the report, said: “Our work surprised us when we saw that the threat to food security was so imminent; the increased risk of severe droughts is only 10 years away for China and India. These are the world’s largest populations and food producers; and, as such, this poses a real threat to food security.”

        Neither Emissions Control nor Carbon Recovery can resolve this threat of the destabilization of global agriculture, and by my maths could not begin to do so even if it were 50 years hence. From this perspective I find the AMEG approach sub-optimal, in that as the justification for rapid Albedo Restoration it focusses on the real but disputable threat of a radical change in clathrate CH4 output of 1.0 to 5.0Gts/yr CH4, when not only would a relatively minor increase – of say 300Mts/yr CH4 – roughly equal the CO2e of the entire present anthro CO2 output, but also the threat of serial crop failure, famine and geopolitical destabilization are both more immediate, more damaging, more understandable, and less easily disputed. The lack of sobriety of language of some of their supporters also seems very counter-productive for effective communication.

        I’d well agree that changing course will be bitterly contested by the US establishment, but I’d urge you to question the prime culpability of the usual suspects. With the US fossil lobby producing only about 8% of GDP, and all other US corporations and the whole political establishment facing the AGW threat of terminal decline, it is notable that those US corporations do nothing to counter the fossil lobby propaganda, nor do they spend the chickenfeed costs of outbidding it for political influence. Nor do any but a token handful of politicians make the slightest effort to arouse the public. The corporations are evidently complicit in the bipartisan policy of inaction since 2000, despite having no inherent commercial loyalty to fossil fuels.

        In a stark contrast to that complicity, European corporations have been providing pivotal information to the global debate, such as Munich Re’s 40yr database of accelerating climate impacts, and KPMG’s seminal report of a very dire prognosis without commensurate action. The key difference is that European corporations and politicians have no loyalty to the US paramount bipartisan policy priority since WW2 of maintaining global economic dominance, which China is on track to usurp in the next few years.

        Putting down China’s bid for global economic dominance – via crop failures and civil unrest leading to regime change – is the only motivation I’ve found to date that is on a scale to justify the risks of Cheney’s climate policy of launching a Brinkmanship of Inaction with China, and to explain Obama’s bizarre but evident adoption of inaction and of obstruction of the climate treaty. If I’d been tasked with selling the policy to the newly elected Obama in January 2009, I guess I’d have focussed on the advantages of denying the war party a rising justification for escalating rivalry into ruinous conflict, while also backing the demand of the very powerful corporations that US dominance be maintained.

        That the policy is reckless and genocidally immoral seems obvious, but it was also based on the flawed assumptions that China would be hit so much harder by climate impacts than the US, and that it would be so much less able to afford the losses and rebuilding costs – both of which have been proven dead wrong. In this sense the physical outcome is entirely uncertain, and the policy is highly vulnerable, as climate impacts rise, to being exposed to the public and overthrown in a wave of furious protest at this ongoing Neo-Con heritage.

        If and when the US establishment is brought to recognize its need to put climate before global dominance and to negotiate constructively, the situation is surprisingly benign.
        – The intentional roadblock of refusal to address historic emissions is potentially dissolved by a Carbon Recovery protocol whereby all nations commit to recovering their fraction of anthro CO2 stocks at a veriable rate by an agreed date of say 2100. With the option of a global program of native afforestation on non-farmland for biochar soil enhancer and coproduct methanol making this partly self-funding, that commitment is eminently achievable.
        – The fraught inter-national arguments on emissions control over open-ended liability for open-ended climate damages are potentially similarly dissolved by a protocol for rapid Albedo Restoration to restore to the pre-industrial global temperature while Carbon Recovery progresses, thereby halting both agricultural destabilization and extreme weather impacts and the acceleration of the feedbacks. It may also need saying that the protocol would need to mandate the stringent UN scientific supervision of the objectives, research and local trials of AR options, with deployment being by the collective decision of all UN member states.
        – The negotiation for Emissions Control has for almost 20 years included the treaty-framework of “Contraction & Convergence” as a potential means of resolving the competing demands for equity – without which there is no agreement and the treaty would not endure – and for efficiency in rapidly reducing the CO2e output, which appears to limit nations’ emergence from poverty. It proposes that a precautionary global carbon budget be agreed that Contracts annually towards near-zero by an agreed date, and that this should be allocated across the nations. Those allocations of national emission rights would Converge form their present GDP basis towards international per capita parity by an agreed date, and would be tradable between nations with a surplus and those with a shortage. This sets a practical price on carbon that includes all products for home use or export (those with heavy embedded carbon mean sale-of-allocation foregone or extra allocation bought in) as well as on land-use and deforestation policies.

        The C&C framework has been widely endorsed and now forms the basis of the negotiating stance of many nations including the European Union, India, Australia, Brazil, the African Group of nations, China, and many others. The last head of the UNFCCC went as far as to state that it is “inevitably required.” Notably the US stated in the final hours of the Kyoto negotiation in response the India and Africa’s demands :
        “It does seem to us that the proposals by for example India and perhaps by others who speak to Contraction and Convergence are elements for the future, elements perhaps for a next agreement that we may ultimately all seek to engage in . . .”

        From this perspective, it seems plain that the negotiation of a commensurate and durable treaty is eminently achievable, once there is the will in the major powers, and particularly the USA, to do so. In getting that change of outlook, it is thus critically important to focus effort where it is needed, rather than the usual sinks where it is routinely deflected to as a means of preserving the ongoing policy of inaction from challenge.

        Further info on C&C can be found at :

        With my apologies for for this note being far longer than intended,



  6. The water machine is still running flat out in Northeast China –
    The TRIMM image for the last 7 days .

    Unfortunately , Russia isn’t covered by the TRIMM.

  7. “Reuters) – As many as 100,000 people may be evacuated from their homes near Russia’s border with China if the region’s biggest floods for 120 years get worse, Russian media reported on Saturday.

    • More than 300 millimeters (11.8 inches) of rain fell on the Amur, Khabarovsk and Primorye regions from July 1 through Aug. 12, causing floods there and in the neighboring Jewish Autonomous Region, according to data from the weather center. Some areas in the Far East received a year’s rain in the period, the center said yesterday.

      “We have never seen such a large-scale flood in our country’s history,” Alexander Frolov, chief forecaster at the center, said today on state television channel Rossiya 24. “The flood covers territory from Lake Baikal to the Pacific Ocean.”

    The acidity of the oceans will more than double in the next 40 years. This rate is 10 times faster than 55 million years ago when when a mass extinction of marine life occurred. It is also faster than during 4 of earth’s mass extinction events during the last 300 hundred million years. The oceans are now 30% more acidic than in pre-industrial times. In 40 years they will be 60% more acidic than then. Sea life will burn in acid with nowhere to hide.

    Climate is changing 10,000 times faster than evolution can adapt.

    When ice ages come and go the planet can change temperature 5°C in as little as 5,000 years. 50 times slower than what we are doing to earth now. In the past, a 5°C change normally takes 20,000 years, we are going to do 5°C in 50-100 years, 200 times faster.

    Climate change is happening 100 times faster than in the past.

    By 2025, humans will impact 50% of earth’s biosphere. This will cause a planetary ecological state shift leading to a mass extinction event that is unstoppable and irreversible once started.

    Why does nobody talk about the thousands of 1-kilometer wide bubbling methane seabeds recorded in 2011.

    Only 1% of methane needs to be released to cause total disaster.

    Peter Wadhams interview

    Natalia Shakhova interview

    • Acidic oceans impact those animals with calcareous shells. The combined impact of ocean warming, acidity and anoxia is what causes extinctions in the oceans. Canfield oceans are also very dangerous to those on land.

  9. Great article – all too rare to see such well presented arguments around methane. I certainly agree that I also listen to Shakhova and Semiletov and the like (experts in the field) over those with no specific expertise in this region. One minor point:
    “Over one year’s time, it produces about 105 times the forcing of a similar volume of CO2”
    105x is actually the methane forcing over a 20 year horizon, including direct and indirect aerosol effects as per Shindell (NASA) et al 2009. If you could calculate a 1 year value no doubt it would be even higher, though I question how meaningful that is in all situations given time needed to mix into the atmosphere following a large release.

    • Thanks for the fact check. Will add on the morrow.

    • lewiscleverdon

       /  August 19, 2013

      While the Shindel 09 assessment of CH4’s GWP over time plainly gives a more comprehensive account than previous efforts, it has long seemed problematic in giving only a ‘snapshot’ account of the GWP over time of a single year’s output, and thus understates the actual CO2e for a given year from a steady output each year.

      Another possibility is that the GWP figures for methane actually are the cumulative CO2 values for a steady level of output, and science has done such a mediocre job of describing the science that no one has actually bothered to explain this to the public.

      Any insights on this issue would be very welcome.



      • I’m investigating these studies now, due to the points made and brought up. Levels ranging from 20 to 105 times CO2e are given for numerous time periods. But the question remains as to what level a constant value of CH4 indicates. Is a rise of 10 ppb, for example, equal to about 1ppm CO2e? Or is the forcing value for the same constant rise .2 ppm COe?

        I’ve come across one report that shows the degree of forcing attributed to the human addition of methane is about .5 watts per meter squared for an approximate rise of 1000 ppb since the start of the industrial revolution. This roughly equates to x20 forcing for an equal volume of methane long-term.

        So is the forcing actually greater and they are counting on this extra methane leaving the atmosphere? Or is the x20 figure the actual long-term value?

        More research needed to clarify…

  10. gerald spezio

     /  August 18, 2013

    Robert, you are, hands down, the best source of the MOST important information in the MOST readable format on the net.
    Ever since Miller & CARVE announced the 150 km methane plumes about 15 days ago, I have been confronting the highly probable need for the proverbial hemlock.
    And we thought that 1 km methane plumes were terrifying?
    Semiletov & Shakhova know how long we have left.

  11. gerald spezio

     /  August 18, 2013

    If there s a more pregnant statement about our future than this, I can’t find it.
    Robert is following Semiletov & Shakhova.
    “Only 1% of methane needs to be released to cause total disaster. ”
    The area of the ESAS is more than four times the total area of TEXAS, & it is releasing a prodigious amount of methane at .8 C above baseline as we observe.

    • The fact that we are seeing these releases in the megaton range at .8 C is troubling and, in my view, cause for urgent mitigation and preparation for a potential series of emergency responses.

      I also think that we need to take more than just current temperature increase into account. The very large and rapid human forcing of 5-6 times that seen at the end of the last ice age does not discriminate. Its energy goes to warming atmosphere and ocean, true. But that same energy goes to melting and darkening ice (reducing albedo) and to thawing tundra and hydrates. Since it takes extra energy to push at the inertia inherent in ice sheets, oceans, and frozen ground and since many of those same sources of inertia produce a carbon feedback when warmed, we can probably expect an acceleration of feedbacks once certain tipping points are reached. And given what we’re seeing in the Arctic and in increased fire ignition rates, I think it is fair to say we are at or dangerously close to at least a few of these tipping points.

      I’d say that we have reached a degree of danger now. And getting to +1.5 C over the next few decades will probably unlock a set of very difficult to manage consequences.

      As for the hemlock… We continue to drink it in prodigious quantities through our continued politically enforced reliance on fossil fuels and related ghg emitting industry.

  12. gerald spezio

     /  August 18, 2013

    Robert, 1.5 C is essentially double our existing .8 C.
    The rate at which we get to 1.0 or 1.1 is harbinger of when we will see 1.5
    I do not think that it will take “the next few decades” to reach 1.5.
    Most all reliable researchers/modellers agree that we are already committed to 2.0 C increase.
    The ghastly events you have delineated for us so well have occurred at only .8 C increase over baseline.
    Now, we routinely hear of 3 – 6 C increase from reliable sources.

  13. gerald spezio

     /  August 19, 2013

    If we are committed to 2.0 C in whatever period, when the 2.0 mark is reached will the acceleration from .8 C to 1.5 C to 2.0 C miraculously stop?
    Non-linearity is clearly evidenced, as I peck.
    Planet earth will probably speed past the 2.0 C mark like a speeding car passes a road sign.

    • Depending on rate of ice sheet response, we might hit 7C under BAU by the end if this century. Almost certainly, a major melt pulse from Greenland/West Antarctica would temporarily slow down warming due to the cooling effect of ice release.

      Over the next three decades, however, inertia is still high. So .2 C to .3 C warming will probably remain the norm unless major tipping points are hit. Under a slightly faster regime, we could hit 1.5 by 2030-35. But that includes the early quickening of amplifying feedbacks along with virtually no GHG mitigation.

      Hitting around 2 C, under BAU and amplifying feedbacks by 2050 is likely, with major Earth system alterations as a result. At that point, in my view, the amplifying feedbacks hit high gear.

      That said, this analysis does not include a large methane pulse of the kind warned of by Shakhova. Such a pulse could increase the rate of warming to .3 to.5 C per decade, pushing warming to around 3 C by mid Century. So early in the game, this is a stunning rate of increase.

      To hit 6 C by mid century, you need multiple and extraordinary catastrophic events. We don’t have evidence for such a potential emerging so soon, as yet.

      On the low end, if we are extraordinarily lucky, we continue along at .2 C and hit 1.6 C warming by mid century. My view is that this is not very likely under BAU and with the loud rumors now emerging in the Arctic.

      As mentioned above, large melt pulse and/or Heinrich type events slow down the warming but with very bad consequences of setting off far more violent weather than what we experience even now.

      Finally, if you think this rate of warming is too slow, consider that the same amount of warming took hundreds to thousands of years to emerge at the end of the last ice age. Such a rapid pace of increase will have terrible and highly anomalous consequences. Even a ‘slow’ warming to 1.6 C would be far short of placid and it is my view that that measure is probably on the low end, when all mechanisms and feedbacks are taken into account.

  14. Steve

     /  August 19, 2013

    I don’t understand why so many scientists continue to mention 2 degrees C as some major point of destruction. Look what we are seeing right now at .8. Look at the massive flooding and droughts in the last 3 years. The base that we are building from each year is getting worse and worse. The monster is already of the closet, people are just closing their eyes and hoping it’s a figment of their imagination or a dream. I think the devastion at 1.2 will be absolutely catastrophic. .

    • I think we see ice sheet destabilization starting now and getting very bad by around 1.5 C. It’s the level of forcing that’s causing the trouble. The system is responding very fast and we see Earth changes now.

    • lewiscleverdon

       /  August 19, 2013

      Steve – assuming 1.2C takes 20 years to be realized, I’d strongly agree with your prognosis of it being absolutely catastrophic. But in my view this is not about the surface air temperature, which in the last decade has not risen in tandem with the massive increase in impacts of a destabilized climate – it is about extrapolating the rising curve of global impacts’ severity in 1993 to the present level 2013, and then the by at least same multiple again forward to 2033, to reflect the decline of the NH cryosphere that kept climate stable.

      From this perspective, if we fail to agree and deploy commensurate countermeasures alongside Emissions Control (to stop adding to the problem) and Carbon Recovery (to start cleaning up our mess) then the chance of avoiding serial intensifying global crop failures before 2030 look like remote-to-none.

      Perhaps the blackest joke in the whole campaign is the goal of the leading “activist” group of seeking to restore the safe level of 350ppmv of CO2, which we passed through in the late 1980s. Given the 30 to 40yr time lag on warming from each year’s additional CO2 output (due to the ocean’s thermal inertia), we’re going to see just how delightful the goal of is to live with as a climate in about 5 to 10 years’ time.



      • Yeah, we’re essentially living with a 345 ppm CO2 climate now, or about a 450 CO2e climate, depending on how you account for these things.

  15. gerald spezio

     /  August 19, 2013

    Steve says; “The monster is already of the closet, people are just closing their eyes and hoping it’s a figment of their imagination or a dream. I think the devastion at 1.2 will be absolutely catastrophic.”

    I agree.

    • Exactly. We have the start of major climate destabilization at + .8 C warming and a forcing of around 3 Watts per meter squared. That’s what we should be focusing on.

      And I agree with Lewis RE response now.

      @ Lewis

      I’ve been thinking about your thoughts on the reason US business and political interests are so wedded to oil, gas and coal. And I honestly don’t think it’s a PLAN CARBON mindset. I worked in MI for a number of years and it seemed the policy folks were deeply enchanted with the notion of gaming fossil fuels. The rationale seemed to be both to encourage extraction from other countries for export onto the global market and related, more rapid, depletion of foreign sources. After these sources were depleted enough, the US would begin to re-emerge as a petro leader due to its vast reserves of unconventional fuels.

      At the time (early 2000s), climate change was barely on the map and was never though to be so great a risk as is becoming visible now.

      My opinion is that a legacy of this gamesmanship and quest for economic leadership through fossil fuel competitive advantage is still a major aspect of US energy policy. I believe this policy is both naive and destructive (to both the US and to others). I also believe that a good degree of wealth is locked into this policy stance. A shift of the US from fossil fuels to renewables would result in a large transfer of wealth from currently powerful interests to those who are less well off, both within the US and within the larger world economic system.

      The continuation of this system is, in my view, simply motivated by powerful interests and related entrenched US policy seeking to maintain dominance. My view is that this system is greed-based, at its worst. And though genocide may be the result of such a policy, it is a risk of wordwide crisis and one that would ravage the US as much as any other country. It is a crisis that, I believe, even the wealthy are unlikely to avoid.

      In my view, I don’t think they realize what’s coming. Climate change denial rules their world-view, because their current political and economic power cannot stand in a world that effectively responds to climate change.

      As a denouement to this comment, I’ll say again that the US is directly in the firing line of very severe climate impacts under business as usual and continuing to move forward with the exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels. The current competitive advantage policy of the US (based on fossil fuel leadership and unconventional fuel exploitation) is blind to this obvious and growing risk and will result in severe tragedy for all players.


  16. gerald spezio

     /  August 19, 2013

    lewiscleverdon disses Hahvid literary genius & ‘writer” Bill McKibben for his naive & farcical “ movement” to return to 350 PPM CO2 by the exercise of revolutionary new age thinking.

    In his most recent piece at Tomdispatch Bill prescribes a new movement of young people, feminists, & communitarians; who WILL band together to smite the evil forces of the fossil fuel colossus.

    This is new?

    Bill’s final three statements seriously predict;

    “It can only happen with a spread-out and yet thoroughly interconnected movement, a new kind of engaged citizenry. Rooftop by rooftop, we’re aiming for a different world, one that runs on the renewable power that people produce themselves in their communities in small but significant batches. The movement that will get us to such a new world must run on that kind of power too.

    Bill’s has a new book, & it is all about Bill, & how Bill developed his new identity.
    Bill flew tens of thousands of miles in powerful jet aircraft at 500 mph burning tons of fossil fuel in order to lecture lesser mortals about the perils of indiscriminately burning fossil fuels & how renewable power & community can save our well fed selfish well-fed arses.from perdition. is as dead as the dodo bird, & we aren’t far behind.

    • I support as well as James Hansen. Their divestment and tar sands opposition have been effective and need to be built upon. I will be donating book proceeds to their causes and to other charities that support a transition away from fossil fuels as an effective mitigation.

  1. The biggest story you never saw on the six o'clock news » Why Aren't You Outraged?
  2. Another Week of Climate Instability News, August 18, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered
  3. Like a Volcano Awakening at the Top of our Earth: From Baffin Bay to the Laptev Sea, Arctic Methane Monster Releases Troubling Ourbursts | robertscribbler

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