Like a Volcano Slowly Awakening at the Top of our Earth: From Baffin Bay to the Laptev Sea, Arctic Methane Monster Releases Troubling Outbursts

The most dangerous of volcanoes have a number of identifiable behaviors.

They tend to lay dormant for hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of years. Then, slowly, as heat and pressure beneath the Earth builds, they begin to awaken. First they tremble a bit. Then they emit a growing volume of noxious gas. Then, they begin a series of mini-outbursts in an ever more violent build-up to an explosive and destructive grand eruption.

The lost residents of Pompeii, were they here today, could tell us what such an event is like.

Now consider that a volcano-like thing also exists beneath the world’s frozen oceans and lands near the roof of our world. A thing that probably hasn’t erupted in over 45 million years. A thing that has had this immense period of time in which to build up an enormous highly toxic and explosive reserve of frozen and sequestered methane. A thing that is at least as large as the boundary circumscribed by the Arctic Circle. A vast and extraordinarily dangerous monster of a thing. A kind of climate super-volcano.


(Initial methane out-gassing shows a tell-tale methane overburden in the troposphere near Arctic ocean and tundra methane sources in 2011. Just one of many signs of what may be a very large, impending methane eruption. Image source: NASA/AIRS.)

For ever since the Earth began its long fall into cooling at the end of the Eocene, methane has been freezing at the bottom of the world’s oceans, sequestering in the frozen earth. As world land and ocean temperatures fell, the methane formed into clathrates or was bound up in organic permafrost and was, ever-after, locked away. There it lay patiently, waiting for the time when it would be, once again, disturbed by a return to warmth.

And that time of dangerous and explosive reawakening, increasingly, seems to be now.

Footprint of the Vast Volcanic Monster: Shallow Seas, Deep Seas, Permafrost

Of these volatile methane concentrations, some of the most prolific and the most vulnerable reside in the Arctic. Some, which lay sequestered within the shallow sea bed near the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, have been the subject of much controversy during recent years. Scientists like Natalia Shakhova and Peter Wadhams have issued repeated warnings that these methane stores could be vulnerable to a rapid release as sea ice retreats and waters warm. It is estimated that as much as 1400 gigatons of methane lay sequestered under Arctic submarine permafrost in the ESAS. A massive store that, if disturbed even in part, could provide an immense amplifying feedback to human-caused warming.

But the Arctic submarine permafrost isn’t the only zone in which large volumes of methane lay hidden. The Amundsen Basin, one of the deepest trenches in the Arctic Ocean, in the Laptev Sea is a known emitter of methane from sub-sea sources. A region near Svalbard both stores and emits large volumes of methane. And, recently, high rates of methane release have been observed near Baffin Bay. A complete catalog of these stores has not been adequately assessed. But, in combination, it is likely that they at least approach the total volume of stores in the vulnerable East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) zone.

Ominous Rumblings from the Rapidly Warming Deeps

These stores are deeper beneath the ocean surface and so are not generally thought to be as vulnerable as the shallow sea reserves in the ESAS. But this thinking may be in error as Arctic waters display a temperature inversion in which surface waters near the ice pack are colder than deeper waters far below.

In addition, wide zones of deep water in the Arctic have displayed rapid warming over the past few decades. As an example, bottom waters in the Greenland Sea, an area between the east coast of Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard, were shown in a September 2013 study to be warming 10 times faster than the rest of the world’s deep ocean system. According to the report:

Recent warming of the Greenland Sea Deep Water is about ten times higher than warming rates estimated for the global ocean. Scientists analyzed temperature data from 1950 to 2010 in the abyssal Greenland Sea, which is an ocean area located just to the south of the Arctic Ocean.

Deep Water Warming in Greenland Sea

(Deep Water Warming in the Greenland Sea since 1950. Image source: Science Daily. Image credit: Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.)

In other regions of the Arctic and through the rest of the global ocean system rapid ocean bottom warming has also been observed. Recent studies by Kevin Trenberth have found that heat accumulation in the deep ocean, during recent years, has outpaced that of warming at or near the surface. And because this warming occurs adjacent to frozen methane stores on or beneath the sea floor, it is a very, very dangerous development.

To the point of an observed rapid warming of the deep ocean, it is important to note that there are a number of mechanisms that transport heat into the abyss worldwide. But in the Arctic, this transfer system is amplified and particularly intense. Fresh, cold surface waters tend to deflect warmer, saltier waters funneling in from more southerly latitudes toward the Arctic Ocean bottom. As glacial ice melts in Greenland, as storms within the Arctic intensify and become more prevalent, and as fresh water runoff from the continents surrounding the Arctic basin increases, fresh water content at the surface grows and widens, creating a kind of fresh water wedge that expands southward and deflects warmer, saltier water toward the ocean bottom.

And there, the warmer waters can go to work releasing the massive volumes of methane stored in frozen clathrates near the ocean floor.

Large Mid-February Methane Belch

Methane released from deep water clathrate stores has a long journey before it reaches the atmosphere. The methane passes through the water column, where a portion of it oxidizes into CO2. Microbes near the methane source and throughout the water column devour a portion of the methane as an energy source. But eventually, if the pulse is large enough, the methane finds its way to the surface and releases. Such outbursts are, likely, only a fraction of the initial bottom release. So a large expulsion into the atmosphere may well be a hint that something even more powerful and energetic is going on down below.

Over the past decade, deep water regions have shown at least as much atmospheric venting as the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. And this year has been no exception with troubling outbursts continuing in a zone from Baffin Bay to Svalbard to the Laptev Sea. These outbursts have, in part, contributed to increasing atmospheric methane concentrations at a rate of around 7 parts per billion each year since 2007 after an 8 year period during which global methane levels had plateaued at around 1790 parts per billion. By comparison, pre-industrial global methane levels were around 750 parts per billion during the 1880s. Today, they average around 1835 ppb (Mauna Loa). Should very large outbursts emerge, the rate of atmospheric methane increase would be expected to dramatically steepen. And though we haven’t yet seen these kinds of outbursts, more minor, but still large and concerning, continue to occur with troubling frequency.

This past week, according reports from Methane Tracker and Sam Carana, two particularly large and troubling ocean to atmosphere methane outbursts were observed in this region — one over the Laptev Sea and the other over Baffin Bay. The Baffin Bay outburst occurred in a zone where water depths ranged from 1,000 to 2,500 meters (middle to deep ocean) and the Laptev outburst likely occurred from the deep waters and precipitous slopes of the Amundsen Basin which plunges as deep as 4,400 meters (extraordinarily deep ocean) and extends almost directly under the North Pole.

Methane belch

(Methane belching from Laptev Sea and Baffin Bay on February 22nd with highest reading spiking to 2383 ppb, about 500 ppb above the global average. Image source: Methane Tracker and Sam Carana. Data source: composite methane data collection from SIO, NOAA ESRL, U.S. Navy, GEBCO. )

From these outbursts, 10,000 foot methane concentrations of 2383 ppb were observed. These readings are about 500 ppb higher than the global average and represent an extraordinary local spike for the Arctic.

The outbursts occurred in a region where the fresh water wedge was most recently active — areas where sea ice keeps expanding then melting and retreating as warmer, saltier waters encroach. Regions where the warmer water column would be continuously flushed toward ocean bottom zones containing methane hydrates.

If we were to continue with the volcano analogy, we could well consider the most recent Laptev and Baffin Bay outbursts to be a series of minor but intensifying eruptions. The most recent in a string of troubling and increasingly more volatile activity from the methane volcano rumbling at the top of our planet.


Deep Greenland Sea is Warming Faster than the World Ocean

Global Heating Accelerates, Deep Ocean Warming the Fastest, What Does it Mean for Methane Hydrates?

Methane Tracker


Massive Methane Concentrations over Laptev Sea

2013 4th Hottest Year on Record, Deep Ocean Warming Fastest

Triggers to Release the Methane Monster, Deep Ocean Warming, Sea Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and the Fresh Water Wedge

Methane Emissions From ESAS Occurring at Twice the Expected Rate

The Arctic Methane Monster Stirs

Beneath the Cracking, Melting Ice, The Arctic Methane Monster Continues it Ominous Rumblings

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  1. Little to add. If the methane goes up in a big way, my view is that billions of people could have perhaps only years left (assuming major conflict doesn’t further accelerate mass mortality).

    Worth noting clathrates can be kept stable by both pressure and temperature, as per this graph:

    Therefore warming of the deep oceans is unlikely (in my view) to be as truly abrupt and catastrophic as destabilisation on shallow shelves like the ESS (where the water tempature can (and is) change much faster. That said, there are truly massive amounts of clathrate once you include the deep water reservoirs (the ESS alone has a scary amount).

    That does change if you can find mechanisms to get the heat down there fast enough – and altering thermohaline circulation currents is arguably one plausible hypothesis.

    Still, it’s easier to see how shallow shelves can feedback onto themselves faster and more energetically than deeper water?

    In the end I think the very large craters at the bottom of the ocean (as found near New Zealand) stand as testament to even the probable ability of deeper water clathrates to let go abruptly. That is to say – whether we understand the mechanism or not, there’s circumstantial evidence to suggest it does happen.

    • ESAS seems more probable. But the large spikes, as noted above, come as much from ESAS as from deeper sources. This is somewhat troubling to me.

    • mikkel

       /  February 25, 2014

      I’ve never seen the curves, but I believe there are large regions in which the clathrates are quasi-stable, meaning that they are at a temperature/pressure in which they will remain solid unless disturbed mechanically. There is the chance for chain reactions where there is disassociation due to a small current change that then spreads across the network into areas that would be expected to maintain stability otherwise.

      I do not trust the opinion that there isn’t much to worry about because only a “little” of the clathrates are located where they’ll get too warm. The changes in pressure and mechanical mixing make it nearly impossible to predict. That would explain the ability for explosive out gassing like you’ve linked to below.

  2. I looked on my methane page and disappointing I failed to mention the New Zealand craters there – but I do think this quote apt:

    “Ignoring this is analogous to having a tea party next to a ticking bomb and saying this is fine because we do not know how many ticks are left on the bomb, nor how powerful the explosive inside it.”

    Why the hell does virtually nobody (has anyone except me?) draw the obvious connection between that evidence from New Zealand and the current Arctic situation? The circumstantial evidence is strong enough in my view – and has been for some years now – the question is, well, I refer to the quote above…

      • ” Gas release from the larger pockmarks may have been sudden and possibly even violent, with a massive volume being expelled into the ocean and atmosphere within hours or days,” he said.” Yikes.

        • My view is that the pressurised gas front plays a key role in abrupt release, combined with the inherent buoyancy of the clathrate once you physically disrupt the containment enough. I must admit I haven’t really applied much mental effort to how it works in deeper water where you don’t initially have a permafrost cap though… I’d expect that to make it harder for gas to accumulate under pressure in such large amounts. But… I’m no scientist.

        • Incidentally I think it’s also worth reiterating that for quite some time Shakhova was on record stating she believed there was the scope for abrupt releases in the Arctic (the much quoted 50GT in a decadal timescale). We haven’t heard a lot from Shakhova and Semiletov recently – and I think one must read between the lines (by looking at their research papers closely), I think they got leaned on.

          There isn’t anything like the attention on this issue that there should be, even though it’s slowly creeping into more peoples awareness. I note cynically that Canada closed one of the very few land stations monitoring Arctic methane:

          I have trouble believing that the governments of the world (at least the military/intelligence/corporate part of the governments, the politicians are irrelevant) have no awareness of this issue.

          Generally the less serious a threat is the more the government plays it up and uses it to control people (note – terrorism). The more serious it is, the quieter the government gets.

        • The Age Of the Sociopath.

        • I think a lot of people are very uncomfortable with this issue. To the fossil fuel interests, it’s an existential crisis if this is seen as a viable threat. And we’ve already seen the massive attacks on science led by the current Canadian government which is, lock, stock, and barrel a petro state now.

          I think that research station should go kick starter and the Canadian people should go protest and perform political actions until all the oil guys are gone.

        • Just one of the largest craters in this region could have released an amount of methane equal to up to 3% atmospheric value… They found hundreds of large craters and thousands of small ones.

      • ccgwebmaster says
        “I have trouble believing that the governments of the world (at least the military/intelligence/corporate part of the governments, the politicians are irrelevant) have no awareness of this issue.”

        it’s always safe to first assume incompetency on the part of large scale bureaucracies. Look at how Fukushima was handled or Katrina. I suppose I could easily assemble a laundry list, but you get the idea. Humans are irrational and fallible in many cases.

        • You may well be right – never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by stupidity and all that. The damning consequence for our species is that the implication is that virtually nobody will have an effective response or plan (particularly if one takes the longer term view).

      • mikkel

         /  February 25, 2014

        Katrina and Fukushima are easily explainable as systems that were set up in a “cheap and easy” way that were never addressed despite decades of warnings; largely because there were no good solutions that weren’t really expensive [but still a fraction of the cost of cleanup].

        It is quite a bit different than cutting off information sources that cost a pittance to maintain and just need to hum along. If it were one or two cases then that would be one thing, but even the Keeling Curve is under threat! On top of that, Canada is dismantling (excuse me…consolidating) their research libraries and literally throwing books away. In concert with muzzling multiple scientists, I think there is a pattern that points to malice, even if it arises merely out of willful and proud ignorance.

        I’ve never understood why people prefer incompetence to villainy; at least the latter has strategy behind it. I do fear that governments and many corporations have started to believe their own propaganda and now they have accidentally made themselves into puppets controlled by a zombified ideology. There are multiple accounts of this happening during the Reagan years. The attack on science may not be grounded in an effort to control the populace, but an effort to preserve their own world view.

        I often hear people in positions of relative power proclaim that they are helpless because they must do what “the market” says, even though they are part of the club that actually decrees what “the market” is.

        • I’d ascribe a bit more to greed and general blindness and a bit less to malice. But there’s certainly a hint of actual malice there and the portion is growing.

          ‘Believing their own propaganda’ absolutely. They can’t see beyond their own paradigm.

      • mikkel

         /  February 25, 2014

        First person accounts about Canada closing the libraries.

      • @mikkel…
        Incompetence, malice, cognitive bias, and optimism bias, among too many other factors to count. What a piece of work we are.

      • @mikkel…
        Incompetence, malice, cognitive bias, and optimism bias, among too many other factors to count. What a piece of work we are.

    • Noted. I’ll do my best to research and write a good report up linking your analysis. Thanks for both the link and the helpful thoughts. I, like probably many others, hadn’t made this connection before.

      As ever a good thinker with excellent thoughts. They are ever appreciated, my friend.

      • Here, I found a non paywalled version of that paper – haven’t read it yet but the abstract looked promising enough…

        • So what we are seeing is evidence of large, energetic hydrate eruptions off New Zealand. Craters — like volcano craters or impact craters. But, in this case, hydrate craters.

          As for mechanism, isn’t the newly disassociated gas under high pressure enough? It would seem that warmth would gradually generate more and more pressure as gas and fluid built up. Something like thawing enormous wet/frozen pop rocks in a mud paddy. The pressure would opportunistically create faults in weaker zones and, in the case of rapid warming and rigid overburden blow the sediment stack entirely.

          I think this talk of lack of mechanism is entirely too unimaginative. In this case, I think those who talk about lack of mechanism are instead downplaying what is apparent already. And just because they can’t capture it in simulation doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

        • I think seismic shocks are worth a mention in terms of rupturing containment – seem to recall reading Shakhova speculated on them. In any event once the pressurised gas finds an escape route it is going to tend to erode it ever larger which in turn will expose ever more hydrate to the warmer water. One presumes the physical agitation would also encourage mixing of water and heat into the deeper sediments too as the migration pathways opened up.

          Blow it open big time and if you have concentrated hydrate/clathrate – it will likely float up and potentially disrupt the seabed yet more in the process.

          I think the same people who talk about lack of mechanism would probably talk up the doubts about what the evidence represents. By claiming they can’t picture a mechanism, they would no doubt claim the physical evidence is also clearly not of that happening.

          I think this whole thing is like so many other rather fantastic things – people today take all sorts of things for granted that a mere hundred years ago were fantastic. Atomic bombs for instance – how many people understand how they work? And yet – nobody questions that they do…

          I could draw up a virtually endless list of similar things that most people take for granted and yet have no idea how they work. As someone once said, the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. Sadly most people have very limited imaginings, else we would’ve avoided this whole thing.

          Oh, and if you’re going to look into fringe effects – tsunami are worth a thought. Move a big chunk of sea bed, start a submarine landslip – and voila – possible tsunami. Our longer term future doesn’t make one think the seaside is the place to hang out one way or another…

        • Wrote an article on slope collapse this past fall. Found that instances of large collapse occurred and order of magnitude faster during periods of sea level rise (according to recent studies).

        • I vaguely recall something – did you say that slope collapse was therefore due to increased water pressure loading on the sea bed at vulnerable points?

          I think it bears noting that methane levels always increase as the planet warms in terms of the regular glacial cycles – if there is a correlation with slope collapse (ie where triggered by clathrate decomposition as opposed to increased pressure loading), one might expect a tie in with rising sea levels in this respect too inasmuch as rising sea levels signify a warmer planet. Whether or not that logic applies I have no idea though, it’s just offhand speculation.

          One might speculate that slope collapse could both trigger a clathrate release and vice versa?

        • The particular article was based on a report’s finding that added sea level induced pressure-related slope collapse:

          I haven’t seen a paper showing that venting hydrates were a mechanism for slope collapse although this would certainly seem possible given the outburst pressure created by destabilizing hydrates in slope systems.

          The paper did show a massive increase in the number of underwater slow system collapse events during times of rapid sea level rise (warming).

          Perhaps another avenue for research RE hydrate destabilization?

        • I’m afraid I can’t dig immediately to get down to any actual papers – but check out what this says about triggers for the Storegga landslides…

          “Methane ices can break down at certain temperatures and pressures, permitting the gas in the clathrate cages to be released. This process is what experts believe triggered the ancient catastrophic “Storegga” submarine landslides off the coast of Norway. The Storegga landslide complex is a world-class geographic feature and one of the largest areas of known slope failure anywhere in the world.”

          So, I think venting hydrates likely could be a mechanism for not only causing submarine landslides (ie as well as being driven by them) – but also associated tsunami? Will try to remember to dig more later.

          This is the sad thing – all the information is out there – just needs to be pulled together from widely disparate sources (that may well never have spoken to each other. Yet even so many experts are so fast to say to the news media that there is no threat, that these notions are fanciful and impossible – even while other experts demonstrate past events that likely used the very mechanisms in question!

          Anyway, all credit to you for doing all that digging and writing about it – I know all too well how much effort is involved to join up these dots.

          Unfortunately by the time you finish creating a world view (even with just methane, let alone all other factors at work), you’ll end up finding the vast majority of the population think you’re on another planet if you try to explain the system to them.

          Part of the problem is that most people do not extend much effort to pick up new information, and certainly very little at all to analyse it and connect it to what they already know.

          Thus the number one source of “credible” information for most people is simply what their friends say down the pub (or bar if you prefer). If their friends are repeating convenient denier mantras – those are the facts that spread. Most people passively consume their facts without validation or analysis, and if they’re delivered by an “expert” – all the easier to do so.

          Anyway forgive my little rant, I’m a nobody – but I know even if I was an expert in the field (like Shakhova), almost nobody would listen. What you are doing so well is communicating these things to a wider audience – but even you might find there comes a point where reality is simply too complex and fantastic to be able to communicate easily to people – except those with a solid grounding in the world you’re describing (the real world, oddly enough).

        • That’s why you focus on people’s mental center of gravity. You hit them directly in the cognitive dissonance… 😉

        • Oh, and just to state the blindingly obvious (as the thought only just crossed my mind), but the Storegga landslides could therefore be another example of sea floor cratering due to abrupt release of methane clathrates – ie New Zealand isn’t the only example.

      • mikkel

         /  February 25, 2014

        This paper has the mechanism modelled.

        They are talking about it in melting permafrost, but same diff.

        That paper also shows through analysis that it can happen even if every section of the network is quasi-stable. This means that it is literally an explosion as the chain reaction is caused, not merely hyperbolic metaphor.

      • @mikkel – I don’t believe the “compost bomb” is necessarily related here. To my knowledge the paper you’ve linked to appears to refer to the production of heat in the decomposition of organic matter (such as freshly thawed permafrost) with the speculation that the production of heat could become a self sustained feedback that rapidly releases organic carbon from the permafrost. That carbon would be released by the decomposition of the organic matter (along with a fair quantity of methane I might add) and as such the process does have some common ground with the original production of the methane that formed the clathrates.

        However, I would argue the methane clathrates themselves (while the methane was produced by organic processes in many cases) are not to be viewed as an organic process. They are a physical process (and possibly chemical to some extent). The methane is trapped within the water in a strange sort of way where the water cages is, forming ice that can burn (due to the trapped methane). There isn’t really any organic processes at work in releasing the methane from the clathrate – but rather simple melting of the ice containing it (if I understand correctly). Biological processes may come into play once the methane is free, of course.

        Therefore I would argue similarity with the compost bomb is very limited unless you can dig up any evidence or convincing explanation of the biological processes at work.

        However – if you want an explosion, you can still have one. Methane can form an explosive air mixture if it attains the right concentrations once it goes into the atmosphere. Theoretically, you can then detonate it.

        On the face of it that aspect of the clathrate gun hypothesis is very speculative and even more improbable sounding than the rest.


        I had (and I hope I still have, the hard disk in question partially failed) a video clip apparently showing something that could be a strong prospect of this sort of detonation following an earthquake. A huge fireball over the ocean, that of course almost nobody had any idea what it could be (some speculation of a weapons test, naturally). Forgotten fast enough of course – but someone sent it to me several years ago following a discussion along these very lines.

        • It’s the bottled up nature of the sea bed methane that’s somewhat concerning in this regard. The likelihood of large sudden release is greater. In any case if we see 50 gigatons from the ESAS go, then that crazy scenario seems more plausible.

          From the compost bomb, it seems at this time at least the primarily ‘explosive’ risk is through adding more fuel for northern fires. And some of those fires have grown very large indeed. That said, it does seem to add significantly to the northern overburden. Yedoma, in particular, appears to release quite a bit during summer periods.

        • Well, the methane clathrates always bottle up. I think it’s reasonable to suppose that they always get released in some measure on the deglaciation side of the glacial cycles (and I think the terminations of glacial conditions are always abrupt and rather violent events, and would be a real problem for our species even if something a lot bigger wasn’t going on – the Younger Dryas being a case in point – the breaking of the ice dam on the Laurentide ice sheet plunged a big chunk of northern hemisphere into glacial conditions likely within only months(!) by shutting down thermohaline circulation with the input of fresh water).

          The unique concern today therefore isn’t the bottling per se – but rather the rate of change and the anomalous driving force (us). The short life of methane in the atmosphere combined with the high effectiveness as a greenhouse gas (109x over 20 years including indirect and direct aerosol effects – Shindell et al 2009) mean that releasing gigatons of methane over a few years is very different from over a century or two (where it will break down in the atmosphere fast enough to mostly contribute long term carbon dioxide driven warming, as I suspect actually drove the end Permian during it’s clathrate driven stage).

          Therefore the modern rate of change is especially concerning with respect to methane. Even though the rate of change during glacial terminations probably has abrupt stages – in this case one suspects we have pushed the earth system far past those drivers with our initial input (rapid release of carbon dioxide). If we’re stretching the elastic band further it at very least will snap harder, if not break entirely (theoretically perhaps end Permian outcome, with much lower initial input of carbon dioxide but initial methane pulse from rapid warming).

          I don’t really know enough about it to speculate with much authority on the finer details though, I must admit (perhaps I therefore shouldn’t, but it’s hard to find time to learn more currently).

          In any event, even the abruptness of a routine glacial termination is almost certainly far more stress than our global civilisation can withstand – particularly given we’re headed for serious trouble even if climate change is entirely disregarded from the mix. Apart from the academic aspect, how much difference does it make exactly how fast and how bad? (unless one is actively trying to plan for that scenario, as I’m aspiring to)

        • I think we need to also consider a relative threat of release/destabilization given the current climate context.

          In the current period we are as warm or warmer than during any of the last interglacials. So the portion of potentially disturbed methane is at the edge of the interglacial context. If we push through another .5 C, we are probably warmer than at any time in the past 2 million years and so we don’t have clathrates that form and release periodically during interglacials to contend with, but clathrates that have lain dormant for that extended period.

          The issue continues on through the degrees — another .5 C and we hit about 4 million years ago and another 1 C on top of that gets us to 10 million years ago.

          Now these processes are ongoing and since we’ve already probably locked in 2-3 C of climate response, we might well have already nudged methane sources that have lain dormant for 2-4 million years.

          This is the problem with getting out of the context of the interglacials. The feedback potential carbon store is larger because we’ve descended into a period of cooling and those carbon sources were sequestered at various stages by said cooling.

          At issue is not whether we are probably headed for 2-3 C additional warming from feedbacks today due to our current atmospheric ghg loading. It is how that extra warming is achieved. And the primary likely suspects are carbon and albedo feedback response.

          Of course, given the fact that we probably have an overburden of stored carbon relative to current heat potential, it’s possible that the feedback response may well be stronger than anticipated and will, at times, pulse strongly. And this brings us to the most dangerous scenario which, though less likely, shouldn’t be discounted entirely from the standpoint of an emerging threat.

        • Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

      • mikkel

         /  February 25, 2014

        CCG: you’re right about the mechanism but the model in that paper applies to any system that has quasi-stable regions that are connected through some transport mechanism…and are sensitive to rate (in this case temperature) based shocks. It is entirely a theoretical model that has nothing to do with biological or physical processes to derive its conclusions; its connection to a compost bomb is merely that there is evidence that matter deposits in the permafrost may melt in that pattern.

        I can see a strong parallel with the clathrates based on their sensitivity to physical shocks in critical temperature/phase regions. The Japanese are starting to mine them and there is concern that if they bump the wrong spot it could cause out gassing of a large area.

        That said, I have no knowledge of any particular deposit and so cannot comment on where this model is an actually good representation. It’s possible it is a major issue or it might not apply much at all. Based on the strangeness they exhibit (I found a paper showing that they can melt slower at low temperatures than high temperatures when there is a rapid pressure change) then I certainly would not poke at them or declare they have expected stability. The NZ stuff you linked gives physical evidence that they seem to be able to violently change state somehow…

      • Actually, I’m going to back pedal on the video clip bit – I just checked through my emails and the person in question who sent it to me I subsequently decided was a complete waste of time, and that anything he said was unreliable and hence unsuitable for consideration.

      • mikkel

         /  February 25, 2014

        One way to think about what I’m talking about is a sort of reverse crystallization. Crystallization is dramatically sped up when there are nucleation sites and the crystal geometry itself will provide these sites as it grows. This provides stability that requires more energy to break than it took to form it (on a local basis).

        So what I’m saying is that if a hydrate were to start melting at one part of a formation then it could disrupt the geometry across the formation, as well as causing a pressure (weight) change. And of course opening up pathways for warm water to eat away from the inside, like is happening with glaciers.

        Since the clathrate is less dense than water, this could easily cause it to break apart and rise to the surface where it disassociates completely.

        If clathrates sunk to the bottom then I would be very skeptical of small disruptions causing wide breakup, but as it stands, it’s almost impossible to imagine how that *wouldn’t* happen. Perhaps instead of the compost bomb instability model (even though that applies) the most simple argument is to point to glacier melt and how a bit of warm water in the wrong place + potential energy = outsized response.

  3. I just wrote to the HR department of the new Omidyar, Greenwald, Poitras and Scahill venture, The Intercept, to encourage them to publish your superb, essential reporting.

    • I of course don’t know how many eyes Robert gets, but work of this quality, and with such excellent commenters, surely is not getting the attention it merits.

    • Thank you, sir. I will continue to put my full effort into these projects for you.

  4. uknowispeaksense

     /  February 25, 2014

    Reblogged this on uknowispeaksense.

  5. Distributed across social media. Would like to keep adding bits and pieces as you assemble them. Thank you.

  6. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for the report, and the Baffin Bay area deserves ongoing observation. However, as of Feb 23, 2014, the global CH4 mean year to date (assuming the next 5 days maintain the same mean as Feb 21-23), is running about .60 (point six zero) ppbv above last year. What is offsetting the higher readings in the northern hemisphere are low readings in the Antarctic. Recent readings are as low as 1280 ppb at 367 mb as of Feb 23, 2014 12-24 hrs.

    • Well, at least the ozone hole is helping with something…

      We’ll have to see how things shape up by end of year overall. Pace of Arctic release continues to prove, in my view, worthy of concern.

  7. Q. Is climate change affecting the world of microbes?

    A. To be honest, we still do not know enough about the ecology of the world of microbes to be able to predict how climate change will affect (them). They are, after all, extremely adaptable. It was (Louis) Pasteur, the father of microbiology, who 150 years ago said, “Gentlemen, at the end, it will be the microbes that will survive.”

    Read more here:

    • Generally by expanding the range of diseases or by allowing diseases to propagate for a greater portion of the year. More specifically by introducing microbes to new environments.

    • This really is unsettling. It’s the little things we don’t see that could really be a problem…

      “…Here at TTP the interest is primarily on glacier microbes, which are highly susceptible to climate change and underpin Arctic foodwebs. Glacier retreat will ultimately deliver them to proglacial ecosystems where ‘psychrophiles’ will suffer both environmental and competitive stresses, while some ‘cryotolerant’ species may thrive in the warmer, more nutrient rich conditions. Reduced nutrient transformation and community structuring will limit the efficacy of the supraglacial zone as a metacommunity shaping downstream ecosystems. Complex ecological shifts are likely to result from glacier retreat, and the fundamental functioning of Arctic ecosystems will certainly change. One possible outcome is a homogenisation of the global species distribution and overall reduction in biodiversity driven by the decline of endemic species and proliferation of cosmopolitan ones. A warming climate will therefore revolutionise Arctic ecology.

      It is not only temperature changes and glacier melt that impacts Arctic microbial communities. Anthropogenic pollutants have been shown to alter modes and rates of microbial activity in a number of ways. Firstly, the delivery of bio-available nitrogenous compounds has inhibited nitrogen fixation in cryoconite communities in Svalbard.Nitrogen fixation requires high energy expenditure and is only carried out by nitrogen fixing bacteria when there is insufficient bio-available nitrogen to support their growth. The identification of Nifh genes but lack of active nitrogen fixation in Svalbard cryoconite holes indicates that despite nitrogen fixing bacteria being present, their growth and proliferation is entirely sustained by nitrogenous contaminants from anthropogenic pollution. Human activity has therefore had a huge impact upon the mechanisms of nutrient cycling in these communities.

      Secondly, black carbon, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, pesticides and radionuclides originating from industrial emissions and other anthropogenic sources are increasingly deposited on Arctic glacier surfaces. This can significantly alter the biodiversity and community structures of supraglacial ecosystems as well as glacier surface albedo, and the bio-accumulation effects are as yet unknown….”

      “…Cold temperatures and ice sheets have kept pathogens from moving north, but warmer temperatures in the Arctic have not only allowed new pathogens to move in, but the “big thaw” happening now has also allowed for pathogens from the north to move south and cause infections.
      “Ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens,” Michael Grigg, a molecular parasitologist with the U.S. National Institutes of Health and an adjunct professor at UBC, said in a statement. “What we’re seeing with the big thaw is the liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc.”

      In separate work, these researchers also identified a parasite, Sarcocystis pinnipedi, that originated in the Arctic and moved south. This new strain was responsible for a die-off of grey seals in Nova Scotia in 2012, in addition causing the deaths of an endangered Steller sea lion, seals, Hawaiian monk seals, walruses, polar and grizzly bears in Alaska and as far south as British Columbia….”

    • Microbes are not to be underestimated – a lot of carbon is tied up in the soil and I vaguely recall the possibility of things to change with respect to soil microbes. We think about forests, permafrost, even methane – what about the soil we all walk and build upon?

      The little tiny invisible apparently insignificant things are sometimes rather important.

      How important are the little frothy bubbles that form in the waves during storms?

      Quite. The increased surface area apparently has large ramifications on gas exchange. Makes perfect sense – but didn’t occur to me until I read that news article.

  8. If ocean deposits of methane hydrate are in a metastable state, what is the temperature trigger point for activation (i.e. rapid dissolution and release)? Would it act like an apparently stable snow pack that suddenly breaks into an avalanche?

    • mikkel

       /  February 25, 2014

      Another good analogy similar to the glacier slippage I noted above!

      An avalanche is a perfect representation of what that compost bomb paper is modelling; metastable because of connected quiescent localities but when enough break — look out. And largely dependent on temperature *rate* change. It is possible that (again like the glaciers) they haven’t been able to come up with a good mechanism for mass dissolution because they aren’t looking at how fast rate changes can cause a breakdown of the metastability.

      • I think I get where you’re coming from – but how far can you take a theoretical generalised model without bringing it back down to the physical reality of the system you are examining?

        Can’t you apply the same model you’re talking about to, say, a person losing their temper?

        Or an object falling as the centre of gravity moves outside the base?

        How abstract does it make sense to get when looking at physical systems?

      • mikkel

         /  February 25, 2014

        Well that’s life isn’t it? The core of systems thought is that there are general patterns that apply to everything and the question is of dynamics and parameters.

        In this case, I’d say the important factors are:

        Large potential energy: avalanches/glaciers have gravitational potential energy, the compost bomb has biological potential energy, clathrates have buoyancy potential energy

        Connected structures of chambers

        Rate dependent quasi-stability where it will remain like it is without an external force and will respond differently based on how strong that force is

        These factors lead to metastability (

        As you can see from the wikipedia page, the issue is that the chambers are in localized minimum energy states but not absolute energy states. In this case, the clathrate is being physically bound to the floor whereas the lower energy state is to rise to the surface.

        From a theoretical perspective, if there is enough energy to push it out of the local minima then it will go to a lower energy state because of simple physics. Because the localized structures are connected, then one moving out a its local minima creates force across its neighbors, which leads to a chain reaction.

        There are critical parameters about the likelihood of it spreading and this is an issue in nuclear reactors. The design that Fukushima had was metastable when actively cooled but without that cooling then the localized reactions could influence, increasing the chance of fission and thus causing meltdown. Alternative designs do not allow localized heating to spread generally, don’t increase fission potential and so won’t meltdown even in the absence of cooling.

        Similarly, the compost bomb hypothesis makes a ton of intuitive sense based on the physical system. Do the clathrates or are they stable enough that localized breakdowns will not affect the whole chain? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it is a very specific hypothesis that the field could investigate instead of proclaiming that there is no feasible mechanism; after all, glaciers are certainly “alive” in that they exhibit complex dynamics due to metastability that is breaking down with relatively minimal melt.

      • mikkel

         /  February 25, 2014

        A concise answer to your question is that these ideas are based on physical laws as strong as any other. It is just that normal analyses focus around equilibrium states and that is where phase change graphs, the climate models and everything else focus on.

        This approach is a dynamical analysis, or dynamic disequilibrium. It looks at the trajectories that systems display as they move across phases in response to energy flux.

        In reality, life is inherently in dynamic disequilibrium and this mindset is more useful in predicting what will happen when a system is changing quickly. The question is not about whether understanding is abstract or not, it is in what contexts physical reality is investigated. The insistence of focusing on reality almost exclusively in equilibrium (even though equilibrium is the exception instead of rule in real life) leads to constant surprises and misunderstanding in all fields.

        So again, I’m not saying that the clathrates are necessarily a problem, but merely the way I’ve seen them investigated is not using the abstraction most appropriate to the nature that we actually care about them. Thus, the assurances count about as much as the assurances behind Fukushima or mortgage CDOs. That may seem like a random assortment, but the thought process is similar.

      • That makes sense, thanks for the detailed response. If one views it at that level of abstraction, it seems reasonable to treat the clathrate system that way too.

        One minor note I’d add – hysteresis.

        A lot of people forget about it. It’s why it’s virtually impossible to turn back the clock even if we later remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

        This ties in with what you are saying about systems that have potential energy in one form or another that can be destabilised with a dramatic outcome for a minimum initial input. Not only can you model the behaviour that way, but you can often demonstrate that it is not enough to just restore the initial conditions to reverse the transition that occurred.

        In case anyone reading isn’t familiar with hysteresis:

        The Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) is a case in point. Today it is melting. It is stabilised by two factors – it’s albedo, which tends to reflect warmth back away from it, and it’s altitude – which tends to keep its upper levels in cooler air, helping keep them frozen. Both factors are now failing as the ice darkens and the albedo lowers and the GIS slumps lower every year (around 9m a year if memory is right).

        Suppose we stopped adding greenhouse gas. The question would be – would the GIS still melt out, due to the feedbacks we’ve started by undermining it’s self sustaining mechanisms (albedo and altitude). Potentially, it would.

        Suppose we cut greenhouse gases back to pre-industrial levels. Could we get the GIS back, had it melted?

        Probably not. The new region of earth would be too warm for it to form due to the albedo and altitude factors being removed. The evidence suggests that the GIS actually formed in a cooler planet than pre-industrial times and could self sustain in modern times but not have formed in such conditions (it relied upon itself for continued existence). This is an example of hysteresis – and our likely inability to reverse (or even stop) the changes in the earth system.

      • It would be prudent to start looking into that.

      • mikkel

         /  February 26, 2014

        CCG: Absolutely correct and you can see how hysteresis follows directly from metastability. Because of the potential energy, it takes less energy to go to a different state than to reverse it.

        This is why equilibrium models are pernicious: they implicitly assume reversibility and no state dependence. At least in climatology they recognize that the problems are dynamic (unlike in many fields) and it’s just that the formalizations don’t match to their intuitive understanding.

        But IMO they need to start focusing on specific tipping points and brainstorming ways that things will get out of hand. There should be a significant portion of the field that is actively pushing “doomsday” scenarios and then other groups that seek to invalidate the scenario by addressing the specific dynamics presented. Getting the global model responses much more accurate than they are now is not helpful in comparison to these questions.

  9. Tom

     /  February 25, 2014

    Thanks for the post Robert. I linked to it over on fractal planet where i’m still arguing with Scott Johnson who thinks Guy McPherson is wrong about his predictions (because he refuses to look at the evidence). I’ve pointed out so many areas (pollution, man-made radiation, others) besides methane that are set to make our habitat unable to support life (each one by itself, let alone the vast combination the Earth is throwing at us) but he insists he’s RIGHT and we’re worrying about nothing, by denying many/most of the claims GM points to.

    That said, I responded that everyone actually hopes he’s correct because no one wants extinction or a severe decline in habitability, but that we’ll see in coming years who’s right.
    I find it hard to believe that this “scientist” thinks business as usual has no consequences.

  10. Phil

     /  February 25, 2014

    I see Sam Carana has updated his blog about this and thinks a recent earthquake on 20 February in the Greenland sea might have been the trigger for the most recent methane readings which continued at more or less similar levels over the February 21-23 time frame although moved around abit. I seem to recall that earthquakes seemed to be linked to alot of noticeable outgassings of methane in the arctic sea during 2013.

    • Makes sense. The clathrate systems create their own faults or opportunistically invade existing faults. Any quake in these zones would likely release a portion of the destabilized clathrate. In addition, and continuing the volcano analogy, it’s entirely possible that the subsea clathrate destabilization generates it’s own quake potential. Large clathrate destabilization beneath the sea bed would result in large pressure build ups that, when released, would reverberate through the surrounding Earth. The increasing gas pressure from below is the potential mechanism for this action.

      • If that were possible, I think one would expect very low frequency earthquakes? I can’t see it causing earthquakes in isolation, excepting perhaps very tiny ones (which are very common anyway).

        I guess one can’t rule out that such an event couldn’t trigger earthquakes in occasions where they were very close to happening anyway (as with post glacial rebound, but a smaller input trigger). Perhaps also the methane gas or escaping hydrates could act to lubricate a stressed fault too?

        Even rainfall is implicated as a trigger in earthquakes, believe it or not.

        Suppose it’s similar to post glacial rebound and the reduced plate loading causing an increase in earthquakes (potentially already happening incidentally).

        • Fracking results in moderate earthquakes… Though not an exact corollary, it’s a good example of how liquid and gas pressure below ground can generate quakes.

  11. Terrifying article here… “the ‘dust-bowlification’ of the American Southwest.”:

    How bad is it?

    According to NBC Dallas-Ft. Worth, “Federal officials have designated portions of 11 drought-ridden Western and Central states as primary natural disaster areas, highlighting the financial strain the lack of rain is likely to bring to farmers in those regions.” [See map above.]

    California has gotten a huge amount of recent drought publicity, mostly because of its large population and its importance as a national breadbasket, with both these needs competing for the same water. The scope of the federal declaration is the big red area covering the Southwest on the map above, making it clear that the current drought should be seen as a cross-country mega-drought. Climate experts are saying that it likely signifies a “dust-bowlification” of the American Southwest.

    • Absolutely. This whole region is undergoing collapse pressure due to climate change induced drought in combination with resource depletion. El Niño might bring temporary relief at the risk of very bad storms later this year. But the system stress is at the level of disruption now and should flicker into that state more frequently as the years progress.

  12. P E Hawley

     /  February 25, 2014

    Totally picky, but here’s a fix in the headline: Ourburst —> Outburst

    Do keep ’em coming; you are doing essential work.

  13. I have just finished reading Storms of My Grandchildren. At the end, Jim Hansen writes that once the undersea methane stores let go, that’s basically it for humanity. And we’re right at the beginning of that event.

    • Fantastic book. I highly recommend everyone pick it up along with Peter Ward’s “Under a Green Sky.” We are probably not going to see a full runaway (as described at the end of Hansen’s book). But a mini-runaway ala the PETM or the Permian or worse is definitely in the cards.

      As for methane hydrate release, some are calling it The Sword of Damocles. I think the metaphor is probably apt.

      The methane stores probably won’t go all at once. Which makes the story even messier, to mix metaphors, than a vorpal sword’s ‘snicker snack.’

      If we get a big outburst, though, it will be worth at least another .5 to 1.5 C worth of warming. And that’s pretty obnoxious all by itself.

  1. Another Week of Anthropocene Antics, March 2, 2014 – A Few Things Ill Considered
  2. Another Week of Anthropocene Antics, March 2, 2014 [A Few Things Ill Considered] | Gaia Gazette
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