High Velocity Human Warming Coaxes Arctic Methane Monster’s Rapid Rise From Fens

Fens. A word that brings with it the mystic imagery of witch lights, Beowulfian countrysides, trolls, swamp gas, dragons. A sight of crumbling towers overlooking black waters. Now, it’s a word we can add to our already long list of amplifying Arctic feedbacks to human-caused warming. For the rapid formation of Arctic fens over the past decade has now been linked in a recent scientific study, at least in part, to a return to atmospheric methane increases since 2007.

Ribbed Fen

(A Ribbed Fen in Arctic Canada. Image source: The Government of Canada.)

The Role of Methane in Past Climate Change

Over the past 800,000 years, ice core records show atmospheric methane levels fluctuating between about 800 parts per billion during warm interglacial periods and about 400 parts per billion during the cold ice age periods. These fluctuations, in addition to atmospheric CO2 flux between 180 and 280 parts per million value were due to Earth Systems feedbacks driven by periods of increased solar heat forcing in the northern hemisphere polar region and back-swings due to periods of reduced solar heat forcing.

Apparently, added solar forcing at the poles during periodic changes in Earth’s orbit (called Milankovitch Cycles) resulted in a flood of greenhouse gasses from previously frozen lands and seas. This new flood amplified the small heat forcing applied by orbital changes to eventually break Earth out of cold ice age periods and push it back into warm interglacials.

Compared to current human warming, the pace of change at the time was slow, driving 4-6 degrees Celsius of global atmospheric heating over periods of around 8 to 20 thousand years. A small added amount of solar heat gradually leached out a significant volume of heat trapping gasses which, over the course of many centuries, undid the great grip of ice on our world.

Ice core record of Greenhouse Gas Flux

(Ice core record of greenhouse gas flux over the last 650,000 years. Methane flux is shown in the blue line that is second from the bottom. It is worth noting that current atmospheric methane values according to measures from the Mauna Loa Observatory are now in excess of 1840 parts per billion value. Temperature change is indicated in the lowest portion of the graph in the form of proxy measurements of atmospheric deuterium which provide a good correlation with surface temperature values. The gray shaded areas indicate the last 5 interglacial periods. Temperature year 0 is 1950. GHG year zero is 2006 in this graph. Image source: IPCC.)

By comparison, under business as usual human fossil fuel emissions combined with amplifying feedbacks from the Earth climate system (such as those seen in the fens now forming over thawing Arctic tundra), total warming could spike to an extraordinarily damaging level between 5 and 9 degrees Celsius just by the end of this century.

Methane — Comparatively Small Volume = Powerful Feedback

A combination of observation of past climates and tracking the ongoing alterations to our own world driven by human greenhouse gas emissions has given us an ever-clearer picture of how past climates might have changed. As Earth warmed, tundra thawed and ice sheets retreated releasing both CO2 and methane as ancient organic carbon stores, trapped in ice for thousands to millions of years, were partly liberated from the ice. In addition, warming seas likely liberated a portion of the sea bed methane store even as warming brought on a generally more active carbon cycle from the wider biosphere.

Overall, the added heat feedback from the increases in atmospheric methane to due these processes was about 50% that of the overall CO2 feedback, even though the volume of methane was about 200 times less. This disproportionately large share of heat forcing by volume is due to the fact that methane is about 80 times more efficient at trapping heat than CO2 over the course of 20 years.

A Problem of High Velocity Thaw

In the foreground of this comparatively rosy picture of gradual climate change driven by small changes in solar heat forcing setting off relatively more powerful amplifying greenhouse gas feedbacks, we run into a number of rather difficult problems.

The first is that the rate at which humans are adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere as an initial heat forcing is unprecedented in the geological record. Even the great tar basalts of the end Permian Extinction were no equal to the rate at which humans are now adding heat trapping gasses to the atmosphere. In just a short time, from 1880 to now, we’ve increased atmospheric CO2 by 120 parts per million to around 400 ppm and atmospheric methane by more than 1100 parts per billion to around 1840 parts per billion. The result is an atmospheric heat forcing not seen in at least the past 3 million years and possibly as far back as 10 million years (due to the radical increase in methane and other non CO2 heat trapping gasses).

This extraordinary pace of heat trapping gas increase has led to a very rapid pace of global atmospheric temperature increase of about .15 degrees Celsius per decade or about 30 times that of the end of the last ice age. As atmospheric heat increases are amplified at the poles and, in particular in the northern polar region, the areas with the greatest stores of previously frozen carbon are the ones seeing the fastest pace of warming. Siberia, for example, is warming at the rate of .4 C per decade. Overall, the Arctic has warmed by about 3 degrees Celsius since 1880 or nearly 4 times the pace of overall global warming.

arctic temperature increase since 1880 NASA

(Pace of Arctic warming since 1880 in degrees Fahrenheit based on reports from 137 Arctic observation stations over the period. Image source: Tamino. Data source: NOAA’s Global Historical Climatology Network.)

The result is that, over the past two decades, the Arctic has been warming at the pace of about .6 C (1 F)every ten years. And what we are seeing in conjunction with very rapid warming is an extraordinary high-velocity thaw. A thaw that is rapidly liberating stored organic carbon locked in tundra at a rate that may well have no rational geological corollary.

The Arctic Methane Monster and a Multiplication of Fens

So it is in this rather stark set of contexts that a study released in early May examining 71 wetlands around the globe found rapidly melting permafrost was resulting in the formation of an immense number of fens along the permafrost thaw boundary zone. Tundra melt in lowlands became both sources and traps for water. Such traps gained added water as atmospheric temperature increases held greater levels of humidity resulting in increased heavy rainfall events such as thunderstorms. These newly thawed and flooded fens, the study found, were emitting unexpectedly high volumes of methane gas.

From the methane standpoint, fens are a problem due to the fact that they are constantly wet. Whereas bogs may be wet, then dry, fens remain wet year-round. And since bacteria that break down the recently thawed organic carbon stores into methane thrive in a constantly wet environment the fens were found to be veritable methane factories. A powerful amplifying feedback loop that threatens to liberate a substantial portion of the approximately 1,500 gigatons of carbon stored in now melting tundra as the powerful heat trapper that is methane.

Mauna Loa Methane 1985 to 2014

(Mauna Loa methane levels 1985 to 2014. A return to rising atmospheric levels post 2007 is, in part, attributed to rapid tundra thaw and the formation of methane producing fens. Other significant new methane sources likely include sea bed methane from Arctic stores and rising human methane emissions due to expanding coal use and hydraulic fracturing. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

By comparison, drier environments would result in the release of stored carbon as CO2, which would still provide a strong heat feedback, but no-where near as powerful as the rapid environmental forcing from a substantial methane release.

Lead study author Merritt Turetsky noted:

“Methane emissions are one example of a positive feedback between ecosystems and the climate system. The permafrost carbon feedback is one of the important and likely consequences of climate change, and it is certain to trigger additional warming. Even if we ceased all human emissions, permafrost would continue to thaw and release carbon into the atmosphere. Instead of reducing emissions, we currently are on track with the most dire scenario considered by the IPCC. There is no way to capture emissions from thawing permafrost as this carbon is released from soils across large regions of land in very remote spaces.”

 

Links:

A Synthesis of Methane Emissions From 71 Wetlands

Arctic Methane Emissions Certain to Trigger Warming

The Government of Canada

IPCC

NOAA’s Global Historical Climatology Network

More Cold Cherries

NOAA ESRL

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32 Comments

  1. rayduray

     /  May 8, 2014

    Seems to be a typo here: ” methane values according to measures from the Mauna Loa Observatory are now in excess of 1840 parts per million” — Should be parts per billion.

    ***
    But why I actually stopped by was to point out a new Nature study discussed at the Guardian site. The headline reads “Climate change making food crops less nutritious, research finds” or Drats, Foiled Again!

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/07/climate-change-food-crops-nutrition

    ***
    Back to methane. I once was quite keen to decipher if a tipping point was likely with Arctic methane sources such as permafrost or shallow ocean methyl clathrates. So I read up on the topic on the Arctic Methane Emergency Group [ http://ameg.me/ ] page and found it a bit lacking scientifically speaking. Then I came upon a discussion of the topic at Real Climate that I’m much more comfortable recommending.

    See: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/11/arctic-and-american-methane-in-context/

    What I appreciate is that the Real Climate crew put things into context. For instance, even with the heightened methane emissions we’ve documented in the past five years or so, the Arctic’s contribution to global methane emissions remains a mere 5% of global total. I believe cow farts contribute more. And if not then rice patties certainly do.

    At any rate, whenever I get a bit nervous about Arctic methane I jump back to see what the folks at Real Climate have to say. So far, so good. Is there a tipping point ahead? Possibly. But even if Arctic methane emissions were to double, we’d only be adding another 5 percent to the annual global emissions. That’s not a catastrophic situation of and by itself. Though in conjunction with our other list of anthropogenic forcings, Arctic methane ought to at least be accounted for in the models.

    Reply
    • Typo fix in…

      If the argument is that Arctic methane emissions are not likely to be a significant amplifying feedback, then my view is that those pushing that argument are likely to be disappointed.

      We currently have a 17 teragram sea bed emission from the ESAS, a poorly determined sea bed emission from the rest of the Arctic Basin, and a 17 teragram emission from tundra. In addition, we have a number of studies pointing toward a strong and growing amplifying Arctic carbon feedback, but have, as yet, little in the way of overall monitoring and tracking of the Arctic region emission or its rate of growth.

      So the question is — do we have enough information to put this already substantial emission into a complete and proper context?

      To do that we would need to know:

      1. Pace of emission increase.
      2. Total volume of other Arctic Ocean basin emissions.
      3. How human forcing is likely to change the Arctic environment (state of amplification).
      4. Total size of the Arctic emission vs the global emission and other emissions sources.

      For answering question one, we don’t yet have enough data on the Arctic to nail down a decent rate of increase. What we do know is that the assessments of Arctic methane emissions from various sources keep rising and that there is a general scientific expectation that they will continue to rise.

      For answering question two… Assuming that ESAS emissions + tundra is the total Arctic emission is an incomplete analysis. We observe large sea-bed emissions in numerous other locations around the Arctic that are not included in the ESAS total. So any true context must include this caveat.

      For answering three — we know that the human forcing is now likely strong enough to thaw most or all of the Arctic tundra. We know that a portion of this tundra will vent its carbon store as methane and a portion will vent as CO2. Considering the tundra store is so large, any such venting over even a rather long time-frame would be a significant amplifying feedback to human warming. The portion released as the faster feedback CH4 may well be crucial to how rapidly temperatures spike, but we do know that there will probably be a temperature spike from Arctic carbon release alone, regardless of CO2/CH4 portion.

      Models show rainfall rates increasing throughout the Arctic due to warming. Models also show increasing rates of evaporation due to much higher temperatures. So there will be a war between bogs/fens and fires/dry decay. Neither side of this conflict is likely to be pretty.

      A final issue to deal with in the end methane/CO2 portion calculation is the fact that large sections of low-lying tundra will flood due to sea level rise. These sections will inevitably emit most of their store as methane.

      As for the final question of where we stand now…

      34 teragrams of known emission from the Arctic is about 5.8% of the total global emission. But we must also assume that the known emission is not the total emission (which includes other sea-bed stores). It is probably reasonable to assume that the total Arctic emission is in the range of 40-50 teragrams or between 7-8% of the global total or between 10 and 14% of the human total. This is like adding another large industrial nation’s emissions, multiplying the total rest of world ocean emission by approximately 2.5, or increasing the proportion of ruminants (cow farts) by 40 to 50 percent.

      Now that, my friend, is a more complete context and not one that has been apparently crafted to down-play the issue.

      In any case, I think anyone belittling this large additional emission completely misses the point. What we have here is a substantial proven emission that is still poorly quantified and that is almost certain to continue to grow. An emission that is already now contributing to the human warming nightmare and one that will contribute more in the future.

      Anyone claiming they know the final exact outcome, at this point, is likely to be proven very foolish given the current dearth of comprehensive assessment and tracking of the Arctic emission source.

      For this reason, I tend not to take sides in the AMEG vs RealClimate debate. My view is that the problem is now significant and worthy of notice and whether the amplifying feedback will be lukewarm (RealClimate) or hyperwarm (AMEG) is clearly something that is yet to be determined.

      That said, even a lukewarm feedback is a rather bad outcome. In any case, it is worth noting that Schmidt and Archer don’t believe rapid clathrate response is possible soon (based on model assessments) but have tended to hedge when it comes to permafrost release. My view is that the pace of human warming puts all the cards face down on the table. So I am not at all comfortable in ruling out the worst case under a continued and what I consider to be dire regime of human emissions.

      In any case, if you are truly concerned about the very real human emission coming from ruminants (cow farts), then you might also consider lowering or eliminating your meat intake.

      Reply
    • very interesting

      Reply
  2. Bernard

     /  May 8, 2014

    typo:

    “…are now in excess of 1840 parts per million value”

    should be parts per billion

    Reply
  3. There’s a really important part of the puzzle that I think we need to bear in mind, as U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist and study co-author Kimberly Wickland points out in the climate central article that you link to …
    “It is possible that methane emissions from wetlands will continue to increase with continued permafrost thaw, but that will depend primarily on whether wetlands stay wet. If they dry, then methane emissions will decline.”

    In many places in the arctic lakes are disappearing as permafrost thaws and water can drain away, if that happens it’s more likely that CO2 will be produced instead of methane.

    Strange case of the vanishing Arctic lakes
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228345.000-strange-case-of-the-vanishing-arctic-lakes.html#.U2trEvldVBk

    Reply
  4. Tom

     /  May 8, 2014

    Thanks for this post, Robert, which clearly trumps Scott Johnson’s (Fractal Planet blog) assertion that “There’s absolutely no scientific analysis supporting the AMEG claims of skyrocketing Arctic methane emissions. Showing me a large measurement from one spot in the Arctic with no context is completely meaningless.”

    Reply
    • We need comprehensive Arctic methane emissions tracking by volume. In any case, to claim that large individual releases are meaningless is clearly short-sighted.

      Reply
    • Bryant

       /  November 1, 2015

      The reason for the methane spike over the last few years is due to wetland emissions, per Ed Dlugogencky. (snip)

      Reply
  5. Gerald Spezio

     /  May 8, 2014

    Charles Miller’s empirical observations of 150 km diameter methane plumes in 2013 are powerful evidence of accelerating methane release in the Arctic.
    Those of us who were looking – were astonished when Igor Semelitov published his observations of one km diameter methane plumes from the Arctic Ocean in 2011.

    Although I search regularly, I have not seen any mention anywhere of an update about these critical empirical observations.
    This rudimentary data must be known.
    The plumes most certainly did not magically disappear?

    Reply
  6. The graph showing the interrelationship between CO2, CH4, N2O, and global temperature couldn’t be more stark. Nitrous oxide is also a powerful ozone destroyer, see: http://phys.org/news/2013-11-alarm-ozone-damaging-nitrous-oxide.html

    Reply
    • Yes. And N2O also has it in for the trees… One needs to look no further than IPCC data for stark findings. The scientists, as usual, do everything they can to appear reticent.

      Reply
  7. Colorado Bob

     /  May 8, 2014

    New study from the Great Basin once again confirms Milutin Milankovitch :

    However, in a new study, “Orbital control of western North America atmospheric circulation and climate over two glacial cycles,” published today in the online journal Nature Communications, scientists revealed a 175,000 year-long climate record from Great Basin that shows ice age temperature oscillations centered around changes in earth’s orbit.
    “Ice age temperature oscillations were the metronome and pacemaker of Great Basin climate change,” said Professor Yemane Asmerom, UNM Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, who was one of the co-authors in the study. “The research resolves a long-standing climate paradox arising from Devils Hole, which suggested incorrectly that climate was out of step with orbital variations.”

    The researchers showed that climate change in the Great Basin (and Nevada) matches the timing of orbitally-derived periods of glacial cycles, in line with the theory forwarded by Serbian scientist Milutin Milankovitch over 100 years ago.

    “Our record is the first long-term and continuous record that shows unambiguously that the Great Basin climate was paced by the earth’s orbit around the sun,” Lachniet said. “It also includes more samples over time than any other record.”

    http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2014/05/variations-in-earths-orbit-have-a-direct-influence-on-climate-change.html

    Reply
  8. Compelling, the graph showing the tight correlation between CO2, N2O and CH4. It ties closely to the parallel tight correlation between CO2, sea level rise and global mean temps. There are more. My comment: “Houston, we have a problem.”

    Reply
  9. rayduray

     /  May 8, 2014

    Robert,

    You just don’t know how much I appreciate your marvelous, in-depth and insightful response to my comment. Or perhaps you do now.🙂

    You make all and many good points. I marvel at the comprehensive complexity of your thought on this matter. Are you by chance a native to the Arctic region? Or are you one of those marvelous creatures like Levi Cowan who is a master at hurricanes and ironically lives and studies in Fairbanks, AK?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Cheers Ray. I particularly enjoyed your question as it gave me the opportunity to qualify some of the thoughts I’ve had on the matter.

      Never lived in the Arctic, but have been reading scientific reports/data on all things climate change for about twelve years now. Amateur meteorologist since childhood so have an intuitive understanding of climate dynamics. That and I’m probably a bit of an idiot savant. Professionally, my related background is intel analyst/emerging threats expert.

      Is Levi taking account of how that cold anomaly off Newfoundland is shoving the Bermuda high east? Might have a bearing on storm tracks.

      Reply
  10. jai mitchell

     /  May 9, 2014

    Robert,

    I think that it is important to realize that 35% of natural gas produced at the Bakkan Oil field is either flared off or emitted. Just last week airborne samples of benzene taken by test flights over fracking fields showed massive releases of methane to the atmosphere during normal operations. They estimate that the oil production derived emissions of methane are 2 to 3 times higher than the EPA estimates.

    what most don’t realize is that natural gas is an unwanted byproduct of the fracking developments. The value of the oil produced by fracking is 4 times the amount of the natural gas and the rate of well collapse is so high that the cost of drilling new wells (1500 to 2000 per year) does not justify the gas-only production.

    In this view then it is very likely that the recurring rise in atmospheric methane since 2004 is dominated by shale oil production not by natural emissions.

    Reply
  11. jai mitchell

     /  May 9, 2014

    P.S. (add to last?) the 29-61 TgCH4 estimate is anthropogenic and natural sources combined.

    Reply
    • US only emission for anthropogenic and natural?

      Reply
    • BTW, thank you for the very detailed and well thought-out reply.

      I’ve been personally quite horrified with the rapid ramping of unconventional fossil fuel production. It’s difficult to put feelings into words sometimes. But we are literally ripping the Earth’s guts out in an effort to bake our world. It’s madness on top of insanity with seven shots of delirium.

      Reply
  12. jai mitchell

     /  May 9, 2014

    Do you have a good estimate of what annual global emissions need to be to maintain abundance levels at 1.8 ppmv CH4?

    We are doing it to make money, baking “their” world is just an externality

    Reply
    • Probably in the range of 500 to 540 tg per year depending on the resiliency of the hydroxyl sink.

      “Their.” Well that’s an assumption in for a rude awakening.

      Reply
  13. jai mitchell

     /  May 9, 2014

    yes, u.s. total emissions

    Reply
  1. When it Comes to The Arctic Methane Monster, What We Don’t Know Really Could Kill Us — NASA Model Study Shows Very High Carbon Release Uncertainty | robertscribbler
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