(Are massive fires spurred by human-caused warming tapping basement methane pockets within the Arctic Tundra? Massive smoke plume from unprecedented Siberian wildfires expands to blanket more than 2,500 miles of Russian Siberia and Arctic Ocean shores. METOP sensors show high levels of methane ranging from 2,000 to 2,200 parts per billion or 150 to 350 ppb above the global average, at 18,000 feet within the smokey overburden. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)
Is the Arctic Methane Monster climate science’s version of he who must not be named?
For apparently, Arctic Methane, in all its various permutations, has become the gas that mainstream media and climate media now no longer mentions.
NASA’s CARVE study has been silent for a year, the University of Maryland has stopped putting out publicly available AIRS methane data measures, the NOAA ESRL methane flask measures, possibly due to lack of funding, haven’t updated since mid-May, and even Gavin Schmidt over at NASA GISS appears to have become somewhat mum on a subject that, of late, has generated so much uncomfortable controversy.
Despite this fading out of the topic and related publicly available data, likely due to an overall discomfort with the potential nasty implications of an expanding Arctic methane release combined with efforts by conservative political forces to de-fund observational climate science, large Arctic carbon and related methane stores remain vulnerable to the various forces set in motion by human-caused warming. In essence, it’s a problem that won’t go away no matter how much you ignore it.
The subsea permafrost, methane clathrates locked in mud and sediment on and beneath the sea bed, methane generated from wet, thawing tundra, and methane locked in pockets far beneath the boreal forests and tundra all remain in stores of untold gigatons and gigatons. A massive volume that represents an extraordinary potential amplifying feedback to the unprecedentedly rapid human-caused warming of Arctic lands and oceans risking a very dangerous release.
Did Explosive Methane Release Gouge a Black Crater in Siberian Tundra?
This week, Arctic methane cognitive dissonance reached a new extreme as the discovery of a large, 100-foot-wide hole in a section of tundra along Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula set mainstream media abuzz. The new discovery fueled speculation that a large pocket of thawing subsurface methane may have undergone explosive release. The resultant explosion is thought to have violently ejected soil and scorched the crater leaving a black hole in the tundra:
(Images from expedition sent to survey strange hole in Yamal, Siberia. Note the exposed and still frozen tundra along the steep edge. If the embed code isn’t working on your browser you can view the video here.)
Other potential culprits include a meteor impact or tundra collapse due to subsurface ice melt. But the ejecta signature appears to be one of a crater that underwent a violent explosion and Russian scientists seem certain that a meteor was not involved. Anna Kurchatova of the Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre believes the most likely suspects are the explosion of thawing methane due to a volatile mixture of water, methane and salt triggering an eruption or the building up of pressure due to the venting and expansion of the thawed gas causing the overlying land feature to be violently ejected like a champagne cork.
The large sub-surface methane stores are certainly there and we’ve known for some time that risks of explosive out-gassing of this material, due to human caused warming and thaw of frozen methane stores, was possible given a chemical or thermal release and ignition mechanism. If the Yamal (which unhappily translates to mean ‘end of the world’) crater is the result of a violent explosion of thawing methane and ejection of the overlying earth strata, it will have implications not only for tundra permafrost thaw but for sea-bed permafrost thaw and ocean methane clathrate thaw as well.
So the question remains — how many more explosions ripping apartment building-sized or larger holes in the Earth are we in for if thawing and exploding methane was, indeed, the culprit of this, admittedly odd and disturbing, event? And what impact will this have on an atmosphere already well overburdened with human greenhouse gasses?
Methane Spikes in Smoke above Siberian and Canadian Tundra Fires
Meanwhile, investigation of 18,000 foot methane readings reveals high levels of methane gas lacing the large clouds of smoke spreading from massive wildfires over Canada and especially Siberia. NOAA’s METOP sensor shows atmospheric methane in the smoke/cloud layer at and above 18,000 feet ranging in excess of 2,000 parts per billion over sections of Canada and North America as well as over a broad swath covering Central and Northeastern Siberia. Highest atmospheric methane readings at this altitude were in smoke clouds over Siberia at levels near 2,200 parts per billion.
For reference, the current atmospheric average is around 1860 parts per billion at the surface.
(High atmospheric methane readings coincident with large smoke plumes from tundra fires over Siberia and Canada. Data from METOP provided by NOAA.)
Absent other research provided by scientists, both the very large hole in the tundra in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula (that some scientists are saying was the result of a very large methane pocket erupting to the surface) together with coincident measures of high methane readings in smoke plumes over Arctic wildfires provide evidence of an ongoing and hazardous Arctic methane release. Though overall emissions rates have, likely, not yet reached catastrophic levels, the potential for moderate to catastrophically strong feedback from this very large and volatile carbon store should be serious cause for concern and the focus of concerted national and international investigation. Given the risk, the current silence and apparent scientific withdrawal from broader Arctic methane research is entirely inappropriate and short-sighted.
Apparently, CARVE’s Arctic methane observation mission is still underway and will be posting updates based on currently ongoing research soon.
According to Peter Griffith:
CARVE is fully funded and flying in Alaska and Canada this year. Expect first results at the AGU meeting in December… NASA is doubling down on Arctic research having just announced a $100 million decade-long field campaign, the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment. http://above.nasa.gov or follow me on twitter @NASA_ABoVE.
Notably, Chip Miller is still heading the project at JPL as well.
Continued funding for both CARVE and expanded funding for the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment are certainly reassuring. No word on satellite methane sensors providing publicly available and detailed information (other than METOP, as the more refined AIRS data is difficult to access publicly). ESRL flask measures, as noted above, have also been slow to update, possibly due to funding constraint.