Large Methane Plumes Discovered on Laptev Continental Slope Boundary: Evidence of Possible Methane Hydrate Release


(The Swedish Icebreaker Oden — now home to the 80 scientists and tons of equipment of the SWERUS 2014 research expedition aimed at measuring sea floor methane release throughout the Arctic this summer. Among the scientists leading the expedition is Igor Semiletov whose 2011 expedition discovered 1 kilometer wide plumes of methane issuing from the floor of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Image source: Commons.)

SWERUS-C3 researchers have on earlier expeditions documented extensive venting of methane from the subsea system to the atmosphere over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. On this Oden expedition we have gathered a strong team to assess these methane releases in greater detail than ever before to substantially improve our collective understanding of the methane sources and the functioning of the system. This is information that is crucial if we are to be able to provide scientific estimations of how these methane releases may develop in the future (emphasis added). — Örjan Gustafsson

*     *    *    *     *

Over the past few years, the Arctic has been experiencing an invasion.

Emerging from the Gulf Stream, a pulse of warmer than normal water propagated north past Iceland and into the Barents Sea. There, it dove beneath the surface fresh water and retreating sea ice, plunging to a depth of around 200-500 meters where it concentrated, lending heat to the entire water column. Taking a right hand turn along the Siberian Continental Shelf, it crossed through the mid water zones of the Kara. Finally, it entered the Laptev and there it abutted against the downward facing slopes of the submarine continental region.

As the water temperatures at these depths warmed, researchers began to wonder if they would trigger the destabilization of methane hydrate stores locked  in deeper waters along the shelf boundary. And, now, a new expedition may have uncovered evidence that just such an event is ongoing.

Methane Hydrates and Troubling Releases from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf

Oceanic methane hydrates form when methane upon or beneath the sea bed freeze into a crystalline ice lattice. It is a hybrid water-methane mixture that only remains stable at higher sub-sea pressures and lower temperatures. Normally, oceanic hydrates form at great depth (about 600 meters or deeper) where a combination of high pressure and low temperature are the prevailing environmental factor. But the colder Arctic is a sometimes exception to this general rule.

In recent years, deep ocean warming due to human caused climate change has accelerated. It is feared that this warming may unlock vast stores of methane laying frozen along the deep sea bed or in more vulnerable continental shelf slope zones.

This warming is also feared to have begun a process of methane release along a unique submarine feature called the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). There rising temperatures are hypothesized to have sped the thaw of submarine permafrost.

Frozen permafrost stores biologically generate gaseous methane at depths of 10-80 meters. Methane hydrate stores are locked away at depths starting at around 100 meters. Submerged beneath only a couple hundred feet of water, these methane stores are much shallower and, therefore, are in a naturally unstable zone.

The East Siberian Sea zone is unique due to the fact that it was only recently flooded, in geological terms. The frozen permafrost has only rested beneath the Arctic Ocean waters since the end of the last ice age and much of it remained frozen due to chill Arctic conditions. But now, human-caused climate change is driving warmer and warmer waters into the Arctic environment.

Elevated Methane ESAS

(Elevated atmospheric methane levels over East Siberian and Laptev Seas during October of 2013. Image source: Arctic News via Methane Tracker)

As the warming progressed during the first decade of the 21st Century, researchers observed what appeared to be an increasing release of methane from these thawing permafrost stores. In 2011, plumes from the sea bed stretching 1 kilometer across were observed by an Arctic expedition headed by Igor Similetov and Natalia Shakova. It appeared that the 250 to 500 gigatons of carbon locked in the ice in that shallow ocean was destabilizing and releasing from the sea floor as methane.

Now it is estimated that about 17 megatons of methane from this store vents through the shallow waters into the atmosphere each year. But this may just be the start of a far larger emission.

Methane Hydrate Release During Past Hothouse Events

Though the ESAS carbon and methane store is arguably one of the most vulnerable to human-caused warming, a far greater store of methane hydrate is estimated to be locked in crystalline ice lattice structures along the world’s continental slope systems and in the world’s deep ocean environments. Since the Earth has been cooling for the better part of 55 million years, a huge store of carbon as methane is now thought to have accumulated there. In total, between 3,000 and 10,000 gigatons of carbon are estimated to be captured in this vast store.

methane bubbles near the Laptev sea surface

(Methane bubbles near the Laptev Sea surface as observed by the SWERUS expedition last week. These bubbles were issuing from what are thought to be destabilizing methane hydrates along the Outer Laptev Continental Slope zone. Image source: Stockholm University.)

Global warming science, especially the science related to paleoclimate, indicates that Earth Systems warming tends to dump a lot of heat into the deep ocean. The atmosphere ocean-interface along the equator warms and becomes salty due to enhanced evaporation. The warmer, saltier water sinks, driving heat into the deep ocean. At the poles, ice sheet melt sends out a wave of fresh water along the ocean surface. The fresh water acts as an insulator between atmosphere and water, locking the warm water beneath the surface and pushing it toward the bottom. This process, called ocean stratification, is, among other things, an ocean heat exchange machine that turns the ocean bottom into a warming-induced house of horrors.

We would expect a similar process to be set in motion through human warming.

Ultimately, this combination of forces results in a collision of warm water with frozen methane stores and serves as a mechanism for their destabilization. If even a portion of this deep ocean methane hits the air, it can further accelerate already rampant warming.

Today, we may be at the start of just this kind of process.

Large Methane Plumes Discovered Along The Laptev Slope Boundary

Last week, large plumes of methane were found to be issuing from the outer Laptev Sea floor at the border zone where the bottom climbs up to meet the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Researchers on the scientific study vessel Oden found:

elevated methane levels, about ten times higher than in background seawater, [that] were documented … as we climbed up the steep continental slope at stations in 500 and 250 m depth.

Expedition researchers noted:

This was somewhat of a surprise. While there has been much speculation of the vulnerability of regular marine hydrates (frozen methane formed due to high p [pressure] and low T [temperature]) along the Arctic rim, very few actual observations of methane releases due to collapsing Arctic upper slope marine hydrates have been made.

An Ice-Free Laptev Sea

(An ice-free Laptev Sea on July 28, 2014. Last week, researchers discovered a kilometers wide plume of methane bubbling up from the Continental Shelf sea bed in these typically-frozen waters. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Overall the size of the release zone was quite large, covering several kilometers of sea bed and including over 100 methane seepage sites:

Using the mid-water sonar, we mapped out an area of several kilometers where bubbles were filling the water column from depths of 200 to 500 m. During the preceding 48 h we have performed station work in two areas on the shallow shelf with depths of 60-70m where we discovered over 100 new methane seep sites.

Due to the depth and location of the methane above the continental slope zone, researchers hypothesize that the source of the methane is from hydrate stores in the region.

It is worth noting that though it is rare to observe methane releases from the upper slope zone, current science has found destabilizing hydrates in deep water off the US East Coast along the continental shelf slope zone and in deep waters off Svalbard among other places. In addition, satellite observation of the Arctic Ocean has recently shown periods of high and above normal methane readings in the Laptev, Kara and East Siberian Seas. Elevated atmospheric readings have also appeared over the Nares Strait near Greenland. These are all zones that have experienced substantial deep ocean warming over the past few decades.

SWERUS 2014 is now heading toward ESAS waters where so many large methane plumes were discovered in 2011. There, the expedition hopes to use its impressive array of sensors and expertise to better define and understand what appear to be large-scale but not yet catastrophic methane releases underway there.





Stockholm University

Arctic Methane Monster Shortens Tail

Arctic News


Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

Hat tip to Colorado Bob









Leave a comment


  1. Okay, let’s get real here. With the holes opening in Siberia and the increasingly rapid methane hydrate release…..Are we anticipating a methane bomb that will abruptly raise temps and kill off humanity above ground in the next couple years?

    • Couple of years, probably not.

      If we keep burning fossil fuels, though, it looks like our goose is probably cooked. If we manage to stop burning ff and engage in atmospheric carbon capture, we might just end up with a very rough ride.

      • joni

         /  July 29, 2014

        Depends on what one considers as cooking (deep frying?) the goose. I think that humanity wouldn’t go extinct with a 6C, 12C or even a 20C rise in temperatures, even though populations would tumble to .01% of the current total, along with taking a down a good 95% of all life on Earth (oceanic and terrestrial, plant, fungi and animal). We have reached a level of tecnology that would enable us to build some kind of undergrounf shelters in the Antarctic and Arctic regions of the planet, capable of providing liveable conditions, a source of power and clean water, a place where food might be grown and , giving the occupants a good chance enduring the worst brunt of the warming, followed by a gradual return into the post-collapse world after a period of centuries when the climate finally reaches a new equilibrium.

        Those born in the future will cling to life, but surving on a diet of recycled proteins, cockroaches, algae, lichens and jellyfish can hardly be considered living. I do wonder if they will hate this antediluvian age we live in though, instead of craving for it’s return as some kind of lost golden age.

      • Dave Werth

         /  July 29, 2014

        Replying to joni, yes we have developed a lot of remarkable technology. But if population tumbles to 0.01% of the current total (~70,000,000, last seen around 4,000 years ago) I question how much of this marvelous technology we can hold on to, especially if we live in fragmented groups.

      • Burgundy

         /  July 29, 2014

        Dave, I’m afraid its more complicated than that. We humans are basically a symbiont in that we have a symbiotic relationship with the evolving synthetic evolutionary system that we refer to as technology. Our role being something similar to the symbiotic relationship between plants and bacteria or fungi in that the latter retrieve and breakdown inorganic nutrients and make them available to the plants. We essentially breakdown inorganic and organic matter (ie. Nature and our habitat) and make it available to the Technological System. Ever wonder why we are destroying our habitat and our planet?

        In the same way that plants chemically control the bacteria and fungi, the System controls us too albeit by different means. And the System isn’t going to let itself go extinct, it will destroy everything including us in its attempt to survive (although it isn’t self-aware or intelligent, just self-referencing). So to answer your question, as much marvellous technology will survive as can be saved, regardless of the cost in human lives. As Joni says above some humans that are vital to the System will be kept alive and their survival maintained, but the numbers will be limited by the available energy and resources the System can afford.

        In terms of our future, we’re going to go into the bottleneck of Climate Change without even touching the brakes. In fact technology is going to move up a gear and accelerate, which will require more resources and energy. Technological evolution is probably already exponential in line with Moore’s law and leaving increasing numbers of humans behind in the dust (eg. jobless or near jobless (part-time) and increasingly replaced by technology and without further purpose in the System).

      • Chris

         /  July 29, 2014

        Robert, I think you are living a very strange dream to think that our input (human emissions) will have any real impact now that the feedback loops have begun.

        Human activity is now decoupled from climate change.

        Not only that, if we stopped all emissions now we have still got decades of CO2 rises locked in before it stabilizes. You should already know this.

        Isn’t it quite clear why governments are not really gunning for massive change in energy usage?

        It’s all just token. Because the truth is that without a game changer or more time, we need to keep it and hold out while we wait for that game changer as I’ts actually counter productive to get rid of coal – the processes of converting it to energy produce sulfates, the main contributor to the global dimming phenomenon, which is reducing the impact of current climate change by 50%. If we stop coal, we still get decades locked in, and another .5 -1 c after a few very short years.

        We just don’t have the time, reducing emissions is a longer term problem than we will ever live to see now.

        I guess it’s fair that people don’t talk about this, who wants a panic.

        • If you consider the preventing of 4-12 C or more (the warming sunk in fossil fuels that have yet to be burned) of additional temperature increases token, then I’d say there’s a rather large gap in your knowledge base.

          If you look at paleoclimate, we’ve probably already locked in 2-4 C of warming long term and about 2 C of warming this century. Rapid mitigation + atmospheric carbon capture could limit temp increases this century to between 2-3 C and potentially cut off the long term warming tail.

          As for governments, I think it’s pretty clear that a number don’t realize the full extent of the problem or they don’t care. But there are quite a few that do and are pushing for 100 percent renewable energy adoption. In general, those who don’t care are of the conservative political persuasion, a set of political views that are now inexorably married to the practice of inflicting harm on themselves and their offspring.

          But the action required is quite broad based and requires a total near term (within 20-30 years) abolition of fossil fuel use. So if you’re saying there’s a huge barrier to achieving that, then you’re stating the obvious. The question is one of can or will and we could circle that bush endlessly. But the idea, at least from my point of view, is to promote positive action.

          Those preaching this mantra of ‘can’t do anything’ need to either help with the situation or get out of the way.

        • Chris

           /  July 29, 2014

          Well no, I just dont agree with you Robert.

          My opinion is certainly not ‘just burn everything’, and I never heard of a movement that was like that anyway, not by people that rationally understood the issue.

          Yes, I believe that indeed human based emissions is decoupled from the change to a new climate, we will hit the temperatures through methane feedbacks alone, and that no matter how much you reduce human carbon emissions it’s going to happen. Hell, it IS happening. How can you judge that the stores of methane, considering the radiative forcing they supply, will not do this. My knowledge is sound mate.

          Your comment about stopping the driver vastly reduce the harm, well I’m not sure if we agree about the science of stopping whats going on in the arctic, nor the locked in rise in human carbon emissions we have for decades anyway.

          Sure, in the long term we need to reduce emissions, but mate, there is no long term. What we need to is focus our efforts on coming up with a game changer, because we cannot play by the same rules anymore.

          I’m not quite sure I understand your comment about 1200 gigatons of Methane being equal to BAU for a century… It’s all about the pulse of methane, it only takes a couple of gigatons released over a short span of time to make this world turn on its head – you can see it happening now. They way that a lot of that methane is stored, well it’s practically explosive when it melts, and likely to trigger in bursts.

          I didn’t want to upset anyone, and I certainly take back my comment that you are living in a dreamland – your a smart guy. But yeah, I do not agree with you.

        • Are you aware that the human methane emission alone is on the order of 1 gigaton every four years? Apparently not.

          Are you aware that the current Arctic methane emission is probably on the order of 30 megatons a year current? Apparently not.

          Added all together the human CO2e emission is at least 50 times this value now. Apparently you missed that in your ‘decoupling argument?’

          Are you aware what the total heat forcing over the course of one century from a 2 gigaton methane release in the Arctic is? +0.02 C. Human emissions now drive that rate of increase on average over the course of about year currently. Were you aware of that? Apparently not.

          Though methane emissions in the Arctic are rising and that is clearly a problem, they are not, the primary driver at this time. There is risk that this feedback may eventually run away if we keep emitting fossil fuels and adding heat forcing to the equation. Cessation of fossil fuel emission drastically reduces that potential and signs of a rising Arctic methane release lend urgency to that action.

          Game changer? Well, that would be welcome. But the current methods other than mitigation and atmospheric carbon capture on the table involve dangerous geo-engineering schemes of questionable and only temporary value in the face of an ongoing human heat forcing.

          Farewell, Chris. And good luck with the fossil fuel promos elsewhere.

    • In any case, we would be expecting the trend to worsen from here on out without extreme mitigation.

    • rayduray

       /  July 28, 2014

      Hi Jenelle,

      I looked into this question a few years back as I was first getting introduced to the scale of methane clathrates and permafrost susceptible to melting. At first I was quite alarmed. Because the sheer amount of methane sequestered in the Arctic region is a very big number.

      But the more I read about the issue of a “clathrate gun”, the more sanguine and less alarmed I became about the issue.

      Today, my best notion is that we will witness increasing atmospheric methane levels, but that their contribution to global warming will be in the range of 0.01 to 0.1 C. over the coming century. In other words, we got bigger threats ahead of us.

      On the other hand, I do fully expect some wild aberrations from time to time, such as the two anomalous craters recently discovered on the Yamal Peninsula. Furthermore, a Storegga Slide-like catastrophic collapse of marine canyon clathrates is also a distinct possibility.

      Finally, I can recommend a new book by Naomi Oreskes as a guide to what we might be realistically facing in terms of potential climate catastrophes and grinding displacements such as the potential evacuation of much of the U.S. Southwest due to drought. The book is called “The Collapse of Western Civilization”.

      • We probably end up with higher than 0.01 to 0.1.

        Probably more like 0.05 to 2 C or between 5-150 gt methane this century. Current emission rate from the Arctic is probably at 3 gt per century. We can reasonably expect this number to increase given the human forcing.

    • I don’t think you should look to climatic factors to cause the majority of human mortality.

      Only a small perturbation (in terms of what is coming) will be sufficient to topple civilisation, and most deaths will be the traditional things – war, famine, disease, etc. If you’re waiting for a climate signal, I think you’re waiting for the wrong thing and the tide of events will overtake you.

      A scenario where methane raises temperatures sufficiently to cause widespread mortality globally within a couple of years is nonsense – but one where it pushes the earth system that bit further and knocks agricultural yields down a modest percentage, pushing up food prices and conflict and causing knock on effects in resource market availability etc is not.

      All things take time though – so does preparing for the future our ancestors bequeathed us, if anyone was bothering to.

  2. Does your statements to Ms. Green also account for methane contributions from permafrost thaw?

    • Yes.

      The methane release from the Arctic system is now a fraction of the total release from other sources. The danger is in its accumulation and increasing rate of emission over time. We might add 25 to 150 percent of the total human forcing this century from natural sources.

      This is a problem. Only in the most unimaginable of circumstances do we end up with a human extinction in two years scenario. That is very, very low probability.

      But what we do have is a destabilizing and worsening climate situation which is, at this time, highly urgent and requiring response.

  3. Griffin

     /  July 28, 2014

    Excellent post Robert. Your concerns are shared by Dr. Jason Box. Very scary stuff this is.

  4. Loni

     /  July 28, 2014

    So, add to the list o’ Life’s certainties: Death and Taxes, now we can add Methane…….. probably not in that order.

  5. mikkel

     /  July 29, 2014

    I understand the loneliness and frustration of accepting unfolding realities that are irreversible and deathly to daily life.

    However, instant catastrophe is never the way of nature. Recent work suggests that the even the demise of the dinosaurs took thousands of years and some species may have survived had it not been for low biodiversity. If an asteroid impact isn’t enough to cause human generation scale extinction, then nothing is (except perhaps a quasar pulse).

    Now that there are increasing measurements of methane release, I fear that the community will become as bifurcated as peak oilers and financial fragility, in which the already small group is broken up into the armageddon vs. “mere end of industrial revolution” camps.

    I believe that armageddon beliefs are driven by the need to feel control over a situation that is fundamentally uncontrollable. Unfortunately, a large part of these communities would rather have that illusion than work proactively to try to tilt the scales.

    • I think you nailed down why people tend to flip from ‘all is fine’ to ‘all is wrecked’ with little in the way of in betweens. I find this aspect of human nature is at least as problematic as the others and contributes to the overall failure to act that causes the trouble in the first place. I believe it is based on maintaining an illusion of control while taking the least amount of responsibility possible.

      • mikkel

         /  July 29, 2014

        It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that few want to take on rounded responsibility. Some people take personal responsibility but do little socially and others vice versa. Still, they should be commended for taking any at all.

        I do not think our “leaders” have any real vision, for good or ill. Generally they are just amoral rule manipulators and do not seek to change context. My partner says that even though the robber barons were hardly upstanding citizens, at least they relished the chance to be pioneers and sculpt nations in their image. The current flock of political and business barons act more like glorified middle managers.

        It says something when the most revolutionary and disruptive segment is Silicon Valley, which is little more than a venue for downsizing, outsourcing and mass marketing. For all their bluster, they wilt in the face of real challenges.

        While this is obviously alarming and depressing, it also means that a unified and visionary sociopolitical movement could make quick inroads — if not at the national level, then at least enough to provide support to those who wish to work on these issues day to day. This is why the fragmentation of the community is such a killer.

        • Fragmentation on so many levels. It’s probably one of the reasons why the leaders we tend to end up with are so terrible and/or ineffective.

  6. mikkel

     /  July 29, 2014

    Here is an article that on its face shows the challenges of Germany’s large intermittent renewables and impact on the grid, but also demonstrates how fossil fuel plants can be used to bridge the gap until we have a more robust grid.

    • Biomass/biogas + storage makes it entirely doable.

      • mikkel

         /  July 29, 2014

        Could natural gas power plants be powered by gasified biomass with an easy extension that would gasify as a first step?

        • Yes. You just need the digesters to synthesize methane. Add carbon capture to those plants and you are net carbon negative.

          You just need laws/regs to prevent the use of old/fossil gas.

  7. Rob, you’re the best. But your lengthy headlines are killing my tweets!

  8. doug

     /  July 29, 2014

    robertscribbler / July 29, 2014
    “Fragmentation on so many levels. It’s probably one of the reasons why the leaders we tend to end up with are so terrible and/or ineffective”.

    And also, because we vote for them.

  9. dizzysparkle

     /  July 29, 2014

    Climate Change doesn’t make me constantly alarmed & fixed into a state of obsessive vigilance. Abrupt Global Warming Climate change does. Meaning a catastrophic instant jump from a state of equilibrium to a state of disequilibrium &/or extreme hyperlibrium that inevitably shred the conventions of civil society & survivable economy into extinction level eventualities by geochemical reactions that explode over the earth in the final course of just days.

    These geometric runaways of chain reaction sudden explosive feedbacks are triggered by unknown reactivities within & between all the runaway self reinforcing positive feeedbacks that the steady state of GHG Global Warming has now been & is being triggered by 400ppm 480+ppm CO2e.

    These sudden triggers of sudden demise events is what we should be most focused on. Not just a few scatological evangelical fanatics of pseudo & anti scientific alarm conditioning.

  10. rob de laet

     /  July 29, 2014

    Robert, thanks for keeping us posted with your important blogs. Do we have any way to know if this is a new phenomenon or just a newly discovered one in the past couple of years?
    Methane readings have gone up, but that could be caused by other factors as well. 17 Mt CH4 amounts to how much CO2e in the first year? I hear values from 20 to 100 times. Thanks for any help understanding the effect.

    • I think that we have evidence pointing to increasing methane emissions in the Arctic. We have reports showing increasing methane release from tundra melt ponds (10-60 percent over two decades), and we get new reports, now almost monthly, of new methane sources. So I think it’s fair to say that the broader context is one of increasing release.

      To this point, it would be, I believe, a good idea to set up quantifiable and more exact means to measure the total global Earth Systems methane emission and to more exactly nail down what’s happening in the Arctic.

      Now with all that said, we do not know how long this particular methane seep has been emitting. But it is yet one more straw on the camel’s back, so to speak.

      The ESS methane emission is likely, as currently estimated, equal to about 500 mt COe per year — about equal to that of a decent sized industrial country or about 1.25 percent of the total current human ghg forcing. Total Arctic CH4 emission is probably double this, with probably an about equal fraction of CO2 heat forcing coming from Arctic carbon stores (perhaps currently 5 percent of total human forcing when all added together).

      The danger, this century, is that Arctic emissions rise to significantly amplify the human forcing, adding up to 50% or more this century and, possibly doubling it over the long term. The issue is that the more heat you add to that environment, the more the feedbacks run away from you. So when you poke those stores, you probably end up with more long term climate change than current models consider.

      In the end, ESS is probably about 6 C for each doubling of CO2 long term. Methane is baked into this number. That said, large releases could result in brief spikes outside this set range which, given the current large store of carbon in the Earth System due to sequestration over the cooling period of the past 55 million years, does create the risk for a kind of mini runaway given an unknown level of initial forcing.

      In essence, we’re playing games with global fire here and the best thing we could do is stop as soon as possible.

  11. Tom

     /  July 29, 2014

    Joni: your comment indicates a belief in a stable habitat for humans while all the other species of plant, animal, bird, (etc., including sea life) die-off from the new (generally hotter)conditions for which they are unable to adapt. The main problem facing humanity is the very loss of this habitat which is destroying all the species we rely on for food! Right now trees (and other vegetation) are succumbing to the increased air pollution (including ozone and other noxious gases), which is guaranteed to get worse due to the (approx.) 40 year lag between fossil fuel emissions and their effect on the climate (ie. we’re being influenced today by emissions we put out ~ 40 years ago). You’ll want to rethink your “hopeful” scenario so that you aren’t surprised by how bad it’s becoming and will get in your lifetime.

    • joni

       /  July 29, 2014

      Destabilizing natural habitats and cutting apart food webs is of course something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but it’s already been shown throughout history that humans are remarkable adaptable when it comes to finding new sources of food. I have no doubts that the current system of agriculture will be torn down by a tripple whammy of increasingly bad weather, more feroicious diseases/pests and food wars between nations along with the tragically slow deaths of several billion from starvation, but I find the prospect of every ecosystem around the world simultaneously perishing so that the whole face of the Earth is rendered into a biologically inactive wasteland to be laughably small.

      Even highly disturbed ecosystems can feed small bands of migratory hunter gatherers (as was witnessed duing the end of the previous ice age) and although current changes are significantly more rapid in their onset than at the end of the ice age, our capacity to both seek out new resources and then exploit them are just about enough to compenate for this without having to even mention some radically expensive solutions like underground greenhouses (protected from heatwaves, hailstorms and flooding) capable of growing enough food to feed a small city. (I’m not claiming that this would equal an entire intact biosphere btw.)

      As to your accusations of excessive hopefullnes, I actually believe we are already at the first stage of an inexolerable slide into disaster. I just refuse to believe in the nonsense and quackery of near-term human extinction being peddled by McPherson and Arctic News. Is the same as being hopeful now?

      I’m fully aware that our current globalised civilisation has no chance of enduring a 6C rise (having it survive beyond 2C or 3C is already questionable at best), while a 9C rise (that in my opinion is not currently on the table even if we significantly intensified fossil fuel “utilization” and unleashed all significant feedbacks including >50gt methane burps from the thawing permafrost) would make large swathes of the Earth’s surface too hot for any kind of large mamalian life, but the fact is that even a 20C rise (that is impossible in my opinion) in temperatures is not going to be sufficient to end human life completely because the northern and southern poles of our planet experience significant periods of darkness for half the year, which will enable the temperatures to be sufficiently low.

      • wili

         /  August 1, 2014

        You are right that McPherson has no basis to be absolutely certain that total human extinction is inevitable within 15 years.

        But I would also say that you have no basis to be absolutely certain that total human extinction is impossible within the next few decades to centuries.

        We are, after all, just one species.

        Species are going extinct at a rate of tens of thousands per year.

        Are we so very special that we can be absolutely sure that we will not be one of those tens of thousands one year?

        I’ll just note that, if humans devolve to small bands of people concentrated in polar regions, that mean just one extreme weather event could wipe out any one of them…and there will be many, many extreme weather events in our future.

        • With climate change, especially as time moves forward and emissions continue, human extinction is in the cards. Sooner would be a very unlucky draw. But I’m uncomfortable completely ruling out the catastrophic and unforeseen instance. The world is a rather volatile and dynamic place. The Earth in Siberia now explodes due to human warming.

  12. utoutback

     /  July 29, 2014

    I am not so worried by a sudden increase in methane or rapid warming as I am by the likelihood of coming water and resource wars. When living in Colorado one of my neighbors hit anther in the head with a shovel over a irrigation ditch dispute. The hittee went to the hospital, the hitter went to jail. Now extrapolate.
    Based on the human nature I’ve observed during my 60+ years I’m now confident that we’ll be seeing the kind of global cooperation needed to avoid catastrophe.

    • joni

       /  July 29, 2014

      You ever read Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer? It was a great (if a rather frightening) read and although I found some things I disagreed with, I’d heartily recomend it to anybody that is interested in climate change and/or geopolitics.

      Also for those interested, here’s a link to a 3 part radio show based on Gwynne’s book.

      • rayduray

         /  July 29, 2014

        Hi joni,

        You make an excellent suggestion. I’m listening now to the Gwynne Dyer podcast. Very powerful stuff. Best coverage I’ve come across of the DoD Quadrennial Review’s climate threat discussion.

        On a slightly different note, but related to Washington, D.C. as a cesspool of bad ideas, here’s a Naked Capitalism item on the recent Dept. of Energy announcement about increased O&G leasing, comparing this to the empty rhetoric Barack Obama has become notorious for. Attention: Hypocrisy Ahead!

  13. Mark from New England

     /  July 29, 2014

    Going backwards: Australia approves their largest coal mine…

    Burning this should help liberate some of that frozen methane.

    • Chris

       /  July 29, 2014

      Might as well try and secure more economic security. I keep repeating myself, but human emissions are now decoupled from climate change.

      That’s why all around the world only token action is being done.

      The arctic is in heating all on its own, like an freight train. Next stop, world wide food shortage.

      • Mark from New England

         /  July 29, 2014


        You may be right in that human emissions are now decoupled from climate change, but Robert our host here believes we still have a choice between a very hard future and doom, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, as he knows more about this subject than !.

        IF we can stop this mine and other large coal mines from exporting additional coal, and stop expansion of the Canadian tar sands through massive civil disobedience and other means, perhaps we have a fighting chance to keep warming below utterly catastrophic levels. I’m not ready to concede total defeat just yet.

        • The notion that fossil fuel burning is decoupled is patently false. We have to set off releases of 1,200 gigatons or more of methane from global stores this century to equal the warming that BAU fossil fuel emissions would achieve over the same period. And even if that immense level of release was in the pipe so soon (no evidence that it is) human ff burning would effectively double that heat forcing.

          The point is, that despite the fact that we are likely already setting off some, admittedly terrifying, Earth Systems feedbacks, that the human burning of fossil fuels remains the driver and the greatest contributor to harm. You shut off that driver and you vastly reduce the harm.

      • Mark from New England

         /  July 29, 2014


        Thanks for your clarification. Through the two years I’ve been following your writings, I’ve learned that matters are much more nuanced than the “Near Term Human Extinction” crowd would have us believe. I agree that it’s not too late to take effective action, but whether the human species will do so remains to be seen. Your blog is a much needed education for us beginning climate change activists.

    • God, the conservatives are maniacally insane.

      • Mark from New England

         /  July 29, 2014

        We should stop calling them ‘conservatives’. Just what are they conserving?

        Heck, in some ways I’m more conservative than these so-called conservatives, and I consider myself a leftist!

    • And, it appears, the ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we burn’ meme has come back in full force. I honestly can’t get my mind around why people are so invested in non-action or destructive action.

      • Robert, it is very much a psycho-cultural type born out of an excessive phallocentric and and pleasure seeking behaviour that has little regard for others, particularly the generations to come. Some trace an amplification of this Dionysian drive to modernity and it is obvious that a few generations have now have been subjected to a constant psychological barrage, by a marketing industry intent on stimulating desires and appetites.

        It is no secret that there are some very powerful people who still refer to the ‘masses’ as a ‘herd’ and one that requires ‘thinning’ and that this, is an acceptable and ethical way to talk about humanity. They buy into this Nietzschian idea of a slave and master morality reminiscent of the pharaohs of old and view themselves as ‘masters’. Some of them acknowledge the more catastrophic possibilities regarding climate change and they welcome it; they welcome events that will reduce the ‘human herd’ so that the ‘fittest’ rise to the top.

        In their new world life extension technologies will be more prevalent and developed and they will extend their lives, their rule and dominion. Indeed such technologies, the base science, is there but can you imagine an average human life being one of a couple of centuries or more with the current population levels we have? I can’t and nor can they.

        • From Nietzsche —

          For all those who fight monsters, beware that while fighting monsters, one does not become a monster. And when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares long and hard into you.

          Ironic how the philosopher so aptly described those who would later come to take up his world view.

          The funny thing RE life extension is that it becomes far more practical and democratic with effective population restraint. The choices are about moral and practical balance. In the current system of anarchy, though, you end up with a highly extreme form of social Darwinism in which those who prey on their fellow human beings are elevated.

          The future you paint is dark. One that may well involve the splintering of humankind. Let’s hope we can avoid that path.

      • An excellent choice of quotes Robert. I think the canvas has already been set and the first brush strokes made. You can see about you the socialisation of people into control mechanisms, whether that be the pan-optic surveillance by the state, the use of thumb printing technologies in many inner city schools in the UK (and even their architecture) or one of the many other disciplinary technologies, to borrow from Foucault, that are slowing being integrated into the very fabric of our daily lives.

  14. Neil Gundel

     /  July 29, 2014

    “This process, called ocean stratification, is, among other things, an ocean heat exchange machine that turns the ocean bottom into a horrifically warm place.”

    I enjoy this blog, but I recommend avoiding statements like this, which most people would find misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the ocean floor is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit – pretty scary if you are a snowball, but not what most of us imagine when we see the words “horrifically warm”.

    Now, if we do have a worst-conceivable-case release of methane and the resulting global warming – THAT could be horrific, but the temperature of the ocean itself, not so much.

    • I suppose that warm enough to generate anoxic bottom conditions, a rising chemocline, and conditions conducive to the microbial production of hydrogen sulfide gas — a set of circumstances that in the past set off severe ocean die offs — is not horrific to you?

      Well, it’s horrific to me and it’s staying that way.

      • Neil Gundel

         /  July 29, 2014

        It’s your blog, so you can write whatever you want. I do feel sorry for any of your faithful readers who might take that statement at face value into a discussion with a denier, and then get forty-degree water in their face when they fact-check it.

        • Hmm.

          To fear deniers,
          Or not to fear deniers?

          That is the question.

          Whether tis nobler to reduce the sting of one’s messaging and cowtow to reticence, or to consider as irrelevant those who intentionally misrepresent base facts?

          I’ll take a look at the statement again, Neil, for your piece of mind, and not for fear of an irrelevant group of flat-earthers.

  15. ivice

     /  July 29, 2014

    Just take a quick look at how many fish mass die- offs happened in the past few years- and in northern waters- on the shores of NJ, NY, Vermont, BC.
    Huge masses of fish rushing for cooler, oxgen- rich waters- and the using up all the oxygen at once.
    The reason we’re not dead yet- is the oceans.
    They absorb much of the CO2 and a vast majority of the heat- thanks to its unique characteristics: low molecular weight, liquid phase at average earth tempreatures, and huge heat capacity.
    It’s going to buffer the methane release to certain rate, but we’re shooting at the oceans from dozens of directions at a time. It’s pretty scary, when you just think about what if it stops helping us- and starts actually giving off, what it has absorbed up to now.
    We’re pretty much done, unfortunately. And you don’t even need to be a scientist or have any clue about elementary physics to see this- just open your eyes everyday.

    • We’re done if we keep burning fossil fuels…

    • james cole

       /  July 29, 2014

      That old science fiction movie from my youth “Soylent Green” really did get many things right. But the end game event in that movie was that when the Oceans stopped normal life cycles due to increased heat and acidification, that was when the human population faced their end as a civilization.
      I read with interest these ocean changes as salty water sinks taking a great store of heat with it and then migrates into deep polar waters. From my days in Submarine Sonar and Anti Submarine Warfare, I can only imagine both American and Russian navy subs and surface ships slowly detecting these changes as their daily ,and often more than daily, Bathythermograph readings ,taken to learn the ASW characteristics of the water columns, would reveal to them great changes underway. My mind always wanders to what the US military and intelligence establishment make of global warming and the climate changes. They surely are aware of the reality, because they deal in reality. What do they tell the president and other leaders about the game plan as these changes unfold. We always get frustrated that politicians don’t act or even speak as if this was real. But they must be briefed by national security, they HAVE to be aware as much as you and I are of the potential disasters. I don’t see ignorance at work at top levels, what is at work there I do not know, but it scares me to think they fully know what the danger is, but do not act.
      Great original post by the way. It puts in perspective the releases and their portion of the total release from all sources.


        They know.

        At the Norfolk Naval Base, they can’t get funding to raise the ship piers due to sea level rise. Part of the problem is that the GOP doesn’t believe seas are rising…

      • I do wish we could access Navy info on the chemocline and changing deep water layers. It’s pretty clear we see this ongoing now.

      • mikkel

         /  July 30, 2014

        Robert, have you searched for a research papers on that? You’re never going to find good data since it affects sonar propagation, but it’s possible that the Navy has written up general trends for long term strategic purposes.

        • I’ve only been able to find localized papers, such as those tracking the rising chemocline in the Baltic Sea, the Chesapeake Bay or off the Oregon coast. There are enough hotspot papers to paint a somewhat broader picture, though, when combined with larger studies on ocean stratification. It’s pretty clear that the ocean bottom, overall, is becoming warmer and more anoxic. The areas known for hydrogen sulfide production produce more and we have so areas where production occurs when it wasn’t observed before.

          Ocean health is declining, but it’s a long way down.

    • mikkel

       /  July 30, 2014

      For the near term this is my primary concern about increased methane release. For a long while, it is likely that bacteria will rapidly multiply to eat most of it before it leaves the water column, but this will eventually create an anoxic state.

  16. Well, the question now increasingly seems to be transforming from “whether” to “when”

  17. cowpoke

     /  July 30, 2014

    Here is nullschool screen grab from the arctic(Kara Sea) showing sea surface temperature anomalies.

    The anomaly reading I read was 11 degrees Celsius(52F) surrounded by 9’s and 10’s. 7/29/2014 10pm PST. That seems like a lot.

    • That, my friend, is the upwelling hot spot off Svalbard. It has been present for most of this year and possibly even longer.

  1. Large Methane Plumes Discovered on Laptev Continental Slope Boundary: Evidence of Possible Methane Hydrate Release | robertscribbler | Enjeux énergies

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