2 C Coming On Faster Than We Feared — Atmospheric Methane Spikes to Record 3096 Parts Per Billion

It’s essential that policymakers begin to seriously consider the possibility of a substantial permafrost carbon feedback to global warming. If they don’t, I suspect that down the road we’ll all be looking at the 2°C threshold in our rear-view mirror.Robert Max Holmes

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Unraveling the global warming puzzle is simple at its face, complex when you pierce the surface.

We know that burning fossil fuels, that the activity of mining coal, fracking for gas, and drilling for oil all result in dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. We know that the vast majority of these warming gasses are coming from fossil fuel based sources. We know that, now, the burning and mining and fracking and drilling have pushed atmospheric CO2 above 405 parts per million and the global concentration of all CO2 equivalent gasses to an amazing 485 parts per million CO2e (levels not seen in at least 15 million years). And we know that the heat re-radiated by these gasses has warmed the world by about 1 C above 1880s levels — forcing weather patterns to change, seas to rise, ocean health to decline, and setting off a wave of die offs in the animal world while increasing the near-term risk of hunger, spreading tropical disease, and mass displacement in the human world.

Radiative Forcing

(Heat added to the Earth’s atmosphere by fossil fuel emitted gasses like CO2 and Methane are measured in watts per meter squared. A yardstick known as radiative forcing [RF]. In the above graph by IPCC, we can see the estimated levels of radiative forcing from each greenhouse gas and total net human heat forcing upon the Earth atmosphere as of 2011. It’s a measure that may also need to start adding in the RF of feedback greenhouse gasses as the 21st Century progresses. Image source: RealClimate.)

We know many of the names of these other gasses — methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbon. And some of the others — like sulfur hexaflouride — many of us haven’t yet heard of. But the big name, the primary warming agent, is carbon dioxide — responsible on its own for the majority of the overall heat forcing currently. A gas so important to long term warming that NASA has called it ‘the thermostat that controls Earth’s temperature.’

All this is pretty simple and straightforward. But it’s when we start looking at what are called amplifying feedbacks — the Earth System Sensitivity responses to human forced warming — that things really start to get dicey. And wrapped up in the Earth System Sensitivity equation is methane — a greenhouse gas with the ability to strongly influence global temperatures over rather short time-frames.

Methane Spikes to Over 3,000 parts per Billion

On February 20th, for about 12 hours, the NOAA METOP measure recorded a major atmospheric methane spike in the range of 3,096 parts per billion at 20,000 feet in altitude. This was the first time that any measure had recorded such a high methane spike and the first time any measure had exceeded the 3,000 parts per billion threshold. For context, just two years ago, a methane spike in the range of 2,660 parts per billion would have been significant. Now, we’re getting peak readings that are more than 400 parts per billion higher than that previous maximum threshold.

Metop methane

(METOP showed a record 3,096 parts per billion atmospheric methane spike on February 20 of 2016. Thus far, this was the largest such spike ever recorded in the NOAA measure. One that far exceeded a global atmospheric average of around 1830 parts per billion. Image source: NOAA/METOP.)

It’s a pretty ominous signal — especially when you consider the fact that global atmospheric methane averages are in the range of 1830 parts per billion. The recent major spike was about 1170 parts per billion higher. In other words — a pretty extraordinary excession. It’s evidence that the methane sources of the world are growing more vigorous in their output. And when you consider the fact that methane — on a molecule-by-molecule comparison to CO2 — traps about 80 times more heat over the decadal timescale, large additions of methane on top of an already dangerous CO2 forcing is certainly cause for some concern. An issue that may further speed the already rapid pace of human-forced warming such that we become at risk of hitting the 1.5 C and 2 C thresholds sooner than expected. Outcomes we should urgently be working to avoid — by cutting the human-based emission as rapidly as possible at this time.

The Usual Suspects — Fossil Fuel Based Activity

Perhaps still more concerning is the fact that we really don’t know exactly where this significant methane spike is coming from.

We do, however, have a long list of usual suspects. The first, of course, would be from any number of very large and dangerous fossil fuel emission sources. China, with its massive methane belching coal mines, gas infrastructure, and dirty coal burning facilities would be a prime suspect. Mongolia, where equally sprawling coal and gas facilities operate is another likely hot spot. Russia — with its vast and leaky oil and gas fields. The Middle East — which is choked with fossil fuel infrastructure. Europe — where many of Russia’s pipelines terminate and where many nations burn a high-methane brown coal. And the United States — where the geologically destructive practice of fracking has now also recently and greatly increased methane emissions.

Unusual Suspects — Permafrost and Clathrate Warmed by Fossil Fuel Emissions

Looking at the very low resolution METOP graphic above, we find a number of methane hot spots around the globe. And many of these hot spots do coincide with our usual suspects list. But others are well outside the range we would typically expect. Far up in the north. Over the tundra and the Arctic Ocean where few major fossil fuel burning or extraction facilities now exist. There, somewhat ironically, great piles of permafrost spreading over millions of square miles and sometimes mounding up as thick as two miles are thawing due a greenhouse gas heat forcing from fossil fuel burning often happening hundreds or thousands of miles away. This thawing permafrost is filled with organic material. And when freed of its icy prison it is exposed to the world’s elements and microbes. These forces then go to work turning the organic carbon in that permafrost into carbon dioxide and methane.

This is rather bad news. In total, more than 1,300 billion tons of carbon are locked away in the permafrost soils. And carbon emissions from permafrost make an already bad heat forcing coming from fossil fuel burning even worse.

Barrow methane

(Atmospheric methane levels as recorded by various reporting stations and global monitors have been rising more rapidly during recent years. In the Arctic, atmospheric readings have tended to remain above the global average — an indication that local emissions are generating an overburden for the region. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

But if all the human emissions and potential permafrost emissions weren’t bad enough, we have one more major carbon source in the Arctic to consider — methane hydrate. A controversial potential methane release source to be certain. But a very large one that we would be remiss to ignore. Due to the fact that the Arctic has remained very cold overall for the past 3 million years of long ice ages and brief interglacials, this massive store of carbon has been given the opportunity to build up within the relatively shallow and now swiftly warming Arctic Ocean waters and even beneath large sections of now-thawing permafrost. Much of this carbon is in the form of the frozen ice-methane called hydrate. And as the Arctic Ocean warms and sea ice recedes to expose blue ocean to the heating of the sun’s rays for the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, there is concern among some scientists that a not insignificant amount of that submerged frozen methane will release, pass the ocean-atmosphere or thawing permafrost boundary, and add more heat forcing to the world’s atmosphere. The shallow sea of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf has been identified by some to contain as much as 500 billion tons of carbon in the form of frozen methane. And a fossil fueled heating of the Earth may be just now risking amplifying feedback level releases from this large clathrate store along with a number of other very large stores scattered all across the Arctic Ocean basin and on throughout the global ocean system.

A Clearer Picture? Or One Far More Complex?

So who among all the various suspects — usual and unusual — may be responsible for the record methane spike now showing up in the METOP measure?

Before we attempt to answer this question, let’s pull in another methane graphic — this one from the Copernicus Observatory:

Global Surface Methane Readings Copernicus

(The February 25 Copenicus methane graphic tracking surface methane readings gives a higher resolution indication of surface methane readings than the NOAA METOP measure. This second measure provides some confirmation of an Arctic methane overburden even as spike sources from human emissions become more readily apparent. Omnious spikes also apparently come from wildfires in the tropics and from regions in the Arctic near Yamal, Russia, Northern Scandinavia, the Barents and Kara seas. Image source: The Copernicus Observatory.)

Here we can see the range of surface methane readings according to Copernicus. A higher resolution image that may provide us with a better idea of the point-source location for daily global methane spikes. Here we see that the major methane sources are predominantly China, Russia, the Middle East, Europe, the United States, India, Indonesia, Fires in Africa and the Amazon, and, finally, the Arctic.

Though the Copernicus measure doesn’t show the same level of Arctic overburden as what has tended to show up in the METOP measure, it’s a confirmation that something in the near Arctic environment is generating local spikes in above 1940 parts per billion for large regions of this sensitive zone.

The Copernicus measure, as noted above, also shows that the human spikes are quite intense, remaining the dominant source of methane emissions globally despite a continued disturbing overburden in the Arctic. Spikes in Africa, the Amazon, and Indonesia also indicate that declining rain forests and related fires in these tropical zones are also probably providing an amplifying feedback to the overall human emission.

Given this month’s spikes and the overall disposition of surface methane readings around the globe, it does appear that the large human base methane emission is being enhanced by feedbacks from local emissions from carbon stores both in the tropics and in the Arctic. This enhancement signal, though somewhat smaller than the fossil fuel related signal in some measures, is concerning and hints that Robert Max Holmes’ warning at the top may be all-too-relevant. For Earth System feedbacks to massive and irresponsible fossil fuel emissions appear to already be starting to complicate our picture of a warming Earth.

Links:

CO2: The Thermostat That Controls Earth’s Temperature

Ominous Arctic Methane Spike Continues

Huge Methane Spike Coming from US Fracking

Methane Release From Frozen Permafrost Could Trigger Dangerous Global Warming

Concern over Catastrophic Methane Release

A4R Global Methane Tracking

The Copernicus Observatory

NOAA ESRL

RealClimate

NOAA/METOP

Hat Tip to Griffin

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The Methane Bomb, Clathrates, and Arctic Tundra. Life in a World at 1830 Parts Per Billion and Rising.

As the world hit a new and ominous CO2 record of 400 parts per million and rising, just one milestone on the road toward ever greater harm from damage via human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, another record was quietly reached. At the Mauna Loa Observatory, world-wide methane levels hit a new record average of 1830 parts per billion in April of 2013 even as they continued to ramp higher.

Methane 2003-2013

(Image source: NOAA ESRL)

The new record follows a short-term rise in atmospheric methane that began in 2007 and has continued to this day. It also caps a long-term rise in methane that began at the start of the industrial revolution and, through a long ramp-up, has resulted in atmospheric methane levels rising from about 750 parts per billion to the record high level of 1830 parts per billion today.

You can view this long-term rise in atmospheric methane in the second chart, provided by NASA, below. Note that atmospheric levels given are only updated through 2008, just at the start of the most recent jump in atmospheric methane concentrations:

greenhouse_gases_1750-2008

(Image source: NASA)

This ramping up of atmospheric methane that began in 1750 and has continued to this day has, so far, been mostly caused by humans. Primary sources for human methane emissions include landfills, coal mining, leaks from oil and gas infrastructure, and the digestive generation of methane in the guts of livestock animals such as cattle. An explosion in the volume of methane coming from these sources pushed world methane levels about 1080 parts per billion higher over the last 250 years.

This increase has had a powerful impact on global warming caused by humans. It is estimated that, at current concentrations, methane’s contribution to global warming is about 28% that of CO2. The reason for this, even though atmospheric levels for methane are more than 200 times lower than CO2, is that methane is at least 25 times as potent a heat absorber by volume (and as much as 105 times during the short term). What this means is that atmospheric methane increases are a huge contributor to climate change.

Now, I want to stop here before going any further. And the reason is that some oil industry cheer leaders have made the false argument that reducing human methane emissions is more important to mitigating the impact of climate change than reducing CO2 levels. The short answer to this false claim is that they’re both important and there’s no way to address human climate change without reducing both CO2 and methane emissions. And, since there’s at least 500 parts per million worth of CO2 in the remaining fossil fuel reserves, for us to maintain much hope of a livable future climate will necessitate that most of these fuels remain unburned or that the carbon from these fuels is captured and permanently sequestered.

Human-caused warming results in increasing methane release from Earth’s environment

Unfortunately, humans are no longer the only contributor to rising levels of atmospheric methane. New research being conducted by NSIDC, NASA, and a number of scientists around the world show that organic material stored in the world’s permafrost and methane clathrates at the bottom of the ocean are showing signs of stirring.

Permafrost is a region of frozen soil that dominates large sections of the Northern Hemisphere and the entire continent of Antarctica. This image, provided as part of NASA’s CARVE research project, shows the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost zones.

Northern Hemisphere Permafrost NASA CARVE

(Image source: NASA)

As humans have driven the climate to warm, larger and larger sections of the northern permafrost have been subject to thaw. As the permafrost thaws, it opens organic material, sequestered for tens of thousands of years, to decay. If the region where the permafrost melts is predominantly wet, the organic material breaks down into methane. If the region is primarily dry, carbon dioxide is produced.

The volume of organic material locked in permafrost is massive. In fact, NSIDC shows that there are about 1,400 gigatons of carbon locked up in the world’s permafrost. This is nearly twice the volume of all the carbon currently contained in the atmosphere. For even a small fraction of this carbon to be released via human warming would have dramatic consequences. And, since many regions in the Arctic are predominantly wet, a large portion of any future release is likely to be methane.

Already, research is beginning to indicate that carbon stores in the Arctic are being set free by human-caused warming. In NASA’s most recent press release describing its CARVE research mission, entitled “Is a Sleeping Giant Stirring in the Arctic,” NASA scientists were said to have found large methane emission sources comparable to major cities.

“Some of the methane and carbon dioxide concentrations we’ve measured have been large, and we’re seeing very different patterns from what models suggest,” Charles Miller, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said. “We saw large, regional-scale episodic bursts of higher-than-normal carbon dioxide and methane in interior Alaska and across the North Slope during the spring thaw, and they lasted until after the fall refreeze. To cite another example, in July 2012 we saw methane levels over swamps in the Innoko Wilderness that were 650 parts per billion higher than normal background levels. That’s similar to what you might find in a large city.”

If methane emissions from the Arctic permafrost via human-caused warming are beginning to rival those of major human sources, then we could be in for some rather serious trouble. CARVE’s mission is to find out if such a threat is emerging. Early observations are, as one NASA researcher put it, “both amazing and potentially troubling.”

The Clathrate Gun

Potentially even more troubling is the possibility that seabed methane stores locked in ice, known as clathrates, may also be starting to destabilize.

Worldwide, there is estimated to be between 1,600 and 2,000 gigatons of carbon locked in clathrates (or methane hydrates) on the bottom of the ocean. This is a massive store of carbon is at least two times the amount currently in the atmosphere. As with permafrost, if even a small amount of this methane reached the atmosphere, it would have powerful global warming impacts.

The problem is that human warming, via CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, is currently causing the world’s oceans to heat up. In fact, the oceans are accumulating heat faster than expected. You can see the pace of this increasing heat content in the graph below:

Trenberthstudy

(Image source: Trenberth study)

And since clathrates are ice structures that are only stable in a narrow range of temperatures, any warming of the oceans, especially the deep oceans where clathrates are primarily stored, results in risk that the clathrates will melt, releasing their methane.

Unfortunately, we have emerging evidence showing that sea-bed clathrates are starting to destabilize. One set of evidence, produced by Shakhova, began to emerge in 2007. Shakhova’s study: Methane Release and Coastal Environment in The East Siberian Arctic Shelf illustrated how sea-bed methane in the region of the East Siberian Sea was venting into the ocean and even up through the thawing permafrost. A later survey of sea-bed methane releases, also conducted by Shakhova, found stunning one kilometer wide plumes of methane bubbling up from the ocean in the region of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. In thhe report, published in The Independent, Igor Semiletov, Shakhova’s co-author, noted:

Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It’s amazing,” Dr Semiletov said.

“I was most impressed by the sheer scale and the high density of the plumes.  Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them,” he said.

Another study, this one conducted off the US East Coast, found that methane depositions on the Continental Shelf were also starting to destabilize. The study, published in Nature, showed that changes in the Gulf Stream and an unusual level of warming off the eastern seaboard of the United States was destabilizing a 10,000 square kilometer region rich in sea-bed methane. The study warned:

A changing Gulf Stream has the potential to thaw and convert hundreds of gigatonnes of frozen methane hydrate trapped below the sea floor into methane gas, increasing the risk of slope failure and methane release…

Evidence of Growing Trouble

Though not yet conclusive, the current permafrost studies by NASA and others combine with growing scientific evidence of sea-bed methane destabilization to provide a rather stark warning. Human warming via greenhouse gas emissions is beginning to push Earth to release some of her carbon stocks. These stocks, contained in tundra and sea-bed methane, are now showing signs of disturbance and are visibly starting to contribute to atmospheric carbon. It is worth noting that tipping points may be fast approaching and could run away from us rather rapidly.

As such, all efforts should be made to reduce worldwide human CO2 and methane emissions as rapidly as possible. Over the past 250 years, humans have contributed a large and growing forcing to the world’s climate. Now, emissions have grown to vast and dangerous levels even as Earth’s systems are reaching their carbon storage limits. Major feedbacks and threatening changes are likely in store if we don’t dramatically draw down emissions soon.

Evidence of methane coming from the Earth system should, therefore, serve as a warning, one we would well be wise to heed.

Links:

Recent Changes to the Gulf Stream Causing Widespread Gas Hydrate Destabilization

NOAA ESRL

NASA

Distinctive Climate Signals in Reanalysis of Global Ocean Heat Content

Vast Methane Plumes Seen In Arctic Ocean as Sea Ice Retreats

Human CO2 Emissions Continue to Play Russian Roulette With Clathrate Gun

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