Siberian Permafrost Methane Shows Growing Eruption: Number of Global Warming-Induced Craters Now Estimated at 20-30

Siberian Crater Locations

(Siberian methane crater locations. In total, 7 methane blow holes with features similar to the Yamal Crater have now been discovered. Unofficial reports from observers on the ground have local scientists placing the likely count now at between 20-30 original craters with many more secondary craters. Image source: The Daily Mail.)

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The ground smoked for hours. Then, with a great flash and an enormous boom, the land exploded. When the smoke cleared, all that was left was a great, black hole. Ejected earth lay scattered around it — sheer sides plunging into the permafrost like some gigantic, gaping gun barrel.

This was the scene last summer in Yamal, Siberia — a region of extreme northern Russia.

Mysterious Holes Emitting Methane Gas

Speculation about the cause of this mysterious hole became rampant. It looked like a sink hole, except for the ejected material surrounding it. Some said it was a pingo. But pingos weren’t known to form due to explosions.

Teams of scientists rapidly descended upon the hole. And there they found high readings of methane at the hole’s base — in the range of 10% concentration, which is a very explosive level for the gas. At the base of the hole they also found evidence of hydrate. A form of frozen water-methane that is quite unstable unless kept under high pressure and low temperature.

The initial conclusion of the Russian scientists was that relic hydrate sealed beneath the previously flooded Siberian permafrost had been destabilized. Eventually reaching an explosive concentration, it then erupted from the ground.

Discovery of this methane crater spurred a sweep of the area. Almost immediately, two other craters with similar features were discovered. And throughout fall and winter, both ground searches and satellite reconnaissance identified still more.

Methane blow hole lake surrounded by small craters

(Newly discovered methane blow-hole found by satellite observation. In the top frame we see tundra absent the newly formed hole. In the bottom frame, we find the hole forming a lake [B2] surrounded by 20 or more ‘baby craters.’ Image source: The Siberian Times.)

Now, according to recent reports in the Siberian Times, a total of seven craters with features similar to the Yamal eruption have been pinpointed by observers. Just one of these craters (shown above) hosted about 20 smaller ‘baby craters’ surrounding it. In this instance, a large methane store below the permafrost is thought to have explosively displaced a shot-gun pattern of frozen soil sections before filling with water.

Most of the craters, like the one above, were observed to rapidly fill with water even as they continued to emit methane. In many instances, the methane emission was visible as bubbles on the newly formed lake surface.

Bubbles from Methane Crater Lake

(Bubbles from suspected methane crater lake as seen by an observation aircraft. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

Additional reports from reindeer herders have led these same scientists to believe that in the range of 20-30 of these methane eruption holes are likely to exist in this region of Northwestern Siberia.

A Problem of Relic Hydrates Facing Rapid Warming

The fact that reindeer herders keep discovering new holes and that the first Yamal craters discovered earlier this year were recent events have led local scientists to believe that the eruptions are a new phenomena for Siberia. There, temperatures have warmed by a stunning 2 degrees Celsius within the mere span of 14 years. A very rapid rate of warming that is putting severe stress on the geophysical stability of this Arctic region.

Last night, as polar amplification again ramped up, we saw an example of this very rapid warming with locations in Yamal, Russia experiencing -3.1 C temperatures as of 1 AM Eastern Standard Time. A very warm measure for this region during winter time — representing an anomaly at least 20 degrees Celsius above average. For reference, North Texas, an area far south of the Arctic Circle, experienced similar readings (-3.4 C) at the same time:

imageimage

(Side-by-side frames showing 1 AM EST temperatures in Yamal Russia [left frame] and North Texas, US [right frame]. Location in the frames is indicated by the small green circle. Temperature, wind speed and direction, and grid location are given in the lower left hand corner. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: Global Forecast Systems Model.)

In other words, it was colder in North Texas last night than it was in Yamal, Siberia near the 70 degree North Latitude line beside the Arctic Ocean.

This extremely rapid warming is thought by Russian scientists to have destabilized zones of relic hydrate trapped beneath the permafrost. There, the methane gas bonded with water to form a kind of methane ice.

Sandwiched beneath frozen permafrost, the hydrate remains stable so long as temperatures and pressures are relatively constant. Any increase in warmth — either through geological processes working below the hydrate, or from changes at the surface causing permafrost to melt and warmer, liquid water to contact the hydrate — would result in increased hydrate instability.

Yamal Crater Wall

(The Yamal Crater as seen by Russian Scientists who investigated the scene last summer. The crater’s structure and surrounding ejecta was indicative of an explosive outburst. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

In some cases, the gas would very rapidly liberate from its frozen traps forming increasingly high pressure pockets beneath the permafrost. If these pockets reach 10 percent methane concentration, they become very explosive and can be ignited when in contact with a catalyst or ignition source. The result, either due to very high pressure or ignition, is plugs of permafrost exploding from the ground as the gas erupts to the surface.

Conditions in Context

It is important to note that the amount of methane liberated by these initial eruption events is likely rather small — when considered on the global scale. However, what we see in Siberia now may be part of a growing and ominous trend.

First, we do not know the size of the potential methane store that could be liberated in such an explosive fashion. And the question must be asked — if we are looking at such rapid warming of methane hydrates in shallow sea and former shallow sea regions, what scale eruptions could we potentially experience in the future? Could very large sections of hydrate go critical? Areas possibly covering hundreds or thousands of square meters or more?

The Russian scientists seem very concerned. And, ironically, it is for the future safety of their oil and gas infrastructure, which sits atop what is potentially a rapidly destabilizing zone. A zone that could see explosive eruptions of the ground beneath pipes, equipment and extraction fields. (One would think that the Russians would also begin questioning the continued exploration and production of oil and gas considering its contribution to the dangers they are now identifying. But that level of wisdom appears absent in the recent assessments.)

Second, it appears that these methane eruptions provide pathways for ongoing release. Not all of the gas in the relic hydrate is initially liberated. And the structures that remain apparently release methane gas for some time — as is evidenced by continued high methane concentrations found at crater sites and by observed emissions from crater lake surfaces.

In essence, if this is a growing trend, then it is a rather unsettling one. Especially when one considers that it is just a single instance of many possible amplifying carbon feedbacks set off by a very rapid human warming. Particularly, the explosive land and ocean floor-altering nature of this specific carbon feedback makes it especially troubling. For it encompasses the very nature of a catastrophic upheaval.

In the end, the question must be asked — is Siberia sitting atop a methane volcano that is being prodded to rapid wakening by high-velocity human warming?

Links:

Dozens of New Craters Suspected in Northern Russia

Are Siberia’s Mysterious Craters Caused by Climate Change?

Earth Nullschool

Global Forecast Systems Model

More Siberian Craters Prompt Urgent Call For Investigation

Hat Tip to James Cole

Hat Tip to Wili

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

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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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